Ah yes, another year has come and gone. Let’s take a look at my annual top pictures from 2016! I typically do top a 10, but this year I’m expanding it to 12; there is just too much good stuff not to share it.
Once again I wish to say a heartfelt Thank You to all who chose me to have your back during the stress of buying a house. It’s a responsibility and an honor that I do not take lightly, and I can’t thank you enough. To those of you who didn’t choose me….shame on you. Really, shame on you.
Happy New Year! Here’s to making 2017 the best yet!
If you missed my Best of 2015, click the button and check it out now.
Leaking Ductwork – The Big Problem with HVAC Systems
I’d say 99% of the houses I’ve inspected have ductwork systems that were never properly sealed up, and they leak like a sieve. Little holes here and there may not seem like much, but a thousand small holes add up to one big hole. And all those holes mean less air getting where you want it to be. According to ENERGYSTAR, most ductwork systems leak out about 30% of the air that is pushed through them. I’ve seen some systems that I bet would be pushing 50-75% leakage. I’ve lost count the number times I’ve been in a nice and toasty warm crawlspace in the middle of winter from a supply run that was completely disconnected and dumping hot air under the house. How people don’t notice one room is really cold is beyond me, but it happens a lot. Or maybe they notice it, but just don’t know what to do about it.
Check out the thermal image scans of ductwork that I took on what I consider to be an average house below. You can see the deep red color that is showing up on each image. That is the hot air from the furnace seeping out of the cracks and holes that occur in all ductwork. Every wisp of air that leaks into your floor, your wall, your attic, or your crawlspace is wasted energy and money.
The Cavalry has arrived
Traditionally, most people think of air sealing their ductwork with some kind of tape. Back in the day we used to use…. yep, duct tape. My father-in-law’s favorite “tool.” It would work for a while, but the glue on the tape would dry out and the fabric would fall off over time. The next evolution in tape was foil tape. It works great, stays in place, and doesn’t fall off over time. But, the accessibility for air sealing with this tape are still limited, because unless you’re sealing during the construction of your house, you won’t be able to reach every crack or hole. This is where Aeroseal is different. It seals your ductwork from the inside-out. So you don’t need to worry about being able to get to all the cracks and holes. It seeks them out and seals them up.
Here’s how Aeroseal is applied in your home. First, the ductwork system is isolated from the air handler (the part of your HVAC system most of you call your furnace). All of the supply and return runs are then sealed off with tape and foam blocks, and a big fan is connected to the ducts. The duct runs are pressurized with the fan, and the liquid Aeroseal is pumped into the ductwork system. Since the ducts stay at a constant pressure (with the fan running), there is a constant stream of air that is leaking out of all the cracks and holes (think of it like a balloon with a pin hole in it). The liquid duct-sealant is then sprayed into the air stream where it sticks to the edges of any hole as it leaves the ductwork. It builds upon itself until the hole is filled, like a liner that is sprayed inside the duct system.
I have a large hole in my supply trunk that my UV light is installed in. To help show you how this process works, I used some fiberglass mesh tape to mimic a bunch of smaller holes. The raw footage for this was about 20 minutes, so I sped things up so you can see how the duct sealant is able to build up and seal up holes. Keep an eye on the small yellow squares. They will fill up with Aeroseal as you watch the video.
Let’s Get Started – Prepping the Ductwork
When the guys from KY Energy Pro first arrived at my house, they assessed the room in which my furnace was located. You need a good amount of room to work during this process, so if everything you own is stacked 8 feet high around your furnace, be ready to move it all. I was told that at least 5 feet of clearance was needed around the unit (if you can swing it). Now that we have a decent amount of clearance, let’s light this candle.
The first step is to isolate the air handler from the duct system. This means your supply and return will essentially turn into two separate runs. This step is vital and can’t be rushed. If the technician does a poor job and the sealant gets past the wall he builds, it will likely ruin your air handler and new one will be needed. I’ve highlighted my supply run (in blue) & my return run (in red). Once the all this has been done, you can isolate sections when testing for leakage to see where your biggest problems are. Mine were leaking at the return more than the supply.
Once the air handler is sealed off, the crew concentrates on getting the rest of the ductwork sealed up as much as possible, and getting the access ports installed. All of the grills around the house are removed, and are either stuffed with a conforming foam block, or masked over to seal things up. This is done because you have to be able to pressurize things for the process to work, so no big gaping holes are allowed. There is also an access port cut into each (supply & return) run. This is the spot that the duct-sealant is pumped into. Once the job is complete, these ports are removed and new sheet metal is installed and sealed. Now that everything is ready to go, it’s time to attach the Aeroseal fan and field-made ducts to my house and start sealing!
Time to Seal these ducts!
Now that we have everything prepped, it’s time for the fun to start. The Aeroseal system uses a large tube of clear plastic “ductwork” that is assembled on site. This is because every house is different, and the team never knows what they’ll be walking into. These tubes are single-use, and are disposed of after the job is completed. The ducting leaves the Aeroseal fan and is connected to a wye. One side heads over to the supply port, and the other to the return that was just installed in my home’s ductwork. Here is a quick video of the setup.
Once everything is connected and double checked to be air tight, the team starts by turning on the fan to pressurize the system and see how leaky the ducts are to begin with. This gives them a baseline number in which to gauge progress as they pump the Aeroseal into the system. You can literally watch the leakage numbers decrease during the sealing process. So, how did I do with my starting numbers? Not good at all. What really surprised me about this is that I had taken the time to seal up my ducts as much as I could a year ago. This told me that there was a ton of leakage that I couldn’t get to, and no matter how hard I tried, I would never be able to fix it myself. My test-in numbers were as follows:
Since we had a baseline to work with from our test-in, we grabbed some foil tape and went to town sealing any hole we could find while the pressure fan was running. It was crazy to me how many holes I had missed when trying to tape things myself. There were several that were hidden along the top edge of the return line trunk. Having a pressure fan running made all the difference, as you could feel the air leaks blowing and hunt them down to seal them up. Starting with the tape also helps cut down on the wasted Aeroseal when it’s time to start pumping the sealant. Aeroseal is only able to fill a hole around 5/8″, so if you have big gaping holes in your system it won’t be able to do its job. In fact, I had a couple of bigger hidden holes in my return duct system that needed to be taped off. I actually had to cut out drywall to get to them (this was in a room that has yet to be finished by me, so I did not mind tearing into the ceiling). Here are some photos of the trunk line and return runs after taping everything, prior to the Aeroseal liquid. Note – If you have a spot with a huge hole, or a disconnected duct run you may have to tear open part of your house to fix it. I know it is not ideal, but it happens more than you think.
Once we had the duct system as tight as we could get it with tape, it was time to start pumping the duct-sealant into the jet stream. The fan box and motor pumps spray the liquid like an aerosol can into the ducts. As this began, the room we were in got pretty foggy. It was obvious that some of the liquid was escaping from the duct system into the room (finding leaks like it was supposed to). After a few minutes of this, the air started to clear up, and the leakage numbers began to drop on the system. It doesn’t take very long at all to actually seal things with the liquid, about 20-30 minutes, but the whole job took around 6 hours from start to finish.
Post Aeroseal Numbers – How did we do?
Here are the hard numbers post-duct sealing. As you can see, we were able to decrease the amount of air leakage in the system tremendously.
That’s what I’m talking about!
The End Result – Does it Work?
It’s been about a month since the duct work sealing with Aeroseal took place (at the time of this writing). Here are some of the changes I’ve actually noticed, and some that I’m anticipating.
The temperature difference in Michelle’s Room is gone. This change was instantaneous. That room now heats up evenly with the whole house. And most importantly, I no longer have to listen to my wife complain. Well, about that room, anyway. I owe the guys a beer for that one!
The whole house heats up faster. This may be all in my head, but I swear my furnace doesn’t run nearly as long as it used to. Luckily, I have a Nest thermostat and it logs all this info (how many times a day it runs and for how long). Once we get through the winter I’ll compare last year’s numbers to this year’s and we’ll be able to get some hard data.
Just as your car only has so many miles in it before it gives up the ghost, your HVAC system only has so many hours of life to give. If you do everything you can to improve the efficiency as a whole, it’s reasonable to believe your system will last longer. When the house heats heats up faster, and the furnace runs less time in doing so, you get more hours of life out of your unit.
While longer lifespan on equipment is great, it’s also reasonable to believe my monthly bills will be less too. Again, it’s too soon to talk real numbers, but I’ll report when I have more info. Dollar Dollar Bills Ya’ll.
This is where I tell you all about how life-changing this process is, and how you simply can’t live without Aeroseal. But the truth is, you can. If you like paying for conditioned air that leaks into your attic, floats around in your walls, and doesn’t get where it should, do nothing at all. However, if you like the idea of being more comfortable in your home, having your HVAC equipment run less and last longer, and saving a couple bucks every month on your utility bill, then you really should take a long, hard look at what Aeroseal and KY Energy Pro have to offer. I give it two thumbs up. It worked wonders in my house, and I have faith that it will work wonders in yours.
When all the fun is over, you will get a certificate to show you all these hard numbers, and how much they were able to tighten things up. I printed mine out and taped it to the ductwork. This is an impressive point to potential buyers of your home when it comes time to sell it. Take a peek at mine to see what they look like.
In a typical home with typical ductwork, the Aeroseal process will cost around $2000. However, I’ve worked out a deal for my readers. Mention this review to the guys at KY Energy Pro, and you’ll receive a 15% discount. Give them a shout at 502.758.5122 or visit KY Energy Pro for more info.
Insulation, air movement, building science, blah-blah-blah. I know, most folks find it boring. But if you like saving money, and living in a comfortable house, stay with me here. One of the most common things I find at just about every home inspection in Louisville is a poorly insulated attic scuttle hatch (that is the spot you crawl through to get into the attic). It’s typically a 2ft x 3ft hole, but I have seen them as large as 4ft x 4ft. That is a large ceiling area that is rarely properly insulated or air sealed. I’ll show you how to properly seal them up, and insulate those panels. Below is a thermal picture of a scuttle hole taken during a home inspection in Louisville. You can see how the missing insulation makes a huge difference in the heat levels. There is a 15 degree difference between the hatch cover and rest of the ceiling drywall. That’s a lot.
Building Science Stuff
Most insulation I find in the attic of homes is air permeable (air can travel through it). This means while your insulation in the attic may slow the flow of heat via radiation, it will not stop air flow from the living space, which carries heat via convection, if there is a path for air to travel. The rule here is simple: For air to move, there must a path (hole in the ceiling, crack in the drywall, poorly sealed attic scuttle, etc) and a difference in pressure. That is it. The difference is pressure is most commonly created by a difference in temperature. Check this out for more info: Gay-Lussac’s Law.
Remember high school physics? Heat travels in 3 ways. Conduction in solid materials, convection in fluids (liquids or gases), and radiation through anything that will allow radiation to pass. I like to think of it as money travels in 3 ways. After all, every bit of heat you lose has is a dollar bill attached to it. When you heat your home, your furnace creates lots of BTU’s (British Thermal Unit) in order to do so. The cheapest BTU is the one you never have to produce. Heat the area once, and keep it locked in.
Our attic situation calls for us to concentrate primarily on convective heat loss. While conduction and radiation are in play most of the time as well, let’s stick with convection for now.
When we heat our home, the furnace produces hot air that wants to rise to the top of the room. Always remember that warm air rises. Heat does not rise, but warm air does. As the temp in the room goes up, that hot air will escape through any crack in the building’s envelope around the ceiling. Remember: air only needs a path and a difference in pressure to move. Since you have heated the air with your furnace, you have created that difference in temperature, which created the difference in pressure. The air is able to seep in around lights (especially recessed lighting which has lots of holes), ceiling fans, smoke detectors, and of course, attic scuttles. We know air is leaking out, and if that air is not replaced, you will have negative pressure in your house. Mother nature does not like pressure differences. For every bit of warm air you lose up top, you draw in cool air from the bottom of the house. If we seal things up so the warm air at the top of the room can’t get out, we’re already ahead of the curve.
