Susan West

Associate Broker

2015 

December 

November 

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Randy rants again, this time about HOAs and CCRs 

Recently I was taking a photo of a house for the front page of my report. A neighbor came hurrying over to tell me he was on the HOA and it was illegal to take photos from the street. An HOA is a Homeowners Association. An “active” HOA will have a president, officers and members made up of residents in the neighborhood. In some neighborhoods, they enforce the Codes, Covenants and Restrictions (CCRs). 

I explained to this man that you cannot stop people from taking photos on a city-owned and -maintained street. I told him the CCRs cannot prohibit taking photos from a public road. And I admit I am a bit of a type A, because then I started taking photos of his house just to express my constitutional rights. 

The concept of CCRs and an HOA is quite good. No one wants their neighbors to have junk cars up on blocks in the front yard, or to paint their home purple, or to build an ugly barn in the middle of a nice residential neighborhood. I’m sure that most HOAs and HOA members do serve the common good and “protect” the neighborhood. But some HOAs and HOA members do seem to get a little out of control. I personally believe that some HOA members are getting their first taste of a little power and control. 

I have seen HOAs and HOA members exceed their authority, including in my last life as a builder. In some subdivisions, the HOA has authority to approve building plans. The HOA members are not usually contractors or engineers, and would come to the home I was building and want explanations of things. And if you pointed out the plans had already been approved by the city, and the building would be inspected by the city, you may be in for more trouble. I had one HOA member install a homemade “Desist Order” on the front door and tell the subs they had to stop work. Why? Because I left a trailer on the property overnight, against CCR rules. The small trailer was usually in the garage overnight, but the last one to leave didn’t have a trailer hitch on his truck so he pushed the trailer into the back yard. I had to explain to the HOA member that he did not have authority to make a “desist order,” and I had to physically escort him from the property. I did not build another home in that subdivision. 

Once I inspected a home for a client, and a few months later was inspecting another home in another part of town. I asked Betty (not her real name) what was wrong with the first home, and she said nothing other than it was next door to the HOA president. Betty worked until 11 p.m., and being a single woman she left the front porch light on. She soon received a certified letter stating no outdoor lights on after 10 pm. I believe she did something to irritate the prez, probably tried to explain why she wanted a light on when she came home alone at night. 

After that, things got much worse. She showed me a certified letter she received when she put a wreath on her front door and two Christmas poinsettias on the porch, because no artificial plants are allowed in the front yard. The final straw was coming home one night and finding two men in a car in her driveway. They were members of the HOA and were listening for her dog to bark. Imagine a single girl coming home at night and finding two strangers in a car in her driveway. I wish she had called 911 and had them arrested. 

I think “no artificial plants” in the yard is a little silly, but this HOA extended that into “no Christmas decorations.” This HOA requires that air conditioner compressors are not visible. Many times I’ve reported on a fence too close to the compressor (clearance is required for airflow), only to hear that the HOA made them install it. 

I’ve had other “conflicts” with HOA members as a home inspector. Once a gentleman walked up the driveway of the home I was inspecting to inform me the overhead garage door had been open for an hour. I cheerfully agreed with him. He then informed me the CCRs stated overhead doors could only be open for 20 minutes. I thought this was a silly CCR, but I closed the overhead door, then opened it and looked at my watch and said, “So I’m good for another 20 minutes, right?” 

I had one HOA member try to come into a home I was inspecting. This was an occupied home, but the sellers were not at home. The HOA member wanted to do his own “inspection” to make sure there were no CCR violations. I told him my insurance covers my employees and clients, but not HOA members. If he wanted to enter the home, he would have to make his own arrangements with the real estate agents. 

I had another HOA member tell me I could not inspect a home without permission from the HOA. He said all inspections had to be approved at their monthly meeting. So I might have to wait up to four weeks for approval. I explained that in the state-approved real estate purchase contract buyers have only have 10 or 15 days to complete their inspections. His reply was the state would have to change their contract! So anyone buying or selling a home in that subdivision would have to wait up to four weeks for inspections. When I refused to leave, he said he would have my vehicle towed. He also received an escort from the property. 

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays – my next column will be next year! 

By Randy West on December 18, 2015 

 

Let’s have a safe holiday season 

Is it my imagination or is Christmas starting earlier? I remember Thanksgiving stuff on the store shelves the day after Halloween. And I remember Christmas stuff on the shelves the day after Turkey Day. But this year there were costumes and candy on one side of the aisle, and Christmas trees and lights on the other side. 

I guess I can’t multitask like the younger generations. I like to get through one holiday before thinking about the next one. So after a week of turkey sandwiches, I’m thinking about Christmas. 

I want everyone to have a great and safe Christmas. There are often unusual things happening in your home this time of year that that may require some extra precautions. And I don’t mean humiliating your dog or cat by putting a sweater or antlers on them. I think this can cause psychological problems, but that’s just my opinion. 

What I am referring to is the 10 additional people in your home for a week, the decorated tree in the corner that will become more firewood than festive before it’s removed, and the 26 strings of lights plugged into a single electrical outlet. 

Why do I mention the 10 extra people? Because this means your water heater and kitchen range are working much harder than normal. There is a higher load on the electrical system: two hairdryers in use at the same time, two coffeemakers on all day, the space heater on the porch where the kids are sleeping, etc. And items that are not normally used may be used, like the fireplace (see below). 

Of course Christmas is safer now. The majority of people have artificial trees, which will not dry out and become kindling. And LED light bulbs take much less power than incandescent bulbs, and don’t get as hot. But there is still an average of 2000 U.S. house fires every year from Christmas decorations. So I always check a few things around my home this time of year, just in case. 

First is the smoke alarms. You should replace the batteries once a year on a date you’ll remember. I used to replace the batteries on New Year’s Day. This date is easy to remember, and I was assured of keeping at least one new year’s resolution every year. Now I replace the smoke alarm batteries when we put up the Christmas decorations. Might as well, since we have the ladder and batteries out anyway. If you have a different time of year you replace these batteries, you should test all the smoke alarms when you put up the Christmas lights. 

I always recommend at least one carbon monoxide alarm in a home that has any type of gas appliance, or a woodburning appliance, or an attached garage. These are required in new homes, but many homes more than five years old do not have one. These are inexpensive and easy to install, some just plug into an outlet. Many newer homes have gas fireplaces that haven’t been used since last Christmas. There is a lot of carbon monoxide in a gas fireplace exhaust, much more than at a “heating” appliance like a furnace or water heater. Many of these fireplaces vent at an exterior wall, where the exhaust could be drawn back into the home through an open window or door. So install or test your carbon monoxide alarm too. 

Excessive electricity use in one circuit can start a fire. This can be from the aforementioned hair dryers in use at the same time, or from lights and decorations. I have seen recommendations to check the wattage of everything you’re using on a circuit. This is easy to do if you know the wattage of everything. On most appliances it’s listed on a label or tag. Watts divided by Volts equals Amps. My wife’s hairdryer is 1500 watts, which (divided by 120 volts) equals 12.5 amps. The largest “outlet” circuit breakers are 20 amp, so using two hairdryers at once can overload a circuit. In a perfect world all that would happen is the circuit breaker would trip off. Of course in a perfect world I would get paid $3000 for home inspections and no homes would have attics or crawlspaces. We don’t live there. 

Now about those lights and decorations. It is easier to overheat a light duty indoor extension cord than the electrical circuit. And to damage said extension cord by routing it under a carpet or somewhere else it can get physically damaged. My rule for Christmas decorations – no indoor extension cords! 

But you can also overload the entire circuit. Say you have 10 strings of miniature lights on your tree. Each string is only 30 watts, so you have 300 watts or about 2.5 amps. This is not much, but usually most or all of the living room outlets are on one breaker/circuit. So even if you have plenty of “amps” left after the lights, what about everything else plugged into living room outlets. All those moving/electric Santas and snowmen could take a few more amps. And let’s not forget what’s plugged in all the time. The “typical” entertainment center today includes a satellite/cable box, TV, DVR or DVD player, and a receiver/amp with a powered base speaker. 

By my calculations if I turned on everything in my living room at once … Actually I didn’t bother calculating it, but I think I’d need a flux capacitor to power everything. You can feel an outlet or switch to see if it’s hot. A little warm to the touch is OK, but if a switch or outlet is hot to the touch it could be “overloading,” or it could be a loose connection or broken outlet. If you find a hot outlet, you should unplug everything and call Sparky (Sparky is not an elf – all electricians are named Sparky). 

By Randy West on December 3, 2015  

 

Inspectors cannot step over a dead body… 

I’m coming up on my 10th anniversary. My first Courier column appeared in December 2005. I enjoy writing this column. I receive emails after almost every column. Most of them are from normal, intelligent people telling me they enjoy my column. Some are not. 

Sometimes I get a lot of emails, and they’re not always regarding the main topic. For example last month I wrote about the new water heater requirements that will make water heaters much more expensive. Then, on a typical rant, I thanked the government for imposing these rules on us, and mentioned that in the 1970s, the government scientists warned of Global Freezing. (Now of course they blame Global Freezing on Global Warming, and just call it Climate Change to be safe.) 

I received many emails regarding my few sentences about the government and global warming. Most, but not all, were from normal intelligent people. Many of you remembered the global freezing scare. Agriculture would cease and parkas would cost $1,000. So it would be a race to either starve or freeze to death. 

I also received several emails with questions about water heaters. Several people asked me to take a look at their water heaters to see if they should replace them. They did not ask me to do this for free – they asked how much I would charge to come look at their water heater. I get similar requests to look at roofing, electrical, cracks (are these structural?), etc. There is logic in asking someone about your water heater or furnace who will not be trying to sell you a new one. 

But I always explain that I do not do “one item” inspections. Some inspectors may; Arizona regulations do not disallow this as long as the report makes clear this is not a “home inspection.” I won’t do these for a different reason. If you ask me to look at the water heater in your garage, what if I notice there is a large pet door in the fire-/gas-resistant door to the home? Or that the door opens over the steps, and there is no handrail? Or that the electrical outlets are not 18 inches off the floor? Or that the beam modules for the overhead door are taped together at the ceiling (instead of being at the bottom of the door to make it reverse)? All of these are safety concerns that any home inspector would be required to report on in a home inspection. 

But you only asked me to tell you if your water heater needs replacing. If I start telling you about fire-resistant walls and stair railings you may get upset. I’ve had people yell at me because they didn’t want to know about other problems. 

Say I tell you about these conditions and you don’t do anything about them. Then Little Johnny falls down the steps with no railing. I may be getting that phone call. Or worse, the Certified Letter from Perry Matlock, attorney at law. A favorite phrase of attorneys is “failed to adequately warn your client.” So I should not mention the unsafe conditions at the steps without specifically recommending you improve them. This while you’re telling me I was not called out to inspect the steps. 

Say I don’t mention those conditions and the overhead door closes on little Johnny. If Perry finds out there was a certified home inspector in the garage last week, I may be getting that letter anyway. For not mentioning it. 

Attorneys that have spoken about this at our home inspector classes had a specific name for it, which I can’t recall. The example they use is a shop owner arrives at his store at 8 a.m. and finds it was broken into last night. He immediately calls the police. The responding policeman sees a dead body on the sidewalk. He can’t step over the body and go investigate the burglary. If he sees something “wrong,” he is bound to report it. 

I call this is a no-win scenario for a home inspector. If we don’t mention other defects we see, we could be in trouble. If we mention them, we could be in trouble. And if we mention them, we better put them in the report and recommend improvement. And if we noticed those defects, why didn’t we notice that steps were a little higher than they should be or that the window lacked tempered (safety) glass? 

So when people ask me to come look at their roofing, furnace or electrical, I tell them that home inspectors are generalists. True, we are trained to identify if something is working or performing as intended. But all we can do is recommend the appropriate professional. As a matter of fact, in a home inspection if we find something that is in need of “immediate major repair,” we are required to recommend a professional. If I come out, I’m going to say “yes, you have a problem and you need a roofing contractor. That’ll be a hundred dollars, please.” So I tell people to skip the middleman and call an appropriate contractor. 

The contractors, while not as impartial as a home inspector, have more specific knowledge and should be able to give you better advice. The furnace repair will be $100 and this is a great reliable furnace. Or the furnace repair will be $600 and parts are very expensive and hard to get for this furnace. That’s information I can’t tell you. 

It’s always wise to get at least two bids, some recommend three bids (especially if the first two are radically different). This allows you to compare what improvements are needed and the prices. Another advantage is one contractor may have a suggestion the others did not think of. 

By the way, I will have to mention the trip hazard by that body on your sidewalk …. 

By Randy West on November 20, 2015 

 

Water heaters, Uncle Sam draw readers’ comments 

Last time I wrote about the new, much more expensive water heaters. These are required from new government regulations. As I frequently do in my columns, I went off on a tangent. This time I was somewhat critical of our government (OK, more than somewhat). About global warming I said, “Many of us in our 50s (those few that survived driving cars with no seat belts and riding bikes without wearing helmets) will remember that in the ’70s they predicted another ice age.” About politicians, I said “any person that wishes to hold political office, should be banned from ever holding political office.” 

