Raise Your IAQ: Why Indoor Air Quality Matters

Construction inspector climbing up the staircase of a wooden frame of a home in construction holding the construction plan.

Today's homebuilders are looking for ways to improve indoor air quality (IAQ), such as using low-VOC products and adhering to stricter IAQ standards.

You spend most of your time indoors, so it stands to reason that the air in your home should be fresh and free of dust, mold, pollen, pet dander and other contaminants.

That’s especially true if you’re thinking about buying a new home and you or a family member is among the 17 million people that the American Lung Association says suffer from asthma or one of 16.9 million people that the Centers for Disease Prevention & Control says have hay fever.

Simple steps can improve the indoor air quality in your new home

New home design and construction have made enormous strides in indoor air quality (IAQ). Since the first oil crisis of 1973, home builders, building-product suppliers and architects have been working hard to improve the energy efficiency of new homes.

One approach builders have used is extensive insulation and sealing techniques. In contrast, most older homes were not designed or built to be as airtight as new homes. There's no doubt that spray foam insulation and advanced air-sealing methods increase energy efficiency and create a snug, draft-free indoor environment. But once you seal a new home tightly it’s also important to ensure a constant supply of fresh, filtered air at the desired temperature and humidity, all year round.

Reducing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can improve your indoor air

Some materials used in construction can give off gases known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, or chemicals such as formaldehyde. The good news? Many building products are available today that have reduced levels of VOCs. Ask your builder about products that are right for your new home.

“Carpeting, glue, the wood in cabinetry … all of these manufactured materials will off-gas and affect IAQ,” says Arn Burdick, building performance specialist for IBACOS in Pittsburgh, Pa. IBACOS started out as a research consortium in 1991 to drive innovation in the housing industry. It is now an independent company that partners with builders, developers, manufacturers and governments all over the world to find better ways to build homes.

Burdick says green-building programs such as Energy Star and LEED for Homes establish standards for acceptable levels of VOCs that can be introduced into a house during construction. Thanks to a lot of research and development by building-product suppliers, there are now many products available today that are low in formaldehyde and VOCs, ranging from paints and adhesives to flooring and cabinets.

But while using such products is helpful, it only addresses part of the problem. The housing industry has researched more comprehensive approaches to improving IAQ. Better design and construction practices, along with updated building codes and regulations, offer a holistic approach to creating new homes that are healthier than ever before.

New standards mean even greater air quality for newly built homes

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recently released its 2013 IAQ standard for residential construction. The only nationally recognized IAQ standard solely for homes, it requires an increase in mechanical ventilation rates. Increased amounts of stale air inside a home must be replaced with fresh air from outside through mechanical ventilation devices, such as kitchen or bathroom exhaust fans. Carbon monoxide alarms are now required in all dwelling units as well. Once the standards are adopted, it will lead to healthier indoor environments, Burdick says.

In 2009, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) introduced Indoor airPlus, a set of standards for IAQ in new homes. To earn the Indoor airPlus label, a builder must first qualify the home to Energy Star standards, then layer in more than 30 additional home design and construction features to better protect a home from IAQ problems. Requirements include:

  • Providing added protection from mold and other moisture problems;
  • Installing materials, sealants and vent pipes for radon mitigation;
  • Sealing, caulking and screening areas where pests are likely to enter the home;
  • Installing HVAC equipment and ductwork that minimizes condensation problems, dilutes and exhausts indoor pollutants and filters the air;
  • Installing direct-vented or power-vented gas-fired and oil-fired equipment and properly vented fireplaces;
  • Completely sealing off garages from living spaces and equipping them with exhaust fans;
  • Using materials that minimize the risk of moisture damage and have reduced chemical content; and
  • Inspecting air-handling equipment and ductwork to be sure it’s clean and free of debris and provides adequate air flow.

Burdick believes parts of the Indoor airPlus program will eventually work their way into the general Energy Star program, and subsequently into building codes.

Balanced ventilation solution

Air exchange is Salt Lake City-based Garbett Homes’ first line of defense against poor IAQ. The key word is “balance.”

“We get the envelope as tight as we can,” says Bruce Hanson, director of energy programs for Garbett. “Then we eliminate all of the (gaps) where air is being pulled in. We take the indoor air and filter and exchange it as much as we can.”

The air in Garbett’s homes is changed approximately six times a day via an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) that pulls fresh air into the home while also exhausting stale air outside.

All gas-burning appliances, except the stove, are direct-vented to the outside. Polyethylene plastic sheeting on top of gravel underneath the basement floor acts as a vapor barrier. Low-VOC paint and carpeting and cabinetry made with formaldehyde-free particle board reduce the level of chemical pollutants.

Burdick notes that builders have improved their moisture-control strategies, such as using window flashing in drainage planes to keep the rain on the outside of the wall, where it won’t saturate building materials and create mold problems later on.

He offers a tip for new home buyers: As you’re driving through neighborhoods under construction, take note of how wood-based materials are stored on the job site, especially if you’re in a region that gets a lot of rain and snow. Are studs and sheathing stacked neatly and covered to protect them from the elements?

“If the wood is just lying in the mud, it’s absorbing moisture from the ground,” Burdick says. “It takes a significant amount of time to dry that wood out.”

Better building products

For more than a decade, building-product manufacturers have been introducing products designed specifically to improve IAQ. There are paints, adhesives, flooring and other finishes low in or free of formaldehyde, VOCs and other potentially harmful chemicals.

A gypsum board is available for interior walls and ceilings that takes VOCs out of the air and converts them into safe inert compounds. Once captured in the board, they can’t be released back into the air. If you love fireplaces but not their potentially toxic emissions, there’s a gas fireplace on the market with balanced flue technology that replaces all combusted air with fresh outdoor air.

Another feature you may want to consider is a central vacuum system (CVS), which is designed to carry dust, dirt and pollutants away from living areas. Based on university trials, a CVS can improve air quality as much as 52 percent. Studies show that people living in homes with a CVS see a reduction in allergy, asthma, headaches and fatigue symptoms.

What to ask a builder about IAQ

  • Does this home have radon-resistant features? Will you provide a radon test kit and if so, how often should I perform this test after I move in?
  • Do you install energy recovery ventilators (ERVs) or heat recovery ventilators (HRVs) in your homes? Are they equipped with HEPA filters?
  • Do you use low-VOC paints, finishes and carpeting? Is your cabinetry made with formaldehyde-free particleboard?
  • How do you address moisture control through your building practices?
  • Are gas appliances direct-vented to the outside?
  • What do you do to prevent insects and other pests from entering the home?
  • Do you offer a central vacuum system either as a standard feature or upgrade?

Reining in Radon

Like carbon monoxide, radon is a potential health hazard, but one that can be managed. Many new homes are built with radon mitigation systems. In fact, some state and local building codes require them.

Energy Star and other green-building programs typically require builders to install roughed-in radon mitigation system and sealed sump pits. Some builders go further by installing an active sub-slab and moisture management and ventilation system. Approaches vary from builder to builder, so don’t be shy about asking questions.

Newly built homes today offer much greater energy efficiency, comfort and air quality than homes built just five to seven years ago. And by working with your builder in the areas above, you can achieve very high levels of indoor air quality in your new home.

Susan Bady has been writing about the housing industry for 25 years. A contributing editor to Professional Builder, Custom Builder and HousingZone.com, she has also contributed to Better Homes and Gardens’ Home Plan Ideas. You can find her on Google+

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