Cover story

Air handling technologies optimising indoor space 

Air

Annually, a staggering 3.2 million lives are cut short due to premature deaths caused by illnesses linked to household air pollution, as reported by WHO. This pervasive issue arises from the incomplete combustion of solid fuels and kerosene commonly used for cooking, emitting harmful particulate matter and pollutants. These pollutants inflame airways and lungs, compromise immune responses, and diminish the blood’s ability to carry oxygen. The gravity of this situation underscores the urgent need for effective measures to address and alleviate the detrimental impact of household air pollution on global health.

Worldwide, around 2.3 billion people still cook using solid fuels such as wood, crop waste, charcoal, coal dung and kerosene in open fires and inefficient stoves. Most of these people are poor and live in low- and middle-income countries. There is a large discrepancy in access to cleaner cooking alternatives between urban and rural areas: in 2021, only 14% of people in urban areas relied on polluting fuels and technologies, compared with 49% of the global rural population.

Household air pollution is generated by using inefficient and polluting fuels and technologies in and around the home that contain a range of health-damaging pollutants, including small particles that penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream. In poorly ventilated dwellings, indoor smoke can have fine particles 100 times higher than acceptable. Exposure is exceptionally high among women and children, who spend the most time near the domestic hearth. Reliance on polluting fuels and technologies also requires significant time for cooking on an inefficient device and gathering and preparing fuel.

Point of origin
Reducing pollution involves employing emission control equipment and air purification technologies. Priyanka Singh, Programme Lead, Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW) notes that lifestyle changes and awareness play a crucial role. For instance, being mindful of activities that contribute to pollution, such as burning coal in a closed environment, can lead to healthier choices for individuals and the surrounding community. Creating awareness and promoting lifestyle changes are essential in the fight against pollution.

Additionally, exploring nature-based solutions is imperative. Instead of constantly seeking innovations, it’s crucial to harness existing solutions that can be easily accessible to the public. The challenge extends beyond having vast amounts of data; it lies in presenting data insights in a consumable and understandable manner. Rather than bombarding individuals with technical information, there is a need to translate complex data into relatable terms for the general public. Bridging this gap between technical details and layman’s understanding is essential for fostering awareness and encouraging meaningful actions to reduce pollution.

Recent Developments
While discussing the developments in air handling technologies, Abhinav Gupta, CEO of ActiveBuildings, adds, “A notable surge in innovative cooling technologies, particularly for evaporative cooling, is currently underway. Professionals at CEPT are investing significant efforts to advance energy-efficient evaporative cooling technologies, enabling more fresh air into spaces. Numerous companies worldwide actively contribute to this shift towards precision cooling, foreseeing evaporative cooling’s increasing prevalence. The focus is way ahead of office spaces, extending to homes in bustling urban centres like Chennai and Mumbai, reflecting the growing importance of efficient cooling technologies that are not limited to cooling and facilitate the introduction of fresh air in various forms.”

It is essential to shed light on certain critical considerations for technology implementation. Equipment installation is straightforward, but adhering to operational standards presents challenges. A layman will find it difficult to adapt to evolving technologies apart from regular maintenance. All the additional products will require updates in a year, threatening the users financially. Future technological solutions should prioritise circularity for sustainability and cost-effectiveness, emphasising the importance of incorporating such considerations at the planning stage.

Energy Efficiency  
The energy efficiency sector has seen significant advancements in integrating Internet of Things (IoT) technology in air handling units. In contrast to traditional Building Management Systems (BMS), IoT allows real-time data to influence system performance. Vikas Gajbhiye, Founder of Windsmit Air, citing an example, explained, “In a scenario where a space initially occupied by 20 people requires a temperature of 24°C, conventional BMS systems would rigidly adhere to the set points regardless of changes in occupancy or environmental conditions. However, with IoT implementation, the system adapts dynamically. If the occupancy decreases to two people or becomes vacant, the system adjusts cooling and damper positions accordingly, optimising energy usage. Such techniques, driven by real-time data, contribute significantly to energy savings in the overall system.

AHU Fans
Fan technology has changed due to advances in motor technologies from electric vehicles, impacting the energy efficiency of fans in Air Handling Units (AHUs) and ceiling fans. A critical observation in AHU design reveals a common oversight: the lack of adequate provision for fresh air intake. In many cases, the planning for fresh air intake needs to be more thoroughly thought through concerning the specific needs of the occupants. The design often relies on standard specifications or blindly replicates a Bill of Quantities (BOQ) without considering location and occupant requirements.

