Radon inspections: What you need to know
Radon: the colorless, odorless gas emitted into the air by the radioactive element, radium, as it breaks down in soil, rock, and water. Typically, radon penetrates buildings through small cracks or openings in foundations undetected. And, once radon has entered a property, the radon may be trapped inside. In fact, this is what home inspectors test in their radon inspections.
More statistical evidence may be necessary to fully understand the causal relationship between radon and lung cancer (more below). However, the EPA continues to characterize radon as a cause for concern. In 2017, the EPA designated January as National Radon Action Month, encouraging observers to “Test, Fix, Save a Life.”
Since testing is the only way to determine a home’s radon levels, the EPA and Surgeon General recommend that home buyers, sellers, and remodelers test all homes below the third floor. If consumers discover elevated radon levels of four picocuries per liter (4 pCi/L) or higher—which the EPA estimates that nearly one in every 15 households do—then the EPA urges them to take corrective measures, including the installation of a radon-reduction system.
Many national and local governments encourage and, in some cases, even mandate radon testing during real estate transactions. This has led many home inspectors to offer radon testing as an additional service. In fact, over a quarter (25 percent) of the inspectors we insure carry the radon endorsement. This implies that just as many inspectors currently offer radon testing in the market at large. (More on endorsements later.)
In this article, we explore why 10 home inspectors chose to offer radon testing and what recommendations they have for home inspectors considering offering the additional service.
Why inspectors test for radon.
When asked why they offer radon testing, the 10 home inspectors we surveyed said that they began offering the service for one or more of the following reasons:
1. They wanted to protect clients from potential lung cancer risks.
The labels “silent killer” and “cancer-causing radioactive gas” characterize public opinion and discourse regarding radon. But how did radon amass such a bad reputation?
While researchers studied radon’s effects on miners for decades prior, testing within homes began in Pennsylvania in 1984. While entering the Limerick Nuclear Power Plant, which was under construction, an engineer named Stanley Watras tripped a radiation detector. This monitor measured unsafe radiation levels for plant workers. Three things stood out to safety officials:
- When he set the monitor off, Watras was coming to, not going from, the Plant.
- Due to the construction, the Plant was not currently operating.
- No other workers were contaminated.
Based on the evidence above, Plant officials were certain that Watras had not been exposed to the radon at work. So, the officials took measurements of the Watras’ home. To their alarm, they discovered radiation levels more than 200,000 times above the level permissible for people living close to nuclear power plants.
Believing that Watras’ exposure to radon in his home may not be uncommon, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted a survey of 10 states that volunteered. During the 1986 survey, the EPA tested 11,600 homes for radon. The results: one of every five homes tested contained health-threatening radon levels. The EPA declared radon a national problem.
A case for home inspectors testing radon and advising mitigation.
Shortly after, Congress passed the Radon Program Development Act of 1987 (also known as the Indoor Radon Abatement Act or Radon Act 51), which established a national long-term goal that “the air within buildings be as free of radon as the ambient air outside of buildings”—meaning four tenths of a picocurie per liter (0.4 pCi/L).
In 1989, the Act also dictated the EPA produce the now infamous document “A Citizen’s Guide to Radon,” now titled “Home Buyer’s and Seller’s Guide to Radon.” One of the guide’s primary objectives: to give the public information about the health risks of radon exposure.
Victor G. Faggella of Centurion Home Inspections, Inc. in New York and Connecticut began offering radon testing in the late 1980s when the federal government began encouraging consumers to have their homes tested.
“Radon was a ‘new’ environmental issue and it started to become a must-have in many real estate transactions,” Faggella said.
In 2005, the Surgeon General of the United States stated that radon is the second-leading cause of lung cancer in the nation. The EPA estimates that radon causes about 21,000 lung cancer deaths each year. According to the EPA, when you breathe air containing radon, you increase risk of lung cancer—particularly if you’re a smoker.
For Larry Young of HomeTek Inspection Services in North Carolina, concern for his clients’ health is his primary motivation for radon testing.
“Lung cancer is a serious issue, and if it can help my clients in a way, I will offer radon testing,” Young said.
Skepticism surrounding radon-related lung cancer statistics.
Critics of the EPA’s research argue that the studies inflate the number of radon-related illnesses and deaths. In 2017, Harvard University’s Department of Environmental Health published an article in which they argued that the EPA’s radon-induced lung cancer deaths may be overestimated due to failure to account for diesel engine exposure.
“[The] EPA’s original estimates of fatal risks attributable to radon may be overestimated by 9 percent– 26 percent, after accounting for exposure to diesel in the miner studies originally used to estimate radon risk,” the authors said. “Our best estimates, using updated models and mortality data from 2014, indicate that there could possibly be 12,900–15,900 deaths attributable to indoor radon exposure each year.”
Even the EPA has raised questions about its lung cancer death statistics. According to the New York Times, an EPA official made a statement in 1996, saying the Agency would probably reduce its estimates of the amount of lung cancer caused by radon gas in homes from 21,000 to 16,000 per year. However, despite numerous revisions, including the latest in March 2018, the EPA has yet to update the figure in their guide.
