Susan West

Associate Broker

2010 

December 

November 

October 

September 

August 

July 

June 

May 

April 

March 

February 

January 

 


Readers answer request for help 

Happy New Year’s Eve! This is my last column of the year, and my first ever on the last day of the year. I really want to thank everyone who has sent in questions and everyone who has told me they appreciate my columns. I enjoy writing this column, but I do tend to get sidetracked. Occasionally the editors have to remind me that I’m supposed to be talking about houses, not politicians or photo radar. (Sidetrack: One of my favorite quotes is “Any man who wants to run for political office should be banned from ever holding political office.”) 

In my last column, I had a question from James: 

“Our water pipes make outrageous noises in the cooler weather. Every morning when it’s cold, the pipes sound off with a rumbling noise that gradually increases and then stops, only to begin again shortly. It stops right away if I turn on a tap. This has been going on for several years – quiet in the summer, and then it starts up in the autumn.” 

James also noted that the noise stopped temporarily while a toilet was disconnected, and that the noise occurred both before and after he had a pressure tank installed on the water heater. My reply was a RFH (request for help): “So we have a rumbling noise in the plumbing pipes in the morning, only when it’s cold, and opening a faucet or a drain line will make it stop. Any ideas, anyone?” 

I received this e-mail from Ruthann almost immediately after the column appeared: 

“A few years ago we had that problem – it sounded like a freight train going through the pipes in the basement. Our plumber said it was caused by the neighbor’s flushing and water turn on/off – we are the highest (in elevation) house on the street. The neighbor refused to get a plumber over there and do anything about it until we called the city, and someone visited him to explain what was causing “our problem.” His pipes got fixed – whatever it was – and no more noise in our pipes. It was something that could be detected by looking at the water main out by the street.” 

I also received this e-mail from Bob Eustace at Bambe Construction: 

“All of the symptoms seem heat- related, except the toilet. How long was it out? Possible solutions to your column question are: 

“1. Heat-tape pipes where possible. 

“2. Install anti hammer tees. 

“3. Install an aftermarket recirculation system.” 

The anti-hammer tees prevent water hammer, which can make some loud and unusual noises in water pipes. I suggested water hammer as a possible cause of the noise in my last column, but could not figure out how removing a toilet would make it stop. 

I also had a question last week about a heat pump that was not working properly. I answered with my usual excellent advice. I also quoted a comment in my reports that states “heat pumps are under-powered for our area.” The comment continues to explain that heat pumps in our area usually have an “auxiliary” or “emergency” heat mode. As I expected, I heard from a local heating contractor disputing my “under- powered” comment and suggesting I keep my personal opinions to myself. 

The “under-powered” comment is a personal opinion, I guess, but it’s based on 18 years as a home inspector. I have heard more complaints about heat pumps than any other heating system. And when you consider that heat pumps are a very small percentage of the heating systems I inspect, the number of complaints-per-system is extremely high for heat pumps. 

I did not expect the five e-mails from readers who have had similar problems with heat pumps. So my personal opinion remains unchanged. I will say that heat pumps that heat smaller areas, such as a small condo or just a small part of a large home, seem to work better than a heat pump trying to heat a 2,500-square-foot home. In my opinion, of course. 

Since we’re talking about personal opinions, one of the e-mails asked what heating system I would put in a home if I were building a new home. An interesting question. Let’s consider that cost is not a factor (or should I say “let’s pretend” cost is not a factor, since cost has always been a factor for me). I would opt for an in-floor radiant heating system. In my inspection reports, I always report on the good and bad of any system. The “good” about a professionally installed in-floor heating system: good distribution (and those warm floors are nice on chilly mornings), efficient, clean (no air movement or filters), and no registers or convectors (which always seem to be right where you want to put a couch or TV cabinet). 

The “bad” would be that this system, like all hot water systems, takes longer to heat a home than a forced air or unitary (heaters in every room) system. Setback thermostats do not work well on any hot water systems – these systems are most efficient if you set the thermostat and leave it. The other “bad” would be the cost factor. 

I would also like central air conditioning in that new home that I can’t afford. A central air conditioner can share the ducts and registers with a central forced-air heating system, reducing the installation cost. It would cost much more to install an in-floor heating system and a totally separate central air conditioning system. 

And, since cost is not a factor, I also want in-floor heating and central air conditioning in the six-car garage. 

I’ll end 2010 with a comment that many of you have heard me say: There are two things that you will never hear me say. You will never hear me say, “Darn, I made too much money this year.” And you’ll never hear me say, “Darn, my garage is too big.” 

By Randy West on December 30, 2010 

 

Ghostbusters needed to solve the Mystery of the Poltergeist Plumbing 

This week, I have a question about “poltergeist plumbing” from James: 

Q: “Am I the only guy with this problem? Our water pipes make outrageous noises in the cooler weather. Every morning when it’s cold, the pipes sound off – a rumbling noise that gradually increases and then stops, only to begin again shortly. It stops right away if I turn on a tap. This has been going on for several years – quiet in the summer, and then it starts up in the autumn. 

“We have a pressure tank on the water system at the water heater. The noises were there both before and after this was installed. 

“They stopped temporarily when we had a toilet replaced a few years ago – as long as the toilet was not in place. There was no noise while the hole was open, and then there was noise again when the new toilet was installed. 

“What to do?” 

A: To answer your first question: yes, James, you are the only guy with this problem. At least that I know of. My first guess was “water hammer” or a defective faucet or fill valve, which can cause some unusual noises. But these occur when water is running, and James said the noise stops when a faucet is opened. It also does not explain why the noise would stop when a toilet was removed and the “hole” was open. The “hole” is a drain line and should not have any effect on the supply lines. 

So we have a rumbling noise in the plumbing pipes in the morning, only when it’s cold, and opening a faucet or a drain line will make it stop. Any ideas, anyone? 

My next question this week is from Isabelle regarding heat pumps: 

“In November 2009, we had a new heat pump and air conditioner installed. When the exterior temperature drops to less than 40 degrees, the heat pump is blowing cold air. The inside temperature stays at 66. Last year, we had the contractor out four times, and each time someone came in the late morning when it was warmer outside and inside the home. They couldn’t find anything wrong with the thermostat and the unit was working well. But at night when the outside temperature gets cold, we are freezing inside. We are not using the heat pump and are using four electric heaters, which keep us warmer, but we don’t leave them on when we go to bed. 

“Is Prescott too cold for a heat pump? If so, why are they selling heat pumps here? What are the solutions?” 

I can understand how frustrating this must be. When I see a heat pump in a home, I have the following comment in my inspection reports. 

“The home is heated by a heat pump. A heat pump is (simply put) an air conditioner with a reverse mode. Heat pumps are under-powered for the area, and should have a supplemental or emergency heater. The thermostat has an emergency heat switch position on the cool/off/heat switch. Turning on the emergency heat turns on the supplemental heater and turns off the compressor. In most systems you should never have to turn the system to emergency heat; it will cycle on automatically if needed. 

“It is possible the exterior unit could become iced up during very cold wet weather. If this occurs in newer systems, it should automatically turn on the emergency heat and defrost itself. In older systems, you may hear an unusual noise (from the fan not turning because of ice) or you may notice the supply air is only room temperature. If either of these occurs. you should turn the thermostat to emergency heat and call a heating contractor immediately.” 

I have a few suggestions for you, but I can’t believe the heating contractor would not have checked these. Often when I hear a heat pump is blowing out cold air, in reality it’s not. A gas furnace supply air temperature is usually over 120 degrees and will feel warm. But a heat pump supply air temperature is usually less than 100 degrees, and may not feel warm to a human hand, especially if you are checking the temperature a few feet away from the supply vent. However, if the heat pump is not heating the home, then this is likely not the problem. 

When the heat pump is running, the outside compressor should be running (the large fan should be turning and the large refrigerant line should be hot). If not, then the heat pump is not working properly. When the heat pump is in “defrost” cycle, the compressor will not be running but the emergency heat will be on and you should still be getting warm air from the supply vents. 

Your thermostat switch will have an “em heat” or “aux heat” position. Setting the switch to this position should turn off the compressor and turn on the “emergency heat.” You should be getting warm air at the supply vents when the switch is in this position. So you should set this switch to “em heat” when the supply air is not warm. 

If you are not getting heat in the heat pump mode or emergency heat mode, you may have multiple problems. It could be the thermostat, reversing valve, circuit board or some other component. I’m not a heating contractor, so all I can do is recommend a heating contractor to diagnose and correct the problem. 

Of course, in this case the problem is that the heating contractor can’t find the problem. You might try contacting the manufacturer. Most manufacturers have field representatives or engineers that make “house calls” when a local contractor cannot find the problem. 

By Randy West on December 16, 2010 

 

Wood foundations are pre-treated to repel water, insects 

The question this week is from Karen, a Realtor: 

“There are homes in Prescott with permanent wood foundations. Why are the home inspectors and wood infestation inspectors unaware of this type of construction? During a recent home inspection, both the home inspector and wood infestation inspector shouted “wood to earth” on the whole home. Even though the house was built in the 1980s and shows no sign of any problems, they both told the buyer (wood decay) would happen, as if the home was doomed! (More doomed than a cracking slab floor?) 

“This home was approved by the City of Prescott. I find it unprofessional for an inspector to inspect a home when he has no knowledge of the type of construction. They both should have excused themselves and studied up. 

“What are your thoughts on this type of construction? I would love to hear what you have to say on the subject. 

Answer: This is a great question. I have the opportunity to get Realtors, contractors, home inspectors and termite inspectors mad at me all from one question. So before I give my thoughts on a permanent wood foundation (PWF), I have to say that I don’t know who the home inspector was or what was said. I also have to say that I am not a licensed wood- destroying insect inspector, so I have no idea what they learn or know about PWF homes. 

Permanent wood foundations have been around for decades. The wood used in these foundations is treated to make it moisture- and insect (termite)-resistant. Treated lumber has been used for many applications: decks, landscape timbers, playground equipment, docks and other applications where the wood will be buried in the soil. 

The chemicals used to treat wood or lumber have changed over the years, but that’s another column (arsenic is no longer used). Wood used for foundations gets a “stronger” treatment than wood used for decks or landscape timbers. 

Forest Laboratories in Madison, Wis., has been testing treated wood under the soil since the 1940s. In 1965, several professional associations (lumber treating, forestry products, etc.) asked the National Association of Home Builders to conduct a study on wood foundations. In 1969, three homes were built with wood foundations in Lexington Park, Md., and the foundations are still being monitored (and performing as intended) today. There were PWF homes built in Michigan and Ohio in the 1970s that are still in good condition today. 

At a national home inspector convention several years ago, an engineer brought in samples from a wood foundation that had been underground for over 20 years. The wood was still in very good condition. (Of course we asked how he had obtained the sample; the home was severely damaged by a hurricane and had to be demolished.) 

I have heard people say they would never use a wood foundation because all wood in the ground will eventually rot. When I hear this, I’m always tempted to tell the naysayer to go tell that to a 100-year-old tree. That tree might want to know that its roots can’t last 100 years. 

I have heard contactors say they would never build a PWF home because they can’t know if the wood was properly treated. Of course, how do you know the concrete is properly mixed, or the glu-lam beams are properly glued, or the double-pane windows are properly sealed? You get the point. 

The building code allows wood foundations. There are installation recommendations and specifications available from manufacturers and testing agencies. There are special requirements and recommendations regarding water control at the foundation and structure, and some papers recommend regular termite inspections and treatments. 

PWFs have some advantages when building a home. They cost less and can be constructed faster. They are easier to transport, for example, where the terrain makes it difficult to get a cement truck to the site. 

There are also advantages of PWF homes regarding basements. (Basements are not common in our area, which is probably one reason PWF homes are not common in our area.) With a PWF home, the basement will be dryer (water can come through all masonry products, including concrete). The basement walls are already insulated. For someone planning on finishing the basement, there are already stud walls. This means you don’t have to install wood walls inside the concrete walls, which takes more time and money and makes the basement a little smaller. 

So what do I say when I see a wood foundation? I tell my clients the good and the bad, just like I do for the roof, heating system, etc. I tell them that wood foundations, although not popular in our area, are an accepted construction technique. I explain the wood is treated lumber, but it is still a little more important to watch the site drainage and keep water away from the home. And I recommend regular termite inspections. 

Now what I do see fairly often in Prescott is older homes built over very low crawlspaces. Actually, I have found these in Chino Valley a few times, too. Some of these crawlspaces are very difficult to enter and move in; I call these “slither spaces.” And there are some crawlspaces that Twiggy could not get into. Often there is wood soil contact in these crawlspaces. The wood in crawlspaces was not treated or designed for long-term earth contact. Assuming there are no major problems, my reports say there’s wood soil contact in the crawlspace; it would be difficult if not impossible to eliminate it; watch your site drainage; and have regular termite inspections/treatments. 

Next time, I’ll answer questions about poltergeist plumbing and cold heat pumps. 

By Randy West on December 2, 2010 

 

Debris needs clearing after water to home is shut off 

Q: Hi, Randy. You did a house inspection for us on in 2001, and we were very impressed. Last month I replaced two 9-year-old water heaters (one was leaking). One unit serves only the master bath. The next day, my shower was barely warm. The other faucets in the bath, including the tub, had hot water. The plumber said this was only a coincidence and that I needed to order all new parts for my Grohe shower faucet, and this had nothing to do with the water heater. At the same time, he ruined my Grohe lever by completely removing the temp numbers and damaging the polished brass. 

I did order the replacement innards but, since I have little faith in coincidences, I had my handyman look at it. He took it apart and cleaned it out (there was debris and some white tape) and voila! I have hot water. 

My question: Is there a certain procedure to follow when a water heater is replaced to avoid this situation? 

Second question: I then replaced my recirculating pump on the same heater (using a different plumber). There is a lot of vibration inside my bathroom now, and I can hear a surging sound. I never had this problem with the old pump. It is the same make as before. I listened at the pump and it sounds OK, but inside the house it is noisy. I called the company, and they told me this is normal, nothing to be done. I am putting a timer on it to be off at night when I really notice it. Any thoughts? 

Thanks, Randy. I really enjoy your column. -Linda Downey 

Before I could reply, I received another e-mail from Linda: 

Randy, I am sending a final update. My dependable contractor person came out Friday regarding the recirculating pump and was surprised at the amount of vibration. He insulated the lines, shot some foam insulation in around the exit pipe and put on a timer. I can still hear it but not as bad as before. Plus, with the timer, at least it’s not running while I am trying to catch some zzz’s. 

When we went to the utility closet to do this, there was a good amount of water leakage on the floor and when he inspected he found the humidifier was leaking water. 

Later that night I had an epiphany… Water heater replaced due to water on the floor “supposedly leaking from the water heater.” Could this be yet another coincidence? Or could the water standing have been from the humidifier all along? Guess I will never know. 

I know you always recommend that people use a licensed contractor. After this experience, I will never do another repair without getting at least one more (licensed) opinion. Leaking water always scares me, so I feel I acted too quickly with this replacement, trusting the plumber’s assessment. 

Thank you again for being a voice in the wilderness.-Linda 

*** 

I really like these letters. First, she butters me up – “very impressed,” “a voice in the wilderness” (really like that one!). Second, she asked questions that I thought I could answer. Third, she answered them for me. Fourth, there was good information here. (And fifth, she wrote half a column for me.) 

I tell people that anytime the water to a home is shut off, some debris will likely get in the lines. This applies to just the hot water if a water heater is replaced. I recommend running the water at one sink for a few minutes to clean out the lines. Then run water at all the other fixtures. I also tell clients if the water to their home has been off they will likely need to clean the aerators at all the faucets and should take the hoses off the clothes washer faucets and run a little water through them (you can use a short garden hose routed into the washer drain). 

Last month the city replaced the water meter for my home. I followed my own advice and ran water through the kitchen sink for several minutes to clear the 50-year-old main water line. After about five minutes, the water pressure at the faucet was almost nothing. I ended up replacing the kitchen faucet and one toilet fill valve. I also had to clean the aerators and screens on the clothes washer hoses a couple times. 

The second question was about a noisy hot water circulator (HWC) pump that was replaced at the same time. I would think the two were related. Perhaps some debris or air got trapped in the HWC lines. If it were my home, I would take the return line off the HWC pump and run it for a few minutes and see if that helps. (Not really – if it were my home, my wife would call our plumber after asking me to fix it for a few days. But I would tell the plumber to try this.) 

As far as your epiphany (neat word; I had to look it up) that the humidifier was the only thing leaking and the water heaters didn’t need replacing, you likely never will know. I shouldn’t tell you this, but I give typical life expectancies for major appliances and components in my inspection reports, and I have always given water heaters 15 to 20 years. Inspectors from other parts of the country are surprised at this – water heaters last 10 to 15 years in other areas. I see 15- to 20-year-old water heaters a lot, but rarely do I see water heaters over 20 years. 

I’m answering questions I receive in order. The next column is wood foundations (I promise, Karen) and an unusual plumbing noise (James). 

By Randy West on November 18, 2010  

 

Questions about water heaters keep flowing in 

My past two columns have been about water heaters. This always seems to be a hot topic, and I have a couple more questions to answer. 

A couple of people asked about noisy water heaters. One described a “popping” noise, the other a “gurgling” noise. This is most often caused by sediment build-up. The sediment settles to the bottom of the tank and can cause these noises in both electric or gas water heaters. The noise can be annoying but does not have a significant effect on the efficiency of the water heater. 

Sometimes the noise can be eliminated by draining the water heater. There is a drain valve near the bottom of the water heater with a hose faucet connection. Connect a hose to this valve, route the hose to a safe location and open the valve. Watch the water coming out of the hose -when it is clean, close the valve and see if the noise is reduced or eliminated. Some plumbers recommend draining a water heater once a month or so. 

There are a few things to be careful of when draining a water heater. First, the water coming out of the hose will be hot (if not, you have another problem). Second, sometimes the drain valves are plastic – be careful not to cross thread the hose or damage the valve when attaching the hose. And third, if the valve has not been used in several years, there is an 83.4 percent chance it will drip after you use it. During a home inspection, I will not operate valves that have not been used recently, such as shutoff valves under sinks or drain valves on water heaters. If the drain valve does drip, there are metal caps that can be screwed on it. 

If draining an electric water heater with the drain valve does not eliminate the noise, you can remove the lower element and clean the debris out through this opening. This is better left to a plumber or a relative you don’t like too much. 

I had several questions about a “rotten egg” smell in the hot water. This occurs more often when a water heater is not in use for some time. This is caused by bacteria in the water reacting with the anode rod. What the heck is an anode rod, I hear you asking. An anode rod is a metal rod (usually magnesium or aluminum) that is screwed into the tank of the water heater. This “sacrificial” rod will attract corrosion-causing elements in the water, so they cause the rod to corrode and not the metal water heater tank. 

There are various ways to eliminate the odor. Some plumbers recommend changing the anode rod with a different material that is more “stink-resistant.” I have heard of people simply removing the anode rod. This is not a good idea because the water heater tank will corrode much faster. 

Another way to eliminate the odor is to drain the water heater a little and add a small amount (a couple of pints) of bleach or hydrogen peroxide to the top of the tank. This works well, but requires removing one of the water supply lines on top of the water heater. It is best to use the hot water line, since the shutoff valve is in the cold water line. Also, the hot water line will open into the top of the tank, while the cold water line has a dip tube running to the bottom of the tank. 

If the water heater is more than about eight hours old, there will be corrosion on the supply lines. Changing anode rods or removing water lines from a water heater is better left to a plumber. If you damage the fittings on the water heater, you will be calling a plumber, possibly to replace the water heater (and your wife will be referring to you as Tim Taylor for a while). 

I forgot about this until I started writing this column. A few years ago, I inspected a home and found a “tee” on the hot water line above the water heater. The hot water to the home went off the side of the tee. On top of the tee, straight above the water heater, there was a water shutoff valve and a short nipple. Being the professional home inspector, I had to explain this to my clients. The water heater was in the garage, so I surmised that the owner might have had this valve and nipple installed so he could add a sink in the garage. 

The clients called me after they moved in and said I had “mis-surmised.” This was a second home for the previous owners, and they only used the home occasionally. They often had the rotten egg odor in the hot water. They had the valve and line added to make it easier to add some hydrogen peroxide to the tank. All they had to do was turn off the water valve to the water heater, drain a gallon of water out of the water heater, then open the valve on the hot water line and pour in some hydrogen peroxide. I thought this was a very clever idea. I wish I could take credit for it. If you have a frequent rotten egg odor in your hot water, you could ask a plumber to install such a tee and valve. 

If you attempt any of these improvements yourself, after you shut off the water supply to the water heater, you should open the hot water faucet at a sink or bathtub to relieve the pressure in the tank. In addition, you should show this column to your wife, so she can see that I recommended a plumber. 

By Randy West on November 4, 2010 

 

More on water heaters and hot water circulator pumps 

I’m an Einstein. At least according to one of my friends. He looked in my closet and noted that almost all my pants and shirts are the same. He told me that Albert Einstein always owned several identical suits, se he would not waste time deciding what to wear. 

That was not my motive. I never spend time deciding what to wear. Pants, shirt and two socks that are both relatively dark and I’m good to go. Now I only buy a certain brand of jeans because they have just the right pockets for my mirrors, flashlights, screwdrivers and other tools. And I only buy one brand of work shirt, because they have button flaps on both pockets and are relatively comfortable and inexpensive. I do buy different colors for some variety, but I just grab a shirt in the morning and don’t pay any attention to which color I’ll be wearing today. 

*** 

Last time I printed a letter from Larry with a plumbing problem. He has a hot water circulator (HWC) in his home. In case you just moved here and didn’t read my last column, an HWC is a small pump that circulates hot water through the lines. When working properly you don’t have to wait for hot water at the sinks or showers, which saves water. The HWC pump is usually located near the water heater. Larry’s problem is at some sinks the water is not hot, and won’t get hot no matter how long you run the water. I gave my opinion (which was almost certainly correct), but I ended my last column asking if anyone had advice for Larry. 

I received several e-mails after that column. Some even had something to do with Larry and HWC pumps. One lady e-mailed me and said her last water heater was very noisy (more on that in the next column). She had a new 40-gallon gas water heater installed to replace her old 30-gallon gas water heater. Now it takes much longer for the water to get really hot (she does not have an HWC). I e-mailed her and asked if a licensed plumber had installed the new water heater. I was told it was a friend (of a friend, actually). I told her my first guess was that the hot and cold lines were reversed. The cold water enters the water heater at the bottom of the tank through a dip tube, and the hot water takes water from the top of the tank (where the water is hottest – heat rises, you know). If you reverse these lines, you are putting cold water in at the top of the tank and taking the “coolest” water from the bottom of the tank. She e-mailed me back saying that was the problem and she can now take nice long hot showers. 

I also received this e-mail: 

“I am writing in regard to your article in the Courier regarding Larry who asked about his hot water circulation (HWC) system. My name is also Larry. I am not a plumber, home inspector, or contractor. I am just a homeowner. 

“You offered several possibilities. I would like to offer some questions and some additional suggestions. 

“How big is the home? How long are the hot water outlet and HWC return lines? Are the outlet hot water and return HWC lines insulated? How big is the hot water heater?” 

“My answers to the above questions for our home are: 

“How big is the home? 2,800 square feet, single level. How long are the hot water outlet and HWC return lines? The longest hot water and HWC run is about 100 feet. The run to the master bathroom is about 75 feet. Are the outlet hot water and return HWC lines insulated? Yes, where it is possible to do so. How big is the hot water heater? 75 gallons. 

“It appears the code for HWC systems is the same no matter the size of the home. A small home will re-circulate hot water more frequently than a large home. 

“Water heaters most likely have layers of hot and not-so-hot water in the tank. The larger the tank the longer to get recently heated water to the top of the tank and out into the hot water lines. 

“We periodically suffer similar not-so-hot water, as the Larry in your article experiences. We believe, even with insulated hot water and HWC return lines, that our periodic less than optimum hot water is caused by very long hot water lines and a larger than normal water heater. 

