Reuben Saltzman

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.

Whole House Fans

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman under Home Improvement Updated: March 13, 2014 - 5:43 AM

What's that big ugly metal thing at the ceiling in the hallway?

Whole House Fan

Those are the louvers for a whole house fan.  While they're not common in Minnesota, I see a few of them every year while doing home inspections.  A traditional whole house fan basically consists of a huge, noisy, scary looking fan installed at the ceiling in the hallway of the uppermost level of a home.  When a whole-house fan runs, it pulls air out of the house and directs it into the attic space, and from there, the air gets exhausted through the attic vents.  The opening at the ceiling is covered with metal louvers that get sucked open when the fan turns on; that's what you're seeing in the photos above and below. Whole House Fan

The ideal time to use a whole house fan is in the evening after a hot day, when the outdoor temperature is lower than the indoor temperature.  As long as all of the windows are opened, the whole house fan will pull cool air into the house, and flush out hotter air in the attic.  Not only does this cool the house down quite quickly, but it provides a ton a fresh air into the home, and costs much less to operate than an air conditioner.  It's no wonder people love these.

The video clip below shows an old super-powerful window fan, which was essentially a whole-house fan installed at a window.  As I pushed the office door shut, the air rushing into the room kept pushing the door back open.  That's some serious air movement.

Whole house fans are great, but there are a few important things to know if you own one.

The windows need to be opened before using a whole-house fan.  If you've read some of my blog posts about makeup air, combustion airbackdrafting water heaters, or you intuitively understand that all of that air leaving turns the house into a big vacuum, you're probably wondering what will happen when the atmospherically vented water heater fires up... or maybe you already know.  It's going to backdraft like crazy, of course.   Instead of the exhaust gases rises up the vent through gravity, the whole house fan is going to pull the exhaust gases back into the home, which is a hazard.

To help prevent this from happening, it's important to open most or all of the windows in the house, as well as the interior doors between hallways and rooms.  Not only will this help prevent the water heater from backdrafting, but it also gives the fan all of the air it needs, providing better fresh air circulation throughout the house.

Whole-house fans can be a major source of energy loss during the winter.  

Attic bypass around whole-house fan

Without a doubt, one of the worst sources of air leakage into the attic space is an opening for a whole-house fan.  This leads to heat loss, cold air dumping into the hallway, ice dams, and frost in the attic.  To help prevent air leakage at this location, it's a good idea to seal off the opening at the ceiling with a window insulating kit every fall.

The two ways to insulate around this opening are from the attic or the ceiling.  If this opening is insulated from the ceiling, there will be a big ugly chunk of insulation boxed in at the ceiling in the hallway.  If the opening is insulated from the attic side, it will need to consist of a custom insulated box that covers the fan without any gaps.  I remember inspecting a home in Saint Paul that had a perfect insulated box for the whole-house fan, which the owner had spent many weekends perfecting.

Don't bother throwing a few fiberglass batts over the fan; that will be just about useless, and if someone accidentally turns the fan on while the insulation is blocking the blades, you'll have a mess.  To lower the potential for someone accidentally operating the fan during the winter, it's a good idea to shut off power to the fan at the circuit breaker.

If you love the idea of a whole house fan and you'd like to install one in your own home, take a look at some of the newer ones available and read more about them at www.wholehousefan.com .  Newer ones are smaller, quieter, non-threatening, and come with self-closing dampers to help reduce air leakage and energy loss.  They look pretty sweet, and every homeowner I've ever talked to that had a whole-house fan absolutely loved it.

Author: Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections

          

Online Building Permit History and more for Twin Cities Homes

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman under Real Estate, Home Improvement, Real Estate Updated: March 7, 2014 - 6:33 AM

While real estate web sites give the most important information about homes to potential buyers, there are many other free web sites that give public information about homes in Minnesota.  I use these sites on a regular basis, especially when I'm inspecting a flipped house.  Not only is it interesting to see if permits have been pulled for work being done, but it's also interesting to see if the work has ever been inspected and approved.

Online Permits

I think it's wise to check the permit history when buying a home.  The standard Seller's Property Disclosure Statement asks the seller if appropriate permits were pulled for any work performed at the property, but I think this is a fairly worthless question, and I often find the check boxes on this form just left blank.

 

If permits were pulled, it means the seller was given permission to perform work.  It doesn't mean the work was completed, inspected, or approved.  If you were buying a home, wouldn't you want to know if there were a bunch of open permits?  Or that the basement was completely finished without permits?  Or that no permits were pulled for a bunch of hack wiring that was done as part of a kitchen remodel?

