Saturday, October 31, 2009

Can I Test My Home For Mold Myself? Do Self Test Kits Work?

Mold is a very common concern when dealing with indoor air quality. Many homeowners will believe that an odor or the reason they are feeling sick is due to mold without ever seeing the growth. The truth of the matter is that I find mold in only about 30% of the "unknown odor" cases I investigate! Often, the odor is coming from other sources, or it eventually goes away and the source is never discovered. The percentages are even smaller when it comes to a sickness in the home. Often times, these are truly resulting from work stress, lighting, or other factors in the home.

While it is not as common as it used to be, I still come across scenarios in which the concern has been increased due to the use of a home test kit. These test kits typically consist of two petri dishes that are set out for a period of time. One is used as a control outside, and one is the sample of concern. These tests work off the idea that spores will settle out of the air over a period of time and grow on the auger in the dish.

So you may ask, "Why doesn't this test work? If there is mold in the dish, doesn’t that mean I have a problem?" Here are some answers for you:

1. Mold is ubiquitous to the environment
Mold is everywhere! Contrary to what many homeowners may believe, there are many spores in your home. These spores are brought in through the air exchanges in the home, on your clothes, the HVAC system, and anything else that has air in or around it. Just because there is mold in the dish does not mean that there is a problem in the home. A control of the outside is needed for comparison. In a normal environment, the indoor sample and the outdoor sample should have a similar composition; spore levels in the indoor sample should be equal to or less than the outdoor one, and any variations from inside should be small or of a type that is not considered a water damage mold. Self-test kits did get one thing right by providing the exterior control, but there are other flaws.

2. A known volume of air must be passed over the samples.
Using petri dishes as a collection media is not a problem, as it is used in viable testing (living specimens are able to grow). However, the issue with the self-test kits is that there is no known volume. You know the time, as the homeowner will write down the hours the dishes were left out, but how much air passed over the dishes? Were fans on in the room, was an HVAC duct blowing on the dish, was there a lot of movement in the room, was the wind blowing outside? All these are factors that will impact the amount of air moving over the dish and the spores it may be exposed to. Some could argue that these are settled dishes and movement of air will lessen the amount of spores; however, this is still an issue with the accuracy of the dishes, as we don’t know the volume of air sampled and therefore do not know if you can accurately compare the interior and exterior sample.

3. Non-viable vs. Viable
This test is only looking for viable or living spores. What about the non-viable ones, or total counts? When looking at the indoor air quality of the home, all spores are of a concern because even non-viable spores can have health effects. While this is a minor concern with the self-test kits, it is still a concern, because looking at only viable samplings can misconstrue findings. Typically non-viable samples are taken first to determine if there is a problem, and then viable are used if further investigation is needed for specific species of mold.

4. Result interpretation
The home test kits are usually interpreted at the lab. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, I have often seen any variation in levels labeled as abnormal. When someone is interpreting results from a lab, they have not seen the home and cannot make assessments based on conditions in the home. I will say that their assessment may not be incorrect; I just caution that there may be other influences in the home that are causing a variation and are not attributed to actual growth. I will often review samples taken by other individuals and make comments on them, but I always caution that in order to make an accurate assessment you have to be at the home at the time of the sampling. I have intentionally taken samples as less than optimum locations in the past to see how sample results vary. A specific one that comes to mind is one I took near a bowl of rotting fruit. The fruit had visible growth on it, and the results showed elevations as compared to the outdoors. Had someone read these in a lab and had not been present in the home, they may have said there was an abnormality - when in actuality, someone just needed to get rid of some fruit!

Install Low Flow Fixtures

This saves in several different ways, depending on your situation: By installing low flow faucets and toilets, you can save money on your water bill, you can save power by not running your pump as often, and you can save by not using as much hot water.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Basics of Energy Star

Many people are becoming familiar with Energy Star certification for their home, but I still have conversations with individuals who aren't sure about the process or what it really means. It is really great that everyone is interested about Energy Star, but we really need to get adequate information out so that everyone is familiar with the process and how you go about having your home certified!

The first thing to know is that building a home that is Energy Star compliant does not cost significantly more than constructing a standard home. There are only a few items that need to be done, depending on your climate zone, that your builder may not already be doing. This is usually a air sealing and just a few insulating techniques dealing with air barriers. These items, again, do not add a significant amount of money.

Secondly, having your home certified does incur a fee. The party that verifies the construction and certifies it will charge a fee for their service. The individuals that perform this service are HERS raters. A HERS rater has been trained and tested to prove that they understand the building process required by Energy Star and how to properly test the home. The fee ranges, but there are some programs available depending on your location that provides assistance or rebates for this service.

To get your home certified as Energy Star, you have to score an 85 in the southern part of the country and an 80 in the northern. A detailed chart and more information are available at that shows which region you are in. The score means that you are respectively 15% and 20% more efficient than a home that is built to code. Again, this is relatively easy to achieve. A lower score is a better score.

Step 1: Thermal By Pass Inspection

The certification for energy star requires two inspections. A thermal bypass inspection occurs pre-drywall, and a final that tests the tightness of the home. I have had several builders miss the pre-drywall due to them not fully understanding the process and not being willing to let you know or ask questions. I have also had several homeowners contact me because they were informed that they only needed the final. This is a very critical point and evidently there is a large amount of misinformation out there as to how the process works.

The thermal bypass inspection is to verify the insulation and air barriers are installed correctly. Also, at this time, the HERS rater will evaluate the air sealing and give any tips on what else can be done to make the home tight. Air sealing is not specifically on the checklist and does not have to be inspected, but it is important, so we still tend to make comments regarding it. If the HVAC contractor is ready, the duct test can be performed at this time so that any leakage can be fixed prior to drywall.

Step 2: Final Inspection

The final inspection will consist of the blower door and duct blaster, if it was not done at thepre-drywall stage. The blower door checks the tightness of the home and the duct blaster does the same for the ducts. The equipment pulls air out of the home and ducts and we are able to measure the amount of air that flows through, telling us how leaking the home or ducts are.

The final step that you will not see is the modeling. There are two paths that you can take to get Energy Star certification: the Performance path and the Builder Option path. With the performance path, you must model the home, and with the builder option, you must meet certain requirements. Most individuals go with the performance path, as it is more flexible; with this path your home is modeled using software and given a score.

This is a very brief overview of the process, and there are other details that you will need to know if you are to construct an Energy Star home. However, this provides more than many know about the basics, and it allows you to get started with the process. If you are going to build an Energy Star home, contact a local HERS rater prior to starting construction to discuss the process with them!

Insulate Your Water Pipes

Many people know about this, and most do it if they have a chance of freezing their cold water pipes; however, you can benefit by insulating all water pipes, and the biggest gain actually comes from the hot water pipes. Just like I discussed last week with the water heater, the temperature difference between the hot water and the ambient temperature is significant no matter where the pipes run. By insulating the pipes, you slow the cooling of the pipes and therefore conserve energy and water.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Attic Ventilation: What Most People Don’t Know

Most individuals believe that the more ventilation, the better when it comes to the attic, and others wonder why they even have to ventilate the attic. The truth to all this is that it varies between regions of the country and systems that you see installed every day may not actually be functioning the way they were intended.

In the north, attic ventilation is used to prevent ice damming. This is when the snow on the roof melts at the higher regions of the roof and then refreezes at the gutters. This can lead to water damage in the home. In the south, the attic ventilation is used to reduce the temperature in the attic to help with the cooling load on the home. The main idea that needs to be taken from this is that with traditional construction the attic needs to be vented no matter where you are located.

Building code will typically requires a certain ratio of net free ventilation area (NFVA). Depending on where you live, this can be anywhere from 1 to 300 to 1 to 150. There are several methods of venting the attic, but the most common methods that I see are ridge and soffit vents, gable vents, and powered attic fans or ventilators. Each of these systems are used as standalone systems, and at times they are used in conjunction with each other.

As with almost any system in the home, there are some issues that you should be aware of when evaluating your attic ventilation or looking to modify it:

1. Soffit and Ridge vents must not be used with gable vents.
This comes directly from the Cor-A-Vent installation instruction. “COR-A-VENT ridge vents should always be installed with soffit/eave/intake vents of equal or greater area. All other vent openings (except soffits) should be closed off. The air passageway, or “Ventilation Chute,” between the inlet (soffit/eave/intake) and the outlet (ridge) vent must not be blocked or restricted.”

2. Powered ventilators may not save you money and can cause problems.
A study conducted by the Bureau of Standards found that the cost of operating power ventilators did not outweigh the minimum savings in cooling cost due to the decrease in the attic temperature. The use of solar-powered ventilators may correct this issue, but then you must weigh the cost of the unit vs. the savings in cooling cost. Powered ventilators have other issues that include depressurization of the home. This can cause backdrafting and moisture problems in the home if there is not enough ventilation in the attic to accommodate the fan or if the ceiling in the home is not tight. Even if the fan is not powerful enough to depressurize the home, it can still pull conditioned air out of the house through leaks in the ceiling and therefore cost you more money to cool the home. Powered ventilators must be used with caution, and I do not recommend them except in extreme situations.

