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Published Articles

Home Inspection Spearfish South Dakota_2

Sampling of Home Health Care Articles

Click on any article written by Master Home Inspector Patrick Breen to download a printable PDF, or read all the articles at the bottom of this page.

Air Conditioner Maintenance

New Home Landscaping

   New Construction Considerations

   Garage Safety Tips

   COOL Roofing Material

   Water Flow in Older Homes

   Solutions For Low Water Pressure

   The Future of Home Lighting

   Thermal Imaging & Infrared Technology

   Preparing For Spring Rains

   Steps For Keeping Warm

   Inspect Your home For Potential Holiday Troubles

   The Silent Killer – Carbon Monoxide

   Fireplace Inspection & Winter Preparations

   Simple Ways to Lower Home Energy Consumption

   Proper Attic Ventilation

   Vapor Barriers

   Going Tankless


   Springs Opportunity


   Radon & Home Health

   The Life Breath of Your Home


   The Smart Home

 

Radon and Home Health

By: Patrick Breen – Rapid Cities home inspector of choice. Master Home Inspector at Breen & Associates, LLC Serving Rapid City, Spearfish, and the Entire Black Hills Region of South Dakota!

Continuing from last months article regarding health effects of a well sealed home I will devote this months space entirely to radon. It is a topic unto itself. There exists some confusion, and some controversy, about home health and radon. Confusion lies mostly in understanding what it is. Controversy circles around what levels are acceptable inside your home.

To begin with, radon and exposure to radiation, is naturally occurring – everywhere. We as a species have evolved with some level of constant exposure. The reason it is of some concern regarding our home is that this structure can siphon and encapsulate much higher levels than what’s found naturally occurring in the outdoors; and from an evolutionary standpoint we now spend an exorbitant amount of our time indoors.

Radon is emitted from the earth and is associated with granite, dark shale, dirty quartz, phosphate and some beach sand. The Black Hills contains quite a bit of granite, shale and quartz. Radon is a gas that is odorless, tasteless and in not visible by the naked eye. More specifically it is the isotopes from this gas that causes concern. One isotope in particular (RN-222) because it has a half life of 3.8 days. This progeny, or “daughters” as they are called are what we typically refer to as radon.

These progeny attach themselves to air-born particles of which we then breath into our lungs. It is on these particles that the radon isotopes deteriorate emitting alpha particles. It is this increased radiation exposure directly on lung tissue that can result in cancer. Estimates of 15-21 thousand lung cancer deaths are attributed to radon annually.

Isotopes are measured in Picocuries per liter (pCi/L). The naturally occurring average level of pCi/L outdoors is .4, while the average indoor level is 1.3 pCi/L. Recommended action level for radon mitigation in your home is 4 pCi/L, or approximately 10 times what we are exposed to in nature.

Homes contain higher levels for several reasons, the primary one being the fact that most well built homes will have a negative pressure in comparison to the outdoors. This in turn draws, or sucks, radon into the structure. Some other factors are a tight seal, general lack of ventilation, atmospheric pressure and permafrost that caps the soil.

It is almost impossible to have no radon in a house, but it is possible to lower the level within recommended guidelines in every home. But, here in lies the controversy: what exactly is the acceptable level and what is actually safe. Studies differ slightly in their findings.

The facts are: the nature of a well built home will raise radon levels, thousands of deaths a year are attributed to radon, smoking is a multiplier of the effects, and you as a home owner have the power to do something about it. Start by picking up a testing canister to determine your radon level as well as visit a couple web sites for more in-depth information. Here are two that I recommend. https://www.epa.gov/radon  https://physics.umaine.edu/communityinvolvement/educational-outreach/radon-in-air-and-water/

 

Considerations in New Construction

By: Patrick Breen – Rapid Cities home inspector of choice. Master Home Inspector at Breen & Associates, LLC Serving Rapid City, Spearfish, and the Entire Black Hills Region of South Dakota!

Having spent most of three decades within the new home construction industry I’m always intrigued when I have the opportunity to walk through a site in progress, or inspect a brand new home. Every year there’s an introduction of new techniques and/or construction practices. The choices and decisions that face the owners and their contractor can be daunting, but with a little forethought and preparation it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Here are a few things worth pondering while in the planning stages. If you’re not starting from scratch some options are well suited for a remodel or addition.

First, review your site orientation. How is your home going to be positioned relative to the southern sun? Consider installing large southern facing windows coupled with an interior thermal mass. This thermal material can be stone, brick, water tanks or any dense material that will absorb radiation. If you install a circulation system near this southern exposure you can offset fuel costs by helping heat your entire home.

The key to this success lies in the length of your overhangs. It’s easy to calculate the aspect of the sun. Just make sure that the overhangs shade your windows during the summer and allow the suns rays to heat your thermal mass during the lower aspect of the winter months. This one factor is the simplest passive solar technique that can be incorporated into almost any design.

Next, consider the shell of your home. How are the walls, ceilings and floors constructed and insulated. One of the newest trends is Structural Insulated Panes (SIP’s). This is a wall system composed of sheets of ridged foam sandwiched between oriented strand board (OSB). The result is a structural strength that does away with traditional framing while providing up to a 25 R-Value. Additionally, SIP’s can form the roofing structure making it a great way to get cathedral ceilings.

If you have typical stud wall construction consider Closed-Cell Foam Insulation. This is an expanding foam application that yields higher R-Values, tighter seals and gives added strength to the walls.

Before walls go up you need a foundation. Consider Insulated Concrete Forms (ICF’s). These are interlocking foam blocks that are filled with concrete. The result is ease of fabrication yielding a below and above grade wall that is extremely strong, has no air infiltration, and higher built-in R-Value.

Choices for windows, roofing and siding material have as many, if not more, industry advances. Triple pane argon filled windows are becoming the norm; roofing material from asphalt to concrete to aluminum and metal have developed technologies with ever increasing longevity; and siding choices have become minimal if not maintenance free.

These options are just the beginning, but essentially are the core of your home. Discuss with your contractor the best options with comfort and efficiency in mind. Some materials will be more expensive but will end up lowering your labor costs. While some choices will not break even for years to come; they will continue reaping you the benefits for the life of your home.

Attic Ventilation

By: Patrick Breen – Rapid Cities home inspector of choice. Master Home Inspector at Breen & Associates, LLC Serving Rapid City, Spearfish, and the Entire Black Hills Region of South Dakota!

As homeowners we focus a great deal of our attention on keeping the elements out while retaining those interior conditions we’ve worked hard, and paid good money, to generate.

There is, however, one area that is vital to keep properly circulated, and is often overlooked – our attics.

You might think that because you have a couple of gable vents and some box venting on the roof that everything is as it should be. Unfortunately, this is not often the case. Your structure might have been built with improper venting to begin with or, through remodeling projects, the system was changed and no longer functions as it should.

The primary need for proper attic ventilation is to allow excess heat and moisture to escape. During the summer months it is important for heat to escape not only to help reduce energy used for cooling, but to help prolong the life of your shingles. If the south side of your roofing is deteriorating faster than the rest of the roof surface there is a good chance you have a poorly vented attic space.

Moisture can enter the attic from both the outside and inside environment. If your attic does not have enough insulation humidity will migrate into this space from below promoting degradation of insulation along with structural wood rot from mold. It is important to note that setting aside humidity from house plants, and from general washing, the typical household generates 3 gallons of water per day from just breathing and perspiration.

The properly ventilated attic will have sufficient insulation along with two types of vents. One vent system is low on the roof line and generally located in the soffits. While the second system is up close to the ridge allowing fresh air to enter down low, with hotter air escaping out of the top.

Typical problems that I find with attic circulation is when an addition to the house has covered, or removed, soffit vents; or when insulation has been added in the attic covering the chutes. These air channels, or chutes, are baffles that allow the air to flow from the soffit vents, past the insulation, and then up and out of the top vents. It is not uncommon to find these chutes crushed or covered from additional insulation that has been installed by the homeowner. 

In this region of the country general home construction requires a 1/150 ratio of attic venting. What this means is that for every 150 square feet of attic space you should have one square foot of ventilation. This is divided between both venting systems. If you have 300 sq. ft. of attic space you will need one sq. ft. of venting down low, and one sq. ft. at the ridge.

After visually checking your vents for proper clearance and size ratio I recommend waiting until the sun has gone down to check the temperature of your attic. A properly insulated and vented attic should be close to the same temperature inside as it is outside.

Going Tankless

By: Patrick Breen – Rapid Cities home inspector of choice. Master Home Inspector at Breen & Associates, LLC Serving Rapid City, Spearfish, and the Entire Black Hills Region of South Dakota!

As a home inspector there is rarely a structure I investigate that wouldn’t benefit from some home health care maintenance. The two most common systems the homeowner often overlooks are potential water penetration and energy efficiency. Routine structural maintenance and monitoring of your drainage system will stem the effects of moisture; and a little keen observation can diagnose many areas of poor insulation. But, there is one area of energy consumption that represents as much as 24% of your energy costs and is often overlooked, your hot water heater.

People will try to offset high energy consumption by lowering their water temperature and wrapping the tank in a thermal blanket; good start but the primary loss isn’t due to either of these factors. It’s because your water heater continuously heats water when you don’t need it. When you are away from home, or sleeping, your heater is always producing hot water.

Today though you have options. The tankless, on demand, hot water system. This system has been on the market for many years and is used widely in Europe and the Far East specifically because of low energy consumption, as well as space saving reasons. 

The U.S. market had not embraced this technology because our homes are larger and often demand higher volumes of hot water than this system could provide. With advancements in capacity as well as increased efficiency, all this has changed.

The typical tank style hot water heater has a life expectancy of 6-12 years with an energy factor in the 60’s and an average cost of $600 to $800. The typical tankless system has a life expectancy of 20-25 years with an energy factor as high as the mid 90’s, with an average cost of $1500. 

While the energy savings coupled with a much longer life can easily offset the increased upfront cost in a few short years, there are factors to consider when shopping for a tankless system.

Just as there are different sizes of water tanks, there are different flow rate capacities to the tankless. The flow rate of a sink is 1.2 to 1.6 gallons per minute (GPM). A shower will range from 1.6 to 2.2 GPM. Consider how many showers, the size of your tubs and how many sinks might be running at the same time; and then factor that into the systems flow rate. New ultra high efficiency systems can produce over 9 GPM.

Another consideration is venting. Because of the high BTU’s (heat) most tankless systems require the installation of category 3 vent stacks. If you have a long vent run your piping can cost more than the unit itself. Luckily though there are options. You can purchase an exterior unit which requires no vent pipes, you can devise a shorter run out your side wall, or you can choose one of the newest models that allows venting with traditional PVC piping.As with any home system it is important to find what works best for you, but when considering a new water heating system I encourage you to investigate Going Tankless!

Thermal Imaging Technology 

By: Patrick Breen – Rapid Cities home inspector of choice. Master Home Inspector at Breen & Associates, LLC Serving Rapid City, Spearfish and the Entire Black Hills Region!

Thermal Imaging Technology and the use of infrared cameras was first developed by the military in the late 1950s and early 60s. Due to the high cost and shear size of the equipment the technology during those early years was primarily reserved for military and police activity. In the early 1970s Breen & Associates invested in an infrared camera, but was cost prohibitive except for our industrial clients. Emphasis was placed on commercial/high-end electrical systems, equipment and industrial complexes.

Today, as with most new technology, the cost of infrared equipment has significantly dropped. Cameras that were large and cumbersome are now easily held in one hand. With the advent of affordable pricing, and smaller cameras, this technology is now a common tool within the home inspection industry. The application for residential structures is primarily, but not limited to, helping detect hidden water leaks, areas of air infiltration and the thermal integrity of exterior walls. 

The basic physics is based on surface temperature differentials. Because an infrared camera can ‘see’ areas of missing insulation in exterior walls it is sometimes mistaken to have some kind of x-ray capability. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The infrared camera has a lens that is coated with a mineral called germanium. This is a substance that is similar to the silicon used in semiconductors, but is much more expensive. It has a dark, shiny/metallic property that makes the camera lens opaque to the visible light spectrum. As you can imagine the expense along with the difficulty in coating lenses was one of the hurdles in bringing infrared technology into common applications.

Simply put, instead of having a camera with a lens that magnifies and focuses clear visible imagery, the lens blocks all visible light and allows only the wavelengths of thermal radiation to reach the camera sensors. Instead of having a clear picture of what our eyes can see, we have an image of what a thermometer would see.

All materials conduct, radiate and emit thermal energy differently. It is these differences that create the picture in an infrared camera. If you were to hold a piece of steel and piece of wood over an open flame you would quickly discover these three differences in those two materials.

The value in all this to a homeowner is that in the hands of a certified thermographer this tool can help determine and verify issues within a home. Because water conducts and radiates heat differently than wood or gypsum, a thermal camera can help locate or discover a pesky water leak. Air entering or exiting a house has a different temperature than the structure, so locations of air infiltration can more easily be determined. If you suspect poor insulation the camera can ‘see’ voids in the walls. If you want to locate hidden pipes, buried under ground or inside a wall, an infrared camera just might be able to help.  

A Silent Killer 

By: Patrick Breen – Rapid Cities home inspector of choice. Master Home Inspector at Breen & Associates, LLC Serving Rapid City, Spearfish and the Entire Black Hills Region!

As a home inspector in the Black Hills I routinely review residential properties for fire safety. This includes, but is not limited to, inspecting a variety of fuel-burning appliances for proper venting and functionality; as well as those hazards related to having an attached garage. Inspections also include verifying the required installation, proper placement and working condition of smoke alarms.

