Garage Hazards Part 1- A Home Inspector’s Perspective

Garage Hazards Part 1- A Home Inspector’s Perspective

One area many homeowners  overlook is their garage. Most garages house things like cars, sports equipment and hazardous materials including gasoline, fertilizers and paints. As a home inspector, I often find multiple safety hazards in garages. This is especially true of attached garages.

Many homeowners aren’t aware of hazards in their garages. Others just overlook the hazards because they have always been there. Sometimes homeowners know of garage hazards, but choose not to fix them.

Because there are so many issues in garages, I have decided to split this article into two posts. The first post addresses general and structural garage hazards. Come back in two weeks to read the second part, focused on the components of a garage.

Garage Hazards and Home Inspection

During the inspection, home inspectors are mostly concerned with things that are attached to or a permanent part of the garage. When usually find things like fertilizers, gasoline, paints and auto maintenance products that we presume are leaving with the seller, In those cases, we may discuss our concerns with the buyer. But we usually don’t include them in our final report.

There are quite a few garage systems and components that a home inspector will observe and report on. They include the structure itself, electrical, finishing materials on the walls and ceiling, entry doors and steps, the vehicle entry doors, and the infamous automatic door opener. In particular, a home inspector checks for function and safety. Here are some examples:

  • Is the floor relatively level or are there a trip, slip, and hazards?
  • Are the wall and roof framing damaged or improperly installed?
  • Are there electrical issues with receptacles, lights, or wiring?
  • Is there a proper garage and house separation for fire and fumes?
  • Are there safety issues with the door and steps leading into the house?
  • Are the vehicle entry door and automatic door operator properly installed and functioning as intended by the manufacture?

Each of these areas of a garage inspection pose their own unique concerns.  A home inspection report should always consider whether the problems are cosmetic in nature or  really need to be repaired or replaced.

Garage Floor Issues

Most all garage floors are poured concrete. Asphalt is not appropriate for a garage floor because it is a flammable product.  Keep in mind that the garage floor is not a structural concern. In almost all cases, safety hazards are important to repair but usually not a red flag for potential home buyers.

Garage Floor Surface Issues

I often find surface flaking or deterioration in my garage inspections. Surface deterioration can come from the material makeup or the way it’s installed. But, in most cases, the culprit is road salt. If you want to improve the appearance of your garage floor, you can consider surface repairs. But surface repairs are generally a band aid and will not last. That said, floor surface issues are not really considered garage hazards. 

Garage Floor Cracks

As a concrete floor settles, the movement can cause cracks.  Typically, cracks are small – usually a 1/4 inch wide or smaller – with no displacement. Cracks that are wider or ones that have vertical or horizontal displacement of a ¼ inch or more can lead to trips and falls. Some home inspectors believe that there should be at least a ¾ inch displacement for it to be a trip hazard.

There is no right or wrong answer to the height displacement requirement. Different municipalities, organizations, or associations have their own definition of what is considered a trip hazard. Ultimately, home owners and their families should determine what is an acceptable difference in height. Garage hazards for one family may be minor inconveniences for another. For example, a height difference as small as ¼ inch could pose a risk to older and very young family members.

Garage Wall and Roofing Issues

The wall and roof framing are part of the structure. Home inspectors should really focus on finding  any damage or installation issues. In most cases, problems we find with garage walls and roofs are not difficult to fix. But these repairs are usually not a good project for  homeowners to take on. A qualified carpenter will know what to do and how to do it properly and safely.

 

Stay tuned for the next post, which will cover garage hazards related to the vehicle door, automatic door operator, steps, and the house and garage separation for fire and fumes.

Carbon Monoxide – A Home Inspector’s Perspective

Carbon Monoxide – A Home Inspector’s Perspective

Carbon Monoxide (CO), also known as the silent killer, is indifferent. It doesn’t matter whether you live in Yorkville, Oswego, Aurora, St. Charles, Batavia, Geneva, surrounding Chicagoland communities, or anywhere else.  CO is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas created from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels. Natural gas, propane, gasoline, diesel, oils, coal, and wood are all fossil fuels. Cars, fireplaces, and household appliances such as water heaters, furnaces, dryers, and stoves burn fossil fuels.  All of these can create carbon monoxide under the right conditions.  Inhaled CO displaces the oxygen needed by your body, resulting in carbon monoxide poisoning. Even low levels of CO can cause flu-like symptoms. High levels can cause death – quickly.

