Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Part 3. Introduction to the Low-Cost Sensor and DIY Air Purifier


Introduction to the Low-Cost Sensor 

DIY  Air Purifier

Part 3.


Things to know about this post: 

·      This is not a scientific study, but rather a story of community engagement & empowerment;

·      This is NOT a CARB endorsement of any brands displayed, or mentioned, in the article;

·      The air sensors are measuring particulate matter; and

·      The air sensors DO NOT identify the levels of many common pollution types that could be harmful, or Toxic Air Contaminants.


Abe and Stephanie's Story


Abe and Stephanie

Last month, Jose caught up with low-cost sensor hosts, Abe and Stephanie. Abe, a sophomore in high school, connected with CARB through his participation as a panelist in the EJ Youth Storytelling Session.  He and his mother, Stephanie, became indoor and outdoor air sensor hosts during the height of the worst (2020) wildfires in Northern California. They also live in what are described as an air-monitoring deserts in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series. 



Note – this interview has been edited for length.

Jose: Prior to hosting a sensor, how would you rate your understanding of air quality generally, with 1 being “very well” and 4 being “no knowledge at all?”

Abe: I’d say probably a 3, at least for me. I knew one thing, and that is that it was not good on some days and it was good on other days. Your nose is a pretty valuable tool. When I could smell it, then it was bad. When I couldn’t smell it, I thought it was okay. But I didn’t have a very accurate number of any sort of data that could tell me what the air quality was.

Stephanie: I’m going to also say a 3, probably for similar reasons. I knew enough to know that there were measures of air quality. But I did not really know much beyond what you saw on the news, which were colors and warnings. From living in this area and being involved, I knew that our air quality was poorer than in other parts of Sacramento.

Jose: Thank you. The next question is: Do you think your understanding of air quality has improved? Basically the same question, but after having had some experience with the indoor and outdoor low-cost sensors and the box fan?

Abe: I would say that my knowledge of it has greatly increased, because I have accurate and precise numbers, and use that information to better the air quality in my house. That is also really important to me because I have asthma and it is really bad. Being able to breathe cleaner, fresher air is very good.

Jose: That is great, thank you.

Stephanie: For me, I would put myself at a 1.5, or maybe a 1.75. Like Abe I feel like my knowledge has grown by leaps and bounds, but I still know there is a lot to learn. But I at least feel empowered now that I can find information if I need it, which is a big thing…I know where to go to get information if I want to delve into it more. And I am now connected to you and to CARB and those resources.

Jose: As part of this, you purchased a box fan and a filter. And you saw your indoor readings affected when you turned it on. How much did it help to have those two working together (DIY air filter and sensor)?

Abe: I think you can answer that in two ways: Do you think that the effect would have been as pronounced if we didn’t have the numbers on air quality? Absolutely not. Seeing our air quality readings motivated me to bug my mom and bug my grandpa about doing this so that we could get the air quality to a point where I felt good about it, and where I felt that we had achieved a goal that I had set out for us.

And the other way I can see it is: Do you think it would have been such a big deal if we hadn’t had numbers or weren’t in the time (of wildfires and COVID) we are in? And to that I say, “Absolutely not.” Our environment is the worst it’s been and it is getting worse. Being able to do this lets us tell my grandpa and my uncle so that they can get a fan – it was very impactful.

Stephanie: I can attest to being, so called “bugged” or as you put it before, having this advocate (Abe) constantly remind us to turn the DIY air filter on and how important it was to do so. Being able to see the results – to compare the outside air with the inside air – and to see the colors go from purple to red, and see the inside readings practically the same, and to be able to take the box fan, after we got the information from you (CARB) and looked at some videos, it was so simple and it was incredible how dramatically different the air quality improved inside the house. It was evidence that it worked. First, it was evidence that we had the bad air quality inside. Then, it was evidence that just getting the box fan with the filter worked. As Abe said, we went out and got box fans for his uncle and grandparents” house. We said that’s the least we can do—get it for everybody else since their reading is going to be as bad as our reading (they’re neighbors). So, that had an impact on us and our behavior changed. Without being able to run the experiment, so to speak, and see the difference, we might not have been as motivated to make this a mainstay of our household. 

Stephanie’s brother then stopped by and said hello.  He also ran an indoor air purifier at his house, thanks to what he learned from Abe and Stephanie.

