Susan West

Associate Broker

Daily Courier Articles 

2017 

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Happy New Year and a Swan Song 

Hello to 2018, and goodbye to Randy West 

I was cleaning out my old photos and I came across some of a home I inspected many years ago. The home had a lot of, shall we say, happy homeowner handiwork. 

There were lights with no fixtures — the bulbs were soldered directly to the wires. There was an in-wall electric heater directly over a toilet that would burn your scalp and probably start your shirt on fire if you sat too long. There was no drain pipe under the kitchen sink, instead there was a 5-gallon bucket with an attached garden hose routed out the exterior wall. 

There was a “solar hot water” system that consisted of an open galvanized tank on the roof. You opened one faucet to fill the tank (“stop if you see water draining past the window”). Then another valve to gravity feed a faucet at the kitchen sink. 

There also was a generator in the garage, and the exhaust was routed out a window with what looked like an undersized and severely damaged dryer duct. The window was so high that no exhaust was making it out the window, it was all leaking out of the duct into the garage. 

There were notes all over the place on how to operate the switches and devices — this note was my favorite! I can’t copy/paste from a photograph, but I transcribed these instructions as exactly as I could. My spell checker corrected some words, but my grammar checker failed about half way through: 

“Instructions To Operate Astron Hot Water Heater” 

To Activate The Astron Water heater, Place the Three Valves marked A B and C in the Horizontal position, that is, the Red handles will be laying down. You may have to force the cold water pipe just a little to get the large Red handle to lay down horizontal. After all three Red handles are down, run the hot water in the kitchen till all air is out of the line (NO MORE SPEWING AT THE FAUCET.) Now start the generator, plug in the charge cable and waite till the system goes into the CHARGE mode. The yellow light will glow on the Trace inverter indicating BULK CHARGE. Now plug in the power cable on the ASTRON heater into the wall socket on the other side of the short wall, then flip on the switch on the front of the ASTRON heater. 

In about one hour or less the water should be HOT. You now have about 4 gallons of HOT water. When finished, turn off the ASTRON water heater, unplug its cable from the wall socket and return all three RED VALVES A B and C to their vertical position. This is the normal position for SOLAR HOT WATER. You may now turn off the Generator.” 
So, to get hot water to the bathroom you had to move valves, go start the generator in the garage, risk your life plugging in cords near the Trace inverter panel, ‘waite’ one hour, and you’ll have 4 gallons of hot water. Enough water for my wife to wash her hair (not rinse it, just wash it). 
I remember the generator was in the garage, the water heater in a basement room, the “Trace inverter” in a different room, and the water heater cord in a third room (sort of, this was a half-height wall). If there were several “panels” on the walls, this would have looked right at home in a 1950 science fiction movie. These had combinations of 120 and 12-volt wiring, fuses and breakers, speakers, solenoids, timers, and devices with no known nomenclature. 

New subject 

I’ve always tried to inject a little humor in my columns. About 10 years ago I wrote that the words “homeowner maintenance” are mutually exclusive, like “military intelligence.” That was when I first realized how many people read my column. I received many emails from irate veterans. In the next column I explained that I am a vet, as was my father. In the column I was referring to the poor intelligence/information that the military receives, not the IQ of the military members. 

I’ve also been known to ramble off course in these columns. Several years ago I got a speeding ticket from that stupid photo van in Prescott Valley. It was at the bottom of the hill on Stoneridge, and probably caught a few hundred people. In my next column I raged about these cameras, but you never saw that column. I received an email from editor Tim Wiederaenders saying he would like to see the word “home” or “inspector” at least once in my columns. 

As I mentioned I was going through old home inspector photos. Actually I was archiving the photos, and all my other home inspector folders. That’s because at the end of the year (a couple days), I’m getting archived myself — at least from the home inspector profession. 

This will be my last “ask the inspector” column. It’s hard to believe the first column was in the Dec. 7, 2005, Courier. Thirteen years and a few hundred columns. I enjoyed writing every one of them. And I enjoyed reading the countless emails I’ve received from these columns. 

Some of you emailed me several times, a few emailed me frequently. Some dared to disagree with me. Some even made suggestions that are impossible with human anatomy. And I even enjoyed reading those. 

Thank all of you for reading my columns over the years! 

By Randy West on December 29, 2017 

 

Slippery steps and hiding handrails, oh my! part II 

“We’re selling a 90-year-old house, and the home inspector cost us a sale. He wrote up the steps and handrails, bedroom escape windows, a water heater in a bathroom, among other things. 

“It would be impossible to change the stairs, and it would take many thousands of dollars to change the other things. We have lost this sale now. 

“A contractor friend said these things are grandfathered in and old homes don’t need to meet new home requirements. So how can home inspectors report on these items? This is just extreme CYA and not professional inspecting.” 

This is the same question that started my last column, when I explained that ‘grandfathering’ refers to contractors and the building department. You are not required to ‘update’ your home every time a new code book comes out. This would be almost impossible. The writer is complaining that the inspector mentioned unusually steep stairs. 

What if the inspector said nothing about the stairs, and the buyer moved in and someone fell down the stairs and got injured (or worse). What would we be saying about that inspector now? 

The writer’s inspection report stated the stairs are “unsafe” and recommended a licensed contractor to “evaluate and repair as needed.” 

I explained last time that home inspectors are regulated in Arizona, and are required to report on anything that could be a “…risk of personal injury during normal, day to day use. The risk may be due to damage, deterioration, improper installation or a change in residential construction standards.” 

And the Standards require inspectors to state “…any recommendations to correct, monitor or evaluate by appropriate persons.” 

My comment would state what’s wrong with the stairway, that there are no practical improvements (assuming there aren’t), and that great care should be taken on this stairway. 

Some of my peers dare to disagree with me and point out that Arizona considers this stairway “unsafe” and by law I should recommend a professional. Some even accused me of ‘playing down’ or ‘kissing up’ with these comments. 

So this is the point I was making in my last column. We (inspectors) have to warn our clients if there is a potential safety concern in a home. 

But in my opinion we have to be realistic and practical. I have seen steep stairs in old homes and A-frame cabins where making them conform to current standards would literally ‘stretch’ them out the front wall. 

I know we must state “…any recommendations to correct, monitor or evaluate by appropriate persons.” I interpret this as meaning if we don’t have any recommendations, then we are not required to state them. 

In my opinion, if there is no practical improvement, why should I recommend a professional? If I recommend a professional, a client could infer there is some improvement possible. 

I want to help my client make an informed buying decision — I want them to know this is something they will have to live with. There is no practical improvement, but I have let them know about it, so they will be more careful and advise children or guests to be more careful. 

Imagine your son’s car rolled out of his garage and down a hill where an 18 wheeler smacked it right into a moving freight train that turned his car into 1000 small meteorites that landed in a deep lake. 

You might say “Sorry son, there is no practical improvement.” But would you add, “I recommend you have a licensed auto mechanic evaluate or repair as needed.” I don’t think so, the only reason you would recommend a mechanic is if you thought he might be able to fix it. 

So it makes no sense to me to state there is no practical improvement, and then recommend a contractor to evaluate or repair. It’s holiday season, so I usually add my feeble attempts at humor. I have always been a little smart alecky and sarcastic. No, really! 

I try to keep myself in control when I’m on an inspection. Note I said ‘try.’ Often neighbors will see me and know I’m an inspector — the clipboard, flashlight and confused look on my face give me away. 

Sometimes they ask me about the buyers, their neighbors-to-be. I usually honestly tell them that I have not met the buyers yet and don’t know anything about them. 

Recently a neighbor asked for the buyer’s phone or email. 

He explained that he was on the homeowners association and ‘entitled’ to that information. If you’re a regular reader you know that some local homeowners associations are near the top of my … list. 

So I told him I didn’t have that info (little white lie), and that all I knew about the buyers was they liked this big fenced yard because they raise Rottweilers, and they liked the large garage because they were members of a motorcycle gang. He looked concerned and walked away, and I chuckled to myself and went back to work. I actually forgot all about it until I got a call from the listing Realtor that night 

By Randy West on December 8, 2017 

 

Slippery steps and hiding handrails, oh my! 

When do current ‘standards’ apply to a decades-old house? 

“We’re selling a 90-year-old house, and the home inspector cost us a sale. He wrote up the steps and handrails, bedroom escape windows, a water heater in a bathroom, among other things. It would be impossible to change the stairs, and it would take many thousands of dollars to change the other things. We have lost this sale now. A contractor friend said these things are grandfathered in and old homes don’t need to meet new home requirements. So how can home inspectors report on these items? This is just extreme CYA and not professional inspecting.” 

These are valid questions and I can understand your frustration. Your contractor friend is correct. You do not have to “update” your home every three years when a new code book comes out. Although if you pull a permit to remodel your home they may require you to update some components. For example if you remodel an old kitchen they will require more outlets and GFCI protection. 
However, the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors does require that home inspectors report on things that code officials would consider “grandfathered.” The standards state that we must report on anything that could be a “…risk of personal injury during normal, day to day us. The risk may be due to damage, deterioration, improper installation or a change in residential construction standards.” 

So our standards don’t refer to “code,” but do refer to “residential construction standards.” And the standards require inspectors to state “…any recommendations to correct, monitor or evaluate by appropriate persons.” 
In a way inspectors are caught in the middle. We inspect a 50-year-old home and find an unsafe stairway — e.g. steps too high or not wide enough, stairway too narrow, missing or improper handrail. 

In fact, it is common to find more than one of these conditions in a 50-year-old stairway. We know it is not practical to improve this, and may in fact be almost impossible like our letter writer above states. 

I’ve seen steps with an 8-inch run (width of step, should be at least 10 inches) and 10-inch rise (height of step, should be less than 7.75 inches). To make these steps conform to current standards would “stretch” them through the front wall out into the front yard. 

But, by state law we are required to report on this, and to recommend an expert. And even if we weren’t required by our standards, we should still describe this in our written report. 
Following are the choices for a home inspector inspecting these stairs: 
1 — Say nothing. And hope that no one falls and hurts themselves. 

2 — Say something like “the steps are unsafe by current standards. Improvement would be extremely difficult due to the architecture. Great care should be taken on these steps.” 

3 — Say the steps are unsafe and recommend “evaluation or repair by an appropriate contractor.” 
I would never do number 1. What if someone gets hurt and you didn’t even warn them? 
Number 3 is actually the most “legal” for a home inspector. The inspector is complying with the literal and implied intent of the law: this could be unsafe, consult with the proper expert. Number 3 is the best possible choice to protect the home inspector from future litigation, since he recommended an “expert.” 
However, I’m a number 2 guy. The problem with number 3 is by recommending an expert you’re implying something could or should be done. If you know there is no practical improvement or solution, I feel that is what you should tell your client. 

It does not make sense to say “improvement is not practical” and then to recommend a contractor. What is the contractor going to do, other than say: “I don’t know what the inspector wants, there is no practical improvement.” 

I recommend an expert to “evaluate” when I don’t know specifically what’s wrong. The furnace did not come on; it could be the furnace, the thermostat, or a broken wire. I don’t have the time or expertise to figure out what’s wrong. So, I recommend a heating contractor to “evaluate,” or pinpoint the problem. But I know exactly what’s wrong with that stairway, so why recommend an expert to “evaluate” unless he is also going to make recommendations for improvement. 
The point I’m making is home inspectors, by law, are required to report on an unsafe condition. They are required by law to recommend an expert. And they are told by attorneys at classes to “adequately warn their clients” (which recommending an expert should cover). 

This is not just a case of CYA (Covering Your Arse). Even though I might not have done so, I’m not surprised that a home inspector recommended an expert regarding what today is considered an “unsafe condition.” The home inspector may be expecting the expert to say there’s nothing you can do. And while recommending an expert has shifted liability to someone else, the inspector was in fact complying with state law. 

More on this letter next time. 

By Randy West on November 23, 2017 

 

Choose a home inspector who knows the area 

Or, Randy rants regarding ridiculous recommendations 

I have had several emails recently from local Realtors regarding home inspections performed by Phoenix home inspectors. Two were from buyers’ Realtors where the buyer chose the inspector. One asked me about a travel fee, another asked about a crawlspace inspection fee. 

Most inspectors have fees based on the size of the home. Some charge extra for older homes, some charge extra for items that inspectors are not required to inspect. The best example would be Phoenix inspectors charging extra to inspect swimming pools. I see nothing wrong about a “travel fee.” However, home inspectors are required to inspect a crawlspace. A crawlspace does take time to inspect. There are often plumbing, electrical and heating/cooling components to check along with the structural, ventilation and insulation. And I rarely see an unoccupied crawlspace — you have to be careful of the vermin, spiders and other habitants. 

There may be others doing this, but I do not know of any other inspector that charges extra to inspect something that is required in the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors. If you’re inspecting a home, you have to inspect the crawlspace. I went to that inspector’s website, and the only “additional fee” was for older homes. If an inspector insists on an additional fee on-site, the client may not have any choice. If he refuses to pay extra, the inspector cannot inspect the home. And there is very likely not time to find and schedule another inspector within the inspection period. 

I’m just imagining taking my car in for an oil change, and being told there’s an additional fee because they had to open the hood. I’m getting better at controlling my type A (despite what my wife would say), but that would really light my fuse. 

I’m guessing about 30 percent of homes in our area have a crawlspace. That percentage is much lower in Phoenix, I’m sure. But in my humble opinion if you want to inspect homes in Prescott, you should not be charging extra for something that you are required by state law to inspect. Especially a crawlspace that is a very important part of the inspection. 

I also had emails from two different local Realtors where a Phoenix inspector made a recommendation for something that is common in our area. I have had past clients ask me to inspect homes in Phoenix and Flagstaff and have always said no. Recently a repeat client offered to pay me travel time to inspect a home in Kingman. This was my reply: 

“I have time for a longer answer now. I have been asked many times by clients to inspect a home in Phoenix or Flagstaff, etc. I always tell the m it would be much better to find an inspector in that area. We have ‘inspect a house’ classes in Arizona, and we always find that they call some things in Phoenix that are common in Prescott or Tucson, and vice versa. One quick example comes to mind. Gas-only fireplace manufacturers all recommend at least 10 feet between a fireplace wall vent and any opening window (because there’s a lot of carbon monoxide in a fireplace exhaust). Prescott does not enforce this — I have seen hundreds of gas fireplace vents near windows. I always recommend installing a carbon monoxide alarm in the room(s) with a window near the fireplace exhaust vent. If I made my usual comment about the fireplace vent/carbon monoxide alarm, and then you found out Kingman enforces the manufacturers specs, you might have to remove or replace the fireplace. 

“Prescott does not require exterior combustion air for a gas water heater in a garage. Prescott does not require a 120-volt outlet near a gaspack on the roof. Prescott Valley requires a gutter/downspout system, Prescott, Chino and Yavapai County do not. These are not written policies. Every jurisdiction (city or county) will be strict on enforcing some code items, and lax on some others. But these are all items that at least one city in Arizona does require. I have no idea what is common in Kingman, and would be doing you a disservice by inspecting a home there for you.” 

I have been “inspecting Prescott” for a long time. But if I wanted to start inspecting homes in some other city, I would do some research first to find out what’s common in that area. I’m not writing this column because these out-of-town inspectors affect my business; they do not. I’m writing it because of five emails in two weeks regarding unusual policies or recommendations by out-of-town inspectors. I’m offering advice to any buyer in any city. When interviewing inspectors, you should always ask how many inspections they have done in that city or area. 

By Randy West on November 3, 2017 

 

Continuing confusion over what home inspectors can fix on the job 

In a recent column I wrote about home inspectors “breaking” something they have to test. The best example is a GFCI outlet in a bathroom or kitchen. Inspectors are required by the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors to test GFCI outlets. My opinion was (is) that inspectors should not be liable for items they are required to test, especially if they just pushed a “test” button that homeowners should be pushing occasionally. 

My last column was regarding why inspectors don’t fix the minor stuff they find wrong in a home they’re inspecting, e.g. why we don’t tighten loose light fixtures, faucet handles, etc. I gave my usual excellent, thorough and slightly humorous response to that question, too. Amazingly, some readers did not agree with me. One letter said that if an inspector could fix something with a screwdriver, he should be required by law to do so. 

So I re-read my last two columns, and realized they are related. I don’t feel home inspectors should have to replace something that breaks if they are required to test/operate it. Keep in mind home inspectors are not required to do anything a homeowner can’t do. But if they go a step above and try to repair that item, now they are liable. If an inspector tightens a loose light fixture or faucet handle, and breaks it, the inspector is liable for that item. 

I know this sounds unfair to home inspectors. They went above and beyond what is required and performed a free “service” to their client and/or the homeowner. But it backfired and now it cost them more than their inspection fee to replace something. 

I had an email from someone who was upset because his inspector did not report on several things. The letter was from the buyer’s father, who did not see the house until his daughter had closed and move in. Unfortunately for him, the inspector was not required to report on any of those things. I always tell my clients they should read the Standards because they state what we must inspect, and what we don’t have to inspect. 

The Arizona Standards (section 11.3) state an inspector is not required to report on A: paint, wallpaper and other finish treatments on the interior walls, ceilings, and floors. B: carpeting. C: draperies, blinds or other window treatments. D: household appliances. E: recreational facilities or another dwelling unit. Recreational facilities include swimming pools, spas, saunas, etc. The ASHI Standards (section 10.2) state inspectors do not have to report on all these, plus D: coatings on and the hermetic seals between panes of window glass. 

If you think about it, all the items in the last paragraph are actually cosmetic concerns. The condition of the floors, walls, curtains, window seals/coatings do not prevent someone from moving in and living in the home. We have to report if a door or window doesn’t operate, or if the poor floor coverings are a trip hazard. 

Damage to cosmetic items is very subjective. If an inspector has inspected thousands of homes, he/she expects cosmetic flaws in a 10- or 20-year-old home. Common cracks and nail pops in the drywall are found in in almost every home, as are scratches, minor damage or stains on doors, window sills, under sinks, etc. 

Once I inspected an occupied home, and when my clients moved in there were numerous baseball size holes in the walls. Apparently every time the sellers made a hole, they covered it with a poster or picture. I felt bad for my clients, and even though I was technically not required to report on walls, I gave them some money toward repairs. 

A month later I inspected a vacant home. My clients met me when I arrived, which is unusual but they had to leave for the airport. We entered together, and at the bottom of the steps there was a large family room. I said there’s damage to the wall behind that picture. Everyone looked at me funny until I removed the picture and there was a large hole. I assumed there was damage because that was the only picture in a 2,200 sf home. 

Another month goes by and I get a call from a client regarding a bunch of holes in the walls. I’m thinking the sellers must have been relatives of the “indoor baseball” home I inspected a couple months ago. When I arrive, the buyer is upset over tiny nail holes in all the walls. There is no “damage,”from my perspective. I told him the holes are from nails or picture hangers. The home was 20 years old, did he think no one had ever hung a picture on a wall? He asked what to do about all these holes. My first reaction was to tell him to hang a picture at every one. But I said he can spackle them. He asked what spackle was, where he could find it, and how to install it. I told him, including about using a putty knife. He asked what a putty knife was, how to use it and where to buy it. I told him any place that sells spackling likely sells putty knives too. 

By now I realized I was not dealing with Bob Villa here. So I told him my mother fills in nail holes with toothpaste and her finger. He said he couldn’t do that. I asked why, and he said “Because my toothpaste is green.” 

By Randy West on October 20, 2017 

 

That lazy home inspector wouldn’t tighten my toilet! 

I have written in this column before that re-inspections are the least favorite part of a home inspectors job (attics in August rank up there). The first time we’re on site the sellers are very pleasant, and may even offer us iced tea or a cookie (which we don’t accept). But we’re not allowed to discuss our findings with anyone but our client, the buyer. So if we get asked to go back to a home, the sellers are sometimes not as pleasant. They may be upset that we found stuff wrong they didn’t know about, and/or that we could not tell them about it. 

But I had a new twist on this recently when I returned to inspect some improvements made on a home. The home was vacant, but the seller insisted on being present for the re-inspection (a red flag, from my perspective). Instead of being upset about the items I found, he was upset because they were all incorrect. The thermostat was not defective. There were no tree limbs touching the home. The front door does latch normally, etc. 

It was obvious that recent improvements had been made. I could see ‘fresh’ wood and paint where the front door and jamb had been repaired. There was a brand-new thermostat, and the outline of the old one was visible in the wall paint. But I did not argue with him. When we were outside, he “dared” me to find a tree limb touching the home, claiming he hadn’t trimmed any branches. I looked down and kicked some green freshly cut branches in his direction and said something about “guess these fell off by themselves…”. 

I’m still trying to figure out this behavior. I can understand being upset because a home inspector found stuff wrong with your home that you didn’t know about. But I can’t understand repairing everything and then trying to tell the inspector that he/she was wrong, especially when some of the recent improvements are too obvious to hide. 

Last time I wrote about home inspectors repairing items. That column was about inspectors operating or testing items they are required to, like GFCI outlets. I received a fan letter after that column. The writer understood that inspectors should not have to pay to replace items they are required to test. But he wanted to know why home inspectors don’t fix minor items that would not cost anything. “I mean, how long does it take to tighten a loose faucet handle or toilet? Or put in a working light bulb? Are you guys lazy or just trying to find stuff to write up?” 

Actually, I’m asked that question regularly, although usually more nicely. A home inspection takes a few hours, more on larger or older homes. If we stopped to tighten every loose light fixture, toilet seat, doorknob, faucet handle, leaking drain pipe, etc. we could easily add an hour or more to the inspection. 

But more important is the liability. I do try to fix minor items. I usually say if I can fix it with a screwdriver, I will. But I must be very careful. Once I was trying to pry out the plastic cover on a shower faucet handle to reach the screw to tighten the loose handle. The cover popped out and fell to the tile floor, where it broke into many unglue-able pieces. The faucet was old and I could not find a cover. Fortunately everyone understood and did not charge me. If the seller had insisted I repair it, I would have had to pay a plumber to install a new faucet in a tile shower wall. 

I used to remove glass covers from light fixtures that weren’t working. I even carried a good bulb to test them. But glass and plastic gets very brittle with age and heat. I broke more than one cover without doing anything wrong — just loosening the screws that secure the cover. After spending hours the next day finding a similar cover, I vowed never to remove a cover. I will put in a working bulb if the bulb is exposed, but I will not remove any type of plastic or glass cover to reach a bulb. The expense of tracking down, buying, and returning to install a faucet handle or light fixture cover can be more than the profit on the inspection. 

Non-working lights in some areas can be a significant safety concern. For example an exterior light by a door to see the coyotes in the back yard, or the light over the stairs to see the kids toys on the steps. So we have to report on non-working lights. My usual comment says “… likely the bulb needs replacing.” 

I can’t believe that letter mentioned toilets! I tighten loose toilet seats occasionally. But there is no way any home inspector is going to try to tighten a loose toilet. Occasionally you can simply tighten the bolts that secure a toilet to the floor. But Murphy likes toilets, especially older toilets. So it’s common for the bolts or screws to be stripped, or they’re rusted through and break, or the wood floor under the toilet is moisture damaged, or you pull the flange off the pipe or wax seal and the toilet leaks onto the floor after you tighten it. I know professional plumbers that have cracked toilets when tightening them to the floor. There’s no way I’m doing that during a home inspection. 

By Randy West on September 29, 2017 

 

Randy readily replies to random researchers’ requests 

Should a home inspector pay for something he breaks? 

I’ve had a few emails recently about inspectors breaking things. Apparently a column I wrote in 2014 comes up when they are researching. And some have the nerve to email me saying they disagree with me! I replied to the naysayers: “I guess I could agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong.” 

Here’s the point I made. If a home inspector is properly testing something that is required by law for him to do, he is not liable if it breaks or stops working. This is especially true if it is something the homeowner would or should normally do. Several times I have tested a GFCI outlet in a bathroom and it would not come back on. This would have happened no matter who pressed the test button; it just happened to be me. 

A couple times I’ve tested the automatic reverse feature on an overhead door opener and it broke. I understand the seller saying “it worked before you got here, and now I can’t open my overhead door!” It’s better that I found out it was not working rather than someone’s car (or child!). 

To be honest, the overhead door openers I broke were when I first started and were manufactured before 1993, so they did not have the reversing beam. I quickly learned how to be very careful when testing the auto-reverse feature. 

But here’s the point. GFCIs and overhead door reverse features are specifically mentioned as items a home inspector has to test. And the owner is supposed to do these tests themselves on a regular basis. So why is an inspector liable to replace them? 

Let’s go a step farther. Say I inspect a home that has been vacant for a couple months. It’s fall, so I turn on the furnace (with the thermostat) and it does not work. The seller says “the furnace worked the last time I used it.” Of course that was months ago, and what is wrong with the furnace has nothing to do with me turning up the thermostat. Should I be liable to replace a $2,000 furnace? There would be no home inspectors if we had to pay for everything that failed to operate when we turned it on. 

Here’s an excerpt from that 2014 column: 

“Part of my job description is to make sure everything is secure. So I ‘shake’ fireplace mantels, cabinets, light fixtures, etc. I don’t shake them hard — I just give them a little tug to make sure they are well secured. A couple years ago I inspected a home with cabinets on the garage wall. As usual, I pulled a little on the overhead cabinets to make sure they were tight. The cabinet directly over the sink came off the wall and started to fall onto the sink faucet. I knew if the cabinet fell it would break the faucet, resulting in water spraying all over the garage. So I grabbed the cabinet. Which was heavy. In fact, it was very heavy. It was so heavy I was having trouble holding it over the sink. It was so heavy I was wondering if I was getting old. Then the cabinet leaned toward me a little and the doors swung open. 

“The good news is I was not getting old and weak. The bad news is there were about 50 paint cans in the cabinet. The good news is the cabinet was getting lighter. The bad news is this was because the gallon paint cans were rapidly falling out of the cabinet.” 

That story is totally true (the number of paint cans may be slightly exaggerated). Somehow no paint cans opened. I did not offer to pay to properly secure the cabinets. I feel the loose cabinets posed a danger to my clients, and I was just doing my job in discovering them. 

By Randy West on September 15, 2017 

 

Inspector offers shocking sarcastic snappy answers 

I like to give snappy, sarcastic answers. I don’t mean to stupid questions, I mean to all questions. 

Winston Churchill was very good at snappy answers. Perhaps his most famous was at a dinner where a lady was thoroughly exasperated with Mr. Churchill’s view on world events. She stood up and looked at Winston and said, “Sir, if you were my husband I would put poison in your coffee.” As she walked away Mr. Churchill replied “madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.” 

One of my personal best was a surprise to me. I honestly didn’t know what my brain was doing until I heard myself saying it. It happened several years ago during an inspection in Prescott Valley. I was on my hands and knees in the garage, in front of the water heater. The home was vacant, so I wasn’t expecting company. Suddenly a very loud voice, very close to my left ear, said “Can I help you with something?” 

I was very startled, and jumped to my feet. Before I knew it, I had grabbed the sneaky old guy by the arm and was leading him out of the garage. I was telling him that I wash my car every August, whether it needs it or not. And it wasn’t quite August, but the car was ready for a wash. So I asked Mr. Sneak to wash the car, and to make sure he got around the wheel wells because there was mud packed in there. 

I made it most of the way back to the garage before he stammered out, “Wait, wait, I’m not going to wash your car!” I innocently inquired how else he could help me, since he’d offered. Turns out he was a friend of the seller, and thought he was in charge of the home. He was also not a member of the Winston Churchill Snappy Answer Fan Club. 

By now the editors are worrying. They have had to remind me occasionally that they want to see the words “home inspector” at least once in my columns. Don’t worry — I’ll tie this in somehow. 

I get questions from buyers sometimes, which is expected. I also get questions from friends and family that know I’m a home inspector and recovering general contractor. Sometimes I give them a snappy answer (not clients, but friends and family). 

For example, “why do my kitchen ceiling lights start to turn on and off after they’ve been on for a while?” 

Well, this occurs when mice eat through the wires going to the fixtures. When you turn on the switch they are instantly electrocuted, and their tongues and tails are “welded” to the wire. So as their body heats up it loses conductivity and the light goes out. Once the body cools off enough to conduct again the light will come on. You may have noticed the lights turn on and off a little quicker the longer they’re on. This is because the mouse is drying out and loses conductivity a little quicker each time. 

The real answer: the wrong type of bulb and/or too high a wattage bulb, which can cause a recessed fixture to overheat. Since an overheated recessed light fixture can be a fire hazard, some have a sensor that turns them off if they get too hot. 

I get questions about GFCI outlets sometimes. These are the shock preventing outlets with buttons in the bathrooms, garage and kitchen. “How do GFCI outlets work?” Well, electricity is conducted by electrons. In GFCI outlets, the electrons are all holding hands. Say one of the electrons notices you standing barefoot on a wet floor and holding a hairdryer with frayed wires. That electron immediately lets go of the other electron’s hands, thus breaking the circuit and keeping you from getting shocked. 

“GFCI outlets are expensive and trip off sometimes. I’m going to replace the GFCI outlets with regular outlets.” 

This is not a question, but I assume they’re telling me this because they want my opinion. So I tell them to plug an old radio or lamp into an extension cord, and plug the extension cord into a bedroom (non-GFCI protected) outlet. Then fill up the bathtub and climb in. Now have someone toss the lamp into the tub with you. If this doesn’t bother you, go ahead and replace the GFCI outlets with regular outlets. However, if the electricity flowing through your nervous system is unpleasant, or your feet or hands start to hurt from hitting the tub because of the muscle spasms, or the smell of burning hair interferes with your incense, then I would keep the GFCI outlets. 

Once a friend was installing a GFCI outlet. He shorted out the outlet somehow, and it made a sizzling noise and a pretty impressive puff of smoke came out. He looked over at me and asked if I could fix that. I told him he needed an electrician. I told him only highly trained electricians know how to catch that smoke and put it back in to make the outlet work again. 

By Randy West on September 1, 2017 

 

To RO or not to RO, that is the question 

Reverse Osmosis filter system wastes up to 4 gallons of water for every gallon produced 

I remember a former president flying his 747 jets across the ocean and back to attend a one-day conference on how to reduce carbon emissions. His jets probably used more gas than my wife, kids and I will use in our lifetime. When he came back, he told us we (all Americans) should give up our Las Vegas vacations to reduce emissions. 

I was reminded of this, on a much smaller scale of course, on a recent home inspection. There was a brochure on the counter touting all the water-saving features: low-water toilets, low-water showerheads, low-water motion-sensing sink faucets, etc. 

Now I’m not a tree hugger, but I know water is a valuable resource in our state, so this made me happy. I try to do my part to save water. I only wash my car in August and only shower on Saturdays. 

But back to the water-saving home. I opened the cabinet under the kitchen sink and found a Reverse Osmosis (RO) filter system. This type of filter uses water pressure to force water through a membrane, and has a line that connects to a drain pipe under the sink. For every gallon of water it produces, an RO filter pumps 3 to 4 gallons down the drain. So I figured the RO filter just offset all the water-saving faucets and toilets. 

Our past president could not see the hypocrisy in flying his huge jet over the ocean to meet with people to figure out how to use less gas. This did not surprise me — I expect hypocrisy in all politicians. They never seem to understand they’re spending OUR money. But I digress again. 

I believe that most people with RO filters honestly do not realize how much water they’re wasting. Twenty years ago I bought an under-the-sink filter for my own home. I was actually going to buy an RO filter, until I did a little research. I found the following information in the FAQ in a brochure (that was trying to sell RO filters): 

“All RO systems produce waste water. About 4 gallons wasted per 1 gallon purified (4:1) if you are on a municipal water supply with good pressure (75 degree water at 60 psi). Below 40 psi RO filters do not work and only produce waste water. An RO system takes a long time to filter water, so it requires a storage tank. If you fill up a gallon jug, the filter may be ‘running’ for 60 to 90 minutes to refill the tank.” 

In other words, an RO filter does not just waste water when you have the faucet open. Under high use, an RO filter could be running more often than not trying to keep that tank full. And this is under optimal conditions. If your water temperature or pressure is lower, your water is hard, or the required pre-filter is dirty, the RO filter will take even longer to filter water. 

I bought a top-of-the-line charcoal/canister filter. It doesn’t filter quite as well as an RO filter. But I figure with all the things I do that are dangerous or bad for me, I will probably die from French Fry Fibroses or Red Meat Rheumatism before the water can get to me. 

I bring a gallon of water to work each day in the summer, and we use the filtered water for drinking, ice, coffee, lemonade, iced tea, cooking, pet water, etc. I figured we use around 5 gallons a day, so with an RO we would be pumping up to 20 gallons a day into the drain. That’s up to 600 gallons a month or 7,200 gallons a year. That’s a lot of water. 

I have inspected some new energy-efficient homes that route the discharge water from an RO filter into the water heater, avoiding “wasting” water. However, 99 percent of the RO filters I see drain the water into the drain pipe under the sink, and out to the septic tank or sewer. 

By Randy West on August 11, 2017 

 

MI Windows tour impresses state home inspectors 

I have been a member of the Arizona Chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors (azashi) since 1993, and was involved in chapter leadership for 12 years. That included two terms as VP, which in our chapter is in charge of education. That could be a thankless job sometimes. I would spend many hours finding speakers and locations, ordering the food, etc. I would always ask attendees after the class what they thought. Sometimes I would get answers like, “I can’t believe there were no chocolate doughnuts at breakfast,” or “you ran out of coffee creamer at 11:00.” 

I have to say that overall my time in leadership was extremely rewarding, despite the inspector that had to drink his coffee black. The friends I made in leadership are some of my closest friends today. We all gave up inspections, money and family time for one goal — to promote excellence in the home inspector profession in Arizona. 

Most home inspectors are one-man shops and to some degree entrepreneurs, more so 15 years ago than today. I quickly learned (as VP and as a presenter) that presenting to a group of home inspectors is a lot different than most other groups. Inspectors are not afraid to ask questions. They are not afraid to argue with the presenter. They are not afraid to throw things at the presenter. I always warned presenters of this, and made sure there were no heavy objects on the tables. 

I told you all that so I could tell you this: About five years ago MI Windows provided a tour of its Prescott Valley plant to a group of home inspectors. It was a continuing education class for azashi members, but all home inspectors were invited. We had a large turnout from all over the state. I personally found the tour fascinating. 

But what was astonishing was the class was well-behaved. They all seemed as interested as me. MI gave us a Powerpoint presentation before the tour, and a question-and-answer period after the tour. No arguing, no projectiles (at least at the presenters). And after the class when I asked members what they thought, all I got was positive feedback. Many said they would take this class again. 

So last week, MI opened its doors to us again. Seeing the window making process from start to finish was just as fascinating as it was the first time. They also make patio (sliding) doors. The plant is huge — 205,000 square feet under roof on 23 acres. MI has 320 team members on two shifts. They ship over 10,000 windows each week to the southwest, one-fourth of the U.S. Virtually all windows are vinyl now, and most have argon gas between the panes. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect the first time, maybe some huge hopper where they dump in vinyl and glass and then George Jetson would push his button and finished windows come out the other end. 

There is some state-of-the-art automation, but with windows a lot of the manufacturing still has to be done by people. At the first tour most welds were ground by hand, this time there was an automated weld grinder, but every frame is still checked by people. MI’s quest for quality and safety through every step of the manufacturing is impressive. And their pride of their plant and windows was evident. 

And we learned new words, like “swiggle,” which is not something you stir your drinks with. 

I told Michael Reinert, the general manager, that I was going to write a column about MI and asked if he had anything to add. His answer: 

“We are proud to be members of AAMA (American Architectural Manufacturers Association). Our Chief Operating Officer, Mike DeSoto, is currently the chairman of the Board of AAMA. 

“We believe strongly in education. Some of that education is through AAMA with the Fenestration Masters and Associates programs. Additionally, we train all team members on Lean methodology. 

“We are strong believers in supporting our community and though the MI Foundation support the Four Diamonds Fund, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Homes for our Troops.” 

Speaking for azashi and all the attendees, I would like to thank MI Windows for providing this tour. And I would like to tell Prescott Valley it is lucky to have this company in town. 

By Randy West on July 28, 2017  

 

Air Conditioners Part II: older refrigerant can be costly 

Price of R22 will continue to climb as it becomes rarer 

Last time the headline for this column read “oversized fuses can be costly.” That meant oversized fuses for an air conditioner could allow expensive damage. This is easy to correct with a couple fuses that cost a couple dollars. 

This time we’re talking about the refrigerant gas, aka “Freon.” Air conditioners used R22 refrigerant for decades, until Uncle Sam decided it was attacking the atmosphere or attracting aliens or something. So after January 1, 2020, companies will not be allowed to produce or import R22 to the US. The new refrigerant is called R410a. Any air conditioner manufactured after January 1, 2015, will be required to use R410a. Most air conditioners manufactured after 2010 use R410a, but not all of them. 

So why am I boring you with R22 vs R410? Because the average life of a central air conditioner compressor in our area is about 20 years. And most R22 air conditioners cannot be updated to use R410. And we live in a free marketplace society, despite the strong efforts of city, state and national governments. Which means less (and limited) supply will result in higher prices. Which means as R-22 becomes harder to find, it will become more expensive. And after 2020 it will likely be extremely expensive. And 2020 is not that far away. 

There are air conditioner contractor websites (not from Prescott) that say R22 will continue to be available, even after 2020. Some R22 refrigerant can be reclaimed from older air conditioners that are being replaced with R410a systems. But many contractors, including local ones I spoke with, feel that R22 has already become so expensive it’s becoming less cost-effective to recharge an old system. They didn’t want to state the actual cost of R22, because it fluctuates and no one can predict how high it will go after 2020. A local contractor told me he’s paying four times more for R-22 than just five years ago. 

A quick search on eBay shows 30 pounds of R-22 for about $700, about $23 per pound. I found a 2015 ad for just over $300 for 30 pounds. So in two years the price more than doubled. And likely will again as we get close to 2020. 

I found 25 pounds of R410a for a little over $200, or a little over $8 per pound. I imagine contractors get better prices, especially on R410a. But everyone I talk to, including manufacturers and contractors, feel that R22 prices will rise substantially. 

So should you scrap your Disney vacation plans or sell your new BMW to pay for a new air conditioner? Not really. Newer air conditioners are much more efficient. I’ve always said it is usually cost-effective to replace a 20-year-old compressor rather than making any major cost repair. But if your compressor was manufactured in 2009, it could have many useful years left. It may be more cost-effective to replace the R22, if it’s still available. 

I have always advised having your air conditioner serviced yearly to make sure the system is operating efficiently and to get the maximum life from it. Now there’s another reason — catching a small refrigerant leak before it all leaks out. If the cost of R22 keeps rising the way it has, it could cost many hundreds of dollars to recharge an older system (including the labor, service call, etc.). 

You can usually tell what refrigerant your system has by looking at the data label on your air conditioner. There is always a label on the compressor (in the yard) or on a package unit (furnace and air conditioner in one cabinet, often on the roof). There is usually a label on the evaporator located next to the furnace too. The label should state R22 or R410a. And on the compressor it usually states how many pounds the outside unit needs. My compressor (built in 1999) states R22 and 98 ounces needed in the outdoor unit. That’s just over 6 pounds, but the entire system will need more. Larger and/or newer (more efficient) systems may take considerably more. 

By Randy West on July 14, 2017 

 

Air Conditioners Part I — oversized fuses can be costly 

Watch size of compressor fuses to avoid expensive repairs 

I am finding oversized fuses at air conditioner compressors more frequently lately. I tell people replacing those $10 fuses may save their $1,500 compressor (and some get mad at me?). 

Let me explain why the fuses are there. If Mr. Contractor is working on an air conditioner compressor, he needs to be able to shut the power off. One place to do this is at the electrical panel, by turning off the breaker. But what if Mr. Homeowner comes home, not knowing Mrs. Homeowner called for Mr. Contractor. Mr. Homeowner turns down the thermostat and nothing happens. So he goes to the electrical panel and says “Aha! Here’s the problem” and flips the breaker on. Mr. Contractor who had both hands inside the air conditioner just got a new hairdo! And Mr. Homeowner may lose all his hair if Mr. Contractor can catch him. 

So if the electrical panel is not nearby and in sight of the compressor there needs to be an electrical disconnect box near the compressor. Most, especially older disconnect boxes, contain fuses. With or without fuses, the box will have a small switch that Mr. Contractor can pull out to shut off power to the compressor, thus preventing Mr. Homeowner from trying to electrocute him. 

The compressor should have a data label stating the maximum overcurrent protection device (meaning fuses or breakers). Let’s use 40 amp for this example. That means that either the fuses or the breaker have to be 40 amp or less, but not both. 

In the old days, like before you could ask your smart phone who will win the next election, electricians would usually install 50 or 60 amp breakers in the panel for the compressor. This was because A) compressors weren’t very efficient and most needed that size, and B) it was up to the air conditioner contractor to install the proper size fuses in the disconnect box. 

The average life for an air conditioner compressor around here is about 20 years. So Mr. Homeowner is having a new compressor installed at his 20-year-old house. New compressors are much more efficient. The data tag states the maximum size fuses should be 30 amp, and there are 40 amp fuses installed (and a 50 amp breaker in the panel). 

My report comment states either the fuses or the breaker need to be changed, the fuses are less expensive and much easier to install. And this is a very “strong” comment. I was attending a class once where two Lennox engineers were presenting. I raised my hand and said I often find the fuses are 10 or even just 5 amp oversized — is this really a problem? 

Both presenters yelled “YES!”, rudely waking up some of the attendees. They said if the tag says maximum 40 amp, it means 40 amp, not 45 amp. If the fuses are oversized and the air conditioner fails, it could cause much more expensive damage. And it could also void the manufacturer’s warranty. 

So why would anyone be unhappy about a recommendation for a $15 improvement that could save them $1,500 or more? I don’t know either. I’m guessing these are the same people that drive the 400 horsepower twin turbo cars at 10 mph under the limit in the left lane, then get mad at you for passing them on the right. Don’t get me started on drivers — I don’t know if it’s just me but there seem to be more poor drivers. A poor driver, of course, is anyone that wants to drive 5 mph faster or slower than I do. I wrote in this column 10 years ago, and it’s still true today, It’s not a good thing if you can’t see the driver’s head over the headrest in the car ahead of you. 

Back to compressors. In newer homes it is more common to find the disconnect box at the compressor does not have fuses. It just has the pull-out switch so Mr. Contractor can shut off the power. In this case the breaker in the electrical panel is the only overcurrent protection device, and must be the size specified on the compressor. And we sometimes run into the same problem — newer compressors are more efficient so the maximum size breaker is often smaller. Breakers are a little more expensive, $25 to $50. 

So if you’re having your air conditioner replaced you might want to ask if they checked the size of the breaker in the panel. 

By Randy West on June 30, 2017 

 

Home inspectors are not two-faced about insulation 

I received some fan letters this week, including this one from the owner of a home I inspected: “I wish you home inspectors would stop trying to justify your existence. Our home is in city limits and passed all city inspections. Why are you telling potential buyers that our insulation does not meet code? And just for your information, the “@” when describing batt insulation shows your ignorance. 3.5 inch batt insulation is R-13, not “@ R-13” and 6 inch insulation is R-19, not “@ R-20.” And the writing on the paper facing says the paper should be against the heated wall, so on an exterior wall in a crawlspace there is no heated wall so the paper should face inside, like it does.” 

There was actually more to this letter giving me other advice that I edited, knowing our newspaper would not print it anyway. I’ve had some other questions recently about insulation too. The house above had a walk-in height crawlspace under the living area. There was @ R-19 faced batt insulation under the living area floor (above our heads), and @ R-13 faced batt insulation on the walls in the crawlspace. Batt insulation is fiberglass insulation that you lay in place. It’s sold on a roll or in “batts.” The facing refers to paper on one side of the insulation. The facing should always face toward the heated space. 

The R-19 insulation under the living area floor was properly installed with the facing toward the interior floors (heated space) and against/touching the floor. The facing on the insulation on the crawlspace walls was exposed inside the crawlspace. If the seller had read the entire warning printed on the facing, it stated the paper should be toward the heated space and should never be left exposed because it’s flammable. You should never be able to see the paper on the insulation after a home is built. Think about if a fire started in that crawlspace with all that paper exposed on the walls. If that paper caught on fire, you might lose the entire home. 

Now I did not say that in the report, I was professional. All I said was the paper on the insulation should be removed or covered, which is exactly what the printed warning on the facing states. Nor did I mention that the warning is printed every 2 feet on the paper, so it’s visible about 200 times in the crawlspace. 

If you’re installing insulation that will not be covered, you should use unfaced insulation, with no paper backing. 

Referring back to the letter above, I never used that four-letter word “code” in the report. I didn’t have to, since the warning is clearly visible on the insulation. It is unusual to insulate the exterior walls on a crawlspace, so I’m guessing that insulation wasn’t installed by the builder and wasn’t visible when the city inspected the home. 

And as far as the “@ R-20” insulation in my report, I went to a major insulation manufacturers website just now. They have 3.5 inch thick insulation that is R-11, R-13 and R-15. They have 6.25 inch insulation that is R-19, and 5.5 inch insulation that is R-21. R-30 insulation could be 8.25 inches or 10 inches thick. So unless I see the R value plainly printed on the insulation, my report will state “@ R-20.” 

And sometimes the insulation will not be what’s stated. If you compress insulation, it loses some of its insulating (R) value. So if someone put 6.25 inch R-19 insulation in a 2×6 wall (which is actually 5.5 inches), it will not be R-19. It would still be better than R-11 or R13, but it would not be the full R-19. 

Most professional insulators state that batt insulation is the least effective, because there are always gaps at the edges and ends/splices. These gaps may be small, but added up over an entire attic or crawlspace they allow a significant amount of airflow past/through the insulation. Blown in loose fiberglass or cellulose insulation always has the best coverage. 

For this week’s chuckle, I once told a client that there was @ R-30 batt insulation in the attic. I went on to something else, but could see something was bothering her. When I asked her, she replied “I don’t want bad insulation, I want good insulation.” Ever since then I spell it — “You have @ R-30 batt, b-a-t-t, insulation.” 

I am cleaning out old photo folders and though I would share some of the classics with you. This one is all text, but I don’t know how to copy text from a photo, so you may need your reading glasses. This was from an inspection many years ago, and this was the only way to get hot water! 

By Randy West on June 9, 2017 

 

What should, should not, be in home inspection report 

I have been asked several times recently (and over the years) to inspect a home in some city I’m not familiar with, such as Tombstone or Tuba City, or Cowlik or Chloride (all real Arizona cities). I always tell them it would be much better to find an inspector in that area. 

We have “inspect a house” classes in Arizona with inspectors from all over the state inspecting a home. We always find that they call some things in Phoenix that are common in Prescott, and vice versa. 

One quick example comes to mind:  Gas-only fireplace manufacturers all recommend at least 10 feet between a fireplace wall exhaust vent and any opening window (because of carbon monoxide). Prescott does not enforce this, and I always recommend installing a carbon monoxide alarm in the room(s) with a window near the fireplace exhaust vent.  What if I made that comment not knowing that Flagstaff enforces the manufacturers requirements (I don’t know if Flagstaff does, but that’s my point)? My client would be forced to replace a fireplace at great cost, and it might not even be possible. 

And there are things I don’t see up here but are required in other areas: exterior combustion air for a gas water heater in a garage, a 120 volt outlet near a gaspack on a roof, concrete filled pipes in front of water heaters. 

And then there’s knowing the geographic and localities. I know which subdivisions up here have had expansive soil, flooding etc. And I know some subdivisions require fences around the air conditioner compressors, even though the fence will adversely affect the air conditioner operation. I would not know any of this if I inspected a home in Nothing or Happy Jack. In fact, I told a friend in Phoenix once that the water was in his lower level because he didn’t have gutters and downspouts on the home. He told me that condo complex did not allow gutters. This was unbelievable to me, but I did not see gutters on any of the other building. In a different subdivision I asked about the hay bales in a lot at the end of the street. I was told that’s to stop the tubes. “Tubes?” I asked. Apparently every time it rained this street flooded. I mean really flooded. To the point that all the neighborhood kids had large innertubes in their garage, ready to whitewater down the street. Without the wall of hay the kids might end up in the next school district. 

So I admit I stay in my “comfort zone.” But I have seen reports on a Prescott home from an out-of-town inspector that listed “defects” that are common in our area, making the inspector look foolish. One called out overhead power lines on a tree in Ponderosa Park. I guess he failed to notice there are no telephone poles in Ponderosa Park, all the overhead wires are secured to trees. 

If I start inspecting in Organ Pipe or Monkey’s Eyebrow (real names) then I may be the foolish one. 

I was scolded by a client recently for saying nice things about the house in my written report. In particular in their report I made a comment about the professional looking installation of a brand new high efficiency heating/cooling system. 

Apparently they wanted to use the inspection report to “lowball” the seller. I did not feel bad, because that is not what a home inspection is for. A home inspection should be a fair, unbiased inspection of the home. If there are nice things in the home, I should report on them just as much as I should report on major defects or short-term major expenses. 

If someone just spent $15,000 to $20,000 putting in a new high efficiency heating/cooling system, and it’s installed and operating correctly, why shouldn’t I mention it? 

I always let clients know if the furnace or air conditioner is nearing the end if it’s useful life, so why shouldn’t I let them know there is an expensive replacement cost that they won’t have to worry about for 20 years? 

I have never said “the purple paint contrasts nicely with the yellow tile and curtains,” or “the green carpet in the family room will allow you to practice your putting on rainy days,” or “the clouds and sky painted on the ceiling give the home a bright, airy feeling” (I have found all those things). 

But I will acknowledge important and/or expensive improvements to a home to help my clients make an informed buying decision. 

By Randy West on May 12, 2017 

 

Handling letters from our fan clubs 

Randy recommends rapidly responding to ridiculous rants 

All inspectors receive fan mail. I have been called dumb, bone head, fool, etc. like the letter below. I’ve discovered the more a writer resorts to name calling, the less sense the letter makes. An inspector sent me the following email. It was from a seller to his Realtor, but the seller felt compelled to copy the inspector: 

“This guy is brain dead. Observed at several windows throughout: Screens are not installed. DAAAAHHHHH. Garage door operator does not open the door to its full open position. What a Dumbo. Observed at the main shut off valve. Valve is inaccessible, the cap is stuck in place. Yikes what a bone head. Carbon monoxide alarms are not found anywhere throughout the dwelling. I never heard him testing any one of them, so he wouldn’t know if they are working!!!!! Unless a gas dryer is to be installed, the gas pipe should be capped to avoid spewing of gas. What a FOOL.” 

The writer gave long explanations, which I had to omit for space reasons. Otherwise I copied/pasted, so the typos are not mine. He said he opened the stuck cap at the main water valve with a shovel. The inspector was concerned that someone would have to access this valve in a hurry. He said there were screens in storage, the inspector noted there were screens “not installed.” He said the smoke alarms in the home were also carbon monoxide alarms, which could be. The inspector said he tested the smoke alarms when the seller left for a few minutes to be courteous. But here’s the best part: 

“Garage door automatic operator infrared reverse feature safety beam should be installed within 6” of floor. Yea, for most cars I wouldn’t suggest it. Maybe for an SUV or VAN. But at 6” the beam would not sense the car. It would shoot the beam under the rocker panels and entire body. The garage door would come down on the car. I purposely put them at about 12” so they “wouldn’t” shoot under the car and come down on ‘any’ car. dumb, dumb.” 

This doesn’t even make sense. Using this logic, the beam should be higher for an SUV, not lower. And he admitted in writing that he installed the sensor beam 12 inches off the floor. This is against every manufacturer’s recommendations. The beam is not there to detect vehicles, the door will automatically reverse if it hits a car. The beam is there to prevent someone (e.g. a child) getting trapped under the door if the door almost closes and does not reverse. 

I have had similar letters. One was from an architect seller, and was in his reply to the buyers request for repairs so that everyone involved in the transaction saw it. He said there was no problem with 6 inches of standing water in a crawlspace. And no problem with the plants and vines all over the exterior wood siding. The termite inspector also had comments regarding these. I also recommended the required outside combustion air for a gas furnace in an interior closet. The architect stated he had never heard of and had no intention of “cutting holes in a home.” 

Without going into technical detail, I once found a very unsafe furnace installation in an older home. A local heating contractor (no longer in business) wrote a letter stating the installation met all codes when the home was built, and made several derogatory comments about my profession and myself. I was a little more type A back then, and my reply letter to all parties stated the installation is unsafe, there is carbon monoxide coming out of the furnace supply vents, and the only good thing about the contractor’s letter is that any survivors will sue him instead of me. Thank goodness the buyers consulted with another heating company that recommended some improvements. 

More recently I found carbon monoxide in a home when a gas fireplace was operating. A local fireplace contractor wrote a letter stating he tested the fireplace with a tif 8800 and no carbon monoxide was found, along with some derogatory comments about home inspectors. I insisted on meeting the buyers and Realtors on site. I started the fireplace and tested for carbon monoxide with my tif 8800. It did not find any, because a tif 8800 is a gas leak tracer and does not detect carbon monoxide. Then I used my carbon monoxide tester to show everyone there was carbon monoxide entering the home from the fireplace. 

By Randy West on April 21, 2017  

 

Karma comes back to this home inspector 

Karma. I have always believed in Karma. I have to, otherwise I’d have to let some people know they are really poor drivers. And in this day and age, that can get you shot. 

So here’s how karma came back to this home inspector. I was selling a car recently. A potential buyer asked to take it to ABC auto shop to have it checked out (not the real name). I agreed, since I knew the car was in great condition. 

The buyer came back an hour later and declined to buy the car because the transmission was failing. In fact, ABC auto told them the transmissions were known to fail in this year and model. And of course gave them a proposal for several thousand dollars to repair it. I was very surprised, and took the car to a transmission shop the next day. They said everything was fine, and were not aware of any known concerns with this model car. 

I can be a type A occasionally (if you ask my wife she might say more than occasionally). So I put on my black leather jacket and gloves, got on my noisy motorcycle, and roared into ABC auto. I pushed open the doors like an outlaw entering an Old West saloon. I stormed up to the counter and demanded “get the owner out here!” 

The owner came out a minute later. I laid two invoices on the counter said “This invoice is from you. A potential buyer of this car brought it in here a few days ago and you said the tranny is shot. And this invoice is from a local tranny shop stating there’s nothing wrong with this tranny. The original buyer was willing to pay full price, until he talked to you. I sold the car yesterday for $5,000 less. You owe me $5,000. Pay up now or I’m on my way to my attorney.” 

The owner refused to pay. I told him he would be hearing from my uncle, my attorney. And we would sue him for fraud and felony dishonesty and ask for punitive damages. Then I stormed out and left a little rubber in the parking lot. 

Now most of what I told ABC was not entirely correct. If I were a politician I would have to admit I “misspoke.” I don’t have an uncle attorney. I said that because I figured ABC would worry more if they thought I had a “free” attorney, but I had no intention of suing. And I had sold the car for what I expected, so ABC really didn’t cost me anything. Of course they did a great disservice to the first buyer, who missed out on a good car because of what ABC said. 

I was chuckling to myself on the way home from ABC, when I suddenly realized that I was now the seller and ABC was the inspector. My negative email comes from sellers, not buyers (my clients). I know that sellers love and are proud of their homes, and can be resentful when a home inspector comes in and points out flaws that they were likely unware of. Maybe I understood a little better. 

But there are a couple very important differences. I took my car to the tranny place because I wanted to know. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the tranny, but if there was I would have had it fixed and told potential purchasers about it. I would not have knowingly sold a car with a potential major defect without disclosing it. 

And Arizona does not allow a home inspector to work on a home he/she inspects. For obvious reasons. Otherwise we could be like ABC auto and tell people their furnace was failing, but we can fix it for a few thousand dollars. In fact, when I started home inspections we were not regulated and there was a local inspector that did just that. I think he inspected one home every Monday, then worked on that home for the rest of the week. 

By Randy West on April 7, 2017 

 

Randy receives, ruminates and regularly replies to readers requesting recommendations 

I usually get several emails a week from my column. Some are thanking me for the valuable information. Some are correcting errors — I always put an update in my next column if I made an error. Some are recommending I do things that human anatomy prevents. But this week I received one of my all-time favorites: 

Hi Randy, 

I really enjoy your columns in the Courier. A few years ago you wrote something about placement of vents on the roof. We are about to get a new roof, and at that time hook up the bathroom vent for our remodeled bathroom. It has been vented to the attic so far but the fan and the shower in that room have not been used much. 

Anyway I THINK you said it is better to place the vent to the north side of the ridgeline? Less noise from “flapping” maybe? If you could reply before the 27th it would be greatly appreciated. 

If you don’t then I’ll have to 1) hack into your phone, 2) get your appointment schedule, 3) buy a camera with a long lens, 4) stalk you and take a photo, 5) blow the photo up and 6) put it on a dart board. 7) Have to buy the dart board too, I guess. 

So you would save me a lot of money and work if you’re able to respond before the 27th. 

Thanks, Jack Moore 

Jack, don’t forget darts — they may not come with the dartboard. I don’t recall writing anything about placing vents on the north side of a roof. But you said it was a few years ago, and I don’t remember what I wrote last month (or even last week sometimes). 

Interior exhaust fans should always be routed to the roof or an exterior wall to keep humidity out of the attic. The hood/vent on the roof or wall has a metal flap. I have heard the metal flap “flapping” on wall vents more often than roof vents. The force that keeps the flap closed (not understood by some contractors and architects) is called gravity. On a side wall the flap hinge is at the top, making it easier for wind to rattle it. 

Since you can install this anywhere you want on your roof, common sense would say putting it on the downwind slope would make it less prone to rattling. But I don’t think this is a concern with roof vents. In many homes I see vents routed to the rear slope, so they are not visible from the street/front, regardless of prevailing wind. 

It is wise of you to wait for the roofing to be replaced to do this. When I was a builder, I learned that if a hole needs to be cut in the roof, for anything, the roofing contractor is doing it. Other subcontractors didn’t appreciate my lack of confidence in them sometimes. But if I got a call about a roof leak after the home was sold, I had to call the roofer. And if it was leaking from something he didn’t do, he would stalk me and put my photo on a dartboard. No, wait, that’s you. Roofers usually dropped a handful of roofing nails behind my truck tires. 

I did comment on a plumbing vent pipe on the upwind side of my home in one column. These are the small pipes that allow air into the waste lines so your toilet will flush properly. The also allow sewer gas (and odor) out of the pipes, so we route them up to the roof. I put a deck and hot tub on the east side of our home when we lived in Colorado, because we had a great view of Denver down in the flatlands. The first few times we went in the hot tub I accused my sons of flatulence. It was hard to pinpoint who, since the “bubbles” aren’t visible in a hot tub. Then one night I went in the hot tub alone. It became very odorous, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t from me. Turns out there was a plumbing vent was on the west side of the roof, and if the wind was just right (which seemed to happen mostly when the hot tub was in use) it would blow the sewer gas over the roof, down the east slope, and into the olfactory system of anyone in the home tub. (In other words, in this case it was the wind direction and not breaking wind that caused a problem.) 

I cured this by moving the vent pipe about 30 feet away, easy to do in the attic. Of course this did require cutting a small hole in the roof, so I had to call the roofer … 

By Randy West on March 24, 2017 

 

Catching up on emails from my last columns 

I get emails every week from this column. I reply to most of them, but not the ones stating my head is somewhere that is physically impossible with the human anatomy. In my last column, I made this comment regarding our federal government: Of course it’s hard not to trust a government than will spend $10 million studying the mating rituals of moths. 

I had a reply from Mark Womack, a local contractor: “My study on the mating rituals of months is none of your business, bub! You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced the love between two moths who have decided to join together for life. It’s really not about the money.” 

I replied: I guess I can understand moths mating for life. Since their life expectancy is what, a couple weeks or months. Unless there’s a candle nearby….  

Mark: “…..not sure zactly cause my attention span is way short of 15 seconds at a time and moths all look alike to me. Hence the cost of the study.” 

Not all exchanges are this intellectual. I also received this email from Al: 

“Hi, Randy. I enjoy your articles, you remind of Pat McManus. Anyway, I have been watching This Old House and it seems they use materials I’m not familiar with such as PVC boards, foam forms for concrete, wraps, blueboard, etc. Are these regional products or are builders using them here? I walk through Granville and every house is wrapped with Tyvek, sheathed with foam, then stuccoed, plywood or OSB being used only on corners and narrow walls. I find it hard to believe this type of covering is used, it just seems so frail. Your comments if you have time are appreciated.” 

I admit I did not know who Pat McManus is. According to Wikipedia, he is a great outdoor writer and humorist, so I can see the similarity. 

I did answer Al: As a home inspector I can’t tell you how popular these products are in our areas. Concrete forms and building wrap are not visible. Unless I see moisture or other damage I don’t check for PVC or wood boards. I just describe interior finishes as drywall, and don’t check or care if they are white or blue — I just look for damage. All of these would be visible while a home is being built. But even if I inspect a new home, it is completely “finished” by the time I get there. 

Actually, I was surprised when I moved here in 1993 to see solid sheathing on exterior walls. And 16-inch centers, for that matter. I was a contractor in Florida and Colorado. Our exterior walls were almost all 24 inches on center (after we went to R-19 and 2×6 exterior walls) with solid sheathing at corners and every 20 feet. The walls did not appear to be frail for Colorado winters, blizzards and high winds. They were fine in the Forida panhandle where I worked. They didn’t do as well by the ocean during a hurricane. But if you review the damage after a major hurricane, it was mostly roofs being pulled off. There are occasional missing side walls, especially in garages, but I’m not sure solid sheathing would make any difference after a 100 mph wind blows in the overhead door. 

By Randy West on February 17, 2017 

 

New furnaces equal new problems, part II 

I’m getting tired of the snow. Not the snow so much as the drivers that don’t bother to clear off their windshields or brake lights. I want to remind them of the Principle of Automobile Relationships — for every movement there can be a sudden and painful end of movement. 

Last time I talked about high efficiency (category iv) condensing furnaces. These furnaces are so efficient they use a plastic vent that can be routed through a wall or the roof. They also remove condensate (water) from the exhaust gas, and require a condensate drain line to remove this water. Often this condensate drain line is connected to the air conditioner condensate drain line, which for decades has been routed to an exterior wall. But when used in the winter, this line could freeze outside. Some homes route this to a drain pipe under a bathroom sink. There are potential problems with this too, due to acidity in the condensate. I planned a part II to this article, but I may need a part III because a few people questioned why furnace condensate is acidic. For example: 

Question: “Randy, Interesting article. You may address this question in your next column; if not, please provide an answer as it is an obvious concern: What causes the condensate water to be acidic? This seems to be a manufacturer’s issue and should be addressed at the source? And, if the condensate is drained outside will that harm the outside of the stucco building and landscape? And, how much condensate is produced per heater cycle for the typical-sized heater?” 

Answer: I’m not a chemist, but I know the “simplified” reason. There are always nitrogen products in a gas appliance exhaust. I learned when I started this profession in 1993 that gas burning appliances cannot be vented through an unlined masonry chimney. Gas appliance exhaust will deteriorate exposed mortar. A wood fire does not. We don’t see unlined masonry chimneys too often any more. 

The atmosphere is 78 percent nitrogen, so there is a lot of nitrogen (in one form or another, known as nox) in a gas appliance exhaust gas. The exhaust from a cat iv furnace is cooler than older furnaces — it is not hot enough to “carry” the nitrogen products up/out to the atmosphere, so they get absorbed by the water vapor, which becomes the condensate. There is really nothing the manufacturers can do about it; any combustion using gas will produce these nitrogen products. And a condensing furnace is the only way (so far) to achieve better than 90 percent efficiency. 

I have seen damaged stucco below a condensate drain line on an exterior wall, even when it’s for only an air conditioner. I would not want any condensate water discharging on my wall, but especially not from a furnace. I read somewhere that furnace condensate can be bad for plants/vegetation. 

Of course we also have to consider we’re in Arizona. The amount of condensate is very low, both from the ac or a cat iv furnace, compared to very humid areas. I can’t give you an amount — it depends on the weather, furnace, etc. I remember the first time I visited my mom in Florida after I became a home inspector. I told her there was a problem because water was “streaming” out of the air conditioner condensate drain line. Then I noted that it was the same at all the other condos; this was apparently normal in the 138 percent Florida humidity. 

By Randy West on February 3, 2017 

 

Better furnaces equal new problems 

Or, condensate lines part 1 

I try not to be afraid of or against change. But sometimes it’s hard not to be. And this is especially true with all the energy efficiency rules the government is forcing on us. Of course it’s hard not to trust a government than will spend $10,000,000 studying the mating rituals of moths. 

This column is about cat iv furnaces. First though … an air conditioner will function as a “dehumidifier” and has a condensate drain line. This condensate drain line is usually three-quarter inch PVC (plastic), and is usually routed to an exterior wall near the ground. 

High efficiency furnaces are becoming much more common. These are “Category IV” furnaces, which I call cat iv. These furnaces achieve a higher efficiency by removing the condensate (water) from the exhaust gas. This means they can use a plastic vent pipe, and vent through a wall instead of having to go up through the roof, which is good. This also means they need a drain line for the condensate. Since there is usually an air conditioner condensate drain line nearby, it is sensible to connect the furnace condensate drain to the air conditioner drain line. Or is it? 

I inspected a home recently where the condensate drain was on the north exterior wall. This is not a problem in the summer when using the air conditioner. However, there was a three-quarter-inch icicle from the drain line all the way to the ground. This had obstructed the condensate line, and water was backing up and leaking out of the line in the furnace. 

I have found this a few times. Sometimes an older furnace is replaced with a cat iv furnace, and the condensate drain line was only designed for air conditioners. But the home I mentioned above was only five years old and the cat iv furnace was original. I believe that some HVAC (heating) contractors are used to running condensate drain lines for air conditioners, and don’t think about freezing being a problem. 

In newer homes, I sometimes find the condensate drain line routed to a trap under a bathroom sink. This is a great solution to freezing condensate lines in the winter. Or is it? 

The condensate water from an air conditioner is very clean. However, the condensate water from a cat iv furnace can be very acidic, meaning it’s very corrosive and can damage any metal it touches. This includes metal pipes. Most newer homes have all-plastic piping, which is much more resistant to acidity. But when a cat iv furnace is installed in an older home, there could be metal pipes in the home or city sewer lines. 

I know that some of you have the audacity to disagree with me and worship anything that may save the Ozone layer or lower your heating bill by a dollar a month. But this acidic condensate water is becoming quite a concern. In fact, many jurisdictions do not allow the condensate water from a cat iv furnace to drain into a sewer system without a “condensate neutralizer.” A quick search at Amazon shows a variety of condensate neutralizers ranging from $50 to $250. 

So my advice to homeowners is … Oops, I’m out of space … to be continued next time. 

By Randy West on January 20, 2017 

 

2016 

December 

November 

October 

September 

August 

July 

June 

May 

April 

March 

February 

January 


Inspector infringes on illegal inhabitant’s itinerary 

For my last column of the year I usually share a seasonal “war story.” But first, I do have something serious to share with you. The Arizona Board of Technical Registration regulates home inspectors, architects, engineers and security/alarm companies. The following appeared in the last BTR newsletter: 

“There have been numerous cases in which alarm salespeople deceived the public through misrepresentation. The salespeople state they are representatives of the customer’s current service provider or an Alarm Business that bought out the customer’s current service provider. They however represent their own services and generally aren’t registered with the BTR. They usually have the customer’s information, making it more plausible for the customer to believe what they say is true. Falsely thinking they were upgrading existing services, customers are shocked to find they now have two alarm service providers and are contractually obligated to both. Verifying registration numbers is a good way to avoid these forms of scams. Ask for credentials. All Alarm Agents and Alarm Businesses in Arizona must be registered with the Arizona Board of Technical Registration. ALWAYS request to see the salesperson’s BTR Card and look for the agent/business registration number. Call your service provider and verify everything the salesperson has told you. If you suspect a scam, call the Board Office at 602-364-4930 and ask to speak with Enforcement.” 

It looks like what we need is an alarm system to alert us to dishonest alarm companies. I don’t think this is a major problem in the Prescott area. We do not have that many alarm companies, and as far as I know they are all reputable. But a word to the wise … 

Now for my seasonal story. It was near Christmas and I was inspecting an older two-story home near downtown Prescott. The home was vacant, but as always when I entered I yelled “Inspector!” as loud as I could. I start “inspecting” at the exterior, but I always take one look around inside first, just to get the layout of bedrooms, bathrooms, etc. I opened a door to a second-floor bedroom to find a man in the middle of the room pulling on his pants. I instinctively mumbled an apology and pulled the door shut. It took just a few seconds for my brain to engage and remind me that I was supposed to be here and the half-panted guy probably was not. I opened the door ready for a confrontation, but all I saw was the bottom of the tennis shoes exiting the window. I went to the window and looked out. There was a shed roof just below the window, which provided easy access to the bedroom window. There were no tennis shoes in sight. 

I turned around and examined the room. The “tenant” had removed the closet rod from the closet and was using the lower shelf as a desk. There was a rickety chair, and a few candles and a notebook on the “desk.” There was a mattress and some sheets on the floor in one corner. There was an astonishing number of empty beer cans in another corner. There was a “bucket bathroom” (with a cover, but still fragrant) in another corner where he recycled all that beer. And in the last corner was a small, decorated Christmas tree. There were even a couple gift-wrapped boxes under the tree. 

I put in my report that “it appears someone may have been using an upstairs bedroom. In the Christmas spirit I did not lock the bedroom window. But I did leave an unsigned note in the room saying there would be workers in the home soon and he had better find another abode. 

By Randy West on December 30, 2016 

 

Randy readily replies to readers’ responses 

In my last column, I wrote about gas-only fireplaces. There can be a lot of carbon monoxide in the exhaust gas. Often the fireplace vent on the exterior wall is near an opening window. So I recommend a carbon monoxide alarm in any room with a gas fireplace, and any room with a window near the vent on the exterior wall. 

I received several emails from that column. Some praising my informative yet humorous columns. One suggesting that I leave politics out of my columns (although I was bipartisan – I called all politicians criminals). And some with very good questions. One person said their fireplace exhausts on an exterior wall onto a covered deck. There is a solid wall at one side of the deck, so only two sides are open. When they’re on the deck with the fireplace operating, they detect an odor. 

Carbon monoxide is odorless, but often there are other items (dust, chemicals, etc.) in a fireplace exhaust that can have an odor. If you can smell the exhaust, that you are likely breathing in some carbon monoxide. There are some exterior-rated carbon monoxide alarms, but the ones I found are pricey. One suggestion would be to buy an inexpensive indoor carbon monoxide alarm that uses a battery, and keep it on the fireplace mantel or hearth (it should not go off inside the home – if it does, call a fireplace guy). You can take this out on the deck with you if/when the fireplace is operating. 

Another email asked about a bedroom window above the fireplace vent. Most manufacturers recommend no opening within 10 feet of the exterior wall vent. (In my last column, I stated doing this was optional in our area, like using turn signals.) I would be more concerned if the opening window was above the vent. Heat rises, and the exhaust gas will be hot, so it will have a tendency to rise. 

I’m guessing that one emailer works in a store that sells gas fireplaces. He told me I should find some “real concerns” to write about, rather than scaring people about gas fireplaces that have been “proven” to be very safe appliances. He stated there is little chance of high levels of carbon monoxide in a fireplace exhaust gas, and little chance of that gas being drawn back inside the home. 

I detect over 100 ppm carbon monoxide in most fireplace exhausts, usually over 200, and at times over 400. And I’m pretty sure that air can enter a home through an open window. Why else would we have opening windows, other than to let air in and out? 

Cars have been “proven” to be safe too. But only if they are operated properly, which for fireplaces would include installed per the manufacturer’s instructions. If you operate your car properly, you likely won’t have an accident. But that is not guaranteed, which is why we wear seat belts. Because that “just in case” can have very serious consequences. Which is the same reason we have smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in our home. The chance of a fire or carbon monoxide is very low, but is something you definitely want to know about right away. 

By Randy West on December 9, 2016 

 

Politicians and criminals (but wait, I repeat myself) 

If you only read one ‘holiday tips’ column this season, read this one. 
I know there will be numerous articles and columns regarding cold weather and holiday safety tips. But none of those will be as informative or enjoyable as this one. Actually I only have one tip. Well sort of two, I guess. 

Tip 2: if your home has an attached garage or any type of wood burning or gas appliance (including a gas furnace) you should have a carbon monoxide alarm in your home. These are required in new homes in many areas. If you don’t have one, they are inexpensive and easy to install. Combination smoke and carbon monoxide alarms are becoming more common, so check all your smoke alarms before you rush out to buy a carbon monoxide alarm – you may already have one. 

Tip 2 is the result of tip 1, which regards gas fireplaces. A lot of people (including yours truly) only use their gas fireplace a few times a year, mostly to impress unwanted company or relatives (but wait, I repeat myself). Gas fireplace flames are adjusted to simulate wood fires (yellow flame) rather than to burn efficiently (blue flame, like a cooktop burner). A yellow flame produces very high levels of carbon monoxide, a blue flame does not. 

There are two types of gas fireplaces. If you have a gas log insert in a wood burning fireplace, there should be a clamp on the damper to keep it fully open. Make sure the damper is open and a clamp is in place before lighting the fireplace. If you light a wood fire with the damper closed you know immediately from the smoke entering the home. If you light a gas fire with the damper closed there is no smoke, and possibly no odor, but there will be huge amounts of carbon monoxide entering the home. 

Many homes have gas-only fireplaces. There is no damper on these, and they usually have glass fronts (not easy-to-open doors). Many of these vent through an exterior wall rather than through the roof. There is a lot of carbon monoxide in the exhaust gas, so manufacturers recommend these vents are not within 10 feet of any opening into the home, e.g. windows and doors. In Prescott that recommendation seems to be very optional, kind of like using turn signals. If I had a dollar for every time I found a gas fireplace vent near an opening window I could almost afford my health insurance hikes since Obamacare passed. Well, maybe not that, but I could buy a new car. 

Often I find a wall vented fireplace in a corner of a living room, so the exterior wall vent is near a window in a different room. And often this room is a bedroom. This installation really concerns me. I imagine mom and the kids playing Monopoly in front of the fireplace, while Dad’s in the bedroom watching the news. A criminal or politician comes on (but wait, I repeat myself) and Dad gets aggravated and opens the window, not realizing there is a vent a few feet away spewing out carbon monoxide. In this case I recommend a carbon monoxide alarm in the room with the fireplace, and in any room that has windows or doors near the fireplace vent on the exterior wall. 

By Randy West on November 25, 2016  

 

Flipping TV shows – I prefer my fiction in books 

I don’t usually watch the “flipping” TV shows. These are where people, many with no money, experience or skills, buy old homes and fix them up. They then “flip,” or resell, the house for amazing profits. They put many weeks of work in a 30- or 60-minute TV show. I prefer my fiction in books, usually science fiction which at least has a chance to come true someday. 

I find the numbers the shows use do not always add up to the profit they claim. They leave out large expenses, like loan acquisition and interest costs, Realtor fees and “payroll,” or taking enough money out to buy some ramen and mac and cheese while working on the home. Some of these “stars” would be working for free using their numbers. 

But I am man enough to admit when I am mistaken. Apparently these stars do make a lot of money. In the Oct. 30 Prescott Courier, there was an AP article regarding schools by the more famous of these flippers. Summary – you pay about $2,000 for a three-day class where these stars will show you how to flip homes. The stars never show up, just a video by them. The first day of class has homework: you must increase the limit on all your credit cards. The next two days are explaining how you need the $25,000 five-day class to really be successful. 

Of course the schools claim they require you to up your credit limit not so you can pay for the five-day class, but to pay for all the unforeseeable problems when flipping homes which the TV shows never tell you about, like running out of ramen. 

The TV stars get a percentage of this, but alas none were available for comment for the newspaper article because of their TV shooting schedule. 

I get asked if I “flip” homes, since my experience as a contractor and home inspector should be a valuable asset. My answer is “NO!” I actually did this before there was a “flipping” term for it. The first thing I learned was every project was going to take longer and cost more than even the most thought out proposal. I made sure my clients were aware of this, and we all prepared for unforeseen problems. Like removing the drywall from a wall and finding the only thing keeping the wall up was all the termites were holding hands. Or removing floor coverings and finding the subfloor was asbestos panels that been removed from a local school (and supposedly disposed of at great cost). 

As a home inspector, I have inspected many “flip” homes that had quality workmanship throughout. These were usually done by licensed contractors. But I have also inspected some flip homes that were “lipstick on a pig.” The buyers see new paint and floor coverings, often new appliances and plumbing fixtures, and sometimes new doors and windows. They think they are buying a completely refurbished home. But then the home inspector arrives, and points out the hail damaged roof shingles, R-5 attic insulation, old furnace and air conditioner, or an electrical system that needs updating to meet current needs. 

I never know, but perhaps the flippers did not get a home inspection and honestly did not know about these. Or perhaps they ran out of money. And perhaps they were totally honest and disclosed all the defects, and priced the home accordingly. 

By Randy West on November 11, 2016  

 

Top 10 defects found in new homes, part II 

Last time I wrote about a top 10 list I saw of the most common defects municipality inspectors find in homes being built. It was surprisingly similar to my list of common defects found in home inspections, which includes older homes. There were four items on the new home list that are not visible or relevant to home inspectors, such as the building plans not being on site. There were six items that home inspectors do find frequently: improperly installed or altered anchor bolts, beams/joists, deck framing, stairs, handrails and railings, and the paper on insulation left exposed. You can check the Courier online for my last column and more information on these items. 

I have four other items on my list. 

Gas appliance vent clearance: The metal vent pipes from any gas appliance – furnace, water heater, fireplace, etc., will get very hot. These vents pipes require at least one inch clearance from any combustible material, and from any insulation. I frequently find these vent pipes close to (or touching) drywall or framing members. Often in the attic the vent pipe had proper clearance, e.g. a 4 inch pipe through a 6 inch hole in the roof sheathing had an inch clearance on all sides. But now the vent pipe is pushed against the roof sheathing, often by roofers when replacing the shingles (in their defense they may be making the vent pipe plumb). In newer homes the vent pipes have sturdy braces on them in the attic so this cannot happen. No insulation should be touching these vent pipes. If there is loose fiberglass or cellulose installed a larger pipe is required around the vent pipe to keep the insulation away. 

Combustion air: Gas appliances require combustion air. This is not a new concept. If you’re as old as me you used to call this ‘make-up’ air. If a gas appliance does not have adequate combustion air it will not operate efficiently, which produces carbon monoxide in the exhaust gas. If there is very little combustion air, the gas appliance may “backdraft,” or start pulling air back down the vent pipe (meaning the exhaust gas with carbon monoxide). Combustion air is very important in a small room and/or if there are other devices removing air from the home. Many times I’ve found a gas water heater in a laundry room. I’ve turned on the clothes dryer and exhaust fan and the water heater would backdraft (easily visible with a smoke bottle). Newer homes will have a high- and low-combustion air vent. The combustion air can be from the attic, crawlspace or exterior. Often there are high and low vents in an exterior wall. I have found these vents covered up because previous owners did not understand what they were for. 

Another common defect is no damper clamp. When a gas log kit is installed in a fireplace, a clamp is needed on the damper to keep it fully open. If you light a gas log/fire with the damper closed, there is no smoke or odor, just a lot of carbon monoxide entering the home. This is another item that sellers remove because they don’t know why it’s there – they just want to close the damper. 

And a missing hi-loop completes my top 10 list. The dishwasher drain line under the kitchen sink should loop up, higher than the bottom of the sink, to avoid a cross connection (e.g. waste water getting into supply water). 

Note none of these are expensive to fix, a clamp for a hi-loop or fireplace damper is only a couple dollars. 

By Randy West on October 28, 2016 

 

Common defects in new, used homes are surprisingly similar 

The Journal of Light Construction (JLC) is a fantastic trade magazine for builders. I have been reading JLC for decades, first the magazine and now online. Recently there was an article about the top 10 code violations. 
I have been asked many times about the most common defects I find as a home inspector. So it was very interesting reading the JLC article. The JLC article is about inspecting homes under construction, so four items on the list are not relevant or visible to home inspectors: missing documentation (having the plans on site), missing blocking in walls, missing fire blocking, and air-barrier gaps. However, the other six items are all on my “top 10” list as a home inspector: 

Improperly placed anchor bolts. These are the bolts that secure the bottom of the frame walls to the concrete slab or stem wall. These are not visible to a home inspector on a slab home, but they are visible if there is a crawlspace under the home. I think often these bolts are placed in the wet cement by the concrete company, who aren’t sure where doors and windows are located. They just place them every six feet, as required. But there are other rules, such as a minimum of 2 in every sill plate, one within 12 inches of the end of every sill plate, etc. 

Weakened joists and beams. This is usually from inadequate support at the ends, most often from improperly installed joist hangers. A joist or beam has to be fully supported in a joist hanger, there should not be a gap at the end of the joist. 

Deck ledgers and braces. Deck ledger boards should be bolted to the home, not just nailed or screwed, and there should be flashing to keep water off the ledger boards. I find one or both of these missing at most decks, even on newer homes. Adding some moisture damage (no flashing) to a poorly secured ledger board (no bolts) can lead to the ledger separating from the home. Braces are often needed at the posts and beams (angled boards) or under the deck itself (angled boards or metal braces). When I inspect a deck I go to the outer edge, grab the railing and try to rack (shake back and forth) the deck. I’ve had decks that moved so much the client screamed and ran back into the home. Most racking would not be as “severe” as my test, but even minor racking from normal use and high winds can eventually loosen all connections, including ledger boards and joist hangers. 

Stair rise/run errors. I find this at many exterior stairs. The run (step width) should be at least 10 inches, and the rise (height) no more than 7 ¾ inches. And the narrowest and widest run, and the shortest and highest rise, cannot vary by more than 3/8 of an inch. 

Stair handrails and guard rails. Handrails must be 30 to 34 inches high, must be “grabbable” (flat 2-by-6 boards are not proper handrails), and must return into the wall at the top and bottom to prevent pockets or purse straps from catching (this has been a commercial requirement for a long time so fireman’s hoses would not get caught in the handrail). 

Exposed kraft-faced insulation. Fiberglass batt (on a roll) insulation comes unfaced or faced. Faced insulation has a paper face on one side. All insulation has warnings printed every couple feet on the facing stating the paper is very flammable and must never be left exposed. I have found 3,000 sf crawlspaces with every piece of insulation backwards. 

I find all six of these all the time. There are a few more items on my list, which will be my next column. 

By Randy West on October 14, 2016  

 

Dual cylinder deadbolts don’t deter doers of dastardly deeds 

I have another fan letter this week: 
“You inspected our house last week, and we heard your presentation to the buyers. You were very wrong on one issue, and you unnecessarily scared the heck out of the buyers. It is not expensive and does not affect the sale of our property, but we thought we should educate you on dual key deadbolts. These are required when there is a window in a door. Having a deadbolt that does not require a key from inside would be silly. A thief could break the glass and reach inside and quickly unlock the door. With a dual key deadbolt they won’t bother breaking the glass because they know they can’t get in anyway. Instead of pointing out the value of these deadbolts you told they buyers they would die if they didn’t replace them. You need to keep your personal paranoias and opinions out of your inspections reports and presentations.” 

Well. I am a paranoid, fear-mongering, uneducated home inspector. I’ve been called worse. 

The proper term for this deadbolt is a dual cylinder deadbolt, which I’ll call a DCD for this column. The cylinder is where the key goes in, so a DCD requires a key from the outside and inside. The vast majority of deadbolts are single cylinder, meaning they need a key from the outside but have a lever on the inside. 

You do not have to educate me about where these are required. DCDs are not “required” anywhere. Deadbolts are not required. Locking doorknobs are not required, although most people like to be able to lock the exterior doors. DCDs are more often used when there is a window in or near a door, but they are not required. 

And it would not be “silly” to not have one. You stated that a thief would not bother to break glass if he sees a DCD. The interior of the deadbolt is very rarely visible from a window near or in the door, unless it’s a very large window in the door that goes right up to the deadbolt. And, in my humble, modest opinion, if a thief is willing to break glass, he’s in. If you have a DCD, he will open a large window or a sliding glass door. 

And I don’t think I scared the heck out of the buyers. I said that a DCD can make it difficult to leave in an emergency. I could have said “most home fire deaths are from smoke inhalation, now imagine stumbling through a smoke filled house with all the smoke alarms blaring and having first to find the key and then get it into the deadbolt….” 

I have also heard that a DCD will prevent thieves from stealing large items. I guess if you had a DCD on every door, and no sliding glass doors or large windows, it could make it harder to steal the piano or pool table. I’m not a thief, but I would think most thieves would look for small stuff they could carry away in a hurry if they needed. 

I’ve also heard people say a DCD is not dangerous because they leave the key in it 24/7. Do I have to say it – why even have it then? 

By Randy West on September 30, 2016 

 

‘Muscle car’ air conditioners are not a good idea: Air conditioners should run most of the time on hot days 

I received a couple emails regarding inspectors (not just me) not operating furnaces in the summer. Below is one of those emails and my reply. 
“You did a home inspection for us last month, and you did not operate the furnace. We are very concerned about this. We are also concerned that the air conditioner is running more than it’s not, which has to be using a lot of energy. In our last home our air conditioner only ran for a short time to keep the home cool. We think the air conditioner is undersized for this home. We read the ‘disclaimer’ in your report about only contractors can determine if an air conditioner is properly sized, but now that we have concerns about the air conditioner we are more concerned that you did not operate the furnace.” 

My reply: I received your email regarding your furnace and air conditioner. It is true I did not operate the furnace. It was 100 degrees during my inspection, the sellers were home, and the air conditioner was in use. The following comment appeared in your report: 

“It was an unusually hot day, the sellers were home and the air conditioner was in use. To properly test the furnace I would have to shut off the air conditioner, wait, operate the furnace for at least 10 minutes, wait, then turn the air conditioner back on. This would have heated the home significantly, and the air conditioner would have to operate for a long time to cool the home back down. To prevent stress on the heating/cooling system I did not operate the furnace. The distribution was checked by operating the air conditioner.” 

So I checked almost all the heating system components, including the thermostat, air handler (blower), ducts, filters, registers including airflow, etc. The only thing I did not do was turn on the actual burner. This furnace was replaced less than 3 years ago with a good quality furnace, so it is unlikely there are any concerns with the burner. If the furnace was original (over 23 years old) I would have operated it. 

As far as your air conditioner running ‘most of the time’, so is mine right now. This is not a bad thing. Below is the ‘disclaimer’ in all my reports: 

“Determining if a central air conditioner is properly sized is beyond the scope of this inspection. I will only comment on the size of an air conditioner if it appears to be significantly under or over sized for the home. Heating contractors can determine this only after detailed calculations that consider heat gain, the size of the home, existing insulation, total square footage of the windows, etc. Our summer climate is moderate for Arizona, and some homes I inspect do not have any cooling systems installed. Recent research indicates that most central air conditioners are oversized (nationally). A properly sized air conditioner should run almost continuously on the hottest days. An oversized air conditioner will start and stop frequently. This uses more energy and causes more wear and tear than running for longer periods (like city driving vs. highway driving). If the air conditioner ‘short cycles (runs for only short times) it not only uses more energy, it may not properly reduce the humidity in the home.” 

So I will recommend evaluation if an air conditioner seems “significantly under or oversized for the home.” Unlike the horsepower in your car, bigger is not better with air conditioners. An undersized air conditioner will not keep the home cool. But an oversized air conditioner will turn on and off more, which is hard on the life expectancy and the utility bills. 

By Randy West on September 2, 2016  

 

What comes after the home inspection? 

My last column was about For Sale By Owner (FSBO) real estate transactions, specifically that the buyers and sellers have no professional guidance. I premised that a local Realtor can “advise a buyer what items in an inspection report are ‘common’ for this area, or this age or size home. They will explain to the buyer that a home inspection report is not a list of repairs that the seller has to improve.” 

I also stated that some FSBO sellers are unaware that home inspectors are regulated in Arizona, and are required to report on safety issues that a seller may feel is unfair in an older home. 

I received some interesting responses. Many sellers agreed with “a home inspection report is not a list of repairs that the seller has to improve.” Some buyers commented that they paid top dollar for a home, so they had a right to expect it to be in excellent condition. It is also notable that most responses were from buyers and sellers that had Realtor representation, so we’re getting off the FSBO topic. 

Some people asked me what is fair for the buyers to ask for, and/or for the sellers to agree to improve. I stated in my last column that home inspectors are not aware of what buyers usually ask for, or what sellers agree to. So I’m not a good person to ask about this. 

I know that it is common for buyers to ask sellers to fix some things. The problem with this is the sellers have no motivation to have high quality improvements; for example, they will go with the lowest bidder. 

And, even if they did want quality work, the work may have to be completed in a short time (before closing). So the seller may have to choose a contractor that can make the time frame rather than the one they feel is best. 

I think it would be better for a buyer to close on the home and choose their own contractors. But, of course, sometimes the buyers are using a lot of the their savings for a down payment and may not have a lot of cash left to make large or many improvements. 

Here is my personal opinion, that I do not share with clients or in my inspection reports: I feel if there is something that prevents me from moving into and living in the home, I will ask the seller to improve it. This could be something potentially expensive, like a non-working furnace. Or it could be something inexpensive, like the front door doesn’t lock. 

But there are other considerations. If the home is 20 years old, and the seller accepted a “low ball” offer, I may not ask for items I normally would. After all, I got a good deal and can afford to make some of these improvements after I own the home. 

But, if the home is 1 year old, owned by a contractor, and I paid full price, I may ask for items I normally wouldn’t. After all, the contractor can probably make the improvements for less than it would cost me. 

By Randy West on August 19, 2016 

 

FSBOs can be risky to sellers, inspectors 

There was a front page article in the Aug. 21 Prescott Courier concerning burglars preying on For Sale By Owner (FSBO) homes. The article stated people would knock on the front door and ask to see the home. One thief would distract the owner while another “wanders through the home.” After the suspects leave the owner discovers missing valuables. 

This is a risk all FSBO sellers have. If there is no Realtor representing the buyer or seller, the sellers have no idea who is calling or ringing the doorbell. Experienced Realtors will not waste their time showing homes to an unqualified buyer. They will ensure the buyer is serious (ready to buy) and can afford the home (has been to a lender or has enough cash). 

 I will not inspect For Sale By Owner (FSBO) homes. Buyers can sue a home inspector, and it is not unheard of for Sellers to. I feel this is much more likely if the parties do not have any professional representation and guidance. 

