Three Methods for Passive Vapor Intrusion Mitigation

SP w carson river 027 10 10 2010 1In many cases, vapor intrusion mitigation is needed after investigation and cleanup at sites with difficult contaminants like tetrachloroethylene (PCE). This is because active cleanup methods may not remove all the contamination or cleanup may not be possible. In these cases vapor intrusion health risk remains. As a result, folks responsible for investigation and cleanup at site sites with difficult contaminants may be faced with a decision regarding vapor intrusion mitigation (VIM). At some sites, building occupancy is critical to maintaining business, and VIM is the only solution.

Three top passive VIM methodsn methods can be separated into two groups: passive and active. Here we take a look at three top passive VIM methods, but first let’s look at how VIM works.

How Vapor Intrusion Mitigation (VIM) Works

Volatile chemicals like PCE, when released into soil and groundwater, create a vapor that can enter a building through entry points like cracks or holes in slabs or basement floors and walls; openings around sump pumps and elevator shafts; or where pipes and electrical wires enter the building. It is also possible for vapors to pass through concrete, which is naturally porous. This movement of vapors from underground into a building is termed vapor intrusion. The purpose of VIM is to eliminate intrusion through building entry points.

What is Passive Vapor Intrusion Mitigation?

Passive VIM methods prevent chemical vapors from entering a building or reduce contaminant levels beneath a building. They tend to be cheaper than active methods. Typically, multiple passive VIM methods, like a floor seal with a sub-barrier, are used at the same time to provide a backup in case one of the VIM methods loses efficiency or fails. Three top passive VIM methods are: sealing, vapor barriers, and passive venting.

Three Top Passive Vapor Intrusion Mitigation Methods

1) Sealing

Sealing entry points with a chemically resistant sealer is an important first step in VIM for existing buildings. Chemically resistant coatings can also be used to seal the floor, wall and entry points in an existing building and prevent vapor entry. Concrete can be poured on unfinished dirt floors to prevent entry.

Regulatory guidance suggests that in most cases sealing should be used with other VIM methods to provide a backup.

Vapor Barriers

Vapor barriers (also called sub-slab liners or passive membranes) are materials or systems installed below a building floor to block the entry of vapors. Most barriers use sheets of “geomembrane” or heavy-duty plastic placed between the sub-base and building floor to prevent vapor entry. Vapor barriers are best installed during building construction, but can be installed in existing buildings that have a crawl space or basement.

In principle, vapor barriers cause soil vapor to move laterally beyond a building footprint instead of into a building. In practice, vapor barriers are not able to completely eliminate vapor intrusion due to the likelihood of punctures, perforations, tears, and incomplete seals. As a result, regulatory guidance suggests vapor barriers be used in combination with passive venting or sub-slab depressurization (active mitigation).

Passive Venting

Passive venting involves installing a venting layer beneath a building to provide a pathway for soil vapor to move from below ground toward the sides of the building where it is vented outdoors. The system is designed to reduce or dilute subfloor contaminant levels. A venting layer can be included in new construction, but may be too expensive for an existing building. Passive venting is usually paired with a vapor barrier.

IMG00158 20100419 1622Passive venting systems typically consist of a layer of venting material (sand or pea gravel) emplaced below a floor slab to allow soil gas to move laterally under natural dilution or pressure difference. Soil vapor entering the venting layer is directed to the edge of the floor foundation by perforated pipes installed in the venting layer, either beneath the slab or at the periphery of the building foundation.

The vent piping usually comes together at a header pipe which runs vertically up the building wall and discharges above the roofline. Installation of a vertical inlet pipe that connects the vent layer with outside air and allows fresh air to enter the venting layer can help dilute chemical concentrations.

Regulatory guidance suggests constructing a passive venting system in a way that allows the system to become an active venting system with minimum effort if necessary (use of a fan or pump to move soil vapor from the venting layer to the header for discharge). Passive venting may not be appropriate in areas with a high groundwater table or surface water drainage problems because the venting layer will not work properly if saturated with water.

Finally, since the passive venting system discharges to air, it may need an air discharge permit to comply with applicable state or local air quality discharge regulations.

