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Strategies to Eliminate Allergens and Improve Indoor Air Quality

West Texas residents face a barrage of air quality issues, namely dust and pollen, year-round, since the climate is so mild. However, you can take steps to eliminate allergens and improve air quality through a multi-pronged effort. Housekeeping styles, air filters and air purifiers will all stop offending particles from overtaking your home's air, bringing relief to many who suffer allergic responses. 

The most common allergens in homes include dust, pet dander and mold. Besides the annoyance, respiratory allergies can lead to sinus infections and asthma attacks. Some types of mold have higher levels of toxicity, and mold can ruin many things inside your home. 

  • Dust contains a mixture of dead skin cells that the body sheds continually, dust mite and cockroach waste, tiny particles from furniture stuffing and lint, and fibers from carpets and upholstery. Dust mite and cockroach waste invoke allergic reactions in vulnerable people.
  • Pet dander comes from animals that have fur or feathers. The dander is not from the animal's feathers or hair, but rather from the proteins in dead skin and saliva. Cat dander is the most difficult to manage, since it's sticky and hard to remove from surfaces. 
  • Mold and mildew are another problem. Mold spores cover nearly the entire surface of the earth, and it acts as nature's way of decomposing organic matter. When the spores have enough moisture, they'll grow and spread. Mold varieties vary in their tolerance for heat and cold. Mildew grows on fabrics and carpeting, while mold can thrive on solid surfaces. 

Controls for Dust and Dander

The best way to eliminate allergens is through fastidious housekeeping and eliminating as many sources of the particles as possible. Here are some ways to control dust and dander:

  • Reduce the amount of fibers in your home. If allergies are a serious problem, you might want to consider using hard surface floors instead of carpeting, which does contribute to the dust load in your home. Carpets shed fibers and they also trap dust particles. Even after replacing the flooring, use a vacuum cleaner instead of a broom to sweep. Each stroke of the brush stirs up the dust. A vacuum equipped with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filtration system will help improve indoor air quality. 
  • Keep your home exceptionally clean. Cockroaches are an opportunistic insect that are attracted to food and water. They're difficult to control once they've invaded your home and some people are sensitive to their waste. They're nocturnal and if you see any in your home, use roach traps to eliminate the infestation. Other controls include food-grade diatomaceous earth and borax products, but these should be applied and used carefully around children and pets.
  • Wash bedding in hot water weekly and drying it on the high heat cycle for your dryer will eliminate allergens to dust mites and improve indoor air quality. You can also encase mattresses and pillows in dust-mite proof enclosures. Although most dust mite infestations are found in the bedding, vacuuming upholstered furniture occasionally will also help. 
  • Make the spaces the allergy sufferer occupies the most off limits to the pet. You can also reduce the amount of pet dander by brushing your pet on a bed sheet or large towel and laundering it afterwards. It's fairly easy to bathe a dog weekly, but can be a daunting challenge with a cat who isn't accustomed to water. Frequent bathing dries the cat's skin excessively, which may cause health problems.

    You can also choose from a variety of purebred cats that are considered hypoallergenic, like Siamese, Bengal, or Oriental shorthair. A few dog breeds will reduce allergy symptoms that include Border terrier, Havanese or Basenji.
  • Sealing air leaks can reduce the pollen entering your home from exterior window and door frames. Use caulk around windows and weatherstripping around doors. 

Mechanical Controls for Dust and Dander

Air filtration will help eliminate allergens and improve indoor air quality. Options include:

  • Upgrading your HVAC filter. Those fiberglass filters found in retail stores trap only the largest airborne particulates and offer little help when you're trying to eliminate allergens or improve indoor air quality. The pleated filters will do a much better job of removing larger offending particles. Filters carry MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) ratings that can guide you when selecting the best one for your system.  

    Consult your HVAC system's owner's manual to find the maximum rating you can use, or ask an HVAC contractor. Too high a rating can slow the airflow through the air handler, which will harm your system as much as running it with a clogged filter
  • Using portable air filters. If you have a small home, you might be able to reduce the dust load indoors using portable HEPA air filters. These trap all but the smallest particles, with the exception of some smoke particles. Most of these aren't reusable and can be expensive to replace, which they'll need once or twice a year, depending on the particulate load inside your home. 

    When choosing portable air cleaners, avoid those that create ozone as a byproduct, since ozone is a known respiratory irritant. Some ionizers will create ozone, as will some electrostatic filters. Read the labels carefully to avoid those products.
  • Investing in a whole-house filtration system. The HVAC industry has developed effective ways to filter your entire home's air using your existing HVAC equipment. Instead of using a number of portable filters in your home, it might be more energy efficient to install a whole-house system and would save the cost of multiple filter replacements. 

    Whole-house systems sometimes use extended media filters that sit inside the ductwork and will eliminate allergens and improve indoor air quality. HEPA filters are available, but they require a fan to boost the airflow through the filter, since they're so dense and slow the airflow. These systems need to be installed by an HVAC contractor

    Sometimes people leave the blower fan on continually to eliminate allergens and improve indoor air quality. An HVAC system with an efficient blower motor, called an electronically commutated motor (ECM), makes it more affordable to run the blower fan constantly. An ECM uses far less energy than a standard motor and runs much more quietly, so you can use your HVAC system for air cleaning and not just conditioning.

    When choosing a new HVAC system for your home, select one with an ECM inside to take advantage of this option. Such a system will have a higher energy efficiency rating and may be an Energy Star product

Dealing with Mold

While air filtration can trap mold spores, you can eliminate a mold population in your home by using ultraviolet lights (UV) inside your ductwork or the air handler. UV lights modify that DNA of the mold spores so that they can't reproduce. UV lights are damaging to eyesight but when placed inside your equipment, there's no risk to health. These lights also kill other organic particulates in your home's air, like bacteria and viruses. 

Placing UV lights that shine on the evaporator coil inside your air conditioner or heat pump will prevent mold growth on the coil. When the coil is covered with mold, it loses some of its ability to extract the heat from your home, which increases cooling costs.  If your A/C's system coil freezes in the summer, you may need to contact an HVAC contractor to inspect and clean the coil. If you use a heat pump, mold covering the coil will also retard the heating process, since it insulates the coil from the air flowing over it.

The spores can also populate the inside of your ducts if they start growing on the coil or the drain pan, increasing the risk of mold growth in other parts of your home. Some people have mold allergies, and anyone with a weakened immune system or respiratory problems may react more strongly to the mold and its spores. Keeping it out of your HVAC system will help eliminate allergens and improve indoor air quality for the health of your family members and your home. 

For more information and assistance to help you eliminate allergens and improve indoor air quality, please contact us to find a West Texas HVAC contractor near you. 

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