“Maintenance teams are not part of the ‘better air quality’ equation,” highlights Dr Al-Attar

In a free-wheeling conversation, Dr Iyad Al-Attar speaks exclusively to Ranjana Konatt from Cooling India on the various aspects of air filtration. He draws noteworthy inferences to aspects from within the industry while drawing attention to the air filtration market.

A brief introduction:
Dr Iyad Al-Attar is a mechanical engineer, business innovator and air filtration consultant. He is also a Visiting Academic Fellow at the School of Aerospace, Transport and Manufacturing at Cranfield University. He received his mechanical engineering degree from the University of Toronto and his Masters from Kuwait University. His PhD is concerned with the performance of absolute pleated filters for HVAC and Gas Turbine applications with special emphasis on the chemical and physical characterization of suspended particles. In 2008, the Filtration Journal, which is the official Journal for Filtration Society and the American Filtration and Separation Society, appointed him as an international member of the Editorial board from Kuwait. Dr Al-Attar has lectured in many conferences and universities to highlight the importance of air filtration performance for various applications worldwide.

Dr Al-Attar has become recently active in the field of air pollution in an effort to research its control measures. I am a member of Kuwait Engineers Society, Filtration Society, Canadian Green Building Council, Combustion Institute, International Society of Indoor Air Quality and Climate, National Air Filtration Association, American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air-Conditioning Engineers [ASHRAE] and the American Society Mechanical Engineers.

He now speaks to Cooling India, Chary Publications in an exclusive interview:

Environmentally speaking, what is the status quo from your standpoint as far as air quality and air filtration are concerned?
The evidence of climate change owing to human activity is overwhelming. The signs are all around us: Rising temperatures, melting ice, rising sea levels, more droughts, fires, floods and severe storms. If we do not change our course of action swiftly and sharply, the consequences are going to be terrible. Simply put, what is the price tag for clean atmosphere, air, water, the environment and the sea? We are always ready to pay more for a fashion item. But when it comes to innovation that may not necessarily be visible, yet enhances our quality of life, such as advanced filtration technologies, we tend to regard them as an unnecessary expense and luxurious item.

According to sub-industry that you represent, kindly assess the air filtration and the HVAC market. Has demand scaled up in the past 3-years or has demand fallen? What are the market drivers that justify the same?
Industrial air filtration is a multi-billion market today. However, today with the coronavirus pandemic, the dynamics of such growth may be intensified. There are five main drivers that contributed to its market growth:
• Strict government emission regulations and norms globally.
• Growing demand for highly efficient and aerodynamic filters.
• Increased global energy demand.
• The frequent epidemics, outbreaks, rising air pollution beyond the thresholds.
• Increased (but not sufficient) awareness of air pollution on human health, vegetation, and climate.

Dr Iyad 1
Dr Iyad Al-Attar

What are the factors that play a crucial role when functioning in a price-sensitive market like India?
Let me be upfront about that: Air filter acquisition/ selection should be delegated to filtration experts who should conduct the site survey themselves. It is essential to appropriately select air filters for each corresponding application for effective operation. Technical guidance is imperative to equip users to avoid some of the costly mistakes that lay an ambush for those less experienced in techniques of filtration. When air filters fail to capture dust and other contaminants and they seep into and around the filter frames and its media, it becomes impossible to find their deposition coordinates in the HVAC system, and then, fixing any mistake of this nature may not necessarily rectify the situation. Other techniques such as coil washing and duct cleaning may be required to reduce but not to totally eliminate the effect of contaminants’ settlement. Let us recall that air filtration is a preventative measure to defend our HVAC systems particularly when it comes to sensitive application such as hospitals where filtration mistakes are not only expensive, but life-threatening.

How would you assess the air filtration market – are costs often miscalculated?
Air filtration is a field that encompasses a vast platform linking modern science and technology in both our day-to- day and industrial activities. Through my twenty-three years
of experience in the industry and academia, I have witnessed the interconnection of air filtration to several fields in science and technology. Providing filtered air of various efficiencies can have well-pronounced effects on HVAC equipment, gas turbine performance and many other industrial applications.