The old timey way to check permit history was to call the building inspections department, but today there are at least eighteen cities in the Twin Cities metro area that give building permit history online.  If I missed any, please let me know and I'll add them.  I also have these cities listed under the "External Links" page on our web site.

*Minneapolis and several other communities use state electrical inspectors, so electrical permits must be looked up here: https://secure.doli.state.mn.us/etrakit2/AdvPermitSearch.aspx

Truth In Sale of Housing Evaluations

Currently, only Minneapolis and Saint Paul have TISH evaluations publicly available online.  Here's how to look them up.

Minneapolis: Go to the Minneapolis Development Review site to look up information about properties within the city.  Just type in the house number and street name; don't bother with things like "Avenue" or "East."  If there are multiple listings for your search terms, you'll be given a choice.  Once you've found the property, click "View this Property".

The next page will have a bunch of links at the top left, including one that says "Truth in Sale of Housing".  Click this link to look up any current TISH evaluations.  If there are open repair orders, those will also be listed here.

Saint Paul: Go to the Saint Paul One Stop page to look up property information about Saint Paul homes.  For TISH evaluations, start by clicking the link that says "Property info and Permits by Address."  Type in the house number and street name, hit submit, and you'll be taken to the property info page.  To know if there is a TISH evaluation on file for the property, look for an entry that says "Truth In Sale of Housing Inspection".

Saint Paul Truth in Housing Screen Shot

At the bottom of such an entry should be one or two hyperlinks; one linking to the TISH cover sheet, and another linking to the 'guts' of the report... or in same cases, both the cover page and the guts may be combined into a single report.  I've heard some guys have figured out a way to combine the two reports into a single document, but I haven't.

Owner Info, Sales History

The Hennepin County web site gives information about who the current owner is, what the property last sold for, aerial photos, and rough diagrams showing the sizes and shapes of lots.  The image below gives a shrunk-down example of what this looks like.  Click the photo to see a large version.

Hennepin County Map View

Hennepin County's property information site is the only one I use with any regularity, but other counties give similar information on their sites.

Author: Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections
          

How Much Snow Can Your Roof Hold?

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman under Home Improvement Updated: February 27, 2014 - 5:19 AM

The recent snow fall has caused major problems with roof leaks from ice dams, and there have been a number of roof collapses or failures at commercial buildings in Minnesota and Wisconsin over the past week, including the Miller Hill Mall in Duluth and a Kmart in Eau Claire.

Naturally, homeowners are starting to get concerned about how much snow their roof can hold.  The video clip below from a 2011 Allstate commercial gives a nice image of what this might look like.

The required roof snow loads for Minnesota aren't clearly spelled out anywhere, but the numbers can be found by using Table R301.2(1) of the Minnesota Administrative Rules.  This table says that roof snow loads equal .7 times the ground snow load.  To find the ground snow load, we use section 1303.1700 of the Minnesota Administrative Rules.  The southern portion of Minnesota, which includes the Twin Cities metro area, uses a ground snow load of 50 pounds per square foot.

For the Twin Cities metro area, the roof snow load equals 35 pounds per square foot, or .7 x 50. So how much snow does this equal?  It depends.  As everyone knows, cold fluffy snow is very light, while wet snow can be extremely heavy.  The chart below, courtesy of Paul Schimnowski, P.E., gives some examples of snow loads.

Snow Load Table 

Bucket of Snow

Last Wednesday, just before the most recently dump of snow that we received, I checked a section of undisturbed snow in my back yard to see what it weighed; 1/2 of a cubic foot was about 10 pounds.  The depth of the snow varied between 14" and 20", so to make the math easy, lets say it was 18".  That would make the snow weigh about 30 lbs / sf.

If you have a properly constructed roof, you shouldn't have to worry about your roof collapsing because the snow on a sloped roof won't be as deep as snow on the ground, with the exception of snow drifts. Snow drifts are the result of light, fluffy snow blowing around; not heavy wet snow. Also, the 35 pounds per square foot requirement is only a minimum requirement.

So why did the commercial roofs collapse?  They were dealing with snow drifts on flat roofs, and on a much larger scale.  According to Jepsen Inc, the construction firm that shored up the collapsed Kmart roof, some of the snow drifts were nearly eight feet high, as shown in the photo below.

Collapsed Kmart Roof

If you have an unusually large flat roof on your home or you know you have structural problems with your roof and you get some huge snow drifts, it wouldn't hurt to have some snow removed from your roof, but again, it's probably not necessary.  Here's a short video clip where I spoke with WCCO news earlier this year about roof snow loads, saying not to worry (yet).

