The Home Inspection Professionals in Binghamton, New York

Members of the American Society of Home Inspectors. Proudly serving the Southern Tier of NY and Northern Tier of PA since 1989.

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1278 Vestal Avenue
Binghamton, New York   13903

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Serving Broome, Tioga, Chenango, Cortland, Tompkins, Susquehanna and Bradford Counties

Ask The Experts
Environmental and Radon

I live in one of the areas that flooded.  My basement flooded completely, but the rest of the house is okay.  Do I need to tear out all the wood cabinets and walls in the basement, or can they be washed?

Non-porous, non-absorbent materials such as glass, plastic, and metal are generally washable.  Porous or absorbent materials generally cannot be washed and should be thrown out.  The question then is whether wood is porous and absorbent, or not.  For purposes of mold control and decontamination, most solid wood products can probably be considered washable.  This does not necessarily include engineered wood products, such as fiberboard, chipboard, particle board, or hardboard, and definitely does not include drywall.  These are easily water damaged and, due to their porosity, are very susceptible to mold growth.  Some plywood products on the other hand may be suitable for clean-up.  If the wood hasn't been physically damaged, and if it does not potentially harbor muck and mold in hidden and inaccessible areas, such as inside walls, then removal is probably not necessary. 

The key to success is to act as quickly as possible to remove all non-washable materials that were under water, including any insulation, open up all hidden or covered areas, and wash all materials that are intact and sound.  Then dry out the flooded areas using dehumidifiers and fans after all standing water, debris, and mud has been removed. 

Because flood waters often contain massive amounts of pollutants, including sewage, proper personal protection is very important.  Please wear an N-95 mask or better, water proof gloves, and eye protection.  Hard soled shoes or boots should be worn to help prevent foot injuries from projecting nails, and don’t forget your tetanus shots. 

Our hearts go out to all of those in our community who have suffered from the recent flooding.  We hope that our readers are volunteering as much of their time as possible to help those whose homes have been ravaged by the flood waters.

I have a persistent moldy odor in the basement.  The basement is bone dry, and I have not been able to find a source.  Could you offer any advice?

Since you have eliminated the most common source of moldy odors, which is damp conditions and resultant mold growth, we would have to suspect sewer gases.  Sewer pipes are a conducive environment for mold and bacteria growth, which could produce the musty odor you’re experiencing.  Most basements have floor drains, which are often connected to the sewer system, and may be the source.  All drains should have traps in them.  These are U-shaped bends in the piping that hold water.  The water is retained in the trap specifically to prevent sewer gases from entering the house.  Since water isn't normally flowing to the floor drain in your basement, the water in the trap has probably dried up.  You should add a glass of water to the drain every couple months.  Another common source of sewer gas is a missing bypass plug.  In order to clean-out the sewer drain, a bypass is built-in to allow the cleaning equipment to get past the trap.  The threaded plug may have been removed to allow drainage past a clogged trap, and not replaced.  Install a new plug (and unclog the trap, if necessary).  Also check to see if you have any infrequently used fixtures in the basement such as sinks, showers or toilets, in which the drains have dried out.  Generally, you should be able to see standing water when you look down a drain.  On rare occasions, traps have been improperly omitted during the installation of plumbing fixtures.  Sewer gas is an obnoxious presence in your home.  If adding water to the drains doesn't do the trick, call in a professional for further evaluation and correction.

I am buying a house that has had some fairly serious mold problems.  It is going to be cleaned up before closing.  How will I be able to know that it’s been done properly? 

One hundred percent assurance that the mold has been totally removed is probably not possible.  In fact, no house is totally mold free.  Mold spores enter from the air outdoors, and come in on clothing, food and other materials all the time.  What we want is a house that is free of any active mold growth, and free of any significant quantity of residual mold from previous mold growth. 

The first assurance you need is that the conditions that caused mold to grow in the first place have been corrected.  Mold growth is always the result of excess moisture, from whatever source.  The source must be fully understood and completely corrected.  The second assurance is that any visible mold in the basement or living space has been removed.  Depending on the source of the moisture, this may involve gaining access to hidden areas behind finishes.  Removing the mold may merely require washing exposed surfaces, but often the mold is hidden, or growing on non-washable surfaces.  Removal of covering materials and disposal of non-washable materials may be necessary.  Next, you will want to know that the concentration of mold particles and spores in the house is no greater than outdoors.  This involves two tests, one performed in the house, and one performed outdoors.  This is most commonly done with an air pump and collecting plates which are then analyzed under a microscope to determine the relative counts.  The final test is the relative health of the people who will be occupying the house.  In consultation with your physician you should monitor your family’s health after you move in.  By far the most common symptom of mold exposure is an allergic response.  Toxic mold grabs all the headlines, but is fairly rare.  Nonetheless, in addition to typical allergy symptoms, you should be on the lookout for various flue-like symptoms that might be indicative of continued mold problems. 

