Will personal air quality sensors increase customers’ expectations for commercial HVAC? In one word—absolutely.
Technology, and particularly mobile technology, has changed drastically in the last decade. Case in point: according to a 2015 Pew Research Center study 64% of all Americans own a smartphone, up from 35% since 2011, and a minuscule 2% in 2005. We are better connected than ever before, with information only a few touch-screen taps away.
So what are Americans curious about? Turns out, according to the Pew study, many things—breaking news, driving and mass transit directions, online banking, and health concerns being the most accessed. But one emerging informational niche that building managers and general contractors should be taking notice of is the realm of personal air quality.
Globally, air pollution is an attributing factor to over 7 million premature deaths according to the World Health Organization. The convenience and prevalence of smartphones has empowered a large segment of the American population to research health conditions online—and the Pew study shows that 62% of them have done just that in the past year. So, it’s no surprise that many health-conscious smartphone users are also knowledgeable on the issue of indoor air quality (IAQ), which can be a contributing factor to heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer and acute lower respiratory infections in children.
For those looking for real-time air quality information on the micro-local level—the street they’re standing on right now or the corner office they work in every day—this data, for the first time is now available to regular citizens via high-tech personal air quality monitors. These gadgets, which have been on the U.S. market since 2012 with more slated for release soon, can report a variety of metrics including humidity, temperature, atmospheric pressure, VOCs, carbon dioxide, and particulate matter levels, and stream the data real-time to smartphone users on the go.
If your buildings are occupied, and we hope they are, these monitors could bring the previously under-the-radar issue of indoor air quality to the forefront of the minds of your tenants, landlords, and building clients and customers.
Air Quality Metrics
Most consumer-grade IAQ monitors on the market measure these four metrics.
According to a survey by the International Facility Managers Associate (IFMA) the top two occupant HVAC complaints are being too cold and too hot. No surprise there.
WHY OCCUPANTS CARE
Excessive heat is associated with irritability and headaches. Low temperatures can cause extremity discomfort and shivering. Temperature extremes at either end of the spectrum can cause fatigue and decrease alertness and performance.
WHY MANAGERS SHOULD CARE
Building occupants who are uncomfortable are likely to lodge maintenance complaints and use personal heating and cooling appliances to compensate, increasing building energy usage, and causing fire hazards, power outages, and breaker overloads.
Most experts believe indoor relative humidity (RH) should be 40-60%, with many citing 35-45% as the ideal range. OSHA recommends a relative humidity of 30-60%.
WHY OCCUPANTS CARE
Low levels of humidity can cause eczema break-outs, snoring, cracked and dry skin, bloody noses, inflamed throats and sinuses, itchy eyes, and uncomfortable contact lenses. Dry air also irritates the mucous membrane of the lungs, increasing the risk of respiratory infections like the flu and the common cold. On the flip-side, high levels of humidity can cause mold and fungus growth and an increase in dust mite levels, all of which can cause allergies as well as asthma. Both high and low humidity can cause nasal congestion. Humidity outside the ideal range can increase survivability of airborne viruses and bacteria, increasing infection risk. Off-gassing of common but toxic building materials such as formaldehyde also increases when humidity levels are not maintained with the 40-60% range. SOURCE
WHY MANAGERS SHOULD CARE
Along with occupant discomfort, high humidity can cause property damage, such as mold and fungus growth, that is expensive to remediate. Low humidity causes cracking and splitting of wood furniture and fixtures, and peeling of wallpaper. Increased flu and cold outbreaks lead to high levels of employee absenteeism. And increased levels of toxins open building managers and landlords to OSHA complaints and possible litigation.
3. Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA 2012) recommends no more than 5000 ppm of carbon dioxide as a time-weighted average in an 8-hr workday.
WHY OCCUPANTS CARE
Despite OSHA recommendations, according to a 2012 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, as little as 1000 and 2500 ppm of CO2 significantly impact decision-making ability, cause headaches, irritate mucous membranes, reduce perception of air quality, slow work performance, and increase absenteeism.
WHY MANAGERS SHOULD CARE
These findings are particularly compelling for building managers of high-occupant buildings, especially offices and facilities that house a high ratio of knowledge-workers. Because worker productivity is significantly impacted by CO2 levels, for most corporate tenants and landlords, there could be an economic case to increasing ventilation rates (VRs) in buildings, despite the energy- and cost-saving incentives of minimizing outdoor-air ventilation.
4. Particulate Matter (PM2.5 and PM10)
Particulate matter (PM) is divided into two main sizes—those with a diameter smaller than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) and those less than 10 microns (PM10). PM10 particles often come from crushing or grinding operations and are considered “coarse” particles. PM2.5 pollution is often referred to as “fine particle pollution” and is usually the product of combustion (including vehicle exhaust), a variety of chemical reactions, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Though the EPA does not regulate indoor air quality, they have set their outdoor PM2.5 limit at no more than 12 micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3 ) or 35 µg/m3 in a 24-hour period.
WHY OCCUPANTS CARE
Exposure to air with a high PM2.5 concentration can cause premature death, respiratory problems, harmful cardiovascular effects such as heart attacks and strokes, chronic bronchitis, and cause complications for asthma sufferers. People who are active indoors (for example, in gyms) that have high PM2.5 or PM10 concentrations are more at risk since heavier respiration forces particles deeper into the lungs. Buildings near busy roads, such as the majority of retail and corporate buildings, seem particularly at risk for high PM levels.
