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20 minutes into the future
Houston, we have a problem.
Hello Space Station, what’s the problem?
SS: Rosmonov in his free time found an old disc of “Network 23, 20 minutes into the Future,” they were showing Blipverts, and while watching them, his head outright exploded.
Houston: what do you need?
SS: as you recall Rosmonov was the expert on the Zvezda’s Elektron O2 controls, and him being out of it, and the ECLSS being down for maintenance . . . do you have instructions?
Houston: the instructions are near the O2 equipment.
SS: right. There’s another problem.
Houston: what’s the problem?
SS: the instructions are in Russian!
Houston: you should be able to translate them easily on Google. Just type them in, and click on Translate.
SS: we have no Internet.
Houston: even with all those satellites?
SS: they’re pointed at you, not us.
SS: do you know how to activate the Russian alphabet on a keyboard?
Air is rather “thin,” and is everywhere, except outside our atmosphere. So if we go where there isn’t any, we have to bring our own. In a bag? Tank? Make our own? While the Oxygen we breathe in is only about 21%, which we take for granted, and Nitrogen about 78%, the additional 1% of trace gases can make or break the day. Especially if you are in a small spacecraft, and have a sudden attack of flatulence. I am sure those experts at NASA studied this small aspect in fine detail. We exhale less than 21% O2, perhaps around 15%, which is not enough to remain conscious. So we must get replacement O2 that is close to that 21%, typically being an exchange with other indoor air through a ventilation system, or fresh (/outside) air, despite the fact that a skunk may be walking by, while we have that window open. When we can’t open windows, as in a space station, or a submarine, we breathe in air from the indoor spaces (where the oxygen is provided artificially in just enough quantity), accentuating that 1% again. Our built environment is rich with VOC / Aromatic sources: sweat (value-added insert: when planning a visit to clients, do not eat stinky cheese for a few days prior, or the consequences may be getting kicked out, if the client is sensitive), fabrics, furniture finishes, paints, bugs, mold, etc. You walk into a home you’re interested in, and smell something _ _ _ . How do you quantify that?
Like some wine connoisseurs, however, some people have an innate ability to distinguish aromas for what they are. Why, that’s the smell of a dead body! Look for the corpse.
Client: Why, that’s the paint we used four years ago (true to the word, I’ve walked into basements that had No provision for fresh air, and smelled paint that was applied more than four years prior).
Me: Why, that’s oil. Where’s your furnace? (again truth is stranger than fiction, I walked into a basement and smelled oil, from an oil furnace that was removed years prior, along with the tank) Combustion mechanics explains the left-over oil smell, but it’s a story for another day.
If you have no idea, and you want to know what those airborne aromas consist of, be prepared to spend over $500 (analytical cost alone) to find out what chemicals are involved, and then to do research to find what those chemicals are associated with. An independent consultant can do that for you, exceeding that figure, significantly. An amusing side note: fire / smoke residue can be verified simply with an alcohol swab and about $40 in analytical cost. However, if you want legally defensible testing, that same alcohol swab is now worth more than $400 for the additional testing . . .
A client asked me to assess their home for Formaldehyde, a component used often in the wood preservative industry. You see, they’d outfitted their bedroom with pressure-treated lumber as wall paneling, and gotten sick from it. When I arrived, however, the paneling was long gone, so I was just trying to find a fleeting ion trail or whatever remnant there may have been of one, but since my Star Trek Tricorder was out for repair, my humble measurements came up empty.
Another individual, not a client, but operating a nationwide sensitivity support group, had similar health complications after outfitting their bedroom with shelves to store literature on. Ever hear / read of the old book smell? You may wish to search this, to find the many toxic chemicals involved. Sadly, when I suggested a dedicated supply of fresh air, they were reluctant to try “anything new,” as if an alternative for adverse weather equivalent to opening a window was anything new.
A colleague had a relative operating a restaurant. Intermittently there was a presence, as of a sewer system, which did not bode well with customers. Owner flatulence? Too regular. In this case the restaurant was part of a small chain of shops, a strip mall, and they shared floor drains. I suggested pouring a glass or two of water down the restaurant’s drain. The smell stopped. I suggested they keep watering that hole, at least weekly. On a similar note, a potential client had a large home and a similar sewer smell. Being there were few occupants, the many waste drains had the water within them drying up, allowing sewer gases to be drawn into the home. Again I suggested watering the many holes regularly.
This brings me back to the 21% and Fresh.
We need oxygen, at the proper amount and pressure, or we perish. Often that is not a problem. But can be, if your living spaces are compromised, by size, aromatics, or interconnections to other spaces. Confined space work, anyone?
I visited some relatives, on a mild summer day. There was a gathering of about 10+ people chatting around a table. The windows were open, and outfitted with sheer curtains (trivial perhaps, but a real impediment to air flow), but there was hardly any breeze. I began to feel stuffy. I decided to go outside for fresh air. There I met another relative, and engaged in conversation. As we were chatting outdoors, another visitor arrived, and went in to the gathering. In less than 10 minutes he was outdoors with us, because he’d begun to feel stuffy, and then ill. Being outside revived him. The takeaway is that any gathering of more than a few people requires fresh air exchange. That can come from the rest of the home if there is a ventilation system in use, or from outdoors, if the home’s size is modest.
