A well-maintained furnace is the key to staying warm and comfortable all winter long. But just because your furnace is working doesn't mean your indoor air is especially clean - and if it's not, you could suffer adverse effects while taking refuge from the cold outdoor air.

Indoor air quality (IAQ) is an essential home HVAC consideration, and it's never more important than during the winter, when people spend the greatest amount of time indoors. To make sure your IAQ is as high as possible, consider taking the following steps:

Replace your HVAC filters on schedule. This begins with knowing how many filters your system has, where they're located, what size they are and how they're replaced. If you aren't sure, ask your HVAC technician to show you. Different filter types are designed to be replaced at different intervals, so you should plot out your filter schedule each year and mark it on your calendar.

Schedule duct cleaning. Airborne particles can accumulate on the inner walls of your ducts, contaminating the air flowing through your home and causing foul odors. These particles can even include mold and bacteria, which may cause illness. A professional duct cleaning will strip this film away and make your indoor air noticeably easier to breathe.

Consider a whole-home filtration system. If anyone in your home has severe allergies or respiratory problems, high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration systems are the gold standard for IAQ management. While these tend to be expensive, they're often worthwhile when health is on the line.

Upgrade your filters. Standard fiberglass filters are acceptable for most applications, but if you're concerned about IAQ, you might want to switch to filters with higher Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value (MERV) ratings. There is a tradeoff involved - higher MERV filters cause your HVAC system to work a little harder, which can increase your utility bills and may shorten your system's service intervals.

Use your thermostat's "fan on" mode. Most homeowners set their fan to "auto", which means that the fan only runs when the HVAC system is actively heating or cooling. Switching the fan to "on" will use more energy, but the constant replacement of indoor air is a reliable way to boost IAQ.

Keep a clean home. Everyday dust and dirt can be some of the most irritating airborne particles, and pet dander can be even worse. Vacuum and dust at least once per week to cut down on this problem.

Watch your humidity levels. You can purchase an inexpensive digital hygrometer to keep tabs on your indoor humidity, and use humidifiers or dehumidifiers to balance your levels out. When humidity is more than 50 percent, mold and mildew can be a problem. But if it's under 30 percent, the overly dry air can cause respiratory irritation.

If you've covered the DIY tasks to improve your indoor air quality but still aren't satisfied with the results, reach out to your local HVAC technician. There are several types of filters, deodorizers and services that can help turn things around.

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