Category Archives for "Natural Home"

A Clean-Air Kitchen Checklist

A Clean-Air Kitchen Checklist

It’s clear from the amount of money and size of kitchens nowadays that the kitchen is where people spend a lot of time.  Big islands, comfortable chairs and features like coffee bars and wine coolers make it easy to stay and chat while the host cooks up a delicious meal.  The problem is that some things get overlooked in kitchen design and maintenance, so that hidden appliances may be making your air dirtier than your guests would expect! 

Kitchen exhaust vent

We’ve previously posted about how cooking and baking can raise fine particulates and VOCs in your kitchen to levels of a polluted city.  The best defense against spreading them to the rest of the home and breathing them in is to use your kitchen exhaust vent.  The problem is that the exhaust vent filter is often overlooked, and a clogged filter strains the vent motor and can throw particles right back into your kitchen.  Here’s where it’s important to a) check whether your vent is recirculating or exhausting to the outside, and b) clean the filter!

When I first learned about combination microwave/vent hoods, I thought, these are space-saving genius.  Being a moderately tall person, I could easily lift items in and out of the microwave, the unit was not taking up any counter space, and it doubled as a stove vent hood.  However, the more I used the one in my current home, the more disappointed I was with it.  Here are the problems with most microwave/vent hood combos:

  • The ventilation can exhaust directly back into the kitchen.  That’s right, those little grilles above the microwave door are the exit point of the exhaust fumes, which don’t get a lot of filtering before they come straight back into the kitchen.  The other option is to exhaust outside, which is far better.
  • Microwave/vent hood combos typically do not provide the cubic feet per minute (cfm) ventilation that a standard size kitchen requires, and what little you get can be further reduced if there is more than one turn in the ductwork above the unit to the outdoors.  
  • Although it’s a common situation, placing the microwave on a countertop is not a great installation either, because cooking gasses generated in the microwave are vented directly into the kitchen with no filter. 

Here’s what we recommend to get the cleanest air while you cook:

  1. If you have a combination microwave/vent hood, check two things:
    1. Does the vent hood provide the correct cfm for your kitchen?  Here is an article to help you calculate whether it’s sufficient for your kitchen.  If you don’t know the cfm of your unit, type the model number into an internet search.  If your unit does not have the necessary throughput, consider placing the microwave elsewhere and getting a more powerful standalone vent hood.  In this case proceed to #2.
    2. If the cfm is sufficient, does the microwave/vent hood exhaust back into the kitchen?  Place a microwaveable container in the microwave with some water and start to heat it.  Place your hand over the grille above the door and see if you can feel a stream of air moving into the room.  
      1. If so, then the exhaust is probably set to exhaust into the kitchen.  If you own your home and you want to change it to exhaust outside, it’s possible to take the microwave down from the wall and change the exhaust configuration.  Here’s a short video on how to rotate the blower fan of the microwave, which will change the exhaust port configuration.  This change necessitates installing a duct above the microwave and vent port outside, however.  For the venting, check this video
      2. If you are renting or otherwise can’t change the configuration of your microwave/vent hood exhaust to outside, then do your best to clean the filter on a regular basis so that cooking particulates can be trapped before they’re blown back into the room.
  2. Congratulations if you are upgrading to a standalone vent hood (our choice for the best kitchen atmosphere)!  Here are some tips to split up the microwave and vent hood and make each perform well.
    1. If budget is not a constraint, vent hoods now come in a “balanced” option, which means they not only suck fumes from your kitchen, but these are replaced with fresh air from outside.  Check out this smoke test on such a unit. 
    2. For normal budgets, good kitchen vent hoods can be purchased between $200-500 (here is a great review on the newest models, but be sure to pick one that vents externally!)  In addition to capacity, it’s also wise to get the quietest fan you can afford so that you won’t be annoyed with the sound.
    3. Now, where shall we place the microwave?  Most kitchen design professionals are happy to place it anywhere in the kitchen except the countertop, but then venting it back into the room is still polluting your indoor air.  Besides the moisture emitted from cooking steamy foods like rice or potatoes, some foods emit a lot of ultra-fine particles (UFPs).  Popcorn is one of these; in this study it was discovered that UFPs and PM2.5 generated by microwaving popcorn were 150-560 and 350-800 times higher than the emissions from microwaving water, respectively. About 90% of the total particles emitted were in the ultrafine size range.  To avoid releasing these harmful particles into your kitchen, here are the best scenarios for venting the microwave.
      1. Install it in cabinetry with a dedicated vent to the outdoors.  No questions about getting the vapors out in this case!
      2. Install it in a lower cabinet space next to the stove.  That way, steam and UFPs exhausting from the top of the unit can be drawn up and out by the range hood. “Drawer” microwaves are becoming more popular now (see photo below). 
      3. (Least effective, but still possible) Set the microwave on the counter next to the range hood but 2 feet away from it, for heat safety concerns. 

