Insulation - More Important Than Ever
Julius Ballanco, PE
I overheard a discussion by a group of lawyers. They made a comment that I found intriguing: "Asbestos is old, mold is gold." In lawyer talk, that means, "Where's the money?"
Since hearing that comment on mold, I have been asked numerous times, "Should the plumbing industry be concerned with mold?" My answer is always the same, "Well, not really."
The "not really" is not the emphatic "No!" that everyone wants to hear. After all, in the plumbing profession, we are dealing with water. And what does mold need to grow? Water.
Any plumber who has ever done any service work is bound to have a few stories about mold growth in a bathroom, or basement area, or on the ceiling. Mold has been around since the beginning of time.
Another question that is commonly asked is, "When did mold get so toxic?" Simple answer, "It has always been toxic. Where do you think they get penicillin from?"
The term "toxic" sounds real good to the mainstream media. It adds more of a scare to the situation. They want you to watch their news story with intensity.
So how does mold really impact the plumbing profession? First, you can ignore mold that grows in bathrooms and toilet rooms. This may be a by-product of the plumbing in the building, but it is really related to the cleanliness of the facility. If the room or space is not regularly cleaned, mold will probably grow. The more showers and baths that are taken, the greater likelihood of mold growth. This type of mold growth is easy to address.
The major mold problem is in building components that are not expected to have mold growth. This may be behind the wallboard, in the ceiling, in the ductwork, and other similar locations. The common cause of the mold growth is the presence of water in areas where water should not be present. Most of the water comes from building exterior leakage, i.e., roof leak, leaking wall, etc.
One of the most common roof leaks in commercial buildings is around the roof drain. Another problem is around the vent pipe. For many commercial buildings, the flashing around the roof drain and the vent pipe are the concern of the roofing contractor.
That does not mean that the plumbing contractor should turn a blind eye. You need to make sure the installation is correct. Even though you may not be responsible, if there is a leak, the building owner doesn't know that, and they will sue you anyway. Yes, you can easily get out of the lawsuit, but that still costs money and takes time. It is better to double-check the installation.
Looking For LeaksIf it is not a leak in the building exterior envelope, the water may be present for another reason. Again, there are many reasons: steam escaping from equipment, small leaks in the water supply or other piping systems, and condensate. That last one is where the plumber comes into play.
Condensation is often associated with various plumbing pipes. If there is a high enough relative humidity and the pipe is cold, condensation will form on the pipe. Get enough condensation, you have a prime opportunity for mold growth.
It is interesting that the plumbing codes have never required insulation on cold water lines. Many plumbing codes don't even require insulation on hot water lines. And why would you insulate a storm drainage line?
With the outcry of mold, we must re-evaluate the need to insulate various plumbing systems. In areas with moderate to high humidity, it is a good idea to start insulating cold water lines. Most commercial buildings have this as a requirement in the engineering specifications.
In residential and certain light commercial buildings, insulation of the cold water lines is almost unheard of. Without insulation, however, the exterior of the pipe easily can reach the dew point temperature. Water will form on the outside of the pipe and, presto, mold has its opportunity.
I have been to some buildings where the condensation from the cold water lines dripped onto the floor and mold began to grow on the floor. All a result of having no insulation on the cold water line.
On storm drainage lines, condensation is also a problem. On a cold, rainy day, the storm drainage pipe can reach the dew point temperature on the outside wall of the pipe. I have witnessed installations where they thought there was a leak of the storm drain. It turned out to be all of the condensation that formed (and dropped) off the storm drain piping.
Of course, the other benefit to insulation is the energy savings. But, you will find that mold sells better than energy conservation today.
Selling The ConceptWhich brings us to, "How do you sell the concept?" By no means will it be easy. But, you can have a clear conscience knowing that at least you tried.
My suggestion is to inform the building owner, homeowner or developer of the possibility of mold growth from condensation. Then hit them with insulating the pipe to reduce the possibility of condensation. Next comes the price. Simple, right!
If my quick survey proves true, you will have around 10 percent of the population jump at the idea right away. A few percent more may consider it and eventually agree to it. The rest will say, "Mold, I don't have any stinkin' mold problem."
One developer I deal with is so concerned with mold that we have to go out of our way to prove that we have taken every precaution possible to reduce the possibility of mold growth. Furthermore, he pays for this evaluation.
Insulation has become more important than ever. Just make sure it completely covers the piping system.