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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Melted Plastic at Draft Hood marked up

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

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

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

Fogged camera lens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deformed plastic at draft hood

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

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

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

Q&A: Heat Exchanger Cracks and Carbon Monoxide Myths

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cracked Heat Exchanger: Sales Scam?

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

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

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

Text from web site

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

Do HVAC businesses lock out furnaces?

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

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

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

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

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

Will carbon monoxide detectors keep you safe from carbon monoxide?

In short, no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

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

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

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

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

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

"Vinyl is cheap, right?"

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

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

Stay with their higher end options!

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

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

Beige vinyl window  

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

Cherry woodgrain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heat Gun Hair Dryer

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

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

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

Photos from New Construction Home Inspections, Part IV

Posted by: Reuben Saltzman under Real Estate, Home Improvement, Real Estate Updated: November 18, 2014 - 6:28 AM

It's been a year since my last post on new construction home inspections, so it's time for another.  My message is pretty simple: new homes should be inspected by private home inspectors.  Home inspections aren't just for old houses or used houses.

One of the newest inspectors on our team is Patrick Brennan, who worked as a project manager for Charles Cudd building new homes for many years.  Because of his background in home building, Patrick brings some excellent perspective to the table when it comes to inspecting new construction homes.  For the majority of the new construction inspections that Patrick has done for us, the builders have actually been quite appreciative for the inspections that we provide.  It gives the builders a chance to address defects before they turn into big problems, and there are no occupants that have to be disturbed while corrections are taking place.

Here are some of the most common arguments that we hear against new construction inspections:

  • The house has already been inspected plenty of times by the city.  We're private home inspectors.  We only have one or two inspections to do each day, so we often spend more time during our single inspection than the city inspectors all spent combined at the home.  This isn't a knock against city inspectors; it's simply a fact that private home inspectors have the luxury of more time.
  • The builder already has a one-year warranty, so anything that comes up later will be addressed by the builder.  We do a lot of inspections for clients right before their one-year warranty is up because they've had a lot of problems with the builder, and sometimes can't even get the builder to come out.  Builders also seem to be much more responsive to problems that come up before the closing than after the closing.
  • If you're paying a private home inspector to find problems, they're going to come up with problems.  Most of 'em won't be real.
  • A private home inspection is a waste of money.
  • The builder won't fix anything the home inspector comes up with because the house already meets code.

Instead of arguing the rest of these points individually, I'll let the photos speak for themselves.  These are all issues we've found during new construction inspections over the past year.  Some of these photos are from pre-drywall inspections, and some are from one-year warranty inspections.  The point of sharing these photos isn't to make home builders look bad; the point is that everyone is human, everyone can make mistakes, and the home inspector can help to make sure that many of these mistakes are addressed.  We identify problems with houses long before they become expensive to fix.

Click any of the photos for a larger version.

Exterior

A large portion of the exterior house wrap was improperly installed at this home.  We identified these defects during a pre-drywall inspection.  These are the types of defects that can lead to major water damage, sometimes after the builders 10-year warranty has expired.  It's not a big deal to fix this stuff today.

Exterior - flashing improper Exterior - house wrap improper close-up

Do you see what went wrong with the installation of the LP Smartside siding shown below?

Exterior - LP Smartside not painted #2

The manufacturer requires a 3/8" gap between the bottom of the siding and the flashing below it, so that the cut edge of the siding can be properly painted.  The diagram below comes right out of their installation manual.

LP Smartside Clearance Above Window

Even when a proper 3/8" gap is left, the siding doesn't always get painted.  The photo below shows a close-up view of a proper gap but no paint at the cut edge of the siding.  If the siding isn't painted at the cut edges, it can experience premature failure.

Exterior - LP Smartside not painted

While we're on the topic of LP Smartside, overdriven nails are another common defect with this siding on new installations.

