5 Ways to Improve Indoor Air Quality
By Fran J. Donegan
Cutting energy use by weather sealing our homes with insulation, caulk and weather stripping makes good economic and environmental sense. In the rush to tighten up our homes, however, we decreased the natural ventilation that was common in the past. Tight houses often mean that pollutants can be trapped inside, creating an indoor air pollution problem.
The terms pollutants and contaminants are used loosely here because sensitivity varies from person to person. In general, we are talking about things like dust mites and pet dander, mold spores and viruses, as well as gaseous pollutants like tobacco smoke and the off-gassing from paints, cleaning products and some building products. Some people may experience headaches, dizziness, irritation of eyes, nose and throat, fatigue and more serious illnesses. If you have these symptoms while in your house, but they are absent when you are away from home, indoor pollutants may be the cause.
Here are five steps to help cut down on indoor pollutants.
1. Ventilate where you can.
Opening a window may be the easiest way to flush out pollutants, but that often goes against the desire to save heating and cooling energy. Bathrooms and kitchens should be equipped with ventilation fans to remove moisture. It is important to get rid of excess moisture because high humidity can lead to mold growth. Be sure that bathroom ventilation fans, range hoods and clothes dryers are vented to the outside, not into an attic or crawl space. Dumping moisture into an attic or crawl space can lead to structural damage.
2. Upgrade the filter in your forced-air heating and cooling system.
All forced-air systems require filters to remove dust and other particles from gumming up the machinery, but you can replace the standard filter with one designed to remove many of the contaminants found in a home. Standard filters simply trap particles on a flat filtering medium. Others have deep pleats with added surface area to trap particles. Electrostatic filters receive an electrical charge that helps trap the particles.
To pick the filter that is best for you, consult the filter's rating. The minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) was created by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers. MERV rates filters on a scale from 1 to 20, with 20 being the most efficient at removing pollutants. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, filters in the 7 to 13 range are likely to be nearly as efficient as HEPA filters at removing airborne particles.
MERV can get confusing because the system rates all air filters, including those not found in residential HVAC systems. In response, The Home Depot simplified the rating system for the products it sells. The filters are tested by a third party. Ratings run from 4 to 10. The higher the number, the smaller the particles the filter can remove from the air, including allergens, mold, bacteria and virus carriers. Most of the higher-rated filters use electrostatic charges to filter out contaminants. Some can even remove odors. Here's a look at the Air Filter Performance Rating (FPR) System.
3. Have your home tested for radon.
Radon is an odorless, invisible gas that is a byproduct of uranium that occurs naturally in the soil. If it leaks into your home, it can lead to serious illnesses. Home test kits are easy to use. You send the sample to a lab for results. High levels of radon are dangerous, but there are a number of mitigation techniques available if you do have high levels of radon in your home.
4. Choose non-polluting products.
Some of the products we bring into our homes can contribute to indoor air pollution, including painting products, solvents, cleaners, furniture and carpets. Many emit gases that can be harmful to some people, including volatile organic compounds (VOC). These are gases emitted from certain solids and liquids. Fortunately, many manufacturers and entire industries are working to limit VOC exposure. For example, most major paint manufacturers offer low-VOC products.
Some industries have developed testing and certification programs for their products. If you are considering vinyl flooring, look for the Resilient Floor Covering Institute's FloorScore certification. In this program, third-party testing ensures that the products meet stringent indoor air quality standards and that the products emit low levels of VOCs.
The Carpet and Rug Institute's Green Label and Green Label Plus programs certify carpets, adhesives and carpet padding for low emissions of VOCs.
Secondhand smoke is another possible indoor pollutant. The only solution is to not allow smoking in the house.
5. Install carbon monoxide detectors.
Carbon monoxide (CO) is an invisible, odorless and tasteless gas that can cause adverse health effects that range from fatigue and dizziness to death at high concentrations. CO is a byproduct of combustion. Some in-home sources include unvented kerosene and gas space heaters, back drafting from furnaces, gas water heaters, wood stoves and fireplaces, poorly maintained combustion devices such as boilers and furnaces, automobile exhaust from attached garages and more.
A CO detector alerts you to the presence of the gas before it can harm you. The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends that homeowners install CO detectors on every level of their home.
Fran Donegan is a do-it-yourself stalwart who writes on DIY for The Home Depot. Fran is also the author of multiple DIY books, including Pools and Spas. If you are interested in more research on air filters for your heating system, you can find information at Home Depot online.
Companies: The Home Depot