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.

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MOLD CLEAN-UP AFTER A HURRICANE IS NOT A DIY PROJECT

Hidden mold on underside of sub-floor after a flood

Hidden mold on underside of sub-floor after a flood

http://www.thedoctorstv.com/videolib/init/8286_

The above link provides some good information on the hazards that are inherent to flooded buildings. Good information in the clip includes:
• Chemicals, such as pesticides, gasoline, hydrocarbons, rotted food, and other harmful agents can be transported indoors with flood waters.

• Animal fecal material, carcasses and pathogens are inherent to flood waters.

• Fungi (mold) grow indoors on drywall, wood, and other cellulose contents.

• Mold that grows indoors can make people sick.

• Moldy drywall must be discarded.

The overall message that water damage to buildings is unhealthy was very clear in the news clip. However, due to the shortness of the clip, information was limited. The public should be aware of that many hazards exist after floods. As reported by the World Health Organization (Dampness and Mould, 2009), other harmful agents in water damaged buildings include bacteria, endotoxins and exotoxins from bacteria, mycotoxins from mold, chemicals released from wet building materials, insects, and other contaminants that can be transported indoors with surface and ground water.

The media clip does fall short relative to its discussion about clean-up. The recommendations from the interviewed mold expert do not emphasize that flood clean-up is not a do-it-yourself project. Although the reporter and expert donned protective gear prior to entering a flooded house, the importance of hazard training and medical clearance for using personal protective equipment is not addressed. This could turn into a situation where a little knowledge could be dangerous.

The issue of restoring wood after a flood was misrepresented in the clip. The expert suggested that unless wood was rotted, abrasive cleaning would effectively restore mold contaminated wood after a flood. This is information is not correct. Wood that has been in contact with the flood water is contaminated with the same chemical and biological agents as the drywall that the expert states must be removed. Abrasively cleaning of wood will only address the outer accessible surfaces. Wood has six sides. Ignoring the surfaces that cannot be accessed for cleaning (interface between bottom plates and flooring, stacked studs, etc.) are typically the most contaminated because they remain wet for the longest periods.

The surfaces with trapped contaminants can cause exposure hazards long after restoration and re-build are complete. Contaminants that remain on wood in floor, ceiling, and wall cavities can be liberated with pressure differentials, physical disturbances, and normal living activities. Since people can react to dead mold and other contaminants that remain after a flood, failure to address the “hidden” surfaces could be quite dangerous, especially to people to young children, elderly people, asthmatics, or those that are immune-compromised. Appropriate remediation scopes for damages from catastrophic water losses, such as those caused by Hurricane Sandy, are paramount to preventing future indoor air quality problems.

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

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.

Raising the Bar Promotes Peace of Mind for Remediation Contractors and Homeowners

While attending a certification course for EPA’s new Renovation, Repair, and Painting (RRP) Rule, I tried to empathize with contractors that were outraged that the government would “force them out of business” due to the increased costs associated with requirements for notification, certifications, documentation, and environmental controls that would be mandatory with the RRP, which was enacted April 22, 2010 .  Understandably, the new lead law, which applies to all residential jobs in homes built prior to 1978, raises concerns that certified contractors could not compete with the bids from the “chuck and a truck” one-man contractors that operate under the radar of building inspectors and state regulators.   However, based on the devastating and permanent damage that lead exposure can have on small children and unborn infants, I would have felt much better about the restoration industry if the expressed fears dealt more with being concerned about causing harm.

I am not fully confident that governmental agencies should be regulating professional standards of care.  Over the last ten years, the uninformed attempts that many state governments have made to set standards for mold exposures convinced me that politicians should not be allowed to “spin” scientific data for the purpose of getting votes.    However, if as professionals, we cannot police our industry, some governmental intervention is necessary to raise awareness and protect the public.

I admit that numerous creative suggestions regarding avoidance of the RRP Rule arose during the class.  One contractor suggested that the demolition part of a job for a home built before 1978 would be performed at no costs, while the re-build portion of the proposal would be elevated to cover the “free” demolition.  This would supposedly eliminate the need to comply with the lead rule because the law applies to work performed “for compensation. “   Another attendee suggested that we should ban together as an industry and protest to Washington about too much governmental intervention.   Too bad the same effort was not spent on trying to figure out how to expedite “doing the right thing”.

The bottom line regarding lead or any other hazards that might be present in the homes where contractors perform any type of repair, renovation, restoration, or remediation is that we have a professional obligation “to do no harm.”    Ethically, this mantra should be part of every contractor’s written or implied mission statement.  It is in fact, the number one cannon in the Code of Ethics for most professional indoor air quality associations, including the Indoor Air Quality Organization and American Industrial Hygiene Association.

Doing the right thing provides peace of mind, which is priceless.

Additional Information at

www.epa.gov/lead

www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/tips.

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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