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.

From Our Video Archives: Sanit-Air Featured On PBS “The Business Page” Television Program

The nationally recognized Public Broadcasting System affiliate in Detroit, WTVS Channel 56, produced and aired a wonderful local business program titled “The Business Page.” Sanit-Air and our team of environmental IAQ experts and technicians had the distinct pleasure of an extensive feature on “The Business Page.”

Producer Mike Echols narrates this business feature that serves as a nice introduction to the basic understanding of the workings of Sanit-Air and the foundation for our CleaniNEST™ brand and consumer crusade. We hope you find “The Business Page” feature on Sanit-Air informative.

Can This, Not That: How To Preserve Contents After Mold Infestation

There are no simple answers to questions that arise regarding saving personal belongings and furniture after an indoor environment is contaminated with mold.  Generally, from an insurance perspective, only items that are directly impacted by water from a covered water loss are covered for cleaning or replacement.  However, contents that are impacted by spores, mold fragments, mold toxins, and volatile organic compounds that are liberated from areas of actual mold growth must be addressed to prevent cross-contamination when moved to a new environment or returned after a structure is remediated.   Decisions on restorable must be made on a case by case basis, and are dependent on numerous factors, including:

  • The severity of the airborne contamination
  • The effectiveness of capture and containment methods if contents are present during structural remediation
  • The length of time in which the contents were exposed
  • The origin of the water loss, clean water versus sewage or other contaminated water source
  • Humidity control
  • The sensitivity or susceptibility of occupants

The primary objective of remediation, whether for structure or contents, should be protection of health. Financial practicality might be considered for low level contamination, but should not be a major criterion for immune-compromised or other sensitized individuals.  Compared to the devastating emotional and health consequences that many people experience with repeated exposure to contaminated contents, financial concerns are inconsequential.

Some people are unable to salvage any items from a contaminated home, while some individuals experience no adverse health symptoms if all items are saved.  For the majority of the population, a combination of cleaning and discarding proves to be effective.

The following guidelines are designed to address content restoration for healthy individuals in homes with low to moderate contamination.

CONTENT DECISION MAKING

 A.  Separate contents according to porosity.

    1. Hard surfaced items, such as metal, plastic, sealed wood, and glass.
    2. Semi-porous items, such as unsealed wood, stone, leather.
    3. Porous items, such as cardboard, paper, fabric, and canvas.
    4. Items to Discard
      1. Items that display visible growth
      2. Porous padded items, such as pillows, upholstered furniture that are exposed to a highly contaminated environment or exposed for extended time
      3. Mattresses that are exposed to a highly contaminated environment or exposed for extended time
      4. Books, paper, and stuffed animals that are exposed to a highly contaminated environment or exposed for extended time

B.  Porous, padded items with short exposure to low concentrations of mold

  1. Agitate books, papers, photos, etc. over the inlet of a HEPA-filtered air scrubber.  HEPA-vacuum.
  2. Porous padded items, HEPA-vacuum, agitate/compress, HEPA-vacuum again.

C.   Hard Surfaced Items

  1.   Clean by HEPA-vacuuming and damp-wiping
  2. Use compressed air to clean cracks and crevices
  3. Submerse glass, dishes, pots, pans, or clean in dishwasher

D.  Clothing

  1. Launder washable item with detergent, dry in dryer
  2. Select several representative items (fluffy sweater, wool coat, silk blouse) for dry-cleaning.  Select a dry cleaner that uses special procedures for mold-contaminated items.  The procedures should include filtering of the fluid to remove mold spores.  Once cleaned, items are to be tested using both direct exam and culturable dust sample method.  Test results should demonstrate that target fungi, such as Penicillium, Chaetomium, Aspergillus, and Stachybotrys, are not present. 

E.  Appliances

  1. Items with insulation are not likely salvageable if exposed to high concentrations of mold or if exposed for a long period.   If exposure was short and concentrations were low, the items should be professional cleaned by disassembly, using a combination of compressed air, HEPA-vacuuming and damp-wiping.
  2. Items without insulation should be disassembled and cleaned using compressed air, HEPA-vacuuming and damp-wiping.

F.  Art Work

  1. Remove craft paper backing and discard
  2. Clean by positioning the painting of the inlet of a HEPA-filtered air scrubber.  Starting at the top of the painting, use an art brush to systematically brush toward the bottom.  Repeat with a clean brush.  HEPA-vacuum and damp-wipe the frame.

Making decisions to discard items with high intrinsic or monetary value, such as antiques, memorabilia, and photographs, can be especially troubling when someone is already dealing with the health, emotional, or financial consequences from a mold infestation.  When possible, questionable items should be stored in sealable containers so that decisions can be made at a time when health and stress levels have improved.   

Science of Spring Cleaning Tip: Clearing The Air On Ionizers

Air ionizers do not get rid of particulate matter. They change the location of the particulate by charging the particles, which then attach to oppositely charged objects such as walls, ceilings, floors, computers, and tables.  Particles may become airborne again as cleaning begins.

They “Mite” Be Giants: 6 Helpful Tips To Do Battle With Dust Mite Allergies

Studies have shown that the dust mite lives in areas in our home that are moist and warm. Forty thousand dust mites account for one ounce of mattress dust. They descend on our bedding because when we sleep our bodies shed skin, this skin is nourishment to the dust mite. Dust Mites are not necessarily harmful, unless you are allergic to them. Symptoms for allergic reaction would be runny nose, itchy eyes, asthma, or a rash. If you are allergic to dust mites then you should follow these steps.

Step 1: Survey your home and interior and note areas where dust mites hide, bedding, cloth sofa, drapes, carpets. Determine if your budget will permit you to replace these soft surface items to hard surface items such as wood blinds, leather sofa, and wood or tile floors. Prioritize the rooms in your home by the time that you spend in each room,the bedroom would be the first room that would have a makeover, TV room second, kitchen, dining room and such would follow on the list.

Step 2: Cover the mattress, box springs and pillows with allergen protective covers. These protective covers prevent the dust mite from penetrating and hiding in your bedding. Wash bed linens and comforter once a week to remove dust mites from fabric.

Step 3: Depending on the severity of your dust mite allergies you may want to cover your floors with a thin textured fiber carpet and invest in a Hepa filter vacuum that removes mold, pet dander and dust mite allergens. All fiber floor coverings will need to be steamed cleaned once a month to remove the dust mites that hide in the fibers. If you suffer from severe allergic reaction to dust mite you need to remove the fiber floor coverings and replace with a hard surface.

Step 4: Remove fiber window coverings and replace with a hard surface blind or shutter. Replace your upholstered furniture with leather or vinyl. Leather is more durable and the dust mites will have no place to hide. If leather is not in your budget, invest in a vacuum with allergen filter and vacuum your upholstered furniture twice a week. For severe allergies steam clean the upholstered furniture seasonally.

Step 5: Cover your nose and mouth with a ventilator mask before you dust your home. Remove the dust from your hard surfaces with a dust and allergen product. Use it on your wood furniture, cabinets and other hard surfaces. By using a product that is effective in controlling dust mites, you will be preventing a dust build up and thus reducing an allergic reaction.

Step 6: Replace your air duct filters with allergen protective filters. Change air filters four times a year or as recommended. Remove dust and other air borne irritants with an air purifier. Place the air purifier in the bedroom and an additional unit in the living area of your home.

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