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How to Improve Indoor Air Quality
The air in your house can be five times more polluted than the air outside, but CR's advice can help you clear the air
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Your windows may be spotless and your floors may sparkle, but for millions of adults and children with allergies, asthma, and other respiratory conditions, a house is only as clean as its air.
Though it might be hard to believe, indoor air can be five times dirtier than what we breathe outside, exposing us to carcinogens, including radon and formaldehyde, as well as quotidian lung-gunking impurities, such as pollen, dust mites, pet dander, and a variety of particulate matter created when we burn candles or cook.
Judging from the skyward trend in sales figures, Americans are turning to portable air purifiers in increasing numbers, paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars to reduce indoor air pollutants and the sniffles, sneezes, coughs, and asthma attacks they can trigger.
But whether air purifiers can improve health is still up for debate. “There’s very little good science on air purifiers,” says Norman Edelman, M.D., senior scientific adviser for the American Lung Association. “Used properly, they have been shown to modestly reduce allergy symptoms. However, the data on the reduction of asthma attacks is less clear.”
The Environmental Protection Agency evaluates the energy consumption of air purifiers for its Energy Star program but is careful to issue a disclaimer about their health benefits: “While some home air cleaning devices may be useful in some circumstances, EPA makes no broad endorsement of their use.” According to the agency, the best way to avoid health problems caused by indoor air pollution is to control or eliminate the sources of pollutants (by banning smoking in the house, for instance) and to ventilate the home with clean outdoor air.
Though the benefits of portable air purifiers are still being debated by the scientific community, recent research suggests that they could protect against the ill effects of air pollution under certain conditions. A small, well-designed study, funded in part by China’s National Health and Family Planning Commission and conducted at a Shanghai university, found that the use of filter-based air purifiers was associated with reducing the adverse health effects caused by polluted air. Another study, conducted by Canada’s British Columbia Centre for Disease Control and other Canadian governmental and academic groups, concluded that the use of portable air purifiers can lower indoor levels of particulate matter caused by smoke pollution and, in doing so, benefit respiratory and cardiovascular health.
Check CR’s air purifier ratings for top-performing models you can buy right now. We also test and rate HVAC air filters .
Picking the Right Air Purifier
There are several types of air purifiers, including ionizing, ultraviolet, and filter-based. At CR we test portable filter-based models, which are the most common.
Filter-based air purifiers employ a fan to pull air through a filter that traps particles,” says CR test engineer Dave Trezza, who ran the air purifiers lab for TK years. HEPA filter-based purifiers claim to capture “up to 99.97%” of allergens and pollutants as small as approximately 0.3 microns, which is about the size of fine dust and smoke particles.
To test them we blow smoke and fine clay dust into an airtight chamber, then measure how quickly a purifier can clear the air‚ or not. The very best models in our tests are effective at removing smoke and dust at both high and low speeds. That means they should also be able to capture pollen and mold, which are larger. But once pollen and mold spores land on the floor, nothing but a good vacuum will remove them.
Filter-based air purifiers cannot capture gases, so they won’t protect you from some of the most dangerous indoor air impurities, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, radon, and volatile organic compounds. And unless they have a carbon filter, they won’t rid your home of odors, so even if cigarette smoke has been filtered from the air, the smell will remain.
Portable air purifiers might not even reduce the symptoms of allergies or the frequency of asthma attacks. But if you’ve taken pains to keep allergens and other pollutants out of your home, an air purifier could help to reduce them further. In addition, running one in the bedroom of a child who suffers from asthma certainly won’t hurt and could be of some benefit. If you decide an air purifier is for you, check our full air purifier ratings and recommendations and keep these things in mind when considering which one to buy:
CADR. This stands for “clean air delivery rate” and indicates the volume of filtered air a unit delivers. Most air purifier packaging will display three CADR numbers, one each for dust, smoke, and pollen. The higher the number, the faster the unit filters the air. The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers suggests that in the case of smoke, select an air purifier with a CADR that is at least 2/3 of your room’s area.
