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Discovering Mold in a Winter Home

Snowbird Winter Homes are Particularly Vulnerable to Mold

Many northerners dream of leaving the tundra and living their lives in a more hospitable climate. Rather than leaving all that is familiar behind, many South Florida residents live the life of the snowbird, maintaining the life they know near family and friends during the summer months, migrating to their vacation home in Florida when temperatures in the north begin to drop.

The homes of our migratory seasonal residents are typically left unoccupied during their absence. It's not unusual for our returning part-time neighbors to discover that their home has been occupied by an unexpected intruder. Many snowbirds return to South Florida to discover that their cold weather escape has been infested with mold.

A Vacant Home Creates a Mold-Friendly Environment

Mold growth is not the type of welcome any snowbird expects, but it does happen. The summers in Florida are notoriously hot and humid. This can be particularly problematic for ocean-front or lakefront dwellings. When winter homes lie dormant throughout the summer, shades are drawn, interior moisture levels can rise, and air circulation decreases. These are all environmental factors that contribute to mold growth.

If you happen to discover mold upon your seasonal return, keep in mind that the mold infiltrating your living space is not your fault. Mold spores are everywhere, they live in the soil, on surfaces, and in the air you breathe. These microscopic fungi typically lie dormant until making contact with a hospitable environment, then they colonize.

Unfortunately for snowbirds, the hot, humid air and torrential downpours inflicting the area, combined with the lack of air circulation in an unoccupied residence, set the stage for mold to flourish. All mold needs to thrive is a dark, damp (or humid) environment and a source of nutrients. Unfortunately, any source of cellulose will do, this includes your walls, woodwork, carpeting, and even accumulated dust. If your winter home has been unoccupied during your absence, you may be brutally aware of the following symptoms of a mold infestation when you return:

  • Visible mold growth. Mold can look like a cottony or leathery growth or a dark stain on surfaces

  • An odor in your home that smells earthy or musty

  • A physical reaction to mold that can include headaches, nasal congestion, throat irritation, or skin rashes

Mold Infestations Can Have a Serious Impact on Your Health

If you see mold, smell mold, or experience a physical reaction that could be mold-related, it's important to have your winter home evaluated by a qualified mold remediation specialist. Mold infestation can be a serious health concern for seniors, the very young, anyone with a weakened immune system, and those living with chronic respiratory conditions such as allergies or asthma.

While physical reactions to the presence of mold are typically minor, serious complications can result, particularly from the types of mold that release mycotoxins as they grow. The types of molds that release mycotoxins are commonly referred to as toxic mold. Black mold (Stachybotrys Chartarum) and Aspergillus are just two examples of molds that are considered toxic. Black mold has been shown to cause lung scarring, neurological damage, and internal bleeding in some cases. Aspergillus is a known carcinogen.

The Many Factors Contributing to Mold in Seasonal Homes

While there are preventative measures you can take before leaving your winter retreat for the summer, there is no guarantee of a mold-free environment upon your return to the Florida sun. Some of the relatively common causes of mold are difficult to prevent when maintaining a long-distance relationship with your vacation home in Florida.

Water Intrusion

In South Florida, the summer and fall months are prime seasons for torrential rains and high winds. Storm damage is a significant cause of water intrusion. Remember that all mold needs to thrive is moisture, food, and a dark environment. Even small areas of leakage can let warm air and moisture into your home. If water has infiltrated your home while you are away, you will likely find evidence of mold when you return. Just a few of the many causes of water infiltration include:

  • Roof damage, check for cupped or curling shingles or colored spots on ceilings

  • Condensation that forms when warm air comes into contact with cold surfaces

  • Flooding or water leakage from an exterior source (storms, floods)

  • Flooding or leakage from an interior source (broken pipes, adjacent neighbors)

  • Leaks in the foundation or siding of the home

  • Gaps or cracks around windows and doors

  • Damaged to chimney flashing or around vents

  • Clogged gutters or downspouts causing water to pool near the foundation

Problems with Air Conditioning or Dehumidifier Units

Florida Summers are hot and humid. While you've been away, your home has been closed off, the shades drawn. While most people understand that mold thrives in a moist environment, too few consider Florida's high humidity as a potential source of moisture.

Because of the high humidity levels, it's essential that snowbirds leave air conditioners and dehumidifiers running in their absence. Air conditioners remove moisture from the air, cool the air temperature, circulate air, and filter the air in your home. Dehumidifiers pull moisture from the air. If your air conditioning unit or dehumidifier fails while you are away, the increased humidity creates the ideal environment for mold to thrive. Consider the following:

  • If dirt or dust accumulate in moisture removing appliances and ducts, the machines can circulate mold into the air

  • A pre-programmable air conditioner should be set to run at 72 degrees for two hours before sunrise and 88 degrees for the remainder of the day. An air conditioner that can not be programmed should be set to run on "auto" continuously

  • A 40-50 pints dehumidifier should be put in place to cover every 2000 square feet of space and be set at 58 percent relative humidity. Sensors can vary by as much as 10 percent

Allowing your air conditioner to run a few hours at the beginning of each day is believed to be one of the most cost-effective methods of mold prevention. If you do not own an air conditioner, dehumidifiers will also remove moisture, but typically require more of a financial investment. Keep in mind that air conditioners and dehumidifiers are mechanical devices that can fail for numerous reasons. The moist, salty Florida air can wreak havoc on electronics and appliances.

Power Outages

While air conditioners and dehumidifiers can help prevent mold growth in winter homes, they need electricity to function. If the power to your home is interrupted, it only takes about 24 to 48 hours for mold to begin to grow. If your Florida home was affected by a power outage for an extended period of time, mold can thrive before power is restored.

Florida temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees with 65 percent humidity are optimal for mold growth. After an extended power outage, homeowners should run their air conditioners continuously for a minimum of 72 hours with the temperature set in the low to mid-70s once electricity has been restored.

When air conditioners have been out of commission for more than a few days, the filters should be replaced. Air conditioner filters collect moisture and create a breeding ground for the mold spores they trap from the air. While some airconditioners have a battery backup system to save the settings you program in case of a power failure, other units will have to be manually reprogrammed or turned off before being restarted.

Safe Mold Remediation Requires the Services of a Professional

Discovering mold in your winter home is not the type of welcome any seasonal resident expects, but it happens. While you may initially be tempted to remove the mold yourself, mold removal is best left to the services of a mold remediation specialist.

If mold is not appropriately handled, mold spores can be released into your living space. Your infestation can return and migrate to other areas of your winter home, hiding behind walls, under carpeting, and beneath your tiles.

Because snowbird homes are often unoccupied during the hot, humid months, they can be particularly vulnerable to seasonal mold growth. For safe, non-toxic mold removal and prevention in Delray Beach Florida, and the surrounding areas, contact ATP Environmental Solutions Specialists.

At ATP Environmental Solutions Specialists, we have more than 30 years of mold remediation experience and homeowner satisfaction. We work effectively, efficiently, and work with your insurance company on your behalf, so you can get back to enjoying your life as seasonal residents in South Florida.

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