Homefront Defense Against Allergies

Don’t look now, but your home is under assault.

Allergy season has officially begun in the Carolinas Piedmont, with the first windborne tree pollen – cedar, maple and birch – drifting invisibly through the air in the first weeks of February, sneaking into your home’s cracks and crevices.

Those allergens will soon be followed by the pollen of oaks and grasses, on into the march of misery-inducing menaces that peak with late-summer ragweed. And that’s just the stuff outside. Inside, homeowners may face pet allergies, dust mites or mold.

And then there’s this: Charlotte in 2009 was named the third-worst city in the nation for allergies by the Allergy and Asthma Foundation of America.
Reaching for tissue yet?

The good news is that in the homeowner’s war on allergens, some simple fixes are available. Most of them focus on keeping outside air out, and keeping inside air dry.

Mind the gap
First, you want to scout your home – caulk gun or can of spray foam in hand – to seal up all the holes, says Sam Galphin, president of Performance Point, a Concord-based energy-consulting firm.

In the attic, look for gaps between ducts and the wall or floor. In the living area, check for gaps around light fixtures and outlets. A caveat: If your furnace is inside the home, Galphin advises having it checked by a professional before you seal up holes, to be sure carbon monoxide isn’t a problem.

If you have a crawl space, get under there and “follow every wire,” sealing holes as you go, said David Tyson of Tyson Renovations in Charlotte. On a windy day, walk around inside the house with a candle, he added, and watch for a flickering flame that indicates a draft. Or hire a professional energy auditor who, for $350 to $550 for an average-sized home, can run a powerful fan in the front door and use an infrared camera to locate hot and cold spots, Tyson said.

Raleigh’s Progress Energy provides a customized online tool customers can use to find ways to save on energy. The tool considers issues such as age of an HVAC system or windows, said Progress spokesman Jeff Brooks, and though Progress’ focus is primarily on energy usage, some of the same issues may affect air quality. The site, www.progress-energy.com/save , also connects users to incentives that may help offset costs of upgrades.

Duke Energy provides online tools as well as free, in-person home energy audits to customers who call 877-388-7676; www.duke-energy.com . That audit could also identify air leaks that aggravate allergy issues.

Don’t forget the exterior. Harold Glazer, of H. Glazer Builder in Raleigh, urges homeowners to inspect the outside of their house annually, sealing cracks around windows and keeping gutters clean to avoid leaks that can penetrate the roof and cause mold. “We have lots of clients who ask us to do an exterior house inspection,” Glazer said.

Look for dark streaks along the edge of light-colored carpet. Those are a giveaway that weather stripping around a nearby window or door is faulty, Tyson said. When you flip on an exhaust fan or open another door, air is being sucked into the house, leaving behind the grime.

To keep indoor air pure, use low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paints and finishes where possible.

Keep it drier

Dust mites and mold thrive on moisture, and that’s a real problem here in the Southeast. “The ground around your house or under your crawl space can stay wet indefinitely,” Galphin said. Even if slabs were built with vapor barriers, those can break down after a while. Vented crawl spaces sound like a great idea until you realize that in the South, the shaded air beneath a house is typically cooler than the outside air, resulting in condensation, remodelers said.

The trend now is to seal off crawl spaces, and that is what Glazer recommends. “It’s the Rolls-Royce of solutions,” he said, estimating that encapsulating a crawl space on a 2,500-square-foot home might run around $3,500 if no extra drains are needed. Glazer said he’d highly recommend that families whose children have asthma consider enclosing their crawl space.

Galphin advises at least sealing off HVAC ducts in the crawl space. “You can buy a $10 bucket of mastic (paste sealer) and a cheap paintbrush and paint over all the seams you find,” he said.
Inside the house, test your exhaust fans, which, experts say, should vent outdoors. Use the fans any time you create moisture. That means turn on the stove exhaust when boiling water – and keep a lid on the boiling pot. A bathroom fan should be able to hold a couple of squares of toilet tissue against the grill when running.

Water leaks anywhere can allow mold to grow. That little chink in the shower wall grout or caulk is all it takes for moisture to build up in the wall, Glazer said. “We see a considerable amount of that,” he said.

If you can afford it, it’s best to rip out your carpet, experts agreed. “Carpeting is like a sponge. It keeps everything in there,” said Dr. John Klimas with Carolina Asthma & Allergy. And while many homeowners install hardwoods in the living room first, Klimas and others agreed the first priority should be bedrooms.
Klimas, who has been practicing for 30 years, has watched the number of allergy and asthma cases rise “substantially.”