Radon comes from beneath the soil. When the earth formed, heavier elements–those that are unstable and decay along with others such as gold, silver, and lead–settled lower in the earth than the lighter ones–carbon, nitrogen, etc. In fact, the earth’s core is hot because it is a nuclear reactor. The sun isn’t enough to keep the earth as warm as we need it to be. We need this reactor to keep the earth from being cold and barren. However, we don’t need this “hot” stuff at the surface. When soil is disrupted, a variety of radioactive materials can be released. Being a gas, radon can easily travel into our homes.
You can have a new house and have radon.
You can have an old house and have radon.
You can have a home built on a slope and have radon. You can have a home not on a slope and have radon, too.
You can have a walk-out basement and have radon.
You can have no basement and have radon. (If you have a house on stilts, you probably will have less radon.)
You can fill in a basement and have radon.
You can knock a house down, fill in the basement, put a slab over it, build a new structure, and have radon. This process disturbs the soil a lot.
Earthquakes can change the level of radon in your home.
Radon levels are often higher in the winter, during droughts, and on windy days.
Wells can bring radon into your home.
Homes in the same neighborhood can have different levels of radon.
Opening windows can help radon escape, but more will enter without remediation.
Radon is a problem in Iowa. (Pennsylvania and the Appalachian region also have high levels.) Many people have not tested because the danger wasn’t understood until around 1985 and this makes it seem like just one more thing to be scared about. There are no laws that require testing for it. But please do test. order a test kit
January is radon awareness month. It’s time to close this month and close out the radon in my basement.
Removing radon from most homes is a simple process–a tube going beneath the foundation and a fan remove the radon and vent it outside, away from windows and places where people are most likely to go. The radon is quickly diluted by the outside air.
My house, however, wasn’t as easy as the picture shown above. First of all, the vent must be ten feet away from any windows that open. My house is filled with windows. We found a spot in the side yard to place the fan and vent. It was close to the high radon side of the house, too. We don’t hang out much in that section of the yard.
Second, the radon was coming from one nasty spot not easy to vent–a place in the cellar where a drain had been cut into the foundation. This is a thick walled cellar. By cellar, I do not mean a basement, I mean, a true cellar that’s underground with no windows.
Warning: photos of my old basement ahead.
An area where radon is coming in is a drain vent added there recently. It’s near a deep cellar. The heavy gas concentrated in the cellar–great for tornados, bad for radon.
Here’s the solution:
The next step is to test for radon using several meters throughout the house to make sure the gas is expelled and not re-entering. It can take a few days for radon level to drop. If we don’t get it below the level of 4 pCi/L we’ll need more tubes.
You might wonder if I can hear the radon fan. I’m not sure. I hear a fan when I’m next to the window closest to the fan. However, is it the refrigerator or the radon fan? I have radiators that make a gentle rumble. (In the summer, it will be next to the air conditioner.) If it makes a noise, its not a loud one.
One in fifteen homes in the United States tests high for radon and in Iowa, the ratio is seven out of ten–the highest in the nation! (However, some states such as Pennsylvania and South Dakota have higher average ratings. Click here for a map.) Even though I don’t spend much time in my basement, I’m glad to have done this.Going into the cellar always made me sneeze. I though it was mold but maybe it was the irritating radioactive gas. Now I can dodge tornados more safely.
You’ve no doubt heard of radon in basements. Where is radon prevent? Here is a radon map. The United States doesn’t have much radon compared to other countries. It’s common in many states, especially in the North. Iowa and North Dakota are the two totally Zone 1 states. That means that here in Iowa, it’s hard to avoid this odorless, colorless, harmful gas. It’s inside and out, concentrating in low lying areas and clinging to dust particles. Inside it can reach harmful concentrations and promote lung cancer.
