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Breath of Fresh Air: Closed-Window Months

By Robert Korpella

  • Worried that the air quality inside your home will suffer when doors and windows are closed tight during the winter? A few precautions can help.

    As cold weather approaches, your heat comes on and your windows close. Modern homes are more energy-efficient because cracks, holes and seams are caulked tight. While that keeps you toasty during cooler weather, the lack of ventilation prevents stale air from escaping. As air quality inside drops, people may experience symptoms such as itchy eyes, dry throat, headaches and dizziness. Some indoor pollutants, such as carbon monoxide, are dangerous and can have very serious consequences. You can protect your indoor environment by taking steps both before winter's arrival and after the season hits.

    Avoiding Carbon Monoxide
    Carbon monoxide in the home is a serious problem that can lead to severe headaches, nausea and even death. About 170 deaths a year result from exposure to nonautomotive carbon monoxide, and thousands of people are hospitalized, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Obstructed exhaust vents can cause carbon monoxide to back up into your home. Have fireplace chimney, gas furnace and other exhaust ducts inspected and cleaned in the late summer or early fall. That way, you'll be certain they're in top shape when used most. Install a carbon-monoxide detector near gas-fired furnaces, dryers and hot-water heaters as a safety precaution, and ensure that vents to the outside of your home are clear of snow, ice and other materials that could obstruct the flow.

    Preventing Radon Gas Accumulation
    Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas emitted from below ground level. In winter, when everything is sealed tight, radon can seep through cracks and have nowhere to escape. It collects in the lowest levels of the house. Not all homes are affected by radon, but you can test for the presence of the gas yourself.

    Keeping Smoke Out
    Smoke can come from several sources, including wood-burning fireplaces and stoves, as well as tobacco smokers. Make sure the flue (also known as the damper) is open before lighting a fire and anytime the fire is still smoldering. Consider asking smokers not to smoke inside the house. If you can't avoid indoor smoking, open a window and turn on a fan to vent the gasses and pollutants from the tobacco smoke.

    Controlling Odors and Fumes
    From paint fumes to smoke, odors may be more noticeable and more likely to be inhaled when the house is sealed up for winter. Seek the source of the odor rather than covering it with scented candles and oils. For example, a fireplace can be a source of odors. Clean the fireplace before winter sets in, and keep the flue closed when the fireplace isn't in use. When a flue is open, downdrafts can push odors into the house. Exhaust fans that vent to the outside reduce odors and pollutants while helping draw clean air into the home. Bathroom and kitchen fans are good examples. Hobbyists who work with glue, paint or other chemicals might want to relocate to the garage or keep a window open while working so fumes don't accumulate or circulate to other parts of the house.

    Ensuring Good Ventilation
    If your home has forced air heat, you can consider improving ventilation during the winter months by having a fan installed that delivers outside air to the return side of your furnace. This type of system replaces poor-quality indoor air with fresh air. Energy-efficient air-to-air heat exchangers are another option. They transfer heat from the warm, inside exhaust air to the cold, outside supply air. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, these provide controlled ventilation while minimizing energy loss. These solutions are most cost-effective in regions where winter fuel costs are high.

    Healthy Air Quality Throughout the Year
    Winter isn't the only time when indoor air quality is a concern. Homes in warmer climates are closed up tight in the summer when air conditioners work to keep them cool and comfortable. Condensation that leaks into air conditioning ducts invites mold and fungus. An annual checkup by a licensed air conditioning contractor will allow you to identify and correct potential problems so you can ensure quality indoor air all year long.