An experienced local Realtor has seen dozens or hundreds of home inspection reports. They know the local market, and know their clients. They can advise a buyer what items in an inspection report are ‘common’ for this area, or this age or size home. They will explain to the buyer that a home inspection report is not a list of repairs that the seller has to improve. 

I’ve had sellers upset because I reported on safety issues like large openings in deck railings, or lack of GFCI outlets in the kitchen or bathrooms. The sellers feel this is totally unfair because the railing ‘met code’ when the home was built. The sellers feel the railing is “grandfathered” and should not have to be improved. 

I am required by Arizona, in the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors, to report on these items. The Standards state home inspectors must report on any unsafe condition, and that “The risk may be due to damage, deterioration, improper installation or a change in adopted residential construction standards.” 

Home inspectors do not refer to “code.” We may not reference any source, but just state that the deck is 30 feet of the ground and children could easily fall through the 12-inch-wide deck openings. We may state that openings should not be more than 4 inches wide according to manufacturer’s specifications, or “industry standards,” or “adopted residential construction standards.” 

If a Realtor is involved in the transaction, they will explain to the seller that home inspectors are required to report on unsafe conditions, and that any report by any home inspector will mention these conditions. We are not “picking” on their home, we are complying with state law and providing a valuable service to our clients (the buyers). The home inspectors rarely know what the buyer asked the seller to improve, that advice should come from the Realtor. But we have made the buyers aware of these unsafe conditions, so they can improve them if and when they desire. 

By Randy West on August 5, 2016 

 

Hot Garages – Part II Fans and Evaporative Coolers 

Last time I wrote about hot garages. We talked about insulated overhead doors and attic insulation, both of which can help control the temperatures inside garages. 

Last year we had insulated overhead doors installed, which helped a lot. Last week we had Advantage Home Performance install R-30 cellulose insulation in our garage attic, which had no insulation. The next morning the garage did not seem much cooler to me. I think it was because the garage kept the heat it already had. I opened all the doors and windows and cooled it off with a large fan, and now we can tell the difference! The garage used to be over 90 degrees on very hot days, now it’s ‘peaking’ at about 83 degrees. 

 I had an email asking about installing a whole house fan in the garage ceiling. Whole house fans are not that common, but you’ve probably seen one. They are in the ceiling, often in an interior hallway, and usually have a two- or three-speed wall switch. They have louvers that the airflow forces open when the fan is turned on. They are quite noisy, but they can be quite effective at cooling a home. Before you start writing me, I know house fans have gone high tech. There are models with dampers or covers that open electrically, rather than louvers. The new models are much quieter, and some have a fan/blower in the attic and ducts to different rooms. 

But whether you have one that looks and sounds like an airplane propeller, or a new auto-damper thermostat controlled fan, you should not install one in your garage! The walls (common with the home) and attics in an attached garage have to be well sealed, to serve as a fire and gas (carbon monoxide) barrier. Even the door from a garage into a home should be metal or solid wood (fire resistant), and should be self-closing with weatherstripping installed. 

Installing a fan pulling air from the garage into the attic would pretty much guarantee you’ll lose the whole house if a fire starts in the garage. A fan in a window or an exterior wall would be OK, blowing in or out. There are fans designed for this with louvers to keep out hot or cold air when they are not in use. 

I was also asked about using a portable evaporative cooler in a garage. I do not have much faith in these. Everyone knows evaporative coolers don’t work in humid areas – my clients from New Jersey have never even heard of one. 

Evaporative coolers need hot dry air pulled over the media to cool the air. So an evaporative cooler in a small room that is recirculating the air, rather than pulling in dry outside air, will quickly increase the humidity in the room. The more the humidity increases, the less an evaporative cooler can cool the air. 

Common sense (and science) says eventually it becomes more of a humidifier than a cooler. (I expect some ‘feedback’ from that comment.) A window or wall evaporative cooler in a garage would work much better. 

By Randy West on July 15, 2016  

 

Hot Attics, Part I: Most people like hot cars, but not hot garages 

Happy July Fourth weekend! With the unusually hot weather recently I’ve had three emails regarding hot garages. Each had different questions and concerns. Instead of repeating the questions, I will just summarize my recommendations regarding a hot garage. 

I know some of you will find this hard to believe, but home inspectors do not know everything about everything. But fortunately I know some experts I can ask when I see something I’ve never seen before, or want to make sure I’m answering a question correctly. I would like to thank Mike Uniacke, a nationally known insulation expert and owner of Advantage Home Performance in Prescott, for taking the time to talk to me about some of my advice below. I did not let Mike review this column, out of consideration to those of you that like to correct me after every column, so any mistakes are mine. 

A quick review: heat is usually transferred by three methods. Convection – hot air rises, this is how baseboard heaters heat a room. Conduction – some materials are great conductors, like metal, and some materials are terrible conductors, like insulation. Radiation – radiant heat will warm up anything it touches. Standing in the sun is a lot hotter than standing in the shade – this is radiant heat. 

 I don’t spend as much time in the garage as I used to, but probably more than some people, and I have a full size fridge in the garage. I hate to think how hard that fridge is working in a 90-degree garage. Usually the biggest heat gain in a garage is through the overhead doors. Uninsulated metal doors are great conductors. If the outside of the door is 140 degrees, the inside is probably 139.8 degrees. This heat than radiates into the garage, heating everything in the garage. We had insulated overhead doors installed last year, and it helped a lot. There are overhead door insulation kits available for uninsulated doors. Some are pretty good, but none work as well or look as nice as a manufactured insulated door. 

Now we have the other walls. In attached garages, one or two walls are common with the interior, so there is no heat gain there unless you are running your furnace in July, in which case you have more problems that I can address here. One exterior wall is usually mostly overhead doors, which we have discussed. This leaves one or two exterior walls. These can also be a source of heat gain, since they are often not insulated. Insulating finished walls (meaning they have exterior cladding and interior drywall) is not easy, and is not a DIY project for most people. If you have stucco exterior walls, the stucco will provide some insulation. But if you have east- or west-facing walls, especially with wood siding, you may want to consult with an insulation company. 

So that leaves the ceiling/attic. Well, also the floor, but there’s usually not much heat gain from the floor, which is good because there’s not much we could do about it. Most garages in our area do not have any attic insulation. There are some exceptions. In some custom-built or very high quality homes I find insulation in the garage attic, and also in some older homes with the laundry facilities in the garage. Usually the garage attic insulation is less than the home attic, often about half. For example, the home attic may have @ R-30 insulation, and the garage attic would have R-15 to R-20. 

There is a lot of heat gain in garage ceilings with uninsulated attics. On a recent 100-degree day I checked the bottom of the roof sheathing (“plywood” under the roof shingles) with my infrared thermometer, and it was 160 degrees. The sheathing is radiating that 160 degrees into the attic. Remember that radiant heat will heat up anything it touches, so the drywall over the garage ceiling is getting very hot. That heat is “conducted” through the drywall, where it is “radiated” into the garage. 

So attic insulation in a garage is effective at reducing the garage temperature in the summer. But you don’t need as much as insulation as in the home. The attic insulation is more to reduce the radiant heat gain from the attic than to reduce heat loss in the winter. Of course, the insulation will help with heat loss too, but most garages are not heated anyway. And over-insulating a garage can actually trap heat in a garage in the summer, e.g. from pulling in hot (temperature wise) cars. 

As always, batt insulation (on a “roll”) is the least effective because there are always gaps on the sides and ends of the insulation, and it does not cover the framing. Blown in insulation is much better because it covers everything. Having loose fiberglass or cellulose insulation blown is not that much more expensive than installing batt insulation, and is a much better value because of the much better coverage. 

Since heat gain in garages is mostly from radiant heat, I have to mention radiant barriers. I see these in attics sometimes. These are basically aluminum foil rolled out in the attic, intended to reflect the radiant heat back up to the sheathing and keep it off the interior/garage ceilings. The concept is much better than the execution. I have seen this installed on the bottom of the top chords (over your head) and on top of the insulation (under your feet). In both cases, the barrier is not very smooth, and is very dusty/dirty. This lessens the “reflective” quality. And I have not noticed attics with radiant barriers over my head being significantly cooler. My first thought when I see this in an attic is there was a good salesman in the neighborhood. 

If I did not answer all your questions, don’t sweat it. Next time will be Hot Attics Part II. 

By Randy West on July 1, 2016 

 

Sharing inspection results often brings unintended results 

This week I have a question from a home inspector: 
“Is there anything in the law that says we are not to discuss inspection results with sellers, if the buyer pays for the inspection, or is that just a courtesy that you give your clients? I have had people complain about the fact that I won’t include the seller on the review. An agent told me that the inspectors in Phoenix do it and is asking why it is so different up here. Every time I have made an exception and discussed the results with the seller, it does not turn out good. The sellers tend to get angry when you describe things wrong with their home.” (Name withheld because I did not ask him to use this letter, and he’s bigger than me). 

I have some funny stories about sellers hearing what I tell the buyers. But overall I agree that the sellers can get defensive or insulted when you describe defects with their home. I tell buyers and their agents that the meeting takes too long if the seller is there, because we have to “discuss” everything I say. Part of my “at the door” presentation at occupied homes is telling the seller that I won’t be able to discuss my findings with them. I make a little joke out of it. I tell them I don’t want them to ask me “what did you find” when I’m leaving, and get a little tweaked when I say I’m not allowed to tell them. 

 Now, to answer your question, I could not find anything in the Statutes or Rules that addresses who the inspector can deliver their report to. I use a popular Inspection Agreement that is available from the Arizona Chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors. This agreement, and most agreements I’ve seen, has a provision that states I will deliver the report only to the client and their Realtor. I interpret that as meaning that I will not discuss my findings with anyone else, since that would be by definition an oral “report.” So my reports, oral or written, are delivered only to the client. 

I do tell the seller or occupant if I find an immediate safety concern, for example carbon monoxide in the furnace supply air. In this case I am not ‘delivering the report’, I am simply alerting them to one immediate safety concern. I feel this is necessary because the seller is usually living in the home for a month or more after my inspection. 

Now that I answered your question, I realize I need to be careful how I state things. I have told thousands of sellers and Realtors that I cannot discuss my findings with anyone but my client. I have probably said or inferred that it’s Arizona that prohibits this, and actually it’s my Inspection Agreement. But since Arizona requires that I have a signed Inspection Agreement, and my Agreement has that language, I could technically say that Arizona prohibits discussing my findings with non-clients (yes, I want to be a lawyer if I grow up). But in the future I will be careful not to mention Arizona and simply say, “I’m not allowed to discuss my findings.” 

There have been times when the buyers or their Realtor requested that we go over the inspection in front of the seller, and I too have had unusual experiences. Once I told the buyer the master bath toilet does not flush properly. The seller insisted all 5 of us cram into the bathroom so he could demonstrate the proper way to flush a toilet. This toilet, anyway, which involved holding the handle down for exactly 5.3 seconds and then hitting the right side of the tank twice. Don’t know how I missed that. 

Once I mentioned that the overhead garage door did not reverse when hitting an obstruction. The seller went out to the garage to prove me wrong and damaged the door so severely it had to be replaced. 

Then there was the seller who stated several times that he would not have to fix anything his inspector didn’t recommend when he bought the home 10 years ago. 10 years ago his inspector said the water heater would probably need replacing in about five years. I told my buyers the water heater probably should have been replaced about five years ago. To the seller it didn’t matter if his inspector missed something, or if the conditions had changed – if he wasn’t aware of the problem then he did not have to correct it. 

But probably the funniest thing occurred many years ago. The seller was a 75-year-old woman. She sat quietly at the dining room table knitting while I spoke to the buyers and their Realtor in the adjacent kitchen. I had been talking for about 20 minutes, and the seller had not made a sound. I told the buyers there was no spark screen on the chimney for the wood burning fireplace, which can be a fire hazard outside. The seller looked up and said, “My neighbor calls me and bitches every time I use the fireplace.” We were all quiet for a moment, surprised as much that she spoke as at what she said. Then I looked out the dining room next to her and pointed down the hill behind her house. I asked if it was the neighbor down there with the wood shingle roof, and she said “yuup, that’s the grouch.” 

I could imagine the “grouch” watching hot embers from this chimney landing on his wood shingle roof. I told the seller that her neighbor really wasn’t that grouchy. If I lived in that house and she lit her fireplace, I’d be knocking on her front door with a fire extinguisher in my hand. 

By Randy West on June 17, 2016 

 

Two trees or not two trees, that is the question 

I received an email this week from an unhappy homeowner: 
“Mr. West, you inspected the home next door to me a few weeks ago. The new owners moved in, and immediately starting cutting branches off two of my trees. They showed me your report, where you recommended cutting branches off two beautiful, living trees. You are a home inspector, not a horticulturist. And you obviously don’t understand how harmful it is to cut limbs off a living tree! Especially having an amateur just cut them off wherever they feel like it. Removing limbs should only be done by a professional. How would you like it if someone cut off one of your arms? In the future I suggest you limit your inspections to ‘homes’ and not living creatures that you obviously don’t care about.” 

Wow. I admit I am not a horticulturist. I didn’t even know how to spell it. And I do consider trees “alive,” but have never considered them “creatures.” 

I reviewed the report on this home, and I did indeed recommend trimming some tree branches. Why would I recommend such a dastardly deed? It’s not just because I’m a non-caring non-horticulturalist. It’s because I’m a home inspector, and I have to report on anything that can affect the home I’m inspecting. 

Using the letter writer’s logic, if there was a huge tree right next to the home that was slowly pushing the home off its foundation, I should not report on it. After all, the tree was probably there first. And I certainly don’t want to hurt its feelings. 

At the home I inspected, there were tree branches touching the exterior walls. This can provide an entry point for carpenter ants, bark beetles, unemployed hippies, and other creatures you don’t want on your home. (Hey – if a tree is a “creature,” then a 60-year-old hippie can be one too.) I also recommended cutting off a large branch that was over part of the roof and patio cover. The branches were damaging the roof shingles, and If it broke and fell it would likely cause damage to the home. 

Arizona says I have to report on these trees. The Standard of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors (section 5.1F) states “The home inspector shall observe vegetation, grading, drainage, driveways, patios, walkways and retaining walls with respect to their effect on the condition of the building.” The Standards define “observe” as examining something and reporting on its condition. Even if a tree is a “creature,” I think it still comes under the “vegetation” category. 

I would like to think that I am not an uncaring zealot. After reading that email, on the way home I saw at least six landscaper trucks/trailers. They had weedeaters, hedge trimmers, even chain saws! And they were all vilifying vegetation. 

Now to be honest, there is one point to be taken from that email. There is a proper way to trim large branches off a tree, and I will make that point in the future if I have to recommend cutting off large branches. 

I also received an email this this week from a local home inspector: 

“I would like to file a complaint, but I’m not sure if I can. I had an inspection scheduled last week that got canceled. When I asked why, the Realtor told me I’m not on the list of approved inspectors for her office. She forwarded an email to me with a list of inspectors she is not supposed to refer, because they have not given her office a copy of their E &O insurance. I’m not going to, either. I know it is illegal for a home inspector to be on a preferred vendor list. I got a letter from the BTR stating that. I know you work for the BTR, does this fall into that category?” 

I need to explain a few things here before I offer advice. The BTR is the Arizona Board of Technical Registration that regulates home inspectors in Arizona. I do not “work for them;” I am on their enforcement advisory committee and home inspector rules and standards committee. The BTR did send out a letter to all home inspectors stating they cannot participate in preferred vendor programs . A preferred vendor program is where a home inspector pays a monthly fee to a real estate office to be on an approved list. E&O insurance is Errors and Omissions insurance that most home inspectors carry. 

You cannot file a complaint with the BTR against a Realtor or real estate office. The BTR has no jurisdiction over Realtors. Also, I do not feel this program falls under the definition of a preferred vendor. The home inspectors are not paying a fee to be on a list. Any inspector that provides insurance information can be on that list, they are not excluding any home inspectors. The inspector is not paying anything, so in my opinion you can’t file a complaint against an inspector. 

I agree with you, and I will not give my insurance information to any office. That is like asking someone for their automobile insurance for no reason. Why would you give it to them? If a client is unhappy with an inspection or report, they should call the home inspector. If he/she really did miss something, most inspectors will make it right without involving their insurance company. 

The only one that might have a valid complaint would be a client. The five most experienced home inspectors in the Prescott area are not on that “approved” list. If a client received a poor inspection or report , and found out their Realtor was not supposed to refer any of the most experienced inspectors, they might have a valid grievance. But it would be with the real estate office, not the home inspectors. 

By Randy West on June 3, 2016 

 

How to choose a home inspector in Green Cay (not Green Bay) 

I give a short presentation at a local real estate school to inform new Realtors about the home inspection process in Arizona. Part of my presentation is advice on choosing a home inspector, whether they use the advice themselves or pass it on to their clients for them to choose the inspector. I have given this presentation, and this advice, many times. 

Well, some of my oldest friends recently moved to a Caribbean island. They did not retire, they are going to open a business there. They moved for political reasons, they are scared to death of Washington DC. And it doesn’t matter who is in charge. They started planning this a couple years ago, before the fiasco of this election season. I can’t say my wife and I haven’t discussed it ourselves. We decided to wait for the first state to secede and move there (my money is on Texas). 

Anyway, my friends called and asked me for advice on choosing a home inspector. They were advised by a family member to ignore the advice of their Realtor, which just confused them more. I started in on my presentation. But then I realized that my presentation, excellent as it is, it’s based on Arizona. Inspectors are regulated and certified in Arizona (a CHI, or Certified Home Inspector). In fact, Arizona has very strict requirements to become a home inspector, so any CHI will have completed the required education, passed the National Home Inspector Exam, completed 30 parallel (“training”) inspections, completed a fingerprint/background check, etc. 

When I started in this profession, all I needed was a flashlight, clipboard and my name in big letters on my truck. Needless to say, there were many “home inspectors” that did not make it very long. In fact, most of them. A statistic that was mentioned in home inspector schools when I started was that over 50 percent of us (new inspectors) would be sued out of business within 2 years. A pretty scary statistic, if true. I don’t know if they were trying to scare some of us out of the profession, or trying to convince us that home inspection is a serious job and your clients really depend on you. I think they succeeded at both, because usually several attendees did not come back after the next break. 

So back to my problem. I can’t tell my friends to check the government bureaucracy for a home inspectors license status and/or complaints, because there is no such bureaucracy there. Like in Arizona 20 years ago, anyone with a ladder and a business card can be a home inspector. So I had to come up with some new advice. 

So my first advice was to ignore the advice to ignore the Realtor’s advice. There are some websites and blogs out there that advise home buyers to not use any home inspector that their Realtor recommends. Most home inspectors dispute this. If you did your homework in choosing a Realtor, you should be able to rely on his/her advice. That is what they are getting paid for, their knowledge of the local market and area. By the time you need a home inspector, you have trusted your Realtor to show you all homes that fit your needs, advise you of flood zones, school districts, desirable or undesirable home features in that area, maintained roads, special assessments, write and negotiate a purchase offer, etc. So now you’re not going to take their advice on choosing inspectors? 

So I advised my friends to put a lot of weight on the inspectors their Realtor recommended, but to do a little homework as well. 

First, I suggested they check the inspector’s website. In this day and age, any inspector should have a website. And he/she should state their credentials. Look for how many years they have been an inspector, and membership in professional organizations such as ASHI or NAHI. Watch for vague comments such as “30 years in the trades” or “30 years of real estate experience.” Even “30 years of inspection experience” can be misleading. An Arizona home inspector once advertised “over 5,000 inspections.” I found out he managed a huge apartment complex for many years, and 4,800 of his inspections were to refund a damage deposit. I believe this is making sure the tenants had the carpet cleaned and didn’t steal the refrigerator, but it is by no means a “home inspection.” A home inspector’s website should state how many years they have been an inspector, and/or how many home inspections they have performed. Real home inspections. 

They should also have a sample report on their website. Most home inspectors are basically self-employed. Franchisee home inspectors are becoming much more common, but even their success or failure depends almost entirely on the individual home inspector, not the franchise. As such, I have found most successful home inspectors are a bit egotistical. Except me, of course. In some ways this is a good trait. Since the actual report is the only visible thing we produce, home inspectors should have a sample report on their website. They want you to see their report. They should insist you see their report. In fact, they want everyone to see their report, because they know it’s better than the other guy’s report. (Who, of course, should be saying the same thing). 

You should also call the inspector. Even if all the information you want is on their website, a short conversation can tell you a lot. They will not be as professional and funny as me, of course. But they should be glad to talk to you and answer any questions you have, and it should be a pleasant conversation. If you can’t reach them before an inspection, what if you have a question about the inspection report? 

By Randy West on May 20, 2016  

 

More than you ever wanted to know about multi-wired branch circuits 

“Randy, in your report you mentioned the home has some multi-wired circuits and recommended an electrician. We had an electrician check on this. He told us we have to turn off two breakers to shut off all power to a circuit, but said this is common and is not a concern. We just wanted you to know this so you don’t report on this in the future.” 

This has actually come up a few times recently, and I don’t think I’ve ever written about it in this column. Here is my comment from that report, which will help explain what multi-wired branch circuits are: 

“There are numerous multi-wired branch circuits (also known as ‘shared neutral’ or ‘common neutral’ wiring). This was common at one time, and is still used in some circumstances. Some brand new homes have a multi-wire branch circuit for the outlet below the sink – one breaker for the disposer and a different breaker for the dishwasher but only one neutral wire. This wiring is safe in normal use. However, turning off a breaker does not ensure there will not be power in the neutral wire for that circuit, since the neutral wire also serves another circuit (breaker). Usually the breakers are physically connected, like a 240 volt breaker, when there is a shared neutral wire to ensure all power to that circuit is turned off. You should consult with an electrician regarding this wiring.” 

So the concern with shared neutral wiring is if a breaker trips off, or is turned off, there is still power to that circuit. Simply put, the hot (black) wire is power going to the outlet, the neutral (white) wire is the power coming back. With AC (alternating current) electricity, you can have one neutral wire serve two hot wires, since only one at a time will be sending power back to the panel. 

The electrician told you that you have to turn off two breakers to shut off a circuit, but are you positive you know which two breakers? And what if you have a friend install a ceiling fan, will he know you have to turn off two breakers on that circuit? If not, he may get a free hairdo when he starts wiring that fan. 

Multi-wired wiring is only visible if you remove the deadfront (inner cover) on the panel. And even if someone removes the deadfront, they may not notice the shared neutrals. Sometimes you can spot shared neutral wiring because there are red wires on the 120 volt breakers. But sometimes there are no red wires, and the only way to notice this is either by counting the neutral (white) wires, or checking where the branch wiring enters the panel. 

After receiving that letter, I wanted to confirm my comments. I called a master electrician that teaches at our home inspector classes. He said with shared neutral wiring the breakers must either be a dual pole (aka common trip, for 240 volt circuits) or have a “breaker handle tie,” which is a metal “clip” that connects the handles on two adjacent breakers. 

I also called the Prescott Building Department and left a message with an inspector. My voice messages get emailed to me (makes it easy to copy and paste), here is his reply: 

“Good afternoon Randy, This is the city of Prescott building department returning your call concerning the shared neutral question. It is allowed to share the neutrals. A common trip is not required, but a breaker tie handle is required so that if one breaker trips it does not necessarily trip the other one, but if you turn them off the breaker tie handle would turn both of them off. That can be accomplished by using either a two pole breaker or a breaker handle tie. So I hope that answers your question.” 

They both said the same thing. Understand that a dual pole/common trip breaker is used for 240 volt circuits, like a range or water heater. It is designed to trip off both sides (“poles”) if either circuit trips off. This ensures that all power to the appliance is shut off if either 120 volt circuit trips. The breaker handles are also physically connected with a metal clip called “bridging.” This is to ensure all power is off if someone turns off the breaker (rather than it tripping). 

Connecting two 120 volt breakers with a “breaker tie,” as required for shared neutral wiring, is not quite the same. A breaker handle does not have to move when a breaker trips. So if a 120 volt breaker trips off, a 120 volt breaker that is connected to it with a breaker tie will not trip off. This can make a tripped breaker hard to find because the handle is not in the “tripped” position. 

So with a dual pole 240 volt breaker both handles will move if either side is tripped. And with two 120 volt breakers with a breaker tie, if one side trips the handles do not move, making it hard to locate a tripped breaker. 

I inspected a brand new home recently with two multi-wire circuits. One was for the outlet under the sink (separate breakers for the disposer and dishwasher), and one was for the two 120 volt outlets in the laundry (separate breakers for the washer and gas dryer). Both of these had 240 volt common trip breakers. This is more convenient because the breaker will completely turn off if either side is tripped or turned off. 

I will continue to alert my clients to multi-wire circuits if the breakers are not connected. And especially if they are in the general wiring, e.g. bedroom outlets, rather than for a washer/dryer or disposer/dishwasher. Like other comments in a home inspection report, the client may choose to not make any improvements, but at least they are aware of the situation. 

  

By Randy West on May 6, 2016 

 

I love (most of!) my job – a home inspector’s lament 

I had two somewhat similar written questions (and a couple phone conversations) regarding home inspectors and re-inspections. Here’s one of the emails: 
“We had a home inspection last month on a 2,500 square foot home. There were a lot of recommendations in the report, which we expected because it was an older home. What we did not expect was the fee for a re-inspection. First, he said he would not re-inspect some things. Second, he wanted to charge almost as much as the original inspection. I think it’s only logical that the inspector that found the problems would be the one to make sure they are fixed properly. I was also shocked that a re-inspection cost almost as much as the original inspection, even though he refused to check some things. We are out of state and could not get to Prescott to check on repairs, so we had to agree to his terms, but we feel we were taken advantage of. Isn’t a re-inspection something all home inspectors do?” 

I used that letter because it was more “printable” (and wasn’t about me). Let me start by saying that home inspectors do not like re-inspections (my spell checker doesn’t like an un-hyphenated “reinspection”). They are the least favorite part of our job for several reasons. 

First, we (‘we’ refers to all home inspectors) are not allowed to discuss our findings with the sellers. So on our first visit the sellers were very nice and offered us lemonade and cookies (which we never accept for ethical reasons). But when we go back to re-inspect, the sellers are waiting at the door wanting to know why we didn’t tell them half the attic wasn’t insulated or that the master bath sink was draining into the crawlspace. We of course politely explain that we couldn’t discuss our findings with them. Sometimes the sellers understand and offer us lemonade and cookies (which we never accept for health/safety reasons). 

Sometimes sellers will insist that they are there for the re-inspection, even on a vacant home, so they can tell us how unhappy they are with us. I’ve had sellers that were very pleasant during my first inspection, but then not allow me back into the now-vacant home for a re-inspection without their armed guards on site. 

It’s true that most sellers are not like this, but the few that are make an impression. 

Which brings up a second point. Scheduling re-inspections is very difficult. It is typical to get a request for a re-inspection that has to be done in the next few days — after the repairs but before the closing. I have a “re-inspection policy” paragraph in my original report that lets clients know the minimum cost, and lets everyone know that it is very difficult to schedule a re-inspection for a specific day and time. Like most self-employed, I log many hours. It is not unusual for me to be typing a report until 7 or 8 p.m. A re-inspection, even if the actual inspection does not take long, easily adds a few hours to the workload with travel, inspection and report writing. 

I also understand the inspector refusing to re-inspect some items. Home inspectors are generalists, and by state law if we see a “major defect” we must recommend a contractor (“appropriate persons” is how it’s worded in our Standards of Practice). A major defect is anything that is unsafe, could worsen appreciably or cause further damage. 

Say a home inspector finds a furnace that is not operating safely, perhaps there was carbon monoxide in the supply air. The inspector may not know “why” the furnace was not operating correctly, so he/she recommends hiring a “licensed heating contractor.” Now assuming a licensed heating contractor fixed the heating system, should the home inspector re-inspect it? I understand the client wanting to make sure it was fixed, but now the home inspector is taking on the liability for the repair. I know this is unlikely, but say the heating contractor determined the furnace needs replacing. He can make a repair, but it is temporary and will only be good for short time. The home inspector knows nothing of this, and goes out and declares the furnace is “fixed” or “operating normally.” 

Perhaps a better example would be a noisy fan. Any fan will do, but let’s use the furnace again. The home inspector states the furnace fan sounded like a flock of scared parrots when operating, and likely the motor or fan needs replacing. Someone sprays two cans of the wrong lubricant all over the motor and fan, so when the home inspector re-inspects the noise is gone. The wrong lubricant actually worsens the condition, and by the time the buyers move in the scared parrots are back. Guess who just bought that furnace — the home inspector who said it was “fixed.” 

So when I get a request to do a re-inspection, here’s my thought process. One day this week just went from 10 hours to 13 hours so I can drive out to a home where there may be people that aren’t happy with me so I can report things are fixed and possibly take on liability for repairs that I don’t know for sure were done properly. And all this for not much money. 

I understand buyers needing a re-inspection, especially if they are out of state. But I also understand a home inspector declining to re-inspect items that he/she recommended an “expert” to repair. My “return visit policy” states that if I recommended an expert, the client should ask for copies of the invoice or work order. That way the clients know it was repaired by an expert, and the clients have the contact information if they have any questions or concerns. 

By Randy West on April 22, 2016 

 

Inspectors are not privy to Realtors’ conversations 

This week’s question comes from a Realtor: 
“Randy, I have seen many inspection reports over the years. I have seen reports that recommend a licensed roofing contractor to replace a few shingles, or a licensed electrician to replace a missing outlet cover. 

“As a buyers’ agent, I would like to know why some home inspectors recommend expensive professionals for minor improvements. I have seen buyers ask for every recommendation in a home inspection report. 

“As a sellers agent I am not privy to the conversations between the buyers and their home inspector and Realtor. Do home inspectors tell buyers that the seller of a home has to fix everything in the report?” 

Privy. That’s a neat word. Although I don’t know why it makes me think of a bathroom. There are two good questions here, so I’ll try to come up with at least one good answer. 

First, why do home inspectors recommend experts for minor repairs or improvements? Because we have to. The Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors states that we must inspect certain systems and components, e.g., heating systems, roof shingles, etc. Components make up a system – the furnace, ducts, filter, etc. (components) make the heating system. The Standards also state that a home inspector shall: 

2.2 C. 3: “state any systems or components so inspected which were found to be in need of immediate major repair and any recommendations to correct, monitor or evaluate by appropriate persons.” 

The glossary in the Standards defines “immediate major repair” as “a major defect, which if not quickly addressed, will be likely to do any of the following: 1. worsen appreciably, 2. cause further damage, 3. be a serious hazard to health and/or personal safety.” 

So inspectors have to recommend an “appropriate person” for any “major defect.” I warn my buyers/clients not to confuse major defect with major expense. A leak under a sink can “cause further damage” and a missing electrical outlet next to a sink can “be a hazard to personal safety.” The leak may not require any expense, just tightening a loose pipe or fitting. An electrical outlet cover costs 50 cents and most 10-year-olds can install it. But inspectors in Arizona are required to recommend an “appropriate person” to correct these. 

Now for the second question – do home inspectors tell buyers what a seller should fix? There is no law, rule or regulation governing this. But common sense says Absolutely Not! 

I have been asked by a buyer many times if they should ask the seller to fix something I pointed out. My immediate answer is Not My Department. If I’m in one of my rare serious moods I will tell them I don’t know if the home has been on the market for a day, week or month. Or if the seller or buyer are “handy.” Or if the buyer paid full price or low-balled. And all of those could influence what a buyer should ask a seller to fix, or what a seller may be willing to fix. 

But more often when a buyer asks if a seller should fix something I tell them all I can say is this is the problem, this is why it’s a problem, and I may offer suggestions on possible improvements. But I never comment on who fixes it, or when, or who pays for it. I am not a city or county inspector, and I have absolutely zero authority. No one listens to me, and that includes my wife, two sons and three dogs. 

I always tell my clients they should discuss the report with their Realtor, who can advise them on what to ask for. And I’m not privy to those conversations (you knew that was coming). 

Early in my career, I was inspecting a 30-year-old home. It had the original dishwasher, and when I opened the door, I was immediately assaulted. By an odor. A very bad odor. The interior of the dishwasher had yucky water (or something) in the bottom and was very rusty. I quickly shut the door. The seller was nearby and asked if I thought it was worth repairing the dishwasher. My nose was burning and I needed to get out in the fresh air, so I blurted out something about it probably wouldn’t cost any more to get a new dishwasher that would run quieter and do a better job of washing dishes (I left out “and not give anyone nosebleeds”). 

The next day everyone was mad at me. The buyers asked for a $100 credit for a new dishwasher. The seller stated they don’t need one. Sears had already come out and installed a brand new dishwasher. The buyers asked if it was white like the other appliances, and the seller said yes. The buyers were planning to buy all new stainless steel appliances, so they asked the seller why he had a new dishwasher installed. He said the home inspector told him he had to. 

So the buyers were upset – they had a new $350 dishwasher they didn’t want. The seller was upset – he could have gotten away for $100 and not had Sears tear up his kitchen (not to mention release that toxic odor). And the Realtors were mad at me for telling the seller he had to replace something. I told both Realtors that I knew they were not privy to my conversation with the seller, but I assured them I had NOT said anyone HAD to do anything. 

So now if a buyer asks me who should fix it, I say discuss it with your Realtor. I can’t discuss my inspection with the sellers, but if they know something is wrong and ask me about fixing it, I strongly recommend that they don’t do anything until they hear from the buyer. 

By Randy West on April 7, 2016 

 

Home inspectors must have a hard head … 

This week’s question came from someone who found one of my past Courier columns: 
Q: “Hi Randy. I saw an article online that was written by you, providing very good information regarding homes that have post tension slabs. We’ve just purchased a home in Scottsdale, and sure enough, there was a stamp in the garage that stated such a method was used. So here’s my concern: I have a floor safe, and in the last home I had it was bolted to the floor in the closet. Am I limited to merely placing the safe on the floor in the home, versus having the added security of bolting it to the floor? It’s not exactly difficult for someone, or a crew, to just pick the darned thing up and walk out the door with it. Thanks, Carol.” 

A: Get ready for a long answer – this will be in my next column. So you will have to wander (or is that wonder) with me. 

A quick explanation – a post tension slab floor has cables routed through it. After the slab is poured, the cables are tightened to make the concrete stronger. 

You would probably be OK drilling (Carefully!) very shallow holes, e.g. less than 1/2 inch, in the concrete. With masonry anchors, a few of these should make the safe feel very secure. I would assume (yes, I know what assume means) that if a thief found a safe secured to the floor, he would assume it was very well secured to the floor and would not try to lift or pry it off. I’d hate to tell my chiropractor that I hurt my back trying to lift a safe that was bolted to a floor (or lift a safe at all, for that matter). 

Depending on the location, an infrared camera can sometimes locate the tendons (cables) in the concrete. I would still not go very deep, but I’d feel a little better if I had some idea of the location of the tendons. 

Of course, if I have a stamp in the concrete floor that says “Do Not Drill or Core,” I would find a way to avoid it. Can the safe go up against a wall? Bolting it through the side or back to a frame wall could be as strong as bolting it to the concrete floor. You might have to use shims to keep it away from the wall (e.g. for the safe door to open). And once again if it feels secure at all, the bad guy may assume it is very secure and not try prying it. 

I hope this helps you. 

I have a “joke” group in my email which includes (some) family and friends. Many are fellow home inspectors. Some are fellow white trash motorcycle riders. One is a fellow FSU fan. (Actually, he’s not really an FSU fan. We “met” when he read this column and emailed me a question, but we are both avid college football fans.) 

Most of the emails I send out to the “joke” group are relatively harmless funnyisms. A good percentage are political (which is why only “some” family and friends are on the list). And some can be, well, not quite “vulgar” but they would have made my mother blush. 

There is a reason I’m telling you this. I banged my forehead on a metal beam in a crawlspace under a manufactured home last week. It hurt like heck for about one minute while I recited every foul word I’d ever heard. Then the pain subsided, but head wounds do tend to bleed a lot. Blood kept getting in my right eye and I kept clearing it off with my sleeve (I was wearing coveralls). 

I was taking a photo of the air conditioner condensate drain line discharging in the crawlspace (as in most manufactured homes), and decided to take a “selfie.” I knew there was a lot of blood on my forehead and face. I then sent the photo out to my “joke” group with the following message – “another typical day in a crawlspace.” 

I was in a dark crawlspace, lying down on the dirt floor, and I closed my eyes for the flash. I didn’t think about how this made it look like I may have been unconscious (or worse). Until I got some very concerned replies to my email: 

“Which hospital are you in?” “How long were you unconscious?” “Are you all right?” 

I sent out a second email letting everyone know what happened – I hit my head on a metal beam and I’m fine. The responses I received are what prompted me to put it in a column: 

“Nice head shot.” 

“RIP, Randy. You will be missed.” 

“You should use that photo on your business card.” 

“It’s almost St Patrick’s Day, not Halloween, or is this for real?” 

“Cute. Now get back to work!” 

“Looks like that photo should be mounted above the fireplace.” 

“Anyone who knows you would realize that a head wound wouldn’t be serious. There is nothing up there to damage! Glad to hear you didn’t cause any structural damage to the house.” 

“How’s the beam? Is it bent too far out of specifications?” 

“Did you give the beam a tetanus shot?” 

“Looks like you got caught in a Seminole blitz – you’re too big to be doing crawlspaces – you need a little guy assistant.” 

“Thank goodness it was only your head and not something important.” 

“Randy, I’m trying to figure out what happened. Did you fall asleep after you hit your head, or did your wife hit you, and then you went in the crawlspace to escape?” 

And Bob replied to my email with no written message but a couple links. One went to an Amazon page selling those weird looking bicycle helmets. The other went to a page with “the history of the hard hat.” 

By Randy West on March 25, 2016 

 

Attic insulation, Part II – where no man has gone before 

Last time I wrote about how just a small area of missing attic insulation can have a large effect on the overall attic insulation. A quick review: we measure insulation by its R value – the higher the R number the better. Walls in a house usually have R-11 (2×4 walls) or R-19 (2×6 walls) fiberglass batt insulation installed. Batt insulation comes on a roll. 

Most attics in our areas have loose insulation, either cellulose or fiberglass. There are other materials I find in older homes, such as mineral wool. I have found carpeting, newspapers and Styrofoam (one attic was insulated with cut apart coolers). I found cinders as attic insulation a couple times. I’ve heard they used this in Flagstaff for a while, until they discovered how well cinders will burn. 

We also discussed the U value, which we need for our equation later. The U value is the inverse of the R value- U=1/R and R-1/U. So R-30 would have a U value of 1/30 or .0333. In our example last time we used a 1000 sf attic with R-30 in half and R-10 in half. So the average insulation would be R-20, and one would assume the ‘actual’ insulation would also be R-20. But that’s not true. You will lose more heat through the low insulation levels. There is an equation to compute the actual R value for different levels of insulation in the same attic: sf x U + sf x U (repeat for all different insulation levels), divided by the total sf. Using the equation we found that attic actually had R-15, which is 25 percent less than R-20. 

We used the equation to calculate the loss of insulation if an attic access cover is not insulated. The typical attic access is only about 4 sf. But that dropped a 1000 sf attic with R-30 insulation down to R-28.7, almost a 5 percent drop in actual insulation. And it could be as high as 10 percent, depending on other factors. 

I have found all the following: A rear patio made into a family room with R-11 batt insulation installed: total insulation went from R-28 to R-22. A 1,620 square foot attic insulated to R-30, except no insulation over a 120 sf addition. This lowered the attic insulation to R-18, a 40 percent loss! A 2,000 square foot attic with a 500 square foot garage made into living space with no attic insulation: actual insulation went from R-30 to R-2! Yes, R-2 – I ran the calculation three times. 

But even small areas of missing insulation can have a significant effect on the overall insulation value, and on your heating/cooling costs. And I find this in a lot of attics! I have found uninsulated areas at furnaces, and where some repair or improvement was made (e.g. fixing leak damage, repairing a bath exhaust fan duct). These areas are almost always larger than the uninsulated access cover, and that lowered our attic insulation R value by 5 to 10 percent. 

Often a plywood “floor” has been installed in an attic for storage space. Every sheet of plywood is 32 sf. Just two sheets would be 64 sf, or half the size of that uninsulated room we used a minute ago. And remember – that 120 sf uninsulated room lowed the actual attic R-value by 40 percent. 

I don’t think there’s a formula for the “footprints” that I see in attics. In some attics, there are footprints from one end to another. R-30 cellulose insulation is about 8 inches deep. R-30 fiberglass insulation is about 12 inches deep. Often these “footprints” are right down to the trusses, especially if they have been used more than once. And of course they’ve been used at least twice, or I’d be finding bodies in attics. 

A size 12 shoeprint in insulation is probably a half sf, because the “holes” in the insulation are larger at the top. But to be conservative let’s use three footprints to make a square foot. Let’s use that same 1,000 sf attic with R-30 insulation. But now, there are 45 footprints. 45 divided by 3 would be 15 sf. And let’s say the insulation is only three-quarters compressed, which would make it @ R-7. It would actually be less than R-7; last time we learned that if you compress insulation it loses some of its R value. But we’ll use R-7. So for our formula we have 985 sf at R-30 and 15 sf at R-7. The actual R-value would be R-28.5. That’s a 5 percent loss of R value for some footprints. And we were conservative on both the sf and the R value in the footprints. 

When I enter an attic and there are no footprints, I always think of Star Trek: “where no man has gone before.” And here’s a surprise for the editors – I’m actually going to tie all this in to home inspections. The Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors state an inspector has to “…observe readily accessible installed systems and components listed in these Standards.” The Standards defines “readily accessible” as “Available for inspection without requiring moving of personal property, dismantling, destructive measures, or any action which will likely involve risk to persons or property.” So an attic would normally be “readily accessible.” However, the Standards also state “… inspectors are NOT required to disturb insulation, move personal items, furniture …” 

So in my personal humble opinion, inspectors are required to enter attics unless it would disturb the insulation. The glossary does not define “disturb,” but I would think leaving footprints that lower the R value by 5 to 10 percent would fall into that category. Anyone entering an attic and “disturbing” the insulation should level it out as much as possible on their way back out. 

By Randy West on March 4, 2016 

 

Attic insulation and brain damage, Part I 

When I see an attic access in a heated area, such as a hallway or laundry room, I always recommend insulating the cover. If it’s not already, of course. I have heard of sellers and handymen arguing that this is “silly,” a waste of time, or just the inspector trying to sound important. I know buyers have ignored this recommendation (I find out when I inspect the home again five years later). So I decided to do a little research and see just how much one small area of missing insulation would affect the overall insulation. 

I found formulas to calculate this. I even used them, they’re not that difficult (although it’s been a long time since college algebra!) 

First a few basics. We refer to insulation as R-11, R-30, etc. So what is R exactly? This is from Wikipedia: “The R-value is a measure of thermal resistance used in the building and construction industry. Under uniform conditions, it is the ratio of the temperature difference across an insulator and the heat flux (heat transfer per unit area per unit time) through it. Thermal resistance varies with temperature but it is common practice in construction to treat it as a constant value.” 

I deleted some formulas from that quote. The formulas were very complicated and had strange symbols that made my brain hurt. Simply put, R is the insulating value of a material. The higher the number the better the insulation. Let’s use fiberglass batt insulation for an example. Three common ratings are R-11 (3.5 inches thick), R-19 (5.5 inches thick) and R-30 (10 inches thick). Note the thicknesses are approximate, depending on the insulation. Owens Corning has R-19 insulation that is 6.25 inches thick and R-21 insulation that is 5.5 inches thick. The 3.5 and 5.5 inch insulation is made to fit inside 2-by-4 and 2-by-6 walls. 

Insulation has some funny properties. If you add layers of insulation, you can add the R values. If you put R-11 insulation over R-19 in your attic, you now have R-30. But that’s only true if you don’t compress the insulation. If you put 6 inch R-19 in a 2-by-4 wall, it is no longer R-19. Compressing any type of insulation will lessen its R value. 

Most attics in our area have loose insulation, either fiberglass or cellulose. This is where the math gets really brain-hurting. (Note: for this discussion we will disregard the framing members and drywall, which also have R ratings). If you have a 1000 square foot attic, and half is insulated with R-30 and the other half is insulated with R-10, we should have an average insulation of R-20, right? 

Wrong! Because heat will find the path of least resistance. R-20 is the average of the “thickness,” but you will lose much more heat through the lower insulated areas. There is a formula to determine the average R factor. First you have to convert to the U factor. The U factor is how much heat can get through something, so a lower number is better. Windows are rated by the U factor. The U and R factors are inverses of each other- U=1/R and R=1/U. 

The formula is sf x U + sf x U (+ as many sf x U as needed for the total sf) divided by total square foot. So in our example we have 500 sf of R-10 and 500 sf of R-30. After converting to U, our formula would be 16.6 + 50 divided by 1000, or 66.6 divided by 1000, which equals .066. This is our U value- divide into 1 for the R value of 15.15. So our R value is not R 20, it’s R 15. That’s a big difference – 25 percent less than the “average” thickness. 

Now let’s figure out that missing insulation on an attic access cover, which is at 2 feet by 2 feet or 4 sf. We will assume the rest of the 1000 sf attic is R-30. We can use the same formula. We will count the uninsulated attic access as R- .5, which is the approximate R value of drywall (and we can’t use 0 in our equation). So we have 996 sf at R-30, and 4 sf at R-.5. Which is .033 x 996 (32.8) and .5 x 4 (2). 32.8 + 2 equals 34.8, divided by 1000 = .0348, which computes to R-28.7. This does not seem like that big a difference, only a 5 percent loss. But that 5 percent loss is over the entire attic. 