The ceiling frame
Most homes have a panel that lifts up and slides to the side to get into the attic. There is usually mitered casing around the edge to hold the panel up in the air. The first thing you need to do is seal this trim to the ceiling. Use a high quality painters caulk to fill any gaps here. Be sure to get all the way around the frame. This not only will stop any air flow from spilling under the wood trim, it will also help to hold the wood in place against the ceiling. Note: This is also the time you should make sure the miter frame is well secured to the ceiling. I recommend a couple of trim screws into the framing (in the attic) above so you don’t have to worry about this working loose or wanting to fall in the future.
Next you need to install a foam gasket (or weatherstripping) around lip of the frame. This is what your panel will rest on. The foam is what air seals things around the removable panel. I’ve seen some people caulk this, but that is a bad idea. If you need to get back into the attic, you have to cut all that caulking out, which is a pain in the butt. The gasket works fine if installed properly. When installing your gasket, be sure to clean the lip of the frame. If you try to stick it down on dirty trim, it will not stay in place. Also, be sure and overlap your corners.
The attic panel
Now that the ceiling frame has been caulked and weatherstripped, we can turn our attention to the panel itself. There are a couple of things that we must do here. One is to make sure that the panel stays flat, and has a good layer of insulation on the back of it. Most of the hatches I see have either no insulation at all, or maybe (if you’re lucky) will have a piece of fiberglass batt insulation kinda/sorta drooped across the hole. Neither one is any good. We can do better.
I’m going to assume your panel is nothing more than the piece of drywall that was cut out (I assume this because this is what I see 99% of the time during home inspections.) If so, ditch it in lieu of a new panel made of 3/4 MDF. You can get MDF at Lowe’s or Home Depot. Both stores even sell smaller “project panels” that could fit the bill (depending on what size your hole is.) Expect to pay around $12 bucks for a 2×4 piece. MDF is basically saw dust and glue pressed together. It is strong, flat, and easy to cut and mill. It also takes paint well. Cut your panel down to about 1/8″ smaller than your hole in the ceiling. Be sure you leave enough board that it overlap the foam weatherstripping you installed on your frame in the ceiling.
Now grab a sheet of 2″ rigid foam insulation board. I call it “Poor Man’s Spray Foam”. It comes in 4×8 sheets, and it cuts with a utility knife with ease. It’s also a rock star at insulating flat panels like the attic scuttle, or the walls of skylights in the attic. Anyplace a piece of fiberglass batt insulation would fall off, this stuff can get glued in its place, and it’s not going anywhere. It also has an R-Value of about 5 per inch, which is way more than fiberglass.
Cut your foam to the same size as your panel, and glue it in place with white the painters caulk you used to seal the frame with. Pro Tip: Don’t use construction adhesive. It will melt the foam and things won’t stick together. Put as many layers of the foam on as you can. Go nuts here. I aim for a minimum of 3, sometimes 5 or 6 if I have enough material. My area in Louisville KY calls for an R-Value of around 40 in the attic. Once everything has dried up, and the foam isn’t sliding around on the MDF, drop your panel down onto your weatherstripping you installed. That is it. You are done.
Material List for Project
Be sure to use the good stuff whenever your caulk. DAP 50yr Caulk
Secure your frame with screws. Most of the times they are poorly nailed in place and weight of the panel can cause them to work loose. Trim Screws
3/4 MDF makes for great panel material. Most big box stores sell smaller “Project Panels” so you don’t have to buy a whole 4×8 sheet. MDF Panel
2″ Rigid foam insulation is perfect for installing on a removable panel. Foam Insulation
Check out this other post about air sealing your outlets. This is another simple way you can improve the energy efficiency and comfort level of your home.
Start Here to read the first post in this series. This will help you better understand the details for each section of the ACMV series.
As I said before, flat walls are as easy as it gets when it comes to installing manufactured stone. You really have to try to mess up an open wall, but you know what they say: where there is a will there is a way. The MVMA guide doesn’t say a lot about how to treat large open spans of walls. My guess is that this is because if you install the two layers of weather barrier, and do good job on your mortar bed, things should stay dry. But once you reach a corner (inside or out), then you have to follow some rules. These rules are simple, yet I still find the work done incorrectly. Sometimes I think these installers are doing it wrong on purpose.
Walls and Corners
If your install of manufactured stone wraps an outside corner, you are to use pre-made corner pieces first, and run those up the outside corners. You then use the flat pieces to fill in the middle of the wall. This keeps the delicate outside corner covered and sealed, and it just looks better. Here is a picture of what the corner pieces look like before they are installed on the house.
As I said before, sometimes it’s as if the contractors do things wrong intentionally; although deep down I know it’s because they either just don’t care or just don’t know. Here is a corner where the installer simply ran flat pieces up to the edge of a corner when they got low enough you couldn’t see it from the ground (these shots were taken on the roof.) You can clearly see the seam that it leaves exposed. What makes this particular install especially poor is that they did a shoddy job of wrapping the WRB (weather resistant barrier), and you can see the raw OSB plywood behind the stone. It is simply a matter of time before the walls of this house rot away.
Clearances and Drainage
Let us beat the proverbial dead horse, shall we? What you must keep in mind about stone siding: It is not a question of if water will get in, but a question of how much water will penetrate behind the surface. Water soaks through the stone veneer itself; it wicks in around the cracks, it gets beamed through by Scotty…well maybe not that. The point is, you can’t stop it. You can only control it. There must be a way for this water to escape in the form of natural drainage. This also means there must be clearances where the stone meets another surface (like front porches, roofs, sidewalks, etc.) to give this water a place to run to, and evaporate. If we look back to our old friend, the MVMA guide, it tells us we should have several inches of clearance at the base of walls, around porches, and on top of shingles (hard surfaces), and a 4″ gap at dirt/grass/mulch.
