Radon Testing - A Good Investment For Your Peace of Mind
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Radon Testing - A Good Investment For Your Peace of Mind authorRadon Testing - A Good Investment For Your Peace of Mind
by David Andrick of A-1 Home Inspection Services LLC
05-10-2004

Radon is an environmental concern that potentially exists in all homes because every home has some sort of radon level (I have yet to have a test register 0.0 pi/l). Unlike carbon monoxide and/or smoke alarms that can sound off in the event of abnormal levels, radon is an odorless, colorless gas present in every home and cannot be detected by an installed device (except a mitigation system with a level indicator/alarm). Presently, no detector exists to warn you of abnormal levels.

It is important to test for radon as it is the second leading cause of lung cancer in homes where occupants are exposed to abnormal levels previously untested. Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive by-product gas from the earth. It seeps into the home in basement cracks, pipe chases, sump pits and uncovered dirt floor/crawlspaces. Homes built in high shale areas have been known to exhibit elevated radon levels. Some home builders will actually install piping in homes in areas where they build in shale for future mitigation system installations. Known "hot spot" areas are depicted on some USGS mapping in the U.S.

Radon levels vary from house to house. Lenders and insurers do not currently require a passing radon test to obtain a mortgage. I personally have seen test levels from under 1 to over 65 picocuries/liter. Levels of above 200 are known to exist. Canada has higher minimal correction radon levels.

While test kits exist for the do-it-yourselfer, it is best to have a professional conduct a proper radon test especially in the situation of a purchase and sale of real estate. Another good time to have radon tested is before you convert new living space in a lower level in a home below the current living level. (i.e. the basement of a raised-ranch style home).

If you are purchasing a home and there is no evident history of a radon test being conducted by an independent third party; it would be prudent to have a radon test conducted. If the current home seller has converted newer lower level living space since they purchased the home, a test would be warranted.

Lastly, let's not forget the "nesters" who have lived in a home for awhile and may want to find out the radon levels, even though they may not be selling in the near future. I have actually conducted radon tests for homeowners where a spouse had passed away from lung cancer and never smoked, and they lived in the house for over 20 years! They contacted me to conduct a test in part because their neighbor across the street recently sold their house and had to put in a mitigation system. They had no prior knowledge of radon whatsoever.

WORDS TO THE WISE: Be sure an independent, unbiased professional ( i.e. home inspector) is selected and conducts the test according to EPA protocol. The test can usually be conducted at a cost between $75 and $150. The two most common testing methods include charcoal canister and electronic electret devices. Atmospheric conditions and testing in winter months can produce elevated test results. Ventilating the home just prior to the test can actually cause elevated levels during the test period by creating a vacuum effect. If the radon test you ordered comes back abnormal and the test was conducted as part of a real estate purchase, a retest can be performed to rule out improper placement, lab error, etc. Make sure an independent contractor performs the test.

Lastly, be sure the "chain of custody" of the test rests with the professional conducting the test. This will insure a more accurate and honest test. Having a realtor involved with the deal pick up and mail the test cans (if electret system is not used) opens up for possible questionable test conditions/results, etc. I personally have had realtors offer to "pick up and mail" the test cans! While on the outside it may sound convenient, I personally do not allow this to happen. The realtors have said that they have done this for other inspectors.... Imagine that!

Not all inspectors place the test cans in the proper place. I could write a book on the stories I've heard from (angry) misinformed realtors. Imagine how many mitigation systems were installed, not to mention the "deals killed" by the improper tests conducted AND how the resulting information was delineated to the customer!

The EPA (not the home inspector) suggests that once a proper radon air test has been conducted and the results are 4.0 pi/l or higher in the lowest current living level, steps should be taken to lower the levels to below 4.0 pi/l. A mitigation contractor can be consulted (interview at least 2) to install a system retrofitted usually at a cost between $800 to $1,500 and may vary beyond this range by type of house, system and region/contractor. If the air radon test shows a level of 10.0 picocuries/liter or higher AND a well is the source of potable water in the home, the EPA suggests a water test be conducted to determine the level of radon in the drinking water.

Abnormal levels of radon in water can lead to stomach cancer (although not as high an incidence as air radon/lung cancer according to the EPA). If the levels in the tested well water come back abnormal, the situation is correctable with a professionally installed carbon water treatment system.

Once a failing air radon test result has been produced, a mitigation system which uses the amount of electricity of a 100 watt light bulb, will run 24/7. The vacuum motor will create some "white noise" and should be treated like a regular appliance....needing replacement every several years. I have seen motors installed in attics, basements, crawlspaces, and on the exterior of homes. Alarms and level gauges are available so you have more peace of mind. Caution, I once acquired home inspection clients because while they were away on vacation, their vacuum fan/motor which was installed in the attic caught on fire. They ended up having to buy another home!

In the final analysis, all homes have some level of radon. It's a good investment to have your home tested for it. Abnormal radon levels are correctable with a professionally installed mitigation system.


David Andrick is the owner of A-1 Home Inspection Services LLC of Staatsburg NY. He services the Mid-Hudson Valley of New York including Columbia, Dutchess, Southern Greene, Ulster, Orange, and Putnam counties. You can contact David via E-mail or by calling his office at (845) 889-8849.

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