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How to increase indoor air quality in mobile and manufactured homes

How to increase indoor air quality in mobile and manufactured homes

No matter where you go in the US, there are mobile and manufactured homes.  The homes we’ll discuss here can fall into 2 categories: homes that were moved from a tractor trailer, placed on pilings and realistically will never move again, and then there are recreational vehicles (RVs) that can travel the country (but many sit at home or in storage for most of the year).  There’s also vastly different reasons to live in one or the other–from financial to lifestyle choices to temporary housing.  Whatever your reason to stay in a mobile or manufactured home, we want to help you make it a healthy place. 

Mobile homes with a pier foundation are actually supposed to be called “manufactured homes” according to the industry representative, The Manufactured Housing Institute.  Mobile homes and manufactured homes are two words for the same thing: a home built in a factory on a steel frame with wheels for transport to a homesite, where the wheels are removed after it is set on a foundation.  Manufacturers and HUD prefer that they be called manufactured homes, but most people still refer to them as mobile homes.  You can have single-wide, double-wide, triple and even quadruple-wide “mobile” homes, where the extra “boxes” can be configured side by side or even on top for a second story.  Mobile homes don’t have a great reputation for quality or lifespan, but that doesn’t mean they don’t start out that way or can’t be upgraded to make them better.  Let’s discuss the ways in which mobile homes can be improved for healthier indoor air quality.  The main objective is to keep water out, seal air leaks and provide good ventilation. (source: howtolookatahouse.com)

Starting from the top down…The roof: generally speaking, less-expensive manufactured homes have flatter roofs.  This is because the higher the “pitch” or angle of the roof, more material is necessary to frame and cover it.  The problem with low pitch roofs is that rain and debris spends more time on the roof–rain doesn’t run off as quickly and debris like tree branches and pine needles don’t roll off as easily.  Roofs in general need inspection and maintenance, and low-pitched roofs need regular inspection to keep water from getting backed up and leaking through.  Many owners decide to “double-roof” their homes and this can make a huge difference in indoor temperature and longevity of the home.  I’m not talking about 

Roof overhangs tend to be short in manufactured homes, so that water coming off the roof runs right down the wall.  This is a recipe for water intrusion and mold, not to mention undermining the footings of the piers.  If the home does not have gutters, you can install gutters and downspouts to channel the water away from walls, doors, windows, decks and the foundation.

Siding is the protection for walls against wind and rain, and siding can be metal (very old homes), fiberboard (80’s and 90’s homes) or vinyl, engineered wood or hardyboard (modern homes).  Fiberboard must be continually maintained, or water ingress will cause it to degrade quickly.  Vinyl, engineered wood and cement board sidings provide longer-lasting protection, but they also need to be inspected for damage or improper installation.  The weakest points in siding are the corners, window and door casings, because the irregular joints are typically spots for water ingress.  

For many years, windows in manufactured homes were single pane with an aluminum frame.    The transport of the home to its new foundation may cause the frame to warp or the casing around the window to become unsealed, exposing the sheathing underneath to water.  If you are able to, you can upgrade the windows to double-pane for more insulation against outside weather, and make sure the new windows are installed with good flashing, casing, and caulk techniques.  Likewise, if the front door is of a thinner, lightweight quality, an upgrade to a steel door is also an opportunity to make sure it is installed correctly with flashing, casing and caulk to minimize water ingress.

Foundation: On manufactured homes that have a “skirt” or foundation, a vapor barrier must be installed on the ground (2008 HUD law).  If the home is resting on a concrete pad, then the vapor barrier is not needed because the concrete will act as a vapor barrier.  Unfortunately, the “underbelly” of the home often falls into disrepair because no one wants to go under the house to inspect it!  Directly under the home, another vapor barrier of plastic or black “belly board” will protect the insulation and subfloor from moisture and pests, but this is often damaged and missing in older homes.  Manufactured homes on piers are really sitting over a “crawl space”, so it’s important to inspect the underside of the manufactured home to see how sealing up the ground vapor barrier, belly barrier and insulation can really make a difference in comfort and humidity!  Here’s an article that goes step by step through this repair. 

Inside: the manufactured home industry has certainly had a bad reputation for formaldehyde emissions inside homes.  Formaldehyde has never been banned from the manufacture of homes, but lower limits have been set on the use of components such as plywood and particleboard by HUD and the EPA.  The problem is that there are no HUD standards for the maximum allowable level of formaldehyde gas inside a home, meaning that all the new components like flooring, cabinets, walls, furniture and drapery can have low individual levels of emissions, but a high overall level.  For this reason, it’s best to avoid purchasing or staying in new manufactured homes,  If this is not an option, you can choose to furnish it with only solid wood furniture or composite wood furniture with sealed surfaces. If you have any newer composite wood furniture that is still emitting formaldehyde gas, remove it from your home. Because the formaldehyde off-gassing diminishes over time, storing the pieces outside of your living area for a while (under cover of course) may solve the problem. (howtolookatahouse.com)  You can also ventilate as much as possible (leaving windows open in mild climates, and using a fresh-air ventilation system in more extreme climates.  And of course, increase ventilation of your home while doing any interior painting or use low VOC paint.

Some of the most important mold protection also happens on the inside of the home, because leaking pipes, sinks, showers, toilets, washing machines, etc. all need immediate attention in order not to cause mold and damage that can be very costly to repair.  The abundance of fiberboard in manufactured homes will wick up water much more quickly than hardwood, and even ambient humidity is important to control.  

Recreational Vehicles (RV’s or campers) truly are supposed to be mobile, so that you can take your home with you, and enjoy new scenery wherever it’s parked!  Like manufactured homes, there are a variety of pricepoints and features in two classes, motorized and towable.  There are 3 types of motorized RV’s, ranging from the largest, luxury bus-type (Class A), the smallest conversion van (Class B) to the in-between (Class C).  Towable RVs can be as simple as a small “Pop-up” to large “travel-trailers” and “fifth wheels”.  “Tiny homes” can look like miniature versions of homes on wheels.  Here is a more in-depth look at the differences between these classes. 

RVs have similar challenges to manufactured homes when considering water intrusion from above and vapor from below.  It’s a sad truth that RVs are going to leak, but with a lot of inspection and maintenance, you can prevent this.  Most RV’s rely on sealant and caulking, and inspection and repairs should occur every 90 days (see this video for how to inspect it).  Again, let’s take a look from the top down:

Roofs: Most RV roofs are either rubberized (a thin membrane stretched over wooden frame) or fiberglass (molded).  Considering that these materials are more fragile than the asphalt shingles or metal roofs found on manufactured homes, they need a bit more care and upkeep!  Keeping them clean and conditioned helps so that leaves and branches slide right off instead of piling up, and aftermarket coatings can extend life against the sun’s UV damage.  RV roofs can last from 10-20 years or more, depending on the care and maintenance given them.  Here is an article detailing cleaning and repair tips for each type of roof.  Ideally, RVs should be parked under a permanent roof when they are not being used in order to minimize water and sun damage, and a minimal conditioning system (like a dehumidifier) should be left running to keep the air dry inside.

Since RVs are mobile, they are more prone to separation at the roof and wall joint, as well as openings like skylights, windows and doors.  One website says that driving an RV at highway speeds is “ the equivalent of driving your house through a hurricane during an earthquake.” (!)  Any separation needs to receive prompt attention by removing old sealant, cleaning the surface, and applying new sealant.  Here is a great article on how to achieve a professional look and long-lasting finish when resealing seams.   If your RV has a slide-out, special attention needs to be paid to protecting this area, and awnings are a great way to shelter the slide-out roof and joint area by keeping leaf and branch debris, animal droppings and nests off of it, as well as rain and snow. They’re not too hard to install (instructions here) and are a great investment for your RV. 

Each penetration in the side of the RV (like vents, ports for electricity and drainage, and storage compartments) needs attention, because sealants fail over time and with sun damage.  They should have a bead of sealant at least on the top and corners of the penetration to prevent water from coming in (the best would be all around the penetration).

The underbelly (underside) of the RV also needs regular inspection and repair.  Some RV’s have fiberglass, others have wood or metal sheets, and all are susceptible to road damage or more frequently, water damage from the inside like a leaking pipe.  Here is an article with photos on how to assess and repair underbelly damage.  You can even upgrade the type of underbelly protection fairly easily, but it may take more than one person to wrangle the material into place.