And actually we need to think of something else regarding that access cover. You can transfer heat by conduction, convection or radiation. Conduction is heat traveling through a material – a good insulator is a very poor conductor. Convection is air movement- heat will rise and cool air will settle. Radiation is the heat hitting and warming an object-, the sun heats by radiation (only warms you if you stand in the sunlight). With no insulation an attic access cover will also have radiation. When heating the home you will radiate (lose) heat into the attic, when cooling the home the uninsulated cover will radiate (gain) heat into the home. 

I have read where a small uninsulated attic access cover can reduce your total attic insulation by 10 percent, and a pull-down stairs reduces the insulation by 20 percent. Since we know we lose 5 percent from the lack of insulation, it’s possible the radiation (and possible air leakage around the cover) can account for another 5 percent. But even if your home has only one small attic access it would be cost effective to insulate the access cover. 

And if you didn’t enjoy this column, you definitely won’t enjoy the next one: Attic Insulation and Brain Damage, Part II. 

By Randy West on February 19, 2016 

 

Garages, snowblowers, microbuses and Darwinism 

I have written in this column many times about gasoline vapors in garages. Gasoline vapors stay near the floor, so any flame or potential spark should be 18 inches off the floor. This is why water heaters and furnaces in garages are usually on an 18-inch-high box or stand. It is also why the electrical outlets in your garage are high off the floor at the “switch” level, rather than near the floor like your interior outlets. 

I have also written many times about fire and gas resistance between homes and attached garages. This is usually accomplished with drywall with all seams taped, and a metal or solid wood door with weatherstripping and self-closers. 

The 18-inch rule is to help prevent fires in case of gasoline vapors in the garage. The fire and gas resistance it to help prevent fires from spreading into the attic or home, and to reduce the chance of car exhaust (carbon monoxide) entering the home from the garage. 

There was an article in the Jan. 7 edition of the Prescott Daily Courier regarding a fire in a Prescott home. The owner had a mechanical problem with a gas-powered snowblower, and put it in the garage. The article said that gas may have dripped from the snowblower, and was ignited by a pilot light from a heater. The article said heater, not “furnace,” so I’m assuming it was a “portable” heater of some type on the garage floor. Unfortunately the fire did spread to the home, and two firefighters received injuries. Fortunately the injuries were minor – the article stated they did not have to go to the hospital. 

Occasionally home inspectors find problems with the “18-inch” rule. Most common is finding electrical outlets or connections close to the floor, and once in a while a gas appliance (pilot light or burner) on the garage floor. 

It is much more common for home inspectors to find violations of the gas and fire resistance. Two that come to mind immediately are pet doors and pull down attic stairs. You have fire resistant walls and a fire resistant door with self-closers and weatherstripping. And then you install a German shepherd-sized pet door through the door or wall directly into the home. And I wrote recently about pull-down attic stairs in attached garages. They make stairs specifically for fire-resistant ceilings, but these stairs are more expensive and I never see them installed in single-family homes. 

Home inspectors are accused of being “alarmists” when we comment on safety concerns such as these. I would rather think of myself as a realist. 

There is not a huge risk of a fire in my garage. There is also not a huge risk of my getting hit by lightning, snowboarding into a tree, or getting run over by a 1967 VW microbus. But I’m not going to increase the odds by staying in a swimming pool during a lightning storm, or snowboarding on new trails at night, or texting on my phone while I jaywalk across a busy street. (The first two I kind of made up, the inattentive jaywalkers are visible every day. Darwin?) 

A little research will show that a lot of home fires start in attached garages, and that a lot of these are from electrical arcing (not necessarily within 18 inches of the floor). Garage fires tend to spread faster due to the open space (more oxygen) and often due to the contents (newspapers to recycle, cardboard boxes, wood items, etc.). So extra precautions like fire resistance and the “18-inch” rule are required in the building codes. 

So when a home inspector sees these safety features violated, he is required to report on them. Now if a home inspector recommends you install a fire sprinkler system in your garage, install fire extinguishers every 10 feet, and don’t park anything with a gasoline engine in the garage I would have to agree he/she is being an alarmist. But all home inspectors should report on commonsense safety features required by code that are missing or have been altered. 

Speaking of fire sprinkler systems, I am a firm believer in these. I know they save lives and property from the trade journals I read. I also read in a recent Prescott Courier about a local hotel fire. There was a fire sprinkler system, and although several guests had to be relocated the damage was very limited because of the fire sprinkler system. 

And speaking of Darwinism, I am a firm believer in this too. But unfortunately some of the “weak” may take some of the normal with them. And by weak, I mean weak in mind. 

For example, I was driving on Skyline into Highland Pines recently. It had snowed the night before, but Iron Springs and Skyline were completely plowed and clear. I was run off the road by a large blue Dodge pickup truck coming out of the subdivision. 

This genius had not cleared the snow off his lights, side windows or rear window. In fact, he only cleared a small area of the windshield – an 8- or 10-inch square in front of the driver. (This could be a “her.” I couldn’t tell, but to avoid being called a sexist, I will use the male pronouns.) The road was clear, and I was blowing my horn, but this truck did not even attempt to pull over. I had to go off the road in an area where there was a very steep fall not far from the edge of the road. 

I thought about turning around and chasing him down, but I wasn’t sure my wife would be available to bail me out. I’m trying to remind everyone to remove the snow from all windows and lights before driving a vehicle. The life you save may be mine! 

By Randy West on January 29, 2016 

 

Readers speak out about power-hungry HOAs 

HOAs are Home Owner Associations in a subdivision. They have officers elected from and by the subdivision residents, and often enforce the CCRs. The CCRs are the Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions for the neighborhood. 

CCRs are different than zoning resolutions. Zoning will limit how you can use the property, e.g. housing or commercial buildings, setbacks from the property lines, etc. Zoning resolutions are actual written laws that are enforced by the municipality. 

CCRs are not a “law;” they are restrictions on the deed to a property. Therefore, they can be much more restrictive than the zoning. There can be advantages to a neighborhood with CCRs. They can prohibit unlicensed (“junk”) vehicles in the front yard, or the minimum size house you can build, which can help retain property values for the entire neighborhood. HOAs may operate and maintain common areas such as a clubhouse or swimming pool. 

However, CCRs can also impose restrictions that may not be desirable to all people. A great example is RV parking. Some subdivisions have a common parking area for RVs. Some have restrictions on RV parking and some don’t allow RV parking at all. 

Some CCRs are restrictive in ways I don’t understand, such as the ones I wrote about last time that don’t allow you to keep your overhead garage door open for longer than 10 minutes, or that require a fence around an air conditioner that will adversely affect the efficiency of the air conditioner. 

The problem with some HOAs, in my humble opinion, is the out-of-control officers. I have never heard of an HOA having any kind of requirement for its elected officers, other than being a resident. There are no education or training requirements. So people with no leadership training or abilities can run and be elected. 

If all HOAs did what they were supposed to, and enforced the CCRs with common sense and fairness, I would not be writing about them (again). But I wrote last time about an HOA hassling someone to the point she left the subdivision. This is not an isolated case! There have been many HOA abuses of power that made national news. Here’s a sample of what the homeowners did that upset their HOA: flew an American flag, put up Christmas decorations, parked in their own driveway, hung clothes to dry in their back yard, installed solar panels on the roof that were not visible from the ground, had U.S. Marine decals on his car, allowed their children to play in their own yard, etc. 

There are stories about HOAs approving very expensive improvements, then later requiring they be changed or removed. Because the new president didn’t like them. Or didn’t like the person. How about a Florida widow that installed $11,000 worth of artificial grass after her husband died, because she couldn’t maintain a real lawn. Nothing in the CCRs restricts artificial grass or plants, but the HOA president was quoted as saying that fake grass was not “Florida friendly.” 

One Virginia HOA decided that all 3,800 residents had to replace their mailboxes with the same $155 mailbox. Almost all homeowners painted their new mailboxes yellow in protest. Even though this was not against the CCRs, they all received notices they would be fined $10 a day every day their mailbox was yellow. 

Which brings us to a different and potentially very disturbing point. Many HOAs are allowed to assess fines, and even put liens on homes or foreclose on the property. In Albuquerque, a resident was fined $400 for having a for sale sign in his yard. Many homes had for sale signs, they were allowed by the CCRs. But his sign was not “pretty enough.” 

A Texas HOA foreclosed on a serviceman’s home while he was on active duty in Iraq. Why? Because he was $800 behind in the HOA dues. After this made the national news, the HOA did give him his house back (which he sold). 

Here’s a sample of the emails I received: 

“Your column really hit home for me. On three occasions, I lived in homes in areas that had CC&Rs. In every instance little tyrants tried to make my life there miserable by harassing me.” 

“You made my day! I lived in a condo ‘prison’ in California. ‘Police brigade’ would set out to see who was naughty. Apparently, I was one of those. I hung bamboo blinds from one of my windows to protect my furniture from the afternoon sun. I was reprimanded for this. A few days later I noticed that the president of the association had hung one also.” 

“We really applaud your article in the Daily Courier regarding HOAs and CCRs….you might have actually been writing about our HOA here. They who run it give good cause to move!” 

“I read with interest your article in the Daily Courier re: HOA’s. I can relate to Board members who swell with ‘power.’ Frankly, I call them ‘condo Nazis.’ One winter we had water cascading down the inside of our second bedroom window. We used a lot of bath towels to soak up the water. I reported it to the board. Nothing was done. After two more rains, I telephoned the president of the board. He told me that the leakage would be fixed after they were done planting flowers in the common area.” 

Most emails were like the previous ones, and I removed any personal or subdivision names. To be fair I received a few like these too: 

“Thanks for the HOA article, exposing the oddities of HOAs. I live in Prescott Lakes, and our HOA does a super job for the 1,400-plus home and landowners.” 

“I would never live in a subdivision without an HOA. There is always the risk of a tyrant president, but he/she can be voted out.” 

By Randy West on January 15, 2016 

 


Randy rants again, this time about HOAs and CCRs 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Randy West on December 18, 2015 

 

Let’s have a safe holiday season 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Randy West on December 3, 2015  

 

Inspectors cannot step over a dead body… 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Randy West on November 20, 2015 

 

Water heaters, Uncle Sam draw readers’ comments 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I replied (edited for space): 

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Randy West on November 6, 2015 

 

Randy rants about new water heaters, Uncle Sam 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Randy West on October 23, 2015 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Randy West on October 9, 2015 

 

Gas appliance vent pipes, drain lines commonly misinstalled 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“G2426.4 (502.4) Insulation shield. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Randy West on September 25, 2015  

 

Attic stairs and water heaters: Part II 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Randy West on September 11, 2015 

 

Water heaters, attic stairs in garages: a primer 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Randy West on August 28, 2015 

 

Lift stations 101, or perhaps it should be 202 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Randy West on August 14, 2015 

 

Predicting the time for a home inspection is impossible 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Randy West on July 31, 2015  

 

Evaporative Coolers and Ceiling Fans 101 (and 202) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Randy West on July 3, 2015 

 

Tips for staying out of hot water 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Randy West on June 12, 2015 

 

You should always get a second opinion 

I received the following email last week: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Randy West on May 29, 2015 

 

Inspectors: INSPECT thyself! 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Randy West on May 15, 2015 

 

A lot of hot water (heaters) …. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Randy West on April 24, 2015 

 

Don’t use that Hoover on your smoke alarms 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Randy West on April 10, 2015 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Randy West on March 27, 2015 

 

Woodstoves can heat a house, sometimes too much! 

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

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

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

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

On to the letters: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Randy West on March 13, 2015 

 

How old are those roof shingles? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Randy West on February 27, 2015 

 

1985 vs. 2015: New technology makes home inspecting easier 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Randy West on February 13, 2015 

 

Smoke alarms, again? Part III 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A: 

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

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

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

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

By Randy West on January 30, 2015 

 

Smoke detectors – that is, alarms – Part II 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next time: 1985! 

By Randy West on January 16, 2015 

 

Smoke alarms save lives – and maybe your baseball cards 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Randy West on January 1, 2015

2014 

December 

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January 


Have a woodstove insert? Better get it checked… and clean your chimney while you’re at it 

Q: Randy, I have a question that I hope you can answer. I am a chimney sweep, have been for 30 years. My question is how do you inspect a woodburning stove inserted into a fireplace if you don’t remove the surround around the unit? Every year I find many inserts installed in pre-fab fireplaces that have been gutted of all the refractory panels. The sheet metal has been cut to fit the insert into the pre-fab unit. This is extremely dangerous as the heat from the insert heats the framing around the unit it will eventually combust causing a fire. If you look at any pre-fab installation instructions the first thing the instructions say is to never modify the unit in any way. I’ve tried to bring this problem to the attention to the powers that be, only to be told that there is nothing that they can do, since the installer failed to get a building permit. These units look to be installed properly until you remove the surround, but sometimes the surround is not removable.-Mike 

A: Mike, this is a good question, and a very timely one since I just put gloves and ice scrapers in our cars. For those of you who just moved here from Phoenix, a woodstove insert is a woodstove “inserted” into an existing fireplace. Older woodburning fireplaces are nice to look at, but generally do not produce much heat. A freestanding woodstove, on the other hand, produces a lot of heat. So it only makes sense that some people want to upgrade their fireplace to a woodstove. There are woodstove inserts available that are inserted into fireplaces. The “surround” Mike refers to is the cover between the insert and the fireplace opening. 

A woodstove insert in an older masonry fireplaces is seldom a concern. What Mike is talking about is a newer metal-sided fireplace that has been modified for the insert to fit. 

Just as a woodstove will provide much more heat inside a home, a woodstove insert will make much more heat in the fireplace enclosure and chimney. This can be a fire hazard if there is wood framing near the chimney or fireplace enclosure. 

A home inspector is a generalist and is limited to a visual inspection. We cannot be as thorough as a roofer inspecting a roof, or a heating contractor inspecting a furnace. So inspecting a woodstove insert installation is virtually impossible for a home inspector. If there is an insert, I have a comment that says almost what Mike said, something like: “It is impossible to determine if an insert is installed properly from a visual inspection. I recommend you have this installation checked by an appropriate contractor or tradesman.” 

This is not a case of covering my behind; it’s because this is an important safety concern. A nonworking water heater means a cold shower, and a nonworking range means a cold dinner. An improperly installed woodstove insert may not be visible, and as Mike stated can be “extremely dangerous” and start a fire. 

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say something like, “Well, it’s been working fine for five years, so there must not be a problem.” Consider that everything that breaks, such as your furnace, car or computer, was probably “working fine” until suddenly it wasn’t. 

What many people (and perhaps some contractors) don’t understand is an improperly installed woodstove is not necessarily a short-term hazard. The same is true for gas furnace or water heater vent pipes that are too close to wood. They won’t start a fire the first month, and perhaps not for several years. The following definition is in the glossary on the Heating page in my reports: 

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

This applies to anything that can heat wood to 200 degrees. I’ve seen light fixtures in closets and attics where the exposed bulb was touching drywall or wood. These are a significant fire hazard too. 

But there is one big difference with the woodstove insert, it is not visible. A home inspector can usually see a furnace vent pipe or a light bulb touching a ceiling. But no one can see behind a woodstove insert with removing the surround. And as Mike pointed out, sometimes you cannot remove the surround without removing the entire insert. The insert may be connected to a metal chimney, and/or may be so heavy it requires two people to move it. And removing an insert will certainly be a very dirty job. So this is well beyond the scope of a home inspection. 

Home inspectors have the same problem Mike does: we can’t see a woodstove insert installation. So we recommend removing the surround and/or insert to inspect the installation. This can be time consuming, expensive and dirty. And we don’t know if there is a problem, this is just to check for possible problems. This is when we hear, “Well, it’s been working fine for 5 years….” 

So if you have an insert and have never had the installation checked – it’s time. And if you can’t remember the last time you had your chimney cleaned – it’s time. 

This is my last column of the year: Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! 

By Randy West on December 19, 2014 

 

Programmable thermostats save energy, money 

I was inspecting a home last week. The home was occupied by tenants, and mom and two kids were home. So when my clients (the buyers) arrived, I suggested we speak in the detached garage. I had just started going over my notes when I heard a car driving up the gravel driveway. I asked my clients if they were expecting someone else, and she said yes, her father was coming. I continued talking, and a minute later, someone walked into the garage. He went straight to the refrigerator and pulled out a beer. I was about to yell at him, when I realized he might just have a distorted sense of humor like me. I’ve been known to walk into a room and turn off the TV that everyone was staring at (sometimes I have to leave the room quickly!). But then this gentleman actually opened the beer! I stammered for a second and then said, “You can’t do that!” The man looked at me for a moment and said, “Why not? I live here.” I looked at my client and she said, “That’s not my father.” After telling the man he could indeed have one of his own beers, I continued my conversation with my clients. 

Question: This week’s gripe – I mean email: Randy, overall an excellent report, except you recommended a setback thermostat to save on heating and cooling costs. You need to keep up on current research, which indicates setback thermostats don’t really save any energy at all. Below are some links to current information, including a letter from the EPA stating the EPA has been unable to confirm any savings delivered by programmable thermostats. I had one in my last home and it was confusing to operate. Half the time I woke up to a cold home. I replaced it with a $20 digital (but not programmable) thermostat and lived happily ever after. – Thomas P. in Prescott Valley 

Answer: Thomas, I admit I’m guilty as charged. Sort of. If a home has a central furnace and/or air conditioner I have “discretionary improvement” in my reports regarding a setback thermostat (if there’s not one). The “discretionary improvements” are below the “Recommendations.” There is a large boldfaced heading saying “Discretionary Improvements.” The comment describes setback thermostats and states that newer ones are pretty easy to operate – you don’t have to hire the neighborhood 12-year-old to program them. And the comment says “consider installing,” not “recommend.” So I’m not sure if I actually “recommend” them. 

For those who don’t know, these are also known as a programmable thermostat or a “PT.” These allow you to program different temperatures for different times. I have ours programmed to drop the temperature to 62 degrees overnight in the winter, and come back to 70 degrees a half hour before we usually get up. This has to save some energy, and I personally like sleeping in a cooler house. You can also lower the temperature from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., or whatever hours you are not usually at home. 

Common sense says lowering the thermostat by 5 or 10 degrees overnight, when it is the coldest outside, has to save some heating costs. And like everything today, it’s easy to find support for your viewpoint on the web. I looked at the EPA letter referenced by Thomas. The letter was from 2009, and his quote was taken out of context. The letter was talking about specifications and standards for a PT, not the actual performance. Thomas sent another study that showed savings of only $25 a year in a “heating climate.” Doing my own research, I found this on the energystar.gov website: “The average household spends more than $2,000 a year on energy bills, nearly half of which goes to heating and cooling. Homeowners can save about $180 a year by properly setting their programmable thermostats and maintaining those settings.” That $180 won’t pay for a new car, but it will buy several tanks of gas. And if the average household spends more than $1,000 on heating and cooling, and a PT can save $180, that’s an 18 percent savings. That’s quite a bit, if you ask me. 

The newest and “greenest” PT is the thermostat that connects to your home wifi network. Now you can program or adjust the thermostat from your smartphone, tablet or computer. I can’t really see why I would need to do that, unless I forgot to change the setting when I went out of town for a week. And my wife doesn’t allow me to take that much time off, so that’s not a concern. I suppose if I was coming home earlier than expected I could phone ahead and raise the temperature, but it doesn’t take a gas furnace very long to heat up a home. A wifi thermostat cost 10 times more than a “normal” PT and 50 percent more than the average savings from a PT that I quoted above. For that price I can wait until I get home and turn up the thermostat. 

I did learn something from the links Thomas sent me. As with all new technologies there are some unexpected problems with the wifi thermostats. The biggest problem is some generate heat when connected to the wifi, so they have erroneous room temperature readings. The thermostat can read from 2 to 8 degrees higher than the actual room temperature. This is well documented, in fact there is a current class action lawsuit against one large manufacturer of wifi thermostats. No matter how ‘smart’ the thermostat is, if it can’t figure out the temperature in the room it can’t maintain your desired temperature. And it certainly can’t save you money if it thinks your living room is 5 degrees warmer than it actually is. 

By Randy West on December 5, 2014  

 

Pre-sale inspections minimize late-in-the-game surprises 

Question: Hello, Randy. I read your article in the Nov. 7 Courier and have a couple of questions. We currently have our 21-year-old home on the market and wonder if it’s worth having an inspection done pre-sale. Can you also tell me what you charge to do a home inspection? And how long is an inspection “valid”? Thank you – Susie 

Answer: Susie, These are great questions. This will take up my whole column (which needs to be 1,000 words, so be prepared for a long answer). 

Inspectors refer to these as “pre-listing” inspections, although pre-sale is just as accurate. I average two pre-listing inspections a month. The best way to answer “if it’s worth having” is a quick story. I came home one day after doing a pre-listing inspection on an older home. The elderly couple that owned it were very nice, and had lived there for over 20 years. I found a lot of things wrong, including some expensive items like roof shingles and a heating/cooling system that were overdue for replacement. I came home and told my wife I felt bad going over my notes with the couple and having to tell them the roof, furnace, air conditioner and water heater all needed replacement. These are the four most expensive replaceable items in most homes, and I got the impression that the owners did not have sufficient funds to make all these improvements. 

My wife is very intelligent (she married me) and is seldom wrong (except about my whining – I do not whine!). She told me that I should not feel bad – that is exactly what the couple hired me for. It was much better for them to find out now. They could make repairs if they wanted and could afford it, or they could disclose these conditions up front and price the home accordingly. Without my inspection, they might have listed the home and received an offer, only to have a buyer back out or ask for major improvements. 

So there are some advantages to having a pre-listing inspection. You will reduce the chance of surprises after you receive a purchase offer. And if your house needs a major expense item, you may have a more realistic idea of what your net profit will be from the sale of your home. If there are major concerns you can improve them to make your home more marketable. If you can’t afford the improvements you can lower the price or offer an ‘allowance’ for specific improvements. Over the years, I have had many clients (buyers) tell me there was an allowance for new floor coverings, or new roofing, etc. 

There was one other advantage for the aforementioned owners. Their roof shingles needed replacing because they were old, but the shingles also had major hail damage. I recommended they contact their insurance company, and the insurance company did pay for replacing the shingles. The owners likely would have found this out anyway when a roofer came out, but they would have had to deal with roofers and insurance companies while in the middle of negotiating a purchase agreement on their home. And for potential buyers, the brand-new roof shingles on the home (which are very visible) may have partially offset the 30-year-old furnace and air conditioner. 

You also asked how long an inspection is “valid.” Most inspectors will answer “24 hours.” Only kidding. Sort of. There is no set time for this. The conditions in a home can change very rapidly. For example, an unusual windstorm can blow off roof shingles, and if they are not noticed, you can get significant damage (moisture or vermin) in an attic in a very short time. Once I inspected the same home after only a few months and found a major structural concern the second time. At the second inspection, water had undermined the rear foundation, flowed all the way through the crawlspace and undermined the front foundation on the way out. I was told the home had been vacant and the main water line broke just outside the rear foundation. This was not noticed for a few weeks (until the sellers got their water bill!). 

Here is my policy on inspecting the same home, which may answer your question. Sort of. If I inspected the home within the last three months, and we have not had any hurricanes, earthquakes or tornadoes, I may give a discount on the inspection. If the last inspection was more than three months ago, there is no discount. I have to do the entire inspection and report from scratch. 

There are two things I tell my pre-listing clients. First, don’t be surprised if a buyer gets another inspection. I get calls to inspect a home and am told it was recently inspected by another home inspector. I’ll say “I know him and he’s a great inspector; why do you want to pay for another inspection?” Sometimes the buyers just want a home inspector that they hired directly. And second, after you make improvements, I will not give you a “revised” report. If you show a great inspection report to a potential buyer, but there’s almost nothing wrong with the home, they will have to wonder about that. It’s better to write in the report “fixed by ABC Electric on 11/11” and “fixed by XYZ Plumbing on 11/21.” 

Regarding fees, home inspectors charge the same for a pre-listing as for a pre-purchase inspection. There is no difference in the inspection and report. Most inspectors charge around $300 for a 1,500- to 2,000-square-foot home. Most inspectors charge more for larger or older homes, additional buildings, etc. 

By Randy West on November 21, 2014 

 

Home inspectors should avoid referring contractors 

I received this email from Norm. He was referring to my column about California suing a retailer because their 2×4 boards are not actually 2 inches by 4 inches: 

“I just read your article from Friday’s paper. It reminded me of a consumer protection fiasco in New York years ago. They were all up in arms because a 32-ounce milk carton did not weigh a full 32 ounces. Then someone with a brain pointed out that milk was measured in fluid ounces, by volume rather than by weight. It made me laugh. I enjoy reading your article each week. Keep up the good work.” 

I did not research this to verify it; I would rather just believe it. And I do believe it (after all, New York City made 64-ounce sodas illegal). 

Question: “Randy – I enjoyed today’s column as I do all of them. Always interesting and educational. A few weeks back I assisted one of your fellow inspectors get into my neighbor’s house across the street. After doing that, I was thinking about inspectors in general and was wondering if it is ethical for you to recommend a contractor when you tell a client that they need to repair or replace something? I am sure the question comes up during or after one of your inspections. If you told me for instance that something needed to be repaired or replaced, I might ask you to recommend a contractor. Just wondering if the rules of your profession allow you to do so or not? – Thanks, Everett Sanborn, Prescott.” 

Answer: Anyone who knows me knows that I will not answer a question with 100 words when I can use 500. I believe I can stretch this one to 700 words, so do you have any objection to me using this in my next column? It will save me some writing time next weekend, so I’ll be able to watch a football game. 

Referrals are a wonderful thing. I would much prefer to use a contractor or Mercedes mechanic that was referred to me by someone I trust. Of course first I would have to buy a Mercedes. 

Realistically, you might expect better service if a contractor knows someone referred them, since the contractor will know you may give the referrer feedback. 

Arizona home inspectors are regulated by the Arizona Board of Technical Registration (BTR). We have to comply with the Standards of Professional Practice and Code of Professional Conduct for Arizona Home Inspectors. These are commonly referred to as the Standards of Practice, or SOP, which include the Code of Professional Conduct. One item in the Arizona Code of Professional Conduct is: “Arizona Home Inspectors shall not perform, or offer to perform, for an additional fee, any repairs to a structure having been inspected by that inspector or the inspector’s firm for a period of 24 months following the inspection.” 

I am also a member of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), who have a Code of Ethics that includes the following: “Inspectors shall not repair, replace, or upgrade, for compensation, systems or components covered by ASHI Standards of Practice, for one year after the inspection.” 

So the BTR and ASHI will not allow inspectors to perform repairs on a home they inspect. A successful home inspector should not have time to make repairs anyway. Note that the above restrictions have “for an additional fee” and “for compensation,” meaning home inspectors cannot charge to make improvements. If we break something we can fix it, as long as we are capable and we don’t charge for it. I wrote recently about not removing glass covers on light fixtures because I broke one once. I spent half the next day finding a similar cover and returning to the home to install it. 

Neither of the above comments prohibit an inspector from referring a contractor. My policy is that I do not refer contractors, period. I advise my clients to ask their real estate agent or friends for referrals for a contractor or handyman. 

There are other provisions in the codes that could apply to such a referral. For example the Arizona Code states inspectors “shall not engage in fraud, deceit, misrepresentation or concealment of facts… in providing professional services to members of the public.” And the inspector “shall make full disclosure to all parties concerning any monetary, financial or beneficial interest the inspector may hold in a contracting firm or other entity providing goods or services, other than the inspector’s professional services, to an inspection.” And the inspector “shall not pay or receive, directly or indirectly, in full or in part, a commission or compensation as a referral or finder’s fee.” 

Some of these statements can be interpreted differently. For example “financial or beneficial interest” and “directly or indirectly.” So here is my interpretation: a home inspector should not refer a contractor if he benefits in any way from the referral. If the contractor is related or a close friend, or if the contractor may give the inspector a discount of any type, etc. 

What if I asked you for the name of a plumber, and later found out the plumber was your brother or close friend. This does at least indirectly affect you, since the plumber can now afford to buy more rounds at the bar. Being the cynical old curmudgeon I am, I would suspect the referral may have been because he was your relative or friend and not because he was the best plumber you knew. 

Shockingly, not all home inspectors agree with my interpretation. I have seen home inspection reports with a list of contractors and their contact information. And I immediately wonder if they are getting some type of “indirect” benefit from those contractors. 

By Randy West on November 7, 2014 

 

Gas water heaters and GTOs 

Question: Randy, I read your column all the time and you usually seem level-headed. We just sold an older house in Prescott, and the home inspector called out a gas water heater in a bathroom closet The buyers insisted we move the water heater, which would have been very difficult. We ended up having a new electric water heater installed, which cost over $500. This would have been higher, except there was already a 240-volt outlet. This really bothered us, since the ‘”old” water heater was only a few years old. We paid for the new water heater because we wanted the home to close, and then we called the home inspector and told him we expected him to reimburse us. We explained that this is an older home and the water heater was grandfathered in. The inspector was not very polite to us, and refused to pay the bill. So my questions: Why would a home inspector report on a condition that was grandfathered in on an older home? And if he does, should he not be liable for the cost of improvement? – Tom and Beth 
 
Answer: Tom and Beth, thank you for your questions. I’m glad I “usually seem level-headed” to you, although you probably won’t like this answer. I did not “edit” your question other than removing the name of the home inspector, because he may be bigger than me.  
 
The first question is regarding “grandfathering.” This does not mean your Dad’s Dad installed the water heater. This means a home is built to code for when it was built. We are not required to “update” our homes every three years when a new code comes out. That would be difficult, and sometimes would be impossible or ridiculously expensive.  
 
I use the old car analogy. Say you bought that ’57 T-bird or ’68 GTO you’ve always wanted. And when you went to register it, the state made you “update” it. They want you to install seatbelts, airbags, anti-lock brakes and crumple zones. Obviously, it would be virtually impossible to install all these in an older car that was not designed for them. So you could say the lack of these features is “grandfathered,” and the state will not make you install them.  
 
However, if you bought an old car without these features, you would be aware of it. You might be a little more careful, knowing you don’t have these safety features. And if your grandkids rode in the car frequently, you might at least install seatbelts, which would not be a major expense.  
 
Most people are aware of their car safety features, but most people don’t think about the built-in safety features in their home or the lack of safety features in an older home. One example that is easy to see is railing openings. If a deck or patio is more than 30 inches off the ground, a railing is required. In newer homes, the maximum size opening through a railing is 4 inches, so a child cannot crawl through (or get their head stuck, which I’ve heard of). I’ve inspected older homes where the openings were 12 inches wide. Any home inspector is going to report on this, even though the railings may be grandfathered.  
 
So let’s discuss your water heater. Gas appliances are not allowed in bedrooms or bathrooms. There is a good reason for this. It is very rare, but possible for a gas appliance to malfunction and give off carbon monoxide. This can happen even on a newer appliance, for example, if the vent pipe on the roof gets damaged or obstructed (e.g. with a birds nest). Bathrooms are small rooms, and most people are in there for a while with the door closed. And some people are in there for a very long time with the door closed. My sister calls her main level bathroom the “library.” If her husband goes in there with a book, he may not be out in time for dinner. Of course, most people that are in the bathroom for long periods are using the bathtub or shower. So it is very likely the water heater is operating while they are in there. So it makes sense that we should not put a gas appliance, especially a water heater, in a bathroom.  
 
You stated your gas water heater was only a few years old and that it was originally an electric water heater (because there was already a 240 volt circuit for an electric water heater). It is allowable to put an electric water heater in a bathroom. But when the electric water heater was replaced with a gas water heater, a permit was required. And a gas water heater in a bathroom closet would not have been allowed. This is not a new rule, it’s been around a long time. Think of all the homes you’ve lived in (or stayed in, or been in). Have you ever seen a gas furnace or water heater in a bathroom or bedroom? 
 
Even if that gas water heater was “grandfathered,” the home inspector would still have to report on it. Home inspections are not “code” inspections, although some of the items we report on are code violations. Home inspectors have to report on safety concerns, even if they are not a code violation. If you were buying a home and there was a significant safety concern, wouldn’t you expect your inspector to report on it?  
 
As far as the inspector paying for your water heater, I would not have expected him to. First, the inspector was not working for you, because the buyer was his client. Second, the inspector was reasonable in reporting on a gas appliance in a bathroom. Third, he may be saving up for that GTO. 

By Randy West on October 24, 2014 

 

A Fan Recommends Fans 

Randy, 
 
Last time you wrote about air conditioners. You had some good advice, but you missed one point. We have ceiling fans in every room in the home. We have them on timer switches so they come on in the morning and shut off at night all summer. This keeps our home comfortable and the temperature balanced, and ceiling fans are much less expensive to operate than the central air conditioner. – Eve in Prescott. 
 
Response: Thank you for your comment, Eve. Last time, for any newcomers, I explained how important it is that bedroom doors should be trimmed one inch off the floor for a central furnace and air conditioner to operate efficiently. This allows proper airflow through the furnace and air conditioner, and balanced distribution throughout the home.  
 
Regarding ceiling fans, I have bad news for Eve. Running ceiling fans if you are not sitting under them is usually a waste of electricity. Any type of fan cools you by blowing air over you, but does not actually raise or lower the indoor temperature. So if you are not sitting under the fan, it is not doing anything but using electricity. In fact, it could be argued that the fan motor will generate some heat, and could actually raise the indoor temperature slightly. It is better to turn on fans only when you are in the room.  
 
Now before you fans email me (sorry), yes there are some exceptions to this. If you have a window air conditioner instead of central air conditioning, a ceiling fan can help distribute the cool air throughout a room. And ceiling fans can be useful in the winter, which will be here pretty quick, so let’s talk about that for a minute. As a general rule, a properly installed ceiling fan (8 to 10 feet off the floor) can be run in reverse in the winter. Reverse means the fan blows air upwards, forcing the warmer air near the ceiling back down to the floor. The fan should be operated at the lowest speed, but even then the fan often makes a draft that ends up cooling you more than distributing the heat in the room.  
 
But here’s another exception: tall rooms. I built a lot of “chalet” style homes with very high ceilings in the living room, and I always installed a ceiling fan in these rooms. In rooms with high ceilings the fan is usually much higher off the floor, and should blow downwards in the winter. It should still be on the lowest speed so it does not make a “draft.”  
 
In another case of not doing any good, recent trade journals for the construction and home inspection industry have articles regarding the state of California suing a major retailer. The Marin County District Attorney’s office charged a hardware chain with false advertising. The result is the chain has to change/alter signage in 100 California stores. And pay a $147,000,000 fine. That’s six zeros in that number, folks.  
 
The Crime: The chain was selling 2x4s that were not really 2x4s. Turns out they were actually 1_ inch by 3_ inch. I see ‘nominal’ (actual) 2x4s sometimes in the attics of homes built before around 1950. In homes built after 1950 the 2 x4s are dimensional (1_ x 3_). I don’t think they have sold nominal 2x4s since World War 2.  
 
In addition to the fine, the chain has to pay $ 150,000 “to further consumer protection-related activities.” This, in my opinion, will be used to start a new government agency to educate us civilians, who are incapable of realizing for ourselves that a 2×4 is not a 2×4. And once this new agency is started, it will never go away. They will have to sue other companies to maintain it. You laugh- but wait and see! Wait until California discovers that a 32 ounce drink isn’t really 32 ounce because there’s ice in. Or a 24 cubic foot refrigerator does not really have 24 cubic feet of storage. Or that a Honda 750 motorcycle is actually 748 cc. Or that a 50 Gigabyte hard drive does not really have 50 gigabytes of storage.  
 
California is really onto something here. Why battle the taxpayers to raise taxes when there are all these large companies blatantly deceiving the general public.  
 
Now to be fair, someone from the DA’s office claims that the lumber they found did not make the dimensional requirements. But I cannot find any actual numbers. If the chain was selling 2x4s that were only 3 inches wide, I can see the problem. But I’m sure contractors would have let the chain know if they were selling lumber that could not be used. And this lawsuit was not brought by contractors, it was filed by a District Attorney’s office.  
 
So if the actual dimension was 3 and 15/32 inches, who cares? In fact a lot of _ inch plywood is not really _ inch. Most roof sheathing is actually 15/32 of an inch. And also to be fair, that same statement by the DA’s office noted that the chain was simply passing on the information provided by the supplier. The chain did not change or alter information, and (in my opinion again) did not intend to mislead the public.  
 
So, a guy sells me avocados and tells me they weigh one pound apiece. I advertise that, and the Bureau of Accurate Avocado Advertising does a sting and discovers some of my avocados are not quite one pound. I did not weigh them, I just passed on what my supplier said. No consumer has filed a complaint about purchasing inadequate avocados from me. So what does the BAAA do? It fines me $147,000,000. 
 
Wouldn’t you think that perhaps the BAAA needed money, or to justify its existence?  

By Randy West on October 10, 2014  

 

Bedroom poltergeists and other heating/cooling myths 

Question: Randy, we moved into a home in Prescott Valley a couple weeks ago and have some questions about the heating system. First, all the supply vents are in the ceiling. Our supply vents have always been in the floor. Heat rises, so it seems that floor vents would be more efficient. The furnace is in the attic. We’ve never heard of this before – is this safe? And we noticed the master bedroom door sometimes closes by itself when the air conditioner comes on. What would cause this? Theresa in Prescott Valley. 

Answer: Theresa, thank you for the letter and good questions. Several years ago (all right, several decades ago), when I was a young lad our home had central heating and air conditioning. Almost every room, including the bedrooms, had two vents. One was near the floor and one near the ceiling. In the basement, there were dampers on the large metal ducts. You could actually change the function of these vents. In the winter we made the vents near the floor the supply vents and the vents near the ceiling the return air vents, and reversed this in the summer. 

My dad explained this would increase the efficiency of the furnace and air conditioner. I have to chuckle at that now. That was probably ‘high tech’ at the time. But, there was a 60 percent efficient fuel oil furnace. And a 50 percent efficient air conditioner that shook the whole house every time the compressor started. And un-insulated sheet metal ducts routed through the damp, cold basement. And leaky single pane windows, although we did install storm windows every winter. And about R-5 insulation in the attic, and probably none in the walls. I don’t think that home would have qualified for the Energy Star rating. 

So, common sense would say that having the supply vents near the floor would be more efficient in the winter, since heat rises. And having the supply vents near the ceiling would be better in the summer. So I suppose for maximum efficiency you would need to have supply and return vents in every room, both near the floor and ceiling, that would change functions depending on whether the furnace or air conditioner was operating. And since modern homeowners will not want to have to go into an attic or crawlspace to move dampers all the time, it would have to be all automatic. So you would need an engineer to design this system. All this would add substantially to the cost of a new home. And if any of the dampers stopped working, you would end up with a less efficient system. 

Realistically, with newer furnaces and air conditioners that are much more efficient and newer homes that are much better insulated, the location of the supply vents is not as important. If the furnace is in the basement or crawlspace, the supply vents are usually in the floor. If the furnace is in the attic or roof the supply vents are usually in the ceiling, especially if your home has a concrete slab floor. 

As far as the furnace being in the attic, that is very common in Arizona. If installed properly it is perfectly safe, perhaps safer than a furnace installed inside the living area (e.g. in a hall closet) or under the living space (in a basement or crawlspace). 

Now for the poltergeist that keeps closing your master bedroom door. This is easy to explain. Most homes built in the last 30 years have a central furnace and air conditioner, like your home. And most homes have one return air vent in the hallway, or perhaps two in larger homes. The air from all the supply vents has to get to the return air vent. So bedroom doors should be trimmed one inch off the floor. 

This is especially true in the master bedroom, which usually has multiple supply vents. I have seen homes with 4 or 5 supply vents in the master bedroom, bath, and perhaps closet. All this air has to get through the master bedroom door to that return air vent in the hall. I often demonstrate this to clients by closing the master bedroom door most of the way with the furnace or air conditioner operating. If the door is not trimmed off the floor, it will blow closed. 

Recently a seller put in writing that there was no reason to trim doors off the carpeting, and that the home inspector (me) did not have a clue what he was talking about. I sent him information from several furnace manufacturers explaining how important trimming the doors can be. The furnace will be pulling a certain amount of air from the home through the return air vent (or trying). If 25 percent of the supply air is going into the master suite and cannot get to the return air vent, the master bedroom will be ‘pressurized.’ It will blow heated air out any way it can, through exhaust fan ducts, around windows, outlets, light fixtures, etc. And the rest of the home will be ‘low pressure,’ and will be pulling cold air in through all these places. And the same for the ducts in the attic, any leaks in the ductwork will be ‘amplified’ if there is backpressure in the ducts. And the furnace will be working harder and less efficiently, since it does not have the proper airflow going through it. 

So paying a handyman or carpenter to trim an inch off your bedroom doors will save heating and cooling costs, make the heating and cooling more balanced throughout the home, and extend the life of the furnace and air conditioner. A worthwhile investment, in my opinion. 

By Randy West on September 26, 2014 

 

Difference between fire-resistant, fire-rated walls 

Last time I wrote about overhead garage doors. This time we’ll stay in the garage, with a couple of trips into the attic. 

I have had several questions about fire separation between a home and attached garage. If a fire starts in a garage, we don’t want it to spread into the home. And if you start a car in a garage, you don’t want the car exhaust (carbon monoxide) to enter the home. 

So, some attached garages have 5/8 inch fire-resistant (“type X”) drywall on the ceiling and on walls common with the home. And the door between a garage and home is usually a fire-resistant door with weatherstripping and self-closers (usually spring-loaded hinges in our area). 

But… you could tell that was a “but” statement, couldn’t you? But some of the above is not required in some cases. There is much confusion about this, including among home inspectors. This comes from confusing “fire resistance” and “fire-rated assembly.” 

A fire-rated assembly can be a wall, door and frame, etc. A fire-rated assembly has been tested and has a known fire-resistance rating. For example, a 2×4 frame wall with type X drywall on both sides has a one-hour fire-rating. The same wall with two layers of type X drywall on both sides has a two-hour fire-rating. 

A fire-rated assembly (wall) is required between different homes in the same building. But between a home and an attached garage, only a fire-resistant wall is required. 

I can hear you saying “What!?” A fire-rated assembly is fire-resistant, and in fact has a fire resistance rating. A fire-resistant wall is fire-resistant, but is not an “assembly” with a known fire-resistance rating. 

It is important to understand the difference between a fire-rated assembly wall and a fire-resistant wall. The wall between a home and attached garage is usually required to be fire-resistant. The 2012 IRC (International Residential Code) recommends 1/2 inch drywall on the garage side of walls between the garage and home. This is a fire-resistant wall, not a fire-rated assembly. So when you hear someone talk about a one-hour fire wall between a home and garage, they are incorrect. 

So type X fire-resistant drywall is not required on garage walls. But (I have lots of “buts” today) type X drywall is required on a garage ceiling. But only if there is living space above the garage or if the garage attic is open to the home attic. 

In almost every home I’ve inspected in our area, the garage attic is open to the home attic, so the garage ceiling requires type X drywall. In some states or cities it is common to continue the fire-resistant wall through the attic to separate the garage attic from the home attic. In this case, type X drywall is not required on the garage ceiling. 

Part of this confusion about garage fire-rated walls vs. fire-resistant walls may come from the requirement of a fire-rated door between a garage and home. According to the IRC, doors between a home and attached garage shall be “…solid wood doors not less than 1-3/8″ (35 mm) in thickness, solid or honeycomb-core steel doors not less than 1-3/8″ (35 mm) thick, or 20-minute fire-rated doors.” So a fire-rated door is required between the home and garage. But this is still not a fire-rated assembly, just the door is fire-rated. The wall itself, including the door frame, is not fire-rated (only fire resistant). 

Confused yet? Well, here’s another confusing wall for home inspectors. A fire-rated wall is required between separate homes in the same building. This wall should continue through the attic to the bottom of the roof sheathing. In some condos in our area they have a block wall that extends through and above the roof- you can’t get much more fire resistant than that. 

But (again) the fire-rated wall does not need to extend through the attic in some cases. For example if there is a fire sprinkler system in the building, or if there is type X drywall on the ceilings. In this case a draft stop is required in the attic between the homes. In a fire resistant wall the drywall joints have to be taped. In a draft stop they do not. A draft stop is designed to stop air flow from feeding a fire, not to slow the fire itself. 

So a home inspector enters a multi-family building and sees drywall walls in the attic between the homes. But the drywall is not taped. Should the inspector recommend a fire wall? Not necessarily. The inspector will know if there is a fire sprinkler system in the building. But he/she will not know if there is fire resistant drywall on the interior ceilings. Sometimes you can move attic insulation around to check the type of drywall, but this may not be practical or possible. And even if you find one piece of type X drywall near the access, does this mean all interior ceilings have type X drywall? 

And of course different jurisdictions may have different requirements (some require type X drywall on garage walls). There are many similar situations for home inspectors. We recommend something that a contractor or homeowner proves is not needed. Or we don’t recommend something because we can’t be sure, then the next inspector recommends it and our clients want to know why we didn’t. 

And our answer usually starts with “But …..” 

By Randy West on September 12, 2014 

 

How to adjust your overhead garage door … and why you shouldn’t 

What is the largest moving object in your home? No, not your mother-in-law. I’m talking about the overhead garage door. Home inspectors are required to inspect overhead doors, including the automatic reverse feature. 

