Radon Resistant New Construction

The following is a transcript of an interview conducted by Phillip Gibson of the North Carolina Radon Program and Shawn Price, President of American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists. AARST has been seeking ways of engaging with homebuilder associations and that is the focus of this interview.

PG: Why are you bringing radon issues to the construction industry?

SP: Radon gas is known to cause lung cancer. Over 21,000 Americans lose their lives each year from radon-induced lung cancer. In order to reduce this death rate, we first have to reduce the human exposure to high radon levels. The main problem is that each year more houses are built in radon-prone areas. It is my experience that builders do not understand how many lives are lost each year from radon and the role they can play in reducing exposures to radon. As the President of the American Association of Radon Scientists and Technologists (AARST), I make it a priority to find ways to bridge our industry with those in the construction industry willing to work together to reduce human exposure to radon gas.

PG: What specifically is needed from the construction industry to address radon induced lung cancer?

SP: The US EPA has been working for a few years on a concept known as Radon Resistant New Construction (RRNC). They have produced documents that illustrate basic additions that can be incorporated at the time of construction that can make a difference. We are asking the construction industry to take just a couple of hours and read over the RRNC design principles and voluntarily engage a certified professional to install the measures needed. Communities have not adopted the RRNC radon language into local building codes so it is only through the moral fabric of each contractor to find value in adding roughly $500 to the overall cost. Those who have adopted RRNC practices were often met with resistance. Time has allowed some within the construction industry of those communities to recognize that properly installed RRNC features are easy, cost-effective, and in the long run lead to much lower radon levels in their buildings. Most recently several large building companies have added RRNC to all of their new homes and market themselves as being one step ahead of their competition. The key is for builders to work with certified radon mitigation contractors in their area to assist in the design and inspection of RRNC features. Mitigators with confidence in the builder’s attention to detail will also have the confidence to provide radon system warranties when RRNC systems need to be activated.

PG: How much effort and money is needed to include RRNC in new development projects?

SP: RRNC uses a system of pipe or matting under the foundation area to collect the radon underneath the home. The collection system is then connected to a run a solid PVC pipe, which is routed vertically through the conditioned part of the building and vented above the roof. Depending on the foundation type (i.e., crawl space versus slab on grade), the time and materials will differ. The US EPA estimates that it takes between $300 and $500 to install the passive radon system, although there are many variables that may be more challenging on a particular home or in a certain part of the country. For North Carolina costs have been within this range for RRNC compared to $1500 to $2000 for an existing home retrofit. Understanding the design requirements is a significant priority so that the system is at least given a fighting chance to remove radon. I have seen photographs of systems designed by builders and plumbers that show that they don’t understand basic design elements. Long horizontal runs limit the passive stack effect. Incorrect pitch on even short horizontal runs will fill with water. Boring a hole through the concrete after it cures (instead of adding the riser before pouring the concrete) and then excessively pushing the pipe through the hole and into the dirt, or even hitting a footer wall or rebar, which prevents contact with the soil, is not acceptable. Homes can never be billed as “radon proof.” Homes with an installed mitigation system need to be tested post-mitigation to ensure that the mitigation measures worked. Homeowners are not happy when they buy a home marketed as a “radon proof” and find afterwards, by testing, that the system installed is not working. Most, if not all, of these situations result from systems being designed and installed by non-certified radon mitigators. Lawsuits have occurred and reputations of builders have been impacted from these situations. Some of the lawsuits become class action in nature because the poorly designed systems were installed in multiple homes.

PG: What regulations require development practices to address radon?

SP: Currently radon regulations are found at the local code level. Cities and counties across the US have adopted Appendix F of the International Residential Code (IRC) as mandatory features in new construction. There is a rising movement where statewide codes are including RRNC. For the most part, however, the installation of RRNC features is voluntary. There are points available in programs such as LEED for passive and active systems. If we are ever going to make a dent in the rates of lung cancer deaths, it will likely require widespread code changes in both residential and commercial construction. There is a new consensus-based standard that is being reviewed by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). The AARST Consortium on National Radon Standards has completed a code-ready standard that could easily be dropped into the body of the IRC. Upon agreement by ANSI, this will be the first Standard to provide clear guidance on RRNC features and the proper installation of such features. The International Code Council (ICC) will be considering the standard at their upcoming meeting and there is an effort that ICC insert the Consortium’s work directly into the body of IRC for the new codes that would do into effect in 2015. It is thought that ANSI-approval of the standard will go a long way in vouching for the credibility of this consensus project. Regardless of whether the efforts with ICC are successful, radon gas continues to be a radioactive gas that changes the DNA of the resident’s lung tissue. All of the certified testers and mitigators working in NC are listed on the NC Radon Program website (www.ncradon.org). The simplest step at this point is for the construction industry to engage them in the design and installation of a radon system. For those building new construction, RRNC is a proactive approach that is very cost effective when done properly. Again, there is a team of experienced and knowledgeable professionals eager to help them save lives. So the next time a builder hears radon mentioned, they should have the confidence to know that their houses can be safe and marketed as radon.

Phillip Gibson is the Western North Carolina Radon Program Coordinator. For more information, and to request a free Radon Test Kit please visit www.ncradon.org