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Denver Public Schools installs sensors to monitor air quality in schools in real time

Air quality sensor
Posted at 4:56 PM, Dec 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-14 19:50:31-05

DENVER — This week, the state’s Air Quality Control Commission is listening to public testimony on its plan to reduce ozone pollution in Colorado. The plan promises to bring the state within 2008 federal Clean Air Act standards by 2027.

While officials debate the merits of the proposal, Denver Public Schools (DPS) isn’t waiting to address air quality for its students.

This year the district installed hundreds of sensors in all of its schools to monitor air quality. The district dedicated $1.5 million from its federal funding to the program.

The sensors monitor carbon dioxide levels, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, ozone, formaldehyde and more.

“Additionally, our IoT platform enables us to capture energy and HVAC performance data to help property managers improve indoor air quality without sacrificing sustainability,” Serene Al-Momen, CEO and co-founder of Attune, which made the sensors DPS uses, said in a statement to Denver7.

The schools and district are then sent the data in real time so they can make changes for the sake of students.

“In real time, we can change out a filter, we can close or open windows, close or open doors and understand if there's too many students in a particular area,” said district spokesman Javier Ibarra.

So far, the district has already noticed interesting data points from the sensors, such as schools that are experiencing high particulates on hot days.

In one instance, the district noticed a spike at one school around 9 a.m. each day and was able to deduce that school staff was spraying aerosols like Febreze in the air around the same time, so it was able to adjust.

“As you can imagine, we have a lot of buildings that are historic buildings. And so updating some of those buildings can cost quite a bit of money,” Ibarra said. “What this helps is long term, we'll be able to make changes to our air quality system.”

It’s a step environmental engineers like Mark Hernandez from the University of Colorado at Boulder are encouraged by.

Hernandez says the issue of air quality took center stage during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it's something that goes beyond respiratory illness.

“I think it's an ethical issue. Comfort is not enough, and what we learned actually prior to COVID was poor ventilation, particularly in and around CO2 levels, is if we allow stale air to build up, carbon dioxide to build up, that affects cognitive function,” he said.

Hernandez led a project to install these sensors in schools on a trial basis. His research found that for less than $100 per student, schools can not only monitor the air quality effectively but also mitigate risks.

“You can't manage what you don't measure,” he said. “It's inexpensive enough and important enough that we can do it.”

Hernandez's initial research also found a large performance distribution along buildings. Some new and old buildings performed well with air quality standards, while others performed poorly.

He hopes DPS will be able to use the data to determine where to focus its financial resources for air quality improvements. Eventually, this data could also be used to change school schedules if a bad air quality day is projected for a particular area.

“As much as a snow day would inhibit people from getting to school safely, how about if we have a wildfire day or a temperature aversion or an ozone alert? Is that the safest thing to do? And could we manage our school schedules differently?” Hernandez said.

It’s something DPS says is already under consideration based on forest fires, hot summer days and overall air quality.

While DPS is one of the first in the state to install these sensors, the district hopes to be a model for others on how this data can help protect the health and safety of students.