The COVID-19 pandemic expanded the world of indoor air quality (IAQ) from an issue of comfort to one of health and safety. It also increased the need for contractors to stay up to date and well-versed in IAQ advancements and trends.
Two recurring topics today within IAQ are energy efficiency and decarbonization, with electrification taking the world by storm as the energy-efficient alternative to burning fossil fuels. Since IAQ often requires expending more energy, there’s a common misconception that decarbonization and IAQ are in direct conflict. But while they may seem to oppose each other, with industry advances and the help of HVAC contractors, IAQ and decarbonization goals can both be met.
IAQ and Decarbonization
New technologies focusing on improving air quality have come into play, and building owners looking for ways to differentiate their properties are turning to IAQ: specifically, offering technology that also reduces carbon footprint.
“People are much more aware of how the air that we breathe can impact them,” said Steve Horwood, vice president of business development at Ainsworth.
The challenge is that the traditional way of improving IAQ — through ventilation — means running the a/c longer. Additionally, a major way to reduce energy use is to build homes tighter: tightening up the building envelope with spray foam insulation, triple pane windows, or air sealing.
“Unfortunately, this means that very little air leaves or enters the home naturally. Mechanical ventilation becomes a key to making the home livable,” said Edwin Bender, Broan-NuTone’s GM innovation segment and vice president of marketing.
Both of these end up consuming energy, yet neither priority is going away anytime soon.
To Tyler Smith, vice president of healthy buildings at Johnson Controls, “IAQ and decarbonization are two of the most important trends in the built environment, and will remain so for decades to come.”
A recent white paper, titled “How to Achieve Sustainable Indoor Air Quality: A Roadmap to Simultaneously Improving Indoor Air Quality & Meeting Building Decarbonization and Climate Resiliency Goals,” explains how buildings can achieve these goals that have often been at odds with each other: improving IAQ while reducing a building’s carbon emissions and making it more resilient, said Christian Weeks, CEO of enVerid Systems, who co-authored the document.
Key lessons from the pandemic about layered strategies to clean indoor air have shown how these two goals can both be achieved. The white paper introduces a four-step “Clean First” framework to achieve sustainable IAQ, which enVerid defines as better IAQ, more energy efficiently, and improved resilience to outside air pollutants.
LOAD ‘EM UP: enVerid's HVAC Load Reduction (HLR) modules helping a leading higher education institution in the Northeast achieve sustainable IAQ, driving down HVAC energy intensity and carbon emissions while providing healthy indoor air. (Courtesy of enVerid)
Weeks said the Clean First approach is something people already do in everyday life: recycle instead of just throwing things away, and when something is no longer recyclable, replacing it. Once the building load has been optimized by replacing a portion of the ventilation requirement with cleaned indoor air using the Clean First approach, it becomes easier and more cost-effective to design high-IAQ, low-energy, climate resilient buildings for the future, using heat pumps and other energy efficient heating and cooling systems.
“Clean First is the path to bringing better indoor air quality in harmony with improving building efficiency and reducing carbon emissions,” Weeks said.
Vice president healthy building
Electrification has gained strong backing as a solution to reducing the carbon footprint as the industry grows in its understanding of IAQ.
“Technologies that minimize the energy used to condition ambient air will need to be promoted and widely accepted,” said Sankar Padhmanabhan, global applications expert, a/c at Danfoss. “Since electrification (and the elimination of fossil fuels for heating) is key to decarbonization, wider adoption of heat pump technology is critical.”
Bender said that a shift to heat pumps and electrified cooking appliances is helping reduce the reliance on fossil fuels. But there’s a problem with using heat pumps to electrify buildings: the amount of heat pumps needed. A lot of heat pumps are required to replace what was being done with fossil fuels before, and the switch must be funded — either privately, publicly through taxes, or via private-public partnership.
While a huge capital investment, beneficial electrification often comes with a reduction in operational costs. Technology partners who can help deliver these savings will succeed as these trends become more mainstream, including those with novel “as-a-service” partnership models, said Smith.
Electrification gets the industry part of the way in meeting IAQ and decarbonization goals, he continued; it’s a great companion technology, but there is still more work that needs to be done.
“To truly unlock the value of IAQ and decarbonization strategies, multiple trades and technologies must work in tandem,” he said. “Contractors live at the intersection of these trades and technologies.”
Enter: The HVAC Contractor
Contractors play a critical role when it comes to IAQ and the road to decarbonization. The programs they install and assessments they perform give customers a deeper understanding of the various aspects that affect air quality.
Thus, contractors need to be able to understand the unique needs of each space and explain the solutions from a “holistic view,” said Hossam Rasheed, senior product manager, IAQ, at Resideo.
“The contractor can paint that picture and properly install those solutions that solve the IAQ issue for optimal efficiency and to fully leverage the HVAC system,” he added.
Horwood said that contractors are in a position to provide important perspective, information, options, and guidance.
“Striking the balance between achieving healthy ventilation and indoor spaces, alongside energy efficiency, decarbonization, and asset lifecycle cost, requires a more holistic contractor approach,” he said.
An example of this is ensuring that contractors are using ASHRAE’s “Outdoor Air Equivalency” rating, which informs how using enhanced air filtration or purification technologies has an equivalent air change value.
Although these projects may feel like one-offs today, Smith predicted they will become the norm over the next few years as building owners, engineers, and architects expect better IAQ and decarbonization as standard.
In addition, contractors play a critical role in ensuring that the technologies installed in a building to manage and optimize IAQ and decarbonization are always functioning as designed.
“They are really viewed as the expert who is going to make sure the systems are running properly, and are improving them in ways that can help achieve IAQ and decarbonization goals.” Weeks said.
“Contractors are the gatekeepers to good IAQ,” Bender said. “They are the ones who understand how fresh air gets into a home, is conditioned, and then is exhausted. They install the systems that make a home truly healthy. We can go a week without food, a few days without water, but only minutes without air.”