CANBERRA, AAP – Imagine a building that knows when to flush out deadly air.
Building technology ‘evangelist’ Brian Turner says he wants to create comfortable spaces that people feel safe coming back to during a pandemic.
“Think about any kind of space that’s going to house humans,” the chief executive at Buildings IOT told AAP from California.
Airborne transmission of COVID-19 through heating, cooling and ventilation systems is a known risk.
“It’s temperature, humidity and air flow. Those three things have been shown to contribute to either higher transmission rates or lower transmission rates,” he said.
The company is working on 100 buildings in Australia, including universities and commercial high-rise, as people emerge from lockdown and try to live with COVID-19 and its mutations.
Environmental mycologist Heike Neumeister-Kemp, whose life work is fungi, said there should be national standards on indoor air quality and incentives for keeping contaminants low.
“The exposure with anything, particulates, whether they’re alive or not, or viral, is reduced by simply maintaining buildings,” Dr Neumeister-Kemp said.
She is concerned people will be forced to work and live in dirty buildings without any national laws on air quality.
“Nothing is usually done until people say it’s too hot, it’s too cold, or it stinks,” she said.
“Most people don’t look into air quality. Buildings have no maintenance schedule, they have no air quality testing and only do things when people complain, and then only on the cheap.”
The Australian Building Codes Board has a non-mandatory handbook that covers general principles of building ventilation, air contaminants and indoor air quality.
“There are currently no national standards that relate to indoor air quality in Australia,” federal Assistant Minister for Waste Reduction and Environmental Management Trevor Evans admitted.
Dr Neumeister-Kemp is concerned that current standards rate a building on completion but leave usage of that building unchecked, with no enforcement available on deteriorating conditions for workers or tenants.
Anxiety and innovators are filling the gap
Fighting the virus has been added to the mould-busting agenda for companies such as Aeris Environmental whose antimicrobial coating for air-con is in demand.
Aeris scientist Steven Kritzler said the Australian company’s air filter treatment technology is being used around the world to curb the spread of COVID-19 indoors, including on public transport.
“The Aeris filter treatment can be applied now to most existing deep bed HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) filters in commercial buildings, schools, retail centres and various indoor venues.”
He said the treatment contains a safe, readily biodegradable active biocide that kills 99.99 per cent of bacteria and viruses, including COVID-19.
Governments are focused on energy consumption and curbing emissions from homes and businesses, and the unintended consequence can be poorer air quality.
Mr Turner said strategies to save energy by reducing air flow can also mean there is a higher risk of creating the ideal conditions for infectious diseases to transmit.
“Sometimes energy efficiency comes at the expense of indoor air quality,” he said.
But that can be rebalanced, with cleaning products and artificial intelligence.
Smart buildings use sensors to measure changes in temperature, humidity, CO2 and very volatile organic compounds, which are emissions from products used to construct and furnish the building.
“A critical component to being able to achieve those things at a good level is the air change you’re bringing into that space,” Mr Turner said.
In a commercial office in the US, for example, it might be mandated that eight changes per hour are needed to meet the building code.
There might be 12 changes an hour needed in a packed and muggy conference room, but much less often.
Sensors can measure and capture data that is then assessed by software that can see if a particular area is becoming “less healthy”, and the control systems can send more fresh air to that space.
Another technology is occupancy detection, or people counting, which is a step up from lighting that knows when a person has entered a room and switches on or makes it brighter.
“A big part of indoor air quality is the number of people you have in a space,” Mr Turner said.
“To actually be able to count the number of people is a big advantage when you have an area that has a high degree of fluctuation in the number of people that come in and out.”
He said new technologies using Internet of Things (IoT) sensors will enable more control of buildings, still achieve energy efficiency goals and less energy waste, but also maintain a good healthy environment.
Buildings can be retrofitted or, ideally, smart technology is part of the design.
Sensor devices are being manufactured all over the world, including in Australia by Pyrosales and D&N Engineering, while others provide the software to make the information useful.
“We make software that can integrate all of that data, model it, and make it aware of each other, so that it can be used in a way that benefits the building in real-time,” Mr Turner said.
“That’s what is going to make us smarter about informing the control system about what it needs to do.”
Assistant Energy Minister Tim Wilson recognised that emerging technologies and digitisation are critical.
He said the federal government is backing research into smart monitoring to help households and businesses to reduce their energy costs and emissions.
The Data-Driven Smart Buildings project aims to provide real-time data from buildings to better manage energy consumption and establish greater efficiency patterns.
Almost $70 million has gone to the Reliable Affordable Clean Energy centre for projects including “Industry 4.0” technologies like IoT, artificial intelligence and cloud applications to improve energy productivity
Energy tech start-ups and energy utilities are being encouraged to identify opportunities for useful algorithms and apps to help reduce energy costs for households.
There is also an Innovation Hub for Affordable Heating and Cooling (i-Hub) to help the heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration industry’s transition to a low emissions future.
The Commercial Building Disclosure program requires the provision of energy performance information to buyers and tenants of buildings.
The world-class National Australian Built Environment Rating System for commercial buildings rates the energy and environmental impact of a building from zero to six stars.
At the upper end of the market, there is a rethink underway on how to cost commercial real estate, Mr Turner said.
“Everything used to be based on ROI (return on equity)”, he said.
There is a paradigm shift where ROI must include “soft costs” and environmental, social, and governance factors.
“A big part of the (environment) is human health, and the human equity on the sustainability side,” Mr Turner said.
But there’s no prospect of national regulations or a voluntary code on indoor air quality any time soon.