Amidst the far-reaching effects of the pandemic, Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) is widely recognised as a defence mechanism in mitigating viral load, which has led to heightened awareness about IAQ measures, says Samiullah Khan, CEO, Saif Air Technologies. However, despite the consensus amongst public health officials and experts on the effectiveness of ventilation, air filtration and humidity control in reducing airborne transmission of viruses, the adoption of these measures has been slow, Khan says. Further, elaborating on the sluggish response towards the adoption of IAQ measures, Khan says several reasons, including cost and budgetary concerns, lack of regulation and guidelines, focus on short-term solutions, uncertainty and complexity, and lack of granular awareness hinder their widespread adoption.
Despite the challenges, Khan says, it is important to note that the awareness of good IAQ’s role in infection prevention has led to increased research and focus on building design, ventilation standards and IAQ guidelines. Furthermore, he says, building codes and standards are likely to evolve to include specific IAQ recommendations in light of the pandemic experience. “Over time, as more evidence accumulates on the link between IAQ and infectious disease transmission, and as technology advances, the adoption of IAQ measures is likely to increase,” he says. “Organisations, businesses and building owners may increasingly prioritise IAQ improvements as part of their overall health and safety strategies, recognising the long-term benefits of creating healthier indoor environments beyond the pandemic context.”
Addressing poor IAQ in a cost-effective and implementable manner, Khan says, is crucial for building owners in the Middle East region. Some practical solutions that can effectively tackle the common causes of poor IAQ include implementing a scheduled maintenance programme for HVAC systems, improved ventilation by installing mechanical ventilation systems, and Energy Recovery Ventilation (ERV) or Heat Recovery Ventilation (HRV) systems, which aid in energy recovery from exhaust air, Khan says. Additionally, installing high-quality air filters with a high Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) rating, using air purifiers with HEPA or activated carbon filters, maintaining indoor humidity levels between 30% and 50% with the use of dehumidifiers, and addressing air leaks and gaps in the building envelope through sealing and proper insulation help prevent the infiltration of outdoor pollutants and maintain consistent indoor temperatures. “Educating building occupants about IAQ best practices and promoting the use of low-VOC materials during construction and renovations can significantly impact IAQ,” he says. “And finally, implementing natural ventilation strategies during mild weather conditions and installing carbon dioxide (CO2) sensors in areas with high occupancy for real-time ventilation adjustments are essential measures to ensure effective IAQ management.”
Joining the conversation, Nerissa Deoraj, Senior Public Affairs Manager, Systemair Group, says there are many ways to effectively address poor IAQ, keeping in mind the concerns of building owners. She adds that one way is by investing in regular maintenance of ventilation systems, which includes cleaning air filters, ducts and vents and checking for mechanical issues. “By reducing the concentration of indoor air pollutants, this initial investment not only helps improve IAQ but also helps ensure the system’s longevity,” she says.
Furthermore, Deoraj says, implementing cost-effective air quality monitoring systems within buildings, which can be connected to smart building management systems, are also helpful in cultivating greater transparency and triggering behaviour change. “This allows building occupants and owners to be aware of IAQ levels and make necessary changes in temperature or humidity through the controls, if needed,” she says.
Commenting on the role of building layout and design in IAQ, she says designing with IAQ in mind means the building can be optimised to ensure adequate airflow and air changes and minimise sources of pollutants. “In general,” she says, “many quality solutions in the market can help improve IAQ in new buildings and retrofit projects.” However, she says, the design phase of a project is one of the most important stages in ensuring IAQ. “The layout and design of the building should ideally be optimised to ensure proper airflow and air changes, and minimise sources of pollutants,” she says. “This may include proper placement of windows and ventilation shafts and the use of non-toxic building materials. The same would apply to renovation and retrofits.”
Additionally, Deoraj emphasises the importance of certifications in assuring building owners that the product has been independently tested and verified to meet specific industry standards. She says, third-party certified products add credibility to the manufacturer’s performance claims. Certified products can lead to energy savings, reduced utility bills and a more sustainable approach to building operations, which can positively impact IAQ, she adds.
