What is the indoor-outdoor air pollution continuum? Where is the IAQ market headed? Why do smart home brands develop connected indoor air products?
In this guide, we explore the subject of indoor air quality and smart home IoT in-depth and explain why indoor air brands are increasingly turning to environmental intelligence to add value and drive sales.
1. The Common Indoor Air Pollutants
There are many different sources of indoor air pollution and there are many everyday activities that contribute to poor indoor air quality: For example, emissions from household cleaning and maintenance products, cooking, personal care products (such as perfumes, hairsprays, deodorants), paints, pesticides, and laundry detergent can all release pollution into the indoor environment.
Outdoor pollution also contributes to pollution indoors. The sources here could be man-made such as a vehicle, industrial or agricultural emission but also natural e.g. dust, wildfires, allergenic pollen.
The following common pollutants are often found indoors and outdoors, but originate from a range of different sources:
VOCs (volatile organic carbon) - a group of gases that could come from either natural sources (e.g. the smell of lemon) or man-made sources (e.g Benzene)
Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)
Carbon Monoxide (CO)
Sulfur dioxide (SO2)
Pollutants found only indoors:
Carbon dioxide (CO2) can be found at elevated levels indoors - but its important to note here that the outdoor concentration levels of CO2 that are harmful to the planet in terms of climate change are not harmful to human health
Radon (a radioactive product of radium)
Mold & fungi
2. Indoor Air Pollution: What's the Impact?
Individual air pollutants present different levels of danger depending on the concentrations they are found at. Further, people are affected in different ways depending on their own particular sensitivities.
For example, children are at greater risk from exposure to NO2 while pregnant women may be particularly at risk from certain types of Particulate Matter. This is why it’s so important that air quality monitoring delivers information broken down by pollutant types and sensitive groups.
An individual’s house setup and behavior will also impact the level of pollution: For example, an improperly adjusted gas stove can emit significantly more carbon monoxide than one that is properly adjusted, and in times when the house is not ventilated, these pollutants could accumulate.
Understanding ‘Sick Building Syndrome'
The concept of “Sick Building Syndrome” refers to instances where a prolonged stay in a certain indoor space correlates with negative health effects for multiple individuals - and leaving the associated indoor space alleviates symptoms.
Unlike in cases where certain pollutants have specific symptoms that make them easy to diagnose, Sick Building Syndrome is often identified when people develop general symptoms such as fatigue, coughing, irritation of the throat, and headaches.
Poor ventilation and the prevalence of certain chemicals are often found to be causes of Sick Building Syndrome.
Is Indoor Air Pollution More Dangerous than Outdoor Air Pollution?
Indoor pollution can be worse or better than the outdoors, it’s all a matter of a person’s activities, ventilation, and location. For example, being indoors with closed windows and no ventilation and using cooking and cleaning products could very well be worse than being outdoors at a park - but not necessarily on a high pollution day.
Indoor air pollution tends to accumulate quickly: Studies have found indoor pollution can reach 2 to 5 times higher numbers than typical outdoor levels.
Given the connection between indoor and outdoor air quality, the concept of the "Indoor-Outdoor Air Pollution Continuum" is gaining in popularity. We use this term to underline how people are exposed to unhealthy air both indoors and outdoors, so to fully understand the risks and the harmful effects of prolonged exposure to air pollution we need to track our exposure to pollution 24 hours a day.
The High Cost of Indoor Air Pollution Exposure
Indoor air pollution is expensive in terms of associated healthcare costs. The World Bank estimates air pollution, both indoors and outdoors, has an annual cost of over $5 trillion for the world’s economy.
A 2017 study attributed an annual €20 billion spent on healthcare in France to six different types of indoor air pollutants like radon, CO, and secondhand smoke. PM2.5 particles contributed to about 75% of these costs. In California, the annual cost impact of indoor air pollution is estimated to be around $60 billion dollars.
3. What Can We Do to Improve Indoor Air Quality?
There are definitely indoor air treatment solutions that work and help to clean indoor air.
Filtration works by targeting pollutants such as Particulate Matter and removing them from the environment while purification addresses gas-phase pollutants such as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), Carbon Monoxide (CO), and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).
For indoor air treatment in the home, a HEPA (High Energy Particle Air) filter is recommended and multiple studies have shown its effectiveness. This type of filter can remove particles of 0.3 micrometers or larger in diameter through a complex diffusion process. The EPA also backs this type of method, stating its 99.97% efficiency for removing PM of 0.3 micrometers and above.
Can Indoor Air Plants Really Clean the Air?
Some indoor plants can help remove tiny amounts of airborne toxins, but in order to actually affect indoor air quality in a meaningful way, studies suggest a person would need around 10 plants per square foot to match the same pollutant removal rate that common outdoor-to-indoor air exchange mechanisms in buildings now provide.
Effective Indoor Air Management & Consumer Education is a Must
Effective indoor air quality management can help prevent a range of uncomfortable symptoms, but consumers first need to understand the problem in their environment.
