Sick building syndrome

Ugh! Our publisher has been getting sicker and sicker, to the point of nuclear antibiotics and chest X-rays, all without any discernible reason. Despite that, he took some time on Friday to go to a nearby town – and after about 2 hours, felt noticeably better. Based on what he knew, that really didn’t make any sense.

So, as usual, it set the gears in motion, and Friday night, we took another look at the production studio’s standalone cooling, mentioned before here and here. In fact, that second instance had a rather revealing note:

(And trust us, you haven’t lived until you have to interrupt a conference call to drain the results of massive dehumidifying from a heat pump with a turkey baster, and repeat it every 4 hours for several days.)

One reason the studio had been so hot was because the heat pump was not properly draining the water it extracted from the air as part of its air conditioning. When the thing got full, it couldn’t dehumidify effectively, and it pumped humid, warmer air into the studio. So we’ve been draining it by hand where we could (the unit weighs about 200 pounds and can’t easily be removed by one person, and calling it “easy” for two is a bit of a stretch).

On Friday night, we took the case off and looked at parts of it we normally don’t mess with, and sure enough: mold! Right where we had noticed some water dripping when the thing needed to be drained. This, of course, was exceedingly disgusting. We wiped it all down with disinfectant cloths, sprayed every flat surface we could find (not the computers) with disinfectant, and left the studio alone for a while. Our publisher stayed away all day Saturday, too, and while he wasn’t cured, his months-long condition did not worsen.

Today we came back into the studio and looked again, and found: mold! Not as much, but in the same places. This appears to be the explanation we’ve been seeking. The drainage problem is not just a cooling nuisance; it’s causing mold to grow in the heat pump, which then puts it into the air in the studio. The more time you spend in the studio, the sicker you get. That’s why our publisher, who usually spends at least 12 hours a day in the studio, has been sick to the point of getting emergency chest X-rays – but other staff members, who have been here this summer for a maximum of 40 hours per week, leave the studio and only feel like there’s some kind of small allergy issue.

So with family and friends today, we got serious about it – we took the cursed appliance out of the studio and found enough crud inside it to make you think it hadn’t been cleaned in a year – instead of four weeks ago, the last time we did it. (We would have posted pictures of this disgusting thing, but we remembered that we like you to much to make you look at them.)

The unit was new in 2001, replacing a 20-year-old model, and upon very close examination, it appears to have been designed for a slightly different carrier housing: unless it’s tilted backward on at least a 20° angle, there’s just no way water can drain from it. When the weather didn’t make the air conditioner work so hard, it never came up. This summer, with it extracting gallons of water per day from the surrounding air, its collection tray became full and stayed that way – warm, wet, and dark. No wonder critters grew!

Last time we had it out for inspection (and the time before that, with the certified repair person here), we thought we just weren’t seeing the holes in the bottom where the water should drain out. Today, we confirmed: there are no drainage holes. So we made some, right at the bottom, right where the water should be draining out anyway. In our test with clean water, they seemed to work fairly well. (No heat pump or A/C drains bone-dry, but neither should it have 3 gallons of standing water in it 24/7.)

We thoroughly cleaned every surface (including a previously-hidden filter), disinfected everything, and have reinstalled it in the studio. Meanwhile, since the temperature today in the Crossroads of America is a balmy 72°, we’re taking the opportunity to air out the entire building, front to back and side to side. Since it rained most of yesterday, there’s not a lot of crud in the air to replace the mold, so it’s a good day for fumigation.

Our publisher is cautiously optimistic, especially since he thinks he was about two days away from hospitalization. We’ll be checking carefully for drainage and recurrences of mold for the next few days, and he’s constantly monitoring to see if he’s feeling any better. But this theory, at least, fits all of the available facts as we know them. The only one that seemed odd was that a week in San Francisco didn’t seem to help the publisher much, but he says that his hotel room kept sneaking in “luxurious down” pillows and comforters even after he asked them to be removed. When you have 15 pillows in a room, figuring out that one of them is making you sneeze is non-obvious. (He says, “15 pillows in a room is not luxury. It’s just annoying.”)

So, we may have our building fixed. Cross your fingers for us.