If it's leaking, fix it. The end.
Ok, I'm kidding. Today I'm going to share some home inspection tips and tricks that homeowners can use to identify plumbing problems. You'll want to use a good flashlight for your plumbing inspection, as a lot of this work involves looking underneath sinks and tub drains.
Most homeowners already know about the more obvious leaks under bathroom sinks, but to really test your sink for leaks, fill the sink with water and then let it drain all at once. This test will force a large slug of water through the drain, and will often identify leaks that wouldn't otherwise be seen. Carefully watch the drain while performing this test. One of the most common leak locations at bathroom sinks is at the drain stopper; fixing this leak is usually as simple as tightening the nut.
Note: if your drain goes "glug glug glug" after the water has drained out, you're hearing air getting siphoned through the trap, which indicates a problem with the venting. Click this link for more information on that topic: Plumbing Vents: Why Houses Need Them.
If the bathroom sink drains slowly, it's usually the result of hair in the drain. Fix this by pulling the hair out with a Zip-It tool. What's a Zip-It? I'm glad you asked. It's an inexpensive, effective, and easy-to-use drain cleaning product invented by a Minnesotan. Click the following link to find out, but prepare yourself to see some absolutely disgusting photos of hairballs removed from drains: http://zipitclean.com/
Stand at the toilet with the front of the bowl between your legs, and give the toilet a little nudge with your shin to make sure it doesn't rock or swivel. A loose toilet can lead to a leaking toilet.
Flush the toilet several times times and check behind, around, and under the toilet (if possible) for any leaks.
If you have a toilet that clogs frequently, replace it. I recommend using Consumer Reports to help decide on a toilet. Their team tirelessly tests toilets in the most tasteful manner possible to figure out which ones have the best flushing ability. I've trusted them in the past, and they haven't let me down. I'll leave it at that.
I wrote a whole blog post about identifying shower leaks over five years ago, and not much has changed since: http://www.structuretech1.com/2009/07/finding-shower-leaks/ .
To inspect bath tub drains, first make sure there is access to the drain. Sometimes this will be in the form of a large access panel in the room behind the tub, sometimes it will be an access panel at the ceiling below, and sometimes it will simply be a return register grill screwed to the wall that covers a hole in the wall. The photo below shows a comically small access hole for the bath tub drain at a recent new construction inspection in Otsego.
This next photo shows a more traditional, old-school access panel behind a basement bath tub. The faucet was leaking profusely, but there were no rooms below, so the homeowner didn't know it was leaking.
Once you've established that there is access to inspect the bath tub drain, fill the tub with water all the way to the overflow, and watch the overflow from the back side to make sure that water doesn't leak out. A leaking bath tub overflow can lead to a big mess, and this is one test that is specifically excluded by home inspection standards of practice. After you've made sure the overflow doesn't leak, pull the drain at the tub and make sure the drain itself doesn't leak. If there are any leaks at the faucet, you'll probably find them while doing this test.
The other common issue with showers and tubs is a slow drain, again, usually because of hair. Get a Zip-It.
For the kitchen sink, fill up both sides of the sink with water, pull the stoppers, then immediately turn on the garbage disposer if present. This will force a lot of water through the drain all at once, and will often identify leaks and drain problems that nobody knew about. Sometimes this test will even force water to shoot out of a crack in the side of the garbage disposer.
If there's a problem with the sink drain, water will typically back up on the side of the sink that doesn't have a disposer, as shown in the photo below.
The culprit is typically old galvanized steel drain lines, which accumulate sediment on the insides of the pipes, making the internal diameter smaller and smaller over time, to the point where the fixtures drain very slowly, or not at all. The fix for this condition is to replace the drains, which is an expensive repair.
This test on the kitchen sink will also sometimes expose problems that show up in other areas; we've caused water to back up through reverse osmosis water dispensers, basement bathroom sinks, basement floor drains, basement laundry sinks, and basement standpipes by doing this test. After conducting this test, go downstairs and make sure none of the other plumbing fixtures have backed up. If they have, there's a problem with the drains.
I have a few short clips of these things happening in my "47 Home Inspection Issues in Under 3 Minutes" video. At the 12 second mark, you'll see a basement bathroom sink overflowing (I had fun cleaning that up), a standpipe overflowing (Milind had fun cleaning that up), two more clips that aren't related, then a water dispenser overflowing at a kitchen sink.
The most common issue with a floor drain is a missing clean-out plug. This will allow hazardous, stinky sewer gas into the home. For information about how to identify and correct this condition, check out my blog post on floor drain basics.
