Vented Crawl Spaces in the Northwest

I wish vented crawl spaces would just go away.

Wood Decay/Fungal Rot

Wood Decay/Fungal Rot

We could then turn the entire conversation into a discussion about conditioned crawl spaces. It is still the norm to have vented crawl spaces in the Northwest.  New vented crawl spaces are being built every day, in numbers much greater than conditioned ones.

It is important to understand how crawl spaces work because we are going to continue seeing them in older construction, as well as in newer construction.

If you live, or have lived, in other parts of the country, some of this may seem counter intuitive.  One could create problems in the crawl spaces of Minnesota or Georgia if one did some of the things we have to do in the Northwest. 

The numbers one puts in the equations are different, but the science is the same.

Getting just a few things right will allow a crawl space to behave itself and manage moisture conditions adequately.

The crawl space should be constructed such that vents can be installed on at least 3 sides.  A good vapor retarder on the crawl space floor is essential to the success of most crawl spaces. 

It would be nice if all the seams of the plastic were welded together and all the edges were caulked/sealed to the foundation.  However this degree of tightness is not necessary.  I have seen crawl spaces with floating vapor barriers and normal wood moisture content levels.  Adequate passive ventilation will remove the amount of vapor that finds its way around the seams of the vapor retarder. The building codes dictate how much ventilation is to be installed around the perimeter of the crawl space.

Crawl spaces that only allow for the installation of vents on one side, or two sides, may require a means of moving air through areas of poor circulation.  This can be accomplished with vents at the open side that are ducted to the poorly vented areas.  We then install a power vent fan in the duct to move the air mechanically.

Power vent

Crawl Space Power Vent

It is unusual to see crawl spaces that need mechanical ventilation. It may be warranted in instances where enough passive ventilation cannot be installed. You certainly cannot fix a moisture issue in a normally vented crawl space with power ventilation.  You first  must address the moisture issue.

The purpose of crawl space vents is not to lower moisture levels created by flooding and plumbing leaks. 

The purpose of venting is to deal with minor amounts of soil moisture vapor and to lower humidity that builds up seasonally.

We must understand the science of Northwest crawl space moisture.

On a recent inspection there was a power vent installed.  Operation of the fan was based on crawl space temperature.  It was set to run at 50°F.  It was running at the time of inspection. The unit’s built-in sensor shuts the unit off at 40°F.  This particular system operated under the assumption that the higher the temperature, the more the fan needed to run. 

This is exactly opposite the science.

In the summer we have moderate relative humidity and higher temperature than we do in winter.  In winter, we have very high humidity with lower temperature. 

70°F at 65% humidity would be normal in summer, while 37°F at 80% humidity would be normal in winter. 

While humidity in summer is lower than in winter, the “actual amount” of moisture in the air is much higher in summer.  Warm air can contain more moisture.

In summer, when that warm moist air enters the crawl space, it mixes with the warm wet crawl space air to effectively raise humidity levels in the space as it passes through.  This elevated humidity in turn raises wood moisture content of the crawl space framing.

In winter, the air outside the crawl space has very high humidity but at low temperature.  When we bring that wet cold air into the crawl space, it mixes with the warm moist crawl space air and effectively lowers the humidity as the air passes out of the space. Wood moisture content of the crawl space framing lowers as humidity drops.

Crawl space wood moisture content goes up and down with the seasons.

If we do not recognize this, plan for it and build for it–bad things are likely to happen. A few of those “bad things” might be mold, rot and wood destroying insects.

ANOBIID BEETLES:

When we do not control moisture levels in the crawl space, it becomes vulnerable to wood boring Anobiid Beetles. 

This is true even if there are no other uncontrolled moisture sources.  Anobiid Beetles prefer wood moisture content between 13% and 18% so it is important to keep wood moisture content below 13% in the summer.  A properly vented crawl space can do that.

When I find moisture levels around 13% in summer, I generally do not worry about it as much because I know moisture levels will drop below that in winter.

If I find moisture levels at 13% in winter, it is more of a concern because wood moisture content will be higher in  summer.  This is when the crawl space is vulnerable to infestation by Anobiid Beetles.  Moisture levels must be brought under control.

