Indoor Air Quality: Why It’s Essential for Occupant Health and Wellbeing

Indoor Air Quality: Why It’s Essential for Occupant Health and Wellbeing

Dec 21, 2021 | Blog Posts, Insights

Learn why high-level indoor air quality is essential and how to enhance it while bolstering energy efficiency and cost savings.

Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)

High-Level Indoor Air Quality is Essential

Did you know that the EPA ranks indoor air pollution among the top five environmental risks to public health? What’s more, the EPA found that indoor air is usually 2-5 times, and occasionally up to 100 times, more polluted than outdoor air.

Further, the primary transmission route of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is via tiny airborne particles. Thus, high-level indoor air quality (IAQ) is essential for occupant health and wellbeing.

Indoor Air Quality (IAQ)
The EPA lists deficient indoor air quality as a top-five environmental health risk

The 4 Metrics of IAQ

So what’s the best way to improve IAQ, focusing on commercial (such as the office of the future) and high-rise multifamily buildings? There are four key IAQ metrics to address so that indoor air is optimal for occupants while energy efficiency is optimized. These include:

  1. Temperature and Humidity
  2. Ventilation
  3. Air Filtration
  4. Air Distribution

HIGHMARK developed four strategies for an efficient and safe environment and, in hopes of inspiring others, would like to share what they have achieved in their own offices. Let’s take a look at each of the metrics.

Office_of_the_Future
Four key IAQ metrics exist for optimal indoor air, particularly for commercial, office and multi-family buildings

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Office of the Future

IAQ Metric 1: Temperature and Humidity

Even though space temperature is a preference, design setpoints usually range from 75°F to 80°F for summer and 68.5°F to 75°F for winter conditions. Humidity is a slightly more complex topic.

ASHRAE targets 50% relative humidity (RH) and recommends keeping humidity levels at or below 65%. The EPA suggests maintaining humidity between 30% and 60% RH. More recent studies by Taylor and Tasi suggest maintaining levels above 40% RH.

The findings of this study are crucial, especially in the state of the world today since viruses thrive in spaces with lower than 40% RH humidity levels. Not only do viruses live and spread in spaces more easily in low humidity, but occupants’ immune systems are negatively impacted by lower humidity levels as well.

Considering all this information, HIGHMARK decided to design their offices to a higher standard with occupants’ safety and health in mind, designing for a minimum humidity level at 40% RH.

    Office IAQ Temperature & Humidity
    The higher standard for occupant health and safety is a minimum humidity level of 40%

    IAQ Metric 2: Ventilation

    Designers are familiar with ASHRAE 62.1 and ASHRAE 170 for healthcare, which is the standard for minimum ventilation rates. Since 2003, ASHRAE has been trending towards higher minimum ventilation rates. This trend seems counter-intuitive for designing energy-efficient buildings since increasing ventilation in buildings is inversely proportional to energy efficiency and costs. When thinking of the three pillars of sustainability: economy, society and environment, increasing ventilation at first seems to affect two out of three negatively. However, when examining this more closely, there is a link between ventilation rates and productivity.

    Since low ventilation can affect occupants’ health, ASHRAE made a statement on COVID-19 transmission in buildings, which suggested increasing ventilation to 100% outdoor air when possible and bypass energy wheels because of potential cross-contamination. While necessary, in a state of emergency, this recommendation improves the health of society while neglecting the health of the environment.

    The HIGHMARK solution is to design the ventilation system using an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) to eliminate cross-contamination between exhaust and intake while not compromising energy efficiency. In addition, load reduction from the ERV results in annual savings satisfying the health of society, the environment and the owner’s wallet.

      Office RenewAire-Energy-Recovery-Ventilator-ERV
      An energy recovery ventilator (ERV) is the best option to enhance IAQ and energy savings

      IAQ Metric 3: Filtration & Purification

      These days, the hot topic of conversation is how do we mitigate the contamination risks of recirculating air without exceeding budget and undoing all the environmental benefits of mixing return air with untreated outdoor air to condition the space?

      Two words: proper filtration. The solution seems simple until you dive into the different ways to achieve clean air. From traditional Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) filters to Photocatalytic Oxidation (PCO) Air Purifiers and Ultraviolent Light (UV), figuring out which level and filtration method is difficult.

      HIGHMARK did the difficult evaluation, so you don’t have to, and in their own space, they designed using a MERV-13 filter with Photocatalytic Oxidation (PCO) Air Purifier. Since COVID particles attach themselves to droplets ranging from 1.0-4.0 microns, the MERV-13 filter blocks up to 85% of particulates from the air at the 1.0-3.0-micron range. Adding PCO filtration eliminates the remaining particles using ultraviolet light to activate a chemical reaction, transforming the particles into harmless substances such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and water.

        Office Genesis-Air-Photocatalytic-Oxidation-PCO-Air-Purifier
        A Photocatalytic Oxidation (PCO) Air Purifier converts harmful indoor air contaminants into harmless substances

        IAQ Metric 4: Air Distribution

        The final element of IAQ is air distribution. Most often, clean and conditioned air is supplied through the ceiling, circulates and is returned through the ceiling. This results in potential mixing of fresh and stale airstreams.

        HIGHMARK sought to reduce the cross-contamination in the space by supplying clean and conditioned air via Underfloor Air Distribution (UFAD) and returning it through the ceiling. UFAD systems are designed to work with the laws of physics — not against them. In a UFAD system, conditioned air is supplied through floor diffusers instead of from the ceiling.

        Specific benefits of UFAD include:

        • Improved indoor air quality, cost savings, design flexibility and energy efficiency
        • Can be applied in both new constructions and renovations
        • Only 8″ are needed for the plenum floor, leaving plenty of room for architects to design for high ceilings
        • Supply water temperatures can be lower, which saves energy
        • Occupants have more control of their comfort through adjustable floor diffusers in their working space
          Office Underfloor Air Distribution (UFAD)
          Underfloor Air Distribution (UFAD) sends clean and filtered air from below into the occupied space

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