As a Lubbock home inspector I see lots of strange things. In just the past one week I've conducted two Lubbock home inspections and found houses that have suffered attic fires at some point in the past. In both cases extensive rebuilding and enormous expense was necessary to restore the houses to a functional condition. In the first house, the fire started with a pan full of food that caught fire on the cooktop. The range exhaust vent was turned on to remove the smoke that was gathering in the kitchen. (Big mistake. More on that later).The purpose of the range exhaust vent fan is to remove moisture and grease laden air rising from the food at the stove top and send it outside. This is desirable to prevent both a build up of moisture in the house, as well as grease from being deposited on interior surfaces all around the house. There are two types of range exhaust vents. One type pulls the air through a vent pipe up through the attic, and on through the roof, to vent the air outside. The other type is a recirculating type, which uses one or two metal filters to collect the grease. (It doesn't remove the humidity). In both types, a build up of grease can occur. In the first type, the grease can build up in the vent pipe that runs from above the cooktop up through the roof. In the recirculating type, the metal filters will become coated with grease over time. If something you are cooking at your stove top catches fire, it can catch the grease filters or vent piping on fire as well. This is one good reason why these filters should be cleaned occasionally if you have the recirculating type.
As for the first house, once the exhaust fan was turned on, it also pulled the flames into the vent pipe and caught the grease on fire that had built up there. This may have been ok, because the vent pipe through attics is required to be metal and would normally contain the hot gases and vent them safely through the roof to the outside. But a vent pipe connection in the attic had come completely loose and was venting directly into the attic. You can see where this is going! With the flames from the burning food being pulled into the vent by the fan, and the flames from the grease fire in the vent pipe being pushed by the fan into the attic; it was like taking a blow torch to the attic.
This is a picture of the attic. The new looking wood at the top half of the picture is just that- the new rebuilt area. The lower half of the picture shows the older wood that wasn't burnt badly enough to replace. It has been sprayed with a white colored odor blocker. And, even though you can't see it in the picture, the area that had to be completely replaced was very large.
In the second house, a barbeque grill had been used with a lawnmower and gas can nearby. Both were right next to a wood fence which ran up to the house. Again, you can see where this is going. The owners aren't sure exactly how it happened but at some point I'm sure the gasoline got involved, then the fence, and finally the underside of the eave and up into the attic.
When we at Lubbock Inspections inspect a house, we look for problems like the ones I've described here. If you ever get a home inspection and your inspector says the range exhaust vent pipe is disconnected in the attic, be sure and get it fixed! Same thing if he says your recirculating type range exhaust filters are very dirty. Put them in the sink (they are removable) and clean them with a good degreaser spray. And of course, we all need to be very careful with gasoline. Be safe --- Kim Christensen
Beginning around the turn of this century, building practices began to change regarding deck construction. Most older decks, prior to about 2000, often were built to lesser standards than those that are required today. There have been many instances through the years of decks collapsing, causing severe injuries and deaths. In fact, in just the past 10 years there have been thousands of reported injuries and more than 20 deaths as the result of deck collapses. If you have a deck and it's only a foot off the ground then it's not as big of a deal. But if you have a second story deck and it collapses while you and your guests are on it, then it's a huge problem.
If you have a balcony that is supported by cantilevered joists (joists that start well inside the house and continue out to the deck), and as long as the length at the deck portion of the joist is not more than one third (two thirds of the joist is inside the house), then this is considered a valid practice. The problem comes when the deck was constructed without cantilevered joists and is simply attached to the house where the two meet. There are two main problems that can occur at this attachment point. Improper fastening methods and water intrusion.
There should be a treated or decay resistant ledger board (2" x 8" minimum) that attaches the deck to the house. Also, this ledger board should never be attached directly to the house wall cladding. This includes brick, stucco, or any other material. The wall cladding should be cut at this point and sit above the horizontal ledger board. Nails are not sufficient to attach the ledger board to the house. Galvanized steel or stainless steel 1/2" bolts or lag screws are the usual minimum size that should be used, and they should go through the house sheathing and attach to a band or rim board in the house. Special hardware such as Simpson Strong- Ties are also very helpful. These brackets are designed just for this purpose and greatly increase the horizontal strength of the attachment. This structural attachment is important because it must carry the vertical weight load of the deck and the people who will be on it, as well as the horizontal force that wants to pull the deck out away from the house. If the attachment can't withstand these forces, deck collapse will result.
As for water intrusion at the attachment point, it's very important to have in place the proper systems to keep water away from it. If water regularly penetrates to the ledger board and the attachment hardware, rotting and corrosion will eventually compromise their structural integrity. To achieve this goal, metal flashing (usually galvanized steel) should be seen tucked behind the bottom of the wall cladding and extending over the ledger board. This will help drain the water away and protect the area.
Another problem that has developed is failure of the hardware attaching the deck to the house. This hardware can sometimes corrode fairly quickly from the chemicals that are used in pressure treated lumber. Particularly in decks built from about 2004 to 2007 when the chemicals ACQ and CBA began to be used to treat wood. To resist this corrosion, galvanized hardware should be of the hot-dipped type and not the thinner coatings like electro-galvanized or mechanical plated. Aluminum should never be used, and the mixing of different types (for example, using galvanized and stainless steel together) should not be done.
Finally, all guard rails and handrails should be properly constructed and solid. If you have a two story deck, or are thinking of buying a house that has one, be smart, and have it inspected by a knowledgeble home inspector who knows how to look for the previously mentioned concerns. Decks can be wonderful and relaxing places to be, but a deck collapse would be a life changing event that no one should ever have to go through. For more information, visit Simpson Strong-Ties at http://www.strongtie.com/deckcenter/index.html?source=topnav# , or the American Wood Council at awc.org/codes/dcaindex.html --- Kim Christensen
Did you know that ground fault circuit interrupters work even when installed in older homes that don’t have grounded wiring!
