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Facility Maintenance and IAQ

By Michael Hilton

Facility Maintenance and IAQ

A major buzzword of the new millennium is "IAQ" (Indoor Air Quality). Products guaranteed to improve indoor air quality have grown exponentially. While some products do provide positive impact on IAQ, others simply represent a polished marketing effort. Products alone are not usually the cause of IAQ problems. Any one factor or a combination of factors may be the source.

According to Dr. Michael Berry, indoor environmental problems have five common causes:

  1. poor ventilation;
  2. pollutants emitted from sources and activities inside the building;
  3. contamination from outside sources;
  4. biological contamination due to a lack of moisture control.

More than one may be active at any time. The indoor environment is a complex mix of variables. Even the most impeccably cleaned facility can have IAQ problems resulting from any one or combination of the other causes. By failing to recognize each of the variables or failure to acknowledge the complexity, the facility manager will face an impossible task in resolving IAQ complaints.

To successfully eliminate IAQ problems, the facility manager must examine each of the common causes. The purpose of cleaning is to remove accumulated soil and contaminants, and removing these can improve indoor air quality, but the accumulation of some contaminants can be the result of poor IAQ and not necessarily the cause.

The cleaning and maintenance industry was among the first to recognize the benefits of selling their services as a solution to poor environmental air quality. Many cleaners effectively market their services based solely upon IAQ claims. However, those cleaners may be positioning themselves as easy targets. If the poor quality of the indoor air in a facility has not been resolved by cleaning, the maintenance staff might be unfairly blamed. Evaluating the presence of contaminants on interior surfaces is important; however, time should be allotted and the effort made to track the source of those contaminants.

A good facility maintenance plan begins outside, and so should a good IAQ plan. The presence of indoor airborne contaminants is as much a result of outdoor contaminants as indoor accumulation. A good maintenance plan can continue to lower accumulated indoor contaminants but have little effect on the airborne contaminants. Carpet cleaning, for example, can considerably reduce the amount of particles in the carpet, but have little effect on airborne levels. Without HVAC filtration of contaminants from outside the facility, the maintenance staff is confronted with a never-ending challenge.

A recent Florida school study provides an excellent example of how cleaning was done properly, but outside factors had a significant impact.

Other studies of allergens, airborne bacteria, and fungi show similar results, with levels of contaminants reflecting outdoor levels, rather than indoor activities. While some studies do show a reduction in airborne particles after cleaning, few of these studies monitor outdoor air to validate that these reductions are the result of cleaning, rather than the result of reduction in outdoor levels.

The process of cleaning also may have a significant negative impact on indoor air quality. Evaluations of airborne chemicals or volatile organic compounds (VOCs) almost always indicate the presence of cleaning compounds.

Some carpet cleaning solutions contribute considerable VOCs to the indoor environment. Some of the solutions, applied as finishes, can emit VOCs for several weeks, or even months. Dust mop treatments, floor strippers, floor finishes, window cleaners, and disinfectants, all emit airborne chemicals. Careful evaluation of the chemical emissions of these products and use of low emitters will ensure limited environmental impact. In instances where poor product screening has been performed, increased maintenance frequency may actually worsen IAQ complaints.

The activity of cleaning, as well, may negatively affect air quality. The training of staff in appropriate cleaning procedures is often mentioned, but the importance of training is rarely underscored. There are correct and incorrect procedures for activities as simple as, for example, pushing a dry mop. Incorrect dust mopping can increase indoor particulates to inappropriate levels, exposing not only the maintenance staff to respirable particles, but also other occupants of the building.

A problem that may be encountered by facility maintenance personnel is that the ventilation (HVAC) system is shut down during the hours when maintenance activities are taking place. Some activities, such as buffing and burnishing of hard floors may generate greater than 10,000 micrograms of particles per cubic meter of air. When the HVAC system is shut down, these particles are not removed from the breathing zone and settle on interior surfaces, where they can be resuspended by normal occupant activity. While these activities generate significant particle counts, operation of the HVAC system may assist in lowering these concentrations more quickly.

Another activity, vacuuming carpet, may generate significant particle counts if filtration and containment is not adequate. While the primary reason to purchase a vacuum is to remove soil, it is also important to avoid generation of respirable particles. Careful vacuum cleaner selection can result in limited impact on and, possibly, improvement of indoor air quality and also can reduce the time necessary to perform superior maintenance. Recognizing the importance of each of these factors, the carpet industry, through the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI), has established the CRI Indoor Air Quality Vacuum Cleaner Testing Program.

Through this testing program, CRI quickly learned that some vacuum cleaners that use HEPA or high efficiency filtration remove little or no soil, and that others remove a generous amount of soil, but exhaust a substantial portion of the particles into the breathing zone. Some vacuums perform well in soil removal and dust filtration, but severely damage the appearance of carpet pile in the process.

With those findings, CRI established very strict standards for vacuum cleaner performance in each of three areas of interest – soil removal, particulate emission or dust filtration, and fiber appearance impact. To qualify for displaying the CRI "green" label, a vacuum cleaner must meet published guidelines for each of the three areas. All three elements must work together to achieve satisfactory results. Of the vacuums tested to date, less than half meet the strict criteria.

The CRI Indoor Air Quality Vacuum Cleaner Testing Program has been designed with the end user/consumer in mind. Its goal is to provide an informed comparison of the performance of vacuum cleaners and the reduction of particulate emissions that can hamper IAQ improvement efforts. However, since the program is voluntary for vacuum cleaner manufacturers, the end user/consumer must request vacuum cleaners that display the CRI label. Labeled products should be available for purchase by Spring 1999. Program details can be reviewed on CRI’s web site at carpet-rug.com.

Maintenance alone cannot solve all the ills of a facility. While a quality maintenance program, utilizing carefully selected products and equipment and trained personnel, cannot ensure good indoor air quality, such a program may actually assist in identifying the true cause of IAQ complaints by process of elimination.

About the Author
Michael Hilton was the original creator of Carpet Buyers Handbook. Having owned and operated a carpet wholesale company, Hilton has a vast knowledge about all-things carpet related as well as other types of flooring.

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