What Is Radon and Why Should I Test for It?

What Is Radon?

Radon is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas. It occurs in the earth’s crust, rises up to the surface and usually dissipates in the atmosphere without much fanfare. Unfortunately, radon is highly radioactive and can cause severe health problems with prolonged exposure to high concentrations.

That’s where it becomes an issue with real-estate. Radon can leak into basements and crawlspaces, build up to unsafe levels, and potentially put your purchase contract in jeopardy (not to mention your well-being). Homes built on a concrete slab without below-ground spaces are less likely to have radon issues. However, they’re not completely immune, so it’s still a good idea to test them. High-rise condos are generally safe because of their structure.

How much of a problem is this in our area? Fairfax, Montgomery, Howard, and a few other surrounding counties are considered at a very high risk for elevated radon levels (see this EPA map for more details). The District itself is considered low risk due to its soil composition. We’ve heard from a few radon guys that the earthquake in 2011 shifted some of the usual risk patterns. So even if previous tests didn’t find radon, things could be different now.

How Do You Know if You Have Radon in Your Home?

The test is done by certified vendors (we can provide recommendations) and costs $100-$200. Usually they’ll place one or more sensors in the lowest habitable parts of the property and leave them there for 48 hours. It’s very important that all doors and windows are kept shut during the process or it could skew the test results. The company then collects the sensors and produces a report. If the reading is below 4.0pCi/L (picocuries per liter), the home is considered safe by EPA standards.

Of course, you may not be very happy with a reading of 3.9pCi/L. In this case, it makes sense to install a radon mitigation system. Don’t worry, it’s not as complicated as it sounds, and we can provide vendor recommendations for this as well. In essence, the system sucks air from under the house and vents it out above the roof. This way radon cannot accumulate up to dangerous levels. There will be another test after the installation to confirm that the system is working as intended.

Radon Mitigation Systems

Most installations cost around $800-$1,200, depending on the property’s construction. The cost goes up if the piping needs to go through concrete, attic space, etc. You’ll be given a detailed estimate before any work begins. Since the job requires significant expertise, it’s better not to shop on price alone.

If you wonder what a radon mitigation system looks like, here’s a typical install as seen from the outside:

What Is Radon and Why Should I Test for It?

Radon Mitigation System

The large white housing at the bottom contains the suction fan. It’s usually very quiet and won’t disturb your family’s barbecue. If you think the pipes are an eyesore, there are options to conceal them, but expect to pay more. The fan motor runs continuously and on average has to be replaced every five years. This should cost you a few hundred dollars.

How do you know that the system is running? Inside the house, you’ll have a monitor that looks like this:

What is radon and why should I test for it

Pressure Monitor

There will be instructions on how to read the monitor. There should also be a phone number to call if the system isn’t working. Most installers offer some kind of a warranty on their work. It’s a good idea to test your house periodically for radon afterwards just in case. You can hire a professional vendor or buy test kits (either online or at home improvement stores).

If you have specific questions, don’t hesitate to contact me below: 

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