I received a surprising number of emails regarding that column. A few were about water heaters, but most weren’t. 

From Carol: “I loved your column last week and I, too, survived riding my bike a million miles w/o a helmet and driving a car w/o a seatbelt, etc. The article on water heaters was interesting and, since mine is just about 10 years old, I look forward to any updates on this information. Or, maybe I don’t want any updates on the info!” 

From Joyce: “I just read your article in the Daily Courier. This is the first time I have ever responded to a column in the paper. Thank you for a well written article about another government (unnecessary) intervention. Do we really want everything to be regulated? At what cost and what real benefit? There was a time my husband and I used to say, ‘Thank goodness we don’t get all the government we pay for.’ Now we are getting more and more government. We are paying for it more and more.” 

I edited the email from Joyce quite a bit, but I love the line “thank goodness we don’t get all the government we pay for.” 

And finally, a question about water heaters. This writer requested I don’t use her name, so this email was also edited (e.g. personal information): 

“I enjoyed your articles on water heaters because as it so happens it’s something that’s been on my mind. My husband and I bought our home 21 years ago (the house is 30). I asked one plumber a few years ago what he thought about replacement and he said the old ones are built better and “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” Another plumber a few months ago said it needed to be replaced and said he’d do it for $1,700. He never mentioned any new regulations or problems there might be. (It’s a 50-gallon in a closet in the garage). A different plumber a few weeks later said “no” to a new water heater but “yes” to something else I should get – a new water pressure valve. So now, I don’t know who to ask or who to trust. I’d like to have someone (like yourself) who could just tell me if it needs replacing and what would be involved without trying to sell me one. Do you ever do a job like this – just inspecting one appliance? If not, do you have any advice you could give me? I would greatly appreciate it.” 

I replied (edited for space): 

I very rarely see 30-year-old water heaters (gas or electric). “If it ain’t broke …” is not bad advice. If it still delivers adequate hot water without having to set the thermostat to maximum you don’t “have” to replace it. But I would certainly keep an eye on it. Most water heaters fail from rust and start leaking. A common area for this is on the top where the supply lines connect, so I would check below and above the water heater for leaks occasionally. You said the water heater is in a garage closet, where I presume you would easily notice water leaking down the wall or onto the floor. If the water heater closet is not very visible, then I would consider replacing it for peace of mind. We know it has exceeded normal life expectancy, why take the chance of water damage from a leak? 

The $1,700 fee seems high, even for the newer type water heater. 

As for the pressure regulator, this is a device in your main water line. It is usually near the main water valve, very often near the water heater in the garage. It is not difficult to check your water pressure yourself. There are pressure gauges that connect to hose faucets. These gauges are not expensive and are available at hardware and big box stores. They are in the irrigation section, not the plumbing section. Connect the pressure gauge and turn on the faucet. Ideal water pressure should be between 40 and 60 psi. A little below or above this is not a concern. 

Leave the gauge on the faucet for a minute with no other water in the home running. Sometimes when pressure regulators fail the pressure will “jump” to the set pressure (e.g. 60 psi), but then slowly climb. If the pressure stays at 60 psi or below, you are in good shape. 

If the water pressure is above 80 psi you should definitely replace your pressure regulator. High water pressure is especially hard on dishwashers and clothes washers. These two appliances have rubber hoses secured with hose clamps (the connections are not glued or soldered), use hot water which can affect the performance of the hoses, and vibrate when operating, increasing the chance of a hose breaking or coming loose. And they are usually in a location where a water leak can cause damage to cabinets, floors, etc. 

Hopefully this information helps you. If nothing else, you can ask a plumber why the water heater needs replacing (although 30 years old might be considered a valid reason by some). And you can ask to see the water pressure, or why you need a new pressure regulator (it just occurred to me the pressure regulator could be leaking instead of not performing properly). 

By Randy West on November 6, 2015 

 

Randy rants about new water heaters, Uncle Sam 

This is very important information to anyone with a water heater (which I hope is most of you). Last time I wrote about the new water heater requirements. I have learned more since then, including attending a class with a presenter from AO Smith (one of the major water heater manufacturers). 

A quick summary – any water heater manufactured after April 16, 2015, has to meet new energy requirements. These requirements affect all water heaters, but are much more stringent on water heaters that are 55 gallons or over, which I will refer to as “large” water heaters in this column. The traditional tank water heaters are a thing of the past for large water heaters. They will be heat pumps or gas-condensing water heaters. 

So if you have a large water heater, you can expect to pay 3 or 4 times as much to replace it next time. Most homes have a smaller (less than 55 gallon) water heater. These will probably only cost twice as much. 

I made a comment last time about this being another case where Uncle Sam’s rules hurt more people than they help. I got a few emails about how I must not care about the environment. That is not true. It’s just that in my profession, you must have a great deal of common sense. And these new regulations do not have common sense. Of course why should I expect common sense from politicians that fly out here in huge jets that use more fuel than 10,000 cars, just to tell us (the common folk) that we have to drive less because of pollution? 

My favorite saying of all time is not funny, it’s true: “any person that wishes to hold political office, should be banned from ever holding political office.” I’m not sure who said that, but Will Rogers once said “I don’t make jokes. I just watch the Government and report the facts.” 

Last time I mentioned that the new water heaters will be larger, and may not fit in a closet or “tight” installation. If your water heater is in the garage or a large basement this will not be a concern. But if your water heater is in a closet, now you will pay twice as much for a new water heater and possibly another $1,000 or so to relocate it. This will affect many manufactured homes, whose owners often have a low or fixed income. 

I have also learned there are other potential problems. Some of the new water heaters will require more combustion air or different vent pipes, so even if you don’t have to relocate the water heater there may be modification costs. Some model water heaters may not even be available because they cannot meet the new energy standards. 

So the politicians may feel good because they delayed the end of the planet by a few minutes. Meanwhile many of us will pay many thousands of dollars to replace a water heater, something that used to cost about $500. 

One email I received said people like me are responsible for Global Warming. I am risking more emails, I know, but I have to comment on this. Many of us in our 50s (those few that survived driving cars with no seat belts and riding bikes without wearing helmets) will remember that in the ’70s they predicted another ice age. I am not kidding – this is from a 1975 Newsweek article: “Meteorologists disagree about the cause and extent of the cooling trend. But they are almost unanimous in the view that the trend will reduce agricultural productivity for the rest of the century.” I was young enough in 1975 to believe everything I read, so I stocked up on parkas and wool hats. 

A couple years ago, I was debating with a friend who firmly believes in global warming. I told him I’m not sure of this because the global temperature has dropped lately (or maybe it was just wishful thinking after dragging those parkas and hats around all these years). My friend said this cooling is due to global warming. He patiently explained to me that global warming can actually cause global cooling. He also explained he now refers to it as “climate change” rather than “global warming.” I told him predicting the climate will “change” is a pretty safe bet. No summer or winter is exactly like the last one. And with “climate change” it doesn’t matter if it’s warmer or cooler next year, you can still blame those gas-guzzling SUVs. 

Okay, enough ranting. I had another email this week. Not from a home inspector, buyer or even a seller. This was from the seller’s next door neighbor. Seems the home inspector recommended removing several branches that were over a deck and part of the home. The actual tree was in the next door neighbor’s yard, and he was extremely upset when they started cutting branches off it. He wanted to know “what right and authority” an inspector has to demand such a thing. 

Home inspectors must report on plants and vegetation that could adversely affect the home. Usually a large branch falling on a home will adversely affect it (the home, I mean; the branch has already been adversely affected). 

But a home inspector has no “right and authority” to demand the branches are cut. In fact, he has no authority, period. No one listens to me, and that includes my wife, three sons and two dogs. By state law, a home inspector has to make “recommendations.” But the inspector has no say about if and when the recommendations are made, or by whom or at whose expense. 

I would assume that homeowners have the “right” to cut down limbs directly over their home, but that’s a question for an attorney, not a home inspector. 

By Randy West on October 23, 2015 

 

Pyrolysis, thermolysis, and other terms you don’t care about 

Last time I wrote about the vent pipes for gas furnaces and water heaters needing clearance to combustible materials, including drywall and wood framing. This is not true for some newer furnaces that have plastic vent pipes, but almost all metal exhaust vent pipes require at least one inch clearance to combustibles. I explained the need for this by copying something from the Glossary in my reports: 

“Pyrolysis refers to a chemical reaction that occurs in wood. Normally wood will begin to burn at 400 to 600 degrees F. However, when wood is continually heated to a temperature of 150 to 250 degrees F, the wood ignition point can drop to 200 degrees F. This is why it’s important to maintain proper clearance around gas appliance vent pipes and wood burning appliance chimneys. NOTE that installing sheet metal between a vent pipe and combustible material is not adequate- metal is a good conductor and the heat will easily transfer to the combustible material.” 

I received an email from Lon Henderson, a home inspector and home inspector trainer in Denver. He sent me definitions of “Pyrolisis” that state this reaction only occurs when there is a lack of oxygen. And this would not happen in a home or attic. 

As usual with the internet, I could find some evidence to back up my definition. But I think he is correct and I will be taking that term out of my report. 

Lon asked for evidence that the ignition point for wood can drop if the wood is continually heated above 150 degrees. He had found some evidence/studies to dispute this. Again I found some evidence to support it. I love facts and figures. 

Lon has admitted that the flash (ignition) point for wood can drop, but only under certain circumstances. Lon convinced me that the chemical reaction I refer to is not pyrolysis. He suggests it is more likely due to thermolysis, which is a “dissociation of chemical bonds or decomposition of compounds by heat.” 

Either way, we both report on a furnace or water heater vent pipe touching a drywall ceiling or lumber in the attic. And I still have to chuckle when someone spends 10 minutes arguing whether it’s necessary. All manufacturers recommend it, and it’s a two-minute fix for a handyman with a drywall saw or cordless jigsaw, so why wouldn’t you make this improvement? 

Speaking of facts and figures, here’s how they can be used. Say if a gas appliance vent pipe has proper clearance, there is a one in a thousand chance of it staring a fire. But if the vent pipe does not have proper clearance, there is a four in a thousand chance. I could use this information and say that even if your vent pipe does not have proper clearance, there is only a .04 percent chance of a fire. That sounds pretty safe. I could use the same information and say if your vent pipe does not have proper clearance it is 4 times more likely to cause a fire. That sounds more onerous. (I made the numbers up for demonstration purposes only.) 

And if you didn’t care about pyrolysis, you may not care about this either. I wrote recently about the ‘new’ rule regarding gas water heaters. I had some emails to let me know I was wrong. In a way I was, because the ‘new’ rule I was referring went into effect in 2003. Any water heater manufactured after 2003 has to be an FVIR type, or Flammable Vapor Ignition Resistant. This is a safety upgrade to prevent fires. 

But another rule went into effect in April 2015, so I will admit the FVIR rule is no longer the “new” rule. The new rules are by the Department of Energy (DOE), and state any water heater manufactured after April 16, 2015, has to meet new energy use requirements. These requirements are very strict on water heaters over 55 gallons. Water heaters, especially over 55 gallons, will be changing a lot. There will be gas condensing and heat pump water heaters, solar and tankless water heaters, electronic ignition (no pilot light) water heaters, etc. All new stuff that will make water heaters, in my humble opinion, less reliable and more expensive to buy, maintain and repair. 

This may be another case of Uncle Sam making requirements before an industry is ready, and without thinking of how it can affect the average citizen. Because another way the water heaters will meet the new energy requirements is to increase the insulation. Which means newer water heaters will be larger. If your water heater is in a garage or basement, this likely won’t be a concern. But if your water heater is in a closet, it could cost more to relocate the new water heater than the cost of the water heater. I have heard, but not verified, that at least one home warranty company includes up to $1,000 over the cost of the water heater to relocate it if necessary because of these new DOE standards. 

Some predict this will especially be a concern in manufactured homes, where water heaters are almost always a tight fit in an interior or exterior closet. And many people that live in manufactured homes are low income or retired/fixed income. Now it may cost them $500 for a water heater and $1,000 to modify the home or relocate the water heater. I’m not sure how much the new water heaters will save you on your gas or electric bill, but it will likely take a long time to recoup that $1,000. 

Hopefully manufacturers will overcome this by using smaller tanks or more efficient insulation so the overall size of a water heater is similar. 

By Randy West on October 9, 2015 

 

Gas appliance vent pipes, drain lines commonly misinstalled 

I am going to respond to some emails. Some of these emails were from sellers, Realtors or contractors who were unhappy with my inspection reports. And some were from other home inspectors that are unhappy with sellers, Realtors or contractors who were unhappy with their reports. These are very common conditions that all home inspectors will (should!) report on. 

Gas appliance (e.g. furnace and water heater) vent pipes can get very hot and need one-inch clearance to combustible materials. Often these vent pipes are too close or actually touching drywall in the home or wood framing in the attic. And we (home inspectors) often hear from sellers “it’s been like that for 10 years, so it’s obviously not a problem.” 

Well, it isn’t a problem yet. The following is from the Glossary in my inspection reports: 

“Pyrolisis refers to a chemical reaction that occurs in wood. Normally wood will begin to burn at 400 to 600 degrees F. However, when wood is continually heated to a temperature of 150 to 250 degrees F, the wood ignition point can drop to 200 degrees F. This is why it’s important to maintain proper clearance around gas appliance vent pipes and wood burning appliance chimneys. NOTE that installing sheet metal between a vent pipe and combustible material is not adequate – metal is a good conductor and the heat will easily transfer to the combustible material.” 

So a vent pipe touching wood in an attic may not be a problem for 10 or 20 years. But if it becomes a problem, the house will be on fire. 

Speaking of vent pipes, home inspectors will also recommend insulation is pulled or trimmed away from the vent pipes. I have had some emails questioning my IQ when I report on this. Yes, I know that fiberglass insulation is not flammable. And cellulose insulation is (I hope!) treated with a chemical to make it non-flammable. However, vent pipe manufacturers recommend a one-inch clearance. The following is from the current IRC building code: 

“G2426.4 (502.4) Insulation shield. 

Where vents pass through insulated assemblies, an insulation shield constructed of steel having a minimum thickness of 0.0187 inch (0.4712 mm) (26 gage) shall be installed to provide clearance between the vent and the insulation material. The clearance shall not be less than the clearance to combustibles specified by the vent manufacturer’s installation instructions. Where vents pass through attic space, the shield shall terminate not less than two-inches (51 mm) above the insulation materials and shall be secured in place to prevent displacement. Insulation shields provided as part of a listed vent system shall be installed in accordance with the manufacturer’s installation instructions.” 

I could quote similar directions/specifications from manufacturers installation instructions. 

It is not difficult or expensive to install a larger pipe (“insulation shield” in the IRC) around a vent pipe in the attic to keep loose insulation away. And it is even less difficult and expensive to cut/trim fiberglass batt insulation away from vent pipes. It confuses me why some people will spend more time arguing about something than the time it would take to correct it. 

Note that these requirements are for most furnaces and water heaters with metal vent pipes. There are some vent pipes that require more clearance, for example a 200,000 Btu tankless water heater vent pipe. 

Now we’re going to talk about high efficiency furnaces. I read the installation instructions for a Category IV Trane furnace the other day. I’ve also read the installation instructions for boilers, water heaters, TPR valves, dishwashers, etc. That may sound boring, but for a home inspector, it is not. There is a lot of information in those instructions. 

A Category IV furnace is the most efficient forced air furnace currently available. These furnaces are very efficient, meaning most of the heat goes into the home and very little heat goes up the vent pipe. Because of this, most Category IV furnaces allow the use of plastic vent pipes. The directions I was reading stated that 0 inches (no) clearance is required between the plastic vent pipe and combustible materials. 

These furnaces are so efficient that they require a condensate drain. This is to collect and drain condensate (water) that forms in the vent pipe. Air conditioner evaporators also have a condensate drain line because they “dehumidify” a home. In most installations, the evaporator is next to or just above the furnace. So often I see the furnace condensate drain line connected to the air conditioner condensate line. 

In most installations, this would be fine. However, if the furnace is installed in an attic, the condensate line may be subject to freezing (obviously not a concern when operating the air conditioner). Two winters ago, we had a week of very cold weather. I inspected a home with a Cat IV furnace in the attic. The condensate line was connected to the air conditioner condensate drain line, and was routed to the north exterior wall near the air conditioner compressor. The condensate line had a downward facing elbow, and was about a foot above the soil, a typical installation. What was not typical was the icicle from the condensate line to the soil. It was about an inch thick, and completely obstructed the condensate drain line. A heating contractor discovered the condensate line had frozen and cracked inside the wall. Thank goodness the contractor was smart/experienced enough to think of this – otherwise water would have been dripping inside the wall until discovered (e.g. by moisture damage). 

Now if I see a furnace condensate line in an attic, I recommend a heating contractor check the installation. And I’m starting to get emails. 

By Randy West on September 25, 2015  

 

Attic stairs and water heaters: Part II 

Last time I wrote about attic stairways in garages. I received quite a few emails regarding these stairways, both from readers and manufacturers. I was discussing attic stairs in the ceiling of an attached garage, which is supposed to be fire resistant. I explained they make a fire resistant stairs for this application, but I have never seen one installed in a single family dwelling. And the reason for this is fire-rated stairs are well over $1,000. 

Well, I stand corrected. There are fire-rated attic stairs for less than $1,000. One person sent me a photo of his stairs that he said he found for less than $300. I could see this one had a small opening into the attic – 22-by-24 inches. Most pull-down stairs have a larger opening – 22-by-54 and 22-by-60 inch are common sizes. This makes sense, since most people install these stairs only if they use the attic for storage. Getting into an attic through a 22-by-24 opening is tight, and the artificial Christmas tree and the rear seat from the minivan probably won’t make it. 

People sent me links to attic stairs for less than $500. And they were fire-resistant, even claiming the gasket would expand in heat, providing an even better seal. 

Alan from The Marwin Company, Inc. sent me information on their attic stairs. He said they can make any model, any size fire-resistant and it does not add much to the cost. However, I was much more intrigued by the link in his email showing their remote control attic stairs. These stairs are controlled by a button on the wall and will automatically lower and extend, and retract and lift back into place. They have a safety reverse, like your overhead garage door, and will stop moving if they are obstructed. Of course, they are much more expensive. 

One last comment about attic stairs in general, not just in garages. I had two emails asking why I recommend these “dangerous” stairs. I was not recommending these stairs, only the use of fire-resistant stairs if needed. In fact, I’m very cautious when using them. In my reports I have a comment that says something like “these stairs are not intended for everyday use … great caution should be used when using these steps.” 

Pull-down stairs can be hazardous, especially if they are not installed correctly. There are three things I always look at before I use a pull-down stairs. First, the stringer (angled board) has to be cut so it fits flat against the floor. Second, there cannot be any gaps in the stringer at the hinges, the sections/boards have to fully butt/contact. Third, the stairs have to be secured properly to the framing. They have to be secured on all four sides. And in almost every one I’ve seen there are holes in the metal brackets at the sides and one end (by the springs). The installation directions say a long screw or nail is needed in each of these four holes. 

Once I saw brass screws in all four holes so I started up the stairs and they almost fell completely out of the access. There was a label with a diagram on the stairs saying a screw must be installed in each hole, so apparently the installer thought that ONLY the four screws were needed. 

I also wrote about FVIR water heaters last time. This stands for Flammable Vapor Ignition Resistant, which means these water heaters are less likely to ignite flammable vapors. Like gasoline fumes commonly found in garages. Any water heater manufactured after 2003 is an FVIR type. These water heaters have a ‘sealed’ combustion chamber and are safer. I received two emails that pointed out how hard it is to light the pilot light on these water heaters. 

I have to agree with this. In my last column, I was talking about safety, not convenience. In the “old” type water heaters, you removed or opened a metal cover and used a long match or lighter to light the pilot. You usually had to lie down on the floor, but the pilot light was easy to see. FVIR water heaters have a small round glass window to look through, about the size of a quarter to a half dollar, and a push-button “spark” igniter. 

This does make FVIR water heaters more difficult to light, especially after they’re a few years old and the glass window is scratched and dirty. Often the pilot light is not straight in from the window, you actually have to look to the left or right. Or up or down. Or some combination. And often you can’t see the spark; you can barely see the pilot light flame when it lights. So until you “know” your water heater, it’s a guessing game to find the pilot light. 

I once had to light a water heater in a garage in a vacant home (I would hope it was vacant if the water heater was not lit). There were windows across the overhead door, and three large windows on a sidewall with no curtains or blinds. It was so bright in the garage I could not see the pilot light at all. I have an old sheet in my truck that I put on the floor under attic accesses to catch the insulation. I had to drape the sheet over my head to light the water heater pilot light. Thank goodness no one came in while I was doing this. 

By Randy West on September 11, 2015 

 

Water heaters, attic stairs in garages: a primer 

I have had several questions lately regarding attached garages. A couple questions were about the fire-resistant walls, ceilings and doors. I wrote an entire confusing (but excellent) column about that last September, which is still on the Courier website (see link below). 

In that column I explained that most homes in our area require type X (fire-resistant) drywall on the ceilings of attached garages. I had two emails complaining that home inspectors called out a pull-down attic stairs in a garage ceiling. Both inspectors said that pull-down stairs are not allowed in garage ceilings. And both were very likely correct. 

If the garage attic is sealed from the home attic (meaning a taped/sealed wall in the attic), then a pull-down attic stairs is allowed in the garage. But (frequent readers know that “but” is one of my favorite words) almost all garage attics in our area are open to the house attic. This means the garage ceiling should have type X drywall. 

But (again) there are attic stairs that are designed and rated for attached garage ceilings. But (stop counting) I have never seen one of these in a single family home. And (could have used ‘but’) I know why. A quick internet search shows attic stairs for under $100 in some local stores. A quick internet search also shows that fire-rated attic stairs are not easy to find, and cost $1,000 or more. 

Some jurisdictions do allow an attic stairs in garages, but with conditions. The following is from a building department in another state. 

“Question: Does a pull down stairs, installed in the ceiling of an attached garage, have to meet the requirements for opening protection?” 

“Answer: Yes, attic access doors in garage ceilings need to meet the opening protection requirement for garage separation per section R309.1. Acceptable alternates: 1. Extend the drywall separation on wall between house and garage all the way to roof deck, where possible, so that ceiling 1/2-inch sheetrock is not required. 2. Cover thin pull down door with 1/2-inch sheetrock or minimum 3/8-inch fire treated plywood adequately attached to garage side (Note: door must close completely and additional weight of sheetrock/plywood may require some type of lock, barrel bolt or other closure device to hold shut). Fire treated plywood must be factory stamped similar to what is used on townhouse roof decking at party walls. 3. Non-combustible metal door openings or pull down stairs. 4. Scuttle hole lids will need to be trimmed out with 2x material, not thin profile door or window trim/casing, to hold in place during a fire event. Other non-combustible attachments like barrel bolts, hinge and hasp could be used. 5. Cover scuttle hole lids or pull down stair doors with adequately attached 24 gage (0.48mm) sheet steel as allowed for duct penetrations listed under R309.1.1.” 

You can see that making a garage attic stairs “acceptable” would require significant modifications. And in most cases would make the stairs much heavier, so additional latches of some type would be needed (and you need to be very careful opening them!). But a home inspector would still likely question these, because likely we will not be able to determine the gage of the sheet metal or the size/fire rating of the plywood. 

I have also had questions about FVIR water heaters on garage floors. Gasoline vapors stay near the floor. So if you’re on vacation and your car or lawnmower starts dripping gas, you don’t want any flame or spark near the floor. This is why electrical outlets in garages are usually installed at the same height as the switches, instead of near the floor. And gas appliances (furnaces and water heaters) in garages need to be at least 18 inches off the floor. Let’s correct that- The pilot light or burner has to be at least 18 inches off the floor. So most water heaters and furnaces in garages are installed on 18 inch high boxes or platforms. 

Since 2003 all water heaters manufactured for residential use have to be FVIR, or Flammable Vapor Ignition Resistant. This means they have a sealed burn chamber (to the homeowner this means you have a push-button pilot light igniter instead of having to use a long match or lighter). FVIR water heaters have other ignition resistant features. They have a “flame arrestor,” which means a screen or grid designed to let air in but not allow flames to go back out. Most have a sensor that shuts off the water heater if excessive heat (from flammable vapors igniting) is detected in the burn chamber. Some manufacturers claim this sensor also shuts off the combustion air, making it impossible for flammable vapors outside the water heater to ignite. 

But even with all these safety features, most jurisdictions still require water heaters to be 18 inches of the floor. Many municipalities modify the building codes, some write their own. So sometimes their requirements are something like “burner elements or gas burners must be 18 inches off a garage floor.” But they could read “ignitions sources capable of igniting flammable vapors must be 18 inches off a garage floor.” The latter technically would not include FVIR water heaters. 

Some areas of the country are allowing FVIR water heaters to be installed on garage floors, but most are not. The last time I checked with our local building departments I was told all gas water heaters need to be 18 inches off garage floors. I’m sure if that has changed, I will hear about it. I welcome the constructive feedback I receive (often from contractors) and will print a correction when needed. I usually leave out the first sentence, which is often something like “Hey Dumbo, you blew it again” or “You moron, you need to get your head out of your attic and read the new codes!” 

By Randy West on August 28, 2015 

 

Lift stations 101, or perhaps it should be 202 

I received this email recently: “Randy. You inspected our home in March. Thanks, great job. It has a sewer pump out back that pushes waste into the sewer. Question. If power goes out, can I still flush the toilets? I’ve been thinking about getting a generator. If power is out for a while, can we still make a few flushes until the power comes on or will water back up inside house toilets? Thanks, Randy.” 

This is an interesting question. A “sewer pump” is better known as a “lift station” in our area. Other areas of the country call it a “grinder pump.” Most common in our area is a lift station in the lower level that pumps water up to the main level waste line. This is from the glossary in my inspection reports: 

Lift Station: If some of the fixtures in the home are below the main waste line, for example in a lower level of a home, a lift station is needed. A lift station pumps or “lifts” the waste water to the main waste line. These are fairly common in our area because of our hilly terrain. Lift stations are not opened or inspected, although in the course of a home inspection I will run enough water that the lift station will cycle on. 

A little further explanation may be needed. The reason they’re called a “grinder pump” is because they grind up “solids.” I love that term – “solids.” This is plumber speak for anything in the waste line that is not liquid. This should only be human waste, toilet paper and some feminine products (although these are known to obstruct waste lines). Of course, plumbers have found a lot of other “solids” in waste lines – toys, dolls, paper towels and tissues (that don’t dissolve like toilet paper), dog bones, flashlights, eyeglasses, cellphones, etc. 

The letter writer has a “whole house” lift station in the yard. His entire home is below the city sewer line, so all the fixtures (toilets, sinks, etc.) discharge into the lift station. So worrying about a power outage may be a legitimate concern, I guess. But I have no idea how many “flushes” you have before water backs up into the home. 

A lift station does not run continuously. The pump has a float switch and only comes on when the tank is full. So how many “flushes” you have depends on how full the lift station is. If the pump just turned off and the station is empty, it will handle a lot more flushes than if the tank is almost full and the pump is just about to turn on. 

The only suggestion I have is to fill the station and test for a “worst case scenario.” You should be able to hear the pump come on if you’re standing near/over the lift station. Or you can use the old mechanic’s screwdriver/stethoscope trick and put the metal end of a screwdriver on the station and your ear against the plastic handle. Have someone inside run water until the pump comes on, and then immediately turn off the circuit breaker for the lift station. 

Now you can flush the lowest level toilet until water backs up into the lowest level tub or shower (and it should be just water – no solids!). Chances are your power will not go out at the exact moment the pump comes on, so this will give you the minimum number of flushes (assuming no other water is being used, of course). You might be surprised at how many flushes you have. A “whole house” lift station can be pretty large. And even a long waste line between the home and tank can hold a surprising amount of water. 

I’ve lived in Prescott over 23 years. When we first moved here, we learned not to start a movie on television during a thunderstorm. It was very likely we would not finish it because either the cable TV or the power would go out. We now live not very far from that first house, and we very rarely have power or TV outages. So I think a generator for a lift station may be a little overboard. It would be much less expensive to buy a camping porta-potty. While not as convenient as the porcelain throne, you can put the porta-potty in a bathroom and still have some privacy. And with a decent flashlight, you can still catch up on your reading at the same time. You just have to decide who has to empty and clean the porta-potty. My suggestion would be the first one to use it, which would encourage everyone to “hold it” as long as possible. 

Of course, if your power goes out frequently, a generator may be desirable. I am more concerned about my refrigerator than my bowels. If I were to buy a generator, it would be large enough to power some of the home, too. I would get one that could power my lift station, refrigerator and a half dozen lights at the same time. 

Most of us know that if the power goes out, you should not open the refrigerator or freezer door unless you absolutely have to. According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, a freezer can stay cold 24 hours (if half full) to 48 hours (if it’s full). But some food in the refrigerator should be discarded after only four hours with no power. That was news to me. I know in the past we’ve had power outages more than four hours and did not throw out any food. But of course I ate sugar, then the pink stuff, then the yellow stuff, and now I’m back to sugar and none of them have killed me. 

By Randy West on August 14, 2015 

 

Predicting the time for a home inspection is impossible 

“Mr. West, I have been a Realtor for many years. You inspected one of my listings last week. I was astonished that you took over four hours for this inspection. I assume you must have taken a long lunch break. If the home is vacant I would not care, but it is inconsiderate of you taking so long in occupied homes. Sellers are already stressed with the selling/showing/inspections. Having an inspector there all day doesn’t help. It would be better for you to do your job as quickly as possible.” 

A: I’ve had some other emails about how long an inspection should take. One buyer told me she always picks the inspector with the longest time on site, because he must be the best. One buyer told me the opposite – the “faster” inspector must be more experienced. 

One “rule of thumb” I’ve heard is one hour for every thousand square feet. This is the default time for some home inspector scheduling software. But the average inspection in Phoenix cannot take as long as the average inspection in Prescott. In Phoenix, there are rarely crawlspaces under the home, and inspectors cannot enter the attics or operate the heating systems for nine months out of the year. 

It is impossible to predict how long a home inspection will take ahead of time. Obviously, a larger or older home will take longer. But the following could be found in any size or age home, and all add time to a home inspection: gas appliances vs. electric appliances, decks vs. patios, dual or multiple heating/cooling systems, fireplaces (gas or wood), attics, crawlspaces, additions, etc. 

An inspection on an old 1,400 square foot home once took me over four hours. The structural took longer – there were additions so there were multiple crawlspaces and attics, all with different framing that I had to describe (by state law). The roofing inspection took longer because there were three different roof coverings, all different ages, that I had to describe. The heating and cooling inspection took twice as long because the original electric heaters and evaporative cooler were installed and working, plus a newer furnace and air conditioner, all of which had to be operated, inspected and reported on. The electrical inspection took longer because there were four electrical panels (most homes have one). You get the idea. 

Shortly after that, I inspected a similar sized home in Prescott Valley. This home was almost new and in very good condition. There was no gas supply (all-electric homes take less time). There were no decks (that take more time than concrete porches and patios). And there was no attic or crawlspace. I completed this inspection in an hour and a half. I felt so guilty I typed part of the report in my truck so I could say I was on site for two hours. 

Even some simple things can add time to an inspection. I inspected a 5,000-square-foot home once where the owners were very “security conscious” (how’s that for a politically correct term?). A sliding window usually takes 20 seconds to inspect. Open it, close it, check the glass, screen and latch, etc. In this house, every window had screw locks/clamps on the top and bottom track, plus a wood pole wedged in the track. Ditto for the sliding glass doors. I have to leave a home as I found it, so at every window I had to loosen two clamps, remove the wood pole and put them all back. The window inspections took a minute longer. That doesn’t sound like much, but with 45 windows that’s 45 extra minutes that no inspector could anticipate. And every other exterior door had dual cylinder deadbolts that take a key to unlock from the interior. And there were padlocks on the electrical panels, crawlspace accesses, etc. All told, it was easily over an extra hour on this inspection (“security conscious” was not the term I was saying to myself during that inspection). 

And every inspector is different. Some can work pretty fast and do a great job. I’m over 50, so I need to walk around slow to give everything time to soak in through osmosis. And I’m self-employed, so I have to allow time for a couple breaks to keep up on phone calls (I can’t wait five hours before checking messages). An inspector who is an employee, or whose wife handles the phone/scheduling, will not have to allow time for this. 

Many inspectors, me included, meet with our clients (the buyers) after the inspection. So we have to make sure we allow enough time to have the inspection complete when they arrive. And we have to allow adequate time for our clients. So I’m thinking about the first comment above regarding taking less time for an inspection because of the stressed sellers. I have to allow sufficient time and sometimes I get done early. What I consider inconsiderate is to give the sellers a specific time and then take longer. Then they’ll really be stressed, thinking the inspector is finding a lot of stuff wrong with the home. 

Speaking of stressed, I would be pretty stressed if I knew my doctor (or plumber, mechanic, etc.) were trying to do the shortest job possible, rather than the best. I don’t want a doctor that says he can do four of these surgeries in one day. Or a mechanic that schedules more work than he knows he can do on one day. I want a professional that allows time for unforeseen complications. 

Now I know a home inspector is not a doctor or plumber, especially when I get their bills. But a home inspection is still pretty important, and no inspector wants to miss something because he was in a hurry. 

By Randy West on July 31, 2015  

 

Evaporative Coolers and Ceiling Fans 101 (and 202) 

Question: Hi Randy. We enjoy your columns and have a question for you. We moved to Chino Valley earlier this year. Our house has an evaporative cooler and ceiling fans in the living room and bedrooms. We had never heard of an evaporative cooler, but our inspector told us they are as good as air conditioners and cheaper to operate. But, now that it’s hot, we are not comfortable! We run the evaporative cooler and ceiling fans 24/7, but by late afternoon our home is too hot. The air coming out of the evaporative cooler vent does not seem cool at all. We really like the energy efficiency of an evaporative cooler, but not if we’re not comfortable. Do you have any advice? (And what is “pump only”?) Cindy and Bob, Chino Valley. 

Answer: Take my advice, I’m not using it. That’s one of what my wife calls my “old man jokes.” Another is “I could agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong.” And my current favorite – “I’m confused. No, wait, maybe I’m not.” 

But I digress. Let’s get back to advice, which I do have for Cindy and Bob. You need to understand how evaporative coolers (which I’ll call “coolers”) and ceiling fans (which I’ll call “ceiling fans”) work to get the best use and efficiency from them. 

Coolers are relatively simple devices, are inexpensive to operate, and work very well in low humidity like we have here most of the time. Coolers have a water line that usually connects near a hose faucet or water heater. A cooler has a float valve that keeps the proper water level in the cooler. A small pump will circulate the water through small water lines and onto the pads. A blower will pull air through these pads and into the home. Coolers require a little more maintenance than air conditioners, primarily draining and covering them in winter and a thorough cleaning in spring. The good news is there are not many parts, and the pump and pads that need replacing occasionally are not expensive. 

The water evaporating off the pads is what cools the air. If you get out of a swimming pool on a hot day, you are cool until you dry off. The water evaporating off your body cools you. This is the same principle. So coolers will not work nearly as well when it’s humid, because less evaporating will occur to cool the air. 

We have not had much rain recently, so coolers should be working well right now. If you cannot feel cool air when your cooler is on, you need to check the cooler itself. Make sure water is flowing onto the pads. I have found coolers not working because all the “tubes” were loose so the water was not going onto the pads. And of course it’s possible the water pump has failed and needs replacing. 

A cooler will be blowing a lot of air into the home, so you need to open a couple windows partially to allow the cooler to work properly. You mentioned a “single” supply vent for the cooler, which is common. If you have a single supply vent, opening windows in a room will “pull” cool air into that room. 

The most common cooler control has five settings: low fan, high fan, low cool, high cool and pump only. The “pump only” setting turns on the water pump so you can saturate the pads before turning on the blower. Otherwise you would get hot air for a while when you first turned the cooler on. The “cool” settings turn on the pump and blower, and the “fan” settings turn on only the blower. This is useful if it’s humid out and you don’t need the pump but want some “fresh” air in the home. 

Now for Ceiling Fans 101. We are back to “evaporation.” With a few exceptions, ceiling fans only work if you are sitting below them. I cannot count the times I’ve gone into homes where nobody is home and every ceiling fan is on. This actually heats the home (heat from the electric motor), uses electricity and accomplishes nothing (unless the seller is trying for a dramatic “effect” for purchasers, but this is totally wasted on home inspectors). 

People don’t seem to believe me about this. But I know that we all know that everything on the internet is true. I copied the following from Wikipedia: 

“In summer, the fan’s direction of rotation should be set so that air is blown downward. The blades should lead with the upturned side as they spin. The breeze created by a ceiling fan speeds the evaporation of perspiration on human skin, which makes the body’s natural cooling mechanism much more efficient. Since the fan works directly on the body, rather than by changing the temperature of the air, during the summer it is a waste of electricity to leave a ceiling fan on when no one is in a room.” 

So running your fans “24/7” not only wastes electricity but actually puts a little heat into the home. I have demonstrated this to people by using my infrared (“laser dot”) thermometer to show how hot a ceiling fan motor can get during normal operation. 

By the way, Cindy and Bob are not their real names. I emailed my advice to them, and they replied that they had turned on the water to the cooler on to fill it up, but did not realize it had to stay so they had turned the water back off. The cooler is working much better now with the water on. They felt silly and asked me not to use their real names. I feel this is an honest mistake since people from humid areas have no idea how a “swamp cooler” works. But I changed their names. 

By Randy West on July 3, 2015 

 

Tips for staying out of hot water 

This week is all about water heaters. I heard the following secondhand, so I don’t have the specific facts. A home had a gas water heater in a closet in the garage. The home inspector recommended a fire-resistant door be installed on the closet door. This is like the door from a garage to a home – a solid or metal door with self-closers and weatherstripping. 

This is not required. I have seen thousands of gas water heaters in garages, including in front of my car every time I enter or leave my garage. A water heater does not require fire separation from the garage. 

