If you’re concerned with indoor air quality, you may want to take a first (or second) look at adding a central vacuum system to your IAQ package. In Canada, where windows remain shut for most of the year, these systems come standard in most new homes. Here in the United States, however, many builders still regard the central vac as an amenity and not a green building product. This opinion is changing as more builders become aware of how effective these systems can be in removing airborne irritants and allergens.

In a 2001 study evaluating the health impact of central vacuum systems on patients with house dust allergies, conducted by the University of California at Davis School of Medicine, researchers had two groups of participants use either a conventional or central vacuum system for three months and then switch to the other system. The researchers reported that in all aspects of the evaluation, including sleep, non-nasal symptoms, nasal symptoms, eye symptoms, and even emotions, the use of a central vacuum proved to be “superior,” with reported improvement in allergy symptoms ranging from 40% to 61% when participants used a central vacuum system.

Both the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED for Homes and the ANSI National Green Building Standard (NGBS) recognize the contribution of central vacuum systems to improved indoor air quality. LEED offers one point, while the NGBS provides up to five Indoor Environmental Quality points for installing a central vacuum system vented to the outside.

Built-in Vacuum System Basics

To understand how a built-in vac would improve indoor air quality, reflect on how a conventional vacuum cleaner works. The device sucks dirt and dust off floor surfaces and captures most of that dust in a bag or canister, with the particles too fine for the filter billowing right back into the room. Even if you’re using a vacuum equipped with a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filter, the exhaust air stirs up the dust lying on nearby surfaces, raising a cloud of irritating particles as you vacuum the room. A built-in vacuum, by comparison, captures the dirt and dust and then delivers it to a sealed canister away from the living area.