Putting Moisture In Perspective

January 23, 2003
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CHICAGO — Mold is making some homeowners sick in their homes, and the sensationalistic mold and moisture stories that wind up in the mainstream media are making professional HVAC contractors sick at heart. The stories tend to feed the fears of consumers, who then respond out of fear instead of basing their decisions on the facts.

In order to counteract the hype and put the issues of moisture and mold in perspective, the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) is holding a public session at McCormick Place January 28 on the “Impact of Humidity on Residences.”

The speakers and topics should be of vital interest to professional contractors, engineers, and the public. The session is scheduled for three hours but could last longer.

Seeking Accuracy, Balance

“Sensationalism and bias dominate mold discussions,” stated session chair Charles Culp, Ph.D., P.E., Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas. The public session is designed to offer balanced information from experts in HVAC design and construction, microbiology, medicine, law, homebuilding, and insurance. Its objective will be to present a truly unified front.

Beyond that, its goal is to include information that is “digestible for the nonscientist or engineer,” Culp said.

Contractors, however, were strongly considered when the session was being put together, due to their personal involvement with homeowners. In addition, they need to know how to size systems for sufficient latent (moisture) removal.

Mold is also a key area for professional and home insurance coverage, as many HVAC professionals and homeowners have discovered. “My insurance cost has risen and the mold coverage was reduced,” Culp remarked.

Consumers also need to know that, for instance, “Many types of mold, even black mold, can be benign,” Culp explained. “We need to get people knowledgeable on the subject.” The experts on these varied topics will be present at the public session. “Mold issues involve a broad range of fields; these need to work together to come up with effective solutions,” Culp said.

What should technicians say to their customers if they discover something that looks like mold, or if customers ask about it? “This is something that the attorney [in the public session] could be asked,” Culp replied. There probably is more than one answer.

Contractors attending can gain insights on “how you would think this thing through: Here are the consequences one way or the other.” In short, they need to do what Culp called “a value assessment.”

He summed it up this way: “It’s all about risk mitigation.”

Larry Spielvogel, of L.G. Spielvogel, Inc., King of Prussia, Pa., is chairman of the task group sponsoring the session (TG9, Residential and Small Building Applications). He commented that “It was the feeling of the people on the committee that something was sorely needed to avoid hype and hysteria concerning mold.”

Spielvogel has dealt with people who have found mold in their buildings. He said their reactions range “from A to Z. A large portion of the problem is that the general media constantly refers to mold as toxic.”

The reason the public session is being held at McCormick Place instead of the ASHRAE meeting site (Palmer House Hilton) is to make it convenient for contractors and manufacturers to sit in, he said.

In addition, a major effort is going forth to put together a homeowners’ manual, which would offer an “unbiased view of how to put in HVAC equipment.” The manual would explain how to make rational replacement decisions, and provide information specific to new home installations.

“When you get involved in a project where mold exists, emotions get stirred,” Spielvogel said. “On the residential side, people go on the Internet for information and there isn’t a lot of good, unbiased information out there. [They] tend to get paranoid.”

Doctors, Lawyers, Scientists, Builders

Dr. Joseph Jarvis, M.D., University of Nevada, Reno, Nev., will address building-associated symptoms and building-related illnesses, such as allergies and asthma.

“The illnesses which can be associated with indoor mold exposure are allergic respiratory conditions, such as allergic rhinitis (hay fever), asthma, and hypersensitivity pneumonitis,” he explained.

“Contractors working on air-handling systems with mold contamination may protect themselves from exposure by using properly fitted, maintained, powered air-purifying respirators with HEPA filters.”

His talk, “The Health Effects of Indoor Mold Exposure,” will include documented experience and medical literature showing that allergic respiratory disease can occur after unusual indoor mold exposure.

He will point out that specific care must be taken with the remediation efforts when building occupants have experienced allergic respiratory disease associated with indoor mold exposures.

“Remediation of moldy air-handling systems undertaken without proper protocols for containment of moldy dust will likely distribute the spores throughout the downstream surfaces,” he said.

Maralynne Flehner, Esq., King of Prussia, Pa., is chair of ASHRAE’s Task Group on General Legal Education. “During my segment of the public session (‘Mold Claims: The Liability of HVAC Industry Members and Building Owners Under the Law’), I’ll be identifying potential defendants in mold-related litigation, including HVAC contractors, technicians, and manufacturers; talking about the kinds of claims plaintiffs are asserting, including claims against HVAC designers, contractors, subcontractors, and manufacturers; the types of damages plaintiffs are seeking; and the kinds of recoveries they’re getting,” she said.

“I’ll also be talking about the kinds of things potential defendants can do to protect themselves in the first instance and limit their exposure if they are sued,” Flehner said. “The seven lines of defense I’ll be focusing on include: doing business in corporate form; client education and disclosure; protecting oneself through contracts; vigilance and prompt action; maintaining proper documentation; insurance; and good legal advice.

“Virtually all of the points I’ll be making apply to HVAC contractors and technicians.”

