Who’s been sleeping in my attic?

When I opened the closet door I saw something that I have seen many times–flexible plastic duct.  While generally speaking I can’t really think of any truly useful purpose of this type of pipe, it is still commonly used for all kinds of venting purposes.  When used for dryers it is considered downright dangerous–a fire hazard.

Plastic duct running in a cabinet

Plastic duct running in a cabinet

My first assumption was that it was from a bathroom exhaust fan in the level below or that it was possibly even a dryer vent.  My buyer wanted to know what it was and I said that by the time I was done with the inspection I would get it figured out.  I was thinking, that once I was in the attic, I would be able to see where it went.  Since I had seen no roof vent caps during the roof inspection I told them that it might be a duct from an exhaust fan improperly terminated in the attic.

I was not really prepared for what it actually was.

Once in the basement below, I found the duct–changed back to plastic again–connected to the furnace heat plenum.

Duct running from heat plenum

Duct running from heat plenum

I proceeded to have one of those “what-the-heck” moments and pointed out the duct to my buyer, and we both had a good laugh at the oddity of it all.

Imaginations ran wild as I found the duct terminated in the attic at a screened cap–and the screen was plugged with lint on the “inside” of the cap.

Heating the attic?

Heating the attic?

Now why would anyone want to heat an attic?  I can think of a few places in the country where this would create icicles all the way to the ground.

There was a little area where some flooring had been installed–and some extension cords lying about.

I will leave it to your imagination as to what the purpose of all this was.

Fortunately even when you can’t come to appropriate “conclusions”–laughter is almost always just as good a result.

 

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Copper-Clad Aluminum Wiring—creating problems where there are none.

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

Mirror Mirror on the Wall

When an inspector takes the cover off the electrical service panel, they never know what they are going to find. Of course if they cannot take the cover off at all, like the one behind the mirror, in the picture to the right, there are a lot of things they won’t be able to talk about–either wrong or right.  As a home inspector it is always very distressing when I cannot get inside the various electrical panels at a property.  Typically I must recommend that they have me back for proper evaluation or to have the panel properly evaluated by an electrician.
If an inspector was to open the panel in the next picture, what would they see?

Typical split-bus service panel

Typical split-bus service panel

Well since there is no single-breaker disconnect, the inspector should be asking themselves, is this split-bus type panel? Of course it is a split-bus panel. Such a panel does not have a single main disconnect breaker but has multiple breakers that constitute the service disconnect. In this type of panel there will be a maximum of 6 breakers (throws) to turn off all the power to the circuits in the home. This particular panel has 7 throws and therefore is in technical violation of the rule of having no more than 6 throws. Typically those 6 breakers will all be 240 volt breakers, but as additional circuits are needed, some of the 240 breakers can be removed (if not needed or not present to begin with) and replaced with single pole breakers.

Another thing an inspector will note is the number of muti-wire circuits that are in the panel. They will want to know if they are properly wired, because miswiring of multi-wire circuits is very common and can be very dangerous. They are commonly miswired when single pole breakers are replaced with twin breakers. The twin breakers allow for installation of two breakers (circuits) in one space in the panel. It is super important for the red and black wires to terminate on different bus bars in the panel to not result in overheating of the shared neutral wire of the circuits. With mini-breakers it is easy for unqualified parties to wire the breakers so that the wires end up on the same bus bar. Without getting overly technical, just trust me this is bad electrical juju.

So far everything the inspector has seen is evidence of a service panel that may be no longer adequate to the needs of the home–because the addition of circuits has left the panel possibly compromised.

Unfortunately there is actually a more interesting and complicated issue to consider.

For me, the first thing that jumped out, even before the lack of a single breaker disconnect and the multi-wire circuits, is that all the wires to the 15amp and 20 amp breakers seem bigger than normal. All the 15amp breakers have #12 gauge wires attached to them and all the 20 amp breakers have #10 gauge wires attached to them.

My immediate reaction was that this house is wired with copper-clad aluminum wiring.

Yup, Copper-Clad

Yup, Copper-Clad

This always represents a dilemma for the home inspector because we are required by our Standards of Practice in Washington State to report on “solid conductor aluminum” wiring found in homes and call for further evaluation by a licensed electrical contractor—including informing that it may be a safety hazard. One electrician that was called in by the seller to “evaluate” the wiring, claimed that the wiring was not copper-clad at all, but was all solid copper type wire. My reaction was to have the wiring evaluated by a different electrician as this one certainly did not know what they were talking about. Even some of the wire covering in the panel should have been a pretty good hint.

And herein lays the problem. There just is no evidence to support that solid conductor “copper-clad” aluminum wiring has any of the problems associated with its ugly cousin, solid conductor aluminum wiring without the cladding. In fact according to Inspectapedia, “no corrective action is required.”

But because the home inspector is required to raise a red flag and wave it at the wiring, all parties in the transaction become affected.

Because the “ugly cousin” has made such a nuisance of itself in homes—and truly deserves the reputation it has—many people, including jurisdictional inspectors, cannot embrace the idea that, THE TWO TYPES OF WIRE ARE NOT THE SAME THING.

To start, the stuff is made with the AA-8000 aluminum alloy. This alloy became the required standard for aluminum wiring to resolve the problems of the poor quality aluminum wiring used prior to 1972 (AA-1350 aluminum). Adding the copper cladding allowed the wire to be connected to devices that did not have to be rated for “aluminum.”

In fact, brand new, 2014, receptacles that are Tamper Resistant, come rated for both copper and copper-clad wires. This is a testament to the fact that receptacle manufacturers do not see a problem with copper-clad wiring.

