RENTERS BEWARE: APARTMENT HVAC CLOSETS CAN BE SOURCES OF MOLD AND DEGRADED IAQ

Furnace on water damaged OSB platform.  The return plenum is located beneath the platform.

Furnace on water damaged OSB platform. The return plenum is located beneath the platform.

A common practice in multi-story apartment and condominium complexes is to house the furnaces in closets that are located on the patio or balcony for each unit. The closets are aligned vertically in each building. Although the orientation is convenient for plumbing access, numerous water damage issues are inherent to this type of HVAC set-up.
Water damage from plugged condensate drain tubes or malfunctioning condensate drain pans is common. Slimy biological growth in PVC tubing and drain pans pan causes overflows. Current or historical overflows from the pans will appear on the sheet metal plenum under the A-coil. Drips and mold growth from malfunctioning units above a closet are commonly apparent as drip stains or growth on the ceiling and walls of the closet.
Water damage caused by freezing and thawing of the AC coils is common in apartment HVAC systems. Filter changes are often left in the hands of uninformed tenants. Plugged filters prevent sufficient air flow to the coil, causing it to freeze. As the coil warms up, the ice thaws, releasing large amounts of water into the return plenum, floor system of the apartment, furnace platform, or furnace closet below the damaged unit.
Another issue associated with stacked HVAC closets is the installation of the furnace on a platform, which is commonly constructed from plywood, drywall, or oriented strand board. When wet, all of these materials support the growth of mold and bacteria, which can produce various toxins. Additionally, the glues and resins in these materials can be liberated when wet.

Ceiling of furnace closet showing water entered from HVAC  closet above.

Ceiling of furnace closet showing water entered from HVAC closet above.

The return plenum in furnace closet systems is located beneath the platform, with the underside of the platform being the top of the plenum, a concrete slab serving as the bottom, and the walls of the platform forming the sides of the plenum. In addition to being difficult to clean, a water damaged common plenum provides both a contaminant source and transport pathway.  Dust mites, insects and their fecal material, garbage, cigarette butts, contaminated chunks of paper, and rodent feces are just a few of the treasures that have been recovered from plenums under furnace platforms.
When damage does occur, the underlying cause of water must be corrected. This involves replacing plugged drain tubing, cleaning drip pans, cleaning coils, and changing filters. For consistency, preventive measures in the form of routine inspections and HVAC maintenance should be the responsibility of the management company or maintenance staff.
Addressing the consequences of the water damage, whether it manifests as biological growth or deteriorated building materials, is imperative to appropriate HVAC hygiene and good indoor air quality. Contaminants on water damaged plywood, OSB, and drywall in the furnace closet and on the furnace platform can cause adverse health effects, whether the growth is active or historical. Once dried, mold and bacteria engage in survival mechanisms that can include toxin production and increased sporulation. When dry, the contaminants are easily liberated into the airstream.  Mold remediation is required when building materials in furnace closets become contaminated. The remediation involves two components (1) removal of the mold or contaminated building material and (2) addressing spores that are released from areas of actual growth. Engineering controls, containment barriers, HEPA filtered air filtration devices, personal protective equipment, HEPA vacuuming, and damp-wiping are all essential for safe and effective remediation in water damaged furnace closets.

Return grille located inside of the apartment behind the furnace platform.  Stains show repeated wetting fo tack strip.

Return grille located inside of the apartment behind the furnace platform. Stains show repeated wetting fo tack strip.

