Questions To Ask Your Home Inspector

Posted on 13. Jun, 2015 by in asking the right questions

There’s a catch-all phrase in green building:  Don’t Do Stupid Things. This newsletter explores how not doing stupid things begins with asking the right questions.

Low-tech hammer and nail homebuilding days are gone. Construction, along with everything else, is driven by CADs, composites and spreadsheets. New technologies foster new mistakes at digital-speed. Design and install errors are more likely to cause major defects.

Good Intentions, Bad Results

The turning radius into this garage is OK but the floor area was reduced for room expansion. Garages. like stairways, require more space than we think they should.

A Caveat:  Inspectors should never discuss design in their reports unless it affects safety and function.

Disfunction Junction   Side-entry garages require a 30ft turning radius. City lot widths averaging 50-75ft  render these garages useless for cars, good for storage.

Making Mold A Monster  Some mold remediation practices disperse mold throughout the house-transforming isolated, manageable problems into a systemic, catastrophic ones.  

 

Mold is biologically designed to disperse. Best practice is to encapsulate it like asbestos.

Maslow and Limitations of the Trades “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”  Contractors are expert in the fields in which they are trained yet often amateur in their understanding the House as a System.   Diagnosing moisture problems illustrates this limitation:  I recently helped a homeowner identify the cause of excessive condensation in his basement but only after he’d paid four different contractors to pound their trade hammers on components that were not the cause of the problem.

A blocked exterior drain forced this perimeter drainage system to cycle water through the basement. Mud stains below the window and trashcan full of water indicate the loop.

Inspectors are often guilty of the opposite tendency:  we should, but often don’t, leave specific analysis of the defects we’ve found to the experts.

Home-Made Heating Upgrade A well-meaning owner connected a return air duct to the back of his home-made fireplace housing to improve heating efficiency.  Yikes!, a perfectly Stupid Thing.

Whole-House (Big Picture) Questions to Ponder

Here are a few topics I consider when writing reports:

Cleaning dirty flexible ducting is impractical. Best bet is to not let it get this bad in the first place. If you have a metal duct system KEEP IT.

How does the dwelling “balance out”; are defects for this style and age normal or excessive and costly?

How are the three forces of nature that destroy all buildings at all timesUltraviolet light, Heat and Moisture, managed?

If there are structural concerns have they been adequately addressed?  Should I recommend further evaluation by an engineer or other construction specialist?

 

My observant client noted ceiling stains below the bathrooms. The installer forgot to install gaskets between the base and tank. One more item on the inspector’s checklist

Is there one component or system in need of serious improvements?

Do recent upgrades address functional and safety concerns as well as aesthetic and cosmetic ones?

How can I help my client maximize function and safety and reduce maintenance costs?

How did I miss an item during an inspection?  How do I change my methods to avoid repeating the mistake?

And More Specifically…….

Is the roof drainage system properly sized and easy to maintain?

 

 

This homeowner went to great lengths to build this chimney. He tapped in a return air vent just behind the flue

Is there a mechanism to replace and replenish air in a tightly built home, condo or high-rise?

Where are Pest and Pollutant Pathways?

Are hard and smooth ducts and drains healthier and more durable than ribbed, flimsy ones?

Are low-pressure return air pathways installed between sleeping rooms to the airhandler?

When should a homeowner upgrade electric service from the street to the house, including the electric panel?

What are the best ways to reduce energy and water bills?

What’s the best way to manage humidity?

Are conditions conducive to biological and pest contamination like bacteria in water, mold, radon, termites, roaches, rodents?

Maxed-out electrical panels are one of the questions you should ask your home inspector about.

Maxed-out panels are all too common in Flipped brick ranchers. Function and Safety considerations dictate that at some point the entire system will have to be re-vamped

Point of sale inspections provide the buyer the opportunity to look at a home in a Comprehensive way.  Because homes and their components are more integrated than in the old days the House as a System approach is required to avoid doing Stupid Things.  Moisture management, energy efficiency and indoor air quality are key elements.

I may not have all the answers but I’m working hard at Asking the Right Questions. 

The Power of Piss and other Tails

Posted on 17. Mar, 2015 by in General

The Power of Piss: mice ruined my oven

Our tenant’s Christmas cooking party turned out to be a stinker when mice took up residence in the back of the gas oven. Building Science informs us that heating accelerates chemical reactions.  Imagine Old Dog Smell to the 10th power.

Cleaning did not change the smell factor.  Here’s the sexed-up explanation why:  http://www.salon.com/2012/11/03/chances_are_your_house_is_soaked_in_mouse_urine/  

Animals obey their biological imperatives.  They’re adapted to survive.  They seek shelter from the weather and predators, warmth and moisture, they eat, procreate, nest, poop and piss, defend and expand their territories.  I have 30 years first-hand experience with un-invited guests, human and otherwise.

