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Asbestos alert! Vermiculite insulation is worse than I thought

Vermiculite insulation is way worse than I previously thought.

I've known that vermiculite insulation can contain asbestos, and my advice to homeowners has always been to assume it contains asbestos and leave it alone, which is also the advice of the EPA. If the insulation needs to be removed or disturbed, my advice previously has been to recommend first having it tested for asbestos.

When vermiculite is tested for asbestos and is found to contain less than 1% asbestos, it is considered to NOT be asbestos-containing. Why? The EPA defines asbestos-containing material, or "ACM," as having less than 1% asbestos.

So what's the problem? This can be a misleading diagnosis, because it seems to imply that the product is safe.  The photos below show an attic that still had several unopened bags of vermiculite insulation.

Vermiculite Insulation Zonolite Attic Insulation

The background:

Somewhere between 75% and 85% of all vermiculite insulation sold in the U.S. came from a mine in Libby, Montana, and was sold under the name Zonolite. Nearly all of this insulation contained asbestos which could be easily released into the air.

As part of a major class-action lawsuit against WR Grace, numerous studies were conducted. One of these studies determined that exposure to vermiculite attic insulation with less than 1% asbestos is still a potential health hazard when performing typical homeowner activities such as cleaning, maintenance and remodeling activities. The conclusion of this study was that vermiculite insulation containing less than 1% asbestos should not be considered non-asbestos containing.

Reinforcing this conclusion is the fact that the type of asbestos found in Libby vermiculite is "amphibole" asbestos, which is even more hazardous than the more common chrysotile asbestos. It's still really bad stuff.

For the record, vermiculite looks like the stuff in the photos above and is often covered by other types of insulation. Also, home inspectors are not required to report on the presence of environmental contaminants, but most home inspectors still will educate their clients about stuff like this when they can.

My test for whether or not I tell my clients about stuff is "would I want to know if I was buying this house?" Of course, the answer is always yes.

Side note: the Zonolite Attic Trust believes that the presence of vermiculite is tantamount to the presence of asbestos (since the EPA recommends assuming that it contains asbestos) and should be disclosed in real estate transactions in the same manner as other ACM would be disclosed under the state’s real estate regulations.
Further, the Trust believes that the presence of vermiculite is a “material fact” in a real estate transaction and should be treated in the same manner as other material facts. According to the Trust, most state weatherization programs, likely including Minnesota’s, will defer a homeowner from eligibility for generous weatherization/attic insulation subsides until the vermiculite is removed.

Current (bad) SOP for vermiculite Minnesota

When an insulation contractor has to do work in an attic that contains vermiculite, their first step is to have the insulation tested by a lab for asbestos. According to the insulation contractors that I've talked to, the vast majority of asbestos tests that take place in the Twin Cities come back "clean." Meaning the material contains less than 1% asbestos. At that point, no asbestos abatement contractors get involved, and removal of the vermiculite insulation takes place with what is basically a gigantic vacuum.

Yikes, right?

The good news

The Zonolite Attic Insulation trust was established in 2014 to help homeowners with the cost of removing Zonolite Attic Insulation from their homes. The trust will reimburse homeowners for 55% of their removal and re-insulation costs, with a maximum payout per owner of $4,125. Check out the video clip below for the highlights:

Visit www.zonoliteatticinsulation.com for more information.

Ed Cottingham, Trustee and claims director of the Zonolite Attic Insulation Trust recently visited Minnesota to teach a two-hour class on this topic at an ASHI Heartland chapter meeting. He also taught this class at ASHI's InspectionWorld conference in January, which can be viewed online for free by any current members of ASHI at ASHI's Online Learning Center. For non-members, the fee is $29.

What now?

If you're a homeowner with vermiculite insulation in your attic, there's a good chance that you have Zonolite, which means there is money available to help reimburse you for the costs to remove it and re-insulate. I recommend looking into this option. Until then, leave the material alone, even if you had it tested and the test came back "clean." While teaching here in Minnesota, Mr. Cottingham mentioned that 93% of the vermiculite insulation samples sent in from Minnesota were confirmed as Zonolite products, meaning most vermiculite in Minnesota contains asbestos.

If you're an insulation contractor, tell your clients about the ZAI trust and explain to your clients that this material is a potential health risk when disturbed.

If you're a home inspector, tell your clients to leave this material alone, don't bother testing for asbestos, and tell your clients about the ZAI trust. The ZAI trust will test the vermiculite for you at no cost to determine eligibility for Trust reimbursement. The Trust tests for barium since its presence is unique to Zonolite versus other brands of vermiculite, but it does not do a more expensive test for asbestos. If you're an ASHI home inspector, watch the presentation.

Again, visit www.zonoliteatticinsulation.com for more information about the ZAI trust.

Note: special thanks to Ed Cottingham for providing information and helping to write this blog post.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

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Skipping home inspection for a condo? Think again, based on these photos

Buying a condo? Get a home inspection, also known as a condo inspection. Even though there is typically less maintenance and responsibility of the individual owners, condos can still experience a lot of the same issues that single family homes experience. Instead of waxing on about the importance of having a home inspection when buying a condo, I've put together a compilation of stuff we've found while inspecting condos. Photos are just more fun.

Insufficient insulation: If a condo has an attic, we inspect the attic. We find all the same defects in condo attics that we do in single family homes. More on attic defects here: Who inspected your attic?  The photo below shows insufficient insulation at a new construction condo.

Attic - Insufficient Insulation

Aluminum wiring: This is a major issue. It's not common, but it's a big deal when it happens. Condos built during the time that aluminum wiring was used (approximately 1965 - 1972), or re-wired during the same period may have aluminum wiring. This typically can't be identified without opening up the electrical panel. More on that topic here: aluminum wiring.