Ventilation is important if you intend to stay with a vented attic. Shingle manufacturers may void warranties, and you can cause damage to the roof sheeting if the ventilation is not sufficient. The important item with any system you install is to make sure that it is installed per manufacturers instruction and local building codes. As mentioned before, a good source of information regarding natural ventilation and the various types of vents is the manufacturer Cor-A-Vent. The Energy Star Website and Advanced Energy also have resources regarding attic ventilation.

Insulate Your Water Heater

Many people will argue on this subject for various reasons, but the most common two arguments are that the water heater doesn’t feel warm and the water heater is in the home and therefore doesn’t need a blanket. The truth is that at 120 degrees Fahrenheit, your 75 degree home looks really good to the heat in the tank. No matter where the tank is, it will lose heat. As for the argument that it doesn’t feel hot to the touch, the truth is that tanks are becoming more efficient with their insulation, but they will still lose some heat. If you don’t believe this, put some towels on the top of the tank, come back after a day, and put your hand under them to see if they are warm.

A water heater with R-7 insulation at 130 degrees Fahrenheit can potentially save $33.10 a year based on a $0.10 kWh electric rate. This is not a bad return on a $15 blanket!

If you are going to wrap with a blanket, make sure you do it right and follow any instructions from the manufacturer. If your tank is fueled by gas, there are additional measures you need to be aware of, so make sure you take the time to learn how to install the blanket safely on your system, or have someone experienced install it for you.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Who Should I Trust? Green Washing in the Marketplace

Over the past few weeks while researching ideas for this blog, I have noticed a trend in the media sources I have consulted. Often times, these sources are online; as we all know, online sources may not always be that reliable! With trends being what they are today, many people turn to the Internet to gather information regarding potential purchases and to educate themselves on topics of interest. As energy efficiency and sustainability are hot topics at the moment, many companies are trying to capitalize on this.

Many companies are trying to market their products as sustainable and energy efficient. However, at times these products are only at most slightly better than a standard product, and in some situations, they might actually be counterproductive to what you are trying to achieve - especially when it comes to saving energy. So what is one to do? Here are just a few recommendations to try and keep your head above water when finding out the facts:

1. Any time a research paper is cited, find that document.
In an attempt to prove my stance on powered attic ventilators (of which I will go more in-depth at a later time, but for now let it be know I am against them), I discovered a disturbing trend among marketing material. Several companies used quotes from a research study conducted by the Bureau of Standards. In this study, the bureau found that the attic ventilators did not create a significant enough reduction in the attic temperature to offset their power usage; however, several companies have cited this research paper as a reason to use their product.

2. Don’t trust a single statement.
This is not meant to imply that you should be skeptical, but consider all arguments! For some products, there are several opinions by very reputable individuals - just because they are different doesn’t necessary make one right or wrong. Products have different properties, and what one individual may consider a poor product another may consider a good choice for their situation. This argument can range anywhere from radiant barriers to concrete countertops, but the best one I can use to prove my point in bamboo flooring. While the majority of the people consider this to a very green product, it may depend on who you listen to. Bamboo is a highly renewable resource, with maturity at 7 years compared to hardwoods at 30+. However, the bamboo is mostly grown in Asia and must be shipped, causing it to have an extremely high embodied energy. Is bamboo sustainable? It all depends on how you look at the big picture.

3. Look at the source.
This ties into the previous two statements and can also be stated as "what makes an expert." There are times in which the various components of the building community disagree with each other. So how do you determine who is the expert in the whole process? Look at the source, determine their experience, and use your own judgment. Just because someone has been building houses all their life, they’ve been to school for 30 years, or they write an article or blog on the Internet doesn’t automatically mean they have all the right answers! I was once told a story about a class that spent an hour lecture listening to the professor explain how the sky was actually orange and not really blue. This class never once questioned the professor because he was perceived as the expert. The next day, the professor quizzed the individuals on the previous lecture and they all failed because they answered that the sky was orange. The professor wanted to prove a point - just because he was perceived as an expert doesn’t necessarily make him right! The class learned an important lesson to use their own minds and never be afraid to question even a perceived authority.

Wash Clothes in Cold Water

This is a simple little tip, but many individuals don’t realize how much heating your water can cost! Clothes don’t necessarily have to be washed in hot water. There are many detergents on the market that work just as well with cold water as they do with hot, and some are becoming specialized for cold wash cycles. As with all recommendations, there are exceptions that require the use of hot water - and I have come across some of these, including the need to reduce certain allergens - but for most laundry cycles, cold water can be used. This alone could potentially save you quite a bit on your utility bills!

