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So you’re in the market for a new car? With or without New Car Smell?

So you’re in the market for a new car?  With or without New Car Smell?

If the idea of driving a new car is appealing, you may need to educate your nose to accept that the new car smell is not a good thing.  Thankfully, many automakers are becoming conscious of the dangers of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that compose most new car smells, and are taking steps to reduce them.  Not a small driver for this is the new car market of China.  Over 11% of buyers in China complained about the odors they found in their new cars, according to the 2019 JD Power China Initial Quality Study. (The Self-Poisoning Car)  Apparently, Chinese prefer for their new cars to have no smell at all, which makes sense due to their genetics.  Many Asians possess a less functional acetaldehyde dehydrogenase enzyme, which is responsible for breaking this VOC down, therefore they may be especially susceptible to its allergenic effects. 

When you know about what is in the “new car smell”, you might not be too disappointed when it fades away!  Most of the smells are due to VOCs, some toxic ones at worst.   The sources are varied:

  • Residual compounds from the manufacturing process and material treatment of different interior components and textiles     

  • Adhesives and carrier solvents that will de-gas – as much as 2kg of adhesive can be found in a modern car, much higher than in the past where mechanical riveting and bolting was more common]

  • Degradation of cabin materials over the longer term as a result of oxidation, ultra-violet light and heat. 

There are no worldwide standards for interior VOCs on new cars, but Asian countries seem to have some of the most well-defined guidelines.  Here are some of them:

Source: The Self-Poisoning Car

Testing VOCs with professional equipment can yield surprising results.  Even in a 1-year old gasoline Hyundai i10 (an economy car produced in India but not sold in the US because it was deemed too lightweight), methanol and acetone rose dramatically as the car stood in the sun for 5 hours, only reaching 68 degrees F.  After the five hour test without the engine on, the car was started, windows rolled up and AC on max with recirculation mode.  This yielded another surprise: some VOCs such as acetaldehyde rose steeply during the fourth to sixth minutes. During this phase acetaldehyde concentrations rose from an initial base of approximately 50 to 550 μg/m3, more than ten times the regulated limit in China and Japan. It was suspected that the air conditioner acted as a “sink” for some VOCs, which was flushing them out during this time.  (The Self-Poisoning Car)

VOCs in cars have even led to a new condition: Sick Car Syndrome (SCS), a phenomenon in which drivers and passengers experience short-term health problems owing to the accumulation of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in vehicle cabins [1], [2] and is particularly prominent in new rarely used cars. The symptoms of SCS include irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, headaches, and dizziness, among other symptoms, with potential long-term health consequences.  (Elevated volatile organic compound emissions from coated thermoplastic polyester elastomer in automotive interior parts: Importance of plastic swelling)

Some solutions from automotive material suppliers include: 

  • UK company Aqdot has introduced the product Aqfresh, which is a powder composed of barrel-shaped molecules with a hollow hydrophobic cavity and polar portals, enabling them to tightly bind a wide spectrum of unwanted molecules.  Aqfresh can be applied to textiles via dry impregnation, as well as by spraying and padding during the finishing process.  It can also be incorporated via compounding or polymer masterbatch into rigid plastic parts such as dashboards and other trim pieces.  
  • 3M has developed low VOC adhesive tapes and a water-based spray-on adhesive (no VOCs) that meet the Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association (JAMA) standards for nine substances with defined limits for vehicle indoor air quality (VIAQ).  
  • POM is an acronym for the chemical name polyoxymethylene. It is generally referred to as polyacetal or acetal resin.  POM has a number of applications in cars where it replaces metal such as door locks, fuel system parts, door rollers, and clips to hold trim in place.  It has properties of durability, oil and chemical resistance, and self-lubrication.  However, traditionally POM was a source of formaldehyde.  Polyplastics has developed a number of grades of POM that are low-VOC in its DURACON® POM LV Series

Although there are some brands that historically have higher customer ratings for interior air quality (like Honda), the last comprehensive survey of new car VOCs was in 2012, and recent reports by individual automakers regarding interior VOCs are very hard to find.  You can definitely call individual manufacturers and inquire about VOCs while shopping, but when it comes down to deciding,it’s best to see/test cars in person:  What you see in a “floor model” may not be what you get in your delivered car, either, since a 2007 study showed that interior VOC emissions varied greatly between makes, models and trims and even within the same make/model/trim.

