How to Improve Air Quality in the Home

how to improve air quality in the home

In figuring out how to improve air quality in the home, whether it be for our house or apartment, we need some perspective. So let’s stand back and take a look at the big picture. And by the way, as a former remodeling contractor and builder, I know a lot about  this stuff.

At this site our focus is on natural health and healing. But, given this focus, it is all too easy to forget that our efforts at improving our health may be sabotaged by our own home environment. More specifically we may be unwittingly harmed by the air we breathe at home. 

Here’s the thing. We try to live right, we exercise, we meditate, we do our breathing exercises. But wait a minute! What actually are we breathing?

So we have catalogued here 23 ways of how to improve air quality in the home.

This is why we should be concerned about indoor air quality

Having decent indoor air quality is an important part of living a healthy life. And there are two main reasons for giving it our close attention.

Effect on our health

The first reason is that poor indoor air quality can have a serious impact on your health. It can be the cause of, or at least make worse, asthma, bronchitis, allergies and emphysema. 

It can also cause loss of lung capacity and lung function. And if you have a family member with COPD, you need to pay special attention to the quality of the air in your home.

And besides that, your energy, mood and even cognition can be affected by poor indoor air quality.

Time spent indoors

According to this EPA – Environmental Protection Agency – report on indoor air quality, most Americans spend 90% of their time in an indoor environment, with most of this at home.

And a surprising statistic is that some concentrations of air pollutants are 2 to 5 times higher inside than outdoors.

So what indoor air pollutants are we talking about?

In no special order, indoor air pollutants include pesticides, mold, radon, lead, VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds), pet dander, ozone, dust mites, asbestos particles, carbon monoxide.

Although some of these pollutants infiltrate from outdoors, most originate from sources inside the home.  And it may come as a surprise that you can have pet dander in the home, even though you don’t have pets. This is because pet dander can shed onto your friends and coworkers’ clothes and then migrate to your own!

Indoor air pollutants are hard to detect

Most indoor air pollutants are invisible to the naked eye and are also odorless. So it is very hard to know for a fact that you do have a problem. But, in light of what the EPA says, it is safe to say that it is likely you do have some issues. So, at the very least it is wise to do some investigating and take preventive measures.

That said, and while there is no single “magic bullet,” there are many incremental ways we can answer the question: how to improve air quality in the home. The effect of what we do is cumulative. It is an all-inclusive approach.

So in no particular order, here are 23 ways in which we can improve air quality in our homes.

1: Test for indoor air quality

Depending on the type of testing you want and the size of your home, a full-on professional indoor air quality test can cost around $500. And some types of testing can be a whole lot more. HomeAdivsor has some good information here

But you might want to start off with a DIY type test. Here is a simple one-time DIY test kit from Amazon that includes a lab analysis.  

This single-use test will check for VOCs and actively growing mold. Results are prepared by a properly accredited laboratory.

how to improve air quality in the home

Or you might opt for an on-going indoor air quality monitor like this:

how to improve air quality in the home

This unit will monitor levels of CO2, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC), and Particulate Matter (PM2.5 & PM10). I don’t know why it would monitor CO2, because that is not a pollutant. After all CO2 is what we exhale and plants need it to grow. t may be a typo for CO. Carbon monoxide is definitely a pollutant to beware of.

2: Indoor air quality and carbon monoxide (CO)

Carbon monoxide is a serious pollutant and most jurisdictions want you to have a CO detector and alarm in your home. We certainly advise it. CO is a byproduct of the incomplete combustion of gas or wood or coal (some homes still use that). 

Carbon monoxide is odorless and dangerous. You need to make sure that your gas appliances and wood burning fireplace are properly maintained and operating correctly.

If you don’t have a CO detector you can get one like this here

CO detector

3: Indoor air quality and radon gas

Radon is a gas emitted by the decay of uranium in the earth. To varying degrees, it is present everywhere in the United States. The EPA has some useful information here.

Radon is associated with lung cancer and it is easy to test for with a radon test kit, like this one.

how to improve air quality in the home

This radon test kit includes shipping and lab fees. It is EPA approved

If your home suffers a high level of radon gas, which is more than 4 picocuries per liter, there are some things you can do to mitigate it. These include sealing cracks in your foundation and using radon reduction vents and fans to pull radon from under the home and vent it harmlessly away.

The EPA has a Consumer’s Guide to Radon Reduction. You will find certified contractors specializing in radon mitigation in high risk areas of the country.

4: Frequent change of HVAC filters

Your air conditioning system recycles the air within the home. So having a good quality and frequently changed HVAC filter is an important step in reducing particulate matter in the air.

You need to be aware of the MERV rating of your AC filter. MERV islands for “Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value.” The rating for these filters runs from 1 through 16. A rating of 16 indicates maximum efficiency. 

The rating is a measure of how efficient the filter is in trapping airborne particles. You need to be sure that your filter is rated between 9 and 13. Anything higher than 13 will restrict your air flow too much and make your AC unit work too hard and run up your electric bill.

