Local firm looking to clear the air on buses, trains

A startup launched last year is aiming to improve the air quality on city buses and school buses with an ultraviolet light device that scrubs the air of viruses, pathogens and other undesirable particles.

Lumin-Air has already signed deals with schools and metro bus services in Baltimore, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Fort Wayne and Jacksonville, Florida. The firm also rolled out a system two months ago for rail cars and has it in place in Philadelphia.

Dan Fillenwarth, a 1987 Purdue University graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, invented a system to improve air quality with partner Andrew Desmarias, and the pair launched Lumin-Air.

“When you step on a school property, a bus or a building or classroom, you should have an expectation of high air quality,” Fillenwarth told IBJ. “That’s what we’re trying to bring into the bus setting. The density situation on a bus makes this a more critical issue.”

Lumin-Air installs its systems on school and public buses.

“For some people, the bus is the primary mode of transportation,” Fillenwarth said. “This is really a public need. And I don’t think most parents have any idea what the air quality is on the bus.”

Prior to starting Lumin-Air, Fillenwarth worked as a manufacturer’s representative in the HVAC space for Indianapolis-based Envelop Group. Desmarias was a health care administrator for Advocate Aurora Health in Illinois.

Lumin-Air, which has four full-time employees plus contractors, has installed its system on 10 buses so far, but by September, it expects to have the system operational in more than 1,000 school and municipal buses.

“We’re in final discussion with some pretty big school systems that have 1,000 buses each,” Fillenwarth said. “We expect explosive growth over the next couple of years.”

Lumin-Air has talked to officials from IndyGo and shown them the system, but Fillenwarth said his company has no deal with the city bus operator.

Lumin-Air installs its system plus “12 years of consumables” including filters for just less than $5,000 per bus, Fillenwarth said. The total addressable market is significant for the startup, with 16,000 school buses in Indiana alone and nearly 500,000 nationwide.

While Lumin-Air’s system isn’t cheap, Fillenwarth said all the nation’s school buses could be outfitted with its air purification system and only use 1.2% of the available federal dollars available to schools for such projects.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about air filtration and purification in buildings, but not a lot on the transportation side with busses,” Fillenwarth said.

He said that many school buses aren’t equipped with air filtration devices, and he’s surprised—given the large number of students who rotate through buses every day—their air quality has been largely overlooked.

“If you were thinking about coming back to the office and you were told that you would have 1,100 people in your pre-COVID office that held 40 people, would you come back?” he asked rhetorically. “Before you answer, let me also state that there will be no outside air brought into your office, except for whatever comes in when a door is opened, and that outside air will be from roadways containing exhaust pollutants from vehicles, oh … and your filters will be MERV-4 or less. That is the air quality that is currently in buses.”

Most household HVAC filters range from MERV-8 to MERV-13. The higher number rating, the fewer fine particulates that can pass through the filter.

“That’s why we developed our solution, following CDC and [American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers] recommendations to improve filtration, and supplement with ultraviolet germicidal irradiation especially when you can’t dilute with true outside air,” Fillenwarth said.

The Lumin-Air system uses a MERV-13 filter that filters out the 87% of viruses and pathogens and doesn’t impede airflow, Fillenwarth said. The pathogens that make it through the filter are exposed to a high dose of UVC that is designed to inactivate roughly 90% of the virus that causes COVID-19 on a single pass, he added.

“Providing that level of UVC dose will subsequently do a great job of helping to mitigate against influenza and other respiratory diseases,” he said.

Lebanon-based American Ultraviolet is working with Lumin-Air to produce the UVC technology used in the system.

Fillenwarth said most bus riders would not notice when Lumin-Air’s system—which is 36 inches wide, seven inches tall and six inches deep—is running. It runs quietly at the back of most buses.

As the company gets its bus business up to speed, it’s generating revenue by installing its air purification system into buildings, mostly in Indiana. Lumin-Air has installed its system in Indiana schools, restaurants, dental offices, manufacturing facilities and other businesses, Fillenwarth said.

“We don’t anticipate raising any capital at this point. We don’t need to,” Fillenwarth said. “The company is properly financed to handle bonding for public projects.”

Fillenwarth and Desmarias said they have invested a low- to mid-six figure amount to launch the firm.

The company is also developing an air purification system for trains, and had its first installation in Philadelphia two months ago.

“We think that’s another big market to tackle,” Fillenwarth said, “which will add to the growth of our company.”

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