The winter months bring a lot of wonderful things: holidays, family get-togethers, sipping cocoa while it snows outside, falling asleep in front of a warm fire. So as the temperatures drop, people predictably spend more and more time indoors…which is great for staying cozy, but maybe not so great for your health. Of all the seasons, winter presents the greatest indoor air quality (IAQ) conundrum: you spend most of your time indoors to keep warm, but what kind of air are you actually breathing?
Not your Mama’s house
First, before we get into specifics about your IAQ, let’s keep in mind one thing about modern homes: they aren’t built like they used to be! The homes your parents grew up in are a lot different in terms of efficiency than the ones being built today. Building standards, EPA guidelines and the desire to live in a cost-effective and/or more environmentally conscious home have turned IAQ into a whole new game. So while newer homes are built to be better insulated, more smartly designed, energy efficient and weather-proof, some of these forward-thinking upgrades can also lend themselves to making the actual quality of air in your home worse.
For example, while it’s great that your warmed air isn’t leaking out through the cracks in your walls or poorly sealed windows, it also means that same air is staying and being recycled within your home. Any fumes, odors, microscopic debris and allergens that are released are now being filtered by YOU, over and over again.
According to the EPA, “If too little outdoor air enters a home, pollutants can accumulate to levels that can pose health and comfort problems. Unless they are built with special mechanical means of ventilation, homes that are designed and constructed to minimize the amount of outdoor air that can ‘leak’ into and out of the home may have higher pollutant levels than other homes.”
Which brings us to….
Where there’s smoke…
There’s no more beloved home feature in winter than a fireplace. It not only provides a cozy atmosphere, it’s functional, too: by putting off a continual stream of warmth, you might be able to scale back on your heating bill a bit. However, with fireplaces can come IAQ hazards, especially if your fireplace is wood-burning.
The EPA has noted that “smoke created from wood burning can contribute significantly to air pollution and public health problems such as asthma and other respiratory ailments. [It can also contain] many chemical substances that are considered harmful such as hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), fine particle pollution (ash), and volatile organic compounds (VOC).”
Look what the cat dragged in
During winter, pets are (and should be!) inside more often, which can increase the likelihood of exposure to pet dander. And this isn’t to mention what all they bring in from the great outdoors when they do go outside for a potty break! People with mild to moderate pet allergies can notice their symptoms worsen in winter months, and a greater proximity to pet dander is a likely issue.
So what’s the solution?
Can you still enjoy the warmth and ambience of a fireplace without compromising your health? It’s possible! The EPA offered these tips on how to maintain the best IAQ during winter:
- Replace old, dirty wood stoves with cleaner and more efficient heating alternatives such as gas, oil, propane, or electric heat
- Burn only clean, dry, and seasoned wood that has been split and dried for at least 6 months.
- If you’ve got pets, designate at least one room — your bedroom is a good one — as pet free! You might also consider vacuuming more often to make sure that their dander is removed from the floors and upholstery in your home.
- Burn hardwood rather than softwoods. Hardwoods are denser and burn more slowly and evenly, which produces less smoke. Hardwoods also provide more heat energy.
- Install a wood pellet stove, which uses compressed wood waste. It uses excess combustion air to make a fire burn hot and clean. These stoves are considered the most efficient stoves available with efficiency ratings exceeding 80%.
- Never burn garbage, trash, plastics, rubber, petroleum products, paints, solvents, charcoal/coal, or treated woods.
- Use small pieces of wood and do not overload the appliance.
- Clean ashes from the stove. Excess ashes can clog a stove’s air intake vent, reducing its efficiency.
- Watch the chimney for smoke. Properly burning fires should give off only a wisp of white steam. The darker and thicker the smoke, the more pollutants the fire emits, and the more fuel it wastes.
For an even added peace of mind, consider investing in a quality air purifier. Some of the higher-end units on the market are capable of catching microns as small as 0.1, and can help reduce lingering odors and fumes.