Developing a Dynamic Control Algorithm to Improve Ventilation Efficiency in a University Conference Room; School-Centered Citizen Science: A Potential Solution to Air Quality Issues in Low-Income Communities and Beyond

Caruso, Matthew, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Heydarian, Arsalan, EN-Eng Sys and Environment, University of Virginia
Baritaud, Catherine, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Small, Arthur, EN-Eng Sys and Environment, University of Virginia
Pahlavikhah Varnosfaderani, Mahsa, EN-Eng Sys and Environment, University of Virginia

Clean air should be a universal right, but maintaining healthy indoor air demands considerable energy and cost. Consequently, many low-income communities lack the technical, monetary, and social capital necessary to keep their homes and schools healthy. Lasting effects of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, as well as increased concern over the consequences of climate change and income inequality, prompted the technical research of this project to develop a data-driven ventilation control algorithm that optimized ventilation operation in a conference room at the University of Virginia Link Lab. The algorithm aimed to simultaneously increase indoor air quality while reducing energy consumption of the ventilation system. The sociotechnical research analyzed school-centered citizen science programs using Callon, Law, & Latour’s Actor-Network Theory to determine if these programs can be a solution for tackling air quality issues within low-income communities. Together, the two tracks of research investigate how ventilation systems can become more efficient, and how technologies can be deployed not just in, but with marginalized communities to ensure that everyone can breathe freely.

The technical research created and tested a control algorithm that aimed to reduce unnecessary ventilation in the Link Lab conference room by leveraging air quality and occupancy data streams. The algorithm compared the energy cost and productivity cost of poor indoor air quality in cases of ventilation and non-ventilation, and recommended whichever decision was predicted to have the lower cost.

By reducing ventilation during unoccupied periods, or when indoor air quality was already high, the control model reduced active ventilation hours from 49% to 15% of time and provided energy savings of $424 per month, or about $5100 per year. Although the results were extremely promising, especially for a single conference room under study, the control algorithm was tested on historical data and was not actively field-tested. Additional study is needed to validate the impressive energy savings and further refine the model.

Technology cannot achieve anything in a vacuum: it must be adopted and used to create impact, and low-income communities are consistently left behind in technological revolutions. The STS research of this project investigated school-centered citizen science as a method for democratizing air quality technologies and giving agency to marginalized communities that disproportionately face air quality issues. Case studies of past citizen science programs were analyzed using Actor-Network Theory to gain an understanding of the social, historical, economic, and technical factors that complicate successful technological interventions.

The application of Actor-Network Theory reflected themes of independence and equality found in citizen science, and generated insights on how the full scope of relevant stakeholders, both human and nonhuman, can impact the success of a citizen science project. Past doctrines often focused on scientists and funding as core markers for success, but without knowledge of a community’s traditions, motivations, history, or technological literacy, citizen science may not succeed. Taking these complex histories into consideration when working with technology, especially in low-income communities, will create a fairer and more equitable future for all.

Improved technology, once developed, will not reach its full potential sitting in a lab or in the hands of a wealthy few. The technical body of this work has far-reaching energy efficiency implications that must rapidly proliferate throughout the built environment if large-scale gains are to be made. The proliferation may be accomplished through citizen science methods, which can develop a network of stakeholders with means and motivation to implement energy-efficient technologies not just for those who can afford them, but also those who need them. This technological revolution can, and must, be for all.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Air Quality, Citizen Science, Actor Network Theory, Optimization, Low-Income Schools

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Systems Engineering
Technical Advisor: Arsalan Heydarian
STS Advisor: Catherine Baritaud
Technical Team Members: Jason Jabbour, Caleb Neale, Alden Summerville, Avery Walters

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