Jose: Having participated and hosted monitors, and learned what you learned, are there other things you would do different around air quality that maybe you weren’t doing before?

Abe: Yes. A pretty big thing is wearing a mask a lot more. I like to walk to my grandparents’ house and take bike rides around the neighborhood. Now I’m more conscious and look at the air quality to see if I should walk or stay home, or should I wear the N95 mask. And I’m able to give the information to my five cousins. And two of them are athletes and have to go outside.

Jose: So you check the air quality more often?

Abe: Yes. At one point I was checking too often.

Sensor Map displaying the difference
between their outdoor and indoor (circled) 

Air monitors as displayed on Purple Air Website

Jose: Yeah I do that, too.

Stephanie: I can vouch for that. And the timing on when we got it (DIY air filter) was really during the height of the fires and the smoke. And that was really revealing, and made us more conscious and conscientious. I didn’t check air quality before, I only listened to what the news would tell… It’s also made me think about other things in my house that I can improve. And of course, when I get an opportunity, I try to share the information with people as well, like with my brother.

Jose: Yeah, this is wonderful to hear. And I remember when you first deployed the DIY air purifier, the email you sent me and how enthused you sounded, it made it very rewarding for me as well. So, can you share concerns that you had or suggestions for CARB to make this better?

Abe: Spread the word. This clearly works, as I’ve seen and all of you all have seen. It works and it’s cheap. And it’s always going to be price versus quality, but with this you get a plus on price, meaning it’s cheap for how long it can last, and quality, it works amazing. So you get the best of both worlds. So spread the word. I’ve told my friends about it.

Stephanie: What I recommend, and again I want to thank you and CARB for giving us the opportunity to test this out, is we are probably halfway there. We are not climate deniers in our family, and we were happily willing to try this out but I think there are a lot of folks there who do not have the information. . .if there is a way for more households to be hosts or have a central place that hosts the sensor and shares the information. And even though it is comparatively inexpensive, it is still an investment to buy the fan and filters. So if there is a way for CARB to provide a starter kit, so to speak, maybe a smaller unit with a fan and instructions, and connect people to a community with a sensor. We are partway there with this great structure in place, but people need to see for themselves. So get one in everyone’s house, or in a central location for them to see what it’s like in their neighborhood. And give them the starter kit to improve the air quality in their own home, maybe show videos like this. We could come back and do a demo with the fan, as a way to show people that this works. And you could work with a local organization that people trust, like a church, to share the information.

Jose: I agree that seeing it for yourself has an incredible value – having both (sensor and filter) made me feel like I was empowered to create a safe space. The final question was about if you have shared this, and I heard you both mention that you had and that it motivated you to want to learn more about the environmental conditions around you. If you felt like you’ve answered that, then feel free to share any closing thoughts.

Abe: I most definitively have shared this and talked to people about this, especially with people who might not necessarily believe in climate change or that the air is getting worse. Being able to show them and also show them a solution, is great.

Stephanie: I will reiterate that we shared it, but we’re not done sharing it… This type of project is important because it gets into the households of people who live in communities that CARB is trying to impact with your programs. And it’s one of the few that we could tangibly see and feel results right away. So many things that government does feel long-term or by the time something takes place, you’re gone and don’t live there anymore. Or it doesn’t get to the people who need it most. This is something that we felt immediately, and we felt empowered to change something. Air pollution and air quality is such a big thing that who really thinks they can impact it? But to know with this simple solution that we made a difference in our house is very empowering. And with other things, these big things in our environment, to know there are DIY options is very helpful. And if you are giving money to non-profits to advance these initiatives, you should make sure they are going grassroots to the people to make sure that the people are getting the information. And you should learn what those outcomes and engagement are. I think it’s great that you are directly from the agency and connecting with families, and that’s rare.

By. Samar Lichenstein



Note from CARB EJ Blog:  Abe has expressed a career interest in engineering and advocacy.  His mother, Stephanie, supports him in those goals, and we should too, given your own agency’s capacity and goals.

Look for future posts in this series as we start catching up with air sensor hosts Bayo Vista, which is in the Bay Area city of Rodeo. We'll also continue sharing stories of Sacramento, and are starting to work with folks in East Vallejo. In addition to the stories of the hosts, each part in the series will include educational information that may be useful, so please check those out too.  For starters, we'll start creating hyperlinks to program fact sheets that can provide information of interest, within these stories. 


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