|Teach Yourself Environmental Home Inspecting|
An historical note:
Years ago, I did a number of in-depth air quality lab tests but, for the most part, backed off them. Why? Because the same items were showing up in each test, and those items could largely be addressed through education and through better ventilation.
Recently, however, I have changed my tune. Here’s why. The first test I ran showed something I couldn’t have found at the house: a hidden gas leak. We had checked accessible areas for gas leaks and found nothing. This finding was worth the price of the test alone. Now the runs from the gas meter to the end points of each line had to be sampled, including pulling out stoves, dryers, etc. A methane detector, available on-line, could be used for that.
The second biggest pollutant was gasoline, from sources in an attached garage. My report advises folk to seal up access holes in an attached garage and to weatherstrip around the door. The report even mentions installing an exhaust fan to run for a half hour or so after a vehicles arrives or leaves.
But how many people actually do these things? If $385 for a baseline test needs to be paid to provide names and numbers for pollutants, to get the homeowners’ attention and to give them a tool for action, the money is well worth it.
There may be other fees involved, such as overnight shipping, equipment rental ($25 for a pump), and inspector fees for either running the 3-hour test or writing a report if you take the sample.
Here are several options for testing indoor air quality:
Fike Analytical Labs - my first choice, by far.
Note: I have no financial interest with this or any other lab.
Click for their brochure: AirSurvey and VOC Example Reports (PDF)
With this in-depth test, the home is scanned for several hundred volatile organic compounds (VOCs). A report is issued showing:
total VOCs, with a range from industry and also for sensitive individuals. At one home, the level from just ordinary indoor pollutants was 1600 ppm, a level high enough to be considered a concern worthy of further investigation in an industrial setting. That would get your attention, would it not?
total MVOCs, that is, VOCs produced by mold growth, again with a range covering sensitive individuals.
elevations in specific chemicals, such as:
gasoline infiltration from an attached garage;
odorants, such as from cleaning products and room air fresheners;
acetic acid, from cleaning with vinegar – yes, even vinegar is a pollutant
chemicals from paints, solvents
diesel leaks – old or new
Note: formaldehyde is not included but could be an add-on to the test.
Fike Analytical also offers a test for identifying particulates. For more, see their brochure: SEM-EDS Soot and "What Is It?" Example Report (PDF).
The inspector receives the report and reviews the range of concern for the particular chemical in the NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards (PDF. 420 pages, pubID 2005149) made available at no charge at the CDC website. NIOSH is the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The inspector puts together a report, working from the Pocket Guide. Any questions are referred to Randy Fike, who is generous with his time and expertise.
You’re looking at a fee in the neighborhood of $500-$600, plus the inspector fee for the 3 hour and 20 minutes sampling time. If interested, call Fike Analytical to see who is running those tests in your area.
Contact information for Fike Analytical: www.fikeanalytical.com, 248-241-6713.
Randall Fike has a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry and has many years of experience in the field. He serves as an expert witness, usually with industry. Dr. Fike (“Randy”) provides assistance in interpreting test results for inspectors and, if there is no inspector in an area, for individuals.
I am in the process of making a reference chart and anticipate having it reviewed by Randy. This chart will be available to beginning inspectors and others learning to interpret these reports. Send me an email.
In some circumstances, I can work with you through the mail, with Fike Analytical sending you the equipment (rental $25) and sorbent tube(s). You will run the 3+ hour sample(s) and over-night them to their cooperating lab. There is a report-writing fee, but the cost would be less than also paying for an inspector to wait around for the test to run. If there are things in the report that are unclear, I check in with Randy Fike.
Fike Analytical rush fees are:
48 hrs - 1.7 times the baseline fee of about $500.
24 hrs – 2 times the baseline fee
same day – 3 times
no rush: 5 working days (depends on the lab’s sample load)
Randy’s recommendations for testing:
one test for each floor;
test prior to purchase of a home
He told me two stories, one where a diesel fuel spill was detected under the foundation slab and another where a sewer pipe break was detected and later discovered to be under the slab at the kitchen floor. The kitchen pretty much had to be demolished to get to the break.
Of course, this sort of scan does not tell where the pollutant is and often not specifically what the pollutant is. For example, if “odorants” come up high on the report, you get rid of all sources of odorants without knowing which products account for how much.
There are on-line offerings for testing, such as www.homeaircheck.com. You get what you pay for, and you get ever so much more information with Fike Analytical. With lower end tests you get good marketing, less information, and lower accuracy.
Meters are available on-line, such as one that I use on-site:
BRAMC 5-in-1 Air Quality Monitor, formaldehyde & VOCs meter, particle counter for larger particulates (2.5 microns, 10 microns), and carbon dioxide, around $300.
