Water, Air Purity Education Key to Green Style

When a group of kitchen and bath dealers and designers were asked by KBDN earlier this year about the impact that the green movement was having on their businesses, the answers largely varied by region.

On the coasts, knowledge of available environmentally sensitive and sustainable products was plentiful and the subject was one of immediate importance. In the middle of the country, the reports were less conclusive. Dealers reported having an incomplete knowledge of what was available to them and, with few clients requesting green design, they had little reason to learn.

David Johnston of What’s Working, Inc., a Boulder, CO-based environmental consulting firm, says, “The kitchen and bath industry is really the last frontier in green building.” Indeed, the abundance of green products at this year’s K/BIS – from energy and water efficient appliances to low-Volatile Organic Compound-emitting cabinetry – goes to show that with a little initiative and sense of environmental urgency, kitchen and bath dealers can make the switch without sacrificing quality or the bottom line.

But education is key. If dealers and designers better understand just what harm a high VOC-emitting product can do to clients in the long run, they will be more likely to suggest a low-VOC alternative and will be able to provide a thorough explanation of the benefits of such a choice.

In no field is this knowledge more vital than in water purification and air ventilation. What is more elemental, more basic than the water we drink and the air we breathe? Yet so little attention is paid to the contents of the stylish accoutrements designers are specifying in high-end kitchens. With the EPA reporting that 40% of homeowners are allergic to elements in their own homes, it is more important than ever for a builder, designer or architect to open up an honest dialogue with clients about the chemical elements that their remodel or renovation project might unexpectedly bring into their house.

Taste Matters

Recently, many people have noticed a sudden surge of reports noting a “back to the tap” movement, a backlash against the environmental dangers that plastic bottles can pose if they are not properly recycled.

So how do you get your eight daily glasses of water and avoid sending an estimated one million plastic bottles into the landfill per hour at the same time? It looks like it’s back to good old American tap water. Cheaper than buying “purified,” “filtered,” “spring” or “artesian” waters from a supermarket, and arguably better for the environment, tap water itself has gotten a bad rap for mostly aesthetic reasons, namely the taste.

But maybe that’s not a solely aesthetic concern. The bottom line is that water isn’t supposed to have a taste. If your water tastes like something, that can only lead to one assumption, which is that there’s something in your water that you’re tasting. Not always a happy prospect, when you consider the dozens of contaminants listed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Website as present, in amounts that vary by state, city and town, in the national water supply.

Instead, consider specifying a home filtration system for health-conscious clients to eliminate potential biological irritants, carcinogens or trace amounts of pesticides that end up in municipal water supplies – and can end up in the human
body. This will also make the water taste better.

Dave Lenio, director of North American consumer markets for Everpure, maker of under-counter filtration systems, says, “Water filters will be the next garbage disposal, the next dishwasher.”

The hidden downside of the water bottle craze is that it casts a negative impression on tap water as being unsafe altogether.

“Consumers know what is in the headlines,” adds Lenio. He reports that in focus groups, consumers frequently cite bacteria and lead as their two primary concerns. He cites a 1993 Milwaukee outbreak of cryptosporidium, (a protozoan pathogen which can be fatal to those with compromised immune systems) as sparking a new public awareness and fear of biological contaminants. In other words, your client might not know about the biggest threat to their health that is actually in the tap water they’re drinking, only what they’ve heard about.

Lenio says the key to proper filtration is knowing what’s in your client’s local water supply. The EPA has a program on its Website for just this purpose. Called “Surf Your Watershed,” the program allows users to search their local water supply and find out when the water in their area was last tested, what was found, and at what level. Armed with that information, you can direct your client to a system that is appropriate to their area.

“It’s important to know what a filter takes out of the water and for how long it will do that,” says Lenio.

There is no one filter that will be right for every kind of water. Areas of sensitivity include desert regions where water may be particularly alkali and full of metals, and rural areas where well water is predominant – water that is completely untreated and unfiltered.

Certain filters, including ones produced by Everpure, can remove even the most volatile additives like chloramine, VOCs and MTBE, which are introduced by leaking underground storage tanks from gas stations and industrial sites.

There is no one standard to let the user know when to change the filter – this is dependent on usage and local contamination.

In other words, how hard the filter will have to work will determine how long that filter will remain effective. Each filter has a different way to let the user know. The Delta side tap, meant to be included alongside a conventional faucet, features a Pür water filter which has a light that switches from green to red to let the user know when it is time to change out the filter.

