Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Learning to Crawl

Over the past thirty years I have seen a lot of non-standard building practices. The question as a home inspector is "How do I report what I have found?". The thing to remember is that we report on the condition of the house at the time of the inspection We are looking for major defect, safety issues, and maintenance concerns. The non-standard building practices can easily be reported as a description of exactly what we see at the inspection and a paragraph something like this; "The floor structure had a represented number of non-standard beam and joist supports. Since these methods are neither standard nor proven construction practices, their long-term ability to maintain support is unpredictable. A structural contractor or structural engineer can provide specific information on the long-term performance of these supports".

This example can be modified for most any non-standard building practice we find on an inspection. As a home inspector we need to remember our role in the inspection is to report what we see and non-standard building practices needs to be addressed by the professional in that field.

A home inspector is like your family doctor (a general practitioner) giving you a physical. If they find a non-standard heart function, they will refer you to a heart specialist.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Salty About My Pool

It is normal to question new systems especially when it sounds like a strange idea. Have you heard of saltwater pool systems? Many pool owners have not. I recently received this question from a former client;

"We have lived in our present house for twenty four years, and the time is now right to look for our dream house. We have been looking for just the right house, of course it has to have a pool, it stays hot here a lot. We found a two-year old house with a pool that we really like. The pool is a saltwater pool. We have had a pool for the last five years, but we are not familiar with saltwater pools.
Can you shed some light on this for us?"

Salt-water pools are now becoming widely accepted, because this system is a better method of water treatment in swimming pools. Salt water systems use about 3000 parts per million salt concentrations in the water. This salt level can barely be tasted in the water. But this low level of salt is enough for the salt cell to produce the chlorine needed to maintain the pool. Some of the advantages include Lower Chlorine Levels. Saltwater Pools only have to maintain about 1.0 ppm of chlorine, compared to the 10.0 ppms a traditional pool requires. Unlike traditional pool systems a saltwater system requires NO packaged chlorine, no algaecides, and no soda ash. The other big plus is with the saltwater systems algae problems are nonexistent, mainly due to the fact that this system does not require high stabilizer levels.
By eliminating the need for the harsh chemicals that plague traditional systems, you achieve Better Swimmer Comfort.
To the pool owner the thought of salt in a pool system may sound strange, but before you purchase a new pool or a new pool system do the research and consider the advantages of the saltwater system. Al of my friends and clients have been very happy with the saltwater system and would not go back to the old system. With any system there are advantages and disadvantages. Always completely understand the maintenance and the long term cost of any system before you make your decide on the system for you.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Fall Prep


As the hazy days of summer slowly become a distant memory, it is now time to focus on preparing your home for the fall. Advance preparations can save energy, increase safety and allow for an easy transition into the autumn months. Here are some tips to help you prepare for the winter to come:

Weatherize to Keep Your Home Energy-Tight

Use caulk on your home's exterior to seal out moisture and outside air; at the same time, it helps keep heat indoors. Caulk creates a tight moisture barrier which prevents rain and snow from seeping into gaps and joints, causing wood to rot and paint to blister.

Place a dollar bill between the door and the jamb or the window sash and sill. With the door or window closed, attempt to remove the bill. If it slides out easily, you're losing energy.

Clear Downspouts and Gutters

Avoid basement flooding and deterioration of the foundation by cleaning the gutter channels and clearing downspouts of debris. Replace deteriorating or broken gutters and downspouts.

Crank the Heat!
Turn on your furnace and give it a test-run.
Change the air filter. This will enable your heating system to run at maximum efficiency which can even help save money on heating costs.
If your home has gas heat, check the pilot light, burner and chimney flue. If not vented properly, you could have carbon monoxide building up in the house.

Prevent Trouble Down Below
There may also be things that need attending to beneath your property. For example, flush underground sprinkler systems before the cold sets in by blowing air into pipes to displace leftover water. This is important because water lines are typically only 6 to 8 inches below ground -- and prone to freezing. If they freeze and then burst, you could have a costly repair situation on your hands.

