Health concerns are a major topic in the news, on social media, and at our dinner tables. The COVID-19 pandemic has made the value of good health and wellness paramount to many who take their strong constitutions for granted, and those who manage illness or chronic conditions.
A virus is just one threat among many pollutants that can have a profound effect on our bodies. Many sources of pollutants fill the air daily. Some are obvious such as smoke from forest or house fires, radon, pesticides, and tobacco products. Others are more subtle. Old buildings can conceal mold or asbestos. New construction can create pollution from newly installed carpet, cabinetry or upholstery, and even some house cleaning products give off pollutants.
The immediate effects from air pollutants include sneezing, a scratchy throat or itchy eyes. These go away once exposure ends, but long-term effects can appear years after exposure. Respiratory disease, heart disease, and even cancer are known to result from pollutants.
If poor ventilation exists, pollutants can accumulate posing a health hazard. Instinctively, if we burn toast and the kitchen fills with smoke, we open a window to allow fresh air inside. If the shower makes the bathroom too foggy, we turn on the fan to move the humid air out to prevent mold. Without realizing it, we take action to improve the air quality.
Building designers bring fresh air into interior spaces. This process becomes complicated when the building envelope is sealed, which decreases the escape conditioned air thus reducing the heating and cooling load. A delicate balance develops with the air exchange rate (the rate at which outdoor air replaces indoor air).
A HVAC system plays a significant role in the indoor air quality as it impacts how pollutants are distributed and removed. (Sometimes they can be the source of pollutants.) Proper system maintenance (as well as air filters and ductwork) is critical to managing a healthy air supply.
When designing HVAC systems, mechanical engineers employ complicated calculations which consider the size of the building and capacity. The system must deliver an adequate amount of outside air into the building to dilute pollutants emitted by equipment, furnishings, building material, and occupants. The outdoor air quality is important because it can contain carbon monoxide, dust, and pollen. This air must be filtered by the HVAC system, and the filters properly maintained.
Designers must plan spaces carefully to avoid placing thermostats or vents in areas that will compromise effectiveness. For instance, a thermostat placed next to heat generating office equipment like computers can cause the HVAC unit to turn on or off more often compromising the overall comfort of the space. Special ventilation measures are required in stairwells, elevator shafts, and utility chases.
There are many other factors to consider about air movement when designing a ventilation system. The obvious ones like smells, too hot/cold, or too drafty/stuffy are considered. More subtle factors also are evaluated such as the heat or glare from sunlight, noise and vibration levels produced by the system, and office furniture layout.
Good indoor air quality management is a shared responsibility, and we all can work to improve it. Here’s a short list of some basic practices:
- Don’t block the air vents with furniture or other items
- Designate a safe smoking area that does not feed back into the ventilation system
- Clean up all water spills promptly to prevent mold growth
- Remove garbage regularly and dispose of it properly
- Store food properly to deter attracting pests
Facility managers also can take action to maintain good air quality at their properties. Functions include:
- Take care when rearranging office furniture and equipment, and when renovating or bringing in new equipment.
- Maintain HVAC equipment to keep it at optimum operation levels. Be especially aware of filter replacement.
- Avoid cleaning products that emit pollutants.
- Develop safe procedures around solvents, adhesives and pesticides to reduce their impact.
- When purchasing equipment, consider selecting products with lower emissions.
- Plan renovation projects to have the least impact on air quality and occupant comfort.
Good health is our most valuable asset. Nothing underlines that basic concept like a health threat, as the Covid-19 pandemic has shown. Indoor air quality is a major factor in promoting a healthy environment.
While the elements to consider seem complicated, experts at Albireo Energy have extensive experience in the design, testing and maintenance of HVAC systems. Albireo can identify air quality concerns and devise ventilation solutions to improve building occupant comfort. With our heightened awareness around health and safe buildings, it’s time to be proactive about indoor air quality.