Today's homes are more tightly sealed than ever, and while that can mean better insulation and energy efficiency, it also has a definite down side: airborne contaminants that come into your home end up staying there, making indoor air a lot more polluted than the air outside.
For safer, healthier indoor air this winter, consider a few home improvements that you'll appreciate the whole year through.
1. Service HVAC components
Dust, molds and other allergens can accumulate in your heating and cooling equipment and negatively impact indoor air quality, so invest in system service by a certified professional as the indoor season begins.
2. Add air-cleaning equipment
Supplement your existing HV/AC equipment with an efficient whole-home indoor air cleaner, which can effectively prevent air contamination and allergic reactions by filtering out even virus-sized particles. Portable air filtration devices can also help to manage indoor air quality room by room. Whether you choose a mechanical, electronic or hybrid model, remember that the best and most effective single-room air filters carry both the UL seal and FDA Class II medical device approval.
3. Upgrade filtration
Changing your home's air filters isn't enough. Healthy indoor air also depends on the quality of the filters themselves, and you can improve your home's filtration by buying filters with a higher MERV (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value) rating.
"The minimum filtration efficiency you should have in filters is MERV 8, but the typical filters most people use are MERV 3," says Jeff May, indoor air quality consultant and author of Jeff May's Healthy Home Tips. "Getting a better filter costs just a few dollars."
4. Dehumidify the basement
In winter, it's tempting to trim heating costs by letting a finished basement go cold, but don't give in. May reminds us that low indoor temperatures lead to moisture and, eventually, mold issues, so it's wise to keep your basement warm with a humidity level no higher than 50 percent. Take steps to fix damp basements, including adding dehumidification equipment (whether integrated or portable), and get the hang of using a hydrometer to check basement humidity levels.
5. Clean the refrigerator
This isn't just a helpful reminder to clear fridge space as you prepare for holiday parties. Well before extended kitchen hours begin, clean inside, under and around your refrigerator. Exhaust issues can impact kitchen air quality, as can the mold that develops in the drip tray under older-model refrigerators. Clean this and other moisture-harboring refrigerator components, and vacuum away dust accumulations that can block vents.
6. Maintain carbon monoxide detectors
Heating sources like fireplaces and woodstoves can generate dangerous carbon monoxide, as can kitchen appliances.
"We actually worked with a family where one member would get really sick every Christmas. Turned out the oven in the mother's house was putting out a lot of carbon monoxide," says May. "So it's a good idea, if you're going to do a lot of cooking, to have your carbon monoxide detector in order and to keep the kitchen exhaust fan running to pull the exhaust fumes out, even if you have an electric stove."
To prevent carbon monoxide from being an uninvited guest in your home, install carbon monoxide detectors if you don't have them already, and do a monthly check of detectors to ensure that they'll warn you of any indoor air dangers.
7. Invest in a HEPA vacuum
Choose a vacuum equipped with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter to keep indoor air clean throughout your family's winter hibernation. With this helper at the ready, you can quickly remove any seasonal allergens tracked in by visitors and keep pet dander from accumulating.
8. Find new flooring
If you're due to replace carpet in a room or an entire living space, consider switching to wood, laminate, tile or linoleum. Carpeting tends to trap and hold allergens of all kinds, including pesky dust mites. Remove carpeting, and you'll banish 90 percent of the dust mites in residence.
9. Make a better bed
Ensure sound, allergy-free sleep by replacing mattresses with non-allergenic models, and shop for dust-mite-proof casings for mattresses, comforters and pillows. Equip your guest room with the same non-allergenic items, and be sure to do a weekly wash of all household bedding.
10. Diminish dust-attracting décor
As you restyle living spaces for the season, carefully consider upholstered furnishings, fabric-based accents and an overload of displayed accessories that can attract and hold dust. You can still have a plush, cozy winter hideaway if you choose washable throws, slipcovers and pillow shams and clutter-free décor.