Monthly Archives: November 2022

The Science of Dust

The Science of Dust

Dust.  It’s not just harmless dirt that builds up on fan blades until we can’t turn the fan on any more for fear of clumps flying everywhere.  It’s a combination of skin cells, pollen, dead bugs, bacteria, soil, dander and various fibers. (iaq.works)  Dust also carries SVOCs, or semivolatile organic compounds, that are emitted from materials and products like plasticizers from plastic products and flame retardants from upholstered furniture. "Unlike VOCs, that you can smell and that warn you of their presence, SVOCs are called stealth chemicals. They are odorless, ride on dust, and are insidious underminers of our health, "  says Marilee Nelson, co-founder of Branch Basics.  (wellandgood.com)  Then, there are the dust mites, which are microscopic organisms that feed on dust.  All in all, dust is even more disgusting than it looks!

My all-time least favorite chore as a kid was dusting.  It didn’t require a load of physical exertion, so it must have been the sheer tediousness of moving the same stuff to dust around it week after week.   We used lemon-scented Endust in the 70’s and 80’s, which actually should have made me a little giddy (it had odorless mineral spirits and 1,1,1-trichloroethane with a propellant blend of butane and isopropane, of which inhaled 1,1,1-trichloroethane acts as a central nervous system depressant and can cause effects similar to those of intoxication)...yikes!  (chemeurope.com)  Why haven’t we invented a way to keep the dust off permanently?    

I guessed the answer had something to do with static electricity.  Apparently, the “mechanism of particle adhesion” works against us in allowing dust to settle on furniture and objects in our homes.  According to Keyence.com, producer of static eliminators and ionizers, “When dust is carried on air currents generated by air conditioning and similar devices, the dust takes on a positive or negative static electric charge due to contact with various objects. Dust that has a positive electric charge will be attracted to objects that have a negative electric charge, and vice versa. The greater the amount of dust in the air, the larger the amount of dust that clings to objects within the room.

Also, if sources of dust (mainly people and clothing) are electrically charged, the dust that is generated from these sources is electrically charged as well. This attractive force generated by static electricity is known as “Coulomb force.” 

The solution to particle adhesion is to eliminate the static electricity from the object’s surface and from the air up to a few millimeters from the object’s surface.  This is easy to do using a static eliminator, which charges the air with ions.  This removes the static charge from the particles and prevents them from reattaching.  There are also lots of “anti-static” polishes on the market, however, their toxic ingredients may or may not be disclosed.

Also, the answer to dusting less also has to do with humidity.  Humidity does not reduce the literal amount of dust in your home; instead, humidity causes dust particles to adhere to one another, making them too heavy to travel through the air. Thus, dust particles are still present in your home, but the ideal humidity level makes dust particles quicker to settle and easier to clean.  

In addition, when the indoor humidity level is between 40 and 60%, dust mites are unable to thrive and spread. Dust mites prefer extremely humid atmospheres because they absorb moisture from the air in order to survive.

So, apparently there are two things that tend to keep dust (and dust mites) down to manageable levels: ionized air and the right humidity.  We fully endorse both!  Most of the HypoAir air purifying products include a bi-polar ionizer, which has the capability to kill germs at a distance by attacking them with the same ions that control the dust.  We also like to talk about keeping your home at the right humidity to fight mold growth and germ dispersion.  It’s a win-win!

With ionization and the right humidity in place, getting rid of the remaining dust should be manageable.  Cleaning experts give these tips to get the most out of your cleaning tools and time:

Get rid of feather dusters and dry cotton cloths, because they are simply flinging the dust into the air.  Also, don’t use damp cotton cloths, because they leave streaks of dust behind.  The best tool is a microfiber cloth (again, microfiber is better at holding a slight “charge” to attract dust) and your favorite all-purpose cleaner, like one of the following: 

  • HypoAir’s TotalClean, a non-toxic multi-purpose cleaner you can use throughout your home

  • Force of Nature, a non-toxic hypochlorous cleaner that can sanitize or disinfect surfaces depending on the concentration

  • Branch Basics, a non-toxic plant and mineral based cleaner

For wood surfaces, you can add some drops of a non-damaging essential oil to the spray bottle, so that wood surfaces don’t dry out and retain a nice shine. Orange oil is great for this purpose.  Since many ingredients are not disclosed on commercial dusting sprays, it may be tempting to make your own DIY dusting spray, and there are lots of recipes on the internet.  However, look at the ingredients closely, because vinegar is a key ingredient in many recipes, and it can damage many surfaces in your home.  

If an area has more dust than usual, or to avoid switching cleaning cloths too often, you can use your HEPA vacuum cleaner with a soft head attachment to “pre-dust”.  Of course, standalone HEPA filters running part-time or full-time will cut down on a lot of dust.  

Keeping the dust down in your home can lead to less allergies, sickness, and over time, better overall health because of the way ultra-fine particles can penetrate our lungs and migrate to different areas in the body.  With the right conditions (ionized air and the right humidity) and tools (microfiber cloths, non-toxic cleaners and a HEPA vacuum), regular dusting can be manageable, kind of like flossing your teeth.  Reveal the beautiful side of your home and get dusting!

Photo by Austin Ban on Unsplash

Cleaning vs. Sanitizing vs. Disinfecting: There is a Difference

Cleaning vs. Sanitizing vs. Disinfecting: There is a Difference

Hold on, we’re going to break some common misconceptions in this post!

Misconception #1: What room do you think is the dirtiest (germiest) part of your house?  

Most people said that it is the bathroom (in a study of 22 families), but in reality, it is THE KITCHEN.  Coliform bacteria –indicating possible fecal contamination—was found on: (from the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers)

More than 75% of dish sponges and rags

45% of kitchen sinks

32% of countertops

18% of cutting boards

Overall, the 10 germiest items in the household, listed in order, are:

  • Dish sponges/rags

  • Kitchen sink

  • Toothbrush holders

  • Pet bowls

  • Coffee reservoir:  (NSF’s 2011 International Household Germ Study found yeast and mold present in 31% of households studied. In half of those, it was found in the coffee reservoir of the coffeemaker.)

  • Bathroom faucet handle

  • Pet toys

  • Countertops

  • Stove knobs: Staphyloccus aureus (staph), a common and potentially harmful type of bacteria,was found on stove knobs in 5% of the homes where the bacteria was discovered.

  • Cutting boards

Misconception #2: In the US, we tend to use the words cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting interchangeably, but they really are not the same!  

Many people use vinegar to clean because it is a “natural” non-toxic product, but it does not sanitize.  “It’s a misconception that if you’re using vinegar to clean, you’re sanitizing,” says Mindy Costello, a registered environmental health sanitarian and the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) consumer product certification specialist. “Cleaning is just removing the soil. In sanitizing, you’re killing the microorganisms (bacteria, viruses and fungi).” If you want to reduce your risk of getting sick, sanitizing is the way to go. (Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers)  Sanitization reduces contamination or bacteria to a safe level.

Now, if you really want to go all-out, disinfection kills everything on a particular surface, according to Travers Anderson, R&D Group Manager at Clorox.  

Now that you know what cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting are, where and when should they be used?

