Monthly Archives: February 2022

What are VOCs?

What are VOCs? (They can’t be seen, but they’re all around us…)

VOCs are Volatile Organic Compounds.  “Volatile” refers to the low boiling point of the compound that causes it to disperse easily into the air.  These are emitted as colorless, sometimes odorless gasses from things like furniture, paints, cleaning products, copy machines, etc.  When released in your home, these gasses can build up to 2 to 10 times higher than concentrations outdoors.  VOCs can irritate your eyes and nose, cause headaches and nausea, damage organs, and some can even cause cancer.  Blast from the past: anyone remember “dittoed” homework sheets with a fragrant purple ink?  VOCs to the max!

In the past we may have needed olfactory proof that the cleaning product was working, but today “VOC-free” has become the smarter way to buy and live.  Although the paint industry provided some of the most visible and better-smelling changes in product, it’s a bit more complicated when it comes to laundry and cleaning products, because “fragrance-free” does not always equal low VOCs.

Although at the top of this post I noted that VOCs are “sometimes odorless”, which means there are some VOCs you can’t detect by smell, most people associate their negative reactions to products with fragrances.  In this study, people in the US, UK, AU, and SE were polled for sensitivity across a wide range of products and situations (like being around others wearing fragrances, smelling dryer vent emissions, exposure to air fresheners, deodorizers, and cleaning products), which showed approximately 32% of the general population has sensitivity to various fragrances.  The study analyzed results of 5 other studies of 249 common consumer products like air fresheners, laundry products, cleaning supplies, personal care products, essential oils and car air fresheners, to identify the top hazardous VOCs.  Ethanol was most prevalent in fragrance-free compounds, while terpenes like limonene, alpha-pinene and beta-pinene were most prevalent in fragranced products.  There were no terpenes in fragrance-free products, so the study went on to focus on terpenes, which can react with other compounds indoors to produce formaldehyde and ultra-fine particles. The most surprising takeaways from this study, is that:

  • “...fewer than 4% of all VOCs, and fewer than 5% of potentially hazardous VOCs, were disclosed on any product label, safety data sheet, or elsewhere”.
  • “...no significant difference was found in the emissions of the most prevalent potentially hazardous VOCs between green (organic, natural) fragranced products and regular fragranced products”.

What does this mean for us when we go shopping for cleaning products or personal-care products?  Fragrance-free is better, because it indicates a lack of terpenes, a major class of VOCs.  And we need to do the research… because the label won’t tell us about VOCs and we don’t own the scientific equipment (beyond our noses) to detect them.   

Fortunately, there is help out there!   GreenSeal is an organization that is dedicated to advocating, testing and certifying products that are non-toxic, low-VOC, carcinogen-free and phthalate-free.  They have a huge database of products that are certified to meet these standards, such as the “general purpose cleaners” page.   Also, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a non-profit which has tested thousands of products and grades them on their website, and has a healthy cleaning guide

There are also many great privately owned websites that review cleaning and personal-care products that have few or no VOCs.  Here are a few of them:

  • www.gimmethegoodstuff.org is run by a team of family-oriented professionals with a passion for research and healthy living.  Here is their guide on safe mattresses and it includes several discount codes!
  • www.thefiltery.com is produced on Native American lands.  Here is their list of the 15 best non-toxic laundry detergents. 
  • www.diynatural.com is a great resource for those who like to make their own products.  Here is a page with links for making everything from baby wipes to carpet deodorizers to candles! 

Now you know that not everything labelled “green” is actually healthy.  Cookware is whole ‘nother topic I’m afraid, but you can check it out in our post “Is My Cookware Safe?”

But…I love my fireplace!

But...I LOVE my fireplace! 

Sentiment often overrides sensibility when it comes to fireplaces.  Fireplaces are such a warm and cozy addition to a home, even when they are not being used, that they are often a requested item in existing home searches and new build construction.  Fireplaces are found even in the warmest parts of the world—deserts where it can get cold at night and tropical places where it gets cold only occasionally.  In the latter, why take up space in your home that may only be used a few times a year?   Here’s why: fireplaces create nostalgic, warm feelings and memories, and it’s the sentiment of the fireplace that people enjoy year-round. 

I love the look of the traditional fireplace in my home, but it’s rarely used for several reasons.  I grew up in a home with a working wood-burning stove, and I can tell you that a large supply of dry, seasoned firewood is not easy to get due to the labor and storage it requires!  Cut, split, stack, move, stack….so even though I live “in the woods” now, I am not inclined to keep wood on hand to use often.  Then, there is the minimal heat that it provides.  In fact, if it’s a cold evening and you also have central heat working in your house, starting a fire in a traditional fireplace actually removes heated air from your house and sends it right up the chimney, costing more to heat the rest of your house!

In addition, the last time I started a fire in the fireplace (and this was even after having the chimney cleaned), the room had a distinctly smoke-y smell that took a long time to dissipate.  This was not good, as I now know that super-small particles were floating around in the air and my friends and I breathed them.

