Reuben's Home Inspection Blog

How To Inspect Your Own House, Part 5: Electrical

September 30th, 2014 | No comments

A few months ago I wrote a blog post about homeowner maintenance inspections, wherein I promoted the virtues of having a home inspector conduct maintenance inspections on existing homes every five years or so.  I promised to follow up with a post on how homeowners could conduct their own home inspections, but I don’t know what I was thinking when I said I’d follow up with a “post”.  I should have said I’d follow up with my longest “series” of posts ever.  For the first part of this series, I covered the inspection of the exterior.  I took a little break in this series because I had a few other things to discuss that were somewhat time sensitive, but I’m back on the homeowner inspection series again.

Today I’m going to cover electrical.  There is a ridiculous amount of stuff that could be covered with this topic, and a lot of it takes a lot of explaining.  I’m going to cover the stuff that takes the least amount of explaining and makes the biggest impact on safety.

Overhead Wires

If your home has overhead wires bringing in power, check to make sure there are no tree branches rubbing on the wires.  It’s the homeowner’s responsibility to maintain / trim trees on the property that may interfere with the overhead wires coming from the utility pole to the house.

trees-rubbing-on-wires

Also, take a close look at the connection point between the overhead wires right before they disappear into the mast head.  One wire is the neutral wire; it’s normal for this wire to be exposed, but the other two wires shouldn’t have any exposed contacts.  If there are, these are serious shock / electrocution hazards that should be repaired by the utility company.  The photo below gives an example of an exposed ferrule at one of the hot wires.  Touch that thing with an aluminum ladder, roof rake, or something similar, and it’ll be lights out for you.

For more examples of exposed conductors at this location, and for a more in-depth discussion of these issues, click here: Tree Branches, Exposed Power Lines: Who Fixes What

Outlets

Outlet TesterTo test the outlets at your home, go buy yourself an outlet tester.  These are sold at all home improvement stores and hardware stores for about $5, or a little more if the tester comes with a GFCI tester.  A GFCI tester makes it a lot easier to verify that non-GFCI outlets in your home are GFCI protected, but it’s not a valid way to test GFCI outlets.  More on that topic below.  The tester shown at right currently sells for $7.49 on Amazon.

So now that you have a tester, go around and test all of the outlets in your home.  The light codes displayed by the tester will tell you if the outlet is properly wired, or what the problem is if the outlet isn’t properly wired.

Side note: these types of testers will not identify all potential wiring problems, such as a false ground or an outlet with both reversed polarity and an open ground, but they’ll probably identify about 99% of the problems that exist.

Here are the potential readings that an outlet tester will give you:

  • Open Ground – more commonly described as an ungrounded three-prong outlet.  Click this link for information about how to correct an ungrounded three-prong outlet.  This is a condition that should be repaired by an electrician.
  • Open Neutral – this is a very uncommon defect; it means there is power at the outlet, but whatever is plugged into the outlet won’t work.  Every once in a while, this is the result of a switched neutral wire.
  • Open Hot – there’s no “hot” wire at the outlet… or there’s a live hot and no neutral and no ground.  Whatever is plugged into the outlet won’t work.  Sometimes this might be the result of a switched outlet and the switch is just off, but in many cases it just means it’s a dead outlet.
  • Hot/GRD Rev – this is an extremely scary condition that I don’t think I’ve ever actually come across.  Plugging in a tool with a three-prong cord would instantly energize the housing of the tool, making it an electrocution hazard.  If you find this condition at a GFCI outlet, hit the “test” and then the “reset” button on the outlet and test it again.  GFCI outlets will occasionally give funny readings that are not correct.
  • Hot/Neu Rev – more commonly described as reversed polarity.  Click this link for information about reversed polarity.  This is a shock hazard that should be repaired by an electrician.

Every once in a while you’ll get a different reading, such as all three lights lit up, or a bright middle light and dim lights on the left and right.  These readings indicate problems that should be looked into further by an electrician.

If there are loose outlets, the repair is usually as simple as removing the cover plate and tightening the screws that hold the outlet in place.

