Do we need fresh air in HVAC system? Kids are continually sick

rhome410October 26, 2010

We've been in our house for 2 1/2 yrs. It's about 2750 sq ft in 2 stories. We have a heat pump with auxiliary elec furnace and the house is divided into 2 zones. The first year, we were not getting enough heat or cool air when needed, and finally when the heat pump had a pressure lock because of a wrong refrigeration amount, the HVAC guy looked around and realized he didn't have a fan setting turned up right to give us good air flow. That solved the lack of warmth and cooling, but at that point, it made the whole system sound like a toy train whistle, as it tried to draw through the ductwork and return air ducts more quickly.

His first response was to turn the fan back down and I explained that wasn't a resolution I was interested in. Then he looked and decided his crew had neglected to put in any fresh air inlet, and he would 'be back the next day to take care of that.' That was 15 months ago. We have spoken to him several times since...One time he swore he'd already been back to do it. The whistling in the ducts seems to have gone away on its own somehow.

Before we fight this any further, I want to know if it's the answer to our problems, anyway. It seems when the kids get colds, they get one after another, and I wondered if it could be due to the lack of fresh air. I wondered if we had a house system akin to that of an airliner that is just recirculating bad air again and again. But, from doing a search and reading previous posts here, it doesn't sound like we're in need of fresh air? I'm sure it's a fairly tight house, but with us home all day most days with pets and kids, the exterior doors are open more than a few times each day.

Someone at work recommended to my husband that we use some disinfectant on the mesh and electronic air filters when we clean them. Anything else you know that might help us?

thanks so much.

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have you tested for mold? our neighbor had a leak in their system. There was mold from this, and the system was blowing it through the space

Their pediatrician recommended the testing because the kids were sick so often.

    Bookmark   October 27, 2010 at 7:47AM
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I don't know much about mold testing... I will look into it. Thanks.

    Bookmark   October 27, 2010 at 1:06PM
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I wonder if I should have mentioned that we have a gas rangetop and a fairly powerful vent hood. 1200 CFM. Probably makes no difference, but thought I'd throw it out there.

    Bookmark   October 27, 2010 at 1:18PM
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Did you have a make-up air system installed? Do you have a gas hot water heater?

    Bookmark   October 28, 2010 at 1:34PM
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No make up air system, and we have electric water heaters. Our only gas (LP) appliance is the rangetop.

    Bookmark   October 28, 2010 at 4:33PM
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The whistling may have gotten better when you changed filters. The difference in restriction of different filters makes a significant difference.

The airplane analogy is probably a bit extreme. Sharing bathrooms is probably 100 times more important in transfering the typical cold viruses than a tight house. Airplanes put people in a tight situation that don't usually come together. Family members have germ swapping mechanisms far more powerful in a typical household.

Now - that being said about cold viruses, a tight house can cause other issues. But figuring out that on a forum is pretty tough. Where you live and how the house was built (custom, spec, year built) would give some info as to how tight it is. Why the HVAC guy said you needed a fresh air intake would also be helpful.

Obviously at 1200 CFM, you will get noticeably better airflow if you crack a window/door. How much better gives you an idea how tight a house is. Hard to quantify but I bet an experienced builder (especially one who builds tight houses and cares about such things) could get a feel for how tight the house is pretty quickly with doing blower door tests.

    Bookmark   October 29, 2010 at 4:50AM
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We have washable filters, so there's been no change on those...and we had them in and out trying to solve the whistling, which it didn't at the time, but now I don't hear it any more. A mystery, but I'll just be glad.

We are in the Pacific NW/Puget Sound region, and we built our house and finished it 2 1/2 yrs ago. The hood vent seems to work fine. Mostly just wondering if a system such as ours (electric forced air with heat pump) is typically 'supposed to' have a fresh air inlet of some sort. I don't necessarily trust this particular HVAC guy's evaluation, since he's now been installing this system for 3 years, and says something different to make excuses for things he's done or hasn't done each time. A custom builder friend felt fresh air in the system would be optional, and not necessarily required...but he's not an expert and he's the one who recommended the HVAC guy we used. In any case, it seems that no one here seems to think it's an issue affecting our health, so that's good. I guess I need to just start doing more airing and sanitizing.

    Bookmark   October 29, 2010 at 2:17PM
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Well, IMHO fresh air is not required strictly by the HVAC system you have. Gas requires combustion air, but that's about it.

However, it has been a standard practice that so-called 'tight' homes need to have fresh air, or exchange-air systems in them because the air in the house can become 'stale' over time. Some small amount of air is brought in, conditioned, and sent to the blower system. An equal amount is exhausted out of the house. Usually this happens when the HVAC unit is running.

With a new house and sick kids, I would wonder more about the finishes applied to the inside of the house (paint, carpeting, etc).

    Bookmark   October 29, 2010 at 3:35PM
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Seems like they would be less sick as time went on if it were finishes? This is the worst year we've ever had for people getting sick in succession...before they are quite well, someone is sick again, and colds are turning into secondary infections (sinus, ears, and one case of pneumonia), which isn't typical for our family, even though there are 8 kids to share things back and forth. Could be just a bad fall, but we've been fighting this guy to do the fresh air for so long, I thought I'd check here to see how much of an issue it really might be. Sounds like it would be good to have, but not a huge deal.

    Bookmark   October 29, 2010 at 3:53PM
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Much has been written on your very problem and it can get quite complex. I'll just be general on the topic but I think you'll get the idea.....At minimum, a building should have 4 complete air exchanges per day to be healthy. Public buildings are required to have air exchange systems installed in my area. This of course means you will also have to condition that air which is counter-productive to high efficiency equipment. Older homes that leaked air didn't have the poor air quality that newer leak tight homes have. Think about it, just about every material now days is either from oil based products or, covered with them. Oil evaporates. When you clean the inside of the windshield on your car, that brown stuff that everyone calls nicotine is actually an oil film from the plastics in the car, evaporating. That's why dash boards in an older car eventually have cracks in them, the seats also. They are dried out i.e. the oil has evaporated from them. In your home, the carpeting, the sealant on hardwood floors, stain on furniture and so on, all these things add up to a poor air quality. Then there is dust (mostly dead skin cells) and no matter what you do, there is a certain amount of mold in the air. So everyone is breathing that stuff. Some are allergic to some of these things or at minimum, irritated. Also, when the heat comes on and dries the air, it also dries the mucous in the nasal cavities. This mucous is the body's first line defense mechanism to capture airborne germs and irritants. So in an air tight environment where the air gets stale, people just keep passing airborne germs and bacteria around, generally new ones they bring home from school or, you bring home from work. These things appear to be contributing to higher instances of asthma reactions also. So from the monetary side, you save money on utilities in air tight homes with efficient equipment but if you are sensitive to the stale air, you lose that money savings in medical expenses, even if only cough syrup, aspirin, Kleenex or prescriptions and doctor visits. You can minimize some of the problems by exchanging with fresh air, proper filters, proper relative humidity and of course hygiene.

    Bookmark   October 29, 2010 at 7:18PM
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Thanks so much for taking the time to share all that info! I think I can get on a better track to at least help us out a bit.

    Bookmark   October 29, 2010 at 7:54PM
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What a bunch of nonsense. Kids get sick, it's what they do. Kids get sick when their young because of all the contact they have with other children and their body is still putting the finishing touches on their immune system. "Getting sick" is caused from bacteria and viruses - that's it! It has nothing to do with oils, plastics etc. People that perpetuate these foolish ideas - that the reason we have diseases like asthma etc. are due to too much exposure to chemicals, dirt etc. - are really irresponsible. There is a growing body of evidence that show that the more sheltered children are from the chemicals and dirt in their environment, the more likely they will have excessive immune response. The less they get sick when they are young, the poorer their immune system development, and they will have greater incidences of illness and infection throughout their adult life. Introduce "fresh air" into the home if you'd like. If you really believe that your children are not getting enough "fresh air" then get their butts OFF the couch and send them outside!

