THE U’S IMPACT ON AIR QUALITY

Orginally posted on @theU on February 19, 2019.

By Myron Willson, Deputy Chief Sustainability Officer

The inversion season is upon us. This can be a time to point fingers at other polluters, but it should also be a time to recognize our own contributions to the murky haze and examine what steps we are taking to reduce emissions, including those emissions created by our actions at work and school.

So, what is our own university doing to reduce emissions? The university (health sciences and lower campus) is often likened to a small city with the total population of faculty, staff and students exceeding 60,000. This means that we have a fairly significant potential for creating emissions.

Fortunately, in addition to supporting faculty who are conducting research on various aspects of air quality and its impacts, the university is also proactively identifying areas for emissions reductions. In 2014, leadership authorized the first universitywide emissions review resulting in a report that provided recommendations for infrastructure and operational changes. Some areas identified:

  • Efficiency improvements and controls for large natural gas-powered boilers for building heat and hot water
  • Emergency diesel generator replacement
  • Phasing out dirty gas-powered landscaping equipment and replacing with electric options
  • Reducing and controlling chemicals and solvents used in laboratories, shops, etc.
  • Increasing sustainable commuting (including bicycles, public transit and car sharing)

As resources have allowed, many of these recommendations have already been implemented. Numerous changes have been driven by the dedicated staff in facilities’ Sustainability and Energy Management OfficePlanning Design and ConstructionCommuter Services, as well as the Occupational and Environmental Health and Safety Office.  At this point, nearly 50 percent of the recommendations have been or are being addressed.

  • Many equipment upgrades have been completed at the central heating plant and operation has been optimized for efficient fuel use.
  • The landscaping team is investing in the electrification of equipment and has implemented a moratorium on gas-fired equipment on yellow and red AQ days.
  • The “Better-Buildings Challenge” has been fully funded and will result in a 20 percent reduction of energy use per square foot by 2020.
  • Based on feedback from the Sustainability Office, the Clear the Air Challenge has shifted from July to February to include students among other campus commuters.
  • A full-time active transportation manager position has been established along with funding for infrastructure changes to support non-vehicular transport.

These actions are netting results. Even as the campus has grown (both in numbers of students and building square footage) total emissions have nearly leveled out or decreased. Close to 50 percent of our faculty, staff and students come to campus each day in something other than a single-occupant vehicle (making us very competitive with other Pac-12 institutions according to the latest reports).

Recent building projects on campus, such as Gardner Commons, have been designed to produce minimal emissions as the systems for heating and cooling are electric. Almost no on-site emissions are created. In addition, as the university continues to increase its purchase of renewable electricity (geothermal and solar), emissions due to the operations of buildings like Gardner Commons will be nearly zero.

Going forward, new federal and state requirements for business and institutions related to air quality are likely to become more restrictive. University leadership has asked staff to review the 2015 Air Quality Task Force Report, provide recommendations for further reductions and lead the way in reducing emissions. Stay tuned for an update.

These are all reasons for optimism. So, on days when our air isn’t fit to breathe and we make a conscious choice to reduce our own emissions, we can rest assured that the university is doing its part too.

Throughout February, take action on air quality by tracking your commute behaviors with the Clear the Air Challenge, a statewide competition that aims to reduce emissions from vehicles by promoting alternative transit options. Join the U team at travelwisetracker.com/s/university-of-utah.

The Dynamics of Climate Change with Aradhna Tripati

“The Dynamics of Climate Change”

The Global Change and Sustainability Center (GCSC) seminar series presents a lecture by Aradhna Tripati, Professor in the Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences department and the Earth, Planetary, & Space Sciences department, as well as at the Institute of Geophysics & Planetary Physics and the Institute of Environment & Sustainability at UCLA.

By Nicholas Apodaca, graduate assistant, Sustainability Office

The scientific research that constructs our understanding of how the Earth’s climate changes can seem complex and arcane to the casual observer. Yet without this specialized knowledge, it would be hard to work towards a more sustainable future. Some scientists are working hard to bring opportunities and knowledge to a greater audience and diversify STEM and sustainability efforts.

