Do You Need to Add a Vapor Barrier in Your Home?

TS-77902336_vapor-barrier-crop_s4x3.jpg.rend.hgtvcom.1280.960Because common foundation materials, such as concrete blocks, are somewhat porous, adding an air or vapor barrier can be important an important step when it comes to insulating a basement, crawl space, garage or other unheated area of a house. To improve comfort and utility costs for adjacent heated rooms, home owners may consider adding insulation to the ceiling or walls of the unheated space. Another thing to consider is adding a vapor barrier.

A vapor barrier installed on the warm side of the insulation will prevent air from moving through the insulation, adding to the insulation’s effectiveness. A vapor barrier is difficult to install once insulation is already in place, so if you are planning to re-insulate an area of your home, you might want to consider also adding a vapor barrier.

It is important to avoid putting vapor barriers on the cold side of the insulation. This can trap moisture in the insulation, causing possible rot around wood framing or walls. Air and vapor barriers also should not be used to hold insulation to the ceiling of an unheated garage or crawl space.

An earthen floor in a crawl space or basement can cause elevated moisture levels in the air and promote rot in wooden structural beams, so it is advisable to add a moisture barrier like a polyethylene sheet over such floors. The moisture barrier should be sealed at the joints and around the perimeter. A layer of gravel or sand can help prevent rips or tears.

Your local NPI or GPI home inspector can provide you with a full assessment of your home’s systems and condition. To find an inspector near you, visit one of the links below.

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Common Defects in Newly Built Homes

By Randy Yates, Training Consultant Administrator, NPI/GPI Corporate

Home under construction uid 1When it comes to new-home construction, there really is no limit as to what can go wrong or not be done correctly during building. Defects are common; in fact, it has been said that a home inspector can sometimes find more things wrong with a newly constructed home than an existing home. This is why it’s important to always have a home inspection when buying a house — even if the house is newly built.

You might wonder what kinds of defects a new house could possibly have. Here is a list of problems home inspectors at National Property Inspections and Global Property Inspections often find:

Structural Defects
Premature cracking and settlement in foundation walls can be caused when builders don’t allow the proper amount of curing time for concrete in poured and block foundation walls and slabs. In addition, improper framing techniques — which may not be apparent at first — can cause cracks to develop in drywall. These are typically hairline in nature.

HVAC Problems
Our inspectors occasionally discover that the vent pipe from a gas-fired furnace has not been connected and has come loose during the initial operation. This is a major safety hazard, as carbon monoxide may enter the residence. In one situation, the PVC pipes used to vent a gas-fired furnace were not properly glued together. In addition, our inspectors sometimes find thermostats that do not respond to normal functions. Another common problem is missing drip legs on condensate lines.

Electrical Errors
The list is long for typical electrical problems, and most would not be obvious to the average home buyer or owner. The problem with defects in your home’s electrical system is that most are a fire and/or safety hazard. Here are the most common electrical problems our inspectors find in new houses:

  • Missing switch plates or receptacle covers
  • Improperly wired outlets
  • Open grounds — ground wire is not connected properly
  • Reversed polarity
  • Open knock-outs in the main electrical panel
  • Improper wire sizes on breakers
  • Double-taps on breakers in main panels — when two wires connect to a single breaker
    Jumpers ahead of the main lugs (double-tapping) — when two wires connect to a single lug

Plumbing Blunders
Plumbing problems are something you certainly don’t want in a new house. Leaks can cause major damage and mold issues, while other defects are more of a nuisance. But shouldn’t your brand-new home be free of nuisances? Here are some of the most common plumbing issues:

  • Unglued or improperly glued PVC pipe connections frequently develop leaks — you may never know about the weak joint until standing water begins to seep through
  • Hot/cold reversed faucets and fixtures
  • Bathroom sink drain stoppers that were not connected
  • Improperly vented plumbing systems may be noisy and/or smelly
  • Drain pipes that were not connected (One of our inspectors really did find a drain pipe in a crawl space that was never connected)

Miscellaneous Mistakes
Believe it or not, our inspectors have found all of the following problems in newly constructed houses:

  • Incomplete door hardware on closet doors, cabinetry and entrance doors
  • Improper fire-rated assemblies for pull-down attic stairs
  • Missing handrails on stairs
  • Missing or insufficient insulation
  • Leaky windows
  • Siding defects
  • Improper grading, which could lead to water intrusion and foundation damage

What these defects tell us is that if you are moving into a newly built house, don’t skip the home inspection. Even the best builders in your area use subcontractors, so you can’t assume that everything in your house is top-quality just because you builder is. Plus, you have to allow for human error, which is how many of the problems mentioned here happen. So, even if you just had your house built, it’s worth the cost of a home inspection to ensure that everything was done correctly, and that your new home will be safe and worry-free.

To find an NPI home inspector in your area in the United States, please visit www.npiweb.com/FindAnInspector. To find a GPI inspector in your area in Canada, please visit www.gpiweb.ca/FindAnInspector.

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Mold: Friend or Foe?

By Todd Newhook, GPI Franchise Owner, Markham, Ontario

Newhook 1Mold in general is an important part of our ecosystem. It is all around us! Is it really harmful? Why does media treat mold as a bad thing? Is it a bad thing? Should you be concerned?

Good questions. When it comes to living in a home — an enclosed environment, so to speak — the most important issue is ensuring that you manage the environment you live in to help reduce the risk of high levels of harmful or toxic molds. Mold in general needs a food source (e.g., water or elevated moisture levels) to grow and spread.

The good: Molds eat garbage and turn it into soil. They break down dead plant and animal matter. Some of them are also beneficial to our health — do you bake/cook with yeast and mushrooms (fungi)?

The potentially bad: Many home owners don’t understand building science, the importance of managing relative humidity levels in the home, and maintaining proper room temperatures. The majority of excessive or toxic mold growth in homes is due to this lack of understanding and poor housekeeping.

Newhook 2Relative humidity levels should be maintained between 30 percent and 50 percent, with a target of 40 percent. Low levels of humidity contribute to dry air and possible respiratory problems. During dry winters, a humidifier will help to add moisture to the air inside your home — just make sure to keep the humidity level around 40 percent to avoid excess moisture in your home.

Excessive levels of humidity contribute to excessive moisture levels and may contribute to harmful mold growth and respiratory problems. Often when we inspect basements during the summertime, the insulation at the exterior walls is wet due to high humidity. In the summer, when there are higher levels of humidity, a portable dehumidifier will help to control humidity levels. Always follow manufacturer setup and operation procedures for using humidifiers.

Another common source of mold is poor maintenance of heating and cooling systems. The cooling system typically has an A-coil and an evaporator pan enclosed above the heating system. If not maintained on a regular basis, the evaporator pan that captures and drains condensation can sometimes clog. Standing water in a stale and dark environment contributes to mold growth. If you turn on your heating/cooling system you may be blowing potentially harmful mold around your house.

Leaks due to aged roofs, deteriorated caulking/seals, etc., can also contribute to excessive or harmful mold growth. Home maintenance is key to preventing leaks and the opportunity for mold to grow.

Older homes did not require ventilation as mandated today. For example, todays’ standards require that bathrooms and kitchens include properly vented systems. But if you live in an older house, you may not have a ventilation system, and that can contribute to mold growth on bathroom walls.

Newhook 3How is the insulation in your walls and attic? Ensuring that your home has proper insulation levels will help reduce the risk of heat loss and excessive condensation and mold growth.

To-do List

  1. Ensure your home includes a humidifier and dehumidifier to help manage humidity levels depending on the season.
  2. Set up an annual maintenance program with a qualified HVAC company to properly maintain your heating and cooling systems.
  3. Ensure that the exterior of your home is properly maintained to help reduce leaks (e.g., roofing, caulking/seals, siding).
  4. Run exhaust fans during, and for a minimum of 30 minutes after, cooking or showering. In bathrooms, consider installing an automatic switch that runs the exhaust fan to control humidity levels.
  5. Ensure that insulation in walls and attics is properly installed and evenly distributed.

Your local NPI or GP inspector has the tools and knowledge to assess your home. Consult with your local NPI/GPI Inspector to do an assessment of your home to help reduce elevated levels of harmful mold in your home.

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Prepare for Cold Weather: Caulk, Seal and Weather-strip

Winter House_shutterstock_128124284As you prepare your home for the cold weather, you’ll want to be sure to eliminate drafts, which can cause cold spots in your home and waste energy. Caulking, sealing and weather-stripping windows and doors is the way to stop drafts in their tracks.

In addition to saving money and eliminated cold spots near doors and windows, sealing drafts can help prevent unwanted visitors like rodents from entering your home.

Regardless of the season, sealing cracks around doors and windows offers a number benefits and is wise for any home owner:

  • Saves money by preventing cold air from entering your house in the winter or hot air entering in the summer.
  • Eliminates easy entry points for insects such as ants, roaches, spiders, flies and crickets.
  • Requires no special skills to apply caulk, sealant or weather-stripping.
  • Offers an inexpensive solution. You can purchase any type of weather stripping, caulk or sealer from your local hardware store, and it will be worth the investment.
  • Provides an accent to the paint around the trim of the doors and windows inside your home and can be appealing to the eye. A paint job or stain can look unfinished and appear to have unattractive gaps or spacing without proper caulk or sealant.
  • Prevents rain and snow from entering your house. If the existing doors or windows in your home are wood, then weather stripping prevents water from damaging the wood.
  • Dampens some of the outdoor noise levels (animals, mowers, children, vehicles).
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Make Your Home More Comfortable: Improve Its Insulation

Insulation in Attic_shutterstock_95608564Did you know that most homes don’t have enough insulation? Insufficient insulation may be caused by uncompleted rooms or areas of the house, incorrect type of insulation, or improperly installed insulation. Regardless of the cause, the result will be that heat will escape your home in the winter and enter during the summer. If your home is properly insulated, you can save up to 10 percent on your annual energy bill.

