The “A” Word

Seriously, people of the past, popcorn ceilings? Some things I can understand, like shag carpeting. It’s not my thing, but I can at least imagine why it was popular at some point. Popcorn ceilings? Appearance aside, after two months, they’re already collecting cobwebs and dust and are horrible to clean, let alone 20 years. And it’s just adding insult to injury that they often contain asbestos. Ugh.

One of the first things we did in the house was have the popcorn ceilings (in our living and dining rooms) tested for asbestos, and sure enough, it was in there.

We knew from our inspection that the electrical service to the house, the breaker panel, and the wiring all needed some attention, as well as the wood floors, some plaster repairs from water damage, and a few coats of paint. After a bunch of conversations with different contractors, we finally figured out the proper order of operations for that work: removing the popcorn ceiling, all the electrical work, plaster repairs, paint, and finally refinishing the floors.

By the time we got an asbestos abatement contractor in to bid on the job, there was only a week before we wanted the electricians to start, and we learned that licensed abatement professionals need to wait 10 days after submitting their permit application before they can start work. Hmm.

In the course of reading about asbestos in general, we found the impressive Puget Sound Clean Air Agency website, and learned it’s possible to do the work yourself (without the waiting period). So after much discussion, we decided that I (Dave) would do the removal with our friend Faye. This is a favor that, truly, money can’t buy (since you’re not legally allowed to hire anyone except a licensed contractor to perform the work, and they have the waiting period). We owe you big time, Faye!

The PS Clean Air website has very clear step-by-step directions on removing popcorn ceilings that contain asbestos, and I was able to procure all the requisite safety gear from either Western Safety or Home Depot (for those in Seattle doing this yourself, Western Safety actually has the better pricing on a lot of the gear, especially the 6 mil plastic sheeting).

Last Friday afternoon, another friend came over and we started putting up plastic sheeting.


This job took a remarkable amount of duct tape, along with the 6 mil plastic.



And here we are, ready to go with a layer on the floor, then the walls, then another layer plastic loose on the floor:


The process is not complicated, just tedious and a bit more cumbersome than it might otherwise seem given the required outfit of a Tyvek suit, gloves taped to the sleeves of the suit, a half-face respirator and goggles. Thankfully, the popcorn ceiling in our home was unpainted, which makes removal a lot easier: spray it down with a water/detergent mix, then scrape it off. So that’s how I spent my Saturday morning.



As you can see, piles of the gloppy plaster/foam/asbestos mix wind up on the floor.

From there, you strategically fold up the loose plastic and stuff it into special bags, just for asbestos disposal. We were left with some kind of plaster board ceiling, which we wiped down with wet rags (to get as much of the bad stuff off as possible) and then painted over with a primer to seal up whatever might have been left behind. Then we pulled down the remaining plastic, stuffed it into yet more bags, and eventually hosed ourselves and all the tools off on the front porch.


Even though Squeaky (our truck) would have been more than up to the task of hauling the bags, you’re not allowed to transport asbestos waste in open vehicles, so we jammed all 8 bags into our little Corolla. It was pretty hilarious showing up at the disposal center (again, the excellent Puget Sound Clean Air Agency website has a list of locations that accept this kind of waste) in line with the giant trash and recycling trucks, but to their credit, they treated me well and charged me about $90 for the 8 bags. Best deal in town.

We’re quite pleased with the results in the end – popcorn free ceilings!


We definitely didn’t choose to do this ourselves to save money, but it did save quite a bit – I think we spent ~$350, and the abatement company had quoted $2800. Not too surprising, since it’s a very labor-intensive job. Also worth noting that the setup and cleanup took about 4x as long as the actual scraping.

Would I recommend this to someone else, or do it again? Not really. I found it altogether unpleasant, since you’re cooped up in a plastic suit for hours, working overhead, lifting heavy and wet plastic bags, and fumbling around in gloves, googles and respirator. But I do feel that we did it safely (and legally). And I’m thrilled it’s done.