There are many reasons business owners and employees might be concerned about indoor air quality in office buildings:
- Stale and stuffy air
- Too much humidity
- Lingering odors
- Mold starting to appear in damp spots
- People suffering from health issues such as headaches, fatigue, nausea, respiratory issues, or skin problems while they are in the office
- Concern about the spread of COVID-19, or talk about Sick Building Syndrome
Indoor air quality in office buildings affects everyone’s comfort and health. Business owners should also be concerned about the impact on productivity and their bottom line.
Improving indoor air quality in office buildings
If you suspect your office building has air quality issues, or you are concerned about the potential for spreading coronavirus within your building, you may be wondering what to do first to find. Should you invest in office indoor air quality testing?
Identifying and remediating problems with indoor air quality in office buildings can be complex. Testing can be a valuable way to pinpoint a specific source of contamination. However, many experts don’t necessarily recommend an office air quality test as a first course of action.
If COVID is your immediate concern, read our guide to HVAC solutions as a first step.
If you have broader concerns about air quality, read on to learn why and the steps you should take first.
Lack of indoor air quality standards for office buildings
You may assume that organizations such as OSHA have standards in place for the measurement and evaluation of indoor air quality in office buildings.
In fact, no such standards exist for most settings, except for the use of certain chemicals in industrial and manufacturing facilities.
There are guidelines for building ventilation provided by ASHRAE, but these are not enforceable unless required by local building codes. And even in that case, older buildings may be constructed according to older building codes that don’t meet the current guidelines.
There is no single test for indoor air quality in office buildings
There are a wide variety of possible causes for problems with indoor air quality in office buildings, and not all of them can be detected with air sampling tests.
For example, problems like dampness can lead to discomfort even if mold is not present, and the most likely cause is lack of ventilation from a poorly performing or incorrectly designed HVAC system.
While there are air sampling test devices that can detect the presence of coronavirus, they do not provide immediate results and may not be practical for use in an office building.
Interpreting results can be subjective
Due to a lack of standards, there is no agreed-upon definition of what levels of contaminants are considered safe or unhealthy. As a result, interpreting the results of tests for indoor air quality in office buildings is subjective.
Part of the reason for the lack of standards and difficulty interpreting results is the differences in how people react to different contaminants.
Another reason is that the majority of buildings contain what’s known as “background levels” of many contaminants, including mold and VOCs. That means tests can come back positive, providing misleading results where background levels are probably not enough to cause health complaints.
How to improve the indoor air quality in your office: start with an inspection
OSHA recommends starting the process of mitigating problems with indoor air quality in office buildings be performing an inspection of the premises.
Here’s what building owners and managers can do as a first step:
- Conduct a thorough visual inspection of the entire building, including maintenance areas, mechanical rooms and storage areas, looking for possible sources of contamination.
- Check outside the building as well as inside. You may find a source of pollution outside that’s being drawn inside by the ventilation system, or a drainage issue that’s causing water to get into the building.
- Inspect any chemicals, including cleaning products, that are used in the building. Be sure containers are properly stored.
- You may want to consider trying low-odor cleaning products.
- Look for cleanliness issues and especially signs of moisture that could be promoting mold and mildew growth.
- Areas that have been damaged by water (even if currently dry) should be investigated further.
- Pay special attention to where you notice odors, especially musty or chemical smells.
- Have your HVAC inspected and maintained by a qualified professional. If you are concerned about the spread of COVID-19, be sure the inspection includes your ventilation and humidity levels.
HVAC inspection and maintenance:
Your HVAC system should be a major source of concern when you suspect problems with indoor air quality in office buildings. Here’s how the HVAC system contributes to the problem:
- Poorly performing systems can lead to humid air that promotes mold growth.
- Poorly designed systems, especially inadequate ventilation, means contaminants can be trapped in the building. Or worse, ventilation systems may be drawing contaminants INTO the building from outside.
- Any source of contaminants gets circulated throughout the building by the HVAC system, and over time pollution can build up on the equipment and in the ductwork.
- IMPORTANT: To date, there’s no direct evidence that COVID-19 has been transmitted through an HVAC air distribution system. However, increasing evidence has shown the virus spreading via small airborne droplets, or aerosols. Theoretically these droplets could make their way into your HVAC system through return air vents. Learn more: COVID-19 and Your HVAC System: Your Questions Answered.
When you are concerned about issues with indoor air quality in office buildings, one of the first steps should be to inspect the design, performance and condition of your HVAC system.
- System tune-ups can improve equipment performance to reduce humidity and rectify stuffy air problems.
- You may discover ventilation design issues that can solve your problems with indoor air quality in office buildings. Relocating intakes, adding makeup air or moving ductwork runs can greatly improve the air quality in your space.
- Cleaning your ductwork can remove contaminant build-up and possibly uncover mold issues.
- Humidity control devices can keep moisture at safe levels, to prevent mold, bacteria, and inhibit the spread of viruses such as COVID-19.
Investing in duct cleaning can be an extremely beneficial step if you have concerns about indoor air quality in office buildings. Learn more from this helpful resource: FAQ: Duct Cleaning and Your Indoor Air Quality.
When it’s time for testing
As a result of your inspection, you may have been able to make some changes that improve the air quality, such as HVAC improvements, removing chemicals or mold, or removing sources of VOCs.
However, if you still have specific areas of concern, you’re in a better position to get testing about specific sources. For example, if you find a possible source of mold or are concerned about radon, you can invest in testing for those contaminants.