Articles | Volume 11, issue 1
Research article
15 Jan 2018
Research article |  | 15 Jan 2018

Calibration and assessment of electrochemical air quality sensors by co-location with regulatory-grade instruments

David H. Hagan, Gabriel Isaacman-VanWertz, Jonathan P. Franklin, Lisa M. M. Wallace, Benjamin D. Kocar, Colette L. Heald, and Jesse H. Kroll

Abstract. The use of low-cost air quality sensors for air pollution research has outpaced our understanding of their capabilities and limitations under real-world conditions, and there is thus a critical need for understanding and optimizing the performance of such sensors in the field. Here we describe the deployment, calibration, and evaluation of electrochemical sensors on the island of Hawai`i, which is an ideal test bed for characterizing such sensors due to its large and variable sulfur dioxide (SO2) levels and lack of other co-pollutants. Nine custom-built SO2 sensors were co-located with two Hawaii Department of Health Air Quality stations over the course of 5 months, enabling comparison of sensor output with regulatory-grade instruments under a range of realistic environmental conditions. Calibration using a nonparametric algorithm (k nearest neighbors) was found to have excellent performance (RMSE < 7 ppb, MAE < 4 ppb, r2 > 0.997) across a wide dynamic range in SO2 (< 1 ppb, > 2 ppm). However, since nonparametric algorithms generally cannot extrapolate to conditions beyond those outside the training set, we introduce a new hybrid linear–nonparametric algorithm, enabling accurate measurements even when pollutant levels are higher than encountered during calibration. We find no significant change in instrument sensitivity toward SO2 after 18 weeks and demonstrate that calibration accuracy remains high when a sensor is calibrated at one location and then moved to another. The performance of electrochemical SO2 sensors is also strong at lower SO2 mixing ratios (< 25 ppb), for which they exhibit an error of less than 2.5 ppb. While some specific results of this study (calibration accuracy, performance of the various algorithms, etc.) may differ for measurements of other pollutant species in other areas (e.g., polluted urban regions), the calibration and validation approaches described here should be widely applicable to a range of pollutants, sensors, and environments.

Short summary
The use of low-cost sensors for air pollution research has outpaced our understanding of their capabilities and limitations under real-world conditions. Here we describe the deployment, calibration and evaluation of electrochemical sensors on the Island of Hawai‘i. We obtain excellent performance (RMSE < 7 ppb, r2 = 0.997) across a wide dynamic range (1 ppb–2 ppm). We introduce a hybrid regression algorithm which works across a large dynamic range and shows little decay in sensitivity over time.