Improving indoor air quality for commercial buildings is essential - but very few know how to approach it. Air quality is a complex topic and affected by many internal and external factors, many of which are outside a typical business’s core expertise.
Understanding your indoor space starts with collecting data - either through continuous monitoring, periodic testing, or a combination of the two. If improving indoor air quality (IAQ) is your goal, you need to start with an IAQ testing plan. To help provide some guidelines on IAQ testing and how to create an effective IAQ testing plan for 2023, we had a chat with Mike Workman of Ecoworks Studio, a Senior Sustainability Consultant and WELL Performance Testing Agent. Mike is an expert in air quality testing - with years of experience ranging from coordinating LEED certification reviews, to managing certification administration for projects pursuing LEED or WELL certification, and performing indoor environmental quality assessments.
“My most memorable continuous monitoring assessment was a week-long study of the indoor air quality in a local elementary school”, says Mike. “The goal was to understand the daily exposure of students to CO2 in under-ventilated classrooms. Through the study, it was recommended that the school open their shuttered outdoor air intake and install a heat exchanger to preheat the outdoor air during the winter. It took a while, but the systems were installed once the pandemic hit. Seeing that CO2 levels were trending only slightly higher than outdoor levels, and that the school managed to stay open during the pandemic and avoid an outbreak, made me proud and motivated me to help more people discover their indoor air quality.”
The Why and Who of Testing
Why? The motivation for air quality testing will often come from an organization pursuing certification such as WELL, LEED, or RESET. However, often the motivation will be ‘intrinsic’ – companies seeking confirmation that products, materials, and ventilation patterns are healthy for the people who occupy the indoor spaces these companies are responsible for.
“Clients that impress me the most are the ones that simply want to understand the environment they are in.” says Mike. “They aren’t necessarily motivated by a certification, but a desire to know more. That is where I see great value in performing any IAQ testing, because you can only manage what you measure.”
When an organization starts monitoring indoor air quality, they might discover issues such as CO2 levels being consistently high during the day, or an increase in the levels of VOCs or particulates when the building is being cleaned. These types of issues are typically mitigated by simple changes in building operations – for example, increasing the outdoor air intake through HVAC systems or cleaning with chemicals during low-occupancy hours.
“Many organizations like the idea of IAQ testing but are afraid of what they might discover - the possibility that something isn’t quite right in their space. A lot of the time the concern is about how much this is going to cost to remedy, which isn’t surprising. But if you step into that place of discovery you’ll find that knowledge is power: if you know there is a deficiency, you can take steps to manage the issue.
The whole idea is that it will save you money in the long run by making your buildings more healthy, reducing sick time, and increasing occupant satisfaction.”
Who should be involved? Building Owners and facility managers are typically the people most concerned about indoor air quality. However, Mike says maintenance and other select staff play a major part as well. “You want to involve people that are aware and can communicate issues that occur during normal operations, and who know what requires more focus or attention.”
Getting Started With Testing - Planning for Success
Getting buy-in. For any IAQ testing plan to succeed, it needs to have the blessing of relevant stakeholders in the organization. We asked Mike about the types of objections you might hear, and how to overcome them:
- Cost is an issue that comes up quite consistently – so anyone pushing for testing should be aware of the costs of testing on the one hand, and the potential ROI on the other.
- Navigating the number of options for testing and choosing the one that would best suit a given space. “A single point in time test won’t necessarily give you the amount of data that could be gathered from a weeklong study”, says Mike. “That is where connecting with a professional in the IAQ testing world can help a team figure out what would be best.”
Checklist: key questions to ask before getting started:
- What are your goals?
- Do you need to test for a certain type of certification?
- Which areas of the building are most often occupied?
- What do occupants typically experience or complain about?
- What are typical operations in the building – HVAC schedules, occupancy, cleaners, etc.?
Choosing the right testing regime. “If you’re testing once a year, you don’t really understand what happens in the space during the other 364 days,'' says Mike. With the use of sensors and continuous monitoring, a team can follow the data visually throughout the year and get a fuller understanding of what’s triggering poor IAQ or what makes for better IAQ in a space. Each type of testing regime has its benefits and value that it can bring to an organization.
“Spot testing has its place, but it should be conducted at times that reflect the typical occupancy of the space. If you aren’t testing during what would be considered normal occupancy for the building, you might be missing out on the critical data or information that you are trying to understand. For example, if you test first thing in the morning, you might miss out on the air quality potentially degrading in the afternoon.
Continuous monitoring can give you a broader picture of what an occupant experiences over the course of a day. Which activities in a space make the IAQ better or worse? You can look at the data and the times when a spike in the data occurred and ask what happened during that time.”
During and After Testing
Where to test: Testing will typically happen where occupants spend the most time – spaces where an occupant spends at least an hour a day or two hours over the course of a day doing focused work.
In an office-type building, these would usually be open floor plans, private offices, and conference rooms. Mike adds that the same logic applies for testing in a manufacturing space, for example: “It might not be a typical open office setting, but understanding what workers are exposed to on a product manufacturing line is also very valuable! Everyone deserves to work in the best environment for their health as possible.”
Sharing the results: Mike encourages organizations to inform anyone who spends time in a space the results from continuous moniotring or spot testing. “If there are deficiencies, a plan for how to remedy those deficiencies should be included in the communication as well.”
Testing for Certification Purposes
We asked Mike how testing for certification differs from regular periodic testing. “If you’re doing one-time testing for certification purposes, your team is going to want to put their best foot forward”, he says. “You’ll want to showcase exactly how your space functions for the majority of the time.” A project team will want to ensure that all construction is complete prior to any testing taking place – meaning that the painting, caulking, adhesives, flooring, and furnishing installations are complete.
Teams should also ensure the space is clean prior to testing, but it would be a good idea for that cleaning not to take place within at least a day of testing (as this might increase the level of VOCs in the sample). Mike stresses that here too communication is key: “It’s a good idea to communicate to all building occupants what type of testing is going to be taking place, how occupants can help or hinder the testing, and how any results will be shared.” For regular periodic testing, there is less pressure to get it right the first time. “It’s more of an exercise in understanding what a space is like at any given moment, post-certification”. Periodic testing should be used as a check that a space is operating at the level that is expected, and that whatever thresholds for parameters being measured are still within compliance levels.
- IAQ testing can have multiple objectives - from meeting certification requirements to a desire to better understand an indoor space.
- A testing initiative should involve stakeholders that have responsibility for a building’s performance, such as facility managers, as well as maintenance staff and others who might be aware of air quality issues when they arise.
- Cost and navigating testing options are common challenges in getting buy-in for IAQ testing - and some organizations are afraid of what they might find and fail to properly weigh the potential benefits.
- Testing regimes should be evaluated and potentially changed based on goals, building usage, occupant complaints, and typical building operations.
We hope you found this conversation with Mike Workman helpful for planning your next IAQ testing initiative. If you’d like to learn more about Ecoworks Studio, check out their website here. For continuous monitoring that gives you the full picture of air quality year-round, check out Kaiterra. To learn more about building certifications and performance, read our guide to high-performance buildings.