COVID-19 is a respiratory virus that has drawn increasing attention to the indoor air we breathe that we normally take for granted. With more families staying home from work and school, and more staying home for the holidays, there’s a growing emphasis on indoor air quality, according to heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) experts.

“It’s become a real hot button,” says Tim Willems, general manager of Waconia Comfort, which specializes in sales, installation and service of air conditioning, heating and filtration systems and fireplaces, and will soon be offering indoor air sampling and testing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) say proper ventilation and air filtration — along with wearing masks and frequent handwashing — are critical to protecting your family from airborne contaminants.

According to the EPA, Americans on average spend approximately 90 percent of their day indoors, where concentrations of some pollutants can be 2 to 5 times higher than the air we breathe outdoors. They can include nasties like bacteria, pollens, mold, pet dander, microorganisms and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) – gases from chemicals used in paints, varnishes and cleaning agents found in our homes.

In northern climes, we also keep our windows closed more as cold temperatures set in. And these conditions can be made worse during the holidays as we add trees, decorations and candles around our homes which can be harmful for family members and friends with allergies, asthma, or other respiratory issues.

While the pine scent may be nice to smell, the pollen and mold remaining on a live Christmas tree can trigger asthma attacks, fatigue and sinus congestion, according to air quality experts. The cheerful poinsettia plant also can pose allergic reactions – everything from a rash to severe breathing problems.

Artificial trees also can cause problems, especially if they’re not wrapped properly and have accumulated dust and mold over the past 11 months while in storage.

If your live tree is not up yet, consider hosing it down before bringing it inside. Wipe down the trunk of the tree with a solution of one-part bleach, 20 parts lukewarm water.

For your artificial tree and ornaments, wipe them down before setting up. After the holidays, pack decorations in plastic bags, or bins, not cardboard. Cardboard is notorious for collecting dust and promoting mold growth.

Also stop the flocking and scented sprays, and snuff the scented candles, which can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Instead, consider candles made from soy, hemp, or beeswax, or those using LED flickering light effects. And try a natural potpourri of water, cinnamon sticks, cloves and orange peels, simmering on the stove, to keep your home smelling fresh and festive.

One of the best ways to control any airborne contaminant all year round is to make sure your home or business is properly ventilated, Willems says.

Some simple actions include opening windows at opposite sides of the home to help air flow properly. Or open your home’s highest and lowest windows to improve ventilation, and keep internal doors open to help air flow in and out of rooms.

Also check the air filter in your furnace. A dirty air filter slows down airflow and makes your system work harder. Consider replacing or upgrading.

Also check the screen on your home’s fresh air vent or air exchanger to make sure it’s not clogged and is working properly. Clogging not only prevents fresh air from entering the home, it makes your system run harder.

And run your HVAC system continuously. Turn on your system’s fan, so it continuously filters and circulates air in your home. If you set your thermostat to “on” (as opposed to “auto”), the system will keep running without heating or cooling the air. Also have your system regularly checked and tuned to make sure it’s working properly, Willems says.

In terms of removing airborne contaminants, a MERV rating, or minimum efficiency reporting value, is a standard that rates the overall effectiveness of air filters, explains Fred Ridler, owner and certified indoor environmental consultant with Abel Heating & Cooling out of Minnetrista.

A higher MERV rating equates to finer filtration, meaning fewer dust particles and other airborne contaminants can pass through the filter. A MERV rating of 13-16 is considered hospital level air quality, so it is unlikely your home needs that. You also need to consider what level of filtration your heating and cooling system can handle. The ideal MERV filters for both air filtering and furnace efficiency are 7-13, experts say. These filters remove a high percentage of contaminants while preserving adequate air flow to maintain efficiency of the system and minimize stress on the HVAC unit.

As an extra measure of protection, consider placing a portable air filter in the room where you and your family spend the most time, or consider an air purifying system for your whole home or business.

There are many options, experts note, including HEPA filters in ductwork, electrostatic precipitators, ultraviolet light to remove or destroy particles. Or, Abel Heating and Cooling has begun installing an ionization system that has effectively reduced a COVID-19 surface strain in a recent laboratory study. The system also kills other pathogens, neutralizes odors and controls particulate and smoke. It can also can lead to energy savings, according to the manufacturer, reducing the need for more outdoor air and keeps coils clean for improved efficiency.

With these proper ventilation tips and system considerations, everyone inside should be breathing easier.

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