BASEMENT FLOODS: Primary Damage and Secondary Mold Growth

Flooding of basement, whether the water travels through foundation walls, is caused by a broken pipe, or backs up from a drain, requires immediate action to prevent exposure hazards from mold, bacteria, chemicals, pesticides, and other contaminants. Just as families should prepare and rehearse plans for addressing fires, pre-emergency preparedness is essential to safeguarding health and property values after flood events.
Flood Preparedness
I. Identify the source of water. This is important for several reasons:
• The severity and types of contaminants in flood situations are defined by the origin of the water. For example, if the flood water has fecal material, toilet paper, etc. that are indicative of a sewage back-up, the water has the potential to cause significant harm to exposed individuals. In addition to mold, bacteria, toxins, and human pathogens, sewage water can be contaminated with viruses, chemicals, and pesticides.
• The origin of the water can define whether or not insurance coverage is available. Many homeowner insurance policies include riders for sump pump failures and drain back-ups. Homeowners should be aware that the coverage is not always mentioned by the agent. The cost is typically less than $100 per year, but most consumers don’t know that it is not included in the general policy. Additionally, most insurance policies do not cover damages associated with ground water intrusion that enters through foundation walls or basement windows.
• The origin of the water could determine if liability is to a municipality for negligence, such as insufficient maintenance of storm drains or pumping stations, can be demonstrated.
• The origin of the water can assist in developing an appropriate remediation scope. If flooding is from ground water or sewage, high velocity fans should not be utilized for drying until decontamination is completed. The fans can blow contaminants from affected to non-affected areas. If the water originates from a clean water source, such as broken supply line for a washing machine, high velocity air movers and dehumidifiers should be employed as soon as possible. If surfaces are dried within 24 – 48 hours, mold will not likely grow.
II. When to call your insurance company
In most cases, the insurance company should be called sooner than later. Delaying notification could cause denial of claims or delays in appropriate structural drying, which could promote mold growth that might not be covered by an insurance policy.
Homeowners should know in advance what types of water losses are covered by their insurance carrier. Knowing what the deductible and other out of pocket expenses are for a claim , as well as understanding whether additional riders are needed for mold, drain back-ups, and sump pump failures, is imperative to making wise financial and risk assessment decisions. Also, knowledge of what is and is not covered will assist in decision making regarding whether making a claim is advisable, as making claims that are not covered might compromise the insurability of a home or could cause rate increases.
III. When to call in professionals
The answer to this question depends on the origin and severity of water damage, as well as the type of building materials that are affected by water. If sewage, ground water, or storm water affects large or inaccessible areas, gets into a furnace, reaches depths that require wading through raw sewage – call a professional.
If storm, sewage, or ground water does not recede within a few hours – call a professional.
If porous cellulose building materials such as drywall, plywood, insulation, and carpeting is affected – call in a professional. Scrutinize contractors in advance and call immediately.
Since insurance companies usually require that homeowners take action to mitigate losses, having on hand the phone numbers of pre-vetted restoration contractors can save time and money. After major storms, contractors get booked up quickly. If possible, do not rely on your insurance company to pick the contractor. Choose your own independent third party that has a good reputation and appropriate certifications in water damage restoration. Information on certification can be accessed at IICRC.org.
IV. Quick responses
If water recedes to the extent that electrical and biological hazards are not imminent, healthy homeowners can don protective clothing and take action to protect their belongings and the indoor environment. With appropriate precautions, drains should be verified to be open, pumps should be used to remove standing water, and dehumidifies are to be put into operation. Removal of non-restorable contents reduces indoor contamination and minimizes secondary damage from high relative humidity.
Items to be discarded include affected papers, cardboard, books, stuffed animals, stuffed furniture and other non-restorable items immediately. Disposal should be documented with photos and lists, or items should be placed in receptacles until they are documented.
Wet carpeting should be removed as soon as possible. All wet items should be bagged or wrapped in heavy gauge polyethylene. Transport items only after they are bagged or wrapped. If possible, discard through a basement window or door to minimize cross-contamination to living spaces. Be mindful that contaminants are present, and healthy individuals with no history of breathing disorders are the only candidates for self-remediation. Protective water resistant overalls, gloves, rubber boots, and P100 respirators should be worn.
V. Habitability
If occupants experience adverse health symptoms such as headaches, itchy eyes, sore throats, congestion, gastrointestinal disorders, dizziness, or other flu-like symptoms, the home should not be occupied until decontamination is complete and verified by an independent third party consultant. Infants, elderly people, diabetics, people on immune-suppressive drugs, respiratory illnesses, or heart conditions should be removed from the home until decontamination is complete and verified. A physician should be contacted if symptoms develop after exposure.
VI. Independent third party consultant
If a homeowner suspects litigation, confrontation with the insurance company, or serious health issues, it is strongly advised that an independent third party mold and water damage consultant be hired to assess damages and develop an appropriate remediation scope. It is a good idea to have names and numbers of vetted consultants available in advance.

