The Unseen IAQ Mennace

We’ve talked about all manner of Air Quality issues: pollen, viruses, volatile organic compounds, and more. There is however, one less frequently talked about devil in the air: radon, methane, and other ground seepage. These are harmful, either explosive, cancer-causing, or otherwise dangerous materials that can seep from the soil below. You’ll never know they’re there until it’s too late. How Does It Happen? Time for some science. The ground beneath you is not pure, solid dirt and rock straight to the Earth’s core. It’s not all one particular elemental composition either. There’s pockets of different materials, gasses, radioactive elements, and so on. These materials either work their way to the surface or they emit something that does. Consider for example, a gas like methane. This exists underground, in porous areas of rock or in large, hollow caves. It’s under extreme pressure from the rest of the Earth pressing down on it. All it takes is a path to the surface for it to flow out. When we do mining for it, we drill down and use a pipe to provide that path to the surface. The Methane is a low-density gas, it wants to move higher up, in the same way helium can make balloons float. There is some amount of natural seepage. The gas makes it way up through the ground and rock, tiny pores and cracks that let it slowly escape. The ground beneath you is not […]

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Cleaning With Light

If you’ve spent any time under the sun on a long, hot, clear day, you’ve probably gotten a wicked sun burn. I may have overcooked myself a bit during our nice Easter weekend too. This brings up an interesting thought: what happens to airborne pathogens exposed to the same light? A sunburn is the result of millions of skin cells being irradiated by UV Radiation. Sunlight contains UV, Ultra-Violet, which can cause skin cancer in high enough exposures. It’s not dangerous in the same way X-Rays are, those would be lethal with a few hours of exposure. UV is weaker, but it still wreaks havoc on small cells. Messing With Molecules Let’s start out with some basic physics. We’re going to ignore the whole “particles & waves” thing for now and just say that all light is made of particles called Photons. When you turn on a light, it spews out photons, that bounce off the wall, lose some energy, strike your eye, and then you perceive the ‘color’ of that photon. What happens is the photon rams a cell in your eye with a certain amount of force, it’s energy, and that tells you it’s ‘color’. To the 3 physicists reading this, shut up. I know it’s more complicated. The problem happens when we give that photon more speed, more energy. Eventually, the photon moves too fast for our eyes to detect. It’s not visible light any more. It […]

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Why Is Pollen A Problem?

It’s Spring! The grass is green, the trees are leafy, and the flowers are quite pretty. This however, brings with it an air quality problem: pollen. The HVAC solution to pollen is to maintain positive pressure in the building, good filtration, and implement some good cleaning practices. That however, is not what we’re talking about today. We’re talking about the science of pollen and why we have pollen allergies, because few HVAC Blogs look at this type of science, but we do. Plant Reproduction Most complex life on Earth needs two organisms to reproduce. You have two parents, your dog had two parents, and the tree in your front yard, probably had two parents. The thing is though, trees and flowers can’t walk up to each other to reproduce, they’re just static-things that shift in the breeze. Something has to move genetic material from one plant to the other. Pollen is how plants reproduce. They’re hardy cells that get carried off into the wind in such vast quantities that they’re all but guaranteed to swarm a compatible plant. These cells contain that tree’s genetic material and they’re designed to mix with another plant to produce seeds that will eventually grow into another plant. This is an ongoing process, but it’s worse in the Spring when plants are bursting back to life after a long, dormant winter. Varying weather conditions will cause days with more or less pollen. After a period […]

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Spring HVAC Prep

The weather is finally warming up. For the first time in months I left the office and didn’t have to worry about getting frostbite on my spleen. We hit 74 degrees last Friday here in Philly, I took a bike ride and came back looking like a drowned rat, but it was warm. It’s only 36 Fahrenheit today, but Spring is on the way. The coming warmth means we should start talking about your maintenance schedules. Do Your Chores It’s vital to inspect, clean, and maintain your HVAC equipment. It’s going to cost you if you don’t. You should inspect your entire HVAC System at least twice a year: once before spring, and again before fall/winter. These little maintenance checks will keep you, your employees, your customers, and any other guests comfortable year round. As the weather warms up, you will begin to dial back your reliance on your building’s heating system. This is an ideal time to find a warm day, shut it down, and have your contractor do some cleaning and inspections. Most burners will leave some measure of dirt/soot in the combustion chamber for you to clean up. Leaving this there will reduce your system’s efficiency and may eventually clog up the heat exchanger altogether. From a maintenance perspective, this is an ideal time to check that the ignition system is in good shape and doesn’t require any adjustment or replacement. Things like the spark rod in […]

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Clean Your Coils

Most people think that it’s only the filters that get dirty. That’s almost right. Almost. Your filters are going to be the first thing you notice being incredibly gross, but the entire HVAC system is exposed to the same types of dirt, pollen, and mold. These can sometimes get past the filter, but that’s not where the biggest problems lay. Efficiency The key parts to your HVAC system are often radiators of some sort (depending on the type of system). If you have hot water heat, you probably have baseboards, which are essentially radiators. Your air conditioner has two radiators, a condenser and an evaporator (these usually called Coils). The job of these devices is to move heat from one place to another. In some places we take heat from the air and put it into a refrigerant. in other cases we take it from the refrigerant and put it in the air. When these things are designed, engineers use materials that are known to have incredible thermal conduction capabilities. We know that paper is an awful thermal conductor and that metals tend to be amazing conductors. Beyond that, we know that specific metals are better conductors than others, conduct into the air better, and we know the number of fins and distance between them necessary to get amazing performance. Under ideal circumstances, especially when these products are fresh and new, they will work flawlessly. When the coils are all […]

