Gas Water Heaters for Manufactured Homes

Manufactured homes get delivered with all manner of unique requirements, from hurricane anchors to specific electrical standards. It should not be a surprise that gas water heaters fall into the same category. What is a surprise is the dearth of information that a home inspector can locate on the subject, hence today's article.

The short version is that the types of water heaters permitted to be installed in a manufactured home is severally limited. Per the HUD standards that govern the installation of the water heaters, they must comply with UL 307B, UL Standard for Safety Gas-Burning Heating Appliances for Manufactured Homes and Recreational Vehicles. Having looked up the relevant standard, which is no easy feat, I now understand why so little information is available. UL 307B sells for $894! Sorry, but that is not in this home inspector's budget.

Buried in there is the warning. Good luck to the home inspector that wanted it to be easy!

Buried in there is the warning. Good luck to the home inspector that wanted it to be easy!

To be installed into a manufactured home, all water heaters must conform to the UL standard. From an inspection standpoint, my job gets much easier by knowing one critical piece of information. All water heaters in compliance must be marked with a HUD tag. Second best is that some heaters, not approved for use, will say so in fine print on the side of the tank.

There are a couple of visual clues, too, for the installation. Manufactured home water heaters have the cold water inlet connection on the side and the hot water outlet connection on top. Residential water heaters have all connections on the top of the tank. Also, these heaters are of the direct vent type.

Due to the different standard, these heaters are as much as twice as expensive to replace than traditional heaters. This becomes important in my area as we have quite a few aging neighborhood parks. Golden Hills in Pullman is one example, as is Robinson Park in Moscow. While the majority of the heating appliances are electric, about fifteen percent are gas-fired.

As an inspector, I need to be alert to the differences as the current crop of heaters gets retired and new ones get installed. For real estate agents, an awareness of the increased cost is something to be mindful of when negotiating deals. In both cases, the safety of our home owners is paramount.


Building Permit Research

Curious if the home you are considering purchasing has a Certificate of Occupancy?

One of my clients was, on a relatively new (six year-old) custom home, and took the time to go down to the local Building Department to do the research. To the surprise of both of us, a CO had never been issued on the home. Since I had already referred him to a structural engineer due some very odd cracking and bowing in the walls, this was the final straw in the deal.

That was a couple of weeks ago. This past week, while resolving a disagreement on electrical bonding with a contractor, I discovered that another home that I had recently inspected never had a permit purchased or an inspection performed on a brand new roof.

If home inspections were done to the same standard as a commercial inspection, visiting the Building Department for document research would be automatic. Not so for home inspections.

Maybe that should change.

I'm am now including an add-on service for residential inspections. For $125.00, I will gather the available relevant documents including permit applications, inspection reports, and Certificates of Occupancy and deliver them to you as a .pdf file.

I am recommending this for homes 25 years old and older, homes reported to have been recently remodeled, and custom built homes. The reasoning is that it takes some time in the house's lifecycle to get to the remodel and retrofit phase. Roofs and mechanical equipment usually do not need change-out earlier. Remodels trigger their own permit requirements. Custom homes fall across a broad spectrum of professional competencies. In the case above, the builder went out of business, leaving the current owner in a major lurch.

I do not recommend it for spec-built homes. Companies such as Copper Basin and Hayden Homes are consistent about acquiring the necessary permits. They are too big to fly under the radar for the Building Departments.

A minimum of three business notice required.

Pipe Organs, from the inside

I can add to my list of firsts. Today, the inspection was at a church in Moscow and they had a pipe organ, so I had a chance to crawl around on the interior. Very neat to see the different structures that they use to create the sounds. Also, the wiring is impressive as heck.

Nobody ever said this job was boring!

Each one of those represents a different circuit to activate the pipes. Wickedly complex.

The mid-sized pipes. Look like they're out of a Disney movie.

The tops of the largest pipes were twelve feet over my head.

Railroad tie retaining walls

Wood (10)In Pullman and Moscow both, a ‘natural-look’ trend using railroad tie retaining walls  took place from the mid-1980’s to about 2000, when masonry block supplanted the trend. The advantage of the railroad ties was the number of them dropped onto the market as local rail lines got torn up and the creosoted wood was nearly given away. As is usually the case, the contractors that first started using the ties had no idea of what a wall constructed of wood should look like. Mostly, they pretended that it was just like a concrete wall. They stacked the ties, drove spikes through them vertically and—viola’—counted it as good.

It wasn’t. The railroad ties are prone to rotating and the spikes aren’t enough to resist the motion. Add to that the ground pressure, especially when the native loess around here gets wet, and the retaining walls tend to pick up a lean pretty quickly.

There’s a way to fix the issue, though. At the time you build the wall, you include tiebacks. Tiebacks can be made with steel rods and use anchor bolts to flat plates at the outside of the wall. A more attractive solution that works equally well is to use the railroad ties themselves as the tiebacks by turning an appropriate number of them perpendicular to the wall, extending into the hillside you are retaining.

If you look at the railroad tie retaining wall in the picture, you can see a tieback in the lower middle part of the picture where the end profile of the tie is visible.

No, I can’t tell you the appropriate number of tiebacks – that is known as engineering and I’m not qualified. As an inspector, I recognize when this has been done (and hasn’t, obviously) and point it out to the client.

Now, for the other problem with using railroad ties in retaining walls, at least in Pullman and Moscow—the ties are a multi-story hotel for carpenter ants.

The creosote coating will keep them from penetrating the surface of the wood but any cut ends or sections that split will provide an entry point. Once inside, the carpenter ants will set up house. Unlike most other wood destroying organisms in the Pacific Northwest, the ants don’t eat the wood. They excavate and create shelters.

While their presence in the wall will weaken it, they’re not yet a threat to your home until they attempt to colonize it in the same manner they took over the railroad ties. As part of a home inspection in Washington State, the inspector is required to inform you of potential conditions conducive to this type of infestation. Note the difference . . . potential. Just because the condition exists, it does not automatically follow that an infestation is imminent.

It would be prudent to have a professional keep an eye on the potential for you and, if it’s a concern, provide treatment options. A pair of companies I like are Sunpest and Hayden Pest Control. {Disclaimer-Sunpest helps me with my dandelion issues.}

Railroad tie retaining walls are an attractive landscaping feature but, when buying a new home, look for the signs (or make sure your inspector looks) of good construction and be mindful of the pest issues. Otherwise, enjoy the natural beauty they bring.

EPA Bans Most Wood-Burning Stoves

Well, it's not like we're not used to the EPA overreaching on regulations so a production ban on the types of wood-burning stoves found in about 80 percent of the homes nationwide with stoves shouldn't be a surprise. The core of the issue is a requirement that wood stoves produce less than 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air of airborne fine-particle matter. The old standard was 15 percent.

You can still use your old wood stove - for now, and depending on region - but if you want to get a new stove, the old one will need to be scrapped out. You can't sell it to another party to recoup some of your outlay for the more efficient burner. I also suspect that the new regulations will increase the cost of the new wood-burning stoves as well though the EPA helpfully provides a list of compliant stoves.

Some areas of the country already ban outright the use of a wood stove during certain weather conditions or seasonally. Puget Sound and the Air Resources Board in that region have done that.

If you are buying a home with a wood stove, I would strongly suggest finding out if the stove is compliant. As an inspector, this isn't going to be part of my routine since there is too great a variety in the stoves themselves. Also, I would keep in mind the fact that the stove that you have may be banned from use should the local jurisdictions decide that it is necessary. Such bans almost invariably involve the traditional fireplace as well.

If you are a seller with a new wood-burning stove that is EPA compliant, I would include that information in the listing. Discuss it with your Realtor to see how best to do this.