The problem for homeowners is compounded when jurisdictional inspectors, due to lack of information, can decide to not approve any modifications to the electrical system, including changing the receptacles to new Tamper Resistant type receptacles, if the wiring is copper-clad. There are “work-arounds,” but none that do not involve more expense and in some cases additional unnecessary connections to get the older wiring to the new receptacle.

In other words, the jurisdictional inspectors can create problems where there are none, resulting in additional costs to the homeowner.

PS.  In the case that this post was about, the local jurisdiction, based on the information the electrician was able to provide (based on my information), reversed itself and will allow the use of the approved receptacles saving my buyer thousands of dollars.

Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

 

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Being on your guard around guards

On first glance this stair barrier railing appears to be “adequate.”

It meets current requirements as to the amount of space between the balusters as well as the space along the floor under the barrier.  It is even of sufficient height.

Unsafe guard

Unsafe guard

Where it falls short is that it is not fastened in place—AT ALL!  Some might consider the balusters and construction to be a little “wimpy” too, but that is besides the point compared to its not being attached.

The little ear, on the left side, that wraps around the corner is all that holds this barrier in place.  Certainly leaning the requisite 200 lbs against it would see whatever that 200 lb object was go spiraling down the stairs.

I think perhaps it was designed to facilitate moving things up and down the stairs–or perhaps someone just never got around to attaching it properly.  Since there was a door to the exterior at the lower level I am going to go with someone never getting around to properly attaching it.

This is another one of those house-warming-party tragedies waiting to happen.

Here is another nice looking staircase.

Nice stairs

Nice stairs

On this one, a large number of the balusters were not sufficiently attached.

Loose Balluster

Loose Baluster

These are not difficult fixes for someone that knows what they are doing–but they are good examples of how important it is for inspectors to check these sorts of guards at the time of inspection.

 

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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How hot is the water at your tub/shower?

Modern construction regulations require that some means of limiting water temperatures of the hot water being delivered to tubs, showers and bidets be installed.  This is achieved by installing pressure-balance, thermostatic-mixing or combination pressure-balance/thermostatic-mixing valve at the fixtures themselves.

On a recent inspection I was not surprised to find the water temperature at the bathroom sink to be 147 degrees Fahrenheit.

It is very common to find water temperatures in homes set way too high.  147 degrees will cause 2nd and 3rd degree burns in under 2 seconds.  You could not put your baby (or granny) in the bath and out of the bath in 2 seconds.  The baby might not even start screaming in that short of time (and granny might just have a heart attack)–resulting in the baby being in there even longer.

What did surprise me about the water temperature was that it was the same temperature at the tub.  The following picture of my thermometer shows the water temperature–132 degrees Fahrenheit which is way too hot and it eventually got all the way up to 147 degrees Fahrenheit.

Water temp at tubs and showers should not be more than 120 degrees F

Water temp at tubs and showers should not be more than 120 degrees F

This could lead one to think that perhaps the wrong valve was installed–or that the correct valve was installed but was not adjusted properly.

In new construction there should just plain never be water this high at the tub fill.

Of course the same is true of any age construction but in new construction it is something that needs to be “fixed” as opposed to being “upgraded.”

Tempering valve

Tempering valve

Some homes have tempering valves that limit the water temperature from the source of the hot water (water heater), but this type of in-line tempering valve is not meant as a replacement for limiting high temperatures at the points of use.  This tempering valve is adjustable—and should be set at under 120 degrees Fahrenheit.  The valve functions by mixing a little cold water into the hot water.   These valves are a great way to give a layer of protection to older homes that do not have fixtures at the points of use that can limit high water temperatures.

Current regulations require that water delivered to tubs and showers be no greater than 120 degrees Fahrenheit and that water delivered to bidets be no more than 110 degrees Fahrenheit.  It is the homeowner’s responsibility to make sure that hot water temperatures are safe–and they should be checked periodically–and have them adjusted accordingly.

It can be very difficult in the context of a home inspection to determine or verify proper water temperatures.  Temperatures certainly will not be verified at every location.  Water temperature should be taken at the beginning of the inspection and at the end of the inspection at a minimum, because a huge percentage of the time the tested temperature at the beginning of the inspection will be much lower than the end of the inspection after the water heater has fired and brought the whole tank up to the highest temperature.  This scenario is especially true of unoccupied homes.

Do you know what your water temperature is?

 

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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So who’s stairs are they anyway?

One of the challenges of being a home inspector is learning how to language defects in terms of the time frame they occurred.  For example the way an inspector would report about improper spacing of stair treads with open risers would be different if the home was built in 1910 as opposed to having been built in 2010.

In an older home the wording would lean more toward “upgrading” for improved safety.  If it was new construction, the wording would lean more toward “repairs” of the defect.

There are lots of requirements for the proper construction of stairs, but I only want to focus on two issues right now.

The home had a completion date of 2010, I found stairs that did not comply with current regulations in place at the time of construction for the jurisdiction it was built in and likely almost any jurisdiction.

More than 4" spaces

More than 4″ spaces

Modern codes require that there be no more than 4” between the treads when the risers are open.

The second issue is regarding the triangular space between the bottom of the side barrier the shape made by the tread and the riser which is not allowed to be larger than what a 6” diameter sphere could pass through.

More than 6" spaces

More than 6″ spaces

It is only a little bit over 6″—but still more than is allowed.  I find it a little odd that these issues got past the jurisdictional inspector.  As a former builder, these sorts of concerns were on the “short-list” of things the jurisdictional inspectors looked hard at on the final inspection.  But regardless, somehow these did get signed off on, and now it will be up to the new owner to deal with it–since it is now a short sale–and the bank is not likely going to fix the stairs.

To make this particular problem even more difficult is that these are public stairs used by four townhouses with no association.

So whose stairs are they really?

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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