How to clean out a crawl space contaminated with mold, rodents, asbestos, or sewage.
Here we discuss safety precautions and cleaning approaches for a dirty or contaminated building crawl space. We explain that first you should inspect the crawl space for visible signs of unsanitary or unhealthy contaminants. Cleanup methods need to include steps to prevent spreading contamination to other building areas. We include discussion of using vacuum cleaners and power washers in crawl areas. .
This article series describes the steps needed to get into, inspect, clean, and then dry out a building crawl space. We give a step by step crawl space entry, inspection, cleanout, dryout and keep dry guide explains how to get into or inspect a crawl space even if there is no ready access, how to assess crawl space conditions, how to stop water that is entering the crawl area, how to dry out the space, how to clean up and if necessary disinfect or sanitize the crawl space, and how to keep out crawl space water and moisture in the future.
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Is there asbestos insulation in the crawl space? Often we find a crawl area in which the asbestos pipe insulation is not just hanging (photo at left) but has fallen onto the crawl space floor.
[Click to enlarge any image]
Asbestos pipe or HVAC duct insulation that has been disturbed, damaged, or deteriorated, including asbestos that has fallen to the floor should be removed and cleaned up by a professional. Asbestos pipe insulation that is in good condition, that is not damaged, might be left in place or perhaps left in place and encapsulated.
Do not enter such an area without protective equipment; take care that you do not track hazardous materials out of the crawlspace and into other building areas.
Do not track asbestos debris back into other building areas.
Is there evidence of mold contamination such as areas of wood, paper, or other material covered with mold or mold-suspect material.
If the crawl area has more than 30 sq.ft. of contiguous toxic or allergenic mold it should be cleaned by a professional mold remediation company.
Beware: often the most serious mold we find in crawl spaces is not the mold you see on wood framing but rather the mold you don't see in fiberglass insulation in a damp or wet area.
Watch out: If the crawl space has a large area of mold (more than 30 sq ft) or if you suspect it may be contaminated with rodent droppings, chemicals, pesticides, (or electrical hazards)
Do not enter such an area without protective gear.
Rats, mice & other crawl space rodent hazards
Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS) is a deadly disease from rodents. Humans can contract the disease when they come into contact with infected rodents or their urine and droppings.
HPS was first recognized in 1993 and has since been identified throughout the United States. Although rare, HPS is potentially deadly. Rodent control in and around the home remains the primary strategy for preventing hantavirus infection. -  US CDC
If it is necessary to remove rodent feces or urine-stinking soil (try using a "black light" to spot urine stains) your cleaning company may decide to actually remove the top few inches of contaminated soil in the most offensive areas, followed by sanitizing, sealing, and poly vapor barriers on crawl space floors and lower walls.
Also see LIGHT, GUIDE to FORENSIC USE for help in spotting mold or similar contaminants on buildng surfaces
Watch out: don't remove so much soil that footings are undermined at foundation walls or supporting columns. If necessary, bring in and compact clean fill and gravel to fill low areas.
Is there or was there a crawl area sewage spill?
It's obvious that crawling around through sewage is not healthy unless you are wearing adequate protective gear.
But you may not realize that those same sewage pathogens may be carried on dry airborne dust.
See CRAWL SPACE SEWAGE CLEANUP for details.
Should we Use a Vacuum Cleaner to Clean up the Crawl Space?
Do not use a household vacuum cleaner nor an ordinary shop-vac to clean up crawl space dust and debris. Those machines will temporarily but significantly increase the level of airborne dust and debris.
Since that dust and debris may contain harmful particles, tossing it into the air increases the risk of cross contamination from the crawl space into other building areas such as a basement or even upper floors in the building.
To vacuum and clean surfaces in a crawl area use a HEPA-rated vacuum cleaner that will trap very fine particulates, and select a vacuum cleaner model that does not have air bypass leaks that escape from the equipment when they should be passing through the filter.
Do we need to Set up Dust Containment and Negative Air to Clean Up the Crawl Space?
Negative air machines and dust barriers are procedures used by professional mold remediation companies, asbestos removal experts, and building flood damage restoration companies. These measures reduce the risk of blowing contaminated dust and debris into other building areas - an event which could be a health risk, especially to occupants who are in fragile health. Photo courtesy of Anabec, Inc.
Even an amateur, do-it-yourself cleanup project would benefit from these methods.
But you should recognize when your cleanup project needs the help of a professional. Here are some examples of conditions that mean you should hire a professional to clean up a crawl area:
There is asbestos material that needs to be removed
Watch out: See MOLD / ENVIRONMENTAL EXPERT, HIRE ?
Should we use a Power Washer to Clean up the Crawl Space?
If there is room to work, a power washer is a very effective way to clean surfaces, but the increase in water and moisture in the crawl space can make mold or other building-related moisture conditions worse.
In some circumstances such as a crawl area or basement that can be well ventilated, in dry weather, that is well drained, and where other measures are taken to avoid sending a surge of moisture upstairs, power washing might be possible.
Alternative dry-spray surface cleaning methods called media blasting include use of dry-ice spray and baking soda or other abrasive particles, even sand or walnut shell fragments.
