Tree house, bridge or Hammock?

What the heck is an inspector to do with this?

Tree house? Bridge? Hammock?

Tree house? Bridge? Hammock?

This structure had so many problems with it, that what do do with it was not very difficult.  Just a matter of which version of taking it down is going to be more interesting.  Wind, Water, Fire—-chainsaw?

While in its day, it was probably a hoot for all the kids in the neighborhood, today it might kill all the kids in the neigborhood.

Some of the basic concepts of the overall engineering are pretty good.  However those concepts have been compromised by trees that were not consulted prior to installation and materials of questionable capabilities.

I can appreciate a good tree house–and built my fair share of them in my youth–but this one is questionable.

With this one I am left feeling sorry for the trees.

But I suspect they will exact their revenge in due time.

 

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Grounding and Bonding—are you a victim of urban legend?

If you think electricity is always trying to “go to ground”—you may be a victim of urban legend.

transformer3For a home inspector this has to be one of the ultimate “urban legends.”  It is a widely held belief (that is further promulgated by inspection training schools).  It is “common knowledge” that electricity is “always seeking the ground.”

We cannot truly come to grips with the importance of a home’s electrical grounding system, and the bonding of the home’s metal systems (water pipes, drain pipes, gas pipes etc), until we get this myth corrected in our minds.

If I have any readers left at this point, I consider it a great honor.  I am well aware that the vast majority of my readers do not give one hoot about any of this as long as everything works when they plug things in or turns on when they flip a switch.

All readers, in my opinion should give a hoot however, in order to not get shocked or electrocuted while using those beloved appliances. I think that electrical system grounding and bonding should be taught in schools—it is just that important and only becoming more so every day.

Contrary to urban legend, the way the electrical system actually works is that electricity is attempting to return to its “source.”  If this was not the case, we all would find it very inconvenient if every time we wanted our flashlight to work we had to stick a wire in the ground.  Head lamps would be even more interesting.

In the case of your home’s electrical system, “the source” means the transformer out at the street.  Many people, including home inspectors assume that everything is returning to “ground” because we ground the electrical panel with all these big ground wires that run to rod rods, concrete encased electrodes and/or buried water pipes running to the home.

It is understandably confusing—especially given that electricity always knows what it is doing and we do not. 

During normal operation of the electrical system, when you turn on your toaster, current flows through the toaster elements to adequately burn your toast the desired amount, and then returns to the transformer via the neutral conductor.  The fact that there are ground rods connected to this neutral conductor in the service panel is of no consequence because the path over the neutral wire is so much better (easier) it simply does not take the path via the ground rods (or at least not enough to notice).  When it does take that path, it means there is a HUGE problem with the electrical system.  The earth does not make a very good way to conduct the current back to the transformer—and besides that, it drives the earthworms crazy.  But that is in fact what happens.  The electricity would run through the earth, up the utility company ground rod/wire at the pole and back to the transformer.  So in this sense, the electricity is not completing its circuit to the ground–it is completing it back to the transformer—back to its source.

When understood in this context, I hope it helps make it a little easier to understand why all metal components in the home have to be properly connected to the grounding system so that if the metal parts were to become energized, you would not be the only or easiest path between the energized pipe looking for a way back to the transformer. This becomes more of a matter of “how much” shock you will get as opposed to eliminating the chance of getting shocked altogether (and why GFCI’s are so important).

In most homes this becomes fairly straightforward, but because so many people have no clue about how all this works, the grounding/bonding systems often become compromised.  Take a look at the following picture. 

Water pipe bonding/grounding compromised by plastic components

Water pipe bonding/grounding compromised by plastic components

For some reason someone installed additional “plastic” shut-offs on the two water pipes.  They are near the main water shut-off where the water pipe runs through the foundation to the street.  This home was built at a time when the only means of grounding the electrical system was the water pipe to the street.  There were no ground rods that would have provided some redundancy.  The installation of the plastic components leaves the house grounding system to rely on the utility company ground rod at the transformer. If that grounding is severed (WAY more common than one might think), it places the entire electrical system at greater risk in the event that lighting should strike the transformer and there is no place for other types of high voltage surges to be directed to the earth.  The purpose of the ground rods (water service pipe, concrete encased electrodes etc) is to dissipate high voltage surges that can be imposed on the system from either the utility, nearby lightning strikes or even created within the home (it does other things too but I want to keep in simple right now).  These types of surges are why surge protectors are becoming more and more important in the home although the only solution to a direct lightning strike is to replace the damaged components. 

Another essential purpose of all those ground wires running all over the home and attached to all the metallic systems in the home is to create “an effective” path back to the service panel so that the circuit breakers would trip off in the event of an electrical fault to those metal components. Sometimes clearing a fault that will trip the breaker would indeed still give you quite a shock–resulting in even death–but the house won’t burn down and cremate you.  GFCI’s, Ground Fault Circuit Interrupters, can and will keep you alive however.  Nobody wants to go to their own cremation prematurely.

So to recap, our house grounding system has nothing to do with returning current to earth–it is always going back to the transformer–back to its source.

I highly recommend that anyone that has serious reservations about the information above (or wants a far more in depth treatise on the subject), please check out the Mike Holt video on grounding and bonding.

Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

 

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Are you “good” or “great” at what you do?

When I started building in the late 60’s and early 70’s I had the good fortune to work with a very good carpenter for a few years.  This fellow taught me that good carpenters never made any mistakes but that great carpenters knew how to cover them up.  Of course he meant fix them in such a way that ended up looking as if that was what was intended all along.  Sometimes you just had to start over but knowing the difference between what could be fixed and what needed to be redone took a lot of experience and skill.

I used to ask my employees the following question:  “Do you want to remember in 10 years how you fixed it or how you did not fix it?”

It can be painful (not to mention expensive) sometimes to suck it up and do the right thing.  It is all a matter of whether you want to be a good carpenter or a great carpenter.

On a recent inspection I found an instance where someone, in my opinion, chose to be “good” (perhaps closer to mediocre) rather than “great.”

Take a look at this countertop next to a shower enclosure.  Forget for a moment the silliness of how close the countertop and cabinet are to the glass side panel of the shower—and how difficult it will be to maintain this 1″ space between the shower and the cabinet.

Shower door does not properly clear the edge of the countertop

Shower door does not properly clear the edge of the countertop

Can you see where the countertop had to be cut off to allow for the shower door to swing by it?  It is difficult to see in the picture but the door misses the countertop by less than 1/16.”  Pinched fingers anyone?

This bathroom was likely intended to have a pedestal sink installed instead of a cabinet with countertop—but what the heck  do I know.

In another bathroom in the same home there was a similar condition, but this time the shower door was doing battle with a toilet.

Shower door hits the toilet

Shower door hits the toilet

Maybe cut the toilet?  Maybe cut a little 1/2 moon shape in the shower door?  I suspect we will likely see a different toilet installed–or perhaps the shower door assembly moved into the shower a little bit more.  Just another one of those plan ahead moments that will tell the world whether the builder was a good builder or a great builder.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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If I don’t know what it is—how can it be important?

Since 1991 in Washington State, some means of bringing fresh air into the home has been required by the Washington State Energy Code.  This requirement is for new construction as well as significant remodels.  So, as an inspector, I am always looking for these systems.

Window Air Inlet

Window Air Inlet

On remodels it is common to find these systems missing.  When they are missing it is one of the indications that work was done without proper permits.

When they are missing in new construction it is usually because someone forgot to install the timer and simply installed a regular toggle switch to operate the fan.  Obviously if this is the case it is not a difficult repair.

There are several means of meeting the requirements of the code and the simplest of these is accomplished by installing a timer-control on a Bathroom exhaust fan or the Laundry exhaust fan.  Other approaches involve being integrated with the heating system ductwork.  Sometimes it is done by means of a Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV).

These systems don’t just exhaust the air, they also require locations for bringing fresh air into the home when the fan is operated.  With no means of providing air to the home, the home would be placed under negative pressure and air would or could then be pulled into the space from less than desirable locations.  Sometimes this means down chimneys and the vents of other fuel burning appliances.  Some jurisdictions used to allow for leakage around doors and windows to be the source of this make-up air.  Obviously not the best solution to the problem.

