The Home Inspector

Reuben Saltzman is a second-generation home inspector with a passion for his work. Naturally, this blog is all about home inspections and home-related topics in the Twin Cities metro area. In addition to working at Structure Tech, he is also a licensed Truth-In-Sale of Housing Evaluator in Minneapolis, Saint Paul and several other cities.

Posts about Home Improvement

Seek Thermal Infrared Camera: A $199 IR Camera for Androids and iPhones

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: December 23, 2014 - 6:57 AM

At the end of August, I wrote a review about the Flir One infrared camera for the iPhone 5.  This may have been the first infrared camera designed to be used as a toy; the quick start guide that comes with the camera even says it'll help you gain a super power.  At the time, it was selling for $350.  The price has since dropped to $250.  Unfortunately, us Android phone users were left in the dark visible light spectrum, until now.  Seek Thermal has come up with a $199 infrared camera that works with several models of iPhones and Android phones (full list here).  I tested this camera with my Samsung Galaxy S4.

The Basics

The Seek Thermal camera is very small, and plugs into the USB port at the bottom of the phone.  There are no batteries to charge, no special cables to use, nothing like that.  All that's needed to get started is to install the Seek Thermal app from the Google Play store.

Seek Thermal Camera

Size and Shape

It's tiny.  Because it connects to the phone through the USB port, drop it once and it'll surely be toast.

See Thermal attached to S4

Software Options

The software is similar to the software for the Flir One.  It takes photos, records videos, there are a bunch of different color palates to choose from, it has a spot meter function that is supposed to display the surface temperature of whatever you're pointing the camera at, and a few other options.

Resolution

I've gotta be missing something here.  The Seek Thermal web site says "206 x 156 Array", and "32,136 Thermal Pixels".  My $2,500 Flir E6 camera has a resolution of 160x120, giving a total of 19,200 pixels.  Given those numbers you'd think the Seek Thermal camera would produce a much better image, but that's definitely not the case.  This makes me question the validity of judging an IR camera by its resolution.  Thermal sensitivity might be a nice metric to use, but I can't figure out what the sensitivity of the Seek Thermal camera is.

While the $250 Flir One camera has a second optical lens which blends optical images with infrared images to give an easy-to-understand hybrid image that outlines the high-contrast images, the Seek Thermal camera doesn't have that option.  The two images below were taken with a Flir One camera, with and without MSX turned on.  These images were taken during the summer, when there wasn't much of a temperature contrast.

Flir One MSX on and off

The real 'infrared information' you're getting from the two images above is identical, but the image on the left is much more pleasing to look at.  That's the beauty of MSX technology, and that's what you're missing with the Seek Thermal camera.

Image Comparisons

Here are a few side-by-side image comparisons of the 206x156 Seek Thermal on the left and the 160x120 Flir E6 on the right.  First, a shot of my basement.  These were taken just recently, giving some nice thermal contrasts.

Seek vs E6 Basement For the record, I turned off the MSX feature on my E6.  With the MSX turned on, there's just no comparison.

E6 MSX turned on Basement

A warm circuit breaker at my electric panel.

Seek vs E6 Circuit Breaker

The bottom of my front door with the outdoor temp at -4° F.

Seek vs E6 Door

My living room wall with the outdoor temp at -4° F.  The cold vertical lines are studs, and the warm vertical line is a heat duct in the wall.  The square at the lower portion of the wall is a canvas painting.

Seek vs E6 Wall

My dog Stanley.

Seek vs E6 Dog

No commentary needed, right?

Range

The stated temperature range of the Seek Thermal camera is -40° C to 330° C.

Conclusion

The images don't look nearly as good as the images on my lower-resolution, higher priced Flir E6, even with the MSX turned off.  I suppose it's like comparing pixels on a regular camera.  While the camera on my mobile phone takes 13 megapixel photos, the photos aren't nearly as nice as the photos I take with my point and shoot camera set to a lower resolution.

As I mentioned at the end of my blog post about the Flir One, this isn't a substitute for a dedicated infrared camera.  This a device to buy if you want to play around your house.  If you're in the market for an infrared camera for your phone, I think the Flir One is worth the extra $50 if you have an iPhone 5, simply because of the MSX technology that makes the images look so much better.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

Water Heater Backdrafting: What if you can't reproduce the problem?

