The Importance of Good Indoor Air Quality

May 30, 2023 | Air Quality, Ventilation Systems

When you break it right down, the list of things we humans need to survive is actually quite short: air, water, food and shelter. This blog will touch on the importance of indoor air quality.

Plenty of people have managed to brave the elements without shelter when required, and experts believe it is possible to live for up to two months without food, while we are thought to be able to last up to three days without water.

The Issues of Indoor Air Quality

Air, though, is a bit different. It’s such an integral part of our existence that we do it without thinking, even in our sleep. Estimates for how long the average person can hold their breath vary from 30 seconds up to three minutes, although some people (including freedivers) are said to be capable of an astonishing 20 minutes.

In any event, it’s clear that the air we breathe is fundamental to our survival and explains why England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, continues to highlight the importance of good indoor air quality (IAQ) in our buildings.

The issue of IAQ has, until recently, been studied far less than outdoor air pollution, despite the fact that most people spend between 80-90% of their time indoors. Outdoor pollutants have been reduced in recent years due to improved standards and additional regulations, but IAQ has received less attention even though pollution levels can be many times higher indoors.

Indoor Air Can Have High Levels of VOCs

This is due to a combination of affected outdoor air and further impurities generated inside. A 2022 report from the Air Quality Expert Group said: “The indoor environment can accumulate much higher concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than are found outdoors in the UK, due to their release from construction and furnishing materials and use of cleaning and personal care products.’’

Following up on his Chief Medical Officer’s Annual Report in 2022, which explored IAQ in depth, Professor Whitty joined colleagues Deborah Jenkins and Alastair Lewis to contribute an article for Nature, the international weekly scientific journal, calling for offices and public buildings such as schools and hospitals to be regularly monitored for pollutants.

The article says: “Monitoring the indoor environment for pollution should become standard practice in public spaces. Indoor emission inventories need urgent investment. Better advice on reducing indoor exposure without reducing energy efficiency will need to lean heavily on measurements. Long time series must be established in representative public buildings and homes to inform future building standards.’’

It added: “Decarbonising buildings affords an opportunity to rethink how indoor air quality can be managed and improved. Balancing the need to increase ventilation yet minimise energy loss through heating (in colder countries) or cooling (in hotter ones) is an important engineering challenge.’’

Aside from any future government regulation, employers have a duty to provide safe and healthy workplaces. Correct operation and maintenance of HVAC systems is crucial, including ventilation, air purification and the highest possible levels of filtration.

It is important to understand the current state of air quality in and around your building by taking measurements and collecting data. A review of your building can also identify its strengths and weaknesses when it comes to IAQ. This information makes it possible to put together a strategy for the entire building and its occupants.

Equipment could include mechanical ventilation, which uses fans to bring in fresh air and get rid of stale air. Equally important is the filtration which removes pollutants from the air as it enters the building. Always aim for the highest quality filters available and make sure they are suited to your needs. There is little point in fitting expensive ventilation equipment and undermining its potential performance with inadequate filters. Purification technology, either standalone or as part of an HVAC system, may also be suitable. Whichever solution is right for your building, the set-up should always include monitoring equipment to ensure good IAQ is being maintained.

Writing in the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) publication Buildings as Safe Havens, Professor Cath Noakes, Professor of Environmental Engineering for Buildings at the University of Leeds, said: “To make buildings more resilient we need both short-term solutions and a long-term strategy. For example, local air cleaners based on HEPA filtration or UVC disinfection are important tools, but they are not an alternative to improving the general ventilation.

“The wider problem is that most buildings in this country do not have any active ventilation management. At the top end of the market, the issue is well understood, and expertise is on hand to put best practice into effect. Now we must urgently expand our expert workforce to help the thousands of buildings that have no ventilation strategy and lack the information and expertise to prepare for the next health emergency…which will undoubtedly come.’’

Ventilation at Home

Modern homes are required by the Building Regulations to include adequate ventilation, with a design which allows air to circulate freely around the building.

While mechanical ventilation systems can be installed, most people will choose to use equipment already in place, such as extract fans in the kitchen and bathroom, which reduce the threat of damp and mould, and pollutants from cooking, respectively.

Try to reduce the sources of particulate matter (PM) from things such as wood-burning stoves and scented candles. Dusting, sweeping and using some cleaning products with the windows open can also cut the impact of irritants. Finally, make sure all gas appliances are serviced regularly and have a carbon monoxide monitor in the home.

Talk to the Ventilation Specialists

Batchelor’s ventilation engineers are experienced in all areas of installation, servicing and maintenance. Let us help you to make the right choices on equipment to ensure good indoor air quality in your building. Use the contact form on the top right of this page to receive a call back, or give us a call on 01234 712901.

Further reading: Benefits of Different Types of Ventilation Systems

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