IAQ: A growing concern in an energy efficient focused world

Energy efficiency remains at the top-of-the-list when it comes to current regulations, despite air quality rising up in the news agenda as a serious cause for worry. Societal and habitual changes, partly resulting from the convenience of modern technology and the move towards a more ‘online’ lifestyle, have led to greater periods being spent indoors.

The risk of car pollutants is widely accepted, but this move towards more time indoors places an arguably stronger urgency on the consideration of IAQ and ventilation. Inadequate ventilation coupled with poor quality building materials (PVC and paints are among the worst offenders) is resulting in a wide range of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), with recent studies conducted in California stating that indoor air quality can actually be worse than external conditions. Still, however, it would appear that air quality is not being granted the same level of importance as energy efficiency.

The health effects of poor IAQ

Poor ventilation has a direct link to increased humidity levels, leading to mould and condensation. Aside from the resulting ‘inconvenient’ health effects, such as brain fog, headaches and poor sleep patterns, there are a host of serious long-term health risks that should no longer be ignored. Asthma, breathing and respiratory disorders, mental health issues, depression and dementia and even cardiovascular disease are all directly associated with spending time in buildings with poor IAQ.

So why is so little being done to address this?

Past considerations around the impact of poor IAQ are accepted as lacking, with the High Court stating that the current approach to tackling pollution is “insufficient”. Not only has the impact of air quality been underestimated, but with indoor air pollution now known to be up to five times deadlier than outdoor pollution, we are being regularly exposed to some of the most toxic forms of air pollution on a regular basis – the industry needs to act.

What can be done to improve IAQ?

As we lead to more decarbonisation of the grid, the focus needs to shift from energy savings to health. There are few regulations to safeguard the health of those residing in residential properties and no commercial incentives for developers or landlords to act. In fact, the situation is arguably the opposite, with the threat of poor energy efficiency ratings due to the use of more powerful filtration systems being a serious concern and lower-grade filters being used purely to prevent this penalisation. There is a serious disconnect between the steps taken to ensure the health of a building and those taken to protect its occupants, with the commercial impact of having a poor energy rated building negating the desire to improve IAQ.

indoor air quality, indoor pollution, pollution, air quality, MVHR, filtration
More than one-third of all UK homes are at a high risk of containing polluted indoor air

What can be done to improve IAQ?

Standards to assess air quality are in place, but none have the pressure of a certified pass or fail function to ensure that they are adequately enforced. Proactive solutions to combat poor IAQ are being overlooked and regulations need to reward, rather than penalise, innovations in IAQ improvement in the same way that they do with energy saving innovations.

Digital sensors should be a mandatory requirement for MVHR units, to react to issues with poor ventilation, humidity and temperature, and Co2 emissions. Motors should also run at a constant volume to maintain minimum ventilation levels.

In addition, summer bypass and constant volume motors should have a set of minimum standards enforced. Enthalpy cubes and filters should also be subject to mandatory minimum standards, with credit given for controlled enthalpy cubes and simplified grades to reward high levels of filtration.

Ultimately, the focus should be on clearer minimum standards and the implementation of a fair pass/fail system that looks beyond simple energy ratings. Proactive avoidance of poor IAQ before it poses a health risk is key to maintaining a healthy indoor climate and a considered set of minimum standards need to be developed and enforced, as a necessary requirement, for any future property to obtain planning permission.

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