Spring Real Estate 2004

Publication Date: Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Making war on mold
Too much of a good thing can be expensive to fix

by Muoi Tran

When an unexpected house guest showed up and didn't want to leave, Lynn Drake knew she had a serious problem on her hands. For five years, Drake and her family of four shared their Palo Alto Eichler home with mold -- a microscopic type of fungus that seeks and thrives on moisture.

Drake, a full-time mom trained as a materials engineer, couldn't give up without a fight, however. Looking back, Drake said that her war to oust the mold, which grew on various cold walls and in damp closets throughout her home, was long and costly -- and involved a lot of mistakes, as well as creativity. But ever since she correctly identified and fixed the root of the problem by bringing down the moisture in her home through a custom ventilation system, she and her family finally are enjoying a nearly mold-free home.

"You see, mold is everywhere around us," Drake said. Outdoors, mold is in the air and in the soil, constantly breaking down organic matter. Indoors, even in the most well-scrubbed homes, its spores are floating in search of moist spots to grow. In fact, of the tens of thousands known types of mold, most are beneficial and used to create a variety of foods and beverages -- as well as life-saving medicines such as penicillin, said Dr. Robert C. Bocian, head of the allergy department of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.

"Without mold, life on Earth as we know it would not be possible," he added.
Yet too much of a good thing can turn into an expensive problem very quickly, especially when it just won't go away. Also, some types of molds can cause allergic reactions in some individuals. Fortunately for the Drakes, the mold was more of a nuisance than a health threat.

While the ingredients for mold are known -- an abundant source of water or moisture (more than 60 percent relative humidity), organic materials (such as wood, particleboard or paper-faced drywall), and the right temperature (40 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit) -- solutions are much more difficult to determine because the sources of these factors vary from home to home.

Although currently there are no regulations in the building code that deal specifically with mold, Bud Starmer, the supervising inspector of Palo Alto's building department, said that he points callers to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Health Services for helpful advice on how to deal with mold.

He also suggested that people start by taking the basic steps: "Open a window, use fans. Basically the issue comes down to moisture in air condensing down on cold surfaces. Then get out the soap and water, buckets and brushes, and protective gear."

When Drake first spotted her mold problem in the winter of 1997, her family's first winter in their Eichler home, she immediately called a mold expert. That was her first mistake.

"I called a mold expert to do some experting, but it was expensive," she said.

"They didn't offer much in the way of solutions. It turns out that if you see mold, you don't need to hire someone to do a chemical test to tell you there's a problem."

According to the California Department of Health Services, testing to determine mold inside the home is not recommended. "Most problems are evident without testing, that is, test results generally give little or no useful information for planning the clean-up," said Jed Waldman of the Indoor Air Quality Section of the DHS. "Secondly, testing is expensive -- resources are better spent on the clean-up."
Drake's second mistake in her fight against mold was thinking that the moisture came from outside her home. She saw water condensing on her windows and walls and thought that she needed to insulate her house more by replacing the single-paned windows with double-paned ones.

Her problem actually got worse. "Turns out people are moisture generators," Drake said when she ultimately discovered the source of her moisture. "They take hot, steamy showers. They boil pasta. They run the dishwasher and the washing machine."

After her house was more insulated, more moisture became trapped inside, which perpetuated the mold growth. Finally, Drake knew she needed to ventilate her house and installed a custom-designed system.

On the DHS Web site, it states that once the moisture source is identified and corrected, then begin to clean, disinfect and dry the area. Some materials such as glass or metal can be cleaned, but porous materials that can trap molds, such as paper, fabric and wood, should be discarded.

These steps may sound simple, but there is plenty of room for mistakes. "It is important that personal protection equipment -- gloves, mask, eyewear -- be used, and the clean-up of a contaminated area be contained, e.g., on plastic sheets, so that dust and spores do not spread," said DHS' Waldman.

"Another common mistake is to treat mold with bleach. Using bleach as a disinfectant is generally unnecessary, if the material can be thoroughly cleaned, and it can be unnecessary use of a hazardous chemical."

Depending on the scale and complexity of the problem, calling for expert advice might be the only solution, but be wary because there is little regulation when it comes to dealing with mold.

"A lot of people try to do it, but not a lot of people know what they're doing," said Arley Campbell, owner of San Mateo-based Aachwen Environmental and a licensed contractor dealing with mold since 1989. "It's a specialized field, but you can go out today and open a mold remediation company by 2 p.m." Always ask for references, at least 10 or 20, he added.

And if you do have a mold problem, the worst thing you can do is ignore it or try to cover it up with paint, Campbell said.

"The problem is that cellulose-based paints feed the mold. It's like feeding people a buffet and telling them to lose weight," he said.

Once the mold spreads, the only option is to remove the contaminated materials and rebuild, and this can be very costly, anywhere from $10,000-$100,000, he said.

"People usually call me when they're selling or buying a home," Campbell said.

"They let the problem get completely out of control, and then it costs a lot."