Mold: How Should Your Association and Homeowners Handle It?
No one wants to find mold in their home or any association building. Unfortunately, mold is ubiquitous – it’s in the air and in the water, and when given the chance, it spreads like crazy.
“Any time you have moisture with little ventilation, you will get mold,” says Rodney Riepenhoff, corporate engineer for FirstService Residential.
Recognizing the risks to community residents
Besides the obvious aesthetic issues of a visible infestation, mold can be a genuine health hazard to residents if left untreated long term, especially in condominiums. It can also affect your property values and the happiness of the people in your community.
Robert Kirby, regional engineer at FirstService Residential, recalls a resident in a mid-rise condo who developed respiratory problems several years ago. “The homeowner was reporting having an allergic reaction and went to her doctor, who diagnosed her with mold in her lungs,” he says. “There was no visible indication of mold in the unit before she started reacting to it.”
Although the homeowner lived on the seventh floor of a nine-story building, the source of the problem was actually water entering the building on the ninth floor. “When she reported her condition to the building, we started looking for the source and were able to find and address it through testing and proper mitigation,” explains Kirby. “We listened to her, we investigated and then we took care of the problem.”
Kirby notes that it’s important not to discount someone who reports that they are having a mold reaction. In this case, the homeowner’s sensitivity helped the association resolve the problem before it became a bigger issue.
Preventing mold in your building
The best way to prevent mold is to address any water damage as soon as possible. “You have to remember that mold doesn’t happen instantly,” says Riepenhoff. “A flood or other water damage doesn’t necessarily translate into a mold problem, but if you don’t correctly – and quickly – address the area, you will end up with mold.”
Kirby agrees. “The key to stopping mold in its tracks is to react within 48 hours,” he says. “Of course, if a hurricane hits or a river floods, it can be difficult to act quickly. The event itself may last more than 48 hours. When a pipe bursts in your high-rise building, you can react and get in there and start the drying process right away.”
Riepenhoff explains that this doesn’t simply mean turning a fan on wet drywall. “That won’t get to the moisture behind the wall,” he says. “There’s insulation back there, possibly wood studs – things mold loves. So, you need to open that wall up, cut the wall board and let air get to it as quickly as possible. Dry it thoroughly, and you might be able to head the mold off before it can take root.”
Riepenhoff sees a lot of communities in which the membrane roof leaks after a storm, even if the structure shows no signs that it has been penetrated by water. “The problem is that roofers come out and patch or seal the spot, and it’s not dried out properly before,” he says. “It eventually rots away the underlayment. When I evaluate properties, I’ll use thermal imaging to seek out water trapped under the membrane roof.”
Assessing your property for mold
Most homeowners become aware of a mold problem because they see it. “Unseen mold is the bigger issue,” says Kirby. “It can cause allergies and all kinds of respiratory problems.”
If you suspect that you have a mold problem, the first step is to have an experienced professional conduct a mold assessment. “It’s all about counts – the amount of mold in the air,” explains Kirby. “You need get an air test done on the air both inside and outside the suspected problem area. If the mold counts are similar, you’re probably okay. But if the counts inside are significantly higher, you’ve got a problem.”
Although there are no specific standards for what constitutes a mold “problem,” some states – including Florida, California, Texas, Illinois and New York – regulate mold assessment. One of the chief requirements is that the contractor who performs the assessment not be the same one who does the mitigation work, a move that is designed to protect customers from fraud.
Remediating a mold problem
Once the presence of mold has been verified, remediation is the next step. Be sure that the remediation contractor you hire is certified by the Institution of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC), which also defines the global mold remediation standard (S520).
Besides drying the area, the remediator will professionally clean and sanitize surfaces. Don’t think that you can do this on your own! “NEVER apply bleach or other household cleaners to visible mold,” warns Johann Ali, founder of GAIA Consulting Partners. “Mold’s defense mechanism includes ejecting of millions or trillions of spores into the air, and you may end up making the problem worse.”
Ali, a Licensed Environmental Professional (LEP), Florida Licensed Mold Assessor (FLMA) and Florida Licensed Mold Remediator (FLMR), points out that because mold embeds its roots within a surface, regrowth is likely if you only remove the tops. “Molds are relatively unaffected by bleach, ammonia or sodium triphosphate, and some have even been known to survive fires.”
Instead, certified mold remediators will scrub the impacted surfaces with steel wool, nylon wool, wire brushes or sanding pads, along with a low-toxicity quaternary biocide, to remove the roots and kill the mold. They then HEPA vacuum surfaces and wipe them down again with more sanitizer as a final measure before allowing the area to dry completely. Sometimes the area will be coated with an agent that can prevent mold for up to 10 years.
Don’t trust your eyes or even touch to know when a mold-infested area is dry. “I recommend that every property manager have a hand-held moisture meter,” Kirby said. “Some have probes, while others are ultrasonic and can test without any damage. I prefer the ultrasonic for an initial reading and then use the pinpoint probe style for a final test.”
Mold is ugly and yucky. But it isn’t the end of the world and not all water intrusion will result in mold. Follow our steps above to prevent mold or to have it assessed and properly treated, preserving your buildings and the health of your residents. A quality property management company will have both the engineering expertise and depth of resources and vendors to help your community address the problem.