Healthy Houses Can Mean Healthy People
Did you know that keeping your home healthy is important to maintaining your health?
There are specific things your house needs to be able to support your day-to-day health needs. Among them are the ability to properly vent moisture, to maintain heating and cooling, to keep you clean, to safely dispose of your waste, and to protect you from anything outside your door.
Where these needs meet yours is where housing meets health. We want to share a series on each of these over the next few weeks.
Let’s start with talking about indoor air quality. Moisture is good for plants, along with mold and mildew when the humidity is allowed to surpass 50 percent, especially in rooms of your house that are rarely or minimally heated.
Temperatures below 50 degrees support unhealthy molds and mildews, indoors and out. If you can smell mildew in the house, then you may have mold/mildew spore or other air quality issues.
Maybe you are just used to being ill or coughing and sneezing with a constantly drippy nose this time of year. Maybe you have to visit the emergency room on occasion due to lack of breath. Do you get better after you leave the house for a while? Talk to your health care provider about this factor.
You can do a few things that will make a difference in air quality and comfort inside your home besides keeping it clean.
Every house with a crawlspace needs to have 6 mil. black plastic sheeting stretched over the soil under the house. This prevents a great deal of moisture from migrating up from the soil through the floor into the living area. Your home’s foundation also needs to be vented to allow air to circulate, which removes any additional smells and moisture. One square foot of vent for each 150-square-foot area of the foundation floor is a good rule.
The kitchen, baths and laundry room are where most unwanted moisture and pollutants are produced. In each, you should have properly sized fans that vent to the exterior. (If you have ever made the mistake of cooking whole crab in the house without a vented range hood to suck out the smell, you’ll know what we mean about penetration.)
The steam you create in the kitchen, bath and laundry may not smell, but it can penetrate to every room, creating the right conditions for mold and mildew issues.
Fans will do no good if you don’t turn them on. And remember to keep them running for a while after the water has boiled on the stove, after taking a shower, or washing another load of laundry. It takes a while to get the moist air out, so pretend any steam you create is saturated in stinky cooked-crab air.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
Having a source of reliable heat to maintain a minimum of 60 degrees indoors can make a huge difference in your health. Under that is where mold thrives.
Before we talk about the positive and negative aspects of any particular heating system, let’s talk about how and why heating systems can make a positive impact.
For your health and the health of your home, mold and mildew need to be avoided. Inefficient heating systems can encourage the growth and release of airborne mold spore and other antigens, threatening to affect your breathing — especially for those with allergies, asthma or other pre-existing conditions.
When heating systems are inefficient, a couple of things happen.
First, the heated air doesn’t always make it to every corner of the house, creating cold spots near the floor, in corners and in closets where moist air precipitates, creating the perfect environment for mold and powdery mildew to thrive.
Second, if your system is expensive to run, you may not be able to afford to turn it on except in the coldest of weather. You might even choose not to heat certain rooms at all. Unfortunately, what works for the budget isn’t always good for the home or human health. There may be heating alternatives to consider.
HEATING SYSTEM CONSIDERATIONS
Fuel burning heating devices — an oil furnace, natural/LP gas stove, wood or pellet stove/fireplace — can put you at risk for carbon monoxide poisoning and air particulates.
When any of these heating appliances stops working properly or leaks from a crack or holes in the system, carbon monoxide gas can fill your house, causing death. Carbon monoxide detectors are inexpensive and definitely worth the cost to alert you to this invisible threat.
WOOD STOVES AND FIREPLACES
There is just something bone-warming about a properly installed “IC rated” wood stove, or even a crackling fireplace. We get it, and we know many Harborites need and want to use them with the abundance of wood for fuel.
However, they take a lot of tending and care to keep the appliance and chimney clean, to find and cut wood or to buy it, and to store and dry the wood — and then there are the bugs and spiders and smoke.
When talking health and housing, chopping wood is probably good exercise. While using wood as a backup heat source or for an occasional treat to added ambience is great, relying on a different heating system for your day-to-day needs is likely healthier.
In addition, both fireplaces and wood stoves can add particulate matter (soot) into your home and lungs, creating or exacerbating breathing issues.
HEAT PUMP MAY BE YOUR ANSWER
We talked about ductless heat pumps in last week’s column, and we know many houses in Grays Harbor are well-suited to using them.
Because a heat pump is inexpensive to run, there’s a greater likelihood it would be used. They circulate warm air that literally sucks out the moisture, which helps prevent molds and promotes health for the house as well as its occupants.
There is a drawback with heat pumps: When it is very, very cold, they don’t perform as well because there is less heat in the outside air to extract. In addition, they won’t run without electricity. Therefore, it’s a good idea to have a secondary source of heat.
For those super cold days, we recommend using a backup source such as your old electrical baseboard heaters, cadet wall heaters, or a furnace-rated gas fireplace, wood stove or fireplace — not the barbecue!
Don’t forget to change your smoke and carbon monoxide detector batteries at the time-change coming up.
Stay warm — and stay healthy!
Dave Murnen and Pat Beaty are construction specialists at NeighborWorks of Grays Harbor County, where Murnen is executive director. This is a nonprofit organization committed to creating safe and affordable housing for all residents of Grays Harbor County. For questions about home repair, renting, remodeling or buying, call 360-533-7828 or visit 710 E. Market St. in Aberdeen.