It’s counter-intuitive but it’s true. As you may know, GFCI’s help protect people from getting electrocuted. They are now required at kitchen countertops, bathrooms, outdoors and near other sinks. 3 conductor wiring (with a ground wire), started being used around 1960. It also protects people from electric shock, but it works in a different way. The metal chassis of an appliance in your home is connected to the ground wire in the appliance plug. When this plug is plugged in to a receptacle outlet in a home that has 3 conductor wiring (hot, neutral and ground), the appliance chassis is grounded. If a hot wire in the appliance comes loose and touches the chassis, a very large current will flow for an instant and the house circuit breaker for that circuit will trip off. Thus you won’t get a nasty shock if you touch the appliance.
But how can GFCI’s work in houses that don’t even have grounded wiring? As we said earlier, GFCI's work in a different way. They compare the electric current (amps) going to the appliance on the hot wire with the amps coming back on the neutral wire. If everything is working normally, they should be exactly the same. However, if you touch that chassis we were just talking about (in contact with a loose hot wire) and you’re grounded because you’re washing dishes, in a bathtub, or standing on wet ground, you become another path for the electric current as it tries to get to ground. Now, the amps that are coming back on the neutral wire are not equal to the amps going to the appliance because some of the current has split off and is going through you! In other words you’re getting shocked. The good news is that you’re a smart cookie. Even though you live in an older house with no ground wiring, you listened to your home inspector when he said- “GFCI’s are not required on older homes but they are a safety upgrade. If your budget allows, have them installed”, and you took his advice. Your GFCI has sensed that there is a ground fault and has shut off the electricity. And now you know the truth about GFCI’s. --- Kim Christensen
We were recently interviewed by Texas Homes where we discussed the best ways to choose a reliable home inspector. To read the full article click here.
Incandescent light bulbs are being phased out. Thomas Edison changed the world with his electric light bulbs and they have stood the test of time for over a century, but today there are many new types of light bulbs showing up on retailer's shelves. You may or may not have heard, but the old incandescent light bulbs are finally being phased out. Some types of incandescent bulbs such as appliance, colored, three-way and other less commonly used bulbs are exempt and will still be available. I imagine Mr. Edison would be amazed and enthralled at some of the new lighting technology that is now available. From halogen to compact fluorescent (cfl) to light emitting diode (l.e.d.), the choices can be bewildering. (An l.e.d. light bulb is pictured above). Fortunately we non-scientists don't have to understand how they work, we just have to get used to them. And even though change can be difficult, the new bulbs are vastly superior to the old ones in many ways. Some of the new bulbs are tougher, last much longer, and sip electricity instead of guzzling it. Since lighting can represent as much as 25% of a typical homes electricity use, using bulbs that are much, much more efficient is a big deal. Not to mention a money saver. The old incandescent bulbs wasted about 90% of the energy they use in the form of heat. One of the worst burns I ever saw was when my sister was around 10 years old and got burned by an incandescent light bulb. She fell off the bed and knocked over a lamp. Unfortunately, when she landed on the floor her thigh pressed against the bare bulb, and she was in an awkward position and couldn't get up for a second or two. The bulb caused a severe burn that turned into a blister the size of a goose egg. Cfl's and l.e.d. bulbs don't get hot like this. L.E.D. bulbs barely even get warm.
Compact fluorescent bulbs (cfl's) Cfl's have been around for a while now so you've surely seen them. They're kind of funny looking. A typical incandescent bulb might cost $7.23 per year to operate (in electrical usage). An equivalent cfl bulb will only cost about $1.57 to operate for the same time period. Also, cfl's last about 10 times longer. Early cfl's had a pause after you flipped the switch before they would come on. They also tended to be rather dim for the first minute or so. The newer cfl's don't have these problems. There also are new cfl's that are dimmable.
L.E.D. bulbs L.e.d. bulbs are the newest bulbs out. They cost more, but prices will come down. Even at today's prices they will save you a lot of money because they are so very efficient and they last so long. That same incandescent bulb that cost $7.23 in electricity to run will only cost about 96 cents a year if it is an l.e.d.. That's an incredible difference. Also it will probably last about 25 times as long. That gives it a life of around 25,000 hours. New types of l.e.d. bulbs are coming out. They are now available for chandeliers, flood lamps, spot lights, night lights, and motion sensor security lights. There is one model that is a combination night light (it turns itself on and off), power failure light (it turns itself on when the electricity goes off, powered by it's built-in rechargeble battery), and flashlight (you can unplug it from the wall, and fold up the a.c. plugs). Pretty high tech stuff for a light bulb! There are even children's night lights that project an image of your child's favorite cartoon characters on the wall. L.e.d. bulbs have instant on and some models are dimmable.
