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Q&A: Does Building Automation Make a Difference in Air Quality?

Last updated: 01-09-2021

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Q&A: Does Building Automation Make a Difference in Air Quality?

The inside of a building holds more than conditioned air and ventilation shafts. With the technology and acumen of HVAC contractors and distributors, these commercial structures are full of sophisticated controls that have been changing building automation systems exponentially since its introduction into the built space. Scott Cochrane, president and CEO of Cochrane Supply & Engineering, has seen the changes and has molded his company to be a source of building controls products and hardware to connect to the internet, as well as software and support to enable successful integrations. Based in Madison Heights, Michigan, with five other branches spread Michigan, Ohio, and Kentucky, Cochrane Supply & Engineering has pushed past products and invested in training options for HVAC contractors. From a BAS Fast Track course, to remote learning and virtual BAS training, to offset social distancing challenges, the company has evolved with the latest in technology and current events. To help contractors further understand the role played by controls in commercial buildings, Cochrane sat down to answer a few questions.

The NEWS: How is control integration impacting air movement and ventilation in buildings?

Cochrane: One impact is that control integration lowers the cost. In existing buildings, control systems are typically diversified over time as repairs and updates are needed. Another impact is that integrators have capabilities like never before. Integrated systems can talk to everything down to the sensors and report back real-time data about conditions for all the systems responsible for airflow in the building. This allows the building owner to prove the building is safer for the occupants. If we try to rip and replace a system or update a bunch of equipment controls to make this happen, the costs will outweigh the gain. But by re-utilizing most of the existing control equipment, it makes it a reasonable cost to incorporate some of the new safety measures. As we are asked to meet new challenges that require these systems to start working in unison and report new information about safe air conditions, the systems integrator is very flexible and typically very good at learning new concepts.

The NEWS: What measures can be taken in buildings to provide clean air?

Cochrane: ASHRAE, for instance, has published a position paper with recommendations on some engineered guidelines to help make buildings safer if exposed to infectious aerosols.  I encourage you to read the “ASHRAE Position Document on Infectious Aerosols,” as it has some sound strategies to consider. As the position document points out, controlling airflow effectively and granularly allows the building to adopt emergency strategies to move air more effectively to reduce the potential aerosol spread, depending on the use case of the building.

Pressure is at the heart of the conversation because in a building, pressure sensors are a key indicator for air movement or direction. ASHRAE’s first recommended consideration for changes to airflow for emergency response during the pandemic is to increase outdoor air ventilation — effectively disable demand-controlled ventilation and open outdoor air dampers to 100 percent as indoor and outdoor conditions permit. We provided hundreds of static pressure sensors for the field hospitals they built around us. As an industry, we can provide air changes to a space by removing the current air and replacing it with treated outside air.

The NEWS: What is your number one suggestion to building owners looking to improve their air movement and ventilation?

Cochrane: Start using your BAS system. We have the data; we have the control; we can help make this happen in new systems and old. Controlling airflow effectively and with granularity allows the building to adopt emergency strategies to move air more effectively to reduce the potential aerosol spread, depending on the use case of the building. We may see many new sequences of operation adopted into the HVAC industry to help make our buildings a safer place against dangerous aerosols. On top of it, as we add more pressure sensors, new filtration, and new UV lamps, the control system's proper use and operation are the key to making those projects work and reporting the new safety standards met by the building.

The NEWS: What about air security? Volatile organic compounds, dust, and pollen are all matters of IAQ and cleanliness. In today's environment, however, what about virus and biological contaminant detection and remediation?

Cochrane: If there were sensors that could detect a virus from an air sample, I’d imagine they would be using it now but I don’t think there is a way to detect a virus in the air with a sensor yet. Remediation is another story. While we cannot guarantee the HVAC system can provide 100 percent clean air, we can pressurize a room to make sure the contamination does not spread to other areas. To ensure safe areas now, pressure is the key.

The NEWS: What would you say to a commercial contractor who is interested in learning about air controls and how they can benefit the end user?

Cochrane: To achieve air control or static pressure control, it requires the entire system to properly operate in unison with the control system and its sensors. In other words, you can learn about air control from the vendors you are currently working with. As a result of rethinking how we use air control, new information is coming out on a daily basis on how to properly mitigate the risk of airborne diseases. It will be key to stay up-to-date on this information, and I recommend following CDC recommendations as well as the ASHRAE COVID-19 Resource Page for help with navigating these challenges. 

The NEWS: What are a few of the larger trends you see in air movement and ventilation equipment, controls, and installations?

Cochrane: Energy efficiency, move over. No matter how you look at it, it’s time to make room for clean air. Whether we are adding static pressure, UV lights, or more air changes, we will be increasing the energy use in buildings to implement new safety standards for cleaner air. 

The NEWS: What trends do you see emerging on this topic in the next five years?

Cochrane: New sensor technology to detect biological contaminants in a space will make a huge difference in supplying clean air to its occupants. I envision low-cost static pressure sensors emerging everywhere, connected to building control systems, allowing for room-by-room static pressure control, ensuring more safe rooms in a building from possible dangerous contamination. The BAS industry is going to feel pressure to provide more data and more control, quicker and in new ways, to ensure air safety standards meet the expectations of building occupants going forward.


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