Attic Mold – Questions & Answers

As a mold inspector, attic mold is one of the most common issues that I come across in the field, and not surprisingly the topic of much debate and questions.

In this article I will detail the most common questions and answers regarding attic mold, while providing some advice on how to deal with it.

Why do we get attic mold?

Just like mold found anywhere else in the home, it needs a moisture source, moderate temperature and an organic food source to grow. There are a number of sources that can contribute to this. Due to past construction methodologies, weather conditions, lack of maintenance and mismanagement of the attic space, I have listed the most common reasons below…

Newer Building Materials – Older roofing installations (60-100 years +) allowed for more air and heat to escape, thus reducing the chances for concentrated moisture to develop into mold. However, OSB and plywood (newer materials) are less mold resistant.  The move to manufactured materials rather than traditional wood products, combined with poor ventilation design has resulted in moisture into the attic, while sustaining a perfect environment for attic mold to flourish.

Poor & Missing Ventilation – Attics require proper ventilation to allow air to flow both from the soffits (exterior vents along the perimeter of the home, below the roof line) and out through roof or ridge vents. In addition, air that escapes from the home below (also known as stack effect) will need to be vented as well. When soffit vents are blocked or missing, airflow is not possible. This allows areas of the attic to form condensation, thus, providing the necessary moisture source for mold growth. Other issues include poor vent design, which can cause vents to compete for airflow, especially with gable vents (wall vents in the attic). Attic mold can claim residence anywhere moisture accumulates in the attic.

Improper Attic Ducting: Laundry, Kitchen & Bathroom Ventilation – Often, the ducts inside the attic are made of outdated (plastic) materials, which are susceptible to damage. Damaged, disconnected or unsealed ducts will discharge warm humid air. When this happens, it comes in contact with the cooler sheathing surface, allowing moisture to develop and eventually mold growth.

Inadequate or missing Insulation – Missing insulation keeps the attic cold in the winter and warmer in the summer. This combined with warm air leakage through voids along the attic floor (ceiling lights, attic hatches, fans, electrical conduit pathways & piping cut outs) contributes to moisture and attic mold.

Rainwater Ingress, leaky roof – As the name suggests, small leaks can saturate the sheathing and to allow mold growth.

Low roof slope – When the decking or sheathing is not sufficiently angled, airflow is compromised, so condensation forms more easily along the underside of the sheathing or decking. This problem will be compounded when the soffits are blocked or missing, as mentioned above.

Night Sky Radiation, Condensation – The strange phenomenon looks like patches of dark moisture staining and possible mold growth along the sheathing. In the Pacific Northwest, it seems to appear primarily on the North side of the attic.

This issue is common with newer tighter homes… leaving homeowners frustrated and builders puzzled because it occurs in attics that have actually been designed according to recommended code specifications and proper venting.

According to research conducted by RDH (A Vancouver based engineering firm) this happens when the roof sheathing temperature drops lower than the dew point temperature, resulting from a cold night sky. Frost develops on the roof, even though the temperature is above freezing. The sheathing absorbs the condensation, while the subsequent moisture once again, leads to attic mold. Check out a link to their study here

Does attic mold affect your health?

Fortunately, mold growth in the attic is not usually a health concern. The reason for this is because warm air rises from lower areas of the home, upward into the attic through voids in the upper level ceiling, rather than into the home. This phenomenon is also called stack effect. In addition, we do not spend a lot of time in the attic, so the exposure is limited.

So how do we deal with attic mold once it has been discovered?

It depends on how problematic the situation is. This is a two-part answer. First, you want to call in a professional to find out the source of the problem, so it doesn’t continue.

The next step depends on the nature of the problem and how much actual mold is found. This may involve bringing in a few different professionals, especially if the problem requires more than just mold removal.

Remediation contractors will be able to remove the mold, yet may not install new roof or soffit vents and fix duct work. At times, the repairs may involve a roofer, engineer & remediation contractor to ensure the job is fixed properly.

A word of caution… In my experience, it is always best to bring in contractors with specific experience related to what you are dealing with, rather than a handyman. You want to call a contractor with experience, training and the proper insurance to make sure the job is done correctly the first time.