Signs of Inadequate or Missing Insulation

  • Drafts: Air drafts coming in around doors, floors, windows and through outlets could be a sign that your home needs more insulation.
  • Icicles: Icicles hanging frozen from the roof edges and gutters could indicate that the home’s insulation is insufficient. Icicles mean that heat is escaping through the attic and melting rooftop snow, causing a freezing drip.
  • Leaky roof: A roof that has been leaking could have allowed water to soak insulation. If insulation has been wet, it needs replacing, as it will no longer be as effective and will most likely grow mold.
  • Excessively hot areas: In a two- or three-story house, you may have an upstairs floor that is excessively warm in the summer, which could be an indication that hot air is seeping through to the inside of the home.
  • Wall sweat: Walls will appear to “sweat” when there is no or insufficient insulation.

Types of Insulation
Insulation comes in a variety of types. Choose the one that works best for your home and the area you are insulating.

  • Foam board: Comes in sheets like a drywall sheet and can vary in thickness that range from one-half to 2 inches. Foam board allows moisture to escape, so it is used outside or under and between concrete — like basement walls and floors.
  • Blown-in insulation: This type comes in blocks, and a machine is used to spray it into areas, such as an attic. The machine breaks the insulation into small pieces so it is distributed evenly and accurately. You can hire an insulation company to blow insulation into your home, or you can purchase the insulation and rent the machine from a home improvement store and do it yourself.
  • Spray foam insulation: This insulation is available in smaller spray cans and typically used around windows or doors to seal small areas where air may leak through. You can also find larger quantities of spray foam to spray entire walls if you choose. Spray foam insulation has one of the higher R-values compared to some other types of insulation.
  • Rolls or batts of insulation: Typically made of fiberglass, this insulation is similar to blankets. To install, you cut off the length you need and lay it where you need insulation. Some people use a staple gun to affix the edges of the paper to wall studs. To insulate a floor, you can basically cut pieces to fit and drop or roll them into place.

Got Some Time This Weekend? Insulation Is an Easy DIY Project
Installing insulation is a simple weekend project you can do yourself. You may only need to measure, cut and stuff or roll the insulation between joists, but spraying or nailing insulation in place can be just as simple.

If you don’t have the time or the desire to attempt the project, hiring a professional to install insulation costs between $1.50 and $3.50 per square foot, depending on the size of the area, location in the home and type of insulation used.

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Home Inspector Solves HVAC Mystery

John Nelson, NPI Franchise Owner, Manassas, Virginia

John Nelson, NPI Franchise Owner, Manassas, Virginia

Sometimes home inspectors do more than inspect homes for home buyers and sellers. Sometimes they are called in as sleuths to solve a home owner’s mystery. This story comes from NPI franchise owner John Nelson in Manassas, Virginia. It’s a good reminder that a home inspection is always a good idea, even on brand-new houses. Here’s what John told us:

Last August, I got a call from a distraught home owner. He bought a brand-new home from a well-known builder in September 2013. He didn’t have an inspection performed before buying the house — what could possibly be wrong with a brand-new home, right? After the weather turned cold and winter set in, the home owners found themselves in in a serious situation: It was cold on the upper floor (the bedroom level) of their 3,500 sq. ft. beautiful new home. So cold, in fact, that the heating system was running nonstop.

“Something must be wrong with the heat,” the owner thought. He called the builder, who promptly sent out the HVAC installer that put in the system during construction. The home actually has two HVAC systems — one in the basement, for the basement and first floor, and another in the attic for the bedrooms. The HVAC installer went to the house, went into the attic to check the system, did his thing and proclaimed, “The system is working fine. No problems found at all. It’s operating completely within the manufacturer’s specs.”

So the home owners suffer through the winter — thankfully it was not a bad one for temperatures. Spring arrived and everything seemed fine. Then June starts to heat things up. By the beginning of July, this poor home owner and his family are sweating up a storm. This poor guy has gone out and bought four window-mounted air-conditioning units for his brand-new home just so they can sleep at night!

He calls the builder again, knowing something isn’t right. Instead of going to the home to see what’s happening and investigate this poor guy’s situation, the builder calls Mr. HVAC Installer to find out why the HVAC system is not cooling the bedrooms. The HVAC installer returns, does his thing, whatever that is, and again proclaims that the system is working perfectly, completely within design specs …

The home owner is mystified. He has Googled HVAC systems, read everything he could about how the systems work. He came up with no answers. Then he finally decides to have a third party go to the house to investigate. “Forget the builder,” he thinks. “I need a home inspector!” The guy calls me and says, “John, I need your help!” He relays to me the entire story of what’s been going on with his HVAC. It’s now the first week of August, and in the Washington, D.C., area that means 95 degrees and 100 percent humidity.

