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Metro Detroit

January 8, 2014

Humidifiers, plants can help improve a home’s air quality

By Joshua Gordon
C & G Staff Writer

METRO DETROIT — No one likes to deal with dry skin or coughing attacks as a result of an imbalance in a home’s air quality.

However, depending on several factors, including air filters and humidity levels, the air quality in a home might not only make it uncomfortable, it can also affect the house itself and the health of those living inside.

Steven Ford, sales manager at Great Dane Heating and Cooling in Clinton Township, said the first thing a homeowner should check is the air filter on the home’s furnace. Different size filters can help improve air quality almost instantly.

“Most people have the standard 1-inch air filters, but those who are looking to improve air quality and capture smaller particles, we have 4- to 5-inch filters,” Ford said. “Not only does it benefit the air, but it generally lasts longer, too, because it has more surface area. Typically, 1-inch filters should be changed every month, but when you get into 4 or 5 inches, you can change those once every six months.”

Ford said consumers should also look at the minimum efficiency reporting value before buying a filter. At Great Dane, he said they suggest getting a filter with a MERV rating of eight.

Not replacing the filter on a regular basis can affect the air quality, as well as the possibility of ruining the furnace, Ford said.

“If you don’t change the filter often enough, you can have problems with the furnace,” he said. “We get a lot of service calls because furnaces are not running. The filter is plugged, and it is causing the furnace to shut off because there is a safety measure to stop it from overheating. It is out of sight, out of mind, but the filter is the most important thing a homeowner can do to maintain equipment.”

A lot of home furnaces are installed with humidifiers already installed in the system. Humidifiers control the moisture in the air of a home.

Too high of a humidity level can cause bacteria and mold to grow throughout the home, while low humidity can make skin dry and cause bloody noses or static electricity, Ford said.

Dr. Richard Weiermiller, who works in internal medicine and pediatrics at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, said balancing the humidity level in the home is crucial in the winter months.

“Both high and low humidity has its own set of issues,” he said. “A high-humidity home produces more mold and increases the dust mites that tend to fly around. Low humidity, for those who don’t have a humidifier, can cause more dry skin and more mucus that leads to colds, so you really need to strike a balance.”

Weiermiller said homeowners should try to keep their humidity level between 35 and 50 percent, depending on their comfort level.

Working in pediatrics, Weiermiller said poor air quality in a home could have a more harmful effect on children.

“Being a pediatrician, I deal with pediatric asthma that can be caused by the air quality in a home, so that is something I am always thinking of,” he said. “We look at limiting secondhand smoke exposure, mold exposure and dust mites. Pediatric asthma can come from a few different sources, so I think it is a good thing to track the indoor air quality.”

The reason people in a low-humidity home can get dry skin is because their body and skin is lacking hydration, said Dr. Earlexia Norwood, physician in charge at Henry Ford Medical Center-Troy.

“In the summer, with the increased humidity we get, the heat can cause dehydration, and in our homes, if the heat is too high, we can also suffer from dehydration,” Norwood said. “Low humidity can cause dry skin, the furniture can become warped and the wallpaper can start falling off.”

Ford said when looking for the right humidifier for a home, the most common one he installs is a flow-through humidifier. That particular type of humidifier always uses fresh water, he said, and doesn’t have water sitting in a pan to serve as a breeding ground for bacteria.

A more aesthetically pleasing way to improve the air quality in a home, however, can be the use of plants.

George Papadelis, owner of Telly’s Greenhouse and Garden Center in Troy, said research has been done by various sources, including by NASA, that shows certain plants can improve air quality helping the oxygen level, the humidity and taking toxins out of the air.

“The more leaf surface you have on a plant, the more effective it will be,” Papadelis said. “Every plant is like a little air filter, and you can get easy-to-grow house plants that tolerate low light conditions that can help clean the air. They are like an air conditioner, where the bigger it is, the more air it can cool. The larger the plant, the more air it can clean and the more water it released through the air.”

Several plants can help with air quality, but Papadelis said plants like English ivy, a spider plant and a peace lily are some of the most effective ones. Various ficus, including the rubber plant, and sansevieria, better known as mother-in-law’s tongue, can also help improve the air quality.

Papadelis said, according to the NASA research, a plant for every 100 square feet of a home or office could do the job.

“You add water to the plants and they lose the water, so they act like a little humidifier,” Papadelis said. “We produce carbon monoxide and plants produce oxygen that we need to survive. Plus, plants take toxins out of the air, and none of this even has to do with how they help the aesthetics in your home.”