According to Mr. Anderson at Clorox, sanitizing is best for surfaces that don't typically come into contact with hazardous bacteria, or those that shouldn't come into contact with powerful chemicals: Think cooking tools and food prep surfaces or toys that children come into close contact with (or put into their mouths). Disinfecting is for the big messes, particularly those involving bodily fluids, blood, and the like. In household settings, you'd disinfect a toilet or sinks. (realsimple.com)  

Sanitizing can be done with a cleaning product, or with appliances that have this built-in feature, like a dishwasher or washing machine.  These appliances do so with high heat during the cycle.  It’s important to use these cycles to sanitize your laundry and dishes regularly, especially clothes and dishes worn and used by people who are ill. Sanitize high-contact surfaces regularly, and do dishes as soon as possible, as bacteria begins to grow after about two hours on soiled dishes left at room temperature according to Ms. Costello of the NSF.

Dishwashers and washing machines are tested by the NSF to ensure their sanitizing cycles are faultless.  Clothes washers must show that the sanitizing cycle removes 99.9% of microorganisms from laundry and dishwashers must show a reduction of 99.999%. During testing, three common organisms – staphyloccus aureus, klebsiella pneumoniae, and pseudomonas aeruginosa – are added to the loads of dishes or laundry. The level of bacteria is tested afterward. The water in dishwashers that earn the NSF mark for sanitization must reach 150 degrees Fahrenheit during the final rinse and stay at or above that temperature long enough to achieve the 99.999 % reduction.

The sanitizing cycle doesn’t need to be used on every load of clothing, however, because the high heat can cause colors to fade and fibers to wear over time.  It’s a good idea to use it when laundering clothing or bedding from someone who’s sick, or when washing sweaty clothing, or when towels or clothing smell musty–indicating mold growth.  (realsimple.com)

To sanitize sponges and dishrags, heat them in the microwave for two minutes while they’re wet.  

As for cleaning products, we are all for non-toxic ones.  TotalClean is an all-purpose cleaner and deodorizer that is safe to use in all areas of the home, from the kitchen to the bathroom to your childrens’ toys.  It hasn’t been tested according to the EPA’s requirements for sanitizing and disinfection yet, so we recommend it for cleaning purposes and will advise when these tests are completed!  

Bleach is a sanitizer at low concentrations and a disinfectant at higher concentrations.  However, bleach has toxic VOCs and we don’t recommend it.  Instead, try hypochlorous acid.  Even though it sounds toxic and it’s related to bleach (hypochlorite), hypochlorous is much safer as well as being a far superior disinfectant to bleach.  One of the most fundamental reasons for this is its pH. Hypochlorous acid exists at a near-neutral pH (5-7). Bleach resides at a highly-alkaline pH (8-13). The germ-killing properties of bleach are derived from the presence of hypochlorous acid. However, because of its high pH, the majority of the hypochlorous acid present in bleach ends up getting converted to hypochlorite, which is a less effective disinfectant.  (hypsosource.com)

Here’s something else you may not know: the dirtier the surface is, the less effective the disinfectant is. (sfgate.com)  Switching from using bleach to hypochlorous as a sanitizer is not complicated at all, but it may mean you need to adjust some of your cleaning protocols. For example, cleaning the area with regular soap and water first to remove the bulk of organic material present allows your sanitizer (hypochlorous acid) to disinfect much more effectively. Otherwise, the chlorine in the hypochlorous gets used up trying to break down the organic matter, instead of focusing on killing the more resilient pathogens. (hypsosource.com)  

If you aren’t convinced, check out the following table.   It shows that hypochlorous needs less concentration (parts per million or ppm) and less contact time than bleach to do the same or better job at disinfection!

Source: hypsosource.com

Now that you know about hypochlorous acid, check out the following disinfectants::

  • Force of Nature is a multi-purpose cleaner & EPA registered disinfectant that kills 99.9% of germs. It’s even EPA approved for use against Covid-19.  Best of all, you can easily make more cleaner at home with their small countertop appliance plus a capsule of salt, water & vinegar.  No bulky plastic bottles to tote home or try to recycle!  Force of Nature is hypochlorous acid, a powerful disinfectant.

  • Clean Republic’s All Purpose Cleaner is also hypochlorous acid, and it comes pre-mixed in 3 small spray bottles for $15.  The size of the bottles mean that you can carry them in your car or stash them in small spaces to use whenever and wherever you need to!  

  • Cleanwell Botanical Disinfectant Cleaning Wipes are also a great on-the-go disinfector.  They use Thymol, which is a component of botanical thyme oil that was approved in 2020 by the EPA as an effective disinfectant against SARS-CoV2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It also disinfects bacteria and viruses including MRSA, Salmonella, H1N1, Influenza A, Staph, E-Coli, Norovirus, Rhinovirus, and more. The thyme scent is very pleasant.

  • The Honest Company Disinfecting Spray uses hydrogen peroxide to clean, disinfect, and deodorize while meeting EPA’s criteria for products effective against SARS-CoV-2 and a laundry list of other germs. If you’re familiar with hydrogen peroxide, it’s one of our favorite non-toxic cleaners that you can safely use on food surfaces and children’s items.  However, it can be a bit harsh, etching marble and granite, it shouldn’t be mixed with vinegar, and can discolor fabrics.

Disinfecting shouldn’t require heavy gloves, eye protection and a respirator! Knowledge is power, and you CAN disinfect without smelly, toxic chemicals.  It’s just a matter of changing your mindset and your tools (cleaning products), so that it’s easy to do.  Breathe easier knowing that your home is clean AND disinfected, the non-toxic way! 

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

How Vestibules and Foyers make your home healthier

How Vestibules and Foyers make your home healthier

In the US, not many people would say they have a “vestibule” in their home.  Vestibule is defined as an empty space or small area located just inside the entrance to a building. This sectioned-off area has the main purpose of serving as a passage from the entryway to another, usually larger, interior area of a house or building. Vestibules are used as welcoming areas, reception areas, and wait spaces. Often, people may be able to hang their coat and take off their shoes in this space. (study.com) Oh!  You may say, that’s a  foyer.  And, although there are some small differences between the two, they share much of the same functions. 

Besides serving as a transition space from the indoors to the outdoors, architects also know that the vestibule serves two other functions: to block the view of the main interior from outside and create privacy, and to control the exchange of heat between outside and the interior of a building.   In terms of air quality, now we’re getting somewhere.  It’s very useful for the comfort and cleanliness of your home to have a foyer (vestibule) for the ability to:

  1. Stop dust and mold from coming into your home by having a place to take off your outside shoes and coat (see our article on how to bring less contaminants into your home)

  2. Stop heat or cool air from flowing right on out of the house, and preventing the same from coming in (plus unwanted humidity)!

The best designs incorporate 2 sets of doors, one on the exterior and one on the interior, with enough space between them for one set to be closed.  Meaning–you can walk into the foyer, close the door, take off your shoes and coat comfortably, and proceed into the house through the interior doors.  This truly makes the foyer a “buffer zone” for your clean, climatized home.  (In businesses, guess what they invented to take up less space?  Revolving doors!  Because each section of the revolving door can be closed off while you rotate it, they really function as mini-foyers).  Mudrooms are also a type of vestibule, and their name says it all– a place to leave the mud before entering the house!  (hunker.com)  

Now that you see the purposes of the foyer or vestibule, it’s less likely that you’ll think of them as “wasted space”.  Your foyer can be elegant and grand, or simple and cozy, because it’s a “first impression” for your home.  What if you don’t have a foyer, but now you want one?  Well, of course it’s possible to renovate and put in doors, lighting, etc., but you can also “carve” out this space by using furniture and decor to give it some of the same style and function without actually having a separate room.  Simply searching for “how to create a foyer when you don't have one” brings up a ton of good ideas, some of the best of which are: (from architecturaldigest.com)

  1. Add hanging hooks and a bench, for guest coats and removing shoes. 

  2. Bring in extra storage, like a classic armoire, if you would rather not look at a pile of coats and shoes!

  3. For style, add a rug, a statement light fixture, and a small console table (the better to hide away your mail!).  Also consider adding a mirror and wall decor.  