Any gas appliance in a garage should be installed so the gas burner is at least 18 inches off the floor, because gasoline fumes will stay near the floor. Gas water heaters (and furnaces) in a garage are usually installed on an 18-inch-high “box.” 

The walls between a garage and home need to be fire- and gas- (carbon monoxide) resistant. If the closet with the water heater was open to the home somehow, the inspector may have thought it would be easier to seal the closet/door at the garage. But I was told the problem was the water heater was not 18 inches off the floor. So if you wanted to “seal” the closet, you would not need a more expensive fire-resistant door, just self-closers and weatherstripping. But in most cases, it would be safer (and no more expensive) to “raise” the water heater 18 inches. 

Water heaters have a Temperature and Pressure Relieve valve, or TPR valve. These will open if the water heater gets too hot or the pressure too high. This valve will have a 3/4-inch discharge pipe that must be routed downhill to a safe location. A home inspector recently called it out as a defect that the TPR discharge pipe was routed to the garage floor. This is perfectly “legal.” More often, this pipe is routed through an exterior wall and has a downward facing elbow on it. But routing it to a garage floor is allowed. 

Newer water heaters are very safe, and the chance of a TPR valve opening is very slim. But if it did open, very hot water would be discharged. That’s why the discharge line should end in a “safe” location. Recently I inspected a 75-year-old home in Prescott. The water heater was in the kitchen, right next to the counter with the sink. The TPR valve was installed on top of the water heater, as most are. But there was no pipe, and the valve was aiming directly at me when I was standing at the kitchen sink. Now, I know the chances of the TPR opening are slim, but the entire time I was in front of the sink I was constantly glancing over at the water heater. That TPR valve looked like a shotgun barrel aiming at me. 

The TPR valve is very important if needed. About 20 years ago a water heater in a Phoenix restaurant exploded. The water heater had a TPR valve and discharge line installed, but the discharge pipe was galvanized pipe with threads on the end. This is not allowed because if the TPR starts leaking someone could simply screw a cap on the end of the pipe. And this is exactly what happened. When a water heater blows up, the bottom of the tank is the weakest because rust and corrosion starts at the bottom. So the tank blows the bottom off, and the rest of the tank becomes a missile. In this case, the water heater went through the roof (literally) and landed on a car across the street. 

In 2008, there was a similar incident in a home in Phoenix. The water heater “exploded” and did major damage to the house, minor damage to an adjacent home, and blew out the windows in the house across the street. The water heater landed 135 yards away. Fortunately, no one was injured in either of these instances. 

I saw a film of a home on a military base that was completely destroyed by an exploding water heater. The incident was decades ago and there was no TPR valve on the water heater, and the house was very small (about 500 square feet). The Mythbusters television show blew up a water heater once by capping the TPR pipe. There is an even better video on the Internet that shows the exploding tank from different angles, then replays it in slow motion showing the maximum velocity, height and distance. 

I’m not trying to scare you. The chances of a newer water heater malfunctioning are very slim. You’re more likely to get hit by a meteorite. But if you ever see water dripping out of the TPR discharge line, call a plumber. Chances are there is nothing wrong with the water heater. The TPR valve is just that – a valve. And most valves will eventually leak. 

I received an email from someone who was unhappy that the inspector called out a TPR discharge line in a crawlspace. This is very common in manufactured homes, which are not built to “code” (they are built to HUD/FHA specifications). I always recommend the discharge line is routed to the exterior rather than the crawlspace. I know the water heater will not likely malfunction. But I have found many “drippy” TPR valves, which an owner would not notice if the discharge line was in the crawlspace. So I tell clients it is a minor task/expense to have the TPR discharge line routed to an exterior wall. If you don’t and the TPR valve starts to leak, there will be hot water (that you paid to heat) entering the crawlspace (and making it humid). 

By Randy West on June 12, 2015 

 

You should always get a second opinion 

I received the following email last week: 

We had a home inspection performed when we bought our 20-year-old house last year. That inspection disclosed that the house has Polybutylene water supply piping, but there were no visible signs of past leakage noted during the inspection. When we had a plumber come out to inspect a noisy pressure regulator a few days ago, he said that we needed to replace all of the polybutylene piping in the house, at a cost of about $6,000. Can you give us some information regarding polybutylene piping to help us decide what to do? – Tom, Prescott Valley 

I called Tom and spoke with him regarding the Polybutylene piping. The home inspection report had “disclosed” there was Polybutylene piping in the home. (Actually home inspectors “inspect” and “report,” but “disclose” is not inaccurate from the client’s perspective.) The report stated there were known problems with this piping, but there were no signs of repairs or active leaks. 

Before we go on, a quick history of Polybutylene piping. It was used from about 1975 to 1996. During some of this period it was used in almost all manufactured homes. In some areas of the country it was also used in site-built homes, but not here in Prescott. 

The original Polybutylene piping has plastic connectors and aluminum (silver colored) crimps. The crimps are the metal “bands” visible at all connections (elbows, tees, valves, etc.). It did not take long for these connections/crimps to fail, partly because of a poor crimping tool supplied to plumbers. If the crimp was too loose, it could leak like any loose connection. If the crimp was too tight, it could damage the plastic connector or pipe and leak. 

The industry “fix” was to replace the plastic connectors with copper connectors and copper crimps, and provide a better crimping tool. So the first thing I look for when I see Polybutylene piping is the color of the crimps. If the crimps are silver I know it is “early” Polybutylene that is more prone to leaks. 

There is also evidence that high chlorine content in the water can damage Polybutylene piping. Some of this evidence indicates the damage was to the plastic connectors and not the Polybutylene piping, so again the earlier piping with the silver-colored crimps is more susceptible to this damage. 

But, the damage was done to the Polybutylene piping manufacturers and industry. In some areas of the country the Polybutylene piping was routed through attics, where leaks caused extensive damage. There were class-action lawsuits against the Polybutylene piping manufacturers (claims had to be filed no later than 2009). Although Polybutylene piping has not been removed from some building codes, it is no longer manufactured or installed in any dwellings. 

There are many plumbers and home inspectors who feel that the newer Polybutylene piping is not “defective.” Keep in mind that the “newer” Polybutylene piping is now at least 20 years old. I have inspected 30-year-old homes with Polybutylene piping that have never had a leak. I have also inspected 30-year-old homes with galvanized plumbing lines that were leaking in numerous locations and needed total replacement. And I have inspected 30-year-old homes with copper lines that were badly corroded in areas and had some ‘pin’ leaks. 

But with any type of plumbing lines, I do not recommend replacement unless I see active leaks, or indications of several or recent repairs. The same is true for other components. The average life for architectural composition shingles in our area is 20 to 25 years. I have seen some 20-year-old shingles that still look good and there were no signs of leaks. I am not going to recommend you replace them just because of the age. I will let you know they are nearing the end of their life and you need to monitor them. So I am not going to recommend replacing Polybutylene piping just because it’s Polybutylene. I will always report that there are known problems. If I see leaks, I will call it out as a “major defect,” as I would leaks in any piping. If I don’t see leaks I will recommend consulting with the seller and/or a plumber, but don’t consider it a “major defect.” 

So, back to the plumber and Tom. When I spoke with Tom, he stated his mother lives in the home. The pressure regulator needed replacing. A plumbing company came out and said that “by code” they could not replace the pressure regulator without replacing the Polybutylene piping in the home for $6,000. According to Tom, they told his mother she would have leaks and mildew and mold, etc. They also said the main water valve type was no longer allowed and needed to be replaced. 

I am glad Tom called me. I advised him to call a couple other plumbers. There is no reason, “code” or otherwise, a plumber cannot replace a defective pressure regulator without replacing the supply lines. The building code changes every three years. The city or county does not go to every house and make us “update” to the new codes. That would be ridiculously expensive and difficult for the building departments and homeowners. It is true that if you pull a permit for a remodel or addition the building department will require you to upgrade certain things, especially safety-related items like handrails, GFCI outlets, etc. 

Uh oh. Not a single “funnyism” in this column. I know I’ll be hearing from some of you. I’ll make it up next time. 

By Randy West on May 29, 2015 

 

Inspectors: INSPECT thyself! 

I remember an old adage about a cobblers’ children not having shoes. And I remember hearing my mother say “a mechanic’s car never runs.” My mother was talking about classic cars my dad and I had. If it is not your “daily driver,” then it doesn’t matter if you finish everything Sunday and got her running. You can continue next Sunday. That’s what makes having a classic car fun – you don’t have to finish every project right away so you can get to work the next day. 

I added “a contractor’s house is never finished.” This was after I inspected several contractors’ homes that were not quite complete. They never got to the baseboard molding in the office, or installing the door at the master bath linen closet, or the hardware on the guest bath cabinets. 

And it’s not just contractors’ homes – I find this in other homes too. When you live in a home every day, it is easy to get used to and overlook something that will be quite noticeable to an inspector (and possibly a buyer). 

Once I inspected a home with wood shutters on the exterior walls, next to all the windows. Like almost every exterior shutter I’ve seen these were cosmetic features. The shutters were screwed to the wall and did not actually close. Every other shutter on the front was missing. I found them in the rear yard, under the deck. It seems the owner took them off to give them a thorough cleaning, three years ago. The owners were so used to it now that they didn’t even notice the missing shutters when looking at the house. 

Now I can add another saying – “a home inspector’s home will need inspecting.” I tell people almost every day how important it is to keep your dryer duct clean. Not only does it take an hour to dry a load of clothes if your duct is dirty, it can be a fire hazard. The following is from the National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) website: 

“In 2010, an estimated 16,800 reported U.S. non-confined or confined home structure fires involving clothes dryers or washing machines resulted in 51 civilian deaths, 380 civilian injuries and $236 million in direct property damage. 

“Clothes dryers accounted for 92 percent of the fires. The leading cause of home clothes dryer and washer fires was failure to clean (32 percent), followed by unclassified mechanical failure or malfunction (22 percent). Eight percent were caused by some type of electrical failure or malfunction.” 

I found other statistics that were “scarier,” but I tend to trust the NFPA. Let’s see – 16,800 fires; 92 percent are dryer – that’s 15,456. But only 32 percent were from “failure to clean” – that’s 4,946. I personally think lack of cleaning may have contributed to some of the “unclassified mechanical failure or malfunction” fires too. 

That’s almost 5,000 fires a year that could be easily avoided. How many times have I reported on improper or dirty clothes dryer ducts? Hundreds, if not thousands. I tell clients some of the things to look for are longer drying times, your clothes or dryer seem “hot,” or any unusual “burning” odor. If practical, you can check the airflow at the exterior vent while the dryer is operating. 

So, it seemed like my clothes were a little hotter than normal last weekend. But I did not have time to check my dryer duct. Then I inspected a home last week and found a dryer duct that had caught fire (this is the actual photo from my report). Lint in a dryer duct can catch fire, so we want to keep lint out of the duct. 

The easiest way is to clean the lint screen at the dryer before every load, which also saves you money. It is also important there are no “lint traps” in the dryer duct. This can be any irregularity that can catch lint, which will then catch more lint, etc. This will eventually reduce airflow, which will make the air temperature higher. And in a worst-case scenario the temperature can get high enough to ignite the lint (see photo). 

Obstructions in dryer ducts can be from loose connections, screws protruding into the duct, excessive elbows, etc. I read my clothes dryer owner’s manual and it stated in no uncertain terms that flexible vinyl ducting should NOT be used. It will sag and every “corrugation” can collect lint (see photo). Only smooth wall piping should be used for dryer ducts. 

After taking this photo of the burned dryer duct, I went home and checked mine. I had smooth wall duct through the attic, but it had come loose at the vent through the wall. The lint had started to accumulate, decreasing the airflow. And this was not visible at all from the exterior, because it was just inside the attic. 

So after telling countless clients to check their dryer ducts, I failed to check my own. I have this urge to go press the “test” button on all my GFCI outlets now. 

I found an old email about dryer ducts. I had answered the email, but did not use it in a column. The email stated that I had missed a major problem in my inspection: the clothes dryer vented to the roof. The email said clothes dryer manufacturers do not allow the dryer duct to go “uphill” at all. That is incorrect. Manufacturers “recommend” that dryer ducts do not go “uphill,” and that they are as short as possible with as few curves or elbows as possible. But many homes in other states (and a few in Prescott) have the laundry facilities in a basement, where the clothes dryer duct has to go uphill to get outside. 

By Randy West on May 15, 2015 

 

A lot of hot water (heaters) …. 

Randy, we really enjoy your column in the Courier. In fact, it is one of the most valuable parts of the paper. I hope you keep it up. 

Now for our question. How long does a water heater last, and is there any good way of knowing when to replace it? 

When our house was built in 1999, two 50-gallon Rheem gas water heaters were installed. They are linked so at least in theory we would have 100 gallons of hot water at any one time. Typically, there are two of us in the house, but if our whole family were here there would be 9. This happens infrequently, but will be the case this Christmas. 

The water heaters still work well and we have plenty of hot water, even when we have guests. They don’t leak and there is nothing about their appearance that gives us any concern. However, they are 16 years old, and we would rather replace them at our convenience instead of when one or both failed. 

