In lieu of regulation, facility managers must get proactive about addressing airborne spread concerns, writes Nick Lambrou.
It is absolutely imperative to take action to improve indoor air quality. The economic and societal cost of doing nothing are still extremely high. And we now now face new uncertainty with the Omicron variant.
Unfortunately, the indoor air quality (IAQ) management landscape is presently a ‘wild west’, according to atmospheric chemist and aerosol scientist, Robyn Schofield.
“There are design standards, but there’s no commissioning to meet those standards” says Schofield, who is associate professor in the School of Geography, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, and associate dean of environment and sustainability at the University of Melbourne.
While there is increased understanding and acceptance that IAQ must be monitored and improved, there is no hard and fast set of rules in place to spur any real change in action from asset owners and building operators.
However, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) advises “improved ventilation may limit the spread of certain respiratory diseases, such as COVID-19”, and Safe Work Australia (SWA) states “As an employer, the model WHS Act requires you to consult, cooperate and coordinate activities with all other persons who have a work health or safety duty in relation to the same matter, so far as is reasonably practicable”.
In lieu of regulation, facility managers must take a proactive role by jumping at the opportunity to alleviate the lingering concerns – and in many cases fears – surrounding the return to public spaces, and most importantly, create safer and more productive environments for tenants and visitors.
This has been recommended repeatedly by experts at OzSAGE, of which Schofield is a member, who highlight the need for appropriate ventilation to ensure a safe return to work.
In a recent article, I wrote about the increased interest and investment in CO2 monitoring sensors which are lending a helping hand in determining COVID-19 transmission risk. Unfortunately, many are typically limited in the value they deliver because they are restricted in capability and the data they can offer. They often also require specialists to be physically present to read them and make meaningful use of the information generated, which proves laborious and costly.
But once battery-powered devices are connected to the Internet of Things (IoT), they gain the ability to inform IAQ monitoring at any time and from anywhere. That means operators can continuously and reliably measure CO2, humidity and particulate matter (PM) in indoor environments, and use accurate, centralised reporting to drive decisions relating to ventilation, followed by filtration and purification.
From understanding to operationalising
Getting to that stage requires an assessment of which monitoring sensors are best suited to specific indoor environments, beginning with understanding what needs to be measured, in which locations, and how often.
As SWA notes,“Measurements of CO2 should be taken at different times with different occupancies to get a better indication of how the ventilation system is working under different conditions”.
The starting point is determining parameters. For example, single parameter sensors are most suitable for the targeted tracking of one specific factor, such as CO2 levels or the presence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). However, multi-parameter sensors extend those capabilities for those needing to track a combination of CO2, humidity and temperature.
Then it’s a matter of defining system requirements across network connectivity, power supply, and installation sites. After all, CO2 devices are only part of a solution, and must be evaluated alongside networking and data visualisation to ensure they are fit-for-purpose.
On the connectivity front, there are several options to link IAQ monitoring sensors to the cloud and a data platform. Connecting to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth networks requires coverage testing and densification, setup and ongoing maintenance.
Meanwhile, cellular connectivity such as 3G, 4G or 5G need a power supply or frequent battery replacement, and often come with significant ongoing costs. However, Thinxtra’s 0G Network, a low power wide area network (LPWAN), provides low-cost, always-on, publicly available network connectivity out of the box, enabling a secure way to connect and transfer data in real time.
Better yet, for a room of 50sqm, the average expense for one sensor as part of a solution with a data platform and connectivity would cost less than $10 per week in the first year, and in subsequent years less than $3 per week.
In regards to power consumption, while technology is synonymous with using energy, battery-powered IAQ monitoring devices offer a means of alleviating the expenses and complexities of wiring in additional power supplies to keep sensors connected around the clock. They also allow facility managers to ‘set and forget’ devices for more than five years.
When it comes to deciding where to place all these sensors for optimal monitoring performance is critical in the purchasing and deployment process. With air quality able to change in short periods of time, and the possibility of drastic differences in quality between spaces, it’s imperative that each individual room is measured independently, and that small areas aren’t viewed as representative of larger environments.
The final step in operationalising IAQ monitoring is data visibility. When the information gathered by devices is communicated with a centralised platform – rather than sitting idle on each sensor – it guides decision-making, enables real-time reporting across even the largest of facilities, and provide alerts based on thresholds to drive decisive action.
The added benefit of IoT-enabled IAQ monitoring systems is they don’t need the power, network connectivity, databases, or business intelligence tools from existing infrastructures to operate effectively. They provide the ability to integrate data collected by IAQ systems with current dashboards, but this is entirely optional.
Building on, not replacing, existing mechanisms
Similarly, they don’t need to be integrated with building management systems (BMS). BMS are invaluable to managing buildings efficiently and cost-effectively by optimising many aspects of a facility’s daily operations, from energy efficiency to routine maintenance tasks.
Although the BMS plays a vital role in FM, it’s not necessary to integrate it with indoor IAQ systems. IAQ data needs to be available for analysis, verification, and corrective action by multiple stakeholders, many of whom traditionally don’t have access to the BMS.
Therefore, independent IAQ monitoring systems ensure the right information reaches the right person at the right time to take the best action without the need to jump through hoops to manage permissions or open BMS to third parties.
Leveraging the IoT to underscore IAQ monitoring allows FMs to get ahead in creating safer and smarter environments as we await regulation to create standards. It supercharges standalone devices to collect data sets so that public spaces are at optimal performance, and improve quality of life for tenants. And considering the comparatively low cost of IoT solutions and the fact they need next to no maintenance for five years after deployment, the adoption of CO2 monitoring becomes a no-brainer to reducing COVID-19 transmission risk backed by real data insights. It helps FMs do the right thing, demonstrate they take corporate responsibility seriously, and meet their duty of care.
Nick Lambrou is chief executive officer at Australian technology company Thinxtra.