Stopping Mold Growth BEFORE it Starts is the Key to the Long-term Health of Your Home
My personal battle to keep mold out of our home seems never-ending. Preventative mold remediation and maintenance is a huge part of that. The unfortunate curse of homeownership is that the minute I feel like I have solved one issue, another arises to take its place. I guess the challenges are good for the blog, because I am always learning new things and always figuring out more effective ways to improve our home’s health and indoor air quality (IAQ). The more I learn, the more I also want to share that knowledge with you, because there are definite DIY ways in which you can act immediately to take control and manage any potential mold situation. Knowing these DIY mitigation skills will also build your confidence during recovery, because your sense of security will grow with the realization that even an event that feels like a crisis, can be handled and doesn’t have to lead to a relapse into poor health.
A little background for you on our most recent water intrusion issue:
A few weeks ago, visible water markings appeared on our den ceiling after a storm. Just seeing the tell-tale water discoloration sent me into a bit of a tailspin. If there is one thing I have learned about water intrusion, it is that the sooner you find the source and stop it, the less likely you are to have mold growth. We DEFINITELY didn’t want to chance mold growth. Thus, remediation and proactive mold prevention efforts began immediately.
First order of business:
Where is the water coming in and why?
Visual inspections are usually the best way to figure this out. Water will always flow downwards and become most noticeable when it cannot flow any lower and starts to pool. So, start where you actually see the water and try to trace its trajectory, usually upwards, to the highest point above where you can find moisture.
In our case, figuring out where the water was coming in was pretty easy. A heavy storm had just occurred, so we were pretty certain the water was coming in from outside and not from an interior leak. And, any water coming in from outside was hitting the roof first, so all we had to do was to step outside the back door directly behind where the water spots were forming and look up.
When we did, we saw watermarks down the side of our home, originating at the gutter and roofline. It was also clear that the gutter by the roofline over that door was visibly clogged with debris. Thus, we could conclude that rainwater was not flowing off the roof, through the gutters and down the pipes to drain away from our house (like it should have been), but was instead overflowing out of the clogged gutter and streaming against the roof and down the side of our home and entering our home at some point on its path.
This leads me to the other important reason for this post as it highlights a potential water intrusion issue many homeowners encounter every day: faulty gutter systems and improper/inadequate flashing. (Note: Flashings are usually aluminum or galvanized steel components used to seal roof system edges, perimeters, penetrations, walls, valleys, drains, and any other areas where the actual roof covering is interrupted or terminated. Flashing seals any voids in the roof system where water may enter.)
Let me explain.
We are pretty proficient and on top of it when it comes to keeping our gutters free of debris. We also have leaf guards on our gutters, so we hadn’t worried about clogs and backup causing problems. We soon discovered that even with the leaf guards, we should have been more careful checking our gutters and making sure that they were doing their job. You see, although leaves weren’t getting through the leaf guard to clog the gutters, the mesh guard was actually hindering water flow. Over the years, the leaves, debris and rust had made the mesh almost nonporous. Also, our gutters were not wide enough to handle the amount of water streaming off of our roof.
Once clogged, the rainwater could no longer flow freely through our gutters to be transported away from our house. Instead, the pooling water had nowhere else to go, but to rise in the gutter and flow towards our house and roof. (I know I’m getting into the minutia of gutters here, but seriously, please pay attention to your gutters! The more I researched what happened to us, the clearer it became that failing, faulty, clogged, etc. gutters cause a HUGE amount of water intrusion issues on homes. Most people don’t even know that water is coming in until exterior rot or interior mold become LARGE problems.)
The second issue at play was that our home didn’t have proper flashings or a proper drip edge to seal the void between the gutter and roof. This allowed water to enter our home at the roof edge when the gutters couldn’t drain. Ugh. Lesson learned, I guess. Luckily, the storm was short-lived, so not much water leaked inside. Also lucky is the fact that Memphis, where we live, has been sunny and dry ever since, allowing time to fix the problem and completely dry everything out before any mold could take hold. (I promise I will get to the mold mitigation in a minute.)
The moral of the story from a preventative maintenance standpoint is to be aware of your gutters, roof joints and terminations and downspouts. Watch to make sure that rain and groundwater are flowing through and being diverted from your roof and foundation adequately and properly. Make sure that your roof and gutter construction is solid and well thought out and that proper flashing is present at all junctures and terminations to seal out water and critters. This can be a first-line of defense against a potential mold problem in your home. These things should not be overlooked and are just like the routine mold maintenance inside your home that I advocate, because they are actions that actively thwart the cause of your sickness by doing them. For example, if we had simply observed our gutters during a heavy rain, we would have noticed the water streaming against the house and not flowing through the downspouts and would not be dealing with this issue today. Also, if we had checked to see if our roof was properly flashed, we may have been able to fix the issue a long time ago. Doing so would have also saved me the psychological toll of dealing with this now, as I can’t deny the PTSD reaction or panic and anxiety that a water intrusion issue still has on me. I now know how sick I will get if mold does take hold in our home, so the threat of that happening invokes lots of fear and negative thought patterns. (As I am writing this, I am still worrying that we have done enough, gotten everything dried out completely, and have used the correct products, techniques, and protective measures to keep our home free of mold for the long term. This mold-related anxiety is par for the course for mold sufferers, but it sometimes causes health issues of its own if I do not consciously recognize my fears and calm myself down.)
Now for where this post really comes in to benefit YOU, the reader:
I am going to take you step-by-step through our water intrusion issue, from the moment we became aware of it, to the EC3 Mold Screening Plates I set out today to test our “after remediation” mold counts, so that if you are ever in a similar circumstance, you can know what measures you should take to properly deal with it.
Before I begin, a disclaimer is in order:
These are NOT mold remediation instructions for a moldy space that has active, visible mold growing. This is mold-risk mitigation. If you have discovered mold damage or a space that has been wet for a long period of time and is causing you sickness, you need to call in professionals to take care of it. You could get VERY sick if you attempt to do it without proper tools and gear. This is ONLY meant for sudden water issues or recent leaks. These instructions are meant to teach you how to HALT the problem and to PREVENT mold from forming.
Also, and this probably goes without saying, but with anything water-intrusion related in your home, time is of the essence. The sooner you can stop the water from coming in and dry out where it entered, the better chance you have of preventing mold growth and future problems, like rot to your home or chronic sickness for members of your family. Thus, do NOT wait these things out. If you see water damage, notice a leak, or see water coming in, stop what you are doing and do everything you can to try to figure out where it is coming from.
You may be able to shut off the water main, to turn off the water to a leaking toilet, to turn off the water line to a refrigerator, or to take some immediate action that will halt the water source before more damage occurs. Also, if you can identify and stop the water source, you can begin immediately to remove wet and damaged materials and to open up and dry out the wet space. The sooner you can get the space dry, the less you have to worry about in terms of mold growth. If you do NOT know what is causing the water intrusion, the first thing you must do is to call a professional who can diagnose and stop the source. Without being able to stop the water source, all of your efforts to dry things out and to remediate will be for naught, because the space will continue to get wet. You will be spinning your wheels until this is handled. Once a space gets wet, you have about 48 hours to start drying things out before mold starts to grow, so an emergency plumber, roofer, etc. is warranted, in my opinion.
Finally, and I want to make sure to mention this, because money is a definite stress point for me in all matters concerning mold remediation and our home, make sure to take pictures if a water intrusion or leak situation occurs in your home. In our situation, this was not pertinent, because it was not accidental or caused by storm damage, but for other situations it may have been covered. Photographs and documentation of everything as it happens will help you with an insurance claim later if one needs to be made. Homeowner’s insurance can help pay for many water-related damages to your home and most mold issues directly related to the water damage, so never underestimate the importance of having everything documented to show your story from the get-go.
