Q: Randy, I have a question that I hope you can answer. I am a chimney sweep, have been for 30 years. My question is how do you inspect a woodburning stove inserted into a fireplace if you don’t remove the surround around the unit? Every year I find many inserts installed in pre-fab fireplaces that have been gutted of all the refractory panels. The sheet metal has been cut to fit the insert into the pre-fab unit. This is extremely dangerous as the heat from the insert heats the framing around the unit it will eventually combust causing a fire. If you look at any pre-fab installation instructions the first thing the instructions say is to never modify the unit in any way. I’ve tried to bring this problem to the attention to the powers that be, only to be told that there is nothing that they can do, since the installer failed to get a building permit. These units look to be installed properly until you remove the surround, but sometimes the surround is not removable.-Mike
A: Mike, this is a good question, and a very timely one since I just put gloves and ice scrapers in our cars. For those of you who just moved here from Phoenix, a woodstove insert is a woodstove “inserted” into an existing fireplace. Older woodburning fireplaces are nice to look at, but generally do not produce much heat. A freestanding woodstove, on the other hand, produces a lot of heat. So it only makes sense that some people want to upgrade their fireplace to a woodstove. There are woodstove inserts available that are inserted into fireplaces. The “surround” Mike refers to is the cover between the insert and the fireplace opening.
A woodstove insert in an older masonry fireplaces is seldom a concern. What Mike is talking about is a newer metal-sided fireplace that has been modified for the insert to fit.
Just as a woodstove will provide much more heat inside a home, a woodstove insert will make much more heat in the fireplace enclosure and chimney. This can be a fire hazard if there is wood framing near the chimney or fireplace enclosure.
A home inspector is a generalist and is limited to a visual inspection. We cannot be as thorough as a roofer inspecting a roof, or a heating contractor inspecting a furnace. So inspecting a woodstove insert installation is virtually impossible for a home inspector. If there is an insert, I have a comment that says almost what Mike said, something like: “It is impossible to determine if an insert is installed properly from a visual inspection. I recommend you have this installation checked by an appropriate contractor or tradesman.”
This is not a case of covering my behind; it’s because this is an important safety concern. A nonworking water heater means a cold shower, and a nonworking range means a cold dinner. An improperly installed woodstove insert may not be visible, and as Mike stated can be “extremely dangerous” and start a fire.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say something like, “Well, it’s been working fine for five years, so there must not be a problem.” Consider that everything that breaks, such as your furnace, car or computer, was probably “working fine” until suddenly it wasn’t.
What many people (and perhaps some contractors) don’t understand is an improperly installed woodstove is not necessarily a short-term hazard. The same is true for gas furnace or water heater vent pipes that are too close to wood. They won’t start a fire the first month, and perhaps not for several years. The following definition is in the glossary on the Heating page in my reports:
“Pyrolisis: This is 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.”
This applies to anything that can heat wood to 200 degrees. I’ve seen light fixtures in closets and attics where the exposed bulb was touching drywall or wood. These are a significant fire hazard too.
But there is one big difference with the woodstove insert, it is not visible. A home inspector can usually see a furnace vent pipe or a light bulb touching a ceiling. But no one can see behind a woodstove insert with removing the surround. And as Mike pointed out, sometimes you cannot remove the surround without removing the entire insert. The insert may be connected to a metal chimney, and/or may be so heavy it requires two people to move it. And removing an insert will certainly be a very dirty job. So this is well beyond the scope of a home inspection.
Home inspectors have the same problem Mike does: we can’t see a woodstove insert installation. So we recommend removing the surround and/or insert to inspect the installation. This can be time consuming, expensive and dirty. And we don’t know if there is a problem, this is just to check for possible problems. This is when we hear, “Well, it’s been working fine for 5 years….”
So if you have an insert and have never had the installation checked – it’s time. And if you can’t remember the last time you had your chimney cleaned – it’s time.
This is my last column of the year: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
By Randy West on December 19, 2014
I was inspecting a home last week. The home was occupied by tenants, and mom and two kids were home. So when my clients (the buyers) arrived, I suggested we speak in the detached garage. I had just started going over my notes when I heard a car driving up the gravel driveway. I asked my clients if they were expecting someone else, and she said yes, her father was coming. I continued talking, and a minute later, someone walked into the garage. He went straight to the refrigerator and pulled out a beer. I was about to yell at him, when I realized he might just have a distorted sense of humor like me. I’ve been known to walk into a room and turn off the TV that everyone was staring at (sometimes I have to leave the room quickly!). But then this gentleman actually opened the beer! I stammered for a second and then said, “You can’t do that!” The man looked at me for a moment and said, “Why not? I live here.” I looked at my client and she said, “That’s not my father.” After telling the man he could indeed have one of his own beers, I continued my conversation with my clients.
Question: This week’s gripe – I mean email: Randy, overall an excellent report, except you recommended a setback thermostat to save on heating and cooling costs. You need to keep up on current research, which indicates setback thermostats don’t really save any energy at all. Below are some links to current information, including a letter from the EPA stating the EPA has been unable to confirm any savings delivered by programmable thermostats. I had one in my last home and it was confusing to operate. Half the time I woke up to a cold home. I replaced it with a $20 digital (but not programmable) thermostat and lived happily ever after. – Thomas P. in Prescott Valley
Answer: Thomas, I admit I’m guilty as charged. Sort of. If a home has a central furnace and/or air conditioner I have “discretionary improvement” in my reports regarding a setback thermostat (if there’s not one). The “discretionary improvements” are below the “Recommendations.” There is a large boldfaced heading saying “Discretionary Improvements.” The comment describes setback thermostats and states that newer ones are pretty easy to operate – you don’t have to hire the neighborhood 12-year-old to program them. And the comment says “consider installing,” not “recommend.” So I’m not sure if I actually “recommend” them.
For those who don’t know, these are also known as a programmable thermostat or a “PT.” These allow you to program different temperatures for different times. I have ours programmed to drop the temperature to 62 degrees overnight in the winter, and come back to 70 degrees a half hour before we usually get up. This has to save some energy, and I personally like sleeping in a cooler house. You can also lower the temperature from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., or whatever hours you are not usually at home.
Common sense says lowering the thermostat by 5 or 10 degrees overnight, when it is the coldest outside, has to save some heating costs. And like everything today, it’s easy to find support for your viewpoint on the web. I looked at the EPA letter referenced by Thomas. The letter was from 2009, and his quote was taken out of context. The letter was talking about specifications and standards for a PT, not the actual performance. Thomas sent another study that showed savings of only $25 a year in a “heating climate.” Doing my own research, I found this on the energystar.gov website: “The average household spends more than $2,000 a year on energy bills, nearly half of which goes to heating and cooling. Homeowners can save about $180 a year by properly setting their programmable thermostats and maintaining those settings.” That $180 won’t pay for a new car, but it will buy several tanks of gas. And if the average household spends more than $1,000 on heating and cooling, and a PT can save $180, that’s an 18 percent savings. That’s quite a bit, if you ask me.
The newest and “greenest” PT is the thermostat that connects to your home wifi network. Now you can program or adjust the thermostat from your smartphone, tablet or computer. I can’t really see why I would need to do that, unless I forgot to change the setting when I went out of town for a week. And my wife doesn’t allow me to take that much time off, so that’s not a concern. I suppose if I was coming home earlier than expected I could phone ahead and raise the temperature, but it doesn’t take a gas furnace very long to heat up a home. A wifi thermostat cost 10 times more than a “normal” PT and 50 percent more than the average savings from a PT that I quoted above. For that price I can wait until I get home and turn up the thermostat.
I did learn something from the links Thomas sent me. As with all new technologies there are some unexpected problems with the wifi thermostats. The biggest problem is some generate heat when connected to the wifi, so they have erroneous room temperature readings. The thermostat can read from 2 to 8 degrees higher than the actual room temperature. This is well documented, in fact there is a current class action lawsuit against one large manufacturer of wifi thermostats. No matter how ‘smart’ the thermostat is, if it can’t figure out the temperature in the room it can’t maintain your desired temperature. And it certainly can’t save you money if it thinks your living room is 5 degrees warmer than it actually is.
By Randy West on December 5, 2014
Question: Hello, Randy. I read your article in the Nov. 7 Courier and have a couple of questions. We currently have our 21-year-old home on the market and wonder if it’s worth having an inspection done pre-sale. Can you also tell me what you charge to do a home inspection? And how long is an inspection “valid”? Thank you – Susie
Answer: Susie, These are great questions. This will take up my whole column (which needs to be 1,000 words, so be prepared for a long answer).
Inspectors refer to these as “pre-listing” inspections, although pre-sale is just as accurate. I average two pre-listing inspections a month. The best way to answer “if it’s worth having” is a quick story. I came home one day after doing a pre-listing inspection on an older home. The elderly couple that owned it were very nice, and had lived there for over 20 years. I found a lot of things wrong, including some expensive items like roof shingles and a heating/cooling system that were overdue for replacement. I came home and told my wife I felt bad going over my notes with the couple and having to tell them the roof, furnace, air conditioner and water heater all needed replacement. These are the four most expensive replaceable items in most homes, and I got the impression that the owners did not have sufficient funds to make all these improvements.
My wife is very intelligent (she married me) and is seldom wrong (except about my whining – I do not whine!). She told me that I should not feel bad – that is exactly what the couple hired me for. It was much better for them to find out now. They could make repairs if they wanted and could afford it, or they could disclose these conditions up front and price the home accordingly. Without my inspection, they might have listed the home and received an offer, only to have a buyer back out or ask for major improvements.
So there are some advantages to having a pre-listing inspection. You will reduce the chance of surprises after you receive a purchase offer. And if your house needs a major expense item, you may have a more realistic idea of what your net profit will be from the sale of your home. If there are major concerns you can improve them to make your home more marketable. If you can’t afford the improvements you can lower the price or offer an ‘allowance’ for specific improvements. Over the years, I have had many clients (buyers) tell me there was an allowance for new floor coverings, or new roofing, etc.
There was one other advantage for the aforementioned owners. Their roof shingles needed replacing because they were old, but the shingles also had major hail damage. I recommended they contact their insurance company, and the insurance company did pay for replacing the shingles. The owners likely would have found this out anyway when a roofer came out, but they would have had to deal with roofers and insurance companies while in the middle of negotiating a purchase agreement on their home. And for potential buyers, the brand-new roof shingles on the home (which are very visible) may have partially offset the 30-year-old furnace and air conditioner.
You also asked how long an inspection is “valid.” Most inspectors will answer “24 hours.” Only kidding. Sort of. There is no set time for this. The conditions in a home can change very rapidly. For example, an unusual windstorm can blow off roof shingles, and if they are not noticed, you can get significant damage (moisture or vermin) in an attic in a very short time. Once I inspected the same home after only a few months and found a major structural concern the second time. At the second inspection, water had undermined the rear foundation, flowed all the way through the crawlspace and undermined the front foundation on the way out. I was told the home had been vacant and the main water line broke just outside the rear foundation. This was not noticed for a few weeks (until the sellers got their water bill!).
Here is my policy on inspecting the same home, which may answer your question. Sort of. If I inspected the home within the last three months, and we have not had any hurricanes, earthquakes or tornadoes, I may give a discount on the inspection. If the last inspection was more than three months ago, there is no discount. I have to do the entire inspection and report from scratch.
There are two things I tell my pre-listing clients. First, don’t be surprised if a buyer gets another inspection. I get calls to inspect a home and am told it was recently inspected by another home inspector. I’ll say “I know him and he’s a great inspector; why do you want to pay for another inspection?” Sometimes the buyers just want a home inspector that they hired directly. And second, after you make improvements, I will not give you a “revised” report. If you show a great inspection report to a potential buyer, but there’s almost nothing wrong with the home, they will have to wonder about that. It’s better to write in the report “fixed by ABC Electric on 11/11” and “fixed by XYZ Plumbing on 11/21.”
Regarding fees, home inspectors charge the same for a pre-listing as for a pre-purchase inspection. There is no difference in the inspection and report. Most inspectors charge around $300 for a 1,500- to 2,000-square-foot home. Most inspectors charge more for larger or older homes, additional buildings, etc.
