How smart-buildings will transform air quality

11-11-2021 | By Robin Mitchell

The COVID-19 pandemic has helped raise awareness about indoor air quality, and smart technologies could be the key to improving air quality. Why is indoor air quality important, what can smart technologies do to challenge this, and what challenges does smart building technology face?

Why is indoor air quality important?

Air is vital for humans; without it, the average human can survive for 3 to 6 minutes. However, what often goes unnoticed is the quality of the air that we breathe, and what is worse is that air quality and wellbeing are very closely linked. Poor air quality can lead to reduced cognition, worsen conditions such as asthma, and even lead to more unusual illnesses such as Sick Building Syndrome. However, what is good and bad air, and how is air quality judged?

Air quality is mainly related to the amount of containments in the air, breathable oxygen, and carbon dioxide. For perspective, pure air would be something akin to the air in a forest far away from society, and the worst air would be found in the chimney of a power station. As air quality is linked to CO2, even a house in the middle of a forest can become poor if all windows and doors are kept shut.

Improving air quality is not just important for maintaining normal health; it can also be vital for controlling infectious diseases. COVID-19 demonstrated the importance of air quality as poor air is generally old and recirculated throughout a building, which can carry airborne pathogens. However, good quality air would be extracted from outside, filtered, and then cycled indoors to remove any pathogens that are then pumped outside.

What can smart technologies do about indoor air quality?

Ensuring air quality is remarkably simple; opening windows and providing proper ventilation is almost always enough. However, this may not always be practical in large spaces or places where there are no windows. Furthermore, simply running AC units at maximum is harmful to the environment if the power is sourced from non-renewable sources. Even if the power is sourced renewably, the large amount of energy waste still contributes to increased CO2 emissions as other sites that could have utilised the wasted energy will be forced to turn to other energy sources.

An intelligent indoor air quality management system would instead utilise smart technologies to determine the air quality, predict building usage, and then take action based on environmental readings. For example, a room with extremely low use may be cut off from the rest of the building and have its AC and ventilation disabled, whereas busy areas would have their ventilation turned up to maximum while simultaneously directing airflow in the most efficient direction.

Such a system can easily be developed with pre-existing technology; gas sensors are already in widespread use and can detect CO2, volatile gasses, and particulates, actuators allow for controlling windows and other mechanical systems, and advanced AI can make predictions on almost any data set. The use of an intelligent system would improve air quality and simultaneously aim to minimise energy usage, which helps buildings tackle the climate crises by minimising their CO2 footprint.

What challenges do smart buildings face?

Many buildings already incorporate environmental controls that can regulate temperature, improve airflow, and reduce energy usage. However, most systems to date operate on very few data readings, mostly temperature and humidity, meaning that they are not operating as efficiently as they could.

Implementing CO2 and volatile compound sensors can be done with little effort, but technologies that utilise cameras (to determine the foot traffic in an area) may raise concerns in terms of privacy. Having a system monitor individual users to track where they have been and how long could be a potential violation of privacy. Even if a system merely tracks where detected people go, the metadata is still there and could potentially be linked to personal information and behaviours.

Smart buildings may also require significant upgrades to internal infrastructure, whether routed power connections, internal networks, and the deployment of sensors in all building areas. The use of networks for sensor communication could also open up buildings to targeted attacks from cybercriminals either looking to gain unauthorised network access or to hack devices on the network to perform any task needed by the cybercriminal (such as crypto mining).


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.