A colleague who has pricey formaldehyde testing apparatus compared formaldehyde levels with the BRAMC and found the BRAMC reasonably accurate. If purchasing this monitor, I’d recommend purchase of the 3-year protection plan as well, because, while the colleague has had a good experience, mine stopped working in under a year. The unit is sold, new, on eBay, but not on Amazon and not through Grainger. (Grainger is the preferred source for equipment, with their customer service and one-year warranty.)
Read the instructions. My unit may have been damaged by placing the sensor at bottle openings of some common fragrance-free laundry detergents. The readings for formaldehyde zoomed upwards and these exposures may have proved too much for the meter. I don’t know if formaldehyde is present in these products or not, but the readings for products such as 7th Generation didn’t rise. That might be a clue.
I tried unsuccessfully to get a response from the manufacturer (in Asia) about whether other chemicals might also be measured under the “formaldehyde” selection but got no response. Next, an email was sent to one of the fragrance-free laundry manufacturers to see if formaldehyde was present in their product. Again, no response. On-line, I read that formaldehyde helps prevent shrinkage during clothes washing, so it could well be present in some of these detergents.
You could still use the meter to check cleaning and laundry products, but hold it a few inches away from the bottle opening and gingerly move it closer. As we would do in chemistry lab, use your hand to waft some of the air from the bottle opening toward the meter. As soon as the levels start to rise, pull it away. It can take a little while for levels to start to rise.
Another surprising finding was when a client exhaled onto the meter sensor, and formaldehyde registered. Do our bodies give off formaldehyde? Apparently there is a low level, but the reading could be registering other compounds as well. An interesting air quality study was described at www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com where air quality was tracked in a movie theater, and all sorts of chemicals were tracked to human exhalation, both compounds produced by the body or from outside sources.
I’ll be referring to this and other meters for individual pollutants in the Common Indoor Air Pollutants section.
A sensitive client had a storefront in which she was reacting. She was able to trace the source of the reactions to cleaning products used in the neighboring storefront. However, her neighbors didn’t think the cleaning products were the source and were uncooperative in accommodating her needs. It took running the Fike VOC scan and then demonstrating to the neighbors that her storefront was positive for the same chemicals that were in the cleaning products. At that point, the neighbors agreed to change the cleaning products.
A colleague told this story: a sensitive woman lived in a second floor apartment above a garage, where there was vehicle storage, gasoline storage containers, and other solvents. The owners were skeptical that air from the garage was infiltrating upward into her apartment. The inspector ran the Fike scan, and the report clearly showed that pollutants present in the apartment were present in higher levels below. At that point, the owners were finally convinced and made the necessary changes.
The renter reported that she was severely reacting to propane in her apartment. My combustion gas detectors confirmed several sources, with most coming from the apartment above. The owners, who smelled nothing and had had no previous complaints, did not believe her, or my meter. Finally, they called in the fire department to check, but the fire department’s meter did not find anything.
This individual did extensive research on the subject of gas detection and learned that one type of meter, such as I had, is more sensitive and more useful in cases where low-level exposures can be noticeable. The other type of meter, such as the fire department had, was more geared towards explosion or asphyxiation levels. We both felt, that if she had been permitted to work with the fire department representative, to show them at least several of the places where my meter had found the leaks, their meter would also have detected the leaks, but she was not permitted to do this. Finally, the owners agreed to at least turn off the gas while she was living there. Pity the next occupants. The owners got a favorable report from the fire department, which supported their opinions, and they were done with the subject.
For the renter to go further, she would have had to hire a Certified Industrial Hygienist (CIH) to inspect, and then there would be the question of whether the owners would permit access to the upstairs area where most of the leaks were found. Given the attitude of the owners, the “fix” would not have been easy and may well have involved legal action. When I ran this situation past Randy Fike, he indicated that her option was to move.
This was the first inspection I’ve had in 25 years where owners did not appreciate a report of gas leaks. Everyone else has been grateful when leak(s) were found. They often acted promptly to get them fixed, even while I was still at the house. At one early 1900s house, 15 leaks were found, with several over 10,000 ppm (parts per million). That was an all-time high from my experience.
What about testing for gases outdoors?
This is trickier, depending on the wind and other variables. Review the YouTube offerings on Summa canisters. This canister is like a vacuum tube that the person opens when the smell is strongest. A CIH (Certified Industrial Hygienist) may need to be consulted if potential liability is involved.
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Next up, Choosing a Room Air Purifier. Or, go back to the Indoor Air Quality Topic Index.