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How to Perform a Building Air Quality Assessment

Image of Jon Schoenfeld
Jon Schoenfeld

In Australia, aerosol scientist Lidia Morawska works with a device the size of a shoe that measures carbon dioxide in the environment, visiting restaurants, offices, schools, and other buildings to determine how well-ventilated they are. Outside, the monitor typically reads just over 400 parts per million (ppm), though areas with more traffic or industrial activity tend to have somewhat higher levels. When indoors, her readings sometimes shoot up to as high as 2000 ppm, even in buildings that seem well-ventilated. 

This variability is not unusual; researchers have found similar conditions throughout the world, which poses great difficulties for preventing the spread of Covid-19. Indeed, transmission primarily occurs in enclosed areas, requiring limitations on indoor activities and precautions in indoor environments. As the World Health Organization (WHO) noted in a March 2021 report, poorly ventilated areas can quickly become infection vectors. 

To protect the health of occupants and allow for strategic reopening, the WHO and other public health organizations have issued targets to make indoor spaces safer. However, experts in air quality and ventilation say these are a bare minimum, and more must be done to protect public safety. Additionally, Covid-19 is not the only concern; in addition to microorganisms, poor air quality can expose occupants to chemicals and other irritants that present a range of health risks. 

For building owners who want to protect the health of occupants through the pandemic and beyond, a building air quality assessment is the first step toward creating safer built environments. 

Going Beyond Covid-19

Covid-19 has made air quality concerns more urgent than ever before, but maintaining good air quality has long been a core component of facilities management in many industries. The ability to do this, however, is hampered by modern construction, which generally tries to improve energy efficiency by making buildings airtight. This can have the unfortunate effect of increasing levels of toxic substances in the air, including microbes like the coronavirus, which then travel through ventilation systems, spreading infection and reducing interior air quality throughout the building.

With appropriate controls over buildings’ heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, this can be mitigated by establishing engineering controls that allow for particle filtration and air disinfection while avoiding the dangers inherent in recirculating contaminated air through crowded buildings. Today, such solutions are becoming vital to reducing exposure to poor quality air and transmission of airborne viruses. While layout and building design, occupancy levels, and type of HVAC system all contribute to air quality, smart technology can identify contaminants earlier and take meaningful action to protect occupants.

Performing a Building Air Quality Assessment

A building air quality assessment is essential to evaluating the conditions inside your building and alerting you to areas of vulnerability. However, air quality isn’t measured by a single variable. Rather, a truly comprehensive air quality assessment is a multifaceted process that examines metrics like ventilation rates, zone temperatures, humidity, CO2 concentrations, and volatile organic compounds (VOC) levels.

Using IoT Technology: Sensors & Analytical Software 

Conducting a building air quality assessment requires gathering large volumes of data, which systems using Internet of Things (IoT) technology can do very well. Integrating IoT sensors that track a variety of air quality contaminants with cloud-based analytics software can make that data meaningful. 

A building air quality assessment can include:

  • Comparative air temperature by zone
  • Comparisons of air output by HVAC units
  • Relative air humidity
  • Monitoring summaries for carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, particulate concentrations, and other environmental air quality conditions
  • Carbon dioxide and other gas sensors

While one-off assessments can be valuable for creating roadmaps for improvement, an integrated building management system with an analytics layer allows these assessments to be made routinely and on-demand. By unifying building systems and applying analytics, you can also correlate complex variables with air quality to evaluate and refine your air quality strategy over time and ensure safety is maintained without sacrificing efficiency. 

WELL Buildings Standards Certification

There is no single standard for air quality in commercial buildings in the United States, and many experts believe that common guidelines are not stringent enough to protect occupants. As a result, building owners seeking to safeguard health and safety are increasingly turning to the WELL Building Standard for guidance when performing air quality assessments.

 WELL offers a performance-based methodology that measures, monitors, and certifies features in built environments that impact health, including those concerning air quality. Overseen by the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI), the WELL certification process seeks to make built environments healthier. This includes encouraging systems and strategies that:

  • Acknowledge buildings that achieve superior indoor air quality to fosters people’s health. 
  • Continually observe air quality issues indoors while informing and educating building occupants about conditions. 
  • Decrease mold, bacteria, and other microbial growth through managing condensation to moderate levels indoors. 
  • Deter cigarette smoking and minimize exposure to secondhand smoke. 
  • Eliminate airborne contaminants through the use of air filtration systems. 
  • Ensure basic levels of air quality indoors to contribute to occupant health. 
  • Expel pollutants produced internally to enhance air quality while augmenting supply of outdoor air into or enhancing the efficiency of ventilation systems. 
  • Isolate and properly ventilate against sources of indoor pollution.
  • Minimize any construction-related pollutants and contamination that can affect the health of building occupants. 
  • Provide adequate ventilation to prevent air quality issues. 
  • Reduce exposure to combustion-related air pollution, such as from motor vehicles.
  • Reduce introduction of pollutants from outside by controlling building entrances and inputs of unfiltered outdoor air into the ventilation system. 
  • Supply increased amounts of higher-quality outdoor air by encouraging the opening of windows when appropriate. 
  • Use cutting-edge air filtration and purification systems and strategies to alleviate high VOC levels. 

By providing benchmarks, the WELL Building Standard helps building owners and facilities managers use building air quality assessments in ways that have a real impact. By suggesting various strategies to improve air quality, it also opens up new opportunities for reducing or eliminating contaminants, whether through building design, operational strategies, or altering behavior. 

Maintaining Good Indoor Air Quality

Conducting air quality assessments on a regular basis makes good sense for any building owner or facilities manager. This is particularly true at a time when air quality can have a dramatic and immediate impact on the lives of occupants and viability of businesses. 

An advanced analytics platform like onPoint provides deep visibility into your building systems and conditions, including air quality, on demand and in real time. With user-friendly dashboards, onPoint allows you to easily perform building air quality assessments and continuously monitor variables affecting occupant health and safety. However, this advanced platform doesn’t just tell you when things are wrong; it can also provide data-driven insights and recommendations for improvement. With this, a building air quality assessment can become a springboard for a better future.

Buildings IOT offers the services, products, and strategies you need to make your buildings safer and more efficient. To learn more, contact our expert team today.

 

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