Susan West

Associate Broker

2013 

December 

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October 

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To paint, or not to paint, that is the question 

Daily Courier, December 20, 2013 

Question: Hi Randy. Nora and I hope that your holiday season is the best ever. I am writing you because I know that I can count on the straight scoop from you. My question is about painting stucco. My house is stucco and a painting company told me that it is normal practice to paint my type of house every 10 years or so. In New Mexico, where we moved here from, stucco was not painted so that it could “breath,” or at least I didn’t know of any that was painted. Is it normal practice to paint stucco here? 

Thank you for your time, Randy. Fred and Nora 

Answer: Fred and Nora, my answer may seem a little long, but this is a good question and I have a Courier column due… 

The actual question is whether it “is normal practice” to paint stucco here. Here, of course, means Prescott. This can actually be two questions – “can” you paint stucco and “should'” you paint stucco. 

You will find contractors and “experts” who recommend you never paint a stucco building, unless you absolutely have to. Reasons: The colored stucco is lower maintenance than paint. Once you paint, you now have a painted surface rather than a very low-maintenance stucco surface. Also, as the question noted, the stucco must “breath.” If you “seal” a stucco wall, and water does get behind the stucco, the water may have trouble getting out. Over the long term, this could cause moisture damage inside the wall, or possibly even that four-letter word (mold). What usually happens, however, is the paint fails. The paint will blister, bubble, chip, peel, etc. from the moisture trying to get out of the stucco walls. 

Now for reality – eventually stucco will need to be painted. It might fade unevenly. The young aspiring pro-ball players in the neighborhood may damage the stucco beyond practical repair with errant hits and passes. A malfunctioning NSA drone could crash into the stucco wall while trying to see through your window. Or, someone allergic to purple may buy the home. So if the question is “can I paint stucco,”, the answer is “yes.” 

If the question is “should I paint stucco,” the answer is not quite as clear. I would say do not paint the stucco until you ‘need’ to. But that “need” could be “physical,” e.g. from aging or damaged stucco. Or the need could be “mental,” e.g. from neighbors or a new wife who isn’t excited about your Arizona Cardinals red exterior color choice. 

So to (finally) answer your real question – yes, it is common to paint stucco here. We have had stucco homes we owned painted. But, you stated you were told it’s “normal practice to paint my type of house every 10 years or so.” I don’t know if I agree with that. I would say it’s ‘normal practice’ to paint a stucco home when it’s ‘needed’, but not on a time schedule. I “need” to change the oil in my truck every 5,000 miles, but I don’t “need” to paint it unless the paint is failing. Similar to a stucco house, “failing” can mean the paint on my truck is no longer waterproof, or it can mean the paint is so ugly I’m embarrassed to park in your driveway. So what I’m trying to say, in my typical digressing, long-winded way, is the painter should say you need paint because it’s failing somehow, not just because it’s 10 years old. My current stucco home was built in 2000, and other than the common cracks, the stucco is still in very good condition. 

If/when you do paint your stucco home, the choice of paint is very important. For many years, elastomeric paint was “the” paint to use on exterior stucco. This is because there are really only two types of stucco in Arizona – cracked and not cracked yet. Elastomeric paint is “flexible” and tends not to crack as quickly. Other benefits are elastomeric paint is easy to apply and very waterproof. 

Unfortunately, that waterproofing quality can be a disadvantage, too. As noted above, if any water does get inside the wall, it will want to get out. Which means the trapped water may get out by damaging the paint. If the trapped water cannot get out, over the long term it could cause problems inside the wall. 

Here is a link to an excellent Prescott Courier column from a few years ago regarding water entry in stucco walls. The column is regarding EIFS stucco (EIFS stands for “exterior insulation and finish system”), but the concept of “trapping” water in a painted stucco wall is very similar. 

http://www.dcourier.com/main.asp?SectionID=74&SubSectionID=114&ArticleID=82484 

So what paint to use? I spoke with a few local painting contractors and paint store experts, and they recommended a high quality acrylic latex paint. Common cracks may re-occur sooner than with elastomeric paint, but latex paint is better at allowing the walls to “breath,” as you called it. 

Well, this is my last column for 2013. Another year under our belts, so to speak (maybe that explains the larger belts in my closet). I receive a lot of email from this column. Some are questions, some are “attaboys,” some are suggesting I find another line of work, and some are suggesting I find another planet to live on. I want to thank everyone who has responded to this column. I appreciate all feedback, good and bad. So let me end the year like Fred and Nora: I hope everyone has a great holiday season and a fantastic 2014. 

By Randy West on December 20, 2013 

 

Whirlpool bathtubs are low-maintenance, but not no-maintenance 

Daily Courier, December 6, 2013 

I officially started my home inspection career on Jan. 1, 1993. One of the first homes I inspected was vacant, and had the largest whirlpool bathtub I had ever seen. It was a “bathtub” in a bathroom, but it was over 7 feet long and almost 4 feet wide. In fact, there were built-in pillows on both ends so two people could fit in side by side. My first thought when seeing the tub was “That’s cool!” My second thought was “it must take 200 gallons of water to fill that tub.” (Actually that was my third thought. My second thought was, after noticing the pillows on opposite ends, with two people in this tub, you would have your face right next to the other person’s feet. But at least their feet should be clean.) 

We were in a drought in ’93, so I chose to not fill this large bathtub. In my written report I stated I did operate the faucets/water and checked the drain stopper, but I did not fill the tub due to the current drought. I received a phone call from a very angry buyer: 

“I can’t believe you didn’t test that bathtub! That bathroom and whirlpool bathtub were the main reason we bought this house! How do we know if the bathtub works? I can’t believe you didn’t test that bathtub!” 

So, I went back out the next day, and filled and tested the whirlpool bathtub. And to this day, I have tested every whirlpool bathtub. Now home inspectors are regulated in Arizona, and we are required to inspect bathtubs (by the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors). This would include the whirlpool function. 

I wrote this column because I had a seller unhappy with me recently because I inspected his large whirlpool bathtub. His phone message went something like this: “I can’t believe you filled that whirlpool bathtub! Do you know how much water that took? Are you going to pay our water bill for this month? I can’t believe you filled that bathtub!” 

To answer his questions: no and no (I don’t know how much water his tub holds, and I’m not paying his water bill). And to answer a different question from someone else – the Standards do not require us to inspect “recreational facilities,” which includes swimming pools, hot tubs and spas. Some inspectors may inspect swimming pools and/or hot tubs. Most inspectors charge an extra fee for this. 

After seeing that giant whirlpool bathtub back in ’93, I started thinking about getting one for myself (a “regular” whirlpool tub, not a foot-smelling two-seater). I had a hot tub on a deck in a previous home, and kind of missed it. However, I did not miss the maintenance and cleaning. Keep in mind this was 20-plus years ago when hot tubs were more like swimming pools for elves. I know that newer hot tubs are lower maintenance. That previous house was also in the Colorado mountains, so I usually had to clear at least a few inches of snow off the hot tub cover before I could use it (sometimes a few feet). So I thought a large whirlpool tub was worth considering – hot swirling water on my sore back, but inside the heated and air-conditioned home, and of course almost no maintenance (compared to a 600-gallon hot tub in the back yard). 

So I started asking owners if they liked their whirlpool tubs. In 1993, whirlpool bathtubs were not nearly as common as they are today, so this was the first whirlpool bathtub for most of those I surveyed. There were a few who loved it and could not live without one now. And a few that had never used it. But the most common answer was something like this: “When we first moved in we used it a couple times a week. After about a month we were using it once a week. After about 6 months we used it once a month. After about a year we used it a couple times a year.” 

I stopped asking about whirlpool tubs many years ago, but I believe that answer is still true for some people. I say this because often I turn on the jets in a whirlpool bathtub and get some water about the color of eggnog. Sometimes I get black ‘debris’ shooting out the jets (chemical makeup unknown, and I don’t want to know, because I have to reach in that water to open the drain stopper). 

So to everyone with a whirlpool bathtub in their home – a whirlpool bathtub is “low-maintenance” but not “no maintenance.” Here is the comment that appears in my inspection report regarding a whirlpool bathtub (assuming it worked): 

“The whirlpool bathtub operated normally. Whirlpool tubs should be cleaned occasionally (usually monthly). Various cleaning products are recommended by different manufacturers. Generally, this involves filling the tub with warm water and running the jets for a few minutes with the recommend amount and type of cleaner. This keeps the jets and passageways clean and free of bacteria, algae, etc. Check with your bathtub manufacturer, or a spa dealer or supply store, for an appropriate cleaning product for this tub. Also, use caution with babies and small children in or around the tub when it is operating. The pump suction is strong at the inlet in the tub and may catch hair, clothes, etc., under water. Drowning is a potential danger under these circumstances.” 

This may be particularly good advice if you are having guests in for the holidays and have not used your whirlpool recently. It would be embarrassing if someone asked to use it and got particulated eggnog water out of the jets. 

By Randy West on December 6, 2013 

 

Randy rambles and whines about washers and woodstoves 

Daily Courier, November 22, 2013 

We moved last July. Our “new” home was built in 2000, but came with a year-old high efficiency washer and dryer. So we sold our 12-year-old washer and dryer, since we had been “eyeballing” the newer energy-efficient models anyway. 

Mistake! The new clothes washer takes 90 minutes on a “normal” cycle. Even a small size load on the “delicate” cycle takes over an hour. You can’t do several loads of laundry in one day, so we have to do some laundry during the week. 

And my wife is getting soap stains on her clothes. With the new washers, the lid is locked during the entire cycle. So you cannot partially fill it with water before adding soap and clothes, which allows the soap to dissolve better. 

The owner’s manual for the new washer says it spins faster and dries the clothes more, so the dryer takes less time. This may save energy, but it seems silly to boast about a shorter dryer time from a washer that takes 90 minutes for a regular load. Now, if we had two washers, that shortened drying time might come in handy. 

So,. we’re watching the ads for an old-fashioned water-wasting top-loading clothes washer. I know – does anyone have some spare cheese to go with my whine? 

I read a column in the Courier last week with the headline “Heat your home more economically with wood.” It had good advice on how to save money on making fire-starters and buying/collecting firewood. But, I had to chuckle at how things always come full circle. We lived in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado in the 1980s. We had a very nice 2,400-square-foot home. But, like most homes, we did not have any gas and had to heat with electricity, which was pretty expensive (remember, we’re talking Rocky Mountain winters, not Prescott winters). 

So, virtually, every house had a woodstove. A woodstove can actually heat a home, while a wood fireplace is pretty much something nice to look at, unless you want to sleep on the hearth rug. We had two woodstoves, and went through three to four cords of firewood a winter. This meant driving to the forest, cutting down trees, cutting them into pick-up truck- bed lengths, loading the truck, driving home, unloading the truck, cutting the wood into stove-size logs, splitting the logs into firewood, then stacking the wood somewhere on the property. 

Then you had to go out in the snow, uncover the wood stack, and bring in several armsful of wood. Then you had to clean the snow, mud and wood droppings off the floor. And you had to do this several times a week. 

We, and our neighbors, were so happy when gas (propane) became available and we could use a gas furnace or stove. So, you can see why I have to chuckle when I am advised to heat my home with wood, especially with fireplaces, instead of stoves. This is not a new “green” thing to me. This is going back to when I had to do a lot of back-breaking work because I couldn’t afford the electricity. 

Pellet stoves were invented during this time. I heard about them when a homebuyer stated they wanted a pellet stove instead of a woodstove (in a home I was building). Of course, I could not admit that I had no idea what they were talking about, so I told them there was a $1,500 allowance for the woodstove and they would have to pay extra if the pellet stove cost more than that. As soon as the buyers left, I looked at my Realtor and asked what a pellet stove was. She didn’t know- she was about to ask me! 

I drove straight to the local woodstove store and asked to see a pellet stove. There was only one brand and model at the time. The salesman showed me how they work- you dump in a 40-pound bag of pellets, light the burner, and sit back and enjoy the heat for 30 hours. They could run almost indefinitely as long as you filled them with pellets once a day. I told him to put a pellet stove and a bunch of pellets in the back of the white pickup truck out front. (Fortunately, we had not gone on our yearly firewood collecting yet, so there was room in the back of my truck.) 

