Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - September 16, 2011

Positively Green

Air quality: Demand it when it's possible

by Iris Harrell

This past summer I decided to return to my homeland of origin in Virginia and go to yet another high school reunion. I rented a place on the beach, so we would have a cool ocean breeze even in the height of the summer heat.

The third day we were there, we decided to go to the Virginia Beach Aquarium, as the ocean breezes were not as cool as expected. As we started our drive we saw smoke and smelled fire, as if the cause was very close by, but the more we drove, the worse the visibility became.

I am used to severe fog here on the Peninsula, but I had never seen such bad visibility on a Virginia summer day. Breathing was difficult due to the heavy smoke and upon arriving at the aquarium, and seeing the crowds, I immediately realized we were not the first to have thought of this place as a respite from the heat and poor air quality.

When I inquired as to the reason for such mid-week crowds, I was told, "It's the North Carolina Dismal Swamp fire that has made all the beach tourists look for a place to bring their families until the smoke and bad air clears." The winds did not move the smoke and "fog" offshore until later that evening. It was rather disturbing to have little to no control over air quality over such a broad expanse of the state.

All of us have seen firsthand how quickly our mobility is paralyzed with just an occasional natural disaster. The ash-filled sky during some of the recent volcano activity required extensive flight delays and rerouting of multiple airline routes. The tsunami in Japan created a far-reaching safety hazard around the atomic-energy plants that were throwing off dangerous radiation levels as they systematically failed. And these are just two of many recent natural and manmade disasters.

Life as we know it may not exist if we don't take every measure possible to protect the air we breathe.

The smoke incident in Virginia helped me to think more diligently about the many ways we can take control of our air quality and how important those steps are to our overall health and life safety. As a residential designer and builder, I am acutely aware of air quality in homes and how to improve and maintain good ventilation. Because we are building homes tighter to save on the energy it takes to heat and cool homes, we have unexpected side effects that have to be planned for.

New, greener building codes are requiring ventilation in new homes 24/7. The outgassing of products we bring into our homes have no way of escaping with a tightly sealed and insulated home, versus the various hidden cracks and small crevices our homes used to have. Many people are not keeping their windows open for cross ventilation because of safety concerns or they are just used to running the air conditioner or forced-air heating year-round.

Fresh air is as precious as clean water. There are simple ways to get more fresh air into your home throughout all four seasons.

First, your home should be slightly pressurized when the HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) is set up in your home. This means your system is pushing air out of your home instead of sucking air into the home. If your system is not pressurized, you could be pulling moldy air from your crawl space or attic through the electric outlets or walls with penetrations in them. This can lead to breathing problems for family members who might have weaker constitutions or stronger sensitivity to air and contaminants from damp, unconditioned spaces.

If you do a simple four-hour test on your home with a green-point rater and a blower-door test, you could find very quickly small and inexpensive ways to make your home more energy efficient while ensuring cleaner air.

If you are installing a new heating and air-conditioning system, you should ask for a heat recovery ventilator (HRV) that allows you to bring fresh air into the home in the winter without opening your windows or losing the heat your furnace has created.

A whole house fan can do wonders in this climate many months of the year. I use my whole house fan at least six months of the year. For a lot less energy and a lot more comfort, the fan removes stale hot air out of the house while bringing in fresh cool air from outside.

Find a way to breathe deeply and enjoy the experience. Deep breathing is not just for yoga classes anymore!

Iris Harrell is CEO and president of Harrell Remodeling, Inc. in Mountain View (www.harrell-remodeling.com). She can be reached at 650-230-2900 or irish@harrell-remodeling.com.

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