Is your house healthy? Chances are unless you've taken steps in planning a new home from the ground up or upgraded an existing home to the tune of several thousands of dollars — even tens of thousands — the likely answer is "no."
Welcome to the inside of the typical home — a haze of particulates, off-gassed chemicals and biological contaminants, says Bernie Gordon of Spring Air, Inc. in Jacksonville.
"Ninety-five of 100 homes in the Rogue Valley would have questionable indoor air quality if they were tested," says Gordon, a comfort consultant and indoor air quality master consultant for the heating and cooling company.
It's alarming stuff, but it's not new. Indoor air pollution is a long-recognized problem that is getting more attention with the recent boom in green building. Research by the Environmental Protection Agency concludes that the indoor levels of many pollutants can range anywhere from two to 100 times higher than outdoor levels. An EPA fact sheet states that symptoms of poor indoor air quality include irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, headaches, dizziness and fatigue.
Typically, off-gassed volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs, and leaky ducts in the HVAC system are causes for bad indoor air, Gordon says. Other offenders include mold spores, dust mites, pet dander, cooking smoke, tobacco smoke and carpets. There's also the problem of fiberglass insulation particles floating in the air, coming from HVAC ducts, he says.
"You can put a piece of masking tape over your duct (lengthwise) and leave it there for a couple of days and see whether you do have fiberglass particles coming out," says Gordon, noting they will appear like yellow strands stuck to the adhesive.
Starting from scratch to build a cleaner home was the choice of Ken Schiff, a Spring Air client and Ruch resident who suffers from adult-onset asthma and multiple chemical sensitivities. He's on the extreme end of the scale, prohibiting smokers and people who wear perfume or even deodorant from coming into his new home.
"This was basically my full-time job last year," Schiff says of reading up on the chemical makeup of virtually every component that would be placed into his new home, from countertops to windows. He installed bamboo flooring throughout the entire house, wheelchair ramps (Schiff, 64 and his wife, Marbeth, 67, are not in wheelchairs, but he says he's thinking long-term), and he estimates that he spent about $20,000 to "make myself comfortable."
For most homeowners, ensuring quality indoor air will cost much less, Gordon says, adding that a high-tech air-filtration device attached to the HVAC system can run as low as $1,500. Spring Air sells the American Standard AccuExchange, which Schiff installed in his home. The product promises to remove up to 99.98 percent of all allergens from a home's filtered air.
Most homes have a 1-inch filter that mounts in the return air duct, and that can trap 70 percent of particles up to 10 microns, says Gordon. (A human hair measures about 75 microns.) However, these filters trap as little as 5 percent of .3-micron particles, whose size causes the most irritation because they cannot be expelled from the body once they are inhaled, Gordon says.
Another air-improvement device is an energy recovery ventilator, which removes stale air and replaces it with an equal amount of fresh outdoor air.
Spring Air also conducts a free air-advice analysis on homes to determine the level of particulates and other indoor air hazards.
A monitoring station is set up in a home and the information is sent out electronically to a third party, tracking and graphing particulate levels and indoor-environmental changes over three days.
"I can tell when you turned on the shower because the humidity level goes up. I can tell when you cooked," he says.
A 12-page printout is furnished to the homeowner, highlighting any indoor pollution problems. Invariably, there are problems, and Gordon says more homeowners are deciding to make a fix.
"There's a fast-growing awareness about the hazards of indoor air," he says. Gordon points out that while the scope of the Schiff project in Ruch was brought on by the homeowner's medical needs, otherwise healthy homeowners also are taking similar steps.
"I'm doing two or three jobs like that a month," he says.
"And the state's giving away free money to help people do this," Gordon adds, citing programs offered through the Oregon Department of Energy and the Energy Trust program, the latter organized as a nonprofit by the Oregon Public Utilities Commission to invest in cost-effective energy conservation.
Energy Trust offers cash incentives for home improvements such as upgrading insulation, windows, clothes washers and even compact fluorescent lightbulbs. The Oregon Department of Energy offers tax credits for purchasing premium-efficiency appliances and HVAC equipment, among other home-improvement projects. B
On the Net:
Energy Trust of Oregon Inc.: www.energytrust.org/
Oregon Department of Energy: http://oregon.gov/ENERGY/
Spring Air Inc.: www.springairinc.com