The coronavirus pandemic increased consumer awareness of indoor air quality to its highest level. Average people became much more concerned about ventilation and filtration than ever before. That’s been a boon for the HVAC industry. The question now is, will this elevated interest in IAQ continue after the pandemic ends?
People who worked in this field for years expect it will. Consumers started paying more attention to what they were breathing in before the pandemic started. The rise in asthma and allergy diagnoses drove some of this.
Andre Lacroix, owner of EZ Breathe, said IAQ first started getting notice in the ‘90s when people started to hear about mold issues and radon. Since then, concerns have expanded to other irritants. More of these contaminants are being brought into the home all the time, ranging from more pets to the use of various cleaners.
At the same time, the home envelope grew much tighter. These unseen materials used to just seep out of the structure. Everything from what we cook to what we sneeze remains inside, Lacroix said. As a result, people now realize they need a mechanical means of clearing the air in their houses.
“The result of building a tighter building envelope is that we’ve created a sicker environment,” Lacroix said. “We can’t make an improvement to one side of the house without, sometimes adversely, affecting the other side.”
He shares the example of a client who found mold in the basement. It turned out a dryer vent was dislodged, pumping out humid air. The homeowner had blown-in insulation and foamed around every basement window to retain heat. But that left nowhere for the humid air to go.
“Ventilation has very much become a buzzword for people,” Lacroix said. “They’re doing their own research, and that’s a good thing.”
This became an even bigger issue during the pandemic, when people started spending much more time in their homes rather than in offices and schools. EZ Breathe manufactures whole-house ventilation systems. Units are usually installed in basements or crawl spaces, Lacroix said, since most pollutants and irritants are heavier. EZ Breathe also has lighter units for garages.
Some home builders are adding IAQ products to their newest offerings, said John Ryan, chief strategy officer for Allergy Standards. Most people are putting solutions in existing homes, though. Ryan said that when seeking an IAQ solution, its best to work backward. A contractor needs to understand the occupancy and use of the home.
“The products have to be fit for purpose, designed correctly and then have an efficient and effective level of control so you can measure and trace the variance between air quality and energy consumption,” Ryan said.
Technology Makes IAQ Easier
Technology makes it easier to accomplish all these goals. Ryan said. Advances in connected homes and real-time monitoring mean systems attack IAQ issues when they arise and where needed. This creates a sophisticated tool rather than a blunt instrument.
Jennie Bergman, senior product manager of indoor environmental quality at Trane Residential, said her company is working with the University of Texas to study the best ways to meet the goals of IAQ and energy consumption. Bergman said one promising approache is using ERVs to optimize outside ventilation. There are other opportunities as well.
“Continuing to push that question will help the industry,” Bergman said.
The three main areas of approaching IAQ are filtration, ventilation, and humidity, she said. Lacroix said HVAC systems can’t keep a virus out of a home, but they can help mitigate the spread. Bergman emphasizes it’s crucial to understand the IAQ issues that need addressing.
“You want to understand what’s going on in the home before you attempt to solve it with a specific product,” she said.
Seek Proven Products
Many products have come into the market in the past two years, and not all have a proven history of use, Ryan said. The Federal Trade Commission sends out letters on a weekly basis warning companies to stop making exaggerated claims. In other cases, the product works as advertised but has adverse side effects.
“The science hasn’t really caught up with the claims some manufacturers are making,” Ryan said.
Consumers know they want a solution, but might not know the best one. Lacroix said HVAC contractors should be viewed the same as a primary physician — consumers should consult with them before calling in an IAQ specialist.
More and more, IAQ is becoming a factor in social issues, as well. There have been several studies showing a school’s indoor environment impacts student performance. Ryan said the environment in the home does the same. Students leave a clean school environment but are exposed to mold at home, for example. IAQ will only grow in importance the more people learn about its impact.
IAQ Remains a Major Focus for Schools
ONGOING IAQ: Chris Marasco, the product manager at Modine Manufacturing Co., said IAQ will become an even greater priority as people return to the outside world. (Courtesy of Modine)
The school environment is the second biggest focus of IAQ after homes. School districts across the country have invested millions of dollars to upgrade their HVAC systems. Chris Marasco, product manager at Modine Manufacturing Co., recently discussed the major topics in this market.
ACHR NEWS: What IAQ solutions are schools seeking these days?
MARASCO: School owners, teachers, facilities managers, and the like are seeking reliable solutions to ensure indoor air quality is at its best. Those solutions include increased filtration because then more airborne particulates are captured and removed from the air; increased ventilation because outside air is inherently cleaner than indoor air; and proper dehumidification so that occupants feel comfortable in the space and to circumvent moisture issues that could lead to hidden molds.
ACHR NEWS: What are their concerns beyond COVID?
MARASCO: As we further immerse ourselves back into the world, IAQ will continue to remain a high priority. Concerns will be focused on ensuring we don’t take any steps backwards (reduced filtration, reduced ventilation, etc.), and making sure occupant health and comfortability within a space is top notch. Fortunately, we have the technologies noted above in place, ready to continue delivering exceptional indoor air quality.
ACHR NEWS: Did this trend begin before the pandemic?
MARASCO: Prior to the pandemic, there was still a need for proper IAQ. Occupant health and comfortability has long been a high priority for HVAC manufacturers. Efficiency and ventilation standards have been around for many years that HVAC manufacturers have had to meet.
ACHR NEWS: What are the latest advances in IAQ?
MARASCO: One technology that remains well-known and proven is ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI). UV lights have been around for decades being used in hospitals and sterile work environments for their proven ability to render viral, bacterial, and fungal organisms inert, disabling their ability to replicate. UV disinfection equipment has been growing for the past several years and is expected to grow even more. Not to mention, the CDC recommends use of UVGI.
ACHR NEWS: How do you balance IAQ with other concerns, such an energy efficiency?
MARASCO: While IAQ continues to be important, energy efficiency is no exception. HVAC manufacturers have been and will continue to improve their units both from an operations standpoint as well as performance and supply air. Like I mentioned, there are efficiency and ventilation standards HVAC manufacturers have to meet. And those manufacturers will continue to push the envelope, engineering unique solutions to ensure high quality IAQ, optimal unit performance, and meeting the needs of their customers.