That being said, filtration must be regarded as a main tool and provider for clean air, not just as an accessory. We regard filters as expensive items with a simple cleaning function to remove pollutants. Our minds cease to grant air filter the “value” it deserves. We miscalculate the cost by equating price to value, and overlook intellectual properties, technological know-hows, research time and capital investments. By doing so, we reinforce the view that filter craftsmanship, quality and performance are peripheral to the selection criteria. We, thus bluntly declare that such critical factors are on the wrong side of our balance sheet. Perhaps, Oscar Wilde was right when he said, “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

What are the challenges around air filter acquisition, what are the aspects that need to be considered?
If some decision makers have no concern, some consultants are too busy to learn, and some contractors just want to earn, frankly…we will not go far. Air filter acquisition should be delegated to filtration experts who should conduct the site survey themselves. A well-rehearsed practice is conducting meetings to fiercely discuss substantial discounts for filter acquisition. Instead, we ought to put out our characterization tools to reveal what our lungs inhale and our eyes fail to trace. Once we reveal what was forever concealed, I am certain that there is no price we would not pay to attain the air quality needed for each specific application. We spend most of our time in indoor environments and our response system to thermal discomfort is much faster than to air pollution, unless of course, it triggers lung irritation. Two ssential aspects of filter acquisition need to be considered:
• Acquiring filters without consulting with professional filtration experts suggests that there exists one filter to “fit all applications”. It is like asking the pharmacist directly for medication to avoid the cost of consulting a doctor.
• The person who selects the filters for various processes must be certified by the government and held responsible for his/her selection.

How can we as an industry move towards better air  filtration, how can technicians if adequately appreciated, contribute to the larger scope of things?
We have just surrendered our lungs to technicians left to their own filtration devices to improvise a “dicing” air quality. Maintenance teams are not part of the “better air quality” equation. No one ever recognized the best AC technician of the month in the year. We expect them to confront the dusty filters, the excessive heat and humidity without any sort of appreciation. I believe we also need to empower and equip them with the most advanced tools; instruments provided to them should be in best working conditions to outperform. We should also be vivid about their health and safety as they are humans too and demanding the best air quality for them as we do for our kids, is simply a fair game. An ideal start is to stablish a program for HVAC maintenance teams/staff. Such a program would involve qualification, training, appropriate examinations, and eventually entice them through certification and recognition. At the end of the year, some facility individuals receive “Awards” for trapping human ccupants in polluted indoor space where they were entrusted o secure its air quality. Why not, they saved cost! But before e recognize such an Award, let us examine the cooling coil hey abandoned as shown in the figure and wonder: what and who went wrong?

A contaminated coil of fan coil unit in the absence of appropriate filtration.

Why air filter performance lacks constituency?
Filtration is location and application sensitive. Therefore, special considerations are granted to the climate conditions since they pose additional challenges to the filtration erformance. In fact, research has proven that such conditions can contribute to the deviation filter performance of that predicted by global testing laboratories. Various atmospheric pollutants can easily invade our indoor space using HVAC systems as a vehicle if left untreated. Since an adult typically breathes an average of 10 litres of air per minute, even a low concentration of airborne contaminants represents a large quantity of inhaled particles and can pose health hazards. Consequently, capturing suspended particles prior to introducing air indoors is critically important to enhancing Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) in various sectors such as residential, industrial and healthcare facilities.

How has the growth in energy affected the demand on air filters?
Air filtration is considered a vital part in the gas turbine performance as it protects the compressor blades by removing particles from the air stream. Different environments/location have various effects on the performance of gas turbines whether it be excessive  temperatures, various altitudes and ranges of relative humidity. Inlet filtration systems are designed to protect industrial gas turbines from contaminants suspended in the atmospheric air.

It is expected for the filter media technology to play a major role in the advancements of filtration performance since it is the building block of the filters. The filter media plays a vital role in the filtration performance. Emphasis should be appropriately placed on developing sophisticated and effective filter media. The utilisation of nano-fibres as an additional substrate in the micron media could open a wide array of air filtration performance enhancement, which would have positive impact on gas turbine performance and component lifetime. Filter media constitutes the core content of the filter where all the filtration process takes place. Therefore, appropriate media selection for HVAC and gas turbine application is a critical parameter as far as air filter performance is concerned.

