The average American spends almost 90% of his or her time indoors. Unfortunately, the air inside people’s homes and places of work is filled with pollutants. Research has shown that indoor air quality is 10 to 100 times worse than outside air.
Common pollutants include relatively benign things like carpet fiber particles, but more often than not, they also include allergens like dust, pet dander, and pollen. Allergy sufferers aren’t the only people at risk due to excess air pollution, either, as contaminated air can also harbor viruses, bacteria, second-hand smoke, and mold.
Breathing in all of these contaminants can take a serious toll on the body. Some 3.8 million people worldwide die each year from breathing polluted indoor air. Thankfully, there are some steps that homeowners can take to protect themselves and their families where it’s most important.
There are two kinds of air filters. Freestanding units can be placed in individual rooms, while whole-home air filtration systems are built into the house’s HVAC system to provide protection from airborne contaminants throughout the entire house.
Whole-home air filters are much more efficient than freestanding filters. They’re passive systems, which means as long as the furnace, air conditioner, or heat pump is moving air through the ducts, the filter is trapping potential contaminants before they can escape into the living spaces. There are four main types of whole-home air filters.
Any home with a forced-air heating and cooling system is already equipped with flat filters. However, these filters really don’t do as much as homeowners may think. They provide a first line of defense against airborne contaminants, but they only trap around 10% of pollutants.
Homeowners should still keep up with changing their filters. Experts recommend changing them at least once every two to three months, but there’s no harm in more frequent filter changes, especially when one or more residents struggles to control indoor allergy symptoms.
Extended media filters are typically around eight inches thick. Like flat filters, they are installed directly into the home’s HVAC ducts. Unlike flat filters, they are quite effective at removing airborne contaminants and only need to be replaced around once a year.
Sometimes called electrostatic precipitators, these filters introduce a high-voltage current to create an electrostatic charge on particles. The particles are then pulled toward an oppositely charged collector plate, which grabs them like a magnet. They’re great for households where people smoke inside, but they’re much more expensive than either flat filters or extended media filters.
UV filters are designed to eliminate the transmission of airborne bacteria and viruses. They’re common in hospitals, but some homeowners have them, as well.
HEPA filters are highly effective at trapping airborne contaminants. They require powerful fans, though, which means they can’t be installed in whole-home filtration systems. Instead, homeowners typically purchase one or more portable HEPA filters to clean the air in those rooms where they spend the largest amount of time.
Households that have any gas appliances, including furnaces, ovens, and dryers, need protection against carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide is an odorless gas that can cause potentially serious health complications and can even be fatal. The best way to protect a family against carbon monoxide poisoning is to install carbon monoxide detectors throughout the home and to have gas appliances inspected annually to ensure that they aren’t leaking.
The sweet spot for relative humidity in indoor environments is between 40 and 50 percent. Unfortunately, natural humidity levels vary substantially due to changes in temperature, atmospheric pressure, and the presence of water leaks in the home. The best way to control humidity is to install a humidifier for winter use, when levels tend to drop, and a dehumidifier for summer use.
Indoor air quality is more important than many homeowners think. Poor air quality can exacerbate asthma and allergy symptoms and, if left unchecked, can cause potentially serious health complications, including lung cancer and strokes. The best way to deal with air quality issues is to install a whole-home air filter, control humidity, and use portable HEPA filters as needed.
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