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.
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.
“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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