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

Saddle valves: cheap, easy, and wrong

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: March 24, 2015 - 5:06 AM

I blogged about how saddle valves are illegal products in Minnesota nearly five years ago on my web site, but it's time for an update on that topic with some more information. Saddle Valve

To start, that's a saddle valve pictured at right. These are devices that allow for a very fast, cheap, do-it-yourself installation of a ¼” water supply line, typically used to supply water to ice makers and whole-house humidifiers.

Saddle valves are installed by tightening a metal clamp onto a water pipe, then tightening down a needle valve until it pierces the water pipe. No cutting of pipes is required, no soldering, no special tools… simple. Very DIY. The needle just pokes a hole in the pipe, and I've heard it can be done without even turning off the water... not that I've ever tried. There has to be a catch, right?

There is. These saddle valves are prone to leakage, and they're not allowed by the Minnesota State Plumbing Code.

Leaking Saddle Valve  Leaking Saddle Valve2

There is actually nothing in the Minnesota State Plumbing Code that specifically prohibits these types of valves; they're just not approved. Section 4715.0420 of the MN State Plumbing Code gives a list of approval standards. Saddle valves don't have one.

Most of them don’t leak, but they have a much higher chance of leaking than a properly installed water valve. My advice is to not use saddle valves. When installing an ice maker or whole-house humidifier, tap off of an existing water line with a proper tee fitting and have a proper shutoff valve installed. It will take a little more time to do it right, but you'll dramatically lower the potential for leaks.

If you already have a saddle valve in your home, try to leave it alone. Every time you operate the valve, you increase the potential for a leak. If you already have a saddle valve installed and you'd like to replace it with a proper stop valve, read on.

How to replace a saddle valve

Reuben's old saddle valveThere has been a saddle valve installed for the ice maker at my own house since I moved in over four year ago. I haven't touched it and it hasn't leaked, but I thought this would make for a nice little project where I could lay out the basic steps of replacing a saddle valve. This isn't a full how-to, however; I'm just laying out the basic steps that are involved.

To replace a saddle valve or tee off an existing water line, start by obtaining the needed parts. I'm assuming the saddle valve is connected to a ½" copper water line. If you're comfortable soldering copper tubing and you already have the equipment to do it, this project will cost about $10. If not, this project will cost about twice as much by using a push fitting tee.

Push fittings are extremely easy to use, requiring no special tools to make connections to copper, PEX, or CPVC tubing. They've proven to be reliable, but they're far more expensive than traditional copper fittings. The most commonly known push fittings are made by SharkBite®, but there are several other ones available, such as PDQ™ and Blue Hawk.

The photo below shows the stuff you'll need for this project.

Stuff Needed

You'll need a pipe cutting tool whether you decide to solder the copper fittings or use a push fitting. The parts needed for this project are a ½" copper tee or a ½" push fitting tee, a short length of ½" copper tubing, and a stop valve with a ½" copper tubing inlet and a ¼" compression outlet. Oddly enough, a ¼-turn push fitting valve goes for $8.72 at Home Depot, while the inferior-in-every-way multi-turn compression valve goes for $9.76. Naturally, I bought the push fitting valve.

Once you have the stuff that's needed, shut off the water to your home and drain the water lines. Remove the saddle valve and cut the water line just before and just after the location where the saddle valve was located. This should leave a small gap in the water line, which you'll bridge with the tee fitting. Here's a video on soldering a tee, and here's a video on using a push fitting. Stick the short length of copper tubing into the open end of the tee fitting; this is what you'll need to connect the stop valve to. Once that's in, you should have something that looks like the photo below:

Copper tee installed

Don't bother commenting on the super ugly soldering job. I know.

