How to Test Air Quality in the Home

Written by | Updated November 27, 2019

The quality of the air you breathe can contribute to health problems like asthma and allergies. And it’s not just outdoor air quality that exposes us to pollutants. The World Health Organization (WHO) says 9 out of 10 people worldwide regularly breathe polluted air. And as many as 93% of children under 18 are living in environments with pollution concentrations that exceed WHO safe air quality guidelines.¹

You can’t always control the pollution outside, but you can ensure better health for your family by improving indoor air quality. That starts by identifying levels of indoor contaminants and finding ways to restore good air.

Take the following steps to create a healthier indoor environment where your whole family breathes a little easier.

  1. Purchase an indoor air quality monitor.
  2. Evaluate health symptoms.
  3. Monitor carbon monoxide and radon levels. 
  4. Get an air purifier.
  5. Call an air quality professional.

Purchase an Indoor Air Quality Monitor

If you’re experiencing symptoms you suspect are related to indoor air quality, getting an air quality monitor is an inexpensive way to pinpoint the problem. By monitoring levels of indoor air pollution, you can take steps to get fresh air back into your home, and hopefully, a little peace of mind with it. 

Which contaminants or pollutants should an air quality monitor measure?

Look for air quality sensors that provide the following air quality measurements.

  • Humidity: Indicates potential for mold growth.
  • Temperature
  • VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds): These are chemical pollutants identified by the EPA as potential sources of indoor air quality problems and come from building materials, carpeting, etc. ²
  • Levels of particulate matter (PM 2.5): This is the level of dust and other allergens present in the air.
  • AQI (Air Quality Index): A measurement of air quality the EPA uses to determine the risk of health problems associated with indoor and outdoor pollution.³

Some air quality monitors provide additional information like outdoor air quality and levels of carbon dioxide or carbon monoxide. However, the factors listed above are the most critical measurements for an air quality monitoring station to capture.

Ecowitt WH0290 Air Quality Monitor Meter

If you want a basic readout on your indoor air quality, Ecowitt is a straightforward IAQ monitor with sensors that focus on particulate matter (PM 2.5).

We Like

  • Tracks AQI as 6-levels
  • Easy to use and read

We Don't Like

  • No air quality app

In our quest to identify the best indoor air quality monitors for your home, SafeWise tested the Ecowitt WHO290 over a period of 30 days. While it did require a charging period, we found the Ecowitt easy to set up and straightforward to use. 

Our air quality testing involved monitoring a basement that had recently been exposed to construction dust and mold. Initial readouts confirmed higher levels of particulate matter that alerted the homeowner to keep kids and pets out of the basement until concentrations fell to safer levels. After about two weeks, Ecowitt’s WHP290 signaled the all clear as the particulate matter fell back to single digits.

While this air quality monitor didn’t offer a lot of sophisticated data and readouts, it did save hundreds of dollars in professional testing and helped avoid exposure to particulate matter for family members with asthma and other health concerns.

Evaluate Health Symptoms

Once you’ve gotten a readout on your baseline air quality, it may be helpful to track health symptoms for a few weeks. Try to see if you can align them to a particular area or a specific time of day. For instance, if you experience congestion and a headache only while at the office, your home air quality may not be the culprit.

The kinds of symptoms you’re experiencing may also provide clues about the source of the problem. Nausea and confusion track more closely to symptoms of dangerous levels of carbon monoxide in the home. A scratchy throat or watery eyes are more often signs of an allergic reaction to potential pollutants.

Pro-Tip

While it can be helpful to evaluate your symptoms when identifying problems with air quality, an air quality detector is never a substitution for medical advice. You should always consult with your doctor first to determine the best course of action for the symptoms you’re experiencing.

Monitor Carbon Monoxide and Radon Levels

Two of the most dangerous substances that can affect indoor air quality are carbon monoxide and radon. Carbon monoxide, often referred to as “the silent killer,” is an odorless, colorless gas that can build to dangerous levels in poorly ventilated areas.⁵ Because of the danger to pets, the elderly, and children, we recommend carbon monoxide monitoring on all levels of the home. Review our recommendations for the best carbon monoxide detectors to determine which one is the right fit for your family.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says long-term exposure to radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.⁴ If radon levels are detected in your home, you should seek out professional help immediately.

Airthings Wave Plus Indoor Air Quality Monitor with Radon Detection

Want an indoor air quality IAQ monitor that does it all? Airthings combines all the measurements you’d expect in an air quality meter with the bonus of testing for the presence of radon in real-time.

We Like

  • App tracks air quality over time
  • Winner of Smart Home 2018, CES Innovation Award

We Don't Like

  • Expensive
Airthings Wave Plus Indoor Air Quality Monitor with Radon Detection

Get an Air Purifier

Once you’ve identified potential air quality problems in your home, an air purifier may be able to address some of your concerns. Air purifiers help asthma and allergy sufferers by removing particulate matter from the air. 

Air purifiers clean the air with two methods. One is to release negatively charged ions, which makes pollutants stick to surrounding surfaces. The other method is to use HEPA filters to screen and collect particulates from the air. 

Some air purifiers promise to do fantastic things that are backed by dubious scientific-sounding terms. To avoid getting duped by fancy-sounding jargon, check out our guide to the best air purifiers for devices that make a difference in home air quality.

Awair Glow C Air Quality Monitor + Smart Plug

This air quality monitor from Awair goes a step beyond with a smart plug that can automatically turn on a device like an air purifier when air quality reaches critical levels.

We Like

  • Tracks VOCs
  • Doubles as a nightlight

We Don't Like

  • Doesn't track particulates
Awair Glow C Air Quality Monitor and Smart Plug

Call an Air Quality Professional

If you notice indoor air quality problems, you may scurry to do a few common sense things like duct cleaning and installing carbon monoxide detectors. But some indoor air quality problems, like the presence of mold or radon, can be more elusive and require professional help. 

If you’ve recently remodeled, opened up walls to repair plumbing, or discovered mold growing in your home, your indoor air quality may be suffering. According to the United States Indoor Product Safety Commission, these are the most common complaints associated with indoor air quality problems:⁶

  • Eyes, nose, or throat irritation
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue

Asthma, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, and humidifier fever are also related to long-term exposure to indoor air pollutants. If you’ve experienced any of these symptoms, you should seek medical attention and consider professional testing to identify potential sources of indoor air pollution.

Best Air Quality Monitors
Product Name
Price
Humidity & Temperature
VOC Monitoring
PM Levels
AQI ( Air Quality Index)
Outdoor Air Pollution
Radon Detection
Carbon Dioxide
Learn More
Best for Value Best for Radon Detection Best for Smarthome Integration
Ecowitt WH0290 Airthings Wave Plus Awair Glow C
$69.99 $231.43 $89.99

Yes

Yes

Yes
X
No

Yes

Yes

Yes
X
No
X
No

Yes

Yes
X
No
X
No
X
No
X
No
X
No

Yes
X
No
X
No

Yes
X
No
View on Amazon View on Amazon View on Amazon

Data effective 11/19/2019. Offers and availability subject to change.

FAQs

What else can I do to provide better air quality for my family?

One hedge against poor air quality’s health risks is to live in an area with relatively clean air. The American Lung Association’s State of the Air report found that 4 out of 10 Americans live in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone or particulate pollution.⁷ Check out our guide to cities with the best air quality if you’re considering moving to improve the quality of the air you breathe.

 

Can I trust a monitor to check air quality in my home and give accurate readouts?

When installed and used according to guidelines, air quality sensors in monitoring stations can give you a good baseline on pollutant or contaminant levels in your home. However, if you detect dangerous substances like radon or carbon monoxide, consult a professional to learn more about improving the indoor air quality in your home.

 

What’s the difference between sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxides, carbon dioxide, and carbon monoxide?

Many air quality monitors can create confusion by bragging about tracking various substances that may or may not be useful in diagnosing air quality problems. 

  • Sulfur dioxide (sometimes misspelled as sulphur dioxide) is primarily released from fossil fuel combustion and usually is not a factor in indoor air pollution.
  • Nitrous oxides are also typically released as a result of emissions from vehicles and power plants and aren’t a significant contributor to indoor air problems.
  • Carbon dioxide can rise to unsafe levels in indoor environments but is a natural byproduct of human metabolism.
  • Carbon monoxide is found in the exhaust from engines, generators, fireplaces, and even furnaces. It can build to dangerous levels in closed spaces. 

For indoor air quality, the two most essential substances to track are carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

Related Pages on SafeWise

 

Sources:

  1. World Health Organization, “9 out of 10 people worldwide breathe polluted air, but more countries are taking action,” “How air pollution is destroying our health.”
  2. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Volatile Organic Compounds’ Impact on Indoor Air Quality.”
  3. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Indoor Air Quality “Introduction to Indoor Air Quality.”
  4. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Radon, “Health Risks of Radon.”
  5. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), Carbon Monoxide Poisoning. “Frequently Asked Questions.”
  6. United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), “The Inside Story: A Guide to Indoor Air Quality.”
  7. American Lung Association, “State of the Air, 2019.”

Written by Kaz Weida

Kaz is a journalist who covers home security, parenting, and community and child safety. Her work and product testing in the security and safety field spans the past four years. You can find Kaz in HuffPost, SheKnows, Lifehack, and much more. Her degree in education and her background as a teacher and a parent make her uniquely suited to offer practical advice on creating safe environments for your family. Learn more

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