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Blog: Weekly Inspection Information and Updates

Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter Outlets

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Your home most likely is equipped with GFCI outlets. These outlets normally have two buttons, in the middle, one marked “test” and the other marked “reset.”  Our company, Magpie Property Inspections inspects homes throughout the Denver Metropolitan area, and we check the functionality of these devices during each home inspection. You may find them in some or all of these locations of your home:

Bathrooms

Kitchens

Outside outlets

Garages

Basements

Laundry rooms

A ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) is an electrical outlet with a device that shuts off an electric power circuit when it detects that current is flowing along an unintended path, and/or in an unbalanced level. They are placed in areas, for example, where water sources are present and it is possible for current to contact water which will draw the current outside its intended route, normally the wiring and/or the appliance being used.

A GFCI works by monitoring the current which leaves a power source, such as the ungrounded or live wire and checks it against the current which returns to the neutral wire in the electrical system. If they become unequal due to a fault in the system, or an unusual demand on the system, or the current is somehow leaking in an unwanted way, the GFCI shuts the power off. The outlet will keep shutting off until the source of the problem is corrected. If this is occurring in one of your outlets, a qualified should be consulted to evaluate the outlet and system. These units can become damaged or wear out, so it is recommended that they be tested monthly.

The use of GFCI’s has evolved over the years, and current electrical codes require that GFCI outlets be installed in more locations that in years past. You can check with you local building department or a qualified professional for current requirements. Although GFCI protection may not have been required at the time your home was built in all of these areas, for safety reasons, consider upgrading the electrical system to include GFCI protection at the following locations:

  • Bathrooms
  • Outside
  • Garages
  • Crawlspace (at or below grade)
  • Unfinished basements
  • Kitchens
  • Laundry rooms
  • Within 6 feet of all plumbing fixtures
  • Boathouses

Aluminum Wiring

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These photos are of an electrical system found in a house that my company,  Magpie Property Inspections, conducted during a home inspection in Aurora Colorado.  The home was built in the late 1960’s and initially had aluminum wiring installed in place of copper wiring. As the photos indicate, some renovations were conducted later which included mixing copper and aluminum wiring in the service panel and branch wiring.

Between 1965 and 1973, aluminum wiring was sometimes substituted for copper wiring in residential electrical systems. Connections in outlets, switches, and light fixtures with aluminum wiring may become increasingly dangerous as time passes. Poor connections cause wiring to spark and overheat, creating a potential fire hazard.  If you have aluminum wiring in your home, it should be inspected by a qualified electrician experienced in evaluating and correcting aluminum wiring problems. Not all electrical contractors qualify. Aluminum wiring connections are subject to greater deterioration than is copper due to thermal expansion and contraction, vibration (caused when electric currents pass through wiring), oxidation (caused by exposure to oxygen in the air), and galvanic corrosion (caused when two different metals are connected together), all of which can cause poor connections. When wires are poorly connected they overheat, which creates a potential fire hazard.

There are safe remedies to correcting hazards from aluminum wiring. We recommend consulting with a qualified electrical contractor if your home was built during this time frame and you are concerned with having aluminum wiring in your electrical system.

Hot Water Heater Flameout

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These photos of water heaters were taken during home inspections in Parker and Aurora Colorado. As you can see, they have both “Flamed Out” which means the pilot light or heating elements have failed and replacement is needed. A hot water heater is a relatively simple and safe device that is essential to a comfortable life style. It operates by having cold water enter a tank which is then heated by an electric or gas burner inside. As the water is heated to between 120 to 140 degrees, pressure builds and the hot water is then released into the hot water pipes when a faucet is opened creating an escape route for the pressure within. A standard hot water heater is expected to last from 10 to 12 years on average.

Whether a unit needs to be replaced or can be repaired depends on several factors. If a pilot light flickers out, or a thermostat or valve develops a functional issue, a qualified plumber may be able to repair the unit if is less than 7 or 8 years old. If it is an older unit, it is likely more cost effective just to replace it. If the unit begins to leak around any of the valves, or the temperature relief valve in particular, it should be inspected by a qualified professional and likely replaced. If a unit develops and issue like these have, where the burner unit has worn out and emitted flames from inside the unit, it should be replaced for safety.

