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.
The following info explains how part of your electrical system in your home works. It is not meant to be a guide for DIY repairs. Do not touch any part of your electrical system if you are not qualified to do so. You CAN DIE FROM THIS STUFF. Please do not be dumb. Call a pro and let them handle it.
It never fails. At least once a week I inspect a house that has an ungrounded electrical system. These are older homes with receptacles (or outlets, as everyone in my neck of the woods calls them) that only have two slots, and are missing the ‘3rd hole.’ That hole is for the ground conductor of the circuit. The grounding conductor wasn’t introduced until ~1962 in Louisville, KY. So if you live in an older home, that hasn’t been upgraded to modern electrical safety standards, chances are your system is ungrounded too – or at least part of it is. This could be true even if you have modern 3-hole outlets installed. I get a lot of deer-in-headlights looks when I start to talk about this stuff at my home inspections, so let me break things down for you here, and explain what all this means.
Determining if you have ungrounded outlets
Most of the time, you can simply look at your outlets and see if you still have the old ungrounded style or not. If you only see two vertical slots, they are ungrounded. However, I see lots of older houses where folks will replace their outlets with new (modern, 3-hole) outlets to make it easier to plug grounded cords in. Of course, this doesn’t make things “grounded,” you simply lose the frustration of having to use one of those cheater adapters that have the ground pin missing. If you are unsure if your receptacles are grounded, you can pick up a cheap outlet tester and it will tell you if you have a ground connected at the outlet. My receptacle tester that I use during home inspections is way more sophisticated as a circuit analyzer, but in this case essentially reports the same info: is there a ground present at the outlet. You can see an example of this in the picture below. I’m plugged into a 3-hole outlet in a 90 yr old house, but the ground icon (center light) is not lit up. This is an ungrounded 3 hole outlet.
OK, my outlets are ungrounded – Why should I care?
First, let’s briefly run through how electricity in your home works; more specifically, how the outlets work when something is plugged into them. The most important thing to remember is that electricity flows in a circuit, and it’s always trying to get back to the source. The electrons flow from the hot side of an outlet, through the device that is plugged into it (toaster/vacuum/hairdryer/etc), and back through the neutral wire to the panel (or the source.) The device you plug into the outlet completes the circuit between the hot and the neutral wires, and electricity flows through the device to run a motor, heat some coils, or whatever is needed. That is a basic 120v circuit. Pretty simple. Notice I did not bring up the use of a ground wire at all…
The hot wire is connected to the electric panel via a circuit breaker (or fuse, if your system is really old). The breaker is in place to trip (kill the power) if it senses the current flow is too high in the circuit. (This is why it’s important that your breakers be sized correctly for the wire it’s protecting.) If the breaker sees an abnormal amount of current flowing through it, it trips and shuts down the power. When a breaker trips it is known as a fault. The fault must be found and “cleared” before things can return to normal, and you can turn the power back on.
As you can see from the above example, a ground wire is not needed for a 120v circuit to function. In fact, there are lots of things you plug into your electrical system that doesn’t use the 3rd pin at all. Lamps, cell phone chargers, and toasters only have two prongs on their cords. However, there are lots of other items in your home that do utilize the ground as a safety measure. Things like refrigerators, washing machines, computers, and TVs have grounded cords. The grounded cords typically show up on items that have a metal case or have sensitive electronics inside them.
Having a fully grounded electrical system is all about safety. It’s a safety measure put in place for you, your house, and your stuff that is plugged into/connected to your house. In fact, the “ground” we are talking about is technically known as an equipment ground. There are system grounds (power company side of things), and equipment grounds (your house side of things). Everyone around here (and I would imagine many other places) just calls it a ground, so we’ll stick with that.
Grounding is in place to protect us from faults (bad things within an electrical circuit) and damage from lightning strikes. Faults just happen. Electrical motors go bad, wires break, etc. Lightning strikes also get filed under “it happens.” According to NOAA, there are 25,000,000 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes every year. Let’s break down some examples of why equipment grounding and grounded outlets are important to you and the safety of your family.
While not perfect, this video does a good job of explaining the history and progression of the electrical system in homes in the U.S.
When things go wrong
The ground wire in an electric system is in place to send rogue current safely back to the electric panel (or the source). In the event of a problem within the circuit, the ground wire provides a path for the current to safely make it back to the panel to trip the breaker or blow the fuse.
