True Freedom from Mold

Remediate or Move?

True freedom from mold might look different for everyone! There is no reason to let someone else define what freedom looks like for you.

I can promise you: Perfection is not required, here. We live in a natural world. Fungi are everywhere, though ~more~ in some places than others.

The primary issue: Depending on how sensitive we are to mold, we just don’t want to live in a place where there is more fungal presence.

And what causes more fungal activity in buildings? The presence of water. Specifically, water where it shouldn’t be.

Inside water should be contained in buildings. Inside pipes. Temporarily in a sink or washing machine. Then it should leave and go down the drain.

Outside water should remain entirely outside buildings. The roof should shed water (to gutters, downspouts, and then the ground), and the walls should let water run off and drip to the ground. Windows should shed water away from the structure. At no point should water be allowed inside walls, attics, or crawl spaces. Ground water should be directed away from the foundation.

For all of this to happen successfully, each construction system — and every appliance — must be installed properly.

  • If gutters have the wrong slope, water pools up and into the attic.
  • If windows aren’t flashed properly, water can leak in under the window and into the wall.
  • If showers aren’t waterproofed correctly, water gets behind tiles and rots the studs and subfloor.
  • If a dishwasher isn’t hooked up carefully, it could leak and ruin kitchen cabinets and flooring.
  • If the HVAC system lacks a UVC light or an in-line MERV 13+ filter, it could get moldy and spread moldy spores and fumes to the entire house.

You get the idea. Each area of the house is susceptible to moisture. Even humidity, itself, is moisture — sufficient to rot out any wood-based material.

Humidity

In this picture (from Dec 2022), a family removed the drywall in their bathroom — and then bathed in it normally for 3 months. The humidity from showers/baths wasn’t properly exhausted (via a bathroom fan) and, subsequently, mold grew on the OSB sheathing.

Humidity is water, and it is dangerous to building materials.

1

What Does

Freedom From Mold

Look Like?

As I mentioned earlier, nobody should dictate what freedom looks like for you.

But I’ll go ahead and tell you what freedom from mold looks like for me.

First,

In my mind, when I think of freedom from mold, I think, first: No active, ongoing moisture problems.

Outside water is kept outside. Inside water is contained, and sent along its way (down the drain). Humidity is kept low (below 55%, via HVAC or dehumidifier) in all areas — no random closets or crawl space humidity issues.

If all these issues are squared away, mold will not be growing actively in the house. No moisture problems means no active mold.

But what about old mold problems? Old leaks, old humidity issues, old HVAC issues…

Second,

The second thing I picture when I think of mold freedom, I imagine all old issues have been dealt with.

What does that mean? It means all materials have been removed that had any mold growing on them. Not sprayed. Not “treated” — with an only temporarily effective chemical. And not left behind because more time “exploring” (looking for mold) means more cost.

Remediators Cannot Estimate Without Seeing

Remediatiors can NEVER estimate how much it will cost to remediate. Why? They can’t know how extensive mold invasions are until they tear out. So they have an incentive to — literally — not look very hard.

If insurance is involved, they want return business — low costs ensure that. If the homeowner is paying, they can’t do work unless the homeowner agrees. Lower costs ensure that, too.

The Three Rushed Steps of Remediation

When it comes down to it, most remediation companies — especially the big national franchises — specialize in a three-step process: 1) tear out, 2) dehumidify, and 3) spray.

That sounds well and good, but maybe it’s not as good as it sounds.

Step One — Tear Out

When remediators tear out, they go slow, and look for the first place to stop. I’ve seen them stop many studs short of how far the water (and mold growth) went.

Step Two — Dehumidify

Once they reach a good stopping point, they’ll bring in the dehumidifiers. Unfortunately, these machines have been in many moldy houses before yours — and they smell like it. They can quickly spew moldy smells and spores all over your house (if you let the remediators use them). Unfortunately, remediators won’t want to work for you unless you allow their machines. They’ll also run “air scrubbers” to trap spores, but they cannot do a perfect job, and usually smell just as moldy as the dehumidifiers.

Step Three — Spray

Once the area is dry, remediators will spray moldy surfaces with a chemical that will only temporarily inhibit mold growth.

(Step Four) — Put It All Back

Then they’ll reinstall everything back to the way it was. The only thing that gets thrown out is wood that was visibly moldy before they arrived — all hidden materials will remain, no matter how moldy.

