A classic example of something done almost right . . .
I am loathe to make excuses for why I couldn’t accomplish my job though it does happen. The 2016-2017 winter was so brutal that I didn’t climb a roof for two months. This year’s more mild winter has been much easier to deal with - but there are still occasions where your inspector has to extend some effort.
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.
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.)
Little things count, too. There is actually a standard on the height of the sensor at the garage door and for good reason - set the sensor too far up and a small child can be caught under the door even with an otherwise fully operational safety system.
So, what is the maximum height?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ever walk past an a/c unit and wonder why it had 'legs' under it? Okay, maybe not, but there's a reason that some due and some don't. Watch to see what clues those legs provide us.
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.
The crawlspace vents are lower than the surrounding soil. It's a fairly common occurrence and easy to fix.
More often than not, your builder is not to blame - it is the landscaper who is beautifying the home without the awareness of the rest of the home systems.
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If your inspector never climbs the roof, he's going to miss potentially important flaws that stem from the design of the roof, not just from poor construction practices or sloppy maintenance. Watch the video for an example!
Here is a short video that I did back when things were a little cooler than today. (Today, it hit 111 degrees in Clarkston! Yikes!)
With a little luck, I'll get more of these out on a weekly basis.
Things get slow over the winter season for me and, as they say, idle hands do the devil's work. In this case, they built a solar collector for my garage.
The project did not require any fancy materials and the basic plans were available on the internet (though I tweaked them considerably.) All told, the project took a couple of days. For someone handy, it would have been a single day project, but my fine carpentry skills start and stop at the "Honey, where's my sledge hammer?" stage.
Building the Collector
My first step, after gathering supplies, was to build the collector itself. Since I can’t follow a simple recipe, this is where I began deviating from the plans. The colector sits inside the frame and absorbs the solar energy. I intended to use a small duct fan to boost air flow, so instead of designing the system to flow up the screen using natural convection, I made it a down-draft panel with the cold air coming in at the top and the fan sucking the warm air from the bottom.
Then I made three more changes. The original plans called for two layers of mesh. I went with five. I also changed the material from the plastic mesh to black aluminum screeen. (In hindgsight, I think the black plastic mesh would work just as well.) The final change in the collector was to add black plastic to each layer in a staggered pattern so that the air is always in contact with a solid, warm surface.
To anchor all the mesh, I used a frame of 1x2 lumber and mounted each layer on lathe strips (because they are skinny and cheap.)
Building the Box Frame
This is where my general lack of handiness asserted itself. This was combined with at least one moment of total nit-wittery. We’ll get to that shortly.
I spent a bit more money to buy pressure treated 2x12 lumber for the exterior frame. It can be done with less expensive materials, but I paid the additional cost in the dual expectation that the collector would work (there were doubts among friends, family, and the neighbors) and that it would last the next 20 years.
I cut the wood to fit with the bottom edge of the supporting side beveled to improve my angle to the sun. Then I inserted the top and bottom planks and proved to myself that I can be an idiot.
I built the collector to be four feet by eight feet. When I inserted the top and bottom, they were slightly larger than four feet so I could get the collector in without busting it apart. So far, no problem. I bolted everything together, easy as pie. Then I tried to drop the collector in – and discovered my little math error. The collector wouldn’t fit by 1.5 inches. When I measured for the longer axis, I neglected to account for the thickness of the bottom board.
Crud. Given no choice but to undue my work, I did. Re-measured (carefully this time!) and put everything back together. This time, the interior collector fit, if a bit snugger than I intended.
Insulate, Seal, And Ductwork
The next phase was to insulate the box with foam and caulk seal all the joints. Pro-tip for homeowners – if you want to save money on heating and cooling, don’t by a fancier furnace or expensive windows. Insulate and air seal – you’ll get your money back in a year or two.
Once the insulation was in and I got caulk smeared everywhere, I added the ductwork using inexpensive dryer ducting. I insulated that, too. Flipping it over, I caulked the plexiglass to the front of the frame and the collector was ready to move to the south side of the garage.
Remember the bevel cut at the bottom? The second purpose for that was to add stability to the whole frame so I wouldn’t need to screw it to my wall. The frame is heavy enough that wind will not bother it.
The ductwork extended past the back of the box enough to enter in a window. Just as I didn’t want a dozen screw holes in my siding, I didn’t want to cut holes into it, either. So, the window. I framed out ducts with more insulation, sealed with expansion foam and used the window to lock things down tight across the top the same way you would with a window air conditioner.
On the inside of my unheated garage, I ran a 20 foot length of dryer duct and added the fan. The discharge point is right over the laundry machines. The fan is on a timer.
So Does It Work?
Better than expected, actually. The heat on a sunny day coming from the collector exits at better than 100 degrees. Remember that this piece of ducting is 20 feet long, so there is considerable temperature loss along the length of it. When I measured the immediate discharge piping with my infrared camera, the temperature was over 140 degrees. Very pleasing!
On really cloudy, rainy days, it works, but not as effectively. The heat output is usually between six and ten degrees above the input temperature, so it is still heating.
During an average winter, the garage gets down to freezing and stays there. This year, it has gotten as warm as a balmy 63 degrees.
All in all, a fun project that will also save me money in the long run, and it’s kind to Mother Nature. I think I’ll build another one next year for my office.
Every municipality has what are known as design criteria for their region. These criteria include things like wind speeds, snow loads, what kind of seismic activity can be anticipated, and that sort of really useful data.
One of these criteria is the frost depth. Also known as the frost line or freezing depth, it is the point in the soil where groundwater can reasonably be expected to freeze.
This is important to the home builder because the foundation can be damaged by frost heaves. These occur when the water freezes into ice crystals. Remember that water expands when it freezes? It is that same basic fact with the added concern that it is applying force to the foundation and can crack a foundation wall.
Older homes in our area often do not have sufficient depth on the foundations. Short of major excavation and rebuilding of the foundation, this is not correctable.
On newer houses, it should never be an issue - until it is. I ran into that recently in a house that was built after 2000. I popped the hatch, saw this -
- and ran for my tape measure. By measuring the distance from the base of a window to the bottom of the foundation wall, both inside and out, I determined that the depth was 27 inches.
Design criteria for Whitman County is 32 inches.
Houston, we have ourselves a problem. Add in the fact that the home was two stories tall over this, and the problem compounds.
My recommendation to my client was to seek professional engineering. Not good news for them, I know, but better to know these things on the way in than six years from now.
Old houses are always a treat for inspectors since they've had plenty of time to accumulate oddities. In this case, I manage to squeeze into a tiny crawlspace and wormed my way around underneath this house in Eastern Washington.
I did not expect to find an entire tree stump under there. I took some video because it was fun but I have to apologize - the lighting conditions were not really terrific.
For those of you curious, yes, it is mandatory for the inspectors to enter crawlspaces if it is accessible and safe. Obviously, accessible is a relative term. I get into a lot of spaces that others simply can't because I'm a touch on the skinny side.
If you look to the right-hand side of the front page, you will notice that I have a new award. In my first year with Angie's List, Safe@Home Inspections won their prized Super Service Award for 2017.
These are the sorts of things that happen by accident. It requires an enormous investment in giving my clients an outstanding inspection along with great service before and after the inspection.
Personally, I'm incredibly pleased. I'm also looking for ways to do even better this year.
My thanks to all the clients and their agents that placed their trust in me!