Remediation costs will also depend on the following…severity of the problem, access, materials, equipment, labour, time and applied methodologies. For more information on this topic, check out my article called Tips for hiring a mold remediation company.

What can be done to prevent attic mold?

The simple answer is to keep the attic warm and dry. As mentioned earlier, call a mold inspector to find the moisture source. The attic will always have enough food in the form of organic debris drawn in from the outside… so deal with the moisture first.

Strategies that we believed to be effective for reducing attic mold may be changing in the near future, especially in and around Vancouver/lower mainland, with regards to the “Night Sky Radiation” issue.

Innovations to building construction have spawned many new approaches to attic design. Building science specialists, engineers and energy advisors are testing ways to reduce moisture, advance energy efficiency and improve structure. Until concrete protocols come to fruition, it is best to contact an experience attic/roofing/remediation contractor. Also, consider the following…

  • Install ample insulation to ensue the attic is warm, and around skylights as well.
  • All vent ducts should be made from the appropriate materials, (rigid metal/flexible aluminum, not plastic) properly sealed and vented to the exterior. This includes bathroom, dryer and kitchen vents.
  • The attic hatch, and all voids should be properly sealed to prevent moisture and airflow from migrating into the attic space.
  • Cathedral ceilings should have insulation installed and adequate clearance between the sheathing and insulation to encourage airflow.
  • Heat ducts should be properly insulated, especially in cooler climates.
  • Ensure that the slope is proper to prevent ice damming (cooler climates) and condensation issues on the attic deck.
  • Make certain that all soffit vents are clear to allow proper airflow. Installation of baffles (rectangular Styrofoam boards to encourage air movement from the soffit up through the attic) should be utilized to achieve this.
  • Adequate ventilation, such as ridge or roof vents should be installed to allow the air to escape.
  • Gable vents (vents along the side walls of the attic) should not compete with upper ridge or roof vents. They may need to be closed off. It would be best to speak to a roofer about this as needed.

For more information on this topic, just let me know. If you found this article interesting and informative, please pass it along…

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Tips for hiring a mold remediation company

In this article, I will reveal some key tips to consider when sourcing out your best option before hiring a mold remediation company. If you are unfamiliar with the potential dangers of mold contamination to your health and pocket book, take a look at this article first… Ok, now that we are up to speed, consider these two important questions:

 1) Where is the mold coming from?

Unless obvious, you will need to know the source(s) so it can be prevented in the future. Initially, many remediation companies are primarily concerned with testing the air quality for mold spore counts and removing the mold.

Although a good indicator of the indoor air quality as it relates to mold, air sampling and lab reports cannot help you figure out specifically where the problem exists. In addition, remediation contractors make the bulk of their revenue by removing the mold and restoring the home to safe conditions. This is great in the short term but will not prevent the mold from coming back. So your best option is to hire an independent mold inspector to determine where the mold is coming from, why it is growing and what to do about it. Mold inspectors leave the mold removal to the remediation and restoration contractors.

 2) How much mold can be identified, or how big is the problem?

This next question is so very important because the answer will help you determine how it effectively needs to be dealt with. In another article, I detail the severity of mold contamination, in relation to how much is found. Essentially, if you see more than 10 square feet of mold growth, you will need to call in a mold remediation company to rectify the problem.

Alright, so how do we choose the best mold removal company?

Below I have listed a number of questions that will help put you choose the best company for your needs…

Do they offer pre & post indoor air quality testing or recommend a third party?

It is standard practice for mold removal companies to conduct pre and post indoor air quality testing for mold. Typically they do this to maintain control of the remediation process. It also saves them time.

A few select companies will suggest you have an independent, 3rd party mold inspector come by to perform air quality testing before (if necessary) and after the job has been completed. This is further assurance that the company is ethical and confident in the work they do. Air testing by a 3rd party mold inspector will be able to verify through the lab reports if the air quality is safe upon completion of the remediation job. I wouldn’t suggest that all companies doing their own testing are unethical, however, to be sure that the testing is unbiased, it would be best to go with a mold inspector, not a remediation company.

Also, it is not unusual for remediation companies to conduct air quality testing as soon as they arrive on site. This should be avoided, as a thorough inspection needs take place first. Also, it is not recommended to test the air for mold when it is visible. This is not necessary and a waste of money.

