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Indoor air quality, does your home have it?

Improving Indoor Air Quality: A Homeowners Guide

By Todd Gillman Guest Writer
Oct 8, 2021

Unless there's a nasty smell coming from somewhere in your home, indoor air quality is something that many tend to ignore. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Here's the deal, we spend most of our time indoors (about 90%), and the indoor air we breathe can often be 3 or 4 times as polluted as outdoor air. A recent study by the University of Colorado has found the air quality in the average home, or office building may be as polluted as the air in any major city. This can be frightening news, especially since most of us spend nearly all our time in our homes and offices. It's not impossible to fix, though. Here are a few hotspots to get you thinking about what's really in your home and how it's affecting you and your family's health.

Table of Contents

  1. How Can You Improve Indoor Air Quality?
  2. Do Air Filters Improve Air Quality?
  3. Do Energy and Heat Recovery Ventilators Improve Air Quality?
  4. Do Plants Improve Air Quality?
  5. How Does Formaldehyde Affect Indoor Air Quality?
  6. Does Furniture Affect Indoor Air Quality?
  7. Is Insulation Bad for Air Quality?
  8. Does Burning Wood or Gas Impact Indoor Air Quality?
  9. How Can You Improve Indoor Air Quality in Walls and Carpets?
  10. How Can I Improve the Air Quality in My Basement?
  11. Does Your Homes Building Envelope Affect Air Quality?
  12. Final Thoughts

How Can You Improve Indoor Air Quality?

There are a variety of approaches to use when dealing with indoor air quality. You can improve indoor air quality by using systems like an HRV or ERV, dehumidifiers, and other techniques like making use of air-purifying plants. Those are two very different ways to tackle the problem, yielding very different results. But keep in mind, while these can be helpful, nothing is as powerful as eliminating products and materials from our homes at the source of poor or toxic air quality.

portable air purifier

Do Air Filters Improve Air Quality?

Filters for air purifiers, ERV and HRV, air conditioning units, and other forms of mechanical ventilation are an essential component of your home's heating and cooling system. They help reduce and remove pollens, molds, soils, animal dander, bug bites, skin and hair cells, and other common air contaminants. It's important to clean or replace them regularly, as per the manufacturer's instructions.

There are various filters, and it's essential to know which filter is right for you, but where do you start? This complete guide to home air filters explains the many benefits that air filters can bring. But not all air filters are compatible with your system. It's crucial to consult the manufacturer or user manual to know which filters will work best for you. The general rule of thumb is that the better your filter, the better chance your system can clean your indoor air. If your home's air conditioning system is ducted and includes dampeners, look for dampers with a long lifespan or those that are biodegradable. This will not only save you money over time but also reduce waste over time. 

Do Energy and Heat Recovery Ventilators Improve Air Quality?

Instead of working hard for your vents, homeowners should invest in vents that work hard for them. Energy and heat recovery ventilators don't require a drip pan but can conserve heat and energy usually wasted through heating and cooling a home. This will ensure that a home is as comfortable as possible while holding back on all the waste usually caused by HVAC systems.

air purifying house plants

Do Plants Improve Air Quality?

Plantlife used within a home can improve air quality and aesthetics. Pothos and other quick-growing plants can be a great addition. Some plants take on the dust within your home and need to be dusted or wiped down over time. Plants must be watered and maintained on a set schedule to ensure overwatering or underwatering doesn't happen, so ensure you've got your bases covered. Our Air Purifying Plants: How to Incorporate Them Into Interior Design guide has you covered for room by room suggestions. 

kitchen cabinets
Formaldehyde-free Kitchen Cabinets

How Does Formaldehyde Affect Indoor Air Quality?

Formaldehyde is not only found in cabinetry and millwork that uses particleboard and plywood. You can also find it in drywall and even electronics. So why should we care about all this formaldehyde around us? Especially for kids, exposure to formaldehyde has been responsible for higher rates of bronchitis, asthma, and throat irritation.

If you’re building a new kitchen or bath or have millwork that needs to be done, you should opt for non-toxic alternatives. Your millworker will know what that means, and if they don’t, you might need a new millworker. Products that use FSC Certified wood and formaldehyde-free MDF (medium-density fibreboard) are good to prioritize when making purchasing decisions.


Does Furniture Affect Indoor Air Quality?

