washington state

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.

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.

On a New House? Never! - er, Almost Never

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.

Gas Log Fireplace Maintenance

The next time you snuggle up near the warmth of a gas fireplace, ask yourself when the last time you had someone do maintenance on it. Usually ignored, gas log fireplace maintenance should be done annually just as you do with your furnace. Right, the furnace is do, too, but that's a different post.

Regular Cleaning

Most of the manufacturers of gas log fireplaces and inserts recommend having the system serviced on an annual basis. Most of this you can accomplish on your own if you are reasonably handy. Always remember to turn off the pilot and the gas to the fireplace before working on it.

Use a brush to clean the control space and the burner once you have the unit opened up. Use a very soft bristle brush to clean the logs - they tend to be fragile, so handle with some care.

Some logs, called 'yellow flame logs', require more frequent maintenance. They don't generate as much heat as the blue flamed logs but present an attractive appearance that rivals a traditional wood fire. The yellow color of the flame is a result of the carbon in the logs and, like the wood-burning fireplace, generates soot. Chimneys for these require the same maintenance as the traditional chimney.

The glass can be cleaned with a standard glass cleaner. Be careful with trim work and clean only with a damp rag - using chemicals might etch the finishes and ruin the appearance of the fireplace.

The Vent

Before you start the fireplace for the first time, check to make sure that the vent is clear of debris and dead animals. Also verify that there are no cracks or holes in the flue pipes. Check for condensation the first time you ignite the fireplace. There will be a little bit but it should burn off quickly. If it doesn't, the condensation may combine with the combustion gases and make a weak corrosive solution that can attack the metal of the flue.

Call the Pros!

The manufacturer also recommends annual service of the gas log fireplace by trained professionals. You really do need to have them come out to service the system. While you can clean and maintain the burner components and do a routine inspection of the vents, the pros can check the fuel/air mixture to make sure that the fireplace operates at optimum efficiency, check for gas leaks, and inspect the blower components to ensure the fan operates correctly.

A reminder - if you smell gas, call a service person immediately and describe to them the type and strength of the odor. Follow their instructions - if they say get out - Get Out!

A second reminder - install a carbon monoxide detector even if everything else in your house is electric. Any home with a gas-fired or wood-burning fireplace or furnace should have one.

So, the basics of gas log fireplace maintenance. Do it and enjoy the ambience all winter, worry-free.