When designers don’t put on their thinking caps.

I often find instances where it would appear that designers have lost their thinking caps or never had one to begin with.

largecondo1Take this 6 story building for example.  There are probably a hundred condo units in this building and every unit has a dryer.  All these dryers have to terminate at the exterior of the building somewhere.  The top units can likely pretty satisfactorily be vented through the roof for ease of maintenance/inspection (they were not however).  Even the second floor vents can likely be fairly easily and safely maintained by ladder from the ground.

But what about the floor levels in between?  These vents are going to be 30, 40, 50 or 60 feet off the ground!  It some areas they are even further off the ground due to the slope of the site.  While it is common for Condo Associations to have a maintenance schedule for maintaining these termination points, one has to wonder just how cleaning and maintenance gets done.  Even renting a cherry picker a couple of times a year would get expensive on a building this size.  It is amazing to me that building codes would even allow the vents to terminate where maintenance would be so difficult.

In this next picture I have circled some of the dryer vent locations that would be extremely difficult to maintain.


To add insult to injury all of the dryer vent terminations on this building had screens installed over the vents.  Even if this was a good idea (It is not and is in fact not allowed) it would only increase the number of times they would need to be inspected/cleaned due to the presence of the screens.

As you can see in the following picture some of the screens—this one 40 feet off the ground—is partially blocked with lint consistent with inadequate maintenance.

So all of this begs the question, “Why weren’t the vents terminated at locations where they could be easily maintained at virtually not cost?”  This could have been easily accomplished by terminating the vents at all the deck locations around the building—as some of them were.

Given that dryer fires are one of the most common types of fires in residential construction, it makes sense to have more sense as to where these vents terminate.

This stuff is not rocket science and yet we try to make it so at times.


By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Home Sports—Extreme Back-drafting

back-drafting1Back-drafting of water heaters is when the exhaust gases, instead of going up the vent and outside of the home, draft back into the space around the water heater. 

If the water heater is in the living space, this can mean that combustion by-products are ending up in the home.  This is not just an issue with Carbon Monoxide, which is certainly a consideration, but it also can add large amounts Carbon Dioxide and Moisture to the indoor environment. 

Additional water and carbon dioxide in the indoor environment adds another layer to our never ending battle with maintaining good indoor air quality. 

A properly burning gas water heater will only create carbon dioxide and water, so contrary to what many people believe, Carbon Monoxide is not “necessarily” going to be an issue.  If this was not the case we could never use gas ranges in a home.

There are several causes of back-drafting–some of which will likely lead to Carbon Monoxide production and some less likely.  Insufficient air supply to the heater can result in Carbon Monoxide production and then if we add to that improper installation of the vent (very long horizontal runs in relation to the vertical run of the vent for example), and obstructions in the vent, Carbon Monoxide loaded combustion by-products can enter the home.  Add to this that Carbonic Acid (Carbon Dioxide in H2O) is created with faulty combustion/venting that will result in corrosion of metal components that come in contact with the vent gases.

When the water heater starts up, it is not uncommon for some amount of gases to back-draft out the draft hood as low temperatures in the flue are overcome and venting can happen.  This is especially true of vents that share flues with other gas appliances–such as the furnace.  We use water heaters year round, so a good part of the year the chimney can be considered over-sized for the water heater.  Of course summer time flue temperatures are likely to be warmer than in winter so overcoming temperature differences in the flue/vent will not be quite as important a consideration. 

An argument can be made that all gas appliances should have their own vent or better yet that they should all be direct-vent type appliances.  In direct vent appliances combustion air and exhaust air by-pass each other from a location outside the home and there is no communication with the indoor environment.

Another way to create back-drafting at the water heater is when the improperly installed or blocked vent is shared with another gas appliance (such as a furnace) and the furnace vents back out through the water heater.

As homes become tighter and tighter, back-drafting can be created by any number of exhaust fans operating throughout the home when the water heater needs to operate.  The path of least resistance for replacement of the air being exhausted by the fans might just be the water heater vent.  So in this sense back-drafting can be an indication of insufficient makeup air for the exhaust fans and likely means the water heater does not have adequate combustion air as well. 

Making sure that homes stay “pressure neutral” so that these types of problems don’t occur is essential in modern construction.  Again direct vent appliances eliminate this problem as related to the appliances–but it will not solve the problem of air intake for the exhaust fans.

