- A Christmas tale about infuriating garage doors
- Please keep pets away from the home inspector!
- Take extra care with carbon monoxide fumes
- Randy West replies to questions, endures annoying drivers
- Carbon monoxide monitors a must with gas fireplaces
- Take safety precautions with space heaters
- Blurring the line between the definition of ‘bedroom’
- Don’t let planters touch exterior walls
- The dos & don’ts of inspectors
- Inspection of foreclosed homes can be a life-saver
- Buying new windows not a clear choice
- Repairs are between the buyer and seller
- Inspectors report on safety issues, not code violations
- Professional Building Consultants
- Code of ethics protects both inspector, client
- Unofficial inspections cost in long run
- Should a home inspector turn on utilities?
- The water heater saga continues
- Hot water circulators have ups and downs
- Water heaters are a hot topic
- Some warm to hwc column; others boil
- Hot water circulator speeds delivery, saves money
- Randy reflects on safety glass questions
- ‘Update 2008’ not another ‘best of’ list
A Christmas tale about infuriating garage doors
I have a question about overhead garage doors this week.
Q: I really enjoy reading your column on Fridays. It’s informative even for people who are not involved in the selling/purchasing process. I have never seen a question in your column about the topic I am writing about. The problem is our garage door. Every winter when the temperature gets to about 30 degrees or below, the garage door will not open in the morning when I have to go to work. When I push the opener, the door goes up about 9 inches, then stops. I close the door and it goes down all the way. I push the opener and again it opens about 9 inches and then stops. I finally have to lift the door manually and close it manually. Once in a great while, after about three attempts, the door does go up all the way, but this is hard on the door. We did have a garage door installer come out about a month ago during the first cold snap, and he did an adjustment and told us that the problem was fixed. Can you imagine my surprise when this past Friday morning it stopped again about 9 inches up? It was about 25 degrees out. I again had to manually open and close the dang door. Do you have any idea what the problem is? Thank you very much for your time. – Janet
A: I e-mailed Janet and asked her if the door opened and closed easily when manually operating it. Her reply: “Other than the frustration and the weight of the door (which can be a lot at 5 a.m. on a dark and stormy morning), our family doesn’t seem to encounter any problems lifting it up or pulling it down manually.”
Since the door will manually open and close, my first guess is the “up force” adjustment needs adjusting (increasing) on the opener. This is usually a knob on the opener head (the box near the ceiling). If the knob/adjustment is not easy to find or clearly labeled, you should consult the owner’s manual or the manufacturer’s website.
Janet also said the door was “heavy.” If the springs are properly adjusted, the door should not be heavy. In fact, if the springs are perfectly adjusted, the door should stay in any position by itself, even halfway open. There is not much perfection in the world, but if the door closes by itself when released from the opener, you should have the springs adjusted.
I was a little puzzled about the door sticking only in cold weather. I called Neumann High Country Doors to ask about this. June called me back and was very helpful. She said exactly what I said – the “up force” needs adjusting. She said they had about 30 calls since the weather got cold regarding doors that would not fully open or close. June told me that often the owner’s manual will state that the up or down force may require adjustment after a sudden change in outdoor temperature.
This is my last column of the year, so I thought I’d end with another of my “war” stories. This one involves an overhead garage door (See how neatly this column ties together?).
I was doing an inspection in a Prescott subdivision around last Christmas. I had my car in the garage, which I always do when inspecting a vacant home. I happened to be in the garage when a gentleman came walking up the driveway. His body language said he was not happy. I had not done anything to aggravate the neighbors yet, so I cheerfully greeted him. He stopped in the driveway, just outside the garage, and literally yelled, “This garage door has been open for almost an hour!”
I’m in my 50s now, but I don’t seem to have trouble understanding most things. But I was having trouble understanding this. So I just agreed and said, “Yes, I noticed that, too.”
Neighbor Nick asked me, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” (I don’t know if his name was Nick, but see how cleverly this ties in with the Christmas season?)
I was still having trouble understanding what the problem was, so I said, “I’m having trouble understanding what the problem is.”
Nick informed me that the CCRs (covenants, or neighborhood “rules”) stated that overhead doors cannot be open for more than 20 minutes.
Now I don’t want to insult the residents of this neighborhood, but I looked Nick right in the eye and said, “That’s the dumbest CCR I’ve ever heard of. I can’t leave my own garage door open for more than 20 minutes?”
Nick said, “That’s right. So what are you going to do about it?”
I told Nick that I didn’t own the home, so he better call the “garage-door-open-too-long police” and have me arrested.
Nick did not appreciate my humor and just glared at me. He was standing in the driveway, just outside the garage. I pulled the rope to release the door from the opener. I walked to the end of the garage, so I was only about a foot away from Nick. I pulled the door closed between us. I immediately opened the door, looked at my watch, and said, “I’ve got 20 minutes, right?”
Nick glared at me for a full minute before he turned and stormed back down the driveway. I waved and yelled “Merry Christmas” in my most cheerful, holiday voice. Nick waved back, but only using a small part of his hand.
By Randy West on December 17, 2009
Please keep pets away from the home inspector!
Home inspectors have to deal with dogs. I carry dog biscuits with me – I’ve found that a dog cannot eat and bark (or bite) at the same time. I’m a dog person, so there have been times that I was warned to stay away from the dogs and ended up making friends with them.
An upset seller called me this week because a home inspector asked him to remove his dogs from the home during the inspection. Apparently, the dogs bit a prospective buyer, and this information was passed on to the home inspector. The seller felt the home inspector had no right to ask him to remove the dogs.
I have never asked anyone to remove his dogs from a home I was inspecting. I have been told quite a few times that the sellers were going to leave and take their dogs with them. I appreciated this if the dogs were not friendly. I have inspected homes with unfriendly dogs, and it was pretty easy to leave the dogs inside while I inspected the exterior and put them out while I inspected the interior. If I learned there were unfriendly dogs in the home and that the sellers would not be home, I would be concerned. It can be very distracting when you’re trying to inspect a home and you have to keep watching for the canines.
This reminds me of a story that has absolutely nothing to do with home inspections. Years (decades) ago in Colorado I helped a Realtor friend videotape a home for an out-of- town buyer. This was before digital cameras. In fact, this was the first time he videotaped a home. His video camera looked like it weighed only slightly less than my Jeep CJ. The home was pretty rural, so we drove my Jeep out to the home. It was on 10 acres, and they had three unfriendly Rottweilers and several friendly horses. We were told the Rottweilers would be in a pen.
When we arrived, my friend, who I’ll call Craig because that’s his name, claimed he had more experience than me operating a video camera. I was more than happy to let him hoist the large video camera and follow me around, rather than vice versa. The Rottweilers were making a ruckus in the back yard, so Craig filmed the front of the home and we went in through the front door. I thought I was doing a great job of “narrating” the home. We were leaving the kitchen when I saw the Rottweilers come in through a doggy door behind Craig. Craig was pretty occupied with not dropping the camera, so he didn’t notice. I tried to tell Craig to turn off the camera with subtle hand motions, but he didn’t understand. Finally, I said (rather loudly I found out when I watched the video later), “Craig, the dogs are behind you!”
We both ran for the front door. Craig bravely fought off the dogs with the 200-pound video camera. We got outside and slammed the door behind us.
I was catching my breath when I saw one of the horses eating out of a funny-looking feedbag. The feedbag had “Jeep” printed on it. Then I recognized the canvas cover that had been on the spare tire on the back of my Jeep.
At a time like this, you don’t think about how much a horse weighs. You simply try to save your vehicle. So I ran over to the Jeep and started pushing the horses away from the canvas top they were eating. I’m a fairly big guy, and I was in great shape back then, but pushing a horse away from a meal is a pretty futile endeavor. I started slapping the horses and screaming at them. I kept this up long enough that they realized that I was crazier than they were hungry, and they strolled away.
I looked at the other horse with the Jeep tire cover over his head. The tire cover was beyond saving. By this time the horse had eaten a hole through the tire cover and converted it into a canvas collar that was around his neck.
I didn’t realize that Craig had the camera on the whole time until we got to my home and I plugged in the tape. It started out fairly professional with a slow scan of the front of the home, although the Rottweilers were clearly audible. It was still professional as I narrated our way through the living room and kitchen. Then you saw surprise and then fear on my face as I gestured frantically for Craig to turn off the camera. Then you heard me yell, and the TV showed a rapid succession of floors, walls, ceilings, and some impressive close-ups of fangs.
As if that was not embarrassing enough, the camera continued to roll and showed me running over to my cute little blue Jeep with the slowly disappearing white canvas top. Craig managed to hold the camera steady and even zoom in just right to show me pushing the horses. And for the final scene, Craig smoothly panned over and zoomed in on the horse with the canvas collar with “Jeep” clearly visible.
Craig told me the buyers thoroughly enjoyed the tape, and even bought the home.
By Randy West on December 3, 2009
Take extra care with carbon monoxide fumes
In my last column I said that a carbon monoxide detector is a good idea in a home with any gas or woodburning appliances. I had several calls and emails regarding these detectors.
Shirley called and said she had been checking on the carbon monoxide detectors in the local stores. She said every one she found would not sound the alarm until the carbon monoxide levels were 70 ppm (parts per million). She asked what levels were safe, and if I knew of a detector that would go off at lower levels.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and other public and private organizations, say that prolonged exposure to carbon monoxide levels over 70 ppm can be health concerns. Exposures to levels over 150 ppm are major health concerns, and can even be fatal after prolonged exposure. This is why most carbon monoxide detectors sound the alarm at 70 ppm. There are detectors that detect lower levels, but they are more expensive and are usually intended for specialized applications.
One obvious source of carbon monoxide is automobile exhaust. This is why doors and walls between homes and attached garages are supposed to be “gas-proof,” including weatherstripping and self-closers on the doors. You should never warm up a car in a garage without opening the overhead door. Actually, I have read that newer cars usually require only a minute or two to warm up, unlike the cars in my youth with carburetors and heat-activated chokes.
There are other sources of carbon monoxide in a home.
The CPSC states there are an average of 170 deaths each year in the United States from “non-automotive consumer products.” Any type of flame will produce some amount of carbon monoxide. This is why all woodburning and most gas appliances should be vented to the exterior of the home. Usually the only unvented gas appliance in a home will be the cooking range, although there are also unvented gas fireplaces (the topic of my last column). A gas cooking range will produce a little carbon monoxide when in use, and in fact even some vented gas appliances can put a little carbon monoxide in the room when they first come on.
Jack called me and said he had been feeling ill for the past month, just about the time he started using his gas furnace and fireplace. He wanted to know about the symptoms of exposure to carbon monoxide.
Exposure to lower levels of carbon monoxide can easily be confused with getting a cold or the flu – headache, fatigue, nausea, and possibly shortness of breath or mild dizziness. These symptoms should clear up once you are away from the carbon monoxide. Exposure to levels over 150 ppm can cause the same symptoms, and also vomiting, dizziness/loss of coordination, or confusion/disorientation. (I suppose these symptoms could be confused with drinking too much of your favorite adult beverage).
Note that people with health or breathing problems can be more susceptible to carbon monoxide poisoning. I told Jack that if he noted these symptoms after using his furnace or fireplace he should contact a heating company immediately to check his gas appliances.
I was also asked about how many carbon monoxide detectors you should put in your home, and where they should be located. Ideally you should put one in all the areas that require smoke detectors: in and just outside each sleeping room, at least one on each level of the home, etc. I don’t have carbon monoxide detectors in every bedroom in my home, but I do have one in the halls outside the bedrooms and one on the other side of the home. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions and recommendations when installing carbon monoxide detectors – for example avoid direct sunlight, drafts, humidity, etc.
I always try to get a chuckle or two out of you in my columns (sometimes I succeed at this unintentionally). This has been a pretty ‘serious’ column, so I’ll leave you with something I find mildly amusing.
