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.
At least a few times a week I ask a client if they want a Radon test performed on their new house. Most give a sharp “yes” without hesitation. Some folks, however, don’t know what to say, or may be confused from the all the different opinions they have gotten from their realtor, dad, cousin, neighbor, etc… Let’s see if we can clear things up a bit.
If you are buying a home in Louisville (all of KY really) you should have it tested for Radon Gas. Every home should be tested for Radon gas. No exceptions; especially in homes that already have a Radon mitigation system installed in the home. We’ll get into the “why?” of that in more detail later. There are only two types of houses that don’t have some form of Radon Gas around here. Houseboats and tree houses. Unless your house falls in one of those categories, you need to get it tested. Here is an EPA map of Jefferson County KY. Notice how nearly every part of the county is in the red; Zone-1.
What is Radon Gas?
Radon is an odorless, colorless, radioactive gas that comes from the earth. It forms naturally from the decay of radioactive elements in the ground, such as uranium. Some locations have much higher levels of these elements than others. This is why some areas have high levels of Radon gas, and others only have trace amounts. We just happen to drawn the short straw here in Louisville and have some of the highest amounts found in the U.S.
Radon is found both indoor and outdoors. Outdoor levels are typically very low, while the measurements in indoor buildings can range from very low to extremely high. As the Radon breaks down in the ground, it seeps in through the cracks and holes in the foundation of your home. If enough Radon gas makes it through, the house will test high for Radon.
How to test for Radon in your home.
There are several different ways to test for Radon, but the easiest way is to have a CRM (continuous radon monitor) placed in the home for several days. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) testing protocol says the machine should be left undisturbed in the home for a minimum of 48 hours, up to 7 days. Placement of the CRM is always on the “lowest potential living space.” This means if you have an unfinished basement, but may one day finish it out, you run the test from that area.
If the home has a crawlspace or concrete slab (since no one will ever live under the house) the CRM monitor is placed as close to the center of the house as possible on the first floor. You also want to keep the machine away from exterior doors and windows (that is to simply keep as much fresh air away from it as possible, which can dilute the radon gas and affect the test). Once the machine is in place and running the test, it will take an air sample once an hour, every hour, until the test has been stopped. Those numbers are then averaged to give you your test results in picocuries per liter or pCi/L.
The house doesn’t have a basement, do I really need a Radon test?
Yes, you do. A home is not required to have a basement to have high levels of Radon gas. Somehow, a nasty lie got started years ago that a home that was built on a concrete slab, or a crawlspace “won’t have Radon, only houses with basement do.” This is 100% completely false. Some of the highest numbers I’ve ever seen came from homes that were built on slabs and crawlspaces. I’ve also heard it said that walkout basements don’t have Radon. Again, this is simply not true. There is no building style that is Radon proof, or Radon resistant. All homes have the potential for elevated Radon gas, so all homes need to be tested.
The house already has a mitigation system installed, why waste the money on a test?
I hear this all the time, and the answer is quite simple. There are lots of systems that don’t work properly. More than you would think. Oh, they’re in place, and the fan is running, yet the Radon levels are still elevated when I test the home. That is because anyone with a truck, a cheap fan, and some PVC pipe can call themselves a Radon mitigation company. There are no laws or rules currently enforced in Kentucky for Radon mitigators; it’s the “Wild West,” and it shows in the quality of work that I see.
Look at it like this. If a home has a mitigation system, that means the levels were once high enough to warrant the install to begin with. It is in your best interest to double check to see that the system is working properly, and is actually lowering the Radon gas levels. Over the course of the past year, I tracked my data on testing Radon in houses where Mitigation systems were already installed. My results: One in every five systems were not working properly. In several homes, the mitigation fans didn’t work at all.
Test completed. Now what? EPA vs WHO
Now that you have your numbers, let us talk about what all this means, and what you need to do next.
There are two sources that folks look to for guidance when it comes to Radon gas and their home. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and the WHO (World Health Organization). The EPA says that homes with 4.0pCi/L or more should have a Radon mitigation system installed in the home. However, in 2009 the WHO released a study that stated they are lowering their recommended action level to 2.7pCi/L. Most people in the real estate world won’t tell you about the newer WHO study though. Sometimes its just plain ignorance (you’d be shocked at the amount of people I run into every week that have never heard of the WHO), but other times it’s just not convenient to the transaction at hand. You see, lots of homes fall in between the 2.7 and 3.9 levels, and when home buyers want the sellers to foot the bill for a Radon mitigation system, well, the higher the action level numbers are, the better…. for the transaction. So who’s right? Which organization do you listen to; who do you go by? I don’t know. In fact, I don’t know if there is a right answer.
In my mind, it is simply not worth the risk. Radon mitigation systems are not extremely difficult, or expensive to install.
