Drone Inspections

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After a bit of hard work, I have passed the FAA test to be a Part 107 Remote Pilot. This means that I can legally use drones in the real estate industry. While much of the work will certainly be geared to real estate photography here on the Palouse, the drone that I fly - the DJI Mavic 2 Pro - is a top-of-the-line piece of equipment that can inspect anything from inaccessible roofs to cell towers.

The Mavic is a dream to fly (hat tip to Jess Rainer at Windermene in Pullman for the great advice on drones!) The integrated software and hardware make it possible to take terrific photos and video right out of the box.

Early returns are very encouraging and I’ve already started booking work for the drone. In fact, the first job paid off the insurance for the equipment.

Yes, I carry insurance on the drone and on the drone operation. While there is no legal requirement, it is the prudent option.

I’ll be adding pictures from iconic spots around the Palouse and from the Lewis-Clark Valley every once in a while. I’ll also be building out a separate website for the drone business. While I intend to use the Mavic for inspections, it will be through a separate company.

I’ll keep you posted.


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Pouring Concrete Against Siding Is Dumb

I wish that this was an occasional problem with builders, but it isn't. I see it all the time. For those of you who think that the municipal building inspector will catch this, I sadly report that your expectations are set too high - much too high depending on the town.

This house is less than 10 years old - and already showing signs of damage. There are hundreds in our area just like it and they aren’t going to age well. Board movement is the least of my worries. I expect that we’ll see wood rot due to poor clearance and, in areas like the Lewis-Clark Valley, termites since we have provided a perfect entry path.

I Need to Lose 10 Pounds - Or Gain 25!

Video first.

So, ask yourself - would you go in there. There’s a concrete foundation wall blocking half the access. It doesn’t show, but there’s a 4” plumbing drain line to the left of the opening. There’s also communications wiring tangling everything up. The shelf above is just a bonus head-knocker.

I always give it a try but I’ve developed a phrase for nearly impossible to get into (and get OUT of, too) places. Home Inspector Yoga. This one fit the definition. And, while I always give it a go, nothing says I get to enjoy it.

The problem was that I didn’t exactly fit that hole. It took about five minutes of twisting, turning, jabbing various body parts into the opening in different sequences before I found the combo and managed to slither in.

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Then I had a seventy foot crawl with dust everywhere, spiders everywhere, and no clearance to speak of. It was drag myself ahead with my elbows and push with toes. Get my butt any higher than that and I’d have wedged myself into the joists. It got lower and lower as I went, too.

I found some wood rot but not as much as I expected. Found a ladder down at the front of the space. That piqued my curiosity, so I dug my way under a plumbing drain to see what was going on.

Any hopes for a secret tunnel to hidden treasures were sadly dashed. It was an old plumbing main. Bummer, dude.

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Off to the right though was a thoroughly impressive habitation tube. No signs of live insects, which is encouraging. (Still referring the whole thing to a Pest Control Operator.) I like the way it wrapped around the heating duct work.

At that point, I was done. Time to extricate myself. Problem number uno - I didn’t have room to turn around. So, baby scootch backwards until I can find a slightly wider spot to pull a U-turn. Then, back to the access.

Remember the gyrations I went through getting in?

I had help.

From gravity.

Getting out? Oh, boy. I tried following the path I had used getting into the crawlspace (and, arguably into trouble.) I twisted, I turned, I pivoted, I cussed. If I find out what idiot plumber put that pipe there, he and I will have a discussion, probably at very high volume. About half way through the process it occurred to me that I might not be able to get back out. That would be bad since I was in a vacant building. No client to go for help, either. So, once I got done being a mite angry, I put my thinking cap on.

I tied the communication cables that were trapping my legs up to the plumbing with an old dust mask some other workman left behind. I went ninety degrees off my entry angle, and levered one arm up and out. So far, so good. I used that arm to take the weight off my side so I could press with my legs. Hah! Success!

It took nearly ten minutes to get back out. I took a picture of my coveralls. They were spotlessly clean (and navy blue) before I went into the crawlspace.

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The whole process took about 35 minutes and presented my with a dilemma. If I were ten pounds lighter, I think that would have gone a bit easier.