I got home and showed my wife what I bought. Being a typical wife, she said, “You spent $1,200 on WHAT?” But I had it connected and burning in a couple hours, and she loved it. She called it the “lazy man’s woodstove,” meaning, of course, no sawing, hauling, chopping, splitting, etc. 

We had 40 acres, and actually collected a lot of firewood off our own property. My next-door neighbor also had 40 acres. Our houses were isolated, but our driveways were next to each other at the county road. He saw me at the bottom of my driveway once with a ton of pellets in my truck- 50 bags stacked 5 feet high on a pallet. He asked what they were. I told him they were pellets for my pellet stove. I tried to explain what a pellet stove was, and he said he’d get one as soon as he started growing “pellet trees” on his property. But every time I saw him out chopping and splitting firewood, I appreciated my wife’s definition. 

By Randy West on November 22, 2013 

 

The difference between a cozy and chilly winter is home maintenance 

Daily Courier, November 1, 2013 

It’s November! It was 70 degrees the day I wrote this, and I was working outside in a T-shirt. But winter is coming, and by the time this is published there could be snow on the ground. I never watch or check weather reports. I get up and look to the West – that’s my weather forecast. I tell my clients that are new to the area that the only thing predictable about our weather is that it will be unpredictable. I have a coat in my truck all summer, and a T-shirt all winter, just in case. I remember Halloweens with a foot of snow on the ground, and I remember riding a motorcycle with no coat on Christmas day. As I’ve heard many times in Prescott: “If you don’t like the weather, just wait 15 minutes.” 

But, of course, long-range weather forecasting is much easier: It will be colder in the winter than in the summer, and we may get snow. See, I’m more accurate than any other forecast. So here’s some advice for the coming winter, especially if this is your first winter in a cold climate. 

Heating system: Most homes have a gas furnace. I recommend having gas furnaces serviced yearly, ideally just before the heating season. A minor malfunction in a furnace can run up more in heating costs than a service call will cost, and can be a safety concern. 

Whatever kind of heating system you have, turn it on now (if you haven’t already). It’s better to find a problem now than on that first frosty morning. 

Most fireplaces are not very efficient heating devices. But they also go all summer unused and should be checked carefully before using the first time in the winter. Chimneys for woodburning stoves or fireplaces should be checked and cleaned. Gas fireplaces are more common now, and many of these vent through an exterior wall rather than up to the roof. Check fireplace vents on exterior walls carefully. These seem to be very attractive to birds – I have found nests in dozens of these vents. 

A carbon monoxide detector is a good idea in any home with any type of woodburning or gas appliance (including a gas water heater, range, etc.). I have two carbon monoxide detectors in my home, one in the bedroom hall and one in the living room with the gas fireplace. These detectors are inexpensive and easy to install. Mine are battery operated and screw to the ceiling like a smoke detector. Speaking of that, check your smoke detectors too. 

Water Heater: Water heaters should not require any winter maintenance, unless you live in a 1930s cabin and the water heater is out back by the outhouse. You may want to adjust the water heater thermostat in the winter. Most plumbing pipes are underground (under a concrete slab floor) or in the crawlspace under a home, and are colder in the winter. And the cold water coming in will be colder, so it will take more hot water to make the same temperature water at the tub or shower. 

Hose faucets: Most hose faucets are freeze resistant, unless your home was built before the ’80s. There is an easy way to check for freeze resistant faucets – water will drain from these faucets for several seconds after you close the valve. This is water draining from the pipe, which is what prevents the faucet (or pipe) from freezing. If you have freeze resistant hose faucets you should not have to cover or insulate them. But, you must disconnect hoses and adapters during the winter. Anything connected to the hose faucet will prevent the faucet from draining properly and could allow the faucet to freeze. 

Most irrigation systems should be should be shut off during the winter. Some irrigation systems have a drain valve. This is usually a hose faucet in a pipe or box in the ground. This may be near the zone valves, but can also be anywhere (e.g. at a low area to allow more water to drain). If you are connected to a city water system you likely have an anti-siphon valve. These are usually large brass valves. The anti-siphon valve can be in a ground box, but more often is above ground and covered with an insulated cover (or the occasional fake rock). Anti-siphon valves are pricey and should be turned off and/or drained in the winter. If you are not familiar with your irrigation system you should consult with a landscaper. 

I get calls every winter saying the overhead garage door opener has stopped working correctly. The most common call is that the door will no longer close – it reverses and returns to the open position. Sometimes overhead doors do need adjustment after a change in the weather. Even if your overhead door is operating normally, you should check the automatic reverse feature. Most doors have a beam at the bottom and the door will reverse if this beam is interrupted. The doors should also reverse if they hit an obstruction -follow the manufacturer’s instructions for this test. You should release the door from the opener and operate it manually to make sure you can open and close it (e.g. if the power fails). The door should be easy to operate manually and should stay in the fully open position. The overhead door is the largest and heaviest moving object in most homes (insert mother-in-law joke here), and the springs are under a lot of tension. If you are unsure of how to test the door, or if the door needs any type of adjusting, you should consult with an overhead door installer/contractor. 

I have to go – time to put the Sorrel boots and insulated gloves in my truck. 

By Randy West on November 1, 2013 

 

The Mystery of Electricity, Part 2 

Daily Courier, October 18, 2013 

Last time I talked about electricity. I know that electricity confuses (and scares) some people. I used water pressure and pipes as an analogy to volts and wiring. Several intelligent people emailed me to thank me for that explanation (some others emailed me with other comments). Some of you also remembered my recent columns about ‘functional flow’, which described the difference between water pressure and flow. There were enough comments and questions that I thought a “part 2” was in order.  

To recap, I think a great way to understand how electricity works is to compare it to the plumbing system in your home. In a plumbing system you need pressure to force the water to the sink and toilet. Pressure is measured in pounds per square inch (psi). You need pipes to deliver the water, measured by the pipe diameter. Most pipes in homes are ½ or ¾ inch. The flow, measured in gallons per minute (gpm) would depend on the pressure and pipe size. Increase either the pressure or the pipe size and you will increase the flow.  

In electricity, the pressure would be the incoming volts, the pipes would be the wires, and the flow (called current) would be measured in amps. You always have 120 volts of electricity in your home (let’s forget about 240 volts for this discussion).  

If you have plumbing fixtures that don’t use much water, such as a toilet, you will likely have a ½ inch pipe to serve them. For appliances that use very little water, such as the icemaker in your freezer or an evaporative cooler, the water line is usually ¼ inch. There is usually ½ inch piping to sinks and showers, but there are two pipes (hot and cold), so there is twice the volume of water available (than from a single pipe).  

Similarly if you have a circuit that does not need much power, like one for a few light fixtures, you will likely have 15 amp wiring. If you have a circuit that requires more power, like the kitchen counter outlets, you normally have 20 amp wire. Wire, by the way, is not measured in amps, it’s measured in gauges. And just in case this is starting to make sense to you, larger wire is a smaller gauge. 20 amp wire is actually 12 gauge, and 15 amp wire is 14 gauge.  

So anyway, the size of a plumbing pipe is comparable to the size of the wire. A larger pipe can deliver more water, a larger wire can deliver more electricity.  

If you turn on the faucet in a large bathtub, you usually lose some flow at the shower. Or in extreme cases, flushing the toilet can affect the flow at the shower. This is the “functional flow” that I wrote about a few columns ago. The same is true with electricity. We have all seen lights dim or flicker when a high-use appliance like a refrigerator or air conditioner turns on.  

The amount of electricity we use is measured in watts. (To avoid some emails, according to Einstein we cannot ‘use’ energy. But we can change its form, such as changing electricity to light, heat or motion.) So using the pipe analogy, running water through a ¼ inch line to an icemaker might be comparable to a 5 watt light bulb, and fully opening a faucet at a large bathtub would be like operating several 300 watt light bulbs.  

I know the analogy is not perfect, but I think it does help explain the mystery of electrical current. Of course I received some emails that said my comparison made no sense because 60 psi of water can’t kill you, and 120 volts or 100 amps can. I will not try to argue that household water pressure can be as dangerous as household electrical current. But once again both water and electricity have something in common. They are both trying to get back to mother earth, or ‘ground’. Gravity is the driving force for water, and is not usually dangerous (unless you stand under a very high waterfall).  

Electricity also tries to get back to the ground, which is why homes must be ‘grounded’. The third hole in an electrical outlet is the ‘ground’. The ground wires are actually connected to the earth, usually to a metal rod driven into the ground or to the metal rods in a foundation. The ground wire is not ‘needed’ by an appliance (some appliances have two-prong plugs), the ground is a ‘safety net’. 

Electricity will always take the path of least resistance. If you touch a metal pipe connected to the ground (e.g. at a sink), and at the same time touch an ungrounded appliance (e.g. that 20 year old toaster), you just provided a path to ground for the electricity. So a faulty ground can be a serious safety concern.  

That is why we have special outlets near sinks called a Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter, or GFCI. If there is a ‘Ground Fault’, the power from that old toaster may start going through you. A GFCI outlet will sense this and act as a ‘Circuit Interrupter’ and shut off power to the circuit. (So does ‘Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter’ makes more sense now?) A GFCI outlet will have a ‘test’ and ‘reset’ button, and should be tested occasionally. And a GFCI will protect everything ‘downstream’, so a GFCI outlet in a kitchen usually protects several or all counter outlets. 

October 18, 2013 

By Randy West on October 18, 2013 

 

Don’t pay to heat your attic this winter 

Last time I said that I use a working light bulb to check for working light fixtures, but only if the fixture does not have a globe/cover on it. I received quite a few emails about this. Most were explaining how lazy we home inspectors are because we don’t fix or repair everything we find wrong. 

I have to explain about the light fixtures. I once broke a globe when removing it to check the light bulb. I spent hours the next day finding a globe that would fit. The “big box” stores did not have one. I finally had to buy an entire light fixture just for the globe. Then I had to drive back to the home and install it. There was no profit on that inspection after the money, gas and time spent to replace one light fixture globe. So I will check for bad bulbs if I can simply screw in a working bulb, but I will not remove glass covers or globes. 

If I can “fix” something with a screwdriver, I will. I tighten loose door hinges, doorknobs, toilet seats, faucet handles, etc., all the time. It takes less time to tighten a screw than it does to type two or three sentences in a report. 

One reply on the Courier website said a home inspector took a photo of insulation in a catch pan under an air conditioner in an attic, and reported that the insulation in the pan should be removed so it does not obstruct the drain line. The writer said the inspector took more time to take a photo and write the remark than it would have taken to remove the insulation. I agree. I am not known to defend home inspectors if I don’t think they deserve defending. But it is possible the inspector thought this may be something that needs to be checked occasionally. If that’s the case I would have put the photo of the insulation in the report and stated that I cleared it but it should be checked occasionally. Perhaps this inspector thought it would be better to have the client do it right away and be aware of the problem. 

Speaking of insulation (what a clever transition, eh?), there is something in almost every home that allows a major loss of heat. You may even see it every day and not think about it. I’m talking about an attic access. This is a major weak point in your home’s insulation – in newer homes it can be the largest weak point. 

If the access is in a closet with a door that seals pretty well, this won’t be as large a concern. However, many closets have louvered or bypass (sliding) doors that don’t seal well. And if the attic access is in a heated area, say a hallway or laundry room, it can be a huge “hole” in the attic insulation. 

This is a concern in the summer, where the attic access cover will be much hotter than the surrounding ceiling and radiate some heat into the home. But it is a bigger concern in the winter. 

Heat will always rise, and therefore will always try to find a way out of your home through the ceiling. An infrared camera always reveals heat loss around any penetration in a ceiling – light fixtures, smoke detectors, built-in speakers, etc. But these are minor compared to the heat loss around an attic access. 

Any warm air that gets out of your home must be replaced, and it is more likely to be drawn in near the lowest point. This may be through gaps at doors or windows or other wall penetrations (electrical outlets), through pet doors or exhaust fan ducts, through floor penetrations if there is a crawlspace under the home, etc. This warm air leaving at the top and being replaced by cold air at the bottom is common knowledge, and is known as the “stack effect.” I’ve learned about the stack effect at classes for home inspection, radon entry, thermography and building science. 