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: December 16, 2014 - 5:54 AM

Here's a question that was recently emailed to me:

I was reading your blog and wondered if you could help me. My home is under contract for sale and the buyer's inspector noted that the water heater had a backdraft. I found this odd as it was only installed two months before. I had an HVAC tech come today to check and he verified that he could find no backdraft. Upon looking closer at the inspection notes from the buyer I saw the picture he took of the deformed grommets on the appliance. I called him and he explained that this was a sign of a backdrafting because only the sides near the vent were deformed. I see what he means, but no matter what conditions I produce in the house for fans, vents, open doors, hot water running, furnace on, etc. I can't produce conditions that create a backdraft.
Do you have any advice?

I'm assuming he was reading my blog posts on backdrafting water heaters.  I wrote two on this topic a little over a year ago; the first post, titled Water Heater Backdrafting: Why it matters and what to look for, explained what this is all about and how to find signs of a problem.  The second post on this topic was titled Water Heater Backdrafting: Why it's happening and how to fix it; pretty self explanatory.

The deformed / melted grommets that were mentioned in his question are the pieces of plastic shown in the photo below.

Melted Plastic at Draft Hood marked up

Note how the melting only occurs on the sides that face the draft hood; this is a dead giveaway that the melting was caused by the water heater backdrafting.

Side note: those melted pieces of plastic aren't a problem and they don't need to be replaced.  A rep from GE told me those pieces of plastic are only there to identify the water lines.

If this is what the home inspector saw, he'd be right to say there were signs of previous backdrafting, but not that the water heater backdrafts.  We don't say a water heater backdrafts if we can't see it backdraft.  A great way for a home inspector to get visual evidence of a water heater backdrafting is to hold their camera close enough to the draft hood to get their camera lens to fog over.  The photo will look like this:

Fogged camera lens

When a home inspector finds signs of previous backdrafting, they can recommend having a second person come out to inspect the situation further, or they can inspect the situation further themselves and make a call based on their professional experience, assuming they're qualified.

If a second person is called in to inspect the situation further, it will almost surely be a plumber or an HVAC contractor.  Some of them will be qualified to do this inspection and some won't.  If the person coming out to inspect the water heater draft is qualified, they will create a worst-case scenario to test the water heater draft.  If you really want to be sure that whoever is coming out to inspect the draft at the water heater is qualified, hire someone who is familiar with BPI's Combustion Safety Test Procedure For Vented Appliances.

As far as I'm concerned, BPI's standards are good, but they're not perfect. To establish a worst-case scenario, BPI standards say to turn on all of the exhaust fans, but what happens if the home has an attic / roof fan?  Those fans are (almost) exclusively installed in homes with horrible attic air leaks, and as such, they can cause major depressurization of homes.  This isn't new info; check out this article from 1995 explaining the danger of these fans: The Dangers of Powered Attic Ventilators.   If you're really going to create a worst-case scenario test for water heater draft, if there's an attic fan present, you better turn it on.

Also, if there is a functional whole-house fan installed, I'd argue that this fan should not be turned on. Those fans are only supposed to be operated with the windows open.  If a whole house fan is operated with the windows closed, it will cause a natural draft water heater to backdraft every single time. Without exception.

As a home inspector, I already do most of the stuff that BPI lists in their standards, but I don't go around opening and closing doors and measuring pressures in the combustion air zone to figure out the exact worst-case scenario.  I just get pretty close. If this test procedure causes the water heater to backdraft, check out my blog post on why it's happening and how to fix it.

If nobody can get the water heater to backdraft again, what should be done?  I vote for nothing.  There is an inherent danger that comes with owning a natural draft water heater, and this is the risk you take.  Today, I call it an acceptable risk because the installation of a natural draft water heater is an accepted residential building practice.  Some day in the future it probably won't be; when that happens, I'll change my tune.

Draft is a funny thing, and it's not 100% reliable.  This is why powervent water heaters are getting more and more popular, and why energy professionals all seem to hate natural draft water heaters.  Sometimes, all it takes is an unusually windy day to cause a water heater to backdraft.  I actually experienced this in my own house a couple of years ago.  During an extremely windy day, I noticed the tell-tale odor of combustion gases in my basement.  I immediately went over to my natural-draft water heater, and sure enough, it was backdrafting.

This only occurred for a few minutes, but the hot gases spilling back into my home were enough to slightly deform one of the pieces of plastic at the draft hood, which now serves as a nice reminder that any natural draft water heater can backdraft.  For the record, BPI standards for draft allow appliances to backdraft for up to 60 seconds upon startup.

Deformed plastic at draft hood

By the way, yes, that's an illegal flexible connector on my water heater.  It was there when I bought my house and I don't have a problem with it.

