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Basement Window Safety

These photos of basement windows were taken of a home inspected by my company, Magpie Property Inspections, in Aurora Colorado. In most older homes, ingress/egress windows in basements do not the meet current standard, but were likely OK when the home was built. If this type of basement were to be updated or finished, at least one window would need to lowered and enlarged to allow for quick exit in the event of an emergency, particularly in a basement bedroom. If you are looking to purchase an older home with a finished basement with original windows, we suggest checking for building permits on the work completed to see if it was inspected and approved by the local building department. If not, this should be done in order to meet current building standards.

In older homes, be aware that in order to finish a basement properly there may be an additional cost to update at least one window to make it safe for the occupants.  A basement egress window should not be over 44 inches off finished flooring, have an opening which is at least 24 inches high, 20 inches wide and have at least 5.7 square feet.

Unsafe Room Addition Construction

This is a room addition which was photographed during a home inspection conducted by my company, Magpie Property Inspections, of a home located in Littleton Colorado. During the home inspection, it became clear that there were a number of concerns with the condition of the room addition and the way in which is was constructed.

We found holes in the flooring inside which revealed that 2×4 joists were laying over a 4 inch deep concrete slab to support the interior floor structure with no support or attachment to the existing building. An examination of the perimeter indicated that the whole structure was built on top of this patio slab and it was very unlikely that there are stem walls and footings underneath to support the walls and roofing properly as is required with standard home construction. This has allowed the walls to move and separate away from the house inside. A flat roof was installed which appears to allow water to pool and not drain effectively. In short, it was clear this added room was done without regard to building codes and standards and could not have been inspected and approved by the local building authority.

Room additions, finished basements and remodeling projects should always be done by qualified people using approved materials and in compliance with the current building standards which are in force in the locality in which the work is completed. This will prevent having a situation like this from becoming a safety concern for the occupants of the home. In this case, our clients have correctly decided to have the room addition removed.

 

Sprinkler Back Flow Preventers

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This is a photo of a damaged back flow preventer taken during a home inspection in Aurora Colorado by my company, Magpie Property Inspections. It appears it is worn. likely has has frozen and become damaged due to a lack of proper maintenance or winterization. It needs repair or replacement by a qualified technician.

The backflow preventer is a device that prevents your water system from becoming contaminated from water flowing backwards into your supply lines. If you have a sprinkler system which is fed by fresh water lines from your home, one should be installed where the sprinkler line feeds into the sprinkler valves located in the valve box underground.

The backflow preventer,  works by  having the water  siphoned through a branch line in the unit. Water flows in one direction freely through the line but is not allowed to move in the opposite direction. If water is allowed to back up in the lines after routing to the sprinkler system the water brings with it whatever is in the line which might include weed killer, fertilizer, and other contaminants in the grass and soil.  Without a properly functioning backflow preventer on the sprinkler system cut-in, your water system can inadvertently draw those toxins into your water supply and present a major health hazard.

It is important to check your system and back flow preventer regularly and to have the system checked each fall during winterization and in the spring when it is activated to make sure it is in good working order.

Headroom

This picture was taken during a home inspection conducted by my company, Magpie Property Inspections,  in the Denver Colorado Metro Area. I was performing an 11 month inspection for a client who was about to have their one year warranty expire on a new home. They wanted to have the house inspected as part of presenting their final list of repairs to the builder, and for peace of mind. In this case, the builder finished the basement but did not provide the required headroom above the stairs. They had to cut this notch in the ceiling above the stairs in order to provide for safe movement to the basement. In this home, the builder also neglected to provide a heat vent in a bathroom and cold air return venting in the basement as required.  It is always important to carefully review your new home during the first year of ownership and to make sure to have any concerns or questions reviewed before the first year expires.

Common Electrical Concerns Found During Home Inspections

 

When performing home inspections for my company, Magpie Property Inspections,  there are a number of  electrical issues we look for to address potential safety and performance problems which might be found in the subject property. Here are three items which are commonly found; these were noted in homes inspected in Parker Colorado and Denver Colorado.

The first photo was taken in a garage. Some one has added an additional outlet to the ceiling to power a garage door opener. In this case, the outlet is not secured properly, and the wiring hangs loose and is not secured properly. In addition, in most applications, depending on jurisdiction, wiring installed in garages should be covered in an acceptable covering called conduit to prevent the wring cover from being damaged exposing live wiring. This should be corrected by having a qualified electrician address the wiring and outlet as needed to meet current standard and practice.

The second photo illustrates a junction box which was installed connecting wiring runs in a basement. All junction boxes which house live wiring must have a secure cover in place to prevent exposing occupants from contact with wiring and prevent loose ungrounded conductors from contacting anyone.  The correct size and type of cover should be installed on this box.

The third photo was taken of an outlet which is damaged and was live when tested during the inspection. This is obviously dangerous as exposed  wiring is visible and could  cause as shock by casual contact. The romex wiring to the outlet is also kinked at the bottom which can restrict the electrical flow and cause the wire to heat and become a hazard. Electrical outlets should never be loose, have missing covers, and should have wiring installed corrected by qualified electricians. Electrical work is not the place for unskilled amateurs or lax maintenance.

Reverse Polarity in Electrical Outlets

This photo illustrates an electrical problem which is not discernible with the naked eye. During an inspection in Aurora Colorado, my company, Magpie Property Inspections, discovered this issue with the wiring in a home.  A circuit analyzer or other suitable device can be used to check circuits and wiring for a number of potential problems. In this case, having one green bar and the center red bar lighted on the device indicates that the wiring to this outlet is incorrect; the neutral and the ungrounded or “hot” conductors have been likely installed on the wrong poles in the outlet. This condition is know as “reverse polarity.” This can often happen when amateurs or non professionals attempt electrical repair or installation in a home.

In  a standard outlet, the ungrounded conductor, or hot wire side enters the electrical appliance and the neutral is connected to the opposite end of the appliance’s electrical circuitry. What happens when the polarity is reversed in an outlet when an appliance is plugged in, is that the appliance circuitry is electrically charged all the time, but only functional when a switch closes the neutral wire connection and the current begins flowing.

 To further explain using a toaster as an example; if the appliance is plugged into an outlet with reverse polarity, the heating element wires in a toaster would shock you if you were to stick a knife in the toaster  to help remove a piece of toast.  Another example; the metal shell of the light bulb socket in a lamp would cause a shock if touched when the polarity is reversed when off. Both of them are harmless if the wiring in an outlet is correct. Although reversed polarity is usually caused by incorrect connections at the receptacle, it can also be due to wiring reversal in the electric panel or at wire connections between the panel and the receptacle. If you discover a situation similar to one of these examples in your home, have your wiring and outlets evaluated by a qualified electrician to have it corrected to ensure the safety of  the occupants of your home.

Checking Attic Ventilation

An issue of major importance as a homeowner involves your attic and having proper ventilation. The photos above were taken at a home located in Aurora Colorado by my home inspection company, Magpie Inspections LLC, Parker Colorado.  They illustrate this point very clearly. When the attic was inspected on a very cold day, ice had formed on the plywood decking. This indicates that the ventilation in the attic is inadequate and that air is not able to flow efficiently enough to prevent condensation from occurring. The homeowner may have thought that he was saving money on heating by keeping warm air in the attic, but in fact, closing off or removing the vents does not significantly improve energy efficiency if the home is properly insulated. Interfering with the vents, or not having  effective vents, however, may cause the moisture level in the attic air to increase which can cause a situation like this to occur. When this type of condensation takes place over time, wet rot to organic components and corrosion to metal materials will likely be the result as pictured on the photo to the right. We recommend keeping all vents secure, clear and periodically checking your attic to make sure issues like this are not occurring.  If you see something in the attic which causes concern, contact a qualified contractor to inspect the roof, soffit, siding, attic and insulation and advise you on an appropriate remedy.

Examples of Possible Asbestos Materials in Older Homes

Older homes which were built before before 1978, may contain materials which include asbestos. There are a number of items which may contain this hazardous material, and if you are concerned that your home may contain asbestos in its construction, you may consider having a qualified interior environmentalist inspect and test your home for your peace of mind. Below are four photos of some commonly found materials which can contain asbestos observed during home inspections conducted by our company, Magpie Property Inspections located in Parker Colorado. Generally, If asbestos material is present, this is not necessarily a safety concern as long as the material is not loose or particles of material are airborne. If the material appears loose or damaged, or you are concerned, we suggest contacting a qualified environmental specialist to test and evaluate as noted.

