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.

DEAD MOLD CAN CAUSE ADVERSE HEALTH EFFECTS

Mold in Wall Cavity Can Enter Living Space

I was recently surprised in several situations where consumers were told that dead mold is okay because it does not cause adverse health symptoms.  The fact that dead mold, toxins, and mold by-products can cause adverse symptoms is not a new concept.  It was certainly included in all of the beginner mold training classes that I attended more than fifteen years ago.  Also, in 2001, EPA published information on the adverse health symptoms that can be caused by dead mold (Mold Remediation in Schools and Commercial Buildings).

Overhearing this kind of information relayed to a customer at “big box” store where the associate told a consumer that killing mold with a certain product was all that was needed to remediate a moldy attic caused me cringe.  Listening to a remediator argue this point with a homeowner who was sick after a botched remediation job made my blood boil.  Consumers look to professionals to guide them.  Mis-information is not only unethical, it can cause serious health problems.

Allergic type reactions from dead mold, mold spores, fragments of molds, and mold metabolites (toxins, volatile organic compounds) has been widely accepted in the medical field for decades.  Some of the health effects from mold, whether it is dead or alive, include:

  • Irritant reactions, such as itchy eyes, sore throats, and rashes
  • Suppression of the immune system
  • Inflammatory responses that affect the liver, kidneys, and other organs
  • Multiple chemical sensitivities
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Brain fog

The ability for dead mold, mold fragments, and mold metabolites to cause adverse health symptoms is one of the primary reasons that mold remediation standards of care from EPA, OSHA, the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning, and Restoration Certification require containment barriers, engineer controls, and HEPA vacuuming when moldy building materials are disturbed.

MOLD TEST KITS: Why You Should Not Do-It-Yourself

Using a “do-it-yourself” (DIY) mold test kit to evaluate whether a home has a mold problem makes about as much sense as replacing an annual doctor exam with using a thermometer to take your temperature.  Just as a person could be very ill while maintaining a normal temperature, a home could have a serious mold problem, even though a DIY test was negative.

Designing, executing, and understanding a comprehensive indoor mold assessment is difficult enough for professional mold consultants.  The best ones understand that building dynamics, hidden mold, historical damage, sampling techniques, analytical methods, and many other factors can influence the accuracy and effectiveness of diagnosing indoor mold problems.

Unlike chemical testing, no dose response curves have been developed for mold exposure.  Therefore, sample results will often raise more questions than answers.  Mold spores are always present in indoor environments. They enter buildings through doors and windows, and usually are not a problem unless they have suitable nutrients for growth.  All building materials can support mold growth IF sufficient moisture is present.  Moisture can come from leaks, floods, or excess humidity.

When sufficient moisture is present, certain molds that are usually minor constituents of outdoor air grow disproportionately to predominant outdoor molds that grow on decayed vegetation.  The molds that grow indoors on wet drywall, wood, and other cellulose materials are most frequently in the genera, Aspergillus, Penicillium, Stachybotrys, and Chaetomium.  These molds can present health problems when they grow indoors.  In addition to allergic reactions, triggering of asthma, and infections, many molds that grow indoors produce secondary metabolites, such as toxins.   The tightness of indoor environments can promote exposures and adverse health to occupants of water damaged buildings.

The single best tool in a mold assessment, whether it is performed by a professional or a do-it-yourselfer, is a detailed visual inspection.  The simplest inspection involves observations of mold growth after a water damage event.  If you see it, yes it is there, and must be addressed to prevent air quality problems.  More involved inspection that require professionals are those in which prior unmitigated water damage has been concealed or construction defects result in hidden water damage in ceiling, wall, or floor cavities.

For the do-it-yourself mold tester, the best that can be expected from a home test kit is to identify the type of mold is visibly growing on a surface.  However, if it is growing, the source of moisture must be corrected and the mold must be removed under controlled conditions.  Since remediation procedures are not dictated by the type of, testing is usually a waste of money.  If the area of growth is small and a low likelihood exists for hidden mold, addressing the mold according to EPA guidelines found in A Brief Guide to Moisture, Mold and Your Home (epa.gov) is sufficient.  If the mold covers a large area or hidden mold is suspected, a professional remediator is usually required to avoid hazardous exposures and cross-contamination to unaffected areas.