“Having said the above, we are very pleased to have a HWC System in our home. Thus, we willingly overlook the periodic less-than-optimum hot water in exchange for reducing water usage and for having the ability to have hot water on demand. 

“If any of the above has any merit, you are welcome to use it in your article. 

“I look forward to reading your column each week. 

“Sincerely, Lawrence (Larry) Neece.” 

I agree with some of what Larry says. There won’t be as much hot water (volume) in the pipes from the pump as there will be if a sink or shower faucet is open. So, if the lines are very long it’s possible the hot water will cool before it reaches the fixtures farthest from the water heater. This is especially true in cold weather when the pipes are cold. I’m not sure I agree with the “layers” of hot water in a water heater tank. I would think the hottest water should always be at the top. 

There is more information on HWC pumps in the YCCA column in today’s paper. 

Next week I’ll answer some questions about noisy water heaters wood foundations. 

By Randy West on October 21, 2010 

 

Polite e-mails get answered; rude ones go to Thor 

I have been getting a lot of e-mails from this column. I love a question to which I know the answer and can respond right away and sound really intelligent and knowledgeable. Unfortunately, I’m still waiting for that question. However, I do answer every question personally. Sometimes it takes me a few days. Those people may think it’s because I didn’t have a clue what the answer was and had to find some website to plagiarize. That’s not the case, because the truth is I have to work first and answer questions later. It also seems to take a little longer to answer some e-mails after football season starts, but that’s just a coincidence. 

Some e-mails/questions I will use in a column, such as the one below. This is great, because it saves me typing. I also get a few e-mails that suggest I perform a body movement that I am not limber enough to accomplish. I do not answer these e-mails, but I do send their e-mail addresses to Thor. Thor is a friend of mine who knows how to get e-mail addresses on every spam list in the country. 

Before I answer the aforementioned question, I have a “Part 2” to my last column. Last time I spoke about zone heaters. These are unvented gas “space heaters” that are allowed in homes with some exceptions, including that they are not the only or primary heat source for a room. A couple of months ago, I wrote about unvented gas fireplaces and stated these are not allowed in homes in our area. I ran out of room last time, but I was also trying to answer the following question. Why? That is, why are unvented zone heaters allowed and unvented gas fireplaces not allowed? 

I actually know the answer to this one. The burner/flames on gas zone heaters, like most gas heating appliances (including furnaces, water heaters and cooking ranges), are adjusted for maximum heat and efficiency. The flames are mostly blue, and there is little carbon monoxide in the exhaust. Most gas fireplaces are not exceptional heat producers. Many are more for looking at while you play poker with the boys or Scrabble with the kids. The burners are adjusted to make uneven orange flames to simulate a wood fire. Flames like this can produce high levels of carbon monoxide. 

I don’t want the local fireplace retailers upset with me (remember Thor!). I know the unvented fireplaces have an oxygen depletion sensor that should shut off the burner if oxygen levels get too low in the room. And I know that some gas fireplaces have blowers and do provide some heat into the room. But most unvented gas fireplace owners’ manuals suggest you partially open a window in the room with the fireplace when using it. I don’t know of any “heating” appliance that recommends you open a window whenever you use it. 

I received the following question from a reader named Larry last week: 

“I have a water heater question that is puzzling the heck out of me. Can you help? My gas water heater has a recirculation pump attached to it for instant hot water at the tap. Sometimes the water is hot like it should be; other times it is only very warm (even if I let it run for a minute or so). What could be the cause of this? Many thanks in advance for your help.” 

Thanks for writing, Larry. You have a hot water circulator (HWC) pump. Does the pump have a built-in timer, or is it plugged into a timer? If there is a timer, you should check its operation. With some HWC pumps, if the timer is off, you will not get fully hot water at some fixtures. 

Also, a gas water heater has a much faster “recovery” than an electric water heater. So there is a larger difference in the hot and cold limits, otherwise the water heater would fire up very frequently for short times and never reach maximum efficiency. For example, if the thermostat is set around 110 degrees, the water heater may cycle on around 104 degrees and turn off around 116 degrees. So once in a while the water will seem a little hotter than normal, because you are at the top of the “cycle.” Other times the water may seem a little less hot, because you are at the bottom of the cycle. If you happen to be at the bottom of the cycle and continue to run water, it will take the water heater longer than normal to heat the water (so the water my remain warm instead of hot). 

If the warm water is a concern, you should consult with a plumber. There could be other problems. How old is the water heater? Is there a kinked supply pipe over the water heater, restricting water flow? Is the warm water more noticeable at some fixtures, or is it at all fixtures? 

Hope this helps. 

Larry replied: 

“Thanks for your quick response. My HWC pump is not on a timer. I checked for any kink in the supply line and there is none. This issue has been going on for a year or so. The water heater is five years old. I guess it is just one of those things we will have to live with. It is not a big deal. Thank you so much for your kind advice.” 

Any plumbers (or non-plumbers) out there have a suggestion? 

By Randy West on October 7, 2010 

 

Gas space or zone heaters are allowed in homes 

I answered the phone earlier this week and the voice on the other end said, “Hi, you inspected my home five years ago.” This is a sure way to get a home inspector’s attention. The caller continued, “I’m selling my home and the buyers had a friend do their inspection.” This is another good way to get an inspector’s attention. 

It is amazing what “friends” sometimes say when inspecting a home. Some of these friends may be in the construction trades, but find they are in over their heads when inspecting the entire home. The world’s best electrician may not know the combustion air requirements for a 100,000 Btu furnace in a hall closet. And the world’s greatest plumber may not know where safety glass or smoke detectors are required. 

So, these friends go into a play-it-safe mode. If something is wrong and they don’t “report” it, the buyers may (understandably) be upset with them. So if they’re unsure if something is wrong, they figure it’s safer to say it’s wrong. Of course, what they should say is “I don’t know.” I have to say this occasionally. I don’t know any contractor or home inspector who knows every detail and requirement for every trade. Not to mention the new products and construction techniques that we encounter. 

Back to the phone call. The next sentence was, “He said the ventless gas heater in the family room is dangerous and not allowed, but you didn’t say this in your report.” 

The heater in question is a “blue flame” ventless gas wall heater. I have had a couple other questions regarding these heaters, especially after an earlier column about our gas company not allowing ventless gas fireplaces in homes. I was going to wait for cold weather to answer them, but I guess we’re close enough to the heating season. 

There is a big difference between ventless gas fireplaces and ventless wall heaters. The ventless gas wall heaters are allowed, with some restrictions. These are also known as “space” heaters, but most manufacturers refer to them as “zone” heaters. 

These heaters come in two models. A “blue flame” heater has, surprisingly, a blue flame, and the heat is supplied by convection. This is the same principle as a baseboard heater. The heat rises, causing the air to “flow” around the room. 

There are also “infrared” zone heaters. These have two or three bricks that glow red when the heater is on. These provide heat partially by convection, but also by infrared. This is the same principle as standing in the sun. On a cool day (or a hot day) you are much warmer in direct sunlight than in the shade. This is infrared or radiant heat – the heat actually warms whatever object it touches. 

Both blue flame and infrared heaters come in LP or natural gas (some come equipped for both). The most common sizes are 10,000 Btu, 20,000 Btu and 30,000 Btu. A 10,000 Btu heater can heat around 350 square feet. A 20,000 Btu heater is good for 700 square feet, and a 30,000 Btu heater can heat up a 1,000 square feet. The manufacturers note these are “ballparks” and depend on local climate, the home insulation, etc. 

Blue flame and infrared heaters are allowed in homes, but as I said, with some important restrictions. I will not go into “codes” in this column; you need to check what your municipality or gas supplier allows. Instead, I will refer to the manufacturer’s requirements and recommendations. Note that some local codes are the same as these requirements. I went to the top three-zone heater manufacturers’ websites, and their requirements are very similar. 

A zone heater should not be the only heat source for the room/area. Zone heaters are intended to “complement” the primary heating system. The main intent is to lower heating bills by heating only the areas (“zones”) where you spend the most time. The maximum size heater recommended for a bathroom is 6,000 Btu, and for a bedroom is 10,000 Btu. They all recommend you check with your local building department because they may have further rules or restrictions. They all state these heaters are not intended for elevations over 5,000 feet. 

I have one of these heaters in my garage. I personally feel these heaters are safe if installed and used properly, even though we are a little over the 5,000 foot elevation. Zone heaters burn at 99 percent efficiency and do not produce carbon monoxide. All zone heaters have an “oxygen depletion sensor” that should shut the heater off if oxygen levels in the room drop. 

So, back to the home in question. The family room in this home is over a 24′ by 24′ garage, so it’s almost 600 square feet. The family room has open beam cathedral (sloped) ceilings. The family room is heated by the central furnace, but is often cool when it’s very cold outside. This is because it’s not over heated space like the rest of the upper level rooms, and because the open beam ceiling has less attic insulation than the rest of the home. The blue flame heater is 10,000 Btu. 

So, I did not have a problem with this. The zone heater is not the only or primary heat source, and was not oversized for the area. In my report, I recommended the clients install a carbon monoxide detector in the family room, which is a good idea in any home with any type of gas or woodburning appliances. 

I have also been asked what exactly a Btu is. This stands for British Thermal Unit and is how we measure the capacity of heating devices. For example, most central gas forced air furnaces in our area are 80,000 to 100,000 Btu. Larger homes can have furnaces up to 150,000 Btu, or two smaller furnaces. Newer homes will have smaller furnaces because both newer homes and newer furnaces are more energy efficient. If you’re studying for your next trivia game, one Btu is the energy required to heat one pound of water one degree (Fahrenheit). 

By Randy West on September 23, 2010 

 

Non-working cable outlets only a danger to blood pressure 

I have to start this week with an “update” to a funny story. I use a wireless Bluetooth earbud with my cell phone. Last year I told you this can cause problems. I was walking out of a restaurant and called my wife. When she answered, I said, “Hi, beautiful!” The two girls in front of me turned around and gave me “the look.” I pointed at the strange growth in my ear and quickly told them I was talking to my wife. They understood and smiled and walked away. 

Here’s the update. My smart phone allows me to “dictate” e-mail and text messages. This is very convenient for someone with Neanderthal-sized thumbs like me. You have to say the punctuation marks. So I was “speaking” a text message while sitting in my car last week. It went something like this: “Tom comma, I will be there at 8:00 period. By the way comma, you better bring doughnuts this time exclamation point.” 

At this point I looked out my window, and an elderly couple was staring at me. I was not holding the phone, and they could not see the earbud in my right ear. I just smiled and nodded, and they (very) quickly walked away. 

Right then Barbara Andersen, a local Realtor, called me. I was still chuckling so I told her what happened. I told her there were many people in Prescott who think I talk to myself because of the earbud. Barbara had a different approach to this. She said she does talk to herself a lot, so she bought an earbud and puts it in her ear so people won’t realize she’s talking to herself. 

Last week, I told you why home inspectors don’t inspect evaporative coolers. I’ll continue with what we don’t do this week. Some clients recently asked why home inspectors don’t inspect cable TV and/or phone lines. They had a valid point when they said that in this “digital” day and age the cable TV or phone lines are much more important. 

I could give the wimpy excuse that I hear other inspectors give: The Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors don’t require us to inspect TV and phone cables. I don’t like that excuse, especially since I inspect other items that the Standards don’t require us to. For example, we are not required to inspect or test smoke detectors. But I always test every smoke detector, and recommend them if they’re not present. 

The Standards require us to test one electrical outlet in every room. But I always test both plugs in every accessible outlet. 

So why do I test smoke detectors and every electrical outlet when I’m not required to, but not phone and cable outlets? Because smoke detectors and electrical outlets can be safety concerns if they’re not working or wired properly. A nonworking TV or phone outlet can definitely be inconvenient, but is not a safety concern (unless you get so frustrated you start throwing things). And even if I wanted to inspect cable TV outlets, it would be pretty difficult. My electrical outlet tester fits in my pocket. To test TV cable outlets I would literally have to take a TV to every cable outlet, plug in the TV and connect the cable, and then turn the TV on to see if the cable is working. This would obviously be difficult and too time-consuming to do during a home inspection. 

And even if I found a non-working cable outlet, it is not necessarily a problem. All electrical outlets in a home should be working all the time. But the last time I had the cable company at my home, they asked me which outlets I intended to use. They only connected those cables at the box on the exterior wall. So the cable outlets in some rooms are not working, but if I decide I want a TV or computer in that room, all they have to do is connect that cable at the box on the exterior wall. 

I know from personal experience how frustrating it can be to move into a home and find out the phone or cable outlets don’t work. I bought a new home about six years ago. I did the inspection the same way I would for clients, meaning I did not test the phone or cable outlets. I have two phone numbers to my home, one being my company phone number. On the day we moved in I was in a hurry to get my business phone working. I discovered that most phone outlets were not working. The electricians wired the phone outlets in this house, and they wired them in series. 

I already explained that there were cables from every TV outlet in the home to the cable box on the exterior wall. But there was only one wire from the phone box. Think of the old Christmas lights, where if one bulb went out the entire string of lights would not work. That’s what I had with my phone outlets. I had to go to every phone outlet in the home and splice the wires together so the “next” outlet in the series would work. And I had to do this on moving day. But even for myself, there is no practical way to test phone and TV outlets during a home inspection. 

By Randy West on September 2, 2010 

 

Home inspectors are not home connectors 

I, and all inspectors, have been inspecting a lot of bank-owned properties lately. Banks seem to work about as fast as a 1968 VW bus going up a steep hill (with a flat tire), so some of these homes have been vacant for some time. I have been asked several times recently (by clients, Realtors and other inspectors) if I operate the evaporative cooler. If the cooler is connected and full of water I will operate it. If the cooler is still “winterized,” I will not operate it. 

I had one potential client tell me there were two evaporative coolers on the roof, and they were both covered and the water lines were not connected. I told him that I don’t connect water lines that are disconnected, and that I don’t have the time to “fire up” two coolers. 

He insisted he wanted the coolers operated. So I told him connecting water lines was against “corporate policy.” This works more times than you would think. A lot of people know you can’t argue with corporate policy. But he asked how many people are in my corporation, and I had to answer honestly: just me. But I was adamant about not connecting the coolers, and he declined my services. 

Why won’t I operate coolers? I’ll answer by telling one of my “war stories.” In 1994, I inspected a home in Prescott Valley. The home had a concrete slab floor (no crawlspace, which saves at least 20 minutes on the inspection), and cathedral/sloped interior ceilings (no attic, saving another 20 minutes). The home was all electric (no gas appliances, saving 20 minutes). The home was small, vacant, only a few years old, and no teenage boys had ever lived in it (20 minutes saved on the interior inspection). 

I completed my inspection in a little more than an hour. To this day that is the fastest inspection I’ve ever done. Now I had almost two hours to wait for the buyers. I decided to do the buyers a favor and fire up the evaporative cooler. This was partly because I felt guilty about the inspection taking so little time, and partly because it was hot out and I was going to sit at the kitchen counter and work on my report. 

I went back on the roof and discovered three things right away. One, most people use about 950 feet of rope to tie the canvas covers on the coolers. Two, after a year in the sun and rain the knots do not want to become untied. And three, no matter how careful you are there is a 92.4 percent chance the canvas will rip when removing it. 

I got the canvas cover off, but not before I made it two “half” covers. I figured I did the buyers a favor – the cover would be easier to install this way (although admittedly not quite as weatherproof). I installed the drain, checked the belt, pads, supply tubes, etc. Then I went to the garage and connected the evaporative cooler water line to the valve over the water heater. I turned the water on and went back on the roof right away to check for leaks. The cooler filled up and the float turned off the water at the proper level. I put the covers on and went inside the home and turned the cooler on. After about 10 minutes the air started cooling down, and I sat down at the kitchen counter with my laptop to work on the inspection report. 

An hour or so later the buyers showed up. We talked in the kitchen for a while, and I told them I had hooked up and started the evaporative cooler for them. They were really appreciative until we walked into the master bedroom and saw the water dripping out of the ceiling. 

I immediately turned off the cooler, turned off the water to the cooler, and drained the cooler. But there was already damage to the ceiling in the master bedroom. I called the listing agent and told her what I had done. (I didn’t tell her that I gave up on the knots and cut the ropes into 27 shorter ropes, or about the two-piece cover.) 

That afternoon the listing agent called me and said the seller was pretty upset. He knew the water line had frozen and broken in the attic. He did not worry about it, because he did not think a home inspector would be removing covers or connecting water lines. I told her I would pay for the damage, which I did. 

After that I made my first corporate policy: If the evaporative cooler water line is disconnected and is not in full view, I will not connect it. Period. I am a home inspector, not a home connector. 

So if someone asks me to connect an evaporative cooler, I tell them no for several reasons: 

There is a risk of property damage. It is likely the cooler was drained and covered for the previous winter, but there is a chance the cooler is off for some other reason. 

It can take a lot of time to uncover a cooler and check the pads, pump, blower, belt, etc. There may be dampers that have to removed from the cooler and/or installed in the furnace. I simply don’t have time to do this on most inspections. 

The cooler really should get a thorough cleaning if it has not been used in a while. This includes taking the covers/pads off and hosing them off, cleaning the inside of the cooler, checking and cleaning the pump filter/screen, oiling the blower motor, etc. I definitely don’t have time to do all this. 

And if all that fails, I tell them it’s corporate policy. 

By Randy West on August 19, 2010  

 

News about mandatory pool inspections is erroneous 

Two weeks ago, an e-mail was sent out to all Prescott-area real estate agents and home inspectors stating that a new law was passed regarding home inspections. The e-mail stated the Board of Technical Registration (BTR, the state agency that regulates home inspectors) now requires home inspectors to inspect swimming pools and spas. I received about a dozen e-mails and calls from agents and home inspectors about this. 

Some of the home inspectors were a little upset with me, because I serve on the BTR Home Inspector Rules and Standards Committee. They wanted to know why we (the committee) would support this and require home inspectors to inspect pools. 

Let me set the record straight: Home inspectors are NOT required to inspect pools and spas. The Rules and Standards committee initiated this action and supported this bill to protect the public and home inspectors. Many Phoenix home inspectors will inspect swimming pools (for an additional fee). The BTR has received complaints regarding pool inspections by home inspectors. The BTR cannot review these complaints if there are no standards for the inspector to follow. So the new law states that IF a home inspector chooses to inspect a pool or spa, he must follow the standards adopted by the BTR. 

*** 

Following is an e-mail I received after my last column: 

Randy: 

We recently purchased a 5-year-old home in Prescott, which had a very nice, thorough inspection. 

Once we moved in, we started renovation work. While adding a hole in the roof for a new skylight, we were flooded with water! First thought was that we had hit a waterline that was buried in the foam roofing. Instead, they had broken a foam dam formed around the base of an air conditioning unit which released water when it was breached. 

Apparently when the roof was foamed, instead of moving the unit and foaming underneath it, they had built a foam dam around the unit. Unfortunately, over the years, water had seeped under the unit, which was resting on 2x4s. So when they cut the hole for the skylight, which happened to be close to one of the units, the dam was breached and old, nasty water seeped in through the attic and in to the house – they estimate about 20 gallons of water under each unit! 

To make a long story short, we had to remove the units, patch the foam roof, and replace the units on stands. This would have bitten us eventually, so I’m grateful we found this problem now – although it’s added another $3,500-plus to our renovation! 

No inspector could have possibly found this; it wasn’t visible, and we certainly don’t hold him responsible. We just thought you might want to pass this on to your readers who have foam roofs They may want to be wary of this situation. 

P.S. Oh, by the way… you were our inspector. 

Barry and June, I’m sorry to hear about your water problem. You don’t know how much I appreciate that you realize this was a hidden defect that was not visible. Every home inspector has had contractors that discover a leak (or other hidden defect) and immediately say, “Your home inspector should have caught this.” They don’t realize that we don’t carry saws or drills with us, and are not allowed to do any type of destructive testing. 

The last time this happened to me, the contractor opened up an exterior wall during a remodel and discovered no insulation. He immediately suggested the owner contact the inspector (me) because I should have caught this in my inspection. In my reports, I never comment on exterior wall insulation other than to say it’s not visible. In the “Insulation” section I have the following statement: “I do not comment on wall insulation because it is not visible (If the wall insulation is visible, you’d better check the ‘Interior’ page for comments about damaged walls.)” 

By Randy West on August 5, 2010 

 

Buyers are hot under the collar over air conditioners 

Whew, it’s getting hot out! I have to put some extra shirts in my van every Monday morning because when I come out of an attic I can literally wring out the shirt I’m wearing. My only consolation is thinking of my buddies in Phoenix. I’ve found attics more than 135 degrees up here. It could be 130 degrees in the garage in Phoenix, before you start up the ladder. 

I had two questions last week regarding window air conditioners. One was from a Realtor; one was from a buyer who just moved into a new home. Both were upset with their home inspector (not me). 

The Realtor wanted to know why home inspectors don’t inspect window air conditioners. The easiest answer, of course, is the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors don’t require us to. There are other reasons as well, one being that an air conditioner installed in a window is technically personal property and might not be included with the home purchase. It is also very difficult to determine if a window air conditioner is adequate size for the room. Another reason is it would be very easy to swap out a window air conditioner. I guess you could write down the make and serial number to make sure that does not happen. 

I know inspectors who write down the serial number of everything they inspect: the furnace, air conditioner, water heater, even the waste disposer. I don’t do that. I write the manufacturer, size and age. For example, I would note that the item is a 2002 Sears 50 gallon gas water heater. I’ve had inspectors tell me that I’m at risk because someone could swap the water heater. And if the water heater doesn’t work when the buyers move in, they may expect me to buy them one if I reported that it was working. My reply: What are the chances of the sellers finding another 2002 Sears 50-gallon gas water heater to swap it with? If it ever happens, I might start writing down serial numbers. 

Anyway, back to air conditioners. My policy is I don’t inspect air conditioners installed in a window. However, if the “window” air conditioner is actually in a wall, I will inspect it. It would be easy to remove an air conditioner from a window. But if the air conditioner is in a hole cut through the wall, I assume the sellers will likely leave it. 

The other call was from a buyer who had just moved into his home. It was very hot that day, and neither of the window air conditioners were working. One was blowing out hot air; the other didn’t work at all. The home inspector had clearly stated in his report that the window air conditioners were not operated or inspected. 

However, the home inspector had returned to do a “walk-through” inspection for the buyers after the home was vacant. So the buyers assumed he checked the window air conditioners during the walk-through inspection, because they were obviously included with the home. 

This is one of the reasons I do not do walk-through inspections. I have a “walk-through inspection” policy in my report, and it says I won’t do them. To me, a walk-through inspection is for making sure the home is in the same condition as the last time you saw it and to make sure all included appliances and items are in the home. I don’t know what appliances are included, if the dog excrement from the five Great Danes was supposed to be cleared from the backyard, if the carpeting was supposed to be shampooed, etc. 

The last time I did a walk-through inspection was 1995. When the buyer moved in, he called me and complained about holes in all the walls. I went to see the holes that night, thinking that vandals had entered the home and practiced their kung fu on the drywall. What I found were a few dozen nail holes where wall hangings had been removed. But the buyer was upset that I did not note these in the walk-through inspection. I told him the home was 20 years old – did he think that no one had ever hung a picture in the home? To make him happy, I went back the next day with spackling and a putty knife and covered the holes. And that night I wrote my “walk-through inspection” policy, which hasn’t changed. 

As long as I’m rambling, I still remember one of the first inspections I did. The home was vacant, and all three bedrooms were painted black. One had stars and planets on the ceiling. Another had a 12-inch-wide yellow stripe zigzagging across the walls (including on the closet doors and window blinds). The buyer was a 70-year-old woman. I was going over my notes with her, and as we walked past the bedrooms I was about to say, “What this home needs more than anything else is 47 gallons of white paint.” 

Just as I opened my mouth, she said, “I just love these rooms!” I bit my tongue and said “Really?” She said, “I have two grandsons who are just going to love these rooms.” 

