Mold may have taken a hiatus from the daily newspaper headlines, but it's still a challenge that HVAC contractors must deal with on a daily basis. Taking a few simple steps to protect yourself and your company from being dragged down in mold-related litigation should be a priority for every contractor.
We love it here in Houston, TX, but so does mold. Here are some of the methods we've developed over the years that have served us well in our desire to avoid mold-related problems and lawsuits. If they work here, it's likely they'll work anywhere in the country.
Many, if not most, mold problems can be traced to mistakes made at installation.-Therefore, make sure your installation teams understand the importance of doing the job right.
Set forth clear, written procedures for your installers to follow, and inspect their finished work to make sure they're doing it right. Keep the instructions simple and straightforward, but make sure your people know they're instructions, not suggestions.
Just as examples, we have a form on which installers must check and initial several aspects of the drain system, including correct slope of the drain pan, no visible imperfections in the pan or line, no algae or other foreign materials in the pan, and the presence of a working float switch.
We also require our lead installer to pour 5 gal. of water into the drain to verify that it's draining properly. Do our installers like to lug 5 gal. of water around? Not necessarily, but we require it. Underneath the form's signature line, we have, in writing, two powerful incentives for them to do so: "Drain failure due to poor workmanship will be cause for financial penalty or termination," and "Turn this form in with your invoice or you will not be paid for time on job."
If this seems severe, keep in mind that one serious mold-related lawsuit can put your company out of business. Your financial future — and that of your employees — hangs in the balance with each job. Make it clear to installers why this is important, and that it's not something you just dreamed up to make their lives difficult. Ultimately, however, you're the boss. It's your right to insist that installations be done to your specifications.
Educate Your Customers
Explain an HVAC system's maintenance needs to your customers, and have them sign a statement verifying they understand what you've told them. Remember: in law, if it's not written, it's not so.
Make sure you use protective language on your invoices and contracts. For example, we are careful to note, in writing and signed by the customer, any and all pre-existing conditions that we feel need to be addressed for a system to function properly. If a customer doesn't want those conditions addressed by us, we have it in writing that he or she was notified about possible risks and declined our advice.
If a customer won't sign, or the pre-existing conditions are severe and the customer refuses to allow you to address them, walk away from the job.
Another form we use is an " Outdoor Unit Only Change-out Waiver of Liability." This form, which will become even more important than ever in the 13 SEER era, spells out to customers that equipment manufacturers, utility companies, and trade associations such as the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) recommend against replacing only the outdoor unit if the two systems are not a match.
The form spells out some of the potential hazards associated with mismatched systems, including decreased capacity for dehumidification, which could cause mold.
The form states in part, "By signing this waiver, the customer agrees that a Bay Temperature Control representative has presented the option of installing a full air conditioning system or heat pump (outdoor and indoor unit), and I am rejecting that option."
Once again, customer education and documentation will go a long way toward keeping you in your office and out of a courtroom.
Investigate and Remediate
If you do encounter mold, ask yourself four questions:
- Source: where did the moisture come from?
- Path: how did it get into the problem area?
- Form: did the water enter as bulk, vapor, or condensation?
- Force: what force carried the water to the problem area: gravity, capillary, or diffusion?
Only after you've discovered the answers to these questions should you attempt to remediate. Even then, it's important to determine the feasibility of remediation. If the mold is extensive (more than 10 sq.ft.), contact a mold remediation specialist to handle it.
However, if the problem is small and you can identify and correct the source of the moisture or the maintenance problem that led to the mold, go ahead and fix it for the customer. However, I highly recommend that you document your work in writing, and take " before," " during," and "after" pictures of your remediation. You can never have too much documentation. In court, missing facts are deadly, and an incomplete account of your actions report is often worse than no account at all.
Finally, stick to facts. Don't let opinions creep into your documentation. And always keep the customer apprised of what you're doing. People generally don't sue people who are trying to help them.
Much of this may seem like "CYA" approach. Is CYA the best approach to protecting yourself and your company from mold-related lawsuits? If the "A" in CYA stands for assets, the answer is yes.
Vikki Nicholas is the owner of Bay Temperature Control Inc., Baytown, TX. She can be reached at 281/ 421- 2665, e-mail [email protected]. For more information about Bay Temperature Control, visit www.baytemperature control.com
This article is based on the presentation Mold Remediation Revisited, which Vikki Nicholas gave at HVAC Comfortech 2005, held in Nashville, TN, Sept. 14-17, 2005.
For more information about HVAC Comfortech 2006, which will be held September 13-16 in Baltimore, MD, call 216/931-9550.
Learn from the leaders: In 2005, HVAC Comfortech presented more than 30 speakers providing educational seminars. All the sessions were recorded, and are available for purchase. For pricing and ordering information, visit the show website: www.hvaccomfortech.com
Vikki Nicholas of Bay Temperature Control recommends checking out the following websites for more information on mold and the HVAC contractor: