Do HVAC Scents Make Sense?

ByMarc Silberberg


How many of us remember as kids walking into the house after a long day at school and being able to tell what’s for supper just by the smell invading our nostrils? Most of the time the dinner was to our liking, especially when smelling the scent of something frying in a pan. This could mean fried chicken cutlets or fried fish or maybe hamburgers.

Maybe you were lucky enough to smell the scent of fresh cookies or cake making your mouth water. In fact, interestingly when putting a house on the market, sellers are advised to put some cinnamon in the oven and turn the oven on. This gives a false but favorable impression that something yummy is baking in the oven.

Yes, indoor smells take over the house but not always in a favorable way. People who are sensitive to mold will be able to tell immediately upon entering a home, apartment and even an office if there is mold growing there. These allergic individuals could be almost as sensitive as professional indoor home air quality experts in identifying problems.

Why Use Air Fresheners?

Air fresheners are used to remove or block out undesirable or embarrassing odors in homes and other places. Many people have tried expensive means of getting rid of disturbing odors with little or no success. Some homes have mold that is difficult to remove. It could just be an old or moist bathroom that will always have a smell no matter how often you clean it and most probably the only way to eradicate the mold and smell is to have a brand-new bathroom installed. This might sound prohibitively expensive but at least the homeowner knows where the odor is emanating from, and allergy symptoms will be alleviated.

Sometimes the only way to find out where the moldy smell is coming from is to call an air quality specialist. It could be that your HVAC system or your clothes dryer’s venting system has become moist, and it needs to be cleaned out. Just removing the lint from your dryer will not solve the problem of the moisture and so too with your HVAC system. Fooling around with both can get you into trouble and will cost you much more money in the long run.

Air fresheners come in different forms, and some are unhealthier than others. Unlike in the past where they were placed in spray bottles which are used sporadically to mask a temporary odor in the bathroom or kitchen, today air fresheners are not only more sophisticated devices but are permanently placed in homes, offices, and apartments. Besides aerosols, there are now several other ways in which these fresheners are generated in the home. Common household freshener products include scented candles, plug ins and essential oil liquids.

A home dweller will become so used to the smell of a plug in that they won’t even notice the smell. However, an allergic person who enters the home will start coughing and sneezing immediately. The considerate thing to do would be to immediately unplug the air fresheners around your house until that person vacates the premises. If you know of a friend or relative who has allergies it is prudent that you remove your plug ins from your entire house before your guest arrives. Air fresheners are like Band-Aids; they will not solve the problem and are only a temporary solution at most.

Why are Air Fresheners Unhealthy?

It all depends on the chemicals that your air freshener is made up of. Up to 100 different chemicals can emanate from certain air fresheners. Some examples of these chemicals are benzene, ethylbenzene, formaldehyde, and xylene which are carcinogens if inhaled in high volume. In fact, surprisingly when these chemicals react with the indoors, the indoor air quality actually gets worse. Oxidants, coming from artificial lighting, specifically fluorescent lights and gas stoves can react with harmful chemicals such as the ones mentioned above and generate actual air pollution. Who wants air pollution in their house? We go into our houses and expect clean air, so what can we do?

Green Air Fresheners

Call them organic, green, or natural. There are no distinct regulations for these so-called healthy products which can still be hazardous to your health. According to the law, the ingredients in the air fresheners do not have to be specifically written on the label. Often, the company can use a variety of words to name the product ranging from perfume, fragrance and essential oils when listing the ingredients.

What are Essential Oils?

I recently received a “Reed Diffuser” as a gift which is another way to send essential oils into the air. I will not name the brand, but it does have the word green in it, but this does not mean that it is necessarily chemical free. The ingredients are mostly in French with words such as, fragrance oil (whatever that means), fiber reeds and perfume. I have not used it and don’t plan to, but I do have a plug in in my house so researching this article was surely eye opening.