Why is it acceptable to violate every single filtration law, textbook maintenance practice and professional air quality monitoring just to meet the price specifications for filter selection rather than the technical ones?
• Appropriate filter selection for different processes should be delegated to filtration experts who can be held responsible for their selection and not procurement managers.
• The more air we pollute, the more we need to filter.
• If all what specifications mention is filter dimensions,
Filtration disasters are bound to happen.

A&D: Disposal HEPA filters regenerated by water and compressed air.
B: Disposal pre-filters washed.
C: Disposal Fine filters washed by water

What message would like you to give to consultants, designers, owners and end users?
Now is the time to hold decision makers responsible for the air quality we are being exposed to. There is no tolerance with our respiratory systems. So, my message to them, is: Before you make your next filtration selection, whether you are a consultant or a maintenance manager, think of the helpless end users that have no say of your decisions and can only face the consequences of it. With mounting pressures of environmental changes, epidemic outbreaks, and frequent sand storms, there is no place to hide. Claiming that “clean air” must be regarded as a “human right” is merely poetry if there is lack of it in and outdoors. If these filtration stages shown in the image above represent your filtration plan to protect human occupants, remember that providing clean air is simply an ethical obligation.

How can new technology, for instance, smart filters,  contribute to developing a more mature market? How can developers, consultants work to create value-added solutions for their problems?
I honestly marvel when I witness weak filter specifications, an inaccurate filter selection, a conventional filter design, one filtration solution for most applications, ignored abrasive climate conditions, misunderstood filtration standards, poor maintenance practices, unqualified maintenance team, Expensive filtration mistakes, irrecoverable filter performance  osses, and yet we demand the best indoor air quality! We are in no position to demand any air quality prior to conducting a text filtration with professional consideration to other associated parameters.

What gaps we need to close to adjust the status quo?
Everyone has got to go the extra mile. It is no longer enough for filter companies to just pleat flat filter media and release it to the market. Filter cartridge design requires more than a facelift. We need to innovate, and that requires us to think of new ways for all HVAC components to better perform. There re multiple challenges in the grand scheme of things. To begin with, there are too many gaps to close between anufacturers, end users, consultants and buyers…let alone the suitability of the intentional standards to the regional filter performance. To make a difference we need two essential elements:
• First, we need to have an authentic approach backed with appropriate filtration plans,
• Secondly, we need a genuine commitment to implement such a plan to the last particle in the air.

Without doing so, we will always be shocked to hear the litany of the air pollution death statistics but remain silent in terms of action, as we tend to believe; it is not affecting us in the immediate future.
• Abandon the conventional: Certain filter designs, such as pocket filters are still used extensively throughout the world and have barely improved in design. In the wake of pleating machines, providing an extended surface area can be provided in much smarter techniques. We still regard filters as an accessory that has little or no significant role in the application at hand particularly, HVAC applications. One can judge how much attention filtration was granted in an air conditioning unit by taking a glimpse at the thickness/thinness of the filter installed as well as the number of stages allocated for filtration.

How can air filters help Green buildings be green?
As green building concept is entwined with enhanced indoor air quality, evidently, aerodynamic air filtration emerges as an essential provider for enhanced air quality while being energy-efficient. Clearly, appropriate filter selection, design and performance assessment are of paramount importance to HVAC designers, property owners and/or end users in achieving green goal for the building at hand. Further, accurate filter performance prediction proves invaluable in estimating the lifetime of filters and reducing HVAC energy
and maintenance operating costs.

Is there a considerable amount of engagement among consultants and building owners? Are technicians within the industry educated well-enough so as to minimise on down-time while conducting retrofits on projects?
We deal with consultant offices as the Supreme Court of technicality. Therefore, if they fail to see the value in upgrading the current specification, end users are bound to suffer. Contractors should challenge the filter specifications particularly if they are outdated, lack precision/efficiency particularly as effective solutions to deliver better performance than the ones specified. Just merely following the specifications, right or wrong, is a dicey practice. Weak, vague and/or inaccurate filter description contribute further to their inappropriate selection and make filtration mistakes expensive.

