According to data published by the World Health Organisation, in April 2022, almost 99% of the global population breathes air that exceeds WHO air quality limits, threatening their health. Moreover, the report underlined that the evidence base for the harm caused by air pollution has been snowballing and points to significant damage caused by even low levels of air pollutants. In this scenario, ventilation is one of the most essential aspects in ensuring better Indoor Air Quality (IAQ).
Now, IAQ and ventilation often do not receive the attention they deserve, even though they play a vital role in our health, comfort and productivity, says Larbi Behloul, Director – Facility Management, in Saudi Arabia-based UAPM. Behloul says that adequate ventilation is critical in engineering control in offices, school environments, and any commercial or residential buildings, offering multiple benefits, such as reducing air contaminants, expelling CO2, maintaining comfortable temperature and humidity levels, or even potentially reducing the spread of airborne viruses. In addition, he says, adequate ventilation can enhance the comfort of employees, increase productivity, reduce sick time, create a hospitable environment for customers and clients and enhance energy management.
Joining the conversation, Prasanth Chakkingal, Vice President – MEP Design Studio, PNC Architects, underlines the numerous benefits of adequate ventilation. Poor or inadequate ventilation, he says, is a major cause of Sick
Building Syndrome (SBS), which is directly related to the amount of time spent in the building. Proper ventilation, he adds, will help expel the build-up of pollutants, bacteria and unpleasant odours, or to control impurities in the indoor space. Furthermore, Chakkingal says, proper ventilation can be used as a preventive measure against condensation, which is the leading cause of allergic conditions and respiratory problems; to ensure that CO2 levels are within acceptable concentration (ppm); and finally, to maintain comfortable temperatures and humidity levels.
Bjorn Ostbye, Manager – Project Development, Lulu Group International, sharing a retail business – hypermarket and supermarket – perspective, says that effective ventilation is inevitable for the wellbeing of valued customers and dedicated staff. He adds that the significance of proper ventilation extends beyond health considerations; it directly influences the overall shopping experience and, consequently, sales outcomes.
Furthermore, Ostbye says, the shops under Lulu Group International always try to maintain positive air pressure to avoid hot, untreated air entering the building. “To ensure optimal IAQ and comfort in our spaces,” he adds, “we carefully calculate the net extraction volume and the make-up air.” Ostbye says the Fresh Air Handling Units (FAHUs) and extraction fans are automatically controlled at the shops, and extraction is reduced to five per cent during nighttime, when there is no customer in the shop and the kitchens are not in operation.
Behloul, sharing the perspective of a facility management business, says that his organisation follows a system of air-handling units connected to inverter condensing units. He says adequate air distribution for individual offices is guaranteed through a Variable Air Volume controller through Building Management Systems and a local thermostat. As to the air quality, he adds, the AHUs are equipped with multi-level filtration and purification systems, such as pre-filters, to catch large particles; HEPA filters to remove airborne particles; and carbon filters to eliminate odours. UV light, he adds, eliminates viruses, moulds and bacteria.
Weighing in, Chakkingal points out the importance of building regulations in ensuring adequate ventilation and says that ASHRAE 62.1-2022 specifies minimum ventilation rates and other measures to provide IAQ that is acceptable to human occupants and minimises adverse health effects. Further, Chakkingal says, Sobha Realty’s design philosophy is to cater to the requirements of Dubai Municipality and ASHRAE 62.1-2022 for the bathrooms and kitchens, which creates a negative pressure within the toilet and kitchen spaces, to ensure suitable extraction of stale air and offensive smells, through the ductwork and to prevent them from entering the rest of the apartment. In addition, he says, Sobha also ensures that the total fresh air introduced into the environment exceeds the exhaust air by 10%, based on the exfiltration-based philosophy.
Chakkingal also says that at Sobha Realty, the in-house Facility Management (FM) ensures effective predictive maintenance through Intelligent Building Management System (IBMS) to control and monitor the system through a data-driven approach to ensure the ventilation strategies are maintained at optimal levels over time. “Consistent monitoring, based on optimisation of key parameters and set points, ensures improved energy savings, extended equipment lifespan, and enhanced safety and comfort levels,” he says. “Moreover, the validation of field critical data by manual sense checks daily can supplement the efforts.”
Adding to the discussion on maintenance strategies, Behloul highlights the role of artificial intelligence and says that Building Management Systems, coupled with Artificial Intelligence, can proactively schedule maintenance to prevent critical failures, maximise system uptime and reduce costs. Moreover, he says, AI also simplifies detecting faults and diagnosing HVAC system issues, which can be complex and time-consuming, and predictive maintenance mainly relies on information provided by BMS or AI.
Further, elaborating on how AI and the Internet of Things (IoT) contribute to improving the effectiveness of ventilation and overall IAQ in the environment, Behloul says that smart thermostats use AI algorithms to optimise heating and cooling schedules based on user preferences to ensure increased comfort and reduced energy consumption; predictive maintenance enabled by AI analysis of HVAC system data, can prevent breakdowns and minimise downtime, when integrated with facility management software.
In addition, he says, AI-driven algorithms relating to energy efficiency can optimise HVAC operations in real-time, adjusting temperature and ventilation to save energy while maintaining comfort, and continuous IAQ monitoring through IoT sensors and AI analysis can trigger actions like enhanced ventilation or air purification. Behloul also underlines that IoT, when combined with AI, can facilitate early fault detection, demand-responsive ventilation, and user-friendly control through smart HVAC system apps. The combination of IoT and AI, he says, has the potential of revolutionising the HVAC industry in terms of improved efficiency, cost-effectiveness and occupant comfort.
