In Pennsylvania, professional radon testing and radon remediation (aka mitigation) is governed by the PA Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP). The PA DEP has set standard radon testing protocols as documented in the PA Radon Act which must be met for professional radon testing. These protocols ensure that professional radon tests are performed to set standards and help provide quality control for accurate radon testing. All professional radon testing professionals in Pennsylvania must be certified/licensed by PA DEP and submit a Quality Assurance (QA) plan as part of the process to become certified/licensed. PA DEP audits radon testing and radon remediation professionals on a regular basis to ensure that we are following PA law (the radon testing protocols) and our QA plan, as well as checking our records for compliance and reporting requirements.
It doesn’t matter if a home is in the city or out in the country . . . or if a home is brand new or 200 years old . . . all homes should be tested as any age, location or style of home can have high radon levels. All homes have some level of radon gas in them. The only way to know your home’s radon level is to perform a radon test. I have been performing radon testing in the Lancaster and surrounding areas since 2002 and have found high (over 330 pCi/L) and low (less than 1 pCi/L) radon levels all over the area in all types, locations and ages of homes . . . and yes, even high levels in some homes with no basements.
The main part of the radon test protocol that PA DEP uses is called “Closed House Conditions”. These protocols must begin at least 12 hours BEFORE the radon test begins, not when the inspector arrives to start the radon test. This is why it is a good idea for the radon test professional to contact the homeowner or occupant a day or so before the radon test starts in order to review the PA DEP protocols with the homeowner so the home is ready when the inspector arrives. Getting to the home and finding the home is not ready (such as doors or windows open) may delay, extend or prevent a radon test from starting at that time. The type of radon testing technology to be used (continuous monitor, activated charcoal, etc.) will determine if the test can still start (assuming closed house conditions are corrected then and there). The time duration will need to be extended, or the test must be rescheduled for a later time. Of course this can present an issue if the sales contract’s inspection contingency is nearly over.
Since time is of the essence when buying a home, short-term radon tests are generally used during this process. A short-term radon test is any radon test between 2-90 days in duration, but are normally 2 or 3 days for a real estate transaction.
Closed House Conditions Include the Following:
- All solid exterior doors (not just those in the basement) must be kept closed other than normal entry/exiting starting 12 hours BEFORE the radon test begins and throughout the radon test’s duration. When the homeowner needs to enter or leave the home, exterior doors should be only opened momentarily. If the homeowner will be moving during the proposed radon test period, the radon test will need to be rescheduled . . . since doors will be open to move furniture and belongings out, closed door conditions cannot be met. Occasionally when doing a radon test in a brand new home, the builder has yet to install locks on all doors. Sometimes the holes are drilled for bolt locks, for example, but no locks are actually installed at that point. Of course the holes need to be filled (closed up) for the radon test to start. Storm doors and screen doors do not count as solid entry doors, and garage doors are not considered main entry doors either.
- All exterior windows (not just in the basement) must be kept closed starting 12 hours BEFORE the radon test begins and throughout the radon test’s duration.
- Central heating/air conditioning systems should be run normally for at least 24 hours before the test and during the test period. Normal operation would be setting the thermostat between 68-75 degrees. For vacant homes this helps ensure normal air flow through the home as if it were occupied. For occupied homes this allows the homeowner to remain comfortable with normal air flow. Window and wall mounted A/C units may only be run in circulation mode before and during the radon test. If the A/C unit has no exterior vent or circulation mode, window/wall A/C units may not be run at all before and during the test. This can create an issue in hot weather if the homeowner wants to keep the home cool; however, wall/window A/C units that vent with the exterior will prevent an accurate radon test since exterior air will enter the home.
- Fireplaces, wood/coal/pellet stoves, etc. should not be operated during the radon test unless it is the home’s only heat source. Fireplace dampers must also be kept closed for the radon test starting 12 hours before and throughout the radon test’s duration.
- Other appliances such as clothes dryers, kitchen range fans, bathroom exhaust fans, etc. can be run normally. Whole-home vent fans (sometimes mounted in a hallway ceiling in homes from the 1960s or 1970s) should not be run before or during the radon test. Ceiling fans, portable fans, portable humidifiers and portable dehumidifiers should NOT be operated on the same level/story of the home as the radon test is being performed.
- If the home already has a radon remediation system installed, it must be running at least 24 hours before the test starts. Yes, we test homes with radon systems already installed, and from time-to-time we still find high radon levels even with the systems running. This is why it is important to test a home even if you think you don’t need to because you see a radon system already installed.
- Radon testing equipment, including any stand or work table that the device is located on, should not be touched or moved. When the radon test is placed, the installer will note where specifically the unit(s) is placed to ensure it is still in that location when he later retrieves the radon test. Continuous radon monitors (CRMs) have built-in motion/tamper sensors that will tell the inspector if the unit has been tampered with during the test.
PA DEP sets specific standards on where in the home the radon test should occur. Ideally the test should occur in the basement (unless it has a low ceiling or dirt floor and, therefore, is not ‘easily finished’), and it should be located away from exterior walls, doors and windows. The center of the basement is best but is not always feasible with situations like continuous monitors that need to be plugged in for power.
The test equipment should not be touched, moved or otherwise disturbed. As noted above, continuous monitors indicate to the inspector if the unit has been interfered with. When the tester data is downloaded (if continuous monitors are used) and indications of tampering are noted, PA DEP protocols require the inspector to void the radon test. This is because the inspector cannot provide any quality assurance that the test is accurate and the results are valid.
When I contact the homeowner a day or so before the radon test, I review the above protocols with them, ask if any pets or small children live in the home and if they go down to the basement. I explain that pets or small children can interfere with the radon test device and end up causing the test to be invalidated. Approximately 15 years ago I performed a radon test and downloaded the test data. The data showed 28 instances of tampering — the unit was moved or bumped 28 times during the test period, and the unit was unplugged three times. The radon test table had been moved about 10 feet from where I originally positioned it. When I asked the homeowner, she claimed her cat was the culprit. Of course the radon test had to be invalidated, and the home buyer was not happy with the homeowner. If and when a radon test has to be invalidated, PA DEP states that the radon testing professional may not provide the test results to our client. This is why I explain the basics of the radon test to the homeowner ahead of time and make sure pets and small children will not be able to access the radon tester. We want to perform an accurate radon test meeting PA DEP protocols and need to do so only one time.
I also leave signage inside the home’s exterior doors to remind the homeowner/occupants about keeping doors/windows closed, not interfering with the radon test equipment/test table, etc. As part of my QA plan, I also use a “Radon Test Agreement” that spells out the above-mentioned radon protocols that were reviewed on the phone the day before with the homeowner. The homeowner/occupant signs and dates the form (I drop it off when the test starts and pick up the signed form when I come back to retrieve the radon test) confirming that all radon test protocols were met. This signed form and no indications in the test data of interference allow me to validate a radon test per PA DEP protocols and provide the test data to my client. When we get routinely audited by the PA DEP, they review our records to ensure that the signed agreements and all other radon testing paperwork is in order and that PA DEP standards have been met.
Matthew Steger, ACI, WIN Home Inspection
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