The following are some examples of what can happen when dealing with an ungrounded electrical system – especially ungrounded outlets. What you want to keep in mind is that these things occur when bad things happen. Grounding is not needed when life is good and things are rolling on as they should be. Think of it like an airbag in your car. You can drive all day every day and never need your airbag. It’s when bad things (like a wreck) happen that you sure are happy to have that safety device.
When something goes wrong in an electrical circuit, we call that a fault. We now use grounded circuits to help protect us from these faults. Example: Let’s say we have a refrigerator plugged into an ungrounded outlet. If a wire inside the unit were to touch the metal case of the fridge- the case is now conducting the current. It’s very possible the resistance will be low enough that the breaker will not trip. You come along to grab a cold beer after a hard day of crawling through attics and crawlspaces, you could get electrocuted. No one should have to choose from getting shocked, or getting a beer, btw.
Surge protectors when used in an ungrounded house are nothing more than really cool looking extension cords. They can not protect your equipment from surges without the ground wire. That is how they work- they use the ground wire to safely remove the spike or surge in voltage. The warranty on your stuff they brag about when using their product goes out the window too when used on an ungrounded outlet.
1 out of every 200 houses will be struck by lightning. This is according to the National Lightning Safety Institute. Lightning is an extremely powerful, high-frequency blast of DC voltage, which is capable of devastating damage when you get hit by a direct strike. However, you do not have to suffer a direct hit to have bad things happen. When lightning hits the ground it pushes electrons in all directions. If your house happens to be close enough to this strike, the voltage can jump to the building. This is known as side flash. Now that stray voltage is in the building (on the plumbing pipes, in the wires, etc.) We ground the house to help this voltage get to where it wants to go….the earth (or ground). In other words, we connect all the conductive materials in the house and terminate them to a single point- the ground rod near the electrical panel, or other means (like a water pipe that runs through the yard.)
Side flash is what happens when an indirect lightning strike happens and the stray voltage from the strike jumps to conductive things inside the house (like plumbing parts and wiring). If you happen to be standing close to one of these things like an ungrounded outlet, or a steel post in your basement, it could jump over to you and cause you to become electrocuted.
Take the same concept as above with side flash, but you place a combustible material in the mix and you could have a house fire. Even worse, you get electrocuted, you burst into flames, and it sets your house on fire. Hey…it could happen.
Watch this video for a couple of minutes. Mike does a great job of explaining things equipment grounding in a building.
Grounding can save your bacon if things go south one day. There is a good reason the process has been required in homes since 1962. I know some of this sounds scary to folks, and while I don’t want to promote fear, I do like to promote education and respect for something that can kill you in the blink of an eye. But all is not lost. When it comes to getting this issue taken care of, there are options. In future posts, I’ll break down those for you, and explain how all that works. Check back soon…
System Grounding is NOT a protective measure against a direct lightning strike on your home. If you suffer a direct strike, that small bare copper wire will not save you. Grounding of an electrical system should not be confused with lightning protection. The bottom line with a direct lightning strike near or on the house—you simply have to fix whatever gets broken or bury whoever dies.
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.
When I’m performing a home inspection on a house built around 1970, I usually get the question, “Does it have aluminum wire?” Let’s talk about what the issue is, and what your options are if you are looking to buy a house that has aluminum branch wiring in it.
What are branch circuits?
Branch circuits are circuits that power the “small” stuff like your lights, outlets, and small machines (think dishwasher, disposal, etc.) Aluminum wiring was first used as branch circuits around 1965 during a copper shortage, and was used in homes until the mid 1970’s. It’s the small 15 and 20 amp breakers in your electrical panel. The larger wires (usually 240v stuff) and the main power lines coming into the home are typically aluminum but do not have any issues.
Facts about Aluminum Wiring
The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) released a “Repairing Aluminum Wiring” pamphlet that you can download here. Don’t be foolish and try to use it as a how-to guide. It’s meant to explain what can be done by an electrician who knows what he or she is doing. Here are some interesting facts for you:
- There are an estimated 2 million homes wired with aluminum wire.
- The problem is the connection points and splices at junction boxes, outlets, switches, etc.
- A national survey conducted by Franklin Research Institute for CPSC showed that homes built before 1972, and wired with aluminum, are 55 times more likely to have one or more wire connections at outlets reach “Fire Hazard Conditions” than homes wired with copper.
