So, what is a healthy house?
We address the twin questions: what is a healthy house? And then how to make your home healthy?
A healthy house is dry, clean, safe, well-ventilated, pest-free, contaminant-free, well-maintained, and thermally controlled. The principles seem pretty obvious but you may be surprised by some of their hidden details.
And an important aspect of this is the health of the home itself, not just its occupants. What we have set out here is only an outline. We develop and expand on these issues here and in other posts on this site. More to come.
We break this down within the eight categories conveniently set out for us by HUD
1: Keeping the home dry
It is easy to understand that we don’t want our roofs and gutters leaking. Nor do we want water seeping into the home because of defective basement waterproofing or poorly drained landscaping up against the home. And of course, the plumbing shouldn’t leak.
But some of the problems water intrusion causes are not readily apparent. Here are some examples:
Areas of the home that may be damp but hidden out of site can harbor mold, mites, rodents, roaches. All of these are associated with asthma and other respiratory issues. And this affects the health of people living in the home.
But don’t forget the health of the home itself. Damp areas also cause wood to rot and foster wood boring insects like wood worms and termites. If left unchecked, these can cause serious and even structural damage to your home.
This in turn can affect the value of your home. And, what’s more, this kind of damage is not covered by home insurance.
It’s easy to see if it’s raining outside but how do I check for leaks in the plumbing?
- First make sure there is no water being used in the house or outside. Next, check your water meter. If the little leak indicator is rotating, you have a plumbing leak of some kind.
- Determine if the leak is inside or outside the house by turning off the main shut off valve. Then go back to the meter. If the leak indicator has stopped moving, then the leak is inside the house. If it is still moving, then the leak is outside between the meter and the shut off valve.
- If the leak is in the house, the most likely source is one of the toilets. But here’s a handy link to some videos explaining leaks generally.
Damp and mold
So how do I check for damp and mold? It’s a combination of sight and smell. Damp and musty odors are usually the first sign because mold is often hidden out of sight. But then check for discoloration in walls and ceilings. And areas that feel cold and damp are another clue.
2: Keeping the home clean
You minimize pest infestations and exposure to contaminants by keeping your home clean. Everybody knows that. But nobody likes to clean. So the real question is how to make cleaning easy.
A clean home is one that is actually easy to clean. So in any remodeling or renovation project you should opt for materials with smooth, non-absorbent, easy-clean surfaces. So, for a healthier home, use solid surface flooring and avoid carpet. But also avoid those hard surface materials that may have their own hidden health problems. We cover that below.
3: Keeping the home safe
We break home safety down into 4 areas:
Safety from casual accidents
This includes keeping potentially poisonous items like cleaning products and medicines out of the reach of children. And it involves precautions like securing loose rugs to prevent falls. Lesser obvious safety measures include the use of induction cooking rather than open flame or exposed hot plate radiant cooking.
Safety from fire and accident
Keep fire extinguishers handy and make sure smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are operating properly. Make sure your hazard insurance is up to date and that it includes adequate liability coverage in case of accidents,
We cover this subject elsewhere on this site in discussions of aging in place and Universal Design. In a nutshell, home remodeling and renovation projects should account for ensuring that the home and its features are easily and safely used by family members of all age groups.
Safety from intruders
Home security is too big a subject for detailed discussion here but it is a big part of home safety. We will cover it separately.
4: Keeping the home well-ventilated
Increasing the supply of fresh air into the home improves the respiratory health of its occupants. There are several ways to enhance the fresh air supply.
- Related post: Indoor Air Quality
Open your windows
Make sure they have window screens to keep insects out.
Make sure your air conditioning system includes a make-up air system. This pulls in fresh air from the exterior of the home to replace air that has been expelled by kitchen range hoods, clothes dryers, bathroom fans, and fireplaces. It is better to manage air replacement in this controlled way rather than have the vacuum created by the air expulsion filled by air sucked into the home through random avenues.
In a recently built home, which is much more tightly built than homes in the past, this is quite important.
Consider whether your HVAC ductwork needs cleaning. It probably does not but there are instances where it does. See this EPA page on air duct cleaning.
Keeping the home pest-free
Pests like cockroaches, fleas, mosquitoes, and rodents are all common carriers of disease and can, for example, cause asthma in children. So we need to keep these pests under control.