By Randy West on November 21, 2014
I received this email from Norm. He was referring to my column about California suing a retailer because their 2×4 boards are not actually 2 inches by 4 inches:
“I just read your article from Friday’s paper. It reminded me of a consumer protection fiasco in New York years ago. They were all up in arms because a 32-ounce milk carton did not weigh a full 32 ounces. Then someone with a brain pointed out that milk was measured in fluid ounces, by volume rather than by weight. It made me laugh. I enjoy reading your article each week. Keep up the good work.”
I did not research this to verify it; I would rather just believe it. And I do believe it (after all, New York City made 64-ounce sodas illegal).
Question: “Randy – I enjoyed today’s column as I do all of them. Always interesting and educational. A few weeks back I assisted one of your fellow inspectors get into my neighbor’s house across the street. After doing that, I was thinking about inspectors in general and was wondering if it is ethical for you to recommend a contractor when you tell a client that they need to repair or replace something? I am sure the question comes up during or after one of your inspections. If you told me for instance that something needed to be repaired or replaced, I might ask you to recommend a contractor. Just wondering if the rules of your profession allow you to do so or not? – Thanks, Everett Sanborn, Prescott.”
Answer: Anyone who knows me knows that I will not answer a question with 100 words when I can use 500. I believe I can stretch this one to 700 words, so do you have any objection to me using this in my next column? It will save me some writing time next weekend, so I’ll be able to watch a football game.
Referrals are a wonderful thing. I would much prefer to use a contractor or Mercedes mechanic that was referred to me by someone I trust. Of course first I would have to buy a Mercedes.
Realistically, you might expect better service if a contractor knows someone referred them, since the contractor will know you may give the referrer feedback.
Arizona home inspectors are regulated by the Arizona Board of Technical Registration (BTR). We have to comply with the Standards of Professional Practice and Code of Professional Conduct for Arizona Home Inspectors. These are commonly referred to as the Standards of Practice, or SOP, which include the Code of Professional Conduct. One item in the Arizona Code of Professional Conduct is: “Arizona Home Inspectors shall not perform, or offer to perform, for an additional fee, any repairs to a structure having been inspected by that inspector or the inspector’s firm for a period of 24 months following the inspection.”
I am also a member of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), who have a Code of Ethics that includes the following: “Inspectors shall not repair, replace, or upgrade, for compensation, systems or components covered by ASHI Standards of Practice, for one year after the inspection.”
So the BTR and ASHI will not allow inspectors to perform repairs on a home they inspect. A successful home inspector should not have time to make repairs anyway. Note that the above restrictions have “for an additional fee” and “for compensation,” meaning home inspectors cannot charge to make improvements. If we break something we can fix it, as long as we are capable and we don’t charge for it. I wrote recently about not removing glass covers on light fixtures because I broke one once. I spent half the next day finding a similar cover and returning to the home to install it.
Neither of the above comments prohibit an inspector from referring a contractor. My policy is that I do not refer contractors, period. I advise my clients to ask their real estate agent or friends for referrals for a contractor or handyman.
There are other provisions in the codes that could apply to such a referral. For example the Arizona Code states inspectors “shall not engage in fraud, deceit, misrepresentation or concealment of facts… in providing professional services to members of the public.” And the inspector “shall make full disclosure to all parties concerning any monetary, financial or beneficial interest the inspector may hold in a contracting firm or other entity providing goods or services, other than the inspector’s professional services, to an inspection.” And the inspector “shall not pay or receive, directly or indirectly, in full or in part, a commission or compensation as a referral or finder’s fee.”
Some of these statements can be interpreted differently. For example “financial or beneficial interest” and “directly or indirectly.” So here is my interpretation: a home inspector should not refer a contractor if he benefits in any way from the referral. If the contractor is related or a close friend, or if the contractor may give the inspector a discount of any type, etc.
What if I asked you for the name of a plumber, and later found out the plumber was your brother or close friend. This does at least indirectly affect you, since the plumber can now afford to buy more rounds at the bar. Being the cynical old curmudgeon I am, I would suspect the referral may have been because he was your relative or friend and not because he was the best plumber you knew.
Shockingly, not all home inspectors agree with my interpretation. I have seen home inspection reports with a list of contractors and their contact information. And I immediately wonder if they are getting some type of “indirect” benefit from those contractors.
By Randy West on November 7, 2014
Question: Randy, I read your column all the time and you usually seem level-headed. We just sold an older house in Prescott, and the home inspector called out a gas water heater in a bathroom closet The buyers insisted we move the water heater, which would have been very difficult. We ended up having a new electric water heater installed, which cost over $500. This would have been higher, except there was already a 240-volt outlet. This really bothered us, since the ‘”old” water heater was only a few years old. We paid for the new water heater because we wanted the home to close, and then we called the home inspector and told him we expected him to reimburse us. We explained that this is an older home and the water heater was grandfathered in. The inspector was not very polite to us, and refused to pay the bill. So my questions: Why would a home inspector report on a condition that was grandfathered in on an older home? And if he does, should he not be liable for the cost of improvement? – Tom and Beth
Answer: Tom and Beth, thank you for your questions. I’m glad I “usually seem level-headed” to you, although you probably won’t like this answer. I did not “edit” your question other than removing the name of the home inspector, because he may be bigger than me.
The first question is regarding “grandfathering.” This does not mean your Dad’s Dad installed the water heater. This means a home is built to code for when it was built. We are not required to “update” our homes every three years when a new code comes out. That would be difficult, and sometimes would be impossible or ridiculously expensive.
I use the old car analogy. Say you bought that ’57 T-bird or ’68 GTO you’ve always wanted. And when you went to register it, the state made you “update” it. They want you to install seatbelts, airbags, anti-lock brakes and crumple zones. Obviously, it would be virtually impossible to install all these in an older car that was not designed for them. So you could say the lack of these features is “grandfathered,” and the state will not make you install them.
However, if you bought an old car without these features, you would be aware of it. You might be a little more careful, knowing you don’t have these safety features. And if your grandkids rode in the car frequently, you might at least install seatbelts, which would not be a major expense.
Most people are aware of their car safety features, but most people don’t think about the built-in safety features in their home or the lack of safety features in an older home. One example that is easy to see is railing openings. If a deck or patio is more than 30 inches off the ground, a railing is required. In newer homes, the maximum size opening through a railing is 4 inches, so a child cannot crawl through (or get their head stuck, which I’ve heard of). I’ve inspected older homes where the openings were 12 inches wide. Any home inspector is going to report on this, even though the railings may be grandfathered.
So let’s discuss your water heater. Gas appliances are not allowed in bedrooms or bathrooms. There is a good reason for this. It is very rare, but possible for a gas appliance to malfunction and give off carbon monoxide. This can happen even on a newer appliance, for example, if the vent pipe on the roof gets damaged or obstructed (e.g. with a birds nest). Bathrooms are small rooms, and most people are in there for a while with the door closed. And some people are in there for a very long time with the door closed. My sister calls her main level bathroom the “library.” If her husband goes in there with a book, he may not be out in time for dinner. Of course, most people that are in the bathroom for long periods are using the bathtub or shower. So it is very likely the water heater is operating while they are in there. So it makes sense that we should not put a gas appliance, especially a water heater, in a bathroom.
You stated your gas water heater was only a few years old and that it was originally an electric water heater (because there was already a 240 volt circuit for an electric water heater). It is allowable to put an electric water heater in a bathroom. But when the electric water heater was replaced with a gas water heater, a permit was required. And a gas water heater in a bathroom closet would not have been allowed. This is not a new rule, it’s been around a long time. Think of all the homes you’ve lived in (or stayed in, or been in). Have you ever seen a gas furnace or water heater in a bathroom or bedroom?
Even if that gas water heater was “grandfathered,” the home inspector would still have to report on it. Home inspections are not “code” inspections, although some of the items we report on are code violations. Home inspectors have to report on safety concerns, even if they are not a code violation. If you were buying a home and there was a significant safety concern, wouldn’t you expect your inspector to report on it?
As far as the inspector paying for your water heater, I would not have expected him to. First, the inspector was not working for you, because the buyer was his client. Second, the inspector was reasonable in reporting on a gas appliance in a bathroom. Third, he may be saving up for that GTO.
By Randy West on October 24, 2014
Last time you wrote about air conditioners. You had some good advice, but you missed one point. We have ceiling fans in every room in the home. We have them on timer switches so they come on in the morning and shut off at night all summer. This keeps our home comfortable and the temperature balanced, and ceiling fans are much less expensive to operate than the central air conditioner. – Eve in Prescott.
Response: Thank you for your comment, Eve. Last time, for any newcomers, I explained how important it is that bedroom doors should be trimmed one inch off the floor for a central furnace and air conditioner to operate efficiently. This allows proper airflow through the furnace and air conditioner, and balanced distribution throughout the home.
Regarding ceiling fans, I have bad news for Eve. Running ceiling fans if you are not sitting under them is usually a waste of electricity. Any type of fan cools you by blowing air over you, but does not actually raise or lower the indoor temperature. So if you are not sitting under the fan, it is not doing anything but using electricity. In fact, it could be argued that the fan motor will generate some heat, and could actually raise the indoor temperature slightly. It is better to turn on fans only when you are in the room.
Now before you fans email me (sorry), yes there are some exceptions to this. If you have a window air conditioner instead of central air conditioning, a ceiling fan can help distribute the cool air throughout a room. And ceiling fans can be useful in the winter, which will be here pretty quick, so let’s talk about that for a minute. As a general rule, a properly installed ceiling fan (8 to 10 feet off the floor) can be run in reverse in the winter. Reverse means the fan blows air upwards, forcing the warmer air near the ceiling back down to the floor. The fan should be operated at the lowest speed, but even then the fan often makes a draft that ends up cooling you more than distributing the heat in the room.
But here’s another exception: tall rooms. I built a lot of “chalet” style homes with very high ceilings in the living room, and I always installed a ceiling fan in these rooms. In rooms with high ceilings the fan is usually much higher off the floor, and should blow downwards in the winter. It should still be on the lowest speed so it does not make a “draft.”
In another case of not doing any good, recent trade journals for the construction and home inspection industry have articles regarding the state of California suing a major retailer. The Marin County District Attorney’s office charged a hardware chain with false advertising. The result is the chain has to change/alter signage in 100 California stores. And pay a $147,000,000 fine. That’s six zeros in that number, folks.
The Crime: The chain was selling 2x4s that were not really 2x4s. Turns out they were actually 1_ inch by 3_ inch. I see ‘nominal’ (actual) 2x4s sometimes in the attics of homes built before around 1950. In homes built after 1950 the 2 x4s are dimensional (1_ x 3_). I don’t think they have sold nominal 2x4s since World War 2.
In addition to the fine, the chain has to pay $ 150,000 “to further consumer protection-related activities.” This, in my opinion, will be used to start a new government agency to educate us civilians, who are incapable of realizing for ourselves that a 2×4 is not a 2×4. And once this new agency is started, it will never go away. They will have to sue other companies to maintain it. You laugh- but wait and see! Wait until California discovers that a 32 ounce drink isn’t really 32 ounce because there’s ice in. Or a 24 cubic foot refrigerator does not really have 24 cubic feet of storage. Or that a Honda 750 motorcycle is actually 748 cc. Or that a 50 Gigabyte hard drive does not really have 50 gigabytes of storage.
California is really onto something here. Why battle the taxpayers to raise taxes when there are all these large companies blatantly deceiving the general public.
Now to be fair, someone from the DA’s office claims that the lumber they found did not make the dimensional requirements. But I cannot find any actual numbers. If the chain was selling 2x4s that were only 3 inches wide, I can see the problem. But I’m sure contractors would have let the chain know if they were selling lumber that could not be used. And this lawsuit was not brought by contractors, it was filed by a District Attorney’s office.
So if the actual dimension was 3 and 15/32 inches, who cares? In fact a lot of _ inch plywood is not really _ inch. Most roof sheathing is actually 15/32 of an inch. And also to be fair, that same statement by the DA’s office noted that the chain was simply passing on the information provided by the supplier. The chain did not change or alter information, and (in my opinion again) did not intend to mislead the public.
So, a guy sells me avocados and tells me they weigh one pound apiece. I advertise that, and the Bureau of Accurate Avocado Advertising does a sting and discovers some of my avocados are not quite one pound. I did not weigh them, I just passed on what my supplier said. No consumer has filed a complaint about purchasing inadequate avocados from me. So what does the BAAA do? It fines me $147,000,000.