Every place that concrete stone veneer touches another surface, there should be a drainage gap.
Now, I get it. The gap doesn’t look great from an aesthetics standpoint. But do you want a small gap in the stone at the base of your wall, or do you want rotting walls behind your stone? Here is the detail from the MVMA guide on what the base of the walls should look like. The areas that have been highlighted in red are the pieces that are, in my experience, always left out.
Now check out what I see in the real world. The manufactured stone is ALWAYS touching the porch and sidewalks. It is always buried in the mulch (or grass). In fact, I have never seen this detail correctly installed around the base of the wall. Here is a collage of images from homes that all have the same problem. No drainage behind the manufactured stone. No place for the water to escape.
Dormers and Roofs
The roof line is another problematic spot where massive amounts of water are intermittently present. If the rules aren’t followed in this area, the exposure of the manufactured stone to all of that water will most certainly cause issues at some point. Much like their guidelines for stone near the ground, the MVMA recommends leaving several inches of clearance around the roof line. This area can get tricky, because a correct install here requires that both the siding contractor, and the roofer know what they are doing, that they communicate with each other. Most of time these folks are not on the job site at the same time, so how effective do you think they are about relaying information between them? Here is a colored image from the MVMA guide so you can understand better what things should look like, followed by what I see in the field.
Back in the 80’s and 90’s there was an extremely popular siding known as EIFS (Exterior Insulation Finishing System), also known as synthetic stucco. It was primarily installed on higher end homes. The installers back then ignored the rules and didn’t follow the instructions when it came to drainage and details around windows/doors/etc. It didn’t take long before EIFS problems turned into an epidemic in just about every area of the country. The water got in, and got trapped. Houses rotted from the inside, lawsuits started flying, and an overall good product like EIFS got a black eye. After all, when installed correctly, EIFS performs great. The problem was not the product; it was the installers using it who didn’t read the instructions, and everything fell apart just a few short years later.
Fast forward 20 years. History repeats itself.
Now there is a new synthetic siding on the market. One that is failing when not installed correctly. A siding that is trapping water and rotting homes. A siding in which the details are being ignored by the installers. The BIG difference between manufactured stone veneer and EIFS as I’m seeing it is that while EIFS was primarily installed on high-end homes, manufactured stone veneer is being installed on starter homes, mansions and everything in between. So when the lawsuits start flying this time, manufactured stone is going to make the EIFS problems look like the common cold compared to the Bubonic Plague.
If you have Manufactured Stone Veneer Siding (ACMV) on your home, I strongly suggest you get it checked out. Research and locate a highly qualified home inspector or find a moisture intrusion expert contractor.
The ACMV diagrams from this series were all taken from the MVMA guide. I will sometimes remove extra details or color certain sections to make them a bit easier to understand. If you want to look at the originals, download the full MVMA manual.
Start Here to read the first post in this series. This will help you better understand the details for each section of the ACMV series.
If there is one constant when it comes to ACMV (Adhered Concrete Masonry Veneer), it is that you must be sure the moisture can drain from behind the siding. This drainage is achieved by incorporating a drainage plane & weep screed (a place for the water to drain to, and path for it to escape). When you look at all of the detailed diagrams on the subject, you’ll notice that every one of them has a drainage point where the siding meets another horizontal surface. This means that every window, door, trim piece, and the ground must have a drainage point to release the water that will get behind the siding. If this detail is omitted, and it almost always is, moisture can build up and leak behind the moisture barriers that are in place. Let’s look at some pictures to see what happens when things go wrong.
Window and Door Heading Detail
Below is a detailed diagram of what you should see when looking at ACMV manufactured stone install. Notice the weep screed at the top of the window to give the moisture a place to drain, and an expansion gap (with backer rod and sealant to keep wind-driven rain out). When that flashing is missing (and it almost always is), the water that gets behind the stone will collect and build up on top of the window (the head). I’ve added some rain drops to the image to help you better understand what happens to the moisture, and what path the water takes as the wall takes on wind-driven rain.
Now let’s look at a picture from an inspection of a typical ACMV install I see in Louisville during inspections. You’ll notice that the mortar was installed around the stones and it was also laid directly next to the window frame. The is no form of expansion gap, and the weep screed is missing. Every important detail was skipped.
Window and Door Jam Details
The sides of windows call for the same backer-rod and sealant as the top, to allow for thermal movement. Remember from science class that almost everything expands and contracts when it heats up and cools down. We must allow for this movement, and flexible sealants are the best way to do so. We incorporate bond breakers like backer-rods to help cut down on the amount of sealant used, and to keep the bond in the joint even. I drew a couple of diagrams to help you visualize what the backer-rod/sealant joint would look like.
Let’s look at a detail where the backer-rod is missing from the equation. When you don’t utilize a backer-rod, the sealant will flow and move inside the joint and grab more of one side than the other. Think of this as a game of tug-of-war. One side has 10 people, one has 3 people. Who’s going to win? When one side is stronger than the other, the joint will fail and pull apart. This is what happens when you see a caulked joint that has cracked and opened up.
Here is what a typical install of ACMV around windows looks like in my area. I’ve never seen an installer use backer-rod and sealant. It’s always either mortared straight to the window jam, or “dry stacked.” Both are a recipe for failure. You know the old saying, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”
One of the most important details with a waterproof installation of ACMV on your home should happen long before the stone veneer is ever installed. The opening for the windows must be wrapped in sill flashing. This is usually done with a peel and stick product such as Grace Vycor Flashing. If this step is omitted, compounded with the other skipped details, you will be left with water that will seep in around the corners of the window sills, and rot out the wall. How fast this happens all depends on how much water gets in.
Identifying A Problem
Even though I have never seen an installation of ACMV that I would consider correct, I have seen several houses that are not showing signs of problems (to the naked eye). Sometimes it take the Perfect Storm of circumstances before real problems pop up. Sometimes it takes the right amount of rain exposure. Sometimes enough time hasn’t elapsed for a water problem to manifest itself on the surface.
