How new technologies can help improve indoor air quality
Better air quality can make workplaces safer, more productive and attractive to talent
Employee wellness programs have emphasized the importance of indoor air quality (IAQ) for decades, but the pandemic has brought the issue front and center. Because the COVID-19 virus is transmitted primarily through the air, many organizations are exploring new air quality technologies and practices to minimize the spread of coronavirus and other diseases, with an added benefit of keeping employees productive and happy. However, finding the right solution for a specific building or workplace can be tricky.
While COVID-19 concerns are what brought IAQ into the spotlight today, IAQ has other health impacts, too. Research by Joseph Allen, Ph.D., who leads the Healthy Buildings program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, revealed that poor air quality can impair cognitive function and undermine productivity in an office. Published in Harvard Business Review, the report demonstrated that higher levels of CO2 and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air led to lower scores on cognitive function tests. Among other findings, Allen’s research discovered that, on average, cognitive scores were 61% higher on days with fresher air than on conventional days.
With IAQ awareness at an all-time high, it’s no surprise that workers are considering office air quality in their choice of workplace. Today’s building technologies can make your workplace safer and more productive, and your business a winner in the war for talent.
Numerous air quality technologies are emerging specifically to address airborne pathogens like COVID-19. However, many are unproven. Where COVID-19 is concerned, not even the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers has endorsed a specific solution. Adding to the complexity, the right combination of HVAC adjustments, air filtration and technology will be different for every office.
Taking the right IAQ approach starts with understanding your building systems and where air flows throughout your facility. Then, you’ll need a baseline IAQ measurement to understand whether and where quality falls short. When exploring solutions, focus on minimizing risks rather than seeking to eliminate all risks, and use ongoing monitoring to uncover air-quality issues as they emerge.
Assessing air quality
Traditionally, IAQ management was mostly concerned with dust and air pollution from outdoor or indoor sources. With infectious disease top of mind, many companies are now concerned about airborne pathogens and adopting IAQ monitoring technologies that can track them, according to Raefer Wallis, whose company, GIGA, develops healthy building data standards and certifications for facilities and proven products.
Wireless sensors—typically used to track occupancy rate or to gather building operating data—also can track levels of VOCs, dust, carbon dioxide, temperature and humidity, providing a baseline for improvements. Numerous vendors, including VergeSense, InfoGrid and Airware, provide wireless sensors, adding new capabilities even as the tools become more affordable.
Monitoring should be a continuous process, given that new risks can emerge at any time and response strategies may vary, too. For instance, smoke from wildfires is a growing seasonal IAQ threat in the Western U.S. and other regions globally.
Finding the right mitigation solutions
Addressing IAQ requires a combination of source control, ventilation, air cleaning and, typically, an expert building engineer. Ventilation and HVAC management, for instance, play a critical role in minimizing disease spread—but it takes an expert to know how to prevent potentially contaminated air from recirculating throughout a building.
One simple step is to follow the example of commercial jets: Introduce more fresh air into the environment. Commercial jet systems exchange all indoor air with outdoor air as often as 30 times per hour, for instance. Some commercial building systems can be adjusted to reach as much as 50 air changes per hour, although four to five changes per hour was more typical pre-pandemic.
While extremely high air exchange rates may not be feasible for every building because they would dramatically increase heating and cooling costs, ventilation is a good starting point.
Air-cleaning strategies are also important, of course, to remove various contaminants from both outside air entering a workplace and the air recirculating indoors. That’s where it gets complicated because not all air-cleaning technologies are created equal.
Ceiling-mounted air scrubbers with HEPA filters have been shown to significantly reduce indoor concentrations of airborne particles where people are working. Bipolar “needlepoint” ionizers placed in an air handling unit can capture airborne particulates with positive and negative atomic ions—but they increase CO2 levels somewhat and some are not very effective.
Another common option is ultraviolet germicidal energy light or irradiation, which have been shown to deactivate viruses, bacteria and fungi. Since UV light can burn human skin, UV devices are typically placed inside light fixtures or within HVAC systems, and handheld devices also are available. Meanwhile, a company in the UK is developing a “viral furnace” that heats stagnant indoor air, killing any pathogens before cooling down the air and releasing it back into the space.
Putting it all together
As new air-quality monitoring and cleaning technologies continue to emerge, finding the right approaches for your facility will continue to be a confusing process. It helps to have a neutral source of information that can help you determine the advantages and disadvantages of different solutions. The combination of tools and strategies needed is going to vary from building to building, or even from floor to floor.
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