When the Dust Settles, IAQ Problems Surface

February 9, 2001
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Colby Swanson runs a duct blaster test on a home under construction.


Daran Wastchak inspects insulation in the attic.
TEMPE, AZ — When you watch those old westerns set in the desert Southwest, probably the first thing that comes to mind is that it looks hot. And yes, it really is stinking hot here in the summertime.

The second thing that probably comes to mind is boy, does it look dusty, especially when those herds of cattle and horses kick up clouds of dust. We may not have that many horses or cows running through town anymore, but it is amazing how much dust still gets into your house here.

Even if you’re the world’s best housecleaner, there will still be dust. Just imagine what kind of dust can get into a house when the ductwork is leaky, the house isn’t sealed properly, or perhaps the return air is coming from a dirty attic. All that dust can add up to a whole host of indoor air quality (IAQ) problems for unsuspecting Valley residents, causing respiratory problems and exacerbating asthma symptoms.

That’s where Daran Wastchak comes in. He’s our very own Dustbuster — dedicated to pinpointing IAQ problems and testing hvac equipment to ensure that houses run efficiently as “systems.” And in his opinion, dust is perhaps the biggest IAQ problem we face.

Colby Swanson and Ken Pancost perform a pressure pan test on a supply duct.

New Beginnings

Wastchak’s company, D.R. Wastchak, L.L.C., came about due to a grant from the EPA to Arizona State University’s Del E. Webb School of Construction for the promotion of the Energy Star® Homes Program.

Wastchak ran the grant program for 31/2 years, with his goal being to recruit builders for the Energy Star Homes Program and, ultimately, helping them increase the energy efficiency of their homes. Then the grant money ran out.

Still sensing a need in the community for his kind of service, Wastchak started this company in 1999. His core business today continues to be testing, inspecting, and certifying homes for the EPA’s Energy Star Homes Program. However, he also tests, inspects, and certifies homes for Louisiana Pacific’s Engineered for Life Program, conducts research, and performs individual diagnostic evaluations on homes, many of which have IAQ problems.

Wastchak’s interest in IAQ stems from all the testing and inspecting he’s done in homes over the years. He’s seen a lot of problems, and he likes to help homeowners find solutions. “IAQ for me is dust, dryer lint, and ashes. More serious air pollutants include carbon monoxide and other combustion gases.

“In Phoenix we have tons of dust. If you have a lot of dust in your attic and your return ducts are leaking, they’re sucking that dusty air right into the house. The dust causes occupants to sneeze, cough, and wheeze,” says Wastchak.



Colby Swanson runs a blower door test.

Tests Come First

When homeowners call with problems, Wastchak is ready with a whole battery of tests. He may start with a “Ductblaster” test, which measures duct leakage in the hvac system. “We have an ability with the Ductblaster to not only determine what the leakage rate is, but we can pressurize the ducts and inject smoke into the system to see exactly where the leaks are.”

He may also do a pressure pan test, which is another way to pinpoint leakage in each duct run. A blower door test, which shows how leaky the building envelope may be, is yet another option.

“We also test the pressures inside the house. When the air- handler unit is running, air is being supplied to the various rooms and being drawn back into the unit, typically at a central return. The supplied air is positively pressurized while the return air is negatively pressurized, so you’ve got blowing and sucking happening at the same time.

“If you start closing interior doors, you start preventing air from moving from the rooms being supplied back to the central return, resulting in pressure imbalances within the house. Pressure mapping allows us to directly measure the pressures throughout the house to determine where the imbalances are occurring.”

Testing for pressure imbalances can indicate more serious IAQ problems. For example, clothes dryers suck approximately 200 cubic feet per minute (cfm) of air out of a house. Add that to a range hood (300 to 400 cfm) and/or bathroom fans (100 cfm), which also suck air, and that can put the house into some pretty serious negative-pressure conditions.

If there are combustion appliances inside the house, it’s possible to start back-drafting those appliances (drawing combustion gases into the house rather than allowing them to exhaust up the flue), causing problems with carbon monoxide.



Detective Work

Sometimes all the tests in the world don’t pinpoint an IAQ problem. That’s when Wastchak and his staff must go over the house, looking at everything.

As mentioned earlier, negative pressures can be a problem, especially when there are wall outlets, can lights, or other holes that lead to the attic. “Your walls are chock full of holes,” says Wastchak. “And if your house is in negative pressure, that means the house is going to start drawing air out of the attic through the walls or directly through the can lights in the ceiling.

“Again, you’re in the same situation as you are with a leaky return. You’ve got dusty air being drawn into the conditioned space, and people will breathe that air. That can cause serious IAQ problems.”

Another problem is vacuum cleaners. Wastchak recalls a client who had “ghosting” in his home, which usually occurs in homes with combustion appliances or candles which emit soot into the air. But this home didn’t have any such combustion sources.

Ghosting occurs when you close the door to a room and the supply air is forced to find its way back to the return side of the air conditioning system in the main body of the house. The air comes rushing underneath the door and the carpet becomes a filter of particulates in the air (soot and dust for example), causing ghosting stains to appear.

After a lot of research, Wastchak determined that the ghosting in this home was a result of two old vacuum cleaners, which were spewing as much dust into the air as they were picking up. Wastchak encouraged this client to get rid of the old vacuum cleaners, especially because they had cloth bags, which were contributing to a poor indoor environment.



Ventilation Problems

Wastchak recalls another IAQ challenge he came across involving a client who had dryer lint throughout the house. They knew the lint was coming from the dryer, because the color of the samples from the dryer vent matched lint samples swabbed from horizontal surfaces in the house. The trick was to find out how the lint was getting into the house.

“We did a duct test and found out it was extremely leaky ductwork,” says Wastchak. “On top of that, the dryer was venting into the attic. Here we had the return ducts sucking up whatever air was available in the attic, and in this case, the attic air was full of lint particles. They ended up being spread nice and evenly throughout the house.”

Since Wastchak does a lot of work for home builders, it is often the builders’ subcontractors who do the repair work. However, Wastchak recently established a repair segment of his company that does repair work for other clients. He estimates that repair work, which often includes repairing ductwork and retesting the hvac system, usually runs between $1,500 and $2,000. The initial diagnostic testing portion, which reveals what the problems are, runs another $350 to $450.

Wastchak can be reached through his website at www.drwastchak.com, or by calling 480-350-9274.

Publication date: 02/12/2001

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