The worst outcome from a do-it-yourself mold test kit is that negative results will give a false sense of security when in fact hidden mold problems do exist.   False negative are common in culture plate kits (petri dishes) that instruct the user to place the open plate in a room for a specified period of time to collect mold that settles from the air.  The lab reports for settling plates might list several types of mold that grew the petri dish.  However, the data is usually inconclusive at best.  One problem with “settling plate” is that all molds do not settle at the ratio in which they are found in the air.  Therefore, many species can go undetected.  Another issue is that the actual concentrations of mold spores per volume of air cannot be calculated because the sampling method cannot quantify the amount of air to which the culture plate is exposed.  Additionally, the methodology does not address whether the molds entered from outdoors or were from areas of actual indoor mold sources.

Another type of test that might be recommended for the culture plates is to tape the open culture plate to a supply register to allow the air from an operating HVAC system to impact the plate for a specified time.  Unfortunately air exiting from the airducts does not necessarily represent air within the home because the air that passes through a filter before impacting the culture plate.  Additionally, the likelihood that contaminants would actually be released from an area of growth, enter the air stream, be sucked into the return ducts, pass through the filter, and ultimately end up on the culture plate is very low. 

Swab type test kits are commonly available for DIYers.  Directions generally instruct the user to wipe the swab over a small area (usually 1 sq. inch) of suspect mold growth.   The resultant lab report might list several molds that were found in the swab sample, but this method cannot differentiate between settled spores and what might have actually been growing on the surface.   In either case, the results should not be mistaken to represent the moldiness of the whole house.

Still another type of surface sample that can be found in home mold test kits is a tape lift sample, which involves using clear cellophane tape to “lift” suspect mold from a surface.  This type of sample can be useful in identifying not only the type of mold that is present on a surface, but can also differentiate between actual mold growth and spores that settled from the air.   But the sample would be representative of the tested area only and would not provide information on the overall mold conditions in the indoor environment.

Mold testing can be a useful tool in the hands of a knowledgeable investigator that designs a sampling plan to address a question that cannot otherwise be answered.  Unfortunately, even within the mold assessment and remediation industries, few investigators understand the principles of microbiology, building science, engineering, and scientific methods that are required to conduct a meaningful mold investigation.  With so many variables and limitations in mold testing and analytical methods, “do-it-yourself” mold test kits are generally a waste of time and money.

HOW TO IDENTIFY HIDDEN MOLD, CHEMICALS, AND OTHER IAQ PROBLEMS BEFORE RENTING

Buying or renting an apartment, office or condominium in a multistory building presents challenges beyond the structural and indoor air quality issues that are anticipated when purchasing a single family dwelling. Most prospective home buyers understand the importance of hiring an independent third party home inspector before the purchase of a house. If a buyer has previously experienced illnesses associated with mold, bacteria, and other contaminants in water damaged buildings (WBD’s), a mold assessment is often requested in addition to the home inspection and seller’s disclosure statement. Although the same types of due diligence can be requested for multi-story apartments and condominiums, numerous complexities associated with these multi-family dwellings diminish the likelihood of gathering accurate information.

Identifying issues that could negatively impact indoor air quality can be especially troublesome in rental properties due to policies, practices, and procedures that hinder accountability. Some of these inherent issues include frequent tenant turnover, less stringent disclosure requirements, tenant abuse, poor maintenance, low quality building materials, property management by outside contractors, bylaws of home owners associations, and delayed or unreported damages. Thoroughness and persistence are required prior to signing a rental agreement. Potential health hazards include mold, pesticides, animal and pest allergens, lead, and asbestos, as well as volatile organic compounds from paint cleaning products, carpeting, and building materials.

How to Spot Telltale Signs of Concealed Damage

1. Specific Unit Inspection: Many rental properties can be removed from a list of potentials during an initial walkthrough. Of course this requires that a prospective renter see the actual that he/she would rent. Many property owners have “models” that can be initially viewed, but available rentals cannot be inspected until current tenants move and repairs are completed. A lease should not be signed until the renter (and his/her inspector if desired) approves the unit to be occupied.
2. Uneven Paint: Cracks in drywall seams, different shades of paint, blistered paint, or bumpy textures, especially in the lower corners of

