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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.


The Truth about Showering Safely

Let’s be truthful – taking a warm shower can be a great way to revitalize yourself in the morning and unwind after a long day. If you aren’t careful, however, it could also make you very sick. Certain disease-causing bacteria, such as Legionella pneumophila, feel right at home in our showerheads due to a regular supply of warm water and their ability to create nearly impenetrable protective biofilms. In layman’s terms, these nasty bacteria have the ability to build a slimy “wall” that keeps the chlorine in our tap water from killing them. And with a regular supply of the warm water that they need to happily grow and reproduce, your showerhead seems eerily similar to a Petri dish.

According to the National Institute of Health, the water droplets created when we take a hot shower contain a fairly significant fraction of respirable, aerosolized particles that these bacteria attach themselves to and use to hitchhike a ride into our lungs. This means that choosing to shower when we bathe can actually increase our risk for developing diseases such as Legionnaire’s Disease or Pontiac Fever, which are caused when Legionella pneumophila makes its way deep into our lungs on aerosolized water droplets. According to the CDC, Legionella pneumophila is one of the most frequent causes of water-borne disease among humans in the United States, with as many as 18,000 people infected per year. Legionellais mainly spread by warm water droplets, such as those encountered while showering, and is not communicable person-to-person.  Breathing through one’s mouth while showering can exacerbate this issue, as a significantly higher portion of these aerosolized particles make it all the way to the alveolar region of our lungs when doing so. However, there are far more effective ways to reduce one’s risk of developing Legionnaire’s Disease than remembering to breathe through the nose.

The most effective ways to reduce the likelihood of encountering Legionella pneumophila when you shower are simple. Firstly, be sure to regularly dismantle, clean and descale your showerhead to ensure than any bacterial biofilms that have accumulated are removed. Choosing an easy to clean metal showerhead over a plastic one is also a pretty good idea (and don’t forget to choose a low-flow showerhead to save water). Secondly, check your hot water heater setting to ensure that bacteria cannot easily grow within the hot water system itself, as any source of stagnant, warm water (hot tubs, water-heaters, etc.) creates the ideal environment in which this bacteria can thrive. The Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) recommends maintaining domestic water heaters at 60°C (140°F) and water delivered at the faucet at a minimum of 50°C (122°F) to ensure that growth of Legionella is kept to a minimum. As a faucet temperature of greater than 120°F can scald an infant, parents of small children will need to be considerate of not relying on water temperature, alone, to control bacteria.

Showering can be a great way to relax, particularly when you can rest easy knowing that you have taken the steps to ensure that you are doing it safely!

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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