What are the biggest legal mistakes contractors make regarding residential IAQ? “In my opinion, the biggest mistakes HVAC contractors can make are putting personal assets at risk unnecessarily; working without good written contracts; failing to maintain appropriate documentation and/or generating documents imprudently; failing to deal with problems and disputes promptly; and not carrying adequate insurance,” Flehner said.

Philip Morey, Ph.D., Air Quality Sciences Inc., Gettysburg, Pa., will represent the air-sampling community with his presentation, “Microbial Investigation Strategy and Interpretation.” He will address mold evaluation procedures and the technical causes of mold growth, as well as inspection techniques, sampling strategies, and mold mitigation methods.

The “Homebuilders’ Perspective on Mold In Residential Buildings” will be explained by Thomas Kenney, P.E., National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) Research Center, Upper Marlboro, Md. For a number of reasons, mold is now a preoccupation for many builders, as well as homebuyers and occupants; Kenney’s presentation is expected to explore builders’ experiences and responses.

The “Insurer’s Perspective on Mold in Residential Buildings” will be given by David Golden, National Association of Independent Insurers, Des Plains, Ill. This presentation will address the insurance aspects of mold, such as claims, increased litigation, loss, and risk.

More HVAC Pros

Contractors can expect a hearty serving of professional, practical HVAC system advice at the session.

Joe Lstiburek, Ph.D., P.Eng., Building Science Corp., Westford, Mass., has been speaking on moisture issues in residential buildings for some time. His part of the session will discuss “What Happened? Why Mold and Why Now?”

The reason we have more mold problems, according to Lstiburek, is because we have more mold. “We’ve always had roof leaks, plumbing leaks, window leaks, and rain during construction.” However, “Buildings don’t dry as quickly as they used to,” Lstiburek said. “The materials we build out of are much more moisture sensitive — they can’t take the moisture ‘events’ the way the old materials did.”

Ray Patenaude, P.E., with The Holmes Agency Inc., St. Petersburg, Fla., will cover “Residential and Small Building Humidity and Mold Control.” He will address the implications of standard packaged air conditioning equipment used for dehumidification of outdoor air. Issues relating to current design weather data and its effects on system design also will be discussed.

According to Patenaude, “The elements as I see them are, in a nutshell:

  • “The issue of moisture has not changed, but our understanding of it has. This probably has been driven by the litigation surrounding the mold problem,” he said. “Hence, it is imperative that the HVAC industry provide education on the issue of moisture management in buildings. And designers, installers, and service technicians need to avail themselves of this education.”

  • “Designers need to better understand moisture or latent load in residential and light commercial buildings,” he stated. “ASHRAE research has now shown the HVAC designer that the highest humidity levels occur not at the design temperature of 90 degrees F-plus, but at part-load conditions. These times are usually during cloudy days, rain events, evenings, or mornings.

    “It is imperative that designers recognize this, especially in hot and humid climates. The idea that designers can overcome hot and humid [conditions] with oversized units just does not work.”

  • Moreover, “Installers need to recognize that the devil is in the details ... and the devil is condensation. I see this in leaking ductwork, especially at connections, refrigerant line insulation at the joints, air-handing unit casing insulation at termination points, condensate lines that are not insulated, and drain pans that are not insulated.”

  • Finally, “Service technicians are the key to keeping the situation from getting out of control,” Patenaude stated. “Without service, the best design and installation will fall on its face.”

    Glenn Hourahan, P.E., vice president of Research and Technology for the Air Conditioning Contractors of America, Arlington, Va., will give contractors still more specific information in “Moisture Control — Achievable Through Accurate Load Determination and Proper Equipment Selection.”

    “There is a solution,” Hourahan said: “Do the job right.

    “If you just put in the standard systems, you are probably not inclined to doing the job right.”

    Hourahan pointed out that moisture-related aspects which the HVAC contractor can control all deal with sizing:

  • Make sure it’s the correct size (not oversized).

  • Make sure the sizing can handle both the latent and sensible loads.

  • Make sure that it is sized to handle part-load conditions.

    Hourahan’s paper will include “Comfort-Related Issues,” such as temperature swings and degraded humidity control; equipment-related issues, such as larger ducts and part-load operation; frequent cycling; and shorter equipment life.

    He will then proceed to outline “Reasons for Oversized Equipment,” such as that “a guess was made on the load”; that inappropriate and/or inadequate rules of thumb were used; that it was a simple replacement of “like” for “like”; “ignoring whether building functions have changed,” or ignoring upgrades; or just “assuming that the original installation was correct.”

    The portion on “Steps for Sizing/Installing Equipment Correctly” will include the need to:

  • Establish building design and criteria requirements;

  • Determine design loads using current methods correctly; and

  • Determine the system’s capabilities.

    Hourahan lists some other recommendations:

  • Evaluate latent loads.

  • Don’t arbitrarily increase the load (a safety factor for good measure);

  • Assemble and maintain system documentation; and

  • Teach the owners about the system’s proper use and maintenance.

    “It strikes me as odd that they sell systems for temperature control, not relative humidity,” Hourahan said.

    As he and others have pointed out, Willis Carrier designed his first systems to control relative humidity.

    “Somewhere along the way, we got lost,” Hourahan.

    Publication date: 01/27/2003

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