- On April 28, 1974, two people died in a home in Hampton Bays, N.Y. Fire officials determined that the fire was caused by an overheated aluminum wire connection at a wall receptacle.
When I find aluminum wiring, it seems I always get the question, “Do you think it will be a problem?” Another popular thing I hear is “If it hasn’t been an issue in 40 years, it probably won’t ever be one.” Wait….what? People downplay the issue in their minds because of the scope of the potential problem. It’s not convenient for them to have to deal with this right now. But it is real, and it can’t be ignored.
What are the issues anyway?
Aluminum wiring has several unique traits that its copper counterpart does not. All of these add up to the reason it’s no longer used.
- Aluminum is Soft – When you tighten the set screw down on an outlet or switch, the aluminum wire will actually continue to flatten out a bit over time – even after you stop torquing the screw. This will cause a loose connection. Loose connections cause arcing. Arcing causes fires.
- Thermal Movement – Everything moves with temperature. Aluminum wire is no different. When the wire has electrical current flowing through it, it heats up. When it heats up it expands. The issue is that aluminum expands more than copper. Over time this swelling and shrinking can cause a loose connections. Again, arcing and fire.
- Oxidation – When aluminum wire is exposed to oxygen it oxidizes. This byproduct is called aluminum oxide. This stuff can deteriorate the connection.
- Corrosion – When moisture is added to the mix of aluminum wire, you get galvanic corrosion at the connections.
I have aluminum wire. Now what?
The first thing you do is get an electrician experienced with aluminum wiring to come check every connection they can possibly get to in the house. Will they be able to check them all? Doubtful. Most houses have junctions behind drywall or in the attic we can’t see or know they are even there. According to the rules, there should never be concealed junctions, but the reality is that people don’t always obey the rules. Having ol’ sparky come check things out can be pricey, but his house call is much cheaper than a house fire.
What can be done to minimize the risk?
There are several products on the market designed to help minimize the risk when dealing with aluminum wiring.
1. One of the more popular products I find people know something about are the specially rated outlets and switches made for aluminum and copper wires. These are marked with a CO/ALR on them. CO=copper – ALR=Aluminum. Would you know to get these for your house if you had aluminum wire?
Here is a scenario for you:
Being the hip, young couple that you are, you’re ready to tackle some DIYing this Saturday. So your normal Friday movie date is replaced with a shopping trip to Lowe’s. You get your paint, brushes, tape, flooring and so on. Your better half proclaims those ugly almond outlets have got to go in lieu of some nice new white ones. No worries, right?
You stroll to the electrical aisle and reach for those shiny white outlets. You need 5 for the living room. Better get 6, just in case. How much? $.68 cents. No sweat.
You grab your 6 outlets and start to walk away. Out of the corner of your eye you see another receptacle that looks identical to the one in your hand, except it’s almost $4 bucks. What? $4 for one! I don’t think so. Let’s roll babe.
2. There are special connectors called AlumiConn available. These are approved by the CPSC, but at nearly $4 each, they are not a cheap option. Understand that is $4 per wire; per connection.
3. Another product is the COPALUM connector. This system uses a special clamp, crimping tool, and heat-shrink to create a copper pigtail off the aluminum wiring. You must be certified to use this system. Some areas don’t have anyone available who is certified in using the COPALUM system.
4. Total Replacement of the aluminum wire itself. This is, of course, the safest of all options. It is also the most expensive. Cost will vary, as every house is different in the process used to replace the wire. You’ll need to speak with an electrician to get an idea of what you can expect. Keep in mind this is typically thousands of dollars. It’s not a cheap process.
If you have aluminum wiring in your home, you need to get that electrician out there ASAP. If you are not sure if you have aluminum wiring or not, a reputable home inspector in your area should be able to come out and take a look for you. You shouldn’t take the cover off of your electrical panel yourself unless you know what you are doing. There are things in there that will kill you.
You have options in what can do. You can repair or replace. Either is better than nothing at all. And when it comes to situations like this; it’s never a problem until it becomes one.
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 […]
For years, really tall chimneys and hidden valleys on big roofs have been a thorn in my side. I really do try to get to every square inch of the roof with my own two eyes, but sometimes it’s not feasible. I am as close to Spiderman on a roof as it comes, but I am no Superman. On more than one occasion I have climbed to the summit, only then to have to figure out how to get down. When inspecting a house with a roof like this, I joke to everyone I am no good to them dead. But there is a bit of truth to that. If I fall from a three story roof…cancel Christmas.
