Common Defects: Inadequate Insulation

Most homes I inspect have a fair amount of insulation but not enough to maximize energy efficiency. Insulation is a very complicated topic with so many types and the science of heat transfer. My goal in this post is to clear up some of that confusion so you can maximize your home’s energy efficiency.

First and foremost, houses need to be properly air sealed to be energy efficient. Air sealing is so important that a home that is well insulated but not air sealed will not perform at all up to par with expectations. Step one in preventing heat loss in the winter and heat gain in the summer is air sealing your home. While this can be done in a few ways, spray foam is typically one of the best options, and closed cell spray foam in particular.

After thoroughly air sealing all gaps, insulating your home well should be the next priority. Check your climate zone to find out the minimum recommended R-value for your area. The R-value refers to the insulation’s ability to resist air movement. The higher the R-value, the better job the insulation does at preventing the movement of air by trapping air particles in small, empty pockets. Here in western Pennsylvania, the minimum recommended R-value for attics is R-49; in your area it may be different.

There are many types of insulation, and all serve their purpose in certain circumstances. Common types include fiberglass batts, blown insulation (cellulose or fiberglass), mineral wool, rigid foam, and closed cell or open cell spray foam. I recently insulated and refinished my own attic and used all of these types, excluding fiberglass batts and open cell spray foam. I spray foamed around windows and all electrical and plumbing penetrations, blew fiberglass onto the floors behind the knee walls and above the collar ties, installed rigid foam behind the knee walls, and installed mineral wool batts between the rafters along the diagonals. As you can see, different types of insulation are better suited for different applications, and consulting a qualified insulation expert is definitely a good idea.

Adequate air sealing and insulation is homeownership 101 – right up there with prevention of water intrusion. When your home is properly sealed and insulated, it is more energy efficient, more comfortable, more capable of preventing ice dams and other problems, and less costly to heat and cool. I strongly encourage you to check the type and depth of your insulation and add more if necessary. As a general rule, insulation should not be compressed and should be left “fluffy” because compressing it actually decreases its ability to resist air movement and, thus, its R-value.

If you view insulation as something not so important, think again! Have a professional come out and evaluate your home’s energy efficiency, and consider air sealing and adding insulation as recommended. It will take a while to make back the money you spend in utility bill savings, but it will be well worth the investment in the long run and you will see and feel the results immediately.

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Common Defects: Incorrect Wiring

I’m often surprised by the number of homes I inspect that do not have correct wiring throughout. Older homes typically have ungrounded, two-prong receptacles (outlets) because grounded receptacles didn’t used to exist. But even many newer homes have grounded (three-prong) receptacles that are either not actually grounded or are improperly wired.

Let’s begin with a simple lesson on electricity. The easiest way to understand electricity is to think of water. Like water, electricity “flows” in a “current” along a path. Like water, electricity has a certain pressure it flows at and a certain level of “resistance”. The primary difference between the two is that while water enters a fixture from a supply source in one location and ends up in a different location after it is drained, electricity always seeks to get back home to its original source and travels along a continuous circular path. A “circuit” is merely a completed circular path of electricity.

For a typical home, electrical power begins at a plant where electricity is generated. The electricity travels in high voltage through cables and is reduced by something called a transformer, which “transforms” the electricity into a smaller amount that is more suitable for supplying homes – typically 100 amps / 120 volts or 200 amps / 240 volts. Without the transformer reducing the voltage, the amount of electrical power would be too great and our appliances and other devices would be overloaded and fried. The electricity then enters the house’s electrical panel through service entrance lines (usually aluminum) and travels through branch circuit wiring (usually copper) to the various switches and receptacles that power the items we use that require electrical power. The electricity flows to devices on a “hot” wire (usually black) and then back to the panel on neutral wires (usually white), and finally back to the street and the power plant. If a third wire is present, it is bare copper and is the ground wire. If you look at the three slots on a grounded outlet, the shorter slot is the hot side, the longer slot is the neutral, and the small circular hole is the ground.