I have been asked many times about building codes. Recently someone sarcastically asked me how we managed to survive 100 years ago, before there were building codes. I told him building codes have been around for a lot longer than 100 years. One of the oldest known building codes is found in the Codes of Hammurabi from around 2200 B.C. You should refer to this any time you get frustrated with our building codes:
section 229. If a builder has built a house for a man and has not made strong his work, and the house he built has fallen, and he has caused the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.
section 230. If he has caused the son of the owner of the house to die, one shall put to death the son of that builder.
section 231. If he has caused the slave of the owner of the house to die, he shall give slave for slave to the owner of the house.
section 232. If he has caused the loss of goods, he shall render back whatever he has caused the loss of, and because he did not make strong the house he built, and it fell, from his own goods he shall rebuild the house that fell.
section 233. If a builder has built a house for a man, and has not jointed his work, and the wall has fallen, that builder at his own cost shall make good that wall.
By Randy West on November 19, 2009
Randy West replies to questions, endures annoying drivers
I’ve had some questions on some recent columns. Last time I wrote about gas fireplaces. I stated that gas fireplaces will have a lot of carbon monoxide in the exhaust gas. This is because the burner/flames are adjusted to look like a wood fire rather than burn at maximum efficiency (which would be a blue flame). This can be a concern if the fireplace vents through a wall near a door or opening window.
Three people wanted to know how close a gas fireplace vent on an exterior wall can be to a door or window. Most manufacturers recommend at least 10 feet between the fireplace exhaust and any opening into the home.
Several readers wanted to know about ventless gas fireplaces, which I did not cover in the last column. I can tell you that Unisource Gas (our natural gas supplier) does not allow these appliances above 2,000-foot elevation. Unisource Gas will “red-tag” an unvented gas fireplace if they see one, meaning you should not use it.
The concern is indoor air quality, including carbon monoxide possibly entering the home. Newer ventless fireplaces have an oxygen depletion sensor. If the level of oxygen in the home falls to unsafe levels, the sensor should turn the fireplace off.
BJ called me regarding a ventless fireplace in his home. His home is on propane, and I told him I was not sure what the different propane gas companies require. He called me back and told me he checked with Flame Gas Co., and they said they will allow unvented fireplaces if they are “certified.” Thank you, BJ, for doing some of my research.
I’ve found the owner’s manual for ventless fireplaces in several homes I’ve inspected. I always read an owner’s manual – it’s amazing what you can learn. Most of the owner’s manuals for ventless fireplaces suggest leaving a window in the same room as the fireplace slightly open. This kind of defeats the purpose of trying to heat a home with one of these appliances.
I had questions on an earlier column about the definition of a bedroom. Two people asked if a closet is required in a bedroom. I did not mention this in my column because I was talking more about ingress and egress requirements. But yes, a home inspector and/or appraiser will not consider a room a bedroom if it does not have a hanging closet.
In September I whined about lender-owned properties. I mentioned that lenders take days and sometimes weeks to reply to a purchase offer, and then give the buyer five days to get all their inspections completed. Some Realtors told me that not only is this true, but some lenders are requiring the potential purchaser to turn on the utilities in their name, which I think is absurd. Realtors told me some lenders are starting the inspection period upon verbal acceptance of the purchase offer. Most people that are smart enough to have enough money to buy a home are also smart enough to not spend hundreds of dollars on different inspections until they have a written agreement. Bank-owned properties can be good deals, but the buyers have to be patient.
On a side note, I had to drive to Phoenix Wednesday morning for a meeting. I’ve made this trip many times, but it took longer this time. I was behind a lot of slow drivers. By slow I mean not approaching the speed limit. And when I got to the high-occupancy lane in Phoenix, there was a slow driver in that lane. I’m allowed in this lane because I drive a Prius, and this usually shortens my trip by at least 20 minutes. This driver stayed in the high occupancy lane all the way through Phoenix. When I moved over to get off on my exit I saw there was only one person in the car. I’m glad I’m not a type A anymore.
I came to a few realizations during that drive. The first is if you’re following a car and you can’t see the driver over the headrest, they are likely to drive slower than the speed limit. I also realized that anyone who drives slower than me is overly-cautious and a hazard to other drivers and should have their driver’s license revoked. And anyone who drives faster than me is a reckless maniac who is a hazard to everyone and should have their driver’s license revoked.
By Randy West on November 5, 2009
Carbon monoxide monitors a must with gas fireplaces
A month ago I inspected a home and found carbon monoxide entering the home from the gas fireplace. Carbon monoxide is colorless and odorless – the only way to test for it is with a carbon monoxide tester. I recommended a contractor check the fireplace operation. A fireplace contractor came out and checked the fireplace, and provided a written report that said the fireplace was completely safe. Fortunately, my client’s Realtor insisted I re-inspect the home.
The fireplace contractor stated no carbon monoxide was found using a TIFF 8900. I have a TIFF 8900. These are gas leak tracers; they do not test for carbon monoxide. I use a high-quality ($600) carbon monoxide tester. When I returned to the home, there was still carbon monoxide entering the home. It was at this moment that I knew what I was going to write about this week: fireplaces.
WARNING: I usually try to get a chuckle or two out of you in my columns, but there are no funnyisms in this one. After the first draft I realized this was a hot topic and I should not put a damper on it.
Traditional wood-burning fireplaces are not very efficient at warming a home because most of the heat is going up the chimney. You can warm your buns a little if you sit right on the hearth, but if you move away from the fireplace you don’t feel much heat. I rarely see a traditional wood-burning fireplace in newer homes, and when I do they almost always have a gas (fake) log kit installed.
Gas fireplaces produce a lot of carbon monoxide. On most gas appliances (cooking ranges, water heaters, etc.) the burners are adjusted to produce maximum heat. This makes a blue flame and minimal carbon monoxide. Gas fireplace burners are adjusted to simulate a wood fire; the more orange flame (and carbon monoxide), the better.
Most newer homes have gas-only fireplaces. These are convenient – most have pilot lights with a push-button igniter. The burner is usually turned on with a wall switch; some have a thermostat or remote control. These have “sealed” burn chambers – you can’t actually touch the fake logs without removing a glass cover/door. These fireplaces are safe because the burn chamber is isolated from the interior space.
There is a concern with how these fireplaces are vented to the exterior. Many are vented through a metal chimney that is routed up above the roof – a safe installation. However, many are vented through an exterior wall. The concern is if this vent is near a door or opening window. I almost always find over 100 ppm (parts per million) of carbon monoxide in the exhaust gas of a gas fireplace. I’ve found as much as 400 ppm. If a window or door near the fireplace exhaust vent is open while the fireplace is operating, the exhaust gas and carbon monoxide could be drawn back into the home.
This is a bigger concern if the window near the fireplace exhaust is in a different room. Many times I have seen a corner fireplace that vents through an exterior wall near a window in the adjacent room, frequently a bedroom. When I see these installations I recommend installing a carbon monoxide detector in all rooms with windows near the fireplace exhaust vent. I also recommend putting a “screw lock” on the tracks on the windows near the fireplace vent in the winter, as a reminder not to open them.
There are different concerns with a gas log kit installed in a wood-burning fireplace. These are always vented through a chimney above the roof, so there is little concern about the exhaust gas. However, many times I have found carbon monoxide entering the home at the fireplace.
The first thing you need to check is the damper. If the damper is closed and you turn on the gas burner, carbon monoxide will definitely enter the home. There will not be smoke, and may not be any odor, but there will be carbon monoxide. When a gas log kit is installed, a clamp should be installed on the damper to keep it fully open. Some fireplace contractors will remove the damper or disable it so it remains open. This is easy to check. If you have a gas log kit and a damper, make sure the damper cannot be closed.
A gas log kit has to be “listed” for use with that specific fireplace. Unfortunately, this is almost impossible for you, or even home inspectors, to verify. If a log kit is not listed, you can get carbon monoxide in the home even if the damper is fully open. Even when the gas log kit is listed for a fireplace, I have found carbon monoxide entering a home. One time a manufacturer’s representative came out and simply rearranged the logs. That was all it took to correct the problem. Which means all it took to create the problem was someone rearranging the logs.
I recommend you install a carbon monoxide detector in any room with a gas fireplace. There is some debate over “acceptable” indoor levels of carbon monoxide, but a generally accepted number is no more than 9 ppm. Some carbon monoxide detectors don’t activate unless there are high levels of carbon monoxide (one brand doesn’t go off until 70 ppm). And the test button on most carbon monoxide detectors does not test the “tester,” it just tests the alarm (i.e. that it can make noise). So a carbon monoxide detector is no replacement for common sense.
You need to find where your gas fireplace vents to the exterior. If it vents through a wall, you need to take the proper precautions. You should have your fireplace checked and serviced yearly by an appropriate professional. If you can find a manufacturer’s name on your fireplace, try to find a professional who is qualified and experienced with your brand of fireplace. And ask the contractor to test for carbon monoxide in the home.
By Randy West on October 22, 2009
Take safety precautions with space heaters
Usually around June, attics start getting really hot. About this time, I come out of an attic soaked in sweat, and go home and give myself a “butch” with the dog trimmer. I keep my hair short until it starts to cool off.
Well, it’s starting to get cold, and I’ve noticed a couple of things. I’ve noticed it takes a little longer every year to grow my hair back. I’ve also noticed a lot of space heaters in use. I’m guessing this is due to the economy – people are trying to save some heating/energy costs. This is not a bad plan; using a small space heater to warm just the room you’re in can lower your heating costs.
I’ve also noticed some unsafe uses of these space heaters. Small electric heaters can be a fire hazard if not used safely. Make sure there is nothing for at least a few feet in front of the heater. I saw a space heater last week that was covered in dog hair. It’s not unusual for dogs and cats to lie down next to a warm heater. Make sure that your pets don’t lie right next to the heater, or you may have a new definition for “hot dog.” You need to clean pet hair out of the heater, especially from around the elements. The pet hair can dry out and become flammable.
If a heater tips over so the element is facing the floor, it can ignite the floor covering. Newer space heaters have an anti-tip safety switch so they will automatically turn off if tipped over. If you have an older heater, it may not have this safety feature. Make sure the heater is in a safe location where pets or children can’t tip it over.
I saw a heater that was placed against the wall. The heating side was facing the room, but the intake vents were obstructed. This can cause the heater to overheat. Make sure the intake vents are not obstructed in any way. Some heaters have filters inside the intake vents. There is usually a snap-open cover to access the filter. Check if you heater has a filter. If it does and you didn’t know about it, the filter likely needs cleaning.
Don’t use extension cords with a space heater. Electric heaters draw a lot of current and undersized wires will easily overheat. I would never leave a space heater on when no one is home. It is a very good idea to unplug space heaters when you leave the home, when you go to bed, or whenever they are not in use.
Speaking of things you should never do, you should never us a gas-cooking appliance to heat a home or room. All flames will use oxygen and produce carbon monoxide. Most gas appliances are vented to the exterior, so the carbon monoxide is carried outside with the exhaust gas. A gas-cooking appliance is not vented to the exterior. If you operate a gas oven or gas cook-top burners for an extended time, it can cause high levels of carbon monoxide in the home. You should never use portable gas heaters with an open flame inside a home for the same reason.
There are some ways to save heating costs on your primary heating source, too. Most homes in our area have gas forced air furnaces. Make sure the filter or filters are clean. A dirty filter is not a safety hazard, but can reduce the efficiency of the furnace. Filters are inexpensive; replacing or cleaning a dirty filter will pay for itself almost immediately.
If you have a forced air system, you should consider a set-back or programmable thermostat. These thermostats are less expensive than just a few years ago, and are easier to set or program. These can be used to lower the temperature at night and during the day. If you think about it, your furnace works hardest at night. Heating a home to 70 degrees when it’s 50 degrees outside does not take a lot of energy. It takes much more energy to heat a home to 70 degrees when it’s 20 or 30 degrees outside. Using a set-back to lower the indoor temperature at night can result in substantial savings in your heating bill. You can set the thermostat to raise the temperature a half hour before your alarm goes off, so you can wake up to a warm house.
Set-back thermostats don’t work as well on hot water systems. Hot water systems can have the old-fashioned radiators in each room, baseboard convectors in each room, or the newer in-floor heating systems. Hot water heat takes longer to heat a cold home, so if you use a set-back thermostat, you should not lower the temperature as much as you can with a forced air furnace. There are advantages to hot water heat – it’s usually efficient and clean (no filters).
No matter what your primary heating system is, it’s always a good idea to have it serviced yearly. All gas appliances produce carbon monoxide. A malfunctioning gas appliance can be a safety concern because it could allow carbon monoxide to enter the home. Regular maintenance and servicing will also make your heating system run more efficiently and last longer.
You should test all your smoke detectors. There should be a smoke detector in each bedroom, outside each bedroom and at least one on each level of the home. Smoke detectors are inexpensive and easy to install. You should install smoke detectors in all these locations if they’re not already there. If you have any gas or wood-burning appliances, you should install at least one carbon monoxide detector on each level of the home.
By Randy West on October 8, 2009
Blurring the line between the definition of ‘bedroom’
This week’s question: “We recently bought a foreclosed home. The lender did not give us enough time to get a home inspection prior to the purchase. We did have a home inspection, but not until after we moved in and started finding things wrong. Our biggest concern is the home inspection report referred to the fourth bedroom as a ‘bonus room’. When we asked the inspector about this he said this room does not qualify as living space. We are using this room as a bedroom. Should we be concerned? What does a room need to be a bedroom?”
A: Your inspector is probably correct. A ‘living space’ room has certain requirements. Most rooms are required to have natural light (usually called a window) that is at least 8 percent of the floor area, and natural ventilation that is at least 4 percent of the floor area. So a 100-square foot room should have a window(s) that is at least eight square feet for natural light, and an opening of at least four square feet for natural ventilation. Since most windows open ‘halfway’, a single opening window often meets both these requirements.
A bedroom has additional requirements. The window must serve as an emergency ingress window. It should open to the exterior (not in an enclosed porch or patio), should be no more than 44 inches off the floor, and the opening should be at least 20 inches wide and 24 inches high. A bedroom should not have a door directly into a garage, and should not have a gas appliance in a closet. A bedroom should have a door for privacy and should not be a ‘thoroughfare’ to another part of the home. If a room does not meet all these requirements a home inspector will not call it a bedroom.
Should you be concerned? Probably, especially if you need four bedrooms. Some of these are safety issues, such as the emergency ingress/egress window and no gas appliances in the room.
This letter brings up a personal gripe of mine. The lenders are agonizingly slow to respond to a purchase offer. Anyone who has bought a foreclosure knows this, as do all Realtors and home inspectors. I have had more inspections delayed in the last 12 months than in the five years before that. The vast majority are because the bank has not responded to an offer, or has verbally accepted but has not sent written acceptance. Realtors always recommend (and they should!) that a buyer not spend any money on inspections until they have written acceptance of their offer to buy a home.
But my real gripe is not that lenders will take days and often weeks to reply to an offer (and sometimes months with short sales). I know most lenders are not well managed or operated; that’s how they got in this mess. My real gripe is that when the lender finally gets around to responding, they often give the buyer five days for all their inspections. The lenders keep everyone waiting for weeks, and then the buyer has to get everything done in five days. All the good inspectors I’ve talked to in Prescott (and other cities) are usually more than five days out. So the bank is forcing buyers to use less experienced inspectors who can respond within five days. I wonder if this is intentional on the banks’ part.
Not only is this unfair to buyers, it’s unfair to everyone else involved in the real estate transaction. Realtors and buyers cannot always get a home, termite, well or septic inspection within five days. So buyers will schedule an inspection knowing they don’t have written acceptance, because they know if they wait they may not get a good inspector. They will wait until the last minute to cancel or delay the inspection, hoping the acceptance comes in. That’s why inspectors are changing their schedules all the time.
Of course when I complain to my wife about another last minute cancellation she gives me her normal compassionate, understanding response: “Would you like some cheese with that whine?”
Now for some good news. Dave Swartz is a good friend of mine in Phoenix. He owns a multi-inspector firm. We were talking about how the number of complaints filed against home inspectors has dropped dramatically. Even when you factor in the lower number of real estate transactions, the percentage of complaints on the number of transactions has dropped. Dave blamed state regulation for this. I’m somewhat averse to government regulation, and argued that the poor economy has weeded out the newest and poorest inspectors (the poorest were not always the newest). But I had to agree with Dave after he told me his about his ‘application test’.
Dave put together an extremely difficult 100-question test for people applying for work at his company. He researched vague rules in the building code and unusual manufacturer’s specifications (for furnaces, water heaters, etc.). He made a test that even the most experienced home inspector would have trouble passing. Prior to home inspectors being regulated, the average score on this test was in the very low 40s. Most applicants were coming from the building trades, so this was somewhat expected. They were experts on some items, but weak in other areas.
After regulation took effect Dave will only accept an application if the person is an Arizona CHI (Certified Home Inspector). This applicant may not have performed a fee-paid inspection, but he/she has met all the Arizona requirements for certification. This includes passing a state approved school, passing the National Home Inspector Exam, and performing 30 ‘training’ inspections. Now the average applicant score on Dave’s test is in the upper 60s. That’s over a 50 percent increase, which is pretty impressive.
By Randy West on September 24, 2009
Don’t let planters touch exterior walls
A recent letter I received has a number of possible answers:
Thank you for your informative and helpful column. We appreciate your professional expertise. My question is: Our guest bedroom has a strong odor (more chemical-like than musty) and it has spread to another room across the hall. I get an almost immediate stomachache and soon a headache when I enter the room; hence, I’ve kept the doors shut and windows open.
“You inspected our home in 2000 and it was okay when purchased. The changes we made are new carpeting in the entire house; outside the guest room wall was an area for plants, and we put a flagstone courtyard outside that wall. The two rooms that are the worst each have water spigots outside on the walls. The floor is concrete slab; the slump block home was built in 1978-79.
“Where do we start to get the right company to identify what the odor is and correct the problem?”
“Inspector Randy.” I like that. I feel like a detective. This is not an easy question to answer without an on-site investigation. My first thought is the culprit is moisture entry, and you mentioned two possible sources. You stated there was a plant area outside the guest room. It is never a good idea to allow water to pond or come in contact with an exterior wall. Retaining/planter walls touching the exterior walls can be a source of moisture entry. With wood siding, this can cause moisture damage to the siding and eventually within the frame walls. You said your home is block. Block walls are not waterproof. If water constantly touches a block wall it will seep into the wall, and eventually all the way through.
Another suspect would be the hose faucet. Freeze-resistant hose faucets were in use when your home was built. These faucets have a long stem, so the actual valve is inside the wall where it should not freeze. If you leave a hose connected to one of these faucets in the winter it can freeze and break inside the wall. This will allow water to escape into the wall whenever the faucet is opened. I check this by screwing a cap on the hose faucet and fully opening the valve. I then place the metal end of a screwdriver on the faucet or on the wall next to the faucet and put my ear on the plastic handle. If there is a leak, I can usually hear it with this “stethoscope.” I get funny looks from any neighbors who are watching me, but I’m used to that.
The other symptoms are confusing. A headache could mean carbon monoxide in the home, but it would not be immediate. And carbon monoxide does not cause stomachaches. Getting an “immediate” stomachache is also a puzzle. This might suggest that you are allergic to something in these rooms. I would suspect the carpeting, except you stated you put new carpeting in the entire home. If you were allergic to the carpet or pad, why would it be in only these two rooms?
Maybe it is a combination of the two. Perhaps if moisture gets on the pad or carpeting it causes some type of odor or chemical that you are sensitive to.
And now the final clue: You stated the odor is more chemical than musty, so perhaps moisture is not the culprit at all. Is there anything else unique to these two rooms? Perhaps a reader or local company can offer suggestions.
I had this question from a Realtor last week:
“I like your articles in the Courier, but I’m afraid I cannot refer you because you will not give a summary in your inspection report. Have you considered upgrading to software that will provide a summary report?”
My software will produce a summary, but I refuse to use that feature. My reports are full of information, including nice features of the property, maintenance information, and 50 or more color photos (many more on a larger home). Why would I want to produce a list of just the 15 things that are wrong with the property? I know that if a summary is provided, often that is all the seller sees. Home inspectors do not like their home inspection reports to be used to renegotiate a purchase price or ask the seller to fix common flaws. But we realize that our reports are very often used for these purposes. I feel it hurts the buyer’s position if the sellers only receive a summary. If the sellers see the entire report, they know the inspector mentioned the new roof shingles, or that the home has been maintained better than most. They feel the inspector was fair, and are more willing to negotiate with the buyer. If all the sellers see is a list of 15 defects (the summary), they may take offense and be less willing to negotiate with buyer. This is especially true if the home is older. An older home can be well maintained and in very good condition, but there could still be numerous recommendations in an inspection report.
By Randy West on September 10, 2009
The dos & don’ts of inspectors
In May I wrote about home inspectors not being able to bill escrow for home inspection fees. I received a lot of comments and questions on this: from home inspectors, Realtors and clients. It seems some further explanation is needed.
It is imperative that home inspectors are totally objective in their inspections and reports. Home inspectors should not have any financial interest in a property. In fact, they should not have any interest of any type – they should not be able to benefit if a home closes or does not close.
Home inspectors should get paid directly from their client. If a home inspector submits his bill to escrow, he has an interest in the home closing. When the home closes he gets paid by the escrow or title company, who will also write checks to lenders, Realtors, insurance companies, etc.
If the home does not close, the title company may not pay the home inspector. The inspector may have difficultly tracking down and collecting his inspection fee from a client that did not end up buying that house. So obviously the inspector would rather see the home close and just wait for the check from the title company.
Keep in mind that when discussing ethics within a profession, the public perception is very important. It’s very possible the professionals would never do anything unethical, and don’t see anything unethical about a certain act or practice (like a home inspector billing escrow). But if the public could perceive a practice as being a conflict of interest or unethical, then that practice should be avoided.
It has happened in the home inspection profession that a home inspector missed some defects, and the buyer/client accused the inspector of missing the defects on purpose so the home would close and he would get paid. I don’t personally know the inspectors involved, but I give them the benefit of the doubt and believe that they did not miss these items on purpose. So even the most honest, ethical home inspector could find himself in a situation where his client or the public feels the inspector had a conflict of interest.
(If an inspector does fail to report on items intentionally, he should be flogged, beaten, and forced to listen to rap music at full volume for a week before being exiled to a small remote island.)
Now for point two: I’ve been told there is a local home inspector that is working on homes that he inspects. If a home inspector performs repairs on items he found in his inspection, how does the client know the problems were legitimate? I started my home inspection career in 1993. At that time there were only a couple home inspectors in our area, and we were not regulated by the state. One of those inspectors would inspect one or two homes a week, and then work on them for the rest of the week. I was told that as he inspected a home he would say things like “Oh, look at that! That’s really dangerous! I can fix that for $300. Oh, and look at that…”
It was inspectors like that that gave my profession a bad name. That inspector quit when we became regulated and Arizona required us to follow a Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics.
If a home inspector is working on homes he inspected, we can also go back to point one. He now has a financial interest in the home closing: he is going to get more work if the home closes. So the public could perceive this as a ‘double’ conflict of interest. First, he wants the home to close so he will get more work. Second, he’s making repairs on items that he told you needed repairs. Maybe one week of rap music isn’t enough.
So here’s another question that came from a home inspector: “I was called to do a home inspection, and recognized the address as a friend of mine. I do not have a financial interest in the property, so is it a violation of the Arizona or ASHI Code of Ethics for me to inspect this home?”