On Tuesday, February 26, come to Professor Aradhna Tripati’s lecture “Frontiers in the study of past climate and environmental change: From new tracers to piloting a new inclusive science model”. Tripati will discuss her ongoing efforts to connect complex scientific research to education, outreach and sustainability as part of the Global Change and Sustainability Center’s (GCSC) Seminar Series from 4 – 5 PM in ASB 210.

Tripati has always had a passion for the sciences, studying geological science at California State University – Fullerton and completing her PhD in Earth Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She currently holds joint appointments at UCLA in the Atmospheric & Oceanic Sciences department and the Earth, Planetary, & Space Sciences department, as well as at the Institute of Geophysics & Planetary Physics and the Institute of Environment & Sustainability. Tripati has received several honors for her research and outreach work, including a Presidential Early Career Award in Science and Engineering from President Obama in 2016.

At UCLA, the Tripati Lab studies the carbon cycle and historical climate dynamics. Much of Tripati’s research focuses on the study of clumped isotopes. These bundles of heavy isotopes are prevalent in calcium carbonate, methane, nitrous oxide, and other elemental compounds on Earth. As these isotopes have different weights, they tend to accumulate according to environmental conditions, allowing for comparative analysis of how and where they have been deposited.

For example, Oxygen has two prevalent isotopes: 16O, which is lighter, and 18O, which has two more neutrons and is heavier. The lighter 16O tends to accumulate in the atmosphere and settle in ice during periods of glaciation, whereas the heavier 18O settles on the seafloor in sediments and the bodies of sea creatures. When ice sheets melt, they deposit massive amounts of 16O in the ocean, which settles on top of 18O. Analyzing the concentration of various isotopes in the layers of seafloor sediments can give insight into how climate has changed throughout Earth’s history. Tripati’s research into these isotopes has relevance to a huge range of scientific fields, from organic chemistry to geology and climatology, and has led to cutting-edge developments in understanding climate dynamics and in modeling climatic changes.

Tripati has done extensive outreach and educational work as the founder and director of UCLA’s Center for Diverse Leadership in Science, which, as she has explained, makes “opportunities for underrepresented people to gain education and experience that empower them to become the leaders we need now and in the future, and address problems in their communities.”

A pressing concern for diversity in science and sustainability has long been a part of Tripati’s academic work. Despite the wide-reaching consequences of her work with isotopes, the underrepresentation of minority groups in both geoscience research and STEM fields in general risks making this research seem irrelevant to the general population. The vulnerable groups that are most at risk to be affected by climate change thus frequently lack access to the opportunities for research and education that could empower them to address environmental and technical challenges. Increasing diversity in STEM and sustainability through outreach and education is essential to the future of climate change research and building a progressive society.

Should this research intrigue you or if you are interested in diversity, education and outreach in science and sustainability, come by ASB 210 from 4 – 5 PM on Tuesday, February 26, for “Dynamics of Climate Change” with Professor Aradhna Tripati as part of the GCSC’s Seminar Series.

 

Searching for ‘Soul’-utions

“Imagining Sustainable Futures: Collaborative ‘Soul’-utions for Earthly Survival.”

The Global Change and Sustainability Center (GCSC) seminar series presents a lecture by Giovanna Di Chiro, Lang Professor for Issues of Social Change at Swarthmore College.

By Nicholas Apodaca, graduate assistant, Sustainability Office

When we talk about sustainability, we might assume that progressive science policy would naturally uplift and strengthen all communities. Yet in the scientific and political discourse around sustainable practices, many marginalized groups are ignored, despite often being the most vulnerable in our current climate crises. If we are going to fight climate change and build a sustainable world, we need to analyze the contemporary environmental discourse and seek social justice for those most affected.

Giovanna Di Chiro, the Lang Professor for Issues of Social Change at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, has dedicated her career to intersectional scholarship on environmental justice, sustainability and public policy. On February 12, as part of the Global Change and Sustainability Center’s Seminar Series, Professor Di Chiro will share her innovative work in her lecture, “Imagining Sustainable Futures: Collaborative ‘Soul’-utions for Earthly Survival.”

