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Making the Most of Indoor Air Quality Monitoring Systems by Using IoT

Image of Natalie Patton
Natalie Patton

Americans spend about 90% of their time indoors, and the air we breathe when inside a building can have a big impact on our health. Airborne pollutants indoors can occur at up to five times the concentrations of outside air, leading to the development or aggravation of respiratory health conditions like asthma, lung cancer, pulmonary fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and pneumonia. Several studies have even found that buildings may even concentrate contaminants present in the air from their immediate vicinity.

While air quality problems can happen for a variety of reasons, some result from the growing focus on energy efficiency, which has led to insufficient ventilation in some buildings and spurred an increase in the use of synthetic materials. But some efficiency-focused technologies can offer innovative solutions.

The Internet of Things (IoT) – the use of Internet-connected devices connected to ordinary objects for the purpose of gathering and sending data – is now used to monitor all sorts of variables affecting commercial buildings. One thing IoT devices can do very well is monitor air quality. 

The use of automated monitoring systems using multiple IoT devices results in huge sets of data—often referred to as “big data”—that can then be analyzed for trends and patterns. Advanced analytics can reveal problems, provide valuable insights, and suggest pragmatic solutions. Today, deploying an indoor air quality monitoring system using IoT and analytics is one of the best ways to create safer and more comfortable buildings while still promoting energy efficiency.

Indoor Air Quality Monitoring Systems Using IoT 

Many types of contaminants negatively affect indoor air quality. State-of-the-art indoor air quality monitoring systems using IoT connectivity can detect these pollutants with specialized sensors. But what causes poor air quality in the first place? Here are some examples:

  • Byproducts from combustion that include particulate matter, tobacco smoke, or carbon monoxide. 
  • Chemicals emitted from elements in the structure or from construction work, such as pressed wood products, paint, lead, and asbestos.
  • Microbes from mold, mildew, and other biological growth.
  • Naturally occurring substances such as radon or animal dander.
  • Ozone emitted from certain air purifiers.
  • Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in certain paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, office equipment, and other sources.

Additionally, outdoor air affects the quality of air inside buildings, which means indoor air quality cannot be considered in isolation. A 1997 study of urban areas in South Korea confirmed that the air immediately surrounding buildings helped determine indoor air quality, with VOCs largely contributed from outdoor sources. A few years later, researchers from the University of Birmingham studying the chemical composition of indoor air found that fine lead and sulfate particles penetrated buildings from sources outside the building. Additionally, environmental phenomena, such as dust storms and wildfires, can drastically reduce indoor air quality as outdoor air finds its way into the building’s ventilation system through intake vents. 

IoT Sensors

While air quality monitoring is valuable in any building, it takes on particular importance in buildings located in highly polluted areas. Because of the correlation between indoor and outdoor air pollution, monitoring systems using IoT sensors are useful for spotting problems within ventilation systems. Without monitoring, problems may remain unknown until they are so severe that they impact occupant comfort or health. Fortunately, research has allowed us to identify where outdoor air and its contaminants typically enter a building.  

Three main ways in which outdoor environmental factors contaminate indoor air: 

  1. Mechanical ventilation involves ventilation fans, central air conditioning systems, or HVAC systems that draw in air from outside through air intakes. 
  2. Natural ventilation comes from open doors or windows. 
  3. Infiltration happens when air leaks into the building’s envelope through cracks in its structure and can be a significant source of air contamination in buildings that are poorly sealed. 

In addition to occupied areas of buildings, these areas should be continuously monitored. Placing IoT devices that track air quality at doors, windows, air intakes, and other points where outside air can enter will help identify air quality problems resulting from outdoor pollution. Meanwhile, sensors that track air quality as it enters rooms through vents within HVAC systems can reveal problems such as dirty filters or mold growth within air ducts. 

Big Data & Analytics

While smart sensors are great tools to quantify air quality and identify inadequacies in buildings’ ventilation systems, they are of limited use without analytics software. In fact, the great volume of data produced by sensors alone may obscure more than it reveals, as its sheer quantity makes it difficult for human operators to monitor, organize, and prioritize. But with an advanced analytics platform, like onPoint, big data can become meaningful; you can see the details that count and better understand the big picture. 

By monitoring data in real time, analytics algorithms can identify potential trouble areas before they become significant problems and help you quickly isolate problems in complex building systems. This continuous analysis and early detection of anomalies allows you to implement preventative maintenance rather than relying on a reactive, corrective approach. With machine learning capabilities, an analytics platform can even predict when and where problems are likely to occur in the future. This is critical for not only protecting the health and safety of building occupants, but ensuring optimal equipment performance and efficiency. 

Whether the HVAC system is not pulling in outside air or a simple glitch prevents air from being properly recycled within a room, the indoor air quality monitoring systems using IoT sensors and analytics can keep problems minimal—or prevent them from occurring in the first place. This system also provides the objective data needed to validate fixes and guide retrofit strategies.

The Danger of Fake Science

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought the importance of indoor air quality to light as never before. It has also opened up opportunities for unethical practices and the promotion of ineffective technologies. As an illness primarily spread through the air, many companies used the threat of Covid-19 to tout dubious means in which to purify indoor air based on questionable science, taking advantage of customers’ needs to quickly make changes and their lack of scientific knowledge.  

Take, for example, the use of ions to purify indoor air. Ionizers have been widely marketed as an effective way to keep indoor air safe; one company even boasted that their ionizers could kill off coronavirus in half an hour. Air quality specialists, however, say independent research does not substantiate these claims. With very little or no peer-reviewed research to back them, companies that clean air are largely self-regulated, and standards that exist for testing the technology are minimal. Though in principle the science may work in controlled lab tests, ionization technology has not been proven to clean indoor air. 

Promoting Energy Efficiency and Occupant Health

The movement for sustainable architecture has moved away from just concentrating on energy efficiency and water usage. Today, there is a significant focus on the health of a building’s occupants. Indeed, though many health and safety issues are related to ventilation, compromised occupant health often comes down to poor design. In the future, structures built to prioritize human health will become ordinary, and smart technology will play an increasingly important role in protecting air quality. 

Already, green buildings are rapidly incorporating holistic approaches that look at the human element in built environments. Building owners and developers are realizing they don’t have to choose between efficiency and health factors when considering structural designs; in fact, the smart technologies used to enhance efficiency are the very same as those used to improve air quality. In commercial buildings, this can mean not only reduced costs and a smaller carbon footprint, but reduced employee absenteeism and illness, better productivity, and improved workplace satisfaction. 

An indoor air quality monitoring system using IoT technology is an invaluable tool for protecting owners during the time of Covid and far beyond.

Buildings IOT offers the services and technologies you need to deploy indoor air quality monitoring systems using IoT and advanced analytics. Contact our expert team to learn more.



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