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By Ketan Mehta

Wildfires are becoming more and more common. Today, there are “unprecedented” wildfires are raging across Maui. Earlier this summer, wildfire smoke drifted into the United States from Canada, causing concerns about outdoor air quality. During these events, when outdoor air quality is poor, there is an increased focus on the safety of indoor environments.

Indoor air quality has become a primary consideration for building owners and occupants on the heels of new regulations from organizations like the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), and recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Building occupants now demand better indoor air quality, recognizing its role in productivity, safety, and overall well-being. This article explores the impact of wildfire smoke on indoor air quality and provides strategies that help to maintain healthy indoor environments.

Air Quality (Indoors and Out): A Growing Concern With Wildfire

The recent influx of smoke and ash from Canadian wildfires has raised awareness of its potential impact on indoor air quality (IAQ). While facilities managers have long dealt with IAQ, recent guidelines from OSHA, and the CDC have brought the issue into sharp focus for investors, buyers, tenants, and occupants. The bottom line? Improving the quality of the air in a building is no longer a secondary consideration, but an expectation.

Wildfire smoke consists of a combination of gaseous contaminants and hazardous air pollutants, including fine particulate matter (PM2.5) that can pose serious health risks. Traditionally, facilities managers would increase the outside air intake when the IAQ is poor; however, if outdoor air quality is deemed unhealthy, the ventilation process can introduce those pollutants into your indoor space. Regularly monitoring outdoor air quality in addition to monitoring your IAQ enables you to manage your ventilation system efficiently, reducing intake during high pollution periods and increasing when air quality improves. By keeping a finger on the pulse of local outdoor air quality, along with real-time IAQ data, you can take effective measures to maintain a healthier indoor environment.

The CDC’s newly introduced ventilation recommendations aim to combat airborne viral particles while reducing viral concentrations and exposure indoors, elevated in importance during the COVID-19 pandemic. The combination of outdoor air pollution from wildfires and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and particulate matter (PM), and the need for reduced indoor viral exposure has also amplified the demand for improved indoor air quality.

Navigating IAQ Management During Challenging Times

To begin a comprehensive Indoor Environmental Quality plan, it is important to start by establishing baseline data. Facilities management teams must regularly measure and continuously monitor indoor and outdoor air quality to understand fluctuations and devise effective IAQ management strategies when issues arise. Too many facilities managers take one-time measurements that provide only one snapshot of that particular point in time. Continuously monitoring the close relationship between outdoor and indoor air quality is crucial to reveal the full picture of how these environments interact. Additionally, the data from continuous monitoring may reveal trends that could uncover activities or conditions that are or could become hazardous, enabling facilities managers to mitigate risks.

Establishing key air quality measurements by monitoring hazardous air pollutants and gases from wildfires help establish a safer, healthier, and more comfortable indoor environment. Here are four strategies to help your facility maintain optimal IAQ during wildfire seasons:

1. Isolate indoor air toxins: identify and mitigate indoor air pollutants and gases such as volatile organic compounds (VOC), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ozone (O3) and sulfur dioxide (SO2). Simple actions like relocating pollution sources, such as copy machines, to well-ventilated areas, or spot-checking areas near windows and doors can yield positive results. Continuous monitoring is imperative when it comes to understanding both particulates and gases that are lurking in your air, and because you cannot filter gases, you need to be able to locate the source directly and implement appropriate measures.

2. Improve filtration: properly maintaining and upgrading HVAC systems with MERV 13 filters. Complement this ventilation standard with routine checkups using precise measurements and analysis to help facilities management teams optimize ventilation strategies to address heightened poor outdoor air quality issues.

3. Temporary air purifiers: use portable air purifiers with HEPA filters and commercial-grade air purifiers to further enhance IAQ. However, continuous monitoring and analysis are essential to ensure the continued effectiveness of these investments.

4. Continuously monitor outdoor air: Awareness of what is coming into a building is critical so indoor controls can be tightened when the air outdoors becomes unhealthy.
With the real, negative impacts of wildfire smoke on outdoor air quality and its ability to travel indoors, it is crucial to focus on maintaining healthy indoor environments. By adhering to recommended guidelines and implementing effective strategies, facilities executives and building owners can help usher good air in and bad air out, leading to more productive, safer, healthier, and more comfortable indoor spaces.

Mehta is Vice President of Product Management and Marketing at TSI Incorporated based in Shoreview, MN. TSI provides a comprehensive range of air quality monitoring solutions with unparalleled reliability and accuracy. Ketan has MS in Chemical Engineering and MBA in Strategy & Finance.

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Facility Executive Magazine