I’m a retired Illinois home inspector, and I've crawled through the attics and crawlspaces of Chicagoland homes for over 12 years.
I went through just a couple of hundreds of files from my recent inspections in search for some pictures and I'm overwhelmed by the number of mold-contaminated attics. I've never realized it but it seems like this area is completely off-limits for some homeowners. So, I decided to bring a little attic awareness into your daily routine and hope you'll appreciate it.
What Causes Attic Mold?
There are a few factors that have a major impact on making attic areas a "mold friendly" environment:
- inadequate attic ventilation: #1 cause of mold growth in the attic!
- bathroom/kitchen/dryer vents discharging into the attic
- inadequate/missing attic floor insulation
- improperly insulated cathedral ceilings and skylight chases
- furnaces and water heaters installed in open attic
- plumbing vents open into the attic—uninsulated air ducts
- poorly insulated ceiling penetrations, attic access panels
Just the first two items combined together could transform your attic into the steamy, mold contaminated room during the cold season. Any warm air trapped under the roof will form condensation on framing, decking surfaces, and roofing nails creating mold nesting habitat. Some homes have more than one attic and an upper one, usually located above the bedrooms and bathrooms is always more susceptible of being contaminated because warm air from lower parts of the house will naturally raise up, transfer through the ceiling and all its penetrations into the attic.
Solutions to attic problems are very simple, and all you need is a knowledge of what is going on above the ceiling. Once everything is properly done, you won't have to worry about any mold growth under the roof, but I still highly recommend to monitor it periodically. So, let me walk you through your attic, stay close and watch your steps carefully - before you look for a potential problem in the attic, make sure that your feet have proper support.
First, we pick a cool day for this trip . . . access might be as easy as pulling down folding attic stairs, but sometimes it is a challenge as far as the size of an opening and its location.
Typical hatch placement would be hallway or closet ceiling, but depending on house design, other areas are used as well, and sometimes it could be from the house exterior, garage . . . or there might not be access at all. In some attics, with a good flashlight, you might be able to spot most of the problems right from the entrance, without even crawling through the insulation. Shine your light beam above your head and onto the roof decking/framing surface, check carefully areas where the attic floor meets the roof, because that's where mold usually starts appearing (samples of what you might see are on the pictures). If there's no unusual discoloration, or if you can see clean wood surface with no residue on it, then everything might be OK and you can put a check mark by each of the items below.
How to Do It
First things first: All bathroom/kitchen/dryer vents HAVE to discharge to the house exterior and beyond the attic area.
- Access panel, pull down stairs should be insulated to minimize air transfer between the living area and the attic
- If you're looking at the attic section located directly above the bathroom and / or kitchen with an exhaust fan discharging through the ceiling you should be able to see some kind of a pipe (galvanized steel, aluminum, plastic, sometimes insulated - recommended) between the attic floor and the roof decking. If there is no pipe, and you can't see the fan itself, turn it on and try to locate it by following the sound, because it might be just hidden under the layer of insulation. There's a chance, that discharge pipes from those vents have been dropped into the soffit, or to the vent ports installed in the soffit - personally, I don't recommend such installation and for one very simple reason—warm air rises up, and during the cold season it will return back to the attic (some jurisdictions recommend or permit such installation). So, if there's no pipe attached to the vent, or one discharging through the soffit appears to be causing problems (stains / discoloration above the soffit area where the pipe enters), get it through the roof using a dedicated port or at least install it close to the attic vent (just make sure that vent screen is clean). Kitchen vents should have dedicated ports (do not use attic vent ports), and smooth interior, metal pipes should be used for discharge, not plastic or aluminum flexible hoses.
- A dryer vent discharging into the attic is a huge source of moisture and heat, and requires its own dedicated port (just like the kitchen vent). Again, smooth interior wall, metal pipe should be used (no plastic permitted). Dryer vents require periodical cleaning to remove accumulated lint from interior walls—when it becomes clogged, you're just wasting precious energy—if it goes through the roof, it would probably be easier to separate the discharge pipe in the attic area (at roof vent connection) and clean pipe and roof vent screen from there. Clogged dryer vent pipes overheat and if pipe connections have been sealed/secured with duct tape, they might eventually separate. Using screws on connections causes more lint to be trapped inside, so plastic ties and duct tape + maintenance might be the best choice.
- Any missing insulation on skylight chases, walls/ceiling between the attic and living quarters should be installed - with blanket type insulation always put moisture barrier facing towards the heated area (never leave flammable paper exposed). There might be an open chase/empty wall space between the basement/crawlspace and attic area—seal it, from both sides if possible.
- Cathedral ceilings insulation has to be installed with a proper clearance to decking surface, otherwise, it promotes mold growth.