Check the Septic
Homeowners with septic tanks should also think about pumping them now -- before the ground freezes and snow buries your yard. Septic tanks should be checked once every year and cleaned no less than every three years.

Protect Your Pipes
Frozen or burst pipes are among a homeowner's worst nightmares. For a preventative measure, add insulation to pipes in unheated areas, which reduces heat loss from hot-water pipes and condensation on cold water pipes.
Install a freeze-proof outdoor faucet which will eliminate the problem of a frozen or broken spigot. These faucets employ a long stem that shuts the water off about a foot back in the house preventing the pipe from freezing.

· Conduct a Water Heater Check-Up
Just because your water heater seems to work fine now doesn't mean you should put off an annual inspection. Fall is a perfect time to have your tank's pressure and temperature relief valve inspected.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Wood to Soil Contact

One thing home inspectors look for is wood to soil contact. Wood to soil contact is when unprotected wood comes in contact with the ground. This is a problem because of moisture, and moisture will cause rot. Not only will moisture cause rot on the wood that comes in contact with the ground, but moisture can wick in to anything that the wood is attached to, even the house framing. Rot can be accelerated by increasing moisture; such as bad drainage or downspouts that drain close to the house.

Thanks to Sully and Mulder here are some pictures of wood to soil contact:

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Slow Drains

As a home inspector slow drains are something we all look for. The problem is that slow drains can be a simple fix, or can be an indication of a serious and expensive problem.

Here is an example of plumbing questions I receive;

“We live in a slab home that was built in the early sixties. We are on a public sewer system. We have lived here for ten years and up to this point we have never had a problem with slow drains. The weird thing is that the drains work fine, until we wash a lot of clothes, or take several baths in a row, and then every thing backs up”.

Judging from the age of your house and the symptoms you described, you have a clogged or collapsed yard drain. The drain line for the sewer runs from your house to the street, where it connects to the public sewer system. These lines can be crushed from tree roots or maybe just clogged. The reason that the drains only clog when you use a lot of water is because the lines are not completely clogged, but partially blocked. So after the lines drain, under light use, you have all of the lines to fill before it starts to back up. With heavy use, the lines fill faster then the partially clogged drain can drain.
For a temporary fix you can buy some drain line cleaning crystals, that you can flush down the toilet. But the best way to fix this is to have a plumber clean and scope the drain. If they tell you that you have “Orangeburg” pipe, you will need it replaced.

In this case it was Orangeburg pipe and it was crushed in the middle of the yard.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

More from Scully and Mulder

If you are new to my blog, then I must explain that I make referance to my friends and fellow home inspectors in Georgia, as Scully and Mulder from the series X Files. Bill and Janet, AKA Scully and Mulder are always discovering strange things on their inspections. Somethings are just funny, but sometimes the odd things they find can be dangerous. Gas water heaters can be dangerous if the gas vent is not properly installed. Carbon monoxide from a non-standard venting system can cause health problems and in some cases even death.
Gas water heaters that are designed to vent naturally with out the aide of a mechanical venting system vent from the top. The vent pipe should not be reduced, it should always run uphill from the top of the water heater, and the pipe should be free from extensive rust and holes. Flat runs of pipe will collect condensation and cause serious rust problems.
As you can see from the picture at the top, the vent has been modified with sheet metal to vent from the side and not the top. It appears this was done because of limited overhead clearance. As you can see the vent pipe runs down and then flat. It that is not bad enough, it has an elbow turned down to make the final connection. The last picture shows what happens when condensation sits in a flat spot of a vent pipe.

I hope you enjoyed this and I am sure we will be hearing for Scully and Mulder soon.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Who's On Your Team?

Typically, buying a new home is the biggest investment of a person’s life. Many professional people play an important part in these transactions. Getting a professional to help find the house of your dreams and guide you through the entire process is an important step, but it does not stop there. Included are banks, title companies, surveyors, insurance companies and other risk management partners. Having the help of these professionals is important. It is also important to include a qualified/professional home inspector to this team.

