That New Car Smell Could Be Killing You Thanks to VOCs

 

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

If you follow organizations and companies dedicated to sustainable solutions such U.S. Green Building CouncilLeadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) or even this Blog you have probably seen an increased discussion about VOCs or Volatile Organic Compounds.  But I am not sure that people, in general, are aware of how pervasive VOC’s are in our lives.

 By definition a Volatile Organic Compound is an organic material with a growing point less than 250° Fahrenheit. For most of us this means that these organic compounds tend to exist as gases.  They are in many products that we buy and they also can occur naturally.  They have a wide range of adverse health effects including eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, visual disorders, and memory impairment in other words, they are not good for you!  Organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Health Canada have clearly spelled out the effects of long-term exposure to elevated concentrations of VOCs.

Most people recognize the presence of VOCs by their smell.  They have a distinctively unnatural smell.  I always tell people if it smells bad it is bad.  We all have a genetic memory in our bodies that identify bad smells.

As I have mentioned in a previous blog about tightening the building envelop, VOCs are all around us. They are found in cleaning products we use, carpeting, paint, lacquers, printing products – there is an exhaustive list. 

When VOCs are part of interior air you only have three methods of reducing them: capture them, kill them off, or ventilate them away. In terms of capture ordinary particle filters do not work. Filters made of activated charcoal are good at capture but these filters don’t work at the high air speeds which occur within our HVAC systems. Emerging technologies, such as AirRenew® which we’ve spoken of before, provide a new means of sequestration which HVAC filters do not. To “kill them off” requires ultraviolet light (UV). Formaldehyde, for example, has a 14 day half life in the presence of UV but we don’t have much UV inside our buildings. This leaves ventilation as a functional option. Providing fresh air ventilation rates in accordance with ASHRAE 62.1 for commercial buildings and 62.2 for residential buildings is a good place to start.

Trust your olfactory system – if it doesn’t smell right you may have a build-up of volatile organic compounds!

The NAHB International Builders’ Show (IBS) 2012 Reflects the State of the Building Industry

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

IBS 2012 is history!  Like all trade shows each attendee comes away with their own interpretation of how it was based on their reason for being there.  From the manufacturer perspective it was clear that attendees who came to our booth were looking for specific products or information.  They were not just window shopping. 

Anyone coming to a show like this in this economic climate was not just there killing time and spending money – they were engaged! And the folks I spoke to had very specific questions and were very interested in learning all that they could while there.

One interesting thing that I saw in the Show Village was –what I would call – an urban infill home.  It was a modular home that was narrow and would fit into a narrow lot.  This was a unique style for a modular treatment.  One of the interesting features in the design was a screened-in porch/deck that included screen under the decking to keep mosquitoes out.  Great idea especially in warm, moist climates!

There were many celebrities there such as Mike Holmes, Bob Vila, Vanilla Ice and Bronson Pinchot promoting their DIY Network shows. Radio talk shows taping for their audiences back home were out in force.

I had a chance to catch up with my friends from This Old House – Norm Abrams and Tommy Silva.  I just have to say that Norm knows more about wood than anyone I have ever met.  We had a great conversation about the difference between western red cedar and eastern white cedar and how you want to use them.  Great stuff!

We also talked about the lack of paints with low volatile organic compounds (VOCs) especially in colors.  It led to an interesting discussion about our VOC scavenging gypsum product.

There seemed to be a large number of Brazilians and South Americans at the show this year.  It is not surprising since the economy in Brazil is very strong and building seems to be on the rise.  It has clearly become an international show.

Clearly we have seen changes at IBS but we remain hopeful for a return to the glory days!

When You Build it Tight You Have to Ventilate Right

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation

If changes are made to an existing home in terms of tightening the building envelope and you see changes other than your utility bills going down, pay attention to the details because they may be a warning sign that you have not properly ventilated the home.

Lack of adequate ventilation in a home can result in serious problems.  The more obvious one that appears in obvious places is elevated humidity. If you are sweating the inside of new insulated glass windows in the winter when you didn’t before then your interior humidity has gone too high.  Another warning sign is dirt stripes appearing on the walls in front of the studs.  Musty odors, sweating or condensation, or unusual patterns on your walls could be indications of a ventilation problem.

However, moisture is not the only concern.  You also need to be concerned about gas concentrations in the air because of the dangers associated with them and the build up of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are emitted from many products that exist around the home but if you tighten up a home and don’t provide adequate fresh air, they are now being trapped within the home.  Many volatile organic compounds breakdown with exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light outside the home – formaldehyde for example has a half-life of about 14 days – but inside the home UV light is diminished and so has little affect on the concentration of the VOCs. VOCs could be coming off of products which you would never suspect.  For example, some citric acid cleaners that smell like orange can have amazingly high VOC concentrations. Remember, what has changed in the equation is the amount of fresh air that had been there before that helped evacuate these things from the home. The standard furnace filters we employ do not filter out gasses – they filter particles.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (AHRAE) has very specific guidelines on how much fresh air is needed for a healthy environment.  ASHRAE 62.1 references the calculations for commercial buildings and ASHRAE 62.2 is for residential buildings. It is critical to review these guidelines in order to properly ventilate the building envelope especially if you are making changes. When homes are tightened for energy efficiency you must make sure that adequate fresh air ventilation is taken into consideration.  There are many ways to do this that are compliant with the ASHRAE recommendations. And remember, if you find signs of moisture it’s like the canary keeling over in the coal mine.  Heed the warning!

Indoor Air Quality Has A New Champion

Improving the indoor air quality of buildings is a large part of the sustainability movement and as we continue to address energy efficiency through air tightness in assemblies, the issue of indoor air quality will continue to be a focal point.

People spend about 90 percent of their time indoors so the quality of the air around them, where they live, work and play is very important.  Educational and health care environments draw even greater scrutiny due to the sensitivities of the young and those with potential respiratory issues.Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), formaldehyde and other aldehydes, are seen as common compromises to air quality.  VOCs are all around us, come from many sources, and often move freely in and out of building components. People, themselves, carry VOCs into buildings through the wearing of permanent-press clothing and exposure to secondhand smoke.

Fortunately, there is a first-of-its-kind wallboard, called AirRenew™.  AirRenew is designed to clean the air and remove a particular family of VOCs by drawing them into the board, trapping them, and utilizing a patented technology to break down these VOCs into inert compounds. Those inert compounds will stay in the gypsum board for the service life of the board.  These inert compounds created inside the core are not harmful and the original VOCs will never be released back into the air. 

This revolutionary gypsum board, which will be available soon, will have a positive impact on public buildings, especially when qualifying for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED ™) or other green rating program certifications.  Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) strategies incorporating AirRenew meet the intent of the sustainability Triple Bottom Line of economic prosperity, social responsibility and environmental stewardship.

AirRenew has undergone a battery of independent testing. Preliminary tests show that AirRenew maintains its performance when painted with a permeable paint. Finishing that results in an impermeable surface, such as vinyl wallcoverings, would reduce the porosity of the board surface and are not recommended. Permeable paints currently serve over 70 percent of the interior wall coatings market. Since most sustainable and LEED models are moving away from solvent based coatings, this is not perceived as a limitation.

LEED for Schools Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) Credit 3.2 sets a maximum concentration of 27 parts per billion for formaldehyde, however many studies have shown that this is often exceeded. The mold resistance performance of AirRenew also contributes to LEED for Schools IEQ Credit 10 for mold prevention. The GREENGUARD® Environmental Institute has many resources documenting the issues of indoor air quality and the need for reducing VOCs especially in schools.

It has been exciting to work on a product that provides a real solution to an issue that has long needed a champion product.