Regardless of which company performs the air samples, they should be sent to a qualified American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) approved lab for analysis.

Does the company have a proven track record? How experienced are they?

One way to find out about the company is to check the Better Business Bureau (BBB) to see if there have been any complaints. You can also do an internet search titled “reviews for company” in Google. Many companies don’t have a lot of reviews. This does not necessarily mean they are bad. However, if a company has a lot of positive feedback, and provides an opportunity for clients to do so, then this is a good first step. You also want to find out if the companies will provide references for past work completed, and if they offer a guarantee for their work.

It is advisable to find out how long the company has been doing business and how much experience their employees have. You should ask the contractor if this is their full time job, or just a part time endeavor. Often a strata or property management company will use handymen, as they charge less. In addition to being less expensive, they typically lack the necessary training and expertise needed to perform the job. So always choose a remediation company over a handyman.

Does the company take the time to learn about your mold problem?

This is an important part of your search. The company representative should ask you a number of questions over the phone to learn as much as possible prior to booking a visit. Some questions include…

  • When did you first notice the mold?
  • How did you discover the mold?
  • Is there a moldy or musty is an odour?
  • Where is the mold?
  • Is this a reoccurring mold problem?
  • Have you spoken to any other companies? What did they tell you?
  • Have you had any prior testing done?
  • Are you aware of any present or past leaks?
  • Do your use your kitchen and bathroom fans?
  • Has the outside of the home and or the roof been inspected?

 These questions will show you that they truly want to understand and solve your mold problem.

Mold Remediation

Remediation contractor at work

 Will the company provide a clear scope of work along with the quote?

 After their initial assessment the company should provide a detailed plan (scope of work) on how they will remove the mold and restore your home to a safe living environment. The quote and scope of work should be detailed and specific, yet absent of additional work that is not required. It should include details about containment and equipment use.

 There are several remediation companies operating in each city, so be sure to ask for a few quotes to compare. If you are not 100% clear on what they are providing for you, then ask them to explain and justify it. And last, make sure that you have a full scope of work along with the quote before the job begins. This will protect you from additional charges that “come up” after the job begins.

Do the company technicians have the appropriate credentials, training, insurance and experience for the job?

 There are very strict protocols set out by associations and organizations offering certifications. The Institute of Inspection Cleaning & Restoration Certification (IICRC) and the Restoration Industry Association (RIA) are two such examples. Remediation companies are required to follow these protocols when removing mold. You’ll want to ask if they do so and if their employees are certified.

They should belong to a relevant association, such as the Indoor Air Quality Association (IAQA). Find out if the company has other experts that can be called in to help them, such as Industrial Hygienists. You should also ask if they work with insurance companies in case you want to make a claim.

 Do they use safe cleaning agents during remediation?

 There are many cleaning products and chemicals that are used remediation contractors. Some of the chemicals in the cleaners are not approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Properly certified contractors are knowledgeable about cleaning and restoration methods, chemicals and cleaners. Ideally, they should be using non toxic Eco-friendly natural products. Ask if any of the products they use have been linked to heath issues, and therefore not recommended for use.

 Are you getting fair value?

 When you take a look at the quotation, ask yourself if everything seems reasonable. This may be difficult, especially if you are not experienced at studying their quotes or scope of work.

As mentioned earlier, it is best to compare quotes from a few different companies. You may consider calling an established, credible mold inspector for an opinion. Ideally the scope of work from each company should be relatively consistent. If a big discrepancy exists between the companies, you will need to probe further to find out why.  

 Some companies will offer a free estimate in an effort to earn your business. This is great, but should not be expected. I do not recommend choosing a company for this reason alone. Remediation companies charge by the time it takes to complete the job, the service required, labour and the products they use. So, in reality, the estimate is only free if the company does not get the job. You can be sure that they will build the cost of the “free” estimate into the final bill.

 For more information on this topic, feel free to contact me at 604-729-4261

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Is winter construction linked to mold?

In this article I will highlight some important considerations to think about if you are planning to buy, build or have recently purchased a new home that was built during the winter.

Before we dive into the details, lets talk about mold

Mold in our homes is becoming a frequent topic of discussion as we learn more about the damage that it causes, and potential impact on our heath. Much of this conversation leads to the necessary remediation efforts to remove mold when it becomes problematic. The focus is typically reactive.

