Indoor Air Quality (IAQ): refers to the quality of the air within a particular structure, what pollutants and irritants are present, and how that air affects the occupants of that building.
IAQ has never been more in the forefront, thanks mainly to the Covid-19 pandemic but also because of how much time we spend indoors. Even before the virus-related stay-at-home orders, Americans spent approximately 80 – 90% of their time indoors, with that time often split between our offices, homes, cars, stores, etc. Since early 2020, folks are still spending around 90% of their time indoors, but now it’s mostly in their own homes. Working from home has its advantages, but it can prove detrimental to your home’s heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, as well as your health.
What is an Indoor Air Assessment?
One thing everyone needs is access to healthy, clean air. Our need for oxygen becomes apparent whenever we’re forced to go without it for more than a few seconds. We assume that we’re breathing healthy air whenever we open a window or turn on the HVAC system for a bit of relief in our homes. But do we really know what’s floating around in the air inside your home?
Indoor air assessments include using electronic meters to measure the presence of various particulate irritants, like dust, dirt, and pollen. More advanced air quality testers also provide readings for harder-to-detect pollutants like mildew, mold, chemicals, and bacteria. Several brands and models of indoor air quality monitors can detect contaminants and track their numbers.
Controlling indoor air contaminants will go a long way toward reducing air-related health concerns and leave your whole family breathing easier.
When Should I Test My Air Quality?
Poor indoor air quality can lead to many symptoms, like stuffy noses, watery and itchy eyes, headaches, and persistent coughs. If you have any health symptoms like chronic allergies and asthma, frequent headaches, bronchitis, or colds that last an unusually long time, your body may be feeling the effects of pollutants in your home. And those airborne irritants could be anything from gas fumes to pet dander to mold that you can’t even see.
Sometimes the contaminants are more extreme, such as hazardous chemicals and asbestos. If you notice severe symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, rash, fever, chills, fatigue, vomiting, or shortness of breath, you need to have your air quality tested.
How Does Outdoor Air Enter a Building?
Outdoor air can enter and leave a building by either infiltration, natural ventilation, or mechanical ventilation. In a process known as infiltration, outdoor air flows into buildings through openings, joints, and cracks in walls, floors, and ceilings and around windows and doors. In natural ventilation, air moves through opened windows and doors. Air movement associated with infiltration and natural ventilation is caused by air temperature differences between indoors and outdoors and by the wind.
Lastly, we have mechanical ventilation devices. The most common types are exterior-vented exhaust fans that remove air from a single room, such as bathrooms or kitchens. Then we have full-on air handling systems that use fans and duct work to recirculate indoor air and distribute filtered and conditioned outdoor air to points throughout the house. The rate at which outdoor air replaces indoor air is described as the air exchange rate. When there is little infiltration, natural ventilation, or mechanical ventilation, the air exchange rate is low, and pollutant levels can increase.
What are the Most Common Airborne Indoor Irritants?
Dust/Dirt/Dander: The most common pollutants in any indoor environment, these slightly bigger than microscopic particles, are everywhere inside any home. Airborne dust poses a serious risk to your health, as the particles become trapped in the nose, mouth, and throat, leading to sinus irritation, bronchitis, and even asthma. Some infectious diseases can also be spread via dust, namely meningococcal meningitis, an inflammation of brain tissue that can result in brain and spinal cord damage.
Mildew/Mold: While mold and mildew growth are most commonly found in warm, dark areas of the home, the airborne mold comprises tiny spores that migrate and reproduce on any surface. Mold and mildew can be found in carpets, walls, ceilings, and inside HVAC systems. Many people are allergic to mold, and for these folks, just being in a room with a small amount can cause sneezing, coughing, and lung irritation. Additionally, mold spores contain toxic elements known as mycotoxins that can make a person extremely sick.
Radon: is a radioactive gas that has been shown to cause cancer, causing thousands of deaths every year. The Surgeon General of the US warns that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, just behind smoking. Radon is found in all parts of the country, but it isn’t something you can see, smell, or taste, so it often goes undetected for years. There are several do-it-yourself kits for testing for radon in your home, or you can contact a qualified professional to do it for you.
Can I Perform My Own Indoor Air Quality Tests?
Analyzing the quality of the air in your home can be done with any of the commercially available air quality monitors. Doing a quick internet search will reveal several relatively inexpensive devices that can detect any airborne irritants. Each of the products listed below can provide basic pollutant detection, and of course, the more features the detector has, the more it will cost.
In-home air quality monitors are available from several manufacturers, and the most popular ones can be found via online retailers like Amazon or Best Buy, ranging in price from just above $50 for a basic monitor up to almost $1,200 for professional-level air monitors. Here’s a quick list of three best-selling in-home air quality monitors available through Amazon.
Lowest Cost: HEI LIANG Air Quality Detector – $55 from Amazon.com
This low cost indoor air quality monitor is a great deal for little cash, offering a simple, LED-based display and monitoring for some of the most harmful pollutants. With the ability to detect chemicals like formaldehyde (HCHO), carbon monoxide (CO and total volatile organic compounds this detector is a great value and great starting point toward improving your IAQ.
The HEI LIANG device features a 5.5” inch LED Digital Display, with all values displayed simultaneously in real time. A rechargeable battery with an 8-hour battery life is included, along with an instruction manual and a USB charging cable.
Mid-Level: VitaliZEN Air Pollution Monitor – $179 from Amazon.com
The VitaliZEN air quality monitor is capable of detecting airborne pollutants down to those measuring 2.5 microns (the thickness of a human hair is 70 microns) or larger. The monitor uses eight high-sensitivity laser scattering sensors to detect pollutants from aerosol particles, carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds, temperature, and humidity. Also included among its features a warning alarm that can be set to alert when excessive pollutants are in the air.
The VitaliZEN unit can be used as a standalone device as it contains a 4.3” color LCD screen to display test results, or it can be paired with an Android or iPhone to monitor a space remotely.
High End: Airthings House Kit Plus – $379 from Amazon.com
Airthings House Kit consists of three included components, each of which is tasked with monitoring for its own specific pollutants. The Wave Mini device monitors for VOC’s, humidity, and temperature to ensure maximum comfort, the Wave Plus unit checks for radon and carbon dioxide. The Airthings Hub acts as the brains of the system, requiring both power and ethernet connections to communicate with the Wave devices.
How Can I Improve My IAQ?
· Turn on ceiling fans.
· Open windows (in appropriate weather).
· Change HVAC system air filters.
· Adjusting humidity using humidifiers or de-humidifiers.
· Check HVAC vents and ducts for excessive dust build-up and remove any obstructions.
· Dust Frequently.
· Vacuum More Often.
· Use indoor plants to freshen the air.
If you’re interested in improving the air in your home, reducing airborne irritants, and just breathing easier overall, call Nick’s Air Conditioning to set up an HVAC maintenance and inspection service. We’ll check and change any dirty air filters, assess the overall condition of your HVAC system, and check around the house for any air leaks that could be wasting energy.