Essential oils can be extracted from plants and retain the natural smell of a specific plant which is then processed to become a concentrated hydrophobic (water repelling) liquid. My diffuser is called Herbal Musk and does not specify any specific plant or flower that it was extracted from. The ingredients of these scented essential oils include peppermint, grapefruit, lavender, and lemongrass. These all sound so fresh and healthy, however these oils don’t improve your indoor air quality and they can make it worse. It’s different from using scented oils on your skin or in the bath since these stay with you and don’t travel throughout your home. A 2018 study showed that these oils radiate VOCS (volatile organic compounds) such as ethanol and acetone. According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) VOCS can cause throat, ear and eye inflammation, nausea, liver, and kidney damage as well as headaches.

What is an Ultrasonic Diffuser?

Many people use humidifiers in their homes especially when dry winter heat disrupts people from sleeping well. These basics have been around and are considered safe as long as they are kept sparkling clean and washed after each use. An ultrasonic diffuser tries to copy the traditional humidifier and although they make the air smell good in addition to adding humidity to the air, they are not the correct way to add moisture to a dry home. They are too small to act as an effective humidifier and the scent can cause allergies in some sensitive individuals. Go for the traditional humidifier instead.

What About Scented Candles?

The advantage of candles over plug ins is that they are generally lit and unlit often. You may find a lit candle in the powder room as a guest but when you leave chances are your host will put out the candle. They do have the same chemicals emitted as plug ins and essential oils but if used in moderation they should be relatively safe. Some of these candles are made of non- paraffin such as beeswax which are good as long as you have enough ventilation.

What is HVAC Aroma Scenting?

The new trend for offices, stores, and other venues such as dental and doctors’ offices is having a smell in the air when you walk in that runs through the HVAC system of the location. HVAC scenting is the dynamics of flowing diffused scents through the air. Is the cookie smell you breathe in when you enter your bakery authentic or is it artificial? What about when you enter an upscale department store, do you get hit with a scent that energizes your allergy symptoms causing you to sneeze and brings on a bad headache?

Welcome to the world of HVAC scenting. Some folks are thinking about installing this system in their own homes. These systems are adjustable just like your central air. When you want your air conditioning colder you lower the thermostat and when you want it warmer you make it higher. The same can be done with HVAC scenting. The trouble begins when you walk into a place, and you are overwhelmed with the scent no matter how good it smells and each of us have our own likes and dislikes when it comes to scents. If you are in a store or doctor’s office, there is nowhere to turn or escape unless you leave the facility and many times you must be at an appointment, and you will suffer the consequences.

A central heating and cooling system can be infused with a scent by circulating essential oils in a dry spray of very tiny drops through a type of pressure called cold air diffusion. The HVAC system will then distribute the fragrance through the ducts evenly to the entire atmosphere of the venue whether large such as a department store or a smaller location such as a home or apartment. Just like a portable plug ins air freshener, the scent intensity can be lessened so that it does not overpower the area.

Marketers call this the psychology of mood enhancement, and they know that people who inhale a scent that they like are much more likely to end up purchasing merchandise from that store. For example, Disney stores have a distinct sweet scent that keeps the customers in the store. However, these scents can be dangerous because they could mask mold, gas and even Freon leaks from the HVAC system.

Final Words

We all want our homes and offices to have a good smell but even better would be no smell at all. No smell at all would be the healthiest ideal possible, except for the yummy smell that greets you at the door of a warm and loving home after a long day at the office or school. So many people are busy at work, so they have no time to cook, let alone to bake. So, for many families those naturally delicious smells of a secure home are relics of the past.

So, enter artificial scents which range from simple sprays such as Febreze to sophisticated HVAC aroma machinery. The big question is are these scents safe for home and office use as well as department stores and other commercial venues? This all depends on what’s going on beneath the surface of the location. It is harmful to use any kind of diffusers no matter if they are candles, sprays, plug ins, or HVAC scents to conceal odors in the area that the scent is being used because harmful mold, gas or coolant leaks could be hiding behind the scent. If you notice a consistent moldy or gas smell in your home quickly call your HVAC specialist to check out where the problem is coming from.

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