Just twenty years ago, having a home inspection before closing was rare, but now over 80% of homebuyers are having a home inspection prior to closing. While this is an important step, it is equally important to choose the right home inspector.
Over the past twenty years the professionalism of inspectors and inspections has been on the rise. Although professionals in the business have been pushing for stricter regulations and state licensing requirements, it is still important to look for critical qualifications when choosing a home inspector.
To ensure a quality home inspection, a professional inspector should:
Be a member of a national organization that has established “Standards or Practice” and “Code of Ethics” for visual home inspections
Have attended an accredited Home Inspection Training Program
Receive Continuing Education Training annually
Have a resource for Technical support
Have General Liability Insurance
Have Errors and Omissions Insurance
Supply client with a Written Contract of the Home Inspection prior to the Home Inspection

These credentials are important --particularly the insurance requirements. Finding an Inspector that meets all of these requirements is important to ensure a quality inspection and piece of mind.

Investing wisely should begin and end with the use of professionals in the industry.

Monday, July 14, 2008

"I Will Do That"

As a home inspector, I often hear my clients say, “I am going to put in new lights my self”. Of all the projects in the home, the scariest and the most mysterious projects involve electricity. It is very wise to do the research before jumping into this project. You will find that besides knowing the proper safety procedures, the actual work is pretty easy.

For the do-it-yourselfer, I recommend that you turn off the electricity at the main panel, but remember that this does not always kill all the power. Some main panels have a true main that will kill all the power to the house. Some panels may have a circuit breaker that is marked 'main', but this circuit breaker may only turn off some circuits, leaving others on. Some panels are designed so that it takes up to six breakers to suspend all the power to the house. Some panels may be wired incorrectly making it impossible to turn off all the power.

The only way to make sure that you are not working with live wires is to test the wires on which you are going to work. This can be done with an inexpensive no-contact circuit tester. You simply put it on a wire that has insulation and it tells you if it is live or not.

In common house circuits, the black wire is usually the hot wire and the white wire is the neutral wire, but both have the potential to carry current. With this in mind, you should turn off the current at the main panel and still check each wire with your tester before touching them.

One of the most common mistakes is turning off the light switch and thinking that just because the light went out the wires are not hot. Switches can be wired to the neutral (which is improper) leaving power at the light even when the switch is turned off.

Do your research. Always follow the manufacturer's instructions, and most of all, be safe.

Friday, July 11, 2008

I Can't Help It

Tell me this does not happen to you, and if you are a home inspector, I will not believe you. You go on vacation or some place with the family, and with out warning you find yourself inspecting the buildings you are in. Does this happen to you?, I know it does, it is something you can’t stop. Well it could just be me, but I don’t think so. I find myself enthralled by the architectural designs and the construction practices I find in historic buildings. When I think of places I have been that have intrigued me the most, I first think of one of the finest examples early Classical Revival style houses in the U.S.. This house is located just outside of Charlottesville, Va., and the third president of the United States designed it. It was constructed between 1768 and 1809, and the exterior was strongly influenced by the work of Andrea Palladio, an Italian architect from the 1500’s. Have you guessed what structure I am talking about? Okay, just in case you have not, here are some more clues; the final structure is a three-story brick building with an octagonal dome. The interior consists of over thirty differently shaped rooms, and one of the most unique clocks in the world. Yes you are correct it is Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.
If you ever find yourself near Charlottesville, VA, do yourself a favor, and inspect this piece of history.

I hope you like the pictures from my vacation.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Would Wood Insulate?

