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.

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

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.

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.   

Crawlspaces & Ventilation: 10 Fun Facts & Random Observations

1. Inside the living space of a property, proper ventilation is absolutely crucial to the health, safety, and overall comfort of the occupants inside the home.

2.  Standards and guidelines have been established to specify minimum ventilation rates and other measures intended to provide indoor air quality that is acceptable to human occupants and that minimizes adverse health effects. More info here:  http://eetd.lbl.gov/ie/viaq/v_rates_1.html

3.  Improving the overall air quality inside a property can be achieved by two methods:

•    Exhausting air contaminants from the building
•    Removing contaminants from the air stream using filtration and/or absorption technologies (i.e. HEPA filtration and activated carbon)

Since most residential properties do not have access to proper filtration or absorption technologies, exhaust ventilation is most practical and commonly used.

4. In addition to improper ventilation, excessive or chronic water intrusion into the property, especially the crawlspace, will contribute to the growth of certain microorganisms.  This can lead to mold infestation impacting Indoor Air Quality, and even more destructive structural damage such as wood decay or dry rot.

5. Water intrusion into the crawlspace will often cause damage to flooring systems (i.e. cupping of hardwood floors, grout separation in tile floors, etc.), wood decay, and oxidation or rusting of metal strapping/hardware.

6. Water enters a crawlspace in either liquid or vapor phase by four moisture transfer mechanisms:

•    Liquid water (i.e. plumbing/sewer leaks, high groundwater table, drainage or exterior flooding)
•    Capillary suction or wicking (i.e. moisture being drawn through concrete footing from saturated exterior soils)
•    High moisture laden air (i.e. elevated humidity from atmospheric conditions entering the crawlspace through vents)
•    Vapor diffusion (i.e. moisture in the vapor phase moving through building materials)

7. Most properties are constructed with vents that are intended to remove moisture from the air in a crawlspace by cross-ventilation.   However, the introduction of moist air from outdoors can actually increase the relative humidity in a crawlspace.

8. Due to stack effect and vapor diffusion, which is a very powerful force, moisture in a crawlspace will seek dry areas.  When moist air comes in contact with  a surface that is colder than the  air, condensation will occur.  Condensation can develop on uninsulated plumbing pipes in the crawlspace, on the underside of a sub-floor, or even the attic roof deck.  Interestingly, many houses with exposed wet soil in a crawlspace also have mold and water damage due to condensation on the underside of the roof deck. 

9. If vapor diffusion from the soil, water intrusion from poor drainage, unmitigated plumbing leaks, or infiltration of moist air exist in a crawlspace, one or more of the following is usually observed:

  •   Surface mold growth, structural damage, and health issues
  •   Termite or other pest infiltration
  •   Accumulation of odors  
  •   Termite or other pest infestation

10.  The best way to mitigate crawlspace moisture is to treat the crawlspace as a conditioned space by (1) insulating walls with foam panels, (2) seal the crawlspace floor and walls with heavy gauge polyethylene or vinyl encapsulation system, with the seams sealed tightly at all edges and overlaps, (3) seal the rim joists with two-part closed cell foam.

Creepy Crawlspace: A Major Source of Contamination In 9 out of 10 Homes

What can you expect to find in a typical crawlspace? It has been determined, after reviewing thousands of air samples collected from properties with occupants that suffer from poor indoor air quality, that the source of contamination in 9 out of 10 homes comes from a poorly ventilated crawlspace. Common environmental contaminants found in crawlspaces include mold contamination, radon gas, pathogenic bacteria, fiberglass, pesticides, foul odors, asbestos fibers, raw sewage, and/or rodent excretions. Although some of these contaminants are classified as allergens, some are classified as carcinogens, which is why evaluating these air contaminants is important and significant.

If it’s in your crawlspace, it’s in your home! Studies have shown that approximately 40%-50% of the air inside the home generates from the crawlspace. Contaminated crawlspace air will enter the home through pressurization differentials or a condition known as the “Stacking Effect.” Inside a house, warm air rises (especially in multi-story properties) which then reduces the pressure in the base of the house (i.e. crawlspace or basement). This reduction in pressure then forces cooler air from the crawlspace to infiltrate the home through plumbing and electrical penetrations, through cracks or seams in flooring, and up into wall cavities.

During property inspections, crawlspaces are often the most overlooked and under-inspected areas of a property, yet they continue to be the source of more damage than any other area of the house. Crawlspaces are a major source of indoor air quality (IAQ) problems and should be one of the first places you and/or your IAQ Specialist inspect when trying to determine any suspect indoor air quality issues.

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