Test all of the GFCI devices in your home to make sure they’re functional, and replace them if they’re not.  This is something that’s supposed to be done every month… and I’m sure that everyone who reads this blog already does this, right?  But just in case, here’s a short video clip from Leviton showing how to do it.

Also, make sure that there is GFCI protection for the outlets where you’re most likely to get electrocuted.  These areas include bathrooms, garages, unfinished basements, the exterior, and many other places near water.  Click the following link for more information about testing GFCI outlets.  Oh, and if you press the test button and the outlet makes a buzzing noise, the outlet has gone bad and should be replaced.

Cover Plates

Not only do cover plates help to prevent accidental shocks, but they help to contain any arcing or sparking that might take place within an electrical box, thus potentially preventing a fire.  Go through your home and make sure there are cover plates installed for all of the outlets, switches, and junction boxes.  A few of the more common places for missing cover plates are in unfinished basement areas, behind refrigerators, inside kitchen cabinets, and at garage ceilings.

Missing cover plate at switch

While this is usually a very simple DIY repair, the photo above shows a situation where the fix isn’t quite so simple; if a cover plate was installed over the pegboard, it would leave a gap between the box and the cover that could allow sparks to escape and potentially start a fire.  The fix for this situation would actually involve cutting away the pegboard a little more so that a cover plate could be installed tight against the box.

Extension Cords

Permanently installed appliances should be plugged directly into their own outlets, not extension cords.  Using extension cords increases the potential for a fire.  A few of the more common places to find extension cords used in lieu of permanent wiring are at garage door openers, water softeners, and at basement lights.

Wiring

Uncapped, improperly terminated wires are an immediate shock / electrocution hazard that should be dealt with immediately.  Always assume these wires are live.

Uncapped wire

Open spliced wiring is a potential fire hazard.

Open splices

Wooden boxes don’t cut it either; wire splices should take place within proper electrical boxes.

Open spliced wiring at vanity lights

Wiring defects are probably best left up to an electrician for repair.

Openings in Boxes and Electric Panels

Unused openings in electrical boxes and electric panels should always be covered.

Missing knockout plug  Opening in panel cover

These openings create potential shock hazards, they might not properly contain a fire that could occur within the box, and can admit unwanted visitors such as mice.

Mouse in panel

These types of defects are very much a DIY type of repair; for information on how to correct these issues, click here: Missing Knockouts

Smoke Alarms

Check to make sure your home has smoke alarms installed inside each bedroom, smoke alarms installed in common areas on each level, and make sure they’re properly located; the diagram below shows where smoke alarms should be located on walls and ceilings.

smoke alarm location

Test smoke alarms monthly, and replace the batteries annually.

Replace any smoke alarms over 10 years old.  To check the date, take the smoke alarm down and look on the back.  If you can’t find a date, assume it’s over 10 years old and replace it.

Please please please make sure your home is equipped with photoelectric smoke alarms.  If you don’t know what type of smoke alarms you have, I can just about guarantee they’re not photoelectric, as I’ve found that the vast majority of smoke alarms are not.  While photoelectric smoke alarms are not required, I believe they should be, and I consider this to be an important life safety issue.  Click this link for more information about the importance of photoelectric smoke alarms: Photoelectric Smoke Alarms.

For more details and tips on smoke alarm safety, click here: Four Smoke Alarm Safety Tips.

Carbon Monoxide Alarms

The current standard for safety is to have CO alarms installed within 10′ of every sleeping room.  CO alarms used to be good for either five or seven years, but Kidde now offers CO alarms that are good for 10 years.  If the CO alarms in your home are over 10 years old, they should definitely be replaced.  If they’re over five years old… maybe.

Next week, the topic will be homeowner plumbing inspections.

Click on any of the links below to see the past topics in this series:

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

Fall Maintenance Checklist for Minnesota Homeowners

September 23rd, 2014 | 3 comments

Fall is officially here.  It’s time to get started on your fall maintenance list.  It’s much easier to get this stuff done while it’s still pleasant outside, so don’t put these projects off until we have snow in the forecast.

This list was originally compiled by Structure Tech Home Inspector Duane Erickson, and has been added onto a few times over the past several years.