The next step usually involves figuring out ways to prevent the mold from coming back. I guess it is human nature to learn from our mistakes so we don’t make them again. The more expensive or dangerous the mold issue is, the more we pay attention.

It would be extremely rare for people to ask me if their newly constructed home may end up with mold issues, resulting from the original construction. Home buyers do not seem to consider whether or not their new homes may actually be harboring mold.

As you will discover below, I believe they should be thinking about this, especially since mold is often not discovered until the homeowner begins to notice heath issues similar to mold exposure (allergy or flue like symptoms, dry throat, etc) or they smell a musty or moldy odours. I also think that it might have something to do with our tendencies to be reactive, coupled by the fact that mold is still a mystery to most folks.

So why is mold a mystery?

The sole reason mold exists is to break down dead organic materials in our outdoor environment. So essentially, mold is nature’s recycling program. If we didn’t have mold, we would be walking around waist deep in vegetation and debris.

Mold is a type of fungus and their spores are everywhere, so getting rid of them is not possible. Mold needs moisture, moderate temperatures and a food source (organic material) to live. Aside from the moderate temperatures and food sources, the single most important ingredient for mold to grow is moisture. Remove the moisture and the mold will stop growing.

However, what many people don’t think about or know is that mold is remarkably resilient. It can dry out, and remain dormant for thousands of years, only to start growing again when the conditions are once again ideal.

Mold is also mysterious because unlike plants, which need sunlight to photosynthesize, mold cannot do that, so it must grow in dark areas and often hidden from sight. That is why it can be discovered indoors behind walls, furniture, in crawlspaces, attics, behind shower walls, etc. Unfortunately for us, mold does not know that we would be much happier and healthier if it just stayed outside.

Getting back to winter construction…

Here in the Pacific Northwest, or more specifically Vancouver (which I commonly refer to as “Raincouver”) we live in a rain forest. We get a lot of rain from October all the way through to May – more than ½ the year!

In fact, this year we had record rainfalls in October. According to CBC News, It rained 28 out of 31 days in Vancouver, surpassing the old record of 26 days. November was wet too with 25 days. It’s now December, and we are getting snow. Vancouver snow does not tend to stay around for long, so it causes more wet slushy conditions.

While driving through the city these past few months, I witnessed several homes under construction and piles of wood that were completely saturated from the rain. Not only was the structure wet, the concrete foundation walls were soaked. Considering these circumstances, I would suggest that winter construction is not the ideal time to build a home, especially here Vancouver, Seattle, etc.

As a home and mold inspector, I began to wonder…

With all of this rain, how do we know that the building materials that go into the new homes are not going to become moldy?

In reality, we have to rely on the supplier to send dry materials to the site. Next, the builder must ensure that the construction materials stay dry or below 19% moisture content before they can be used. After all, once the building has been finished (covered by drywall and insulated) there is no way for us to see what is actually going on behind the walls.

In addition, houses are going up faster and faster these days, as there is a lot of money on the line when projects are delayed. As a result, some builders may in fact be pressured to complete the houses as quickly as possible, without taking the necessary steps to keep the construction materials and framing dry.

No matter how tempting it may be, I’m not going to be a “mold prevention vigilante” running around with my moisture meter, testing the framing, piles of lumber or drywall in all of these construction sites before the homes are closed up.

Organic, wet materials can begin to spawn mold growth within 24-48 hours. Along with the other issues mentioned, even if a small area of mold begins to grow before it dries, a seemingly harmless leak, trapped moisture from evaporation or condensation can result in a serious mold problem anytime in the future. This is especially true with newer, tightly built energy efficient homes that lack proper ventilation.

So what is the answer?

Construction during the winter poses some unique challenges for builders as they work through wet, cold conditions. The first step goes back to the beginning of the article. We have to change the way we think about dealing with mold, by being proactive, rather than reactive. This involves understanding the procedures that a builder needs to take in order to protect the framing and construction materials from moisture, throughout the entire building process.

This can be accomplished through:

  • The use of drying & heating equipment
  • Setting up containment areas
  • Installing tarps
  • By frequent moisture testing

These measures can reduce the risk of hidden mold following construction. However, if mold related issues become apparent soon after construction, complications may arise with respect to resolving these issues.