Room size. Manufacturers make claims that their air purifiers can clean rooms of a certain size, usually expressed in square feet or as small, medium, or large. But in our tests, we found that many models weren’t able to capably clean a room of the size claimed on the box. To get the best performance, choose one of the models that we recommend for large rooms (350 to 650 square feet), even if you’re going to use it in a smaller space. CR recommends buying a larger unit than what is needed for the space, and running it on a lower, quieter speed.
Energy Star. Models that carry this familiar blue logo are 40 percent more energy efficient than non-Energy Star models. That’s an important consideration for an appliance that CR suggests people run 24 hours a day.
HEPA filters. Many air purifiers have a HEPA filter, which can capture very fine particles. Some units also use a prefilter to capture larger airborne particles, which can save you money by extending the life of the HEPA filter. (For important cost considerations, see “The Cost of Clean Air,” below.)
Help May Be in Your Basement
If your home relies on forced-air heating and cooling (as most newer homes do), an effective and efficient way to improve your indoor air quality is simply to upgrade the system’s filter, according to Trezza. That’s because heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems recirculate the entire volume of air in your house, drawing it through intake vents, filtering it, and distributing it through ducts to every room.
But to turn your HVAC system into an air purifier, you may need to modify it slightly. Most HVAC systems are installed with 1-inch-thick filters designed only to protect the mechanical workings; retrofitting the system to accommodate special filters that are 2 to 5 inches thick will trap more impurities. Unless you’re very handy, you’ll need to pay a one-time fee to have the new, larger filter housing installed between the return air duct and the intake. Costs vary depending on your system and where you live, but HomeAdvisor, a website that compiles home remodeling and repair costs, pegs the national average at about $1,500.
In the lab, CR’s experts have found consistently that the thicker the filter, the better it works to reduce impurities and the less often you’ll need to replace it. “These thicker filters are better for you and for your HVAC system,” Trezza says.
Our recommended filters for HVAC systems are the best at removing dust, pollen, and smoke without impeding the flow of air. “These filters clean all of the air in your house,” Trezza says, “but only when the system is running.”
An HVAC system retrofitted with a thicker filter requires no special attention. “Just change the filter every three months or as often as the manufacturer recommends,” Trezza says. “And be careful not to put it in backward, which could reduce the flow of air.” The annual cost of replacing the filters we tested ranges from $20 to $130.
Reducing Allergens at Home
Allergies got you down? On the " Consumer 101 " TV show, Consumer Reports experts explain how to reduce dust mites and other triggers in your home.
Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the November 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.
Mary H.J. Farrell
Mary H.J. Farrell is a senior editor at Consumer Reports whose real passion is for cooking and all that entails. She has expanded CR’s cookware category to include not only more pots and pans but also other essentials like stand mixer attachments, sheet pans, and vacuum sealers. Mary also covers vacuums but finds cooking way more fun than cleaning. Since the mid-1990s, Mary has held senior positions at People.com, MSNBC, and Ladies’ Home Journal. One of her earliest jobs was at Good Housekeeping.
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8 Strategies To Improve Your Home's Air Quality
There's maintenance you can do today and investments you can make for the long-term.
Greater awareness about how homes impact our overall health (and the quality of air we’re breathing in during those Zoom yoga classes) has been heightened this year, leaving many people wondering about how to up the air quality at home.
Below are tips you can start putting into action today, or consider for bigger changes down the road.
Short Term Maintenance
No shoes indoors.
The simplest way towards better indoor air quality? Ditch the outdoor shoes at the entryway. Caroline Blazovsky of home health consultancy My Healthy Home , says it’s one of the number one ways you can help control what's coming in and out of your home. (She should know: She has investigated over 30,000 homes to help identify at-home health issues.)
“Make sure that you have outside shoes and inside shoes to prevent contaminants from being tracked in,” she advises.
