Sick House May Prove Contagious To Occupants

Clean-air Company Says It Has The Cure

March 17, 1992|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff writer

Something other than hay fever or chronic colds could be causing those headaches that nag just enough to irritate, those feelings of nausea and even that burning sensation in the nose and throat, says a Severna Park man in the business of wiping out such symptoms.

Robert F. Hofford is no doctor, but he has an idea of where to look for a cure.

Hofford suggests starting at home. Your house, he says, could be "sick." And it might be making you sick, too.

You might call Hofford a doctor of sick buildings. The retired naval officer and aviator has bought one of the first franchises of Cheverly-based Rite-Way Corp., a clean-air company launching a national expansion.

Hofford's Millersville franchise, American Air Care Inc., uses trucks with high-powered vacuums and compressed air to clean gunk like dust, grease and bacteria out of air ducts that snake through walls and ceilings.

As homes and offices have become better insulated and more tightly sealed -- especially during the energy efficiency-conscious 1970s -- indoor pollutants have come to settle in the air ducts of heating, ventilating and air-conditioning systems.

Dark, warm, dirty vents are prime bacteria incubators, says Hofford. And as air circulates throughout a building, it spews out various mixtures of microscopic matter -- dirt, cooking fumes, grease, aerosol sprays, tobacco smoke, animal hair, ash, household cleaners, dust and pollen. The typical air filter catches only 7 percent of such stuff, Hofford says.

"You don't see the dirt." Therefore, indoor air pollution goes unnoticed untilit causes allergic reactions or illnesses, such as headaches, coughes, nausea, fatigue and dizziness, Hofford says.

Even then, it's hard not to mistake the symptoms for something else, such as a common cold. But subtle forms of air pollution can be found in more than halfthe nation's homes, says the American Lung Association. A state Department of the Environment study shows that in some cases, indoor air pollution is from 10 to 1,000 times worse than outdoor air pollution.

Contaminants can plague any building, regardless of its age, region or climate. Even in new homes, bits of drywall, sawdust, wood chips and carpet threads can get into the vents and form a nucleus of dirt in the system, Hofford said.

He decided to go into business for himself after getting a call from Ernest Moreno, owner and chief executive officer of Rite-Way in Prince Georges County.

Moreno, another retired naval officer who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy thesame year as Hofford, bought 32-year-old Rite-Way four years ago andset about transforming the mom-and-pop furnace-cleaning operation.

A health-conscious climate proved healthy for business. At a time when employers and building owners were being sued because of illnesses caused by "sick-building syndrome," Moreno found himself with more jobs than he could handle.

For two years, Rite-Way has cleaned ducts at Washington buildings housing the Environmental Protection Agency, which faces employee lawsuits itself. The company has cleaned systems at the Federal Aviation Administration, the Pentagon, and even the vice president's home and the White House.

Moreno plans to open branches from coast to coast and already has permission for franchises in 18 states east of the Mississippi.

The first two went to Normand Long, who opened a branch in Gaithersburg, and to Hofford.

So far, Hofford has serviced about two dozen customers, most of them homeowners, many of them allergy sufferers. An average job on an 1,800-square-foot, six-room house costs about $260 and takes about 2 1/2 hours, Hofford said. For larger, commercial air ducts, workers actually crawl inside and vacuum them out.

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