Ventilation Monitoring: Ensuring every space has clean, fresh air

Written on 28 March 2023, 10 min read.

The importance of clean, fresh indoor air is one of the most tangible takeaways of the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition to being an effective risk mitigation strategy for reducing the spread of respiratory illnesses, clean, fresh air is necessary to enable effective cognitive performance.

Monitoring indoor air quality is relatively easy to do, but traditionally has not been a key focus. I believe air quality monitoring should be accessible for any indoor space, and for highly occupied indoor spaces should be provided on a continuous basis. This post explores the need and an opportunity for a business that can accelerate the adoption of ventilation monitoring through the following topics:

The importance of indoor air quality

Clean, fresh air is fundamental to life and health. That might sound obvious, but unfortunately being obvious is not enough to ensure the air we breathe is in fact always clean and healthy. Repeated studies have revealed that in many cases the air you’re breathing at school, in the bus or at work and probably also at home falls well below the ideal of what clean, fresh air should be.

Unclean air has potential long-term health impacts and has also been shown to lower cognitive performance impacting the ability to learn and work as well as increasing the risk of transmission of respiratory illnesses like Covid-19 and the flu.

Ventilation (replacing old stale air with clean fresh air) is the most effective and economical method of improving and maintaining high indoor air quality. Most New Zealand buildings (including schools and houses) are designed to rely on manual ventilation (opening windows), while newer buildings, often including larger or commercial buildings may use mechanical ventilation involving fans and ducts. Mechanical ventilation including filtration may also be required in situations where the outdoor air is not clean and fresh such as in a city or next to a busy intersection.

Observing the invisible

Overall air quality is a complex topic involving many contributing factors, many of which are invisible and not perceptible to us until well after adverse effects or irritation occur. This complexity and lack of visible signal is a large contributing factor to the ignorance and lack of attention towards indoor air quality that is prevalent in most buildings and indoor spaces today. Our attention is biased towards the risks that we can see, and this default bias has not been helped by hesitation and resistance to the idea that aerosol transmission and air quality is an important factor in preventing disease transmission that has only recently started to change. Zeynep Tufekci has a great overview that provides fascinating context for how an overreaction to the early incorrect theories of bad air and miasma causing disease contributed to aerosol transmission and air quality being incorrectly neglected for so long.

Correcting this history of inattention to indoor air quality is going to take time and effort, but one significant step that we can take to help start the journey to ensuring all indoor spaces have clean, healthy air is to make the invisible part visible. The concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in a space is an incredibly effective and easy to measure proxy for the ventilation of a space. The atmospheric background level of CO2 is around 420 parts per million (ppm), while our exhaled breath has concentrations as high as 40,000 ppm. Without effective ventilation, one or more people breathing in an enclosed space will rapidly lead to an observable increase in CO2 concentration, which in turn provides a signal that the ventilation is insufficient and needs to be improved.

Monitoring CO2 and improving ventilation is not a panacea for all possible air quality issues, but for the majority of buildings and indoor spaces, using CO2 as a proxy for ventilation and increasing ventilation when CO2 levels rise above recommended levels is a simple, effective and achievable approach that will deliver improvements in cognitive performance and reduction in the risk of disease transmission with few, if any, downsides or risks. See this Public Health Communication Centre briefing for a more detailed explanation.

Adding clean air to our hygiene practices

We have well established expectations of hygiene for the food we eat and the water we drink and these expectations are codified in regulations that ensure those providing these services do so in a way that gives us confidence that we’re not going to be at risk of illness. You may recall seeing food grade ratings prominently displayed on the walls of restaurants and cafes that you visit as an example of this.

Why should the air we breathe be treated any differently?

I think there is a strong argument that indoor air quality deserves regulation, both of the absolute quality of the air and ensuring that the practices and achieved air quality are clearly advertised and available. Ventilation monitoring via measurement of CO2 concentration provides an effective and achievable method that can be used to achieve this, and countries like Belgium and Japan are already starting to regulate indoor air quality. In the UK, the independent SAGE group of scientists has published “Scores on the Doors”, a proposal which demonstrates how CO2 monitoring can be helpful in providing information about the air quality of indoor spaces.

Unfortunately there is no movement in any of these directions in New Zealand yet, and no sign that regulation or even a basic campaign to raise awareness of ventilation and air quality is even being planned. This is disappointing, but even if such work was planned, it would still require appropriate ventilation monitoring products and services to enable it, and while there are some options available, it is not a fully solved space yet.

Existing ventilation monitoring options

Until recently the available offerings for ventilation monitoring have sat at two distinct ends of the price and quality spectrum:

  • Handheld “air quality meters” advertised as measuring CO2, but in reality reporting only an approximation. These meters do not contain actual CO2 sensors, and only approximate CO2 levels based on measurements of other components of the air. While cheap (often less than $100), these meters are not useful for providing reliable data that can be systematically used to assess and improve ventilation and should be avoided.

  • High-end building management systems (BMS), and industrial measurement products targeted at large buildings such as offices or commercial applications such as food production. These systems require specialist installation, often integrated with large whole-building air conditioning systems. These systems, if appropriately configured, can be a great solution for the types of buildings and spaces that can afford them, but by their nature and cost, they do not offer a solution for the majority of smaller buildings and indoor spaces where we tend to spend a lot of our time.

Over the last few years a growing number of companies have developed products that fit in between the unreliable “air quality meters” and the expensive BMS/industrial measurement products. Promising NZ-based options in this space include Air Suite, Tether and Monkeytronics. These products are wall mountable, resemble a smoke alarm and utilise a WiFi network to report their measurements to a supporting web service. Pricing varies between $200 and $300 ex GST per unit.

Aranet, while not NZ based, provides a handheld monitor – the Aranet4 Home, which is well regarded for quality and accuracy. Aranet4 Home devices are the most expensive in this space, retailing at $386 ex GST and offer a clunkier and less convenient set of connectivity options via a Bluetooth connection to an associated phone. To obtain similar reporting functionality to the other products requires upgrading to their Pro model and purchasing a separate base station at a combined cost of $1255 ex GST.

Outside the commercial product offerings are a number of open source DIY options, which can be built by anyone with basic electronics knowledge. AirGradient is a leading example based in Thailand, and within New Zealand Oliver Seiler’s CO2 Monitor provides similar functionality. These open source options have a parts cost in the $100-$150 range, depending on volume built and provide high-quality measurements via trusted CO2 sensors while also offering huge flexibility in terms of how they operate, interact with users and potential supporting web services.

An opportunity: Small businesses and organisations

While a growing number of high-quality CO2 monitors has the potential to help drive increased adoption of ventilation monitoring, the plethora of small businesses and organisations that own, operate and manage many of the indoor spaces we visit on a day-to-day basis do not appear to be well served by these existing products.

To deploy ventilation monitoring a small business or organisation needs to first become aware of the need or demand for it, and then have a simple and easy path to acquire and install the monitor and access the data. Little to no marketing or demand generation appears to be targeted towards this market from the existing businesses and tellingly, several of the products are not directly available for sale, requiring interaction with a salesperson to purchase. This indicates a focus on selling to larger customers who have a campus or portfolio of buildings and will purchase in larger quantities than the typical small business or organisation will.

Small businesses and organisations are likely to occupy smaller buildings and spaces where manual ventilation is the prevalent method of improving and maintaining air quality. Maintaining clean, fresh air via manual ventilation requires the occupants of the space to receive an obvious and straightforward signal when action (opening windows, etc) is required. While the products above all tend to provide some form of local feedback and display in the room, the indication provided and notification of when to take action is less obvious and prominent than would be ideal in a situation where manual ventilation is being relied upon.

Informally testing this opportunity with family and friends running small businesses over the last few months has resulted in promising feedback. One particular success story was the discovery of a fresh air duct on the air conditioning unit in a small office that had never been connected to the outside air and was simply recirculating air from the ceiling space back into an office! The resulting stuffiness and poor air quality had been noticed, but without the clear indication from the CO2 monitor that the air conditioning was actually making things worse, rather than better, the underlying issue had not been understood. With the issue fixed and the duct now connected, that business is now enjoying much more productive and healthy working conditions.

Next steps

Many small businesses and organisations are likely to have poor air quality and opportunities for improvement similar to the example above that are waiting to be found and fixed, and the existing products available are neither focused or ideal for the needs of this market.

I have spent some time over the past six months building a basic CO2 monitoring service that I have used to deploy ventilation monitoring to our local school, and a few other local businesses. There are a number of challenges that still need to be addressed in order to scale the business up, but I think there is a reasonable chance that I can build a viable business that offers an attractive and useful solution that would accelerate the deployment of ventilation monitoring for small businesses and organisations.

In an upcoming post, I will explain the foundations of the service that I have built to date, the challenges that need to be overcome and how I plan to evolve the service from the current prototype into a sustainable, bootstrapped business.

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