Based on what I am seeing, I think that building a home during the winter (especially in wet climates) can lead to future problems. Taking the precautions to keep the home dry will likely be an expensive undertaking. If you do plan to have a home built in the winter, consider the following questions…

  • What steps are builders required to take to ensure that a building stays dry during construction?
  • Who is enforcing these rules?
  • Do the Homeowner warranty programs cover mold damage in new homes?
  • Are insurance policies are available, and if so what do they include with respect to mold?

At the end of the day I believe that much consideration should be given to this topic, so home buyers will be aware of the potential implications related to the impact mold can have on new homes, our health and pocket book following winter construction.

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Managing Risk in a Red-hot Real Estate Market

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Did you miss out on a home inspection when you bought your home?

With the real estate market in the lower mainland on a steady rise with too little inventory and excess demand, it is no secret that homebuyers are facing the domino effect of challenges.  The “dance” unfortunately includes skyrocketing prices, tight closing dates, and bidding wars.

Under normal market conditions, homebuyers submit an offer and make a decision to buy the home, subject to a home inspection. The homebuyer has more control over the buying process. They are clear on their perceived value of the home & the investment that they are about to make based on the condition of the home. They can also identify, should they proceed with the purchase, what needs to be done following the transaction.

However, under the current extra-ordinary conditions of the market, homebuyers have been forced to change the way they do their due diligence as a consumer.  Many buyers are arranging home inspections before they even submit offers for sale, while others are choosing to do inspections after the home has been purchased.

In cases where inspections are arranged prior to making an offer, ideally the inspection goes well, they submit a clean offer and get the deal done. Now they can start on a budget and prioritize the “fix it” list before moving in.

However, this gamble is more often met with frustration, because buyers need to move and buy another home quickly. In addition, they have been put in a position to compete for a new home only to get outbid by a higher offer. The cycle can go on and on.

Anticipating the repetition of these experiences on subsequent properties, buyers will need to set aside more funds for inspection services.

Even more concerning are scenarios where accepted offers have unrealistically short time frames or are subject to “no inspection”, putting buyers in a vulnerable, risky position.

 

What if you find yourself unable to have a home inspection done prior to closing?

Until the conditions that are creating this market change, this is the inevitable reality.  So what is a homebuyer to do?  What if you find yourself unable to have a home inspection done prior to closing?  Is it worthwhile to get an inspection post-purchase?

Absolutely. All homes need repairs and maintenance. It is better late than never.

Should you wait a few months, or get it done sooner?  I recommend having it done as soon as the current homeowners move out. This way, all of the storage and furniture will be out of the way and the home will be easy to view, with few limitations (areas that cannot be seen due to carpeting, furniture, appliances, wall hangings, etc)

Further, it makes sense to know what repairs are necessary before you move all of your furniture and belongings into the home, especially if you plan to renovate. Your inspector will be able to give you a report, detailing what needs to be repaired, and ideally, list the priorities.

If you missed out on an inspection and have already taken possession, then it would be wise to arrange a maintenance inspection. Again, this should be done as soon as possible.

 

New Home Purchases:

Should you get a brand new home inspected? If so when?

With newly built homes, there is usually a warrantee program provided by the builder. Often, home buyers will wait until just before their first year expires before they go ahead with the home inspection. After the inspection, they can go back to the builder and have the deficiencies fixed.

Yes, it is wise to have a new home inspected. However, I believe it is best to arrange the inspection when or shortly after you take possession, in case there are any conflicts, which need to be resolved between you and the builder (this happens quite often, unfortunately).

 

Buying and older home?

If the home is older, (before the 1980’s) your risk factor can be significant… Any safety or environmental issues like faulty wiring; structural flaws, asbestos or mold can be dealt with before you move in. Expensive environmental concerns, such a leaky oil tank will need to be addressed as soon as possible, along with a sizable budget.

As with all inspections, see if you can get your hands on permits, paperwork and receipts for new boilers, furnaces, water heaters, roof replacement, renovations, testing for asbestos documents and a scan for a hidden oil tank, if possible.