Saturday, October 3, 2009

When Should I Go Green?

The answer to this question is, AT ANY POINT AND TIME YOU WISH, but you can start today! During a recent home show, I had several conversations with individuals in which the final statement always went something like one of these: “I really want to do some of these repairs, but I don’t have time,” “I want to put in some upgrades and improve my efficiency, but I’m doing a lot of remodeling right now,” and finally, “I’m sure my home is really inefficient, but I really don’t want to know how bad it is!”

If only the individuals who made these statements just took the time to look into energy efficiency and sustainability, they might realize how wrong these statements are! To keep you from making the mistake of believing these statements, let’s look at each one and see how we can really act to correct these problems:

“I want to put in some upgrades and improve my efficiency, but I’m doing a lot of remodeling right now.”
If your walls are open and you are performing repairs, why aren't you at least adding a few efficiency or sustainable features? I always tell my clients that the time to make adjustments is while you're working on your home! For years I worked in insurance restoration, and we always told homeowners that you can turn a bad situation into a good one by making improvements you had always wanted to do. The same goes for any type of work when you are considering sustainable improvements. I understand that when someone is performing a remodel that there can be big cost associated with it, but some items cost little to nothing to perform. Here are five items to consider - and remember there are hundreds more. Just look at your situation and make improvements accordingly.

1. Increase your insulation.
If your walls are open, make sure your insulation is correctly installed, and beef it up a little if possible. This cost: little to nothing more than what it is costing you to replace the insulation, anyway.

2. Caulk joints and seams in the walls.
Make sure you limit the air leakage in your home. Having the walls open is an opportune time to stop leakage, even if it is one or two walls.

3. Donate old materials
Don’t send your old materials to the dump if they are reusable! Someone may have a good home for that old toilet or cabinet.

4. Use low or no VOC paints
Almost all remodels include paint. Make sure you use one that will not emit gas.

5. Consider future use
A lot of individuals look only a few years down the road. Consider what you would need if your family grew or an unfortunate accident caused someone to be handicapped, and make adjustments or plans for the future (i.e. block for handicap bars in the bathroom, increased door sizes to allow for a wheelchair, or make adjustments for a office to be easily turned into a bedroom).

“I really want to do some of the improvements, but I don’t have the time.”
This is a classic excuse, and believe me, I understand how people may feel! However, this is easier than you think. You don’t have to take a lot of time to make these improvements; in fact, many improvements are as simple as changing your habits. Here are five items that you can start today.

1. Use CFL’s
This one is self explanatory, but you would be surprised how many people still don’t do this!

2. Label your appliances with replacement information.
This one plays right into individuals who don’t have a lot of time. Often, when an appliance goes, we don’t have time to find the replacement we want. Take that time now and place a label on the back of the appliance with the replacement model, cost, and place of purchase, with a backup in case that store doesn’t have it. (However, remember you need to update this every so often with new information!)

3. Turn off your ceiling fans when not in the room.
Again, this one is self explanatory, and for those of you who already know me, you won't be surprised at this one!

4. Adjust your thermostat.
Just a small change in temperature on your thermostat can make a big difference in the cost to heat and cool your home. Set the winter temperature to 68 degrees and the summer to 78 degrees.

5. Adjust your freezer/refrigerator temperatures.
Setting the temperatures on your refrigerator can help make it run more efficiently. The refrigerator should be between 36 and 40 degrees and the freezer between 0 and 5 degrees.

“I’m sure my home is really inefficient, but I really don’t want to know how bad it is.”
I have no explanation for this comment. If you thought your HVAC wasn’t running correctly or you had rotted siding, you wouldn’t ignore them and not call professionals just because you were worried how bad it really is. If you don’t have the funds for an expert to assess your home, then educate yourself and look for the deficiencies, but please don’t ignore them! There are plenty of things you can do to improve your home that don’t cost a lot.

Install a Programmable Thermostat

Many people still do not have a programmable thermostat, and some that do still aren't using them to their full potential. According to the EPA, a programmable thermostat can save you $150 a year. Based on current prices, if you can install the thermostat yourself, this give a 6-month payback; if you can’t, the payback will still only be one to two years, which is still great!

If you already have one, then make sure you have it programmed correctly. Have it adjust the temperature while you are out of the home and at night. If you are not doing this, then you are not saving yourself the money that you could be. Many people have them programmed incorrectly because they have different schedules than what their thermostat may have allowed for, such as working Wednesday thru Sunday instead of the standard work week. The thermostats are becoming more flexible, with some allowing for day-to-day changes instead of the week and weekend schedule many people are used to. So, if you have this situation, check into a different model to see if it can work with your schedule.