What size bulb should I buy? Because the new bulbs are so efficient, a 60 watt bulb is not a 60 watt bulb anymore. Most of the new bulbs have packaging that states the equivalent size of old bulb that the new one is replacing. For example: "same light output as a 60 watt incandescent". If the package doesn't have this information, it will probably have the light output (measured in lumens). The following table lists the approximate light output for common old incandescent bulbs:
40 watt- 450 lumens
60 watt- 800 lumens
75 watt- 1100 lumens
100 watt- 1600 lumens
What color of light would you like? The color of the new light bulbs is listed in degrees Kelvin, but there is also a word description which may be easier to remember for most people. The following table lists some of the typical colors:
2700 * K (Kelvin)- "Soft white" (Warm yellowish light that most of us are used to from the old incandescent bulbs)
3000 * K- "Warm white" (Close to the light quality of soft white, but a bit less yellow)
3500 * K- "Bright white" (Whiter still, with less yellow)
5000 * K- "Natural daylight" (As the description implies, similar to sunlight)
Personally, I'm so used to the color of the old bulbs that the daylight bulbs don't look right to me. I prefer the soft or warm white color. If you're still using old incandescent bulbs, give the new ones a try. Once you get used to them you'll never want to go back. --- Kim Christensen
Carbon monoxide alarms- Carbon monoxide (CO) gas is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas that is present in automobile exhaust fumes and in the combustion gases from fuel burning appliances (furnaces, open flames, space heaters, water heaters or fireplaces burning natural gas, propane or wood); especially when incomplete combustion is occurring. Incomplete combustion can occur when there is a malfunction of the appliance, or there is inadequate combustion air available, or if the appliance flue is stopped up. Detection of carbon monoxide in a home is impossible without a CO alarm. CO gas is poisonous and in high enough concentrations causes sickness and death. CO replaces the oxygen in your blood, and in fact, the hemoglobin (oxygen carrying component) in your blood has an affinity for CO about 200 times greater than for oxygen. If there is any CO gas in your house your bloodstream will absorb it. Symptoms of CO poisoning include- headache, nausea, weakness and sleepiness. Many years ago, my parents awoke on a cold winter morning with the realization that something was very wrong. The furnace was malfunctioning and producing CO and other combustion gases. They both had pronounced headaches and a profound feeling of sleepiness, and it was all my dad could do to fall out of bed and crawl to the front door. He stuck his head outside for a few moments and quickly came to. Then he was able to turn off the furnace and open some windows. You may have heard about a man who died in a Lubbock motel recently due to carbon monoxide poisoning.
CO alarms are recommended. The previous examples are some of the reasons that CO alarms are recommended for all homes that have an attached garage or any fuel burning appliances. CO alarms are now required in new construction in Texas and many other states. In existing homes they are a safety upgrade. CO alarms can be purchased by themselves or in combination with smoke alarms. The stand-alone CO alarms retail for about $15 to $60 dollars and are widely available at home improvement and other stores. Unfortunately, the sensors in these alarms only last for approximately 5 to 10 years and then the alarms need to be replaced. Many of the new CO alarms have long life batteries that will last for the life of the alarm, so you won't have to mess with changing batteries. Other types are powered by the household electrical supply. Some of the alarms will tell you when it is time to replace them.
Types of CO alarms- Most alarms sound an audible alarm but there are some wireless alarms that can vibrate pillow pads, light strobe lights or signal a remote handset. Some CO alarms have a digital readout that indicates the CO concentration in parts per million. These types of alarms cost more than more basic types. The 4 basic types of alarms are- Opto-chemical, Semiconductor, Biomimetic and Electro-chemical.
Opto-chemical alarms are the cheapest but they are the only type that doesn't produce an alarm (a colored chemical changes color if CO gas is present) thus these "alarms" offer the lowest degree of protection.
Semiconductor alarms use a sensor that needs to be heated to about 400* C in order to work. Because of the large power demand these alarms are usually powered by household electricity instead of batteries. The superior performance of the remaining 2 types of alarms is beginning to replace these alarms.
Biomimetic alarms last for about 6 years if powered by lithium batteries and were the first mass marketed CO alarms. They are the most reliable according to a report from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Also, this technology is the only one that tested false alarm free, which makes them popular in larger locations such as hospitals, apartments and motels where the cost of a false alarm is high. But because these alarms cost more than the other types they are used mostly in the higher end areas and in RV's.
Electro-chemical alarms use a fuel cell as a sensor. These alarms are very accurate, use a low amount of power because they operate at room temperature and the sensors have a long life (usually 5 years or more). The cost of these alarms was high initially but has come down. These alarms are now the most popular alarms in the USA and Europe.
Alarm placement- If you are installing only 1 CO alarm, the Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends that it be located near the bedrooms so you will be most likely to hear it if it goes off. If there are separate bedroom areas, an alarm just outside of each area would be helpful. Additional alarms on every level of the house and/ or in every bedroom provide additional protection, but even 1 or 2 alarms give much better protection than none (most homes don't have any CO alarms). CO alarms should not be placed directly above or beside fuel burning appliances to avoid false alarms. These appliances sometimes give off small amounts of CO especially when they first turn on. Therefore, stay about 15 feet or more away from the appliances and from humid areas such as bathrooms. CO gas has almost the exact same density as air and therefore is not lighter or heavier than air. So alarms placed at ceiling level or near the floor should all work. However, having said that, sometimes the CO gas from a malfunctioning appliance is contained in the warm air rising from the appliance. Therefore some people think that placing the alarms at or near ceiling level may give an earlier warning. Be sure to read the manufacturers' placement recommendations. . . . And sleep peacefully knowing you are protected. --- Kim Christensen TREC 20358
On Palm Sunday, 2003, there was an overnight fire at an off campus house near Ohio State University. 5 students died. 2 years later, also on Palm Sunday, there was another off campus fire. This time at Miami of Ohio University. 3 students died. Between the 2 houses there were more than 20 ionization smoke alarms present, yet 8 students died. More on ionization smoke alarms later.
