Renovation Solutions: Remember to address air-quality issues inside your home

Published: Friday, Oct. 7 2011 4:31 p.m. MDT

EnergyStar has become a household term. Everyone knows that EnergyStar translates as energy efficient products or homes.

Well, the EPA has taken the EnergyStar labeling program for homes a step further into the green. The EPA has developed a sister program called Indoor AirPLUS.

As our homes become more energy efficient there is less air transfer, which is great for efficiency but bad for the indoor air quality. What happens is that bad air moves up from the basement or lower levels of the house and gets trapped inside? This phenomenon is called stack effect.

Americans spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors, and with traditional building materials the air inside the homes can be two to five times more toxic than the outdoor air, according to the EPA.

It is important that as we move to improve the energy efficiency of our houses to remember to address indoor air quality issues as well.

The Indoor AirPLUS program addresses four main aspects of a house that effect indoor air quality:

Moisture control systems: The EnergyStar program addresses moisture control but the Indoor AirPLUS program takes it further. Controlling moisture, especially in the basement, is the first step to good indoor air quality.

Excess moisture and water problems can lead to mold growth and other fungi or bio-contaminants that effect indoor air quality.

All molds can have adverse effects on your health, especially the infamous toxic black mold. All molds and mildews can lead to breathing problems, allergies, eye redness and irritation, and even aspirated asthma symptoms.

Radon control: Radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. Radon is an odorless, harmful soil gas that can enter your home through cracks or openings in your foundation wall or floor.

Indoor AirPLUS requires that new homes in Radon Zone 1 be constructed with approved radon-resistant features according to industry standards. However, the EPA recommends addressing radon in all zones because it is a concern throughout the country and in every state and pockets of differing radon levels can occur in all zones.

Most of northern Utah and the Salt-Lake area are in Radon Zone 2. However, there are areas in eastern Utah and southern Utah that are Zone 1 (the highest risk zone for dangerous radon levels).

The EPA recommends testing your home with a homeowner radon kit in EPA Radon Zones 1 and 2, or you can hire a home inspection company to do it for you. Should excessive levels be detected, the Indoor AirPLUS program requires a radon mitigation system that vents radon gas from the basement slab to the exterior of the home where it dissipates harmlessly.

Pest barriers: Pests are common signs of moisture problems; however, pests themselves can create a harmful indoor air situation. The specifications for pest barriers aim to minimize pathways for pest entry by sealing penetrations and joints in and between the foundation and exterior wall assemblies with blocking materials, such as foam or polyurethane caulk or an equivalent.

HVAC: Heating, venting and Cooling systems can be a leading culprit in poor indoor air quality. The program addresses proper ductwork, air barriers and ventilation requirements so that bad air doesn't get trapped inside for your family to breath.

It also encourages builders to maintain proper humidity levels in their homes. We don't have a huge problem with natural humidity here in Utah, but we can have humidity problems from sources within our homes.

The Indoor AirPLUS program also requires CO alarms and attached garage isolation. There are dangerous gases within your garage that could easily end up in your house if you aren't careful.

Low-emitting building materials: An array of building materials can create bad indoor air quality. Building materials such as paints, lacquers, carpets and adhesives that contain chemicals emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

The EPA is working on labeling products with VOC ratings, though it is a complicated and evolving process. This rating system will allow homeowners to choose products with the least damaging impact on indoor air quality.

Basically, energy efficiency comes with a side effect. When you go green you have to think about your indoor environment and your personal indoor air quality.

The EPA sees its importance and so should you. October is the National Home Indoor Air Quality Awareness and Action Month. Start with a radon test kit. You can buy one online or at Home Depot or Lowes for about $10. Begin today to make sure the air in your home is healthy and safe.

Architects Ann Robinson and Annie V. Schwemmer are the founders of Renovation Design Group, www.renovationdesigngroup.com, a local design firm specializing in home remodels.

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