It’s likely that when you heard the phrase “air quality” a year ago, the first thing you’d think about would be air pollution: smog, ozone, and car exhaust, electric vehicles and “green” public transportation. We often discuss the quality of our air outside, and when we look up our current weather conditions we even get an “air quality report” along with the high and low temperatures, the relative humidity, and the likelihood of rain or snow. In some areas like Utah and California, where levels of ozone and pollution tend to be high, residents routinely check their outdoor air quality to see if the conditions are too unhealthy for asthma sufferers or for heavy outdoor exercise. In other parts of the country, like Oregon and North Carolina, outdoor air quality is never much of a concern.
However, since the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic and the realization that our indoor air can be even more harmful to our health than outdoor air, the discussion about monitoring, improving, and maintaining indoor air quality has taken off. Although we certainly can be affected by environmental pollution and seasonal changes in our air, the fact is that most of us spend up to 90% of our time inside a closed climate-controlled structure, whether that is a home, a transportation vehicle, an office building, a school, or any number of enclosed spaces where we shop, eat, and socialize. This has become all the more obvious since the pandemic began and we learned that being in close proximity to others indoors increases the risk of contracting a respiratory virus. Despite what many people think, typical HVAC systems actually do not take in outside air. Just because the flow of air in a space seems vigorous, there is very little air exchange in most buildings, which means that the quality of the air can deteriorate rapidly in a space that is crowded, inadequately ventilated, or has poor temperature control.
This is why indoor air quality monitoring is so crucial. Of course, every building with climate control already has some forms of air quality monitoring: it would be difficult to find a building that did not have sensors to determine the air temperature for cooling and heating purposes, as well as the presence of smoke and carbon monoxide for safety. But to determine whether indoor air quality is conducive to human health, monitoring needs to be taken a step farther to include several more important factors:
- Humidity. Excessively low or high humidity is usually noticeable because it makes us uncomfortable. Low humidity can dry out nasal passages and cause congestion and coughs, while high humidity feels “stuffy” and can make people feel overheated and sweaty. More significantly, lower humidity can allow viruses to spread through the air more easily, and can make our systems more susceptible to infection.
- PM2.5. PM2.5 simply refers to “particulate matter,” which means microscopic particles that float and circulate through our air. These particles are always present to some extent, but they are what we see when smog and air pollution are visible in the outdoor air: certainly not desirable, and known to be hazardous to human’s health, particularly our respiratory health. They can be elevated indoors if ventilation and circulation are inadequate, and their presence can make humans more susceptible to respiratory symptoms and illnesses.
- TVOC. A TVOC measurement is a measurement of the “total volatile organic compounds” in our air. Like particulate matter, volatile organic compounds are always a concern and are always present at some level in our environment, whether indoor or outdoor. They are most commonly mentioned in sales of paint: low VOC and no VOC formulations are available for the interiors of homes and buildings. And like PM2.5, VOCs are a concern indoors primarily because they are harmful to our lungs, and any lung damage can make us more susceptible to infections.
AI solutions enable the real-time monitoring of these more complex components of air quality, and can make them easily readable via web dashboards and smartphone applications for businesses, homes, and facilities like schools, childcare centers, hospitals, and airports. A fully integrated AI-driven air quality control system could be programmed to act when unsafe air quality is detected, automatically improving the level of ventilation and air exchange in buildings to reduce the risk of buildup not only of particulates and VOCs, but also of biological aerosols and viral particles.
Beyond human health, an AI system able to detect air quality to this extent could also generate energy and cost savings by automatically reducing cooling, heating, humidity control, air exchange, and other quality control measures depending on the number of people present in the building. This type of system would also play a key role in fire prevention, since it could detect CO2 and VOCs, which can signal the presence of fire or increase the chances of one, at even very low levels.
Indoor air quality has always been important, but the current pandemic is opening up the possibility of improving it long-term. The implementation of AI-powered climate control systems could have major positive impacts on our general health even aside from COVID-19, especially considering how much of our lives we spend breathing indoor air. Thinking ahead, these systems could even have a positive impact on outdoor air quality by reducing our energy consumption and bringing us closer to the goal of “zero energy” buildings.