What is radon? It’s a non-reactive element, in the same family as helium and neon. It hangs in the air as a solitary atom. It doesn’t like to form chemical bonds. The problem is, it’s the big cousin to those elements. It’s heavy. It would NOT float a balloon. Big elements, those with an atomic number of above 81, aren’t stable. They decay and toss off radioactive particles as they strip down to something lighter. And for radon, its light form is lead. So not only does it beat on your lungs with energetic particles as it decays, it goes through a series of forming dangerous atoms, and it’s not too nice when it settles down as a lead atom. Here it is on the periodic table, Rn, radon. There is also an Ra, radium–kind of confusing. Radium c is related to calcium. Radon, the one we are talking about, can be in water but exists as a gas. Because it is a gas, you breath it in. That’s a problem. Radon’s atomic number 86 so it’s a big one! (Carbon by example is 12.) But not so big that you can wear a particle mask and keep it away. It’s got a bad size. Where does it come from? Heavy atoms tend to be found further down in the ground and radon comes from uranium break down. Uranium has atomic number 92. It’s a solid and tends to stay where it’s put. It lets off the gas of radon. (And also helium.)
In retrospect, I wasted time waiting until the basement was done to get after the radon. I have decided that patience is over-rated! We put down radon sealant on our new floors and thought that would be enough but no, It worked in some rooms but not in others. In fact, by adding a drainage system and two sump pumps we probably made our radon worse.
Curious about radon your house? The first step in figuring out if you have radon is to do a short term test. In this test, the radon is collected on carbon, which can suck things in and get them to stick The small package of carbon sits in your home (basement in my case) for a few days is sent to a lab and measured. Want to buy one? Look up “radon test kit.” They aren’t expensive.
The next step–if your reading is high– is to call a radon specialist. This person will probably put some radon monitors in the lowest level the home to see where it is most concentrated.
No surprise. Ours was-concentrated in the root cellar/tornado shelter/bomb shelter. It was less so in other spots in the basement but the average level was too high.
One thing we had going for us–we don’t have any duct work in the basement. We kept our radiators. The duct work for the air conditioner is in the attic. This means were were not blowing the cellar radon around the entire house as can happen with radon. On the other hand, the radon in the basement wasn’t going to go anywhere without help. And we go down to the cellar during tornado scares and store things down there.
We signed a contract with a radon specialist to fix the problem. Then, we waited four months for the problem to be fixed. I think the radon specialist will be here Monday. I’ll keep you posted.
The takeaways from my experience are this:
Don’t wait to test for radon.
When you sign a contract to have it removed, have both a level of reduction AND a completion date specified. I had an oral agreement–or so I thought–to have the work completed in October. I hope that it will be worth the wait.
Paint can add or detract from the value of your home. Your need to update and the changing moods of what’s popular might prompt you to repaint. When it comes to color, what’s in and what’s not will change and this is a good reason to not lock yourself in with siding or paneling that can’t change with the times. Instead, get used to watching paint dry.
Paint has a function beyond beauty–it protects a surface from damage, degradation by light and weather, and corrosion.
Paint was developed by the first chemists, the ancient Egyptians. The first pigment known was blue, which they made from bluegrass. Gum arabic, made from acacia trees, was another ancient component of paint. (It is also used in foods.)
Sometimes, a primer is used to seal the surface and add initial pigment before painting resulting in fewer coats of paint later. One component of a primer might be barium sulfate–the same thing used in a barium enema–or titanium dioxide. Even PVC can be in a primer.
Paint has three major components: pigments, binders, and thinner.
After paint is brushed on a surface, the thinner (also sometimes called a carrier) evaporates, the binder senses other, similar molecules growing closer, reacts with them and hardens as it dries. As it hardens it binds the pigment to the surface.
Bubbles can form in the paint, particularly if it is sprayed or if the paint is cheap, old, or shaken. Bubbles tend to wiggle through the paint until they group together and form in corners. Anti-foam agents can be added to paints when they are manufactured to prevent this. Other ways to prevent bubbles are to make sure you have the proper roller for the wall texture and to avoid painting in high humidity.
The binder plus the thinner is known as the paint vehicle, which is used to classify paint as either oil-solvent base or latex/acrylic (plastic) water-base. For chemical formulas of paints and primers, go here. And here.
Until the early 1950’s, the binder in paint was principally natural oils-tung, fish, and linseed. Then came latex in 1949. Within 5 years, 7% of all residential paint sales were latex. Today, 80% of all household paint is water-based. Water-based paint is more environmentally friendly than oil-based paint and provides for easier cleanup. Water-based paints used to be considered slightly inferior to oil-based when it came to durability but this is no longer the case. However, some painters consider them less glossy.
