The Clean Air in Buildings Challenge

On March 17th, 2022, the Biden Administration launched the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge. Spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Federal Government is calling on all building managers public and private to improve indoor air quality. While reducing the spread of viruses is a primary goal of the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge, reducing exposure to any potentially harmful particles or gasses is also part of the charge.

The Clean Air in Buildings Challenge was developed by the EPA and has four points, all of which require time, effort, and even monetary investment. Fortunately there are massive programs like the American Rescue Plan that are directly funding cleaner indoor air for public buildings and schools, and helping all Americans find what they need during the pandemic.

There are four steps to meet the Clean Air in Buildings Challenge:

  1. Create an action plan
  2. Bring in fresh outdoor air
  3. Clean indoor air
  4. Engage your community

Let’s take a close look at how to break these steps down to meet the challenge for better air quality. Below are some suggestions from Molekule, and we will also look at resources available from federal, state, local, or Tribal governments. 

 

PM2.5 monitor in a hand in a hall

Step 1. Create an action plan by gathering information

The first step is the biggest step because it requires learning about all the interactions that make up the air you breathe indoors. What you breathe is directly dependent on the state of the HVAC system, insulation, weather sealing, indoor sources of pollution, outside weather and countless other factors. 

To create a plan that addresses all of the important ins and outs of your building, gain a firm understanding of the ventilation, then install air quality monitors that can help you assess where additional air flow may be needed. Here are some simple ways to get started.

Inspecting the ventilation

Ventilation is the most important path to clean indoor air. Indoor air may be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air, so the most direct way to solve that issue is to bring outdoor air indoors. In addition, airborne infectious particles are much more rare in the outdoor environment so bringing in outdoor air can reduce the chances of infection.

  • Work with an expert to ensure your HVAC is in good working order and meets the CDC’s current recommendations. Learn what kinds of filters are in your system and if they can be upgraded.
  • Find out how much clean air is delivered to each room and what portion is outdoor air versus recycled indoor air. An ideal rate is 0.35 air changes per hour, or the amount of air coming in should equal the room’s volume (width x depth x height) at least every 3 hours.

Monitor your indoor air 

Air quality sensors can give a snapshot into one aspect of air quality that can tell us when action may be needed. Sensors range in price from a few dollars to hundreds of dollars, so depending on your building it may not be feasible to measure everything. But here are a few key components of the air that even occasional monitoring can help inform what needs to be done.

Assess the need for air flow

As we mention above, the minimum required air exchange rate in a room is 0.35 changes per hour. However,depending on the needs and uses of the building, more air flow may be required to improve air quality.

  • Look for highly trafficked areas such as busy entrances or waiting rooms, they may require more ventilation.
  • Find indoor sources of pollution, like cooking or working with paints and solvents. These areas may require more ventilation.
  • Medical offices often require more ventilation to reduce infection.

Make a plan and share it

Your plan should include:

  • Documentation on the HVAC system, including age, air delivery rates by room, filter ratings, and all paperwork supplied by the expert.
  • Inspection and maintenance schedule for ducts and filters.
  • Schedule for delivery of replacement filters or filter subscription plan
  • Location of and recent readings from air quality monitors.
  • Details on any areas that require additional ventilation.

Add any other needs about your particular indoor air situation, such as prominent sources of indoor and outdoor pollution. Once you have your list, it will be much more effective if shared with any colleagues, co-tenants, or social media accounts.

 

Step 2. Bring in Outdoor Air

The name of the improving indoor air quality game is to increase ventilation by introducing outdoor air, where there are fewer infectious particles and pollutants are more dilute. There are two key parts of meeting this step of the challenge- managing mechanical and natural ventilation.

Turn on the fan

To get the most benefit, prioritize mechanical ventilation by running your HVAC’s ventilation system whenever the building is occupied. Balance the incoming air flow against humidity, temperature, and outdoor air quality, but in general more ventilation will improve air quality. 

It may be necessary to increase mechanical ventilation during outbreaks or other times of higher risk. Also consider running the HVAC after people have left for the day to clear out lingering pollutants that may have built up.

Don’t forget any other ventilation systems apart from HVAC. Bathroom fans should always be active and fans in kitchen hoods should vent to the outside.

Open the window

Depending on the climate, opening the window is a very good way to increase ventilation. In places with extreme temperatures, opening the windows can increase energy costs. However, opening the window for just a few minutes an hour without making it too cold or too hot can help to disperse carbon dioxide and virus particles.