If you can help with this question – great. If you charge for this sort of request let me know and a check will be in the mail. – Bruce and Pat Gebhardt (Prescott) 

A: Bruce and Pat, I do not charge for email questions, especially after your flattering comment. There are several questions here, so I’ll just ramble, which is what I do best. I received another email about dual water heaters, so there’s more information coming than you asked for. The good news is you won’t need to read my next column. 

The average life of gas water heaters in our area is 15 to 20 years, and yours are 16 years old. But usage is also important. I have seen 20 year old water heaters that look almost new. To use a car analogy, a 15 year old car with 15,000 miles will have more life left and perform better than a 15 year old car with 150,000 miles. 

I check for corrosion on the water pipes over the water heaters and corrosion/rust in the burn chambers on gas water heaters. You may have to lie down and use a good flashlight to see into the burn chambers. There are other indicators of age too, such as a diminished supply of hot water (unlikely with two 50 gallon heaters), a ‘gurgling’ sound shortly after a burner comes on, etc. 

Two water heaters can be connected in two ways- series or parallel. In parallel the cold water line splits and ‘feeds’ both water heaters, and the hot water from both water heaters connects to a single pipe. In a series configuration the hot water/output from the ‘first’ water heater is connected to the cold water/input on the ‘second’ water heater. 

Often when I see two 50 gallon water heaters there is a large whirlpool bathtub in the home. Or a lot of bathrooms. Or a lot of girls (save the ‘sexist’ emails, you know it’s true). And often you can isolate one water heater to save energy when you don’t need 100 gallons of hot water. In the parallel connection there will be a valve at one (or both) tanks that you can shut off. In a series configuration you can simply turn off the ‘first’ water heater. I often see the first water heater thermostat set to low (usually labeled ‘vacation’). This still warms the water a little, and makes it easy to turn on the water heater when it’s needed. 

If you have a hot water circulator pump you may not be able to turn off one water heater, depending on how it’s connected. 

In either configuration the water heaters tend to last a little longer. When connected in parallel each water heater only runs half as long (‘mileage’ again). So both water heaters should age at about the same rate and last longer than a single water heater. When connected in series the second water heater will not come on nearly as much as the first water heater, because the ‘incoming’ water is already hot, so the first water heater usually needs replacing before the second. If you keep the first water on ‘pilot’ most of the time, then the second water heater will be doing most of the heating and may age faster. 

So without looking at your water heaters, you should have at least five years remaining. I would not recommend replacing them until needed, because they could last longer with a dual tank configuration. Once they are 20 years old I would check them occasionally for leaks or corrosion on the supply lines. 

Of course you need to consider the source of any advice. We have four vehicles, my 2003 SUV is the newest. They all look good, none drip any fluids and new vehicles are ridiculously expensive, so we’ll keep these until they don’t look good or start leaking. 

I received an email from Chris. He has two 40 gallon water heaters in series, and a whirlpool bathtub that he does not use much. He leaves the first water heater on ‘vacation’, as I described above. The second water heater is leaking. Chris wanted to know if he should replace both water heaters, or would it be better to replace both water heaters with a single larger water heater. 

In my opinion the biggest advantage to two water heaters is being able to turn one off/down for ‘normal’ use, but have the second one quickly available when needed. I think most people are like you and do not use whirlpool tubs every day. It is more expensive to replace two water heaters, and to keep 80 gallons of water hot in two separate tanks. I would consider replacing the two water heaters with a 50 gallon. 50 gallons should be enough for most whirlpools. If you need ‘extra’ hot water you can turn up the thermostat (which you do now anyway). 

Just by chance I inspected a 1998 home yesterday with two water heaters in series. This was after I replied to the people. The first water heater was replaced in December 2012, the second was the original 1998 and there was not much rust in the burn chamber. These are the photos from that report. 

The water softener and two water heaters are in the crawlspace. The water heaters are plumbed in series- the first (taller) water heater ‘feeds’ the second water heater. The second water heater is older, but there is not much rust in the burn chamber. 

By Randy West on April 24, 2015 

 

Don’t use that Hoover on your smoke alarms 

I wrote recently about smoke alarms (often called detectors). I am still receiving some “feedback” from those columns. Astonishingly, some are disagreeing with what I said. But not all; here is my favorite: 

“Dear Randy, like so many others I make it a point to read your column every week and always enjoy it. 

“You might add to your list: Smoke detectors can sound off because of an insect/bug getting into the detector. Invariably this will occur at about 2 a.m. and as one stumbles around trying to figure out which alarm has a dead battery, where the fire is, etc., anyway, you get the idea. An occasional vacuuming is recommended although I have a heck of time lifting the Hoover up that high. The roller is a little tough on the electronics, too! 

“After repeated attempts – electrician, alarm company – no one has given me a good reason to completely replace the entire detector (six of them!) every 10 years – the best answer I have heard is that the manufacturers need the money. 

“I have become convinced that once a year or so replacement of the 9-volt makes sense – again, a chirping detector at 2 a.m. will always get a comment (negative) from others in the house. 

“And, you will probably hear from them but at least one local ‘battery store’ offers recycling for free if you buy some batteries or a minimal charge if you don’t – certainly beats putting them in the landfill. Also, 9-volt batteries can start a fire if the terminals are shorted out! 

“Keep up the good work! Thanks, Roger Swenson in Prescott” 

A: Good points, Roger. I’ll address them one at a time. It is true a bug can set off an alarm. And I have written that this usually happens at 3:33 a.m. and only after you drank more of your favorite adult beverage than you should have the night before. And I have recommended cleaning them gently. I have never tried to hold the Hoover over my head. Maybe you can have your wife hold the Hoover and you can hold her up near the smoke alarms. 

You could be correct in that 10-year comment – with newer alarms. I can find all kinds of references (not from manufacturers) that say to replace your alarms every 10 years, some actually say every seven years. The most common source quoted by inspectors is the National Fire Protection Agency NFPA 72, National Fire Alarm Code: This is from the 2007 edition, but I don’t think it’s changed. 

“10.4.7 Replacement of Smoke Alarms in One- and Two Family Dwellings. Unless otherwise recommended by the manufacturer’s published instructions, single – and multiple station smoke alarms installed in one- and two-family dwellings shall be replaced when they fail to respond to operability tests, but shall not remain in service longer than 10 years from the date of manufacture.” 

This does not specifically state why. I have assumed (yes, I know what that means) it was because the sensors would lose sensitivity. I read somewhere that the NFPA determined older smoke alarms have a 30 percent chance of failure within 10 years, but that new smoke alarms are much better. But it seems they stayed with that 10-year period. 

And you won’t like this news – I also read that some newer alarms will start that annoying “low battery” chirp when they reach 10 years old, even with a good battery. In my last column, I commented that a lot of serious fires are in homes where the batteries are removed from the smoke alarms. I can’t help but think that if you can’t make an alarm stop chirping by installing a new battery, some people will just disconnect them. No one I know is going to have five new smoke alarms lying around somewhere. And no one will want to hear that chirping until they have a chance to go buy new alarms, or until the electrician can get out to replace them. 

Regarding the batteries – I have heard that you should replace them twice a year. I think that’s overkill, once a year seems fine to me. I’ve read advice to change them when you set your clocks back in the fall, since most fires occur in the winter. Sounds like a good plan. Except of course we don’t set our clocks back in Arizona. I change mine on new year’s day, just so I can keep at least one of my new year’s resolutions every year. 

Some people are recommending lithium 9-volt batteries because they have a 10-year life. That is not always true! Most lithium batteries advertise their “shelf life.” A 10-year shelf life is a great thing for items that aren’t used much. It’s nice to pick up a flashlight that’s been in a drawer for five years and the batteries are still like new. But “shelf life” and “use life” are different. If you use that flashlight constantly, those lithium batteries are not going to last 10 years. And I doubt they would last 10 years in a smoke alarm. And I have trouble remembering to do things on a yearly basis, a lot of people would not remember the smoke alarm batteries need changing in April 2025. 

And as far as disposing of batteries, I agree that you should recycle them if possible. My dad told me that 9-volt batteries could start a fire, because the terminals are next to each other instead of on opposite ends of the battery. He taught me to always fully discharge 9-volt batteries before throwing them away. You do this by holding the battery terminals against your tongue. 

Only kidding! I discharge them by holding a screwdriver across both terminals. 

By Randy West on April 10, 2015 

 

Woodstoves part II and New Product Fails part II: Not all woodstove fixes are equal 

Last time I wrote about woodstoves in my usual long-winded way. (As my wife says, “Randy will never answer a question with 30 words when he can use 300.”) As a result, I ran out of room for woodstove question 2: 

Q: Hi Randy. I read all your articles in the Courier. I live in an old 1972 mobile home. I have had most of the inside updated and stay on top of all maintenance. The mobile has two add-ons and in one of those rooms, there is a woodstove. I called one of the big wood stove places to clean it about five years ago, after I moved in. They would not clean it because it did not meet code. They said I could update the stove for $2,000. Several years later, someone that worked in a different woodstove store was in my home. He said my woodstove was an easy fix for a couple hundred dollars or so. My question is where do I find a person qualified to inspect my stove and put in writing what I need to do. I have talked to many and get a different answer from them all. I want to bring it up to code but I have no idea how. I thank you so much for your time and any information you can give me. – Jan 

A: Jan, first read my last column and see if there is a data label on your stove. That should tell you the required clearances, if it’s approved for mobile home use, etc. If you can’t find a label but know the manufacturer you should consult their website. You may find information about your stove, and/or you might be able to find a local retailer for your brand. If you can’t find the brand, or there is no local contractor/retailer, then any store or company that sells or installs woodstoves should be able to help you. 

I’m wondering if the first ‘woodstove place’ was concerned about it being in a mobile home. You stated the stove is in an ‘add on.’ If the stove is in an addition, and the chimney does not go through the original/mobile home, then the stove may not have to comply with the more stringent mobile home requirements. But if a woodstove store refused to clean it because it did not meet ‘code,’ then you are smart to be concerned and to get something in writing as to what is required (and why). 

New subject: Last month in my “1985” column I wrote about new products for home inspectors. I admitted I am not completely up to date. I am not ‘afraid’ of change, I am just ‘wary.’ I could blame my parents, since that seems to be trend nowadays. My dad always used to say “never buy the first year of a car model.” But I don’t think that’s true today. Back then a new model was really new. Nowadays a new SUV uses a frame from this car, an engine from that truck, etc. For a modern example, recently a client told me that when it comes to computer software she never buys ‘version 1.0’ of anything. 

I try to stay current with new products and building practices that affect my profession. It seems to me people are more likely to try, and pay more for, a new product if it’s labeled ‘green.’ Here are a couple examples I read about recently in trade magazines. 

Last year I wrote about new wi-fi thermostats. These cost 10 times more than most programmable (or ‘setback’) thermostats. But, you can control them from your smart phone. And they will decide when they need to come on to have your home’s temperature ready for you. There have been some scattered complaints about them not working with certain furnaces or boilers, but this is common with any new product. There are complaints and lawsuits because the thermostats give off heat and may ‘think’ the room is 2 to 8 degrees warmer than it is. 

And now there are numerous complaints about the wi-fi aspect. Apparently, the thermostat uses the outside temperature to determine when and how long the furnace or air conditioner should run. And it uses the wi-fi to determine the outside temperature. Unfortunately for many people the nearest weather reporting station can be many miles (and many degrees) away. So the thermostat may ‘think’ it’s 10 degrees warmer or colder outside. 

Then there’s the new glass infused wood product that should last 300 years, and then is completely biodegradable. But it only has a warranty for 40 years. And according to some, doesn’t last four years. There have been numerous complaints about the product rotting within a few years and having too much moisture for paint or stain to adhere. Brad Pitt’s Make it Right Foundation used this product in homes they built in New Orleans. Make it Right likes green- most of their home have solar panels, rain catchers, etc. So of course they jumped on the new ‘green’ lumber product. But they started seeing problems with the new wood in just three years, and they are replacing the wood in over 30 homes. 

Said Pitt: “Make It Right is ambitious and tries new things all the time in order to make our homes better. Where we find innovative products that didn’t perform, we move quickly to correct these things for our homeowners.” 

Said a New Orleans contractor: “You have to build for your climate, and especially when you’re building wooden homes in a very damp climate, you have to go with what you know works, is my feeling.” 

What? You don’t want that brand new version 1.0 ultrasonic nonreverberating plastic/platinum alloy siding? 

Well, Brad may not either. Make it Right is using yellow pine lumber again. 

By Randy West on March 27, 2015 

 

Woodstoves can heat a house, sometimes too much! 

I have two questions about woodstoves this week. But first, I was a contractor in the Colorado Rockies in the ’80s. Natural gas was not available, and it would be iffy getting a propane truck up some of those driveways in the winter. So most homes were heated with electricity, which was much more expensive in those days. Pellet stoves were still on the horizon, so we installed woodstoves in almost every home. 