This is done to help educate property owners on the care, maintenance and safety of their home and its occupants. Unfortunately, there is one safety device I rarely find installed because it is not required by the state of South Dakota, or our local municipalities, but something I highly recommend and believe is so important; a carbon monoxide detector.

According to the “Journal of the American Medical Association,” there are 1,500 deaths and 10,000 poisonings each year in the United States from carbon monoxide (CO). Many of these accidents could have been avoided with the simple installation of a CO detector.

Carbon monoxide is a gas produced from burning fuels such as gasoline, propane, natural gas, oil, wood or coal. It is odorless, colorless and extremely deadly when it is allowed to build up inside enclosed, unvented areas such as a garage or home.

The most common causes for CO build up inside your home are: a furnace, gas stove or water heater that is faulty or has been installed improperly; the outside vent from these fuel burning appliance becoming blocked by snow or ice; a car or gas powered device left running inside a closed garage, and/or a charcoal grill being used inside.

Often CO build-up happens quickly and the effects go unnoticed because the home occupants are asleep. Sometimes a slow leak may go on for weeks or months with the symptoms being attributed to other ailments. Symptoms vary between individuals but typically include flu-like maladies such as headaches, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, weakness, confusion, ringing ears and, in extreme exposures, unconsciousness followed by death. There have also been instances where individuals have had no symptoms before loosing consciousness.

It is for these reasons that I highly recommend all homeowners install CO detectors. If the detector you choose is electronic make sure it also has a battery back-up to ensure it will continue to work during power outages. Because detectors loose their sensitivity to CO gas over time I recommend that you replace your detector every five years.

You should place one CO detector on each floor, within close proximity to bedrooms so the alarm will wake you. Do not install them directly above burning device such as your furnace or gas water heater, but close by. Remember, CO gas rises. If you have an attached garage make sure there is a detector located in any living space above the garage as well.Finally, if your CO alarm does go off call 911 immediately. Next, open windows and doors, then leave the building quickly before you loose consciousness.

Water Flow in Older Homes

By: Patrick Breen – Best home inspector in Rapid City. Master Home Inspector at Breen & Associates, LLC Serving Rapid City, Spearfish and the Entire Black Hills Region!

In last months article I discussed household water pressure and some common remedies for increasing the PSI (pounds per square inch) in your home. The focus was directed primarily on the pressure servicing the structure, what is considered within normal range, and some steps you can take to increase your water flow.

But, not all problems with pressure and flow rates originate at the service line. If you happen to live in an older, 50 plus year home, the diminished water flow inside your structure could very well be caused by clogged steel pipes. For decades, leading up to the 1950s, the common water line installed was galvanized steel pipe. 

The problem is that a reaction between water and the steel pipe precipitated mineral deposits within the horizontal lines. A second problem with steel pipes is at the connections. Oftentimes those pipes were cut, exposing metal edges that are not galvanized. Over time corrosion occurs at those connections, eventually causing a leak.

If you live in an older home with steel galvanized pipes, and you have water flow issues, the most likely cause is restricted lines full of mineral deposits. If you want to replace some of those pipes with copper I would begin with the horizontal lines in your basement. I would also recommend replacing as many steel pipe connections as you can reach – under sinks, connections to water heaters, etc.

Remember, when making the connection between your copper fittings and steel pipe to use a dialectic converter. This is simply a union with a polymer lining that keeps these two dissimilar metals from touching. When dissimilar metals such as copper and steel are in direct contact with each other electrolysis occurs that will corrode the metal and over time cause a leak.

Now, if your really ambitious and want to replace some vertical water lines as well you might want to consider using flexible polyethylene instead of copper. Most commonly referred to as PEX (cross-linked polyethylene), this is widely used in today’s newer home construction. Advantages to using PEX are that it is less expensive than copper and, especially in this instance, the tubing can be threaded between wall cavities and around existing obstacles easier than a ridged copper pipe.  

Flexible water lines got a bad rap when earlier installation used a polybutylene product that reacted with some chemicals in water such as chlorine. The pipes would become brittle and eventually would fail causing water damage. The installation of polybutylene took place during the late 70s up until as late as 1995. Since that discovery a much better product, polypropylene has emerged, oftentimes preferred by some contractors over copper.

Whichever route you decide, don’t be daunted by the task. Most older homes have unfinished basements with all the horizontal pipes fully exposed, and the effort to replace them will be much easier than you think resulting in all the water flow and pressure you need.

Garage Safety 

By: Patrick Breen – Highest rated home inspector in Rapid City. Master Home Inspector at Breen & Associates, LLC Serving Rapid City, Spearfish and the Entire Black Hills Region!