Most importantly, you need to review the mold remediation plan, and you need to monitor the progress of the clean-up.  For this process it may be wise to hire an industrial hygienist or certified mold professional. 

I am selling my house and have discovered that the radon levels are high.  I thought that there wouldn't be any radon because I have a walk-out basement.  What makes a house likely to have radon?

Radon is a radioactive gas that is eventually released when uranium in the soil decays.  Radon accounts for 55% of our total radiation exposure, and is the leading cause of lung cancer after smoking. 

There are numerous factors that make one house more susceptible to radon than another, but the most important is probably the type of soil below the house.  We long ago gave up trying to guess which houses are likely to have high levels of radon, but, in general, homes built on gravel or loose shale are likely to have the highest radon readings.  This is because the particles in these soils have lots of surface areas which allows release of the radon from the rock, and the soil is porous which allows the radon to move easily and enter our homes.

Radon is drawn into the house from the ground due to stack effect.  As the air in the house is warmed, it rises.  This natural flow of air pulls gases from below the house in to replace the air that escapes from the upper levels of the house.  This means that any house that sits directly on the ground can have significant amounts of radon.  It doesn't matter if the house has a full basement, an enclosed crawlspace below, or a slab on grade type foundation; radon from the soil can enter the house.  Whatever living space is closest to the ground is likely to have the highest radon levels, so a house with a well used finished basement, or with living space on a concrete slab, is likely to have more radon in the areas where you actually do most of your living. 

One in every three houses in our area has an elevated radon level.  The good news is that the problem is usually easily correctable with a relatively unobtrusive radon mitigation system, for an investment of under $1,500 for the average home. 

We are going to be building a new house this spring.  What should we have our builder do to prevent any radon problems in our new home?

Radon originates in the soil below the house and rises into the house primarily through the basement floor.  Unfortunately, there are no building methods that will guarantee against radon entry, and while a radon removal system would be effective, installing one during construction may be an unnecessary expense.

There is no adequate way to determine if radon is going to be a problem prior to substantial completion of the home, however, there are some steps your builder can take to reduce the likelihood of radon entry and to make radon reduction easier if there does turn out to be a problem.

Gravel should be installed on the ground below any concrete floor as well as polyethylene plastic sheeting to reduce air (and radon) movement through the inevitable cracks in the concrete basement or living space floors.  Any gap between the concrete floor and walls (“french drains”) should be avoided and any cracks in the concrete floor should be sealed with caulk.

If you wish, you can have your builder install a 4” PVC plastic pipe from below the concrete slab to the exterior for future use as part of a radon removal system.  The pipe must exhaust above the roof line and have sufficient room in the attic space or exterior for installation of an in-line fan, if necessary for radon removal.  Such piping without a fan is rarely successful in reducing radon levels, but might make a future system installation easier.

In any case, we recommend testing for radon before any finishes are installed in a basement area to ensure that necessary sealing of the floor and walls can occur for greatest effectiveness of any installed system.

We were planning on removing the existing vinyl floor in our kitchen and installing new vinyl. We have been told, however, that the vinyl floor has asbestos. Is this true and is it hazardous?

It is very likely that it does contain asbestos. Vinyl asbestos tiles, asphalt tiles, some adhesives, and backings of many sheet vinyl floorings contain asbestos. In fact many materials throughout your home are likely to contain asbestos fibers.

The health hazard associated with low levels of asbestos fiber exposure is still an open debate. In any case, it only makes sense to remove such products as thoughtfully and carefully as possible to reduce the release of fibers. Whenever possible, we suggest avoiding the removal of older resilient flooring. If removal is necessary, we recommend that it be professionally done.

We are going to be building a new house this spring.  What should we have our builder do to prevent any radon problems in our new home?

Radon originates in the soil below the house and rises into the house primarily through the basement floor.  Unfortunately, there are no building methods that will guarantee against radon entry, and while a radon removal system would be effective, installing one during construction may be an unnecessary expense.

There is no adequate way to determine if radon is going to be a problem prior to substantial completion of the home, however, there are some steps your builder can take to reduce the likelihood of radon entry and to make radon reduction easier if there does turn out to be a problem.

Gravel should be installed on the ground below any concrete floor as well as polyethylene plastic sheeting to reduce air (and radon) movement through the inevitable cracks in the concrete basement or living space floors.  Any gap between the concrete floor and walls (“french drains”) should be avoided and any cracks in the concrete floor should be sealed with caulk.

If you wish, you can have your builder install a 4” PVC plastic pipe from below the concrete slab to the exterior for future use as part of a radon removal system.  The pipe must exhaust above the roof line and have sufficient room in the attic space or exterior for installation of an in-line fan, if necessary for radon removal.  Such piping without a fan is rarely successful in reducing radon levels, but might make a future system installation easier.

