The Story of How Radon was Discovered in Homes

Who is Radio Active Stanely?

In January of 1984, Stanely Watras and his young family moved into their new home in Boyerstown, Pennsylvania. Stanely began work at the soon-to-be-operable Limerick Nuclear Power Plant as a construction engineer. A few weeks before the plant began its energy production, they installed radiation detectors at the exterior doors. Employees would walk through them at the end of their shift, ensuring that they were not tracking radioactive material into the streets of their small town. 

Imagine the confusion that was caused one morning when Stanley arrived at work and set off the radiation detectors as he entered the building, when the power plant that was still free of radioactive material. For the next few weeks, Stanely continued to set off the detectors until it was discovered that the radioactive material was on his clothes and the source was his home. Upon further investigation it was determined that there were extremely high levels of radon in the Watras’ home. The EPA recommend safe levels are under 4.0pCi/L. The level in the Watras’ home was 2,700 pCi/L.

Because the levels of radon found in the Watras’ home were higher than levels detected in typical uranium mines, the family promptly moved out of their home and the Environmental Protection Agency moved in. For the next several months, the EPA used the Watras home to test multiple radon mitigation systems. They were eventually able to get the levels below 4.0 pCi, installed an alarm that would sound if levels every crept up to unsafe levels again and the Watras family moved back into their home.  

What Is Radon?

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that can cause lung cancer. Radon is created as part of the decay process of uranium. The EPA estimates that, nation wide, radon is responsible for 21,000 deaths from cancer a year; of these 21,000 deaths, roughly 19,000 of these individuals are smokers. Exposure to both cigarette smoke and radon gas puts individuals at a much higher risk than either of the two factors alone. 

Where does radon come from?

The presence of uranium and its progeny (radon) in the earth was not new information. However, until the Watras’, it wasn’t understood that radon could be seeping into homes through cracks in foundations and well water. Naturally, the Watras’ neighbors were concerned that the levels in their homes may also be extremely high. Testing indicated that half were within acceptable levels. This was because the entire neighborhood was built on the Reading Prong, a rocky belt that contains elevated concentrations of uranium. 

To understand how this could be, it may be helpful to think of how underground water sources can travel great lengths to find a spring to flow through. It, like radon, is looking for the path of least resistance. This is what happened in the case of the Watras’ home. Their house happened to have been built on top of a crack in the rocky out cropping that radon was able to escape through. 

What happened to the Watras family?

As of 2015, Stanely and Diane Watras’ were still living in their home. Despite the dire predictions from experts at the time of the radon discovery in their home, none of the five family members have died from lung cancer. The radon mitigation system installed in their home has done its job. 

How can I determine if there are elevated levels of radon in my home?

Elevated radon levels does not mean your home is unfixable. Depending on the size and design of the home and the type of the foundation, mitigation systems can be installed for under $2000. (Sometimes under $1000.) If you are concerned about radon levels in your home, consider conducting a long term test. AccuStar’s Alpha Track radon test kits are used for long term radon testing. The long term test offer a better representation of the radon concentration over different seasons and building conditions. Exposure time is typically between 3 and 12 months. These kits can be purchased for $30.

It’s More Than A Musty Smell

Perhaps it’s happened to you: You and your buyer have arrived at a showing and the home has been empty for some time. You unlock and open the door and a wave of musty air hits you and your client in the face. Agents frequently dismiss this as “just a musty odor because the house has been sitting.” Their clients usually accept this because, hey, their agent is a pro and goes into a lot of homes. Surely this is the norm during a house hunt. Perhaps a musty odor is a good sign. The reality is that the likely source is microbial growth and suggesting that it is anything else is opening yourself up to a lawsuit. Why bother? Why not address musty odors head on and hire the right home inspector to investigate the smell?

The most likely cause of a musty order in a home is mold. Actively growing molds release Microbial Volatile Organic Compounds (MVOCs) that frequently have a distinct odor. The good news is that when damp conditions in a closed-up house cause mold to grow, it is usually someplace you can see it. If the mold was caused by a leak or long term-persistent moisture it could be growing under floorboards, behind walls, under wallpaper or in the ductwork on dust and debris that has settled there. 