This is not a violation of either Code of Ethics, but sure sounds like a no-win situation to me. I am assuming that you are sure you would not let the friendship influence your inspection or report. So if you find something major wrong with the home, or even a bunch of minor problems, your friend may be upset with you. If this is a close friend I would not want to do anything that might jeopardize the friendship.
And now we go back to the ‘public perception’ again. Technically this is not a violation of the Code of Ethics. But what if you make an honest mistake and miss something, and your client finds out the seller is a friend of yours. You will have a hard time convincing your client that it was an honest mistake.
By Randy West on August 13, 2009
Inspection of foreclosed homes can be a life-saver
I’m not an economist, but I’m a little worried about our economy. Last week I bought a toaster oven and they gave me a free bank.
I’ve had some questions recently about bank-owned properties, which I’ll call “foreclosures” because that’s easier to type than “bank-owned properties.” These are sold “as is,” so potential buyers are asking me if they should get a home inspection. I always say, “Of course!” I’m not sure what other answer they expected from a home inspector.
A lot of buyers are getting inspections on foreclosures: More than 80 percent of my inspections this year have been on foreclosures. If you’re thinking of buying a foreclosure, here are some good reasons to get a home inspection.
- The bank has never lived in the home. They don’t know anything about the physical condition of the home. If they supply a seller’s disclosure about the condition, it likely states “unknown” about everything. Without a seller’s disclosure you have no idea what you’re buying. Even if you know the home is “as is,” and you are willing to fix everything yourself, you need to know what to fix before you can actually fix it.
- You may need to know if you have some really major expenses coming up in the short term. Some sellers really pillage a home before they lose it to foreclosure. I’m not sure of the logic of this, but I’ve seen many homes where the sellers took the ceiling fans, light fixtures, doorknobs and sometimes the doors. I’ve inspected some homes where they took the water heater, furnace or air conditioner. In one home (I was told this had been a builder’s home), the previous owner took the furnace, air conditioner, water heater, all the interior hardware, every light fixture and fan in the home, and some of the plumbing fixtures (a toilet, sink and whirlpool bathtub). The clients bought the home, but put less money down on the home so they had enough to make the home livable.
I’ve seen conditions that could cause damage to a home. I’ve seen quite a few homes where a water softener or a filter under a sink was removed, leaving uncapped water lines that would cause damage when the water was turned on. In one home the previous owners took their (presumably newer) dishwasher and shoved a 37-year-old Avocado dishwasher under the counter. They didn’t connect the drain line. If someone operated the dishwasher, they would have flooded the kitchen cabinets and floor.
I’ve seen wires hanging out of walls and ceilings where light fixtures or fans were removed. These are safety concerns, of course, but are visible. I’ve also seen some hidden safety issues. In one home the previous owner changed out the water heater. The vent pipe didn’t come low enough for the new water heater, so they pulled it down. This pulled the vent pipe apart in the attic, and it fell over against some paper-backed insulation. This would fill the attic with carbon monoxide and was a major fire hazard.
In another home, the previous owner actually removed both toilets, poured concrete into the drain lines, and reinstalled the toilets. After running water in each bath for a couple minutes, I had water backing up into the shower stalls. This was a very expensive repair – the plumbers had to remove the floor coverings and cut into the concrete floor to access the obstructed pipes. Imagine if those buyers had not invested in a home inspection! They would have moved in only to find they couldn’t use any plumbing fixtures until they had plumbers come in and make a huge mess replacing the clogged pipes.
Please keep in mind these are just a couple dozen homes out of hundreds of foreclosures that I’ve inspected in the last year. Most foreclosures are in typical condition for their age, and most of them have been very good values. You should not be afraid to buy a foreclosure, or any “as-is” property. But a home inspection may be very important on these properties, even more important than when you buy an occupied home directly from the seller.
If a home inspection discovers a major expense, such as a hail-damaged roof that needs replacing right away (or concrete in the drain lines – what’s wrong with those people?), you should not be afraid to ask the bank for repairs. The worst they can say is no. I have not heard of a bank fixing the nickel-and-dime stuff, but I know of one instance where the bank replaced a hail-damaged roof. Perhaps with a major expense item, the bank realizes this is now a disclosure item. If they don’t fix it for the current buyer, they will likely have to fix it for the next buyer. Or they will have to disclose it, and the next buyer will offer less on the property.
By Randy West on July 30, 2009
Buying new windows not a clear choice
I lived in Wisconsin in my youth. Yes, we had electricity and indoor plumbing, but we did not have dual-pane windows. So every fall we had to install storm windows on every window in the home. If we didn’t install storm windows, we would get a lot of condensation on the inside of the windows. The condensation would stain and damage the wood window sills. If you didn’t have storm windows, you put towels on all the window sills.
Then someone invented double or dual-pane windows. These prevented having to install storm windows in the winter. And yes, dual pane windows offer better insulation. But they are still the weak link in any home (unless you don’t have any attic insulation).
I have heard the ads from window manufacturers claiming huge savings in energy bills if you replace single-pane windows with double-pane windows. I have also heard many people claim that their home is “super insulated, including double-pane windows.” I have to hold back a chuckle every time I hear these claims. Yes, you have double-pane windows. The window insulation is now R-4 instead of R-2. In newer homes the typical wall insulation is R-19 and typical attic insulation is at least R-30. This is just the insulation; you can add a little more for the drywall and siding. So those R-4 windows don’t sound so good now, do they?
Recently I have received some calls from past clients regarding upgrading their single-pane windows to double pane to reduce their heating and cooling costs. This is a good investment if you plan on living in the home for 20 years. I copied the following from the Consumer Reports website:
“Replacement windows can save you between 10 and 25 percent per year on heating and cooling if you have single-paned windows. But they cost between $7,000 and $20,000 for an average house. Custom sizes can add about 15 percent. So new windows probably won’t save enough energy for you to pocket any net savings for 20 years or more.”
I checked several good quality window manufacturer websites, and verified a good window will have about R-4 insulation. (Windows are usually rated by the U-factor, or thermal conductance. You divide the U factor into 1 to determine the R factor.) The best triple-pane windows with argon gas between the panes may reach R-6, but of course these are more expensive.
Energy efficiency experts all say the most cost-effective insulation is window coverings. Using awnings, shutters or shade screens in the summer will keep the sun from hitting the window, greatly reducing heat gain into the home. Thermal blinds or curtains will greatly reduce heat loss through windows during the winter. You can buy shade screens and thermal curtains for much less than new windows. And you can remove the shade screens in the winter to gain some heat in the home.
There are some other benefits to upgrading to double pane windows that I should mention. Energy efficiency experts only comment on energy savings. Installing double-pane windows can also improve the value of your home when you sell. This is especially true if you have older windows that are hard to operate, inconvenient, or just plain ugly. Double-pane windows also offer more sound insulation, which can be important if you live near a busy road or other noisy area. So upgrading to double-pane windows can make your home more comfortable, convenient and/or attractive in addition to adding value to your home.
To change the subject, some contractors (including window installers now) feel that home inspectors should not be making recommendations or giving advice for repairs or improvements. That should be left to contractors. I agree and disagree. Home inspectors are regulated in Arizona, and we are required to recommend contractors or professionals if we find what the state considers a major defect. To Arizona, a major defect is something that will worsen appreciably, cause further damage, or is an immediate safety concern.
Home inspectors are regulated in Arizona, not under the Registrar of Contractors but under the Board of Technical Registration (the BTR also regulates architects and engineers). Arizona home inspectors have to pass state approved education and the National Home Inspector exam, and have to do 30 training inspections. These requirements are some of the most stringent of the 34 states that regulate home inspectors. So even a brand-new Arizona home inspector has some technical and some field experience.
I comply with the state law and always recommend a licensed contractor for significant repairs. However, I do have 16 years’ experience as a home inspector. There are some conditions that I have seen hundreds of times over the years. I feel I am doing the best job I can for my clients if I tell them what repair is likely needed. Sometimes this is good news – for example I can tell them there is likely nothing major wrong with the furnace and air conditioner; cleaning the air conditioner evaporator may be all that’s needed.
I am not allowed to work on homes I inspect, and even if I could, I don’t have the unique expertise or tools that licensed contractors have. What my clients are paying me for is my advice and opinions. I feel I should give my clients as much information as possible. So if I know from experience that a certain improvement may be a minor or major one, I will tell this to my clients.
Bob in Prescott Valley wrote in with questions about stucco homes and siding. I haven’t forgotten about you, Bob – I’ll answer your letter in my next column.
By Randy West on July 16, 2009
Repairs are between the buyer and seller
In my last column I explained that home inspectors don’t do “code” inspections. We do, however, report on safety issues that may also be code issues. A reader e-mailed the Courier:
“After Randy West inspected our home, he told us that we had to bring the home up to code if we wanted to sell, and since we didn’t (want to bring it up to code) and did not have to according to law, he was the person responsible for us not closing on the home with the prospective buyer. We lost the sale because of him. It appears that West says whatever works for him at the time.”
I don’t use the word “code” during an inspection; however, I may use euphemisms such as “current building standards.” I can assure you that I never tell sellers they have to fix anything.
In fact, as many of you know, I do the opposite. If a seller asks me if he should fix something, I always tell him to wait for the buyer’s request. I explain the buyer may not want anything fixed. Don’t replace that old white dishwasher – the buyers may be planning on installing new stainless steel appliances. Perhaps the buyer is an electrician and knows he can fix everything for $100 in a couple of hours. Or maybe the buyer’s son in Utah is a contractor, and having a “honey do” list for him will get him to come down and visit for a while.
The reader in question said that I was the person responsible for him losing the sale. I truly am sorry he lost the sale. But it was not because of me. Any other competent home inspector would have found the same issues. It was because you and the buyer differed on your opinions of what the home was worth in its current condition.
John used the term “according to law” in his e-mail. He is correct in that the law does not require any seller to make any improvements a buyer may ask for. The purchase agreement between the buyer and seller, and any addendums, discuss this. There is no law that states you have to accept an offer or addendum to an offer. The only thing that would be “against the law” is if you agreed to something in a written contract and then did not fulfill it.
Sometimes a buyer asks me, “Should I ask the seller to fix this?” I have an immediate response: “I don’t know. That’s not my job. I don’t know if you paid full price or ‘lowballed.’ I don’t know if the home has been on the market for a week or a year. I don’t know if the seller is handy, of if you are. All of these need consideration. This is something you need to discuss with your Realtor.”
I had a call recently from a buyer who needed a home inspection very quickly. I told him I was booked for several days. He asked me to “squeeze him in tomorrow.” I told him you can’t “squeeze” in a home inspection – an inspection takes at least a few hours and so does preparing a narrative inspection report. He said he didn’t care if I did a good job; he just needed a way out of the contract. The Realtor term for this is “buyer’s remorse.” (I get buyer’s remorse every time I buy a new computer, because three weeks later there’s a much improved model for less money.)
I have received calls like that just a few times over the years. This is good, because I usually get a little angry with those buyers. If they want out of the contract, there should be some legal way without making a home inspector the “bad guy.” If all they want is an excuse to cancel the contract, go hire the $200 inspector who uses one of those “checklist” reports that only take a few minutes to fill out. Don’t waste my time preparing a professional report full of color pictures just so you can back out of a contract.
A buyer can cancel a contract for no reason, but he forfeits his earnest money. This is usually fair, considering the seller has lost showings and potential buyers while the home was under contract. The seller may even have put an offer or deposit on another home.
The best approach may be for a buyer just to admit he wants out of a deal.
By Randy West on June 25, 2009
Inspectors report on safety issues, not code violations
I have an electrifying question this week:
“I am having trouble understanding something about home inspections. Home inspectors say they are not doing ‘code’ inspections, yet some recommend GFCI outlets in older homes. Is this not a code requirement? I find the same contradictions in your columns. You have quoted your standards as saying you don’t do code inspections, yet you have also said you have to report on items that were not required when the home was built. I looked at your standards and could not find this, but I remember you saying something about having to report on new residential codes. You can’t have it both ways. If you don’t do code inspections, then why recommend GFCI outlets? If you do code inspections, why not just admit it? And obviously your industry doesn’t know either, because some inspectors recommend GFCI outlets and others do not.”