How will the high-level adoption of new filter design and filter media bring long-term benefit to the market of air conditioning? What does it mean to energy efficiency and energy optimisation?
Filter media performance plays a crucial role in providing advanced filtration solutions without compromising the overall filtration efficiency. Advancements in filtration performance is a function of filter design and media technology. Therefore, I expect filter media technology to play a major role in the advancements of filtration performance it constitutes the core content of the filter.

Appropriate media selection for each application is a critical parameter in enhancing the air quality, which involves design and media innovations, such as the enclosure of nano fibres.

In the past, HEPA filters came with a hefty pressure drop and it was a major turnoff for both designers and users. Today, the advances, in filter media and cartridge design, brought better answers to this aspect of enhancing the air quality. This emphasizes that filter acquisition/purchasing should be conducted under the immediate direction/supervision of the filtration engineer/expert in charge.

Aerodynamic HEPA filters which would provide any conservation of energy by lowering the pressure drop directly enhance power generation and reduce fuel consumption. HEPA filter designs would be of a great national and international interest. In the Sahara Desert such as the Arabian Peninsula, sand storms are frequent and suspend higher particle concentration in the air. Sand storms evaluates that dust concentration can cause bridging of particles to form dendrites on the surface of the fibrous final filters used and impair them from acting as depth filters. Consequently, the dynamics of dust loading alters and the entire filter performance deviates from that predicted by test laboratory reports.

Dust accumulation on the inlet diffusers in the absence of appropriate filtration.
Illustration of sand storm effect on visibility (Kuwait, April 2008).

Could you highlight some of the challenges with regard to installation?
• Inappropriate filter selection and regenerating disposal filters with water and/air to re-use is considered a major syndrome in the region and the Middle East. This is driven by the misconception that extending the lifetime of the filter saves costs. Re-installing wet filters in the AHU can promote icro-organisms and expose the entire HVAC system and human occupants to greater health risk which objectively defeats why filters were installed in the first place. On the other hand, using compressed air to remove the dust risks alter the pore size distribution and degradation the rated efficiency of the filter. This in turn makes filters appear like a scarecrow to the air and an easier passage to the pollutants. Eventually, the entire endeavour of providing IAQ becomes an illusion.
• The absence of rules and regulations:
There are no marks for enhancing and providing IAQ and equally, there is no penalty for not doing so.

To even state that there is a penalty for violating the air quality rules and regulations, there have to be ones in the first place. Right now, there is a dicey game where everyone
in charge relies on his/her perception on what is important or not.

Closing statement: What are your thoughts?
If we look at the bigger picture, it is hard to bring up air quality without citing air pollution, and it is hard to address air pollution without highlighting the role of filtration. It is impossible to deny that the access of clean air is declining, so if clean air is really a human right, then we must secure its delivery to over 7 billion people worldwide, half of whom live on approximately $2 per day. I am certain that tomorrow home children will walk bare foot for two hours to get to school and return home to neither a shelter nor access to sanitation. Today some patients who seek medical care as they fight illnesses on their own, will be operated on by doctors who do not have proper access to adequate health care facilities.

If the fact that 300 million children are exposed to an air quality six times higher than the international guidelines recommend is not tough enough to accept, then we should
really check our ethical compass. Quite simply, we have clearly failed to defend these 300 million children. As coronavirus (COVID-19) is now spreading with the incredible death toll with over 800 thousand people infected. Such a pandemic is shutting down companies, economies, countries and threatening to push the world into recession.

Where have we gone wrong?
Well, it seems nothing has saved us….
We had thought the past 60 years of diagnostics, vaccine, supercomputing as well as analytical tools such as genomics, bioinformatics, and scanning electron microscopy would render our preparedness intact. The wake-up calls SARS, H1N1, Ebola, and Zika have given us over the past two decades have neither scared us enough nor inspired the international community to undertake enough preparations. The current pandemic has highlighted the glaring deficiencies of the international healthcare systems and put them on litmus test. Further, it suggests that the regulatory frameworks of well-developed countries require refinement and innovative thinking to fit emerging realities of recent pandemics. The exhaustion of health facilities due to quarantine demands and hospitalization of millions of patients will definitely make the world revisit its existing infrastructure plans post this pandemic.