I arrived at his house and went upstairs to the main bedroom hallway, and I stopped at the top of the stairs. The heat was oppressive. It was so hot that you could feel it on the back of your neck, like you’re outside and the sun is cooking your neck. Now, I haven’t been in the house more than two minutes at this point, and I look at the home owner and proclaim, without even looking at anything, “I know exactly what the problem is!”

I got my ladder and entered the attic to verify my suspicion. Keep in mind that the builder’s HVAC installer has been inside the attic three or four times over the course of the winter and summer and never noticed: THERE IS NO INSULATION IN THE ATTIC. None, nada. The attic is clean as a whistle. This poor family has been through a complete Washington, D.C., winter and the worst part of a Washington, D.C., summer with no attic insulation. The builder completely forgot to install it, and I guess an HVAC installer is not trained to notice little details like the fact that the attic was so clean.

I walked out of the house no more than 15 minutes after arriving. The homeowner was so grateful that he paid me double my fee. I feel like I really helped someone who needed it desperately and made a difference. And I never even had to check the HVAC system.

A few days went by and the home owner called me back. He said, “The builder has fully insulated the attic, and my AC is actually turning off all by itself sometimes! John, I feel like such an idiot for not having the house inspected before we bought it, I need you to come out and do a complete inspection. My wife and I discussed it, and we want you to go over the whole house.” I found a few more small issues, and the home owners were happy. I also ended up inspecting the neighbors’ houses on both sides of him within the next month. I guess the word got around.

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Before You Buy, Find out if House Is Well-insulated

Submitted by Ken Roleke, NPI Franchise Owner, Tucson, Arizona

AtticBefore World War II, energy costs were low, and homes were usually built without insulation. Some houses were built without insulation as late as the early 1970s. As the fuel most commonly used for home heating went from wood to coal to oil and natural gas, it changed from locally sourced to an internationally traded commodity. Prices spiked with the OPEC oil embargo in 1973, leading to increased awareness and energy conservation.

There are U.S. Department of Energy codes and International Code Council codes that serve as guidelines, but energy codes are regulated at the state and local level. One exception is manufactured housing, which is subject to federal energy standards. The guidelines create climate zones, with higher R-value wall and attic insulation stipulated in the colder northern zones.

A home inspector inspecting an older house will check if, indeed, the house is insulated. The attics of most older houses have been insulated or had extra insulation added over time because the attics are usually accessible. Insulating the walls is more complicated and expensive. And, if there is no vapor barrier, moisture could get trapped in the wall cavities. It is easier to make sure there is a proper vapor barrier, insulating the exterior wall at the same time the exterior cladding is replaced, as opposed to blowing in insulation to stud cavities. An inspector will look for signs of moisture, mold, peeling paint and even rotting wood where the wall insulation retrofit was not done properly.

One insulation material seldom used now that an inspector may run across is vermiculite. Vermiculite mined before 1990 could contain asbestos and should not be disturbed. Sometimes foil was installed to reflect heat back into the house. Other older materials an inspector might see are slag wool, mineral wool, and even straw and old newspaper.

Today, a variety of insulation materials are used. Rigid insulation is made in a variety of sizes and materials and most often installed on the exterior wall side. There are SIPs, structural insulated panels, which are structural building panels made of boards with foam insulation sandwiched inside. There are spray foams that go in stud cavities, in the form of open-cell and closed-cell foams. There are ICF, insulated concrete forms, where rigid insulation serves as the stay-in-place forms for poured concrete walls. But those materials are more likely to be used in commercial, specialty and custom home construction, as they are more expensive than the two insulation materials that dominate house insulation.

Fiberglass is used in the form of plain batts and blankets, or faced with kraft paper or foil as a vapor barrier, and as loose fill. Cellulose is usually blown in as loose fill. Fiberglass has a higher R-value per inch than cellulose.

Home inspections are normally noninvasive, so an inspector will not always be able to identify the insulating material, although sometimes there will be an open wall cavity or hole that will allow him to do so. More often than not, there will be either visual or actual attic access, in which case the inspector will check the type of insulation used and check for proper installation. A common problem he will see is insulation missing or not evenly distributed. Using an infrared camera during the inspection can identify gaps and missing insulation that might not otherwise be detected in the walls and inaccessible areas of the attic.

With everything going on in the home-buying process, insulation is something the home buyer is probably not thinking about. A home inspector can determine whether a home is properly insulated, another facet of the home inspection that can save the home buyer from unexpected future expenses.

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