Cooling is obviously one of the greatest health benefits of air conditioning. But it does more than just keep you comfortable in the summer. AC can make conditions better for preventing heat related symptoms or for recovering from illness.
However, you may have heard some scary stories about air conditioning making people sick. Some are even concerned about air conditioners spreading COVID. Many people wonder, is AC healthy? Rest assured, the answer is yes, as long as you take proper care of your AC unit. Air conditioning health problems can be prevented with regular maintenance and cleaning.
Health benefits of air conditioning
Because it is a more recent development in climate control than heating, people tend to underestimate the health benefits of air conditioning.
Curtail heat-related symptoms
In many places where air conditioning is less common, heat waves become a health crisis. The less heat-tolerant, such as kids and the elderly, are more at risk for heat stroke and dehydration. Certain conditions, such as heart disease or immune disorders, can be exacerbated by the heat. Air conditioning is the best way to prevent and reduce heat-related symptoms.
Improve air quality conditions
A good air conditioning system can provide air filtration, and give you cleaner air indoors.
Special filters remove bacteria, mold, allergens and air pollution from the air, making a healthier environment for those with allergies, asthma, or other respiratory issues.
Microbes, pollen, and other pollutants can easily trigger illnesses that affect breathing. The absence of these irritants can also make it easier to recover from a cold, allergies, or the flu.
It’s important to understand that not all HVAC filters take care of these issues. Basic filters just keep dust and particles out of the AC system, not clean the air. Keep reading to learn more about the best kind of filters for your health.
Some air conditioning health problems
High humidity can spread illness
If your AC cools but doesn’t reduce humidity, you might have a system too large for the space you have. An overly large AC will reduce the temperature quickly and then shut off without reducing humidity. An AC system needs to run for some time to remove water from the air and reduce humidity.
Too high humidity allows bacteria to flourish, making infection more likely. If not properly cleaned, system can develop and spread mold and fungus that can be unhealthy if you breathe it. Left unchecked in a large setting, a neglected AC system can spread bacteria and mold, leading to what is sometimes called sick building syndrome.
Sick building syndrome is most common in office buildings with reports of air conditioning health problems, or employees claiming that the building is making them sick. In fact, some people believe they are allergic to air conditioning. What can really be making them sick are the particles being spread by an improperly-maintained system.
If you had an infection spread through your workplace, check to make sure your HVAC system isn’t the culprit. Fortunately, sick building syndrome can easily be fixed or prevented much the same way a human illness would: proper care, maintenance, and cleaning of your HVAC equipment and ducts.
Low humidity causes discomfort and more
Having the humidity too low can also cause problems. Dry air can cause dry skin and hair. It can also dry out your sinuses, making it easier to get respiratory infections. What’s worse, the virus that causes COVID-19 thrives in low humidity conditions.
If your AC is running constantly (either because the set temperature is too low or there’s a problem with the system), you could end up with too little humidity in your space.
Exposure to refrigerant
More rarely, refrigeration chemicals used by AC can cause health issues. The situation is rate because these chemicals are normally completely contained within the system and reused continually, so you should never come into contact with them. But if there is a serious leak, or an untrained person tries to fix the AC, it’s possible to cause exposure to dangerous chemicals that can result in air conditioning health problems.
For this reason you should ALWAYS leave repairs or construction around HVAC systems to the professionals.
Learn more: DIY HVAC Repair? Don’t Even Think About It
How to prevent air conditioning health problems
Here are three strategies to prevent your air conditioning from becoming contaminated and making you sick.
AC preventative maintenance
A good way to make sure your AC is getting enough maintenance is to schedule an appointment with your HVAC technician at the beginning of the season, and possibly at the end of the season, depending on your usage. Getting your system checked out before you start using it for the summer and after you stop using it for the year is a great way to keep your AC functioning all year long.
When you get that maintenance done, ask questions and make sure the service you are getting is thorough. A service technician should inspect and clean the whole system to remove anything that could make you sick, such as mold, mineral or dust buildup. They should check any place in the system where moisture might build up and contribute to these problems. Evaporator coils condense and remove humidity from the air, making them a prime target for mold or bacteria growth. Your HVAC tech should also check the fan motor and blades, belts, and drain pans for signs of damage, as these are all common places moisture ends up.
If your HVAC system has ducts, this is another area where illness-causing particles can accumulate and contribute to air conditioning health problems. Having your ducts cleaned can improve air quality by eliminating the spread of mold, bacteria and viruses.
Learn more: FAQ: Duct Cleaning and Your Indoor Air Quality
The right HVAC filters for your needs
Getting the right kind of HVAC filters is a great way to prevent air conditioning health problems (as well as problems with your system).
Standard filters only prevent dust from entering the HVAC equipment. They don’t prevent pollen, allergens, or pollution from getting in the air you breathe.
Higher efficiency filters (rated MERV 17-20) can trap more particles that aggravate allergies and asthma.
HEPA filters are the highest efficiency filters. They are woven from glass fibers and trap smaller particles (and more of them) than paper filters. HEPA filters should be changed more often than paper filters, at least once every other month, or once a month in high pollen count areas and seasons.
Be aware that there are downsides to HEPA filters:
- They are much thicker than standard filters and may not fit into your filter housing (requiring expensive system modifications).
- HEPA filters cost many times more than standard ones.
- HEPA filters reduce air flow and can cause problems with your system.
Ask your HVAC technician to recommend the right filter for your needs and your system. If you are concerned about allergies and also the spread of COVID, a MERV 13 filter might be the best option. (Read this article to learn more about choosing HVAC filters.)
If you work in a place that creates less than ideal air quality, such as a commercial kitchen, machine shop, factory, or anywhere that creates airborne particulates, you may want to take extra steps to make sure your air conditioning isn’t making you sick. Heavy usage will clog your filters faster, so you should clean or replace your filters more often, even if you are getting regularly scheduled maintenance.
Ask your HVAC tech how to clean or replace your filter, and you’ll be able to do it yourself more often than you get maintenance. They can show you where your filter is and how to remove it. With a combination of professional help and DIY care of your system, your AC can help make your building a healthy place to be.
Learn more about filters: