Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Preventing Ice Damns This Winter...

As winter continues to set in, we must take appropriate measures to protect our home against the freezing temperatures.  We all know about the common chores; turning off water flow to outside faucets, having our heating system checked and serviced, cleaning the gutters etc.  But have you ever thought to take the appropriate steps to protect against ice dams?

First, lets define what exactly an ice dam is:

An ice dam is a ridge of ice that forms at the edge of a roof and prevents melting snow (water) from draining off the roof. The water that backs up behind the dam can leak into a home and cause damage to walls, ceilings, insulation, and other areas.

This phenomenon typically occurs when attic temperatures become warm enough to support active snow melting from below.  As the snow melts, the water flows down the roof however becomes blocked at the eaves due to an accumulation of ice (the dam).  Since the water from the melting snow has no place to go, it now has the potential to back flow into the house. When this happens, damage will likely follow. This would include wood deterioration, roof sheathing damage, drywall damage, possible mold growth and the list goes on and on.  Typically this goes unnoticed until you see a water stain on the ceiling or other like damage.  By then...it's too late!

The challenge becomes figuring out the root cause of why an ice dam situation is occurring.   Unfortunately, the cause could be a series of issues that combine to create this problem.  That said, lets take a look at some common contributory causes:

  • Poor Attic Insulation - The lack of adequate insulation may allow for escaping heat from the conditioned portions of your house to enter into the attic space.  This alone can cause the attic temperature to rise and cause rapid snow melting to occur.  
  • Gaps and Penetrations - Kind of hand in hand with the above issue, gaps and penetrations into the attic space that are poorly sealed or poorly insulated may be the cause for heat escaping the house into the attic space.  This would include recesses or mounted lighting, ceiling fan penetrations, exhaust fans, attic access points etc.  
  • Poor Roof Drainage - If your gutters are poorly maintained i.e. clogged with debris or improperly sized for your roof, then water will not properly drain through the gutters and into the downspouts.

So now that we have a general understanding of this issue, let's look at some ways to help prevent ice dams:

  1. Consider a home audit to ensure your attic is properly insulated.  "R" values change as insulation becomes compacted, worn or breaks down over time.  Simply enhancement of attic insulation may be the key.
  2. Ensure your gutters have been cleaned and are free of obstructions and debris.  Since the fall is ending, now is a great time to get the leaves, twigs and other debris cleaned out.
  3. Check your home for poorly insulated gaps and penetrations.  A simple tip is to have someone blow a hair dryer or like device while you check for airflow from the attic side.  If you feel air passing through, then its likely that the penetration is poorly sealed.  A small about of spray foam insulation will help solve these types of problems.  Remember...it doesn't take much!
  4. Continue to monitor exterior conditions.  In some cases, you may have to physically remove the ice dam if possible.  If this is the case, use caution...you don't want to damage your shingles, gutters or fascia.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Handy Tools Every Home Owner Should Own...

Handy tools are important for home owners...you just never know when you will need them.  Quick fixes are common whether its tightening a loose screw, fixing a leaky faucet or hanging a picture. Having the right tool for the job is key!  So for those looking to spec out a handy tool kit for home use, here are some common tools every home owner should own.

#1:  Let's start with something to store all these new tools in.
       Pick out your favorite tool box at the local hardware
       store.  Make sure you choose something that will fit all
       your new toys and something that can be easily stored.

#2:  Grab a set of screwdrivers.  These come in two types...
       "phillips head" and "flat or straight".  Phillips looks like
       a plus sign and straight...well that's pretty self explanatory.
       Most sets will come in various sizes for all applications.

#3:  Everyone needs a good hammer...right!

#4:  Pliers are a necessity.  Pulling, prying, twisting
       and turning...these tools certainly come in handy.

#5:  The good ole' tape measure!  This tool is great for
       figuring out room sizes, what size blinds and curtains
       to buy, where to hang your pictures...and the list 
       goes on.  

#6:  They say you can fix everything with duct tape or super glue.
       So I guess you should stock up on those items!

#7:  You definitely need a good plunger for those crappy
       days when "it just won't go down"!

#8:  How will you know things are level if you don't
       have a level?  Sounds like you should buy a level!
       They come in handy when you are eyeing up 
       your wall decorations.

#9  A nice, bright flashlight is a must have item.  
      They certainly come in handy especially when the
      power goes out!

#10:  Invest in a sturdy step ladder.  This is another
         handy tool that is often overlooked.  This will get
         you into those "hard to reach" places.  In most cases
         a 4 - 6 foot ladder will accommodate most common
         chores such as replacing smoke detector batteries, 
         changing light bulbs etc.


So there you have it...some of the most basic and useful tools for homeowners. Owning a home and simple home maintenance pretty much goes hand in hand. It certainly seems that there is always something to fix or maintain. Of course the list can certainly grow depending on the job at hand. Remember, some tools can be dangerous so ensure you are using them properly and safely.  

