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Manage Air Flow to Improve Indoor Air Quality

Posted by Matt Power, Editor-In-Chief

Sep 4, 2014 3:43:00 PM

Fresh air, yes, but manage the flow.

 Keep Walls Under Wraps

ONE OF THE CONFUSING CHARACTERISTICS OF GREEN BUILDING certification programs is the way they lump together two different aspects of building science: saving energy and keeping indoor air quality high. Is a green home one that saves energy, or one that has healthier indoor air than a conventional home?

The answer is both. How did the two concepts get mashed together this way? Blame tight houses. As windows, walls and basements have become less leaky, the stuff that pollutes air inside the home—glues, carpets, paints, pressed board cabinets—suddenly became a lot more dangerous. So here’s the deal. If you want to build or retrofit your home to be greener, you’ll have to control the air quality at the same time. There are three ways to do this: first, by eliminating pollutants at the point source; second, by keeping moisture levels healthy indoors; and third, by mechanically “cleaning” the air.

Know the Lingo

  • Felted Backing: A type of carpet underlayment that can be made greener if produced with natural fibers and less toxic binders. Other harder-to-green types include polyurethane foam and sponge rubber.
  • Natural Fiber Carpets: Products made with sisal, wool or other natural fibers.
  • Energy Recovery Ventilator/Heat Recovery Ventilator (ERV/HRV): Device that exchanges stale air from inside the home with fresh air from outside, also exchanging some energy in the process.
    Vapor Barrier: Typically a synthetic material or coating that restricts or halts the flow of airborne moisture. Not to be confused with housewrap, which is vapor permeable.
  • Housewrap: Synthetic material that allows water vapor to pass from interior to exterior of a home, yet protects the building from rain and reduces drafts.
  • Particulates: Airborne particles that may be a hazard to human health, particularly if they are very small. They should be HEPA-filtered or removed from living areas.

What Makes One Carpet Greener than Another?

The EPA offers a few guidelines:

  • Low or no volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
  • No toxic dyes
  • Recyclable
  • Recycled content
  • Reduced energy use (during manufacturing)
  • Reduced or improved air emissions (during manufacturing)
  • Minimum 10-year warranty
Recent EPA research found that carpet tiles can be a more sustainable alternative than wall-to-wall products. If you stain a section, for example, you can remove and replace it. Also, you can “rotate” tiles from heavy use areas to light use areas. The EPA’s test building used Milliken 36”x36” tile carpet and low-VOC adhesives to test these principles.

Here are some key products whose attributes help provide healthier indoor air:

Housewrap: Passive Resistance
Some modern building products operate passively. Housewraps fall under this description. These weather-resistant barriers allow water vapor to escape living spaces and wall cavities (where it might condense and encourage mold or mildew), at the same time preventing unwanted outdoor air from creeping into the home. Housewrap is only as good as its installation, however.

The Department of Energy says that housewrap must be taped at every seam. Otherwise, it may be 20% less efficient. It’s also important that housewrap not be left exposed to sun and wind for too long, factors that can degrade its effectiveness over time.

Carpet: Look Below the Surface
Carpets have only in the last decade or so come under close scrutiny for their environmental impacts—both in and out of the home. Most commercial carpets are made from some variation of synthetic, petroleum-based material. This material is often treated with other chemicals to improve stain resistance, wear or color retention. To make matters worse, many carpets are installed over highly toxic rubberized pads. They may also be glued to the floor with pungent adhesives. That new carpet smell you recognize is not something you want in your home. It’s a sign that your floor is releasing unknown chemicals into your living space. A few of the larger carpet makers—notably Mohawk (below), Interface and Shaw Industries have begun to approach carpets from a more eco-friendly perspective, not only recycling old carpets—but offering less toxic installation systems and products that have lower levels of offgassing.

Central Vacuum Systems: Dust Deniers
The carpet industry suggests that the average American family uses a vacuum cleaner at least once weekly, while about 10% of us vacuum our homes once or more per day. But the typical upright household vacuum cleaner may not be the solution to clearing the air in a home. These upright units are not created equal. Most lack an effective HEPA filtering system—the only reliable way to capture the fine particles that have been shown to be harmful to human health. On the contrary, a vacuum with a non-HEPA filter may simply toss tiny particles back into the air.

A whole-house vacuum solves this problem by actually taking unwanted particles outside the living space—into a garage or unfinished basement.

Energy and Heat Recovery Ventilators: Key Component
You may have heard of energy recovery ventilator (ERVs) and their northern cousins, heat recovery ventilators (HRVs). This heat transfer technology is a key component of any modern “tight” house. Without them, modern houses would probably not be worth the foam, tape and caulking they’re sealed with. These mechanical wonders take hot, unconditioned fresh air from outside, pass it over a heat collecting medium, where it gets a partial cooldown before entering the home. A study by John Bower (visit www.healthyhouseinstitute.com) found that using a heat recovery ventilator with continuous ventilation cost a Minnesota homeowner just $86 a year. It cost $188 to do the same ventilation without an HRV.


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