How to choose the right CO2 sensors
Indoor air quality is a hot topic right now as organisations begin to reopen their doors. Studies show that a good general measure of indoor air quality can come from looking at the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) present.
Unlike outdoor air, indoor air tends to be continuously recycled, causing it to trap pollutants which can then build up within these confined spaces. The higher the concentration of occupants, the higher the levels of CO2. Without the right ventilation, this can not only lead to virus transmission but also leads to dizziness, tiredness, nausea and even vomiting.
There’s a delicate balance to find in achieving the optimum air quality, with optimum conditions. CO2, temperature and humidity all play their part. Getting the balance right can help employees operate at their most productive. It can also reduce illness absence and boost employees’ health and wellbeing.
Which is where CO2 sensors can play a vital role. Monitoring indoor CO2 forms an integral part of smart workspace solutions. Using the data, building managers can implement data-driven ventilation to allow the flow of fresh air to be automatically optimised. As organisations seek to transform their buildings into ‘healthy’ buildings, CO2 sensors are a simple, yet powerful tool to optimise indoor air quality.
What are CO2 sensors?
CO2 sensors measure the concentration of CO2 particles in the air – parts per million (ppm for short).
There are three main types of CO2 sensor:
- Non-dispersive infrared sensors
- Electrochemical sensors
- Metal oxide semiconductor sensors
Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, which we’ll explore below.
1. Non-dispersive infrared (NDIR) sensors
Simply put, NDIR sensors use specific wavelengths of light to measure the amount of CO2 in the air.
Every single element absorbs certain types of light. When things are broken down into atoms and molecules, we can pinpoint what kind of light each absorbs, even light we cannot see.
This means we can use sensors to test if certain elements are present, and if so, in what quantity.
How they work:
As air enters the sensor, a light set at one of the specific wavelengths for CO2 — usually around four microns — is activated at one end of the sensor. The other end holds a receptacle to measure how much light makes it to the other side. Once the light is activated, CO2 gas molecules absorb the specific band of infrared light. The amount of light it absorbs depends on how much carbon dioxide is present. The more CO2 present, the more light the sensor will absorb.
- Low cost compared with other technology
- Very long-lasting, with some lasting more than 10 years
- Other substances will not interfere with readings
- Work well at common CO2 ranges (0-2550ppm)
- Can be affected by extreme temperature and humidity levels
2. Electrochemical sensors
Electrochemical sensors measure electrical current or conductivity to determine how much CO2 is present in the air.
How they work:
When CO2 enters this sensor, it creates a chemical reaction. As this reaction occurs, the sensor experiences an electrical change. Depending on the specific type of sensor, the reaction can make the sensor pick up an electrical current, change an existing current, or change how well the sensor would carry a current.
The sensor will then use the type and amount of electrical change to determine how much CO2 is present.
- Less susceptible to humidity and temperature changes than standard NDIR or MOS sensors
- Other substances can throw off readings by cross-responding to other gas species, such as water vapour
- Not as long-lasting as NDIR sensors
- The sensor can ‘drift’ or lose accuracy over time
3. Metal oxide semiconductor (MOS) sensors
MOS carbon dioxide sensors use the resistivity of metal compounds to test the amounts of gas in the air.
‘Resistivity’ describes how easily electricity flows through something. For example, copper, which is used a lot in wiring, would be less resistant than rubber, which is used to stop electric currents.
How they work:
A MOS sensor has a metal strip or film that is exposed to the air being tested. This strip has a constant electric current running through it. As the air comes into contact with the piece, it will interact with the metal and change the chemical composition, either through a reduction or oxidation reaction.
When this happens, the resistivity, or conductivity, of the metal will be altered. The kind of resistance change, whether increasing or decreasing, and its magnitude, determines the concentration of the target gas. Based on what kind of metal it is, different gases will react to the strip.
- Very simple design makes them easy to use
- Can be affected by temperature and humidity
- Usually used at higher, less common CO2 concentrations (>2000ppm)
- Other substances in the air can throw off readings by cross-responding to other gas species, such as water vapour
How to choose the right sensor
The case for using a CO2 sensor is clearly strong. But when it comes to choosing the right one, there are a few things to consider:
1. Measurement range
While MOS sensors do very well in CO2 levels above 2000ppm, this level is already high enough to affect you. NDIR sensors can provide information at lower CO2 levels. Pressac’s CO2 sensor can measure from 0-2550ppm with a very high degree of accuracy, which is much more helpful in a CO2 monitor.
NDIR sensors are the longest-lasting monitor currently on the market. While both electrochemical and MOS sensors have made considerable strides in this department, they are still behind the NDIR sensor type, which usually lasts 10-15 years or more.
Both MOS and electrochemical sensors can have something called cross-sensitivity bias. When a substance other than CO2 reacts in the sensor, such as water vapour, it changes the electrical properties of the sensor and the readings it gives you. NDIR sensors do not have this problem, as only CO2 can absorb the light emitted in the sensor.
4. Reading ‘drift’
Electrochemical and MOS sensors may eventually lose electrons, and the readings will ‘drift’. This means the readings displayed on your CO2 monitor can be significantly higher or lower than the true value.
NDIR sensors are a very cost-effective solution. They are often much cheaper than other technology and can be operated using a battery or solar-powered. This makes them easy to install and very low maintenance. It’s also worth considering whether you want to just measure CO2 or multiple air quality parameters. Multi-sensors may be more expensive, but they can include CO2, temperature and humidity sensors all in one device, saving you money overall.
6. Ease of data integration
Look for sensors that offer easy data integration and secure data transmission. Using Pressac’s Smart gateway, our sensors send data to a local network or cloud platform so it can be easily integrated with your ventilation system.
As technology advances, you can access multiple types of Indoor environment monitoring sensors for collecting data. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, so it’s important to work with a smart sensor expert when making your decisions. Contact our IoT business development team to see how we can support you to keep your internal air quality at optimum levels.