Inside the RV, again, motion from road travel is constantly working to pull apart connections and seams.  Keep an eye on all sources of water leaks such as pipes, sinks, showers, toilets, etc., so that water will not damage your home on wheels and initiate mold!  Also, since many RVs have propane powered appliances such as stoves, furnaces, water heaters, etc, a propane leak can be very dangerous to your health. You can use your nose (the old “rotten eggs” smell is a clue, or detectors such as a Gassaf propane leak detector, or a propane dial manometer (to detect pressure drops in the propane system).  (rvlife.com has a great video on how to inspect your propane system).  A pressure drop-down test is recommended once a year so that you can tell if your system is leaking at all.  If you do have a leak, you can use a simple spray bottle with water and liquid dish detergent, to check all joints for leaks (the soap will cause bubbles around the joint if it’s leaking).  

Like manufactured homes, RVs tend to have an abundance of particleboard, fabric and flooring that should have formaldehyde limits individually, but corporately may give off a lot of formaldehyde when they are new from the factory.  These levels go down dramatically as an RV ages, but RV age also increases chances of other problems, like water or structural damage.  In general, less-expensive units have more adhesive-based components (which generate formaldehyde off-gassing) and could create some irritation for more sensitive RV owners. (rvtravel.com).  When checking out RVs to purchase, you can even bring a portable sensor with you to measure the levels of VOCs and formaldehyde inside them (check out our article on sensors for recommendations).  Air purifiers with activated charcoal filters, like the Germ Defender with carbon filters, absorb VOCs and formaldehyde, and fans are helpful to keep air circulating.  1-2 Germ Defenders can cover the average RV (remember that they don’t cover spaces separated by closed doors) so that your RV can be comfortable even new off the factory floor. 

Manufactured and mobile homes can be as healthy as a permanent home inside with a lot of diligence and the decision to choose your neighbors wisely!   If you are in close proximity to smokers, barbeque grills, auto exhaust or other toxins, this can seep into your home.  If possible, try to live or camp on a large lot and use HEPA filters to capture particulates inside.  In a small or large home, it’s best put your health first and live in the best place you can afford.

Photo by Jon Hieb on Unsplash

These steps convert your HVAC into a whole house filter

These steps convert your HVAC into a whole house filter

Many people have central air conditioning/heating, yet they don’t know that this machine could be used year round to improve the air quality in their homes.  For such an expensive investment, it’s wise to get the most out of it–everyday!  Here are a number of tips to do just that.

  1. Air-seal the return ductwork.  We’ve written extensively on air-sealing your home, attached garage and attic, but the return ductwork is super-important too.  A lot of contractors use wood or drywall to “frame” a duct but without sealing the corners, you are pulling dusty air from wall cavities, the attic and maybe even under your house, if the return air grille is near the floor.  Here is a great video on what to do and which products to use.  Air-sealing your ductwork is not a bad idea, either.

  1. Make air filter changes top priority!

If you’ve finally gotten on a schedule of changing your HVAC filter, we applaud you!  You are protecting this expensive equipment by preventing an overly-dirty filter from damaging the fan or other components, because dirty filters increase the pressure drop, like trying to suck a Big Gulp through a coffee stirrer.  Try to use a higher MERV filter (like 11, 12 or 13), first by reading our article How can I get more filtration with my current HVAC system, then increasing the MERV if you have enough filter surface area.

  1. Seal the filter in place.

There are several ways to make sure that air is not bypassing the filter.  

  • This video shows how to seal a vent grille to the drywall using spray foam.  Although this can also be done from the attic (with less chance of dripping messy foam in your house, not all vents can be accessed from above.  

  • For the return grille: caulk the filter grille to the drywall.  

  • Use filter-sealing tape over the filter:  

    • AllergyZone FilterLock Filter Slot Seal, $10, has a magnetic closure to stick securely to your filter slot opening, sealing gaps to maximize filter use.  The video on this page for the product shows how easy it is to install.

    • Or, if you have a filter that lies flat in a filter grille, use masking tape or painter's tape to seal the edges of it to the filter grille like in this video (I prefer painter's tape because it removes more cleanly). 

  1. If you have a BP-2400 Whole Home Ionizer, install it between the return air filter and evaporator coil, or before the fan, in order to get those ions circulating through your whole home.  Once a year, it helps to de-energize the ionizer and clean of any dust from the brush heads, which will maximize its efficiency.

  1. Set the fan to “on”, not auto.  This ensures that the fan is always running even if the heat or AC is not on.  If you’re concerned about the cost of running the fan all year, you don’t have to be.  Check out our article on how to calculate this cost to see that it’s not a lot (~$10 per month or less), especially for the reward of cleaner home air.  The bonus is that circulating air with this fan redistributes air throughout your home, reducing moisture content in soft furnishings and mold growth.

You are ready to go!  Dust, cleaning and personal products, pets, cooking–they all contribute to less-than-stellar indoor air quality, so it’s wise to make the most of what you already have to improve it!

Photo by Tekton on Unsplash

What non-toxic multipurpose spray cleaners really work?

What non-toxic multipurpose spray cleaners really work?

If it wasn’t on your mind before 2020, it most likely is now…. is it CLEAN?  Many people wonder before touching surfaces, outside and inside the home.   The solutions for  “concern” over cleanliness are also being absorbed into our skin, drying out our skin, being inhaled into our lungs, and broadcasted into the atmosphere.  So, let’s get to the bottom of it: what cleaners are safe, and of those, what cleaners really CLEAN?  As in, clean up the mess AND disinfect.  Give me some of those!

For true disinfectants, the EPA has developed a list “N” that will even kill the SARS-CoV-2 virus; however, this list is full of products with ingredients that will also harm us.  In response, TURI (Toxics Use Reduction Institute based at the University of Massachusetts Lowell) has produced a list of “Safer Cleaners” that do not have toxic ingredients.  From 431 formulations on the List N that are classified for “Residential Use”, only 15 made the list by TURI for non-toxic ingredients!  That’s only 3.5%!  The reason is that most of the active ingredients classified by the EPA as disinfectants, and some of the “inert ingredients” are also toxic to us.  For example, over half of the products on List N contain quaternary ammonium compounds (Quats) as active ingredient.  Quats kill microbes by binding to the negatively-charged surfaces of microbes.  They have been studied to induce asthma in cleaning workers, decreased lung function in farmers, and greater immune reactions and decreased fertility in mice, among other effects. They are very persistent and are difficult to remove from surfaces, so it’s important not to use them on food prep surfaces.  This is the type of info we need!  Unfortunately, I just identified a common quat (Benzalkonium chloride) in one of the anti-bacterial soaps I use at home :(.  Time to get safer! 

I wanted to focus on spraying cleaners, because we’ve all been doing a lot of spraying lately.  Spraying counter tops, spraying doorknobs, spraying toilets, spraying toys, spraying steering wheels…you name it!  If we could spray each other, I’m sure we would.  Back to the task: it would be so much simpler if we could buy one spray for the whole house, right?  Such cleaners do exist… check out our shortlist here!

  • TotalClean is our new offering that is safe for adults, children and pets, and is fragrance free!  Using an iodine-based formula, it cleans surfaces and removes odors, without adding harsh chemicals like quats or overwhelming fragrance.  Use it anywhere you can use a water-based cleaner: counter tops, toilets, leather, glass, marble, stone, linoleum, tile, stainless steel, painted surfaces, fabrics, carpet, stove tops, appliance exteriors, sinks, floors, cabinets, tubs and walls.
  • Force of Nature is great for those concerned with toxic chemicals and environmental preservation!  In addition to being an EPA-registered disinfectant, it is a safe cleaner using only vinegar, salt and water, and their “bundles” includes the spray bottle and appliance and “capsules” used to make the cleaner.  This avoids lots of packaging waste and all you have to do is add water and electricity (plug in the appliance) to make a refill.  Genius!
  • Lysol with Hydrogen Peroxide Multi-Purpose Cleaner is an EPA-registered disinfectant that dissolves grease and soap scum, and comes in a number of scents (Citrus Sparkle, Fresh, Cool Spring Breeze and Oxygen Splash are the ones I’ve seen). As one of the household names of bleach (most of their cleaners are bleach-based), you need to make sure that the multi-purpose cleaner you buy is “bleach-free” to avoid that chemical.
  • Arm and Hammer Essentials Disinfecting Wipes are a convenient way to disinfect–great for keeping in the car, bathroom, classrooms, etc.  Using citric acid, they are a registered disinfectant by the EPA. 