While I think it's a bit of an extreme measure, one way to make a natural draft water heater a little safer would be to have a spill switch installed at the draft hood.  This is a fairly simple safety device that will shut off the water heater if backdrafting is detected.  Here's an example of such a beast: SSK3 Spill Switch Kit.  According to Bruce Strandberg at BWS Heating & Air Conditioning, these devices would cost about $125 for an HVAC contractor to install.  I haven't seen one of these in many years, so I don't have any great photos to share of an installed spill switch, but you can find a photo here: http://www.wheatandsons.com/recent-jobs/draft-spill-switch/

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

Q&A: Heat Exchanger Cracks and Carbon Monoxide Myths

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: December 9, 2014 - 6:03 AM

I recently had a reader email this question.  I sent a short answer, but thought this was deserving of a longer answer in the form of a blog post.

"Please read this article about why heat exchanger cracks do not allow carbon monoxide into the house. The author has been in the industry for years as a trainer for HVAC technicians. I personally think that the HVAC businesses have a great scam going by locking-out people's furnaces without any measurable evidence that the CO levels are above normal. I think they use cracks to strong-arm sales so they can provide a replacement quote on the spot. I wish the attorney general of MN would not allow this kind of thing happen. After all isn't this why we buy CO detectors?

 http://carbonmonoxidemyths.com/myth-1.php"

In reading this email, I see three assertions that need to be addressed:

  1. HVAC businesses are using cracked heat exchangers to scam people.
  2. HVAC businesses in Minnesota lock out furnaces when cracked heat exchangers are found.
  3. Carbon monoxide detectors will keep people safe from carbon monoxide.

Cracked Heat Exchanger: Sales Scam?

I checked out the COmyths web site.  There's a lot of good info on there, but some of it is misleading and there are a lot of straw man arguments made.  For example, the headline at the beginning says "Myth #1 - A furnace with a cracked heat exchanger will definitely produce carbon monoxide and poses an immediate danger. (Wrong!)" .  Yes, that's an incorrect statement, but I've never actually heard anyone say that.  That headline is easily made true by rewording the sentence just slightly: a cracked heat exchanger has the potential to increase carbon monoxide levels, and has the potential to pose a danger to the occupants.

So what's a cracked heat exchanger all about and what's the big deal?  I wrote a blog post many years ago discussing that topic, and the gist of my blog post was the same as what's stated on the COmyths web site; a cracked heat exchanger probably isn't as dangerous as many folks make it out to be, but the furnace (or heat exchanger) still needs replacement.  Here's the post: How Serious Is A Cracked Heat Exchanger?

If a heating contractor finds a cracked heat exchanger and says the furnace needs to be replaced, they're not pulling a scam unless they're just outright lying to you about finding a crack.  They're simply doing their job.  Towards the bottom of the page on the COmyths web site, you'll find this text:

Text from web site

See?  This isn't a scam, even according to their web site.

Do HVAC businesses lock out furnaces?

Sometimes.  If a company considers the heating equipment to present an imminent danger to the occupants, they might disable it, but this policy varies from company to company.

If a heating company unscrupulously disabled a furnace in an attempt to strong-arm the sale of a new furnace, I would take serious issue with that.  I don't believe that happens though.  At least I hope it doesn't.

According to Becca Virden, the public relations spokeswoman at CenterPoint Energy, "We do our best for our customer by putting their safety and comfort first, safety being first. If we discover that a customer’s furnace has a cracked heat exchanger, we shut the furnace off at the electrical switch and gas valve and tag the appliance for repair. We shut the furnace off if they have a cracked exchanger because eventually, it can potentially be a carbon monoxide (CO) issue and because carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless and tasteless, people often mistake CO poisoning symptoms with the flu.”

When CenterPoint Energy identifies equipment as unsafe, they also red-tag the equipment.  This means they affix a tag to the equipment saying it's not safe to use.  That's about all.  If someone turns the equipment back on, the gas police won't come knocking at the door later that day.  I blogged about this topic many years ago, and the information in that blog post is still accurate today, except the "red tags" that CenterPoint Energy uses are actually now white.  They still call 'em red tags though.  Click here for an example.

Here's that blog post: Red Tagged Furnaces: Is Legal Trouble Worse Than Death?

Will carbon monoxide detectors keep you safe from carbon monoxide?

In short, no.