Signs of un-invited house guests. As temperatures warm you may notice the smell

Rodentry

Rats run alongside exterior walls, seek cover and burrow under foundations.   They climb trees and run gutters until they find gaps between the fascia and roof.  If there are no gaps they’ll gnaw through water-weakened wood.  Rats chew through rubber and plastic pipe to get a drink.  They thrive in wet basements and crawl spaces.  They love grass seed. They favor the warmth atop water heaters, furnaces, ductwork and the tops of ceiling tiles in basements.  They nest in attics, in ribbed plastic ductwork, in cluttered crawl spaces and basements and in walls.

Chipmunks (ground squirrels) burrow near foundations.  Burrows channel water toward foundation walls and provide ready-made invasion routes for rats.  Flying squirrels are the octopi of the rodent world.  They squeeze through the smallest of openings and nest in quiet attic spaces. Mice live in hollows of walls and ceilings….. and in ovens.  Gray squirrels prefer attics.  Squirreled-away nuts are a sure sign of activity.  They’ll also nest in uncovered chimneys. Nesting squirrels filled our 25 ft chimney flue with tree branches.

Fiberglass insulation a handy nesting material, cellulose not so much

Other Warm and Cold Blooded Creatures

Bats prefer warm south or west-facing attic gable vents.  Nesting birds also use gable vents-they often pile nesting materials several feet deep. Opossums and Raccoons nest in attics and uncovered masonry chimneys. Rat snakes take up residence where there is sufficient prey. Bears, coyotes and raccoons will get into the trash or compost.   House Wrens Nest near and in houses.  http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/atlanta/har.htm
Health, Safety and Functional Concerns

The Power of Piss triggers asthma attacks. Animals and their feces may transmit diseases due to parasites, bacteria and fungi.    Bats are known carriers of Rabies (about 5%).  Never handle a bat bare-handed.  Rodents chew through wiring insulation to mark escape routes causing an increased risk of fire.  Animal bites are bacterial bombs and should be dealt with immediately.
Animals tramp down, pull apart and disturb wall and ceiling insulation-their preferred nesting material reducing insulation effectiveness.

Biological imperative: attic gable vents filled with nesting materials. Screen with hardware cloth

What Homeowners Can Do

Step 1.  Knowledge is Pest Control Power

Pests are ever-present and live just beyond our field of vision.  Animals are biologically engineered to survive. They possess highly developed senses the and ability to detect variations in pressure and moisture.

The hollows of framed walls and between floors, flues, ducts, plumbing vents and wiring openings, are their vertical and horizontal paths through homes.  They inhabit spaces behind kitchen appliances, behind and under countertops and cabinets, in pantries and dropped soffits (ceilings); wherever there’s room to hide and store food. 
Buffered Zones like attics, basements, crawl spaces and storage areas, especially wet and cluttered ones, are ideal because they are close to sources of food and provide shelter, moisture and warmth.

Triply Beneficial: Sealing animal pathways with rigid materials also controls fire and energy loss

Step 2.  Discourage pests by making your home less hospitable for them:

Outside the House
Screen and seal openings in exterior walls at crawl vents and other wall penetrations.  Use hardware cloth, a galvanized mesh with 1/4″ openings, and foam sealant.  Trim tree limbs and shrubs away from outside walls and roof.  Move or trim plants away from exterior walls.  Replace vegetative ground cover close to exterior walls with gravel.  In all ways and as much as possible reduce the volume of roof and site water near exterior walls. Clean gutters and grade or drain roof, surface and A/C water toward the downhill side of your home.  Store birdseed, grass seed and other rodent foods in sealed containers.  Bird feeders are favored in the daytime by chipmunks and squirrels, at night by rats, mice and opossums.
If you leave pet food outside expect it to be eaten.

Rat Path. Rats used the unsealed opening created for A/C refrigerant and power lines to enter the crawl space. Vegetation close to the wall, wet soil and a cluttered crawl space made this an ideal habitat

Exterior and Attics
Screen and seal outside openings:  at soffit vents, gable vents, at corners, where the fascia and gutter meet, at plumbing vents, at roof exhaust vents.  Draftstop (method of sealing with rigid materials) openings that connect the attic to the house:  at plumbing, ducting and wiring openings penetrations. This will also limit the movement of fire and loss of conditioned air.

Basements and Crawl Spaces

Consider closed and conditioned crawl space design:   http://www.crawlspaces.org/
Install dehumidifiers in un-ventilated areas to reduce moisture.  Set glue traps for mice, spring traps baited with peanut butter for rats.  If all else fails install a concrete rat slab over crawl space soils.  Draftstop openings at plumbing drains and vents and where A/C lines and dryer vents extend to the outside.  Install hardware cloth over crawl vents.  It’s especially important to clean up crawl spaces: remove clutter and debris and cover soils with plastic.

