Vermiculite and HVAC Installations – A Bad Mix

RHI is often called to prepare a free cost estimate for owners who have vermiculite in their attic. Sometimes we see that a heating or cooling system was previously installed in an attic with vermiculite present. While the Home Performance industry strongly recommends against putting a heating and/or cooling system in an attic, it is sometimes done for practical reasons. Regardless, it is unsafe and in some cases may be illegal for an HVAC contractor to install a mechanical system that moves air in the presence of vermiculite. The same can be said for installing an air handling system in the presence of any other friable asbestos containing material (ACM). Based on the manufacturing date of some of these units we know that all such installations did not take place before 2009 when the new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules on vermiculite and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) rules regarding vermiculite took effect.

Why it Matters

Pictured above is an air handler surrounded by both vermiculite attic insulation and asbestos duct wrap. The connections between each duct were never sealed. You can also see that the asbestos paper was just torn apart when a new plenum was built to accommodate the new system. This is a very unsafe situation. Click image to enlarge.

First, an HVAC contractor that would install a furnace or AC unit in an attic after 2009 would also have to be a licensed asbestos abatement company. This is due to the amount of vermiculite they would be required to disturb when cutting the holes in the attic floor (your ceiling) to install the central return vent and numerous supply ducts. Asbestos training and licensing is required because this process would require several asbestos work rules be followed by the HVAC installer. The rules would require that all workers be asbestos trained and where personal protection, that the workers set up a containment system within the living space of the home, that all vacuums in use be EPA compliant (HEPA rated units), and that negative air machines be run at all times.

This form must be sent to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) before a contractor installs a heating or cooling system in an attic that contains vermiculite insulation. Click image to enlarge.

These work rules must be followed in order to make sure the occupants of the home are not exposed to dangerous asbestos fibers. One wrong move and invisible asbestos fibers from the vermiculite could fall into your living space or be carried into the home by a dusty technician that exits the attic and then walks through your home. Worse yet, a careless technician could accidentally get vermiculite in the return plenum or a supply duct before they are attached. If this happens the next time the unit is turned on invisible asbestos fibers would be evenly distributed throughout the living space. This would create a real and invisible hazard for occupants of the home.

These types of mistakes have serious consequences and this is why companies performing such work are required to be licensed asbestos abatement companies. All licensed asbestos abatement companies must report to DHS (the Wisconsin Department of Health Services) the day, time, and location of any planned asbestos related work. These requirements allows DHS inspectors to show up unannounced and check to see that workers and homeowners are kept safe.

When companies that do NOT follow these rules are “caught” by the municipalities health department, or by DHS, the contractor can be subject to large fines. The contractor could also be sued by the homeowner, or one of their own employees that did not know they were being put at risk, for damages to health and home. Unfortunately, residential HVAC contractors do not carry a special asbestos related insurance called “pollution liability” insurance. As a result, they are not covered because asbestos related damages are not covered by contractor liability insurance. Another key factor in vermiculite related work is that some contractors mistakenly believe they can have the vermiculite tested and if the presence of asbestos is less than 1% that it does not fall under these work rules. That is incorrect because in the state of Wisconsin all vermiculite must be treated as if it contains asbestos, even if an accredited lab test results say it does not contain asbestos, or contains less than 1%. The less than 1% rule has to do with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) that oversees the dumping of asbestos containing materials at landfills. You can read more details at our post titled Homeowner Checklist.

The Professional Solution

Attics that have already had the asbestos containing vermiculite insulation removed is the way to go. Removal first means the home is worth more, the HVAC install will go much quicker, owner and contractor employees will be kept safe, and the home will soon be much more energy efficient and comfortable due to precision air sealing and re-insulating to an R50 level that follows the HVAC install. Click image to enlarge.

Fortunately there are safe and practical alternatives to working in an attic filled with asbestos containing vermiculite insulation. In 2014 over $140 million was put under the control of the Zonolite Attic Insulation Trust (ZAI Trust). The ZAI Trust was created to educate homeowners with vermiculite insulation in their attic and to reimburse them for the cost to have it removed. As a result of the ZAI Trust, it only makes sense to get all vermiculite out before the HVAC contractor begins their work. This also reduces the HVAC installation or repair costs because the contractor can now work quicker and in a safer environment.

Equally important, attics with vermiculite are almost always poorly insulated and in need of professional air sealing. The ZAI Trust not only pays a majority of the cost to have asbestos containing attic vermiculite insulation removed, but it pays for a majority of the cost to have the attic professionally air sealed and re-insulated to R50. Air sealing is also required by Focus on Energy and will qualify the owner for additional discounts of up to $2,000. Racine Home Insulators completes all paperwork at no charge and offers the homeowner all reimbursements and discounts upfront. There is no need for owners to wait for these incentives, we do the waiting for you!

A Note to HVAC Contractors

Racine Home Insulators, LLC services Racine, Kenosha, southeast Wisconsin, as well as the greater Milwaukee area. We are interested in pairing up with HVAC contractors that perform their work to the highest standards. While we know some companies will continue to cut corners and create unsafe conditions, we believe that removing vermiculite attic insulation before any work begins is in both the homeowner’s and the HVAC professional’s best interest. Removing vermiculite dramatically raises the value of the property, creates a safe work environment for all future contractors, and results in a much better install of equipment and re-insulation. If you agree, please contact Racine Home Insulators, LLC so we can add you to a list of companies we refer to homeowners in need of HVAC services.