I once had a mold remediator tell me his entire company had not removed any structural wood in the 15 years he’d been running the company.

As you can see, the hardest part — when it comes to remediation — is getting all of the compromised materials discovered and removed.

The Entire House Is Compromised

There’s also another problem: What happens when mold growth has gone on, unresolved, for years?

In this case, moldy smells and spores can fill up an entire house. Remediation is no longer a straightforward process, here — it’s a big, complex problem.

In many cases, it’s just not possible to clean a house enough to make it truly healthy: Smells and spores will be so saturated throughout that it would cost more to re-build the house than solve the issues.

How might this happen? Moldy crawl spaces and attics are a big cause, along with compromised, moldy HVAC systems. Each spreads smells/spores throughout a house.

The other scenario is, simply, multiple leaks. Showers leak a lot. Chimneys leak a lot. Pipes are ticking time bombs. If any leak wasn’t caught immediately, a mold issue gets started — and doesn’t stop until it’s all removed.

Ongoing mold issues will spread to HVAC systems pretty readily. Only a MERV 8 filter or higher will stop mold spores from entering and living inside an HVAC system. Once the system is compromised, the whole house is affected. Replacing the HVAC system will not solve the whole-house problem, and (if an in-line filter and UVC light aren’t installed) the new system will become moldy in only a couple short years.

Foundation leaks are another huge cause of whole-house problems. As mentioned earlier, damp crawl spaces infuse the entire house with moldy smells and spores. Basements are similar, and potentially worse: Being deeper into the ground, they have more opportunity for water to find its way in. Basements are often constructed with bare minimum waterproofing (best case scenario), and in many locales: no waterproofing. The grade must slope away from homes, but as homes settle, this slope can flatten out. Water cannot be allowed to rest near structures.

Another way entire houses can be compromised is moving: Bringing lots of moldy belongings into a previously-clean house can (practically) irreversibly contaminate it in mere months — especially if the HVAC system is uprotected. Moist areas, even in new houses, might become surprisingly funky too-quickly: showers, drains, washing machines, etc.

Building tight modern homes can exacerbate the effects of mold. Here’s how: Moldy smells can build up faster in tight, modern homes if proper ventilations systems aren’t present. But ultimately, this isn’t a cause of mold! Leaks are! Tight construction could, in theory, cause mold to proliferate faster, though, when a leak occurs in an exterior wall — because moisture can’t dry to the outside as well. Leaks, the real problem when constructing with wood, must be discovered and stopped to avoid mold.

Large homes and older homes are at elevated risk of whole-house contamination.

With large homes, because it’s difficult to actively monitor each room, plumbing fixture, closet, — each nook and cranny — and, therefore, identify problems (especially consider so many are hidden behind walls, tiles, cabinets, and more). Larger homes often have a plethora of roof lines, each bringing a new risk of leaks. There’s also just more plumbing, meaning more risk of leaks over time.

With older homes, there’s simply been more time (and potentially, more unaware owners) for problems to occur and continue unresolved, or poorly resolved.

In both cases, (larger / older homes) there’s more opportunities for leaks to persist for longer, and to combine into multiple ongoing problems, wherein, the whole house becomes tainted.

So to recap, freedom from mold, to me, means: 1) no active moisture issues, and 2) all old problems have been resolved.

The easiest path to mold freedom, in my opinion, is new construction. Most new homes will not have 1) active moisture issues, and 2) old problems from previous owners.

Years of aging wood, aging HVAC systems, old crawlspaces / basements / attics, poorly resolved leaks, and more — all completely removed from the equation. The real challenge with new construction is quality of installation (and, to some extent, design — it’s gotta be designed wisely to keep moisture out). The primary challenges with new construction (cheap materials, fast installation, etc), can be wisely handled via education & knowledge. I’d personally rather deal with the challenges of a new house versus a used one.

With all this in mind, the decision for most of us dealing with mold issues is: Should we stay? Or should we go?

Should we remediate — knowing how challenging and expensive it can be?

Should we move — knowing how challenging and expensive it can be?

2

Choosing to Stay (& Remediate)

Staying and remediating could be a big job! Especially if your house has larger, or even whole-house, challenges.

The truth is, remediating even isolated mold growth can be a big task.

Just from a financial standpoint, shower remodels can often run $5000 to $15000. That’s money you likely won’t get back upon resale.

Tearing up flooring, redoing drywall, painting, trimwork new cabinets — it all adds up: often in the tens of thousands of dollars for a single room.

Remodeling is typically more expensive than building new.

It’s also a big job to remediate right. We’ve discussed how important it is to remove all moldy materials. We’ve also discussed how difficult that can be to achieve.

Perhaps worst of all, there’s also the chance of spreading mold spores during the work. Many — if not most — contractors and remediators are not well-versed, or well-equipped, in preventing the spread of spores during work. Remember, big mold problems can release millions of spores, microscopic in size, and light enough to float all around a house. Spreading spores can happen in a single day of thoughtless remediation.

Does It Make Sense? Can You Afford To Make Mistakes?

If the whole house is likely contaminated, does it really make sense to try and restore the whole place?

Can you imagine how disappointing it would be to not achieve the goal — or to leave some areas unresolved? To spend so much money, and be inconvenienced during the work, only to still have a mold problem that could continue to cause inflammation, or spread… it just doesn’t feel like a wise option.

Partial Remediations May Not Solve The Problems

If you do remediate, consider being thorough. Leave no stone unturned. Perhaps, don’t drop thousands of dollars on only one area — and blindly hope for the best. Don’t ignore the crawl space, the attic, the foundation, or the HVAC system — the areas that can affect an entire house.

Whatever you do with the HVAC, have a UVC light installed, as well as an in-line high-MERV filter installed on the return side (before the handler).

Consider, too, how difficult it is to remediate an attic or crawl space effectively. Virtually all of the exposed wood — where mold might grow — is structural, meaning it will be difficult to remove. It will require thoughtful and expensive remodeling with the help of a skilled contractor — and likely a structural engineer. Most typical contractors will be uninterested in removing floor joists from a crawl space, or rafters from an attic. It’s a high risk job for them, and they won’t see why you can’t just 1) fix the moisture issue that caused the mold, and 2) spray it.

Which is why most remediation work just involves casual removal of some materials — and spraying. Modern remediation is simple: Money changes hands, houses can be sold without litigation — everybody is happy.

Except for those of us who are more sensitive to mold, and who need true mold freedom.

If that’s you, and you’re seeing just how convoluted and uncertain remediation can be, you might consider selling the place “as is” — and moving out.

If you’re renting, consider how likely your landlord will be to successfully remediate the place. Unlikely? Moving could be the only real option.

3

Moving

Moving house is a big job, too!

Beyond deciding which items to bring to the new house — if any — the real challenge is finding a house that is healthy and clean.

And, as so many of my clients can attest, it can be a real challenge to find any used house that doesn’t have at least moderate mold issues.

Why? Because leaks happen. Pipes burst. Windows fail. Wind damages roofs. Systems are designed poorly, and installed wrong. HVAC systems age ungracefully. Previous owners didn’t notice or resolve issues in a timely manner, correctly, or at all.

As discussed above, new construction skips most of these issues — except for improper installation and bad design, though building codes are catching up. Local building inspectors, researchers, and code writers are starting to realize just how many moisture problems are happening in typical construction, but we’re still years and decades away from being able to trust code compliance to protect us from bad installation and design.

Ultimately, your best bet will be a custom-built house by a general contractor who takes great pride in building moisture-resistant houses. They can be hard to find, though.

When looking at used houses, follow all the steps in the “Inspect” section of this Mold protocol. Use your eyes and nose. Ask for history of leaks, repairs, and remodels. Spend extra time inspecting all the danger zones: showers, cabinets, crawl space, attic, HVAC, and more. Use your nose in each place.

Once a house is built — and drywall has been installed — it’s virtually impossible to see what was installed right or wrong. Obviously, any used house on the market has had drywall for years. We just can’t tell by looking whether a used house has had, or will have problems with moisture. But we can find a lot of problems that have already happened — just by using our eyes, and our nose.

Cross-Contamination Does Happen

After I moved out of my moldy house, actually my next two apartments began sprouting mold — both within a few months of arriving.

The first one was within 3 months of arriving. Mold sprouted on the drywall after a weekend away with the thermostat set higher. Black mold also began growing out of the vents in the ceiling. The apartment was new construction. This wasn’t an old issue. I’d clearly brought it over.

