While we're on the subject of dry winter air, let's just talk about the air in your home, in general. Fresh air with just the right amount of moisture in it is one of the most comforting and, in my opinion, healthful aspects of a home. We function better in air with just the right amount of oxygen and moisture in it, and we function best in air that is free of irritants and pollutants. In the same way that we feel both invigorated and relaxed when outdoors on a mild, clear, breezy day, we feel invigorated and relaxed when our indoor air is like that of a wonderful breezy day, as well.
The most obvious sign that something is amiss in this area is simply an unpleasant or a stale odor. If this creeps up on you slowly, you may become so used to the stale air that you don't notice it smells and feels "off". Yet, if you leave your home for a bit and come back in, you may suddenly realize that your home lacks that fresh quality we all desire.
Next to a stale smell, mold growth, mildew, moisture condensation on walls and windows, and a feeling of stuffiness are markers of poor air quality. Problems that you cannot detect with your senses are pet dander, dust mites, and, in some cases, odorless and possibly toxic gasses.
In September, 2001, Popular Mechanics published the following:
Now, good insulation and weather-proofing is beneficial in many ways. However, it does have the unfortunate side effect of slowing down the number of times the air in a home turns over when compared to homes that are less tightly sealed. (Engineers are working on ways to keep the air moving more consistently in a home, so that it turns over more times.) Weather stripping is not the cause of all indoor pollution; even the draftiest old house can have its own issues with air quality and too-damp or over-dry air.
Even the most outdoorsy among us spends 12 hours every day at home. Even the fittest of us draws in about a dozen breaths every minute. That adds up to at least 8640 lungfuls of air taken from inside our homes every day. Infants, the elderly and those with chronic diseases spend up to 90 percent of their time at home. A lot more indoor air, of course, passes through their lungs.
But Is That Air Safe?
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has concerns about whether the air in your home is fit to breathe. It lists indoor air quality as one of the five top environmental issues of our day. Furthermore, it says that indoor air can be five to 10 times more polluted than outdoor air, even in cities where air quality is poor.
Thirty years ago, no one was talking about indoor air quality (IAQ). Homeowners were more concerned with curing their homes of "house-itosis"--unpleasant odors caused by smoking, pets and cooking. Air pollution was an outdoor thing. People felt the air in their homes was safe to breathe.
The gasoline shortages and rocketing heating-fuel prices of the 1970s indirectly changed all that. These crises spawned a near-fanatical interest in wood-burning stoves, fireplace inserts, multifuel furnaces, solar heat systems and wind turbines. As it became apparent that alternative energy sources were not an answer to home heating for the average Joe--at least not yet--the buzzwords became "energy conservation." Hundreds of articles on caulking, weatherstripping, vapor barriers, insulated windows, and super insulated houses appeared. Thousands of homeowners conscientiously sealed and insulated their homes until they were nearly as leak proof as Thermos bottles.
With the campaign to make homes more energy efficient came an unfortunate side effect, the "sick house" syndrome. A sick house is one that can make its inhabitants uncomfortable or even ill. They are houses where one pollutant, or more often a combination of pollutants (small particles of harmful substances), can build up to unacceptable levels.
So, given these challenges to a fresh home environment, what's the home keeper to do? Here are a few ideas.
1) Resist the urge to nuke unpleasant odors with sprays. We all love air fresheners. I especially like to use Lysol on occasion, as well as Febreeze with allergy reducers. However, products like these should be used with discretion and as supplements to our home keeping. Nipping unpleasant odors at the source should be our first line of defense. Otherwise, we are masking a problem rather than curing it.
2) If you use a dryer, find out if it is ventilated properly and if the hose runs to the outside as it should.
3) In good weather, open windows and doors. If your area is experiencing heavy outdoor pollution or you are allergic to something that's blooming in season, this idea may not work for you. But, for most of us, airing out a house can make it feel fresher. The air in your home turns over better if you create a cross-breeze. For example, if you can open windows on the side where the breeze is blowing in and open windows on the other side, the breeze will sweep through your house, carrying in fresh air and oxygen and sweeping out indoor pollutants. Another way to create cross-ventilation is to open windows at both the highest and lowest points in your home. This creates a draft called the "chimney effect." Of course, in both situations, you want to make sure that you leave any indoor doors that are in the path of the airflow open. An old home keeping book from the nineteen hundreds recommends that you close a door and open the window of one room for about ten minutes to air out that one room. This can be done even in crisp weather. Of course, you want to make sure that you don't cause your central heat to trigger, costing you money. It's also not as efficient as airing out your whole home by creating a cross-breeze. However, it can do wonders when cleaning out a stuffy room, particularly one in which someone has just recovered from a cold or other illness.
