Checking Indoor Air Quality With The Awair Element

This neat little device can tell you a lot.

Awair on Mantlepiece

Lloyd Alter

Thanks to COVID-19, a lot of people have been talking about indoor air quality (IAQ) this year. Carbon dioxide monitoring, in particular, is having a moment. In September, Zhe Peng and Jose Jimenez of the University of Colorado released a paper concluding that "Indoor CO2 measurements by low-cost sensors hold promise for mass monitoring of indoor aerosol transmission risk for COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases." Dr. Shelly Miller explains:

"Every time you exhale, you release CO2 into the air. Since the coronavirus is most often spread by breathing, coughing, or talking, you can use CO2 levels to see if the room is filling up with potentially infectious exhalations. The CO2 level lets you estimate if enough fresh outside air is getting in. Outdoors, CO2 levels are just above 400 parts per million (ppm). A well-ventilated room will have around 800 ppm of CO2. Any higher than that and it is a sign the room might need more ventilation."

Other issues that we have talked about a lot this year are particulate matter (PM), gas stoves and kitchen ventilation, humidity, and healthy houses. While I was not planning to have crowds in my home during the pandemic, I was interested in the levels of all of these things, so I ordered an Awair Element air quality monitor to check them out.

Awair measures
Lloyd Alter

The Awair Element monitors the following things:

  • Temperature
  • Humidity (important because being between 40% and 60% minimizes virus travel and keeps your mucous membranes moist)
  • CO2 (a proxy for ventilation, and unhealthy above 1000)
  • Volatile organic compounds (released from cooking and from cleaning chemicals)
  • PM2.5 (the most dangerous small particles that can get deep into your lungs and get into your bloodstream. Recommended limits vary, but the US short-term standard is 35 micrograms per cubic meter of air (µg/m3))

There are lots of air quality monitors out there, but I liked the Awair because it had an appropriate mix of measurements for a residential interior (although I would have liked to also have NO2); it connected to my phone and keeps a record so that I could track the air quality over time; I knew people who had it and were satisfied, and it was a cute little thing that didn't look like some computer readout and doesn't look too out of place on the mantelpiece.

To be honest, I expected the Awair to be bored most of the time. There are only two of us in the apartment with few visitors these days, our heating is hot water radiators so there are no fans blowing air around from room to room. This turned out not to be the case.

Potato Latkes
Lloyd Alter

The day after I got the Awair happened to be the start of the Jewish holiday Chanukka, and my wife Kelly was making the traditional potato latkes in the morning, fried in oil on a gas stove with an exhaust hood venting to the exterior. The Awair is not in the kitchen but was in the separate dining room just next to the doorway connecting them.

I am not happy that my wife insists on having a gas range, but made sure that we had a good exhaust hood the right distance from the range, with a very short straight vent to the outside. it was running the whole time.

PM2.5 levels
Lloyd Alter

PM2.5 levels shot through the recommended limits to over a hundred and were up there for over an hour.

CO2 levels
Lloyd Alter

CO2 levels rose to over 1000 ppm for about an hour during cooking, and then up to a peak of 1216 at dinner time when the rest of the meal was cooking and my daughter and her family (they live upstairs in my duplexed house) came down for dinner. So just four adults and a bit of cooking put CO2 into levels that can cause drowsiness and impair thinking. (More on this from Awair.)

VOC levels
Lloyd Alter

Volatile organic compound (VOC) levels were strangely silent during the cooking around noon, but went through the roof for about five minutes just before dinner, then settled down to a bit over 1,000 for the next two hours. I don't know what could have caused such a wild spike at 6:55, perhaps that was when the oven door was opened. Awair says that 1,000 is the healthy recommended limit. They note that "It’s important to keep VOC levels in your home low since they’re notorious for causing a variety of health effects. Short-term effects of VOC exposure have been known to cause dizziness, coughing and sneezing, headaches, nausea, sinus congestion, irritated eyes, nose, throat, and skin – and fatigue."

Greater detail
Lloyd Alter

I was able to get greater detail because another handy feature of the app is that you can download the data and read it in five-minute intervals. I learned a lot from this unit in only one night; even my wife is rethinking her position that I will have to pry her gas stove away from her.

  • It proves the importance of a good quality, properly engineered exhaust fan that vents to the outside, and the total pointlessness of a recirculating fan that doesn't catch any of this stuff.
  • Although a lot of VOCs and particulates actually come from the cooking of the food, it's yet more proof that it's time to give up on gas.
  • It reinforces my position that open kitchens may be wonderful for socializing, but they are terrible for air quality.
  • It suggests to me that everyone should have a monitor of some kind that warns them when they really should open a window or go for a walk.
notifications on phone
Lloyd Alter

I am learning other things all the time from the Awair, as it sends notifications to my phone and Apple watch, with sudden spikes at weird times. What would cause VOCs to spike in the middle of the day like that? (I could do without the dumb recommendation, this was over a thousand!) It's like the house has a mind of its own. But then the house is 110 years old and still a bit leaky, it might be coming from outside. I will monitor it over time and see if I can figure this out.

Awair at rest
Lloyd Alter

But in general, I am happy to see the little Awair Element displaying a high 97 overall air quality rating most of the time. I think it was a good investment; it is easy to use, unobtrusive and it is providing useful data. I think everyone should have a monitor of some kind, but I am impressed with this one.

View Article Sources
  1. Peng, Z, and JL Jimenez. "Exhaled CO2 As COVID-19 Infection Risk Proxy For Different Indoor Environments And Activities". Europe PMC, 2020, doi:10.1101/2020.09.09.20191676.

  2. "The Importance Of Balancing Your Home's Humidity". Griffith Energy Services, 2016.

  3. "Carbon Dioxide". Wisconsin Department Of Health Services, 2020.

  4. "Fine Particles (PM 2.5) Questions And Answers". Health.Ny.Gov, 2020.