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

Dan’s List: Media, Products and Services With not much of an apology to Angie

Posted on 29. Mar, 2014 by in Architecture, Building Science, Caring for your Home, Eco-Inspector, Healthy Home, Heating and Air-Conditioning

They’re smiling because someone else is paying

Homes on TV

Tearing houses apart makes for a show, not an inspection.  The inspector’s goal is not to entertain but to assess and recommend cost-effective repairs. If Tom tells Kevin “We’ll just have to tear it out and start over” he’s spending money most of my clients don’t have.  

The success of This Old House created a market for home-style reality TV.  Many of these shows do not reflect the true nature of the industry.  It’snot real. That’s why they call it entertainment.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kg0iPVF-SZw

 

Knowledge, experience and ethical conduct saved Scott a toolbag’s worth of cash

Fear Factor Moisture Control

Scott still had moisture in his crawl space after following my drainage recommendations. Waterproofing contractors bid 15K, 7K and 3K to fix it.  We took a look and found water entering through a small opening at the stepped foundation. True cost of repair:  7.99 for a tub of hydraulic cement
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TzFY0Q0TBPQ

Dirty Ducting:  The Old Bait and Switch 

Every con artist knows how to manipulate Greed and Fear.  The bait, a cheap duct cleaning fee,  is followed by the switch, the misunderstood, hot-button, scientifically vague, four letter hazard-of-the-moment word MOLD.
http://www.americanownews.com/story/22110668/air-duct-cleaning-scams

Monkeying Around This install illustrates an all-to-common ignorance of basic design standards

Flexduct: Cheap and Non-Durable

Flexible plastic ribbed ducts have replaced metal ducts as the industry standard.  HVAC contractors save money by going cheap on ducting-and it shows.

http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/blogs/dept/building-science/should-flex-duct-be-banned

The Hail You Say

I got some nasty emails when I first published this article
http://tk-jk.net/judi_dan_archive/blog/HailChasers.html
Be on your Gutter Guard

These very expensive products work as long as it doesn’t rain very hard.  A niche product at best.
http://www.pressurewashinghickorync.com/gutter-guards-do-they-work
Leaky Windows update 8.1

Inspector Marko Vovk is back with another great video.  His observations and knowledge of building science accurately describe how and why windows fail.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YP0o9do4eSc
 

Don’t let misconception, misunderstanding or ignorance translate into financial loss Invest in an impartial, third-party inspection BEFORE you write that fat check.  770-457-2787

Open Up

Posted on 12. Mar, 2014 by in Building Science, Caring for your Home, Eco-Inspector, Healthy Home, Heating and Air-Conditioning, Nature

Rotting windowsill on a not-so-old house

For 28 years I’ve seen the windows of neglect: bound with paint, sashes screwed shut, locked-never to be opened, damaged hardware and screens, rotted sills.

No matter what type home, town or country, big or small, rich or poor, black or white, folks do not open windows.

 

Windows are designed for the simultaneous and independent control of:

Natural illumination

Natural ventilation:  The subject of this newsletter 

View out

View in

Passage of insects

Passage of water

Passage of heat-radiant, conducted, convected

Lots of un-opened windows

Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) is up to five times worse inside your home than outside.  The situation is getting worse as people spend more time inside and tightly built homes limit infiltration

Spring and Fall are the shoulder seasons, the interim between cold/dry and hot/humid.

The Japanese understand and appreciate ventilation.  Their building codes guarantee access                                                   to sunlight and wind, nature’s cleansing mechanisms

Designed for ventilation and ease of operation. Will the owners trouble themselves to open the slider doors?

Americans are special.  We love to mechanize our solutions.   Ultra-violet lights and ozone air purifiers emulate the healthy effects of sun and wind.

House deodorants, scents and candles emulate the smell of freshness.

Poor ventilation and filtration worsen your indoor air by trapping air pollutants.   Open windows on opposite sides of your home for ten minutes daily and the cross ventilation will improve your indoor air quality

 

Kiwis think so too.  http://www.energywise.govt.nz/your-home/ventilation

 

There’s something deeper to this than neglected windows

 

Building Science informs us that homes are environmental separators that provide a designed environment for human use and occupancy.