Now, all that's left is to install the stop valve. If you're using a push fitting valve, push it onto the end of the ½" copper tubing, then connect the ¼" water line to the other end. It should now look like this:

Reuben's new valve

That's it, that's all.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections


How to use an infrared camera to find overloaded circuits

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: March 17, 2015 - 6:21 AM

When we do an infrared inspection along with a home inspection, one of the extra things we do is to go around the house and turn on everything that's built into the home that uses electricity, to help determine if there are any overloaded circuits or overheated connections inside the main panel. With an infrared camera, all it takes is a quick scan of the panel to see if there are any hot spots.

If we do identify a hot spot in the panel, the next step is to figure out if it's a problem or not. We're usually not concerned with the exact temperature of the circuit breaker, because it's all relative. Even with no load on anything, arc-fault circuit breakers run a little warmer than anything else in the panel; that's never an issue. When we run an electric oven and turn the stove-top burners on, the circuit breaker and wires always get hot. That's not a problem either. Usually when I find a problem with a hot circuit, it's the result of the circuit being overloaded.

For example, while recently inspecting a new-construction home on a cold day in Hugo, I found a circuit breaker that was significantly warmer than all the rest of the breakers.

Hot Circuit Breaker

My infrared camera showed the circuit breaker to be nearly 70° Fahrenheit, while the ambient temperature was close to 0°... but again, the exact temperature wasn't important. The important question was whether or not this circuit was overloaded. To figure that out, I used my clamp-meter to see how much current was passing through the circuit breaker.

Clamp-meter on overloaded circuit breaker

In this case, it was about 23 amps going through a 20 amp circuit breaker.

What's allowable is a continuous load that is 80% of the circuit breaker's rating. In other words, no more than 16 amps on a 20 amp breaker. Click here for more details on sizing a circuit breaker.  This circuit was clearly overloaded. The fix was to have another circuit added.

In some cases, however, we find wires or circuit breakers that are so hot that we don't even bother testing the amperage; we just say it's overheated, it's a fire hazard, get it fixed. That generally applies to circuit breakers or wires over 140° Fahrenheit. The images below show a couple of nice examples of this.

Overheated Neutral Wire   Hot main breaker

Aren't infrared cameras great? I think they're great. This test doesn't require the use of an infrared camera though; I've heard of some home inspectors using an infrared thermometer to slowly scan an electric panel to look for hot spots, but I've never had much luck with that myself.

Infrared thermometer pointed at electric panel

I've tried using my cheap infrared thermometer on known hot spots on panels, and they do not jump out. In other words, I don't recommend using an infrared thermometer in lieu of an infrared camera. There are a few new "imaging IR thermometers" on the market today, such as the Flir TG165 and the Fluke VT02. As far as I can tell, these are simply stripped-down infrared cameras which would probably do a good job of identifying hot breakers, but so would the infrared cameras that are designed for mobile phones, such as the Flir One or the Seek Thermal.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections


How to control window condensation

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: March 10, 2015 - 5:24 AM

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

Condensation can turn wood windows black and make a mess of window sills.  It's a very common occurrence here in Minnesota.  The typical Ice on window homeowner goes on-line to read numerous articles about how they must be doing something wrong with their humidity levels to experience so much condensation.  In some cases, they have condensation forming, freezing, and melting all over the wood. They consider adding air exchangers with humidity control, throwing all plants out of the house, and telling the family to cut down on showering, cooking, and breathing.

Studies show a typical family of 4 releases around 2.5 gallons of water per day into the air of their house.  However, most of those families can't imagine cutting down on winter humidity levels when the house already seems bone dry.  Your skin is cracking around the knuckles, lips are chapped, and giving your kid a kiss goodnight can cause a static spark so loud that it nearly gives the dog a heart attack.  Yet there is still condensation on the windows?  Why is this happening?  In this post, we will talk about the causes and effects of window condensation, as well as strategies to prevent it from happening.

So why does condensation happen?

Water stained window sash

OK, so here's the science of it: when the temperature of your glass drops below the dew point of the air inside your house, condensation starts to appear on your window glass. The dew point is the temperature at which the air is fully saturated with water vapor. Dew points in the 50's and lower 60's are pretty comfortable, but imagine how easy it is for the interior glass temperature to get well below that on a cold night in MN.

The bottom line is that there are only two variables to window condensation: indoor humidity and window temperature.  To prevent condensation, these need to be controlled.  Let's talk about how to do that.

Control humidity

Indoor humidity can be lowered by doing all of those things that I listed at the beginning of this post.   Reuben listed a bunch of ways to lower indoor humidity levels in his blog post on siding stains, all of which apply to this situation.  Here they are, word for word:

The most obvious "no-duh" thing would be to turn off your whole-house humidifier if you have one.  A few other ways to lower indoor humidity levels are:

  • Install timers on your bathroom exhaust fans that will run the fans for an hour at a time, and use the fans.
  • Install bathroom exhaust fans in bathrooms that are used for showers or bathing if not present.
  • If the kitchen hood fan exhausts to the exterior, use it while cooking.
  • If you have too many plants (or weeds) in your home, fix that.
  • If you have a crawl space with no vapor barrier, fix that.  Crawl spaces with dirt floors are major contributors to indoor humidity.
  • If your home doesn't have a ventilation strategy, add one.  To understand what that means, please read this excellent article by Allison Bailes at the Journal of Light Construction web site: Choosing a Whole House Ventilation Strategy.
  • Read the article linked to above.  Seriously.  This will make the rest of this blog post make more sense.

To monitor indoor humidity levels, buy an indoor humidity monitor and put it in the upper level of your home.  Unfortunately, keeping indoor humidity levels low enough to completely avoid condensation at windows can lead to a very uncomfortable home.  There are charts that have easy recommendations for avoiding condensation: 20 degrees outside? Lower house humidity to 40%. 0 degrees outside? Lower house humidity level to 30%. -20 degrees outside? Lower house humidity level to 15%! The Mojave Desert has a daytime humidity level that ranges from 10%-30%. Doesn't that sound comfortable? Absolutely, if you're a gecko. Frost on window

Thankfully, we don't have sustained temps in -20's here in Minnesota all that often, so keeping your humidity level in the 30% range is usually enough to prevent condensation, but again, that's a pretty dry house.  I'm guilty of having humidifiers going in my daughters' rooms nearly all winter as they struggle through one winter sickness to the next.  Of course, that results in some condensation, as shown in the picture at right.  However, I have vinyl windows so the condensation I get doesn't hurt the product, and there is less condensation because of the foam spacer and upgraded glass.

Control window temperature

To help keep your windows warmer during the winter, don't close your blinds all the way to the bottom at night; you need warm air to wash over the windows to help keep them at a reasonable temperature.  During the day, keep the blinds open.  Even taking the screens off of crank-out windows helps a little to allow heat to reach the glass.  That's about all you can do to keep the interior surface of your windows warmer, short of replacing them.

Other strategies

3M Window Insulator KitIf you're not willing or able to control the above listed variables enough to prevent window condensation, consider using a temporary window insulator kit from 3M.  These are usually quite effective at reducing condensation, because they basically add another layer to your window on the inside of the home.

If you don't like any of these ideas, consider replacement windows.  If your home was built in the 70's, 80's, or 90's, you may have the unfortunate combination of a tightly sealed house and double-pane pine windows with aluminum spacers between the two panes of glass. If you've read the rest of my window series, you know how I feel about aluminum spacers and real wood windows. The aluminum spacer that runs along the perimeter of the glass conducts the cold from the outside pane to the inside pane, making the glass surface even colder. Since none of the double pane windows from that era had new glass technology like Low E coating and argon gas available, the aluminum spacer gets nearly as cold as the outside temperature which causes more condensation (and sometimes freezing) on the inside piece of glass. The condensation forms on the coldest part of the glass, which tends to be the bottom edge where it meets the wood. Bottom corners are the coldest, with aluminum spacers meeting and helping to create the condensation "smile" that lifts up higher at those corners. 

Frost on window

Windows from the 60's and earlier were made of hardwood or old-growth pine, which holds up much better to moisture than the soft pine used in windows today.

Even if you use real wood again on the interior, today's glass packs with multiple layers of Low E coating and argon gas are more effective and keep the inside glass at a higher temperature, resulting in less condensation and lower energy costs. Regardless, no window can completely eliminate condensation, so I encourage customers to go vinyl, composite, or fiberglass on the interior when getting new windows since those won't be hurt by water. Any spot where glass meets soft pine makes me nervous about maintenance issues, even with today's glass. That is also why non-wood windows have longer warranties than their real wood counterparts.

Some people may choose wood if they didn't have a previous condensation problem with the old windows.  However, I've seen times when homeowners get condensation for the first time with new windows because the old windows were so drafty.  The new windows are better at trapping air, which means less air changes per hour, which means a more humid house and a new problem.  New houses are built so tight that they often have condensation on the windows, and the construction process can add to that when the newer studs and other wood components temporarily release moisture into the air.


The good news for those of you with the deteriorating wood windows is that you can minimize the damage by controlling humidity and following these tips. The bad news is many people don't want to follow those tips, myself included. Some people want to close their blinds, use humidifiers for the kids, and keep their house at a humidity level that doesn't cause their skin to crack. If you are one of those people, your wood windows are probably turning black. Staying on top of it year to year with sanding and re-varnishing the area where the glass meets the wood can certainly help. People have also bleached them at times to get some of the mold out. In the end, it depends on your own threshold for humidity levels, and whether or not you can continue on with the wood windows or get them replaced with something more moisture-friendly.

Author: Ryan CareyMy Three Quotes

DIY confessions: Urinal installation and my tale of woe

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: March 3, 2015 - 5:07 AM

One of the things that us home inspectors love about our job is that we get to point out what's wrong, recommend repairs, and then we're done.   We don't have to worry about exactly how the repairs are going to happen, and we're not the ones that have to do the work.

When we take on our own home improvement projects, we don't have that luxury.  We've gotta do it right, and figure out how to get there.  I rarely tell personal stories, but here goes one.  This is a blog, after all.

UrinalI moved into my home in Maple Grove about four years ago.  It had an unfinished basement when I moved in, and the basement is still unfinished today.  I'll get around to finishing it someday, maybe, but for now this space serves as my office and exercise area, and I spend a lot of time down here.  There's a rough-in for a bathroom, which consists of drains and vents for a toilet, sink, and shower or bathtub.  Pretty standard stuff for any newer home with an unfinished basement.

When I finish off my basement I'll add a bathroom, but I thought it would be great to have a urinal and a sink down here in the meantime.  I figured that since the drains and vents had already been roughed in, all I'd have to do would be to run some water lines over, connect the fixtures, and I'd be all set.  It shouldn’t take more than a few hours, and would be a temporary installation, but I'd make good use of the fixtures while they were installed.  I've thought that ever since I moved into this house, but I finally took action a few weeks ago.

I had been passively looking for a used urinal on Craigslist for many years, but I was going to be home alone for a few days, and that was my chance to get a project done.  You know, a nice surprise for my wife when she got back ;-).  To get things moving along, I went online and special ordered a urinal from Home Depot for $118, and a flush valve for $92.  For the sink, I went on Craigslist and found someone selling a sink base, sink top, and a faucet for $50.

I got the project done, but it took me a little while longer than I had planned.  I’m sure any good plumber could have knocked it out in a few hours, but I’m not a good plumber.  Heck, I’m not even a bad plumber.  I know wrong when I see it, and I know how stuff is supposed to look when it’s right, but installing a urinal is brand new territory for me.