I explained to people that a fireplace is nice to look at while you play Monopoly with the kids. But the fire is directly below the chimney, and most of the heat goes straight up the chimney. A woodstove, however, can actually heat a home. 

In fact, we rarely used the electric heat in our 2,500-square-foot home. We heated almost exclusively with a large Schrader woodstove strategically located near the bottom of the stairway. 

As an inspector, I’m seeing fewer and fewer woodstoves. Pellet stoves and freestanding gas stoves can produce a lot of heat with much less (or no) “work.” Even modern gas-only fireplaces with blowers will produce some heat, although not as much as freestanding stoves. Some of these stoves and fireplaces are controlled by thermostats, how easy can you get? 

On to the letters: 

Q: Randy, we had a home inspection on a home we moved into last month. There is an old woodstove in a large family room. It has not really been cold enough to light the woodstove yet. However, we are concerned because our inspector called this an “unlisted” woodstove and said it requires 36 inches from the walls. The wall behind the woodstove is only 20 inches, but there is fake brick on this wall. I can’t believe it needs to be 36 inches from the wall, which would also look silly. And he said the hearth needs to be 18 inches on all sides. This makes even less sense – I need a hearth 18-inches behind the woodstove but the wall has to be 36 inches away? Do you think it’s safe to operate this woodstove? – Earl 

A: Hi, Earl. To answer your question, I can’t answer your question. I cannot comment on the safety of a woodstove without seeing the installation. I will say I have had people upset with me when I came across an old “unlisted” woodstove. Newer woodstoves are “listed” and most have a metal label/tag on them that describes the required clearances. The label often has diagram showing required clearances. Of course, newer woodstoves can be as close as 6 inches from a wall, and the data plate is always facing a wall. Most of the time I can’t read the data plate even when lying on the floor using a magnifying mirror and flashlight. But I do make friends with the sellers’ dog. And I can advise my clients to verify the requirements, often possible on the manufacturer’s website. 

Now we can’t make this too easy. Just because a stove has a data label does not mean it’s listed. And a stove that does not have a label could be listed. Makes a home inspector’s job a challenge, to say the least. 

So if an inspector sees an old stove with no label, he will assume it’s not listed. The “rule of thumb” for unlisted woodstoves is 36 inches to an unprotected wall and 18 inches floor protection on all sides, as your inspector recommended. (This is actually from guidelines published by the National Fire Protection Agency.) This is because a woodstove can get extremely hot, much more so than a gas or pellet stove that has “controlled” flames. I have seen scorching on walls near old woodstoves, and I have seen the woodstoves almost “melted.” I’m sure some of these were the result of burning Volkswagen engines. (Magnesium burns very hot! If you never threw a VW engine in a bonfire, then you can’t know what I’m talking about.) You should never burn anything but wood in a woodstove. 

Newer stoves are usually designed to “direct” the heat to the front, so they can be much closer to walls and floors. But old stoves were not, and need the 36-inch clearance from all walls. And putting “fake” brick on a wall does not offer protection. Air is still the best (and cheapest) insulator. Proper wall protection will have a fire-resistant material on “spacers,” such as 1-by-2 vertical boards. There should be a gap at the bottom of this protection, and the top should be left open, so air can circulate through the vertical spaces. I have seen this protection altered by homeowners so it cannot perform its function. I have seen baseboard molding installed along the bottom to cover the (required) gap/opening at the bottom. And I have seen trim installed along the top to cover this (required) opening. 

An unlisted woodstove also requires better floor protection. A hearth rug protects a floor from hot embers, but not from a 900-degree woodstove. Proper floor protection will have blocks of some type covered with sheet metal. 

Now I am compelled to talk about sheet metal for a second. For the unlisted woodstove, blocks are also required to protect the floor from the heat. Many times I have seen sheet metal installed directly on walls or lumber as a “heat shield.” I’ve seen this on walls by a woodstove, and on wood framing in attics near chimneys or gas appliance vent pipes. Placing sheet metal directly on the combustible material accomplishes nothing (except maybe a good feeling because you think you did something useful). Metal is a great conductor. If the metal on a wall facing a woodstove heats up to 300 degrees, the other side of that metal is 299 degrees. 

I ran out of room again – I’ll answer Jan’s question next time. 

By Randy West on March 13, 2015 

 

How old are those roof shingles? 

Q: Hi Randy, we moved here three years ago and had a home inspection on our home (not you). The home is older and has two layers of roof shingles. The report said the shingles were 10 years old. We had a roofing contractor out last week and he said the shingles are 15 to 20 years old, probably closer to 20. The shingles do not need replacement right away, but it will be expensive because both layers of shingles will need to be removed. We don’t know who to believe now – how can a home inspector be 10 years off on the age of roof shingles? What would you charge to come out and tell us the age of the shingles? Bill and Jan in Prescott Valley. 

A: I had two other recent emails regarding the age of composition shingles, so I am answering all of you at the same time. I am pretty good at ‘guesstimating’ the age of composition shingles. But it is an educated guess. If a home is less than 15 years old and there is only one layer of shingles, often I can assume the shingles are original. I also know when most of the major hail storms hit, so I can use that as a reference. If the shingles need replacing for any reason then my guess is irrelevant – it doesn’t really matter how old they are. 

Home inspectors are in a unique position because we inspect roofs every day and know the home (and roof) is 4, 8 or 12 years old. But on older homes we don’t have any reference. There are three ‘main’ indicators I check to determine the age of the shingles. 

There are other factors: hail damage, nail pops, curling, loose/broken shingles, improper installation, etc. All of these can help to determine the age of the shingles. But I will only ‘estimate’ the age as less than 5 years old, 5 to 10, 10 to 15, more than 15, or “old” (replace now or very soon). 

Here is a comment from a recent report: “The roof is covered with one layer of architectural composition shingles. Overall the shingles are in good condition. Some minor deterioration around the edges was noted, especially on the front slope. The shingles are estimated to be 5 to 10 years old. Typical life expectancy for shingles in our area is 15 to 20 years, although I have seen some architectural shingles make it 25 years. Please keep in mind that it is very difficult to estimate age or remaining life of composition shingles. Some shingles start showing wear within 2 or 3 years, and I have seen 6 year old shingles that look almost brand new (both will have similar life expectancies).” 

I know technically that comment says you could have 20 years left in the shingles, or maybe only 10. I don’t report like this to “cover my posterior,” but because it is the best I can do. There are just too many variables that cannot be determined or foreseen. If your car has less than 50,000 miles on it, ask your mechanic if your transmission will need rebuilding at 100,000 miles or 200,000 miles. His reply should be “yes.” 

I once inspected a home and said the shingles were about 10 years old. I inspected the same home five years later and said the shingles were about 20 years old. They ‘aged’ 10 years in five years. As my reports state, some shingles can look very good for 10 years, but then start to deteriorate rapidly. Looking at the roof photos in those two reports you would never guess they were only five years apart. 

As for your particular roof, the inspector was not really 10 years off. I would hope his report said the shingles are “about” or “approximately” 10 years old. If he gives an exact age for roof shingles in his reports he needs some wall-to-wall counseling. But let’s assume his report did say “10 years old.” The roofer estimated the shingles are at least 15 years old, and the inspector said they’re 13 (three years ago he said they’re 10 years old). That is not that far apart. 

One final comment: you stated your home has two layers of shingles. This is allowed in some cases, depending on the type and condition of the bottom layer. As your roofing contractor pointed out, this makes the next shingle replacement more expensive because all existing roofing will have to be removed. But, it also makes your roof more ‘watertight’ because there are two layers of roofing. You can usually wait longer to replace the shingles because water is less likely to leak through two layers of roofing. Normal maintenance will always be needed, especially at penetrations and flashings where most roof leaks occur. 

And to (finally and not really) answer your question, I will not come out to estimate the age of your shingles. I don’t work for free, and it would not be fair to charge you. I will not disagree with your inspector – I cannot tell what the shingles looked like three years ago. And I doubt I’d disagree with the roofing contractor, especially when he gave a five-year range like I always do. So if you ask me who is correct, the inspector or the roofer, my answer will be “yes.” 

By Randy West on February 27, 2015 

 

1985 vs. 2015: New technology makes home inspecting easier 

That’s how I ended my last two columns. So I better do it this time, I guess. What I was referring to was how much my chosen profession has changed in 30 years. Most of the things I use in home inspections are used by almost everyone: autos, computers, mobile phones, flashlights, etc. 

The technological advances since 1985 are amazing! In 1985, I was using a Commodore 64 computer. The 64 meant 64 KB of ram. That is kilobyte, not MB or GB like today. It took over three minutes for the computer to start up, and just as long to load my word processing program. But I was actually high-tech at the time, according to Wikipedia: “The 64 is still the highest-selling single model of personal computer ever, with over 17 million produced before production stopped in 1994 – a 12-year run with only minor changes. At one point in 1983 Commodore was selling as many 64s as the rest of the industry’s computers combined.” 

But I had to upgrade to a “business” machine. If you were wealthy you bought an actual IBM. I had to buy a “clone.” But it had 500 KB of ram and only took two minutes to start! There was no Windows yet, I had to learn DOS. 

I was equally high-tech with my mobile phone, aka a “bag phone.” It was in a soft case larger than a shoebox and weighed 10 pounds. You had to plug it into the cigarette lighter and install the suction cup antenna on the roof. Then, if you parked your car in just the right spot, you could get a staticy connection. 

Even something as simple as flashlights have changed. When I started inspecting homes I had long flashlights that used four D batteries. By today’s standards, they were like a bright candle and I went through batteries in a couple days. Bulbs would break so often you kept a spare bulb in the handle (try installing one after bumping your flashlight in a dark attic). They weighed a few pounds. Of course, they doubled as a Rottweiler repellant and a hammer. My “main” flashlight today is 10 times brighter and five times lighter, uses four AA batteries that last weeks, has an LED bulb that’s good for 10,000 hours, and one-handedly goes from flood to spot. I admit it’s kind of useless against Rottweilers, unless maybe you can temporarily blind them. 

When I started inspecting homes, I used a four-copy carbonless “checklist” report. It had 12 pages and it took 20 minutes to check boxes and peel it apart and staple the four copies together. There were no photos or maintenance advice, but it was delivered on site and my clients were always impressed. Today, that would be the equivalent of arriving to the inspection in a Ford Model T pickup truck. When I moved last year, I found a box of old checklist reports from the early ’90s. I threw them away immediately, it would be too embarrassing if someone found them. 

Today, I use a digital camera, but I take notes on a paper ‘checklist’ and go home and type the report. I do have a laptop so if I get done early I can start on the report, but I work much faster with the two 30-inch monitors at home. But it does take a couple hours to prepare a report and the photos at home. I can’t go home and watch Law and Order reruns like I did when I used a checklist report. 

My laptop and my dual monitors at home are definitely not a Model T pickup truck. No, they’re more like a Studebaker. (Yes, Studebaker made pickup trucks. I once saw a Studebaker pickup truck tailgate in perfect condition being used as a shelf in an attic.) Today, inspectors walk around with a tablet computer. They select comments from a list on the screen and take a photo with the tablet. The software automatically puts the photo in the proper place in the report. They complete the entire report while doing the inspection, and then email it to the client right from the jobsite. Then they go home and watch Law and Order. 

Some inspectors who want good quality photos will us a digital camera that wirelessly sends the photos to the tablet or computer. I still have to take the card out of my Studebaker, I mean camera, and put it in my computer. 

I miss watching those reruns, so I bought a tablet and I have downloaded trial versions of some software. I may start using it someday. What I don’t like is trying to carry and use a tablet in a crawlspace and attic. And while some tablets do have good cameras, none are as good in dark areas as a digital camera. I also don’t like that the software makes a ‘boilerplate report’ with no unique comments for a home. For example, my report may tell you that the master closet shelf is removable to make it easier to get a ladder in the closet. When your keyboard and screen are 8 inches wide, you do not make a lot of ‘custom’ comments. 

I’m not using the tablet for inspections yet, but I love it! It cost $100 with a two-year plan. It has an 8.3-inch touch screen, 32 GB of ram, and comes on instantly. I have access to the Internet and email wherever I have a cell phone or wireless signal. I can use voice to text to create emails or text messages, and to search the web. The batteries will last 10 hours with heavy use. I don’t miss that 64! 

By Randy West on February 13, 2015 

 

Smoke alarms, again? Part III 

I received several emails after my last column, which was about ionization and photoelectric smoke alarms. 

The most important characteristics: ionization are better at detecting flaming fires, and are more susceptible to false alarms. Photoelectric alarms are better at detecting smoldering fires. But, studies show that photoelectric alarms sense smoldering fires on average 30 minutes faster than ionization detectors, and ionization alarms respond about one minute faster than photoelectric alarms in flaming fires. 

