Being in the mold business, especially after Hurricane Sandy, we get an awful lot of calls from people concerned about mold in their crawlspace.
Mold growth in your home, even in the crawlspace, attic or other non-living space, is less than ideal. It can cause or aggravate a whole variety of illnesses, and stop a real estate transaction in its tracks.
It doesn’t take a flood, or water intrusion, to create a mold problem in a crawlspace. In fact, in most North American climates, they will all end up with an issue at some point because they are inherently flawed. The consensus among building scientists is that crawlspaces should be outlawed. They are considered a building defect in these circles.
Why? You might notice that there are vents in the foundation around the perimeter of your house. The old school thinking was that this would allow ventilation, so as to prevent an accumulation of dampness, thus preventing a potential mold/moisture problem. At first glance, that seems logical, until one understands the way humidity is affected by temperature. This is a rather dry subject, no pun intended, so I’ll do my best to get us through it without sounding like a tenth-grade science teacher.
Think of air as a sponge. Warm air is able to hold more moisture than cold air. When the temperature drops, it’s a bit like squeezing the sponge. If the sponge is already very wet, water will come out of it, right? So when we have warm, moist air, and the temperature drops, you will find water droplets appearing on cool surfaces. That’s condensation. Think about when it’s 90F outside and 90% relative humidity (RH), and the sun goes down. As the air cools, dew appears on the grass.
This is exactly what happens in a crawlspace during the warmer humid months. Warm moist air goes through the foundation vents into your crawlspace – a cool, dark place – and the humidity condenses into little water droplets, just like dew, all over the floor joists, insulation and debris, creating a perfect opportunity for stuff to grow. And it’s not just mold. This is an ideal place for all sorts of uninvited guests to get together and have a good time at your expense. It’s like a pool party in your crawlspace and everyone’s attending – bacteria, insects, rodents, you name it. Great fun.
If the conditions are right, mold can begin to grow very quickly – in a matter of days. And once it begins to grow, it doesn’t go away. It will patiently wait for more moisture, and when it returns, the growth is exponential. One spore becomes a thousand becomes a million…
There’s also a misconception that a mold problem in a crawlspace isn’t a big deal since it’s so common, and also since it’s not in the house, so exposure is minimal. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s estimated that 95% of homes with crawlspaces have ductwork running through them. All ducts leak, and return ducts leak inward, sucking air from the crawlspace into the ducts, and then redistributing whatever is picked up through the supply vents, into the home. This is also true for basements. There’s something else called stack effect, which I won’t go into, but for these two reasons, some studies show that as much as 75% of indoor air is derived from these moisture-prone spaces, especially in the winter months when we rarely open windows for natural ventilation. Not good.
There are lots of different products on the market that claim to prevent mold growth or even “kill” it once it’s already on its path of destruction. The bad news is that these products offer little to no value, especially in the long run. They may be able to stop or reduce the growth for a short while, but if the dampness persists even for a fairly brief period of time, the mold will grow. It’s a guarantee. It’s up there with death and taxes. I recently wrote another article on the subject of antimicrobials and mold. It debunks many of the myths about this stuff, including the one we hear most about how a bucket and some bleach is all you need. Not so.
Here’s a link to that piece, if you’re interested:
So, you have a crawlspace, I’ve got you worried, and now you’re thinking about putting a FOR SALE sign on the front lawn. Not so fast. The solution is not as complicated as you might think, and will cost you less than your realtor’s commission.
The way to fix this is something called a “closed crawlspace,” and there are various versions of it, but the idea is simple: First, the crawlspace is cleaned of debris, mold growth, wet insulation and the other byproducts of this defect, then sealed from the outdoors by modifying or blocking the foundation vents. The purpose is to prevent warm moist air from coming in.
Now you have to prevent moisture accumulating from within. If you have a dirt crawlspace, you’ll either pour a slab or install an encapsulation system like the one offered through Western Pest (http://www.westernpest.com/home-maintenance/moisture-barriers.html). This kind of system involves installing plastic sheeting on the floor and foundation wall, like the photo below.
Then you would either install a dehumidifier that drains into a sump pump, or bring drier air from the living space above, into the crawlspace, using fans and ductwork, to dilute the damp air, effectively dehumidifying the crawlspace.
This is not a technical article, nor is it meant to be a how-to. If you want to know more about how this works and the science behind it, there’s been exhaustive research on the subject down in North Carolina. While the conditions in the Northeast are different, the dynamics are the same. Actually, NC has it much worse, so if they can make it work down there, it will most certainly work in less humid climates. There’s a wealth of information here, if you’d like to learn more: http://www.crawlspaces.org/
Unfortunately there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Every building has different nuances depending upon whether it’s in a flood zone, how it’s constructed, the type of heating and cooling systems, and even the sensitivity of the occupants. Like most things of this kind, it’s not really a weekend warrior kind of project, unless you’re into doing things twice.
When it comes to navigating these waters successfully, it’s usually a good idea to engage the help of an environmental consultant who has specialized experience in this arena, and who does NOT perform installations of these systems or provide mold remediation services. The consultant evaluates the problem and designs the solution, and an unrelated contractor does the work.
If this sounds like something you might like to learn more about, either give us a call at 1-800-GOT-MOLD? (1-800-468-6653) or visit us at www.1800GOTMOLD.com.
I recently sat down and shuffled through several boxes of old family photos, putting aside the ones I’m going to send off to a great little company I just discovered, called ScanCafe. They very inexpensively scan and repair old prints, slides and negatives by hand. I love the idea of getting my old pictures digitized as a way to “back up” these priceless memories, but it’s also the simplest way to easily share them with loved ones and future generations. I ordered their Gift Box, which allows you to stuff as many photos as you can fit into it for $150, postage prepaid and fully insured. I got at least 500 pictures into the box comfortably. It will be 4-6 weeks till I get them back but you’d have a hard time paying a small family of Malaysian pygmies so little to do so much. Not even Nike could pull that off.
Most of the shots I put aside to be sent away were from my early childhood, some from before I was born. At the end of this epic sorting exercise, my lovely and loving counterpart, Shannon, commented on the nearly ubiquitous presence of dogs and other furry critters in these faded images of my family and friends. Sure enough, dogs were always a part of our world. I cannot recall a time when we didn’t have at least one, if not three and sometimes even more! They were seemingly always flanked by their requisite feline companions too, not to mention the horses, rabbits, goats, turtles, hamsters and occasional goldfish.
My father used to answer the phone, “Earle’s emporium and petting zoo!”
I am not kidding.
Neither was he.
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It is often said that dogs don’t lie, except to lie down, of course.
While I’m pretty sure I’ve been tricked into a treat or a walk from time to time, my experience largely supports this popular notion.
Late last month, three Nevada Highway Patrol officers filed suit against Chris Perry, the director of Nevada’s Department of Public Safety and former chief of the Highway Patrol. They claim Perry hijacked the state’s police canine program, turning the dogs into “trick ponies” with the purpose of falsely alerting to drugs on command, enabling the police to perform illegal searches and seize cash and other items in the process.
But the dogs were not lying. They were merely doing what they had been trained to do, to please their masters. Aside from the little con jobs a smart dog might pull to get a human off his backside and moving toward the door or the food, dogs really have no concept of lying.
The liars in this case, if the claims are true, would be Perry and the officers who knowingly gave their dogs secret commands to enable illegal searches and seizures — them, and the trainers who help set up the scam.
I have been working with a scent-detection dog for nearly 10 years now, and it’s been nothing short of amazing. Her name is Oreo, and she is an expert at finding hidden indoor mold problems. She’s so clever that she can do what her trainer once said no dog could do: Alert to mold in the ceiling above her. The first time she did this, and we confirmed it, I was blown away. She’ll also tell me if there’s mold in a crawlspace by pointing straight down through carpeting, flooring and sub-flooring. She has never been wrong, even when she alerts on a pair of slippers or sneakers in someone’s closet. Mold is mold, and Oreo finds it. She’s a very smart cookie.
