APM systems were developed primarily for container plants in furnished interiors, but can be used for many bedded installations as well. Large plants, small plants, dry-loving plants and moisture-loving plants can be serviced by the same system.

AUTOMATED INTERIOR PLANT-CARE And the Environmental Aspects of Home Technologies

Stuart D. Snyder | S. D. Snyder & Assoc.

And the Environmental Aspects of Home Technologies
By Stuart D. Snyder, S. D. Snyder & Assoc.

APM systems were developed primarily for container plants in furnished interiors, but can be used for many bedded installations as well. Large plants, small plants, dry-loving plants and moisture-loving plants can be serviced by the same system.

The home automation industry has spawned many new concepts, making our existence more interesting and easier to manage. Lost in the shuffle however, are many environmental and health issues to which few are familiar. It's one thing to make a house smarter, and quite another to do it without creating hazards to the owner's welfare. These conflicting and controversial issues impact every project we undertake. They will be explored in the following discussion, along with new technologies that address this problem.

The proliferation of electronic devices and technologies have advanced our understanding of how to make things work, but are also compromising our health in various ways . . . and therein lies the dilemma. How do we as an industry forward our profession without creating harm to society? "What do you mean by that Snyder?", might be your reaction. "I don't do anything to harm my clients.", you insist. If you've had any exposure to shelter environmental research, you understand what I'm getting at. The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has indicted indoor air pollution as one of the most serious environmental health hazards facing Americans. After six years of extensive research into the magnitude and sources of indoor air pollution, in 1989 the EPA published a definitive Report to Congress on Indoor Air Quality, based on their TEAM (Total Exposure Assessment Methodology) Study and Public Buildings studies. The revelations this science contained shocked the nation, for it concluded that our homes and places of work all contain hundreds of toxic chemicals in the air we breathe, as well as particulates, radon and other harmful substances. It impacts our health in profound ways. The research explains that exposure to these toxic chemicals is almost always greater indoors, that indoor air pollution (IAP) is far worse than outdoor air pollution in the number and concentration of pollutants found, even in geographical areas known for smog and other serious air pollution problems. Further explaining the problem are the sources of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) they uncovered. They encompass most of the building materials, decorating and furnishing materials, cleaning materials, clothing, newspapers, books, and a broad range of commonly used items that are part of our lives. Each of these things contain chemicals used in their manufacture which constantly emit gases into the air we breathe. Medical and environmental researchers are finding many of our chronic and degenerative diseases linked to these exposures; cancer, heart, respiratory, endocrine and cognitive diseases are just a few.

"What does all this have to with us?", you ask. Well, just this. Wiring, electronic circuit boards, plastic equipment cases and electronic components are all contributors to the indoor air pollution problem, although generally at very low levels from each component. Pollution is additive, however. The more toxic sources that are installed in a home, the greater the health risk. Trace concentrations of pollutants are typically detected and measured with supersensitive gas chromatograph/mass spectrometers (GC/MS). They produce a graphic fingerprint of the chemical compounds found in air samples. As an example, small diameter telephone cable has a relatively high emission rate (the rate at which inherent aliphatic, aromatic and halogenated hydrocarbons gas-off to the atmosphere), exceeding that of carpeting, particle board, foam insulation and other materials commonly considered as being major pollution sources (Source: Indoor Air Quality in Public Buildings: Vol. 2; L. Sheldon et al; EPA/600/S6-88/009b, Sept. 1988, p.5). Tests are expensive, so few homes or public buildings have been evaluated for ambient toxicity. The same is true of most materials testing, so we don't really know the extent of the problem. But we do know that every home around the country the EPA tested in their studies, contained hundreds of air pollutants, so none of us are immune. This is what the pollution from small diameter telephone cable and plastic outlet cover plates looks like as GC/MS graphic fingerprints:

(Source: Indoor Air Quality in Public Buildings: Vol. 2; EPA/600/S6-88/009b)

The problem is not so much what one or two offending products do to our health. It's the cumulative effect of hundreds of products around us each adding to the toxic soup we live in. When one source becomes particularly noxious, it creates what's commonly called Sick Building Syndrome. We quickly become aware of it, generally through respiratory distress, and the building empties out to be evaluated and fixed. Those are acute examples of IAP. The most dangerous however, are the low levels of toxic gases surrounding us that we can't see or smell, that we breathe in day after day, month after month, accumulating in our body tissues, all the while breaking down our immunity to disease. It affects all of us and we're seldom aware of its consequences. We spend an average of 90% of our lives indoors, so these are critical issues which bear heavily on our health.

With the exception of environmental tobacco smoke, the government has dragged its feet on controlling indoor air pollution. Meanwhile, volumes of scientific evidence mount on the causes of major public health problems and a large portion of it focuses on our environment. According to the American Lung Association there are about 4,000 discrete pollutants in deadly tobacco smoke, and a good many of these are also present in a multitude of other products used in the home, so the sources of harm are ubiquitous. There is a great deal of litigation in the courts placing blame for serious health incidents on manufacturers, installers and designers of offending projects. Huge jury awards have resulted over many years and the courts are filled with these cases. Electro-magnetic emissions from electronic equipment are a part of our heritage. Sooner or later electronic industries will also be held accountable for their contribution to public health problems related to chemical emissions as well. This is not now a crisis situation because regulatory agencies concentrate on other aspects of IAP, but it is only a matter of time before electronics come under scrutiny. It would be wise to start thinking about ways of minimizing our culpability.

At the heart of EPA's strategy for indoor air pollution remediation, is the flawed concept of mechanical ventilation. That involves pumping pollution-laden air from the inside of buildings to the outside, thereby diluting fouled indoor air with less-polluted 'fresh' air from the outdoors. This has value as a short-term solution, but the fallacy of that idea is obvious, for it serves to further pollute the neighborhood as well as the global ecosystem, which are burdened enough. Anyone who has stood on the roof of a commercial building and experienced the effluent from its heating, venting, air conditioning (HVAC) system, understands the magnitude of the poisons we casually exhaust to the atmosphere. Collectively, the homes and buildings of the world are an enormous pollution source. The ventilation concept is also at odds with that of "Green Buildings", energy-efficient, environmentally sustainable structures. Making commercial building interiors safe enough for habitation has required high ventilation rates requiring undue levels of energy and labor to maintain. Homes can be ventilated by opening doors and windows, but that also requires undue amounts of energy for air cooling and heating during temperature extremes. It also serves to pollute the global environment, again sweeping the problem under the rug.

Because of the problems inherent in HVAC-related strategies and their imperfect control of interior pollution, many are calling for a better alternative, that of air cleaning, which is the complete removal and destruction of pollutants at their source. Filtration and removal of dust, pollen and other particles is practical, but is just one small aspect of this. Getting rid of toxic airborne gases is the real trick. Mechanical, chemical and electrostatic devices are used for this purpose in large buildings with only limited success. They are large, expensive to install and operate, are imperfect in their removal of gases, and for various reasons are not practical for homes, at least not for popular consumption. EPA concludes that HEPA filters are not the answer for gases, and other carbon-type filtration devices are only marginally effective.

Meanwhile, space science of the 1970s and 80s, has demonstrated that living plants are effective air cleaners for a broad range of organic pollutants and can help minimize the IAP dilemma. Nature's bio-technologies are infinitely more complex and sophisticated than anything man has devised. Hundreds of chemical reactions and bio-physical systems miniaturized within tiny plant components carry out amazing tasks which have provided man with oxygen and clean air since the beginning of time.

I became involved with all this inadvertently in the 1980s while researching for my first book, Building Interiors, Plants and Automation (Prentice Hall, 1990). My contacts with EPA and NASA executives during that time gave me a new perspective on the technologies we were engineering. At Boca Automation, Inc., we were on the path of developing integrated building systems that address lifestyle as well as home and business management. We very quickly found ourselves also providing support for shelters' environmental viability and thus the health of their occupants. This pathway led to the development of APM (automated precision micro-irrigation) systems that service plantscapes in furnished interiors. My early contacts with NASA illuminated my understanding of the bio-technologies they were working on; astronaut life-support systems for long-duration missions, using living green plants to regenerate used air and water in sealed environments. Their concepts are based on the well-established bio-sciences that tell us plants clean the air we breath through photosynthesis, generating purified oxygen in the process. The Russians had picked up on this and started their space science developments using plants as a key factor in astronaut life-support a decade or more before NASA's efforts started. They found that in addition to absorbing carbon dioxide, as part of nature's carbon cycle, plants are able to absorb and metabolize other airborne organic chemicals (VOCs), like methylene, tetrachloroethylene, vinyl chloride and many other chemical pollutants found by EPA in our living and work spaces. NASA's problems were similar to our own. The construction materials and other pollution sources in spacecraft are many of the same products we find in our homes and public buildings, including wiring and electronics. Plants actually feed on these organic gases, through leaves and roots. While small numbers of plants can be helpful, it takes larger numbers and optimal air flow patterns to maximize their effectiveness. To accelerate and optimize the process, NASA designed bio-electromechanical devices called bio-filters or bio-reactors, which are currently in further development for civilian use at research centers and private companies around the world. Decades of experimentation have produced strong convictions about the power and necessity of having living plants in our lives. Both Russian and American space scientists have advocated for more than a decade, greater use of living plants in civilian settings at whatever level, to help alleviate indoor air pollution problems and to promote healthier environments. Artificial plants commonly used in decorating obviously do not provide the same human benefits, in fact they are just another pollution source.

