The colder months are upon us and that means we will be spending more time indoors. Newer homes are much more airtight than older homes and this is great news for reducing energy consumption but having an airtight home can also lead to poor indoor air quality by trapping in pet dander, smoke, dust mites, mold, and other allergens that can trigger respiratory issues. The fresh outdoor air needs to be brought inside, while the moisture-filled, stale air from inside needs to be expelled.
Here are my tips on helping you keep your indoor air healthy:
10. Change All Your Filters Regularly
This means your AC and HVAC filters – in fact, I recommend you change them every month, especially if you’ve just gone through a large renovation project. Today there are high-quality HEPA filters with carbon that can trap up to 99.97% of airborne particles, like dust, smoke, mold spores, and pollen from the air you and your family breathe. Always follow manufacturers' recommendations to ensure maximum performance.
But don’t’ forget about your other filters in your home, like the vacuum cleaner, clothes dryer, and kitchen vents should all be inspected and maintained periodically. It’s recommended to clean or replace these common household filters every few months.
9. Invest in a Mechanical Ventilation System
The best ways to deal with poor ventilation is to install a heat recovery ventilator (HRV) or an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) system. An HRV is a mechanical ventilation system that helps make your home healthier, cleaner and more comfortable. Most new HVAC units already incorporate an HRV into the system, however HRV’s can be installed to your existing forced air systems (HVAC) or as a separate unit.
An HRV replaces stale indoor air with fresh outdoor air. It exhausts indoor air pollutants and excess humidity to the outdoors while distributing fresh air throughout the house. In the colder months, when heating is required, the HRV takes heat from the outgoing air and uses it to preheat the incoming fresh air. During the warmer months, when cooling is required, the HRV does the reverse, removing some of the heat from the incoming air and transferring it to the outgoing air. The preheating and cooling exchange requires less energy and therefore helps in lowering your energy costs.
The primary difference between an HRV and an ERV is that an HRV transfers heat while an ERV transfers both heat and moisture.
Because HRV’s run continuously, it's important to discuss the options with an HVAC specialist and consider the power of the exhaust fan (this component tends to break down first) and the noise of the motor can be a factor, as they tend to be noisy. Never shut off your HRV!
8. Keep Your House Clean
This may seem obvious but it makes a big difference! You can easily see dust and particles in the air (through a beam of sunlight) and all those “dust-bunnies” on hardwood floors but not so easy when you have carpets and rugs. Carpets and rugs trap dust and particles so make sure weekly vacuuming occurs. Remember to check and replace the filters in your vacuum – I just realized that my vacuum at home has 2 filters – a HEPA filter and a washable filter! Also, regularly clean your curtains, pillows and bed linens.
7. Use Your Bathroom and Kitchen Fans
It also may seem obvious but please use your exhaust fans! The moisture from showers, and taking hot baths need to be circulated and released to the outside (not your wall or attic!). There are exhaust fans models on the market that run at 25% capacity all the time and you can’t hear them but they have a sensor that kicks into 100% capacity when you walk into the room.
The same goes for pollutants from the kitchen. Gas stoves release carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide and even electric burners produce lower levels of these gases. Your kitchen fan also needs to properly ventilate outside. So be sure to use the fans during and after you’ve finished in the bathroom and cooking to ensure all the moisture, odors and pollutants have been extracted. Taking advantage of opening windows when the weather permits and leave interior doors open to help with the airflow.
6. Invest in an Air Purification System
If you are unable to install an HRV system adding a quality air purifier is another good option. There are whole-home air purifiers that are installed into the existing duct-work of your furnace, or portable air purifiers. There are a lot of variables when considering a whole-home air purifier so my best advice is to contact an HVAC professional for a consultation. They have the knowledge and experience of working with different systems and will find the best solution for your needs.
Alternatively, there are many portable models on the market too but make sure it’s a high-quality purifier and can handle the square footage of the space required. I’ve used portable air purifiers by Honeywell and Panasonic in the past and they work great. Also, do your research on filters. Some filters claim to capture and kill airborne pathogens, such as bacteria and viruses; remember to change the filters regularly.
