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The Impact of Air Quality on a Building’s Safety and Comfort

Poor air quality is a little bit like a drought. People only properly talk about water scarcity when it’s not been raining for a while, and people only really talk about air quality issues when it’s affecting human health (i.e. it needs to be obvious before we acknowledge that there is a problem). The recent coronavirus outbreak has inadvertently made people think about the invisible forces that impact our health. In my opinion, a major problem is that air quality is something we don’t think about often enough, especially in buildings.

Someone pointed out to me recently that while the coronavirus is a real concern, just as many people die every year from carbon monoxide poisoning, chemical or air pollution-induced asthma or acute lower respiratory infections. What’s in our air affects not just our health, but our productivity and higher brain functions. Fortunately, chemicals, carbon monoxide and particulates in the air are all detectable by sensors, so we can do something about them in our building design and building applications. 

The average person spends 90% of their time indoors. Whilst this seems problematic and possibly unhealthy, in many places the outdoor air is bad enough that it becomes difficult to breathe. Then, being inside a building can become the safest place, where building level HVAC systems containing various filters remove contaminants from the air. 

Clean air is not only a concern for your physical health, but for your mental productivity. Have you ever wondered why you sleep so well at a cabin or when you go camping? The reason for this is largely because there is so much less carbon dioxide in the air. Trees absorb it, which means that the average ambient level of carbon dioxide in a forest is close to 350 ppm (parts per million). There are many sources of CO2, but people breathing is the single largest source in most building applications. In the average building it’s difficult to keep the carbon dioxide levels below 600 ppm, made even harder when you fill a room with people. You know that feeling of fatigue you get in a meeting room full of people? It’s not just because the meeting is boring that you feel so tired, it’s the CO2 levels getting to 2,000 ppm (although the meeting might also be dull). 

So when one thinks of forest retreats or seaside locations where great novels are written or deep insights are found, we often don’t associate the amazing air quality of those locations with being able to concentrate the mind and produce great works—but we should!

In the world of hotels and short-term rentals, understanding the carbon dioxide levels is useful in two regards. Firstly, by monitoring CO2, you can tell if there are too many people in a space, since it’s correlated to occupancy. At the same time, by keeping your base CO2 levels down to a comfortable level, your guests will have a much more restful sleep. 

A 2015 study, published by Wiley, looked at the effects of CO2 on the sleeping patterns and cognitive performance of college students. The researchers opened windows in some rooms to vent let our carbon dioxide and bring in fresh air, while in others they left the window closed. The research team found that students who slept with the window open, slept significantly better than those with higher CO2 levels. In addition to better sleep, they also performed better on cognitive tests the day after.

There are a lot of great sensors on the market that can pick up CO2, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), dust and fine particulates, carbon monoxide, ozone and others. Uhoo, Awair, and Aura Air are all sensors with great apps to manage real-time data. However, engaging a system that could in theory also ‘talk’ to a fan or a motor to open a window or even bring in air from outside, is the next most logical step in development.

At Operto we’ve worked for many years with the Netatmo smart indoor air quality monitor and have integrated this particular product into our ecosystem because it can perform double duty for short-term rental property managers. The CO2 and noise sensor can be used to tell us whether there is a potential party going on through monitoring over-occupancy. The device can also be tied to either an Ecobee or Tado thermostat so that when the CO2 reaches a high level, we can activate a fan to bring in fresh air. This makes for less “stuffy” air and a better night’s rest for guests, all while having the added benefit of regulating air temperature and humidity, huge drivers for human comfort. 

In a world of ever-increasing complexity, it’s important for property technology to be as invisible as the forces that they are engaging with. Whether technology is used to reduce energy and carbon-use to mitigate climate change or to improve indoor air quality for immediate human comfort and cognitive improvements, smart systems always allow for better living.

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