The last two options require manually turning on the range hood every time you use the microwave, but if you have a nice quiet vent hood, this shouldn’t be a problem.  

Microwave Drawer installed next to the oven/stove (source: Home Depot)

Refrigerator coils

It’s pretty obvious when the refrigerator needs cleaning: food spills inside and dirty fingerprints outside get the most attention.  However, the most important part (the working “guts” of the fridge) is easy to overlook, except for some dust gathering on the toe kick grill.  On most newer models, the cooling coils are hidden under the fridge, and all kinds of dust (especially if you have a shedding pet) will gather there and clog up the vital cooling parts. The coils should be cleaned every six months to one year to keep the fridge working properly, and keep the accumulated dust out of your air. Here’s how to clean it without a lot of hassle (realtor.com):

  • If the coils are not exposed at the back of the unit, then remove the toe kick panel in the bottom front to expose them.
  • Use a vacuum cleaner with HEPA filter (you don’t want to blow that dust back into the air) to vacuum off as much dust as you can reach.
  • Use a coil cleaning brush to get between the rows of coils, keeping your running vacuum nearby to suck up dislodged dust. 
  • Clean off the front grille with the vacuum and soap and water if necessary, and reinstall it.

The Dishwasher

Ahh, the dishwasher–what a super-convenient place to hide dirty dishes.  My cousin (an engineer) always joked that in his new house, he’s going to install 2-3 dishwashers and no cabinets.  Why?  Dishwashers are way cheaper than cabinets and no one likes to unload the dishwasher.  When you can have 1 “clean” and 1 “dirty” dishwasher at all times, you can take clean dishes from the clean one, use them and place them in the dirty one, and theoretically no cabinets are needed!  Somehow, I think his wife will have a problem with no cabinets…

Back on topic, dishwashers are appliances that use steaming hot water and caustic detergent, but are not vented to the outside.  Where does all that steam and vaporized detergent go?  Into your kitchen air, of course!  Hayward Score is a company which identifies the major issues in your home that can impact your health and gives you free personalized actionable recommendations to fix them.  They performed a study on how bad dishwashers are for your indoor air quality, and found out that it was really the “heat and dry” cycles, not the soap, that caused air quality problems.  They placed an air quality monitor in the room adjacent to the kitchen and ran the dishwasher three times:

  • Dishwasher run with standard soap, heat and dry cycle on = Air Quality: RED ZONE (bad)
  • Dishwasher run with no soap, heat and dry cycle on = Air Quality: RED ZONE (bad)
  • Dishwasher run with standard soap, heat and dry cycle off = Air Quality: BLUE ZONE (good)

Based on these results, the soap was not causing elevated levels of VOCs but high temperature combined with chlorinated water was.

When your home is supplied by city or community water, these systems typically use a lot of chlorine to keep bacteria out.  I mean, A LOT–often you can turn on the tap and it will smell like a swimming pool coming out of your faucet.  Heat and dry cycles can reach temperatures of 160 deg F or more, which when contacting chlorinated water, produces chloroform.  The chloroform can drift through your home farther than the steam does, hence the bad air quality readings taken in the next room. 

The solution to good air quality while running your dishwasher?  If your tap water is sufficiently hot to sterilize (above 120 deg F), then don’t use the heat and dry cycle settings.  Also, run your kitchen exhaust vent during and 30 minutes after the dishwasher cycle, to move steam and any other gasses outdoors.  If your tap water is below 120 deg F, then it’s a good idea to use the heat cycles to make sure everything is sanitized, but make sure to run the kitchen exhaust vent simultaneously.