I wish I still had photos of the air vents with mold, it was truly remarkable to see how quickly mold developed.

About 6 months later, I moved to another new construction apartment. Here, the shower was installed improperly, and caulking (silicone is appropriate in a shower) was not applied where shower panels meet. As a result, water migrated behind the panels, and mold began robustly growing out into the shower (where the water was coming from).

This problem perhaps reflects the challenges of both new construction and bringing moldy belongings.

New construction — especially when poor installation is involved — can sprout mold very quickly (sometimes faster than old construction, due to “mold candy” materials used). But when mold develops this quickly, it’s possible that bringing mold spores from an old place is a factor, as well.

4

The Two-Step Move

I just want to briefly mention a very good, viable idea: Moving twice.

In other words, when you leave a moldy house, it’s okay to let your next place be a “medium” place. Stay there for a few years and practice: caring for it, keeping it clean, getting rid of risky items. And most of all, plan for a more long-term vision.

Your best bet may be to build a house, with a general contractor you trust to build right. If so, that might take some time to plan, some time to figure out what you want, some time to learn about proper construction design and installation, and some time to save up cash.

Or maybe you will buy a used house, but it could take some time to find the right one — one that’s clean and well-taken care of.

Maybe you’ll rent for the long-term, but you just need time to look for a place that will truly work for your needs — one you can relax into and feel comfortable and confidant in. The beauty of renting is that you can leave if things aren’t good enough for your (rising) standards of healthy living.

The main reason, though, to make a temporary move is the real risk of cross-contamination. If you move directly from your moldy house to a new home, it can be very hard to avoid cross-contamination. Really, the only way is to get rid of everything… all at once.

With a two-step move, somehow it becomes easier to let go of more belongings. I don’t know why, but I’ve lived it myself. Things I clung to during the first move, I was able to let go of a year later.

The task of “trying to get it all right” on your first move might be daunting. Give yourself some grace and some leeway. Be okay moving twice, if needed.

You might be able to lower your stress with a two-step move.

Congratulations! You’ve completed Break Free of Mold!

Getting clear of mold is easier for some than others. Wherever you are, don’t judge yourself too harshly. Keep an open, fresh spirit.

Remember that life changes — like moving or remodelling — can’t happen without the people who love and support us. We can blow up our dreams and wishes by imposing them on others. Instead, let people think for themselves — even when they don’t see things our way. Their wisdom can offer an insight that we’d otherwise miss.

Over time, even the widest differences can develop into common ground — if we’re willing to respect other opinions, listen, and value a different perspective. This topic — mold — can be an opportunity to improve communication skills, to grow closer to each other, and to build a healthy future in deeper ways than just our physical environment.

Unfortunately, disagreements over moldy buildings far too often turn into bitter resentment between loved ones. I encourage you to 1) take every measure to avoid damage to your relationships, and 2) if emotional wounds have already developed, extend grace to yourself and loved ones. As we discuss in Why Mold?, the inflammation, hormonal imbalance, poor sleep, and poor digestion mold often causes can naturally lead to strife. Simply being aware of this reality can be the difference: Sometimes it’s not your fault, it’s the physical affecting the mental and emotional. I’ve seen this with hundreds of clients, and myself personally. Awareness of this phenomenon is the first step out, and then grace — endless, amazing grace.

As you decide how to handle a moldy house, keep a fresh vision in your mind for your future. Sometimes, dream specifically about what you want. A house in a certain part of town, a certain age, or one you build in a specific style. Other times, dream more generally: Clean, healthy air. No moisture. A place you can take care of. Keeping that big vision is essential. Keep your eyes upward, on things higher, things better than what you’re leaving. If others haven’t caught up to that speed and that spirit yet, that’s okay. It’s amazing what a positive, expectant spirit can inspire in others. You’re not ignoring the bad, you’re choosing to find the good. Even in the future, which we can’t quite see, yet, but we hope for.

Sometimes we need to get our hopes up for us to be the best version of ourselves, to affect change, and to make way for our dreams.

I’ve done this myself. I’ve been there! If I can do it, so can you. Please take any lessons I learned the hard way, and use them to your advantage.

I believe in your vision! I believe in your future! One that’s even better than you’ve been hoping for.

Dream often. Dream bigger!

Once you have a new, clean place — guard it!

Protect your new, clear space.

This completes Break Free.
To continue, select Guard Your Home.

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