Wouldn’t you think that perhaps the BAAA needed money, or to justify its existence?
By Randy West on October 10, 2014
Question: Randy, we moved into a home in Prescott Valley a couple weeks ago and have some questions about the heating system. First, all the supply vents are in the ceiling. Our supply vents have always been in the floor. Heat rises, so it seems that floor vents would be more efficient. The furnace is in the attic. We’ve never heard of this before – is this safe? And we noticed the master bedroom door sometimes closes by itself when the air conditioner comes on. What would cause this? Theresa in Prescott Valley.
Answer: Theresa, thank you for the letter and good questions. Several years ago (all right, several decades ago), when I was a young lad our home had central heating and air conditioning. Almost every room, including the bedrooms, had two vents. One was near the floor and one near the ceiling. In the basement, there were dampers on the large metal ducts. You could actually change the function of these vents. In the winter we made the vents near the floor the supply vents and the vents near the ceiling the return air vents, and reversed this in the summer.
My dad explained this would increase the efficiency of the furnace and air conditioner. I have to chuckle at that now. That was probably ‘high tech’ at the time. But, there was a 60 percent efficient fuel oil furnace. And a 50 percent efficient air conditioner that shook the whole house every time the compressor started. And un-insulated sheet metal ducts routed through the damp, cold basement. And leaky single pane windows, although we did install storm windows every winter. And about R-5 insulation in the attic, and probably none in the walls. I don’t think that home would have qualified for the Energy Star rating.
So, common sense would say that having the supply vents near the floor would be more efficient in the winter, since heat rises. And having the supply vents near the ceiling would be better in the summer. So I suppose for maximum efficiency you would need to have supply and return vents in every room, both near the floor and ceiling, that would change functions depending on whether the furnace or air conditioner was operating. And since modern homeowners will not want to have to go into an attic or crawlspace to move dampers all the time, it would have to be all automatic. So you would need an engineer to design this system. All this would add substantially to the cost of a new home. And if any of the dampers stopped working, you would end up with a less efficient system.
Realistically, with newer furnaces and air conditioners that are much more efficient and newer homes that are much better insulated, the location of the supply vents is not as important. If the furnace is in the basement or crawlspace, the supply vents are usually in the floor. If the furnace is in the attic or roof the supply vents are usually in the ceiling, especially if your home has a concrete slab floor.
As far as the furnace being in the attic, that is very common in Arizona. If installed properly it is perfectly safe, perhaps safer than a furnace installed inside the living area (e.g. in a hall closet) or under the living space (in a basement or crawlspace).
Now for the poltergeist that keeps closing your master bedroom door. This is easy to explain. Most homes built in the last 30 years have a central furnace and air conditioner, like your home. And most homes have one return air vent in the hallway, or perhaps two in larger homes. The air from all the supply vents has to get to the return air vent. So bedroom doors should be trimmed one inch off the floor.
This is especially true in the master bedroom, which usually has multiple supply vents. I have seen homes with 4 or 5 supply vents in the master bedroom, bath, and perhaps closet. All this air has to get through the master bedroom door to that return air vent in the hall. I often demonstrate this to clients by closing the master bedroom door most of the way with the furnace or air conditioner operating. If the door is not trimmed off the floor, it will blow closed.
Recently a seller put in writing that there was no reason to trim doors off the carpeting, and that the home inspector (me) did not have a clue what he was talking about. I sent him information from several furnace manufacturers explaining how important trimming the doors can be. The furnace will be pulling a certain amount of air from the home through the return air vent (or trying). If 25 percent of the supply air is going into the master suite and cannot get to the return air vent, the master bedroom will be ‘pressurized.’ It will blow heated air out any way it can, through exhaust fan ducts, around windows, outlets, light fixtures, etc. And the rest of the home will be ‘low pressure,’ and will be pulling cold air in through all these places. And the same for the ducts in the attic, any leaks in the ductwork will be ‘amplified’ if there is backpressure in the ducts. And the furnace will be working harder and less efficiently, since it does not have the proper airflow going through it.
So paying a handyman or carpenter to trim an inch off your bedroom doors will save heating and cooling costs, make the heating and cooling more balanced throughout the home, and extend the life of the furnace and air conditioner. A worthwhile investment, in my opinion.
By Randy West on September 26, 2014
Last time I wrote about overhead garage doors. This time we’ll stay in the garage, with a couple of trips into the attic.
I have had several questions about fire separation between a home and attached garage. If a fire starts in a garage, we don’t want it to spread into the home. And if you start a car in a garage, you don’t want the car exhaust (carbon monoxide) to enter the home.
So, some attached garages have 5/8 inch fire-resistant (“type X”) drywall on the ceiling and on walls common with the home. And the door between a garage and home is usually a fire-resistant door with weatherstripping and self-closers (usually spring-loaded hinges in our area).
But… you could tell that was a “but” statement, couldn’t you? But some of the above is not required in some cases. There is much confusion about this, including among home inspectors. This comes from confusing “fire resistance” and “fire-rated assembly.”
A fire-rated assembly can be a wall, door and frame, etc. A fire-rated assembly has been tested and has a known fire-resistance rating. For example, a 2×4 frame wall with type X drywall on both sides has a one-hour fire-rating. The same wall with two layers of type X drywall on both sides has a two-hour fire-rating.
A fire-rated assembly (wall) is required between different homes in the same building. But between a home and an attached garage, only a fire-resistant wall is required.
I can hear you saying “What!?” A fire-rated assembly is fire-resistant, and in fact has a fire resistance rating. A fire-resistant wall is fire-resistant, but is not an “assembly” with a known fire-resistance rating.
It is important to understand the difference between a fire-rated assembly wall and a fire-resistant wall. The wall between a home and attached garage is usually required to be fire-resistant. The 2012 IRC (International Residential Code) recommends 1/2 inch drywall on the garage side of walls between the garage and home. This is a fire-resistant wall, not a fire-rated assembly. So when you hear someone talk about a one-hour fire wall between a home and garage, they are incorrect.
So type X fire-resistant drywall is not required on garage walls. But (I have lots of “buts” today) type X drywall is required on a garage ceiling. But only if there is living space above the garage or if the garage attic is open to the home attic.
In almost every home I’ve inspected in our area, the garage attic is open to the home attic, so the garage ceiling requires type X drywall. In some states or cities it is common to continue the fire-resistant wall through the attic to separate the garage attic from the home attic. In this case, type X drywall is not required on the garage ceiling.
Part of this confusion about garage fire-rated walls vs. fire-resistant walls may come from the requirement of a fire-rated door between a garage and home. According to the IRC, doors between a home and attached garage shall be “…solid wood doors not less than 1-3/8″ (35 mm) in thickness, solid or honeycomb-core steel doors not less than 1-3/8″ (35 mm) thick, or 20-minute fire-rated doors.” So a fire-rated door is required between the home and garage. But this is still not a fire-rated assembly, just the door is fire-rated. The wall itself, including the door frame, is not fire-rated (only fire resistant).
Confused yet? Well, here’s another confusing wall for home inspectors. A fire-rated wall is required between separate homes in the same building. This wall should continue through the attic to the bottom of the roof sheathing. In some condos in our area they have a block wall that extends through and above the roof- you can’t get much more fire resistant than that.
But (again) the fire-rated wall does not need to extend through the attic in some cases. For example if there is a fire sprinkler system in the building, or if there is type X drywall on the ceilings. In this case a draft stop is required in the attic between the homes. In a fire resistant wall the drywall joints have to be taped. In a draft stop they do not. A draft stop is designed to stop air flow from feeding a fire, not to slow the fire itself.
So a home inspector enters a multi-family building and sees drywall walls in the attic between the homes. But the drywall is not taped. Should the inspector recommend a fire wall? Not necessarily. The inspector will know if there is a fire sprinkler system in the building. But he/she will not know if there is fire resistant drywall on the interior ceilings. Sometimes you can move attic insulation around to check the type of drywall, but this may not be practical or possible. And even if you find one piece of type X drywall near the access, does this mean all interior ceilings have type X drywall?
And of course different jurisdictions may have different requirements (some require type X drywall on garage walls). There are many similar situations for home inspectors. We recommend something that a contractor or homeowner proves is not needed. Or we don’t recommend something because we can’t be sure, then the next inspector recommends it and our clients want to know why we didn’t.
And our answer usually starts with “But …..”
By Randy West on September 12, 2014
What is the largest moving object in your home? No, not your mother-in-law. I’m talking about the overhead garage door. Home inspectors are required to inspect overhead doors, including the automatic reverse feature.
Since 1982, overhead doors are required to have a quick release to release the door from the opener. This is a logical device, in case you need to open the door in a power failure. Also since 1982, overhead doors are required to reverse if they hit an obstruction. Some models prior to that would stop, but not reverse. If the door does not reverse, a child can be trapped under the door. Most of these openers have failed by now and have been replaced with newer ones, but I still see an occasional 1980 home with the original overhead door opener.
Since 1993, overhead doors are required to have a secondary reversing feature, usually the “beam” at the bottom of the door. If the beam is interrupted, the door will automatically reverse. There are a couple of doors and openers that don’t require the beam, such as the Wayne Dalton I-drive opener. I do not see these very often – 99 percent of the doors I see are required to have the beam.
I have been asked how I test the overhead door. First, you test the automatic reverse both by interrupting the beam and by physically stopping the door when it is closing. Most manufacturers recommend placing a 2×4 on the floor to test the “obstruction” feature. I have damaged two overhead doors in my home inspecting career when testing the automatic reverse feature. I know I’ll get some emails about this, but I don’t use the 2×4 method. I grab the door when it’s mostly closed and use just my wrists. When I feel there is enough force to hurt a body and the door has not reversed, I let go. I have tested thousands of overhead doors. If you have not, then you probably shouldn’t try this method.
Time for a quick war story. The last door I damaged did not have the beam at the bottom of the door. I put the 2×4 on the ground and closed the door. When the door hit the 2×4, it kept closing. It bent the top section of the door, which was at an angle. Two of the windows in the top section exploded out onto the driveway. Neuman Overhead Doors may remember this episode, because I immediately called them to come replace the top section. Then I called a painter. Then I grabbed my dustpan and broom to clean up the glass. Of course it was a paver driveway, not concrete, so I was on my hand and knees sweeping the glass out of all the crevices when the seller came out. Anyone remember Fred Sanford and “the big one,” when he claimed he was having a heart attack? That’s what the seller reminded me of. She put her hands over her heart and kind of staggered back into the garage while crying, “What did you do to my door?”
In a rare case of ideal timing, Neuman Doors was just pulling into the driveway. I assured the seller that the door would be fixed, and that a painter would be calling her the next day to paint the door. That was the last time I used a 2×4 to test the automatic reversing feature.
You should also release the door from the opener and operate it manually occasionally. If the springs are perfectly adjusted, the door will stay in any position. But of course there is very little perfection in the world. Make sure the door will stay fully open, so you can get your vehicle out. And that the door does not slam closed and that you can open it manually if you have to.
Most manufacturers recommend you release the door from the opener with the door in the fully closed position. This is because if the springs have weakened, the door could fall/slam closed if you release it when it’s open. But I have a word of caution. I always close the door with the opener and watch it as it fully closes. If the opener “pushes” the door after it’s down, there will be a lot of tension on the release latch. I pulled the release once and it sounded like a shotgun going off because of this tension. Fortunately, it did not break anything.
You can adjust how far the door closes, and it should be adjusted so it does not ‘push’ the door after it’s fully closed. There are knobs or screws on the opener, usually called “down travel” or “down stop.” This is how you adjust how far the door closes. There is another adjustment usually called “down force” (and an “up force”) that adjusts the automatic reverse feature.
Now another word of caution. I damaged that door because the “down force” was way out of adjustment. If the down force is out of adjustment, and you adjust the “down travel” to try to close the door farther that it can go, you may be sweeping glass off your driveway. So it is important that the obstruction automatic reverse feature is adjusted properly before trying to adjust the travel.
Now my “do not try this at home” disclaimer. I do a very careful visual inspection of the door and hardware before testing the reverse feature or operating the door manually. The overhead door springs are under a lot of tension, and the door can be very heavy if the springs are out of adjustment. If you are not familiar and comfortable with working on an overhead door, you should have an appropriate contractor service and adjust your door once a year.