Oreo, the Northeast's first certified mold-detection dog (Photo credit: Amanda Jones)
I have come to use several phrases, perhaps sacrilegiously, that express my reverence for Oreo, and dogs like her. “In Dog We Trust” is my favorite. I also like “Dog is my copilot” and “I believe in Dog.” She is the Canine Executive Officer of my company. In case you didn’t notice, we’re pretty fond of four-leggers in these here parts.
To be sure, Oreo could have been trained to alert on command, using a clicker or a code word, by an unscrupulous trainer or handler. But her training left no room for this kind of chicanery. She is operating under the premise (misconception) that I know where the mold is as if I hid it and if she doesn’t point it out to me she doesn’t get her reward. False alerts when she was in training incurred harsh reprimands. It has made her incredibly accurate and honest.
The bottom line is, a dog is exactly as trustworthy as its handler. This is why we use every available technology to confirm our dogs’ findings. It’s also why we’re not in the remediation business, though there are many operators who do both mold inspections and the ensuing remediation.
This is an atrocious conflict of interest, almost as bad as a police dog handler who uses his canine to enable him to illegally search innocent people, and steal money from them. Until this scandal in Nevada, I was inclined to use the example of a small-town police chief who also sits as judge. Get a ticket in that town, and you have no hope of leaving with your wallet intact. Nevada has given me a new, more potent analogy.
So I make a big deal out of avoiding that conflict and making sure we work only for our customer. We take no commissions, kickbacks or any other form of remuneration from any remediator, and our clearance testing is ruthless. If the job isn’t done right, the remediator will come back and redo it at his own expense.
While we know our dogs don’t lie to us, our customers must also trust us not to teach our dogs to lie to them.
If you’re interested in knowing more about mold-detection dogs, there’s a more elaborate article on our website, 1800gotmold.com, titled “An Ancient Partnership Joins the Fight Against Indoor Mold.”
For more on the inspector/remediator conflict of interest, yes, there’s an article on that, here. And in case you’re wondering how to choose a qualified mold remediator, there’s also an article, by that title, here.
Now, I think I’ll take Oreo for a well-deserved walk in the park.
She worked hard on this story.
“Despite available treatments, less than 50 percent of asthmatic children control their symptoms,” announced Prof. Nikos Papadopoulos, Chair of the International Consensus (ICON) on Pediatric Asthma, two weeks ago at The European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (EAACI) 31st Annual meeting, Geneva, Switzerland.
As a childhood asthmatic, and someone who has long worked with families to regain control of their indoor air, that number nearly knocked me off my chair.
Granted, many of the worst cases of asthma exist in developing nations where there is, sadly, little anyone can do about it. This is largely due to substandard living conditions and poor education, compounded by inadequate medical care. When people cook over unventilated open flames indoors, asthma is bound to rear its ugly head. Combine that with a whole host of other variables and you have yourself an epidemic.
But more disconcerting are the cases here in our own backyard, where we have the ability to do something about it, yet we’re still not doing all that can be done.
It’s well known there are higher concentrations of asthmatics in urban environments, especially in close proximity to highways, but asthma is an equal opportunity ailment. It affects people across the whole human spectrum, with kids being the hardest hit.
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This has been a strange and unusual spring, whether you’re in the eastern half of the US where it was so warm in March, or in Europe where it’s been abnormally cold. But spring it is, and that always brings to my mind Spring cleaning. It’s the time of year also to do a thorough home inspection and maintenance drill to make sure our homes are not going to be sick, and make us sick.
I wrote an extensive piece for our magazine, Habitat Quarterly, and now is the time to share it with you. I also posted it in the Articles section at 1800gotmold.com. Here’s a snippet:
The warmer weather allows us to open the windows and let the outside in again. During the winter months, we enjoy very little fresh air in our homes. In fact, in the name of energy efficiency, we seek to eliminate any and all infiltration, unwittingly allowing toxins and allergens to build up fundamentally unabated. These particles and gasses are the potential makings of allergies, asthma attacks, sinus infections and general malaise. While it might be great for your heating bill to keep things buttoned up tight, there’s a potentially much greater price to pay: your health.
It’s important to note that many of today’s most prevalent illnesses have been linked to poor indoor air quality. Chronic sinusitis, which affects 37 million Americans, is largely due to mold exposure, according to a 1999 Mayo Clinic Study. Similarly, of the 23 million asthmatics in the country, at least 4.6 million cases are mold and dampness-related according to EPA/Berkeley Labs. A recent Brown University study even showed a strong connection between depression and an indoor environment in which mold and dampness were present.
It’s not just about mold, though. Modern construction materials and furnishings are loaded with chemicals such as formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. Over time, these chemicals evaporate, or “off gas,” into the air which you and your family breathe in day and night. That “new home” or “new car” smell is actually comprised of chemicals that we should strictly limit our exposure to, but most of us don’t. In fact, the average American spends 90% of her time indoors. What does one do?
If this interests you, go read the whole thing here. And happy spring!
We fix sick homes. Every day, people with asthma, allergies, sinus problems - and a plethora of other sometimes seemingly unrelated maladies – suspect something in their home might be at the root of their woes and call upon us to do the sleuth work. More often than not, when we find a mold problem and it gets corrected, people begin to see improvements in their health and quality of life, sometimes dramatic improvements.
I’m writing this article because I am constantly faced with this preconception that getting rid of mold somehow involves killing it first, as if you have to sneak up behind it and snuff it out before it knows you’re there. Yes, this stuff can be dangerous, but not like that.
You see, most homeowners and contractors feel that if you kill mold, by spraying or fogging some EPA-registered chemical, that you’re going to make the job easier or more effective. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The purpose of mold remediation, as described in the IICRC S520 Mold Remediation Standard, is to restore an affected property to a “normal” condition. Here’s what’s involved. It’s really simple.
- Fix the water problem.
- Isolate the work area.
- Remove affected materials that cannot be cleaned, such as wallboard, insulation, ceiling tiles, carpet, carpet padding and other porous items.
- Clean the remaining surfaces that can be cleaned such as wood, glass, metal, plastic, concrete, tile, etc., using HEPA vacuums and good, old-fashioned, elbow grease. Chemicals need not be involved.
- Scrub the air with HEPA filters.
- Verify microscopically that the air and surfaces no longer contain abnormal levels of fungal material.
Mold remediation isn’t about killing mold, it’s about removing it and fixing the water problem. Even if you “kill it,” dead mold is still allergenic and potentially toxic, according to the EPA. Leaving behind dead mold doesn’t do you any good. In fact, all you’re doing when you use a biocide is adding another toxin, an additional step and more cost. It’s not a shortcut, it’s a boondoggle.
Are we trying to make the house healthier or sicker? Many of the products sold as biocides/antimicrobials/fungicides are more dangerous than the mold and its byproducts. Do you really want to trade one toxin for another?
The funny thing about biocides is that many of them are water-based, and the active ingredient evaporates relatively quickly. Bleach for example, is 3% sodium hypochlorite and 97% water. When you use bleach during mold remediation, the sodium hypochlorite dissipates rapidly, leaving behind what? Water! Congratulations, you’ve just added water to a water problem. Spores will settle on the dampness you leave behind, eat the dead mold you didn’t remove, and grow right back again. Nice, eh?
Not only are you adding an additional, unnecessary toxin to your home or workplace, you may also be stimulating the mold to produce more of the very thing most people worry most about when they have a mold problem: mycotoxins. Mycotoxins are the toxins some molds produce from time to time. There is strong evidence that chronic exposure to mycotoxins is less than ideal for human health. Research has also shown that mycotoxin production can actually be stimulated by fungicides.
There are a few circumstances when biocides are prudent and should be considered, like when bacteria is a concern, such as after sewage spills or certain kinds of floods, and in certain circumstance involving individuals with compromised immune systems. Other than that, the vast majority of mold remediation cases should be free of chemicals and killing agents.
We as a society have already done immense damage to ourselves and to the environment with our obsessive use of antibiotics, antimicrobials, herbicides, pesticides and other poisons. In addition to the damage it can do to us as individuals when misused (which is almost always the case), these compounds are also creating new microbes that are resistant to the very poisons we lavish upon them, making stronger heartier foes in the microscopic world. Is this really what we want?
Finally, there’s a constant desire by contractors and homeowners to apply antimicrobial paints and finishes to surfaces during remediation. This is another unnecessary and wasteful step. Most of the antimicrobial value of these paints dissipates in a matter of months, leaving behind nutrition to support fungal growth if the right amount of moisture is present. In all cases, the mold won’t return without moisture. So adding a coating isn’t necessary if it’s dry. If it’s wet, the mold will return no matter how much antimicrobial paint you apply.
At the end of the day, there’s only one truly effective antifungal. It works every time with no adverse reactions, and it never dissipates. It’s called anti-dihydrogen monoxide, or anti-DHMO. To understand it, you must first understand its opposite. DHMO is a very simple compound, comprised of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. It’s otherwise called H2O or, by us laypeople, water.
In other words, keep things clean and dry, and you don’t need chemicals, and you won’t need to hire us. But if you do find yourself trying to make sense of what steps to take next when you think – or know – you have a mold problem, we’re here to help.
This is the time of year for moldy attics. It may not be festive, but it’s reliable. Most people think of attics as inherently dry spaces, unlike basements, and assume they’re impervious to mold problems due to the lack of moisture. Most people are wrong about that.
Whether it’s used as storage with a staircase and a door leading to it, or is merely the space between roof and ceiling, filled with trusses, and accessible only via a trap door in a closet, an attic is a critical part of a home’s respiratory system. This means that ventilation – correct ventilation – is essential to the attic’s health.
We recently published a comprehensive article on this subject in our seasonal magazine, Habitat Quarterly. Here’s a clipping of it:
As we all remember from eighth-grade science class, warm air rises in a building. In a case where there’s a lot of moisture in that warm air, when it finds its way into a cold attic, the water in the air will bead up on the cold interior surfaces of the roof like it would on a glass of iced tea on a hot summer day. During really cold periods, this condensation will actually freeze, making some attics an unintended winter wonderland.
In such circumstances, the exposed nails will transform into icicles overnight, and when the sun comes up, the roof warms, melting the icicles, causing it to drip rusty water droplets onto the floor. This cycle of moisture accumulation on the dusty wooden surfaces of the attic is enough to create an environment conducive to mold growth. Sometimes this takes decades, sometimes only one season. Depending upon how severe the problem is, the damage can range from some minor surface mold, which can be easily cleaned, to complete rot and degradation of the sheathing, requiring a new roof to be installed. Not fun.
The story gets a lot more exciting from there. To read the rest of the article, you can go to our online edition of Habitat Quarterly or jump over to our repost here on 1800gotmold.com.
It seems to be common knowledge that living in a moldy home, or working in a moldy workplace, is not good for people. But what is it about mold that’s bad for us, and why?
There have been numerous studies aimed at answering this question and, while no single study tells the whole story, taken in aggregate they confirm much of “common knowledge.” It’s enough, at least, to silence the “mold deniers,” those who scoff at the idea that indoor mold exposure can make people sick. That is, if they’re paying attention.
It’s really a matter of indoor air pollution, which the US EPA says can be up to 100 times worse than the outdoor air in the dirtiest cities. And that’s mainly because our homes and buildings don’t breathe like they used to; they’ve been made too airtight, in the name of energy savings.
Here’s a clip of an article we published in the Fall 2009 issue of our seasonal magazine, Habitat Quarterly:
Indoor air pollutants commonly include skin and hair cells from people and any animals in the house (aka “dust”); volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by various plastics, adhesives, textiles, finishes and cleaning products. Also in the air are mold spores, mold parts and microbial volatile organic compounds (MVOCs) produced by mold. If there is mold growth in the house, these substances will continue to intensify.
Some molds also emit substances called mycotoxins. A good example is penicillin, the first antibiotic, which was derived from the mycotoxins of the penicillium fungus, a common mold. Most modern antibiotics are derived from, or based on, mycotoxins. Ironically, medical science knows little if anything about what those mycotoxins might do to people. But they know they’re deadly to bacteria.
As homes in the US became more airtight and energy-stingy, they also became more prone to moisture problems. Just as there’s no such thing as a waterproof watch (they’re “water resistant”), there’s no such thing as a waterproof house. Water will find its way in, either through leaks, plumbing failures, spills, or as water vapor that condenses when conditions are right.
With that invading moisture comes the rising probability of mold growth, and the risk of the indoor air becoming a far greater threat to health. Medical science has begun finding the links between indoor mold growth and our health, and doctors are beginning to recognize that home indoor air quality is a factor that must be investigated for their patients who don’t respond to treatment.
Mold assessment experts tell us that even blind spaces such as wall cavities, crawl spaces and attics can gain moisture via condensation, and mold can grow unseen. All mold needs is relative humidity of more than 50%, the same temperature range people can tolerate, and food, meaning anything organic, such as wood, paper, fabric, and even dust.
To read more about the scientific studies that have been done to indict mold as the culprit in many human illnesses, you can read the original article here, or the reposted version here on 1800gotmold.com.
When you close up a house, whether it’s at the beach, in the mountains, or in a development, things start to happen that weren’t happening when people were there. Humidity rises and falls with the weather, and when it rises it gives rise to mold growth in places you wouldn’t expect in an occupied home.
Why does this happen? It’s primarily because you’ve decided to save money by turning off the heat and/or AC. This turns the house into an incubator for mold. Think of a sandwich in a plastic bag left outdoors. We published an article on this topic in last summer’s edition of our seasonal magazine, Habitat Quarterly. Here’s a snippet:
The problem lies in the fact that the house gets closed up when not in use and in the interest of saving money on utility bills, the heat is turned down or the air conditioning is turned off. At first blush, this seems like a prudent thing to do. Why waste money heating or cooling an empty place?
Here’s why: One mold remediation project often costs way more than a year’s worth of utility bills, often more than several years. Plus, you’ll find the odor has infiltrated your upholstered furniture, rugs, carpets, drapes. It will all have to go.
What’s the solution? Dehumidifiers and minimum heat and AC. You’ll find the details here, or in our repost of the article on 1800gotmold.com here.
It’s critically important after a flood to waste no time getting things as dry as possible and getting rid of things that have soaked up water. The idea is to head off the emergence of a major mold growth.
In last summer’s edition of our seasonal magazine, Habitat Quarterly, we published an article detailing what to do after a flood. It seems now would be a good time to revisit that piece and perhaps give a few folks on the east coast a chance to absorb something other than water. Here’s a snippet:
When floods hit cities and commercial buildings whose owners have healthy bank accounts and adequate insurance, it’s almost entertaining to see the action after the water recedes. Machinery and crews of workers hit the scene immediately, tearing out soggy materials, scooping out mud, drying out structures with huge fans. In the vast majority of cases, these buildings end up being restored to as-new or better condition. Ensuing mold problems are rare.
In surrounding residential neighborhoods, often at lower elevations and especially those not so well heeled, the cleanup process is much slower, and mold problems become increasingly likely. The most extreme example, of course, is New Orleans after the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Many homes there are still not restored, and many never will be. Mold is as common in New Orleans as sourdough bread in San Francisco.
Mold does not give you much time to react after a flood – even a small one. You have 24 hours to get wet things out of the house and dry out the remaining structure, or it’s a virtual certainty you will have a bumper crop of mold. Mold has been tied to various health conditions such as asthma, chronic sinusitis, allergies, bronchitis and even depression.
Whether your flood is caused by nature, a plumbing failure, a sewage leak or a roof defect`, the first priority is safety, and the second priority is getting the water out. The New York State Health Department has compiled a comprehensive list of tasks and precautions, which we offer in its entirety (with our notes – italicized) here.
If this information is useful to you, you can read it in the online version of Habitat Quarterly here, or where we reposted it on 1800gotmold.com. Either way, we hope it helps.