Local Exhaust: a Salon Clean Air Act

by Suzette Hill, contributing writer | August 1, 2001

Over the past two to three years, nail salons have been getting the look that make people want to get to know them better. We’re seeing a trend toward more upscale furnishings and finishes more in keeping with an image industry. The investment is paying off: These salons are commanding higher service prices, developing strong retail bases, and generating excitement and enthusiasm with consumers and the media alike.

So why do nail services still cause some to wrinkle their nose in distaste? For many it has to do with the chemical odor so often associated with nail services.

A well-designed, nicely decorated nail salon without adequate ventilation is like a well-dressed woman (or man, for that matter) with body odor—people willingly approach them, but after just one whiff they can’t wait to get away.

Unlike an individual with B.O., though, a poorly ventilated salon doesn’t just smell bad—it can be bad for you Many nail and hair products contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) — solvents that evaporate into the air. Nail salons have the compounded problem of nail filings. These airborne particles — the most problematic of which you can’t even see because they’re so small — can be inhaled deep into the lungs, causing irritation and, in some cases, illness such as occupational asthma.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Division of Occupational Safety, the vapors and airborne dust in nail salons can irritate your eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. You might suffer from red, watery, and itchy eyes, or a sore throat, hoarseness, coughing, and shortness of breath. Overexposure to some of the chemicals you work with also can cause headaches, nausea, and dizziness.

Nor do those exposures have to be at dangerously high levels. For example, air quality tests conducted by the Massachusetts Division of Occupational Safety as well as those done by other governmental agencies such as the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) show that VOC emissions in tested nail salons fall well below the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs) to chemicals such as methyl methacrylate (MMA).

Still, MMA has been found to irritate some users at air concentrations below these limits. The most effective place to start is by controlling the chemicals at the source with a local exhaust system.

Go Straight to the Source

General ventilation is used to move large amounts of air through a room. While general ventilation does exchange “used” air for “fresh” air, the typical heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system is designed to control air temperature and humidity as well as low levels of contaminants — such as carbon dioxide emitted when we breathe. As contamination levels in the air rise, the only way to control them with a general HVAC system is to drastically increase the airflow. This is impractical for two reasons: First, the amount of fresh, outside air you’d have to pull in would dramatically increase your energy costs. Second, your HVAC system may not even be strong enough to provide that level of air exchange. Even more importantly, though, is that this approach is like shutting the barn door after the horse escapes. In other words, the contaminants have already been diluted into the general room air, where everyone is breathing them in even as the HVAC system is working hard to lower their levels.

Local exhaust ventilation, on the other hand, captures contaminants at the source of emission, before they disperse and dilute into the general room air. Depending on how many techs work in your salon, you may have to increase the air exchange level on your general HVAC to compensate for the air the local exhaust system pulls out, but it is still the most effective way to minimize your exposure to airborne pollutants in the salon, says Anne Bracker, a certified industrial hygienist with the Connecticut Department of Public Health, a division of Environmental & Occupational Health, in Hartford, Conn.

What Goes In Must Come Out

When salons become concerned with air quality, they typically first look to standard vented nail tables, ionizers, and ozone generators as the cheapest, easiest solution—most of them are plug-and-” go, and cost as little as $100. However, none actually remove contaminated air from the salon. Instead, they in some way “treat” the air (and not always effectively), then return it to the salon.

“Negative ionizers charge particles and cause them to stick together,” explains Doug Schoon, director of research and development for Creative Nail Design and a proponent of local ventilation in nail salons. “Unfortunately, those dusters break apart when stepped on or swept.’

Ozone generators, on the other hand, chemically react with the vapors and change them into some­thing you can’t smell, he says. “They don’t eliminate or destroy them,” he adds, “and ozone irritates the lungs and can aggravate asthma.”

A salon-specific local exhaust system isn’t something you can buy off-the- floor from your local distributor or salon furnishings manufacturer. On the other hand, local exhaust systems are fairly uncomplicated, Schoon says, and the individual components are available from companies such as Lab Safety Supply (Janesville, Wis.).

