Well Water MCLs

MCL stands for “maximum contaminant level,” and potential contaminants in water are assigned specific MCLs based on health and safety standards. As you may have guessed, the maximum contaminant level is the highest concentration of a particular contaminant that can be present in the water and still considered safe. In general, local authorities dictate MCLs and other safety standards related to water, and I will address the MCLs for a few primary contaminants in this area. While the MCLs in your area are likely similar or identical, you are encouraged to check with your local authority.

While public water supplies can occasionally have elevated levels of contaminants, the treatment facility analyzes and treats the water on an ongoing basis to ensure its safety and alerts homeowners to any issues and requirements for ensuring their water’s safety (such as boiling until the problem is resolved). Private wells, on the other hand, are the sole responsibility of the homeowner, so water analysis of wells is much more common than analysis of public water supplies when it comes to hiring a professional to collect in-home water samples.

Many homeowners aren’t aware that when they have their water tested the lab is only testing for contaminants ordered to be tested. As a result, you may be expecting the lab to test for every possible contaminant when, in fact, they may only be testing for bacteria. One homeowner we did an analysis for a while back was surprised to learn that her water contained a fairly high concentration of lead. She said that she’d had her water tested many times and it had never contained lead. In all probability, her water had likely never been tested for lead, but she simply wasn’t aware. This was verified by the fact that the item causing the lead problem had been in the house for quite some time.

Here at HPI, we test for the same contaminants with every water analysis. There are countless potential contaminants, but we test for those which the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recommends because we want our clients to have a more full picture of their water’s quality. The contaminants we test for are bacteria (total coliform and E. coli), nitrates and nitrites, total dissolved solids, lead and the pH level.

The MCLs for each of these contaminants are as follows:
1. Bacteria: the total absence of total coliform and E. coli bacteria
2. Nitrates: 10 mg/L, Nitrites: 1 mg/L
3. Total Dissolved Solids: 500 mg/L
4. Lead: 0.015 mg/L
5. pH: must be between 6.5 and 8.5

Knowing these guidelines can be very helpful for determining your water’s overall quality and safety. Fortunately, there are several options for reducing or eliminating contaminants that exceed their MCL, but you have to have those specific contaminants tested to know their levels. If you own a private well, be sure to have it tested as often as recommended and to have multiple contaminants analyzed. Otherwise, you’ll likely assume your water is safe when it may actually contain elevated levels of certain contaminants that may pose a health hazard.

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Common Defects: Wood Piles

Many people with rural homes keep wood piles in or near their house for easy access when they need firewood to fuel a fireplace, wood burner or an outdoor fire. If you use wood frequently, it’s obviously convenient to have quick, easy access to the wood; but unfortunately, the cons of keeping wood in or near the house can easily outweigh the pros.

Wood piles are a welcome habitat for wood-destroying insects, mice, snakes and other unwelcome vermin. In the winter, when burning wood is most common, the warm interior of your home is especially inviting to these pests. If the wood is inside, against or close to the house, it is fairly likely that you’ll have an unwanted pest intrusion problem before long.

Wood is ideally kept at least 30 feet from the house. That may seem like a far distance, but in reality 30 feet isn’t as far as it sounds. It’s generally far enough away to prevent pests from entering the structure but close enough to prevent you from having to walk too far to collect the wood.

Of course, wood is ideally dry to perform best when it’s burned, but keeping the wood dry while it’s outside can be difficult. One way this can be accomplished is by placing the wood on pallets on a level surface and covering the wood. Another option is creating a roof structure for the purpose of covering the wood pile(s). In any case, the wood outside will never be completely moisture-free, but it will be mostly dry and ready for use if proper measures are taken to ensure adequate drainage around the wood pile and prevention of direct contact with water.

Keeping wood inside the house – often in an area like an unfinished basement – can be very appealing since it prevents having to go outside at all and ensures the highest likelihood that the wood will stay dry. This is not a good idea, though, since the wood may already contain insects and other vermin that have now been freely brought right into your home. As with most things, the easiest way is unfortunately not the best way.

Don’t risk a major pest infestation or potential structural damage by keeping wood too close. The convenience of doing so is very appealing, but you’re far better off not risking a problem that could quickly overshadow the ease. Keep wood at least 30 feet from structure, and take measures to adequately protect the wood and keep it dry. When you do run out to grab a few logs, check them over before bringing them inside. Managing wood the right way is certainly less convenient, but it’s a much smarter option for preventing potential problems.

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Ungrounded Three-Prong Receptacles

Nearly every older home I inspect contains several ungrounded three-prong receptacles (outlets). Older two-prong receptacles are ungrounded, but modern three-prong receptacles are designed to be grounded for added protection. The small third hole in a three-prong receptacle is for the ground.

