Critical facility HVAC and indoor air management is not all alike! In doing my homework for writing this column on critical facilities, I have been struck by the precision of IAQ monitoring in data centers.

The care with which operators monitor each data center’s part of our electronic culture’s “neural network” increased in 2006 when, following a clear connection between lead exposure and human brain toxicity, the use of lead in circuit boards was restricted. This awareness of lead toxicity led to new standards that restricted the use of lead-containing solder and mandated switching to copper-tin-silver solder. An unforeseen consequence of the transition to these less toxic metals was that serious corrosion occurred in the presence of sulfur and other gaseous contaminants. In locations where outdoor air contains sulfur pollutants, “creeping corrosion” failures have become a big problem.

Inarguably, when corrosion interferes with the accessibility of critical data from hard disk drives, or damages graphic cards, motherboards, capacitors, and transistors there can be devastating consequences. Problems with data storage and transmission can threaten essential security, monetary, and life-sustaining infrastructures we depend on. So it is understandable that data center specifications include strict limits and real-time monitoring for particulate matter contamination and temperature and relative humidity measurements.

As a consequence of the vulnerability of these new metals, IAQ as well as air temperature and RH are carefully controlled and monitored. HEPA filtration to remove dust, the dry and wet bulb measurements to monitor RH, room seals, and careful placement of intake air sources are all aimed to decrease pollution that could cause corrosion, as well as to allow proper heat dispersion.

As a physician and infection control professional, I am envious of the careful monitoring and precautions in place in these data centers. In hospitals, patients can suffer or die from the consequences of indoor air contamination. Most people are aware of the burden of healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) on in-patients and hospital budgets. Too many patients are harmed or die from infections they acquired during their hospitalization. Airborne viruses, infectious aerosolized droplets, and very dry room air can harm a patient’s respiratory tract, increasing the risk of a HAI. And yet, hospital IAQ monitoring is not nearly as precise or consistent as that of these spaces.

Understanding the role of IAQ and HVAC systems on patient HAIs is difficult for many reasons. The lack of clear causality between IAQ and patient illness can create an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality for healthcare professionals and building managers. Nevertheless, enough is known about the importance of IAQ on patient outcome that we should learn from air management in mission critical centers.

Let’s compare some of the factors in mission critical centers and in hospitals and see how we can improve the in-patient experience. What are some of the differences between IAQ management in mission critical centers and in hospitals?

Like data center operators, hospitals must take actions to eliminate airborne contaminants that are harmful to patients. These steps include:

1. Best practice design standards based on data-backed solutions

2. Ongoing environmental monitoring with real-time feedback

3. Keep historical records for alignment with patient problems

 4. Incentives should be positive rather than negative (i.e. use the carrot rather than the stick.)