Asbestos water heater?
January 8, 2008 12:56 PM   Subscribe

Asbestos water heater?

My wife and I are in the process of buying a new house. The seller had an old water heater that was not hooked up sitting in the basement taking up space. They must have built the house around the water heater because it was too big to fit through the door.

So, seller goes to town on the water heater and cuts it into pieces. He said that it was filled with insulation and he filled 3 lawn bags with the stuff. Water heater and its contents are now in a dump somewhere.

This was a pretty old water heater so I think there is a good chance it was asbestos. Is this something my wife and I should worry about? We won't actually be buying the house for a few months if that makes a difference.

Also, the main floor of the house has carpeting that will be ripped out and the hardwood floors underneath refinished, so tracked fibers that get into the carpet won';t be an issue.

Anyone else deal with this? Any tips or advice?
posted by ian1977 to Home & Garden (23 answers total)
Have the house tested for asbestos as part of the pre-sale inspection.
posted by COD at 1:42 PM on January 8, 2008

If testing shows remediation is needed, good luck -- you may just want to walk away from the deal (because if he cut up an asbestos-laden heater without proper precautions, the fibers are now in every nook and cranny of the house.)

If testing shows no asbestos, it probably was benign. Still, I would have your lawyer come up with something for the seller to sign, assuming all responsibility for whatever he did with the thing.
posted by beagle at 1:47 PM on January 8, 2008

Despite what all the expensive "asbestos remediation" firms tell you, unless you stuck your head in the bags full of insulation on a repeated basis and started huffing fibers, I think you'll be fine. (note: I am not a doctor or medical professional).
posted by mrbill at 1:47 PM on January 8, 2008

Sure, you might be fine, but you're going to face the problem of selling this house down the line. If it's now laden with asbestos fibers, I would not want to buy it.
posted by beagle at 1:48 PM on January 8, 2008

What COD said. Spend the money up-front to keep surprise issues like this at bay.
posted by unixrat at 1:53 PM on January 8, 2008

Get it tested, but asbestos isn't like mercury. It can be cleaned up pretty easily and cheaply, especially if the house is going to be emptied and the carpet is going to be torn out.
posted by electroboy at 2:08 PM on January 8, 2008

Response by poster: COD - do they test the air?

The house was built in 1945, I assume that asbestos is present in the home as insulation and such. Everything I read says that its fine if its undisturbed.

So, what do the tester test for? Potential problem areas where asbestos products look like they are damaged? Or do they test the air for asbestos? Both?
posted by ian1977 at 2:10 PM on January 8, 2008

Also seconding COD, and to add that if it's discovered that there is asbestos, then your seller may have screwed himself, because state and federal regulations apply for the removal of asbestos, and many states require the owner to do the legwork themselves when it comes to notifying state and federal entities, and getting a licensed asbestos removal company.

There is something that may save you this headache, if you or the owner saved the manufacturer information, you could go to the company and find out from them if they used asbestos on that model water heater.

Whatever you do, do not, do not, buy this house without having the owner get a proper inspector test, again as COD said. Also insist on getting a copy of the test results. Confirm with your local government that the test results are legit. People have lied and will lie about the results of tests/inspections, for the owner/future owner only to find out later from the government that what they had been told had passed actually had not passed, and the buyer/owner simply boned themselves by failing to follow up on it.

If you buy the house without getting it checked out and it turns out to be a problem later, the full burden will rest on you.
posted by Stilus at 2:18 PM on January 8, 2008

Response by poster: I am a little confused. If the house is tested, don't they just do sample testing on the ceiling tiles, insulation, etc? Or do they test the air? If they don't test the air, I don't really see how the inspector will help with regards to the water heater removal that has already occurred.
posted by ian1977 at 2:28 PM on January 8, 2008


* As soon as the professional abatement contractor says that the removal work is finished, the area should pass a visual inspection and air testing. These tests should be performed by an independent firm not connected with the abatement contractor.

