Growing Clean Air with Plants 

It’s not really common to think about indoor environments as ecosystems. Traditionally (and for good reason) inside is viewed as fundamentally different than outside. However, as modern human animals now spending the majority of our time indoors, it behooves us to start thinking critically about the unique pressures we face within our built environment and indoor spaces (Americans spend about 90% of their time indoors). Air quality is of particular concern.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) indoor air quality can be a major concern, especially in large office spaces. Indoor chemical pollutants include emissions from building products (office equipment, furniture, walls, floor coverings, cleaning and other consumer products). Prolonged time indoors can lead to headaches, respiratory problems, and what is generally known as Sick Building Syndrome.

Luckily, some smart folks at NASA in partnership with the Associated Landscape Contractors of America did some amazing research about the air purifying qualities of different houseplants. (See “Sources” at the bottom of this article). B.C. Wolverton and other researchers were trying to figure out how to use plants to build healthier environments on space missions, and in the process, found out some cool qualities about plants. For example, Sanseviera trifasciata (Laurentii Snake Plant) is a common ornamental houseplant great for removing benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene and toluene. Or Dracaena Marginata (Red-edged dracaena), which can also remove xylene, trichloroethylene, and formaldehyde (mainly introduced to indoor air through lacquers, varnishes, and gasoline).

PLANT Group recently built a new indoor prototype called the AirBox. The AirBox is a planter which uses the Arduino Nano microcontroller (along with the ESP8266 WiFi Module) to automate plant irrigation and send soil saturation data to the web.

Screen Shot 2016-02-27 at 11.18.32 AM
View the Soil Saturation Data Feed at 

We call it AirBox because the unit is intended for indoor spaces, and is planted with a combination of air purifying and ornamental plants, including:

  • Sanseviera trifasciata (Laurentii Snake Plant)
  • Pilea glauca (Auquamarine)
  • Dracaena Marginata (Red-edged dracaena)
  • Soleirolia soleirolli (Baby’s Tears)

We constructed that planter from a reclaimed cabinet. (Foraging for and sourcing reclaimed materials is hugely important to the work we do).

 Underneath the soil there is a container for storing water. When the soil saturation sensor (connected to the microcontroller) senses that the soil saturation has fallen below a certain value specified in the code, the AirBox then triggers the pump to send water through the drip irrigation system.


The beauty of using sensor feedback to water plants, as opposed to a timer, is that we can always ensure the plant gets exactly the amount of water it needs. The AirBox should water for about three weeks before having to be filled up again. This feature makes it ideal for anyone going away on vacation. (If you’ve ever lost a plant you love after traveling – you know how bad this feels).

It’s time for us to be more aware of the environments we live in. From the food we eat, to the water we drink, and the air we breathe — growing awareness of our surroundings is key to sustainability. The places where we work and play should not be toxic to our health. Not only can indoor plants improve air quality, they also help promote our happiness, mental health, and wellbeing. Besides, plants are beautiful to look at!

If you’re interested in learning more about PLANT Group, visit our site at In the coming months we will be pushing to move the AirBox to market. For anyone interested in ordering an AirBox or getting a custom installation for their own space, please contact or


BC Wolverton, WL Douglas, K Bounds (July 1989). A study of interior landscape plants for indoor air pollution abatement (Report). NASA. NASA-TM-108061.

Pottorff, L. Plants “Clean” Air Inside Our Homes. Colorado State University & Denver County Extension Master Gardener. 2010.

Wolverton, B. C., et al. (1984). Foliage plants for removing indoor air pollutants from energy-efficient homes. Economic Botany38(2), 224-28.

Wolverton, B. C., et al. A study of interior landscape plants for indoor air pollution abatement: an interim report. NASA. September, 1989.

Wolverton, B. C. (1996) How to Grow Fresh Air. New York: Penguin Books.





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