Knowing we’ve created a safe and healthful home brings a sense of calm and comfort. But achieving and maintaining that state can feel difficult, particularly when so many household products claim to solve all our problems, but use unhealthy chemicals to do it.
Cleaning with natural and nontoxic solutions (read more in When the Cleaning Gets Tough) is one key to creating healthier indoor air, but an array of other steps can also help create and maintain a safe and sound living space. Try these free or low-cost tips to make sure your home is the healthful, beneficial haven you and your family deserve.
Sunlight is proven to play a role in our physical and mental health. Sunlight is an elemental part of our lives, helping regulate our circadian rhythms and improving sleep. It also plays a role in decreasing energy consumption—according to the U.S. Green Building Council, homes that make use of natural light can cut lighting energy use by 50 to 80 percent.
Getting the most out of this natural powerhouse is easy and inexpensive. Try hanging large mirrors opposite windows and doors to bounce light through a room. Paint window trim and ceilings white, as white reflects light rather than absorbing it. You can also maximize natural light in a room by paying attention to windows and doors—try replacing solid exterior and interior doors with doors that are glass or contain large windows, and choose translucent window coverings that offer privacy without blocking out light.
Get Some Air
Air vents and filtration systems may not immediately spring to mind when cleaning our homes, but properly treated vent hoods, dryer exhaust systems and air filters are vitally important to a safe and healthy indoor space.
Poor installation, improper materials and lack of maintenance in a dryer’s exhaust system can cause house fires. In the U.S., about 2,900 home dryer fires are reported each year. Fires normally start beneath or inside the dryer, and can then spread to cause a house fire. The probability of a fire spreading increases with the use of flexible plastic or Mylar ducts, which can bend and restrict airflow, causing a fire hazard. Experts recommend replacing flexible ducts like these with rigid metal ducts. In addition to clearing out your dryer’s lint trap after every load of laundry, clean lint out of the vent pipe every three months. If you have a gas-powered dryer, have it inspected yearly by a professional to ensure it’s properly connected, and that the connection is free of leaks.
Range hoods are also important to a healthy home, and not just to remove lingering smells or smoke. Cooking on the stove emits ultra-fine particles into the air, often including chemicals we shouldn’t breathe, and can leave a greasy residue on surfaces. Gas flames also can produce nitrogen dioxide. To ensure good air quality in the kitchen, it’s important to use your hood frequently, not just when you’re frying, searing or cooking smelly food. A good range hood should remove 100 cubic feet of air per minute for every 10,000 BTUs of burner output. (400 cubic feet per minute is sufficient for an electric stove.) For a gas range, check your owner’s manual to determine your burner output. If you’re unsure of your range hood’s performance, contact a home inspector to test it out.
Recirculating range hoods (installed under a cabinet or microwave) are slightly less effective than range hoods, but still get the job done. These units use charcoal filters to cycle the air and reintroduce it into a space. To ensure your hood is working at maximum effectiveness, change out the filter at least once every three months.
It can be easy to forget about changing filters in our homes’ HVAC units, but not changing them can lead to major problems. It’s a simple, inexpensive task—not to mention necessary to keep home ventilation systems operating at peak efficiency. A system with a dirty filter can suffer from pressure drop, which can lead to reduced air flow or blow-out, causing no air filtration at all. In addition, home HVAC systems should be serviced once a year. Contact a local HVAC professional to get this done, and be sure to check local and state laws on licensing before selecting one.
Breathing Easy in Damp and Dry Climates
Mold and mildew are common allergy triggers. If you live in a damp climate and frequently suffer from a stuffy nose; itchy eyes or skin; or frequent sneezing, you may want to use a dehumidifier to reduce the presence of mold and mildew in your home. Try using one in an area of your house particularly susceptible to dampness, such as a basement. Mold can also gain a foothold in kitchens with warm, dark cabinets. Small-capacity dehumidifiers, which generally cost less than $200, should work for small, damp rooms. A large-capacity unit can handle larger or wetter spaces.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, humidifiers enable you to increase moisture in the air, which is great for dry climates or when dealing with dry winter air, seasonal illness and asthma. It’s important to thoroughly clean humidifiers regularly to avoid buildup of mildew and mold from moist air passing through the machine. Most manufacturers recommend cleaning after a couple of months of regular use; heavy daily use; or if you’re taking a machine out after a long period of storage. The best way to make sure your humidifier is clean is to refer to the owner’s manual.
Beware of Outgassing
Outgassing is the release of gases during the aging and degradation of materials. Usually outgassing presents itself through VOCs, or volatile organic compounds—substances that are released at room temperature and can negatively affect our health. VOCs are often found in household products such as new electronics, paints, conventional cleaning products, adhesives, upholstered furniture and pressed-wood products.
One way to avoid VOCs in your home is to opt for natural-based products such as milk paint or furniture that doesn’t use toxic flame retardants (see our buyer’s guide in Consumer Update: Toxins in Furniture). However, if you aren’t looking to do a full-scale remodel, you can still keep your home healthy. Make sure areas around products that outgas are regularly cleaned, and that the rooms in your home are well-ventilated. Try using natural or homemade cleaners and air fresheners rather than synthetic chemical-based ones. Choose solid wood furnishings rather than pressed-wood (medium-density fiberboard or plywood), as these frequently outgas. It’s also possible to use a sealant such as AFM Safecoat Safe Seal on pressed-wood furniture you already own in order to seal in VOCs and prevent them from outgassing.
A preponderance of furnishings (especially less-expensive items) contain pressed wood, either as a component of the furniture itself or as backing or inside shelves. If you’re unable to locate or afford solid-wood options, try treating pressed-wood products with a VOC-blocking sealant to reduce toxic outgassing. AFM Safecoat’s Safe Seal is a water-based, low-gloss sealer that works on porous surfaces such as plywood, particle board and porous concrete. It’s particularly effective at sealing in formaldehyde outgassing from processed wood.
$10 for a sample size at Green Building Supply.