The Air I Breathe - Business Media MAGS

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The Air I Breathe

Considering how much time we spend at our desks, air quality is not something to be sniffed at, says Anthony Sharpe.

With its reliance on coal power, South Africa produces an enormous amount of air pollution. It’s easy to steer clear of smoky factories, but what about the air in your office? Just how healthy is it?

It pays to know what to look out for.

“The basic things you need to monitor are temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide levels,” says Brett Bayvel of Sensor Monitoring and Reporting Technologies. “You can get more technical, but if you’re running a company and you want to know the comfort levels are right – that people are getting enough fresh air to concentrate and not spread germs around – these are what you want to look at.”

There are other, more pernicious things to look out for too. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are common chemicals found in cleaning agents, flame-retardant materials, carpets and paints, among others, that can cause health issues.

Systemic problems

If you have a whole lot of people in a closed space, you’re obviously going to have carbon dioxide build-up. “Most people spend 90 per cent of their working day indoors,” says Bayvel. “You have a big company with a huge building, a thousand people working there, you’re relying on the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system to keep the air flowing correctly.” If that system isn’t properly maintained – if the filters aren’t regularly changed, for example – then you start to get problems. “Once you have excessive carbon dioxide, people start losing concentration, it can lead to nausea, headaches and nasal irritation, asthma complications, or dry throat.”

Bayvel says air quality monitoring has traditionally been done the old-fashioned way in South Africa. “A lot of companies use private guys to walk around their buildings with handheld air quality monitors and then manually document the data, which is crazy.” While internet-connected sensors are available in South Africa, Bayvel believes we’re behind the curve in terms of adoption. This is partly because of a lack of enforcement. “Companies are not spending money on these sorts of things; they’re spending on things that are more heavily policed around building compliance.”

Breathing big data

Sensors are typically cheap, easy to install and connect wirelessly, which makes them ideal for large-scale deployment around large workplaces. Building managers can also access a wealth of information, building up useful datasets over time.

Mark Rowand, director of SI Analytics, says he has seen some interest in monitoring from HVAC companies. “Once you’ve got a month’s worth of data,” says Rowand, “you can start analysing trends. Take a typical call centre where employees come in for a shift and you see a rapid rise in CO2, then once they go for lunch it goes down. You can start to learn about a building and the individual rooms by looking at the data.”

SI Analytics counts the Sandton office of Bloomberg as a client, and points to their London office as a good example of smart building management. “There’s almost a predictive system in place,” he explains.

“If they sense a heavy diesel truck coming down the one side of the building, they shut off the ventilation on that side and open it up on the other. It’s almost like a living building reacting to outside pollution.”

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