Operators Break the Silence on Multifamily’s
Touchiest Subject: Mold Inspections
Without a doubt, mold is one of the touchiest subjects in multifamily. Given the health and reputation risks involved, HappyCo wanted to find out: how are operators inspecting for and communicating about mold? Here’s what they had to say.
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“No human being in our city or our county should have to live that way.”
“The city and the county will not test the full strength of its legal authority for the poor.”
“There are obviously gaps in our approach.”
As this in-depth piece from The Charlotte Observer makes clear: mold is an extraordinarily sensitive subject in multifamily. When the topic makes headlines, the story often goes like this: residents react (understandably) with fear and city officials are forced to admit that there aren’t always legal requirements in place on the topic.
Indeed, a code enforcement manager quoted in The Charlotte Observer piece admits: “no cities in North Carolina test for mold.” Interestingly, a passage from the Environmental Protection Agency’s own website offers the justification: “Since no EPA or other federal limits have been set for mold or mold spores, sampling cannot be used to check a building’s compliance with federal mold standards.”
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Legal uncertainty aside, there’s no denying that certain types of mold can lead to health risks — from headaches and sore throats to asthma attacks and “chronic respiratory conditions.” Unfortunately, the EPA emphasizes: “there is no practical way to eliminate all mold,” so multifamily operators should instead be on a mission “to control moisture,” its root cause.
And, how should they inform residents about this ongoing hunt for moisture red flags? NAA recommends: “a communications plan should be put into place to ensure that residents are kept abreast of developments and feel their health and safety are a priority.” With winter in full swing and residents spending lots of time indoors, HappyCo spoke with operators about mold inspection best practices — and communication strategies surrounding them. Here’s what we learned.
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“It’s an interesting issue, because in this industry, the word ‘mold’ is spoken very quietly, everywhere.” PK Management Manager of Strategic Business Services Harvey Buller says the widespread hesitation largely stems from sensational news articles, pieces that have inspired fear without acknowledging an important fact: “there’s a big difference [in health risks] between mold, spores, and mildew.”
Above all, PK Management focuses its mold inspection strategy on staff education. The goal: offer maintenance technicians thorough trainings on mold warning signs. As Buller explains, “we work hard teaching our maintenance teams where to check for root causes.”
For example, Buller describes how “if they’re going into a bathroom and they see a black spot around a tub or ceiling, their most important job is to find out where the moisture is coming from and fix the issue.” Buller stresses: moisture sources are always the prime target during mold checks. “We do what we can, always, to find and fix the moisture sources, since mold or mildew can only come from moisture, traditionally in the darker spaces of a unit.”
Indeed, Buller has come up with a colorful analogy to describe the way mold manifests in a home. “I analogize it to a sinus infection. When sinuses become blocked and air flow is limited, bacteria take hold and cause an infection. Why? It’s because bacteria thrive in warm, moist areas with limited ventilation. Mildew and mold grow under the same circumstances— but they show up as blackened surfaces and free flowing spores in homes.”
Given his extensive maintenance background, Buller knows well what not to do during mold cleanup. “For mold removal, some people will try to use a certain product they’ve heard about, but sometimes it’s absolutely the wrong material for the situation at hand.” For example, Buller says some technicians will try and pour bleach or hydrogen peroxide on a section of drywall that’s stained with mold.
Unfortunately, as Buller emphasizes: “all you’re doing then is removing the surface mold, and, even worse, you’re adding more moisture to a moisture problem.” As Buller stresses, liquid mold removal products can only be used on non-porous surfaces. Instead, as Buller explains, since there is no way to remove mold spores from drywall, the affected area needs to be removed and replaced.
Importantly, Buller points out: “the issue of mold awareness in multifamily seems most apt to surface when someone raises their voice.” Fortunately, he notes: “performing regular inspections with Happy Inspector coupled with ongoing training has helped reduce the amount of resident concerns regarding mold and mildew. Our policy of finding and fixing the source of excess moisture is showing positive results.”
In order to ensure resident satisfaction across the board at PK Management communities, Buller and his maintenance teams work at continually refining company policy around mold inspections and training. “We’re always emphasizing that [our techs] need to look for and fix water leaks throughout the unit, and we make clear where they’re likely to happen.”
