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Allergens are the Ultimate Burglar

I said it and I’m sticking to it. Allergens are the Ultimate Burglar! What do I mean by this? Well, they rob you of a comfortable living situation, they break into your home unwelcomed and completely unnoticed (not even your fancy security system catches them), and they get away with it… time and time and time again. When is enough, enough?

In case you were wondering why this is so important, here we go. You may not realize it but on average, we spend 90% of our day to day lives indoors. That’s a lot of time to be sitting and breathing inside an area with unfavorable Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). With all that time spent indoor where you have now essentially trapped the allergens and pollutants to take a “bath” in, you are prolonging exposure to poor IAQ for both your family and yourself. Just like anything else, the longer you are exposed to something, the more opportunity there is for negative side effects like developing a chronic illness (any Zoolander fans will understand the “Black Lung” reference). This includes allergies to specific seasonal pollen, asthma, respiratory infections, bronchitis and more. While an adult, maybe even a younger teenager has developed the strength to fight off illnesses with a stronger immune system compared to an infant or newborn… the risk goes up substantially for very young children who are still developing. Similar to the TDAP vaccine or carrying around bottles of hand sanitizer wherever you go because people love touching babies, your goal is to reduce their chance of getting sick because they haven’t built up the strength to fight it naturally. The same thing applies at home; you clean surfaces diligently, you are constantly cleaning clothes and being cognizant of detergent ingredients, anyone who comes into your home gets a handful of hand sanitizer, etc. Maybe you add an air purifier for safe measures but we often times forget or skip over just how important the quality of air is and pursuing ways to improve it. Even if you have an air purifier, do you really have one in each room? Or are you actually taking the time to move it around the house with you? My guess is no. And yes, I have heard parents/friends go on about how acclimating children to certain things early on will help them better develop immune systems compared to removing the allergens altogether. That might be true but it’s definitely still in moderation. This might seem silly but, you don’t expect that sticking your ear next to a table saw for hours each day will strengthen your ears against deafness, you don’t expect that staring into the sun will strengthen your eyes against blindness, you don’t expect that continuously pricking your body with rusty nails will strengthen your immune system against infection and tetanus…. I could keep going but I think you get it. So why would you expect that prolonging exposure to poor IAQ will strengthen an immune system? Sorry for the rant, with a newborn almost here, my paternal instincts are already going off.

Fortunately, there are many ways to cut down on the number of allergens and pollutants that make it into your home. Let’s cover a few:

  • Indoor Air purifiers. This is typically where you will hear the term “HEPA”. The filters pull in the air inside of a room and filters out all of the bad, trapping it in the filter and not allowing it to return to the living space. This is a great way to remove all the unwanted contaminants but there are some downfalls. One, you have to buy it and the single room models typically start around $100 (the larger, whole home models will run over a grand). Two, you have to run the filter so you not only bought it but now you are using electricity to enjoy its benefits. Three, the contaminants are still getting into the home so this is more of a reactive approach to fixing the problem than a proactive approach.
  • HVAC Filters. It filters the air being returned through the system, as the name implies, but it also keeps the HVAC system working efficiently. Regularly changing your air filter is a must to maintain the integrity of both these functions. When too much build up is on the filter it creates added pressure which will stress out the system and make it work harder than it needs. Too much build up also allows for more particles to potentially bypass or get sucked through which can build up on your coils and that’s when you might notice the odd phenomena of ice buildup on your Air Conditioner even in hot summer months (It’s definitely a sight to see but you personally do not want to get caught in this situation).
  • Weather-stripping and Caulking. Maybe the cheapest route to take when trying to reduce air infiltration is to update your weather-stripping and caulk joints around doors and windows. Simply put, time takes its toll on everything. The settling and movement of your home throughout the year cause caulk joints that were once good to pull away and create voids. Weather stripping around doors (the visible parts on the sides and top of the door casing as well as the bottom of the door) will begin to loosen, breakdown, and eventually not have the same form as it originally had. Going around your home and removing the old caulk and replacing with a new bead will help along with buying a new weather-stripping kit for your doors. Both are very cheap and really only cost you in the amount of time it might take to complete the job. It’s also nice because these solutions not only start cheap but they last a decent amount of time depending on craftsmanship and they don’t cost you a thing after the job is done. If anything it will be saving you each month since you aren’t fighting to condition as much outside air.
  • Window Treatment this Winter. That thin piece of plastic you put over your windows for energy efficiency. Not that this is the most aesthetically appealing solution to reducing air infiltration, you might be surprised to see how much air is getting into your home through failed seals on your window between sashes or anywhere there is a seam for that matter. This isn’t a good solution for the fall or spring if you enjoy opening up a window or two, but during the winter and in a cold climate it is unlikely you will be leaving windows open. Buying a quick window kit is cheap and easy to install. You’ll probably notice the window treatment expanding and getting bigger as if it were a bag of popcorn and that’s when you know it’s working, and you might want to look into new windows. But windows aren’t cheap so for the time being, a window treatment will do the job. Plus if you have curtains or blinds, leave them down to cover the window and it won’t be an eyesore if you are worried.
  • Duct Sealing. It’s hard to think of the impact this will have on IAQ when you are probably thinking, “I’m only circulating the air inside my home”. Problem is, you aren’t. Duct leakage, especially on the return side, pulls in contaminants from outside of the ductwork in spaces like the attic, crawlspace or wall cavities. Wall cavities might not seem so bad but they do build up dust and they carry the potential of insulation fibers. Attics and crawl spaces are/should be well ventilated which means all the pollutants and allergens can and will make their way into these areas. And now that they are in the area, a leaky return system will be pulling them in.
  • Insulate Wall Outlets. If you have ever changed an outlet on an exterior wall, you may have noticed a good amount of dust in the box or on the wires. Even worse, you might see this dust moving around from a draft or possibly feel that draft yourself. It’s a pretty normal occurrence so don’t worry thinking you need to rip out your drywall and seal off the leaks behind it. There are outlet insulators available for very cheap that take seconds to install. Simply unscrew the cover, match up the insulator with the screw holes and reinstall the outlet cover. The leakage isn’t removed from entering behind the walls but it has been eliminated from entering into the livable space of your home.

There are more areas for improvement when it comes to improving your Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) or reducing air infiltration but the list would go on and on and you don’t need to read all of that. Where to start is really dependent on your unique situation but luckily there are professionals available to quantify the amount of air infiltration in your home and pretty easily locate the areas for improvement through testing equipment that will give you hard numbers and not just someone’s guess. Anyone can tell you that your home has air infiltration, maybe a lot or maybe a little, but not so many can accurately provide you with a number so you have all the details required of making a sound decision. A blower door test is a simple way to check your home and it is noninvasive to your home. Smoke pens can be used in combination to walk around and quickly locate areas where there is air velocity change or drafts which signals infiltration. Those HVAC contractors with a Performance Contracting mindset will be able to answer all of your questions and quickly diagnose the problem so you can breathe easy. Allergy season is right around the corner as temperatures begin to cool off so now is the perfect time to prepare your home.