An indoor air quality conundrum

Something smells good

I have seen a notable increase in the number of posts on platforms such as LinkedIn extolling the benefits of ambient scenting – the addition of a high quality fragrance to the air inside buildings to make them more appealing (this is not the same as the use of air fresheners, no matter how sophisticated, to mask malodours in settings such as washrooms).

This is actually a subject I know quite a lot about (I’ve had a bit of a love/hate relationship with the subject since about 2007), and I can certainly vouch for the effects that scenting has on mood and the perception of the qualities of a space.

Ambient scenting can be used to reinforce brand values, make a place appear more luxurious and has even been shown in some experiments to reduce anxiety in healthcare settings. Some smells are very good at increasing the perception of good air quality – think of those fragrances that smell especially clean, fresh and hygienic.

Ambient scenting also has a role to play in biophilic design – potentially a very big role. Our sense of smell is our most primitive and we often react to a smell before we are consciously aware of it. Scents redolent of nature, when combined with appropriate visual and textural stimuli certainly add an extra dimension to a space – when our senses are stimulated congruently, our surroundings make more sense to us.

The technology of scenting is highly sophisticated (far more complex than an aerosol can or a scented candle) and is often programmable and even web-connected. Furthermore, the actual amount of fragrance chemicals released into the environment is actually really tiny – just enough to be perceived (this is especially true of nebulising systems). Some systems are designed to scent whole buildings through the HVAC infrastructure, with the fragrance oils introduced directly into the air handling unit.

Cleaner air

As well as spotting the increase in the number of posts about the benefits of scenting, I have also seen an increase in posts about air purifiers. This is clearly a hot topic. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, poor air quality was high on the agendas of public health officials and building managers. Poor indoor air quality is associated with symptoms related to sick building syndrome and can, at times, pose a risk to the health of building occupants.

The development of new building standards, such as RESET, and the incorporation of IAQ monitoring standards into schemes such as WELL has brought not only management of IAQ, but also the monitoring and reporting of IAQ to the fore.

This is a good thing, and a subject that I have touched upon before. New research has shown that an increasing number of people are expecting more transparent reporting of IAQ in offices, especially amongst those facing a return to regular office work as pandemic restrictions ease.

Air purifiers are interesting products as well. Different systems employ a variety of technologies to remove fine particulates and remove, or breakdown, volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Unfortunately, as far as I know, none of these air purifiers is able to distinguish between harmful, or unwanted, VOCs and those that smell nice and which were put in the environment deliberately.

The conundrum

The issue that is puzzling me is that many of the companies promoting ambient scenting are also promoting air purifiers, and this strikes me as strange. What drives this corporate cognitive dissonance?

If a company is selling an air purification system, one would hope that their sales people are able to present the features and benefits with some degree of conviction and be able to explain how an air purifier works and what it does to the chemicals circulating in the air.

Likewise, a sales person selling a scenting service should be able to explain how adding more chemicals to the environment can improve the users’ experience of a building (a scenting machine is a product that is designed to actively put more chemicals – no matter how safe they might be – into the environment). I’m not trying to be confrontational here – buildings that smell nice can certainly make using that space more enjoyable. People use fragrances all the time in homes and, of course, on their bodies.

It is quite possible that in situations like these it is likely that the left hand is unaware of what the right hand is doing. The people selling air purifiers may not be the same people that are selling ambient scenting (even if they work for the same company).

Furthermore, the purchaser of the scenting system might not be the same person as the purchaser of an air purifier (even if they work the same customer). If it is the same purchaser, that person now has the burden of potentially making an uninformed choice: is it reasonable to expect a customer to know that the air purifier will eliminate, or at least reduce, the efficacy of their expensive ambient scenting system?

One mitigating argument is that scenting systems are supposed to be situated where air purifiers aren’t. If that principle was universally applied, then there might be no issue – and maybe that is the norm. But I am not convinced that is always the case, especially with an increase in sales of portable air purifiers. These, by their nature, are going to be moved around and quite possibly moved into spaces where there is a scenting system in place. It is also possible that the person specifying the air purifier is unaware of the the presence of the scenting system.

Credibility

I think it is unlikely that companies are deliberately selling both services to be used in the same spaces. There might be a short-term gain by doing so – the customer is going to get through a lot more expensive fragrance than might otherwise have been the case – but I doubt it would take very long for them to spot the problem.

Being a benevolent sort of person, I suspect that the poor sales people flogging air purifiers and scenting systems might not be sufficiently aware of the other products and services offered by different parts of their company (although their marketing departments ought to be). And if they are unaware, it makes it harder for them to help their customers make informed choices. This is clearly an opportunity for some training to be given (and if you are one of those companies facing this dilemma and would like some training developed for your sales and/or marketing people on this matter – please get in touch and I might be able to help you).

If sales people are actually selling both types of product, especially to a purchaser that might be responsible for buying both types of product, then there is an even greater need for some education to ensure that they remain credible and really understand the needs of the customer.