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Healthy Occupant Environments Start with Air

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This piece is part of a new series that was created in conjunction with The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to help educate the real estate community about the positive impacts of Real Time Energy Management.

The COVID-19 pandemic heightened awareness of how buildings are optimizing or, at least, maintaining healthy conditions within their spaces for occupants. From disinfecting to touch-free access, building operators are juggling a full plate of performance and operational processes while ensuring occupants are in a clean and safe environment.

When new health risks are discovered, people try to avoid unnecessary exposure and apply renewed dedication to taking the right nutrients to boost immune systems, striving for the recommended amount of exercise, and getting enough fresh air.

However, and a bit counter-intuitively, outside air isn’t always the right answer. Not all buildings have windows that can open and open windows can start a domino effect on comfort issues like bringing in unpleasant smells, raising indoor humidity levels, and even rain damage. Outside air in places like congested cities can be more dangerous than indoor air. However, indoor air has consistently higher volatile organic compounds (VOCs) levels than outside due to paint, varnish, cleaning and disinfecting products, and many more. 

After the onset of COVID-19, airflow and ventilation in buildings started to get a lot more attention. While previously only on the minds of HVAC professionals, commercial real estate buildings suddenly added enhancing air quality and HVAC systems as a significant part of their building operations strategy

Tracking air quality in buildings can be done through a variety of smart HVAC systems and integrated sensor data via Real Time Energy Management (RTEM). Through placement within office spaces or tenant floors, building operators and managers can clearly see what the condition of air is in many places and across days, weeks, months, etc. Without RTEM benchmarking for measuring baselines and marking goals to reach, buildings are unable to become more efficient or more comfortable for occupants. This data collection is necessary for good, healthy air quality.

With numerous variables impacting air quality, the best way to control and maintain high indoor air quality is through understanding airflow. Air behaves in a fluid manner where particles flow from one area to another based on pressure which can be impacted by temperature, altitude and other factors like elevator movement. Airflow and speed can be measured by installing enough temperature-assessing sensors or thermostats to see how heat is moving through a building or by an anemometer that uses velocity to determine the average airspeed in an HVAC duct. Measuring airflow will reveal any limitations fans have within the HVAC system or any conditions from the initial installation that reduce capacity. Once known, these limitations can be addressed, bringing improved ventilation and comfort to occupants throughout the building, as well as increasing the longevity of HVAC equipment.

Airflow issues can be the cause of many uncomfortable and distracting conditions within a building. Beyond hot and cold spots in a space or the AC blowing warm air, pressure imbalances that cause odd noises or drafts may also be due to poor airflow. Ignoring symptoms can lead to system failure and, with many possible causes, it’s important to monitor airflow consistently. Some causes to watch for include blocked vents, clogged filters, leaky ducts, outdated design, or a faulty thermostat.

In finding the source for problems, it may be helpful to track characteristics like humidity, carbon dioxide and airborne particulates before and after changes are made. With a baseline measurement, the effectiveness of changes made can be evaluated and operators can highlight areas prone to the presence of particulates like virus particles. Integrating sensor data via RTEM makes monitoring from before and after modifications clear and accessible.

Air quality sensors detect, monitor and collect a wide range of data about the health of a building’s air. Sensors can be used for temperature, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, humidity, radon, formaldehyde, and other VOCs. While often thought of primarily for comfort, these sensors can make a big difference in the health of occupants. For example, short-term exposure to VOCs at a low level can cause fatigue, nausea and throat irritation while long-term exposure can result in kidney damage and more severe respiratory conditions. By tracking and monitoring these characteristics, air quality sensors can ensure occupants are in a safe and healthy environment.

Good building health and comfortable occupants rely upon quality indoor airflow. HVAC airflow measurement and testing should be done regularly and as quickly as possible when a problem emerges from an occupant complaint. Air filters need to be cleaned and replaced as necessary, which may be more often than suggested by the manufacturer based on the building’s environment. Additional inspection should be done for fan blades, coils, ductwork, and thermostats.

When fans push air with optimized flow, they operate using less energy and are able to reduce the overall HVAC load of the building. Since HVAC systems are a major contributor to a building’s energy expenditure, increasing airflow and enhancing ventilation do not only ensure a healthier building and space for occupants but also improves the building’s bottom line.

ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) released new guidelines in 2020 to address COVID-19 concerns and how to combat the spread of the novel virus and others through buildings’ HVAC systems. Recommendations include increasing outdoor airflow, upgrading filters to levels effective for removing fine particles, and adding air disinfection equipment. NYSERDA has recently partnered with ASHRAE to help them study how these recommendations can be implemented in buildings to both help keep occupants safe and to make buildings as energy efficient as possible. 

NYSERDA has been working with ASHRAE to develop a partnership long before the COVID pandemic. NYSERDA’s director of market development, Patrick O’Shei, explains, “We are working with guidance from the CDC and ASHRAE best practices to see how they can be applied to buildings in a real world study. Many of the building owners and engineering firms we work with wanted to understand how to keep their buildings safe, so this initiative is being pushed by the property industry as well as regulators.”

Today’s buildings are tasked with a great responsibility for occupant health and comfort due to increasing caution about the risk of contracting viruses from indoor spaces. With RTEM data monitoring, collection and reporting, buildings are able to assess spaces they should improve upon and prioritize their actions accordingly. Fortunately, with the right procedures and operational team, indoor air quality can be optimized and controlled and occupants can feel safe and comfortable within buildings again.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, known as NYSERDA, promotes energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy sources. These efforts are key to developing a less polluting and more reliable and affordable energy system for all New Yorkers. Collectively, NYSERDA’s efforts aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, accelerate economic growth, and reduce customer energy bills. NYSERDA works with stakeholders throughout New York including residents, business owners, developers, community leaders, local government officials, university researchers, utility representatives, investors, and entrepreneurs.

NYSERDA offers cost-share incentives to support RTEM projects that serve customers in commercial, industrial, and multifamily sectors. Its Advanced Efficiency Solutions team evaluates and qualifies vendors to ensure high quality RTEM projects and analyzes RTEM market data to publish case studies and best practices.

Prospective customers can learn more about RTEM benefits and how to get started here. All of NYSERDA’s informational materials can be found in the RTEM Resource Center. Vendors interested in qualification should apply today

For questions and help, email RTEM@NYSERDA.ny.gov

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