Even with the water vehicle, paint should be used in a well-ventilated area. Although water-based paint dries in an hour and can accept a second coat in four hours, it is slow to totally cure (bond with itself fully). This can take up to a month. In other words, it won’t be at its hardest for 30 days and should be treated carefully until then.
Any old house probably has seen lead paint. Older homes were painted white with linseed oil and lead oxide in a high concentration. Anything old that was once white was once lead. I’m a chemist and I like to test for lead. I haven’t found it in my home’s interior but have detected it in the outside paint in an inconsistent concentration. Lead dust is dangerous and lead paint chips laying around and on the soil present a hazard. Keep in mind that lead is a stable element. As such, it won’t change into anything less harmful. Lead should be painted over or if scraped off, should be wetted before being scraped and all chips should be put in a plastic bag and (in Iowa) treated like municipal garbage.
These days, the primary paint pigment is titanium dioxide (white). Colors are added to the titanium dioxide and they might be mineral or more commonly today synthetic organic. (NOT the same as natural.)
The color of paint is a matter of personal choice. Some claim that colors will affect your mood. I for one want to make paint companies work for my money and like bright vibrant colors. This year’s color of the year is what I painted my bedroom when I was 13. I might fall in love with it again. It reminds me of the first synthetic pigment–mauve.
One question you may have is if it is worth it to buy cheap paint. Consider that cheap paint doesn’t have more pigment, just more thinner. What type of finishshould you buy? Low sheen paint hides imperfections and is good for low traffic areas and ceilings. High-sheen paints are more durable and contain more binder vs pigment.
Unopened paint will keep its properties for ten -fifteen years. Opened water-based paint lasts for about two years although some say longer. Old paint gets lumpy. Binder particles find each other and cling together, and old paint might even grow mold or bacteria. What should you do with unused paint? If you can’t give it away, recycle it, or use it up, put it in your municipal waste. (This is for water-based paint only.) Solidify it first–kitty litter or newspaper can help. Keep in mind that new advances have made paint even better so there is not much incentive to save old paint.
In sprucing up my house for her 100th birthday, I couldn’t ignore the need for a new driveway. The driveway wasn’t original to the house but according to old photos, it was at least 60 years old. It lasted through Iowa winters and at least two families with teenagers parking on it, bikes going round and round over it, and incessant basketball games. It was made from a nice aggregate and held up well until the past few years. At last, time took an unbearable toll.
I decided to replace it with concrete with less interesting aggregate in it for one reason–cost. Aggregate can double the price of a driveway and as you can see, this is a big driveway.
Besides materials, one concern about a driveway is the slope of it so that water runs down. Our driveway has just barely enough slope because when Main Street was redone, it was made 6″ too high due to an error in reading the instructions. We would need a storm drain if we hadn’t made the grade.
Before we could get a new driveway, we had to stabilize our garage floor. It had cracks from the years but replacing it was impractical because of its ultra deep footings. Without stabilization, the pressure of the new concrete would crack it more.
Here are before and after shots of that:
The first step involved in making a driveway included removing the old slabs–easy in our case because they were so broken. The workers found an old sewer pipe in the curb of the old driveway and they kindly took it away. Next came building a frame, leveling the surface below the frame, adding reinforcing rods, and pouring the new concrete. Then the concrete needed to be smoothed so that water doesn’t pool on it and finally, joints were cut. Concrete shrinks when it dries and when it shrinks it cracks so cutting joints gives it a set of already made aesthetically pleasing cracks.
It took just two days to have the old driveway removed and the new one poured. Following that came patience as the “cement” (concrete is the proper term) cured for a week until it became tough enough to drive on.
My 100 year old basement isn’t a beautiful living space and probably never will be. It’s more an area for storage and washing the dog. A hundred years ago, a basement was more like a garage and a garage was more like a barn. An old house basement isn’t meant to be a living space. As an old house owner, you might want to ignore your basement. I did this for a long time but in the end decided to replace windows and even the floor.
In the room where I replaced the floor this summer it was uneven, being made from bricks with cement slabs over the top. It wasn’t wet but in very rainy years, it added a lot of humidity to the basement–enough that the termites went down there in their quest for dark and damp. This was the room that had the trail.