By Randy West on August 29, 2014
I heard a termite inspector tell a homebuyer “the good news is the termites are all holding hands.” And once I heard a termite inspector tell a seller the firewood stacked against the home was full of termites. The seller replied, “No problem; when they get done with that I’ll buy them another cord of firewood.” Which brings us to this week’s question:
“Randy, you are doing a home inspection next week for us. We appreciate the information you have provided so far (and your sense of humor). We forgot to ask: Does your inspection include a termite inspection? We have heard that termites are not really a problem in our new subdivision, so we’re not too concerned about it.”
Answer: When purchasing a home, the buyer has a time limit, or “inspection period,” to complete all inspections. Any home inspector will recommend a termite inspection if they see signs of insect activity or damage to the home or structure, or if they see “conducive conditions,” such as wood/soil contact at the exterior walls. But by this time, a client in the process of buying a house may not have time in their inspection period to complete further inspections. So I always recommend that the buyer order a termite inspection immediately.
There are good reasons to order a termite inspection. We are calling it a “termite inspection,” while the state calls it a “WDO inspection.” WDO stands for Wood Destroying Organism, which means “termite inspectors” are not checking just for termites. They also are checking for carpenter ants, bark beetles and, I suppose, woodpeckers and beavers (would these not be “wood destroying organisms”)? I’ve never heard of beavers in a termite report, but then I’ve never encountered a beaver during a home inspection.
Termites, beetles, ants and other Wood Destroying Organisms can do incredible amounts of damage to a home, and it can be extremely expensive to exterminate them and/or repair the damage. A home inspector should report on damage that looks like termite damage. But when he/she is inspecting your home, a home inspector also is looking at structural components, plumbing, wiring, insulation, etc. Wouldn’t you want a specialist checking for WDOs – someone trained for and looking for only wood destroying organisms? I know I would. I bought a house last year that was built in 2000. I knew there was no wood soil contact around the structure, and I did not see any signs of insect or moisture damage. But I paid the $68 for a termite inspection, just to be sure.
For me it’s cheap insurance. Home inspectors often find signs of WDO activity. But they are not required to (or specifically trained to) identify the source or extent of the damage. If you find termites in your house a month after you move in and call your home inspector, he/she will probably say, “That’s too bad, but why are you calling me? Call that termite guy.”
There is something I call the “homeowner inspection syndrome.” All termite and home inspectors are aware of this. Some homeowners feel that they had an inspection, so they will not have to do any maintenance or repairs as long as they own the home. Actually, this is much less true now than when I started doing home inspections more than 20 years ago. But many home inspectors still refrain from using the words “homeowner” and “maintenance” in the same sentence. The point is, just having a termite inspection does not mean you don’t need to worry about termites. Termites can invade a home at any time.
I personally know of a house that did not have any visible termite damage or activity when I (and a termite inspector) inspected it. The buyer bought two cords of firewood and had it stacked next to the home, touching the wood siding. Fortunately, a month later someone told him it was a bad idea to have firewood touching the wood siding and the soil. He moved the firewood and found a termite infestation and considerable damage inside the wall. In just one month.
It is very important to check your home occasionally for WDO presence or damage. Now, I hear you asking: If a licensed and trained home inspector can’t do this, how can a homeowner? You can look for “conducive conditions.” Any wood on the exterior of your home (siding, trim, etc.) should be at least 6 inches above the soil. Any wood touching the soil and the house is a potential entry point for termites, even firewood, fence or deck posts, etc.
If your home has stucco siding on a wood-frame wall, there is likely a weep screed. This is a horizontal drain in the wall that also is required to be 6 inches above the soil. If the weep screed is below the soil, WDOs could be entering your exterior wall with no visible signs. The weep screed is at the bottom of the wood framing, so having the weep screed below soil is not just an “entry point” – it’s a six-lane interstate for termites.
All plants should be kept trimmed six inches away from exterior walls. Termites don’t usually walk around on plants, but other wood destroying insects do, such as certain types of ants and beetles. If you find wood soil contact or plants touching the home, you can check these areas carefully for any signs of damage (or actual insects). If a home inspector sees wood soil contact, a buried weep screed or plants touching a home they will definitely be recommending a professional WDO inspection, even if they don’t see any insects or damage.
By Randy West on August 15, 2014
I have been critical of the government many times in this column. This includes the city, state and (especially) the federal government. Recently a real estate agent sent me something from HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) that included “Ten Important Questions to Ask Your Home Inspector.” The agent wanted my opinion on the questions. I think they are excellent. I added my comments after each question.
In my opinion that average time is a little low. Perhaps that’s from a location where all houses are very similar and don’t have basements or crawlspaces.
I would like to thank HUD for publishing this list of questions. With a little re-wording, you could use these questions when interviewing accountants, mechanics, computer gurus, or any other service provider.
By Randy West on July 25, 2014
Happy July 4th everyone!
Hope you have a great weekend.
I had an email from a local real estate agent asking about a home inspector “buy it back” program. Apparently, a home inspector organization is saying if your home inspector misses something, they will buy your house back for what you paid for it. The real estate agent wanted to know what I think I about this program.
Before I answer that, let me tell you about my predictions for other fads in our profession. About 12 years ago Sears got into the home inspection business. I had colleagues express great concern about a large company like Sears putting us little one-man shops out of business. I was not concerned. I told them Sears wouldn’t last a year in our business. Here’s why: First you have to call an 800 number to schedule the inspection. Most clients want to talk to the inspector personally to ask questions. Second, the lady in Chicago scheduling the inspector’s day doesn’t realize she’s having him go all the way across town two days in a row instead of scheduling the homes near each other on the same day. Third, most good inspectors will not want to be required to use a Sears home inspection report. And most important, all home inspectors get calls regarding past inspections. Most of them are not complaints (if they’re a good inspector); the client may want more information on something in the report, or advice on how to correct it, or to schedule the inspector to come out and inspect the repairs that have been made. But there are mediocre inspectors out there, and Sears will also be getting some complaint calls. Sears has no idea how many of these calls they will be getting once they have dozens or hundreds of inspectors.
Then there was the franchise with a great idea, just not a practical one. The idea: A home inspector cannot be an expert on every system in a home. So, instead of inspecting everything, the home inspector will just coordinate a plumber, roofer, electrician, etc. Each of these experts will inspect their part of the home and report to the home inspector, who will deliver a complete report to the client/buyer.
This one was even easier for me. As a home inspector, I know most clients are buyers with a limited time to complete their inspections. I can imagine a home inspector impatiently waiting for that last roofer report to come in so he can deliver the report. And then getting a call about the roof, which he didn’t even look at. And a home inspection, as I’ve written about here, is not just a combination of different inspections. Home inspection is a gr eat deal of Building Science- checking how the different systems work together. Of course, now that half the states have some type of home inspector regulation, this idea would never get off the drawing board.
Then there was the company that required the inspector to wear a suit and tie in order to look “professional.” I come out of crawlspaces covered with dirt and spider webs (and sometimes spiders). I come out of attics covered with sweat and insulation. I don’t think a sweat-soaked spider-splattered tie looks very professional.
I was right about all of these. I don’t recall exactly how long any of them lasted, but it was not long.
In my humble personal opinion, I think this 90-day “buy your house back” is another idea that won’t last long and will help very few people. Let’s say a home inspector misses something expensive, like a faulty $500 water heater or $3,500 air conditioner, or even a $5,000 roof replacement. $5,000 is a big chunk of change to most people. But so is moving. I moved last year, so I can vouch for what a major pain it is. I don’t want to move again for a very long time. So if a typical family finds out their inspector missed a $5,000 roof and some organization will buy their home back, would they sell their house back? Is it worth the cost and aggravation of packing up everything you own (again), finding a new home (again), buying a new home (again, and which most people can’t do until their last home sells), actually moving everything you own (again), and then of course unpacking everything (again)? You will easily spend thousands of dollars and lots of time on this adventure, and likely jeopardize some long-term friendships if you ask the same people to help you move twice in 90 days. Most people would just find the $5,000 to fix the roof.
I believe that is what this program is counting on. But I believe this program will backfire. If I’m correct in my assumption that most people are not going to want to move again for $5,000, then the only people that will try to use this program are people with major problems with their home. Like a large home with a tile roof that has been leaking and damaged the sheathing. Or a home with major structural problems. These can be tens of thousands of dollars to repair. So this organization has to buy a house back for what you paid for it, invest thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars in repairs, then sell it with all the related closing costs. I don’t think this will happen very many times before they take a strong second look at this program.
Which is exactly what I said about Sears, group inspections and suits and ties. So let’s wait one year and see if this program is still around, and/or if anyone actually used it.
By Randy West on July 4, 2014
Last time I said that next time I would answer a couple of questions on air conditioners. But I received another fan letter this week that I want to respond to first:
Question: I received your report on the mobile home I’m selling. I’m not sure how long you’ve been a home inspector, but you better go back to Home Inspector School! I have been flipping homes for eight years, and obviously know more about mobile homes than you do. About half the recommendations you made are completely wrong! Just a few examples: GFCI outlets, drain lines in the crawlspace, plumbing vents on the roof, 2×6 stair rails, egress windows, and the list goes on. Obviously, you are not aware that your “recommendations” are not required in mobile homes. I had to educate the buyer about how poor your report was, but she still wants some of these improvements. Please give me an address to send the bills for the cost of these improvements.- Bill in Prescott Valley
Answer: Bill has some very good points. Fortunately, he wears hats that cover most of them. It would save me time to just copy and paste my reply to Bill. After all, my reply was extremely excellent, incredibly informative and slightly sarcastic (all right, maybe a little more than slightly). But this could be useful information to anyone buying or selling a manufactured home, so I would rather address his comments in a more professional manner.
First, in case you are not familiar with the term, “flipping homes” means you buy a home, fix it up and then sell it for a profit. According to TV shows, you can make a zillion dollar a year doing this. Of course, according to TV shows the Professor can make a radio out of a coconut.
Home inspectors in Arizona are regulated, and we have to follow the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors. Although we don’t use the word “code,” it would be hard to deny that our Standards are at least somewhat based on code. As a matter of fact, the glossary in the Standards defines an ‘unsafe condition’ and states it may be due to “…. improper installation or a change in adopted residential building standards.” So, the Standards don’t use the ‘code’ word, but what are “adopted residential building standards”?
Manufactured homes are not built to the building code. They are built to HUD (U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development) standards. In many instances, the HUD standards are several years behind the building code requirements. In some instances, the HUD requirements don’t address items that are required by the building code.
Here are some examples that Bill mentioned. I will refer to site built homes (SBHs) instead of “code,” since some of these requirements are actually manufacturer’s specifications and not code requirements. I will refer to manufactured/mobile homes as MHs.
Water heaters have a TPR (safety valve) drain pipe, and air conditioners have a condensate drain pipe. In SBHs, these are routed to the exterior (with some exceptions). In an MH, they usually discharge in the crawlspace. Inspectors have to comment on this, especially for the air conditioner condensate drain line that will be discharging water whenever the air conditioner is operating.
Home inspectors have to comment on GFCI protection. These are shock-preventing outlets that have a ‘test’ and ‘reset’ button on them. This is not just one of those “changes in adopted residential building standards,” inspecting GFCIs is specifically required in our Standards. GFCI requirements in MHs are several years behind SBHs, so it is more likely we will have to recommend GFCI protection in an MH.
Bill referred to the vents on the roof. I had a comment in my report about plumbing vent pipes not being 12 inches off the roof (to avoid obstructions, e.g. snow). This is required in SBHs, but not MHs. My comment did not recommend an improvement, just noted it as a normal condition in a manufactured home.
Stairways with more than three steps should have a handrail. The handrail should be “grabbable.” There are specific requirements about the height, diameter, etc., for handrails. I don’t usually pull out a tape measure, but I want Granny to be able to grab that handrail if she needs to. A flat 2×6, like you see on deck steps all the time, is not grabbable. An inspector should comment on improper handrails on any type of home.
Bedrooms need an egress window (unless there is a door to the exterior). These windows have certain size and location requirements. The minimum opening should be 20 inches wide and 24 inches high, and the windows should not be more than 44 inches off the interior floor. (Trivia: these are actually emergency ingress windows – that is the smallest opening a fireman with a helmet and tank can fit through.) Older MHs are more likely to have improper egress windows than older SBHs.
Newer manufactured homes have fewer differences/requirements from site built homes. I inspected a two-year-old manufactured home last week and there were no recommendations in my report regarding any of the items Bill mentioned. But this is not true for a 20-year-old manufactured home, and it’s not true for a 20-year-old site built home either. Newer homes have different requirements for GFCI and smoke detector locations, railing openings, etc. So, it is common for an inspection report on a 20 year old home to have recommendations that are not needed in a 2 year old home.
Back to Bill: That address you requested is HUD, Washington, DC, 12345. Back to the readers: Next time I’ll answer a couple of questions on air conditioners. Unless…
By Randy West on June 20, 2014
Last time I wrote about evaporative coolers. The second paragraph was shown as part of my answer; it was actually part of a question from Amanda. This is what it said:
“I’m glad you love evaporative coolers so much, and I’m for saving energy, but you need to be a little more objective. You forgot to point out that operating the evaporative cooler with one large vent 1) makes the house very dirty, 2) makes the house very humid, and 3) is so loud you can’t hear the TV if the cooler blower is on high speed.”
I did not address all these issues in that column. Amanda has one large supply vent in her home for the evaporative cooler, so it is louder than if you have multiple supply vents. I received this email from ‘Ray in Longmeadow’:
“Hello Randy, “I have been enjoying your articles, always informative, interesting and factual. I feel the need, however, to comment on your latest, Air conditioners vs evaporative coolers. I’m feeling that lots of the downsides of evaporative coolers are being mentioned with none of the downsides of air conditioners.
“Here are some of the downsides of air conditioners that people should be aware of. The big one that I see is that when the temperature is high and the humidity is low, air conditioning dries the air even further. Ideal humidity in the home is 30 to 50 per cent. I have friends that have had expensive wooden furniture ruined by too low of humidity inside the home. Another is of course, the high cost of operation; your electric bill and routine maintenance. And if you have an older system with R22 Freon and a major component fails, you will be replacing the entire system.
“Then I have to question your statement about how coolers are less effective at high temperatures. I have been using an Aerocool 6800 cfm model since 1998. As long as the ambient air is dry, my cooler gives the same temperature drop. So if it’s 98 F outside, I’m getting 68 F out of the register, a 30 degree drop. Another point is noise. My cooler was sized so that I can run it on low blower speed most of the time. Another point is that it makes the house too humid. When the air outside is 7 percent humidity, the house may get up to 20 to 30 percent, ideal. As far as dirt is concerned, we don’t notice that the house gets any dirtier when the cooler is on. The intake of the cooler is opposite of the prevailing wind, that probably helps.
“I have a feeling that there are still a large number of people around that think “swamp cooler” when someone mentions evaporative cooling. The days of the old, ugly three sided swamp cooler with straw pads that you have to replace every year is a vision from 50 years ago. The modern evaporative cooler such as the Aerocool (evapcool.com/aerocool-trophy) is a vast improvement. There are no “pads”, it’s now a more highly engineered “cooling media” that has a long useful life. Modern coolers can be controlled with a thermostat, so that you can come home to a cool house.
“Through years of personal experience here in the Prescott area, I feel that modern evaporative cooling definitely has a place in our southwest region.
“Thank you for your time, I always look forward to reading your column!”
Me again. Before you email me, I did not say anything about ugly three sided swamp coolers. I checked out the website in Rays email, and it does appear evaporative coolers have gone ‘high tech’. I replied to Ray:
“One question: Yours looks like a far superior unit to the older models. Does it work well in high humidity? Of course I realize that high humidity here is only a few days a year, but in case I print this (and people from wherever find/read it) let’s give people an honest opinion.”
Here was Ray’s response:
“Randy, thanks for the response. Our worst case here in the Longmeadow area is when the rain storms are all around us but it’s not raining here, the air temp is still high, the humidity is soaring. Does my evap cooler work well in these conditions? No, but it still gives us about a 10 degree drop, puts the air in the house in the high 80s, still an improvement over using ceiling fans alone. Humidity in the house goes up, of course. I admit that it would be nice to have A/C to turn on those days.
“When we got our cooler there was only one cooling media available. Aerocool now has three different cooling media choices. When it’s time for me to replace the media, I will opt for the most efficient hybrid media, they call it “4×4”, a blend of high density and standard density material. Evaporative cooling is getting more sophisticated all the time.
“Please feel free to print any or all of my comments, “Ray in Longmeadow”
Me again. I’m not supposed to get political in my columns. But the current administration has tripled the cost of my gasoline, doubled the cost of my health insurance, and they’re working on electricity costs next. (Please send political emails to “email@example.com”). For someone on a budget and/or someone who is ‘green’, a newer evaporative cooler may be a viable option for cooling a home in our dry climate. In my May 9 column, I explained self-closing (and self-opening) ceiling vents that can be used to help distribute the cool air from an evaporative cooler.
Next time I’ll answer some emails on central air conditioners.
By Randy West on June 6, 2014
Last time I wrote about evaporative coolers. I had the usual supportive feedback, such as these two.
Q: Randy, in your May 9 column you answered a question about evaporative coolers. You told us how wonderful they are, how well they work, and that they are less expensive to operate than central air conditioners. You said that having central air conditioning and an evaporative cooler is “the best of both worlds.”
A: I’m glad you love evaporative coolers so much, and I’m for saving energy, but you need to be a little more objective. You forgot to point out that operating the evaporative cooler with one large vent 1) makes the house very dirty, 2) makes the house very humid, and 3) is so loud you can’t hear the TV if the cooler blower is on high speed.
Q: Our home had both central air conditioning and a roof evaporative cooler with one large vent in the living room. We used the evaporative cooler for about a week the first summer and then had it (and the ugly vent) removed. I’m willing to spend a little more to have a comfortable, clean home. Amanda in Prescott.
A: Amanda, thank you for completing last week’s column for me. You may not believe this, but I actually had a paragraph written that said some people don’t like evaporative coolers for the reasons you stated. But, alas, I ran out of room in that column. Since all the paragraphs in my columns are packed full of exciting, useful information, it was hard to pick one to leave out.
I tend to agree with you, I don’t like the high humidity in my house. 20 years ago, we had a home with no air conditioner, just an evaporative cooler. My printer used regular (stacked) copy paper, but the humidity made it come out looking like it was from a roll like those old fax machines.
Q: Randy, in your column today you stated having air conditioning and an evaporative cooler could save energy. I was a heating contractor for many years. An evaporative cooler will greatly increase the humidity inside a home. An air conditioner is a dehumidifier. So, every time you operate an evaporative cooler, it will take the air conditioner longer to cool the home because of the humid air. Constantly switching between the evaporative cooler and air conditioner is not energy efficient. We removed the evaporative cooler and installed ceiling fans in every room. We leave the thermostat at 78 and run all the fans all the time to save energy. Peter in Paulden.
A: Paulden Peter, you are totally correct. And totally incorrect. I recommended using the evaporative cooler when it was not monsoon season and not 95 degrees. I never recommended ‘constantly switching’ between the air conditioner and evaporative cooler. I agree, that would not be very efficient, or convenient.
However, leaving a fan on when no one is in the room wastes energy. Read any ceiling fan box in a big box store. They have an ‘efficacy’ label required by the government. Don’t get me started on that. The Government has not ruined enough appliances with silly regulations and requirements, now they’re attacking ceiling fans. The efficacy is, simply put, the airflow per watt, measured in Cubic Feet per Minute per Watt. This is kind of like the miles/per/gallon in your car. Except mph is useful, and ceiling fan efficacy is not.
But anyway, when you read a ceiling fan box, they all have a comment such as “Money Saving Tip: turn off fan when leaving room.” A fan cools you with a breeze. If it’s 100 degrees outside with no wind, you feel ‘hotter’ than if there is a breeze. The same is true with a ceiling fan. A fan does not lower the temperature of a room at all. It lowers your temperature by ‘blowing’ over you and removing heat.
And in case you want to argue with me, I must warn you that I have an infrared camera. I can show you how hot ceiling fan motors get, easily over 100 degrees. So technically operating a ceiling fan will slightly increase the temperature in a room. If you are in the room, the breeze will cool you. If you are not in the room, you are wasting energy. First, you’re wasting electricity by running a motor/fan that is not accomplishing anything in an empty room. Second, you are adding some heat to the room that the air conditioner will have to compensate for.
So let’s go back to that ‘efficacy’ thing again. Stating how much air is moved per watt is incomplete information. There are other things that affect how well a ceiling fan will work. It may be better to compare the efficacy with the cargo capacity of a truck rather than the miles per gallon. A small truck can haul a 1000-pound load and a large truck can haul 2000 pounds. Similarly with fans, size is very important. (Insert ‘size’ joke here). A larger room needs a larger fan. By larger we mean the blade diameter, a common one is 52 inch. But there are much smaller fans. A smaller fan will have a much lower efficacy rating. But in a small room, a small fan may be more efficient than a large fan. Using the truck analogy, if you never have to haul more than 1000 pounds why buy a truck that can haul 2000 pounds but costs more to operate?
And if you plan to install a fan near the ceiling in a room with 30-foot high ceilings, forget the miles per gallon. You want the big block turbo with dual exhaust to move as much air as possible, not the highest ‘airflow per watt’.
By Randy West on May 23, 2014
Q: Hi Randy. We moved here a few months ago and have a question for you. The home we bought has an evaporative cooler with a large supply vent in the hall, and it has central air conditioning that blows air out the vents in every room. There are also plastic vents in the ceilings in some rooms that open up when the evaporative cooler is running. We were wondering why a home would have both air conditioning and an evaporative cooler. Neighbors told us to use the evaporative cooler when it’s not humid, and to use the air conditioner when it is humid or very hot. We are not familiar with evaporative coolers; is this good advice?-Tom and Carole in Prescott.
A: I know that a lot of people are not familiar with evaporative coolers. The following paragraph is in the “maintenance” section in my reports. This will explain coolers to you (and save me some typing).
“Evaporative 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 at a hose faucet or near a water heater. A cooler consists of a float valve, similar to the one in a toilet tank, 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. 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). Every spring before use a cooler will need a thorough cleaning and check. Pads, pumps and float valves are maintenance items that occasionally need replacing. They are usually readily available and not major expenses. A cooler and the water line should be drained before winter. To drain a cooler you shut off the water and remove a plug in the bottom of the unit. You should also drain the water line by removing the line from the cooler, and then removing the line at the valve (use a bucket if needed to catch the water). Most people cover rooftop units during the winter months. If your evaporative cooler has one or two supply vents in the home, slightly opening a window in a room will help circulate cool air to that room.”
So I hope this explains how coolers work. As far as your neighborly advice, it is correct that evaporative coolers will not work well when it is humid. The water will not evaporate off (and cool) the pads, so you basically get outside temperature and humidity air blowing into the home.
Many evaporative coolers in our area have a single large supply vent, usually in a hall. This obviously will not cool every room as well as a supply vent in every room. A cooler will blow a lot of air into a home, so some air needs to get out for the cooler to work properly. The comment above notes that opening a window in a room without a supply vent will ‘pull’ cool air into that room. But even if the evaporative cooler has multiple supply vents, you still have to open some windows and let some air out. Imagine blowing air into a plastic bag. Once the bag gets ‘full’, you cannot blow any more air into it. If you don’t let air out of the home, the evaporative cooler cannot blow more cool air into the home.
Those ceiling vents in some rooms you mentioned are intended to allow air out. When the evaporative cooler is operating and the house is being ‘pressurized’, these vents will open and allow air to escape through the attic. Having several of these ‘exhaust vents’ in different rooms will improve the distribution and efficiency of the evaporative cooler.
Common sense says that discharging the interior air through the attic should cool the attic a little, which will also help cool the home. I sometimes wonder about blowing humid air into an attic. Proper construction takes measures to keep attics dry, for example, all interior exhaust fans should be routed to the exterior and there should be attic vents on the exterior walls and/or roof. So how wise is it to blow humid air into an attic? However, I see the ceiling ‘exhaust’ fans frequently in homes with evaporative coolers. I am assuming (yes, I know what that means) that since you only operate an evaporative cooler when the outside humidity is very low you are not causing high humidity levels in the attic.
Operating an evaporative cooler costs much less than operating a central air conditioner. An evaporative cooler has a blower and a small pump. The blower does not use a lot of electricity, and the pump very little. A central air conditioner has a blower (usually in the furnace) and a 240-volt compressor, which uses much more electricity.