On November 18, 2014, the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) for the first time publicly acknowledged that current smoke alarms have only a 45-49% overall alarm success rate and supported significant changes to the UL 217 alarm testing standards. This is a very poor rate of performance, especially for something as important as a warning to get out of a burning building! So what is the problem? It turns out that there are two kinds of smoke alarms: Ionization and Photoelectric. Most people have ionization alarms- in fact, they are present in over 90% of homes. We are now finding out that ionization alarms have big weaknesses. Ionization alarms are not as good at detecting smoldering fires. This means that with these alarms, there is often a delay in sounding the alarm. This delay can make all the difference between surviving a fire or succumbing to it. The National Institute of Standards and Technology has tested smoke alarms and has reportedly determined that ionization alarms are 30 minutes slower, on average, to sound an alarm in the early smoldering stage of fires than photoelectric alarms, and may completely fail to sound at all! A smoldering fire can produce a lot of deadly fumes in 30 minutes. Ionization alarms are also more likely to sound a false alarm from a bit of smoke produced by cooking in the kitchen, or the mist from a hot shower. False alarms are a big problem because a lot of people end up disconnecting their alarms because of these. And a disconnected smoke alarm has a 0% chance of warning you of a fire. Photoelectric smoke alarms on the other hand, will almost always give a much earlier warning in the case of smoldering fires. Since many fires start out by smoldering for a period of time, an earlier warning of these types of fires can buy you precious time to get out of a burning building. As for the issue of false alarms, photoelectric alarms are much less likely to produce these than ionization alarms. So which kind should you buy? I believe that photoelectric alarms are the better choice hands down. The International Association of Fire Fighters and ASHI, the American Society of Home Inspectors are now recommending photoelectric smoke alarms over ionization.
Another option is to buy combination smoke alarms. These types have, both photoelectric and ionization detectors built into them. Underwriters Laboratories (UL) recommends this approach. However some of these alarms will not sound unless both detectors in them recognize the need to sound the alarm. This makes it even less likely that it will sound in a timely manner. And there is still the problem of nuisance or false alarms. Still other alarm types combine a smoke alarm with a carbon monoxide alarm. Some of the new alarms can even talk. Can you imagine your alarm yelling "Fire! Fire!", or "Carbon Monoxide!". Another nice feature: Some newer smoke alarms have a long life lithium battery. It is good for the 10 year life of the alarm. And after 10 years of so, when it's time to replace the smoke alarm, it will tell you! Just think- No more replacing batteries! That has always been such a hassle.
If you're in the market for smoke alarms, or want to replace your old ionization alarms with a safer alternative, choose photoelectric. --- Kim Christensen
Home inspectors are given the enormous task of looking for thousands of potential problems when we inspect houses. But one of the key things that we look for is leaking water. Whether it’s rain water entering the house through a crack at the roof, exterior siding or flashing, or a plumbing leak from a fixture or pipe, water leaks cause damage and rotting of building materials and mold growth. The following is a list of some of the key areas where water leaks are most prevalent.
Roof leaks- Roof leaks are very common. One of the main ways that roofs leak is at roof penetrations. These are the places where objects go through the roof. Things such as the chimney, plumbing vent pipes, and furnace and water heater flues. Different types of flashing materials are used at these locations to try and prevent water entry. Around chimneys, metal flashing, like that shown in this picture is preferred.
If you have a chimney that has no metal flashing, and instead has asphalt, caulk or mortar, rain water leaks will be more likely.
Asphalt/ bitumin flashing, like that shown at this electrical mast head, or concrete/ mortar is prone to cracks.
Leaks will be more likely. In this case, water could possibly enter the electrical panel box. Yikes!
This water heater flue is missing its cap, Rain water will be able to pour down the flue into the water heater heat exchanger.
Plumbing leaks- Plumbing leaks are also very common. If a sink faucet is dripping into the sink or a toilet it leaking water into the toilet bowl, it will waste water, but obviously won’t damage anything. If the leak is outside of a plumbing fixture and it goes undetected or otherwise un-repaired, major damage and mold are almost guaranteed. If you find a plumbing leak in your house, be sure and get it repaired so you can avoid a scene like the one in this picture.
Air conditioner condensate leak- Another fairly common source of leaking water is at the indoor air conditioning unit. The indoor refrigerated air conditioning coil gets very cold. That’s how it cools the house. Because it gets so cold, it causes humidity in the air to condense and collect at the air conditioning housing. Because of this fact, all refrigerated air conditioning units have a condensate drain line (usually a small pvc pipe) to carry this water away. If there is a drain nearby, the water will be deposited there. If not, a small condensate pump may be used to pump the water to a distant drain or plumbing fixture. Still another option, is to run the drain line through a wall or through the crawl space and allow it to drip on the ground at the exterior of the house. But things can go wrong. If the drain line becomes clogged (with moss growth for example) the water will back up into the air conditioner housing and overflow. Also, the drain line couplings can come loose and leak water. Finally, if a condensate pump is being used, it can fail. All of these scenarios will lead to water leakage. In this picture, condensate water had been leaking for a considerable time and running down the air conditioner/ furnace housing.
Stop water leaks early if possible- The moral to this story is that you should stop water leaks early if you can. That way you can avoid an expensive repair. Happy leak busting. --- Kim Christensen
How bad can they be? They’re everywhere- I see an almost endless series of Federal Pacific Electric (FPE) panel boxes with their classic “stab-lok” circuit breakers when I do inspections in Lubbock and throughout West Texas. Jillions of them were sold, not just in our area, but throughout the country from the 1950’s to the early 1980’s. My introduction to FPE panel boxes came when I was studying to be a home insurance inspector (my job before my current general home inspector gig). The message from the insurance company training course was very clear- We don’t like FPE panel boxes. I was instructed to write this up whenever I saw it in a house. So that is one reason that a house with FPE equipment is a problem. If the insurance company finds out that it’s there, they may not insure the house- unless it’s replaced. So why don’t insurance companies like FPE boxes? . . . For the same reasons that most others who have spent any time studying them don’t like them. FPE panel boxes with stab-lok circuit breakers were “value engineered”. They were designed to be cheap to manufacture. Nothing wrong with that; everybody likes a bargain. BUT THEY HAVE TO WORK PROPERLY! If they don’t, that’s a problem. And FPE boxes and breakers often don’t. FPE is a company that put most of its money into marketing and not so much into building a good product.
