How To Investigate IAQ Issues

01/01/2016 | By Janelle Penny

Take action on the contaminants damaging your air quality

Busy office

How clean is the air in your facility?
You may not realize there’s a problem until someone complains, but poor indoor air quality can damage productivity and even impair occupant health, a worst-case scenario that could leave you open to a lawsuit. If you’re hearing persistent complaints about a stuffy room, an unexplained smell or an occupant with recurring headaches, you may have an air quality problem. Investigate the complaints and turn your data into action with these tips.

How Problems Start
An odd smell or a wet spot on the drywall will likely be the first clue your occupants notice, says Jess Nowland, Controls Technician for Apollo Mechanical Contractors, a mechanical construction firm. If the source isn’t investigated and the problem is allowed to grow, occupants nearby may start experiencing discomfort.

“Usually you don’t start getting complaints about symptoms until after the smell or visual indicator has been present for a while,” Nowland explains. “Headaches or just not feeling well are often the first symptoms you hear about. We’ve been fortunate enough to identify problems pretty quickly, so we haven’t been in situations where it went further than that, but people can become dizzy or lightheaded – they can even faint or develop serious medical issues.”

Regardless of the root issue affecting your indoor air quality, tight buildings with insufficient ventilation can exacerbate any problem. Poor exhaust and stuck dampers can allow unwanted gases or pollutants to build up in a space.

“Carbon dioxide is the main pollutant that people monitor because it’s generated regularly and aggressively by human activity,” notes Herm Gustafson, Product Marketing Engineer for Onset, a manufacturer of data loggers that can measure CO2 and other IAQ-impacting contaminants. “One of the spaces that has become increasingly targeted for CO2 monitoring is workout spaces because of all the metabolic activity present. Schools are also good candidates for monitoring because the buildings are notoriously outdated. There may be too many kids in classrooms and there generally isn’t space in the budget for the latest building automation system, which means they don’t have a way to set up demand controlled ventilation.”

Volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) are also common, though off-gassing tends to fade with time. This might be a concern if you’re renovating, painting or bringing in new furniture, carpet or cabinetry.
“Basically anything you can smell is generated by a VOC. That could be cleaning chemicals or even food, because VOCs are generated when something boils or vaporizes,” Gustafson explains. “These come mostly from paint, indoor building materials and even copy machines.”

Temperature and humidity aren’t problems in themselves but can detract from both overall comfort and create the conditions for even bigger problems – particularly mold – to develop. High humidity leads to mildew, which can make your occupants sick, Gustafson says. ASHRAE Standard 62 recommends a relative humidity of 30-60% to discourage pathogens and allergens from growing.

Common Sources of Complaints


“Parking garages are a classic case of where you need to measure carbon monoxide, CO2 and nitrous oxide because of the emissions from gas and
diesel vehicles,” says Kevin Callahan, Product Owner and Evangelist for the manufacturer Alerton. “Installing sensors will help make sure the fans are running. If the fans fail, you can warn people that there’s a concentration of carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide in there, which is important for safety because you can’t smell, taste or see them.”


“Anywhere the pressure of the building is going to change, especially around big garage doors or bay doors, tends to result in IAQ complaints,” says Jess Nowland, Controls Technician for Apollo Mechanical Contractors. “Anywhere you have buildings joined together, like a connecting tunnel or a long hallway, creates a situation where pressure can fluctuate between the two spaces.”


Office breakrooms tend to have poor ventilation despite being equipped with microwaves that will lead to food smells, explains Callahan.


“The classic situation is the bathroom where they have a toilet exhaust fan but don’t have enough air changes to clean out the odors,” Callahan says. “There’s no place for air to come into the bathroom so that the existing air can be taken out. At one facility I saw, they made the mistake of trying to fix this by cutting transfer grilles into the doors of the bathroom instead of having a piece of ductwork that keeps sound from being transmitted out of the room.”

Shop Areas

“Painting indoors or welding can result in odor complaints,” Nowland says. “So can equipment that uses natural gas or combustion.”

Adds Callahan, “One office I worked in had a shop area with a forklift and no one thought about the propane. It has a distinct odor and some people are bothered by it.”

Find the Source of the Complaint
Taking persistent complaints with a grain of salt isn’t an option – a pattern of comments about the same concern indicates a real problem. Start by questioning the individual and anyone sitting nearby to gather details about the problem. What exactly did it smell like? What symptoms are they having? This information can give you clues about where to look next – the answer may be a quick fix that doesn’t require further investigation.

“For example, if you get an occupant complaint about smelling natural gas, right away you would want to identify all of the appliances in the building that use natural gas, do an inspection and make sure they’re operating the way they’re supposed to. That’s always the first step,” says Nowland. “If they’re saying it’s stuffy, go to any CO2 sensors you have and make sure they’re operating correctly. If you have demand controlled ventilation, make sure that’s working and the dampers are allowing fresh air to come in. We always do that before purchasing tools or gathering data.”

If you have a building management or automation system, set up trend logs to monitor the temperature, humidity and location of complaints, recommends Kevin Callahan, Product Owner and Evangelist for Alerton, a building automation system developer. If your dampers are working correctly, he recommends checking your air handling units to make sure no one has changed the minimum outside air setting – the problem may be as simple as someone adjusting the preset when the facility was unoccupied and forgetting to change it back.

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