Side note: floor drains are usually the focus of attention when a main building drain is clogged. I've received more comments on my blog post on floor drains than any other post. Most of the comments were from frustrated homeowners dealing with clogged main drain lines. If the main drain line in your home is clogged, water draining from the upper fixtures will starting backing up out of the lowest fixture. The lowest fixture is almost always a floor drain, so that's where water comes out. This really has nothing to do with the floor drain; it's just were the problem manifests itself because the floor drain is the lowest fixture.
I've already blogged about water heaters ad nauseam, so I'll make this short and sweet. Perhaps the easiest thing to check on your water heater is to make sure it's set to a safe temperature, which is about 120° - 125° Fahrenheit. If your water heater has a draft hood (pictured at right), make sure your water heater drafts properly under a worst-case scenario. Also, check the relief valve discharge tube for signs of leaking. Leaking can lead to corrosion, and corrosion can lead to failure (and failure can lead to the dark side).
If your water heater is leaking from the bottom, it's time for a new water heater.
Here are several other blog posts related to water heaters:
That's all for this week. Next week I'll show you how to identify and correct the most common plumbing cross-connections in your home. Click on any of the links below to see the past topics in this series:
A few months ago I wrote a blog post about homeowner maintenance inspections, wherein I promoted the virtues of having a home inspector conduct maintenance inspections on existing homes every five years or so. I promised to follow up with a post on how homeowners could conduct their own home inspections, but I don't know what I was thinking when I said I'd follow up with a "post". I should have said I'd follow up with my longest "series" of posts ever. For the first part of this series, I covered the inspection of the exterior. I took a little break in this series because I had a few other things to discuss that were somewhat time sensitive, but I'm back on the homeowner inspection series again.
Today I'm going to cover electrical. There is a ridiculous amount of stuff that could be covered with this topic, and a lot of it takes a lot of explaining. I'm going to cover the stuff that takes the least amount of explaining and makes the biggest impact on safety.
If your home has overhead wires bringing in power, check to make sure there are no tree branches rubbing on the wires. It's the homeowner's responsibility to maintain / trim trees on the property that may interfere with the overhead wires coming from the utility pole to the house.
Also, take a close look at the connection point between the overhead wires right before they disappear into the mast head. One wire is the neutral wire; it's normal for this wire to be exposed, but the other two wires shouldn't have any exposed contacts. If there are, these are serious shock / electrocution hazards that should be repaired by the utility company. The photo below gives an example of an exposed ferrule at one of the hot wires. Touch that thing with an aluminum ladder, roof rake, or something similar, and it'll be lights out for you.
For more examples of exposed conductors at this location, and for a more in-depth discussion of these issues, click here: Tree Branches, Exposed Power Lines: Who Fixes What
To test the outlets at your home, go buy yourself an outlet tester. These are sold at all home improvement stores and hardware stores for about $5, or a little more if the tester comes with a GFCI tester. A GFCI tester makes it a lot easier to verify that non-GFCI outlets in your home are GFCI protected, but it's not a valid way to test GFCI outlets. More on that topic below. The tester shown at right currently sells for $7.49 on Amazon. So now that you have a tester, go around and test all of the outlets in your home. The light codes displayed by the tester will tell you if the outlet is properly wired, or what the problem is if the outlet isn't properly wired.
Side note: these types of testers will not identify all potential wiring problems, such as a false ground or an outlet with both reversed polarity and an open ground, but they'll probably identify about 99% of the problems that exist.
Here are the potential readings that an outlet tester will give you:
Every once in a while you'll get a different reading, such as all three lights lit up, or a bright middle light and dim lights on the left and right. These readings indicate problems that should be looked into further by an electrician.
If there are loose outlets, the repair is usually as simple as removing the cover plate and tightening the screws that hold the outlet in place.
Test all of the GFCI devices in your home to make sure they're functional, and replace them if they're not. This is something that's supposed to be done every month... and I'm sure that everyone who reads this blog already does this, right? But just in case, here's a short video clip from Leviton showing how to do it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5mSroP-HWZ0
Also, make sure that there is GFCI protection for the outlets where you're most likely to get electrocuted. These areas include bathrooms, garages, unfinished basements, the exterior, and many other places near water. Click the following link for more information about testing GFCI outlets. Oh, and if you press the test button and the outlet makes a buzzing noise, the outlet has gone bad and should be replaced.
Not only do cover plates help to prevent accidental shocks, but they help to contain any arcing or sparking that might take place within an electrical box, thus potentially preventing a fire. Go through your home and make sure there are cover plates installed for all of the outlets, switches, and junction boxes. A few of the more common places for missing cover plates are in unfinished basement areas, behind refrigerators, inside kitchen cabinets, and at garage ceilings.
