Dealing With Popcorn Ceilings
Does your property have a ceiling with unsightly lumps resembling cottage cheese? These bumpy room coverings, commonly known as “popcorn ceilings,” were once a popular trend in the mid-20th century. However, they now have a reputation for making a home look outdated. If you’re ready to update your rental with affordable home improvements, removing the popcorn ceiling should be the first place to start.
The “popcorn” on a ceiling is actually a heavy coating that was either sprayed or brushed onto flat drywall, which is also known as gypsum wallboard or the popular brand Sheetrock (the same material used for walls). This bumpy layer is made up of a water-based substance, similar to paint, that is mixed with either paper, Styrofoam, or the mineral vermiculite.
In 1945, builders started to adopt this coating as a cost-saving measure. It was quick and easy to apply, didn’t require painting, and its popcorn texture concealed a range of drywall imperfections, such as irregular joints, seams between drywall panels, and hammer dents from nailing.
The irregular texture also had sound-dampening properties, making it a popular choice for bedrooms, living rooms, and hallways. However, over time, homeowners found that popcorn ceilings were difficult to keep clean, and the bumpy texture reduced light reflection, making rooms dimmer.
The most concerning issue with popcorn coatings is the potential presence of asbestos, a hazardous substance.
In 1978, the Clean Air Act banned the production of texture coatings that contained asbestos, however, existing stock could still be used. This means that ceilings installed as recently as the 1980s may have asbestos fibers.
Over time, the use of asbestos in popcorn coatings was phased out and replaced with non-toxic materials. However, the ceilings themselves fell out of fashion as design trends shifted towards smooth, modern-looking ceilings that are easier to clean.
As a result, the removal of popcorn ceilings has become one of the most sought-after home makeovers today.
Testing for Asbestos
Asbestos is a heat-resistant mineral found in rocks and soil, which can cause serious harm if inhaled. The fibers can become lodged in the lungs and lead to mesothelioma, lung cancer, and other diseases.
Disturbing a popcorn ceiling that contains asbestos can result in the release of harmful dust into the air as the material crumbles. This is why removing or even testing for asbestos in a popcorn ceiling requires extreme caution.
There are two options for testing a popcorn coating for asbestos:
- Purchase a mail-in asbestos test kit: You can buy these kits online, at hardware stores, or home-improvement centers for $30-$65. Ensure that the kit is approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and follow the safety instructions carefully. If you have any doubts about your ability to complete the test correctly, it is best to seek professional assistance. The process typically involves scraping a small piece of ceiling texture into a plastic bag, sealing the bag, and sending the sample to a certified testing lab.
- Hire a professional asbestos testing company: This option is safer and more reliable than DIY testing, but it may cost around $500. You can find licensed and certified companies in your area through the EPA’s State Asbestos Contacts website or by searching for asbestos testing companies. Some companies that specialize in removing popcorn ceilings may also offer testing services, but it is advisable to have a separate company perform the testing and removal work to avoid a conflict of interest.
“Removing” Popcorn Ceilings
There are several options for dealing with a bumpy popcorn ceiling, depending on your DIY skills and the presence of asbestos in the coating.
The simplest solution is to install a new ceiling layer over the existing one, which conceals the popcorn material. You can either do it yourself or hire a professional for the job.
You can install a new ceiling regardless of whether or not your ceiling contains asbestos, but it is advisable to have the popcorn tested beforehand, as it becomes difficult to do so after the new ceiling is installed.
A tip to consider: If your ceiling contains asbestos, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), covering it with a new ceiling is safer than removing the popcorn material. The goal is to cover it while minimizing disruption to the surface, reducing the risk of fiber release into the air.
To cover a ceiling, you can use materials such as:
- A second layer of drywall
- Wood paneling, coffered paneling with indentations, or planks
- Decorative acoustic ceiling panels
- Metal ceiling tiles
If the task exceeds your DIY skills, consider hiring a drywall contractor or ceiling contractor. The cost for materials and labor is estimated to be $2.50 or more per square foot.
If you have the necessary skills and tools for installing drywall, you may be able to add a new ceiling layer as a DIY project. (However, if the ceiling has asbestos, only proceed if you can ensure that the original popcorn coating will not be disturbed.) This project requires two people, so you’ll need a helper.
If you choose to tackle this project, here are the steps you should follow:
- Purchase ultra-lightweight drywall.
- Rent a drywall lift to make it easier to lift the panels.
- Secure the panels using screws that pass through the existing drywall layer and reach the ceiling joists.