Ghosts–it is that time of year!


When she called me to book the inspection she told me that she had heard that the house was haunted.  She said she didn’t believe in ghosts and wanted to go ahead with the inspection anyway. 

I recognized the address, and had heard stories about the house being haunted myself.  I also had no reason to think that she didn’t believe in ghosts–I don’t belief in ghosts either. 

The house spent a lot of time being vacant and had more owners than a dollar bill.  Rumors travel fast about such homes and no amount of frosting on the listing was going to cover up its history.  It was still an awesome deal for the location–so awesome that most anyone would wonder why it sat vacant–if they had no clue of its history.

It was an enormous old house with thick heavy lead-based paint peeling off in sheets like shaved-chocolate from the cedar clapboard siding.  The trim was mostly bare wood–except the ornate decorative gables that were too intricate to peel and somewhat protected by the roof overhang. 

The rose bushes, that strangled the South side of the house, were mulched with the chocolate paint chips that had fallen there.

The story book old home had charm for sure.  It was located in a little hollow at the end of Cul-de-sac Street.  It had massive curb appeal–or at least it could have had a lot of curb appeal if an owner could have stayed there long enough to properly maintain it.  It was not hard for optimistic new buyers to see its promise–its great bones were obvious even if it did have a few skeletons in its many closets. 

It seems there is never any shortage of young home buyers with too much energy and lack of knowledge to prevent them from undertaking such projects.

Its many outdated systems would need upgrading–including the hammering and hissing old steam boiler with its many radiators. The monstrous old coal burning, asbestos-white boiler in the basement, that had been converted to oil in 1946 (right after the war) and then converted to gas in 1974 (right after the war), groaned and creaked through the long winters but still kept occupants and ghosts alike warm and cozy.

But the visions of returning the home to its former glory would sooner or later succumb to the stories of how previous owners had seen ghosts and heard strange noises in the house. 

All owners, sooner or later, would report seeing and hearing the ghosts and would pack up and leave, which only served to perpetuate the ghost story.

But alas–some ghosts–not all ghosts–are not what they seem, especially at Halloween.


Everyone knows the dangers of carbon monoxide which can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning.  We are most familiar with “acute” carbon monoxide poisoning, where you get a massive dose in a short amount of time resulting in death or serious injury  (the car running in the closed garage scenario).

What is less understood are the effects of levels of carbon monoxide typically considered to be below the threshold for typical symptoms.  In other words we are only beginning to understand the cumulative effect of low levels of carbon monoxide that can lead to symptoms that might initially be misdiagnosed as some other condition.  Symptoms such as headache, dizziness, chest pain, nausea and vomiting can often be symptoms for other things besides carbon monoxide poisoning.

Even OSHA allows workers to be exposed to “average” carbon monoxide levels of 50ppm over an 8 hour period.

Since carbon monoxide accumulates in the body, it stands to reason that even levels below 30ppm or 20ppm might accumulate and have an effect on our health over time.  Supposedly removing oneself from the source of exposure allows one to return to normal, however there is some evidence that suggests that repeated exposure to low levels of carbon monoxide may do some damage.  Repeated exposure, places a heavy burden on the cells throughout our bodies–including our brains–affecting how well cells function.  It can lead to depression, confusion and memory loss.

Ghosts can even be a symptom.  According to Wikipedia, “Symptoms such as delirium and hallucinations have led people suffering (carbon monoxide) poisoning to think they have seen ghosts or to believe their house is haunted.”  It kind of makes you wonder how many of our ancestors were affected by carbon monoxide sleeping by the smoldering embers in the fireplace.

co-cigarettesLevels as low as 35 ppm can lead to headache and dizziness within six to eight hours of constant exposure to carbon monoxide. It is not unusual to have start-up levels of carbon monoxide on your home’s gas range or gas oven WAY above these levels.  Levels typically should drop to under 100ppm once the flame becomes established–if everything is working properly.  The question remains as to whether over time these low levels can affect our health–they certainly will not set off your carbon monoxide detectors.  Public health authorities say that the incidental nature of these exposures, and the fact that they are not sustained, makes exposure at these levels “safe.”

This may or may not be true.

These conclusions however are why it is not “required” to have a range hood over your gas cooking stove.  I have found in testing gas ranges that normal burning of the cook top will have levels of carbon monoxide well above safe levels–even if it is for a short period of time.  In homes with no exhaust fan, or with exhaust fans that do not get used, this represents quite a lot of exposure to carbon monoxide in the length of time it takes to cook the Thanksgiving turkey–another reason to pass out on the couch after dinner.

The now required carbon monoxide detectors in your home will do absolutely nothing to let you know about this condition.  In fact they are not allowed to alarm at low levels.

I have only a partial clue as to what the truth of repeated incidental exposure to carbon monoxide is, but it would seem prudent to ALWAYS use the exhaust fan whenever operating the gas cooktop, oven and/or broiler.  It would also seem prudent to install a range hood–and use it–if you don’t have one–regardless of codes.


The “266ppm” in the picture above is the amount of carbon monoxide in the smoke from a Marlboro cigarette.  It would also seem prudent to not smoke.  It appears that cancer might not be the only problem with cigarettes.  I always knew there was something a little off with the Marlboro Man.


By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Tired of waiting for hot water and wasting cold water? Hot water recirculation loops.