So what can you do about it? The easiest thing to do is place a piece of fiberglass batt insulation on the access cover. This will help a lot, but is not really airtight. It is better to prevent any airflow around the cover. There are several fairly easy ways to do this. Caulk between the ceiling and trim that the cover rests on, and/or install “soft” weatherstripping on top of the trim (so the cover rests on it). Installing several layers of foam board insulation cut to fit and glued to the cover is better than batt insulation. And it’s heavier, making the cover “seal” better at the weatherstripping. I have also seen hook and eye latches installed on the cover to hold it down tight against the weatherstripping, although you might not want these if the access is in a very visible area like a hallway. 

The larger the attic access, the larger the heat loss. So what about the pull-down attic stairs? These should also be insulated, especially if they are in a heated space. These are much harder to insulate. The best way is to build a wooden box around them in the attic and insulate the box. There are also products that are ready/easy to install that will help, although not as much as an insulated box. One is called the Attic Tent, and is a large zippered “tent” that can be put in the attic over the stairs (or any access). An online search will reveal other similar products. Often any of these improvements will pay for themselves within a few years. 

By Randy West on October 16, 2013 

 

How many home inspectors does it take to change a light bulb? 

Prescott will long remember political icon Sam Steiger. I have my own story about Sam. He unknowingly did me a favor once. We lived on Jack Drive for several years, and Sam lived around the corner from us. There is only one road into the subdivision, and it has a low water crossing that floods after a heavy rain (like many others in Prescott). The city has barricades they put up now, but in the early ’90s, they did not have these barricades. 

I was on my way home one day, and a police officer had traffic stopped at the low water crossing. There were a few cars stopped, and the people were out of their cars talking. I told the officer that I could easily make it across in my big macho 4-wheel drive pickup, but he wouldn’t let me go. Right about then we all saw a car coming at us out of the subdivision. I recognized Sam’s car. The officer stepped into the road and started waving his arms. I could tell that Sam had no intention of stopping, so I slowly moved behind my truck. 

When Sam got close to the water, still moving at 30 or so miles per hour, the officer kept waving his arms but moved to the side of the road. Sam hit the water and sent up a huge spray. I was already behind my truck and ducked. When I came out, everyone was wet but me, especially the officer. Nobody said anything for a moment. Then the officer asked if any of us knew who was driving that car. The officer was looking directly at me. I was the only who had gotten out of the way, so I assumed that he assumed that I assumed the car was not going to stop. I just shrugged, but someone else said he thought it was Sam Steiger. The officer nodded and just said “figures.” 

I mentioned to the cop that if a sedan can make it through the water, I was positive my 4-wheel drive pickup could make it. He did not say a word; he just got in his car and drove away. So the next time I saw Sam I thanked him for getting me home that night in time for dinner. 

On to a home inspection question. We are inspecting many vacant homes recently. I know I have addressed this before, but I am being asked about lighting gas water heaters. Now I am being asked by clients when they order the inspection. 

Home inspectors are not required to light gas appliances. The Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors (“Standards”) states “Inspectors are not required to operate any system that is shut down or otherwise inoperable.” The Standards also state, “Inspectors are not required to operate any system or component which does not respond to normal operating controls.” 

The Standards do not say inspectors cannot, or should not, light gas water heaters; they simply state inspectors are not required to. So, some inspectors will light gas appliances, and some will not. I fall into the former group. I do not like having to return for a re-inspection. And I personally am a little embarrassed to tell my client I did not light a gas furnace or water heater. I always think of my grandmother – when she was 90 years old she had a water heater in an exterior closet. The pilot light would blow out occasionally, and she would go out and light it. So if my 90-year-old granny could stand in the wind and rain and light a water heater, why can’t a certified home inspector/ex -contractor light a water heater in a garage? 

But some of the best inspectors I know do not light water heaters. Some home inspection companies or franchises do not allow the inspectors to light gas appliances, so the inspector has no choice. And some inspectors had something bad happen when they lit a water heater, so now they are a little “gun shy.” I have also heard inspectors say they like to collect that $75 re-inspection fee, but those inspectors were in large cities. 

So, I had a call from a client last week asking why I did not change bulbs in a light fixture to check the fixture. She said she specifically asked me if I lit water heaters when ordering the inspection. I did not quite see the connection, and I told her that I did light the water heater. She said that if an inspector lights water heaters, he surely should swap bulbs around to check light fixtures. I saw the logic of her thinking. But I have my own logic. A water heater is pretty important. You cannot really live in a home with no working water heater, unless you do not mind cold showers and heating water on the stove to wash dishes. A non-working light fixture can be inconvenient, and possibly even a safety concern (if it’s over a stairway), but it does not really keep you from living in the home. Also, a water heater can be pretty expensive to replace. 

If a light is not working, 99.9 percent of the time all it needs is a new bulb. And I will carry around a working light bulb and check fixtures, as long as the fixtures do not have glass globes that need to be removed. This is simply my policy. If I break a globe, I have to spend hours trying to find a globe to fit, or replacing the entire light fixture – which can cost more than the profit I made on the inspection 

  

Reader Comments 

Posted: Friday, October 05, 2012 
Article comment by: I love it When 

I love it when I get a home inspection report where the inspector takes a picture of the HVAC pan in the attic and says that there is insulation in it that should be removed so that it does not clog the drip line. Well, REMOVE THE INSULATION! It would take the inspector 5 seconds to remove the insulation vs. several minutes to take a picture, download the picture, put it in the report, and comment on it. Inspectors should be finding major issues. If there is something trivial, then don’t comment on it, fix it. 

  

By Randy West on October 16, 2013 

 

Solar panels part 2 

Courier Column October 4, 2013 

Last time I wrote about solar panels on roofs posing a hazard to firefighters. Photovoltaic solar panels will be producing electricity whenever sunlight hits them, or even bright spotlights. So even if the electrical breakers and switches are off there can still be dangerous levels of electricity in the wires from the solar panels. 

I received several emails regarding this column. One wanted to let me know that dc (direct current) can’t shock you, only ac (alternating current) can. I don’t have room to go into the difference between ac and dc electricity. All batteries (AA, lithium, etc.) are dc, as are car electrical systems, and solar panels. Household electricity is ac. 

When I was about 10 years old I was helping my dad tune up a car. He started the engine and one spark plug wire was not connected and there was a visible spark. My dad told me to connect it. I told him to turn off the engine so I would not get shocked. He gave me one of those ‘don’t you know anything?’ looks and said dc can’t shock you, only ac can. I was just old enough to know there was ac and dc, and just young enough to still believe most things adults said. I grabbed the wire. I don’t know which hurt more- the power going up my arm or the back of my head hitting the bottom of the open car hood. But to this day I chuckle when I hear someone say “dc can’t shock you”. I worked on jets in the air force. Some of the equipment had dc voltage that would do a lot more than shock you! 

I received other emails that that said solar panels don’t have enough amps to shock you. This is closer to accurate, although still wrong. I had an instructor in the air force explain electricity by comparing it to forcing water from a pressurized tank through a pipe. Volts would be comparable to the water pressure, Resistance would be the size of the piping, and Amps would be the flow (the actual amount of water going through the pipe). So there are two ways to increase the amps (flow). One is to increase the volts (pressure in the tank). The other way is to reduce resistance, in plumbing this would be using larger piping and fittings. 

This helps explain how volts and amps are related. It is technically correct to say it is the amps and not the volts that determine how shocking your encounter with electricity can be. I know people that test 9 volt batteries by touching both connectors to their tongue. If we wired 100 of these batteries in ‘parallel’, we would still have 9 volts but have increased the potential amps by 100 times. I would not want to put that to the ‘tongue test’! 

I also received this letter: 

“Mr. West:  I found your article in the Courier on Friday very interesting as I have been researching Solar power for the past 3 months and considering it for my home in Prescott. I am obviously concerned about anyone being injured by solar panels on my roof.  It is my understanding that the solar panels produce DC current on the roof.  It is then passed thru the Inverter which converts it to AC current to be used in my home.  Are you saying even if the Inverter is turned OFF the panels are dangerous??  The system I am looking at will NOT have a battery back up and APS electricity will still be supplied to my home.  I contacted a local Solar company and they stated there is NO danger touching the panels on a roof.  I also contacted the Yavapai county Fire Marshalls office and directed them to your article.  They got back to me and said they were not aware of a danger fighting a fire involving Solar Panels without Battery Backup Or with Battery backup. Have you discussed this with the Fire Marshalls office??  Thank you for any additional information you can give me at this point.” 

There are actually several comments/questions here. If the inverter (or a switch by the batteries, etc.) is turned off the panels are still making electricity. Touching the panels themselves is not a hazard. Touching exposed wires from the panels could be a hazard. The wires are not normally exposed. Firemen usually access roofs to make holes in the roof to vent a fire. It would be possible to damage (expose) wires when using an axe to make a hole in a building. 

I spoke with Yavapai County Fire Marshall Rich Chase. He was certainly aware of all dangers posed by solar panels, including the extra weight on a roof. Rich also said they (our local firefighters) will access a roof with solar panels if needed to fight a fire. 

I am certainly not trying to dissuade people from installing solar panels. In my last column I referred to a fire in New Jersey where the firefighters elected not to go on a roof. This was a 300,000 square foot industrial building with unknown materials inside and, and the roof “was covered with solar panels”. This is a lot different than having some solar panels on a single family home roof. The main point of my last column was to point out that solar panels are producing electricity any time the sun is hitting them. But they are safe unless damaged. And if you have firemen on your roof with axes you are likely worried about a lot more than the solar panels! 

By Randy West on October 4, 2013 

 

A new danger to fire fighters 

Courier Column Sept 20, 2013 

I have written columns about green (energy efficient) buildings and technology. There are definitely some good aspects of green homes and buildings. There are also some bad aspects, including government agencies involved that have been accused of inefficient and corrupt practices. This was not unexpected by many professionals. But there have been unexpected consequences as well. For example, the ‘tight’ homes have caused problems with indoor air quality and humidity, premature failure of heating and cooling equipment, and in some cases energy costs were actually more than similar ‘non-green’ homes. 

Home inspectors always touch an electrical panel with the back of our hand first. If a panel (or wire or conduit) is energized, it can cause muscles to contract. This can cause your hand to ‘grab’ the panel and not let go, and you’re getting shocked the entire time. This phenomena is known as ‘lock on’. Touching an energized panel with the back of your hand would cause your hand to pull away from the panel rather than ‘grab’ it. 

Now you should be confused about two paragraphs that don’t seem to have anything to do with each other. I am known to ramble in my columns, but these paragraphs are actually related. Today’s column is about another unexpected consequence of a green technology; solar panels that pose hazards to firefighters. Photovoltaic (electricity-producing) panels can be energized even if switches or breakers are turned off. In fact, the lights used by firefighters are bright enough to cause some panels to produce dangerous levels of electricity. This is a big concern in states where the use of solar panels has increased rapidly in recent years, like Arizona, California and New Jersey. 

Underwriters Laboratories conducted experiments (funded by the Department of Homeland Security) that showed firefighters lights could cause solar panels to generate enough electricity to cause ‘lock on’ if a fireman touches an energized wire. In fact, if the wires at roof mounted panels are damaged and come in contact with metal roofing or piping, they can cause injuries far away from the panels. 

Firefighters usually access the roof when fighting a fire. Understandably, firefighters are reluctant to access a roof covered with solar panels. And it is not always a good idea to spray water on solar panels, even from a distance. 

On September 1 a warehouse in Delanco, N.J. caught fire. The roof was covered with solar panels, so firefighters chose to fight the fire ‘defensively’. This basically means they tried to contain the fire to this building and prevent it from spreading to other buildings. 

The firefighters were successful in preventing the Delanco fire from spreading to other structures. But the 300,000 square foot warehouse was a total loss. Even with 200 firefighters on site it took 29 hours to put the fire out. And the building smoldered for days, causing a lot of smoke and air pollution (nearby residents were warned to stay inside, another unexpected result of a green technology). 

When asked about the solar panels on the roof, Delanco Fire Chief Ron Holt stated “With all that power and energy up there, I can’t jeopardize a guy’s life for that.” Delanco Deputy Fire Chief Robert Hubler said “Do I think we’d have had a different outcome if we could get on the roof? Sure.” 

Even before this fire, a bill was introduced in New Jersey to require any building with solar panels to have an emblem with “S/P” by the main entrance to alert firefighters of the use of photovoltaic panels. (Assembly Bill 266, passed by the Assembly 79-0, now in the New Jersey Senate). 

This should be a warning to homeowners, home inspectors, and anyone on a roof. If the sun is hitting solar panels, they are producing electricity, even if switches and breakers are turned off. Everyone needs to be very careful around solar panels. 

New topic: I wrote recently about decks needing to be lag bolted to a home. I referred to deck failures around the country from decks that were only nailed to a home. I received a few emails disputing the need for lag bolts, one of which was in my August 16 column (with my usual excellent reply). Washington State University recently completed a comprehensive deck study. The results were published this year in Wood Design Focus, a journal published by the Forest Products Society. The results of this test will likely influence deck fastening requirements in the next building code. 

The tests were for lateral movement parallel to the exterior wall of the home, not pulling directly away from the home. The tests simulated seismic activity and high winds. They even had a deck fully loaded with people swaying back and forth in unison. This was never done before in a test, and may seem kind of extreme. But I can imagine a bunch of people ‘celebrating’ on New Year’s Eve, all singing and swaying together on a deck. 

They then used a chain to pull the deck. At 3500 pounds of force the center of the deck had displaced 17 inches. The study stated “…at this point significant damage was present in the joists, which compromised the safety of the deck.” The testing continued to 7000 pounds of force, over 4 times the force of a deck full of singing, swaying people. But the lag bolts never failed. Even the lag bolts at the ends, which has the most force on them, had “no visible signs of failure”. 

Many decks in our area more than 10 or so years old do not have lag bolts. Installing lag bolts is a minor task/expense. So I stand by my previous columns and will continue to recommend all decks are bolted to the home. 

By Randy West on September 20, 2013 

 

Fire sprinklers save local building 

Courier column August 30, 2013 

Pre-listing inspections can avoid surprises later 

  

Home inspections have been around a long time, ever since the first caveman sent the kid in first to check the cave for tigers or bears. The majority of inspections by home inspectors are pre-purchase inspections. These are for the purchaser of a property. The purchase agreement allows the purchaser to conduct a home inspection, and other inspections that may be needed or prudent, such as termite, well, septic, etc. With a home inspection, after the buyer receives the inspection report he may ask the seller to correct some items. I have even seen buyers ask a seller to fix every item noted in an inspection report. This was not the original intent of home inspections. In the past there were fewer disclosure laws, and the home inspection profession evolved to inform buyers of major and minor concerns with a home. 

Pre-listing inspections are becoming more common now. These are performed for the seller/owner of a home, prior to listing the home for sale. There are some Realtors that suggest all sellers get a pre-listing inspection. There are many Realtors that suggest this for unique or older homes, so they both (the Realtor and seller) know about major concerns. Or the owner may order an inspection before talking with a Realtor or listing the home for sale. 

I used to feel a little bad when I did a pre-listing inspection and found major concerns (expenses), such as obsolete wiring or plumbing, or the furnace or roofing need replacing. But then I think about what would happen if the seller did not have this inspection. The seller would get excited about accepting an offer to purchase the home. The buyer would likely get a home inspection, and find out about these major concerns. The seller would then have a very short time (usually 5 days) to respond to the buyer. A buyer may even opt out of the purchase agreement for something that the seller would have fixed if he’d known about it. 

By having an inspection before a purchase offer, the seller has plenty of time to deal with any major concerns. He can consult with several contractors to get multiple bids and advice. He can repair items, or adjust the price accordingly. Or he can offer an ‘allowance’, for example for new roof shingles. This lets the buyer know right away the shingles need replacing, and allows them to choose the style and color. 

New topic: I have spoken about fire sprinkler systems in single family dwellings in several columns. I receive trade magazines and newsletters that report on structure fires around the country. Almost every time there is a fire sprinkler system in the structure, the damage is limited to one area. I have seen many quotes from fire officials saying the fire sprinklers kept the fire to one area and likely saved the building. And too often when there is not a fire sprinkler system there is substantial damage to the structure, or a total loss of the structure. 

I also mentioned the safety of fire fighters. I received and printed letters, including one from a local retired fire fighter, giving statistics that dispute that fire sprinklers have saved fire fighters lives. In my opinion common sense would indicate a fire fighter is more likely to be injured at a ‘large’ fire than at a fire that is contained to one room by a fire sprinkler system. 

I am bringing this up because of an article in the August 14 Prescott Courier, reporting on a fire in a commercial building in Prescott Valley. The following are direct quotes from that article. “Chase” is referring to Fire Marshal Rick Chase. 

“Fire sprinklers helped contain a fire that broke out in an industrial building Tuesday in Prescott Valley.” 

“Heat from the fire activated two sprinkler heads inside the building, which kept the fire from spreading throughout the 75,000 square-foot structure, Chase said.” 

“Without those sprinkler heads going off, it could have been really bad, Chase said”. 

These are the types of comments I see quoted in trade publications all the time. So I remain a believer in fire sprinkler systems. Yes, it adds to the cost of a home. But in my opinion any system that could prevent injury to occupants or fire fighters is well worth the cost. I also think of pets that could be ‘trapped’ in a home that catches fire. Not to mention it could save your home and personal belongings. 

Of course most homes do not have fire sprinkler systems. Which makes it very important to install smoke detectors in all the appropriate locations, and to test them occasionally. At a minimum you should have a smoke detector in and just outside each sleeping room, at least one on each level of the home, and one near the highest part of the ceiling if there is a room with higher ceilings than the rest of the home. You should test detectors occasionally, and replace batteries yearly. Many people pick a holiday, such as new years day, to replace the batteries. 

Newer homes have smoke detectors that are inter-connected. If one goes off, they will all go off. This is a very nice feature. If you are asleep in the master bedroom and a fire starts in a bedroom at the far end of the home, you will know immediately. Of course if a detector malfunctions every alarm in the home will be going off, making it difficult to find the faulty detector. And Murphy says this will most likely happen at about 3:33 am on a Sunday morning after you indulged in more adult beverages than you should have the night before.   

By Randy West on August 30, 2013 

 

Do home inspectors only want to cover their behinds? 

Courier column August 16, 2013 

This week’s question: 

“I own several rental homes in the tri-city area, and also flip a few homes each year. I do most of the improvements and maintenance myself. I saw your recent column about deck failures. I have never used a home inspector, and your column was a perfect example of why. I have never had a deck ‘fall off’ a building. After reading your column people may be afraid to even step on their decks, and certainly would not have a few friends over for a cookout on the deck. 

“Almost every time I sell a home the home inspector comes up with some crazy improvements. If it’s not decks falling off the home, it’s shock hazards from no GFCI outlets or fire hazards from a water heater vent pipe touching drywall. And in 20 years of renting and flipping homes I have never had a deck fall off, someone electrocuted at the kitchen sink or a house burn down. 

“ So here’s my question. Do home inspectors call out all these things to cover their behinds, or to try to justify their mostly unneeded existence?” 

Wow. Another avid fan of my columns, I see. Flipping, in case you don’t have television, is buying a home, making some improvements, and then re-selling it a few weeks later for much more than you have invested in it. Also, I did change one word in his letter (regarding areas of the human anatomy). Before I answer his specific question, let’s talk about decks for a minute. 

The column he referred to was in the June 21 Courier. The column talked about deck failures around the country and why they occur. The last paragraph recommended annual inspections of your deck. The column referenced some recent deck failures. 

That column appeared less than 2 months ago. An internet search will find a dozen deck collapses since then, just in the last 6 weeks. For example: On July 28 WGN reported on a deck collapse that sent 14 people to the hospital. On July 29 CTV Montreal reported on a deck collapse that injured 20 people, one seriously. And on July 30 the Shamokin (Pennsylvania) News reported a deck collapsed in Atlas, PA. And in this one there was no party, there was one person sweeping off the deck when it collapsed. 

The June column stated that most deck failures occur when the deck (ledger board) separates from the home. The three deck failures I mentioned above are from the ledger board separating from the home. So I stand by my June column. I was not trying to scare people into not enjoying their decks. But I was pointing out that deck maintenance and inspections are important, especially on decks more than 10 years old. 

This is a free country. You can certainly disagree with me and say that deck collapses are not a concern. But I am waiting to see your evidence, other than a deck has not fallen off one of your own homes. 

So now let me answer your ‘question’. Do home inspectors make recommendations to ‘cover their behinds’ or to ‘justify their existence’? The answer is— absolutely positively both! But the reality is we want to provide a valuable service to our clients. And if we do that well, we will cover our behinds and justify our existence. 

The three examples you gave of home inspectors making ‘unnecessary’ recommendations are all common ones, especially in older homes. We already talked about decks. You also mentioned GFCI outlets. These are shock-preventing outlets. They are required at ‘wet’ locations- garage, exterior, bathrooms and kitchens. Arizona home inspectors are required to report on GFCI protection, so we have no choice. I believe installing GFCI outlets/protection is a very important safety upgrade. GFCI outlets are inexpensive, so I would recommend installing them even if I weren’t required to. 

You also mentioned fire hazards from water heater vent pipes. Gas appliance (water heater, furnace, fireplace, etc.) vent pipes should have at least one inch clearance to combustibles. This is a requirement of the appliance manufacturer and the vent pipe manufacturer. In fact, many vent pipes have this requirement on labels or stamped right into the metal. 

Drywall has a paper backing, and is definitely a combustible material. So gas appliance vent pipes should be at least one inch away from the drywall (and wood framing and sheathing in attics). I frequently see vent pipes too close or even touching drywall or wood framing. And every time I do I recommend improving it, by trimming the combustible material or moving the vent pipe, whichever is easier. This is also an important and relatively inexpensive improvement. Especially if it’s drywall- trimming drywall away from a vent pipe takes about 90 seconds with a drywall saw. 

I know you don’t consider suggestions from home inspectors to be very valuable. I own several rental homes myself, so here’s a suggestion from a fellow landlord. I do very little work on my rental properties. When the safety of my tenants is at stake, no one but a licensed professional is going to do the work. I was a licensed contractor for many years, and could do most of the improvements. But a professional carpenter, electrician, or plumber will make improvements much faster and better than I can myself. I usually end up losing $600 of inspection income to save $600 of professional labor costs, and end up with a less professional job. 

By Randy West on August 16, 2013 

 

Inspectors should be required to move once a year 

Courier Column August 2, 2013 

I hope I get this column in on time. Several people have told me that some of my recent columns are not as ‘funny’ as usual. So I waited too long trying to think of something funny to write about. Now I’m sitting here working on my laptop amid a lot of boxes. There are more empty boxes now than full ones, but still a lot of unpacking to do. Yes, I moved last weekend. We bought a 3 car garage with an attached house. Of course there’s no room for cars in the garage yet. 

I had forgotten what a pain it is to move. Most of us have to sell our current home first. So you have to keep your house neat and clean every day so strangers can come in and look around. Then someone buys it. Now you can go back to normal and clean house every September, whether it needs it or not. 

But soon you will have to pack all your personal belongings into boxes. We should go through all this when we pack. Do we really need those clothes that we haven’t worn in 10 years? (Or haven’t been able to?) I’m never going to be a contractor again- do I really need all those large, heavy power tools? And what about those boxes from the last move that never got opened? If we haven’t used that stuff in the last 8 years, do we really need it? But there just isn’t time to go through everything now. We’ll have to do it when we unpack at the new house. 

Then comes moving day. I have been involved in many moves, both for us and helping relatives or friends. I have realized that Murphy saves up some the biggest and best “if it can go wrong” items for moving day. I have never been involved in a move without some unforeseen problems. 

