Let’s go ahead and face the facts from the get-go: mold spores are everywhere. There’s just no way to completely eliminate them, and there’s always going to be SOME mold in our homes. Fortunately, with an ounce of prevention, you can keep it from becoming a serious problem. Limit the moisture in your home, and you’ll limit the mold growth—it’s as simple as that. Sometimes, though, despite our best efforts, mold proves to be a resilient and strong-willed foe, winning the occasional battle and proudly exuding its signature sour smell. In this article, we’re going to look at how to remove mold and win the war at large.

When to Bring in the Professionals

To begin, you need to know what you as a homeowner are capable of doing and when it’s time to call in the professionals. Mold removal inherently involves stirring up potentially dangerous spores and releasing them into the air, so if anyone in your home suffers from respiratory ailments or an immunodeficiency, don’t chance going it alone. The experts have the knowledge and the wherewithal to effectively quarantine the area and keep the spores from spreading throughout your house. If there’s mold in your HVAC system, you shouldn’t even consider taking it on yourself.

Next are size and location considerations. How large is the affected area? The EPA advises that any mold growth of 10 square feet or larger should be handled by specialists. What’s more, mold often grows in hard-to-reach places, such as behind walls and under floorboards, and to even access it requires a great deal of work. If, for instance, mold is growing on wood that makes up part of the irreplaceable supporting structure of your house (joists, studs, etc.), you’ll need to bring in a mold removal and remediation professional that can properly sand and encapsulate the growth.

Carefully read your homeowner’s insurance policy to see if mold remediation and removal are covered. If your mold is due to common, everyday issues like excessive humidity in the basement, it’s unlikely. Flooding from a burst pipe, on the other hand, can lead to a mold problem that may be covered.

What You Can Do Yourself

So you’ve got an affected area smaller than 10 square feet, no one in your home is particularly susceptible to the mold spores that will invariably be kicked up, and you can access the mold with no problem? Well then, let’s get to it!

First things first, remember to take proper safety precautions. You may be dealing with harsh chemicals, allergenic mold spores, and toxic fumes, so you should always wear gloves (preferably up to the middle of the forearm), goggles, and a respirator rated N95 or higher (found at any hardware store). You might look a little goofy, but it’s well worth it. Also important to note is that dead mold spores are no less allergenic and are possibly as harmful as their live counterparts. After attacking the mold, you’ll need to thoroughly wipe down all surfaces in the general vicinity and then use a HEPA vacuum cleaner to eliminate any remaining spores.

Now that you’ve donned your safety gear, understand that there’s a significant difference in difficulty between removing mold from hard, nonporous surfaces like tiles or shower doors and removing mold from fabric, wood, drywall, and other porous materials. Basically, mold on nonporous surfaces lives on the surface alone—what you see is what you get. Spray on a mold-killing solution (more on this below), let it sit for a bit, and then wipe or scrub it away. Presto, you’re finished. You’ve probably done this a thousand times already; any time you’ve cleaned that unsightly mildew from your tub, for example, you’ve technically performed this type of mold removal. Keep the surface dry, and you’re all set.

Now for the bad news: It’s not so easy to eliminate mold in carpet, drywall, wood, and other porous materials. Because the mold is able to seep into the pores of the material, it can’t be removed by simply killing it at the surface. For this reason, it’s often a better idea just to dispose of the affected material altogether. (Think of it like possibly spoiled milk—when in doubt, throw it out.) Donning your safety gear, carefully deposit the affected material into a plastic bag, seal it tightly, and use the shortest path possible to get it out of your house. As an added precaution, you should shut off your HVAC system and use plastic wrap to seal off any vents or open doorways.

And finally, let’s take a look at some of the most popular mold-killing agents (excluding the world of specialized fungicides that you’ll find on store shelves). To reiterate, in the case of porous materials, there is no guarantee that any of the solutions below will sufficiently remove mold. At best, they may do nothing more than hinder its growth for a while; and there’s a chance that they may make matters even worse. Professionals might just be your best bet.

  • Chlorine Bleach. Simply put, chlorine bleach is the most effective mold killer around. The active ingredient, sodium hypochlorite, is found in most commercial products, if that tells you anything. It also produces dangerous fumes (you’ll need plenty of ventilation) and carries the potential to discolor and even destroy the very material you’re trying to save. Do a spot test to ensure this isn’t going to be the case. For nonporous materials, you’ll want to dilute the solution to about 1 part bleach to 10 parts water, and then you’ll either spray it directly onto the mold or apply it with a rag. As for porous materials, there’s some evidence that a solution consisting of 1 part household detergent, 10 parts bleach, and 20 parts water can be effective, but because of the water component, you may just be adding to the problem and creating an even more hospitable environment for mold. Be sure to thoroughly wipe away any residual bleach with a damp rag.

  • Ammonia. Like bleach, this is a toxic option, but when mixed with water at a 1-to-1 ratio, it can be very effective at killing mold. Its noxious fumes are not only unpleasant but potentially dangerous as well, and it is NEVER to be mixed with bleach, as this creates deadly chlorine gas. Also like bleach, it could prove completely ineffective on porous materials, and you’ll want to wipe and rinse away any ammonia that remains. Here again, proper ventilation is a must.

  • Borax. As a much milder option (it’s only harmful if ingested), borax combines some of the antifungal efficacy of the toxic options above with the gentleness of the options below. It’s cheap, chemical free, and environmentally friendly, making it a very good all-around option. Mix 1 cup of borax with 1 gallon of water and work it into the growth. Since the solution is not nearly as toxic as bleach or ammonia, there’s no need to rinse afterward. In fact, some claim that allowing it to air dry provides even greater protection from future mold growth.

  • Baking Soda/Vinegar/Hydrogen Peroxide. These safe, everyday items each have antifungal properties. Add one teaspoon of baking soda to a spray bottle, shake, and apply generously. Baking soda also does a good job of getting rid of that mold smell. Undiluted, white distilled vinegar can also be used as an effective (if smellier) spray. And while it does have bleaching properties (again, do a spot test before using), hydrogen peroxide is a great alternative to bleach.

Whether you go it alone or call in the big guns, the war against mold is a war worth fighting. Indeed, the risks it poses to your property and your health make it compulsory. While keeping moisture in check is always your first line of defense, the techniques outlined above should provide you with a fighting chance.

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Sources: Cornell University College of Human Ecology; EPA; MoldGeek.com; The Family Handyman; This Old House.

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