Let’s imagine an office building before the pandemic. Colleagues are typing away at their keyboards. Comfortable sofas were recently delivered, the smell of “new” adding to their allure. The facilities management team is busy keeping the toilets in excellent order, everything is shining. There’s a queue forming in front of the printer, someone thought it was a good idea to print off a 100-page report. Thankfully, we’re well insulated from the noise outside as the traffic is unbearable at this time of day. And, since LED lighting was installed last year, everyone feels less tired looking at their monitors.
For millions of people this was our daily routine. We live and work in buildings which offer essential services so that a job gets done. It doesn’t matter if that’s an office, a school, a shopping centre, a hospital or a museum. Heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting, water and power are carefully balanced and provided at the point of need.
Of course, 2020 has taught us something else. Beyond the surface-level scenes of our pre-pandemic working lives, there was more going on than met the eye, particularly in the air that surrounds us.
The everyday impact on our air quality
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by our furniture, cleaning products, restaurant kitchens, freshly painted walls, carpets and even printers are freely mixing with the air we breathe. Particulates of all sizes are produced by cars and boilers around our cities and, as they get sucked in and distributed by our ventilation systems, they find their way deep into our lungs. Mould spores occasionally join this silent choir. Furthermore, we now have a much clearer understanding of how airborne viruses and bacteria may be circulating, unabated, in the same areas that we spend most of our working lives.
Until a few months ago the active improvement of indoor air quality (IAQ) was seen as an esoteric subject for most other than the professionals working in this field – themselves easily crowded out by the familiar demands for cost efficiency, return on investment and “visible” results. It’s not that we didn’t know.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been publicly stating since at least the 1980s that “exposure to airborne biological contaminants contributes to morbidity in the population”.
The building services industry itself has been exploring IAQ technologies for many years, not least for their potential to increase energy efficiency in buildings. Fast forward to 2021 and air quality is no longer merely an afterthought but the focal point in how buildings should be retrofitted, managed and controlled.
In nature, air is continuously purified via a process known as ionisation, created mainly by the sun and causing the air to effectively self-clean. The natural ratio of ions in the atmosphere supports the absorption of oxygen by all living things, and fresh air in particular has a high ion concentration.
However, we spend close to 90% of our time indoors where the air we breathe often carries a significant amount of harmful contaminants which affect our short and long-term health and wellbeing.
We know that buildings with low VOCs make people score better on decision-making and critical thinking tests. Large comparative studies have shown time and time again that workers in buildings which manage their air quality report far fewer instances of headaches, skin irritation and fatigue.
More disturbing still, there is strong evidence that air pollution significantly increases the risk of dementia and certain forms of cancer. Adding respiratory viruses into the equation makes the need to improve our current ventilation systems all too critical.
A catalyst for change
This is where bipolar ionisation comes in. In simple terms, the technology emulates the natural air cleaning process with certainty and in a controlled and regulated manner. Already scientifically described by the end of the 18th Century, a bipolar ionisation field is produced when voltage is applied to a special tube with two electrodes, creating positive and negative ions which circulate within the airstream and react with oxygen. They quickly begin to “agglomerate” with particulates and VOCs whilst at the same time move to pierce bacteria cells and cut through viral envelopes. As a result, dangerous particles are rendered harmless and IAQ is substantially improved.
Over the past 20 years, manufacturing advances have meant that we can be confident of the technology’s ability to demonstrate a consistent improvement in IAQ. Easily installed in most existing air handling units, requiring extremely low running costs and allowing for seamless connection to Building Management Systems, bipolar ionisation can offer significant benefits.
The famous saying goes that “crisis breeds innovation” and, as climate change has been a catalyst for the rapid advancement of renewables and energy efficiency, so could COVID-19 become the turning point for indoor air quality.