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Mysterious Mould: Fancoil Contamination of Growing Concern

by Leslie Woods Snr., CMR, CEI

Mould contamination is of growing concern within the condominium industry.

Increasing condensation, caused by inadequate ventilation, maintenance and occupant lifestyle issues have become the main catalysts for mould problems in buildings. These situations are not as readily visible, and are often overlooked, until the occupant brings this to the attention of Management, Board of Directors, and, in some cases, the Department of Health. This increases the nature of the complaint and the related cost to remedy the situation.

Health issues surrounding mould are becoming more frequent due to the investigation of how mould generally affects the health of people who are exposed to it. People are mainly exposed to mould by breathing spores or other tiny fragments. People can also be exposed through skin contact with mould contaminants (for example, by touching mouldy surfaces) and/or by swallowing it. Also, the chemicals produced by mould respiration (the wet- mop or dirty-sock odour) can cause problems for sensitive individuals. The type and severity of health effects that mould may produce are usually difficult to predict. The risks can vary greatly from one location to another, over time, and from person to person. The most common health problems caused by indoor mould are allergic reactions and asthmatic symptoms, though more serious problems can occur, especially in the elderly or young and if a person suffers from sensitivity to mould.

Less visible but just as problematic is mould growth in the HVAC and fancoil systems (individual in-suite heating and air-conditioning system) and in the duct-work. The inside of these units are out of sight and usually out of mind until a problem occurs, thus making their potential for health issues that much greater.

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What is Mould?
Moulds are microscopic organisms that can grow over the surface and inside nearly all substances of plant or animal origin. Almost any natural material, no matter how small, will support an indigenous population of moulds. They are an essential part of the balance of nature but are also opportunistic organisms looking for a place to live and reproduce. They live on your floor, walls, and ceilings, in the carpet, dirty laundry, the A/C heating system, plants, drip pans and closets. They only become a problem in the indoor environment when given the right conditions to grow and flourish. Mould damages any material that it grows on — the materials get stained or discoloured, and over time are destroyed.

Mould growth is indicative of a moisture condition favourable for growth. Mould needs moisture control moisture and you control mould.

Excessive moisture within a dwelling may be caused by:
• A building assembly problem
• Occupant use /lifestyle
• Maintenance / housekeeping Mould in Ventilation Systems

Filtration provides the primary defence against mould spores entering a building's ventilation system. Pre-filters can be effective provided they are well maintained. However, fungus can grow on filters as well as other ventilation components and, if unchecked, can actually contribute to the problem. Your HVAC unit creates ideal conditions for mould growth and spore dispersal, if not maintained properly. The interior of the ducts from these units are generally covered with acoustical insulation, trapping dust and mould spores in the ductwork waiting for moisture to flourish.

Fancoil units within suites, by their very design, provide an ideal place for mould to grow throughout the summer. If the supply and exhaust air vents are not functioning properly, and proper steps are not taken to reduce the mould growth in the fancoil, there is the potential for the rest of the suite to become a breeding ground in the winter, as mould spores in the fan- coil unit dry out and are distributed throughout the suite.

Dirty or dusty environments, whether in the suite or in the ductwork, are far more conducive to mould problems than a clean environment. Dirt and grime are often composed of organic material, which is the staple of the mould diet. Good housekeeping practices, frequent cleaning, low humidity, and adequate ventilation all contribute to the suppression of mould growth.

Technologies used to ventilate multifamily buildings are not all that complex, yet difficulties with indoor air quality, odour migration, condensation and mould are all too common, making it of the utmost importance these issues be addressed.

Mould Remediation
Effective courses of action for Property Managers and Board of Directors can be very confusing. An abundance of sales pitches and product claims can make this confusion that much more a dizzying experience. Mould Remediation and HVAC Decontamination all represent significant risks to building occupants if carried out by unqualified contractors. Your only guide is to ensure you contact reputable companies carrying proper mould specific insurance, solid references and a good track record of similar projects.

According to the New York City Protocol "Porous materials such as fan coil insulation with more than a small area of contamination should be removed and discarded".

Extensive mould amplifications - Full
remediation and Certified redesign required.

Due to this guideline, a common initial reaction when mould is observed on the insulation of HVAC units is to suggest completely replacing the insulation. It does not address the underlying design faults or any way to preclude the redevelopment of mould growth. It is also open to interpretation to the degree of contamination.

In the industry today there are currently two remedial options when mould is present in a HVAC unit: Removal of insulation and redesign of mechanical systems, or cleaning the existing insulation and applying an anti-microbial solution to eliminate surface mould growth.

Any remediation work carried out should ensure proper containment and negative air within work area, and background cleaning of surrounding air with HEPA filtered air cleaners. The procedure of the remediation is crucial. If not carried out properly, mould spores could be dispersed throughout the residence, resulting in further contamination, health risks and costs.

To determine the best course of action, management companies should implement a written protocol on specific steps to be followed upon the discovery of mould growth. The first step should be to retain the services of a Certified Environmental Inspector.

Mould in our indoor environment affects people every day. We should all do our part to protect and preserve the health of ourselves, our neighbours, loved ones and even our pets. Don't wait for it to rear its ugly head to a point where it affects our indoor environment. Stays informed and inform those around you on how to minimize the growth of this mysterious organism.

Mould Prevention and Maintenance: A Checklist
People need to be educated on mould and be aware of its potential side effects.

  • All buildings should have a Mould Management/Maintenance Program in place. Many buildings need some cleaning/remediation to at least lower the spore count within the building and reduce the chances of mould growth. This may be as simple as having the supply and exhaust vents cleaned regularly and checked to ensure they are working and balanced properly.
  • Fancoil units should be cleaned properly and regularly and should be investigated to see if minor modifications to the design can eliminate or reduce the likelihood of the insulation and drip pan continuing to be a breeding ground for mould.
  • Find and fix any water leaks promptly
  • Establish clear procedures for handling Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) complaints.
  • Communicate appropriately with residents about their role in maintaining good IAQ
  • Encourage lifestyle practices that reduce moisture
  • Refrigerator and Air Conditioning Drip Pans should be cleaned frequently and a fungicide added to the pan to prevent mould growth between cleanings.

Most problems occur as a result of poor ventilation, improper design, or lack of maintenance of ventilation system components.



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