Di Chiro began her academic career in biology, then pivoted towards social issues and completed an interdisciplinary Ph.D.  in Environment, Health, and Development at the University of California Santa Cruz. Since then, she has worked in marine and tropical biology, but has always pursued innovative interdisciplinary methods of connecting social justice to science and policy.

Teaching plays an important role in Di Chiro’s work. Drawing on her own experiences as a graduate student, Di Chiro approaches the classroom as a space for cooperation and dialogue. She draws on the pedagogy of Paulo Freire, a radical Brazilian priest who saw the classroom as a space for cultivating intellectuals through critical exploration of inequality and justice. Di Chiro has brought her innovative teaching to universities from Australia to California to Massachusetts, guiding students in community-based learning methods that revolve around those impacted by environmental injustice and creating inclusive spaces for marginalized voices in the classroom.

Di Chiro’s research has often focused on the critical intersection of science policy and social justice. Her first book, Appropriating Technology: Vernacular Science and Social Power, was published in 2004 to critical acclaim. The book traced various case studies around the appropriation of technologies for social justice efforts by activists and marginalized communities.

Currently De Chiro is working on an exciting project titled Embodied Ecologies: Building a Different World on Earth, which draws on feminist theory and activism to explore the lack of inclusion of marginalized peoples and community advocacy in contemporary environmental science and policy discussions.

Outside the classroom, Di Chiro has a long-standing commitment to working with underprivileged communities. While teaching at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, she partnered with Nuestras Raíces, supporting the environmental justice organization’s mission through grant writing and developing local training programs around sustainable development, community agriculture and environmental health. Di Chiro was part of a community partnership that founded Energia, a community-based energy services corporation committed to the “triple bottom line:” employing low income community members, developing a management structure centered on a workers’ cooperative, and promoting energy conservation and general sustainability.

In Pennsylvania, Di Chiro has been working closely with community leaders in North Philadelphia to meet the sustainability needs of underserved and marginalized communities. This has led to the Serenity Soul-ar Collaborative, a unique partnership that pursues environmental justice for predominantly Black, low-income residents in the transition to sustainable green energy in the rapidly gentrifying North Philadelphia. By pushing for sustainable development that is locally-owned and tied to the strong cultural history of black communities in the area, the Serenity Soul-ar Collaborative intends to keep the “soul” in the transition to renewable energy sources.

In her lecture for the Global Change and Sustainability Center’s Seminar Series, “Imagining Sustainable Futures: Collaborative ‘Soul-tions for Earthly Survival,” Di Chiro will explore the challenges, successes, and lessons of her work in sustainability and social justice, and what it means for the future of our world. Come by ASB 210 on February 12 from 4 – 5 PM to learn more.

 

The Father of Environmental Justice: Dr. Robert Bullard

As environmental degradation and the impacts of a rapidly changing climate become more obvious, so does the inequity of its consequences. Recognizing that communities of color experience disproportionate impacts of environmental and health hazards that result from social, political, and economic practices, the Sustainability Office, S.J. Quinney College of Law, Office for Equity and Diversity and the Tanner Center for Human Rights have invited Dr. Robert Bullard to help us better understand the ways that justice, sustainability, and human rights are inextricably linked. Ultimately, combating climate change and environmental degradation means fighting racism and seeking justice for our most vulnerable populations.

Dr. Robert Bullard has been at the vanguard of this fight for almost 50 years; in fact, he’s often called the “father” of the environmental justice movement. On January 31st from 12 – 1:30 PM at the S.J. Quinney College of Law Moot Courtroom, Dr. Bullard will deliver the Environmental Racism Lecture, “Race, Place and the Politics of Pollution.” Dr. Bullard’s passion for social justice was born out of experiences in his youth. Growing up in an all-black community in small-town Alabama, he learned the importance of education and community. After earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, he taught in a St. Louis high school, served in the Marines, and worked for the Des Moines city government. He then went to Iowa State University where he received his Ph.D. in Sociology in 1976 for research on how planning affects lower-income communities in Des Moines.

