Posted: May 3, 2013 Filed under: Permaculture & Home Renovation
Radon had never been an issue, in fact, it was something I knew nothing about. Once we began negotiations for the house, it loomed large.
A radioactive gas, naturally occurring, it is the result of decay of uranium or thorium. There is a correlation to granite bedrock so its presence is fairly common throughout New England but it was nowhere in the midwest of my youth. When we moved here and rented, I was completely unaware of this risk. In two homes we lived but never thought to have any test made. Our daughter E was raised without incident.
But in the process of due diligence the topic came up, and we learned that radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Such is the price of knowledge; with Becca pregnant, it became a serious issue.
Our building inspection – in July – included a radon test in which the tenants were required, and agreed, to keep the windows shut for 48 hours. After a few hours, they pushed open the windows and the test became invalid.
To the sellers chagrin, we arranged a second test. After waiting ten days, the results came back at 9.7 picocuries per liter of air. And the seller’s agent gave us four hours to make a final go/no go decision.
I scrambled to gather data. In Europe the actionable level is 8 picocuries per liter of air. In the USA, a level of 4 or above is actionable. Our test was taken in the basement, and the level generally is reduced by half for each higher floor. So just slightly, at the first floor, did we exceed the level but not at all in the bedrooms. Was our problem really serious?
We heard stories of homes testing at more than 1,000 picocuries per liter of air. Our number seemed paltry. We heard stories of those problems successfully remediated. We also heard that a new home was easier to remediate than an old home.
We learned that radon’s deadly impact is not an accumulation, but a statistical event: what are the odds that a single radon atom will lodge in the lungs, then decay and disintegrate into what are known as the radon “daughters” – the solid heavy metal particles of lead, polonium, and bismuth? In a terrain of gruesome forensics, I began to read that “at the 4 pCi/L level, about 600,000 radioactive particles get trapped in the lungs every hour.” In three months we envisioned bringing a new born with virgin lungs across the threshold to grow up in this old house.
We knew we wanted the house, but had no idea how involved it would be to mitigate this problem. Like much in a DIY renovation, we were making decisions based more on desire and less on thorough planning. We went ahead and made the purchase.
A contractor gave me the name of a radon specialist, an affable engineer with decades of experience. First he proclaimed that our 9.7 reading was invalid: too many air leaks in the basement. We needed to seal everything before an accurate test could be made. “Certainly your reading is higher, much higher, than 9.7.”
Our house, he continued, was no commonplace solution. A new home would have loose gravel fill beneath the foundation. Into that fill you can drill through the concrete floor in order to create a negative pressure. The radon will move into that vacuum and you pump the radon outside. Our house, a very old home, would have compacted earth, not loose fill, beneath the basement, rendering that solution impossible. “But we can solve the problem.” He suggested an air exchange, venting outside air in and moving the interior radon-laden air out. All for the low low cost of $3,500.
His estimate became one of the largest costs of our entire project. My head was spinning and the only solution was to wait. Radon was not an issue until we moved in, and there was lots to be done before that point. Denial turned out to be an effective plan. And in the meantime I called more vendors.
The second vendor to visit the house was an earnest young man, recently having completed his licensing as a Radon specialist. He also opined that our house was “complex, very complex.” He thought the negative pressure might work, but, in a most pleasant manner, also talked about spraying foam on all the walls and ceiling, seal wrapping the supporting columns, putting rubber mats on the floor, and “you might need additional systems for the crawl space.”
The longer he talked the more our basement became a superfund site. To my great surprise his estimate was less than the first vendor, “For $2,400 I could do this. But I can’t guarantee it for that cost. If you want a guarantee it would cost more.”
Well, I was making progress. Great progress, perhaps. So I arranged a third estimate.
Greg, the salesman from Radon Removal Systems, arrived with an easy manner. His attire suggested that he was on his way to a golf outing, and he had the confidence of a scratch golfer. He didn’t waste time. Standing in the basement he looked around then said, “We have done hundreds of old houses: dig a hole, create negative pressure, and vent it out. This is not complex. $1,100. Guaranteed.”
His proposed solution really made no difference. I wanted the guarantee. He began to climb the stairs and said, “You will have it in writing before the end of the day. We’ll do the work whenever you want.”
Greg was not bluffing. After the remediation system was installed and operating, the test results came back at 2.2.