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Patch's Weekend Project: Our DIY Guy Tackles a Moldy Basement

If I can clean it up, so can you. Just follow these tips.

By Jason Carpenter                             

Mold is ugly, mold is dangerous. Mold is something that could kill me dead.

Which is why I needed to remove it quickly–and thoroughly–from the basement apartment I recently renovated.

While we primarily live in New York, in the summertime, my girlfriend Lauren and I spend most of our time in my hometown of Gloucester, Ma: a sleepy little drinking town with a fishing problem.

As such, we needed a more private (and smoke-free) place to stay. So I offered my chain-smoking parents to invest the money to renovate the basement studio.

Stepping in, we were overwhelmed with the stench of mold, mildew and whatever else was growing in the slick nastiness that had become of the tiled cement floor.

The baseboard heater covers seemed to attract the most mold and mildew. Other nasty areas included the (burgundy painted!) sub-level wall that covered the foundation, and the bottoms/baseboards of the other walls. 

What we had was a noxious–and toxic–mess. For most, this would be a fairly straightforward project of hands-and-knees scrubbing. But since I can never do anything the easy way–both out of habit and out of medical necessity–this became a project of epic proportions. It needn't be for you.

You can skip this part, but my first step was to Google my chances of dying during this project (I'm only half kidding) since I'm the survivor of an experimental donor bone marrow transplant. I need to be quite careful in my recovery that I don't run into certain things that would do me in. Mold is one of them, despite the fact that I take an anti-fungal daily.

Instead of turning tail and paying a professional, we put together a safe mold abatement plan, starting with this checklist:

Step 1: Supplies

  • Dehumidifier (don’t be cheap!)
  • A good scrub brush or foil scrubber
  • Green/yellow scrub sponges
  • bucket
  • Bleach/Anti-mold Cleaner (borax, vinegar, hydrogen peroxide and baking soda will also kill mold)
  • A NIOSH-approved respirator (protections from mold spores and cleaner fumes)
  • Rubber gloves
  • Protective suit/coveralls (optional)
  • Goggles (for serious infestation)

The first order of business was buying a dehumidifier. Finding a good model to handle the size of the studio ("large") set us back about $240. That was the biggest expense by far. The rest was only $50.

A trip to Ace Hardware had everything we needed, except an XL disposable full-body chemical suit. They had large and medium, which would have been good for laughs, but then I saw....small. Perfect!

For Lauren, my girlfriend, that is.

We decided she would take on the mold mountain I described earlier, and I would take the less-fungal walls.

Step 2: Dry it out

Cleaning up a mold infestation is useless if you don’t tackle what’s causing it. Moisture is the key cause of mold, and really the only cause you can control.  

Now, we dried the place out before we even started the cleanup, because we literally had puddles on the floor and it was a dangerous and slippery mess to work in.

However, in most cases, you should keep the mold wet while you’re cleaning, so the spores don’t become airborne and find their way into your lungs (this, of course is what the masks are for).

We ran the dehumidifier for two days and emptied its 5.0 gallon tub about six times. It was shocking. In two days, we were ready to murder some mold and mildew.

Step 3: Suit up

I covered myself thoroughly with work clothes: long sleeve shirt, jeans, hat, gloves and respirator.

Enter Lauren in her oversized coveralls, rubber gloves, goggles and respirator:

“There I was, sweating and scrubbing my heart out in my little space suit and drying the walls with shop towels. Jason’s mother helped too, and every time Jason came in the basement we’d yell at him to put on gloves and a respirator. It was a messy job, but incredibly rewarding.”

Step 4: Scrub a dub dub

First, prepare the room. Ventilation is critical; open windows and point fans outdoors. Use plastic sheeting to separate the moldy room from adjacent "clean" rooms.

Mix your cleaner: ½ cup bleach with a quart of water will do. If re-painting is not part of your plan, test the mixture on an inconspicuous area first to see if it affects the paint.

This didn't factor into our decision, since we were happy to bring down the hideous dark red shade a few notches[CC1] . Next: Scrub like hell!

Step 4: Double-dry

After you’re sure you’ve removed all the mold, let the room air out for another three days or so. We ran the dehumidifier with the windows open and fans on. After it was dry, we added an air purifier into the mix. 

I can’t stress enough the importance of drying the room out. Without this step, your hard work will be for naught, and the mold will return.

Step 5: Seal it

We repainted the basement (bonus: white walls!) and our remediation appears to be successful. If your room is particularly difficult to keep dry, paint with mildewcide may be beneficial.

Safety Tips

  • Always wear a respirator, especially if you have asthma or other respiratory issues.
  • Never mix ammonia with bleach
  • If your wall is mushy from mold eating through, and if an infestation spans several square feet, it may be time to call a professional
Jay June 14, 2014 at 02:27 PM
mold is all around us and no, there are not millions dying of it, not even thousands. Just like the fraud of asbestos and the billions spent removing window putty in schools,etc. And you can kill off spores very nicely with chlorx (sodium hyochloride) assuming you wet it down properly with a garden sprayer, vacum and blow out the area and then keep the basement dry. Agent orange has never been proven to cause health issues. The unit that sprayed it and the other defoliants - Operation Ranchand, have been tested repeatedly and NO pattern of problems with the men or there families has been show - no other humans were exposed to these defoliants as much. That did not stop the whiners and politicians from claiming false it had and getting VA benefits and disability payments just to shut the hell up ..
Michael Hiblert June 14, 2014 at 03:20 PM
After all this work it may well just come right back. Often, as i had, there is inadequate insulation, causing the inner surface of the wall to become so cold that moisture in the interior air causes condensation to form on the inside of the wall surface. I saw water droplets bead up on the lower part of the wall on cold mornings. Like water drops on a blade of grass outside in the early morning. If it is living space you need good enough insulation so that the inner wall surface never becomes so cold that condensation will form on it.
j June 14, 2014 at 03:53 PM
try using RAID
Madeline June 14, 2014 at 08:33 PM
As a certified air quality specialist, I always recommend post testing. From your description Jason, it is possible the visible mold was just part of the problem and rather than just cleaning the surface, some materials may need to be remediated. Following that step, the inner wall cavity would need to be totally sanitized. Though the room may look clean and not smell musty, there can still be elevated levels of airborne spores. This can happen even when the work is done by certified remediation specialists. Also, bleach is not an effective moldicide, nor is it an ecofriendly product to use. Hepa vacuuming and air scrubbers would have helped this project be more thorough. Nice effort though. Feel free to contact me if you need some help.
Jerry Gropp Architect AIA June 15, 2014 at 09:46 PM
Sorta takes the glamour out of owning a used home- nicht wahr? JG-

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