This is a good question, and has been a hot topic in my profession for years. I will give you my opinion on this, which, of course, is the best one going right now.
The Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors do state: “Inspectors are not required to report on compliance or non-compliance with applicable regulatory requirements.” This is easily interpreted to mean we do not do “code” inspections.
The other reference that you could not find is in the glossary in the Standards. Inspectors have to report on items that are “unsafe,” and the definition of unsafe states: “The risk may be due to damage, deterioration, improper installation or a change in adopted residential construction standards.”
While this may seem contradictory, there is a good reason the Standards are written this way. We cannot do “code” inspections. For one thing, you are not required to “update” your home every three years when a new code is published. So we would have to know which code was in use by the appropriate municipality when your home was built. And all municipalities amend the code, so we would have to research that. And even if we researched all that, how would we know if the drywall, sheathing and framing are properly nailed? How can we determine how thick the concrete slab is, or how deep the footers go? It is impossible to do a complete code inspection on an existing building without completely dismantling the building, and most sellers get a little concerned if the inspector shows up with a bulldozer.
And let’s not forget many areas of Arizona and Yavapai County did not have any building departments or code enforcements until recently. So if we were doing code inspections in these areas, we wouldn’t be able to report on anything.
The “change in adopted residential construction standards” is also in the Standards for a good reason. Let’s use your GFCI outlet example. (For the new folks in town who aren’t regular readers yet, a GFCI is a ground fault circuit interrupter, or a “safety” outlet required near sinks.) If you have a home built in the early 1970s, the code did not require GFCI protection in bathrooms. If you have a home built in the early 1960s, you may have two-prong ungrounded outlets in the bathroom. These are “unsafe” in the opinion of all competent home inspectors. But if we were doing a code inspection, we could not comment on these, because they met code when the home was built. But we can report them as “unsafe.” In this case, installing a $5 GFCI outlet in the bathroom could save little Johnny’s life. So if you know of a home inspector who does not recommend GFCI protection in bathrooms, let me know. I’ll take him out to the woodshed for a little wall-to-wall counseling.
The point is, we had to write the Standards knowing that a home inspection is not a code inspection. But we also have to serve our clients and the public. There are many examples other than GFCI outlets. Say you have an old home with a high deck and the spaces in the deck railing are 2 feet apart. A child could easily fall off this deck. And our clients show up with eight little kids who are totally out of control. If we’re limited to code inspections, we couldn’t warn them about the openings in the deck railing.
I just thought of a great analogy! Say you are buying a 1950 Chevy. You take it you your mechanic, and he mentions that the car does not have seatbelts or airbags. He says you can install seatbelts for a couple hundred dollars, but it would cost thousands to try to retrofit airbags into the car. Most people would decide to install seatbelts but not airbags. But the mechanic has made you aware that you don’t have airbags, so maybe you’ll be a little more careful and not tailgate the semi-trucks like you do in your Lexus.
I inspected a 60-year-old home this week. I noted the stairs were steeper and narrower than in newer homes. I commented on this potentially unsafe condition, but stated that because of the architecture, improvement would not likely be practical or cost effective. I highly recommended that they install a sturdy handrail at the stairway. I am assuming they took my advice and installed the handrail. And, like the mechanic, I alerted them to the old stairway, so maybe they’ll be a little more careful on it.
I also recommended GFCI protection in the bathrooms.
By Randy West on June 11, 2009
Professional Building Consultants
Several years ago I was not paying attention when I tested the automatic reverse feature for an overhead door opener. The opener was out of adjustment, and the top section of the overhead door was damaged. In fact, two of the windows in this section “exploded” out onto the driveway. I immediately called an overhead door company, and was cleaning the glass off the driveway when the seller came out. She looked like she was going to have a heart attack – she started staggering around with her hands over her heart and was almost crying. I pointed to the van coming up the driveway and told her the door would be fixed before I left, and the painter would be there in the morning and paint the entire door if needed. She staggered back into the home. I avoided her as long as I could, but had to go in to let her know I was finished. She asked me how much I charge for home inspections. I thought she was going to say something sarcastic about how could I make a living spending more on garage door and painting companies than I made on the inspection. Instead, she told me she was buying a home in Prescott Valley and asked when I could do the inspection. She said she was so impressed that I had her door fixed right away that she wanted me to inspect her new home for her.
There is a reason I told you this story. I had two questions recently about testing overhead garage doors. I had a call from a seller who was concerned about a home inspector wanting him to sign a waiver. The waiver stated that the inspector was going to test the automatic reverse feature on the overhead garage door opener, and that if the opener was out of adjustment the door could be damaged (I know this is true). The waiver stated that if the door was damaged the inspector was not liable for the damage. The seller was a little concerned with this, and wanted to know if he was required to sign this waiver.
The second question was from a buyer who wanted to know if inspectors are required to test door openers. He recently bought a home and the inspector did not test the automatic reverse feature. After moving in the buyer found out the opener is an older one without this very important safety feature. When the buyer asked his inspector why he didn’t test it, the inspector claimed the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors states he does not have to because it could cause damage to the door.
I’ll answer the second question first. Section 3.2 of the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors is the General Limitations section. This section states the inspector is not required to “… perform any procedure which may damage the property or its components …” I assume this is the section the inspector was referring to when he claimed the standards don’t require him to test overhead door openers.
I totally disagree with this inspector. Using this logic, I could say I shouldn’t walk the roof – I could break a shingle or tile. I should not ring the doorbell – the owner could have a dog that gets excited when he hears a doorbell. The dog could get so excited he runs into a wall and damages it. I better not turn on the bathroom exhaust fan. There could be a bird’s nest in the vent and turning on the vent could scare them. A bird could have a heart attack and die right there in the vent. Eventually, the odor could attract a predator, and he might get stuck in the vent while trying to reach the bird. Then the vent blower motor could overheat and start a fire.
Perhaps I’m exaggerating just a wee bit, but I’m trying to make a point. The general limitations section in the standards cannot be used as a reason to not inspect something we should inspect. The general limitations can be used for unique or unusual circumstances. For example, I did not test the automatic opener on a garage door recently because the door needed repairs. One spring was broken, so the door was very “heavy.” The top section of the door was already damaged where the opener was attached to it. Testing the opener, and especially the automatic reverse feature, may have caused further damage to the door. I documented the reasons I did not test the opener in my report.
I told the buyer whose inspector did not test the garage door opener to refer to section 5 of the standards. This is the exterior section and states, “The inspector shall report whether or not any garage door operator will automatically reverse or stop when meeting reasonable resistance during closing.” It’s pretty hard to argue the meaning of that sentence.
Now about the inspector asking the seller to sign a waiver – this is not the first time I’ve heard of this. I told the seller that he is not required to sign any waiver with the inspector. I could get silly again and say I’m going to ask the seller to sign a waiver regarding the birds in the bath exhaust fan vent. I will say I think it’s improper for a home inspector to ask a seller to sign any waiver. If you’re this afraid you’re going to break something, perhaps you should consider another profession. Maybe an overhead door company is hiring …
By Randy West on May 28, 2009
Code of ethics protects both inspector, client
I have two ethical questions this week. I don’t mean the questions are ethical, but they regard ethical behavior.
The first comes up frequently: Can a home inspector bill escrow for his home inspection fee?
The answer is no. The national Ethics Committee at the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) recently had a request for information (RFI) regarding this. The exact question was:
“If an inspector does an inspection for a client, but was hired by a real estate agent and only gets paid at or after closing, is this a violation of the COE (code of ethics)? The inspector is still being paid by the buyer but, in this instance, he was paid at/after closing. Had the house not gone to closing, it is not clear if he would have been paid.”
The questioner stated the Realtor “hired” the inspector, but the buyer paid him. Therefore the Realtor did not hire the inspector, the buyer did. The Realtor simply ordered the inspection. It’s no different than if you worked for Subway and ordered some bread. You placed the order, but the client was Subway. So who ordered the inspection does not equate into the answer in any way.
The Ethics Committee response was:
“This would represent a violation of the ASHI Code of Ethics. 1.B of the Code of Ethics states that ‘Inspectors shall not inspect properties under contingent arrangements whereby any compensation … is dependent on … sale of a property.’ Since the inspector may not get paid unless the house closes, a conflict of interest arises, to the potential detriment of the client, as the inspector may be tempted to ensure that the house ‘passes’ the inspection in order to gain payment.”
I have to agree with the committee because the public perception is very important. I think most home inspectors are like me: honest, ethical, good-looking, and, of course, modest. But even if a good home inspector makes an honest mistake and misses something, and the buyer/client knows the inspector was paid out of escrow, the client could think the inspector “missed it” on purpose to ensure he got paid.
I was also asked if it’s a conflict of interest for a home inspection company to also own a pest control company. My answer was no, as long as neither company performs repairs. I found an old RFI (question) confirming this:
“Can we own a pest control company and home inspection company? Can our home inspection company recommend our pest control company?”
The committee’s answer: “Owning more than one company does not violate the Code of Ethics. It is also not a violation of the Code of Ethics for the inspector to recommend a pest control company for inspection purposes, whether owned by the home inspector or not. But it is a wise ethical practice to disclose to all appropriate parties that the pest control company is under the same ownership.
“Remediation performed by the inspector’s company, or recommending the remediation services of the home inspector’s pest control company, based on home inspection findings is a violation of the code. The code states in part that, ‘Inspectors shall avoid conflicts of interest or activities that compromise, or appear to compromise, professional independence, objectivity, or inspection integrity.’ It could clearly compromise inspection integrity to profit from the discovery of defects.”
By Randy West on May 14, 2009
Unofficial inspections cost in long run
Last time I wrote about whether home inspectors have to turn on circuit breakers or light gas appliances when they inspect a vacant home (they are not required to, but may if they choose to). This is a statewide concern. Since my last column, I attended a Board of Technical Registration (BTR) Rules and Standards committee meeting. A home inspector attended as a public member and asked about having to light gas appliances. The committee is not allowed to discuss items that are not on the agenda, so this is now on the agenda for our May 20 meeting. I will give you an update after that.
There is another statewide concern that the committee discussed regarding bank-owned homes. There are inspectors who are performing very limited inspections. They call these “surveys,” “audits” or “walk-through inspections.” Often the utilities are not on. Sometimes there is no written report, and some inspectors do not even have a written inspection agreement. If they do provide a written report, they state, “This is not a home inspection” in bold letters.
As usual, I have strong opinions about these inspections, and as usual I am more than willing to share my opinions. First, the inspectors who do these are taking a big risk. If they think the BTR will not review a complaint because they called it a “survey,” they are mistaken. Nor will writing “This is not a home inspection” on a written report protect them. This is a fee-paid inspection by a state-certified home inspector for a real estate transaction. If it smells like an inspection and tastes like an inspection …
If a complaint is filed with the BTR, these inspectors may find they have significant violations of the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors. Of course, they will also likely get sued out of business by a disgruntled client when the inspectors find their “errors and omissions” insurance won’t cover them because “this is not a home inspection.”
I have a word of caution to Realtors, as well. Your buyers may thank you for saving them a couple hundred dollars on the inspection. But what about after they move in and find out the furnace and air conditioner don’t work and the roof leaks? If they have no written agreement or report from a home inspector, who’s next on their list to complain to?
Enough of that. I had my first question on swimming pools. Mark wrote:
“I’ve been reading your column in the Courier with interest and would like to ask your advice regarding pool-safety device requirements in Arizona. For the condition where “a residence or living area constitutes part of the enclosure required,” I have a question. For ground-level doors with direct access to the pool, one document says a “self-latching device above 54 inches” will satisfy the requirement (Residential Pool Safety Notice). The other document seems to say the device needs to be both self-latching and self-closing (ARS 36-1681). Lastly, some pool safety equipment manufacturers and some Arizona cities say that an audible alarm, again above 54″, will satisfy the requirement.
