Allergies in the Home

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If it seems you’re running into more allergy sufferers these days, you’re not mistaken. According to the National Institutes of Health, the number of people with allergies is two to five times higher than it was 30 years ago.

The reason could be as close as our homes.

While newer homes are designed to be more energy efficient and airtight, they are also linked to poor indoor air quality, said Amber Wood, manager of the energy program at the NAHB Research Center.

Sealing a home can reduce air infiltration, but it also raises the issue of how fresh air will enter. Meanwhile, excess humidity, pollutants and allergens are trapped indoors.

“You don’t have as much fresh air coming in, plus you’re bringing in all kinds of chemicals that are part of your furniture or are tracked in on the bottom of your shoes,” Wood said.

The good news is, you can breathe easier and healthier, in a home that’s properly ventilated.

“Solutions exist, but all relate back to improved ventilation,” Wood said.

Ventilation can be boosted through active and passive means to allow for balanced air exchange.

An energy recovery ventilator is an example of an active system that brings in outdoor air and exchanges heat from the exhaust to the supply air, Wood said. These ventilators can be used in new or remodeled homes. You pay more upfront, but it’s justified if residents experience sensitivities to indoor air.

A passive ventilation system incorporates a duct to bring outdoor air into the return side of the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system for whole-house distribution, Wood said. In Northern climes, that duct should include a damper limiting the amount of incoming cold air to prevent the system from freezing. The exhaust portion of the system places a timer on a bath fan to regularly exhaust indoor air.

Serosun Farms, a Hampshire development of 114 homes on 410 acres, uses geothermal heating and air-conditioning systems, said John DeWald, president of developer John DeWald and Associates. The systems go down 4 or 5 feet into soil that’s a consistent 55 degrees and use that as a winter heat source and summertime heat sump, DeWald said.

“These systems are much more high performance than typical forced-air systems,” he said, noting they don’t require fuel to be burned in the house and don’t kick up as much dust.

Control Moisture Levels

Excessive humidity supports the growth of mold spores and dust mites, while dry air can cause static electricity, dry skin or respiratory ailments.

Humidification systems regulate indoor moisture levels, said Brian Goldberg, partner in LG Development, a Chicago-based residential and commercial contractor.

“When things are dry, you get more static electricity and more airborne particles,” he said. “Young kids are susceptible to feeling uncomfortable in that type of air and that’s why it’s important to have properly humidified indoor air.”

Ultraviolet germicidal irradiation is effective in destroying airborne germs, said Rick Croce, a vice president at Smykal Renovations in Wheaton. An ultraviolet lamp is installed in the air plenum, just above the coil in cooling systems and keeps microorganisms from forming in a moist environment.

Duct Cleaning

Air ducts in a forced-air system can become contaminated with dust, pollen or other debris if not properly installed and maintained. While the debate continues about the benefits of periodic duct cleaning, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says no evidence suggests that such cleaning would be harmful, provided it is done properly.

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