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Corrugated Stainless Steel Tubing (CSST)...Are You At Risk?

If your house is supplied by a gas service to run appliances, water heaters or HVAC equipment etc., there is a relatively good chance you may have corrugated stainless steel tubing also know as CSST. This is typically a yellow colored flexible pipe that often connects to your gas fed appliances.  The other common option for gas service is black iron pipes.  In some cases, you may even see a combination of both black pipe and CSST piping for your gas supply.
CSST Connected to an iron pipe maniforld

There is an inherent risk home owners should be aware of regarding the installation of CSST piping and its reaction to lightning strikes.  As we know, lightning is highly conductive and is often destructive when it strikes.  In fact, lightning does not have to strike your home directly to cause problems.  Even a strike in close proximity of your home can cause electrically conductive systems in the home to become energized.  Additionally, nearby lightning strikes can also create power surges to the home which can also cause significant problems.

The issue with CSST piping is that it is often found to be installed with no grounding or bonding. Additionally, the wall thickness of this type of pipe is very thin especially when compared to the black iron pipes.  Studies have shown that in cases where the CSST piping was not grounded and bonded, and a lightning strike occurred, damage from arcing has resulted in small holes forming throughout CSST the tubing.  This obviously has the potential to cause gas leaks and in some cases has been the cause of significant gas fed fires.

So what's the fix to ensure your gas system is safely installed?  The answer is to ensure that the system is properly grounded and bonded.  This will significantly reduce many of the issues described above in the event of a lightning strike.  This type of repair involves the installation of a bonding clamp on the gas fitting and the attachment of a grounding wire.  This type of repair should be done by a licensed professional.  If you feel you may be at risk, consult a licensed professional and have them evaluate your system to ensure it it properly installed and protected against these inherent risks.

These images show properly grounded CSST gas systems.  Notice the bonding clamp and grounding wire.  The absence of a grounding system may put you at risk.

Example of damage caused from electrical arcing

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Common Electrical Findings...

I think it would be a safe assumption that out of the common findings during a home inspection, electrical issues rank atop the list.  You may have heard terms such as "open ground", "reversed polarity" or "double tapped breakers".  So what does all this mean and is it an issue?

We must first start with a brief overview of how an electrical outlet should be wired.  In most cases, residential wiring will have a "hot" wire, a "neutral" wire and a "ground" wire.  In older homes, the ground wire may not be present.  In order for an outlet to function correctly, it is important that each of these wires is connected to the correct part of the outlet.  That said, the neutral wire (white) should be connected to the silver or grey screws which is usually found on the left side of the outlet.  The hot wire (black or red) should always be connected to the brass screws on the outlet and the ground wire (green) should be connected to the grounding screw which is often a green color as well.  If you were to look at a standard plug, the larger prong is the neutral side, the smaller prong is the hot side and the bottom rounded prong is the ground.  Now that you know how to correctly wire an outlet, let's look at some common issues when things are not correct.

"Reversed Polarity"

Reversed polarity often occurs when the hot and neutral wires are switched at the outlet.  In some cases, reversed polarity can occur upstream of the outlet which may be more challenging to resolve. The issue with an outlet having reversed polarity is that there is increased potential for an electrical shock.  This occurs because the device that is plugged into that outlet could have components that remain energized even though it may be turned off by a switch.  This happens because the neutral wire remains "hot" which is incorrect.  Here is an example:  A light bulb socket happens to have exposed electrical components of which the threads being the most exposed part.  If the light socket is wired correctly, then the threads are attached to the neutral wire to prevent someone from getting a shock when changing a light bulb. If the outlet has reversed polarity, then those threads become hot or energized and therefore you have the potential to get shocked when changing that same light bulb.
In most cases the fix is simple and quick however any electrical work should be done by a licensed electrician.

"Open Ground"

"Grounding" is needed to provide a path for stray electrical current to follow is an important safety feature. Modern wiring codes require all outlets and fixtures to be grounded, meaning a separate wire and connection must be provided for current to follow in the event the wiring is compromised. An open ground means the safety path is open, disrupted or incomplete. This could mean that the ground wire was never attached, has become detached or has a poor attachment to the grounding screw.  It could also mean that an outlet up stream has a grounding issue as well.  Keep in mind that in older homes, grounding may not be present at all due to the fact that older wiring and outlets did not have grounding features.  This issue should be evaluated and repaired by a licensed electrician.

"Double Tapped Breakers"

This issue is probably one of the most common finds during a home inspection.  A double tapped breaker is when two wires connect to one single breaker.  Most breakers, are only rated to accept a single wire.  There are some exceptions to this rule however they are not seen often. The problem with "double tapping" a breaker is that it can cause loose connections in the electrical panel, fire hazards from arcing, and possibly premature tripping of a circuit.  The common repair to this issue is what electricians call a "pig tale
".  This is done by splicing the two wires together and then having a single wire from the splice attach to the breaker.