Third-party certification is particularly important in this arena. With so many different products on the market, from filtration faucets, under-counter plumbed units and water filtration “pitchers,” consumers have a lot to sift through and they need guidance on what each product does, how they differ and what various certifications mean in the real world.

Certification is a long and costly process for manufacturers, but vital for consumers to know and trust what they’re buying. And for those who are asked to specify a product to address a client’s particular water concerns, certifications make it easier to recommend a specific product. Ann Arbor, MI-based NSF International is the filtration industry’s standard for water purification. Some bottled drinking waters even carry NSF certification.

“The importance of third-party certification is increasing as U.S. companies are seeking to compete with off-shore products,” says Lenio, citing products that come from nations that can produce goods at costs which undersell domestic-made products.

“Third-party certification is the surest way to know that the claims of the company have been verified as fact,” he adds.
Considering recent health scares involving lead-tainted products from China, it’s more important than ever to know exactly what you’re specifying.

Breathing Healthy

If climate change is currently the most reported environmental topic, then indoor air quality, or IAQ, is the least. According to the EPA, Americans spend 90% of their lives indoors. Forget the smog, indoor air quality can be 10 times worse than outdoor air on the smoggiest day, says the EPA.

Johnston reports, “To have a favorable IAQ, you’ve got to eliminate the culprits.”

As in water filtration, the culprits can vary widely from region to region, and house to house. VOCs, urea formaldehyde and radon are the most identifiable contaminants, and each requires a different method for mitigating its effects.

“New house smell,” like new car smell, is primarily the result of what’s in the kitchen, and what’s in the kitchen is a host of VOCs. Causes of “new house smell” include paint, carpeting and cabinetry, which are constantly off-gassing.

Johnston, like many others in the green building industry, believes formaldehyde is the strongest contributor to poor IAQ.

“Unfortunately, formaldehyde is in nearly everything in the kitchen that isn’t metal,” he says. Cabinet boxes, countertop underlayment and high-gloss, washable paints typically all off-gas formaldehyde.

On average, reports Johnston, paint off-gases for the first 30 days and then is exhausted. Darker pigments, especially reds, contain stronger chemicals to help maintain their color. Some paint makers like PPG and Safecoat offer cleaner, no-VOC tints, made from a completely different formulation than conventional paints. Others in the industry are catching up quickly to their lead.

“The paint industry has been onto this topic for at least the last 10 to 15 years,” says Johnston.

There are particle and fiberboard underlayments that contain no formaldehyde like wheat and strawboards currently on the market which use MDI resins, an ecologically sound polyurethane. Building suppliers and wholesalers should be able to tell you which is which when you’re specifying and calculating costs. Cabinetmakers are feeling the pressure and are beginning to respond to safety concerns. Cabinet boxes can off-gas for years, and concentrate the formaldehyde until the user opens up the cabinet to retrieve something. The accumulated vapors then enter the rest of the kitchen.

That just scratches the surface, but once you know the terminology, you’ll know what to look for, and what to advise your clients against. Now that the offenders have been covered, there’s another part to maintaining a healthy IAQ that might seem like a no-brainer, but if done inadequately only serves to complicate the IAQ question.

The average HVAC system is moving air around the house in a continuous cycle, taking a portion of air from the outside.

Because the air is somewhat recycled, what is contaminating one part of the house is getting transferred to every other part. For example, if there is radon in the basement, it’s going to find its way everywhere else.

Radon is a colorless, odorless, tasteless and chemically inert radioactive gas which is the result of uranium decaying the Earth’s crust, which means it’s naturally occurring and present in all 50 states, according to the National Safety Council.

Maryland is the only state which requires a radon test prior to the purchase of a home, so there’s a good chance your clients don’t know what the levels of radon in their home are.

A radon test, which you or your company can perform by using one of a number of kits currently on the market, is a good sense move to suggest to your clients, especially before installing a new HVAC system or starting basement renovations of any kind. The EPA reports that radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer behind cigarette smoking.

Other HVAC issues include properly rating the pressure of the home when designing the HVAC system. It’s important to make sure that, between cold-air intake and air exchange in the HVAC, vent fans and hoods over cooking ranges and in other parts of the home, that appropriate pressurization is taken into account.

Negative pressure within a home is oftentimes caused by ventilation that is too powerful for the volume of air within the house or by leaky return or supply ducts in a forced-air system. Negative pressure can draw VOCs out of items that have stopped off-gassing, like older carpeting, cabinetry and wallpapers, and can draw radon up from the basement, making a bad problem worse, says Johnston.

Education is truly the key to a healthy kitchen. Once designers and dealers have the information in hand, they can educate their clients to make healthy, responsible product choices.