Spring is wildfire season in New York. Wildfires in eastern Canada are common then, too, and the resulting smoke and particulate matter (PM) often make it far into the U.S. Even if you don’t live particularly close to the wildfire, it can affect your home because smoke can travel hundreds of miles. Let’s explore some steps you can take to mitigate the negative indoor air quality (IAQ) impact of a wildfire.

1. Monitor AQI and Adjust Accordingly

You generally should not open your windows and doors during a wildfire. Certainly, avoid opening them when the air quality index (AQI) is 100 or higher. You should also invest in allergy window and door screens for times when it is safe to open them. These will keep out allergens and other large PM. During a wildfire, you should set the HVAC fan to ‘on’ or ‘circulate.’ This will keep the home ventilated even when the air conditioning isn’t running. You can run a whole-house fan for ventilation. That said, you generally don’t want to do that when there’s an active wildfire or the AQI is 100 or more.

2. Seal Your Home

A loose building envelope is problematic. It not only increases energy costs but allows smoke and particulates into the home through cracks, gaps, and so forth. This makes it very difficult to maintain optimal IAQ generally but certainly during a wildfire. If this is a problem for you, we recommend a home energy audit and sealing the home as needed.

3. Upgrade Your HVAC Filter and Keep It Clean

If you have a central HVAC system, it does provide some air filtration. Central systems have one or more supply vents that require an air filter. The industry uses the minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) to measure filter effectiveness and airflow restriction. Most modern HVAC systems support filters up to MERV 13. That’s good enough to keep most large PM out of your system. A filter with a significantly higher rating could restrict airflow too much, increasing energy consumption and wear and tear.

4. Invest in an Indoor Air Quality Monitor

A good IAQ monitor will let you track PM, smoke, carbon monoxide (CO), volatile organic compounds (VOCs), relative humidity (RH), and more. You may want to consider a smart thermostat with integrated IAQ monitoring. These units often support multiple remote sensors. You can have multiple sensors for temperature but also all of the other IAQ issues mentioned here.

5. Schedule a Seasonal Tune-up

Schedule seasonal HVAC maintenance every spring and fall. In this region, it’s important to schedule early in spring well in advance of any wildfires. The primary reason to do this is to clean your evaporator coil and condenser coil. These coils will get dirty throughout the season especially if there’s a wildfire. Dirty coils can contribute to high energy costs. Evaporator coils, in particular, can contribute to poor IAQ when they’re covered in dust and debris.

6. Install a Whole-House Air Purifier

A whole-house air purifier is arguably the most powerful tool at your disposal when it comes to combatting PM. We generally recommend an air cleaner on the return side of your HVAC system. This allows for much greater airflow. For homes with ductless HVAC, an air purifier with its own duct is an option.

The industry measures whole-house air purifiers by air changes per hour (ACH). It’s relative to the total square footage and reflects how much air the unit filters per hour. A 2 ACH air purifier will filter all the air in a home twice an hour. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 4 ACH as the minimum for American households. Experts generally recommend 5 ACH or higher if wildfires are a concern. Allergists also recommend 6 ACH or higher for those with asthma and bad allergies.

The best air purifiers for an area prone to wildfires will offer particulate filtration, absorptive filtration, and, perhaps, ultraviolet (UV) filtration. These systems will usually have a prefilter that traps very large particulates and protects the more valuable filter media. For particulate filtration, high-efficiency particular air (HEPA) filters are common. True HEPA filters remove 99.97% of all PM down to 0.3 microns. Medical-grade HEPA filters remove 99.995% of all PM down to 0.1 microns. The medical-grade filters are more expensive but may be worth it in when dangerous fine PM is a concern.

Most systems use activated carbon for the absorptive filtration. Activated carbon absorbs unpleasant odors but also:

  • VOCs
  • Gases
  • Fumes
  • Smoke
  • Airborne chemicals

You can opt for UV filtration either as an air purifier stage or via UV lamps in your ducts. UV is a germicidal light that neutralizes pathogens, including viruses, bacteria, and microbes. The presence of these organisms can be higher when there’s an active wildfire.

You may also want to use a room air purifier. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does recommend using them in addition to a whole-house system to create clean rooms. Manufacturers often rate their room air purifiers by clean air delivery rate (CADR). The industry advises a two-thirds rule. If you need an air purifier for a 132-square-foot bedroom, for instance, you should look for 88 CADR or higher.

7. Make Use of Your Exhaust Systems

Even if the AC is running, use your exhaust systems when needed. Turn the exhaust on as soon as you start to cook. Leave it running for at least 10 minutes after you’ve finished. You should also run the exhaust in bathrooms whenever showering or bathing. Keep bathroom exhausts running until all moisture is gone.

8. Add a Whole-House Dehumidifier

The EPA advises an RH between 30% and 50%. Achieving this through AC or ventilation alone can be difficult. A whole-house dehumidifier makes it much easier and reduces the load on your AC. There are many benefits to optimal RH during wildfire season. An appropriate level of humidity will ease breathing and reduce respiratory system sensitivity. Lower moisture content also means that the air can hold less PM.

9. Run Ceiling Fans and Room Circulators

You should strive for as much internal air movement as is practical during a wildfire. It will help combat the concentration of pollutants and contaminants and make you feel more comfortable. Use ceiling fans in every room where you have them. Consider using an air circulator in rooms where ceiling fans aren’t practical.

10. Vacuum Only With a HEPA Filter

Much of the PM present in your home settles rather than remains airborne. Vacuuming can worsen IAQ as it disrupts all that settled PM. Avoid vacuuming during poor IAQ periods unless you have a unit with HEPA filtration. It will help ensure that the vacuum traps the PM rather than redistributes it.

Local IAQ Expertise in Newburgh

Polar Plumbing, Heating & Air Conditioning is proud to serve Newburgh and the surrounding areas. Our company has an IAQ team specializing in air purifiers, dehumidifiers, and humidifiers. Our NATE-certified HVAC technicians specialize in furnaces, boilers, heat pumps, air conditioners, and ductless mini-splits.

We have plumbers who install and repair both tank and tankless water heaters. They also specialize in gas, water, and sewer pipes, toilets, fixtures, drain cleaning, garbage disposals, leak detection, and much more. Call us today or contact us online to schedule an appointment or with any questions about our plumbing services.

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