His work on environmental justice began in earnest when he took a position at Texas Southern University, a historically black school in Houston. His first book, Invisible Houston: The Black Experience in Boom and Bust explored discrimination in housing and planning among Houston’s black communities. Around the same time, he became involved with a civil lawsuit led by his then-wife, Linda McKeever Bullard, on discrimination in the placement of landfills in Houston. He found that, despite being only 25% of the city’s population, black communities hosted 82% of the city’s landfills and waste incinerators. Because of the lack of zoning laws in Houston, it became clear that discriminatory decision-making and government collusion were responsible for placing these environmentally hazardous facilities in communities of color.

Dr. Bullard taught at universities across the country, including the University of Tennessee, UC Berkeley and UC Riverside, before landing back at his Master’s degree alma mater in 1994, Clark Atlanta University in Georgia, where he established the Environmental Justice Resource Center. He accepted a position as the dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University (TSU) in 2011 where he served until 2016. He is currently a Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at TSU.

As a leading authority on environmental justice, he has been tapped by leaders across the globe for his expertise. In 1992, Dr. Bullard was a part of President Bill Clinton’s transition team as he took office, and participated in the signing of the environmental justice executive order in 1994. He was a key player in the coalition that organized the milestone First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 2002, which brought together environmental justice leaders from around the United States for the first time.

Through his vigilant research, organizing, and activism Dr. Bullard has become a legendary figure in the environmental justice movement. Join us on January 31st, from 12 to 1:30 PM at the S.J. Quinney College of Law Moot Courtroom, for Dr. Bullard’s lecture, “Race, Place and the Politics of Pollution.”

PROTECTING OUR WINTERS

Originally posted on @theU on Monday, January 7, 2018.

By Abby Ghent, sports and sustainability student ambassador, Athletics and the Sustainability Office

Mind-blowing fact: According to The Washington Post, if you were born after February 1985, you haven’t experienced a month where the Earth’s average monthly temperature was below average. Rising temperatures, as well as a bunch of other compounding factors, are impacting our snowfall and our snowpack.

Join us on campus Jan. 9 from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. outside the Union to learn more about more ways to cut down on your carbon footprint and possibly win free lift tickets.

As someone within that demographic, who’s an ex-professional and avid skier with friends who are still pros, this fact is frightening. I understand the severity of climate change in relation to professional skiers’ jobs—their livelihood depends on that snowpack. Many of us are concerned there won’t be enough snow to hold downhill ski races in the not-so-far-away future.

I eagerly await each fall and wish to delay each spring. However, these ideas, “I want to keep skiing! I don’t want it to be summer yet!” are selfish. Wanting there to be enough snowpack to thoroughly support our water needs, however, is not. I don’t think we emphasize just how much we rely on the snow in our mountains for non-recreational usage.

Snowmelt is important for many things such as providing for personal water use, dampening (no pun intended) the chance of wildfires, supporting ecological systems and many industrial uses. In the Western U.S., 80 percent of the water runoff from snowpack in the mountains is used for agriculture, according to researchers.

The lack of snow in our mountains creates a significant positive feedback loop. A warming climate leads to less snow, which leads to less water in the ground, which leads to more fires, which leads to more loose dirt or fine particles that are lifted by stronger winds (due to more high/low pressure systems because of our warming climate), which are carried further into the mountains landing on what little snow we have, creating a lower albedo, which in turn melts the snow faster and on it goes. Just one long run-on sentence.

The bus from Snowbird to Alta.

So, what can we do about it? There are many things that can be done but I want to focus on one thing: transportation. Here in Utah, we can see how much nastiness gets trapped in the air, and much of that comes from our cars, buses and trucks. In 2010, the amount of CO2 produced by on-road transportation (this doesn’t even include off-road vehicles and equipment) was the second largest contributor after commercial/industrial buildings (U.S. Department of Energy, 2010).

“But I have to drive to work! But I need to get to the ski area somehow!” Yes, all valid reasons to use some sort of transportation, but do we all need to take our own personal vehicles separately to many of the same places? I think we can do better. Public transit is an option, both around town and to the ski resorts. We know that taking the bus to ski areas can be more difficult than it sounds depending on your starting point, so don’t worry, there are other options. Carpooling can be convenient—ride to the ski areas or park-and-ride lots together and save on parking, gas, emissions and time.