In any case, we recommend testing for radon before any finishes are installed in a basement area to ensure that necessary sealing of the floor and walls can occur for greatest effectiveness of any installed system.

We recently discovered some gray mold or mildew on the walls in our 2nd floor closets.  Is this hazardous and how do we get rid of it?

This is a very complex subject that probably should involve hiring a professional to visit the home and assess the situation more thoroughly than can be done here.  But the 1st part of dealing with any mold problem is to find the source.  All mold requires moisture to grow.  Since the mold was found in several closets, it is unlikely that the moisture is due to leakage.  We would suspect generally high levels of moisture or excess humidity levels throughout the house.  The house may not feel moist to you, but the levels are high enough that condensation is occurring.  Moisture condenses on cold surfaces, which means exterior walls, where clothes or other stored objects prevent warm air circulation in winter.  We generate significant amounts of moisture just by living in the house, breathing, showering, cooking, watering plants, etc.  We like to add moisture by running whole house or room humidifiers.  We forget to use our bathroom or kitchen ventilators to get rid of excess moisture, or they don’t work right.  We exhaust the clothes dryer into the house, in a misguided attempt to save heat energy.  A wet basement or crawlspace may be contributing excess moisture into the air.  Sometimes the problem can be even more serious.  A gas heated house with a blocked chimney or vent, can dump massive amounts of exhaust gases containing moisture into the interior air, causing wet walls and potential carbon monoxide poisoning.  If mold is appearing on exterior walls in your house, take it seriously. 

The cleanup is usually easy, just use detergent and water.  All mold involves some degree of potential health effects.  Check the EPAs website www.gov/iaq/molds/moldguide.html for great information on safe cleanup.

I am interested in buying a house that I just found out has a buried oil tank.  The tank is not being used.  Is it still a problem if it isn't being used?

Further investigation of a buried oil tank is always warranted.  The typical residential buried tank is susceptible to rust and subsequent leakage.  Oil contamination of the soil is an environmental hazard for which the property owner at the time of discovery can and will be held liable.  Typically, contaminated soil will have to be removed to a secure landfill to prevent further spreading of the spill and the potential contamination of the water supply.  The process of decontamination can obviously involve considerable expense.

In a consumer bulletin the DEC claims that 50% of all buried oil tanks over 20 years old leak.  The actual likelihood of leakage depends heavily on the characteristics of the soil, in particular how wet or poorly drained the ground is in the area of the tank.  A tank can begin leaking in only a few years or can remain sound for many decades.

A tank that is in use can be tested for evidence of leakage.  There are companies that provide this service and several methods of testing.  However, these tests do not predict how much longer a tank will last, so a passed test only means that it hasn't leaked yet.  A common response to an abandoned buried oil tank is to completely empty the tank, fill it with sand to prevent future collapse and to remove the fill and vent pipes.  You may never know if this has been accomplished on any property that you may buy.  It is always wise to ask about the history of the property, including the existence of any used or unused buried oil tanks. 

The safest approach to a buried oil tank is to insist that the tank be removed prior to closing.  In the process of removal, any contamination of the soil will be discovered.  The contractor removing the tank is required by law to notify the DEC if the soil is contaminated, providing reasonable assurance that the situation will be properly resolved prior to your taking possession.

My wife and I are trying to decide if we should buy a house with very high radon levels.  The seller has agreed to have a radon system installed, but we are still concerned about the possible hazards.

Radon is a radioactive gas caused by the decay of uranium in the soil.  Houses built on gravel or loose shale tend to have the highest levels in our area.  Almost one out of three houses in the Southern Tier has an elevated level, and all houses have some radon. When we breathe in radon and its radioactive decay products we increase our exposure to radiation.  The result is an increased risk of lung cancer.  The risk is directly related to the radiation levels and the duration of exposure.  While no level of radon is known to be safe and no naturally occurring level is guaranteed to kill you, it is definitely in our best interests to keep radon levels in our homes as low as is economically feasible.  The EPA has determined that bringing the indoor levels below 4 PCi/L is feasible in most homes and has therefore set the somewhat arbitrary acceptable level at less than 4.

Radon systems basically consist of a pipe installed from below the basement floor to the exterior above the roof line, with an in-line fan installed in the attic or on the exterior.  This operates like a vacuum cleaner, pulling the radon gasses out from below the house.  These systems are generally unobtrusive, use minimal amounts of electricity, and are easy to monitor.  With so many homes having elevated radon levels, radon systems will be viewed as just another mechanical system, like furnaces, dehumidifiers, and air conditioners.

In almost all instances radon levels can be brought to a level within the acceptable range.  Radon system installers meeting EPA protocols should be able to guarantee their systems.  Once the system is installed and up and running, it is very likely that you will have the lowest levels in the neighborhood, and your low levels will be guaranteed.  Radon levels in homes without systems tend to vary widely from hour to hour, day to day, and season to season, with no guarantees of acceptable levels. 

