When was the last time you gave any thought to your home’s air quality and whether the materials you see throughout it are safe? According to a study of over 1,000 consumers by UL Environment, 70% of Americans say they’re on the hunt for greener products in a home, with concerns over toxic materials and indoor air quality heavily influencing their choices. And the Environmental Protection Agency says that today’s homebuyers increasingly express worries over issues like mold, radon, and carbon monoxide.
Though air quality is an invisible upgrade, as you maintain and improve your home, it’s just as critical to invest in clean, healthy air as it is for your tile design to complement the wall color. This guide will cover some simple ways to improve air quality across the board:
- Renovate with green certified materials
- Test and mitigate radon
- Create a diligent air filter rotation schedule
- Invest in a the right type of air purifier
- Bring plants indoors
- Treat for mold and keep humidity in check
- Regularly clean your flooring
- Apply a fresh coat to any wall with lead paint
Renovate with green-certified home materials
No matter how gorgeous or shiny your laminate looks, people rightfully want to know that they won’t be exposed to high levels of hazardous chemicals in their homes. In 2019, Virginia-based Lumber Liquidators learned this the hard way with a $33 million lawsuit over their flooring with elevated levels of cancer-causing formaldehyde.
In the same UL Environment survey, 58% of consumers said they’d pay 10% more for a third-party green certified home product. You can create peace of mind for your own family and future buyers by looking for the GREENGUARD Certification or CRI Green Label Plus Certification on remodeling materials, indicating it meets stringent indoor air quality emissions criteria.
You can find certified products online and in big-box stores. For example:
- SMARTCORE Woodford Oak Luxury Vinyl Plank Flooring (Lowe’s, $3.39 per square foot): Greenguard Gold Certified
- STAINMASTER PetProtect Concord Mystical Charm Textured Carpet: (Lowe’s, $2.28 per square foot): CRI Green Label Program certified
- Home Decorators Collection Strand Woven Harvest Engineered Click Bamboo Flooring (Home Depot, $1.99 per square foot): GREENGUARD indoor air quality certified
- Carrara Polished Porcelain Floor and Wall Tile (Home Depot, $1.99 per square foot): GREENGUARD indoor air quality certified
- Lindell Cielo Matte Porcelain Floor and Wall Tile (Home Depot, $2.82 per square foot): GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality Certified
- Ansley Amber Matte Ceramic Floor and Wall Tile (Home Depot, $1.39 per square foot): GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality Certified
- Formica Brand Laminate in L Calacatta Marble Satintouch Laminate Sheet (Lowe’s, $99.79): GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality Certified
- LG HI-MACS Passo Solid Surface Kitchen Countertop (Lowe’s, $7 per sample): GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality Certified
- Silestone Calacatta Gold (Home Depot, $19.95 per sample): GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality Certified
In most cases, if a product is GREENGUARD or CRI Green Label Certified, it’ll be listed in the Product Overview Section or in the Specifications chart under “Certifications.” You can also shop directly with companies who’ve committed to green certifications for their products across the board. For instance, Shaw Floors, headquartered in Dalton, GA, promises that all of the company’s hardwood and laminate flooring options have met GREENGUARD Certification criteria since 2009.
Test for and mitigate radon
Elevated levels of radon in homes has been linked to lung cancer, so keeping levels low should be a top priority. You can purchase a DIY radon testing kit for under $20, or find a National Radon Proficiency Program-certified professional to inspect your home for an average $440.
If radon levels exceed 4 pCi/L (picocuries per liter of air), you’ll need to reduce levels in your home using a mitigation system. The installation will vary depending on where you live and your home’s foundation, and costs $1,200 on average to get up and running.
Currently around 30-40 states require sellers to make a radon disclosure. You can see what your state requires in our comprehensive list of real estate disclosure forms. It’s also common for homebuyers to test for radon prior to closing. If you’ve already tested for high levels and implemented a mitigation system, you won’t face a radon roadblock at the time of sale.
Create a diligent air filter rotation schedule
HVAC filters work by removing dust, hair, gunk, and other particles and impurities from ever reaching your blower vents. This is an important but easy-to-forget maintenance feature.
“Many homes have two filters in their furnace, and people neglect them like crazy,” says Andrew Oldham, a top-selling real estate agent in San Jose, California. “We were in a person’s home the other day and their filter was black it was so old.”
