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Indoor Air Quality - The Next Big Issue In Housing

In an interview for Housebuilder & Developer, Marketing Director Andy Mudie explains how to avoid getting all choked up about indoor air quality.

August 2016

After years of improvements in social housing driven by ‘affordable warmth’ and a desire to improve the quality of the UK’s leaky housing stock, a new potential major issue is taking over as the main ‘bet noire’ of the residential housing arena across the UK. Indoor air quality.

In very simple terms, housing across the UK has been given acres of insulation to stop heat leaking out of these homes so that properties are warmer and cost less to heat. But by sealing them so efficiently, we have stopped air getting in and out of homes with a subsequent rise in problems arising from humidity, mould and condensation. The problem has moved from heating deficiencies to ventilation deficiencies. Rather than address these issues head on, there is a tendency to do so retrospectively and address the problems when they arise rather than to anticipate the issues and integrate a solution up front, and the resultant problem is more often than not attacked with individual extractor fans, which are not the best way of dealing with whole house ventilation and improved air quality.

We’re in the ‘condensation season’ which tends to run from September to February each year. It’s all down to outside moisture levels and at the first cold snap experienced across the UK, condensation issues begin to raise their ugly heads. On the positive side of things there is growing public awareness of the need for better indoor air quality and a growing realisation that in some cases the quality of air indoors can be worse than that outdoors. For new build homes, it could be about providing filtration on its systems at the entry level to a property – filtering the incoming air at the grille on the outside of the home. Particularly in urban areas, the levels of toxins – in particular nitrogen dioxide and particulates from heavy traffic – can cause havoc with those susceptive to asthma and other breathing related issues. So as well as filtering the air when it is circulating in a home, they are looking at filtering it on entry.

For existing properties, it’s about having a retrofit solution that is not intrusive so options such as positive input ventilation (PIV) works well here. Indoor air pollutants are potentially important but the extent to which they affect health is not fully known. However in today’s sealed homes – with double glazing, better insulation and much reduced opportunities for indoor air to escape, it’s clear they play a huge role in the indoor air quality that millions of people in this country are subjected to. Strangely, there is currently no single government department with ownership of this issue – and that is something that has to change if it’s to be taken as seriously as it should be. Heating and cooking appliances and environmental tobacco smoke are the most important indoor sources of pollution in UK homes, and that’s before the effects of external air quality problems comes into play. The main health effects of poor indoor air quality are the same as poor external air quality – to the lungs and heart. And of course children and those who are already ill are most at risk from poor air quality, wherever it is experienced. Sadly, many people take indoor air quality for granted. It’s clear that people would not drink brown water from a tap in the kitchen as it’s visibly dirty, yet what is the condition of the air that you are breathing right now?

One of the challenges of attacking air quality issues is that there is no definition of unacceptable internal air quality. There is no yardstick by which to measure it. It’s possible this may be best practically measured in terms of humidity levels, CO2 levels, VOCs and temperature. But this is an area that needs to be addressed and quickly so that we can inform homeowners and tenants about the quality of air they live in, quickly and simply. Increasingly we are seeing proper purpose designed ventilation systems being included in new build properties to ensure that the problems associated with poor indoor air quality are addressed. Many of the systems being used currently include heat recovery systems – MVHR systems (Mechanical Ventilation Heat Recovery) – that, as well as improving air quality, also recover heat from the air being expelled so it can be used to heat the incoming air – offering significant savings on the costs of heating the properties, particularly in the winter months. This offers a win-win situation for the owners and for tenants of social housing and for the operators of public buildings where these systems are used on a commercial scale to improve the air quality of those using the buildings.

It’s clear that addressing indoor air quality is of growing importance and that over the next few years it will be seen as a mainstream issue that requires attention and the installation of good quality ventilation systems – incorporated at the build stage for new build properties and as retrofit options for existing properties where problems are identified. The use of ventilation systems is clearly a less expensive option longer term than the short term fix approach that may be required almost on an annual basis where the problems persist, which will include the need to re-decorate homes and properties that suffer the visually obvious effects of condensation, mould and damp in particular. It’s an issue that is growing in importance and one that needs urgent attention as studies are suggesting. The age of ventilation as an essential contributor to well-being, is here.