Water

  • Disconnect any garden hoses.
  • If the exterior faucets are not frost free, drain the water out.  See How to Prevent Your Outside Faucets from Freezing.
  • If you have a lawn sprinkler system (aka “irrigation system”) it needs to be drained and blown out with compressed air.  Hire a pro to do this.
  • Remove any pond pumps, and store the pump in your basement in a 5-gallon bucket filled with water.  This will help to prevent the seals from drying out.

Air

  • Clean the combustion air or makeup air intake vents.
  • If an air exchange system is present, such as a heat recovery ventilator (HRV), clean it.  Regular maintenance items for an HRV include cleaning the exterior intake, the filters, and the core.  See HRV maintenance.
  • Clean the clothes dryer duct.  The damper at the exterior should move freely and close properly.  See dryer duct maintenance.
  • Check the bathroom and kitchen exhaust dampers for wasp nests.  The nests will prevent the dampers from openings.  See Bath Fan Terminal Inspections.

Roof

  • Clean the soffit vents.  These can get clogged up with lint, dust, insulation, and paint.  They’re located under the roof overhangs.
  • Check the roof vents for bird nests.
  • Clean the gutters after all the leaves have fallen.
  • If the downspouts or sump pumps drain in to an underground system, re-direct them to drain to the ground surface when feasible.  See Sump Pump Discharge.

Air Conditioner

  • Outdoor covers are NOT necessary.  If a cover is used, it should be the type that only covers the top, not a full enclosure.
  • If the furnace or water heater vent blows exhaust gas on to the air conditioner, a plastic cover can be used to shield the air conditioner from the corrosive exhaust gases.
  • Don’t cover heat pumps (these are not common in Minnesota).

General Exterior

  • Seal any gaps around the house; check for loose or dried out caulking around pipes, ducts, faucets, air conditioner refrigerant lines, etc.
  • Replace any damaged or worn weatherstripping around windows and doors.

Smoke / CO Alarms

  • Smoke alarms should be located inside every bedroom, and one in a common area on every level.
  • CO alarms should be located within ten feet of every sleeping room (and not in furnace rooms, kitchens, or garages).
  • Replace the batteries in your smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms and test them using the built-in test buttons.
  • Make sure your home is equipped with photoelectric smoke alarms.
  • Check the age of your smoke and CO alarms; smoke alarms are good for up to ten years, CO alarms are good for between five and ten years.  If they’re any older, replace them.

Furnace 

  • Have a professional furnace tune-up performed annually.  See Are Annual Furnace Inspections Really Necessary?
  • Replace the batteries in your thermostat.  If your thermostat fails while you’re on vacation, you might come home to a nasty surprise.
  • Clean or replace the furnace filter – this should usually be done every one to three months, depending on the type of filter.  The arrow on the filter should point toward the furnace.

Fireplaces

  • Have the flues professionally cleaned on any wood burning fireplaces if they get used regularly.
  • Avoid burning any woods that are not hard and dry.
  • Clean the dust out of the bottoms of any gas fireplace inserts.
  • If you have a gas log installed in a wood burning fireplace with an adjustable damper, make sure there is a damper stop installed to prevent the damper from getting closed all the way.  See My Beef With Old Gas Log Fireplaces.

Last but not least, Duane says “Cuddle, stay warm, and safe sledding.”

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

Why Home Inspectors Should Know Building Codes

September 15th, 2014 | 4 comments

In last week’s blog post I mentioned that there is an upcoming seminar for Minnesota home inspectors, being taught by building code guru Douglas Hansen of Code Check.  Minnesota currently uses the 2006 International Building Code (IRC), but we’ll soon be adopting the 2012 IRC, and with that will come a lot of changes.  The upcoming seminar will cover the most important parts of these changes.

Side note: Why are we flying in a national code guru from California to teach this 8-hour seminar when the class has already been put together and is being taught by some extremely knowledgeable and capable building officials right here in Minnesota?

@#$!%* beaurocracy, plain and simple.  The folks that I’ve reached out to at the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry have told me they’re not allowed to do any teaching outside of the state curriculum because there’s a conflict of interest.  I have no idea what the conflict could possibly be, and I’m not at all satisfied with that answer, but in the interest of getting this class put together and notifications sent out to MN home inspectors in a timely manner, I didn’t fight the issue.  I’m not done with it though.

