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The Dangers in Overlooking Humidity Levels in Your Office Space

Risks to worker health, productivity and office efficiency can be reduced by ensuring you have proper humidity control.

People walking through a commercial office

Picture yourself. You’re at your office desk for eight or more hours a day, fluorescent lights whirring above your head. The is air is dry to the point where your throat is scratchy and the static electricity zaps you every time you move from your chair. Or conversely, you’re dripping wet with the cloying feel of wetness on your clothes, chairs and papers. In either scenario, you experience discomfort and you find it difficult to do your work.

The U.S. Department of Labor, who sets occupational safety and health guidelines, recommend humidity ranges from 20% to 60% for offices with temperatures in the 68 to 76-degree range.

However, there are many reasons to know humidity levels in the workplace that go beyond the comfort of employees and clients inhabiting a workplace or space.

Too dry and the electrostatic discharge can wreak havoc on those expensive computer systems. Too wet and you can create an environment ripe for a black mold infestation. And to make matters more complicated, a new study shows that COVID-19 virus decays faster at close to 60 percent relative humidity than at other levels, so there’s an even greater incentive to keep workplace environments a constant temperature.

On the latest installment of the Elevated Environments podcast, Phillip Ruane talks to Environments' CEO Erin McDannald and Systems Engineer Joe Plakinger about what could happen with poorly humidified offices and the new tools that can be employed to know that something may be amiss before it becomes a real financial cost for your business.

(The following is a transcript from the Elevated Environments podcast.)

Phillip Ruane: During the summer we had very, very good air quality. The humidity ranges were excellent and we were about 50 - 60%. It was perfect for not only electronics, but also for mitigating the spread of COVID-19, which was a huge priority for us. It was achieved through the rooftop cooling units. They brought in the warm, wet air of summer, and as a result, we had good humidity levels.

As the summer turned into winter, though, we saw those levels dwindle in November. It dropped to about 30%, and then down to 20%, sometimes under 20% in December. These numbers put us at great risk for damage to the electrical equipment, and it could also potentially cause greater spread of the COVID-19 virus in our space, although the office is still not fully occupied. Anyway, there were two issues that were important enough to discuss in greater detail.

So, I invited the CEO of Environments Erin McDannald and Systems Engineer, Joe Plakinger, on to discuss the issue. Joe is going to speak about the issue from his perspective as a systems engineer who's worked on data centers and understands the relationship between too high or too low humidity levels to electronics. Erin is going to give us a business owners perspective, both as an actual business owner of Environments, and also somebody who focuses on technology and IoT integration.

Anyway, we'd like to welcome both CEO Erin McDannald and systems engineer Joe back into the show.

Welcome to the Elevated Environments podcast.

Erin McDannald: Good to be here.

Joe Plakinger: Thank you, it’s great to be here.

PR: I wanted to start with this question. We've kind of gone over that you (Joe) were monitoring our air quality in general and you noticed that there was a problem over the time. Could you give me a little background on the issue, and how you discovered that issue?

JP: Yes. So, we've definitely been monitoring the air quality down at our site ever since we installed some of these sensors within the spaces and everything. And, in looking over the metrics on there, we had noticed that the humidity was very low. Coming into winter, and in looking at that, we also decided to place an additional sensor within our network room, and the humidity was exceptionally low within that space. And that's when we really decided that we needed to address the issue in maybe a little bit more timely of a manner.

PR: Now, what are the air quality tools that you're using to track this do you, do you have a specific sensor that you're using?

JP: We have two different types of sensors down at our office. We have the Awair sensor, and the Verkada S11 sensor. The Awair Omni sensor is wall mountable or able to be placed on a desk to monitor the quality of the air within those spaces, and the Verkada S11 sensor is either wall mountable or mountable to the ceiling. I've moved one of the Awair Omni sensors into the network room, just to monitor the air quality within that space, specifically the humidity.

PR: And so, this is measuring and other metrics, right? This isn't just humidity?

JP: No, it also monitors our Co2 levels within the space, TVOCs and the PM 2.5, which is your dust levels. It also monitors light levels and noise levels within the space, as well.

PR: But the humidity has been the real issue ever since winter came about, is that is that fair to say?

JP: That is definitely fair to say.

PR: This hardware software-based solution, does it give you a picture of the historical levels?

JP: Yes, so you can look back ever since the sensors were installed at our facility where you can look back over time and see the ranges of air quality that you've been within and the ranges that you've been within on the specific metrics that it’s monitoring. You can either look at it online, on the Awair dashboard or on the Verkada dashboard. Or you can also export these out to an Excel spreadsheet and look at it that way, where you can make your own graphs, and so on.

