Thursday, June 17

How to Breathe Easy About Your Home’s Air Quality

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I read your column a few months ago on sealing air leaks, but I’ve heard a home that’s sealed too tightly can lead to air quality issues. How can I be sure I have healthy air as I seal air leaks in my home? — Lee

Sealing air leaks is one of the best ways to make your home more energy efficient, and there are steps you can take to ensure your home has an adequate amount of healthy, fresh air.

The average home loses about half its air volume every hour, so it can be sealed considerably (often at a low cost) and still have more than enough healthy air.

Pollutants are the main cause of poor indoor air quality, and the most dangerous pollutant is carbon monoxide (CO). It can come from furnaces, water heaters or stoves that burn natural gas, propane or wood. The problem usually occurs in devices that are old, in need of repair or installed or operated in a manner that prevents clear, unobstructed supply and exhaust of combustion air.

Excessive moisture in the air can also be considered an indoor pollutant because mold and dust mites thrive when relative humidity is above 60 percent. One sign your home is sealed too tightly is window condensation, which can happen if moist air doesn’t exit the home at an adequate rate.

Pollutants can cause physical reactions such as coughing or sneezing, but carbon monoxide causes more severe reactions such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, confusion, blurred vision or loss of consciousness.

So what can you do to ensure healthy indoor air as you increase your home’s energy efficiency? The first strategy, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is to eliminate or reduce the source of pollution. And the first pollutant to eliminate is carbon monoxide. If you have a combustion furnace, it should be inspected and serviced regularly by a professional. If you have any combustion appliances, it is critical that CO detectors are installed and replaced every five to seven years.

If you live in an area with radon, which you can determine by checking out the EPA’s radon map at, keep it out of your home because it is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Radon tests are not expensive, and your local health authorities can provide more information. If radon levels are too high, you’ll need to hire a professional to install a system that will divert radon gas to the outside of your home.

An HVAC professional can inspect and test a furnace to make sure it is operating safely and efficiently.

Here are a few additional pollutant reduction measures to consider:

  • Never smoke tobacco inside.
  • Run the exhaust fans in bathrooms and your kitchen after use.
  • Store toxic cleaning and painting products outside.
  • Never idle a vehicle, even for a minute, in an attached garage.

The second strategy is ventilation. Your home probably has more than enough natural ventilation from outside air leaking into the home. If you suspect this isn’t adequate, the best way to know for sure is to hire an energy auditor to do a blower door test.

Many experts recommend sealing the home as tightly as possible and using mechanical ventilation to ensure a consistent and adequate supply of outside air. The most energy efficient ventilation system is a heat recovery ventilator, which pulls in fresh air from outside and captures the heat from indoor air before it is exhausted to the outside.

The third and final strategy is to clean the air. The easiest step is to simply change your furnace filter at least once every three months and keep your furnace supply and return air registers free of obstructions. If any rooms do not have an air return, keep the doors open. There are several home air cleaning systems available — some are effective, and some are not. The EPA offers a handy online guide: indoor-air-quality-iaq/air-cleaners-and-air-filters-home.

We hope these suggestions will be helpful as you seal air leaks in your home and enjoy fresh, healthy indoor air.


About Author

Patrick Keegan writes on consumer and cooperative affairs for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the Arlington, Va.-based service arm of the nation’s 900-plus consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives. He brings over 30 years of energy-related experience at the local, state, national, international, and non-profit level. His experience spans residential and commercial energy efficiency and renewables.

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