Ruling Out Radon Windham ME
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Hollis Ctr, ME
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Ruling Out Radon
The PVC pipe in the garage is installed at a prescribed pitch along the ceiling. Once it is run up into the storage space above the garage, a 1.5-amp fan is installed and plugged into a standard electrical outlet. The pipe is then continued through the roof, cut at a specified clearance above the roofline and made weatherproof with the rubber boot and flashing.
For this, I hired a home building inspector. I also had the house tested for radon - a routine test for homebuyers in many parts of the country. For me, the radon test was nothing more than an afterthought. After all, radon is a colorless, odorless gas. Unless you test for it, it's unnoticeable. It's not like having a hole in the roof or a broken-down furnace. I was familiar with radon, of course. The Surgeon General says it is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the United States, behind smoking. The Environmental Protection Agency says about eight out of 1,000 people could get lung cancer if they have radon levels in their homes above 4 picocuries of radon per liter of air (pCi/L). For smokers, the risk increases to about 135 people out of 1,000 - or 100 times the odds of dying in a home fire. My home inspection proved that my house was in good condition. That was to be expected, since it was built just 15 years ago by a quality contractor, and the previous owners maintained it well. But I was not prepared for the results of the radon test. A professional radon-testing company determined that the levels in the basement were more than four times the acceptable level recommended by the EPA. The basement had 17.6 pCi/L. The EPA says the average outdoor radon concentration is 0.4 pCi/L, and the average indoor concentration is 1.3 pCi/L. It recommends that homeowners fix their radon problem if test results come in at 4 pCi/L or greater.
Nationally, one in 15 homes has elevated radon levels. The test results for my home's upstairs living area came back at 0.5 pCi/L, which was a relief. But my basement reading was still high enough that I knew I had to do something. My basement is unfinished, but I have a home office in it. I also hope to turn it into a livable recreation room over the next couple of years. Plus, I have a four-year-old son, and the idea of exposing him to radon isn't appealing. After receiving the test results, I first had my real-estate agent tell the home sellers that I wanted them to fix the problem. They refused. But because they had already come down on the price of the home, their refusal wasn't enough to break the deal. Once my family moved into the home, I went on the Internet to educate myself about radon, called my state radon office (every state has one) and ordered the Consumer's Guide to Radon Reduction pamphlet from the EPA (www.epa.gov/iaq/radon/pubs/consguid.html).
I learned that there is a variety of radon-reduction systems, depending on your type of foundation (basement, slab on grade or crawlspace), where you live, and the levels present. I also learned the job was too complex to do myself and would be relatively expensive, at least by my standards. According to the EPA, the typical cost for a subslab depressurization system - the most common radon-reduction system out there - is $800 to $2,500. Gulp! It was hard to imagine spending that type of dough. After all, it wasn't like I was buying a primo stereo system or a top-of-the-line set of golf clubs. I was going to shell out hundreds if not thousands of dollars for a bunch of plastic pipes and a fan to remove something I couldn't see, smell or taste.
I called three radon contractors for estimates. I got one name from the company that had conducted the radon tests, and the other two from the Radon Testing & Services section of the yellow pages. I also checked to make sure they were certified with the state. The first contractor gave me an estimate of $850 to install the system and run a pipe along the outside walls of the house to above the roof. To run the pipes through my garage and out the garage roof would cost me $1,050. The second contractor came in at $970 to run the system through the garage. I didn't ask for an estimate to install it outside the house because I knew by then that I wanted it to go through the garage. The third contractor charged a flat fee of $850 for most radon-reduction systems, unless there was something particularly difficult or challenging. I was equally comfortable with all three contractors. They seemed knowledgeable and experienced (and were patient with my stupid questions). They were certified by the state and the EPA. They guaranteed their work. They were insured. But before I hired one, I conducted a second home radon test - just to put to rest any doubts I had about the results of the first test.
