You’ve probably already heard that the quality of your indoor air has a greater impact on your health than outdoor pollutants, but did you know that, for many Americans, indoor air quality is significantly worse than the air outside—especially during the colder months. When you seal off all the little drafts and leaks in your home to improve energy efficiency during the winter, you’re also trapping in the allergens, too. Fortunately, though, you don’t have to throw open your windows in the cold of winter to mitigate the damage. Just follow these tips to improve your energy efficiency and your indoor air quality, sometimes at the same time.
Step Up Your Windows
You would be shocked to discover how much your windows influence your energy efficiency and overall air quality. Every aspect of each window can either help or hurt your home comfort. Start with the window itself. Although it may seem as though windows are all about the same in terms when it comes to energy efficiency, they are not. New windows with double glazing and a special film on them could decrease your annual heating expenses by hundreds of dollars.
Spend a little time getting your window frames in shape, too. The space around your windows is a common source of air leaks, which can allow the cold air to creep in during the winter and tends to aggravate seasonal allergies at other times. Run a lit candle around the window, looking for the flickering that shows an air leak is nearby. Seal air leaks around windows and doors with caulking or weatherstripping, which is inexpensive and takes very little time.
Consider adding window treatments that will reduce allergens and provide a bit more insulation. Heavy window treatments are ideal in winter, preventing a cold window from turning into a cold room. However, the more material you pile in front of your window, the more will collect dust. Select shades, blinds and curtains that are easy to wipe clean or wash.
Avoid Energy Vampires
Your home is probably playing host to dozens of energy vampires — fixtures or appliances that consume energy in your home, even when they are not in use — and you never even realized.
- Televisions and DVD players
- Toasters, microwaves, and other small appliances
Of course, you can’t unplug your refrigerator or your internet router and expect things to go well, but a lot of the electronics in your home can be turned off from time to time without compromising your home’s function in the slightest. If you leave a laptop computer on all the time, unplug it while not in use or actively charging. Better yet, plug these devices into a grounded power strip and turn off the strip when you do not need them. You will save energy and protect your appliances from damage during a lightning storm.
This is also a good opportunity to revisit the relatively energy-thirsty nature of older appliances and fixtures. As a general rule, the older the technology, the more energy it consumes. Replace your compact fluorescent bulbs with LED bulbs and, when the time comes to replace electronics and appliances, look for new models that are particularly energy-efficient. You will enjoy the benefits of updated capabilities and may even notice a significant decrease in your energy bills.
A lot of people think of compromised indoor air quality in the terms of smells or pollutants that come in from outside, but this is only one part of the equation. What you do indoors has an even greater effect on your indoor air than the pollutants and allergens that await you outside. Every time you dust your shelves and tables with a dry cloth or a feather duster, you are not doing much beyond sending the dust and pet dander back into the air. Using a vacuum without a filter creates a similar problem.
Here’s what you need to do:
- When you dust, use a damp cloth or a duster made of microfiber or a similar material that will trap dust.
- Make sure that your vacuum has an air filter—one that you clean regularly.
- Minimize your use of harsh indoor cleansers like bleach or ammonia, due to the toxic nature of the fumes.
The idea of dust swirling around your house may make you feel like a dry environment is the most dangerous to your health, but an excess of humidity could also hurt you. When it comes to fighting mold, humidity is your worst enemy. Mold spores thrive in damp conditions and at moderate temperatures, but temperatures changes alone are not enough to kill them off.
During the winter, mildew and mold can accumulate in your home if you do not adequately manage the indoor humidity. Luckily, your HVAC system is designed to decrease humidity inside, particularly when the outdoors is cold and wet. Use your HVAC system regularly, so that it can minimize mold growth in the walls. But if your area is particularly prone to mold, you may want to take extra precautions: Turn on a fan or vent every time you run the shower or boil something on the stove. If you have a room that is particularly prone to dampness, consider adding a standalone dehumidifier.
Increase Pet Care Efficiency
There are a lot of good habits that you can cultivate in yourself and even in your children to help reduce allergens and improve energy efficiency, but your pets are a different story entirely. They rely on you to clean up after them and to keep them clean, as well. Pet dander is a common allergen, and allowing it to collect in the home could give you headaches, a stuffy nose, or worse. Set reminders to have your dogs groomed regularly, and clean out your cats’ litter box daily. Invest in enzyme cleaners to remove pet stains and odors from furniture and carpets. Your pets will feel more comfortable and be healthier. In turn, you will be happy that everything in the home feels and smells fresh.
The flooring in your home may be the place where indoor air quality and energy efficiency come head to head. Your choice is what matters the most. Carpet insulates a little, which can make it feel more comfortable to you on a cold winter morning. However, the dust mites, dander and volatile organic compounds that hide in the carpet can make them a threat to your health. The American Lung Association recommends that you aim for hard-surfaced flooring unless you are prepared to vacuum at least three times a week with a vacuum that uses HEPA filters. Some forms of hardwood flooring, such as engineered hardwood flooring, may have padding not unlike carpet pads that provide comparable insulation. A good balance between the two extremes of carpet and hard flooring is to use rugs that are easy to clean on top of hardwood or tile floors.
No one wants to be trapped indoors in a house that smells bad or makes it harder to breathe. Your HVAC system works hard to keep your home smelling and feeling fresh, but you can do a lot to help it along. Try these tips to minimize your indoor air pollution and reduce your consumption of energy. It will create a better winter for you and may even save you some money.