Now, let’s get started.
DIY Mold Prevention for Minor Leaks and Water Intrusions:
(Note: As far as supplies go, space dryers, air scrubbers, industrial HEPA and shop vacs, etc. can be rented at Home Depot, Lowe’s and other home-improvement/building supply stores. You are also going to need a cold fogger, EC3 Mold Solution Concentrate, mold screening test plates, and Borax for this.)
- Determine the cause and origin of the water intrusion/leak.
- Stop the water from coming in. In our case, my husband immediately cleaned the gutter out where it was clogged. This temporarily solved the problem before it could rain again, because the water would run through the gutter once unclogged. For long-term resolution, we had a new gutter system, drip edge, and flashings installed. If you are not handy and cannot stop the water source yourself, you should call a handyman or other professional who can immediately address the cause. This is probably the single most important step on this list. You need to do whatever needs to be done to STOP the water/moisture from coming inside.
- Remove and/or thoroughly dry out all damaged, wet, moist materials. Here are the steps to do this:
- Isolate the area, as much as possible, from the rest of your home. You do not want dust or any potential contamination from the removal of building materials flying all over the place. Also, any time you are opening walls or ceilings, there is the potential of finding water or mold damage that is hidden. If you find this, you do not want the rest of your home exposed to be contaminated. For containment, I advise putting up plastic sheeting all around the space from ceiling to floor (we use painter’s tape on walls and door frames to hold it in place). Make sure to leave an opening for an air scrubber to suck to the outside, or do like we did and allow a window or door to the outside in the containment space where you place a box fan turned to suck the air towards the space and to blow outside. This will help route dust, particulates, and any mold spores away from the rest of your home.
- Wear protective gear to protect your clothing, nose and mouth, eyes, etc. A Tyvek suit, 3M respirator mask, and construction goggles are good for this. The cost for all of this is minimal ~<$10-15. Again, you may find previous damage/mold when you start demoing and removing materials, so protective gear is EXTREMELY important.
- It is a good idea to cold fog the space with EC3 Mold Solution Concentrate prior to beginning the work. The fog will cover everything and help to keep mold counts down while you are working. (HERE is a previous post on cold fogging.)
- Cut out, bag, and remove any wet or moist drywall and all other damaged building materials. When in doubt, cut it out! Gypsum and paper-based drywall is almost impossible to dry completely once it fully absorbs water. It is also wonderful food for mold, especially some mycotoxin-producing molds like Aspergillus and Stachybotrys. Don’t chance it by leaving slightly damp areas intact. In our case, we cut out a huge section of drywall and removed all of the insulation in the area of the ceiling where the water came in. We continued cutting and removing materials until we got to an areas where there was no moisture.
- Remove and/or dry out any other areas or materials that were made wet or moist from the water.
- If applicable, use a wet/dry shop vacuum to physically suck out any standing water. There should be zero moisture in the space when you are done. This could mean pulling up carpet and/or flooring to make sure everything is bone dry all of the way to the subfloor. This is extremely important, because if any moisture pockets are left, mold WILL grow.
- Double bag and dispose of all removed/wet/damaged materials outside of your home.
- Use your shop vacuum on the dry setting to vacuum up any and all visible dust. Be extremely thorough. We even got up into the ceiling cavity and vacuumed the joists to remove all of the drywall dust from cutting it out.
- Cold fog the entire space and any wall/ceiling/floor cavities with the EC3 Mold Solution Concentrate. It should be diluted per bottle instructions with distilled water. DO NOT USE TAP WATER.
- We saw some darker areas and discoloration on the wood joists.
If you see this, use a scrub brush dipped in the EC3 Mold Solution Concentrate to manually scrub and clean these areas with extra care and diligence as these areas could already have mold growth.
