You can have “problems” and still not need a shrink

In the mid 1970’s when the United States was first awakened to the fact that oil might not stay cheap forever, Urea-Formaldehyde Insulation became all the rage.

formaldehyde11It would be nice to think that we came to an awareness of saving energy for the sake of conserving finite resources, but the harsh reality is that we only came to the awareness by how it impacted our pocket books and wallets.

It was this concern with saving money that led to many different methods of insulating homes so that we didn’t have to buy so much oil–depleting our wallet reserves.  Of course the oil companies merely charged more for the reduced amount of oil we purchased but that is another story.

Urea-Formaldehyde had a problem though.  After installation of the product, some people reportedly reacted badly to “out-gassing” of the product and it fell out of favor.  Many people spent even more money having the product removed.  Besides the out-gassing issue (which was largely exaggerated much the same way we see with mold exaggerated today), it had a much more troublesome problem over time.

  It shrank a LOT. 

The idea with insulation is that you want to fill all cavities and stop all air movement.  So now we have a cavity with this giant floating block of insulation surrounded by free air–air that is free to transport both heat and moisture through the wall.  It also made it impossible to re-insulate the spaces to make up for the shrinking insulation, leaving the only option removal and re-insulating.

Many people have heard about the past history of Urea-Formaldehyde insulation and have questions and concerns when it comes up on an inspection.  I still frequently find homes that were insulated with the material.  I find it usually extruded into attic spaces where there were small or big openings that prevented it from being contained in the wall cavity–as can be seen in this picture.


In this next picture, if you look closely, I think you can see just how much the material has shrunk away from the wall studs.  In this case as much as an inch on each side


Given the length of time since this material was installed, the EPA considers any out-gassing to be complete and not likely to represent any health concerns.

This leaves its shrinkage and greatly reduced ability to insulate the home as its biggest concerns.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle


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Have you ever had a “snake” moment?

Everyone has snake moments.  You know, those times when something just jumps out at you and your heart sinks, your pulse rises, your knuckles turn white and your face goes ashen.  If it is a big enough snake you might even experience the taste of adrenalin in your mouth and the smell of urine in your pants.

snakes1Some people are more prone to snake moments than other people.

Home inspectors seem to be less prone to these moments than the general population and it may in fact be part of what it takes to be a home inspector.

Rats, spiders, ants, stinging insects, tight spaces, faulty wiring, sewage, flooded crawl spaces, Cujo, environmental hazards—and even snakes are some of the things that home inspectors have to deal with on a daily basis.  Most normal people do everything in their power to stay away from these things.

But when you think about it, most people have to pay to get their adrenalin rushes—home inspectors get paid to have adrenalin rushes.

The other day I had an unexpected snake moment. 

Aren’t they all unexpected?

Anyway, I had removed the cover from the electric panel when it struck like a coiled Diamond Back.

I should clarify that I have been working with residential electrical panels and wiring homes for more than 40 years, so there is not much that is likely to cause me to become unglued.  But the nature of snakes is that they quietly just show up when you least expect them.

This particular snake was observed winding its way across the live bus bars of the electrical panel—giving me an ever so slight taste of adrenalin—yet allowing me to remain continent.

The part that really got me going was not so much that wires crossed the bus bars—I see that sometimes.  But the fact that one of the wires was BARE COPPER, and only a ½ an inch away from the 4th of July, it gave me pause.


Anyone working inside this panel—especially anyone not smart enough to know what snakes might be hiding in there–could be in for a BIG surprise as the snake exploded in a flash of blinding light.

Hopefully they would live to see the light.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle


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I bet you pee your pants before I pee mine!

I subscribe to the Electrical Currents Newsletter from the Washington State Department of Labor in order to stay “current” (no pun intended) with what is going on in the “electrical field” in Washington State.  It always has “electrifying tidbits” about what is going on with updates to the National Electric Code as they pertain to Washington State–as well as lots of other useful if not too “shocking information.”

Mouse_climbingThe newsletter always has a question of the month that is often times way over my head technically, but that is fun to read nonetheless.

This month’s question left me a little baffled as it entered into a discussion about the differences in susceptibility to electrical shock between the sexes.

The idea that I might be more inclined to pee my pants than a woman left me feeling a little uneasy.  However I was greatly “relieved” to find that it is actually women that are more likely to lose muscle control when encountering electrical current.  15 milliamperes for men and 9 milliamperes for women.

