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.




“The Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities” – A Review

Written by Peyton Thomas, an Indoor Environmental Professional with ESG.

The article, “The Medical Perspective on Environmental Sensitivities”, makes the argument that the importance of making accommodations for people with environmental sensitivities transcends the health benefits for those people who are sensitive to things such as chemicals and electromagnetic phenomena. Harmful effects of ignoring the factors that cause environmental sensitivities include a decrease in worker productivity and increased absenteeism from work, as well as cases of new people developing sensitivities to aspects of their environment. Thus, it is important to accommodate people with sensitivities, as doing so can reverse these negative effects.

The author of this article discusses the symptoms that manifest due to environmental sensitivities, which range from flu-like symptoms to neurological troubles. Once someone has developed a sensitivity to an aspect of their environment, the recurrence of a symptom may occur at exposure levels that are well below the level that would affect most people. Due to this ease of recurrence, many people without sensitivities find it difficult to understand how something that doesn’t affect them at all can create such a debilitating condition in others, which often leads to the belief that environmental sensitivities are primarily a psychological issue. This, as the article states, is not entirely true, and the true nature of an environmental sensitivity is that it is a complex combination of both physical realities and psychological factors that create a serious medical condition.

The article ultimately argues that due to the harmful effects that this condition may have on one’s health, business productivity, and well-being, it is very important to find ways to address the factors in the environment that cause this issue. One quickly finds that many of the most effective remedies are inexpensive (education, choosing chemical products more wisely, and use of least-toxic cleaning and pest control), and even the more expensive remedies (renovation) tend to pay for themselves in the long run. Thus, it is unwise to ignore this issue due to the ease of accommodation and the positive impact that accommodating this condition can have on many different aspects of life and business.

We will be happy to provide a .pdf copy of the original article, “The Medical Perspectives on Environmental Sensitivities” written by Margaret E. Sears (M.Eng., Ph.D.) in 2007, upon request.

Christmas Trees: a Source of Indoor Mold During the Holidays

A study presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology in 2007 found that indoor mold increased over a two-week period after a live Christmas tree was placed in the room. The study, which was broadcast on CBS and NBC news, found that airborne mold counts increased from a normal count of 800 during the first 3 days to a high count of 5000 spores per cubic meter of air at day 12.

Although the study was of one tree in one home in the northeastern U.S., allergists from across the U.S. chimed in to agree with the study. Many of the allergists were not surprised by the result given the increase in allergies treated during during the thirty days following Christmas.

ESG has been collecting measurements of mold spore counts inside dozens of homes and businesses across North Carolina during the holidays for many years. Our data suggests that the lone study mentioned above is accurate: indeed, airborne mold counts seem to spike around the New Year and continue to be elevated, especially with a very allergenic mold called Myxomycete. Our office gets a number of calls from people who are suffering from allergies during this time, and in one case a young couple was so affected they stayed in motel until we could help figure out how to reduce the airborne mold counts in their home.

Here in North Carolina, the Fraser Fir is considered the finest Christmas tree, and many families enjoy the tradition of going to the mountains in western NC to cut a live Fraser Fir. What can a family do to help prevent a holiday-dampening allergic reaction? Medical professionals say that vigorously shaking a live tree before bringing it in the house will help. Some people use their leaf-blower to vigorously ‘wash’ the tree with air. Do not wet the tree down, as moisture will activate the mold to grow. Once brought indoors, keep the house around 68 degrees and locate the tree away from any air vents that could disperse the mold around the house. Finally, limiting a tree to a one-week stay inside the house should keep fungal counts low enough for most people to tolerate.

We will discuss the pros and cons of artificial trees in another post in a few days.

It’s a Great Time of Year to Fix Leaky Air Ducts


Craig Whittaker headshot smallCraig Whittaker founded Environmental Solutions Group in 2002 to provide impartial evaluation of properties relative to environmental health. He has assessed more than 1500 properties, has written thousands of environmental reports and is frequently asked to speak about building science issues.

If your home has central heating or air conditioning, your air ducts are one of the most important systems in your home. The air ducts are responsible for delivering conditioned air from the air handlers, which for most homes are located in the attic or crawl space. If the ducts are leaking air, you will spend an average of 20% more on heating your home this winter. For our friends north of the Mason-Dixon line, this can add up to hundreds of dollars worth of wasted energy.

Leaky ducts also draw unfiltered & unconditioned air from your attic or crawl space into the house. This can lead to poor indoor air quality from mold and bacteria, increased humidity during summer and cold spots in your home during winter. Even a small leak at a duct connection can cause the room served by the leaky duct to be several degrees colder than neighboring rooms where ducts may not be as leaky.

Leaking ducts also have more serious consequences. They often negatively pressurize a home, causing outside air to force its way in to balance the air pressure. This can cause a fireplace to backdraft, drawing deadly carbon monoxide (CO) down the chimney instead of allowing it to exit up the chimney. If you have natural gas appliances, the backdrafting from negative pressurization can also be dangerous, which is why it’s so important to have a functioning CO detector in your home.

You may be wondering if the ducts in your home are leaking. It’s best to assume that they leak as even newly-sealed ducts are not 100% airtight, and older systems often lose 35% of their heat through leaks.  In North Carolina and many other states, duct tightness testing is mandatory when new residential systems are installed, a vital step towards saving the power companies from having to produce more energy during peak demand.

The Department of Energy recommends having a qualified professional check for leaking ducts, followed by having them sealed and insulated. While gaps in conditioned spaces are relatively easy to repair, gaps at ducts in unconditioned spaces should be professionally sealed to ensure the use of appropriate sealing materials.

ESG’s sister company, ESG Energy, assesses hundreds of duct systems each year and can assist you in identifying leaks, or verify that leaks have been corrected properly.

In review, leaky ducts raise our heating and cooling costs and may lead to unintended health consequences such as allergies and more serious injuries from mold, bacteria and carbon monoxide. Before it gets cold outside is a great time to check your ducts.

Learn more at http://www.esg-energy.com/HomeEnergyAuditPackages.aspx or visit www.energy.gov for tips on sealing air ducts.

When the Bugs Bite

Submitted by contributing blogger Annie Pryor.

All you want to do is sit out in the sun after a long day of work, stretch your legs and read a book; but the mosquitoes are itching to irritate you. Your first reaction is to reach for the bug spray full of what you already know are toxic chemicals and pesticides, like DEET.  But, before you do, give Burt’s Bees All Natural Herbal Insect Repellant a try. You can even make your own mosquito repellants. Essential oils thought to ward off the little buggers include: citronella, lemon grass, lemon eucalyptus, cedar, cinnamon, peppermint, castor, clove, geranium, and rosemary.

In your home you might find it useful to try out this old wives’ tale on for size: fill a plastic bag with water and hang it outside your doorway. It is thought that light reflects in the water, and so intensifies the vividness of the colors a mosquito can see and momentarily blinds them. The air disturbance caused by running ceiling, window, and rotating fans will also help keep mosquitoes from landing on your skin, period.

The Danger of Carbon Monoxide


North Carolinians have recently been reminded of the inherent danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. In April of this year at a hotel in Boone, NC, a couple visiting from Washington state died from asphyxiation due to carbon monoxide. The hotel was told to fix the leaking gas heater at the pool immediately, but apparently something went wrong. This past weekend, a child died from carbon monoxide poisoning while staying in the same room as the couple that died less than 60 days ago.

While the most common causes of death from carbon monoxide include running a gas or charcoal grill indoors, operating a generator without proper ventilation, or running a car in an enclosed garage, combustion appliances such as gas stoves, fireplaces and hot water heaters can also leak deadly carbon monoxide (CO) into a room. It doesn’t take much CO to kill a person and it can happen fast, usually while that person is resting or falling off to sleep. What’s more, the victim of CO poisoning doesn’t even realize what is happening.

CO is an odorless and colorless gas, therefore, people have no warning other than a short list of symptoms – that is, if they are awake and paying attention! The symptom list includes severe headaches, dizziness, mental confusion, nausea & fainting. The more CO that is present, the more severe the symptoms and the more important it is to immediately get fresh air. Go outside and take deep breaths as opening windows & doors will usually not reduce the level of CO in a room.

Everyone reading this should take carbon monoxide poisoning seriously, and use CO detectors in their home and workplace. These inexpensive devices could save your life. If you use gas appliances at home, check with your local utility provider or fire station about annual check-ups of your appliances. Private firms with expertise in combustion measurement can also provide this service (full disclosure – ESG measures CO levels at every one of the hundreds of air quality assessments it performs each year & we are happy to assist you).

The deaths at the Best Western in Boone were preventable. Please follow the rules of gas combustion safety and don’t be a senseless victim.

Commercial Foreclosures and Environmental Liability

Craig Whittaker headshot small

Craig Whittaker founded Environmental Solutions Group in 2002 to provide impartial evaluation of properties relative to environmental health. He has assessed more than 1500 properties, has written thousands of environmental reports and is frequently asked to speak about building science issues.

As the housing recovery continues to deplete the existing housing stock, the number of residential foreclosures for sale continues to drop steadily. This is indeed good news for realtors and homebuilders alike, however, there still remains a dark cloud over commercial properties foreclosed upon by the bank. Many of these bank-owned properties reportedly come with an environmental liability, namely mold.

As it’s been nearly three years since I have blogged about the challenge of buying a foreclosed property (see ‘Buyer Beware of Foreclosures’ posted in July 2010), I have some new thoughts that focus on commercial properties. I must first give credit to Russ Banham for his recent article in Business Insurance titled “Foreclosed properties may come with environmental liabilities”. Anyone looking at buying foreclosed commercial property should read Mr. Banham’s article as it delves into the many liabilities faced by banks and buyers – especially mid-market firms without the resources of the big banks to overcome a serious issue.

One of the main concerns with bank-owned properties is the bank having some level of control of the use or operation of the property. This creates bank liability not only for that property, but also for third-party liabilities associated with damage or injury to tenants or an adjacent property owner for contamination that may have migrated to their property. As Mr. Banham states, the issue requires superior due diligence.

Neil Glazer, an attorney and toxic torts expert in New York, has seen the ugly side of commercial foreclosures. Mr. Glazer speaks of banks purchasing commercial properties in bulk with plans to renovate and resell them. The problem is that the properties are often contaminated by mold, which means the bank is going to be paying for what can be a costly cleanup prior to sale.

There are a number of risk management maneuvers the bank can try, such as purchasing environmental impairment liability, pollution liability, secured impaired property insurance and lender’s collateral environmental insurance. Insurance can help create some comfort over taking title to a foreclosed commercial property, but it can be expensive and therefore prohibitive to mid-market institutions. The bank can also attempt to protect itself from liability by asking the borrower to name it as an insured on the borrower’s policy, assuming the borrower carries an environmental insurance and is willing to name the bank on the policy.

 According to Debra Hausser, who markets environmental site and specialties products at Zurich North America, there may be times when a bank wants to assume the environmental liabilities of a foreclosed property. It is often in the best interest of the bank to clean up the property to avoid having to sell it at a discount due to environmental contamination.

 Perhaps the most affordable means for a bank to protect itself is to have an environmental assessment of a property prior to listing it for sale. A good report could be shared with prospective buyers, and the bank would also have an opportunity to correct any glaring issues before a buyer discovers them.