Say Hi ED-E
ED-E is Phantom Vision Drone. He boast GPS Flight Mode that makes it quite simple to use. He has hands-free hovering, which means you can let go of the sticks, and he stays put. This helps the pilot/videographer (that would be me) film what he needs to without concentrating on keeping the robot in the air. With a maximum range of over 1000 feet and 30 minutes of flight time on a battery, he is more than well-equipped to check out your roof, chimney, or anything else that is just too high for a person to reach safely. Wifi and Blu-tooth help link his HD camera to my phone, so I can see what the camera is seeing in real time.
On The Job
ED-E has only been on the job for about a month. While I do not need his help on every home inspection, when he has been called in, he has proven himself invaluable. Here is a short video shot during a recent inspection where the chimney was too tall to reach with a ladder. It was really windy that day, so please forgive the jerky footage.
I have been asked several times about a cost of using ED-E when looking at houses. I do not charge extra to use any tool I own. I invest in the tech to the be the best possible inspector I can be. For me to look at a client and say for extra money I can use this really great tool and find more problems for you is just not fair. There is no extra cost for using ED-E, or any other tool I carry. We all come as a package.
Nasty stuff. Nasty stuff indeed. But what classifies a person to be considered a “Mold Professional.” This is where marketing spins start to twist like a F5 tornado.
I do not advertise mold inspection, I never will. Why? Because it would not be honest for me to do so.
The first thing I do when I come across mold in the home is to advise my clients to check out the EPA’s website about mold.
After they review the stuff on the EPA site, and they think it’s bad enough to need to hire a specialist, I tell them: Don’t hire any home inspector claiming to be a mold specialist. None of us really knows anything about mold, regardless of what we claim our qualifications are, and you’ll just be blowing your money. If it’s bad, instead of someone with a two-day crash course and a certificate of authenticity (that they picked up in the lobby of a Holiday Inn), you will want to hire a real indoor air quality firm, with a real scientist on staff who actually knows something about mold. End of story. An Industrial Hygienist is a really good place to start.
I can give you one piece of advice. Bleach is not an acceptable remediation technique. Now of course, if you have a “little mold” growing on the grout in your bathroom, then bleach will certainly help get rid of the discoloration, but the growth will return.
According to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, there are an estimated 15,500 fires, 10 deaths and 10 injuries every year due to clothes dryer fires. Several hundred people a year are also subjected to carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning from improper dryer vents. The total damages come to nearly $100,000,000 yearly. That’s one hundred million dollars a year. Sometimes, it’s a faulty dryer that’s the problem…but more times than not, it’s the vent.
You know the vent…that pipe that NEVER gets seen once the dryer is smashed up against it. THAT my friends, is the problem.
You probably have one of those flexible vents. These things are HORRIBLE for venting. The ridges in the wall of the vent really cut down on the velocity of the air. Ve·loc·i·ty: Rapidity or speed of motion; swiftness.
When you dry your clothes, only a portion of the lint is captured by the trap and the rest of it gets funnelled out the vent pipe with the hot humid air. When you have one of these flexible vent pipes, the inner wall of the pipe is nothing more than a place for the traveling lint to get stuck. And just like your arteries after 25 years of cheeseburgers and fries, they get clogged up!
Over time, this clog gets so bad it can back up into the dryer. This can happen even if you clean your lint trap every time you run a load (which you do, of course). And just like that. Dryer heart attack. Dryer fire.
There are a few signs that might indicate you have an issue:
1. The clothes are taking a long time to dry.
2. The clothes come out hotter than usual.
3. The flaps on your vent cover (you know, outside of your house where the dryer vents to the outdoors) don’t move while your dryer is running (this could mean your have 100% blockage and it’s time to get it fixed–NOW.)
But how do I know for sure if my vent is clogged?
I have a very easy, fool-proof secret for you…..look at it. You must take the vent pipe loose from the dryer and visually inspect it.
This is not a hard task. If you can turn a screwdriver, you can do it. It just might save your life.
P.S. – NEVER leave your dryer running while you’re not home, or especially when you’re asleep…you just might wake up dead.