As we head into spring and a potentially very hot summer, now is a great time to refresh your home and make some changes that can positively impact you and your household's health and wellbeing.
Poor air quality and poor air circulation in our homes can have a negative impact on our health – exacerbating symptoms for people with allergies and health conditions such as asthma and other respiratory issues. It could be affecting your sleep, or causing headaches or minor – and even major – health irritations.
Asthma Australia says there are many triggers in Australian homes, including indoor air pollution from cooking, gas or wood heating; mould and damp; and pests (such as mice, cockroaches and dust mites).
The organisation also reports that one quarter of Australians (24%) are not happy or are unsure about the air quality inside their homes.
We spend so much time at home – living, working sleeping – that it's worth ensuring that our personal spaces aren't making us sick.
Here are some tips for some things you can do to improve indoor air quality for a healthier home.
Warnings about the health implications of cooking with gas, particularly for children and people living with asthma, have led many households to investigate alternatives to gas cooking.
"Gas cooktops contribute 12% of the childhood asthma burden, which is equivalent to tobacco smoke in the home," says Asthma Australia CEO Michele Goldman.
Using any cooktop surface can produce pollutants, such as the smoke you see coming from the surface of a hot pan. But Goldman says gas cooking is the most concerning, because the burning of gas produces additional pollution with the release of harmful gases and particulate matter.
Replacing a gas cooktop with an electric or induction cooktop can help reduce these contaminants in your home. As they use magnetic fields to generate heat directly in the cookware, there is no combustion and no emissions.
And CHOICE experts say that induction cooktops on the whole are more efficient and easier to clean.
However, they can be expensive to buy and install, which may be prohibitive for many people currently struggling with the cost of living. If switching to induction is not possible for you, here are some other tips to follow:
- Buy a portable induction cooktop. They're cheaper than a full induction cooktop – our experts have tested portable induction cooktops that perform well and cost from as little as $59. Keep in mind you'll need to ensure your cookware is compatible and you should opt for a model that comes with good cooking guidelines - cooking with induction is very different to cooking with gas so some practice can be required!
- Always use a rangehood when cooking. A good rangehood will divert the smoke from your kitchen, either ducting it outside or filtering it. If you have a gas cooktop, CHOICE experts recommend you use a ducted rangehood to vent outside. Make sure you keep it clean to maximise its efficiency and, if you have a recirculating rangehood with a carbon filter, replace the filter regularly.
- Ventilate the kitchen. If you're cooking with gas, keep a window open to limit the toxins in the air. You should also always keep windows open if you're cleaning your oven using a pyrolitic function.
- Reduce pests by keeping surfaces clean and don't leave food out. Ants, spiders, mice and cockroaches are a source of airborne allergens that can cause allergic reactions and trigger asthma flare-ups.
Using your rangehood and ensuring good ventilation in the kitchen is vital to maintain air quality while cooking.
The way you cool and heat your home can have a dramatic impact on air quality and there are some things you can do to ensure your environment is as fresh and clean as possible.
Peaking pollen levels in spring or soaring temperatures in summer may send us indoors more, but ensuring good air flow is important.
Most of the air conditioners we've recommended have some form of air purification filter
Our experts say that an effective reverse-cycle air conditioner is not only one of the most efficient ways to heat or cool your home, but it can also improve air quality.
CHOICE home cooling expert Chris Barnes says: "Air conditioner dust filters aren't designed to remove smoke or germs from the air, but some models have air purification filters, which can help improve your indoor air quality."
"Most of the air conditioners we've recommended have some form of air purification filter. And even collecting just some of the dust in the air can be helpful."
The best way to filter out very fine particles such as smoke, mould spores, pollen and viruses is with a HEPA filter (high-efficiency particulate air filter), which are in many vacuum cleaners and most air purifier units, but not in air conditioners.
"You can buy some air purifiers that function as fans and heaters, which you could use as a cooling solution in summer or as a heater in winter as well," says Chris. "However, these typically aren't among the highest performing air purifiers in our testing."
When it comes to maintaining an ideal temperature in your home, here are some tips that can help you maintain air quality:
- Keep doors and windows shut if there are days with high pollen levels or high smoke levels (from bushfires or controlled burning).
