Indoor air quality is a topic that has swallowed up the concerns of every industry with a brick-and-mortar footprint. For commercial buildings, it’s an issue compounded upon by the variety of players involved in the decision-making process, and the often-time contradictory objective pressuring building owners and operators today. Namely, it’s delivering a healthier environment to occupants while also targeting ESG objectives.
“At the end of the day, everyone wants to be able to create a healthy environment,” says Raymond Wu, CEO of Wynd. “However, building owners historically don’t usually have direct visibility into environments of their real estate portfolio, and that’s where monitoring comes in. Even well-meaning decisions need to come backed with projected risks and ROI, and air quality monitoring can provide not just insight into building operations, but data that can be used for more than just improving air quality, though that’s obviously an important objective to focus on.”
Having had its original start in residential settings, Wynd has since grown to provide services to a variety of building types, including commercial, education and hospitality. And Wu has had the opportunity to work with occupants, managers and owners alike when addressing air quality concerns and discussing how monitoring has become an essential part of any air quality improvements strategy.
With the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge having recently been issued by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), here, he helps outline how indoor air monitoring can be used well beyond improving air quality.
With IAQ Devices, Buildings Can Become More Ecologically Functional and Cost Efficient
There’s a strong story to be told in an HVAC system not performing adequately. In most commercial buildings, the HVAC accounts for about 40% of its operational energy consumption, and that figure has potentially climbed even higher as a result of the pandemic.
“Many owners that were looking to keep their buildings safe did so by following the ASHRAE guidelines, which, while good, poses its own set of issues. More air changes per hour means more outside air that needs to get treated before being brought into the building. If you’re using MERV 13 or even HEPA filters, that decreases the airflow, requiring even more energy on top of the increased ventilation rates.”
As an example, Wu outlines, during occupancy rates of less than 10% during the pandemic, many buildings were found to be using 20-30% more on HVAC systems following the recommendations. The problem, though, isn’t that the guidelines are being followed: it’s that they’re being followed blindly without consideration of environmental needs.
Wu instead views the ASHRAE guidelines as a decent set of railings, while smart monitoring systems are the stairs. In a smartly connected building, management systems connect to HVAC unit to tell it to bring in outside air based on need, drastically reducing unnecessary energy expenditure. At the same time, being able to commit to ESG goals will greatly help future funding attempts through investors.
“Traditionally, the data has never been there to make adjustments based on indoor air quality. Buildings have been doing that for a while outside of the U.S., but it’s always been in locations with categorically poor air quality. Now we’re seeing a paradigm shift moving forward in terms of using air quality data to adjust HVAC systems.”
Data Displays Can Help Reduce Churn and Reinforce Confidence
Over the course of the pandemic, consumer interest and knowledge in air quality rose sharply, and it only continues to rise, even as the height of pandemic fears have been left behind. This interest is a demand now, an expectation that buildings will leave occupants feeling healthier, and, according to a number of studies, surveys and reports, if it doesn’t, those people say they are willing to leave.
The converse is the same, too. Workers and tenants are less likely to apply to a business or building if they’re under the impression the environment will make them sick.
“For building occupants, the conversation about air quality is much more straightforward,” Wu says. “They understand the sciences, now more than ever, and they’re behind it. They’re actually demanding it, not just the improvement, but that they get to see the improvement.
“There was one client of ours that would use iPads in order to showcase the air quality of the building. Guests coming in could scan a QR code, and they would be able to track the air quality throughout the space. They would also have air monitor displays on the walls and ensure that their air purifiers were publicly facing. The idea was that, not only would it get them more customers, but it would also decrease the potential for churn.
“What used to be ‘Let’s put this in the closet somewhere,’ is becoming far more public facing, more confidence inspiring. Now it’s ‘Let’s use this data to improve everything and then show people how much it’s improved.”
Air Quality Monitoring is About the Destination and the Journey
“It’s important to note that monitoring is not a means to an end,” Wu says. “Many people might get nervous when they think of monitoring because to them, it might feel like airing dirty laundry if the data looks bad. However, the goal of monitoring and data should always be to enable some type of automated remediation.”
For building owners and operators, it’s also about being able to leverage all of that data to its absolute potential, and that involves thinking beyond air quality when it comes to air quality data. At the end of the day, knowing just how much this data—and monitoring systems—can impact a building’s operations is vital information for everyone who has a hand in building systems and building management.