One memorable time was a few decades ago, helping my friend Bill in Colorado move. We arrived at his new house with a convoy of pickup trucks and trailers. That’s when we realized his wife had the only key to the new house. And she was in Denver (many miles away) picking up someone at the airport. I volunteered to ‘break’ into the home. I succeeded in opening and climbing through a rear window. I opened the front door and we were back on schedule. Until the county sheriffs arrived wanting to know who was seen climbing in the back window. I admitted it was me, and they wanted to arrest me. Seeing that we were moving stuff into the home and not out was not good enough- I had still broken into a house. They had me handcuffed and I was looking at the bright side- all the heavy stuff would be moved by the time I got out of jail. Of course I did not really want a police record, so I was relieved when Bill had a brainstorm. He showed the sheriffs all the papers from his closing, proving that he actually owned the home now and would not press charges. 

A few years later I helped my parents move (retire) to Florida. A rental trailer came off a rental truck, and flipped over into the ditch, scattering some of my parent’s belongings along a half mile of I-65 near Indianapolis. The rental truck company provided a replacement trailer, but we had to go get it. The Indiana state patrol was fabulous! One car stayed with the truck and my mom (and their stuff along the highway), and another trooper led us all the way to the trailer place and back. But then it took a few hours in the dark and rain for my dad and I to ‘re-load’ the new trailer. 

My move last weekend was not nearly so dramatic. Friday was the ‘big move’ day with the professional movers. They arrived at 8:00 am. They opened the back door on the truck at 8:19 am. At 8:21 am it started raining. Hard. And it rained all day except for about an hour. And of course that was the hour we were all driving from the old home to the new home. 

When we (movers, friends and family) started to convoy to the new home, I volunteered to stop and get lunch for everyone. We had plenty to drink, so I did not order any drinks or ‘sides’. I just ordered a total of 14 assorted burgers and chicken sandwiches. One of my pet peeves is people going through a drive-through at a fast food restaurant and ordering $88 worth of food. I wasn’t going to be that rude, even on moving day, so I walked in and placed my order. I was about to pull out of the parking lot when I thought I better make a quick count. There were only 8 burgers and sandwiches. And I almost did not check this, even on moving day! 

Then there were the normal things, like my desk would not fit into my new office (we had to remove the door and some baseboard trim, and still made a few deep scratches). 

I think we need a new law regarding Realtors, lenders, home inspectors, termite inspectors, and anyone else who works with people selling or buying homes. This law will require these people to move at least once a year, just to remind them what a hassle moving can be. Of course this law would not apply to me. Hey, if the US Congress can pass Obamacare and exempt themselves, then surely I can exempt myself from a law I made up. 

By Randy West on August 2, 2013 

 

Avoid these mistakes when choosing a home inspector 

I found the following on a website recently. I thought most of this was wonderful, intelligent advice, since it is very similar to columns that I have written over the years. Of course, I don’t agree with everything. 

5 Biggest home inspection mistakes to avoid, by Damian Wolf “Buying a new home is an expensive endeavor. Add to this some context, e.g. a young couple buying their first home or a family with young children moving away from the hectic city into a more suburban area, and you see why it is crucial to make this a good investment. 

“Let’s take a look at the biggest home inspection mistakes that you should avoid if you want to save your money and your nerves. 

“1. Don’t cling onto your wallet with a death-grip. Trying to find the cheapest inspector is not a good tactic. In fact, a cheap inspector will end up costing you more in the long run as he will not be qualified to perform a thorough inspection and chances are he is not going to have a very extensive checklist, nor the capability to notice little details that can lead to major problems. If you hire a home inspector who can do a good job, but decide that you can live with some structural issues as long as they lower the price, you will end up living in a death trap and money vacuum of a house. Have the little problems fixed, but if there are too many problems, just look elsewhere.” 

Randy says: I agree with the first part. Why would you want to save some money on the inspection of the most expensive, complicated thing you own? However, properly repaired structural issues are not a “death trap.” If the cost of the home plus repairs (major and/or small) is a fair price, you should not have to look elsewhere. 

“2. Don’t hire ‘Janie’s cousin Bob’ or ‘this guy I know.’ This is quite a common scenario, especially when people are not doing so well financially or they want to give someone in their family an opportunity to make a bit of money. Even if someone is willing to “help you out” and do it for free, just respectfully decline and get in touch with a property inspection company that has trained and certified professionals.” 

Randy says: I agree, and have written about this. One other point I made: if “cousin Bob” is not qualified and finds he’s over his head trying to inspect your house, he may decide he doesn’t want you to buy it because he may have missed something important. So he talks you out of buying a home you like that doesn’t really have any major problems. 

“3. Don’t take their word for it – ask to see some credentials. There are a lot of professional-looking and professional-sounding hacks out there, every profession has them. These loudmouths can talk the talk but can’t walk the walk, so ask to see some credentials. What company do they work for? What information can they provide on that company? How long have they been working? What types of inspection are they certified to perform – radon testing, health and safety? Ask to see a sample report and interview several inspectors before making a decision.” 

Randy says: Those are good questions to ask. But there are no “hacks” in Arizona, where home inspectors are regulated by the state. There is a big difference in the type and quality of the written report, so I agree with asking to see a sample report. Most professional inspectors have a report on their website for anyone to see. A lot of very good home inspectors do not perform any other type of testing. They concentrate on what they know, and will recommend further inspections or evaluations if they think they’re needed. 

“4. Don’t just sit back and wait for the report. The best thing you can do is go along for the ride. Be at the inspector’s side and ask him about things that you don’t understand. It’s easier to get a clear picture when you are staring at the problem point blank then when you have a short remark about it on a piece of paper.” 

Randy says: I agree that meeting the inspector on site can be valuable. But, I have clients meet me at the end of the inspection. I do not give a “running commentary,” because I don’t really “know” everything until I’ve been in, out, up, down, on the roof, in the attic, etc. I would not want to distract my mechanic or doctor while they’re “inspecting.” I’d rather let them concentrate on their job and consult with me when they’re done. 

“5. Don’t rely on just one person to assess the state of the house. A property inspector is a jack of all trades, but the master of none. He can point you in the right direction and give you some basic information on the state of the plumbing, wiring, heating and structural integrity, but you will need to have a few specialists, e.g. electricians and plumbers, have a closer look at these specific aspects of your new home.” 

Randy says: I agree, sort of. Home inspectors in Arizona are required to recommend an appropriate expert if a ‘major defect’ is found. So get the home inspection first and you will already know you need a new roof. But if an experienced home inspector tells you the roof is in good condition overall but needs some maintenance or minor repairs, then you have reason to suspect a contractor that comes out and says you need a new roof. If nothing else, you will be wary enough to get another expert opinion. 

By Randy West on July 19, 2013 

 

‘One size fits all’ rules don’t work with energy codes for new construction 

The new 2012 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) requires stringent energy-efficient features in new construction. I was planning on writing a column about this; then I read an article in the June 28 Courier regarding this code (“New 2013 Prescott residential building and energy codes: A first in construction quality measurement” by Paul Scrivens). That article was very supportive of this new energy code; it did not have a single negative comment or warning. So I figured I’d write my column anyway and play the devil’s advocate. 

The 2012 IECC Code does have some sensible requirements that will benefit buyers of new homes. But the value of some requirements is debatable. And I wonder about a “one size fits all” energy code. The new code has “climate zones,” but some of these zones go coast to coast. Prescott is in zone 4. So are Seattle, Wash., and Washington, D.C. So is Long Island, N.Y., and Independence, Calif. (near Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the continental U.S.). The temperature, humidity and architecture are very different in these areas. Prescott has about 300 days of sunshine a year; Seattle has about 300 days of rain. Prescott has drastic temperature changes, both seasonally and daily. Seattle is near a coast and has mild temperature differences. But the same energy code will apply to all these areas. 

There were a couple of specific comments in that article that I feel compelled to respond to. 

“It means that new construction will be more durable and significantly better than construction older than 10 years.” How can we know this before the codes take effect? So many times new methods or products are not as good as older ones. I see the occasional 75-year-old boiler or 50-year-old water heater still in daily use. I can practically guarantee that new boilers and water heaters will not last this long. (And how can we forget people hoarding “Coke Classic”?) I especially have a problem with “significantly better.” Many of the energy efficient programs and requirements have backfired. They have caused indoor air quality, humidity and mold problems, premature failure of heating/cooling systems, etc. Scrivens’ article refers to the LEED and Energy Star programs, both of which have been sued for misleading information and claims. 

“This is the first time a builder will have to test his building for construction quality and provide energy efficiency results to the building department.” I quoted the entire sentence because I don’t want to take a statement out of context. However, the “and” in that sentence makes it sound like two separate comments. The first is that for the first time a builder will have his building tested for construction quality. This should be quite a surprise to all those builders who have to schedule and pass city or county inspections. It should be a surprise to all the city and county building departments and inspectors that inspect buildings every day. And it should be a surprise to the taxpayers and homebuyers who have been paying these inspectors and counting on them inspecting new homes before they are sold to the public. 

The article also talks about how “tight” the new homes will be. It refers to much lower air changes per hour (ACH) requirements. The low ACH, or in simpler terms, the lower natural ventilation, is part of the cause of indoor air quality problems in some energy efficient buildings. 

And are these new IECC code requirements cost-effective?’ Some states don’t think so and have amended, or not adopted at all, the 2012 IECC. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) estimates it will cost an additional $7,034 for new homes to meet the 2012 IECC code (nationwide average). The following is from the NAHB website: 

So don’t be in a rush to sell your 10-year-old home and buy a brand-new one. It will take several years to determine if the new energy codes are practical and cost-effective. 

By Randy West on July 5, 2013  

 

DON’T CUT CORNERS Proper installation, maintenance vital to deck safety 

Decks can increase the value of a home and provide convenient outdoor living space. Like most things in a home, they do require maintenance. The most obvious, of course, is maintaining the paint or stain to protect the wood surfaces from moisture damage. 

There have been many cases of decks collapsing around the country. In 2003, a deck in Chicago collapsed and 13 people were killed. This was a very unfortunate event, but at least it brought some national attention to deck failures. 

Most deck failures occur because the deck separates from the home. The most common way to secure a deck to a home is with a ledger board. The ledger board, usually a 2×10 or 2×12, is secured to the home, and the deck joists are secured to the ledger board with joist hangers. Joist hangers provide very strong support, assuming they are fastened properly. 

Most deck failures are from the ledger board separating from the home, and most ledger boards do not pull away from the home; they just fall straight down. This is a lack of shear strength. 

Ledger boards should be bolted to the home, but I find many that are just nailed or screwed. Nails and screws do not have near the shear strength of bolts. 

This is how I explain it: If you drive a nail into a wall or post and stand on it, the nail will not support your weight. It will either bend or break (assuming you’re not Twiggy). But if you screw a 1/2-inch bolt into a wall or post, it will support all your weight (assuming you’re not a sumo wrestler). 

So a home inspector will always recommend that a ledger board be bolted to a home, not just nailed. Ideally, the bolts should be staggered, one near the bottom of the ledger board and the next near the top. There is a good reason for this. In a deck failure several years ago, the ledger board was bolted to the home. But all the bolts were within an inch of the top of the ledger board. The ledger board did not come completely off in this case, but the entire 20-foot ledger board cracked along the bolts. The deck failed completely and fell to the ground, but the top one inch of the ledger board was still bolted to the home – now a 2×2 instead of a 2×12. So if the ledger board bolts are not staggered, they should not be near the top of the ledger board. 

There have been some deck collapses that were not shear strength failure. In one recent case, four people (a family that had just bought the house) walked onto the deck. The ledger board was only nailed to the home. They all stopped at the same time. Their momentum transferred to the deck and actually pulled the ledger board away from the home. I believe lag bolts would have prevented this because they would not have pulled out as easily as nails. (How do you remove a nail? You pull it straight out with a claw hammer or pliers. How do you remove a bolt? You can’t pull it out; you have to unscrew it.) 

There have been some deck failures in which lag bolts were installed, but they were only screwed into the exterior siding. The lag bolts need to penetrate the siding and go into framing, e.g. studs or more commonly the rim joist (exterior or perimeter joist). Unfortunately, it is very difficult to determine, in a visual inspection, if the lag bolts are secured into framing. Fortunately, most decks are built almost level with the interior floor, which means the ledger board is likely secured into the rim joist. 

The ledger board should also have flashing installed, so water running down the exterior wall cannot get between the ledger board and home. Water between the ledger board and exterior wall will eventually cause moisture damage to the ledger board. 