WHY MANAGERS SHOULD CARE
The majority of NY-metro counties, including Bronx, Kings, New York, Orange, Queens, Richmond, Rockland, Nassau, Suffolk & Westchester counties are classified by the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) as “non-attainment areas”—areas in which the EPA’s outdoor PM2.5 standards are not met. In these areas, outside ventilation rates could negatively impact indoor PM2.5 levels. According to ASHRAE standards and the many local building codes that reference them, high indoor PM2.5 levels could require special filtration with varying levels of MERV filters, depending on concentration rates.
Personal Air Quality Monitors Currently Available
These are the latest consumer-grade air quality monitors that connect to smartphones. Most offer alerts for out-of-range scores and track metrics over time.
Awair – $199
Measures temperature, humidity, CO2, VOCs and Fine Dust (PM2.5, PM10).
Airmon Palm Size PM2.5 Air Quality monitor – $159
Measures PM2.5, PM10, temperature, humidity and pollen levels.
Foobot Indoor Air Quality Monitor – $199
Measures VOC (with CO2 equivalent impact), PM2.5, temperature, and humidity.
Blueair Aware Indoor Air Quality Monitor – $199
Monitors particulate matter, total VOC, carbon dioxide, temperature, humidity.
Netatmo Weather Station for Smartphone – $148
Measures temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, indoor CO2 concentration and sound meter. Integrated indoor module and rain gauge module available.
Action Steps For Facility Managers and Building Contractors
Knowledge is power and power is knowledge. That’s a two-way street that applies to both building occupants and managers. Here’s what we recommend.
Get To Know A Personal IAQ Monitor
If you don’t already have one, the first thing we recommend is to purchase one of the consumer-grade units above and be aware of it’s features and what it can and can’t tell you. Test the monitor against your professional measuring tools. How accurate is it? Know it’s accuracy when knowledgeable occupants begin contacting you (and they will).
Upgrade Your Testing Kit
Personal air quality monitors do localized relative measurements well. Make sure you can spot check the personal monitors with your own high-end hand-held humidity, temperature, CO2 and particulate matter measuring devices at the very minimum. Don’t rely on building-wide measuring systems, as these don’t account for localized room-specific conditions such as drafts, convection, building envelope infiltration, and problems with specific infrastructure like diffusers and ductwork. For spot checks that don’t jive with occupant reports, use a HOBO data logger, such as the $135 bluetooth Onset model, to record conditions over a period of time, throughout the day and HVAC cycles. You’re the professional; don’t let occupants know more than you about the IAQ in your buildings. Your toolkit should give you more accurate and more sensitive data than what occupants might report with a consumer-grade device.
Take the Monitor To Your Buildings & Be Proactive
The best way to prepare for the inevitable phone calls is to see what occupants are seeing. What are the readings? Low humidity? High PM2.5? Are the readings correct? Think of these monitors not as whistle-blowers, but as an early-warning system to keep you ahead of the curve. Correct air quality issues immediately and proactively, and just as importantly, report adjustments to landlords and tenants. Building occupants who feel like you’re on top of things are less likely to do their own monitoring.
Develop An IAQ Profile of Your Building
Know your building and it’s air quality weak spots. Inventory locations of complaints. Review original HVAC documentation, instructions, current settings, and operating schedule. Identify areas where occupancy, usage, equipment or building structures may have changed since system was first installed. Record areas of positive and negative pressure and air infiltration. Identify necessary HVAC repairs. Inventory locations and quantity of pollutants stored in the building. Use the EPA’s wonderful guide for a great checklist and walk-through.
Consider HVAC System Adjustments & Upgrades
- Increase localized comfort by upgrading to zoned heating and cooling that occupants can control. If you already have zones, add additional zones.
- Adjust thermostats (space set points) to provide more comfort
- Check and/or readjust diffusers
- According to the IFMA survey, only 37% of building manager respondents have control over humidity levels, yet growing evidence shows humidity is a key health, comfort, and productivity factor. With these personal monitors, occupants are becoming more aware of humidity and it’s importance. Upgrade your system to one that includes humidification and dehumidification controls. Although it is more energy efficient to integrate humidity controls with temperature controls, it is possible to use a hygrometer system that controls the humidifiers and dehumidifiers separately from the HVAC system.
- Re-evaluate and increase ventilation rates based on CO2 and particulate matter levels.
- Routinely inspect equipment exposed to water (e.g., drainage pans, coils, cooling towers, and humidifiers). These components require meticulous maintenance to prevent biological growth and the entry of biological pollutants into indoor air.
- In key locations, consider installing a public, wall-mounted particulate matter monitor such as the TSI AirAssure. What gets measured, gets improved, and a higher-end, visible unit will provide more accuracy as well as the perception of oversight.
- Re-evaluate filter systems and cleaning schedules based on PM2.5 concentrations
- If you aren’t already on an HVAC maintenance plan with a reliable company, get on one. A solid heating and cooling maintenance plan will prevent a variety of problems such as dirty filters and ductwork (which can lead to high PM2.5 concentrations), condenser drainage issues and leaking pipes (which can lead to high humidity and biological growth), and an assortment of other issues.
Need advice on your particular IAQ situation? We’d love to help. Contact us today.