Mold is found everywhere in nature. Like mushrooms, its purpose is to break down wood, leaves and other plant material into nutrient-rich dirt. Mold is made up of tiny, generally transparent filaments called hyphae. As these hyphae take in nutrients from the substrate they are growing on they create a fuzzy blanket called mycelium. This is when molds become visible. As the mycelium reaches the next stage of development it is ready to spread. To do this it creates and distributes spores. (A lot of spores.) To correctly classify the genus or species of mold laboratory testing must be done, however, identification is probably unnecessary if you intend to have it cleaned up.

Breathing in mold spores can cause health problems for some individuals. The symptoms of mold-related illness are frequently respiratory issues, irritated eyes, rashes, sinus congestion, sneezing and headaches. There are certain types of molds that release mycotoxins that have been known to cause severe neurological problems. Whether or not individuals are affected by mold is dependant on a number of factors; the type of mold, the nutrient source, the duration and severity of exposure and the sensitivity of the individual. At greater risk are people with compromised immune systems, asthma, the elderly, small children and pregnant women.

Most molds need four things in their environment to grow; an organic substrate to grow on, temperatures between 40-120 degrees, the presence of mold spores and moisture. Three of the four of these are outside a homeowners ability to control or change. We keep the temperature in our home well within that range. We track mold spores into our house from the outdoors on our shoes and in our pets’ fur. They also float in freely every time we open a door or window. Occasionally, mold may grow on our expired bread, produce or house plants. Though mold loves to grow on wood, it can also grow on dust particles. Moisture is the only factor we can control in stopping or preventing mold growth. Because mold can grow within 24-48 hours of coming in contact with moisture, it is imperative that water intrusion is promptly remedied.

 

At The BrickKicker, we believe that every home inspection should also be a mold investigation. Our inspectors are trained to look for visible mold in the areas of homes where mold is likely to grow. We recommend following EPA guidance when it comes to mold testing and remediation: When we find mold, we recommend having it cleaned up. We do not sell remediation services nor do we recommend expensive testing to confirm what we already know. If your clients have a history of respiratory issues we can certainly provide quantified microbial measurements using a method appropriate for the observation or the concern. The BrickKicker also offers indoor an air quality test that can be done on homes outside the scope of a real estate transaction.

So the next time you detect a musty odor in a home tell your clients to keep it in perspective. A closed up home may have damp conditions that cause microbial growth. Perhaps that is what they are smelling. A good home inspector will track down the source of the odor, make sure it wasn’t caused by a more serious issue and give appropriate recommendations to move forward. Tell them to call The BrickKicker.

Inspecting Commercial Kitchens

Inspecting a Commercial Kitchen

Before purchasing a building with a commercial kitchen, a thorough inspection will help you determine if the mechanical equipment has been well-maintained.  Large kitchens can be tricky because they require different venting/lighting systems than other parts of commercial properties.Technically speaking . . .
After establishing the kitchen is truly a commercial kitchen and not a break room kitchen in an office one can determine the exhaust inspection needs.  Small break room kitchens have many of the same features and systems as a residential inspection, and thus, inspection requirements should be likewise.  However, a true commercial kitchen is much more complex and may require a specialist or subcontractor to assist in a thorough inspection.

The inspection . . . 
The BrickKicker Inspector will observe the hood and exhaust system.  The first and most important element of the commercial exhaust hood is the cleaning and inspection tag.  This is a tag typically placed on the exterior of the hood which identifies the last time the hood was cleaned and serviced.  All commercial hoods are required to be cleaned at least once a year.  This is typically a thorough pressure cleaning using steam.  The entire system, including the ductwork through the roof or sidewalls, is also cleaned.

Many kitchens we inspect are in-service or operating.  If this is the case, we simply ask the kitchen staff to operate the system, and we being a visual inspection of the rest of the system.  This includes:

  • Reporting on the conditions of the filters or noting if any excessive grease is present.
  • Locating the fire suppression system and its condition.
  • Examining that the lighting (including the bulb) is installed in an explosion-proof or flash-proof fixture to prevent any electrical shorts or issues from causing a grease fire in the system.

