They’re both unwanted, and they both affect the HVAC industry to some degree. We’re talking about environmental tobacco smoke (ETS) and mold, the two bad boys in IAQ.

The ETS offense is mainly being run in committee meetings of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) and by HVAC contractors who work for bars and restaurants; defense is run by the tobacco lobby on behalf of themselves, smokers, and establishments where smoking has been allowed.

Of the two, the mold game is more complicated. Mold plays defensively all the time. Its only agenda is to survive. Try to kill it and it sends out spores. HVAC contractors, home inspectors, builders, and homeowners have to play both offense and defense, and often wind up fighting each other as well as the mold.

This week The News is reporting on the South Carolina Association of Heating and Cooling Contractors (SCAHCC) “Managing Your Mold Liability” conference. Discussions both at the conference and the evening before were intense.


One of the points raised is that in the face of the insurance frenzy to get out of mold damage coverage, and a hyped public that learned that “black mold” can kill, what can contractors do? How much should they do?

The health of your customers is the primary concern. So is the health of your company, yourself, and your employees. How much should you be involved in a mold problem that you discover on a service call — a problem that your work did not create?

The relationship between HVAC and mold hinges on the moisture that can be produced when a system is sized incorrectly. Mold can also be sucked in if there are breaches in the ductwork, mold that can grow on coils that can work like a Chia™ pet if there is enough dirt and moisture.

Not all mold problems are caused by HVAC systems, although they can make it worse. Let’s pretend for now that we are all on the same team. If you see mold, can you tell offhand whether it’s your problem or if you should make a lateral pass to another building professional?

Experts like Craig DeWitt, P.E., have studied the differences in mold causes. DeWitt taught South Carolina contractors about them, and would have talked into the night if we didn’t have to leave the facility around 5 p.m.

Say your guys see something that looks like mold, but they’re not sure if it is, and they’re not sure if the HVAC is involved. Should they tell the homeowner they have mold?

Shoot no.

If they aren’t sure what to say to the customer, it’s probably best to say as little as possible … but make it mandatory that they report it to you as soon as they get back in, so you can take a look into the situation. Maybe you’ll want to refer that customer to a mold remediator, or recommend changes to the HVAC system to help control the moisture.

In many ways, ETS is so much simpler than mold. You don’t need to tell anyone that they have ETS; they already know it. If you’ve done some homework, you can offer solutions, like increased air changes and filtration, filter maintenance, etc.

Still, there are many questions unanswered. ASHRAE has debated whether acceptable levels of indoor ETS should be roughly equivalent to levels of ETS outdoors. (Let’s hope they’re not measuring ETS right where people go for cigarette breaks.)

Likewise, some people at the South Carolina conference wondered whether it would be practical to require levels of mold indoors that are no higher than levels outdoors. So if you live in Hawaii or in the Southeast, you’re no worse off than you would be outdoors. Oh my.

Let’s try to look for a bright side: At least mold doesn’t have a lobby in Washington.

Barb Checket-Hanks is the service/maintenance and troubleshooting editor. She can be reached at 313-368-5856; 313-368-5857 (fax); (e-mail).

Publication date: 11/11/2002