We want you to pledge to look for carpooling and public transportation options first to get to your final destination this winter and forever.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Abby Ghent is a former U.S. Ski Team and University of Utah Ski Team member. She grew up in the mountains of Colorado, calling Vail her home mountain. She moved to Utah three years ago to race for the U and is currently studying environmental and sustainability studies, international studies and music.

U PEDALS TO GOLD

The university created this GIS tool to track improvements to our bicycle infrastructure.

Follow @commUTEr_servs and @GingerCannonU on Twitter for updates on campus mobility.

Orginally posted on @theU on November 19, 2018.

By Ginger Cannon, active transportation manager

The League of American Bicyclists has honored the University of Utah with a Gold Bicycle Friendly University (BFU) designation in recognition of the institution’s achievements to promote safe, accessible bicycling on campus. The standards for attaining any of the four levels of BFU awards—bronze, silver, gold and platinum—are very high and require deliberate, determined efforts to meet them. The U is one of only 24 universities in the nation to receive the Gold BFU award, which is valid through the year 2021.

“More than 3.8 million students now attend Bicycle Friendly Universities in 46 states and Washington, DC,” says BFU Director Amelia Neptune. “From large to small, urban to rural, these educational institutions are creating a powerful community of college campuses that model and support the use of bicycles for improving health, sustainability and transportation options.”

The university advanced from silver to gold designation by demonstrating progress in categories known as the 5 E’s—Engineering, Education, Encouragement, Enforcement and Evaluation. The University Bicycle Master Plan provides recommendations for improvements in each category. The Active Transportation Manager works with a leadership advisory group to set priorities and implement plan recommendations.

Significant capital funding has been committed to the addition of bikeways – whether on surrounding roadways or campus pathways – to provide safe and direct routes for bicyclists. Currently the U area supports 8 miles of signed bike routes, with the majority of interior pathways shared for bicycle travel.

“We’ve moved the dial in achieving Gold BFU designation and know that there is still more to be done to accommodate and grow our campus bicycling community.  We are committed to following the vision of our bicycle master plan and incorporating more high quality routes to the campus network,” says Robin Burr, Chief Design and Construction Officer. “In order to encourage alternative modes of transportation, we need to add facilities like secure parking, showers and lockers for our daily commuters.”

Bicycles are zero emissions vehicles that help the university reach its carbon neutral and sustainability goals. Active transportation represents 13 percent of all commute trips to the U, and the highest percentage of people using a bicycle for transportation are students. A majority of commuters are just 8 miles or less from their campus destination – a reasonable biking distance no matter your skill level.

When universities invest in bicycling, great things happen: people adopt healthy habits, save money on healthcare and transportation costs, decrease the university’s greenhouse gas emissions and contribute to a fun and vibrant campus culture.

Longing for A New Direction

The universe is mysterious, beautiful, and unknown. The world around us and the space beyond is a cosmic soup of particles, atoms and energy, yet mixed together these things make up our bodies, our friends and family, the trees and water, the sky and the earth. While science seeks to unravel these mysteries of the universe in the lab, poetry seeks to do the same in our hearts and minds. Yet both ultimately pursue the same fundamental questions: Who are we? Why are we here? What do we do?

Kealoha, the internationally-known slam poet and poet laureate of Hawai’i has a unique understanding of the relationship between science and poetry and their potential to change our perception of the world. Trained as a nuclear engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), he left a lucrative career in corporate consulting to return to his native Hawai’i to find answers in poetry. He’ll share some of his unique insights on Tuesday, November 13 as part of the GCSC seminar series, and then again on Friday, November 16, with his highly acclaimed “The Story of Everything,” hosted by UtahPresents and supported by the Sustainability Office.

For his GCSC seminar, “So many different crossroads, but the paths look the same,” Kealoha will explore the threat posed by climate change by pulling questions from science and the arts. Similar themes will come up on Friday in “The Story of Everything,” an ambitious performance combining poetry, dance, music, art and science. Drawing on everything from the Big Bang Theory to Michael Jackson, Kealoha will show how interconnected our world really is.