The main problems with FPE- There are several problems with FPE panels- 1. All of the FPE panels that are still in use (and, as stated, there are a lot of them) are old and were designed poorly and to lesser codes than modern panel boxes. They are often very overcrowded by today’s safer standards. They also have many unique problems that newer panels don’t have. 2. The circuit breakers, in particular, are poorly designed. They have too many moving parts and often don’t do what they are supposed to do, which is to shut off the electricity if an overload or a short circuit occurs. If the breakers don’t shut off when too much electrical current is flowing, excessive heating occurs in the wires for that circuit. And these wires run through the attic, down walls, etc. So now we’re talking about the f word. No, not that one. The word is “fire”. FPE panel boxes and circuit breakers are fire prone. Many of them will never be a problem, but too many of them will. And a house fire will not make for a good day. 3. The connection of the circuit breakers to the bus is another problem. It is inferior and doesn’t always make a good connection.Modern circuit breakers have jaws that clamp directly onto the bus to make the connection, but stab-lok breakers have metal stabs that insert into a socket in the bus at a right angle. This often yields a poor connection, and these components can become damaged (as pointed out in the picture at right that I took of an FPE panel in 2015). Note the bent socket and the discolored bus due to overheating. If the connection becomes poor enough, arcing begins to occur here. This can create tremendous heat when it happens. Thus, the FPE panel box itself can catch on fire. This is a device that is supposed to prevent fires, but it can actually cause them. 4. Finally, FPE did something that companies and corporations shouldn’t do- They cheated. In Docket #L-2904-97, as part of a class action, the Superior Court of New Jersey determined that “FPE cheated during its testing of circuit breakers in order to obtain Underwriters Laboratories (UL) approval”.
Identifying FPE panel boxes- FPE panel boxes are pretty easy to identify. You may see FPE on the front cover. Also, once you open the cover you will see Federal Pacific Electric or Federal Pacific at the bottom of the paper data sheet. One final dead giveaway- Some of the circuit breaker handles are black but many have a distinctive dark orange color at the tip as circled in this picture.
Should all FPE panel boxes be replaced?- Ideally, all older circuit breakers should be considered for replacement after they’re 2, 3, or 4 decades old, but most people don’t do this. Also, there are other manufacturers of problematic breakers such as Zinsco and others. But I believe that FPE panel boxes and breakers are particularly troublesome due to the inherent problems previously discussed as well as the fact that such a large number of them were sold. The presence of FPE equipment undeniably creates a higher risk for electrical fires. There are places in the U.S. where most home inspectors, electricians, and real estate agents are very aware of the problems with FPE. In West Texas, the word hasn’t completely gotten out yet. If you’re a skeptic, please check out some of the other sources of information at the bottom of this page. Also, ask yourself if you would want this equipment in your home. I have seen several different sources that estimate over 2,000 fires occur in this country each year as a direct result of FPE panels. The fact that many of the current panels have not caused a problem (yet) is not surprising because overloads and short circuits don’t occur very often. But if and/ or when they do, that is precisely when you want your breakers to do their job. I’ve seen different figures that state that from 23% to 60% of FPE circuit breakers completely fail in their performance when tested by authorities. This is a terrible rate of performance. Modern circuit breakers have a failure rate of less than 1%. In the early 1980’s the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) tested FPE breakers and found abnormally high failure rates, especially on 2-pole FPE breakers. The CPSC ended a two year investigation into FPE in 1983 but didn’t issue a product recall because of what it said were budget issues (its own). As FPE was beginning to get into trouble, (you know- houses burning down, panels catching on fire, lawsuits starting), improvements were made to the breakers; but there were limits to what they were willing to do because truly fixing the breaker and bus problems would make them too expensive, and FPE would lose their competitive advantage. In short, I recommend replacement of these components if at all possible.
Other sources of info- Check out this link for more info: http://www.inspect-ny.com/fpe/fpe.html The best article I’ve ever seen about FPE is Doug Hansen’s expert opinion at http://www.codecheck.com/cc/ccimages/PDFs/FPE_2012.pdf This article is highly technical in the middle pages, but anyone can understand the first and last pages and these pages are very interesting. Also, on the last page of this article, be sure to read “A Report from the Front Lines” by Jim Katen, (a really smart home inspector in Oregon). A good video on the web from Bay area investigative reports is at http://www.nbcbayarea.com/investigations/Federal-Pacific-Circuit-Breakers-Investigation-Finds-Decades-of-Danger-171406921.html Or just google “FPE panel boxes” and spend a few minutes looking at what comes up. One final note, American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) member Terry Heller of Forest Hill, MD posted this picture on the ASHI inspectors’ discussion forum on July 17, 2011. I am quoting him as to what his response is when people ask him what he thinks about FPE panels- “Sometimes I just show them a picture from my phone. This home belongs to a well known real estate agent in my area. This was a fire of electrical origin in a Federal Pacific panel per the agent. Happened a few months ago”. . . There’s your problem right there. This picture shows the trouble with FPE panel boxes and stab-loc circuit breakers perfectly. --- Kim Christensen, ACI TREC 20358
The Problem with Kitec Kitec is a type of water supply piping made by a Canadian company called IPEX from 1995 to 2005. It has a thin layer of aluminum in the middle and inner and outer layers of pex plastic (cross linked polyethylene). Most of the fittings used to connect the pipe segments together were brass. Brass is an alloy made primarily of copper and zinc. Brass is normally a pretty stable compound, but many of the fittings used with the Kitec pipes were manufactured with way too much zinc. This allows the brass fittings to literally be dissolved by the water that the pipes are carrying by a process called dezincification. This effect is usually speeded up in the hot water plumbing or if the house has “aggressive” water; so problems with Kitec often show up in the hot water piping first. As the zinc leaches out of the brass, it comes out in a very sticky, gooey form. This goo starts to build up inside the fittings as well as inside the pipes. This, in turn, begins to restrict the flow of water. Also, the structural integrity of the brass fittings can be lost as they slowly dissolve which has led to failure and leaks. Also, apparently due to rapid loss of an antioxidant added to the pex plastic pipes themselves, there have been reports of Kitec pipes bursting as well. Since the Kitec pipes and fittings are carrying the household supply water, which is under pressure, leaks and floods have occurred. And if nobody is home when the failure happens, catastrophic flooding can and has occurred because the water just keeps coming until the problem is discovered and someone turns off the water.
