At CERTI, we are frequently called on for advice by students. More and more, we have been receiving calls from measurement professionals who have been asked to do a radon survey in a large building, such as a school, or an apartment complex with several apartments distributed throughout several buildings. This is happening more often as owners of large buildings are taking recommended action or are being required to do so by lenders or state requirements. Those requirements typically state testing be performed by certified or licensed individuals. Hence, phone calls are made to certified individuals who are likely more familiar with performing tests on individual homes. So, let’s dig a little into this.
Question 1: What is the type of structure and purpose of the survey?
The answer to this question defines what protocol you may be following. If it is a full survey on a school, the School and Large Building Standard is to be followed. If it is an apartment complex, the Multi-Family Testing protocol would be the basis. Both standards can be read at https://standards.aarst.org/ or purchased for local use.
If the purpose of the survey is to assess the entire campus or complex, that typically will mean 100% of ground contact and occupied locations and 10% of upper floor units in a multi-story complex. In an apartment situation, at a minimum, this involves one test location per living unit meeting the previous criteria. In a school, it would typically mean every occupied, ground contact room (including small offices, music practice rooms, classrooms, teacher lounges, etc.).
One can imagine there could be a lot of test locations and hence a lot of test devices — like hundreds! So sequentially placing your CRM is not feasible. Since all locations should be tested at the same time you will likely need to use passive devices like Activated Charcoal, Electret Ion Chambers or Liquid Scintillation.
Also, the protocols lay out two basic timing strategies:
- Extended: where one places individual devices in each test location (plus 10% duplicates and 5% blanks) and retests locations exhibiting elevated levels. If it is likely you will have some elevated results, this could lead to a second mobilization and testing campaign.
- Time Sensitive: Where two devices are deployed in each test location (plus 5% Blanks) and no follow-up testing is required even if the average of collocated devices yields an elevated reading. So just one campaign-but more devices.
The answer to the question as to why the survey is needed is important as it will help decide which approach you will take. If it is for closing out a multi-family, new construction project, the developer is not likely to want to extend the testing period and hence delay financing. If it is a school often the extended approach is more feasible.
Question 2: How much should I charge per test?
First, it is inadvisable to quote a per test cost. Large surveys are a lot different than a test for a single-family house sale. Our suggestion is to step back and estimate your time for each of the elements that are needed, plus the cost of the devices and base your quote on a fixed bid or time and material basis. Most clients will prefer a fixed bid basis but be sure to include all of your assumptions.
If you propose a per test price you could get burned if the actual number of device locations is less than you estimated which would not allow you to recover your allocated overhead costs. This can certainly happen when testing an apartment complex and a tenant refuses access, has changed a lock or the apartment is too dangerous to enter.
Here are a few elements you should consider in addition to the cost of your measurement devices:
- Communication Plan: You should develop notices that are to be distributed by your client’s agent in advance of the survey. This typically is a community wide notice, via their Internet or “blast” communication system. It will also include individual notices, such as door hanger notices. If you are tasked to distribute these, figure that time and effort, or better yet include that as their responsibility in your assumption list. Regardless, you will spend time customizing the notices.
- Logistics: This is the organization of a lot of test devices, log sheets, office blanks, randomly identifying field and office blanks and cleaning up of floorplans in advance of deployment. It is a lot more than grabbing your CRM and heading out the door.
Another time consideration is providing your insurance information, registering as a vendor, etc. with your client. These clients are often large concerns and have several hoops you must jump through before you do business with them.
- Deployment: If you have spent the time organizing, this goes pretty quickly and to help make it go smoothly here are a few suggestions:
- Use a two-person deployment team from your office. One person is logging device IDs, annotating locations on log sheets and floor plans. The other person deploys the device in the room. The two banter back and forth verifying locations and ID numbers. The deployment person also makes the determination if a room is really a testable location (such as this is clearly a storage room rather than an occupied room). The deployment person is also looking for occupied rooms that were not included in your estimate. It is amazing after conducting hundreds of large building surveys the pluses typically balance out the deletions and your original estimate is pretty close.