Can I make them myself?  Yes, but some are better than others.

For example, you’ve probably seen countless recommendations for using vinegar-based home cleaners, which do break down dirt and help remove it.  However, vinegar is not the best disinfectant according to the EPA.  In order to be classified as a disinfectant, the product must kill 99.9% of harmful germs within 5 to 10 minutes, and vinegar only kills some of those germs, including E. Coli and Salmonella (healthline.com).  If you want to make your own disinfectant, look at the ingredients on the Safer Cleaner list.  The first three, citric acid, ethanol (ethyl alcohol) and hydrogen peroxide, are cheap and accessible ingredients!  Here are some recipes for cleaners based on these ingredients:

  • Ethanol-based cleaner with white vinegar (I like this recipe because it incorporates eucalyptus oil, which is a powerful antimicrobial essential oil).  
  • Citric acid is quite powerful and the Method brand on the TURI list is 5% citric acid and 95% inert ingredients.  It is not recommended to use on natural stone or marble, wood, delicate surfaces or electronic screens because of its acidic effects. For this reason, and the popularity of natural stone counter tops in the US, I’m not going to post a recipe for homemade citric acid multi-purpose cleaner here, but citric acid is best used in descaling and de-greasing appliances.  Here is how to clean 5 household items using citric acid. 
  • Hydrogen peroxide (3-6%) is safe to spray undiluted on surfaces, meaning you can pour a brown bottle from the drug store straight into your spray bottle. “According to The Ohio State University Extension, cleaning counters with undiluted hydrogen peroxide is effective at killing E. coli and Salmonella bacteria on hard surfaces like counters when it’s allowed to sit on the surface for 10 minutes at room temperature.”  (healthline.com also has 21 other ways to use it).  However, according to this website it is slightly acidic, and can damage natural stone counter tops over time (don't use it every day).  There are various recipes to make cleaners, however hydrogen peroxide should never be mixed with vinegar because it makes peracetic acid, which has dangerous fumes.   Hydrogen peroxide should also be used within 6 months of opening the original bottle, because it decomposes into oxygen and water by being exposed to sunlight and heat, losing its disinfecting properties. 

Air Pollution from Oil Wells is real–and you may not even realize how close the wells are!

Air Pollution from Oil Wells is real–and you may not even realize how close the wells are!

I live in a geologically rich state, Mississippi.  Rich for those with mineral rights…and not so rich for those who get to smell their hydrocarbons, sometimes on a weekly basis!  At least several times a month, I wake up to a pungent, rotten egg smell in my house that I recognize immediately from having previously worked in refineries (hydrogen sulfide)…except there are no refineries near me.  One day I decided to find out where the rotten eggs were. 

There are a number of online maps that will show you where active and inactive oil gas wells are.  Some maps give more info than others, and I found that my state has a pretty good one, listing the operators, what type of well (dry hole, oil production, injection or disposal) and data on the well.  I found one dry well less than a mile away.  The field in production closest to me (3 miles away) has 61 wells, 35 of which are in oil production, the remaining mostly dry holes and some disposal. Another one that is 6 miles away has 59 wells, 41 of which are in production, with the remaining as disposals, dry holes and a few injections.  I want to find out which one is throwing the eggs!  It turns out, it may not even be the ones that are in production.  According to Reuters, millions of abandoned (no longer in production) oil wells in the US are leaking methane and other toxic gasses like hydrogen sulfide. Some have been around since the late 1800’s!

SO….it’s not just the rotten eggs that concern me: they seem to go away within several hours.  What about the odorless gasses?  Yes, according to this summary of a study from California, researchers found increased air pollution within 2.5 miles of an oil or gas well, such as PM2.5 (toxic particulate matter), carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, ozone and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  When a new well is being drilled or reaches 100 barrels of oil production per day, PM2.5 increases by approximately 2 micrograms per cubic meter one mile from the site.  This “small” uptick can be significant, however, because oil wells can remain in production for decades, and a different study concluded that even an increase of one microgram of PM2.5 per cubic meter, increases the risk of death by COVID-19 by 11 percent.  Air pollution becomes worse and more widespread on windy days, which is how I figure I am smelling hydrocarbons from a well 3 or more miles away.  Thankfully I live upwind most days (the pollutants of wells flow away from me most of the time).  And thankfully, I am not surrounded by wells like the residents of southern Los Angeles or those along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. 

A study from Harvard released in January 2022 links increased mortality rate for people aged 65 and over to living close to “unconventional oil and gas drilling” operations, or UOGD.  UOGD includes directional (non-vertical) drilling and  “fracking”, or hydraulic fracturing, which is the injection of high-pressure liquid and materials to fracture shale and stimulate oil and gas production (ipaa.org).  The results point to air pollution from the wells causing the increased mortality, although there are hardly any air quality  monitoring stations near the wells. 

In order to confirm what your nose (or sadly, your overall health) is telling you, you can start monitoring and logging indoor and outdoor quality.  Of course, with indoor measurements you’ll want to note what air purification systems you have running (HEPA filter, air purifier, etc.).  Keep a journal or computer log (the device you use may keep records for you) and also note weather conditions, so that wind, temperature, humidity, precipitation, etc. can be referenced along with the air quality.  You’ll want a sensor that measures VOC and PM2.5 levels, and this unit is a great budget-friendly option to get started!  You can easily travel with it too.

For persistent indoor air quality problems due to oil well emissions, you’ll want to get a HEPA filter for PM2.5.  Depending on the model, the unit may also handle VOCs if it has activated carbon in the filter.  The Air Angel helps in both of these areas because it has polar ionization and AHPCO technology, but pairing it with a stand-alone HEPA filter is recommended.  Check out our post on portable HEPA filters for recommendations!

Who can help us get something done about wellhead emissions?  There are rules of law for well emissions (example), however without the know-how, technical equipment, or access to the well to measure air quality, it’s hard to know whether a well is in violation.  Also, there are many abandoned wellheads, for which it is hard to get anyone to take responsibility in many cases.  So, it’s best to start by trying to contact someone locally, and work your way up.  Start with your city or county representative, as often these officials are aware of problems and resources.  Typically, individual states are responsible for cleaning/managing their own wells, unless there are wells on federal or tribal land, which is managed by the federal government.  Your state may or may not be easy to contact with air quality problems, but give it a try!  For example, Mississippi is not excessively progressive because it only has a couple addresses and fax numbers listed for air quality complaints.  Some states with high drilling activity have started their own “orphaned well” programs, and this 2021 report summarizes the efforts of reporting states to register and close orphan wells.  It has a lot of information about states agencies and websites.  The EPA, also, has an email form you can use.  

Air is one thing that is free, but free doesn’t always mean good.  We urge you to persist in making your indoor and outdoor air as good as it can be!

Some Home Automation Can Make for a Healthier Home

Some home automation can make for a healthier home

Confession: I have not made it a priority to automate my home via smart technology.  Being an artist, I tend to allocate my budget more for aesthetics, like a nicer couch or new faucets.  There are some devices in which I’m not remotely interested, like a smart toilet (TMI for Alexa!)  but I’m starting to yearn for some of the health benefits of other elements of home automation and I might cave soon!  I want to discuss some unique smart appliances that not only make our lives easier, but make our homes more healthy for all the inhabitants, even pets.

Before I get to the goodies, I must divulge that the type of home automation discussed here (smart home technology) operates on wireless signals, which is a type of electromagnetic field (EMF).  The potential health effects of EMFs is a subject that is debated by consumers and scientists alike.  We at HypoAir have some very healthy clientele who are always in search of what will take them to the next level.  They are constantly judging the health benefits of any technology against any unhealthy aspects of it--as we all should!  That said, I encourage you to research EMF to be aware of the invisible magnetic fields all around us, including in our homes.  Then you can be the judge: are these smart appliances worth it for you?

