James in Upper Tantallon, Nova Scotia asks: We’ve had to spend a lot of time indoors with the windows shut this summer due to the wildfires in my area. How do I know if the air in my house is safe to breathe?
Clean air is the new clean water. As the science on clean air develops, its importance to our health is becoming more and more clear. The average home contains multiple sources of contaminants that decrease indoor air quality and increase the risk of conditions such as asthma, stroke and certain cancers.
The extended wildfire season this year will mean we need to keep windows closed more often, increasing the need to monitor and filter our indoor air to improve its quality.
Here are our top recommendations to help you make sure you and your family are breathing the cleanest and safest air possible in your homes, this summer and beyond.
- Seal windows and doors
Many houses have points where air is able to seep in from outdoors – even with all doors and windows shut. This allows for the harmful pollutants in wildfire smoke to enter your home.
Once inside, the chemicals from smoke add to any indoor pollutants already in your home such as dust, combustion from cooking, mold, and building materials. The result is that the concentration of certain indoor pollutants can be two to five times higher than outside.
The first step to stay safe when the outside becomes too smoky is to keep that polluted air from entering your home. The easiest way to do this that doesn’t cost much, or require a high skill level, is installing weather stripping around windows and doors.
In the long run, you may want to have a contractor who specializes in air sealing come and evaluate your home for leaks. You can do a Google search for contractors in your area, or ask friends and neighbours if they have a recommendation.
The U.S. Department of Energy website has a great list of all the areas that you can improve.
2. Check your HVAC
HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) is an umbrella term for a variety of systems that keep your indoor air comfortable and clean. They include things like central air, heat pumps, evaporated air coolers, air conditioning units, and furnaces.
While useful, these systems may be drawing the smoky air into your home if not set correctly during times of worsening air quality.
The first step is to find out which systems you have.
Window air conditioners and evaporative coolers are often small to medium-sized units that are located in spots within your home, and plug into an electrical outlet.
Heat pumps and central air are larger systems that run throughout your home and often connect to a unit on the outside. You can walk the perimeter of your home to see if you spot one attached to or near an exterior wall.
3. Stop the intake of outside air
For central air systems, you can determine if they have a fresh air intake vent, which is a small vent that brings in air instead of relying on the AC to constantly circulate air through HVAC filters.
They are usually found outside your house near the ground, but they might also be on the roof or in the attic. You might also spot screened intake vents close to or behind your furnace or other gas appliances.
If so, make sure it’s closed or switched to recirculate mode during a period of high-smoke.
In most cases, you can close the vent by moving the damper into the closed position by either turning a handle or knob, or by turning off the fan.
If you use an evaporative air cooler, turn it off during the worst of the outdoor air quality.
Some window air conditioners don’t pull in air from outside, while some others do. For those that do, make sure you close the outdoor air damper. This is usually indicated by a small lever on the front of the unit that can be set to “open” or “closed”.
If you’re unsure, do not run your air conditioner during the worst of the smoky periods unless indoor temperatures become too high.
Similarly, using portable air conditioners with a single hose is not recommended during smoky periods. (Learn about how to stay cool during a heat event without air conditioning)
4. Monitor the air quality
Indoor pollution levels can rise to dangerous levels quickly when windows are closed. Monitoring the indoor air quality will give you the information you need to keep your home and loved ones safe.
A good air purifier – like the ones we listed here – will come with built in monitoring to let you know the quality of the air in your home. Otherwise, you can buy stand-alone monitors that can be installed in various rooms throughout your house. If you see levels rising, it’s important to take steps to clean the air.
You also want to keep an eye on the changing conditions outside. You can check the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) in Canada or the Air Quality Index (AQI) in the U.S. for up to date information (read more about these). This will let you know when it’s safe to go outside, or at least open some windows again.
5. Use an air purifier
A quality air purifier at home can make all the difference to our health and the health of our loved ones as air quality decreases. Check out our list of things to look for when buying an air purifier for your home and invest in one that meets your needs.
You can also build a DIY home air purifier for half the cost of buying one by following our step by step guide.
6. Create a “clean room”
If you find it challenging to keep the air in your house clean as a whole, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends designating one room in your home as a “clean room”. This room should contain your best air purifier, and have the fewest areas where outdoor air can seep in such as old windows or doors where polluted air can seep in through cracks.
Stay in the clean room as much as you can until the worst of the conditions have passed. You can also invite members of your community who wouldn’t otherwise have access to a space with clean air to ride out the worst of it in your clean room as well.
7. Avoid certain activities
When you’re inside with the windows closed, the last thing you want to do is add to indoor pollution. Things to avoid include:
- Using items like candles, incense, fireplaces or gas stoves
- Using any kind of aerosol sprays or harsh cleaning products.
- Vacuuming – unless your vacuum has a built-in HEPA filter – as it will kick up dust and other pollutants into the air.
- Boiling or frying any food
8. Have N95 masks on hand
If you need to go outside for any reason, or if the air quality in your home is decreasing to dangerous levels, it’s important to wear an N95 mask to protect yourself. These masks are your best bet to help keep you safe from the dangerous pollutants in smoke.
Check out our list of the best masks for smoky days, and buy one for each member of your household.
The above recommendations will help you stay safe in an emergency situation. But there are also actions you can take to improve the quality of the air that you breathe in the long run, including having a professional test your indoor air for cancer-causing chemicals and switching from gas stoves to electric.
Another crucial step to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe is advocating for more effective fire management programs in the U.S. and Canada.
In our founding year at My Climate Plan, we are gearing up to help our members streamline and amplify their advocacy efforts. You can expect more information on what this will look like in the coming weeks.
To support our work to build a future where we can all breathe easy, join My Climate Plan as a Founding Member today.