How to tell if you have Kitec Kitec was installed mostly in upper scale custom homes in Lubbock from around 2003 to 2007. Kitec is most common in the area southeast of Slide Road and 98th street. The most common colors used were bright orange and bright blue (as shown in the picture above). If you see any of the bright orange pipe in your house, it is Kitec. However, Kitec was also sold in red, blue, black and gray. The pipes usually say Kitec, but could also say PlumbBetter, IPEX AQUA, Canada, Plomberie Améliorée, WarmRite, AmbioComfort, XPA, or KERR Controls. The fittings may be stamped with the words Kitec, KTC or Taiwan (where most of them were made). If you suspect you may have Kitec, call a qualified plumber for a definitive identification.
Is all Kitec bad? I have a friend who had a high end home built in 2007 in the 9200 block of Homestead Ave. They later found out that their home was built with Kitec. They haven’t had any problems yet with the Kitec. Maybe they never will. The problem is, if they do, they could end up with a flood on their hands. This is one of those risk factor things. It may not cause any problems, but if it does, it will make for a very bad day.
What to do if you have Kitec If Kitec has become bad, with clogged fittings and pipe, all of the water supply piping and fittings must be replaced. This can usually be done by a qualified plumber in about 5 days or less, and the homeowner will not need to vacate the house. Of course, as you can imagine, this is quite expensive. If you are thinking about buying a house with Kitec, it would be wise to ask the seller to have the Kitec replaced. If the seller balks, walk away from the house. Also, note: sellers who have Kitec are not required to disclose it to potential buyers unless it is causing problems. However if you ask a seller if they have Kitec and they do, they are required to disclose it. Thus, this is another example of why it’s always a good idea to get a home inspection before buying a new home. If your home inspector finds Kitec before you buy, you’re in a much better position than if you don’t have this information. For folks who have Kitec, there is a Kitec class action settlement, which has created a $125 million settlement fund to pay for repairs. Even if your Kitec is working properly at the moment, you can still submit a claim. For more information, click here to visit the Kitec settlement website. --- Kim Christensen
Got milk? - Good. Got mold? - Not so good. Mold spores are microscopic fungi that are present in dust and other materials and float along in the air. They are pretty much everywhere including inside and outside our homes. Mold spores need adequate moisture or humidity, an organic food source and oxygen to begin actively growing into colonies. Organic food sources are present in all homes. There are molds that can grow on drywall, wood, clothing, paper, carpet, foods, insulation, etc. Some molds can even grow on concrete, glass, plastic, vinyl, ceramic tile and metals. There are many different types of mold- many are beneficial, but unfortunately many are not. Mold and mold spores can cause allergic reactions in some people whether they are actively growing or not, and when mold colonies begin to actively grow, they can release toxins into the air which can be harmful, particularly if the affected area is large. “Black mold” or “toxic black mold”, (Stachybotrys chartarum), is one of the worst molds, and when present in large quantities, is associated with “sick building syndrome”. This type of mold growth is likely if cellulose based materials, (wood, paper, drywall, etc.), are allowed to stay very wet for a period of time. Under these conditions, significant mold growth can occur in as little as 2 to 3 days. If these conditions are not discovered or fixed for weeks or months, mold can become a very big problem. People living in a house with significant mold growth may have allergic reactions and respiratory problems. Common symptoms are watery itchy eyes, chronic cough, headaches, difficulty breathing, frequent sneezing and tiredness.
How can you know if your home has a mold problem? If any occupants are experiencing these symptoms and you have begun to notice a strong musty or moldy smell, mold should be suspected. If it is present in visible areas, it is usually easy to identify by its fuzzy appearance. Also, if there are plumbing or roof leaks that are causing areas to get wet and stay wet, mold is going to grow. So what can you do if the house or apartment where you are living has mold? If you are renting, you should notify your landlord. Landlords are required to provide a safe home for all tenants. In Lubbock, if your landlord refuses to take action, you can call the office of Landlord Dispute Resolution at 775-1720. If that doesn’t work you could try calling the City Codes Department at 775-3000. Also, you may want to visit the Texas Department of State Health Services Indoor Air Quality Program webpage at http://www.dshs.state.tx.us/iaq/default.shtm
If you own your own home you have 2 choices for mold remediation: Hire a professional mold remediation company or tackle the problem yourself. If the mold area is very large (over 10 square feet or so), or if you suspect there may be significant hidden mold behind walls or in other locations, hiring a professional would probably be wise. If you decide to proceed on your own, keep in mind the following tips: 1. Assess the size of the moldy area. Get help for large areas. 2. Consider the possibility of hidden mold. 3. Note type of affected materials- Is it just some mold growth on the shower walls, or are there moldy and water damaged walls, ceiling, carpet, etc. 4. Wear personal protective equipment (PPE) - rubber gloves and goggles with no vent openings. If you do anything that could cause the mold to become airborne you should wear an N-95 respirator. An example of this would be hammering or cutting a wall to remove a portion of it. 5. Lab testing to determine what type of mold is present is usually not necessary and is expensive. If any mold growth is present it should be removed and the cause fixed. 6. DETERMINE THE SOURCE OR CAUSE OF THE WATER PROBLEM AND FIX IT. This is the single most important method to deal with mold. You must fix the water leak or eliminate the excess humidity. If the problem is a moldy shower enclosure, leave the shower curtain open between showers and use the bathroom vent fan to remove humidity while showering or bathing (especially in the humid summer months). Most types of mold need relative humidity values of 70% or higher to actively grow. Because of this fact, almost all serious household mold problems in semi-arrid West Texas are caused not by high humidity, but by plumbing or roof leaks. Again, these must be fixed. 7. Clean up small mold problems on non-porous surfaces, (tile walls for example), by cleaning with detergent and water. Bleach is usually not needed. If it is used, mix 1 cup of bleach with 1 gallon of water, and never mix bleach with any cleaning product that contains ammonia. Doing so produces toxic fumes. 8. Water damaged and moldy porous materials such as drywall, ceiling tiles or carpet will likely need to be removed and discarded in sealed plastic bags. Wear your PPE. 9. Throughout the process, consult qualified professionals if necessary.
