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An Interview with Edward Ballaron, Technician Manager

Eddie Ballaron, Technician Manager of Adviro in San Jose, CAToday on the blog we’re sharing a recent interview we had with Edward Ballaron, the Technician Manager at Adviro. Eddie is going to explain the process involved in helping homeowners who have had their homes damaged by smoke and fire. As an environmental testing and consulting company in California, testing for smoke and fire damage is a critical service in an area that is prone to wildfires.

Interviewer: Welcome!

Edward: Thanks for inviting me!

Interviewer: Edward, how does a smoke and fire project typically start at Adviro?

Edward: We typically get phone calls from customers due to some sort of wildfire in their area or around their home. For example, this past summer with the Santa Cruz mountain fire, we had a lot of people call in.

Now the interesting thing is, most of these people are insured if their house were to burn down. So, if your house is burned down, then it was obviously affected by the fire. Insurance companies are happy to pay for that.

Eddie collects samples of fire and smoke damage of a home in the California.
Eddie Ballaron of Adviro, an environmental testing company in the SF Bay Area, collects samples of fire and smoke damage from a hillside home in California.

Now where the gray area lies is when the fire is in close proximity—[the fire] doesn’t really affect the actual house, but there is smoke intrusion into the home.

A lot of the times that smoke intrusion is very obvious because you can just walk into the house and your eyes start burning. It’s very potent, with just a strong smoke smell. You can even see discoloration on the walls, but to some of our clients, it’s really very subtle.

So, insurance companies are often in situations like that. They’re very reluctant to pay for any sort of remediation, any sort of professional cleaning. So, when clients call us, their goal is to prove that there was some sort of smoke intrusion and contamination in the home.

Interviewer: Now, given all that, the next question is how do you actually do that?

Edward: We work in conjunction with our lab, Prism Analytical, and they work on a lot of testing projects with VOCs (volatile organic compounds). We’ve worked closely with them in developing sampling techniques that can help in situations like these.

First, we use ash and char sampling. This is for situations where there’s a large incident of smoke intrusion, and lot of material gets into the house. You can actually see the ash and char—physically see it.

So, in situations where it’s obvious, you can use a broom, sweep it up, send it and into the lab and they’ll say, yep, that’s actually it.

Interviewer: Do you document what you do?

Edward: Yeah, we do. Yes. We document everything—not only areas that we sample, but also areas that we don’t sample. We really try to document every location where there is some sort of, you know, fire generated smoke.

Interviewer: Is that outside the house or just inside the house?

Edward: Typically, we’ll only sample inside the house. But if I’m on site, I’ll take pictures of every location where I can find material like that.

Interviewer: And does that include the garage?

Edward: Yes. Also, the attic is a place that people pay close attention to in situations like this, because attics aren’t really sealed off from the exterior environment. With modern buildings that use fiberglass insulation, it’s almost like a sponge for smoke. So what people end up doing is they get their attic insulation replaced as a part of the remediation process.

So back to sampling, I can often just sweep it up into like a little bin and put it in our sampling vessel. However, if there are situations where it’s not as obvious, so I do tape lift samples. These are pieces of professional sampling tape that we can put on glass slides. We’ll just go to different locations and take table examples. And, the lab will be able to determine the concentration [and type of] material in those samples. Those types of tape samples are nice when it’s not as obvious that there is smoke damage.

You can also do a general composite sample when the smoke is so invasive—if one sample comes back, it’s the best to assume it’s all been contaminated and just get a full house professional for remediation?

Interviewer: So, when you test, do you also test objects that have been bought by the client, like for instance, their couch, if it’s made of fabric? Or do you test basically structures like the wall?

Edward: Yes, we can. We generally test flat surfaces because it’s in those types of surfaces where [the particles are] going to be everywhere. The best places to pick it up on are a desk or something like that. Sampling textiles comes with its own challenges, so it’s best to test really easy areas to sample.

Personal items may already have smoke from cigarettes or something like that. It’s best just to sort of group things in together because often testing and analysis [can add up]. And, people are usually working with the budget.

Interviewer: Do you test certain rooms or all rooms? How is that decided upon?

Edward: I usually go from room to room with one tape lift to tape locations. If the client really wants to get into the nitty gritty, the sampling can be more fine-tuned where we could do this room or that room.

But like I said, with smoke intrusion events, it’s so invasive that if one sample comes back, it’s just best to assume that it’s all contaminated.

Interviewer: Is there an air sample taken as well?

Edward: Yeah. That’s the second part of it. In addition to material like ash and char, there also is a VOC component related to smoke intrusion.

Where that comes in is we can do one of two tests — or both if they want— a wipe sample and an air. This is also through Prism Analytical. What happens is we set up an air sample for example, and they’ll look for two types of indicators for fire. The first are primary indicators and the second is secondary fire indicators.

The primary indicators are VOC or volatile organic compounds that are directly generated by fire and really has no other source. So, if you find one of these sorts of compounds, you know exactly what it’s from: combustion. The second are secondary fire indicators [can also come] from combustion, but they also could have potential other secondary sources from inside a home, like a log burning.

Acrolein is a common secondary fire indicator and that you can find from wood-burning stoves. You can often you find those in [Santa Cruz’s] mountain houses.

In any sort of fire, smoke rises. So, I’ll test high areas on walls because a lot of that material will go to the walls. We can pick up some of those VOCs through a white circle as well. So, you can think of those two types of samples as tools that paint the picture in terms of what happened in a home.

So, what they really do is use the primary indicators and a combination of the secondary indicators to tell a full picture — some sort of evidence for smoke intrusion material that shows acrolein. Our reports really get into the specific compounds.

Interviewer: That’s great. So, there’s a very thorough process. Everything you could possibly think of to test.

Edward: Yeah, it’s very specific. The lab techs are smart and they know what to do. So, the end result of all of this to convince insurance companies that, “Hey, there was a smoke intrusion — and a lot of these chemicals or compounds are detrimental to your health.”

Interviewer: So, what do you tell your clients before you come over? Do they need to do anything in particular to get ready for a testing?

Edward: I usually say don’t clean anything. This is typically what happens within weeks of a fire occurring. I tell them to leave everything as is—closed house conditions. And that just means to close doors because we want is to see if there are VOCs adhered to the walls. VOCs provide off-gases, so we want those gases building up [to document] a worst-case scenario situation, which is seeing a high concentration of these types of compounds.

If you have open house conditions, like windows or doors, this is going to dilute a lot of those compounds and you don’t want that if you’re trying to prove that it’s contaminated.

Interviewer: What is the time period?

Edward: It’s most effective right after.

Interviewer: Is there a time period where it really becomes ineffective?

Edward: Yeah, there is. Now what that time period is, I’m not necessarily sure, it depends on the location and how much time has passed. These are called volatile organic compounds and the definition of volatile is that they don’t stick around for very long. So, you really want to test as soon as possible.

Now we’ve tested months after [an incident] and we have picked up readings on it.

Interviewer: So maybe up to three months later?

Edward: Correct—with ventilation and all that sort of stuff, three months a safe thing to say. It’s tough though because there are a lot of different compounds that are covered in the testing.

Interviewer: So typically, it’s best to get tested as soon as possible, because it all depends on, on the type of home you have, what kind of ventilation, and what kind of fire it was — correct?

Edward: Yes.

Interviewer: And what is the whole process of getting tested?

Edward: The air sample is a two-hour air sample. So that’s a very specific, we can run it for maximum four because you’re going to get the best signal for longer run period. But, as far as wipes and ash and certain {charter?} samples, that’s going to be it.

We found good success with some very challenging houses, considering it’s sometimes really difficult to smell anything. And that’s why insurance adjusters want this testing because it’s difficult. Even if you can’t really smell something, it comes back positive for some of them.

Interviewer: Wow. So once the sampling is done, and you bring it out to the lab, how long is the turnaround time?

Edward: I usually generate a report the same day. However, it’s five days for a full report—from when you to get the report back to the client, or for you to get the report from the lab, then you take it to the client, both. Okay.

Within those five days of [processing the report], the report goes to the office. We have a report writer who generates all the reports, and then once that’s signed off, we’ll send it immediately to the client.

Interviewer: That’s really good. And once they get the report, are you still involved with it? Do you tell them what their possible options are?

Edward: There are findings in the report — which basically summarizes the findings — but also any sort of recommendations based off that.

