Reducing the need for air conditioning

Grape arbor sun protectionHow long have we been building houses?  A lot longer than we have been air conditioning houses.

Well we have certainly done things to keep warmer and dryer for thousands if not 100’s of thousands of years–but we have also done things to keep them cooler as well.

As a designer/builder for most of my adult working life, I have marveled at how ignorant we are of how to accomplish keeping warm, dry and cool.

We now have air conditioning systems that allow us to live in places where not too long ago it would have been considered uninhabitable–or at least inhospitable.

We have long had the knowledge to mitigate the use of air conditioning to some degree and yet we simply choose to turn down the knob on the thermostat.

Today I just want to talk about a few “passive” things that can be done to greatly decrease the use of actual mechanical air conditioners.

First and most important is house design and orientation. Obviously if we build a house and make all the south facing walls floor-to-ceiling glass, with no roof overhangs, we can expect to find ourselves inside a solar heated oven. Just providing a roof overhang to prevent the sun from hitting the windows directly can go a long way to turn the oven down a bit. By eliminating ground and other surfaces that might reflect the sun’s rays into the home can also be an improvement.

Even these Native Americans made an attempt at basic principles

Of course reducing the amount of glass itself will make the most difference because then the walls themselves can be better insulated. This brings us to the huge topic of insulation in general. There is nothing like highly effective insulation in the walls and ceilings to keep the heat out of the house. This is not as simple as it may seem because heat is always attempting to move to cold and make balance. When it is 95 degrees outside, all that hot air is just hungry to gobble up our pathetic little bubble of coolness. So our air conditioners have to work their butts off to maintain that bubble of coolness.

While today I do not want to go into how I think houses should be built to eliminate the need for air conditioners altogether in many areas, I want to talk about ways we can deal with adverse conditions in our older homes in passive ways. While these things will not reduce your need for air conditioning in some areas it may greatly reduce the amount they may have to run. It may mean in some hot humid areas you might have to add a dehumidifier to make up for what the AC used to do.

The short story in all of this is to insulate your house as much as practical and use good air sealing type insulation–anything longer and we are into the full fledged novel.

One of the most important things you can do, if you live in an area where the nighttime temperature drops even 20 degrees between daytime and nighttime, is to change the air in the home and lower the thermal loading that has built up in the home during the day. The house is then closed up during the day to keep the nighttime cooling in and then the process simply repeats itself. In an average size house, even a simple window fan in a window on one side of the house and a window open on the opposite side of the house can accomplish this goal.

I cannot stress the importance of roof overhangs to keep the sun out, but in older homes that is not likely going to be possible.

In my own house, built in the early 30’s, the overhangs are insufficient to keep the south facing windows from overheating the house in the summer. So a simple thing I have done is to shade the windows with a grape arbor–the one plant now creates shading of most of my south facing windows and makes an amazing difference, and of course provides grapes in the fall.

Grape arbor sun protection

While we certainly do not get as hot as lots of areas of the country, my house certainly never needs any mechanical air conditioning. The attic has a ton of cellulose fiber insulation, the walls have minimal insulation limited by the 2×4 wall thickness, and we put a fan in an east window at night and open up a west window–on those occasional really hot days.

Before the days of the grape arbor, we use to have to do the fan approach a lot more.

If you have a house with a basement, you can open up a basement window (as the path to the upper fan in the window) and get the benefit of the cooler basement to improve the cooling of the interior space during the nighttime. Accessing the constant ground temperature is another thing that can have a huge impact on minimizing the mechanical cooling needs of the home.

A huge number of homes across America could benefit from this passive approach to improving house comfort and energy efficiency.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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The Cat House & Home Inspection Protocol

 Just walking around a home–looking at it from a distance–I can often tell what might be in store for me on the interior.  Home inspectors will usually take this “macro-view” of the home prior to getting up close and personal with the “micro-view.”  It is a very important part of the home inspection protocol to utilize both of these views of the home–and all the spaces in between.

Crawl spaces

At a recent inspection, as I headed around the back side of the home, I took the following picture.

Cats in the crawl space

I suspected the home probably had a crawl space even though I was told it did not–supposedly built on a slab.

As I saw Kitty-Kitty sticking his head out of the crawl space hatch I knew what this meant–there was indeed a crawl space as I suspected.

Well it could have also meant that this was just the access well and that there was a door behind Kitty-Kitty and he was just hanging out in the access well.

But I knew what this meant.  There was in  fact no cover at all and the crawl space was where Kitty-Kitty lived.  The best I could hope for was that Kitty-Kitty had not turned the crawl space into a latrine and that he would be amenable to my checking out his digs.

As it turned out, not only was he amendable–so was his partner.

cats in the crawl space

Neither one even minded me snapping a few pictures–in fact one never even seemed to wake up.

I was also grateful that their digs was still a crawl space–instead of a litter-box.

Crawl spaces are perfect environments for cats.  They are dark, there is a high likelihood of mobile food, and they can do what cats do.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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What is the home buyer’s due diligence period?

There seems to be a general misconception among some home buyers that the hiring of a home inspector is the completion of their due diligence, when in many respects it is just the beginning—or at best just part of the process.

The home inspector will expose the concerns, but often they will not be able to allay justifiable concerns related to those findings.

The problems arise when the buyer assumes that the inspector’s findings are enough. They make their decision to move forward with the purchase based on the inspector’s findings without following through on the various recommendations the inspector has made.

Admittedly, many of these things are probably of little consequence but others could result in the buyer taking possession with later regrets.

For example, getting the sewer scoped. It can be a very big expense to deal with problems with the drain between the house and the city sewer, and yet many buyers do not follow through on their inspector’s recommendation to have the sewer scoped. Some inspectors encourage their clients to get it done during the time of the inspection and sort of kill two birds with one stone in terms of time.

Other things that might need further evaluation outside the inspection include: property easements, clear title, neighbors, wood destroying insects, retaining walls/fences, trees, swimming pools, abandoned or used tanks (septic oil etc), wells, lead, asbestos, water quality testing, radon testing, conditions of the electrical system, conditions of the plumbing system, HVAC equipment issues, energy efficiency, indoor air quality, foundation/drainage issues, chimney issues, roof issues, window/cladding issues etc.

Basically anything that requires further evaluation, because it is either outside the scope of the inspection or outside the inspector’s areas of expertise, should be followed through with in order to do ones due diligence, but many merely see the inspection as completing that regardless the recommendation for further evaluation.

The bison in the china closet in all this is the enormous pressures present to “keep-the-ball-rolling” to closing. There simply is not enough time for a buyers to do their due diligence, so all parties to the transaction encourage seeing the property inspection as the final step in the process—the last big hurtle to vault over or limbo under.

In a seller’s market a lot of the blame for accepting shorter and shorter due diligence comes right back to the buyer—and of course their agent who support the idea as the only way the buyer has a chance of getting the house. Being more or less forced into this arrangement, it is only natural the buyer would expect perhaps a bit more of their home inspector than any home inspector can deliver.

It really is a no win situation for the buyer and they best find a home inspector that gets them as close as possible to all the pertinent information—and perhaps one that has the experience and is willing to guess a bit on their behalf.

You know the client has unreasonable expectations of the inspector when the inevitable question arises, “Would you buy this house?” It is actually quite a reasonable question in light of the position the buyer has been placed, it just does not have an answer unfortunately.

As a side note, and perhaps a topic for a post of its own, a buyer should never rely on an inspection report provided by a seller.  Use it as information on top of an inspection you procure on your own, but do not rely on it for your own due diligence.

Let the bison roam, and fix the yard afterwards.

Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle