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Preventing Mildew

What is mildew and why is it a problem?

Mildew is the generic name for a few types of fungi (itty bitty plants) that grow readily on moist surfaces. Once it invades your home, it spreads rapidly on surfaces and reproduces itself by releasing airborne spores... the fungal equivalent of seeds. Mildew growth can deteriorate wood, paper and leather. It can also live very nicely on paint (it's favorite is latex), penetrating though the paint's pores into the wallboard paper or absorbent plaster below. It is often found in bathrooms, kitchens, basements, crawlspaces and even attics... anywhere there is high humidity, low ventilation, and a suitable growing medium. Though heat does accelerate mildew's growth (why the tropical atmosphere of a steamy bathroom is so attractive), some types can grow and thrive at temperatures near freezing!

Mildew is a huge problem with books, magazines and furniture. Did you ever store books or an upholstered couch in a damp basement for any length of time? Phew! (Or if you were a fungus, you might retort "Yum yum!"). The problem is so universal that even libraries have guidelines for book storage to reduce mildew and mold growth.

The lack of ventilation in modern homes because of efficient weatherproofing has decreased the number of air changes per hour. This in turn increases the average humidity levels in bathrooms, basements, kitchens and laundry areas. Combined with the necessary removal of a potent mildewcide from latex paints... mercury... mildew has become a serious problem on painted surfaces.

Mildew predates humankind and will undoubtedly outlast us. This is painfully obvious to those of us who are allergic to the airborne spores mentioned earlier, as well as people with various respiratory and immune deficiency diseases. For some, mildew can make a home almost unlivable!

Though it is almost impossible to completely eliminate it from your home, you can take some positive steps to control it. We'll touch on a number of scenarios expressed in commonly asked questions that follow, to aid you in taming the mildew menace!

How can I prevent mildew in my bathroom?

By far the most important mildew control remedy is to increase the ventilation in the bathroom. Leave the bathroom door open after you shower or bathe, and use the bathroom exhaust fan. If you live in an older home without an exhaust fan, install one, and be sure it is vented to the outside, or you may transfer your mildew problem to the attic!

Existing mildew on most surfaces can be killed with a mixture of 50% household chlorine bleach with 50% water. Use a hand sprayer to apply it to the surface, allow it to remain for a few minutes or until the blackish, dirty-looking mildew color disappears and then rinse thoroughly with water. If the surface is covered with soap scum, the mildew might be more difficult to kill. In that case, perform a thorough cleaning first with either TSP, a TSP equivalent or a commercial soap scum remover. Then use a mildew wash, even if it "looks" as though the mildew is all gone.

There are commercial cleaners that combine bleach with a cleaning product. I have found them to generally be less effective at killing the mildew so my advice is to keep your killin' and cleanin' separate!

Unfortunately, the mildew will return eventually unless you seal the walls by proper repainting. Mildew attack increases the porosity of the paint film, making reinfestation a certainty. Applying the proper paints after killing the mildew will assure longer-term mildew resistance.