When I can’t simply look at the home and know there is an issue, I use technology to help out.
Moisture Meters- I carry several different kinds of moisture meters. Each tool does one particular job well, and the specific task dictates which one I reach for. When dealing with ACMV and windows, I use my GE Protimeter with deep wall probes. Yes, it’s expensive, but it’s a drop in the bucket to what the repair costs on your house will be.
Your wall cavity is about 4″ thick. Most of the time, the moisture will take years and years to show up on the inside of the home near the drywall. However, using the wall probes, I’m able to take moisture readings through the 4″ of wall cavity and reach the backside of the substrate (the OSB plywood on the outside). This surface is what the ACMV is actually mounted to. If water is leaking in, the meter should find it.
To use the probes, I first drill two small holes in the drywall. Sometimes we get lucky and find an electrical outlet near the bottom of the window. When that happens, we can remove the cover plate and slide the probes between the electrical box and the cutout of the drywall. This keeps me from having to drill holes in the wall.
As with other claddings used in construction, the details around doors and windows are what must be perfectly executed. Flat walls are relatively easy; it’s when a change shows up in the architecture that builders and contractors must follow details, or things go south in a hurry. If you’ve compared your home to what I have detailed here and you’re concerned, I encourage you to reach out to a moisture intrusion expert to have your home examined. If you are in my area, Louisville, KY, please feel free to contact me about getting your ACMV Inspection.
PART 3: ACMV- WALL DETAILS AND DRAINAGE
In part three I show you how the details around the walls should be handled, and how to make sure the water doesn’t build up behind the stone veneer.
The ACMV diagrams from this series were all taken from the MVMA guide. I will sometimes remove extra details or color certain sections to make them a bit easier to understand. If you want to look at the originals, download the full MVMA manual.
WARNING – THE FOLLOWING GIVES INSTRUCTION ON HOW TO WORK ON PART OF THE ELECTRICAL SYSTEM IN A HOME. IT IS TECHNICAL IN NATURE AND NOT MEANT FOR EVERYONE. IF YOU DO NOT FEEL COMFORTABLE TAKING YOUR LIFE INTO YOUR OWN HANDS, OR POSSIBLY DAMAGING YOUR HOME, READ ON, AND THEN CALL A PRO.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Insulating your home is only half the battle when it comes to saving money on your energy bills. The other half, and some would argue the most important, is that you must air seal the outer walls/ceiling. This is also known as the building envelope. We must stop air movement from the living space and the outdoors too.
The Science Of Building Heating and Cooling
In physics, the second law of thermodynamics says that heat flows naturally from an object at a higher temperature to an object at a lower temperature; and heat doesn’t flow in the opposite direction of its own accord. This means hot moves to cold on its own. In the winter, your hot air air is trying to escape the house, and in the summer, the hot air outside is trying to get in. It’s a never ending battle. Every little crack and hole in your house is a path to losing money, comfort, and is making your furnace/air conditioning work harder.
Take a Peek
Behold the beautiful wonder of thermal imaging! I love my thermal camera. It has made me a hero more times than I can count during my home inspections. Thermal Imaging Inspections take inspecting to a whole new level. You can see in the image below, an electrical outlet in my house. I’ve marked the hi and low temps to make it easier for you to understand the colors. The blue area is all the cold air leaking in around the edge of the electrical box, and the holes where the wires come into the box.
Stopping these leaks is a small piece of a larger puzzle, but still a piece nonetheless. The first thing you do is kill the power to whatever you are working on. Don’t try any of this on a live circuit or you could electrocute and kill yourself. Don’t be stupid. Now that you’ve turned off the power you’ll want to remove the receptacle itself. GENTLY pull it straight back and out of the box. If the person who wired your house left the wires too short in the box to safely pull the receptacle up and out of the way, stop now. You could pull the wires off the receptacle, break a wire, etc… Call in a pro to have your wires extended. If you can pull out your receptacle and it looks like the image below, carry on.
Seal It Up
Now that we can work without fear of breaking wires and/or electrical shock, I use caulk and expanding foam to seal the box. Using a high quality painters caulk, caulk the edge of the electrical box to the drywall itself. I got lucky and the drywallers did a decent job of cutting out for my boxes, so the gap is not very large. Your mileage will vary on how much caulk it takes to seal this up.
Now that the box-to-drywall connection is sealed, let’s focus on the wire penetrations. You may have one, two, or even three sets of wires coming into the box itself. This number will vary on how outlets/switches are in your box. Treat them all the same here. I have two sets of wires coming in to deal with. A small shot of spray foam around each wire is all it takes. You can see here how the foam will spread itself around the wires and seal them up.
Expanding foam in the disposable cans can get pricey. Once you crack the seal on them the clock starts before it becomes useless. Remember, a little goes a long way with expanding foam. This stuff will grow and grow once you squirt it out. If you get trigger happy and get too much in the box; just let it cure and dig it out. Don’t try to touch it wet. You’ll just end up with a sticky mess on your hands. One can will likely do your whole house. So if you have to buy these types of cans, you may want to tackle the whole house at once to save on foam.
Here is another thermal image pic showing the improvement we made. This area is a full 6.1 degrees warmer. But more importantly, we have stopped the airflow from getting into the living space of the house. That airflow cost money and comfort 24-7-365.
But Ben, why is the area still blue and cold you ask?
Understand that what we are working on is air sealing of this box , not the insulation around it. We are still seeing cold temps and blue coloring because the insulation around this particular box is non-existent. This receptacle is above my fireplace where most builders do not attempt to insulate. I”ll tackle the insulation another time.
This procedure is good for just about every penetration in your home’s envelope. All your receptacles, light switches, hard wired smoke detectors, ceiling lights, ceiling fans, and any other hole you may have. It’s a quick process. Takes me about 2 minutes per box to seal it up, and you reap the benefits instantly.
I’m a bit later than I wanted to be getting this written, but hey, better late than never. If you missed the first part of this post you can see it here: Best of Home Inspections 2014. So without further ado, the second half of the Best of the Worst pictures of 2014.
A waterfall in the crawlspace – This house was about 15 years old. This was the 3rd person selling it. What you are looking at is the master shower that was NEVER connected to the home’s plumbing. It has been dumping shower water under the house since the day it was built. How many other inspectors missed this little gem because it was in a tight spot that took a bit of extra effort to get to? And do you know what I had to craw through to see it? Go on…tell me you’ve never peed in the shower.
NEW Insulation in the Attic – That is what the listing boasted. In fact, the buyer even commented to me on how this flipper (not the dolphin) did everything just right. I may be a bit cynical, but I have never seen a flipped house “done right.” When I climbed through the tiny hole in the ceiling to get into the attic I saw this pile of batt insulation (the worst possible choice for attic insulation, mind you). Well…in the sellers defense, there was new insulation in the attic, it just hasn’t been installed yet.
Leaning Crawlspace Tower of Pisa – Truth be told, I could make one of these post every week with the crap I find in crawlspaces alone. This beauty was in an old house, circa 1900. There were probably a dozen or so of these wonderfully crafted modern marvels scattered throughout. What do you say other than “Um…no.”
Air filters are important – Who doesn’t like clean, fresh air? The people who owned this house, that’s who. This was a 10yr old gas furnace that I don’t think has ever had a filter installed it. I was getting very little air flow out of it and when I took the unit apart I found this fan so clogged with crud it could barely draw the air through it.
Casting a shadow – It doesn’t hurt to turn off your ceiling fans every few years and wipe them down. The dust on the edge of this fan blade was nearly 3/4 inch thick. So fellas, the next time you start to catch heat about not pulling your weight in the house cleaning department, just show the them this pic and point out how it could always be worse.
My last and final picture is not of a house, but of a fortune cookie message I received a few weeks ago. It only took 30 years to get one that actually made sense.
I’ve got enough pictures to write a novel of funny, awful, and scary things I’ve found during my home inspections, and I’ve already started compiling my list for next time. I had record numbers in 2014 because of you and the trust you put in me. I love what I do, and I love helping people. Thank you for choosing ABI.
Another year older, one or two more gray hairs found, and a stack of pictures to choose from. It’s hard to whittle it down to just a handful, but I selected the top 10 problems found during home inspections this year.
A Cold Fireplace – This is a picture from a one year old home. The owners paid extra to have a vented gas fireplace insert installed. What they didn’t realize is they would be paying extra on their heat bill forever because of it. You can see through the eye of my thermal imaging camera that the lower section of the insert was not insulated or air sealed. It’s constantly letting cold in air. The room temp was 68, the outside air was 17. This is why thermal imaging home inspections are awesome. It put visual reasoning to a problem you can feel. This problem is fixable, but it would requiring removing the mantle and fireplace to air seal/insulate the back wall.
Structural Window – Ok, there is no such thing, but this window in this custom garage is acting as one. The owners of this two month old custom built garage called me when they started to have trouble with water leaking in. I came out to find what the water problem was. I did, and found this beauty as well. Whenever we have masonry spanning the top of a window or door or opening, there should be a piece of steel installed above the window, called a lintel. This L shaped support is what holds everything up in the air. These concrete blocks are resting on the window frame only. No steel. Only water leakage.
Flooded Crawlspace – There is not much I won’t do for my clients. I have been bitten and stung. I have crawled through dead animals, piles of poop, puddles of pee, and everything you can imagine to get the low down on a house. But I drew the line with this crawlspace. I took one look in there with the exposed and flooded electrical lines and “noped it.” The buyer just laughed and said “I don’t blame you.”
Rotting Creatures – In keeping with the creepy, nasty crawlspace theme; one day I turned the corner and stumbled across this guy. I think it used to be a possum at one time. It may not seem too bad now, but imagine yourself in a dark, wet crawlspace. You’re crawling on your belly, turn the corner and find this dude 6 inches from your face. It’s a bit startling. Oh, and wet, decomposing hair smelled great!
See Through Drain – Ever wondered what your bathroom sink drain looks like? Yeah, me neither. But if by some chance you do….wonder no more. This thing is flat out gross. It was almost like a lava lamp for hair and dead skin cells.
So there is the first five. It’s tough picking a top ten with thousands of pictures to choose from for sure, but you can see part two here- ABI Home Inspection – Best of 2014 Part 2
I’m seeing a trend lately with home buyers. Lots and lots of people are looking to buy a house in the 15 year old category. 15, give or take a few years. But buying a house in that age range can be the kiss of death. Because almost every big ticket item within a house has a lifespan of…you guessed it…about 15 years. And that can be a big hit to your pocketbook.
Most homes in my area are asphalt shingles. One of the biggest misconceptions in the industry is how long shingles really last before they need replacing. Shingles are rated and sold in years: 20, 25, 30, and so on. Very, very few actually last that long. Usually, shingles last 75% of their marketed lifespan. So a 20-year shingle will net you 15 years, or close to it. Most homes have 20-25 year 3-tab shingles. If you follow that 75% rule and are looking to buy a 15-year old home, you’ve got just a few short years before it will need a roof if it doesn’t need one already. Much of a shingle’s life depends greatly on location and exposure. If the home sit in the sun all day with no shade, the shingles will dry out sooner than a home that is tucked away in the woods.
No pleasure, no rapture, no exquisite sin greater… than central air. Remember the movie Dogma? No? Never mind. We are a culture who base our buildings’ HVAC design on heating. The A/C is an afterthought. But ask anyone in Louisville, KY in August what’s important. A/C will be the answer. A central air conditioner is a piece of equipment that has an average lifespan of 15 years. Could you get more out of it? Sure. But I call those blessing machines. Every time it comes on is a blessing. Many folks know the sting of having a unit go out before its time. My old Goodman died at only 9 years old in the middle of a sweltering July. It happens.