For detailed information on mold and remediation check out this website document from the EPA: http://www.epa.gov/mold/mold_remediation.html The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has published a guidance book dealing with preventing occupational respiratory disease in damp buildings. You can find it here: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/2013-102/ - Kim Christensen
CSST and house fires- CSST (corrugated stainless steel tubing) is a type of thin walled gas piping, some of which has been found to have failures culminating in house fires when lightning has struck at or near the house. It was developed in Japan in the 1980’s. Usage of CSST in the United States began in 1990 and it was installed in Lubbock from 1998 to 2012. In 2012 a moritorium was placed on it's use in new construction. Today, in Lubbock, the only CSST that is allowed in new construction is "Flash Shield". CSST is present in approximately 7 million homes in the U.S. and in at least 10,000 (probably more) in Lubbock. It has a yellow plastic outer layer with corrugated stainless steel tubing inside (top picture, below). A newer type of CSST has a black outer layer (middle picture) and is designed to be more resistant to electrical damage and fire, but tests have shown that it is not completely immune to these failures either, especially in a direct lightning strike. A safer type of CSST is now available called "Flash Shield" (bottom picture). Flash shield has a wire mesh between the black plastic outer layer and the stainless steel pipe which helps diffuse an eletrical spark, if one were to occur. CSST shouldn’t be confused with appliance flex connectors which are short in length, and used only at individual appliances (gas furnace, water heater, gas oven, etc.) to connect that appliance to the gas line. The appliance flex connectors are not having the problems that the CSST lines are having. CSST is usually run through attics, along basement ceilings or through wall cavities.
Pros and cons- Originally, CSST was touted as a safety improvement. Because it’s flexible, it tends to hold up better in earthquakes and tornadoes, and there are fewer joints, so leakage of gas from joints is less likely. Also, it can be installed much more quickly. In areas that have earthquakes but don't have many lightning strikes, CSST may indeed be safer than the old method of piping gas- rigid steel pipe. But in areas like Lubbock where earthquakes are rare, and lightning anything but, big problems have been occurring. Lightning strikes at or near a house can cause metallic systems in a house to become energized. Differences in voltage between the systems can cause sparks which can burn holes in CSST. Since it is carrying gas, fires have resulted. In 2012 a home in Lubbock was struck by lightning which ruptured a CSST gas line in the home, causing an explosion. The home owner and a friend were in the garage when the explosion occurred. The owner was injured and his friend, Brennen Teel, was killed. Lubbock Assistant Fire Marshall Lt. Elliot Eldredge was quoted as saying "What we're seeing now is that sometimes there's some issues with corrugated stainless steel tubing that gets breached during the lightning strike and then you have a natural gas-fed fire". CSST is no longer approved for new construction in Lubbock unless it’s the “Flash Shield” type. What are the odds of this happening to any single house with CSST? I’ve never seen any odds published, but they appear to be pretty low. Of course, that’s little consolation if you house ends up being one of the one’s that is affected. If you think that lightning strikes are among those rare occurrences that only happen to the other guy, be sure and read the last paragraph of this article. Every once in a while these things happen to us too.
What to do if you have CSST- For people who have CSST gas lines, replacing them with rigid steel piping is an option, but that would involve some expense (typically in the hundreds to 3 or 4 thousand dollars). If CSST lines are kept, the CSST should not be run next to any metal (air conditioning ducts, metal pipes, etc.) and it should be grounded to the house electrical ground. This may lessen the risk, but it won’t completely eliminate it. The house in Lubbock where the Mr. Teel was killed had gas piping that was properly grounded. Rigid steel pipe has been tested and found to hold up extremely well, even in direct lightning strikes. It appears that the risk of fire from CSST is highest in houses that have metal factory built fireplaces with a metal flue and a gas log lighter down at the firebox. Chimneys stick high up into the sky and, as you know, lightning likes tall objects. A strike here will easily travel down the metal flue to the gas log lighter. And just like that you've got lightning in your gas piping system (whether it's grounded where it enters the house, or not). A neighbor reported that he saw lightning hit the chimeny of the house where the Mr. Teel died. By removing the fireplace log lighter and the gas line feeding it from the fireplace area you can avoid this scenario, and it won’t cost a lot of money. Of course you'll have to find a different way to start a fire in your fireplace, but you may avoid a fire in your attic. Besides CSST and metal fireplaces, another bad mix appears to be the use of CSST in attics that have foam insulation. This is the insulation that is sprayed onto the underside of the roof decking, and it was the type in use at the house where the Lubbock man died. Foam insulation often yields an attic that is fiarly airtight, (attic vents are not always installed because the entire attic is insulated from above). A CSST line in the attic was breached during the lightning strike but the resulting fire likely became starved for oxygen. Of course, the natural gas would have continued pouring into the attic through the damage hole because it’s under pressure. Without any attic vents the natural gas had no way to escape. When the attic fold down stairs were opened, oxygen rushed in and created the deadly explosion.