You also need to make sure that the filter surface is pleated. This presents a greater surface area to the airflow and is less restrictive than a flat filter.

You can get one of these

This is a MERV 13 pleated air conditioner filter and you can get one here.

how to improve air quality in the home

Your AC filter will trap a panoply of particles. This includes dust, dust mites, pollen, mold spores, hair spray, fabric protector, auto emissions (that infiltrate from outside), milled flour, humidifier dust, lead dust, carpet fibers, pollen, and spray paint.

5: Sufficient number of air changes in the home

We noted earlier that the air inside the home is more polluted than the air outside. So it makes sense that we would want to exchange the air inside with the air outside. 

In older homes whose outer envelopes (exterior walls and roof) were not built very tight, this happens naturally via a myriad of small fissures in the exterior.

But in more tightly built modern homes, it is hard for the exterior air to infiltrate the interior. And this prevents air changes happening naturally. 

We overcome this problem in three ways:

The first is to mimic the passive ventilation of the older home by installing vents in the exterior wall and under the eaves of the roof. Air will infiltrate naturally as driven by the wind or temperature differentials between the exterior and interior.

The second is to install a mechanical ventilation system in conjunction with the air conditioning system.

The third is to physically let the outside air in from time to time by opening your windows and doors. Do this from time to time even in the winter months. Same in the summer – but make sure there are screens on the windows

But, as for the first two options, we suggest that you talk to a local HVAC contractor for their recommendations

6: Clean your ductwork

This is usually not a big deal. AC ductwork does not usually collect a lot of pollutants on its surfaces. But if you have very old ductwork or are particularly susceptible to respiratory problems, it is worth having an HVAC professional check it out. You can find good advice from the EPA here.

7: Clean or replace your other (non-HVAC filters)

High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters are used in vacuum cleaners, kitchen vents, clothes dryers, and standalone air filters. All of these should be cleaned or changed regularly.

8: Indoor air quality and humidity control

Too much humidity encourages the growth of mold, mildew, and dust mites.  All of these can cause breathing problems. During the summer months, your air conditioner will lower the humidity in your home. And, during the winter months, you can use a dehumidifier, especially in areas, like basements, that tend to be damp.

This is a hOmeLabs dehumidifier rated for medium to large rooms.

dehumidifier

A target humidity level is between 30% and 50%. You measure humidity with a hygrometer. The word derives from the Greek word “hygros” meaning damp.

You can find the one below here.

9: Air Purifiers

If you are without a central air conditioner, or even if you do have one, consider getting a standalone air purifier. This can be a large, whole house unit like this  Airmeg 400. Or you can use units sized for individual rooms, like this hOmeLabs air purifier below.

home labs air filter

Air purifiers use two types of technology, the HEPA filter system or the ion system. A HEPA filter can remove more than 99 percent of airborne particulates greater than 0.3 microns. 

By contrast, the ion technology will precipitate airborne particles out of the air but will not trap them effectively. For our money, we would go with the HEPA type unit.

10: Indoor air quality and asbestos fibers

Asbestos can be a problem in older homes built pre 1980s. If you think you may be affected by asbestos get professional advice. Do not attempt to abate asbestos problems yourself. It’s dangerous.

11: Indoor air quality and lead based paint

You should be aware of and should avoid using materials that off-gas volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air. 

Off-gassing happens when a VOC becomes detached from a liquid or material  product and gets released into the ambient air that we breathe. These compounds include phthalates, chloroform, benzene, and formaldehyde.

These compounds are bad for you and can contribute to asthma and allergic reactions. Nausea and fatigue are also related symptoms.

It is not easy to avoid VOCs as these compounds are present in so many of the products we use, including paint, cabinetry, furniture and more. However, fortunately, the problem has gained a lot of attention and many products are now  advertised as low or no-VOC.

Here is a great explainer video on VOCs and indoor air quality:

How do you know if a product is VOC safe? Look for the Greenguard certification. This signifies that the product has been exhaustively and independently checked for VOCs and determined to be free of or at least low in VOC emissions.

indoor air quality and vocs

13: Indoor air quality and mold - beware the hysteria and hype

Humans have been living with mold since forever. There are at least 100,000 species of mold worldwide. Mold is everywhere and thrives in damp environments. This is why it is important to keep your home dry.

There has been a great deal of hype and hysteria about mold and it has been fodder for ambulance chasing lawyers.

But truth be told the vast majority of molds, including so-called “black molds” are not “toxic.” And some only produce toxins under certain conditions. On top of that, dangers from toxic molds are found with ingestion, not inhalation.

Molds are generally only a problem for people who are predisposed to allergies. And mold can trigger an allergic response.

This is not to say you should not get rid of mold. You should. But most mold issues can be solved simply by fixing a leak and applying soap and water.

Here is a useful article that should help quell any hysterical response to the presence of mold.