Manage pet dander regularly
As much as you might love your dog or cat, their pet dander (among other things) seriously worsens air quality in your home, and they’re little furry vehicles for bringing outdoor contaminants indoors.
Consider buying boots for dogs to wear during outdoor bathroom trips and, if you can swing it, bathing your pets once a week will help keep dander to a minimum. If allergies are constantly flaring—but you just can’t bring yourself to part with Fido—consider installing a whole home purifier (more on that below).
Add a portable humidifier (or dehumidifier)
During the winter, when drier air means that runny noses and scratchy throats are more common, bringing a portable tabletop or floor humidifier into the mix can help get a room’s air moisture back into a healthy zone— estimated to be about 35 to 50 percent humidity , depending on the weather. Choose a model that has enough power for the size of room, and consider purchasing a version that has a built-in hygrometer, which will measure the air moisture levels in the room and ensure they stay within an ideal range.
Trane Residential Steam Humidifier
(If multiple rooms of the house need humidifying, investing in a whole home humidifier that works through the heating and cooling system could make the difference between constant cold weather sniffles and comfort.)
On the flip side, if you are looking to take moisture out of the air, you might opt to keep a dehumidifier in the basement or other moisture-prone areas, which discourages the growth of mold and dust mites.
Integrate cleaning appliances and products that fight allergens
Changing up your cleaning routines in simple ways can also help make big strides toward achieving better indoor air quality, like by opting for a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filter-clad vacuum. If you don’t, vacuuming can kick extra allergens into the air, so make sure you look for the seal from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America .
“HEPA filtration can actually improve your cardiovascular function and heart health tremendously,” says Blazovsky, who also notes that a stand-alone HEPA air purifier can be purchased to work in tandem with vacuuming.
Make sure to use hypoallergenic cleaning products (high levels of harsh chemical odors can be triggering for many people) so you’re not doing more harm than good in your efforts to keep your home tidy and deep breath-friendly.
Change your air filters more often
Trane comfort performance air filter.
Homeownership is all about maintenance, and if you have an HVAC system, changing out your filters regularly plays a huge role in the health of your house. “You have to be on a regular schedule for changing your HVAC filter,” says Blazovsky.
While the industry standard is that you should replace air filters every 60 to 90 days, if you’re an allergy sufferer or have a pet, 30 days is a surer bet.
Trade out your soft surfaces.
Carpet, large area rugs, curtains, and super-plush old couches can be a source of comfort, but can also become havens for dust and debris. If you’re ready to make major structural changes in the name of indoor air quality, trading out carpet for a harder surface like engineered wood or vinyl , swapping curtains for easy-to-wipe-down, roll-up shades and opting for leather instead of upholstery on couches can go a long way toward better air quality (and a reduced number of deep cleaning sessions).
Add a whole home purifier
Trane residential cleaneffects air cleaner.
If you're looking for a whole home solution, installing a whole home air purifier within your HVAC system is one of the best ways to ensure pristine air quality.
A whole house purification system cleans the air as it is filtered through your home’s HVAC, unlike portable home purifiers which are moved from room-to-room. This kind of professional-level set-up—like Trane’s CleanEffects Air Cleaner —can help remove even the tiniest of airborne particles (even smaller than the best portable HEPA filter) systemically before they reach your family, meaning everyone breathes easier around the house. And bonus: it’s Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America-approved.
Select a top-quality HVAC
Few things are more important to the long-term quality of your home’s air than a top-notch, well-maintained HVAC.
Trane Residential Trane TruComfort XV20i Variable Speed Heat Pump
Trane’s XV20i TruComfort Variable Speed Heat Pump is guided by a Climatuff Variable Speed Compressor that ensures advanced temperature control, balanced humidity levels, reduced sound and enhanced filtration for your home—meaning that air temperature remains consistent, despite the pump’s hard work.
You can pair it with their S9X2 Gas Furnace for when temperatures dip, and it’s seamlessly integrated with the Nexia smart home system so that you can guarantee your home’s air quality and temperature are just right even when you’re not there.
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