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Asbestos in ceiling has owner concerned

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QuestionI would like to get rid of our popcorn ceiling which contains 2 to 3 percent asbestos. We plan to cover the cathedral living room ceiling with paneling. The bedrooms are in no danger of being compromised, but the downstairs family room ceiling could very easily be disturbed accidentally by our active four-year-old and his friends. Can I cover the ceiling with drywall or paneling without releasing asbestos fibers?

AnswerThe answer to your question depends on how you prep the surface before installing drywall or ceiling planks and how you handle those materials during installation.

It is impossible to do justice to this complex subject here, so I will give a brief overview. However, I encourage you to read my article, "Asbestos in Popcorn Ceilings," and follow up with sources identified in this column.

Even though the use of asbestos in the popcorn mixture was banned in 1978, many popcorn ceilings installed before the 1980s contain up to 8 percent asbestos, and it has been found in ceilings installed as late as 1986.

Intact and undisturbed, popcorn ceilings pose no health risk, but when asbestos-containing material deteriorates or is damaged or disturbed, its minuscule fibers become airborne. Even roller painting the ceiling may disturb fibers or weigh down the popcorn, which may cause it to delaminate from the substrate. Once the fibers are airborne, it takes careful cleaning with appropriate equipment to decontaminate a home.

Removal of a sprayed-on popcorn ceiling is simple but dealing with asbestos is arduous and hazardous so carefully evaluate your options. I recommend that you bring in an abatement contractor to remove the popcorn. Popcorn removal offers several tangible benefits: it will allow you to creatively finish the ceiling without the worry of disturbing asbestos fibers, future work can be done without worrying about asbestos, and it will enhance your home's value. A certified asbestos contractor will charge roughly $8 per square foot to remove the popcorn but you will have peace of mind knowing the job was done both correctly and safely.

Encasing a ceiling with drywall or ceiling planks is acceptable, but asbestos fibers could be released during the installation. A certified contractor will charge roughly $4 per square foot to hang drywall. You can do the work yourself if you are willing to tackle the stringent requirements of asbestos abatement.

The real work involves the preparation and additional measures necessary for a safe and healthy project. Before beginning work, contact your local building department as a permit will most likely be required, and contact your local air pollution control authority, or whoever regulates asbestos abatement in your area. They may offer a guidebook or other materials for dealing with popcorn ceilings.

Your state's Department of Labor and Industries may also require notification since certification for handling asbestos-containing materials is generally required. In my state, homeowners and live-in family members are partially exempted from the certification requirement, but anyone else participating in the work (paid or unpaid) must be certified.

Carefully follow all the protective measures described in the materials you receive from your building department, air pollution control authority, and state regulatory offices to protect yourself, family members, and whoever else might be involved in your project from asbestos exposure.

Here is an overview of two basic approaches to encase a popcorn ceiling using drywall or ceiling planks. Direct attachment, the best approach, allows you to position the drywall before installing fasteners into the ceiling; fibers released by tightening each fastener are then encased between the ceiling and drywall. However, drywall sheets are heavy and awkward and the potential exists for damage to the popcorn (and release of asbestos fibers). A rented drywall lifter would be helpful although the rental store may require its decontamination at the end of the job.

The first step is to locate the framing members (so you'll have something solid to which to attach drywall) using a stud finder such as Zircon's Triscanner. You can hover this unit 1/4 inch over the surface which prevents dragging the stud finder tool across the ceiling and disturbing the popcorn. Mark framing member location on the walls with blue painter's masking tape.

Nail (not staple) Tyvex or a similar breathable house wrap product (not plastic) over the entire ceiling using drywall nails and plastic flat washers such as those used to attach rigid foam board as seen at www.rodenhouse-inc.com. Finally, attach the drywall following the building department's nailing schedule.

The second method, attaching furring strips, requires you to drill through the strips themselves into the framing members behind the popcorn ceiling—this would release asbestos fibers. A neat trick is to predrill the furring strip, apply shaving cream to its backside, position the strip with the shaving cream against the popcorn, and drill through it into the ceiling. Wipe off any shaving cream and debris left on the drill bit with a wet rag and discard the rag into a hazardous waste bag. Once all furring strips are in place, attach drywall to them to encase the asbestos.

This second method would be the best approach to attach ceiling planks to encase the popcorn on your cathedral ceiling. However, apply house wrap before installing the furring strips. The house wrap will protect the popcorn from damage during the ceiling plank installation, and furring strips will provide a solid fastening surface for the ceiling planks.

Carefully follow all the protective measures described in the materials you receive from your building department, air pollution control authority, and state regulatory offices to safely remove and clean, or dispose of, your tools, protective equipment, and clothing. Do not use a standard vacuum cleaner for any cleanup because asbestos fibers can be broken down in the fan and filter and will be dispersed into the air. Instead, use a HEPA filtered vacuum but be sure to remove the bag and dispose of it with your other asbestos waste.

Properly dispose of your hazardous waste bags with an approved asbestos landfill. I suggest that you contact the facility where you plan to take the waste before doing any work. They may only accept asbestos at certain times or days and may have specific bag labeling requirements. They may also require a copy of the asbestos work permits.

Finally, finish the drywall with tape and drywall mud, sanding between coats, and apply a ceiling texture of your choice. If you hang the drywall yourself, I recommend that you hire a consulting firm to sample the air once the work is completed. The cost is around $200 and your building department or air pollution control authority can probably provide you with a list of "Asbestos Service Providers."

Click to Purchase Don't forget—before starting this project get your informative 10-page PDF article titled Asbestos In Popcorn Ceilings and Patching a Popcorn Ceiling. To order your downloadable .pdf printable copy, click here or click the purchase button to the left!

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Question answered by Leon A. Frechette.

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