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How to test the air quality in your home

A woman enjoying the air quality in her home
skaman306/Getty Images
A woman enjoying the air quality in her home
skaman306/Getty Images

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The pandemic illustrated just how vulnerable people are to invisible pathogens. While most of the world continues to struggle with masks and restrictions, many people are more conscious than ever about the air they breathe and how it could affect their health.

There is good cause for concern. The American Lung Association’s State of the Air report for 2022 found that 4 in 10 Americans are living in areas with unhealthy air. There is not much you can do about the environment around you, but you could measure your home’s air quality — and improve it if needed.

How is air quality measured?

You may be familiar with air quality warnings if you follow the local news or weather reports. The standard measurement for air quality is known as Air Quality Index, or AQI. On a large scale, ground and satellite instruments measure particles in the air, which are then scored from 0 (safest) to 500 (most dangerous). AQI primarily measures:

  • Airborne particles
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Ground level ozone
  • Nitrogen dioxide
  • Sulfur dioxide

Ozone and airborne particles are the most common culprits, found as smoke from wildfires, smog and more. Air quality is color-coded depending on how concentrated the particles are. The higher the pollutant level, the less safe it is for people to be outside. The range from most dangerous to least is:

  • Dark red: Hazardous (to all), 301 to 500
  • Purple: Very unhealthy, 201 to 300
  • Bright red: Unhealthy, 151 to 200
  • Orange: Unhealthy to sensitive groups, 101 to 150
  • Yellow: Moderate, 51 to 100
  • Green: Good, 0 to 50

Air quality reports are often issued for a metropolitan area or region. If the results are high, it is best to stay indoors, especially if you suffer from allergies or have health issues that could worsen from pollution. Knowing that your home’s air is safer than outside is essential. Fortunately, you can measure air quality in your home as well.

How can you test air quality in your home?

A variety of DIY testing kits are available to check for formaldehyde, mold, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), radon and more. However, knowing what to check for could save you time and money. An air quality monitor can identify and alert you to an issue in its early stages. There are several smart devices that can monitor your home’s air quality:

“When it comes to knowing what to buy, make sure that your air quality monitor has precision, resolution, and calibration features,” Sarah Jameson of Green Building Elements suggests. “Research the technology you are eyeing and check for its overall performance including the range. Apart from your sensor being able to measure carbon monoxide, particulate matter, VOCs, humidity, formaldehyde, and radon, check reviews for how fast the response time for readings to come in, how well the sensor can be connected with smart technologies, and whether there is minimal noise.”

Professional air quality services

Although there are plenty of DIY options, they can be limited, particularly when it comes to one of the largest threats to a home’s air quality — mold. Mike Powell, a professional mold assessor at Red Flag Home Inspections explains: “Homeowners who are not mold assessors cannot accurately test air quality. DIY kits sold at big box stores confirm what any mold professional already knows: There’s mold everywhere.” However, not all mold is harmful, making it hard to pinpoint air-quality problems.

If you or your loved ones are suffering from lethargy, headaches or respiratory issues, a professional can better diagnose what is going on in your home. Powell recommends temporarily leaving the home until a pro can test to identify — and find — the root of the problem.

How do professional services work?

According to Angi, the average cost of a professional, whole-home air quality test is $420. The cost can vary based on home size. Such a test can diagnose allergens, asbestos, radon, carbon monoxide, harmful mold, VOCs and more. More detailed testing can be performed once the air-quality test results are in. Detailed testing is more expensive, costing an average of $500 for asbestos or radon and $300 to $900 for mold.

Mold growth often hides behind walls and under flooring, making it more time-consuming (and expensive) to diagnose.  “When collecting air samples, or testing that gets mold spores from the air in some way other than vacuum collection, an exterior/baseline sample should be collected,” notes Powell. “The mold spores you see in these results are not global and are not ‘known’ values. The way to assess an environment is to compare the indoor levels versus the outdoor levels in your area, which will vary wildly based on location. To take one without the other will leave them, and anyone thereafter, unable to make much use of the data.”

The bottom line on testing your home’s air quality

Your home should be your sanctuary and maintaining pristine air quality can reduce your risk of health issues. Fortunately, there are plenty of tools to help. Start with an air-quality monitor which can continuously check your home’s air quality and alert you if carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, radon, VOCs and more are present. If something in particular is identified, you can test further using a DIY kit for the indoor pollutant or call in a professional to help identify the issue and fix what is causing it before it gets worse.

Written by
Cynthia Paez Bowman
Personal Finance Contributor
Cynthia Paez Bowman is a former personal finance contributor at Bankrate. She is a finance and business journalist who has been featured in Business Jet Traveler, MSN, CheatSheet.com, Freshome.com and TheSimpleDollar.com.
Edited by
Senior homeownership editor