I sent out an email notification to all of the Minnesota ASHI members letting them know about this seminar, and I’ve been making phone calls as well to make sure that everyone got the word.

I had one conversation with another Minnesota home inspector, who I’ll call Inspector X, that prompted me to write this post.  When I told Inspector X about the upcoming seminar that would be covering the code changes to the IRC, I said I considered this  seminar to be ‘must-have’ training for any home inspector in Minnesota.

Inspector X said he disagreed that this is must-have training, because he doesn’t conduct code enforcement inspections in any capacity.  I didn’t have time to engage at the moment, so I just told him he was right, home inspections are not the same as code enforcement inspections, but it’s still important for us to be familiar with current building codes.  I couldn’t get him to agree with that either, so I basically just wished him well… but if I had had the time, I would have explained it this way:

ASHI Home Inspection Standards of Practice require home inspectors to provide clients with a written report that states those systems and components inspected that, in the professional judgement of the inspector, are not functioning properly, significantly deficient, unsafe, or are near the end of their service lives.

Unsafe is defined as “A condition in a readily accessible, installed system or component that is judged by the inspector to be a significant risk of serious bodily injury during normal, day-to-day use; the risk may be due to damage, deterioration, improper installation, or a change in accepted residential construction practices.

Current building codes are what define accepted residential building practicesIf a home inspector is not familiar with current building codes, they’re not familiar with accepted residential building practices.

Code Knowledge vs. Code Inspection

Even though home inspectors should be familiar with current building codes, this doesn’t mean that home inspectors should report code violations.  Our standards of practice clearly state that home inspectors are NOT required to determine “compliance of systems and components with past and present requirements and guidelines (codes, regulations, laws, ordinances, specifications, installation and maintenance instructions, use and care guides, etc.).

If you want to know the difference between a code compliance inspection and a home inspection, look at the reasoning behind the recommendations for change / repair.  ASHI Standards of Practice require home inspectors to report the reasoning or explanation as to the nature of deficiencies reported that are not self-evident.  If the home inspector bases their reasoning on code, they’re heading into ‘code compliance inspection’ territory.

As an example, take a look at the sump basket cover at this new-construction home; the cover isn’t airtight, which will allow for moist air to enter the home.  This air may also bring radon gas into the home.

unsealed sump basket cover

Here’s a bad way for a home inspector to report on this: “The sump basket cover was not airtight, which is required by Minnesota Administrative Rule 1322.2103, Section AF103.4.4.  Have this corrected.”

The problem with this type of reporting is that it tells the client that this is a problem because the installation does not meet code… and that’s about all.  It doesn’t give the reasoning or explanation as to the nature of this deficiency.

The proper way for a home inspector to report this type of defect would be “The sump basket cover was not airtight, which will allow for air to leak into the building.  This air will have relatively high levels of moisture, and will contribute to radon gases coming into the home.  Have the sump basket cover made airtight.”

See the difference?

If the home buyer addresses this issue with the builder and asks them to correct this, the builder might say it already passed inspection and meets code.  At that point, a home inspector who is familiar with building codes would be happy to give their client the above code reference, backing up their recommendation.  That’s a good thing, and it doesn’t mean the home inspector is doing a code compliance inspection.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

Attention Minnesota Home Inspectors: ASHI Heartland Chapter is Back

September 9th, 2014 | 2 comments

The local chapter of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI), called the Heartland Chapter, has been largely defunct for the last couple of years.  I’ve been a member of ASHI for a little over ten years now, and I’m looking to get the local ASHI chapter back up and running.  I have volunteered to take the position of president, and the board members made it official this summer.

My main goal as chapter president is to provide educational opportunities for home inspectors in the Twin Cities and surrounding areas.  Another goal is to help create more camaraderie among fellow home inspectors.  Here’s how:

Training

I’m an active member of the Minnesota Society of Housing Inspectors (MSHI), and I have helped to coordinate speakers for MSHI’s all-day continuing ed seminars for the past several years.  I plan to continue coordinating speakers for MSHI, I plan to make sure the seminars are approved for ASHI continuing ed credits, and I will make sure that local ASHI members are invited to these seminars.