Cracked paint in upper corner of exterior wall signifies water damage and hidden mold

exterior walls, under upper unit bathrooms and kitchens, at the lower corners of windows, and along the lower walls outside of bathtubs and showers, should raise red flags about insufficient water damage repairs, with the likelihood of underlying mold and bacteria contamination.
3. Under Sinks and Vanities: Water stains, visible mold growth, delaminated bases in cabinets, drip stains on walls, and musty type odors are indicative of historical water damage, with the possibility of hidden damage to the flooring below the cabinets, as well as in the wall cavity behind the cabinets. New cabinet bases under sinks can also signify that the base was severely damaged and the floor might remain damaged.
4. Peeling or Uneven Paint in Ceilings above Kitchens or Bathrooms: Uneven paint might represent repair from a toilet overflow or leak, pipe break, insufficient caulking, or other condition that caused top-down water intrusion from an upper unit. Since water from a bathroom can be especially contaminated, extra care should be taken to inspect the ceiling. A flashlight shined at an angle will often reveal the damage. If the drywall appears to have been replaced, documentation should be requested to confirm that joists, subflooring, and other damaged structural members were also appropriately remediated.

Hidden mold behind new baseboard molding

5. New Baseboard Moldings in Bathrooms, Laundry Rooms, and Kitchens: Installation of new vinyl, composite, or wood baseboard moldings is a common practice to cover up the lower edges of walls that were previously affected by a flood, persistent leak, or chronic water damage. When new baseboards are present, check for signs of uneven paint above the baseboards that might indicate that paint was applied over water damaged drywall.
6. Stains under Vinyl Flooring around a Toilet, Tub, or Sink: Chronic water seepage under vinyl flooring will often show up as a slightly darker plume around the source. The stain is usually apparent from the topside, but top surface of the vinyl is not usually altered.
7. Damage to Window Sills or Along the Lower Edges of Doorwalls and Windows: Drywall and wood around doorwalls and windows that have been repeatedly or chronically wet will typically display signs of damage, such as cracks, blistered paint, bumpy or uneven surfaces, and crumbling or weakened drywall. The underlying structures and backsides of drywall are likely to be contaminated if such conditions exist.

Mold on drywall around furnace was caused by leaking condensate drain pan

8. Damage around the Furnace: In most multistory apartments and condominiums, the furnaces are located in closets within the apartment or in a closet area on a balcony or patio. Check for signs of leaks from units above, as well as on and around the furnace, which is often on a wood platform with attached drywall. Damage is frequently caused by leaks from the condensate drain pan, which can get plugged with particulates. Drip stains and rust can often be seen on metal along the outside of a furnace that has not been properly maintained.
9. Rust on Vents and Registers: Excess moisture on vents and registers can be caused by condensation in the indoor environment and/or excess moisture the HVAC system.
10. Chemical Type Odors: New carpeting odors should not be detectable after a few weeks if proper ventilation is provided. If odors are present, find out when the carpeting was installed and request information from the manufacturers’ of the carpet, pad and glue. If no new carpet has been installed, ask about cleaning solutions and type of paint. The MSDS (material safety data sheets and manufacturers’ specification sheets should be made available.

Questions to Ask

  • Request the service and repair logs for the specific unit, as well as the unit above.
  • What is the policy for reporting and repairing water damage? Are procedures in place for handling mold after the source of water is repaired? Who removes mold if found?
  • How are emergency situations reported after offices are closed?
  • Does the property owner’s insurance policy cover personal injuries associated with water damage and mold?
  • Does the property owner or his insurance cover contents that are damaged by water? If so, what is covered, and what are the coverage limits. The answer is likely to be no. Renters should have insurance to cover contents.
  • What types of pesticides are applied? How are tenants notified of pending application? Who does the application? If the building was built prior to 1975, have lead and asbestos surveys been performed. If so, ask to see reports. If not done, and the building is old, the property should not be considered for rental.
  • What is the policy for inspection of the HVAC system and for filter changes?

“Sufficient epidemiological evidence is available from studies conducted in different countries and under different climatic conditions to show that the occupants of damp or mouldy buildings, both houses and public buildings, are at increased risk of respiratory symptoms, respiratory infections and exacerbation of asthma. Some evidence suggests increased risks of allergic rhinitis and asthma. Although few intervention studies are available, their results show that remediation of dampness problems can reduce adverse health outcomes.”

Dampness and Mould, World Health Organization, 2009, section 5.1

http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0017/43325/E92645.pdf

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
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