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Indoor Air Quality Testing Residential : How to Test Air

Updated: Mar 18, 2023

Your throat is sore, you are tired all the time, and you have a lingering cough that won’t go away .

You’ve been tested for flu, COVID-19, and strep throat, and the results come back negative. Yet it doesn’t feel like a cold either. Perhaps, then, it's your indoor air quality (IAQ).

Indoor air is subject to contaminants that may cause symptoms ranging from sniffles to more serious (and sometimes fatal) results. Wouldn’t it be nice to know what you are breathing in?

Please note that we are air quality experts, not doctors or lawyers. Nothing in this article may be construed as medical or legal advice.

Our goal at Dino626 Environmental is to raise awareness of the importance of air quality and encourage you to improve your IAQ with the methods that work best for the needs of your home, school, facility, or business.

How to measure internal air quality (IAQ)

The ‘smell test’

No single test checks for every possible pollutant. Before you invest in professional testing, you’ll want a general idea of what you are testing for.

The easiest way to get this general idea is to use all your senses (including your common sense). If you are sniffling and sneezing, it's likely you have some type of allergen.

If you see peeling paint, you might have lead dust. If you smell mold, you probably have mold.

Of course, many contaminants, including some of the most dangerous ones, are not immediately identifiable.

Many symptoms, such as lethargy or a cough, may be caused by a variety of contaminants.

For this reason, you’ll also want to use one of the more targeted methods of testing below. However, your senses and your symptoms can provide you with a strong starting point.

Advantages of the ‘smell test’

  • This method costs you nothing but time. H4

Disadvantages of the ‘smell test’

  • This method is highly subjective and thus potentially inaccurate.

Indirect testing: air flow, temperature & humidity

Because modern buildings are built to be airtight, well-designed and well-maintained ventilation systems are essential for healthy indoor air quality.

Temperature and humidity analysis may be used to determine the efficacy and functionality of your current HVAC system.

Meanwhile, a smoke (or fog) generator, which releases puffs of chemical smoke, may be used to map airflow movements and ventilation in a space.

A pitot tube or anemometer can measure air velocity to help determine air exchange rate.

Taken together, these methods can indicate if a building’s ventilation is encouraging or preventing healthy indoor air quality.

Advantages of indirect testing

  • Reveals ventilation/HVAC problems which could contribute to poor IAQ.

Disadvantages of indirect testing

  • Indirect testing doesn’t reveal specific contaminants.

Targeted testing kits

Some contaminants may be tested with one-use home air quality test kits.These fall into two categories: DIY or lab analysis.

DIY kits usually contain various materials and reagents designed to show you the presence of a specific contaminant.

For instance, lead may be tested for with a color-changing pen filled with two reactive chemicals.

Mold test kits might contain a petri dish with a dextrose (sugar) solution; this is designed to grow mold rapidly if spores are present.

One dust mite kit attaches to your vacuum, and shows pregnancy-test-esque lines at the presence of dust mite allergens.

Laboratory analysis kits allow you to collect the sample, though that sample must be sent to a lab for analysis.

Advantages of targeted testing kits

  • For DIY kits, you are provided with near-instant results. For lab-based kits, you have the advantage of a professional option without needing to schedule an appointment.

Disadvantages of targeted testing kits

  • Most targeted kits only test for one type of contaminant.

  • Contaminants can ebb and flow in a space based on cooking, painting, construction, people in the room, weather, and ventilation. Sample kits only capture one moment in time. That is, they only tell you what the contaminants' presence was like at the time you tested.

  • Targeted testing kits are single use, meaning you only get one shot per testing material. Because you are performing the test yourself, there is plenty of room to make an error. (Some kits include extra supplies partially for this reason.)

It's often best to have an idea of what contaminant you are testing for ahead of time.

However, if you are looking to take a general sample of your air quality, here are two popular options.

One method is the detector tube kit, which collects an air sample in a sealed tube; (before reading this article, we bet you never imagined a scenario where you would have to literally mail air).

Another popular method of lab-based analysis is the vacuum pump.