The primary reason for ungrounded three-prong receptacles in older homes is that the electrician or other person who upgraded the outlets used the wiring already present to make the installation much easier. Often times the existing wiring is older knob and tube, which does not possess a grounding conductor, so the installer simply uses the available hot and neutral wires. The end result of this improper “upgrade” is newer outlets that look better and will accept a three-pronged plug but provide no real benefit over their older two-prong predecessors since they offer no additional protection.

Many homeowners seeking to upgrade their wiring request that older two-prong receptacles be upgraded to modern three-prongs, but they have no idea once the work is finished that their new “grounded” receptacles are actually not grounded. In fact, many homeowners aren’t even aware that grounding is the primary difference between newer and older receptacles. Without this knowledge, they hire someone to perform an electrical upgrade, think the work looks fine, trust that everything has been done properly, and have no idea that the “upgrade” they paid for is subpar.

Now, two-prong ungrounded receptacles still exist in many homes and often pose no problems. This is because over-current protection devices (circuit breakers and fuses) are designed to trip or blow if an over-current occurs. However, these devices can fail, which is why grounded receptacles were invented to provide additional protection to people and electrical devices if a fault occurs. Having additional protection is certainly a good thing, so you do want your three-prong outlets to actually be grounded.

If you’re looking to have older two-prong receptacles upgraded, be sure to hire a qualified and reputable electrician, and make it a point to stress that you want your new three-prong outlets to actually be grounded as they should. Upon completion of the job, ask the electrician to verify (by showing you with a tester) that the outlets are, in fact, grounded as they should be. You’ll likely pay more to have the job done properly, but you won’t regret it.

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Loan Requirements

There are several types of loans available to would-be homeowners, depending on their circumstances and if they qualify. A few common loan types are conventional loans, USDA loans, FHA loans and VA loans. Each type of loan offers advantages, although it can be argued that some offer more than others. Depending on the type of loan you obtain, certain requirements may be in place, and I’d like to clarify some of those here.

VA loans are arguably one of the best loan types but are reserved for veterans, so many people do not qualify. VA loans also carry some of the most strict requirements for a home’s condition prior to the sale. In our area, VA lenders typically require a pest inspection and prohibit the buyer from paying for it. This is unique because the buyer pays for a pest inspection (if they have one) with other loan types. If a house has a private water supply, the VA lender often requires a water analysis as well and may require additional inspections for rural properties. VA requirements are generally more stringent than other loans, but they are in place to protect the veteran buying the home.

FHA loans are commonly used by first-time home buyers because they can be obtained with a fairly low credit score and a low down payment. Longtime homeowners typically have equity and (hopefully) savings, so the common appeals of FHA loans are not as appealing as they are to younger people who are in need of more financial leeway. FHA loans have certain requirements, especially regarding a home’s health, safety and structural integrity, and the lender may require improvements to be made before granting the loan. Again, this is to ensure the well-being of the client.

Like VA and FHA loans, USDA loans have some fairly strict requirements pertaining to health, safety and structural integrity. All three of these loan types are backed by the government and carry additional requirements beyond a standard conventional loan.

When an appraiser performs an appraisal for a house being purchased with a conventional loan, he or she is simply assessing the value of the property. When a government backed loan is in play, the appraiser is required to be HUD approved and must inspect for additional requirements like those already mentioned. This, of course, can result in repairs/improvements having to be made, which is something buyers and sellers should expect and plan for.

While the requirements for each loan type are generally well established, lenders will sometimes be a little more strict or more lenient. For example, some VA lenders prohibit the buyer from paying for the pest inspection, period, while others will allow the buyer to pay for it upfront and be reimbursed later. If you’ve made the wise decision of working with a reputable realtor, he or she can help in communicating what your particular lender is or isn’t requiring in your unique case.

Because of minor variations between lenders and the fact that home inspectors are not mortgage lenders or appraisers, inspectors like myself are not in a position to predict or comment on what improvements the lender may require. Occasionally, realtors ask me what needs to be done to satisfy the lender based on the home inspection, knowing that I will have a good idea. And while I can generally predict the answer to that question with good accuracy, it is not appropriate to provide a concrete answer to that question.

If you’re planning to purchase a home, take time to research the different types of loans available to you, the lenders offering them, and the requirements of each. If you qualify for a government backed loan, expect to have a few more “hiccups” along the way, but recognize that the loan requirements are ultimately meant to protect you, not to cause you grief.

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Energy Efficient Home Design

This article is primarily geared toward people who live in a northern climate and are either planning to build an energy efficient home or make their current home more energy efficient. Climate varies drastically between regions, and what works best in one area may not be a good solution for another. If you do not live in a similar region, I encourage you to research best practices for efficient design in your area.