ASHRAE guidelines, which have long provided explicit recommendations for CFM (Cubic Feet per Minute) per person, are sometimes disregarded in the design process. The tendency to follow a set standard or BOQ without contextual analysis results in situations where retrofitting becomes challenging once the design is already in place.

While commendable progress has been made in enhancing energy efficiency through innovations in motor technology, chillers, and precision cooling, ensuring sufficient fan capacity for fresh air intake needs to be addressed. This oversight is prevalent but is gradually gaining attention, particularly in regions like the Middle East, and is expected to influence practices in the Indian context as well.

Monitoring
Indoor pollution levels are often 2 to 5 times higher than outdoor pollution, which is frequently underestimated. The reality is exemplified by personal experiences in Delhi by Lejo Jose, India Sales and Operations, Kaiterra, who noted that indoor measurements can reach 1000 microns per cubic meter, significantly surpassing the outdoor levels of 400 to 500 microns per cubic meter. Despite the prevalence of Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) monitors, more understanding must be given regarding their readings and their practical implications.

IAQ monitors, while capable of providing valuable data, often need to improve in guiding users on how to interpret and act upon the information. For instance, a PM 2.5 reading of 1000 microns may be alarming, but users are left without clear instructions on what steps to take. The challenge lies in the communication and awareness surrounding these devices. Many users focus solely on the Air Quality Index (AQI) values without grasping that AQI was originally designed for outdoor measurements. The complexity of accurately assessing IAQ involves measuring eight different parameters, a detail often overlooked by consumers.

HEPA Filters
High-efficiency particulate Air (HEPA) filters are among the oldest and most extensively understood technologies. They have traditionally found their primary applications in healthcare, pharmaceuticals, and electronics manufacturing, particularly in clean room environments.

Noting his personal experience, Abhinav Gupta says that they have tried to add HEPA in commercial buildings but have yet to meet with scepticism. Clients have often dismissed the idea, asserting that they are not running a hospital and, therefore, do not require HEPA filters. However, the reality may differ, with elevated particulate matter levels demanding a more robust filtration solution than conventional filters, like MERV filters, can provide.

There is a growing interest in exploring alternative materials and approaches. Some actively seek biodegradable materials that can emulate the performance of HEPA filters. Though these materials may require more frequent replacement, their biodegradability aligns with sustainability goals, appealing to those invested in the circular economy.

Filterless technologies
Advancements in engineering are introducing novel approaches to HEPA filter maintenance. Rather than traditional washing, some systems now employ high-intensity vacuuming or pressure-based methods to extend the lifespan of HEPA filters. Repurposing HEPA filters may not maintain their original efficacy, but the environmentally conscious effort to reuse materials rather than send them to landfills is a noteworthy advantage. A growing market for filterless technologies warrants caution, particularly with ioniser-based systems.

While filterless technologies, especially those employing ionisers, have been around for a while, concerns arise about the potential alterations they may introduce to indoor air chemistry. Ioniser systems are not inherently problematic, but the lack of comprehensive regulations poses challenges. California is the only state globally with regulations addressing permissible ozone emissions from ioniser systems. Adhering to these regulations ensures low parts per billion (PPB) of ozone emitted, making such systems compliant. Despite advancements in creating ionisers with reduced ozone emissions, the fundamental chemical reactions involved may release substances whose impact on indoor air chemistry remains to be determined.

While the air manufacturing technology sector is witnessing an exciting influx of cutting-edge solutions, a delicate balance must be maintained between adopting novel technologies and ensuring human health remains a top priority. The company, focusing on human health, emphasises the need for data and insights to guide decisions, acknowledging that even a slight potential for adverse effects on human health in the future warrants a cautious and balanced approach.

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Priyanka Singh, Programme Lead, Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW)
“Lifestyle changes, awareness, and using existing processes are essential in the fight against pollution and for improving air quality.”

Vikas Gajbhiye, Founder, Windsmit Air
“Continuous monitoring and integrating IoT technology in air handling units are imperative to enhance indoor air quality and efficiency. Real-time data-driven adaptations assist with energy usage and address glitches, ensuring a healthier and more resilient indoor environment.”

Lejo Jose, India Sales and Operations, Kaiterra
“It is crucial to bridge the gap between design intent and actual system operation for a healthier indoor environment.”

Abhinav Gupta, CEO, ActiveBuildings
“In the evolving landscape of indoor air quality solutions, a delicate balance must be maintained between adopting novel technologies and ensuring human health remains a top priority.”

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