PR: So, Erin, I'd like to ask you from a business perspective as a business person. Do you have a direct interest in humidity levels?

EM: Well, we started monitoring air quality post COVID as a result of a part of a bigger system-wide intelligent office system. But we've always been focused on wellness within our space. And our first intent to monitor the air quality was to understand what’s in the air that we were breathing, and whether the humidity levels are in safe ranges to prevent pathogens from spreading. And we found that, you know, in the very beginning, I think we installed the air quality sensors early in the fall, maybe I feel like it was August. But we had really great air quality for a period of time. And then the overall score started to decline. And as the weather started to get colder, and particularly when we hit January, the overall score on our Awair sensors really declined, and began to sound the alarms and let us know that the humidity levels were below levels for the server rooms. And he (Joe) can explain more about that.

PR: Yeah. So, Joe what is the perfect humidity level for a network room or a server room?

JP: So, really you want to be around at the same levels that we are for any occupied space you're really looking for that 40 to 50% range. You can get closer to 60%, and you're still within a safe range. We're getting down in the 20 and below percent range where, really, you're starting to look at potential static discharge from certain pieces of equipment and where we can take down an entire network in your office. So, at that point we felt we had to address that room specifically but also the entire office itself. For safety and well-being.

PR: And some static discharge in a server room could create a downtime event, which is a very costly thing for any business site soon.

JP: Yes, yes. In this case, it could take the entire business down for several days.

PR: Yeah. What kind of effect might that have on your business?

EM: Well, obviously it's not good, so we don't want that. But it brought to light a lot of questions and thoughts that we have moving forward as buildings become more intelligent. As we have built our lights and our thermostats and our sensors into a one digital layer within our spaces, it becomes its own network. And so, if you don't control your humidity, you can't control pathogens. But what has essentially become a living breathing data center could all go down, because we aren't keeping our humidity levels up. And that's a significant investment. So, we definitely need to take all the measures that we can to protect the people and the equipment within the space. And I think it really is going to challenge the design community moving forward, to start considering some of these things when they're building their buildings.

PR: Yeah, absolutely. We already rely on technology so much just for day-to-day emails and computing and all that, but now imagine when we have smart buildings, and every sensor is tied to a central location. One failure has a potential to just lose tremendous amounts of time, and productivity.

EM: I equated it a little bit to an LED board. When you think about how they're very sensitive to voltage fluctuations, you would think of it the same way. This is sensitive to static discharge, so precautions need to be made to accommodate those things.

PR: Well, that's a great point just in general about how costly this could potentially be. I'm curious as to how to address such a thing. So, I looked at some of the historical data and I noticed that there is this huge spike of humidity levels on Christmas day when everybody was out of the office, so I was wondering if there was some sort of explanation for that.

JP: Yes, it was raining that day and the HVAC system actually brings in outside air for the heating system. And when it rains outside, obviously the exterior of the building has a higher humidity, and it brings that humidity inside.

PR: Well, I think we solved the problem, we just have to make sure that it rains more often right.

JP: Or move the office out to Seattle.

PR: That's, please, no more moving. So, that's definitely an interesting thing, but we can't control the weather really, we can't make it rain. What are some other things that we might do to mitigate the problem?

JP: So, within the office space, we're looking at an entire space humidifier, where it will actually increase the humidity levels if it reaches a certain level and it will decrease the humidity, if it starts exceeding certain levels. There are a number of different brands that use the same type of technology and everything that you can do evaporate humidification. And that's what we're looking at right now.

PR: Now is the system like this intelligent? Can it be tied into a smart building, or is it something that you got to manually work?

JP: It would be tied in with our smart building, and making sure that we can control it through our application that we're working on. And also, that we would be getting alarms and notifications, if the system went out of spec, or if there was a water leak or any of the other issues that might come along with it.

PR: Gotcha. How important would you say the measuring of air quality, in this case humidity, in general? Is this something that you would have noticed, if you had just been in the office kind of sitting around? Would you have known that there was a problem with the humidity levels?

JP: So, the office space currently does feel a bit dry. When we are within that space here, you kind of feel that dehydrated feeling within the space at this time. Okay, I wouldn't be able to say yes, we're at 20% right now. I am not that much of a psychic. But I would be able to go, okay, this definitely feels dry in here and we would all be noticing that we needed to drink more water.

