Clear the Air: How Air Filtration Turned from the Least Sexy Feature in Our Homes to the Most Important

The pandemic changed how we think about indoor air quality—here are five lessons we've learned.

Photo: Illustration by Yeji Kim

COVID-19 has changed so many of our behaviors, from how we deal with germs to how we deal with people. It has altered the way we work and the way we view our homes. It has even made us rethink the air we breathe. Prior to the pandemic, air quality was something people generally talked about in the context of air pollution or seasonal allergies. That all changed over the past year.

"A year ago, many people weren't all that interested in air quality," says Ted Myatt, ScD, a senior environmental scientist at Environmental Health and Engineering, Inc., who has spent 20 years studying environmental science. "It's a really important issue people are just now understanding; it's important to think about what you are exposed to—especially in your own home."

According to a study by the EPA conducted pre-COVID, we spend 90 percent of our time indoors, and that has likely increased with the pandemic, especially as more companies commit to the work-from-home model permanently.

Although indoor air quality may not be as visually rewarding as a new countertop or wood floors in our houses, it's an important consideration that can influence the health of our homes and families. We do know that air filters and purifiers can help with allergens, and we are still learning about their role in the spread of viruses, like the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. As interior designers, homeowners, and apartment dwellers begin to better understand the relationship between air quality and our health, here are a few things the pros recommend focusing on as we move forward.

Your HVAC system matters

HVAC is an acronym that stands for "heating, ventilation, and air conditioning." In the past, most of us focused on the heating and AC side, but during the pandemic, the "ventilation" part became top of mind. Essentially, the HVAC in your home is a system for circulating air between indoor and outdoor spaces. An HVAC professional can inspect the system by measuring factors like air exchange rate, or how often the air in a room is replaced with fresh air, to determine if it's time for an updated system.

In addition to potential health benefits, there are also environmental and financial reasons to upgrade your HVAC system. "These days, modern AC units are more efficient and kinder to the environment than those many homeowners may have purchased over the last 15 or 20 years," says interior designer Breegan Jane, who has been working closely with HVAC company Trane Residential to help best advise her clients. "Upgrading your HVAC system is a great way to start adding value to your home," she says, if you are looking to eventually sell.

Commit to routine seasonal maintenance

A new HVAC system can cost a ton of money, so if that's not in the cards, commit to the upkeep of what you have. Jane says that even regular checks can go a long way. "Your HVAC system's filters should be cleaned every 30 to 90 days—not once a year, as we tend to think, to ensure optimal indoor air quality," she says. Air filters are designed to capture all of the yuck: dander, dust, allergens, etc. If we aren't cleaning them, they can't do their job. The same logic applies to air purifiers, too.

There will be different needs for different spaces

The air filtration needs in a high rise apartment building will be different than in a single family home, and the needs may even vary from room to room in your own house if you are considering a portable air purifier.

"Since an apartment is likely smaller than a house, an air purifier will be even more effective there in removing germs," says interior designer Emma Beryl. Plus, a portable air purifier may be the only option in an apartment, where you don't have the same control over a full building airflow redesign. "Think of it as another tool in the toolbox to mitigate exposure," says Myatt.

HEPA filters are certainly the gold standard, but you'll also want to check how much square footage the filter can cover. For example, if your filter is rated for 150 square feet and you place it in a 250-square-foot room, you're only getting partial coverage. Check out our guide to the various types of filters available and where they might work best.

Airflow is important, too

There is a reason that COVID-19 experts said socializing outside was safer than indoors and the CDC recommended opening your windows for increased airflow if you were having people inside. Air stagnation correlates to poor air quality.

Even if you can't update your HVAC system or your older building isn't equipped with one, the CDC offers some easy ventilation mitigation strategies. The simplest solution? Open the windows. Opening a window or door will introduce more outdoor air, preventing stale air from circulating around the room. Using fans, especially when placed strategically, can also help boost the power of open windows. For example, a window fan can be used to exhaust indoor air outside.

Clean air is a matter of public health

Opening our eyes to indoor air quality issues in our own homes may also prompt us to consider the air quality in our schools, office buildings, restaurants, or other public spaces. When debating whether to reopen schools during the pandemic, inspections of air filtration systems in schools became a large focus. And even before the pandemic, one study in Los Angeles questioned whether the installation of air filters in schools could significantly boost the student's test scores.

While the link between air quality and test scores is still up for debate, the correlation between air pollution and worse asthma symptoms has been evidenced in numerous studies, again highlighting air quality as a public health issue. Whether the concern is the spread of airborne diseases, pollutants, or allergens, an increased focus on and demand for improved air filtration in our public spaces has been sparked.

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