Water flow

First off, I spent way too much time installing the water supply lines.  Urinals with direct flush valves require at least ¾” water lines (see section 4715.1730 of the Minnesota State Plumbing Code), because there needs to be sufficient water flow to get a good flush out of the flush valve.  It's not like a flush tank, where a large amount of water is available to quickly dump.

Whenever I see PEX tubing installed, I’m a little annoyed at the number of fittings that are used.  Every one of those fittings restricts water flow, and part of the really cool thing about PEX tubing is that it’s flexible.  You shouldn’t have to use a bunch of fittings to get the PEX tubing to go where you want it to go.

So of course, I killed my back standing on a ladder bending and pulling ¾” PEX tubing through my floor joists and through the top plate of my wall.  Check out the photo below; you’ll notice there are no fittings used.

No fittings

I was tempted to use 90-degree fittings to get the PEX where I wanted it, but I persevered and got it all pulled through with no fittings, just to make absolutely certain that I wouldn’t have to worry about water flow.  It turned out to all be a waste of time and effort.

Once I gave the urinal the first test flush, water came out so fast that it shot right over the end of the urinal and all over the floor.  I adjusted the flow on the valve down about hallway, and the same thing happened again.  I adjusted it down again... same thing.  I ended up adjusting the flow all the way down to nothing, then gave the adjustment screw a quarter turn open.  That was about perfect.

Lesson learned: plumbers know what they’re doing.  Fittings in PEX aren’t a big deal.  The water flow probably would have been fine with a hundred fittings installed.

Boring holes

Box splicesWhile making the bore holes in my floor joists for the water lines, I made sure to stay the heck away from electrical wires.  Or at least I tried.  I made note of some wires that were in the path of where my water lines needed to go, pushed them aside, stapled them up out of the way of where I would be drilling, and drilled through my joist into the back of another wire I forgot about that was on the other side.  Duh.  Ultra-rookie mistake.

The good news was that my circuit breaker did its job and tripped the circuit, and I only put a tiny nick in the tip of my drill bit from the electrical arc.

So that’s what the two junction boxes at the ceiling are all about.  Lesson learned: look twice, drill once.

Watch it, sparky

I wanted the water pipe coming out of the wall for the urinal to be sturdy, and the right way to do this would be to use a ¾" drop ear elbow, but all that I could find at Home Depot, Menards, and Lowes were the ½" fittings, so I stubbed out some ¾” copper tubing and fastened the tubing to one of the wall studs with a few home-made brackets.  Not perfect, but it worked pretty well and the pipe doesn't budge.  One of my screws ended up protruding through the wall stud a little bit, so I got my angle grinder out and used it to cut the screw off flush.

Sparks on urinal

I didn't worry about the shower of sparks shooting out from my grinder onto the new urinal until I noticed a million little black flecks that showed up on the top of my brand-new urinal that wouldn't come off.

After coming up with no solutions on Google, I used Scotchbrite pads, SoftScrub, and about a half hour of very hard scrubbing to get the black flecks to nearly disappear, but they’re still not completely gone, as you can see in the photo below.  It almost looks as though the surface of the porcelain is pitted, but it still feels perfectly smooth.

Blemishes on new urinal

Lesson learned: keep sparks away from porcelain, or any other nice surface you don’t want ruined.


I’m sure I’ll end up re-doing everything except the water supply lines when I finish off my basement, but this sure is a convenient addition to my basement for now.  I've shared photos of residential urinal installations on the Structure Tech Facebook page, and one of the more common comments I received is that urinals are either gross or messy, but I couldn't disagree more.  Anyone who thinks they're gross is probably comparing them to public urinals.  Sure, the areas around those can be gross, but when the urinal is in one's own home, one has laser-focused aim and there is absolutely zero mess.  Liquids go where they're supposed to go, and nowhere else.  There's nothing not to like.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections


Pre-listing inspections: How one inspection could have saved more than $13,000

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman Updated: February 10, 2015 - 5:23 AM

Planning to sell your home? Hire your own home inspector to inspect it before you put it on the market.  Having your home inspected before it’s listed for sale will greatly reduce the potential for surprises that may crop up in the future.