  4. Add germ protection: Germ Defenders and Air Angels are small, discreet sanitizers that can destroy pathogens brought in from outside before they enter the rest of your home.  Plug one in and basically forget about it--just enjoy the clean air!

  5. If your front door just opens into your living space with no entryway at all, you could add a pretty folding screen to create some separation. (clutter.com)  Better yet, make a wall of plants that will not only enjoy the light coming in if you have a window or glass door, they will also filter air pollution and particulates coming in from outside!

Source: Amazon.com

You can also turn your open-ended foyer into a semi-closed one without installing doors.  You could opt for installing some beautiful insulated drapes on the open end for climate control, which can be tied back when you have a large influx of guests or furniture coming through.  Plus–they look very elegant!  Another option that is becoming super-popular are magnetically-closing fabric or plastic doors.  Because they are easy to pass through and self-closing, they can be great for kids, those with disabilities, or to section off your foyer or mud-room.  Clear plastic doors are nice because they don’t block the view, but beware of those made with EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate).  EVA is a safer alternative to PVC, but some EVA contains formamide.  Formamide is used to make the foam soft, but it’s considered to be carcinogenic and a developmental toxin that can be absorbed through the skin. If you’re considering purchasing one of these doors made from EVA, it’s best to contact the manufacturer to ask if their product contains formamide. (hellonaturalliving.com)

“Air curtains” or “Air doors” used to be features only found in restaurants or businesses like grocery stores.  You know–it’s that blast of air that greets you from above when you open the door!  Now, they are available for homes in a 36” width, so even a modest home can use this energy-saving feature (it becomes more important as the temperature difference between inside and outside increases).  Here is a diagram of how this device helps you keep your building envelope more intact while including doors. 

(Source: learnmetrics.com)

According to Berner, a longtime manufacturer of air curtains, air from the room is accelerated by the unit’s fans, then directed through a plenum for even distribution along the full length of the nozzle.  Airfoil shaped vanes in the nozzle reduce turbulence so you get a smooth flow of air.  In addition to conserving your indoor environment, air curtains also reduce flies, mosquitos, yellowjackets, and bees inside because these small insects find the air stream too powerful for them to fly through and if they try, they are blown down or sideways before they can enter the building.  Because of their design, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) Standard 90.1-2019 and the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) building code allows AMCA certified air curtains as alternatives to vestibules in commercial spaces that are required to have vestibules.  The most important specs to check before purchasing an air curtain are airflow, noise level, power, and available width.  Read this article to learn about the top air curtains for the home.  

For more inspiration, this gallery of 50 stunning entryways will make you want to bring back the “grandeur” to your entrance, and may help you figure out how to do it with pieces of furniture and decor that you already have!  

Photo by Eddy Billard on Unsplash

Q: Do Air Handlers Belong in the Attic?

Q: Do Air Handlers Belong in the Attic?

A: It depends!

(Don’t you love that answer?!)  Every one’s home is different, as well as where their home is built (climate), so there aren’t hard and fast rules, but we can surely show you the pros and cons of putting your air handler in the attic.

First of all, an air handler is part of a split system central AC unit.  In these systems, there are two distinct parts: one contains the condenser that changes the refrigerant from a gas to a liquid to release the heat from inside the house (the condenser is usually located outside), and a second part that contains the evaporator (which absorbs heat from the house air) and a blower to move air through ductwork to different rooms.  This second part is called the air handler and because it’s not super quiet and can take up a good amount of space, many people install their air handler in the attic.

The attic may or may not be a good location for your air handler.  Here’s how to know: is your attic conditioned, or unconditioned?  Conditioned attics are considered part of the building envelope and they are insulated.  Conditioned attics don’t have to be “finished” per se with drywall and nice flooring, but they do need to be air-sealed from the outdoors.  Air handlers CAN belong in conditioned attics. 

Unconditioned attics (also called vented attics) are exposed to exterior temperatures through ridge vents, gable vents, soffit vents or powered vents.  There is no “air conditioning” so humidity, dust, insects and extremely high or low temperatures are all present in an unconditioned attic.  Air handlers DO NOT belong in unconditioned attics.  Why?  

  • For one, the air handler is responsible for moving the air you breathe, and even a small leak in it or the ductwork will pull humid, dusty, unconditioned air from the attic into your home.  
  • Extreme temperatures cause your air handler to work less efficiently, which translates to higher heater and cooling costs.  
  • The air handler is an expensive piece of equipment that can cost thousands of dollars; to minimize breakdowns and maximize its life, it’s best to place it in a clean, moderated environment!
  • Accessing and crawling around a dirty, dusty attic makes routine maintenance or needed repair work more difficult.
  • If the condensate drain plugs up and overflows the pan under the unit, guess where that water will go?  Onto and through your ceiling!

“Conditioned space” in your home costs money, because it is part of the square footage that realtors count when valuing your home.  For this reason, homeowners and many builders prefer to stick the air handler “out of sight and out of mind” in the attic or worse, in an unconditioned crawl space.  Now that you know better, if you have the opportunity, give your air handler an “upgraded” installation spot in your home.  Here are some tips for finding that spot:

  • The air handler should be centrally located in the home in order to minimize ductwork run lengths to all rooms.
  • Closets are better than the attic, but without enough room to do maintenance on your unit, small closets are not ideal.  Without room to walk or reach around the unit, HVAC technicians will have a hard time making good sealed connections with ductwork, and if anything needs repair, it takes longer to do it, possibly requiring removal of the whole unit.

It’s tough to understand how this air handler and ductwork were installed in such a small space.  (Source: energyvanguard.com)

  • A large utility space is ideal.  You will not want carpet or hardwood below the unit, so that any water leaks can be cleaned up easily.  Good lighting also makes it easier for you to check on the unit from time to time, and to change any filters.  

When replacing your air conditioning unit, we hope you will give serious thought on where to locate the new air handler.  Giving it preferential space inside your home will give you quality air for years to come.  It’s important, however, to make sure that:

  • This room or large closet has its own air supply and return, because when air gets sealed behind closed doors (and you will want to close the door to isolate the unit acoustically), mold can develop.  This can be accomplished by placing a grille in the return of the air handler, and placing a supply grill in the wall or through the ceiling with a “jump duct”. This article from renowned building scientist Joe Lstiburek shows the flaws of different locations and how to overcome ventilation issues.
  • Locating an air handler next to a gas appliance such as a gas hot water heater can be problematic, unless it is a “sealed combustion” unit.  The air handler will cause the room to be under slight negative pressure while the fan is on, which can affect combustion and venting of the water heater.  
  • If your furnace is a gas furnace, you’ll need to make sure it also gets adequate combustion air.

If you can’t bring it inside your building envelope, you may consider a unit that doesn’t require big air handlers–namely, mini-split units.  One external compressor/condenser can supply several indoor units (evaporators), which are typically hung on the wall, with only small refrigerant and drain lines running between the inside and outside.  Where there’s a will, there’s usually a way!


Healthy Home Chores that deserve a pat on the back

Healthy Home Chores that deserve a pat on the back

It seems like it’s been an extreme year; at times either it is way too hot or unseasonably cold; you may be getting too much rainfall or not enough.  What is our protection from all the elements?  Our homes!  Whether you’re renting or own your house, it’s smart to take care of our homes so that they will continue to protect us.  

There are a number of chores that just need to be placed on a schedule so they don’t pile up and cause problems, but when you get them done, give yourself a pat on the back or another healthy reward!   Here are some of them:

  • Evict pests. Although I don’t want to think of any animal being “homeless”, there are definitely animals I don’t want living near my house.  If you walk around your house, look for holes in the ground, nests near the ground or in the soffits (look up!), under decks and behind bushes.  Here is a fun flow-chart to understand what kind of animal made the holes (get the kids involved and soon you’ll find more holes than you knew existed!)  Why evict pests?  Groundhogs, for example, can make large holes that undermine foundations; mice and rats can carry diseases and fleas that can affect you and your pets, and of course stinging insects like yellowjackets (they live in underground nests that can be massive)  inflict pain and inflammation and make it harder to do the next job!  There are safe ways to get rid of all of them, but if you’re afraid to do it yourself, you can call a professional exterminator. 

  • Cleaning the gutters.  It’s a messy chore that can be dangerous for people with mobility problems, so if you can’t easily climb a ladder or feel uncomfortable doing it, hire a professional.  Why?  Leaves and debris building up in the gutters impede water flow, causing water to back up and overflow against your roofline and soffits, or splash over and against your house, causing rot.  Clogged gutters can also cause ice dams in the winter, a phenomenon that causes ice to creep up underneath your shingles, eventually remelting and making your attic wet! Wet debris also makes gutters drastically heavier, putting more strain on anchor points so that they’re eventually not able to be supported and fall down. If the downspouts get clogged, sometimes it’s not easy to clean them out!   There are gutter guard products that can keep most of the debris out of your gutters, but no product is perfect and will eventually require cleaning.   The other important thing to do while cleaning gutters is to inspect for rot or water intrusion along the roofline and siding, and check the condition of your roof, so that any damage can be repaired before major water intrusion causes mold issues.  Check for stinging insect nests (wasps, bees, hornets) from below before you go up on a ladder, so that you can disable them before they disable you!

  • Clear away dead wood, leaves and trash.  Of course, lawn mowing and fun in the backyard can’t happen with downed limbs and sticks in the way, and more importantly, dead wood and leaves promote termites.  If you have garbage service, you can find out which days they will pick up yard debris; if not, haul them to a more wooded section of your property where they can safely decay.  Trash and broken furnishings are invitations for mold, crawly pests and mosquitoes to take residence, so put on some gloves and haul it all to the curb or to the dump!

  • Clean windows.  I never thought of it this way, but clean windows = a clean bill of health.  Here are some of the nasty stuff that can cling to your windows outside and even affect your indoor air quality (source: Fish Window Cleaning):

    • Bird Droppings - Contact with bird excrement, which can carry up to 60 diseases, can lead to many diseases.

    • Mold and Mildew - These fungi are often found inside homes, but they can also thrive on windows. Mold and mildew exposure can aggravate respiratory allergies as well as chronic respiratory conditions like asthma.

    • Pollen - Pollen can accumulate on window panes and sills, contributing to the sneezing, eye irritation and congestion often associated with pollen allergy - even when indoors!

    • Dust - Windows can accumulate plenty of dust - and worse - dust mites. Dust mites are microscopic, insect-like pests that love dirty windows and can cause respiratory issues and allergic reactions because of their feces, which may create airborne health hazards.

  • Clean mold off sidewalks, decking, siding and landscaping: older homes that are not sealed tightly will have more air flowing into the house, even when doors and windows are closed.  Do you want it to be clean, fresh air, or air that has passed over mold growing on the side and perimeter of the house?  There are safe ways to wash it off, and it’s also necessary to trim overgrown bushes and trees so that the areas around the home can dry out and not harbor mold.  Mold can also grow on mulch, and raking your mulch regularly allows it to dry out and receive fresh air which prevents mold from growing.  Try to set a regular schedule for watering your plants too, because if you are watering your plants everyday, your mulch is wet every day. That means you are helping to create the perfect damp environment for mold to grow on your mulch. Instead, try to water your plants once or twice per week to give your mulch time to dry out. (calblendsoils.com)

Indoors, there are jobs that go beyond “spring cleaning” because they don’t produce the satisfying visual results of a clean floor…yet are oh-so-important to keep up the health of your home.

  • Clean your kitchen exhaust vent.  I know, the grease is gross but that’s why you need to do it–especially if your vent is recirculating air back into your kitchen!  Some filters can be placed directly into your dishwasher–let the machine do the work!  If it’s one that is a simple stainless steel mesh, you can order a new filter and toss the old one. Other safe ways to clean the filter are to use salt, baking soda and vinegar (check out this short video) or baking soda and dish detergent (here’s the tutorial).  Both of these methods require really hot water because melting the grease off the filter takes the least effort.

  • Clean out the refrigerator.  If you like to throw things away (it is oddly satisfying), cleaning the fridge is probably not a bad chore!  Clean shelves and good organization are nice little paybacks at the end.  Although one website says that the crispers and meat storage bins should be cleaned once a week(!), I think it’s more realistic to aim for 4 times a year.  Realsimple.com gives a good game plan on when and how to clean it.  If you find that you need some extra organization bins to help keep it clean and organized check these out (8 for $23). While you are in the cleaning mood, cleaning the refrigerator coils will help your fridge to last longer and cool more efficiently (check out our tips here). 

  • Dust the vents.  If you dust your vents weekly, bravo!  (apparently you and Martha Stewart are on the same schedule).  If not, use the soft head on your vacuum cleaner extension to suck up dust before it gets airborne with the next blast from your air conditioning or heating.  

  • Clean the fans.  Fans (ceiling and portable) are really important to keep air circulating in your house.  Air circulation prevents mold by causing excess moisture to evaporate from soft furnishings instead of settling into it.  Air circulation also prevents stale air pockets in your home, aiding air conditioning and heating.   Finally, air circulation helps dilute VOCs and pollutants from inside your home, so that you are less affected by them.  For all these reasons, it’s important to keep your fans clean!  If you have ceiling fans with a normal height ceiling (8-10 feet), then try this ceiling fan blade cleaner instead of getting up on a ladder.   If you use it every other week or so, you can keep your fans clean without having to break out the ladder, soap and water.   If you are not so diligent and the dust is pretty thick, you can try this trick from bobvila.com: take an old pillowcase and slip it over one blade to catch the majority of dust while you move it off the blade, then use a damp microfiber cloth to finish the job.  

  • Clean the dishwasher.   Dishwashers are, unfortunately, a great place for mold to grow: you got warmth (check), water (check) and air (check).  Given these optimal mold breeding grounds, the dishwasher needs deep cleaning every once in a while (like, at least once a year) to keep your dishes sanitized and looking their best.    Here’s a video on how to do it.

  • Clean the washer and dryer.  Laundry rooms can get pretty dirty and dusty, considering that all the dirty clothing of the household passes through them every few days!  Cleaning the tops of these appliances will give you a visual boost, but keep going.  Take time to wipe the seals with sanitizing or disinfecting sprays and cloths (check out our non-toxic list here) and run a full load of laundry in your washer on the hottest setting with EC3 Laundry Additive to get the mold out (a non-toxic bleach alternative).  Make sure to disconnect and clean the dryer vent at least once a year to prevent lint from building up–it’s a fire hazard!

  • Get your chimney cleaned.  If you have used your fireplace in the last few years but not cleaned the chimney, don’t wait til the snow comes down to worry about whether it needs cleaning!  A professional service will also check the damper at the bottom so that it will seal off when you’re not using it, and the guards at the top of the chimney to prevent critters from coming inside.

Of course, we know there are zillion things that can keep you from accomplishing these cleaning chores, but there are ways to lighten the load: make a deal with your best friend (my house this week, your house next week!), good music, and setting one goal at a time are just some of the tips we recommend for any de-cluttering or cleaning job.  Then, there is the “having guests” incentive: guests are a sure motivator, provided you invite people often enough!    Finally, but most importantly, these jobs are all part of maintaining a healthy home, and it’s a good feeling to know that you and your family are breathing clean air and using clean appliances.  Keep up the good work!

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Wait–I thought mold was only a problem during the summer!

Wait–I thought mold was only a problem during the summer!

When humidity levels in your home plummet during the winter months due to dry outside air and even more drying heated air inside, it’s easy to think that mold could not possibly be a problem during the winter.  We’re sorry to have to debunk that myth, but sadly mold is a year-round problem!  It flourishes in environments between 60 and 80 degrees and can grow wherever moisture or humidity is present. It’s a problem in the winter because it can grow in your walls and attic, places where it’s hard to detect. (Maryland HVAC company Griffith Energy Services)

Why does mold occur during the winter and where does it get the moisture to grow?  The answers lie in temperature differentials and air leaks.  Warm air that escapes the building envelope can cause condensation when it hits a cold surface (heat energy travels from hot to cold areas).  The worst part is that many of these unregulated “meeting places” of warm air and cold surfaces are deep inside your walls, attic, basement or crawlspace, going undetected for months until it becomes a BIG problem.  Here are some specific problematic places:

  • Do you have ice dams on your roof?  Ice dams occur near the bottom edge of a roof, and they are formed when snow melts on the roof above your attic (usually due to missing or insufficient insulation), runs down the roof to the edge and refreezes, causing a buildup of ice at the edge of the roof.  The ice can even force its way underneath shingles and sheathing, and when it reaches the attic space, will melt again and “rain” in your attic!  The condensation can drip onto insulation, run down into cavities, and cause a lot of mold.  It’s quite a damaging problem in any climate that can get freezing weather and precipitation; even just a dusting of snow can form an ice dam.  Plugged gutters that fill up and freeze can also form ice dams if they are too close to the roofline.  Here’s the “anatomy” of an ice dam:

Source: icedamcompany.com

  • Plumbing pipes that run through poorly insulated walls can create a cold surface on which warm air from the home can condense. 
  • Glass is not a great insulator; a single-pane window will have an R-value of 1 and the standard double-pane window will have an R-value of 2 (see our article on insulation for an explanation of  R-values).  Warm air inside condenses on that cold glass, and condensation that runs down windows can pool on the wooden jambs and framework, allowing mold to grow. 
  • The basement is another place where there is often high humidity, and windows, steel doors and penetrating pipes can be cold surfaces on which condensation will form, which mold loves.  

How can your dry indoor air hold so much water vapor to make condensation?  It doesn’t seem possible until you consider the dewpoint.  It’s true, air at 50% relative humidity does not have enough moisture to sustain mold growth.  The answer lies in the dewpoint of that air.  Check out this fun dew point calculator (well, I think it’s fun and incredibly useful!)  Make sure that the little blue dot is set to solve “dew point” and the units are set to deg F (or deg C if you are used to Celsius).  Now, use the little sliders to adjust the temperature and humidity to your normal indoor environment (get one of our humidity sensors if you don’t have one!), and watch how the dew point changes.  For example, 75 degF at 50% relative humidity = 55 degF dew point.  That means that any surface below 55 degF can cause water vapor to condense out of your “dry” air!  If you put your hand on a single pane glass window when it’s snowing or freezing outside and warm inside, I’m sure you’ll agree this could be a potential problem.

How can we prevent winter mold?

Look up and pay attention to your ceilings, upper stories and attics.  Since heat rises, it makes sense that the warm air from your home may cause the most problems in your upper parts of your home where warm meets cold.  Humid air will accumulate in the upper areas of your home right along with the heat.   Bring your humidity sensor upstairs (if you have a 2nd story on your home) and note the increase. 

  • Seal around can light fixtures and other openings in the ceiling. 
  • Cathedral ceilings are especially prone to mold, because the heat and humidity rise high in your home and hit the roofline (typically there are no attics above cathedral ceilings) that may be poorly insulated.  (Check out these videos by a mold restoration company in Kansas City).  If you replace your roof, consider increasing insulation in cathedral ceilings either by spray foam, or adding rigid foam boards above the sheathing.  Here’s an article by a building science expert on how to install rigid foam boards in roofing.
  • Make sure ceiling fans are moving counter-clockwise during the heating season, to draw warm air down.  
  • Seal the attic stair hatch (if you have a collapsible attic stairway) with a zippered or velcroed containment like this one, which can also save money on your heating bill.  If you have an attic access that is simply a hole cut in your ceiling with trim and loose-fitting plywood or drywall above it that you lift up to get into the attic, try to find a way to add weight to the piece of drywall or plywood (so it sits down snugly) and seal the edges with foam weatherstripping so that gaps don’t let air through.

Mold sometimes forms in plain sight during the winter.  Often bedrooms that are not used are closed off from the rest of the house, but lack of ventilation can be a recipe for mold.  It’s best to open the door and turn on a fan in the room to prevent mold growth on cold corners and walls.  Be vigilant to check north-facing walls, corners and closets, as these can be the coldest in your home.  If you discover mold in a closet, check out our article (see #6) for tips on keeping it mold-free once it’s been cleaned. 

If you have single-pane windows, you don’t necessarily have to replace them to “up” their insulation or R-value and avoid the condensation that can lead to mold.  Here are a couple of solutions:

  • Insulated drapes can prevent warm air from hitting cold windows–just make sure they go all the way to the windowsill or floor and fit closely along the sides, to make a “seal”. 
  • There is conflicting evidence whether window films (that are cut and fit to “cling” to the glass of your window) and shrink-fit window insulation actually reduce condensation on your windows.  This article by an Australian company brings up two important points: that radiant energy will still flow through the window film, and the air-tight seal required for the shrink-fit system to work will seal moisture into the space between the window and film (not good).  If condensation is a problem on your windows, it’s not clear whether these two solutions will work. 
  • Indows” are inserts that fit inside your windows (how clever is that name!).  They are custom made from measurements you provide and fit snugly against the frame with compression seals and are supposed to increase the R-value of single pane windows to 94% of double-pane windows.  This short video shows a customer measuring and fitting his new Indow.

Even if you don’t plan to replace siding on your home, there are companies that can increase your exterior wall insulation in discreet ways so that mold doesn’t form inside walls.  It may be possible to add insulation between the studs by either removing a layer of siding at the middle or top of the first floor, or drilling through the interior wall.  Then loose fill or spray foam can be blown into the cavity, and the siding replaced or the hole patched.  (attainablehome.com)  Loose fill can be sheeps wool, cellulose, fiberglass, hemp, cork or a mixture of agricultural products, like ClimaCell.

Make sure you check the basement regularly to ensure that everything is dry, so that you won’t be surprised by mold.  We have a lot of tips on preventing mold in the basement in this article

Finally, suit up with some warm layers and take a walk around your house to see where cold air might be seeping in from the outside.  Evidence of animal intrusion, missing siding, fiberglass insulation peeking out, missing shingles, and exterior mold or rot are all areas to address.  Don’t let dry winter air fool you, because unregulated “meeting places” of warm air and cold surfaces can produce moldy consequences!


Could you improve your breathing?

Could you improve your breathing?

From singers to athletes to the elderly with COPD to the young affected by asthma, there are millions of people who desire to breathe better.  Thankfully, doctors and scientists have studied the respiratory system for a long time and invented some pretty cool non-drug treatments and methods that can really improve the quality of your breathing.  We’ve written an article on How to have clear sinuses; this article focuses more on other ways to breathe better, including methods, exercises and devices.  

Wim Hof is a Dutchman, nicknamed “Iceman” who has become famous for doing unnatural feats like swimming under arctic ice running barefoot in ice and snow.  He claims that his breathing techniques will lead to tangible health benefits: more energy, lowered stress levels and an improved immune system. Breathe properly, Hof claims, and oxygen levels in the tissues increase and adrenaline floods the body, granting strength that we didn’t know we had.(discovermagazine.com)  It also allows him to have control over fears that adverse situations (like plunging into cold water) initiates.    While the researchers still have no solid theory as to why breathing and cold exposure seem to dampen immune activity, they suggest that the release of adrenaline during such breathing plays a role. The spike in adrenaline was linked to increased levels of an anti-inflammatory protein, and decreased levels of proteins, called cytokines, responsible for signaling the immune system.  Some followers of Hof were tested and found to have less inflammation, fever and nausea after being injected with an inflammatory agent during their breathing routines, than others who did not perform the techniques.   There have been other breathing techniques like the Valsalva Maneuver (used to clear an ear blockage, clear a heart arrhythmia, or get rid of the hiccups) and Lamaze, which increases tolerance to pain and aids relaxation.  Knowing that breathing and specifically, holding your breath produces (at least temporary) physiological body changes, regular practices may produce longer term benefits.  Here is a beginner’s video tutorial on Hof’s breathing method (10 minutes).  Whether you choose to use these changes to dive into icy waters or just enjoy life with less stress and illness, is up to you!  For more information about deep breathing techniques and benefits, check out our article here

Exercising devices

If you’ve ever had a lung infection or had to do a breathing test, the doctor may have handed you a bulky plastic device with a tube called a spirometer. This device assesses how well your lungs work by measuring how much air you inhale, how much you exhale and how quickly you exhale. (mayoclinic.org)  It’s economical, for sure, as there are no electronics involved.  However, it’s not very portable for anyone who has a busy lifestyle and wants to continue treatment and strengthening.  This is where a plethora of newer (literally) hand-held devices come in.  Some exercise your inhalation muscles (inspiratory), some exercise your exhalation (expiratory) and some do both.  Besides lowering stress and improving athletic performance, doing 30 breaths per day on a spirometer for six weeks lowers systolic blood pressure by about 9 millimeters of mercury, according to researcher Daniel Craighead, an integrative physiologist at the University of Colorado Boulder.   Those reductions are about what could be expected with conventional aerobic exercise such as walking, running or cycling. (NPR.org)  The following were taken from the review “7 Best Lung Exercisers…” 

  • The Airphysio is an OPEP (oscillating positive expiratory pressure) device, which means it uses a pressure system, similar to a balloon to enact some pressure into your lungs, allowing you to train your breathing and clearing the mucus.  It’s easy to use and carry with you, and comes in low, average and sports lung capacity sizes (from $60).

  • The Airofit Breathing Trainer is designed for serious athletes and those who want to really increase their breathing capacity and endurance.  It is adjustable and allows you to train Respiratory Strength, Accessible Lung Capacity, Anaerobic Threshold, and other areas of your breathing.  It is bluetooth capable to link with an app for coaching and monitoring your progress (from $129).

  • The Breather is well-designed, affordable at $50, and easy to use.  It has 5 exhalation and 6 inhalation adjustable pressure settings to be used by people of varying goals, from athletes to COPD patients.

WellO2 is a product designed in Finland that uses resistance training and warm, moist air to improve lung function and open airways.  For athletes, deep breathing during WellO2 training stimulates the vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system to calm the mind and improve sleep for better (athletic) recovery. (wello2.com)  For the elderly and those who struggle to breathe, it strengthens lungs and abdominal muscles, as well as helps to reduce congestion and clear sinuses.  It can help singers to warm up their voice before performances and stay well.  At 229 Euros, it’s not a cheap device, but could contain quite a few health benefits. 

Nasal aids

Maybe you’ve heard of BreatheRight strips, which were all the rage in the 1990’s-2000’s.  These are still very popular external devices, for athletes and those who are prone to nosebleeds or sensitivity in the nasal cavities.  Nasal stents are the next generation of these type devices, designed to open up your nostrils for better breathing while you are wearing them.  Check out this video of an ENT surgeon reviewing some of them. 

  • The Turbine claims to increase nasal air flow by 38%, and are designed for athletes to get the best breathing for the best sports results. Their trial pack includes 1 small, 1 medium and 1 large for $14.  They are reusable for 10 times per set. 

  • Mute is a nasal stent that is designed for use during sleep, to breathe and sleep better, and snore less. Their trial pack includes 1 small, 1 medium and 1 large for $8.

  • Airmax Nasal Dilators are $15 per set and made out of soft, flexible material to help optimize airflow for better sleep up to 76.1%. 

If you aren’t satisfied with your breathing or your health, why not give one or more of these a try?  They have less side effects than drugs, are less invasive than surgery, and could improve your life with better sleep and energy.  We’ve got to make the most use out of what’s free–the air around us! 

Photo by Raj Rana on Unsplash

How to choose a Whole-Home Dehumidifier

How to choose a Whole-Home Dehumidifier

If you have problems keeping the humidity below 60% in your home, we’ve written a lot on ways to lower it.  The first and foremost one should be to check for hidden air leaks in your building envelope.  Look for and correct the biggest ones first, to reap the most benefits.  To the untrained eye, these might not leap out at you, so a short visit by an energy inspector can discover big-ticket savings. Just recently, I found a big one that I should have recognized years ago: a shaft made for ventilation ducts going from my attic to my first floor was open and uninsulated!  No wonder my 2nd-story bedroom can be very cold or very warm–and I’m sure this wasn’t helping my humidity problem.  

If you have sealed up obvious air leaks, insulated appropriately, and are not considering upgrading your central air conditioner, then you can consider adding a whole-home dehumidifier.  We wrote a little about them here, but I found out a lot more recently when I had to select one for my own home!  

Sizing the dehumidifier depends on several things:

  • Square footage of your home: if you have 8-foot ceilings, this directly correlates with rated square footage for dehumidifiers.  If you have higher ceilings, this additional volume will reduce the rated coverage of the dehumidifier.

  • Where you are located geographically (exterior temperature and humidity) and/or how well sealed your home is:  Homes located in more humid climates and those that are only  loosely sealed will need more capacity in dehumidification, because humid air from outside can rapidly infiltrate the air inside a leaky home.  Infiltration rates also vary throughout the year. Infiltration can be greater in winter if the temperature difference between inside and outside is greater. For example, 75 degF inside and 0 degF outside in winter, versus 75 degF inside and 95 degF outside in summer. Infiltration rates depend on wind velocity and direction and also on the building envelope construction. (energy-models.com)

The following chart gives capacity in the number of liters of water a machine can remove from the air in one day.

Source: Sylvane.com

A few years ago the dehumidifier capacity ratings changed. The new 2019 standard considers the Integrated Energy Factor, which is more accurate in representing the capacity of a dehumidifier. The new 2019 testing procedure also tests dehumidifiers at a lower temperature (65°F) while the older standard test temperature was 80°F. (learnmetrics.com)  The sizes above are under the new 2019 standards.  Generally, the sizes required for a given square footage were reduced.  

