How Technology Can Assist Us To  Improve Indoor Ventilation

Using IoT Sensors to monitor air quality inside enclosed places
  • Poor indoor ventilation is contributing to the spread of diseases caused by airborne viruses.  
  • Know if a place we care about is well ventilated or not even if we are far away from the place being monitored.

What’s the connection between poor ventilation and our health?

COVID-19 and other viruses

The World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed that “the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads easily in indoor and poorly ventilated settings.” The virus that causes COVID-19 is Coronavirus.  There are other diseases that are caused by viruses that can float in the air such as tuberculosis, influenza, chickenpox, measles, smallpox, etc.

There is a lot of medical advice available already, and we should follow the scientists and medical experts.  The important tip is to get vaccinated and wear masks in indoor places.  If we are already sick, we should seek medical help.

We only seek medical help if we already have the disease.  By then we could die or be seriously ill and we will definitely need to spend a lot of money to get out of the hospital.

However, there are several preventive steps we can take to avoid getting sick in the first place.  One is to avoid people altogether but our lives depend on interacting with other people so voluntary isolation is not sustainable for a long time.

Proper Ventilation is Very Important

One of the many things we can do to reduce our chances of getting sick is to properly ventilate the places we often congregate –  indoor settings.   The WHO recommends that we should properly ventilate indoor settings – letting fresh outdoor air inside and letting indoor air out.  To do this, we should open our windows to let outside air in.  

We let outside air in by opening windows or using exhaust fans to expel inside air out.

However, it’s very common to be in a place where windows are purposely closed because most people demand air-conditioning.  Most of these settings are in our own houses, offices, schools, factories, shopping centers, restaurants, churches, etc.   

Air-conditioning only works efficiently if the area is enclosed because it cools faster if the air is recycled inside a room.  However, enclosing an area introduces the problem of poor ventilation.  Occupants of a room continuously breathe out CO2 and if anyone is a virus carrier they can also expel virus carrying aerosols in the room that others may breathe in.  

Some modern buildings have heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems that can be adjusted to allow a mix of outside air at a certain ratio to balance the cooling and ventilation of the building.  These must be configured by the building administrators.  While we can feel if a building is cool, we don’t really know if a building is well ventilated.  Only building administrators know that but they won’t necessarily broadcast that.  It’s up to us to know.

How can we know if a place is poorly ventilated?

Air quality cannot easily be monitored because we cannot sense poor air quality unless we smell something strong enough or we see smoke.  Most of the time though, air may be poorly ventilated without us even knowing about it.

So how can we detect if our place is not well ventilated?

One way is to use an indoor air quality monitor (IAQM).  IAQMs give an indication of the level of harmful gas in a room like carbon dioxide (CO2), ammonia (NH3), mono-nitrogen oxides (NOx), alcohol, benzene, and smoke.  A high presence of these harmful gasses in a room indicates that the room is not well ventilated.  

There are many IAQMs in the market today both for industrial use and personal use.  These are all mostly effective but they’re useful only if you diligently monitor them with your own eyes.  

If we have IAQMs then we’ve solved the problem?

Partially, if we diligently monitor the IAQM devices.  Unfortunately, we need these devices to be regularly checked – we have to look at the readings regularly.  

However, poor air quality can change anytime and it can happen long before we are even aware of it.  It can happen while our loved ones are asleep, while we are busy meeting with our friends at a restaurant, discussing with officemates, or selling to clients.  We can monitor of course but we need to be always staring at the monitor which is plainly impractical.   

We need an indoor air quality monitor that works round-the-clock and notifies us instantly when an air quality problem happens.

What we need is a device that can monitor the air quality round-the-clock and immediately notify us if any air quality problem is detected in the location being monitored.  It should be able to notify us wherever we are in the world.  Notification can be received through our smartphones wherever we are connected to the internet.  

It should be able to notify all the people in charge of the location  immediately in order to address the ventilation problem as soon as an abnormality happens.  

Machine Aided Automatic Ventilation

The air quality monitor can also send a signal to an actuator that can automatically trigger air exhaust mechanisms to help ventilate the area.  When a certain threshold of poor air quality is detected, the device can automatically “instruct” the room ventilator to increase the flow of air coming in until the room’s air quality returns to safe levels.  

When air quality returns to normal, the sensor can “instruct” the ventilator to regulate it to minimum levels in order to save electricity being used by the ventilating system.

This method of automatic ventilation is useful in places where there is a large variance in air quality in a span of a day.   An increase in the number of people in a room increases the amount of CO2 inside the room, naturally because humans exhale mostly CO2.

Air Quality Sensors Can Help Us Gather Data So That We Can Come Up With Long Term Solutions

An IAQM sensor can also collect data (optionally) for analysis in order for us to determine which areas are consistently showing poor air quality.  We can also study at what time of the day and day of the week these poor air quality events are mostly occurring.  The result of the analysis can then be used to make changes in the air-conditioning system to properly ventilate the area optimally.   We say optimally because we need to balance the benefits of comfort (air-conditioning) and ventilation in order to prevent diseases from spreading. 

Who Can Benefit From These Indoor Air Quality Monitors?

  • Hospitals and clinics – a percentage of people who enter the hospital have transmissible diseases and it is highly critical to prevent infecting other people who are in the hospital such as health workers and other patients. 
  • Restaurants – it’s a place where people take off their masks to eat and chat.  Talking without masks increases the release of aerosols that might carry viruses.
  • Events places where large groups of people congregate (entertainment events, conventions, celebrations, seminars, meetings)  – these large group settings are settings for superspreading of viruses since these mostly involve loud conversations.
  • Offices and factories – our places of work can be a source of viruses that we might even bring home to our loved ones without knowing about it.
  • Stores  – places where we serve our customers can also be a spreader area that can make both customers and staff sick.
  • Residences – our own air-conditioned houses may be cool with AC but can retain recycled unventilated air.  Most residential AC simply recirculate the air in order to cool a room faster.  They don’t have options to ventilate.  The WHO recommendation is to manually open windows to let fresh air in once every hour.
  • Public transportation like airplanes, trains, buses, jeepneys, taxis, other for-hire transportation are often crowded so an IAQM can be used to monitor these settings in order to make adjustments to their  ventilation.

How Can We Help?

We integrate air quality sensors with existing devices and systems in order to be aware of the real-time ventilation status of an indoor area that we  might want to monitor.  

These devices can be configured to inform us immediately via e-mail/SMS when changes in air quality happens in an area being monitored.  When poor air quality is detected, it sends periodic messages to concerned people until such time ventilation is addressed.  For example, it can send messages like “2022-10-28 14:31 Conference room 15-A: Poor air quality detected” every 10 minutes (modifiable) until the air quality issue returns to normal.

Large organizations with multiple rooms and buildings can be monitored and integrated into a dashboard that can show which location requires attention.

Data regarding air quality may be collected for analytics, audit, and historical purposes which may be used later to improve operations.  This is an optional feature.  Collected data is accessible only to the owners of the premises being monitored.

We integrate IoT sensors and actuators to assist organizations in automating repetitive services that are better done by machines.