Most bathrooms have exhaust fans in them—or should.

Bathroom Exhaust fan cap

Bathroom Exhaust Fan Cap

Most modern codes (Washington State) require exhaust fans even if there is a window that can be opened. If we do not control moisture levels in our bathrooms, it can not only have a detrimental effect on the bathroom itself, it can also create moisture issues for the rest of the home.  We all know how useful it can be to change the air in the bathroom even if water is not involved.

Who is going to open their window every time they take a shower when it is cold outdoors? Not me.  If you were to do this, you might be surprised at how well it works to lower the humidity in the bathroom, even if it is cold and rainy outside.

Now that I have convinced you of the necessity for bathroom exhaust fans, we need to make sure they are working when we turn them on. Just because the thing shakes, rattles and rolls, does not mean that it pulling any air from the room. Simply turning the fan on is no test of its function.

There are many ways to determine if the fan is pulling any air; and many ways the function can be compromised.

1. The biggest way the function of these fans is compromised is that the user does not use them!

I know this is in the “DUH” category—but it is painfully true.

People need to be taught to turn these fans on, and to leave them on for a set amount of time. Typically I recommend that they be installed on a timer that can be set for various amounts of time and that after showering they be run for 60 minutes. This amount of time can be cut drastically if one raises the temperature in the bathroom itself before taking a shower. Air that is 75 to 80 degree F can contain a LOT of moisture—considerably more than 65 degree air. To the point, even without the fan running, the bathroom mirror may barely fog up if it is hot enough. If you raise the bathroom temperature to 80 degrees F, take your shower, then turn the exhaust fan on for 20 minutes, everything will likely be hunky-dorie in terms of adverse moisture conditions in the bathroom.

We have all taken hot steamy showers in cold bathrooms without fans and then have seen the condensation on the mirror and walls. This can be very damaging to the home (especially modern tight houses), promoting mold/fungal growth on the wetted surfaces. Most bathrooms do not have a “localized” means of heating the bathroom previous to taking a shower, making this not an option. In that case it is best to run the fan the entire time you are showering and for an hour afterwards—assuming the fan is functioning properly.

2. The fans are so noisy they do not get used.

Yes, if every time you take a shower you have to listen to the roar of a jet engine, or feel the house being shaken apart, or make the neighbors complain, there is a good chance the fan will not be used at all.

3. There is no space under the bathroom door.

Many times I see bathroom doors so tight against carpeting that no air can be pulled in under the door to replace the air that the fan is attempting to exhaust. Again, with this installation, no/not enough moist air is removed from the room, making the fan non-functional.

4. There is something restricting the flow of air from the fan to where it terminates at the exterior.

This can be caused by many things—things your home inspector will be looking for. Perhaps the fan motor is running but the squirrel cage has lost its squirrels. Perhaps the damper in the fan unit is stuck closed. Perhaps the vent pipe is crushed, or the end of the vent pipe or outlet of the unit itself is covered with insulation. Perhaps the vent cap damper at the exterior is stuck–maybe blocked with wasp’s nests, paint, debris or other restrictions. Maybe the missing squirrels are living in the vent pipe.

So how does a homeowner test to see if the fan is functional?

Well of course there is sophisticated testing equipment that can be used, but there are less scientific means of determining some degree of function.

1. The paper test.

The paper test can be done on the unit itself—all openings of the fan unit should be fully covered however. Covering only a portion of the opening may not tell you that the air is moving into the unit and then right back out the uncovered part of the cover. If the fan is too high to get to, or the cover is too complicated to cover, you can place the tissue paper right along the bottom edge of the bathroom door on the floor. If the tissue scoots across the floor when you turn the fan on, all that air is going somewhere—and shows that the fan is moving air. (As a side note, if the fan is running and forcefully holding the tissue paper in place, this is a good time to close the bathroom door if it is open.  All of these tests should be done with the bathroom door closed and because if the tissue paper falls off or starts to fall off you will know you have inadequate clearances under the door.)

2. The wet finger test.

If you don’t have any tissue paper you can use the wet finger test. This is kind of like testing to see which way the wind is blowing. You will feel your finger get colder as air is pulled under the door and attempts to dry your finger.  If you feel a good draft with a dry finger, that is an even a more confirming test.

3. The business card test.

If you don’t have a wet finger (it is surprising how resistant people can be to putting their fingers in their mouth) or tissue paper, you can stand up a business card on the floor up against door. It should tip over when you turn the fan on.

While not very scientific, these methods of testing will give you some general information as to function of the fan—at least enough to tell you whether it might be a good idea to have the vent evaluated further. For the best results with this “testing,” make sure that windows are closed during testing and throw a towel or rug over the forced air heat register. These openings can affect how much air is moved from the room—especially the window (The ductwork typically has so much friction losses that it is not often a factor).

Now go back and look at the picture at the top of the post. Can you predict, based on the picture, whether the bathroom exhaust fan moved any air from the room?

Perhaps not so obvious, the screen is keeping the damper closed.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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The Range Hood Exhaust–as Air Intake

Modern tight houses can easily become depressurized when exhaust fans are turned on. What this means is there is no place for the air to come into the home to replace the air that is trying to leave. If there are gaps around door weather-stripping, or gaps around window sashes or similar locations, the air will come into the home at these locations.  Sometimes even chimneys might be the path for this air.

If we operate and exhaust fan in a bathroom the house becomes depressurized, or an area of “lower pressure.” Areas of higher pressure will tend to make balance with areas of lower pressure, so the air outside the building literally “pushes” its way into the area of lower pressure.

Most houses are not tight enough for the air to not find its way in somewhere, and general infiltration was once allowed to be the source of this air replacement.

This small condo unit was too tight for general infiltration to be the source of make-up air, as was evidenced by its finding a path through the range hood exhaust.

Most range hoods have a back-draft damper in them, but there should also be one in the cap at the exterior of the building as well. You can see in this picture there is no damper—but there is a screen.

Exhaust fan vent termination with no back-draft damper

With two bathroom exhaust fans and the laundry exhaust fan running, the purple/violet colors of the thermal image of the chase and microwave/hood shows cold air cooling the chase and the area around the microwave.


The screen at the exterior cap location did hold a tissue paper to show that indeed air was pushing its way through the microwave/hood.

So, let’s say we “fix” the cap at the exterior with a proper back-draft damper. Where will replacement air come from? General infiltration may still be adequate, it is just easier coming from where it is now. If it is not adequate, the functionality of the exhaust fans will be reduced. In other words, they will make noise but not exhaust enough air from the room. It is like turning a 100-cfm fan into a 50-cfm fan.

For exhaust fans to do their job, replacement air is necessary and is required by modern codes when houses get to a certain point of air-tightness. This one may be at that point, even though it is an older home in that respect.

Some “positive” means of allowing exterior air to enter the home may be indicated if exhaust fans do not function properly after the exterior cap is repaired and its back-draft damper installed.

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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Two wrongs still don’t make it right.

Two wrongs still don’t make it right.

As you can see in the picture, the cut truss (wrong #1) is pointing right at the whole house fan (wrong #2).

While whole house fans may have been a good idea, once upon a time in some climates, they have virtually no place in modern energy efficient construction. In northern climates they are of particular concern as they are typically NOT adequately insulated and sealed against heat loss in the winter. When they are not insulated and sealed, the natural stack-effect of the home will pull warm air into the attic more or less around the clock.

The idea of these units is to flush the warm daytime air from the home at night, and then pull in the cool night air to cool the home off. Not a bad idea really. While this principle works in older poorly insulated homes, in modern well insulated homes they should not be necessary. Merely opening a few windows on opposite sides’ f the home should achieve the same result.

If the home is overheating during the day, one should look to the causes of that overheating and fixing the overheating as opposed to installing a system that should not be necessary. If one’s home is overheating and one considers it “well insulated,” I would argue that one should perhaps re-think one’s definition of “well insulated” or that perhaps there are other factors contributing to the overheating.  A good question to ask might be, “what are the air sealing abilities of the insulation?”  Not all insulation is created equal.

As a side note, I can pretty easily argue that even newly constructed homes in areas of the country with high cooling needs are NOT adequately insulated to appreciably reduce energy costs. Code requirements for energy conservation are “minimum” standards, and make no distinction between the air sealing characteristics of the various kinds of insulation.

If installed properly, and if used properly, and if maintained properly in the off season, these fans can help reduce air conditioning costs, improve comfort and improve air quality. Please note that this statement includes a lot of “ifs” and their installation can more often result in increased heating costs in the off season.

Another issue that arises from these fans is that if they are not sized properly (and they rarely are) they are capable of drawing more air into the attic than the attic space can get rid of. This can result in pressurizing the attic and minimizing the effectiveness of the fan—oversized or not. Regardless, even if additional venting is installed to compensate, there will then be compromised and possibly inadequate venting of the roof structure for that part of the year when the fan is merely wasting energy. It might be possible to balance these differences, but the reality is that often the different requirements for the different functions are simply not taken into account—or, worse yet, not even possible to take into account. More often than not, when I see them installed in the Northwest, they seem to be installed on the insistence of someone that has moved here from a climate where they worked or were possibly even necessary.

For the installation above, someone is now going to have to incur the cost of removing the fan and repairing the damaged truss. These costs will now need to be added to the increased energy costs created by the installation in the first place

By Charles Buell, Real Estate Inspections in Seattle

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