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
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
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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Randy West on July 12, 2012
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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 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 email@example.com.
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, 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 firstname.lastname@example.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
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
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
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:
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