tapeBy: Greg Stopher | Stopher Construction  When it’s sunny in Juneau, as much as it was throughout the month of June, it’s hard to remember how much time we spend inside our homes on those not so sunny days. The air quality of our home is important. I’ve talked about indoor air quality in the past, but recently I’ve received questions regarding jobsite containment during a remodel or renovation project. 

What is jobsite containment?

When a contractor is in your home completing a remodeling project, a barrier should be placed between the work area and the rest of the home. It is intended to keep jobsite dust and debris out of the non-work space, and to give homeowners some level of separation from the jobsite to the living spaces.

The containment keeps construction debris from spreading throughout your home. If not in a contained area, drywall dust can quickly spread, the smell of adhesives, paints and other construction debris often contain toxins you don’t want to be exposed to on a daily basis. The containment can help to minimize these exposures.

An improperly contained jobsite can lead to homeowners being exposed to a multitude of things. Wood dust, which is an organic material, can have adverse health effects. Hardwood dust and softwood dust both will affect the respiratory system of the body, while that great smelling cedar is even worse for your respiratory system. Dust from sheetrock and sheetrock mudding compounds is also classified as an irritant if inhaled in large quantities. However, sheetrock manufactured from the 1950s through the 1980 can contain asbestos, a known carcinogen. Sheetrock mudding compounds and especially popcorn texture on ceilings contain a greater quantity of asbestos of friable asbestos. Friable means able to be airborne. Dust from the sheetrock demolition in homes older that 1980s can contain asbestos and the new sheetrock being put back up in its place, although not highly dangerous, can be quite irritating to your lungs.

Paint, stain, and finish manufacturers are making leaps and bounds on reducing the Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in their products. What are VOCs and what do they do? As defined by the EPA, Volatile Organic Compounds are, “any compound of carbon, excluding carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, carbonic acid, metallic carbides or carbonates, and ammonium carbonate, which participates in atmospheric photochemical reactions, except those designated by EPA as having negligible photochemical reactivity.” What? Well, after some more research VOCs are compounds or chemicals that evaporate into the air at room temperature, leaving the paint, stain, or finish product on the material. These chemicals, when released into the air, are highly hazardous to our health when we breathe them.

That “new cabinet” smell is often just chemicals off gassing into our lungs. After being exposed to these chemicals in the last 18 years of construction has left me sensitive to a lot chemicals I know nothing about. I now have to wear the proper personal protective equipment when dealing with these items, even if I’m using a “greener product” with low Volatile Organic Compounds.

When I am working in contained areas I must wear personal protective equipment to minimize my exposure. A dust mask rated to N95 which means it filters 95% of the airborne particles is about the minimum protection one should wear in the contained area. I little interesting fact that I ran across about the human lung is that the airway surface area is approximately 750 square feet. The human body has its ways to filter out natural particulates but I am pretty certain that the body can’t protect itself from the trillions of particulates in a construction area. Several years ago, I called in an environmental hygienist to do a mold spore count in a highly contaminated apartment that had visible mold everywhere. Normally we would call the environmental hygienist for a post remediation mold test but in this case I was curious. The mold spore count for 1 liter of air in the undisturbed apartment was over 1 million spores. Believe me, we wore personal protection equipment and built a containment that would measure up to Steven Spielberg’s E.T.!

How do you create a good containment for a remodel or renovation in your home? All it takes is some tape (vinyl and masking tape), 4 mil plastic sheeting, a fan, and a zipper (available at paint stores). Sometimes adjustable poles can be pretty handy if there is not a defined area such as a doorway to contain. If a doorway is separating the area being renovated or remodeled I will apply a masking tape around the doorway at about 3 inches to 4 inches in width and even apply it to the floor. The tape is applied to the casing or where the casing was. Cut a piece of plastic larger than the door opening and wider than the tape applied around the door. Tape the plastic sheeting to the masking tape with the vinyl tape to seal off the doorway. I leave some slack in the plastic sheathing so it is not tight to allow passage after the zipper is applied. Apply the zipper to the plastic sheeting and cut the plastic when the zipper is unzipped. Zip the containment back up and now you have a perfectly accessible containment to the renovation or remodeled area. Make sure that all other areas are sealed so that no contaminates will enter the living space. During times of high dust production in the remodeled area, place a simple fan directed out the window to create a negative pressure inside the work zone and the construction dust will not push to the living spaces of the home. Poles can be purchased to hold up the plastic sheathing when between rooms or large openings, as well as, air scrubbers or negative air machines which are a more expensive fan that filters the air and exhausts to the exterior through ducting.

A contractor should take steps to contain the jobsite from homeowners. Often I think people are mistaken in thinking that by not creating containment or barriers in a home or workplace, they are saving time and money. But is it professional to leave a mess that people throughout the home will be cleaning up for days and weeks? Containments will help to keep everyone in tiptop health to continue to enjoy the nice summer days will still have ahead of us in Juneau.

Greg Stopher has over 16 years of experience in the construction field and earned a degree in Construction Technologies from the University of Alaska – Southeast. His company, Stopher Construction, LLC, is a general contracting company specializing in remodeling, custom finishes, additions and new home construction projects. He can be reached at 907-321-2350.