What Should I Do If My House has Radon?

You have just had a house you own, or are thinking of buying, tested for radon and the level is near or exceeds 4.0 PicoCuries/Liter (pCi/L). Now what? What do you do? Is it safe for you and your family to be in the house?

Radon Gas can effect the entire family. Test and correct if necessary.

The first step is don’t panic. Radon levels can be reduced. Your next step should be to gather information. If you know more about radon, its causes and remedies, you will understand how to formulate a strategy to reduce the radon level. Let’s begin the education process by answering some basic questions:

When should I be concerned? The Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that you take action to reduce your home’s indoor radon levels if your radon test result is 4 pCi/L or higher. It is better to correct a radon problem before placing your home on the market because you will have more time to address the issue.

How does radon enter my house? The radon in your home’s indoor air can come from two sources, the soil or your water supply. Compared to radon entering your home through water, radon entering your home through soil is a much larger risk. If you’ve tested for radon in air and have elevated radon levels and your water comes from a private well, have your water tested. The devices and procedures for testing your home’s water supply are different from those used for measuring radon in air.

The radon in your home’s indoor air can come from two sources, the soil or your water supply. Compared to radon entering your home through water, radon entering your home through soil is a much larger risk. If you’ve tested for radon in air and have elevated radon levels and your water comes from a private well, have your water tested. The devices and procedures for testing your home’s water supply are different from those used for measuring radon in air.

Radon gas in water is as serious of a problem as in the air.

Radon in the water supply poses an inhalation risk and an ingestion risk. Research has shown that your risk of lung cancer from breathing radon in air is much larger than your risk of stomach cancer from swallowing water with radon in it. Most of your risk from radon in water comes from radon released into the air when water is used for showering and other household uses.

A radon in water problem is more likely when its source is ground water, e.g., a private well or a public water supply system that uses ground water. Some public water systems treat their water to reduce radon levels before it is delivered to your home. If your water supply comes from surface water then radon is usually a not problem. If you are concerned that radon may be entering your home through the water and your water comes from a public water supply, contact your water supplier.

If you’ve tested your private well and have a radon in water problem, it can be fixed. Your home’s water supply can be treated in one of two ways. Point-of-entry treatment can effectively remove radon from the water before it enters your home. Point-of-entry treatment usually employs either granular activated carbon (GAC) filters or aeration devices. While GAC filters usually cost less than aeration devices, filters can collect radioactivity and may require a special method of disposal. Point-of-use treatment devices remove radon from your water at the tap, but only treat a small portion of the water you use, e.g., the water you drink. Point-of-use devices are not effective in reducing the risk from breathing radon released into the air from all water used in the home.

Can high radon levels be reduced? The short answer is yes, radon levels can be reduced in a home by installing a radon mitigation system or by making some repairs to your house.

What do I need to do? Your first step should be to retest your house using a long-term radon test kit. Long term tests usually last from three to 12 months. (Long-term radon test kits can be purchased here.) Since radon levels can fluctuate, long-term tests provide an average level of radon in your house over a greater period of time. Therefore, long-term tests are more accurate than the short-term tests. If the long-term test results show the radon level is still over 4pCi/L than you should consider repair and remediation to your house.
A variety of methods can be used to reduce radon in homes. Sealing cracks and other openings in the foundation is a basic part of most approaches to radon reduction. The EPA does not recommend the use of sealing alone to limit radon entry. Sealing alone has not been shown to lower radon levels significantly or consistently.

In most cases, a system with a vent pipe(s) and fan(s) is used to reduce radon. These “sub-slab depressurization” systems do not require major changes to your home. Similar systems can also be installed in homes with a crawl space. These systems prevent radon gas from entering the home from below the concrete floor and from outside the foundation. Radon mitigation contractors may use other methods that may also work in your home. The right system depends on the design of your home and other factors.

Techniques for reducing radon are discussed in the EPA’s “Consumer’s Guide to Radon Reduction.” As with any other household appliance, there are costs associated with the operation of the radon mitigation system. Also, please keep in mind that any mitigation measures taken or system installed in your home must conform to your state’s regulations. In states without regulations covering mitigation, the system should conform to the EPA’s Radon Mitigation Standards.

Picking a ronon mitigation contractor can be difficult unless you know what to look for

How do I find a radon mitigation contractor? Select a qualified radon mitigation contractor to reduce the radon levels in your home just as you would for any other home repair. You may want to get more than one estimate, ask for and check their references. Make sure the person you hire is qualified to install a mitigation system. Some states regulate or certify radon mitigation services providers. Be aware that a potential conflict of interest exists if the same person or firm performs the testing and installs the mitigation system. Some states may require the homeowner to sign a waiver in such cases. If the same person or firm does the testing and mitigation, make sure the testing is done in accordance with the EPA’s Radon Testing Checklist. Contact your state radon office for more information. Your Inspect USA customer service representative may be able to provide you with a list of independent, certified, insured and experienced radon mitigation service firms. As stated above, we recommend you always obtain quotes from multiple vendors who are licensed and insured whenever service is required.

What will a qualified radon mitigation contractor do for me? A qualified radon mitigation contractor should be able to:

  • Review the radon test results before beginning any mitigation work to determine if additional measurements are needed.
  • Evaluate the radon problem and provide you with a detailed, written proposal on how radon levels may be lowered.
  • Design a radon-reduction system.
  • Install the system according to EPA standards and/or state or local codes.
  • Make sure the finished system effectively reduces radon levels to acceptable levels.
Radon gas detector is perfect for mitigated homes to alert when its time to do some repairs or adjustments.

What do I do after the radon mitigation system is installed? After a mitigation system is installed in your house you should test your home again to be sure that radon levels have been reduced. If your living patterns change and you begin occupying a lower level of your home (such as a basement) you should retest your home on that level. In addition, it is a good idea to retest your home sometime in the future to be sure radon levels remain low. We recommend you consider buying a continuous radon monitor that can be used to verify the proper functioning of your mitigation system. A monitor will measure the radon levels 24 hours a day and sound an alarm if the radon level goes above 4 pCi/L. Inspect USA offers the Pro Series 3 continuous radon monitor for $149.95 + shipping and sales tax where applicable.

Will the seller pay for remediation? If elevated levels are found during the real estate transaction, the buyer and seller should discuss the timing and costs of the radon reduction. The cost of making repairs to reduce radon levels depends on how your home was built and other factors. Most homes can be fixed for about the same cost as other common home repairs, like painting or having a new hot water heater installed. The average cost for a contractor to lower radon levels in a home can range from $800 to about $2,500.

What else do I need to know? If you are planning any major renovations, such as converting an unfinished basement area into living space, it is especially important to test the area for radon before you begin. If your test results indicate an elevated radon level, radon-resistant techniques can be inexpensively included as part of the renovation. Major renovations, earthquakes, and excavation can change the level of radon in any home. Test again after any work or events have occurred.

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Does Your Smoke Detector Really Function Properly?

There has been a reduction in fire deaths and injuries resulting from the widespread use of smoke detectors over the past several decades. Despite this increased presence of detectors, there are still thousands each year who die or suffer painful, disfiguring injuries as a result of fires in their homes. It has been estimated that smoke detectors reduce the risk of dying in a house fire by at least 50%, but only if the smoke detector is functioning.

Statistics indicate that smoke alarms are installed in about 96% of US homes, however it is estimated that approximately 20% of the smoke alarms are non-operational.  Research points to several reasons for this:

  • Batteries were found to be weak, dead or missing
  • Intentional power source interruption
  • Vents were clogged with dirt, dust or grease
  • Detector past its life expectancy
  • The sensing chamber was infested by insects

It is estimated that if every home had working smoke alarms, U.S. residential fire deaths could drop by 36% (approximately 1100 lives could be saved per year.) U.S. fire statistics for home structure fires from Years 2000-2004 reveal that 34% of civilian deaths occurred in homes with operating smoke alarms, 22% of civilian deaths occurred in homes with smoke alarms present, but that failed to operate, and 43% of civilian deaths occurred in homes with no smoke alarms. (from N.I.S.T.)

Why are there so many defective smoke detectors?

More important than the reasons identified for this serious problem is what can be done about it. The solution is simple enough: Test the detector regularly. Every smoke detector’s user manual emphasizes the need for doing so. The National Fire Protection Association recommends that battery-powered detectors be tested weekly, and that those powered by household current be tested monthly. The Association each year promotes “National Fire Prevention Week,” during the first week of October. 

Let’s Hear it for Fire Safety – Test Your Detectors!

But why isn’t testing being done? Why aren’t homeowners following these important recommendations? After all, the claim is made, simply press the test button on the detector. If the alarm sounds, then, it is claimed, you can be sure that your detector will give you and your family the early warning you need in order to exit safely and avoid a tragedy.

To gain a better understanding of this serious problem, it is necessary to examine the assumptions underlying the “test button test.” The correct location for the smoke detector, according to fire experts, is on the ceiling in the center of the room. But the ceiling height in most homes is eight feet from the floor. This means that unless the homeowner is very, very tall, he or she must stand on a chair, stepladder or some other device to gain the reach to depress the test button. Here are some practical considerations: How many homeowners are going to make the effort every week to drag a chair or stool over to the smoke detector?

  • What about the elderly or the infirm?
  • How about those who are wheelchair bound?
  • And the millions of smoke detectors without test buttons?