Electrical - Aluminum wiring

Smoke alarms: They're not extremely expensive and it's not a life and death issue but ... no, wait, I take that back. It is a life and death issue. Smoke alarms save lives. When they're more than 10 years old, we recommend replacement. We also check for proper placement and recommend installing photoelectric smoke alarms when not present. Once they've turned yellow, they're typically over 10 years old.

Electrical - ancient smoke alarm

Wiring defects: The missing cover plate shown below is easy enough to correct, but do you see what else is wrong here? The outlet box is improperly recessed at the wall. The repair here is to have a box extender installed, also known as a "goof ring."

Electrical - box recessed at wall

Disconnected conduit: The metal conduit isn't properly secured at the compressor below, which means the metal box of the compressor isn't bonded. This seems fairly innocuous, but if someone stepped on that whip, one of those wires could easily get cut by the metal at the air conditioner. If that happened, the entire cabinet of the air conditioner could be energized, creating an electrocution hazard.

Electrical - disconnected conduit at AC

Extension cords: They get used at condos, too. This shows an extension cord behind a washer and dryer. Permanently installed appliances should be plugged directly into outlets, not extension cords.

Electrical - Extension Cord behind washwer

FPE Stab-Lok panels: They're bad news, and they should be replaced. There are tons and tons of condo units with these panels. More on that topic here: FPE Stab-Lok panels are hazardous.

FPE Stab-Lok Panel

Closet lights: They need globes. More here: Exposed light bulbs in closets.

Electrical - improper closet lights

Water damage: While we typically don't inspect the exteriors and common areas of condos, we do typically look at individual balconies. At this particular balcony at an old condo in Minneapolis, there was damaged stucco at the balcony, allowing water to leak into the building wall.

Exterior - damaged stucco

This next image shows the same condo, which had water stains at the ceiling and door below the balcony.

Exterior - stains at ceiling

Furnace defects: We find pretty much the same defects on condos that we find on single family homes. This includes lack of maintenance, end of life and other problems such as excessive temperature rise. The photo below shows the supply air at 165 degrees. Assuming it's about 70 degrees in the unit, this would be a temperature rise of 95 degrees. Most furnace manufacturers call for a temperature rise of somewhere in the 30 to 70-degree range.

HVAC - Excessive temp rise

Water heater: The defects are also the same as those found on single family homes. This particular water heater had a loose flame roll-out shield, which was allowing exhaust gasses to escape out the front of the water heater, which is what caused the scorching on the front of the unit.

HVAC - loose flame roll-out shield

Plastic dryer ducts are a fire hazard. We find a fair number of them while inspecting condos. More here: dryer duct safety.

HVAC - plastic dryer duct

Short ductwork at toekicks happens at condos too. More on that topic here: The case of the duct that wasn't there.

HVAC - short toekick

Anti-Tip Bracket - still in the bag. This is an important child safety item. More here: anti-tip brackets for ranges.

Interior - anti-tip bracket not installed

Bad planning.

Interior - drawer hits on fridge

More bad planning.

Interior - obstructured drawer

Leaking outlet - insert your own caption. This was at a high-rise condo building with major stucco problems at the exterior.

Interior - drip mark below outlet

Fogged glass at windows - who pays for this, the owner or the association? If it's the association, what does it take to get this fixed? More here: fogged glass at windows.

Interior - failed window seals

Dishwasher drain - this one lacks a proper high loop under the sink. If you go by the new plumbing code, it would be missing an air gap above the sink. More here: dishwasher drains.

Interior - improper dishwasher drain loop

Rotted trim behind the tub. Possibly concealed damage behind the trim too.

Interior - rotted trim behind tub

Leaking tub

Leaking clawfoot tub

Leaking disposer

Leaking disposal

And another.

Plumbing - leaking disposer

Leaking shower door

Leaking shower door

Gas appliance connectors aren't supposed to be connected end-to-end. An appliance connector is supposed to be used to connect the gas piping to the appliance. More here: gas appliance connectors.

Plumbing - Appliance Connectors Connected

You're especially not supposed to use three of them:

Plumbing - third appliance connector

Corrugated drain, and a backpitched drain. Drains should slope down.

Plumbing - backpitched drain

Drop-in tubs shouldn't be installed at walls. When that happens, they can leak.

Plumbing - bath tub leak 1

This same one leaked after being tested for a few seconds.

Plumbing - bath tub leak 2

Bath tub faucets that open below the spill line of the fixture create a cross-connection. More here: two ways to correct a cross-connection at a bath tub faucet.

Plumbing - cross connection at tub

Loose trim and faucet - this will allow water to leak behind the wall.

Plumbing - loose escutcheon

Like this:

Plumbing - leak at bath tub faucet

Toilets are supposed to be caulked at the floor. This helps to keep them secure and prevents unpleasant "bathroom liquids" from getting under the toilet to a concealed fouling area that can't be cleaned.

Plumbing - toilet not caulked at floor

Poorly located thermostat

Poorly located thermostat

Missing sediment trap at the gas line. More in last week's post on sediment traps.

Sediment trap missing

Two defective burners

Two burners won't heat

Hood fan exhaust surprise - while it's legal to exhaust kitchen fans back into the home, this one was a surprise because there was ductwork above the microwave, giving the impression that it was vented to the exterior. It wasn't.

Microwave exhaust ducted wrong

Here's another kitchen exhaust surprise: It just vented above the cabinet.

Interior - kitchen fan vented nowhere

And finally, one of my favorite kitchen fan exhaust surprises of all time:

Kitchen Fan

Thank you for reading. Again, if you're buying a condo, get a home inspection.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

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