When choosing an air purifier you need to consider looking at the CADR (Clean Air Delivery Rate). This measures the amount of air moving through the filter (the higher the CADR the larger the area that can be effectively cleaned). CADR rates the effectiveness of the filter against three common indoor air pollutants: tobacco smoke, dust, and pollen. You’ll also want to look at the long-term durability and compare the efficiency rates between brands.
A good purifier can help reduce the allergens in the air, especially if someone is suffering from respiratory problems or allergies. In fact, I suggest getting a couple of units and put them in two rooms and see if it makes an improvement. However, they work best in conjunction with the other tips I’ve noted.
Do your homework and read the manufacturer's recommendations. Typically, high quality, trusted brand names come with good reputations and good warranties. And always use the most efficient of HEPA air filters.
Air cleaners can be effective in removing particles but most do not remove gases.
5. Test for Radon Gas
November is Radon Action Month in Canada and since long-term exposure to radon gas can result in serious health issues it must always be included in a discussion on indoor air quality. Long-term exposure to radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smoking Canadian and your chances are further increased if you are a smoker!
Let’s be clear this invisible, odorless gas is in every home, and the only way to know your radon levels is to get your home tested. Testing is easy and could save you, your family, and even your pets' lives. Plus, this is the best time of year to get your home tested, with the colder temperatures our homes are shut up tight –allowing for more accurate test results.
The good news is that radon mitigation is simple and relatively inexpensive. Any radon levels surpassing 200 Bq/m3 should be mitigated, according to Health Canada guidelines.
If you have an HRV (Heat Recovery Ventilator) like I mention above there is a great little detection device called the Radostadt that attaches to the HRV and acts as an on-demand radon mitigation solution. It is designed to work with the existing HRV/ERV to keep radon levels low. If the gauge detects a spike in radon levels then it triggers the HRV to turn on and perform an air exchange, by removing the radon-contaminated air with fresh outdoor air.
4. Use Eco-Friendly Products with Low or No VOC’s
Be mindful of reducing the contaminants at the source, like cleaning products, new carpets, furniture, etc. Many household cleaning products contain solvents that have harmful off-gassing or VOCs (volatile organic compounds). VOCs are found in many building products, carpets, household cleaners, and adhesives in furniture as well as paint. You know that paint smell? That’s VOCs! VOCs can contribute to health issues including aggravating allergies, headaches, nausea, or even more severe cases like liver and kidney damage.
Instead, use eco-friendly products: good old-fashioned soap and water often cleans most things, vinegar and water works great too.
Using low VOC products, like paint, doesn’t mean there isn’t any harmful off-gassing – it just means there is less than traditional forms of paint. Alternatively, look for paints that have no-VOC’s, natural paints, or non-toxic paints. There are an increasing number of brands available as consumers become more environmentally conscious.
3. Check Your Duct Works
A few reasons to get your ducts cleaned would be:
- a substantial amount of dust and debris, caused by registers and vents not being sealed during a renovation project
- a substantial mold growth
- an infestation of insects or rodents
You probably won’t have to have your ducts cleaned yearly (though if you’re a pet owner you may need to do it that often) but you should have a certified HVAC technician service your HVAC annually and change your filters regularly.
2. Control the Humidity in Your Home
High levels of humidity can breed mold and mildew that can aggravate respiratory issues like allergies and asthma. Dehumidifiers can help regulate the amount of humidity in the air. The optimal humidity levels in a home should be between 30-50%.
1. Get an IAQ Test
If you are worried about the air quality in your home, you may also want to consider getting an IAQ assessment (Indoor Air Quality) done. An IAQ test should be performed by a licensed home inspector - all my Mike Holmes Inspectors can do these tests. The inspector will take indoor air samples from the home and send them to a certified lab for analysis. They can even get a mold spore count and send you a report of the results.
Things you don’t see can sometimes be the most harmful. The average home contains various materials that can release toxins into indoor air – these toxins include VOCs, dust, mold, pollen, and even radon gas. At significant concentrations, these toxins can contribute to poor indoor air quality and can have a serious impact on your health. We owe it to ourselves, and our families to make sure our homes are healthy homes with healthy indoor air.