In the midst of the COVID 19 pandemic, now more than ever, we’re aware of actions we can take to help prevent the spread and growth of viruses, bacteria, and other illness-causing microorganisms. And that got me to thinking, are there ways we can design our houses that will also help fight and prevent germs? Obviously, we can’t completely eliminate microorganisms, and we shouldn’t want to, because some of them are beneficial. But what can we include in our new builds that will decrease the chances of unhealthy bacteria and viruses living and thriving in our homes?
According to the World Health Organization, Coronaviruses can survive on surfaces anywhere from a few hours up to several days. The survival time of COVID 19 and other viruses and bacteria on surfaces depends on variables like the material, temperature and humidity level of the surface.
One of the most important things we can do during this pandemic, and afterward, to keep our homes as free from outside germs as possible is to thoroughly wash or sanitize our hands. We should clean our hands throughout the day, and especially as soon as we enter our homes. First stop after we come into the house should be a sink where we can wash off whatever bacteria and viruses we may have inadvertently brought into the house.
Okay, I’ve got a confession… I’m germaphobe (I might have told you that before). I’m the girl who sprays down the entire hotel room with disinfectant, including and especially, the tv remote whenever I travel. But I realize that no matter how clean our homes or hotel rooms appear, there will always be some microorganisms lurking around, and that most of our immune systems can handle them. But, there are some choices that we can make in designing our homes that will make it more difficult for germs to live there. If we take some tips from hospital and commercial kitchen design, and choose more germ-resistant surfaces and appliances, we can keep our homes healthier.
So here are 9 tips for designing a germ-resistant house. You don’t have to utilize all the tips in order to reduce indoor microorganisms. If reducing germs is important to you, choose the suggestions that make the most sense for your life, budget and style.
1. Avoid hard to reach and difficult to clean areas.
Have fewer tight corners around furniture, appliances and vanities/countertops where food, dirt and moisture can hide. Either push objects so close to each that it’s difficult for debris and moisture to get into the corners and crevices, or space pieces far enough apart so cleaning between structures is fairly easy. And think about having less (or no) open space above tall cabinets where dirt and grime can literally stick and stay.
2. Reduce seams and grout lines.
Make countertops, shower walls, backsplashes and floors as smooth and crevice-free as possible, again so microorganisms from dirt and moisture can’t thrive. Choose site-finished hardwood floors without crevices between planks. To learn more about site-finished hard wood, also called, unfinished hard wood floors, check out episode 35 called Hardwood Floor 102.
To decrease grout lines, opt for large format tiles or slabs, instead of small scale tiles with lots of grout. Where grout is required, consider adding an antimicrobial additive or sealer. Or request non-porous, moisture- and stain-resistant epoxy grout, which you can hear about in episode 61. Be sure the epoxy grout is labeled as antimicrobial, which means it resists illness-causing microorganisms. Some websites say all epoxy grout is naturally antimicrobial, while other sites say an additive is needed for epoxy grout to most effectively antimicrobial.
3. Choose simple lines for high touch surfaces.
Avoid overly-complicated and ornate designs with lots of curves and nooks and crannies. This is especially important for high-touch surfaces like doorknobs and door levers, handles and knobs of appliances and fixtures, including faucet handles, cabinet hardware, buttons and railings. Flat, smooth surfaces are easier to clean and less likely to allow microorganisms to accumulate.
4. Choose non-porous surfaces wherever they make sense.
Surfaces like stainless steel, glass, quartz, glazed tiles and man-made porcelain slabs are all non-porous and easier to keep sanitize and clean. Non-porous quartz and man-made porcelain slabs (like Dekton), which are often used for countertops, are also antimicrobial. Natural stone like marble, granite, limestone and quartzite, and unglazed ceramic and porcelain tiles are porous. Those porous surfaces allow for moisture, liquid foods like raw eggs and juices from raw meat, and microorganisms to seep in. This can cause microorganisms to stick around and possibly grow.
Somewhat necessary porous materials, such as rugs, wood, upholstery, linens and curtains should be able to be washed, shampooed or dry-cleaned on a regular basis. There are also some fabrics, carpets and rugs on the market the have had antimicrobial agents added to them. But the jury is out about whether these specific antimicrobial items will do more harm than good. Laboratory studies conducted by the Food and Drug Administration have raised the possibility that too much of certain antibacterial agents can contribute to making everyday bacteria resistant to antibiotics. That means we’d need stronger and stronger antibiotics to fight common infections. In moisture-prone areas where many bacteria, viruses and mold spores thrive (think bathroom grout), it’s probably not a bad idea to add an antimicrobial sealant or additive. But for dryer materials like rugs and upholstery, you might want to think twice about an antimicrobial additive.
