- cleaning the air -
sandee and I are reasonably health conscious. We watch what we eat, stay active and avoid things we know might jeopardize our health. and we never grow tired of uncovering new ways to enhance our quality of life.
after building 80+ homes, we’re more convinced than ever that the air we breathe inside our homes has profound consequences on health and wellness.
sadly, we continue to see people’s lives devastated by sick houses where the “fru fru” and pretty stuff got oodles of attention, while the biology and hygiene of the building was ignored. we would love to see this pattern change.
in 1994, the largest study ever done in the U.S. showed that
50% or more of homes had some form of water damage and mold.
another study in 1998 showed 68% of the homes tested had dampness or mold.
fast forward to 2016 where William Fisk, senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory said “Almost every U.S. home has at least a little mold, but roughly 47% of homes have more substantial mold or dampness”.
did you catch that? one out of two homes in the U.S. has some substantial mold or dampness issue. For new homes, we believe this estimate to be optimistically conservative.
mold can adversely affect human health three ways, (1) Mycotoxins, which are toxins produced by some species of mold. (2) Infection and (3) Allergic reactions. the symptoms seem endless affecting every body system. unfortunately it is one of the most misdiagnosed illnesses in America.
our building science consultant tells us that most physicians are treating people for mold sickness. they just don’t realize it.
lots of homeowners and builders will read those statistics and say, “we have a mold epidemic”.
we disagree. the epidemic is excessive moisture.
mold is simply a natural consequence of poor moisture control. we know if we don’t want excessive mold, we must control excessive moisture.
much of this ground has been plowed in our discussion on water management and moisture control. but there is one place in a home where we cannot control moisture.
that’s inside the cooling unit where the cooling coil dehumidifies the air.
about every kind of microbe loves the dark and swamp-like conditions of cooling coils.
these coils can get really nasty, really quick.
bacteria, mold and viruses on a cooling coil turns our air conditioner into odor and unhealthy air generator. plus, the biofilm slime creates increases our energy bills and compromises the life of the heat pumps.
particle pollution has been linked to:
lung and throat irritation
low birth weight in infants.
a study issued during the American Thoracic Society's annual convention in early May even showed a possible link between air pollution and poor sleep.
if you have allergies, asthma, heart issues, lung complications or a compromised immune system, particulates less than 10 microns can make your symptoms worse. infants, young children and seniors are also more vulnerable.
since there is a lot of particulate pollution outside, one of the most effective measures to reduce our indoor exposure is to build an airtight home. Research has shown a direct connection between outdoor pollution and indoor air quality. our discussion on advanced air sealing detailed how we went about this.
indoors, particulate pollution is generated from cooking, fireplaces, unvented space heaters.
we highlighted our efforts to capture and remove cooking affluent in the discussion about moisture control. we installed a properly designed capture hood and exhaust the stinky stuff outdoors.
the gas fireplace in our living room never has the opportunity to contaminate indoor air. that’s because it is what’s called a sealed combustion unit. the exhaust gases are piped through the roof outdoors. Plus, the air needed to support the fire comes from outdoors as well. in effect, this fireplace thinks its installed in the yard.
our building science consultant, Danny Gough, stresses that good health is not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. it’s a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being. this is our vision of life at 340 Fairfax.
according to the EPA, the air inside our homes is two to five times more toxic than outdoor air. in some cases, it’s 100 times worse. this is supported by research where about 80% of homes sampled have unacceptable air quality. we don’t want to build houses like that - not for us and certainly not for others.
there are three broad categories of indoor pollutants we had to address.
(1) Chemicals and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s)
(3) Biological agents
here are some, but certainly not all of the approaches we used to tackle the problem.
sadly, a huge number of building materials emit chemicals and gases called volatile organic compounds or VOC’s. one of the most well known is formaldehyde, which is classified as carcinogenic.
we refuse to poison our soil with hundreds of gallons of pesticides that are pumped into the ground and ground water under and around our home. likewise, we will not be complicit in killing our nation’s honeybee population, where the toxic effects of neonicotinoids used in conventional termite poison have been implicated.
Boracare is an approved and naturally effective way to protect our home from termites and other pests without the toxic side effects of the latest so-called “safe” chemical. We just think this is a lot smarter choice.
Purebond is formaldehyde-free, and uses a soy-based assembly technology. this significantly reduces the levels of VOCs, particularly formaldehyde which is a normal ingredient in cabinet plywood.
another example would be our cabinet construction. one of our outstanding team members is Twin City Cabinets. twin City shares our vision and knows our passion for healthy air. so they used a hardboard product from Columbia Forest Products called Purebond.