  • Lighting: set your lights to dim or change color (to less blue ranges) in the evening to cue children and adults that it’s time to get ready for bed.  The easiest way to retrofit your lighting is by installing smart light bulbs, which you can control by voice, app, or your home’s smart system like Alexa (called a “hub”).  Some of the best smart bulbs are: 
  • Air Purifiers: To use smart filtration or not?  It’s possible to set your air purifier on “auto” mode to save energy and only kick on when needed, but several reviews like the Wirecutter tend to believe that either the air quality monitor or its settings in many purifiers may not be optimal, leading to above average pollutants in your home space.  Rather, employ an independent, high-quality air monitor that will give you alerts to bad air quality, in order to get the purifier activated. 
  • Mattresses: Some of us sleep like a log, from the minute our heads hit any pillow, and some of us roll around like a rotisserie chicken (more my style).  For anyone who is on a quest for a better night’s sleep, smart beds may know our sleep better than we do, and can adjust automatically to help us achieve more rest even when we’re in “la-la land”.  The Sleep Foundation has a great page explaining what smart mattresses are and the features they offer.  Most smart beds are air beds, which allow a great range of firmness options.  The ReST bed, Eight Sleep, Saatva Solaire made two “best of” reviews: Sleep Foundation and Tom’s Guide
    • Saatva Solaire: this mattress was rated best for back pain relief, and is also the most non-toxic bed we’ve found.  It was not the most high-tech, because it is only controlled by remotes (one for each side of the bed with no control over the other side: sorry sleeping partners to snorers!) but it is approved by the American Chiropractic Association (ACA), so it’s well-suited to people with neck and back pain (Tom’s Guide).  The best part for those who are VOC conscious: the anti-microbial treatment on the fabric covering is botanical, and includes natural latex and Certi-pur US certified gel-infused memory foam. At about $2900 for a queen model, it is also one of the most economical. 
    • Best all-around: ReST Essential Smart Bed: this one has many bells and whistles and with up to 64,000 firmness combinations on each side in manual mode, it easily suits everyone.  The best part for restless sleepers is how it automatically moves air to different chambers when you switch positions during the night (from side to stomach for example), so that pressure-point pain is avoided (pressure-point pain is what tends to wake up many people).  It’s not the most expensive bed but certainly falls in the mid-upper range of pricing ($3800 for a queen mattress). 
    • Best for hot sleepers and couples: EightSleep The Pod Pro Smart Bed has a water-based climate-control system (water beds are not extinct!) which can be customized for each side of the mattress.  The sensors in their Active Grid layer collect information about your pulse, breathing, movement and sleep quality, and also has a gentle vibrating alarm option to wake you up (a nice alternative to an audio alarm which can wake both people!).  At about $2900 for a queen mattress, this is also a great mid-level priced bed.
    • If you can’t afford a smart bed or just invested in a conventional mattress, you can still get sleep data by using Withings Sleep Tracking Pad, which is a pad placed under the mattress to record your movement, breathing and breathing disturbances, sleep cycles and more.  It can also be connected to your home’s smart system to automatically turn off/on lights or modify room temperature when you get into/out of the bed.
  • There are many “smart watches” out there that connect to apps designed to improve your health, but I have not seen one more stylish than the Withings ScanWatch. It can detect Atrial Fibrillation (abnormal heart beat) and blood oxygen levels, for those who are prone to these health issues!  It works with Apple Health, FitBit, Google Fit and others to monitor your activity and workouts.  It also works as a sleep monitor to record sleep duration, cycles, heartrate data and sleep apnea problems.  All this and a fantastic (30-day) battery life?  Yes please!
  • Smart Garage Doors: Anyone with a garage has at one point wondered: did I close the door? Usually this happens miles away from the house, and adds a level of stress to any trip if you can’t go back and verify.  I’m all for reducing stress, since driving can be stressful enough!   There are kits that can convert your existing garage door opener to a smart door, allowing it to open by voice or app or on a schedule, or you can purchase a smart door from the start. Most require a strong wi-fi signal. The Chamberlain's MyQ Smart Garage Hub is very economical at about $30, is able to check the open/closed status on the door, and open or close it remotely via its app, and it’s highly rated for ease of installation.  Upgrades to this product include a keypad and camera.
  • Pets are a recognized source of comfort and well-being which are often considered family members!  It makes sense then, to be able to care for them 24/7 almost like a family member, even if you have to go away to work or a short trip.  Here are some devices that help with that:
    • Smart Pet Feeders are great to extend your time away from home even if you have pets who like their schedules!  “Leaving out bowls” may work for cats, who tend to be more picky eaters, but most dogs I’ve encountered indeed would eat as soon as you set the bowl down.  Enter the ideal pet feeders that can operate on a schedule, or manually through an app, with the ability to work even if the wi-fi or power goes out.  
      • Pet feeders need to have sizes and features that fit the pet you’re feeding.  PetSafe’s WiFi -enabled Smart Feed Automatic Pet Feeder holds up to 24 cups of food and allows you to schedule meals, dispense a snack, or even “slow-feed”: an option for pets that eat too fast, enabling it to dole out the meal over a 15-minute period.  
      • Fish feeders are great even when you are home, as anyone who multi-task knows that some items may not get the attention they deserve!  This review rated the Eheim Everyday Fish Feeder as best in class due to its ability to dispense many different types of fish food with accuracy, to be mounted in several ways, and customizable feedings up to 4 times per day.  
    • Smart Pet Doors are an excellent way to alleviate stress of not getting home on time to “let the dog out”, while providing more security to your home and pet than the average dog door.  PetSafe Electronic SmartDoor is not app-enabled, but operates with an RFID tag that is attached to your pet’s collar,  to open only when your pet approaches.  It has two sizes: one for cats and small dogs, and another for large dogs.  Other brands operate with the microchip that is implanted in your pet,  No more free meals, Ricky Raccoon or neighbor cat! 
  • Smart flood sensors are awesome!  Anyone who has experienced the stress and cost of flooding, be it from a broken water heater, washer or AC drip pan, knows that this kind of warning could be priceless.  The Govee WiFi Water Sensor 3 pack can produce an audible alarm (100 dB) as well as an app notification, to let you know that water has been sensed.  This model sits directly on the floor of the area to be monitored, and includes the necessary 6 AAA batteries to get them going (2 per device). 

And for some of the plain-old convenience advantages, check out these smart appliances (from Living Things):

  • Set your oven to preheat before you’re even home, to make cooking less time-consuming
  • Set your coffeepot to come on before you need it (ok, old technology for sure but it's updated when you can sync it with the wake-up alarm on your phone!) 
  • Set your washing machine to start in the morning after you loaded it the night before
  • Go on vacation on the spur of the moment, when you have automated sprinklers and doors and cameras.

What is the best smart device you’ve discovered for your home?

Photo by BENCE BOROS on Unsplash

Wildfire Smoke: Not just for California anymore

Wildfire Smoke: Not just for California anymore

Historically most wildfires happened between May and October, and USDA Forest Service employees were traditionally trained knowing that the four months of June, July, August and September have the worst risk.  However, now the Forest Service is shifting to the concept of a fire year.  Because winter snows are melting earlier and rains are coming later in the fall, it’s a sad reality that fires in the winter months are becoming the norm and there is no longer a “season” for wildfires anymore.  Localities change, too:  as of the time of writing this post in early March 2022, there were more than a dozen fires burning in Oklahoma.

Even if you don’t live in an area directly threatened by fire, wildfires can be devastating to your air quality, just like second-hand smoke.  Air currents can carry the smoke up to thousands of miles away, affecting millions.  According to the EPA, “Smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood and other organic materials burn. The biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles. These microscopic particles can penetrate deep into your lungs. They can cause a range of health problems, from burning eyes and a runny nose to aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases. Exposure to particle pollution is even linked to premature death.”  Yikes!

