Fresh air, fresh start: improving air quality without ripping out old equipment

by FM Media
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Addressing air quality in your building can be daunting, but you don’t have to start from scratch. Stefanie Oakes prescribes a layered approach of upgrades, modifications and management technology improvements.

The roll-out of COVID-19 vaccinations across Australia is a much-needed first step towards returning to business as usual. As more people are immunised, we expect to start to see a return to more traditional work/life patterns. What is clear, however, is that lingering concerns about workplace safety will delay some people from returning to their conventional place of employment. To help overcome this reluctance, building managers need to enable occupant well-being by creating safer workspaces.

In a recent survey conducted by Monash University, nearly 86.3 percent of surveyed workers reported at least one concern about their workplace reopening, including fears of getting infected with COVID-19, infecting others, and work colleagues coming to work while sick. The research clearly demonstrates the need for employers and building managers to make their spaces safer for occupants.

A fundamental step to achieving this is by optimising the indoor air quality of a building. Now, that may sound straightforward, but in practise, the success of a clean air strategy is dependent on a few interrelated actions.

Keeping up with air quality regulations and guidelines

The scale of the global pandemic has resulted in a wide range of responses from governments, NGOs, and industry organisations about how best to improve building environments. The volume of information can seem overwhelming, but can be broken down into five key actions:

  • audit a building’s air infrastructure to identify its strengths and weaknesses
  • use tools, such as IAQ measurements, air filtration, thermal imaging stations, access control, contact tracing, mask detection and crowd counting, to identify potential exposure points
  • maintain operational parameters including temperature, humidity, ventilation and particle count, within optimal ranges
  • make the right data readily available to the right people, in the right time, through advanced, operational dashboards, and
  • use a combination of on-premises and cloud analytics to monitor real-time results.

Applied consistently, these steps will help provide the best possible standards of occupant safety within a building. To achieve the ideal outcomes, there needs to be a focus on optimising a building’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system. Implementing a multilayered approach designed to improve air quality will help provide the greatest level of overall protection.

Optimal air exchange

Ventilating small spaces – such as our homes – may require little more than opening a window. For larger commercial buildings, effective ventilation needs a careful balance between bringing in oxygenated air from outdoors, and removing stale air, heavy with particles, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and gases. Using indoor air quality sensors is
an effective way of monitoring the presence of pollutants, and the latest generation of sensors enables building owners to strategically outfit their buildings without significant expenditure.

These sensors can be used to help create a healthier environment and are a valuable tool for improving overall occupant satisfaction. Research conducted by UNSW found a high amount of CO₂ in the air can lead to fatigue, concentration loss, and poor performance and elevated CO₂ concentrations can cause “headache, sleepiness and tiredness.”

Alongside managing the rate of ventilation, the use of air filtration and cleaning technologies are important in improving building health. One of the latest innovations in air quality is the use of electronic air cleaners, which use an electric charge to help remove solid and liquid impurities from the air, without impeding air flow. Electronic air cleaners can be paired with a UV system that emits ultraviolet light to damage the DNA structure of certain microbes at the cellular level, and inactivate various viral, bacterial, and fungal organisms – thus providing filtration and disinfection in one system.

Temperature and humidity

Air quality is not just about the outright cleanliness of the air, but also associated factors such as its temperature and its relative humidity. In most cases, the optimal range for humidity is around 40-60 percent as this is where the communication of pathogens is at its lowest. On the other hand, excessive humidity promotes the growth of dust mites and fungi, which are known to exacerbate respiratory conditions and allergies.

Managing indoor air temperatures is a more complex balancing act. Studies show COVID-19’s survival rate decreases as temperatures rises. However, higher temperatures have an impact on occupant comfort and humidity levels. Running a building management system in the most effective and efficient ways requires a balance between comfort and safety.

Layering air quality solutions

The answer is to take a layered approach. There isn’t one solution that will improve indoor air quality – it’s working to combine many factors to help improve it. It doesn’t always have to be a complicated process of ripping out old equipment and starting from scratch. It can be a straightforward HVAC upgrade with modifications or adding specific solutions that address concerns and minimise potential side effects. A well-configured building management system (BMS) and sensing technology allied to a connected data solution can give building operators the insight and control to create a cleaner, healthier built environment.

Stefanie Oakes is GM services APAC at Honeywell.

Photo by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash

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