We’ve become so adept at sealing our buildings from the elements, we are inhaling the laws of unintended consequences.
Most people live in homes or work in offices with designs that purposefully permit little outside air in the name of energy efficiency. But our tightly sealed homes and workspaces might be making us sick or uncomfortable enough to affect productivity
The phenomenon known as “sick building syndrome” is well-documented, and you may have even succumbed to it yourself. Feeling congested or have a runny nose or overall trouble breathing? That could be the result of dander, chemical contaminants, mold, dust, fine particles or even carbon dioxide exhalation — compounded by a lack of fresh air. In many cases, dwellings and commercial spaces are inadequately ventilated. That’s the ironic tradeoff between energy savings and respiratory health.
But there’s relief available, in the form of ventilation systems that take large percentages of outside air, condition it, and redirect it into a workspace or living area, also known as Dedicated Outdoor Air Systems or DOAS.
Schools and commercial applications
One commercial case in point is Rite Engineering in Franksville, Wisconsin. The machine shop had to shut down production multiple days in the summer. Shop temperatures regularly reached 108 F during the relatively mild Wisconsin summers. The shop air was thick with oily mists and aerosols. Plant managers decided to install multiple DOAS units, and it immediately yielded dividends in terms of bottom lines and worker health.
The company no longer has to shut down operations every summer. One worker says he was able to retire his rescue inhaler, which he regularly hit to alleviate asthma and breathing problems attributable to working conditions.
Company owners say productivity has increased, and workers have more vigor. That’s a common refrain among those formerly operating in sick buildings.
Multiple studies indicate that going beyond just standard ventilation regulations and providing large amounts of fresh air is huge in terms of worker health, productivity, efficiency and protecting human capital. Fresh air means buildings are generally more pleasant places to work and live. Many newer buildings are already well-ventilated, but poor air quality is especially apparent in older buildings.
You’ve probably been in an older building and found that traditional exhaust fans and standard rooftop HVAC units really don’t cut it. The buildings may be cool, but they are damp and stuffy. If the building has a Dedicated Outdoor Air System and provides cool, dehumidified air, workers and visitors can easily tell the difference. Dedicated Outdoor Air System units provide cool, dry air to the space in the summer, which ensures the environment is at a relative humidity that is comfortable for the occupants.
The fresh-air concept extends well beyond office buildings and manufacturing sites. On the hospitality side, hotels and restaurants employ DOAS units to handle make-up air to the building. Ventilation technology now allows the stagnant, vented air to be replaced with cooler, dehumidified air. Many hotels and modern apartments will supply conditioned fresh air into pressurized corridors and reduce the load on individual heaters or air conditioners in the living spaces. The pressure keeps food smells and other odors confined to rooms or apartments.
The technology can also be applied to places where large numbers of people congregate, such as churches or gymnasiums. Carbon dioxide is primarily considered an external pollutant, but gas can collect in buildings and spaces to the point that it displaces oxygen. There are now options to base ventilation systems on occupancy rates to ensure air remains oxygenated and fresh.
Healthier students are better students
Many of the nation’s schools are getting old, and consequently provide lots of opportunities for retrofitting. Aside from ventilation and fresh-air concerns, many schools were not historically air conditioned, but students are returning to school earlier and earlier. With outside temperatures often in the 90s, it can be tough for students – and teachers and staff – to stay focused. Unhealthy air can lead to symptoms that reduce productivity.
The cost of retrofitting schools may seem prohibitive for some districts, but there are smaller, contained ventilation systems that can thoroughly recycle cleaner air.
Officials of the Lake Shore School District in suburban Detroit conducted a facilities assessment that largely focused on improving student achievement. They focused on the fact that comfortable — and healthier — students perform better. Many system schools lacked air conditioning, or had HVAC systems that cooled and heated classrooms unevenly or were simply too loud for classroom settings.
Teachers and students noted the need for improved HVAC and ventilation in classrooms, and that led in part to a bond issue for HVAC and ventilation upgrades to the high school, middle school and elementary schools. Students and teachers feel better, and can now focus on learning and teaching rather than fidgeting on a hard seat in a hot room.
Feel out your air quality
So how do you know whether your work environment needs improved air circulation? Don’t just count on the appearance of your air filter. There are always going to be traces of dust or dander collected. If a building or space is sticky, damp and humid in summer months — not necessarily hot — installing dedicated outdoor air systems can make conditions much better. Most commercial buildings, especially older buildings, could generally use more targeted ventilation. By using DOAS units you can keep your building at a slightly positive pressure and supply cool, dry air and reduce the infiltration of hot humid air in the summer and cold drafts in the winter.
A DOAS unit for heating, cooling, dehumidifying and ventilating commercial spaces is recommended. Ventilation systems alone, without dehumidification, can throw energy efficiencies off-kilter — your heating and cooling system will have to work harder to handle hot air or very cold air, or very humid air. Typical air-conditioning systems are not designed to dehumidify large quantities of outdoor air. A Dedicated Outdoor Air System can supply outdoor air delivered at a comfortable dew point.
While the ease of work can vary widely, contractors or owners involved in refurbishing, restoring or remodeling commercial work spaces should consider retrofitting the structures with Dedicated Outdoor Air Systems.
Manufacturing retrofits, such as those described above at Rite Engineering, are among the easiest because there is usually room for extended ductwork. Retrofitting older — or in some cases, newer —buildings can be more complicated, but the benefits are worth the price.
The installation of a DOAS can help companies cast off the symptoms of a sick building.