Here at HypoAir, we get many questions on how to protect indoor air from the pollution of smoke outside.  The EPA has excellent suggestions on what to do on this page, most of which need some time to prepare!  So as drought conditions in your state or surrounding areas persist, get ready now by doing the following:

  • Seal doors and windows with weatherstripping, caulk and door sweeps.  
  • Find out how to adjust your HVAC system accordingly: you’ll want to close the fresh air intake and change over to recirculation, no matter whether you have central AC, a window air conditioner or portable air conditioner.
  • Purchase extra MERV 13 or higher filters for your HVAC system, to be used on poor air quality days (caution: read our post on HVAC filters first, as using a filter with too high MERV rating can damage your system). 
  • If you live in an apartment building or condo with little control over the HVAC, consider purchasing vent filter material so you can place them in the vents into your space.  The filter material can prevent smaller particulates in smoke from entering.  Carbon vent filter material will neutralize many VOCs as well.
  • Purchase a HEPA air cleaner (non-ozone producing type) and be sure to have an extra filter or two on hand.  The use of a HEPA filter will take much of the damaging fine particles out of the air you breathe!  During a wildfire or whenever there is bad air quality outside, run the cleaner/purifier on high for an hour and thereafter at "quiet"/medium setting (Wirecutter).  You can check out our post on standalone HEPA filters as a purchase guide.  If you can't purchase one, make one: there are many videos and instructionals online for DIY air cleaners; most only require one or more filters, a box fan, and some cardboard and tape. 
  • Keep a stash of N95 respirator masks on hand.  These are a good source of protection if you have to go outside, or if power is cut to your home and indoor air quality gets bad as well.  The “95” means it blocks out 95% of particulates.   
  • Keep canned and non-perishable food on hand, so that you don’t have to cook during periods of bad air quality.  Cooking indoors increases small particulates and vapors in the air, and you won’t want to turn on your stove exhaust, as that will draw polluted outdoor air into the house.
  • If air quality is very poor (check next point), you’ll want to evacuate to a place with clean, filtered air, like indoor malls, libraries, community centers, civic centers and local government buildings (sfgate.com).
  • Check your local air quality and receive updates from airnow.gov . Fire and smoke maps are available under the heading fire.airnow.gov .  Using an Air Quality Index (AQI) as a measuring tool ranging from 0-500, your local forecast and larger maps can be color coded to show whether an area is good (green), moderate (yellow), unhealthy for sensitive groups (orange), unhealthy (red), very unhealthy (purple), and hazardous (maroon).

Photo by Tobias Seidl on Unsplash

HVAC filter changes are vital to your indoor air quality!

HVAC filter changes are vital to your indoor air quality!

It can be a little confusing.  Some people call them furnace filters, some call them AC filters, but they are the same!  Your HVAC system uses one filter, and it was originally designed to protect the working parts of the HVAC from damage and reduced efficiency.  A dirty filter can cause your HVAC unit to work harder and make it prone to more breakdowns. Thus, it’s found in the intake (suction or “return” side) of the system, to filter out dust before it goes into the air handler.  There is one exception: if your system has a “fresh air intake”, then it usually has its own filter (located close to the air handler) so that air coming in from the outside is properly filtered. 

With increased importance placed on indoor air quality, we know that what goes into the system, gets blown out the other side, plus some!  Here’s what can happen:

  • Dust that goes into the HVAC system can feed mold when it comes into contact with moisture on the coils or in the drip pan, which can quickly grow and produce mold spores that are distributed through the home.
  • Pet allergens, bacteria, viruses and VOCs that start out in one room of the home can be distributed throughout the home by the HVAC system (ie. onto the towels you use to dry off and the pillows and bedding you sleep on!)

So, it’s important to change out the filter on time.  What’s “on time”?  The time of change used to be dependent on whether the filter was flat or pleated,  which gave the filter less or more surface area.  In general, flat filters have less surface area and are less expensive, but they clog more quickly, requiring more frequent changes (change every month).  Pleated filters have more surface area, allowing them to filter more allergens and have less frequent changes (up to 3 months).  Surface area is just one measurement of a filter’s efficiency, however.

MERV ratings: MERV stands for minimum efficiency reporting value, developed by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) in 1987.    The range is from 1 to 20, and designates with what efficiency the filter removes small particles between 0.3 and 10 micrometers in diameter.  (If you’ve read our FAQ on HEPA ratings, then you know that HEPA filters are rated on their ability to remove particles 0.3 micrometers and smaller.  Furnace filters cannot use standard HEPA filters because they are too dense and cause too large of a pressure drop in the system, however, the good news is that “Experiments indicate that less obstructive, medium-efficiency filters of MERV 7 to 13 are almost as effective as true HEPA filters at removing allergens within residential air handling units.” (wikipedia).   Flat filters including the fiberglass ones usually fall in the MERV 1-4 range, filtering out the largest particles like pollen, dust mites, and carpet and textile fibers.  The best residential filters are higher up the scale at MERV 9-12, which can capture legionella bacteria, humidifier droplets, and lead dust.  We always recommend purchasing the best filter you can afford, with the following rules in mind:

  • Check your furnace manual for the maximum MERV rating.  This is very important because you don’t want to cause the system to overwork or be damaged by drawing air through a filter that is too “tight” and causes too great of a pressure drop.  Think of it like this: which is more difficult to suck liquid through: a small straw or a large straw?  The small straw, of course, because of the small diameter.  It’s the same relative to the smaller “holes” or passages in a higher-rated MERV filter. 
  • MERV filters in the range of 9-12 may need to be changed more frequently than a lower-rated filter, during periods where a lot of contaminants are entering the house.  For example, if there is a wildfire near your home, or renovation is going on inside the home, or you house-sit a shedding pet that is not usually in your home, these situations all call for more frequent changes, because the filter density is capturing almost everything in the air.  
  • Filter life and efficiency depends not only on the time the furnace system is used, but also the fan speed.  Many times a filter performs better when the fan speed is on high, according to this Consumer Reports review, but this also causes the filter life to be the shortest. 

There are other filter ratings scales out there, too.  This page has a good chart which combines all three and their efficiency with common household contaminants. 

  • “FPR” is the Filter Performance Rating devised by The Home Depot.  It uses a number system from 4-10, with filters rated good at 4-5, and 10 being their premium filters.  This creates an easy rating system for filters sold at Home Depot, but does not apply to any other filters.
  • “MPR” is Microparticle Performance Rating, created by 3M/Filtrete for its own filters.  The scale of 300 to 2800 refers to the filter’s ability to trap particles smaller than 1 micron, with 300 being basic and 2800 being premium.  As with FPR, this scale is exclusive because only 3M/Filtrete products are rated on it. 

But wait…there’s more!  You can get other features in your filter:

  • Take all the guesswork out of when to change your filter by purchasing a smart filter and downloading the app on your phone or tablet.  Filtrete’s Smart Air Filters “track air filter life by detecting changes in air pressure over time. Filtrete then determines your filter life based on air flow and usage, not just time…” 
  • Filters with carbon reduce odors and VOCs.  If you are moving into a new build apartment or house, this is a great option to reduce the VOCs and odors coming from new paint, flooring (especially carpets), fixtures and furniture.  
  • Enviroklenz makes patented filters that use high surface area metal oxide materials like Magnesium Oxide, Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide (no carbon), to capture and neutralize contaminants through a process called adsorptive neutralization. They are tested to remove particulates equivalent to a MERV 8, which is a mid-range level of filtration.  However, they also remove VOCs, mold, bacteria and viruses, making them unique in HVAC filters.
  • Colorfil manufactures filters that are especially helpful to pet owners, who deal with ammonia smells and related chemicals in urine.  The filter material turns from a magenta pink when clean, to a dull yellow when dirty, due to citric acid compounds that react with contaminants.  The company began to create innovative filter systems for NASA spacesuits in 2016 and moved on cabin air filters for vehicles and HVAC filters.
  • Electrostatic filters create static electricity as the air flows through the filter, causing larger particles like dander and pollen to stick to the filter.  They come in 2 types: disposable and reusable.  The disposable filters have high ratings (#1 in this review) but the reusable filters need to be washed and allowed to dry once a month and generally are not as effective on smaller particles such as mold spores, bacteria and viruses.and they must be maintained (cleaned) once per month   or the dirty filter can actually release pollutants back into the HVAC system.
  • Professionally installed filter boxes may include custom filters that have larger surface area (with deeper pleats) or electrically-charged plates.  Both of these have more upfront cost, but less frequent cleaning or replacement schedules.  Check out the end of this video to see examples.