Alternatively, if I were 25 pounds heavier, I’d never have tried in the first place.

Somebody pass me a donut while I figure this out. And some potato chips?

So What Do You Think? A Meth House?

Earlier this week, I went into a house at the request of a bank. The real estate agent that was generating a BPO (Broker Price Opinion) for them and became worried about what she saw. Not having a lot of training in some of the oddities of inspection but possessing abundant common sense, she told the bank to hire an inspector to evaluate the property.

That was me.

It didn’t take more than a few seconds to go from normal inspector mode to “don’t touch a thing” mode. It was that bad. The odor, bitter and strong, hit me hard at the front door. The kitchen was to the right and the rolling smoke stains told the story of repeated cooking.

The bath tub was etched and scarred, abused by all the chemicals that got dumped down the drain.

Chemical stains were everywhere.

Unfortunately, there were no chemical bottles present except for a pair of oxygen bottles. I think they were used for transport of anhydrous ammonia. Anyone taking a hit off the tanks would like be dead. The meth cooks have used propane tanks for years to disguise their ingredients. I think they are evolving again.

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The most disturbing part of the process was finding a bedroom door with a lock hasp on the outside.

The meth cooks had kids and were locking them up.

Sometimes I get to see a little too much.

It's Swarming Season

It’s an unwelcome sign that spring is here, but swarming season has begun. If you spot these winged reproductives, call you local Pest Control Operator.

In Idaho, I call them carpenter ants. In Washington, due to regulations, they are ‘suspected wood destroying organisms.’

In either case, they’re trouble.

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How Old Is This House Again?

I was having a discussion with Chip Kenny, the inspector at Inland Northwest Home Inspections, about a house he was inspecting. The visuals - type of foundation, etc. - didn’t match the age of the home listed in the public sources.

I have run into this three times in the last year. The easiest one was a house listed as a 1965 building in a neighborhood in Pullman that was newer. The house had engineered trusses in the attic and the concrete foundation appeared to more modernly formed. When I opened the electrical panel, I found an inspection card for 1985. That fit much better, and I adjusted my report accordingly.

This structure was listed as a 1953 home - but the framing says 1900-1920.

This structure was listed as a 1953 home - but the framing says 1900-1920.

The nastiest one had the listing agent blow a gasket and shriek at the buyer’s agent. This particular Clarkston house was listed as a 1974 home but none of the features matched the vintage. The attic was sheathed with dimensional wood, the attic framing was 2x4 rafters, the number of outlets was low, the foundation system was funky. It didn’t feel like 1974.

When the buyer’s rep showed up, I asked her about this. She commented that the seller had put a 1955 date in the disclosures. I ran with that and suggested a video sewer scope of the main drainage line. As it happens, the material was Orangeburg pipe and was in lousy condition. Given the extreme over-reaction of the listing agent, I wonder if she already knew that the line was questionable. Hmmmm?

Anyway, to the point. How does this happen? How does an old house get listed as a newer home?

The answer is not that the real estate agent is deliberately deceptive (usually!) What happens is that the house undergoes a major remodel, so much so that the home is nearly new in a functional sense. The owner applies for, and gets, a new certificate of occupancy from the municipality. The records get updated with the new C.O. When the house gets listed again, anyone (or any computer algorithm) will locate the last certificate of occupancy and that date gets assigned to listing.

This is not a 1974 attic space even though that was the listed age of the home.

This is not a 1974 attic space even though that was the listed age of the home.

The only time we used to see this happen was when a home was moved. With tighter controls coming into play at the municipal level, I expect to see more of this sort of mischaracterization occurring. The home inspector community will need to be aware of the potential for the actual vintage of the building to be different from the documentation. Unfortunately, with so many new inspectors arriving on the scene that lack the thousands of houses of experience to recognize the oddities, this likely will get missed.

Wait - Your Inspector Didn't Say Anything About Anchor Bolts?

First, a little history lesson. We tend to think that modern standards are inherently superior to the ‘good old days’. That may be so, but that does not mean that an older foundation is unsafe or needs a full retrofit. Many of our old foundations (in this region) are doing just fine. Many of those do not have a single anchor bolt, either.

Washington State began requiring anchor bolts on a statewide basis in about 1973 though many of our 1950s and 1960s Pullman and Clarkston homes have them. Prior to that, the state mandated them in the Puget Sound region due to earthquake potential.

Anchor bolting is installed to handle seismic and wind forces that have the potential to knock a home off the foundation. The Northridge quake is a case in point. The manner in which we installed them changed after that quake and the design of the washers was modified to limit damage.

Anchor bolts are not always visible - finished basement will prevent access - but it pays to have your inspector making the effort to identity if they are present or not. I do so in my reports on a separate line. If they are missing, the client gets a nice explanatory paragraph.

It’s a fairly common defect to find that the anchor bolts are present but missing washers and nuts. When this happens, it becomes a repair issue. If they are not spaced correctly, it becomes a judgement call - is it worth the cost to retrofit versus the risk. On this side of the state, our earthquake risk is minimal compared to Seattle. Most people don’t retrofit, but they always appreciate the information.

Ice Damming In Pullman

After skating for most of the season, Old Man Winter showed up with a shovel and has proceeded to bury us. So far, several areas have reported record snow falls including my home town of Asotin. For those of you that scoffed when my sweetie bought me a snow-blower, HAH! The Snow Joe has earned its keep this month.

The view from the roof at an inspection in Pullman.

The view from the roof at an inspection in Pullman.

Also happening this month - business is picking up. This time of year gets pretty treacherous for walking roofs, though sometimes it can be done. It requires a careful consideration of the underlying structure of the snow and of the point of access, but snow by itself is not a primary limiting factor.

What is a primary limiting factor is ice. And, by golly, we are seeing a lot of ice on the edges of roofs lately due to ice damming.

What Is Ice Damming?

In its simplest form, ice damming is a build up of ice on the eave of a roof. The formation is from snow melting at a higher point on the roof, typically over the heated portions of the home, and flowing down the roof slope to the eave. The eave is at nearly the same temperature as the air outside. As the water hits this frigid zone, it re-freezes.

In the process, the dam blocks more water from flowing freely off the roof deck, thus extending the ice dam. Because the velocity of water drainage plays a part in the process of re-freezing, lower slope roofs are more susceptible to ice damming.

On a low enough slope, the ice can build up many feet along the roof deck. That is what I found with the roof in the second picture. My best estimate is that the ice extended 8-10 feet up the roof from the edge.

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Damaged Caused By Ice Damming

The presence of the ice is not the major cause of damage to the home. While the accumulation can cause problems, it is the water behind the dam that causes the most concern. Our roofs are not designed to act as pools and are not water-proof. They are water shedding. That is a huge difference. Obstructed water will not drain down the roof. Water being water, it will try to find a way to flow with gravity. This means flowing under the shingles, finding gaps in the underlayment, and getting into the ceilings and walls of the home.

It is not just a matter of getting a roof stain on your ceiling, though. This moisture in your attic can be a major contributor to the growth of mold and wood destroying fungus.

How To Recognize an Ice Dam

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Ever drive by a house and admire the long glittering icicles hanging from the roof? Well, admire those from a distance. If you see those on your house, you likely have an ice damming issue.

Likewise, if there is a four inch iceberg on the edge of your roof, you’ve got a problem.

Also, a couple people a year get killed by falling ice or icicles from a roof.Do not walk right under the icy spears admiring them. If you are walking around a house with ice on the roof, stay near the wall under the eave or well clear of the fall zone to the perimeter.

Just a heads-up - if there is ice at the edge like this, I’m not getting on the roof.

How To Fix Ice Damming


The first thing to do is figure out where the heat is coming from to allow for the excessive snow melt. Usually, the first and best answer is that you do not have nearly enough insulation in your attic. You don’t even need to go into your attic to figure this out - if your roof is the first in the neighborhood to lose snow cover, you probably need more insulation. (I take perverse pride in having snow on my 1910 built home long after everyone else has exposed their shingles.. It a great sign that I did a solid job of insulating the home. Lower energy bills are nice, too.)

