When patients leave family physician Rohini Kanniganti's office in Boulder, they receive a high five. It's a friendly slap of hands, but also Kanniganti's way of reminding the patient of what she believes are the five keys to great health: sleep, hydration, diet, elimination and play.
In her own home, Kanniganti and her husband, Marc Plinke, gave attention to the first item on the high-five list in an unusual way.
The couple recently finished a nearly two-year renovation on their home on Sumac Avenue in Boulder. It's a net-zero home -- it creates as much or more energy as it uses due to green-design elements, such as solar heating, soy foam insulation, thermal mass construction and water-conserving systems and landscaping.
The home's most unique feature, however, is a rarity in residential building: It has a Faraday cage.
With the exception of one room in the 3,000-square-foot home, the walls, floors, ceilings, windows and doors have a system of connected wire mesh, similar in consistency to the wire mesh on a typical screen door. The purpose is to drastically reduce the home's electromagnetic fields.
Electromagnetic fields have been the subject of much research and controversy during the past 35 years. The invisible fields occur naturally as the result of the Earth's magnetic pull, and are created in abundance from electric devices and pathways. We're inundated with electromagnetic fields daily from electrical wiring, power lines and dozens of electrical devices.
Some believe prolonged exposure to high-level electromagnetic fields can cause cancer. But Michael Dubson, a senior instructor in the CU physics department says, "(Low-frequency electromagnetic radiation) is harmless unless the intensity is so high that you begin to start heating. But there's no chance that kind of radiation can cause cancer. There's no evidence of that."
Cancer wasn't Kanniganti and Plinke's concern, though.
"For us it was just a quality of sleep issue," says Plinke, an environmental engineer. "I didn't want to inundate our sleep with a lot of electromagnetic fields because it would just energize the brain. At least that made sense to me."
The Faraday cage was discovered by 19th century physicist Michael Faraday. A Faraday cage essentially blocks external electrical fields from an enclosed space. It's the same principle that keeps passengers safe from lightning strikes when they are in an automobile. The lightning won't penetrate the metal enclosed car.
Plinke got the inspiration to create a Faraday cage through most of his home from an experiment in a high school physics class he took years ago. Project manager Olivier Goedert, of Simply Remodeling, had to figure out how to install the caging.
During the research phase, Goedert discovered governments use Faraday cages for privacy purposes. And universities have begun outfitting rooms with Faraday cages to curb would-be cheaters, as cell phone texting is disabled in a Faraday environment.
Information about residential Faraday cages was minimal, however, and Goedert had to figure out how to make it work in the home.
Workers installed the wire mesh between two sheets of drywall on the walls and ceilings in the home. The wire mesh was laid in the cement-like flooring material, too. Installing the caging was relatively inexpensive, since the remodel was already underway, Plinke says.
Plinke estimates it cost less than $2,500 dollars to outfit the home with Faraday caging.
"It really wasn't a lot of trouble to include it in the project," Goedert adds.
One of the unintended consequences of the Faraday caging has been limited cell phone reception in the home. Most of the house is a cell phone dead zone. It's not a bad thing, Plinke discovered, at least according to friends with chatty children.
"A lot of parents have said, 'Just for that purpose alone, it's worth doing this,'" Plinke says. "'If my daughter wasn't locking herself in her room and talking to her friends forever (on a cell phone), I would pay any money.' I just had to laugh."
Visitors to the home -- a warm, inviting dwelling with rounded walls, painted with earth tones and bathed in light -- have called it a quiet space, Plinke says. It's not without noise -- the couple's two children, Sitha, 6, and Roan, 4, often fill the home with laughter and loud noises children make. But there's something peaceful about the home, people say.
That resonates with the home's official name. A plaque bearing the words "Ahimsa Platz" adorns the entryway. It comes from the couple's different traditions -- Kanniganti is from India, Plinke from Germany -- and translates to "peaceful place."
But does minimizing a home's electromagnetic fields with a Faraday cage have any real affect on a human? Does it really make a quieter home? Can it make for a better sleeping environment?
"The basic answer is that we don't understand the effects of electric magnetic fields very well, as far as what they do to biology at what level," says Frank Barnes, a professor of electrical engineering at CU.
Kanniganti and Plinke both have scientific backgrounds, and both understand any evidence of creating a quieter environment with a Faraday cage is anecdotal. But that's fine by them.
They point to the fact the day they moved into the home, Sitha and Roan slept through the night for the first time, and have continued to do so since.
"I feel it when I come back into this house," says Plinke, of returning from travel. "Whenever I come back and sleep here, I wake up in the morning and think, 'That was a good night's sleep.'
"But I'm a scientist, too. It's anecdotal evidence. Who knows what is real and what is not real? It's real to me anyway."
Kanniganti, too, says it's difficult to test how vastly reduced electromagnetic fields in their home may or may not affect the family. At some point, though, it's not about empirical evidence; it's about enjoying the experiment.
"You have to take an evidence-based approach, but even in the lack of evidence, you go for the quality of life," she says. "Beyond that (reducing the electromagnetic fields with a Faraday cage) was really fun."
Contact Mark Collins at 303-473-1369 or BDCTheater@comcast.net.