“I tell people to get their catalog, look at the concept, and then call their local HVAC expert and explain what they want,” he says.

LaShaun Brown-Glenn, owner of Nails Naturally in Chicago, chose this route after taking a training class with Schoon. Previously, she had tried both vented tables and portable filter units. “The salon still smelled, though,” she notes She ordered a fume extractor system from Lab Safety, then hired an electrician to install it.

“The hardest part was that the salon is in an office building, so I had to get it connected to the building’s ventilation system,” she says. She estimates the system cost was $1,800, including the electrician’s fees.

“It’s made a big difference,” she says. “There’s not so much dust, and there’s no odor.”

When designing a system and choosing components, you will need an expert’s help, but you’ll also need to understand yourself how local exhaust systems work and what your design options are to ensure you get something that meets your needs.

Maisie Dunbar, owner of M&M Nails in Silver Springs, Md., learned this lesson when she asked her contractor to design and install a local exhaust system. Because she decided to add a system late in the salon’s construction cycle, she says she didn’t have time to research the topic as well as she normally would have.

The contractor installed air extraction hoses over each nail station, then connected those hoses to the salon’s ventilation ductwork. The blower motor, which pulls the air out, is located outside the salon window. The contractor got almost everything right — but his one error was critical. The tubes over each nail station are at ceiling-level, many feet above where the technician is working on her clients’ nails.

“You want the local exhaust as close to where actually doing the work as possible,” Bracker emphasizes. “The farther away you get from the point of operation, the less effective the capture is.”

The Ins and Outs of Local Exhaust

Your first decision will be whether to vent the extracted air to the outside or to filter it through both a HEPA filter (to capture airborne particulates) and a charcoal filter (to adsorb the chemicals.) [Editor’s note: adsorption is defined as the adhesion in an extremely thin layer of molecules to the surfaces of solid bodies or liquids with which they are in contact.]

Venting contaminated air to the outside is by far the best choice. “In nail salons, they’re not doing air monitoring tests, so the best way to provide a safe work environment is to vent the contaminated air to the outside,” says Kevin Lund, technical specialist for Lab Safety Supply. He also notes that while these systems cost more to install because of the necessary ductwork, they save money over the long run.

“The charcoal filters alone cost more than $100,” he notes. Schoon estimates that the large, commercial-activated charcoal filters need to be replaced every five months (though he emphasizes the need to work with the filter manufacturer for a more accurate estimate given the salon’s individual circumstances). Additionally, you’ll have to replace the HEPA filter every 6-9 months, at a cost of $50-$100.

The basic components of a local exhaust system that vents to the outside are (starting from the outside of the building) a rain cap, a chimney, a blower, and ductwork “From the blower you have ductwork leading to an articulating arm with two or three elbows on it,” Lund adds. The articulating arm typically attaches to a hood, but most salons substitute flexible tubing for the arm and hood for esthetic purposes.

Where you place the tubing is a matter of personal choice, Lund says, as long as it’s very close — a few inches, at most —from the client’s hands. For example, Brown-Glenn’s tubing drops from the ceiling down to the table. NIOSH, on the other hand, recommends a design that draws the air into a modified vented nail station (see “Build a Vented Table That Really Works”).

Lund advises salons to opt for design in which the exhaust fan is installed on the outside of the building. “For one, it’s going to keep things much quieter,” he explains. “Second, if you put the blower as close to the outside as possible, it’s pulling air through the ductwork, rather than pushing it. Pulling it keeps all the ductwork under negative pressure. If the ductwork leaks, ifs going to pull fresh air into the ductwork, rather than push the contaminated air out of it.” If the contaminated air leaks out of the ductwork and back into the salon, it negates the purpose of a local exhaust system.

Lund urges nail techs to consult with an HVAC expert to help select and install a local exhaust system. While the basic design is uncomplicated, he explains that only an expert can determine what size of blower fan you need for your particular situation.

Once the system is in, Schoon offers this easy test of its effectiveness: “You should be able to sit at your station, light a match, and blow it out over where your client’s hand would be if you were doing a service,” he says. “If the smoke gets pulled into the local exhaust [tube], it works right” If it just dissipates in the room air, you haven’t gained a thing.

When You Can’t Go Over, Under, or Around ...

While exhausting to the outside is the best choice, sometimes it’s not a viable option. Such was the case for Gigi and Simon Rouse, owners of Designer Nails in Leeds, England. They also own a distributorship by the same name and manufacture salon furnishings under the brand name of Polished K.

Over the years, the Rouses have tried many local exhaust solutions in their salons. “We have bought and paid for three or four desktop systems,” says Gigi. They also had designed and installed an overhead system similar to Brown-Glenn’s.

“That system was absolutely fabulous,” Gigi recalls. “We had porcelain tubes that came down from the ceiling that had both halogen lights as well as the exhaust that immediately took dust and vapors out of the work area.”

After a few years, though, the Rouses opted to design a more flexible system. “The limitation was that we couldn’t move stations around the salon,” Gigi says. They had also talked to many nail techs who bought from their distributorship and found that some of them wanted local exhaust but didn’t have the option to vent to the outside.

HEPA filters are quite effective at capturing particulates, Bracker says. Charcoal filters are equally effective, but they tend to have a shorter lifespan. Even more importantly, there’s no way to know when they’re full. “You can’t just rely on your nose,” Bracker says.

The manufacturer maybe able to offer some guidelines, but the lifespan will vary depending on how many technicians work in the salon (which influences how high the chemical “load” is in the air, as salon hours and how many hours a day and days a week the system runs).

The Rouses developed what they call the VAPEX D system, an extraction/fil­tration system integrated into worksta­tion and display units. “But what a filter!” Gigi exclaims. “One entire side cupboard of the desk is dedicated to the system.”

Going into development, the Rouses knew the drawbacks of a filtration system, so they immediately contracted a manufacturer of commercial activated charcoal filters. Rouse says the manufacturer came out to the salon and observed the working conditions, tested the air, and gathered information about such as salon hours, the maximum number of techs working and clients serviced per day.

According to the manufacturer’s calculations, the charcoal filters would remain effective for 18 months. The Rouses slashed that to 12 months as an added safety measure. It also made for an easy-to-remember maintenance schedule. “We keep records on when the filters need changing and notify everyone instead of leaving it to them to remember,” Gigi says.

Effectiveness is the name of the game. Local exhaust ventilation is neither the cheapest nor the easiest clean air action you can take in your salon, but it’s the only one that will effectively and dramatically reduce chemical vapors and airborne particulates in your salon. Commit the time and commit the investment — your career and your health are worth it.

Build a Vented Table That Really Works

Based on a 1996 study of nail technicians’ exposure to chemical vapors and borne particulates, NIOSH researchers say that a vented table is the most important engineering control for getting rid of EMA vapors and dust in nail salons. NIOSH published the following design recommendations for: building your own vented nail station. Use them to build your own system, or share with your HVAC specialist.

  • Make a hole in the tabletop for an air intake (called the downdraft face) on the tech’s side of the table. The air intake should measure 13 inches by four “inches A 2-5- inch baffle should surround the downdraft face, to pull the moving air closer to the client’s hands. Cover the hole with a screen-like cover or perforated plate.
  • Choose an exhaust fen (also called a blower) that can exhaust at least 250 cubic feet of air per minute-and that has ¼-inch static pressure. A 1/8 horsepower centrifugal fan should work well. Look for a multi-speed or high-volume exhaust fen with a damper.
  • To prevent fan noise from getting in the way of talk or client comfort, you can a) buy a quiet fan; b) put a cover over a noisier fan; c) buy an outdoor fan to be placed on an outdoor wall.
  • Provide enough makeup air to replace the exhausted air. If you don’t, there will be negative pressure areas in the salon. Negative pressure will “suck” in replacement air from places where you might not want it—cracks in doors, for instance.
  • Make sure your exhaust duct is at least 15 feet from your general ventilation system’s air intake, or you will just draw dirty air back into the salon.


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