With heightened awareness around atmospheric pollution and its health implications, businesses are turning to air-purification technologies

Words Edward Hector IMAGES SFI Group

Breathing space: optimising building air quality for the good of all

In an effort to keep the lights on, Eskom is burning coal at an unprecedented rate and this appears unlikely to change in the near future. The private sector is once again stepping into the breach, with many businesses looking to improve the air their staff breathe during working hours. Advances in air-purification technology means they can do this cost-effectively, not only ensuring better air quality but also reducing staff members’ exposure to myriad airborne diseases.

As the new Minister of Electricity and his team address various approaches towards repairing South Africa’s shaky national energy grid, Eskom’s ailing fleet of coal power stations are running flat out to maintain the demand. The resulting emissions are taking their toll on South Africans’ health.

The not-so-great outdoors

Earlier this year, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) released projections on air pollution impacts, based on simulations. These show that under Eskom’s current plans, emissions from our national power plants would be responsible for a projected 79 500 air pollution-related deaths between 2025 until the plants’ planned end-of-life.

According to CREA, other avoidable health implications include 140 000 asthma emergency-room visits, 5 900 new cases of childhood asthma, 57 000 premature births, 35 million days of missed work and 50 000 years lived with disability. South Africa’s air quality challenges are not unique to areas immediately surrounding its power plants.

Swiss air-quality technology company IQAir has released its 2022 World Air Quality Report, which tracks the planet’s PM2.5 (atmospheric particulate matter) measurements. These fine air-pollutant particles are considered the most dangerous, and include sulphates, nitrates, black carbon and ammonium. The World Health Organization (WHO) shows South Africa’s concentration of PM2.5 in 2022 as being 23.4μg/m3 – nearly five times higher than their guideline.

“Given the government’s inability to address air pollution in the immediate future and no clear signs of an end to coal-powered energy generation, it’s up to South Africans to take control of the air they breathe. While we wait for government to take a more sustainable approach to air quality, the private sector can take action within our workspaces,” says Edward Hector, MD of national air-conditioning and maintenance company, the SFI Group.

The WHO shows South Africa’s atmospheric particulate matter (PM2.5) concentration in 2022 as being nearly five times higher than their guideline.

It’s not too good indoors either

The solution is not as simple as stepping into a building to escape the bad air outside, and Hector explains how most buildings are actually adding to the air quality challenges.

“Simply providing an increase in ventilation rates will not address the issue, and presents its own problems. In many cases, the air-conditioning system and ductwork aren’t properly maintained and cleaned, with viruses, bacteria and mould building up over time. Some reports show that 65% of ducts are contaminated, of which 10% are pathogenic bacteria. Even clean ducts can’t address the many chemical agents being circulated indoors, from perfumes, aerosols, cleaning products and even airborne fibreglass particles. Considering we spend 90% of our time in indoor spaces, that’s six to eight hours a day breathing in an unknown amount of chemicals and pathogens,” he says.

Helping us breathe easier

The COVID-19 pandemic placed a spotlight on indoor air quality and especially on how to minimise the spread of dangerous pathogens. Fortunately, just as we have come a long way in how we purify the water we drink, technology to address our air quality has also improved significantly.

Two technologies are gaining popularity because of their effectiveness and relative ease of application. The first is photocatalytic oxidation (PCO) technology. First tested and used by NASA in the 1970s, PCO is a chemical effect produced when a light source penetrates a surface that works as a semiconductor material or photocatalyst. The photocatalyst absorbs the UV light and creates oxygen particles, thanks to a mix of metals including titanium dioxide (TiO2). Several tests have demonstrated that photocatalytic technology produced by TiO2 can reduce viruses and bacteria by 99% after 24 hours of usage, and serves as a powerful disinfectant, radically reducing mould and airborne diseases.

PCO air-purifier devices are installed inside an air-handling unit or duct, purifying air as it flows through the entire ventilation system.

The second technology is ultraviolet C radiation, or UVC. UVC light fixtures are an effective way to inactivate viruses in a building’s air-handling system. Retrofitting UVC in a building can help keep occupants safe and healthy, as well help save on costs by reducing sick days and boosting productivity. UVC products are specifically engineered for retrofitting into existing air-handling units and swab tests are conducted before and after installation to demonstrate the efficacy of reducing any microbial count.

An air-handling unit with UV lamp.

“When installed in an HVAC [heating, ventilation and air-conditioning] system, UVC is effective in inactivating pathogens such as COVID-19, influenza A and B, staph, legionella and tuberculosis. Bettering the air quality helps improve HVAC efficiencies by improving heat exchange and airflow, reducing energy consumption by as much as 20%. Building managers are keen on the technology because they can achieve measurable return on investment within just one to three years,” Hector shares.

Towards a healthy building

Drawing on his experience working with building owners and managers across the country, Hector shares five steps towards providing indoor air quality that will protect workers from pollution as well as illness.

  1. Indoor air quality is dynamic, so start by measuring key metrics, and over time, a picture will emerge based on various factors such as occupancy levels and outdoor ambient conditions.
  2. Build the data into meaningful dashboards to educate the occupants and to get their buy-in for the benefits they can enjoy once the work is done.
  3. Pilot air purification products from reputable sources. Poor installations will result in sub-optimal results.
  4. Focus on interventions that involve HVAC systems instead of standalone technologies. It could be the HVAC system that is the source of the problem.
  5. Don’t view these interventions simply as a cost. The upside of a healthy building includes lower absenteeism, higher productivity and energy savings, all of which are attractive to tenants.
    Taking the lead
    Hector wraps up by pointing out that air quality measurement may itself be a victim of load shedding: increased blackouts have resulted in monitoring stations being offline and the South African Weather Service failing to make its quality monitoring goals for the last quarter.
    “The future of our grid might be uncertain, but there are proactive measures the private sector can take to ensure our workers are at least breathing clean, safe air. Fortunately, the technologies that deliver the best quality air also deliver some real business benefits, so the choice should not be a difficult one,” he concludes.
Photocatalytic oxidation units are installed in ducting vents or air-handling units to purify air.

SFI Group managing director Edward Hector has extensive experience in various building technologies. For over 15 years, he has worked with contracting, maintenance and product specialisation in the air-conditioning industry. He also worked in the facilities management industry before embarking on an entrepreneurial journey.

Edward holds an MBA from Stellenbosch University and an MSc in Real Estate from the University of Pretoria, and is also a Green Star Accredited Professional (AP). He has a keen interest in innovative building technologies, and his recent focus is on smart buildings and the use of UVC GI in accordance with ASHRAE guidelines, as well as the Internet of Things (IoT), to monitor and improve indoor air quality.