They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To!

Most home buyers we work with would prefer to purchase a newer home, but many simply can’t afford it. Those who feel as though they have to “settle” for an older house are usually happy to become homeowners but plan to eventually upgrade to a newer, supposedly “better” home at some point in the future. If you feel you can relate, read on because this post will hopefully provide some real encouragement from an experienced professional who has “seen it all” and can attest to the pros and cons of both options. In short, purchasing an old house is often a very wise investment, contrary to popular opinion.

It may come as a surprise, but many of the older houses we inspect are better constructed than newer ones. In fact, if I had to pick a decade that seems to be the worst overall for poorly built homes, I’d probably have to say the 1990’s based on everything we’ve seen, and that’s not long ago… only about 20-30 years as of the date this article is being written. That’s probably due to the fact that many changes in code requirements were coming about around that time, as well as newer products, so the builders aren’t entirely to blame. I tell clients often that “our great-grandfathers really knew how to build houses.” Much of the work decades ago was done by hand and without the many modern advancements in tools and other technologies builders have at their disposal today. Foundation walls were often built 18 inches thick with stone, framing members were actually 2 inches thick, and the craftsmanship in woodwork and other finishing details is practically a lost art at this point. Much of this occurred during or shortly after the Industrial Revolution when workers and companies took great pride in their work and prioritized quality over quantity. Unfortunately, that isn’t so much the case today.

Today, homes are built with less substantial materials, but they are much more energy efficient. Advancements like spray foam insulation have revolutionized the building industry and allowed owners of new homes to benefit immensely from substantial cost savings in energy and much better sealing. In an age when the average homeowner works away from home and needs to depend on more automated systems, it makes sense that most homeowners need the ability to rely on HVAC systems that function on auto-pilot versus, say, an old coal furnace that required manual labor to load the coal, stoke the furnace, clean and dispose of ash, etc. Not only that, but the same system can now be controlled remotely from nearly anywhere in the world via a “SMART” thermostat, like a Google Nest. One could certainly argue, though, that there’s a real sense of value and satisfaction in having to continually work to maintain your home – one of your most valuable and important assets – and the folks we come across who are still doing things the old fashioned way take great pride in their old homes.

Appliances have followed this same trend, and this is something with which all of our clients completely agree because many have had firsthand experience with a newer appliance that’s quickly failed or an older unit that has lasted far longer than anticipated. Older, American made appliances were simply built to last. We often run across old water heaters, boilers, dishwashers and other units that are clean and still going strong with no indications that they’ll “crap out” any time soon. On the contrary, we’ve encountered several newer appliances – even as new as only 6 weeks old – that are leaking terribly and already beyond repair. In fact, many of the appliances that fail much earlier than expected are brands reputable for having previously produced long-lasting, reliable products over many decades. Here in our area of Johnstown, PA, a company called the National U.S. Radiator Company used to manufacture rugged boilers, and nearly every one we are fortunate to come across is still in great working order, largely free of defects, and likely to last many more years with minimal maintenance. Sure, they aren’t as efficient, but they may actually save money in the long run by outliving a newer boiler that is more efficient.

Now, many of the older houses we inspect do have several defects that you’d expect of any older home. Even then, though, those deficiencies aren’t as concerning as they may appear to an untrained or inexperienced eye. For example, most older homes have several floor joists that have been significantly notched or contain large bored holes that were carved out over the years to accommodate wiring or plumbing during remodels, repairs or other work. These are defects we inspectors have to note, but these joists are usually sound overall and have existed that way for a long time with no concerning signs of movement or failure at all. Old stone foundations are also usually prone to some degree of moisture intrusion, contrary to newer houses that are often constructed with modern and very effective waterproofing systems, but they rarely show alarming signs of failure or other significant problems.

Old houses definitely warrant a thorough inspection from an experienced professional, but the fact that a house you are considering buying is old should not, in itself, be a major deterrent. Take some time to research older building techniques and materials versus newer ones, and you’ll quickly discover that purchasing an old house may in fact be a wise decision, not a way of settling as you merely hold out and save for something newer.

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High Efficiency Furnaces

If you’re like most people, you’re concerned with getting the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to heating and cooling your home, and you may also be concerned about helping the environment by leaving a smaller carbon footprint. Energy efficiency is extremely important, which is why it’s become such a hot topic in recent years and why building codes have increasingly become more and more strict in dictating that homes be built to higher efficiency standards. An energy efficient home is more comfortable, less expensive (in the long run), and more valuable than a home that lacks efficiency, and less waste is always a good thing.