In the summer, opening windows is one way that people cool their homes. However, this will not work if the air outside is hotter than that on the inside. The Department of Energy has the following suggestions: Ventilate in the cool of the morning. Or, if you have cool evenings, let the air in then. If the outside air should rise to 85 or 90 degrees the next day, the temperature inside a well-ventilated house will rise about only 1 degree F an hour.
Now, I must say that where I live, in deep summer, we do not have a "cool of the day". We start out hot and just get hotter. And, we count ourselves lucky if the outdoor temp is ONLY 85 or 90 degrees. From late June to mid-September, it's just plain old steamy hot twenty-four hours a day. But, I do appreciate the idea of ventilating when it's coolest.
4. If you are seeing condensation on the inside of your windows and on your walls, you will need to find out what the source of the excess moisture is and take care of that. This may require calling in a professional to help you determine the source of excess moisture.
5. You might consider purchasing an air cleaning machine, particularly if someone in your home has allergies. Do your homework. Some are better than others. Those with HEPA filters are supposed to be the most effective. They can handle many irritants that can get into the air, such as mold spores, pollen, animal dander, and dust. They don't work as well for dust mites, because the allergens they produce do not stay in the air very long, but fall to a surface before they can be cleaned out of the air. They also do not work for gasses such as radon.
6. Take the plastic off of clothing you bring home from the dry cleaners and let it air a bit in a protected place outdoors or a well-ventilated place inside your home. While dry cleaners are slowly switching over to non-toxic methods of chemical cleaning, most still use a couple of chemicals that are hard on the respiratory system.
7. Do the basics of home keeping so that your refrigerator, kitchen, trash cans, floors, furniture surfaces and such are clean. This will reduce odors, dust, and chemicals that could get into the air.
One of my cherished beliefs has always been that certain houseplants clean your air. They really can clean air by removing some toxins as they breathe in. However, Cheryl Mendleson notes in Home Comforts that the EPA says that you would have to have way too many houseplants in a home to make a difference. If you did have enough plants to clean a home, you might run into problems with mold in the dirt and too much moisture from watering them. Sigh. Still, if you want to try using houseplants as an air cleaner, place two to three plants in eight or ten inch posts for every one hundred square feet of floor space. Otherwise, why not have a few houseplants simply for the enjoyment of having something living and green in your home. If they clean a little air, too, more's the better.
Regarding air quality: It is an important topic. However, as Cheryl Mendleson points out, much of what is written on this subject can sound excessively alarming. Unless you have obviously serious problems, such as water damage or mold growth, you're probably doing ok. Do what you can to keep your indoor air pure, and, otherwise, don't worry about it.
Clean Air with Plants Keep the EPA's position on using plants to clean the air in mind when you read this article.
Got Gas? Your House Sure Does, and It's Not Good for Your Health.
This Old House: Clean Air
Easy Way to Detect Moisture
Prevent Damp Basement
Drying Out Wet Basement
Flood cleanup and the air in your home.
For your home keeping notebook: How is the air quality in your home? Does your home feel dry, damp, or just right? Does it smell fresh? Go out for a day of errands and pay attention to what your nose tells you when you return. If you have a day of nice weather, open your windows and let in a cool breeze.
For your book of days: Describe how you felt when you were outside on a warm, breezy, fresh day in the spring or a crisp, cool, clear, breezy day in the fall. Describe how you felt on such a day when you were indoors, the windows were open, and a fresh breeze was flowing in, making the curtains flutter. Describe a time when your home smelled especially comforting. Describe the scent of your favorite flower, your favorite perfume, your favorite fruit, or your favorite air freshener, scented candle, or potpourii. Are you a person who especially enjoys nice smells? If so, be sure to spend some time thinking about smells that invoke in you a feeling of comfort and home.