It’s the Season…to stand strong against allergens!

It's the Season...to stand strong against allergens!

Just like the song (and the Bible verses that inspired it): For everything, there is a season.  In this case, there is a perfect time in nature to send out pollen, make flowers, plants and fruit, send more rain, make mold, dry out the ground (make dust), and send colder temps to give it all a rest.  If only our bodies reacted as well as our natural surroundings to the seasons!

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (aafa.org), there are seven types of allergies, which are drug, food, insect, latex, mold, pet and pollen.  We discussed allergies in the post “Oh (BLANK), It’s Allergy Season again!” and how you can combat allergens inside your home.  In this post, I’ll go more in depth about the different allergy seasons for pollen, mold, insects and pets (the ones that can be tied to seasons)  and why they seem to get worse every year. 


According to this graph given in a video on Vox, ragweed pollen production is directly related to CO2 levels in the atmosphere.  Why?  Plants take in carbon dioxide like we breathe in oxygen, and they use it to grow and propagate.  More CO2 = more pollen.  

Then, there is another effect of more CO2 in the atmosphere: warmer temperatures.  More warmer days extend the time that plants like ragweed have to send out pollen.  The graph below shows that over the last 50 years, the US on average has gained about 10 days to the typical growing season.  While this is good for farmers, it is not good for allergy sufferers. 

So, we aren’t just imagining it: pollen does increase in intensity and duration, year over year!

Pollen affects some people because their bodies deem it to be an intruder and produce antibodies, which bind to specific kinds of white cells, called mast cells.  Upon recognizing pollen, the mast cells break open, releasing histamines that cause inflammation and increased blood flow to fight the “infection”.  Itchy, watery eyes and a runny nose and sneezing are all results of increased histamines in your system.  

This is the body’s response to most allergens, including dust, mold, and pet dander, etc.  First, we’ll look at the different plant allergens. 

The morning weather report may not tell you which particular plant pollen is peaking when it broadcasts a “high pollen count”, and it’s usually not the pretty flowers we notice.  For example, pollen season in Mississippi usually starts around the time azaleas are blooming (February to early March), but it’s not the azaleas that are the culprit! 

To know what kind of invisible pollen grains are doing you wrong, go to Pollen.com.  Zoom in on the national map, then select a blue pin near you.  This will give you the pollen count, what plants are currently high, and even a 5-day forecast!  For example, on this day in early March 2022 in Mississippi, we have a score of 10.2 due to juniper, ash and oak trees.  At the time of writing this, I don’t even know what juniper and ash trees look like, but it’s likely they are causing my stuffy head and itchy eyes.  Pollen.com even has an app that you can install to access this information quickly.  Pollen counts are the average number of pollen grains in a cubic meter of air.  They are certainly tied to the weather, because rainy days provide relief (rain knocks pollen out of the atmosphere), and sunny, breezy days are worse because the pollen is able to dry out and blow off the tree (sometimes in visible clouds!).  This website has other tools and info that are super-helpful to those of us who want to know the why (?!).  Because there are so many types of plants that produce pollen and different blooming seasons, different pollens peak at different times of the year.  This map groups them into 3 main categories: Ragweed, Grass, and Tree. Ragweed is notorious because it is a small plant that is part of the daisy family, producing little green flowers that can produce up to 1 billion grains (!) of pollen per plant.  Particularly, the reaction is known as hay fever!  Peak ragweed season is August and September in the US.  Grass may be constant throughout the growing season, and trees typically peak in the early to mid springtime.  

Mold: Mold grows throughout the year, but it can definitely increase outdoors after periods of rain, warmer temperatures and increased humidity (late spring through early fall).  Mold is a beneficial part of nature, because it helps to decompose plant material, creating rich soil and nutrients for plants.  However, it propagates by sending out spores that cause our bodies to react in ways similar to, and sometimes worse than, pollen.

Our bodies detect mold spores as intruders, and send out histamines to fight them.  The difference between these spores and pollen, however, is that some mold spores produce mycotoxins, which are toxic chemicals.  Therefore, depending on your sensitivity and the type of mold, breathing in mold spores can cause “just” typical allergy symptoms, or a more serious illness that mimics flu or viral infections.  Check out our post on mycotoxins and how to avoid them. 

Leaf molds are a typical source of mold allergy, which can be particularly high in the fall season. Leaves fall from trees and rains saturate the ground, creating the perfect environment for mold.  According to Dr. Dean Mitchell of the Mitchell Medical Group in NY, “Usually, once the ground frosts over, mold dies off and the symptoms subside.”

Indoor mold can definitely be higher during the warmer, humid summer months too.  When the humidity climbs outdoors, it does the same indoors, and this is when you’ll want to check your humidity sensor often to make sure your home stays below 60%.  Stay vigilant that rooms like bathrooms, basements and laundry rooms are free of standing water (like water in the shower) and soft materials that can allow molds to take root easily.  During the winter, be sure to clean any humidifiers regularly, so that mold doesn’t grow in them.  Check out our Indoor Moisture Inventory to help keep moisture down in all areas of the house!

Insects: According to the AAFA, “Bees, wasps, hornets, yellow jackets and fire ants are the most common stinging insects that cause an allergic reaction. Non-stinging insects can also cause allergic reactions. The most common are cockroaches and the insect-like dust mite. Allergies to these two insects may be the most common cause of year-round allergy and asthma.”

Stinging and biting insects certainly have seasons: summer to early fall.  This is when they are building nests, foraging for food, and generally annoying the heck out of those of us who enjoy the outdoors!  They can even be more aggressive in the late summer and early fall, because the colonies have grown and they know to prepare: winter is coming.  Surprisingly, wasps and yellowjackets are carnivores!  They are not looking to eat us, but will go after smaller insects and any dead, rotting flesh (think: barbeque left-overs in the grill).  The way we opt to control stinging and biting insects (besides swatting them) is very important to our families’ health, so it’s best to check out our post on outdoor pesticides (Enjoying the Outdoors Naturally: Making your backyard a NO FLY zone). 

Dust mites are the new “no-see-um”.  Unlike bed bugs, which are visible and leave visible bites and droppings, dust mites operate invisibly because of their size.  At one-quarter to one-third of a millimeter, they are just too small to see with the naked eye.  What’s more, they are related to spiders (cringe).  That’s all I need to know: millions of tiny spiders in my bed, year-round!  Check out our post on Bedding for Better Sleep to find out how to keep the dust mites and their allergic reactions to a minimum. 

There are two overlapping allergens common to Insects and Pets, which are fleas and ticks.  Having owned many dogs and a few cats, I know that fleas tend to “bloom” in numbers after it rains, and according to this site, are a problem in the fall months especially because animals will get their thicker coats and moisture outside still allows the fleas to live on the ground.  Flea bites are super-irritating to animals and their humans, even causing death if the animal is depleted of too much blood.  Ticks are also very dangerous because of the diseases they can carry: Lymes’ Disease can affect animals and humans in debilitating ways.  Check out our post on “Enjoying the Outdoors Naturally: Making your backyard a NO FLY zone” to learn what products and strategies can keep you and your pets healthy outdoors.

Pets: Lots of pets love to be outside, and they tend to bring the allergens from outside, inside!  For example, even dogs that don’t shed fur like Labradoodles and Yorkshire Terriers love to run around outside and roll in the grass, gathering allergens like pollen and mold in their fur, which they will promptly bring inside and shake into the air or roll on the bed!  It’s our job as wise humans to mitigate the allergens they bring in, as well as the ones that they create all year long (dander, saliva, urine and feces).   In our post “How to Improve Indoor Air Quality with Pets” I discussed what causes pet allergies, and the tips and products that can make a difference in our quality of life together.  Dander can definitely be worse during the wintertime, when pets and humans stay inside more, and the drier climate can exacerbate dry, flaky skin. Minute particles of dead skin can float in the air and also provide food for more dust mites!   I also recommend reading our FAQ on What is HEPA, and the post on HVAC filter changes. 