    Bookmark   October 30, 2010 at 12:43PM
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Berlin, unless I didn't explain myself clearly, I was concerned about the recirculation of viruses and germs, not plastics. If others think that might be a concern, I will listen politely and file away the info for myself to be used or not used as I see fit for the situation. I have 8 children from ages 6 to 22, and certainly know about how they get sick. And I know when we're having a problem that isn't typical, which is why I'm checking here about the possible relationship to the air system, over which we have already had a concern. You, of course, don't know much about my family at all, but it is incorrect, to say the least, to indicate that they are couch potatoes, and don't go out and play and work on our acreage, and play sports. However, it is a little tougher to keep them out and active when they've been constantly ill for 9 weeks...

    Bookmark   October 30, 2010 at 2:18PM
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You're full of nonsense. The description was what any knowledgeable person knows as sick building syndrome. It all contributes to the agitation of allergies as well as bacterial and viral infections. My intent is to share the information I have from many hours in the classroom and several decades in the field. What you do with the information is up to you.

    Bookmark   October 30, 2010 at 6:53PM
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Hope the kids are better by now. It's hard to tell if the viruses are just worse this year, or something else. Maybe moving exposed them to a new set? We feel we must investigate, but what information is there?

I had an episode last year with swine flu and a chemotherapy patient in the house, and decided there's not nearly enough scientific information for determining causes of flu and colds and transmission. I used bleach wipes on the doorknobs and handrails, hourly hand washing, fresh towels and dishes, and pushed cranberries, blueberries and garlic when eating was possible, and good sleep, as well as tamiflu. We had more room for quarantine than you would with eight. We couldn't even tell if the chemo patient got the flu or not. But we made it through.

Mold is likely in our house. I just read that the vinyl shower curtains keeping the old tile from getting worse has its own carcinogens in the off gasses. The renovation will end the mold, but the off gasses may be worse, and the HEPA filters won't catch that.

There are no answers, partly because medicine is personal. What makes one person ill doesn't affect others. You have to do the best you can with the facts you have. If they do better with fresh air in the house, then try this weekly(a french custom)- open the bedroom windows and close the bedroom doors, until the bedrooms get chilly, then close up again. You can let in as much fresh air as you can afford to heat.

Again, hope things are better.

    Bookmark   November 7, 2010 at 8:28AM
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If you think your individual situation would make this beneficial, there are indoor air quality products available that use UV lights to reduce contaminants in the air stream.

They would be installed in the ductwork and include a high MERV filter, UV lights that deal with odors and contaminants. Ultravation is a brand that I know about.

I realize that most people would not go to these lengths in their home. I am only providing this info in case you are interested.

Here is a link that might be useful: Ultravation Indoor Air Quality Products.

    Bookmark   November 7, 2010 at 10:08AM
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Thanks, Lyvia. As you guessed, quarantine is not possible around here with shared bedrooms and limited space. Right now, there are no active sicknesses, just some left over coughing, so I'm hopeful it's the end for awhile. I will continue opening the windows and airing things out. Can't hurt.

    Bookmark   November 7, 2010 at 3:38PM
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I see that no one has posted here in nearly a year, but I was searching sick house syndrome on Google and saw this. I'm posting because berlin's remarks were offensive and presumptuous. I was born and raised in south Florida, had plenty of fresh air and was very active outside. I suffered all through my early life from ear infections and other upper respiratory infections. It did NOT build up my immune system! I now have a terrible disorder called sarcoidosis and developed it after we moved into our new home in May 2004. Anybody who stays at our house for any length of time develops sneezing and headaches. I just have it worse because I believe all the antibiotics I had to take as a young child compromised my immune system. I am pretty sedentary now because of my compromised lung function, but as a child and young adult, I never sat glued to the tv and was always out and doing something.

In my 20s, I lived in a house with a faulty HVAC system. It was also installed new in a new house. The 7th winter in the home my kids and I were sick all winter long, just as rhome410's kids. A family friend who installed heat pump systems said mold had infiltrated the inside and since it happened to be a sealed unit there was no way to properly clean it (a Feddars). He installed a high quality system (Heil-sp?) and the difference in our health was astounding.

My husband is gone a lot because he is a truck driver, but when he's home his allergies kick in big time. He is seriously thinking of having this crappy unit ripped out (that the builder installed), and a getting a new one installed.

Now, to just find the right system!

    Bookmark   October 30, 2011 at 1:34PM
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