Summer is wildfire season, the time of year when fires tend to burn and spread easily across the country. Dry conditions, changing weather patterns, wind, and hot temperatures have made wildfires particularly devastating in 2020. Even if you aren’t in the direct path of the wildfire, you can still be impacted by exposure to smoke. Wildfire smoke can travel thousands of miles. During the devastating fires on the west coast, skies were smoky on the other side of the United States.
Smoke in the air creates poor air quality outdoors, which can also affect the air inside your home. Poor air quality can create health risks and make it uncomfortable to breathe and even perform simple tasks. Breathing smoky air, even for a short period of time, can have long-term effects on a person’s lungs and overall health. Regular furnace maintenance can help improve your air quality, but there are also other things you can do to make it safer and easier to breathe inside your home.
Here are eight ways to improve indoor air quality from wildfire smoke:
Check Air Quality Conditions
During wildfire season, get in the habit of checking the air quality every day, and even throughout the day. This is especially important if there is someone in your home with asthma or a heart condition, or any elderly people or children who are more at risk from wildfire smoke. The air quality index, or AQI, is available online, through local news, and on most weather apps. AQI is color coded based on the levels of pollution, ranging from green for good air quality, all the way to brown for hazardous air quality.
The air may seem relatively clear, but the air quality can still be unsafe. Because smoke can travel so far, there doesn’t have to be a wildfire in your area for the air quality to be poor. Air quality also changes during the day based on the wind and weather patterns. Many places with wildfires provide smoke forecasts and use radar to predict where the smoke will move so people in the area can plan accordingly. Tracking the air quality conditions helps you know if the air is unsafe and if you need to be taking serious action to improve the air quality inside your home.
Close Open Windows and Doors
Opening doors and windows to let in fresh air can usually improve your home’s air quality, but that’s not the case when there is wildfire smoke in the area. To stop polluted air from entering your home, keep windows and doors closed as much as possible. Instead, use a fan or air conditioner to keep the house cool. If you do have to leave the house, try to open and close the door as quickly as possible so smoke doesn’t enter the house.
Also, check the sealant around your doors and windows to make sure smoky air isn’t sneaking in through cracks. Old windows and doors tend to let in more air through the cracks, but they can easily be improved with fresh caulking around the edges. If needed, close dog doors, mail slots, and other openings that allow outside air to come inside.
Adjust Your HVAC System To Keep Smoke Out
With your windows closed, the air conditioner is a great way to keep the house cool. The HVAC system can also help keep the indoor air safer to breathe with just a few adjustments. If your HVAC system has a fresh air intake, close it or turn the system to recirculate mode. The fresh air intake can typically be closed fairly easily by closing the damper. If needed, an HVAC professional can ensure the fresh air intake is completely closed. This will keep the clean air rotating inside your house instead of pulling in air from outside.
Regular HVAC maintenance, including annual checkups, keeps your system running at top condition. When the HVAC system is operating well, it does a better job of keeping the air clean so you can stay comfortable without smoky air sneaking in. The last thing you want is your air conditioner to break down when the outside air is smoky.
If you have a window air conditioner, close the outdoor air damper or turn it off and use a fan instead. Check that the seal between the air conditioner and the window is as tight as possible so outside air doesn’t sneak in.
Use a Portable Air Cleaner
A portable air cleaner or purifier can be a great investment, especially if you live in an area with a lot of wildfires or if there is someone in your home who is more at risk for smoke inhalation. An air cleaner captures the irritants and pollution in the air to create cleaner indoor air. No air purifier can get the air completely clean, but it can remove most of the irritants and make the air much safer to breathe. Aside from wildfire season, an air purifier can be used year-round to clean the air of pet dander, pollen, and other contaminants.
Portable air cleaners come in a wide variety of sizes. Choose one based on the size of the room where you intend to use it, such as the bedroom or living area. An air purifier that is too small won’t be effective in cleaning the air, but one that is too large can be overpowering.
Clean and Replace Your Air Filter
One of the biggest defenses against smoky air getting inside your home is your HVAC air filter. The job of the air filter is to trap dust and other particles before they get recirculated through your home when your run the air conditioner. If you notice the air quality inside your home becoming uncomfortable, check your air filter to see if it needs to be replaced. The air filter should fit snugly in its filter slot to be effective, so make sure you are using the correct size filter.
In general, HVAC air filters should be replaced about every two months, depending on the type and usage. For homes with pets or people with allergies, the filters should be replaced even more often. During wildfire season or when your air conditioner or heater is running regularly, change the filter more often.
When there is smoke in the air, consider using a higher-quality air filter. Air filters each receive a MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) rating, which measures how effective the filter is at capturing particles. The higher the MERV rating, the better the filter is at trapping particles. Most homes use filters with a MERV rating of 7-12. If your system can accommodate it, try upgrading to a filter with a MERV rating of 13 or higher to capture more of the smoke particles. These types of filters are extremely effective and typically used in hospital settings. Not all HVAC systems, especially those that are older, can handle air filters at the top of the MERV scale, so check with an HVAC professional if you are unsure.
Avoid Activities that Increase Indoor Pollution
Even if you take all of the precautions to keep smoky air from entering your home, you can still experience poor indoor air quality if you do activities that add more particles to the air. Mixed with unsafe air quality outside, these activities can greatly decrease the air quality and make it difficult to breathe inside your home.
When the air quality is low, avoid increasing indoor pollution with activities including:
- Smoking cigarettes, including e-cigarettes
- Using gas, propane, or wood-burning stoves or furnaces
- Frying food
- Spraying aerosol products, including air fresheners, cleaning products, and perfume and beauty products
- Burning candles or incense
Keep the House Clean
A clean house tends to have better air quality because there aren’t dust particles and other contaminants in the air. Keeping the house clean is always important for people with allergies or asthma, but it can make a difference for everyone when there is wildfire smoke in the air.
When cleaning your house, focus on cleaning areas that accumulate pet dander, mold, or dust. Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter to clean the carpets at least once a week. Regularly clean bedding, pillows, and curtains that tend to attract dust, and wipe down hard surfaces where dust accumulates. Try to keep the house as tidy as possible to give dust particles fewer places to settle and accumulate. If dust particles are a regular problem in your home, consider replacing carpet with wood or tile flooring that doesn’t collect dust and particles.
Knowing how to keep your indoor air clean from wildfire smoke can greatly improve your health and quality of life. Wildfires are devastating to people in their path, but their impact spreads past the burn area to everywhere the smoke travels. Using proactive measures to prepare your home for poor air quality can make a big difference in the comfort and health of everyone in your home.