The US Ignite Air Quality Working Group meets monthly to discuss what they are learning. The last blog post shared ideas for using the information obtained through air quality monitoring. In addition, the working group’s feedback has also helped companies create a second generation of air quality sensors that are more modular, easier to deploy, offer a cellular communication option, and report the broader range of readings required by climate-change-induced wildfires.

The new generation of sensors can read greater pollution ranges, run on batteries, be placed almost anywhere (thanks to wireless communication over 5G, NBIoT, LoRaWAN, community WiFi, etc.), and be affordable. With a modular approach, communities can overcome the barriers to entry by deploying arrays of sensors on a limited budget. This allows them to add sensing capabilities such as ozone and NOx (oxides of nitrogen) at any time in the future, as funding becomes available or project requirements change. 

Key Recommendations

The advancements in sensors empower communities to make data-driven decisions and take proactive steps to reduce their exposure to pollution events. Companies like TELLUS are simplifying the delivery of air quality data to communities through visualizations, pollution event animations, and heat-mapped models, making it easy for anyone to interpret the severity of poor air quality events. The Air Quality Working Group recommends that communities implementing localized maps of air pollution should:

  • Review the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for applicability.
  • Pay attention to the EPA “big 2” – PM2.5 and Ozone (O3) – particularly relevant for urban areas.
  • Consider the elevation. Understand that PM2.5 particles tend to collect in lower elevation regions, and communities with significant variations in elevation may require a higher number of sensors to capture a comprehensive and accurate picture of the air quality.
  • Measure air quality around transportation corridors. These measurements can help build responses to transportation-produced pollution such as NO2, SO2, and SOX in addition to PM2.5.
  • Measure allergens such as pollen (often sensed as PM10) in addition to PM2.5 in residential areas; the type of allergen may also make a difference. Some specific pollen sensors use cameras and image recognition to look at pollen captured on sticky tape to determine specific pollen sources.
  • Deploy appropriate measures. If the area is subject to dust storms, PM10 will give a more accurate indication of dust than PM2.5 sensors.
  • Consider how the air quality sensors will be powered and communicate.  Is there public WiFi? Can they be hard-wired together with public safety devices? Is there a local LoRaWAN network with range and capacity? Cellular is usually the most effective and has the most universal reach, but it is the costliest.
  • Think about sensor maintenance. Pollen sensors, especially those identifying the pollen type, have short lives and need parts replaced periodically.  Sensors for highly reactive gasses also have limited lifetimes and may require frequent replacements. The higher the level of the polluting chemical, the faster the sensor will age. Consider modularly replaceable sensors for permanent installations.
  • Use indoor sensors for comparisons. Indoor pollution is often worse than outdoor pollution. Consider indoor measurements in public areas (e.g., schools and libraries) and compare them against outdoor sensors outside of the same building.
  • Be aware of the movement of pollutants. The wind moves pollution. The Weather Underground and other groups will give you access to citizen-operated weather stations in your community (or install some of your own).  The local pollution microclimate and warnings require an understanding of the dynamics of pollution migration.
    • Measure immediately downwind from construction efforts and consider making construction permits dependent upon installing city-monitored air quality stations at the construction perimeter.
  • Connect with others. Connect with air quality professionals (usually within a state or local office of Environmental Quality) who may have specific requests and will usually be involved in formulating any additional measurement or mitigation measures. Also, look for ways to connect with others working on air quality monitoring. You can reach out to [email protected] to learn more about and join our Air Quality Working Group.
View of the Washington Monument peering through the haze, as seen from 16th Street leading toward the White House. Photo by Erin Hill.

Let’s Talk Funding Next

The exciting new technologies for sensing, communication, and analysis, combined with a growing public concern about air quality, offer smart and connected communities a compelling opportunity to take ownership of this critical problem and find solutions. In the next blog post, we will provide information on how to find the funding to support a community-based air quality monitoring project.