Indoor Air Quality & The Story of the Tight House

Energy efficiency is a very real issue in today’s environment. Modern construction codes require a much tighter building envelope than the homes most of us grew up in (though there are minimal ventilation standards determined by ASHRAE).

The tighter and more efficient we make our building envelope, the more we are trapped with the “things” inside our home, ultimately affecting our air. Common items found inside our homes contain potentially harmful VOCs. Frequent examples are formaldehyde and some plasticizers (to mention a few), individually and in many cases, both commonly found in: in carpet, vinyl, plywood, OSB, MDF, PVC, insulation, paint, sealers, adhesives, furniture polish, candles, air fresheners, household cleaners, un-vented fuel burning appliances, clothing, etc. Flame retardants, widely used in and on (but not exclusively with) petroleum based products (which are more apt to catch fire), are another potential indoor environmental problem. Some common products that generally contain fire retardants are: furniture, carpets, mattresses, pillows, and even computers. Then, there are home pesticides, which frequently contain additional potentially harmful compounds like organophosphates.

If most of us didn’t consistently build and fill our homes with such high levels of toxins (low to moderate levels are probably alright for most people, and yes it is difficult to say what low to moderate levels really are, but the newer European Chemical Standards are probably headed in the right direction), we wouldn’t be required to have as much mechanical ventilation (exhausting conditioned indoor air, and bringing in outdoor air) in our homes during the heating and cooling months, which means we could achieve even tighter and more efficient homes. And if you are thinking less ventilation sounds like a bad thing, keep in mind your HVAC system conditions your air (by filtering and dehumidifying it), which removes particulate and keeps moisture at comfortable levels. Therefore, the more outside air we bring in, the more work your HVAC system has to do to.

So end the end, we stay on the safe side..but again, the reason is just an attempt to accommodate all the toxic stuff in our homes including many of the materials our homes are actually made of.

Use of these high VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) materials is unfortunately the norm for most builders (though I must note Austin does have at least a handful of builders that do go against this negative grain). The VOC list goes on and on, like a freshly opened can of worms. Some supplementary organizational links, relating to the ever important subject of IAQ (Indoor Air Quality) and many other healthy home related subjects, can be located via the “why ecosafe” page listed under “resources.” Furthermore, one of many good (and in this case interactive) reads, is on an Oprah blog, called Detox your Home.

So as they say, it is what it is, and the required ventilation standards probably wont change any time soon (and currently for good reason), resulting in slightly less efficient homes than could be achieved otherwise. That said, we can reduce our use of toxic products and materials (one step at a time), from the start of construction, all the way to our purchases and use of household items long after construction has been completed. This is a lifestyle!

Education is power; get informed. Go green!

Doug Cameron


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