With the onset of COVID-19, building health and safety—indoor air quality in particular—has become a major concern, particularly with regard to workplaces. Poor ventilation has been linked to the spread of virus-containing aerosols, making shared indoor public spaces a threat. As offices and other facilities begin to reopen after extended closures, people are rightfully anxious, wondering, “Will returning to my building on a daily basis increase my risk of contracting Coronavirus?” Now more than ever, building owners have a responsibility to make occupants feel safe indoors.
But even though the pandemic is driving much of the current action around healthy building initiatives, there are, and always have been, other important reasons to try to improve indoor air quality in the workplace.
Though it’s less talked-about than outdoor air, indoor air can be just as polluted—and have an equally significant impact on human health and performance. Some indoor spaces have a level of pollutants two to five times higher (and sometimes as much as 100 times higher) than outdoors, a factor that can induce sick building syndrome in occupants. Additionally, poor air quality at work has the potential to decrease performance by as much as 9%. More absences and lower productivity will ultimately affect the business’ bottom line.
“It has now been shown beyond reasonable doubt that poor indoor air quality in buildings can decrease productivity in addition to causing visitors to express dissatisfaction.”
There’s never been more compelling reasons to take action on improving your building’s indoor air quality.
But if you’re unsure about exactly what actions to take, you’re in the right place. Below are the answers to four common questions about indoor air quality, including important indoor air quality parameters your building should meet and how to determine (and improve) the quality of your facility’s indoor air. If you have more questions after reading, you can ask us anytime.
1. What are the major indoor air pollutants?
Some of the major contributors to poor indoor air quality are:
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
- Carbon monoxide (CO)
- Dust particles, which are considered a type of particulate matter (PM)
2. What are the factors affecting indoor air quality?
There are numerous factors that could contribute to poor indoor air quality. With regard to the major pollutants listed above:
- Radon forms as the result of uranium in soil or rock breaking down; it can also be released from building materials, such as granite.
- Mold grows as a result of high indoor humidity, and is known to be common in schools and office buildings.
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), or organic chemicals emitted as gases from products or processes, can come from things like cleaning agents, disinfectants, air fresheners, dehumidifiers, carpet, flooring material, and even furnishings.
- Carbon monoxide (CO) arises from generators, poorly maintained boilers or furnaces, automobile exhaust from nearby idling vehicles, and more.
- Dust particles can be produced by lead-based paint, vacuuming, fireplaces, cigarette smoking, or other activities.
If your building’s occupants are complaining of poor air quality at work, consider how your building is used. Indoor air quality standards for office buildings, for example, might focus more on dust and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which commonly arise from carpets, furniture, and cleaning products. A manufacturing facility, on the other hand, might need to be more concerned with carbon monoxide, or VOCs arising from paints and solvents. In addition, some of these pollutants are brought in from the outside, and when combined with inside factors, they lead to high levels that eventually become an indoor air quality issue. Depending on your specific concerns and the activities taking place within your building, it may be appropriate to measure additional pollutants beyond those listed above.
Aside from pollutants that degrade air quality, poorly ventilated spaces pose a risk with regard to virus transmission. In spaces that lack fresh air flow, people will breathe and rebreathe the same air continuously. So if someone in a room is infected, the virus may linger in airborne droplets and be inhaled by others.
Want to check your building’s indoor air quality before reopening? Ask us how you can get up and running with an indoor air quality monitoring system in a few short days.
3. What are the key indoor air quality parameters?
The EPA, ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers), and LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) are all in relative agreement on indoor air quality parameters. Some of the key parameters are listed below. Note that VOCs, like several of the other indoor air quality characteristics, are generally measured with Internet of Things (IoT) sensors in the context of “TVOCs” or “total VOCs,” because it is nearly impossible to classify the exact makeup of VOCs.