Many of the failed decks were not built by professionals. Some homeowners or “handymen” think it cannot be that difficult to build a deck. What they may not consider is the long-term performance of the deck, and the possibility of injury if the deck fails. 

You can nail a deck to a home, and it will feel very sturdy. For a while. Until the nails get a little rusty, or until the first time there are 15 people on the deck. You can neglect to install flashing at the ledger board and the deck will perform well for many years, until the moisture damage to the ledger board or corrosion on the fasteners reaches the breaking point. 

I don’t want you to be afraid to walk on and enjoy your deck. But I encourage you to inspect your deck at least once a year. When on the deck, check for moisture damage, loose surface boards or railings. You should check under the deck for visual defects. This could be moisture damage, loose fasteners, loose framing (especially the ledger board separating from the home), cracked or broken framing members, sagging beams,m bowed posts, etc. If anything does not look right to you for some reason, have the deck inspected by a professional. This will give you the peace of mind that will let you truly enjoy those evenings sitting on the deck with an adult beverage. 

By Randy West on June 21, 2013 

 

It’s time for air conditioner maintenance 

I hear people brag about how well they maintain their car or truck. They have the oil and filter changed every 5,000 miles, the tires rotated every 7,000 miles, all fluids and belts checked every 15,000 miles, etc. Once a month they check the tire pressure and fluid levels. Once a week they wash it. We have all seen ads for used cars or trucks that boast “all maintenance records,” “meticulously maintained,” or something similar. 

But for some reason, people aren’t as conscientious about regularly needed home maintenance. When I ask when they last had the gutters or chimneys cleaned or normal roof maintenance performed, most people don’t know. And these are just as important as those oil changes on the Ford. 

I usually recommend home maintenance just before the systems will get the most use. I check my chimneys in the fall just before it gets cold out. I check my gutters and downspouts just before monsoon season. And I check my air conditioner right about now – the same time I pull out the dog shears and cut off all my hair. (Seriously. If you went into attics every day for a week, you’d be cutting your hair, too.) 

Most people are pretty good about checking their furnace/air conditioner filter, and cleaning or changing it if needed. What happens if the filter get dirty? You don’t have proper airflow through the furnace heat exchanger or air conditioner evaporator coils. And low airflow means the furnace and air conditioner are not operating at peak efficiency. 

How often do you need to clean or replace your filter? This depends on many things, such as pets (hair) in the home, smokers in the home, how often you operate the system (some people like to open windows at night and only operate the air conditioner when it’s really hot), and other factors. I always recommend you check the filter once a month. After several months you will get a feel for how often your filter needs cleaning or changing. I’m very good at checking my filters once a month (because my wife reminds me the first of each month). 

But there’s another component in the air conditioning system than needs regular maintenance – the evaporator. This is the “heat exchanger” in the air conditioner. If the evaporator gets dirty, it can restrict airflow and it can restrict heat (or cool) transfer. Both of these can affect that check you write to APS every month. 

This year, I’m not going to have the air conditioner evaporators cleaned. Instead, I’m going to get an Advanced AC (Air Conditioner) Tune-Up. This is more than just checking the evaporator. The contractor also uses sophisticated equipment to check the airflow, refrigerant, and overall performance of the air conditioner. The best news is Arizona Public Service (APS, our electricity provider) is offering a $100 rebate for this service. The rebate program is explained in detail on the APS website. I went to aps.com, clicked on “save money and energy”, and then on “heating and cooling.” Here you will find information on several rebates, including the advanced ac tune-up. I’ve written in the past about some of these rebates, and it seems they are still in effect. Some other rebates may be interesting to you as well – check out the “house of rebates” page/graphic. 

Under this AC tune-up rebate information, the APS website states: “A recent study found that more than 55 percent of existing AC units had issues causing them to waste electricity in summer and winter. That costs you money.” There is also a lot of good information on this website under “Energy-Saving Tips.” 

To qualify for the rebate, you must be an APS customer; the air conditioner must be between 2 tons and 5 tons (almost all single-family home air conditioners are); and the air conditioner must be at least 3 years old. The other requirements are on the APS website. 

You also must use an APS-approved contractor. These contractors have that state-of-the-art equipment that is needed for this advanced tune up. There is a list of contractors on the APS website. One of the APS approved contractors for the Prescott area is Advantage Home Performance. I spoke with owner Mike Uniacke regarding this rebate program. My first question, of course, was, “How much?” The advanced air conditioner tune-up is $159. That’s before the rebate, so it actually only costs $59. This is a hot deal (sorry). 

Mike was very proud and impressed with his company’s Stargate. This is not a gate to another universe; it is that advanced diagnostic equipment that APS requires. Mike referred to it as a “21st-century diagnostic tool.” I didn’t ask, but I’m pretty sure it cost more than my SUV. It sounds like it costs more, anyway. 

I found a lot of information on the advantagehomeperformance.com website, too, including some good videos. In one video, Mike states that if just 5 percent of your attic insulation is missing, it can reduce the attic insulation R factor (efficiency) by 50 percent. I had heard this statistic before, and have mentioned it to some of my clients. Think about that for a second. Just 5 percent missing attic insulation can cut your total attic insulation efficiency by 50 percent. You might want to check into the APS insulation rebate as well. 

By Randy West on June 7, 2013 

 

Volume vs pressure high pressure vs low volume 

Courier column may 24 

poor functional flow can lead to angry naked men or poor water pressure can lead to angry naked men 

  

We have all experienced poor ‘functional flow’. This is a loss of water pressure when turning on two plumbing fixtures at the same time. (Fixtures refers to anything that ‘uses’ water, e.g. showers, sinks, toilets, etc.) Home inspectors are required to check functional flow. In fact, we’re required to use the term ‘functional flow’ in our report, or describe the method we used for testing functional flow. 

Function flow is usually most noticeable in bathrooms, especially when there is a large ‘garden’ or whirlpool bathtub. When you turn on the tub faucet you lose pressure at the other fixtures. Sometimes there is a common plumbing wall between the tub and a separate shower stall, so the tub and shower faucets are virtually next to each other. This can cause a substantial loss of pressure at the shower when the tub faucet is turned on. 

There is always some loss of pressure when turning on two faucets at the same time. What we are concerned about is a significant loss, which can actually affect the water temperature at fixtures. The worse functional flow I ever saw was when I was stationed at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois for a few months. And of course the Air Force sent me from New Mexico to Illinois in the middle of winter. I had to stay in the barracks, and the large common (only) bathroom was on the second floor over a breezeway. This made the bathroom itself cold, and the cold water was about 4 degrees above freezing. The shower stall had 6 or 8 showerheads (modesty was not good a thing to have in the military). When someone flushed a toilet, the water temperature at the showers immediately went to just below scalding. You always yelled “flush!!” just before flushing a toilet. And everyone in the shower automatically stepped back out of the water. (You only forgot to yell “flush” once, because getting towel-whipped by six angry wet naked men was a hard lesson to forget.) 

I only recommend trying to improve poor functional flow if it is significant. In older homes, poor functional flow can be caused by ‘hardening of the arteries’ in galvanized plumbing pipes. Galvanized pipes will corrode on the inside, making the inside diameter of the pipe smaller and smaller. I’ve seen 1 inch piping with so much corrosion you couldn’t fit a pencil into it. In this case an inspector is likely to recommend further review by a licensed plumber. 

Poor functional flow can be hard to check if you can’t see the fixtures involved. I lived in a home once with a hose faucet right outside the bathroom. If someone turned on the hose faucet while the shower was in use, the water pressure dropped a lot in the shower. There is no way to test for this in a home inspection. 

Now I have to tell you that everything you just read is wrong. Functional flow has nothing to do with pressure. Functional flow is a loss of volume, not pressure. In fact, the definition of functional flow in the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors is “A reasonable flow at the highest fixture in a dwelling when another fixture is operated simultaneously.” 

I have used the term pressure so far because that’s what most people call it- poor ‘pressure’ at the sink or shower. But the pressure will be the same at every fixture in the home (in a single level home, the pressure may be slightly lower in upper levels). If the water pressure at the hose faucet is 50 psi (pounds per square inch), the water pressure at the shower, toilet, and icemaker line to the freezer is also 50 psi. 

I know this confuses some people. Consider it this way. You have 50 psi water pressure in your home. It takes you 10 minutes to full your bathtub using the tub faucet. Now imagine filling the bathtub with a little ¼ inch water line, like you see for icemakers or evaporative coolers. It would obviously take much longer to fill the tub. The pressure at the ¼ inch line is 50 psi, just like at the tub faucet. But the volume of water coming out a ¼ inch line is much less. This is why a large bathtub can cause poor functional flow. Large tubs usually have high-volume faucets, so they will fill faster. 

Home inspectors also report on water pressure. The recommended water pressure for a home is 40 to 60 psi. Water pressure above 80 psi can be hard on plumbing lines and fixtures. Clothes washers and dishwashers are especially susceptible to high water pressure. These appliances use rubber hoses with clamps- the water lines are not soldered or glued together. They use hot water, which can make the hoses ‘soft’, and they vibrate when in use, making it more likely for a hose to break or come loose. And they are inside a home, where a broken water line can cause water damage to expensive cabinets or floor coverings. 

Our water pressure is often over 80 psi. In fact, in areas it’s over 100 psi (I stopped buying the 80 psi max gauges after I broke a few at homes with 115 psi). It’s easy to control your water pressure with a pressure regulator. Pressure regulators are installed in the main water line and the maximum water pressure can be adjusted. Most newer homes in our area have a pressure regulator installed. If you home does not have one, the good news is pressure regulators only cost about $30. Of course plumbers cost about $5000 an hour…. 

  

By Randy West on May 24, 2013 

 

Poor functional water flow can lead to angry, naked men 

We have all experienced poor “functional flow.” This is a loss of water pressure when turning on two plumbing fixtures at the same time. (Fixtures refer to anything that uses water, e.g. showers, sinks, toilets, etc.) Home inspectors are required to check functional flow. In fact, we’re required to use the term “functional flow” in our report, or describe the method we used for testing functional flow. 

Functional flow is usually most noticeable in bathrooms, especially when there is a large “garden” or whirlpool bathtub. When you turn on the tub faucet, you lose pressure at the other fixtures. Sometimes there is a common plumbing wall between the tub and a separate shower stall, so the tub and shower faucets are virtually next to each other. This can cause a substantial loss of pressure at the shower when the tub faucet is turned on. 

There is always some loss of pressure when turning on two faucets at the same time. What we are concerned about is a significant loss, which can actually affect the water temperature at fixtures. The worse functional flow I ever saw was when I was stationed at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois for a few months. And, of course, the Air Force sent me from New Mexico to Illinois in the middle of winter. I had to stay in the barracks, and the large common (only) bathroom was on the second floor over a breezeway. This made the bathroom itself cold, and the cold water was about 4 degrees above freezing. The shower stall had six or eight showerheads (modesty was not a good thing to have in the military). When someone flushed a toilet, the water temperature at the showers immediately went to just below scalding. You always yelled “flush!” just before flushing a toilet. And everyone in the shower automatically stepped back out of the water. (You only forgot to yell “flush” once, because getting towel-whipped by six angry wet naked men was a hard lesson to forget). 

I only recommend trying to improve poor functional flow if it is significant. In older homes, poor functional flow can be caused by “hardening of the arteries” in galvanized plumbing pipes. Galvanized pipes will corrode on the inside, making the inside diameter of the pipe smaller and smaller. I’ve seen 1-inch piping with so much corrosion you couldn’t fit a pencil into it. In this case, an inspector is likely to recommend further review by a licensed plumber. 

Poor functional flow can be hard to check if you can’t see the fixtures involved. I lived in a home once with a hose faucet right outside the bathroom. If someone turned on the hose faucet while the shower was in use, the water pressure dropped a lot in the shower. There is no way to test for this in a home inspection. 

Now I have to tell you that everything you just read is wrong. Functional flow has nothing to do with pressure. Functional flow is a loss of volume, not pressure. In fact, the definition of functional flow in the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors is “a reasonable flow at the highest fixture in a dwelling when another fixture is operated simultaneously.” 

I have used the term “pressure” so far because that’s what most people call it – poor “pressure” at the sink or shower. But the pressure will be the same at every fixture in the home in a single-level home (the pressure may be slightly lower in upper levels). If the water pressure at the hose faucet is 50 psi (pounds per square inch), the water pressure at the shower, toilet and icemaker line to the freezer is also 50 psi. 

I know this confuses some people. Consider it this way. You have 50 psi water pressure in your home. It takes you 10 minutes to full your bathtub using the tub faucet. Now imagine filling the bathtub with a little 1/4-inch water line, like you see for icemakers or evaporative coolers. It would obviously take much longer to fill the tub. The pressure at the 1/4-inch line is 50 psi, just like at the tub faucet. But the volume of water coming out of a 1/4-inch line is much less. This is why a large bathtub can cause poor functional flow. Large tubs usually have high-volume faucets, so they will fill faster. 

Home inspectors also report on water pressure. The recommended water pressure for a home is 40 to 60 psi. Water pressure above 80 psi can be hard on plumbing lines and fixtures. Clothes washers and dishwashers are especially susceptible to high water pressure. These appliances use rubber hoses with clamps – the water lines are not soldered or glued together. They use hot water, which can make the hoses soft, and they vibrate when in use, making it more likely for a hose to break or come loose. And they are inside a home, where a broken water line can cause water damage to expensive cabinets or floor coverings. 

Our water pressure is often over 80 psi. In fact, in areas it’s over 100 psi (I stopped buying the 80 psi max gauges after I broke a few at homes with 115 psi). 

It’s easy to control your water pressure with a pressure regulator. Pressure regulators are installed in the main water line and the maximum water pressure can be adjusted. Most newer homes in our area have a pressure regulator installed. If your home does not have one, the good news is pressure regulators only cost about $30. Of course, plumbers cost about $5,000 an hour. 

By Randy West on May 23, 2013 

 

Determining roof shingle age is difficult 

This week’s email: “I am very upset with a local home inspector. My home is 15 years old, but I had the roof shingles replaced five years ago. In his report, the inspector said the shingles looked original. He also recommended cutting all the doors one inch off the tile floors. I’ve never heard of such a thing! -RM, Prescott Valley.” 

A: It can be hard to tell the age of roof shingles. I have inspected 5-year-old homes where the roof shingles looked at least 10 years old. And I have inspected 15-year-old homes where the shingles looked closer to five years, but were original. Shingles that start showing wear in five years usually deteriorate slowly and hang in there year after year. Shingles that manage to look very good for 10 years can deteriorate rapidly as they reach the end of their useful life. 

Regarding cutting doors off the floor, this is recommended if there is a central heating system in the home and the return air vent is in the hall. This allows heated (or cooled) air to circulate back through the furnace. In many manufactured homes, there are vents through the walls over the bedroom doors to allow air to circulate. In some newer site-built homes there are “jump ducts,” ducts from the bedrooms out to the hallway. Jump ducts are usually in the ceiling, and often come out in the hall near the return air vent. 

If there are no vents through the wall or jump ducts into a bedroom, the room can become “pressurized.” This can make the room warmer or cooler than the rest of the home. It can also cause “pressure” in the ducts to this room, causing leakage out of the ducts (into the attic, or wherever the ducts are located). And this will “depressurize” the rest of the home, since the furnace is pulling more out of that area that it is putting in. This will “pull” outside air into the home, further reducing the efficiency of the furnace and air conditioner. 

Many times I have found a master bedroom suite with three or more supply vents and the door very close to the floor. I will turn on the furnace blower and close the master bedroom door most of the way, and it will “blow” closed. I show this to my clients while explaining why this is a concern, and then tell them to open the door slowly. You can feel the air rushing out of the master bedroom; sometimes it will even whistle as it blows out. 

By Randy West on May 2, 2013 

 

For many questions, there is more than one answer 

Humans make mistakes. And, contrary to what some believe, home inspectors are human. And we have all made mistakes. 

One mistake is to miss a defect or condition we should have reported on. But I want to talk about the “opposite” mistake – an inspector recommending an improvement that is not “required.” Sellers and contractors seem to take great pleasure in letting us know when we make these mistakes. Of course, I understand a seller being upset if he had an electrician or plumber come to his home (and possibly pay for a service call) only to be told there is nothing wrong. 

If I see something during an inspection that I have not seen before, I will research it before making any comments in a report. This is very easy nowadays with the internet and Google. There is no reason for a home inspector not to do a little research if needed. 

However, even with research, there can be more than one “right” answer. Every local jurisdiction can adopt a code with “exceptions,” or require items in addition to the code. And sometimes local jurisdictions don’t actually “except” something in the code, but don’t really enforce it. 

Now you’re beginning to understand a home inspector’s dilemma. We may report on a condition that is required in a code, but has been “excepted” or is not enforced by the local jurisdiction. Technically, the inspector may be correct about a code requiring something, but if it is not enforced locally, should he or she recommend improvement? 

Online home inspector forums are a great resource. I have asked questions on these forums and received excellent answers. I read these forums occasionally just for the information. Recently, an inspector asked if a GFCI outlet was required at an outlet by a toilet. GFCI outlets have a test and reset button on them and are commonly found in bathrooms, kitchens, garages, etc. These are “shock preventer” outlets. Note that a GFCI often protects all “downstream” outlets. So in newer homes, it is common for one GFCI outlet in a garage or kitchen to protect all outlets in that room, and a GFCI outlet in a bathroom often protects outlets in other bathrooms. 

Now you would think asking if a GFCI outlet is needed by a toilet is a pretty simple “yes or no” answer. But following are the actual answers from a forum. I edited some responses, and removed the names and just referred to Answer 1, etc. 

Question: I inspected a home today and there was a non-gfi outlet next to the toilet. Should this be a GFCI outlet? 

Answer: 1) Did you test it to see if it’s GFCI protected? 

A2) There is a 6-foot circle around a water supply where outlets must have GFCI protection. 

A3) Sorry A2, but your answer is inaccurate. From the 2006 IRC (code): All 125-volt receptacles in a bathroom shall have GFCI protection. 

A4) A2, PLEASE be careful making blanket statements like this. Be SURE you are correct. Your answer is wrong on several levels. “Water source” is NOT a term used in the NEC (or anywhere else I know of). The 6-foot rule only applies to certain areas with sinks. Many areas, like bathrooms and garages, are all encompassing. It’s not “any electrical outlets.” For the most part, 120V receptacles need to be GFI protected. Some areas require GFCI protection for lighting outlets, too, but that is rare. 

A5) What if the toilet is in a separate room off the bath, with its own door? Is this still considered part of the bathroom? 

A6) Good question, A5. A closet in a bedroom is considered a different room and does not require AFI protection. 

A7) A separation between the toilet and the tub does not constitute a separation from the toilet being in the bathroom. Also, just to put it out there, GFCI receptacles are required to be “tamper resistant” per 406.11. The code states receptacles and does not provide the adjective GFCI. Does that mean that GFCI receptacles are not required to be tamper resistant? My response to such contentions is: “Why do they manufacture T/R GFCI receptacles?” 

A8) I think everyone is trying to interpret the exact wording of a code instead of applying common sense. Someone could plug in a radio and set it on the edge of the tub. I would recommend installing the GFCI, regardless of the wording of the code. That way if they do not install it, and someone gets zapped, they can’t blame you because your report called it out as unsafe and recommended a GFCI. Look at the intent of the code: to protect someone from electric shock in a wet area. 

A9) A8, as an HI you can suggest whatever you feel will enhance safety. However, a code inspector cannot look at intent. They can only enforce the words that are in black and white. If it does not meet the definition of a bathroom because it lacks one of the required elements then GFI protection is not needed and cannot be required. You may not like it but the inspector cannot require the code to be exceeded. 

A10) The outlet was most likely installed so that a toilet seat with all the bells and whistles (heater, fan, spray noz-zles, etc) could be plugged in. I would definitely not want to put my butt on such a toilet seat if the electrical supply to it was not GFCI protected. 

A11) I agree that if you had an accessory that required GFCI protection for a receptacle adjacent to a toilet,then it must be provided. But if the toilet is in a separate room then it would not require GFCI protection. 

A12) NEC definition of bathroom — An area including a basin with one or more of the following: a toilet, a urinal, a tub, a shower, a bidet, or similar plumbing fixtures. Don’t get too hung up on “room” in bathroom. Room changes what we are talking about. It is an area we are talking about, so the separation by walls and/or doors does not matter. Definitely needs 210.8(A) GFCI protection. 

A13) What about a toilet in a laundry room with no sink? So this is not a “bathroom,” so is GFCI protection required? 

It’s me again. I thought I knew the answer to this question – until I read this forum. 

By Randy West on April 18, 2013 

 

Furnace on roof not as counterintuitive as it seems 

I received the following email from a recent client. I left out the “attaboys,” because you all already know how great I am! 

“Randy, I have a concern with the furnace. You stated the furnace and air conditioner are a single unit on the roof (a “gaspack”). This seems like a very inefficient location to me. When it’s very cold out and we’re using the furnace, the furnace will be out there in the freezing cold. And when we need to use the air conditioning, the air conditioner will be up there on the very hot roof. And the ducts must be routed through the attic, which will also be cold when we need heat and hot when we need air conditioning. Would it be a major expense to have the furnace moved inside the home? Maybe in the left hall closet?” 

First, here is a definition of “gaspack.” This is a generic term for a furnace and air conditioner in a single unit. It’s like saying Kleenex when you need a tissue. Most gaspacks in our area are on the roof, although I also see them in the yard on occasion. All major furnace manufacturers make gaspacks. 

So, let’s think about this a little. With the typical split system, the furnace and/or air handler (“blower”) are in the home, or garage, crawlspace or attic. And the air conditioner compressor is in the yard somewhere. There are refrigerant lines between the air handler and compressor. So you lose some efficiency in the refrigerant lines, especially if there is a long run between the air handler and compressor. You lose more efficiency if the insulation on the refrigerant lines is damaged or missing. Poor insulation will allow condensation to form on the line. I have found many interior ceiling stains that are the result of missing/damaged insulation on an air conditioner refrigerant line in the attic. 

Having the furnace and air conditioner in a single unit eliminates the refrigerant lines, which likely makes up for the air handler being in the cold or heat, and eliminates the chance of further lost efficiency or condensate damage from poor insulation on the refrigerant lines. (Keep in mind the compressor is always outside somewhere). 

Most newer homes that don’t have a gaspack have a furnace in the garage. I frequently see them in the attic, and occasionally in the crawlspace. I very rarely find a furnace inside the living area on a newer home. So the air handler is usually in a cold or cool location in the winter and warm or hot location in the summer anyway. 

And finally, we get to combustion air. A gas appliance needs a lot of combustion air. The ratio of air to natural gas is at 10 to 1. It takes 10 parts air with 1 part natural gas for the mixture to burn properly. And excess air (meaning an amount above that needed for proper combustion) is needed to ensure proper combustion and drafting. So any gas appliance inside a home will be using a lot of the interior air. 

Often combustion air from the exterior is required. You have likely seen “high” and “low” combustion air vents, e.g., in a garage, laundry room or furnace closet. The water heaters in manufactured homes are usually in an exterior closet, and the closet door will have a high and low combustion air vent (assuming it’s a gas water heater). Combustion air can be provided from the exterior (vents through an exterior wall), crawlspace or attic, or some combination of these. Newer manufactured homes have combustion air vents in the water heater closet floor and ceiling rather than the door. 

So a gas appliance inside the living area will be “using” interior air. This air will be replaced by air leaking in around doors, windows, etc. And/or there will be combustion air vents allowing cold or hot air to enter the home. This would seem to make a furnace inside the home less efficient than a furnace in an attic or garage. 

Note: Before you start emailing me! There are newer high-efficiency furnaces that get their combustion air from a plastic vent to the exterior. This vent can be part of the exhaust vent pipe or a separate vent pipe. Obviously, these furnaces do not “use” interior air or require exterior combustion air. But I do not see these that often inside a home, and often when I do, there is no combustion air pipe installed, so they are still using interior air for combustion and drafting. 