While this is usually a very simple DIY repair, the photo above shows a situation where the fix isn't quite so simple; if a cover plate was installed over the pegboard, it would leave a gap between the box and the cover that could allow sparks to escape and potentially start a fire. The fix for this situation would actually involve cutting away the pegboard a little more so that a cover plate could be installed tight against the box.
Permanently installed appliances should be plugged directly into their own outlets, not extension cords. Using extension cords increases the potential for a fire. A few of the more common places to find extension cords used in lieu of permanent wiring are at garage door openers, water softeners, and at basement lights.
Uncapped, improperly terminated wires are an immediate shock / electrocution hazard that should be dealt with immediately. Always assume these wires are live.
Open spliced wiring is a potential fire hazard.
Wooden boxes don't cut it either; wire splices should take place within proper electrical boxes.
Wiring defects are probably best left up to an electrician for repair.
Unused openings in electrical boxes and electric panels should always be covered.
These openings create potential shock hazards, they might not properly contain a fire that could occur within the box, and can admit unwanted visitors such as mice.
These types of defects are very much a DIY type of repair; for information on how to correct these issues, click here: Missing Knockouts
Check to make sure your home has smoke alarms installed inside each bedroom, smoke alarms installed in common areas on each level, and make sure they're properly located; the diagram below shows where smoke alarms should be located on walls and ceilings.
Test smoke alarms monthly, and replace the batteries annually.
Replace any smoke alarms over 10 years old. To check the date, take the smoke alarm down and look on the back. If you can't find a date, assume it's over 10 years old and replace it.
Please please please make sure your home is equipped with photoelectric smoke alarms. If you don't know what type of smoke alarms you have, I can just about guarantee they're not photoelectric, as I've found that the vast majority of smoke alarms are not. While photoelectric smoke alarms are not required, I believe they should be, and I consider this to be an important life safety issue. Click this link for more information about the importance of photoelectric smoke alarms: Photoelectric Smoke Alarms.
For more details and tips on smoke alarm safety, click here: Four Smoke Alarm Safety Tips.
The current standard for safety is to have CO alarms installed within 10' of every sleeping room. CO alarms used to be good for either five or seven years, but Kidde now offers CO alarms that are good for 10 years. If the CO alarms in your home are over 10 years old, they should definitely be replaced. If they're over five years old... maybe.
Next week, the topic will be homeowner plumbing inspections.
Click on any of the links below to see the past topics in this series:
Even though it still feels like summer outside, Fall is officially here. It's time to get started on your fall maintenance list. It's much easier to get this stuff done while it's still pleasant outside, so don't put these projects off until we have snow in the forecast.
This list was originally compiled by Structure Tech Home Inspector Duane Erickson, and has been added onto a few times over the past several years.
Last but not least, Duane says "Cuddle, stay warm, and safe sledding."
In last week's blog post, which I did not post here on the Star Tribune, I mentioned that there is an upcoming seminar for Minnesota home inspectors, being taught by building code guru Douglas Hansen of Code Check. Minnesota currently uses the 2006 International Building Code (IRC), but we'll soon be adopting the 2012 IRC, and with that will come a lot of changes. The upcoming seminar will cover the most important parts of these changes.
Side note: Why are we flying in a national code guru from California to teach this 8-hour seminar when the class has already been put together and is being taught by some extremely knowledgeable and capable building officials right here in Minnesota?
@#$!%* beaurocracy, plain and simple. The folks that I've reached out to at the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry have told me they're not allowed to do any teaching outside of the state curriculum because there's a conflict of interest. I have no idea what the conflict could possibly be, and I'm not at all satisfied with that answer, but in the interest of getting this class put together and notifications sent out to MN home inspectors in a timely manner, I didn't fight the issue. I'm not done with it though.
I sent out an email notification to all of the Minnesota ASHI members letting them know about this seminar, and I've been making phone calls as well to make sure that everyone got the word.
I had one conversation with another Minnesota home inspector, who I'll call Inspector X, that prompted me to write this post. When I told Inspector X about the upcoming seminar that would be covering the code changes to the IRC, I said I considered this seminar to be 'must-have' training for any home inspector in Minnesota.
Inspector X said he disagreed that this is must-have training, because he doesn't conduct code enforcement inspections in any capacity. I didn't have time to engage at the moment, so I just told him he was right, home inspections are not the same as code enforcement inspections, but it's still important for us to be familiar with current building codes. I couldn't get him to agree with that either, so I basically just wished him well... but if I had had the time, I would have explained it this way:
ASHI Home Inspection Standards of Practice require home inspectors to provide clients with a written report that states those systems and components inspected that, in the professional judgement of the inspector, are not functioning properly, significantly deficient, unsafe, or are near the end of their service lives.