You can do a lot to rid your car’s interior of most of its VOCs. Here are some tips to do it (How to Get Rid of That New Car Smell (Step by Step))

  • Heat, ventilation, and time are certainly the main ways to offgas a vehicle. You can heat it by putting it in the sun, by running the heating system, or even with space heaters (very carefully in a small space).  When you are heating materials you are releasing the VOCs and also creating new VOCs (this study explains), so make sure when you are heating up the new vehicle you are airing it out substantially at the same time so that the gasses have somewhere to go.  Windows should be open while you are heating the vehicle. Windows can also be left open anytime it’s safe to do so.
  • Deep clean the vehicle with non-toxic products:
    • You can use AFM Carpet Shampoo to deep clean carpets and upholstery; just make sure not to soak these surfaces in order to extract all the water and prevent mold growth.
    • Vacuum frequently with a HEPA vacuum.
    • Wipe down hard surfaces with disposable cleaning cloths so that you can throw them away after picking up dust, which is what many chemicals from the plastic bind to.  TotalClean is a non-toxic cleaner that’s safe for cleaning soft or hard surfaces in the car (again beware of soaking soft surfaces, however, because of the danger of mold and water rings when the material dries.)
    • Use an adsorbent like activated charcoal.  You can cut and place this filter media wherever you want in the car, and even use large pieces of it to cover seats when you’re not using them.  
    • Use an Air Angel all the time; the AHPCO cell is especially good at removing VOCs, and you can use it from your car’s power plugs while driving, or plug it into a wall receptacle via extension cord in your garage.
    • Unfortunately, flame retardants used in the foam parts may continue to off-gas for the life of the parts, so use fresh-air ventilation whenever you are driving and the outside air pollution permits you do so.

If VOCs are not reduced through the heat, ventilation and time method, you can block them using sealants. This really is the last resort, because sealing prevents further offgassing.  AFM makes a number of non-toxic products for this purpose and questions about their best application can be answered by The Green Design Center.

  • Fabric seats and carpet: AFM Lock-Out is sprayed on.
  • Vinyl: AFM Hard Seal is applied in thin coats using a sponge
  • Other Plastic Surfaces: AFM Acrilaq is best applied with a pad applicator in 3 light coats, sanding lightly between coats. .

 

If you’re used to the good old-fashioned “smells” of just fresh air and sunshine, ditching the new car smell should not be hard for you…hopefully it’s the same for whoever else will be driving your new car.  A final option would be to look for a lightly used car from someone with non-toxic habits–just like the price, the VOCs should also be reduced considerably, and even if it was “professionally cleaned” by a dealership, those cleaning chemicals can be removed using the same steps above.  Goodbye, little air freshener trees, hello fresh air!

Photo by Sarah Brown on Unsplash

Are Tiny Homes built from Sheds a Good Idea?

Are Tiny Homes built from Sheds a Good Idea?

At least every other day, I see an ad for a tiny home or office that companies or individuals built from what used to be backyard “sheds”.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I am all for repurposing buildings and materials, when they are done the right way!  (In fact, I even repurposed a large metal workshop building into a 2 bed/1.5 bath “condo” for my parents.  This one is on a concrete slab and for all intents and purposes, could have been built that way as a home). What are the advantages, and what are the cautions, of making a home from a shed?  (Many great points adapted from Living in a Shed: 9 Things (2023) You Must Know):

The advantages to living in a tiny home are many, for example:

  • Up-front cost is cheaper than a house
  • Smaller utility bill
  • Less square footage to clean
  • Less impact on the environment
  • Privacy
  • Portability
  • Customization
  • Ability to live in nature or “off-grid” more easily

However, “sheds” are only a subset of tiny homes, specifically, tiny homes that started out as prefab backyard buildings.  Let’s take a look at what could go wrong from making one of these into a habitation.