Triply Beneficial: Soils covered by rat slabs keep burrowing animals out, limit moisture and soil gases including radon

Inside the home

Remove clutter in kitchens, closets and storage areas.  Fix plumbing and roof leaks. Keep a clean kitchen.  Use covered trash containers.  If your heating vents are in the floor vacuum them out-especially in the kitchen.  Check for evidence of infestation at or behind fixtures and appliances, especially in kitchens and bathrooms.

Step 3.
Contact a qualified pest control company.  If pests are a big problem plan for multiple visits.

Step 4.
Expect repeats.  And don’t ignore the Power of Piss.

 

Posted on 16. Dec, 2014 by in ordinances and permits

Georgia Residential Energy Code Compliance Certificate missing a few lines

Built to a Higher Standard

Codes, Ordinances and Permits are the regulatory foundation our homes are built on.  They are designed to protect buildings and people, to promote safety and function.  Standards (Codes, Ordinances, and Permits) reflect changes in climate, materials, methods and culture.  They correct past mistakes, adjust to new conditions and provide a path forward. It’s never been easy to disseminate new ways of building from their inception to the job site.  Doing so now, during a period of extraordinary and rapid change, is a challenge.

It’s all Local

Hell on earth is located on the 3rd floor of Atlanta city hall.  The toils of Sisyphus are child’s play compared to obtaining a building permit there. A convoluted and labyrinth process is made worse by ill-tempered staff and interminable lines. The faulty, poorly designed website not only fails to inform, it doesn’t provide a means to comply. Smaller metro municipalities vary in their degrees of hellishness.

DIY Homeowner had it wired in all the wrong places

To Permit or not to Permit?

Permits and inspections add cost and uncertainty because of delays.  Getting a permit is like filing a tax return, it’s a complex, costly process requiring the patience of Job and costly specialists.  Larger firms use in-house personnel or hire expediters. Contractors and tradesmen transfer permit and inspection costs to their clients or offer a no permit option.  If you’re caught the project is shut down “red-tagged” until required permits are obtained.  Many Do it Yourselfers are ignorant of or choose not to follow the permit process.

Why are permits such a hassle?

Politics and bureaucracy play a role.  Reform-minded department heads rarely receive the financial and political support needed to provide better service.  Inspectors, routinely overworked and underpaid, may lack technical skills and experience. Standards change during each code cycle and interpretation of code language may vary from individual to individual. Some municipal inspection departments rely on outdated, inefficient paper systems. Scheduling inspections is a particular nuisance.  By definition contractors assemble labor and materials on the job site. Failed or postponed inspections delay the whole project, a common occurrence when municipal inspectors average 25 site inspections per day.

Building Science in practice: crawl space retrofit healthy and efficient

National Codes, Local Ordinances

The International Code Council (ICC) is the primary code organization in the US.  http://www.iccsafe.org/Pages/default.aspx
Revised codes allow cities to mature into mixed-use, walkable communities http://transect.org/codes.html
Decatur to require higher efficiency standards in 2015  http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/blogs/dept/green-building-curmudgeon/new-green-building-ordinance-decatur-georgia
Big homes on small lots and aging storm sewers led to this stormwater ordinance.http://saportareport.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Proposed-Post-Development-Ordinance-10-08-2012.pdf.pdf.pdf
Drought and limited water supply the impetus for water conservation
http://www.dekalbrealtors.com/Documents/GovtAffairs/GAR%20White%20Paper%20Explaining%20Ordinance.pdf

Rivers of Savings: DeKalb’s Inefficient Plumbing Fixture Ordinance reduces water use 2 gallons per flush

Making Functional, Safe and Financially Sustainable Communities

In my nearly 30 years as an inspector I’ve seen the very real and positive results of building to higher standards.  As our society changes towns and cities are re-evaluating development models. One part of that change is to encourage durable, efficient and healthy construction. Encouraging good building makes economic sense.  User-friendly websites and inspection departments that assist and encourage this goal can help. Educating the public to the benefits of a well-run building department helps too.  Here are some examples:

Avondale Estates hires a “Permit Concierge”:
http://www.decaturish.com/2014/11/avondale-hires-pine-lake-official-for-concierge-job/
Permit Process in steps:  Fairfax County VA
http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/dpwes/construction/permit_process.htm
Trying to be helpful:  Pierce County WA
http://www.co.pierce.wa.us/Index.aspx?NID=117

Then we can get hell to move somewhere else……..