Unsafe is defined as "A condition in a readily accessible, installed system or component that is judged by the inspector to be a significant risk of serious bodily injury during normal, day-to-day use; the risk may be due to damage, deterioration, improper installation, or a change in accepted residential construction practices."
Current building codes are what define accepted residential building practices. If a home inspector is not familiar with current building codes, they're not familiar with accepted residential building practices.
Even though home inspectors should be familiar with current building codes, this doesn't mean that home inspectors should report code violations. Our standards of practice clearly state that home inspectors are NOT required to determine "compliance of systems and components with past and present requirements and guidelines (codes, regulations, laws, ordinances, specifications, installation and maintenance instructions, use and care guides, etc.).
If you want to know the difference between a code compliance inspection and a home inspection, look at the reasoning behind the recommendations for change / repair. ASHI Standards of Practice require home inspectors to report the reasoning or explanation as to the nature of deficiencies reported that are not self-evident. If the home inspector bases their reasoning on code, they're heading into 'code compliance inspection' territory.
As an example, take a look at the sump basket cover at this new-construction home; the cover isn't airtight, which will allow for moist air to enter the home. This air may also bring radon gas into the home.
Here's a bad way for a home inspector to report on this: "The sump basket cover was not airtight, which is required by Minnesota Administrative Rule 1322.2103, Section AF103.4.4. Have this corrected."
The problem with this type of reporting is that it tells the client that this is a problem because the installation does not meet code... and that's about all. It doesn't give the reasoning or explanation as to the nature of this deficiency.
The proper way for a home inspector to report this type of defect would be "The sump basket cover was not airtight, which will allow for air to leak into the building. This air will have relatively high levels of moisture, and will contribute to radon gases coming into the home. Have the sump basket cover made airtight."
See the difference?
If the home buyer addresses this issue with the builder and asks them to correct this, the builder might say it already passed inspection and meets code. At that point, a home inspector who is familiar with building codes would be happy to give their client the above code reference, backing up their recommendation. That's a good thing, and it doesn't mean the home inspector is doing a code compliance inspection.
We routinely get requests from past home inspection clients of ours asking us to re-send the radon gas test results from testing that we conducted many years ago. We get these requests because our past clients are now selling their home, and they’re performing their due diligence attempting to gather whatever information they can about their home to give to potential home buyers. In most cases, we still have the results and are happy to send them out. We recently received an email asking about this:
"Two months ago the seller had another buyer inspect the home. The radon test came back at 1.8. Does this need to be done again? Thanks!"
That's a great question. Here's my generic advice on relying on the seller's test results.
How much value is there in old radon test results? If the test results are more than two years old, the EPA recommends conducting a new test. If the test results are less than two years old, there might be some value in those results.
If the test results are less than two years old, find out who conducted the radon test before relying on the results. For obvious reasons, I don’t recommend relying on any type of DIY radon tests unless you Did It Yourself. If the radon test was professionally conducted, make sure the person / company conducting the test was qualified to do so. You’d hope that any home inspector charging money to conduct a radon test would be qualified to perform the test and would do it properly, but I’ve personally seen enough egregious testing errors to know that there are plenty of unqualified folks conducting radon tests in Minnesota. While there are no licensing requirements for radon testing companies in Minnesota, there are two large certifying bodies for radon measurement providers: the National Radon Proficiency Program (NRPP) and the National Radon Safety Board (NRSB). I’d feel fairly confident in relying on the radon gas test results from an NRPP or NRSB certified company. That’s not to say that you shouldn't rely on the results from someone who isn't certified, but you’d be right to at least ask a few questions about the qualifications and experience of the person / company doing the testing.
If there have been any major structural changes, HVAC changes, or there have been any significant projects that involved air sealing, which is most commonly done in the attic, don’t go with the old test results. Too much has changed that may have affected the radon levels. Have your own test conducted.
When a homeowner conducts a radon test on their own home, they’re supposed to test the lowest level of the home that is regularly used. If the home has an unfinished basement and nobody spends any time down there, the test should be placed on the first floor. When a radon test is conducted as part of a real estate transaction, the radon test should be placed in the lowest livable part of the home, whether it’s finished or not. If a home buyer is going to rely on the seller’s radon test results, they should make sure the test was placed in the lowest livable area, not the lowest level that is regularly used.
If a home buyer is going to rely on someone else's radon test results instead of hiring their own company to conduct a radon test, they should make sure that the previous test was done within the last two years, the testing was done by a qualified person / company, no major changes happened at the home that could affect radon levels, and that the radon test was placed in the proper location.