See MOLD CLEANUP by MEDIA BLASTING. Our photo shows the ceiling over a basement after cleaning by media blasting.
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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Question: Hurricane Sandy flooded our Ocean City NY House - what do I do in the crawl space?
Hurricane Sandy hit my old Sears House (1930's)in Ocean City, NJ so the water was 1 foot deep on the first floor (the floor being 3 feet off the ground!) Sometime within the last 25 years the water was deep enough to get the insulation wet and it was removed at that time and not replaced (The house is not heated in the winter).
What should I do in the crawl space area? If I would encapsulate the crawl space, it would be like a swimming pool next time it floods. Ideas on a good solution? Is a spray insulating foam worthwhile for protecting flooring from underneath? Thanks!
I have also a home in Ocean City, NJ that got hit with Sandy. I have just pulled out the mostly wet insulation. I got water damaged in my first floor from the water seeping up from the craw space. Electric wires are down now and I am worried about structural damage.
Reply: tips for improving the resistance of crawl spaces to flood damage
Closed-cell foam products are somewhat resistant to wetting from flooding or other water intrusion in a building crawl space or anywhere else, but if a building area is actually inundated with floodwaters again after such an installation, I'd be concerned about the difficulty and cost of disinfecting or addressing the risks of sewage-contaminated floodwaters.
For this reason, just taking up some closed cell foam board can be problematic - how will you clean the space that was soaked with sewage waters between the foam boards and framing or subfloor above?
Talk with spray foam insulation contractors in your area about the water resistance of sprayed-in-place closed cell foam insulation. That product actually adheres to wood surfaces, a step that may resist sewage-contaminated water from entering the space between the insulation itself and wood surfaces that otherwise would need cleaning.
In addition, sealing the exposed wood and interior foundation surfaces with a sanitizing or fungicidal sealant (after they are thoroughly dry) will also reduce the moisture uptake (and sewage-contaminated water uptake) of those surfaces in future flooding, making surface cleaning and area dryout a bit faster after the next flood.
Frankly, if the home is likely to be flooded to a depth that submerges the first floor or higher, no crawl space encapsulation is going to completely protect the building; if you cannot afford to raise the building on a taller, flood-damage-resistant foundation or pier system, I'd be troubled about the prospect of recurrent, perhaps even increasingly frequent significant cleaning and repair costs from future area flooding.
Question: are my crawl space "dryout" fans blowing moldy wet dust and debris and maybe chemicals from a wet crawl space into the living area?
I recently moved to an 800 square foot single story historic house in Pacific Grove. The home has a very shallow crawl space (as little as 6" near the perimeter- the foundation is only 12" deep) and the crawl space was covered with a moisture barrier when I bought the home. It has a solid concrete wall bisecting the underneath of the house (the long way).
I had termites and was advised by the inspector that the house is very damp underneath. They recommended removal of the moisture barrier and installation of fans to dry out the space. I have been having symptoms like I get when I am exposed to dust (dry, red nose) and feel very uncomfortable ever since the fans went in. This is driving me absolutely nuts.
The crawl space is wetter now than before (it has rained). I can't put in a french drain because there is only about 6" clearance between my house's crawl boxes and the fence, also it is on top of the sewer lateral.
I live on a hill in an area known to have underground springs but nobody knows exactly where they run.
I think they should remove the fans and put the moisture barrier back.
Do you agree? Is there anything else I can do? Perimeter moisture barrier?
Thank you. There is lots of mold down here and I am concerned that just putting the moisture barrier back will cause mold or rot. - S.A. 2/7/2013
Reply: how not to "dry out" a wet moldy crawl space
Sounds as if you got some advice that was good in intent but not competent.
I do on occasion recommend adding a fan to increase air movement in a crawl area or basement where a dehumidifier is at work, as that will increase the rate at which the dehumidifier can dry out the area. But just blowing air around in a wet moldy crawl space seems like a bad idea.
Removing the moisture barrier from the crawl floor and blowing fans turns the crawl space into a moisture pump, moving moisture from soil into the crawl space air. Perhaps if the fans blew OUT of the crawl space that might have been better, but the proper approach is to find and fix sources of water entry, seal (poly is ok) the floor, and dehumidify the area.
Watch out: there is an added risk of blowing pesticide contaminated dust and debris into the home if the applicator used a surface spray - something that's not usually done for termites. Usually for termites the pest control officer places a termiticide in the soil around the home; but in a home with a dirt crawl space they may be unable to take that approach because of the risk of chemicals surfacing in the crawl area and entering the living area - making occupants sick. So I'm not sure what has been done about your termite issue but that too needs expert review.
I suspect that dust, possibly allergens (insect fragments, mold, even soil particles, potentially other particles) have been stirred up; and if the fans were not blowing out of the crawl area, it may have been pressurized by the air movement; if that's the case, the arrangement may have increased the movement of particles up into the living area from the crawl space.
More likely you need to stop the fans, find and fix outdoor water sources like roof or surface runoff spilling by the foundation, put the poly back down to stop pumping water into the crawl area, and after the mold problem has been evaluated and most likely removed (cleaning the wood surfaces, tossing out insulation), then you might get a fan and dehumidifier back at work to keep the area dry.
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