Take Control of Your Indoor Air?
By John P. Lapotaire, CIEC
Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) is a hot topic today as more of us are acquiring allergies. We seem to be inundated with allergy statistics graphs and charts reminding us that we can only expect more of the same. So what can we do to create our own little safe house or sanctuary? We can take control of the Indoor Air of our homes. The outdoor Air Quality will change with the seasons and we will need to adjust to the varying allergens introduced into the air. But when you get home you can relax and enjoy your Indoor Air Quality if you follow a few simple housekeeping suggestions.
We should first understand that Indoor Air Quality is the effect the air inside your home has on you and your family. Good IAQ means the air in your home has no unwanted gases or particulates at concentrations that could negatively affect you and your family. That leaves us with poor IAQ which occurs when gasses or particulates are present at an excessive concentration in your home and affects the satisfaction or health of you and your family.
IAQ isn’t that hard to understand or identify. We can all tell the difference between a cool mountain meadow and a city landfill. Good IAQ, Poor IAQ. Everything else lies somewhere between the two. What separates the good from the bad are 3 basic areas of indoor air pollutants described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as Particulates, Bioaerosols and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s). What makes up the air in your home are varying amounts of these three pollutants.
The CDC describes the three pollutants as; Particulates are common indoor air particulates including dirt, dust, fibers, tobacco smoke, and fireplace or wood stove soot. These airborne particles can range from 0.1 microns in size to 100 microns in size. Bioaerosols are microorganisms or particles, gases, vapors, or fragments of biological origin (i.e., alive or released from a living organism) that are in the air. Bioaerosols are everywhere in the environment. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) are carbon-based chemicals that easily evaporate at room temperature. Some VOC’s have odors other VOC’s have none. Odor does not indicate the level of risk. There are thousands of different VOC’s produced and used in our daily lives.
To take control of these three pollutants that can create poor indoor air quality in your home I have created 4 primary areas that you can address that will have an immediate impact on the homes indoor air quality.
- House Keeping.
Let’s start with Particulates. Particulates accumulate in the home from both inside and outside sources that can include: Some of the common Indoor Particulate Sources include:
- Pet dander
- House Plants
- Fungal spores
- Tobacco smoke
These sources can be controlled and or eliminated from a home by controlling the source. That means no smoking in the home. No air fresheners, candles or incense, these introduce particulates to the home and mask air quality issues that should be addressed directly, not hidden by air fresheners. I would minimize house plants including plastic and silk. Live plants live in nice damp soil that is a breeding ground for fungus and mold which can lead to the introduction of spores and plastic and silk plants can hold onto particulate releasing them each time they are disturbed. Unfortunately these plastic and silk plants are rarely cleaned and the amount of particulates they can introduce when disturbed is substantial.
Next you’ll need to keep a healthy level of humidity in your home. Dust mites and mold love moisture so keeping humidity around 30%-50% will help keep dust mites and other allergens under control. The addition of a humidistat and dehumidifier can greatly improve the indoor air quality of your home. The humidistat turns on the homes air conditioning when the humidity reaches the set relative humidity (preferably not higher than 55%rh) just as the thermostat activates the homes air conditioning when the temperature reaches a set temperature (preferably not higher than 76°F).
Maintaining the proper humidity level helps reduce moisture in the indoor air and can effectively control allergens.
High humidity levels in Florida can produce musty odor and/or a clammy feeling to the air in the summer and condensation on windows in the winter.
Often the principal source of higher humidity in a home is a family’s living habits. One person’s breathing produces 1/4 cup of water per hour, cooking for a family of four produces approximately five pints of water in 24 hours, showering puts 1/2 pint of water into the air. Bathing puts 1/8 pint of water into the air. Adding only four to six pints of water to the air raises the relative humidity in a 1,000 square foot home from 15 to 60 percent, assuming the temperature is constant.
Next on our list is Filtration. Each time the air conditioning system cycles air into the home, armies of particulates are propelled through the supply ducts and discharged throughout your home into the air your family breathes. More specifically the air you breathe is filled with the particulates allowed to pass through your air conditioning filter. The filtration you choose has a tremendous affect on your indoor air quality so you should use the highest level of filtration that your system allows.
There are many filters available on the market today. The most common are the one inch filters found in supermarkets, hardware stores and home supply retailers. All these filters guarantee a percentage of effectiveness, but that can be misleading.
Standard throwaway filters are only designed to protect the air handler. And have little or no capability of collecting fine particles. Washable Filters are very restrictive to airflow and are difficult to clean thoroughly and are rarely maintained at the proper level. Electronic Air Cleaners are 95% efficient at .3 microns when new and clean. They reduce in efficiency very quickly as they load with particles and are difficult to clean thoroughly. Many home owners just don’t take the time to properly clean these clean these filters on a regular basis, so they rarely works at the efficiency they were designed for. Large 4 to 5 Inch Media Filters have a large amount of filter surface and allow for good air flow. They can collect a large amount of dust and particles above one micron in size and most don’t have to be replaced for 6 to 12 months. These filters are typically MERV rated at 8 to 11.