Since 1982, overhead doors are required to have a quick release to release the door from the opener. This is a logical device, in case you need to open the door in a power failure. Also since 1982, overhead doors are required to reverse if they hit an obstruction. Some models prior to that would stop, but not reverse. If the door does not reverse, a child can be trapped under the door. Most of these openers have failed by now and have been replaced with newer ones, but I still see an occasional 1980 home with the original overhead door opener. 

Since 1993, overhead doors are required to have a secondary reversing feature, usually the “beam” at the bottom of the door. If the beam is interrupted, the door will automatically reverse. There are a couple of doors and openers that don’t require the beam, such as the Wayne Dalton I-drive opener. I do not see these very often – 99 percent of the doors I see are required to have the beam. 

I have been asked how I test the overhead door. First, you test the automatic reverse both by interrupting the beam and by physically stopping the door when it is closing. Most manufacturers recommend placing a 2×4 on the floor to test the “obstruction” feature. I have damaged two overhead doors in my home inspecting career when testing the automatic reverse feature. I know I’ll get some emails about this, but I don’t use the 2×4 method. I grab the door when it’s mostly closed and use just my wrists. When I feel there is enough force to hurt a body and the door has not reversed, I let go. I have tested thousands of overhead doors. If you have not, then you probably shouldn’t try this method. 

Time for a quick war story. The last door I damaged did not have the beam at the bottom of the door. I put the 2×4 on the ground and closed the door. When the door hit the 2×4, it kept closing. It bent the top section of the door, which was at an angle. Two of the windows in the top section exploded out onto the driveway. Neuman Overhead Doors may remember this episode, because I immediately called them to come replace the top section. Then I called a painter. Then I grabbed my dustpan and broom to clean up the glass. Of course it was a paver driveway, not concrete, so I was on my hand and knees sweeping the glass out of all the crevices when the seller came out. Anyone remember Fred Sanford and “the big one,” when he claimed he was having a heart attack? That’s what the seller reminded me of. She put her hands over her heart and kind of staggered back into the garage while crying, “What did you do to my door?” 

In a rare case of ideal timing, Neuman Doors was just pulling into the driveway. I assured the seller that the door would be fixed, and that a painter would be calling her the next day to paint the door. That was the last time I used a 2×4 to test the automatic reversing feature. 

You should also release the door from the opener and operate it manually occasionally. If the springs are perfectly adjusted, the door will stay in any position. But of course there is very little perfection in the world. Make sure the door will stay fully open, so you can get your vehicle out. And that the door does not slam closed and that you can open it manually if you have to. 

Most manufacturers recommend you release the door from the opener with the door in the fully closed position. This is because if the springs have weakened, the door could fall/slam closed if you release it when it’s open. But I have a word of caution. I always close the door with the opener and watch it as it fully closes. If the opener “pushes” the door after it’s down, there will be a lot of tension on the release latch. I pulled the release once and it sounded like a shotgun going off because of this tension. Fortunately, it did not break anything. 

You can adjust how far the door closes, and it should be adjusted so it does not ‘push’ the door after it’s fully closed. There are knobs or screws on the opener, usually called “down travel” or “down stop.” This is how you adjust how far the door closes. There is another adjustment usually called “down force” (and an “up force”) that adjusts the automatic reverse feature. 

Now another word of caution. I damaged that door because the “down force” was way out of adjustment. If the down force is out of adjustment, and you adjust the “down travel” to try to close the door farther that it can go, you may be sweeping glass off your driveway. So it is important that the obstruction automatic reverse feature is adjusted properly before trying to adjust the travel. 

Now my “do not try this at home” disclaimer. I do a very careful visual inspection of the door and hardware before testing the reverse feature or operating the door manually. The overhead door springs are under a lot of tension, and the door can be very heavy if the springs are out of adjustment. If you are not familiar and comfortable with working on an overhead door, you should have an appropriate contractor service and adjust your door once a year. 

By Randy West on August 29, 2014 

 

Termite-free home needs maintenance to stay that way 

I heard a termite inspector tell a homebuyer “the good news is the termites are all holding hands.” And once I heard a termite inspector tell a seller the firewood stacked against the home was full of termites. The seller replied, “No problem; when they get done with that I’ll buy them another cord of firewood.” Which brings us to this week’s question: 

“Randy, you are doing a home inspection next week for us. We appreciate the information you have provided so far (and your sense of humor). We forgot to ask: Does your inspection include a termite inspection? We have heard that termites are not really a problem in our new subdivision, so we’re not too concerned about it.” 

Answer: When purchasing a home, the buyer has a time limit, or “inspection period,” to complete all inspections. Any home inspector will recommend a termite inspection if they see signs of insect activity or damage to the home or structure, or if they see “conducive conditions,” such as wood/soil contact at the exterior walls. But by this time, a client in the process of buying a house may not have time in their inspection period to complete further inspections. So I always recommend that the buyer order a termite inspection immediately. 

There are good reasons to order a termite inspection. We are calling it a “termite inspection,” while the state calls it a “WDO inspection.” WDO stands for Wood Destroying Organism, which means “termite inspectors” are not checking just for termites. They also are checking for carpenter ants, bark beetles and, I suppose, woodpeckers and beavers (would these not be “wood destroying organisms”)? I’ve never heard of beavers in a termite report, but then I’ve never encountered a beaver during a home inspection. 

Termites, beetles, ants and other Wood Destroying Organisms can do incredible amounts of damage to a home, and it can be extremely expensive to exterminate them and/or repair the damage. A home inspector should report on damage that looks like termite damage. But when he/she is inspecting your home, a home inspector also is looking at structural components, plumbing, wiring, insulation, etc. Wouldn’t you want a specialist checking for WDOs – someone trained for and looking for only wood destroying organisms? I know I would. I bought a house last year that was built in 2000. I knew there was no wood soil contact around the structure, and I did not see any signs of insect or moisture damage. But I paid the $68 for a termite inspection, just to be sure. 

For me it’s cheap insurance. Home inspectors often find signs of WDO activity. But they are not required to (or specifically trained to) identify the source or extent of the damage. If you find termites in your house a month after you move in and call your home inspector, he/she will probably say, “That’s too bad, but why are you calling me? Call that termite guy.” 

There is something I call the “homeowner inspection syndrome.” All termite and home inspectors are aware of this. Some homeowners feel that they had an inspection, so they will not have to do any maintenance or repairs as long as they own the home. Actually, this is much less true now than when I started doing home inspections more than 20 years ago. But many home inspectors still refrain from using the words “homeowner” and “maintenance” in the same sentence. The point is, just having a termite inspection does not mean you don’t need to worry about termites. Termites can invade a home at any time. 

I personally know of a house that did not have any visible termite damage or activity when I (and a termite inspector) inspected it. The buyer bought two cords of firewood and had it stacked next to the home, touching the wood siding. Fortunately, a month later someone told him it was a bad idea to have firewood touching the wood siding and the soil. He moved the firewood and found a termite infestation and considerable damage inside the wall. In just one month. 

It is very important to check your home occasionally for WDO presence or damage. Now, I hear you asking: If a licensed and trained home inspector can’t do this, how can a homeowner? You can look for “conducive conditions.” Any wood on the exterior of your home (siding, trim, etc.) should be at least 6 inches above the soil. Any wood touching the soil and the house is a potential entry point for termites, even firewood, fence or deck posts, etc. 

If your home has stucco siding on a wood-frame wall, there is likely a weep screed. This is a horizontal drain in the wall that also is required to be 6 inches above the soil. If the weep screed is below the soil, WDOs could be entering your exterior wall with no visible signs. The weep screed is at the bottom of the wood framing, so having the weep screed below soil is not just an “entry point” – it’s a six-lane interstate for termites. 

All plants should be kept trimmed six inches away from exterior walls. Termites don’t usually walk around on plants, but other wood destroying insects do, such as certain types of ants and beetles. If you find wood soil contact or plants touching the home, you can check these areas carefully for any signs of damage (or actual insects). If a home inspector sees wood soil contact, a buried weep screed or plants touching a home they will definitely be recommending a professional WDO inspection, even if they don’t see any insects or damage. 

By Randy West on August 15, 2014 

 

Ten Questions to Ask Your Home Inspector: Excellent advice from HUD 

I have been critical of the government many times in this column. This includes the city, state and (especially) the federal government. Recently a real estate agent sent me something from HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) that included “Ten Important Questions to Ask Your Home Inspector.” The agent wanted my opinion on the questions. I think they are excellent. I added my comments after each question. 

  1. What does your inspection cover? The inspector should ensure that their inspection and inspection report will meet all applicable requirements in your state if applicable and will comply with a well-recognized standard of practice and code of ethics. You should be able to request and see a copy of these items ahead of time and ask any questions you may have. If there are any areas you want to make sure are inspected, be sure to identify them upfront. Arizona does have a Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors that all inspectors should be able to provide.
  2. How long have you been practicing in the home inspection profession and how many inspections have you completed? The inspector should be able to provide his or her history in the profession and perhaps even a few names as referrals. Newer inspectors can be very qualified, and many work with a partner or have access to more experienced inspectors to assist them in the inspection. This is an important question. Since the years of experience can vary in different locations, all you can do is compare the years of experience with the inspectors you call.
  3. Are you specifically experienced in residential inspection? Related experience in construction or engineering is helpful, but is no substitute for training and experience in the unique discipline of home inspection. If the inspection is for a commercial property, then this should be asked about as well. I’ve saidthis many timesmyself – construction experience is an excellent background for a home inspector, but home inspection is a unique profession and specialized training is needed. 
  4. Do you offer to do repairs or improvements based on the inspection? Some inspector associations and state regulations allow the inspector to perform repair work on problems uncovered in the inspection. Other associations and regulations strictly forbid this as a conflict of interest. Arizona home inspectors “shall not perform, or offer to perform, for an additional fee, any repairs to a structure having been inspected by that inspector or the inspector’s firm for a period of twenty-four months following the inspection.”
  5. How long will the inspection take? The average on-site inspection time for a single inspector is two to three hours for a typical single-family house; anything significantly less may not be enough time to perform a thorough inspection. Additional inspectors may be brought in for very large properties and buildings.

In my opinion that average time is a little low. Perhaps that’s from a location where all houses are very similar and don’t have basements or crawlspaces. 

  1. How much will it cost? Costs vary dramatically, depending on the region, size and age of the house, scope of services and other factors. A typical range might be $300-$500, but consider the value of the home inspection in terms of the investment being made. Cost does not necessarily reflect quality. HUD does not regulate home inspection fees. This is great advice. A home is, for most people, their largest purchase/investment. It bewilders me that people will spend $300,000 on a home and then shop for the least expensive home inspector.
  2. What type of inspection report do you provide and how long will it take to receive the report? Ask to see samples and determine whether or not you can understand the inspector’s reporting style and if the time parameters fulfill your needs. Most inspectors provide their full report within 24 hours of the inspection. This is perhaps the most important question. There are ‘checklist’ reports with no photos, recommendations, maintenance advice, etc. These can take as little as 20 minutes to fill out. There are computer prepared reports with recommendations for improvements, maintenance advice and many photos that take a few hours to complete.
  3. Will I be able to attend the inspection? This is a valuable educational opportunity, and an inspector’s refusal to allow this should raise a red flag. Never pass up this opportunity to see your prospective home through the eyes of an expert. I don’t know of any inspector that does not allow the client to attend. Many inspectors meet with the client at the end of the inspection for the on-site consultation.
  4. Do you maintain membership in a professional home inspector association? There are many state and national associations for home inspectors. Request to see their membership ID, and perform whatever due diligence you deem appropriate. All Arizona home inspectors are Arizona Certified Home Inspectors. You should ask if the inspector is a member of other professional home inspector associations.
  5. Do you participate in continuing education programs to keep your expertise up to date? One can never know it all, and the inspector’s commitment to continuing education is a good measure of his or her professionalism and service to the consumer. This is especially important in cases where the home is much older or includes unique elements requiring additional or updated training. Arizona does not require continuing education for home inspectors, but most professional home inspector associations do.

*** 

I would like to thank HUD for publishing this list of questions. With a little re-wording, you could use these questions when interviewing accountants, mechanics, computer gurus, or any other service provider. 

By Randy West on July 25, 2014 

 

Home inspector fads that didn’t work 

Happy July 4th everyone! 

Hope you have a great weekend. 

I had an email from a local real estate agent asking about a home inspector “buy it back” program. Apparently, a home inspector organization is saying if your home inspector misses something, they will buy your house back for what you paid for it. The real estate agent wanted to know what I think I about this program. 

Before I answer that, let me tell you about my predictions for other fads in our profession. About 12 years ago Sears got into the home inspection business. I had colleagues express great concern about a large company like Sears putting us little one-man shops out of business. I was not concerned. I told them Sears wouldn’t last a year in our business. Here’s why: First you have to call an 800 number to schedule the inspection. Most clients want to talk to the inspector personally to ask questions. Second, the lady in Chicago scheduling the inspector’s day doesn’t realize she’s having him go all the way across town two days in a row instead of scheduling the homes near each other on the same day. Third, most good inspectors will not want to be required to use a Sears home inspection report. And most important, all home inspectors get calls regarding past inspections. Most of them are not complaints (if they’re a good inspector); the client may want more information on something in the report, or advice on how to correct it, or to schedule the inspector to come out and inspect the repairs that have been made. But there are mediocre inspectors out there, and Sears will also be getting some complaint calls. Sears has no idea how many of these calls they will be getting once they have dozens or hundreds of inspectors. 

Then there was the franchise with a great idea, just not a practical one. The idea: A home inspector cannot be an expert on every system in a home. So, instead of inspecting everything, the home inspector will just coordinate a plumber, roofer, electrician, etc. Each of these experts will inspect their part of the home and report to the home inspector, who will deliver a complete report to the client/buyer. 

This one was even easier for me. As a home inspector, I know most clients are buyers with a limited time to complete their inspections. I can imagine a home inspector impatiently waiting for that last roofer report to come in so he can deliver the report. And then getting a call about the roof, which he didn’t even look at. And a home inspection, as I’ve written about here, is not just a combination of different inspections. Home inspection is a gr eat deal of Building Science- checking how the different systems work together. Of course, now that half the states have some type of home inspector regulation, this idea would never get off the drawing board. 

Then there was the company that required the inspector to wear a suit and tie in order to look “professional.” I come out of crawlspaces covered with dirt and spider webs (and sometimes spiders). I come out of attics covered with sweat and insulation. I don’t think a sweat-soaked spider-splattered tie looks very professional. 

I was right about all of these. I don’t recall exactly how long any of them lasted, but it was not long. 

In my humble personal opinion, I think this 90-day “buy your house back” is another idea that won’t last long and will help very few people. Let’s say a home inspector misses something expensive, like a faulty $500 water heater or $3,500 air conditioner, or even a $5,000 roof replacement. $5,000 is a big chunk of change to most people. But so is moving. I moved last year, so I can vouch for what a major pain it is. I don’t want to move again for a very long time. So if a typical family finds out their inspector missed a $5,000 roof and some organization will buy their home back, would they sell their house back? Is it worth the cost and aggravation of packing up everything you own (again), finding a new home (again), buying a new home (again, and which most people can’t do until their last home sells), actually moving everything you own (again), and then of course unpacking everything (again)? You will easily spend thousands of dollars and lots of time on this adventure, and likely jeopardize some long-term friendships if you ask the same people to help you move twice in 90 days. Most people would just find the $5,000 to fix the roof. 

I believe that is what this program is counting on. But I believe this program will backfire. If I’m correct in my assumption that most people are not going to want to move again for $5,000, then the only people that will try to use this program are people with major problems with their home. Like a large home with a tile roof that has been leaking and damaged the sheathing. Or a home with major structural problems. These can be tens of thousands of dollars to repair. So this organization has to buy a house back for what you paid for it, invest thousands (or tens of thousands) of dollars in repairs, then sell it with all the related closing costs. I don’t think this will happen very many times before they take a strong second look at this program. 

Which is exactly what I said about Sears, group inspections and suits and ties. So let’s wait one year and see if this program is still around, and/or if anyone actually used it. 

By Randy West on July 4, 2014 

 

House-flippers not always interested in improvement recommendations 

Last time I said that next time I would answer a couple of questions on air conditioners. But I received another fan letter this week that I want to respond to first: 

Question: I received your report on the mobile home I’m selling. I’m not sure how long you’ve been a home inspector, but you better go back to Home Inspector School! I have been flipping homes for eight years, and obviously know more about mobile homes than you do. About half the recommendations you made are completely wrong! Just a few examples: GFCI outlets, drain lines in the crawlspace, plumbing vents on the roof, 2×6 stair rails, egress windows, and the list goes on. Obviously, you are not aware that your “recommendations” are not required in mobile homes. I had to educate the buyer about how poor your report was, but she still wants some of these improvements. Please give me an address to send the bills for the cost of these improvements.- Bill in Prescott Valley 

Answer: Bill has some very good points. Fortunately, he wears hats that cover most of them. It would save me time to just copy and paste my reply to Bill. After all, my reply was extremely excellent, incredibly informative and slightly sarcastic (all right, maybe a little more than slightly). But this could be useful information to anyone buying or selling a manufactured home, so I would rather address his comments in a more professional manner. 

First, in case you are not familiar with the term, “flipping homes” means you buy a home, fix it up and then sell it for a profit. According to TV shows, you can make a zillion dollar a year doing this. Of course, according to TV shows the Professor can make a radio out of a coconut. 

Home inspectors in Arizona are regulated, and we have to follow the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors. Although we don’t use the word “code,” it would be hard to deny that our Standards are at least somewhat based on code. As a matter of fact, the glossary in the Standards defines an ‘unsafe condition’ and states it may be due to “…. improper installation or a change in adopted residential building standards.” So, the Standards don’t use the ‘code’ word, but what are “adopted residential building standards”? 

Manufactured homes are not built to the building code. They are built to HUD (U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development) standards. In many instances, the HUD standards are several years behind the building code requirements. In some instances, the HUD requirements don’t address items that are required by the building code. 

Here are some examples that Bill mentioned. I will refer to site built homes (SBHs) instead of “code,” since some of these requirements are actually manufacturer’s specifications and not code requirements. I will refer to manufactured/mobile homes as MHs. 

Water heaters have a TPR (safety valve) drain pipe, and air conditioners have a condensate drain pipe. In SBHs, these are routed to the exterior (with some exceptions). In an MH, they usually discharge in the crawlspace. Inspectors have to comment on this, especially for the air conditioner condensate drain line that will be discharging water whenever the air conditioner is operating. 

Home inspectors have to comment on GFCI protection. These are shock-preventing outlets that have a ‘test’ and ‘reset’ button on them. This is not just one of those “changes in adopted residential building standards,” inspecting GFCIs is specifically required in our Standards. GFCI requirements in MHs are several years behind SBHs, so it is more likely we will have to recommend GFCI protection in an MH. 

Bill referred to the vents on the roof. I had a comment in my report about plumbing vent pipes not being 12 inches off the roof (to avoid obstructions, e.g. snow). This is required in SBHs, but not MHs. My comment did not recommend an improvement, just noted it as a normal condition in a manufactured home. 

Stairways with more than three steps should have a handrail. The handrail should be “grabbable.” There are specific requirements about the height, diameter, etc., for handrails. I don’t usually pull out a tape measure, but I want Granny to be able to grab that handrail if she needs to. A flat 2×6, like you see on deck steps all the time, is not grabbable. An inspector should comment on improper handrails on any type of home. 

Bedrooms need an egress window (unless there is a door to the exterior). These windows have certain size and location requirements. The minimum opening should be 20 inches wide and 24 inches high, and the windows should not be more than 44 inches off the interior floor. (Trivia: these are actually emergency ingress windows – that is the smallest opening a fireman with a helmet and tank can fit through.) Older MHs are more likely to have improper egress windows than older SBHs. 

Newer manufactured homes have fewer differences/requirements from site built homes. I inspected a two-year-old manufactured home last week and there were no recommendations in my report regarding any of the items Bill mentioned. But this is not true for a 20-year-old manufactured home, and it’s not true for a 20-year-old site built home either. Newer homes have different requirements for GFCI and smoke detector locations, railing openings, etc. So, it is common for an inspection report on a 20 year old home to have recommendations that are not needed in a 2 year old home. 

Back to Bill: That address you requested is HUD, Washington, DC, 12345. Back to the readers: Next time I’ll answer a couple of questions on air conditioners. Unless… 

By Randy West on June 20, 2014 

 

Evaporative coolers go high-tech 

Last time I wrote about evaporative coolers. The second paragraph was shown as part of my answer; it was actually part of a question from Amanda. This is what it said: 

“I’m glad you love evaporative coolers so much, and I’m for saving energy, but you need to be a little more objective. You forgot to point out that operating the evaporative cooler with one large vent 1) makes the house very dirty, 2) makes the house very humid, and 3) is so loud you can’t hear the TV if the cooler blower is on high speed.” 

I did not address all these issues in that column. Amanda has one large supply vent in her home for the evaporative cooler, so it is louder than if you have multiple supply vents. I received this email from ‘Ray in Longmeadow’: 

“Hello Randy, “I have been enjoying your articles, always informative, interesting and factual. I feel the need, however, to comment on your latest, Air conditioners vs evaporative coolers. I’m feeling that lots of the downsides of evaporative coolers are being mentioned with none of the downsides of air conditioners. 

“Here are some of the downsides of air conditioners that people should be aware of. The big one that I see is that when the temperature is high and the humidity is low, air conditioning dries the air even further. Ideal humidity in the home is 30 to 50 per cent. I have friends that have had expensive wooden furniture ruined by too low of humidity inside the home. Another is of course, the high cost of operation; your electric bill and routine maintenance. And if you have an older system with R22 Freon and a major component fails, you will be replacing the entire system. 

“Then I have to question your statement about how coolers are less effective at high temperatures. I have been using an Aerocool 6800 cfm model since 1998. As long as the ambient air is dry, my cooler gives the same temperature drop. So if it’s 98 F outside, I’m getting 68 F out of the register, a 30 degree drop. Another point is noise. My cooler was sized so that I can run it on low blower speed most of the time. Another point is that it makes the house too humid. When the air outside is 7 percent humidity, the house may get up to 20 to 30 percent, ideal. As far as dirt is concerned, we don’t notice that the house gets any dirtier when the cooler is on. The intake of the cooler is opposite of the prevailing wind, that probably helps. 

“I have a feeling that there are still a large number of people around that think “swamp cooler” when someone mentions evaporative cooling. The days of the old, ugly three sided swamp cooler with straw pads that you have to replace every year is a vision from 50 years ago. The modern evaporative cooler such as the Aerocool (evapcool.com/aerocool-trophy) is a vast improvement. There are no “pads”, it’s now a more highly engineered “cooling media” that has a long useful life. Modern coolers can be controlled with a thermostat, so that you can come home to a cool house. 

“Through years of personal experience here in the Prescott area, I feel that modern evaporative cooling definitely has a place in our southwest region. 

“Thank you for your time, I always look forward to reading your column!” 

Me again. Before you email me, I did not say anything about ugly three sided swamp coolers. I checked out the website in Rays email, and it does appear evaporative coolers have gone ‘high tech’. I replied to Ray: 

“One question: Yours looks like a far superior unit to the older models. Does it work well in high humidity? Of course I realize that high humidity here is only a few days a year, but in case I print this (and people from wherever find/read it) let’s give people an honest opinion.” 

Here was Ray’s response: 

“Randy, thanks for the response. Our worst case here in the Longmeadow area is when the rain storms are all around us but it’s not raining here, the air temp is still high, the humidity is soaring. Does my evap cooler work well in these conditions? No, but it still gives us about a 10 degree drop, puts the air in the house in the high 80s, still an improvement over using ceiling fans alone. Humidity in the house goes up, of course. I admit that it would be nice to have A/C to turn on those days. 

“When we got our cooler there was only one cooling media available. Aerocool now has three different cooling media choices. When it’s time for me to replace the media, I will opt for the most efficient hybrid media, they call it “4×4”, a blend of high density and standard density material. Evaporative cooling is getting more sophisticated all the time. 

“Please feel free to print any or all of my comments, “Ray in Longmeadow” 

Me again. I’m not supposed to get political in my columns. But the current administration has tripled the cost of my gasoline, doubled the cost of my health insurance, and they’re working on electricity costs next. (Please send political emails to “thor@usgovt.com”). For someone on a budget and/or someone who is ‘green’, a newer evaporative cooler may be a viable option for cooling a home in our dry climate. In my May 9 column, I explained self-closing (and self-opening) ceiling vents that can be used to help distribute the cool air from an evaporative cooler. 

Next time I’ll answer some emails on central air conditioners. 

By Randy West on June 6, 2014 

 

Turn off your ceiling fans to save energy: Air conditioners vs. evaporative coolers, part 2, plus ceiling fans 

Last time I wrote about evaporative coolers. I had the usual supportive feedback, such as these two. 

Q: Randy, in your May 9 column you answered a question about evaporative coolers. You told us how wonderful they are, how well they work, and that they are less expensive to operate than central air conditioners. You said that having central air conditioning and an evaporative cooler is “the best of both worlds.” 

A: I’m glad you love evaporative coolers so much, and I’m for saving energy, but you need to be a little more objective. You forgot to point out that operating the evaporative cooler with one large vent 1) makes the house very dirty, 2) makes the house very humid, and 3) is so loud you can’t hear the TV if the cooler blower is on high speed. 

Q: Our home had both central air conditioning and a roof evaporative cooler with one large vent in the living room. We used the evaporative cooler for about a week the first summer and then had it (and the ugly vent) removed. I’m willing to spend a little more to have a comfortable, clean home. Amanda in Prescott. 

A: Amanda, thank you for completing last week’s column for me. You may not believe this, but I actually had a paragraph written that said some people don’t like evaporative coolers for the reasons you stated. But, alas, I ran out of room in that column. Since all the paragraphs in my columns are packed full of exciting, useful information, it was hard to pick one to leave out. 

I tend to agree with you, I don’t like the high humidity in my house. 20 years ago, we had a home with no air conditioner, just an evaporative cooler. My printer used regular (stacked) copy paper, but the humidity made it come out looking like it was from a roll like those old fax machines. 

Q: Randy, in your column today you stated having air conditioning and an evaporative cooler could save energy. I was a heating contractor for many years. An evaporative cooler will greatly increase the humidity inside a home. An air conditioner is a dehumidifier. So, every time you operate an evaporative cooler, it will take the air conditioner longer to cool the home because of the humid air. Constantly switching between the evaporative cooler and air conditioner is not energy efficient. We removed the evaporative cooler and installed ceiling fans in every room. We leave the thermostat at 78 and run all the fans all the time to save energy. Peter in Paulden. 

A: Paulden Peter, you are totally correct. And totally incorrect. I recommended using the evaporative cooler when it was not monsoon season and not 95 degrees. I never recommended ‘constantly switching’ between the air conditioner and evaporative cooler. I agree, that would not be very efficient, or convenient. 

However, leaving a fan on when no one is in the room wastes energy. Read any ceiling fan box in a big box store. They have an ‘efficacy’ label required by the government. Don’t get me started on that. The Government has not ruined enough appliances with silly regulations and requirements, now they’re attacking ceiling fans. The efficacy is, simply put, the airflow per watt, measured in Cubic Feet per Minute per Watt. This is kind of like the miles/per/gallon in your car. Except mph is useful, and ceiling fan efficacy is not. 

But anyway, when you read a ceiling fan box, they all have a comment such as “Money Saving Tip: turn off fan when leaving room.” A fan cools you with a breeze. If it’s 100 degrees outside with no wind, you feel ‘hotter’ than if there is a breeze. The same is true with a ceiling fan. A fan does not lower the temperature of a room at all. It lowers your temperature by ‘blowing’ over you and removing heat. 

And in case you want to argue with me, I must warn you that I have an infrared camera. I can show you how hot ceiling fan motors get, easily over 100 degrees. So technically operating a ceiling fan will slightly increase the temperature in a room. If you are in the room, the breeze will cool you. If you are not in the room, you are wasting energy. First, you’re wasting electricity by running a motor/fan that is not accomplishing anything in an empty room. Second, you are adding some heat to the room that the air conditioner will have to compensate for. 

So let’s go back to that ‘efficacy’ thing again. Stating how much air is moved per watt is incomplete information. There are other things that affect how well a ceiling fan will work. It may be better to compare the efficacy with the cargo capacity of a truck rather than the miles per gallon. A small truck can haul a 1000-pound load and a large truck can haul 2000 pounds. Similarly with fans, size is very important. (Insert ‘size’ joke here). A larger room needs a larger fan. By larger we mean the blade diameter, a common one is 52 inch. But there are much smaller fans. A smaller fan will have a much lower efficacy rating. But in a small room, a small fan may be more efficient than a large fan. Using the truck analogy, if you never have to haul more than 1000 pounds why buy a truck that can haul 2000 pounds but costs more to operate? 

And if you plan to install a fan near the ceiling in a room with 30-foot high ceilings, forget the miles per gallon. You want the big block turbo with dual exhaust to move as much air as possible, not the highest ‘airflow per watt’. 

By Randy West on May 23, 2014  

 

Air conditioners vs. evaporative coolers 

Q: Hi Randy. We moved here a few months ago and have a question for you. The home we bought has an evaporative cooler with a large supply vent in the hall, and it has central air conditioning that blows air out the vents in every room. There are also plastic vents in the ceilings in some rooms that open up when the evaporative cooler is running. We were wondering why a home would have both air conditioning and an evaporative cooler. Neighbors told us to use the evaporative cooler when it’s not humid, and to use the air conditioner when it is humid or very hot. We are not familiar with evaporative coolers; is this good advice?-Tom and Carole in Prescott. 

A: I know that a lot of people are not familiar with evaporative coolers. The following paragraph is in the “maintenance” section in my reports. This will explain coolers to you (and save me some typing). 

“Evaporative coolers are relatively simple devices, are inexpensive to operate, and work very well in low humidity like we have here most of the time. Coolers have a water line that usually connects at a hose faucet or near a water heater. A cooler consists of a float valve, similar to the one in a toilet tank, that keeps the proper water level in the cooler. A small pump will circulate the water through small water lines and onto the pads. A blower will pull air through these pads and into the home. The water evaporating off the pads is what cools the air. (If you get out of a swimming pool on a hot day, you are cool until you dry off. The water evaporating off your body cools you. This is the same principle). Every spring before use a cooler will need a thorough cleaning and check. Pads, pumps and float valves are maintenance items that occasionally need replacing. They are usually readily available and not major expenses. A cooler and the water line should be drained before winter. To drain a cooler you shut off the water and remove a plug in the bottom of the unit. You should also drain the water line by removing the line from the cooler, and then removing the line at the valve (use a bucket if needed to catch the water). Most people cover rooftop units during the winter months. If your evaporative cooler has one or two supply vents in the home, slightly opening a window in a room will help circulate cool air to that room.” 

So I hope this explains how coolers work. As far as your neighborly advice, it is correct that evaporative coolers will not work well when it is humid. The water will not evaporate off (and cool) the pads, so you basically get outside temperature and humidity air blowing into the home. 

Many evaporative coolers in our area have a single large supply vent, usually in a hall. This obviously will not cool every room as well as a supply vent in every room. A cooler will blow a lot of air into a home, so some air needs to get out for the cooler to work properly. The comment above notes that opening a window in a room without a supply vent will ‘pull’ cool air into that room. But even if the evaporative cooler has multiple supply vents, you still have to open some windows and let some air out. Imagine blowing air into a plastic bag. Once the bag gets ‘full’, you cannot blow any more air into it. If you don’t let air out of the home, the evaporative cooler cannot blow more cool air into the home. 

Those ceiling vents in some rooms you mentioned are intended to allow air out. When the evaporative cooler is operating and the house is being ‘pressurized’, these vents will open and allow air to escape through the attic. Having several of these ‘exhaust vents’ in different rooms will improve the distribution and efficiency of the evaporative cooler. 

Common sense says that discharging the interior air through the attic should cool the attic a little, which will also help cool the home. I sometimes wonder about blowing humid air into an attic. Proper construction takes measures to keep attics dry, for example, all interior exhaust fans should be routed to the exterior and there should be attic vents on the exterior walls and/or roof. So how wise is it to blow humid air into an attic? However, I see the ceiling ‘exhaust’ fans frequently in homes with evaporative coolers. I am assuming (yes, I know what that means) that since you only operate an evaporative cooler when the outside humidity is very low you are not causing high humidity levels in the attic. 

Operating an evaporative cooler costs much less than operating a central air conditioner. An evaporative cooler has a blower and a small pump. The blower does not use a lot of electricity, and the pump very little. A central air conditioner has a blower (usually in the furnace) and a 240-volt compressor, which uses much more electricity. 

An evaporative cooler will not work in high humidity, and will not cool as well as an air conditioner in very hot weather. So having both an evaporative cooler and an air conditioner is a nice feature. In dry, moderately hot weather, you can save money by using the evaporative cooler. But when it gets too hot or humid you have the central air conditioner. 

By Randy West on May 9, 2014 

 

Sellers may have to ‘warrant’ items that are not inspected 

Hi Randy: The manufacturer of my new electric water heater says additional insulation (fiberglass blanket) isn’t necessary. Other articles on this subject say otherwise. What is your recommendation? Also, does the code require a conduit for the 240-volt wire that connects to the top of my tank? – Bob Gordon, Kirkland. 

A: You stated your water heater was new and electric. Most newer water heaters are well-insulated. And electric water heaters tend to lose less heat through the skin than gas models. I do not consider blankets necessary on new electric water heaters. It would probably only save you pennies a month, unless your water heater is outside in the shade on the north side of the house. I have heard that some manufacturers will void the warranty if a blanket is installed. I have not verified this, but it is not unbelievable to me. I have heard of appliance manufacturers voiding the warranty for other reasons that obviously had nothing to do with the defect or failure. 

Now as far as conduit, you used that four-letter word that home inspectors avoid (code). I prefer to refer to manufacturer’s specifications. You can look in the manual for your new water heater and see what they recommend. My inspections are part performance and part common sense (and yes, all right, part code). I assume there is NM wiring to your water heater. NM is non-metallic sheathed wire, commonly referred to by the brand name ‘Romex’. Romex is susceptible to physical damage. You should not see Romex unless you venture into your attic or crawlspace, which most normal people don’t do very often. 

However, here comes that common sense part. If the wire to your water heater is not really susceptible to physical damage, it may not be a concern. Very often in manufactured homes there is Romex wiring to the water heater. Manufactured homes are built to FHA standards, not “code.” And the water heater is usually in a “dedicated” closet. There is no room for anything else in the closet, so the wire is not likely to get damaged from someone hanging their 50 horsepower weed-eater near the wire. So exposed Romex is not a problem just because it’s exposed. 

However, the Romex needs to be secured to the water heater, and I have seen Romex at water heaters damaged by over-tightening a cable clamp. Also, technically there should be a ground wire connection visible at the water heater. 

So to finally and likely insufficiently answer your question, I prefer to see some type of flexible conduit at a water heater, but exposed NM wire is not necessarily a concern if installed properly. 

Next question: The purchase agreement to buy a home states the seller has to “warrant” specific items, including leaking faucets, leaking landscape features, outdoor sprinkler leaks, leaking tub diverter valve, air conditioner below manufacturers specs on splits, windows don’t open/don’t stay up/don’t lock, malfunctioning pool light, GFCI outlets, ceiling fans, and reverse osmosis water filters not functioning. Steve Karstens emailed me this list, and wanted to know if home inspectors are required to inspect these items. Apparently, there has been some discussion of this in the Realtor community. 

Here’s my usual concise, accurate and definitive answer: Yes; and no. Inspectors have to report on windows, ceiling fans, leaking faucets and diverter valves (these change the water from the tub spigot to the showerhead). I report on the air conditioner split- this is referring to the temperature differential, a good way to check if an air conditioner is operating properly. But home inspectors are not required to report on temperatures, and some do not. I would not report on pool lights, water filters, or landscape features. 

Warranted means the seller has to ‘guarantee’ these items are working. I’m not a Realtor or attorney, I’m just a simple home inspector. But some of these “warranted” items are beyond the scope of a home inspection, and would seem to be beyond the scope of most homeowner’s knowledge. A homeowner likely knows if a window doesn’t open or lock, or if the bathroom faucet leaks. A homeowner would know if the air conditioner is not working. But to most homeowners the air conditioner is working if it comes on, doesn’t sound like a jet landing in the back yard and blows out cool air. How many homeowners have the equipment to check the temperature differential on an air conditioner? 

In my reports, I state water filters cannot be tested during a home inspection. I will report if a reverse osmosis filter is leaking (they’re usually under the kitchen sink). But to me, “functioning” means it’s actually filtering the water, and the only way to verify that would be to take a water sample to a lab. 

What surprised me are the contract overrides the Sellers Disclosure form that sellers have to provide buyers. So if a seller discloses that he never used the reverse osmosis filter and has no idea if it works or how to use it, he still has to ‘warrant’ it, and the buyer can ask him to repair it. 

Home inspectors are regulated by the Board of Technical Registration, and we have a Standards of Practice that states what we do and do not have to inspect. The Standards also say we can exceed the standards, such as testing the air conditioner temperature differential. The Standards are the minimum we must do. Inspectors are not bound by (and don’t see) the real estate purchase agreement, so it’s very possible the home inspector will not be inspecting everything the seller is required to warrant. 

By Randy West on April 25, 2014 

 

Electrical 101: Breakers, eyeball polishers, and AFI vs. GFCI 

I have had several questions recently regarding electrical wiring, panels, breakers, outlets, etc. Some of these I’ve written about before, but not for several years. I have greatly summarized the questions so I have adequate space for my typically long, wordy and sometimes irrelevant answers. 

From a real estate agent: “Why do inspectors mention ‘undersized breakers’ but make no recommendation, but call ‘oversized breakers’ a major defect?” 

Well, let’s say there is 20 amp (12 gauge copper) wire to your bathrooms, which are on the same circuit. That circuit should have a 20 amp circuit breaker to protect it. Now let’s say you have a house full of family and guests. It’s a little early for Christmas, so maybe someone’s getting married. There are two girls in each bathroom. Each girl is using some of those electric appliances I see in bathrooms, such as hair dryers, curler heaters, mascara installers, ear lobe cleaners, eyeball polishers, etc. With four of these appliances in use at the same time, there are more than 20 amps going through the wires. Without a circuit breaker, or if the circuit breaker is too large, the wires will melt and start a fire. So an “oversized” circuit breaker is a major defect because it’s a fire hazard. 

Now if the circuit breaker was only 15 amp, but the wire/circuit was 20 amp, there is no safety concern. The worst thing that can happen is the circuit breaker will trip off before the girls can turn on all four appliances. 

Now before you start sending me emails accusing me of being sexist, let’s be totally honest. I’ve literally inspected 10,000 bathrooms. Men may have up to two electrical appliances in a bathroom (but often none); they may use an electric razor or electric toothbrush. Women have a six-way adapter in their outlet and six appliances plugged in. Most men can only identify one or two of these appliances. 

So, an oversized breaker may not trip off when needed, resulting in a fire hazard. An undersized breaker may trip off when the circuit is not actually overloaded, resulting in an inconvenience (to go find the panel and reset the breaker). And the same thing is true for the electrical service (coming into the home) and main breaker. If there is a 200 amp service and a 200 amp main breaker in a 100 amp panel, it is possible that more than 100 amps could go through the panel and something bad could happen. But if there is a 100 amp service and 100 amp breaker in a 200 amp panel, the worse that can happen is the main breaker will trip off. 

The next question also came from a real estate agent, wanting to know why inspectors test and recommend GFCI protection in older homes but not AFI protection. A quick summary: GFCI stands for Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter. In most homes the GFCI protection is provided by GFCI outlets, which have a “test” and “reset” button. These are shock-preventing outlets, and are found in kitchens, bathrooms, garages, and the exterior (and a few other places). GFCI has been required in some locations since the 1970s. 

AFI stands for Arc Fault Interrupter, which is a fire preventer. These have been required on bedroom circuits for about 12 years. Arc fault protection is provided by AFI circuit breakers in the panel. These breakers have a “test” button just like a GFCI breaker. There is usually one AFI breaker for each bedroom, although it’s also common to have one AFI breaker for two secondary bedrooms. 

So, why do home inspectors test and recommend upgrading to GFCI protection, but not AFI protection? The simplest answer is that Arizona specifically requires us to test GFCIs, but not AFIs. And there is a reason for this. GFCI protection is easy to test for. GFCI testers are only a few dollars and readily available. Testing the GFCI protection will shut off power to all kitchen, bath and garage outlets. So the seller may find a coffee maker clock flashing “12:00” when they get home. GFCI protection is easy to provide/install where needed. If you have an older home, you can install a GFCI breaker, or a single GFCI outlet, which will protect all the kitchen or garage outlets. 

AFI protection is only required on bedroom circuits (so far, that’s changing). And AFI protection can only be provided by an AFI breaker. So my policy, like many other inspectors, is to test AFI breakers in a vacant home. But I do not test them in an occupied home because it will shut off all power to all the bedrooms. I may be turning off alarm clocks or VCR timers (all right, DVR timers). I often have not been in the home when I inspect an electrical panel – I could be turning off an aquarium or the seller’s oxygen, which would be a little more inconvenient than your DVR not recording your favorite show. 

And it is much more difficult to add AFI protection to an older home. You can install GFCI outlets anywhere. In newer homes AFI protection is required for the entire bedroom, which includes all lights and outlets. So most newer homes have a circuit that is only for a bedroom. But in older homes, a circuit may be for some of the bedroom outlets and some of the living room outlets. Or the bedroom lights could be on one circuit, and the outlets on another. So you could end up installing several AFI breakers and still not have full AFI protection in every bedroom. 

As usual, I ran out of room before I ran out of words. I’ll have to finish the AFI discussion next time. 

By Randy West on April 11, 2014 

 

Are inspectors and contractors liable for damage? Part II 

In my last column, I replied to a letter from someone who was upset after his home was inspected. The inspector tested the GFCI outlet (with the “test” and “reset” button) in the bathroom and the outlet would not reset. So there was no power in either bathroom, and the inspector did not let anyone know. 

The question was: if a home inspector breaks something, is he/she required to pay for it? 

As with many things in my profession, there is no single correct answer. Here was part of my answer: 

“There is no rule stating a home inspector has to fix things if he breaks them. I like to think that most inspectors are professional and would. I don’t believe there is a Registrar of Contractors rule stating that a plumber or electrician is required to fix something he damages in your home, but a professional certainly would.” 

I then told one of my “war stories,” when I pulled on some wall cabinets in a garage and they came off the wall. It was all I could do to hold them above a sink faucet, until enough paint cans fell out that I could safely lower the cabinets. I received quite a few emails after that column. Most, of course, agreed with me. But not all. Following are emails and my replies to a reader named Adele. 

“Randy, of course the registrar of contractors requires a licensed contractor to fix what he damages. If inspectors are not required to fix what they damage, I for one will not have one in my house. It is the contractor’s liability whether licensed or not and I would hope this includes inspectors to repair or replace what they damage in your home. If you receive payment for service you are automatically liable for any damage due to your service. This is the law. One other thing. If those cans of paint broke open and damaged the floor you would have been liable.” 

Adele, I think you missed the point of the column. I agree that if an inspector, or any professional, damages a home they should be liable. But that is not the law. There is nothing in the BTR rules that states if I back into a garage door, I need to fix it. If I did back into a garage door I would of course pay to have it fixed. But say I’m inspecting a vacant home. I press the button to open the overhead door. Halfway up it stops. The 20-year-old opener decides to die right then. By state law, I have to operate overhead door openers. So did I damage it? It would have failed the next time the button was pushed, I just happened to be that person. It would cost me more than my inspection fee to have the opener replaced. And E&O insurance would not cover it. There were no Errors or Omissions – I was doing exactly what the state requires, and what every other home inspector would do. What if I turned on the central air conditioner and it does not work? Should I have to pay for a $2,000 compressor? 

So you see, there is a gray area here. Arizona requires me to test GFCI outlets and overhead door openers. If something is not or stops working, and all I did was what a homeowner would do. I did not damage the home. 

I have damaged things, which I’ve admitted in this column over the years. I turned on an oven once and melted a bunch of Tupperware plastic bowls. I knocked a vase off a windowsill once (the seller claimed it was an heirloom that had been in the family for generations, even though there was a Walmart sticker on the bottom). And I immediately told the owners of the home and wrote them a check. 

Adele responds: 

“Randy, if you backed into my garage door you are liable. The courts make you liable. It may not be an ROC requirement but it is common law. I understand what you are saying about turning things on that do not work. Of course you are not liable. But if you pull on a cabinet full of paint and it falls and breaks the sink and floor, you are liable. I know you think inspectors are not legally liable for physical damage but legally they are liable.” 

Adele, I have to respectfully disagree with just about everything you say. Errors and Omissions insurance pays for, well, errors and omissions. It will only cover errors or omissions in my job. The ROC can only enforce ROC rules against contractors. If a contractor does not perform per his contract, call the ROC. But if you call the ROC and say a plumber backed into your fence, I don’t think they will be sending out an investigator. 

