What’s your air quality IQ?

By Ashley Miller

Love your lungs, but don’t stop there! Love your family’s and neighbors’ lungs too

Wintertime inversion season is upon us. The most important thing you can do to protect yourself this season is to know the current and forecasted air quality conditions and how you can plan accordingly to spare the air. Take this quiz to see what you already know, learn some new things and, we hope, become inspired to up your ACTION quotient! Check as many as apply.

How do you find current air quality conditions?

  1. The UtahAir App
  3. Step outside and sniff

Answer:  A and B

The easiest way is to check the UtahAir App. Knowing what the air quality conditions are before you plan your day, or several days, is key to staying healthy. Is it okay to exercise outdoors? Should you take transit or refrain from driving? The Division of Air Quality and Weber State University developed the UtahAir App to deliver real-time air quality information to your mobile device. The three-day forecast helps people plan their travel and work schedules during both the winter inversion or summer ozone seasons. And action alerts notify people when pollution levels are high and when people should refrain from burning.

Knowing what the conditions are going to be like over a three-day period can empower people to change their habits in order to protect themselves and their loved ones.

The newest version of the app includes a GPS function that allows users to check the monitor nearest to them. Users can also check monitors across the state. The app is also a way to understand “voluntary” and “mandatory” action days, when burning solid fuel like wood is prohibited.

You can check the DAQ website on your computer for the same information (Air.Utah. gov). TV evening news is also doing a good job of presenting air quality information during weather forecasts.

As for C., using your senses is important, but in this case not as useful as technology!

How do you prepare for bad air days?

  1. Make a plan for your family
  2. Check your school’s recess guidelines
  3. Learn your routes and practice
  4. Stay in bed

Answer: A, B and C

Make a plan for your family. When the air is bad, it might be worse for some. Know each family member’s susceptibilities and plan accordingly. Create an action plan for yellow and red air days so you can be part of the solution to reduce emissions on an individual level. Use the UtahAir App (see #1)  to know in advance when the air will be unhealthy. Plan how to avoid or reduce driving on those days, and test the plan in advance to work out any problems, especially if your plan includes riding public transit (hint: it should!).

Ensure your child’s school has the air quality recess guidelines and intends to implement them. Have indoor physical activities for kids planned in advance.

How can you lessen the emissions coming from your home?

  1. Don’t burn wood
  2. Weatherize
  3. Turn down the thermostats
  4. Eliminate beans from your diet

Answer: A, B and C

Don’t burn wood. Perhaps the most important thing you can do to protect your health, the health of others around you, and the airshed in general is to know when it is okay to burn solid fuel, like wood. As a general rule and best practice, don’t burn wood. But if you must, know when you should and when you shouldn’t. When the inversion sets in, pollution builds and can linger for days on end. Burning wood adds to the problem significantly and can wreak havoc on the health of your family and your neighbors. The smoke that comes from a traditional fireplace can contribute up to 15% of the pollution during an inversion episode. And using a fireplace to heat your home is not efficient.

Be mindful of the air when you decide how to cook your food. Smokers and charcoal grills are fun and make tasty meals, but can contribute serious amounts of pollution and poor health during an inversion.

Weatherize your home. Stop the leaks. Leaky windows and doors can let the cold air in and the warm air out. Solutions can be relatively easy and affordable. Immediate actions can include weather-stripping and caulking trouble spots.

Change furnace filters and get your HVAC system tuned up. In our cold climate your furnace works overtime to ensure a comfortable environment for your home. A faulty or inefficient furnace uses extra energy and therefore creates more emissions. Make sure your furnace is ready by switching out filters on a regular basis. A clean filter ensures better airflow and greater efficiency.

Turn down your water temperature. Lowering your water heater temperature from 140 to 120 degrees is barely noticeable at the tap and can save you a lot of money on your utility bill. When your water heater breaks, replace it with an Ultra Low NOx model. These units are 75% cleaner than low NOx equivalents.

Install a smart thermostat and make a smart temperature choice. A high-tech thermostat will raise and lower the temperature according to a schedule and keep your furnace from heating when everyone is away. If you don’t have a smart thermostat and aren’t ready to get one, lower your thermostat a couple of degrees, and even more when you are away. You likely won’t notice a difference and you’ll be saving money on your utility bill and lowering the emissions from your home.

How do you travel smarter?

  1. Avoid driving whenever possible
  2. Take transit and carpool
  3. Trip chain (reduce cold starts)
  4. Don’t idle
  5. Read a book while you’re driving

Answer: A through D

Travel smarter. TravelWise! When the air pollution starts to build, rethink that trip. You  can contribute to cleaner air by driving less and ultimately driving smarter. Reducing the nuber of cars on the road reduces the amount of pollution put into the air. Is the trip really necessary? And if walking is an option for you (or even bicycling), you know to dress appropriately and give yourself the extra time.

Before dismissing public transit as a good idea for other people but not you, try it—especially if you haven’t used the new Transit app. Take the time to learn the routes around you; you may be pleasantly surprised that transit works for your commute or your recreation (see stories by Daniel Mendoza and Pam Holman, this issue). UTA’s Ski Bus service is a great example. There are many park-and-ride stops that get you to your favorite recreation destinations.

Carpool to the park-and-ride for an even greater reduction in emissions. If you pick up your friends rather than meeting them at the park-and-ride, you’ll eliminate as many cold starts!

Reduce cold starts. Cold starts are inevitable, especially in our cold climate. But 60-90% of a cold car’s emissions are released within the first 50 seconds of starting. This is another reason why it’s really important to carpool and trip chain. When you carpool you’ll be avoiding all those extra cold starts. And linking your trips together will keep your car warmer each time you restart. Trip chaining is especially important during episodes of elevated air pollution. Link errands together to take just one trip. An already warmed up car pollutes less.

Don’t idle. Idling gets you nowhere, and it adds unnecessary emissions into the airshed. Most cars on the road today don’t need to idle to warm up, and it takes less time for the heater to work by driving instead of idling. Use an ice scraper to scrape your windows rather than using your car’s heater to defrost.

How did you do? What did you learn? Do you see techniques you’re willing to embrace? Try practicing some of these skills until they become habits. Then we’ll all breathe easier!

Ashley Miller, J.D., is the program and policy director for Breathe Utah. She is a member of Utah’s Air Quality Policy Advisory Board and on the Salt Lake County Health Department Environmental Quality Advisory Commission.

This article was originally published on December 31, 2018.