When it comes to managing commercial and residential buildings, indoor air quality (IAQ) is a common and important term. From achieving the WELL Building Standard to simply satisfying your tenants, ‘good’ IAQ is essential.
But what is ‘good’ IAQ?
For a term that’s used so often in the industry, it’s surprising how much goes into understanding what constitutes good, or for that matter, bad IAQ.
So let’s flesh IAQ out with these 11 surprising yet important indoor air quality facts:
- We Spend 90% of Our Time Indoors.It isn’t surprising considering the fact that we work, live, and sleep indoors, but this figure emphasizes why it’s important to maintain good IAQ.Given that we spend almost all of our time indoors, we are essentially exposed to mostly indoor air. If there are recurring problems with our IAQ, then we will be at risk and could suffer from health and quality-of-life issues (we discuss this in detail later in the article).Thus, we must not understate the importance of IAQ. The health risks of poor IAQ are not confined to just a few coughs, they can be severe if left unaddressed.
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Poor IAQ is…
- …a Major Health Risk.According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), poor IAQ can cause a range of health issues ranging from respiratory problems to infections.Granted, these are not due to solely poor IAQ, but air that is unfiltered of toxic particulate matter, viruses, and bacteria certainly contribute to the problem. Furthermore, those with pre-existing medical issues, the elderly, and infants are at higher risk of harm.Common symptoms of airborne exposure to pollutants and disease range from throat and eye irritation, headaches, and fatigue. The EPA adds that “other health effects may show up either years after exposure or only after long or repeated … exposure.” In this case, people could be at risk of heart disease, respiratory disease, and cancer.
- …a Bigger Health Risk than Outdoor Air Pollution This might seem surprising on first glance, but when you consider how pollutants are 2 to 5 times more concentrated indoors than outdoors, it makes perfect sense.You know that indoor spaces are exponentially more confined than outdoor areas, so it takes much, much less time for toxins or influenzas to affect a victim.Moreover, since pollutants are also much more concentrated, people will get affected by them in greater amounts indoors (and for longer periods of time) than outdoors.
In the absence of proper air ventilation and filtration, your IAQ is at risk of getting hit by both pre-existing indoor pollutants and intruding outdoor pollutants. The latter may leak from old HVAC systems pulling in unfiltered air from outside or structural cracks.
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- …is a Costly Problem for Building Owners & Occupants AlikeThe health issues outlined above come at a cost.Let’s highlight one common respiratory disease: asthma. The cost of treating asthma at a macro-level is $82 billion in the United States. At the micro, individual level, the cost is on average $3,266 per patient per year.Be it the resident or employer, someone is paying for the treatment, and that alone is a major incentive for them to leave your building. This is the best case scenario but it can also spiral into legal issues for you if are liable under your local laws.
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Poor IAQ is Caused by…
- Toxic PropertiesAccording to the World Health Organization (WHO), toxic properties such as asbestos, lead, and radon are among the leading causes of poor IAQ.In most cases, these properties are already present in buildings constructed using old methods and materials, but the lack of air ventilation and filtration often results in high levels of exposure among building occupants.However, preexisting toxins aren’t the only threat. Some facilities also create these toxins as a result of their business processes. For example, consider a loading dock that sends and receives trucks, a chemical plant, or a pharmaceutical lab.
- Biological ContaminantsIAQ issues can also be caused by the intrusion of mold spores and fungi.Mold is a naturally occurring substance, but when left to fester indoors, they can cause an array of respiratory and other health issues for occupants.Damp environments and areas with water damage are at acute risk of developing mold infestations. In addition to a spate of health risks, mold will also cause physical damage across tiles, walls, carpets, and flooring. The point here is that these issues are interconnected, solving one (good IAQ) results in benefits in others.
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- Fine Particulate Matter Technically, this cause isn’t separate from the previous two causes, but particulate matter is how toxic and biological pollutants affect people. This matter is less than 2.5 microns (µm) in size (note: a hair strand is 70 µm) and is easily inhalable.Besides pollen, fungal and mold spores, and asbestos powder, outdoor pollutants and smoke (especially from cooking and smoking) can also harm the respiratory system, or worse. For example, asbestos matter can cause cancer.However, with an effective HVAC system, you can significantly cut down on particulate matter in the air. Yes, it doesn’t remove the source, but HVAC cuts the source from its victims, it’s a big step forward in improving your IAQ.
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You Can Fix Poor IAQ by…
- Improving Ventilation & Keeping Pollutants Outside As a starting point, you can improve your IAQ by improving indoor ventilation.It starts with simple things such as rearranging furniture to improve airflow, especially in areas where air moves into and from your HVAC system.You can also fix or seal your windows so as to prevent outdoor pollutants and moisture from entering the building. The benefits of keeping outdoor pollutants are obvious, they keep your toxin concentrations low, but by keeping out moisture you limit mold growth.You can also remove some pollutants by installing table-top air cleaners which, while relatively inexpensive, are limited in their capability.
For example, they cannot remove gaseous pollutants. More practically, they are infeasible when needed throughout an entire building in many (possibly hundreds) of areas.
- Pollutant Source ControlYou will not get far with improving IAQ unless you deal with pollutant sources indoors and outdoors. Older buildings must deal with pre-existing asbestos contamination and lead, so this is certainly not a low-cost or trivial solution.However, it’s a necessity. In fact, seeing how employers are required to follow regional health and safety laws, a building with asbestos or lead issues will not be on their list of places to lease for business operations. In addition to losing occupants, you can also run into trouble from government regulators.
- Install or Upgrade Your HVAC SystemDealing with the source is only one part of the solution, you should also ensure that the air (which moves fine particulate matter) is also clean.You can do this by installing a proper heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system. Your HVAC system should be effective in routinely replacing old, polluted air with fresh, filtered air to remove odor, pollutants, and other fine particulate matter.Remember, busy areas — such as hotels, casinos, and offices — will see a constant, net- -new generation of pollutants through smoking, cooking, certain business activities (e.g., receiving and sending trucks, manufacturing, etc).In such places, rotating old air out out with fresh new air is critical to maintaining good IAQ. However, an additional benefit of modern HVAC systems, such as Underfloor Air Distribution (UFAD), also results in lower building operating costs.
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- Design Your Building to Provide Good IAQWhereas the previous three solutions can be retrofitted into existing buildings, this bit of advice is for those planning new construction projects.Design your building to provide good IAQ by enabling ventilation, installing raised access floors (RAF) for UFAD HVAC, and avoiding toxic pollutants in your supplies.One way to measure how well you are designing your building is to use LEED. In fact, you can find a number of good examples of LEED certified buildings from our list in an earlier article. Start right upfront, this will ensure that your building offers good IAQ as soon as it opens and through the long-term.
Based on these indoor air quality facts, it’s clear that achieving good IAQ is contingent on a proper HVAC system. Be it filtration, replacing air, shifting pollutants away from living and/or work spaces, and keeping pollutants out, HVAC is a necessity. Our guide on UFAD offers a detailed explanation of how this process works.
AirFixture equips building owners with the tools they need to achieve and maintain good IAQ through a new generation of UFAD HVAC systems. Speak to us today to see how you can make HVAC your asset in attracting and keeping valuable occupants, and raising your building’s value.