In this article, we’re going to focus on just one of many systems that determines the efficiency of a home: your furnace, and gas furnaces in particular. Many homeowners don’t know the efficiency of their furnace, let alone how it operates or what makes one heating system more efficient than another, and I hope to equip you with some basic knowledge so you can check your own system and ensure you’re getting the best value possible.

But first, a little history… for a very long time, homes were heated with low-efficiency, passive heating systems that had an efficiency rating of about 60% to 70% at best. This means that for every hundred dollars homeowners spent to heat their house, only about $60 to $70 was actually used to provide heat while $30 to $40 went out the chimney and was wasted. Not only that, but many homeowners had to perform manual labor to load, light and stoke their furnaces with a fuel source like wood or coal, which was manually delivered or obtained from the land. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, be very thankful you’re alive today and benefiting from modern technology! There are actually plenty of people who still live this way and even prefer it, but the average American would rather not be burdened with so much work. For what it’s worth, though, I would argue that there is something fulfilling about doing things the old fashioned way. Still, I certainly prefer a high-efficiency and very low-maintenance heating system, just like the next guy!

Fast forward to the 1980’s, and some pretty revolutionary innovation began to take place. Lennox – a well known and reputable company – introduced the popular Pulse furnace, which achieved a much higher efficiency than what was even thought possible before. The company wasn’t shy about promoting it either, and the Pulse furnace may be the best marketed furnace of all time. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s, manufacturers learned various ways to design furnaces to use more of the heat they produce, and 80% to 90% became a more common efficiency standard. A furnace during that time period may have had an efficiency rating in the low 80’s but been considered high-efficiency by the standards at the time.

Today, many furnaces are rated at 95% or higher, which is leaps and bounds beyond the older, low-efficiency models that existed for decades. A high-efficiency furnace is a pretty remarkable piece of technology and saves homeowners a great deal of money. So, how do you know if your furnace is a high-efficiency model, and how exactly does it work?

Contrary to low and mid-efficiency furnaces that have one heat exchanger, a high-efficiency furnace has two. This allows the system to use more heat from combustion gases, and it also causes a good deal of condensation to form as the gases condense and form water vapor. For this reason, high-efficiency furnaces are also known as “condensing” furnaces. Because the exhaust gases are not as hot, the vent piping does not have to be metal as it does for older, less efficient systems. Instead, these furnaces use plastic vent pipes (usually PVC), which makes them easily identifiable. In fact, that’s one of the easiest ways (aside from looking at your furnace’s yellow efficiency sticker) to tell whether it’s rated at 90% or higher. If it has plastic white pipes it’s a high-efficiency furnace, and if it has a metal flue it’s not. The pipes for a high-efficiency furnace also don’t need to run through a chimney like metal flues, so you’ll typically see them protruding through a side wall of the home, often not far from the ground.

Like all good things, though, condensing furnaces do pose some potential drawbacks – namely the fact that they produce so much condensation. The water that is produced can wreak havoc on a furnace if it isn’t adequately contained and controlled, and it’s something we come across during inspections more often than you might think. The condensate must be contained so it can’t spill out anywhere inside the furnace, because this can lead to corrosion and eventual damage that destroys the system – especially if heat exchanger damage occurs. The condensate must also be drained away from the furnace, and the drain line has to be clean, unobstructed, and free of kinks so the water can easily move through the line. If the condensate doesn’t drain directly into a floor drain via simple gravity, it often first runs into a pump where it’s pumped upward and over to another drain, like a utility sink, and the pump is a mechanical part that is prone to eventual failure. Problems can arise any time, so periodic monitoring is a must if you have a high-efficiency furnace.

Sufficed to say, high-efficiency furnaces present a handful of potential problems, but they’re still well worth it as long as they are well looked after and maintained. Having $95 or more of every $100 you spend actually being used as intended is far, far better than only $80 or even $85. If you take the time to do some simple math and multiply that extra $10 or $15 for every $100 over many months and years, it will add up to a substantial savings very quickly.