All in all, it seems there is not a season free from allergens.  The traditional route of medicine is to medicate, medicate, medicate…but we can do a lot to protect ourselves from the allergens through education and prevention (hence the other posts I mentioned).  For those who continue to suffer from allergies after preventative steps, you may consider:

  • Saline sinus rinses with a drop of either TeaTree oil or Oregano Oil really help remove the pollen from your sinuses and disinfect against any mold or fungus that has lodged there.  This page has information on which essential oils have antimicrobial properties and how to use them.  I have successfully used 1 drop of teatree oil in 1 cup of warm saline water, used in a neti pot, to combat severe allergies this year (2022)!

  • Sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) can help your body alter its immune response.  This type of therapy is safe, doesn’t require painful shots, and with it many holistic doctors have enabled their patients to greatly reduce their allergies.  

At the time of writing (2022) articles and interest in our “gut microbiome” (the bacteria that live in our digestive system) is very high, along with interest in pre- and pro-biotics and other ways of altering the gut biome.  Not too surprisingly, studies have shown that our sinuses have their own microbiome, and it is affected by the gut microbiome.  Oral probiotic use has been of benefit in treating chronic rhinosinusitis (CRS) in two studies (German study, Texas study) which is an ailment of many allergy sufferers.  It’s a case for making our whole body stronger, not just treating symptoms!

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Indoor Pesticides–why you should get rid of Raid!

Indoor Pesticides–why you should get rid of Raid!

Confession: I carried the rascals in!  While preparing to move from my last home, I looked at the price of cardboard boxes and said to myself, this is a big city.  Someone else just moved here, so why not ask for their boxes?  Craigslist had several postings a day for free boxes.  Unfortunately, free boxes have free roaches, and one or two roaches can quickly turn into dozens which took up residence in my kitchen.  Short of calling an exterminator, I did my best with over-the-counter pesticides to get rid of them, but on moving day my kitchen still had an infestation.  It was depressing, because I thought that only “dirty” homes got roaches but no matter how much I cleaned, they persisted (more on this later).  In hindsight I think they liked the consistent heat of the pilot light and some crumbs and drippings in my antique gas stove.  It was not my intention to leave a problem like this to the new homeowners (sorry)… but I got my reward. The bugs hitched a ride to my new house and although I tried more commercial and home remedies, they would not budge.  I even tore out the toekicks under my cabinets, thinking they had set up house there.  To my disappointment (because of my affinity for most things German), I even learned that they were called German cockroaches.  A week before Thanksgiving I broke down and called a pro, who required that I empty all my kitchen cabinets so that my cooking and storage containers would not be sprayed (he also cautioned me to wash anything that came in contact with the spray residue).  To my relief, the critters all died or left the house.  But now I wonder, what was in all the pesticides I tried, what did he use, and since I haven’t had a pest problem for about 4 years, how are these chemicals affecting me? 

Whether you or the professionals tackle the insect or pest problem, it’s important to consider the effect of pesticides on your air quality.  According to the EPA,  80 percent of most people's exposure to pesticides occurs indoors and that measurable levels of up to a dozen pesticides have been found in the air inside homes.  Whoa!  The exposure to airborne chemicals when spraying pesticides is obvious, however, there is also accidental ingestion and absorption to consider.  All in all, it’s a desperate and dangerous conundrum for those who are aware of toxins in pesticides…do I have to live with the pests or live with the poison? 

First, what kinds of pests are we talking about?  According to the EPA, there are 5 different types of pests and therefore 5 different types of pesticides:

  • insects (insecticides)
  • termites (termiticides)
  • rodents (rodenticides)
  • fungi (fungicides)
  • microbes (disinfectants)

What’s in these different types of pesticides?  If there’s a label on the bottle, then you can use this informative page to decode what each ingredient is and its risks to you. 

According to nontoxicforhealth.com, “Most indoor insecticides, including those you use on your pets, contain some type of Pyrethroids. These are amped up synthetic versions of natural chemicals found in chrysanthemums (the natural chemicals breakdown quickly in sunlight so they are less effective).”  These are possible carcinogens, endocrine disrupters, nervous and respiratory system toxins.  

In addition to the active (toxic) ingredients, manufacturers are not required to list all the inert (carrier and amplifying) ingredients, which can be even more harmful on their own.  Inert ingredients are called adjuvants, and they increase the effectiveness of the active ingredients by helping them spread out, stick to pests or weeds, and penetrate their outer layers.  “Among these are carcinogens like coal tar, naphthalene, hexane and xylene. And endocrine disruptors like dibutyl phthalate, plus hydrochloric and nitric acid and many petroleum distillates and fuel oils.” (nontoxicforhealth.com)  These inert ingredients do the same when they encounter your skin or clothing; they help the pesticide or herbicide stick to and penetrate so the active chemical can enter your body. Once inside, the inert ingredients alone are quite harmful. “...a 2016 study found that two inert ingredients, APG (alkyl polyglucosides) and POEA (polyethoxylated tallowamine) were 15–18 times and 1200–2000 times more toxic to cells than the active ingredient glyphosate, respectively.  And the inert/active ingredient glyphosate combo doesn’t just kill more body cells. They also disrupt your endocrine system at much lower levels than glyphosate alone.”  (nontoxicforhealth.com)  

One of the most common insecticides is Raid.  What happens when one sees an unwanted guest like a spider or roach?  They reach for the can of Raid under the sink, spray it, then wait to see if there are any other intruders!   I went to the official website (whatsinsideSCJohnson.com) to check on one version, “Raid Spray Multi-Insect Killer”.  The active ingredients are d-Phenothrin and Prallethrin. Both of these chemicals are Pyrethroids.  Then, there are the inactive ingredients (99+% of the product), the first three of which are Propane, Butane and Petroleum Distillate.  These 3 are VOCs, and the 5th, fragrances, contains many VOCs.  Here’s the problem: the product label recommends “Do not allow people or pets to enter treated area until vapors, mists and aerosols have dispersed, and the treated area has been thoroughly ventilated. Wait two hours after application, then open windows, vents and doors for two hours. “  I doubt that many people leave the area (especially an open-concept home) for 2 hours and then open the windows for 2 more hours, so consumers are breathing in the VOCs of the “other ingredients”, which carry the active ingredients to their intended destination, the insects, but also float through the air for 4 or more hours!

In order to clear the air, you’ll need to get rid of the VOCs.  Be proactive and get started with some pest prevention

  • Cut them off!  No, not with a knife, but with caulk, door sweeps, foam sealant, screening, etc.  There are many videos out there on how to seal out pests: make sure doors, windows, and ventilation openings have screens, install door sweeps and weatherstripping on doors and gaps around AC units, and fill cracks with silicone or latex caulk. 
  • Repair leaky piping to limit water sources for pests.
  • Install wire mesh (hardware cloth) on attic openings, roof, chimney and crawlspace vents.  
  • Use airtight containers for food storage. 
  • Clean up after meals and try not to leave any crumbs!  I left this one for last  because even clean homes can get roaches (they can live for a month without food and a week without water).   Do your best not to sustain them by limiting food sources, so the occasional foraging pest will not have reason to stick around.  Food sources even include non-food items: newspaper, cardboard (hence my moving box problem), “book bindings, leather, wallpaper paste, grease, soap, toothpaste, feces, and even human hair.” (resteasypestcontrol.com)  Gross!

Now here’s where you can take control with natural pest control solutions (source: nontoxicforhealth.com):

  • Wondercide is an essential oil-based natural pesticide that comes in flea and tick, mosquito, indoor and outdoor formulations. 
  • Food-grade diatomaceous earth is a fine white powder made from the fossilized remains of tiny aquatic organisms called diatoms.  When sprinkled over surfaces where pests crawl, the earth sticks to their legs and makes small cuts in them and dries out their bodies.  It can also be sprinkled into the fur of dogs, cats, rabbits, etc. to kill fleas, as the earth is non-toxic if they decide to lick themselves.  The fleas start dying within hours!  I used this on my pet rabbit with success, because he liked to hop around the backyard during the day where fleas also roam.  Sprinkle it into carpets for fleas or ants as well.  Just be sure to use a mask when applying it, because the dust is harmful to your lungs (don’t use if you have lung problems).   Also, although many people claim it is safe for humans to eat, I have seen several articles about its danger to our intestines (may block absorption of nutrients).  
  • A hand vacuum will get pests where you can reach, and it’s so satisfying to suck them up!  You can catch-and-release outside, or drown them by emptying the contents of the bin into a bucket of soapy water.  There are lots of hand vacuums available and if you are buying one or replacing yours, be sure to get one with a HEPA filter so that dust and microbes are not expelled into the air while you’re getting that spider!  This one comes with several suction heads and 2 washable HEPA filters.  

