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Environmental News

"EARTH TALK"

From the Editors of E / The Environmental Magazine

THIS WEEK'S COLUMN

Dear EarthTalk: My family has bad allergies and I’d like to improve our indoor air quality. What are some steps I should take?
—Marcia Lane, Scranton, PA

Poor indoor air quality is an often overlooked health issue. Recent research has shown that the air inside some buildings can be more polluted than the outdoor air in the most industrialized of cities.

Photo © iStockPhoto

Even for those of us without allergies, poor indoor air quality is an often overlooked health issue. Recent research has shown that the air inside some buildings can be more polluted than the outdoor air in the most industrialized of cities. And since many of us spend some 90 percent of our time indoors, cleaning the air where we live and work might be one of the most important things we can do for our health.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists three basic strategies for improving indoor air: source control, improved ventilation and air cleaners. Source control, whereby emissions from individual sources of pollution are eliminated or reduced—for instance finding somewhere outside the home to store old paint and construction supplies—is typically the most effective strategy.

If the sources of pollution are beyond your control, bringing in more air from outside through better ventilation is the best bet. “Most home heating and cooling systems, including forced air heating systems, do not mechanically bring fresh air into the house,” the EPA warns. “Opening windows and doors, operating window or attic fans when the weather permits, or running a window air conditioner with the vent control open, increases the outdoor ventilation rate.” The agency adds that local bathroom or kitchen fans that exhaust outdoors also remove contaminants while increasing the outdoor air ventilation rate.

Air cleaners (either mechanical filters or electronic cleaners) can also help reduce or remove some forms of indoor air pollution. “Some air cleaners are highly effective at particle removal, while others, including most table-top models, are much less so,” reports the EPA. “People with sensitivity to particular sources may find that air cleaners are helpful only in conjunction with concerted efforts to remove the source.” The agency’s free online “Guide to Air Cleaners in the Home” compares the general types of residential air cleaners and their effectiveness in reducing pollutants including particles and gaseous contaminants.

Some of us swear by our houseplants for keeping our indoor air free of pollutants. Mother Nature Network reports that certain plants are known to filter out specific contaminants: Aloe removes airborne formaldehyde and benzene; spider plants scrub carbon monoxide and xylene; and gerbera daisies take the trichloroethylene left over from dry cleaned items out of your air. The EPA, however, does not consider houseplants to be especially effective at air filtration, and even warns that overwatered indoor houseplants can in and of themselves present a health hazard because damp soil may promote the growth of allergens.

Good housekeeping also can go a long way toward improving indoor air. WebMD reports that regular mopping and vacuuming (with a HEPA-filter-equipped vacuum cleaner), keeping interior moisture levels low, maintaining a smoke-free environment, and ditching chemical air fresheners are all key to maintaining good breathing space inside. WebMD also suggests testing your home for radon, a radioactive gas found in soils that can penetrate cracks in a building’s foundation and has been linked to lung cancer.

CONTACTS: EPA Indoor Air Quality; WebMD’s “Breathe Easy: 5 Ways to Improve Indoor Air Quality”.

 
A NEW SET OF ANSWERS IS FEATURED EACH WEEK!

 

Dear EarthTalk: I understand that there are many kinds of automatic features that can be incorporated into a home—even some that can be operated remotely—that can save energy and provide other environmental benefits. Can you enlighten?
—Robert Goodman, Taos, NM

By setting up a home automation system, homeowners can optimize lighting level efficiency, cut heating and cooling energy costs and deactivate energy-consuming devices and appliances even when no one is home. Pictured: A motion and sound sensor, one form of home automation already widely in use for keeping lights off when a room is not occupied.

Photo © iStockPhoto

Home automation may indeed be the next big trend in what consumers can do today to stand up for the environment. By setting up a wired (or even wireless) system, homeowners can optimize lighting level efficiency, cut heating and cooling energy costs and deactivate energy-consuming devices and appliances even when no one is home.

“An automated home brings together security, fire, lighting, temperature control, audio, video, pool, spa, drapery control, sprinklers, and anything else that you want so that these systems can talk to each other and work together,” reports Jay McLellan of Home Automation Inc., a leading manufacturer of integrated automation and security systems for residential and commercial use. “In an automated home these devices work together to make the home more energy efficient, comfortable, more convenient and safer.”

One easy way to dip a toe in the water of home automation is to swap out regular light switches for occupancy sensors, which can tell if a room is occupied and will turn lights on and off accordingly.

Upgrading to a programmable thermostat that will regulate heating and cooling according to a set schedule is another way to reduce energy consumption and save money. Some newer models, such as Nest from California-based Nest Labs, can program themselves based on occupants’ routines and also offer the option to adjust heating and cooling settings remotely via the Internet. A built-in occupancy sensor signals to the Nest whether and when people are around, and the unit then adjusts heating or cooling accordingly. The newest version, Nest 2, can tell within a half hour when occupants have vacated and will set the indoor temperature to more energy efficient level on its own.

Shelling out $249 for Nest’s so-called “learning thermostat” may seem a little extreme, but the feature may save enough money and electricity to pay for itself in as little as a year. Nest Labs helps consumers track their energy usage and savings with monthly “energy reports” that detail why home heating and cooling costs have gone up or down (based on usage and time away, as well as other factors, such as weather). These reports also contain tips on how to optimize Nest as well as other tips to increase energy savings accordingly. Nest thermostats can replace most existing thermostats and do not require upgrading to a newer furnace or air conditioning system—although newer heating and cooling systems, especially those that meet the U.S. government’s EnergyStar criteria for efficiency, do tend to save much more energy than older ones. Some 56 percent of the energy used in a typical American home goes to heating and cooling, so automation can make a big difference for the environment and the pocketbook.

Beyond lighting and thermostats, whole-house automation systems connect home electronics (including appliances and security systems) into an integrated wireless network that allows occupants to control from off-site, including via the Internet or a mobile phone app. A Sylvania Z-Wave Starter Kit from SmartHomeUSA.com is one affordable way to get started with whole-house automation; you can start small and gradually add electronics to the system.

CONTACTS: Home Automation Inc.; Nest Labs; SmartHomeUSA.

A SYNDICATED COLUMN ONLY ON AMERICAJR.COM

 

 

 

 

 

SEND IN YOUR QUESTIONS...

GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: earthtalk@emagazine.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.

 

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