The trouble started years ago, when filtration experts addressed air quality-related concerns, and decision makers decided to leave the conversation rather then lead it. The experts could not have been more eloquent – they tried hard to debunk filtration myths, highlight the allocation of insufficient budgets and point to the practice of employing inappropriate technologies – and yet, they failed to make any inroads of substantial value.
As a result, air quality has steadily been dismissed from building design and maintenance plans. For decades, air filtration has been waiting for its seat at the HVAC table, given its bearing on indoor comfort. But unfortunately, the focus of facility management has hovered only around thermal comfort, energy efficiency and maximising revenues. Consequently, global governments chose to flee through curfews and lockdowns rather than fight when the pandemic invaded our cities.
A pertinent question is: ‘Why did sales of facemasks soar as other air filtration technologies struggled to make their way into our HVAC system?’ As the pandemic wanes, both have been delisted from our priorities. The yawning disparity between the demand for enhanced indoor air quality and filter performance reflects the technological gaps roiling the industry. Should COVID-19 have been the speed bump that made us fix the entire “air quality” vehicle? Should the pandemic have been a pop quiz that would prepare us for the final climate change exam?
THE PRICE OF INACTION
The bureaucracies of filter upgrades and the anaemic growth of HVAC technologies have proved that the deterioration of air quality is almost insurmountable in the era of conventional maintenance practices. Globally, the business model of facility management kept outdated maintenance philosophies afloat by reusing disposable filters; disconnecting pressure gauges; subsidising reactive measures, such as coil & ducting cleaning; and focusing on cutting costs through thwarting filter upgrades and air quality enhancements.
It is impossible to embark on air quality enhancements if such egregious practices exist and become standard practice. The dismissal of maintenance mishaps; the prevalence of chronic filter failures, of insufficient filtration stages, of poor filter performance and of leaky installations; and the refusal to acknowledge signs and symptoms of poor air quality have contributed to the deterioration of IAQ. Furthermore, slim filters continue to make their way into fan-coil units – a clear testament to the thin budgets allocated for air filtration. Indeed, how can facility managers “feel the heat” when they direct from their leather seats? How can their maintenance teams work with any intent, if seated in thermally comfortable offices, all the while overlooking the dismal state of their employees, characterised by minimum wages, poor working and climatic conditions and lack of appropriate tools to get the job done? Who could claim that a one-inch filter with a two-inch leak would render our indoor environment safe to occupy, as shown in Figure 3?
THE “CHALLENGE AND CHANGE” INITIATIVE
Before we demand change in HVAC maintenance, air filtration and any practice that would enhance IAQ, we ought to be clear about the scale, speed and scope of change we aspire to achieve. Furthermore, we need evolutionary – not revolutionary – methods and means to envision accurate descriptions of how change can come about and develop. Frequent filter replacement is not the only answer for air quality enhancement. It must be accompanied by a thorough physical and chemical characterisation of airborne pollutants to employ appropriate air filtration technologies to combat them. Furthermore, the deployment of air quality sensors infrastructure to track, detect and acquire real-time data for the HVAC system to respond to air quality variation instantaneously is essential to render the built environment “safe to occupy”. Finally, maintenance attitudes should shift towards enhancing air quality and employing appropriate air filtration technologies.
It is ironic how some facility managers can sometimes be wrong and strong in embracing the theology of tricks and shortcuts. Raising the bar of our air quality in the built environment should be embedded in our standards of living and not based on demand. It is time to challenge our status quo and change how we approach air quality and the associated technologies serving human occupants. Globally, governments can facilitate that change by investing in air filtration technologies, increasing funds directed to research, replacing or retrofitting aged HVAC systems, and remaking existing cities to embrace sustainable living. The “Challenge and Change” initiative includes other elements but is not limited to:
- Certifying filtration solutions, not just products
- Qualifying installers and maintenance technicians through training and re-training programmes to equip them with the appropriate tools and latest technologies available in the market, not just modest safety shoes and screwdriver
- Legislating laws that insist on continuous air quality monitoring, outdoors and Furthermore, legally binding responsible maintenance-in-charge parties to monitor and verify air filter performance
- Regulating and rewarding all aspects of the HVAC system through enshrining laws and establishing “air quality centres of excellence”, where academic institutions can capitalise on research and development funds to take air quality to the next level.
- Avoiding any practices that may accelerate the ageing of facility and HVAC Ultimately, the premise here is to question not only the age of the HVAC systems that would cripple air quality enhancements but also the age of school of thought-leading facility management.
PREACHING THE AIR QUALITY PROMISE
Although granting air quality due attention is congruent with our common sense, we cannot achieve our goals if we rely solely on moral forces, particularly when maintenance teams regularly breach IAQ protocols. The pandemic has emphasised that providing sustainable indoor environment is a social responsibility, which should not be mutually exclusive with making profits. In fact, many air quality and filtration experts believed that the pandemic would usher in an age of better air quality. However, we cannot go far with air quality if existing political institutions move slowly, even if they are well-intentioned.
Although many global voices demand international cooperation to make air quality a global priority, logistics, actions and outcomes have not lived up to the expectations and the nature of change our Planet Earth strives for. The business models of capitalism that drive global economies typically reward leaders for maximising the bottom-line and short-term profits, not for addressing major Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) issues. On every occasion where leaders intend and insist on making a difference on the pressing issues facing humanity, the argument emerges that success on a global scale takes time. Unfortunately, the pandemic made us run out of it.
SMART IS CLEAN AND GREEN
Although the environmental challenges before us are grand, the current situation represents a historic calling to sink or swim through bending the arc of waste in resources, energy, materials and even human potential toward a sustainable future. COVID-19 is not precisely the Spanish Flu, and we were not in 1918. We are now far more equipped to make a difference faster than ever.
However, it is not enough to speak the same “sustainability” language; we also need to be on the same action page. Let us gird ourselves for a marathon, not a sprint, as we aim to solve outdoor and indoor air challenges. Our actions have wounded our planet for decades rather than contributing to its bio-generation. Settling for imperfect compromises and experiences is expected, but our efforts to advance the cause must eventually converge as time is, undoubtedly, of the essence. What would our world be like
if smart cities had built environments filtered professionally through a responsive HVAC system that acted immediately to any changes in IAQ?