 

In these hectic, uncertain times homes have become psychological separators.  They are our castles, our place of refuge.

 

Windows stay closed to separate us from the outside of traffic, nosy neighbors, pollen, criminals, darkness, dogs barking, leafblowers roaring, planes ascending-from the craziness of a world we don’t want to let in.

 

At Villa Curl I’ve found pleasure in the sounds of wind-shuffled leaves, of trains and planes, church bells sounding the hour and the pastry-sweet smell the local pie factory.  Yes, the traffic is noisome, dogs bark, the world can have sharp edges.   I’ve come to accept these things.

 

Try opening windows ten minutes each day.  It’s guaranteed to improve your home and your health-and it just might improve your peace of mind.

 

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.

How can I be right and wrong at the same time?

Posted on 03. Jun, 2009 by in Ethics, Heating and Air-Conditioning

How can I be right and wrong at the same time?

It’s easy: make an unqualified promise.

Here’s my story

Last summer I inspected a retirement-type attached home. It was 3 years old and had been vacant for about a year. This was an easy inspection in most ways-the general quality of workmanship and materials was above average and the dwelling was a single story on slab-no crawl spaces or 2nd floor to inspect.

Not THAT easy; it had a complex truss system in the 150F attic. I exited the attic sweaty and tired. I had trouble getting gas to flow from a distant meter. After getting the range and gas logs going I went back to the attic to check the furnace. After an additional 15 miserable hot and sweaty minutes waiting for the gas to get to the furnace I gave up and noted on my report that I did not verify the furnace was working but that it appeared to be in good condition.

My clients, an older couple, insisted that I return to the property and check the furnace.
I certainly did NOT want to return to the property: it was out of my way and I was having a particularly busy week. I pointed out that I was not required to verify operation: I had exercised due diligence in trying to operate the furnace using normal controls. Still they insisted. So I wrote them a letter stating that I would pay for any servicing required. Wrong!

The matter seemed settled until I received a demand letter in December. It was from the wife: her husband had passed away in late summer and the furnace was, according to her letter and documentation from a well-known HVAC company, defective. The HVAC company had repaired the furnace and stated that there was a strong indication further expensive repairs (replacing the heat exchanger) might be needed.

This was the first time in 23 years in the business that I had taken a chance like this; a seeming validation of Murphy’s Law.

I contacted my trusted HVAC contractor and set up a meeting at the house. He inspected the furnace and found no defects. His opinion on the previous repairs, charges and recommendations of the first HVAC contractor indicated that the work was:
1. Incredibly overpriced
2. The possibility that the “defective” part had failed were about 10,000 to 1
3. There was nothing wrong with the heat exchanger

What he did not say (he is a gentleman) and what was readily apparent to both of us was that the homeowner was wrong AND that she was not thinking clearly. This poor woman had lost her husband, was in a new environment and had a furnace she was not familiar with. When the induced draft burners kick in there is a roaring sound as the flames are drawn into the heat exchanger. She assumed this meant she had a defective furnace. She was quite insistent on this point. My HVAC contractor tried to explain to her that this sound was normal, to no avail.

What upset me the most (pissed-off is a more apt characterization) about this affair was the willingness of the original HVAC contractor to profit at the expense of his client, with MY money. My promise to pay for repairs only made it easier for him to justify his greed.

Sure, I could have refused to pay. After all I was not notified of the original problem and my visit indicated no defects, especially with the heat exchanger. In hindsight I should have qualified my letter by saying they had to call me first. But the owner had just lost her husband and was “confused”. She was an easy mark for what I considered to be an ethically-challenged repairman. Besides, a promise is a promise and refusing to pay would probably have cost me more over the long term.

Was I right about the furnace being in good condition?

Was I wrong making and unqualified promise?

Yes, and yes.

The name of the first HVAC company? I’m not telling

The second? George Gary Mechanical Design

Caveat Emptor,

Dan