We do this in two ways:
First, deprive pests of the water, food, access, and shelter they need. So we keep food in pest-proof containers and seal cracks and openings throughout the house. We follow up with regular inspections.
Second, use appropriate pesticides. In using pesticides, we don’t want to cure one problem by causing another. This means we should avoid using pesticides that are potentially harmful to ourselves. Pesticide residues have been associated with risks of cancer and neurological issues. So we use bait in closed containers and non-toxic pesticides like boric acid powder.
Keeping the home free of contaminants
A home can come with many contaminants that can affect its occupants. Some are well-known, others not.
Homes built before 1978 may well contain lead-based paint. This is hazardous, having been identified as a leading cause of lead poisoning in children. But there are ways of mitigating it. Some states will let you do this yourself. Others insist it is done by a qualified licensed contractor.
Radon gas is a radioactive gas that occurs naturally from the breakdown of uranium in the earth. It is everywhere in the United States but with some regions affected more than others. It enters the home through cracks in slabs and through crawl spaces. In high enough concentrations it is associated with lung cancer. You can get a radon test kit on Amazon. And, if you need one, you can also get a radon removal system.
Carbon monoxide (CO)
We touched on carbon monoxide earlier. CO is an odorless and colorless gas caused by the incomplete combustion of fuel. In the home, CO can come from clothes dryers, gas stoves and ovens, gas water heaters, and wood or gas-burning fireplaces. It is a killer but fortunately can be detected by CO alarm systems and prevented by the proper maintenance of equipment.
Asbestos is associated with diseases like mesothelioma. It was used in building materials, such as insulation, floor tiles, ceiling tiles, and textured paint. If your home was built before 1980 it likely contains some asbestos. If this is the case with your home do not try to mitigate the situation yourself. This is dangerous. Asbestos abatement is for qualified experts only.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
VOCs are compounds contained in many of the products commonly used in and around the home that are known to be harmful. Here is a short explanatory video:
When shopping for components for your renovation projects, look for the Greenguard certification. This means that the product has no or very low VOCs and is designed for use within home interior.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)
This is a difficult and not commonly known issue. PFAS is a family of compounds that is found, for example, in non-stick pots and pans, stain-resistant fabrics, and some food packaging. PFAS chemicals are no longer made in the USA but they are imported into the US in the form of consumer goods.
There is evidence that these compounds are associated with infant birth weight issues and effects on the immune system, among other things. But what to do about PFAS remains somewhat of a mystery and there is not much useful guidance out there. But if you have a damaged non-stick pan, you should throw it out for sure.
Secondhand tobacco smoke
Everyone knows that secondhand smoke is harmful. If you smoke, keep it out of the home by smoking outside.
Insufficient natural light
Standard electric lighting is not actually good for you. This concept is relatively new on the scene. But we now know that there are healthful benefits associated with circadian lighting systems that in a way replicate the light cycle outdoors. These are more in sync with our own circadian rhythms than the standard artificial light within the home.
But the bottom line is that there is no substitute for maximizing natural daylight within the home.
- Related post: Circadian rhythm lighting
Tap water that is officially considered potable in fact contains contaminants. Water filtration is a good idea. Depending on the system, it can remove bacterial contaminants and chlorine. It can also remove lead. Water purification systems include activated carbon, reverse osmosis, ion exchange, and distillation.
- Related post: Water filtration
7: Keeping the home maintained
A poorly maintained home is at risk of many of the problems we have outlined above. We should inspect, repair, and clean our homes on a regular basis. If left unattended, a minor repair issue can become a major and expensive problem.
On top of that, a poorly maintained home loses value. When you put your home up for sale, the buyer will no doubt require an acceptable home inspection. He will use the inspection report to negotiate the price down. So here’s an idea. Every few years spend a few hundred dollars for your own home inspection. It’s worth it for the piece of mind, especially if you own an older home.
8: Keeping the home under thermal control
Excessive heat and cold are bad for people living in the home. Well, duh, you say, and quite right. Maintenance of an adequate temperature throughout the home is essential for the health and comfort of the people living in it. But what is the best way to do it? What if nobody is in the home and the aircon is going full blast? That is a gigantic waste of money.
So enter the smart home devices that will control your home’s environment when you are not there. You can manage them from your smartphone.
So, to sum up, everything you can do to make your home healthy is good both for protecting your family and for protecting your investment in the home.