So, you’ve determined the capacity you will need.  Here are some features to consider when shopping for a new unit:

  • Circulation: The current consensus on the best way to install a whole-house dehumidifier is to have a dedicated return, and to use the HVAC supply or a dedicated supply.  If you exhaust the dehumidifier into the HVAC supply, you can use the blower on the HVAC to always circulate air throughout the house.  Otherwise, if you choose a model with a “circulation” mode, you can set the dehumidifier to always circulate air in the house.  Since dehumidifier blowers are generally smaller than air handler blowers, you may realize a cost savings by using this function.

  • Portability: Some whole home dehumidifiers come with the option of casters so they can be rolled from room to room.  While portability can be an advantage, there are several problems with this.  First of all, they tend to be heavy, cumbersome units. Second, in the space in which you’ll use it, you’ll need to find a drain that is lower than the unit, or set it up higher to drain into a sink or shower.  This requirement alone may cause you to have it permanently installed!

  • Noise and heat:  because these larger machines than smaller room dehumidifiers, they tend to produce more noise and heat.  Therefore, amount of noise, heat, and the installation location are key characteristics to consider.  

  • If you have an open-concept living space where doors are rarely closed, you may consider an “in-wall” unit.  This can be a very unobtrusive way to get dehumidification if you don’t have a duct system (such as when window or ductless AC units are installed), and additionally it can be a super-easy installation for your HVAC technician if a power supply and drain are closeby. 

  • Power requirements: check with your electrician or HVAC technician before purchasing to make sure that the circuit on which you plan to install the dehumidifier has sufficient amperage. 

  • Filters: some dehumidifiers come with a removable, washable filter (like MERV 8).  This is nice, but if the dehumidifier has its own return, then you will want a higher MERV filter in this return so that smaller particles are not sucked into the distribution system. See our article on HVAC filter ratings here

  • Remote reading and wifi capability: at the minimum, whole house dehumidifiers should have the ability to be controlled remotely, either from a central control panel or a wireless control.  Who wants to go into the attic or crawlspace to check humidity and turn it on or off?  Your HVAC technician should be able to route the controls to a suitable place.

  • Why not add some fresh-air ventilation while you’re at it?  A whole house dehumidifier can be configured with a fresh air intake, to pull in fresh air from the outside at a timed interval so that your whole home has less CO2 and indoor pollutants, without raising the humidity level or increasing dehumidification load on your AC unit. 

If a musty smell has been taking over your home lately, don’t delay in measuring the humidity and getting it under control!  Whole-house dehumidifiers can supplement an existing air conditioning system and make your home more comfortable and healthy for everyone. 

Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

Dealing with Earthquakes

Dealing with Earthquakes

Just like many other controversial topics, there is conflicting evidence on whether earthquakes are increasing.  Some news sites say that there is no increase in earthquakes; it just seems that there is an increase because reporting methods have gotten better (usgs.gov).  However, a journal for the insurance industry reports that earthquakes are increasing in US oil regions.  This 2021 article “reveals that tremors of above the magnitude of 2 on the Richter scale quadrupled in 2020…The oil and gas industry is contributing to the increased seismic activity through its practice (of) the saltwater disposal through underground injection.”  Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana and New Mexico were the areas studied, and more frequent and larger events continue to occur.  

California has hundreds of “fault” lines (a fracture or zone of fractures between two blocks of rock, which allow the blocks to move relative to each other) (usgs.gov), two of the most infamous being the San Andreas fault in southern California and the Hayward fault in the San Francisco bay area in northern California.  Here is a picture of what frequent earthquakes look like (source: earthquaketrack.com):

If you live in a zone where earthquakes are frequent, you’ll know that the effects of earthquakes are manifold. Here are some of them: (source: getuhoo.com)

Dust:  “A case study was done in New Zealand following the 2010 earthquake that hit Canterbury, along with its aftershocks. The data from the study shows that PM10 particulate matter levels hit 140µg/m3 over a 24 hour period, which is well over the National Environmental Standards for Air Quality (NESAQ) threshold of 50 µg/m3. The amount of PM2.5 concentration also hit 127µg/m3 at this time, about 90% of the level of PM10.”

 “The vibrations and tremors hitting buildings and homes loosens up dust and drives them into the air. Tectonic shifts can disrupt sediment and expose them to the air where they linger as particulates for days or even longer. Even in homes the jolt can release dust that is normally packed away and bring them out into the open, underscoring the importance of keeping a clean home.”  

We agree; it’s important to have dust control measures in place before a small or large earthquake shakes things up!  Here are our top ways of controlling it:

  • Minimize carpet and fabric furniture if possible

  • Frequent vacuuming with a HEPA vacuum 

  • Use of a MERV 13 filter (if possible) in your furnace/HVAC

  • Use of a standalone HEPA filter in areas where you spend a lot of time (living room, bedroom)

  • Brush and bathe pets weekly if possible

  • Keep several MERV and HEPA filter changes, as well as N95 masks, on hand for use during emergencies.

Fire and water damage:  According to earthquakeauthority.com, the primary damage in an earthquake is caused by surface rupture and ground displacement, when the ruptured fault produces vertical or horizontal movement on either side of it.  However, liquefaction is another odd consequence that damages pipelines too: solid soil will change into a “liquid” during violent shaking, causing support systems to fall away.  When this happens, pipelines break and fires can start, spewing all kinds of chemicals into the air, ground and water.  In this severe case, you should have an evacuation plan if this kind of disaster affects your immediate neighborhood.  If you are experiencing these pollutants from several or miles away, shelter in your home if possible, and keep windows and doors closed with the HVAC on “recirculation” mode with minimal fresh air.  Here are some ways to mimimize the pollutants you’re breathing inside:

  • Use of a MERV 13 filter (if possible) in your furnace/HVAC

  • Use of a standalone HEPA filter in areas where you spend a lot of time (living room, bedroom)

  • Keep several MERV and HEPA filter changes, as well as N95 masks, on hand for use during emergencies.

  • For fresh air, you can use a Window Ventilation Filter to keep smoke, dust and pollution out of your home. 

  • Units like the Germ Defenders and Air Angels will help to mitigate harmful contaminants by converting them to larger particles that will fall to the floor. 

Landslides and Tsunamis: Landslides are the movement of rock, earth, or debris down a sloped section of land, and are caused by rain, earthquakes, volcanoes, or other factors that make the slope unstable.  (nationalgeographic.org).  Obviously, this type of earth movement will trigger a lot of dust and pollution released into the air as earth and buildings and infrastructure are demolished in the path of the landslide.  Tsunamis are giant waves caused by earthquakes or volcanic eruptions under the sea. (noaa.gov)  The wave can cause catastrophic flooding upon hitting land, which brings building devastation and mold to the buildings that are not destroyed.   

There are “early warning systems” in major quake zones, however they can only provide warning to those outside of the epicenter (10 miles or more), and they only provide warnings of larger, more violent earthquakes. (caltech.edu).  

Preparedness is key.  In addition to the measures listed above, you can also prepare an evacuation kit in case you have to leave your home, which of course is useful in disasters other than earthquakes.  Judy.co is a company devoted to emergency kits that include water, food, power and tools so that families can survive for short periods following a disaster.  With advice from this page at ready.gov, you can build your own kit.  We sincerely hope that no one is injured or affected by such a disaster in their lifetime, but sadly in areas like northern California, this is not what experts predict will happen.  Earthquake risks can be high in the beauty of the South Pacific islands, the mountains of Mexico, and the plains of Oklahoma, so wherever you live, be aware and be prepared! 