Airflow . . .
Because a commercial kitchen can create a very difficult work environment, we carefully investigate the air quality of the kitchen.  Our inspections also include examining any excessive heat from the various appliances, fumes, and odors from what is being prepared, and gases expelled from burning fuel used to operate the appliances.

If a fresh air intake is installed on the roof, we address the metal filter where fresh air is being brought into the system and ductwork leading into the hood to provide the fresh air.  If any ductwork is damaged or has openings, the quality air flow can fail, and even allow water into the system.    The exhaust fan unit should have a cover present and should be installed to the hood. This cover prevents weather elements from directly coming into contact with any of the interior portions of the fan unit.  If rain, ice, snow or water is allowed to enter the system it can cause the grease to create a slurry or build up and potentially fail the system.  These vents typically have a removable cap which allows for cleaning.
Our goal is to help you keep your kitchen, staff, and customers safe!

Inspections for all of your commercial and residential property needs.

What is Included in a Property Condition Assessment?

Property Condition Assessments

With The BrickKicker Property Condition Assessments, you will feel more confident purchasing or leasing a commercial property for your place of business.  We have a full-time dedicated and certified team of inspectors available to help you and your clients with your commercial inspection needs.

The BrickKicker is committed to excellence and being your consultant throughout your commercial property involvement.

Peace of mind
— for both you and your Commercial Clients —
with The BrickKicker!

 

Our Baseline Property Condition Assessments include:

  • Site review
    • Paving
    • Landscaping
    • Utilities
    • Topography
  • Structural Frame
  • Building Exterior and Envelope
  • Roof Surfaces
  • Windows and Doors
  • Plumbing System and Components
  • Electrical System and Components
  • Installed Mechanical Systems
  • HVAC Systems
    • Heating Systems
    • Air Conditioning Systems
    • Ventilation Systems
  • Visual review of Life Safety and Fire Protection
  • Installed Interior Elements
  • Document Review (if supplied)
  • Probable Costs and Recommendations (if requested)
Additionally, our trained inspectors can provide optional services:

  • Energy Audits
  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Assessments
  • Fire Safety and Sprinkler Inspections
  • Roof or Floor Cores
  • Mold Sampling
  • Radon Gas Testing
  • Energy Star Rating
  • Fenestrations
  • Elevator Inspections
  • Alarm Inspection
  • Wood Destroying Organism Inspection
  • Engineering Specialist or Certification

Asbestos and Home Inspections

Asbestos containing materials may be a concern for some home buyers. Their concern is not unwarranted but their understanding of the hazards associated with asbestos exposure usually comes from class-action lawsuit infomercials. Mesothelioma, lung cancer and asbestosis are all associated with asbestos exposure and the latency period for disease can range from 10-40 years. To make things worse, there is no safe level of exposure and asbestos containing building materials are found everywhere.

Homebuyers may request asbestos testing with their home inspection. This is a difficult request to deliver. First, it is rare to find a home inspector that can legally do asbestos testing in Georgia. (Spoiler Alert: We can.) The ability to test is further complicated by the need to cut holes in walls, flooring or insulating materials to get samples. Inspectors certainly cannot cut holes in walls or flooring materials during a home inspection. In addition to taking multiple (up to 9) samples in each area of concern, the EPA recommends doing sampling in a way that is truly random, making discrete sampling locations unlikely.

When is asbestos testing appropriate?

If may not be feasible during a home inspection but asbestos testing is recommended during renovation and demolition projects. The local building inspector may require it before issuing a demolition permit. An asbestos inspector will identify areas of potential asbestos containing materials and take an appropriate number of samples for laboratory analysis. A home buyer should also be aware that some renovation projects that they plan to tackle on their own may not require a permit but could be potentially hazardous.  Repairing drywall, removing “popcorn” ceiling texture or replacing old flooring materials are a few examples of simple DIY projects that could result in contaminating the home and exposing the occupants to asbestos.

How should Realtors communicate to clients about asbestos?

So how do you help your clients keep these hazards in perspective without downplaying them? First, direct them to the EPA website. At www.EPA.gov/Asbestos, homebuyers can find clear and concise information about the hazards of asbestos and products that may potentially contain them. Second, they should make sure their home inspector has been trained to identify materials that are likely to contain asbestos.

