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.

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

Cold-Weather Comfort and the three-legged stool

Posted on 17. Dec, 2013 by in Building Science, Eco-Inspector, Energy, Heating and Air-Conditioning

DSCF1466_edited_1

Heat escapes the conditioned area via pressure and thermal “holes” at the furnace flue and whole house fan

Cold, Comfort and Energy

Cold-Weather Comfort and the three-legged stool

Building Science has shown there are three components required for comfort and efficiency:  

  • A source of energy 
  • A building enclosure in which the flow of energy is controlled  
  • A system of delivering energy from a source to the enclosure 

Of these three sources of energy dominates conventional wisdom, the market, and the construction industry.   Sources of energy include HVAC appliances common in Atlanta like  gas furnaces, electric heat pumps and A/C systems.  

Building enclosures keep energy in by establishing pressure and temperature boundaries.    Policy and construction standards have steadily improved building enclosure performance, especially in the last 20 years.   The process of sealing holes in  the building enclosure (draftstopping) and then insulating conditioned space is known as weatherization.   

DSCN2456_edited_1.1

Energy-efficient furnace rendered energy-inefficient by poor duct workmanship

Energy delivery in Atlanta most often means delivery of heated or cooled air forced through a system of air ducts.  The quality of duct design, materials and installation varies from acceptable to poor.

Common homeowner fixes that don’t work very well

  • Bigger, more efficient HVAC appliances:  these help but often do not address fundamental problems
  • More ceiling fans:  heat from inefficient fans often makes the situation worse
  • Ceiling insulation without sealing holes in the pressure boundary:  conditioned air leaks around insulation (thermal bypass)

Homeowners should have a well-balanced stool:  a comprehensive energy strategy that gives equal consideration to sources of energy, the building enclosure and energy delivery.   Building enclosure and duct repairs are often less expensive and more effective than equipment replacement.  The first step to effective comfort and efficiency improvement is an energy audit.

More info here:

www.dancurlhomeinspector.com  Contact me for an energy audit

Case study of unbalanced duct system

 

Southface Energy Institute is THE resource for energy efficiency in Atlanta:  www.southface.org

Ignorance repeats itself.  Get  the knowledge you need before you spend.

Sustainable Life

Posted on 08. Nov, 2013 by in Caring for your Home, Energy

Sustainable Savings Time

Posted on 07. Nov, 2013 by in Building Science, Energy

cs_southface-large-620x350-618x350

Southface’s South-facing windows use sunlight for heat and illumination. Great views too!

 

Green building practices save money.  Use them when you build, renovate or replace.  Maximum savings begin with good design

Atlanta’s Southface Energy Institute is regional leader in sustainable building

http://www.southface.org/about/letter/

Climate-specific primer on efficient and durable residential construction

http://www.buildingscience.com/documents/houseplans/hp-mixed-humid-recommendations

Saving money is good business for this Washington DC company

http://thefifthfuel.com/  

Open windows are cheaper than fans, healthier too

http://sustainabilityworkshop.autodesk.com/buildings/wind-ventilation

Portable pump transfers water from tub to clothes washer

Portable pump transfers water from tub to clothes washer

Japanese-style water savings

http://alicegordenker.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/recycling-bath-water-for-laundry-%E9%A2%A8%E5%91%82%E6%B0%B4%E3%83%9D%E3%83%B3%E3%83%97%E3%80%80/

 

Energy Basics

Posted on 17. Apr, 2013 by in Energy

wisteria cools a roof

Wisteria cooling a roof.

Most of us relegate energy efficiency to the bottom of our home improvement checklist. Practical concerns such as correcting major defects, moving in and settling the kids in school come first. Painting and decorating provide the homeowner with immediate, visible results; a much more tangible reward than sealing attic ductwork with mastic. Does the average $500-1500 per year in energy savings justify the homeowners’ investment of time and money?

Energy, Comfort, and Air Quality
Efficient design and installation provide more than just energy efficiently, they promote comfort and healthier indoor air; the benefits of which are not easily translated into dollars saved. Poor ventilation can lead to headaches, a host of upper respitory problems and premature failure of floor and wall coverings. Uneven heating and cooling make homes less comfortable. Moisture levels above or below optimum lead to discomfort, damage the home and its’ contents and provide an environment for insects, fungus and mold.

Time and Money
Replacing heating and cooling equipment and upgrading windows and exterior doors is costly. In most cases installation is best left to trained technicians and tradesmen. Many other improvements are inexpensive and don’t require technical expertise. Efficiency can be improved over time; each project may be small but the cumulative effects will result in savings and comfort over the life of the home. Read More…