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On average, humans take between 17,280 and 23,040 breaths per day. And since most people spend a majority of their day inside, that’s a lot of indoor air we’re breathing. With ventilation systems, air purifiers, houseplants and air filters, we rarely worry about the air we’re breathing in the home. But even with all the things that purify our air, there are several household health hazards that could be floating around your living space, moving into your lungs and setting up a permanent residence. One common hazard is radon gas.  

Radon gas is everywhere, even in the air outside. But outdoor air is vast and open, so radon levels stay relatively low. A house is another story. Since it’s enclosed, it traps the radon and causes it to build up. Exposure to high levels of radon – more than 4 picocuries per liter – can be dangerous over extended periods of time. Don’t fret just yet. If your home has radon, there are effective ways to mitigate it. First, you’ll need to find out the levels in your home. Testing is the only method for knowing if your home has dangerous levels of radon. Read on to learn more about radon testing and how to lower levels in your home. But first, let’s talk about the toxic gas and the risks associated with it.

What Is Radon?

Radon is a gas that forms when radioactive metals like uranium, thorium or radium break down in soil, rocks or groundwater. Exposure to low levels of radon is inevitable, as it is a naturally occurring gas that’s present in the air we breathe and, sometimes, in the water we drink.

Unfortunately, radon is also a carcinogen. And because it’s colorless, odorless and tasteless, it can be hard to detect.

What Are the Risks of Exposure to Radon?

According to the EPA, radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer, with about 21,000 people dying annually from radon-related lung cancer – 2,900 of those being non-smokers. When you breathe in radon, it permeates the lining of your lungs and, over time, damages the cells with radiation. This can lead to lung cancer.

These risks associated with exposure to radon can be increased by several lifestyle habits, including smoking and burning wood, coal or other fuels in the home.

How Does Radon Get Into Your Home?

Because the pressure inside of your home is typically lower than the pressure in the soil outside, the home acts as a vacuum, pulling radon inside through several openings like:

  • Cracks, pores and holes in the foundation
  • Floor-wall joints
  • Mortar joints
  • Sump pump
  • Soil in unfinished crawl spaces
  • Well water
  • Cavities inside walls
  • Loose-fitting pipe penetrations
  • Granite, brick, concrete or rock materials

While radon can enter the home through well water and building materials, the most common way it gets in is through soil around the house. While some areas of the U.S. are more prone to high radon levels, all homes are susceptible. The only way to know about the levels in your home is to test for them.

How To Test For Radon

There are a few different ways to test for radon. These are: short-term, long-term, continuous and professional radon testing. You can test for radon with a DIY test kit or a special detector, or you can hire a radon professional to administer a test. Each kind of test has its own distinct advantages and disadvantages, which we’ll go over below.

Whatever testing method you choose, make sure you perform the test in the lowest level of the home that is used – or could be used – as a living space. Before testing, close all doors and windows for 12 hours and keep them closed for the duration of the test – except when you need to enter or exit the area. Place the test kit at least 3 feet from exterior walls and about 2 feet above the floor. Do not test in high humidity, severe storms or high winds, as this weather can affect the accuracy of the reading.

Short-term Radon Testing

When testing for radon, start with a short-term test, which measures levels in your home over a period of 2-7 days. This is a quick, cost-effective way to conduct a test in your home. It is also convenient, as many of these tests come in DIY kits that are available online or at home improvement or hardware stores. However, keep in mind that while this type of radon testing is quick and convenient, it is also the least accurate.

To perform a short-term radon test, read the instructions that come with your kit. Most short-term kits include a sampler and envelope where you’ll fill out your name, address and email. You might also need to mark when you started the test and completed it. To collect a sample, you’ll leave the sampler in the room for 2-7 days, then mail it to a lab for testing in the envelope provided in the kit. Lab results are typically mailed or emailed within a few days.

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Long-term Radon Testing

Long-term radon testing works the same way as short-term; however, it tests the area for 90 days instead of a maximum of 7. It’s clearly the more time-consuming option, but it’s also the more accurate one. That’s because measuring radon levels over a longer period of time reduces the chances of inaccurate readings caused by weather and seasonal temperatures, as these factors effectively average out.

Long-term radon testing kits are available through state radon agencies and online retailers.

Continuous Radon Testing

Continuous radon testing involves monitoring radon levels then testing them. This can be done short term, long term or indefinitely. Use continuous radon monitors to check levels throughout the day. The levels are typically displayed on the device’s screen. These monitors range in their accuracy, so be diligent in your research when considering this method.

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Professional Radon Testing

The best way to get an accurate reading or to confirm the radon levels from your own testing is to hire a professional to set up, read and assess the results of their own radon test. There are many factors that can skew results of a DIY test – one of them being user error. A professional tester is trained, certified and well versed in using the right equipment and reading results.