So what exactly is grounding? Well, like water, electricity always seeks the path of least resistance. Under normal conditions, electricity freely flows through hot lines and back through neutral lines, but occasionally things happen to interrupt that natural flow. Water may enter a receptacle, an object that conducts electricity may be inserted by a child, or a circuit may be overloaded by drawing too much power and the circuit breaker at the panel may fail to trip. In such cases, these things cause a “roadblock” to the current’s normal path, and the electricity is forced to take a “detour” along a different, unintended path. If that happens, we need the electricity to stop as quickly as possible, and the best way to do that is by grounding. As its name suggests, grounding is literally providing a path along a conductor for the electricity to travel to the ground, which does not conduct electricity, so the unsafe current is stopped dead in its tracks. Without proper grounding, people can easily become the source of grounding for the current and be shocked since our bodies are unfortunately good conductors of electricity.

Aside from improper grounding, reverse polarity is another fairly common wiring defect. In this case, the hot and neutral wires are reversed. While this does not always pose an immediate threat and may go unnoticed, there are some circumstances where reverse polarity can pose a safety hazard. For example, if a light socket is wired in reverse, the metal socket becomes energized and touching it will cause shock. Correcting this problem by switching the wires to their correct screws is simple, but all electrical work should always be done by a qualified electrician and the main breaker at the panel should always be shut off to ensure that no accidents occur.

Last but not least, most homes have at least one receptacle that is missing a cover, usually in a less visible area like the back of a kitchen base cabinet or behind the night stand in a bedroom. This may not seem like a big deal, but covers shield the wiring and provide protection that is necessary – especially for young children. Installing cover plates is probably the cheapest and easiest job a homeowner can do, and there’s really no excuse for having receptacles or switches that are uncovered.

Hopefully this post has clarified some things for you about how electricity works and how to spot and correct wiring defects. One nice thing about electricity is that if there’s a problem it usually lets you know right away. Check your receptacles with a tester to ensure that your home is properly wired and safe. Testers are inexpensive and most are accurate and reliable. If you come across any defects, contact a qualified electrician for immediate repair.

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Common Defects: Water Heater TPR Valve

All standard water heaters have a TPR valve, but many are missing a discharge pipe. “TPR” stands for temperature and pressure relief. Temperature and pressure go hand-in-hand; as temperature increases, so does pressure. Believe it or not, a water heater can build up enough pressure to shoot several stories out a roof like a rocket and cause immense damage. Fortunately, they are equipped with a TPR valve to prevent that from happening.

TPR valves are designed to open when the temperature and pressure inside the tank reach an unsafe level. Rather than the pressure building up inside the tank and causing an explosion because it has nowhere to go, the water/steam will exit through the TPR valve.

Now, the TPR valve itself is not the common defect that we inspectors often see. All standard water heaters are built with the valve attached, so the valve is never missing. What IS often missing (about half the time or more in my experience) is a discharge pipe that is required to be attached to the valve. The pipe should run straight downward and end several inches from the floor, leaving a small “air gap” between the floor and the pipe. If a floor drain is present, discharge pipes are often routed to the drain so the water exits the space rather than pooling up on the floor.

The reason these discharge / extension pipes are required is that if anyone happened to be near the water heater when the discharge pipe opened, they could possibly be scorched by the water leaving the valve. With the pipe attached, the water will instead flow through the pipe toward the ground and the potential for injury is greatly reduced.

TPR valves also exist on boilers for the same reason; but while only some homes have boilers, all homes have water heaters, and most homes still have tank water heaters, not tankless.

Check your water heater to make sure it has a discharge pipe properly attached to the TPR valve and running downward toward the floor. The TPR valve will likely be brass and either on the top of the water heater or on the side close to the top. If the pipe is missing, contact a qualified plumber immediately to get the pipe installed. The small cost to have this simple repair done far outweighs the potential risk.

