Cover story

Shaping Healthier Indoor Air Quality

Cover Story

One of the positives to emerge post pandemic is how HVAC can affect air quality.

New HVAC terminology is abuzz in the market, like filters, air changes, IAQ, and UV as protocols to deal with changing culture. Research findings indicate that indoor air can be a greater health hazard than outdoor air, demanding improvement in systems from hygiene aspects. The pollutants and contaminants that contribute to poor IAQ are needed to be controlled to get the cleanest air. 

The best IAQ begins with an HVAC system. A well maintained ventilation system will increase the delivery and free movement of clean air and dilute potential contaminants. ASHRAE recommends increasing ventilation and upgrading filtration to help mitigate transmission of the virus. Providing a separate mechanical ventilation system ensures that enough outdoor air is being introduced to the occupied space. VRF systems and DOAS can be used in new and existing buildings. So, building owners and managers must ensure good ventilation for improving air quality. 

A continual debate is evolving around the quality of air we breathe that affects human health and productivity. Nowadays, we hear pollution quite frequently. Air quality, Ventilation and a clean environment are what we all wish for, especially after a pandemic. IAQ profoundly affects the environment surrounding us. HVAC systems are the focal point as far as the approach of industry towards indoor air quality is concerned. The subject has become very important especially due to Covid, is the point of view of Mr. Suhel Parker, Director, IAQA – INDIA Chapter. And with the number of multinational companies coming in, something like a to-do list has been done towards air quality. However, the knowledge existing with the clients is not enough and has to be percolated in the wider interest of human beings in relation to the surrounding environment. And, maybe more emphasis is needed to educate them enough. 

Exchanging fresh air and contaminated air Ventilation plays a very, very important role. The number of changes of air volume in one hour is known as air changes per hour. Different areas have different air changes per hour depending on the use. Also, 100 percent of air cannot be recirculated as this would lead to carbon dioxide build up and hence, would be a health hazard. 10-20 percent of air volume is induced from outside (ambient) as fresh air. This air would also go through a filter unit usually known as the treated fresh air unit. In Covid times, transmission via air is the most prominent cause of spread, so air filtration was the focus. 

Weighing its overall inclusivity, Shashi Shekhar, Managing Director, Camfil India, mentions, “The air filtration system of the unit is equally important as in the absence of the right filters; contaminated air would get in and would undo all the good work done by the AHU filters.” 

In any commercial building, as per ventilation system design, air handling is used for conditioning the air to the right temperature and humidity for ensuring the comfort level of the occupants. The AHUs also have air filters – the design of which depends on the application. Healthcare, electronics manufacturing, defence production, pharmaceutical manufacturing etc., would have more efficient filters than for general applications, like office buildings, educational institutions, shopping malls, multiplexes etc. Since it takes some energy to condition the air, this air is majorly recirculated in the buildings, to reuse the conditioned air, observes Mr. Shashi. 

Common man really wants to know the basics of air exchange. One aspect is we talk about fresh air, another aspect is we talk about the contaminated air. The pertinent question is – how to effectively exchange fresh air and contaminated air. First of all, it is not fresh air. We normally call it outdoor air. In India, we do not have fresh air, we have outdoor air. Clearing the myth, Mr. Richie Mittal, Managing Director, Overdrive Engineering Pvt. Ltd., calls fresh air as outdoor air, saying, “In our industry dilution is the solution to the pollution. Understand this line. I think for fresh air ventilation, we should not thank Covid for what it has done, but we should thank Covid for only one thing: at least, we started speaking about air quality 

Good amount of outdoor air is very necessary. CO2 monitoring is the only way to understand enclosed areas where we do not have good ventilation. One is indoor ventilation, one is outdoor air ventilation. If you do not have outdoor ventilation, CO2 level per se will keep on increasing and that has a severe effect on health, mind, and everything, and that can be measured easily. Moreover, in case, there is any Covid virus sitting inside, it is circulated and is picked up by the filtration system. Ventilation however, is very important. That is the only solution that we have otherwise, without Covid. 

Visibility issues on a walkthrough 

As far as IAQ is concerned, some aspiration goals or levels need to be achieved. The facility managers can see some basic issues themselves, but they don’t act on it. Half of the problems in a place can be solved just by walkthrough, not even carrying a measuring metre in hand. And the walkthrough will reveal a host of problems, which could solve 50 percent of all the issues. 

