Monday, December 31, 2007

Energy Audits, Why You Can’t Do It Yourself

As utility cost rise everyone is looking for was to save on their energy bills. The internet, the daily paper and magazines all have tips for reducing your energy usage and expenses. These little bits of energy saving insight are great advice, but are no substitute for a professional energy audit.

A full scale energy audit evaluates the entire home for inefficiency. The audit report provides valuable information on estimated costs to upgrade individual components and their expected payoff through energy savings realized. In addition the auditor uses specialized tools such as an infrared camera and or a blower door fan, which can locate unseen and unexpected areas of energy loss.

A homeowner simply making repairs based on tips or advice is likely missing the most cost effective upgrades available for their home. Without a plan doing it yourself is shotgun upgrading, in other words scattered without clear direction.

For example many homeowners opt to replace all the old windows in their home with new thermal double pane windows. Changing the windows may in fact not yield any appreciable energy savings. Nonetheless many people go for the windows first when energy upgrading.
With an energy audit plan it may be revealed that the most cost effective places to spend that window money is on insulation and setback thermostats. Making decision without the advice and expertise of an energy saving professional can merely leave you poorer with no or little energy savings to show for you expenditures.

Some upgrades can and should be done by the homeowner. The easiest of these is changing your old light bulbs to compact fluorescents. But don’t expect to see dramatic savings in your electric bill. Lighting constitutes about 12 percent of the average families’ electric usage. This equates as follows; for a $150 a month electric bill, $18 is for lighting. Cfls save about 50-75% over incandescent bulbs. Therefore the monthly savings is $9-13 or $108-156 yearly. Not a great deal of money, but certainly a worth while investment.

This brings up the point of energy investments. Most energy improvements are investments, they pay for themselves and then some over the life of the component. What is vitally important is to identify where and what are the best energy investments for your home and budget.
A home owner working together with a trained and experienced energy professional can establish the most valuable energy upgrades for their particular home. This would include those DIY projects from the plethora of tips and advice columns.

Since the idea of energy improvements is saving money, be sure to find and use an energy professional who will show you where and how to invest wisely.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Electrifying Heights, New Haven, CT

The wire that brings electricity into a home is referred to as the service drop conductor (blue arrow). This is connected to the service entry conductor (red arrow). The point at which they are connected (yellow arrow) is most often the demarcation between the homeowners' responsibility and the utility companies' responsibility. The minimum safe height from the ground of these components is 10 feet for the service entry conductor (yellow) and 12 feet for the service drop conductor (blue).

This particular service drop and entry was suspect on initial inspection. The lowest point of the service conductor, the drip loop, is less than 9 feet from grade. This can be determined by counting the bricks. The width of each brick is 2 ¼ inches adding a mortar joint brings it to about 3 inches. This method is better than using a metal tape measure to check the height and a lot safer! There are 33 rows from grade to the bottom of the drip loop. 33 x 3 = 99 ÷ 12 = 8.25.

This would then mean the service drop is also too low. The margin of his rough estimate (over one foot) is certainly wide enough to warrant further evaluation by an electrician. The service entry conductors' height will likely need to be extended to fall within the safety parameters previously discussed.

Taking risks with electricity is never advisable. Minimum safety requirements are in place to protect people from serious injury or death. A knowledgeable home inspector can heighten your awareness of potential problems and spare you shocking surprises after your purchase.

James Quarello
JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC

Monday, October 8, 2007

It’s Raining in the Attic, Inadequate Ventilation, New Haven, CT

When inspecting a 1940s colonial I noticed the roofing shingles had an unusual and uneven pattern of ageing. Viewing the home from the rear, the left side of the roof covering was distinctly more cupped, curled, and dried than the right side, which was fairly smooth.

Going into the attic I noticed there was only one gable end vent, which was on the right side of the home as viewed from the rear. This was the side with the better looking shingles as described previous.
I then look around on the floor of the attic for other tell tale signs of problems. I noticed the spots on the board in the first picture. Then on the attic scuttle cover in the second. Most often these water spots are thought to be from roof leaks. Actually they are from condensation dripping from the roofing nails. This is caused by inadequate attic venting. Moisture from the home is trapped in the attic and will condense on the cold metal roofing nails and drip.
If the moisture content is high enough it can cause mold or mildew to grow on the wood. A very easy way to spot a possible venting problem is to look at the wood surrounding the nails. If there is a black ring around the nails, this indicates moisture is condensing on the nails and the wood is absorbing the water and blackening.
Other problems are over heating of the attic, which can cause shingles to dry out, curl and prematurely age. As I saw on the back side of the roof.
The solution in this case was to add another end vent and if needed a ridge vent. This should prolong the life of the roof and stop the rain from pouring in the attic.