While the answer seemed clear cut and emphatic it does nothing to answer the many questions that come to mind.

How old is a “woman?”

How old is a “man?”

Is it also true of “boys” and “girls?”

Is it true regardless of weight, height, and/or size?

What if the woman was pregnant?

What if the woman was pregnant with a boy?

Another interesting aspect of the question though is, how the heck did they figure this out? I can imagine some sort of Frankensteinian experiment involving paid and/or unpaid volunteers and lots of screaming, wriggling and floor mops.

I could find nothing definitive on the internet as to why this difference between men and women is true, but it does seem to be a pretty pervasive idea in the electrical literature that I did find.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle


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Not all spiral stairs are created equal

As a builder, one of my favorite projects, besides building indoor rock climbing gyms was building spiral stairs.  They are one of the few things that could possibly drag me out of retirement.  

spiral_stairs1The design was my own and I built at least 7 sets over the years.  Most of them were built prior to my moving to the left hand side of the country so I have very few pictures of the stairs–at least nothing digital that would make blogging about them easier.

I built one set here in Seattle, 25 years ago for people that have since become good friends.  When I was at their home a couple of years ago I asked them if I could come back and take some pictures–which of course they were gracious enough to let me do.

The stairs looked pretty much the way they did when I built them 22 years earlier–with only a small amount of wear on the treads–and some color change typical of all natural-finished wood.

Except for the spaces between the treads, and the way the handrails end, this set of stairs pretty much meets today’s codes.  Stairs I built after these had decorative pieces to reduce the spaces between the treads to less than 4.”spiral_stairs2

I have built these stairs out of 6/4 and 8/4 oak, 10/4 ash, and even 12/4 white pine.  The thickness was always relative to the diameter of the stairs and/or the species of wood being used.  They have ranged from 5 feet in diameter to 7 feet in diameter–one was even “S” shaped, which meant it had to have two center columns. 

Each tread is freely cantilevered from the central column, picking up only very incidental support from the balusters tied to the handrail.  The central column is solid wood.  Four threaded rods run from a steel plate that is bolted to the floor.  The solid blocks and treads slide down over the threaded rods which are then caped with another steel plate.  The nuts are tightened making the entire column and treads one rigid unit. After 22 years the stairs were still just as rigid as the day I cranked the bolts tight–indicative of virtually no shrinkage of the treads.

The most critical design element was the preciseness necessary in the spacer blocks.  If they were not of perfect thickness over the entire diameter the blocks, the spaces between the ends of the treads four feet away from the central column might be considerable.  This was complicated by my wanting all the blocks to be cut from the same boards so that the grain would match even while divided by the treads.







Like I said earlier, I really enjoyed building these stairs and they are perhaps one of the few things that would drag me out of retirement.  As the years go by however, that seems more and more remote!

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle


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Moldy Crap in the Cave Batman!—those claims seem incredible!

A couple of years ago I read a post on the internet that would have us believe that mold can cause bleeding lungs, cancer, ameobiasis, cholera and even typhoid fever.  I thought it would be interesting to revisit the issue here.

moldy11As I read through the list I thought, “Holy crap–those are some incredible claims!”

I can be a pretty skeptical person, and if there is anything I have learned over my lifetime, it is that if things don’t smell right they probably don’t taste very good either. 

An interesting thing about the word “incredible” is that it easily can be interpreted as “not credible.”

Let’s face it–if these claims are true (or even mostly true) the planet is in a world of hurt and it might not be safe to live anywhere.

I decided I would do a little research to see if the claims were true–and to what degree.  I wanted to find out if there is any science behind the claims or is it just hysteria-inducing rhetoric designed to put gold in someone’s pockets. 

One of the first things that happened in doing a Google search for the items on the list, was that the search brought up the very article I had read that made the claims!

(When I first wrote this article, this search result was true and the information came up on the first page of the search.  At this re-write, that same article is nowhere to be found in a Google search unless I put the author’s name in the search.  Perhaps even Google is skeptical.)

Finding something “authoritative” took a little more digging.

1.  Let’s look at the first claim, that mold can cause bleeding lungs.  According to the Center for Disease Control“In 1994 and 1997, CDC reported clusters of acute pulmonary hemorrhage in infants. Reviews by internal CDC and external expert panels of these investigations identified shortcomings in the conduct of the studies. The panels concluded that the investigations did not prove an association between acute pulmonary hemorrhage in infants and exposure to molds, specifically Stachybotrys chartarum (atra)”.

