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.

New U.S. water heater energy standards

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman under Home Improvement, Energy Updated: April 14, 2015 - 5:44 AM

On Thursday, April 16, new energy efficiency standards from the National Appliance Energy Conservation Act (NAECA) go into effect for water heaters. Starting that day, manufacturers will only be allowed to make water heaters that conform to the new energy standards. Existing water heaters will still be allowed to be sold, but I don't expect that supply to last for more than a few months, and I've heard those supplies have already disappeared in some areas. Here’s how the changes will affect homeowners.

Side note: Don't call it a "hot water heater." It's just a water heater.

Water heaters under 55 gallons will need to have their energy efficiency rating bumped up just a tad. To do this, manufacturers will be adding about an inch of insulation to the water heater tank. This will increase the diameter of same-capacity water heaters by over two inches, and will increase the height by about one to two inches.

This increase in size won’t be a big deal for most people, but if the water heater is squeezed into a tight space, replacing the water heater could be a hassle, or possibly require replacement with a smaller unit. The diagram below is being used with permission from AO Smith.

Under 55 Gallons

Gas water heaters over 55 gallons will need to have an energy factor of at least .74 to .75, depending on the exact size. To achieve this modest energy factor increase, it’s expected that manufacturers will only produce condensing water heaters for these larger sizes. That means a powervent water heater, which needs to have its own dedicated exhaust vent, a power source, and a way to dispose of condensate. These water heaters are obviously more expensive, and the installation costs will be higher too.

Electric water heaters over 55 gallons are about to get silly. For these units, the energy factor is going to more than double. To get there, you’ll be looking at a heat pump water heater. Never seen one? I haven't either.

A heat pump water heater works by extracting heat from the air and transferring it to the water in the tank. Of course, this means it’ll act like an air conditioner in the home. How much will this cool the space it’s in? I don’t know yet, but I've heard it's fairly significant. Here's a nice little video clip from GE showing the amount of energy that these units have the potential to save:

Besides a change in technology, heat pump water heaters will also be significantly taller; somewhere around 18”.

Over 55 Gallons

These new units will obviously be more expensive, but the installation / replacement costs should remain the same, assuming they're being installed in a large enough space.

Tankless water heaters won't change much. The energy factor for gas fired tankless water heaters will be going up from .62 to .82, but the vast majority of tankless water heaters produced today already exceed the new energy standard. The energy factor for tankless electric water heaters will remain the same.

Click on any of the links below for more information and specific details on the new water heater standards:

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections


Buying a new model home? Find out when your warranty begins.

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman under Construction, Home Improvement Updated: April 7, 2015 - 5:41 AM

This is a guest blog post by Kurt M. Mitchell, Attorney at Law with Hellmuth & Johnson, PLLC. I asked Kurt to write this guest post as a heads-up for anyone buying a new construction model home, and for those who already own a model home. The topic came up after I heard about a very unfortunate situation for a homeowner, which Kurt talks about in this post. - Reuben

In Minnesota, a homeowner can make a claim for defective construction in new homes and remodeling projects. The defect or error, however, must be discovered within 10 years of completion of the work. This 10 year deadline is called the statute of repose.

This 10 year period begins to run “when construction is sufficiently completed so that the owner or the owner's representative can occupy or use the improvement for the intended purpose.” Minn. Stat. § 541.051. This date is called the date of substantial completion. Most people believe the date listed on their home’s certificate of occupancy is the date of substantial completion. However, as one Twin Cities’ homeowner found out, the date listed on his home’s certificate of occupancy was not the date when the work was completed and, more importantly, not the date on which the 10 year period began to run.

The home was built in the summer of 1995 and used by the builder as a model home until November 15, 1995, when the owner entered into an agreement to buy the home from the builder. For tax purposes, the builder did not obtain a certificate of occupancy from the city until a day before the sale closed on January 20, 1996. On November 20, 2005, the homeowner discovered damage to the home caused by the intrusion of moisture and water.