And when you say it’s “the law” and “the courts make you liable,” what you are saying is you can sue a contractor or inspector. Of course you can. This is America. You can sue anyone for anything. You can sue the restaurant if the coffee is too hot. Or too cold. But I assure you there is no Arizona statute that says if someone spills paint on your garage floor he has to pay to clean it. The police will not come out and say, “You spilled paint on her floor – pay up!” If the contractor refuses to pay for it, you only choice is to sue. And no one can accurately predict who will win a lawsuit (except, of course, the lawyers – they always win). 

By Randy West on March 28, 2014 

 

What happens when a home inspector breaks something? 

Q: We had our home inspected last week. Apparently, when the home inspector tested the GFCI outlet, it would not come back on. So he left us with no power in either bathroom. We found out the next morning when we were getting ready for work. It was very aggravating to not have power in our master bath, and then find out there was no power in the other bathroom either. If a home inspector breaks something, isn’t he required to fix it?-Matt in Chino Valley 

A: Good question. First, a quick explanation: The GFCI Matt is referring to is the outlet in the bathroom with the “test” and “reset” buttons. It is very common for the GFCI outlet in one bathroom to protect the outlets in another bathroom. Or for a GFCI in the kitchen or garage to protect all outlets in that room. So if a GFCI in your home stops working, likely other outlets will stop working as well. 

There is no rule stating a home inspector has to fix things if he breaks them. I like to think that most inspectors are professional and would. I don’t believe there is a Registrar of Contractors rule stating that a plumber or electrician is required to fix something he damages in your home, but a professional certainly would. 

However, here comes the gray area. Did the home inspector actually break something? Inspectors are required by Arizona to test all GFCIs. It’s not like he backed into your fence with his truck. He was doing something he was required by law to do – test a GFCI outlet. The GFCI was going to fail the next time it was tested; it just happened to be the home inspector that did it. 

So, in my opinion, the inspector is not required or liable to fix something that he is required to test. A GFCI outlet, or a furnace or air conditioner, can fail at any time. If an inspector tries to turns on the furnace and it does not work, should he have to replace the furnace? I can’t imagine what home inspector insurance premiums would be if we were required to repair or replace everything we found that was not working. 

Having said that, it was rather unprofessional for the inspector to not leave a note or inform you or your real estate agent that you had no power in either bath. 

*** 

I’ve been getting emails lately saying my columns are getting too “serious” again. So, here’s another stupid mistake I made. I have admitted most of my stupid mistakes over the years in this column. I do want you readers to know that I make most stupid mistakes only once. 

Part of my job description is to make sure everything is secure. So I “shake” fireplace mantles, cabinets, light fixtures, etc. I don’t shake them hard – I just give them a little tug to make sure they are well secured. A couple years ago, I inspected a home with new cabinets in the kitchen. The old cabinets were in the garage, something I have seen several times. There was even a sink in the garage. 

As usual, I pulled a little on the overhead cabinets to make sure they were tight. The cabinet directly over the sink came off the wall and started to fall onto the sink faucet. I knew if the cabinet fell on the sink it would break the faucet, likely resulting in water spraying all over the garage. So I grabbed the cabinet. Which was heavy. In fact, it was very heavy. It was so heavy I was having trouble holding it over the sink. It was so heavy I was wondering if I was getting old. Then the cabinet leaned toward me a little and the doors swung open. 

The good news is I was not getting old and weak. The bad news is there were about 50 paint cans in the cabinet. The good news is the cabinet was getting lighter. The bad news is this was because the gallon paint cans were rapidly falling out of the cabinet. 

The look on my face must have been priceless. On the one hand, my brain wanted my hands to try to grab as many paint cans as I could before they fell out of the cabinet. On the other hand my brain knew that if I let go of the cabinet it would fall on the faucet, definitely breaking the faucet and possibly breaking the cabinet or sink. So basically, my brain and hands froze, and I silently stood there while a few dozen cans of paint fell out of the cabinet and rolled around the floor. I was not completely frozen. My head was turning. First, I watched paint cans fall out of the cabinet. Then I watched them rolling around the floor, waiting for some to come open and start leaking paint all over the floor (somehow they all stayed closed). 

After 10 or 15 seconds (which seemed like minutes), the cabinet got light enough that I could set it down on the counter next to the sink. Then I collected all the cans and put them back in the cabinet. 

This story is relevant to the question from Matt. I did not try to secure the cabinet back to the wall. But I did leave a note for the sellers telling them the cabinet had come off the wall. I was tempted to put in the note that if you intend to store 500 pounds of paint (or anything) in a wall cabinet, you will need more than a couple of 1-inch screws. 

By Randy West on March 14, 2014 

 

A penny saved … may not be a good thing! 

Daily Courier, February 28, 2014 

Question: We are moving to Prescott this summer. We are looking at homes and will be needing a home inspection. Our last inspection was in Washington, D.C., a few years ago. We found a website where we posted the age and size of the home and home inspectors bid for the job. It was fun watching them bid against each other, and we ended up with a great discount on a quality inspector. 

We would never hire an inspector that a real estate agent recommended – there is an obvious conflict of interest. So we are looking for a bidding website for Prescott home inspectors. Are you a member of such a website? Or do you know of such a website or referral company? Any advice you have would be appreciated.-Tim and Alice. 

Answer: Of course I have advice. And you can certainly have it – I’m not using it. I’m not sure how much you will appreciate it, though. 

As a home inspector for more than 21 years, I encourage you to never use any type of bidding website or company to choose a home inspector. Professionals do not bid out their services; their fees are based on their service, experience, knowledge, etc. I would never choose a mechanic or accountant who is willing to bid out his or her services. The old adage is very often true: You get what you pay for. If you hired the lowest bidder, I would be very surprised if you hired a “quality inspector.” 

I know many professional home inspectors, and none of them bid out their services. I get several emails a month from referral and bidding companies requesting that I pay to join. In my opinion, only those who are desperate for work would join a company or network that is going to ask them for money, and then ask them to lower their fees. 

I don’t even trust the referral websites that charge the users. I chuckle every time I hear, “You can’t pay to be on our site.” It may be true that you can’t pay to get on their site, but once you get a few good reviews, they hound the heck out of you to pay for a “priority listing.” I get mail, email and phone calls. Once I told them that I was pretty busy during the summer and did not need to pay to advertise. They threatened to take me off their list, since I did not “need their referrals.” I asked if that was fair to their paying members, who were expecting honest reviews from other members. In my opinion, many of these sites start out with good intentions, but get so big the corporate/profit mentality takes over. 

Now if you did not like that advice, then you certainly won’t like this advice. You stated you would never hire a home inspector that your real estate agent recommended because of the “obvious conflict of interest.” Maybe this is a problem in Washington (unethical behavior in D.C. – who would have guessed?). But I’m not aware of it being a problem anywhere in Arizona. An honest, professional agent will only refer other professionals that they feel are honest and professional. I cannot refer contractors on homes I inspect. But friends frequently ask me for the name of a good plumber or electrician. Whomever I refer is going to reflect back on me. So I try to only refer contractors or professionals that I have personal experience with. I survive on referrals. Real estate agents also survive on referrals, so a full-time, long-term agent will only refer professionals they have confidence in. 

Now to be fair, I am probably biased about this. Most of my referrals come from real estate agents. But that is the case for every home inspector I know. 

There is an inspection company in a large midwest city that sends me a monthly newsletter. They claim they get very few referrals from real estate agents. In fact, they proudly proclaim that most real estate agents do not like their company. They infer that any inspector who gets agent referrals is not a professional. I disagree with this, and with almost everything else they say. I have checked the box to unsubscribe to their newsletter several times, but it doesn’t work. I think they know if they send it, I will read it, even knowing I’ll probably get upset. 

This company proudly proclaims they are “advocates for the buyers.” They claim they always “save their client more money than the inspection fee.” I feel this is totally inappropriate. This means they have never found a home that was in very good condition? I interpret this as meaning they “guarantee” their clients that they will find things wrong. That does not sound very honest to me, and I think most buyers want an honest assessment of the home. And I can understand if real estate agents are hesitant to refer any type of professional that “guarantees” they will find problems. 

One month, this newsletter said that I was a poor inspector because every time I inspect a condo, I don’t inspect all the common areas. After all, the buyer is paying for the use of these areas, and there are usually association fees to pay for the maintenance and upkeep of these areas. So if I inspect a 900-square-foot condo for a client, I should also inspect all common areas, including the swimming pool, hot tub, 4,000-square-foot clubhouse, all sidewalks, etc. I don’t feel this is inappropriate. I feel it’s absolutely absurd. I would have to charge $3,000 to inspect a 900-square foot home. Of course, once I inspected the pool and clubhouse, I could simply charge future clients the extra $2,700. 

By Randy West on February 28, 2014 

 

Home inspector laid a solid foundation for the industry 

Daily Courier, February 14, 2014 

Every home inspector in Arizona, and many across the country, know the name Cole Greenberg. So do most of the real estate agents in Arizona, since Cole taught many real estate classes and wrote a column in the Arizona Journal of Real Estate and Business for many years. Cole served as president of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), as president of the Arizona chapter of ASHI, and as president of the New York Metro chapter before he moved to Sedona in 1992. He was involved in many other organizations. One of them was Keep Sedona Beautiful. He had a large sign in the side window of his SUV saying “Keep Sedona Beautiful – Get Out!” Typical Cole. 

I went to Cole’s memorial service last week. Many people spoke, and everyone had funny stories. Anyone outside the church must have thought there was a stand-up comedian contest taking place. Even the rabbi had a funny story. She said when she told Cole she was buying a house, Cole informed her he was inspecting it for her. When she met him at the house she was excited, and standing in the living room she said how much she loved this room with all the windows and skylights. Cole looked up at the skylights, then looked at her and said, “How many holes should there be through a roof? Zero!” I can imagine Cole saying this. 

I met Cole in 1993 when I was an ASHI candidate. Cole was teaching an introductory class for Arizona ASHI. Everyone in the room, except Cole, was a candidate. As a candidate you cannot use the ASHI logo or advertise membership. Cole told us we were a class of “biped mammals.” The point he was making was once you paid your money to ASHI, you were a candidate. You may not have performed a single inspection yet. Cole told us we cannot tell real estate agents or clients that we are affiliated with ASHI. Someone asked Cole what we should do if someone asked us if we were ASHI members. Cole said we should not say anything. I spoke up and said that’s ridiculous. We are certainly allowed to answer questions. I said that when I’m asked about ASHI, I explain that I am a candidate, I have passed all the ASHI tests, I have had my reports reviewed by ASHI, and I am working towards full membership. Cole said that as merely a biped mammal I cannot say that. I told Cole in my best sarcastic voice (and I have a very good sarcastic voice) that from now on if anyone asked me about ASHI, I’d tell them “I can tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” Most of the class chuckled, and Cole said, “That will do”. 

Immediately after the class, Cole came straight to me, shook my hand, and said, “Boy, I think you’re going to make it!” And that was the beginning of a great friendship. Cole became a mentor for me. I called him many times with questions about an inspection. 

In the 1990s, a bill was introduced to the Arizona House to regulate home inspectors. It was a very poor bill. If it had passed, I would have found another profession. I was the only ASHI member in Prescott at the time, so most of the other inspectors were not aware of this bill. I called every home inspector in Prescott, promised them a free lunch (the only sure way to get home inspectors to show up), and we discussed this bill. I said we ought to write a letter to our representatives, Sue Lynch and Carol Springer. I just happened to have a letter written, so we all signed it. I went to Phoenix and read my letter to a Commerce Committee meeting. I told the committee that this letter was signed by every inspector in Prescott, and was basically most of Yavapai County talking. After the meeting (the bill failed), I was walking back to my truck when someone grabbed me and pulled me under a shade tree. It was Cole, and he said, “Boy, you look like leadership material.” So started my “career” in Arizona ASHI leadership, which was very rewarding, mostly due to the lifelong friends I have made. 

At a convention in Austin a few years ago, our Arizona group walked to the bars after the classes. I am too old to enjoy bars where you can’t talk to the person next to you, so I yelled that I was going back to the hotel. Cole followed me out, amid some comments like “It’s past the old folks bedtime.” When everyone came back from the bars at 3 in the morning, Cole and I were still sitting at the hotel lobby bar debating politics and religion. When our group said they were going to bed, Cole said, “I’m really sorry, but I’m enjoying this talk with Randy so you’ll have to tuck yourselves in tonight.” 

Cole and I could talk about anything. I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about, but once I said, “You would have to agree with me that….” Cole replied “Sure, I could agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong.” Once he told me the only way I could be a bigger fool is to gain 10 pounds. And once I heard him say he was a recovering politician. Asked whether he was fully recovered, Cole said, “Not yet. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and just have to lie to someone.” 

Typical Cole. I intended to write just a paragraph about Cole, and it turned into the entire column. Typical Randy. 

By Randy West on February 14, 2014 

 

Zoning is a four-letter word to home inspectors 

Daily Courier, January 17, 2014 

Recently a client hired me to inspect an old home that was well outside city limits. After we arranged the inspection, she emailed me and said she was looking forward to my report to confirm that the old house complied with zoning requirements and current building code. 

I immediately emailed her back and told her the inspection report was not going to answer those questions. There is a difference between “zoning” and “building code.” Most home inspectors consider “zoning” a four-letter word. I don’t know of any home inspector who checks zoning requirements and compliance. If there is one somewhere, I’m sure he charges a hefty fee for this service. 

The zoning is what the county or city allows on the property. Zoning can be residential, agricultural, commercial, etc. The zoning will state what is allowed on the property, such as setbacks from the property lines, if you can have camels or platypuses and how many, if you can operate a farm or brothel, etc. The zoning may restrict the type or size of the building, for example, single-family home, multi-family, commercial building, etc. 

So it would be virtually impossible for a home inspector to check zoning compliance on a one-time visit to a property. First, inspectors would have to know the zoning of the property. And they would need to know all the requirements for each type of zoning. And they would need to know that for each municipality in their area. 

And even knowing all that would not be enough. It is possible to get a “variance,” or an exemption from a zoning requirement. I have not gone through this process in Yavapai County, but I did in my previous life as a builder. It required filling out some forms for the county (and of course giving them some money – quite a bit of money, as I recall). In some cases, I was required to post signs on the property stating what the variance was for. 

A good example is a variance I requested for building a large deck on an existing home. The deck would be closer to one property line than allowed. So we had to post signs and give all the neighbors a chance to comment on the variance. When no neighbors objected, I was granted the variance and built the deck. But someone looking at that home today would not know that a legal variance was obtained without checking all the county records. 

So as a home inspector I would never comment on what the property zoning is, or what may or may not be allowed there. That’s not to say I wouldn’t wonder about it if I saw a couple of cows or several ostriches in a backyard in Prescott Valley. 

That email also mentioned knowing if the building was in compliance with the “building code.” Most home inspectors also consider “code” a four-letter word (actually, I would hope they all do). You cannot do a “code” inspection with a flashlight and screwdriver on an existing building. A home inspector cannot tell you how thick the concrete slab is, how deep the foundation is, if the sheathing or drywall or roof shingles are properly nailed, etc. A code compliance inspection on an existing building usually requires some degree of destructive testing. I’m not sure what a homeowner would do if a home inspector showed up a with sledgehammer and chainsaw, but I’m pretty sure the inspector would not get in. 

And to complicate it further, the email I received referred to “current building code.” A building is usually in full compliance with the building codes that were in effect when it was built. A building is not required to be upgraded every three years to current code. Imagine buying a 1968 GTO, and when you go to license it the DMV says you have to install airbags and anti-lock brakes. It would be ridiculously expensive to do this. It would be just as difficult to upgrade older homes to some current standards. 

If you pull a permit for improvements (on a building, not a GTO), you may be required to upgrade to some current codes. For example, if you remodel your kitchen, you will be required to put in those pesky shock-preventing GFCI outlets. And if you replace your deck, those 12-inch-wide openings in the railing will have to be changed to current requirements (to prevent small children from falling). 

Before I talk myself out of business, I need to say that a home inspection is still a valuable service. I consider a home inspection part “code,” part “performance,” and part common sense. A home inspector may not be able to tell if the right size and type of nails were used for the siding or roof shingles. But the inspector will notice the result if the wrong nails were used. For example, rusty nails can indicate that galvanized nails were not used. And more shingles in the neighbor’s yard than on the roof can indicate the nails may not have been quite long enough. 

But even if a home inspector does see a code violation, he often does not refer to it as such. I often refer to the manufacturer’s specifications or requirements. And if I can’t do that, I will use some euphemisms. A few weeks ago, I found a deck that was not properly built or secured to a home. The deck was wobbly and bouncy. I did not refer to code or manufacturer’s requirements. Instead, I commented that “some liberties have been taken with good framing technique at the rear deck”. 

By Randy West on January 17, 2014 

 

Smart meters not likely to be dangerous 

My last column was about energy-efficient buildings, and the mounting evidence of concerns with these buildings. I received quite a few emails on that column. Some were thanking me for information they had not heard anywhere else; some told me I should not be so cynical. 

I will admit that I am cynical. I’m 50 (OK, 50-plus). I remember hearing that our (mankind’s) new technology is destroying the planet, and that we are facing a new ice age. For those of you under 40, I am not making this up. This was a big concern in the ’70s. The cause was supposed to be auto exhaust and aerosols. Almost everything was in a spray can back then – deodorant, hairspray, household cleaners, air fresheners, etc. In public schools, we were told how we were destroying the planet by using deodorant in a can. 

So for decades I stopped using deodorant and bought parkas every time they were on sale. And now we’re concerned about global warming. I was debating this with one of my less cynical friends, and told him there is evidence the planet is on another of her cooling cycles. His reply: Global warming can cause cool weather. He knew this was true, but could not explain how destroying the ionosphere and letting more evil sun rays in could also cause cooling. I offered my friend a good deal on some parkas, but he declined. 

Of course, the alarmists have that covered now. Since Mother Earth doesn’t always accommodate their fears about a pending ice age or global warming, they now use the term “climate change.” They’re pretty safe, because the climate changes in every place I’ve ever lived, and they can always say, “See, we told you so.” 

And what about sweetener? First sugar was bad for me, and I had to use the pink stuff. Then the pink stuff was bad, and I had to use the blue stuff. Then the blue stuff may not be good, and we used the yellow stuff. Now everything artificial is bad so I need to use sugar again. 

Now there’s some controversy about the new APS (Arizona Public Service) electric meters. These meters send out a “radio” signal, so they don’t require a meter-reader to read the meter every month. As usual, there are people that don’t like the new technology. 

Some people claim that this is Uncle Sam invading our privacy, even though it’s not Uncle Sam but Cousin APS. With the new meter, APS can tell if you’re using unusual amounts of electricity, and when. So if you’re running grow lights all night for a marijuana farm, or using lots of power for that time machine you’ve been working on, APS will know something unusual is happening. I’m not doing anything like that, so I’m not too concerned that APS will know about my power usage. 

Others claim that there are health effects from the transmissions from the meters. I know these people mean well, but I take this with a grain of salt. I mean, just walk down the street and look at all the transmissions you’re wading through. Four out of five of the closest people are talking on cellphones. Two out of five of the closest buildings have satellite TV antennas. Half the nearby cars have GPS or manufacturer monitoring systems installed. There are automatic doors at nearby businesses. There must be some FM and AM radios signals migrating through your muscles. There are police radios, walkie-talkies, baby monitors, and cordless phones. And how many times have I used my truck remote door un-locker – I must be getting cancer in that thumb by now. 

I happened to be home when APS came up my driveway to install the new meters. They said I could decline it, and even told me that some people are concerned about the health risks. I said, “Put ’em in.” Now APS will not have to come up my driveway and make my dogs bark once a month. I consider that a bigger invasion of privacy than APS knowing that I set my thermostat a couple degrees higher last month. 

One of my biker buddies told me that APS came up his driveway, too, and he told them not to install the new meter. I asked why, because he doesn’t seem the type to worry about one more radio transmission traveling through his living room. He had the only good reason I’ve heard for keeping the old meter. He likes flirting with the cute gal who reads his meter. 

Now there may be something to the health concerns from these meters. Only long-term studies can determine this. I’ve heard these meters have been in use for some time in other cities and countries. I’m sure if there was any correlation between the use of these meters and children being born with three arms, someone would have let us know by now. I think some people may not like the new meters simply because they don’t like change. 

Speaking of change, there are some changes coming to the Courier. My next column will appear in the Courier’s new pull-out real estate section, which will publish on the first and third Saturday of each month beginning Jan. 21. I am not too cynical about this change. The pull-out section will have lots of new information. However, the cover will only be half as large and you may not see my smiling face on it. (Actually, for the last couple years it’s only half my smiling face. I never asked why they cut off the top and bottom of my photo, but it never bothered me since they actually cropped out most of the gray hair.) But you will find my smiling half-face inside. 

By Randy West on January 5, 2014 

 

Funny Seller Stories 

Daily Courier, January 3, 2013 

I have clients meet me at the end of my inspection and there are a few good reasons for this. I need to be able to concentrate on my job with as few distractions as possible. No matter where I am, at an exterior wall or in the attic, I’m looking at many different components. And they all tie together at the end. 

Is that crack in the stucco a concern? Maybe, but I won’t know for sure until I complete the entire inspection. If there are cracks on the interior wall in this area, or all the doors in this wall are out of square, that crack could be from some structural movement of the home. If there are moisture stains on the interior wall below that stucco crack, water could be getting into the exterior wall. If there is loose flashing at the eave above the crack, it could indicate a roof leak. 

Of course, most often it is just a common crack and not a concern. But I don’t want to start talking to clients until I have been in, out, up, down, over and under. 

There are other reasons for having the clients meet me at the end of the inspection. I will take a couple breaks during an inspection and see if Gov. Jan Brewer or President Obama have returned my calls (I’m still waiting). I feel uncomfortable taking a break to return phone calls or eat a snack if there are clients waiting for me to finish. 

Another reason is most normal people do not walk on roofs or slither through attics and crawlspaces. And most clients are normal people. This means they will be alone in the home while I’m crawling past the black widows under the house. I’m sure all my clients are honest and trustworthy, but it could be uncomfortable if the owners come home and find people in their living room and no home inspector in sight. 

There are websites out there that advise homebuyers to accompany the inspector during the inspection. And there are home inspectors who work this way. I have an occasional potential client who wants to attend the entire inspection. Most understand after I explain my reasons, and tell them I will spend as much time as they desire walking around explaining items. If that doesn’t work, I tell them it’s “corporate policy.” That phrase seems to carry a lot of weight, which is kind of funny since I am the corporation. 

If the sellers are home, I let them know right away that I will need privacy with the buyers when they arrive. If it’s nice out I usually talk to the clients outside or in the garage. Often the sellers will stay in one room so we can talk in the home. Sometimes the Realtors will ask the seller to leave during the inspection or at the end of the inspection when the buyers arrive. I don’t request this; I’ll be there several hours and I feel it’s kind of rude to ask people to leave their own home for half a day. But I do appreciate it when Realtors advise sellers to leave when the buyers are there. There are usually things inside the home I want to show the buyers, like how to operate the gas fireplace or whirlpool bathtub. 

Occasionally the sellers are present when I talk to the buyers. I am not opposed to this, but sometimes the sellers don’t agree with my findings. Once I told the buyers that a toilet does not flush properly. The seller had all five of us cram into the bathroom to show us how to ‘operate’ the toilet: if you hold the handle down for exactly 4 seconds and then tap twice on the right side of the tank, the toilet will flush properly every time. I don’t know how I missed that. 

Once I pointed at some ceiling stains and said these were likely from roof leaks because I found damaged shingles above this area. The seller said I was an alarmist. I asked him what I should say if I find ceiling stains directly below damaged roof shingles. He suggested that instead of saying the “the roof appears to be leaking over there,” I should say, “most of the roof does not leak.” 

Another seller pulled out his inspection report from seven years ago and said he doesn’t have to fix anything that wasn’t on his report. If his inspector missed it seven years ago then it was not his responsibility. 

Another time I was talking to the buyers at the kitchen counter. The seller, a 75-year-old woman, was sitting nearby at the dining room table. I had been talking for a half hour or so and she had not said a word. I told the buyers it was important to put a spark screen on the chimney for the wood-burning fireplace. The seller looked up and said, “My neighbor calls me and complains every time I light a fire.” We were all a little surprised and looked at her for a moment. Then I walked over to the dining room window and looked at the house behind hers. This house was much lower than hers; we were looking at the wood shingle roof. I asked if that was the neighbor, and she said, “Yes, every time I light a fire he calls me and tells me to put it out.” I could imagine the neighbor standing on his porch and watching hot embers fall on his wood shingle roof. I thought to myself that he was nicer than me; I’d probably be knocking on her front door with a fire extinguisher in my hand. 

By Randy West on January 3, 2014 

 


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 

 

2012 

December 

November 

September 

August 

July 

June 

May 

April 

March 

February 

January 


 

Fire sprinkler systems save lives, property 

Following are the first three paragraphs from this column in the Aug. 1, 2008, Courier: 

“I want to comment on an article I saw in the July 18 Courier. There was a front-page story on fire sprinkler systems that not only saved lives, but also have averted potentially high-dollar fire losses. 

“I cannot agree with this more! I read several trade publications each month, and one lists all the major building fires across the country. When there is no fire sprinkler system, the damage is usually in the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and there are often injuries or fatalities. When there is a sprinkler system installed, the damage is almost always confined to one area and is in the thousands of dollars range. 

“I’m convinced that fire sprinkler systems can save lives and injuries, both to the occupants and to our firefighters. I think they should be mandatory in all buildings. Maybe someday.” 

Today, I want to comment on a page 3 article in the Dec. 10, 2012, Daily Courier. It was regarding someone protesting to the Prescott City Council about having to install a fire sprinkler system in his new home in the Thumb Butte area. 

He claims requiring a sprinkler system in new homes is unfair and unnecessary. One reason he gave is “the likelihood of having a fire in a new home is very, very small.” This is the most bizarre reasoning I have heard in a long time. That’s like saying a brand-new car is less likely to be in an accident than a five-year-old car. Most house fires, like most car accidents, are the result of “operator error.” For example, something left cooking on a kitchen range, or not properly using appliances like a space heater, or carelessness from people smoking or disposing of fireplace ashes. The age of the home has nothing to do with these. And the fire sprinkler system will be there forever, while the home will only be “new” for a short time. 

His other reason was for not requiring fire sprinkler systems was because this would not affect all the existing homes. This makes no sense to me either. A new building and electrical code comes out every three years, and these don’t affect most of the homes in Prescott. So why require railings on decks, or GFCI outlets in bathrooms, or automatic reversing overhead door openers? These requirements did not affect most of the homes in Prescott when they were first required. And why require anti-lock brakes or airbags on new cars since these won’t affect the millions of vehicles already on the road? 

Scottsdale has required sprinkler systems since 1986. There is indisputable evidence the sprinkler systems in Scottsdale have saved lives and property. There was a 15-year study in Scottsdale from 1986 to 2001. I have heard experts refer to Scottsdale and this study dozens of times. The study can be seen at the Scottsdale.gov website. Among other things, the study states that 13 lives were saved, 92 percent of fires were controlled with two or less sprinkler heads and the average loss per sprinkled incident was $3,534. The average fire loss for non-sprinkled incidents was $45,019. 

Prescott only requires a sprinkler system if the home is larger than 5,000 square feet and is hard to access or a fire would be hard to fight – for example, if there is a low water crossing or steep roads (above 12 percent grade) to access the property. There are other requirements, but they are all reasonable, especially to someone like me, who thinks sprinkler systems should be mandatory in all homes. According to Prescott Fire Marshall Don Devendorf, “The base reason for all these was life safety. If we can’t get there, we want to make sure you can get out.” 

Devendorf also noted that these homes are in areas that could start wildfires. So these sprinkler systems may not just save the occupants and their property, they could save the neighbors or an entire neighborhood. My opinion is that anyone building a huge new home in a hard-to-access area is being a little foolish and selfish by not installing a fire sprinkler system. 

The city council seems partially persuaded by the homeowner’s arguments. I hope they think hard about this. If one forest fire in a Prescott neighborhood is prevented, the requirement was well worth the extra cost (when building the home). 

The homeowner needs to take this matter to the Fire Board of Appeals before the council will make a decision. I hope the Fire Board upholds the sprinkler system requirements. 

By Randy West on December 20, 2012 

 

Home inspectors are not perfect (contrary to popular opinion) 

I was at a party at a friend’s home recently and someone asked me what I do for a living. I said I was a home inspector. This person, whom I had never met before, proceeded to explain why anyone who pays for a professional home inspection is a fool. He explained that he did his own home inspection. He downloaded a checklist from the web that told him everything he has to look for. The inspection took less than an hour, and he found every single thing wrong with the home. I didn’t want to argue with him at a social event, so I simply wished him good luck and walked away. 

My first thought was maybe I could download a checklist on how to prepare my taxes, or install a tile roof, or perform surgery. My second thought was no home inspector I know can do a home inspection in less than an hour, even on a very small home. My third thought was no home inspector I know would ever be dumb enough to say he found every single thing wrong with a home. My fourth thought was to go share my first three thoughts with the gentleman. But then my friend grabbed my arm and said, “Thank you for not making that fool look like a fool.” 

Now, I told you that story so I could tell you this one. About 10 years ago I wrote a “master inspector program” for the Arizona chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors. The basic premise is an “applicant” will inspect a home and give a presentation to three “reviewers.” The presentation will be the same as the inspector would give to a client on site. We have three reviewers and three applicants at each event. The applicants cannot talk to each other during the inspection. After their presentation the applicant will be asked three inspection questions and shown three photos of defects that he must identify. To be completely fair, the questions and photos would be drawn at random from a pool. If the applicant scored enough points, he would receive a “master inspector” designation. 

We set up three trial runs. The three reviewers had to inspect the home first, of course, to make sure the applicants found everything. On the first trial run, I was one of the reviewers. I inspected a home in Phoenix with two other inspectors with even more experience than me. Between us we had performed more than 20,000 inspections. We went through the home together taking notes, and, of course, we were all sure that we found “every single thing wrong with the home.” 

The first applicant started his presentation, and commented that the electrical panel by the swimming pool was not rated for outdoor use. I didn’t have that on my notes, and whispered to the other reviewers on my left and right if they had noted that. All three of us had missed it. And the other two applicants also found one thing that all three of us missed. (Now, to be fair, the “applicants” were also very seasoned inspectors that were helping us design and organize the program.) 

On the second trial run I was a reviewer again. We took a little more time on this house, making sure the applicants would not come up with something we missed. Wrong! Once again, each applicant found one thing that the three of us missed. 

On the third trial run we used an inspector’s own home in Tucson. He was one of the reviewers, and I was one of the applicants. I was giving my presentation and mentioned the scorched wire in the electrical panel. The owner of the home exclaimed “What?!” and ran out of the room. He came back and admitted he didn’t know of the scorched wire. Neither of the other applicants caught the scorched wire, but they both found something that the reviewers and I had missed. 

In all three trial runs, none of the applicants found everything the reviewers did. It was at this point that I realized I had probably missed a lot of things over the years (decades) that I’ve been an inspector. If three inspectors with 20,000 inspections between them don’t find everything, how can a single inspector? 

And it’s not that surprising that home inspectors miss things occasionally. No matter where I am, in an attic or crawlspace, on a roof, or standing at a corner of the home, I’m looking at a dozen different things. In an attic and crawlspace I have to check the electrical wiring, the exhaust fan ducts, the framing, the insulation, the furnace ducts, the ventilation, the plumbing pipes, and, of course, for signs of leaks. Sometimes I’m in an attic or crawlspace for 15 or 20 minutes. And that guy at the party “inspected” the entire home in less than an hour, and didn’t miss a thing! 

Footnote 1: My friend told me the gentleman tried to use his furnace last week and it did not work. He’s having a new furnace installed. I guess that wasn’t on his checklist. 

Footnote 2: My wife doesn’t see my columns until the paper comes out, but sometimes I run an idea by her. She told me not to write this column. She said I shouldn’t admit that I may have missed something on an inspection. But I’ve ever missed anything major, like a hail-damaged shingle roof or a serious safety concern. 

Right now I’m deciding what to bring home tonight: Flowers? Candy? Wait, I’ve got it – pizza! 

By Randy West on November 8, 2012 

 

Certified home inspectors are ‘general practitioners’ 

Recently, I was hired by a couple to perform their home inspection, and they asked if they should have a licensed electrician examine the home. They said they saw some visual problems such as wires hanging out of walls where light fixtures had been removed (an all-too-common visual problem in all the bank-owned properties we’ve been inspecting lately). I recommended they wait for the inspection report. They asked if I was a licensed electrician, and I said no. I am not a licensed roofer, plumber or furnace contractor either, but I am qualified to inspect these systems. Perhaps this was the wrong answer, because then they said maybe they should get all those other licensed contractors as well. They wanted to know how someone who was not licensed could inspect all those systems. 

This is something that all home inspectors hear occasionally, so obviously it is something that homebuyers wonder about occasionally. The answer is, home inspectors are licensed by Arizona. Actually, we are Arizona Certified Home Inspectors (CHI), but there is no difference between licensing and certification to the public. We have required education, must pass a national exam, must do parallel inspections with a CHI (on-the-job training, if you will), and must submit a log of the training inspections as well as a completed inspection report for review by the state. 

Arizona also requires home inspector applicants to submit a fingerprint card for a background check, since we will be entering occupied homes. Arizona requires proof of either Errors and Omissions Insurance or a Home Inspector Bond. Arizona does not require continuing education for inspectors, but virtually all home inspector associations do. 

So, it is not easy to become a CHI in Arizona, nor is it inexpensive. This is a good thing for the public because you are assured that even a “brand-new” CHI will have some knowledge and some actual inspection experience. 

So back to the question. How can I, a recovering general contractor and mere CHI, inspect an electrical system? Well, CHIs are trained to look for problems. We look for “symptoms.” We may not be able to diagnose the exact cause, or recommend the exact repair, but we can tell 

you something is wrong and you need an appropriate expert. This is not that different from a general practitioner (I hope that’s the correct term) doctor recommending further evaluation by an appropriate professional, such as a cardiologist or x-ray guy (obviously I’m not up to snuff on medical terms). 

We (home inspectors, not doctors) can open an electrical panel and look for double-tapped breakers, overheated wiring, improper grounding or bonding, corrosion, oversized breakers, scorching, missing bushings or cable clamps, ground and neutral wires connected together in a subpanel, etc. In attics and crawlspaces, we check for poorly secured or damaged wires, loose junction boxes, exposed splices, etc. We check outlets for proper wiring. We check for aluminum wiring, and an adequate number of circuits and outlets for the home. We check for GFCI protection in the required locations. 

And if we find a “major” problem with the electrical system, or any system, we are required to recommend an appropriate expert for further evaluation or repair. Of course, it is possible the expert may find other problems, but at least you know ahead of time if there are a couple of minor/typical defects or if there are major defects and concerns. 

My wife told this story to someone the other day; I have never told it in this column. In 1993, when we moved to Prescott, I got my Arizona general contractor’s license. I was intending to build houses. But a few high-production builders were keeping the subcontractors so busy I was having trouble finding framers or electricians to even look at my plans. A real estate agent asked me if I wanted to do a home inspection. I said, “Sure. What’s that?” She said you look over the house and tell the buyer if there is anything wrong. I figured I could easily do that, being a general contractor. I did three inspections and thought I found my new vocation. 

Then came number four: a 1917 house on Mount Vernon. There were so many things in this home that I had not seen before, I cannot list them here. This includes a 1917 cast-iron boiler for heating the home. The boiler was originally coal, then fuel oil, and was now natural gas. I got the thing to light, and a while later some of the old cast-iron registers in the home got warm, so I told the buyer “the heating system works.” 

I went home and told my wife I was NEVER doing another inspection. I described the boiler, and told her there were valves and dials and dampers and gauges and more valves and stuff I had no idea what to call or what they did. I was very lucky the buyer did not ask me anything specific, because I had no idea what a Hartford loop or barometric damper was. In fact, the buyer was impressed because I traced the old fuel oil line outside and found an underground storage tank that no one knew was there. 

Arizona did not regulate home inspectors until 2001. So back in 1993, I did some research and realized that home inspection was a unique profession that required training I did not have. I went to school, joined the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) and have never looked back. But home inspectors are “general practitioners.” I do not use that term, of course. I tell people that we are “generalists,” trained to find and describe problems and then recommend the appropriate expert. 

By Randy West on September 20, 2012 

 

Billing escrow puts home inspectors at risk of perceived bias 

I’ve had questions recently from home inspectors, buyers and real estate agents regarding home inspectors’ billing escrow. This means the home inspector submits his or her invoice to the title company handling the transaction, and receives payment when the home closes and the title company “disperses funds.” 

Some inspectors do not bill escrow, but some do, which is why there is confusion. The inspectors that bill escrow claim it is legal and billing escrow is a business decision, like whether or not to accept credit cards. 

Billing escrow is legal as far as Arizona is concerned. However, some organizations may not approve of it. The American Society of Home Inspectors is the largest professional association of home inspectors, and has a Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice. Item 1B in the Code of Ethics states: “Inspectors shall not inspect properties under contingent arrangements whereby any compensation or future referrals are dependent on reported findings or on the sale of a property.” 

The key here, in my opinion, is the word “or.” This statement can be read as “compensation cannot be dependent on the sale of a property.” If an inspector bills escrow, and the home does not close, the inspector will not get paid by the title company. I admit there are other interpretations of this rule. There was likely nothing in writing that specifically stated the home must close for the inspector to receive payment. And if the home does not close, the inspector can then track down the buyer and try to get paid. 

There is another requirement in the Code of Ethics stating inspectors should not have a financial interest in a property they inspect. Again, this is open to interpretation, but I feel knowing you are guaranteed payment if the home closes does give an inspector a financial interest in the home’s sale. 

So let’s look at that “business decision” comment. You can accept cash, credit cards, yen, or take a mule in payment, and that would be a business decision. But it is imperative that a home inspector is completely objective when he or she inspects a home. So, in my opinion, not tying payment to escrow is more than a “business decision.” This is required to ensure the inspector’s objectivity. 

I was debating this issue with another inspector at a meeting in Phoenix last month. This inspector does bill escrow, and sees nothing wrong with it. At one point I asked him what happens if a home doesn’t close, and he said he sends an invoice to the buyer/client. I asked if he has had trouble collecting his fee from a client that is no longer buying the home he inspected, and he admitted he has. So I said that if he bills escrow, he would want that home to close to make getting payment easier, and he readily agreed. 

I waited a moment and told him to think about what he just said. He wants the home to close. And yet he has to be completely objective in his inspection and reporting. I truly believe this inspector is always objective, and always does the best job he possibly can. But what would the public think, or a client, if they realized it was in the inspector’s best interest for the home to close? 

This is just my opinion, which of course is almost always correct. And if you didn’t like reading about that opinion, you likely won’t like reading about this one either. A couple of my clients have said nice things about me on a “list” on the Internet. This list is comments from subscribers to help you choose a plumber, painter, inspector, etc. The list claims to be completely objective (like a home inspector should be). I haven’t seen what was written about me, but I appreciate it. However, it irks me to see advertisements for this list stating no one can pay to advertise on it. If that is so, why do they email me almost weekly asking me to pay to advertise? It may be true that you cannot pay to get on the list, but once there they want you to pay for “placement.” 

And now I’m getting phone calls. As a matter of fact, when I told the last salesman that I was pretty busy and didn’t need to pay for advertising right now, he threatened to take me off the list, since I obviously didn’t “need” their referrals. 

I did not want to be taken off the list. I told the salesman that real estate agents may refer more than one inspector, and buyers may use the list to help decide which one to choose. People pay to use the list, so he would be doing them a disservice to remove me. This did not appease him, so I told him maybe I would pay to advertise in winter when I’m slower. He said he’d call back. He called back last week, and I had to explain to him that it’s not winter in Arizona yet. 

I always thought the list was a good idea, and it likely was when it started. You can pay to join, and then read other members’ experiences with product and service providers. Unfortunately, the list is no longer as objective as people think. Since I will not be blackmailed into paying for advertising, I may not be on there much longer. I wonder if there are other good companies that got removed. 

By Randy West on August 30, 2012 

 

Column: Some solutions to rid homes of ‘sweet skunky’ smells 

In my last column, I printed a letter from a reader with a “sweet skunky” odor in the house. It got worse after it rained. Pest control experts and plumbing and heating contractors could not figure it out. So I asked for your help. 

I received more than 25 emails after that column. Several were from people with a similar problem who wanted to know if someone had a solution. I can’t print all the suggestions, but here are some that were offered. The first two are from the Courier website, dCourier.com; the rest are from emails. 

Joan: A skunk deposited scat under our deck. The odor drifted into our mechanical room. We cleaned up the scat and sprayed Pine Sol under the deck by using an ordinary garden hose sprayer. No more skunks for more than a year. Now we spray each spring before they arrive. 

Anonymous: If moisture is getting through an outside wall, it could be causing a light short/oxidation on the wiring in the wall sockets. If the plastic material gets hot, it will have a skunk-like odor. Next time it starts to rain, turn off the main power at your electrical box and see if you still get the odor. If you don’t, I would suggest a complete wiring check on all boxes. 

Micki: Since the home is newer, I think that when they were building the home, a friendly skunk passed by what was his territory and saw a big structure had moved in and invaded his space. So he decided he would have to mark new boundaries so his competitors would not invade his territory. He saw this plush roll of something lying out there and decided it needed to be marked thoroughly. 

Later men arrived and installed the insulation, covered it with the wood siding or whatever. When the weather gets wet and hot, the wood inside may sweat, and the smell rises from its dormant grave to alert all passersby. And it alerts the new invaders in the home. 

Suggestion: Drill a small hole (just enough to get a large hypodermic needle in) in the interior and possibly exterior wall in the area of the scent. Go to the pet store and buy “anti skunk” odor remover. I have used this type of product on my dogs when they got too curious. Inject it into the wall, which hopefully will saturate the insulation and seal up the tiny holes. 

Bill and Susan: We live in Stoneridge. Last December we did some remodeling (no disruption of exterior walls but we were up in the attic a lot). One small room (an office) in particular developed a skunky odor over several weeks that seemed to wax and wane through the day, often becoming worse as the day progressed and became warmer. At other times, it would be evident in our bedroom on the opposite side of the house. Having a lot of experience with skunks, I did not feel like this was a true skunk smell. It was as though it had a sweet, resin-like component to it. Other family members disagreed with me and felt it was skunky. 

We did all the things you mentioned, including serious inspection of the attic and exterior walls. No attic smell, scat, dead remains or localized smells on the exterior walls were ever identified. Finally, I consulted our neighbors. Those to the immediate north of us were fit to be tied with the smell. Theirs was in their bedroom-bath area immediately opposite the site of our office. The neighbors to the south had experienced whiffs of “something odd” but nothing like we had. Other neighbors did not have a smell. 

The long and short of this is we never found the source and it dissipated after a few weeks. (FYI, odor treatments including X-O did nothing to help.) 

I spoke with a local contractor and he said he had experience with this being caused by the local skunk bush when the red berries appear (it is very common around us; it’s a member of the Rhus family). I researched this on the Internet and it does appear to indeed produce an objectionable odor when rubbed. I am still puzzled as to how it could be so localized in our house and that of the neighbor unless there was a certain wind pattern that sent it wafting fragrantly between our two houses. We have lived in this house for five years and this was the first we encountered this. 

Janet: We had that same skunk odor problem at our home, until our wise 91-year-old neighbor told us that javelina give off that same musky, terrible odor. It seems they were sleeping near one side of our house, leaving their “scent” – and their fleas! If the animals are simply walking through the yard, I can smell them when our windows are open. Ask your friends with the problem skunk smell if they have javelina resting in their yard. They are stinky! 

*** 

Me again. I’m not endorsing any of these; I’m just the messenger. Other readers agreed with my guess of mold/mildew. One suggested a borescope inspection, which is a small camera on a flexible probe (I won’t say what he compared it to!). Another suggested drilling a small hole in the wall to pour in some bleach solution. I could easily fill another column or two with your suggestions, but these cover most of them. 

By Randy West on August 9, 2012 

 

Recurring skunky odor stumps the pros 

I received this email earlier this week: 

“I live in Quailwood and our house is seven years old. I am at my wits’ end over a smell in my house. It started last year with a terrible “sweet skunky” smell in our front guest bedroom. I called an exterminator thinking it was something dead (that’s how strong it was). He came out and looked all around – nothing in the attic, the attic is sealed at the walls, no holes in or under the walls (we have a concrete slab floor). He was stumped. He told me to air out the room for a couple of days. I did, and the smell went away. 

“Then in March of this year during a rainstorm, we developed the “sweet skunky” smell under our bathroom sinks. I called a plumber and he said it was definitely not a sewer gas odor, and he found no leaks. Then I called a different exterminator, but I got the same answer from him as the last guy. I braved it out and it finally went away… until last week, when it rained. 

“The smell is in the bedroom again and stronger than ever. But this time I can locate it. On the outside wall it is really strong on one side, low on the wall, near an electrical socket. We are pretty sure there are no pipes in that wall; it’s not wet inside or outside. I called another plumber. He said the same as the first plumber. Then we had an HVAC guy out and he said it was our neighbor’s bushes. No way it’s the bushes – purple sage doesn’t smell like that! 

“Could a skunk keep spraying the same spot near the bedroom and then go to the bathroom wall (on the same side of house) and spray? Would the smell only appear when it’s humid? Any ideas what it might be or who I call before we start tearing up walls?” 

