When the wildfires burned in Northern Califonia in the summer of 2020, many of us became acutely aware of our indoor air quality. My family was lucky to not have any major fires in our neighborhood, but the smoke was thick and the air quality unhealthy. I'm a LEED Green Associate so I was able to use some tricks of the trade used by sustainable home professionals to minimize my family's exposure to dangerous air particles from the smoke. So here I share a simple list of easy and inexpensive indoor air quality solutions that anyone can use even after the smoke outside clears.
Indoor air quality
Before I get into air quality solutions, it's important to understand that indoor air quality is usually worse than outside air quality.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studies of human exposure to air pollutants indicate that indoor levels of pollutants may be two to five times — and occasionally more than 100 times — higher than outdoor levels."- Why Indoor Air Quality is Important to Schools, EPA.gov
Local wildfires are creating an exception for Californians at the moment. Even though we've been keeping our windows and doors closed, the ash and dust keep making their way in.
Other sources of outdoor air pollution also contribute to indoor air pollution. If you live close to a freeway or coal plant your outdoor air quality is probably contributing to poor indoor air quality. But no matter what's happening outside, these simple air quality solutions can help your indoor air quality.
Change your air filters
One of the easiest indoor air quality solutions is to change your air filters often. Changing your air filters is not only important for air quality, but also for energy efficiency.
Change air filters every 90 days, and every month during high use times according to Energy Star. If your outside air quality is unhealthy due to wildfires, check your filters now and then again in a few weeks. You might be surprised at how quickly those filters get clogged. It's an easy and inexpensive air quality solution, so there's really no reason not to simply check and change it if necessary.
When there are no wildfires nearby and you're not running your HVAC system often, a good rule of thumb is to change all the air filters at the beginning of every quarter (every 90 days). So in our house, we change the filters the first weekend of January, April, July, and October. My husband recently pointed out that some air filters say they only need to be changed every six months, but I'm sticking with the Energy Star recommendations.
Look for air filters with MERV 8 or higher - Air filters should have a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) of 8 or higher according to the US Green Building Building Council (source). MERV 13 or higher is a good choice if the price is not a concern (the higher the MERV, the higher the price). I buy 6 packs of Filtrete air filters so I have them ready to go when they need to be changed. The sizes I need are saved in my Amazon orders which makes it easy to re-order.
Schedule time to change filters - If you have a Nest thermostat you can easily schedule a reminder so you never forget to change the filters. Otherwise, a good old-fashioned reminder on your phone will work too.
So if the air quality in your neighborhood has been unhealthy due to wildfires, check your air filters. Even though we changed our air filters in July, when I checked the air filters after a few days of unhealthy air quality, the filters were gray and dirty.
Use your kitchen and bathroom vents
Exhaust fans that suck air outside should be located above your range and inside each bathroom according to the U.S. Green Building Council (source).
Kitchen hood vents - Hood vents should always be turned on before you cook. They suck up and out all the smoke from the food you're cooking, no matter what kind of cooktop you use. But they're especially important if you're cooking with a natural gas stove. Natural gas cooktops create indoor smog that causes unhealthy indoor air quality according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Turn on your bathroom fan before you turn on the shower - Bathrooms are especially prone to mold and mildew, so always run turn on the fan or open a window when the shower is running. It's a cheap and simple way to prevent mold and mildew, and prevention is always cheaper than tearing out walls.
Clean your floors
Cleaning your floors may seem like a strange air quality solution. But when it's smoky outside and there's ash flying around, all those polluted air particles have to land somewhere. We track them in when we wear our shoes in the house. But with two dogs also tracking in dirt, pollution, and pesticides from the neighborhood, the floors get dirty no matter what.
Wet wipe the area closest to your entryways and windows if you don't have the time or energy to clean all the floors.
Use green cleaning products - You should always use green cleaning products! But when the outside air is also unhealthy, it becomes even more important not to add more to your toxic load by also using cleaning products that could potentially hurt your lungs.
Install a carbon monoxide alarm
Today only 27 states and the District of Columbia require that homes have carbon monoxide detectors. But every home should have one. If you ever use a generator, propane, or gas appliances it's especially important to have at least one carbon monoxide. It's also important to put carbon monoxide detectors in the right place.
Because carbon monoxide is slightly lighter than air and also because it may be found with warm, rising air, detectors should be placed on a wall about 5 feet above the floor. The detector may be placed on the ceiling."- "Where should I place a carbon monoxide detector?" EPA.gov
The EPA also recommends placing carbon monoxide alarms in or close to bedrooms and having at least one on each floor of your house.
If you're a fan of smart home technology, Nest also has a smoke and carbon monoxide alarm combo that sends an alert to your phone if there's a problem. Having an alert sent to your home seems especially useful if you have a rental house or need to leave your primary home for long periods of time.
There are plenty of other indoor air quality solutions such as using low VOC paint and checking for radon. But if you're looking for quick and easy solutions, start with replacing your air filters often and always using bathroom and hood vents. Finally, when the outside air quality is healthy, open your windows and doors as often as possible. Nothing beats fresh air.