Exterior - overdriven nails #2

Here's how the manufacturer says to fix this:

LP Smartside Nailing Diagram

Most new-construction homes don't have decks, but when they do, we often find problems with them.  The photo below shows a couple of missing nails at a joist hanger.  Pretty minor stuff.

Exterior - Missing Joist Hanger Nails

This next photo shows a missing metal bracket (joist hanger) at one of the joists.  That's a little bigger.

Exterior - Missing Joist Hanger

And here we have a missing metal hanger at the tripled 2x10s, which was supporting the stairway.  This really needs to be fixed.

Exterior - Missing Hanger

Here's a stairway with improper attachment to the deck.  Each stringer was attached to the header with two 1-1/2" nails going into the corner bracket.  No joke.

Exterior - Bad Stairway Attachment

The J-channel installed on vinyl siding is supposed to be continuous.  This one wasn't.

Exterior - cut in j-channel

On that same window, there was a poorly located seam in the siding, preventing the siding from being attached on this side of the window.

Exterior - Vinyl Siding Defect

The damper for this bathroom exhaust fan didn't open because the plastic grill obstructed it.  The grill obstructed it because the feature board wasn't cut out enough.  This renders the bath fan useless.

Exterior - Obstructed damper terminal

Roofs

Here's a roofing defect that we were suspicious of before we even went into the attic.  The roofer missed one of the roof vents.  As you can tell from the house wrap, this was a defect we caught during a pre-drywall inspection.

Roof - Missing Vent

Here's what it looked like from inside the attic.  Don't step there.

Roof - Missing Vent (attic view)

Why was the shingle lifted?  Oh, that's why.  Duh.

Roof - lifted shingle

Lifted shingles can lead to shingles catching the wind and blowing off.  That's probably what happened in the photos below.

Roof - Missing Shingles Roof - Missing Shingles #2

Kickout flashings have been required by the Minnesota State Building Code since 2007, so they're nothing new... but we still see 'em bungled.  This first photo shows the kickout bent at a 90 degree angle,  which will create a lot of turbulence and splashing.

Roof - kickout flashing improper

This next photo wasn't from a new construction inspection, but it was a relatively new home, and the installation surely happened at the time the house was built.  Just think about where water is going to go.

not kickout flashing

Here's a home with adhered concrete masonry veneer siding, and missing kickout flashing.  Every little detail on this type of siding is critical, so it really boggles my mind how something like kickout flashing can be omitted.

Roof - kickout flashing missing

Oh, and the stone siding is supposed to be kept at least 2" above the surface of the shingles, not touching them.

ACMV - Required Clearance Above Roof Covering

Here's a peak with two pieces of makeshift flashing that will almost surely leak.

Roof - bad flashing at peak of roof

Plumbing

Even new stuff can leak.  This first photo shows a leaking bath tub overflow drain.

Plumbing - leaking bath tub overflow

Showers can leak too.  We test tiled showers by using a shower dam.  When tiled showers leak, it's a big deal.  This first photo shows our shower dam sitting in the shower.

Plumbing - Leaking Shower

The next photo shows water that leaked through the shower base, down into the garage.

Plumbing - Leaking Shower Evidence

Plumbing vent caps are installed at the roof so the system can be pressure tested to make sure the drains don't leak.  After that, the caps are supposed to be removed.  We find a lot of caps that still haven't been removed. When the caps aren't easily seen from the ground, they're easily forgotten about.  The photo below comes from a new-construction home in Plymouth that I inspected during the winter.  I couldn't safely walk the roof because it was partially frost covered, but it looked like there was a test cap still in place at the plumbing vent.  I put this in my inspection report, the buyer brought it up to the builder, and the builder said it would be taken care of.

Plumbing - test cap in place original

The client was suspicious that it had never been done, so I stopped by the house during the summer when I felt safe to walk on the roof to check it out.  Nope.  Never was done.

Plumbing - test cap still present cropped

Dishwasher drains are supposed to be looped to the underside of the countertop.  This is done wrong on a lot of new homes.  I mentioned this condition during my recent blog post on cross connections, but it's worth bringing up again.