1995: The 9/11 of Home Construction

Posted on 09. Nov, 2014 by in Older Homes

Bare Minimum: A house built to code is the worst house you can legally build

When researching my next inspection I always check the build date.  If it’s between 1978 to 1995 I’ll be on the lookout for questionable workmanship and defective products.  1995 represents a turning point, a time when established presumptions about how to build houses proved inadequate for new products and updated efficiency requirements.  The change was not as immediate or catastrophic as 9/11.  Yet 1995 represents as well as any other year a benchmark; a time when old ways failed to serve new needs.

A series of events; a wide-open profit-driven market, new code requirements for tight, insulated homes, defective products and un-informed construction methods culminated in a series of legal judgements. The ensuing storm of financial loss continues to this day.  Notable failures in Metro Atlanta were Polybutylene water pipe (PB), hardboard lap siding, particularly Louisiana Pacific Innerseal brand, and EIFS (Exterior Insulated Finish Systems), commonly referred to as Synthetic Stucco.  These products dominated their markets in the go-go years of Atlanta’s suburban expansion.

By the early 90’s inspectors knew something wasn’t right.  We were searching for the answers to why“They don’t build them like they used to” yet our suspicions had to wait for an accumulation of evidence, research and, ultimately legal action, for confirmation.  During the great Atlanta suburban expansion builders and manufacturers ruled the market.  When inspectors raised doubts they were viewed as a nuisance (see link below).  Manufacturers claimed, correctly in some cases, defects were the result of improper installation.  Moreover, material failures were exacerbated by a lack of understanding about Building Science-the interplay of environment, materials and use in buildings.

The frequency and magnitude of failures 
occurring within such a short time period indicated a larger problem. Homeowners wanting third-party review of new construction were the catalyst for the formation of GAHI, the Georgia Association of Home Inspectors.  GAHI membership requires code certification.

My research led to an understanding of How Homes Work.  Some will remember the class I taught of the same name.  I learned that heat and moisture control-especially in the humid Southeast-is critical.  And that composite building materials used in the 80s and 90s fail more readily when exposed to heat and moisture in newer, more tightly built and insulated homes.

Managing risk: PB pipe might last a long time….but then it might not.

Here’s a brief outline of PB pipe, Hardboard Siding and EIFS.  For a more detailed discussion of these topics review the links below.

Polybutylene Water Piping
PB pipe was tested using fresh water.  Most utilities add chlorine to disinfect water.  Over time chlorine causes the pipe to become brittle.  Pipe failures occur where the pipe is stressed:  at improperly crimped joints, where it enters the home, is not adequately supported or subject to vibration.  Qest, Vanguard and Shell are common brand names.

Slow Rot: Hardboard siding failing at nail pockets and bottom edge.

Hardboard Siding
Hardboard siding is a thin stiff sheet made of compressed sawdust, wood pulp or wood chips bound together with a plastic adhesive or resin under heat and pressure.  Cut into boards it was used as exterior siding.  When exposed to repeated wet-dry cycles it begins to swell, especially at the bottom edge and nail penetrations.  Painting slows, but does not stop, failure.

 

EIFS failure Trifecta: Un-sealed EIFS, un-sheltered wall, heat and moisture sensitive OSB wood panel sheathing

EIFS

Synthetic stucco is a type of building exterior wall cladding system that provides exterior walls with an insulated finished surface and waterproofing in an integrated composite material system.  Failure occurs when water is trapped behind the cladding.  Face-sealed systems depend on keeping water out by carefully caulking and sealing entry points at the roof and walls.  Poorly sealed EIFS led to significant wall framing damage.  Installation and maintenance are critical-failed or misapplied caulking being the most common source of damage.  Building codes were changed to require a pathway for water to drain from behind the siding without damaging walls.  EIFS retrofits improve flashing and caulking.

Despite builder resistance the private inspectors’ role in construction is now the norm. We’re both striving to satisfy a more demanding public.
http://tk-jk.net/judi_dan_archive/aboutinspections/lament.html

Polybutylene PB
http://inspectapedia.com/plumbing/PB_Piping.php http://www.ashireporter.org/HomeInspection/Articles/Take-Another-Look-at-Polybutylene-Plumbing/955

Hardboard Siding
http://www.atlantapros.com/home-buyers/defective-siding-products.htmhttp://www.sidingsolutions.com/pages/classtat.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louisiana-Pacific

EIFS
http://www.buildingscience.com/documents/digests/bsd-146-eifs-problems-and-solutions

An End of an Era and Beginning of a New Millennium
Product and workmanship failures reached their apex in 1995. 
The construction industry responded with reformulated products, informed construction practice, revised codes, and a deeper understanding of the complexities of building science.  Though these changes are not equal in immediate effect to those made after 9/11 they are moving residential construction toward a healthier, more sustainable future.  Atlanta’s own http://www.earthcraft.org/ is one of several programs leading the way forward.