It’s not uncommon for a gas furnace to last longer than 15 yrs. I see lots of 15-20 year old furnaces. However that 15 year number is considered the average lifespan. If you are lucky enough for your A/C to last 15 years or so, you’ll be faced with the decision of replacing it by itself and leaving an old furnace, or doing a complete upgrade and getting a new furnace as well. Most HVAC companies offer a discount if you get both new furnace and A/C at the same time. In my book, it only makes sense to pull the trigger on both pieces at the same time, especially if you are past that 15 year mark.
Most water heaters never make it to the 15 year mark, but some do. Leaving a water heater in place until it fails is never a good idea. It is the one device that can actually cause damage to your home when it dies. If you have a water heater older than 10-12 years, take a close look at it. If it’s starting to rust and corrode, it’s time to replace. If you wait until it dies or starts to leak before replacing, it could cost you twice as much…because in addition to the cost of the heater, you’ll be repairing water damage as well.
It is important to remember that all of these numbers are averages. I’ve seen 30 year old furnaces still working, and water heaters replaced after 6 years. But as you search for your new home, pay attention to the age of the mechanics and the roof. Pay attention to the sellers’ disclosure as well. The age of all of these items should be stated there. Sometimes sellers have these marked as “unknown,” which usually means “It’s old, but I just don’t know how old.” It happens a few times a month during my home inspections in Louisville – potential buyers get that wide eyed look of fear when I tell them they need to plan on replacing many of these components soon. If all of those purchases hit you at once, you could easily be looking at $20,000.00 in cost. It’s a scary number for sure, and it’s not something you want to get caught with.
With spring just around the corner, your neighborhood lumber yard will soon be full of people buying stacks of treated lumber, ready to build a brand new deck. Some are DIY’ers, some are paying a contractor, but from what I can see, they all need a little help.
Remember the viral video of the Indiana deck that collapsed with all those prom kids on it?
Decks collapse and crumble because the people building them think they know what they’re doing. For the most part they do, and scary scenes like the one in Indiana aren’t too common. But a collapse is not the only potentially troubling issue you need to be aware of when building—or using—your deck. An appropriately constructed deck that is not attached to the house properly can cause significant damage—both financially and structurally. And out of the several hundred decks I inspect every year, I have NEVER seen one attached to a sided (wood or vinyl) home correctly. Even on brand-new homes. Never.
The Problem? The Ledger Board.
When people build decks that attach to the house for structural support, they usually neglect to follow an important step, and end up causing moisture damage to the structure of the house.
The board on your deck that is attached to your home is called the ledger board. It is this board that, on every deck I have inspected, is improperly installed/flashed.
If your house has siding, that siding must be cut away and the area must be flashed properly before the ledger board is attached to the house. Neglecting to do this will cause water to migrate into the holes of the bolts that attach the ledger board to the home. The water can also become trapped in between the ledger board and house sheathing. With time, this moisture will cause the house’s rim joists, siding, and floor joists to rot out.
How can I tell if my deck is attached wrong?
Typically, it’s really easy to tell if your ledger board is installed incorrectly. Look at the point where your deck meets your house. If it looks like the entire deck has just been mounted on top of the siding, it’s wrong. This is usually what I see when performing home inspections.
There are other factors that indicate a properly installed deck, but most of them take a trained eye to see. If you think your deck is wrong, have a professional take a look at it. It’s a silent problem that, left un-repaired, could cost you thousands. Below are some examples of what a improperly installed deck looks like.
I can see that it’s wrong, what do I do now?
If you have determined that your deck is not correctly attached, it’s time to get in touch with a real deck contractor to repair the situation. Before you hire someone, ask them how they install ledger boards on siding. This is a great way to see if the contractor really knows his stuff.
When you ask about how he’ll fix it, listen for him to say something like, “We’ll need to cut away the siding where the deck mounts to the house.” If he doesn’t, keep shopping.
Once you have found your knight in shining tool belt, he should be able to determine if your deck can be salvaged. Some can be saved, others must come down. The ledger board is the very first part of the deck that is constructed, and everything else builds from that point. Chances are there won’t be enough room to work without tearing down at least part of the deck.
Keep in mind that if you have an older deck, even if you’ve taken great care of it (such as staining), the damage may already be done to your home. Once the ledger board is taken down and the siding is opened up, you must repair the damage to your home before you rebuild the deck. Leaving any rotten wood will only get worse—and cause more damage—with time.
Below is what we call in the construction world “a detail.” It’s a cutaway diagram on how something should be done. I like to use this image when explaining what this problem is to my clients. It’s also a great way for you to double check your own deck. If you have a siding house with a deck attached to it, it should closely resemble this picture.
Let’s talk about something that many, many people get confused about, or just don’t understand.
I get asked on a daily basis if the home I just inspected “passed.” There is no pass or fail when it comes to a home inspection. Only code inspectors declare a pass or fail for a dwelling.
What is a code inspector?
Good question. A code inspector or AHJ (Authority Having Jurisdiction) is a person that checks to ensure a home or dwelling has followed certain laws and safety requirements for their local area. Every area of the country is different in their rules and laws; rules like footer depth and width requirements, proper construction techniques, etc. It sounds like code inspectors have an important job. And they do…but there are problems with the system.
Part of the problem can be assigned to the fact that AHJs are severely overworked. These guys are busier than a one legged man in an $#@ kicking contest. They literally do not have the time to spend more than 20 minutes on any one home. These conditions leave many mistakes in their wake. Then there is the darker side of things….
It’s a small world, and that can work against you as a home buyer. For you see, builders see the same code inspectors on a daily basis. They develop relationships with these people–dare I say….friendships. It’s at this time, lines begin to get thin and start to blur…and before you know it, approval stickers get handed out of car windows with a hearty pat on the back. This means the building codes people put so much stock in can be worth less than a million shares of Enron.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure there are many, many hard working, honest, GOOD code inspectors. But I assure you not all of them are. 60% of the things I write up during a home inspection are against code, and should have been caught long before any home inspector ever set foot on the property. Things such as improperly installed water heaters, stairs that aren’t constructed correctly, attic framing that’s just flat out wrong. The list goes on and on.
