Poor indoor air quality significantly impacts quality of life. Americans spend about 90% of their time indoors, and during cold winters, they spend even more time inside their well-insulated homes. While this design effectively keeps out the cold and reduces energy costs, it also means occupants continually breathe recirculated air. This air can be warm, thanks to the heater or furnace, but it often contains unwanted contaminants and pollutants. Discovering the best ways to improve indoor air quality during winter and keep a comfortable indoor environment.
How Does the Winter Season Contribute to Indoor Air Quality Problems?
When temperatures drop for the year, many homeowners begin winterizing their homes for the cold season. This process can include firing up the furnace, increasing insulation, or pulling out the cold-weather furnishings and bedding. Unfortunately, some winterizing activities can serve as sources of pollutants within the home. Common winter sources of indoor pollution include everything from combustion from heating systems to residue from household cleaning products.
What Household Contaminants Are Common During the Winter?
In addition to recognizing common sources of indoor pollution, it is also helpful to understand the various types of household contaminants. Knowing the different kinds of pollutants can help you make an informed decision on the steps needed to protect your home. Types of winter contaminants include dust and dust mites, VOCs, biological pollutants, and carbon monoxide.
Dust, Dirt, and Dander
Dust is an accumulation of fine particles that include dead skin cells, fibers, and debris. The amount of time individuals spend indoors during the winter can increase the concentration of shedding skin cells that create dust. Similarly, pets shed skin flakes known as dander. As one of the most well-known allergens, dander can increase nasal and respiratory irritation in stuffy indoor air.
Biological pollutants include mold, bacteria, and mildew. With windows shut tight against winter cold, steam from kitchens or bathrooms can cause moisture to build up in certain areas and produce mildew or mold. In addition, the increased concentration of dust can also boost the population of dust mites. These microscope critters can accumulate in draperies or bedding and cause breathing problems. Finally, dry winter air creates optimal conditions for germs and viruses to travel and infect dry nasal passages or individuals with compromised immune systems.
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
Volatile organic compounds are a class of chemicals that evaporate easily at room temperature. These chemicals can cause a host of respiratory problems and are present in common household supplies. For example, formaldehyde is a VOC found in the adhesives of upholstery and paneling. Formaldehyde can also come from unvented gas stoves or space heaters. Various VOCs are also present in beauty products and laundry detergent.
Carbon monoxide is a tasteless, odorless, and colorless substance that can result from gas leaks. With gas heaters at full blast during the winter, households are more vulnerable to carbon monoxide leaks. Too much of this substance in the air can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. Because carbon monoxide poisoning interferes with the distribution of oxygen in the body, it can cause illness, organ failure, and eventual death. It is imperative to get professional help right away if you suspect carbon monoxide leaks.
How Can I Keep My Home and Family Safe From Poor Indoor Air Quality This Winter?
It is important to sign up for seasonal HVAC maintenance so that a professional can check all of the factors that diminish indoor air quality. Along with a thorough audit of your heating and ventilation system, experts recommend taking steps to boost air quality. These steps range from implementing a thorough cleaning regimen to obtaining air purifiers compatible with the coldest months of the year.
Schedule Duct Inspections
Ducts distribute heated air throughout the home. Unfortunately, dust and dirt accumulate in ductwork over time and reduce air quality. An HVAC professional can inspect the ducts for problems and remove any buildup. A technician can also repair any duct leaks and ensure adequate airflow from all room vents.
Replace Air Filters
HVAC systems contain filters that catch unwanted particles and contaminants. These air filters can become clogged over time, reducing their effectiveness and diminishing indoor air quality. Request that an HVAC technician change these filters consistently according to the manufacturer’s recommended schedule. An HVAC technician can tightly secure the filter to avoid gaps between the filter frame and rack, thereby reducing bypass air and preventing the circulation of pollutants. You can also talk to your HVAC professional about obtaining filters with higher minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) ratings. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), filters with higher MERV ratings may help capture submicron particles and encourage breathable air.
It is important to increase ventilation whenever possible during the winter. Signs of poor ventilation include condensation on windows, stuffy air, moldy areas, or strange odors from equipment. While fresh air during the winter is often limited, talk to your HVAC professional about tools that improve ventilation. For example, your technician may be able to install an air-heat exchanger that removes polluted air within the home and replaces it with fresh air from the outside. Types of air-heat exchanges include heat recovery ventilators (HRVs) and energy recovery ventilators (ERVs). Heat recovery ventilators heat from stale exhaust air leaving the home and use it to preheat the fresh air entering the home. Likewise, an energy recovery ventilator follows this same process but can also extract moisture to balance humidity levels as well.
Get an Air Purifier
Winter is an ideal season to invest in an air purifier. An HVAC professional can help you determine the right type of purifier based on pollutant levels and room size. For example, an activated-carbon air filter can help remove foul odors, smoke, fumes, and natural gas. An ionic air purifier can help remove positively charged airborne particles like dust. HEPA air purifiers can remove particles larger than 0.2 microns such as dander, mold, or dust.
Increase Humidity if Necessary
Since winter air is often drier, you may need to increase humidity levels in the home. Balanced humidity can help prevent dry air from irritating your nasal passage and throat. An HVAC professional can test humidity levels using a hygrometer. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, indoor humidity levels should not fall below 30%. If your indoor humidity is too low, an HVAC professional can install a whole-home humidifier to balance moisture levels in the house.
Install a Carbon Monoxide Detection Device
Increased combustion from appliances like furnaces or stoves can also increase the odds of natural gas leaks. These leaks can lead to lethal carbon monoxide poisoning. An HVAC professional can install alarms to detect this gas that is otherwise colorless and odorless. A carbon monoxide detector can alert your family of dangerous levels so you can evacuate the home and get repairs as needed.
Contact Us Today
No family should suffer through poor indoor air quality during the winter. At Apollo Plumbing, Heating & Air Conditioning, we specialize in enhancing indoor air quality for homes in Portland, OR, Vancouver, WA, and even Boise, ID. Our team of skilled technicians can set up whole-home air purifiers and smart thermostats to ensure your home is comfortable and healthy. Whether you have a furnace or heat pump, we offer a wide range of services, from troubleshooting to regular maintenance. Get in touch with Apollo Plumbing, Heating & Air Conditioning today for all your indoor air quality needs.