- Plumbing vents left open in the attic area, have to extend through the roof.
- Furnaces and water heaters installed in attic area should be contained inside a separate room - code requirement in some jurisdictions, any vent pipes from those appliances must be double wall if penetrating attic area.
- Heating ducts should be properly insulated
- Because you need to have an attic as cold as possible, and especially during the cold season, but, I'll tell you a little secret, sometimes with all those things I've listed above being the wrong way, and without any ventilation, there will be no mold at all.
Attic Mold Photos
sarah on April 12, 2017:
I live in Florida and the temperature in the garage from late May-October is brutally HOT. Hour AC handler is in the garage and sweats a lot. The attic space just over the garage is not insulated. My AC company told me if I insulate the attic it will make the handler sweating greater because the heat of the garage enables the moisture to dry out a bit. Does this make sense? Do you suggest to insulate (batt) or not insulate the attic above the garage? Thanks.
Debbie on June 27, 2016:
I have a weatherization team that is working on my house and they put in an exhaust fan or vent in my bathroom as it gets mold on ceilings and walls from lack of it. I asked if they were putting in a vent to the outside. I was told no it didn't need this as they were making it a 'cold attic' and they don't get mold. I still feel uneasy about this. Is it true? Thanks for input
Nora Moore on March 05, 2015:
That's a good idea to check if the bathroom and dryer vents discharge outside the attic space. If they don't, the moisture could build up in the attic and that's when you get mold problems. I'll have to go look for the vents sometime soon. Those pictures of mold just give me the shivers. http://www.skydome.com.au
Home Maintenance (author) from Illinois, USA on July 28, 2014:
For as long as the conditions supporting its growth have been eliminated it will remain in what you could call a "dormant" state. Ideally it should be removed from the surface completely.
If it's a small area I would take that extra effort and remove it completely. You can also wait till it gets very cold and evaluate the area, see if the surface becomes moist and contamination area starts expanding (surround the contaminated area with a marker so you know if it's growing).
cindy on July 28, 2014:
Thank you fro your posting! I went through the check list and I am NOW in compliance...replaced plywood and shingles on roof. ridge vent with high air-flow baffle style. Opened up soffits that were clogged by insulation and put in 2nd floor ceiling vent in bathroom (outside vented). Ventilation problem has been solved. there is small amount of mold remaining on support boards. will mold die now?
Home Maintenance (author) from Illinois, USA on March 24, 2014:
Low temperature in your attic during the cold season is a very good sign, however, the question is: is it as cold as on the other side of the roof surface and is there any air circulation?
There is a possibility that the roof vents became contaminated with dust, bird nests, or simply got covered with accumulating snow for some extended period of time. If there are any soffit vents, they could become contaminated over the years as well (dust, insulation, paint, etc.) All of the above could cause temperature rise within the attic and result in condensation buildup on the surface of roof decking boards / plywood.
Moisture, lack of air circulation, and lack of light are some of the main ingredients responsible for mold growth in attics. Insulating attic access doors and checking ventilation / vent screens for contamination would be the first thing to do.
Mold contamination in on area of the roof decking surface could also indicate failing roof, roof flashing, or / and vents flashing issues. It's difficult to say without examining this affected area.
Please let me know if you have more questions or check some of my posts in "Attic" category on my website - checkthishouse.com/category/attic
Sherry on March 24, 2014:
We have these bedrooms upstairs in our cape cod style home and each bedroom has a little 4 foot door that leads into what you could call an attic or storage area. We just noticed this year after being here four years with no problem that there is some black mold on the roof part of that room. What could be the reason after all this time with no issues? When its cold out its freezing in there and when its hot out its smoldering in there. Now the doors to these areas also have no insulation. Any advice would be appreciated.
doug on April 29, 2012:
new roof being installed barrier material now installed it is and will continue to rain this week if the shingles are installed an wet surface will there be a potential mold problem between the barrier and the shingle
Angel Grace on September 14, 2011:
Does Mold continue to grow once the ventilation problem is corrected and the other bad wood is removed?
Cira and Associates Consulting LLC on July 05, 2011:
Cira and Associates Consulting LLC can help maintain or re-establish a normal fungal ecology or reduce other contaminants that can adversely affect the living conditions and air quality in your home.
paranoid mold freak :) on March 06, 2010:
Is the black in the picture with the pink insulation all mold? We have an attic that we are fixing the ventilation problems - the south (sunny) side walls are normal looking wood; the north and shadier side had black wood, like the picture above from 2/8/07. Could all that black be black mold?
Home Maintenance (author) from Illinois, USA on January 19, 2009:
You're welcome, let me know if you ever have any questions concerning your home,
Rob from Seattle on January 19, 2009:
Good info. Thanks for posting.