Energy efficiency is a tough subject. We all want it, but it’s often more difficult to achieve than we’d hope. Like many good investments, energy efficiency typically costs quite a bit upfront but will save money in the long run. To be sure, it’s usually easier and less expensive to build a home that is energy efficient than to convert an existing home that’s not.

If you live in a climate like this one (Western Pennsylvania), the south side of the house would ideally contain the most – and largest – windows to take advantage of the sun’s energy. Northern windows should be few as they receive little sunlight and get hit with cold winds. When it comes to windows at the east and west sides of the house, east windows are preferred over the west side due to the sun’s directional movement throughout the day. With the advent of efficient “low-e” windows, you don’t have to worry too much these days about perfect window placement, but the south and east sides of the house are still most ideal.

Large window overhangs on the south side are also very helpful for improving efficient use of energy since they provide permanent shading. The goal is to allow the sun’s energy into the home during the winter when heat is needed and the sun is low in the sky, but to shade the sun’s intense heat in the hot summer when the sun is more overhead and would make the home too hot.

Smart window placement has been well known for quite some time, but building scientists have more recently devised additional methods for saving energy. One of those methods is known as “advanced framing.” Traditional framing places 2×4 wall studs on 16 inch centers, but advanced framing places 2×6 studs on 24 inch centers. By beefing up the size of the studs and decreasing the amount of wood used for framing, structural integrity is not compromised and more insulation can be used. Even the corners of walls are designed to be more efficient with advanced framing techniques.

The importance of roofs has also become a topic of primary importance. For a home to be efficient, the roof is ideally a lighter color and reflective so the sun’s heat is reflected and not absorbed. We all recognize the difference in wearing a white versus a black t-shirt on a hot summer day, but many people don’t take that basic principle into account when choosing a roof material.

Needless to say, a home will not perform well if it is not properly air sealed and insulated. Many product developments have come on the scene in recent years, providing homeowners with excellent options for insulating their homes extremely well. Perhaps the best logic (although it requires a contractor with very up-to-date knowledge) is the concept of placing rigid foam or mineral wool insulation on the outside of the house to form a “blanket,” as opposed to the inside of the house between wall cavities as is normally done. Reputable contractors who advocate this method compare it to a person wearing a jacket to protect themselves from the cold versus having insulation tucked under their skin (if that were possible). Regardless, you can create a very energy efficient home by insulating on the inside, provided the types and amounts of insulation are ideal and that air sealing is done properly.

The methods already mentioned will make for a very energy efficient home, but you could go even further if you desire to get as close as possible to a “net zero” energy rating. Utilizing renewable sources of energy and on-site conditions is key if you really want to take efficiency to the next level. Passive solar systems for heating and cooling are especially beneficial, but other options are available, and consulting with local engineers, your general contractor, and other knowledgeable professionals is crucial for determining the best options for your particular location.

When considering how efficient you want your home to be, weighing the initial cost against the eventual pay-off is certainly a major factor. For most, having a perfectly energy efficient home is likely not a reality that can realistically be achieved quickly or inexpensively. However, taking whatever actions you can, over time, will definitely play in your favor, and it is easier to invest in energy efficient options when building a house than after a house has been built and requires extensive work.

Maybe you’ll focus on your windows this year, air sealing and insulation improvement over the next few years, and saving up to eventually have solar powered systems in a decade. Regardless of your budget and priorities, you should know that there are ways to make your home more efficient and that you wouldn’t likely regret the investment.

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Buying vs Renting

For most people who aren’t current homeowners, owning a home is a major goal. It’s often even referred to as a “dream.” A home is not truly “owned” by the buyer until it is paid for in full, either to a lending institution or when the home is initially purchased, but the freedoms of homeownership (decorating, remodeling, and even adding on as you please) still exist from the moment you take possession.

Many renters see home ownership as a near impossible, far-off dream. The idea of having to bear the responsibilities of homeownership are scary, and they feel they simply can’t afford the cost or get approved for a loan. These fears prevent many from even trying to obtain a loan when they may, in fact, get approved more easily than they expect.

In reality, purchasing a home is often not as impossible of a dream as it seems to some. I remember many years ago when my wife and I were attempting to sell or rent a house we were moving from. A potential renter came to meet me at the house, and after the initial greeting and some casual conversation I told her that she could either rent the house for the set fee or purchase it and pay quite a bit less if she could secure a loan. Naturally, I assumed she would reject the notion of buying and would still choose to rent. After all, renting is what she had always done and planned to do, and I knew many renters were intimidated by the thought of buying. To my surprise, though, she immediately responded by saying it would be foolish for her to rent the house and pay more when she could purchase it and save money. She went straight to a lender when she left, and before long the house was hers. My initial thought was that I should become a real estate agent since I had so easily convinced her to buy the house. I realized, though, that the credit really belonged with her for having the good sense to make a wise investment.