Hopefully this bit of information helps shed some light on some of the common electrical issues found during home inspections.  Likewise, hopefully you have a better understanding of the associated issues with these findings.  Any electrical issues should be evaluated and repaired by a licensed electrician.  Attempting electrical repairs without the proper knowledge could lead to injury.

Image #1 shows an electrical outlet tester reading "reversed polarity" in an outlet

Image #2 shows a double tapped breaker - seen where the black and red wire is connected into a single breaker

Image #3 shows the "pig tale" repair of a double tapped breaker

Image #4 shows the correct wiring of an outlet


Monday, April 27, 2015

Smoke Detectors...Here Are The Facts!

I tend get a lot of questions regarding smoke detectors and what the new Maryland law has to say about them.  Hopefully this will help shed light on what is required in regards to smoke detectors in the home...

The first thing to clarify is that building code regulations regarding the installation of smoke detectors has changed.  The most current requirement calls for a smoke detector in every bedroom, a smoke detector in the hallway or common area outside of the bedrooms, and a smoke detector in the hallway or common area on each livable level of the home to include the basement.

Many times what you will find the combination of a hardwired system and battery only smoke detectors.  So what is the difference?  A hardwired system basically ties all smoke detectors together so if one goes off then they all go off.  A battery only smoke detector does not work in this fashion.  It will only sound the closest detector to the problem and the rest will not be activated simultaneously.  There may be a misconception that a hardwired system does not require a battery.  This is not true.  There should always be a battery back up in the event that you loose power.

Battery powered smoke detectors, until very recently, came with a 9 volt battery.  There was always a push to change your battery when you changed your clocks during the daylight savings times.  However, now there is newer technology on the market that coincides with Maryland law.  Most battery powered only smoke alarms come with a 10 year life battery system that does not require you to change your battery every six months.  These battery systems are sealed within the detector and will expire in 10 years.  So the moral to the story is simply put a new detector up and in 10 years take it down and replace it with a new one - there is no more changing batteries.  Just understand that this is only for battery powered smoke detectors.  The hardwired detectors still require you to change the battery every 6 months.  Again, the battery is only acting as a back up in the event of a power loss to the house.

So what is the new Maryland Smoke Detector Law?

  • By 1/1/ 2018, any prior installed battery operated smoke alarm, supplemental or otherwise, must be sealed, tamper resistant units incorporating a silence/hush button and using long-life sealed in batteries.  
  • This law is only for battery powered smoke alarms - it does not effect hardwired smoke alarms
  • There must be a functional smoke alarm in each sleeping room, in the hallway or common area outside of bedrooms, in the hallway or common area one each livable level of the home and in the basement regardless if it's finished or unfinished.

The background to all of this is simply a push to help prevent residential fire deaths.  Lets face the facts...people simply forget to replace batteries and before you know it, they have no functional smoke detector in their residence.  The ending result can be tragic.

Some additional thoughts...

  • If you have fuel burning appliances such as a gas / oil furnace, gas stove, gas water heater etc., please consider adding Carbon Monoxide detectors.
  • You can buy combination CO and smoke detectors which will offer the best protection since you have both features built into a single device.
  • Many of the 10 year life detectors will alarm when they expire.  This is a great reminder for future replacements.
  • If you are planning to sell, updating your smoke detectors may be a good low cost option to consider.
  • Any of these types of smoke detectors can be purchased at a local hardware store, Home Depot, Lowes, Walmart etc

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Does your A/C unit have room to breath?

Lately I have come across several outside compressor units that have been set up in less than desirable locations or "altered" so to speak in an effort to hide them.  Some examples include; hidden by decks, wooden covers concealing the unit and even foliage growth. Unfortunately this is NOT good practice and could lead to costly problems.

The performance of the air conditioner depends upon efficient outdoor heat dispersal, which relies upon adequate air circulation into and out of the condenser. The blower draws in fresh air horizontally through fins on the sides of the cabinet, channels the air through the condenser coil  and exhausts the air, along with heat extracted from the house, vertically through the top of the unit.  Obstructions such as walls, fences, decks or vegetation may interfere with the free flow of air into the unit.  Dirt and debris stuck in the fins can also restrict proper airflow.  Decks or other overhanging structures above the unit may hinder the dispersal of exhausted air. These factors can hinder the air conditioner’s performance and efficiency and can even affect its overall life expectancy.

It is recommended that you maintain a minimum of 1 to 3 feet of open horizontal space around the unit to allow for optimum air intake. To avoid excessive heat buildup inside the condenser coil and ensure proper heat dispersal, it is recommended that you leave 4 to 6 feet of vertical clearance above the unit.  Dirty units should be cleaned, serviced and inspected by an HVAC technician.