Using live plants indoors does not come without a downside however, and uppermost is the necessity of watering (irrigation). Watering is the most time consuming task associated with interior plant-care, and the one commercially involving the most labor input and cost. Mirage III™ APM systems are integrated into new structures or retrofit to existing facilities and their use significantly reduces the labor required, supporting home and facility management and environmental goals. This patented technology involves electro-mechanically controlled hydraulic systems using unique concepts, such as condensed irrigation dynamics (CID) for water flow control, and multi-tiered power control for project integrity. APM systems interface with all types of home control technologies and become peripherals to the master system. APM systems provide the watering service required by plants in furnished areas of homes where sprinkler and drip irrigation technologies are not practical. Plumbing-grade plastic tubing networks are installed during the rough-in stages of construction, to channel irrigation water from the remote APM control center to locations where plants will be installed. Special irrigation receptacles mounted in the walls of rooms access water lines hidden within the partitions. Small gauge tubing plugs into these receptacles to service nearby plants, with adjustable flow control at each plant. Additional flow control devices are used at strategic points in the water distribution network.

The electronic control aspects of APM systems are unorthodox. The irrigation system is only partially controlled by X-10 or other master control networks. It is risky to operate fluid-control solenoid valves solely with master control signals. Malfunctioning ON cycles can cause obvious problems. We designed the main irrigation control elements into our solenoid valve controller which mounts an integral valve. Highly reliable internal electronics permit only very short ON cycles, a few seconds in duration during which the solenoid valve is open and water flows. This controller is plugged into a dedicated power receptacle controlled by the master home control system such as an X-10 receiving module or equivalent. The dedicated receptacle's address is programmed to provide power application to the APM controller for one minute or less, during which time it operates the system. This configuration provides a safe, multi-tiered power control scheme and permits more complex control possibilities for large installations. For example, large homes and commercial facilities require more than one irrigation zone. Most home control systems are capable of numerous channels (or addresses) which permit the activation of various devices concurrently or sequentially. Each channel is programmed to do ones bidding. In use with our irrigation system, the master controller would be configured to apply power to the APM solenoid valve controller. In a three zone APM system, the solenoid valve controller would be activated to permit water flow six times daily, with power application by the master control system of 1 minute duration each time. At the outlet of APM controllers are water flow and pressure regulators, but also water distribution manifolds splitting flow to each of the individual zones. Each zone has its own, independently operated solenoid valve, also controlled by the master system. To permit flow to any zone, its solenoid must be programmed to open concurrently with the APM solenoid valve controller, and to shut down after it. This multi-level configuration is operated twice daily for each zone, providing 10 second to 30 second irrigation cycles each time. To accommodate such arrangements, there must also be a compatible interface that controls stepped-down voltage destined for zone solenoid valve coils. Transformers, receiving modules and dry contact relays are typical components.

APM systems were developed primarily for container plants in furnished interiors, but can be used for many bedded installations as well. Large plants, small plants, dry-loving plants and moisture-loving plants can be serviced by the same system. Entire buildings or select areas can be serviced with equal ease. Techniques have been developed for retrofit installations as well.

The versatility of APM installations is in some measure dependent on the type of master control system involved. With the right equipment, APM systems can be controlled with clock cycles or manually by phone or internet from anywhere in the world. An audio annunciator can call out a message each time plants are watered. Plant grow lights can be operated to supplement natural light at certain periods of the day or night, or an alarm can warn of under or over-watering and the need for adjustment. These are but some of the possibilities.

"But what about the environmental consequences of your APM systems that use plastic tubing, wiring and electronics?", you ask. We're concerned about it as well, and over time will seek out suppliers of environmentally-friendly wire, pipe and other components we use. Supply industries are working on product modifications that reduce emissions. Pressure from their customers would help speed things along. Our technology has the advantage of supporting an air cleaning system that helps to overcome any harm we may have caused along the way. Keep the environment in mind as you develop and install home automation systems. What we do affects all whom we touch. Chief Seattle said it with eloquence over one hundred-fifty years ago.

"Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself."

S. D. Snyder & Associates provide the specialized expertise for home automation integrators; the project engineering/design work, costing and proposals, installation and operating details, on-line consultations, as well as the components for Boca Automation's Mirage III™ APM systems. Dealerships are available. Further information about this technology can be obtained by e-mail at: bocasite@earthlink.net or visit our website at http://home.earthlink.net/~bocasite/apmsystem.html.

Stuart D. Snyder is an engineer and principal of S. D. Snyder & Assoc. which designs, develops and supplies automated systems for residential and commercial management. After decades in industry as R & D engineer, manufacturing plant manager, corporate management consultant and entrepreneur, he founded Boca Automation, Inc. Snyder has many developments to his credit, including automated, precision micro-irrigation (APM) systems. His Mirage III™ APM System was displayed at EPCOT Center/House of Innoventions with other advanced home technologies. He was honored by NASA with articles about his development in two of their annual reports and other publications. Mr. Snyder's books, Building Interiors, Plants and Automation and Environmental Interiorscapes, are the definitive texts on APM technology.

Mirage III APM Systems is a trade name used by Boca Automation, Inc. and S. D. Snyder & Assoc.

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