Author Archives: cjwhitta

Tips for Keeping Your Air Conditioning Drain Line Clog-free

Every summer, thousands of air conditioning drain pans in the southern U.S. overflow due to a preventable clog at the condensate pan drain line. If the air handler is located in an attic, most homeowners will realize that they have an issue once it is too late and water starts dripping through the ceiling. If caught quickly, this can be remedied quite nicely. If the condensate pan has been overflowing for several days, however, wet insulation and mold growth on sheetrock and framing can be the result. An insurance claim and professional clean-up could be needed at this point.

The best approach is to check your drain pans twice a year – once near the beginning of summer cooling season and again in August or September when your systems are working overtime to help keep your home comfortable. Whether you do this yourself or hire an HVAC contractor to check for you, here are a few things to look for:

• the condensate drain pan is located directly underneath the air handler. It may have some dampness in summer as moisture is condensing out of the air and dropping into the pan to be exited outdoors
• a pan full of water is not good and an indication that the condensate drain line is clogged
• the line is most commonly clogged with sludge or pieces of insulation, although the clog can occur at an elbow joint or at the termination point outdoors. We sometimes find the line has become buried in landscaping mulch or dirt that prevents a proper flow

To maintain a free-flowing drain line, remove any standing water or sludge from the pan using a wet/dry vac. Compressed air may be used to blow out the line, or you may use a hose to carefully blow out the line. Most clogs will occur at an elbow joint where the line exits the foundation, so you may need to pull the joint apart and let the clog out. Pouring some hot water down the line a couple of times each year will also help keep the line clean.

We like to see the drain line termination point several inches above the ground and away from the foundation so the condensate flows away from the house.

One last thought – drain pans with standing water can harbor some harmful bacteria, including Legionella. If the pan has water in it, we advise wearing respiratory protection. The danger is in breathing the water droplets, not from skin contact.

Mold in a Crawl Space

This is a slightly revised re-post from our very popular June 2012 blog about mold in crawl spaces.

Summer is almost here, and with the warm temperatures comes more homeowner activity in the yard. A few will even open the door to their crawl space and peak inside. What happens if you find a bunch of mold that seems to be growing on the wooden floor joists under your house?

First, understand that a few different kinds of things that look like mold can also stick to joists. Second, understand that some mold on the wood under your house is normal and to be expected, especially if your crawl space is an ‘open’ design with foundation vents that allow outdoor air into the space. Some mold under the house may be defined as ‘normal fungal ecology’, especially in the southeastern U.S.

If you are reasonably sure that your floor system has mold on it and want to know if something needs to be addressed, you may want to consult with an expert, or be prepared to buy a few measurement tools and learn how to use them. An expert is best defined in this case as someone who can assess the crawl space without bias (i.e., they do not sell sealed crawl systems or perform mold remediation).

The optimal time of year for an expert opinion of a crawl is during summer months. This allows the expert to view the crawl when mold is most active, outdoor humidity levels are up and when the house is using air-conditioning.
Here are the steps your expert should take:

  1. While wearing protective gear, crawl through the entire underside of the house and document conditions with photos of the vapor barrier, foundation walls, floor insulation, joists/sub-floor, and any mechanical equipment (especially air handler & ductwork;
  2. Collect wood moisture measurements of several joists and the sub-floor, especially near plumbing penetrations and near the foundation if moisture is observed;
  3. Check the vapor barrier for tears or gaps that could allow soil moisture to evaporate onto the floor system;
  4. Measure soil moisture content if it appears to be damp. Note if all the soil is damp or just certain areas;
  5. Note any strong musty odor. A crawl space should smell earthy, not musty;
  6. Note any debris such as old pipes, insulation or ductwork lying on the floor. These should be cleaned out;
  7. Warn the homeowner of the danger of storing gasoline-powered yard tools under the house, especially if they are near a gas-fired furnace (we have seen this hazard all too often);
  8. Observe the level of air movement through the crawl space. We often find a ‘dead zone’ near the center of larger crawls, which is usually home to more than the typical amount of fungal growth.

Your expert should be able to provide a report that includes a list of observations & recommendations. Here comes the tricky part – how do you know if the mold in the crawl space is at a normal level and is unlikely to harm the family living in the house?

This is where experience plays a large role. Someone who is new to crawl space inspections may miss something important, make a big deal out of something insignificant, or not know how to communicate their findings very well. Other variables that come into play are the tightness of the duct system under the house, the number of occupants who are sensitized to mold and  claim to be experiencing health effects, and the air quality inside the home. It is important to understand that bacteria or mold in a crawl space will find their way into a house through gaps in the floor system and HVAC components and on thermal air currents that naturally travel upward from the crawl to the attic. An expert should be able to measure the likely impact of mold on your indoor environment or be able to direct you to someone who can.

A final note about the collection of samples from suspect mold in the crawl space. It is not always necessary to know the exact level or species of mold (information lab analysis will provide), however, sample collection is often useful, especially if someone in the home suspects a health issue that could be related. Ask your expert to explain their sampling method and what information they hope to gain by sending a sample into a lab for analysis. An experienced individual will be able to clearly explain why sampling is necessary and how it will guide the process of determining if the crawl space has a normal fungal ecology.

Mold in the Closet

Mold in a closet

Visible mold near the base of a closet wall

Have you ever opened a closet door to be welcomed by a stale or musty odor? Maybe you have found some spots growing on leather shoes or a jacket that have been stored in the closet for a while. Worse yet – you’ve seen some dark spots on the painted walls or ceiling of the closet.

Our office receives lots of calls each year from people who believe they have a mold issue in a closet. Unfortunately, the caller is usually correct as once we are on site, the problem is very real. Whether on personal goods or walls, it is not acceptable for mold to grow in a closet or anywhere else indoors.

There are several reasons why mold likes to take up residence in closets. First, these are often dark, cool spaces with little air movement. Add a damp coat, pair of sneakers, a wet umbrella or an exterior wall and mold will seize the opportunity to grow. Many closets are repositories for the ‘stuff’ we don’t want others to see, and some are literally stuffed to capacity with clothes, games, luggage, old shoes, gym bags, you name it. Think of stuffed closets as huge petri dishes for mold and bacteria to thrive.

What can you do to prevent mold in a closet? You guessed it! Avoid the urge to stuff the closet to capacity. Keep the closet door open as much as possible so air can flow in and out. Make sure items are dry before you put them in the closet.

What if you already have mold on your stuff? Chances are some of your goods can be cleaned and used without a safety issue. If you have a mold allergy, it may be best to replace items that have become moldy, especially soft goods such as clothing and shoes. Consult with a professional if you are not sure how to handle your moldy stuff.

If the closet walls have visible mold on them, you will want to verify that there are no plumbing leaks. If you’re confident that nothing is leaking, you should carefully remove everything from the closet and place items in airtight containers. If the mold is thick and/or covers a fair amount of drywall, you should consider having the drywall replaced. It’s best to avoid cleaning and painting over drywall where mold has grown.

If your closet is on an exterior wall, controlling dampness becomes more of a challenge. It may be necessary to use a dessicant or dehumidifier to keep dampness in control.

When Do I Need an Indoor Environmental Professional?

Perhaps you’ve had a pipe break or a roof leak, or maybe have noticed something that looks like mold growing on your basement furniture. The next step is often an important one in determining the outcome of your moisture issue. Most of the time, a property owner will contact their insurance carrier, who will typically arrange for an adjustor to visit the property. The adjustor will usually be making a decision as to the validity of a claim to be covered under the property’s insurance policy.

From there, you may be advised to contact a moisture or mold mitigation contractor. This is where the process can become a challenge. First, it is important to know that, as the property owner, you have the right to use the contractor of your choice. You do not have to work with a contractor recommended (or seemingly required) by the adjustor. Second, the contractors may offer up vastly different opinions on what needs to occur and the cost to follow their opinion. If your property claim has been approved by the insurance company, the latter may not seem to matter but my advice is that you consider the quotes as if you were going to be paying for them out of pocket.

What happens if your claim is denied or you don’t involve an insurance company for some reason. You may be tempted to opt for a ‘free’ assessment from a contractor. While this is not a bad idea, keep in mind that the contractor is providing a no-cost assessment with the goal of selling you one of their services, many of which are costly.

This is one of the times when an independent assessment from an Indoor Environmental Professional (IEP) can be very important. I like to explain that an independent assessment will keep the contractor honest….not that they are not honest, but it’s like having a mechanic not associated with the car dealer there to advise you when being told by the dealer that you need a new transmission. While the dealer may be providing good advice, it provides peace of mind to know that you really need to spend thousands of dollars on your vehicle.

An important point to remember is that no fewer than 30% of people who contact our office for a mold assessment end up needing to hire a mold contractor. We have saved property owners a lot of money when there is a simple and inexpensive solution to their issue. While there is no substitute for a quality mold mitigation contractor when one is required, the independent IEP will guide you so that your resources are used in the best way possible.

One last word of advice – be sure your IEP is truly independent with no ties to the contractor(s) they recommend.

Having a water loss or mold problem is enough of a challenge for any property owner. The suggestions above will hopefully help you understand the process of getting your issue resolved in an affordable and safe manner.

Mold in Your Shower – Is it Normal?

Our office gets a lot of calls from people concerned about mold growing on the caulk or grout in their shower. Most people want to know if the mold could hurt their family, while some just want to know if it’s normal to have some mold in their shower.

The short answers to the questions above are ‘no’ and ‘yes’. Shower mold is not likely to impact health and, yes, it is normal for mold to grow in damp environments. The truth is, mold is likely to grow in the shower and sink drain in a bathroom that is used every day and even in the showerhead in a guest bathroom.

Some molds thrive in damp environments such as showers, commodes and drain lines. The good news is that these molds are typically not the variety that will be harmful to a healthy person. The molds that tend to be a health concern usually grow on materials containing cellulose, such as paper or wood.

Does this mean we can let our showers and toilets become science experiments where the mold literally takes over by growing on the shower curtain and toilet lid?  It is not a good idea to have that much mold growing in a home, therefore, we need to have some way of controlling the growth before it gets to that point.

We tend to find the bathroom mold issue to be more prevalent in smaller homes and apartments, especially those without bathroom exhaust fans. Bathrooms where moisture is more likely to build up are going to be happy places for mold. Thus, the best prevention is keeping the bathroom dry by running the exhaust fan while showering and for a few minutes afterward. If your bathroom does not have an exhaust fan, you may need to open the bathroom window to let the steam out or dry off the shower enclosure with a towel.

If mold in the commode is an issue, try keeping the lid open when the commode is not in use. The water in the bowl is always evaporating, and a closed lid will hold the moisture which can lead to mold growth.

One final thought on controlling mold in the bathroom is the use of bleach-based products such as Tilex. These products provide a temporary ‘fix’ but have to be used frequently in order to keep the mold under control. It’s better to avoid bleach, which is probably more unhealthy than the mold you are trying to eradicate, and clean off the mold with some very hot, soapy water.

We welcome your questions and comments about what has worked for you in the quest to control bathroom mold.

Ignore your crawl space and your house may go away

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Ignore Your Crawl Space and Your House May Go Away

You have probably heard the saying, “Ignore your teeth and they will go away.” The same concept can be applied to the crawl space under your largest investment – the house in which you live.

I have been asked by homeowners to check out warped hardwood floors, tile floors with loose or popping tiles, and odd stains under vinyl flooring. Invariably, the question I ask concerns the last time they looked in the crawl space. My favorite answer is probably, “I didn’t know we had a crawl space”, but the blank stare and shoulder shrug is also a common response. I get it – who really wants to get suited up and crawl underneath their house?

So how often should someone take a peek underneath their house and what should they look for? The answer to the first question is fairly simple: every thirty days. The reason being that you if can spot a new issue in the first four weeks, you are more likely to prevent the issue from becoming a major repair. A leaking wax seal under a commode is a good example; if you spot the leak when the wax has just started to fail, you could get by with a simple wax seal replacement and a little cleanup in the crawl space. A wax seal that leaks for a couple of months may lead to ripping out the bathroom to replace the floor and an extensive mold remediation project, all of which could be classified as ‘owner negligence’ by the insurance company. Translation = you can probably forget about a trip to Disneyworld this year.

Before you drop everything and dive into your crawl space, there are a few things you need to be safe. You’ll want a Tyvek suit or some type of coverall that does not go back in the house after your crawl space adventure. Crawl spaces are full of bacteria and other stuff that you do not want to bring back to your family. You will also need a dependable flashlight, preferably with fresh batteries. Kneepads are good, especially if your soil floor contains gravel. I also suggest a helmet for head protection – anything will do and you’ll be glad you have it if you bump your head into a floor joist trying to outcrawl a snake. One last thing you’ll need is a big stick. I learned years ago to always ‘knock’ before entering a crawl space. A few raps on the door with a stick will let any creatures living in your crawl to expect a visitor.

While not mandatory, I suggest bringing a camera with you to document conditions. A few shots that show a clean and dry crawl space could go a long way in convincing an insurance adjustor or home inspector that the leak under your shower has not been going on for months as they might suggest.

By no means intended to be comprehensive, the following list and thirty minutes of your time will go a long way in helping you identify any issues under the house.

1)   Is the soil vapor barrier intact (or is it missing in places, torn or generally rough-looking?)

2)   Is the floor insulation in place against the sub-floor (or is it falling down, missing or wet in places?)

3)   Does the crawl space smell earthy (acceptable) or musty (could be from excessive mold). Some mustiness in a crawl is OK, but if your living room also smells musty, you may need to have a professional check the crawl space.

4)   If there are heating and A/C ducts under the house, note their condition. Duct runs should not be making contact with building materials, the vapor barrier or each other. They should also look to be tightly connected and sealed and not have any visible rips in the material. If you have doubts about the integrity of your ducts, hire a professional to inspect them.

5)   Do you see any water on top of the vapor barrier? A small puddle of clear water near a foundation vent following a blowing rain is OK, but a stream of dirty water trailing across the vapor barrier warrants further investigation.

6)   Are there stains on the floor joists that were not present a month ago? Try to determine if the area is damp or why it’s stained.

7)   Monitor any patches of mold growth on the wood. Some mold is normal in a crawl space, but mold that is expanding its territory could lead to rotten wood and heath complaints. If in doubt, consult a professional.

8)   Consider purchasing a simple wood moisture meter to measure the moisture content of a few joists during your monthly inspection. The wood moisture content should be 16% or lower. If it’s  above 20%, you probably have a water leak or condensation problem that requires immediate attention.

I could write a book about crawl space maintenance, however, the few steps above are reasonable and will help head off a serious and potentially expensive issue. Paying a little attention to your crawl space will help you keep your largest investment healthy for many years.