When you enter the place, the first thing observed is – an AC grill right across the entrance with black marks on it. It is installed at about 15 feet high and not cleaned. The dust is settling due to microbial contamination, as the hot air and the cold air mix and condensation has taken place. However, an instrument is not needed to see that. You go to the toilets; you’ll see most of the pipelines have a leak and a green stain on the side of the pipe. You don’t need a metre to see if the bathroom exhaust is not working. You go to the canteen and the cooking smell there means the exhaust ventilation is not working properly. So, it can be known exactly where to go and take the reading. 

Things keep on changing with seasons, with time of the day or with occupancy. It calls for continuous monitoring from time-to-time as IAQ can change. A complete plan with a goal to achieve is desired. People should be trained and explained as to how and at what time of the day to take the reading. A protocol needs to be followed while taking those samples and readings. Further, while doing an IAQ audit, we actually are not justifying our claims, because we have not been able to educate the building managers or the building owners enough. And solutions can be offered, if a proper testing is done for something which is visible and obvious. Managing IAQ in big spaces The measurement is very important from the control point of view. To understand the importance of indoor air quality, developing good sensors, good accuracy, and good sensing elements, which last long are required. “The crux of the matter is how accurately signals or the IAQ parameters are taken or measured and transmitted to the control system. Investment in R & D and innovation is of prime concern”, according to Mr. Ketan Sheth, Product Manager – Air side products & Sensors, Belimo Automation India Pvt. Ltd. 

A lot of solutions and studies focused on how best we can achieve healthy indoor air. So getting data through the controls and continual investing in that direction is must, to reach up to an optimum level. Artificial intelligence is also becoming a very, very important aspect. IoT also is one of the important things as part of analytics. So one needs to analyse data, work on it, not only making the buildings energy efficient, but also it has to be healthy enough for the people who are working there. All the companies have started thinking a lot about skilling their employees for monitoring and analysing data. 

While monitoring indoor air quality based on parameters, Ms. Namita Gupta, Founder and CEO, Airveda, is categorical in stating, “The focus area has to be more on the monitoring side, on sensors; dashboards, alerts and remote monitoring automation. We need to look at the different types of parameters leading to indoor air pollution.” The air quality consultants are actually doing the purification in buildings. The demand control ventilation and the HVAC systems are getting automated. A lot of different technologies are coming up around purification along with HEPA filters. 

The particulate matter usually comes from the outdoors. There are a lot of indoor sources of particulate matter as well, like there is indoor cooking or dust from carpets. The carbon dioxide accumulates as an indoor pollutant, because of a large number of people breathing constantly in indoor spaces. The VOCs, carbon monoxide, and formaldehyde are getting generated, due to using certain chemicals or sprays inside the buildings. Primarily, filtration and carbon filters are the right solution looking at the sources that are generating it. 

In terms of solutions, basically two things are involved, according to Ms. Namita, “Firstly, trying to reduce the sources i.e., indoor sources of pollution, and making sure that you are not creating pollution indoors. Secondly, using solutions, which can help clean the air and provide a healthy environment.” And, as per Mr. Ketan’s view, energy efficiency is also really important. So, doing things that are automated, efficient and optimised, is the correct way. 

Filter technologies improve air quality 

Evolving filtration technologies cannot just be installed simply since it can filter air to purify. It is not that you just get into a system of installing whatever is available, and stuff it into your system. The situation needs to be assessed first. It must be categorised where you stand and where you need to reach. Pointing to different aspects, Mr. Vishal Kapur, Managing Director, Meho-HCP Air Systems Pvt. Ltd., observes, “Most people used to think and even currently think that air conditioning is all about just getting the right comfort and temperature inside the room. Air conditioning and ventilation – is not just about temperature. That is just one of the features of defining good air conditioning that means good air quality.” 

In fact, when a system is designed correctly, a well installed and operated system can ensure improvement in IAQ without doing much intervention. On the other side, a badly designed or badly maintained system can actually worsen air quality without doing anything to it. So, first ensure that the system is correctly designed and not being ignored on the aspect of filters. According to Mr. Vishal, “We all talk about two mantras to ensure good air quality inside any space and its ventilation and filtration.” 