So ever since then, I make no comment on décor or color choices. The home can have purple carpeting (I’ve seen it), Astroturf in the family room (I’ve seen it), a room completely wallpapered with beer bottle labels (I’ve seen that, too), and as long as they’re in good condition, I won’t even mention them in my report. 

By Randy West on July 22, 2010 

 

Warning: Instruction labels can cause dizziness, headache 

Joe Medosch, who owns Yavapai Home Inspections, is leaving us. Joe sent an e-mail to all the Realtors last week announcing his departure. He is moving to Georgia to teach at a tech school. I’ve known Joe since he moved here and consider him a good friend and a good inspector. 

We’ll miss you, Joe. I just have two things to say. On behalf of Prescott, the American Society of Home Inspectors, and all the local inspectors, we wish you and your family the very best. And do you have any inspection tools you want to sell? 

I received this question via e-mail this week: 

“We just moved to Phoenix and are trying to figure out if we can store our lawnmower and gas can in our garage. I read your article ‘Rules and standards for water heaters, outlets in garages,’ and it talks about having the water heater and outlets off the ground. Well, our house in Chandler is about 16 years old and has vents in the garage, one near the floor. The heater and water heater are well off the floor, as is the electric socket. Both the heater and water heater have labels saying to keep gasoline 50 feet away. 

“So does this mean that we can’t store our tightly sealed standard red gas can and lawnmower in the garage? If so, then why is it OK to park our car in the garage?” 

A: I’m not sure why I received a question from Chandler. Perhaps they used to live up here, since they said they just moved to Chandler. This is a good question, though. A quick refresher: Gas appliances (water heater, furnace, etc.) in garages are required to be 18 inches off the floor. This is because gasoline vapors will stay near the floor. So if there is a gas leak or spill in the garage, you don’t want a pilot light or flame within 18 inches of the floor. 

Many times I have found gasoline or other very flammable liquids stored right next to a gas water heater or furnace in a garage. I always move them away and advise the occupants and/or buyers to not store flammable liquids near a gas appliance. 

The last few days I’ve been reading the warning labels on water heaters to see what they say about flammable liquids. During my research, I found this label: “Warning: Water will be hot.” Well, I hope so. After all, it is a water heater. 

I also found this one: “Warning: If the building in which this water heater resides is on fire, do not enter building.” This really made me wonder: Did the writer of that label think someone was going to rush into a burning building to save their water heater? Not to mention the fact that you have to be in the building to read the label. 

On the water heater in my home there is the following warning label: “Do not use or store flammable liquids such as gasoline, solvents or adhesives in the same room or near the water heater. Keep flammable products: 1) far way from heater; 2) in approved containers; 3) tightly closed; and 4) out of children’s reach.” 

Directly below that on the same label it says, “Installation: Do not install water heater where flammable products will be stored or used unless the main burner and pilot flames are at least 18 inches above the floor. This will reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of vapors being ignited by the main burner or pilot flames.” 

To me, the “warning” and the “installation” seem to contradict each other. One sentence states to not store flammable liquids in the same room. The next sentence says keep flammable products in approved containers and “far away from heater.” The installation instructions say that storing flammable liquids in the same room is okay if the water heater is 18 inches off the floor. I’m confused. Wait, maybe I’m not. 

I’m sure not going to say what’s okay. I can’t even understand the warnings and instructions on my own water heater. I will say that common sense says that gasoline and gasoline-containing objects (yes, even cars) will be stored in a garage. So I strongly recommend that all gas appliances be installed 18 inches off the garage floor. And I strongly recommend that all flammable materials be in approved containers. And I strongly recommend that you store flammable liquids as far away from the water heater as possible. 

The letter also mentioned the “vents” in the garage, one being near the floor. I assume they mean vents to the exterior. These are combustion air vents and provide combustion and draft air for the gas appliances. In Prescott, I don’t always see combustion air vents if there is just a water heater in the garage. Gas water heaters are usually about 40,000 Btu. The logic is that overhead garage doors don’t seal tightly so some combustion air will enter around the door. However, if there is also a 100,000 Btu furnace in the garage, you may need these combustion air vents to the exterior. There can also be combustion air vents in a closet or laundry room with gas appliances. I often see these vents covered, either accidentally by storing items in front of them or intentionally by covering them with cardboard and/or tape. If there are combustion air vents, they are needed, and they should never be covered or obstructed. 

By Randy West on July 8, 2010 

 

Stuck on stucco options? Here are some facts 

I’ve had a couple of questions recently about stucco – in particular about synthetic stucco or EIFS. Here’s a quick summary of the different kinds of stucco. I am not a stucco contractor, so this is from the home inspector’s perspective. A stucco contractor can give you more detailed information. 

Traditional or three-coat stucco is a masonry product. As the name implies, it is applied in three coats. The scratch coat is the bottom coat that is applied on the metal lath. This is the thickest coat, and is what adheres the stucco to the lath and building. It’s called the scratch coat because this coat is ‘scratched’ to allow the next coat to bond to it. 

The second coat is the brown coat. This is usually not as thick as the scratch coat, and provides a smoother finish. The top coat is called the finish coat. This is the thinnest coat – sometimes not much thicker than a coat of paint. Usually the finish coat is colored, so you don’t have to paint the stucco after the finish coat is applied. 

This stucco is very hard when finished and dry. It can be damaged (from golf balls, Nissans, etc.), but overall it is very resistive to minor damage and cracking. I have seen 25-year-old homes with traditional stucco and hardly a crack or dent to be found. It is susceptible to cracking in the event of structural movement of the home. 

More common in newer homes is what home inspectors call “California One-Coat.” I don’t know why we call it that, because it’s usually installed in two coats. The scratch and brown coats are combined into a single coat, but there is still a finish coat. Home inspectors are not the only ones to call it “one-coat.” The manufacturers and installers also do. In fact, there is a National One-Coat Stucco Association. 

Traditional and one-coat stucco is not completely waterproof, so they need a vapor barrier and weep screed when installed on wood frame walls. I’ve talked about the weep screed in this column before. It is a drain along the bottom of the frame wall, parallel to the ground or stem walls. It appears as a ‘lip’ in the stucco walls. Ideally it should be 6 inches above soil and 2 inches above hard surfaces. 

The vapor barrier (usually plastic nowadays) keeps water that penetrates the stucco off the wood sheathing and framing. This water will either evaporate, or drain to the bottom of the wall (because of a secret ingredient called “gravity”). The weep screed allows water/moisture that does not evaporate to drain out the bottom of the stucco walls. 

There is another type of stucco called EIFS or (less commonly) synthetic stucco. This stands for Exterior Insulation and Finish System, and is called/pronounced “eeefs” (like the ‘eaves’ of a home, only with an F). Like one-coat stucco, EIFS has a base and finish coat. EIFS also has a foam board that is glued or secured to the frame walls. There is no wire lath (or “chicken wire”) in EIFS; rather, there is a reinforcing mesh that is usually applied with the base coat. 

EIFS has been popular in Europe for decades. It saw widespread use after World War II to repair buildings that were damaged during the war. Most of these buildings were masonry (block, stone, brick, etc.), and the EIFS worked very well. In fact, properly installed EIFS is more “waterproof” than one-coat or traditional stucco. 

EIFS did not become popular in the United States until the 1980s. At first it was used primarily on commercial buildings in this country. These were mostly masonry buildings, and the EIFS worked very well. Eventually contractors started using EIFS on single-family dwellings. Most single-family dwellings have wood frame walls rather than masonry walls. We know that EIFS is actually very good at keeping moisture out of walls. Unfortunately, this means EIFS is also very good at keeping moisture inside walls. When water gets under EIFS, it cannot get out. This caused moisture damage to the wall sheathing and framing, and mildew and mold in a lot of single-family homes. There have been several class-action lawsuits against EIFS manufacturers or installers, and many private lawsuits. Most of these were in the southeast United States. 

It should be noted that in most of these cases the EIFS was not the culprit. It was the installation, in particular the flashings, and especially the flashings around windows and doors. There were also concerns at the wall/roof transitions (i.e. no “kick-out flashing”). The EIFS itself performed admirably keeping moisture out of the walls – and, unfortunately, performed admirably keeping moisture inside the walls because the flashings were not properly installed. 

Newer EIFS is installed with a vapor barrier that allows water to drain from the wall. When properly installed, there is nothing wrong with EIFS stucco. In fact, recent long-term studies have found EIFS with a vapor barrier is “better” than traditional stucco. By “better,” the studies show that EIFS is more water-resistant and provides better insulation, which were always its strong points. 

I have not heard of any EIFS problems in single-family homes in Prescott. That’s not to say I have not found moisture damage in exterior walls in Prescott. Improper window flashings and missing kick-out flashings are a concern with any exterior wall cladding, including one-coat or traditional stucco or wood siding. They’re just more of a concern with EIFS because the walls cannot dry out as fast. 

By Randy West on June 24, 2010 

 

Low-e windows great for homeowners, but not for neighbors with vinyl siding 

I’ve been saying it for years. I’ve written about it in this column and other publications. I’ve even taught classes on it – communication. 

You can be the best inspector in the world. You can have 20,000 inspections under your belt. You can have dozens of certifications. But if you can’t communicate what you found to the client, you might as well stay home and watch “Law and Order.” 

Last week, I was going over my notes with a client. I was talking about the attic, and I told her there was 12 inches of loose fiberglass insulation in the attic, about R-30. Then I told her there was batt insulation on the skylight walls in the attic. I started talking about the attic ventilation when I noted a concerned look on her face. I asked her if she had any questions. She said, “I don’t want any bad insulation. Should I ask the sellers to replace that with good insulation?” 

It took me a second to understand, and then I explained that there was “batt” insulation in the attic. This is insulation on a roll rather than loose insulation, and there was nothing wrong with it. I’ll be more careful when describing insulation in the future. 

I’ve learned some new things about low-e glass. This stands for low emissivity, and is basically a thin metallic (but transparent) film on the glass. The film will reflect ultraviolet and infrared (heat). In Arizona, the film is facing outside, so it will reflect the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays, and will reflect heat from the sun. These windows can reduce your cooling bills and make your home more comfortable. In northern areas with very cold winters, the low-e coating is reversed, so it reflects heat back into the home and reduces heating costs. 

Some builders in northern climates actually use different windows on different walls. They have the low-e reflecting out on the south facing windows to avoid heat gain in the home in the summer. And on the north-facing walls they have the low-e facing in to avoid heat loss from the home to the exterior. 

I sometimes find some of the low-e windows reversed. This is not a major concern. A reversed low-e window does not magnify the ultraviolet light or heat; it simply does not reduce them. As with northern climates, it will help reduce your winter heating costs. But this is not as efficient in our climate as having the low-e facing the exterior. Unfortunately, reversing the windows is usually expensive and not cost-effective. 

I’ve also said in this column that no matter how experienced a home inspector is, and no matter how many classes a home inspector takes, you will always encounter something you’ve not seen before. I recently inspected a newer home with low-e windows. I found several reversed, which surprised me because the home was very high-quality. I showed my fancy low-e tester to the buyers and explained that improvement may not be cost-effective. 

After the buyers left, I tested the windows from the exterior and found there was low-e facing out. There was also low-e facing in. I pulled out my trusty Droid and started looking at window manufacturer websites. I found there are “double-low-e” windows. These have the film on both sides, so you get both summer and winter benefits. 

I had not encountered these windows before (possibly because they are very expensive). I put a long note in the inspection report explaining that there was nothing wrong with the windows, and in fact they were upgraded windows. So now I know I have to check low-e windows both from the interior and exterior. 

Low-e windows are a good investment: They can pay for the extra cost of the windows in just a few years. And if you don’t think they work, there is mounting evidence that low-e windows (facing out) have damaged the vinyl siding on nearby homes. Reflected heat from windows damaging vinyl siding has been known for years, even before low-e windows. Double-pane windows seem to cause more damage. The thought was that the outer pane on double-pane windows can bow inward due to differences in pressure. This makes the window slightly concave, and concentrates the reflected heat. 

There are technical bulletins from glass manufacturers and testing laboratories confirming incidences of damaged vinyl siding from heat reflected from windows. Vinyl siding manufacturers don’t like to discuss this, but it’s noteworthy that some manufacturers warranties exclude damage from reflected heat from windows. It’s also noteworthy that some vinyl manufacturers offer products made with CPVC instead of PVC. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is the plastic used in vinyl siding. It is also the plastic used in PVC water supply lines. And chlorinated PVC (CPVC) is the “yellow” PVC piping used for hot water supply lines, because CPVC is more resistant to heat. Unfortunately, CPVC vinyl siding costs much more to manufacture, so it is much more expensive. 

With the increased use of low-e windows, there have been more reports of vinyl siding damaged by window reflections. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) reported recently that the incidents of damaged siding from window reflections have increased in the same proportion as the increased use of low-e windows. So while you’re keeping your home comfortable and reducing your cooling costs, you might be melting your neighbors’ vinyl siding. 

By Randy West on June 3, 2010 

 

Quality home inspections take time – and avert lawsuits 

Recently I called a listing Realtor to schedule an inspection on a 3,400-square-foot home. I told her I would be there all day, and she was very surprised. I told her my basic job description is to walk around real slow for a few hours and scratch my head a lot, and when I’m done everything should come together and make sense. 

She said the home inspector she refers can do a 3,000-square-foot home in a few hours. She then asked when I deliver the report, and I told her the next day. Gee, her inspector delivers it right there at the home. I forget exactly what she said, but she inferred that I must not be as good since it takes me twice as long to do the same job, and I can’t even deliver the report on site. 

Several replies came to mind, a couple of which would ensure that I never got a referral from this Realtor (not that I expected one anyway, since I was so slow). But I simply said I go for quality, not quantity. But this conversation got me thinking. Inspections take me longer than they did 10 years ago. Even when I first started, I realized that any home over 3,000 square feet was a “one-a-dayer.” But you would think if you do the same job or task every day for 17 years, you would get faster at it. But I seem to be getting slower. 

One reason might be that I try to get a “feel” for a home. When I first get there, I walk around for several minutes, not looking at anything in particular. I do notice the type of roof and siding, where the crawlspace access is, and the best place to access the roof, but I am not really “inspecting” anything yet. I didn’t do this when I first started doing home inspections. 

After all these years, I do have a routine. But I’ve added another little ritual that adds time to my inspections. I inspect the exterior, including the roof and garage, then take a break and check my notes. Then I inspect the interior, take a break and check my notes. The last places I go are the attic and the crawlspace under the home, if there is one. I check my notes carefully before I enter these two fun places. I actually keep a list on the side of my checklist of all the things that I have to check in the attic. This usually includes items like how many exhaust fans there are, any interior ceiling stains, low airflow at a furnace supply vent, etc. 

At a national meeting of home inspectors, I brought this subject up at the after-the-class meeting in the hotel bar. There were inspectors there that are older than me (yes, really!). What surprised me is that the older inspectors all do one home inspection a day, or maybe two small homes. Some of them used to always do two inspections a day; a couple said they used to do three on occasion. Of course, they were in a big city where there are no crawlspaces and every home in a subdivision was the same, right down to the kitchen range and bedroom doors. 

So we tried to figure out why it’s taking us more time to inspect a home instead of less time. We all immediately agreed that age or older muscles had absolutely nothing to do with it (though my ladders have gained some weight the last few years). So we came to the conclusion that the more “seasoned” inspectors simply knew more stuff to look for. Having seen more homes, we had seen more defects, more unusual conditions, more (and better) attempts at hiding flaws, etc. It takes us longer because we know more things to look for. That’s our story, and we’re all sticking with it! 

I think that Realtor, and perhaps some home sellers, get worried when they are told a home inspector will be there for hours. They may be afraid the inspector is looking for every little nitpicky scratch and dent in the drywall. But that is not the case. Being on site longer does not necessarily mean an inspector is pickier than another inspector. 

Most home inspectors are one-man shops. We can’t afford secretaries, so we have to stay on top of the phone calls. I easily spend a couple hours a day on the phone, telling potential clients how wonderful I am, scheduling inspections, explaining to my wife why I’ll be late again, etc. So if I’m on site at a large home for 7 or 8 hours, there might only be 5 or 6 of actual inspecting. 

I have to admit, there was one strongly dissenting voice at that bar table. There was one young inspector who scoffed at us old guys. He claimed he does three inspections every day. Someone asked him if he did 15 inspections last week. “Well, no, not last week, because I was in court for two days.” Did you do 15 inspections the week before? “Well, no, I had a couple meetings with my attorney that week.” Someone had to ask him if he was in court regarding a home inspection. He was, but he was very proud that he had only been sued six times. In four years. (Note: That inspector was not from Arizona. He was from a state that does not regulate home inspectors.) 

I have never been in court as the defendant. I think I’ll continue to walk around real slow and scratch my head a lot… 

By Randy West on May 20, 2010 

 

Issues to look for when buying a manufactured home 

I was driving to an inspection last week, and when I got close I saw there were two driveways opposite each other. There was a real estate sign at both driveways. After checking the address number, I pulled into the home I needed to inspect. 

Later I came out to my car to check messages and return phone calls. I had a message from Jenny, who wanted to order an inspection. I knew Jenny because I had inspected homes for her previously. I called Jenny and proceeded to fill out my order form. When I asked for the address, I realized it was the home across the street, which I could clearly see. I asked Jenny, “Isn’t that a brown house with green trim, a detached two-car garage and a slightly downhill asphalt driveway?” 

There was a slight pause, and Jenny said, “My goodness, you really know Prescott, don’t you?” 

I let her believe that I know every home in Prescott for few minutes before telling her that I happened to be across the street. She laughed and said she should have thought of that because she looked at the home I was inspecting. 

I need to update you on water heaters in manufactured homes. A quick summary: Only a water heater that is made for manufactured homes should be installed in a manufactured home. The data label on any water heater will state that the water heater is (or is not) intended for use in a manufactured home. Unisource Energy, our natural gas supplier, will “red-tag” a non-manufactured water heater installed in a manufactured home. 

I had a call from a Realtor who had a stick-built addition on a manufactured home, and the water heater was in the addition. She wanted to know if that water heater needed to be a “manufactured home water heater.” 

I didn’t know, so I said I’d check and get back to her (and you). I asked Jeff at the new construction department at Unisource Energy. He stated that Unisource would not red-tag this, because the water heater was not in the confines of the actual manufactured home. 

This water heater “controversy” led to other questions regarding manufactured home inspections. One Realtor realized that I was calling for the same improvements in every manufactured home I inspected. She wanted to know how every manufactured home could have the same “defects.” 

As a matter of fact, many manufactured homes do have the same concerns. Let me explain. Overall, manufactured homes are well built. They are built in a “factory,” so the wood-framing package is not dumped off a truck and subject to rain or snow before it is used. And after building thousands of the same model, the construction and the quality control simply has to get better. 

However, manufactured homes are not built to “code.” They are built to HUD specifications, which often lag a few years behind the code requirements. So there are several concerns that I see in almost all manufactured homes. Here are a few of the most common. 

I note in my reports that routing TPR and condensate lines to the exterior and installing GFCI outlets is a minor task/expense. Unfortunately, an addition blocking a bedroom or bathroom window, or no proper fire/gas separation between a garage and home, can be more costly to improve. I realize that often these improvements are so impractical that clients will not make them. But I have informed my clients of these concerns. They can install smoke detectors in and near the bedroom. They can install a smoke detector in the garage and a carbon monoxide detector in the home and make sure they don’t run a car in the garage for too long. 

They also know that when they sell the home in five years, the next danged home inspector will call out these concerns. 

By Randy West on May 6, 2010 

 

Billing through escrow is a conflict of interest for home inspectors 

I love the color gray, which is a good thing in my profession, which has more gray than black and white. For example, recently I wrote about water heaters in manufactured homes. I wrote that some water heaters are manufactured specifically for manufactured homes. All water heaters should have a label that says “approved for use in manufactured homes” or “not approved for use in manufactured homes.” 

Manufactured home water heaters are higher quality than regular water heaters. Some professionals (plumbers, etc.) feel that once a manufactured home is on a permanent foundation, there is no concern about installing a regular water heater. However, Unisource Gas Company will red-tag a regular water heater in a manufactured home. 

Earlier this week, a local Realtor called me. She was installing a gas water heater in a manufactured home. She had applied for a federal rebate for purchasing a new water heater. Unfortunately, the rebate would not apply to manufactured home water heaters (which are more expensive). Her manufactured home has a site-built addition, and the water heater is now located in the addition. So her question was: Since the water heater is not actually in the manufactured home, does she still need a manufactured home water heater? 

I was not sure of the answer. I imagined I was inspecting this home: Would I call out a regular water heater in a manufactured home addition? I told her I would recommend consulting with Unisource Energy on its policy. I also advised her that if Unisource said it was allowed, she should get that in writing. Otherwise, a Unisource Gas employee or home inspector might call this out as a problem in the future. I advised her to put a copy of the letter in a plastic sleeve right on the water heater. 

Three times during this conversation she told me “that’s a good idea.” This annoyed me a little, because I used up an entire month’s “good idea” quota in 20 minutes. 

When I find out what Unisource said, I will report back to you. 

I have had several inquiries from Realtors, the public, and a home inspector regarding home inspectors billing escrow. In a May 2009 column, I stated that home inspectors cannot bill escrow. I need to clarify this: Some home inspectors can bill escrow. Arizona does not prohibit Certified Home Inspectors from billing escrow. The American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) does. The ASHI Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics are more strict in some ways than the Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors. 

ASHI inspectors cannot have any financial interest in a home they inspect. This would be an obvious conflict of interest: It is imperative that home inspectors are totally objective about the homes they inspect. A home inspector should not care whether his client buys the home or not; he should simply report the good, bad and ugly to allow the client to make an informed decision. 

What is less obvious is that billing escrow does give the home inspector a financial interest in the home. Billing escrow means the home inspector will get paid by the title company when the home closes. If a home does not close, the home inspector may never be able to collect his fee. He will have to track down the buyer. The buyer did not purchase the home, so even if the home inspector finds the buyer they may not be eager to pay for an inspection on a home they didn’t buy. So if a home inspector bills escrow, it is in his best interest for the home to close. If a home inspector gets paid up front for his inspection, no one can accuse him of not being objective in order to get paid. 

The ASHI position on billing escrow is: “This would represent a violation of the ASHI Code of Ethics. 1.B of the Code of Ethics states that ‘Inspectors shall not inspect properties under contingent arrangements whereby any compensation … is dependent on … sale of a property.’ Since the inspector may not get paid unless the house closes, a conflict of interest arises, to the potential detriment of the client, as the inspector may be tempted to ensure that the house passes the inspection in order to gain payment.” 

ASHI is the oldest and largest home inspector professional association. In addition to their own Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics, ASHI membership has requirements that Arizona does not. For example, ASHI membership requires a minimum number of inspections and yearly continuing education. There are six local inspectors that are ASHI members, but not all home inspectors are able or willing to become ASHI members. 

To be fair, there are other professional home inspector associations that have a Standards of Practice and Code of Ethics. Some have continuing education requirements (although some only require taking an internet class and not formal classroom training). Inspectors that are members of these associations are free to bill escrow for their home inspections. 

I had an ASHI member call me recently because he “lost” an inspection. The homebuyers refused to use his service because they wanted to bill escrow and would not pay for the inspection up front. This inspector felt he was being “penalized” for being a member of (in my opinion) the best home inspector association. I told him he should be grateful instead. I assume that anyone buying a home would have $300 for a home inspection. So likely the only reason the buyer insisted on billing escrow was to get out of paying for the inspection if the home did not close. 