A friend of mine was working with a realtor, to purchase his first home, and I told him to call me with any questions. Well he did the very next day. He found this older home he liked, but he had some concerns about the attic. The attic had about a foot of wood shavings between the ceiling joists, and he did not know why it was there. His agent said, she had never heard of wood for insulation, but that is what it looked like to her, but she did not know if wood had any insulation value. Well she was right; it was a practice in older houses to use wood shavings for insulation, along with other strange things like horsehair, ground paper, and rock wool. As a home inspector, I have seen a lot of different products for insulation.
Actually, wood shavings do have some insulation value. Common cellulose loose fill insulation is about 3.5 “R” value per inch, wood shavings is about 2.5 “R” value per inch. Cellulose is the most common loose fill insulation used today. This insulation is a paper product with additives to provide resistance to fire and mold/fungus growth.
The problems with wood shavings are it is hard to treat against fire, vermin, and fungal growth. Also wood shavings are heavy and may be too heavy for some attics.

Steve did by the house and I told him I would help him change the insulation when he was ready. That was in the summer of 1989, and he has not been ready yet.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

We need Shock Collars

I won’t start out with cheesy phrases like; “Don’t be shocked what you find on a home inspection”, or “That inspection got me wired”. Okay, I guess, I can’t help myself.
But the fact of the mater is you never know what condition you may find the electric wiring in on a home inspection. Besides the outdated equipment, faulty equipment, recalled equipment, we most often find amateur wiring. Amateur wiring is just a nice way of saying poorly done and unsafe wiring. Over the years I have seen some very clever ways to wire things the wrong way.
Somebody stop these people!
The only way I know to keep this kind of stuff from happening is to make anyone working on the house wear a shock collar, and receive a good jolt any time they start to do something stupid. But until then we will keep seeing unsafe amateur wiring.
I thought I would share these pictures from a friend and a fellow home inspector in Tennessee. By the way they did not remove the main panel cover, every thing is just like they found it.

If you like pictures of unsafe wiring, let me know and I will post more.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Money Pit

Several years ago I ran an article in the HomeTeam News about the problems with FP panels. Since then I have had a first hand experience with a main panel failing in my own house. I purchased a house that needed a complete up-date. I decided to live in the house, wile I did the much-needed repairs. The house came with a thirty-year-old Federal Pacific panel as the main, and the plan was to replace it after I had finished all of the other electrical work. That did not happen! What did happen was I received a call at work from my wife telling me this; “We have a problem”. “Do you remember the movie Money Pit”? “Do you remember the scene in the kitchen where the electrical wires were burning through the walls”? “Well that is the same problem we have”. What had happened is an old wall plug had failed under use and created a direct short. This is when a circuit breaker should do its job, and shut off the electricity to that circuit, it did not. Fortunately it happened during the day when my wife was home to shut off the main breaker. In a short period of time the electrical-short had caused the wires in the wall to burn, and the breaker that was supposed to shut off the current in the case of an emergence had melted it self in the panel, and it was still on! I never spent another night in that house with the FP panel.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Federal Pacific Problems

The most common problematic panel is the “Federal Pacific” stab lock panel. Federal Pacific Stab-Lock panels and their breakers are trouble prone and unreliable. Problems not only include breakers that fail to trip, but also arcing at the bus bars. The connections between the bus bars and the breakers sometimes loosen with age, and use, this can cause arcing. This arcing is on the back of the breakers and can’t be seen without removing the breakers. The parts for these panels are expensive and hard to find.
I have had FP Breakers pop out of the panel when I removed the dead face, to inspect the panel. This will take you by surprise, but when the breaker leaves the buss bar, it is no longer energized and can not shock you.
These panels are unreliable and should be replaced with modern, reliable equipment. In the 1980’s, from 1983 to 1987, the Consumer Product Safety Commission conducted extensive testing of these breakers with an aim to determining whether they represented a significant threat to homeowner safety. CPSC never issued an official ‘finding’ that the panels constituted a hazard, because their investigation was suspended due to lack of funding. However, the testing completed did find that a high percentage of these breakers failed during testing.

As home inspectors we will all see some of theses panels and when we do, at the very least, they should be reported as having a history of failure to trip when needed and be evaluated by a licenced electrician.

I found Daniel Friedman's site to be the very best source of information on Federal Pacific panels, and I highly recommend reading it if you are in the business of home inspecting, or if you have a FP panel in your house.

More on FP Panels tomorrow.
P.S. The pictures were sent from "Scully and Mulder".

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Can You Say "Zinsco"

As a home inspector we find problematic panels, these panels with a history of problems that can led to safety concerns.One of these panels that we see is the “Zinsco”. Many of these panels were installed in single-family homes, multi family apartments, and condos in the 1960's and 1970's. They are easily identified because of the bright colored breakers.
Originally the Zinsco panels were made in Puerto Rico. Zinsco later sold their manufacturing plants to Sylvania, who then marketed them under the Sylvania brand until finally closing down.
Some of the ones that I have seen have buss bars made of aluminum. This material will corrode quite easily. A corroded buss bar can present a real hazard. I have seen pictures of these panels that have gone into meltdown. The breakers will arc on the buss bar and cause a bad connection, and this can cause a panel meltdown. These breakers also have a history of failing to trip in a current overload situation. This condition includes the Zinsco and the Sylvania panels. The only way to check the condition of the buss bar is to have an electrician remove all of the breakers. But if it was my panel, I would replace it. Truly, replacing these panels is the best way to assure safety.

Yes I know FP panels, I will discuss those tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Schocking Truth

I have received a lot of questions on the safety concerns of certain brands of electrical panels after a home inspector calls them out as a potential safety hazard. Here are two of the questions I hear the most; "If there is a problem with the panel, then why is it not recalled?","This panel has been in the house for thirty years, and it has never given me any problems, so why did the home inspector say it is a problem?" Stick with me and I will try to answer these questions.
The problems with most of the brands in question is internal arcing or a history of failing to trip their breakers when there is a problem. A breaker that fails to trip when there is a problem is the most serious. There appears to be no official recall on these panels, mainly because the companies that made these panels are out of business. But their history of having these problems is still a concern, because there are a lot on these panels still in use. •
A main breaker panel is basically a safety device that is designed to discontinue power to a circuit in the event of an overload. If an overload occurs in a circuit, and the breaker fails to trip, this can cause major problems, such as fire.
Knowing these problems exist with some of these panels, home inspectors will call out these panels as a potential danger. Some home inspectors recommend theses panels be evaluated by a licensed electrician, while others just recommend the panels be replaced. The point that gets raised is this panel has been in operation for thirty years with no apparent problems, now some body says it is a potential danger.
Unfortunately, in the case of electrical equipment, the “test of time” argument does not work. Under normal conditions, a circuit breaker does nothing but pass current --that is until an unsafe overload occurs. When such an overload happens, then it should trip to disconnect the circuit before any serious damage occurs. The problem is you do not know whether or not the breaker is defective. Even if an overload had occurred, it’s possible that no one noticed that wiring had begun to overheat or breakers had begun arcing. The only sure way to tell if the breakers will work when needed is to overload them, and observe their response. Unfortunately, such testing itself could affect their future performance.
In conclusion, the best way to assure the safety of your home is to have an inspection done by a qualified home inspector. He or she will advise you if any of this equipment exists in your house. Home inspectors should identify these panels as potential problems, but a lot of them may only recommend evaluation by a licensed electrician. But the safest thing to do is replace these panels with updated reliable panels. Because, not even the very best electrician can look at one of these panels and honestly tell if it will disconnect the circuit under an overload.

Tomorrow I will talk about panels by name, and fill you in on their history.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

You have to Crawl before you Walk in the Basement

As a home inspector you know after many years to expect the unexpected, and even though you may have seen the same odd problem before, you just did not think you would see it a gain. But my good friends in Georgia, Bill And Janet, AKA Scully and Mulder have sent me pictures of a home they inspected that proves you can see this stuff over and over.

This house started out as a house with a crawl space, that’s right someone thought a basement would be a better idea. Don’t get me wrong, this conversion can be done correctly. But undermining the foundation of a house is never a good idea, even if you do add some non-standard support post.