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Overcoming Hurdles

Professionals discuss the potential in residential investigations.


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April 1, 2012 by Don Fugler

Mould is one of the major complaints that will prompt a call to a residential IAQ specialist. Photo iStockphoto
Mould is one of the major complaints that will prompt a call to a residential IAQ specialist. Photo iStockphoto

Despite over 15 years of promotion, you would be hard-pressed today to make a living doing residential indoor air quality (IAQ) investigations. This seems illogical considering that many houses have legitimate problems that cause respiratory illnesses and other issues. Additionally, knowledge of air quality problems and solutions is relatively well developed with IAQ investigation training readily available.

The big hurdle seems to be having the homeowner (the potential client) make the connection between recognizing the problem, calling in an appropriate professional, and paying to have the problem diagnosed and fixed. Apparently, the problem resolution that we take for granted in personal health, appliance repair, or fixing our cars, has not been popularly accepted in the field of residential indoor air quality. Problems that evoke possible liability in a commercial or rental situation are dismissed in a residential environment. After all, who is going to sue the homeowner? Their kids?

Many professions have to deal with residential IAQ. These include the first responders: HVAC designers and installers, building inspectors, energy auditors and utility technicians. The next level would be environmental consulting firms and occupational hygienists, whose expertise in fields such as asbestos and industrial chemicals lead to the odd residential contract.

For each of these professionals it is important to recognize IAQ problems. It is also important to know  when you are capable of performing the proper diagnosis.

I recently taught part of an indoor air quality investigation course put on by the Healthy Indoors Partnership (HIP). During the course, we discussed IAQ problems and how they could be treated. I followed up by interviewing three professionals who have spent several years doing IAQ investigations that include residential cases, in conjunction with the better paid commercial/institutional jobs.

Angela Pike has worked for Pinchin Environmental for four years (seven in the industry) and is one of two residential specialists within that firm. About half her work is residential. A colleague takes care of asbestos in houses.

While Pinchin does advertise in various publications and through social marketing, many of the houses that she visits belong to people who had previously seen the company at work in their place of employment. This may be attributed to homeowners being reluctant to spend hundreds of dollars for professional advice for their houses. Having seen the firm at their workplace gives them some confidence that the service will be valuable to them and will be performed competently.

Mould continues to be one of the major complaints that prompts a call to Pike, even mould in attics. One could argue that surface mould under residential roofing is not often a health threat, and Pike does, but many people want it cleaned up nonetheless. One advantage of this cleaning is that the process usually covers removal of the attic floor insulation and air sealing. This is a useful, and often neglected step, in stopping house moisture from migrating to the roof deck, which also has the advantage of energy and cost savings.

Jon Lee of Safetech Environmental says that about 30 per cent of his business is residential and almost all of that is with property managers in high rises. Quite often the tenant complaints are non-specific – headaches, coughs, respiratory irritation – and there are rarely clear and obvious pollution sources in the dwellings.  Mould is often a factor although sometimes it is not recognized specifically as an IAQ problem. Marijuana grow operations require inspection and clearance, and there is no shortage of houses affected, noted Lee.

Jim White, now retired, worked 12 years as an independent IAQ investigator after he left Canada Mortgage and Housing (CMHC). CMHC had a listing of professionals who had passed the IAQ training and when consumers telephoned CMHC with IAQ problems, they were directed to that list.

Most of White’s clients for a decade came from those references, until CMHC distanced itself from giving IAQ advice. He also had a large number of people who were hypersensitive to a variety of chemicals and irritants. White states that most of the houses he inspected had some degree of mould problems, and most of those were derived from leaky basements combined with items stored against the walls. In situations where one person worked at home (most often women) and suffered from poor IAQ, the person working away from home would frequently dismiss complaints believing, “It’s all in their head.”

With the advent of more men working in home offices, it is somewhat reassuring to recognize that the symptoms experienced are not gender traits but the body’s legitimate reaction to a poor environment.

One of the real problems with residential inspections is the degree of cleanliness and its relation to dust, allergen, and mould exposure. A house has to be cleanable – free of major debris – and cleaning has to be regular and thorough. This is not a message that many homeowners want to hear, particularly if they have just paid you for the advice. It requires a certain amount of discretion to do this well and have them respond positively.

Conversely, clients are often looking for a silver bullet or magic appliance to resolve their problems. Being told that they should emulate their mothers’ housekeeping (without the chemical cleansers) can cause a certain amount of inertia in resolving the problems.

Another interesting variety of IAQ investigations is odour cases. Lee commented that the building science training he has taken allows him to better visualize and predict the source of bad smells. Odour cases tend to be very challenging.

Ken Ruest of CMHC related that he once did an expensive odour examination of a house and was preparing to complete the demolition of the garage ceiling, in search of a dead raccoon. Luckily, the owner gave him one more clue about the timing of the odours and the offending smell was traced to two plastic light sockets in fixtures bought on a Mexican holiday. It would be nice if all odour cases could be resolved so definitively.

The professionals above discussed where they obtained their information on IAQ topics. Many were trained to some degree through the college and university courses they took, or  through occupational health training. Professional organizations provide specific training at seminars and conferences, which can keep you current with the latest research findings. Environmental firms have their experts provide short courses to the professions and the public.

Finally, the IAQ investigators’ course mentioned above provides a comprehensive IAQ background and an introduction to building science which explains concepts such as condensation issues and air movement within buildings.

IAQ course material, along with the format, was developed in 1996 by CMHC for residential investigators and the current courses owe much to that initial initiative. The CMHC course emphasized an integration of IAQ understanding and building science, so that air quality problems could be properly recognized and logical solutions proposed. CMHC no longer runs the course for investigators and has allowed other organizations to take over training and course development.

The HIP course is followed by testing on the knowledge gained, resulting in a designation as a certified IAQ investigator. With the growth and maturity of training programs, third party certification is a possibility.

Despite the limitations described here, there is a place for residential IAQ investigation professionals, even if it is only a portion of the work that they do. There is almost always money to be made in the asbestos identification and removal business, which is an IAQ problem by any definition. There is growing recognition by homeowners that mould and radon problems need to be rectified by competent profess
ionals.

There should be recognition, at some time in the future, that homes need to have the best air quality that the homeowner can afford, because it is where we spend the biggest part of our life. Physical health is very dependent upon the air we breathe. If the air in your client’s house is not great, find a way to suggest they have you work on improving it. <>

Don Fugler is an independent researcher located in Ottawa. He was with the policy and research division, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. as a senior researcher.

READER RESOURCES: www.hip-iaq.com; www.hrai.cawww.cmhc-schl.gc.ca


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