by F. Stephen Masek
Too many landlords and managers don’t know what to do about mold. Many owners have been sued by tenants because they weren’t vigilent enough. Take a pro-active approach to dealing with mold and keep small problems from turning into big expenses or lawsuits.
Quick action is critical, so advance planning is essential. Conventional “wisdom,” like using bleach, is wrong, as is making your first mold call to an insurance company or “restoration” contractor. You need a good independent environmental consultant to deal with mold, and don’t forget about lead and asbestos. They may also be involved. While mold is not regulated, except by the general duty to warn of hazards, a mold lawsuit can be very expensive.
Improper actions by tenants are a major cause of mold, so it is wise to periodically send written reminders to them telling them that mold is naturally occurring and present in all dwellings. Proper ventilation, including proper use of bathroom vent fans, will substantially lower mold levels. Water from houseplants, tubs, and sinks should not be allowed to stand on walls or floors. Proper housekeeping and carpet cleaning will significantly reduce mold levels.
Remind renters that they have a duty to promptly report water intrusion from roofs, walls, windows, or leaks in water or sewer lines. Good leases require that tenants promptly report water intrusion and suspected mold.
All landlords should also regularly inspect units, or have managers do so.
Experienced consultants know that there is a strong correlation between messy, cluttered units and higher mold levels. Mold grows on window glass, or more properly the dirt built up on the glass which has not been cleaned for years.
Develop a questionnaire to give to tenants who submit a work order or voice a complaint regarding mold. Questions to include are: 1) Where is the suspected mold? 2) How long has the problem been evident? 3) How large an area is affected? 4) Is there an unusual odor? 5) Are there respiratory or other health problems that have developed or worsened? 6) Do you always use the bathroom vent fan and/or open the bathroom door and window after using the shower?
There are generally significant levels of mold present in the outdoor air. Thus, even demolition and cleaning of the entire interior of a building would at best lower the mold levels to roughly outdoor levels. Some molds are associated with health complaints, but there are no laws, regulations, or standards to differentiate acceptable from problematic mold levels. While one person may be quite irritated by a certain mold, another may not be bothered by it at all.
Mold growth often starts less than 48 hours after a pipe leak or other water intrusion event, so quick action is essential. Your first call should be to an independent environmental consultant, not an insurance company or “restoration” contractor.
A mold inspection includes a visual examination, testing temperature and humidity, testing materials to determine moisture content, collection of air samples, indoors and out, for comparison, and sometimes collecting surface samples (tape or swab) of suspect mold.
Some people like to show off expensive infrared cameras, but wet and cold often look the same, so a good old fashioned moisture meter is essential. Mold surveys or inspections should also include testing materials that need to be removed for asbestos and/or lead-based paint. While there are no government licenses or certifications for mold consultants, asbestos and lead consultants do have to be certified.
Whether there is mold or not, water intrusion should be stopped immediately and any wet materials that are not yet moldy should be dried promptly. Fans and dehumidifiers are very helpful, but it is often necessary to cut holes in walls and other areas to allow the air flow needed to dry all of the wet materials.
Besides not having enough equipment, two common mistakes with dehumidifiers are that the area to be dried is not enclosed with plastic sheeting. The machines, in essence, are trying to dry the entire Earth. Second, and just as comical, open buckets for the water discharged from the dehumidifiers are placed in the space to be dried, creating a repeating loop in which the water re-evaporates into the space and is again collected by the dehumidifier.
Mold remediation work should be well planned to avoid spreading mold. It is typically conducted within a negative pressure containment made of polyethylene sheeting. The workers performing the work should be outfitted with the proper personal protective equipment – generally Tyvek coveralls, full face respirators, and gloves.
If asbestos or lead is present, properly trained workers and other special procedures are required. Once the area in which the mold is contained, the non porous moldy materials are cleaned and removed, porous materials are demolished and bagged for disposal as trash (unless they also contain asbestos or lead).
Adjacent materials that are contaminated, such as insulation which was covered by moldy drywall, are also removed. Carpet is too inexpensive to try to clean. It is important to thoroughly clean wood structural elements where mold was present. Generally, the wood is sanded, wire brushed, or cleaned with abrasive pads. The dust from the demolition and cleaning is collected using vacuums equipped with HEPA filters. The wood and other surfaces are then cleaned.
Bleach is the wrong thing to use, as it emits chlorine gas, and can damage many materials. It will kill mold, but dead mold spores can still cause an allergic reaction, so a good soap or detergent is much better. It is a good idea to coat the cleaned wood framing with a biocidal encapsulant (thick paint), such as Foster’s 40-20 or Fiberlock IAQ. For more complex projects, the environmental consultant should be present during the work to direct the crew and document the work.
Masek can be reached at 949-581-8503, or see their web site http://www.masekconsulting.net Copyright© 2011. All rights reserved (rental industry publications may reproduce this entire article, with attribution to Masek Consulting Services, Inc.).