James Quarello
JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC

Thursday, September 6, 2007

That’s Not Rain Drops Falling Down Your Chimney

A common problem with oil fired heating appliances, especially newer more efficient models, is condensation of combustion gases inside the chimney flue. This appears on the unit and flue pipes as a rust like substance running through the flue joints. This problem is very often misdiagnosed as rain water flowing down the flue. The solution is usually to put a cap on the chimney flue to "stop the rain". This fix worsens the problem.

What is in fact occurring is the combustion gases are cooling to quickly inside the flue and condensing. Oil is about 15 percent water and when burned the water in the oil turns to vapor. Normally the combustion gases carry the water vapor out the flue, but if the gases cool to quickly the water begins to condense inside the flue.

What can cause condensation to occur are any number of factors. A long chimney and or a large flue in combination with a newer efficient unit are most often the cause. A long chimney allows more time for the gases to cool. A large flue area can not be warmed enough by the gases expelled from the unit to create good draw to force the gases out the flue quickly.

Newer heating units are more efficient than their predecessors. This results in lower combustion gas temperatures expelled from the unit into the chimney flue. Older units stack temperatures (where the combustion gases leave the unit) were around 600º F, today they are about 450º F or lower.

Another reason this phenomenon can occur is an extremely dirty chimney flue. Many homeowners do not understand that their oil service technician does not clean their chimney. So the chimney is unknowingly neglected and over time these stains will often appear. Also the unit will be more difficult to tune becoming less efficient and consequently more costly to run.

The unit pictured had a somewhat different problem. This is a replacement for the original furnace installed in this Meriden, CT townhouse condo. The chimney is entirely constructed of metal with an integral cap. This type of chimney is usually "tuned" to the furnace it vents. So when the new furnace was installed the venting conditions changed subsequently causing condensation and the stains. It was also discovered during the inspection there was a large gap around the burner tube penetration into the ceramic combustion chamber. This may also be a contributing factor to this units venting problems.

Good technicians and installers today are aware of this problem and are addressing the issue in a number of ways. The most common is a stainless steel liner inserted inside a masonry chimney flue. The round insert is correctly sized to the heating unit to provide optimum venting.

Another option is direct venting. The furnace is vented into a short pipe through the wall. This requires no chimney of any kind and is becoming much more commonplace.

I would also recommend Steven Smiths blog on chimney liners for some further information on the topics touched on here.

So the next time you see water and rust stains on an oil fired heating system flue, it's not rain drops falling down your chimney. It means it's time to call in a professional to tune up your system.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Why People Should Use a Realtor, An Inspectors View

Yes, that's right a home inspector writing on why people need to use real estate agents. In the last two months I have inspected several home that were FSBOs. Some of these inspections were nothing out of the ordinary, some were nightmares. The common denominator, no Realtors.

Why is it when no agents are involved that people seem to think it is the home inspectors' job to advise them on resolving and negotiating home inspection issues? I am not a Realtor, and have no training or interest in that facet of the real estate process. But I continually get put on the spot by my clients.

My experience has been some people are fine with the FSBO process and others haven't got a clue. I can recall two recent examples of people who very desperately need a Realtor.

The first were clients of mine working without an agent buying a FSBO home. They were high maintenance clients and constantly asked how to resolve and negotiate the issues discovered. I was polite and professional with them, but the whole time I am thinking, "GET A REALTOR!"

The other was the same circumstances except the sellers were the problem. They had requested directly from me information from the inspection. I informed them that I can not release inspection information unless my client gives me permission or they can obtain it directly from the client.

They got very angry when I informed them of this client confidentiality. I was told it is our house, etc. I ended up receiving a registered letter from them informing me of their dissatisfaction. In a nut shell they are completely clueless of the home sale and inspection process and it is clearly evident from their reactions.