The Shortcomings of Shortcutting A Mold Remediation Project

My mom’s words of wisdom, “Any job worth doing is worth doing right,” never rang

Contaminated drywall must be removed under controlled conditions.

truer than in situations where partial remediation is viewed as being better than no remediation.  Contrary to this misconception, no remediation is better than substandard remediation.  Case in point – a family inherits a home that has been unoccupied for an extended period, and had not maintained for more than ten years.  Water intrusion into the basement and attic caused mold growth to building materials that were in contact with water.  Sustained high humidity resulted in secondary mold growth due to condensation on interior drywall.  Testing revealed concentrations of Penicillium and Aspergillus in the range of 80,000 to 100,000 counts per cubic meter of air.  Outdoor concentrations of spores in these genera were less than 1,000 c/m3.  Toxigenic mold species, such as Stachybotrys chartarum, were also identified.

In the throes of financial difficulties versus living rent-free, the family made a decision to move into the contaminated home and perform remediation in a piecemeal fashion.  They believed that small efforts to remove mold would cumulatively achieve the desired end product of good indoor air quality.  However good their intentions might have been, the reasoning was flawed.  Unlike cosmetic or structural renovation projects, mold remediation cannot safely be performed “a little bit at a time”.  Effective remediation requires removal of mold contamination along with addressing spores that are liberated from areas of actual mold growth.

Attempting to live in a contaminated home while performing remediation one step at a time is similar to paying minimum monthly payments on a high interest rate credit card.  There is no light at the end of the tunnel, and the problem compounds over time.  If one area is effectively remediated, yet contamination remains in other locations, re-contamination to the cleaned area will occur.  Additionally, with ongoing exposures, individuals become sensitized and progressively react to  lower concentrations of mold.

Mold Remediation: Standards of Care are More Important than Regulatory Requirements

Painting over mold is not appropriate remediation

“Since mold is not a regulated contaminant, contractors have the freedom to create their own methods and products to treat or remediate mold – Right”?  This argument, which is often disguised as a question) is frequently touted by inexperienced, ignorant, or unethical mold remediators and remediation wannabe’s.  In asking such a question, they are supposedly seeking my professional opinion.  However, the questioner becomes argumentative when my answer does not agree with the desired response. 

Interestingly, individuals asking this question seldom sustain successful businesses, and often become defendants in negligence lawsuits.  Napoleon Hill in Think and Grow Rich teaches that successful people do not reveal what they hope to hear when asking questions.  Instead, successful people are those that seek truth, have vision, and refuse to accept failure.  Successful mold remediators are those that choose to align themselves with masterminds within industry, professionals that not only provide great services, but work to promote ethics and knowledge.    Ethical contractors seek out the most discerning industrial hygienists for pre and post remediation assessment, and they also insist upon doing a job the right way (source removal and detailed cleaning) regardless of who pays the bill.

State licensing for mold remediation contractors will not halt charlatans who use fear tactics to sell quick (but inappropriate) fixes.   The building industry is an excellent example of how licensing fails the consumer.  Poor construction practices are a primary cause of mold problems in residential and commercial buildings.  Unfortunately, licensed contractors that cause mold problems due to substandard building practices receive little more than a slap on the wrist from the state licensing departments.   

Excellence in the mold remediation industry is achieved by:

  • Hard work, both in job performance and promotion of ethical practices within the industry
  • Consumer education
  • Training
  • Alliances, both within the remediation industry and with sister industries, such as builders, HVAC professionals, engineers, architects, and the medical community
  • Accountability in the form of policing within professional organizations in the indoor air quality industry

DAMMED ICE: MARCH IS TIME TO CHECK THE ATTIC FOR MOLD AND WATER DAMAGE

Dammed Ice

In winter months, they can be spotted throughout the northern regions of the United States.  At first they might seem harmless.  Some even sparkle as the winter sun reflects from the stalactite-like structures.  They are ice dams, and these giant icicles are surefire predictors of damned indoor air quality.