The other thing to keep in mind is that when any exhaust fan is operating (kitchen, bathroom, dryer etc) make-up air must be provided.  The lack of adequate air intake when exhaust fans are running is often evidenced by dark “ghosting” at carpeting around exterior walls of the home or by “ghosting” at poorly fitted exterior doors and windows.  It can cause smoke to be drawn into the home from fireplaces and it can be related to back-drafting of gas appliances like water heaters.

Fresh air intakes are a REALLY good idea–and will help your home have balanced air pressure–neither negative pressure or positive pressure.  Balanced air pressure within the home is good for avoiding moist air from either being drawn into walls from the exterior or driven into walls from the interior. In energy efficient homes these considerations become more critical.  In old drafty homes it is done more or less automatically–along with emptying your wallet and supporting the oil barons.

Some windows (like the one in the picture at the beginning of this post) come with little vents in the windows that can be opened to allow air to enter the home–or even leave the home if for some reason a positive pressure was created.  Most home buyers have no clue what these things are–if they noticed them at all.  During the inspection they are almost always closed–consistent with the homeowner not knowing what they are or what they are for .

On a recent inspection I found another common type of air intake.  

Another air inlet as seen from the inside of the building

Another air inlet as seen from the inside of the building


When this type is installed the inspector will usually find one in each room of the home.  This ensures that fresh air will be drawn into all areas of the home when the exhaust fans in the home are operated.  These are mounted on the wall and have a screened cap at the exterior.  These screens must be maintained free of debris and easily clog with lint because they will act as a filter for the air moving through them.

Sometimes they suffer from house painters that also have no clue what they are for.

Exterior inlet painted over

Exterior inlet painted over

 

This one, in brand new construction, will need to be replaced due to being heavily painted.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Do I feel lucky?

While it is not quite on a par with Dirty Harry, every home inspection brings with it the question of, “Do I feel lucky?”  There are instances where it is often better to be “lucky” than “good.”  A nice mix of the two keeps most inspectors out of trouble.

LOTS of water in the crawl space

LOTS of water in the crawl space

Today’s story will start at the end before I can get to the beginning.

Inside the crawl space of this home there was obvious flooding.  There was a lot of standing water on top of the moisture barrier/ground cover and even more water underneath it.  This is not all that uncommon and the causes are varied.  It might be from plumbing leaks or water flowing into the space from underground.  Sometimes it takes some head scratching to figure it all out—but usually the full story reveals itself.

Water flows through the vent opening

Water flows through the vent opening

It was pretty obvious that a great deal of water had been flowing into the crawl space through one of the vent openings in the area with the most flooding.  Since no other obvious sources of moisture were apparent, and this one was so dramatic, this became the primarily suspect.

Now we must go back to the beginning of the story.

When I was walking around the home, prior to either the agent or my buyer showing up, I noticed a great deal of water flowing onto the property from under the fence–between this property and the neighbor’s property.

When my buyer and the agent showed up I wanted to show them this water coming from the neighbor’s property but when we got to the location there was not even a trickle.

drainage13

Where the water was running under the fence

I kept checking back periodically throughout the inspection, but never saw the water flooding under the fence again.  I considered myself REALLY lucky to have seen this water flowing initially.  It certainly helped to explain the flooding of the water into the crawl space that I found at the end of the story.  Instead of saying there were “signs” of water intrusion through the vent opening I could actually state more emphatically that the water flowing under the neighbor’s fence was the primary suspect in the crime.

The neighbor's sump pump

The neighbor’s sump pump

Looking over the fence it was pretty clear the neighbor had a sump pump tied into the downspout drain—accounting for the intermittent nature of the water running under the fence.  This drain was apparently draining underground across the yard and terminated at the fence.  Under times of heavy rains the pump would likely work more frequently, as well as the roof water would also be draining to this location.  The water would then be of sufficient quantity to flow through the crawl space vent opening and into the crawl space.

It will be interesting to see whether Dirty Harry will be necessary to get it all sorted out with the neighbor.

Doing nothing would certainly beg the question, “Do I feel lucky?”

 

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle
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