I also plan to have ASHI chapter meetings held every one to two months with local professionals providing education.  Each chapter meeting is worth two hours of continuing ed credits for ASHI, and licensed TISH evaluators in Minneapolis and Saint Paul will be able to count these meetings towards their total required number of continuing ed hours.  All area home inspectors will be invited to these meetings, regardless of home inspector association membership / affiliation.

At the moment there are no official dues-paying members in the chapter and the chapter has very little funds for large training events, but I’m hoping to change that over the course of the next year.

Camaraderie

It’s important for us home inspectors to get together on a regular basis to discuss all things related to home inspections.  New inspection methods, new local code requirements, new construction methods, new repair methods, new problems we’re facing, new tools that we can’t live without.  Our spouses are all surely tired of hearing about all of this stuff, and they usually can’t offer much tool advice.

It’s also important for newer inspectors to be able to ask more experienced inspectors for advice, and for experienced inspectors to share their advice with newer inspectors.  When experienced inspectors give advice to newer inspectors, they’re helping to improve the quality of our industry. Every time I read an online article where home buyers are advised to have a home inspection performed by a general contractor instead of a home inspector, I know that our industry needs improvement.

I’ve trained many home inspectors, and I’ve had a number of local home inspectors (aka “competitors”) shadow me on home inspections that I’ve conducted, and I’ve found that this really helps me to question everything I do during an inspection.  Evaluating the reasoning behind what I do sometimes reinforces the things that I do, and other times makes me change the way that I do inspections.  Teaching others and giving advice is not a one-way flow of information. Experienced inspectors can learn from newer inspectors too.

Quick Story #1: Why I Believe in Helping Competitors

Back in 2004 when I was training to start inspecting houses on my own, one of the first things that I studied for was to get licensed as a Saint Paul Truth-In-Sale of Housing Evaluator.  Among the licensing requirements are a fairly difficult written exam, as well as a practical exam that involves an evaluation of an existing home.  My dad had never been licensed to do TISH evaluations in Saint Paul, so he recommended I contact another licensed evaluator in Saint Paul, Mike Moser, for advice.

Mike was happy to meet with me and help answer questions that I had about the upcoming tests, knowing full well that I would be his future competition for business.  I asked why he was willing to help train a future competitor, and I remember his words well: “It’s all about improving our industry.  If you turn out to be half as good of an inspector as your father, you’ll be making our industry better.”

I thought those were very insightful words, and I made a promise to myself to do the same for other future competitors of mine.

Quick Story #2: My Experience with ASHI

Back when I first started with Structure Tech in 1997, part of my duties were to answer the phones and schedule inspections.  Potential clients and real estate agents would frequently ask if we were members of ASHI before hiring us.  At the time, my dad and Duane were both ICBO Certified Building Inspectors, which was a great technical certification that demonstrated knowledge of building codes.  I’d explain the difference, but nobody cared.  All they cared about was whether we were ASHI members or not.

I would try to convince my dad to join ASHI, but he was very turned off by an elitist attitude from what was probably a small number of local ASHI members.  He had attended a few chapter meetings and wasn’t interested in associating with those folks.  I’ve heard these same sentiments from many other local home inspectors, as well as from inspectors in other parts of the country.  I’ve never experienced any of that myself, but I’ve heard about it enough to know that it’s real.

I’ll be doing whatever I can to make sure that new inspectors are made to feel welcome, both to this industry and to ASHI.  Simply joining an organization does not make one a great home inspector, and choosing to not join an organization does not make one a bad home inspector.

Upcoming Training Events for Home Inspectors

10/7/14, 6:30 PM: ASHI Chapter Meeting (2 CEs)

I have scheduled Steve Schirber at Cocoon to teach a class on building science and solutions for insulating / retrofitting existing houses.  Steve is a guest author on my blog (Unintended Consequences of Adding Insulation), and had an excellent article published in the latest issue of the Journal of Light Construction, titled “Project Overcoat: Exterior insulation and air sealing for a story-and-a-half.”

