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How IoT sensors and analytics can make inside air safer in schools and offices

Advanced building controls can help keep air clean to reduce the risk of the spreading coronavirus indoors while sensors can send an alert if a room goes over capacity.

The O3 Sensor Hub from Delta Controls collects data on temperature, light, noise, and activity in office buildings as part of a building management platform.

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The O3 Sensor Hub from Delta Controls collects data on temperature, light, noise, and activity in office buildings as part of a building management platform.

Image: Delta Controls

People have to behave differently to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus and building managers have to make changes as well. Internet of Things technology can help increase fresh air flow, filter air, and analyze traffic within a building. Building managers can use sensors, data, and analytics to make it safer for kids to go back to in-person school and for office workers to see their colleagues again.

Chris Kwong, CTO at Delta Controls, said that building controls have evolved from a focus on energy efficiency to allow building managers to make decisions based on how people use the space.

“We have been able to connect different systems together, collect more data, and do more analytics to build more intelligence within a building,” he said.

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An IoT sensor network can be a cost-effective way for schools to manage heating and cooling to meet a variety of demands. Connectivity is the key to both collecting this data and acting on it. 

“You don’t need to redesign the building, just look at how to implement sensors and connectivity in an affordable way,” said Andrew J. Tanskey, US offer manager for EcoStruxure Edge advisors and services at Schneider Electric.

Managing a building during the pandemic

To reduce the chance of spreading the coronavirus in indoor spaces, the World Health Organization recommends that schools and workplaces increase the ventilation rate without using recirculated air. The WHO recommends opening windows if possible and safe, increasing the percentage of outdoor air to as high as 100%, improving central air filtration, and running the HVAC system at maximum outside airflow for two hours before and after spaces are occupied.

Tanskey said it’s easy to use 100% outdoor air in a building’s air circulation system, but doing so is expensive, particularly in the winter in the northern hemisphere. Tanskey said the key to success with these devices is understanding how to use the data to guide operations at a particular building.

 “We are now allowing the sensors, the data, and the building to dictate where maintenance is needed and when,” he said.

Sensors can monitor carbon dioxide levels and make it easier to manage social distancing requirements by monitoring how many people are in a particular space. Building managers can use IoT platforms to respond to real-time events on a room-by-room level. 

“The more  granular control you can have, the more operational efficiency you can have,” he said. 

Tanskey used the example of an air quality issue in one classroom and too many people in another.

“Classroom A has not had enough air changes, which requires immediate action to improve air quality, and classroom B is designed to fit 15 students in a socially distanced setting but the tech has sensors 18 students in there,” he said. “That’s where the operational change management comes in.”

Kwong of Delta Controls said that building managers consider how often to refresh the air in a room or building within a certain timeframe. This could mean recirculating air that has been in the building or bringing in fresh air from outside the building. Building managers also can run the air through HEPA filters or expose the air to UVC lights to remove germs and pollution.

Building management systems with the right mix of sensors and data analysis will let facilities managers strike the right balance between the need to manage costs and to use air circulation practices that reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus, he said.

Collecting and analyzing building data

Kwong said that Delta Controls has been rolling out more touchless products over the last few years, including a thermostat unit that goes in the  ceiling of a room instead of on a wall. 

“We have been moving the thermostat into the ceiling with a collection of other technology  so that  people don’t have to touch it and to give us  a good  vantage point  in the ceiling to do more sensing,” he said.

The company’s O3 Sensor Hub collects this data and uses an app or dashboard to display air flow, CO2 levels, temperature, and noise levels.  The platform also can manage the blinds and lighting in a room. 

Robert Hemmerdinger, chief sales and marketing officer for Delta Controls, said that the company has made it a priority to ensure the platform is flexible and will work in buildings built  before internet connectivity was a requirement.

When building engineers are designing facilities, they’ll look for that flexibility to make that change with the press of a button and get an estimate of the cost of that change,” Hemmerdinger said.

Hemmerdinger added that new platforms are backward compatible as well so that new tech can connect with existing infrastructure.

IT teams have been getting more involved with building management due to these IoT platforms and the resulting data streams, Kwong said.

“People who have more mechanical and electrical skills are having to up their game in terms of IT skills, but the re-education goes both ways because IT people don’t want to be given responsibility for things they don’t understand,” he said.

Delta Controls, based in Vancouver, works with 400 distribution partners and customers in healthcare, education, commercial real estate, and airports. 

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