The visual test always comes first. All surfaces are examined to see if the area is completely free of all asbestos dust and debris. If dust and debris is found, the area must be recleaned by the contractor and the visual inspection repeated.

If the area passes this visual inspection, aggressive air sampling should be performed to test for asbestos fibers. In taking an aggressive air sample, the air should be stirred up or circulated by using a fan or other device before the air sample is taken. This method produces a much more accurate measure of whether or not any asbestos fibers remain in the work area than a sample taken after the air has been stagnant for a few hours or even days.

An often acceptable standard for final air sampling after abatement is .01 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter of air (0.01 f/cc). If the work area fails the air sampling test, the abatement contractor should reclean the entire work area and then follow with another visual inspection and air test.
posted by Stilus at 2:34 PM on January 8, 2008

If the water heater and all its remnants have been disposed of, it's too late to test the water heater. You could have an inspector collect dust samples from the floor and other surfaces to see if there is any asbestos-containing debris remaining from the demolition of the heater.

As for the rest of the house, asbestos in building materials isn't a problem unless the material is damaged, so even if an inspection showed asbestos-containing materials, it wouldn't necessarily be a deal-breaker. Like, electroboy said, asbestos abatement isn't actually all that expensive, and it's only necessary if the materials are damaged and have the potential to release asbestos fibers. Asbestos is still used in buildings today, so it's not as if it's mere presence requires action.
posted by curie at 2:41 PM on January 8, 2008

The testing agency will test surfaces if you explain what's happened and make clear your concern. (i.e. airborne fibers - they end up landing somewhere...) I'd also check the ductwork.

Yes, floor tile, ceiling tile, insulation frequently have asbestos in older homes. Asbestos could have been introduced when something was installed after the house was new. I don't have time to check, but, I believe asbestos became more prevalent after this house was built. Maybe the 60's...?

Follow advice upthread and have it checked prior to purchase.
posted by mightshould at 2:42 PM on January 8, 2008

I would be skeptical of any test paid for by the current owner.
posted by 517 at 2:43 PM on January 8, 2008

517: That's why I said that people lie and you have to get copies of the test/inspection reports, and follow up with the government/lab. As long as you have copies of the paperwork and have verified these copies as legit then you'll have half a leg to stand on if the report turns out to be incorrect.

Having said that, I'll add that the buyer and the seller should agree on which independent lab performs tests. If you get skeeved out by the lab that the seller picked, tell him to pick one that you both agree on or you'll walk.
posted by Stilus at 2:58 PM on January 8, 2008

I would be skeptical of any test paid for by the current owner.

Any reputable consulting firm with certified asbestos building inspectors isn't going to do the owner any favors because he's spending $2000 on an asbestos inspection. Additionally, the samples will likely be sent by the inspector to a third-party laboratory for analysis. Let the owner pay for it, but check up on the consultant and laboratory that are used. They should have appropriate certifications in place. If you do decide to buy the house, you should also get a copy of the report regardless of what the results are.
posted by curie at 3:00 PM on January 8, 2008

Response by poster: Doh.

I think maybe I was misinformed in thinking that water heaters even used asbestos. Boilers did, and steam pipe coverings. But I can't find anything saying asbestos was used in water heaters.
posted by ian1977 at 3:50 PM on January 8, 2008

I'm sorry but some of the above is flat out wrong.

There is no safe exposure limit from asbestos. One fiber can kill you. Yes your head in a bag full of the stuff is worse, but it only takes one fiber

Cleaning a house of asbestos fibers can be horribly expensive, if not also very destructive. I have been on a few jobs where the cheapest solution was to take the house down to the frame and start over.

On the plus side the analytical costs for testing are cheap. You will pay a bit for a qualified professional though, as they have to keep various certs etc up to date (in the case of California anyway) and pay their insurance.