Now to answer your question (I know – finally!). I have never recommended moving a gas furnace to inside the living area. I have recommended the opposite, usually as a discretionary improvement on an older home. 

By Randy West on March 14, 2013 

 

Concrete answers on post tensions slabs 

Question: I have a label in my garage floor saying I have a post tension slab – “do not cut or drill.” I want to build some interior walls in my home. I was planning on securing the walls to the floor with a ram set. Is there any concern using a ram set on a post tension slab? (And by the way, what exactly is a post tension slab)? 

Answer: I’ve been asked about post tension slabs before. Before I explain post tension slabs, I need to explain two forces. These forces are tension and compression. These are very important in the construction industry, and a home inspector must be very aware of these forces. Compression and tension affect any building material in different ways. 

An easy way to explain this would be compression is trying to squeeze something together, and tension is trying to pull something apart. Some materials have better compression strength than tension strength, and vice versa. Some materials in a building are under both forces at the same time. For example a beam that is sagging in the center has compression along the top and tension along the bottom. 

Concrete has very good compression strength. It’s pretty darn hard to damage concrete by compressing it, (although not impossible). Concrete does not have good tension strength. Concrete can be damaged by pulling it apart easier than by pushing it together. So concrete makes a great column, since gravity will ensure the column is under compression. And concrete makes a good driveway to support heavy vehicles. But a driveway can be damaged by a heavy vehicle on the edges – because it does not have good tension strength. 

Now think of a steel cable, which has excellent tension strength. Imagine two people having a tug of war with a steel cable. The cable will not “give,” the stronger person will pull/move the weaker person. But if those two people walk toward each other, the cable will simply sag because it has virtually no compression strength. 

So if we put a cable with excellent tension strength in a concrete slab that has good compression strength, we should end up with stronger concrete. We have always done this to some extent, usually with rebar (metal bars) in the concrete. In fact, rebar is short for reinforcing bar. 

Using cables, which are actually called tendons, should provide more strength than rebar. The tendons are in plastic sleeves, and protrude from each end of the slab. The tendons are tightened after the concrete is partially cured. Because the tendons are literally tightened and under tension, they provide more tension strength than rebar. The “post” in post tension means the tension was put on the tendons after (post) the concrete was poured. 

There is usually a stamp in the garage floor stating there is a post tension slab and saying not to drill into the concrete. You can usually spot a post tension slab without seeing the stamp. There will be small round patches on the outside edges of the slab. This is where they tightened and then cut off the tendons. 

I would never drill or saw into a post tension slab. The tendons are under a lot of tension. If you cut through a tendon there is a possibility of injury, and it will weaken the concrete. The question was regarding a ram set. This is a device that shoots nails into concrete using powder shell similar to a gun. I personally would not use a ram set either. If you are adding interior walls and they are not bearing walls (e.g. they are not supporting the weight above), I would clean the concrete under the new wall thoroughly, and use adhesive to secure the new wall to the concrete. Newer adhesives are amazingly effective. 

Assuming the adhesive is effective, the only reason you would need nails would be to resist extreme lateral movement. So unless the wall is a backstop for football practice, or is in a location where the kid with poor brakes parks his car, the adhesive should be adequate. If I was really concerned about lateral movement of the new wall, I would use an adhesive and perhaps install a few short concrete nails. I would make sure the nails don’t go more than a 1/4 inch into the concrete. But I strongly recommend not using any nails or mechanical fasteners on a post tension slab. 

I heard somebody comment recently that gutters were not needed on his home because the home has a post tension slab that would not settle. This is inaccurate. 

Post tension slabs are used more often where there is expansive soil. We have expansive soil in Arizona, and, as a matter of fact, we have expansive soil in Prescott and Prescott Valley. So we have some homes with post tension slabs in our area. 

Post tension slabs are less susceptible to movement but not immune. And site drainage is just as important on homes with post tension slabs. In fact, it could be argued, site drainage is more important because the post tension slab suggests there may be expansive soil. 

No masonry product is waterproof. Water will seep through concrete, blocks, bricks, stucco, etc. So if there is water ponding against your home or foundation, the water can seep through into the soil under the slab. If there is expansive soil, water can cause the soil to expand and damage any slab, including a post tension slab. It is very important to maintain good drainage around any home, no matter what type of foundation or slab you have. 

By Randy West on February 21, 2013 

 

Invisible risk: Gas fireplaces near opening windows require proper venting 

I want to relate a phone call I had several years ago, partly because it shows my warped sense of humor and unparalleled professionalism when dealing with people who are likely very unhappy souls. And partly because it is a great way to describe a potential hazard found in many Prescott-area homes. 

First, I have to explain what the phone call was about. I inspected a home in Prescott with a gas-only fireplace that vents out an exterior wall. These are very common. Most gas appliances are used to produce heat, such as furnaces, water heaters and cooking ranges. The flame at these appliances is adjusted for optimal efficiency. The flame is mostly blue and there is usually little carbon monoxide in the exhaust gas. 

The flame in a gas fireplace burner is adjusted to simulate a wood fire more than to produce maximum heat, and there is usually a lot of carbon monoxide in the exhaust gas. I usually find over 100 ppm (parts per million) of carbon monoxide in a gas fireplace exhaust, and sometimes much more. 

For this reason, many areas in the country do not allow a gas fireplace vent in an exterior wall to be near any opening into the home, for example, doors or opening windows. I find these vents within a couple feet of windows all the time in our area. I always report that this installation is common in our area. And I point out that if a window near the fireplace vent is open when the fireplace is operating, it is possible for the exhaust gas and carbon monoxide to enter the home. 

Sometimes I find a gas fireplace in the corner of the living room. The vent on the exterior wall is not only close to a living room window, it is close to a bedroom window. In my opinion, this is a larger concern. Now there could be an open window and carbon monoxide entering a room, and the person in that room does not even know the fireplace is in use. And if whoever was up last didn’t turn off the fireplace, it could be operating all night while someone was sleeping in that bedroom. 

Now for the phone call. This was after I inspected a home with a corner fireplace like I just described. This is very close to verbatim, except for the word “idiot.” The caller used a different word, which I’m quite sure the Courier would not publish. 

Me: Good morning, this is Randy. 

Caller: What kind of idiot are you? (This was really the very first thing he said.) 

Me: I don’t know. Tell me the different kinds, and I’ll tell which kind I am. (At this point, I thought it was one of my biker buddies calling me, likely harassing me again for riding a Honda.) 

Caller: Don’t you know you won’t have a window open and a fireplace going at the same time? 

Me: (After thinking for a moment) Is this regarding the home I inspected yesterday? 

Caller: Yes! 

Me: And who am I speaking with? 

Caller: The owner! 

Me. Well, let me give you one scenario that is possible. The wife is in the living room playing Monopoly with the kids. It’s not that cold out, but she has the fireplace going because it’s pretty to look at. You’re in the master bedroom watching the Cardinals lose another game, which is easily believable. To me, you seem like the type of person that is easily upset. So you’re getting mad at the game and start shouting. Your wife closes the bedroom door so the kids won’t hear. Now you start pacing around, and you open a window. YOU COULD DIE! 

“Now if I was a type A idiot I would have written “YOU COULD DIE!” in the report. But all I did was point out the potential hazard, and strongly recommend my clients install a carbon monoxide detector in the living room and master bedroom. I would say that makes me a type B idiot, wouldn’t you agree? 

Caller: Click! 

That call was many years ago, but I’ll never forget it (probably because of the first six words). Keep in mind that gas fireplaces are very safe. In fact, I’ve rarely found any concerns with a gas-only fireplace (with no opening door to the burn chamber). The exhaust gas at a wall-vented fireplace can be a concern if the vent is near an opening window, and I do recommend installing a carbon monoxide detector in rooms with windows near a fireplace exhaust vent. 

I owned and lived in a home in Prescott with a gas-only fireplace like I described above – the exterior vent was on a wall between the living room and master bedroom windows. I took my own advice and installed a carbon monoxide detector in the living room and master bedroom. Of course, in my reports I state that a carbon monoxide detector is a smart idea in any home with any type of gas or wood-burning appliance, including a gas furnace, water heater or cooking range. 

By Randy West on February 7, 2013 

 

Fire sprinkler debate continues to smolder 

It is not unusual at all that I receive several emails after my columns are printed. It is not that unusual that I receive a phone call. Typically, these are almost always people who disagree with my column – especially the phone calls. (No one calls to say “nice job,” but people will call to say “you idiot”). 

Last time I wrote about Dave, a retired firefighter who is building a home in Prescott. He is appealing the requirement for a fire sprinkler system in his new home. He has spoken to thePrescott City Council and will speak (or perhaps has spoken by now) to the Fire Board of Appeals. Dave called me and pointed out some inaccuracies in my column. (He didn’t start off by calling me an idiot, so we had a pretty good conversation). 

Dave is speaking to the City Council and the Fire Board of Appeals on two different matters, which was not clear in my last column (because it was not clear to me). So let’s talk about the Board of Appeals first. 

Anyone building a home, contractor or homeowner, can ask a building official to approve changes or exemptions from the building code. For clarity, the building code usually refers to the building official, but it is a similar process with a Board of Appeals. 

These changes can be for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the owners do not want crawlspace vents visible on the front of the home, so they ask to install additional ventilation on the other walls or a power ventilator of some type. A builder can request that tempered glass not have the bugs (small stamps in the corner stating the glass is tempered – I personally don’t see why a bug would be that much of a concern). On the national level, there is one automatic garage door opener that does not require the beam at the bottom of the door, because the manufacturer provided proof that this opener is safe enough without the beam. 

The point is, if you want to change something in the building plans, or something that is required by the current building codes, there is a process to do so. You will need to convince the building official that the changes will not compromise the structural or safety intentions of the code. 

So Dave is asking the Fire Board of Appeals to exempt his home from a fire sprinkler system. I don’t know if he has taken other measures. Perhaps he has incorporated fire resistant building materials and/or construction techniques in his home. I do not have a problem with someone using this appeal process – that’s what it’s there for. 

Dave is speaking to the Prescott City Council regarding requirements for a fire sprinkler system in all new homes, not regarding his home that is under construction. He feels that requiring a fire sprinkler system puts a financial burden on builders or owners, that the current requirements could be construed to require sprinklers in homes that really don’t need them, and that this is another case of the government interfering with individual freedoms. He points out that Arizona passed a bill that prohibits any municipality from requiring fire sprinklers in new homes, but Prescott’s requirements were “grandfathered” in. 

I believe Dave has every right to ask the City Council for this. And I believe that Dave’s motives are not selfish – he is protesting what he considers “Big Brother” putting more regulations on us. 

In my last column, I said I thought sprinklers were the best thing since sliced bread, and should be required in all new homes. I did, and do still, believe that they can save personal property and limit most fires to a small area. I also said that sprinkler systems have likely saved many lives and prevented many injuries. 

Dave sent me some very persuasive information regarding fire sprinklers. To summarize some of these: Since 1994 there have been no first responder (fireman) deaths at residential fires in Arizona, there is a 94.5 percent chance of surviving a fire when working smoke detectors are present, only 1.67 percent of “unintentional-injury home deaths” in Arizona are fire related, and the chance of a fire-related death increases in older homes. (In my last column I argued about the chance of fires starting in older homes, not the chance of fire injuries or deaths in older homes). 

So Dave has convinced me that fire sprinklers may not be the life- savers I thought they were. It is obvious (and sensible when you think about it) that smoke detectors are much more likely to save a life than fire sprinklers, at least in single-family homes. 

One of the stated concerns (by the Prescott Fire Department) was that a home fire could spread to a neighborhood or forest fire. When I was building homes in the Colorado mountains in the 1980s, the fire department would sometimes require a water storage tank. So I would not have a problem requiring sprinkler systems in homes with poor access. One of Dave’s concerns is that the current requirements are too open to interpretation. 

I still personally think fire sprinklers are a good idea. I would pay the extra money to install them in my own home if I were building a new home. This is because I still believe that if a fire starts in a home when no one is present, there is likely to be much less damage if a fire sprinkler system is installed. But I can see Dave’s point that it should be up to the homeowner if he wants to install them. 

By Randy West on January 3, 2013