The Minnesota Radon Awareness Act went into effect on January 1st of 2014. This required home sellers to provide a lot of information about radon and radon testing to potential home buyers, making it basically impossible to buy a home in Minnesota without being told that it’s important to test for radon. And it is.
As intended by this act, the amount of radon tests conducted in Minnesota as part of real estate transactions increased dramatically. I don’t have any official numbers, but I can say that the number of tests that my company conducted in 2014 was about twice as many as we conducted in 2013. I've heard other home inspectors express similar sentiments, and I've had several home inspectors in Minnesota ask me about what it takes to start doing radon testing. There’s a larger demand for radon testing today.
As one might imagine, the number of unqualified folks conducting radon tests has also increased. Just like home inspections, there are no licensing requirements and no training requirements for radon testing in Minnesota. The EPA has developed standards for radon testing, but there seems to be a lot of clowns out there doing radon tests however they want to. As far as I’m concerned, these tests are worthless or misleading. Allow me to share a few examples.
I've shared this photo before, but here it is again. This radon test was placed in an uninhabitable crawl space. Who cares what the radon level in the crawl space is? The radon test is supposed to be placed in the lowest level in the home that could be lived in; not the crawl space.
This isn't an egregious error, but it’s a very basic mistake that any qualified radon tester should not commit. Radon monitors need to be placed at least 20” off the floor. Most 5-gallon buckets are only 13” high. If you happen to see a radon test sitting on top of a 5-gallon bucket, EPA protocol for radon testing isn't being followed.
Side note: we use 5-gallon buckets to carry our radon monitors around in, and we use little wood boxes placed on top of the upside-down buckets to get the required 20" height above the floor. Our radon monitors fit inside the boxes, which fit inside the buckets. We also keep a 25' extension cord in the bottom of the bucket. This works quite nicely. If you're a home inspector reading this who's looking for a nice solution, here it is.
There’s a radon siren available online for $129, which collects data while it’s plugged in and will give a display of the average concentration, much like a profession radon monitor. There’s apparently at least one home inspector here in the Twin Cities who’s using this device to conduct radon tests. Apparently, he or she plugs this device in at the time of the inspection, comes back out to the home some time later, takes a picture of the display on the unit, then sends out this photo as the official radon test results. I’m not making this up. That’s where the photo above came from.
While this device might be well and good for homeowners to use in their own home, just the fact that it doesn't produce any type of report should be enough to tell you that no professional should be using this device and charging a fee for it. If that's not enough, take a look at the list of approved devices for radon testing professionals: http://www.nrpp.info/radon_testing_devices.shtml . You won't find the radon siren on that list.
This is the most recent one I've heard about. One of our clients contacted us with concerns about how a radon test was being conducted in her home. The folks buying her house hired a home inspector to inspect the building and conduct a radon test at the same time. The home inspector placed his or her radon monitor right on top of the sump basket lid, and then put a box of the top of that! As you might imagine, the radon test came up very high, at over 18 pCi/L.
First, the radon monitor needs to be at least 20” off the floor, as I mentioned earlier. Second, the radon test shouldn't be placed anywhere near the sump basket; as I've mentioned in past blog posts, sump baskets are actually required to be sealed shut in new construction because this can be a major contributor to radon in the home. Placing a monitor right on top of the sump basket seems like a great way to guarantee high radon levels. Finally, placing a box over the top of this mess is either the result of ignorance or dishonesty.
If you’re going to hire someone to do a radon test for you, hire a professional who’s certified by the National Radon Proficiency Program (NRPP) or the National Radon Safety Board (NRSB). The Minnesota Department of Health also maintains a list of qualified radon measurements professionals, which can be found here: http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/indoorair/radon/measurement.html. To be added to that list, the individual first needs to be certified by one of the two agencies that I listed above.
If your home is going to be tested for radon as part of a real estate transaction, make sure that the person doing the test will be following EPA protocol for radon testing. Even better yet, insist that the person doing the test is certified by one of the two agencies listed above. This is consistent with what the Minnesota Department of Health already advises for radon testing; it’s solid advice.
If you haven't tested for radon in your own home, buy a DIY test kit. Short term test kits are $9.95 and long term test kits are $21.95 here: http://www.radon.com/sub/mn/ .
