Consumers Want Healthy Home Solutions
Recent studies confirm that homeowners want better indoor air quality.
Although many articles mention homeowner concerns about indoor air quality, they often cite anecdotal evidence. A recent survey puts real numbers to those concerns, and shows how HVAC pros can better serve their customers.
The survey results were published in a March 2016 paper by the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. One question, posed to a sample of more than 2200 households, asked how worried they were about their homes’ indoor environment. Nearly a quarter of the respondents cited specific health concerns—indoor air quality was the leading one, followed by water quality, harmful materials and chemicals—while another fifth (21 percent) were unsure or had non-specific concerns. Another way to look at it is that nearly half (45 percent) expressed some level of anxiety about their homes' effect on their health.
This should come as no surprise, given today's construction details and materials. Stricter energy codes for new homes and more attention to draft sealing by remodelers has reduced natural air infiltration across the board, while synthetic, chemical-based home products are proliferating. The study cited high performance "green" homes as the most challenging, with "previously unheard-of levels of airtightness."
Consumer worry about this issue has been stoked by high-profile news stories. These include a 2009 revelation that drywall sourced from China in 2009 was emitting hydrogen sulfide gas into homes, as well as a 2015 report by CBS's 60 Minutes about dangerous levels formaldehyde in laminate flooring, also imported from China.
But stories like these seem to have raised more questions than answers. For instance homeowners are often confused about what's really non-toxic and tend to distrust manufacturers' claims. And they're not the only unsure ones. A 2010 review of residential building product information by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley Lab found "no consensus among...labeling and certification systems" in criteria used to certify low emissions. Things haven't improved significantly since then.
Concern over IAQ also doesn't guarantee action. A June 2015 report published by American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy found that while more homeowners than ever are taking health into account when planning retrofits they are still the minority.
Contractors can raise that number by providing reliable IAQ advice. McGraw Hill Construction's 2014 The Drive Toward Healthier Buildings reported that, despite the proliferation of online information, building professionals remain consumers' most trusted source of healthy home information. On this issue the Harvard researchers concluded, "there is a potential market for transparent healthy-housing information, as well as for knowledgeable and trustworthy healthy-home remodelers, contractors, and service providers."
Of course people with IAQ concerns are natural customers for ventilation and air filtration: more than 30 percent of the homeowners with IAQ concerns identified in the Harvard study had installed ventilation, while another 22 percent were considering doing so. The most common pollutants that group worried about were dust and pet dander, which are easily handled by a good whole-house air cleaning system.
The implication of these findings is obvious: there's a major opportunity for knowledgeable HVAC pros to raise consumer awareness about IAQ issues, and to suggest ventilation and filtration systems that will address those issues.