And 8 steps you can take to prevent small problems from becoming big – and costly – ones.
Uncovering the reason(s) behind indoor air quality (IAQ) problems in commercial buildings is not as easy as measuring the fumes from an industrial process. Those fumes are emanating from a particular process or area that makes them easy to pinpoint and measure, while IAQ problems in commercial buildings, schools and hospitals can be a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes’ detective skills.
Most likely, the problems come from more than one source. Sometimes they come from indoor sources, other times from outdoor sources. In general, these problems can be traced to the following sources:
- Indoor Sources
- Offgassing of volatile organic compounds (VOC), including those from humans
- Not enough humidity in cold weather
- Too much humidity in hot weather
- HVAC Sources
- Outdoor Air
Some of the problems that can be directly attributable to the HVAC system include biofilm on cooling coils and mold in ductwork or on filters. Others are from mold behind wall coverings, or damp or wet surfaces, e.g., ceiling tiles that have become wet from roof or fan-coil leaks. There are others directly attributable to not enough outside air or, in some parts of the country, too much outside air, e.g., southern climates with excessive humidity in hot weather.
Outdoor air used to be called “fresh air” many years ago. It’s not anymore. Unfortunately, outdoor air is no longer considered “fresh” in many parts of the world, including some parts of the United States.
Owners today have many defensive strategies available to them. These include, but are not limited to, the following remedies:
- Avoid potentially offensive building and maintenance materials
- Fully commission HVAC systems prior to occupancy
- Operate with adequate ventilation
- Clean, maintain and operate systems as designed
- Periodically check for sensor stresses
- Periodically check for occupant satisfaction
- Re-commission systems every year to ensure proper operation
- If there is a problem, either real or perceived by an occupant, respond immediately
If the problem cannot be identified by building staff, or mitigation efforts have been unsuccessful, seek outside assistance from IAQ professionals, or go to www.iaqa.org to find one in your area. Get in front of the issue quickly before “small” problems (real or perceived) quickly escalate to big, expensive ones. One person with a real or perceived problem can quickly spread to two, then to four, and become what is called “mass psychogenic illness.”
We were involved in a case where one person complained of feeling ill, then one after another more people complained of feeling ill, even to the point of being taken to the hospital. After much investigation, many changes to various HVAC systems, and an expensive lawsuit, nothing was found to have caused the problem. The human mind can easily be influenced by what others experience, and one person’s perception can become an entire department’s reality.
The costs associated with mitigation of IAQ problems are always less than the costs and aggravation - as well as potential negative publicity - of a lawsuit.