While there are many instruments to quantify the percentages of air’s various constituents, they are by necessity limited to their specialty, as there is no “Swiss army knife” for all things environmental. I prefer a CO2 meter. Outdoors it detects around 500 ppm (parts per million). Since 1% of a million is 10,000, 500 ppm is equal to 0.05%. Normal indoor spaces may hover around 1,000 to 1,500 ppm (0.1 to 0.15%) and still be comfortable. If you consider that we breathe out about 15% O2, that implies the 6% difference is mostly CO2. That would be about 60,000 ppm (about 120 times higher than background), and would make you sick or unconscious in short order, unless you’re outdoors.
Back to the Blipverts, they are an advertiser’s dream come true. They eliminate channel-switching, and make you into a compulsive buyer at the beck and call of the sellers.
And now for something really serious, but is anything so, really?
A replay of a recent exchange between a colleague and friend (the consultant) and a Builder over integrating certain equipment into a rebuild (and while it pertains to electrical choices, I only include it because it pertains to Air controls) went something like:
Builder: why sacrifice homeowner comfort, when I can install the most expensive state-of-the-art equipment, while you recommend plain vanilla stuff?
Consultant: there is a reason, possibly negating long-term health consequences (in other words ensuring “homeowner comfort”), why I was called in by the homeowner in the first place.
The issue: two-stage drive versus variable frequency drive, complemented by wireless-enabled “smart” technology.
Part of the solution involved using metal-clad wiring, which eliminates the greatest majority of issues, but not all.
At issue is also homeowner behavior after the fact. Most homeowners are technically ignorant of their surroundings. Sad, but that is reality. Given the opportunity to live in a space station (beyond our little blue planet’s atmosphere (outer space)), or a submarine in the deep blue, for any extended period of time requires ongoing training, stamina, perseverance due to predictable wear-and-tear of any piece of equipment leading to breakdown, and is not for the faint-of-heart, or the faint-of-health. Meaning any such endeavor requires learning about your equipment, and possibly being able to fix it, especially if you locate yourself out of reach and your Ace-hardware-man is not available Saturday nights, when things go belly up. Imagine being in a space station and being subjected to a fire, limited though it was, which rendered visibility to zero for hours (Mir, February 24, 1997, look it up). Unfortunately, because of the foregoing, most homeowners are asleep at the wheel. Install a state-of-the-art system, and you greatly reduce the number of people able to maintain it, and what if those people are on vacation when failure occurs? I recall with chagrin a “health-house” built in collaboration with various national institutions, where they tried to integrate the latest-and-greatest, positive pressure, dedicated fresh air exchange, etc. and it never worked quite right, because the installers were dumber than the equipment they were installing.
Part of what this entails is EMC (electromagnetic compatibility). While EMC has reached a certain level of maturity, EMC relating to humans, which are electrochemical in nature is in its infancy, at best. While there are a few individuals who have dared to take this on and tread “where no man has gone before,” they are few and a bit of a motley crew. Some have been taught economics primarily, by promoting expensive fixes, or questionable ones, while others have stolen their way in by questionable technical training that again promotes state-of-the-art fixes that may require routine monitoring, when the homeowner is lucky if he / she can wield a screwdriver, plus or minus (yeah, Phillips or flat-head).
For (human) creature comfort, a window air conditioner may even be better than an installed, ducted, and automated system. Because if you realize the unit is becoming a problem, of any sort, you can toss it, and get a new one. With the integrated system, you have to take the chance that the repair person called in to help, is competent. Really? If not, then why do we need second and third opinions, before we let someone cut us open, to “extract what ails us”?
I’ll leave you with a small glimpse of many conferences I’ve attended, where I was watering at the mouth about the many novel instruments that were offered by vendors, that would of course be superseded the following year. So I had to be careful, lest I end up up with a pile of quickly obsoleted meters. One day a CO2 meter caught my eye. I asked about the price. I thanked the vendor and walked on. I walked by a few more times, then asked the vendor if he’d accept a lower price than he was asking. He considered having to lug the instrument back, and show it elsewhere to try and make a sale, so he relented and accepted my offer. As I took the instrument and walked away, I left the vendor area and was approached by someone who’d been watching, and then following, me. He asked how I was able to pay a lower price. I said I simply asked. Never, ever, think that anything is fixed in the seller / buyer universe. If you do, you may wish to verify the label on the back of your clothes is not stamped in big bold letters: seer-sucker.
Remedial training for the technically inclined
PS. For anyone desiring IAQ expertise, NASA has loads of conceptual and detailed descriptions of systems to recycle water and humidity, control VOCs, and maintain pressure, temperature, humidity, and air motion for proper comfort (all from batteries and solar panels), because once you’re in there, you can’t walk away . . . except for a very, very short while.
PPS. Please forgive the occasional typo, as I am prsently having problems with the letters e, d, & s. If you fin ome miing, pencil them in.