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Controlling Jobsite Dust and Dirt

Except for Charlie Brown’s friend Pigpen, no one really likes dust and dirt. But whether it’s new construction, remodeling or renovation, dust and dirt are a predictable part of any construction project. 

Jobsite dust and dirt are more of a problem when working in occupied spaces, and experienced contractors know the value of controlling dust and dirt throughout the job—it cuts cleanup costs at the end of the job, and it puts your company at the top of the list when the next project comes along.

Here’s a simple, three-part strategy to help you work cleaner: Make a plan, contain and collect whatever you can, and then clean up what’s left.

Plan and communicate

Demolition and drywall work are notorious for creating airborne dust, which also makes it easier to track dirt out of the work zone. Starting early is key for managing both kinds.

“If I know that there’s going to be some demo work, that we’re going be exposing some of the walls—and especially if there’s going to be some drywall involved—I let my customers know that the first day that we come in. We want to get everything prepped,” says Bob DePau, owner of Bob’s All Season Remodeling Inc., in Palatine, Illinois. The company offers all types of residential remodeling and construction.

Depending on what the job involves, prepping the site can mean anything from protecting floors and strategically placing plastic sheeting to setting up a dedicated work space. 

“We’re redoing a bathroom now, right off the master bedroom,” DePau says. “So we draped plastic from the ceiling to the floor to create a small tunnel through the bedroom that lets us get to the bathroom.” The crew left several overlapping slits in the plastic for ongoing access, but DePau says it still controls most of the dust. Demo began only after everything had been prepped.

Low-density polyethylene sheeting has become a staple on construction projects since its introduction in the early 1950s. It comes in various thicknesses, measured in mils (thousandths of an inch), with lighter sheets for one-time use—such as painting drop cloths—and thicker sheets for creating curtain-like work-area barriers. 

Accessory kits offer support systems and zipper closures for greater containment of dust and airborne particles, but typically the kits are for larger projects. More frequently, home remodelers use painter’s tape to hold the plastic sheets in place. Some manufacturers even offer pre-taped drop cloths.

“If we’re doing some work in the kitchen, we’ll completely wrap the kitchen cabinets using the pre-taped plastic sheeting,” DePau says. “We drape it down, so that when we’re done for the day, if the homeowner needs to get access to some of the cabinets, it’s a matter of just rolling it up, doing what you need to do, and then letting it drape back down again.”

Protecting floor finishes beyond the work area is another important consideration. “If we’re going to be coming in the front door, or the back door or through the garage, we create a protected area that will have taped-down resin paper, so everything stays safe and clean,” DePau says.

Another option: sticky plastic sheeting. “If we’re retiling an upstairs bathroom, for example, and going up and down a lot, we’ll stick down plastic on the stairs,” says Jon Klemens, a home remodeler in Chicago’s far northern suburbs. “If the homeowner agrees, we’ll just leave that for the couple of days it might take.” Different types of adhesive-backed floor protection are available with formulations for both hard surfaces and carpets.

After demolition is complete, cutting continues to create dust. Klemens says he tries to find a spot outside the home—weather permitting—where he can cut wood trim, tile and other materials.

Another alternative, DePau says, is to set up a workshop-like space within the home. “If we have a lot of lumber to cut or we’re going to be doing a lot of tiling, we’ll talk with the homeowner about relocating their furniture out into the hallway,” he says. “Then we just seal off the door to that room while we’re working there.”

Sanding drywall joint compound is the other common source of dust. “We take as many precautions as we can; we drape and wrap everything,” DePau says. But it seems drywall dust still manages to go everywhere. “You can be sanding drywall in a room in the far corner of the house, and at the end of the day you have a layer of dust on the kitchen counter.” 

In some cases, a low-dust joint compound can help. Various manufacturers offer joint compounds with proprietary additives that reduce the amount of airborne dust from sanding. “When you sand low-dust compound, the same amount of dust is generated as with a traditional joint compound,” says Chris Hagen, joint compound operations manager for Continental Building Products. “The difference with these types of products over traditional joint compound is that they generate less airborne dust.”

Klemens says he has seen the industry come a long way in the past decade. “It used to be you’d sand the joints and dust would go everywhere. Now more of it falls right where you’re working.”

Although low-dust joint compounds are generally somewhat more expensive, they can offer a big advantage when used for certain applications, such as patching holes in residences. “When you’re patching a hole in the hallway in a residential application, for example, the sanded dust falls to the floor rather than migrating into the bedrooms or other areas of the home,” Hagen says. 

“It’s a very unique product for the homeowner, and for renovation contractors, in that the household goods have less chance to get airborne dust particulate on them. It’s not like using a traditional product in a commercial application, where airborne dust is not an issue because you’re in an empty, unoccupied space,” he adds.

Cleanup still counts

Regardless of how carefully dust and dirt have been controlled, cleanup is still an important part of finishing any project. DePau says his crews typically have a shop-type vacuum available on-site, if appropriate. “We use the shop vacs that have a double filter system, so the dust stays in there,” he says.

Don’t forget to clean up outside as well, Klemens says. “Where I’ve cut a few pieces of molding, for example, I make sure to sweep up that small pile of sawdust,” he says. “I may not get every little piece, and the wind will help finish the cleanup, but at least the homeowner won’t be left to deal with it.”

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