How can The BrickKicker be of help if asbestos is suspected to be present?

At The BrickKicker, we have an EPA accredited asbestos building inspector on staff. When an asbestos survey is necessary or testing is requested by a homeowner planning a DIY project, we can legally offer the service. During a home inspection, our professionally trained inspectors can identify potential asbestos containing materials, assess their condition and give recommendations for maintaining or removing them without laboratory analysis.

Maximum Occupancy

DO YOU KNOW YOUR MAXIMUM OCCUPANCY?

“Occupancy Load” refers to the number of people permitted in a building at one time based on the building’s floor space and function. The occupancy load must be posted on signs and publicly available. To exceed occupancy load or fail to post-occupancy load signs in the required places can result in fines and is a serious safety hazard.

Emergencies can require the immediate evacuation of a building, particularly in the event of a fire. Any delay in evacuation can be tragic, as was the case in the 2003 Station Night Club fire in West Warwick, Rhode Island, which killed 100 people in just over five minutes. The fire was so lethal because evacuation was sluggish, partly due to the fact that the actual number of people present was much higher than the building’s occupancy load.

Sign Inspection

CCPIA inspectors can consider the following questions while they inspect load occupancy signs:

  • Is the sign present? The 2006 International Building Code (IBC) requires that signs should be present in all “assembly occupancies.” The city of Yuma, Arizona, requires their presence in assembly occupancies and defines that term as “gatherings of 50 persons or more for civic, social, or religious functions.” Other jurisdictions, such as the cities of Houston, Texas and Portland, Oregon, as well as the state of Idaho, agree that occupancy signs are required for buildings that have occupancy loads of 50 or more.
  • Has the sign been maintained?  It is the responsibility of the building’s owner to make sure that the sign is not damaged by wear or abuse.
  • Is the sign clear and legible? The Houston Fire Code requires the following:  Signs shall [have a] minimum of 1-inch block letters and numbers on a contrasting background so as to be readily visible. Allowable smaller lettering shall be a minimum of 3/8- inch block lettering.
  • Is the sign placed in a suitable location? The 2006 IBC requires the following: Every room or space that is an assembly occupancy shall have the occupant load of the room or space posted in a conspicuous place, near the main exit or exit access doorway from the room or space.

Additional recommendations can be drawn from the Houston Fire Code, which requires that occupancy load signs be placed in the following manner:

  • The sign shall be located in a conspicuous location within the room, adjacent to the main exit, so as to not be obstructed by doors, curtains, poster board stands, furniture, room dividers, or similar items.  The sign shall be posted not more than 60 inches nor less than 48 inches above the floor.

Calculation of Occupancy Load

Occupancy load is calculated by dividing the area of a room by its prescribed unit of area per person. Units of area per person for specific buildings can be found in the chart at the end of this article. For instance, the chart dictates that dormitories require 50 square feet of floor area for every room occupant.

Consequently, a dorm room that has 100 square feet of floor space will have a maximum occupancy of two people. The amount of space required per person varies based on the function of the room, which is determined by the building’s designer.

In summary, the occupancy load must be posted in many buildings on signs that are clearly visible and legible.

–thank you to InterNACHI and the CCPIA or this important information

Commercial Fire Safety

How Safe is Your Fire Alarm System?

Fire alarm systems are designed to protect people and their property from fire and smoke, but they cannot be relied upon unless they are routinely inspected by professionals. Regular inspection and maintenance also reduce expenses by preventing unbudgeted emergency repairs and costly false alarms.

Fire Alarm Systems Can Be Damaged

Fire alarm systems can be damaged in the following ways:

  • infiltration by dust, dirt and other contaminants;
  • vandalism;
  • remodeling;
  • improper maintenance; and
  • inadequate
    performance of degraded
    electronics.

How old is the system?

If you can find out the age of the system, you can get a better idea of inspection requirements.

