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Attic inspections, sealed attic access panels

Sealed attic access panels are the bane of my existence.

sealed attic access panel, Bane

Nothing about home inspections causes more consternation than 'sealed' attic access panels; not just for the home inspector, but also for the buyer, the seller, and the real estate agents involved in the sale. We've changed our official company policy on attic access panels recently, and I'm laying it all out right here.

Structure Tech's Attic Inspection Policy

We begin every home inspection with a tour of the interior. If the attic access panel appears to be sprayed shut, caulked shut, nailed shut, or similarly obstructed to make access difficult, we will ask for permission to open it. We'll call the listing agent to ask for permission, and we'll explain that this will technically change the property from its original condition. In most cases, we won't leave any evidence that we were there, but we can't guarantee this.

If permission is given, we'll open the attic. If permission is not given, we won't. Simple and logical, right? We think so. The video below shows the process of breaking an attic seal, and shows what it'll look like after the inspection, provided everything goes smoothly.

Home seller's legal responsibility

I'm not an attorney so I have no idea what the seller's legal responsibility is. I'll say this, however: most Minnesota home buyers use a standard purchase agreement form. They don't have to, but most do. This form has a line that says Seller will provide access to the attic(s) and crawlspace(s).  I happen to know from personal experience that many licensed residential real estate salespersons are not aware of this language.

If an attic access panel is sprayed shut, caulked shut, nailed shut, or blocked by stored items, has the seller provided access? Heck no. 

I asked Minnesota real estate attorney Matthew R. Doherty the same question stated above.  His answer? "No".

If I were buying a home and the person I was purchasing from had signed an agreement saying they would provide access to the attic, I'd expect the attic to be accessible. Sprayed shut, caulked shut, nailed shut, or blocked with stored items is not accessible.

What the Code says

The 2015 Minnesota Energy Code specifically addresses attic access panels. Section R402.2.4 says "Access doors from conditioned spaces to unconditioned spaces (e.g., attics and crawl spaces) shall be weatherstripped..."

Weatherstripping is not defined by the energy code. Section R201.4 of the code, Terms not defined, says the following:

Where terms are not defined through the methods authorized by this chapter, the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, available at, shall be considered as providing ordinarily accepted meanings. The dictionary is incorporated by reference, is subject to frequent change, and is available through the Minitex interlibrary loan system.

So let's head on over to for the incorporated definition of "weatherstripping":

A strip of material to cover the joint of a door or window and the sill, casing, or threshold so as to exclude rain, snow, and cold air  called also weather stripping

So does caulk or some other type of sealant cut it? Heck no.

You'd think this would help, but finding a weatherstripped attic access panel on a new construction home is rare. That's not to say they don't exist, but it's certainly the exception.

Why the change in company policy

We've changed our tune on opening attic access panels because we've had too many situations where people were upset about us opening the attic. We are guests at a seller's home, and we want to leave stuff the way we found it. Opening attic access panels without permission from the seller runs counter to this, so we've cut it out. Not only that, but we've come across a few attics lately where the opening wasn't just sprayed shut; it was also taped shut. Opening the attic caused the tape to pull away, making the attic access look terrible.

What to do if you're a home seller

If you're selling a home and you sign a purchase agreement from a buyer, know what you're signing. If the form says you'll provide access to the attic, please provide access to the attic.

What to do if you're a home buyer

Insist that the seller will provide access to the attic. This is an extremely important part of a home inspection, even on new construction houses.

More on this topic

It's quite possible that I've written more about attic inspections than any other topic. Here are a few posts specifically related to getting into the attic for inspections.

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

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Can you install a high-efficiency furnace with only one pipe?

It's perfectly acceptable to have a high-efficiency furnace installed with one pipe. Just flip through the pages of any high-efficiency furnace installation manual and you'll find the answer. I'm blogging about this because I've had many homeowners ask me about this.

And now the rest of the story.

Why Two Pipes

High-efficiency furnaces come with two pipes; one pipe brings combustion air directly into the furnace and mixes it with fuel. The other pipe exhausts the combustion gases directly to the outdoors. Both of these pipes are directed to the outdoors at about 95% of the furnaces that I inspect in Minnesota. In these systems, the furnace obtains all of its combustion air directly from the outdoors and exhausts the combustion byproducts directly to the outdoors. A two-pipe system like this is called a direct-vent appliance.

I often hear the terms "direct-vent" and "sidewall-vent" confused. The 2015 Minnesota Fuel Gas Code definition of a direct vent appliance is "Appliances that are constructed and installed so that all air for combustion is derived from the outdoor atmosphere and all flue gases are discharged to the outdoor atmosphere." In other words, a two-pipe system. A one-pipe system can be sidewall-vented, but will never be a direct vent.

Side note: a concentric vent looks like a one-pipe system, but it's really one pipe inside of another. This is still a two-pipe system.

A two-pipe system is preferable because the furnace won't have to use heated indoor air for combustion. There's no wasting of conditioned indoor air.

Another benefit to a two-pipe system is added flexibility in the installation. When the furnace gets its combustion air from the outdoors, you don't have to worry about competition from the other indoor appliances. You know, like that greedy kitchen exhaust fan, or that wimpy natural draft water heater. I touched on this in my blog post about makeup air and the 300 cfm myth. Also, you get the option to install direct vent appliances in places that you couldn't otherwise; see section 303.3 of the MN Fuel Gas Code for details.

What's the problem with a one-pipe system?

There's no problem with a one-pipe system, but the rules for venting are different. I've read dozens, maybe hundreds of high-efficiency furnace installation manuals. Every single one of them had instructions for a direct vent and non-direct vent installation. The diagram below from Goodman shows the different venting requirements for non-direct vent and direct vent.

Goodman vent terminal diagram

So what do we say about one-pipe or non-direct vent system when we inspect them? Nothing. We check to make sure that they're properly installed, and that's about all. Quite frankly, there's less to go wrong with a one-pipe system. The only issue that I regularly come across is a combustion air intake that someone could accidentally set something on top of and block, like the one shown below.

furnace with one pipe improperly installed

The simple fix is to follow the manufacturer's installation instructions. Put a pipe on there and add an elbow. Easy.

furnace with one pipe properly installed

Author: Reuben SaltzmanStructure Tech Home Inspections

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