Plumbing - dishwasher drain loop missing High loop at dishwasher drain

This next photo doesn't exactly show a defect, just some scary hot water.  A safe temperature is 120°.  Turn the temperature down at the water heater.

Plumbing - hot water

Frost free faucets are great, but they can still freeze when they're not installed properly.  The faucets need to be pitched slightly down, so water can drain out of the stem when the faucet is shut off.  The faucet below was pitched up instead.  I've seen this same defect a few times this year on new construction homes.

Plumbing - backpitched frost-free faucet

Here's another comically small access hole for the bath tub drain.

Plumbing - comically small access hole

Unless one is proficient at building ships inside of bottles, that hole is pretty useless.

Electrical

Most circuit breakers are only designed for one wire to be connected to the breaker, including the breakers shown below.  One of these breakers had two wires connected.  This is an unusual defect for new construction, but hey, that's why we open panels.  For more info on this topic, click here: Double Tapped Circuit Breakers.

Electrical - Double Tapped Circuit Breaker

All unused openings in electric panels are supposed to be covered up to help contain any fires, and to prevent pests from getting into the panel.  This doesn't always happen.

Electrical - Missing knockout in bottom of panelboard Electrical - Missing knockout plug at back of panelboard

That ground clamp needs to be slid up about an inch so it makes full contact with the copper water supply tubing.

Electrical - ground clamp not making contact

This weatherproof cover won't keep water out when it's installed upside down.

Electrical - Upside Down Weatherproof Cover

We had to check this one a couple of times to make sure we weren't losing our minds.  It was an outlet with reversed polarity.  This is a very unusual defect for a new house, but again, that's why we test the outlets.

Electrical - Reversed Polarity

Here's an especially nasty defect; this outlet was located behind the kitchen drawers under a range top in the kitchen.  The outlet is missing a cover plate, the outlet isn't attached to the box, and the box isn't flush with the surface of the cabinet like it should be.

Electrical - hanging outlet

Here's a missing cover plate at a junction box in an attic.

Electrical - missing cover plate at junction box

Check out the location of this outlet.  It's over ten feet away from the radon vent.  The outlet is there so a fan can be installed if radon levels are high... but what good does it do if it's ten feet away?

Electrical - Radon Outlet

While we're on the topic of radon fans, here's a home where the builder agreed to install a radon fan, but installed the fan on its side.  Radon fans should be installed vertically to help prevent water from accumulating, which can cause the motor to burn out prematurely.

Radon - Fan on side

Here's a GFCI outlet in the attic.  GFCI outlets are supposed to be tested every month... not that anyone really does this, but just for the sake of argument, let's say someone wanted to.  Are they really supposed to go into their attic to do this?

Electrical - GFCI Outlet in Attic

By the way, it's very important for attics to be inspected.  Even on new construction homes.

Attics

Same old, same old.  We find a ton of new construction homes with way less insulation than they're supposed to have.

Attic - Insufficient Insulation

How does this happen?  There is no such thing as an "attic insulation inspection" for new construction homes.  No joke.  See my blog post dedicated to attic inspections on new construction houses: Who Inspected Your Attic?

When we perform pre-drywall inspections, we frequently find gaps in the attic "lid" that will be attic air leaks once everything is finished.  The gap between the two top plates (2x4s) shown below shows an example of a future attic air leak.  It's still very easy to fix these air leaks today, but it'll be a P.I.T.A. to find them once there's 14-3/4 inches  8+ inches of insulation throughout the attic.

Attic - Air Leak

Here's an infrared image of a disconnected bath fan duct below the insulation in an attic on a cool day.  There were no visible signs of this defect, but a quick scan with an infrared camera made it quite obvious.  The infrared camera also helped us to know exactly where to dig through the insulation to get a photo documenting the condition.