These questions have always been a part of Kealoha’s life. Growing up, Kealoha kept his academic interest hidden and pursued arts and sports. But his incredible aptitude for science and mathematics -including a perfect SAT math score – led him to study Nuclear Engineering at MIT. During his education he worked as an intern at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center as well as the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Yet he realized quickly that nuclear energy was more plagued by political funding issues than any other obstacle and changed his course, working with the Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) in Washington, D.C. where he published work on national security and climate change.

After graduating with honors and a minor in writing, he changed his direction yet again and began a career in management consulting in San Francisco. Yet the long hours and focus on building wealth left him feeling unfulfilled, and after a fortuitous encounter with slam poetry he immersed himself in writing. Back in his native Hawai’I, he dove into the local slam poetry scene, and went on to establish Youth Speaks Hawai’i, which holds poetry workshops for Hawaiian youth with internationally renowned poets. With poetry rooted in community and education, Kealoha regularly performs at schools and towns not just around Hawai’i but across the world.

With his scientific training and poetic genius, Kealoha may just provide the inspiration we need for rethinking how we live and who we are. Come to his GCSC seminar today, Tuesday, Nov. 13, in ASB 210 from 4 – 5 PM  and his performance of “The Story of Everything” in Kingsbury Hall on Friday Nov. 16 at 7:30 PM to get inspired.

 

Modeling Evapotranspiration and the Limits of Plant Life: Gaby Katul for the GCSC Seminar Series

By Nicholas Apodaca, Graduate Assistant

Plants play an essential role in the cycling of water and carbon dioxide through the soil and atmosphere. Across eons, they have evolved to optimize processes that maximize their resource uptake and energy usage. Determining the basic mechanisms of this process is complex, as plants are susceptible to subtle changes in their environment. However, in a time of increased threat from climate change—including dire consequences for plant life—understanding the fundamentals of plants’ processes has the potential to revolutionize how we study plants relationship with ecosystems, water, and carbon.

Gaby Katul, the Theodore S. Coile Professor of Hydrology and Micrometeorology at the Nicholas School of the Environment and the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Duke University, will explore plant hydrology in his upcoming GCSC Seminar Series lecture, “Evapotranspiration: From kinetic theory to the limits of plant life.”

In his research, Katul seeks a comprehensive model of how water moves through plants. This is not a simple task. Scientists have pieced together an understanding of the processes of drawing water from the soil and carbon from the atmosphere—processes that are bound up in complex and dynamic environmental, biological, and physical conditions. Katul hopes to identify what universal traits exist in the transpiration cycles of plants.

“Our thinking was to try and come up with the most general descriptions of these processes irrespective of the biomes,” Katul says. “The idea is to try to connect certain anatomical and physiological features of the plant to the environment. We want to study in the most generic way how environmental changes impact the responses of plants to drought, or elevated carbon dioxide, or elevated temperature.” Understanding the universal components of transpiration in plants can enable a radically holistic model for future research, regardless of biome, he says.

According to Katul, similar models are already used for understanding these processes in other fields. “For example, look at soil,” Katul explains. “There is sand, there is silt or clay, there are a billion combinations of them. But the objective is that if you know something about, say, the pore-size distribution, or the particle-size distribution, can you come up with general transport laws that describe water movement in porous media? We’re trying to do something similar for plants.”

Katul’s research is necessarily interdisciplinary. The physics of transpiration and carbon uptake are equally important factors. Katul has also drawn on economics, “particularly optimization principles where there are no conservation laws. The idea is to grab some techniques that have worked in different disciplines and try to bring them into this issue of plant-water relations.”

Ultimately, Katul thinks this work could lead to a universal model of plant response to environmental change that can inform future plant research. “We know a lot about water transport, carbon flow, energy flow in the plant. We also know that plants have evolved certain strategies, certain coordination among components to try to deal with certain bottlenecks that will pop up,” he says. “So, if we take this information and put it in a mathematical framework, can we interrogate this mathematical framework, and see what’s going to happen to these processes as climatic conditions evolve?”

A universal model will allow scientists to investigate the effects of changing climate on plants worldwide. By seeking a general model for optimization processes in plants, Katul envisions science where, as he puts it, “I am getting the answer right because I know the process that is being impacted by environmental change.”