There are other factors that come into play. If you have canned ceiling lights, they can create enough heat to cause problems. Have a contractor insulate the boxes.

Check to make sure that you have enough effective attic ventilation. If you do not, the attic will retain warm air and lead to ice damming. Also, to mold growth.

If you have a furnace in the attic, make sure all the joints in your duct work are tight. Leaky ducts will cost you in more than dollars.

Insulate all your ventilation fan ducts. Bathroom fans and dryers move warm air to the outside. If they pass through the attic on the way, they will transfer much of their heat to the attic space. Insulate them and limit that possibility.

If these steps do not work to control your issue, it is time to call in a quality contractor to perform a thorough analysis of the heat transfer taking place, including thermal transfer through air exfiltration from ceiling penetrations or up the wall cavities.

Good luck! As always, if you have questions, feel free to call. I may have a tidbit of information that can help.

I’ll leave you with one more scary picture . . .

Water is actively leaking and two different fungi are growing.

Water is actively leaking and two different fungi are growing.

Raised-Heel Trusses

Since the late 1960s, most houses have been built with engineered trusses (click on the link for more information than you need) instead of traditional rafters. Trusses offer greater spans to open up our interiors with great rooms, require less time and labor to erect, and provides a more uniform pitch to the roof, which may not seem important to you, but your roofer loves it.

Early truss systems resembled a triangle with a bunch of triangles inside the outside one. The problem that we ran into, from an energy usage standpoint, were those skinny angles at the ends of the truss. Often, there was not sufficient room to get an adequate amount of insulation into the space. I see a fair number of homes with shadowing on the ceiling at the outside edges of the rooms from precisely this.

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A 1970s Engineered Truss

Note how skinny it is at the low edge. Not much room for insulation.

When energy was really cheap (raise your hand if you can remember $.25 gasoline!), this was not a big priority. Today, with more expensive energy and an improved awareness on how to heat and cool our homes efficiently, what happens on that edge is important. One solution was to re-design the truss. Meet the raised-heel truss.

The raised-heel truss

Raised-heel trusses are engineered to provide enough space for the insulation. By design, they are taller than older truss designs at the point where they cross the wall. This section, called the heel, intersects at the perimeter wall and lifts the top chord of the truss. From my research, it looks like the energy-saving qualities of the raised-heel were not the primary reason they were developed, though. Initially, the were built to match roof lines and increase curb appeal. Go figure . . .

Even though the cost for these trusses are not substantially higher than with other truss systems, I still don’t see that many of them. When I do, it’s good news for my clients!

(A quick note on the video - I shot it in an attic while hanging from the framing - it might not sound smooth and polished.)


How To Incorrectly Install the Temperature Pressure Relief Valve - Or Boom Waiting to Happen

With any luck, when I do a home inspection, I get to stay nice and bored. That doesn’t happen as often as I would like unfortunately. Part of the boredom should come from verifying mundane details that nobody would ever get wrong.

Ha. Just kidding.

In this case, the mundane detail is the temperature pressure relief valve. These devices have been required equipment since the 1960s. Their purpose is to act as the last fail-safe on the water heater tank. The tank is a welded steel enclosure which means that it doesn’t structurally fail easily. It takes a considerable amount of energy to force it into failure. Or time, but that is more for leaks. Here I am concerned with a sudden catastrophic failure.

Most people would pay more attention to their water heater if they knew they were living with a bomb. Think I’m joking? Go check out this video from Mythbusters. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Welcome back! Impressive, wasn’t it.

Please note that they deliberately disabled the TPR safety to get the tank to go boom. In my job, I don’t need to assume intentional action or malice. Ascribing mistakes to simple silliness or ineptitude works just as well.

In the video below, a TPR vale is installed. Sadly, it is not installed correctly and has created the potential to turn the water heater into a house killer. Maybe a people killer, too. Bad news, that. It is, however, easily fixable.

The hottest water temperature I’ve ever check was 189 degrees on an old National Steel water heater from the fifties with no TPR valve. I practically begged the client to replace it.

The Hose Isn't the Clue - When to Worry about Your Sewer Line

Home inspections are a neat way to make a living. I love the puzzle-solving aspect involved in the process. Today, I was in a 1970s vintage home that made me stop and go '“Hmmmm.”

