As the nation shuts itself indoors for another winter, now’s an ideal time for contractors to address indoor air quality issues and capitalize on the growing asthma and respiratory ailment market.

Just how big is this market? Consider these statistics:

  • More than 26 million Americans suffer from asthma, including 7 million children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • The most frequent call for emergency room visits by children is respiratory ailments, CDC reports.
  • Asthma rates have grown about 8% over the last 10 years — and 160% in the past 20 years, according to a report from Underwriters Laboratories.
  • Today’s super-insulated green homes have 200% higher allergen levels than ordinary homes, UL says.
  • Indoor air pollution is typically 2 times to 10 times greater than outdoor air pollution, according to UL.
  • People spend 90% of their time indoors, UL concludes.                                   

“The home is the one environment where people spend most of their time,” said Marilyn Black, senior technical advisor for UL Inc. “And most people get chemical exposure from the air they breathe, not from the things they touch. So the air is very, very, important.” Unfortunately, many contractors don’t have the training to properly address indoor air quality issues, says Larry Zarker, CEO of the Building Performance Institute, which offers training on indoor air quality fundamentals. “I’ve had people from the industry tell me it’s too technical,” Zarker said. “But this isn’t rocket science. It’s building science. And building science is something you can learn.”

Indoor air quality work starts with testing levels of relative humidity, combustion safety, lead and asbestos. “Basically, you’re doing a diagnostic,” said Gord Cooke, partner in Construction Instruction, a training company for contractors. “You need to ask the right questions and perform the right tests.” Addressing clients concerns and showing them the problems puts contractors in an enviable position. “If you’re mindful of their specific needs, they will pay extra to make sure it’s done right,” Cooke adds.

One of the main causes of poor indoor air quality is simple ventilation and sealing, or the basic building envelope. Both are the best defense against one of the worst indoor air quality issues: mold. Mold causes a constellation of health issues from chronic sinus infections to headaches to respiratory ailments.

When humidity rises above 60 percent in a home, it’s at risk for mold growth, Black says. Water intrusion from lack of sealing can also cause serious mold problems. Cooke says indoor air quality contractors need to be moisture detectives. “What’s the grading like outside? Are there signs of graining, cracking or peeling? Have there ever been leaks? Doing a really good moisture investigation keeps you out of trouble and points out new opportunities,” he said.

Along with mold, improper ventilation and sealing can cause uneven temperatures, drafts, ice dams, pest infestations, and even premature deterioration of building materials.

In older homes, improperly sealed or leaking ductwork allows air to come from sources that are not safe, such as crawl spaces and attics. These can harbor pollutants ranging from rodent feces to mold. Once it’s picked up by the ductwork, those pollutants are carried throughout the home. “You want to get the air from a source you can trust,” Zarker said. In newer homes, so-called green energy techniques can cause the interior to be too tight, not letting enough fresh air into the home to maintain healthy humidity.

But whether the home is old or new, nearly 100 percent of them have ductwork that’s improperly sized, says Rob Minnick, CEO and president of Minnick’s, which specializes in indoor air quality. “Everything and anything is caused by improper ventilation,” Minnick says. “If it’s not properly ventilated that’s where a lot of these health issues and concerns are coming into play.”

Minnick and others warn that no amount of filtration will fix bad ventilation. But once proper ventilation is established, filters are a good way to improve indoor air quality. Black recommends using filters with a minimum MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) rating of 8.

Ultimately, Zarker says, contractors who understand such nuances will be rewarded with a growing market. “We’re really on the frontier of the connection between health science and building science,” he said. “I really see it as a huge business opportunity.”