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Air quality

My previous article discussed the importance of improving ventilation and air quality in enclosed spaces, not only because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also because it is something we’ve been needing to address as we strive to improve the occupational health and safety standards as well as the quality of life in these enclosed rooms we spend so much time in.

We have been taking the quality of the air we breathe for granted for too long. In the glass-walled or windowless rooms most of us live and work in for up to eight hours a day, as long as the air doesn’t stink too much, we are totally fine. If you come to think of it, we wouldn’t have cared about the indoor air quality if Covid-19 didn’t happen.

It is only now that we care about the quality and safety of indoor air.

What makes indoor air quality suck so much in 90 percent of closed rooms is the air conditioning system that simply recirculates the same air through the cooling unit over and over again. Despite the abundance of fresh air outdoors, we generally inhale the same air we and our roommates exhale.

The reason for this is air conditioning is a major energy hog. Those who run multiple AC units in their homes or offices for up to 10 hours a day know the pain of receiving the monthly electric bill. Since cooling the same air that has already been cooled by the AC unit saves a lot more energy compared to cooling fresh warm (or hot) outdoor air every time, changing our room and AC designs to use more fresh air will naturally result in greater energy consumption, leading to bigger electricity bills.

In the past, the tradeoff was acceptable. Until Covid-19 became a thing, lower air quality for lower electricity bills made sense. But now that we have been traumatized by enclosed and air conditioned spaces, it is more acceptable to spend a little bit more on electricity to stay safer from infection.

The easiest way to improve the air quality of a room is to regularly open a door or window, allowing air to rush in and out, effectively diluting smells, contaminants and airborne pathogens.

For those who cannot be bothered to remember opening doors or windows, they can be left open but theAC unit will be heavily taxed by the unlimited supply of outdoor air. A simple automated window ventilation system can probably be designed and installed, using a timer and motorized levers to open or close windows and allow fresh air into rooms.

A more elegant but costly solution would be replacing AC units with those having integrated HEPA air filters or retrofitting existing units to have that capability. I asked some AC manufacturers about this option when the pandemic was just starting last year but they didn’t seem to have it available yet back then. Surely after all the attention that has gone to making indoor air safer this past year, options should be available by now.

A general redesign of AC units to allow more outside air into rooms should be coming soon. That is something we can look forward to as we navigate a post-Covid world.

Indoor air quality should become a major concern in the near future. Building codes might have to be updated to ensure that air conditioned indoor spaces are safer from highly infectious airborne viruses like Covid, especially in countries like the Philippines where air conditioning plays an important role in propping up the economy.

So many indoor spaces are currently languishing. The eternal CQ status plays part of the blame but the greater risk of Covid infections in indoor areas is also pushing a lot of people outdoors. A movement to make indoor air quality better and safer should be good for the economy and our general health, even after our country finally and miraculously gets over Covid.

We might as well start working on that part of our future now.*

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