Mitigating the problem-
So you’ve had your Radon test completed, and the home came back elevated. It’s time to get a Radon mitigation system installed. Radon mitigation systems are simple creatures by nature, but not just any jack-leg can install them (although they try). Just like choosing your home inspector, you need to be picky and smart about who you choose to install your Radon mitigation system. I’ll get into mitigation systems, and what problems can come up from them in a later post.
Lots of people love the idea of living in an older house. They love the “character” that only old houses can bring. I get that. But I’m seeing a trend of people wanting to go this route with no knowledge of what it really means to own an old house-or the cost of keeping one up and running. Anyone who has lived in an old home for any real amount of time will tell you its a labor of love. Old houses need constant upkeep (more so than their younger counterparts), and if you have ever tried to re-hab an old house, you know it can feel like a huge hole in your yard that you dump money into every day. You know, “the money pit.”
My city, Louisville, KY has an area of town known simply as “Old Louisville,” which is packed full of old Victorian style solid brick houses. It is the third largest such district in the United States. Old Louisville also has the largest concentration of homes containing stained glass in the nation. Pretty cool, eh? Needless to say I get to inspect lots of big, old houses. That, too, can be a love-hate relationship.
Let’s dive into the plumbing system of an old house. Old pipes can look fine on the surface, but looks can be deceiving. Over the past 100 years or so, several different types of material have been used for plumbing in homes. Clay pipes, cast iron, and galvanized steel were the most commonly used forms back in the day. All of these have been replaced with modern plastics in recent years, but millions of homes still have the old systems; and one day they will have to be replaced due to failure.
For clarity’s sake, the supply line is the pipe that brings water into the home and distributes it throughout. The waste lines are the pipes that take the sewer water away from the house.
Clay pipes (or vitrified clay pipes, if you want to be technical about it) are what most sewers were made from in the 1800’s to early 1900’s. Clay pipes have been around for much longer than that though. Some of the earliest pipes ever discovered date back to about 4000 BC in Babylonia. The issue with having a buried clay pipe in your yard is that they are known for cracking or breaking over time because clay is brittle.
A clay waste (or sewer line) is comprised of many short sections of pipe that fit together. They’re short because the pieces are heavy, but short sections mean lots of joints where bad things can happen. Cue the tree roots. When a breech in the wall of the pipe happens, roots, dirt, and everything in between begin to settle inside the pipe. Over time this will lead to a clogged waste line in the middle of the yard.
At this point there are two options. You can either dig up the yard and replace the pipes, or hire a company that does “lining services.” That is, they claim to use the old pipe as a chase and pull a new liner through the old pipe. I’ve never seen this done, but in theory it seems possible.
Cast iron pipes have been around a long time as well. It’s not uncommon to see cast iron sewer pipes last 80-100 years, sometimes even longer. However, cast iron pipes have a certain type of failure that is easy to spot…rust. The thing to remember is that cast iron rusts from the inside out. That means that while it may look fine on the surface, your pipe could be paper thin in reality. Long horizontal runs of cast iron pipes also crack quite frequently, a result of corrosive sewer gases. When you are looking at an old house, and you see cast iron pipes, pay attention to the areas of rust around the collars of the connections. That is where I typically find them failing. Also, if you are seeing pipes that look freshly painted, it could be someone trying to cover up a badly rusted sewer pipe.
The thing to remember is that cast iron rusts from the inside out. That means while it may look fine on the surface, it could be paper thin in reality. If the cast iron is around 80-100 yrs old, it’s getting close to the end of its life.
Galvanized Steel Pipes
Galvanized Steel Pipes were used as both supply and sewer pipes up until around the 1950’s in Louisville. When steel has been galvanized, it has had a zinc coating applied to the steel to help prevent rust. Once the zinc coating wears off, the rusting begins. Galvanized steel water pipes are bad news. They rust and close up like an artery that has seen too many cheeseburgers. You can also get some pretty nasty tasting water from steel supply pipes. Louisville’s water is voted as some of the nation’s very best tasting tap water, and you wouldn’t want to spoil it with crud filled water pipes. Obviously when this happens it cuts the flow down dramatically as well. Like I said, bad news all around.
Supply lines are not the only problematic pipe when it comes to galvanized pipe. Lots of old houses have waste lines made of the same stuff. They, too, suffer from the same fate of rust and buildup over time. Most of the time I see this stuff being used as main sewer lines throughout the house, that tie into a cast iron main sewer stack to head out to the sewer at the street.
So, as you shop for your new (old) house, pay attention to what you see in terms of plumbing pipes. A total plumbing replacement job on a big house is “new car money.” If you notice little bits of PVC pipe sprinkled in here and there, that is a sign that the owners have had problems in the past, but didn’t want to bite the bullet and spend the big money to have it all replaced. It’s inevitable. These old pipes will fail. You just don’t want to be caught off guard when they do.