Now, remember how I mentioned that older furnaces with an efficiency rating in the low 80’s were considered highly efficient for their time? That’s important to know because some manufacturers labeled them that way right on the furnace panel. Just the other day, we inspected a home with an oil furnace that had an efficiency rating of 81.4% that said “high efficiency” right on its front. By today’s standards, that furnace is not efficient, so be careful to check your own furnace beyond how it’s advertised – especially if it’s older. Likewise, some of the Lennox Pulse furnaces I mentioned (particularly those from the 1980’s) do have a known history of being susceptible to excess corrosion, so be sure to have yours checked and serviced at least annually by a qualified HVAC technician if you have one.

You may or may not know how efficient your current heating system is, and if you don’t I would strongly encourage you to check. If your furnace is older and not very efficient, you may want to consider upgrading to a more efficient system in the future. If you’re currently in the market for a new system and plan to stay in your home for a while, going the high-efficiency route is a no-brainer. You can also get highly efficient boilers, by the way, so this technology is not limited only to forced air systems. HTP and Buderus are a couple of popular high-efficiency manufacturers in the boiler world, although plenty of other companies also now offer great systems that will save you a lot of money and help improve the value and overall comfort of your home.

Check your furnace, calculate your potential savings, and make a plan to upgrade if you haven’t already. You won’t be sorry, but you’ll need to be diligent about maintaining your furnace often and as best as possible. That’s where a good HVAC company comes into play, so be sure to also establish a good relationship with an experienced and trusted professional to install and service your system.

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Sometimes You’ve Gotta Get Dirty

We include footnotes on all of our home inspection reports to provide clients with helpful tips for basic maintenance. Among the many tips, one of the most important is periodically checking any unfinished spaces in your home – especially the attic. I can’t count how many houses we’ve inspected where the owners have confessed to never seeing their attic space, and many of them have lived in their homes for decades.

Aside from storing the Christmas tree and a few old heirlooms in the attic, most people never have a need to visit their unfinished (and let’s face it, often dirty and creepy) attic space. So it’s not surprising that no one makes it a habit of visiting their attic from time to time, and most homeowners would never even think of it. Unfinished attics – especially in old homes – bring to mind things like cobwebs, bats, and countless other eerie surprises. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

Well, as you probably guessed, avoiding scary spaces isn’t exactly the best idea. The same conditions that make unfinished spaces less than appealing also make them more prone to problems that demand periodic monitoring. If you’re diligent about paying these spaces an occasional visit, you’ll be far more likely to spot possible issues and deal with them quickly before they have an opportunity to turn into much bigger, more expensive defects.

The owners of a house we recently inspected learned this lesson all too well after getting news of our report. In general, the home was very nice and well maintained, so we didn’t expect to run into any major defects. Of course, I knew that if any area would have problems it would probably be the attic, and unfortunately that turned out to be true. The attic wasn’t adequately ventilated and the inspection was in the middle of winter, so temperature extremes had quickly led to condensation buildup of vapor-laden air on the rafters and roof sheathing, along with subsequent dark staining, microbial growth, wood deterioration and water dripping onto the attic floor and insulation below. See the photos below to see what I mean…

I instantly felt bad for the homeowners, knowing they had worked hard to maintain their home very well over the years, and also knowing they probably never checked their attic and had no clue that this issue was lurking above their heads all along. Had they known how important it is to check unfinished spaces and not just the main living space, they undoubtedly would have discovered and dealt with their ventilation problem far earlier. As a side note, I should also point out that this is precisely why people get home inspections. The buyers of the home may very well have never entered the attic space either, and they would have been saddled with a major problem down the road!

Set reminders for yourself to periodically check unfinished spaces in your home, like attics and crawlspaces, that you normally wouldn’t enter. Do this at least once each season (about once every three months) at a minimum, and preferably a little more often. Yes, it may require getting a little dirty and dealing with some things that are a bit creepy, but it’s far better than allowing defects to form and grow undetected and having a costly mess on your hands in the future! And if you just aren’t comfortable doing this yourself, you can always hire a professional to do it for you.

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Upside-Down Insulation

One of the most common defects we come across – and usually in nicer homes – is insulation that has been installed upside-down. In particular, paper faced fiberglass batts are always the culprit. This is the type of insulation that probably immediately comes to mind when you hear the word “insulation”… long, rectangular batts (usually pink, white or yellow) with a brown paper facing that exists as a vapor barrier. It can lead to a host of problems when improperly installed, and we’ll go over the most common issues and the basic rule for installation so you can check the insulation in your own home and (hopefully) have it corrected if need.

