November 17, 2011

He’s in the business of detecting lead in older homes

While businessmen have been known to complain about government regulations, one new rule inspired Derrick O’Keefe to start his own company.

While businessmen have been known to complain about government regulations, one new rule inspired Derrick O’Keefe to start his own company.

O’Keefe started Lead Testers in response to the 2010 Kansas regulation that requires all pre-1978 homes to be tested for lead-based paint prior to renovation, repair or painting.

"It was big news when they were going to change it," O’Keefe said. "There was a buzz around town. Everybody was in an uproar because it really changed how you’re supposed to work on houses."

O’Keefe said his one-man operation provides fast, cost-effective testing for lead-based paint thanks to an expensive piece of technology called an XRF (X-ray fluorescence) analyzer. Looking like a ray gun from an old sci-fi movie, the analyzer shoots out gamma rays and makes an X-ray based on reflections that bounce off lead. Information from the analyzer is then downloaded onto a computer.

"It can go to five or six or seven layers of paint," O’Keefe said. "It tests the first 1/8 inch in front of the surface. Usually the first layer is not lead-based paint."

Most of his jobs cost $200 to $500, he said, and the test results are available within a day.

Lead-based paint was banned in 1978 because the health damage it can cause. The percentage of homes with lead-based paint increases with their age, from about 5 percent of homes built in the 1970s to about half of homes from the 1950s to virtually all homes constructed in the 1940s and before, O’Keefe said.

O’Keefe, 26, grew up in Wichita and returned here after majoring in entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, where he also worked in construction and ran a small T-shirt business. O’Keefe said both his father and stepfather own their own businesses.

"When I have a problem, they give me advice," he said. "It’s a support system."

O’Keefe has marketed his business by renting a booth at the Wichita Home Show and personally visiting contractors and insurance agents that might use his services.

"A lot of contractors don’t realize there’s someone out there to help them," he said, adding that some contractors have simply stopped working on older homes as a result.

O’Keefe has been surprised at the demand from other types of customers, including homeowners, a senior-citizens home that wanted its facility tested, a historic community center that was being remodeled, and an oil company that was demolishing a plant.

"A lot of people just want peace of mind," he said. "If they want to sell their house, they can say it’s lead-free."

O’Keefe also worked for the parents of a child who was found to have elevated levels of lead in his blood. He determined that the problem may have been caused by the remodeling of an area of the family’s house that was painted in the 1940s.

O’Keefe said he did a considerable amount of research before investing in the XRF analyzer. He said taking paint chip samples – another method of testing – is too slow for many customers because the samples must be taken to a laboratory. Inexpensive testing devices sold in home stores are not sufficient under Kansas law, he said, although some other states allow them.

While the number of homes with lead-based paint will diminish with time, O’Keefe said he’s hoping to hire an employee in the near future.

"I’m looking to grow this year," he said.

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