Electrical Problems Are Commonly Found During Home Inspection

Submitted by Kenn Garder, Technical Support, NPI/GPI Corporate

Home inspectors frequently encounter electrical problems in the homes they inspect. The following are some of the more common electrical issues found during the home inspection process, in no particular order:

GE DIGITAL CAMERAOpen Junction Boxes
Connections within the electrical system are required to be enclosed in an appropriate box and must be accessible for service. Many connections take place in the box that switches, outlets and light fixtures are in, but in some cases a junction box is used. The wires are routed through openings in the box and properly secured and connected. The junction box should be properly secured with a cover plate installed to enclose the connections. When systems have been added on to, it is common to see a junction box without a cover plate in the attic.


Knob and Tube Wiring
GE DIGITAL CAMERAIn houses built in the early decades of the 19th century (through the 40s) it is common to find knob and tube wiring (KNT). The tubes, as seen in the photo, are inserted into a hole in the framing and the wire is routed through the tube. A knob is a split insulator that is secured into the framing using a nail. If this wiring has not been over heated, covered in insulation, spliced incorrectly and has been fused properly, it may be safe. The likelihood of it being safe in today’s world is not high, and many insurance companies will not cover KNT or will increase premiums if KNT is present.

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Double Taps
When two wires are place under the same screw or lug in a panel, it is called a double tap. Two wires are not to be installed under a single screw or lug unless the device is designed for that application. Some breakers are designed to accept more than one wire; the most common are certain Square D breakers. In the past, it was common to install more than one neutral or ground wire under a single screw on those buss bars, but today’s standards require a single wire per opening on the neutral and ground bus bars.

Open Knock-outs
Service panels have areas that can be “knocked out” to allow a wire to be installed. A connector or bushing is installed to keep the wire from chaffing against the sharp metal of the panel. If these knock-outs have been removed from the side of the panel or the dead front where the breakers are located, then a foreign object may be inserted into the opening, creating a shock hazard. Plugs and covers can be installed into the openings to correct this issue.

Ungrounded Outlets and No GFCI
Some common issues found in the branch circuits include ungrounded outlets and lack of GFCI protection.

Prior to the 1960s a two-wire system was used to provide power to outlets: A black wire and a white neutral wire were used to power two-pronged outlets. It is common for do-it-yourselfers to replace these two-pronged outlets with three pronged outlets, giving the false security that the outlet is grounded and safe for appliances with three-pronged cords.

In the 1970s, ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) were introduced. These outlets and breakers are designed to sense a very small change in the current flow of the wires and will stop the power to the outlet or circuit if a change is detected. The locations for GFCI protection has expanded over the years, but to help keep people safe, GFCI protection may be recommended in areas where it may not have been required when the electrical system was installed.

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Updated Furnace With Old Flue Ducting? It Could Be a CO Hazard

Submitted by Scott Ward, NPI Franchise Owner, Southern Johnson County, Kansas

Wounded Warrior 16601 W 147 Terr. Olathe KS 7-19-13 027Over the past several years, I have performed inspections on numerous 20- to 30-year-old homes where a new, more efficient furnace has been installed but the original flue piping was retained. In at least six of these homes, flue piping running through an attic space has had significant corrosion present, which could allow a large amount of carbon monoxide (CO) to potentially enter the living areas. In some cases the flue pipe was so severely corroded that the piping had actually fallen and was venting directly into the attic. Remember, gas water heaters typically are vented in the furnace flue pipe, adding to the potential of CO poisoning.

The Problem
The flue pipe corrosion is caused by a combination of flue gasses condensing inside of the flue pipe and low exhaust temperatures common on newer high efficiency gas furnaces. Old furnaces have efficiencies of less than 50 percent while new ones are typically over 90 percent. This means that flue gas temperatures are significantly lower now than in years past.

One of the byproducts of burning natural gas as a fuel is water vapor. When this water vapor comes in contact with the wall of the flue, it condenses into water droplets. The droplets, called condensate, have a very low pH and are corrosive to metals.

