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5 Telltale Signs Your HVAC Is Causing Sick Building Syndrome

December 15, 2020

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Can your residential or commercial HVAC cause sick building syndrome? This is a vital question for homeowners and commercial property owners to consider, as the health of your family, staff, and visitors depend on it!

To better understand how you can keep your home or commercial building clean and safe and protect the health of everyone inside, consider what causes sick building syndrome and how to check if your building is “sick” or toxic. You might also note 5 telltale signs your HVAC is causing sick building syndrome including, 1) Building occupants demonstrate similar symptoms, 2) Odd smells in the building, 3) Visible mold and contaminants, 4) Debris & dirt along the vents, 5) Lack of proper cleaning protocols and HVAC maintenance in place.

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What are 5 Telltale Signs Your HVAC Is Causing Sick Building Syndrome?

As sick building syndrome can have a number of causes and affect occupants differently, there is no “one size fits all” sign that your home or business is toxic. Note these five signs that it’s time to have the structure checked for pollutants and irritants!

1. Building Occupants Show Similar Symptoms

It’s not unusual for more than one family member or staff member to get sick during cold and flu season, or for more than one to have common seasonal allergies. However, if several of the building’s occupants show similar symptoms of sick building syndrome, and especially if they’ve never suffered from allergies, sinus irritations, headaches, and other symptoms before, this can indicate that a building is toxic!

It’s also very telling if those symptoms seem to go away when people are outside the building. If your staff start to develop headaches or sinus irritations during the day but never notice them on the weekend, for example, or if your child’s sniffles go away once they head outside to play, this can indicate a problem in your home or commercial structure itself.

2. Odd Smells and Discomfort In the Building

Mold, mildew, chemicals, fumes, and other irritants often produce odd or unpleasant smells and especially where they’re concentrated, such as around vents or areas of a plumbing leak. While some people are especially sensitive to smells and airborne chemicals, don’t dismiss complaints of odd and unpleasant odors from family or staff, as this can indicate a toxic building!

In the same way, a building’s occupants might have the same discomforts when inside a building. For example, excessive airborne dust can lead to dry skin, eyes, and sinuses. Family members or workers might complain that a home or business feels stuffy, or that water from drinking fountains or taps tastes odd.

3. Check for Visible Mold, Slime, and Other Contaminants

If you change your HVAC furnace filter or air filter and notice mold, slime, or other such contaminants on the appliances or filter itself, or see mold growing along walls and baseboards, this often indicates the structure is toxic! Even if you don’t notice an abundance of mold or other irritants, remember that they often spread and grow quickly and might already be covering areas of your structure not readily visible, such as framing or plumbing fixtures behind walls.

4. Dust, Dirt, Cobwebs, and Other Debris Along Vents and Interior Surfaces

Dust and other irritants get circulated through a structure’s ductwork and then through vents; excessive dust, pet hair, and other debris then build up on those vents and grates. You might also notice excessively dirty ceiling tiles, baseboards, window ledges, and furniture items.

You might also note if you can see lots of airborne dust in sunlight streaming through windows! While it’s not unusual to notice a few dust particles in the air, if you can see excessive amounts of dust in that sunlight, this might indicate that your structure contains high levels of bothersome airborne dust.

5. Lack of Proper Maintenance and Cleaning

Homeowners and commercial building owners don’t like to admit when they neglect their property, or may not know how to clean and maintain a building properly. However, if you don’t care for a residential or commercial HVAC system properly and ensure interior spaces are clean and pristine, you’re sure to have a toxic building!

Property owners would do well to note how well they maintain their structure’s HVAC system, including changing the furnace and air filters. HVAC maintenance from a heating and cooling company also typically includes full-scale cleaning, to remove dust, mold, slime, and other irritants.

Regular, thorough interior cleaning is also vital for avoiding sick building syndrome. This might include daily vacuuming and dusting of all surfaces including those that are often neglected, such as window blinds and HVAC vents. If you’ve been avoiding this task, there is a very good chance that your building is toxic!

Causes of Sick Building Syndrome

Sick building syndrome is caused by exposure to toxins and chemicals in the air or trapped along a building’s surfaces and materials; when a person breathes in those toxins or are exposed to irritants on their skin or sinus cavities, they can suffer a number of health concerns. Note some common causes of sick building syndrome:

  • Contaminated water in drinking fountains and faucets can lead to lead poisoning.
  • Bacteria, mold, pollen, and other irritants in a building’s ductwork or HVAC system are then circulated throughout a building and can lead to sinus irritation, headaches, allergic reactions, and other health risks.
  • Plumbing leaks and cracks along a structure’s foundation both let in moisture that often leads to mold growth. Airborne mold spores can cause sinus irritation and headaches, and other similar reactions.
  • Chemical use inside the building along with poor ventilation can mean sinus irritation, headaches, and other concerns.
  • Poor ventilation and clogged furnace and air filters can allow viruses to circulate, leading to colds, cases of the flu, and other health concerns among coworkers or family members!
  • Lack of proper ventilation and cleaning allows dust, pollen, dander, and other irritants to become trapped along interior surfaces including ceiling tiles, and inside ductwork. That dust and dirt then become airborne where it’s inhaled or settles on a person’s skin, leading to sinus irritation and allergic reactions.
  • Lack of proper ventilation and air cleaners can trap toxic fumes, air pollution, and other irritants inside a building, especially those that use equipment and machinery that produce such emissions. These irritants can lead to breathing disorders and potentially trigger asthma attacks or allergic reactions.

hvac maintenance for a commercial building sick building syndrome

Can Dirty Air Filters Make You Sick?

Clean filters are vital for ensuring a building is not toxic and avoiding sick building syndrome. Both heated and cooled air are pushed through a structure’s furnace filter before being sent through ductworks and vents; those filters trap and lock dust, airborne dirt, pet hair and dander, human hair and dead skin cells, mold spores, pollen, and much more, keeping those irritants out of your structure’s interior spaces. Air filtration systems pull air through their filters and perform the same task.

However, for a filter to work properly, it must be clean! A dirty, clogged filter cannot trap and lock all those airborne irritants; the dirtier the filter, the more irritants that get through and wind up circulating around your structure’s interior spaces. This also means added wear and tear on the HVAC unit, as it works harder to push air through a clogged filter.

To keep interior spaces as clean as possible, change furnace filters every month during summer and winter seasons, and your air filter as often as recommended by the manufacturer. If you notice that the filter is especially dirty when you change it, increase this schedule to every two or three weeks, or as needed to ensure it doesn’t get clogged.

How Do You Know If Your House or Office Is Toxic?

If you suspect you have a toxic house or commercial building, it’s typically best to have it checked first by an HVAC repair contractor. He or she can check the HVAC appliances for accumulated dust, mold, pollen, and other irritants, check the condition of the structure’s ductwork, and even perform an air pollution level or air quality test. He or she can also check furnace and air filters and note if they need replacing and if it’s recommended you invest in higher-quality filters for your structure.

A mold removal company can also check a structure for mold, mildew, and other irritants. A plumber can examine a structure for damaged, rusted pipes and contaminated water, as well as leaks that lead to mold growth inside a structure. A full-service cleaning company, especially one that specializes in heavy-duty commercial cleaning, can spot areas of troublesome dust, dirt, soot, and other irritants, and recommend better cleaning options for your home or business.

If your home or business has recently suffered a flood, burst plumbing pipe, overflowing toilet or shower, or other water-related disasters, have a water damage company check surfaces for bacteria, germs, and other irritants. Floodwaters and especially those from plumbing fixtures often bring lots of harmful germs and bacteria with them; if not cleaned properly, those irritants then cling to surfaces long after those waters recede, leading to sinus irritations and other health concerns.

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How Do You Fix Sick Building Syndrome?

Your HVAC contractor or another specialist can offer personalized suggestions for ensuring your building is free of toxins and safe for occupancy. It’s also good to ensure you’re doing everything possible to keep interior spaces clean and pristine, and free of irritants!

  • Proper ventilation is vital for avoiding airborne toxins and irritants, so keep your home’s windows open as much as possible.
  • Since the furnace and air conditioner both circulate air through a filter before pushing it through the home’s ductwork, don’t hesitate to run these appliances during summer and winter, as long as you keep that filter changed as needed!
  • For commercial buildings where you cannot open windows, invest in an air filtration system or have added roof vents and fans installed as needed. Stand-alone air filters also help clean the air and remove toxins and irritants.
  • Deep cleaning is vital for keeping a building and its occupants healthy! Vacuum and dust daily, ensuring you clean all surfaces that tend to hold dust, as said. Schedule regular carpet and upholstered furniture shampooing as well.

It’s also vital that property owners schedule regular HVAC maintenance and cleaning, to ensure those appliances are clean and operating efficiently. Not only will this ensure they’re in good condition but it will also remove dirt and dust that would otherwise wind up in interior spaces and cause sick building syndrome!

A Word from our HVAC Technicians

Cypress AC Repair Pros is proud to present this information to our readers and hope that it helped answer how HVAC causes sick building syndrome. If you need to improve your company's air quality via air filtration, be sure to give us a call! We have over 20 years of heating and cooling experience and stand behind all our work with an industry-leading warranty you can trust!

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