14: Indoor air quality and flooring

If you are prone to allergies or other respiratory problems, seriously consider getting rid of carpets and rugs and go for tile, vinyl, or hardwood flooring throughout.

Carpets and rugs trap pollutant particles among their fibers and when you walk on them, you kick these pollutants into their air and breathe them in.

And then keep your hard surface flooring mopped clean with microfiber mops, not regular cloth or other fiber mops.

Additionally, place door mats at your entry doors and have visitors wipe their feet before they track pollutants into your home.

15: Indoor air quality, soft fabrics and furnishings

In much the same way as rugs and carpeting, fabrics and soft furnishings harbor pollutants that can become airborne. And, obviously, it is much harder to get rid of furniture than it is soft flooring. 

So vacuum your furniture frequently. And for the same reason keep your bedding and clothes clean. These can harbor dust mites. Nasty looking critters, aren’t they!

dust mites

16: Indoor air quality and artificial fragrances

It has been found that many of the synthetic fragrances associated with air fresheners and laundry products emit VOCs. Among these are deodorants, aerosol sprays, and furniture polish.

The reason they emit VOCs is that these products are mostly derived from petroleum in one way or another but you won’t find this information on the product labelling. And the reason that there is no disclosure, except for cosmetic products,  is because the EPA thinks it may reveal trade secrets.

16: Non-toxic and natural cleaning products

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a terrific guide to the use of non-toxic, natural, and homemade cleaning products that will help you stay clear of VOCs.

And, if you like the idea of DIY, you will find plenty of recipes for homemade cleaning products at sites like this.

As an example, here is a recipe for a homemade all-purpose cleaner:

  • ¾ cup hydrogen peroxide
  • ½ cup distilled white vinegar
  • 1 tsp unscented Castile liquid soap
  • 10 drops lavender essential oil
  • 2 cups water
  • Mix the ingredients and put it all in a 24-oz spray bottle.

And then you can create your own fragrances by using essential oils.

17: Indoor air quality and indoor plants

Indoor plants can be a big help in improving the indoor air quality in your home. But you need to be careful in your choice of plants. Some do a better job than others.

NASA did a study on the most effective indoor plants for removing air pollutants way back in 1989. But it is still valid. The plants that best filter air were found to include the Boston Fern, Spider Plant, Dwarf Date Palm and more.

These plants, to varying degrees, were found to be effective in removing ammonia, benzene, formaldehyde, xylene, and trichloroethylene. Many products in common home use contain these chemicals.

However, do be aware that some house plants can be harmful to your pets. So be sure to look into that.  

18: Indoor air quality and pet dander

Talking of pets, their dander can be a problem for allergy sufferers. Pet dander is composed of minute skin particles that are shed by the animal as a matter of course. You can only get rid of pet dander by getting rid of the pet. And we know that’s not going to happen! But here are some things you can do to minimize the problem:

  • Make sure you keep up with your pet’s grooming.
  • See to it that your pet is on a healthy diet.
  • Keep your pet away from your bedding.
  • Ask your vet if there are any issues with your pet that might contribute to its dander

19: Indoor air quality and beeswax candles

It is an interesting phenomenon that beeswax candles, which are completely natural, smell great, and look good too, can purify the air. Their secret is that they emit negative ions that neutralize the positive ions in air pollutants and cause them to fall from suspension in the air. 

In this way they imitate the effects of air purifiers that employ negative ion technology.

20: Indoor air quality and Himalayan rock salt lamps

You can find a similar effect to beeswax candles in Himalayan rock salt lamps. These lamps are made utilizing clumps of rock salt with lamps incorporated in them. They too emit negative ions and cause positive ion pollutants to fall from suspension in the air.

Asthmatics have reported on the beneficial effects of Himalayan salt lamps. And they are decorative as well, like this one.

21: Indoor air quality and smoking

This may seem obvious. But don’t let people smoke in your home. Secondhand smoke causes lingering odors and increases health risks in the home.

If you have smoker friends, ask that they please smoke outside. You can make them welcome with a chair and a table with an ashtray on it .

22: Indoor air quality and pesticides

Pesticides can cause irritation to the eyes, nose and throat. They can also cause harm to the central nervous system. And, when used in the home, leave harmful residues.

  • Pesticides are heavily regulated but you need to be careful with them.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Mix or dilute them outdoors.
  • Use non-chemical pest control, where possible.
  • There are natural pesticides you can use.
  • Don’t keep pesticides inside the home.
  • Only use a licensed pesticide company

23: Keep your home clean and decluttered

Cleaning is a given but it is little appreciated that a cluttered home environment welcomes allergens to take up residence. Clutter is hard to keep clean and the dust it gathers is a safe haven for allergens. It also obstructs air circulation.

Conclusions on how to improve air quality in the home

As we said earlier, there is no “magic bullet” for achieving good indoor air quality. You need to adopt a multi-pronged “all of the above” and continuous approach in achieving excellent indoor air quality in your home. But your family’s health and well-being certainly warrant you giving it serious attention.

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