EM: I noticed you can definitely feel it. And I was curious to see what the numbers were going to be when they came out. And excited to have real data to be able to act on the insights that we found, and be able to hone in on exactly where we need to be, which is great. So, the actual measurable results will come of this that I'm excited about, you know. Phil, in one of your earlier podcasts, you talked about what it would cost per employee for sick time, do you remember that?

PR: I remember that. The CDC during non-COVID times used to estimate that the average cost per employee per year was about $1,000 for employee illness. That doesn't necessarily mean that each employee is going to cost you that exact number. They're averaging it out across the company, but that's a big number. One thousand dollars doesn't sound like much until you have a 50-person company, and at a 50-person company you're losing $50,000 per year to lost productivity because of sickness. It's billions of dollars of expenses in the U.S. alone every year and this is non-COVID-related employee illness. So that's a big number. If you can address that with an employee wellness program that mitigates illness through controlling humidity, maybe GUV lighting, maybe just better health practices. If you can curb employee sickness by 60%, you're saving $30,000 for a 50-person company.

EM: That's right. And I think that's a significant number to make to make moves on. It's interesting because I think that that goes beyond air quality, it goes beyond employee wellness programs, and really taking care of the environment that we all are living in. Over the years, we've densified our spaces, there's more people packed into smaller spaces with our company. We just made a conscious decision that we would give the maximum square footage per employee that the design world recommended as opposed to the minimum, because we thought that over densifying spaces could lead to these types of issues. However, moving forward, from a densification and air quality perspective, we plan to de-densify our spaces further. Adding humidification to help with pathogens spread as part of that entire employee wellness package.

PR: That's great. So, there have been a few studies that have shown that a humidity level of about 60% does a world of good for mitigating the spread of COVID-19, which is one of the things that most people are very concerned about right now. And my question is this - I think 60% humidity to be kind of hot and uncomfortable. Is there some kind of balance that we have to meet and maintain between employee comfort and humidity levels that suppress the spread of COVID?

JP: Yes, definitely. We definitely want to keep it below the 80% range because that's when you start getting condensation issues, and really, when you start hitting 55%, and more. You're also starting to look at mold issues potentially becoming an issue. So, you start having that issue of yes, I'm cutting down the risk of a pathogen such as COVID-19 or the influenza virus being able to travel, but you're also increasing the issue of having potential mold issues build up within the space. Most of these humidification units also have the option to be a dehumidifier. So, you can do the balancing act, a little bit easier if you do get one of these units installed.

EM: Right now, are there any intelligent aspects to any of these systems that we can tie into our smart office?

JP: So yes, you can definitely tie them into a smart office environment where you can control them from a building management system. You can get them alarming to your building management system, sending out text messages, sending out alarm emails. Everything where you can definitely tie these things in and adjust the system on the fly with those. You can also have it where it will send you alarms, if a piece of equipment is starting to fail. And you're starting to notice things going out of the parameters that are set up within the system itself as well.

EM: Can you program them to react?

JP: Oh yes. You will be able to see it to go okay if it reaches 35%, I'm going to start humidifying. And if I reach 65% I need to dehumidify the space.

EM: Now can you program it to react, not just to humidification but can you program, perhaps the HVAC to go on when the VOC’s are higher?

JP: Yes, yes you can put in these types of sensors within the space where it will be able to react to those types of things. Or, we can also set it to air, you know your fans if you have exhaust fans within the space, those will turn on. If they hit specific parameters as well.

PR: Those are really important questions to ask. And I think it ties quite nicely into something that Environments is developing -- a dashboard where you can get all this data reported and make some changes on the fly. But I think that's a conversation for another podcast, perhaps, and I think we can leave it there. Do you guys have anything else that you'd like to add or talk to about, humidity or air quality in general?

EM: Really excited about the insights that we're getting from our new smart space and we can't wait to continue to show them to you and let you know how we're reacting to them. And hopefully be able to mitigate some of these things on a proactive level for some of our clients. And I think that's really important because we now have one client that we're already dealing with them on a humanity, with a new construction so they're changing parameters to make it a healthier space from the start. So, I think what we've started what we've had hoped to accomplish when building this space and gaining these insights and collecting this data and being able to share it with the world is something that that's really important to us as a company.

PR: Well said. And thank you, thank you both for coming on today and helping me out and we look forward to having you back real soon.

EM: Thank you.

JP: I appreciate it. Thank you very much.

Want to hear more? The Elevated Environments podcast is streaming now.


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