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How do I maintain my radon system?

Far too many people think radon systems last forever.  I get calls like this every week: “uh, yeah I need a new radon pump.  It died.”  “When?”  I ask.  “I don’t know, it’s been dead since we moved in in 2006.” Long pause while we contemplate the carcinogen exposure over 15+ years.  “Let’s get you a radon test and an NRPP certified mitigator!”

If you read this blog, you know that the easiest way to avoid dead fans and reduce your lung cancer risk is to test for radon every two years, as recommended by the US EPA.  A digital continuous radon monitor is NOT a replacement for a laboratory test (read why here)

After that, here are some tips for continuing radon system maintenance:

First, check the U tube. We devoted a whole video to this on our YouTube channel. A U tube manometer is a pressure gauge (named for its shape). It reads how much pressure is in the system using “inches of water column.” This is NOT a radon level.  The only “bad” readings on a U tube is zero, equal lines, or max pressure (fan specific).  See my article about radon fan curves for more information. The big thing to watch for is a zero or even reading. Next you want to see if there have been any major changes in pressure. Pressure drops indicate leaks or a dying fan. A significant pressure drop could mean your crawlspace barrier ripped or your PVC pipe is loose. Pressure increases typically mean the system is jammed with something. Did it rain recently?  Has the water table risen? Have you checked your pipe for debris?  

Since pressure drops often indicate a malfunctioning radon system, new standards now require an audible alarm for radon systems. These alarms do not detect radon, but they detect pressure drops (like a dead fan). See our featured products page for radon system alarms!

After checking your U tube, you’ll want to ensure you have no leaks in the system. You can use a smoke bottle to test for rips in crawlspace barrier or sump lids that you cannot see with the naked eye. Check for leaks, especially inside the home, and at all PVC junctions. Are there any cracks in your floor or foundation? Seal them with NovaLink 35 sealant. You will see significant energy savings over time if you have a well sealed floor.

An important part of radon system inspection is to check for debris inside the system.  An easy way to do this is to first cut power to the fan. Then you can remove the fan couplings and pull the fan off the system. Use a flashlight to look up and down the pipe. If you see debris, remove it with a shop vac. Take your fan, while disconnected from power, and flip it upside down, then burp it like a baby. Seriously, manually spinning the fan impeller from underneath and tapping your fan can get rid of all sorts of debris. Leaves, dead bugs, dust, etc. all these things can increase fan noise and impede your system. Once all debris has been removed, reinstall your fan and power it up!

Lastly, perform a radon test! Oh I already said that? Then it must be really important!

Once you’ve done all of the above and your test results have come back under 2.7 pCi/L, your maintenance is complete. Many NRPP licensed pros now offer subscription based radon system maintenance and monitoring. Be sure to ask your local NRPP certified pro if they do follow up testing and maintenance.  Let them take it off your plate and give you peace of mind!

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Why are radon concentrations higher in the winter?

In short: the stack effect. The stack effect, sometimes called the “chimney effect”, is a term to describe the airflow patterns in buildings. When outdoor temperatures drop, warm indoor air rises inside a building. This in turn pulls colder air from the lower floors. Soil gas is then pulled into the building to replace this air.

In our industry, the joke is: “your house sucks”. What we mean by that is: your house sucks soil air and pulls it inside for you to breathe. Soil air contains radon, a Class A carcinogen.

Ever wonder why radon action month is in January? Simple: the coldest month of the year is typically when radon levels are highest, since the stack effect is strongest. If you’re safe in January, you’re typically safe in August, but rarely vice versa. So January is when you should test for radon.

Radon-222 decays every 3.8 days, so leaving your windows closed all winter is not the reason for the spike. Radon in your home has to constantly be reintroduced. Closed-house conditions can increase levels temporarily, but they will level out. This is why ventilation is not a good long-term solution to a radon problem. First, when radon levels are high enough, even ventilation cannot lower them to a safe level. Second, ventilation without an air exchanger is extremely energy inefficient. That air you just paid to heat or cool, now it’s out the window. Soil depressurization is the simplest, most effective and most energy efficient way to reduce radon levels.

The absolute best way to maintain your radon system is to perform a lab-certified short term or long term radon test every two years during the winter months, when radon levels are highest. This has been the EPA recommendation for over two decades. Just because you have an existing system, does not guarantee it works. The first step is to test and ensure your levels are acceptable.

Read our next article on radon system maintenance for the next steps, but the first step is always test, test, test, especially if we are at a time of year when radon levels are highest!