Helpful tip sheets, websites and even smart phone apps are available to guide homeowners, renters, landlords and visiting care givers through the work of maintaining a healthy home. Note, the key word is work. It takes work to maintain a healthy home, just as it does to maintain a healthy body. Ever hear the phrase “you didn’t just gain a home, you gained a hobby”?
Keeping a home healthy requires proactive steps. But it’s worth the work because indoor air quality can be up to five times worse than outdoor air quality, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
City of Fort Collins Healthy Homes program manager Selina Lujan notes that people spend some 90 percent of their time indoors, and poor indoor air quality poses one of the greatest environmental risks.
“The good news is we have great control in our homes, and there are low-cost or no-cost solutions to most healthy home problems,” Lujan said.
Lujan said improving a home’s indoor air quality and health can be straight-forward by following seven key principles as outlined by the city’s “Be Air Aware” program: keep it contaminant-free, clean, dry, pest-free, well ventilated, well maintained and safe.
KEEP IT SAFE comes first on the healthy homes check list to protect families from dangers in the home. Install or regularly check the status of smoke detectors on every floor of your home, and plan and discuss fire escape routes. For homes with gas appliances or attached garages, install a carbon monoxide detector 15 feet from every bedroom or sleeping area.
Eliminate pesticides and harmful cleaning products, and purchase only low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paints, stains and sealants. If you must keep some of these products around for special projects, never store any chemicals, paints or flammable substances in areas where there is heat, flame, pilot lights or natural gas appliances such as in water heater or HVAC closets.
KEEP IT CONTAMINANT-FREE to avoid substances in your home that can make you sick. Test your home for radon and carbon monoxide. Dispose of or avoid spending money on harmful cleaning products and chemicals; replace them with non-toxic alternatives. Even wasp spray has a natural alternative found through an easy Google search.
Healthy air also means eliminating chemical air fresheners and lighted candles, everyday items that many people don’t realize can be harmful.
“The chemical products that we normally use in our homes can have adverse effects on our health, either short term or long term,” Lujan explained. “Especially if family members have asthma, chemicals can act as asthma triggers. Even if you don’t have asthma, the chemical products that we use in our homes can affect our lungs, our neurological system and potentially get into our blood stream. The chemicals can result in headaches and lung irritation. Our lungs can’t always filter out those fine particles that come in aerosolized products.”
Eliminate any products labeled as “hazardous,” “danger” or “poison.” Never let anyone smoke in or near your home.
KEEP IT PEST-FREE. Insects and rodents can trigger allergies and asthma and spread disease. Pests seek out food, water and hiding places, so keep your home free of clutter and as clean as possible. Seal exterior gaps in your home’s building envelope. Keep all food in airtight containers.
A local home inspector for 22 years, Greg Pohlman said any hole in a home exterior, ranging from woodpecker holes in siding, to cracks in soffits, to damage hidden under decks, can be a place for pests to enter. Regularly check the integrity of caulking, weather-stripping, foam seals, and areas showing weather-related damage.
KEEP IT DRY. Too much water in a home causes mold and structural damage. Run exhaust fans while showering and cooking. Make sure the outside of your home has proper drainage, including downspouts that extend 5 feet away from the home, and unblock rain gutters. Regularly check for and clean up mold in areas that have water, moisture or humidity sources including kitchen, bathrooms, windowsills, washing machine and basement.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mold will grow around leaks in roofs, windows or pipes, or where there has been flooding. Mold grows well on paper products, cardboard, ceiling tiles and wood products. Mold can also grow in dust, paints, wallpaper, insulation, drywall, carpet, fabric and upholstery.
The key to eliminating mold is finding the root cause, whether it be a leak or poor ventilation systems. If the source of moisture is not eliminated, the problem can reoccur.
Pohlman said he sees repeated problems locally with home moisture control during the winter when homes are closed up, trapping moisture. For example, he advises homeowners to run a bathroom fan for about 20 minutes (close the door if this causes home heat loss) to expel moisture.
KEEP IT WELL VENTILATED. Check exhaust fans for effectiveness. When possible, open the windows to fully ventilate your home regularly. Work outside or use extra ventilation when using glues, paint and other harmful chemicals.
KEEP IT WELL MAINTAINED. Ensure the vital systems in your house are in good shape and running efficiently, and your pocketbook will thank you in the future.
Make a habit of looking through your house top to bottom, in every section, every closet, basement, crawl space and attic every six to 12 months. Unfortunately, many homeowners skip that step and end up with serious problems with leaks, mold and other issues that could have been fixed before expensive damage occurred. In northwestern Colorado, it is especially important to mark your calendar for that home check-up during a weekend each fall and each spring to ward off or repair winter weather issues. If you won’t inspect your crawlspace and attic once a year, work with someone who will.
Inside the home, take care of minor repairs before they become large problems. Check for water and sewer leaks and repair immediately before mold has a chance to grow. Check the flues, filters and vents of heating systems to ensure they are clean and connected properly. Vacuum around the water heater and furnace.
Pohlman said he often encounters lax maintenance of HVAC systems.
“People don’t change the air filters frequently, and nobody ever thinks about cleaning the duct work in forced air systems,” Pohlman said.
Outside the home, replace worn and damaged roof shingles to prevent water intrusion. Metal roofs also can leak from weather damage, wear and tear, and screw holes on older roofs. Heavy snow and ice on roofs can damage pipes and flues. Clean and unblock your dryer vent inside and outside the home twice a year. Check and repair the caulking around windows and door frames inside and outside.
KEEP IT CLEAN in order to reduce allergens and dust particles and keep pests away. Remove your shoes before entering your home (think about all the places your shoes have walked). Set up an easy system to wipe your pets’ paws as they come inside. Place a commercial-grade quality doormat at every entrance. Damp dust regularly with a microfiber cloth and water, and reduce dust-attracting clutter.
Staying on top of healthy home chores is well worth the work, as it can ward off significant problems in the future, such as costly home repairs, family health problems and decreased property value and comfort.