I bought a home test kit made by First Alert for $17.99 at my local hardware store. You put the charcoal detector in your basement for two to three days; then you mail it to a laboratory, which mails back the results. The test confirmed that I had high radon - 15.1 pCi/L this time around - which made for an easier decision to spend the money on a radon-reduction system. All else being equal, and since I am a tightwad at heart, I hired the contractor who had come in at the lowest price. And so, at 8 a.m. on a brisk November day, Kent Willette from Northeast Radon arrived at my home, equipped with a variety of tools, plenty of PVC pipes and other equipment and supplies he would need during the five-hour job. He walked through my basement and decided to drill a test hole in the floor of my tool room, which juts out from the rest of the basement, under my upstairs mudroom and toward the garage. Here he drilled a hole through the concrete - basement floors are typically about 4 inches thick, he said - using a 1-inch-diameter bit on his hammer drill. He then drilled two other test holes in other parts of my basement. He brought in an industrial vacuum cleaner, put the nozzle over the hole in my tool room and used a pressure gauge to see if the suction was reaching the test holes. He was seeing if the holes were "communicating" with one another. The idea is to see if the vacuum could suck up the air - the radon-contaminated air, that is - that was circulating under the entire basement floor. But the test failed, meaning there was something blocking the underground air between the tool room and the rest of the basement. Kent then drilled another test hole in the main room of my basement, a few inches from the entrance to the tool room. This time, the pressure gauge confirmed that the vacuum was drawing up air from under the entire basement floor. This is important, because the idea of a radon-reduction system is to suck up the gas from under the basement floor before it reaches the basement air, and direct it outside through a series of plastic pipes. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that typically moves from the ground into a home through floor cracks, construction joints, wall cracks, gaps in suspended floors and around service pipes.
For the next several hours, Kent went about the job of running 3-inch PVC pipe from a hole in my basement floor up to the ceiling and through a wall into the garage. From there, he ran the pipes up the garage wall, along the garage ceiling and through a hole into the storage area above. In the storage area, he attached a fan - to draw the radon-tainted air up from the basement - to the pipe before attaching the last piece of pipe to the other side of the fan and then through the garage roof. The exit pipe is supposed to be at least 10 feet from any entry point - such as a window - into the home's living area, or at least 2 feet above the roof. With the fan installed and the PVC poking through my garage roof, Kent placed a neoprene roof boot over the pipe to cover the hole around the pipe to ensure the elements stay outside instead of entering the garage. For power, he ran electrical wiring from the fan to an outlet in the garage. Back in the basement, he used a polyurethane concrete sealant to fill in the area around the pipes that he had put into the basement floor. He also filled in the test holes he had drilled in the basement, and for good measure, he sealed in a couple of cracks in my basement floor.
Kent used a variety of tools and supplies: a hammer drill and cold chisel to cut holes in the concrete floor, a hole saw to run the PVC pipe through the wall between the basement and garage, and a reciprocating saw to cut the PVC pipe to length. He used his measuring tape repeatedly, and when assembling the pipe joints, he solvent-welded them together with primer and PVC cement. "As you can see, this isn't brain surgery," Kent said during the job. But it requires expertise - in carpentry skills and in radon.
For instance, the PVC pipe has to be installed at an upward pitch of at least 1/4-inch per foot to prevent condensation from developing inside the pipes. This means the pipe should slope roughly 2 1/2 inches for every 10 feet of pipe. Code regulations require a fire barrier between the garage and basement. The fire barrier is a round piece of metal that fits around the PVC pipe. In case of a fire, the heat makes the metal expand, causing the barrier to collapse inward and crush the pipe. If there were a fire, this would stop it from traveling through the pipe from the house to the garage and vice versa. The fan is key to the system; without it, there is nothing to draw the radon from under the basement floor to the outside. The 1.5-amp device runs continuously and creates a slight whirring sound that is barely noticeable in my garage below the storage area. The EPA estimates that it will cost me $75 to $175 a year to run the fan. After Kent was done, I took another radon test using a First Alert testing kit to determine my radon levels. The reading came back at 0.7 pCi/L - well below the 4-pCi/L level recommended by the EPA. I now have white PVC pipes running through part of my basement and garage. They look something like the PVC drainage pipes that run through my basement, except the radon-reduction system has a "radon-reduction system" label attached to it. The system isn't pretty - and it wasn't exactly cheap - but it gives me peace of mind. Clarke Canfield is a freelance writer based in South Portland, Maine.