What do you mean I am not going to get my damage deposit back?

If there was ever a damage deposit that went up in smoke it would have to be one for an apartment I inspected a while back. EVERYTHING was decorated in yellow. Now I don’t hate yellow–in fact my house is yellow.

However my house is not, “Nicotine Yellow.” If I was going to name a paint color, I probably would not use “Nico-yellow” as a name–even if it was accurate. All the walls and every thing in the unit had a slight tinge of nico-yellow and one could only wonder how anyone could live in such conditions.

Take a look at the air circulation patterns at these two baseboard electric heaters. The odor of re-heated nicotine was impressive.



Of course the ultimate indicator was the marks on the ceiling above the light fixture at the dining room table. Makes one want to eat something yummy-yellow!


As the heat from the bulbs rises, it carries the cigarette particulate with it where the nicotine then collects on the ceiling above. It sort of adds a decorative effect that becomes part of the light fixture—don’t you think?

They may have to smoke something else to think they will ever see their damage deposit back on this rental

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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More attic ventilation is not going to help

Many people seem to think that ventilation is the answer to all moisture issues in the attic. The reality is that adequate ventilation–proper ventilation–will only deal with “normal” moisture conditions that the attic space is subjected to (in most cases).

Another way of stating this is that the best ventilation in the world will not deal with moisture condensing out of an inordinate amount of warm moist air finding its way into the attic. A while back, I inspected a home with ideal ventilation and yet it still had one of the worst condensation issues I have seen for some time.


For our discussion here, we are going to assume the roof does not leak.

At least as important as ventilation, if not more important, is having a proper air barrier between the living space and the attic/roof structure. If this air barrier is not continuous, moisture that is in the warm air that finds its way into the attic space, can, and will, condense on the cold surfaces it contacts–if that surface is cold enough. If these surfaces are below freezing then it will show up as frost.

There are an almost endless number of places that might not be properly sealed that will amount to breeches in the air barrier. Here is a partial list:

Openings around B-vents and chimneys,

Wiring holes,

Pipe penetrations,

Ventilation fans terminating in the attic,

Dryer vents terminating in the attic,

Heating ducts not sealed adequately,

Unsealed can lights,

Skylight penetrations,

Poor framing techniques,

Missing vapor barriers in some climates,

Attic access covers with no weather-stripping,

Ventilation fan housings,

And, Electrical junction boxes.

Obviously many of these cannot be determined in the course of a standard home inspection because of access and/or insulation. Repairs can be easy or difficult depending on how obvious the by-passes are.

In the case of this house there were a few obvious things that should be addressed prior to removal of all the insulation.

From the roof, thanks to the frost, one can see where there is less frost in one area and no snow in a large area that corresponds to the shape of the chimney chase at the interior of the home.


It does not take a rocket scientist to guess that the connection of the chase with the attic is not adequately sealed.

There were also exhaust vents terminating in the attic and there was no weather-stripping on the access cover. Addressing these three issues would be the first order of business. If that does not fix the issue then, the investigation would need to become more “aggressive.”

But that is not the whole story with this house. Another question that had to be asked and answered was why were moisture levels within the home so high? This was evidenced by condensation on windows that didn’t have any curtains or blinds. (Even under normal humidity levels in the home–when it is really cold outside–some amount of condensation will occur on windows that have curtains or blinds that limit air circulation.)

Of course lifestyle can be a factor. If the occupants don’t use exhaust fans when showering or the fans are not functional we can expect to have higher humidity inside the home–which can then find its way into the roof structure. But there was another big hint as to another possible source of moisture to the indoor environment–the crawl space. At many locations around the home there was evidence of poor air sealing at wall floor connections consistent with air infiltrating/exfiltrating from the crawl space. It was particularly evident at the steps from the entryway up to the main floor level as can be seen with the “ghosting” in the following picture.


A LOT of air is coming and going at these black areas and the carpet is a pretty good filter.

If the crawl space is “cold” and at high humidity and that air is drawn indoors where it is then warmed by air at high humidity the indoor air becomes even more humid. Stack effect works to continually pull air from the crawl space through the living space and on into the attic space.  The crawl space was flooded in some areas and showed a history of being flooded–worse than when I was there.


So now we have an attic moisture issue that is only likely to be fixed when the house drainage system is fixed–along with all the other by-pass issues we discussed.

Some people think that if they add a POWER vent they will surely move enough air out of the attic. But really this only serves to put the attic under even greater negative pressure thereby increasing the draw of moist warm air from the home.

More attic ventilation is not going to help.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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So you have an electronic air cleaner—is it doing anything?

I think many people have a mistaken idea of just how effective their electronic air cleaners are.

Newly installed and clean, they are very effective at cleaning the air going through your heating system. Most air cleaners have pre-filters associated with them that catch the large particles in the air stream.


The pre-filters allow the small particles to get through which are then “zapped” in the electronic field of the coils of the unit.


As these particles get zapped they are collected on the metal plates within the unit. As these plates become covered with this carbonized material the effectiveness of the unit falls off precipitously. These particles simply flow through the air-cleaner and into your furnace, into your supply duckwork, and onto your glass coffee table.

I have found electronic filters that only have been cleaned when the furnace was serviced—most of the time they do not even get cleaned then. Your filter blocks should not look like this:




I think many people look at the unit and because they “look” clean they figure they “are” clean. The coating of particles on the plates is so very fine that it may not look to you as if there is anything on the surface at all.

Go check your air cleaner. Turn off the power to the unit and then pull out one of the Pre-filters and make sure it is clean. If it looks like this next picture, shame on you or your HVAC service company.


Next, pull out one of the filter blocks and wipe the surface with your finger.


If your finger comes away black it needs to be cleaned. Dirty like you touched the damper handle on your fireplace.

The blocks are typically cleaned with soap and water—they are not recommended to be cleaned in the dishwasher. The pre-filters can be hosed out and run through the dishwasher if you choose. Don’t forget that there will be two blocks and two pre-filters that need to be cleaned and put back in their proper places. The pre-filters should be in the slot away from the furnace and the electronic blocks have an arrow that should point in the direction of the furnace.

If all else fails, follow your manufacturer’s instructions (tongue firmly in cheek).

How often do these need to be cleaned? That depends on a lot of factors–but certainly as often as a throw away filter would need to be thrown away. Check it once a month. If your finger is black after a month it needs to be cleaned more than once a month. If it is clean after a month–try two months. You, yourself will have to figure out how often it needs to be cleaned.  How often these filters need to be cleaned has more to do with lifestyle and other factors than it does with the unit itself.

Many modern thermostats can be programmed to remind you to clean the filter or change the filter.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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