Author: Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections

          

Window Replacement Part 3: Marvin, Andersen, Pella

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman under Home Improvement Updated: February 21, 2014 - 4:38 AM

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

How important is a well-known name brand for you? That is a big question and the answer greatly affects our buying decisions. For example, when several in-home window presentations by high-pressure salespeople are giving you a headache, do you get generic ibuprofen or do you pay a little extra for Advil? The generic brand shows the same percentage of ingredients, but this is a huge headache so maybe its best to be on the safe side?

Over the years, the most common question I get is, "So how does this window compare against Andersen, Marvin, or Pella?" I could show the comparable ingredients or the same U-factors, but some folks are just more comfortable with that well-known name brand. They know the manufacturer has been around for a long time and therefore has made many customers happy. They are also concerned about the company being around in the future for warranty issues.

If you read Window Replacement: Part 1, you know how important I believe that U-factors are in new windows. In Part 2, I went through the pros and cons of different window materials and install methods. For Part 3, we will focus on the Big 3: Marvin, Andersen, and Pella. I will even add a 3.5 for Weather Shield. You won't normally hear unbiased opinions on these windows, because typically the person doing the writing has a particular window they are trying to sell.

Wood Window with Aluminum SpacerTo begin on the straight talk, I just want to say every one of these companies' windows were pretty awful in the 70's, 80's, and even into the 90's before Low E, Argon filled glass came along. This had not as much to do with them, as it did with the struggle of finding a wood interior window that worked with the new technology of double pane glass and aluminum spacers. EVERY company had issues with that. Hardwood was no longer being used for windows; it was mostly soft, quick-growth pine. The two panes of clear glass were separated by an aluminum spacer on the perimeter, which transferred in the cold from the outside because the aluminum is very conductive. That area would develop condensation, freeze, thaw, and destroy the wood where it meets the glass. Sometimes the water got into the frame and completely rotted it out.

I kept running into the same thing with homeowners. If their windows from that era were Marvin, they hated Marvin and would never use them again. If they had Andersen, they hated Andersen and would never use them again. If they had Pella or Weather Shield, well, you can guess. This is why you will find a lot of negative reviews about every kind of window out there. Unless the homeowner had very good humidity control, the customer was in for trouble with wood windows from that era in our state. Many negative reviews also were the result of bad installs.

Times have changed; spacers have changed to less conductive stainless steel, U-shaped tin steel, and foam polymers (my personal favorite-virtually no conduction of cold). Low-E and Argon glass has also hindered temperature transfer and greatly cut down UV rays that help damage the wood. While the performances have greatly improved and the wood will last longer, I still refuse to put a real wood window with any type of metal spacer in my house. Even if it is just a little maintenance from time to time with some steel wool and varnish, it is more than I want to do. Many people love real wood and feel different than me on that topic.

Times have also changed with the window market. Back in the day, these big window brands were mainly new construction, and none of them used to custom size for remodel openings. Times were so good they would actually tell customers, "YOU alter YOUR openings to fit OUR windows." Needless to say, they have all jumped headlong into the custom-sized replacement window market at this point.

MARVIN:

It shouldn't be a surprise that Marvin and Andersen are the most asked for windows from customers, considering both companies reside here in Minnesota. Pella (Iowa) and Weather Shield (Wisconsin) are a ways back in the second tier. Maybe its the thought of Hawkeye, Badger, or Packer fans making windows for your house? While people do like to buy from home state companies, the window quality and reputation certainly play their roles, as well.Marvin Infinity with Everwood Interior 

Marvin has been making windows since the 20's and they have changed along with the times. Their original double pane wood window is clad with aluminum on the exterior. They have also gone to fiberglass on the exterior with their Integrity line (real wood interior) and they make Infinity, an all-fiberglass line that has an option for a stainable interior (not real wood). Marvin is the one company out of all mentioned that have completely refused to use vinyl in any window line, so they pitch strongly against it. Their Ultimate Double Hung is a beautiful window and the price reflects it.