The CDC decided to undertake studies to follow the possibility further.  Until these studies are published I think it is grossly irresponsible to claim that anecdotal information related to bleeding lungs in infants (and then extrapolated to adults) should be seen as “proof” that mold causes bleeding lungs.  (As of 2013 the CDC was sticking with their opinion).

2.  The second claim would have us believe that mold can cause cancer. This claim comes from the fact that there are mycotoxins given off from molds and mycotoxins are known to cause cancer.  The fact that one is more likely to come in contact with these toxins in the food we eat than in the air we breathe does not stop some people from using the data to suit their needs.  Aflatoxin, found in field corn and peanuts is one such toxin.  Under certain environmental conditions molds can give off toxins that are known to be harmful to humans.  However, according to Wikipedia, “such exposures rarely to never occur in normal exposure scenarios, even in residences with serious mold problems.”  Wikipedia goes on to say that, “the so-called toxic effects are actually the result of chronic activation of the immune system, leading to chronic inflammation.”

In other words your body is telling you there is crud in the air–do something about it–get me the heck out of here!It is estimated that 25% of the population is genetically pre-disposed to react negatively to mold.  Of that 25 percent–only 2% will react “negatively” to that mold condition.

 98% of the population is unreasonably scared to death of “mold” due to media hysteria and misinformation.

Immunocompromised people (transplant patients, aids patients etc) are always going to be more vulnerable to exposure to molds.  If you are already harboring fungal infections, you increase the chances that you will react badly to the presence of mold.  This says more about us than mold however.

3. Next let’s look at the claim that mold can cause ameobiasis.  The closest I could get to a connection here is that if you were treated for one of the amoeba caused diseases such as dysentery, and all your good intestinal flora was killed off, you would certainly be more susceptible to other fungal growths in your body.  Again this would seem to be something pretty remote in relation to indoor air quality. Given the overuse of antibiotics in this country it should be no surprise to anyone that some individuals will be more susceptible to fungal infections.  But does that automatically make mold some kind of monster?

4.  Cholera?  Rats—I knew this one was going to be hard.  According to the World Health Organization, “Cholera is an acute intestinal infection caused by ingestion of food or water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. It…….causes a copious, painless, watery diarrhoea that can quickly lead to severe dehydration and death if treatment is not promptly given. Vomiting also occurs in most patients.”  I suppose if you go to a third world country and come home with dysentery and weaken your immune system to the point that you are vulnerable to fungal infection, mold “might” become a factor.  To include it in a routine list of things that can be caused by mold in the indoor environment seems a bit disingenuous.

5.  So what about the last one on the list, Typhoid Fever?  This one is the coolest find of all–and by far the hardest one to get my brain around.  But the connection between mold and Typhoid Fever was obvious.  It was the first disease to be cured by a mold–Penicillin.  Again, as almost anyone knows that has taken antibiotics, if you kill off all the good bacteria in your body you are naturally going to leave yourself more vulnerable to fungal infections–even Athletes Foot and Candida.  Again, how this relates to indoor air quality in the average home I find baffling.

As a way to put this all in perspective we have this quote from Dampness and Mould by the World Health Organization:  There is strong evidence regarding the hazards posed by several biological agents that pollute indoor air; however, the WHO working group convened in October 2006 concluded that the individual species of microbes and other biological agents that are responsible for health effects cannot be identified. This is due to the fact that people are often exposed to multiple agents simultaneously, to complexities in accurately estimating exposure and to the large numbers of symptoms and health outcomes due to exposure. The exceptions include some common allergies, which can be attributed to specific agents, such as house-dust mites and pets.

The presence of many biological agents in the indoor environment is due to dampness and inadequate ventilation. Excess moisture on almost all indoor materials leads to growth of microbes, such as mould, fungi and bacteria, which subsequently emit spores, cells, fragments and volatile organic compounds into indoor air. Moreover, dampness initiates chemical or biological degradation of materials, which also pollutes indoor air. Dampness has therefore been suggested to be a strong, consistent indicator of risk of asthma and respiratory symptoms (e.g. cough and wheeze). The health risks of biological contaminants of indoor air could thus be addressed by considering dampness as the risk indicator.

The underlining is mine and to repeat:  Dampness as the risk indicator.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle


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