“May I please have your advice on this point? The property in question is in Peoria, not Prescott. I am trying to understand and apply correctly the state requirements.”
Mark has obviously done some homework on this matter. I have to admit that I only see swimming pools once every 3.7 years in Prescott, so I do not consider myself an expert (or even an apprentice) when it comes to inspecting pools. When I do see a pool I make a comment like, “there’s a big concrete hole in the back yard full of water. This was not inspected …” However, the one thing I do report on is if the pool is “kiddie-proof.” We have had quite a few classes in Arizona on swimming pools, including one this past February at Paddock Pools in Mesa. Inspectors in Arizona have a hard time with the kiddie-proofing part of pool inspections because every jurisdiction has its own rules. If I don’t see self-closing doors and gates into the pool area with the latch at least 54 inches off the floor, I write it up as a major safety concern.
I asked a couple of Phoenix home inspectors about your questions, since they see pools every day. They said they want to see doors or gates self-closing and self-latching. And even if a jurisdiction allows audible alarms, they write them up. Most are battery- operated alarms on the gate or door, and often the batteries are removed about the time the city inspector’s truck reaches the end of the driveway. Even if the batteries aren’t removed, they will eventually need replacing. You could literally be betting some child’s life on these alarms working. I have not seen such an alarm up here, but if I do I will recommend a more secure system.
So I didn’t really answer your question, other than what home inspectors say about the alarms. In a way private home inspectors are blessed because we’re not doing code inspections. Something may not quite meet code, but we think it’s OK. Or something may meet code but we don’t think it’s OK. And we wonder why some contractors are frustrated with us.
Some contractors are more than frustrated. A contractor this past week gave me a quiz. “What do you call a bunch of birds?” I answered, “A flock.” A bunch of cows? A herd. A bunch of fish? A school. “A bunch of home inspectors?” “Don’t know.” His answer: “A plague.”
By Randy West on April 30, 2009
Should a home inspector turn on utilities?
I’ve been questioned recently by Realtors and home inspectors if a home inspector is required to turn on the utilities if they are off, or perform the inspection at all. This has become more of a problem with all the bank-owned properties we’re inspecting.
The home inspector may not be able to turn on the utilities. If the water, gas or electric providers shut off the utilities, they will lock the meters. No home inspector can turn on the utilities if the provider has a lock on a meter or valve.
So if the utilities are off, should the inspector perform the inspection? This is up to the individual inspector. My policy is to perform the inspection if the water or gas is turned off. This is frustrating for me, but I want to do the best job I can for my client. It takes longer to write a report when you have to keep stating something couldn’t be inspected because the water was off. And then there’s the time it takes to return to the home and write up a re-inspection.
I won’t do the inspection if the electricity is off. With no power I cannot test the outlets, lights, appliances, furnace, air conditioner, etc. When I enter the attic I have the exhaust fans and furnace blower on so I can check the ducts. If the power is off I will have to re-enter the attic to check these components. I don’t want to go in the attic once, and especially not twice. If the electricity is off, the re-inspection and follow-up report can take longer than the original inspection and report.
But what if the power is on but the main breaker is turned off? What if the gas supply is on but the gas water heater is not lit? What if the water is on but the main valve is turned off? Is a home inspector required to turn on breakers, open valves, light gas appliances, etc?
The answer to that is no. The Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors state a home inspector is not required to “operate any system or component that is shut down or otherwise inoperable.” The glossary in the Standards defines “shut down” as equipment whose safety switch or circuit breaker is off, or cannot be operated by the control that a home owner would normally use.
But here’s the harder question: although it’s not required, should a home inspector turn on breakers, open valves or light gas appliances? This is up to the individual inspector. The Standards do not prohibit inspectors from doing this; they just state an inspector is not required to.
There are many inspectors I respect who will not turn on a breaker or light a water heater. They have good arguments for this. That water heater or circuit breaker may be turned off for a reason; they may cause damage to the home or a component by turning something on. There is some personal safety risk as well. Some inspectors that are franchisees have told me their company does not allow them to light appliances or turn on main water valves.
There are other inspectors who will open valves and light gas appliances. I fall into this category. I have several reasons for this. First, of course, is doing the best job I can for my client. Second, I don’t want to take the time to return to the home and write a follow-up inspection report. Third, I feel I’m qualified to do this. For example, before I turn on a main water valve, I make sure all faucets are off and visually inspect all the supply lines (under the sinks, etc.) for any damage. When I open the main valve I literally run through the home to make sure there is not water leaking onto a floor somewhere. And don’t forget the laundry faucets – years ago I forgot to check these and, when I entered the home, the water was shooting across the laundry room onto the opposite wall.
I will also light a furnace or water heater. Again, this is mostly to give a client a complete report and to save me having to return to the home. But I admit that I wonder what a client might say if I didn’t light a water heater. “My 78-year-old grandma can light a water heater; why can’t a professional home inspector?”
Now let met qualify these statements. I’m still alive, so I do have some common sense. If there are wires hanging out of the walls I won’t turn on the circuit breakers. If the water heater looks unsafe I may choose not to light it. I feel that is why our Standards state we are not required to light a water heater, so we can use our own discretion. Of course, in my report I don’t say I did not light the water heater because our Standards say we don’t have to. I say I did not light the water heater because it’s older than me and leaning over more than me.
I take issue with inspectors who don’t check something and their only argument is the Standards don’t require it. The Standards are minimum requirements, so to me this argument says, “I did the crappiest home inspection I can legally get away with.” I’ve seen incredibly poor inspection reports that comply with the Standards. Most inspection reports exceed the Standards in some areas. For example, for some reason the Standards state we don’t have to test smoke detectors. But every inspector I know tests them, or would report if there weren’t any.
By Randy West on April 16, 2009
The water heater saga continues
I must respond to some recent letters to the editor. About a week ago Mr. Cornell wrote a letter about foreclosed homes. He said the bank-owned properties on the market are affecting property values, and the federal government needs to regulate this. He also said the people of Arizona need to be aware that if their home is foreclosed on the lender can come after them for any monetary losses.
A couple days later Ronda Hammack, a local Realtor, wrote to the editor and stated that in most cases the lender cannot collect losses from the foreclosee (that didn’t make it through the spellchecker). Then a few days later Mr. Brown, a retired attorney, wrote in and disagreed with Ronda (a little personally, I thought, saying she “obviously doesn’t know too many real estate attorneys”). He said lenders are going after the mortgagees, and challenged us to confirm this with real estate attorneys. He also strongly agreed that the government needs to regulate lenders selling their properties.
I did ask some real estate attorneys about this. I was told in most cases (in Arizona) the lenders cannot recover monetary losses from the people who lost their home to foreclosure, as long as the home was a single-family or duplex on less than 2.5 acres. They told me the lenders can do a different type of foreclosure, but don’t often bother since the mortgagees lost their home and likely don’t have much money anyway.
As far as the government regulating lenders selling their properties, the government is the one that got us into this mess. They told the lenders they had to lend money to unqualified buyers. The idea was noble – let everyone have the American dream and own their home. The results are disastrous, with more foreclosures than ever before. Now you want the government to step in again? First they force the lenders to make bad loans and the lenders end up with thousands of repossessed homes, and now you think the government should tell the lenders how much they can sell these for? This is a capitalistic free-market country. Keep the government out of private business and the system works. Every time the government gets involved it’s a disaster.
Sorry – I had to get that out of my system. I’m still answering letters about water heaters. Mr. Nault said he used to have a home with a small tankless heater. He stated, “It would be great for one tap on at a time, but not for taking a shower and running the washer.” I’ve heard this from other tankless water heater owners too.
In case you’re not familiar with tankless water heaters, they are gas or electric and are usually box-shaped units hanging on a wall. As the name implies there is no tank; they heat water as it is needed. To heat water this quickly, they use much more energy when they are operating. Overall they should save you energy costs. It costs less to run a 150,000 Btu heater only when you need it than to run a 40,000 Btu for hours each day to keep 40 or 50 gallons of water hot all the time.
Mr. Nault wanted a comparison of different brands. Unfortunately I cannot help too much here. As a home inspector I have probably seen every brand, but not at the same time and place. I have done research on the web when I see a model that I have not seen before. Interestingly, some manufacturer’s websites acknowledge that tankless water heaters may not be appropriate for families that take showers at the same time or have high-volume needs such as a large whirlpool bathtub. Some manufacturers suggest combining a small tank water heater with a tankless water heater to get the benefits of both systems. I have not seen such a system installed yet, but it makes sense.
Mr. Nault asked how to determine the size of a tankless water heater for your needs. As a home inspector I cannot comment on this either. You will have to consult with the manufacturer and/or the installing plumber for sizing advice.
Mr. Nault also asked about the size of the gas line needed for a tankless water heater. This I can answer. Every gas tankless water heater I’ve seen requires a 3/4 inch gas line. Every tank water heater I’ve seen (in single family homes) requires a 1/2 inch gas line. In fact, there are several concerns when retrofitting a tankless water heater in an existing building. Not only does the gas line need to be larger, the vent pipe is different and often cannot be shared with another gas appliance (many homes have a gas furnace and water heater side by side and sharing a common vent pipe). Also important is the combustion air, or if you’re over 50 the “make-up air.” I’ve seen gas tankless water heaters rated at 200,000 Btu. Simple logic states this water heater would require five times the combustion air of a 40,000 Btu tank water heater. Inadequate combustion air is a serious safety concern – it can cause backdrafting or pulling exhaust gas (and carbon monoxide) back into the home. If the furnace happens to be located nearby this will adversely affect the furnace operation and possibly distribute carbon monoxide throughout the home.
Frankly, if I were building a home I would strongly consider a tankless water heater. If you are considering replacing a tank water heater with a tankless one you must consider the higher cost of the tankless heater and the cost of the modifications needed to install the tankless heater to determine if this will be a cost-effective adventure.
By the way, I heard there’s going to be a cantankerous, grouchy old home inspector on “We’ve Got You Covered” on KYCA radio at 11 a.m. Saturday. You can tune in at 1490 AM or on the web at www.kyca.info.
By Randy West on April 2, 2009
Hot water circulators have ups and downs
I’m still getting feedback and questions on hot water circulator (HWC) pumps. Who would have guessed this would become such a hot topic?
A very quick review – an HWC pumps hot water through the plumbing lines so you get hot water right away at the sinks and showers, thus saving a lot of water that goes down the drain while waiting for hot water. I think conserving water is a worthwhile idea, especially in our arid area. And of course not having to wait for hot water is just plain convenient. I’m going to share some of the letters I’ve received. I’m not sharing these because they said nice things about me, or because it makes this column easy to write. I’m doing this because they’re good information for those of you who have or are considering installing an HWC system.
Judy wrote: “Concerning your column and the continuing saga of hot water heaters. … I read it with interest. I live in an older home and had a recirculating pump installed with a timer long before your column. I was especially excited about the remote control idea for the circulation pump that you wrote about a few weeks ago. I went to True Value and found a remote that works with various things … plugged it into my timer and yeah! it works very well. I can stand at my bathroom sink, press the button and in a couple of minutes have hot water. The timer system has been OK, until I wanted to shower mid-day when the timer was off, and had to wait way too long for hot water. Now I don’t have to waste that precious water waiting for it to get to the bathroom and can have hot water any time. Continue with your helpful ideas; they are appreciated.”
I had several emails thanking me for this idea. I would like to take credit for this idea, but I acknowledged in a previous column that this idea actually came from Chuck Nikula. He called me after my first column on HWC pumps. You’ve helped quite a few people in our area, Chuck. I’m going to send you my first-ever Wild West Water-saving Award. This will get you a cup of coffee at any Denny’s restaurant (as long as you have $1.35 with you).
John also uses a switch for his HWC, but has a warning: “It is true that if an HWC runs all the time the water heater wastes energy. We just don’t need hot water at 1 or 2 in the morning on the other end of the house. First I purchased a new energy star model water heater. Then I installed a water heater timer, which I set to turn on just twice in 24 hours. That saved $36 off our monthly electric bill. But the second bathroom is a very long way from the water heater and we use the sink a lot in the second bathroom. So I installed a switch in the second bathroom that controls the HWC. Now we can turn on the HWC only when we need to use the sink or a guest might use the shower. Since the HWC is much cheaper then a tankless water heater and I installed the HWC myself, it saved dollars at many levels. Last winter when the temps were in the teens, it took 4.5 gallons to get the water hot. I am on a well and that can potentially use a lot of electricity due to the 220V well pump. With the HWC there is zero water loss. BUT discipline is required. One time I forgot to turn off the HWC and the water heater timer was in the off position. The cold environment cooled off all the water in the tank, so lesson learned.”
A very good point – if you have an electric water heater on a timer make sure the HWC is not running when the water heater is not. Otherwise you’re using electricity to pump cold water through the lines, and ‘wasting’ the hot water in the tank.
I wrote that you cannot use an HWC with a tankless water heater. Gary disputes that: “As a follow up to your excellent article on water heaters you may want to go on-line and check out the ‘Metlund’ D’Mand system.
“As far as I can tell this is the only recirculating control system that will work with tankless water heaters. It provides all the benefits of a recirculating system and the benefits of a tankless water heater. The system can also be easily refitted to an existing plumbing system to provide the benefits of a recirculating system at a relatively low cost. I have had the system installed in our home for 10 years along with a recirculating system and have had no trouble at all. I welcome a call from you if you have an interest in mentioning this system to your readers.”
I did go on line to learn about this system. It can be used with tankless systems because it does not run continuously. There is a button and/or a remote control to turn the pump on when you are about to use hot water. Using that logic, any HWC with a switch would work on a tankless system. However, the Metlund pump will sense when the water is hot and turn off, so it only runs until you get hot water. This means the water heater will not be operating unnecessarily. Since tankless water heaters are at least twice the Btu of tank-type water heaters, running the tankless system will use (or waste) much more gas. This makes the sensing valve a very important feature if you have a tankless system.
I received emails with specific question about tankless water heaters and tankless vs. solar water heaters. But I’m out of room, so I will do one more column on (as Judy aptly put it) “the continuing saga of water heaters.”
By Randy West on March 19, 2009
Water heaters are a hot topic
Before I get into my third (but not final) installment on water heaters, I have to comment on an article in the Feb. 28 Courier. The article was about home security, and recommended installing dual-cylinder deadbolts. Dual-cylinder deadbolts require a key to unlock them from the interior, while single-cylinder deadbolts have a lever you turn by hand. When I see double-cylinder deadbolts I recommend replacing them with single-cylinder deadbolts. My reason is a double-cylinder deadbolt can make it difficult to get out of the home in an emergency.
The article said dual-cylinder deadbolts are needed if there’s a window near the door. Otherwise someone could break the glass and reach in and unlock the door. I have a problem with this logic. If someone is willing to break glass to get into a building, they’re pretty much in! That is, unless you live in a home with no windows except the ones by the doors. But even then I propose that if someone is willing to break a window they’re willing to kick in a door.
The Courier article did recommend leaving a key near the door with the dual-cylinder deadbolt. This is fine when Avon’s calling, but what if you need to get out the back door in a hurry? What if there’s a fire and the home is filled with smoke? Most fatalities from fires are from smoke inhalation, and I don’t think a lock that makes it difficult to exit the home is a good idea.
Anyway, back to water heaters. I’m still getting e-mails about my last two columns about hot water circulator (hwc) pumps. If you haven’t been reading my column, get with it! A quick summary: An hwc pumps hot water through the lines so you don’t have to wait for hot water at the sink or shower. This saves a lot of water going down the drain while you’re waiting for hot water. In my last column I quoted a person who didn’t like hwcs. He stated heating water and running an electric pump uses energy that is “gone forever,” while running some water down the drains doesn’t really waste water because it is eventually recycled (usually by reaching an aquifer). Someone wrote in to point out that in our area, water is a much more precious resource than gas or electricity, which is a good point.
Fred wrote in about his family’s “natural” hwc. He said, “You didn’t mention ours, a natural convection system. Our second water heater in the basement supplies three bathrooms and the laundry room. The hot water line is plumbed in a loop and the hot water continuously circulates powered by the law of physics – heat rises. The only cold water wasted is the rise (pipe) from the floor to the spigot.”
I have not seen such a system, but it should work, although likely not as well as one with a pump. I have seen a couple of “octopus” heating systems in Prescott. These are older furnaces that don’t have a blower. The furnace is in the basement and there are ducts to vents in the living area floor. There has to be a duct to every vent, and the ducts have to be very large, so the furnace does resemble a giant octopus. The heated air will naturally rise to the floor vents. Of course, this furnace is not nearly as efficient as newer forced-air furnaces (and now you know why we call them “forced-air” furnaces).
Speaking of physics laws, we had an engineer teaching a class a few years ago. He was explaining arches and domes, which are very strong structures. He was showing slides that demonstrated how the force of gravity actually made these structures stronger. He showed a slide of an old arch in Rome that looked like it should have fallen decades ago. He told the class there was a very strong force keeping this arch intact. I was the one who finally asked what force he was referring to, and he replied “the force of habit.” I have seen many things in my inspection career that are only standing or operating because of this force.
I’m supposed to be talking about water heaters, aren’t I?
I’ve had some e-mails that are confusing tankless, instant and point-of-use water heaters. An instant water heater is a very small electric water heater installed under the kitchen sink. It has its own faucet at the sink. These are convenient for making a cup of cocoa or instant coffee. I warn people that, as the name implies, the water is instantly hot. Don’t ever put your hand under one of these to check if the water is hot – it will scald you!
A point-of-use water heater is a small water heater that supplies hot water to only one bath or fixture. These are usually 2 to 3 gallons, and I see them most often in half-baths in commercial buildings, gas stations, etc. These supply enough hot water for a sink or two (unless your hands are really dirty). I’ve also seen these in use instead of an hwc. If you have to wait a long time for hot water at one bath, you can install one of these in the bathroom. The hot water is plumbed through this small water heater, so by the time you use the two or three gallons, you’re getting hot water from the ‘main’ water heater.
A tankless water heater is just that: a water heater with no tank. Paul wrote in with several very good questions about tankless water heaters. Unfortunately I’m out of room (and I might even have to do some research), so I’ll answer these next time. And I promise my next column will be the last one about hot water for awhile.
By Randy West on March 5, 2009
Some warm to hwc column; others boil
You can’t tell, but there’s something very strange about this column. I wrote this column a week before it was due. Normally I try to be a true American and write the column the day before it’s due. Of course I waited until the last minute to submit it – I didn’t want the editors to raise their expectations.
The reason I wrote the column so early is because I received more e-mails and phone calls from my last column that I ever have before. So this column is responding to those questions. I was shocked to learn that not all of you cut out and save all my columns, so here’s a quick review. My last column was about hot water circulators (hwc’s), which are basically a small pump that circulates hot water through the lines. This gives you hot water very quickly at the sinks and showers, and saves a lot of water from going down the drain while you’re waiting for hot water. I said all the following: Almost all hwc pumps I see are the Grundfos brand; some hwc pumps are plugged into timers like you would use for a lamp; some newer hwc pumps have such a timer built in; the timers don’t always work because in some installations if the pump is not on you have to wait several minutes for hot water. I also said that installing an hwc in an existing home may not work as well as one installed when the home was built. And finally I described an hwc system made for existing homes that has a thermostatic valve that closes when it senses hot water, so you don’t have hot water in the cold water and you divert all the hot water to the fixtures. Got all that? I just did a 1,000-word column in 250 words.
Bob wrote to say he had a Watts-brand hwc from Home Depot installed and was happy with it, but did get the hot water in the cold water lines. He asked if Watts has the thermostatic valve. I don’t know, but I’m sure you could install the Grundfos thermostatic valve in your system.
Victor wrote that they have a private water supply and water is $15 per thousand gallons. They have an hwc and a solar water heating system. The water heater is at one end of the home; the bathroom is at the other. They have a timer, but sometimes they have to manually turn on the pump if they need hot water when the pump is off. His last sentence was, “What would be great is to be able to turn on the recirculation pump from our bathroom.”
Well, Victor, I can help you! Actually, it’s not my idea. Chuck Nikula called me after my last column (I love it when plans come together!). Chuck told me he bought a remote control switch for about $20. This is similar to the infamous ‘clapper’. You plug a module into the outlet and then the pump into the module. Instead of clapping to turn on the pump, you have a remote control. Chuck says he keeps the remote control in the bathroom so he can turn on the pump from the bathroom. I think this is a great idea, as long as the pump is close enough to the bathroom for the remote control to work.
Jamie emailed me and said he was very happy with his Metlund D’Mand hwc system. I have seen these models. The pump is not near the water heater; it’s under the sink farthest from the water heater and is controlled by a switch in that room. When you need hot water you turn on the switch and the pump will supply hot water to all the fixtures. While not as convenient as having a pump run all the time or on a timer, this is more energy-efficient because you only turn on the pump when you need hot water.
My column got me in hot water with John. He e-mailed me and said my column was misleading. I quoted the Grundfos website that claims you can save 12,000 to 38,000 gallons of water each year with an hwc. I thought this seemed high too, but then I have three sons. If I had three daughters, and if they were anything like my wife, that number doesn’t seem quite as high. John may be an engineer, because with some “quick figuring” he calculated that 100 feet of 1/2 inch pipe has about a gallon of water. I’m not an engineer. I would have to fill up a foot-long piece of pipe 100 times and pour it into a milk carton to determine this, so I’ll just take John’s word for it. John went on to say that using that 12 times a day would put 360 gallons of water down the drain in a month, nowhere near the savings touted on the Grundfos website.
John stated that the energy (electricity and gas) you use for a pump and water heater is gone forever. But if you run some cold water down the drain while waiting for hot water, the water will eventually be recycled through the sewer (or private septic) system. He also stated that depending on the cost of water, electricity and gas your energy costs might be higher with an hwc. These are valid points, but of course there is also the convenience factor of having hot water very quickly. Convenience is important to some people. I drive a Prius, but some people drive Hummers because they like the convenience of being able to drive over Priuses. I need to say that I’m not one of those snotty people who think I’m better than you because I drive a ‘green’ car. I openly admit that I’m not green. I’m cheap. I bought a Prius when gas hit $3 a gallon and I found out my six-foot Little Giant ladder would fit in it.
I had a couple questions from people who were confused about instant and tankless water heaters, which are totally different from hwc systems. I’ll tackle these in my next column.
By Randy West on February 19, 2009
Hot water circulator speeds delivery, saves money
I’ve had three questions about hot water circulators recently. Well, actually two questions and one ‘feedback’ reply to a comment I made in an inspection report. The questions were regarding adding a hot water circulator in an existing home.
A hot water circulator (or hwc) is a small pump, usually near the water heater, that circulates hot water through the supply lines. This provides hot water much more quickly at the fixtures (sinks and showers). This is convenient, of course, and also saves a lot of water going down the drain while you wait for hot water. Grundfos is a manufacturer of hwc pumps and systems. Virtually every circulator pump I’ve seen is a Grundfos (and I’ve seen hundreds). According to Grundfos, you can save 12,000 to 38,000 gallons of water per year by installing a hwc. That’s a lot of water, especially in our arid area.
One of the questions referred to a column a couple of years ago in which I stated that a ‘retrofit’ hwc does not work as well as a ‘factory’ hwc. If an hwc is installed when a home is being built, there is a return line plumbed to the water heater. In a retrofit, the hwc circulates water back through the cold water line. The problem with this configuration is a percentage of the hot water is always flowing back into the tank. You also get some warm water in the cold water lines, so you can get warm water from the cold water faucet for a few seconds.