To learn more, come to the lecture on Tuesday, Oct. 30 at 4 p.m. in Room 210 of the Aline Wilmot Skaggs Biology building.

WHAT YOU CAN’T SEE CAN HURT YOU

 

 

Originally published on @theU on October 15, 2018.
 
By Vince Horiuchi, public relations associate, College of Engineering
 

What if you could see nasty microscopic air pollutants in your home?

PHOTO CREDIT: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering

PHOTO CREDIT: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering
University of Utah School of Computing assistant professor Jason Wiese (left) and computing doctoral student Jimmy Moore conducted a study to determine if homeowners change the way they live if they could visualize the air quality in their house. They provided participants with air pollution sensors, a Google Home speaker and a tablet to measure and chart the air quality in their homes.

Engineers from the University of Utah’s School of Computing conducted a study to determine if homeowners change the way they live if they could visualize the air quality in their house. It turns out, their behavior changes a lot.

Their study was published this month in the Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies. The paper was also presented Oct. 9 in Singapore during the “ACM International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing.” The paper can be viewed and downloaded here.

“The idea behind this study was to help people understand something about this invisible air quality in their home,” says University of Utah School of Computing assistant professor Jason Wiese, who was a lead author of the paper along with U School of Computing doctoral student Jimmy Moore and School of Computing associate professor Miriah Meyer.

During the day, the air pollution inside your home can be worse than outside due to activities such as vacuuming, cooking, dusting or running the clothes dryer. The results can cause health problems, especially for the young and elderly with asthma.

University of Utah engineers from both the School of Computing and the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering built a series of portable air quality monitors with Wi-Fi and connected them to a university server. Three sensors were placed in each of six homes in Salt Lake and Utah counties from four to 11 months in 2017 and 2018. Two were placed in different, high-traffic areas of the house such as the kitchen or a bedroom and one outside on or near the porch. Each minute, each sensor automatically measured the air for PM 2.5 (a measurement of tiny particles or droplets in the air that are 2.5 microns or less in width) and sent the data to the server. The data could then be viewed by the homeowner on an Amazon tablet that displayed the air pollution measurements in each room as a line graph over a 24-hour period. Participants in the study could see up to 30 days of air pollution data. To help identify when there might be spikes in the air pollution, homeowners were given a voice-activated Google Home speaker so they could tell the server to label a particular moment in time when the air quality was being measured, such as when a person was cooking or vacuuming. Participants also were sent an SMS text message warning them whenever the indoor air quality changed rapidly.

PHOTO CREDIT: Jason Wiese
Participants were given an Amazon table that displayed the air pollution data in an easy-to-understand line chart so they could see when and why the air quality worsened. Homeowners also could label points in time when the pollution would spike, such as when they were cooking or vacuuming.

During the study, researchers discovered some interesting trends from their system of sensors, which they called MAAV (Measure Air quality, Annotate data streams and Visualize real-time PM2.5 levels). One homeowner discovered that the air pollution in her home spiked when she cooked with olive oil. So that motivated her to find other oils that produced less smoke at the same cooking temperature.

Another homeowner would vacuum and clean the house just before a friend with allergies dropped by, to try to clean the air of dust. But what she found out through the MAAV system is that she actually made the air much worse because she kicked up more pollutants with her vacuuming and dusting. Realizing this, she started cleaning the house much earlier before the friend would visit.

Participants would open windows more when the air was bad or compare measurements between rooms and avoid those rooms with more pollution.

“Without this kind of system, you have no idea about how bad the air is in your home,” Wiese says. “There are a whole range of things you can’t see and can’t detect. That means you have to collect the data with the sensor and show it to the individual in an accessible, useful way.”

Researchers also learned that circumstances that made the air pollution worse differed in each home. Vacuuming in the home, for example, would have different effects on the air quality. They also learned that if homeowners could visualize the air quality in their home, they always stayed on top of labeling and looking at the data.

Wiese says no known manufacturers make air quality systems for the home that allow residents to visualize and label the air quality in this way, but he hopes their research can spur more innovation.