Ultimately, Buller stresses: “the ability to document inspection results with pictures and comments and use that information to improve operations through preventative maintenance policies is extremely valuable. When it comes to mold concerns, Happy Inspector pays itself off 1,000 times over.”
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Mention mold to Brenda Cones, Senior Director of Systems & Operations Training at Embrey Partners, and she’s quick to answer: “on anything to do with resident safety, our techs are instructed to pause and read our standard operating procedure manual before they act.”
Indeed, Embrey stresses that ongoing staff education is key to keeping residents safe. Cones admits: “if I did something that I remembered in my head doing 25 years ago, I would absolutely wind up making a mistake.” Thus, Embrey works hard during trainings to ensure techs are receptive to new information rather than “resting on the knowledge they’ve built from their past.”
After all, behind the scenes, Cones regularly pours through emails from multifamily industry experts recommending safety updates for a range of maintenance areas. In the realm of mold, Cones says keeping tabs like this is particularly important, as “laws or recommendations on the environmental impact can change regularly, especially when it comes to what kind of work that is appropriate to take on in-house vs. seeking assistance from a licensed vendor.”
Once Cones determines a new industry mold recommendation warrants an update to Embrey’s SOP manual, the next step entails communicating with maintenance teams. Fortunately, Cones has a strategy that’s proven fruitful: “part of the way I help with that is by sending out a ‘What’s New Wednesday’ email newsletter to departments whose roles are facing changes in the SOP manual. I know our techs are very busy, so I only loop them in when the revision relates directly to their work.” Even then, Cones notes in a few bullet points “what’s changed, specifically.”
By prioritizing staff development this way, Cones says Embrey techs are set up for success when this happens: “a resident calls and says ‘I have mold in my bathroom.’” After reading the SOP manual, Embrey techs can then confidently enter a unit and gauge if there’s a genuine mold problem at hand, according to Cones. On this front, she makes clear: “typically, mold is only an issue after a water event — maybe someone’s faucet or toilet flooded, etc. Any time there’s a water event, our maintenance team works to find out how long the event has been going on and whether there are signs of mold or excess moisture.”
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Luckily, Cones notes that “the mold industry does have a range of equipment to assess the response that’s required.” It’s at this point where techs’ SOP manual can help them decide if the job square footage is “allowable for them to do the work or if they’ll need to contact a vendor.” The guidelines also spell out the expectations of the tech for how to appropriately handle the mold incident such as to let something air dry or if it’s necessary to cut open sheetrock and put fans in, for example.
Given the high-stakes nature of these inspections, Cones says she’s grateful for Embrey’s switch from pen-and-paper to mobile software. Before launching Happy Inspector, Cones says Embrey techs found themselves in a time-consuming back-and-forth during mold checks. “When a maintenance technician heard about a mold report, he or she would have to go into a unit for an initial view, then walk into leasing office to print out the Mold Remediation Incident document from the SOP, then read the lengthy section on mold best practices, then go back into the unit, start handwriting a mold inspection document, then somehow save that paperwork through the lengthy remediation process.”
While the process was fraught with pain points, Cones says it was the last step that proved most problematic. She stresses: “the thing that’s important to understand about mold remediation is that these projects can span 48 hours to…months! Asking someone to keep a piece of paper safe for that long is not reasonable, in my opinion.”
On the other hand, with Happy Inspector, Cones says Embrey techs “can take time-stamped, before-and-after pictures in the unit and share the evidence with their managers immediately.” Should they discover that mold growth requires outside help, “techs can snap a picture and put in that work order right away.” As Cones concludes, “this is a really solid beginning for recordkeeping.”
Yet, Cones also points to a benefit that goes beyond accountability. From her perspective, “one thing people overlook about mobile inspections is the way they boost customer service.” Cones paints this picture: “when you’re a tech in an apartment and the resident is with you and you’re in the middle of a mold incident, that can be scary for people. So, to be able to take out a phone and quickly snap the necessary pictures before you get to work, that’s so much more reassuring for the resident than saying: ‘I’ll be right back. I’ve got to go to the leasing office and print out a piece of paper!’”
In this respect, Cones says Happy Inspector has proven key to calming nerves. “As a resident, I would feel a lot better, trusting that the tech has a finger on the pulse of multifamily software — that they can collect the right data and help me with my problem immediately.”
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