Grundfos recently came out with a new hwc made specifically for retrofits. This new hwc is called the Comfort System, and has a special thermostatic valve that installs between the hot and cold water lines at the fixture farthest from the water heater. This valve senses the temperature of the hot water. If the hot water is below 95 degrees the valve stays open and circulates hot water through the ‘loop’ and back to the water heater. When someone is using hot water and the temperature of the hot water exceeds 95 degrees the valve closes, allowing 100 percent of the hot water to flow to the fixture.
This thermostatic valve is a smart idea. It gives you the advantages of a ‘factory’ hwc and reduces the amount and temperature of hot water flowing through the cold water lines.
When I explain an hwc to a homebuyer who is not familiar with them, I tell them that the pump has a 15- to 20-year life expectancy. (According to Grundfos, their pumps have a 10-year life expectancy, but I’ve seen many over 15 years old and working perfectly.) I tell my clients that the system is not expensive to operate – the pump uses about the same power as a 75-watt light bulb. I’m not sure if I just made that up or if I actually figured it out at some point (converting amps to watts; volts times amps equals watts). But it’s accurate: Grundfos states their pumps use between 55 and 85 watts.
I also tell my clients that I often see the hwc pump plugged into a timer. Since they only use the same wattage as light bulb, you can use the same kind of timer you would use for a lamp. I thought this was great advice – you can have ‘quick’ hot water in the morning and evening when you use it the most, but you won’t run the pump all day and all night.
In the last few years I’ve seen hwc pumps with built-in timers. The timer looks just like a lamp timer you plug into an outlet. In fact, the Comfort System pump has a built-in timer.
That brings me to the feedback I received. A client moved into a new home and took my advice and plugged the hwc pump into a timer. They soon discovered that if someone wanted to take a shower when the pump was off it took a long time to get hot water. A really, really long time. They said it took 3 to 4 minutes for the water to get warm, and 5 to 6 minutes before the water was hot enough to take a shower.
This hwc obviously did not have the thermostatic valve feature. When the pump is not running and you turn on the hot water at a shower, a percentage of the hot water flows back to the water heater through the ‘loop’. In some homes this does not seem to be a major concern, but in others it can indeed take several minutes to get hot water when the hwc pump is turned off. My advice to the clients: Program the timer so the hwc pump is only off when you are certain no one will be needing hot water. Or just lose the timer completely.
All this talk of hot water reminds me of a practical joke I played on my kids when they were younger. The water heater was in a closet near their bathroom, and had a lever-type water valve that you only have to turn 90 degrees to close. Occasionally when they were in the shower I would close the water valve at the water heater. In the winter this would instantly make the shower water about 40 degrees. After they screamed, I would turn the water back on and hide. I told them this happened because of the old water heater. It took some time before they figured out what was going on. They got me back by filling a five- gallon bucket with water and leaving it outside all night, and adding a bag of ice to it the next morning. Then they dumped this on me while I was in the shower.
Being Dad does have some advantages – that night I installed an extra lock on my bathroom door.
By Randy West on February 5, 2009
Randy reflects on safety glass questions
This week’s question was posed in an e-mail from a Realtor: “I know you had a column a while back on safety glass, but I have a couple questions. I sold an older home with wired glass in a couple of doors and around the shower. The home inspector said this isn’t safety glass and should be replaced. I thought wired glass was safety glass. On another home the inspector called out large windows in the living room and said they should be safety glass because they are larger than 9 square feet. But a glass company said they did not need to be safety glass. What gives? I looked in (the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors) and it specifically states that inspectors do not have to check for safety glass. So why would an inspector report on this in the first place?”
Answer: A couple of good glass questions; let me see if I can clear this up for you (sorry). First of all, ‘safety glass’ is a generic term that covers a lot of types of glass including wired, laminated and tempered. There are also some approved plastics that are referred to as safety glass (safety ‘glazing’, actually, but more on that later). When home inspectors talk about safety glass they usually mean tempered glass; this is the most common safety glass today.
Let’s walk through the wired glass first (figuratively speaking). Wired glass is an older type of safety glass, and while it’s safer than plain old plate glass, it’s not as safe as tempered glass.
There are two times you can get injured if you fall through or put a body part through glass. (Well, actually more than that, depending on the amount of adult beverages you’ve consumed.) When your buddy tackles you unexpectedly and you go through a window you can, of course, get cut on the way through. But you can also get injured when trying to get back out. Tempered glass will break into millions and millions of pieces when it’s broken, so there should not be any large pieces to cause serious injury when you go through or come back. Wired glass, on the other hand, has wire embedded in it that will ‘try’ to keep the glass together. However, there are often large pieces of glass. A lot of injuries from wired glass are deep cuts that you get when retreating through the door or window.
So when your buddy throws you through wired glass, you should try to go all the way through instead of trying to back out. Of course your natural instinct is to try to back out, which is why drinking adult beverages can be helpful. Depending on the quality or quantity of the beverages, you may have left your natural instincts behind you – about where you crossed the line from macho to stupidity.
Wired glass was used a lot in commercial buildings and schools, and there are still hundreds of injuries every year from wired glass. However, wired glass is pretty rare in single-family homes, especially those built after the early 1970s.
Now let’s look at the larger picture… window, that is. Large windows should also be tempered glass if they meet all four of the following: larger than 9 square feet; 18 inches or closer to the floor/ground; 36 inches or higher off the floor/ground; and a ‘walking surface’ within 36 inches of the window.
The first three are pretty easy to determine, but what is a ‘walking surface’? Obviously if there is a sidewalk or interior hallway within 36 inches of the window this would be considered a walking surface. But what about a deck or the living room floor? Technically these are walking surfaces too; most people will walk on a deck or floor. So if those living room windows meet all of these requirements I’m not surprised the inspector recommended safety glass. If a glass company said you did not need safety glass it’s likely the windows did not meet all four of the requirements.
Now I’ll tackle your last question. It’s true that section 5 (Exterior) of the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors states, “The inspector is not required to observe safety
glazing.” Safety glazing is defined in the glossary as “tempered glass, laminated glass or rigid plastic.” So why do those durn home inspectors even mention safety glazing if they are not required to?
The reason is section 2 (Purpose and Scope) of our Standards, which states in part, “Inspectors shall state any systems or components that are in need of immediate major repair.” Now we have to go to the glossary in the Standards. We didn’t realize how important the glossary is when we wrote the Standards; we found out later (mostly from attorneys in courtrooms). Part of the definition of “immediate major repair” states it is a “major defect.” The definition of “major defect” says it may be “unsafe.” And the definition of unsafe says it may be unsafe due to “a change in adopted residential construction standards.”
The Standards were written to inform the public exactly what a home inspection is – and is not. This “unsafe” definition has been used as a catch-all by people that are unhappy with a home inspection or inspector. But it’s there for a reason.
I will call out the lack of tempered glass in an older home. Not because someone may scour the Standards and claim I should, but because as a good inspector I should. I tell my clients that they don’t have to fix or repair anything; my job is to make them aware of it. What they do with the information is up to them. They can put decals on the windows to make them more visible. If they have teenage boys they probably should install tempered glass. At a minimum they can tell their buddies to push them through a different window.
By Randy West on January 22, 2009
‘Update 2008’ not another ‘best of’ list
I’m getting a little tired reading about the ‘Best of 2008’. We have the ‘best sports plays of 2008’, ‘best commercials of 2008’, ‘best politicians of 2008’ (a very short article), etc. I’ve been getting questions on some of my 2008 columns, so I figured my first column in 2009 could be an ‘update 2008’ (not to be confused with ‘best of 2008’).
By far the most questions are on my November column regarding John Reding. John is a fellow home inspector who was seriously injured when his home off Williamson Valley Road blew up and burned to the ground. Many people have asked me how John is doing. John spent some time in Maricopa Burn Center in Phoenix, and then Health South in Scottsdale. His recovery has been better than the doctors predicted. Last week John moved to Texas to be near his sister and father. I’m not sure if he will be returning to Prescott, but he has a lot of friends here who are wishing him the best.
In that same column I hypothesized about the cause of the explosion. John turned up the thermostat and a minute or two later the home blew up. The gas furnace was in the crawlspace. I assumed there was a propane leak and the gas accumulated in the crawlspace until the furnace burner or pilot light ignited it. That is still my best guess. I know now that that the gas furnace was the only gas appliance, and this was the first time the furnace had been used (the home was only a few months old). I also know John turned on the gas that morning just before turning up the thermostat, and smelled gas in the home just before the explosion. These all support my theory. I have heard that there may have been a disconnected gas line in the crawlspace, but because of litigation no one will confirm the exact cause of the explosion. A disconnected gas line could explain how the gas accumulated to explosive levels so quickly.
In September I wrote about Yavapai County considering cutting the building department’s budget. I noted that (in my opinion) this was not a good idea. While it’s true that building permits were down, it’s also true that building inspectors now have to cover the entire county, and that Yavapai County recently adopted new codes (such as the International Energy Code). This added to the building inspector’s workload, and reducing the number of inspectors would not be a good idea. As usual, the government did not take my excellent advice and Yavapai County lost two building inspectors and two plan reviewers.
Now I understand that counties and cities are just like the rest of us and are cutting their budgets. But I think there are other areas that could be cut before building inspectors. For example, I was looking up a county office in the Government section of the phone book and noticed there is a “Breast Feeding Support Services” department. I’m not making this up – look it up yourself. They even have a 1-800 ‘State Hotline’ phone number. Now I don’t want to disparage the fine people who staff this agency, but I have to say I don’t know why a county government needs to offer breast-feeding support. I admit I’m a guy and don’t have firsthand experience at this (or if I do I was much too young to remember it), but I’m especially having trouble figuring out why we need a ‘hotline’ for breast-feeding support. I have a couple ideas, but I won’t bother writing them because I know they won’t make it past the editor.
Back in March I wrote about The Lofts at Fillmore. This was a condo complex that had serious construction defects. When the defects were not corrected, the homeowners sued. A judge let the builder off because he had not actually signed the purchase agreements with the individual owners. The builder formed an LLC (limited liability corporation) to handle the sales, and after the last condo sold, the LLC was dissolved. This is not an uncommon practice. And an appeals court judge upheld this decision. The following paragraph appeared in my March column:
“I’m trying to understand the judge’s logic. If my car blows up with 5,000 miles on it I can’t sue Chevrolet because I bought it a local dealer and didn’t actually have a contract that the president of Chevrolet signed. If my new Sears range stops working I’m out of luck because I bought it at the local store and Mr. Sears didn’t sign my contract. This may sound far-fetched, but in my small mind it’s the same logic. And an appeals court upheld this decision. Sometimes I think ‘judges’ and ‘logic’ are mutually exclusive, like ‘jumbo shrimp’ or ‘military intelligence.’”
The Arizona Chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors signed on with Phoenix attorney Jim Eckley to file an amicus brief to the Arizona Supreme Court asking them to reverse this decision. I’m glad to say the Supreme Court ruled unanimously to overturn the lower court’s decision. This would have had implications for everyone, not just homebuyers and builders.
I made a major blunder in that paragraph in my March column. I received several phone calls and emails from upset veterans. They did not like my ‘military intelligence’ reference. I assured them and now assure you that I did not intend to disparage the military. I am a veteran myself, and my father, uncles, grandfathers, etc., all served in the military. I apologize to anyone who was upset by that comment.
You know, that comment actually came from a George Carlin album called “Toledo Windowbox” that I owned in the ’70s. The title of the album was about the best marijuana George had ever smoked. He said some of his friends had Acapulco Gold or Colombian Red, but the best stuff around was Toledo Windowbox. Obviously I didn’t have any of that because I can remember the album 30 years later.
By Randy West on January 8, 2009