It Makes Sense: Why sensor technology is crucial to moving the air quality conversation
David Millward, Group Product Manager at Elta Fans, explains that sensor technology is crucial to delivering Part F Building Regulations and raising the standards of indoor air quality.
With Part F Building Regulations now in force, architects, specifiers and consultants of commercial buildings are now compelled to meet new guidance on ventilation rates and minimising ingress of external pollutants. As mentioned, sensor technology is crucial to delivering on this and raising the standards of indoor air quality.
Given that recent news has been dominated by other matters, people may be feeling that air quality is one of the lesser threats to livelihoods right now. The cost-of-living crisis, energy and fuel woes, the economy entering a downward spiral, interest rates and inflation rising, amongst other matters, have all been in sharp focus in recent months.
However, air quality, and subsequently, ventilation, is still a key issue for the built environment. For those who have a stake in building management and design, it is one that should not be forgotten, even in the face of all the other challenges that have arisen lately. Winter is upon us, flu season has arrived, and although COVID-19 may not be headlining bulletins anymore, it can still be just as disruptive for people and businesses if caught and spread. Indeed, figures show that COVID-19 could be on the rise again, with 7,024 people in hospital with coronavirus in England as of 28 September 2022, up 37% from the week prior (Sky News).
On top of this, casting our minds back to just a mere four months ago, one of the biggest shake-ups to the building regulations came into force on 15 June 2022 – the new Part F Approved Document that governs ventilation and air quality standards. When designing or specifying new buildings, it is crucial to have an appreciation of what changes have come into force and know how to incorporate these into new projects and have ventilation at front of mind.
Monitoring is a must-have in new buildings
Amongst the raft of alterations that came through in Approved Document F, indoor air quality (IAQ) monitoring is arguably the greatest and most welcome, as it demonstrates that the needle is moving on the air quality conversation.
To paraphrase from document 1, under point 1.21, it states:
“In new buildings, the following types of occupiable room, unless they are rooms of the size described in paragraph 1.22, should have a means of monitoring the indoor air quality. This may be achieved using CO2 monitors or other means of measuring indoor air quality.”
These occupiable rooms could be offices, places where loud speech or aerobic exercise takes place, areas where members of the public are likely to gather, or rooms where there are low temperatures or low levels of humidity. Essentially, it is rooms where large volumes of CO2 could be expelled and inhaled. Certain sizes of a room may not apply, such as if they are particularly small (under 50m² in floor area) or large (over 320m² in floor area).
What this means is that there must now be provision for monitoring in place for new buildings under the directive. That said, it is also best practice to retrofit air quality monitoring sensors where possible too, as this can only seek to improve the wellbeing and comfort of occupants. The monitors chosen must also meet certain requirements too, such as being mains powered and placed at breathing height.
Benefits for all
It might be instinctive to think that monitors are just another unwelcome cost to be added on that cannot be recouped, an additional layer of complication, or be seen as another component to install and maintain – this is not true in the slightest. There are many benefits that can be reaped, whether you are a developer, architect, specifier, consultant or contractor.
First and foremost is how air quality monitors can lead to better health and welfare for staff and occupants. By being able to effectively measure the quality of the air, it then means that an appropriate ventilation strategy can be put in place to circulate fresh air and remove bad pathogens out of the room quicker. This in turn should equate to a reduction in staff sickness and absenteeism, better productivity, and ultimately, a higher return from employees.
From a commercial and environmental perspective, having the data from air quality monitoring means more efficient ventilation solutions can be designed and installed. This can lead to less energy consumption, reduced carbon output, and overall better sustainability. Furthermore, being able to demonstrate improved air quality, can then be used to benchmark building performance and showcase the environmental accreditations of your operation. This comes full circle into marketable advantages such as being able to attract more tenants or people to use your space.
What to consider when choosing sensors
As mentioned, there are certain requirements that need to be met when designing in air quality monitors as set out by Part F in terms of how they are placed, and their crucial function is to measure how much CO2 is in the air.
Beyond that though, there are also other considerations to keep in mind. CO2 is just one contaminant that is present in our built environment, which can harm our health and productivity, but there are others too. PM1 and PM2.5 – a particular matter that has diameters of less than 1 micron and 2.5 microns respectively – are other such contaminants that can be suspended in the air as dust, dirt, aerosols, and bacteria. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and naturally occurring gases like radon are other examples that can be harmful, causing short- and long-term health effects such as eye and nose irritation, through to lung cancer.
It is important that air quality monitoring sensors can detect these harmful substances and warn occupants or those in control of the building. For this reason, Elta has chosen to partner with air quality monitoring specialists Airthings to be able to offer these specialist devices that can detect all of the above, and more, such as temperature, humidity, light, noise and pressure.
In certain cases with contaminants like radon, being able to produce radon certificates are a requirement to be able to sell buildings. The UK Health Security Agency, UKradon, states that all workplaces in radon affected areas should be tested, unless a detailed assessment shows good reason to expect the radon level to be low, good assessment can only come through monitoring. Work environments vary greatly in size and nature, but excessive radon levels can occur in almost any type of workplace. Employers are required by law to assess any risks to their staff while at work.
Looking at the practical side
From the more practical side, there is also the need to consider system security, how well monitors can integrate with other building management systems (BMS), their ease of installation, and how intuitive the solution is to report on data. On the points of integration, API connectivity is important as this allows monitors to connect to the central BMS and subsequently, send automatic signals or commands to adjust ventilation rates accordingly.
Meanwhile, wireless connectivity between monitors and their hubs, which is what Airthings solutions are based upon, should be the go-to standard as they will significantly lower time and expense on hardwiring. The monitors can cover approximately 50sqm, and up to 25 units can be used per Hub for a robust network, hence the number required will depend on building shape, size, and construction.
Quite often, it is the systems behind the monitors that can be the difference between being able to make use of the data, or not. If it is too hard to read the data or draw conclusions and reports from the data, then it invariably becomes an obsolete solution that cannot be acted on. For this reason, always seek systems that provide strong analytics and dashboards, remote monitoring, and can alert users when there are spikes in irregular air quality.
Moving the air quality conversation on
While having data, reports, dashboards and connectivity is one thing, acting on it is another. However, by starting out with good quality sensor technology, it can be the foundation for demonstrating real change.
In Elta’s own case, our offices at Kingswinford went through this very methodology to improve ventilation and air quality in its building. After a continuous three-month long air quality monitoring audit in 2021, and installing its own system, the office’s gained RESET Air Certification and is one of the first offices in the UK to achieve the accreditation. Other certifications such as those offered by the International Well Building Institute, LEED and Fitwel are other routes that can be pursued too.