Fighting for indoor air quality, mid-fire season

With wildfires raging across the country and smoke hanging over Colorado, experts offer DIY solutions for improving air quality inside your home.

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BOULDER, CO, USA - OCTOBER 18, 2020: A plume of wildfire smoke rises into the sky from the Left Hand Canyon just hours after the Left Hand Canyon fire broke out in Boulder, Colorado.
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2020 was a historically bad year for wildfires across the western U.S. And 2021 is on pace to be even worse. So far, this year, more than 325,000 acres of California, another 125,000 acres of Washington, and a record-setting 540,000 acres of Oregon have already gone up in smoke. Not to mention the nearly 33,000 acres that have burned in Colorado this year. 

It’s why this state has been stuck under a thick haze of smoke for so much of the summer. Since May, the Denver Metro Front Range has had more than 53 “Ozone Action Alerts” — more than ever before. And on Monday August 9th, Denver’s air quality made international news, as it briefly became the worst in the world. 

Needless to say, those aren’t ideal conditions. Particle pollution like that of wildfire smoke can cause asthma attacks, heart attacks, strokes and even early deaths according to airnow.gov, which makes improving the air quality in your own home a matter of preserving one’s own health. 

“The health hazards associated with smoke are compounded by high ozone,” Bill Hayes, air quality coordinator for Boulder County Public Health (BCPH), said in a statement on Aug. 13. “The Denver Metro North Front Range, an area already failing to meet federal health-based ozone standards, has now seen 39 consecutive days of ozone action alerts. With both smoke and ozone at dangerous levels, Colorado’s beloved outdoors can be an unhealthy place to be when it comes to your heart and lungs.” 

While the outdoor air quality during wildfire season is at the mercy of Mother Nature, indoor air quality (IAQ) can actually be controlled, protected and easily improved. Even before getting a paid professional service involved, there are some DIY things you can do in your own home to make it easier to breathe, starting with awareness. 

Signing up for air quality alerts from resources like airnow.gov can help give you a heads up on pollution spikes so you can plan for them. Wildfire smoke particulates pose exceptional health risks to people with pre-existing conditions like asthma or heart disease — for those individuals, having an extra day to prepare for smokey weather can make a big difference.

According to Nate Trail, with To The T Plumbing and Heating, another easy step in improving IAQ at home should seem obvious, but it often gets overlooked: close your doors and windows.

“During fire season, if you’re letting all that smoke just blow in your house all the time, that’s going to be hard on your [home’s air filtration] system and hard on you too,” Trail says. “So try to keep fresh air in and all that smoke out.”

Even after visible smoke has reduced and wildfires have been controlled, sealing the house is important. Particulates from wildfire smoke can stay in the air for up to two weeks, according to Bob Yokelson, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Montana. You might not see or smell it, but that pollution is still entering your home if your windows or doors are open and then it’s entering your lungs. Sealing those access points through wildfire season can go a long way in improving IAQ by keeping particulates out. 

The City of Boulder backs that up: “Remain inside with the windows and vents sealed” during severe air quality events, it recommends.

Keeping your home clean is another simple way to help improve IAQ, Trail adds. Especially for families or individuals with pets, making sure that there’s less particulates in your carpets and on your home’s surfaces improves the quality of air circulating inside. 

Trail also points out that most people don’t change out their air filters as often as they should, either — which ends up defeating their purpose entirely. 

“We get into a lot of homes and some homeowners don’t even know they have filters. It’s been there for several years and they’ve never changed it,” he says. When in fact, filters should be changed every 90-days — or even every 60 days during a bad fire season. The more frequently an individual changes their home’s HEPA or carbon filter out, the better their IAQ will be and the easier they’ll be able to breathe inside their own home. Which has direct health effects, according to Trail. 

The thickness of that filter can make a difference too, he adds. Counter-intuitively, overly thick filters might seem like a better option, but actually they just choke your home’s HVAC system and pull less air through, offering less filtration capacity. 

“Making sure your furnace and your ducts are [regularly] being cleaned helps too,” Trail says. 

While it’s not a DIY solution, there are also air purifier systems that can be installed to help actively purify the air inside your home. The REME HALO, for instance, is small, easily installed by a service-provider like Trail, and reduces particulates, odors, bacteria, mold, dust, pollen, dander, smoke and even viruses (COVID-19 included). Trail says that these systems make a tangible difference — you can see it in the house’s air filters, he says. With a REME HALO system, a home’s air filter typically needs to be changed every 30 days instead of 90 or 60. 

“Your filter actually gets dirtier sooner because it’s picking up so much more,” Tail explains. 

Any one of these precautions will improve IAQ in your home, but in concert, Trail says people will be able to notice a dramatic improvement in their house’s air quality — which can translate to an improvement in their health. With the IPCC’s recent “code red for humanity” report, long smoky wildfire seasons might become the norm across the Western U.S., meaning that IAQ precautions like these are only going to become more useful to employ indoors. 

“This improves the quality of life in your own home,” Trail says. “It’s a benefit in the sense of being comfortable in your own home knowing that what you’re breathing in is clean.”