Educate yourself–there are no excuses now that we have the internet at our fingertips!  Integrative Pest Management (IPM) is long-term prevention of pests or their damage by managing the ecosystem (University of California).  Basically the following are the four methods of IPM:

  • Biological control: use enemies of the pests to keep them under control!  For example, cats kill rodents.  Many people keep outdoor cats, and never see mice.  Spiders kill insects and mosquitoes.  By allowing small non-poisonous spiders to live around your home, you will have less insects.  Chickens will search and destroy insects too–and roaches are one of their favorite snacks!  The popularity of keeping backyard chickens has grown greatly.
  • Cultural controls: this mostly applies to how food is grown and cultivated, but if you are keeping plants inside, be aware that mold can grow if you overwater the plant and the soil stays too moist.
  • Mechanical and physical controls: keep the pests out by using the methods discussed under pest prevention, and if you need to, use mechanical or chemical traps in safe places so that children and pets aren’t harmed.
  • Chemical control: pesticides are a last resort, and only those that will be safe for the user and the environment. 

Here are two more posts that will be of interest to homeowners: Termiticides: safe for indoor use? (more personal experience here) and Enjoying the Outdoors Naturally…because we love the fresh air but not the creepy-crawly things!

Photo by hybridnighthawk on Unsplash

Termiticides: Safe for Indoor Use?

Termiticides: Safe for Indoor Use?

Termites are tough buggers.  Having lived in New Orleans for 10+years, it is hard to understand how any wooden structures are still standing, considering that the city is the perfect climate for termites: hot and humid!  I learned without any formal research that the Formosan species of termites does not need any ground contact (so much for termite barriers) to survive; it actually does well in a moist section of your attic or roofing, destroying the wood that holds up your roof!  I renovated a house after Hurricane Katrina and wanting to seal the home well with insulation, I went with a spray foam made from sugar cane.  In hindsight I think spray foam in general was a big mistake!  When I purchased the home in 2009, it had very few signs of termite damage, as all the walls and ceilings were open, and I knew the home (having been built in 1952) just had traditional fiberglass insulation before.  After 7 years of living in it, I had to call the exterminator several times a year for different colonies that invaded parts of the attic, one of which made their way down a wall and into a wood floor!  I think the insulation contained just enough moisture to help them live, and provided great shelter as they munched through the house.  I didn’t notice them at all until I saw a few droppings emerging through the foam, and could actually hear a slight “crinkling” sound in the insulation near the infestation, if the house was completely quiet. 

Many professional exterminators use Termidor, which is a formulation of Fipronil.   Fipronil is used in dog and cat flea medications (Frontline), and used in some outdoor pest applications.  Termidor is labelled as “safe for indoor use”, however, low concentrations are deadly to fish, shrimp, crawfish, honeybees and lizards.  It kills insects by affecting their nervous system, and in other animals, it causes nausea, dizziness, aggression, and interrupts hormones and reproduction.  Fipronil breaks down in sunlight to a chemical that is ten times more toxic, which is fipronil-desulfinyl.  This chemical is more easily absorbed into the skin, as well. (pesticide.org)  Fipronil is also the active ingredient in another termite treatment, Taurus SC.  There is likely gallons of Fipronil in the one house I lived in! 

There are other popular termiticides that are used outdoors, to prevent termites from getting to the precious wood in your home:

  • Imidacloprid is an insecticide that is popular in many other countries besides the US.  It is a sort of synthetic nicotine modeled after natural extracts of the tobacco plant.   It is quite toxic to fish, which is important for homes in areas that runoff to streams, lakes, etc.  It is very persistent in soil, meaning it does not deactivate quickly.  It’s also toxic to some birds, acutely toxic to earthworms, bees, and toxic to some plants.   Imidacloprid is the active ingredient in the flea and tick medication Advantage used for cats, however it is toxic to some cats.  Although it is of low toxicity to humans, why poison our surroundings with something so toxic to nature?  Fuse, Premise and Dominion are products that use imidacloprid to control termites.

  • Chlorfenapyr is a newer insecticide in the class of pyrroles that affect insects’ ability to produce energy.  It works on insects that have become resistant to pyrethroids.  It is supposedly only “moderately” toxic to humans; however, severe poisoning and death have been reported by ingestion, inhalation and exposure to skin.  Spectre 2 SC and Phantom are two products that use chlorfenapyr. 

  • Why put yourself into close contact with a chemical, just to avoid termites or insects?

Fine then–how do I keep termites at bay without using toxic chemicals? Here are some more natural tips:

  • Keep roofs and gutters in good repair, in order to minimize water sources for termites

  • Don’t use mulch next to your foundation; instead, keep it 6-12” away.  This allows air to circulate and doesn't encourage termites to enter the house under cover of mulch. 

  • Stack firewood at least 20 feet away from the house, and raise it off the ground about 8” or more.  This allows air circulation and visual inspection for termite tunnels. 

  • Keep trees and shrubs trimmed so that branches don’t touch your house; also don’t allow dead branches to accumulate on the ground.  Keep large plants away from the foundation, because they can block inspection.   Remember: sunlight and heat are the worst natural enemies of termites and they can’t stay in a hot dry area for very long!

  • For homes that are built above ground on pilings, make sure that termite guards are properly installed on each piling. 

  • Declutter the inside of your house!  I know a landlord whose tenant had stacked newspapers in piles all over the living room floor, which are a favorite termite food.  Now she has to replace the subfloor and some of the joists, which will cost thousands!  Look for telltale piles of sawdust under furniture that has a wooden structure like sofas and beds, and don’t store cardboard boxes or newspapers in your home.  

  • For areas that are prone to underground termites, there is now a stainless steel mesh that can be installed around foundations and underground pipes.  It’s marine grade stainless steel warrantied for 10+ years, called Termi-Mesh

  • Application of Bora-Care or other borate products to unpainted wood is a great deterrent to termites, and borate products can be used in baiting systems.  Boron is a non-toxic element that humans and plants need, in low concentrations.  Therefore, according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Cooperative Extension, “Although boric acid is relatively safe to humans and other mammals, it can be harmful if accidentally ingested and must be kept away from food, children and pets. Care must be taken not to breathe in the dust when you apply it. Like other dust formulations, it should be used in places where it will not move around.”  In addition to termite protection, it does not allow molds and fungus to grow. 

  • If you live in an area that is high risk for termites, you will be familiar with swarming season.  During this time, the “alates” or reproductive termites will leave the colony in a brief flight and look for a mate to start another colony.  Usually in late spring, this is when you see swarms of termites surrounding outdoor lights at dusk and after sunset.  It can be a scary sight to homeowners, but don’t let it frighten you!  Turn off outdoor lights on and near your home during swarming season, close drapes or blinds to block light from windows, and make sure you have window screens and weatherstripping installed to keep them out of the house.  If any termites do enter the house, they will die within the day if they do not find moist areas or leaks, so proper maintenance will make sure they don’t start a new colony in your home.  If you do see them entering through a crack or pinhole in the wall, you can use a vacuum to suck them up, ensuring again that there is no moist wood or drywall to sustain them. 

  • If gardening is one of your interests, you may consider planting some of the following around your home, as they have been studied to repel termites: catnip, vetiver grass, and lemongrass. Marigolds are also a favorite of gardeners to deter pests, but they have not been scientifically shown to deter termites.

  • Newer insecticides like Chlorantraniliprole are of very low toxicity to humans, bees and fish, while they cause death to termites by paralysis. 

  • Baiting stations are environmentally safer than pouring chemicals into the ground around your house, because the poison within them is only carried by the worker termites out of the station and into the nest.  However, they can be slow to work and must be checked several times a year, if not monthly, by an exterminator.   If a termite inspection reveals that you have no active infestations in your home, then this may be a good preventative measure.  

Alaska may be the only state that is free from termites, but with some vigilance, they don’t have to take over your home!