But let's back up a step.  Are we talking about a carbon monoxide detector, or a carbon monoxide alarm?  They're not the same thing.  UL listed carbon monoxide alarms will not alert you to low levels of carbon monoxide in your home because they're designed not to.  They're life safety devices, designed to prevent people from dying from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Carbon monoxide alarms are required by law within 10' of each room lawfully used for sleeping purposes in Minnesota and throughout many parts of the country.   Most homes that I inspect in Minnesota have at least one carbon monoxide alarm somewhere.  These alarms are sold everywhere, and they're fairly inexpensive.  Click this link for more info about the rules for carbon monoxide alarms in Minnesota: Minnesota Requirements for Carbon Monoxide Alarms .

For the record, CO alarms have a limited life; older Kidde CO alarms were good for seven years, but new ones are good for ten years.  First Alert CO alarms are good for five years.  If you don't know the age of your CO alarm and it could be over five years old, replace it.  Most CO alarms have the date somewhere on the back; click here for an example.  When installing a CO alarm, it's a good idea to jot down the expiration date on the back of the unit.

Carbon monoxide detectors, on the other hand, are far more expensive than carbon monoxide alarms, are not UL listed, and typically can't be found in retail stores.  They're designed to detect the presence of low levels of carbon monoxide.  In other words, a carbon monoxide detector will alert you to a carbon monoxide problem in the home far earlier than a carbon monoxide alarm would, but the vast majority of homes don't have carbon monoxide detectors. For more information on the difference between carbon monoxide alarms and carbon monoxide detectors, check out my blog post on that topic: Low levels of carbon monoxide will not set off UL listed CO alarms.

Again, carbon monoxide alarms are life safety devices.  We buy carbon monoxide alarms to help make sure nobody dies in their sleep, but they are absolutely not a substitute for having safe equipment. Carbon monoxide alarms are the last line of defense.  Relying on your carbon monoxide alarm to keep you safe and ignoring a potential safety hazard like a cracked heat exchanger is like ignoring electrical fire hazards in your home because you have smoke alarms.  Smoke and carbon monoxide alarms are not there to keep you safe; they're there to keep you alive.

In other words, if you have a potential safety issue with your furnace that a professional heating contractor has identified, fix it.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

Window Replacement Part 4: (Vinyl) Lindsay, Alside, Simonton, Soft-Lite

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: December 2, 2014 - 6:12 AM

This is a guest blog post by Ryan Carey, of My 3 Quotes.

The cost of window replacement can be quite a shock to homeowners. It is a huge business in the Twin Cities with the extreme weather we have, and customers almost always ask about a window's energy efficiency first. The next concern they have is how the window looks. I don't think anyone would argue with me when I say that wood windows look the best, hands down. However, wood windows are not in every homeowner's budget. They are typically more expensive, and staining charges drive up the price even more. Stainable composite and fiberglass options also look great and reside in the higher price range.  So the question comes up, "Can we get a less expensive window that has just as good of an energy rating as a wood, composite, or fiberglass window?"

If you read "Window Replacement Part 3: Marvin, Andersen, Pella," you know my thoughts on pros and cons of the big 3 window brands. They each have some great options to choose from, and they make great-looking windows.  In this post, we will discuss a few of the popular vinyl window lines in our market for the homeowners who are looking to keep the price a bit more manageable.

"Vinyl is cheap, right?"

There is no doubt that vinyl has a stigma attached to it as being cheap in a lot of people's minds.  Some think white is the only color choice and can't imagine it looking good in their house.  Others who have done some research on the internet might have found some scathing articles about how vinyl windows basically fall apart immediately after they are installed (and some do!).  Thirdly, many wonder why they have never heard of any vinyl window brands and it makes them uneasy.  Have you heard of any of the window brands mentioned in the title of this post?  Probably not, unless you've recently had some quotes done.Dark oak wood grain 

The vinyl companies rely on contractors' salespeople bringing in the windows, break-down kits, heat lamps, etc... to show the customer their product. They rarely do any national advertising. Some contractors that sell these windows do an informative presentation and leave quotes behind or send the quotes later. Other contractors that sell these windows may use the high pressure sales pitch in hopes of having the customer make that decision in one night. That is why you will see pricing all over the board for these products. The vinyl windows cost less than their wood counterparts, so the overall price should be less. However, a salesperson could end up pricing the job higher than any wood window job and giving you a discounted price that's good "for that night only." If you signed up with a company in one visit, chances are you paid too much. Those pitches are designed to capture higher margins.

Stay with their higher end options!