Before this Autumn season ends, and your summer toys and lawn care tools get packed away for the winter, take the time to review the safety of your attached garage. If you are like most people your garage becomes a catch all, stuffed to the brim, leaving just enough room for one small vehicle. 

The nature of these conditions, coupled with the fact that this highly volatile storage closet is attached to you home is why, as a home inspector, I pay close attention to the condition of your garage. 

One of the first things I look for is that the entry door into the living space has a self-closing mechanism attached. The most common type used is spring wound hinges. These hinges can be wound so the door will automatically close behind you. This is a safety feature protecting against Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) entering your home; as well as to keep fire contained inside your garage long enough to allow you and your family time to escape.

This door needs to be a solid wood door no less than 1 3/8” thick; a solid or honey comb-core steel door not less than 1 3/8” thick; or a 20 minute rated door. If the door has a glass window it needs to be fire rated. If a pet door is installed the integrity of this fire barrier is lost. Also, check to make sure the seals around the door are tight.

Because a garage often contains flammable liquids such as solvents, paints, gas cans, and due to the fact that vehicles can leak gas and oil, it is important to eliminate all wall penetrations into the house. Dryer vents should terminate on the exterior. If you have one that vents into the garage it can easily allow the spread of flames into the living space and should be re-routed.

It is for this reason that the common wall to your home needs to be completely covered with at least 1/2” gypsum board with the seams taped. Garages beneath living spaces need to have at least 5/8” gypsum board on the ceiling, and if your garage is 3 feet or less from your home the wall closest to your home needs to have this gypsum barrier.

The vapors from VOC’s are heavier than air and will gravitate to the floor. This is why most garages are at least one step down from the home entry. For this reason, if you have a hot water heater in your garage, it needs to be elevated at least 18” off the floor so the pilot light or ignition system is above any vapors. For electrical safety, while possibly working around standing water, make sure your outlets are Ground Fault Circuit protected by a GFCI outlet.

If your main electrical panel is located in your garage remember you may need quick access to shut power off. Leave at least 36” of clearance while packing things away, but keep in mind where we live and be sure to keep that snow shovel handy.  

The Life Breath of Your Home

By: Patrick Breen – Highest rated home inspector in Rapid City. Master Home Inspector at Breen & Associates, LLC Serving Rapid City, Spearfish and the Entire Black Hills Region!

For reasons of both comfort and economy we have acquired an acute focus on our homes R-values and air infiltration. Insulation is blown and stacked into attic’s, ceilings and floors for greater R-value while tight seals are established around windows, doors and cracks to lessen outdoor air penetrations. We install storm windows and shrink seal everything we can while stuffing rags under doors and applying foam tape around the door edges.

Whether you are building a new home or own an existing structure, these have become baseline principles for energy efficiency and comfort, and since 20% to 40% of our heating and cooling energy is lost to air infiltration, our homes are tighter than ever before.

In extreme climates the compromise of a tightly sealed environment is our health. Over the decades, despite an increase in outdoor air quality, asthma and other respiratory ailments stay at historically high levels. The EPA now estimates indoor air is on average 2-5 times more polluted than outdoor air. Since we spend 90% of our time indoors this becomes a concern.

In a well sealed home natural ventilation is reduced and indoor pollutants build up. Common pollutants are formaldehyde found in some building materials, volatile organic compounds (VOC) found in many paints and floor coverings, carbon monoxide as a bi-product of combustion and excess moisture generated by human activity.

Becoming aware of our air quality is the first step to a healthy indoor environment. The second is source control. Store your chemicals such as paints and solvents outside of your home. Make sure you have an air tight seal between your attached garage and living space. Have your atmospheric vented gas water heater and furnace checked regularly for proper combustion and ventilation; and when remodeling or building try to pick products with low volatile organic compounds.

With these maintenance steps in place the next phase for managing your air quality is substituting your infiltration with ventilation. The simplest and lowest cost approach is a proper exhaust and supply ventilation system. With a little investment that can become a fully balanced system established through the use of heat exchangers. 

Depending on the type of recovery needed there are two types of exchangers to choose from: total or sensible. Think of this airflow in and out of your home as similar to the heat exchangers in a high efficiency furnace allowing more energy extraction from the system, some capturing as much as 60% to 80% of the energy that would have otherwise been lost.The benefits to fully managing your home infiltration is the improved air quality, improved comfort, improved health, lower utility bills, as well as the benefit of improved resale value. But, if fully managing your ventilation and infiltration is something out of your control I recommend simply picking the nicest day of each week, turn down the heating or cooling system, and open some doors and windows. Allow for a whole house air exchange and breathe knowing you have a healthier home environment.