There is a need to clean the filters every 15 days or maybe even less and it is surprising to see the amount of dust that filters have gathered. If the filter was not there you would have been breathing in all the dust. So going ahead, depending on the kind of application, Ms. Namita also thinks – depending on what is getting generated inside the room has to be resolved. 

Filtration is a very wide subject. There are various kinds starting from MERV4, going up to a HEPA filter possibly depending on the applications. It is suggested to buy filters from licensed companies certified products. HEPA is not necessarily needed in all systems. In fact, HEPA is recommended in healthcare facilities or laboratories or specific critical applications. The MERV8 or MERV10 help improve levels of particulate matter pollutants in space. Even MERV13 is a much more advanced filter. Now people have started understanding and talking more about filters. There are passive filters, active filters, other kinds of electronic filters etc., which people are using. Some are effective, some might not be effective, some have side effects, some might not have side effects. However, filtration is very important. 

Awareness for investing in IAQ solutions 

When we compare the amount of water we consume, or the amount of food we eat per day as compared to the amount of air between, there’s no relationship. When we are looking at buying a water purifier, we do not need education. Today, everyone is very careful of what kind of water to consume; whether it’s filtered, boiled, or RO or bottled water, etc. Unfortunately, air is far more damaging, if you compare it with bad contaminated water; but people aren’t still very conscious about it. 

Has Covid taught us a lesson and are people taking it seriously! Air quality awareness is something that needs to come from within the masses. Viewing from a general perspective, Mr. Shashi aptly thinks, “Present awareness level is quite low in terms of most of the issues related to air quality. Everyone – right from the general public, news channels, newspapers, industry specialists , customers, consumers, government etc., talk about air quality only during the winter months.” 

There are studies, taken from all over the world, which indicate increasing productivity, if good air quality is ensured for the people working in an office. According to Mr. Shashi , “Only few people know that air pollution for India or for that matter for the whole world- it is a round the year problem to deal with. Further, very few people are aware that solutions do exist to mitigate this unavoidable issue. Only when the people know that some easy solutions are available to implement, would they start thinking about implementing them. It is due to this gap that a lot of people who want to invest in air quality solutions are not able to do so in the absence of professional assistance.” 

If we consider Mr. Vishal’s view on air quality, it is going to impact health; it’s going to impact productivity, all across it is going to harm you. So it’s something that each one needs to be conscious of breathing. It has to become a norm to maintain air quality at any place. More and more, we talk about air quality, it is going to make a difference. Obviously, keep on pushing the message loud and loud. 

Regulations in terms of IAQ 

As far as regulations are concerned, ISHRAE brought out a standard on IAQ. If we take one step further on indoor environmental quality standards; the website also touches on things like acoustics, lighting etc., and thermal comfort. As of now, there is no standard, regulation or legislation by the government. So, the need is to adhere to a particular level of measurements and standards. 

Mr. Suhel points out, IAQA in India is the new chapter which has been working consistently with other organisations like ISHRAE, ASHRAE. Internationally, IAQA has been working with US EPA, ASHRAE and other such bodies, where these guidelines are being recognised. There is an understanding which is generally accepted in Europe, US and in India. Now, the question for all of us is to simply accept one standard, which needs to be pushed faster. 

Going ahead 

The awareness of air quality is at a far better level than what it was, a couple of years back. The courtesy goes to Covid. Specifically, designers and clients who are putting up large installations, offices or commercial establishments, hotels and hospitals, have become very conscious about indoor air quality. The newer installations and new designs coming up today are following better protocols, or the right protocols that are needed to be taken up, to ensure the good air quality. 

In the days ahead, more and more learnings will arise. More and more technologies that exist will either get approved or rejected. Because technology can be effective or not, or can be harmful or not. These are two aspects to be looked at, specifically for attaining air quality. There will be more clarity; specifically on the active international technologies that are coming up there. 

Invest in monitoring assets for IAQ, whether it’s in small metres, small tabletop devices, or continuous monitoring. It will ensure operating and maintaining the system properly. Human health is more dependent on how we take care of our own bodies. Identify a contaminating source and take care of that, whether it is indoors or outdoors. It is far better than putting in technologies to filter or purify the system. It is always good to look at what is causing pollution inside the space. Take care of that! A better future lies out for all of us from the aspect of the air we breathe in, as well as how comfortable we can stay in those spaces upon implementing the IAQ solutions for better air quality.  

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