COVID-19 crisis brings new visibility to IoT and building air quality

IoT devices can help detect pollution and particulates in indoor air.

Pipeline and lighting above the ceiling of supermarket store

Image: Harnnarong, Getty Images/iStockphoto

One of the responses to the COVID-19 crisis has been an earnest effort at social distancing that has many employees now working from home and staying away from offices. The goal is preventing spread of the virus, which can be transmitted by air as well as by touch or on surfaces. 

But air quality in buildings was an issue long before the coronavirus.

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In 2018, the EPA reported that Americans were spending 90% of their time in buildings "where the concentrations of some pollutants are often two to five times higher than typical outdoor concentrations." Common pollutants found in office buildings included carbon monoxide, particulate matter, mold, radon, asbestos, pesticides, ozone, and a variety of organic compounds from products and materials. 

"Every industry with building facilities has similar air quality challenges," said Barry Po, president of mCloud Technologies, which provides artificial intelligence (AI) and asset management solutions. "One nagging issue has been what we call 'sick building syndrome,' where employees experience a lingering cough or illness that they cannot seem to explain," Po said. "Many times this can be traced back to the air quality in the buildings in which they work, which can contain two to five times as many viruses and contaminants than what is outdoors."

When humans occupy buildings, they breathe out carbon dioxide (CO2), a prominent air quality contaminant. Po's company deploys IoT sensors throughout buildings with the primary objective of measuring the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.

"We have two goals in mind when we do this," Po explained. "One is to keep the air clean by providing proper ventilation so CO2 and other air contaminants don't accumulate. The other is to provide actionable information that enables HVAC systems in buildings to operate at maximum efficiency, ventilating with compressors and fans as they need to, or activating fans only, or doing nothing at all once air cycling has occurred."

To optimize HVACs, a delicate balance must be reached. You want to achieve optimum air quality in the building, but don't want your HVAC systems continuing to run full bore once optimal environmentals have been attained. 

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"There is a 'right amount zone' you must arrive at," Po said. "It occurs when you have healthful air, but you are also monitoring your HVAC systems so they are not operating needlessly. This is a place that each building must arrive at and maintain."

There are three technology drivers behind IoT/HVAC technology for building air quality:

  • Off-the-shelf and relatively inexpensive IoT sensors that are evenly distributed throughout buildings that can monitor and report the air quality in the local areas they are deployed in
  • A cloud-based AI system that assesses the data it receives from sensors and determines building air quality
  • The ability to integrate this cloud-based software with HVAC systems so they can be automatically activated or deactivated, based on internal air conditions

Going forward, Po envisions where companies that have retail space will be able to monitor areas of the store that customers frequent to determine the health and comfort of local air quality. If the environment is healthy and comfortable, customers are likely to spend more time there and buy more, resulting in the potential for better revenues.

For now, however, a reasonable focus is on getting people well who constantly complain of sniffles, unrelenting coughs, and headaches in the buildings in which they work. COVID-19 has accentuated the need for healthy air quality today, but air quality in offices and buildings should also be a long-term goal.

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