We share our favorite home inspection photos on our Facebook page and our Google+ Page with a feature we started back in 2009, called the Photo of the Day. Sometimes we make a game out of the photos, asking what's wrong in the photo. Other times, the defects are quite obvious. I've pored over all of our photos from the past year, and I've put together the Top 20 home inspection photos from the past year. Enjoy!
Don't tuck your raincoat into your rain pants
Upside-Down Snorkel - that metal thing in the middle of the photo is always installed with the opening facing down. How does water not get in there? Snorkel is an unofficial term, but we like it.
Tree in Attic, Holding Stuff Up
Toilet in Kitchen - yes, it's functional. Yes, it blocks access to the drawers and the sink base. No, we didn't "test" it.
C-clamp pipe repair - we're not crazy about saddle valves to start with.
Re-purposed radon fan
Not a Loop Vent - island vents are used at island sinks, and they're perfectly legal. Because the vent makes a loop to the underside of the countertop, sometimes people call them loop vents. Someone must have heard that term and then took a stab at it, but this doesn't come close. The Family Handyman web site has an excellent cutaway photo showing how an island vent is supposed to be installed: Island Vent Photo
Missing drain, smart water
"And... that's how you like to support your deck?"
All hail the electric panel
Nobody's gonna see it behind the fridge
If one filter is good, four is... gooder?
Smells like cooked mice.
"...Folgers in your duct"
Pinhole Leak - this has been leaking for a long, long, long time.
"Call us if the mountains turn blue" - from our recent caption contest. This winning caption was submitted by Eric Aune.
At the end of each year, I post our Top 20 Home Inspection Photos. These photos are usually of some of the most egregious, hilariously wrong conditions that we've found during home inspections, and they all come from photos that we've shared throughout the year on our Facebook page. That post will be coming next week. This year, however, I've started sharing some of our favorite photos of cool or unusual finds during home inspections. We don't find nearly as much good or interesting stuff as we do bad stuff, but we like to share it when we come across it.
Huge shower, old house, recent remodel
Drain under walkway - I've
complained blogged about home builders not providing any method for water to drain away from the home, but this builder got it right! They installed a $5 section of corrugated drain in the yard before the walkway was poured. Nice detail.
Welded steel newel post - The owner's explanation: "I don't like $#!% moving." It sure didn't move. Well done, buddy.
Stairway no nowhere - while at first this seems a little bit silly, and it's arguably an attractive nuisance for kids, just think about what happens over most stairways to the basement on single story houses. Either there's a closet behind the stairway or the whole area is open. This is a pretty neat alternative.
Permanent Improvement - while super old insulation isn't necessarily a good thing, it was cool to see this old certificate from 1956, which bragged about the permanent improvement to the property from three inches of insulation. Click on the photo to see a large version.
Bonafide Asbestos - how can you tell if floor tiles contain asbestos? 1. They're 9" x 9" tiles. 2. There's a box nearby saying they're bonafide vinyl asbestos tiles. While asbestos isn't considered a good thing, the actual risk created by these tiles is essentially zero, unless someone decides to take a belt sander to them. At any rate, what makes this so cool is that they still had the box!
That's not a subpanel. Click on the photo to see what someone used this box for.
Strong Stairway - it's quite unusual to find a big chunk of concrete used as the stairway stringer for residential construction.
Original Appliances from 1956 - they still worked too. The second photo below shows the wall mounted refrigerator.
27 Year-Old Virgin - original oven, home built in 1987. The racks were still wrapped in plastic.
Nice solution - here's what to install if you have an old two-handle bathroom sink faucet with separate spouts for hot and cold. Click here for an example of what this fixes.
Nice garage lights - these beat the heck out of any work light.
Linters Insulation - ever seen or heard of it? We hadn't either, but here it is. It's apparently a cotton based product.
This stuff was featured in an issue of Popular Mechanics from 1940:
Curtain rods are expensive. EMT goes for 33¢ / ft at Home Depot.
Coolest playhouse ever
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 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.
It's tiny. Because it connects to the phone through the USB port, drop it once and it'll surely be toast.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A warm circuit breaker at my electric panel.
The bottom of my front door with the outdoor temp at -4° F.
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.
My dog Stanley.
No commentary needed, right?
The stated temperature range of the Seek Thermal camera is -40° C to 330° C.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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/