Your 3 Best Bets for Battling Indoor Air Pollution
In the winter, all that dry indoor air can leave some homeowners with red eyes and scratchy throats—but it doesn't have to be that way! Improve indoor air quality and your family's comfort with these smart solutions.
Heating and cooling doesn’t come cheap—especially if your HVAC system has to work harder to overcome heat loss due to drafts. That’s why remodeling pros recommend minimizing inefficient air leaks by sealing the home as tightly as possible. There’s only one downside: those heat-sucking cracks and gaps allow fresh air to enter and stale air to escape. When a house has been effectively buttoned up, it may no longer be able to exchange air on its own. In that case, you must take special measures not only to ensure proper ventilation, but also to safeguard the quality of the air you breathe on a daily basis.
Despite the fact that Americans, on average, spend about 90 percent of their time indoors, relatively few think twice about home air quality. After all, isn’t air pollution confined to the congested streets of big cities? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says no. In fact, according to the EPA, “A growing body of scientific evidence has indicated that the air within homes and other buildings can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air.” This means that in the closed environment of a contemporary home, a concentration of impurities can compromise home health to an often surprising degree.
If a homeowner ever stops to consider indoor air quality, “it’s most likely going to be during the winter,” says Daniel O’Brian, a technical specialist with SupplyHouse.com. That’s because when the mercury plummets, “you’re not opening the doors and windows to the breezes—you’re doing the opposite.” Plus, although the typical forced-air heating system provides warmth and comfort, the technology also introduces a steady supply of warm, dry air that isn’t unhealthy in itself, but which, O’Brian says, “certainly isn’t pleasant for many people” and can exacerbate serious issues like asthma.
Promoting indoor air quality isn’t a simple matter. Often, O’Brian continues, success requires a multipronged strategy that “takes on different facets of the problem.” Fortunately, with scores of manufacturers jumping on board to help address home-health concerns, there are plenty of compelling options to consider. Of these, the most popular products fall into one of three categories—humidification, filtration, or air-cleaning. Not every technology may be suitable for your home, O’Brian says, but “it’s well worth considering the benefits of each one.”
If you’ve ever heard the expression “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity,” you know that comfort hinges not only on temperature, but also on the moisture content of the air. “People tend to think of humidity as something you only confront outdoors,” O’Brian says, “but it matters equally as much for health and happiness indoors.” While excess humidity leads to clammy conditions, the opposite—excessive dryness—gives rise to the red eyes and sore throats that can make winter so uncomfortable. To remedy the itchy-scratchy situation and normalize humidity levels in winter, many choose to install a whole-home humidifier.
Unlike the portable, plug-in appliances that humidify only one room at a time, whole-home units attach directly to the house’s HVAC system for maximum impact. Installed adjacent to the furnace blower, a drum humidifier consists of a sponge that rotates slowly through a reservoir of water. As the blower pushes heated air through the humidifier, it picks up moisture before entering the ductwork and, ultimately, the living spaces. Bypass humidifiers operate in a broadly similar way but install within the ductwork itself. “Both work to keep the humidity level within a healthy, comfortable range,” O’Brian concludes.
Dust, pollen, pet hair… at any given time, innumerable particulates float around in the air inside the typical home. If there were no such thing as a furnace filter, the number of airborne particulates would only increase, and the home HVAC system would recirculate them all, over and over, throughout the house. Fortunately, furnaces are equipped with filters to remove harmful particulates from the air that passes through. Besides safeguarding the furnace itself against damage, an HVAC filter directly benefits indoor air quality—so long as the homeowner takes action to prevent the filter from becoming clogged.
Some filters must be replaced as often as every few months. Others are reusable but need to be cleaned manually. “One or the other may be more convenient for you,” O’Brian says, “but neither type promises better or worse performance.” Indeed, for filter efficacy, nothing matters more than a filter’s Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value, or MERV rating. “The higher the MERV rating, the better,” O’Brian explains. Any conventional filter can catch relatively large particulates, such as cigarette ash and dust bunnies. But with higher-rated filters, O’Brian continues, “you get protection against smaller particulates as well.”
Make no mistake, “furnace filters are essential and provide a key line of defense,” O’Brian says, but “they work a lot better when paired with an air cleaner.” Why? Furnace filters come with an Achilles’ heel: They do nothing to protect against mold, mildew, germs, and other microscopic impurities. In other words, in a home with comprehensive indoor air-quality protection, “the air cleaner picks up right where the furnace filter leaves off,” O’Brian says. How much an air cleaner helps “depends mainly on the technology you choose.”
Different air cleaners rely on different air-cleaning methods. For instance, electrostatic air cleaners positively charge impurities in the air and then catch those impurities on a series of internal, negatively charged plates. Ion air cleaners, meanwhile, disperse charged ions that attach to—and neutralize—airborne particulates. Finally, high-efficiency particulate air cleaners—also known as HEPA units—consist of multiple built-in filters, each specially designed to capture a different type of common indoor air pollution.
If you’re concerned about the contents of the air you breathe at home—the one place where you’d expect not to have to worry about such things—consult with your contractor, or contact SupplyHouse.com experts, who are always on hand to assist you in making the right choice for your household needs and budget. Remember that, as O’Brian puts it, “air quality and efficient heating and cooling work hand in hand.” In other words, breathing easier at home often also means breathing easier when the utility bill comes at the end of the month!
This article has been brought to you by SupplyHouse.com. Its facts and opinions are those of BobVila.com.