Protecting Indoor Air Quality from Wildfire Smoke

August 18, 2021

This is a guest article from Direct Supply, an OHCA business partner. This article was originally published on the Direct Supply blog here. Direct Supply is a vendor of the OHCA member group purchasing program. Learn more here

Assessing the Threat of Wildfires in the Area

The first and most critical thing to do is to get protection from the fires themselves. Pay attention to local news sources and government agencies for advice on how to prevent fires, what fires may be in the area, and what to do in response. The USDA Forest Service maintains an online map, but local services will have more detail and the most relevant information.

Beyond the fires, the smoke itself can be a real issue. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), wildfire smoke can cause persistent coughs, headaches, shortness of breath, asthma attacks, and even cardiovascular issues such as chest pain and heart attacks. This is especially critical in senior living, as the smoke may worsen symptoms for people over 65 years of age, or with respiratory or cardiovascular diseases.

Even in areas far not close in proximity to a fire, the jet stream and natural air currents can carry the smoke chemicals and debris from the fires thousands of miles from their source. Bookmark this site to monitor up-to-date maps on fires, smoke coverage, and air quality in the area.

Protecting Residents and Staff from Wildfire Smoke

When wildfire smoke lowers air quality in the area, there are several important steps to take. The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) has created a framework for protecting building occupants from smoke, published in the March 2021 edition of the ASHRAE Journal. Below are some of the activities to consider:

  • First, plan ahead. Assess the filters and MERV ratings, ensure the system is running properly for the level of filtration and ventilation it was designed for, and weatherize the building envelope to prevent smoke intrusion. Contact TELS Building Services for assistance.
  • Second, improve filtration. If the HVAC systems allow for it, upgrade all filters in the system to at least MERV 13. Assess air intakes to determine if temporarily adding supplemental filtration with MERV 13 filters is necessary, tape temporary ducting materials. Consider adding additional types of air purification products, such as portable HEPA air filters installed in rooms where air quality is a concern.
  • Third, balance the outside air coming into the building. An indoor air quality monitor that measures PM2.5 particles can help determine if taking further steps, such as lowering the amount of outside air coming into the building is necessary. It may be beneficial to recirculate more air within the building rather than bringing in additional contaminants from wildfire smoke.
  • Lastly, keep pathogens in mind. Increasing ventilation is important for diluting the amount of infectious particles there may be in the air, but decreasing ventilation prevents wildfire smoke from entering the building’s HVAC system. Portable air filters can reduce both exposure to pathogens and smoke in the air, and thus may be a good way to balance between these two requirements.