In view of these considerations, some have asked, why not use a broomstick to press the test button? The answer: Repeated jabbing of the test button with this clumsy object will soon force displacement of the test button from its contacts or otherwise damage it. Many types of smoke detectors have a diameter smaller than that of a broomstick, effectively preventing the button from being depressed by this means. Finally, it is literally impossible to use a broomstick to press the button on wall mounted units.
What of the test button itself? Does it signal a valid test? The alarm goes off when you press the test button. Okay. Does that mean it will always give the alarm in the event of a fire? That it will respond to the presence of smoke? The government investigators found, on the contrary, that the “test button test” does not always signify that the detector will sound in the event of a fire. A number of smoke detectors were found to have their vents clogged with dust, dirt or grease and in other instances, insects had infested the sensing chamber. In all such cases, smoke did not activate the alarm but the test button nevertheless caused the alarm to sound.

What, then, is the best way of testing smoke detectors? The simplest, easiest way of doing so is by using an aerosol product that has been tested and approved by a recognized testing facility like Underwriters Labs. There are several manufactures that make such a product to include Solo and Home Safeguard. These aerosol smoke detector tester products have become the world standard for the testing of smoke detectors of all kinds.  Avoid Smoke Detector Test aerosols that contain silicone. 

Follow the instructions on the can, to quickly learn whether your smoke detector will warn you in the event of a “real fire.” If, within 1 to 2 seconds your smoke detector goes into alarm, you will feel more confident that the alarm will do its job in the event of a fire in your home. If the alarm does not go off, chances are you have a defective detector.

Here’s what to do if the alarm doesn’t sound:

  • Make sure the power source is connected and/or the battery is still good.
  • Check the vents of the detector for dirt, dust, grease, or spider webs. If present, clean with a dry cloth and a vacuum cleaner.
  • A smoke detector has probably been damaged and will not operate if it has been painted over.
  • Check the age of the detector, replace every 8 to 10 years. An older unit is likely to have corroded contacts or otherwise faulty electronics, causing the alarm to go off too late, too soon, or not at all. Under any of these circumstances, the detector is not doing the job it was designed for and should be replaced. After all, according to one estimate, a smoke detector that has been in operation for 10 years has gone through more than 3.5 million monitoring cycles. And detectors these days are not that expensive, especially considering your family’s safety.
  • If ever in doubt, replace it. The new smoke detectors are coming supplied with a lifetime battery installed. These detectors have a pre-planned ‘end of service’ period and will start chirping when its time to replace the detector. Average life of these smoke detectors/alarms is 10 years. No batteries to replace.

In the event of replacement, what kind of detector should you have in your home?

There are two kinds of detectors on the market today, ionization and photoelectric. Ionization detectors have a quantity of radioactive material in the sensing chamber which throws off a constant stream of radioactive particles. This action creates an electric charge in the chamber. When smoke enters the chamber, it reduces the electric charge. The alarm will be initiated when the electric charge falls below a preset amount. Photoelectric smoke detectors, on the other hand, have a beam of light inside of their sensing chamber. If the beam is broken up or deflected, the alarm will sound.

Of the two types of smoke detectors, the ionization type is by far the most common. More than three of every four detectors in U.S. homes today are ionization detectors, according to the government report. The reason is simple: They are much less expensive than photoelectric detectors. But ionization detectors have a serious downside: they are prone to nuisance, or false, alarms. Indeed, the ionization technology itself is the problem. Ionization devices are designed to detect advance particles of combustion, causing the detector to respond to the most minute airborne particles. Routine kitchen activities, including cooking and dish washing, can cause the alarm to sound, as can spraying windows with conventional window cleaners. An ionization detector near a bathroom may sound the alarm when you are showering or bathing.

The super-sensitivity of ionization detectors is why many detectors in the government study were found to have missing batteries. Homeowners simply removed the batteries, thus sparing themselves the constant annoyance of the alarm’s sounding during daily activities.

To adequately protect your family and home you should take the following steps:

  • Install working smoke detectors at each level of your home. Among other locations, they should be placed in the immediate vicinity of the sleeping areas.
  • Smoke detectors of choice should be the photoelectric type and be powered by household current and contain a battery backup. This allows your detector to operate even in the event of a power outage.
  • Test your detectors with Smoke Detector Tester.
  • Replace detectors more than 10 years old.
  • Install a photoelectric detector in the kitchen, where most home fires start.

Here’s what smoke detector manufacturers should do:

  • Okay the testing of their smoke detectors with Smoke Detector Tester.
  • Mount an educational campaign, alerting the public to the fact that smoke detectors do wear out. In this campaign, manufacturers should enlist the aid of the National Fire Protection Association, insurance companies and fire departments.
  • Offer trade-ins as a further inducement to replace old detectors.
  • Phase out the manufacture of ionization detectors for the home, concentrating their production efforts on the photoelectric type, preferably those powered by household current, with a battery backup. This will reduce the nuisance alarm problem related to the ionization devices.
  • Rewrite users’ manuals with the objective of making these documents simple and easy to read, augmented by good graphics.

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