The best way to improve air quality at your home | FF Recommends

July 31, 2021 | FF Daily #438: Key considerations and tips for improving indoor air quality

Founding Fuel

[Photo by Photoholgic on Unsplash]

Good morning,

If you are like most people, there is a moment in your life where you started drinking mineral/purified water. You might not recall the moment you made the transition. However, once you made it, you wouldn’t even consider drinking tap water. In fact, now you place a premium on a Bisleri Pani Puri (and rightly so).

However, strangely enough, we don’t usually apply the same standards to clean air. This is in spite of its quality drastically degrading across all major cities. 

Most of us have a water purifier at home, but we don’t have air purifiers. 

Most of us rehydrate ourselves every few hours but don’t actively open our windows to let fresh air in. 

A jolt from the pandemic, however, has made us more sensitive to the air we breathe. Our subscriber Priyans Murarka and his co-founder, Abhinav Gupta, saw the need to make this shift much before us. Their passion for improving air quality led to Abhinav quitting his stint at the National University of Singapore, shifting to India and setting up ActiveBuildings, in 2016. 

In this edition of #FFRecommends, Abhinav shares with us key considerations and useful tips for improving the air quality at our home. 

How to take care of your lungs when locked up at home

By Abhinav Gupta, co-founder of ActiveBuildings

“Poor Air quality! Isn’t that a Delhi problem? It doesn’t really impact me if I am in Mumbai, Bangalore or Chennai.”

“It’s only an issue post-Diwali and during the winter season. In summer, the air quality isn’t bad.”

“The pollution is only outside. At home, I am breathing much better air. So, there’s nothing to be worried about.”

“Oh, it’s been bad for so many years. And nothing has happened to me. So why bother?”

These are the instinctive responses I have gotten used to listening, whenever I speak about the challenges of poor air quality to a friend, relative or a prospective client. This is in spite of studies conclusively showing that air pollution is one of the leading causes of premature deaths, after high blood pressure, smoking and high blood sugar.  

If any of the above responses resonated with you, I, unfortunately, have some bad news. As you will find out ahead, they are all false. 

I can, however, empathise with why many people hold these assumptions. With water you can tell something is not right just by how it looks and tastes. Air on the other hand is invisible. We can’t see air pollutants like particulate matter (PM 2.5, PM 10), chemical pollutants, oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and sulphur. So it is hard to tell what is wrong without the right instruments. Additionally, if you drink contaminated water, you feel unwell the very next day. With polluted air, the impact reveals itself over several years. 

That’s why I call it a silent killer.

The pandemic seems to be changing our perceptions though. The trigger to introduce systemic reform for clean drinking water came only after the massive cholera outbreak. Similarly, post-Covid, many of us have started caring about the air we breathe. The more polluted the air, the likelier it is for Covid particles to stay in the air for long periods. 

While poor air quality impacts everyone, you should take special note if you fit into any of these categories: 

If you live in any of the urban cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai or are living close to the coast with high humidity

Cities have significantly higher PM 10, PM 2.5 and often NOx due to vehicular traffic, construction and garbage generation, which is often burnt. The presence of sewage lines such as the Malad creek in Mumbai also contribute to alternate pollutants such as ammonia. Coastal areas with high humidity are breeding grounds for moulds and fungal matter which lead to allergies and respiratory diseases.

If you spend a lot of time indoors with doors and windows closed

Most of us spend 80% of our lives in indoor spaces; be it at homes, in offices, in gyms, or malls. With the pandemic, this has shot up to nearly 100% of our time being spent indoors. Indoor air tends to get 2-5x more polluted than outdoor air. This is because the stale air you breathe out largely stays in the indoor environment, unlike outside, where it disperses.

If anyone at your home has allergies, asthma or any respiratory diseases or are a frequent smoker

However, don’t wait for this to be a prerequisite. Unfortunately, many people we engage with only realised something is wrong with their air quality when a child in the family or their elderly parent started to show symptoms of respiratory disorders. A person I know acted only after losing the majority of his lung functioning. So, please don’t wait, until it's already too late.

If you work in manufacturing or are in a tightly closed office space such as a bank or call centre

We have especially observed this through our assessments. For example, during a bank’s air audit, we found peak CO2 levels to be at 3000 PPM even when the outside air quality was 450 PPM. (900 PPM is the acceptable standard)

If you are an enthusiast or a leader who cares about solving this 

These shifts are often group decisions. At home, one needs to convince the family. And in offices, someone has to make this a priority and commit to it—amidst the various other pressures of business. So if you are a leader, there’s a lot you can do to start the conversation and ensure the ultimate change takes place. 

So, what can you do about it?

Here are three suggestions I have in increasing order of effort/investment needed.

1. Get an indoor air evaluation

Buying an air purifier for all your rooms seems a massive investment to begin with. It’s a jump, many people aren’t ready to make. At ActiveBuildings, we also recommend not buying the air purifier as the first step. We instead recommend an indoor air evaluation which costs about Rs 1,300 and takes 15 minutes. 