Here are a few examples of items found in homes that may require further investigation:

Sprayed acoustic or “popcorn” ceiling in a home in Centennial Colorado may have had asbestos included in the mix if installed before 1978.

 

Some older homes have material like this wrapped around the ductwork to provide insulation. If you have something like this home located in Denver Colorado has, check to make sure it is not loose. If so, or if it appears suspicious, it is advisable to have it evaluated by a qualified expert.

Older square acoustic ceiling tiles manufactured during the 1940’s 50’s. 60’s and 70’s have been know to contain asbestos.

The floor tiles in this home in Lakewood Colorado appear to be older, and the home was constructed curing the 1950’s.  As you can see it is broken and loose. Given  the age of the home and condition of the tile, it would be advisable to have it tested.

Removal of any building components which contain asbestos should only be done under EPA approved guidelines, by qualified technicians to prevent contamination of other areas of the home. Improper removal could likely result in a heath hazard to occupants and others in the immediate area.

Gas Water Heater and Furnace Venting

Appropriate venting for gas hot water heaters and gas furnaces is a critical element to safe operation of these appliances. Some high efficiency furnaces now use plastic PVC venting because they discharge spent gasses which are not very hot, and they are vented differently that what is pictured here. But in the majority of cases the exhaust from these units is similar to what is pictured here and venting the appliance causes the steel piping to become very hot.

It is not safe for hot metal surfaces to come into immediate contact with combustible materials like wood or paper because of the potential for a condition known as  Pyrolysis to occur.  Pyrolysis is a thermochemical decomposition of organic material which occurs at elevated temperatures even in the absence of oxygen. Contact with the materials with heat from the venting over long periods of time can eventually cause the wood or paper to change internally, become dry and brittle and even catch fire in some cases. It is very important to make sure that any venting which travels through combustible materials have proper spacing between the materials and heated piping.

Standard practice is to have the vents from furnaces and hot water heaters  attach from the appliance to a solid single wall pipe, and then connect to a solid double wall pipe. The double wall pipe then vents through to the exterior.  The double wall pipe is required to have at least one inch clearance from combustible material and be secured firmly. If single wall piping is used, it should have a minimum of six inches of clearance between combustibles, as standard practice.

The photo on the left was taken in a home located in Aurora Colorado during a home inspection by our company, Magpie Property Inspections LLC. It is an example of an incorrect vent pipe installation from a hot water heater. Single wall venting is installed and is vented through plywood decking in an attic with less than one inch clearance in places. It is not well secured. This can lead to a serious fire risk as explained. The photo on the right was taken during a home inspection in Castle Rock Colorado and illustrates the correct installation of furnace and water heater venting.

If you notice any issue with your furnace and/or water heating venting, similar to the installation in the photo on the left, we recommend having a qualified HVAC technician evaluate the venting and advise on any corrections which are needed.

Dishwasher Drainage

The photographs above were taken during home inspections by my company, Magpie Property Inspections, in Parker Colorado and Denver, Colorado.  The thinner white flexible plastic tube pictured is the waste water discharge line from the dishwasher to the drain, waste and vent system under the kitchen sink. Because of the possibility of water water backing up from the main drain line under the sink into the dishwasher, most jurisdictions require that the dishwasher drain either be installed with an air gap, or a high loop to prevent a back up from occurring.

In the photo on the left,  no air gap device or high loop was noted. The photo on the right shows a drain line installed into a drain pipe with an air gap. While some dishwashers have an internal back flow device, normally it is not possible for an inspector to determine if an internal back flow device is installed in a dishwasher unit. It is  good practice to inspect to see if either a high loop or air gap has been installed for safer operation of the dishwasher and report if none is found. In some cases a dishwasher may have been installed when this practice was not required, but it we recommend having this checked anytime a plumber is out to your home and to have this addressed, as needed,  by a qualified technician to meet current standard.