How do Passive Vapor Intrusion Mitigation (VIM) Methods Compare

Existing Building Versus New Construction

Sealing is appropriate for existing buildings and can be included into the design and construction of new buildings; however, in either case guidance suggests sealing be used with a barrier, passive venting, or sub-slab depressurization (as the name implies, used for slab-on-grade building construction). While sealing is applicable to new and existing buildings, it is not recommended as a stand alone VIM solution. 

When it comes to a vapor barrier or passive venting, installation in an existing building without a crawl space could be difficult and would likely require the floor to be removed and replaced. Removing and replacing a building floor, even if possible, would be expensive. As a general rule, VIM for an existing slab-on-grade building is restricted to sub-slab depressurization, an active VIM method. Sealing, vapor barrier, or passive venting are appropriate for new construction and existing  buildings with a crawl space, basement, or raised floor.

Sealing, Vapor Barrier, or Passive Venting

It is recommended that sealing or use of a vapor barrier include passive venting to counter the likelihood of leaks, punctures, perforations, tears, and incomplete seals. Sealing is already common practice in building construction and maintenance, so it is given that any existing or new construction is or should be sealed or re-sealed. This means in practice, most passive VIM systems will employ a vapor barrier and passive venting.

Other Passive VIM Methods

We took a look at three top passive VIM methods, but there are others. For example, in the case of new construction, installation of a building with a raised floor might be the best passive VIM method. A raised-floor design includes an open first floor or other well ventilated first floor design to interrupt vapor intrusion from entering the second story living/working space.

Another passive VIM method is termed “Institutional Control”. Institutional controls  typically use institutions (state, county or city government) to monitor and enforce property use controls through a land use covenant (LUC) or Covenant to Restrict Use of Property. The LUC may include multiple institutional controls with specific orders, prohibitions, restrictions and requirements to ensure property conditions under control remain unchanged and the risks, restrictions, and requirements to future buyers and occupants are disclosed.

An LUC may contain:

  • A notice that there is contamination that may cause vapor intrusion risk.
  • Prohibitions against specific uses of the property, interference with VIM systems, or activities that would disturb site conditions defined at the time the LUC is executed.
  • Property access agreements for the oversight institution and other relevant stakeholders.
  • Inspection and reporting requirements for the property owner.

For a LUC with California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the LUC must be approved by DTSC legal counsel and publicly recorded in the county recorder’s office.

Long-Term Responsibilities for Active Vapor Intrusion Mitigation Methods

All VIM methods mentioned require some sort of performance monitoring, so it is important to consider long-term responsibilities. For example, while passive venting avoids the long term cost to operate a fan or blower, it requires monitoring effectiveness by measuring chemical levels in sub-slab soil vapor or by measuring indoor levels. Similarly, use of sealing or a vapor barrier would require indoor air and sub-slab soil vapor sampling to monitor effectiveness.

To address the long-term nature of VIM, and the need to assure they work, regulatory oversight agencies typically expect VIM implementation to include a plan outlining operation and maintenance, monitoring, reporting, financial assurance, an implementation schedule, five-year review schedule, and identification of who is responsible for the work.

Passive Vapor Intrusion Mitigation Methods: An Overview and How We Can Help

We took a look at three top passive vapor intrusion mitigation methods. We found that for most cases, passive venting is the top passive VIM method, and that passive venting is used with sealing or a vapor barrier to provide eSxtra protection from vapor intrusion. We noted that in most cases, passive VIM is only applicable for new building construction or buildings with a crawl space, basement, or raised floor. We also noted that implementation of VIM requires long-term operation, maintenance, and monitoring to show effectiveness over the life of VIM.

Due to the toughness of some contaminants like PCE, cleanup limitations, and site constraints, complete cleanup to regulatory-approved levels is not often possible. In many cases VIM is relied on to keep a building safe and occupied during the span between active cleanup and low-threat case closure.

If your site is facing VIM, we can help. We have over 30 years of experience in solving environmental problems including VIM. To get more information, call 831-475-8141 or click on the button for a free consultation.