How to tell if that lightning flash hit your house- If you have CSST gas lines and there is a lightening strike that you think may have hit your house, or very close nearby, it is highly recommended that you leave the house and turn off the gas at the gas meter (usually in the alley). Then call the Fire Department to investigate. You will have a pretty good idea if lightning has struck your house. I was in my parent’s house once when it was struck by lightning. The flash of light and the thunder boom occur essentially in the same instant, (not the flash of light and then several seconds later the thunder). It’s hard to describe the sound. It’s not a rumble of thunder but an incredibly, incredibly loud BOOM! I almost jumped out of my skin. The damage was minimal. It knocked some nails several inches out of the drywall ceiling in the den, near the fireplace. It also knocked the metal rain cap off of the top of the chimney. Looking at it the next day, we figured it must have hit the chimney. Luckily, this was way back before CSST even existed so we didn’t have a house fire to deal with. If you suspect that you may have CSST in your house, have it inspected. For more information, you can visit the Brennen Teel Foundation website at http://www.btfgaslinesafety.org. Another good source is www.csstsafety.com/ . Also, the Lubbock Fire Marshall's office has conducted extensive research on this subject as well as traveled to witness testing of the various systems. You can reach them at (806) 775-2646. One final note: In the Lubbock area I recommend rigid black iron pipe for gas distribution over CSST. If CSST is used, it should be the Flash Shield type. If you have non-Flash Shield CSST and decide to keep it, you should be aware of lightning and thunderstorms. --- Kim Christensen, TREC 20358
IT’S NOT JUST KITEC ANYMORE- some of the early pex brass fittings (pre 2012 or so) are having Kitec like symptoms
First, regarding Kitec: Kitec is a brand of pex water supply piping made by a Canadian company called IPEX from 1995 to 2005. As you may have heard, Kitec piping has been causing big (and expensive) problems. The fittings used to connect the pipes together were made of brass which had too much zinc in them. This allows the brass fittings to literally be dissolved by the water that the pipes are carrying by a process called dezincification. This effect is usually speeded up in the hot water plumbing and is speeded up even further if the house has a hot water recirculation pump; so problems with Kitec often show up in the hot water piping first. As the zinc leaches out of the brass, it begins to build up inside the fittings. This, in turn, begins to restrict the flow of water. Also, the structural integrity of the brass fittings can be lost and they can rupture or crimps can fail. Since the pipes are carrying the household water supply, which is under pressure, leaks and flooding have occurred. And if nobody is home when the failure happens, catastrophic flooding can and has occurred because the water just keeps coming until the problem is discovered and someone turns off the water.nse. Kim Christensen ACI, TREC 20358
Where is Kitec installed in Lubbock? Kitec was installed in Lubbock from 2002 to 2007; especially in 2003, 2004 and 2005; so any house built during this time could potentially have Kitec. A common area where Kitec is prevalent in Lubbock is south of 98th street in the Slide Rd area- in the Meadows South, Suncrest, and Falls At Suncrest subdivisions. Another common area is southwest of Milwaukee Ave and 4th street, in Westchester Park. Another area is southwest of Frankford Ave and 66th street, in Bacon Crest and Regal Park. Also, the Windsor Park and Highland Oaks subdivisions have a lot of Kitec. These are common areas for Kitec, but it can be present in other locations as well. Identification of Kitec is difficult. We recently purchased two inspection cameras with a probe that can be inserted behind walls to help us look for Kitec, although doing this is beyond the standards of practice required of general home inspectors. We do this because, if Kitec is present, we want to find it. However, even with the cameras, identification is not easy. For a definitive identification, a plumbing specialist may be needed, because holes may need to be cut in the walls to get a better look at the pipes and fittings.
And as mentioned: It’s not just Kitec anymore Unfortunately, and this is bad news, all of the other brands of pex water supply piping that used brass fittings are beginning to have the same problems as Kitec. There are multiple class action lawsuits against many manufacturers. Chuck Hall of Earl’s Plumbing in Lubbock, (an expert on this issue), has stated “We are seeing pex with brass fittings in Lubbock starting to clog up and leak. We are seeing it in different neighborhoods, different houses, and all brands of pex with brass fittings”. Thepicture at right shows a brand called Dura Pex. (It also happens to be what I have in my house, built in 2005). You can see the buildup of zinc. Just as with Kitec, the problems stem from the brass fittings, and almost all brands of pex piping used from 2002 to 2012 used brass fittings. A new type of brass fitting with less zinc, called “DZR” or “red brass”, was introduced around 2012 and is designed to perform better than the old fittings which were “yellow brass”. Also, plastic fittings were introduced around 2010. Most installations of pex piping today use the plastic fittings because they will absolutely NOT have the dezincification problems that the old brass fittings are having. The clogging of pipes and fittings is a big problem but an even bigger problem, perhaps, is fittings that rupture or crimps or clamps that break. This will allow the pressurized water to escape and you will have a potential flood on your hands. The picture at left shows a type of clamp that has a raised area at the top. This type of clamp is very prone to breaking. It can be damaged when the plumber installs it and tightens it with his tool. Later on, the clamp may fail and the pipe can come loose from the fitting. Obviously when this happens, water will spray like crazy, and will continue until the water supply is turned off.
There is some good news for pex homes that don’t have Kitec If you have non-Kitec pex that was installed before 2012 and it has markedly reduced water flow, you don’t have to replace the piping, just the fittings. (Home owners that discover they have Kitec will still need to replace all fittings and all piping because of a mismatch between Kitec and the replacement fittings). In the case of non-Kitec, the bad fittings should be replaced with new plastic fittings with good quality crimps. As to whether to replace all of them or just some of them; that’s a judgement call. You could replace the brass fittings one at a time as they clog or fail since loss of pressure is much more common than failure. Or you could replace only the hot water fittings, since the hot water fittings are usually worse than the cold water ones. Finally, you could be proactive and replace all fittings, but of course this involves more expense. Kim Christensen ACI, TREC 20358