Tips for Improving Indoor Air Quality
A few simple steps and a bit of awareness can go a long way to ensure you are breathing healthy air inside your home.
For many of us, time that might previously have been spent in a large office building is now spent at home. As the weather cools off in many areas of the country, that time spent indoors is also now spent with windows closed and homes sealed off from the winter weather. Considering our new normal, understanding what indoor air quality means and what we can do to improve it is more relevant than ever.
We spoke with Mona Hoeltkoetter, part of the project coaching team for the International WELL Building Institute and a mechanical engineer by trade, to learn more about what causes poor indoor air quality and what we can do to improve the quality of the air inside our homes.
Tips for Improving Indoor Air Quality
1. Know that indoor pollutants don’t always originate outdoors. The EPA estimates that indoor air can be up to 10 times more polluted than outdoor air, and Hoeltkoetter confirms that an indoor environment doesn’t allow pollutants to dilute and disperse as they can outdoors.
“There are two main areas where pollutants can be brought into the building,” Hoeltkoetter says, “One option is they come from outdoor air—think traffic, nearby construction work or industrial emissions— and the other option is that they are materials brought into the building that emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air.”
What is a VOC? A VOC is a type of volatile substance, emitted as a gas that can come with unwanted adverse health effects. Common examples are benzene, ethylene glycol, and formaldehyde. VOCs can come from unexpected places, like furniture that may have been treated with chemicals, materials used in construction, insulation, carpet, flooring, paint, and glue. They can also be present in commonly used cleaning or disinfectants. A new home may have higher levels of VOCs in the first two years after construction as the materials “off-gas” the VOCs that are used in the manufacturing process.
2. Be conscious about what you bring into your home. Small steps can help reduce the levels of VOCs present in your home. If you’re renovating or working on home improvement projects around the house, you can choose low VOC products. If you’ve contracted with professionals who are making those decisions for you, make it known that you are conscious and concerned about VOC levels.
Trying to bring a fresh or seasonally-cozy smell into your home? It might be surprising to know that air fresheners and scented candles can produce VOCs, just like paint and cleaning products. Consider reducing the amount of time and frequency you use these products.
“Containers for paint and other materials often give you information about VOC levels, so you can choose the lowest levels possible,” Hoeltkoetter says. “When it comes to cleaning products, take a look at what’s in your cupboards and consider choosing an alternative made up of natural ingredients.”
Hoeltkoetter notes that good air flow can come from natural ventilation, which means opening and closing windows and doors to get outdoor air inside (and indoor air outside), mechanical ventilation through an HVAC system that takes air from the outside, or a combination of the two. An a-traditional type of window, like the Marvin Awaken Skylight, can help refresh air inside a home by quickly venting evenly on all sides to complement air flowing in from a window or door. Awaken is also equipped with a sensor that monitors indoor VOC. The unit will send you an alert to your mobile device when a change in VOC levels is detected, letting you know that it might be a good time to bring in more fresh air.
“Proper ventilation is really critical for indoor air quality, because it helps to lower the concentration of VOCs that are off-gassing,” Hoeltkoetter says. “Poorly ventilated spaces can contribute to systems associated with ‘sick building syndrome,’ when things going on inside your home, like poor indoor air quality, can actually make you feel sick.”
4. Watch out for hidden sources of pollution. There are simple things you can do to reduce the chances of polluted air entering your indoor environment. For example, don’t store open paint containers in your house—even if they’re tucked away in your basement or garage. Better yet, only buy things like paint or products like kerosene for space heaters, paint strippers, or gasoline for lawn mowers in quantities you will use right away so they don’t need to be stored.
Cooking is often an overlooked source of indoor air pollution. In addition to carbon monoxide produced by gas stoves, cooking itself can reduce indoor air quality. The California Air Resources Board reports, “Cooking can also generate unhealthy air pollutants from heating oil, fat and other food ingredients, especially at high temperatures.”
Don’t smoke and don’t allow smoking in or around the entrances to your home. If you notice cars idling near your home or business, consider putting out a sign to discourage it. And, make sure that your mechanical ventilation systems are maintained so they can work their hardest.
“Something that homeowners often overlook is, for those who have mechanical ventilation or HVAC system, that it should be regularly maintained to ensure that it’s up and running at its full potential so it can be doing the best job possible at helping keep your air clean.”
5. Know the levels of air pollution in your area. For most building locations, you can assess the levels of outdoor air pollution by visiting the Environmental Protection Agency website.
“If you find out that where your home or office is, that there’s high levels of pollutants in the outdoor air, you can evaluate how this air enters your building, and how pollutants can be removed through filtration,” Hoeltkoetter says.
These tips for improving indoor air quality are a helpful foundation for being more aware and taking steps to ensure the air we are breathing as we learn and work from home is as healthy as possible.
“I think that the pandemic has really highlighted the importance of indoor spaces in relation to our health because we are spending so much time indoors,” Hoeltkoetter says. “Knowing how much the materials and products you choose in your building can affect your health isn’t something people talk about as often, but it is so important.”