For example, if the VOC fire report comes back and it says “the fire VOC results below indicate that a small amount of fire and smoke residue is present”. And/or it says that we’re going to recommend some sort of cleaning work, then we send out referrals. And essentially, the client will call those referrals.

But in terms of discussing results and things like that, you know they can call us anytime and we can do whatever they need.

Interviewer: That’s great. So how does your smoke testing compare to other testers in the area?

Edward: I would say we focus mainly on the indoor environment. You can go to other companies and get full environmental impact reports, but that’s going to cost you upwards of 10 grand, maybe even more. And if you want to go that route, that’s totally fine. But really what we focus on is the indoor environment. That’s what we find success in — that is our specialty.

Interviewer: So, in terms of clients, what geographic areas have called Adviro for your services? Have any areas in the Sierras called or is it primarily Santa Cruz, Napa and Sonoma?

Edward: Mostly Santa Cruz [and some in the Napa area] up north in Petaluma. We’ve had some Santa Rosa fire projects as well, when the fires were happening, also keep in mind that we don’t necessarily always do wildfires.

Interviewer: How are they finding you when they do call from those areas? Do they say they’ve just found you on online?

Edward: Yeah, generally it’s, you know, just organic searches on Google. I would say words like “environmental smoke”

Interviewer: Speaking of Google, what phrases do people use to find this particular service?

Edward: Testing environmental… fire testing… words like those are key words. Testing wildfire… wild fire damage… that’s another good one. Smoke damage, maybe smoke damage… smoke intrusion.

I noticed that companies recommend specific companies. That’s been my experience with the Cruz mountain fires. They’re a tight knit community up there, and they really talk amongst each other through their Facebook pages.

Someone there actually posted our reports that they had gotten from us. And so, people ended up calling us based off recommendations from other people within their little, uh, mountain community, Facebook group.

Interviewer: Can we talk about the packages that you offer for fire testing?

It actually comes down to the client’s budget and what they need. It’s kind of like mix and match— and usually it’s a combination of a wipe and air VOC sample. But, I we do have some packages.

Interviewer: How successful have the homes been at getting insurance to pay up once they get a report from Adviro saying that yes, there are VOCs.

Edward: Generally, testing result have been received very positively, according to clients. And insurance has been able to work with that. This is for initial testing, but we can also do clearances too.

A clearance is where a client wants to test, so they can get their insurance company to pay for cleaning. They’ll have to pay for is the clearance, which basically like an air or wipe sample just to make sure that the cleaning was effective.

Interviewer: OK, so there’s a testing, but they can also just ask for a clearance?

Yeah. The initial testing really is to get insurance companies to pay for cleaning. If the insurance company is going to pay for professional cleaning— there’s really no benefit for initial testing. And so your money is better suited paying for some sort of [clearance?]

So, after cleaning has been done, [a clearance] makes sure that that cleaning was effective. Basically, if you’re a homeowner, even before you go to the insurance company, you can have somebody clean up because you think there’s smoke damage. And then after the cleanup has happened, then you go in to test whether it’s been effective or not.

If it hasn’t been effective, then you can take this information to your insurance company. I would never recommend people clean themselves. Usually, homeowners will try to get their insurance company to pay for some sort of cleaning.

Then, if the insurance company doesn’t want to pay for it, they come to us to test that. And that’s where the initial testing comes in—to [prove there’s a need for cleaning ] to the insurance companies. Now, sometimes the insurance companies will already be willing to pay for the cleaning, so there’s really no point in testing if the insurance company is going to do that.

Their money is better suited paying for testing after the cleaning is done. They can see if the cleaning was effective—and if it’s not effective, then they can go back to the insurance company and say, “The cleaning didn’t pass. Can you come back and clean some more?” to get the remediation company to come back out. [That’s basically the entire process.]

Interviewer: Thank you so much Edward for sharing your knowledge and expertise in the area of smoke and fire testing. I’m sure a lot of people will find this information very helpful as well as a great resource on what to expect. We really appreciate it!

Edward: Thank you for having me.

In summary
Adviro provides fire and smoke testing and consulting services focused on finding environmental hazards within indoor environments. Headquartered in San Jose, company serves all of California doing testing only—not remediation. Adviro work with independent labs, ensuring non-biased results and the highest standards in testing. For more information, feel free to contact the company by email at info@goadviro.com.