 

Step 3. Keep Indoor Air Clean

Replacing polluted indoor air with fresher outdoor air is ideal for air improvement, but in many cases ventilation will be limited by energy costs and comfort of the occupants. To meet the EPA’s challenge buildings also must have a filtration plan in place.

Maximize your HVAC

HVAC stands for heating, ventilation, and air conditioning. You will notice that neither filtration nor air quality is mentioned. Most HVAC systems are designed to efficiently control the climate and require modification or redesign to be truly effective against dangerous things in the air like pathogens. 

You can give your HVAC system the best chance to grab any particles that make it into the system with a high-efficiency filter, ideally MERV 13. Air will always seek the path of least resistance, so be sure there’s no gaps around the filters where pollutants can sneak past and effectively lower the MERV rating.

Consider portable air filtration

Higher efficiency filters like HEPA are very dense and are usually unsuitable for HVAC systems because they significantly slow down and reduce the amount of air that can be delivered through the ducts. Portable air purifiers have an advantage in filtration effectiveness over HVAC systems because the filters can both be placed closer to people and the units can use dedicated fans to push air through denser and more efficient filters. 

Molekule’s PECO filter, for example, is not only more efficient than MERV 13 but also handles a wider range of pollutants like VOC and ozone. A few MERV filters have activated carbon that can capture some VOCs, but the MERV rating system considers only particles so it’s not clear how effective they may be. Again, HVAC systems are great for ventilation and climate control but hard to rely on for filtration.

When particles or VOCs are a problem, there are thousands of air purifiers available, just be sure to get one that is sized for the space. In an emergency such as a wildfire, sealing a furnace or HVAC filter to a fan can be an effective stopgap measure. Keep in mind that air purifiers are best for particles and VOCs, do not remove carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide, and cannot totally protect from contracting a virus. There is no true substitute for ventilation.

The EPA considers UVGI air purification to be additionally effective in reducing viral load in the air. However they suggest upper-room UVGI devices rather than portable.

Look for areas with higher risk

Gyms, restaurants, and anywhere there is singing are examples of places that are fun and also may have higher than average respiratory particles. In these areas, the EPA recommends not just increasing ventilation and using portable devices but also the extra step of setting up fans to blow air outside.

 

Step 4. Bring people along

The more people that participate in improving indoor air quality, the better it will be. This is particularly true for infectious diseases like COVID-19, because its only source is people.

  • Share your action plan and let your colleagues and co-tenants know what you’ve learned and how attention to air quality is in the best interest of their health.
  • Show the steps you’re taking above with posted signs and even take people to the improvements physically if you feel comfortable or are positioned to do so.
  • Listen to whoever is impacted by any changes you make by asking for feedback.

 

The Extra Step. Getting funded

Money for new HVAC systems and portable air purifiers doesn’t grow on trees. Fortunately if you work in a public building or school, there could be funds available for air quality improvements. First meet with any building managers and then you can follow one of the links below.

Individuals, private businesses, and everyone else can apply for indirect assistance through the American Rescue Plan. There aren’t funds specifically for air quality but almost anyone with a tight budget can loosen it by applying.

Bringing it all together

Here’s a checklist to help meet the Clean Air in Buildings challenge:

  1. Create an action plan
    1. Work with an HVAC expert to gather information
    2. Set up monitors to measure your current state of air quality
    3. Assess your particular building for air quality problem areas
    4. Write down what you learned and share it
  2. Add clean outdoor air
    1. Ensure the HVAC and other mechanical ventilation systems are operating as often as possible considering energy costs
    2. Open windows when able for natural ventilation
  3. Remove indoor pollutants
    1. Maximize your HVAC’s efficiency
    2. Consider portable air purifiers, especially those that cover a wide range of pollutants
    3. Consider portable exhaust fans in high-risk areas
  4. Share your findings
    1. Talk about what you learned
    2. Post signs and share on social media
    3. Receive feedback

 

Here at the Molekule blog we have articles on all aspects of air quality, so feel free to browse to learn a little more on how to breathe healthier breaths. Also keep an eye on our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts for more on the science of clean air. Tag us with any progress you’re making on The Clean Air In Buildings Challenge!

Written by

Haldane King is a molecular biologist by education, a statistician by training, and a researcher by nature. He spent 15 years in the market research world helping to grow all types of companies from pharmaceuticals to software to insurance. Haldane has researched the world of air quality, air pollution, and air purifiers at Molekule and now proudly attends to the molekule.com/blog blog.