  • Systems less than five years old require little effort to maintain. In these new systems, problems are usually caused by improper installation, such as bad grounding, or environmental factors, such as voltage transients.
  • Systems between five and 10 years old may experience component breakdown caused by harsh, but normal, environmental factors. Voltage fluctuations, temperature, and humidity may cause system failure or nuisance alarm problems.
  • Systems between 10 and 15 years old can still provide an appropriate life-safety response. However, systems this old require close attention, even with proper maintenance procedures in place. If the system has a history of poor maintenance (or none at all), it’s likely that failure of components will occur.
  • Systems older than 15 years may be beyond their technological life expectancy. The system may continue to work satisfactorily if properly maintained, but it will require testing and inspection by trained specialists to ensure that proper system response will occur in an emergency.

Inspection Steps

Few property inspectors are qualified to inspect fire alarm systems, and the International Standards of Practice for Inspecting Commercial Properties do not require inspectors to inspect fire alarm systems. However, some basic knowledge about systems outside of the scope of a general inspection can be helpful. In addition,  commercial property inspections give you the opportunity to educate your client about the importance of maintaining fire protection systems in a commercial building. Your client needs to know that a fire alarm system requires periodic maintenance and an annual inspection by a licensed contractor, as required by code. You should advise your client to obtain the documentation of the previous annual maintenance inspections, which should be kept on site.  They should indicate the items inspected (smoke detectors, pull stations, horn/strobes, etc.), the condition they were in at the time of the inspection, and any repairs made to the system.

Specifically, the following steps are generally taken by contractors trained in fire-alarm system inspection:

  • Set the sensitivity. This requires an understanding of the particular system, the specific application, and fire detection theory.
  • Simulate inputs, and test the annunciators. This requires specific knowledge of the system under testing.
  • Test and calibrate the alarm sensors, such as flame and smoke detectors, per the manufacturers’ specifications. This requires knowing about the different sensors—and their testing requirements, failure modes, and re-installation requirements.
  • Coordinate with the local fire department to test the input to their system.
  • Check the battery for corrosion and expiration date, and then take appropriate action, if necessary.

In summary, fire alarms in commercial buildings are essential life and property-saving systems, and they must be maintained and periodically inspected.

Septic Systems

Sewage waste from most Georgia homes is managed through centralized sewage treatment plants but approximately 25-37% of homes in Jackson, Oconee and Athens-Clarke counties use septic systems. Home septic systems are very common, and not just in rural areas.


A septic system is comprised of the septic tank and a drain field. The septic tank allows wastewater to settle into three levels; sludge, liquid (known as effluent) and scum (grease and oils). Once settled, the effluent level is allowed to drain through perforated pipes buried underground into the drain field. The sludge and scum remain in the tank and need to be pumped out on a regular basis that is determined by the size of the home, size of the tank and the number of people living in the home.

If you purchase a house with a septic system it is important to be mindful of the following:

  • Use toilet and sinks for human waste and toilet paper only. Avoid flushing anything that will not break down into organic material. Garbage disposals are not recommended if you are on a septic system.
  • Get to know your system. What is the size of your tank? Where are the tank and drain field located? How old is your system and when was it last inspected?
  • Be aware of your water usage, especially during the rainy season to avoid overwhelming your drain field. Reduce your water usage by using low-flow shower heads and fixing leaks immediately upon discovery.
  • Have your tank checked by a certified professional every 3-5 years. It is more cost effective to inspect, pump and maintain a septic system than it is to make repairs to a neglected system.

 

Signs of septic system failure include:

  • Foul odors around the septic tank and drain field
  • Wastewater back up in your house
  • Liquid seepage in your basement or around the septic system
  • Grass that is greener and mushy ground around the drain field

 

We recommend Antonio Martin with Athens Professional Septic & Drain Service for pumping, inspections and guidance on maintaining a septic system. Athens Professional services 12 counties. If you are purchasing a home outside of their coverage area, please ask your Realtor for a referral to a contractor that they know and trust. You can visit Antonio’s website here for more information about septic systems and what to expect from a septic inspection. Their office number is 706-207-3739.

 

Termite Inspections

Every year, termites invade homes and create more than 5 billions of dollars worth of damage by compromising the structural integrity of the residences they infest. That is more fire and storm damage combined. The Southeast has a very high termite presence due to our climate and soil conditions. There is an average of 3 termite colonies per acre in Georgia. Often, an infestation is not a matter of “if”, but “when?” If you request a complimentary termite inspection from the BrickKicker, we will schedule a 3rd party pest control company licensed by the Georgia Department of Agriculture*.

