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Thinxtra CEO, Nick Lambrou, explains how Australia can use technology to improve indoor air quality.

The issue of indoor air quality only started seeing mass public attention in recent months, resulting from substantial discourse about the rate at which the delta variant of COVID-19 spreads through the air.

Awareness was amplified by research and advice from organisations and industry experts, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), which in March 2021 released a ‘roadmap to improve and ensure good ventilation in the context of COVID-19’.

The report highlighted that “Understanding and controlling building ventilation can improve the quality of the air we breathe and reduce the risk of indoor health concerns including preventing the virus that causes COVID-19 from spreading indoors.”

But beyond open windows and face masks, this type of guidance triggered accelerated interest and investment in sensors to measure CO2, an affordable solution to help determine just how safe indoor spaces are.

Recently, the Victorian State government revealed it assessed indoor air quality across 20,000 school rooms using thousands of sensors. Core to its roadmap for re-opening schools, the data recorded by those devices was used to inform where the state would deploy 51,000 air purifiers purchased from Samsung.

The ACT government is another, installing another 80 sensors in schools after the state’s Chief Health Officer identified adequate ventilation as a key strategy in managing the COVID-19 threat.

However, these low-cost monitoring devices stand to play a crucial role in far more than mitigating further spread of COVID-19 and potential future mutations of the virus.

They can also help us tackle broader, recurring challenges Australians face – from limiting the presence of harmful ‘forever chemicals’ (or PFAS) contaminating homes and indoor venues, through to reducing the deterioration of indoor air quality during the nation’s lengthening and increasingly harmful bushfire seasons, as experienced during in 2019/20.

Lidia Morawska, Distinguished Professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Queensland University of Technology – recognised as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the impact of airborne particles on human health and the environment – says it should be mandatory that building occupants get real-time information on the quality of the air they are breathing.

“Wide use of monitors displaying the state of indoor air quality must be mandated because the general public currently have no way of knowing the condition of indoor spaces they occupy and share with others. Visible displays will keep building operators accountable for air quality. The public should be made aware and demand safe environments.”

Morawka is leading an international call for a ‘paradigm shift’ in combating airborne pathogens such as COVID-19, demanding universal recognition that infections can be prevented by improving indoor ventilation systems.

Traditional solutions – like building management systems (BMS) – that currently control air quality in many venues are not the only answer. While these handle heating, cooling and ventilation systems, and many offer air quality monitoring as an option, they aren’t optimal for stakeholder needs when it comes to easy access to real-time data and centralised reporting across different facilities.

Traditional CO2 sensors, which are often hand held and rely on the skills of tech experts, provide point-in-time information, however that data is often land-locked to the physical setting where the device is installed, and subject to manual reporting processes – ie. site visits. That’s where the Internet of Things (IoT) has hit its stride.

The IoT combines low-cost and battery-powered sensors that continuously monitor air quality with dedicated networks and data analytics capabilities to liberate data. This not only provides centralised, remote monitoring of indoor air quality, including CO2, temperature and humidity, but also gives government agencies, companies and communities invaluable, real-world data in real time to enable immediate, informed action, and underpin policy to maintain safer levels of indoor air quality.

In the long-term, the IoT paves the way to smarter buildings that offer far more than powerful Wi-Fi connections for visitors – ones that collect data sets to operate at optimal performance, become increasingly energy-efficient, yield longer equipment lifespans, enjoy a better property profile, and improved tenant comfort and safety.

As well as powering a more connected economy, something which the IoT is already well known for, it is key for carbon neutrality, resilience, quality of life, and a more connected economy.

Initiatives on both sides of the Tasman – via Australia’s Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CFEC) and New Zealand Green Investment Finance (NZGIF) – have already demonstrated the region’s ability to leverage low-cost and low-power technologies to transform traditional industries into ‘smart’, data-led ones. We’ve seen applications of devices and sensors to manage the utilities industries, in waste management, and to improve the region’s critical supply chains.

Continuing to ramp up these efforts, backed by the IoT, gives us the ability to monitor and manage indoor air quality well beyond the COVID-19 management era – for operational health and safety, risk management, and to ensure business continuity. Simultaneously, it presents an opportunity to get ahead of the potential impact and spread of pollution to preserve our way of life and environment before it’s too late.

 

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