Sensors at the Office: An Experiment in Indoor Air Quality Testing

When we think of air quality and the environment, all sorts of images come to mind—parks, rivers, great open spaces, but also traffic-clogged highways and towering smokestacks. There’s one thing all these spaces have in common. They’re outside.

But the indoor environment has often been overlooked when thinking about air quality and wellness. The EPA notes that Americans spend on average 90% of their time indoors. Over the course of a year that means we’re spending barely over a month outside and nearly 11 months inside our homes, cars, and other buildings.

Some of the different types of hardware that can be used to collect environmental data with Kosmos.
Some of the different types of hardware that can be used to collect environmental data with Kosmos.

If These Workplaces Could Talk…

For many people, the office is where the majority of their time indoors and awake is spent. And unlike at home, people usually have less control over their office environment, whether by adjusting the thermostat or opening a window.

But our offices have a big impact on how we feel, how productive we are, and the outdoor environment. Together, residential and commercial buildings are responsible for nearly 40% of carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. Since commercial buildings are usually managed at a larger scale and regularly unoccupied on nights, weekends, and holidays, they are a prime opportunity for reducing carbon emissions in general.

So we decided to see what indoor air quality testing sensors could tell us about offices across New York City.

Indoor Air Quality Testing With Crowd Science

This past fall we started hosting workshops for groups interested in learning how connected sensors and the Internet of Things can be used in their industries. But instead of lasting just one evening, these workshops serve to kick off weeks-long crowd science experiments around indoor air quality testing.

A recent workshop at Temboo where we kicked off our indoor air quality testing experiment
A recent workshop at Temboo

We’ve been teaching participants how to use Temboo’s Kosmos IoT System and then sending them off with Nordic Thingy:52s, small Bluetooth devices with temperature, humidity, air pressure, and CO2 sensors.

Each participant then sets up their own Thingy at their office to send air quality data to Kosmos automatically for the next two weeks or so. Even though we’re just getting started with these workshops, we’re already learning a lot.

Yes, It’s Too Hot (Or Cold) In Here

In one of our experiment groups, we looked at ideal ambient office temperatures. Some research pegs ideal working temperature conditions at 77° F for women and 71.6° for men.

However, over the course of the study period, the data showed that overall the buildings were in this temperature range 57% of the time. Looking at the individual offices, we see that only maintained ideal office temperatures nearly all of the time. And two offices were almost never the right temperature.

Indoor air quality testing graph of percentage of time spent in optimal temperature ranges

Clearly, some of workshop participants are spending a lot time in offices that are less than comfortable, likely affecting their overall well-being and productivity.

Indoor Air Quality Testing On Nights & Weekends

In the two study groups that we’ve completed so far, both have shown that buildings were overheated during nights and weekends when they are often unoccupied.

three-day temperature trend graph

The three-day temperature trend shown above from one of studies indicates that locations 3 and 8 in particular could save a lot of energy and costs by reducing their heating usage during unoccupied hours.

Indoor air quality testing: five-day temperature trend graph

And the five-day temperature trend from another study also shows no identifiable difference in temperatures during nights and weekends. These office buildings could be saving money and helping the environment by better managing their heating.

Need A Glass Of Water?

In one of the study groups we looked at indoor humidity. While the EPA recommends an indoor relative humidity range of 30% to 50%, only one of the locations monitored met this target.

Graph of relative humidity versus temperature across locations

All of the other locations were too dry. If you ever experience a dry throat or mouth at work, low humidity levels are likely the culprit. While this may not be a big concern, it does affect overall comfort and productivity over time.

Time To Tackle Indoor Carbon Dioxide Emissions

Carbon emissions are typically discussed in the context of global warming, but carbon dioxide has a much more immediate and local effect on you indoors. Stuffy conference room air can even make you dumber!

Offices put multiple people together in the same location, often more densely and for longer periods of time than other indoor spaces. And since we produce carbon dioxide with every breath we take, a crowded or poorly ventilated office can quickly have too much of it.

Graph of percentage of time spent in unsafe CO2 levels by locations

In our first study group, we saw that CO2 levels were hazardous 17% of the time across all locations. OSHA recommends CO2 levels remain below 1000ppm or else complaints such as headaches, fatigue, and eye and throat irritation will become more widespread.

Graph of percentage of time spent in unsafe CO2 levels by location

Our second study showed similar results: CO2 levels were hazardous 23% of time across these locations. However, the differences between individual locations were much less pronounced in this group than the previous one.

These early results indicate that many people are spending a lot of their workday in environments with bad air. That fatigue or stuffiness you feel during long meeting or day isn’t just a post-lunch slump or the result of a bad night’s sleep. It’s often caused by too much carbon dioxide.

CO2 Levels Are Very Volatile

We took a close look at how volatile CO2 levels are compared to temperature readings in one of our study groups.

Graph of 24-hour CO2 trend by location

The above snap of CO2 levels across six locations on November 14 demonstrates the volatility of carbon dioxide levels across one day. An individual analysis of carbon levels across a longer period also showed a higher standard deviation compared to the variance in temperature levels over the same period.

The higher volatility of CO2 levels could indicate that it is easier to address hazardous CO2 levels than unideal temperature conditions. Since the CO2 levels are so sensitive to the presence of people and ventilation, they can often be addressed by simply turning a fan on, leaving a door open, or adding regular breaks to longer meetings.

Breathing Easy On Thanksgiving And Black Friday

While Thanksgiving is known for stuffing, it’s definitely a day when offices are much less stuffy. Because no one’s there!

Graph of CO2 levels across locations during the week of Thanksgiving

This graph shows the CO2 levels are two of our study locations over the week of Thanksgiving. It demonstrates how dramatically human activity in buildings affects carbon dioxide levels.

Bring Kosmos to Your Work for Indoor Air Quality Testing

Wondering how your office stacks up? Sign up for Kosmos trial, check out the environmental sensors we support, and get in touch so that we can help you get set up.

Even better, if you’re in the NYC area, reach out to us directly to see about running a workshop with us where we put the Internet of Things right in your hands. Our no-code platform means anyone can set up an indoor air quality testing application and start collecting useful data quickly.