Wounded Warrior 16601 W 147 Terr. Olathe KS 7-19-13 026Over a period of time, the flue pipe can corrode from the inside out and begin leaking CO. This usually occurs in piping that has a low slope. Vertical flue runs usually have fewer issues, but look for a white, powdery residue at joints and elbows or inside the furnace cabinet. This is also an indication of low flue temperatures and corrosion potential.

The Solution
First and foremost, install a quality CO detector. It can be a lifesaving device. Every year people die from CO poisoning.

Second, while homeowners can visually inspect the flue piping, many times it is routed through difficult-to-access areas, such as behind walls, in ceilings and in attic spaces. Look for any signs of corrosion or white, powdery deposits on the flue piping. Both are good indications of a potential problem.

If you are concerned about this flue pipe problem in your home, it is best to hire a professional such as a home inspector or an HVAC contractor, as they will have the knowledge, experience and equipment to inspect the flue system.

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Home Buyers: Understanding a Home Inspection

Submitted by Doug Kendall, GPI Franchise Owner, Kanata Ontario, Canada

ÛëàHome buyers need to fully understand what a home inspection is and what the limitations are. We, as inspectors, supply a preinspection agreement and a standards-of-practice form, which clearly state what we are able to do and our limitations. It is up to the home buyer to read and a ask questions about these documents prior to the inspection.  Here are some tips for preparing for a home inspection:

Be sure you understand what the inspector can and can’t do. Ask about the tools, what they can help find and the limitations of the tools.

A home inspection is not a TV show. We are not licensed professionals in every trade that assembles a home. The home buyer must understand that the home inspector is only a generalist with a lot of knowledge in the general operation and construction of a building. Our task is to advise on whether the home buyer needs further evaluation of the home or component — like having your family doctor advising you to see a specialist.

The inspector can only see visual items. We are not damaging the home or moving items in the home. We are guests in the seller’s home, unable to disrupt their items. Remember, you are buying the home, but we are only guests until you own the property.

The home buyers have seen the home two or three times before the offer of purchase was made. Those visits are the time to make notes of your concerns or things you want the inspector to help explain or focus attention on.

The home buyers are part of the inspector’s team and need to work with the inspector to ensure that the home they have put an offer in on is the right choice for their family.

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What Does an Attic Inspection Involve?

Attic2Attics are an important part of the home inspection and the roof inspection. When an inspector ventures into an attic, he/she looks at the following:

  • Amount of insulation and type of insulation
  • Amount of ventilation and describe the type: static, turbine, power ventilator, gable, soffit
  • Electrical wiring
  • Obvious signs of a possible leaking roof
  • Type of framing — whether it is traditionally framed or trusses
  • Type of sheathing — whether it is plywood or oriented strand board (OSB)
  • The attic opening — whether it is of adequate size

For more information about inspecting your attic, contact your local NPI inspector.

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What If an Inspector Can’t Inspect the Flue?

Fireplace-Brick_shutterstock_120704617A chimney cap is often required in order to keep animals and debris out of the chimney and to prevent deterioration of the chimney liner. But when a chimney cap is in place, it can hinder a home inspector’s ability to inspect the chimney.

In cases where a chimney cap is in place and the inspector can’t inspect the chimney, the inspector will note on the report something like, “Unable to inspect the chimney flue from exterior due to presence of chimney cap. Very limited observation from the interior.”

If you want the chimney and liner professionally inspected, you should call a professional chimney sweep for an inspection.

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Extend the Life of Your Roof With These Six Tips

Roof + Ladder_shutterstock_49112053A roof is an expensive part of the house to replace. Here are a few tips that will help keep your roof in tip-top shape and lasting longer.