I have come to appreciate more and more the role of the real estate agent. These recent experiences have shown me that having a professional to guide someone through the home buying-selling process is invaluable. It definitely can make my job easier.

James Quarello
JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC

Thursday, July 19, 2007

How to Use Air Conditioning Efficiently

We love air conditioning. Good ol' A/C. Keeps us cool and comfortable. Until we get the electric bill. Then we get "hot" about the cost. Fact is most people do not use their air conditioning effectively or efficiently. Now you're not going to save bundles of money by being more conscious of the way you use A/C, but it can make the pain a little more tolerable.

Whether you have a central A/C system or room units, you can save by following a few simple rules.

Maintenance: Just like any mechanical system, your air conditioner needs regular maintenance to operate at peak performance. Clean or replace your filters once a month! This is true for a room unit or central system. There seems to be an idea that high efficiency filters last longer. Leave them in for 3, 6, 12 months. Not true, they are finer and therefore filter smaller particles. This means they generally get dirty quicker. Often these filters can be detrimental to your systems efficiency by restricting air flow. You should check with your HVAC technician before using high efficiency filters such as HEPA types. In extreme cases they can cause the indoor cooling coils to freeze, which may result in damage.

The indoor cooling coils in the air handler should be cleaned once a year. Dirty coils are less efficient. The fan blades in the air handler should also be cleaned. Clean blades move more air.
Clean condensate lines and check and clean the pump if your system is equipped with one. Be sure system shutdown switches are working. Look over the catch pan under the air handler if unit has one. Be sure there are no holes or cracks.

The outdoor compressor is the heart of a central A/C system. Keep the area around the unit clear and free of debris. Restricting the air flow from the unit will impede its' ability to dissipate heat causing it to work harder. Have the cooling fins cleaned once a year. The same is true for room units. Don't blow lawn clippings into the unit! Or if your clothes dryer is venting lint into the fins, find a way to correct this.

Clean your ducts! This is a greatly overlooked area of forced air maintenance. Dirty ducts are first and foremost unhealthy. You should consider cleaning your ducts every 3-5 years.

Using your system efficiently: The best way to use a central air conditioning system is to not open your windows when the temperature cools down for one or two days. The job of the A/C system is to; one: cool the air and two: dehumidify the air. By opening windows you re-humidify the air in the home and when you restart the system, it will have work to once again dehumidify the air.

A very important consideration is where you set your thermostat. 78 degrees is the optimal temperature for central A/C systems. 78 is not uncomfortable especially if the air is dry. Contemplate this fact, for every degree you deviate from 78 it will cost you about three percent more per degree to run you A/C. Using ceiling fans will also allow you to more comfortably raise the temperature and use the unit less.

Automatic or setback thermostats can save you money by raising the temperature setting while you are away from home and lowering it before you come back. Raising the temperature for a period of about eight hours is recommended in order to realize any savings. Shorter periods may not save you any money or may even cost you. Be aware and experiment with setting these devices around your schedule.

All ducts should be insulated and sealed. Duct leaks can be responsible for up to a 30% loss in efficiency. The same is true for insulating ducts, especially in unconditioned spaces such as an attic.

Some other points to remember are close your shades and blinds during the day. Insulated shades are a good way to keep the heat out of your home. Avoid using your oven, cook on the stove top or better yet the microwave or barbecue outdoors. If you have a ventilating hood run it to spot remove the heat to the exterior, but don't over do it, this will draw some hot outdoor air into the home.

Size matters: Bigger is not better with air conditioning. If your system is too large, either central or room units, it will not effectively dehumidify the air. This will make the home very uncomfortable. It will be cool, but feel damp or "clammy".

Whirlpool has a cooling capacity calculator that you can use to choose the correct size room air conditioner for your application. With central air the system is sized by an HVAC technician using heat load calculations.

When choosing any air conditioner the higher the efficiency the lower the operating cost. Central units are rated in SEER (Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio). The minimum federally mandated rating since January 23, 2006 is 13. SEER 13 is 30% more efficient than the previous minimum SEER of 10.

Room air conditioners are rated by the energy efficiency ratio (EER). The higher the EER rating, the more efficient the air conditioner. National appliance standards require room air conditioners built after January 1, 1990, to have an energy efficiency ratio (EER) of 8.0 or greater.

