What tests can I do myself to check how healthy my home is?
Are there kits to test for mold, lead, radon, asbestos, etc. What other tests should I be considering?
Thank you for a terrific question. The subject of indoor air quality testing for homeowner diagnostics is one that I often hear from my clients suffering from a variety of health conditions made worse by their home environment.
- Asbestos, mold, lead-based paint, water and radon testing have all made their mark on the residential market.
- Determining if you should test your home yourself versus hiring a professional is something that warrants discussion.
Self testing is less costly but also less reliable. Consider homeowner testing as a screening tool much like a self breast exam would trigger further evaluation for a professional diagnosis.
The primary devices used to complete a short term (2 – 90 days) radon test include:
- charcoal canisters,"
- "alpha track,"
- "electret ion chamber,"
- "continuous monitors," and
- "charcoal liquid scintillation."
Of these devices charcoal canisters are the most available for the homeowner. Results obtained by a homeowner testing their own home would not be acceptable in documenting a real estate transaction. Radon testing by homeowners is a low cost option to gauge the potential for a radon problem.
- Charcoal packets (Air Chek Inc.) can be used to screen your home for elevated levels of radon annually.
- By using two packets for each test you can determine if it is necessary to hire someone to test with a more precise radon measuring device (continuous monitoring, electrets ion chamber, etc.).
- If you have an elevated test (above 4 pCi/liter of air) you should hire a professional to complete a continuous monitor test or test long term (90 days – 1 year) with an alpha track testing device before determining to abate the radon issue.
- There are advantages to completing a yearlong test since you would get an overall average rather than a spot reading.
Homeowners in some states may have to have their water tested for radon since some wells are a source for radon.
Testing for mold
Mold testing should always include an outdoor baseline sample. This would give you something to compare your indoor results against. Since mold is everywhere you would expect a positive result.
- If the results are lower than your outdoor reference sample you probably do not have a mold problem.
- Most calls I receive about concerns over mold are unfounded. The symptoms of mold growth with regards to health mimic too many other potential issues to assume it is mold.
- In my experience the best detector for alerting occupants to the presence of mold is the nose, very effective and low cost.
If you smell musty odors you might want to spring for home testing.
Or you can identify the source and eliminate it – hidden mold, while possible is highly unlikely. In 25 years of testing residential properties for indoor air quality issues I have never run into a case of “hidden” mold. I have had the source be hidden but not the telltale signs ferreted out by the nose. If interested in home testing check out Pro-Lab.
Every home should have a carbon monoxide detection device on every level of the home.
If the home has an attached garage a CO detector should be installed in the room that shares a door with the garage. In the case of CO, monitoring is better than testing.
Lead paint concerns needs to be addressed with testing prior to any renovation in a home built before 1978.
Lead screening can be done by the homeowner using a swab available from Lead Check (www.leadcheck.com).
- If you find lead in a painted surface it may be acceptable to encapsulate the potential hazard with a fresh coat of paint.
- Homes with suspected lead based paint should be screened for lead based paint if the home is occupied by vulnerable seniors or youth (infants, toddlers…).
- If the home is well maintained and the home is not occupied by vulnerable occupants testing may not be a priority unless you are considering renovation or disruption of painted surfaces.
Testing for VOCs
Indoor air quality may also involve volatile organic compounds or VOC’s.
Home Air Check (www.homeaircheck.com) offers a variety of test kits designed to identify formaldehyde, tobacco smoke and common VOC’s. Costs range from $65 to $125.
- Some of their kits are multifunction, testing for a variety of indoor air pollutants.
- I suggest this type of testing if you are having a physical reaction to the home but do not have any indication of what might be the source of irritation.
Even though I earn a living helping my clients solve indoor air quality issues I am not a fan of blind testing. If a client is having a negative reaction to their environment I would rather see them invest in improving the environmental air quality using mechanical ventilation (heat recovery or energy recovery ventilation, HEPA filtration, etc…) over spending hundreds or thousands of dollars performing tests.
Mitigating air quality problems
If your home has indoor air quality issues you can:
- eliminate the source of the irritant,
- encapsulate the problem, or
- dilute the pollutant to a level that reduces its impact on your health.
Filtration can be used to remove (eliminate or reduce) particular and some VOC’s. Encapsulation can be used in the case of lead based paint. Dilution can successfully ensure that the air in the house is regularly replaced by fresh, tempered outdoor air.
Most homes have a variety of sources of indoor air pollutants introduced regularly. As we tighten homes to save energy the pollutants build up and react with other VOC’s to create a soup of chemicals that we can’t even image the possible health risks.
Mechanical ventilation designed to remove stale polluted air is the safest bet to improved indoor air quality. Check with your HVAC contractor to properly size and install a system that meets the requirements of your home and its occupants.
A great source for energy or heat recovery ventilation is www.airxchange.com.
If you have a forced air HVAC system you might also consider improving the quality of air supplied by the system through improved filtration.
A HEPA filter can be added to your existing HVAC system to take a percentage (usually no more than 30%) of the air traveling through your ductwork and routing it through a HEPA filter.
- HEPA filtration removes 99.97% of particulate greater than 0.3 microns.
- Since the filter reduces air flow in the ductwork you cannot filter all the air in the system at one time.
- A HEPA could also be installed independently of the HVAC system, taking air from one room and circulating it through the filter to reduce indoor air particulate.
Media filters (www.theairfilterstore.com) also offer a level of filtration that is higher than a standard furnace filter.
- Media filters should be 4 – 5 inches thick, pleated and MERV rated.
- If the filter does not have a MERV rating on the frame it may not be third-party verified.
- The minimum MERV rating I would recommend is 8 but you might be able to use a 10 or 13 if your HVAC system can deal with the reduced flow. This modification is something you’ll want to hire a qualified contractor to design and install.
- Media filters cost about $30 and are replaced every 12 – 18 months, depending on the dust levels in your home.
Ultraviolet lamps, ozone generators, electronic and electrostatic air cleaners are other options that you will undoubtedly be optioned as you begin your journey into remediation to improve indoor air quality.
You’ll have to be the judge as to their effectiveness. Personally I am skeptical that they live up to the claims made by marketers.
Good luck and thank you again for your question.