5. Select naturally antimicrobial metal surfaces.
Copper and copper-containing alloys like brass and bronze naturally destroy a wide range of microorganisms. The Environmental Protection Agency has proven that copper and copper alloys kill bacteria, and laboratory research suggests they have some anti-viral properties, as well. Consider choosing copper, brass or bronze faucets, door knobs or sinks.
6. Go touchless.
The less we touch surfaces around the house, the less likely we are to transfer and spread possible illness-causing microorganisms. Today’s marketplace includes many touchless options for the home, including touchless, motion-sensitive toilets that flush at the swipe of a hand, and touchless faucets, liquid soap dispensers, trash bins and light switches. You might also invest in touchless humidity-sensitive exhaust fans for your bathrooms. These fans automatically turn on, and stay on, when humidity levels are high. This offers some protection against microorganisms since, as I alluded to earlier, many germs require a certain level of moisture for survival and growth. Eliminate high levels humidity in your house and you’ll likely decrease the number of microorganisms. The International Well Building Institute suggests indoor humidity between 30-50%.
7. Choose appliances certified by the NSF (National Sanitation Foundation International).
The NSF is an independent, accredited organization that has developed standards, testing and certification of products and systems that will protect and improve public health. Manufacturers, regulators and consumers look to the NSF to help keep our food, water, environment and consumer products safe and healthy. The NSF tests and certifies many small household appliances like water filters, coffee makers, slow cookers and blenders, assuring proper performance and safety. Those small appliances are tested for quality, durability and cleanability.
The NSF also certifies a few large home appliances with sanitation functions, such as washers, dryers and dishwashers. Residential dishwashers that have been certified by NSF will have an “NSF/ANSI 184" label. NSF remember stands for National Sanitation Foundation and ANSI stands for American National Standards Institute. If residential dishwashers have that NSF/ANDI 184 label, those dishwashers have achieved at least a 99.999% reduction in bacteria during their sanitation cycle. Many common brands such as KitchenAid, GE and Bosch have NSF certified dishwashers. Here is a list of NSF certified residential dishwashers.
To earn certification from NSF, clothes washers and dryers must also be able to reduce 99.9% of microorganisms when the unit’s sanitization cycle is used. In addition, tests much show that there is no significant carryover of bacteria into future loads. I didn’t see a specific list of certified washers and dryers on the NSF website, but they do have a page where you can search certain appliances. To be honest, it’s not the easiest page to navigate, but you may have better luck than I did. Bottom line is, if you’re wanting an appliance that is NSF certified, look for the NSF label on the appliance itself or it’s packaging or manual.
8. Install proper ventilation and air purification/filtration.
Whole house ventilation systems take stale air out of the house and bring fresh air into the house. Ventilation systems don’t remove any particles from the air, but they can help prevent particles and microorganisms from building up in indoor air.
Air filtration systems, also called air purification systems, are what take airborne particles and microorganisms out of indoor air. They help to purify indoor air. These systems can greatly reduce, but not completely eliminate, the spread of microorganisms and pollutant particles and fumes in the house. But, keep in mind that these systems need to paired with some of the other measures we’ve talked about today since microorganisms are often spread by touch, and are not just transmitted through the air.
There are several air filtration systems on the market that will reduce the number of microorganisms in the home, including ultraviolet light air purification systems and MERV 13 or higher air filters. These filters will, by no means, catch everything, no filter will, but they will catch a significant number contaminants.
9. Add a welcome mat at every entrance.
To not track outdoor contaminants from our shoes into the house, we would ideally remove shoes as soon as we enter the house. And this is customary in many regions. But if this just isn’t the way you roll, at least have a welcome mat with a rough surface at each exterior door so you can wipe the bottom of your shoes before entering the house.
Bonus Tip. Add a water filtration system.
Quality water filtration systems can remove not only unwanted sediment from water, but also microorganisms. To hear more about water filtration system, take a listen to episode 66.
Before I go, should we do a couple of quiz questions? Yeah, let’s do it…
1. Which material is porous, allowing moisture and microorganisms to seep into it?
C. Unglazed tile
D. Stainless steel
The answer is C. Unglazed tile is porous and therefore less germ resistant since moisture and microorganism can seep in. Glazed tile, however, has a liquid glass-like material fixed to its surface. Remember glass is non-porous, so the glaze transforms otherwise porous ceramic and porcelain tile to a non-porous material.
2. True or false: Copper, bronze and brass are naturally antimicrobial.
That’s true. Copper and the copper containing alloys bronze and brass are naturally resistant to illness-causing microorganisms.
Well, that’s all I have for you. I hope you learned as much as I did. Stay safe and well and come back again for another episode of BYHYU.
Please remember that the purpose of this podcast is simply to educate and inform. It is not a substitute for professional advice. The information that you hear is based the only on the opinions, research and experiences of my guests and myself. That information might be incomplete and it’s subject to change, so it may not apply to your project. In addition, building codes and requirements vary from region to region, so always consult a professional about specific recommendations for your home.
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