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If you have allergies you’ve definitely noticed pollen season has started. This week my allergies started kicking in. Like other allergy sufferers, I’m looking for ways to relieve my symptoms. For most people, medication is the best and most used option. But, this blog is about homes, so what can be done to help make your home an allergy refuge?
First, we have to know the enemy. Right now, tree pollen is the culprit. According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology’s website the main tree pollens currently are oak and willow. I recently took some dust samples from around my house and one sample from outside. Sure enough, plenty of pollen like objects. It's a little hard dealing with old material because most of the material is very dark in color. The first likely pollen below was found in HVAC dust with a light microscope. The sphere is about 60 microns at x1000. The second image shows a likely spherical pollen from my vacuum dust. Even for a professional microscopist, pollen identification is difficult with a plain light microscope.
Not surprisingly, I found no pollen in the basement. I’m not saying there isn’t any pollen in the basement. There just isn’t enough to clearly show up in the couple tape lifts I took. But once I moved upstairs and vacuumed the carpet I found plenty. I also found a few pollen grains in my ductwork. The images below are from the outside sample I took just a couple days ago. The first thing I noticed is how much clearer the fresh pollen grains are. There is definitely tree pollen in some of the pictures. Again, x1000 magnification.
Pollen in your home will be concentrated near windows and doors. Most of the pollens above will settle out, electrostatically attach themselves to a surface, or come in with the dirt on your feet. Pollen is only a problem once you breath it in or get it in your eyes. Is there anything you can look for? Yes.
Dust is our enemy. Technically, dust is anything that is smaller than around 60 microns (that’s about a quarter of a hundredth of an inch). Most dust around your home is composed of skin flakes and textile fibers from carpets, clothes, and paper (think tissue paper). I would love to go into more detail about dust, but that requires its own blog article in the future.
Wherever you can find dust, you expect can find pollen. However you clean up dust you can clean up pollen. Always start at the top. For me, that means dusting ceiling fans. The most effective way to dust a ceiling fan is to use a wet rag. Wet rags trap the dust as you run the rag over it. Never use a feather duster because as you run the duster over the dust, the duster sends a lot of dust particles into the air. Doing nothing might actually be better than using a duster.
While the small amount of dust you sent into the air settles, clean window blinds and sills next. Again, use a wet rag to help prevent dust from being sent into the air while your wiping.
Finally, it’s time to pull out the vacuum cleaner after things have settled. Pull out your attachments and begin by vacuuming couches and recliners. Don’t forget to vacuum your pillows. As you sit down on a couch your weight compresses the pillow causing air to be expelled. This expelled air shoots dust particles into the air that can be inhaled. When you lay down and take a nap your putting your face right next to a pollen laden pillow if you don’t clean it.
It’s finally time to vacuum the carpet. Pay special attention to the areas in front of windows and doors. Pollen can settle to the floor shortly after entering through your windows. Areas in front of doors tend to have increased amounts of pollen because you drag it in with your feet. You would think that the pollen in your carpet wouldn’t be a big deal. But, as you walk across carpet you disturb the carpet fibers causing dust particles to be flung into the air.
If you’re in the market for a new vacuum consider buying one with a HEPA filter. My vacuum is a Hoover WindTunnel. With pollen being so small, a HEPA filter is technically needed to catch such small particles. Without a HEPA filter filtering the air, when you vacuum your actually blowing small dust and pollen particles into the air with the exhaust. People with severe allergies can be affected.
I tested this by taking samples from the bagless canister and from the screen on the front of the HEPA filter ( I couldn’t technically get to the HEPA filter without ruining it so I took samples from between the charcoal filter and the screen on the front of the HEPA filter). Guess what I found? I found pollen in the canister but none on the face of the HEPA. Here is what I found on the HEPA filter screen.
I found sand particles just in front of the HEPA. (My best guess is that they made it there because of their higher density. They are roughly the same sie as the skin and fiber particles.) While in theory you need a HEPA filter, my initial results indicate otherwise. I would not put sampling out of the question. Without being 100% sure, I prefer to error on the side of caution and get a vacuum with a HEPA filter.
In a previous article about filters, I said that using the filter in your furnace to clean the air in your home was not effective. If you rely on the furnace or A/C to turn on and clean the air in your house right now you’re out of luck. Furnaces and air conditioners are being used the least right now because the outdoor temperature is close to most people’s thermostat setting. If you want to clean some of the air in your home you need to turn the fan on your thermostat to ‘on.’ This causes the blower in your furnace to run constantly without the furnace or air conditioner on. As a result, the amount of air circulated through your filter is significantly increased. I suggested a MERV 8 filter as about the highest MERV you want to go to keep your air conditioner running smooth. At MERV 8, you can filter out much of the pollen in the air.
You would think that with pollen being so small it would not make such an impact on your body. The human body was designed to filter out large particles. Larger particles are not as dangerous to your health because your nasal passages are fairly effective at removing them before they get to your lungs. The dangerous particles are the small ones because they make it past your body’s filter system. Pollen makes it into your body where it is mistaken as an invader by your immune system. Your immune system triggers its defenses and one of the resulting chemicals release is histamine. Hence, many allergy medications are anit-histamines.
Allergies may not be new, but they are getting worse. Over the last several thousand years mankind has modified its habitat to select for plants that are annuals. Annual plants complete their life cycle, from seed to dust, in one year. As a result, they put most of their energy into reproducing. This allows us to grow corn (which is actually an oversized annual grass), but it also means we have increased the amount of pollen in the air compared to what once was.
You can plan on having allergies in the future. Pollen in the air is not preventable and, unfortunately, we are encouraging the growth of high pollen producing plants. With proper cleaning, your house can become a place of relief during allergy season.
Every day we are exposed to radiation. Sunburn is a type of radiation burn resulting from too much UV light. While sunburn may be the type of radiation exposure we normally think of, the largest source of harmful radiation comes from breathing in radioactive gas. This gas, called radon, has no taste or smell, and it’s not visible. Radon can’t be prevented, but you have the option to limit your exposure. Over a lifetime, reducing your amount of radiation exposure can help reduce your chances of getting cancer.
The number one source of radiation in the air is radon. No matter where you go there will be some radon present. Typically, there is 0.4 pCi of radon per liter of air. Inside of a closed home it is possible for the radon concentrations to grow significantly higher. This occurs mainly because basements and crawlspaces tend to have a slightly negative air pressure compared to the outside air. This negative air pressure causes air in the ground around your house, which contains elevated levels radon gas, to be drawn into the lower pressured basement or crawlspace.
Many people spend most of their time at home on the first or second floor. The levels on the first floor are often half the levels seen in basements. The first floor of your house can have negative air pressure compared to the outside. This causes the first floor to pull air from the outside through windows, doors, and other holes instead of the ground. The second floor, counterintuitively, can sometimes be higher than the first floor. The upper floor of a house gets its air from the first floor and sometimes basements.
So, when we test for radon we test in the basement (if it’s habitable) because it has the highest levels in the house. The basement is also the best place to test because it has the most stable air due to a lack of doors and windows. The EPA recommends keeping radon levels under 4.0 pCi per liter of air. Put another way, the radon concentration in a house can be nearly 10x higher than the outside air and be acceptable under EPA guidelines. At 4 pCi/l the EPA recommends mitigation.
If we know the radon level in our homes, how do we know if we will get cancer? The EPA has studied the effects of radon on the human body and estimated the number of resulting cancers. I say estimated because it’s just that, an estimate. Cancer is caused by a whole slew of things and determining exactly what caused cancer in a specific person is rather difficult. It’s even more difficult to do it on a national level so they estimate instead.
'Estimate' means it could be wrong? Not really. Originally, the EPA estimates were based models from studies on the cancer rates among underground minors. Questions as to whether or not industrial exposure to radon can be used to determine residential risks led to more recent residential studies. The estimates of lung cancer rates below have been backed up by case studies of real lung cancers correlated to actual radon levels in homes for specific people. In these studies patients were biopsied and had their houses tested for radon levels. Thousands of people in North America and Europe were studied.
It is estimated that around 21,000 cases of lung cancer occur because of radon. The low end estimates are 8,000 cases of lung cancer per year attributable to radon. High end estimates are 45,000 cases of lung cancer due to radon. If you get lung cancer you only have a 15% chance of still being alive after 5 years. If you smoke, radon is especially harmful. Radon and smoking are a one-two punch to your lung tissue.
If you don't smoke....
And if you do smoke...
Radon levels can vary from house to house because of geography and how the house is built. Around our area, Castalia down to Monroeville and Bellevue, and south of Norwalk tend to have high levels. Berlin Heights also has high levels. 48% of homes in Erie County have radon levels above 4.0 pCi. 55% of homes in Huron County are above 4.0 pCi*. Below is a map of the local area based on ZIP codes .
Green means the average is below 4.0 pCi
Yellow is 4.0-5.9 pCi.
Orang is 6.0-9.9 pCi
Red is >10 pCi
So how can you find out if you have high levels of radon? You have three basic options. First, some county health departments offer free radon testing kits. All you have to pay for is the shipping to the laboratory for analysis. Second, you can buy a test kit from Lowes, Home Depot, or Menards for under $20 plus shipping to the laboratory. Third, you can hire a professional, like Ridgeline Home Inspections, to conduct a radon test. Professional radon testing is a little more accurate because we have been trained to conduct tests for the best accuracy.
Reducing high levels of radon in your home is usually a simple process. You, or a professional radon mitigation company, can install a radon mitigation system. These systems operate by reducing the soil air pressure around your foundation. When the soil air pressure is reduced, your basement draws less of its air from the radon laden ground.