Why? Because of an odd little circle of dirt. It was around a floor drain and might as well as have announced “Flood!” A small one, but since I hate water outside the plumbing, it made me dig deeper.

I ran water in three bathrooms and the kitchen for an hour to replicate the flood event. No bueno, no flood. It wasn’t for a lack of trying.

Still, I advised my clients to get a sewer scope done on the main waste line. Something happened and I’d rather they spend a few extra dollars making sure the drain is good than tell them that I did my best but what’s underground is not my responsibility only to have the system blow up six months after they move in.

The standards of practice define what I must look at and what’s within my scope, but it shouldn’t prevent me from using my brain.

Receptacles over Baseboard Heaters - A Fire Waiting to Happen

I took a trip down to Boise a couple of weekends ago. Just because I was off the job doesn’t mean the eyeballs quit working. We stayed at a converted residence but it was pretty clear that not all the work done to upgrade the traveler’s spaces meets the current safety standards.

In this case, it was a baseboard heater with a receptacle located immediately above it. This is a pretty common finding in older homes in Pullman and Clarkston, but it also represents a fire and shock hazard.

Why I Didn't Test the Air Conditioner Yesterday?

When the original Advisory Board wrote the inspection standards for the state, they included a special provision for air conditioners. The standard specifies that the home inspector working in Washington State test the temperature differential on the air conditioner.

Temperature differential is just a fancy way of saying that we measure the temperature of the air going into the air conditioner - say it is 80 degrees - and measure it as it comes out of the air conditioner - 61 degrees. We do rudimentary math and arrive at a 19 degree difference. The range that I use (and most inspectors are close to these numbers) is 14 to 24 degrees of difference. Too little cooling and we have a problem. Too much cooling is also a problem, though, as this can indicate poor air flow and a host of other issues with the cooling plant. For the actual diagnosis of the system, I punt it to the experts.

The exception is when the outside temperature drops. The condenser unit for the system (that’s the part outside) gets too cold, the oil in it gets ‘thick’ - that is, the viscosity, its ability to flow, is low. Trying to move that cold oil through the system can damage it. Thus, when the outside temperature is below 60 degrees, the standard allows us to note that fact and not test the air conditioner for operation. That does not mean it is not inspected - we’re still required to examine the readily accessible components and report any deficiencies that we see.

Is Your Inspector Supposed to Remove the Cover on the Electrical Panel?

Per Washington State Standard of Practice, your home inspector is obligated to remove the cover from the electrical panel. This was a point of contention early in the standards-writing process and electrical contractors in particular argued against it.

Common sense prevailed and home inspectors remove covers. This is a necessary part of the inspection. Just in the last few days, I've seen a panel where the plastic was literally melting. (Yes, we turned off the power, notified the agent, and thanked our lucky stars the home didn't burn down the day before.)

We look for a variety of issues on the interior and I'll hit those in later posts and videos - though if you have a specific question, send it along and I'll move it up the queue.

One caveat - we are required to remove 'readily accessible' covers. If the panel is buried under behind a 700 lb. gun safe, I'm not inspecting it. Likewise, I add the very sensible (to me) proviso that if I test the panel and it lights me up, I'm not going further and trying to remove the cover. In either case, your inspector is obliged to tell you that he did not remove the cover and why.

Pullman Air Quality Is Terrible Today (8/20/18)

This happens every three or four years. We're surrounded by forests to our south and west and forests, by their nature, tend to burn after lightning strikes.

The air quality in Pullman is rated at very unsafe today. In Clarkston, it's even worse and has hit hazardous. For those of you who have central air systems but no air conditioner, you can put the fan into the "ON" mode to filter your air. If you have a/c, you can do this so the air is constantly filtered, but you're not paying to cool things down when you don't need to.

Be careful with all your outside activities. If you have folks (children or the elderly) with respiratory issues, keep an eye on them. Asthma sufferers (like me) should use their inhalers early.

Take care, everyone, and be safe. Send some prayers or kind thoughts, as your preference may be, to the firefighters working to save homes and our forests.