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Indoor Air Quality

Even though we’re more than a decade into the second millenia, we’re just beginning to regulate the indoor air quality (IAQ) of houses. We’ve adopted and made numerous revisions to the building codes that govern construction though until recently, there haven’t been ANY enforced IAQ standards for houses – like the commercial building code requirement for a minimum number of air changes over a given period of time.

Studies have shown that the IAQ of our homes is often worse than outdoor air quality. This typically happens when we don’t have enough ventilation, filtration and humidity control. Common indoor pollutants include pet dander, mold, VOCs and air fresheners. Combustion exhaust from burning fuels like natural gas in stoves, furnaces, fireplaces & tankless water heaters is fatal when not properly vented.

Indoor air quality (IAQ) is the next frontier for green building programs. The EPA has taken a big step in focusing attention on IAQ by developing and releasing its Indoor airPLUS program. This renewed IAQ attention is critical because the energy codes are requiring tighter buildings that lose less energy through leaks and gaps in the building envelope. In practical terms, tighter houses can mean we trap even more pollutants if we don’t ventilate. [You can think of the building envelope as the separation between (air) conditioned and unconditioned spaces – where you have insulation and windows.]

Balancing the following three points is a great way to start improving your IAQ:

  1. Avoid building materials that will release pollutants into your indoor environment. Examples include wood products with glues and resins that release formaldehyde pollutants; synthetic carpets that release pollutants like plasticizers; and paints that release volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Don’t forget to consider the materials used to construct your furniture!
  2. Many municipalities are requiring additional documentation for complex building systems like air conditioners in an effort to insure more thorough design. Subcontractors who install these systems often used a rule of thumb: one ton of air conditioning for every 500sf of house. These general rules often result in systems that are too big for the house: they run infrequently so there’s less air filtration and humidity control (short cycling). We need integrated building systems designed for each house and its expected use.
  3. We also have to change our behavior. For example, using green cleaning supplies, avoiding air fresheners and using vent fans (like those in bathrooms & kitchens) can immediately improve IAQ.

There are lots of commonly-available products and services that are terrible for IAQ. We can help you develop a balanced plan based on the three points above and identify common challenges so you don’t have to figure everything out by yourself. In some cases the necessary changes are relatively inexpensive. Even if you’ve got a lot of work to do, having a plan will help you prioritize your efforts and make progress in the right direction. After all, an investment in your health is always a great investment!

NOTE: Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) is sometimes confused with Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ).  While IAQ is a measure of what we breathe, IEQ is a more general term that includes what we breathe, see, hear and feel inside a building. We could also describe IEQ as a measure of indoor air quality (IAQ), lighting, visual quality, acoustics and thermal comfort. So, IAQ is a part of IEQ.