For more info, here's the article that I found - EPA Bans Most Wood-Burning Stoves

Ufer Ground for New Construction

The term ufer ground is the old fashioned way to call out what the code book calls a concrete-encased grounding electrode. You probably don't know it but most new homes in the Pullman and Moscow areas are being built with a Ufer ground. First, let's have a short history lesson. In World War II, the American forces, specifically the U.S. Army, needed a system to ground bomb storage facilities in Arizona and Nevada. One problem with both of those areas is that they are extremely dry and the soil was a very poor conductor. For obvious reasons, the Army did not want excessive charges to build up around the bomb dumps. The existing means - long copper rods - would take a critical war material our of circulation and was very expensive.

Fixing this problem was Herbert G. Ufer. A sharp individual, he discovered that the foundations, made of concrete, were more conductive than many types of soil. He devised a system by which a rod was inserted into the foundation and tied to the electrical panel.

Moving on....

The concrete encased grounding electrode used in our region for residential construction is a 20 foot length of #4 rebar (1/2 inch steel) with a projection from the top of the foundation wall at a easy location to make the connection to the grounding electrode - the actual wire from the panel.

The old means - there were two - of grounding proved to be less effective in Pullman and Moscow due to better knowledge and a change in building material.

The early means of grounding was to attach the grounding electrode to the metal plumbing system where the main entered the home. Now that we use non-metallic materials for our plumbing supplies, this option isn't available.

The other way was to use driven ground rods. Unfortunately, these were less proficient at distributing energy and were often damaged at the clamps that held the wire to the rod.

How to determine if you have a Ufer Ground? Look inside the home under the electrical panel. What you are trying to find is a blank electrical box cover plate. If you have one and can not find a ground rod outside, there is a good chance that you have a ufer ground. The plate is there, by the way, in case you do have a major electrical event and the connection to the rod needs to be checked for damage.

Now a word of warning - nothing ever comes without a downside. Ufer grounds have been known, under certain conditions, to cause damage to the foundation in a lightning strike. If the concrete holds too much moisture, that water will flash off to steam and the expansion of the steam cracks the concrete.

Make sure that you keep your gutters in good shape and, when you water the lawn, make sure you're not watering the house, too. It's not good for the house and it can be a problem - not a high probability one, admittedly, but possible - for your ufer ground system.



Smart Moves by Sellers, Pt. 1

Smart Moves by Sellers

This will likely become on ongoing series...

The sellers at a recent inspection did two things to help set the tone of the inspection. First, they left the buyer and me a note offering us beverages- though not the wine. But water, soft drinks and juices (cooled in the outside refrigerator) were available. On a hot summer day, it was a welcome gesture.

The second was to leave another note, this one at a piece of missing trim above the bedroom door. On the note, is said simply "We will fix this." Want to talk about building trust as a seller. These folks did great.

So, two Smart Moves by Sellers to first welcome and then reassure the prospective buyers. It cost them a minute and two pieces of paper.


Burned Wires in the Panel

Burned Wiring in Electrical PanelThe burned wires in this electrical panel aren't the result of a defect in the panel, the breakers or even  the wiring.  I damaged the wiring by the simple act of removing a screw (and, no, I'm not responsible - that cover should be safe to remove. The listing agent and I had this discussion and the electrician backed me up.) Sparks flew everywhere as the screw came out and the panel sizzled in front of me. Fortunately, I wasn't hanging onto the panel cover or it would likely have knocked me across the room. Hidden defects exist in nearly every home. While the home inspector tries to find as many of them as possible, the term 'hidden defect' persists for a reason. None of us have x-ray vision so items stashed in the walls stays stashed. Even my infrared camera isn't going to help with many of these issues.

The defect in this case was the original installation of the wiring. By code, those wires should never be placed in a position where this could possibly happen. When I see wiring too close to attachment points, it gets written up for correction.

And, when I'm taking the panel cover off, my clients aren't allowed to help. The flash range on a 200 AMP panel is about three feet (so I've been told - I have no desire to test that particular factoid!) I appreciate the offer but even the slight risk that something like this can happen - this is the first time in  eight years for me - isn't worth it.

I joke when I see burned wires in the panel that someone had a bad day. You pay us to do this as safely as possible and we are, most of us, very careful but the rare nasty surprise can still be waiting. If it has to happen - let it happen to the inspector.