Buying a home is just that – an investment. And investments tend to pay off in the long-term much more than expenses that offer no reward. There are clear benefits to purchasing a home versus renting. When you buy, you will eventually own the home outright (provided you can keep up with the mortgage payments for the life of the loan), whereas you will always have a “house payment” if you rent. In reality, that rent payment is actually inflated because it is more than what the landlord’s actual cost of owning the home is. After all, the landlord is in the business of making money and can’t afford to lose money on the house. When you are buying your home, you can’t be evicted or have the house sold out from under you (again, provided you keep up with payments and the bank doesn’t foreclose on the property). A landlord selling the house, which may lead to unexpected circumstances, is a constant possibility when you rent. As a homeowner, you are free to make alterations to your house, whereas alterations to a rental require permission from the landlord, which are often denied. Likewise, you can never be forbidden from having pets as renters often are.

Renting does have its pros as well, though. When you own your home you are responsible for all repairs and maintenance, and the cost of those repairs can be quite high at times. When you rent, the landlord is responsible for handling and paying for repairs (although some landloards are far better at doing this in a timely and proper manner than others). If you don’t plan to stay in the area you’re in for long, renting may well be a wiser choice since you can leave the house much easier than if you owned and needed to sell the property. Selling a house in the first few years after buying it is typically not a profitable venture, so renting is often a better choice for short-term stays.

While owning and renting both have their pros and cons, owning is typically the far better option in terms of independence, financial security, and future reward. Home ownership is often not the impossible dream it seems to be to many people, and few people regret purchasing a home of their own instead of renting a home that really belongs to someone else.

If you do decide to look into purchasing your first home, be sure to obtain a reputable real estate agent to guide you through the process and a highly rated home inspector to thoroughly evaluate the home’s condition before you make such a big, long-term investment. There are several upfront costs when you buy a home, but they are necessary to ensure you are making a good investment and are a very minor expense in comparison to the overall cost of the actual home.

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Toilet Repair Parts

If your house is older, there’s a good chance your toilets sit on a cast iron flange. In the past, cast iron was commonly used for toilet flanges and waste piping, and a hemp type rope called oakum was leaded in by plumbers to seal joints and connect the flange and pipe. This was quite a job and, needless to say, it’s not practiced in modern times.

Over time, cast iron flanges tend to corrode, often to the point where entire sections have crumbled apart and are missing. This, of course, greatly diminishes the integrity of the flange, which is a crucial component since it connects the base of the toilet to the waste pipe.

Fortunately, the company Danco came out with a repair flange a while back that makes solving the problem of a deteriorated cast iron flange much easier to deal with. Now, instead of having to remove the old flange (which is quite a laborious task), the Danco repair flange is designed to simply be placed over the old flange and screwed directly to the subfloor. This raises the height of the flange, which requires that the wax ring placed on top of the flange be cut in half to create a proper watertight seal.

From my experience, this is the easiest route to go if you have an old, rotted out cast iron flange. I had to repair one of my own toilets this way a while back, and the job was easy and produced good, long lasting results. If your flange is in good condition, though, and you simply need a new wax ring, another fairly new product is a great option – a flexible waxless seal. These are gasket type seals that are typically green and offer a major advantage over traditional wax rings.

When it comes to wax rings, you generally get one shot at setting the toilet directly over the ring to create a sufficient seal. If you miss the mark, the wax ring can be ruined and unusable. Since the gasket is flexible and doesn’t have wax, it can be used repeatedly with no worries of setting the toilet perfectly the first time. In addition, the foul mess that’s always present when a wax ring needs replaced isn’t an issue with waxless seals. Wax rings are cheaper, but the minor cost difference for the waxless seals are well worth it in my opinion.

If you do have an older home, one or more of your toilets may be 10 inch instead of the now standard 12 inch size; and if you don’t want to bother having your drain piping relocated, you’ll need to purchase the correct size. To determine whether you have a 10 or 12 inch toilet, simply measure from the wall to one of the closet bolts, which are the bolts that are set in the flange on the floor and stick upright through either side of the toilet base to secure the toilet to the floor. The distance measured from the wall to the bolts is your toilet size.

It can be somewhat difficult to find 10 inch toilets now, but most stores stock at least one model and they can otherwise be special ordered. In any case, there have been some innovative products that have come out in recent years to make toilet repairs much easier, and it’s wise to take full advantage of them whenever that next toilet repair becomes necessary.

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