Check out my youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/ecoinspector

Lend a hand to Dan Curl/Comprehensive Home Inspections at Google Review
https://plus.google.com/105379744050065013937/about

 


2014 So Far: The Good, the Bad, and the Future

Posted on 03. Oct, 2014 by in Architecture, Building Science, Caring for your Home, Eco-Inspector, Energy, Ethics, New Homes, Older Homes

The end of spring/summer real estate season is time to catch up on personal business, analyze trends and plan ahead.

Armed with flashlight, screwdriver and little gray cells here’smy look around the housing industry

Mega-trends

I’ve worked for up-and-coming multi-degreed professionals, investors, software engineers/designers/managers, medical professionals, first-time buyers, retirees, divorced and widowed persons; everyone except my main source of income; the middle-middle class.   Many homes are still underwater…. there are mega-reasons it’s taking Atlanta so long to recover:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/02/28/how-the-recession-turned-middle-class-jobs-into-low-wage-jobs/  

Commons place with View

Atlanta

Accessible Atlanta is fact, and not just with Millennials.  Walkable Urban Places, WalkUPs, are where the money is: http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/2013/10/03/new-report-reveals-historic-shift-in-real-estate-demand-in-atlanta-ga/

Codes and Safety: avoid the 200F wall

Contractors, Permits and Appraisals 

Most inspection defects aren’t the fault of reputable contractors-they’re caused by homeowners who believe they can do it with just a click of the mouse and a trip to the big box DIY store. http://www.freep.com/story/sponsor-story/hire-it-done/2014/09/26/contractors-are-people-too/16258659/

Un-licensed homeowners, flippers and jackleg contractors cost morein the long run.  Here’s a list of trades requiring licensure.  http://www.contractors-license.org/ga/Georgia.html

Revised appraisal rules taking locally established professionals out of their literal areas of expertise, are a mixed blessing
http://realestate.msn.com/article.aspx?cp-documentid=21080260

Licensed plumbers know sewer should drain downhill

Water Conservation, Energy Efficiency, Healthy Home

The oft-misunderstood DeKalb Water Conservation Ordinancediscussed in detail:  http://dekalbrealtors.com/realtor-tools/

Energy improvements offer above-market returns, not to mention healthier air and better comfort.  Here’s a link to certified energy contractors http://www.bpi.org/tools_locator.aspx?associateTypeID=CT 

Whole-house dehumidifier at Villa Curl also provides a dedicated source of fresh air

 

 

 

 

 

Builders get the first part of the “Build it tight, ventilate it right”equation, they’ve yet to master the second.  Here’s a good first step to understand how to breathe easy.
http://www.southface.org/ez/media/gapoweriaqbooklet.pdf

 

Next time:  History Lesson:  Why 1995 was the 9/11 for Atlanta housing.

Put in a good word for Dan Curl and Comprehensive Home Inspections at Google Review
https://plus.google.com/105379744050065013937/about

 

Letters Home

Posted on 16. Aug, 2014 by in Architecture, Building Science, Caring for your Home, Eco-Inspector, Energy, Ethics, General, Healthy Home, Heating and Air-Conditioning, Nature, New Homes, Older Homes

Moore’s Law in practice: Duct system zone control motherboards that used to cost 9000 are now 400

Inspectors typically work Point of Sale transactions.  A lot of what we do gets lost in the buyers rush to negotiate, move and settle. Here are my reasons to schedule aMaintenance Inspection every 6-9 years.

The science of how we build and live in homes is changing.  Materials, methods and lifestyle all have an impact on function and durability.

 

The Whole Enchilada: Electric code now requires upgraded mains, panel, breakers, wiring and fixtures. Main panel should have been moved during this kitchen renovation

IT makes for affordable components and systems. There’s no reason to assume that the way we build homes will remain unchanged while the world around us is speeding along at the rate of Moore’s Law

Because of bureaucratic hassle obtaining a building permit in metro Atlanta may be considered an option, not a requirement.  Most Building Codes are updated every three years.  Significant codes changes respond to major disasters or building component failures.

 

Dirty cooling fins reduce efficiency and appliance life

A home built or renovated to code is worst structure you can legally build. Go below that minimum at your own risk.  Exceed it and you’ll benefit in the long run.

Systems and components last an average 6-15 years.  Simple and easy maintenance extends service life

Latent, long-developing defects due to sunlight, heat and moisture are less noticeable and, eventually, more costly to repair

 

 

Moisture wicking through foundation wall makes a moldy basement and reduced wall strength

Additions, renovations and energy upgrades alter the movement of heat, air and moisture inside the home. Good time for an inspection.  Not going to move?  Don’t count on it.  I inspect Never-gonna-move-again homes all the time.