I'm a big fan of Marvin; I believe in the craftsmanship of their entire product line. If I had to choose one of their windows, I would go for Infinity. Fiberglass is as good as it gets; couple it with their Everwood interior for the look and stainability of wood without actually having to worry about wood decay and you have me sold. It is definitely on the high end of pricing, as you would expect from a high-end option. My only regret with Marvin is that they still use metal spacers, which keeps me from recommending their real-wood lines. ANDERSEN: Andersen Casement

Andersen is the only company of the ones we're discussing that uses wood wrapped in vinyl on the exterior. The wood strengthens the vinyl, leaving an exterior that is low maintenance yet rigid. Andersen's top line, the 400 series, is high-end priced as well. I would take a Marvin over Andersen in the double hung department (I like the traditional look), but I would take the Andersen casement over a real-wood Marvin. They wrap the entire sash (the part that cranks out) in vinyl so there is no trouble spot of wood against glass. You do see the outline of vinyl on the interior, but the profile is narrow enough that most people don't mind. It's well worth it to avoid the potential wood decay. Andersen also makes an all vinyl wrapped patio door in their PermaShield line if you want to avoid exposed wood on the interior.

So what about Andersen Renewal? Talk about a company that advertises everywhere! Renewal by Andersen is it's own company, separate but obviously owned by the main company. Renewal products are made from a composite material called Fibrex, which is part wood and part vinyl. This is very smart by Andersen, as they use up all the by-products of their other lines (which are made of wood and vinyl separately). Renewal products are not available to contractors like their other lines; you must purchase the install straight from Renewal. They feature a more rounded, contemporary look and customers I've ran across have been very positive on the product in their home. They offer stainable interiors or the low-maintenance Fibrex. With pricing being quite high-end, always remember this: NEVER tell a salesperson from another company that you're also getting a quote from Renewal, even if you are. Almost every salesperson knows where Renewal is priced, so this tells them they can price their own product higher than normal yet still be less than Renewal. Just tell them you are getting several quotes and leave it at that.  

Andersen 100 Series

Andersen 100 series is a very intriguing window line. Some call it "Renewal Lite" since it is also made of Fibrex. The only option is a white interior, so that takes some people out of the mix right off the bat. However, if white on the inside is OK by you, this is the absolute best opportunity to get a big name window at a no-name window price. I love their sliders and casements. The one caveat is their single-hung; that thing is a nightmare. Since the top sash is stationary, it is called a single hung (not a double hung). That's not the problem. The problem is it doesn't have the typical tilt-out feature for cleaning; it has a metal peg that you flip out before lifting the sash up. When the sash goes up, the peg should push the sash out of the frame for cleaning but many times the peg flies out instead. If you don't need to clean from the inside, then don't worry about it. If you do, stick with the sliders and casements and you'll get a great value.

PELLA:

Well, Pella certainly took a "we're not fooling around" approach to jumping into the remodel market. They make three series of wood windows with aluminum cladding, a fiberglass line, and three levels of all vinyl windows! On the vinyl side, they can be judged right along with other vinyl windows with the bonus that they carry the Pella name. My advice remains the same as with other vinyl-check the U-Value, stick with the top level they offer, and you'll be happy. They also make an all-fiberglass window in Impervia, with solid color interiors available. Pella Blinds in the Glass 

Pella makes a finely detailed wood line called the Architectural Series, which is a well-crafted window with a higher price tag. Their Designer Series is option-friendly, and one of the only lines that has really perfected the "blinds between the glass panes" option. If you want blinds in your glass instead of on the inside of your home, this is the best line for you. Pella's entry level wood window is Proline, which I am not a fan of whatsoever. A small space between the glass along with an aluminum spacer means bad news for the wood. I've seen these windows in tough shape after ten years, even with the Low E glass. If you like Pella and want wood interior, pay the extra for Architectural or Designer.

I also have to bring up Pella's patio door lines. They are well-made, but they are the only company I've ever seen that puts the patio screen on the inside, not the outside. They say this protects the abuse of an exterior track and they put a nice wood finish on the screen, but it is impractical for its main use- keeping bugs out. Imagine a summer night where you have 200 mosquitoes on your screen, thirsting for your blood like a pack of zombies. When its time for bed, you have to open the screen to close the outside panel of the patio door, then quick close the screen again so they don't all get in. Now they are all trapped between the two panels. I'll never get that design.

WEATHER SHIELD: WS Wood Window with Foam Spacer 

Why am I bringing up Weather Shield? Not exactly a big name compared to the other three with the big advertising budgets. However, I bring them up because they have embraced the foam spacer technology while the others haven't. I mentioned I wouldn't put a wood window with a metal spacer in my house. Well, here is a well-made wood window with a foam spacer. For someone who despises even a little maintenance on windows, I personally would still avoid wood. However, if I had to do real wood, I would use Weather Shield Aluminum clad wood windows with the foam spacer in my house. No metal equals less condensation where the glass meets the wood. Weather Shield also makes wood windows with vinyl and fiberglass exteriors, but I am not a huge fan of the overall design of those two products. Their bread and butter is the aluminum-clad, and I would recommend that window to anyone who wants to stick with real wood.

