So, it looks like Texas teachers will be resuming in-person instruction here sometime in the near future. I’m not going to get into the politics of this, or my personal opinions, in this post. I’m going to go back into the classroom. I don’t really have much say in the matter. So, let’s move on.
Now, when I do go back into the classroom, I am going to have to wear masks to keep myself and my students as safe as possible. I am not totally sure what back to school will look like, but I have been examining all the policies and the photos various news outlets are publishing as to what this might look like, and from what I am seeing, I am afraid it is going to be very difficult for the students. I imagine wandering through a faceless maze of complex procedures and plexiglass barriers never once seeing a reassuring smile. I am worried for my students.
So, I am building a powered, air filtering helmet-style mask for my safety, but also because I think it will be incredibly important for my students to be able to see my face. Is it weird? Totally. But look at the following photo. These are the options. Which one would you prefer if you were a scared teenager trying to navigate your first day of high school? Which one would you want for your child if you were a parent sending your student back to school? Since I’ve been getting a fair amount of questions on Facebook and Instagram, I figured I would outline how I built it for whomever is interested in this sort of thing.
First off, I did a lot of research. My initial thought was to just buy a Powered Air Respiratory Protection (PAPR) system from someone like 3M, but those are well over a thousand dollars and I am not even sure they’re available to the general public right now. The more I started digging, the more I realized that I could probably build something similar. It’s basically a filter and a fan pumping air into an enclosed space. With that, I began looking for do it yourself PAPR systems and came across this Rad Lab Project design that became the basis for my helmet.
The first step was finding a plastic container of some sort that would comfortably fit my oversized head. This was not as easy a task as I thought it would be. My first thought was a snack container, but I could not find anything large enough that I could have delivered. I was stuck for a while until I somehow calculated the approximate gallons I would need to comfortably fit my head using the buckets we have here at the house. Turns out, they sell giant, clear, plastic jugs for wine fermentation pretty cheaply online (I have not been going into stores, so everything I have used here is something we already had or could order online). So, I ordered the six gallon version and had room to spare. Then cut off the top. I used a box cutter with a new blade and wrapped a line of duct tape around where I wanted the cut to avoid the blade slipping. In retrospect, I would have cut a bit more off as I have a lot of excess room above my head, but I didn’t realize how tall the shoulder harness would be (more on that later).
Once I had the bottle cut, I put a three inch cardboard collar around the opening using duct tape, hot glue, and one inch brass plated fasteners. I then used a flexible, waterproof sealant to make it airtight. From there I built what I guess you could call the harness or a cuirass. I’m not one hundred percent sure on what to call it, but I was picturing the 1980s wrestling duo The Road Warriors in my head while making it, if that helps. I don’t know why that would help. My goal was to make something as comfortable as possible that fit securely to my body. There was a lot of me taping pieces of cardboard together with painters tape, putting the harness on, and running to the mirror in the bathroom. If it fit and was comfortable, I would have my wife (with her endless patience) outline the placement of the piece with a Sharpie and then run back to hot glue them together. Binder clips are great by the way for holding cardboard together while gluing. I reinforced the important joints with duct tape. I cut some elastic from a pair of shorts to comfortably secure the harness to my chest.
Once I had the harness made, I set the wine bucket on my head and used my trusty tape/Sharpie/hot glue method to attach the two together. I then cut open generic freezer bags and used duct tape to line the joint between the two making sure no air could get in through the neck area. Later I bought a twelve and a half inch childs bike tire and taped it to where the harness sat on my shoulders. This added extra comfort and helped keep unwanted air out. Now, the helmet will fog, but I found coating the interior with a drop of dish soap resolved that problem.
So, once I built a helmet-style mask that could suffocate me, I started to work on getting filtered air in. I used a three quarters inch hose and a plastic hose barb to create airflow directly at my face. This is tightly sealed with hot glue, flexible sealant, and duct tape. To push air in, I have a small fan that is powered by a USB cable attached to a power bank that I had in a drawer (used to recharge cell phones). I tested the fan life with a 10,000mAh battery and the fan lasted for 5 hours. Personally I am going to have two batteries on me (one is a 30,000mAh battery) to get me through the day. I had a friend 3D print the ventilator box from the Rad Lab Project design that securely fits this fan and a HEPA filter from iRobot to pump in filtered air.
Now, that fan and filter is not enough to get all the air in I need, but it helps quite a bit. I also made two additional filtered ventilation areas near the collar by cutting a hole on each side down by the ears (this has the dual purpose of creating airflow and allowing me to hear better) and using cosplay EVA foam and hot glue to create a housing for another iRobot filter. They conveniently come in a 3-pack. They also have generic ones, but I wanted to make sure I was getting filters that were HEPA certified, so I went with the name brand. Now, there is a little echo in this helmet, so I cut up a piece of corkboard I had in the closet and glued it into the interior of the helmet collar and that reduced it a fair amount.
So, that’s all the necessary functioning stuff. I did add some completely unnecessary bells and whistles, because if you’re going to build a crazy helmet to protect your students and family during a pandemic, you might as well have some fun with it, right? The first unnecessary item is that I taped some USB powered, colorful LED lights I had in a drawer into the interior. These can run on my backup battery if I ever feel the need to use them. I created a little pouch out of the EVA foam to hold the cable when they are not in use.
The next unnecessary thing is I carefully measured and cut the EVA foam to create a smooth surface to cover all the cardboard. I used newspaper to make a pattern that fit exactly, traced it onto the foam with a white charcoal pencil, cut the foam with an exacto knife (box cutter works too), and hot glued it in place. This makes it a bit sturdier, but it is mostly for aesthetics. I am an art teacher, after all. And once I went that far, I decided to add embellishments to make the harness look like a dress shirt and added a detachable bow tie that velcros in just under the fake shirt collar. I primed the EVA foam and painted it with my trusty acrylic paints. Again, all this is completely unnecessary for the function.
A little trick I figured out is that I can run a wired earbud up into the helmet which will allow me to safely make and receive phone calls, but it also allows me to use my Bluetooth speaker as an amplifier using any of a variety of free apps. This might come in handy depending on how spread out my students will be. When I tested my helmet mask, my family had no problem hearing me, but I’m pretty loud in general. Having the option of an amplifier could come in handy in certain situations, especially a portable one.
So, that’s it. In total, I probably spent about one hundred and fifty dollars. I could have done it cheaper, but I paid a little more for everything having it shipped to the house, as I am highly risk averse and didn’t want to wander around the aisles of a hardware store. This will do a better job of filtering my exhalations than the standard cloth mask and face shield so that I can keep my students safe, while still allowing them to see a face through my mask. Relationships are so important in education, and I am hoping this makes it a little easier to develop that relationship with my new students while still doing my best to protect their health.
Here’s a link to the plastic jug I used. They have smaller versions too.
Here’s a link to the EVA foam I used. This was my first time using this stuff and it was so much fun I’m going to use it for making my children’s Halloween costumes.
Here’s a link to info on why I thought HEPA filters were the best and safest option.
Here again is the link to that Rad Lab Project DIY PAPR design.
And here’s a link to my Instagram.