Six Challenges to Achieving Optimal IAQ in Multi-family Buildings

Indoor air quality landed on the radar of consumers worldwide in 2020 due to an airborne virus that turned into a global pandemic. However, improving the IAQ in some buildings proved more challenging than others. 

Apartment dwellers face a variety of obstacles to reach optimal IAQ conditions as they are most likely sharing air with fellow residents, even if quarantined to their homes. Likewise, since the virus travels via droplets that can remain airborne for minutes to hours, an infected person can cough or even breathe in a hallway or shared common areas and infect people without ever encountering them.

In fact, multi-family housing residents face IAQ risks in addition to those associated with COVID-19. According to the Global Indoor Health Network, half of all illnesses globally can be traced to indoor air pollutants. Multi-family buildings are particularly susceptible to experiencing issues with poor IAQ for a variety of reasons, including the following six challenges: 

1. Air moves between apartments. 

A variety of factors influence air movement in a building. For example, not only indoor conditions like temperature, humidity and building design, but also outside factors like wind velocity and direction as well as outdoor temperatures. Inside a building, air naturally moves from higher pressure areas to lower pressure areas through any hole or passage it can find, carrying humidity, dust and pathogens with it. Buildings lacking proper seals are at risk of air moving directly from one apartment to another. 

2. Polluted outdoor air isn’t fresh.

People commonly open windows to “let in fresh air” when their IAQ becomes problematic.  However, what happens when the outdoor air is more polluted than the indoor air? As many multi-family buildings are found in urban areas, they naturally face a greater risk of outside air pollution. When apartment dwellers open their windows, they are actually inviting even worse air into their homes. 

3. Older buildings weren’t designed with IAQ in mind. 

Multi-family buildings usually weren’t designed for controlled IAQ until 1973 when the American Society of Heating Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers first published ventilation standards with IAQ in mind. Most multi-family buildings in large urban centers like New York and Chicago were constructed prior to 1973. Newly constructed multi-family properties on the other hand, are generally designed with ventilation systems that control the exchange of indoor and outdoor air as well as the movement of indoor air. 

4. Open windows increase energy consumption.

If the outdoor air is fairly free of pollutants, apartment residents might improve their IAQ by opening some windows, allowing any polluted or stagnant indoor air to escape the dwelling. While this might be an effective strategy in some places, it also serves as a double-edged sword since opening windows often increases the energy an HVAC system needs to properly control the indoor climate. 

5. Humidity is difficult to control in many multi-family buildings.

Controlling indoor humidity levels more effectively limits the spread of pathogens like COVID-19 than any outdoor air solution. Moisture levels can only be controlled effectively in buildings designed with central air handling systems that both humidify and dehumidify the air. Most multi-family buildings lack these features, putting apartment dwellers at greater risk of viral exposure in the winter when outdoor humidity levels are cold and dry. Residents can, however, utilize personal devices to try and control humidity levels in their units.

6. Multi-family buildings can be a haven for indoor pollutants.

Other residents aren’t the only source of indoor air pollution in multi-family housing. Sources like old asbestos, gas-powered appliances, paint and cleaning products can negatively affect the IAQ in a multi-family building. Other indoor pollutants common in multi-family housing include pesticides, smoke, furnishings and even air fresheners.

Regular HVAC maintenance, including frequent filter changes, can only help to improve the IAQ in multi-family buildings. Motili’s multi-family clients benefit from preventative maintenance programs that have been shown to boost resident satisfaction by double digit percentages.


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