So, that is my opinion on some of the pros and cons of the big 3 plus 1 (Weather Shield). I hope you find it helpful. If you want more detail or have more questions on any exterior product, I am available by phone or e-mail.  Contact information is on our website below.  Next time we will explore the storm damage insurance process- what to look for and what to avoid at all costs!

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.

Ice Dams: Prevention and Removal

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman under Home Improvement Updated: February 14, 2014 - 5:00 AM

I've been seeing ice dams all over the Twin Cities, and I've heard from a number of homeowners who are having problems with ice dams right now.  I've written about ice dams extensively on this blog, so I'm putting together links to my three main blog posts on ice dams in one place.  The topics are how to prevent ice dams the right way, how to prevent ice dams from the outside if you can't prevent them the right way, and how to get rid of ice dams.  I also have few more ice dam observations; file these under "advanced ice dam prevention".

How To Prevent Ice Dams (the right way)

Ice dams form when snow is melted on the roof, then freezes again at the eaves.  The main reason the snow melts is because heat is getting to the roof decking from the house.  Stop the heat transfer, and you'll probably stop the ice dams.  The main way to stop the heat transfer is to have air sealing performed in the attic.  The next step is to have insufficient insulation addressed.  Finally, if venting is improper, consider fixing it... but venting only plays a small role.  Ice dams are mostly about air leaks and insufficient insulation.  Click this link for more information about preventing ice dams the right way.

Anatomy of an ice dam

How To Prevent Ice Dams from the Exterior

Roof RakeIf you live in a 1-1/2 story home in Minnesota, you probably get ice dams.  There's not much that can be done to prevent ice dams the right way at this style of house, short of gutting the upper level and framing down, or tearing the roof off and framing up.   Homes with vaulted ceilings and other inaccessible attic spaces can also be a real challenge.  In these cases, ice dams may need to be controlled from the exterior.  The standard way to do this is to get a roof rake and pull snow off the roof.  When this is not practical, roof de-icing cables can be used, but should be considered a last resort.  Click this link for more information about preventing ice dams from the exterior.

How To Remove Ice Dams (hire a pro)

There are plenty of hack methods for removing ice dams, so I tried 'em all out.  The methods I discuss involve an axe, ice pick, pantyhose, salt tablets, heat cables, a pressure washer, and even a blowtorch… just for fun.  I don't recommend any of these though.  If ice dams need to be removed, hire a pro to steam them off.  Don't let anyone near your roof with a pressure washer, or the shingles might end up like the ones shown below.

Hack Ice Dam Removal from pressure washer

Click this link for more information about how to remove ice dams.

A Few More Tips

Here are a few more tips on preventing ice dams.  These deal more with the design of a house than anything else.

Valleys Can't Be Vented

Ventilation plays a small role when it comes to preventing ice dams, because vents can help to cool the roof temperature.  The problem with roof valleys is that they can't be vented.  If I were to design my own house, it would certainly be a big boring box with a plain hip roof; no valleys.Plain hip roof 

Valleys Should Never Meet

Valleys can't be vented, they have a lower slope than pitched roofs, and ice from two roof surfaces gets concentrated.  Ice dams are always the worst at valleys.  What happens when two valleys meet each other?  The potential for ice dams goes way up.  In my humble opinion, this is just plain stupid design when it comes to performance.

Valleys Meeting

Oh, and don't get me started on what this means for water management during the summer... never mind, I already blogged about that: Have Your Builder Plan for Water Management.

Don't vent fans through the roof

What happens when bath fans and kitchen fans terminate at the roof?  Snow melts when the fans run, of course.  This leads to water running down underneath the snow, then freezing again at the eave.  This can be a major contributor to ice dams.  The way to avoid this is to have bath fans and kitchen fans terminate at walls, not roofs.  This also applies to clothes dryers; while it has become standard practice to put laundry rooms on the second floor in new construction homes and terminate the vent at the roof, I think this is a bad place to terminate the dryer duct.  It will melt a lot of snow, and there is usually no easy way to clean off the terminal.

Oh, and whatever you do, don't place vent terminals for bath fans, kitchen fans, or clothes dryers in a place where the melted snow will pile up in a valley.  That's almost a sure way to get ice dams, even if everything else is done properly.

Author: Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections

            

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