The study involved engineering in collaboration with other University of Utah scientists, including biomedical informatics and clinical asthma researchers. It was funded as part of a larger National Institutes of Health program known as Pediatric Research using Integrated Sensor Monitoring Systems (PRISMS), launched in 2015 to develop sensor-based health monitoring systems for measuring environmental, physiological and behavioral factors in pediatric studies of asthma and other chronic diseases.

Research reported in this publication was funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number U54EB021973. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

 

 

Clear The Air

By Vince Horiuchi, public relations associate, College of Engineering

Air conditioning and heating systems are not only great for keeping a home cool or warm, but they also help clean the air of harmful pollutants.

While home thermostats control HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems based on temperature, engineers from the University of Utah have studied the effects of controlling them based on a home’s indoor air quality. They have discovered that programming your air conditioner and furnace to turn on and off based on the indoor air quality as well as the temperature doesn’t waste a lot of additional energy but keeps the air much cleaner.

Their findings, published in a paper titled Smart Home Air Filtering System: A Randomized Controlled Trial for Performance Evaluation, were presented on Sept. 26 at this year’s “IEEE/ACM Conference on Connected Health: Applications, Systems and Engineering Technologies” in Washington D.C. The lead authors of the paper are University of Utah electrical and computer engineering professor Neal Patwari and U electrical and computer engineering doctoral graduate, Kyeong T. Min.

PHOTO CREDIT: University of Utah Professor Neal Patwari
This graph shows that when a home heating and air conditioning system turns on and off based on temperature alone (normal), the air quality in the home can result in the dirtiest air based on 2.5 particulate matter. Meanwhile leaving the heating and air conditioning on all the time (On) results in the cleanest air at the expense of using the most energy. The SmartAir plot shows that a system that turns on and off based on both temperature and air quality can result in a home with much cleaner air but without a much higher cost in energy.

The researchers, led by Patwari, purchased a series of off-the-shelf portable air pollution sensors and connected them wirelessly to Raspberry Pis, small and inexpensive computers for hobbyists. With specialized software developed by the engineers, the computers were programmed to automatically turn on the air conditioning system whenever the particulate matter in the air reached a certain point and turn off the system when the particulate matter dipped below a certain measurement.

For the study, 12 sensors were deployed in four homes in 2017. In each house, two of the sensors were inside rooms, and one was placed outside under a covered porch. Starting at midnight each night, each home would randomly operate the sensors under one of three conditions: “Normal,” in which the HVAC systems turned on and off normally based on temperature only; “Always On,” in which the air system operated continuously all day, and; “SmartAir,” in which the system turned on and off the HVAC fan based on the pollution measurement in the house as well as the thermostat’s temperature setting.

Based on five months of data, the study revealed that operating with the “SmartAir” setting in which it turned on and off based on temperature and air quality cleaned the air almost as well as if the HVAC fan was operating all day, but it used 58 percent less energy. Meanwhile, when the heating and cooling system operates normally without regards to the air quality, the air was 31 percent dirtier than with the “SmartAir” setting.

“For someone with asthma, an exacerbation can be triggered by poor air in the home, particularly for children,” Patwari says. “This kind of monitoring system could allow them to live more comfortably and with fewer asthma symptoms and fewer trips to the emergency room.”

Because of ordinary activities in the home such as cooking, vacuuming and running the clothes dryer, air quality inside a home can at certain times of the day be much worse than outside. Constant exposure to indoor air pollutants can lead to short-term health effects such as irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, as well as headaches, dizziness, and fatigue, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Long-term exposure could also lead to respiratory diseases, heart disease and cancer and could be fatal for some. Yet there are no known home or commercial HVAC systems that are controlled by air quality sensors.

Patwari’s study involves engineering in collaboration with other University of Utah scientists, including biomedical informatics and clinical asthma researchers. It was funded as part a larger National Institutes of Health program known as Pediatric Research using Integrated Sensor Monitoring Systems (PRISMS), launched in 2015 to develop sensor-based health monitoring systems for measuring environmental, physiological and behavioral factors in pediatric studies of asthma and other chronic diseases.

Research reported in this publication was funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number U54EB021973. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.