Anobiid Beetle exit holes

Some climates that are dry in the winter close their crawl space vents in the winter. Closing vents in winter in the Northwest would result in increasing moisture levels in the space year round.  

Wood moisture content will increase if the power vent is allowed to run all summer.  In the winter, when it is colder, the fan will shut down.  We will not lower the levels that built up in summer–levels that increased more than normal because of the fan. If you have a situation where power venting is necessary, the fan should run in winter and not in summer. 

A good vapor retarder on the crawl space floor and repairs to all bulk water issues is assumed.

There are vendors in the Northwest that would have consumers believe that no crawl space can be successfully vented.  This likely has more to support product sales than science.

Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle and the Great Northwest

 

The cat that wanted out!

I would never try to escape

Inspectors frequently have to deal with pets left at home at the time of inspection.

I really appreciate it when they are either gone or corralled somewhere in the house.

On a recent inspection the agent had warned me the cat would try to escape and sure enough, as soon at the door opened a crack the cat launched itself at the daylight.

I have seen lots of pets that wanted out, but this one was SERIOUS about it.

The cat was shooed away from the door and we all got inside.  The inspection went without event except for one short term escape accomplished by the cat.

At the end of the inspection, the agents all left and the inspection of the exterior continued.  This is not my normal protocol but this was a large apartment building and we saved the exterior for last.

The cat’s unit was on the 3rd floor, end unit.  The walkway ended at the entryway door and the bedroom window was located just past the end of the walkway guard railing.  As I approached the end of the walkway the cat launched itself onto the window screen and started clawing at the screen with a vengeance. 

Don't leave pets at the inspection

The damaged screen

The screen came undone along the edge and was ripped open vertically.

I tried to push the cat off the screen and into the room but the cat was having none of that and just clung and scratched at the screen even harder.

Eventually I was able to reach between the cat and the screen and pull the window shut– successfully bumping kitty off the screen and into the room.

The cat was not aware of it, but I probably kept it from using up one of its nine lives by saving it from a 3 story fall to the concrete below.

But I want OUT!

I called the listing agent to let the cat’s owner know about the damaged screen and that the window was no longer  adequate to prevent escape of the beast.

Sometimes cats just want out.

Please don’t leave your pets for the inspector to deal with.

Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

Carbon Monoxide, and Naps

It may not be the Turkey that makes you sleepy.

Carbon monoxide from an electric oven

Cooking the turkey for hours can introduce considerable amounts of carbon monoxide to the home during the cooking process.  Turkey has a component that has been attributed to that nap after dinner.  Others hypothesize it is just eating too much that leads to sleepiness.  It is also possible that exposure to Carbon Monoxide is a contributor.

If carbon monoxide is a culprit, it is not only related to gas ovens. 

I am not sure how much CO is given off in an electric oven during the cooking of a turkey, but certainly some amount is likely. I will have to wait until Thanksgiving to get more information on that.

Considerable is created when using the self-clean function of the oven. 

My own oven gives off between 28 and 3 PPM for the first 1-1/2 hours of the 3 hour cycle.  After that time, whatever was creating the CO was successfully incinerated and CO levels dropped to normal. 

These amounts are perhaps not enough to kill you, but certainly enough to affect a person–especially infants that might be around.

In the first 15 minutes of operation, my own oven gave off about 28 PPM, after about half an hour it settled down to 12 PPM and after about an hour it was down to 5 PPM.  At the one-hour mark, ambient CO levels in the kitchen 10 feet away from the oven hovered around 3 PPM—with the exhaust fan on and a window open.

I suspect the amount of CO will depend on what the oven is burning off in the cleaning mode, and levels likely could be considerably higher, and for longer periods of time, if the oven is not cleaned very often.  I clean min probably twice a year.  I may start doing it more often now.

Of course your ordinary CO alarm is “not allowed” to alarm, per its listing, at these low levels, so most of the time you will have no idea why you need a nap.

I think the lesson here is to clean your ovens regularly–don’t wait until you can see the bottom of the oven.  You should also run the kitchen exhaust hood the whole cleaning cycle and keep a window open.

Perhaps I will go take a nap, while I wait for the oven to finish.

Charles Buell, real estate inspections in Seattle