Lead paint challenges continue for remodelers

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The rules governing lead paint and renovation continue to evolve, presenting new challenges for remodelers.

June 15, 2011

The rules governing lead paint and renovation continue to evolve, presenting new challenges for remodelers. Professional Remodeler’s Tom Swartz talked to remodelers Bob Hanbury and David Merrick, two of the leaders in the field, about the latest developments.

Tom Swartz: Would you have any advice to a remodeling contractor, that says, “I’m not certified … I need to get certified.” Walk me through how they’re going to get certified.
David Merrick: First, a year into this, they should have done this done a while ago. When we look at most professional remodelers, most professional remodelers have been aware of this and completed their certifications. If you’re still one of those guys that hasn’t done it, you absolutely need to get your firm registered. All you have to do is send in the $300 and submit your paperwork.
The classes are still widely available to get your person certified. This takes time. The EPA does not move quickly. Once you send in your firm certification request, you’re not going to get that paperwork back for 60 to 90 days. The longer you wait, the more trouble you’re going to be in, and when they start going out and fining people, they’re going to be fining people for the easy stuff, like not being registered.
Bob Hanbury: You hit it on the head. If you’re not a certified firm, you can’t even offer to perform the work. Now, performing the work could be a subcontractor who is a certified renovator and they could do all the paperwork. But if you’re not a certified firm to start with, you don’t have the ability to even hire the certified renovator to be compliant.

Swartz: So it all goes back to the general
contractor?

Hanbury: Yep. If they haven’t [gotten their firm certified] they’re going to get the book thrown at them, because that’s the easiest part.

Swartz: Who’s going to ... tip off the EPA?
Hanbury: It could be a competitor, it could be a disgruntled employee, it could be a local health official. What can happen then is that it can spiral. Not only OSHA can come after you, the public health people can come after you, and then you’ve got EPA that can be watching over your shoulder, too.

Swartz: Compliance, lack of enforcement ... is a problem that we have. Who looks after this? How are you going to get turned in?
Hanbury: Whenever there’s an injury, there’s an investigation. At that point, all the agencies are notified that there was a child with an elevated level in there, then that’s what starts the avalanche of requests for paperwork.
Merrick: Another area that’s going to come back to bite people is from their customer. If you don’t do this and the customer finds out and one of their children becomes poisoned, you’ve opened yourself up for a lawsuit. If you don’t have the proper registration in place, you’ll absolutely lose that lawsuit. If you have your firm certified, and a person trained, you can always say you’ve been following the EPA guidelines.
Hanbury: The lawsuit really is the big 800 lb. gorilla in the room. EPA requires those checklists to be filled out, to be given to the homeowner. You essentially have asserted that you’ve done everything perfectly and you’ve complied with the rule. At some point, somebody might say, “Prove it.”

Swartz: Talk to me about the cost and who bears the brunt of that cost.
Merrick: This is where you really need to have thought it through and know your
customer beforehand. We have some customers who could care less about lead and some customers that are all on board with it, they’re very knowledgeable and concerned and
understand that there’s an additional cost that’s going to go with the work.
Most of our typical jobs are a bathroom or kitchen remodel. We have not seen that it adds a great deal to the costs of our projects. Most of the time, we have a simple clause in our contract that acknowledges the house was built before 1978 and we’re going to follow lead-safe work practices.
We’re not finding it to be a lot of money.

Swartz: Meaning a few hundred dollars or a few thousand dollars?
Merrick: For a bathroom remodel, we’re coming up with $400 to $600. We’re just burying it in the estimate and not breaking it out as a line item. The bigger that project is, that number’s going to go up. It’s just part of doing business. If you don’t estimate correctly for it, you’re going to lose money and go out of business.

Swartz: How do you deal with the challenge of an uncertified, untrained competitor? How can you compete against the other contractor that is not following the practice, therefore your costs are higher?
Merrick: We try to educate our customers, we’ll talk to them about lead, we’ll make sure they understand that we are certified and that any contractor should be certified. In the D.C. market, we’re fortunate. We have a very highly professional group of contractors here.

Swartz: Bob, how do you handle the costs and how do you deal with the competitor that doesn’t have the same costs or doesn’t have the same certifications that you do?
Hanbury: What we’ve found is that if the customer doesn’t recognize that the safety of their children is important or the safety of their home when we’re done, or that someone could be injured without safe work practices, if they don’t appreciate that upfront, I can’t work for them, because they won’t pay for me to do the job right. It’s just one of the preliminary requirements to qualify the customer.
Merrick: I couldn’t agree with that more. It’s all about how you present yourself and sell your job.
Hanbury: It can be more difficult, especially for the window guys where you’re working in multiple areas. When we do a window job we have a very hard time coming close, even with the customer who thinks safety is important. You’re working in an average house that might have 10 work areas, at a minimum of $250 apiece, that’s $2,500. Take your $10,000 inexpensive window job, and now you’re $12,500. You’ve really jumped over the top of the competition who isn’t doing that. I’ve found that the lead rule is really onerous on those type of projects, not so much on one room areas like kitchens or bathrooms.

Swartz: David, you work with NARI and I understand that you’re on a work group for them. Can you share with us some of the things that work group is working on?
Merrick: The purpose of the work group really was to identify the inconsistencies between the various agencies, between HUD, EPA and OSHA, and to really understand how these three agencies that have some hand in this affect the work that we do.
We have identified some key inconsistencies, especially with OSHA. In [EPA] RRP, they tell us automatically we have to assume lead is present in any house built prior to 1978. OSHA … was really written for abatement work. There’s no assumption like that in the OSHA guidelines.
There are very specific requirements that have to be followed under OSHA guidelines and the biggest one is air monitoring. EPA RRP guidelines tell us to suit up – to put a Tyvek suit on and put a respirator on. OSHA guidelines tell you that as soon as you put on a respirator and you’re doing lead work, you also have to monitor the air in that space, and that you have to develop a program based on typical jobs that you do.
There are big inconsistencies and the problem is OSHA’s lead rule was not written with renovation in mind.

Swartz: In this particular case, maybe you can turn a lemon into lemonade. Do you turn this around to make it help your company?
Merrick: We discuss it as part of being a professional. This is something we do as part of keeping up with the latest regulations. People don’t appreciate the knowledge that remodeling contactors have.
That’s what makes us a professional and separates us from the guys in the pick-up trucks. Whether it’s this or energy efficiency, we’ve got to know it all.

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