by Jeff Dryfhout — Originally published in the November 2015 issue of FMJ—Without realizing it, many facility managers may be overlooking one of the most important aspects of a clean building: the air. The proliferation of dust, allergens and other airborne pollutants often seems unavoidable in buildings large and small. However, imagine if you could eliminate the vast majority of these contaminants, long before they’ve been inhaled by building occupants or settled across every surface in a room.
Improving indoor air quality, using a combination of source control, increased ventilation and air filtration makes this concept a reality. A few simple, proactive measures allow facility managers to get buildings cleaner by reducing allergens, airborne viruses and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Though we can’t see most of these pollutants, they affect cleanliness and can significantly impact health. In fact, indoor air is often two to five times more polluted than outdoor air. Since the average person spends 90 percent of his or her time indoors, air quality in buildings is of the utmost importance, especially in high-occupancy places such as schools, offices, health care environments and senior living facilities.
By taking buildings to the next level of cleanliness, facility managers have the opportunity to deliver the benefits of clean air including increased productivity, patron loyalty and general well-being. Improving indoor air quality is a solution to some of a building’s most common pain points and provides facility managers with an integrated solution.
Diagnosing poor indoor air quality
Poor indoor air quality (IAQ) is a much more common, and much more expensive, problem than many facility managers may realize.
Contaminated air impacts building occupants’ health and may make poor impressions.
One reason IAQ suffers is because many buildings are designed to be airtight in order to cut down on energy costs and be more sustainable. The “tightness” often leads to inadequate ventilation, for which there’s not always a quick fix.
A lack of ventilation can also cause other problems, such as moisture buildup and mold growth. This is sometimes exacerbated in older buildings because they may contain hazardous building materials such as formaldehyde, lead or asbestos, adding to the cocktail of unsafe contaminants that linger in limited airspace.
While architects and builders are constantly adapting to create greener, healthier buildings, facility managers need to develop an IAQ action plan. When buildings aren’t maintained effectively, problems with IAQ only worsen over time. Even new buildings can experience poor indoor air from factors such as the intrusion of outdoor air pollution or the use of chemical cleaning products.
Short-term symptoms associated with unhealthy indoor air quality include fatigue, dizziness, drowsiness, nausea, coughing, increased asthma attacks and eye and throat irritation. Unhealthy IAQ is also associated with long-term health problems such as respiratory and cardiovascular disease.
If 20 percent or more of building occupants experience such issues, it constitutes sick building syndrome.1 About one in four new or renovated buildings may meet this criterion.
Lastly, one universal risk facilities face is the spread of airborne viruses such as influenza. The flu is responsible for 17 million missed days of work and 38 million missed days of school each year.2 While it comes as a surprise to most people, airborne exposure is the most common way to catch the flu. Since people are most contagious the moment their symptoms begin, they’re often spreading germs in the air before even realizing they could be spreading their illness along to others.
Filtering the air in common spaces can be an effective way to reduce the exposure to airborne viruses.
Three ways to improve indoor air quality
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has three main recommendations when it comes to improving indoor air quality:3
1) Control sources of contaminants
2) Improve ventilation
3) Utilize air cleaners
The source control aspect of this three-pronged approach is often the most accessible and affordable. Facility managers can test for hazardous contaminants and effectively remove them from the building or seal them off if it is more cost effective.
Another form of source control is simply avoiding the use of certain cleaning products, which can create a problem by releasing VOCs into the air. These products can trigger headaches and dizziness, as well as asthma or allergy attacks.
Switching over to green, unscented cleaning products and only using as much as necessary is a simple change that can greatly improve indoor air quality and sustainability.
Improving ventilation is a more complex problem. If an HVAC system hasn’t been properly maintained, or in cases where older spaces are repurposed for a different use than originally planned, ventilation systems may be insufficient for the current needs of building occupants.
Remedying an outdated or inefficient HVAC system can quickly become expensive. More importantly, these larger systems are not intended to address higher-contaminant areas effectively. While HVAC systems can be adjusted for temperature control, a more targeted solution, such as commercial-grade air purifiers, is necessary for eliminating odors, germs and other contaminants in common areas.
The EPA’s third recommendation is installing air cleaners. Facility managers can make a few easy changes to reduce airborne contaminants, but air cleaners are the simplest solution for removing them almost entirely. These devices are a targeted solution that take facilities to the next level of cleanliness and provide infection control against airborne pathogens.
Commercial-grade air purifiers with HEPA filters effectively reduce allergens, VOCs, odors and even viruses such as influenza. In the U.S., true HEPA filters must reach the standard efficiency of removing 99.97 percent of particles that are 0.3 microns in size.4
Air cleaners are particularly beneficial in problem areas that are prone to higher levels of contaminants. Bathrooms, locker rooms and conference rooms are common places in which germs, viruses and odor can quickly accumulate and create unhealthy air quality. By installing air purifiers, facility managers can minimize contaminants in the rooms that are the biggest perpetrators.
The rewards for facility managers
By tackling indoor air quality proactively, facility managers can save time and money and deliver a cleaner facility. Improving indoor air quality is universally beneficial, creating healthier outcomes for building occupants and facility managers alike. Occupants and workers can rest assured that they are working or living in a healthy environment, and facility managers won’t lose time dealing with complaints or trying to constantly spot-check problem areas.
What’s more, with the cost of one employee sick day averaging US$2,650, cleaning the air of airborne viruses can impact the bottom line. In addition, clean indoor air will naturally eliminate just about all odor complaints. A smelly bathroom or room that simply doesn’t get enough ventilation can quickly become loaded with airborne germs and other contaminants. Masking it will only make the problem worse. That’s when a commercial-grade air cleaner can make a huge difference.
Another valuable benefit is creating healthier environments for occupants and giving them a true sense of well-being.
Imagine a classroom full of kids who are able to focus better because the air doesn’t make them drowsy or nauseated. Think about giving workers fewer days where they dread the sound of a sneeze as flu rapidly spreads through the office. Consider the senior with asthma who no longer has to worry about constant attacks instigated by all the dust and allergens in the air. Improving indoor air quality can make these scenarios a reality.
Where we’re heading
There will be higher occupant expectations for healthy indoor air quality in the coming years. Already, we’re seeing companies and organizations installing air quality sensors to quickly and accurately identify problem areas.
Right now, facility managers have an opportunity to be proactive, and clean the air to greatly improve the health and cleanliness of their facilities.
In the long run, investing in indoor air quality has the potential to minimize related maintenance problems, decrease occupant complaints and contribute to the long-term health of a building. It can also help contribute to facility cleanliness, thereby saving facility managers time and money. But most importantly, it gives facility managers a chance to dramatically improve public health and make positive change in the years to come.
- National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
- U.S. Department of Energy
Jeff Dryfhout is the global marketing director of AeraMax Professional. To learn more about AeraMax Professional, go to www.aeramaxpro.com. For additional information on why clean, filtrated air is necessary to prevent airborne flu, visithttp://cleanair.aeramaxpro.com/flu.