HVAC - Disconnected Duct in Attic

HVAC

Lots of air leaks in ductwork.

HVAC - air leaks HVAC - air leak #1

When HRVs aren't balanced, they may either put the house under negative or positive pressure, neither of which is usually good.  Check out my recent blog post about siding stains; putting a house under positive pressure would contribute to stains like that.  If the balancing damper (circled below) isn't screwed into place on the HRV, it hasn't been balanced.

HVAC - HRV not balanced

Someone installed a damper on this HRV intake, which prevents the HRV from pulling any fresh air into the home.  Easy fix, bad mistake.

HVAC - Damper on HRV Intake

Here's a furnace intake and exhaust flipped around.  This will cause the corrosive exhaust gases from the furnace to get sucked back into the furnace.  Again, easy fix, bad mistake.

HVAC - Furnace Intake and Exhaust Backwards

Would you accept this crooked hood fan installation?  This is purely cosmetic, but still...

HVAC - crooked hood

Toekick heat registers in kitchens and bathrooms are almost always done poorly in new construction homes.  So poorly, in fact, that I put together a countdown of the top five worst toekick registers I've seen at new construction houses this year.

#5

HVAC - Toekick 5

#4

HVAC - Toekick 4

#3

HVAC - Toekick 3

#2 - look carefully.  I drew a thin black rectangle on this image to highlight the effective opening.

HVAC - Toekick 2

#1

HVAC - Toekick 1

It's called a "toekick", not a "footstomp".

Interior Stuff

Spray foam insulation is great stuff and I'm a big fan of it, but it won't work right if it's not installed right.  Check out this article on Spray Foam Insulation Problems at the Journal of Light Construction web site.  I'm not exactly sure what went wrong with the installation of the spray foam at these rim spaces shown below, but I know wrong when I see it.  There were obvious voids in the insulation at these houses that need to be addressed.

Interior - spray foam insulation problems Interior - spray foam problem

What happens during the summer when you build a home with an exhaust-only ventilation system and the poly on the wood framed portion of the basement wall isn't perfectly sealed?  Humid outdoor air will leak into the basement wall cavity and then condense on the relatively cold poly.   There was so much condensation on the poly at this home that water was pooling at the base of the wall.  The builder had already attempted to fix a supposed leak at the window twice, but this was simply condensation.

Interior - incomplete vapor barrier Interior - incomplete vapor barrier #2

Side note: This is the opposite of what I blogged about last week.  Siding stains show up during cold weather at the upper levels of the home, and 'supply-only' ventilation will exacerbate this condition.  Good stuff, huh?

The fix is to make the poly 100% airtight, or to insulate the wood-framed portion of the wall with closed-cell spray foam insulation.  For the record, I'm no hypocrite; I had that done at my own house three years ago: Spray foam insulation at Reuben's house. Here's a joist cut all the way through.

Interior - cut joist

That's obviously the wrong joist hanger.

Interior - wrong joist hanger

These metal brackets aren't right either.

Interior - wrong hangers

Here's a wall that completely missed the anchor bolts, or more likely, the anchor bolts weren't properly located.

Interior - Missed Anchor Bolts

Here's a sump basket cover that isn't sealed.  An unsealed lid will allow humid air into the basement, as well as radon gases.

Interior - sump cover not airtight

Not only was this sump lid not sealed, but someone used that hole in the sump basket to dispose of their coffee cup.  That coffee cup could float into the wrong spot and prevent the float from operating the sump pump... which could lead to a flooded basement.  Get the trash out.

Interior - Sump Basket with Coffee Cup

Whew.  That's enough for this year.  These blog posts on new construction inspections keep getting longer and longer.  Again, this isn't a knock against builders.  The point here is that a new house doesn't mean a perfect house.  Even new houses should be inspected by private home inspectors.  If you already own a new home and never had it inspected, consider having your home inspected before your one-year warranty is up.  We do a lot of those inspections.

Related Posts:

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

          

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