Khan says that despite the merits of IAQ-related products, budgetary challenges deter building owners from adopting them. Many are hesitant to allocate funds for improving IAQ, as they perceive it as an additional expense with uncertain returns. To overcome these challenges, he says, it is essential to emphasise on the long-term benefits of improved IAQ, such as reduced health-related costs, increased productivity and energy savings. Moreover, he says, demonstrating how IAQ improvements can lead to a healthier and more comfortable environment for occupants, and highlighting potential energy savings from more efficient HVAC systems can make the investment more appealing and will help building owners see the value in investing in IAQ measures. In addition, Khan says government incentives or rebates – including tax breaks, grants or subsidies for implementing energy-efficient and IAQ-enhancing measures – can help overcome budgetary challenges.
Additionally, Khan says, it is important to look into the aspect of ROI or payback period for implementing IAQ solutions. IAQ improvements, he says, can have varying payback periods, with some offering quick returns, while others may take longer due to the nature of the investment and the benefits they offer. To elucidate, Khan mentions the use of Aerocide, a NASA-developed technology, and HEECO2R, a process locally developed in UAE and adopted by Fakhruddin Properties, to not only improve IAQ but also reduce power consumption by about 30%. “The payback achieved on the electricity bill is around three years,” he says. “And a one-year payback can be achieved if the health benefits and improvement in operational efficiency are considered. Apart from financial gains, ROI for IAQ improvements can extend to non-financial benefits, such as improved public image and corporate social responsibility.” Furthermore, to assess the expected ROI or payback period, he says, building owners can seek assistance from IAQ consultants, energy auditors or financial experts experienced in conducting such analyses to develop a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis tailored to their building and occupants.
For her part, Deoraj says, estimated costs associated with implementing effective solutions to improve IAQ can vary depending on the specific measures adopted and the size and type of the building. However, she says, in general, many IAQ improvement solutions are relatively affordable and can often yield a positive return on investment in the long run. She says: “It is most important to note that while the initial costs of implementing IAQ improvement measures may be present, the potential benefits far outweigh these expenses. Improved IAQ leads to several advantages, which include enhanced occupant health and wellbeing, which increases productivity and reduces absenteeism. Energy savings are improved due to optimised ventilation and HVAC system performance, and the lifespan of the building equipment and systems is extended with proper, regular maintenance.”
Enhancing IAQ through retrofitting
Retrofitting a building to improve IAQ, Deoraj says, will support the energy-efficiency goals of facilities, which can translate to more significant savings for the building owner in the long term. For instance, she says, the ventilation system in a retrofitting project must be designed with great care to achieve the required thermal and atmospheric indoor environment. The fresh-air-handling unit must be equipped with the necessary functions for air handling with the required capacity, she says. And the air distribution system, she says, must be designed considering sound levels, air velocities and the air volume requirements in the respective rooms. “If a clear focus on energy efficiency is maintained for all design aspects, a balanced mechanical ventilation system with energy recovery will be the most efficient way of achieving an excellent indoor air climate,” she says.
Deoraj says it is important to remember that correct design factors vary depending on building size, category and type, occupancy, indoor activities, contamination sources and concentrations, building location and climate. Sharing a global perspective on the rising importance of retrofitting, she says efficient and sustainable building performance is becoming an increasingly important global concern, particularly in Europe. Governments, organisations and individuals, she says, recognise the significance of retrofitting existing buildings to reduce energy consumption, lower greenhouse gas emissions and to enhance overall sustainability. “The European Union’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) has set energy-efficiency improvement targets, leading to a surge in retrofitting efforts, notably with the launch of the Renovation Wave initiative in 2020,” she says.
For his part, Khan says, factors such as building size, complexity and necessary upgrades can impact the cost-effectiveness of IAQ retrofitting. Larger and more complex buildings, he says, require more extensive retrofits and, therefore, have higher upfront costs. However, he says, the potential energy savings and operational cost reductions over time can be significant, making these investments cost-effective in the long run. “The payback period for IAQ retrofitting measures can vary depending on factors like local energy costs, the extent of retrofitting and available incentives,” he says. “Building owners should conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis, taking into account factors such as energy savings, reduced maintenance costs, potential tenant retention benefits, and the health and productivity improvements associated with better IAQ.” Moreover, he says, working with IAQ experts and energy auditors can help building owners identify the most appropriate retrofitting measures for their specific building and occupancy needs. These professionals, he says, can provide valuable insights into the potential energy savings and IAQ improvements, assisting building owners in making informed decisions to optimise energy efficiency and IAQ in their properties.