An evaporative cooler will not work in high humidity, and will not cool as well as an air conditioner in very hot weather. So having both an evaporative cooler and an air conditioner is a nice feature. In dry, moderately hot weather, you can save money by using the evaporative cooler. But when it gets too hot or humid you have the central air conditioner.
By Randy West on May 9, 2014
Hi Randy: The manufacturer of my new electric water heater says additional insulation (fiberglass blanket) isn’t necessary. Other articles on this subject say otherwise. What is your recommendation? Also, does the code require a conduit for the 240-volt wire that connects to the top of my tank? – Bob Gordon, Kirkland.
A: You stated your water heater was new and electric. Most newer water heaters are well-insulated. And electric water heaters tend to lose less heat through the skin than gas models. I do not consider blankets necessary on new electric water heaters. It would probably only save you pennies a month, unless your water heater is outside in the shade on the north side of the house. I have heard that some manufacturers will void the warranty if a blanket is installed. I have not verified this, but it is not unbelievable to me. I have heard of appliance manufacturers voiding the warranty for other reasons that obviously had nothing to do with the defect or failure.
Now as far as conduit, you used that four-letter word that home inspectors avoid (code). I prefer to refer to manufacturer’s specifications. You can look in the manual for your new water heater and see what they recommend. My inspections are part performance and part common sense (and yes, all right, part code). I assume there is NM wiring to your water heater. NM is non-metallic sheathed wire, commonly referred to by the brand name ‘Romex’. Romex is susceptible to physical damage. You should not see Romex unless you venture into your attic or crawlspace, which most normal people don’t do very often.
However, here comes that common sense part. If the wire to your water heater is not really susceptible to physical damage, it may not be a concern. Very often in manufactured homes there is Romex wiring to the water heater. Manufactured homes are built to FHA standards, not “code.” And the water heater is usually in a “dedicated” closet. There is no room for anything else in the closet, so the wire is not likely to get damaged from someone hanging their 50 horsepower weed-eater near the wire. So exposed Romex is not a problem just because it’s exposed.
However, the Romex needs to be secured to the water heater, and I have seen Romex at water heaters damaged by over-tightening a cable clamp. Also, technically there should be a ground wire connection visible at the water heater.
So to finally and likely insufficiently answer your question, I prefer to see some type of flexible conduit at a water heater, but exposed NM wire is not necessarily a concern if installed properly.
Next question: The purchase agreement to buy a home states the seller has to “warrant” specific items, including leaking faucets, leaking landscape features, outdoor sprinkler leaks, leaking tub diverter valve, air conditioner below manufacturers specs on splits, windows don’t open/don’t stay up/don’t lock, malfunctioning pool light, GFCI outlets, ceiling fans, and reverse osmosis water filters not functioning. Steve Karstens emailed me this list, and wanted to know if home inspectors are required to inspect these items. Apparently, there has been some discussion of this in the Realtor community.
Here’s my usual concise, accurate and definitive answer: Yes; and no. Inspectors have to report on windows, ceiling fans, leaking faucets and diverter valves (these change the water from the tub spigot to the showerhead). I report on the air conditioner split- this is referring to the temperature differential, a good way to check if an air conditioner is operating properly. But home inspectors are not required to report on temperatures, and some do not. I would not report on pool lights, water filters, or landscape features.
Warranted means the seller has to ‘guarantee’ these items are working. I’m not a Realtor or attorney, I’m just a simple home inspector. But some of these “warranted” items are beyond the scope of a home inspection, and would seem to be beyond the scope of most homeowner’s knowledge. A homeowner likely knows if a window doesn’t open or lock, or if the bathroom faucet leaks. A homeowner would know if the air conditioner is not working. But to most homeowners the air conditioner is working if it comes on, doesn’t sound like a jet landing in the back yard and blows out cool air. How many homeowners have the equipment to check the temperature differential on an air conditioner?
In my reports, I state water filters cannot be tested during a home inspection. I will report if a reverse osmosis filter is leaking (they’re usually under the kitchen sink). But to me, “functioning” means it’s actually filtering the water, and the only way to verify that would be to take a water sample to a lab.
What surprised me are the contract overrides the Sellers Disclosure form that sellers have to provide buyers. So if a seller discloses that he never used the reverse osmosis filter and has no idea if it works or how to use it, he still has to ‘warrant’ it, and the buyer can ask him to repair it.
Home inspectors are regulated by the Board of Technical Registration, and we have a Standards of Practice that states what we do and do not have to inspect. The Standards also say we can exceed the standards, such as testing the air conditioner temperature differential. The Standards are the minimum we must do. Inspectors are not bound by (and don’t see) the real estate purchase agreement, so it’s very possible the home inspector will not be inspecting everything the seller is required to warrant.
By Randy West on April 25, 2014
I have had several questions recently regarding electrical wiring, panels, breakers, outlets, etc. Some of these I’ve written about before, but not for several years. I have greatly summarized the questions so I have adequate space for my typically long, wordy and sometimes irrelevant answers.
From a real estate agent: “Why do inspectors mention ‘undersized breakers’ but make no recommendation, but call ‘oversized breakers’ a major defect?”
Well, let’s say there is 20 amp (12 gauge copper) wire to your bathrooms, which are on the same circuit. That circuit should have a 20 amp circuit breaker to protect it. Now let’s say you have a house full of family and guests. It’s a little early for Christmas, so maybe someone’s getting married. There are two girls in each bathroom. Each girl is using some of those electric appliances I see in bathrooms, such as hair dryers, curler heaters, mascara installers, ear lobe cleaners, eyeball polishers, etc. With four of these appliances in use at the same time, there are more than 20 amps going through the wires. Without a circuit breaker, or if the circuit breaker is too large, the wires will melt and start a fire. So an “oversized” circuit breaker is a major defect because it’s a fire hazard.
Now if the circuit breaker was only 15 amp, but the wire/circuit was 20 amp, there is no safety concern. The worst thing that can happen is the circuit breaker will trip off before the girls can turn on all four appliances.
Now before you start sending me emails accusing me of being sexist, let’s be totally honest. I’ve literally inspected 10,000 bathrooms. Men may have up to two electrical appliances in a bathroom (but often none); they may use an electric razor or electric toothbrush. Women have a six-way adapter in their outlet and six appliances plugged in. Most men can only identify one or two of these appliances.
So, an oversized breaker may not trip off when needed, resulting in a fire hazard. An undersized breaker may trip off when the circuit is not actually overloaded, resulting in an inconvenience (to go find the panel and reset the breaker). And the same thing is true for the electrical service (coming into the home) and main breaker. If there is a 200 amp service and a 200 amp main breaker in a 100 amp panel, it is possible that more than 100 amps could go through the panel and something bad could happen. But if there is a 100 amp service and 100 amp breaker in a 200 amp panel, the worse that can happen is the main breaker will trip off.
The next question also came from a real estate agent, wanting to know why inspectors test and recommend GFCI protection in older homes but not AFI protection. A quick summary: GFCI stands for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter. In most homes the GFCI protection is provided by GFCI outlets, which have a “test” and “reset” button. These are shock-preventing outlets, and are found in kitchens, bathrooms, garages, and the exterior (and a few other places). GFCI has been required in some locations since the 1970s.
AFI stands for Arc Fault Interrupter, which is a fire preventer. These have been required on bedroom circuits for about 12 years. Arc fault protection is provided by AFI circuit breakers in the panel. These breakers have a “test” button just like a GFCI breaker. There is usually one AFI breaker for each bedroom, although it’s also common to have one AFI breaker for two secondary bedrooms.
So, why do home inspectors test and recommend upgrading to GFCI protection, but not AFI protection? The simplest answer is that Arizona specifically requires us to test GFCIs, but not AFIs. And there is a reason for this. GFCI protection is easy to test for. GFCI testers are only a few dollars and readily available. Testing the GFCI protection will shut off power to all kitchen, bath and garage outlets. So the seller may find a coffee maker clock flashing “12:00” when they get home. GFCI protection is easy to provide/install where needed. If you have an older home, you can install a GFCI breaker, or a single GFCI outlet, which will protect all the kitchen or garage outlets.
AFI protection is only required on bedroom circuits (so far, that’s changing). And AFI protection can only be provided by an AFI breaker. So my policy, like many other inspectors, is to test AFI breakers in a vacant home. But I do not test them in an occupied home because it will shut off all power to all the bedrooms. I may be turning off alarm clocks or VCR timers (all right, DVR timers). I often have not been in the home when I inspect an electrical panel – I could be turning off an aquarium or the seller’s oxygen, which would be a little more inconvenient than your DVR not recording your favorite show.
And it is much more difficult to add AFI protection to an older home. You can install GFCI outlets anywhere. In newer homes AFI protection is required for the entire bedroom, which includes all lights and outlets. So most newer homes have a circuit that is only for a bedroom. But in older homes, a circuit may be for some of the bedroom outlets and some of the living room outlets. Or the bedroom lights could be on one circuit, and the outlets on another. So you could end up installing several AFI breakers and still not have full AFI protection in every bedroom.
As usual, I ran out of room before I ran out of words. I’ll have to finish the AFI discussion next time.
By Randy West on April 11, 2014
In my last column, I replied to a letter from someone who was upset after his home was inspected. The inspector tested the GFCI outlet (with the “test” and “reset” button) in the bathroom and the outlet would not reset. So there was no power in either bathroom, and the inspector did not let anyone know.
The question was: if a home inspector breaks something, is he/she required to pay for it?
As with many things in my profession, there is no single correct answer. Here was part of my answer:
“There is no rule stating a home inspector has to fix things if he breaks them. I like to think that most inspectors are professional and would. I don’t believe there is a Registrar of Contractors rule stating that a plumber or electrician is required to fix something he damages in your home, but a professional certainly would.”
I then told one of my “war stories,” when I pulled on some wall cabinets in a garage and they came off the wall. It was all I could do to hold them above a sink faucet, until enough paint cans fell out that I could safely lower the cabinets. I received quite a few emails after that column. Most, of course, agreed with me. But not all. Following are emails and my replies to a reader named Adele.
“Randy, of course the registrar of contractors requires a licensed contractor to fix what he damages. If inspectors are not required to fix what they damage, I for one will not have one in my house. It is the contractor’s liability whether licensed or not and I would hope this includes inspectors to repair or replace what they damage in your home. If you receive payment for service you are automatically liable for any damage due to your service. This is the law. One other thing. If those cans of paint broke open and damaged the floor you would have been liable.”
Adele, I think you missed the point of the column. I agree that if an inspector, or any professional, damages a home they should be liable. But that is not the law. There is nothing in the BTR rules that states if I back into a garage door, I need to fix it. If I did back into a garage door I would of course pay to have it fixed. But say I’m inspecting a vacant home. I press the button to open the overhead door. Halfway up it stops. The 20-year-old opener decides to die right then. By state law, I have to operate overhead door openers. So did I damage it? It would have failed the next time the button was pushed, I just happened to be that person. It would cost me more than my inspection fee to have the opener replaced. And E&O insurance would not cover it. There were no Errors or Omissions – I was doing exactly what the state requires, and what every other home inspector would do. What if I turned on the central air conditioner and it does not work? Should I have to pay for a $2,000 compressor?
So you see, there is a gray area here. Arizona requires me to test GFCI outlets and overhead door openers. If something is not or stops working, and all I did was what a homeowner would do. I did not damage the home.
I have damaged things, which I’ve admitted in this column over the years. I turned on an oven once and melted a bunch of Tupperware plastic bowls. I knocked a vase off a windowsill once (the seller claimed it was an heirloom that had been in the family for generations, even though there was a Walmart sticker on the bottom). And I immediately told the owners of the home and wrote them a check.
“Randy, if you backed into my garage door you are liable. The courts make you liable. It may not be an ROC requirement but it is common law. I understand what you are saying about turning things on that do not work. Of course you are not liable. But if you pull on a cabinet full of paint and it falls and breaks the sink and floor, you are liable. I know you think inspectors are not legally liable for physical damage but legally they are liable.”
Adele, I have to respectfully disagree with just about everything you say. Errors and Omissions insurance pays for, well, errors and omissions. It will only cover errors or omissions in my job. The ROC can only enforce ROC rules against contractors. If a contractor does not perform per his contract, call the ROC. But if you call the ROC and say a plumber backed into your fence, I don’t think they will be sending out an investigator.