The culture of how we build communities is changing:  http://wabe.org/post/what-do-you-do-broken-suburb.  Keeping up with the Jones is more about re-sizing and lifestyle options.

 

 

 

Not Good Housekeeping. Are you using your mechanical closet for storage?

Lost in Translation:  “the idea that houses can loved and beautiful…..has been reduced to a grim business of facts and figures, an uphill struggle against the relentless urge of technology and bureaucracy, in which human feeling has almost been forgotten.”  Buildings, especially homes, should speak the character and aspirations of their owners.  A home can be more than just new countertops.

Homeowners, builders and realtors may not know all that is, and is becoming, aboutHow Homes Work. That’s my job, let me help.

 

 

House-smart realtor Peggy Desiderio noticed a knothole-split deck stair stringer

Applied Building Science. Adjacent crawl vent feeds moist 93F air onto a 55F supply air duct. The result: 100% saturated subfloor and mold

New methods, durable materials. Moisture barrier and weather-resistant stainless steel exhaust housing

 

 

Postcards from the field

Posted on 30. Jul, 2014 by in Building Science, Caring for your Home, Eco-Inspector, Energy, Healthy Home, Heating and Air-Conditioning, Older Homes

These recent intown Atlanta inspections put my understanding of building science to the test

Nowhere to run: organic clays do not drain

1.  Poor Drainage

A reputable builder purchased mid-block properties in an older neighborhood.  Local ordinance required he dispose of roof and surface moisture on-site, not to the storm sewer.  He built a comfortable, durable and efficient Earthcraft home.  This property and adjacent lots contain large amounts of organic clay soil. Organic clays do not disperse water, they adsorb it.  My client has a wonderful house and a permanently wet yard.  The builder has a problem:  he’s built himself into a wet corner.

Spliced knob and tube wiring is a fire hazard. Bathroom exhaust is not vented outside. Note that exhaust is directed through the recessed light fixture and further degrades the cloth-covered wiring

2.  Faulty Wiring

While inspecting an infill home in East Atlanta the A/C circuit breaker kicked off.  When reset it kicked again.  I’ve seen the tripped breaker, flickering light, crazed electronic poltergiest before:  voltage drop from loose service main conductors caused a compensatory spike in amperage tripping the breaker.  A bootleg tap (unapproved connection to the public power supply), proved to be the poltergiest.  Make your electrician pull a permit for major improvements.

 

 

Amateur repairs below the chimney were hidden by drywall. Unless properly supported roof framing in this area will eventually fail

3.  Roof Leaks:  The Chimney Cricket and the Soft Wall 

A chimney cricket is a small false roof built behind a chimney on the main roof to divert rainwater away from the chimney.  While inspecting I found a cricket, new metal crown, newer shingles and new siding.  All good, right?  After closing the my client’s painter noted “soft” drywall at the room below the chimney.  Further investigation revealed amateur wall framing repair.

 

This furnace vent connector is blocked by fallen masonry where it enters the chimney compromising both function and occupant safety

4.  Unsafe Heating System

Equate gas appliance operation to a fire: everything’s good as long as there’s plenty of combustion air to feed the flames and an open flue to disperse the byproducts of combustion.  Finished basements rarely provide enough combustion air-especially when gas appliances are closeted.  Gas appliances vented into unlined chimneys are readily blocked by fallen bricks.  The solution for both is to install direct-vent appliances.  They’re designed to draw combustion air from and vent exhaust to the outside.

Moisture from the unvented dryer affects comfort and health: high moisture levels are uncomfortable and conducive to mold growth

5.  Poorly Maintained

We’re all guilty of procrastination when it comes to home maintenance.  Left undone deferred repairs will not only kill a sale, they often lead to expensive repairs.  Always change your furnace filter-when it gets dirty. Install the 4″ pleated fabric type for best results.   Clean your dryer vent inside and outside.  Never vent the dryer inside or under your house.  Replace plastic dryer vents with metal, they’re a fire hazard.  Don’t vent dryers near your A/C unit.

 

 

 

20 years after copper laterals were replaced the vertical galvanized fixture legs are failing

6.  Minor Structural Damage

Understand the redundant method of wood construction:  each repetitive framing member supports and is dependent upon the others around it.   One rafter or joist failure may not lead to an immediate system failure yet progressive failure will occur if the damaged structure is not repaired.  Make sure your contractor understands construction-no amateurs!

 

The lack of external pressure reduction valve and internal thermal expansion device coupled with a rusted-shut water heater safety valve is a potentially explosive situation!