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
Let me start by saying there is no such thing as a waterproof basement. When you build part of your house underground, there is always a chance you could get some water leaking in. Ask anyone who has lived in a home with a basement for a long time. Most have dealt with water intrusion problems at one time or another. But just because we can’t guarantee a water-free basement does not mean you can’t finish out and enjoy your subterranean getaway. There are, however, a few things you can do to stack the odds in your favor of staying dry.
Gutters & Downspouts
Maintaining your gutters and downspouts is the single most important thing you can do to keep your basement dry. It’s also one of the most overlooked aspects I find during home inspections. Your house displaces a lot of water when it rains. If you do not have clean, free flowing gutters and downspouts, that water will end up against the outside basement walls, finding every nook and cranny to seep into.
Your downspouts should be extended away from the house as much as possible; a good rule of thumb being at least 6 feet away from the foundation. Extension is 99% of the battle. Most folks who have water problems in their basement have it because of improper roof water management.
Grading Around the House
Not all rain water finds its way to the gutters. A lot of that water lands on your yard, which means that it’s very important for that yard to be sloping away from your house. This is called the “grading” of the ground, and it can be either positive or negative. Positive slope means the ground is running downhill, away from the house; carrying the water with it. Negative slope means the ground is running toward the house, thus sending the water against the foundation wall (where you do not want it). This seems simple, but I inspect a huge number of houses that have improper grading. The fix is straightforward, but can be difficult in certain circumstances.
If you find that you need to re-grade your yard, do what it takes to get it done right. If the grading is too high to achieve the proper slope, you’ll need to remove the high spot. The last thing you want to do is bury your siding in the dirt. That is a great way to cause more problems. Keep the siding about 6″ from the ground.
Most homes with basements in this area have sump pumps installed. Unfortunately, just about everyone ignores their pump until it’s too late. When was the last time you actually checked yours? You should do it every month. I also recommend replacing the pump every 5 years or so. A good pump is only about $125, and is simple to swap out. The aftermath of a failed pump during a heavy thunderstorm will cost you much more in dollars and in heartache. Sump pumps fall into that whole “ounce of prevention, pound of cure” category. I won’t go into great detail about sump pumps here (that’s for another day). Just don’t forget to treat the sump pump discharge pipe like your downspouts; get it away from the house.
Keeping your basement dry is not rocket science. Just always remember that if there is a way in, water will find it. Water always wins in the end. After all, the Grand Canyon was just a ditch at one time…
Stay on top of those gutters and downspouts, get that grading right, and make sure your sump pump is in fine working condition and chances are, you won’t find a river rushing through the grand canyon of your basement.
Do you have small water stains appearing on your ceiling? The problem is likely the flashing around your plumbing vents.
One of the most common, if not the most common problem I find with inspecting roofs, is a leaking flashing boot around the plumbing vent pipe. When these fail, water gets in to places where it is not supposed to.
There are two varieties of boots available around these parts; plastic and lead. The lead ones are the best, because they hold up to the weather much better than the plastic ones. In fact, unless a critter chews on them, they hardly ever fail before the roof needs to be replaced. Typically the best roofing contractors will use lead boots. Do they cost a bit more than the plastic ones? Yes they do, and you get what you pay for.
The plastic boots will typically last around 6-8 yrs, depending on their exposure to hot afternoon sun. They have a rubber collar that grips the side of the pipe as you lower it down. This creates the seal that keeps the water out. But after years of baking the sun, the rubber becomes hard and brittle. It cracks, and gaps form in your now less-than-water-tight seal around the pipe. You’ve got leaks. No bueno.
I know my flashing boots are leaking, but whatever shall I do?
There are two possible solutions.
You can replace the whole flashing boot. However, to install these correctly, you have to remove the shingles around the vent stack, install the new boot, and install new shingles that will not match. It creates an unsightly patch around the vent pipe on your roof, and costs a few hundred bucks to get done.
OR, you buy this wonderful little gadget. I picked mine up on Amazon for about $5.00 bucks. Here’s a link to the Amazon Page. Be sure to order the one that fits the diameter of your pipe. It is NOT a one size fits all piece. If your house has a PVC vent (like in the picture below), it’s more than likely 3″.
Installation is easy-peasy.
To install the new collar, simply slip it down over the pipe, and seat it against the old cracked rubber. That’s it. You’re done. It took me 5x as long to get my ladder out and climb up to the pipe than it did to install the thing. Even if you aren’t comfortable walking on the roof, a handyman shouldn’t be much more than an hours labor to do this.
The new collar should last a good while. Long enough that by the time it wears out, you’ll likely be thinking about a new roof. If not, and you have super shingles that don’t wear out, you can always slip the old collar off and put a new one on.