Photo by Dave Goudreau on Unsplash

The Truths about Winter Air

The Truths about Winter Air

In the southeast US, I really enjoy the coolness of fall and winter after a long hot summer.  Winter air feels fresh and clean, but why is that?  And is it always fresh and clean?  What about humidity? What about static electricity?

There are so many reasons that winter smells are different!

Our sense of smell relies on several things: odor molecules, and our noses’ smelling equipment.  

  • Molecules within air, including odor molecules, move more slowly in colder weather, so we are less likely to receive good or bad odor molecules. (wonderopolis.org
  • Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) emissions slow down at colder temps.  Many VOCs (like terpenes) have strong smells, but less so with lower temperatures.
  • Humid air is generally better at trapping and delivering odorants through the atmosphere, and better at depositing those particles to the associated olfactory receptors. Winter air is drier and therefore delivers odors less efficiently. (seeker.com)
  • We perceive less smells in cold air because the receptors and vessels within our noses are constricted. This means two things: they move more deeply into our nasal passages, and fewer fragrant molecules can travel through them.
  • There is a nerve in the human body that gets stimulated when breathing in cold air called the trigeminal nerve. This nerve is responsible for the tingly sensations caused by spicy food and mint. This could be a reason as to why the smell of cold air is associated with “fresh” and “clean”. (tonichealth.co)

What about air pollution in the winter?

Surprisingly, air pollution can be worse during the winter than the summer!  This happens when something called an “inversion” forms.  There are several different types of inversions (which are well-explained in this video from the University of Illinois Extension), but they all involve a warmer layer of air above a cooler layer of air, restricting air movement and causing pollutants to be trapped near the earth’s surface.  For example, a city located in a valley and close to a mountain is more liable to experience temperature inversion than other cities. The cold air is denser and heavier; therefore it often slides down the mountain slope and ends up in a valley, leaving the warmer air above.  (airlief.com)  Inversions can last from several hours to several days.  

In addition to inversions, the burning of fossil fuel increases during the winter.  Industrial sources stay roughly the same throughout the year, but household heating and emissions from the vehicles are getting higher during the colder days of the winter.  In lower income countries, where it’s normal to burn garbage and coal for heating, the levels of PM2.5, carbon monoxide and other toxins increase significantly. (airlief.com)

“Stubble burning” is a practice in India during April-May and October-November each year, where farmers set their fields ablaze after harvest to clear the ground for the next crop.  It produces horrible air pollution in Delhi and other cities.  Unfortunately, lack of education on the damage to soil by burning and some profitable alternatives for the stubble cause farmers to continue the practice, despite the pollution.  (sciencedirect.com) Surprisingly, stubble burning is tolerated and even regulated in some countries like Australia and Canada (wikipedia).

(Lack of) Humidity in winter air causes dehydration

Cold air can hold less water vapor, which is the cause of lower relative humidity of winter air.  This drier air can literally suck the moisture out of your body in a myriad of ways. (performancehealthcenter.com)

  1. In cold weather, the body’s thirst response is diminished (by up to 40%) even when dehydrated. (study) This happens because our blood vessels constrict when we’re cold to prevent blood from flowing freely to the extremities. This enables the body to conserve heat by drawing more blood to its core.  Maintaining the body’s core temperature becomes more important than fluid balance, but because of this, the body is fooled into thinking it’s properly hydrated. Thus, in cold weather, we are less likely to drink water due to diminished thirst.  
  2. Our kidneys aren’t signaled by regulating hormones like they normally are to conserve water and therefore urine production increases, a condition called cold-induced urine diuresis.
  3. Nasal passages can dry out even though they feel like they are being flooded with moisture because of condensation (cold air hits warm nostril and water vapor instantly condenses!)
  4. We don’t even realize we are sweating because sweat dries quickly in cool, dry air.  The added weight of boots, heavy jackets, and layers of warm clothing help our bodies conserve heat, yet make the body work harder and may lead to producing more sweat than usual, yet this increased perspiration evaporates quickly in the cold dry air, so we often do not realize we are sweating. 

Therefore, it’s super-important that you drink as much or more water during winter than summer.

Here’s are some suggestions:

  • Don’t rely on caffeinated hot beverages to fill you up!  Drinks like coffee and hot chocolate are actually diuretics (they pull water from your body).  If you need to drink something hot to warm up, try herbal tea, hot water with lemon and honey, or warm milk.
  • Carry room-temperature water in insulated bottles so that it doesn’t chill into an icy drink.  Although drinking cold water can feel invigorating and increase alertness, it has more negative consequences in your body including thickened nasal mucus, increased blood pressure, teeth sensitivity, and headaches. (svalbardi.com)
  • Drink water before, during and after you exercise!
  • Wear layers and try to be aware when you start to sweat, to adjust them accordingly.
  • Juicy fruits and vegetables and broth-based soups can increase your hydration. 

Humidifiers should not be the first choice to increase humidity in the home.

According to energyvanguard.com, “the cause of dry air in winter is air leakage, so air sealing is the first and best way to keep your humidity from going too low.”  Because running a humidifier is not free, the newly humidified air leaks out just as fast as dry air comes in.  It’s a losing battle!  In addition, humidifiers need to be chosen and used judiciously because they can breed mold, and increase PM2.5 in the air (check out our post here).  They can also cause condensation and mold problems in the building itself.  

What about static electricity?

It’s true, shocks from static electricity are worse in the wintertime because of lower relative humidity.  Static electricity is a buildup of ions in a body, and the lack of moisture in the air allows them to stay put until you touch something that “grounds” you like a metal doorknob.    That’s because dry air is an insulator, not a conductor.  There are several ways you can reduce static electric shocks during the winter:

  • Wear more cotton clothing, because wool and synthetics tend to be insulators. Cotton absorbs more moisture from the air, though, so this can work against you in cold temperatures.
  • Leather-soled shoes will “ground” you more than rubber-soled shoes, because rubber is an insulator.
  • Dryer sheets can reduce static cling by equalizing electrons formed by clothes rubbing together, but many are not recommended to use because respiratory, developmental, endocrine, and reproductive effects. (for example Bounce Sping Fresh Dryer Sheets, ewg.org)  Amazingly, you can combat static in your dryer instead by crumpling up a few pieces of aluminum foil into balls and throwing them into your dryer with your clothes, to keep them static-free and separated. (Dryer Sheet Alternatives)
  • Use a bipolar ionizer in your home, such as the Whole Home Polar Ionizer, Air Angel or Germ Defenders.  These devices release a balance of positive and negative ions into the air, which help to equalize the charge in your body and sanitize surfaces.  It’s a win-win, which leads us to our last truth:

Winter air allows pathogens to stay afloat and viable for longer

Researchers have known since at least 2010 that epidemics of influenza almost always followed a drop in air humidity.  (study) The reasons for this are several: dry air allows the virus particles to float for longer times in the air, and since water vapor in the air may deform the virus’ surface, lack of water vapor keeps its infectious weaponry intact. (BBC.com)  According to the Sterling Chart below, (from a 1986 paper titled, Indirect Health Effects of Relative Humidity in Indoor Environments) you can see how the optimum humidity to ward off bacteria, fungus, and respiratory infections would be about 40-60%, but avoid going higher because of condensation and mold issues.  Keeping our homes sealed from the ingress of dry air and our bodies hydrated will be the best bet to landing in that zone!

Source: energyvanguard.com

After reading this article, you may be a little disappointed in winter air, but with awareness about the possibility of increased air pollution, dehydration and static electricity, you can take precautions and enjoy it just as much as any other season!