Additionally, the EPA’s own guide exposes the largest flaw with its lung cancer death statistic: its inclusion of smokers. Of the 21,000 deaths to radon-related lung cancer that occur each year, the EPA estimates that less than 2,900 (13 percent) occur among non-smokers.
Nevertheless, health risks remain one of the chief concerns of home inspectors testing for radon.
2. The EPA identified the home inspector’s inspection area as one with high radon levels.
In 1993, the EPA developed the Map of Radon Zones (including the state maps of radon zones) by analyzing indoor radon measurements, geology, serial radioactivity, soil permeability, and foundation types. The map identifies U.S. counties based on their potential for elevated indoor radon levels by sorting each county into one of three zones:
According to Steven Burnett of Journey Property Inspections in Michigan, it’s logical to offer radon testing in areas known to have elevated levels of radon.
“Radon is very prevalent in southeast Michigan. There are eight counties in our area that have high [levels of] radon,” Burnett said. “It only made sense to test for radon.”
Brent Stadther of Full Disclosure Home Inspections in Idaho agrees.
“In our area, we have many Zone 1 and Zone 2 areas—areas known to have high radon levels,” Stadther said. “It seemed that many consumers would value the option.”
While Scott Patterson of Trace Inspections in Tennessee was not performing radon tests when he lived in Mississippi, he did start testing when he relocated to an area with higher radon levels.
“Middle Tennessee has mostly rock a few feet underground, which allows the radon gas to find an easy way out into our atmosphere,” Patterson said.
Just as high radon levels may incentivize you and other inspectors to perform radon testing, Matthew Steger of WIN Home Inspection in Pennsylvania argues that low levels should disincentivize you.
“If there’s low demand or if radon’s historically not really an issue in the area, it probably doesn’t make sense to invest in doing radon testing,” Steger said.
As Steger suggests, you may decide that it isn’t a good business decision for you to invest in radon testing. Note that the EPA still recommends that all homes be tested, regardless of geographic location or zone designation.
3. The home inspector wanted an additional source of revenue for their business.
Laurie Smith of Regional Home Inspection in Missouri saw a surge in demand for radon testing 25 years ago. Realizing that testing could provide additional income to her inspection business, Smith began offering radon testing.
Although Dustin Sample of Resolute Home Inspections in Ohio did not begin testing until this past summer, he, too, started due to high demand and interest.
“I wanted to offer radon testing because I was losing a lot of home inspections where radon testing was requested,” Sample said.
Just how much revenue can radon testing bring in?
For every home inspection they performed, the inspectors we surveyed said that as few as 25 percent and as many as 75 percent of clients—for a survey average of 46 percent—opted to add a radon test to their standard inspection.
On average, the inspectors we surveyed charge $140 per radon test with a home inspection and $160 per test without.
So, if a home inspector performed 300 inspections a year and half of them opted into their $150 radon test, that inspector would make $22,500 in additional gross revenue.
However, to offer an additional service, like radon testing, home inspectors must make several up-front investments. Common investments include the three Es: education, equipment, and endorsements. In the next section, we explore each investment by type.
Radon testing investments inspectors make.
Many states regulate radon testing, which is why Steger recommends that inspectors begin their education knowing their state’s specific stipulations.
“The first thing is to find out whether the state that the inspector’s in has any special requirements,” Steger said. “Pennsylvania, for example, requires that anybody that does testing or remediation be licensed in PA by the Department of Environmental Protection.”
According to a 2016 report by The Policy Surveillance Program, A LawAtlas Project, 25 states have radon certification laws: California, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Florida, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia. For a chart of radon legislation and statutes by state, last updated in 2015, visit the National Conference of State Legislatures’ (NCSL) Radon Overview page.
While South Dakota doesn’t have any certification requirements, Steve Green of Total Home Inspection, LLC chose to take a radon measurement class and the National Radon Safety Board’s (NRSB) certification exam. According to Green, his additional education helps him provide a better service and stand out from his competition.
“I wanted to learn the right methodology behind radon measurement. Because the first question a client’s going to ask is, ‘What does it mean that I’m at eight picocuries per liter? And how does it enter the house? And what can I do about it?’ If you haven’t taken those classes, you’re not going to be able to answer those questions,” Green said.
Other courses and exams our surveyed inspectors took to gain radon testing expertise include:
Knowing what device you want to use may also impact the education and certification you receive.
“We have to prove to the state that we know how to read whatever type of device we’re going to use,” Steger said. “The certification or licensing process is a little different based upon if you’re going to use continuous monitors versus some other type of technology.”
There are two groups of radon devices for short-term testing: passive devices—such as alpha track detectors, charcoal canisters, carbon liquid scintillation detectors, and electret ion chamber detectors—and active devices—including continuous radon monitors (CRMs) and continuous working level monitors. Most of the home inspectors we interviewed use active devices because these devices have the following benefits:
(You can learn more about how passive and active devices compare from National Radon Program Services.)
Despite active monitors’ benefits, they are significantly more expensive than their passive counterparts. While the average carbon canister costs about $30 per canister, continuous radon monitors cost about $1,200 plus an additional $150 annually for calibrations. Inspectors need to consider not just the brand and model they wish to use but how they wish to pay.
Many radon device vendors offer leasing programs that allow payments at a monthly rate rather than pay for machines outright. Home inspectors that prefer to lease appreciate not having to invest in pricey radon technology in one transaction. Furthermore, they like the ability to customize the number of monitors they lease to adjust to fluctuating client demand.
Others, like Green, prefer to own their radon detectors. According to Green, it only took 12 transactions for his radon monitor to pay for itself.
“I’m interested in things that I can buy and pay off and not have ongoing payments associated with it,” Green said.
An endorsement is a form that either changes or adds coverage to your insurance policy. Most home inspection insurance policies exclude additional services like radon testing. Thus, the insurance company will not offer coverage for those additional services without an endorsement. So, if you perform radon testing or want defense and indemnity for claims involving radon testing, you may wish to change an existing policy exclusion with an endorsement.
Typically, insurers charge a flat, annual fee of around $50 for a radon endorsement. However, some insurance policies may offer you radon coverage outright with a sublimit. Sublimits cap certain risks, usually additional services, defined in your insurance policy. Sublimited policies offer you ancillary services endorsements with less coverage per individual service. Since we don’t sublimit, here’s an example from another insurance provider’s policy:
In the example above, the insurance carrier has sublimited a home inspector who’d originally purchased $1,000,000 / $1,000,000 in coverage. Note that his million-dollar limits do not apply to his radon inspections. Instead, he receives just $100,000 per claim and per policy period for radon-related issues. So, when choosing your coverage, you must be sure to take sublimits into account.
Limiting your liability against radon-related claims.
Carrying a radon endorsement is one of the most important things you can do to protect against radon-related claims. However, there are additional risk management techniques you can employ to safeguard your business. Here are some suggestions from our surveyed inspectors and our claims team:
1. Encourage clients, homeowners, and real estate agents to not tamper with radon tests.
Some of the radon-related pre-claims and claims we receive have to do with testing malfunctions. In one case, homeowners opened windows during testing, resulting in fluctuating levels reported by our insured inspector and other specialists.
Consequentially, to avoid this, we recommend that inspectors explain procedures to clients and others who could unintentionally interfere with measurements. By helping everyone understand to not move monitors or alter testing conditions, you can avoid accusations from compromised testing.
2. Educate clients about radon testing results.
As Green mentioned earlier, taking radon certification courses and exams can help you educate clients about radon test results.
Patterson agrees, arguing that it’s your duty as an inspector to understand testing protocols and reports.
“Get the proper training—even if you are in an unregulated state, like we are in Tennessee,” Patterson said. “You must learn the science and the proper protocols for testing. Your clients are counting on you to provide an accurate test. And if you don’t understand radon and the proper testing protocols, you won’t be able to provide a reliable test.”
Firstly, before your clients ask questions, incorporate some basic information regarding radon and the test results. For example, Green, Faggella, and Stadther supplement their reports with the EPA’s “Consumer’s Guide to Radon Reduction: How to Fix Your Home,” which provides readers with basic information about radon mitigation and reduction. Many inspectors include an explanation of what is considered high levels of radon. This allows clients to decode the picocuries in their reports.
According to Stadther, being able to have knowledgeable conversations about radon doesn’t just lead to increased client satisfaction. As a result, it can lead to more testing requests and subsequent profit.
3. Help clients with high radon levels take appropriate next steps.
Every inspector we surveyed agreed that it’s important to encourage clients with high radon levels to seek mitigation. Specifically, most recommend that clients seek assistance from a qualified contractor. According to Steger, keeping his referral vague helps his clients choose the remediation company that’s right for them.
“I don’t refer specific remediators,” Steger said. “I direct [clients] to the [Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection] website, which has a list that they update monthly of all the licensed testers and the licensed remediators in the state. And, I leave it to the buyer to decide who they want to hire.”
For instance, if you decide to refer specific companies, request that they add you as an additional insured. This ensures that, if you are named in claim regarding their remediation services, their coverage will defend you.
(You can read more about additional insured endorsements here.)
Radon testing and your home inspections.
Is there a lot of public interest in radon in your area? Has the EPA identified your region as one with high radon levels? Do you feel that you have a duty to your clients to protect them from radon-related illnesses? Are you looking for additional revenue sources and job security for your inspection business?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, perhaps it’s time for your company to offer radon testing. You can learn more about offering additional inspection services from our article “Endorsements: Spend money to make money in your home inspection business.”
Need insurance coverage for your radon or other specialty inspection services? Luckily, you can talk to an InspectorPro broker today to get the proper endorsements in place to receive coverage. If you aren’t insured with us already, you can get a no-obligation quote for errors and omissions (E&O) and general liability (GL) coverage by filling out our online application.
Note: When we originally published this article, we stated that Stanley Watras set off a radon monitor. In fact, Watras set off a radiation detector. We made this correction at 10:15 AM on the same day as publication.