Fighting the common enemy of both tenants and landlords – mould
At this time of year, damp and mould can be common problems in rental properties.
Depressing and potentially unhealthy for tenants, mould is categorised by the World Health Organisation as being a risk to health.
Damp and mould are often perceived by landlords as notoriously difficult to deal with, particularly when the tenants are still in situ. A number of landlords would prefer to wait to tackle the problem in between tenancies.
However, the so-called retaliatory eviction legislation introduced last October could change this.
The rules now mean that a Section 21 notice cannot be served for at least six months when a complaint is made about the condition of a property and that complaint is accepted as valid by the local authority.
Because damp and mould are so commonplace, they are likely to be the cause of complaints and, if so, then under the legislation, landlords should take corrective action within a reasonable timeframe.
Landlords should bear in mind that condensation and mould growth are not problems that can be treated retrospectively with sprays or redecoration – they will simply continue to occur.
Without preventative action being taken, the situation only gets worse, causing damage to the fabric of the building as well as potential harm to the occupants’ health.
Damp and mould occur when there is inadequate ventilation in a home – often leading to landlords’ suspicions that it is the tenant’s own lifestyle that is the root cause of the problem.
Whereas at one time tenants were simply told to ‘open the windows’, there are a number of reasons why this is not the answer for many people.
The very young need warmth, and old people are advised to live in a constant temperature of around 18-21o C in order to remain healthy.
Opening windows when the temperature is much lower for any period of time could cause a number of health issues such as pneumonia and hypothermia.
There can also be issues with outdoor pollution or noise, not to mention energy efficiency and security.
Condensation in a home is a sure sign that a property suffers from poor indoor air quality. Recent studies show that 58% of householders experience condensation and over a fifth say they have a problem with mould in their homes.
The situation is worse in the winter months because humidity inside the home is higher (as windows are kept closed to conserve heat) and there is a larger differential between indoor and outside temperatures, meaning more cold surfaces for condensation to form.
Condensation is most noticeable in kitchens and bathrooms where most of the moisture is generated. However, it is also very common to find mould and condensation issues in bedrooms, as moisture migrates throughout the property.
The situation is even worse when dwellings have internal bathrooms with no windows, as is often the case in flats, which can be prone to serious condensation, especially if an extractor fan is blocked or switched off.
High humidity provides a haven for household dust mites and their detritus which flourish in damp, mouldy conditions. They can live in bedding, carpets and other soft furnishings in homes that do not have adequate ventilation.
When this detritus comes into contact with skin or is inhaled, it can cause allergic reactions such as asthma or dermatological conditions.
Low-level background ventilation to a property is a solution to consider, as it avoids heat loss and draughts.
At the very least, ventilation should be fitted in kitchens and bathrooms, but as moisture spreads to bedrooms, occupants can often find mould spores growing on walls, around windows and in cupboards and wardrobes.
Positive Input Ventilation systems
Whole house ventilation systems such as Positive Input Ventilation are becoming more popular as they provide a long-term solution to the problem.
PIV systems are not new, having been developed in the 1970s.
They work by drawing in fresh, filtered, clean air from the outside and gently ventilating the home from a central position, usually in the loft, above a landing in a house, or a central hallway in a flat or bungalow.
The systems aim to dilute moisture laden air, displacing it and replacing it to control humidity levels between 45–60% where condensation does not form.
But do they work?
The Building Research Establishment looked at a system installed in an unoccupied test house on its own site, plus installations in 16 occupied homes in Merthyr Tydfil and Aldershot.
The BRE’s tests found that the system was effective in reducing humidity levels by 10% in the test house.
In the 16 occupied homes, it found that the systems were not consistently effective but, interestingly, was effective in the most humid houses.
The trial also noted that the “occupants were more enthusiastic about the effectiveness of input ventilation than the results would suggest. Those who previously had the highest humidity in their houses were the most impressed.
“Some occupants also claimed relief from severe respiratory illness but these claims could not be substantiated in this project.”
According to the BRE, installing a low-energy PIV system will not directly save any energy, but may give an energy saving compared with a conventional extract system. This is because a PIV system usually takes its air from the roof space, where temperatures are higher than outside.
PIV systems are made by a number of manufacturers, who claim that the systems are easy to install in both newbuild and retrofit situations, and are extremely cheap to run.
Rebecca McLean, marketing director at one manufacturer, EnviroVent, says: “The aim with PIV systems is to deliver adequate whole house ventilation rates, rather than simply meeting minimum standards.
“Where landlords choose to invest in ventilation systems, the direct results have been fewer call-outs to their maintenance teams, better relationships with tenants and a positive impact on people’s health.
“The problem with some extractor fans is that they can become blocked, switched off or isolated by tenants, leaving them inoperable.
“Our PIV systems are designed to be tamper-proof. What’s more, these ‘fit and forget’ systems produce little noise and have extremely low energy usage.”
Tenants must play their part
However, she cautions that tenants should still play a part in reducing condensation. She says: “Landlords need to continue to work closely with tenants to remind them how lifestyle choices can affect moisture levels in the home.
“For example, practical ways to reduce moisture include covering pans when cooking, avoiding drying clothes indoors whenever possible, ventilating the tumble dryer to the outside, and also making sure they do not block extract fans or indeed not switching them off.”
So what type of action should a landlord take when a tenant complains about mould? Moisture readings should be taken in the property and landlords should then consider either single room extract fans or ventilating the whole house.
This action needs to be taken within a reasonable timeframe if a tenant has complained.
McLean adds: “When ventilation systems such as PIV are fitted, it is important to explain to the tenant its purpose and how to use it correctly. Tenants should also be made aware that the cost of running the extractor is minimal.
“One of our landlord purchasers, Charles Robertson, says that after two weeks his tenants reported a significant reduction in condensation and an improvement in general environment in the house after one of our PIV systems was fitted.
“Our research with customers has demonstrated that in 85% of cases, households report an improvement in air quality and a reduction in condensation issues within two weeks.”
Be very careful about cleaning mould – top tips for mould cleaning:
- If the worst has happened and those dreaded mould spores have appeared, do not assume that either you or your tenant can simply clean them off.
- Official NHS advice is only to attempt a DIY clean if you are sure the mould is covered by condensation (and not, for example, by contaminated water), and only if it covers an area of less than one square metre.
- For larger areas of mould, you should call in professional cleaning companies.
- If you do clean small areas, you should wear goggles, long rubber gloves and a mask that covers your mouth and nose.
- You should open the windows in the room, but keep doors closed to prevent spores spreading to other areas of the house.
- Have a plastic bag ready to take away any soft furnishings, clothes and soft toys that are mouldy.
- Soft furnishings should be shampooed and clothes professionally dry-cleaned.
- Fill a bucket with water and some mild detergent, such as washing-up liquid or a soap used for hand-washing clothes.
- Use a rag dipped in the soapy water to carefully wipe the mould off the wall. Be careful not to brush it, as this can release mould spores.
- When you’ve finished, use a dry rag to remove the moisture from the wall. Afterwards, put the rags in a plastic bag and throw them away.
- All the surfaces in the room should be thoroughly cleaned by either wet-wiping or vacuuming to remove any spores.