Radon: Test, Remediate, or Leave Alone?

June 2, 2008
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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently published some facts about the damaging effects of radon gas in U.S. homes. The EPA wrote:

• Breathing home indoor radon causes nearly 100 times more deaths each year than carbon monoxide poisoning.

• Behind smoking, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer.

• Some 20,000 people will die this year due to breathing too much radon without even knowing it.

• Nearly one in every 15 U.S. homes has elevated levels of radon.

The EPA recommends testing and remediation including the addition of a radon venting system. Since so many HVAC contractors are into IAQ testing and selling-installing add-on products to ensure healthier IAQ, are there any contractors who have become certified and licensed radon remediation specialists? Is this an area that could become a new profit center for HVAC contractors or something best left alone?

The NEWS wanted to know the answers to these questions so we asked a number of different contractors, including our Contractor Consultants, if they thought that radon could convert into a profit center for HVACR contractors.

DEFINING RADON

Before delving into the questions, let’s get a better understanding of what really is radon. Radon, defined by the EPA, is a decay product, which is part of a decay chain for uranium. Being part of uranium, radon is present in almost all rock, soil, and water.

But the amount of radon depends on the soil chemistry, which varies from one house to the next. The amount of radon that escapes from the soil to enter the house depends on the weather, soil porosity, soil moisture, and the suction within the house.

Radon typically moves up through the ground to the air above and into the home through cracks and other holes in the foundation. Homes can trap radon inside, where it can build up. Any home may have a radon problem. This means new and old homes, well-sealed and drafty homes, and homes with or without basements.

Radon from soil gas is the main cause of radon problems. Sometimes radon enters the home through well water. In a small number of homes, the building materials can give off radon. However, building materials rarely cause radon problems by themselves.

The typical method of remediation is sub-slab suction, which includes the installation of one pipe into the ground through the basement floor. A special fan is installed in the piping system, which draws the air from the ground and exhausts it through a vent, typically installed on the roof of the home.

What makes radon mitigation so important today is that in many parts of the United States, homes must be inspected prior to sale for elevated levels of radon. “Eastern Nebraska has a large concentration of radon,” said Scott Getzschman of Getzschman Heating & Sheet Metal. “Every home sold today must have an inspection and the certification process is lengthy and presently being handled by home inspection companies. I do feel it’s a topic that shouldn’t go unnoticed, but it’s a difficult one for HVACR contractors to get our arms around.”

Aaron York

GETTING THEIR ARMS AROUND

Like mold testing and remediation, the HVACR contracting trade has kept a distance because of legal ramifications. Homeowners have been quick to file lawsuits against any and all companies who they deem responsible for the growth of mold in their homes and subsequent health effects. But some contractors haven either chosen to test for mold or partner with mold remediation specialists.

Is it possible to do the same with radon testing and mitigation?

“Twenty years ago when radon was first considered a problem, we installed a couple of ERV units to solve this problem,” said Arthur Pickett of Royal Air Systems. “This was usually for borderline cases of elevated levels of radon. This approach worked fine, but the units needed maintenance, primarily filter changes.

“The driving force for this was the banks and mortgage companies and they wanted the underslab with PVC system. To the best of my knowledge, we lost the market in New England back then.”

“Is radon an issue for HVACR contractors?” asked Aaron York of Aaron York’s Quality Air Conditioning. “Without any question. This problem is rather easily solved by slightly pressurizing the entire living space. This can be accomplished with the right air-to-air heat exchanger or by simply running a duct from the outside to the return air plenum on the furnace.

“The problem with air-to-air exchangers is that they do not bring in enough air to compensate for the kitchen, bathrooms, dryer, fireplaces, etc. Only the HVACR contractor has the expertise to correctly handle these issues. However, far too few contractors want to get into that business.”

Brian Leech

One contractor said that radon and black mold are in the same “vertical market” and to advertise any form of remediation/removal is to accept liability and responsibility for any further occurrence of said substance.

He added, “The best thing one can do is offer space ventilation to help reduce the possibility of over-exposure, and never claim to remove. The best thing to have on any contract is a radon-black mold disclaimer.”

A service engineer in energy services at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) said he always recommends an industrial hygienist when it comes to matters of IAQ problems. He stated that when he worked for an HVACR contractor he was contacted by a homeowner about a black mold problem.

He referred the homeowner to an industrial hygienist who determined there was a problem. The homeowner ended up naming several companies in a black mold lawsuit and would have included the HVACR contractor if it hadn’t been for careful notes and recommendations written during the conversations between the homeowner and contractor.

The engineer, who prefers to remain anonymous, added, “I would tell all to defer testing to a professional - one that can identify, remove, and perform all tests needed, rather than offer something like duct cleaning services and lead one to believe it’s a remedy to an ill.

“If you don’t have a report from an industrial hygienist, it will likely not hold up in court, so watch your butt. It would seem to me that a radon venting system would be much more akin to a demand ventilated system - one that ventilates based on ppm concentration - and not what you typically find in a residential install.”

Consultant Brian Leech of A. Leechman Heating & Cooling was very succinct about his policy on radon testing. “I specifically have others in our area who handle radon and mold eradication,” he said.

Roger Grochmal

HOW DO YOU MITIGATE?

Frank Besednjak, president & CEO of the Training Source Inc., said there are also questions on exactly how to mitigate.

“There are debates on whether you should ventilate crawl spaces or not,” he said. “I believe you should totally seal off the crawl space, including the walls, with heavy plastic and insulation. This would eliminate any potential moisture or radon problems. Plus, you won’t have to insulate any pipes or ductwork.

“But I’m sure there are people out there who believe you have to ventilate as much as possible. This would work if you can assure me that the occupied space was totally sealed off from the crawlspace, otherwise you deal with humidity issues.”

Alex Walter, a contractor from Denver, added his thoughts about proper ventilation and radon mitigation. “Building scientists have found that it is important to keep the humidity in crawl spaces under control to reduce the possibility of mold and other bad things from happening,” he said. “Crawl spaces should, in addition to ventilation, have a vapor barrier on the floor of the crawl space, i.e., 6 mil or heavier poly sheeting.

“In Colorado, a PVC system is most often used to ventilate under the basement floor slab to reduce or remove radon gas concentrations. For humidity control, we usually see a 6-inch round metal supply duct on one side of the house and another on the opposite side with an in-line fan for exhaust.”

The opportunities for HVACR contractors in Canada are available too, according to consultant Roger Grochmal of Atlas Air/ClimateCare. “Radon has been a non-issue until recently,” he said.

“The principal reason is that the federal government set exposure limits so high that virtually everybody fell within them. Our limits were at least four times the limits set by the EPA. We have now reduced the limits in Canada substantially, and I expect that we will start to see a testing and remediation industry spring up to deal with radon.

“There is almost no one in Canada who knows much about this issue. I look forward to hearing from others who have experience to give us some ideas on whether or not this is a business that we should pursue down the road.”

Publication date: 06/02/2008

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