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Indoor Air Quality: A guide for homeowners

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Indoor air quality: The secret to a healthy home

Indoor air quality (IAQ) is more than just a green building buzzword – it’s a key consideration for any homeowner looking to create a healthy and comfortable environment. According to the EPA, Americans today spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors; so, if the air quality in their home is poor, this can be detrimental to their health and wellbeing. 

Unfortunately, indoor pollutants are virtually impossible to eliminate completely. That’s why mechanical ventilation is necessary to provide good indoor air quality. In the same way that your lungs supply your body with oxygen needed to thrive while dispelling harmful carbon monoxide, a well-designed ventilation system can provide exceptional IAQ that is vital to a healthy living space.

Unwanted pollutants are common in today’s homes

Contaminants that impact indoor air quality come from a variety of sources, both indoor and outdoor, and are present in nearly every home to some degree. 

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are chemical pollutants emitted as gasses or vapors, which can be found in many household products. Common sources of VOCs include paints, varnishes, solvents, aerosol sprays, air fresheners, household cleaners, disinfectants, pesticides, dry cleaning, cosmetics, fuels, building materials, wood preservatives, and more. Exposure to these compounds can cause both immediate and long-term health issues. 

Biological pollutants – which include carbon dioxide, mold, mildew, pollen, dust mites, pet dander, viruses and bacteria – are another source of contaminants commonly found in homes. Without proper ventilation, these pollutants can accumulate, causing or exacerbating health problems such as allergies, headaches and sinus congestion. 

Contaminants can also come from combustion sources, including tobacco, fireplaces, stoves andfurnaces. These sources create pollutants such as carbon monoxide, particulate matter and smoke within a home.

The impact to human health is clear. As people spend increasing amounts of time indoors – where the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes that pollutants can be 2-5 times higher than outdoor levels – rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses have also increased. In fact, the EPA lists poor IAQ as a top five environmental threat, and asthma is one of most serious chronic illnesses plaguing American children today. 

It’s not just human health that suffers from poor ventilation, either: an accumulation of pollutants can result in structural damage to a building as well. Excessive moisture, commonly found in poorly ventilated bathrooms, can wreak havoc on your home and lead to issues like water damage, peeling wallpaper, blistering paint, and rusted fixtures – not to mention mold, mildew and fungus. 

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Your bathroom may be the biggest offender

Between its many sources of running water, your bathroom is likely to be among the biggest source of moisture in your home. That’s why, if not properly ventilated, bathrooms can become a breeding ground for indoor pollutants. 

High humidity and condensation from hot showers, baths, leaks and poor caulking can lead to airborne mold spores and mildew, both of which can be hazardous to human health. Mold spores may go undetected at first and can spread quickly if not managed, making it a difficult – and potentially expensive – issue to remedy.

Moisture can also cause structural damage to your bathroom, ruining expensive fixtures and cabinetry by encouraging rust and surface buckling. Humidity can be especially damaging to your walls, causing discoloration, wrinkling and softness. It’s important to pay attention to the signs of excess moisture before they cause permanent damage to your home.

The good news is that a high-quality bathroom exhaust fan can reduce moisture significantly. By providing cool, dry air to your bathroom, a good vent fan can prevent mold from taking hold and keep water damage from destroying your home.

Balancing indoor air quality with energy efficiency

The current trend of building tighter, more energy efficient houses has also been cited as a contributing factor to the problem of poor IAQ. When building owners and operators work to improve the energy efficiency of their buildings, they typically do so through air sealing and other techniques to reduce the escape of air. 

But as buildings undergo this type of transformation to save energy, they may experience unintended indoor air quality problems. For example, consider an older multi-unit apartment that undergoes a renovation or retrofit project. If lead and asbestos are present during this process, it can become a serious health risk to other building occupants who also shared the space.

However, airtight houses and superior IAQ can go hand in hand when the two are considered together. New homes with high performance ventilation can eliminate accidental sources of bad air, like musty crawl spaces, radon-ridden basements, exhaust-filled garages and dusty attics. 

The conversation must shift back to a holistic strategy that improves both energy efficiency and indoor air quality in the home, without sacrificing one for the other. By incorporating IAQ and energy efficiency management into the process early, homeowners can avoid pollutant exposure problems and reduce the risks of additional costs down the road. Planning new construction and retrofit projects with IAQ in mind results in far fewer building failures and health problems.

Protecting indoor air quality and occupant health while saving energy and money during construction projects requires planning and commitment from all those involved. If done right, homeowners can protect public health, reduce reliance on fossil fuels and reduce climate change impacts all at the same time.

Improve your home’s air quality efficiently

Of course, most homeowners today aren’t building their homes from scratch, and many aren’t in a position to do a full remodel to address IAQ issues. Luckily, most homeowners can still take steps to improve their home’s indoor air quality. 

The first line of defense against poor IAQ is to reduce or remove the source of pollutants. For example, paints, solvents or other chemicals should not be stored in the home. 

Another safeguard is to use low-VOC building materials and cleaning products. As homeowners have become more concerned about indoor air quality, businesses are beginning to offer non- or less toxic versions of building materials – such as low-VOC paint or formaldehyde-free flooring – and common household products – such as natural cleaners and personal care products.

Finally, it’s crucial to exhaust the rooms where pollutants and moisture are produced. Through proper ventilation, pollutants can be isolated, mitigated, removed and exhausted. A good ventilation system can filter air, control mold and mildew, and dilute or eliminate pollutants such as smoke, dust, metals and carbon dioxide, thus vastly improving your home’s indoor air quality. The best ventilation systems can also save energy and improve the durability of your home.

By installing high performance vent fans, you can efficiently – and using sensor controls, automatically – remove any stale, moist, or polluted air and replace it with fresh air from outside.