Obviously the photoelectric 30 minute faster warning is more impressive than a 1 minute faster warning for ionization. And photoelectric are less prone to false alarms (and therefore being disconnected by occupants). So photoelectric are now recommended by many organizations and even required by some municipalities. 

Q: “Hi Randy. Thanks for the great article on smoke alarms. I have an open kitchen and great room, with an alarm on a vaulted ceiling that goes off for everything. It has been driving me and the animals crazy. No one has been able to tell me what I could do to fix the problem. I have looked up the photoelectric alarms, and find them in all price ranges. Same say they can be interconnected. Does that mean I can just replace the problem one? And what price range do you recommend?-Judy, Dewey.” 

A: Judy, I’ll try to answer all your questions. If the current “problem alarm” is an ionization alarm, installing a photoelectric alarm will reduce nuisance triggers. Even if the existing alarm is photoelectric, if it is more than five years old, a new alarm could reduce nuisance triggers. As always, price should be an indicator of quality. As long as you pick a major brand, you should be OK. The two major brands (manufacturers) are First Alert and Kidde, which also own FireX and Nighthawk. 

If your current alarms are interconnected (wired together, as in most homes), they will all go off when one goes off. Alarms that say they cannot be interconnected don’t have this feature. They may be 120 volt or battery only, but they cannot be connected to other alarms in the home. Assuming yours are interconnected, you can replace just one and it will work fine. 

Two comments. Electricians install alarms, although a competent handyman can as well. I had to install new plugs at each one when I replaced mine. Second comment: If your current alarms are more than 10 years old, you should consider replacing all of them. 

Next question: “We enjoy your column and your humor. This last article on changing batteries in smoke detectors brings up a question … what do you do with all the leftover 9-V batteries? They are still good, but not good enough for the smoke detectors. We don’t have children or grandchildren and live in a senior community and hate to just throw them away. Any suggestions?-Dewey, Chino Valley.” 

A: I don’t have an answer for this, although the time machine from “Back to the Future” flashed in my head for a second (the last used garbage for fuel). I can see how using up the 9-volt batteries in a radio or flashlight would be a good idea. If I had anything that used 9-volt batteries, I would suggest you donate them to me. Any suggestions from anyone on someplace to donate not new but not dead batteries? 

Q: “Hi Randy. I looked up how photoelectric smoke detector/alarms work. The most common type relies on smoke’s scattering (reflecting) light, as you said. But there is a problem with that type. When the battery runs down and the light beam gets weak, there’s no low-battery trigger, as there is with the ionization type. That’s not good. 

The other way – smoke blocking the beam – goes off if the battery starts to run down, like the ionization type. And it’s simpler. 

For some reason, manufacturers don’t like the “blocking beam” detectors. Could it be that the ionization type, whose electronics work like the “blocking beam” were patented? 

Anyway, there are two types of photovoltaic smoke detectors. I think I prefer the simpler “blocking beam” type; until I learn otherwise. 

The Question For You Is: How can a customer distinguish between the two types? The reflector type, OR the blocking beam type?-Harry, Prescott” 

A: 

Harry, for space I had to edit your letter, which got sort of technical. I did quite a bit of research for my last two columns, but didn’t find this information. In fact, I still can’t find much information on “scattering” vs. “blocking beam” alarms. 

You state the biggest concern is one type does not have a low battery alarm. I have two recommendations. The first is to change your batteries once a year, and call Dewey to see if he’s found a use for used 9-volt batteries. The only other idea I had was to download the owner’s manual for several photoelectric smoke alarms, both battery and 120-volt with battery backup. I did not see any description of the sensor other than “photoelectric.” I checked to see if the alarm has a low-battery alarm. Almost all manuals stated the alarms would chirp once a minute if the battery was getting low. Only one hardwired alarm did not list this feature (but could have it). 

I agree that a low battery alarm is important, and I thought all smoke alarms had this feature. Although it could be pretty difficult to determine the exact type of sensor in an alarm, you can verify there is a low battery alarm by reading the manual (if it’s not actually on the box/package). 

Next time: 1985. I know, I said that last time. 

By Randy West on January 30, 2015 

 

Smoke detectors – that is, alarms – Part II 

Last time I wrote about smoke alarms. I gave you a fascinating history of smoke alarms and told you where they need to be located in your home. I also promised to tell you about the two primary types, and the advantages and disadvantages of each. 

A quick refresher- smoke alarms are self-contained and what you see in most homes. Many people refer to these as smoke detectors, but actually, a detector is just a sensor that is part of a larger system. A smoke detector only detects smoke, then sends a signal to a control panel somewhere that sends a signal to an alarm somewhere. 

The most common smoke alarm is the ionization type. These use a small amount of radioactive material to ionize some air. Now don’t get excited, it’s not near enough to cause harm to people or pets, unless perhaps you have a pet spider living inside the alarm. You get more radiation standing in the sun than you would standing on a pile of smoke alarms. 

I’ve read several detailed explanations of how ionization alarms work. I actually understood a couple of them. A simple explanation is the ionized air will conduct electricity. This air is between two metal plates, allowing some current to flow between the plates. Smoke interferes with this current flow, triggering the alarm. Ionization alarms cost less to manufacture, and therefore to buy. They are very reliable, meaning they work when they should, but are more prone to false alarms. These alarms excel at detecting ‘flame’ fires, but are less sensitive to smoldering fires. 

Photoelectric smoke alarms do not have any radioactive material. These have a light source and light sensor. Smoke will reflect light onto the sensor, triggering the alarm. Photoelectric smoke alarms are more sensitive to smoldering fires and less sensitive to flaming fires. Photoelectric smoke alarms are also very reliable, but are less susceptible to false alarms. 

So both types of alarms have advantages, the biggest advantage for each is that they are better at detecting a certain type of fire. Ionization alarms detect flame fires better than photoelectric alarms, but photoelectric alarms detect smoldering fires better than ionization alarms. 

I have seen and tested over 25,000 smoke alarms (probably over 30,000). In most homes these are interconnected- if one alarm goes off they all go off. Most have a battery backup, and a low battery warning (an occasional ‘chirp’). I have seen combination alarms with both ionization and photoelectric sensors. I have seen combination alarms with smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. I have seen alarms with lights that come on to help you see. I have tested alarms that talk to you. One model reminds me of the robot on Lost in Space: “Danger! Danger!” I was waiting for “Will Robinson!”. One had a sultry female voice calmly stating “carbon monoxide levels are too high”. I think I’d rather have the frantic robot voice to warn me of a dangerous condition. 

So which type is best? I can quote recommendations from many professional organizations and government municipalities. Most recommend the combination alarms, or installing at least one of each type. Some municipalities are now requiring only photoelectric alarms because they are less susceptible to false alarms. This is important because lives are lost every year in house fires where the smoke alarms were disconnected. So having alarms that are less susceptible to false alarms means they are less likely to be disconnected by the occupants. 

I feel at least one ionization is a good idea, but not near a kitchen or bath where cooking odors or steam can trigger them. I replaced all the smoke alarms in my home recently since they were over 10 years old. My kitchen is open to my living room, and the alarm in my living room would go off occasionally when I attempted to cook. So I installed a combination photoelectric smoke alarm and carbon monoxide alarm in the living room. This left the halls and bedrooms. I was trying to decide which should get an ionization (good for flame fires) and which should get photoelectric (good for smoldering fires). I finally decided I wanted both in all areas, so I installed combination ionization and photoelectric alarms in the halls and all bedrooms. These are a little more expensive, but smoke alarms are good for 10 years. 

You should have a smoke alarm in each bedroom, outside each bedroom (just one in a common hall), and at least one on each level of a multi-level home. You should replace your smoke alarms every 10 years. They are not expensive. Ionization/battery alarms can be found for $5 each when you buy multi-packs (3 or 4). Photoelectric are about double that, around $10. And dual sensor are about double that, a little over $20. In doing research for this column, I saw that some manufacturers refer to smoke and carbon monoxide alarms as ‘combination’, and ionization and photoelectric alarms as ‘dual sensor’. This is a good, clear description. Be aware that sometimes ‘combination’ can refer to ‘dual sensor’ alarms. Make sure you read the description before you buy. 

I have not seen/tested these yet, but I know there are smoke alarms that interconnect wirelessly. These would be great for an older home where the smoke alarms are not ‘hard wired’. This also allows you to install a smoke alarm in the garage or crawlspace that would trigger the alarms in the home. Of course these are not compatible with hard wired alarms, they will only trigger other wireless alarms. 

I mentioned carbon monoxide alarms above. I always recommend at least one carbon monoxide alarm in a home with any woodburning appliance, or any type of gas appliance (furnace, water heater, range, etc.). 

Next time: 1985! 

By Randy West on January 16, 2015 

 

Smoke alarms save lives – and maybe your baseball cards 

Q: We bought a house in Prescott Valley in November and had a home inspection. When we moved in there was only one smoke detector in the home, and it didn’t work. There was not one word in the inspection report regarding smoke detectors. We had an electrician install five new detectors. He was very surprised the home inspector did not report on this, and so are we. When we called the inspector, he said he is not required to report on them. It seems to me that smoke detectors are a very important safety item. Why aren’t home inspectors required to report on smoke detector? Having the smoke detectors installed was more expensive than we thought because the electrician said they had to be wired together. Is that true?-Rick in Prescott Valley. 

A: Thank you for the questions, Rick. Your first question is a “why” question, which are usually harder to answer than “what” or “when” questions. But I’ll try. Why don’t home inspectors have to report on smoke detectors? I’m just not sure. Well, I guess that question was not that hard to answer after all. But that is my answer, and your home inspector is correct. The Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors states “The inspector is NOT required to observe smoke detectors.” (Section 8.2 D 2., “observe” means to examine and report on). The American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) Standards of Practice requires home inspectors to report on the presence or absence of smoke alarms, but only since the 2014 revision and inspectors are not required to operate or test them. I find it unusual your inspector did not report on them. The Standards are the minimum requirements, and most home inspectors do test and report on smoke alarms. 

Notice the ASHI Standards refers to smoke alarms. Homes are required to have smoke alarms, although many people refer to these as detectors. Technically a detector is part of a larger system. For example, security systems may have heat, smoke and motion detectors. These parts do nothing but detect, and send a signal to a panel, which then sends a signal to an alarm. A smoke alarm is self-contained with the detector, electronics and alarm in one housing. 

Now I can make your second question into an easier-to-answer “when” question. Do your detectors have to be interconnected? This means if one goes off, they all go off. This is very annoying if a false alarm happens at 2:30 in the morning and you have no way of knowing which alarm went off first. And for some reason scientists have not yet been able to discover, the probability of a 2:30 a.m. false alarm is in direct proportion to the number of adult beverages you had the night before. However annoying the occasional false alarm is, no one can deny that interconnected alarms can give you more warning of a fire. This not only could save your life, but you might even have time to grab the baseball card collection you’ve been saving as your retirement fund. 

Since 1992 there is actually a National Fire Alarm Code regarding the location and type of smoke alarms in buildings. Following is a quick history of requirements. As with any code, cities and counties may not adopt them immediately and may never adopt all the requirements. In 1973, one smoke detector was required in a home. By 1989, alarms are required on each level and outside every bedroom, and need to be interconnected. In 1993, alarms are also required in each sleeping room. 1996 saw the requirement for battery backups. In 2002, a power on indicator was required (usually an LED light). 

Here’s a little more history on smoke alarms, which I find very interesting (so obviously you should too). The first electronic smoke sensor was discovered by mistake in Switzerland in the 1930s. A scientist was trying to make a sensor to detect poisonous gases, without success. But when the alarm went off after he lit a cigarette, he discovered a different use for his sensor. 

Smoke alarms were not common until fairly recently. In 1970 most people did not know what a smoke alarm was. By 1981 almost 50 percent of homes had at least one smoke alarm, and in 1993 that rose to about 90 percent. The first ‘mass produced’ battery operated smoke alarm was available in 1971 and cost $125. Only a couple thousand a year were sold, but consider that price is equal to over $760 today. Technology improvements, including solid state electronics, made smoke alarms much smaller and less expensive by the mid 1970s. In 1974, Sears had their own brand (manufactured by BRK, which later became First Alert). After Sears started selling smoke alarms, they became much more popular. 

There are basically two types of smoke alarms, ionization and photoelectric. Most installed smoke alarms are ionization, and most recent research indicates that photoelectric are better. This is a very important discussion, so next time in ‘part 2’ I’ll discuss the advantages of each type. 

I’ll conclude ‘part 1’ by saying that smoke alarms save lives. Only a fool would argue that point. It is very important that you test your smoke alarms regularly. Some lives are lost in home fires each year because there was no smoke alarm installed. But more lives are lost because the alarm failed. The largest reason for this failure is (no surprise) missing or dead batteries. But often the smoke alarm has power but is not working. Smoke alarms should be replaced every 10 years, no matter what type you have (hard wired, battery only, interconnected, etc.). All smoke alarms should have a date on them- if they don’t they are definitely more than 10 years old. 

By Randy West on January 1, 2015