Water recirculation loops are very common in homes.  They typically have a small pump to recirculate water from the water heater to remote points of use in the home.  Waiting for hot water to get to a distant location can consume a lot of water and use of a pump can theoretically be cheaper than the cost of the water that would otherwise be wasted.

I think this is probably true—depending on your water heating costs and the costs of the water itself, but there is a way to do it with almost no extra cost–assuming that both approaches require extra piping.


Thermosiphon is the principle where heated water is more buoyant than cold water so it tends to rise in the pipe and then fall as it cools off.  If we place this principle in the pipe from the hot side of the water heater to the bottom cooler part of the tank, this thermosiphon will create a loop of continuously circulating hot water without the need for a pump.

The following picture shows how simple it is.

The Thermosiphon Loop

The Thermosiphon Loop


In my system a ¾” supply line was run from the water heater to all the fixtures.  At the last fixture the line was reduced to ½” and then run back to the water heater.  The lines were well insulated. The effect of the thermosiphon can be greatly improved by leaving the insulation off of the last 10 to 12 feet of pipe before it gets to the water heater, but is not absolutely necessary.

Of course this will only work if the tank can be located lower than the fixtures.  Any house with a basement can make this system work for the fixtures located on the upper levels of the home.  For fixtures on the same level as the heater you will just have to wait. A check valve was installed to prevent the water from going the wrong way when fixtures at the same level as the heater (in the basement) are being used.

In my own home, this represents the guest bath and the laundry, and since they are located within a few feet of the water heater it is of no consequence.

Our kitchen is really the only fixture that takes considerable time for the hot water to arrive—and the thermosiphon works great and at no cost.  It is also VERY quiet—as in absolutely NO noise that is associated with pump systems.

Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Thanks for moving the issue from my E&O to yours! (part 2–The Bad Roof)

On my last post we talked about an The Bad Furnace.

On an even more recent inspection I had a difference of opinion with a roofing contractor regarding the condition of a roof. My opinion of the roof was that it was near or at the end of its life and there was evidence of extensive past repairs and plenty of evidence for the need for more repairs. While it might be possible to keep going with recent attempts to extend the life of the roof, I felt factoring replacement might be a better option.

bad_roof1I will be the first to admit that figuring out the “actual” age of a roof can be tricky. There are ways however to get a pretty good idea. It usually takes putting together several clues to get an educated guess as to the age of the roof. Things like, when the building was built, remodeled, owner statements as to age, brands and models of shingles all can be factors to be considered in the assessment.

For example lets say the building (not the building with the disagreement) is 34 years old and originally had wood shakes on it (as one could tell by finding skip-sheathing in the attic). The roof has one layer of 3 tab shingles on it. The roof has extensive granular loss and one side and is completely covered with moss on the other side—-this is an indication that the granular loss might be due to age as opposed to pressure washing. There is widening of the tabs, and the corners of the shingles are just beginning to have a slight curl to them. All of these symptoms are consistent with a 3-tab shingle roof with a fifteen to 20 year life that is at the end of its life. Around here if you get 15 (or 20 years max) out of a wood shake roof you are doing pretty well. So lets say the original wood roof was pushed to 17 years. That would make the current roof around 17 years old—and consistent with the way the roof looks. Sometimes however, it is not this straightforward. Multiple layers, pressure washing, factory defects, mechanical damage, color and other factors can make assessment even more difficult.

Another thing one might look for is method of attachment. While this is by no means a “guarantee,” if the roof was “stapled” as opposed to “nailed” the installation would have likely been prior to 2002. I say it is no guarantee because some roofers never used staples. It is just another one of the many things that can be used to access the age of a roof.

While I make no attempt to categorically say how old the roof is in my inspection reports–the exercise in figuring it out is helpful in giving the buyer some idea of what to expect from the roof.

For me the most important factor is the condition of the roof regardless of what I have been told about the age of the roof–or even what I think the age of the roof is. If it is a 10 year old roof with a 30 year warranty, and looks 25 years old due to mechanical damage from pressure washing, I would be an idiot to tell my buyer that it is good to go for another 20 years. I could very well end up buying a new roof that I would not get any benefit from on my own house.

Let’s now come back to the roof that I had the disagreement with roofing contractor over. I was provided a letter stating that the roof was 7-9 years old and would be fine for another 15 years. It was a stapled roof–so it should be at least 10 years old. There was extensive patching due to staples having pushed through the surface. The method of repair was to slide a metal flashing under the tabs to cover the staples. This had been done at over 100 locations and more were needed. This method of repair leaves the tabs vulnerable to wind damage as the adhesive strip is no longer functional. In the following picture of one small area of the roof over 40 patches are visible.


With this roof much of the adhesive strip had failed anyway. Failure of the adhesive strip is more consistent with a roof more than 20 years old, for this type of roof covering. The roof covering is what is referred to as a 25-35 year roof–architectural/dimensional type shingle. Given that the building was 32 years old, these shingles are highly likely the original shingles on the building. Lets pretend the roof is NOT the original roof and say that the roof originally had a 15 year roof on it. That would make this roof maybe 17 years old–still way above the 7-9 years stated by the roofing company.


The staples popping through are likely due to improper nailing when the roof was initially installed and not likely related to the age of the roof “directly.” But indirectly it has led to extensive ongoing maintenance issues as well as shortening the overall life span of the roof. Regardless of the “actual” age of the roof—how it looks now and performs now is way more important.

The roofers assessment was that the roof would be fine for another 15 years.

I am grateful that the roofer was so willing to move the roof from my E&O to his E&O.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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