If you are asking when radon levels are highest, you likely know enough about radon gas to understand that it is not something you want in your home at any time of year. Conducting a radon test is the first step in understanding your risk of radon exposure. Our advice? If you have never tested your home, go ahead and test, regardless of what time of year. Radon levels are almost always going to be higher in the colder winter months, so we also recommend conducting follow-up testing during the winter season to get a full picture of radon in your home year-round.
Why should you test for radon?
Radon is a known human carcinogen, the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers. This naturally occurring, radioactive, gas is created from the breakdown of uranium underground and seeps into buildings from small cracks in the foundation or plumbing. Testing for radon is the only way to know your risk of exposure.
Radioactive radon particles are harmful to your lungs when breathed. Its radioactive properties can damage or mutate lung cells, which can result in cancer. More than 21,000 people die from radon-induced lung cancer every year. Exposure to radon is preventable with proper testing and mitigation in homes and buildings.
When are radon levels the highest?
On average, radon levels are the highest in the colder months, or the heating season. Radon levels are naturally affected by the changing seasons, atmospheric pressure, and precipitation throughout the year. However, temperature fluctuations have the greatest impact on indoor radon levels due to the differences in pressure put on the home.
Why are radon levels higher in the winter?
Changing weather conditions can impact your indoor air quality. Various weather patterns are caused by atmospheric pressure changes. This can impact the air pressure in the soil as well, causing soil gases, including radon, to be pushed up toward the foundation of your home. These kinds of conditions could increase the possibility for radon and other soil gases to enter your home.
The snow and ice also affect radon entry into buildings. When there is snow or ice surrounding the building, a barrier is created above the soil. Radon gas below the soil is then sealed under the ground below the foundation of the home. Radon, and other soil gases, will follow the path of least resistance. With a blanket of snow and ice surrounding your home, the path of least resistance is often cracks and openings in the foundation.
Thermal stack effect
A fundamental building science element is the thermal stack effect. This effect describes the movement of air inside and outside of the home due to natural laws of pressure. Cold air is more dense than warm air, meaning cold air falls and warm air rises. This law of pressure is always present, regardless of the season.
When a home or building is heated in the winter, warm indoor air naturally rises. Because warm air is less dense than cold air, it rises upward, escaping through the roof, vents, or other openings at the top of your home.
As warm air escapes, cold air is pulled in from below, much like a hot air balloon. The pressure difference creates a vacuum-like pressure sucking in the colder air from outside and from beneath the foundation.
Anything in the air below the foundation, regardless of the safety or quality of it, can be pulled into your home as a part of the process of the structure “breathing”. It is possible that hazardous soil gases are present, compromising your indoor air quality. Dangerous soil gas, including radioactive radon, can be sucked into homes and buildings at a faster rate during the colder months because of the thermal stack effect.
The thermal stack effect explains why radon levels are almost always higher in the winter. Simply put, outdoor air is being pulled into the home quicker and more frequently in the winter than in the summer. For this reason, the potential for being exposed to higher levels of radon in your home is greater in the colder winter months.
When temperatures are more desirable, windows are opened creating more airflow throughout the home or building. Airflow can help dilute the radon gas buildup indoors and can improve your overall indoor air quality. Within tightly sealed buildings, there are few ways for gas particles to escape. Radon gas can then become more concentrated and build up to dangerous levels indoors.
Why test for radon in the winter?
Radon levels can and will fluctuate over time and with the changing seasons. Seasonal variability, stack effect, tightly sealed homes, and snowy barriers help us understand why radon and other soil gas levels are almost always higher in the colder months.
The only way to know if your radon levels have fluctuated in the winter is to test. Also, if you have never tested or have not tested in the last five years, you should request a professional radon test as soon as possible.
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How to reduce your risk of radon exposure all year long
If your radon levels are elevated, installing a mitigation system is the next step. You will want to make sure your mitigation system is installed by a qualified professional who is certified and/or licensed. Unfortunately, mitigations systems can be completely ineffective if installed incorrectly or designed for a lower pressure level in the home.
- Test for radon in different seasons or conduct a long-term test to understand how radon levels fluctuate in your home.
- If levels are elevated, work with a qualified professional to install a radon mitigation system in your home.
- Have your mitigation system serviced annually by a qualified professional to ensure your system continues to function correctly.
- If you have a mitigation system, test every two years to ensure that you are continuing to be protected against radon exposure.
"A properly designed and installed mitigation system is essential in preventing exposure to cancer-causing radon gas. Unfortunately, many radon contractors fail to take the seasonal pressure differential variances within the home into consideration when designing the system, leading to the homeowner being unknowingly exposed to unsafe levels of radon during certain times of the year."
- Kyle Hoylman, CEO of Protect Environmental
Is your radon mitigation system affected during the colder months?
If you had a mitigation system installed in the warmer months, test again during the winter season to make sure your system is continuing to keep you safe with the cold weather changes. If your mitigation system was designed for a lower pressure level during the warmer months, it could be essentially ineffective and elevated radon levels could still be in your home or building.
We recommend testing every two years, even if you have a mitigation system installed, because of these seasonal fluctuations. Consider testing in the colder months or conduct a long-term radon test to get a complete picture of the radon levels in your home year-round.
- Radon levels can and will be affected by seasonal variability.
- Indoor radon levels are normally at the highest in the winter or colder months because of the thermal stack effect, a snowy barrier, and tightly sealed homes.
- Cold temperature increases the pressure within the home, meaning more air is being pulled in from the ground, which elevates the risk of radon entering the home.
- Test your home and other buildings in the colder months to get a complete picture of radon exposure.
- Test your home every two years to ensure your radon mitigation system continues to protect your home from radon in higher pressure conditions caused by colder temperatures.