In PA, professional radon testing and radon remediation (aka mitigation) is regulated by the PA Dept. of Environmental Protection (PA DEP). 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 to ensure accurate radon testing. All professional radon testing professionals in PA must be certified/licensed by PA DEP and submit a Quality Assurance (QA) plan as part of the process to become certified/licensed in PA. 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 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 at a later time. Of course, this can present an issue if the sales contract’s inspection contingency is nearly over.
Since time 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:
- 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 leave or enter 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 re-scheduled, until closed house conditions can be met, since doors will be open to move furniture and belongings out. Occasionally, when doing a radon test in a brand new home, the builder has yet to install locks in all doors.. sometimes the holes are drilled for bolt locks, for example, but no locks are actually installed at that point. The holes need to be filled (closed up) for the radon test to start, of course. Of course, storm and screen doors do not count as solid entry doors. Also, 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 before (at least 24 hours) and during the test period. Normal operation would be setting the thermostat between 68~75° F. For vacant homes, for example, this helps ensure normal air flow through the home as if the home is occupied. For occupied homes, this allows the homeowner to remain comfortable and allows 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 appliance 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 which 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 should be located away from exterior walls, doors, and windows. The center of the basement is best but is not always feasible, such as for continuous monitors which need to be plugged in for power.
The test equipment should not be touched, moved, or otherwise disturbed. As noted above, continuous monitors will indicate to the inspector if the unit has been interfered with. When the test data is downloaded (if continuous monitors are used), if indications of tampering are noted, PA DEP protocols require the inspector to void the radon test. This is because the inspector can not provide any quality assurance that the test is accurate and the results are valid.
When I contact the homeowner 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 radon test to be invalidated. Approx. 15 years ago, I performed a radon test and downloaded the test data. The test data showed 28 instances of tampering (the unit was moved or bumped 28 times during the test period) during a 48 hour period and the unit was unplugged 3 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 homebuyer was not happy with the homeowner. When/if a radon test has to be invalided, 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 in an effort to help ensure no later issues. We want to perform an accurate radon test meeting PA DEP protocols and 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” which spells out the above-mentioned radon protocols (which I also reviewed on the phone the day before with the homeowner). The homeowner/occupant signs and dates the form (which I drop 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, plus no indications in the test data of interference, allows 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.
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You can also learn more about radon by reading our "Radon: Hazard or Hype?" article.
© 2019 Matthew Steger
Matthew Steger, owner/inspector of WIN Home Inspection in Lancaster, PA, is a Certified Level 1 Infrared Thermographer, an ASHI Certified Inspector (ACI), an electrical engineer, and a US Dept. of Energy Home Energy Score Assessor. He can be reached at: 717-361-9467 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WIN Home Inspection has provided a wide array of home inspection services in the Lancaster, PA area since 2002. This article was authored by Matthew Steger, ACI - owner of WIN Home Inspection in Lancaster, PA. No article, or portion thereof, may be reproduced or copied without prior written consent of Matthew Steger.