Indoor air solutions that help to educate consumers play a big role here. For example, a number of indoor air companies such as Blueair and Airthings compare indoor air quality with the outdoors to present a full picture to their users and provide alerts for important changes in their environment.
This approach helps customers to understand when it’s safe to naturally ventilate their homes by opening windows or when they need to activate the purifier etc.
Other common indoor air management approaches include:
Indoor Air Quality Monitoring - Indoor air quality monitors can alert building residents when action needs to be taken and when purification systems need to be activated.
Routine Cleaning - Whether it’s the home or the workplace, vacuuming carpets, drapery, upholstery and other pollutant-magnets can help.
Timely Air Filter Replacement- HVAC air filters trap dust and other airborne particles, which gradually accumulate until the filters lose their efficacy. Timely replacement helps keep airflow and air quality optimal.
Air Purification & Safe Ventilation - A good air purifier will help clean the air and is particularly recommended on high-pollution days. In damp areas, like bathrooms and basements, a dehumidifier also helps combat mold. Good ventilation with fresh air (when it’s safe to do so) is also recommended.
4. Where is the Indoor Air Market Headed?
The last few years have seen a spike in air quality interest from both consumers and businesses - accelerated further by COVID-19 and climate change factors that affect our health, such as worsening wildfire and pollen seasons.
A new focus is now being given to innovative ventilation methods that improve air quality inside buildings while optimizing energy efficiency to maintain low costs.
Increased CO2 Monitoring
CO2 monitoring is fast becoming a must-have for public building operators as it’s a great indicator of how much other people’s breath is around us - and therefore a great tool for measuring the potential of virus spread.
No More Recirculated Air?
In a number of countries, recirculation of air is used as an HVAC strategy to minimize energy impact and the costs involved with operating a building. But now, the recommendation is increasingly to switch to 100% outdoor air for all air handling units.
HVAC Energy Optimization Vs. Building Health
When we refresh the air, we risk bringing in outdoor pollution - the faster we refresh, the faster we clean but if we move to a refresh rate of 100% from 20-30%, we risk placing a considerable energy burden on the HVAC systems which they may not be ready for. There is also the question of increasing refresh rate unnecessarily if the air outside is cleaner than the indoors.
This dilemma is refocusing attention back to the balancing act which exists between energy efficiency and health when managing buildings. The focus on energy optimization alone is no longer enough.
Rising IAQ Standards & Regulation
New indoor environment certifications are providing updated guidance to building managers to manage indoor spaces. For example, the International WELL Building Institute has developed a new standard called the WELL Health-Safety Rating - a scientifically-backed certification to show a building is doing everything to keep occupants safe from the virus, managing air, and water quality, and promoting health-conscious policies.
Healthier Indoor Air Spaces to Boost Productivity & ROI
The Syracuse University Center of Excellence conducted a seminal study into office air quality, and the impact it has on our brains and our ability to perform as knowledge workers: They built a four-story laboratory with a very advanced ventilation system, and finely tuned the levels of CO2 and VOCs within the space.
The results showed cognitive abilities increased by 101% - by increasing the rate of ventilation in their spaces. These findings are associated with $40 per employee, per year - with a productivity gain estimated at $6,500, per employee.
In 2021, the British multinational financial services & asset management company Legal & General Investment Management (LGIM) announced its partnership with the air quality certification company AirRated to ensure improved air quality across its UK office portfolio
5. How Smart Home Technology Improves the Indoor Air Experience
‘Smart home technology' refers to all sorts of household appliances and utilities that use modern communication technology, often Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, to allow for easy automation, monitoring, and/or remote control. From fridges and washing machines to HVAC mechanisms, lighting, and thermostats. Many modern household amenities now offer “smart” versions to provide better value and enhance the user experience.
The concept of “internet of things” or ‘IoT’ in the home, takes things a step further, by utilizing A.I. technology to create an interconnected network out of our home’s appliances and systems, as well as wearable smart devices and localized online information, to collect, share, and analyze data via the cluster of different independent sensors and inputs.
Connected Indoor Air Systems based on Environmental Intelligence
From monitoring concentrations of specific allergens to wildfire reports and local weather changes, leveraging real-time environmental data means IAQ product brands can now deliver intelligent “air as a service” approaches, adding considerable value & helping individuals to make healthier air quality-related decisions round-the-clock:
Educational Dashboards & Visualizations: Providing real-time information about the air quality inside and outside the homes, as well as controls for the air purifier system, connected dashboards, and creative visualizations translate air quality into a simple language for the user and establish focal ‘air quality hubs’ for both data and control.
Intelligent Control & Alerts: Location-based & hourly-updated environmental information enables IAQ makers to build intelligent control into their systems - such as automatically knowing when to take fresh air from the outside and notifying homeowners when to change filters, based on true environmental exposure.
24/7 Engagement via Companion Apps: Via companion apps, indoor air product brands offer users air quality information and helpful tips about their current location as well as their home’s status while they’re on the go.
Location-based Advertising: Some indoor air brands use outdoor air quality information for advertising, allowing potential customers to check pollutant levels in their specific areas to help them see the value in purchasing an indoor air quality monitor and/or purifier.