And when you say it’s “the law” and “the courts make you liable,” what you are saying is you can sue a contractor or inspector. Of course you can. This is America. You can sue anyone for anything. You can sue the restaurant if the coffee is too hot. Or too cold. But I assure you there is no Arizona statute that says if someone spills paint on your garage floor he has to pay to clean it. The police will not come out and say, “You spilled paint on her floor – pay up!” If the contractor refuses to pay for it, you only choice is to sue. And no one can accurately predict who will win a lawsuit (except, of course, the lawyers – they always win).
By Randy West on March 28, 2014
Q: We had our home inspected last week. Apparently, when the home inspector tested the GFCI outlet, it would not come back on. So he left us with no power in either bathroom. We found out the next morning when we were getting ready for work. It was very aggravating to not have power in our master bath, and then find out there was no power in the other bathroom either. If a home inspector breaks something, isn’t he required to fix it?-Matt in Chino Valley
A: Good question. First, a quick explanation: The GFCI Matt is referring to is the outlet in the bathroom with the “test” and “reset” buttons. It is very common for the GFCI outlet in one bathroom to protect the outlets in another bathroom. Or for a GFCI in the kitchen or garage to protect all outlets in that room. So if a GFCI in your home stops working, likely other outlets will stop working as well.
There is no rule stating a home inspector has to fix things if he breaks them. I like to think that most inspectors are professional and would. I don’t believe there is a Registrar of Contractors rule stating that a plumber or electrician is required to fix something he damages in your home, but a professional certainly would.
However, here comes the gray area. Did the home inspector actually break something? Inspectors are required by Arizona to test all GFCIs. It’s not like he backed into your fence with his truck. He was doing something he was required by law to do – test a GFCI outlet. The GFCI was going to fail the next time it was tested; it just happened to be the home inspector that did it.
So, in my opinion, the inspector is not required or liable to fix something that he is required to test. A GFCI outlet, or a furnace or air conditioner, can fail at any time. If an inspector tries to turns on the furnace and it does not work, should he have to replace the furnace? I can’t imagine what home inspector insurance premiums would be if we were required to repair or replace everything we found that was not working.
Having said that, it was rather unprofessional for the inspector to not leave a note or inform you or your real estate agent that you had no power in either bath.
I’ve been getting emails lately saying my columns are getting too “serious” again. So, here’s another stupid mistake I made. I have admitted most of my stupid mistakes over the years in this column. I do want you readers to know that I make most stupid mistakes only once.
Part of my job description is to make sure everything is secure. So I “shake” fireplace mantles, cabinets, light fixtures, etc. I don’t shake them hard – I just give them a little tug to make sure they are well secured. A couple years ago, I inspected a home with new cabinets in the kitchen. The old cabinets were in the garage, something I have seen several times. There was even a sink in the garage.
As usual, I pulled a little on the overhead cabinets to make sure they were tight. The cabinet directly over the sink came off the wall and started to fall onto the sink faucet. I knew if the cabinet fell on the sink it would break the faucet, likely resulting in water spraying all over the garage. So I grabbed the cabinet. Which was heavy. In fact, it was very heavy. It was so heavy I was having trouble holding it over the sink. It was so heavy I was wondering if I was getting old. Then the cabinet leaned toward me a little and the doors swung open.
The good news is I was not getting old and weak. The bad news is there were about 50 paint cans in the cabinet. The good news is the cabinet was getting lighter. The bad news is this was because the gallon paint cans were rapidly falling out of the cabinet.
The look on my face must have been priceless. On the one hand, my brain wanted my hands to try to grab as many paint cans as I could before they fell out of the cabinet. On the other hand my brain knew that if I let go of the cabinet it would fall on the faucet, definitely breaking the faucet and possibly breaking the cabinet or sink. So basically, my brain and hands froze, and I silently stood there while a few dozen cans of paint fell out of the cabinet and rolled around the floor. I was not completely frozen. My head was turning. First, I watched paint cans fall out of the cabinet. Then I watched them rolling around the floor, waiting for some to come open and start leaking paint all over the floor (somehow they all stayed closed).
After 10 or 15 seconds (which seemed like minutes), the cabinet got light enough that I could set it down on the counter next to the sink. Then I collected all the cans and put them back in the cabinet.
This story is relevant to the question from Matt. I did not try to secure the cabinet back to the wall. But I did leave a note for the sellers telling them the cabinet had come off the wall. I was tempted to put in the note that if you intend to store 500 pounds of paint (or anything) in a wall cabinet, you will need more than a couple of 1-inch screws.
By Randy West on March 14, 2014
Daily Courier, February 28, 2014
Question: We are moving to Prescott this summer. We are looking at homes and will be needing a home inspection. Our last inspection was in Washington, D.C., a few years ago. We found a website where we posted the age and size of the home and home inspectors bid for the job. It was fun watching them bid against each other, and we ended up with a great discount on a quality inspector.
We would never hire an inspector that a real estate agent recommended – there is an obvious conflict of interest. So we are looking for a bidding website for Prescott home inspectors. Are you a member of such a website? Or do you know of such a website or referral company? Any advice you have would be appreciated.-Tim and Alice.
Answer: Of course I have advice. And you can certainly have it – I’m not using it. I’m not sure how much you will appreciate it, though.
As a home inspector for more than 21 years, I encourage you to never use any type of bidding website or company to choose a home inspector. Professionals do not bid out their services; their fees are based on their service, experience, knowledge, etc. I would never choose a mechanic or accountant who is willing to bid out his or her services. The old adage is very often true: You get what you pay for. If you hired the lowest bidder, I would be very surprised if you hired a “quality inspector.”
I know many professional home inspectors, and none of them bid out their services. I get several emails a month from referral and bidding companies requesting that I pay to join. In my opinion, only those who are desperate for work would join a company or network that is going to ask them for money, and then ask them to lower their fees.
I don’t even trust the referral websites that charge the users. I chuckle every time I hear, “You can’t pay to be on our site.” It may be true that you can’t pay to get on their site, but once you get a few good reviews, they hound the heck out of you to pay for a “priority listing.” I get mail, email and phone calls. Once I told them that I was pretty busy during the summer and did not need to pay to advertise. They threatened to take me off their list, since I did not “need their referrals.” I asked if that was fair to their paying members, who were expecting honest reviews from other members. In my opinion, many of these sites start out with good intentions, but get so big the corporate/profit mentality takes over.
Now if you did not like that advice, then you certainly won’t like this advice. You stated you would never hire a home inspector that your real estate agent recommended because of the “obvious conflict of interest.” Maybe this is a problem in Washington (unethical behavior in D.C. – who would have guessed?). But I’m not aware of it being a problem anywhere in Arizona. An honest, professional agent will only refer other professionals that they feel are honest and professional. I cannot refer contractors on homes I inspect. But friends frequently ask me for the name of a good plumber or electrician. Whomever I refer is going to reflect back on me. So I try to only refer contractors or professionals that I have personal experience with. I survive on referrals. Real estate agents also survive on referrals, so a full-time, long-term agent will only refer professionals they have confidence in.
Now to be fair, I am probably biased about this. Most of my referrals come from real estate agents. But that is the case for every home inspector I know.
There is an inspection company in a large midwest city that sends me a monthly newsletter. They claim they get very few referrals from real estate agents. In fact, they proudly proclaim that most real estate agents do not like their company. They infer that any inspector who gets agent referrals is not a professional. I disagree with this, and with almost everything else they say. I have checked the box to unsubscribe to their newsletter several times, but it doesn’t work. I think they know if they send it, I will read it, even knowing I’ll probably get upset.
This company proudly proclaims they are “advocates for the buyers.” They claim they always “save their client more money than the inspection fee.” I feel this is totally inappropriate. This means they have never found a home that was in very good condition? I interpret this as meaning they “guarantee” their clients that they will find things wrong. That does not sound very honest to me, and I think most buyers want an honest assessment of the home. And I can understand if real estate agents are hesitant to refer any type of professional that “guarantees” they will find problems.
One month, this newsletter said that I was a poor inspector because every time I inspect a condo, I don’t inspect all the common areas. After all, the buyer is paying for the use of these areas, and there are usually association fees to pay for the maintenance and upkeep of these areas. So if I inspect a 900-square-foot condo for a client, I should also inspect all common areas, including the swimming pool, hot tub, 4,000-square-foot clubhouse, all sidewalks, etc. I don’t feel this is inappropriate. I feel it’s absolutely absurd. I would have to charge $3,000 to inspect a 900-square foot home. Of course, once I inspected the pool and clubhouse, I could simply charge future clients the extra $2,700.
By Randy West on February 28, 2014
Daily Courier, February 14, 2014
Every home inspector in Arizona, and many across the country, know the name Cole Greenberg. So do most of the real estate agents in Arizona, since Cole taught many real estate classes and wrote a column in the Arizona Journal of Real Estate and Business for many years. Cole served as president of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), as president of the Arizona chapter of ASHI, and as president of the New York Metro chapter before he moved to Sedona in 1992. He was involved in many other organizations. One of them was Keep Sedona Beautiful. He had a large sign in the side window of his SUV saying “Keep Sedona Beautiful – Get Out!” Typical Cole.
I went to Cole’s memorial service last week. Many people spoke, and everyone had funny stories. Anyone outside the church must have thought there was a stand-up comedian contest taking place. Even the rabbi had a funny story. She said when she told Cole she was buying a house, Cole informed her he was inspecting it for her. When she met him at the house she was excited, and standing in the living room she said how much she loved this room with all the windows and skylights. Cole looked up at the skylights, then looked at her and said, “How many holes should there be through a roof? Zero!” I can imagine Cole saying this.
I met Cole in 1993 when I was an ASHI candidate. Cole was teaching an introductory class for Arizona ASHI. Everyone in the room, except Cole, was a candidate. As a candidate you cannot use the ASHI logo or advertise membership. Cole told us we were a class of “biped mammals.” The point he was making was once you paid your money to ASHI, you were a candidate. You may not have performed a single inspection yet. Cole told us we cannot tell real estate agents or clients that we are affiliated with ASHI. Someone asked Cole what we should do if someone asked us if we were ASHI members. Cole said we should not say anything. I spoke up and said that’s ridiculous. We are certainly allowed to answer questions. I said that when I’m asked about ASHI, I explain that I am a candidate, I have passed all the ASHI tests, I have had my reports reviewed by ASHI, and I am working towards full membership. Cole said that as merely a biped mammal I cannot say that. I told Cole in my best sarcastic voice (and I have a very good sarcastic voice) that from now on if anyone asked me about ASHI, I’d tell them “I can tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” Most of the class chuckled, and Cole said, “That will do”.
Immediately after the class, Cole came straight to me, shook my hand, and said, “Boy, I think you’re going to make it!” And that was the beginning of a great friendship. Cole became a mentor for me. I called him many times with questions about an inspection.
In the 1990s, a bill was introduced to the Arizona House to regulate home inspectors. It was a very poor bill. If it had passed, I would have found another profession. I was the only ASHI member in Prescott at the time, so most of the other inspectors were not aware of this bill. I called every home inspector in Prescott, promised them a free lunch (the only sure way to get home inspectors to show up), and we discussed this bill. I said we ought to write a letter to our representatives, Sue Lynch and Carol Springer. I just happened to have a letter written, so we all signed it. I went to Phoenix and read my letter to a Commerce Committee meeting. I told the committee that this letter was signed by every inspector in Prescott, and was basically most of Yavapai County talking. After the meeting (the bill failed), I was walking back to my truck when someone grabbed me and pulled me under a shade tree. It was Cole, and he said, “Boy, you look like leadership material.” So started my “career” in Arizona ASHI leadership, which was very rewarding, mostly due to the lifelong friends I have made.
At a convention in Austin a few years ago, our Arizona group walked to the bars after the classes. I am too old to enjoy bars where you can’t talk to the person next to you, so I yelled that I was going back to the hotel. Cole followed me out, amid some comments like “It’s past the old folks bedtime.” When everyone came back from the bars at 3 in the morning, Cole and I were still sitting at the hotel lobby bar debating politics and religion. When our group said they were going to bed, Cole said, “I’m really sorry, but I’m enjoying this talk with Randy so you’ll have to tuck yourselves in tonight.”