It must be a strong odor if you have called two plumbers, two exterminators and an HVAC (heating/cooling) contractor. I would guess it’s not a plumbing problem – that wouldn’t account for the odor in a bedroom, and two different plumbers could not find a problem. 

I am not a skunk expert. I do know they can spray to mark their territory, especially in the spring (mating season). I have inspected many crawlspaces (the area under the home, not the attic over the home) with a skunk odor. This is because skunks like to live in crawlspaces. I don’t know why a skunk would spray the exterior walls of a home with a concrete slab floor unless he was living under something in the yard nearby. As far as I can tell, if there is a skunk odor, it will be there all the time and not get worse when it rains. In fact, I would think rain would eventually wash the odor off the exterior walls. And of course you had two different exterminators that did not find any signs of pest entry. 

Without having seen the home, my next guess would be moisture in the walls. Moisture could be coming in from flashings around windows or other penetrations though the exterior walls, so it could be in rooms that don’t have plumbing lines nearby. You said the bathroom and bedroom with the odors are on the same side of the home. Does this side of the home get more rain than the other sides of the home (e.g., wind-driven rain)? 

You mentioned the odor was strong near an electrical outlet on the exterior wall. If there is moisture (mildew or mold) in the wall, the odor could be stronger near penetrations in the wall – especially penetrations near the bottom of the wall, since that is where mildew and mold normally start. 

So I have two suggestions – one you already mentioned. 

That would be destructing testing. It is usually easier to cut holes in interior walls than exterior walls for “exploratory surgery.” Actually, a 600-volt cordless sawzall can cut through anything pretty easily. So I should say it’s easier to patch holes in drywall than it is to patch holes in stucco or wood siding. 

One option before the sawzall comes out would be an infrared (IR) camera inspection. I chuckle when I see ads that say, “We can see inside your walls.” I have an IR camera, but I cannot see inside your walls. What you can see are anomalies inside a wall from very slight temperature differences. These differences can be from moisture entry, missing insulation, or even overheated electrical circuits or termite activity. With experience, a good thermographer can be pretty certain what caused these anomalies, but won’t say what the cause is with absolute certainty. Missing insulation is very easy to see because it has a very “regular” shape. I can be 99 percent sure that an IR photo shows missing insulation, but the only way to be completely sure is to really look in the wall. 

An IR inspection can usually tell you exactly where you need to cut holes for further investigation, saving the cost (and mess) of cutting unnecessary holes. It may also show you similar problems starting in other areas that are not significant enough to cause odor or visible damage. 

Anyone out there have any other ideas on what could be causing this odor, or how to find out? 

By Randy West on July 26, 2012 

 

Rebate review, Part 2 

Last time, I wrote about the APS and Unisource rebates (our electricity and natural gas providers). I explained that you need to have an energy audit by an “approved” contractor to get these rebates, and these rebates are for making your home more energy efficient, which, of course, saves you money for as long as you own the home. The rebates can be more than $1,000, from each company! I said I had an energy audit scheduled on my own home. 

Well, Charles from Advantage Home Performance came out last week and did the audit on my home. It was very impressive. He did a “blower door” test, where they seal the doors and windows with plastic and run a large “exhaust fan” at one door. I was amazed at what this revealed. 

For example, there is a jalousie window in the laundry room (with glass “slats” – I don’t see these often around here, and yes, I have an old house). As Charles predicted, there was so much air coming in around the jalousie windows that he had trouble keeping the plastic on it. 

He also checked the furnace/air conditioner ducts. He did not find a lot of leaks, but he found an area where there was “turbulence” in a large duct that adversely affected the airflow, and therefore the efficiency of the furnace and air conditioner. 

He also checked the ceiling with an infrared camera and found poor insulation in one area. (This I knew, because I also have an infrared camera.) 

He did safety tests on the gas appliances and found that one of the furnace combustion air vents was obstructed (happened when the new roof was put on a couple years ago). 

Overall it was educational, even for a “seasoned” home inspector. I do not have the written report yet, so I may have one more update on this next time. 

The only thing I was disappointed in was the rebate for the shade screens. It’s a maximum of $250, so I assumed I would be buying at least $251 worth of shade screens. However, the rebate is based on square footage, not how much you spend. (I’m kidding; I didn’t expect a rebate to pay 99 percent of the costs.) 

I have already started telling clients about this program, especially when I see an obvious (to an inspector) problem. For example, last week I found a furnace in an interior closet. The furnace was on a wood “box,” and the box under the furnace served as the return air duct. When I removed the filter from the furnace and looked around the box, I found an opening into a wall. The gas line was routed through this wall, so it was open all the way to the attic. So every time the air conditioner comes on, it is pulling very hot air out of the attic into the supply air. Imagine how much harder that air conditioner has to work – instead of having just 75-degree air from the interior to cool it also has 125-degree air from the attic to cool. And, of course, in the winter the furnace has to heat very cold air from the attic. 

In a different home last week I found old metal air conditioner supply ducts in a crawlspace. They were not insulated, nor were the connections taped, nor were the connections particularly well connected. This was fine for me, since I had the air conditioner on and appreciated the cool air coming out through all the poor connections. But I estimated that at least 30 percent of the cool air (and heated air in the winter) was blowing into the crawlspace. 

Both of these improvements would be covered by the rebates. Both would be very cost-effective improvements to make. I will be telling more clients about these rebates. This makes me “look good” to the clients. And I like anything that doesn’t cost me anything and makes me look good. 

Seriously, one of the reasons I had the audit done on my home was to get the written report to show clients. (Note to the IRS: that’s why it’s a business expense.) I think this is valuable information, and the audit is a steal at $99 even if you don’t have any major improvements done. And not just for new owners or old homes. If 15 percent of your air-conditioned or heated air was lost in your attic, would you not want to know this? Especially if the fix is a $2 piece of plywood (as in my first example). 

In fact, I think this is such valuable information that we (“we” is the Arizona Chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors) are having Charles speak at a class this month. Gavin Hastings from APS will also be speaking, as will Tom Donovan, a local contractor who has remodeled many older homes. 

The class is at 1 p.m. on Friday, July 27, at the Wyndham Garden Hotel between Prescott and Prescott Valley. I think this class would be great for Realtors, investors, contractors, homeowners, anyone who has questions or wants to know more about the energy audits and rebates. The non-member fee is $175 for the day, which includes lunch. The morning class is for inspectors only (we’re touring the MI window plant in Prescott Valley – look for a future column about that). I think I can talk the current AZASHI “administration” into offering the afternoon class for $50. (Especially after it’s in the paper. One of my life rules is “forgiveness is often easier to get than permission.”) That would include refreshments and snacks, and, of course, excellent company. If you are interested, email me at randywest2@gmail.com. 

By Randy West on July 12, 2012 

 

Energy audits, utility rebates are good values 

I’ve known Mike Uniacke for many years. He’s one of the experts I call when I have questions. He doesn’t know it, but I’m a little upset with him. 

Gavin Hastings hasn’t met me yet (he will next month), but I’m upset with him, too. You see, I have to go into attics every day, and they are pretty darn hot in the summer. But often the air conditioner ducts are in the attic. If I turn the air conditioner on when I enter the attic, I almost always find some leaky ducts. Usually up to 15 percent (or more) of the cool air is leaking into the attic. It’s nice being able to find those leaks and get a little cool air while I’m up there. 

Unfortunately, Mike is going around and sealing all these ducts, and Gavin is helping the homeowners with the cost. This is making it less comfortable for home inspectors or anyone else that has to go in an attic. 

I’m not really upset with them of course – they’re helping to save homeowners a lot of heating/cooling costs, and making their homes more comfortable and cleaner. Mike owns Advanced Insulation and Advantage Home Performance. Gavin is the program manager for the APS Home Performance with Energy Star Checkup program. (APS is our electricity provider.) 

This is the best program I’ve seen for checking your home for energy efficiency. Here’s how it works: You have an energy audit performed on your home. This audit would normally cost $400 or more, but with the APS program you pay only $99 because APS and Unisource (our natural gas supplier) are subsidizing the cost. You have to use a contractor approved by APS and/or Unisource, who only approve contractors certified by the Building Performance Institute. Mike is one of these contractors. 

The contractor will show up at your home with about $10,000 of 

specialized testing equipment, including a blower door (to measure house and duct leaks) and infrared cameras (to check for missing/poor insulation). They will check and evaluate your heating/cooling equipment, ducts, doors and windows, insulation, room pressures, etc. I have mentioned building science many times in this column, which includes the study of how different components and systems in a home interact. Making a home “tight” can affect gas appliances, so the audit will include combustion testing on these appliances. You will receive a written report that will tell you exactly where your energy dollars are going. You will know the costs for the improvements, and which have the best return on investment. 

Now the best part: Not only does APS pay most of your energy audit cost, it offers up to $1,000 in rebates, and Unisource offers up to another $1,350. APS has separate rebates of $250 for sealing ductwork, sealing air leaks (these are often attic leaks like light fixtures, not just doors and windows), improving insulation and shade screens. I wrote a column last year about how effective shade screens can be. APS has an additional rebate (up to $270) for replacing older, inefficient air conditioners. Unisource has rebates for insulation, air sealing, and duct sealing, and up to $550 for replacing inefficient gas furnaces. 

So, APS and Unisource will pay for most of your audit, and may give you rebates for any improvements you make. These improvements will save you energy costs, and very likely make your home more comfortable, cleaner and safer. 

Oh yeah, if that’s not enough, the energy auditor will provide up to 10 CFL light bulbs, one water-saving showerhead, and up to three sink faucet aerators. 

This is an absolute no-brainer to me. I have scheduled Mike to do an energy audit on my home, not only because my older home needs it but so I can become more familiar with the program. This is information I want to provide my clients, no matter what age home they’re buying. 

Mike’s company performs both the audits and mechanical work. Here’s a few questions I had for Mike: 

How long does the actual audit take? The audit takes 3 to 5 hours, depending on the size of the home, mechanical systems, and the complexity of the energy loss issues. 

When will I receive the audit report? It takes about five business days to get the report. 

Is it beneficial to be present when the audit is performed? More than beneficial, it’s critical for the auditor to interview the homeowner. 

Will the rebates cover replacing window air conditioners with a central air conditioner? Yes, the old window air conditioner is removed when the central air conditioner is installed. 

Why aren’t gaspacks eligible for the rebates? Gaspacks are common in our area. These are a combination furnace and air conditioner in a single unit, most often installed on the roof. Gaspacks are not eligible for the Unisource furnace rebate because they do not meet the higher efficiency requirements for heating. Many gaspacks do quality for the APS air conditioner rebate of $270. 

Unisource has rebates for some of the same improvements as APS. Can I collect from both of them? Yes! That is one of the best parts of the program. If you are an APS and Unisource customer, you can receive rebates from both companies. 

How long does it take to get the rebates? Both the Unisource and APS rebates are designed to be instantly rebated off the customer’s invoice for qualified improvements. 

These rebates are only available to APS and Unisource customers (of course), and only if you get an audit from an approved contractor. There is a list of contractors, and videos and much more information, on these websites: aps.com/checkup, uesaz/efficiency/home/gas/bright.com (Unisource), and advantagehomeperformance.pro. 

By Randy West on June 28, 2012  

 

Complications can arise at new home inspections 

In my last column I wrote about inspections on brand-new homes. I said I usually find some items that need improvement, but most are minor fixes/expenses. I received a few emails from that column, including this one: 

“I have to comment on today’s article. Hopefully, people will read your article today and understand the need for inspections on any home they buy. I have moved around a lot, and purchased new and used homes in the process. In the past, I only used home inspections for ‘used’ homes. 

“Lo and behold, about seven years ago, I sold one of the new homes I had purchased prior to even moving into the home. Yes, I had been on the job site while it was being built, and yes, I was with the developer/builder’s “home inspector” to go over the “punch list” prior to closing on the house. 

“What a surprise I got during the closing process to sell the ‘brand new, already inspected’ home to another buyer. The new buyer had the home inspected and I was handed a 47-page inspection report. The 47 pages were the problems with the house. They had nothing to do with the ‘legalisms’ within the report … those were on other pages. 

“Each page had about two or three issues, for a total of 75 issues. Yes, some very, very minor … and yes, some major like the electrician had used aluminum wiring in certain areas. It was an expensive surprise to me. Plus, I learned a lot about landscape grading from the new inspection report … costly landscape grading … I don’t think the developer/builder’s home inspector even bothered to discuss anything outside with me except to assure me that the trees and plants I was due were planted. 

“Your articles provide a great service to the people of the Prescott area.” 

I’m not really surprised at the comments in the letter. In a report on a brand-new home I have a “this new home” comment. Among other things, it states that with a brand-new home you can plan the landscaping and site drainage from the start. 

Recently I wrote about some questionable requirements for “green (energy-efficient) homes.” That did not endear me to some contractors (like the beginning of this column will). Overall, the requirements are getting better. Like any new practice or technology, there is a learning curve. Now I have read some interesting material on new air conditioners. Most of you are familiar with SEER ratings. This stands for Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio, and was devised so consumers could compare efficiency between different models of air conditioners. Kind of like comparing miles per gallon (mpg) on new cars. New air conditioners can have a SEER rating up to 25. 

Recent studies have shown that the SEER rating may not mean lower cooling bills. In fact, sometimes designing an air conditioner for a higher SEER rating (which is what consumers will look at) may actually lead to poorer actual performance. John Proctor and Gabriel Cohn of Proctor Engineering Group conducted one such study and concluded: 

“The increased in- 

stallation of high Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER) air conditioners, along with utility program rebates for these units, prompted a study of the measured performance of these systems. This project assessed the performance of these systems in the climate zones found in the mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. Similar studies in hot, dry climates have indicated that laboratory SEER ratings may not properly predict the actual impact of these systems. 

“The data were analyzed to assess the relationship between laboratory testing and real-world performance. This study found causes for concern including: actual seasonal energy efficiency ratios between 59 percent and 84 percent of the rated SEERs, constant fan operation substantially degrading seasonal efficiencies and reducing dehumidification.” 

The rest of it gets pretty technical, but you get the idea. Making an air conditioner with the highest SEER rating possible may not be the same as making the most efficient air conditioner. I can use the mpg analogy again. I owned a Prius for awhile. The car came with tires with almost no rolling resistance, which gave it a couple more mpg. But no rolling resistance equals no traction. The car wouldn’t go uphill in snow, and I had to install better tires the first winter. So designing the car for maximum mileage compromised traction and handling. 

Speaking of utility company rebates, there are some very good ones right now. My next column will cover air conditioners and rebates. I will be interviewing Mike Uniacke, owner of Advanced Insulation and Advantage Home Performance here in Prescott. 

Fact: two or three room air conditioners are usually much more efficient than central air conditioning. I was surprised at this, but there are several reasons that make sense. The most obvious is that you can limit the cooling to rooms that you’re in. You can turn off the living area air conditioner when you go to bed and turn on the bedroom air conditioner. So you’re running an 8,000 Btu air conditioner while eating and watching TV, and a 6,000 Btu air conditioner when you go to bed, instead of running a 240-volt compressor and cooling unoccupied rooms all the time. There are other reasons. You usually don’t forget to turn off a room air conditioner when leaving a room; it is easier to forget to turn up a thermostat. If the central air conditioner ducts are in the attic (like many are in our area) you are losing up to 20 percent of your cooling to the attic. Of course, room air conditioners are not as convenient as central air conditioning, and potential buyers or renters may not appreciate your “green” approach to air conditioning. 

By Randy West on June 14, 2012 

 

Inspections not just for older homes 

I was a licensed contractor before I became a home inspector. 

I spent an entire summer doing major improvements and remodeling on my sister’s home in Virginia. Her home was 100 years old at the time. Later in my building career, I specialized in remodeling old homes and some commercial buildings. One of my favorite projects was remodeling a 9,000-square-foot tobacco warehouse in Florida built during the Civil War. Later I converted many old buildings in Denver to duplexes and triplexes. But that summer, working on my sister’s house was my first experience with old homes. 

So when I went off to home inspector school in 1993, I assumed it would be a breeze. After all, not only had I built hundreds of new homes, I had completely renovated and remodeled dozens of old homes and buildings. But surprisingly, every night I would return to my motel room and think about all the mistakes I made as a builder. Of course, I did not realize they were mistakes at the time. 

One night I even called my sister in Virginia and told her that I didn’t get the flashing right around the large skylight I installed over her bathroom. She laughed and told me she knew that. The first time it rained, the skylight leaked. She called a roofing contractor, who came out and asked what moron had installed the flashing on the skylight. She replied, “My brother, a licensed contractor.” The roofer was quiet for a moment, then asked “Is he a roofing contractor?” (I was not, of course; I was a general contractor.) My sister never told me about this because she knew that overall I did good work and saved her a lot of labor costs. (Yes, she’s a great sister!) 

So why am I boring you with this? Because I am often asked why anyone would need an inspection on a brand-new home or building. As a currently successful home inspector and a recovering successful builder and remodeler, I can give you some reasons. 

Most conditions I find on new homes are very inexpensive to correct. Some are very important yet won’t cost anything to improve. About 15 years ago, I was inspecting a new home in Prescott Valley for a couple. The wife was very pleasant; the husband was not. I got the impression that the husband thought the inspection was a waste of money on a brand-new home. I got this impression when I met them at the home, and the husband’s first words were, “I don’t know why we need an inspection on a brand-new home.” I have always been unusually intuitive. 

We were walking around the home, and I used my mirror to show them the clothes dryer vent on the exterior wall near the ground. I explained it was full of stucco and the “flap” could not open. I told them this was a fire hazard, not to mention it would take hours to dry a load of wet towels. Improvement was easy: lie down on the ground and chip the stucco away. When I turned around, the husband grabbed my hand and shook it profusely. He was as nice as could be the rest of the day. I had found one thing that he realized he would not have found, and that justified my fee. 

I can give you an even better reason to inspect new buildings now. When the real estate market crashed in 2006, many contractors went bankrupt. This includes some large local builders. Many homes sat partially completed, sometimes for long periods of time. Many of these homes, including one in my neighborhood, had the waferboard roof sheathing installed but no roofing (shingles or tiles). The wood sheathing was left exposed for at least two years, and was saturated with rain and melting snow many times. 

I looked inside this home occasionally. (I didn’t go just to look, but when I walked my dogs past the home I would look in). Water leaked through all the gaps in the waferboard into the interior, so some of the interior frame walls also got wet every time it rained or snowed. The water ponded (collected) in areas on the concrete slab floor, so the bottom of some interior walls had significant moisture damage. 

I came home one day and saw roof tiles being installed on this home. They had not replaced the damaged/warping waferboard roof sheathing. I watched them complete this home, and they did not replace any of the damaged interior framing, either. 

I don’t know if the buyers of the home got a home inspection. After all, as far as they know the home is “brand-new.” They probably don’t know that most of the home is more than two years old and was soaked with rain and snow many times. The damage to the roof sheathing was extensive. If I inspected that home, I would have warned the buyers that the sheathing needs replacing. This will require removing the tile roofing, and will be a very expensive repair. Now they may find out in five years when they are selling the home and the new buyers have a home inspection. 

By Randy West on May 31, 2012 

 

40 psi is low end of water pressure range for Prescott 

I have a question this week regarding pressure regulators: 

“Mr. West, I noticed that in your article of March 16, you spoke of a water pressure regulator. A reader replied that his pressure was changed from 100 psi to 65 psi. 

“My question to you is: What is considered accepted pressure in Prescott? We have only 40 psi and was told that was the maximum we could have in this city. It takes forever to run a load of wash as water runs at a trickle. The faucet/shower water is slow. Is there no help for us? Thanks.” 

A: Forty to 60 psi is the recommended range. Most places within city limits have water pressure higher than 60 psi, which is why a pressure regulator is needed. Most of the time I see a regulator, the pressure is right at 60 psi. 

If your pressure is 40 psi, and you are not high on a hill, my first guess is you have a regulator that is defective or adjusted to 40 psi. 

The regulator is usually near the main water valve. It can be near the water meter in the yard, or near the water heater. Sometimes it is in the crawlspace under the home, if you have one. 

40 psi is not the maximum pressure you can have; in fact, it is the minimum recommended pressure. If you have a regulator, it is not difficult to adjust the water pressure to 60 psi. There are inexpensive pressure gauges that screw onto hose faucets to check your pressure. These are in the irrigation (not the plumbing) sections of hardware stores. 

Also check the screens in your washing machine hoses. These are at the ends that connect to the faucets at the wall. Often these become obstructed with sand or other fine debris. That is, after all, their job – to keep debris out of the washing machine. 

By Randy West on May 17, 2012 

 

CFLs, smart meters continue to generate debate 

It’s time to reply to a couple of replies. I had three columns about CFLs (compact fluorescent lights). The first column was actually about several “green” ideas that have had unexpected and unwanted results. These columns started quite a debate on the Prescott Courier website: 

“I usually look forward to your columns. This week you do bring up some of the startup problems with green technology that need to be addressed, although your fear of CFLs is not shared by most scientists. In fact, CFLs have reduced the amount of mercury in the environment compared to incandescent bulbs. What disturbs me though is it seems you are opposed to the concept of green technology and just suggesting ways it can be improved. Green technology is saving energy but more important, it will in time reduce greenhouse gases that are changing the climate.” 

I am not opposed to green technology. I have a few dozen CFL bulbs in my own home. I put low-flush toilets in my older home. I have a setback (programmable) thermostat. I even turn the water off while I shave and brush my teeth. I chose not to buy a reverse osmosis water filter when I found out they send up to 2 gallons of water down the drain for every gallon of filtered water they produce. Instead, I bought the best canister filter that does not waste water. 

Several (many?) years ago, I inspected a brand-new home in Williamson Valley. I was very impressed with all the features in this home, some I had not seen before. I don’t mean nice features that potential buyers would see, like granite countertops and tile floors. I mean everywhere I looked the construction workmanship was way above average. All the insulation was installed correctly (rare). All the possible air leakage areas between the home and attic were well sealed (very rare). All the furnace/air conditioner ducts in the attic were well seal/taped (unheard-of rare). 

This home had a reverse osmosis filter. But the discharge water was routed into the water heater. This water is not “dirty”; it is simply unfiltered. So putting the discharge water into the water heater instead of down the drain gives you the best of both worlds – a reverse osmosis filter that does not waste water. 

And the home had other energy efficient features: high-efficiency furnace, air conditioner and appliances, zoned heating system with setback thermostats, large south facing windows, low-e window glass, etc. I was so impressed with this home I did some research, and found it was a green home built by Yavapai College and Tony Graham, who taught energy-efficient building courses. After that, I attended many classes and seminars at which Tony was the speaker, and learned much about green homes and energy-efficient technology. 

Now that I’ve tried to redeem (or re-green) myself a little, I’ll remind you that I also wrote that in my opinion global warming is a lot of hot air (sorry). In that column I truthfully told that in the 1970s we (meaning public school pupils) were warned that mankind’s irresponsible behavior was going to create a new ice age before the end of the century. Maybe I’m just too cynical, which brings me to another letter. 

I wrote about the new “smart meters” that APS is installing. Some people are concerned about APS being able to monitor their electric usage. I said that I consider having APS come up my long driveway once a month to read a meter is a bigger invasion of privacy than having them “monitor” my electric use. Others are concerned about health effects from these meters that transmit a signal back to APS. I realize that virtually everything I like is now, or was, or will be dangerous, and/or cancer causing, and/or otherwise unhealthful, and/or illegal. Following is another response from the Daily Courier website: 

“Smart meters at best are a dumb idea and at worst might just kill you – slowly. I always wonder how someone such as the above writer (Randy West) would feel if he knew he might be promoting, with his cynical, albeit humorous, streak, potential cancer risks and death sentences resulting from the use of these devices? 

“Please educate yourself and take the necessary action to get rid of these devices, unless of course you like your and your family’s health imperiled, your privacy invaded, and your electricity bill going up. Here are some websites to get you started: BanSmartMetersArizona.com, StopSmartMeters.org, and RefuseSmartMeters.com, none of which this commentator benefits from financially by mentioning or was asked to mention. There you will receive facts and scientific data to back up the claims made.” 

Now I have to agree with the writer that I have a “cynical, albeit humorous, streak.” Actually I prefer to think I have a humorous, albeit cynical, streak. I don’t think this is a bad thing. After all, what’s the opposite of cynical? Gullible, perhaps. 

I admit that I did not check out the websites mentioned in the letter. I might have if I had been referred to the New England Journal of Medicine, Scientific American or Consumer Reports. But my cynicism was telling me that I might not get objective information from websites with names like “BanSmartMetersArizona.com,” “StopSmartMeters.org” and “RefuseSmartMeters.com.” 

I always state if something is my opinion (and everyone is entitled to my opinion). I am sitting at my desk, in front of a large computer monitor, small TV, wireless network, cellular phone, cordless home phone and multiple other electronic gadgets. In my opinion, the electric meter on the other side of an insulated exterior wall is the least of my electromagnetic worries. 

By Randy West on May 3, 2012 

 

Home inspectors can draw on experience or just go along with Sam 

The backhoe operator was at Whiskey Row a little too late last night. He was working on your street this morning and broke a main water line. The city turned off a valve in the main water line. The valve was on the other side of the break from your home. The main line between your home and the break sloped slightly downhill toward the break. So the water in the main water line started draining out of the broken pipe. This drained all the water out of your home. 

You knew you had no water pressure, but you actually had negative water pressure as the water in all the pipes in your home was “pulled out.” You were washing the car when you lost water pressure, and the end of the hose was in a puddle. So the dirty water in the hose and puddle was “pulled” into the supply lines. And the dirty water in the dishwasher was pulled into the supply lines. And one of your irrigation system zone valves was open, so the water from the irrigation line in the rear yard was pulled into your supply lines. 

When the city repaired the break and turned the water back on, you went to make your morning coffee. You didn’t realize the water coming out of your kitchen sink faucet was the same water that had been in your dishwasher, or in the puddle, or in the irrigation line buried in the rear yard. You did realize that your coffee didn’t taste right, so you added more sugar and French vanilla creamer. This killed the bad taste, but not all the bacteria that were in the “dirty” water. 

I had a column recently about anti-siphon devices. These prevent cross connections. A cross connection is any connection where “good” water is connected to potentially “bad” water. I explained that any potential cross connection needs to be protected. 

My story above would not have happened in a newer home. Hose faucets now have anti-siphon devices built in, and there are anti-siphon adapters that can easily be installed on older hose faucets. Irrigations systems are required to have an anti-siphon valve (sometimes called a “backflow valve”). And dishwashers are required to have an anti-siphon valve (on the counter by the sink; it gurgles when the dishwasher is draining), or a hi-loop in the drain line that performs the same function. 

I received quite a few emails from that column. Most were the usual “what a great guy you are.” But several questioned whether all these anti-siphon devices are really necessary. One stated that home inspectors are “fearmongers” (haven’t heard that term in a coon’s age). Another said home inspectors report on these nitpicky items to justify our existence. 

So I used that backhoe story to explain why anti-siphon devices are needed. They are like smoke detectors or GFCI outlets. You’ll probably never need them. You hope you never need them. But if the situation ever arises where you do need them, you’re darn glad you have them. 

I inspected a 30-year-old home recently. The seller, who I’ll call Sam (not his real name), was not happy with me because I had found some things wrong with his home. To summarize (and save the editor some time by leaving out some of Sam’s more colorful adjectives about me, my profession and my immediate family), Sam stated that a lot of my report was personal opinion. Sam said that home inspectors should keep their opinions to themselves, and we should only be allowed to report on “code” items (Sam claimed he was an architect). And only current code, because some of the things I reported on were “grandfathered in.” By that Sam meant these items were in compliance with the code when the home was built. 

I would have chuckled when I read this, except Sam put these comments in an addendum to the purchase agreement. So my client and the real estate agents saw them. I felt compelled to reply. Sam concluded his comments by stating that I “would have to agree” with him. So my reply started by saying that I don’t have to agree with him. I could if I wanted, but then we would both be wrong. 

Someone hires a home inspector because they want our opinion. Our knowledge, experience and opinions are our “stock in trade.” You want our opinion on the site drainage (will the crawlspace flood every time it rains?) … on the condition of the roof (will you need to replace it in less than five years?) … on the furnace (is it large enough; is it old?) … on the plumbing (polybutylene piping, cross connections?). 

Sarcasm is an additional service that I offer (for no additional fee). In my reply, I said suppose I inspect a home and find the following conditions: The deck is 30 feet over the rear yard and kids can easily crawl through the rail openings. There are softball-sized holes in most of the interior walls and doors. There are cigarette burns on all the counters and floor coverings, except in the rooms where the floor coverings are missing. There are no screens on any opening windows. There is mold growing out of the wall behind the clothes washer. 

According to Sam’s inspection parameters, I would not be allowed to report on any of these conditions. These are either not code issues, or “grandfathered” in. What would a client think if they paid hundreds of dollars for a home inspection, and none of these items were noted in the report? I can hear the home inspector now: “Well, according to Sam….” 

By Randy West on April 19, 2012 

 

Dealing with outrageous people a hazard of being a home inspector 

I told this story to a couple of people who suggested I put it in my column, so here is my new dog story. 

I was inspecting a home in Prescott Valley a while ago. There were three large dogs in the rear neighbor’s backyard, next to this backyard (but behind a fence). And the dogs would not stop barking. 

Now let me assure you that I am a dog-lover. We have always had multiple dogs. We raised German shepherds when we lived in the mountains in Colorado, and now we have ankle-biters. I am also aware of a dog’s job description: eat, sleep, play, repeat, and bark at strangers. So I do not get annoyed at dogs barking for a few minutes when they first see me in the yard next door. 

But after an hour of nonstop barking I was ready to scream “Shut up!” at the top of my lungs. What really annoyed me is I thought I saw someone in the home with the barking dogs, and wondered why they did not bring the dogs inside, or at least come out and calm them down. 

About this time, a car pulls into the driveway of the home I’m inspecting. A gentleman gets out and asks me how much longer I’ll be at the home. It was a vacant home, and I wasn’t sure why he needed to know, but I told him at least a couple more hours. He asked if I could hurry. I asked him why, thinking that maybe they were planning on installing carpeting or painting the interior or some other task that they wanted the home inspector out of the way. 

The man replied that the barking dogs were beginning to annoy him, and could I please hurry. I told him the dogs were not beginning to annoy me – they had been more than annoying me for almost an hour. Then I explained that I could not hurry. If I hurry in my job, I am more likely to miss something. I suggested he drive over to the barking dog house and see if anyone was home. He replied he did not have to do that, because that was his house. 

There are not many times in my life that I have been absolutely speechless. But this was one of them. It took me several moments to make sure I understood the situation. Then I asked if he was really over here complaining to me about his dogs barking. 

He said yes, and that they wouldn’t be barking if I wasn’t in the yard over here. I was speechless for another few moments, then managed to ask in a very low, normal voice, “Why don’t you take the dogs inside?” He replied that the dogs are never allowed in the home. I thought about this for a second and said, “It’s a darn shame that dogs can’t pick their humans, because I guarantee if they could, there would not be any dogs in your backyard. I am no longer angry at the dogs. I now feel sorry for them. I am, however, angry at you. Please go away from me.” 

And here’s another story that has absolutely nothing to do with home inspectors or dogs. But it does have something to do with being speechless. 

My wife and I bought our first new car in Denver. We lived up in the mountains. This was where we raised German shepherds, and we had about a half-acre fenced off in the forest behind our home for the dogs. It was Saturday, and our two young sons were doing their Saturday chore of poop patrol in the fenced-in area. 

Our garage faced the front on the lower level, but you could drive around to the rear of the home and be on the upper level (there are many homes in the Prescott area like this). So we drove our first-ever, brand-new car home and parked at the rear to bring in some groceries we had bought. We put the groceries away, and were both standing at the kitchen sink window holding hands and admiring our new car. All of a sudden, a good-sized rock comes flying out of the woods and lands on the hood, right in front of the steering wheel. Even from inside the home we could see a sizable dent. We were both absolutely speechless. 

It took a second to realize the rock came from the dog pen where the boys were working. Then we both ran outside and started yelling. I never spanked my kids for “accidents” – that was saved for felonies like insubordination. But I’m sure I wanted to. 

After we (the parents, not the kids) cooled down, I kind of chuckled. I told my kids if they had put a dent in the right rear corner, it would be bad. But this was much worse, because every time I sat behind the steering wheel that dent was right in front of me. 

I don’t know if the kids learned anything from that experience, but I did. I learned that when it comes to new vehicles, the first dent is the hardest. So every time I buy a new vehicle I drive it home, grab a small hammer, and put a dent it in it somewhere so I won’t have to worry about that first dent. (But not in the hood!) 

By Randy West on April 5, 2012 

 

High water pressure can get you in hot water 

Dear Randy: 

Our home and hot water tank are 10 years old. This week the recirculating hot water pump died. The plumber who replaced the pump recommended that we think about replacing the hot water tank now before it dies on a Sunday morning. Also, the expansion tank was full of water (he said it should not have water in it) and he removed it and capped the connection. He left the expansion tank with me. 

The tank is a Rheem 50 gallon, model number 41V50. 

Should we replace it now while we can shop and compare, or wait for a Sunday morning? 

Thanks, Jim 

A: In my inspection reports, I give the average life for water heaters (and furnaces, roofing, etc.). I give water heaters 15 to 20 years. This is because I see 15- to 20-year-old water heaters all the time. Electric water heaters seem to last a little longer. 

That is not to say some units can’t fail early. I sometimes see brand-new water heaters in 10-year-old homes. I assume some of these may have been replaced because the owners wanted a larger water heater. My wife drains a 40-gallon gas water heater with every shower. But I’m sure some were installed because the original water heater failed. 

The model number you gave me is for a gas water heater. Rheem is a good brand. Here is what I look for: excessive rust in the burn chamber and/or on the supply lines over the water heater, and of course water stains on the unit or floor indicating a leak. 

Other indications of problems are hard to detect in a home inspection. Is the water much hotter or colder on occasion? Some variance is normal on gas units; you may be catching it at the very hottest (burner just turned off) or least hot (burner just turned on). But if the water is much hotter or cooler on occasion, the gas control can be faltering. These are so expensive now, it’s better to just replace an older water heater (a new water heater will come with a new gas control). 

I am kind of surprised your hwc (hot water circulator) pump went out. I don’t give a life expectancy for these in my report; I only give life expectancies for high-dollar items. But I have seen many of these last 20-plus years. I have also seen them go out when they are in garages and the water or power has been turned off, allowing them to freeze – or if they are operated with no water (from the water supply being turned off or the shutoff valve near the hwc pump being closed). 

Expansion tanks usually have a longer life cycle than yours, too. I’m surprised the plumber removed and capped the expansion tank. This is not a major safety concern, but the expansion tank does have a useful function. 

Both these components failing can suggest a problem with the water heater itself, e.g., a faulty gas control (water too hot), or that your water pressure is too high. Having the thermostat on maximum could also affect the durability of an hwc pump and/or expansion tank, although the tank should be on the cold water line. (There are tanks made for installation on the hot water, but I’ve only seen these a couple times in single family homes). 

So, if there are no leaks, no excessive rust visible, and no “mood swings” in the hot water temperature, I would not recommend replacing a 10-year-old water heater. You should have five years left and could have more. Disclaimer: I did not visually inspect your home and water heater. The plumber may have seen other indications of failure that I am not aware of. I don’t know the location of your water heater. If your water heater is in the laundry room, with no catch pan (typical in our area), and you just installed $50,000 of solid mahogany wood flooring, you should consider replacing the water heater (and installing a catch pan). 

I hope this helps you. I may use this question and answer in a future column. (I don’t put your full name or address in the column.) 

Jim replied: The expansion tank is on the cold side (just checked). The plumber said it was doing no good to keep it on full of water. He removed it and capped it because he didn’t have one with him and, since we discussed that we might replace the hot water tank, he said he would put a new expansion tank on as part of the replacement of the heater. My wife wants extremely hot water. So the thermostat control is usually set just below “HOT”! Also, our water pressure was very high. The plumber (from an established company here in Prescott) checked the pressure and it was over 100 psi. He showed me when he attached the gauge and turned on the water. He installed a pressure regulator and set it at 65 psi. 

The circulator pump was definitely bad, as indicated by water on the garage floor. Luckily, I must have caught it right after it happened, because it had just started to form a puddle on the concrete by the water heater. And now that you mention it, we have had work done over the years and I know the plumbers didn’t always unplug the circulator pump when they turned off the water. 

As for the hot water tank, we don’t get major water temperature swings. Just the usual that you described due to the gas cycling on and off. No leaks and no rust. Just set very high. 

Perhaps I will just have a new expansion tank installed. Thanks again.-Jim 

By Randy West on March 15, 2012 

 

Some CCRs defy common sense 

Some neighborhoods have covenants, conditions and restrictions. These are rules for the neighborhood and are commonly called the CCRs. Some people prefer neighborhoods with CCRs, because they can keep a neighborhood “nice.” For example, they may prohibit junk cars in the front yard or painting your fence purple. 

In my opinion, sometimes the CCRs get a little silly. A few years ago I wrote about a neighbor complaining to me when I was inspecting a vacant home. I had parked in the garage and left the overhead door open. Apparently in that neighborhood you can only leave your overhead door open for 20 minutes. 

Last week I was inspecting a home and saw a neighborhood newsletter on the counter. The newsletter reminded residents that they could not have any outside lights on after 11 p.m., and could not have motion-detector exterior lights. To me this is not silly; it is potentially unsafe. What if you have 10 steps up to your front door? I guess you need a flashlight if you come or go after 11. But what if you are a single woman who works until after 11? What if you have a teenage daughter who works until after 11? What if you have out of-town guests arriving after 11? Or most important, what if you are having a pizza delivered after 11? I would want an exterior light on for any of these. 

*** 

I received several emails recently claiming they are from the Better Business Bureau and a complaint has been filed against me. I am very skeptical about any such emails, so I called the BBB. I asked Mary Hawkes in the local BBB office how to tell if an email is really from the BBB. Here is her email to me: 

“Dear Mr. West: Thank you for your time on the phone this afternoon and the opportunity to share information with you about the BBB Dispute Resolution process as well as the current phishing scam email claiming it is from the Better Business Bureau. 

“I am attaching a copy of the Dec. 7, 2011, news release that BBB disseminated regarding the phishing scam using the BBB’s name. 

“After we talked, I did clarify with the manager of our dispute resolution department the exact verbiage for the subject line should a business receive a BBB complaint. If a business’ primary location is in Apache, Coconino, Gila, La Paz, Maricopa, Mohave, Navajo, Pinal, Yavapai or Yuma counties in Arizona, the complaint would be processed by our Better Business Bureau of Central, Northern and Western Arizona (main office in Phoenix). If the complaint notification is sent to a business via email from the BBB of Central, Northern and Western Arizona, the subject line would generally be: ‘You have a new message from the BBB, Complaint #—‘ (The complaint number is filled in.) The email would be from complaints@phoenix.bbb.org. 

“Should you have any other questions, please do not hesitate to contact me. I am more than happy to assist you.” 

Here is the press release she referred to: 

“Better Business Bureau (BBB) is issuing an urgent scam alert cautioning businesses and consumers about an email that looks like it is from BBB, with the subject line ‘Complaint from your customers.’ This email is fraudulent; ignore its contents and delete it immediately. If you have already clicked on a link in the email, run a full virus scan on your computer. 

“The return email addresses include alert@bbb.org, service@bbb.org, risk@bbb.org, manager@bbb.org, info@bbb.org, risk.manager@bbb.org, and possibly others. The email is signed with the address of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, the national office of the BBB system. The email contains a link to a non-BBB website. Do NOT click on the link. 

“Should you receive such email, please disregard its message and forward the email to phishing@council.bbb.org, and then delete it. BBB is working with law enforcement to determine its source and stop the fraudulent campaign.” 

By Randy West on March 1, 2012 

 

Continuing Fluorescent Litany, part 3: How to dispose of CFL bulbs 

Some of you may remember this. In early 2009, I wrote a column about hot water circulator pumps. I had a lot of feedback and emails from that column, including some great ideas, and my next three columns were about these pumps. It was kind of cool getting “thank you” emails when all I did was print the advice and ideas I’d received from you. 

My last two columns were about compact fluorescent lights, or CFLs. I’ve received even more feedback and emails on these columns. So this is my third column about CFL bulbs. 

My previous columns mentioned the mercury hazard should one of these bulbs break, and the proper precautions to take when cleaning up a broken bulb. This included not throwing the bulbs away with your other garbage. I voiced concern about how many people will throw CFL bulbs in their trash, and what could happen to our landfills in five or 10 years. I received emails from people who had unknowingly put these bulbs in their trash, and from “experts” who were also concerned about our landfills. (To me, an “expert” is anyone who knows more about a subject than me. So, according to the last census, there are just over 308,000,000 experts in our country.) 

The most common question I received was, “How do I dispose of CFL bulbs?” I know I should save this for the end of the column to make you read everything, but I will tell you now before you lose interest. Lowe’s and Home Depot will take them. The recycle bins are near the service counters in both stores. I called several other hardware (and other) stores, but could not find anywhere else that will take them. I did not ask what happens to the bulbs we drop off at these stores, I’m just trusting they don’t end up in landfills. 

One of the emails I printed in my last column was from Daniel, who got mercury poisoning 50 years ago. Daniel stated, “I will never forget what our doctor told me: I would have to remain especially alert to avoid mercury exposure the rest of my life, because mercury never leaves your body.” 

I received this email last week. The writer infers it was I who received mercury poisoning, but I’m not that old and it was actually Daniel. 

“Your recent fervor on CFLs overlooked the reality outside the realm of government misinformation. Without addressing the politics of government on CFLs, I wish to share information on two important health factors related to your articles. 

“First, we are required to buy and use CFLs that are unhealthy. The standard fluorescent emits harmful light (+/- 2700 deg. K) in that it causes irritation, anxiety, migraines and a multitude of neurological afflictions. Whether measuring in lumens or degrees Kelvin, for artificial light to be healthy and productive it must operate closer to the full spectrum of light (sunshine). This healthy range is over 5,000 degrees Kelvin. The amount of misinformation is overwhelming but ignored by the government. It is all about making money and control for individual power and nothing about the citizens’ health. 

“The second comment is about your ‘litany’ of responses on the mercury dangers. You were absolutely correct in addressing it, but you must also be unaware of the scope of mercury in manufacturing, processing, and food sources. Since your childhood accident with mercury, as to being unable to remove it, has changed and resolved. Heavy metals can and must be detoxified (removed) from the body. I have attached one of hundreds of qualified tests and professionals to rid the body of heavy metals, including dental amalgams. 

“Your articles have been great helping deal with the overwhelming marketing information lacking in public health. With the Green movement going so aggressively to sell poison, the environment will be terrific. The only problem is there will not be any people to enjoy it. Green is not synonymous with ‘safe.’ Green does NOT mean it is humanly safe. 

“Thanks for all your great articles and public awareness. It shows someone is reading them. 

“Have another great day, Kirby” I love it: “… the environment will be terrific. The only problem is there will not be any people to enjoy it.” 

I admit that I had not heard of the Kelvin/Lumens concerns with CFL bulbs. But I found lively debates about this among some of the 308,000,000 million experts (some really were experts; at least they had Ph.D. and a bunch of other letters behind their names). This is from the Scientific American website: 

“Another consideration is color temperature (measured in degrees “Kelvin”). CFLs rated at 2,700 Kelvin give off light in the more pleasing red/yellow end of the color spectrum, closer to that of most incandescents. Bulbs rated at 5,000 Kelvin and above (usually older ones) give off a less pleasing white/blue light.” 

And from the Seattle.gov website: 

“Too white – CFLs now come in a variety of colors from ‘warm white’ and ‘soft white’ (2700k – 3000K) that match regular incandescent bulbs to ‘daylight,’ ‘bright white’ or ‘sunlight’ (3500K – 5500K), which are very white or almost sky blue. For a warmer color light, look for a lower Kelvin (or K) temperature in the range of 2700K – 3000K. The lower the number, the yellower the light. For a brighter color, look for a higher Kelvin (or K) temperature in the range of 3500K – 5500K. The higher the number the whiter the light.” 

There are claims that the Kelvin temperature, “flickering” and “radiation” from CFL bulbs can cause headaches, nausea, paper cuts, divorce and almost uncontrollable urges to buy a Prius. I’m still looking for experts to confirm some of these claims. 

By Randy West on February 16, 2012 

 

Continuing fluorescent litany, or CFL part 2 

Last time I wrote about the potential hazard of mercury in compact fluorescent bulbs, or CFLs. I can’t believe the response from that column. I had at least a dozen phone calls and a few dozen emails – I had to make a CFL folder for all the emails. Most were saying they were unaware of the hazards from a broken CFL bulb. Some were agreeing with me that the government should not be telling us what kind of light bulbs we can use. And a few told me that mercury poisoning is pretty serious. Here’s a sampling: 

From Karen: “Thanks for the great article on CFLs. I read a similar article quite awhile ago and have been concerned about using them because of the potential hazards. The article I read suggested ripping out the carpet if one broke on it, and made it sound like the average homeowner should just evacuate and call a hazmat squad. What is the purpose of forcing people to use such hazardous lights other than to line someone’s pockets? Both children and pets are certainly at risk if there is an accident. And how would one know if you are buying or renting a house whether it could pose a hazard from a previous resident improperly disposing of a broken CFL? Will homes need warnings/disclaimers like we now have for lead paint? 