Toasters, Crock Pots, Air-Fryers, Electric Skillets and all their cousins

We have a lot of miscellaneous appliances hidden in the cabinets or sitting on the countertops, which can put a lot of fine particulates and VOCs into the air when using them.  Toasters are one of the worst offenders, and start emitting toxic fumes from the moment you turn them on (University of Texas at Austin study), because they are heating up the leftover bits from previous foods, including oils.  Toasting two slices of bread caused twice as much air pollution as is seen in London for 15 to 20 minutes – meaning three times the World Health Organization’s safety limit. (dailymail.co.uk)  The solution?  Set them as close as possible to your range (2 feet away is safe if you are using the range also) and fire up that kitchen exhaust fan.  Heck, chopping your onions next to the kitchen exhaust fan can even whisk away the chemical irritant that they release to make you cry (syn-Propanethial-S-oxide).

With a good exhaust fan and little cleaning you can spend as much time as you like in your kitchen without worrying about what’s floating around in the air! 

Photo by Jimmy Dean on Unsplash

How to enjoy winter

How to enjoy winter

Whether or not you enjoy winter, there are ways you can enjoy it more.  It calls for identifying some potential drawbacks, and transforming them into advantages.  Some potential cons of the winter are less daylight, more clothing, less time outside, colds and flu, and staying at home when inclement weather hits.  These don’t have to be dampers on the season: here’s how.

Less Daylight.  When the sun goes down at 5pm or earlier, our bodies tend to say, “Yay, it’s time to sleep!”  but there’s still plenty of time left in the day.  Apparently, less sunlight really does affect our circadian rhythm and may cause us to feel groggy or fatigued during the day.  Also, because our bodies use sunlight to manufacture vitamin D, and vitamin D is a hormone, less of this vitamin has a tremendous impact on mood, energy level and immune function. Here are some ways to keep your energy levels high even after the sun goes down:

  • Bright light helps to energize us by telling your brain to stop producing melatonin, a sleep hormone.  If you want to get really technical, blue light does that best, while lights that are amber and reddish don’t provide much “wake-up” at all.  In our previous post, we describe how sunlight actually wakes and puts us to bed with different wavelengths as the light is filtered differently through our atmosphere at different times of day.  You can do this inside (artificial light)with programmable light bulbs in your home like the Wyze Color Bulb ($16) or Light Engines ($289-349) which can help your body track the natural sun or reprogram for travel.  In any case, when you want to stay awake, break out those cool blue light bulbs (also called daylight and cool white), and head toward the warm white bulbs when you’re ready to sleep. 

  • Get tested for your vitamin D levels.  Women are especially susceptible to deficiency in this vitamin, which can lead to lower bone density, fatigue and susceptibility to disease (immune problems).  Your doctor can help you select the right vitamin D supplement to recover.

More clothing:  If you prefer to walk around in shorts, winter could put a cramp in your style, but layers can extend many different styles.  When the weather is blah, brighten up your mood with your wardrobe!  Here are some cases in point:

  • Leggings got you covered whether you wear a summer dress or shorts over them.

  • Socks come uber-stylish in patterns and colors, and showing them off is cool.  Unique socks make great gifts too!

  • Sweater vests add warmth to your core.

  • Try a different kind of hat, in a different color, than what you would normally wear–like a bucket hat, turban or tam.

  • Lighter layers even help you to pack less clothing when you travel, because you can mix and match them compared to more bulky items.  

  • Think about it: insulation in the home is about sandwiching air in cavities.  Several light layers usually cause active people to be more comfortable and sweat less.  They also do a better job to allow movement and coverage–a gap here or there is covered by another layer, or adds “ventilation”.  

Less time outside: says who?  If you’re limiting time outside, it’s only because you haven’t found the right sport or way to dress for it.  There are proven benefits to spending more time outside during the winter: it increases the basal metabolic rate, which helps the body burn more calories. (insidehook.com)  Here are some suggestions:

  • Firepits and outdoor heaters

  • Hot tubs

  • String lights

  • Backyard gatherings with friendly competitions and hot chocolate

  • If you live in snow: snowshoeing, cross-country-skiing

  • Biking

  • Birdwatching

  • Polar bear dips

Repeat after me: colds and flu do not have to be part of my winter!  Contrary to advice during our upbringing, people experiencing cold temperatures are no more likely to get sick than those who are in a warm environment.  The increase in colds and flu at this time of year is most likely because cold, dry conditions are ideal for transmitting these viruses.  The virus is more stable and is able to stay in the air for longer when it’s cold and dry. (signaturemd.com)  

