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article imageQ&A: How will commercial buildings keep up with COVID-19 in 2021? Special

By Tim Sandle     Feb 12, 2021 in Science
While the COVID-19 vaccines continue to be rolled out, this cannot be seen as the only failsafe. Monitoring indoor air is set to be fundamental to handle the second virus wave and stopping air pollution problems such as respiratory issues.
This leads to consideration of the question: 'How will commercial buildings keep up in 2021 and what would be the role of air quality control?' To answer this, Digital Journal spoke with John Bohlmann, founder of HawkenAQ, an air quality monitoring and building health solution for schools, offices, and commercial buildings.
Digital Journal: How important is air quality overall?
John Bohlmann: Non-industrial indoor air quality has been identified as one of the leading causes of public health concerns in the last 150 years.
Ensuring good indoor air quality may be the most important thing we can do to fight COVID-19 after washing our hands. The current narrative centers around the idea that “COVID-19 is not solvable until we get a readily available vaccine,” which is not entirely true. According to a recent study in Nature, if indoor ventilation improved in a building, it would have the same effect as vaccinating 50% of that building’s occupants.
The correlation between air quality and productivity has already been established. Studies from Harvard and others have shown that poor air quality can decrease employee productivity by almost 10 percent and significantly increase rates of sick leave. A cleaner air source directly contributes to improved performance in staff and students. This is because good ventilation reduces the presence of pollutants in the air, which allows for increased flow of oxygen to the brain.
DJ: What are the main risks from air pollutants?
Bohlmann: Offices tend to have stagnant air, which leads to increased sickness and therefore absence from work. Stagnant air allows bacteria and viruses such as COVID-19 to thrive, causing different health complications in the workforce, and damaging the overall business performance as a consequence. After all, basic complaints such as headaches and sluggishness can frequently be attributed to poor air quality.
In addition, students in schools can get worse marks due to polluted air – potentially up to a full letter grade.
DJ: Are there any particular risks in relation to COVID-19?
Bohlmann: The health crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the debate surrounding indoor air quality to the forefront - there is more of a need than ever for outdoor air to be well-circulated in residential and commercial buildings.
When tackling COVID-19, it is vital to bear the humidity of the environment in mind. In dry air, droplets evaporate quickly. This means they fall more slowly, remain in the air for longer, and travel further. Consequently, the virus is far less dangerous in lower humidity areas, and it is vital to use more resources to monitor and ventilate in higher humidity areas.
It is worth noting that there is no technology which currently exists which is specifically designed to eliminate COVID-19 airborne particles. However, there is data suggesting that technology with real-time air quality monitoring can assess viral transmission risk and load. This is going to be a key metric in determining how safe a building is.
The main challenge for buildings is implementing these technologies on a widespread basis. Many IAQ technologies on the market do not have trigger warnings for reduced air quality scenarios, which should be mandatory.
Given that many businesses will lack funding for facilities, automated solutions must focus on using existing equipment as much as possible. Monitoring air quality in real-time and using state-of-the-art technology to ventilate buildings efficiently will create a safe environment to live and work during the pandemic and beyond.
DJ: Are some demographic groups at a bigger risk from poor air quality than others?
Bohlmann: Some demographics are more susceptible to air pollutants, according to EPA research. In EPA’s set of guidelines for the Air Quality Index, it has a separate category designated for sensitive groups. For example, air pollutants could have a bigger impact on people with asthma, children, older adults, and others. EPA also says, “People in low socioeconomic neighborhoods and communities may be more vulnerable to air pollution because of many factors. Proximity to industrial sources of air pollution, underlying health problems, poor nutrition, stress, and other factors can contribute to increased health impacts in these communities.”
The CDC’s guidelines lists groups of people who are at greater risk to become severely ill if diagnosed with COVID-19. Those groups include people with cancer, chronic kidney disease, COPD, older people, and many others. To protect yourself against the virus, the CDC suggests avoiding poorly ventilated spaces, washing your hands, and wearing a mask, among other things.
DJ: What is the optimal equipment for measuring air quality?
Bohlmann: There are currently two automation technologies available which can be deployed as indoor air quality monitoring systems: Wireless sensor technologies (WSN) and Internet of Things (IoT). Incorporating them as part of a targeted ventilation strategy would represent a great step forward in the fight against COVID-19. The combination of wireless sensors and IoT technology can collect, process and transmit data to revolutionize air quality monitoring. These tools use mobile computing architectures to provide real-time data access through web servers or mobile applications.
Real-time monitoring has to be paired with efficient ventilation, and bipolar ionization (BPI) has the potential to be particularly effective in this way. BPI eliminates particulate matter by creating charged ions which attach themselves to particles and destroy a virus on a molecular level. BPI can also be integrated into a building automation system to make use of targeted ventilation.
The beauty of pairing targeted ventilation with smart sensor monitoring is that it enables a complete overview of air quality. For example, if increasing ventilation leads to more pollutants entering a building, smart sensors can recognize this and determine what actions need to be taken.
These types of solutions are both cost-effective and relatively easy to implement. They can be installed on existing equipment, saving capital expense and limiting disruption to the facility and the occupants.
DJ: How effective are air quality regulations?
Bohlmann: COVID-19 has changed the way companies have to think about ventilation. A recent update to ASHRAE’s indoor air quality regulations has provided increased guidance for maintaining a safe building during the pandemic. The two most notable changes highlighted the importance of a pre and post flushing strategy to reduce concentration of airborne infections particles by 95 percent and Energy Recovery Ventilation (ERV) to determine if energy wheels are being well maintained.
In addition, there are multiple national and international standards bodies that set air quality standards, including EPA, OSHA, ASHRAE, and others. There aren’t clean-cut distinctions between the public and private sector. Every building has different needs for ventilation and filtration based on the number of people in the building. Building management systems should combine recommendations from all relevant standards organizations and remain responsive to changing building situations throughout the day to ensure the safety of all occupants.
DJ: What can be done to improve air quality?
Bohlmann: We think that the most important thing is to increase awareness about how critical good indoor air quality is to every aspect of our lives. The pandemic has unfortunately come at a bad time because our air quality has been neglected for so long. This problem could be entirely avoidable if we improve our regulations around indoor air quality and we modernize our buildings with new technologies. We must take action to ensure that our buildings are safe places to live and work and we’re prepared for the future.
Ensuring adequate fresh air is in the building may be the number one step building owners should take to keep our schools and workplaces healthy. As mentioned above, a recent study published in the Scientific Reports journal emphasized the importance of improving indoor ventilation. This follows along with the recent ASHRAE and CDC recommendations to increase ventilation. We think fresh air is the new hand washing.
Engineers need to think about how to bring existing buildings to acceptable standard levels of air quality. Possible strategies include dilution ventilation, cleaning air ducts, filtration, ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI), and other smart controls.
In addition, building owners can improve air quality by installing technology that monitors temperature, humidity, and CO2 levels, whilst having screen displays to communicate the information to the occupants. It is crucial to monitor air quality on a real-time basis. This can be done by utilizing the latest technologies for data access and setting up alerts which can be sent to users to take appropriate steps for handling poor ambient air quality.
More about Covid19, air quality control, Buildings, ventilation
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