Ice dams are caused when the temperature on the upper part of a roof is warmer than on the lower edges.   The melting snow freezes at the colder lower edges, creating dams in the eaves troughs (gutters).  Problems start when the dammed ice begins to melt, and water backs up under shingles, seeking the paths of least resistance.

Water that backs up under shingles and runs into the attic, insulation, walls, and ceilings often remains undetected.  However, hidden within the wet cavities are feeding frenzies for mold and other nasty microorganisms.  Sustained  moisture causes structural damage, odors, and biological growth.       

Consequences of Dammed Ice  In most regions of the US, ice dams melt before March, and signs of  water damage begin to appear.  Some indicators of water damage from ice damming include:

•             Curling and cupping of shingles

•             Stains on ceilings and walls

•             Stains on the underside of a roof deck

•             Mold growth on wood structures in the attic

Drip stains on the topside of insulation and drywall ceiling

•             Drip stains on insulation in the attic

•             Oxidized nails on the underside of a roof deck

•             Musty or mold type odors

 If signs of damage from ice damming are discovered, a qualified professional should be called upon to evaluate structural damage, assess mold growth,  and develop a safe remediation plan.   A qualified consultant will not only provide recommendations for addressing visible mold and water damage, but will also identify areas that should be evaluated for hidden damage. To prevent cross-contamination during invasive investigations into suspect cavities, personal protection, HEPA-filtration, and partition barriers should be used.   An ounce of prevention is priceless when hidden mold contamination is found, especially in a home with immune compromised individuals.

  Remediation

Effective remediation involves two components: (1) removal of the mold and (2) addressing spores in the air and on surfaces.  Removal of attic mold caused by ice damming typically requires removal of the affected roof decking, as the growth is not limited to visible surfaces.  Trusses, joists, and other wood roof members can usually be cleaned using some type of abrasive cleaning.  One of the best abrasive cleaning methods for attics is dry ice blasting.  This method is not only less labor intensive than sanding or scrubbing, it is more effective because the dry ice freezes the surface of the moldy substrate.  Dry ice blasting also facilitates cleaning of crevices and hard to reach areas.  As with all mold remediation, appropriate containment measures, personal protection, and engineering controls must be employed.

  Remediation after ice damming generally requires removal of the attic insulation.  Insulation that is directly impacted by water loses its efficiency.   Insulation in proximityof mold growth must be removed because of cross-contamination.  Aerosolizing of mold spores, fragments and other propagules that settle onto insulation can cause adverse health effects.  After insulation is removed from an attic, surfaces must be cleaned to remove particulate debris and settled spores.

Removal of attic insulation also allows for a thorough inspection of the topsides of drywall ceilings.  Assessment of staining patterns can provide clues about areas of potential hidden water intrusion into wall cavities.  Drywall with visible mold growth on the topside of ceilings must be removed under appropriate containment.

 Appropriate mold remediation after ice damming is necessary to protect the air quality within an indoor environment and prevent structural damage.  Re-construction after remediation must be executed in a manner to correct the conditions that caused ice damming in the first place.  The most common approaches to preventing dammed ice involve installation of appropriate insulation, ventilation and vapor barriers.  Roofing contractors should provide warranties and be held accountable for these issues.

Mold and ice crystals on the underside of a roof deck

Featured In October Women’s Health: “Beat Bad Air Days”

Women's Health | October 2010

Women's Health | October 2010

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! It’s finally on news stands! We’re featured in the October issue of Women’s Health Magazine. The article, “Beat Bad Air Days”  begins on page 76. The article covers indoor air quality and I have the last word which can be found on page 79.

Connie Morbach To Be Featured In October “Women’s Health” Magazine!

Women's Health | July/August CoverI’m elated to announce I will be featured in the October issue of the nationally published “Women’s Health” magazine. I had the opportunity to speak with Women’s Health writer Kate Bowers giving my views on the importance of indoor air quality: what are the risks of household pollutants and what can people do to improve indoor air quality and more.

I’m excited to declare the CleanliNEST™ Crusade is picking up national steam. Here’s to everyone breathing easier!

Take a moment to check out the free iPhone and iPod Workout App from Women’s Health at the link below. Nice workout tool at an even nicer price!

Click here for the Women’s Health Workout Lite App

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