If the indoor air is dry, you can add humidity to it in your own home by using a humidifier.  Dr. Jeffrey Banyas is an ear, nose and throat surgeon in Pennsylvania.  He advises that about 40% relative humidity is ideal to prevent infections, because it reduces the chances of virus remaining airborne, and it helps the body’s natural defenses.  “The nose and sinuses are lined with a mucous membrane that has within it small hairs called cilia,” Banyas explained. “These cilia beat rhythmically to sweep the sinuses clean.” Banyas said when the mucus is thin, the cilia work much more efficiently. However, dryness impedes them.

“When the membranes dry out, not only do the cilia not work as well, but any trapped infectious mucus, pus, or debris is thicker and harder for the cilia to remove.” (Pennsylvania newspaper)

Especially if you are out and about, be sure to drink plenty of water and use a saline nasal spray or gel to keep nasal passages moist.

Cold air is a problem for asthma sufferers because it causes air passageways to constrict when breathing it in.  In this case, it’s best to dress warmly and place a scarf or covering over your mouth to help warm the air before it enters your body.  In the case of those with heart disease, cold temperatures stress the cardiovascular system and cause your blood vessels to constrict, shallow breathing, and a slight thickening of the blood.  (signaturemd.com) Yes, strenuous outdoor activities like shoveling snow can cause heart attacks, so if heart disease is a concern, it’s best to get help with chores outside! 

There is moderate evidence to suggest that vitamin C, D and zinc help with colds.  Vitamin C helps in the formation and function of immune cells, but here’s the thing: they don’t do much if you only start taking them after you get sick.  According to a 2013 Cochrane meta-analysis of human studies, people who take vitamin C regularly can expect shorter colds (by 8% in adults and 14% in children) with slightly less severe symptoms.  Also, athletes who take vitamin C regularly are about half as likely to catch a cold as those who don’t.  The recommended daily dose of vitamin C is 75 milligrams (mg) a day for women and 90 mg a day for men. (mayoclinic.org)

Vitamin D is involved in many cellular processes, including the regulation of immune cells during infections. Deficiences of vitamin D are associated with increased upper respiratory tract (URT) infections. (signaturemd.com).  Because one way of getting vitamin D, through exposure to sunlight on your skin, is limited during the winter months, supplements can help.  You don’t need to take a large dose of vitamin D daily to get its benefits. The recommended daily amount of vitamin D is 400 international units (IU) for children up to age 12 months, 600 IU for people ages 1 to 70 years, and 800 IU for people over 70 years.  (webmd.com)

Zinc keeps the immune system strong, helps heal wounds, and supports normal growth.  Some studies have found that zinc lozenges may reduce the duration of cold, perhaps by a day or so, and may reduce the number of upper respiratory infections.  The recommended dosage of zinc is 8 mg/day for women and 11 mg/day for men (webmd.com)

Knowing that your body reacts differently to cold air and it can harbor harmful viruses, taking care of your body needs to be an everyday routine.  Make sure to get the rest you need, hydrate your body and the air, and take supplements that will support your immune system before you encounter germs, to have your best winter yet!

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Some natural methods to avoid getting the Flu

Some natural methods to avoid getting the Flu

Another virus has dominated the headlines this fall and winter 2022, an old nemesis that changes disguises (varieties) every year to trip us up–Influenza.  Of course, you could always take a gamble that the Flu vaccines offered in clinics will match the real cocktail of virus in the air, but there are a lot of other ways to reduce your chances of contracting this illness that don’t involve needles.  Let’s get started!

Yes, masks, social distancing and hand-washing are still part of the solution.  Some health advisory authorities, like the California Department of Public Health, are basing mask recommendations against flu on COVID-19 illness risk in your area, because flu and RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus) spread in similar ways to COVID-19.  The CDC has a searchable risk database by county here,  Infants and young children, as well as older adults and those with chronic medical conditions, are most at risk for RSV, which can cause bronchiolitis (an inflammation of the small airways in the lung) and pneumonia. (CDC.gov)  For more on masks, check out our article here.