- For any wood framing, joists, or concrete subfloor areas that got wet, for extra precaution, I advise mixing up some Borax “paint” to coat the area. This “paint” is an excellent mold deterrent and will create a protective shield over those spaces that were most touched by the water. To do this, add about 4 cups of hot, distilled water to a bucket. Add 1 cup of Borax powder to the water in the bucket. Stir until the Borax has completely dissolved. Use a paintbrush to paint the mixture over those areas. We used the Borax paint throughout the entire ceiling cavity. We also painted the framing and joists around it.
- Bring a dehumidifier and fans into the space. Leave them going at high speeds to dry the space out completely. We even placed a box fan on top of a ladder to get it to blow inside the ceiling cavity to ensure that it would get dry.
- Proactively test the area for mold. This will require you to use EC3 Mold Screening Test Plates and for you to wait for 5 days before opening the space back up to the rest of your home. You will need to turn all the fans/dehumidifiers off and allow the plates to sit open to the air in the space for 1 hour. You will need to follow the air testing instructions. (Read my post about using the EC3 Plates HERE.) When you get your results, you can decide if you need to do further treatment (listed below), or to open the space back up to the rest of your home.
(Note: We did not do this. Hindsight is 20/20. We took down the containment, moved our IQ Air purification unit into the den and moved on with our lives. Within 24 hours, the children and I were sick. I quickly tested the air in the den and was horrified to see very unsafe levels of particles and mold all over the plate.
Lots of what cultured was from the drywall debris and particulates. This just goes to show how much dust gets into your air supply anytime there is any major disturbance of construction materials in your home. This was also done AFTER the air scrubber ran for the entire demo, and AFTER we had used the shop vac to suck up all visible dust and debris. These are NOT results that are safe or that we can live in. I had to take care of this pronto.)
If your initial testing does not indicate that the area is safe, it needs further attention. You can try the following steps to get the mold counts down to zero:
(Note: This is exactly what I did in our house to get them down to zero from the results above in ours.)
- Leave your containment up. We did not have this luxury, because we had already taken ours down. Please learn from my mistake. I would not take it down until you have safe testing results, though.
- Cold fog the space again with the EC3 Mold Solution Concentrate. Make sure to cover the entire space. Pay special attention to the areas where the water intrusion occurred. This time, I fogged our entire home room by room, because I had opened the space up and didn’t want to chance anything.
- Repeat drying and using the dehumidifier to remove all moisture from the space.
- Once completely dry, use your HEPA vacuum to vacuum every inch of the space. This may take a LONG time, but be thorough. You want to physically suck up and remove all lingering dust and mold spores. This time around, I had to HEPA vacuum all of our furniture, rugs, tables, lamps, lampshades, and drapes in the room. I wanted to get every area where mold spores could settle.
- Bring a HEPA air purifier into the space and turn it to its highest air cleaning setting. I used our IQ Air for this.
- Burn one or more (this will depend on the size of the space) EC3 Air Purification Candles in the space for at least 3 hours. (HERE is my post on EC3 Candles.) Be careful! Make sure the candles are on a secure flat surface with nothing close to flame.
- Retest, using the EC3 Mold Screening Test Plates.
- If the plates still indicate elevated mold and particulates in the air, you may not have stopped the moisture source, and there may be hidden damage and mold. At this point, you need to call an environmental inspector/hygienist to inspect and test your home. They are trained professionals who can help you to sort out the issue and develop a remediation plan.
If the plates are clear, yay! You should feel confident to take down your containment and live your life.
Our results were completely clear this time.
I will continue to test for the next few weeks to make sure that they stay that way. It is important to stay vigilant for at least a month after a leak or water intrusion to make certain that you got everything cleaned up and taken care of.
Have you had a mold “near miss” that you were able to act quickly and take care of yourself? Do you have techniques or products that have worked well for proactive remediation efforts? I would love to hear about them. Please comment or write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.