How to Test Air Quality in Your Home
Indoor air quality affects your family's health. Following these tips on how to test air quality in your home can help everyone can breathe a little easier.
Household pollutants can come from everything from the materials used in home construction and off-gassing from adhesives to mold and mildew due to poor ventilation. Clean air in the home can protect you from carcinogens, allergens, and harmful particulates. Even if you don’t suspect a problem, it’s a good idea to have some type of air quality monitor in the home. Some threats like radon and carbon monoxide are colorless, odorless, and tasteless, providing no clue that there’s trouble until you’re already in the danger zone.
Signs and Symptoms of Poor Indoor Air Quality
The wide range of pollutants, particulates, and allergens that can affect indoor air make it difficult to create an all-inclusive list of poor indoor air quality indicators. However, there are circumstances and signs that could indicate poor air quality in your home, including:
- Poor ventilation: Condensation on walls or windows, musty-smelling air, or areas where mold collects on walls and items suggests a ventilation issue.
- Health problems: Respiratory or other health problems that develop after moving into a home and that subside after time spent away from home point toward an environmental issue in the home.
- Unusual odors: If you notice unusual odors after a period of absence from home, pollutants or mold could be permeating the indoor air.
- Older homes: Materials and construction methods used in older homes may include materials known to emit harmful VOCs or pollutants. Outdated construction methods may also contribute to ventilation problems. However, that doesn’t mean new homes can’t have issues with indoor air quality. Modern regulations, if followed, make poor indoor air quality less likely in newer builds.
Before You Begin
Not every home requires testing for every potential particulate or pollutant. Often, the types of signs and symptoms experienced and the age and location of the home can help you narrow down potential pollutants. Be sure to consult a doctor if you are experiencing health problems that you suspect are related to your home environment. A doctor can help identify health issues related to exposure to mold, radon, or carbon monoxide, for example.
STEP 1: Install an indoor air quality monitor.
How is air quality measured? Some monitors use electrochemical sensors that detect toxins while others estimate particulate matter (PM) based on the particulates that pass in front of a laser. It depends on the monitor model and what it’s designed to detect.
Air quality testing can detect harmful odorless gasses like carbon monoxide and radon. Depending on the model, they may also detect volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or pollutants such as airborne particulate matter. More advanced indoor air quality monitors may also measure the room’s humidity and temperature.
Choose a monitor that detects the specific pollutants about which you’re concerned. For example, if you live in an area with high air pollution, you’re more likely to need a model that detects PM. Someone who lives in an older home may want to get a model that detects radon and carbon monoxide (though either can be present in newer homes, too).
Our Recommendation: Vivosun Air Quality Detector – Get on Amazon for $69.99
This portable air quality monitor’s sensors track airborne particulate matter, VOCs, and formaldehyde with a simple display and interface.
STEP 2: Test for mold.
Mold tests come in various formats, including swabs, tape strips, air pumps, and petri dish tests. Swabs and tape strip tests collect potential contaminants from a surface like a counter or tabletop. The results from a swab test come within a few minutes, though you may not know the exact type of mold.
Tape strips, air pumps, and petri dish tests require the collected sample be sent to a lab for analysis. While these tests are more accurate than a simple swab test, it can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to get the results. Additionally, petri dish tests can get contaminated from other particles in the air. Tape strips and swabs can also get contaminated by other particles on the tested surface.
Air pumps offer a closed system that’s less likely to get contaminated, though they tend to cost more. Set the mold test up near the home’s ventilation or in the area where you suspect mold or a contaminant. However, always follow the directions on the test kit for the best results.
Our Recommendation: Seeml Labs DIY Mold 3 Test Kit – Get on Amazon for $33.99
This kit comes with three tests (one swab and two tape strips), which offer same-day (that the results arrive) results from a lab.
STEP 3: Perform a radon test at home.
Radon gas naturally occurs as a byproduct of the breakdown of the uranium found in certain rocks and soil. The gas can seep its way into a home through the foundation until the gas reaches harmful levels.
Radon tests detect levels of the gas over time. Short-term tests take about 90 days or less, while long-term tests can take several months. The results from these tests usually require a lab to interpret results. Continuous tests monitor radon levels at all times and alert you if radon is detected.
Depending on the type of radon test, the test may require installing detection sheets or other methods in an area suggested by the manufacturer. The key is to follow the instructions on the test.
Our Recommendation: Airthings 2989 View Radon – Get on Amazon for $199.99
This continuous, battery- or USB-operated radon monitor measures indoor radon levels, temperature, and humidity and integrates with the Airthings mobile app for remote alerts.
STEP 4: Install a carbon monoxide detector.
Carbon monoxide is an odorless poisonous gas that causes confusion, dizziness, and headaches before it causes a loss of consciousness and death. Carbon monoxide detectors are fairly standard along with smoke detectors. However, if you have an older home you may need to add a carbon monoxide detector to your home safety plan.
These detectors go in the same places as smoke detectors, such as outside bedrooms. There should be one for each level of the home and near sleeping areas. Carbon monoxide rises with air, so the detector should be placed about five feet from the floor on a wall or on the ceiling. Do not put them near a fireplace or open flame.
Our Recommendation: Kidde Nighthawk Carbon Monoxide Detector – Get at Amazon.com for $33.89
A built-in digital display and multiple power sources, including battery backup, create a reliable carbon monoxide detector that’s affordable and goes off when CO2 levels reach unhealthy levels.
Next Steps for Improving Indoor Air Quality
Home air quality test kits offer an alert if pollutants reach dangerous levels. However, there are many things you can do to prevent levels from ever reaching the danger zone. Proper ventilation can improve your indoor air quality immensely. Check your HVAC system to make sure it’s functioning at peak efficiency. Increase the airflow in your home by periodically opening the windows and using fans to circulate the air.
Mold requires removal by scrubbing and using a mold-killing cleaner like borax. For delicate surfaces, you can use dish soap or diluted white vinegar. Unfortunately, you may not be able to remove mold from porous surfaces, and they may need to be replaced.
Carbon monoxide is incredibly dangerous. If you suspect carbon monoxide in high or low doses, leave the area. Open windows and doors to ventilate the gas. Get outside where you can breathe uncontaminated quality air to release the gas from your body. Contact the proper authorities to get you and the home checked for carbon monoxide poisoning.
The prices listed here are accurate as of publication on July 11, 2022.