How can you prevent CO poisoning?

Always keep your car and household appliances in proper working order to help prevent the buildup of carbon monoxide. But what if your car or appliances are not working properly and one of them creates CO?  Is there a safeguard to help warn you of this condition?  Yes! We have carbon monoxide alarms.  These, along with smoke alarms, are like insurance policies. They are there when you need them.

The History of CO Detection

 

Late 1700s:
CO First Discovered

We didn’t know about the toxic effects until years later.  Once we knew about those toxic effects, we realized the need for CO regulations and alarms in both commercial and residential settings.

Early 1900s:
Introduction of the First CO Detector

It was a far cry from the type we use today.

1993:
First Battery-Powered CO Alarm

The Consumers Products Safety Commission (CPSC) and Underwriter Laboratories (UL) said that the device had to sound an alarm long before it detected dangerous levels of the gas.

Mid to Late 1990s:
Growth of Usage

Residential use grew during this period, mostly due to code and laws dictating it.

January 1, 2007:
Illinois Carbon Monoxide Alarm Detector Act Goes into Effect

The Illinois Carbon Monoxide Alarm Detector Act requires homeowners, landlords, and building owners to install carbon monoxide detectors within 15 feet of rooms used for sleeping. The age of the structure doesn’t matter. This law applies if you use fossil fuel to cook, heat, or produce hot water. It also applies if you have a connected, enclosed garage. The CO detector must have the label of a nationally-recognized testing laboratory. It must also comply with the most recent standards of the Underwriters Laboratories.

How does a CO alarm work?

CO alarms work on a weighted basis. The lower the level, the longer it will take for the alarm to sound. When alarms first came to market, the threshold level was set low (non-dangerous levels), which caused a lot of nuisance alarms. These alarms resulted in useless fire department trips to residences. Manufacturers eventually raised threshold levels.

Where should you install a CO alarm?

Urban legend says you should install carbon monoxide alarms low on a wall. It actually doesn’t matter. CO is about the same weight as air and distributes evenly throughout a room. Although Illinois says the alarm should be installed within 15 feet of a room used for sleeping at 15 inches below the ceiling, it is good practice to put one near any gas-burning appliance in a house.

Life Expectancy of a CO Detector

Originally, sensors had a life expectancy of five-to-seven years. That’s why manufacturers recommend that the older type be replaced at five years. These sensors can become unreliable.

According to Kidde, their sensor technology improved in 2013. Most of their CO detectors now have a life expectancy of 10 years. Also, most detectors come with 10-year sealed batteries, which extends the usable life. The benefit of this new battery life is that you don’t have to worry about replacing the batteries every year or so.

You should test your CO detector once per month. Be aware, though, that the test button only tests the battery and alarm, not the CO sensor itself.  To the best of my knowledge there isn’t a way to test the CO sensor the way you can create smoke to test a smoke. (To learn more about smoke alarms and detectors, click here to read my previous blog on that subject.)

What to Do If Your Alarm Sounds

From 2003 to 2010, U.S. fire department responses for CO increased from 40,000 to over 80,000. This was mostly due to the increased use of carbon monoxide alarms. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports 20,000 visits to the emergency room, 4000 of which result in hospitalization, due to carbon monoxide poisoning, and 400 deaths per year.

Actions that create cause carbon monoxide include heating your home with a gas range, not opening the fireplace flue, burning charcoal and running your car, lawn mower or snow blower in an enclosed area. Other causes include exhaust gas spillage, (commonly called backdrafting) from furnace and water heaters or damaged fireplace flues.

The best thing you can do is train your family so they’re aware of what to do when the alarms sounds. If an alarm goes off, follow these guidelines:

Is there is just a chirping sound?

That means the battery may be low and in need of replacement. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions on maintenance and testing for next steps.

Do you feel ill?

  1. Get everyone outside.
  2. Take a headcount to make sure everyone made it out.
  3. Call 911.

Do you feel OK?

  1. Push the reset button. If it goes off again after a short period of time, assume it’s a CO event.
  2. Get everyone outside.
  3. Take a headcount to make sure everyone made it out.
  4. Call 911.

Carbon monoxide events can be intermittent so don’t dismiss them. You can contact us or a BPI building analyst to determine why you get ongoing false alarms.

Smoke Alarms – A Home Inspector’s Perspective

Smoke Alarms – A Home Inspector’s Perspective

During a home inspection, a home inspector observes 300 to 500 items or more. Under certain conditions, the home inspector will find many of those items to be unsafe. For example, things like electrical and HVAC systems and kitchen and laundry appliances can start a fire. Should a fire start, the building’s smoke alarms should warn the occupants. In this post, I’ll offer my perspective on smoke alarms – NOT smoke detectors. THEY ARE NOT THE SAME.

A detector has a built-in smoke sensor. If the device detects smoke, it sends a signal to a control panel that triggers an external siren, strobe light, or other warning system. Typically, you’ll find smoke detectors in condo buildings, hotels and commercial buildings.

Smoke alarms are self-contained smoke sensing devices. They include a built-in power supply and alarm. With few exceptions you will find smoke alarms in single- and multi-family residences.

Types of Smoke Alarms

Manufacturers offer variations on two basic types of smoke alarm: ionization and photoelectric. You’ll find both types in hard-wired, battery-operated, plug-in, wireless, or combination versions.

What’s the difference?

Ionization Alarms were developed in the 1970s. They notoriously go off when you’re cooking or showering. They work well for blazing fires, but not so well with smoldering smoke.

Photoelectric Alarms are good for smoldering fires, but not so good with blazing fires.

So which one should you chose?

That is a great question. The National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) recommends using both types. If you have to choose, I recommend photoelectric smoke alarms. Smoke – not fire – causes most fire-related deaths in the US. Usually, you can find the type of alarm printed on the back of the device. If you don’t seen the type listed, you can presume it is ionization.

History of Smoke Alarms

The Illinois Smoke Detector Act took effect on January 1, 1988. The act applied to new construction and existing structures. It required single-family and multi-family residences and hotels to have an approved, operational smoke alarm on every floor. This included basements but excluded crawl spaces and non-occupied attics. Smoke alarms also had to be placed within 15 feet of any room used for sleeping. New construction had to have hardwired alarms.If there were two or more alarms, they had to be interconnected. Existing buildings could have battery-operated, plug-in, or hardwired alarms.

At some point, municipalities also added code requirements stating that new construction or renovated houses had to have smoke detectors inside every room used for sleeping. In 2011, they amended the act for new construction. All the requirements remained the same except that you had to have a battery or generator back up.

Inoperative Smoke Alarms

In a 2019 NFPA report, Smoke Alarms in U.S. Home Fires. nearly 43% of the homes involved in fires had smoke alarms with missing or disconnected batteries. Dead batteries caused 25% of smoke alarm failures. Statistics like these drove manufactures to improve battery technology.

This new battery technology spurred another amendment, which will take effect January 1, 2023. At that point, every single-family, multi-family, and hotel structure will have to replace removable battery alarms (non-hardwired alarms) with 10-year, sealed battery smoke alarms. Hardwired or wireless alarms with removal batteries will be excluded.

Testing and Replacing Alarms

Manufacturers recommend that alarms be tested every month by pressing the test button. The problem is that this only tests the battery and alarm. It gives you a false sense of security because it does not test the smoke sensor. You can use a UL approved can of smoke to test the smoke sensor. I have known people to use a match for testing, but some manufacturers don’t recommend it.

Manufacturers usually recommend that you replace your smoke alarms when they’re 10 years old. The smoke sensors are considered to be unreliable after that point. Since there is no date on your alarm, presume it is more than 10 years old and replace it. If the smoke alarm’s casing has a yellowish hue, it’s likely that the alarm is around 10 years old. Best practice? Replace the alarm with one from the same manufacturer. The quick connect wiring harness will match and connect easily.

When you replace your smoke alarms, throw photoelectric alarms out with your regular garbage. However, ionization alarms contain very minute radioactive particles. Your best bet: contact the alarm’s manufacturer to see whether it will take it back for recycling. You can also contact your local city or county to find a hazmat disposal location.

False Alarms

False alarms have a variety of causes. Most most of the time the problem is the alarm’s location. If you locate your smoke alarm near your stove, shower, or a window, particles from cooking food, humidity, or steam can set off the alarm. Other reasons include insect intrusion or dust. In these cases, follow the manufacturer’s maintenance and cleaning instructions.