All things considered, if a proper radon system has been installed, you should feel comfortable that your family is being protected.  However, it is recommended that you retest the house for radon once every two years just to be sure.

We recently bought an older house and are wondering if the water pipes are made of lead.  We understand that lead can be hazardous.  They are a dull gray type of metal pipe.

Lead ingestion, even in very small amounts can be hazardous, especially to young children, resulting primarily in potentially serious neurological disorders.  However, it is very unlikely that your water supply pipes in the house are made of lead.  If the water pipes are threaded at the ends with separate threaded elbows or fittings, they are probably galvanized steel, and definitely not lead.  Lead is a very soft metal that is flexible.  Lead piping will not be straight and will not have threads.  In our area lead supply pipes in the house are extremely rare.  On the other hand, depending on the particular community where you reside, you may have lead piping in the streets or coming from the main line in the street to your house.  The service pipe will be visible in the basement, where the water supply enters through the foundation or floor, just before the meter.  If the pipe is gray in color and has a bulbous or egg shape just below the point of connection, it is lead, otherwise it is probably galvanized steel.  We have not found lead service piping in the triple cities, but have found it fairly often in outlying communities.  Also, an older rural house with a dug well or spring may have lead pipe running from the water source to the house. 

The fact that you have a lead service pipe to the house, does not necessarily mean that there are elevated levels of lead, but it would be well worth testing for, and local approved water testing laboratories will be able to determine if there is a problem.  Whether lead is in the water is dependent on the characteristics of the water.  Some water naturally reacts with the lead in the pipes to cause the lead to leach out into the water.  Some municipalities add chemicals to the water to prevent this from occurring. 

Incidentally, you are very likely to find lead pipes on the waste side of the plumbing system in an older house.  The lead was often used for the drain below the tub, running from the tub to the cast iron main waste piping.  It was also common as the connecting waste piping below the toilet and is called a lead bend, and is found less commonly below a sink.  Again, it will be easy to spot because it will be grayish and uneven in shape, giving a molded appearance.  The lead from these pipes may leach into the waste water stream, but not your water supply. 

Those old gray threaded water pipes that you probably have in your house may be a problem, based on their age and corrosion or blockage, but they won’t be a source of lead ingestion.  On the other hand, if you really do have lead pipes, don’t ignore it.  Have the water tested, and consider replacing them. 

I am having a new home built.  I would like to test to see if I am going to have a radon problem.  How do I do this?

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas created as uranium decays to radium, which then decays to radon.  Since uranium and radium are solids, they stay in the ground where they remain harmless to us.  But radon is a gas, which migrates through the soil and enters our houses into the lower levels such as basements or crawlspaces, becoming the 2nd leading cause of lung cancer.  Testing for radon gas before the house is built is not really meaningful.  The characteristics of the house itself have as much to do with radon buildup as the soil, so two houses on the same site can have highly variable radon levels.  It might be helpful, though, to know what type of soil you have on your lot.  Loose gravel or shale will readily allow the radon gas to travel from the soil into the house, greatly increasing the likely radon levels.  Dense sand or clay act as a barrier and are unlikely to allow the radon gas to enter the house. 

The best course of action is to take a few preliminary steps when building the house that will ensure that radon removal will be easy, if later testing determines that there is a radon problem.  Crushed stone and a plastic vapor barrier should be installed directly below the concrete floor slab.  The foundation area should be well drained to prevent excess water buildup below the floor.  The concrete floor slab should be well sealed at the walls or any penetrations.  In addition, plastic waste piping can be installed and sealed to a centrally located area of gravel below the concrete floor or crawlspace membrane and run up inside partitions in the house, through the attic, to above the roof.  If radon is later determined to be a problem a fan can be added to this piping in the attic to pull the radon gas out of the soil below the house.  In any case, most houses can have excess radon levels abated for around $1,000 or less, making radon one of the least expensive environmental hazards to correct.

I have asbestos insulation on the steam pipes in my two-family house.  It is extremely expensive to have it removed.  Do I have to do it?

We are unaware of any general requirement that asbestos be removed from a multiple dwelling.  There is a certain amount of risk for you, however, if a tenant were to develop lung cancer and claim that asbestos was the cause.  Other diseases caused by asbestos are extremely unlikely in the low level exposures found in a residential setting, but lung cancer associated with exposure to asbestos fibers remains a possibility.  The fibers do not break down in the lungs, becoming a long term irritant that can provoke a cancerous response.  Also, the resale value of your property may be reduced due to concerns about asbestos exposure.

If the asbestos is in a location where people will be generally exposed, such as a basement with tenant storage facilities or a laundry area, we recommend that you be proactive.  You have three basic generally accepted options.  As an alternative to removal, you can either enclose the material or encapsulate it.  Enclosure would involve installing a permanent ceiling or wall that would isolate the material from the space where people will be living or working.  Encapsulation is usually the least expensive method and is much less costly than removal.  (Removal will also require the added cost of re-insulating the steam pipes for proper function of the system.)  Encapsulation is usually done by wrapping the asbestos insulation with lag cloth.  This process involves creating a thin plaster and cloth casing around the exposed asbestos, similar to the cast the doctor makes when mending a broken bone.  Anything short of complete removal of course leaves the asbestos to become a problem again sometime in the future.

In either case, we highly recommend that professionals do the job.  Amateur work usually results in more asbestos fibers released into the house than if nothing had been done. 

My son has a lot of allergies.  Can you give us some ideas of what to look for or avoid when we are looking for a house?

There are so many potential allergens in the home, that it would be impossible to avoid them all.  It would be wise to consult an allergist to narrow down the potential scope of the problem first.  As a general rule however, there are a few main environmental allergens that are responsible for the vast majority of allergic reactions.  These are usually mold or pollen related.  Dust and dust mites, insect pests, and pet dander, are common vectors for allergens found in homes. 

You should be looking for a house that is clean and dry, and easily kept that way.  Look for a house without carpeting, heavy drapes, etc., or plan on having these removed, since they will harbor dust and mold.  Older homes with dirt floor basements, and damp crawlspaces should be avoided.  Mold from these areas is typically drawn into the living space of the house.  Definitely look very critically at any older home with living space in the basement.  The finishes in these areas usually become moldy.  Any house that has had a heavy pet presence should also be avoided.  Plan on removing any dense vines, shrubs, or trees around the house that would increase the general dampness.

There is a wide divergence of opinion regarding the best type of heating system for your purposes.  It is our opinion that a well designed forced air heating system may be best, since the system affords a built-in means of filtering the air.  Top of the line high efficiency replaceable air filters installed at the furnace will help keep the air relatively free of allergens.  However, the ducts in any heavily used house should probably be cleaned before occupancy.  Also, a forced air system can usually be used to provide the ductwork necessary for a central air conditioning system that will keep the interior air more allergen free in the summer. 

Consider a house with a central vacuum system to ensure that dust is exhausted to the exterior when cleaning, and make sure a dehumidifier is installed in the basement to keep humidity levels below 50 percent.

We are selling our house and the home inspector tested the basement for radon, even though it isn't finished living space.  From what I've read he should have tested on the 1st floor.  Can I contest the result?

The question of an appropriate testing location for radon has been debated since the EPA established testing protocols in 1993.  Radon enters a home from the soil below, so the highest radon levels are likely to be found in the lowest areas of the home.  The EPA, in its publication, “Homebuyer's and Seller’s Guide to Radon,” states that testing should occur in the “lowest level of the home suitable for occupancy….which a buyer could use for living space without renovations.”  Suitable for occupancy is in the eye of the beholder.  We have seen plenty of completely unfinished basements set up for living, with a carpet on the floor, a couch and a TV, exercise equipment, or a children’s play area.  A hobbyist may spend large amounts of time in an unfinished basement, working at his or her projects.  In these instances the unfinished basement is being used for living space.  Many years ago we asked the EPA for clarification of this issue.  Their response was that the appropriate location should be determined by the intended use of the buyer.  Therefore, in most instances we defer to the wishes of our client.

On the other hand, a basement with a dirt floor, chronic flooding, inadequate head clearances, primitive exterior access only, or insufficient size to accommodate normal activity, could not constitute living space without renovation no matter what the buyer’s stated intended use.  In such an instance you might be successful in contesting the appropriateness of the testing location.  Be forewarned though that the radon levels on the 1st floor are typically one half to one third of the levels in the basement.  So if the levels in the basement are 10 picoCuries or above, they are likely to exceed an acceptable level below 4 picoCuries on the 1st floor also.

In the future, it might be wise to ask a prospective buyer where he or she intends the radon test to occur if this is a concern for you.  The appropriate location could then be negotiated prior to the arrival of the inspector.

I am cleaning up my house after it was recently flooded and I am wondering if I should be concerned about lead paint in addition to all the other hazards?

You should definitely be concerned about lead paint issues if you have an older home.  Lead paint chips or dust may be ingested or inhaled, leading to elevated blood lead levels.  Elevated lead levels can result in significant neurological impairment.  Children and pregnant women are at the highest risk.  While lead paint was banned from residential use in1978, and its use in homes was waning in the 1950’s, lead could be present in any home from numerous sources, including old furniture, so caution is advisable in any home undergoing major demolition, renovation, or repair. 

