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Solid Aluminum Wiring

At our afternoon inspection today, we came across a pretty rare find – solid aluminum branch circuit wiring. The term “branch circuit wiring” refers to the wiring that runs from breakers in the electrical panel to electrical devices throughout the home, such as outlets, switches, fixtures, etc. Solid aluminum branch circuit wiring has a known history of posing a potential fire hazard in homes, and we’ll review the primary issues here in case your home is a rare house that was wired with it.

Solid aluminum wiring was installed in a number of homes over the course of about a decade from the mid-1960s to the mid 70s. Some builders and electricians opted for aluminum over copper during this time period because of its lower cost, and the issues that are now known with solid aluminum were obviously not so well known then. But what, exactly, are those issues?

Aluminum wiring expands and contracts at a much higher rate than copper, and that slight movement causes pushing and loosening forces at connection points that can lead to loose connections. Once a connection is loose between a wire and screw, arcing and excess heat can occur that could ultimately lead to an unexpected fire hazard. Furthermore, since copper branch circuit wiring is far more common than aluminum, someone could join the two dissimilar metals and cause a reaction that leads to increased electrical resistance. In short, solid aluminum branch circuit wiring has “possible fire hazard” written all over it.

The term possible here is key, though. A home with solid aluminum wiring is not guaranteed to have a fire or other electrical defect at all, and the wiring in the home we inspected today has been present for over 50 years with tight connections (of those we checked) and no signs of overheating or other prior damage. Prior condition is not a sure indication of future performance, however, and the wiring in the home we inspected today could cause a hazard at any point in the future.

If you aren’t sure what type of branch circuit wiring exists in your home and you aren’t comfortable removing your electrical panel’s cover to check the wire ends at breaker connections, you can look at the wire sheathing right outside your panel or quickly pull an outlet (with caution, of course). The wire sheathing should contain writing that indicates it is aluminum, and the aluminum wire ends at outlet screws are easily identified by their silver color.

Be sure to not confuse any silver colored wiring with older tin cladded copper wiring that is typical of knob and tube in old houses. Distinguishing between the two is fortunately pretty easy, as solid aluminum will contain rubber sheathing that looks newer, whereas knob and tube will have more brittle, cloth based sheathing that is obviously old. Aluminum wire sheathing will likely also be lighter in color, and tin cladded copper sheathing will be dark.

If you do discover solid aluminum branch circuit wiring in your home, consult a qualified electrician to have it thoroughly evaluated – especially at connections. For complete peace of mind, strongly consider having it replaced with modern and safer non-metallic (NM) sheathed copper.

*For more information, visit our main website at http://www.hillinspections.com

Solid aluminum wire sheathing
Solid aluminum at outlet

Thinking of Waiving the Home Inspection?

In recent months, the real estate market has experienced an unprecedented, nationwide surge in sales as an apparent result of pandemic related economic changes causing more homeowners to sell, more people to buy and more workers to work from home. Even here in the Northeast where houses have historically sold for under their asking price, the new norm has been multiple offers, subsequent bidding wars, and sale amounts above the asking price. To say the real estate market has been “hot” is an understatement, to be sure.

If you’re placing an offer on a home and going up against multiple other buyers, one of the most tempting options to make your offer more appealing is to waive the home inspection and agree to purchase the home “as is.” After all, what seller would happily accept your offer over another that is equally enticing but doesn’t require an inspection that could uncover defects that would then have to be disclosed? In fact, even your realtor may advise you that waiving the inspection is one of a few things you can do to have a greater chance of your offer being accepted; and guess what… he or she would likely be right!

BUT, you have to ask yourself an important question: Is waiving the home inspection ultimately in your best interest, long-term? Or you might ask, “Is making this large investment over many years still worth it even if major, costly problems may exist that I have no way of knowing about without having the home first thoroughly evaluated by a qualified professional?”

If you’re confident that it’s still worth it and that your apparent dream home won’t actually turn out to be a nightmare in disguise, then you’ll likely opt to take your chances. As an inspector who finds major defects in even the most seemingly nice houses, though, I want to warn you that waiving the home inspection is never a good idea – period. As the old adage goes, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. And some of the most significant problems we’ve found have surprisingly been in some of the most high-end and expensive houses we’ve inspected, which are often not immediately apparent to the typical client (or realtor for that matter).

You don’t get to test drive a new home like you do a vehicle, despite the fact that for most people a home is a far bigger investment. You probably wouldn’t agree to buy a car without at least having it first thoroughly looked over by a qualified mechanic, and you certainly shouldn’t buy a home for far more money without first having it inspected by a certified professional inspector. Yes, you may miss out on a home you were hoping for, but you’ll also have peace in the knowledge that you were wise and didn’t commit to a major investment with incomplete information. View the home inspection as an absolute must, and don’t back down from that commitment under any circumstances.

*To visit our main website, go to http://www.hillinspections.com.

Smart Thermostats: A No-brainer

Nowadays, just about anything in a home can be controlled remotely or hands-free with “smart” devices, from lights to outlets, garage doors, doorbells, and beyond. While smart devices offer obvious advantages, few are as advantageous as smart thermostats – at least in terms of saving money.

For houses we inspect that have an older mechanical thermostat, we often include a “tip” comment in our report and encourage the client to consider upgrading to a smart thermostat, such as the popular Google Nest (although many manufacturers now make similar models). With an older, mechanical thermostat, the stat has to be physically changed, in the home, as desired. With a smart thermostat, however, the device can be set to automatically adjust the temperature setting at predetermined times, eliminating the need for in-person operation, or remembering to actually do it for that matter. The thermostat adjusts on its own, allowing for a true “set it and forget it” experience.

Programmable thermostats, which have been around for quite a while, offer this feature; but unlike a modern smart thermostat, they do not allow you to adjust settings remotely with a cell phone, tablet or computer from nearly anywhere. Maybe you’re gone on vacation, hours from home, and realize the thermostat is still programmed to normal temperatures that aren’t needed while you’re away. With a standard programmable thermostat, you’re stuck with some wasted energy and a higher heating/cooling bill while you’re gone; but if you have a newer smart thermostat, you can simply alter the settings right from where you are with a few clicks on a screen.

You may assume that this type of convenience and potential cost savings comes with an initially high and cost-prohibitive price tag, but the cost is surprisingly low – especially when compared to the payback time relative to your initial investment. On average, purchasing a smart thermostat and having it installed will set you back about $400-$500 in most areas, but you’ll quickly earn that money back in energy cost savings – often in less than a year. This is especially true for systems that run on fuel that tends to be expensive or that fluctuates somewhat dramatically in price, like fuel oil for example. Not only that, but a smart thermostat actually learns your temperature setting habits and tracks data related to your energy usage to provide at-a-glance feedback you can monitor to make the most of your system’s efficiency.

If you don’t already have a smart thermostat (or at least a programmable model), do yourself a favor and get one installed as soon as possible. Regardless of the specific type and model you choose, be sure to actually program it and track your cost to make the most of its cost saving benefits. You’ll earn your money back quickly and will enjoy savings long into the future.

*To visit our main website, go to http://www.hillinspections.com.

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.

*To visit our main website, go to http://www.hillinspections.com

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.

*To visit our main website, go to http://www.hillinspections.com