By Randy West on April 22, 2010 

 

How to boost wimpy water pressure 

A few months ago I answered a question from a home inspector. He wanted to know how long he should keep his written inspection reports. I told him the Arizona Board of Technical Registration (BTR), which regulates home inspectors, recommends keeping your reports at least five years. 
I was wrong (if I was a politician I would have to say I misspoke). I recalled this being discussed at a BTR meeting, which it was. But that was an informal conversation. This question was formally discussed this week at the BTR Home Inspector Rules and Standards Committee. The decision was that we cannot make that decision. The BTR does not have an official requirement for how long an inspector keeps copies of his reports. This is a business decision; the inspector should consult his accountant and attorney. 
Of course, what I really wanted to write to that inspector was, “Come on, get with the ’90s!” Almost all inspectors send their reports via e-mail or have them available on the Internet. This makes it so much easier to keep files. I buy several of the little USB “jump drives” when I find them on sale. I can put an entire year of inspections on a drive the size of my thumb. (All right, smaller than my thumb, because I have very large thumbs.) 
I received the following e-mail from David Davidson in Prescott: 
“I enjoy reading your column. You provide useful information that clarifies, expands upon or simply debunks information available from other sources in the local building community. As someone who had a tankless water heater installed in my last home, I particularly liked your recent column in the Courier on tankless water heaters. My tankless water heater used one-half the natural gas that my previous water heater used. 
“I would like to suggest a possible topic for a future column by posing a question: What is the appropriate water pressure for residential customers on a city water system? I live in the northern section of Pinion Oaks. When we moved in November 2007, our water pressure was about 52 psi. We went along at about that level until we had a water failure in October 2009. The city said it was caused by a faulty PRV in a water main somewhere nearby. When water was restored, we never got back to our previous level. Our water pressure is now just below 40 psi. As I see it, the city reduced the line pressure by 15 psi with no explanation, except to say, ’40 psi at the hydrant is satisfactory for the fire department.’ 
“Since then, I’ve researched on the Internet to get an idea of what is the proper water pressure for a city water system. I found little consensus, except to say that things don’t work very well when you get below 40 psi, and that around 55 psi is the norm. 
“Since some common devices require higher water pressure, people with static pressure below manufacturers’ minimums should be aware that they need to install pressurizing valves to increase water pressure to the required level. 
“I hope you can shed some light on the subject. Thanks for your help, and keep up the good work with your column.” 
I had to shorten David’s question. He quoted various websites (from plumbing codes, filters, city building departments, etc). They all had different recommended water pressure ranges, although most were similar to my recommendations. One website for a reverse osmosis (RO) filter stated the water pressure had to be 53 psi or the filter would not function properly. 
Following is my reply to David. (Yes, I reply to all e-mails, but they don’t all make it into a column.) 
“I have always told clients that 40 to 60 psi is the recommended range. I recommend a pressure regulator (or adjusting it if there is one installed) for anything above 80 psi. 
“I have inspected homes with a little less than 40 psi, and my clients have said it seemed sufficient. If the pressure is less than 30 psi, I suggest that you consult with a plumber regarding installing a booster pump and tank. I have seen such pumps and tanks several times, for example, at homes near the top of Thumb Butte or other higher elevations where the city pressure is low. 
“I am also aware that RO filters have minimum pressure requirements, although I don’t mention that in my reports. I was going to buy an RO filter (when I lived in Pinion Oaks, as a matter of fact) until I researched them. I discovered they use water pressure for the filter and most put two gallons or more of water down the drain for every one gallon delivered. I use a lot of filtered water – I fill a gallon jug every day to take to work. I could not see wasting that much water, so I opted for a double canister filter instead. Although it doesn’t filter quite as well as an RO, the water tastes OK and I haven’t gotten sick yet (at least not from water, but that’s another story). 
“I hadn’t thought of the RO and low pressure when inspecting homes. In the future, if I see an RO filter in a home with low water pressure, I will comment that the manufacturer’s requirements should be checked for minimum water pressure. 
“Have you asked your neighbors about their water pressure? I have inspected several homes in Pinion Oaks since October 1999 and don’t recall finding low water pressure. I was wondering if the temporary loss of pressure affected your pressure regulator somehow.” 

By Randy West on April 8, 2010 

 

Turning on utilities is in best interest of the client 

In a recent column, I wrote about whether a home inspector should turn on the gas or water supply if it’s turned off. The answer was that some inspectors do and some don’t. This is up to the individual inspector. The Standards of Professional Practice for Arizona Home Inspectors do not require us to turn on the gas or water, but they do not prohibit us from turning on utilities if we choose to. 

A local home inspector called me earlier this week with a unique story. He was inspecting a vacant home. He turned on the gas supply at the propane tank, and after a few minutes he turned on the furnace. Within a couple minutes the home started filling up with smoke. The inspector immediately turned off the furnace and called the fire department. When he removed the cover on the furnace, he discovered the interior of the furnace was on fire. The fire department found a rodent nest in the furnace that had caught fire when the burner came on. 

The home inspector was obviously upset about this. I suspected he was going to make the point that we should not turn on the gas supply if it’s turned off. But what he said next was, “What if I had not operated the furnace? My clients would have moved in, and the first time they used the furnace it would have filled the home with smoke. Or what if the furnace came on the first time in the middle of the night? It might have caused injury or burned the home down. It was much better to discover this in a vacant home.” 

I commend this inspector for his attitude. Even after such a stressful experience, his first thoughts were for his clients. 

I have had questions from several Realtors about water heaters in manufactured homes. A water heater needs to be approved for use in a manufactured home. The original water heater always is, but often when the water heater is replaced, a “regular” water heater is installed. Then the danged home inspector writes it up in his inspection report. 

Realtors have asked me if a “regular” water heater is unsafe in a manufactured home. I have done some research on this, and there are some differences in a manufactured and a regular water heater. The visual difference is on a regular water heater, the hot and cold pipes are on the top of the water heater, and on a manufactured home water heater the cold water pipe is low on the side. But there are other differences. A manufactured home water heater is actually a little better quality (for example, the anode rod and internal vent pipe). Part of the reason for this is a manufactured home will literally be rolling down the highway for a while. 

So once a manufactured home is on a permanent foundation, a regular water heater may not be unsafe. But there are other concerns. I know firsthand that Unisource Energy, our natural gas supplier, will red-tag a regular water heater in a manufactured home. In fact, this is all my comment in an inspection report states: I don’t say the water heater is “unsafe”; I simply comment that our gas supplier does not allow this. 

Recently I was told of another reason: the insurance company. I was told that if something bad (for example a fire) does start at the water heater, your home insurance may deny the claim if a regular water heater is installed in a manufactured home. 

I do not have firsthand knowledge of this occurring. However, I do have an opinion about insurance companies. It seems to me that you pay an insurance company thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, and then when you need them, the first thing they do is look for a way to deny the claim. 

I did have one good experience with an insurance company (if you can call watching your vintage Corvette Stingray melt in front your eyes a good thing). In 2001 I had a 1974 Corvette. It caught fire and burned to the ground on north Montezuma Street. The car was totaled, and I was worried the insurance company might say that a 27-year-old Chevy is only worth a few hundred dollars. The insurance company was very fair and gave me what the car was worth. Which I promptly spent on putting a new roof on my home. 

I always chuckle when I think about this, because we had a nasty hailstorm in 1999. For the next few years I found a lot of hail-damaged roofs. I would always put in my report that the owners could get this fixed via their insurance company. Several times I found out the owners had received money for the roof, but spent it on a car (or motorcycle, vacation, etc.). So I was doing things backwards. Some people got a new car when their roof got totaled. I got a new roof when my car got totaled. I really miss that Vette, but not as much as I didn’t miss water dripping into my family room every time it rained. 

Actually, there’s more to the Vette story. We actually had two. They were matching 1974 white big block stingrays. I had “his” and “hers” license plates on the front. “His” had a four speed and was extremely modified and fast. “Hers” was an automatic, and was fun but not the asphalt-shredding muscle car that “his” was. When the wrecker arrived in my driveway with the burned-up “his” Vette, I was on my knees in front of my wife’s Vette. I was taking off the “hers” license plate. I looked at the wrecker driver and asked if they make an “ours” license plate. 

By Randy West on March 25, 2010 

 

Water heater elevation rule makes sense 

In my last column, I talked about water heaters having to be elevated off garage floors. This is because cars and gasoline are usually stored in garages. If there is a gas leak, the gas vapors will stay near the floor. So any ignition source, such as a water heater flame, should be at least 18 inches off the floor. 

Gas water heaters manufactured after 2003 have sealed combustion chambers (these are known as “FVIR,” or flammable vapor ignition resistant). I was asked why these need to be 18 inches off the floor. The answer is it doesn’t matter what the building departments or manufacturers require or recommend. UniSource Energy (our natural gas supplier) requires all gas water heaters to be 18 inches off the floor. How can UniSource Energy make these requirements? They can’t “make” you do anything, but they can shut off your gas if you don’t comply with their rules. Don’t get me wrong – I agree with them that all gas water heaters should be elevated off garage floors. This is a minor expense for some added “insurance.” 

I had the following comment in my last column: “A gas dryer is an exception to the 18-inch garage rule because it cannot come on unattended. If your car (or anything else) starts leaking gasoline on the garage floor, a water heater can cycle on at any time and possibly cause an explosion if it’s not 18 inches off the floor. This is an unattended appliance. A dryer will not come on by itself. You have to turn it on manually. If you walk through a garage with a couple inches of gasoline on the floor and turn on a gas dryer, well, let’s just say Darwin would be happy.” 

I received a lot of e-mails from that column. I confirmed my answers below with the Prescott, Prescott Valley, Chino Valley and Yavapai County building departments. 

The first and most asked question was about gas dryers. I was told that UniSource Energy requires gas dryers to be elevated 18 inches off a floor. This seems silly to me (so much for agreeing with UniSource). I immediately visualized a 75-year-old grandma standing on a ladder trying to reach into a top-loading dryer that was elevated 18 inches off a garage floor. I had not encountered this, so I called UniSource Energy and was told that they do indeed require gas dryers to be 18 inches off a garage floor. None of the local building departments require this. In addition to not being an unattended appliance, I was told that the sealed burn chamber on a gas dryer is safer than the open flame on older water heaters. But now home inspectors will have to alert our clients that UniSource Energy can require them to “raise” a gas dryer in the garage. 

I was also asked about pull-down attic stairs in a garage. Garage walls and ceilings are supposed to be fire-resistant. This is usually accomplished by installing drywall and sealing all the seams. Since the seams are sealed, most contractors go ahead and paint the walls and ceiling, too. This fire- resistant requirement is why the door between a garage and home should be metal or solid wood and have weather stripping and a self-closer. Most pull- down attic stairs do not seal well enough to be fire-resistant. There are fire-rated attic stairs available, but I have never seen them in a single family dwelling. (A quick search on the web reveals why: they are twice as expensive as the not-fire-rated attic stairs.) 

All four local building departments said they do not allow non-fire-rated attic stairs in garages. There is an exception to this (of course!). If the garage attic has proper fire separation from the home attic, then the garage ceiling is not required to be fire-rated. You can install any attic stairs you want (or remove all the drywall off the ceiling if you want). 

The last question was about garage floors having to be lower than the interior floor level. I can see the logic in this – so the gas vapors cannot “drop” into the home. I had not heard of this rule and could not find it in the code books anywhere. The local building departments all said they had no such requirement. 

I have a little space here, so I want to talk about earbuds. These are the wireless Bluetooth earpieces for cell phones that are less obvious than some headsets. I first saw these in use at a class years ago – by home inspectors of course. I chuckled and greeted each one as Lieutenant Uhura. A year or so later I tried one, and have used one ever since. Now I can’t imagine holding a phone to my head. But there are some drawbacks. My phone stays in my pocket, so I do get funny looks when people see me standing by myself having an animated conversation. Of course, I’ve gotten funny looks all my life, so this doesn’t bother me. I’ve also had people walk up to me and start talking while I’m frantically pointing at the unusual growth in my ear to make them understand I’m on the phone. But I had a new experience last week. I was walking out of a restaurant and called my wife. When she answered, I said “Hi, beautiful!” The two girls walking in front me turned and gave me a dirty look. I tried to make a quick recovery by saying, “I’m doing great, but I need to be careful what I say when I’m using an earbud.” I guess the girls understood because they smiled and walked away. 

By Randy West on March 11, 2010 

 

Rules and standards for water heaters, outlets in garages 

Local and Phoenix home inspectors and Realtors have asked me if water heaters and electrical outlets need to be 18 inches off a garage floor. The answers are yes, no, no and yes. 

As you all know (assuming you’ve been reading my columns regularly, like you should be), gas appliances in garages need to be 18 inches off the floor. This is because some people store gas cans, lawnmowers and the like in their garages. I even know some people who keep their cars in their garages. If something starts to leak gasoline in the garage, the gasoline vapors will stay near the floor. So we don’t want a source of ignition (pilot light or burner) within 18 inches of the floor. If you have a gas water heater or furnace in your garage, it should be installed on an 18-inch-high box or stand. 

But that’s way too easy to understand, so let’s make it more confusing. Any gas water heater manufactured after 2003 is “FVIR,” or “flammable vapor ignition resistant.” These have a “sealed” burn chamber with a push-button igniter. They still draw their combustion air from the room or garage but have safeguards so ignited gas or vapors cannot “escape” into the room. So some jurisdictions will allow FVIR water heaters to be installed directly on a garage floor. As far as I know, all water heater manufacturers recommend that even FVIR water heaters are installed 18 inches off a garage floor. And as far as I know, all Arizona municipalities require all gas water heaters to be raised 18 inches off a garage floor. If I’m wrong, I’m sure I’ll hear from someone. 

But what about electric water heaters? This is one of those many gray areas a home inspector has to deal with. Different municipalities have different requirements. Some require electric water heaters to be 18 inches off the floor. Most do not. And some require the lower element to be 18 inches off the floor, so an electric water heater may have to be raised 10 to 12 inches off the floor. 

Even in the Prescott area there are different requirements from the different jurisdictions. According to Randy Pluimer at the City of Prescott Building Department, Prescott does not require electric water heaters to be raised off a garage floor. I don’t believe Yavapai County does either, and I believe that Prescott Valley requires the lower element to be 18 inches off the floor. I know that inspectors in other states have the same situation with different municipalities having different requirements. I feel like a politician – I answered your question with a bunch of facts but without really answering your question. 

Now what about electrical outlets? Inside a home the electrical outlets are almost always near the floor. Not being a highly trained (but underpaid) home inspector such as myself, you may not have noticed that electrical outlets in garages are at the same height as the switches. A Realtor asked me about this. A home inspector recommended that some garage outlets be raised because they were close to the floor. The Realtor asked a master electrician, who told her technically there is no requirement that garage outlets are raised off the floor. And I believe the electrician is correct. However, I have seldom been in a garage built after the 1970s where the outlets were not at the same height as the switches – well over 18 inches off the floor. 

So what does a home inspector do? If there is no code or regulation violation, can a home inspector still recommend an improvement? We can, but we should have a good explanation. Since all electricians install garage outlets 40 inches off the floor, it has become an industry standard. I might not be able to cite a code reference, but if I can say “I’ve been in 5,000 garages and I’ve never seen this….” 

The Realtor wasn’t satisfied with my answer (not a local Realtor, by the way). So she tried to stump me by stating she has listings with the washer and dryer in the garage. She asked me, “Isn’t a gas clothes dryer a gas appliance?” 

She has a point, but as with almost every code requirement, there are exceptions (that’s why I often say we have an “exceptional” building code in this country). And a gas dryer is an exception to the 18-inch-garage rule because it cannot come on unattended. If your car (or anything else) starts leaking gasoline on the garage floor, a water heater can cycle on at any time and possibly cause an explosion if it’s not 18 inches off the floor. This is an unattended appliance. A dryer will not come on by itself; you have to turn it on manually. If you walk through a garage with a couple inches of gasoline on the floor and turn on a gas dryer, well, let’s just say Darwin would be happy. 

My final question this week was also from a home inspector, who wanted to know how to get access to HUD homes. (A HUD home is a foreclosed home now owned by the government.). I know that years ago HUD would allow Realtor lockboxes on its homes in addition to its HUD lockbox. I spoke with Randy Hamman, a local Realtor with Realty Executives. Randy lists HUD-owned properties and said that now HUD does not allow any lockbox on a property but its own. I spoke with someone at HUD and was told a lowly home inspector cannot get a key to a HUD lockbox. So home inspectors will need a Realtor to meet them at the home to provide access. 

By Randy West on February 25, 2010 

 

With inspectors and candles, you get what you pay for 

On Jan. 15 I wrote about how open flames can affect indoor air quality. I was responding to an article by another columnist, Sandy Griffis, that said burning candles in her home had made her furnace filters black. I wrote the following: 

“I’ve attended classes from the best building science experts in the country. And every one of them had a session on open flames in a home. You would not think that a few candles or oil lamps would be a concern, but they certainly can be. There is an impressive amount of contaminates (think soot) in an open flame. Sandy discovered this when she found her furnace filters were black. Doing some research, she found that burning candles can have a drastic effect on indoor air quality. I remember after my first building science class I came home and started throwing my wife’s candles away. She threatened to cut my allowance until I explained why.” 

After that column I received the following e-mail from Terry Simms: 

“Having been in the candle manufacturing business for over 20 years myself, I must disagree with your assessment about the amount of soot candles emit. The biggest problem comes from the cheap quality of wax, wick and workmanship that so many of today’s candles have built into them. This is exactly why we are no longer in business. The total junk that is being imported today is cheap but, like the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. 

“When low-quality wax (poor oil content, etc.) is matched up with the wrong-sized wick and/or the wrong type of wick (paper, cotton, zinc core, etc.) you get a nice flame but the amount of soot it gives off is tremendous. Add in low-quality oils that are used for essence and the amount of contaminants is multiplied. 

“Candle users have some responsibility in the process as well, such as when they don’t trim the wicks correctly and burn candles for too long a period. 

“If you want to get into more detail about this, the best source for information would be Kent Buttermann over at Armadilla. I have known Kent for quite some time, and he can give you all the horror stories you want about cheap wax and the problems it causes for people who make a quality product such as his and ours when we were in the business.” 

This e-mail got my attention when I read “You get what you pay for.” 

I am one of the more expensive home inspectors. Many times after telling potential clients my fee schedule, I have heard, “but ABC Inspections is $100 less.” I used to try to explain to these clients that there is a great deal of difference between inspectors and reports. Now I just say (like Terry) that you get what you pay for. After all these years, I am still baffled why someone paying $300,000 or $400,000 for a home wants to save $100 on the home inspection. If a client is “shopping for price,” no matter how good your inspection report is, they will feel they paid too much. I prefer to work for clients who are shopping for quality; they will appreciate a good report and realize this was money well-spent. I didn’t realize the same rules apply to buying candles. 

None of those building science experts said there were “good candles” and “bad candles.” Perhaps they didn’t know. I took Mr. Simms’ advice and called Kent at Armadilla Wax Works. We spoke for quite a while, and I was very impressed with his knowledge of candle-making. I wasn’t aware of how much knowledge and craftsmanship is needed to make a good candle. 

Kent agreed with Terry Simms. He explained that not only do you have to use quality materials, you have to “design” a candle. You need to use the proper size and type wick. A candle will not produce much soot if the wick is the right material, size and height. Kent compared the wick to a carburetor, which an old guy like myself understood very well. If a carburetor is adjusted right, the engine will run efficiently and cleanly. If a carburetor is out of adjustment, the engine will not run smoothly and there will be black smoke in the exhaust. 

Kent agreed that candle users have some responsibility to maintain the wick. He said good-quality candles will have directions included that will explain how to trim the wick. He also said that a good quality candle will have a wick that burns in proportion to the candle. In other words, the wick in a good-quality candle will be low-maintenance. 

I decided to tell my wife she can buy candles again, but only good-quality ones. Maybe I’ll get my allowance back. Kent told me he can instantly tell if a candle is good quality just from his years of experience making candles. I know (now) that I’m pretty naïve when it comes to candles, so I asked Kent how a “layman” such as myself can tell a good candle from a bad candle. Price is one way, of course: You get what you pay for. 

Buying from a reputable candle maker or retailer is a good idea. Good candle manufacturers will test their candles (for flame height, etc.) to ensure they burn properly. Kent said some retailers will also do these tests to make sure they are buying good-quality candles. 

And I will look for those directions on the bottom of the candle. I don’t remember seeing these before, but then again I am a male, so I usually throw the directions away without looking at them. 

By Randy West on February 11, 2010 

 

Inspector waxes on about candles, ladders, the hereafter 

A home inspector died and found himself in a beautiful place, surrounded by every conceivable comfort. A white-jacketed man came to him and said, “You may have anything you choose – any food, any pleasure, any kind of entertainment.” The man was delighted, and for days sampled everything. 

Eventually he got bored and called the attendant. “I’m bored and I need something to do. What kind of work can you give me?” The attendant shook his head. “I’m sorry, sir. That’s the one thing we cannot do for you. There is no work here for you.” 

Dejected, the man said, “Great – I might as well be in hell.” 

The attendant responded, “Where do you think you are?” 

This story is in our current AZASHI (American Society of Home Inspectors) newsletter. Neil Brogren, our current AZASHI president, said this was the opening for a sermon by his pastor. 

This story really hit me. Different people get different messages from the story. I think the moral is you need to do something constructive with your life. If you don’t, no amount of pleasure will make your life worthwhile. 

For most people this would be their job, although it could also be volunteer work or anything else through which you contribute something to society. This led me to think about my chosen profession as a home inspector. I did not get into this profession thinking of all the money I’d make (good thing!). Rather, I wanted to provide a valuable service to the public and my clients. 

I know home inspectors who do think of money first. There are inspectors in Phoenix who used to brag (a few years ago, when work was plentiful) that they do three and even four inspections every day. I could not possibly do that. I can inspect two small homes (a very long day) or one larger home (still a very long day). I often tell clients that my job description is to walk around really slowly for a few hours and scratch my head a lot, and when I’m done everything should make sense. 

I can’t imagine how the clients react when the inspector is in a big hurry because he has two more inspections that day. I know I certainly wouldn’t want to hire a doctor who was more concerned with doing four surgeries a day rather than doing two really well. 

I love my job, and I know that not everyone can say that. That’s not to say that I love going into 130-degree attics in the summer, or crawling around with the spiders in a dark crawlspace. 

But I go as far as I can in every attic and crawlspace. And that makes me feel great – that I did the best job I possibly could for my clients. 

There’s another reason I’m glad I’m not in this for the money. I’m married, so I only have my paychecks a very short time – until I get home and give them to my wife. But she’s fair; I get my $20 a week allowance whether I need it or not. 

My wife is also pretty “quick.” Last week some friends asked me why I married Sue, and I told them. “for her body.” She instantly replied “I married Randy for his potential. And I’m still waiting.” 

I know that a lot of you didn’t read the Real Estate section in last Friday’s Courier, since I wasn’t in there. In the “Ask the Contractor” column. Sandy Griffis talked about how burning candles in her home got her furnace filters dirty. I know all about this. Home inspection is a unique profession. We need to know about roofs, insulation, plumbing, electrical, heating/cooling and every other system in a home. We are not experts on all of these, of course. But we have to know how all these systems interact to make a healthy and safe home. 

This is called Building Science. I’ve attended classes from the best building science experts in the country. And every one of them had a session on open flames in a home. You would not think that a few candles or oil lamps would be a concern, but they certainly can be. There is an impressive amount of contaminants (think soot) in an open flame. Sandy discovered this when she found her furnace filters were black. Doing some research, she found that burning candles can have a drastic effect on indoor air quality. I remember after my first building science class I came home and started throwing my wife’s candles away. She threatened to cut my allowance until I explained why. 

In her article, Sandy said one of her furnace filters was near the top of her high ceilings. She had a humorous narrative of the Pilates moves required to maneuver a 12-foot ladder through her home. If you would rather do your Pilates on a mat, consider a “Little Giant” ladder. I’m on my third one, and won’t own anything else. The Little Giant brand is very expensive (and heavy). But when you work alone and use your ladder several times every day, you buy the best! Lowe’s sells the same type of ladder made by Werner that is good quality, less expensive, and should last a homeowner forever. These ladders make step and straight ladders that are adjustable in one-foot increments, and they’re more stable than regular stepladders. My ladder goes up to a 22-foot straight ladder or an 11-foot stepladder, but folds down to under 6 feet so it fits in my Prius and I don’t have to practice Pilates. 

Geez, I actually had some questions to answer, but they’ll have to wait till next week. 

By Randy West on January 14, 2010