- Require a building representative to accompany you. This should clearly be stated in your proposal. You don’t want to be unlocking doors or entering personal spaces on your own. Too much liability! Too many ferocious dogs! Discovery of illicit activities and accusations of stolen property. Let the building representative open door, say it is clear and then enter.
With a three-person team, with one being a building representative (who moves ahead of you unlocking doors) you can easily deploy devices in a location in a minute or less. So, a school for example with 75 locations can be done easily in 2 hours after including set up and reviewing plans and getting out. Also don’t forget to include travel time and mileage to the site and back.
- Between Deployment and Retrieval
- Organize all your logs and diagrams in a format that will be used for the final report. Formalizing the logs before you retrieve will help you catch possible mistakes
- Use the formalized log sheets when you retrieve the devices to verify anomalies but take your handwritten logs for back-up.
- Retrieval: Retrieval generally takes half the time of deployment, but you still have travel time and mileage to account for.
- If possible, use the same two-person team and building representative as you did during deployment.
- Check retrieved devices against the deployment logs to verify ID and locations, identify data entry errors, and to make sure all devices are retrieved.
- Report: Most large building clients require a formal report. The standards list a number of things to include in a report, but the time consuming ones beyond those listed include:
- A table of results including individual measurements and averages of duplicates
- A floor plan of building with results shown for each location
- An assessment of QA/QC measures and survey confidence
- A detailed description of the conditions that existed during the test
- Recommendations for follow-up action
- Need for investigation
- How to address lost detectors or rooms that could not be accessed during survey.
A proper report can take several hours to prepare including re-drafts. So, allocate for that time and professionalism as well.
The previous should give you a basis for estimating your labor cost. As one can imagine, there is a lot more time involved in activities outside of deploying and retrieving the devices. In fact, most of the effort is involved in the front and back end, so one can see why pricing a survey on a cost per test basis can be problematic.
A few other things for you to consider or stipulate in your bid:
- What happens if you deploy a device and it cannot be retrieved or is lost?
- Will you attempt to re-test it later and at what cost?
- Advice: Stipulate in your proposal that your cost is based upon a single deployment and retrieval and if some are lost you have grounds to negotiate a change order – if you choose to.
- What happens if you cannot gain access to a testable location?
- Advice: Stipulate that you are not responsible for lack of access to a testable location and there will be no reduction in contract amount.
- Include normal overhead charges for insurance, certification fees, etc.
- Include cost of devices (and QA/QC devices) and shipping as well as and cost for spiking (3%)
- In some cases, especially when testing new apartments, the client may want you to test buildings as they are finished, rather than all the buildings at one time. Be certain to identify that schedule and plan for multiple trips and reports or stipulate in assumptions that all buildings to be tested concurrently.
- When testing a building that is not occupied 24-7, such as a school or an office building, do not test over the weekend or holidays when the building is unoccupied. The HVAC system operates differently on the weekends and a survey done during those times is likely to be thrown out, which is very embarrassing to the tester.
- Will you attempt to re-test it later and at what cost?
So how do you price a survey?
Start with a floor plan of a building. Have your prospective client send you a fire escape plan. Go through it and mark what rooms you think should be tested. This is the crucial piece of an estimate as well as your final report. It would be a good idea to include a scan of the marked-up floor plan with your proposal to provide a defensible basis for how you arrived at your pricing. It can also provide your client with the opportunity to review what rooms are appropriate and make a revision. But again, avoid a per location test price as you have a lot of overhead to cover.
Hopefully this article won’t discourage you from doing large surveys. They can be profitable if you look at the time and effort involved. In fact, the bulk of your effort involves fixed cost for planning, reports and the test devices represent a relatively minor variable cost for the project.