ATP Testing: Determining Conditions and Verifying Cleanliness
December 3, 2012
“Trust, but verify”
It was President Ronald Regan who coined this phrase when dealing with the Russians during the Cold War and reduction of nuclear weapons.
So you might ask what that has to do with the restoration industry. Over the last 35 years, I’ve seen the process of restoring homes and businesses go from a simple, unsophisticated approach to a complex, scientific and professional service.
Despite the increased level of professionalism, there seems to be an increasing amount of distrust between insurance providers and the restoration industry - it seems that almost every invoice is now challenged. At a recent seminar on this subject, a group of restorers was asked what services/charges they got push-back on and in some cases, outright refusal, to pay from the adjuster. Their responses were varied and extensive but the more common ones were too many air movers or dehumidifiers, drying times, air scrubbers, 10 & 10, disinfectants, categories of loss and too much demolition.
I still occasionally hear about restoration contractors getting paid without documentation, but anymore it’s rare. Complete, accurate documentation is the best way to deal with mistrust.
The restorer has great tools and instruments to detect water and to measure air conditions and moisture content. These instruments are effective in measuring conditions and drying progress. But we have not had readily available and affordable tools to measure levels of contaminants in the air and on damaged surfaces. Regarding surface contamination, the IICRC S500 has established contamination guidelines for water damage by classifying the loss in a Category of 1, 2 or 3. These categories have helped, but we must admit that they are subjective rather than science-based. A worst-case scenario is often assumed.
When dealing with water damage, there are some certainties. For example, a clean water line inside the home that has not migrated far from its source would be a Category 1 loss. On the other hand, where raw sewage is present, it would certainly qualify as a Category 3 loss. But – and a big emphasis on “but” - everything in between those two circumstances is up for debate and educated guesses and most water losses fall into this grey area.
Associated with this dilemma is the question of whether or not disinfectants should be applied? What cleaning steps are needed? How do we know if the disinfectant and cleaning were effective? What should be cut out and thrown away and what should be dried in place? And since the restoration contractor has not been able to test and verify levels of contamination, the insurance industry has had to trust. I think we would all agree that trust without verification will and has led to the mistrust earlier spoken of.
ATP (adenosine triphosphate) testing is the solution to the problem of questionable categorization of contamination and to determining the effectiveness of disinfectants and cleaning procedures. ATP is present in all organic material and is the universal unit of energy used in all living cells. ATP testing uses bioluminescence to detect residual ATP on surfaces. This is a measure of surface cleanliness. The presence of high ATP numbers on a surface or in standing water indicates greater contamination, which indicates the presence of organic material, usually bacterial and/or fungal growth. It also implies the potential for the surface to support additional growth.
With ATP testing, a restoration contractor can test the initial condition of surfaces and standing water to determine the level of contamination and thus categorize the loss more accurately as 1, 2 or 3. The testing can also be used during the cleaning and drying processes to determine progress. And finally, at the completion of the job, testing can verify clean and sanitary materials and surfaces.
To do ATP testing, a meter called a “luminometer” (approximately $1,200) and test swabs (approximately $2.50 each) are required. The disposable test swab is swiped across a 4-inch square area in both directions and then returned to its container where a snap lid releases an activating liquid called a reagent. The swab is then dropped into the luminometer and in 15 seconds, a reading appears indicating the level of contamination. Initial readings may indicate hundreds – if not thousands – of ATP contamination. But when cleaning and sanitation are complete, the surface should read 50 or below.* It is important to note that several independent parties are involved in pursuing more exact numerical quantification for our industry, so more clarification will be coming before long. ATP testing is already recognized in Xactware under the code (WTR TESTATP) and pays approximately $20 per test.
ATP testing is a win, win, win! First, it is a win for the homeowner. They will now be able to see, through scientific testing, that their home is as clean and sanitary (likely more so) than it was before the loss. Second, it’s a win for the insurance provider, who can now know with surety if the loss does or doesn’t need demolition and, at completion, if the restorer succeeded. Finally, the restorer can now verify what the loss was, that they succeeded in returning it to pre-loss conditions and get paid!
*Disclaimer: As of this writing, it is important to note that an exact numerical determination has not been established and broadly accepted that corresponds to Category 1, 2, or 3 losses, nor to “sanitized” condition. However, since ATP has been widely used and accepted in the food preparation industry, we do have a starting basis. And just as we use a “dry standard” goal, with ATP Testing a contractor can also set goals for a “clean standard” with like-environmental tests. Using the food preparation contamination numbers and establishing “clean standard” is the recommendation for use at this time.