When shelter-in-place lockdowns shuttered small businesses across the country early this year, commercial spaces everywhere went dark abruptly. In many cases, they stayed dark for prolonged periods as cities throughout the country remained in quarantine.
Understandably, many small business leaders and facility managers turned down the lighting and HVAC systems in their buildings – or turned them off completely – to save money while their doors remained closed. Many likely assumed air conditioning and light weren't necessary in buildings with no occupants.
The reality, however, is that dark places without climate control, especially when sitting closed up for prolonged periods of time, can mean big problems for small businesses, particularly in the form of mold growth.
Not only does the lack of cool air and light contribute to building environments ripe for mold growth, but small water leaks could spread quickly without the day-to-day maintenance that might have addressed such issues prior to COVID-19 shutdowns. Where Band-Aid fixes might have once sufficed, small issues like water leaks have the opportunity to grow into a bigger problem, as water, stagnant air, and moisture together form hot spots for mold growth.
Unfortunately, such a story is not just hypothetical, either. Mold has already taken businesses around the world by surprise. For example, when one Malaysian retailer opened its doors after months of keeping them closed during lockdown, its owners discovered expensive items such as leather shoes, bags and belts covered in mold, and in some cases, the merchandise was completely ruined. Even if mold doesn't destroy your products, it can induce many other negative consequences for your business.
Mold: unnerving, expensive and unwanted
Whether you've already opened up your physical location or are revving up to do so after partial or full shutdown, take the time to examine your entire space and look for any possible indicators of mold growth. Even if you didn't turn off the air and kept HVAC equipment working at minimal capacity, those small water leaks or other types of moisture buildup could still have created an environment for mold to blossom.
What makes mold so detrimental for small businesses, particularly right now?
First of all, mold remediation is not only expensive (costing up to $6,000 for large jobs), but it also typically requires people to vacate the space. In other words, you could be ushering out occupants almost as soon as you've welcomed them back in, which could hinder their trust in your ability to provide a safe and welcoming space. This is true for both employees, who return to work only to leave again, and customers, who see your doors are open and then quickly closed.
Then, even after a mold remediation specialist has cleared the mold from your space, you must still carefully monitor the situation to prevent it from returning. Especially as people are understandably worried about their health, hygiene and wellness right now, workers and customers don't want to spend their time in a workplace or store where they might come in contact with something so potentially detrimental to their health as mold. The prevalence of mold sensitivity in the general population is estimated to be as high as 10%, meaning that a significant number of your employees and customers might have adverse health issues if exposed.
Some employees can be very sensitive to even small amounts of mold spores. When they breathe in moldy particles, they might wheeze, cough, choke or tear up. Currently, everyone is on high alert for indicators that people around them are sick, and they might mistake an allergic reaction for something far different and more alarming.
In addition to being expensive to remove and possibly damaging to your building occupants' health, mold can also lead to extensive damage that's difficult or impossible to repair, as seen in the leather retailer example above. What's more, in addition to damaging your inventory, a mold infestation can attack your building's structural elements, requiring costly repairs and replacements.
When cleaning and mold sometimes go hand in hand
Even if you haven't noticed any mold in your facility so far, it is important to consider that the type of floor cleaning you applied during your reopening phase and continue to use for building upkeep could open the door for mold growth. Specifically, if you opt for a hot-water extraction carpet cleaning method, you could be courting mold unintentionally, especially if cleaning teams don't use appropriate drying methods.
This isn't to suggest that you shouldn't clean your carpets and textiles. You definitely should. They've been sitting unused for months and require a thorough once-over. Plus, regular floor and carpet cleaning is important for maintaining any building. The problem, however, is that wall-to-wall hot-water carpet cleaning introduces extensive amounts of moisture into your floor and air space, leaving you at risk for mold growth.
While most of that water will be sucked up and drained away, plenty of it could remain soaked in the carpet. It is very easy for mold to pop up in spots and begin to spread, even though the carpet has technically been cleaned.
Bypassing the issue of mold for good
So how can you protect your business, your building, your employees and your customers from mold growth while also making sure your carpets stay clean? Here are a few useful steps:
1. Understand the carpet cleaning process your service building contractor offers.
Maybe you've asked your SBC to perform carpet cleaning but don't know what the method will be. Find out whether it's hot-water extraction or dry compound. Hopefully, it's not bonnet cleaning, which can both void manufacturer warranties and lead to faster wear and tear on the carpet.
Don't feel strange asking about the process, either. You deserve to know which method your cleaning provider plans to use so you can make sure you aren't exposing your building to more problems. Once you know the method, you can look up the equipment and process on the Carpet and Rug Institute's website to learn more.
2. Keep lights and air conditioning on full power.
If you have your carpets cleaned with any method involving water, keep the lights and HVAC activated until you know all the fibers are thoroughly dry. You won't save money by allowing your building to sit dark and damp overnight. Yes, budgets are tight, but the price you'll pay on your utility bill will pale in comparison to the cost of professional mold remediation.
Even after carpets have been cleaned and dried, it is beneficial to monitor the air in your space. You want to keep humidity levels low – less than 50% – to prevent mold growth. A dehumidifier along with your air conditioner can help keep the humidity down.
3. Bring in the big fans.
Again, if you choose any wet cleaning methods for your carpet, ask your cleaning provider to leave fans on treated areas overnight and retrieve them in the morning. The last thing you want is for them to remove the fans before your carpet is dry down to the backing and not just at the top of the pile.
4. Communicate frequently with your space's stakeholders.
As a final way to beat mold at its stealthy game, keep the line of communications open with your SBCs and any other stakeholders, such as your janitorial provider and security team. Be sure you're all on the same page when it comes to making your space clean and mold-free without compromising on quality. The better you can communicate, the better the results will be.
Mold didn't take a break during the pandemic. Conduct due diligence to make sure it's not trying to invade your space and thwart your reopening plans.