So now a I know you are asking Who is Merv and should I trust him with my filter? Well Merv isn’t a “He” MERV is an industry standard. A standard rating system that can be used to compare filters made by different companies. The MERV (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value) rating of a filter describes the size of the holes in the filter that allow air to pass through. In a nut shell the higher the MERV rating, the smaller the holes in the filter, the higher the efficiency. Residential filters commonly have MERV ratings of 1-11. The higher the MERV rating, the more efficient the filter is, and the more particles it can filter.
- A MERV rating of 6 means the filter is 35% to 50% minimum efficient at capturing particles, sized 3.0-10.0 microns.
- A MERV rating of 7 means the filter is 50% to 70% minimum efficient at capturing particles, sized 3.0-10.0 microns.
- A MERV rating of 8 means the filter is 70% minimum efficient at capturing particles, sized 3.0-10.0 microns.
- A MERV rating of 11 means the filter is 85% minimum efficient at capturing particles, sized 3.0-10.0 microns.
Now for the House keeping side of air quality improvement. You first to reduce the humidity in the home by using your range, bathroom and cooking exhaust fans. You should also ensure that they are vented to the outside. You should check your dryer exhaust vent regularly to ensure it isn’t clogged. Reduce the number of plants in the home and/or water them less so they release less water vapor. And you can add a humidistat and mechanical dehumidifier to your air conditioning system. So IAQ is a piece of cake.
Now you need to get rid of those pesky particulates. The key to that is to Collect and Remove. You can collect and remove particles by using a HEPA vacuum. Don’t forget to vacuum all porous surfaces including upholstered furniture. For best results, vacuum two or more times each week and change your HEPA filter regularly. On tile floors you can collect and remove particles by mopping which will collect the dust that your HEPA vacuuming leaves behind. You can skip the soaps and cleaners and just use plain water to capture any lingering dust or allergens. There are also new microfiber mops that reportedly capture more dust and dirt than traditional mops and don’t require any cleaning solutions whatsoever. Okay there may be a bit of an investment here for a HEPA vacuum, but I can assure you it will be worth it.
For the particle dust build up within the home you will need to collect and remove it as well. For most people this means dusting using a simple feather duster, or a cloth of some kind, and some kind of dusting spray. This just relocates the dust particulates and introduces bioaerosols & VOC’s into the air. Remember the key is to collect and remove not relocate. I recommend using the new microfiber dust cloth that can capture more dust and dirt than traditional fibers and don’t require any cleaning solutions whatsoever.
To help prevent the particulates from entering the home, place large floor mats at every door. People track in all sorts of particles via the dirt on their shoes. A door mat reduces the amount of dirt, pesticides, and other pollutants from getting into your home. If the mat is big enough, even those who don’t wipe their shoes will leave most pollutants on the mat — not the floors in the home.
Don’t forget to change your air conditioning filters every 30 days or as prescribed by the Manufacturer. Not maintaining your air conditioning filter is a major source of indoor air problems. Some of the higher MERV rated media filters can be changed as infrequently as every 6 months. While you are changing that filter check you’re A/C drain line and every 3 months flush it with an algae control cleaner to prevent clogging.
Remember to keep your home dry: Control humidity levels between 35% and 50% to prevent dust mites and an indoor environment that can lead to mold growth. Fix any leaks you have in your home as soon as you find them. If you have a flood, take immediate action and dry the area out, including all affected furnishings, within 48 hours to prevent mold growth.
So when asked what you can do about the “Air You Breathe” you will have plenty to say because you know what is in the air you breathe. And you know that Good IAQ for people already suffering from allergies can reduce the symptoms of those allergies, often reduce medications for allergies, and lead to more relaxing sleep. You also know that Good Indoor Air Quality can have a substantial impact on our children by preventing allergies, delaying the occurrence of an allergy, or the reduction of allergy symptoms.
Now you can say “Healthier Air Starts Here!”
John P. Lapotaire, CIEC
Microshield Environmental Services, LLC www.Microshield-ES.com
- American Lung Association. Epidemiology & statistics Unit, Research and Program Services. Trends in Asthma Morbidity and Mortality May 2005.
- Summary Health Statistics for U.S. Children: National Health Interview Survey, 2002. Series 10, Number 221.2004-1549
- National Library of Medicine. Understanding Allergy and Asthma. National Institutes of Health.
- National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. Fact Sheet #9: Asthma and its Environmental Triggers: Scientists Take a Practical New Look at a Familiar Illness www.niehs.nih.gov/oc/factsheets/asthma.htm
- Centers for Disease Control. Surveillance for Asthma – United States, 1960-1995, MMWR. 1998; 47 (SS-1).
- Martinez FD, Wright AL, Taussig LM, et al.: Asthma and wheezing in the first six years of life,” N Engl J Med 1995; 332:133-138.
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