3 Portable Indoor Air Quality Sensors Worth Your Time
With growing awareness around the concept of a healthy home, the coronavirus pandemic has already led to a dramatic rise in consumer search trends for indoor air quality-related testing and devices. Simply put, homeowners are spending much more time thinking about how healthy the air in their home is, and are looking for solutions.
While online search trends (according to Google Trends data) seem to indicate consumers begin their search believing that the answer is buying some kind of portable air purifier, it’s up to the home performance and HVAC industries to better educate customers about the science behind IAQ and and the health of their home. Air purification is just one piece of the smarter, long-term solution, which involves a diagnostic process that identifies the specific performance issues going on in a house or building. Contractors know that this comprehensive IAQ diagnostic process is what will ultimately enable them to make the right recommendations and implement the most impactful upgrades to improve the health of home.
What Does the IAQ Diagnostic Process Look Like?
The main challenge in our industry is that the “diagnostic process” we mentioned in the last paragraph doesn’t really exist yet in any kind of standardized protocol, and if we’re going to establish ourselves as the IAQ problem solvers that homeowners should turn to, we need to fix that.
From talking to building science specialists, the general consensus is that the diagnostic process will involve some combination of the following:
Onsite visual inspection
Air pressure testing
Combustion appliance safety testing
Data collection for IAQ levels in the home
Today let’s focus on the last bullet point: data collection.
There are a number of different indoor air quality monitors on the market, but as a contractor, it can be difficult to know which will be the most reliable for your business. Luckily, Joe Medosch, Director of Business Development and Healthy Building Scientist at Hayward Score, has years of experience in this exact field. Joe stopped by the Energy Circle webinar last week to talk about the different IAQ monitor options available for contractors, and the top three devices he believes currently have the most potential for your business. Here are some of his thoughts from that webinar on the current state of IAQ devices and things contractors should keep in mind when using them.
What Do Indoor Air Quality Devices Measure?
First, let’s get some general basic information about IAQ monitors, and what data you can expect to collect using them. While not every device records the exact same metrics, any monitor worth its salt shares similar baseline metrics, including:
Particulates (pm 1.0, 2.5, or 10)
Carbon dioxide (CO2)
RVOCs (Total Volatile Organic Compounds)
Every device available comes with some kind of proprietary “air quality index” score, which factors in all of the different sensor readings and comes up with a number between 0 and 100. On some devices, 0 is best—on others, 100 is. This might be a number that homeowners find useful, but as a contractor, it’s better to ignore it, as factors like humidity can make the score deceiving:
What to Look For in an Indoor Air Quality Device
Remember, indoor air quality monitors can be very helpful but they have limited accuracy—they’re not like blood tests, and they do not give you all the answers. Monitors are just one of the many tools that you as a contractor will use in diagnosing the IAQ issues in a home, and success will be more dependent on the contractor than the device, or even the client.
But here are some things to consider when choosing between devices:
Bluetooth? 4G? Wi-Fi?
Different IAQ monitors have different ways of sending out the data they’re collecting so you can see and review it. Wi-Fi is the most commonly used, but you can run into problems with internet security there, as you’ll need the homeowner’s password for access.
How Will You Access and View the Data Collected?
Each monitor has its own different online dashboard or interface, but they’re all set up slightly differently. Some let you view and compare multiple devices and overlap data points, while others don’t. Some simply show the raw numbers and let you come to your own conclusion, and others will actually generate a report ready to be shared with homeowners.
Who Owns the Data?
Is the data being collected stored on the device? In the cloud? Will you own the data if you terminate the contract with the monitor manufacturer? Does the manufacturer have access to the data? These are important questions to understand before you start placing an IAQ monitor in customer’s homes.
Comparing the Top 3 Indoor Air Quality Devices
IAQ monitors and devices, especially consumer models, are a relatively new product, but there has been significant progress in the last few years. For example, two of the original indoor air quality devices—the Foobot and the uHoo—might need residential needs but aren’t sophisticated enough to be seriously considered for general contracting work. The Foobot, for example, doesn’t even have a direct C02 sensor.
From the many devices available on the market today, Joe narrowed the field down to three devices chosen for general sensor quality and potential utility for contractors: the AirThinx, the Awair Omnni, and the Air Advice.
Each device comes with its own benefits. The AirThinx, for example, uses 4G, allowing you to simply mail or drop off the device at a customer’s home (very useful during the current coronavirus pandemic, as you can minimize the amount of face-to-face contact with homeowners).
The Awair Omnni has both an internal battery and can be run with battery backup, and they have a useful feature which allows you to turn the device’s digital interface on or off, depending on the preferences of the homeowner (or your company).
The Air Advice stands out because of its data reporting feature, allowing IAQ reports to be sent over to homeowners almost instantaneously that help explain the data the devices in their home have collected. They also have a feature that automatically tests the device’s sensors (you’d have to have more than one device to do this), and can alert you when a device is out of calibration or is not working correctly.
Ways You Can Maximize Your Use of IAQ Monitors
1. Use More Than One Device Per Home
At a minimum, you should be putting 2 monitors in every home, both because you’ll be able to get more coverage (and if you’ve spent any amount of time with an IAQ device, you know how dramatically the readings can change if your device is in the kitchen versus a bedroom), and because you’ll be able to check sensor stability and accuracy against each other.
2. Spend the Extra Money on a Better Device
Don’t use lower cost consumer monitor models for contracting work. Get something you know has quality IAQ sensors and you’ll save yourself a lot of headache down the road.
3. Know Your Customer
If you allow the homeowner to have real-time access to the data coming from their device, but don’t give them context for the numbers they’ll be seeing, you could be setting yourself up for more work if the homeowner is contacting you repeatedly as they see changes in the readings. If you have 20 different units out in the field at the same time, that can quickly drain your customer service resources.
Additionally, remind customers that IAQ monitors can help make the house healthier, not the occupants inside. It’s important to set realistic expectations before indoor air quality testing in a home.
4. Take the Time to Get Accurate, Reliable Data
It’s very difficult to get an accurate data set from an IAQ device in an hour or two. Set up the device so that you can see fluctuations and changes over a longer period of time. Even the most experienced indoor air quality experts would want at least a few days worth of data before making any kind of judgement about the issues in a person’s house.
Put Your Company on the Front Lines of the Healthy Home Movement
The healthy home movement is picking up steam. But its success is going to depend in part on contractors being well-informed and knowledgeable in the area of indoor air quality, with the tools and the protocols to help them recommend the right home performance and HVAC services and explain IAQ in a simple, easy to understand manner.
Looking to learn more about the reliability of these devices and how they function in real life? The Energy Circle office just recently upgraded their IAQ monitor from an older Foobot model to an Awair Omni device. Stay tuned, as we are collecting data and will be diving deeper in the world of indoor air quality data and what it all means for your office or home soon.
Special thanks to Joe Medosch, Director of Business Development at Hayward Score and Healthy Building Scientist, for lending his time and expertise to Energy Circle and our audience. The vast majority of information in this article is taken from his presentation on our recent webinar, and we appreciate his insight and industry experience—invaluable tools as we continue to navigate a world in which keeping our homes healthy is paramount.