Flame Retardants are almost everywhere these days, and we mean everywhere. In the air, water sources, food sources, and in our homes. Chlorine and Bromine are the chemical culprits here. They tend to show up in high concentrations in beds, cushions, sofas, electronics, insulation, carpet padding, and even baby strollers.

You can avoid them, but it might mean getting a bit creative when choosing furnishings. Opting for natural materials like cotton and wool and buying local can also help. There’s an eye-opening documentary on this topic for more insights: Toxic Hot Seat.

Is Insulation Bad for Air Quality?

Your insulation is more than just what keeps a building cold or warm. It also blocks pollutants, dampens sound, helps regulate temperature, and ensures that insects and mold don't damage any interior walls. Insulation like sheep's wool, hemp batts, or Polyiso are non-toxic and offer excellent R-value, reducing heat loss and airflow and will stop pollutants from making their way into the building. 

Low quality or damaged insulation can lead to mold and fungus issues, increasing the likelihood of respiratory problems. So be careful with your insulation choice and ensure that it's safe and works well.

Electric Fireplace
Electric Fireplace

Does Burning Wood or Gas Impact Indoor Air Quality?

Carbon Monoxide, like Radon, is a silent intruder - one that can be fatal. Wood and gas fireplaces, stoves, and furnaces are often the cause of these gases getting into your home (that and attached garages). The key here is to make sure these combustible appliances are well maintained and have a CO detector on each floor.

Zero and Low VOC Carpets
Zero and Low VOC Carpets

How Can You Improve Indoor Air Quality in Walls and Carpets?

VOCs - if you haven't heard of these yet, Volatile Organic Compounds lurk in paint products and carpet/textile. They can also be present in other things like household products, electronics, etc. They cause a variety of health effects, like nausea, dizziness, respiratory issues. VOCs can lead to liver, kidney, and nervous system damage.

It's a good idea to check VOC levels when buying paint, where it's clearly indicated whether VOCs are present and in what quantity. Carpeting is also making strides to address some of these legacy issues; look at companies like Interface. But be conscious when choosing products like rugs. Consider where they are made and their composition. Some manufacturers may not be as deliberate about what goes into their products.

How Can I Improve the Air Quality in My Basement?

Mold and mildew lurk in basements. They are usually the result of insulation that wasn’t correctly installed or lack of insulation altogether, or cracks in the foundation. Have you checked your basement lately? Musty smells aren’t just foul-smelling; that mold you’re breathing can make you straight up ill.

An excellent way to keep some of the dampness out of basements is with a dehumidifier. You can ensure that a significant amount of moisture is captured from the air for a few hundred dollars. We look at this initiative as a money saver since it might cost you $10/month to operate. You’ll more than make up for that by saving on heating that air (it’s much less expensive to heat dry air).

Another thing that’s common in basements is Radon - a gas that can only be detected using proper equipment or devices, and that is a leading cause of lung cancer. More on Radon here.

fresh white living room

Does Your Homes Building Envelope Affect Air Quality?

The air exchange between indoors and outdoors happens through mechanical ventilation, natural ventilation (opening your windows), and infiltration. Infiltration is usually unwanted; leaky air changes through cracks, joints, openings, and around poorly sealed windows and doors. According to the EPA, infiltration can result in increased air contaminants like radon, ozone, lead, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter, amongst others. It's essential to have a tight building envelope with a well-sealed foundation, doors, and windows to help reduce unwanted air pollutants from entering your home.

Final Thoughts

Whether the building you're creating is a residence or an office, the air quality must be clean and clear. Poor air quality can affect everything from our physical health to our emotional well-being and can be a big game-changer in how we interact with others in our daily lives.

 You can feel the difference when the air you're breathing is suddenly clean and well maintained. Any one of the six options above is an excellent option for improving air quality.

So ensure that every building is set up for success by incorporating fantastic filters and vents into the house framing as early as possible. Then, carry it through with proper filter management and give plant life the chance it deserves. We owe it to our lungs to try harder.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-10-22T18:30:39+0000
Todd Gillman

Article by:

Todd Gillman

Todd Gillman is the content director for the Innovative Building Materials blog and a content writer for the building materials industry. He is focused on helping fellow homeowners, contractors, and architects discover materials and methods of construction that save money, improve energy efficiency, and increase property value.