Chakkingal, sharing a similar perspective about the role of IoT and HVAC, says that AI and IoT are already delivering improved efficiency in Sobha’s ventilation systems. One of the fundamental ways AI contributes to the performance of HVAC systems is through intelligent data analysis, he says. “AI algorithms classify, group and analyse vast amounts of data to identify patterns,” he says. “The data includes temperature, humidity and weather conditions. The advancements in AI include intelligent data analysis, predictive maintenance, energy optimisation, fault detection and diagnostics, and indoor air quality management.” He also points out that the algorithm developed in-house, by PNC architects, helps Sobha maintain the actual appropriate water content or humidity of the supply air and the temperature to ensure that condensation does not occur in the building, shutting off the FAHU, if the supply air temperature or actual water content increases beyond a pre-determined set value.
For his part, Ostbye says that Lulu Group International has been implementing AI in operational and technical installations, such as refrigeration plant observation, AC controls, variable fan speeds and overall energy consumption.
Factors influencing ventilation system selection
When selecting a ventilation system, the goal is to guarantee optimal comfort, cost-effectiveness and easy maintenance, Behloul says. He adds that some of the items that are often considered in his firm include air quality, temperature control, energy efficiency, maintenance accessibility, longevity and noise levels. Furthermore, Behloul points out that investing in durable equipment may have a higher upfront cost but can be cost-effective in the long run, due to reduced replacement and maintenance needs, and it is also essential to ensure that the system operates quietly to maintain a peaceful and comfortable environment, lower than 30 decibels for indoor units to comply with local regulation, such as Dubai Municipality. By prioritising the aforementioned factors, he says, one can select a ventilation system that aligns with the firm’s specific goals of optimal comfort, cost-effectiveness and easy maintenance for their space.
Chakkingal says SBS is a situation where occupants in a building face adverse health effects directly related to the time spent in the building. Therefore, he says, Sobha ensures that any ventilation system designed, installed and maintained on its premises must minimise SBS, in line with the emphasis on occupant comfort, vitality and wellbeing. Furthermore, he says, it is a vital factor, and Sobha designs or executes buildings with higher Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) to protect the comfort and health of occupants, enhance productivity and improve a building’s value. He adds that IEQ measures must also include thermal comfort, interior lighting, daylighting, quality views and acoustic performance, which are integral to Sobha’s ventilation goals.
Weighing in, Ostbye underlines that air conditioning design must carefully consider the substantial volume of extracted air, especially in large and often crowded environments. He says that the primary focus must be on maintaining positive air pressure in sales areas while establishing negative pressure in preparation rooms, as this strategic approach serves to contain and prevent the dispersion of dirty or unpleasant odours emanating from kitchens and sales counters. Furthermore, pointing to design elements used in Lulu Group International, he says a crucial aspect of the organisation’s design approach involves providing fresh air through FAHUs, allowing it to precisely control the influx of fresh make-up air and manage humidity levels for the benefit of customers.
Challenges in maintaining and optimising ventilation equipment
Shifting the discussion to the challenges faced in maintaining and optimising ventilation equipment for consistent performance, Behloul says older systems have less adaptability to upgrade and, therefore, the cost of retrofitting the same system is high and often doesn’t achieve the desired results; in such case, the only solution is replacement.
Chakkingal says that calibration and accuracy of sensors are a challenge when it comes to maintaining the accuracy of measured parameters within acceptable limits. He adds that this can be averted by means of daily manual checks of required critical parameters to ensure optimal sustained performance based on requirements. Chakkingal says rigorous monitoring of the control system is also a challenge. In the case of Sobha Developers, he adds, regular preventative maintenance by the in-house Facility Management team through checklists and advanced control systems helps identify equipment or system components that need to be maintained, and this allows it to minimise equipment breakdowns, extend equipment lifetime, and reduce energy costs due to inefficient equipment, providing optimal performance to the benefit of end-users.
For his part, Ostbye says that older installations with single-speed fans, present a challenge, as they lack the flexibility to reduce extraction capacity during off-peak hours. He also says that HVAC and refrigeration plants often operate below their maximum capacity due to inadequate maintenance practices, including overcharging oil, refrigerant undercharging and dirty condensers.
By way of solution, Chakkingal says: “We are implementing UV-C disinfection technology and electronic air filters instead of conventional filters to improve the energy efficiency and filtration efficiency of cleaning air-handling unit coils in our projects.” Furthermore, he says, these technologies are effective in deactivating mould, bacteria and viruses on cooling coils and help mitigate their spread in the building. In addition, he says, by preventing the impairment of airflow due to biological contaminants, coils can be kept cleaner, which will reduce energy consumption and maintenance costs. He adds, “We encourage residents to use portable air quality devices with multi-step filtration for improved indoor air quality in private spaces.”
Weighing in, Behloul says the idea of using Near Field Communication or similar technology to detect individual employees and tailor the ventilation conditions to their preferences is promising and could significantly enhance workplace comfort and energy efficiency. Some of the potential improvements and considerations, Behloul says, are integration with Building Management System (BMS), occupancy sensors, energy efficiency monitoring and cost-benefit analysis.