One of the most common types of filters is known as the sampling cassette.

If you grew up in the ‘90s, allow us to clear away any confusion. These cassettes have nothing to do with ribbon tapes untangled by a pencil eraser.

Air sampling cassettes are enclosed plastic chambers with holes on either end. An air pump is connected to one end of the chamber, and air is drawn through at a specific rate in liters per minute.

Contaminants stick to an adhesive medium inside the cassette. The consumer then sends this cassette to a lab.

At the lab, the contaminants collected are stained and put under a microscope at various magnifications. The contaminant count on the sample is used to estimate contaminants in the air.

Advantages of broad-spectrum sampling

  • Vacuum pumps and detector tubes may test for a wide spectrum of contaminants.

Disadvantages of broad-spectrum sampling

  • Vacuum pumps need to adjust the sample time based on the humidity and perceived cleanliness of the environment you are testing.

  • Like DIY testing, broad-spectrum sampling only captures the air quality of one moment in time.

Handheld detectors

These are electronic devices not entirely unlike a scanning device from a science-fiction show.

They measure such things as temperature, formaldehyde, carbon dioxide, humidity, particulate matter, and total VOCs.

Handheld detectors contain dedicated sensors for each contaminant. For instance, they measure particulates by shining a laser on a sensor and measuring the amount of interference.

Handheld detectors are most often used by IAQ professionals, but they don’t take a great deal of expertise to learn. You can purchase one online for anywhere between $100-$1,000 dollars.

Advantages of handheld detectors

  • Because they are so mobile, handheld detectors are excellent for pinpointing the source of contaminants.

  • Unlike test kits, handheld detectors are multiple-use devices. They also test for a wide range of contaminants.

Disadvantages of handheld detectors

  • While a handheld detector provides real-time information, it is not designed for continuous monitoring.

  • Handheld detectors sometimes require calibration, that is, testing a base level in uncontaminated (usually outdoor) air.

  • As of 2014, the EPA did not believe that direct reading (such as that from a handheld monitor) yielded useful results with regards to VOCs, but they did believe it could identify hotspots.

Household monitors can either be dedicated to a single contaminant or test for a broad range of contaminants.

You likely already have two single-contaminant detectors in your home: a smoke alarm and a carbon monoxide detector. If you don’t, install both on every floor of your home (plus one smoke detector in every bedroom).

Broad-spectrum monitors test for many of the same factors as handheld monitors.

Advantages of household monitors

  • Monitors provide round-the-clock analysis in real-time. Unlike handheld monitors, you don’t have to carry them around the house while staring at them. Instead, they either make a sound or send a report to your smart phone.

Disadvantages of household monitors

  • Broad-spectrum monitors tend to be the priciest of the DIY solutions.

  • Some household monitors require calibration.

Call the professionals

DIY kits for each type of contaminant?! Monitors that send real-time data to your phone?! Mailing samples to labs?! Yikes, you have an overwhelming number of options.

If you think it’s all a bit much, which not call in the cavalry? Our certified technicians can provide a whole range of testing based on your unique space, concerns, and needs.

This may include any of the following: swabbing surfaces for pathogens, measuring particulate matter in your indoor air, analyzing your ventilation system, and/or taking comprehensive air samples.

They can then create a customized plan to ensure the highest indoor air quality in your home, school, healthcare facility, or business.

Advantages of a professional visit

  • You’ll receive accurate, thorough results, as well as a customized plan of action without having to purchase and operate different test kits yourself.

To summarize:

Your own senses and indirect airflow analysis are great for getting an idea of what to look for.

DIY and lab kits can tell you what your problems are, mobile detectors can tell you where the problems are coming from, and home monitors keep an eye on things day-to-day.

Meanwhile, a visit from an certified technitian can help you develop a customized IAQ plan.

Now you have a general idea of the contaminants that affect your air quality and how you can test for them.

We hope this guide is helpful in developing strategies for improving indoor air quality in your home, hospital, business, or school. If you want assistance in developing these strategies, please click the button below to be put in touch with an IAQ expert.

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