7.  Plumbing Problems

When galvanized piping fails plumbers replace the laterals-the horizontal sections of piping below the home.  They do not replace the main line or or vertical legs (shorter sections run up through walls) unless they’ve failed.  And fail they will, 20 years on.  I called out compromised flow and fouled faucets in an otherwise acceptable 94 year old Virginia Highlands bungalow.Rusted-shut temperature and pressure relief valves are an all too common and potentially explosive safety issue.  Manage water piping pressure with reduction valves, thermal expansion devices and water hammer arrestors. And make sure your water heater relief valve is operable.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sMDTEjJUImw

 

 

8.  Window Woes

After the painter has gone verify at least one window per bedroom is operable.  If there’s a fire you need to get out quick.  Windowsills are by definition exposed to heat and moisture.  Keep them in good repair, especially newer finger-jointed lumber. Double-pane window seals fail faster when exposed to direct sunlight.  There are several lawsuits pending against manufacturers of vinyl and metal-clad wood windows, they rot.  Give your window frames a squeeze.

9.  Inadequate Ventilation

Build it tight but don’t forget to ventilate it right  Whole house and thermostatic exhaust fans are out-they create negative pressure within the building. Install passive roof exhaust like ridge vents and turbines. Negative pressure induced when running exhaust fans, especially in tightly built homes, should have a replacement mechanism.  Here’s one solution: http://www.aircycler.com/

There is no provision to replace air combustion and makeup air and the mechanical closet is stuffed with Volatile Organic Compounds (paint cans)

10.  Environmental Hazards

My client, who had a history of respiratory sensitivity, decided she didn’t want  to purchase a home that made her sick, no matter how nice it looked.  My analysis revealed inadequate ventilation and the presence of Volatile Organic Compounds in a tightly built, beautifully appointed Brownstone.

A comprehensive, whole-house approach informed by Building Science gives me the tools I need to assess the condition of your home, old or new, big or small.  Reach me at www.dancurlhomeinspector.com 

Cool in June

Posted on 17. Jun, 2014 by in Architecture, Building Science, Caring for your Home, Eco-Inspector, Energy, Healthy Home, Heating and Air-Conditioning, Nature

The Streetlight Effect: convenience trumps reality

Thermostat Wars and The Streetlight Effect

Too much A/C gives me sinusitis, too little and I can’t sleep.  You may be comfortable at 79, but it’s 78 for me. Family beach week is a constant battle between the 70F-crew and grumpy uncle Dan.
Individual comfort depends very much on the specific needs of the comforted. How homeowners solve cooling deficiencies depends upon their understanding of the problem. When I see a fan in every room during an inspection I consider the Streetlight Effect.

The Streetlight Effect 

The easy fix is tempting.  The quite human tendency to accept the most convenient solution is known as The Streetlight Effect
http://io9.com/5983112/how-the-streetlight-effect-keeps-scientists-in-the-dark

Ceiling fans (Air velocity) is just one of six comfort metrics. 
http://www.hse.gov.uk/temperature/thermal/factors.htm

Common Cooling Fixes: 

More fans may be a simple answer but not the right solution

Appliances:  Rule of thumb load calculations and latent discomfort

Rule of Thumb vs Load Calcs
Determining appliance size and duct layout with default measurements from what was done on the previous job is a Streetlight Effect shortcut.  Make your HVAC installer perform appliance and duct load calculations to determine the correct amount of energy it takes to heat and cool.  Too big, small, fast or slow may compromise comfort. Software makes the math easy.  Meet the Code, do load calcs 

Over-Loads: 500 square foot vaulted west-facing addition with 12 windows and 3 skylights

 

It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity  Latent heat control is the key to comfort.  Opt for dehumidifiers and variable speed appliances. Unmanaged humidity is conducive to mold.
http://www.buildingscience.com/documents/bareports/ba-0214-conditioning-air-in-the-humid-south-creating-comfort-and-controlling-cost

Building Enclosure:  Don’t let living large=costly discomfort

Fouled filters are the HVAC equivalent of going for run with sock stuffed down your throat

 

Big homes don’t have to be energy-expensive and uncomfortable.  Atlanta has a corps of energy-savvy design and installation experts trained to fix problems like:

  • Energy-hogging FROGS (family room over garage)
  • Hot-topped, cold-bottomed split level homes
  • Vaulted, glass-walled, skylit BIG ADDITIONS 
  • Burning Hot Poptop attic conversions

Atlanta’s Southface http://www.southface.org/ is a clearing house for energy efficient, healthy design

Use industry standards for comfort and health

Don’t monkey around with Ducts

Obsess about furnace filters.  Dirty filters are bad for airflow, equipment, and air quality
Balance airflow with larger, strategically located return air openings
Support and straighten ducts. Crushed and sagging ducts slow airflow and dehumidification. 