Sales tactics aside, these vinyl window manufacturers all make comparable high quality products in their upper-end lines. They all make lower end lines, too, which I can't recommend in our climate. You're already saving money by going to vinyl; don't get greedy and pick their cheapest line or you will regret it. The upper end lines all have lifetime warranties, better weatherstripping, better U-factors, and sturdier extrusions. Lower end vinyl lines are occasionally used by builders to save money or by contractors trying to be the cheapest price, and that's what can give vinyl windows a bad name. I've seen 5-year old low-quality windows warping and allowing major drafts to the dismay of homeowners.

The following four brands that I recommend all have several color choices including woodgrain laminate looks on the interior (see picture of dark oak woodgrain vinyl window next to stained oak trim). Those woodgrains, in many cases, change the minds of people who are looking for a wood look and steer them into vinyl.  Some say, "Wow, that's vinyl?"  Others see it as "looking fake" and go in a different direction. Using a beige interior (see picture)  has also been a popular option to go along with stained wood casing.

Beige vinyl window  

A contractor selling any one of these brands may tell you theirs is wayyyy better than the others. Truth is you'd be hard pressed to find much difference in any one of these brands in their top lines, in which their double pane windows with upgraded glass should have a U-factor of .27 or .26. This typically outperforms the wood window U-factors with comparable glass. The lower the U-factor the better. 

Cherry woodgrain

Lindsay Windows is located in Mankato, MN, and has been making windows since 1947. One of their upper end lines, the "Pinnacle", has excellent energy ratings and has a great look for the inside hardware. Their local rep lives here in the Twin Cities. They have 3 woodgrain options, and reportedly there are more on the way.  See picture of their cherry woodgrain with cherry-stained trim.

Soft-Lite Windows is located in Ohio, like many other vinyl window manufacturers, and they've been making windows since 1937. Their upper end lines like "Elements" and "Imperial LS" work great in our climate. They have 4 options for interior woodgrains.

Simonton Windows is also located in Ohio and has been making windows since 1946.  "Impressions" and "Reflections" are some of their upper lines that perform well here. They have 3 woodgrain colors.

Alside Windows is located in (you guessed it) Ohio and has been in business since (you guessed it again) 1947. They also make vinyl siding. Their upper end windows like "Sheffield" and "UltraMaxx" can handle our heat and cold. They have an extended line of woodgrains that can match nearly any trim.

Do you notice something similar about these lines? They all have been around for 65+ years, which is very important to me when a company is giving a lifetime warranty. How good is a lifetime warranty from a company that has been in business for 5 years? I recommend upper end windows from any of these 4 manufacturers based on their longevity and track record. There are hundreds of other vinyl window manufacturers out there, and if the research shows similar longevity and U-factors, you can feel pretty comfortable with them as well.

Keep in mind some of the contractors have these manufacturers private-label a window just for them, so you may not see the names mentioned above. If the double pane window is .27 or lower, then you'll know it's in their upper lines. Because of the local angle combined with the performance and look of their product, Lindsay gets the nod from me as my favorite vinyl window to work with.

Ryan Carey has 15 years of experience in exterior remodeling for Twin Cities Homeowners and Property Management Companies. He is the owner of My 3 Quotes, a company that provides the free service of collecting 3 competitive home improvement bids for customers. For more information, visit www.getmy3quotes.com for free home improvement estimates on window replacement and more.

Forgot to Winterize Your Outside Faucet(s)? Here's what to do.

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: November 25, 2014 - 5:29 AM

Did you forget to winterize your outside faucets this year?  I did.  It doesn't matter that I posted a Fall Maintenance Checklist reminding homeowners to shut off water to their outside faucets nearly two months ago... I still forgot.

It's not the end of the world.  In most cases, there's enough heat leaking out of your home to prevent your outside faucet from being destroyed and your water pipe from bursting.

Use a hair dryer or a heat gun to thaw your faucet.   This will take a long time with a hair dryer, but it'll happen eventually.  If you choose to use a heat gun, be very careful.  That's not a high-powered hair dryer, it's a heat gun.  It'll blister paint, melt vinyl siding, and start paper on fire.  The two infrared images below show a heat gun on the left and a hair dryer on the right; note the temperatures shown at the top left corners of images.

Heat Gun Hair Dryer

So anyways, use one of these tools to thaw the faucet.  You'll know the faucet has thawed once you can turn the faucet handle to open it.  If there is ice inside the pipe and faucet, you'll first get a little trickle of water coming out, but the water coming through should quickly break the ice loose and you'll soon get a normal stream of water coming out of the faucet.

Once that happens, you can winterize your faucet as normal.  Click here for instructions: How to winterize outside faucets

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

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