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HEALTHY HOMES: Breathing Better and Saving Money With A Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV)

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

rendering of an imaginary house billowing smoke and wearing a gas mask

A four-year-old farted in my face.

rendering of a little girl with a mischievous smile

And laughed.

As a parent of the aforementioned young child, this is perhaps a rite of passage – I’m now fair game for my kid’s sense of humour.

Take a deep breath; tell me if you can smell it. The air, not the fart.

The air you are breathing at home is contributing to health issues now and to possibly major health problems or even death later. You may think that you're breathing clean air, but it can have literally hundreds of harmful chemicals and invisible organisms in it. After reading this article, you will understand the importance of improving the quality of the air in your home and also learn what action to take that will improve your life now and decades from now.

I go into much greater detail about the concepts below in my other article, "HEALTHY HOME DESIGN: How To Improve Your Home's Indoor Air Quality To Improve Your Health".

photo of a woman sitting at a table near the window, enjoying sunlight

The quality of indoor air is critical to health and comfort. A variety of acute, seasonal, or chronic mental, respiratory, or other symptoms are partly or wholly a result of poor indoor air quality in your home. Poor air quality leads to headaches, fatigue, irritation of the ears/nose/throat, concentration difficulty, dizziness, watery eyes, coughing fits, chronic sneezing, dry throat, and sinus congestion.

Indoor air pollution is usually caused by the accumulation of contaminants from various sources inside a home due to inadequate ventilation. Proper Ventilation is the adequate supply and movement of outdoor fresh air into, through, and out of homes to help improve indoor air quality. It removes pollutants by bringing in fresh air from outside.

photo of a seated woman sneezing into a tissue

Some people can become sensitized to biological or chemical pollutants after repeated or high level exposures. Serious health problems for you or your family resulting from current IAQ may present themselves later in life whether or not you currently have symptoms. For example, asbestos and radon lead to cancer after years of exposure.

Just How Toxic Is Your Home's Air?

generated image of a little boy wearing a gas mask at the dining room table, with bottles of chemicals nearby

The list of chemical indoor pollutants is STAGGERING. Chemical pollutants include vapours from paints, strippers, solvents (cosmetics); cleaners (general purpose or personal hygiene); formaldehyde (cabinetry and tobacco smoke); benzene and acetaldehyde (laundry); deodorizers; and disinfectants.

Oil lamps and natural gas-fired appliances like fireplaces, stoves (especially when frying), furnaces and water heaters emit nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, acrolein, hydrogen cyanide, particulate matter (soot), and volatile organic compounds(VOCs). Like burned diesel, scented candles emissions are similar to those of diesel: known carcinogens such as alkenes, acetone, benzene, and toluene; and diesel-like soot.

Laundry, carpets, fabric, foam chair cushions, pillows and mattresses are constantly shedding microplastics but also attracting dust mites that produce allergens. Microparticles are rubbed off high-touch surfaces such as door knobs and various handles and switches. Radon is a radioactive gas that comes from the breakdown of uranium in soil and rock, can accumulate to high levels, and become a risk to your health; it can’t be seen, tasted or smelled, but noteworthy emissions are found in most parts of British Columbia.

Indoor pollution also includes biological contaminants (bioaerosols) such as mold, bacteria & viruses (from family or visitors), mites, dust, and dander (pets). Carbon dioxide from occupants can build up to unhealthy or unsafe levels without enough fresh air.

photo of a very smoggy South Asian street

Don't forget about the outdoor pollution from air which enters through joints/cracks/holes in the walls/floors/ceilings and around windows and doors or through open windows/doors. In comes automobile exhaust, tire rubber dust, brake dust, exhaust from laundry and bathrooms and kitchens of adjacent buildings, microscopic insects, pollen, and wildfire smoke.

generated image of a steaming stew pot on a kitchen counter

But wait, there's more. A damp house is a breeding ground for bacteria and harmful organic matter, a haven for infectious illnesses that compromise your respiratory system. Excessive moisture can be generated by cooking, by laundry, by bathing, or by overcrowding (too many people breathing and perspiring).

The Simple Solution to Clean, Healthy Air

When you think about all that pollution, it's astonishing that we're not deathly sick all the time. Pollutant concentrations can remain in the air for long periods after some activities. The resulting health effects may be immediate or occur only after years; they may be short-term or become chronic. When the air quality in your home or office is so bad that it can affect the health of those inside, we call it 'sick building syndrome' or 'toxic building syndrome'.

photo of chemical bottles on a shelf in an abandoned room with graffiti on the wall

There is no single test to find an IAQ problem, but increasing ventilation in your home can reduce the indoor levels of pollutants and prevent the buildup of humidity.

So if more fresh air is all it takes to prevent the buildup of all those indoor pollutants and excessive moisture, why isn't everyone doing it? The first reason is a lack of awareness. Most people don't realize how full of petroleum-derived compounds our lives have become, don't consider the amount of bioaerosols, don't understand how these all pervade the air, and don't realize the magnitude of their health hazard.

The second reason is cost. Whether in winter or summer, the cost to heat or cool an entire house's volume of air several times an hour would be exorbitant. Too much mechanical ventilation dries out the air and can create drafts. Even if enough ventilation was provided to remove indoor pollutants, a typical house is leaky and still suffers from outdoor pollution.

imaginary ventilation machine resembling an old refrigerator standing in a field

What's the fix? Continuous mechanical ventilation from a heat recovery ventilator (HRV) combined with airtight construction. That sounds really boring, but it's actually amazing. Why? It runs all day, year-round, pulling old air out and pumping in fresh, filtered air to remove indoor contaminants continually. A HRV transfers heat from exhaust air to the incoming fresh air (the intake) in winter, so it (re)captures 85-90% of the heat you've paid for.

photo of a Sehnder ComfoAir 350 HRV heat recovery ventilator

A typical HRV is the size of two large suitcases, only as loud as a refrigerator or quiet bathroom fan, and consumes about as much as a 100W light. Certain HRVs can also recapture the humidity to prevent dry air and ensure the indoor air "feels" comfortable.

In summer, a HRV system instead moves heat from the intake to the exhaust though in a more roundabout manner, but the efficient cooling capability renders a separate A/C system unnecessary.

The focus of my architectural training has been controlling the movement of air and water into and out of buildings. I have researched and have been trained in identifying both the sources of indoor air pollution and on ventilation systems. My Pre-Design Diagnostic Session™ and RAD Study™ will identify your needs and priority for indoor air quality and for energy efficiency. With a HRV system installed in your current or new house, you will breathe easier both literally and mentally as you can rest assured you’ve removed a big risk to your family's future health. You will be breathing clean air at a healthy and comfortable temperature and relative humidity. You may feel more energy, you will be clear of pollutants that cause future health problems, and one or more current seasonal or chronic symptoms may disappear.

generated image of an old man coughing

Without a HRV system in your home, your children may develop health troubles before they’re adults, or current symptoms may worsen. You may develop a number of symptoms - or more symptoms - as you age and your health deteriorates.

You will need to consult a ventilation professional to ensure that the system provides the correct ventilation. My Deep Blue Design™ process optimizes the integration of this system and others into the design of your house. For a HRV system to function well, you also need to ensure your house’s walls/floors/roof/windows are airtight. To learn more about that, Watch my video or read my article on Better Indoor Air Quality By Using Better Air Barriers.

If you're ready to discuss a plan of action for incorporating a HRV system, book your free Diagnostic Session during which I'll explain how to start planning for healthier and better-performing home.


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