After cleaning up the ashes, I knew there was something to learn here.  Here are some tips for enjoying the heat and ambiance of fire with safety first, of course!

  • Install a CO (carbon monoxide) monitor, at least for the room(s) in which the fireplace stands.  CO is a colorless, odorless gas that is very dangerous even in low concentrations, and can build up when the fireplace flue has leaks or obstructions (like buildup or partially closed damper).  Some smoke detectors are paired with CO monitors for double-duty.  
  • Make sure the damper is fully open when using the fireplace to vent gasses, and fully shut when the fire is out and cold (to avoid heated air from escaping).   Check the position of the handle and door before starting the fire just to be sure, by putting on a pair of safety glasses, grabbing a flashlight and sticking your head into the firebox and looking up (don’t skip the glasses!).
  • Using glass doors instead of just a screen helps to contain the smoke in the fireplace.  The surround needs to be sealed to the brick using an appropriate caulk.
  • Make sure the wood is dry and seasoned for at least six months.
  • Use a hairdryer or blowtorch to get heated air flowing up the chimney before lighting the fire.  This “primes” the air draft and reduces the chance of smoke coming into the room once the fire is lit.  Hold the heat source in the middle of the firebox for several minutes. 
  • Never burn cardboard, plastics or treated wood.
  • Never use a regular vacuum to suck up ashes, because normal vacuum filters are not fine enough and end up spewing ashes into the air!  Invest in a good ash vacuum to remove the ashes if you want to thoroughly clean the fireplace between uses.  

No matter if your fireplace works to increase ambiance or heat,  it’s good to look into upgrading for health and efficiency:

  • If you still want to use wood, consider upgrading from a bare-box fireplace to a fireplace insert.  Fireplace inserts seal the combustion area and improve heat transfer to the room over a traditional fireplace.  Make sure it was manufactured after 1992, as certain federal air-quality regulations went into effect at that time, helping to burn wood more cleanly.
  • If you don’t need to heat your entire home, consider electric inserts (also called “infrared”).  Electric is very energy efficient and does not require a vent (meaning you can install it anywhere that you can run electricity) and it produces no emissions in your home.  Simulated flames in new fireplaces are actually very real-looking!  Free-standing fireplaces are available to place anywhere you need heat and have an electrical outlet, and you can even have simulated fire without heat production.
  • Gas inserts are an easy way to heat your room with real flames, but they must be professionally installed for safety and venting purposes.  If you have an asthmatic person in your household, however, new research indicates that the nitrous oxide produced from any gas-burning appliances in the home can affect their condition.   See our post “Hidden Dangers in Gas Appliances”.
  • Pellet stove inserts come in sizes that can heat an entire home for days depending on the pellet bin capacity, because they self-feed a small amount of pellets into the fire every few seconds.  Pellets burn cleanly with very little ash (about a cup of ash per 40-lb sack of pellets).  They do need professional installation to ensure that exhaust gasses are completely contained in the flue system.  Before investing in one, check for pellet availability and prices in your area at fireplace stores, hardware and farm supply stores.

Why Should I Care About Mold?

Why should I care about mold?

I’m not a biologist.  I’m not a chemist.   Yet, I’ve learned to care about mold.

Sinus headaches (the nasty kind that hijack my day) got my attention in the spring of 2021 when I turned on the air conditioning.  From the sudden onset of symptoms and the musty smell that came from the vents, I knew it had to do with mold in the system.  I had to act fast (the temperatures were forecast to rise into the 90’s in the next week), so I prioritized a search to find where these nasty microbes were living.  

In preparing to write this blog, I found some helpful information on the EPA website in their article Ten Things You Should Know About Mold.  Their Fact Number Two is what we here at HypoAir want to help people understand: “There is no practical way to eliminate all mold and mold spores in the indoor environment; the way to control indoor mold growth is to control moisture.” (emphasis added).

Then, Number Five tells us the target (and some remedies):  “Reduce indoor humidity (to 30-60%) to decrease mold growth…”

Finding and controlling the moisture means finding and controlling the mold!

I did tackle that air conditioning problem (I will describe more in the next article, Finding and Attacking Mold in your HVAC System) and went on to inspect the whole house.  I have to admit, it’s not my favorite thing to do, and if sleek, manageable hair and healthier skin were the only considerations, I might be tempted to postpone it.  But add in overall body health from low-mold air and the way it affects my sleeping and waking hours, I really started to care about mold, strange as that sounds!

Check out our Indoor Moisture Inventory.  This inventory ranks moisture sources from large to small, so managing a few large ones at the top would equate to managing significantly more at the bottom.  If you own your home, start at the top and remediate as many as possible within your budget and means.  If you rent and have a reasonable landlord, talk to them and try to work out solutions.  Even if you are sleeping on your friend’s couch and have $10 in your bank account, mold mitigation starts with getting informed (keep reading our posts!) and prioritizing reducing excess moisture in the house.   That’s what friends are for, right?

The Science of Humidity and how it affects us

The Science of Humidity and how it affects us

Humidity is super-important to our health, and the health of the spaces in which we live (which in turn affect our health).  But do you know how humidity is measured and how it affects us?  

Humidity is the concentration of water vapor in the air.  Necessary to life, we need water in the air we breathe, as well as to drink.  Water vapor hydrates our respiratory pathways and secondarily, enables us to stay warm–or cool.  Humidity is measured in percentage–but a percentage of what?  

Sometimes it’s easier to imagine a liquid, instead of a gas.  If you’ve ever dissolved sugar into water and keep adding sugar, there comes a point where the water will no longer hold any more dissolved sugar–the sugar will lay at the bottom of the container–at that temperature.  In order to dissolve more sugar, you will need to increase the temperature of the water.  This is the saturation point of the water for sugar.  Air works in the same way.  There is a maximum amount of water vapor that the air can hold before–you guessed it–it starts raining.  To increase the amount of water vapor, air temperature must increase.  Warmer air can hold more water vapor than cooler air, the same as warmer water can hold more sugar than cooler water. 

So then, “relative humidity” is the percentage of maximum water vapor the air can hold at a specific temperature.  It’s all “relative” to the temperature.  If you had 2 rooms at the same temperature (say 78 deg F), but one had 60% percent humidity and the other had 40% humidity, the 60% humidity room is holding a lot more moisture in the air, at the same temperature.  It is a noticeable difference.

Humidity is usually higher during summer months.  In the US, we are accustomed to the Heat Index (HI), “a measure of how hot it feels when relative humidity is factored into the air temperature.” (MintLounge, 2020)  But a more accurate picture of the stress heat and humidity have on the body is given by “wet bulb temperature”.  Essentially, a wet "sock" is put over the bulb of a thermometer, and it measures “the lowest temperature to which air can be cooled by the evaporation of water into the air at a constant pressure.... (In contrast) The dry bulb temperature is the ambient temperature. The difference between these two temperatures is a measure of the humidity of the air. The higher the difference in these temperatures, the lower is the humidity.” (Sciencedirect.com, 2007).  It is very important to human life because it governs how evaporation of sweat into the air cools our bodies.  Think of the thermometer in a wet sock as your body covered in sweat.  When wet bulb temperature = ambient temperature, the sweat is not evaporating, because humidity = 100%.  If we dial up the heat, no evaporation allows no heat loss, which causes rapid overheating.  Scientists have marked 95 degrees F (35 degrees Celsius) at the upper limit of survivability: at or above this temperature/humidity combination, the body will overheat, causing organ and brain damage and death.   During this research, I looked at a country that knows heat: India.  India has been suffering with extreme heat for several years now.  2015 saw the country’s fifth deadliest heat wave (2400 people died), and other records were set in 2016 and 2019.  

Compared to the heat index in summer, wind chill is that mystifying element that makes cold northern winter days (usually drier, lower humidity) seem bearable and damp southern winter days seem very chilling!  Higher humidity causes the clothes we wear to retain moisture, which being next to our skin, will wick heat from our bodies, chilling us. 

If then, “feels like” temperature is most important, we can focus on controlling the humidity in our homes along with temperature.  

Humidity is super-important in heating and cooling.  Air kept at lower humidity is less costly to heat and cool.  Why is that?  Going back to the liquid analogy, think of boiling water on a stove or microwave or kettle.  Which takes longer to boil at the same heat level: 1 cup of water, or 3 cups of water?  Three cups, of course!   When trying to cool a humid room, the same principal applies–most of the energy is spent actually changing the temperature of the water vapor in the air.  Therefore lower concentrations of water in the air (lower humidity) takes less energy to cool.  The same thing happens in the winter: overly humid air takes longer (more energy) to heat.  According to energyforum.net, “hot and humid areas use 21.1% of their energy on air conditioning each year, while hot and dry areas only use 9.6% of their energy to air condition.”

Most importantly, the effects of high and low humidity have direct impacts on our health.

Water vapor in the air (humidity) is essential to keeping our nasal passages hydrated.  When the humidity drops low, the air is dry, and nasal passages feel congested because they are dried out and inflamed.  Eyes become irritated because tear production cannot keep up.  Skin becomes dried out, feeling itchy and more susceptible to infection.  In the age of coronavirus, air with low humidity is more hospitable to the spread of the virus in aerosol form (fine droplets that occur when someone sneezes or coughs).  This is because the water entrained with the virus quickly evaporates in dry air, allowing the virus particles to float indefinitely.  Drier virus particles actually survive longer by floating in the air than those encapsulated in heavier water droplets, which fall quickly to the floor. (40to60rh.com)

On the high side, too much humidity is also bad.  Excess water vapor in the air contributes to mold growth, more pests (insects and mites), and structural damage due to mold and rot. 

For many years, the optimal humidity range of indoor environments was 30-50%.  Due to the current coronavirus pandemic, some doctors are petitioning for the World Health Organization to change the recommended range to 40-60% relative humidity (40to60rh.com).  What is the top factor on CNN’s list of ways to prevent flu in your home?  Control humidity!

Humidity is a huge factor for optimizing our home environment, then!  How do we measure and control it?

To measure humidity, sensors like these are cheap and easy to place around your home (this particular type have built-in batteries, but you should check the battery requirements of others before purchase). 

Now–what do I do if I’m below 30%?  Typically, low humidity (below 30%) occurs in winter months when we turn on indoor heat, making skin and nasal passages dry and irritated.  Humidifiers help by introducing moisture into the air.  You can place a portable humidifier in the most-used room during the day, and move it into your bedroom at night for more comfortable sleeping.   If you are not sensitive to fragrance, some humidifiers allow you to add a few drops of essential oils for a pleasant scent.  Whole-home humidifiers can also be installed in your HVAC system.  If you are looking to increase humidity in your home as well as clean the air, you may consider an “air washer”.  This type of unit uses a stack of thin discs to capture dust in the air, which is then “washed” off the disc in a water reservoir.  Clean air that is exhausted from the unit is more humid.  It is a low cost air purifier/humidifier combination that only requires regular addition of water and rinsing out the disc stack.

What do I do if my home is above 60%?  Now this is a more common and complex problem.  Sometimes it is the outside climate coming inside through air leaks, and sometimes it’s a source of water inside the home that can be corrected to bring indoor humidity down.  You can check out our Indoor Moisture Inventory which will walk you through the most common ways to reduce indoor humidity.   If it's still too high after mitigation, you can hire a professional to perform calculations and recommend dehumidifier units, or in this age of DIY, you can actually calculate and research (and install!) units on your own. 

Here is a simple table that takes into consideration the square footage of your home and it’s “tightness” (insulation level and leaks).  According to this, I need about an 8.0 gallon-per-day dehumidifier unit for my 2000 square foot “average” home.   Here are how the measurements are factored into the sizing.   However, since my AC system is older (more than 10 years old), it would most likely be most cost-efficient to replace the whole system with a new system that includes a dehumidifier!  

Humidity control should be a top priority in all of our homes and indoor spaces–why not take some steps today?

Finding and Attacking Mold in the HVAC System

Finding and Attacking Mold in the HVAC System

I turned on the AC in my home last spring and a musty smell gave me suspicion that there was mold growing somewhere in the ventilation system.  I determined that I would not stick my head in the sand, hoping it would go away after more use.  I didn’t want mold to be distributed through my house via the HVAC, so I planned a “search and destroy” mission!  

I have to say that I lack fear about a lot of things, but experience has made me a bit more cautious.   I used to reclaim wood and would pick up interesting pieces off the curb.  This resulted in making me violently ill one time when the scavenged wood had black mold on it. Mold is dangerous, so if you think your A/C system has mold, you will want to wear a protective mask (more than a thin cloth or paper mask; N95 is ideal) and wear old clothes: plan to shower, wash hair and launder your clothes afterwards.  If you are highly allergic to mold or just squeamish, this is best left to someone who isn’t.

Timing: You will need to shut down the AC for at least an hour, possibly several.  For this reason, and the fact that the air handler is often located in the attic, don’t plan this project in the heat of summer (at least in the daytime).

Tools: 

  • depending on the model of air handler, various screwdrivers and socket drivers
  • Small containers to hold the screws
  • A flashlight or headlamp
  • A spray bottle containing hydrogen peroxide (3% is the standard solution sold over the counter—works fine. ) OR
  • A spray bottle containing 50% white vinegar and 50% water.  However, DO NOT MIX VINEGAR WITH HYDROGEN PEROXIDE!  It creates poisonous fumes.
  • Paper towels or disposal rags
  • Plastic bag(s) to hold contaminated towels or rags
  • A cup of hydrogen peroxide in a small pouring cup OR A cup of vinegar . (DO NOT MIX VINEGAR WITH HYDROGEN PEROXIDE!)
  • A roll of foil HVAC tape.
  • A can of wasp spray on hand if your attic has any access to insects (ie. through a ridge or gable vent)

First, switch the AC off at the thermostat and place a piece of masking or blue tape over the switch.  Then identify the circuit breaker that controls the AC in the breaker box, switch it off and tape over that breaker.  Although we won’t be messing with electricity, you don’t want the fan to come on while you have the air handler open, blowing mold spores everywhere!

Set yourself up next to the air handler in the most comfortable way (usually these spaces are tight, I know!).  Identify the drain from the coil unit, which is usually white PVC pipe.  This pipe drains condensation that drips off the coil while it is cooling the air passing through.  The condensation is a major source of moisture for mold, so if the condensation is not draining properly, it can 1) harbor mold and 2) back up and flood the drip pan, causing water damage to insulation and sheetrock and more mold.  If you’re already experiencing problem #2, it’s probably due to algae growing in the pipe and blocking it.  You can go outside and use a wet-dry vacuum on the end of the pipe to clear the blockage, then keep going with the next step here.

The white plastic pipe coming from the air handler should have a small bend in it.  This acts like a P-trap in the drains of your house, keeping vapors in the unit with a liquid “trap” .  Ideally there is a capped “vent” on the pipe.  You’ll need to unscrew or pull the cap off, pour the liquid hydrogen peroxide OR vinegar in, and replace the cap.  This will prevent algae from growing in the pipe and blocking it.  HVAC professionals recommended to do this about once a month during peak cooling season.

Next, put on your mask and find the access door on the air handler that is closest to this pipe.  We’re going to check for mold in the drain pan.  Remove the door and shine the light inside.  If you find mold,  don’t touch it directly.  First, saturate the area with the hydrogen peroxide in the spray bottle.  Let it sit on the mold ten minutes.  Then, use the rags or paper towels to clean the surface thoroughly and dispose of them in plastic bags as you go.

While you are waiting for the hydrogen peroxide to take effect, you can remove other doors around the coil to see if the mold spread to other areas.  I found that the compressor motor body was covered in it (this is another reason you need to turn off the electricity before starting) and some other places inside the duct. 

Try to determine the source of the mold.  If the drain pan was draining correctly, but there is still mold, it may be that the unit needs more insulation internally or externally.  Insulation prevents condensation where there should be no condensation, which is everywhere except the evaporator coils!

If you can, apply a Mold Preventer spray to the problem areas.  Some are effective up to 3 months, so even if you are not successful at stopping the moisture problem right away, this will prevent the mold from recurring for a time (buys time). Here are some non-toxic options:

While you are in the attic, check for screws or joints that are loose, that can cause an air leak.  Warm air leaking into the system will cause condensation, so if you find one, try to seal it up with the appropriate fastener or at least, the HVAC tape.  Also check for missing insulation on ducts.  If your attic routinely gets into the 90 degF or hotter range, then the white condensation drain pipe (that drains cool water through a hot space) should also be insulated to avoid dripping into the attic.

Now that the mold is removed and prevented, you can seal everything back up and get clean!  Here are the follow-ups you need to look at to mitigate mold:

  • The other source of mold food is dust.  Less dust = less mold!  Use the best HVAC filters you can afford and be sure they fit well and you change them on schedule.  HEPA filters really do help.
  • Consider installing a dehumidifier to help with the efficiency and lower mold growth.
  • Consider installing a BP-2400 to continually prevent mold not only in the system, but throughout your home.
  • If your system is over ten years old, many HVAC professionals suggest replacement of the complete system for efficiency and cleanliness.  Get quotes and consider other types of heating/cooling systems, which may be less susceptible to mold issues.
  • Some HVAC companies apply a polyurethane coating coat to their heat exchangers, which keeps the coils cleaner (saving energy), discourages mold growth (better air), and extends coil life by 3-4x.  Madd Air in Texas is one of them. 

Mold in the HVAC system is worth looking into. as you and your family's health depend on it! 

Alternatives to Traditional HVAC Systems

Alternatives to Traditional HVAC Systems

If you are given a recommendation to replace your existing HVAC due to age, inefficiency, or mold infestation, you should consider newer options that can improve air quality with more efficiency (read: lower energy bills!). With so much information at our fingertips and uncertainty in energy prices, it's time to think out of the box!

1)      High-Velocity Mini-Duct Systems:  These systems are exciting to me and likely anyone who appreciates historical homes.  Instead of running large, cumbersome ducts and vents into rooms, this system runs smaller vents, which can be snaked through walls more easily.  There may be several vents in a room, but they are smaller and discreet (think 2-3” round holes) and can be encased with trim that matches the room, such as wood.  This system actually removes more humidity than traditional HVAC, so the room feels more comfortable at a higher temperature.  In addition, the high velocity of multiple “jets” of air provides more mixing than singular larger vents, so that cold and warm pockets of air are avoided.  The system can also be run on “dehumidifier-only” setting just to get the air drier without heating or cooling.  Noise attenuators are installed in the ducts so there’s not significant noise with the velocity.

2) Mini-Splits: These have become popular to heat or cool spaces added onto homes, instead of modifying the existing system.  They also work well for smaller open floor plans like studios and large master bedrooms.  Because there is no “ductwork” in a Mini-Split, there is little space for mold to grow in the system itself and cleaning/replacing the filter regularly goes a long way to maintaining good air quality in the space it serves. Mini-splits are a compact variety of Air Source Heat Pumps (they have heating and cooling capabilities) and are used to upgrade older apartment buildings for energy savings and comfort. 

3)  Radiant floor heating and cooling:  If you have tracked home building trends for some decades, what started as a luxury (stepping out of bed onto a warm floor instead of a cold one!) has turned into an affordable option as materials and technologies evolve.  Radiant floor heating and cooling is easiest to install in new builds, but it can also be fitted into existing homes too (see this article on retrofitting).  Radiant heat is comfortable and enveloping, does not require ducting that can harbor dust and moisture, and it's more efficient than traditional HVAC.  The radiant system does not have to use a large boiler; it can even use an on-demand system (check out this barndominium that uses an on-demand heater for floor heating).  If you like this type of heat, why not make the system you pay to install, do double duty as a cooling system too?  You can use chilled water in the same lines that use hot water, to cool your home.  Using modern humidity sensors and switches, the system can keep condensation from occurring on the floors by monitoring dewpoint conditions.  I live in the southeast US, where outside it is continually hot and muggy for 5-6 months, but a test in India gave me the confidence that radiant floor cooling is possible even in such tropical climates (go to the “Conclusion” on this page to read the details).  Here's the summary: a leading software company built one-half of a new office building with traditional forced air cooling, and one-half with radiant cooling.  “After two years the result was clear.  The radiant system had used 34% less energy when compared to the VAV system (traditional forced air).  On top of that, the initial cost was also lower in the radiant system and a survey conducted of the building’s occupants found that thermal satisfaction was higher in the section that utilized the radiant cooling system.”  Wow!

Is My Cookware Safe?

Is My Cookware Safe?

If most of your interests and hobbies lie outside the kitchen (like me), it’s likely that you may not give a lot of thought to your cookware.  “Getting the job done” doesn’t always mean getting it done safely! Here are some reasons to inspect your cookware:

  • Along with the air we breathe and water we drink, the food we eat is enormously important to our health, and what we use to prepare it is important.  Unsafe cookware can leach chemicals into the food. 
  • Cooking on a stove or oven raises temperatures above the limits of safety for many cookware materials, giving off harmful gases (VOCs) into the air, which can be breathed in by everyone in the area.

Let's start with types of universally safe cookware:

  • Cast iron: It’s a tried and true material that is the original “non-stick” surface!  When cared for properly, cast iron pans can last decades.  It even has the benefit of transferring minimal amounts of iron to your food (only a problem if you are high in iron already).  Here is how to season and maintain your cast iron cookware (it really is easier to maintain a cast-iron pan than anything else--mine stays on the stove and is used almost every day!)
  • Stainless steel:  My dad always said when we kids were pestering him, “You can’t hurt steel!”  Stainless steel gives back in durability, for sure.  It’s a great pot for boiling and simmering, and if you use appropriate amounts of oil or butter for frying, you can even cook delicate eggs without sticking.   
  • Glass: Mainly used for baking, glass is a great inert vessel, although not as durable as cast iron or stainless steel. 

Now for the questionably safe cookware materials:

  • Teflon and other non-stick coatings: Teflon is the trade name of a non-stick coating that contained PTFE (Polytetrafluoroethylene).  PTFE was made with PFOA up until 2015, when PFOA was discovered to be toxic to pet birds (and to humans).  This happens when the coating is overheated (easy to do) or scratched (also easy to do!), emitting PFCs (perfluorinated compounds) that can cause certain cancers and affect the thyroid and the immune system.    However, PTFE continues to be manufactured using chemicals similar to PFOA, which still emit PFCs.  If you are still in love with your non-stick omelet pan, I would make sure never to place it empty on a heated burner or flame (to avoid overheating), be sure to run the stovetop vent the whole time, until the pan is cooled, and of course, use utensils and cleaners that won’t scratch the coating.  
  • Coated ceramic pans:  The technology behind getting a ceramic coating on a metal pan is nanotechnology, which uses super-small particles.  This study from 2017 showed that a significant amount of titanium nanoparticles can be released when cooking slightly acidic food or accidentally scratching the pan.  Green is a color and name that has been used for decades to denote safe, people and earth-friendly materials, right?  It just really messes with our brains, then, when a product that uses green doesn’t live up to the name.  Many ceramic coated pans with nanoparticle coatings use the green color, and “GreenPans” is a manufacturer that uses 3 known toxic compounds in their pans.  You may think twice about the “green” claims of these type of pans!
  • Silicone: What!?  After Martha Stewart spent the 1990’s using SilPat baking mats, I thought that the safety of silicone cookware was unquestioned.  It comes in a ton of fun colors and is non-stick, a biggie in my book. Although the FDA says that food-grade silicone does not cause harmful chemical contamination (is safe) up to 428 degrees Fahrenheit (220 C), some recent studies show that silicone bakeware loses weight at these high temperatures.  Where does the weight go?  Into our food or the air we breathe.   “When used at temperatures above 200 deg F silicone cookware releases volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into your air and siloxanes into your food.” (Mary Caldarelli, Is Silicone Cookware Safe?)  This author does a great job of explaining how silicone cookware is made (with additives) and what is potentially harmful in it.  She is educated in environmental health and runs a very informative website.  So for now, you may consider using silicone at lower temperatures like food storage.  
  • Plastic:  Plastic cooking utensils may be tempting to bring to the potluck just in case they don't find their way back home.  But add heat to them for cooking or washing, and dangerous chemicals can find their way into your food, fast.  Among them are brominated flame retardants, which have been linked to births of low weight and size.  Water and soda bottles are also tempting to reuse (save the planet, right?) but washing in warm water can cause these to release BPA and phthalates, which are linked to cancer, infertility, cognitive and developmental problems and obesity, among other conditions.  Styrofoam take-out containers and opaque cutlery contain polystyrene, which is a possible carcinogen.  There are many more plastics out there that have similar effects.  What's the takeaway here? Plastics just don't play well with our foods!  Even though some frozen quick meals and veggies are designed to be baked or microwaved in their plastic or coated cardboard containers, you can usually take the safer route by transferring the contents to a glass container with loose-fitting lid for the microwave, or oven-safe baking container with foil. Add a splash of water to veggies and voila!  You have safer fast food (frozen lasagna is a bit hard to transfer, I'll admit)!

How to Improve Indoor Air Quality with Pets

How to Improve Indoor Air Quality with Pets

Pets are part of the family, so we just need to work smarter to keep everyone healthy even when one family member releases more allergens than all the others combined (ahem…)!   Here are the allergens we need to be aware of with pets:

  • Fur…not!  Actually, pet hair is not an allergen according to the AAFA, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.  Pet hair can carry allergens like dander, urine and saliva.  Another myth:  there is no such thing as a “hypoallergenic” pet!
  • Dander, tiny bits of skin and associated microorganisms that live on it
  • Saliva
  • Urine and feces

The AAFA have a number of suggestions to cut down on allergies associated with pets, such as removing the pet from the bedroom, and asking someone without an allergy to brush the pet outdoors and change litter boxes (some of these are more feasible than others!!)  We think that the following suggestions are the most helpful:

  • Even if you have a non-shedding pet, their dander can still be an allergen.  Invest in a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter and use it often, and use an N95 mask while doing so and afterwards.  Anyone else in the home at the time should also wear a mask during and after vacuuming, because it stirs up dander and dust from surfaces into the air.   Here are some vacuum cleaners we recommend: 
  • Brushing your furry pets definitely helps them to shed hair and dander in a controlled way (preferably outside or during bath-time!)  You can check with your vet for their recommendations, and here are some pet brushes that are above average:
    • Furminator brushes have been reviewed by many to drastically reduce loose fur flying around the house.  The website helps you choose the right brush for your dog or cat, but the products are found on many sites.
    • Hartz Groomer’s Best Combo Brush is two-sided to allow you to detangle and remove longer hair, and slick down shorter hair. 
    • Chris Christensen has a full range of dog products which allow you to shop by breed (Azawakh, anyone?)
  • Bathing dogs and cats on a regular basis helps to keep their skin and coats healthy–check with your vet for bathing frequency and products, and check out this lineup of natural dog shampoos.  After all, if you are concerned about VOCs and toxins in your personal care items, your pets deserve the same care!
  • Pet Urine and feces…happen in the house sometimes.  Apart from training them to use your toilet (yes it’s possible), cleanup is a fact of pet owner life.  Fortunately sanitizing and deodorizing cleaners have evolved and do not have to over-scent your home to neutralize the odor.  Consider moving an Air Angel unit closer to the site of the accident (or where the litter box is stationed) to eliminate any residual odors.  Here are some other options that definitely help!
    • Colorfil manufactures HVAC filters that are especially helpful to pet owners, who deal with ammonia smells and related chemicals in urine.  The filter material turns from a magenta pink when clean, to a dull yellow when dirty, due to citric acid compounds that react with contaminants.  The company began to create innovative filter systems for NASA spacesuits in 2016 and moved on cabin air filters for vehicles and HVAC filters.
    • For natural, non-toxic cleaners that remove stains and odors, check out this extensive list.
    • Cat litters are quite varied but you should consider some major toxins in this product category.  Sodium bentonite, for example, is the clumping agent used in many litters, yet it is toxic when ingested by cats.  Dust created by some clay or silica-based litter is harmful for people and cats. Here is a list of natural litters with less chemicals.    
    • Another solution to the cat litter odor problem can be used with any type of litter because of a genius invention: a litter box with air filtration!  This one by BioStrike is very sturdy and the filters require changing every 3 months. 

I think you’ll find that the “positive reinforcement” of a cleaner home and easier breathing is worth the effort when it comes to fighting pet allergens!

OH (BLANK), it’s allergy season again

OH (BLANK), it's allergy season again

To my great surprise and disgust, one can develop allergies later in life, and not only in springtime.  This was the case despite living in the same city (New Orleans) for over 12 years.  I used to be amazed at the green coating on my vehicle and washed it off weekly without any respiratory reactions, but then suddenly one March, I was aware of SPRING.  Only in hindsight (when it’s nearly impossible to counteract the raging histamines and inflammation), I realized, am I allergic to pollen?  A couple years later, the onset was in the winter after a particularly rainy period and I was overwhelmed again. 

Even staying inside during “high pollen count days” is of little comfort if your home is not armed against pollen.  Here’s what we’re talking about: neutralization and filtration.

Neutralization breaks apart contaminants, makes them less harmful, or changes them for easier removal from the air.  Neutralization with HypoAir products looks like this: the polar ions cluster around contaminants such as pollen grains and mold spores (both are allergens, as the pollen grain comes with actively pollinating plants and the mold may come during/after a wet season), causing these contaminants to become heavier and drop out of the air, or more easily filtered out of the air (next step).  

Filtration is the next key.  Fortunately, pollen grains are relatively large in diameter, 10-17 microns in size.  That means you don’t need a HEPA filter (which target particles about 2.5 microns and larger) in the HVAC system to get most of the pollen out of the air.  What we recommend is changing the HVAC filter slightly early during high pollen season, even if you don’t see a visible change in the filter.  We do continue to recommend HEPA filter vacuums (or their equivalent like the Sirena) because the pollen on the floor will be entrained with smaller particles and they all need to GO!

You also need to consider the air you let into your home.  Just because it’s allergy season, it's not necessary to padlock your windows!  This is especially true in milder climates that don’t even require air conditioning or heat for much of the year, like southern California or Hawaii.  There are several products on the market that let you leave the windows open, but keep the pollen out.  Here is an allergen-filtering window screen material that is easy to wash down and maintain.  You can replace the material in some or all of your windows with this material (many local hardware stores have services to help with this).  

Circulation/movement of air through your home is a good thing; it enables air conditioning, heat, humidification or dehumidification to work more efficiently.  If you use ceiling fans to help circulate air in your home, you can check out these filters by BioStrike.  They are applied to the top of ceiling fan blades, and customers do see a difference in their cleanliness of their fan blades and surrounding area. 


Allergens are everywhere outside, so remember when entering the house, taking off outer layers can prevent spreading the allergens around inside.  This is especially true before going to bed.  Taking a shower before bed, washing or rinsing your hair, and changing your pillowcase more frequently can prevent you from breathing in allergens at night.   Contact us at HypoAir for customized recommendations on making allergy season(s) less painful for you and your family!

Hand Sanitizer Insanity

Hand Sanitizer Insanity

I will always remember a mini sanitizer bottle with blue silicone travel strap that I tossed in the garbage in January 2020 because I hadn't even used it in the 2 years after I received it as a freebie at an event.  Talk about blowing up a product overnight!  In March of 2020, sanitizers were SOLD OUT.  We received many questions on the sanitizing effects of our air purifiers (check out the FAQ here) but hand sanitizers are here to stay.  Here is what to know about them:

  • The FDA has identified over 77 sanitizers that are unsafe to use and should be tossed out.  The main culprit is unsafe levels of methanol, which is produced during the first part of the distilling process.  
  • Other unsafe ingredients in hand sanitizers include triclosan, phthalates, fragrance, sodium laurel/laureth sulfate, and parabens.
  • Ethanol is considered the “safe” form of alcohol that is used in safe sanitizers (at a minimum of 67%), but this is also a VOC (volatile organic compound) and it causes your skin to become ultra-absorptive to more dangerous toxins, like BPA.  BPA is a chemical that’s found in paper like receipts, plastic eating and drinking containers, and it disrupts our hormones and causes 7 out of 10 hallmarks of cancer.  So if you sanitize your hands before eating, then handle a receipt for your fast food, you have effectively transferred the BPA into your skin. 
  • Some hand sanitizers use Benzalkonium Chloride (BAC) as their main sanitizing ingredient, which is considered safe up to concentrations of  0.1%.  This ingredient can be more harmful, however, to people with asthma or eczema, and is a less reliable defense against bacteria and viruses than sanitizers containing ethanol or isopropyl alcohol as their main ingredient. 
  • Hand sanitizers do not remove actual dirt, other contaminants like gasoline, and are less effective than hand-washing at removing dangerous germs like norovirus and C. difficile.  So, if you are doing certain tasks like the following, make sure to use good old-fashioned soap and water:
    • When you are exposed to stomach germs like norovirus or c. difficile
    • Before and after preparing food
    • After going to the bathroom or cleaning up any human or animal waste
    • While caring for someone who is sick
    • After handling garbage
    • Before treating wounds
    • When you have visible dirt on your hands
    • After handling animals

Here are some sanitizers you can make on your own!

  • Force of Nature is a method of making electrolyzed water, which is a completely safe and natural disinfectant that can be used for hand sanitizing and cleaning all areas in your home that can tolerate water!  They have a line of reusable bottles and travel-size sprays that are great for the environment.
  • Make your own sanitizer with aloe vera gel and essential oils 

And here are some sanitizers you can buy that have safer active ingredients such as citric acid or hydrogen peroxide: 

Do healthy, good-smelling hand-sanitizers make great little gifts?  We think so!