I've given many anecdotes of how home inspections done for sellers can help the whole transaction go smoothly, but I recently had a real estate agent share a story with me that tops 'em all. This agent was an investor in this deal, and he tells the story in his own words:

This was a series of unfortunate events, but essentially here's how it went down:

- We supposedly "completed" the build project and began marketing it in July for top dollar. Major renovation, spent 350k on the work, all hired out to experienced, licensed professionals.

- Property didn't sell, didn't sell, didn't sell. Price dropped, dropped, and dropped. By now we were entering fall / winter and chasing the market down, left with fewer and pickier buyers.

- We finally get an offer, which puts us at break even. Buyers are attorneys, and cautious, negotiations are drawn out and tedious. We finally get consensus on price and closing date, and buyers move to the inspection.

- After the inspection, they immediately cancelled, not providing us with any reason other than the property felt "abandoned" and unfinished by the builder - there was lots of unfinished punch list items and other issues (no sump / drain tile system installed). We, the sellers, freak out on the builder and tell him to get over there and finish those items. In his defense, there was also supposed to be an opportunity for him to walk thru with the buyers and make a punch list of items (wall dings, screw pops, etc.), so he tells us he wanted to do it all at once, which is why things were unfinished. Whatever.

- Feeling like an incredible real estate agent, I get another buyer immediately.  We negotiate a BETTER deal than the last, and begin patting ourselves on the back and talking about how stupid and high maintenance the previous buyers were. Glad to be done with them, now on to the new inspection, and thankfully the builder has already been there to correct everything.

- These buyers also cancel unilaterally, immediately after their home inspection. They do not try to renegotiate price or corrections.

- Defeated, I beg the buyer's agent for forgiveness. He likes the house, so do the buyers, and as a courtesy he sends me the list of corrections they were going to send before deciding to cancel. Some of the items are erroneous, many are valid. We had a drain tile system installed when the foundation was done, but not the sump pump. We have a radon pipe going out of the home but no fan. The inspector called us out for not having closers on a built-in bench and that it could smash little fingers.  The closers were visible, in packaging, sitting in plain view in the bench... but just hadn't been installed yet. LOTS of little things like that.

Bottom line - if we would have had the home inspected first, we could have made the corrections or held our contractors feet to the fire to do things. We wouldn't have lost these deals - and let me quantify the loss for you: $13,300 price reduction and we “corrected” everything - whether it was wrong or not - much out of pocket.

A $500 inspection and some bruises are much better than that. And just KNOWING what the issues are - we trust our builder and trades people that we pay top dollar to, but they did us wrong.

They say surprise is the enemy of thought. We were surprised, put into a panic, and had to act out of desperation and humility (we feel bad our property was $#!%) instead of just having our $#!% together.

I've done well over 600 deals, been in the business 10 years, and consider myself good. But look at where we ended up. Pre-inspections are worth it every time, literally.

Hard to top that one, huh?

For anyone concerned about the cost of a home inspection, or for anyone who thinks a full home inspection report isn’t necessary or even wanted, no problem. Home inspectors can work around that.  Instead of a full home inspection, we do a ‘walk-n-talk’ consultation. We go through the home the same way we would for a normal home inspection, with the owner following right along, but the owner takes their own notes. We skip over the obvious stuff that anyone living in a home already knows about, and the whole walk-n-talk probably takes about half as long as a normal home inspection.  We offer this same type of service to property investors who want stripped down home inspections, which we call investor inspections.

There’s no report for a walk-n-talk, but the price for this consultation is about half the price of a home inspection.  Next week, I'll follow up with a post on how to get the most out of your Truth-In-Sale of Housing evaluation.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections



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