Failing to change your filter prevents your HVAC system from running efficiently. When the system has to work double time, your utility costs can dramatically increase as a clog may lead to a 15% increase in energy use.
At the very least, you should be changing the filter every six months. If you have pets that shed and leave dander around the house, you should probably change your filters more often. Same goes if you’re sensitive to mold, dust, and allergens. If you’re the forgetful type, set reminders. You can add our year-round home maintenance schedule with regular filter reminders directly to your Google Calendar.
The typical furnace filters come in 16″x 20″, 20”x 25″ and 16″x 25″ measurements, but sizes can vary and you’ll need the exact match for your system. Check the side door of your filter cabinet for measurements. A filter should fit snugly into the furnace, or it won’t do its job properly.
When it comes to buying the best filters, pay close attention to MERV rating. MERV stands for Minimum Efficiency Reporting Values, and the higher a filter’s rating, the better it is at trapping specific particles. MERV ratings range from 1-16, with 16 being the highest. Experts recommend filters with a rating between 8-13 for residential homes, as a rating any higher needs specialized or industrial equipment to operate.
Treading the line between effective and affordable, the Nordic Pure filters have a MERV rating of 12 and come in multipacks for additional savings.
Invest in the right type of air purifier
In 2019 alone, 8,765 wildfires burned across the U.S. and damaged 1,001,587 acres of land. The fires released a toxic mixture of harmful gases and fine particulates into the air that put home air quality at risk. Even those out of a fire’s immediate path can feel the after effect of polluted air in their homes from the fine particulates that can embed deep into their lungs.
During the peak of the 2020 California wildfires, Andrew Oldham’s wife and top-selling real estate partner, Jennifer Oldham, recalls the situation: “Our house had four air purifiers, two big ones, and two little ones for each room.”
In her experience, HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) purifiers make indoor air quality breathable despite pollution, and her real estate team has since provided similar models for homes on the market during times when outdoor air quality declines.
Most air purifiers work using a combination of filters and fans. A fan sucks in air which is then captured by a filter. The filter catches particles and sanitizes the air, and the fan re-circulates the clean air back out into the room.
Make sure the air purifier you select has a HEPA filter. These pleated mechanical filters, recommended by the EPA, are said to remove 99.7% of harmful particles in the air.
For filters to work efficiently, you must regularly clean or replace them based on the manufacturer’s suggestions. Set an alarm on your phone a few months out to remind you it’s time to change it.
The Wirecutter has been reviewing and testing home air purifiers for the past five years and recommends the following options:
- Best overall: Conway AP Mighty ($250). This best overall pick works well in the average-sized living room, dining room, or bedroom. It’s lightweight, quiet, and quickly purifies the air in most rooms.
- For larger rooms: Blueair Pure 211+ ($300). If you need a purifier for your open-plan home, Blueair’s Pure 211+ can get the job done. With a powerful but quiet motor, this model is smaller than the competition for large rooms but does a better job.
- Budget pick: Levoit Core ($100). An affordable purifier for small offices or dorm rooms, this model efficiently cleans smaller rooms, but with higher energy consumption.
- Heavy duty purifier: Austin Air Healthmate ($790). With multiple filtration systems, this large purifier is best suited for near industrial-level air cleaning at home. This is best for large spaces in homes near high-pollution centers (think refineries or farms).
Bring plants indoors
A 2013 NASA study found that houseplants can improve air pollution indoors. The bad news? You’ll need about 93 plants per square foot to be as effective as a ventilation system. So while you can’t rely on plants alone to keep your air clear, adding a few on top of other maintenance won’t hurt.
Improve your green thumb with these air purifying house plants:
- Snake plant (sansevieria trifasciata)
Sometimes called mother-in-law’s tongue, Snake Plants (The Sill, $33) are a great fit for bedrooms because of their ability to produce clean oxygen at night.
- Bamboo palm (chamaedorea seifrizii)
Cited in NASA’s study, the Bamboo Palm (Amazon, $49) can help remove benzene, carbon monoxide, and formaldehyde from indoor air.
- Spider plant (chlorophytum elatum)
This plant is non-toxic for pets and can clear carbon monoxide and xylene from the air. Spider plants (Etsy, $18) also propagate quickly, so you can report the tiny offshots for air clearing power.
- Rubber plant (ficus elastica)
Once used to produce, you guessed it, rubber, this plant (Lively Root, $42) is easy to take care of and can help clear mold and bacteria from the air.
- Chinese evergreen (aglaonema)
This low light plant is lauded for the high levels of oxygen it produces overnight. The Chinese evergreen (Target, $33) can also filter harmful chemicals from the air.
Beyond bringing a cheery touch of green to your home, plants can be a good secondary source of air purification. Just don’t rely on them as your sole source for purification.
Treat for mold and keep humidity in check
If humidity in your home’s basement is higher than 60% (keep a $10 humidity gauge on hand to measure it), you’ll start to get mold, mildew, and in some cases insect infestation. A dehumidifier can help. Consumer Reports’ comprehensive guide to dehumidifiers gives a rundown of best units for room size and home.
If moisture in the wrong spots or humid conditions over time have led to mold in the home, you can try tackling it with a bleach mixture and small hand tools. There are also several ways to clean mold without harsh chemicals, including using vinegar, baking soda, and tea tree oil.
But for larger mold problems, you should call in a professional. A mold remediation specialist removes and cleans mold colonies and excessive mold growth, returning the air humidity in your home to what’s considered normal.
A mold remediation specialist will use antifungal and antimicrobial cleaners on hard surfaces, send removable soft surfaces such as sofa cushions and curtains out for cleaning; and replace porous surfaces such as drywall. The area also will be dried with fans and dehumidifiers, then sealed with plastic and negative air pressure.
Regularly freshen up your floors
“Dirty carpets and flooring are just dust catchers. They’re like a diaper catching everything in the house,” Jennifer Oldham says. Not only will you kick up mold and bacterial particles with every step, you’ll also be left with some lingering smells. Here’s how to keep your flooring fresh:
Vacuum once a week:
No matter what type of flooring you have, you should vacuum once a week to keep allergens and dirt at bay.
Choose low-pile over high-pile, and rugs over low-pile:
High-pile carpets, like shag or frieze rugs have more surface area for allergens and mold to hold on to. Opt for low-pile carpeting when you can, as they have a shorter and tighter weave.
Even better — install hard flooring and use rugs for soft touch. Machine washable rugs are super convenient and easy to maintain. Both Hook & Loom and Ruggable sell exclusively machine washable and dryer-friendly rugs. Just keep in mind the weave of the rug could shrink in high heat.
Use wood cleaner on hardwood monthly:
Any non-carpet flooring has less fiber for bacteria to cling to, but that doesn’t exclude them from upkeep. Use a gentle hardwood floor cleaner monthly to keep flooring in good shape and avoid damage to subfloors.
Swap out harsh chemicals for steam cleaning:
Top agent Jennifer Oldham’s best kept secret for a scent-free clean that blasts bacteria? An at-home steam cleaner (Amazon $140). With a large capacity tank and chemical-free system, it can take care of carpeting, upholstery, groutline, kitchen appliances, and more.
“It heats up the water so hot, and you can use it on anything. It gets rid of germs, bacteria, and allergens without heavy, scented chemicals,” she advises. A steam cleaner can be the perfect tool to take on long lingering smoke odors or baked-on kitchen messes.
Go shoe-free at home:
Apply a fresh coat to any walls with lead paint
If your home was built before 1978, you might have lead paint in your home. When you open doors or windows with lead paint, you can chip off paint and trigger lead-laden dust into the air. Lead paint on doors and windows can’t just be painted over because of the constant friction, so you’ll need to call in an EPA-rated contractor to remediate this issue.
However, if you have lead paint on walls and it’s not chipping, you can paint over it yourself. Paint as you normally would, but be sure to take note of the date you did so — you’ll need a new coat of paint in 4-10 years to abate the lead hazard.
Air quality: An invisible but critical upgrade
Cosmetic updates like paint, modern countertops, and new cabinetry attract a lot of attention in the home improvement space, especially when it comes to projects that increase resale value. But more and more, consumers are caring about the air quality in the homes they inhabit.
Start by selecting materials for your flooring and bathroom tiles with proper green certifications that guarantee low chemical emissions. Remember to change your air filters and keep an air purifier handy if you’re in an area where outdoor air quality can decline fast. And keep in mind that even if you can’t see air impurities, when the time comes for resale, buyers will check you on radon levels, mold, and lead.
Create a solid air quality maintenance routine and you won’t scramble to swap out materials or install radon mitigation at the last minute. From there, you can breathe better knowing the air is clear and safe.
Header Image Source: (Yuttana Jaowattana / Shutterstock)