 

Unsafe Exterior Electrical Fixtures and Outlets

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Pictured above are examples of two exterior electrical outlets on homes that I photographed during home inspections which were conducted in  Aurora Colorado and Parker Colorado. Both represent an important safety concern which is fairly common on homes I see as a Home Inspector. In some cases like the photo on the left, improper interior type outlets have been installed by an unqualified person on the outside of a home. In other cases, the correct exterior outlet is either broken or damaged in some way. Whatever the reason, it is not safe to have any electrical outlet with live ungrounded wiring exposed to weather or water from any cause. Water intrusion into an outlet can lead to a short or fault damaging the system,  cause a fire or more importantly, dangerous electrical shock to a person nearby.  Current updated exterior outlets are available from a variety of home improvement stores and can be installed by homeowners who follow the instructions properly or qualified electrical contractors. It is a good idea to check your outside outlets and make sure they are safe.

Smoke Detectors – Carbon Monoxide Detectors

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As a home inspector,  and the owner of Magpie Property Inspections, an important aspect of a home inspection for me is checking on the presence and condition of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. During this home inspection in Aurora Colorado it was noted that the original smoke detectors had been removed and updated with a combination carbon monoxide and smoke detector.  There are several manufacturers which offer combination units like the one pictured on top above.

Most manufacturers recommend replacing smoke detectors at between 7 and 10 years. It is always a good idea to check the smoke detectors in your home and keep the batteries changed at least once per year. Whether the units are hard wired or battery only, they contain batteries for either primary power or back up protection. Many smoke detectors  become discolored as they age, like the second picture above,  so if you have a home that is a few years old or more, and the smoke detectors are becoming brown or yellow, it is likely time to change them.

One other note, in many locations it is now required that homeowners have carbon monoxide detectors installed in the dwelling as well as traditional smoke detectors. In my home state of Colorado, a carbon monoxide detector must be installed and operational within at least 15 feet of all bedrooms or sleeping areas. Replacing the old units with combination units near the bedrooms is a great idea. You can also install carbon monoxide only devices that plug in the wall outlet to make it simple and inexpensive to provide this vital protection for the occupants of your home.

Furnace Vent Stacks

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These photos are two examples of homes with furnace vent stacks that need to be replaced. Both were inspected by my company, Magpie Property Inspections. The properties are located in Denver Colorado and Aurora Colorado respectively. Both homes are over 30 years old and these both appear to be original to the houses.

It is important to keep an eye on the vents stacks in your home for several reasons. First and foremost, these vents carry spent fuel and carbon monoxide from gas furnaces and hot water heaters during  operation. Damage to the vents, or holes in the sides, may inhibit the vents from drafting correctly preventing the dangerous gasses produced during combustion from exiting the interior of the house properly. Any back draft or limited drafting can lead to a very serious health concern to those inside including dangerous levels of carbon monoxide gas inside.

In addition, vents in this condition are likely to leak at the sides or base allowing moisture into the attic, interior or down to the appliances. This can lead to wet rot and even the possibility of mold developing inside if undetected. Moisture in the heater unit can cause increased wear, a malfunction or damage requiring repair or replacement.

Lastly, as the stacks become brittle and old they become susceptible to wind and storm damage exposing the inside of the  homes to interior wind, hail or water damage in the event of a serious storm. It should not be located within 10 feet of any inlet venting to the house, and at least 2 feet tall. Replacement of worn or damage vents and stacks is normally not very expensive and can be done by qualified roofing, HVAC or general contractors.

Sprinkler Back Flow Preventers

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This is a photo of a backflow preventer which was taken during a home inspection performed by my company, Magpie Property Inspections, in Castle Rock Colorado. The backflow preventer is a device which is attached to the sprinkler system plumbing as an important safety feature.

Fresh water plumbing was tapped and routed to the exterior of this home as the source of water to irrigate the lawn and plants in the yard, via an underground sprinkler system. This is a normal practice for most home sprinkler systems in this area. Connecting  the freshwater system to the sprinkler plumbing, however,  provides the opportunity for water outside to re-enter the home’s freshwater plumbing,  allowing outside contaminants into the water supply. This can present a very serious health concern. To keep this from occurring, this system has a backflow preventer in place between the fresh water line and water in the sprinkler system. Some backflow preventers may be located inside a valve box in ground and not visible like this one, so it is important to know where yours is and what it looks like.

The problem discovered  during this home inspection is that this unit has become damaged, as you can see in the photo. If the system is not properly winterized and serviced,  damage like this can occur from freezing. It may also begin to leak, or show signs of wear over time. It is important to make sure if you have a sprinkler system to know what your backflow preventer looks like, where  it is located, and to check it frequently to make sure it is in good visual and working condition. If an issue develops with your system, or backflow preventer, make sure to have it repaired or replaced immediately by a qualified plumbing contractor or sprinkler service provider. If in doubt,  have your system inspected and tested to be sure.

Hail Damage – Fiberglass and Composition Roofing

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This is a heavy fiberglass base composition shingle roof which is only a few months old. It is on a property that was inspected during a routine home inspection in Littleton Colorado by my company, Magpie Property Inspections. As you can see , there is hail damage to both the vents and shingles. As a rule, this type of roofing is considered hail resistant because of its weight per 100 square feet of material, which is approximately 330 pounds. This type of thick shingle is still susceptible to damage as is the case with this home. Hail of sufficient size will dent metal vents, valleys, flashing and caps on a roof as well as bruise the shingles. When the roofing material is damaged like this roof, the granule layer on the shingle is removed and star cracks are often formed which will then begin to grow in size with weathering. This greatly accelerates the wear on a roof and can eventually lead to performance failure and leaking. An inspection of the roof following a serious hail event is always a good idea to see if anything like this type of damage is evident.

Garage Fire Rated Doors – Steps

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As owner of Magpie Property Inspections LLC, it is important to review garages and garage access doors for safety. During a recent home inspection in Aurora Colorado I noticed several issues with this door which provides access to the interior of the home from the garage. First of all, the step up from the floor to the door opening is approximately 13 inches. Standard practice calls for steps to rise between 4 and 7 and 1/2 inches. This door needs to have a step installed under it for proper access. In addition, the door is not fire rated. It is a standard interior hollow core door. Doors between the house and garage must be fire rated which includes several types of doors which are either solid core wood doors, metal wrap type doors or steel doors. A standard pass door will not act as a sufficient fire retardant to meet this requirement. Lastly, the door was 30 inches wide. Standard practice for garage access doors is 32 or 36 inches. It appears that this door was installed by a previous owner without a building permit. Having the correct type door and stairs in place in a garage is a very important safety measure.

 

Wood Burning Stoves – Fireplaces

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During three home inspections in Aurora Colorado, Castle Rock Colorado, and Parker Colorado, these photos were taken which illustrate important points regarding wood burning stoves and fireplaces.

The first image is of the fire box in a wood burning fireplace. You will note that there is a large crack running through the fire brick which lines the fire box in the prefabricated fireplace insert. It is a good idea to check the condition of a wood burning fireplace to make sure the fire box is intact, and not damaged in anyway. Should a condition like this occur, a professional fireplace technician should be consulted to make sure that the unit is safe. The brick is intended to deflect heat and flame away from the metal fire box. If the firebox is an older, all masonry design, cracks like this could  allow sparks or fire to penetrate any wood support members causing a fire. In addition, cracks in the firebox may contribute to a condition known as pyrolysis. Pyrolysis occurs when  prolonged heat adjacent to wooden material causes it to dry out, making it susceptible to combustion from the heat without a spark or flame coming in contact with it.

The second photo shows what happens when the damper and flue are not cleaned and maintained. A build up of soot like this can become combustible and ignite when the fireplace is used, causing a chimney fire. The more of this material that is present, and the older it is, the better chance of it igniting into a chimney fire. A chimney sweep, or professional should be used regularly to keep your fireplace and flue free from of this type of hazard.

The last photo is of an improperly installed wood burning stove chimney and flue. This unit allows the smoke and sparks from the stove to exit to the side of the house, rather than from chimney above the roof line. As you can see, soot is building up on the wood. In addition, sparks and heat from the unit may ignite the siding causing a serious fire. It is recommend that all fireplaces and stoves vent through a chimney that exits at least three feet from the roof decking within ten feet of the roofline. Any concerns with the installation of a chimney and flue liner should be referred to a licensed contractor or professional for evaluation.

The issues discovered during these three home inspections in Colorado exemplify why it is important to regularly check your fireplace, stove and chimney and report any concerns immediately to a qualified expert.