“When we are all forced to buy CFLs unless we want to go back to candlelight, will there be special instructions for disposal of burnt-out CFLs? Or will people just pitch them in the trash because they don’t know the hazard of broken CFLs? Won’t our landfills then be polluted with mercury as well? I don’t think the city has given any thought to this subject so far.” 

From Richard: “Here is the real story: The EPA was (and still is) on a politically correct energy/global warming campaign. Companies wanted to make a better profit margin on their florescent bulbs versus tungsten filament bulbs (the margins on these bulbs is miniscule), so they lobbied to get support to mandate the use of these CFL bulbs, plus wove the energy saving story line into “responsible corporate citizen” advertising to counter the negative press and enhance their overall brand name. The same energy saving advertising spin has been used to improve the image of the “bad, polluting” utility companies. 

“What will happen next is other branches in EPA, plus environmental activists groups (great angle for boosting contributions), will start to raise the alarm of mercury in landfills etc., and then the same corporate guys will next lobby for LED technology and boost their profits even more. 

“I think it will take about five years or more, but could happen very quickly if some activist group raises hell much sooner with some study. These CFL bulbs have a long use life so it will take time for a critical mass to enter the landfills. And instituting a massive recycling/deposit system across the country will not be doable without a major issue to justify it first (Catch 22). By having CFL bulbs mandated, then the companies can claim innocence and not get sucked into lawsuits to clean up landfills or be drawn into other health issues. And it is tough to sue the government. The perfect symbiotic relationship. 

“Follow the money. Watch and see.” 

From Daniel: “I enjoy reading your column every week, but especially the last couple of weeks when you’ve been discussing CFL bulbs. I have been buying and installing these bulbs for the last two or three years (usually when the incandescent bulb burns out). In all this time, I have never read a warning label on the packaging containing this product. Certainly not the long and somewhat involved instructions contained in your recent column. Absolutely nothing except for a bold warning that ‘this product contains mercury.’ 

“I am particularly concerned by that brief warning because I suffered mercury poisoning when I was 13 years old. I was in my friend’s home when his 10-year-old brother decided to break a thermometer and heat the mercury on a Bunsen burner that he had received for Christmas. Needless to say, we all got very sick and my friend’s family had to spend several days in the hospital. I didn’t receive as heavy a dose and was treated and released. I will never forget what our doctor told me: I would have to remain especially alert to avoid mercury exposure the rest of my life because mercury never leaves your body. That was 50 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. 

“Well, fortunately, I have never had one of these bulbs break, but I have had to replace two of them – in spite of hearing that they last for years and years. And, I have no idea on how to properly dispose of them. You didn’t mention this in your column, but do you know? Without any instructions on the packaging, I just threw them in the trash, being careful, of course, to not break them before they get in the trash truck. Obviously, they are now in the land-fill, but I am somewhat feeling guilty for not disposing of them in a proper fashion. But again, if they are this hazardous, shouldn’t the packaging contain proper instructions? 

“I would appreciate an answer when you get a chance. And I really appreciate the information you provide in your column.” 

The nice thing about writing a column that generates a lot of response is that I don’t have much writing to do in my next columns. I have a couple more interesting emails, and some questions to answer, so I will have one more column on this next time. 

By Randy West on February 2, 2012 

 

EPA agrees: CFL bulbs can be hazardous 

Recently I wrote about compact fluorescent lightbulbs, commonly called CFLs. I mentioned there is mercury in them and they can pose a hazard if broken and require special disposal. I also offered my opinion of the government forcing everyone to use them. 

I was surprised by the emails I received from that column. A couple of people told me I was an alarmist and should not use CFLs as a reason to gripe about the government (as if I need CFLs for a reason!). A few people told me the potential hazards from a broken CFL bulb can be serious. But most said they did not realize there was a safety concern with a broken CFL bulb, other than the broken glass. 

I am not trying to be an alarmist. I have CFL bulbs in my own home, including in five ceiling fans with four bulbs each. But I was a little surprised when I researched the potential hazards of CFL bulbs. The following is from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website regarding what to do if a CFL bulb breaks: 

Before cleanup 

During cleanup 

After Cleanup 

The main department of Environmental Protection conducted a study in 2007 in which staff intentionally broke 45 CFL bulbs. I did not copy the paragraphs explaining the exact testing procedures or the actual amounts of mercury found on the floor or in the air (it was pretty technical). One thing staff found was mercury levels were much less at the 5-foot height (off the floor) than at the 1-foot height. The “MAAG” they refer to is the Maine Ambient Air Guidelines, which establishes maximum safe levels of mercury in the air. 

“Although following the pre-study cleanup guidance produces visibly clean flooring surfaces for both wood and carpets (shag and short-napped), all types of flooring surfaces tested can retain mercury sources even when visibly clean. Flooring surfaces that still contain mercury sources emit more mercury when agitated than when not agitated. This mercury source in the carpeting has particular significance for children rolling around on a floor, babies crawling, or non-mobile infants placed on the floor. 

“Cleaning up a broken CFL by vacuuming up the smaller debris particles in an un-vented room can elevate mercury concentrations over the MAAG in the room, and it can linger at these levels for hours. Vacuuming tends to mix the air within the room such that the 1-foot and 5-foot heights are similar immediately after vacuuming. A vacuum can become contaminated by mercury to the extent that it cannot be easily decontaminated. Vacuuming a carpet where a lamp has broken and been visibly cleaned up, even weeks after the cleanup, can elevate the mercury readings over the MAAG in an un-vented room. 

“Some container types were found to be better than others for containing mercury emissions from breakage. Of the containers tested, a glass jar with a metal cover and gum seal contained the mercury vapor best. Double re-sealable polyethylene bags, on the other hand, did not appear to retard the migration of mercury adequately to maintain room air concentrations below the MAAG. Other containers fell somewhere in the middle between the glass and double re-sealable polyethylene bags for retarding mercury vapor migration. 

The significance of this issue is that cleanup material may remain in the home for some period of time and/or be transported inside a closed vehicle, exposing occupants to avoidable mercury vapors when improperly contained. 

“The decision on whether or not to remove carpet where there was a broken lamp may depend on a number of factors including the location of the carpet (e.g. where a child plays or where the carpet is frequently agitated), the occupants of the household, or possibly the type of lamp broken. Finally, it is unclear what the exact health risks are from exposure to low levels of elemental mercury, especially for sensitive populations, so advising for the careful handling and thoughtful placement of CFLs may be important.” 

I dedicated an entire column to this because I am very concerned about the number of people that may have no idea of the potential hazards of CFL bulbs, or of the proper cleaning methods. I was aware there is mercury in CFL bulbs but was not aware of the potential hazards (mercury vapor, and plastic bags won’t contain this vapor). I was also unaware of the cleaning procedures (open windows, turn off the furnace, and no vacuum). I am still using CFL bulbs, but I will be much more careful handling them. 

By Randy West on January 19, 2012 

 


Some red flags on green technology 

Green technologies always have some disadvantages that cannot be anticipated (or are anticipated but ignored). 

The biggest example is compact florescent lights, or CFLs, that our government is forcing us to buy. Many scientists were begging the government to wait a few years for LED lights to come down in price. The biggest reason is CFLs have mercury in them that can spill out if the bulb is broken, posing a health hazard. The mercury content means these bulbs have to be disposed of at special places, but you know people will just throw them in their garbage. LED lights have several advantages: no mercury to pose hazards or contaminate our landfills; no hazards if the bulb is broken (other than broken glass, of course); LED lights last longer than CFLs and use less energy; they are instantly bright (CFLs are not); they can be used with dimmer switches (most CFLs cannot); and they are not affected by frequent on/off cycles or cold weather like CFLs. 

So it’s pretty obvious to me that LED lights are much better than CFLs. Unfortunately, they are still pricey, but they are coming down in cost and will continue to as more are manufactured. 

So why did Uncle Sam outlaw incandescent bulbs now, instead of waiting a few years until LED lights became affordable. That’s easy – just follow the money trail and see who made beaucoup cash off this legislation (I won’t mention any names, but the initials Al Gore come to mind). 

Fortunately, the deadline to switch over to CFLs has been pushed back to October 2012; we’ll see what happens in the meantime. 

We have all heard about “green” homes. Many have heard of the LEED rating system (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, by the U.S. Green Building Council or USGBC). There is a class action lawsuit against the USGBC, alleging that their claims of energy efficiency are incorrect. The lawsuit claims that often “green” buildings use more energy rather than less. The claim is the LEED rating system give “points” on a building design, but not on performance. I have referred to “building science” many times in my columns. This is the study of how all systems in a home (heating, ventilation, etc.) interact with each other. Making a home “green” will affect all the systems in a home. You can get “points” for making a home more weather-tight, but this can adversely affect gas appliances and indoor air quality. 

Another popular program is “Energy Star” from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A home built to these standards can earn the Energy Star rating. Again, there is evidence that Energy Star requirements can increase energy costs. There is also evidence that homes built to Energy Star requirements can have indoor humidity, moisture, and air quality problems. There is mounting data chronicling poor performance and early failure of heating and cooling systems. 

The EPA has acknowledged some of these concerns. The “Version 3” of the Energy Star program released this year requires pressure balancing, humidity control, third-party verification of the heating/cooling system, and documentation for the heating/cooling calculations. Experts are predicting that some builders will drop out of the Energy Star program when the more stringent Version 3 requirements take effect in 2012. 

And, of course, there are the problems that we find with all government programs. The following is quoted from Wikipedia: 

“On Dec. 17, 2008, the EPA Office of the Inspector General released its report on the Energy Star program. The inspector general’s audit found that the program claims regarding greenhouse gas reductions were inaccurate and based on faulty data. Additionally, the IG found that Energy Star program’s reported energy savings were unreliable, and that many of the touted benefits could not be verified. Deficiencies included the lack of a quality review of the data collected, reliance on estimates, forecasting, and unverified third-party reporting, and the potential inclusion of exported items, the report concluded. 

“Additionally, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, Consumer Reports, and the trade website ApplianceAdvisor.com have released statements claiming “that Energy Star test procedures contained loopholes that allow many inefficient products to receive Energy Star labels.” 

In this paper there was an article in the Nov. 17 edition regarding the new energy code. Yavapai County does not want to adopt it because it’s unreasonable. The cited example was requiring R-49 attic insulation. This is almost impossible to attain with current building standards, and would be absolutely impossible in many remodels. I’ll have more on that in a future column. 

Now let’s talk about low-e windows. Last year I wrote about low-e windows damaging vinyl siding on adjacent buildings. Low-e windows have a transparent metallic film that reflects the infrared from the sun, thus letting light in but not heat. The occurrences of window-related damaged vinyl siding is increasing in direct proportion to the higher percentage of low-e windows being sold and installed. There is much more evidence since I wrote that column. There are even videos on YouTube showing damaged vinyl siding. 

A hotel in Las Vegas that we will not name here has a concave tower. The light reflecting off this tower is concentrated, and has burned people lying by the pool area. The ray is so strong it has melted plastic bags and cups. Some hotel employees refer to this as a “death ray.” The owners were warned about this before the hotel was built. There is documentation that architects and contractors both warned of this possibility, but the owners ignored their recommendations (some were for better coating on the windows, which, of course, would have been more expensive). There have not been any report of serious personal injuries. Yet. 

Their solution: installing umbrellas by the pool and putting up signs recommending the use of sun block. 

By the way, the hotel is a LEED-certified building. 

By Randy West on December 22, 2011 

 

With specialized services, you get what you pay for 

I had to go to a meeting in Phoenix last Wednesday. After I lost the Prescott radio stations, I found a Phoenix AM station with a real estate talk show. Every commercial break (and there seemed to be a lot of them) played the same five ads. One of these ads was for a home inspection company, and the ad was two ladies talking to each other. I cannot quote it exactly, and I changed the name of the company, but here’s the gist of it: 

Lady 1: “I just bought a house, and they want over $300 for a home inspection.” 

Lady 2: “That’s unbelievable! They’re charging way too much. I got a home inspection from ABC Inspections, and it was only $180!” 

They go on to say that ABC Inspections is “licensed and insured.” But I have to wonder why anyone would call a home inspection company whose claim to fame is cheap prices. 

In retail, the lowest price is a good thing. If I want to buy a brand new Makita model xyz drill or Ferrari Testerosa, I will try to find the lowest price. I’m getting the identical product no matter where I buy it. (I have bought new drills before; the Ferrari falls into the “want to buy” category.) 

We have all had to “shop” for professional service providers before: an inspector, mechanic, attorney, doctor, etc. For these people, their “stock in trade” is their education, knowledge and experience. If I was looking for a doctor (or accountant, etc.) and one advertised “20 years’ experience” and another advertised “my fee is 40 percent less than his,” I know which one I would choose! 

Why is that accountant’s fee 40 percent less? I would have to guess maybe he or she is brand-new and needs clients. Or maybe he or she is playing the “numbers” game – “I’ll make more money doing a halfway job for a whole bunch of people than I’ll make doing a really good job for fewer people.” But whether it’s a plumber or a brain surgeon, I believe that you get what you pay for, and you cannot possibly get the same level of service for 40 percent less money. 

There are times when what you are buying is half product and half service – for example, a new roof. All roofing contractors will provide new shingles that are likely similar quality. But in this case, the installation is more important than the product. Most roof leaks occur from improper installation, not from defective products. In fact, an improper installation can void the shingle manufacturer’s warranty. So when I need a new roof, I call a company I know does quality work. I don’t even call the budget company (if there is one) to compare prices. For something this important, I want to pay a little more for quality workmanship and my own peace of mind. And if something does go wrong, I can tell my wife I hired the best roofer I know, not the cheapest. 

Here is a letter I recently received and my answer (the writer refers to a 2009 column he found on dCourier.com). 

“Hi Randy: I just read your Sept. 24, 2009, column entitled ‘Blurring the definition of bedroom,’ and I have an interesting question for you: What defines ‘living space’ for purposes of requiring an egress window per building codes? 

“For example, would a basement panic room or bomb-shelter style accommodations be considered living space and, therefore, require an egress window? Since this style of room is, by definition, sealed off from the rest of the house, requiring an egress window would breech the security of the room, defeating its entire purpose. An interesting conundrum.” 

My reply: “The only rooms that require ‘egress’ windows (technically ‘ingress’ windows) are sleeping rooms. Other livable or habitable rooms should have 8 percent of the floor area in natural light and 4 percent of the floor area in natural ventilation. That used to be 10 percent and 5 percent before the International Building Code in 2000. Skylights and roof windows can be used for the natural light and ventilation requirement. 

“Many jurisdictions overlook this, especially back east where there are more completely interior rooms. 

“I always report on lack of or improper egress in bedrooms. I will comment on insufficient light or ventilation in other habitable rooms, but I don’t make a big deal about it. I have heard that in some areas appraisers may not count a room in their square footage calculations if it does not meet their definition of ‘habitable.’ 

“You are correct – if I saw a bomb shelter or panic room, I would not comment on a lack of natural light or ventilation, since that would defeat the whole purpose of the room.” 

There are certain requirements for a room to be considered a bedroom (technically a “sleeping room”). An egress window, as mentioned above, must have a minimum opening of 20 inches wide by 24 inches tall (so a fireman with a helmet and tank can fit through), be less than 44 inches off the interior floor, and be on an exterior wall (not into a porch or patio). A bedroom cannot be a “thoroughfare,” e.g., the only way to access other parts of the home. A bedroom cannot have a door directly into an attached garage, and there cannot be a gas appliance (water heater or furnace) in a bedroom closet (the garage and gas appliances can be carbon monoxide concerns). And, of course, there needs to be a clothes closet. 

By Randy West on December 8, 2011 

 

Remove hoses to avoid frozen faucets 

This week I’m going to talk about anti-siphon devices. But with cold weather here, first I’m going to talk about hose faucets for a minute. 

Most hose faucets in our area are freeze-resistant. The most common type has a long stem on the handle, so the valve itself is actually 8 or 10 inches inside the wall. When you close the faucet, water will drip out for a short time. This drains the pipe up to the valve so it cannot freeze. 

One thing I find frequently with these type faucets is someone closed it so tightly I need a 24-inch pipe wrench to open it. The first few times I found this, I assumed the same person that installs “hand-tighten-only” oil filters on cars shut off the faucet. I met that person once. He was 5-feet-4-inches tall and weighed 450 pounds. He “hand-tightened” the oil filter until the whole car rotated a 1/4 turn. 

Now I assume someone turned off the faucet, saw the water was still dripping, so kept closing the faucet tighter and tighter. This is not necessary. Close the faucet and stand back for half a minute and the water will stop dripping. 

It is important to remove hoses and adapters from these faucets during freezing weather. Hoses or adapters will prevent the line from draining once the valve is closed. This could allow the faucet to freeze, and you’d need to cut a hole in the exterior siding or interior drywall to replace these faucets. 

*** 

I have had several questions recently about anti-siphon devices. These will prevent cross connections. The Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors defines cross connections as any physical connection or arrangement between potable water and any source of contamination. 

Most homes within city limits are connected to a city/public water supply. If you lose pressure from the city, water could be drawn back into the water supply. So imagine you’re washing your car. You have a hose connected to the faucet, and the end of the hose is in a bucket of dirty water. If you lose water pressure for some reason, water from the bucket could actually be drawn back into the water supply. This can really affect the taste of your coffee or lemonade. 

An anti-siphon device will prevent this. Newer hose faucets have such a device built in. On the most common faucet, this is a green plastic cap on top of the faucet. If you have an older home with faucets that don’t have this feature, there are anti-siphon devices that you can screw on to the hose faucet. These have a set screw to hold them in place, and your hose connects to the anti-siphon device. 

Irrigation systems often have a main water valve/connection near the water meter. If the city water supply loses pressure, water could be drawn back into their supply. Therefore, irrigation systems on homes in city limits are required to have a backflow valve. This is usually installed near the water meter or near an exterior wall of the home. Without this backflow valve, you could contaminate the entire neighborhood’s coffee instead of just your own. 

There are other places where cross connections are possible. A dishwasher drain line is required to have an anti-siphon device. There are two ways to do this. One is an anti-siphon device that sits on the sink top near the sink. You’ve likely seen these – they may gurgle when the dishwasher is operating. Another method is to install a high-loop in the dishwasher drain line. Under the sink, the dishwasher drain line is “looped” higher than the bottom of the sink and secured to the cabinet. This is perfectly legal, and performs the same function as the anti-siphon device. 

The spigots at bathtubs and sinks have to be above the overflow drain in the fixture. Sometimes large sinks, like those found in garages or laundry rooms, will have a spigot with a hose faucet fitting. Many municipalities do not allow these faucets because it would be easy to leave a hose connected and submerged. 

Even toilets can have a cross connection. The fill valve in the tank needs to be above the water line, and the small fill line for the bowl should be above the overflow tube (not in it). There are fill valves available that are completely submerged. These do not meet the anti-siphon requirement. 

All these anti-siphon devices may seem unimportant (or just something else for a home inspector to nitpick about), but they are important and are required or recommended by building codes and manufacturers. 

*** 

I have room for a few more words here, so I’d like to comment on the recent controversy about the bench in Granite Creek Park. A college student got approval from the City of Prescott to build a bench. She submitted a sketch of the bench, which the city approved. She then built a bench that was not like the sketch, even though a city employee told her there were functional and safety concerns. The city removed the bench one day before the park was open. Citizens were upset and claimed the city was anti-art. 

Here’s my take: If someone gets hurt on that bench a year from now, they will sue Prescott (you and me), not the artist or school. I commend the city for removing the bench. As far as the student, hopefully she learned something. If you submit a plan for something, you are obligated to follow that plan. I know sometimes forgiveness is easier to get than permission. But if you are working on a project and want to make changes, you need to get those changes approved. 

By Randy West on November 17, 2011 

 

‘Flipping’ house a bad idea then, and now 

I recently received the following email: 

“Dear Randy: I enjoy your columns very much. My husband wants to buy a home and ‘flip’ it. He says that since homes are so inexpensive now, we can buy a fixer-upper, do the fixing-upping, and make some money. I believe that since homes are so inexpensive now, we could have trouble selling a home for any profit. I know you had a column about this recently. All I remember is you said something about getting your fiction in books. Could you print that column again so I can cut it out and save it?” – Debby P. in Prescott Valley. 

A: This is a first for me. I have never been asked to print a previous column. Debby P. has a pretty good memory, or a different definition of “recent” than I do. I had to search a little for it – this column appeared Aug. 22, 2008. I’m pretty sure that Debby P. also remembers that my column would help her opinion more than her husband’s. 

I thought about just sending the column to Debby. But then I wondered how many other people might be considering jumping into the “flipping” market. So I decided to run the column again, since it is still current and relevant (and saves me some typing). Here you go, Debby: 

Recently I’m getting asked a new question: “We’re planning on flipping this home – any suggestions?” In case you’re not familiar with this term, this refers to buying a run-down home, making major improvements and then selling it for an unbelievable profit. There are some television shows that make this look easy. 

I have to admit that I don’t watch the “flipping” TV shows. I like my fiction in books. I did watch one from start to finish last week. It showed two “amateurs” doing almost all the work, including demolition, plumbing, tile and wood floor installation, finish carpentry, etc. I say “amateurs” because the show inferred they had no or little experience for most of this work. So somehow they think they can do the same quality work as a professional. I wonder if they would do this work if they were planning on living in the home for several years, rather than selling it before the plumbing lines can leak or the floor tiles can come loose. 

Since I’m not addressing a specific client here, let me give the “flipping” advice I’d like to. The first is “In this market? Are you nuts?” The second is, “Use licensed tradesmen and contractors – don’t try to do the work yourself.” The third is “get all the required permits.” 

I specialized in remodeling for many years before my home inspection career, and I can tell you that even a professional cannot anticipate all the problems you may find when you start opening up walls. You suddenly find a few thousand dollars of unbudgeted repairs for termite or moisture damage, or plumbing and electrical upgrades, etc. The TV show budget didn’t have the 15 percent for “unexpected repairs” that I included in my proposals. 

The home in the show sold for about $300,000, which was $80,000 above the purchase price and cost of repairs. They called this an $80,000 profit. They didn’t mention real estate agent commissions. Or closing costs, which are usually a few thousand dollars with title insurance or abstracts. That $80,000 profit just dwindled to about $60,000. They said it took eight months for the home to sell. Assuming a $2,000 per month mortgage (it could be more), that profit drops to about $40,000. 

It took two people two months to do the repairs, and eight months to sell the home. That’s $40,000 for 10 months. For two people that’s $20,000 each. That’s $2,000 a month each, or about $500 weekly, or about $12.50 an hour for a 40-hour work week. And in the show they were working into the evening sometimes, so they were likely putting in more than 40 hours a week. So their pay/profit was likely closer to $10 an hour. 

And this is before taxes! They will have to pay tax on that income, whether they took it as a salary or as a profit on the sale of the home. And there is no health insurance, paid vacation, etc. Not to mention that for 10 months they had to make a mortgage payment and had no income from the home they were flipping. 

And since they did the work themselves, if the buyers have any problems with the improvements, they may call the sellers and expect them to take care of it. 

Why would anyone go through all this when the program on another channel was telling me how to make millions of dollars in real estate with no money down? 

After this column originally appeared in 2008, a few people emailed me stating my figures would be way off if the flippers did not have a mortgage. This is true, but I’m assuming they had a mortgage. I don’t believe they had enough money to pay $220,000 cash for a home and improvements, and then sit on it for 10 months. If you had that much cash on hand, would you invest it in a project that required you do hard, dirty work for $10 and hour and wait 10 months to get paid? I know I wouldn’t. 

This reminds me of a quote in a recent column (by recent I mean this year). I was talking about this topic with local real estate agent Steve Karstens and said something about making a million dollars in real estate. Steve said that’s easy in this market. Just start with $2 million. 

By Randy West on October 13, 2011 

 

Some issues require a specialist’s diagnosis 

In my last column I talked about having to “register” when sending an email. This is a spam (junk email) feature. The person you’re emailing will not “accept” your email until you fill in a form. I find this irritating when someone emails me asking for a reply. If you email someone asking for a reply, you should put them in your “safe senders list” so they do not have to register to reply to your email. 

I don’t let my wife read my columns before I send them in. If I did, some of my columns would not have been submitted (and perhaps some of them should not have been). My wife read my last column Friday morning in the paper, and asked if I would like some cheese with my whine. I guess I was whining a little. But I did have several people tell me that they agree with me. 

My wife said I better tell a cute story this week (one that does not involve her!) to make up for my whining. So, in order to keep her happy, here is one. 

When I inspect a vacant home, I park my car in the garage. (It’s actually an SUV, and it does not drip a drop of anything.) This is partly for security, and partly for convenience, including keeping my ladders and expensive tools out of the sun. At a recent inspection on a new/vacant home, I parked in the garage. 

I had noticed a neighbor staring at me from her deck. Her home was quite a bit higher and a few hundred feet away. I was inspecting a brand-new home, so there was nothing for me to steal. I assumed she was just admiring my inspection techniques. 
I entered the garage from the home, and noticed now she was watching me with binoculars. I thought this was peculiar. I opened the rear hatch on my car, which meant I had my back to her. I have a pair of very powerful binoculars right there in my tool bag. As happens with me occasionally, my body started working without consulting my brain. I grabbed my binoculars and turned around and focused in on the neighbor. 

I could see her very clearly. She was still looking at me with binoculars. She lowered her binoculars and looked over them at me, perhaps to confirm what she was seeing. Then she ran inside, and closed the blinds on the sliding glass door. Then I noticed all the curtains on the side of the home facing me closing. I proceeded to tell myself how childish and juvenile that was (but I was chuckling a little at the same time). I made a point not to look at her house again. I was half expecting a sheriff’s deputy to show up to investigate a “peeping tom,” but he never did. 

Anyway, this week’s question was from a local real estate agent. She was upset because a home inspector wrote in his report there were problems with the furnace. He said that a licensed heating contractor should be consulted. When the real estate agent and her client called the inspector to ask what needed to be done, he repeated they needed to consult with a heating contractor. The clients were upset that the inspector did not offer more specific information. The real estate agent said someone told her that I always make specific recommendations. This is not true. The following comment appears at the beginning of my reports: 

“My goal is to make the report as informative and helpful as possible. If I make a recommendation, I try to explain the item in detail and explain why it’s a problem (if it’s not obvious). I may offer suggestions on improving or repairing the item. I will try to do this in everyday language and not impress you with my construction vocabulary.” 

It is very important that I state “I may offer suggestions,” not “I will offer suggestions.” After 20 years of inspecting homes, many times I can offer suggestions on the cause and possible remedies of a problem. But not always. There are times in my reports when I recommend an appropriate contractor be consulted to further evaluate a condition and make recommendations for repairs. 

I just thought of a great analogy. Imagine Mrs. Edsel starts her car one morning and it makes a loud knocking noise. She asks her neighbor to take a look, because she knows he is a “shade tree mechanic.” He listens to her car for a moment, and tells her it is “major.” He tells her to turn off the engine and have the car towed to her mechanic. 

In this case, even the owner could tell there was a problem. Perhaps a better analogy would be a minor unusual noise in the engine. The neighbor hears it and comes over and points it out to Mrs. Edsel. He says it does not sound major, but she should have it checked as soon as possible. 

In the second case the owner was not even aware there was a problem. The “inspector” could tell there was a problem, but he did not think it was major. In both cases, the “inspector” could not tell you the exact cause or needed repairs. That will require an expert with specialized knowledge and specialized tools. 

Home inspectors are “generalists.” We cannot possibly know as much about every trade as tradesmen do. Sometimes I make suggestions in my reports regarding a cause and/or remedy. I do this as a service to my clients. This information can inform them whether the needed repair is urgent or not, a major or minor expense, something they can work on themselves or something that requires a contractor, etc. But unless I’m very certain of the cause, I still recommend that my clients consult with a contractor or appropriate specialist. 

By Randy West on September 29, 2011 

 

Banks make it hard to inspect foreclosed homes thoroughly 

Have you ever tried to email someone, and had to “sign in” to their email? It explains that it is their way of avoiding spam (junk email). Of course, this means extra time for you. You usually have to fill in some blanks, including listing all your email addresses. And then you have to read those squiggly letters in a box, and enter them in another box. I have trouble with those funny letters anyway. And then, after you do all that, it says it will forward your e-mail to the recipient and they will decide if they want to accept it. 

Usually I just don’t send the email if I have to “sign in.” Of course, if it’s a client waiting for an inspection report, I have to get it emailed to them. But what aggravates me is when someone sends me an email first, asking me to reply or for information. And when I reply, they won’t accept my email. Why would you email someone and ask for information and then make them sign in when they reply? I do not reply to these emails. 

So I received a phone yesterday from someone in Colorado. She said she emailed me twice and I did not reply. I told her I reply to all emails, except those that require me to sign in to send them email. She patiently (read “condescendingly”) explained this was so she would not receive spam, and that I only had to sign in the first time. She actually called me stupid for not replying to her email. Actually, what she said was that my actions “seem kind of stupid” to her. 

I asked her if she knows how to add emails to her “safe sender” list. She said yes. So I asked her why she would send an email to someone asking for a reply and not add them to her safe sender list. That would only take her two seconds, and would be much more courteous than making someone take the time to reply and then have to sign in. I told her that her actions “seem kind of rude” to me. 

Click. There’s one inspection I won’t be getting. Probably not a bad thing, since she already thought I was stupid. 

I always wonder how many important emails these people are missing: recall notices or updates on things they’ve bought, like cars or software. Old friends trying to get in touch with them. Schools having class reunions. Secret herbs that improve your sex life. I get a lot of spam – sometimes 30 or more a day. But I can go through them very quickly, although I have worn a groove in my “delete” key. And every once in a while there’s something important or interesting in there (like those secret herbs). 

And now another pet peeve, but one that’s actually somewhat relevant to this column. The owners of bank-owned properties seem to be getting away with just about anything these days. Last year they started limiting the inspection period to seven days, or even five days. This means the buyers cannot get a busy inspector. I am often booked a week out in the summer, and so are the inspectors I recommend if I can’t make a time-frame, and sometimes so are the termite inspectors. So by limiting the buyers to a five-day inspection period, the banks are forcing the buyers to pick the least-busy inspectors. 

I have also heard that some banks start the inspection period upon the bank’s verbal acceptance of an offer. This forces the buyer to schedule inspections before they even have written acceptance. 

And now, some banks are requiring the buyers to turn on the utilities in their name. In 20 years of home inspecting, I never heard of this practice until this year. This is not the real estate agents – these are the policies of the banks. I have been told that sometimes the utilities are only allowed to be on for 24 hours. So if an inspector has to delay for any reason – car trouble or personal reasons – the utilities may not be on for him or her. 

Also, the gas company frequently “red-tags” a gas appliance. Or perhaps there is a plumbing leak somewhere. So the gas or water cannot be turned on until these are improved. It is virtually impossible to get a contractor out there to repair something the same day. And, of course, if it takes a couple of days to get something improved, now the buyer is past his or her inspection period. 

A significant number of my inspections in the last year are bank-owned properties. So I’m not whining (too much). I’m grateful for the business. And some of these bank-owned properties must be good deals because the banks are getting away with these requirements and restrictions. But this is something that the buyers need to be aware of – that they may have to turn on utilities in their name. 

A buyer asked me last week if they were liable for damage. What if there is a leak when the water is turned on that causes damage to the home? If the buyer has the water turned on, are they liable for this? I would hope not. The buyer only turned the water on because the seller would not. But I do not know the answer – this is a question for your real estate agent. Perhaps it is addressed in the purchase agreement or addendum. 

By Randy West on September 8, 2011 

 

Pre-offer home inspections are not a good idea 

I have been asked numerous times to perform a home inspection before the client writes the offer on the home. This happens more frequently lately with all the bank-owned properties on the market. The clients want to know if there are major defects before they write an offer. 

I always try to talk the client out of this. I explain that their purchase agreement to buy the house has provisions for them to have a home inspection, and any other inspections they may need or desire (for example, termite, well and septic). If I inspect the home on Monday and deliver the report to them on Tuesday, and they decide to make an offer, there is no guarantee the home will still be available. An offer can come in at any time. Or the sellers could change their mind and take the home off the market. 

So while it may seem to make sense to find out about the home before you write an offer, it really does not make sense to pay hundreds of dollars for a home inspection when you have no guarantee you can even buy the home. But, as the saying goes, the client is always right. If they still want a home inspection before they write an offer, I will do it. 

I have also been asked to do a “walk-through” inspection before the client writes an offer. Usually they say they will pay for a full home inspection once they have the home under contract. I will not do this for a couple of reasons. First, what if there are major defects that you do not discover in a walk-through inspection? You can’t tell if a furnace and air conditioner are operating correctly (or at all) by a visual inspection. You have to do various tests while they are operating. You can’t tell if there is moisture, fire or structural damage in an attic or crawlspace without entering them, and I’m not going into them for a walk-through inspection. Everything could look fine at a walk-through inspection, but there could be major defects or the need for expensive repairs that would not be discovered. 

A more important reason to not do walk-through inspections is they may not be legal. Home inspectors are regulated in Arizona by the Board of Technical Registration (BTR). The Arizona Statutes and Rules describe what a home inspection is (and isn’t), and inspections have to be performed in compliance with the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors. An Arizona Certified Home Inspector (CHI) may get away with doing walk-through inspections in some instances. For example, if a client wants an inspection just for their own benefit – they are the owners and are not intending to sell the home. Or they are going to lease the home for a year and are not concerned with costs of repairs or life expectancies; they just want to know if everything works. If someone filed a complaint against a home inspector for an inspection like this, the BTR likely would not review it or discipline the CHI. This is assuming the CHI clearly disclosed in a written agreement the purpose and scope of the inspection. 

Most home inspections are pre-purchase home inspections, performed for a client who is buying the property. So if the inspection involves a real estate transaction, I always advise home inspectors to only do a full home inspection in compliance with the Standards of Professional Practice. If it looks like a lemon, smells like a lemon, and drives like a lemon, then it’s very likely a lemon. If someone files a complaint against a CHI, and the inspection involved a real estate transaction, the BTR may consider this a home inspection no matter how many disclaimers there are in the inspection agreement. 

There are exceptions to this. For example, in Phoenix there are investors who like to have a CHI do a walk-through inspection before making an offer at an auction. These auction homes are often only available for viewing for short times, and the utilities are rarely on. With these limitations it would be impossible to perform an inspection that complies with the Standards. Home inspectors can legally do walk-through inspections on these type homes, but again it is critical the inspection agreement describes the scope and limitations of the inspection. 

It is legal for a home inspector to not inspect a component during a home inspection. This is in the Rules for a good reason. A few times (especially after our 1999 hailstorm) I had clients tell me they know the roof shingles are beyond repair. The seller had already contracted and paid for a licensed roofing contractor to replace the shingles. So there is really no reason for me to go on the roof and inspect the roof shingles, because they wouldn’t be there next week. I would lower my fee a little and, as required by Arizona, I would have the client request in writing that I not inspect the roof. 

Some inspectors are using this rule to do walk-through inspections. They have a written agreement in which the clients request that they don’t walk the roof, enter the attic, operate the furnace and air conditioner, test all the windows, and look at other components that are required in the Arizona Standards. Technically, an attorney could argue the inspector complied with the Rules by having the client exclude all these items. But what if an unhappy client files a complaint with the BTR? If it smells like a lemon… 

By Randy West on August 18, 2011 

 

War stories: Big snakes and even bigger birds 

I’ve had a couple of emails from readers who are upset with me. They say I have not had enough humor in my recent columns. So I figured I’d try to redeem myself with one of my “war stories.” 

I was inspecting a vacant home in Prescott Valley a couple years ago. The home was vacant, but the sellers had not quite completely moved out – there were some boxes and a few pieces of furniture. I went out back through the rear-entry door into a homemade aviary. I could tell it was an aviary by the chewed-up 2x4s, and because I had to be very careful where I stepped. I walked to the rear to the storm door, but it was locked and required a key to open it. I turned around to go back in the home and there was a 6-foot snake slithering toward me. 

Now I have to admit that snakes are my weakness. I always tell people that I will go into a crawlspace or attic as long as everything I see has legs. But if I see something without legs, I’m outta there! This snake was blocking my path to the home. I made a new exit through one of the screen panels. I immediately went out front and called the listing real estate agent and told her about the snake. She said, “Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you the sellers haven’t picked up their pet snake yet.” 

I just stammered, “You forgot to tell me about a 6-foot snake in the home!” Then I regained my composure and told her she’d better tell the sellers to come fix the rip in the screen in the aviary. She asked how big a rip, and I said about 6 feet 1 inch. As I went back in the home to lock the snake in the aviary, I was thinking that birds and a 6-foot snake seemed like a silly combination for pets. 

Now here’s one of my all-time favorite war stories. Actually, this is not mine. I heard this from an inspector at a national convention. The inspector was from New England, and had our whole table laughing so hard we couldn’t give our orders to the waitress. Here’s his story: 

“I inspected a rural home recently. There was a barn. I don’t inspect barns, except for the electrical components. I could see an electrical panel in the barn. The fence gate was locked so I climbed over the fence and entered the barn. I had the cover off the electrical panel and was busy counting breakers when I felt something touch my back. I turned around and came face to face with two llamas. 

“One of the llamas spit in my face. I proceeded to yell at them and call them some names. These names must have been very insulting to llamas, because they both started kicking and biting me. I dropped my clipboard and ran for the fence, with the llamas biting my arms and back the whole time. I got over the fence and collapsed on the ground. My clothes were ripped, I was bleeding in about 20 places, and bruised in another 20, including my ego. 

“Right then a van pulled in. A cute girl and a big guy with a camera got out. It seems the owner had an appointment with a reporter wanting to do a story about llamas. The reporter came over to me, with the cameraman right behind, clicking away. I stood up and dusted myself off, but there was blood running down my face from a cut or bite. The reporter started asking me questions about llamas. I was still pretty shook up, so I told her they are vile, disgusting beasts and walked away. 

“It was about two weeks later that I was inspecting a home in the city. It was a two-story home, and I was about to inspect the roof. I set my extension ladder up against the front porch, which was the lowest part of the roof. I was almost to the top when the ladder slipped out from under me. I grabbed the gutter, which held for about 2 seconds before it came off the porch. I fell about 12 feet right on my ladder on the sidewalk. I was pretty sure I broke something, and I had a nasty gash in my forehead from the gutter and blood was running down my face. 

“It was at this moment that the buyer and his real estate agent arrived. My ladder was across the sidewalk, I was trying to sit up on top of the ladder and there was a rain gutter resting on my shoulder. And of course there was blood running down my face. The buyer asked me if I was all right. I said no, and could he please call an ambulance. After calling for an ambulance, the buyer looked at me and said he didn’t realize home inspecting was such a hazardous occupation. 

“His real estate agent said she saw a picture in the paper a couple weeks ago of a home inspector that had been attacked by llamas. 

“I looked up at them and said, ‘Yeah, that was me.'” 

This is all I remember, but there was more to it, including something going wrong in the ride in the ambulance and his wife going to the wrong hospital. 

Next time I’ll get “serious” again (a relative term in this column). 

By Randy West on July 28, 2011 

 

Home inspections are not the same as code inspections 

“Code” is a four-letter word to home inspectors. You will not see the “code” word in my reports, other than a disclaimer stating this is not a “code” inspection. I can do code inspections. They require specialized testing and cost thousands of dollars. For one thing, you have to research when the home was built and which code was in effect at that time. This is way beyond the scope of a home inspection. 

So how do I report on an item that obviously does not meet code? Euphemisms. “The deck is not built to current building standards or practices.” “Some liberties have been taken with good framing technique at the deck.” “The deck framing was only observed from the yard (because I was afraid to walk on it).” 

For some reason, I’ve had several sellers recently who knew the building code very well, or researched it very well just to annoy me. I wrote a few weeks ago about the lack of a self-closer on the door between a home and attached garage, which did get left out of the code for a few years. 

Now I’ve had a seller argue with my comments about access to an electrical panel. He said there is no problem with the panel access, but there may be to the cabinet access. And technically he is correct. The electrical panelboard is in the electrical cabinet. So if there is a problem with clearance or access, it is actually a problem with the cabinet and not the panel. But I write my inspection reports so my clients can understand them. And everyone (even electricians) will refer to the main panel rather than the main panelboard cabinet. 

All home inspectors know the basic requirements for access in front of a panel (oops, I mean cabinet): 78 inches high, 30 inches wide and 36 inches deep. And the panel must also be “readily accessible.” If the panel is not readily accessible, I don’t refer to code. I simply say that you should be able to access the panel easily, especially if you ever need to turn off the power in a hurry. 

I don’t consider a panel readily accessible if a cabinet, bookshelf or refrigerator is in front of the panel. I’ve seen all these, and shelves permanently installed on the wall in front of the panel so you could not even open the cover. Not only is this woefully inadequate access for an electrician – what if that old toaster trips a breaker? 

In this case, the main panel (cabinet) was locked. Often I find the key hanging on a nail in the garage just inside the door, or some other fairly obvious place. If I don’t see the key, I call the listing real estate agent and ask where the key is. Often the owners don’t remember where it is. So I tell the agent we have two options. I can cut the lock off and the seller can buy another $3 miniature padlock to put on the panel. Or you can call me when the panel is open; note that my re-inspection fee will be $75. To date I’ve decapitated every keyless padlock I’ve encountered. 

So this seller was either upset at the loss of his $3 padlock, or just wanted to aggravate me on general principle. He emailed me stating I don’t know the code, that there is nothing that disallows installing a padlock on a main panel, and that I should take a refresher course in electrical code requirements. And of course he copied both real estate agents on the email. 

Being the tolerant, understanding, patient, forgiving individual I am, I simply ignored the email. 

Oh wait, that was my last life. I immediately emailed back (to all recipients) that technically he was correct, and a padlock is allowed. However, the main panel needs to be readily accessible, which it was not if he didn’t remember where the key was. And, by the way, if I were to follow the code diligently, there were numerous other violations at his home. That clear area in front of a panel applies to all panels, including the electrical disconnect at the air conditioner. His electrical disconnect is on the exterior wall behind the compressor, so either the compressor or the disconnect needs to be moved. And nothing but electrical components are allowed directly below the panel, so he needs to relocate his cable TV and telephone boxes. And actually, the main gas valve is pretty close – maybe he should move that, too. And artificial light is required at panels, so I want to see lights installed over the panels. I mean cabinets. And technically, subpanels are not allowed in bathrooms, clothes closets or storage areas. He has a subpanel in a closet with a clothes bar – this could be both a clothes closet and a storage area, so I recommend he relocate this panel. 

I see all the items in the last paragraph on a daily basis. I don’t report on them because they are common in our area. As I’ve said many times, a home inspection is not a code inspection. Although many of the problems we see are code violations, every jurisdiction in the country strictly enforces some codes and kind of ignores others. I’m not going to report on something that is not a concern and is found on 98 percent of the homes in Prescott. 

I’m still waiting for a reply from the seller. 

By Randy West on July 7, 2011 

 

Answer to saving energy, money is in owner’s manual 

I learn a lot from owner’s and installation manuals, which are pretty boring reading for “normal” folks. If I find the manual for a gas fireplace, tankless water heater, etc., in a home I’m inspecting, I will read it during my breaks. I also ask contractors questions whenever I can. (This is a clever lead-in for this week’s column.) 

About a month ago, our gas clothes dryer stopped working. It would spin, but the flame would not come on. I told my wife the dryer was 15 years old and probably not worth fixing. We checked the local ads and found a used gas dryer in Chino Valley, so off we went. 

The used dryer was at Adobe Appliance, and the owners Paul and Carole were tending the store. They had several used gas dryers. I told them what was wrong with our dryer, and Paul immediately said, “Oh, that’s the magnum flux capacitor.” He opened a nearby dryer and showed me where it goes and how to install it. This took about three minutes and, by that time, Carole had procured the part and my wife had paid for it. I was impressed with their honesty, since they knew we had come in to look at used dryers. They could have easily told us our dryer was too old to bother fixing, but instead they sold us an inexpensive part and even showed me how to install it. (I checked the manufacturer’s website when I got home, and the part cost almost double from the manufacturer!) 

Paul said he’s been servicing appliances for more than 20 years. I saw an opportunity to learn something. I told him I had heard that front-loading washers and dryers were more efficient. Boy, did I ever learn things! The first thing he explained that was that top-loaders spin at 400 rpm, but front-loaders spin at 27,000 rpm. So they get the clothes much dryer. Carol said front-loaders don’t have agitators, so there is less lint and they don’t “beat up” your clothes. Drier clothes and less lint means less time in the dryer, saving energy costs. 

I asked about detergent, and leaned even more. They only use powder detergent, and never too much. You should never see suds; if you see suds, you’re using too much detergent. They recommend 1/8 cup for front-loaders and 1/4 cup for top-loaders, but you can use more for a really dirty load. Carole said always read the owner’s manual and the label on your detergent – they may recommend less or more detergent. You should do this even if you’re using the same detergent you’ve used for years. Last year, phosphates were banned in detergents in some states, including Arizona, so your detergent may have different directions. 

Carol said there are many people that waste energy because they don’t read the manual and use the appliance properly. For example, some washers have a filter that requires occasional cleaning. 

I told Carole I’m one of those weird people who always reads directions and manuals. She said she’s a little too literal sometimes. She said she was reading her shampoo bottle in the shower the other day. It said “lather, rinse, repeat.” She said if she followed those directions exactly she wo