Three quarters of all homes built before the ban contain lead paint, but that doesn't mean that all of us living in older homes are suffering from excessive blood lead levels.  Intact paint in a well maintained home should not pose a significant risk to the home’s occupants.  The real problem arises when peeling paint is ignored, or when repair work disturbs the lead paint, resulting in lead chips or dust.  Personal protection should be used when doing demolition work, and work areas should be isolated from the rest of the house if possible.  This should include sealing off any ducts and creating negative pressure in the work area by installing fans to the exterior.  Sanding of any older painted surfaces should be avoided if at all possible.  Cleanup should include the use of a HEPA rated vacuum cleaner, since standard units are likely to blow the fine lead dust around the house.  And, most importantly, young children should not be allowed in work areas at any time until thorough cleanup is completed.  If you suspect that you or your family may have been exposed, a simple blood test can determine if your blood lead levels are too high.

I have heavy mildew growing on the wood ceiling of my porch.  I have repainted it several times, but it just reappears within a year or two.  What can I do to prevent this?

The growth that you see is a mold (technically mildew is a type of mold), and like all molds it will grow anywhere that organic materials exist and moisture or dampness is sustained for periods of more than a few days. 

If the porch is an open type, it will be exposed to exterior moisture and humidity, but the ceiling won’t receive the drying effects of sunlight or wind.  This makes the porch ceiling quite vulnerable to mold growth.  To make matters worse, moisture will condense on the ceiling during periods of high humidity whenever the ceiling is cooler than the adjacent air.  This may be a very common occurrence as exterior temperatures fluctuate throughout the seasons.  You should thoroughly wash the ceiling before repainting and add a mildewcide to the paint.  A mild chlorine solution is often used for mold cleaning purposes, but the EPA recommends detergent and water.  This will reduce, but may not prevent, your mold problem.  In our experience, we have found that vinyl or aluminum soffit coverings used as a ceiling are quite resistant to mold growth and may be your best solution. 

If the porch is enclosed, moisture from the ground below the porch can rise into the enclosed space and condense on the cold surfaces in fall and winter, causing the mold growth.  We find that seasonal homes are very susceptible to mold growth on interior finishes or furnishings from this same source.  The best solution in this case is to fully open and air out the space below the porch or cottage, if feasible.  It is also helpful to dry the space below using improved drainage around the structure and a good vapor barrier on the ground in the crawlspace.  Excess moisture will be prevented from rising from the ground into the enclosed porch or cottage.  In addition, it may be wise to provide a modest amount of heat to the living space during the heating season to help effectively dry the air.

 My house is for sale and was just inspected.  The inspector said that my chimney was blocked and the water heater exhaust was coming into the house.  I want to know why my carbon monoxide detector didn't go off.

Assuming that your detector was not defective, the answer of course is that there was not enough carbon monoxide in the air to trigger the detector.  This is not surprising for a couple of reasons.  First, a clean burning gas appliance actually produces very little carbon monoxide (CO).  CO is produced when combustion is poor due to misadjustment of the burner, impingement of the flame against a surface, or insufficient oxygen supply for proper combustion.  A poorly adjusted flame, or an appliance in a location with insufficient makeup air can produce significant and potentially deadly amounts of CO.  That’s why periodic professional inspection and testing of your gas appliances is so important.  The exhaust gases in a clean burning appliance consist primarily of relatively harmless carbon dioxide and water vapor.  Getting the exhaust gases out of the house is still important, but the exhaust may not be deadly. 

The second reason that the alarm may not have sounded is that standard approved CO detectors aren't actually very sensitive.  They are calibrated to alert you to situations that are deadly, not to simply elevated, and only potentially harmful, levels.  In fact, at the relatively low level of 40 parts per million, the standard CO detector will take one to six days to sound the alarm, if at all, but the EPA recommends a maximum exposure to 35 parts per million of only one hour.  Some studies have shown health problems from chronic exposures as low as 5 parts per million.  You can easily exceed recommended maximum carbon monoxide exposure without being alerted by the average detector. 

It is our understanding that the insensitivity of CO detectors was allowed due to the relative inaccuracy of low cost units, and the likelihood of false alarms if they were calibrated for greater sensitivity.  If you are interested in purchasing a much more sensitive unit you can learn more at www.coexperts.com.

I want to replace my kitchen vinyl flooring, which I am told may be asbestos.  Can I do this myself?

Floor coverings and adhesives, as well as many other products, manufactured before 1984 may contain asbestos.  Testing would be necessary to know for sure whether the materials you want to remove contain asbestos fibers.  For asbestos workers the health risk from asbestos exposure is very high and may include asbestosis or mesothelioma, two potentially deadly diseases.  The health risk from the relatively low exposures to asbestos fibers normally found in the home is quite low, especially compared to the risk from exposure to radon or environmental tobacco smoke.  At low levels the primary risk from asbestos is lung cancer.  While the incidence rate is believed to be very low, it is nonetheless wise to take precautions.

