Monthly Archives: March 2012

How Often Should I Check the Health of My Home?

Craig Whittaker founded Environmental Solutions Group in 2002 to provide impartial evaluation of properties relative to environmental health. As a Certified Indoor Environmentalist, he has conducted hundreds of environmental assessments in buildings ranging from apartment units to military installations.

Homeowners contact us several times a day to inquire about testing the air quality in their home. We try to help the caller understand that checking a home for common indoor pollutants is similar to getting an annual medical check-up. Common indoor pollutants can aggravate existing health conditions & cause new ones to develop, even in healthy adults. Pollutants can also cause damage to building products and can cause problems when you go to sell or refinance your home.

Many people are unaware that the indoor air is typically five to ten times more polluted than the outdoor air. Since the 70s, tighter buildings and the introduction of tens of thousands of chemicals into the home environment have led to measurements of airborne gases and particulate in suburban homes that used to be exclusive to outdoor air in urban areas.

We know homeowners are concerned due to the popularity of home environmental test kits. These kits that prompt the homeowner to collect their own samples and send them to a lab for analysis. Usually the lab sells the kit for low cost and charges a high fee for the testing.  Aside from the cost and the fact that the lab report will not be meaningful to someone who doesn’t read lab documents every day, sending air samples to a lab is often unnecessary.  The testing can produce false negatives if the samples were not collected properly and did not follow a scientific method.

So is it really necessary to have a home health check-up? You be the judge. A few of the environmental conditions our firm has identified during a routine home check-up include:

  • Pipe leak in a wall cavity behind the shower (leak identified before structural damage occurred)
  • Leaking toilet dripping sewage into the crawl space under the house (found before it became a major issue)
  • An unhealthy level of carbon monoxide in the master bedroom from a faulty propane heater (finding this probably saved a life as the homeowner’s CO detector was not working)
  • Elevated level of airborne formaldehyde from new kitchen cabinets (explained why the entire family had terrible headaches)
  • Mold on the back of an antique mirror in an elderly woman’s bedroom (the woman had the mirror removed and her sinus issues improved)
  • Disconnected flue vent pipe in an attic next to a child’s bedroom (sewer gas odor could have eventually become overpowering and even dangerous)
  • Birds living in the dryer vent (additional testing found that pathogens in the bird nest were being pulled into the house through the dryer when the A/C came on)
  • Dead rat inside a wall at a house for sale (the rat was missed by the pest control company and home inspector)

If you are like many homeowners who realize the importance of an annual home health check-up, look for an environmental consultant who does not sell remediation services. Also locate someone who has equipment that can be used to check measurements of airborne gases and particles before collecting samples for lab analysis. This type of service is often called a home health assessment, and the investigator should be able to show you the live readings on test equipment before recommending additional samples.

How Often Should an Air Conditioning Filter Be Replaced?

One of the most common questions posed to our indoor air quality team is “how often should I replace my HVAC filter?” Our response is usually something like, “How often do you think it should be changed?” The replies vary tremendously, and include “whenever I happen to remember to change it” to “every month or so, depending on how dirty it looks”.

It may come as no surprise that many people we encounter do not even realize that they have an air filter on their system, especially young adults living on their own for the first time. Unless their landlord or a loved one changes the filter, it is probably not getting replaced. One elderly client had forgotten to change her filter for several years – it was covered in about an inch of dust and the paper frame was covered in fuzzy mold.

If you live alone, have no furry pets or carpet, don’t smoke and stay relatively still, it’s possible to get 90 days of service from a filter. Most of us have a dog (or at least a toddler) that jumps around, plays outdoors, and creates some dust. This is the stuff that fills up a paper filter very quickly, starving the system of air and reducing the effectiveness of the filter. Contrary to what some homeowners believe, a dirty filter does not capture more dirt.

We have had many opportunities to demonstrate how important filtration is to a property owner or tenant. As all of our air quality investigators measure airborne particle load almost immediately upon entering a building, we know right away when the level of invisible dust, known as ‘respirable particles’, is not acceptable.

As an example, the living room of a home with three medium-sized dogs was found to have an elevated particle load that totaled more than 300 micrograms per cubic meter of air (mcg/m3). This is more than twice the EPA’s recommended level for respirable particles in a home if measured over a 24-hour period, and much higher than normal. The homeowner had replaced their high quality filter 30 days prior to our measurement, however, it was no longer doing the job. The homeowner immediately put in a new filter of the same quality, and an air quality measurement at the living room 10 minutes later found the total particle load had dropped to a very respectable 8mcg/m3. You can see for yourself in the pictures below that the particle readings are much lower after the filter change.

There you have it – our best advice is to change your HVAC filters every 30 days. Otherwise, you risk having the lungs of everyone in the building work overtime.

Particle measurement prior to filter changeAfter filter change