When buying a room air conditioner, look for units with an EER of 10.0 or above. Check the Energy Guide label for the unit, and also look for room units with the ENERGY STAR label.
A little consideration should be give to where you install your air conditioner. If possible, install the unit in a shaded spot on your home's north or east side. Direct sunshine on the unit's outdoor heat exchanger decreases efficiency by as much as 10%.

By following these tips you will save money and be more comfortable. And you may find the painful cost of comfort might just be a little more bearable

James Quarello
JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Home Inspection 101

A Consumers Guide to Hiring a Qualified Home Inspector

The purpose of a home inspection is to inform the individual buyer of the current condition of the home. The purchase contract the buyer and seller signed is contingent on the home inspection. A buyer will generally have the option based upon the inspection to; opt out of the purchase, ask for repairs or credit towards repairs or a purchase price reduction.

It would seem that the importance of a good, thorough home inspection by a qualified inspector is obvious. Never the less many home buyers do not adequately research the profession before hiring an inspector. Most people simply ask the price of the inspection and availability of the inspector when calling to hire an inspector. This is an extremely poor method in which to choose a home inspector.

When buying a new car or furniture set would you merely go to the retailer and buy the lowest priced soonest available item? What would you most likely purchase and take home? In all likelihood a poor quality item that you will probably regret hastily purchasing.
Hiring a skilled professional home inspector is absolutely no different. Just like the example, a low priced, quickly available inspector may mean the same thing; poor quality. So what should a home buyer be looking for in a home inspector?

Licensing: Ask for the inspectors’ full license number, this includes any letter prefixes, and write it down. The letters distinguish if the inspector is fully licensed or an intern or apprentice. For example in Connecticut the prefix HOI means Home Inspector, HOP means a Home Inspector Intern.

Insurance: Does the inspector carry Errors & Omissions and or liability insurance and can they provide proof of insurance upon request. Some states require insurance while others do not. Inquire as to the state insurance requirements and be sure the inspector has the proper type and amount.

Training: Has the inspector had formal training from a recognized training school? State regulation in the home inspection profession is relatively recent (Many states still do not have licensing or regulation!), so formal training has been mostly optional. Many “old timers” were carpenters, electricians or builders and learned to perform home inspections “on the job”. However, there is no single trade that qualifies someone to move into the field of home inspection without extensive training.

Experience: This is can be a misleading qualification if the right questions are not asked. Years of experience are not as important as the total number of home inspections completed. In a 2005 national home inspection business operations study conducted by the American Society of Home Inspector (ASHI), over 80 percent of respondents’ said they were full time home inspectors. Yet almost 40 percent said they perform less than 100 home inspections a year. This discrepancy would indicate that many inspectors may be working at other jobs or are semi-retired individuals.

Be sure to ask how many inspections the inspector completes a year, at least 200 or over would be a good standard. It is also still important to ask overall years of experience and total number of inspections.

Continuing Education: Even well trained, experienced inspectors must continually update their skills and knowledge. Licensing requires a minimal amount of continuing education for inspectors to renew their license. Look for inspectors who go beyond the necessary minimum and spend the time and money to keep their skills current.

Association Membership: Inspectors who have made the commitment of time, training, testing and money to belong to a reputable professional home inspection society are generally more committed to doing a high quality job for their clients. But be careful, not all home inspection organizations are equal. Some ask for little or no training, knowledge or experience to become a member, while others are very rigorous in their qualifications for membership. A membership logo means little; it’s what’s behind the symbol that counts. Inquire about and research this area fully, it will provide you with great insight into the inspectors abilities and dedication to performing a top notch home inspection.

The Inspection: How long does the inspection take? As previously mentioned short inspection times mean poor quality. A thorough inspection on an averaged sized home, (1500-2500 sq. ft.) should last 2-4 hours. Also ask if the inspector would like you to attend the inspection. If they say no, this should alert you that something is wrong with this particular inspection company. A good inspector should insist that you attend the home inspection if at all possible.

The Report: This is why you hire an inspector, to provide written detailed information about the house. The first and most important question, when and how will you receive the report? On site, within 24 hours, a week, by email, regular mail or delivered by the inspector. What type of report does the inspector use, what is the approximate length of the report, are there pictures included? Be wary of short reports, 10 pages or less, and long report turn around times.