Radon Test Results

Radon tests measure radon levels in picocuries per liter of air. While there is no safe level of radon, the Environmental Protection Agency set an action level of 4 picocuries per liter, or pCi/L. This means that once radon levels reach or exceed 4 pCi/L, you must take action to fix the problem.

If your short-term test result is 4 pCi/L or higher, you should follow it up with a second short-term or long-term test to be sure. If your short-term test result is 7 or 8 pCi/L, you should take a second short-term test immediately.

Whatever your test results, there are things you can do to fix your radon problem and reduce levels to an acceptable amount of picocuries. Even if your radon levels are below 4 pCi/l, you may want to take the necessary steps to reduce your levels since any level of radon poses a risk to your health.

Radon Mitigation Systems

There are radon mitigation systems that minimize both airborne levels and water levels. Some of these systems can even reduce radon levels in your home by up to 99%.

From air: Most radon mitigation systems draw the gas from the foundation, sump pump or crawl space by using a fan to force the radon through a PVC pipe that leads up and out of the house.

The EPA recommends you have a certified radon mitigation contractor install the system in your home since it requires special skills and equipment, and incorrect installation can result in an increase in radon levels. Your state radon office can provide a list of qualified contractors who can install a mitigation system. Most contractors will charge anywhere from several hundred to a few thousand dollars depending on factors like the extent of the radon problem, the type of mitigation system you need, and the location and design of your home.

From water: Radon contamination in water is much less common, but still results in 30 – 1,800 deaths per year. Since city water is usually treated, the main concern is water that comes from an underground source, like a well. To mitigate radon from water, use an aeration treatment system or granular activated charcoal treatment system. An aeration treatment system mixes water with air, then disposes of the air and radon. In a granular activated charcoal treatment system, the water filters through carbon that catches the radon and holds onto it. Of the two systems, the aeration treatment system is more effective.

Whichever system you choose, you should install it at the point of entry so it mitigates radon levels in all forms of water that enter the house, whether through the sink, tub, toilet, washing machine or other appliance.

Other Ways To Lower Radon Levels In Your Home

There are many simple ways to help reduce radon levels in the home. However, many are only temporary solutions and are not necessarily alternatives to professional mitigation systems. To lower radon levels, try taking the following actions:

  • Seal cracks and holes in the foundation and walls that abut soil and rocks
  • Seal your sump pump, if you have one
  • Open windows to bring in fresh air
  • Run vents and fans to circulate air

Radon Tips For Homebuyers

There’s so much to think of when you’re buying your first house. Between finding the right home, having it appraised and going through the mortgage process, radon may be the last thing you’re thinking about. But now that you know of the risks associated with exposure to radon, you can use your knowledge to take care of your health and potentially aid you in the negotiation of a purchase.

If the home has already been tested for radon, ask the seller for the following information:

  • Who conducted the radon testing?
  • In what room of the home was the test conducted?
  • What were the results of the test?
  • What action was taken to resolve the issue, if there was one?
  • What changes have been made to the home since the last test?
  • Did the test follow state or EPA testing protocol?

If the test was performed more than 2 years ago or if you are unhappy with how it was conducted, you can ask for another test. You may also want to request a new test if the home has been renovated or if there was work on the HVAC system since the last test.

If the home has not been tested for radon or if you request a new test, you’ll need to work with the seller to determine where in the home to conduct the test, what type of test to perform and who will pay for the test and mitigation solutions if levels are high. You may also want to consider putting a radon contingency clause in your purchase offer. This can protect you against unforeseen costs related to mitigation if radon is found.

If you are thinking about building a new home, consider installing a mitigation system at the time of construction, as well as other radon-proofing techniques, like covering exposed earth with plastic sheeting or gravel and sealing other points of entry. Doing this at the time of construction is more cost-effective and can make your home more energy efficient.

Radon Tips for Sellers

If you’re selling your home, be proactive and get it tested before putting it on the market. Buyers may ask for a test if you do not have one or request a new one if the test is not recent, if you’ve made changes to the home since testing or if the test was done incorrectly. Not only that, but if you find radon in the house and do the work to reduce it, that can be a great selling point.

For the most accurate radon testing and to protect yourself as a seller, hire a qualified professional to perform the test. Keep a record of the results and any measures you took to lower levels. Depending on state laws, you may be obligated to disclose elevated radon levels to potential buyers.

Radon Testing: The Upshot

Testing for radon is an important part of home safety and is key to avoiding the risks that come with exposure. Once you know the radon levels in your home, you’ll know the next steps to take.

Remember to test for radon every 2-5 years or anytime you remodel your home, make changes to your heating and cooling systems or install a radon mitigation system.

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