This class will be taught at the next monthly ASHI Heartland meeting, which is scheduled for Tuesday, October 7th, at 6:30 pm.  This will take place at Frankie’s Pizza in New Hope, in the banquet room.  The fee for the seminar will be $10, and will cover the cost of some fantastic pizza.  Please RSVP to info@ashiheartland.com if you’re planning to attend, as seating will be limited.

All home inspectors are invited to attend this meeting, ASHI or not.  After Steve’s class, we’ll be having a discussion about the future of the chapter.

11/15/14, 8:00 AM: MSHI All-Day Seminar (8 CEs)

Minnesota will be adopting the 2012 IRC, which will have a lot of changes that all home inspectors in Minnesota should be familiar with.  Douglas Hansen, author of the CodeCheck books, will be teaching an all-day seminar on the code changes.  As far as I’m concerned, Douglas is one of the most knowledgeable folks in the country when it comes to building codes.  This is a seminar that all home inspectors in Minnesota should attend.

The seminar will be held at the same place that all MSHI seminars are held: the Earl Brown Continuing Ed building at the U of M, 1890 Buford Avenue, Saint Paul.  As always, lunch is included.  The seminar is free to all MSHI members, and the cost is $100 to non-members, which is still a bargain.

Want These Updates?

Going forward, I’ll be sending out these types of notifications for home inspectors strictly via email.  If you’d like to be added to that email list, please sign up here: http://eepurl.com/2Qsk1

Thank you.

Author: Reuben Saltzman, ASHI Heartland Chapter President

Radon Testing: Should You Rely on The Seller’s Test?

September 2nd, 2014 | No comments

We routinely get requests from past home inspection clients of ours asking us to re-send the radon gas test results from testing that we conducted many years ago. We get these requests because our past clients are now selling their home, and they’re performing their due diligence attempting to gather whatever information they can about their home to give to potential home buyers. In most cases, we still have the results and are happy to send them out. We recently received an email asking about this:

“Two months ago the seller had another buyer inspect the home.  The radon test came back at 1.8.  Does this need to be done again? Thanks!”

That’s a great question.  Here’s my generic advice on relying on the seller’s test results.

Over Two Years Old? Forget it.

How much value is there in old radon test results? If the test results are more than two years old, the EPA recommends conducting a new test. If the test results are less than two years old, there might be some value in those results.

Who Conducted the Previous Radon Test?

If the test results are less than two years old, find out who conducted the radon test before relying on the results. For obvious reasons, I don’t recommend relying on any type of DIY radon tests unless you Did It Yourself. If the radon test was professionally conducted, make sure the person / company conducting the test was qualified to do so. You’d hope that any home inspector charging money to conduct a radon test would be qualified to perform the test and would do it properly, but I’ve personally seen enough egregious testing errors to know that there are plenty of unqualified folks conducting radon tests in Minnesota. While there are no licensing requirements for radon testing companies in Minnesota, there are two large certifying bodies for radon measurement providers: the National Radon Proficiency Program (NRPP) and the National Radon Safety Board (NRSB). I’d feel fairly confident in relying on the radon gas test results from an NRPP or NRSB certified company. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t rely on the results from someone who isn’t certified, but you’d be right to at least ask a few questions about the qualifications and experience of the person / company doing the testing.

Has Anything Changed?

If there have been any major structural changes, HVAC changes, or there have been any significant projects that involved air sealing, which is most commonly done in the attic, don’t go with the old test results. Too much has changed that may have affected the radon levels. Have your own test conducted.

Where Was The Test Placed?

When a homeowner conducts a radon test on their own home, they’re supposed to test the lowest level of the home that is regularly used. If the home has an unfinished basement and nobody spends any time down there, the test should be placed on the first floor. When a radon test is conducted as part of a real estate transaction, the radon test should be placed in the lowest livable part of the home, whether it’s finished or not.  If a home buyer is going to rely on the seller’s radon test results, they should make sure the test was placed in the lowest livable area, not the lowest level that is regularly used.

In Conclusion

If a home buyer is going to rely on someone else’s radon test results instead of hiring their own company to conduct a radon test, they should make sure that the previous test was done within the last two years, the testing was done by a qualified person / company, no major changes happened at the home that could affect radon levels, and that the radon test was placed in the proper location.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections