Canada’s on fire this summer. Certain regions across Canada regularly experience wildfires in the normal season, which typically runs from early April to late October, according to National Resources Canada.
At the time of publication, there was a total of 80 uncontrolled active fires, 107 being held, 181 controlled, and 64 with modified responses. As wildfires continue to ravage many regions of Canada, particularly in Alberta, Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Ontario, the impact on air quality has become quite concerning. “The massive amounts of smoke and pollutants released during these fires have led to deteriorating outdoor air quality. In such circumstances, it becomes crucial for building owners, managers, and homeowners to prioritize indoor air quality to protect the health and well-being of occupants,” explains Mohamed Fouda, HVAC/IAQ category management for Wolseley Canada and an ASHRAE distinguished lecturer.
“The thick smoke generated by these fires contains harmful pollutants such as particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, and other toxic gases. When inhaled, these pollutants can lead to respiratory issues, aggravate allergies, and compromise overall health. The concentration of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) in the air rises dramatically during wildfires, posing a severe risk to individuals, particularly those with pre-existing respiratory conditions.” These particles are what you see when you see smoke in the sky.
“These small particles impact human health by infiltrating your lungs and causing health problems,” explains Jon Douglas, director of Johnson Controls’ healthy building services and solutions. “Outdoor air quality can also impact the air quality inside buildings. Most buildings bring in outside air to improve indoor air quality. If that outside air is not filtered, it can increase the particulate matter inside the building.”
Nowadays, people tend to spend a significant amount of time indoors. So, what can be done when the indoor air quality is worse than the typically fresh outdoor air? According to Gord Cooke, president of Building Knowledge Canada, there are a few steps that can be made to increase the quality of indoor air. The first is to reduce or remove the source of pollutants. “In both homes and commercial buildings, make sure the ventilation system is operating properly — just the right amount of air per person — and as the fresh air is brought in, pass it through a filter with at least a MERV 11-13 value,” shares Cooke. The ventilation system can also be shut off for brief periods of time so that the air can be recirculated.
Homes and buildings that are airtight will ensure that poor outdoor air will remain where it,s supposed to be — outside. “Conduct an air tightness test and seal up as many holes as possible in the envelope – around windows, plumbing, heating, and electrical penetrations. Airtight homes such as R-2000 or Energy Star homes with properly controlled fresh air ventilation systems that have good filters in them are known to provide better indoor air quality control than older, leakier homes with no mechanical ventilation,” explains Cooke.
Some other ways to ensure building owners/homeowners are properly protecting the occupants’ health is by making sure the building has received up-to-date scheduled HVAC maintenance. Regular inspection and maintenance of HVAC systems ensure optimal performance and air filtration efficiency, reports Fouda. Other ways of deactivating volatile organic compounds and bioaerosols (this can be done by installing equipment such as UVC, photocatalytic oxidation (PCO), or bipolar ionization systems), or installing portable air purifiers.
“Protecting occupants’ health during these events requires upgrading your HVAC system and utilizing the available IAQ solutions,” explains Fouda. “By drawing on lessons learned during the pandemic, individuals and building owners can better prepare for future events like wildfires, ensuring the highest level of indoor air quality and safeguarding the well-being of occupants.”
The pandemic highlighted the importance of managing indoor air quality in buildings. “One of the key tools for managing the COVID pandemic is filtration. And it turns out, these same tools are good for managing the risk due to forest fires,” explains Douglas.
Problems associated with maintaining indoor air quality are typically not addressed as it is harder to tell when issues do arise. This is very unlike when a furnace or air conditioner breaks down and the occupant can simply tell it isn’t working properly due to the fact they are hot or cold. “Any problems in the building that are associated with comfort tend to get raised and fixed. People do not know whether they are getting good indoor air quality. So, problems associated with maintaining the indoor air quality systems are typically not addressed,” explained Douglas.