Holes in pressurized duct systems blow your dollars away.   Secure and seal ducts and plenums
Take it inside  Ducts and equipment in 150F Hotlanta attics are 45% less efficient than those in conditioned space

Cooling comfort is attainable and sustainable.  Contact a comfort-smart independent inspector who knows his BS……before you buy that next fan.

A Question of Balance

Posted on 23. May, 2014 by in Architecture, Building Science, Caring for your Home, Eco-Inspector, Healthy Home

Five small windows work where one big one would not. Reflected light on the counter and island complete the effect. Architecture Tourist TK agrees

Economies in Equilibrium

Efficient systems require balance.   Part of my job is to discover out-of-balance components before they compromise function and safety.  I rail against the over-emphasis on appearance at the expense of durability because I know, sometime in the future, failures will occur.
Appearances do make a difference, especially when they express common architectural language with a unique voice.

nman Park window vernacular, three color scheme, simple lines and durable features

Lowes and Lead Paint

Contractors are tasked with identifying and controlling lead paint during renovations. This new approach is still a bit out of balance:
http://www.remodeling.hw.net/business/regulations/lowes-to-pay-record-500k-penalty-over-subs-lead-paint-rule-violations_o

Simple screened porch jazzed-up with red floor and bright fabrics. Curtains moderate light and privacy

Pressure Balance

Pressure Regulating Valves (PRV) protect your water piping from excessive external pressures generated from the public water supply.  Thermal expansion devices protect piping from internal pressures.  You need both.

Valves prevent high street pressure from damaging pipes, fixtures and fittings

Too small return forces the airhandler to suck cold from the slab foundation. Increased air speed whistles Dixie

Negative Returns

Balanced airflow in a forced air duct system is critical.  If the area of return openings is insufficient pressure is balanced by drawing air from outside the conditioned space.  This often leads to comfort and air quality deficiencies.  A house without adequate return openings is pressure negative.  It sucks.

Thermal Expansion Devices control internal pressures like those created when heated water expands

 

 

 

 

 

2014 Atlanta Home Trends

Posted on 22. Apr, 2014 by in Architecture, Building Science, Caring for your Home, Eco-Inspector, Energy, Heating and Air-Conditioning, Intown Neighborhoods, Nature

These real-world trends in the Atlanta market are worth a look. Thanks to agent Peggy Desiderio and landscape contractor David Curl for your knowledge and advice

 

Boomer-town Decatur is popular with the 50 and over crowd

Walk To Pizza

What was once a lifestyle decision is now an economic necessity.   This nation-wide trend holds for Atlanta, ITPand OTP.
http://www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2012/05/why-you-pay-more-walkable-neighborhoods/2122/

 

 

Walkable Neighborhood: Jazz night in Oakhurst

Sprawled Out
Hell on Wheels Atlanta traffic has put the brakes on outward expansion

 

 

 

 

 

 

Take the Last Train to Boomerville 

Ranch-condo quads for the 55 and older set are hot properties if they have the right features:  lock ‘n leave maintenance, water and energy efficiency, big kitchens, good detailing and NO STAIRS!

Seaside, Florida designer Andres Duany explains
retirement communities:  http://vimeo.com/6517061

Icycylene foam insulation helped transform this 100 year old crawl into a dry, conditioned basement-like space

New Science for Crawl Spaces

Cleaning, sealing and conditioning your crawl space works. I know.  I’ve done it at my house.

http://www.crawlspaces.org/

Direct, Efficient Solutions

Direct vent gas appliances allow installers to draw air for combustion and dilution from outside, a logical choice where finished basements limit available air and in older homes to bypass failing masonry chimneys.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjZa-S-b7F4

Killing Two Birds with One Foam

Icycylene foam forms an efficient pressure and
thermal barrier.  Foam keeps moisture and bugs out while increasing R-values in roofs, walls and floors. The nature of the material allows it to fill irregular spaces traditional materials cannot.

 

Hardscaped Outdoor Room Fire pit, sit wall, water feature, Cherokee stone patio

Hardscapes and Edible Gardens 

Landscape clients spend more on patios, sit walls and fire pits than on trees and shrubs.

Many prefer kitchen gardens with fruit trees, berries and herbs and designs that reduce water use

On the Way Out……

Road Warrior no more  Commutes over 30 minutes are no longer the norm.

Chimneys don’t make energy sense.  Switch-activated gas appliances provide convenient, safe heating.

Rarely used jetted tubs are giving way to the oversized stall showers.

Made for another era furnace humidifiers, whole house, attic exhaust and ceiling fans often do more efficiency and air quality harm than good.  Better to have a tight building with a designed ventilation system.

http://www.panasonic.com/business/building-products/ventilation-systems/index.asp