The best approach, if at all possible, is to leave the material alone.  In many instances you can install an appropriate underlayment on top of the existing flooring and add your final finished floor on top of the new underlayment.  But the added materials can result in trip hazards at doorways or inadequate clearances at appliances such as your dishwasher.  If removal is necessary to avoid such problems, hiring a certified asbestos abatement contractor is your best option.  However, there is no law or rule that says that you can’t, as a homeowner in your own dwelling, remove the asbestos containing materials.  Wear protective clothing, including a proper respirator, wet down surfaces to be removed with amended water (water with a small amount of detergent added), seal off the work area from the rest of the house with plastic sheeting, including any heat registers, and place a small fan in a window to blow air out of the workspace to the exterior.  Keep in mind that the less dust produced during removal the better.  Avoid any sanding or cutting with a circular saw as you remove the materials.  Avoid carting the materials through the house, or seal the materials in poly garbage bags before removal.  Most landfills will accept properly transported asbestos waste.  Check with your local landfill.  Be sure to wipe down all surfaces thoroughly when done. 

You recently wrote that a homeowner can remove asbestos flooring from his home.  My contractor says he can’t do my bathroom remodeling project until I have any asbestos removed.  How do I know what has asbestos in it?

Your contractor is probably reacting to a recent NYS Labor Law Rule that states that a building permit for remodeling work cannot be issued for any home built before 1974 until an Asbestos Survey is performed by a licensed asbestos inspector.  The Survey must indicate that no asbestos containing materials were found in the home that will be disturbed by the remodeling or repair project, or if found, that the asbestos materials have been removed.  This has to be completed before the permit is issued and work can begin.  The law is intended to protect construction workers from asbestos hazard, but the ruling is likely to be severely disruptive to the remodeling profession, and may put some remodeling projects on hold. 

Asbestos was included in numerous building materials throughout the home, including some types of flooring, adhesives, ceiling tiles, plaster, drywall joint compound, wiring, insulation, ductwrap, siding, roofing and more.  This means that an Asbestos Survey is likely to require that the inspector take several samples for laboratory testing, resulting in total costs for the Survey that range from $350 on up, depending on the size of the project and the number of various materials that may contain asbestos.  This does not include the added cost of asbestos removal by a certified asbestos abatement contractor if asbestos containing materials are found.

If you live in your own home and choose to do the remodeling work yourself, you will not be required to have the Survey or to have any asbestos removed.  If you wish to hire a remodeling contractor, and the Survey determines that there are asbestos containing materials that your contractor will disturb in the course of the project, you can personally remove the asbestos and reduce your costs.  However, if you choose to do the removal work, do your homework first regarding proper procedures to make sure that your work doesn't result in greater potential asbestos contamination, and be sure to use proper personal protective gear. 

I am going to run some wiring in the attic to a new paddle fan.  In your previous article you mentioned asbestos in insulation.  Does this include insulation in the attic?  If so, how should I deal with it?

It is possible that asbestos fibers may exist in almost any older insulation, however most of the concern regarding asbestos contaminated insulation is centered on vermiculite.  Vermiculite is a mineral that expands when heated, rather like popcorn, into a light weight pebble-like material.  This crumbly material is usually yellowish or light brown, and was normally poured into place from bags when it was initially installed.  The EPA has determined that most vermiculite used as insulation was contaminated with a significant amount of naturally occurring mineral asbestos, and that the asbestos can pose a health risk to occupants under certain conditions.  If access to the attic is limited and the material is not likely to be disturbed, causing it to release asbestos fibers, it is not likely to pose a health hazard and it is best that it be left in place.  This is the standard recommendation for most asbestos found in the home.  However, if asbestos is in a location where disturbance is likely, or if remodeling is going to take place that will disturb the insulation, it should be professionally removed, enclosed, or encapsulated.  The good news is that vermiculite used as attic insulation is relatively uncommon.  From our experience, only about one in thirty homes has vermiculite in the attic.  If by chance you do have vermiculite in your attic, you should, at minimum, take precautions to ensure that the vermiculite does not drop into the room below when you do your work, and you should avoid breathing the asbestos fibers or carrying the fibers into the living space on your clothes.  Since vermiculite is a loose flaky mineral, it readily produces dust, and a standard dust mask will not fully prevent inhalation of asbestos fibers.  Better masks or respirators are available at stores that sell safety supplies.

I recently bought a house with a radon removal system in it.  How do I know if it’s working properly?

Most radon enters the home from the soil below the house.  A standard radon removal system is designed to remove the radon from the ground below the basement floor before it can rise up into the home.  The system usually consists of a plastic pipe installed from the soil below the basement floor to the outdoors with a fan installed in the piping to provide suction on the soil.  The suction pulls the radon out of the ground and vents it harmlessly to the atmosphere above the roof line. 

