Updated: Sep 8
Wildfire smoke has become a common summer occurrence in Colorado, shrouding city skylines with thick haze and causing air quality warnings from one corner of the state to the other. On top of clouding typically clear blue skies, the fine particulates in the air can cause difficulty breathing as well as a range of other health hazards, especially for sensitive groups. Coupled with higher ozone levels and hot temperatures, wildfire smoke makes for an unwelcome summertime guest — one that's difficult to get rid of.
Maintaining healthy indoor air quality during wildfire season can be a challenge, but it's not impossible. The key to enjoying comfortable, healthy indoor air during a smoke event is to prevent as much smoke as possible from entering your home. Smoke enters a home in several different ways, including open windows and doors, fresh air ventilation systems, and even cracks and seams around the structure of the home.
Preventing smoke from entering your home starts with closing all your windows and doors, and resealing any drafts allowing outside air inside. You can also use your existing HVAC system to prevent fine particles from entering your home by closing any fresh air intakes and running your systems in recirculation mode, according to the EPA. Running your HVAC systems, like central air conditioners, as often as possible, will help reduce the amount of fine particulates from the air inside your home. New and upgraded air filters are also crucial when running your HVAC systems to remove smoke and other fine particles inside your home — the EPA recommends filters with a Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (or MERV) 13 rating, or as high a rating as your system can accommodate.
While operating your HVAC system more often is the best way to keep more wildfire smoke from entering your home, it also means higher energy bills, especially for larger homes relying on A/C to maintain comfortable temperatures. Adding an attic ventilation fan will help lower the cost of your A/C related energy costs — by as much as 50-90% — while forcing any lingering hot, stale and smoky air out of your attic, without drawing more inside.
Though optimizing your home's HVAC system will prevent more smoke from entering your home, a portable air filtration system adds another level of protection. Available in a variety of sizes, makes and models, portable air filters are a quick and easy way to treat the air already inside your home. Before committing to a purchase, make sure the air filter is properly sized to be effective in any given room in your home. Equally important, make sure your make and model of choice doesn't emit ozone — you don't want to replace one air pollutant inside your home with another!
Those without central air conditioning, air purifiers, or optimized HVAC systems should rely on other means to cool their home and keep the smoke out. While windows and doors should be kept closed, window air conditioners with the ability to close the outside damper doors are a good choice to keep cool, according to the EPA. But if that's not an option, relying on indoor fans and portable evaporative coolers to stay comfortable during the hottest times of day is the safest option.
Lastly, knowing when and where smoke levels peak is the best way to plan ahead. The EPA's AirNow.gov and Fire.AirNow.Gov websites are great tools to track and predict smoke and ozone levels in your area. Identifying the best times of day — when smoke and air pollutant levels are the lowest — to naturally and/mechanically ventilate your home will help you replace the recirculated air inside your home before the smoke returns. Creating a cross breeze with open windows and doors, or using mechanical ventilation systems like whole house fans for as few as 10 minutes when outdoor air quality is good will help cool your home and evacuate any lingering smoke and other pollutants trapped inside.
As common as wildfire season has become, it's not something you ever get used to. Reducing the amount of smoke entering your home, and cleaning the air already inside is the best way to ensure you're staying cool and breathing the healthiest air possible throughout the west's notorious fire season.