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Common Defects: Smoke & CO Detectors

Nearly every house I inspect contains either too few smoke and carbon monoxide detectors or old detectors that aren’t working. In this post we’ll go over where to locate these important safety devices and how to properly maintain them.

Smoke and carbon monoxide (CO) detectors are often taken for granted. In fact, many people view smoke alarms as more of an annoyance than a help because they tend to go off when smoke comes out of the kitchen while cooking, causing that unwanted loud beep at the worst possible time. It’s easy to forget that the same loud beep that is so annoying in the middle of preparing a meal has the ability to wake us from a deep sleep if a real emergency occurs. So, yes, these detectors are, in fact, important and should never be taken for granted!

In recent years, combination “2-in-1” detectors that detect both smoke and carbon monoxide have become very popular. While these units are not “bad” and are certainly better than having no detectors at all, it is actually more ideal to have separate detectors that each detect one hazard or the other. Smoke rises quickly, so smoke alarms are ideally located on the ceiling. In fact, you will rarely, if ever, see them anywhere else. Carbon monoxide, on the other hand, is best detected about 5 feet from the ground. Depending on how much carbon monoxide is in the air (measured in part per million, or “ppm”), it could really make a difference having the detectors located several feet below the ceiling.

So where should these detectors be located? The general rule for both types of detectors is that they be placed on each floor, in each sleeping area, in garages, and near sources of combustion (fireplaces, furnaces, etc.). I often see at least smoke detectors in hallways, but rarely in bedrooms, and I often don’t see CO detectors at all. The reason they are recommended in every sleeping area (bedroom) is so everyone in the family can hear the alarms and be alerted if they’re asleep. Carbon monoxide detectors are especially important in houses that contain attached garages and several combustion sources, but even houses without these can contain some carbon monoxide.

Maintaining your smoke and CO detectors is every bit as important as having them. While they can be hardwired, most homes contain battery powered units and the batteries will obviously die over time. Check the manufacturer’s recommendations for testing your alarms, and schedule periodic tests to ensure they are working properly. Periodic testing is very important to avoid non-working units that can’t do their job if and when an emergency occurs.

So stay on top of your smoke and CO detectors and install them in all recommended locations. And don’t forget to reinsert the battery for the detector you quickly silenced while cooking that last steak on the stove!

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Common Defects: Handrails

I’m often surprised by how many homes I inspect that have handrails that are missing, loose, or improperly sized. In this short post, I will review when handrails are required and what constitutes a safe handrail.

First of all, handrails are required when there are more than three stairs. Contrary to what many people would think, landings are considered stairs because you “step” up onto them. So, three stairs and a landing is actually considered four stairs. Another rule is that handrails should be present when the total height of the stairway is 24 inches or greater, but the three or more steps rule more commonly comes into play.

It goes without saying, but handrails should be secure if they are going to serve their purpose of providing safety. Often times, handrails are either improperly installed (for example, into drywall with anchors instead of directly into wood studs), or they have simply come loose over time. In any case, giving the handrail a firm wiggle will confirm if it is stable enough to take a blow if someone falls into it or has to quickly grasp it.

In addition to being secure, handrails should be graspable. That is, they should be easy to grasp with as much of the hand as possible. 2×4 boards are commonly used for handrails – especially for exterior and deck stairs – but a better option is a cylindrical rod (tube shape) because it can be more fully and easily grasped.

The height of the handrail should be 34 – 38 inches from the stairs. This height is comfortable for adults and low enough for most children to reach. If the handrail is dividing the stairs from an open space, the spindles (vertical pieces) should be close enough that a 4-3/4″ sphere cannot pass between them. An easy way to test this is to make a fist, which is about the right size for most adult hands.

If handrails need installed, repaired or replaced at your home, follow these guidelines to ensure that they are properly installed and that your family is safe. While this is a fairly easy DIY job for many homeowners, it is recommended that a reputable and qualified carpenter performs this job since several important safety factors need to be observed.

Take some time to thoroughly check your handrails and make sure they meet the guidelines listed in this article. Doing so just might save someone from an unfortunate accident in your home.

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