Twin City also uses finish coatings manufactured by ML Campbell of Ontario. Campbell is well known for developing low to zero VOC and formaldehyde free formulations. in terms of air quality and healthiness this is about as good as it gets. they are classified as Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAP) compliant or HAP Free.
of course healthy cabinets are more expensive than traditional stinky cabinets. but we feel their contribution to better health offsets the cost premium. that’s one big reason we look forward to enjoying our new kitchen.
these are common everyday occurrences in new homes, regardless of the price tag. people move into brand new homes every week with a lifetime of dust and trash in their ductwork. after a few years, they grow tired of dusting the piano and buffet only to see it reappear some 3-4 hours later. then they fall prey to the duct cleaners who purport to clean out the stuff that should have never been there to begin with.
this is also probably one of the primary reasons huge numbers of homeowners are paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars on portable air cleaners.
sandee and I don’t want to breathe construction dust and particle pollution that’s blown all over our house every time the heating or cooling comes on. but change is hard. it requires a totally different mindset from everyone on the project.
one thing we know is:
if we want a clean dust free home, our ducts must be as clean as the house.
the good news is there are alternatives that can reduce those pollutants. so Sandee and I work diligently to search out safer, non-toxic materials to use in our building process. here are a couple examples.
our choice for termite treatment for many years has been Boracare by Nisus Corporation. the active ingredient in Bora-Care is borate salt. remember 20-Mule Team Borax? the safety data sheet says it presents about the same health risk as baking soda or table salt.
Bora-Care is applied to the wood framing in the crawl space and up a couple feet on the wall framing. when ants, beetles or termites ingest the Bora-Care treated wood, they are unable to extract nutrition from their food (cellulose in the wood). without nutrition, they starve to death.
particulate matter is the name for a wide range of airborne particles that are small enough for people to breathe. these particles may include: dust, dirt, soot, smoke, and drops of liquid.
some particles are big enough to see. others are so small you can't see them without a microscope.
although Sandee hates dust, we are more concerned about the smaller particles. that’s the stuff that’s 10 microns and smaller. one micron is 1/25,400th of an inch. so we never see this stuff.
the small stuff can pass through the nose and throat and enter our lungs and even into our blood stream.
once inhaled, particles can affect the heart and lungs and lead to serious health effects. the human health effects of particulate pollution is well- established.
this is the exact opposite of popular and less expensive “unvented” fireplaces used in many new homes. those should be more aptly called “house vented” because they simply dump the dangerous flue gases into the living space. we wonder if the folks who came up with this idea had “brain fuzzes” from breathing those gases. “house vented” fireplaces will never be part of any of our homes.
if you’ve ever been on a new home construction site, you probably thought, “doesn’t anyone here own a broom?”
looks like this contractor had a broom, but not a dustpan. no worries, they just swept it into the ductwork. out of sight, out of mind, problem solved!
K&V Heating and Air is another one of our great team members. in addition to providing excellent quality work, their folks know we expect the inside of our ducts to be white glove clean. knowing that, as soon as they install a duct, it is plugged and sealed airtight. this keeps the trash, wood chips, sawdust, and drywall powder out of our ducts during construction.
once we move in, we want to make sure our air continues to be as free of particulates as possible. So our duct systems include high efficiency air cleaners installed at all return inlets grilles.
air cleaners are rated according to their Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value or MERV. the scale goes from 1 to 20. we really don’t know much about how that works. we just know that a higher number the more small stuff it catches.
the air resistance of MERV-15+ makes them very difficult to use on residential systems.
our heating and cooling system would feel like it was trying to breathe with a pillow over its face. that can result in damage and premature equipment failure. the resistance of the air cleaner must be included in the overall engineering calculations of our professional design. in other words, we know we cannot throw this kind of air cleaner in our system unless it has been accounted for in the design.
our HVAC designer chose hospital grade MERV 13 air cleaners. these units are 4 inches deep and will capture 95% to 99% of particles from .3 – 1.0 microns diameter.
the Infinity System also allows us to run the blower continuously. that means we are purifying our air 24 hours per day. the high efficiency blower runs on low speed and uses less electricity than a 100-watt light bulb. so it is costing us pennies per week to breathe cleaner air.
it’s also worth mentioning that one of the biggest dust producers in a home can be a vacuum cleaner. in fact, most vacuums create more dust than they remove. this is one reason we chose a central vacuum system. its exhaust is piped outside where it cannot contaminate the inside of our house with particle pollution. Thanks to another great Team Partner, Merg-Tech
biological contaminants include bacteria, viruses, animal dander, cat saliva, dust mites, cockroaches, pollen and the headliner, MOLD.
we want no part of that picture.
we’ve learned that the most effective way to control biological growth inside an air conditioner is to use germicidal ultraviolet light. this UVC light targets the DNA of the microbe, destroying its ability to reproduce. in other words, it neuters the organisms.
Our heating and cooling system designer recommended a UVC system from Steril-Aire, for their remarkable effectiveness. Their literature cites a report from the U.S. EPA in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security testing UVC for effectiveness against biological warfare agents. The report showed that Sterile Aire’s UVC devices achieved a 99.6% destruction of airborne bacteria, 99% of viruses and 96% of spores in just one pass.
We don’t see mold having much of a chance at 340 Fairfax. But it also kills bacteria and viruses. So we’re anticipating fewer colds, less risk of flu and other bacterial infections.
Plus, keeping the coil free from bacteria and mold slime will save us about 15% in our energy bills.