A properly installed system will have a device mounted on the piping in a readily accessible area near the suction point to measure vacuum.  The most common type is called a U-tube manometer.  The clear plastic tubing contains a colored oil.  Take a close look at the U-tube on your system.  The oil on one side of the tube should be higher than the other.  This is the side that is tapped into the radon vent pipe.  The vacuum in the pipe created by the fan pulls the oil up on this side.  If the oil is even on both sides of the tube, the system is not working.  You should also be able to hear the motor, as well as the air moving in the pipe to confirm that the fan is operating.  Fans are generally warranted for three years and usually last far longer, but they could fail at any time, so periodically checking on the oil levels in the U-tube should be a part of your normal home maintenance routine.  Call the installer, whose name and number should be on the equipment, if you believe the system is not operating. 

The only sure way to know if the system is doing its job is to test for the presence of radon.  The EPA recommends that homes with radon removal systems be tested every two years to ensure that the system is still working.  Most home stores sell relatively inexpensive test kits that will be good enough for your purposes.  Generally speaking, though, if the house has not been significantly altered in any way that would affect the barrier separating the house from the soil, and the fan is still working, the radon levels should remain low.  Changes to the house that are likely to affect radon entry include additions, sump pump installations, basement bathroom installations, or anything else that would change the foundation or basement floor. 

I am interested in buying a house that happens to be near a power line.  Is there a way to test the house to see if there is harmful electromagnetic radiation coming from the power line?

Using a gaussmeter to test for the presence of the electromagnetic radiation (EMR) produced by power lines is a fairly simple and inexpensive process.  This device can also test for the same extremely low frequency radiation from transformers and electrical products found in the home.  Some home inspectors provide this service, and the local utility may be willing to take readings.  The problem is that, despite at least thirty years of studies, there doesn't seem to be a definitive answer as to whether the relatively low levels of EMR found in or around homes have any health effects, positive or negative, despite the many negative health effects that have been alleged.  The National Academy of Sciences and the National Cancer Institute recently released the results of a major study that failed to find a link between electromagnetic radiation from power lines and cancer, but other health effects may still be proven with further study.  Despite the lack of definitive results, it does not seem to us to be a great stretch of the imagination to believe that these manmade energy sources might have an adverse effect on our bodies, and that we should take steps to minimize our exposures until science can be more definitive. 

Until health effects, if any, have been quantified, a maximum acceptable exposure level can’t really be set.  But to provide some perspective, we have found, from testing we have performed, a typical background level of one milligauss or less in homes as measured by the gaussmeter.  And a general consensus has developed over the years that we ought to try to keep exposures in our homes from sources such as power transmission lines below two milligauss.  The good news is that extremely low frequency electromagnetic radiation from all sources, including power lines, drops very rapidly with distance.  The radiation from power lines is usually reduced to one milligauss or less within a couple of hundred feet or so, depending on the amount of current flowing through the lines.  If the power line is closer than this distance from the home, testing may be appropriate.  What this rapid decrease over short distances means though is that maybe we all ought to be more concerned about radiation from electrical products that are very close to our bodies; the electric meter just the other side of the wall from our easy chair, the microwave oven just behind our heads when we’re eating breakfast, the TV twelve inches from the kid’s noses, and the electric blanket over our bodies at night.  Whether there is a proven negative health effect or not, we could easily adjust our lives to reduce, at least a little, our exposures to this form of radiation. 

I have a radon system installed in my house.  The radon vent pipe runs from my concrete floor to the outdoors.  It has been working fine, but now I'm getting a loud gurgling sound where it comes out of the floor.  What can I do to correct this?

The sound that you hear is actually air bubbling up through water underneath your basement floor.  To improve the air flow underneath your basement floor the radon system installer removes soil in the vicinity of the pipe that draws the radon out from below the house.  In simplified terms, the better the air flow, the more radon is pulled out of the soil.  The water table, which is the level below which the ground is saturated with water, can be very close to your basement floor level.  (When it exceeds the level of your basement floor, water seeps in.)  When the water level is just below your floor it fills the small pit dug out by the radon system installer.  The air being drawn up the radon pipe pulls air bubbles through the standing water, causing the sound you hear. 

The radon system does not draw the water from elsewhere to below your house.  Radon fans are good at drawing air, but are not powerful enough to significantly move water.  In fact, over the long term, the system may help to make your basement drier as it exhausts moisture laden air.  The water under your floor will not actually be pulled up the pipe, so no damage will happen to your radon system, however, the water may reduce the effectiveness of the system during the period when the water table is high.  More importantly, you could end up with water entry into the basement if the water level rises any higher.  You should check around the exterior of the house to ensure that excess water is being well directed away from the structure.  This would include checking the gutters, downspouts and the slope of the ground.  If the high water table and resultant gurgling becomes persistent, it may be advisable to install a sump pump system in the basement.  If a sump pump is going to be installed it would be wise to consult with the radon system installer to ensure that the de-watering system doesn't compromise the effectiveness of the radon system.