|Characteristic||Conditions To Be Met|
|Particulate Matter||10 micrometers or less in diameter: 50 ug/m3; 2.5 micrometers or less in diameter: 15 ug/m3|
|Carbon Monoxide||Less than 9 ppm|
|VOCs||Less than 500 ug/m3|
|Formaldehyde||Less than 27 ppb|
|Carbon Dioxide||About 700 ppm above outdoor air levels (usually about 1,000 to 1200 ppm) (ASHRAE)|
|Humidity||Below 60%, ideally between 30% and 50% (EPA)|
|Temperature||68.5°F to 74°F (winter); 75°F to 80.5°F (summer) (ASHRAE)|
4. How is indoor air quality measured?
To stay within the required indoor air quality parameters, you need more than traditional thermostats or a building management system, both of which lack the detection technology necessary to measure specific pollutants or proper HVAC functionality. Instead, building managers now use IoT sensors to measure the presence of particular pollutants—including carbon monoxide, particulate matter, VOCs, humidity, radon, and more.
The foundation of sensor technology, MEMS (microelectromechanical systems), is what makes this kind of measurement possible. They translate the concentration of molecules of various substances in the air along a gradient; IoT devices typically use 0–5 volt or 4–20 milliamp (mA) signal. In the case of 0–5 volt, “0” represents the lowest possible measurement, while “5” represents the highest; the sensor is calibrated to the finest increments of that output, so it can relay actual conditions in a way that can be interpreted by the user.
Low-cost sensors can be placed everywhere in your building—even every office, closet, or storage space. Sensor technology has advanced to the point where most are inexpensive and lightweight; they can literally be stuck to almost any wall. (They can also be hardwired like a smoke detector, if you prefer.) That means they can be widely and quickly deployed.
Real-time indoor air quality conditions can be viewed on a dashboard like the one below, and sensor alerts can be set to detect anomalies. So if your ideal temperature setting is 73 degrees Fahrenheit, for example, you would program alert notifications for 70 to 75 degrees. If the temperature strays above or below 73 you’ll receive a “yellow” text message alert; if it falls outside the range you’ll get a “red” alert. Sensor notifications allow you to remedy problems quickly, promoting the safest possible environment. You’ll know immediately if a conference room should be evacuated, for example, due to overly high particulate levels, or if a warehouse is experiencing unsafe humidity levels.
An IoT platform can measure indoor air quality so it’s easy to “read” visually—green means good, amber means caution, and red means harmful.
Sensors can also be used to monitor your HVAC equipment for proper functioning. They can collect continuous, real-time performance data on, for example, compressor motors and, with the help of machine learning and algorithms, that data can be analyzed for patterns. Eventually, that data can be used to provide valuable insights about aberrant performance that could indicate the likelihood of an imminent breakdown. For example, if a compressor’s vibrations start to become abnormal, having it checked by a technician may help you avert a potential ventilation problem before it becomes significant.
5. How do you improve indoor air quality?
The sensor data you collect over time will help you pinpoint the exact issues that need correcting, and take targeted action to address them. The specific approach you’ll take may depend on a number of factors, including your individual building, the outdoor environment, and the extent of the problem. You can read more about common strategies used to improve indoor air quality in response to sensor data in this post.
Indoor air quality monitoring is most valuable when done continuously. It can be used as part of a long-term strategy for maintaining a healthy building by helping you:
- Understand and evaluate your building’s current indoor air quality.
- Take targeted action to reduce pollutants and fix ventilation issues fast in areas with poor indoor air quality.
- Stay within desirable indoor air quality parameters going forward by utilizing alerts and notifications.
- Reassure occupants and other stakeholders that indoor air is safe by sharing dashboard data as needed.
Need a knowledgeable partner who can help you improve your facility’s indoor air quality?
If you’re looking for guidance around improving indoor air quality as it relates to your own facility, IotaComm can help.
We specialize in IoT remote monitoring, and have helped many companies identify specific air quality issues and address them proactively. We’ll outfit your building with IoT sensors that can monitor a variety of air quality characteristics, and create a dashboard tailored to you that provides visual insight into your building’s environmental conditions. We’ll also help you decipher all that data, and offer recommendations about ways you can minimize pollutants and improve your building’s overall air quality. Schedule a call with our team today!