But first of all, let’s begin with a truth that most people either aren’t aware of or don’t want to admit. With the many innovations that have come along in the world of insulation in recent years, fiberglass batts are no longer a very good option for most applications. There are now a number of superior products – all of which can be used in areas where fiberglass batts long reigned supreme – and they should be used. As with most things, it takes quite a while for products to really “catch on”and for contractors to become completely comfortable with the installation, and that’s one of the reasons fiberglass batts are still so popular despite the availability of several far better products.

For many years, contractors and DIY homeowners have been installing batt insulation and have loved its ease of installation and low cost. Closed cell spray foam (arguably the best product available today, depending on the application) isn’t nearly as easy to install and is quite a bit more expensive, so it isn’t the go-to option for most people. Even mineral wool, which also comes in batt form and is easy to install, is a little less familiar and a little pricier. Old habits die hard, and that axiom rings true for fiberglass insulation as it does with so much else. You don’t have to go all-or-nothing with insulation to achieve a good result, though. One fairly popular method nowadays is having one inch of spray foam applied to create a water and air-tight barrier, along with increased rigidity, and then to fill the rest of the cavity with another, less expensive type of insulation.

So, back to upside-down batts and why they’re a problem… Remember how the paper facing of the insulation acts as a vapor barrier? That’s important because a lot hinges on that barrier being installed on the proper side (and it often isn’t). The simple rule for faced batt insulation is that the brown side should always face the conditioned side of the home. Think of the house as a box you’re looking at from the outside, and then envision all of the brown (the vapor barrier) facing inward. If the insulation is in an unfinished basement, a crawlspace or a drive-under garage, the brown should be facing upward and not visible when you’re inside and looking up. If it’s in an unfinished attic, the brown should be facing down and, again, not visible if you are looking at it from within the attic. If it’s in the exterior walls surrounding the main floor(s), the brown should face the interior and be visible if you were to remove the drywall. Pretty easy, right?

You’re likely wondering, if this rule is so simple, why is it so hard for people to understand and follow? Well, one reason is that many people – even contractors – simply don’t know this rule or get confused when they try to remember the direction the insulation should face. The primary reason, though, is that people are so used to installing batts in wall cavities where the brown side should be visible that they just install it that way regardless of the location. It’s also much more pleasant to touch the paper faced side than the itchy, irritating fiberglass, and the brown side has tabs that conveniently fold over to easily staple the batts to studs, joists and other framing members. Even people who know the simple rule we just went over have a tendency to take the easy road and trust it won’t lead to any major issues in the near future, and professionals know that the average homeowner will have no clue that the way they installed their new insulation is improper.

OK, so you’re probably wondering why this rule exists. Why does the vapor barrier need to be facing the conditioned side of the home, and what, exactly, can happen if it’s installed in reverse? Because the vapor barrier blocks water vapor, air that contains vapor and gets into the insulation can condense if there’s a temperature difference (as there always is between finished and unfinished spaces). Once that happens, the condensation won’t have anywhere to go since there’s either sub-flooring above or ceiling material below, so it becomes trapped and often doesn’t quickly evaporate out. Over a long enough period of time and that continually happening, the insulation can compress, lose its R-value and even become a breeding ground for mold and other contaminants. To make matters worse, the paper facing has a black coating, so you likely wouldn’t even notice this happening until it has caused the insulation to sag or fall from a floor structure or drastically compress in an attic. Vented crawlspaces that are naturally prone to high moisture levels are especially susceptible to damaged, falling batt insulation, and we unfortunately see it all too often during inspections. To make matters worse, the batts are usually just friction fitted into place without any wring or other supports whatsoever. The only saving grace to the insulation being able to fall is that it won’t stay pressed against the subfloor where the condensation can lead to eventual rot of the wood floor structure. I often think of falling insulation in vented crawlspaces as alarms… when the batts fall, you know you have a problem and may want to check out your floor structure!

Take some time to walk through your house to check the insulation. If you have fiberglass batts in your basement ceiling, crawlspace floor or attic, make sure that you can’t see the brown side. If you can, gently pry away some of the sides to look around and make sure there isn’t any mold growth or wood/drywall deterioration. You may not have a glaring issue now, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to budget for a reputable insulation contractor to evaluate what you have and to make recommendations for repairs since it’s only a matter of time before problems do develop. This won’t only prevent possible long-term damage; it will help improve energy efficiency, comfort and value. The bottom line: fiberglass batts aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and you’d be wise to make sure yours are at least properly installed.

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Ice Damming & What to Do About It

We’ve had some unusually severe winter weather lately here in southwestern Pennsylvania. During our recent inspections, we’ve seen enormous icicles hanging from roof eaves, along with curled snow sliding off the edges of metal roofs (I’ve attached a few photos for your viewing pleasure). A lot of what we’ve been seeing is something you’d literally have to see for yourself to believe because it could otherwise only be conjured up in your imagination.

One of the biggest concerns with this type of weather is ice damming – especially if you have a typical asphalt shingle roof. If you came across this blog article without already being a subscriber, chances are it’s because you searched for information about ice damming and may even have active leak damage. I hope not, but at least this article will help you to understand what ice damming is, why it happens, and (most importantly) how to prevent it in the future!

So, what exactly is ice damming? Well, it’s no more than a buildup of ice along the eaves (bottom edges) of a roof. Just like a water dam that is built up to hold back water, an ice dam is a buildup of ice that also prevents water from freely flowing downward. The only difference is that traditional water dams are often a good thing, whereas ice dams are never good!

The next most obvious question is what type of damage ice damming can cause. For one, long icicles can form and hang from gutters, which can weigh them down causing them to sag or even pull away or detach. The icicles themselves are hazardous because they can break off at any time and seriously injure anyone that may be standing directly below. Remember Ralphie’s excuse in A Christmas Story when he blamed an icicle for hurting his eye so he wouldn’t get his new Red Ryder BB gun taken away?

The type of damage that people often get most concerned about, though, is leak damage from ice dams. When the perfect conditions occur, leaking can happen fairly quickly, making ice dam prevention all the more important. If ice builds up along a roof eave and a thick layer of snow exists above the shingles, the bottom layer of snow can melt and turn back into water. This happens because the thick snow above actually acts as an insulator and the warm air rising from inside the house causes the bottom layer to melt while the top layer stays cold. The ice at the cold eave prevents the water from flowing downward, so it has nowhere to go but up (hence the term “backup”). Each row of asphalt shingles overlaps the row beneath, so the water can run beneath the bottom shingle edges and seep into the roof structure below. Once this occurs, it may not take long for the intruding water to rot out the roof sheathing and make its way down onto the ceiling and/or wall below.

OK, so we know what ice damming is and why it happens, but how do we prevent it? If you’ve already had leaking from an ice dam problem, there’s unfortunately no easy (or cheap) solution. The repair work will have to be done, and it will likely be fairly involved and pricey. If you’ve had repairs made or haven’t yet had leaking, there are some pretty simple ways to offset the likelihood that you’ll experience a major ice damming issue in the future, so pay close attention to the following tips!

  1. Consider having heat cable installed along your roof eaves. This cable is often installed in a zig-zag pattern and does just what its name suggests… it heats up to melt ice and snow and prevent ice accumulation. Heat cable only needs to be powered when the weather conditions warrant it, so it won’t add a lot to your electric bill and won’t prove to be a big burden. Heat cable is most often found on asphalt shingle roofs, but it can even be installed on metal.
  2. Smack off those icicles! …but safely and only if you know what you’re doing! You obviously need to be careful when you do this, and accessing higher icicles may be difficult, but it’s a good idea to walk around and safely remove any large icicles that have formed, being certain that you’re paying attention to what’s below them. I’m not suggesting you do anything dangerous, but any icicles that are easily reachable and not directly above something that could be damaged should be removed to prevent unwanted damage. It goes without saying, but be especially sure that you are not directly beneath them and are a good distance away!
  3. If you’ve had to make roof repairs from prior ice dammage (did you like that play on words?) or you’re installing a new roof, be sure that the roofer installs ice and water shield beneath the shingles to prevent leaks from ice dams moving forward. This product is a waterproof membrane, used as an underlayment, and does its job extremely well.
  4. Be sure to check your gutters and clean them as needed – especially in autumn. Leaves and debris typically accumulate in gutters during the fall and will clog the gutters in winter if they aren’t cleaned. This will only serve to prevent adequate drainage and make ice dams form more quickly, and a little seasonal homeowner DIY maintenance can go a long way in helping to prevent large potential problems.

Ice dams can cause big problems, but they’re not a year-round issue and can be pretty easily prevented. Hopefully this article has helped you learn more about prevention, and feel free to comment if you have any questions about ice dams or personal horror stories you’d be willing to share.

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