Radon is one of the highest risks for cancer that can easily be reduced. If you live in a high radon area and you spend a significant amount of time in your basement (such as a basement bedroom or play room) you should definitely have your radon levels tested. While mitigation by a professional can cost between $1000 and $1500, it is money well spent for people in high risk situations.
*Information from The University of Toledo 'Radon Information System' available at http://www.eng.utoledo.edu/aprg/radon/
Spring is here and that means it’s time to get a jump start on yard work. A great weekend project that many people tackle at this time is mulching and landscaping. A lot of times in the past I’ve thrown down mulch and so long as it looked good, the job was done. Really though, there are a number of issues that should be tackled at this time because they are interrelated.
While there are many steps that can be taken for a successful landscape job, this article is going to focus on what your house needs. As a home inspector, I’m concerned with function, not design. There are a few things that should be done to keep away weeds and, most importantly, insects. Some of the things that need addressed are, holes caulked, mulch in the right place, shrubs trimmed, and insecticide.
The first area a homeowner should start with is trimming the shrubs. This is a great time of the year to trim plants because it’s not too hot and there is plenty of rain. When trimming shrubs, it is critical to cut them back away from the house. There should be at least 6” of air space between the shrubs and your house. Shrubs that touch siding do two things. First, they are a bridge for insects to climb onto your house. Second, they prevent the siding behind them from drying quickly. Increased moisture can lead to moss or mold growth on the siding. Additionally, insects need water, in liquid form preferably but high humidity will suffice if necessary.
If you have an outside air conditioner unit you need to trim the plants and shrubs away from it too. This time, you need to trim your shrubs 2 ft away from the air conditioner. The air conditioner needs the extra space to allow for adequate airflow around the unit. If plants are too close it’s hard for the air conditioner to cool itself and can result in a shorter life of the unit.
The next item that should be addressed are holes in the wall. I know, you don’t have any holes in the outside walls. I bet you do.
Insects need only a small crack to gain entrance to your home. Often, foundations have cracks small enough to allow for insect entry that people usually overlook. The small crack in foundation pictured below is more than adequate to allow carpenter ants and termites access to your home. It needs pointed or caulked, depending on your skill set.
Another way for insects to enter your home without ever being able to see them is behind insulation board. Termites and carpenter ants, and most other creepy crawlers, love insulation board. They can excavate tunnels through it or simply crawl up behind the insulation and right behind your siding. If you have insulation board, cut it back. The picture below is of a joint crack in insulation board that has been covered with a cement coating to protect it from weathering.
Other holes often exist in homes where wires enter homes. The most notorious, in my mind at least, hole driller is the cable guy. Every time you change service a guy comes out and drills new holes through your siding. Another common area is where air conditioner lines run into the house. Most HVAC servicemen will caulk them. However, because such a large amount of caulk is used, there is a tendency for the caulk to shrink more. If too much shrinkage occurs the caulk will pull away from the edge of the siding and leave a hole.
Now your ready to mulch, but wait. Did you mulch last year? What about the year before? If your mulch has built up over time you may have to remove some mulch from below the siding. The ground and your siding need around 8 inches of clearance. If there is less clearance then insects are much more likely to crawl up the foundation and behind your siding. Remove mulch if necessary.
Mulch is down but you’re not done yet. It’s time to apply some pesticide. First, I need to point one thing out. I have a commercial pesticide license and I want to make it clear that anything you can buy at the local hardware store is nowhere close to being as effective as what a licensed pesticide business uses. If you already have some kind of insect infestation you should hire a professional. Professional pesticide companies are happy to spray your house as part of a seasonal maintenance program if you want the best job you can get.
If your house doesn’t have a current insect problem there is nothing wrong with a DIY approach. For a DIY approach I would recommend a granular perimeter spread. Spectracide and Sevin are two common brands you can find locally. Use a broadcaster of some sort and spread the granules at least 4-6 feet around the perimeter of the house. It is tick season and if you’re interested in preventing ticks in your yard you can apply the granules to the entire yard. These pesticides are usually made for applying to the entire yard. Again, read the label.
It is important to follow the directions on the bag. These pesticides may be off the shelf, but can still cause contamination. Spread them on a clam day and wear proper attire. One of the main ways people get contaminated with pesticide is spreading the stuff while wearing shorts. Don’t drag pesticide inside your home.
These pesticides usually need to be “watered in” to activate them. In order to water in your pesticide you need to spray the area with the hose. After the insecticide has been watered in and dried, it’s safe to walk through.
Once the granules are done, you should use a spray pesticide in a few locations. Any cracks that remain in your foundation should be sprayed. Where the foundation meets the house’s siding should also be sprayed to prevent insets from making a home behind your siding. Spray around window wells. Finally, spray the ground in front of doors to create a barrier.
When mulching this year, take the time to do a few extra things. Mulching is a great time to address common associated home maintenance issues, especially pest control. Your house may thank you in the long run.