What does all this mean to me?
Even better question. It means you should take some things with a grain of salt. Perhaps your new dream home was checked during the building process by the most scrupulous code inspector on the planet. Perhaps not…the cold hard truth is that today’s homes are not built to yesterday’s standards. Materials have gotten cheaper in quality. Laborers don’t take pride in their work. It’s bad recipe.
I hate being all doom and gloom. Perhaps it’s the cynical side of me. But, when you see fifteen water heaters every month that have been “checked” by a code inspector and they are not even close to being installed correctly, it makes one think. The system is flawed…
Priming…Most people hate it. Why? They think it’s extra work. I’m here to tell you it’s not, and your finished product will turn out much better with its use.
I used to be a manager at a certain big retail giant…let’s call them “Glowe’s.” One busy Saturday at Glowe’s I was stopped in the lumber department by a customer with a question. The gentleman and his wife were looking at T-1-11 siding. That’s the siding with grooves every 4-6″ inches. You see it now mainly on sheds and storage buildings. It’s made from plywood, and is usually pretty good stuff.
The man stopped me and asked if it “had to be primed.” I told him, “No; but if you want the paint to stick well, the wood not to warp and rot, and the project to last, then Yes.” He did not like my answer. I wanted to tell him a simple Yes, but that would be untrue. You can “get away” with not priming just about anything, and most new paints will kinda stick. However, I only suggest this if you like sub-par quality finishes and re-doing things.
Why don’t paint companies just make a good paint that both primes and paints? Good question. Actually Behr has just recently released its new Premium Plus Ultra Primer & Paint In-One. Supposedly, it cuts your painting time in half by eliminating the priming and drying stage. Does it work? I don’t know; I’ve never used it. But I’ll be sure to write a review as soon as I do.
Primer serves a couple of functions. Without getting all “techy”, here we go:
1. It’s a sealer. Primer goes on easy, and dries fast. When it seals the material’s surface, it helps the paint soak in more evenly. This means your color will be more uniform with hardly any blotchy spots. It also means less paint is needed to achieve the same look (because less paint is soaked up).
2. It sticks to just about anything. Although paints have come a long way in the past decade, they still can’t beat primer. Anyone who has painted anything and used primer knows how hard it is to get it off your hands. That’s because primer is formulated to stick, period. This gription (yes I made that word up) means your coat of primer will ensure a good bond between your paint and surface.
3. It’s a stain blocker. Have you ever had a water spot on drywall? A couple quick coats of a good quality primer followed by paint, (assuming the water penetration was not severe) and you’ll never see that nasty old spot again. Try that with just paint and you’ll pull your hair out trying to rid yourself of the spot.
When it comes to primering wood, take heed of my advice. All sides of the surface must be covered! This is due to the fact that wood is constantly moving. As it absorbs moisture, the fibers in the wood will move, swell and shrink. If only one part of the board is primered, that part of the board will be “sealed” and absorb less moisture, and therefore swell or shink less. The rest of the board that is not primered will absorb more moisture than the primered side and will swell or shrink at a more dramatic rate. When this happens, you end up with warped or twisted wooden boards.
Primering all sides of wood also helps stop rot. A fully primered board will “reject” moisture and really slow down the rotting process. Even wood trim used today that will be wrapped in metal or vinyl needs to be primered and sealed before it is wrapped. Does this happen? Not very often.
Some people only use one coat of primer when painting. Sometimes that’s all you need. Sometimes it’s not. Here’s my personal rule: If you can tell what color the surface is under the primer coat, you need more primer.” Embrace the primer. Give it love. It’ll pay you back tenfold…
I think I going to patent the word gription…
Does your home weep? If you live in a brick veneer home, the answer better be yes.
What are weep holes? The short answer is that they allow water to drain out from the inside of the wall, and allow air to circulate on the backside of a brick wall to help dry out the moisture. They also help to equalize air pressure on both sides of the wall, making it less likely that wind-driven rain will penetrate the wall.
What if I don’t have them. Is it really a big deal? That’s not an easy question to answer. However I’ll give you my personal opinion. Yes, it is a big deal if they are missing, clogged, or not properly installed in the first place.
Let’s get into it: As I stated above, a weep hole is usually nothing more than a void in a vertical mortar joint around the bottom of a brick wall. When a brick wall is constructed, there should be an “air gap” between the wooden wall and the brick you see on the outside. House are built this way because they must breathe.
It’s WHEN, not IF water gets behind the brick veneer that weep holes become vital. These little silent soldiers allow air to travel up the backside of the wall and dry out the moisture that has seeped in. Water can infiltrate an area as small as 1/100 of a inch.
Sadly, most homeowners and even some contractors don’t know what weep holes do, or how they work. This lack of knowledge leads to mistakes like filling the weep holes in, thinking that they were a mistake when the home was built. You can typically see this because the mortar will be a different shade or color all together.
What if I don’t have weep holes in my brick? If you don’t have weep holes, you might want to consider having them drilled out. Now, you can’t just go nuts with a drill bit. There are rules you must follow in order to get the correct results. If you have done the research and feel confident in tackling your weep hole issue, then by all means get to it. If not, call a professional.
What can happen if I don’t have weep holes? Unfortunately, there’s not a rock solid answer. The absence of weep holes may occasionally allow so much moisture to accumulate that metal brick-tie fasteners turn to rust and fall apart, wood-destroying insects are encouraged because of the large amounts of moisture, or wood rot develops. The other side of that coin is that occasionally, nothing at all will happen. It’s really difficult to pinpoint what could happen to a home without weep holes. Nevertheless, you shouldn’t just turn a blind eye to the issue. Preventive measures are always cheaper than the aftermath.
This just another prime example of why you should get a home inspection when buying a home. Many NEWLY constructed homes are missing weep holes. A quality home inspection can catch things like this, and you can require them to be corrected before you close on the home. It’s much easier to get things done before you sign the contract.