Atmospheric pressures differences such as during inversions can also contribute to poor venting of the gas appliance.

A proper vent hat is also an important part of the whole venting system in promoting proper venting by keeping vermin out and preventing wind from blowing down the pipe under some condition.  It is not uncommon to find these vents filled with wasp’s nests–especially on systems that are idle for long periods of time.

So what does back-drafting look like?

The following picture is visual evidence of extreme back-drafting.


If you look closely at the picture you can see all the signs.  Notice the yellow tag all melted around the Temperature Pressure Relief Valve (TPRV—and, for all of you that know better, yes it’s drain pipe is missing).  Notice how the galvanization has completely been eaten away on the supply nipple at the center of the picture.  Notice the much melted plastic ring around that same pipe.  Keep in mind that the exhaust gasses are slightly acidic, which accounts for the corrosion visible on the draft hood (the cone shaped device behind the TPRV).  The white powder on the top of the tank is the condensate that develops when the moisture from the vent gases evaporates.

In this next picture we can see some of the corrosion on the vent pipe along the long horizontal run to where it connects to the furnace vent.  In this case the horizontal run is almost as long as the vertical run—not a good arrangement to promote good venting of either appliance.  Also it should be mentioned that the single wall vent pipe does not have adequate clearances to the wood beam it travels under.


It will likely not be possible for your inspector to identify all the possible causes of back-drafting, but its presence gives itself away pretty easily in many cases.  Because of the ease with which conditions for back-drafting can develop, items that can burn or melt should never be left on top of your gas water heater.  I routinely find charred and melted belongings on top of gas water heaters–from soccer shoes to the water heater’s installation manual (very common).

I like to think that in a few years this blog post will be outdated, as we give up on draft hood type water heaters and convert entirely to direct vent type water heaters of one kind or another.  We will be all the safer for it.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Honey, the deck ate the WHOLE yard!


Can we make the deck bigger?

In fact, can we cover the whole yard with it?

Sure honey—will get right on that this weekend!


wholeyarddeck1What started out as a nice little rectangular deck on the back of the home, turned into a complicated series of decks, which did in fact cover much of the back yard.  Decks can be maintenance nightmares and, as nice as they might be, it is important that they be constructed properly.

They must be supported properly, attached to the house properly and have safe guard railings.  It is actually pretty unusual to find a deck that does not have one or more issues with it.  Missing flashings at the ledger on the house, the ledger attached over the top of the siding, missing ledger bolting and/or missing joist hangers on the ledger are just a handful of the common issues found with just this part of the deck.

This is not intended to be a treatise on deck construction and my focus today is merely on how these newer decks were “connected” to the existing deck.  There was no access under the deck so the picture I have of the underside had to rely on the light of my flashlight with the camera looking through the lattice that skirted the deck.


As you can see, the older original deck is all of the greenish/grey colored wood to the right in the picture.  The newer deck is all the reddish/brown structures to the left in the picture.  The board that divides the two is the original outer rim joist of the old deck.  Notice that (as would have been common with attachment of the original rim joist) the board is merely nailed into the end grain of the joists.  The joists are cantilevering across the top of the original beam that can be seen to the right side of the picture.

The new deck ledgers have been butted into the old rim joist and metal joist hangers have been used to support the joists at the attachment.  So now we have half the weight of all the new deck structures that hangs on this rim joist being supported by the few nails driven into the end grain of the original cantilevered joists.  This weight of course does not include whatever numbers of people are able to gather on the new portion of the deck.  In this next picture—everything to the right of the red line in the picture is added to that original rim joist.


This deck has been this way for about 10 years so all is good right?

Depending on lots of factors, this connection may or may not fail catastrophically.  I know my E & O policy would not be happy if it did.  The size of the nails driven into the end grain is critical.  Whether they can rust and corrode is critical.  The total number of nails is critical.  None of these can be actually determined in the course of a Standard Home Inspection.

The bottom line is that this type of connection would never stand up to modern deck construction “best practices” and the connection should be properly supported.  It will likely be necessary to move the existing beam over under this connection or to add another one.  Simply adding hangers on the other side may be sufficient but that would have to be determined by someone working beyond the scope of a Standard Home Inspection.

Sometimes the things that can be done on weekends should be left to weekdays.


By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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