Other Qualifications: Ask if the inspector has additional certifications or licenses in services that you may require in addition to the home inspection. For instance radon testing is a very common ancillary service provided by many home inspection companies, but many inspectors are not certified or formally trained. If you are looking to have other services done be sure to ask about the inspectors’ qualifications to conduct the tests you require.

Miscellaneous Items: Some things you should confirm when calling to hire a home inspector. Be positive that the inspector that will be doing your home inspection possesses the qualifications stated by the person on the phone. This is especially important when talking with multi-inspector firms. Most importantly will the inspector be readily available for follow up questions.

Price: The very last question you should ask, not the first. Put quite simply, you get what you pay for. Good home inspectors demand higher prices because of experience, money invested into training to improve their skills and the business for the benefit of their clients. Remember the money you pay a good inspector is an investment. You will very likely receive back from the seller monies well in excess of the home inspection fee. Be certain to choose your inspector wisely.

Summary: When calling to hire a Home inspector be sure to ask about:

  • Licensing
  • Insurance
  • Formal Training
  • Experience
  • Continuing Education
  • Association Membership
  • The Inspection
  • The Report
  • Other Qualifications
  • Does the inspector doing inspection have the qualification stated.
  • Price
Following this simple guide should aid you in finding a well qualified, professional home inspector. Having a good inspection will provide you with valuable information on your prospective purchase and ultimately piece of mind going forward.

James Quarello
JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Infrared Thermal Imaging, What's it Really Good For?

I have noticed quite a bit of blogging relating to using infrared thermal imaging cameras for home inspections. Some of these blogs are nothing more than an ad for how the home inspection company is ahead of the technological curve. But what really is the the truth about using thermal imaging as a home inspection tool.

The first and most important thing to understand about infrared cameras is they do not see through objects. That's x-ray folks. Infrared is thermal or temperature readings of the surface of an object. Now infrared cameras are extremely temperature sensitive. Because of this sensitivity they can display pictures in temperature gradients. The image may appear to have a great degree, no pun intended, of temperature differential, when in fact there is little temperature range.

Notice the the image to the right. The temperature range is about 11 degrees. What are you looking at in this picture?

Missing wall insulation. The dark areas in the center of this infrared thermal image show clearly where the insulation company failed to fill the stud bay. The bays on the immediate left and right are only partially filled. Look closely at the right hand wall and the ceiling. Can you see the stud lines?

Now this is a great example of a good use of infrared thermal imaging. Heat and energy loss. Makes sense right, temperature sensitive camera-heat and cooling deficiencies.

What it is not really great for is a general inspection tool or a mold locater. Why? Because there must be ideal infrared conditions present to find problems such as a water incursion. Simply taking the camera out at the time of the home inspection and scanning the home will not necessarily reveal anything.

Which brings up another important aspect of the thermographers job, to know when and how to use the camera in order to locate an existing problem. Most infrared building diagnostic companies use spray racks to systematically wet the building in order to find a leak. They use the infrared camera along with a moisture meter to track back to the water source.

If your lucky during the day of the home inspection or very recently it has rained. Now you have a very good chance of locating a leak or source of a moisture problem. Of course rain is not the only source of water leaks in a building. A plumbing leak is just as common. The thing with a leaky pipe is a good home inspector will likely find it during the course of his inspection.

Having rain during the home inspection when using infrared is not the only needed thermal condition. Temperature differential is also very important. Lets say the inside of the home is 70 degrees and out side it is 58. The inside has been 70 for several hours. This is what I call a temperature equilibrium. The surfaces in the home have been at the same temperature for many hours with the outside temperature relatively close to the inside. Because of this the walls will appear to the infrared camera with very little detail.

As you can see infrared thermal imaging is far from an exact science. It is crucial that the person operating the camera is trained in the use of the camera, thermal dynamic principles, and interpreting infrared images. Owning an infrared camera and offering infrared as an ancillary home inspection service does not assure a skilled operator.

I use infrared primarily as an energy auditing and heat and cooling loss tool in CT where I perform home inspections. I have found infrared to be a fantastic device in this application. I have almost never used it to locate water leaks and when I have was disappointed in the results.

Okay, so what is infrared thermal imaging really good for? Everything I discussed here and much more. So long as it used within the parameters of its' limitations by a skilled operator.

James Quarello
JRV Home Inspection Services, LLC