 

Smoke alarms save lives. Make sure you install them correctly and keep them in proper working order. It’s one of the best things you can do to keep your family and home safe from fires.

In my next post, I’ll give you a home inspector’s perspective on a similar device – a carbon monoxide detector. Follow us on Facebook to get notified about new blog posts and other 3-D Home Inspection happenings.

A Home Inspector’s Perspective on Home Maintenance

A Home Inspector’s Perspective on Home Maintenance

I have been a home inspector in Illinois, mostly in the Chicagoland western suburbs, for over 15 years. That experience gives me a unique perspective on homeowners and their home maintenance habits. It doesn’t matter whether the house is in Aurora, St. Charles, Naperville, Plainfield, Oswego, or any other town, homeowners defer maintenance. It’s the norm –  those whose house is well-kept are the exception. This doesn’t mean the house is in total disarray. It just needs minor to moderate upkeep.

Why Don’t Homeowners Maintain Their Homes?

This lack of maintenance can be due to costs, not knowing what needs to be done, forgetfulness, or a variety of other reasons. I’m not being judgmental. I have found myself in this situation at times. However, routine maintenance is very important for economics, property value, and safety.

Why Should Homeowners Keep Up with Home Maintenance?

  • In general, being proactive with home maintenance is less costly than being reactive when something breaks.
  • Property values usually remain steady.
  • A well-maintained house presents itself better when it is on the market to sell.
  • A well-kept house can give you a sense of pride and accomplishment.

How Can Lack of Maintenance Impact My Home Inspection?

A home inspection includes the roof, exterior, interior, HVAC, plumbing, electric, insulation & ventilation, structure, and gas burning appliances. During an inspection, a home inspector is checking for significantly deficient systems and components. (The Illinois Home Inspection Act defines Significantly Deficient as not functioning or unsafe.) Systems and components may be functioning but still in need of servicing and maintenance.

When it comes to being unsafe, each of the areas have their own hazards. Hazards from trips and falls, shocks/electrocution, cross contamination, flooding, carbon monoxide poisoning, and fires are all safety concerns. Good home maintenance habits can prevent some of these hazards.

A Home Inspector’s Perspective

In upcoming posts, I’ll give you a home inspector’s perspective on the safety hazards for the various systems and components I inspect. Next week I’ll discuss smoke alarms, commonly called smoke detectors. By the way, alarms and detectors are not the same. You’ll find out why in my next post.

3 Minutes on Thursday with 3-D

3 Minutes on Thursday with 3-D

The purpose of a home inspection is to evaluate the function and safety of a home’s systems and components.  In most homes, a home inspector will look at 300 to 500 items.

During this Oswego home inspection, the water temperature was found to be 150 degrees Fahrenheit. This is scalding hot water that can burn a person in a matter of seconds.  The fix is simple:  turn down the water temperature on the water heaters control valve to the manufacturer’s recommendation, which typically is 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

3 Minutes on Thursday with 3-D

3 Minutes on Thursday with 3-D

8-15-19

While at a home inspection in St. Charles, I noticed water running out of the extension pipe of the water heater’s Temperature Pressure Relief (TPR) valve.  TPR valves are design to release water from the water heater if the temperature exceeds a certain temperature or if pressure in the plumbing pipes exceeds a certain level.

 

As water temperature rises, water expands.  As water expands it has to go somewhere.  The pipes are already full when the water isn’t heated so what happens to this excess water?  In older homes the water would be pushed back into the supply pipes from the city.  However, cities don’t like this as there is the chance that this pushed back water is contaminated.  For many years, cities have required back flow preventers to be installed at the water meter to stop this excess water from going back into their supply lines.

Therefore, expansion tanks are now installed, typically at the water heater, that absorb the excess water when there is a demand for hot water.  In this particular situation, it’s not that the water temperature exceeded a certain level but that the expansion tank is sagging and most likely waterlogged, making it incapable of absorbing the water.  The expansion tank needs to be either bled or replaced.  Many homeowners see that the TPR valve is leaking and figure it’s faulty when, in fact, it is doing its job. Whenever the TPR valve is leaking, its recommended a plumber be called to diagnose the problem and make the appropriate correction.

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