  1. Make sure you have proper attic insulation and ventilation. Proper attic insulation and ventilation can prevent warping, reduce energy costs, and reduce the amount of water that gets into your home. Heat and cold can take a toll on a roof, and the right amount of insulation and ventilation will prevent the attic from reaching exorbitant temperatures in the summer, as well as prevent ice damming (melting and refreezing) in the winter.
  2. Make sure that the proper flashing is installed. Flashing prevents water intrusion around chimneys and vents, so it is important to ensure that it is both installed and installed properly.
  3. Clean the gutters. Clean gutters will prevent debris, snow and ice from getting on the roof.
  4. Trim the trees. Branches overhanging or laying on the roof can cause wear and tear to the roofing material from rubbing on the material. Furthermore, shade from trees can encourage the growth of moss, which can cause pitting of the shingles.
  5. Inspect the roof annually. Either inspect the roof yourself or hire a roofing contractor to walk the roof and inspect it.
  6. Make repairs when they are needed. It is important to make roof repairs promptly when they are needed. Call a qualified roofing contractor to make repairs.
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Saving Energy and Money in the Attic

Submitted by Rodney Twyford, NPI Franchise Owner, San Antonio, Texas

Attic_shutterstock_126764639The attic of a home is a system of many components working together to help maintain ideal indoor conditions, so the whole attic system should be considered when making energy efficiency improvements. Although I offer some recommended energy-saving tips, this is not in order of largest energy-saving benefits. It is only a practical approach and the recommended order in which to do perform the work.

Seal Leaks
One of the first places to start saving energy and money in your attic is by sealing up all air leaks, combined with sealing around all walls, doors and windows within the thermal envelope. Most homes in the United States have significant air leaks that if added up typically would be the equivalent of leaving a window open every day, all day long. Air that leaks through your home’s envelope wastes a lot of energy and increases utility costs. Other benefits include reduced noise from outside, less pollen, dust and insects (or pests) entering your home, and better humidity control.

Air sealing an attic can be a challenge and messy for most do-it-yourself homeowners because it typically involves messing with existing attic insulation. However, if you do not feel up to accessing your attic areas, there are a number of qualified contractors who can be hired for this job.

Seal and Insulate Leaky Ducts
Other common energy wasters are air distribution ducts. Research has shown that a high percentage of air distribution systems leak, it’s just a question of how much. Leaky ducts can reduce heating and cooling system efficiency by as much as 20 percent. Sealing and insulating ducts increases efficiency, lowers your energy bills, and reduces pollutants and the impact on the environment through generating the energy to heat your home.

Duct material manufacturers have made considerable improvements over the years to incorporate a radiant barrier, giving ducts the ability to reflect radiant heat. A new air distribution system typically pays for itself through energy savings.

Install the Proper Amount of Insulation
Third on the list of energy-saving tasks is insulation. Most older homes in the United States are underinsulated, and newer homes only have the standard required insulation at best. Most homes can benefit from increased insulation that will pay off year after year and can increase value of the home.

Heating and cooling systems consume 50 percent to 70 percent of a home’s energy. Heat flows naturally from a warmer to a cooler space, so adding insulation helps your home retain heat in cold weather and reject heat in warm seasons, allowing your heating and cooling system to run more efficiently.

Install a Radiant Barrier
One of the last but highly recommended improvements is installing a radiant barrier. Since this technology is not widely known and often misunderstood, I will spend a bit more time on it to explain what it is and how it works.

First, we should know that heat is transferred in three ways: conduction, convection and radiation. It is also important to know that heat does not always rise, as is the common misconception. We know through science, the second law of thermodynamics, that heat naturally wants to flow from warmer to cooler areas, such as from a hot attic to a cooler interior space below.

TwyfordRadiant barriers are sheets of aluminum foil typically applied to a fiberglass mesh or a Mylar bubble wrap that work to block the transfer of heat from the exterior into the attic and/or interior space, which can reduce the energy efficiency. A radiant barrier works to block heat transfer in two ways: First, the shiny, reflective surface blocks radiant heat by reflecting it, and second, the shiny surface has a very low emissivity to prevent emitting heat through radiation.

The radiant barrier applied to the attic side of roof sheathing, such as Tech Shield, is only a one-sided barrier and works by reducing the emittance of heat from the roof surface through to the attic space. Many of the radiant barriers sold in sheets are double-sided and work both as a reflective barrier and a low-E barrier. The bottom side works the same as the one-sided barrier by reducing the ability to emit heat into attic space, and the top side works to reflect heat radiation away from the attic.

