© Aclima, Inc.; Raefer Wallis

“Handle air smarter!”

The quality of the air that we breathe directly influ­ences health, produc­tivity, and well-being. Despite this, it remains a niche topic. Seema Bhangar and Raefer Wallis, who are experts on the matter, think it is high time for this to change.

How much water have you already drunk today? Assuming that you follow the rele­vant recom­men­da­tions, this should be up to three liters a day. In turn, three liters of air flow through your lungs in just 20 seconds. In 24 hours, humans breathe 15,000 liters of air. Given this situ­a­tion, it is surprising how little we concern ourselves with the issue of air quality in compar­ison to the quality of drinking water — at least as long as the air doesn’t smell. For example, if the air in a room is polluted with formalde­hyde given off by furni­ture, then those affected will act accord­ingly because they can smell it.

Air quality is invis­ible

“The greatest obstacle to a greater aware­ness of air quality must surely be that we can’t see it,” says Dr. Seema Bhangar, explaining the psycho­log­ical back­ground.

Seema Bhangar wrote her thesis on human expo­sure to air pollu­tion at the Univer­sity of Cali­fornia in Berkeley, devel­oped the next gener­a­tion of indoor sensors when working at Aclima as a Senior Scien­tist and Product Manager, and has worked as Senior Indoor Quality Manager at WeWork in San Fran­cisco since 2019.
Here, she is currently driving forward the use of new tech­nolo­gies to improve health and produc­tivity, and the energy effi­ciency of build­ings. In this article she is speaking as an inde­pen­dent expert, not as an offi­cial ambas­sador for WeWork.

At the Univer­sity of Cali­fornia in Berkeley, Bhangar wrote a thesis on human expo­sure to air pollu­tion. “But Covid-19 has lifted the veil of invis­i­bility from the issue of air quality: although the virus isn’t visible in a phys­ical sense, it is visible in our imag­i­na­tion.”  This example empha­sizes that the priority must, first and fore­most, be to raise aware­ness of the issue.
Raefer Wallis, founder and CEO of RESET, the world’s first stan­dard for air quality based on real time data, is in agree­ment: “In Western coun­tries, there is only a low aware­ness of air quality. Here, the notion is that it’s a problem for people in far-away coun­tries — like China or India. But this atti­tude has been completed altered by SARS-CoV-2 and has outlined the complexity of the matter.”

However, you don’t need a dangerous virus to substan­tiate the nega­tive effects of poor air on indoor spaces. An addi­tional 35 micro­grams of fine dust per cubic meter of air increases the risk of a stroke by 35 percent, and the risk of suffering from lung cancer by 10 percent.

Admit­tedly, these kinds of long-term effects are quite abstract. But there are also more imme­diate tangible effects: for example, if the CO2 content is elevated by 400 ppm, it can reduce produc­tivity by up to 21 percent. A ratio that should make any employer sit up and take notice.

Setting the right bench­mark

There are a number of factors that affect indoor air quality: climatic condi­tions such as temper­a­ture and humidity, the envi­ron­mental condi­tions outside, the number of people in the room, the furni­ture, tech­nical equip­ment, and the building construc­tion mate­rials. “When it comes to energy, it’s easy to set a bench­mark: you measure the consump­tion value and then you set a target to reduce this value.

Air quality is a much more complex issue, and there are many different bench­marks,” says Bhangar, outlining the diffi­culty in finding the right approach. “That’s why almost every company has an energy manager, but hardly any of them have an air quality manager.”

She refers to a frame­work with four basic prin­ci­ples for good air quality indoors presented by her former super­visor Bill Nazaroff, to make the subject matter easy to access. These are: Mini­mize indoor emis­sions — Keep build­ings dry — Provide good venti­lation — Keep polluted air out.

Turning knowl­edge into actions

These prin­ci­ples need to be trans­lated into effi­cient actions. But that requires the right tools. “Tech­nology has evolved at an incred­ibly rapid pace over the past few years,” says Bhangar, on the subject of solu­tions. “The possi­bility of measuring, digi­tal­izing, processing, and visu­al­izing things has arrived.”
Welcome to the world of Raefer Wallis. For 15 years, the qual­i­fied archi­tect has been working on indoor air quality stan­dards, and from his work has devel­oped the inter­na­tional RESET stan­dard.

Raefer Wallis is an archi­tect and has been working on the topic of air quality moni­toring for 15 years. Over the past ten years, he has defined air quality stan­dards which have now been incor­po­rated into the inter­na­tional air stan­dard RESET, of which he is also the founder and CEO.

“Air quality is not a do-it-your­self issue. It’s far too complex for that.” He explains that there are so many different vari­ables, some of which are actu­ally contra­dic­tory — for example, how do you venti­late a room prop­erly if the air outside is polluted? In this case, solu­tions imple­mented without being rooted in data might not be very effec­tive. In Western coun­tries espe­cially, moni­toring air quality indoors is largely done through “guessti­mating,” i. e. using a broad rule of thumb guide­line. “It’s like a doctor who prescribes a treat­ment without being able to make a reli­able diag­nosis.”

Wallis is there­fore in favor of intel­li­gent, auto­mated systems — which he also applies himself. “Most people don’t know that suit­able tech­nology has been around for a long time.” RESET uses the data recorded from sensors mounted on the walls or installed in the venti­lation system. This is an area in which Wallis also works with ebm-papst, who offer not only fans with certi­fied sensors, but also a plat­form for processing the data.

With the sensor data, the air quality can be analyzed in real time and subse­quently opti­mized with the help of the plat­form. Wallis says that anyone fearing having to make a major invest­ment for this tech­nology can rest assured: “The devices that we work with came onto the market in 2008 and have been designed as smart solu­tions since 2016. They are now sophis­ti­cated, quick to install, and cost-effec­tive.”

Seema Bhangar empha­sizes that it is not primarily about money: “It’s about making things smarter: take a look at the whole picture, and improve what you already have with this knowl­edge.” 

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