First of all, when considering whether to build out a shed as a home, you should check into local building codes.  If you live within city limits, there are likely laws about what type of buildings can be built or placed on your property to become “habitations”.  Plopping a shed down and running electricity to it for your teenager to live in could be a big problem whenever it’s noticed by the building inspectors!  Moving it to the middle of a few acres in the country doesn’t normally pose these legal issues, but again, it’s best to check with your local building inspector!   If it’s illegal to live in a shed, it may be legal to live in an ADU-an Accessory Dwelling Unit.  For example, ADU’s in California are required to be at least the size of an efficiency unit (at least 150 sq. ft. livable space plus a bathroom), they must contain a kitchen, a bathroom, they must be built on a permanent foundation, and must be able to turn on/off the ADU utilities without entering the primary unit.  (ADU vs Finished Shed Comparison)

Construction: This is the largest area of caution we see.  Within this topic, we need to highlight: 

  • Off-gassing of toxic compounds from interior building materials.  If the building was never meant for habitation (even as a chicken coop!), then it may contain building materials that are rated for “outdoor use only” which may give off dangerous pesticides/weatherization chemicals.
  • Inferior flooring and framing techniques:  We’ve seen them: sheds built to hold push lawnmowers and Christmas decorations may not hold up to daily living over a number of years.  Holes or loose joints that develop inevitably allow pests to come in (they want to be cool/warm/fed too!).  
  • Inferior foundation: Setting a shed on a few cinder blocks is typically not sufficient for daily living and if the floor begins to sag, all kinds of structural issues (including leaks and mold) can ensue. 
  • Poor insulation:  Typically, storage sheds only need to keep the paint from freezing, not keep a person comfortable, so insulation may not be optimal.  This includes roof and floor insulation–yes, if your shed is not mounted to a slab foundation, it needs to be insulated!
  • Improper sealing (which can cause moisture infiltration and mold growth): If siding is applied over the frame without an air or vapor barrier, it’s easy for moisture to condense inside the walls if they are heated for a living space, or similarly cooled during a hot summer.  These steps in normal construction are what inspectors look for, for the safety of the homeowner and longevity of the building.
  • Addition of water and sewage facilities warrants several considerations:
    • Where is your water source and how will you deal with sewage?  Sewage service is probably the biggest hurdle to overcome, as there are 3 options which may or may not be permitted in your locale: connection to the city’s sewer system, installing a septic tank, or installing a composting toilet. 
    • Plumbing in sinks, toilets, showers and drains also is done by code for a reason–leaks can cause serious mold and hygiene issues.  It’s not a good idea to buy that shed if these appliances are added without proper spacing and materials by someone who knows plumbing code.
  • Addition of power to the shed:  Sometimes power service to a shed (50-100 amp service) is not what you would get for a normal home (200 amp service).  Like the plumbing, wiring the shed for power should be done by someone who knows electrical code, so that it’s wired safely!
  • Addition of HVAC to the shed: Sticking a “window unit” AC or space heater in the side of the shed may keep you cool or warm if it’s the right size, but without proper ventilation, you could build up CO2 and mold very quickly.  CO2 is the product of insufficient ventilation, and face it, a shed is just a small, closed room unless proper ventilation is planned and built-in!  The mold can result from simply living in that closed room, because along with CO2, every human exudes water vapor through their lungs and skin.  If there are 2 people living there, the air quality will be even worse.

So far, it may sound like a major “NO” to use sheds as homes, but that’s just not true.  If you’re allowed to use one in your locale, you can safely do so by starting from scratch (buying a bare-bones model) or buying one from a builder that knows good home construction.  Then you can make sure that the construction, outfitting and customization will work for years to come without causing health issues.  Let’s face it, home ownership is expensive, but saving on a tiny home just to live uncomfortably from lack of weatherization or get sick from mold is definitely not worth the savings.  Therefore, planning is essential!

Photo by Andrea Davis on Unsplash