However, in order for both sides to work efficiently, there must be an air space. Without this required air space heat can be transferred through conductivity, thus effectually reducing the barrier’s ability to be a barrier at all.

Some radiant barriers are installed horizontally over insulation across the attic floor. This type of installation could be cause for concern in several ways. First the accumulation of dust eventually will cover and dull the surface, reducing its ability to reflect radiant heat. If this horizontal radiant barrier is double-sided, then the dust can reduce it to becoming effectively a one-sided barrier. So now, as a one-sided barrier, the shiny side facedown on attic floor can still work to prevent heat from emitting into insulation, as long as there is enough of an air space between the radiant barrier and insulation. If the radiant barrier is compressed into the insulation, such as using attic storage, then heat could be transferred through conductivity.

Also, a radiant barrier installed on the floor of the attic directly in contact with insulation could be cause for concern. During winter months, the water vapor in the warm interior air could move upward toward the attic, unless the radiant barrier is highly permeable. This water vapor could condense on the underside of the barrier, causing a reduction in R-value of the existing insulation due to its constant exposure to moisture. Another ill effect of this phenomenon is that the ceiling could rot, cause mold or display wet spots. Moisture can also be generated from bathroom exhaust fans leaking or not properly terminating to the exterior of the house, causing moisture to accumulate within the insulation.

Other disadvantages of installing a radiant barrier on the attic floor is significantly reducing the ability to safely move about through attics to perform maintenance or repair work. Given these known disadvantages, it is recommended in warmer regions to install the double-sided radiant barrier on the underside of the rafters, and taking care not to obstruct proper attic ventilation with the barrier. For best results, it is recommended to ventilate both sides of the double-sided radiant barrier installed across the bottom side of the rafters. This will help carry away the heat between top of the radiant barrier and the roof sheathing, as well as through the attic space.

Finally, a spray-on radiant barrier is a liquid applied to the underside of the roof sheathing, much like paint, and it must be applied at a certain thickness (not watered down). Most spray-on-type radiant barriers recommend the construction to be dust-free (cleaned) and a primer be applied first in order to achieve optimum performance. The advantage of a spray-on-type radiant barrier is the ability to cover more surface area in an existing attic.

However, the disadvantages are making spray-on radiant barriers less popular compared to other products. Although it is easier to install, the main disadvantage compared to foil-type radiant barriers is the higher the emissivity, making it emit more heat through the thermal barrier than that of most foil types. Be sure the label of the liquid product indicates that the emittance is less than .25 as measured by ASTM C1371 — unless the label shows emittance between 0 and .25, they won’t perform as intended. The other disadvantages are that it is only one-sided, it takes additional time and labor to prepare the surface of construction before it is applied, and most of the liquid products are messy — even after they have fully cured, the product will rub off onto hands and clothing.

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Sellers: How to Prepare Your Home for Inspection

Large NPI PreinspectedA home inspection can be a stressful time for both buyers and sellers, but sellers can alleviate a lot of the stress by preparing for the inspection. Here are some tips to help sellers get the house ready for an inspector.

  1. Have the house preinspected before you put it on the market. A prelisting inspection will tell you everything — major and minor — that is wrong with the house. It will alert you to major defects and allow you to fix those defects before potential buyers even walk through the door. You’ll rest easy during the buyer’s inspection knowing that the major problems have been taken care of.
  2. Clean the kitchen. A clean kitchen is much easier to inspect. Make sure the sink is empty, and clear out any pans that you store in the oven. It’s a good time to clean the under-sink area, too, as the inspector will look down there to see the plumbing.
  3. Clear items from the back of the toilet. The inspector will want to remove the toilet tank cover, so clear any lotions, etc., that you have stored on the back of the toilet.
  4. Caulk around bathroom fixtures if necessary.
  5. Replace burned-out light bulbs. An inspector will mark this on the report.
  6. Make sure that smoke detectors are working properly. Replace batteries, if necessary.
  7. Clear items away from the attic entrance. The inspector will need access to the attic, so clear a pathway to the attic entrance, especially if it’s in a closet or the garage.
  8. Clear items away from the electrical panel. The inspector will also need access to the electrical panel, so clear any items within three feet of the panel.
  9. Clear items away from the water heater, furnace, and gas and water mains. The inspector will need access to all of these.
  10. Change the furnace filter. The inspector will check the furnace filter to see whether it’s clean.
  11. Trim trees and bushes. This is especially important if you have overgrown bushes and trees with limbs hanging on the roof or power lines.
  12. Clean the gutters. Also divert all water away from the house.
  13. Secure pets. Remove pets from the premises or secure them in kennels.
  14. Paint. Paint any rooms that have peeling or scuffed paint. Also paint the exterior of the house if it is weathered. Paint any weathered trim inside and outside of the house.
  15. Clean the chimney and fireplace. You’ll need to call a chimney professional to do this.
  16. Caulk any cracks and holes in the exterior of the house.
  17. Make sure that all utilities are turned on. The inspector will want to check plumbing and electrical function.
  18. Ensure that doors and windows work properly. And replace any cracked window panes.
  19. Remove clothing from the washer and dryer. The inspector will want to check these appliances.
  20. Provide documentation of repairs and maintenance. This will show potential buyers that the house was well-cared-for and maintained.
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Is Your Attic Like a Dry Sauna?

Submitted by Paul Duffau, NPI Franchise Owner, Asotin, Washington

AtticSummertime has arrived with its usual suddenness in my area by bursting upward 20 degrees in just few days to bust the 100-degree barrier.

Fortunately, as they say, it’s a dry heat.

In this weather, high attic temperatures are not uncommon and, to a small extent, are unavoidable. The average roof acts as a large solar energy collector and, depending on the axis of the house, can accumulate very high heat loads. My home, orientated with an east-west main axis, has extensive roof exposure to the south that matches the arc of the sun through the sky. Ideal when I someday add solar PV to the roof, it now acts to increase my heat loads.

High attic temperatures cause several problems inside and outside the home: Inside, the heat places an increased load on any cooling systems that you have. I’ve measure ceiling temperatures as high as 120 degrees from the heat generated in the attic. The less insulation you have, the more pronounced (and expensive in utility costs) this becomes. In high humidity environments, this is even worse due to the nature of water and its ability to act as a heat sink, absorbing the energy. To balance it out, you end up running the air conditioner longer, adding to its wear.

On the exterior, shingles are subject to thermal cracking. That is, the backing material of the shingles, usually fiberglass, is impregnated with asphalt and overlaid with granules. When the roof temperature climbs, these materials go through a wide range of expansion and contraction — but not at the same rate. The backing material can split or the asphalt cracks, just as you’ve probably seen it do on a driveway. Either way, you have shingle damage that will lead to early failure.

Preventive measures include improving the ventilation in the attic. Too little ventilation traps energy as the air becomes superheated. My record for attic temperatures was 154 degrees. I wasn’t in there long, and it took a good hour to recover; 140s are not uncommon.

Attic ventilation can be improved by ensuring that the appropriate venting is in place. Often I see ridge vents improperly cut. Too narrow a vent does not allow enough hot air to escape, raising the temperature. The same will happen if there is no ridge vent and the static or gable vents don’t move enough air.

Another common defect is too little air entering the attic space or from the wrong location. Older homes may only have gable vents located of either end of the home. Building science has demonstrated that this creates an air passageway flowing directly from gable to gable without ventilating the lower reaches of the roof assembly.

Improving this in the short term can be as easy as adding new soffit vents to improve air intake, adding a ridge vent (or having it properly cut), or adding an attic fan to increase air movement. All of these, by the way, have beneficial effects on mold and fungus growth.

A longer term approach is to plant trees carefully, determining where they will provide the maximum amount of shade without endangering the home.

Remember that southern face on my house? I have a 100-year-old walnut tree on that side and, on the east, a quaking something-or-other (I’m a home inspector, not an arborist. Sorry.) The old folks had the right idea a century ago.

They did forget to plant on the west corner. I’ve put in an Asian pear tree. It will be a few years until it gets tall enough but I can wait. When it does get big, it’s a two-fer: shade and fruit.

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