- If you have an air conditioner, keep filters clean and change them regularly. This will keep your air conditioner running as efficiently as possible, maximising its cooling and air purifying capabilities, as well as keeping running costs down. Read more about how air conditioners can work as air purifiers.
- Use an air purifier with a HEPA filter. Although they can't help with the temperature (unless you opt for an air purifier/fan/heater combo), they can help clear the air of dust, smoke, pollutants and allergens, as well as bacteria and viruses.
- Use ceiling fans, pedestal fans or tower fans. Not only is a good fan a great, cost-effective way to keep you cool, they can help increase air flow and circulate fresh air to improve air quality. We've reviewed both ceiling fans and tower fans to help you buy the best. CHOICE experts recommend pedestal fan models that cost as little as $17.
- In winter, avoid gas or wood heaters. Not only are these types of heating less efficient than using a reverse-cycle air conditioner, but smoke from wood heaters and pollutants released from gas heaters can carry serious health risks.
Need an excuse for a spruce up? Allergens such as dust mites, pet hair and mould may have accumulated over winter, or could be an ongoing issue in your household, so now is a good time for a thorough spring clean.
If allergies, asthma or similar respiratory conditions are an issue for you, our experts say that regular cleaning of surfaces and carpets, including with a vacuum cleaner that has a HEPA filter, can help.
Vacuums equipped with HEPA filtration are excellent at catching invisible irritants. The vacuum's bag or bin traps the collected pet hair, dirt and larger dust particles, and blows the air back out into the room through the HEPA filter. The filter prevents any really fine particles that escaped the dust bag from making it back into the indoor air.
Here are some more cleaning tips for a healthier home:
- Choose a vacuum with a HEPA filter. We've tested both stick vacuums and upright/barrel vacuums that have HEPA filters and rate them on performance – find the best vacs with a HEPA filter.
- Keep your vacuum clean and regularly maintained (including changing filters when necessary). This will help it work as efficiently as possible.
- Opt for a bagged vacuum or look for a bagless/bin vacuum that we rate in CHOICE reviews as easy to empty, as it'll be less likely to result in dust flying around. Some stick vacs and robot vacuums now come with a base station or dock that empties the vacuum cleaner's bin into a bag for you.
- Regularly clean bedding, curtains and throws that can attract dust and allergens such as pet hair, and keep surfaces dust-free and uncluttered.
- Having your carpets professionally cleaned every 18 months is also helpful, but make sure they're thoroughly dried afterwards to prevent mould growth.
- Regular steam cleaning of carpets and upholstery can also be helpful to keep dust mite numbers down, which are one of the biggest indoor irritants for asthmatics.
Damp, mould and mildew are common problems in Australian households that can occur year-round during periods of humidity or lots of rain, and can also have a negative impact on the air quality in our homes due to mould spores.
Mould is associated with a range of health problems, from congestion, coughs and sneezing, to more serious respiratory symptoms. Simply put, doing what you can to help prevent the spread of mould is a great idea in any Aussie home.
Dehumidifiers, air conditioners, ceiling fans and portable pedestal fans can all be useful. We've got some quick tips below, or you can get some more in-depth information in our article: How to protect your home from damp, mould and mildew.
- Ventilate. Yes, it may be obvious and is not the most helpful of advice if you have a persistent problem, but good ventilation is key to reducing mould and mildew. Keep windows open as much as possible to encourage good airflow.
- Dry out problem areas using fans, dehumidifiers or ceiling fans. Choose the right kind of dehumidifier for your home – refrigerant dehumidifiers are best for hot, humid conditions. Desiccant dehumidifiers are best for cold, damp conditions.
- Split-system air conditioners will also help to dry out the air in cooling mode, as they condense water from the indoor air and drain it outdoors. Many have a 'dry' mode as well, which focuses more on dehumidification than cooling.
- Avoid drying clothes indoors: this will add to the humidity in your home. If you just can't avoid it, you can use a dehumidifier on 'laundry' mode or a condenser dryer.
- Buy a condenser clothes dryer. Vented dryers pump humid air back out into the room, but condenser dryers condense the moisture and collect it in a reservoir. They're more expensive to buy but can help minimise moisture.
- Consider electric heating, such as a reverse-cycle air conditioner, instead of an unflued gas heater, which releases water vapour into the room, potentially adding to any dampness or mould problems.
- Moisture absorbers such as DampRid can be useful for mild mould issues.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.