Avoid air pollution.  It doesn’t seem like crisp winter air should come with air pollution flags, but unfortunately winter sometimes hosts the worst conditions of the year.  There are several different types of a phenomenon called “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.  That bad air quality will likely contain elevated levels of fine particulates like PM2.5 and PM10, carbon monoxide (CO) and sulfur dioxide (SO2), which were all shown to increase the risk of influenza-like illness (ILI) in Jinan, China (The short-term effects of air pollutants on influenza-like illness in Jinan, China, 2019).  If your area is known to have moderate to bad air quality days, keep an eye on it and adjust your plans accordingly!  Airnow.gov, breezometer.com and local news stations can all help you stay informed and healthier.

These tips can help you stay healthy against a plethora of diseases (dispatchhealth.com):

  • Stay active: get out and rake leaves, or take a brisk walk around the neighborhood or around your local mall if the weather is inclement.  Routine exercise is a simple and smart way to bolster your immune system and improve your overall health.

  • Rest well; try to get 7-9 hours of sleep every night, because sleep is critical to a well-functioning immune system.  If you have difficulty getting to sleep, reduce your caffeine intake after noon, don’t use digital devices in bed, and try a melatonin supplement.

  • Take your vitamins–in your food!  Foods that are rich in vitamins A, C, D, E, zinc and selenium naturally boost your immune system, while foods that have lots of added sugar, salt, and fried and highly processed foods may do the opposite (avoid them).  (Healthline.com)

  • Consider herbal supplements (7 Natural Remedies for Preventing the Flu):

    • Echinacea.  As shown in a 2015 study in the Czech Republic, Echinaforce Hotdrink is as effective as oseltamivir (Tamiflu Oral) in early treatment of confirmed influenza virus infections.  If this particular drink is not readily available, you can take tablets containing 6.78 milligrams of echinacea extract two to three times a day, having 900 milligrams of Echinacea root tincture daily or five to six cups of echinacea tea on the first day of symptoms, and then 1 cup a day thereafter. 

    • Oregano oil has powerful antiviral effects, too: you can take 500mg twice daily to help reduce the effects of a cold, as well as fight it off.

    • Essential oils used in a diffuser can help with congestion and headaches, as well as preventing airborne viruses from being able to infect you.   Clove,  peppermint and eucalyptus are some of the most popular.  According to a 2021 review, essential oils from Eucalyptus are recognized for their broad spectrum of action, such as antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, anti-immunomodulatory (against diseases that suppress the immune system), antioxidant, and wound healing properties.  One study that was reviewed showed that when the pure eucalyptus essential oil was actively diffused with a nebulizer for 15 seconds (oil concentration: 125 μg/L of air in the chamber), Influenza Virus-A was completely inactivated in the air.

And of course–keep your bipolar ionizers running!   The Germ Defender, Air Angel and Whole Home Polar Ionizer produce positive and negative ions that can disable viruses and bacteria on surfaces and in the air from across the room.  We have posted links to some of the scientific studies on this technology here.   We’re hoping that this winter you can use these natural tips to make more good memories with family and friends, and less memories of illness, missed work and school from the flu!

Photo by Suhyeon Choi on Unsplash

The unintended consequences of turning down the thermostat this winter

The unintended consequences of turning down the thermostat this winter

According to the Energy Information Administration and their Winter Fuels Outlook report, it will cost 27 percent to 28 percent more than 2021/2022 to heat your home with oil or gas.  If you heat with electricity, prices may rise by as much as 10 percent, because much of our electricity is generated from oil and gas. (Newsweek.com)

When you have a fixed or unstable budget, the decision to lower or turn off heat during the winter is not easy.  The other components of our budgets–food, housing, transportation and medical care–aren’t as flexible as those extra blankets, mittens and hats, so down the thermostat goes.  This is where what you don’t know might hurt you.

