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One little-known fact is that our homes in America are much less healthy places to live than our workplaces. Corporations learned long ago that productive employees need lots of light and air that’s free of CO2 and excess humidity. Too much CO2 and employees get sick; too much humidity and they get uncomfortable, and too little light and they get depressed.
Most Americans think of their homes as hermetically sealed units, and strive to achieve an ever-greater seal against the outside world. Residential HVAC (heating ventilation and AC) systems are primitive. The inside air is endlessly recirculated, the only exchange with the outside world happens through the many small leaks that houses have. This allows CO2 levels to rise and can make you sick.
Commercial buildings are different. Fresh outside air is brought in and mixed with the recirculating inside air. Air first enters the building through a heat exchanger that keeps heat out in summer and in during wintertime. It then goes through an air conditioner to condense out much of the moisture before being reheated (if necessary) and finally goes into the interior spaces.
Besides having healthier air, commercial buildings are also full of lighting, from electrical fixtures to skylights. Light is important for our health; it keeps our circadian rhythms from drifting out of sync, can help keep us from getting depressed and even mitigate things like seasonal affective disorder. I’ve religiously used lots of light during the wintertime (I like to buy the high-powered daylight bulbs) for six or seven years, but a couple months ago I slacked off and I was shocked just how depressed I got.
But why are commercial buildings so much healthier than our homes? The answer is simple: corporations have a strong incentive to keep their employees productive and minimize downtime from getting sick. The government, meanwhile, seems to see residential real estate as a piggy bank to extract ever-greater energy efficiency. There’s also a cultural element; many cultures stigmatize excessive energy use, and even if the stigma is mild (as in many parts of the U.S.) it can still affect public policy. Corporations, in contrast, have to worry about things like health insurance premiums and employees suing them for unsafe working conditions, and so can overcome such minor biases.
My mother works from home (and my father may soon join her), so last year I made them hire contractors to put in a commercial-style HVAC system. If you work from home, you might want to think about doing that yourself. The most important part, in my opinion, is the heat exchanger that lets you bring outside air into the house, as well as a suitably fancy air filtration system. Depending on where you live you may also need the always-on AC system to dehumidify the air or even a humidifier if you live someplace really dry.
Make sure to get second and third opinions from a variety of contractors (it took us several tries to get decent ones), and unfortunately, you do need contractors for this; I tried for years to source the materials myself and never managed to pull it off. For those on a budget, it helps to have lots of houseplants as well as one of these giant carbon filters. Carbon filters are great for filtering out any chemicals in the air (as opposed to particulates, which is what most air purifiers get rid of). Unfortunately, the carbon pre-filters in most consumer air purifiers are far too small to be useful; you really do need the big one. It’s important to replace them at least once a year, and yes, you really do need the 6-inch one (that’s the pipe connection size, the actual filter is bigger) and a decently powerful fan (I’ve had good experiences with this one here).Published in