Much easier bullet to bite. Our recommendation however isn’t based on cost. It’s based on two fundamental reasons that result in better outcomes.

First, you may not even need air purifiers, especially for all your rooms. The air quality evaluation will reveal to you what specific problem you have, how deep it is, which part of the home you have it in and exactly where work needs to be done in terms of improving the indoor air quality. 

All it takes is for you to place a temporary monitor for 15 minutes, which is shipped to you and you can do it on your own.

The monitor assesses the most basic parameters of your home across three broad categories. First is assessing the thermal comfort of your home—the temperature, the humidity. The second is measuring particle pollutants PM 2.5, PM 10, aerosols. The third is chemical pollutants such as CO2, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)—which come from paint, varnish, printing ink, etc. The VOCs have especially increased due to the recent trends around increased disinfectants and pest control. The data leads to better sense-making. You will get a more customised set of recommendations for your home.   

(A screenshot from one of our recent air quality measurements where PM 2.5 and PM 10 are in excellent shape but CO2 measurement is extremely poor)

Second, in some cases, installing air purifiers may be necessary but not sufficient. You could have one in every corner of the room and still have terrible air quality. For example, in one of our recent evaluations, we found that PM10 and PM2.5 levels were fine because their portable purifiers were still functional. But the carbon dioxide levels were off the charts. 

Hence, air quality evaluation is a simple first step towards solving the problem.

You can get one from ActiveBuildings. Here are a few other credible organisations that you can also consider using: Clean Air Solutions (New Delhi), Autocal air quality (Mumbai) and Chennai air testing lab (Chennai).

2. Work on improving the indoor ventilation

Working on ventilation is critical. You need to allow the movement of air in and out of your space to ensure that the air you breathe is healthy. Accumulated air means that all the air you and your cohabitors breathe out (i.e. carbon dioxide) will remain trapped in the room with no outlet to escape and no inlet for fresh air to come in. Gradual increases in carbon dioxide levels indoors act as asphyxiants and in places with poor ventilation, or high carbon dioxide concentrations, we have received countless complaints about frequent headaches and feeling drowsy and droopy despite being well-rested. 

When it comes to pollutants like particulate matter or chemical pollution you need to know that even regular household activities like cooking, or installing new furniture, or carpeting can affect air pollution indoors. 

The easiest thing you can do is to keep your windows open. Please periodically switch your exhaust fans on to allow the movement of air in and out of your indoor space. Many people love keeping ACs on throughout. I would recommend that every 2-3 hours you let some fresh air enter the room or take a walk to the balcony.

While opening your windows and switching on exhaust fans works for most people, in case you live in an area with extremely high pollution (such as Delhi) or have allergies, you can consider wearing a mask when you let fresh air enter your home. And have the right type of air purifier.

One more thing—during the pandemic, a lot of people are using disinfectants at home. I would recommend using peroxide-based solutions and avoid using formaldehyde-based solutions. 

3. Install an air purifier

I would not suggest buying an air purifier without an indoor air evaluation first. It’s best to preface an investment of this magnitude with a small investment in air evaluation. It will give you a more specific recommendation on which purifier you should buy and how many you need.

However, many people I meet are keen on buying it straightaway. It’s no easy task as there are over 150 brands and 750 products to choose from. 

So to make it simple, here are just three things to keep in mind when you buy one: 

  • Brands: The four brands I would recommend are Philips, Xiaomi, Airoshine and Blueair
  • Type of filter: Please pick ones with HEPA or fine filters
  • Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR): Please select the model that gives you the higher CADR for the price point

These are the bottom line parameters. Apart from these, the rest of the parameters are largely marketing or positioning and you can safely ignore them. 

More importantly, I am privy to many people who have bought an air purifier but don’t clean or maintain it. You need to absolutely do so. 

Think of it as buying a car. Once your car has travelled a certain number of miles, you need to service it. Similarly, with portable air purifiers, maintenance or replacement of air filters is required from time to time. Over time, these filters get clogged up with the dirt particles they are filtering. 

It’s best to clean and wash the pre-filter every month. The frequency of replacing the filter depends on factors such as usage, climate and geographical location of your property. There is no perfect way to predict when to replace it like there is no perfect way to predict when to service your car. It depends on your intuition. As a general rule of thumb (like the 10,000 km servicing rule), you should replace the filter every four (minimum) to nine (maximum) months.

If you are in coastal areas (and especially if you have allergies), I recommend buying a dehumidifier too. While buying one, please buy a dedicated dehumidifier and avoid buying an all-in-one. Here are a few brands that are worth considering: Origin, Panasia and Novita.

I hope the above recommendations are useful. 

For the uninitiated, I know it may seem like taking care of your lungs is a lot of work and effort. However, I hope you see it in the same capacity as your investments in health insurance and gym membership. An investment in today’s time will give you returns in your life and the lives of your loved ones.

When pollution reduces

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