July 7, 2022

EPA's Clean Air in Buildings Challenge and IAQ Monitoring

Indoor Air Quality

Properly managing indoor air quality and ventilation in confined spaces is an important part of keeping COVID-19 at endemic levels. Knowing that the EPA recently launched the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge. A component of the National COVID-19 Preparedness Plan, the EPA’s multi-element challenge is intended to be "a call to action and a set of guiding principles and best practices to assist building owners and operators with reducing risks from airborne viruses and other contaminants indoors."

The Clean Air in Buildings Challenge has four core actions that we’ll cover below. This article primarily focuses on one of the Challenge’s concepts – “community engagement, communication, and education”. 

EPA’s Clean Air in Buildings Challenge: Core Principles

The EPA’s Clean Air in Buildings Challenge seeks to help facilities managers develop better air quality management practices in indoor spaces, and it provides recommendations and resources for building operators and managers to boost ventilation efforts and improve IAQ.

  1. Create an action plan for clean indoor air in your building(s) that assesses IAQ, plans for upgrades and improvements, and includes HVAC inspections and maintenance.
  2. Optimize fresh air ventilation by bringing in and circulating clean outdoor air indoors.
  3. Enhance air filtration and cleaning using the central HVAC systems and in-room air-cleaning devices.
  4. Get your community engaged in your action plan.
  • Communicate to affected people (e.g., building occupants, workers, students, teachers, and parents) about how the action steps you are taking will improve indoor air quality and reduce disease transmission in your building.
  • Show your work by hosting building walkthroughs, posting descriptive signage, or communicating on social media. Demonstrate the importance of individual actions to ensure facility operations are optimal. Keeping ventilation systems clear of clutter is one example.
  • Provide feedback mechanisms such as maintenance requests to identify repair issues and surveys to gather perspectives from your community.
  • Remember that individual actions and layered prevention strategies remain important measures for reducing the spread of viruses like COVID-19.
Photo by Carlos Lindner

To align with the challenge’s community engagement goals, facilities managers should view building users as a primary stakeholder group and develop tools to effectively engage them in air quality monitoring efforts. Building operators can then better educate occupants on the qualities and indicators of healthy indoor air and partner with them to build a feedback loop that drives additional innovation in the building owner’s IAQ monitoring and management strategy. 

EPA’s Clean Air in Buildings Challenge: Community Engagement

In our opinion, the guidelines regarding IAQ engagement can be summed up in three main actions.

#1:  Demonstrate

Let occupants and visitors know what you’re doing to improve indoor air quality in your building and how your actions reduce the potential for disease transmission.

#2:  Communicate

Explain your actions and provide transparent IAQ data and relevant context so the community can assess and understand the results of your strategy.

#3: Engage

Enable people to provide input on your actions, using tools such as surveys, repair request forms, feedback solicitation via social media, etc.

Increased IAQ concerns mean building occupants are hungry for data and engagement

Though community engagement is intended as just one part of a layered prevention strategy to reduce the spread of COVID-19, it’s one that facilities managers can (and should) lean into. Many building operators already have indoor air quality initiatives in place, but there are some common limitations:

  • Most function largely behind the scenes;
  • Systems and practices may only occasionally undergo review and assessment;
  • Older equipment often isn’t well documented.

These shortcomings are due to building design strategies that historically centered around economy — factors such as ease of maintenance, maximizing occupancy levels, and ensuring longevity of materials — rather than good air quality.

The trend today is toward embracing healthy buildings that are also economical, and the pandemic greatly accelerated the focus on good air quality.

Modern air quality sensors support better engagement with building occupants

A robust indoor air quality monitoring program is critical to making building environments welcoming to occupants. Transparency around IAQ reinforces trust with employees and building users. It also assures them that facilities are safe to work in and visit. A focus on confined space air monitoring — such as within conference rooms and single offices that house several occupants, for example — helps to further assuage building occupants’ concerns about air quality.

With the right technology in place, facilities managers can automate air quality monitoring efforts, develop a more holistic approach to IAQ monitoring across multiple types of building spaces, and drive community engagement in air quality improvement efforts.

Atmocube is one example of air quality sensor technology that gathers targeted IAQ data in real time.

Source: Atmocube

It has a user-oriented interface with LED indicators that show the IAQ status, and building managers can switch the readout off if appropriate.

Put the EPA’s Clean Air in Building Challenge to work in your facility

#1: Communicate

A facility manager might fulfill the first three points of EPA’s plan by upgrading HVAC, changing air handlers, and installing air purifiers. By adding IAQ monitors that track PM2.5, TVOC, CO2, and other parameters, you show that your actions are serious, and you plan to maintain the highest IAQ standard.

As part of the challenge, you should show what action steps you’re taking to improve indoor air quality and indoor environmental safety.

Indoor environment is directly related to how people are protected against viral diseases. Data from air quality sensors can be helpful to educate people about:

  • How virus transmission and air quality are connected;
  • The roles humidity, CO2, particles, and temperature play in air quality;
  • What air pollutants exist in the indoor environments they visit;
  • The possible methods of reducing air pollution that exist in general;
  • Specific measures are taken by the building owner or facility manager to improve IAQ.

To meet the need of building operators in increasing the awareness of indoor environmental safety, Atmocube’s dashboard will soon feature RESET Viral Index. It'll use specific IAQ metrics to calculate the potential for infection and deliver the results to users in one easily understandable number.

#2: Demonstrate

Making the data from your air quality sensors accessible to building users adds a valuable touch point to your community engagement strategy. 

The data from Atmocube can be shown to occupants on a public display in locations with high traffic. If the public display panel is not available or located too far away for easy viewing, building visitors also have the option to scan a QR code to see a facility’s air quality in real time through a mobile app.

Adding user-friendly air quality sensors allows building operators to demonstrate transparency in their efforts. The resulting real-time IAQ data can be made available to people already onsite as well as to potential visitors, through mounted displays and a mobile app. This gives facilities managers additional opportunities to strengthen building users’ trust in the facility’s cleanliness and helps to smooth the transition back to office-based work and in-person visits.

Source: Atmocube

#3: Engage

An employee notices that CO2 levels in the conference rooms are high. They can notify a facility manager to increase ventilation during scheduled meetings.

Real-time data from easily accessible air quality sensors enables building occupants to engage with the facility team and seamlessly share feedback.

Air quality and wellness initiatives work together

Organizations and employers should lead the initiative in raising awareness about healthy air metrics and strategies. With the growing focus on corporate responsibilities around wellness, it’s likely that employees and building visitors will increasingly expect facilities teams to provide the ability to monitor indoor air in real time. More people will also want access to additional data for the areas they frequent.

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