What are the problems with airtight homes?

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I’ve heard many people say that the only reason older homes are still standing is because the air leaks create a natural exchange of air. Some people believe this is what makes homes healthy.

I can’t entirely agree with that idea. Air leaks, also implies moisture is coming in and going into wall cavities, creating a suitable environment for mould growth. In reality, air leaks mean you’ve lost control of air movement, and when warm air leaves the house, cold air replaces it — wasting heat and energy. In the long run, uncontrolled air movement can start to damage building components.

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On the other hand, the downside of airtight homes is poor indoor air quality when there is insufficient or improperly designed ventilation. So how do we find some middle ground and create a healthier home?

Often, airtight homes have ventilation systems that are insufficient or not appropriately designed to ensure the correct amount of fresh air causing the home to feel stuffy and stale. 

Installing a balanced mechanical ventilation system to exhaust stale indoor air and bring in fresh outdoor air will certainly help. Heat recovery ventilators (HRVs), or energy recovery ventilators (ERVs), can help do just that while reducing energy loss and maintaining indoor air quality (IAQ). However, these systems must be maintained and regularly inspected for optimal performance.

Reduced ventilation in homes can cause a buildup of indoor pollutants such as allergens, carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs). and even radon.

Poor indoor air quality can have serious long-term effects on your health, causing allergies, respiratory disorders or other serious illnesses.

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Air purification systems can help as they remove contaminants from the air, such as dust, pollen and dander. However, many air purifiers draw air through a filter, while others mask the air. Filters are great as long as they are regularly changed or cleaned. 

However, there are air-purification systems that neutralize the air using OH radicals. These devices provide air purification and odour elimination around the clock — keeping your indoor air clean and fresh. There is no ductwork or filters required, which means no maintenance. You can place them in different rooms throughout your home to improve the air you’re breathing. I have five of these ceiling-mounted air purification devices in my own home.

Airtight homes with insufficient ventilation can cause moisture buildup, especially in bathrooms and kitchens. This can result in mould and mildew, contributing to poor IAQ and structural damage. Evidence of this can be seen in continuous weepy windows and surface mould on walls.

Use moisture-resistant materials in any remodelling or upgrades and high-quality exhaust fans in bathrooms and kitchens. In addition, keep interior humidity levels between 30 and 50 per cent, and in areas with excessive levels of humidity, think about using dehumidifiers or adding an ERV. 

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Also, SMART outlets with sensors can be added to the space. These will monitor and detect bad indoor air quality, activating ventilation systems when excess moisture is detected to improve your indoor air quality. 

Airtight homes can trap heat inside, making your home warm during the summer and forcing your cooling system to work harder. Ensure high-performance windows are incorporated and shading techniques, like blinds or window coverings. Heat pumps or energy-efficient air conditioning systems should also be included. 

Overheating can also happen in the winter caused by insufficient heat circulation which can contribute to an imbalance of room temperatures. Combined with SMART thermostats, these systems will help maintain consistent and comfortable indoor temperatures while optimizing energy consumption. 

Unfortunately, many homeowners don’t think about their indoor air quality. However, having conversations about the importance of a healthy home is a great start, and homeowners need to educate themselves. You want your family to be safe and to NOT live in a toxic house, and believe me, there are toxic houses out there that make homeowners sick. I’ve worked on several of them.

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The building code is changing and improving, though it could be faster. The building code in Canada now requires balanced ventilation, which manages and monitors the indoor air quality in your home. 

Homeowners need to know that there are simple devices that can be added to your HVAC systems to make the air in your home even cleaner. Devices that can scrub and neutralize the air, reducing the spread of colds and viruses.

Always consult with an HVAC specialist or an IAQ technician to find out how you can improve the indoor air quality and efficiency of your home. An energy audit will also provide insight into the condition of your home and methods to improve the overall efficiency and health of your home.

Residents of the GTA can apply for Holmes on Homes: Building A Legacy at makeitright.ca.

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