Until recently, homeowners had no way to measure their indoor air quality (IAQ) or understand the possible health effects from it. If they can't identify and measure the problem, there's no way to manage it.
That is changing with the release of products like Awair, Birdi, Netatmo, CubeSensors, Withings' Home and Alima that monitor air quality.
These new devices are also likely to lead to a boost for the residential energy-efficiency market as building performance practitioners are sought out to address the root causes of IAQ problems.
IAQ is a broad concept, but several commonly measured elements are carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, particulates (fine dust particles), volatile organic compounds, temperature and humidity. There are interactions between these factors, such as high humidity levels leading to more volatile organic compound (VOC) offgassing. Until recently, there have been few consumer-level measurement tools that are capable of measuring these factors (and their interactions).
Poor IAQ can also be a root cause of allergies, odors, frequent illness, pests and more.
Until now, indoor air quality testers have been quite expensive, usually in the thousands of dollars. Some have annual monitoring and calibration fees as well. The tests are typically short term in duration because the expensive monitors are dropped off and picked up, often after a few days or weeks of testing.
This creates two costs for consumers. First, the monitor is there only for a short time. Conditions change continuously in our homes, so practitioners may or may not catch a problem. Second, consumers have to pay for two trips. Both lead to higher costs, sometimes without a definite diagnosis being made.
These two costs lead to less testing and measurement, which leads to less management. Less management means more people are living with problems.
Professional tools have better sensors. And pros have a better idea of what to look for when designing solutions. But these new consumer-grade tools give homeowners a less expensive, less intimidating option.
It’s very important to note that suggestions from these products are typically little more than bandages on a flesh wound. Awair will suggest turning on a humidifier to increase humidity or opening a door to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) levels.
Both are likely systemic problems with a building. For example, a home with low humidity typically leaks lots of air to the outside and will be dry in winter, so sealing it up first is a better solution. That humidifier could cause mold elsewhere in the home (attics in particular), especially in newer homes with more moisture-sensitive materials. High CO2 levels often mean poor air circulation, so the furnace or air conditioner may need an adjustment -- or possibly a complete changeout.
It takes whole-house, holistic thinking to solve IAQ problems at their root, rather than chasing symptoms.
For those consumers with serious issues, substantial upgrades may be necessary to improve IAQ and their family’s health. The good news is that if the upgrades are carefully planned, substantial energy savings can often be achieved, usually in the 30 percent to 70 percent range. Upgrades also boost the value of on-site generation -- less energy usage means fewer solar panels are needed to power a home.
This is where it gets exciting for building-science pros like myself. Our specialty is thinking about a house as a system of systems and making multiple adjustments to solve problems for clients. Most trades only look at one thing -- roofers look at roofs, HVAC people look at furnaces and air conditioners. They have a hammer, so all the world looks like a nail.
IAQ issues are typically much more complex than single-trade solutions. It takes diagnosis and planning. A high-quality energy audit and planning process can lead to the best results.
The home-performance industry, which is based on building science (i.e., the physics of how homes work), is standing ready to take on this diagnosis and planning challenge. With new IAQ measurement tools enabling consumers to monitor the air quality in their homes, demand for home performance services will likely increase -- helping improve quality of life and energy savings at the same time.
Nate Adams, founder of Energy Smart Home Performance, is an author and building-science geek.