Cole and I could talk about anything. I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about, but once I said, “You would have to agree with me that….” Cole replied “Sure, I could agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong.” Once he told me the only way I could be a bigger fool is to gain 10 pounds. And once I heard him say he was a recovering politician. Asked whether he was fully recovered, Cole said, “Not yet. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and just have to lie to someone.”
Typical Cole. I intended to write just a paragraph about Cole, and it turned into the entire column. Typical Randy.
By Randy West on February 14, 2014
Daily Courier, January 17, 2014
Recently a client hired me to inspect an old home that was well outside city limits. After we arranged the inspection, she emailed me and said she was looking forward to my report to confirm that the old house complied with zoning requirements and current building code.
I immediately emailed her back and told her the inspection report was not going to answer those questions. There is a difference between “zoning” and “building code.” Most home inspectors consider “zoning” a four-letter word. I don’t know of any home inspector who checks zoning requirements and compliance. If there is one somewhere, I’m sure he charges a hefty fee for this service.
The zoning is what the county or city allows on the property. Zoning can be residential, agricultural, commercial, etc. The zoning will state what is allowed on the property, such as setbacks from the property lines, if you can have camels or platypuses and how many, if you can operate a farm or brothel, etc. The zoning may restrict the type or size of the building, for example, single-family home, multi-family, commercial building, etc.
So it would be virtually impossible for a home inspector to check zoning compliance on a one-time visit to a property. First, inspectors would have to know the zoning of the property. And they would need to know all the requirements for each type of zoning. And they would need to know that for each municipality in their area.
And even knowing all that would not be enough. It is possible to get a “variance,” or an exemption from a zoning requirement. I have not gone through this process in Yavapai County, but I did in my previous life as a builder. It required filling out some forms for the county (and of course giving them some money – quite a bit of money, as I recall). In some cases, I was required to post signs on the property stating what the variance was for.
A good example is a variance I requested for building a large deck on an existing home. The deck would be closer to one property line than allowed. So we had to post signs and give all the neighbors a chance to comment on the variance. When no neighbors objected, I was granted the variance and built the deck. But someone looking at that home today would not know that a legal variance was obtained without checking all the county records.
So as a home inspector I would never comment on what the property zoning is, or what may or may not be allowed there. That’s not to say I wouldn’t wonder about it if I saw a couple of cows or several ostriches in a backyard in Prescott Valley.
That email also mentioned knowing if the building was in compliance with the “building code.” Most home inspectors also consider “code” a four-letter word (actually, I would hope they all do). You cannot do a “code” inspection with a flashlight and screwdriver on an existing building. A home inspector cannot tell you how thick the concrete slab is, how deep the foundation is, if the sheathing or drywall or roof shingles are properly nailed, etc. A code compliance inspection on an existing building usually requires some degree of destructive testing. I’m not sure what a homeowner would do if a home inspector showed up a with sledgehammer and chainsaw, but I’m pretty sure the inspector would not get in.
And to complicate it further, the email I received referred to “current building code.” A building is usually in full compliance with the building codes that were in effect when it was built. A building is not required to be upgraded every three years to current code. Imagine buying a 1968 GTO, and when you go to license it the DMV says you have to install airbags and anti-lock brakes. It would be ridiculously expensive to do this. It would be just as difficult to upgrade older homes to some current standards.
If you pull a permit for improvements (on a building, not a GTO), you may be required to upgrade to some current codes. For example, if you remodel your kitchen, you will be required to put in those pesky shock-preventing GFCI outlets. And if you replace your deck, those 12-inch-wide openings in the railing will have to be changed to current requirements (to prevent small children from falling).
Before I talk myself out of business, I need to say that a home inspection is still a valuable service. I consider a home inspection part “code,” part “performance,” and part common sense. A home inspector may not be able to tell if the right size and type of nails were used for the siding or roof shingles. But the inspector will notice the result if the wrong nails were used. For example, rusty nails can indicate that galvanized nails were not used. And more shingles in the neighbor’s yard than on the roof can indicate the nails may not have been quite long enough.
But even if a home inspector does see a code violation, he often does not refer to it as such. I often refer to the manufacturer’s specifications or requirements. And if I can’t do that, I will use some euphemisms. A few weeks ago, I found a deck that was not properly built or secured to a home. The deck was wobbly and bouncy. I did not refer to code or manufacturer’s requirements. Instead, I commented that “some liberties have been taken with good framing technique at the rear deck”.
By Randy West on January 17, 2014
My last column was about energy-efficient buildings, and the mounting evidence of concerns with these buildings. I received quite a few emails on that column. Some were thanking me for information they had not heard anywhere else; some told me I should not be so cynical.
I will admit that I am cynical. I’m 50 (OK, 50-plus). I remember hearing that our (mankind’s) new technology is destroying the planet, and that we are facing a new ice age. For those of you under 40, I am not making this up. This was a big concern in the ’70s. The cause was supposed to be auto exhaust and aerosols. Almost everything was in a spray can back then – deodorant, hairspray, household cleaners, air fresheners, etc. In public schools, we were told how we were destroying the planet by using deodorant in a can.
So for decades I stopped using deodorant and bought parkas every time they were on sale. And now we’re concerned about global warming. I was debating this with one of my less cynical friends, and told him there is evidence the planet is on another of her cooling cycles. His reply: Global warming can cause cool weather. He knew this was true, but could not explain how destroying the ionosphere and letting more evil sun rays in could also cause cooling. I offered my friend a good deal on some parkas, but he declined.
Of course, the alarmists have that covered now. Since Mother Earth doesn’t always accommodate their fears about a pending ice age or global warming, they now use the term “climate change.” They’re pretty safe, because the climate changes in every place I’ve ever lived, and they can always say, “See, we told you so.”
And what about sweetener? First sugar was bad for me, and I had to use the pink stuff. Then the pink stuff was bad, and I had to use the blue stuff. Then the blue stuff may not be good, and we used the yellow stuff. Now everything artificial is bad so I need to use sugar again.
Now there’s some controversy about the new APS (Arizona Public Service) electric meters. These meters send out a “radio” signal, so they don’t require a meter-reader to read the meter every month. As usual, there are people that don’t like the new technology.
Some people claim that this is Uncle Sam invading our privacy, even though it’s not Uncle Sam but Cousin APS. With the new meter, APS can tell if you’re using unusual amounts of electricity, and when. So if you’re running grow lights all night for a marijuana farm, or using lots of power for that time machine you’ve been working on, APS will know something unusual is happening. I’m not doing anything like that, so I’m not too concerned that APS will know about my power usage.
Others claim that there are health effects from the transmissions from the meters. I know these people mean well, but I take this with a grain of salt. I mean, just walk down the street and look at all the transmissions you’re wading through. Four out of five of the closest people are talking on cellphones. Two out of five of the closest buildings have satellite TV antennas. Half the nearby cars have GPS or manufacturer monitoring systems installed. There are automatic doors at nearby businesses. There must be some FM and AM radios signals migrating through your muscles. There are police radios, walkie-talkies, baby monitors, and cordless phones. And how many times have I used my truck remote door un-locker – I must be getting cancer in that thumb by now.
I happened to be home when APS came up my driveway to install the new meters. They said I could decline it, and even told me that some people are concerned about the health risks. I said, “Put ’em in.” Now APS will not have to come up my driveway and make my dogs bark once a month. I consider that a bigger invasion of privacy than APS knowing that I set my thermostat a couple degrees higher last month.
One of my biker buddies told me that APS came up his driveway, too, and he told them not to install the new meter. I asked why, because he doesn’t seem the type to worry about one more radio transmission traveling through his living room. He had the only good reason I’ve heard for keeping the old meter. He likes flirting with the cute gal who reads his meter.
Now there may be something to the health concerns from these meters. Only long-term studies can determine this. I’ve heard these meters have been in use for some time in other cities and countries. I’m sure if there was any correlation between the use of these meters and children being born with three arms, someone would have let us know by now. I think some people may not like the new meters simply because they don’t like change.
Speaking of change, there are some changes coming to the Courier. My next column will appear in the Courier’s new pull-out real estate section, which will publish on the first and third Saturday of each month beginning Jan. 21. I am not too cynical about this change. The pull-out section will have lots of new information. However, the cover will only be half as large and you may not see my smiling face on it. (Actually, for the last couple years it’s only half my smiling face. I never asked why they cut off the top and bottom of my photo, but it never bothered me since they actually cropped out most of the gray hair.) But you will find my smiling half-face inside.
By Randy West on January 5, 2014
Daily Courier, January 3, 2013
I have clients meet me at the end of my inspection and there are a few good reasons for this. I need to be able to concentrate on my job with as few distractions as possible. No matter where I am, at an exterior wall or in the attic, I’m looking at many different components. And they all tie together at the end.
Is that crack in the stucco a concern? Maybe, but I won’t know for sure until I complete the entire inspection. If there are cracks on the interior wall in this area, or all the doors in this wall are out of square, that crack could be from some structural movement of the home. If there are moisture stains on the interior wall below that stucco crack, water could be getting into the exterior wall. If there is loose flashing at the eave above the crack, it could indicate a roof leak.
Of course, most often it is just a common crack and not a concern. But I don’t want to start talking to clients until I have been in, out, up, down, over and under.
There are other reasons for having the clients meet me at the end of the inspection. I will take a couple breaks during an inspection and see if Gov. Jan Brewer or President Obama have returned my calls (I’m still waiting). I feel uncomfortable taking a break to return phone calls or eat a snack if there are clients waiting for me to finish.
Another reason is most normal people do not walk on roofs or slither through attics and crawlspaces. And most clients are normal people. This means they will be alone in the home while I’m crawling past the black widows under the house. I’m sure all my clients are honest and trustworthy, but it could be uncomfortable if the owners come home and find people in their living room and no home inspector in sight.
There are websites out there that advise homebuyers to accompany the inspector during the inspection. And there are home inspectors who work this way. I have an occasional potential client who wants to attend the entire inspection. Most understand after I explain my reasons, and tell them I will spend as much time as they desire walking around explaining items. If that doesn’t work, I tell them it’s “corporate policy.” That phrase seems to carry a lot of weight, which is kind of funny since I am the corporation.
If the sellers are home, I let them know right away that I will need privacy with the buyers when they arrive. If it’s nice out I usually talk to the clients outside or in the garage. Often the sellers will stay in one room so we can talk in the home. Sometimes the Realtors will ask the seller to leave during the inspection or at the end of the inspection when the buyers arrive. I don’t request this; I’ll be there several hours and I feel it’s kind of rude to ask people to leave their own home for half a day. But I do appreciate it when Realtors advise sellers to leave when the buyers are there. There are usually things inside the home I want to show the buyers, like how to operate the gas fireplace or whirlpool bathtub.
Occasionally the sellers are present when I talk to the buyers. I am not opposed to this, but sometimes the sellers don’t agree with my findings. Once I told the buyers that a toilet does not flush properly. The seller had all five of us cram into the bathroom to show us how to ‘operate’ the toilet: if you hold the handle down for exactly 4 seconds and then tap twice on the right side of the tank, the toilet will flush properly every time. I don’t know how I missed that.
Once I pointed at some ceiling stains and said these were likely from roof leaks because I found damaged shingles above this area. The seller said I was an alarmist. I asked him what I should say if I find ceiling stains directly below damaged roof shingles. He suggested that instead of saying the “the roof appears to be leaking over there,” I should say, “most of the roof does not leak.”
Another seller pulled out his inspection report from seven years ago and said he doesn’t have to fix anything that wasn’t on his report. If his inspector missed it seven years ago then it was not his responsibility.
Another time I was talking to the buyers at the kitchen counter. The seller, a 75-year-old woman, was sitting nearby at the dining room table. I had been talking for a half hour or so and she had not said a word. I told the buyers it was important to put a spark screen on the chimney for the wood-burning fireplace. The seller looked up and said, “My neighbor calls me and complains every time I light a fire.” We were all a little surprised and looked at her for a moment. Then I walked over to the dining room window and looked at the house behind hers. This house was much lower than hers; we were looking at the wood shingle roof. I asked if that was the neighbor, and she said, “Yes, every time I light a fire he calls me and tells me to put it out.” I could imagine the neighbor standing on his porch and watching hot embers fall on his wood shingle roof. I thought to myself that he was nicer than me; I’d probably be knocking on her front door with a fire extinguisher in my hand.
By Randy West on January 3, 2014