It’s not only the air temperature that changes when the heat source turns off.  Air holds a certain amount of water vapor, also called humidity, and warmer air can hold more water vapor than cooler air.  When the air cools, water vapor in the air will tend to condense on any surface that is lower than the dewpoint temperature.  That’s why you see condensation on windows and around door frames in winter: these are the points that tend to conduct cold temperatures from the outside, and moisture from the air is condensing on them.  Persistent moisture is mold-feeding moisture, and before you know it, there is a mold problem.  Even worse is that mold could be forming in places you can’t readily see, like inside walls, attics and basements, because the air temperature has dropped and cooler air just can’t hold the moisture of warmer air.   Cooler air can easily reach humidity levels of 80% or more, giving that “damp” feeling and over time, exposing the home to mold growth.  

There is a myth that when a room is not being used, it’s best to turn off heat (close registers) and close it off from the rest of the house (close the door) to save money.  If this is done without any ventilation or air circulation, it’s also a recipe for mold, because without air circulation, water vapor in stagnant air will be absorbed by furnishings and allow mold to take root.  If you need to limit heating in your home, try to leave doors to unused rooms at least cracked and leave a fan running in the room, because dynamic airflow limits moisture ingress due to evaporation. For more on finding and fixing areas prone to mold in the winter, check out our article.

If high humidity is not a problem, low humidity might be.  Low humidity can damage all kinds of decor in your house by shrinking and drying, from wood flooring, wallpaper, and furniture to fine instruments like pianos and guitars and artwork.

Then, there’s your body.  Stress due to cold is a real problem for the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions like asthma or heart disease.  It also makes people more likely to use alternate heating methods that could be unsafe.  Small room heaters are often known to tip over and cause fires, and electric blankets can actually cause burns.   Falling asleep on a bunched-up blanket is a common cause of burns, according to Bell, a plastic surgeon who treats many burn patients. He explains that when a hot blanket rests on the same body part for an extended period, the skin can burn. “These burn accidents usually happen because someone has fallen asleep on a bunched-up area of the blanket,” he says.  Unfortunately, people with diabetes are more vulnerable to burns from electric blankets because their condition makes them less sensitive to heat. “Electric blankets are also not recommended for infants, young children or anyone who is paralyzed or incapable of understanding how to safely operate them,” says Bell.  People with urinary incontinence also should not use electric blankets because wetness and electricity don't mix. (ul.com)  If you do use an electric blanket, follow all the safety guidelines of UL Solutions (previously Underwriters Laboratories) so that you don’t become one of these statistics!

When home heating costs rise, air quality can also worsen due to particulates in the air.  In Europe, the impacts of inflation and fuel scarcity due to the Russian-Ukrainian war is particularly hard on middle and lower income families, and they turn to alternative sources like burning wood, coal and even garbage in indoor stoves.  These stoves impact indoor and outdoor air quality.  Indoors, reloading a stove that is already burning fills the air with particulates, and combustion gasses can leak out of improperly-sealed doors and exhaust pipe fittings, exposing inhabitants to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide and particulates.   Outdoors, European cities that typically have poor air quality during the winter may have even worse this winter. A recent study from Greece showed that wood burning was responsible for almost half of the cancer-causing air pollution in Athens and a new study from New Zealand has showed an increase in serious respiratory infections when wood smoke built up in an area. (TheGuardian.com)  If you live in one of these areas, it doesn’t matter whether you are the one burning wood–you will still be breathing its effects. 

If you feel financial pressure to lower the thermostat this winter, here are some practical ways to keep the air warmer and less humid in your home (Prof Cath Noakes from the University of Leeds):

  • Move seating away from cold windows
  • Use thick curtains at night, but allow the sun to come in during the day
  • Ensure radiators or ventilation registers are not covered or blocked by furniture
  • Ventilate using high-level windows can reduce cold drafts
  • Ventilating after a shower or when cooking can prevent moisture buildup which can lead to damp and mold.

It’s sometimes harder to detect high humidity in the winter because of the lower temperatures, so don’t take a risk–keep one or more humidity sensors in your home for monitoring it.  Our bipolar ionizers like the Germ Defender, Air Angel or Whole Home Polar Ionizer actually deter mold even if humidity temporarily goes too high, making them great investments for all seasons. 

Finally, if you have a warm home, sharing it with your elderly, disabled or disadvantaged friends for a meal or a few hours could make a huge impact in their lives.  Helping them to purchase safe heating appliances and understand how to keep humidity at manageable levels also will help them to live healthier.  Warmth is not always about containment, but allowing it to radiate to others. 

Photo by Will on Unsplash

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!


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