At the end of the day, regardless of market conditions and risk factors all homes will need to be inspected whether they brand new, old or in between.

For more information on this topic, or anything mold related feel free to contact me at 604-729-4261 or sean@homeinspectorsean.com and I’ll help you out.

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Thermographic Inspections… Are they necessary?

 

The first thermographic cameras were extremely large, expensive awkward machines.

Over the years, the technology has improved, much reducing the size and prices of these amazing cameras.

Although still considered expensive as tools go, they are more affordable each year, so inspectors are beginning to add them to their arsenal of inspection equipment.

Throughout the article, I will also call them by their other common names, infrared thermal cameras, infrared imagers and thermographic cameras.

Essentially, infrared thermal cameras detect & measure temperature patterns on a given surface. The temperature differences are assigned colours for easy identification.

When combined with other tools, they can help identify a number of issues within a home. Although they are powerful and sensitive tools, they cannot see through walls, like Superman, or even through glass, as many people believe.

These cameras have gained recent popularity in the home inspection field due in large part to familiar TV programs, where they have been used to successfully find hidden defects. In addition to home inspectors, engineers, medical personnel, the military, contractors and a whole host of trade professionals are using these cameras with greater frequency.

Often the thermographic inspection will be an add-on service to a regular inspection. Thermography is not covered under the standards of practice we are governed by.

More and more clients are requesting that we (home inspectors) use them during our inspections; however, it is important to mention that they are neither appropriate nor effective for every inspection.

Take this example… thermal imagers have been used on TV to reveal suspected areas of missing insulation within the exterior walls of a home. The camera picks up the temperature signatures on the wall surface. So when a cold stud (behind the wall) is attached to the wall, the image in that area may show a contrast of colours. What we are seeing is a transfer of heat from a warm surface (wall) to a cooler one, (the hidden stud) and represented as an outline.

This particular application will only be effective if there is a temperature difference of 15 degrees between indoors to the outside. So, if you live in Ontario in during the winter, then the power of this camera can be quite effective.

However, in BC you may not get the same result due to our mild weather. This is certainly useless in the summer when the weather is warm. So question the particular situation when you see this on TV.

Below are some examples of how inspectors can use this technology given the right temperatures and circumstances… based on proper training of course.

Detecting moisture issues 

Water has the ability to either retain heat or cold extremely well. So if there is a leak inside a wall cavity from the outside, and you scan the area, you may be able to see it when the temperature is cold enough.

 Locating areas of heat loss & air leakage

This approach are best utilized when the inside of the home is pressurized and the camera is adjusted to a greyscale palette. When applied and interpreted correctly, one can use this information to improve on energy efficiency, while saving on heating costs.

Seeing electrical issues

With this application, one can look for large temperature differences in service panels and receptacles that cannot be seen by people without the camera. This can be useful for detecting possible fire hazards before they happen.

Finding missing insulation

As mentioned earlier, this is a useful application in the winter, or evening when the temperature difference is suitable.

Locating pests

The camera can easily pick up the body temperature of rodents or other critters in the attic. This can be a super verification tool for pest management companies.

Testing radiant in-floor heating

Thermographic cameras are excellent for looking at the performance of the in-floor heat pipes. After the heat has been on for a number of hours, the outline of the pipes can be seen with absolute clarity. On the flip side, we can easily identify where a leak has formed. Leaks will usually appear as blotchy areas.

Leak in radiant heating

 

Commercial roofing inspections

This is best done at night, or when the sun goes down. An infrared camera can easily pinpoint any moisture within the layers of the roof insulation or membranes. Note: this is only applicable for flat roofs. This works so well because the water will retain the warmth from the heat of the sun during the day, while the outside air will be cooler… so any trapped moisture will be easy to see.

As mentioned, these specialized cameras are extremely sensitive tools that require adequate training to properly operate & interpret. All findings must be verified for accuracy.

Before hiring an inspector to conduct a thermographic inspection, ask him or her about their training. Ideally, the inspector should have a level 1 certification from a credible and recognized institution. Proper training will take five to seven days on average to complete.

At the end of the day, thermographic imagers/cameras are excellent when used correctly and for very specific applications, so consider whether it is needed, especially if the cost is extra.

For more information or questions, feel free to contact me and I’ll help you out.

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