Sick House Sick You

by Amy on June 19, 2017

My nextdoor neighbor was rarely sick – until he moved.  Laughingly I told him it was because he had abandoned the neighborhood – he was in fact, a fink.  About a week later I went to visit his brand new, just finished townhouse. I walked in the door, took a deep breath, and thought, hmmm, it may be that his illness isn’t just because he is a fink.  It may be that he is sick because of his house.

That first breath was a big hint that the contractor hadn’t done a thorough construction clean.  When we started looking, we found drywall compound dust on top of every doorway.  When someone went by or the HVAC fan kicked on, that dust floated down to create little piles on the floor.  These piles then got kicked up into the air as anyone – person or dog – went by.  Once in the air, the drywall compound dust was breathed in resulting in red eyes, sore throat, difficulty breathing, loss of voice and a general lethargy.

I suspected that if the drywall compound dust had been left behind, other post-construction cleaning might not have been done.  What to do to help my friend?

First, we opened a few windows to allow some fresh air into the space and let the house naturally ventilate. Ah, relief from the closed-in, stuffy, heavy feeling air. It had felt like that odd, breathless feeling you get when you accidentally breathe in a powder or are overcome with a heavy perfume. Opening the windows immediately made it feel more airy and comfortable.

Second, we checked the air filters to make sure that they had been changed by the contractor– or at least we tried.  Turns out that the air filter on one unit could not have been changed post-construction because the unit’s wiring had been installed across the filter slot keeping the filter firmly in place for all time.  He called the rental office contact.  They sent a maintenance guy with filters. Then the maintenance guy came back with the HVAC contractor to reinstall the unit properly.  Then the maintenance guy changed the filters. Turns out that they were absolutely clogged with construction dust.

Third, we checked the tops of the doorways and windows throughout the house and found dirt and dust on all of them.

Fourth, we test wiped the walls.  They failed the white glove test; a thin film of dust clung to them.

Fifth, we checked inside the cabinets and drawers in the kitchen and baths and in the corners of the equipment rooms and closets. We found dust, dust and dirt, and dust, dirt and debris in various amounts in various places.

How did we get him better?

  1. 1. Got the filters changed. The maintenance guy changed them with what may be the cheapest ones available.  I suggested he check the filter for its MERV rating.  The higher the MERV, the fewer dust particles and contaminants can pass through.  The best MERV for your house depends on your life style – got lots of cats and dogs and want cleaner air; get a higher MERV.  Be aware that the more contaminants and the higher the MERV the more frequently the filters will need changing (they trap lots of stuff and can get clogged). Residential MERV ratings are usually between 8 and 13.I recommended he order a pack of MERV 13’s, run the system on high fan and then change them in a week.  After that he could revert to normal fan operation and change the filters again in a month.  After that, I suggested he settle down into an every three-month schedule.
  2.  Scheduled the cleaning service to come in and do a thorough clean that includes:
    • Damp washing the tops of the windows, window sills, and doorways
    • Damp washing the window screens
    • Vacuuming and damp washing the crevices in all flooring in the living areas, closets, basement and the mechanical closets
    • Damp wiping the inside of the cabinets and on top of the cabinets
    • Damp wiping the exterior surface of the cabinets AND the walls of the living areas
    • He doesn’t have carpets – if you do, have them professionally cleaned

    My ex-nextdoor neighbor may still be a fink but he was better within three days of that visit.  He is living in a small, 8-unit development of 5-story rental townhouses that have high-end finishes but not so high-end on the construction wrap-up.  I wonder how many of his neighbors are sick because of a lackadaisical construction clean-up.

    Wondering about the quality of the air in your home? Want to be more comfortable? Check and change your filters on a regular basis. Consider increasing your filter MERV rating. Set a schedule to dust and vacuum your place. And then, at least once in awhile, open the windows for a blast of freshness.




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