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New lead regulations may raise home remodeling costs

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010, at 12:04 a.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010, at 7:53 a.m.

The price of remodeling homes is about to go up — way up, some contractors say — because of new regulations aimed at protecting homeowners from lead-based paint.

"This is absolutely the biggest change" to hit the remodeling industry in decades, said Tim Shigley, president of Shigley Construction in Wichita.

"It has a lot of legitimate contractors really worried. ... And our clients have no idea it's coming."

Beginning in April, federal law will require contractors who work in homes, child-care facilities or schools built before 1978 to be specially trained and certified and to follow more stringent work practices to prevent lead contamination.

Environmental officials say the new rules will more effectively prevent children from swallowing or inhaling toxic lead and protect contractors from costly litigation.

"We're doing it to protect everybody, but especially children," said Tom Langer, program manager with the Kansas Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Prevention Program at the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

"Lead hasn't gone away. It's there in the paint and hidden in the surface coatings, and that's still ... a health issue."

Although lead-based paint was outlawed in 1978, the risk of lead poisoning in children remains a health concern. Children who ingest lead-based paint can develop seizures, learning disabilities, behavior problems and intestinal ailments.

Several Wichita-area contractors said they agree with the goal of the new regulations. But they say additional fees, training and equipment will no doubt drive up their costs.

"The effect that this is going to have is just crippling," said Chad Bryan, general manager of Southwestern Remodeling. He estimates his company's cost per job will increase 8 to 10 percent.

"As lean as companies are running just to survive, it would be virtually impossible for us to incur those costs. So they're going to be transferred to the homeowner."

The new regulations outlined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will require contractors to:

* Have a trained and certified lead renovator on staff. (This requires an eight-hour class and at least two hours of hands-on training.)

* Post warning signs outside the work area.

* Contain and clean up dust according to EPA guidelines. Depending on the job, this could require sealing off the work area with plastic sheeting, isolating air vents and limiting access.

* Clean work areas with HEPA-equipped vacuums and other specialized tools.

* After cleanup, have the area tested and verified lead-free by an EPA-certified lead inspector.

The rules apply to anyone — carpenters, electricians, painters, plumbers and others — being paid for projects that disturb more than 6 square feet of potentially contaminated surfaces. Failure to follow them could result in fines of as much as $37,500 per day, per project.

Shigley said it's not just 50- or 100-year-old homes being affected. According to recent estimates, more than two-thirds of houses in Wichita were built prior to 1978 — which means lots of homeowners may be paying more for that new kitchen or bathroom.

"I'll have to say, 'Things have changed a little bit, and ... that bathroom we talked about that was going to be $35,000? It might be $45,000,' " Shigley said.

Truth is, says Shigley, he doesn't know how much costs will increase, because several aspects of the rules are still unknown. For instance: Will state regulations mirror the federal ones or be more restrictive? And how will the new regulations affect the cost of business liability insurance?

Langer, of the KDHE, said the work practices outlined in the new rules "have been going on very successfully for eight or nine years" among companies that bid for government projects.

"Really it's not much more than what most of the good contractors are already doing," Langer said.

"We have a good body of work that shows it can be done effectively, efficiently, in a safe and cost-effective manner. People still make money, and the work product at the end is excellent."

Contractors said the short window for compliance — having workers trained and certified by April 22 — will be challenging, if not impossible.

Shigley said he planned to get training on lead-safe practices at a remodeling conference last weekend, but reconsidered when he realized the curriculum might not meet state guidelines.

"It can't be done," he said of the timeline. "Even the state knows... they have a bottleneck."

Langer said the KDHE is "in the process of ramping up that capacity," identifying trainers and setting up classes. State regulations are in the "final revision stage," he said, and should be finalized by late February.

"We absolutely have a concern about getting everybody involved and trained and into the program like they should be," Langer said.

"We're going to work with (contractors) to provide the proper time for them to get where they need to be."

Some contractors worry that more homeowners will attempt projects themselves, since EPA restrictions don't apply to do-it-yourselfers. Or, said Bryan, of Southwestern Remodeling, it could inspire a sort of remodeling underground.

"People who care about clients and care about safety will do these things," he said. "But not everyone's going to do it."

The KDHE is planning a campaign to educate homeowners on the dangers of lead chips and dust. It will include booths at area home shows, posters at home improvement stores and video tutorials, Langer said.

He said the new rules "have far-reaching implications for good," and compared them to safety measures considered standard, such as seat belts.

"Even though there's resistance at the beginning, over time I think we'll all see the benefits of it," Langer said. "Maybe contractors themselves will look back on this and say, 'You know, it wasn't that bad.' "

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com.

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