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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Indoor Air Quality; WebMD’s
“Breathe Easy: 5 Ways to Improve Indoor Air Quality”.
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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
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.
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.
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
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.
$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.
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
Automation Inc.; Nest