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Why CO2 Monitoring is 'Not Enough' for Healthy and Safe Offices

Why CO2 Monitoring is 'Not Enough' for Healthy and Safe Offices
05 October 2021
 

Will Cowell de Gruchy from Infogrid puts forward his argument for why the government should mandate smart air quality monitors in offices and schools.

Will is the Founder of Infogrid, a smart building platform that combines IoT sensors with powerful AI to automate and optimize facilities and building management. Prior to this, Will attended Oxford University and had a varied career – from finance, to cage fighting in Thailand to Tank Commander in the British Army. His "Why’", though, has never changed: the preservation of the natural world (stopping extinctions, deforestation, ocean-bound plastics etc) is what drove him to become an entrepreneur, having seen the influence successful entrepreneurs could have on the global stage.

 

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Picture: a photograph of William Cowell de Gruchy

 

Are Government Guidelines Enabling People to Feel Safe at Work?

 

As students go back to school and offices around the country continue operating or re-opening, questions around the relative safety of office buildings have remained. Studies show that only 1 in 3 UK workers were returning at least part-time, nearly half the figure across the rest of Europe.

Our own Healthy Buildings report found that 50 per cent of employees are concerned about returning to the office. While opinions differ on whether the hybrid workplace is a good or bad thing, one fact is indisputable: every employee deserves to feel safe in their office. The question is, do the latest government guidelines enable that?

 

"Low occupancy or large volume spaces with ‘low’ CO2 concentrations don’t always mean that ventilation is good.  Nor do they mean that risk of transmission is low."

 

The recent Autumn/Winter pandemic plan included the mandate of CO2 monitors in offices, schools, and other public settings.  The reason seems fairly self-explanatory: carbon dioxide tends to be a proxy measure for how well-ventilated a room is, and thus, how much coronavirus might be floating in the air. We know that if the windows and doors in an occupied room aren’t open, or if the number of people in the room goes up, CO2 levels will rise. In other words, if anybody in that room has COVID, and the CO2 levels go up, the concentration of virus particles (virions) will go up with it.

So far, so good, you might be thinking.  But, as with many things relating to the pandemic, it isn’t completely straightforward.

 

Relying on CO2 Concentration Levels Isn't Enough

 

A recent report highlighted problems with relying on CO2 concentrations alone to judge how good the ventilation in a room is.  Low occupancy or large volume spaces with "low" CO2 concentrations don’t always mean that ventilation is good.  Nor do they mean that risk of transmission is low. There are a couple of reasons for this.

Firstly, people emit different amounts of CO2 depending on a range of factors: age, sex, health, and what they’re doing. Somebody singing in a room will emit more CO2 than somebody typing at a keyboard in silence, for example.

Secondly relying on CO2 levels alone isn’t enough, temperature and humidity play a huge role too. A hot and humid meeting room helps virions stay alive in the air longer even if CO2 levels are within normal levels. So, when looking at CO2 levels alone, we run the risk of reducing the quest for safer offices into a numbers game – when it isn’t.

Finally, regular CO2 monitors can be inefficient and laborious. They require manual checks, which waste time and resources and the results have to be regularly recorded for future reference. Not only does this leave the system open to errors, but there is no way to verify when measurements are taken, leaving the system ripe for abuse.

 

Only 22% of Businesses are Collecting Healthy Building Data

 

An investment into any equipment for a building should be thought of in the long-term, and not a short-term knee-jerk reaction to a government mandate. With that in mind, facilities managers across businesses, schools, and hospitals are better off installing a smart monitor that automatically captures CO2, temperature and humidity readings and uploads them securely to the cloud.

There are a few reasons for this. Firstly, one of the best ways to improve air quality is simply optimising temperature. This can also have a significant environmental benefit given that heating ordinarily has a huge energy outlay. Also, by ensuring that data gets uploaded to the cloud, it can be analysed and used in conjunction with other data and provide an overview of a building’s assessment over time. With analysis, facilities managers can monitor the health of the building and also diagnose issues with HVAC systems that would have been otherwise invisible.

Furthermore, studies have shown that cognitive function can decrease as CO2 levels in the air go up. What’s more, identifying and quantifying CO2 emissions helps to identify excessive energy usage or other inefficiencies. Lowering CO2 levels – even if its just air monitoring - typically goes hand in hand with increasing efficiency and cost-effectiveness in a company’s processes.  This is vitally important for all of us, especially given the government is committed to achieving net-zero carbon by 2050.

Not only do smart monitors take care of the data management automatically, with no admin time spent on the installer or employers’ part, they are also better value for money in the long term. The cost of installing smart monitors throughout an entire building is the equivalent of just one or two people taking a sick day – and this is something that is easily preventable through adequate workspace ventilation.

The other advantage of smart monitors is that it benefits employees. In March 2021, we commissioned a survey of 2,000 UK employed adults and found a strong desire to have access to their company’s healthy building data. Workers would be most interested in having access to data on virus risk (59 per cent) followed by cleaning information (57 per cent) and air quality (54 per cent). At the moment however, only 22 per cent of employers are collecting this data. At Infogrid we combine three readings (temperature, humidity and CO2 levels) into a single "virus risk" metric, giving facilities managers and employers a way to communicate the safety of the office environment to their employees.

The final benefit is that it makes remediation simple. With real-time updates to temperature, humidity and CO2, and automated airflow, facilities managers will have no trouble ensuring the air in the building always remains at a level where, not only CO2 is low, but the temperature and humidity are at suitable levels to prevent viral proliferation.

 

Moving to Smarter Systems

 

While pandemic has highlighted the topic of indoor air quality and the need for adequate ventilation in buildings, simply manually checking indoor carbon dioxide concentrations is inefficient. Though CO2 levels are a useful guide for whether the ventilation is effective enough to make transmission of coronavirus less likely, it doesn’t tell a full story and will not give employers enough information on the health of the building. Moving to smarter systems will give employers a better, more reliable way of measuring office safety

Picture: a photograph of a busy working office.

Article written by William Cowell de Gruchy | Published 05 October 2021

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