ACHRNEWS

High-Tech Approach Can Pinpoint IAQ Problems

February 8, 2001
ATLANTA, GA — Indoor air quality (IAQ) problems such as inadequate ventilation, mold, and dust mites have plagued just about every type of structure — schools, office buildings, hotels, you name it. Often unable to solve these problems on their own, building owners are increasingly turning to consulting companies that specialize in IAQ issues.

Air Quality Sciences (AQS) is one of those companies. Created in 1989 to help protect public health by helping to solve IAQ problems, AQS uses high-tech means in order to find out what types of problems a building may be experiencing.

The full-service IAQ firm has its own environmental chambers to test emissions, as well as microbiology and chemical laboratories to track down the sources of IAQ problems.

The company evaluates buildings and provides recommendations. It does not perform any of the remediation work itself. Nor is it the typical industrial hygiene laboratory, since its methodologies are for very low, non-industrial concentrations of chemicals. Basically, it specializes in pinpointing IAQ problems in just about any type of indoor environment.



Focus on Schools

With all the attention lately on the poor IAQ in schools, it’s no wonder AQS has reached into this area as well. Many schools have approached the company due to occupant complaints, which may be unspecific in nature (such as an unidentified odor).

“Most of our investigations are general in nature,” says Bryan Ligman, senior IAQ engineer. “The school is not sure what the problem is, so we’ll go in and try and identify what the problem might be.”

The school can usually provide some general information, such as the location where it’s experiencing higher incidence of complaints. But given the usual general nature of the complaint, AQS will go in and perform a screening evaluation.

“We’ll look at chemicals, we’ll look at microbials, we’ll do a complete visual of the school looking for obvious sources — anything that could be a potential indoor air quality problem. More often than not, we’ll go in and actually find a problem that stands out from any other potential problems. Often times that ends up being a ventilation problem,” says Ligman.

Ventilation is often implicated in school problems. Many times that’s because a school has high occupant densities for sporadic periods of time. Those conditions require an appropriate amount of outdoor air to be brought in to ventilate that space. Ligman notes that he often goes into a situation and finds dampers and hvac equipment running at reduced capacity or closed down completely. Dampers are also often shut down in humid parts of the country in order to keep them from bringing humidity-laden outdoor air into the buildings.

“Fresh air is obviously needed in those high-density times when schools are occupied,” says Elliott Horner, laboratory director for microbiology. “The air needs to be properly conditioned, though. Unless you take moisture out of the air being brought into the building, you will simply be watering the building; then mold will grow on something somewhere in the building.”



Mold and Mites

But mold isn’t simply found in hot and humid parts of the country. Indeed, Horner notes that mold problems first became evident in cold climates. However, the seasons in which mold problems occur is different in various parts of the world.

For example, in Scandinavia, Canada, and the Great Lakes region, mold problems are going to be more prominent in the winter, when occupant activity causes increased humidity inside the building. That, coupled with very cold wall surfaces, can lead to condensation in the walls.

Conversely, in the southeastern U.S. and California, mold occurs in the spring, summer, and fall due to outside humidity infiltrating buildings and condensing on cool interior layers of walls. “Any time you’ve got a source of moisture and you’ve got temperature differences, you’ve got the potential for condensation which will allow mold growth,” says Horner.

“It’s also important to point out that you don’t actually have to have a drop of water on those surfaces. Many molds can grow on surfaces that do not have condensation but are close to the point of condensation.”

One of the surprising discoveries of recent years is the prevalence of dust mite allergens all over the country. Dust mites can sometimes cause severe respiratory allergic reactions in people who are sensitive to them.

Surprisingly, dust mite allergens were found in the desert Southwest and also in high altitudes in the Rocky Mountains, where the ambient humidity was considered too low for mites to survive. In those areas, notes Horner, many people use swamp coolers.

“Swamp coolers take away that arid stress and lets the mites feel like they’re in Baltimore or Atlanta again.”



Help is Available

Many contractors who work with schools and other structures often recognize potential IAQ problems, but if they aren’t able to make a specific diagnosis, AQS encourages them to call a company like itself for help.

Todd Lowenthal, IAQ product manager, says that contractors are often able to perform the recommendations that AQS suggests, unless it requires more-specific expertise, such as microbial remediation.

Another benefit of calling a company like AQS is when a contractor recognizes the likelihood of an IAQ problem but may need third-party validation. AQS says it has all the tests and methodologies at its disposal to point out exactly what the problem might be.

In order to help schools and others become more proactive in ensuring good IAQ, AQS has also come up with relatively inexpensive test kits that can monitor IAQ. An online ordering button on the company’s website (www. aqs.com) displays test kits for schools, commercial buildings, and residential buildings, as well as formaldehyde kits and mold kits. These test kits are helpful when building owners aren’t prepared to hire a consultant, but they’d like some idea as to what’s going on. Contractors can also use the kits to help diagnose problems in customers’ buildings.

“I get a lot of calls from maintenance people who say they want to order the test kit. They think they might have a problem, or maybe they just want to do a quarterly test to make sure they don’t have any problems and be proactive and try to prevent future problems,” says Lowenthal.

The company also has a program called Greenguard™ (www. greenguard.org) which is a resource that lists products with low chemical emissions. The Greenguard Registry identifies specific products that have been tested for their chemical and particle emissions using stringent environmental chamber protocols following requirements of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and the American Society of Testing Materials (ASTM).



Sidebar: Air Purification Equipment ‘Scrubs’ Major Petrochemical Plant

MONTREAL, PQ, Canada — Dectron Internationale Inc. has developed a custom environmental control system to suppress harmful gases emitted from one of the world’s largest petrochemical processing facilities.

Dectron recently completed start-up and commissioning for air purification systems installed at Formosa Corp.’s new $10 billion (U.S.), 3,000-acre facility along Taiwan’s southwestern coast.

The plant uses state-of-the-art computer processing and monitoring controls housed in special “control buildings” located throughout the plant. Each building contains a motor control center, computer rack room, and control room that are maintained at a positive pressure to ensure that no outside contaminants and humidity enter.

Dectron’s Circul-Aire Division supplied an array of purification equipment, including Deep Air Scrubbers (DAS) and Air Purification Systems (APS), that are used in all control, computer, and electrical rooms.

While all petrochemical plants emit hazardous gas contaminants, it’s the combination of these gases with the corrosive salty air at the Formosa plant which can increase the potential spread of corrosion throughout the facility’s control equipment and electronic circuitry. Left untreated, this combination can lead to serious malfunctions and plant shutdowns, resulting in millions of dollars in lost revenue.

The air-cleaning equipment is engineered to filter both the particulate and chemical air contaminants, reducing concentration levels to as low as one part per billion (ppb) for each gas, says the company. Along with the company’s Tech-Chek® monitoring service, this equipment is designed to provide protection and security for electronic controls operating under corrosive environments, supplying optimal environmental conditions for reliable operational performance.

Publication date: 02/12/2001