The homeowner sued the builder to recover money damages to compensate him for the water damage to the home. The builder sought to dismiss the homeowner’s claims on the basis that the homeowner did not discover the problem within the 10 year period after the home was built. The builder argued that the home was substantially complete in the summer of 1995 but, in any event, not later than November 15, 1995, when the homeowner agreed to purchase the home. The homeowner responded by claiming that the home could not have been substantially complete until the certificate of occupancy was issued by the city in January 1996.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals disagreed with the homeowner and relied upon the plain language of the Minnesota law at issue, Minn. Stat. § 541.051, which it said “specifically focuses on the extent to which a structure has been built as the measuring stick for whether the owner may use or occupy the structure for its intended purpose, not the owner’s legal right to use or occupy that structure for its intended purpose.” The court determined that the model home was substantially complete no later than November 15, 1995, when the homeowner agreed to buy the home and dismissed the homeowner’s claim because he did not discover the problem within ten years of completion of the work.

Bottom line: You cannot rely upon the date on your certificate of occupancy as the date of substantial completion for purposes of beginning the ten year period in which you have to bring claims against a builder. That date may be much earlier depending upon when the home was actually constructed.


Author: Kurt M. MitchellHellmuth & Johnson, PLLC

How to makeover your closet

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman under Home Improvement Updated: March 31, 2015 - 5:01 AM

A single closet rod at eye level with a shelf above it is an old, outdated closet setup. I don't call myself an organizational expert, but I do get to look at a lot of closets, and it seems that most closets have this same setup. If you have this closet design in your home, you're probably due for an upgrade. If you want ideas for closet organization, check out Pinterest.

My two closet makeover tips are to add automatic lighting to your closet if you don't already have it, and to consider hiring out the reorganization of your closet. Don't laugh, I'm serious.

Consider Hiring Out

I live in one of those houses with the cheap wire shelving in every closet. It ain't fancy, but it works. I've reorganized all of the shelves except for the ones in my daughter's room, which have remained untouched. Why? Probably because my wife never asked me to redo them. The day to redo those shelves finally came, but I lucked out this time and hardly had to do any work, thanks to the services of a local closet organization company by the name of Home Options, Inc.*

Their installed price for a new wood laminated shelving system in my daughters closet was about the same as what I was able to find for the product alone, by shopping sites like Home Depot and Costco. Hiring Home Options to do the new closet system was a very easy decision to make, and it turned out great. They also offer wire shelving, with installed prices very similar to the products alone.

Here's a before and after pic, which obviously included some de-cluttering, painting, and better lighting for the "after" part:

Closet Before and After

Add Automatic Lighting

My other piece of advice is to add automatic lighting to your closet if it's not already there. Of course, some houses will be much easier to wire than others, but if there is attic space above the bedroom, there's a good chance that there's a circuit that can be tapped off of to add lighting to the closet. There are two components to consider when adding closet lighting; what type of lighting to add, and how to turn the lights on and off.

Bare bulb light in closetElectrical safety standards will somewhat limit the available options for closet lighting. While the old standard was to not have any bare light bulbs within 18" of a shelf, today's standard for closet lighting safety has a big list of requirements. I won't get into all that, but if you're interested in those requirements, google up NEC 410.16.

As for turning the closet lights on and off, the worst possible method is to install a fixture with a switch built in, such as a pull-chain light or a fluorescent light with a switch built into it. I've lived in homes with those types of lights, and I've found that I don't use those types of lights unless I have to.

The next best method is to have a switched light. That's pretty much the standard, and it works, but it's not my method of choice.  If you already have a switched light for your closet, it probably works well enough to just leave the way it is, but if you're installing new wiring... Motion Sensor

The best way to switch a closet light is with a motion sensor.  I'm generally not a fan of motion sensor light switches, but a bedroom closet is a perfect location for this. The light turns on when you need light, it turns back off on it's own, and the motion sensor can be hidden inside the closet. This not only hides it from view, but prevents the closet light from turning on when you don't want it to.  I've done this at several closets, and it has worked out quite well.  Motion sensors cost about $20.

The photo below shows one such example, looking up at the motion sensor on the ceiling from inside the closet. The motion sensor controls power to the outlet.

Motion Sensor in closet

* The other reason I didn't have much work to do on this project was because my wife pulled all of the old shelving out, patched all of the holes in the walls, and repainted.  

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections


Saddle valves: cheap, easy, and wrong

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman under Home Improvement 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 under Home Improvement 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



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