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Health Issues Highlight the Demand for High Indoor Air Quality

By Sarah Lozanova

Massachusetts-based Steeplechase Builders was dedicated to building environmentally-friendly homes that consume fewer resources from the start. But a life-changing event highlighted the importance of building healthy green homes.

When Jay Clamenti, Steeplechase’s owner, was recovering from chronic Lyme disease in a medical clinic, he became aware that industrial toxins and mold are systemic body burdens. These pollutants were weakening his immune system and encouraging his Lyme disease to progress.

Lyme disease and other illnesses can act as a trigger, targeting an immune system weakened by pollution. At the clinic, Clamenti learned about the importance of indoor air quality for reducing his exposure to toxins and promoting health and well-being.

The built environment has a large impact on the overall health of occupants. Sick building syndrome, in which occupants experience headaches, respiratory ailments, lack of productivity and other acute conditions, highlights this point. Interestingly, the syndrome is commonly associated with tight building envelopes and poor ventilation.

“I decided I wanted to develop a company that builds green homes, where health is the No. 1 priority, be it water quality, indoor air quality or the products in the home,” Clamenti told 3p. “Installing Zehnder mechanical ventilation systems is my focus at the moment.”

Steeplechase Builders recently retrofitted an expanded Cape Cod home in southern New Hampshire for a couple with two Zehnder energy recovery ventilation (ERV) systems. The house was air-sealed with spray foam insulation a few years ago to make it more energy efficient, but lack of adequate ventilation throughout the home caused poor indoor air quality. The home had visible mold growth within months because of excess indoor moisture and lack of fresh air.

When one spouse became ill, boosting indoor air quality became a major goal for the couple to assist in the recovery process and promote long-term health. As a result, they installed a Zehnder ventilation system to keep mold growth and other indoor toxins from degrading their indoor air quality.

“As the building codes have adopted energy-efficiency criteria, we’re seeing indoor air quality becoming more of an issue,” says Chris Smith, a project manager for Steeplechase Builders. “The building codes seem to underestimate what is needed to maintain a healthy indoor environment within the home once it is made to be airtight. We’re driving toward lower energy costs, but in the end people will save a lot on energy and will be spending that on doctors and medical treatments.”

As homes and buildings become tighter, less air is exchanged with the outside as leaks and gaps are sealed. This allows homes to perform in ways that vary from their original design, making the ventilation system inadequate.

Many homes in the United States use exhaust-only ventilation systems, with exhaust fans in the bathrooms and kitchen. When air exits from the home, new air must enter. If the makeup air is insufficient, exhaust fans cannot function properly.

Historically, houses had enough leaks and gaps to provide this makeup air. When gaps and holes are sealed, however, reduced air movement into the home makes it difficult for exhaust fans to properly remove moisture, fumes and toxins. By contrast, balanced ventilation systems supply and exhaust an equal amount of air. Energy recovery ventilation systems are especially well-suited for homes and buildings with tight building envelopes.

Smith and carpenter Nikos Zafirakis installed a Zehnder ventilation system that addresses the entire approximately 6,000-square-foot home, including the basement. The homeowners now benefit from two ERV systems that improve indoor air quality by removing stale or contaminated air and replacing it with an equal amount of fresh, filtered air. The installation crew was trained by and received technical support from Zehnder America and used the company's equipment and components on the project.

“Zehnder really takes a very big-picture approach to ventilation,” Clamenti said. “Their systems ventilate every room of the house. They are three steps ahead of everyone else. You would need multiple systems to do what we did in this house, instead of one or two systems. People could put one Zehnder unit in their home and ventilate the whole home.”

With heat recovery ventilation (HRV) and ERV systems, one doesn’t need to choose between energy efficiency and indoor air quality, which helps to support Clamenti’s mission of building healthy green homes. In warmer weather, Zehnder ERVs save energy by lowering the temperature of the incoming air, cutting cooling costs. In colder weather, ERVs pre-warm the intake air to reduce heating bills. Zehnder ventilation systems are up to 95 percent efficient, offering significant energy savings.

As homes and buildings have increasingly tight building envelopes and awareness of the impacts on indoor air quality increases, new markets are opening up for companies creating solutions. A recent UL Environment investigation, published in Under the Lens: Claiming Green, highlights that many consumers are choosing green products because of health and safety concerns. In a survey of over 1,000 consumers, 43 percent specifically said they were concerned about indoor air quality. The building codes in many areas do not properly address indoor air quality, yet consumer demand is strong and not being properly met.

Image credit: Pixabay

Sarah Lozanova headshot

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.

Read more stories by Sarah Lozanova