Comment: Why indoor air quality must be better understood?

Regular AC duct cleaning is essential for good IAQ.

Arvind Bhatnagar, general manager, Technical & Trading LLC – a member of Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group.
Arvind Bhatnagar, general manager, Technical & Trading LLC – a member of Easa Saleh Al Gurg Group.

Indoor air quality (IAQ) is a health initiative and, like any benefit, it will only become effective when the end user - the person living in a building - understands it. For the moment, IAQ remains an industry buzzword. The most important challenge in my view is how to convey the benefits of IAQ to the common man.
Let us put it in perspective. Each of us instinctively reaches out for bottled water and never tap water (unless one lives in countries like Finland or Sweden). In a country like the UAE, where the climate dictates that we spend 90% of our lives in air-conditioned air, why don’t we ask our landlord about the last time the AC ducts were cleaned? Better yet, demand proof of the same each year when we renew our tenancy contract.
If we own our property, do we ask our facility management company to clean the ducts every six months? Many of us don’t and this ignorance has a significant impact. We never make the connection between nursing a heavy head or occasionally being listless at work as a symptom of sick building syndrome. We spend about 40% of our life time at our place of work and another 40% within our homes, yet very few people ever touch on this important aspect of regular building maintenance and the link to our health. 
As I am employed by a Group to manage a company which designs MEP services, builds them and then maintains them as a facility manager, I have a 360 degree view. I see that there are definitive regulations in place to design buildings with good IAQ, but no criteria for maintaining them. Whenever a facility manager is asked to maintain the HVAC equipment in a commercial or a residential building, the BOQ and the KPI’s only mandate maintaining the equipment as per the manufacturer’s recommendation and ensuring optimum indoor temperature. The building owners do not budget for duct cleaning. Therefore, almost 90% of the buildings in Dubai have never had their ducts cleaned, as per correct methodology, since they were initially constructed.
The second challenge is one that is entirely ignored by even the HVAC industry and yet it is of tremendous technical importance. At the design stage of a building, the MEP services are never called into consultation with the architects, even in ultra-luxury projects. This is relegated to the MEP contractor during the execution.
Most often due to the complexities of design or the lack of coordination for the civil structure, the gap inside the false ceilings is not big enough, and the first utility that is reduced are the return air ducts. As a result, there is free return air to the indoor units.
This means for the entire life cycle of this building there is zero optimum cleaning because the return air disperses all over the false ceiling, gathering dust, allergens and maybe pests excreta which are then recycled back to the building occupants.
In cooler countries where heating is required, this is not as relevant, but in countries with cooling requirements like ours we need the return air ducted back to the air handler so that it can be cleaned frequently. If that is not possible we have to remove all the false ceilings and keep services open like a loft-style ceiling design which one sees in many shops and  supermarkets. This is either a vastly overlooked design aspect or a cost-saving initiative implemented in building projects. Sadly, this results in more than 70% of buildings circulating unclean free return air under their false ceilings – a fact which significantly enhances sick building syndrome and, in turn, hampers both productivity and health parameters of the occupants.

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