Getting your basement floor replaced isn’t glamorous or glitzy. Here’s what happens during the process:
The first step was getting all of the junk stored down there out. Out of sight, out of mind in an old basement is just too easy.
But as you can see, it got done.
It’s not an easy task to remove an old floor. Here is the floor in pieces a dumpster. It was broken apart with a jackhammer. Men carried it out in buckets. (This was not do it yourself.)
Concrete was pumped into the basement.
Finally, a drain leading to the sump pump was installed along the wall.
Putting in the floor occurred with minimal disruption to my routine. Was it expensive? I’d say yes. Yes indeed. Maybe foolishly so.
I might have made a mistake and had it done and then tested for radon. I have some radon and want to get rid of it. I’ll have do that soon–and will tell you about it in another blog.
Was it worth it to redo the floor? We are having a drought so right now, I’m not feeling the advantage. When the rains come again ,the torrential rains, I’ll be glad to have a clean, dry basement.
My house had termites. They ate a board and a half from my floor and maybe a door sill.
They are gone. However, they did more than eat a board. They got me thinking about my house and if I really cared that much about it or not. It’s on a street that is sometimes busy. This little town of mine only has a few cross-town streets and Main Street is one of them. It’s poor planning for sure. Sometimes I have to wait a thirty seconds to pull out of my driveway.
So the question was, did I want to put money into this house? I decided that I did. I like where it is. I can walk to work. I can walk to town. In fact, I often walk to the meat market or the bakery or the pet food store. The house is near the hospital. This might seem like a disadvantage but the street is always plowed. The electricity is always on. I decided that I liked this house in this location. I did’t want to fix it up and then sell it. I want to enjoy my efforts. But I need to do things to it before I retire–which will not be soon unless I come into a fortune and even then maybe not. Once the termites were dead, I set about having the floors redone. The office needed a new board or two. And the whole set of floors needed to be sanded, resealed, and finished.
Unlike getting rid of termites, this was a major endeavor. We had to move out all of the furniture, appliances, and since that was all moving, I sorted things too. Not everything got tossed but I did give away books and threw out things such as old maps and any old plastic because we all know, I dislike old plastic.
New wood to replace what the termites ate.
But is is tasty white oak or delicious red oak?
Fir floors: boards replaced due to water line holes, not bugs
My goal is this. I’m going to make my house beautiful and then I’m going to live in it.
The office floor had termite damage, the living room and family room had some water damage from 100 years of existence, and the back hall had holes from water pipes that had been moved. These weren’t extensive, you could cover them with rugs, or as it had been for years, with carpet.The carpet was aging and the floor dings had accumulated through the years and I faced fixing my house or letting it get worse and worse. I decided to fix it while I had a job–before retirement or the nation falling into rubble, which ever came first. I didn’t do this by myself. I called in floor restorers.
Step one was patching. This took them a day. One question the repair company had was, did we have red oak or white oak? The woods finish differently. and replacing the termite boards was a major goal of this project. The eaten boards were red oak. It’s considered more beautiful than white but is also more porous. This is what the termites adored and bored through. Most of the oak in the house is red except for the stairs which are white oak. By the way, floor refinishers say that white oak smells peppery when sanded. We also have fir floors and pine. Lots of trees gave their lives for this house and it’s an intriguing cornucopia of wood.
Next came sanding. Sanding the floors took over a day. This was longer than usual for a floor restore but previous owners had glued carpet and parquet over some of the floors. The mixture of sawdust and glue made hard little balls. Here is a photo of workers trying to get up the dark stain from glued on kitchen carpet. Never glue anything to your wood floors by the way.
Here is a nice photo of the sanded floors in the living room.
Next came the sealing. Oak floors are best sealed with oil based polyurethane. This darkens them and brings out the yellow. It smells terrible and is hazardous. During this phase you need to move out of your house if you haven’t already. Don’t even think you can live there. Yes, I did leave my algae eater behind in her aquarium and she lived unscathed as the refinishing company predicted. However, I could smell the volatiles at least two feet outside of my house. This is not something cleaner or greener. The best hope is that it doesn’t have to be done too often in the life of a house.
After sealing, four coats of polyurethane are added with sanding in between. I thought that the sealing smelled the worst and each coat let off fewer volatiles. The last step in the process was to replace the baseboards. We had no baseboards in most of the rooms thanks to the carpeting. We had a choice of doing this last step ourselves or having it done professionally. My spouse is a handy person and was tempted to do it but I felt that the emotional energy on my part would have been far too great. How many days could I stand to look at no baseboards? Zero days. That’s what I decided.
After eleven days and a day after the last coat of finish we were allowed to enter the house with sock-feet, air it out, and the next day we began cleaning. Yes, cleaning. There was a thin layer of sawdust on all surfaces lower than 4 feet.
But here are the floors:
The furniture can be moved in after three days and the rugs after a week. Since dirty shoes are tough on the floors we will probably join the ranks of those who take shoes off at the door. I’m a person who likes to be one with my shoes. As of today, it’s all about socks. I can do it, right?
But not everyone is happy about that:
One thing to keep in mind when budgeting, if you don’t already have area rugs, you’ll want to buy some along with felt pads and castor cups.
I live in a house soon to be 100 years old. I’m on a mission to fix her up for her birthday. I’ll tell you all her dirty secrets and how I dealt with them. Here is the first problem that I solved–more easily than you think–although it left me a bit traumatized. I hadn’t been vigilant and this easily solved crisis gave me activation energy to go on and do more to my house.
One thing that bothered me about this house was this wall in the basement. It had a seepy spot that looked as if poison was dripping in. I hated it. Here it is:
And it turned out to be much more than I thought it was. Dear readers, you know that I don’t keep the truth from you. The truth sent me into a tailspin. That’s not seepage; it’s a termite track. Yes indeed. A huge one, too. Where did these dirty monsters go in my house? They went here, into my home office:
The good news is, I now knew both what had caused the “seepage” but also what had caused the “dryness” in the floor. The “dryness” popped up recently and was another “I vow to solve this immediately” mystery. Two problems identified in one conclusion! See the two gnawed away boards? Ugly isn’t it? The buggers ate right through the wood. But they stopped when they reached the other side of the wall–which is not oak but fir. Apparently, they love oak. Fir is less popular with them. Fir was used in kitchens because it is more water resistant. These were gourmet termites, thank goodness, and they went no further into the house but probably moved on to the closest woodpile outside.
Fortunately, at least here in the north, termites don’t eat a lot, are pretty easy to get rid of, and the chemicals used to eliminate them work in a fascinating way. No, there is no fumigation or tenting. The killer is contained in some bait that the termites drag back to their nest. They eat it and then you wait. The way that it kills them is that it makes them unable to molt. Then they die. This takes a while–four to six weeks. Mine took about a month to kill but the instructions that go with the bait says not to spray for bugs or disturb the home for 90 days to make sure they take the bait back to the nest. The bait is not toxic to things that don’t have exoskeletons. I had morbid fascination with checking it which isn’t good. It should be left undisturbed and in the dark–termites love the dark and damp. The bags were placed in the path of the termites. They make a little mud trail from the ground to your house. Once I knew what the mud trail looked like I watched it. Yes, I could see termites at times. Not that many but before the colony collapsed they looked as if they were crawling crazily. I was sure they weren’t dying out but had renewed vigor. I was wrong. The next day I didn’t see them and they have not returned.
The next step was to put out more bait around the house in case a new batch of the critters found my house as tasty as the last ones did.
Why am I confessing this? Because the pest control guy said that termites were all over in Pella and in Iowa. Yes. We are not as perfect here in Pella as it might seem. So if you see a brown trail in your basement or foundation, it’s not a happy trail. Believe me. It’s not. The good news is, it is less costly to get rid of termites than it is to replace a whole basement wall. Getting the tracks off of the wall took some elbow grease and a wire brush with TSP–just as if I was preparing the wall for painting. I then painted the wall for good measure. We have bait stations around the house and garage to fend of future termites. It looks as if there wasn’t much termite damage. Fortunately, this was a case where negative thinking got results. And if there is an invasion of outer-space aliens with eco-skeletons, I’m covered.