How to improve the quality of air in our homes

Oliver Collins, Channel Marketing Manager, Mitsubishi Electric, takes a look at indoor air quality in UK buildings, and the role of installers in providing healthy air:

The Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) has previously called for buildings to be ‘safe havens’ that protect occupants from the negative impacts of air pollution and advocated for good indoor air quality (IAQ). The Covid-19 pandemic also put the topic of IAQ firmly on the public agenda. Since then, legislation such as the British Standard for Indoor Air Quality has put the issue under discussion at a government level.

Despite this, a recent survey has found that over half of UK homes still experience serious problems with IAQ and poor ventilation, leading to condensation, damp and mould. This is having a knock-on effect on people’s health and well-being, with 44% of homeowners reporting health-related side effects, including allergies, respiratory infections and difficulty concentrating.

It’s therefore crucial that we ensure IAQ is kept firmly on the public agenda, and continue to improve the quality of air within UK buildings. Ensuring these spaces are properly ventilated through energy-efficient solutions such as Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery (MVHR) can help, as well as supporting building owners and managers in retrofitting existing heating systems and considering renewable alternatives.

Indoor air quality must be improved

A common misconception about pollutants is that they only exist in the outdoors, for example, through traffic. However, there are numerous substances in the spaces we live in, like volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and carbon dioxide, that are harmful to our health too. VOCs are found in everyday home items such as cleaning products, materials and perfumes.

In fact, poor IAQ – which can be downgraded by fireplaces or gas stoves, for example – is currently associated with an estimated 6.7 million premature deaths per year worldwide. It is also a leading cause of mould and damp in people’s homes, which can cause significant health issues such as asthma and allergic rhinitis. This is leading to the NHS spending an estimated £1.4 billion on treating illnesses associated with cold and damp housing per year.

Improving the quality of air in our buildings is therefore vital, and pressure on the government to tackle the issue is growing. This has led to the introduction of the first British Standard for Indoor Air Quality, which offers a series of recommendations for measuring, monitoring and reporting on IAQ for owners and managers of domestic buildings.

While this legislation signals a step in the right direction, it is also important that building owners and managers take accompanying measures to improve IAQ in these spaces. So how can this be done?

Good ventilation is crucial

Improving ventilation is one potential solution. This can help remove indoor air pollutants like pathogens alongside moisture from the air, which can lead to mould. The importance of good ventilation in maintaining good IAQ is also recognised in Part F of the Building Regulations, which states that ‘adequate’ ventilation must be provided in all new and existing homes.

Balancing ventilation with energy efficiency is an important consideration, and this is where MVHR can help. This can transfer up to 90% of the energy from outgoing stale air to heat incoming fresh air, meaning less energy is required to heat the building compared to other systems. While it’s important for installers to note that installing MHVR in existing homes can involve some installation of ductwork, some models also just require a hole in the wall – making them straightforward to install.

Natural ventilation, which can be as simple as opening a window, is another option that homeowners should consider – and it requires little to no maintenance. However, natural ventilation can be noisy and allow other pollutants to come in from the outside – particularly for buildings located in or near city centres.

Heating also plays an important role

Working with building owners and managers to improve heating systems in tandem with ventilation can also contribute to a healthier indoor environment. This is because heat removes moisture from the air and lowers the risk of mould and dampness as a result.

This can be approached as part of an overall home retrofit. Heat pumps, for example, offer an energy-efficient alternative to gas boilers and will provide a more consistent hot water supply to radiators. Rather than allowing the temperature of the room to rise and fall, the constant heat from the heat pump helps to ensure the house stays warmer for longer, and reduces the likelihood of condensation forming.

The government has already set a target of installing 600,000 heat pumps per year by 2028, with record numbers installed in 2023. There is also growing financial support available for homeowners looking to make the switch, with the Boiler Upgrade Scheme offering grants to those looking to install a heat pump in their home. Over 70% of consumers today know little to nothing about how heat pump technology works, so improving wider awareness will be vital to accelerating this adoption – alongside improving funding for heat pump installer training.

Poor IAQ continues to impact public health, and improving air quality in UK buildings is paramount. Progress has already been made in the form of a framework for measuring IAQ, but ensuring homes are well-ventilated with energy-efficient measures will be vital to creating healthier and happier homes in the future.

We recently released a new guide in partnership with BESA exploring how to prevent mould and damp in new and existing homes, which can be accessed online here.