Do you know where germs are hiding?
Home is where the heart is and, increasingly, where work, play, and multigenerational gatherings come together. All of this nesting comes at a price: germs. Think of all those surfaces that are touched by multiple hands many times throughout the day: countertops, faucets, light switches, cabinet hardware, and the highest-touch surface of all—the refrigerator. These are places where germs feel right at home, but we can take steps to minimize these tiny invaders.
Stone countertops are popular for a reason; they are beautiful and durable. Not all stone surfaces are created equal, however, when it comes to collecting germs. Engineered quartz, such as a Caesarstone or Silestone product, is the least porous, as it is made from natural quartz combined with polymers and resins. These poured surfaces have either no seams or minimal seaming. Cleanup of engineered stone is easy with diluted dish soap and hot water.
When remodeling, consider ditching the tile backsplash with its germ-friendly grout. Instead, take the stone up from the counter to the base of cabinets for a clean and stylish look.
Granite needs to be cleaned regularly and sealed periodically to maintain the beauty and keep it from harboring germs. Marble is the question mark when it comes to anti-microbial properties, since it is softer and a bit more porous than other natural stones. Regular sealing helps to repel stains and germs, but some experts suggest using marble on an island that is not subjected to daily food prep or pots and pans, or in bathrooms, where it won’t have the same exposure to potential scratching.
One kitchen counter option that is gaining in popularity is the seamless porcelain slab. The pressure and heat from the molding process make for a very durable and antimicrobial surface that is 80 percent less likely to harbor bacteria than other surfaces. Porcelain slabs can be made to look like marble or quartz in a variety of colors and finishes, and they are easily cleaned with common household cleansers.
We may think of sinks as inherently clean, but bacteria love to reside there. Any unwashed utensil or plate that goes in will welcome germs like old friends. One sink material is emerging as a bacteria killer: copper. Not only is copper attractive, the Environmental Protection Agency has confirmed through rigorous testing that it starts to kill germs on contact and takes care of 99.9 percent of dangerous bacteria within two hours. Cleanup is a smart idea after each use, since acidic foods and drinks can strip the patina. Mild soap and warm water will suffice, and a copper cleaner should be used regularly.
The sink is hardly the worst offender for germ collection. Dish towels harbor bacteria, especially when damp. Avoid drying hands on the same towel that wipes up counters soiled with food residue. Experts suggest having separate towels for each use and making sure they get completely dry before using again. Kitchen sponges are even more hospitable to germs. Those little wells that make the sponge so absorbent harbor up to 80 different E. coli strains, according to a 2022 study from Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering.
One solution is the Swedish Dishcloth (the brand is styled “SWEDE-dishcloths”). Engineered in 1947, these cotton-and-cellulose cloths are about the size of a pot holder but are much thinner and don’t have the little catch-all holes for bacteria to take root. They absorb 20-times their weight, dry quickly, are easily cleaned in the dishwasher, and can be sanitized when damp by one minute in the microwave.
Cleanup around the kitchen helps eliminate the small food particles on countertops, refrigerator handles, faucet handles, and cabinet hardware. Not all surfaces can take the harsh chemicals found in typical kitchen cleaning supplies, such as those with abrasive qualities or with bleach added. “If you clean your stainless steel appliances with any traditional household cleaner, you can take the finish right off,” says Jason White, builder sales representative at Jetson
TV & Appliance. “We ran into that during the pandemic, when people would use bleach or scrubbing cleaners to disinfect the surface, but that pulls out the oils that are present in the manufacturing process.”
Stainless steel starts life as a molten mixture of iron, chromium, and other additives. “Almost all the stainless steel we see now has nickel as an additive,” White says. When combined, these metals form a very strong alloy that resists corrosion, unless that finish is compromised. “Harsh cleaners can take oils out of the metal, which opens up the pores and lets moisture in,” he explains. “Then, rust spots can show up.” White recommends using only a cleaner formulated specifically for stainless steel to maintain a perfect showroom finish. “The cleaners made for stainless steel all have natural oils in them, such as mineral oil.”
We all know that washing our hands is mandatory for keeping germ transfer to a minimum. High-tech faucets can help in that regard—hands-free operation in which water flows with just the touch of a forearm on the neck of the faucet, or even motion detection activation that requires just the passing of a hand underneath.
The new VoiceIQ system from Delta takes touchless to the next level: There is no need to come into contact with the handle or the faucet neck, because your voice controls the amount of water dispensed in units of ounces, cups, pints, quarts, gallons, liters, or milliliters. A home connectivity device like Alexa or Google Assistant is required, along with home Wi-Fi.
The future is in automation. As of this year, more than 63 million homes in the United States have “smart” appliances, automated lights, shades, heating and cooling, and much more. The less we need to push buttons and throw switches, the more we inhibit germ transfer.
“The desire for automation in lighting has been evident for decades and has reached a new level of importance with the recent worldwide health event,” says Flo Howe of LED Capstone Lighting & Fan Showroom in Vero Beach. Switches with active occupancy sensors reduce the need for contact, turning on when they sense the room is occupied, and off after it is vacated.
“Remote/receiver lighting systems may also be employed to take your lighting to a new level of control,” adds Howe. “With a remote switch, lighting can be managed from anywhere in a room or can be used to control lighting outside the house.” These devices work off a radio frequency, meaning the remote controller does not need a clear line of sight to the receiver, such as a television would. Working lights from an app centralizes command. Howe controls the entire showroom at LED Capstone with her tablet. “We utilize the Lutron Caseta application on a smartphone or tablet, so that multiple zones can be preset to be illuminated at different times of the day for complete customization of lighting.”
Striving for a cleaner home environment should include the air we breathe. Volatile organic compounds originating from pesticides are a health hazard, as are radon gas, mold, emissions from new building materials, and off-gassing from brand-new furniture. Old ductwork transfers these indoor pollutants throughout the home, but new ducts can help in the fight against indoor air hazards.
“All new ductwork, according to code, is antimicrobial,” says Eric Bates, sales manager for Barker Air Conditioning and Heating. “It happens in the manufacturing process, where it is adhered to the duct material itself. If the duct work is not being replaced, we recommend air scrubbers, which are installed into the supply duct, coupled with a UV system built in. We have had a lot of success with those, especially in cases of mold remediation.”
Upgrading intake filters will also promote better indoor air quality. “We like pleated filters with a minimum efficiency reporting value (MERV) rating between 8 and 11. Going much over that limits the air flow,” says Bates. The MERV rating grades the filter’s effectiveness on coarse particles such as pollen and pet dander, along with fine particles like mold spores and bacteria. “Charcoal air filters work very well, too, and have been shown to greatly reduce allergens and odors from tobacco smoke.”
A cleaner home starts with a good look around. Where are the high-touch surfaces? Which areas collect food particles? What is the best cleaning method for each surface? When in doubt, ask the manufacturer how to clean refrigerator handles, wood cabinets, countertops, and sinks. Items made of materials we don’t always consider to be germ collectors, such as light switches and doorknobs, can be efficient transfer stations for bacteria and viruses. Consider keeping a schedule so these areas get regular attention. A few changes in routine can keep us all breathing a little easier.