I have had formal asbestos training and held several certs at one time, but got out of it. Hot and nasty work not worth the pay.
posted by Big_B at 3:59 PM on January 8, 2008

my father died in March from Mesothelioma (asbestos cancer). we sourced his exposure to the unsafe removal of an asbestos wrapped water heater in his childhood. having watched him battle this for five years, this is not something i would futz with. get the most comprehensive test you can so you and your family feel as safe as possible. it is a horrible way to die.
posted by MeetMegan at 6:14 PM on January 8, 2008

Also, the main floor of the house has carpeting that will be ripped out and the hardwood floors underneath refinished, so tracked fibers that get into the carpet won';t be an issue.

That's not the way it works. If there was any asbestos released by the owners:

a) It was not only tracked across the floors, but also dispersed freely through the air. The fibers are everywhere. Anywhere. They can be embedded in drapes, sprinkled across any horizontal surface, wedged into any little crevice. And it takes remarkably little of that fiber to wreak havoc if it gets into someone's lungs. It is not reasonable to assume that the risk will exit with the carpet.

b) Tearing out the carpet will throw those fibers back into the air, putting the carpet crew at increased risk of exposure through inhalation, while once again causing fibers to settle in unpredictable places.

Until the house has tested as clean, please don't send any workers into the house without advising them of the possible risk. Imagine if someone very dear to your were the one exposed to a vicious disease, just for doing innocently doing their job.

One of my relatives died of mesothelioma. You don't want to ever wonder if you've been culpable in causing that kind of pain.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 8:24 PM on January 8, 2008

But I can't find anything saying asbestos was used in water heaters.

It was used as insulation, indiscriminately on boilers, water heaters, water pipes, etc. If it was a big humongous thing, it was probably a boiler for the heating system which incidentally also heated domestic hot water.
posted by beagle at 5:24 AM on January 9, 2008

Response by poster: beagle - I briefly saw the thing during a tour before he dismantled it. I *think* it was just a hot water heater. Functionally, it looked exactly like a modern hot water heater, and the house uses and has used a furnace for heat. I could be mistaken though. The appliance itself was white painted metal on the outside, ie did not have a blanket or anything around it.

He said the stuff he pulled out of there was loose insulation material. Like the kind you might find in your attic. A lot of what I can see linking asbestos to water heaters is in an asbestos wrap or blanket.

Grrr. I wish he had just left the stupid thing sitting there minding its own business. I could have just spray painted it to look like a robot and left it at that.

nakedcodemonkey et al - I won't be sending any workers any where because we don't own the house. The current owner is the one doing the floors. (although I understand what you're saying)
posted by ian1977 at 6:07 AM on January 9, 2008

There is no safe exposure limit from asbestos. One fiber can kill you. Yes your head in a bag full of the stuff is worse, but it only takes one fiber.

No safe limit has been established is what you mean. Everyone has been exposed to asbestos as some point and there is naturally occurring asbestos. Theoretically, yes, one fiber can kill you, just like a single bacteria can kill you, but realistically that's a ridiculous statement to make. There is no data to support that casual exposure to asbestos causes any of the particularly nasty cancers that people with long term exposure tend to get.
posted by electroboy at 12:46 PM on January 9, 2008

Unfortunately, the owner's description is useless to you. It could fit anything from absestos-containing vermiculite, to fiberglass, to ground newsprint, and probably dozens of other materials that have been sprinkled across American attics.

The mere fact that he's prone to doing DIY without knowing what the hell materials he's dealing with, and what reasonable steps need to be taken to do a job correctly, should be cause for a lot of the most thorough inspections you can afford or else a lot of soul-searching about how important it is to you to have that house. Because even if it turns out the material wasn't asbestos, it's likely that his boneheaded actions have created other stupid risks lurking somewhere within that property.

Have you asked him what's been buried on the property, for instance? A lot of old-timers never have cottoned to the idea of having to pay to drop off the nasty toxic crap at the dump when they've got perfectly good, free, landfill right there in their backyards...
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 1:37 PM on January 9, 2008

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