In a termite inspection, the inspector is looking for visible evidence of any of five wood-destroying organisms: subterranean termites, powder post beetles, wood-boring beetles, dry wood termites, and wood-decaying fungus.

Beyond simply looking for evidence of activity, the inspector will also identify any conditions in or around the home that may be conducive to future wood-destroying organism activity. The inspector will look for evidence of prior treatment, give recommendations for future treatment and identify obstructed and inaccessible areas. If your lender requires a termite letter, you can purchase one from the extermination company at the time of the inspection and they will bill you directly. (Their typical fee is $50.) A termite letter will give you a 90-day guarantee (as required by the SPCA) that the structure is free from infestation and the inspection report will allow you to negotiate treatment of any active infestations with the seller.

If you would like a complimentary termite inspection or if you need to order a termite letter from a licensed extermination company please contact us at 706-353-2745 or negaoffice@brickkicker.com.

 

*The Georgia Department of Agriculture and the Georgia Structural Pest Control Commission administer the Structural Pest Control Act (SPCA). The SPCA is the primary law for the pest management industry in Georgia. The Department of Agriculture is the enforcement agency for the SPCA.

 

Maintaining Buyer Enthusiasm Through the Inspection

One of the things I love about my job is that every day is a new day. It never gets boring. We get to meet new people daily and help move them forward with their home purchase. This can be a bumpy ride and the home inspection can be the hardest part to get through so we do our best to make this a positive experience that is mindful of our clients’ experience. We do this by viewing the home buying process as a journey from uninformed optimism to informed optimism. In the middle the buyers may experience various states of pessimism but we make sure we put them on the path to informed optimism. Understanding the mental state of the buyer at each point on their journey is critical to ensuring a successful transaction and a positive experience for everyone.

As I mentioned before, the journey begins with uninformed optimism. The buyer has fallen in love with a property that they really know very little about. There may be some uncertainty based on what was in the Seller’s Disclosure but in general the buyer is excited and hopeful. They have invited us to review the property to verify the condition of the home and that they are not making a huge financial mistake. The home inspector is called in for a reality check.

The results of the home inspection really don’t matter but the home inspector and their report will determine if the buyer goes into crisis mode (and runs for the hills) or if they are ready to move forward. So what is the difference? The goal of every inspection should be to leave the buyer in an informed state. The rose colored glasses are off and the buyer know what they are purchasing. One difference between a good inspector and a bad inspector is how these results are delivered. If all the buyer can see is a long report full of defects then the inspector has communicated poorly and left them in a state of uninformed pessimism. If the inspector has done a good job taking care of their client, the buyer will understand all of the issues in the report, they will know which things they should really care about and they will know what to do about each one. This is a state of informed pessimism and the only thing left is negotiating with the seller. A good inspection report will make this a breeze for the Realtor.

It is really the REALTOR that guides the client from informed pessimism to informed optimism but, make no mistake, there is no way to get from an state of pessimism to optimism without being properly informed. If the home inspector has failed, the deal may fall apart for the wrong reasons. When a seller walks away from a property because they have a poor understanding of what defects have been found or those findings have been blown out of proportion, everyone loses. The Buyer misses the opportunity to buy the house they were once smitten with, the Seller has to go through the process again and both Agents are back to square one.

Our job as home inspectors is to make sure everyone is headed in the right direction. As much as we would like to take our clients all the way to the closing table, we understand our role and we are not part of the negotiation. I am continually impressed with the way REALTORs

overcome surprises that come up in the home inspection. More often than not, the seller is also unaware of the major issues and what to do about them.

It’s difficult to know what you’re going to get when you order a home inspector but there are things you can look for before you hire someone. First, check their online reviews. See what others have shared about their experience. Next, check to make sure they are experienced. A professionally trained and independently certified home inspector has a better chance of understanding their role than someone who is self taught with nothing but online training. An experienced inspector will also be able to communicate their findings in a way that keeps everything in perspective. Finally, make sure that the inspector is available to help request repairs. Home inspectors are not supposed to prioritize their findings but they will certainly let you know if you are giving unnecessary consideration to minor issues that are easy or inexpensive to address later.