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Improve Your Air

You’ve done your testing and your facility has an air quality problem. Stepping through your doors feel like getting a tour of an 1890s steam powered factory. It’s just gross and you’re going to turn your air into something people actually want to breathe. Physical Defenses Your first line of defense is to attack everything getting inside with some physical mitigations. Every person entering the building is going to carry allergens, pathogens, and other problems with them. Imagine someone who just walked through a grassy field, tracking pollen with every step they take. Imagine the gentle breeze blowing through the door as your guests enter, and carrying with it the latest plague to sweep the nation. There are two defenses you can use here. First, you need a nice, big, hefty door mat of some kind, that everyone ends up walking across. They’re tracking pollen on their shoes, make sure it gets stuck where it won’t cause a problem: in a fibrous tangle where it’ll never bother you again. Second, you need to regularly clean the floors of your facility. All the nasty stuff in the air is hovering around, suspended like tea leaves in water. If the air is still long enough, it’ll all settle on your shelves, floors, and equipment until someone kicks it up into the air again. Use microfiber mops to capture and remove the problem while you can. Don’t use a typical broom though, that’s […]

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How To Measure Air Quality

Like all things, we can measure air quality scientifically. We can get a number that says just how gross the air in your facility is. Not only that, but we can figure out what particular type of problem your air has. There’s more to air quality than just saying it’s good or bad. The Troublemakers There are three commonly examined areas for air quality. We have different ways to detect and measure each of them, but these are typically available all in one tool or device. Particulate Matter There are tiny particles in the air, often harmful chemicals we don’t notice individually. Think of things like the exhaust from a car. That exhaust is made of billions of tiny particles of burned fuel and even metal shavings from the engine. These can have negative health effects. Particulates from cars could play a role in Alzheimers Disease. These can detect bacteria, viruses, and mold as well. Sensors for these are rated in their measuring sizes, 2.5 microns and below, 10 microns and below, etc. Your hair is about 40-70 microns thick, for comparison. Volatile Organic Compounds The rule of thumb is that a VOC is something you smell and notice. That’s not always the case, but it’s a good guiding post. These chemicals are highly reactive, dangerously so. Examples of these are things like cleaning chemicals, gasoline, and paint. They’re things you should try not to breathe in. Carbon Dioxide This […]

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Indoor Air Quality

Heating your facility is important. It’s probably in the top ten most essential things to keep your workers and customers happy. It’s not the only thing. Warm air is useless if people can’t stand to breathe it in. Over time, air will get stale and become unpleasant to breathe. We need to not only heat the air, but clean it. What Is Stale Air? The air around you isn’t pure (unless you’re in a hyperbaric chamber, but that’s an entirely different can of worms). More accurately, the air we breathe is more like being in the ocean: it’s full of microscopic things floating around. If you’ve seen sea water, you usually see little things carried around in it. The same is true for air, but most of the things floating us are too small to see. Typically the air in a busy facility will be carrying: Skin Flakes and Hair Bacteria Viruses Mold Trace Chemicals (from cleaners, machinery, etc) Vaporized Sweat Chemicals from Oral Bacteria (Bad Breath) Particulates from Fabric, Food, and Product Offgassing Air becomes stale largely as a result of all these things becoming to abundant. The human body is incredibly perceptive to these things. We can smell, taste, and even feel that the air is not clean. There’s no way to just hide the problem either. Some scents can be fought off with aerosols, candles, and other products that alter the air. The only problem is that […]

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Why is it Snowing in April?

We work in an industry all about controlling our indoor climates, but we’ve never really talked about our actual, natural climate. Why is it snowing in APRIL. We’re a few days into April, many days into Spring, and there’s snow in the ground. A few days ago it was sixty degrees outside and I was tempted to cook up some burgers on the grill and getting ready to dust off the lawn mower. What is with this weather?   Global Weather The first thing to understand about the weather is that it’s not a local thing. The air all over the world is constantly moving, constantly carrying moisture, changing pressure, and changing the air temperature. Our local climate is controlled by our local geography and exposure to heat from the sun AND by events occurring thousands of miles away. On the one hand, we have the sun warming the ground around us, but on the other hand, air can move at hundreds of miles per hour in the jet stream. We’re experiencing this battle between energy entering our environment and just as quickly being effected by air from cooler environments. What do we expect for our local environment (Philadephia/the US Northeast)? Highs in the 50s and 60s, lows in the 40s. We expect a good bit of rain fall, per the old saying “April Showers bring May Flowers.” That is, it’s a wetter season for us as part of Spring. We’re […]

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The Origins of the HEPA Filter: Nuclear Research

There has been some… grim news recently about a possible war between the US and North Korea over their developing nuclear capabilities. There is a ray of light though, in this grim news. It gives us an excuse to talk about HEPA Filters. It turns out, they were created specifically because of nuclear research and the fall out of nuclear weapons.   Filters Before HEPA Air filters have been around for a long time. The first air filters can be traced all the way back to the 1500s, a primitive respirator to protect the wearer from gases, dust, and fumes. Damp-cloth respirators started to come around in the 18th and 19th century. These used damp wool and valves to filter dust out of the air. The liquid-based approach would end up expanding to water and oil bath systems that essentially washed the air. Most contaminants would end up dissolved or pushed down in the water, while the air could eventually pass through. This technology was used on cars, trucks, tractors, and even some early air conditioning systems. It was pretty much the only known way to clean the air. At the time, there were no electron microscopes and the concept of cells and bacteria was still pretty new. There simply hadn’t been research into all the little things in the air and how effective or ineffective the existing filters were beyond subjective opinions. In the 1940s, there came a very […]

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