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Yokota to replace air-conditioning systems after mold complaints

By CHARLIE REED | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 2, 2009

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — A greenish, fuzzy mold has invaded recently renovated homes on the base, and officials are putting the finger on faulty air-conditioning systems.

Yokota Air Base plans to spend $500,000 this fall to improve inadequate and improperly installed systems, base officials said this week.

The external components of the air-conditioning systems at 260 "garden unit" townhouses on the east side of the base were mistakenly installed inside unsealed storage closets. Also, the systems themselves were designed to handle up to 72 percent humidity, not the 90 percent humidity common in Japan during the summer, said base spokesman Maj. Christopher Watt.

"It was an inadequate air conditioner for this climate," he said.

Watt said the base is not replacing the air-conditioning units, but instead plans to seal the storage closets and fit them with sensors that alert residents to the presence of high moisture content, which residents should then report to the housing office.

The units also will be adjusted to reduce the amount of air they produce because "they’re blowing too fast to pull out moisture," he said.

Adjusted units likely will take longer to cool homes but will greatly reduce the moisture content of the conditioned air, he said.

An assessment team from Pacific Air Forces headquarters at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii developed the improvement plan, said Joe Kirk, chief of facilities for Yokota’s housing office.

The team has come to Yokota to investigate the mold problem twice since complaints began surfacing after renovations were completed on the housing units in 2007, he said. The garden unit renovations were part of phases 2 and 3 of the $232.5 million basewide housing improvement project.

The housing office has fielded between 30 and 40 calls this summer from residents — both in the garden units and other housing areas — regarding mold problems, Kirk said.

One family was moved out of its renovated garden unit home temporarily while the mold was cleaned up. Another family, also in a renovated garden unit, was relocated to a different home altogether, Kirk said. Both had apparently left their homes for extended periods of time and returned to houses full of mold.

Officials say the mold is non-toxic, and families were moved out because members suffered from mold allergies.

During the assessment team’s latest visit in March, it sealed the HVAC closets for a handful of homes and adjusted the units, which "seems to be effective," Watt said.

Empsco Engineering Consultants out of Guam, the company responsible for the design work associated with the garden units as well as all seven phases of the massive renovation project, said its plans for the 260 garden homes complied with base standards.

During meetings between Empsco and base officials to discuss the air-conditioning and mold problems, it was determined that stricter oversight of the HVAC installation by Japanese contractors should be put in place as construction continues, said Jun Capulong, a civil engineer with Empsco.

"The way the Japanese do [HVAC installation] is different from the way we do it in the U.S.," Capulong said Tuesday from his office in Guam. "That was the big lesson learned."

Watt said housing to be renovated in upcoming phases will not be fitted with the inadequate air-conditioning systems.


Breaking the mold

Reports of mold in homes other than the renovated garden units indicate that this summer has been particularly humid and prime for mold problems.

Yokota Air Base’s 374th Civil Engineering Squadron began issuing letters to base residents last week on ways to reduce and prevent mold.

Tips include:

  • Using a dehumidifier

  • Opening curtains and blinds to let in light

  • Allowing outside air into your house every day

  • Keeping bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans on

  • Opening bathroom and closet doors occasionally so moisture can escape

The letter also advises residents in recently renovated garden units to turn off their air conditioning while they are away for extended periods because of the elevated amount of moist air they produce.

However, people in other housing going on extended vacations are advised to keep their air conditioning on and ask someone to periodically air out their houses while they are away.

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