As energy efficiency has become an increasing concern among builders and homeowners, the performance of building materials and components are being scrutinized more closely. In order to maximize levels of efficiency by examining the details of how each individual component of a house performs on its own and as part of a dynamic system, very specific properties are measured and taken into account. This can be especially helpful when trying to select the best building materials for a given application. R-value is the measurement used when quantifying a specific material’s level of thermal resistance. R-value is often the standard consideration when discussing the effectiveness of insulation.
How Does R-Value Relate to Insulation?
Heating and cooling costs account for 50% to 70% of energy used in an average U.S. home. Inadequate insulation can account for a lot of wasted energy, so it is important to be sure that insulation is doing its job properly. The function of insulation is to provide resistance to the flow of heat, and R-value is the measure of exactly this attribute for a given material. A higher R-value equates to higher resistance to heat flow and greater effectiveness in insulating. An insulation material’s R-value, in conjunction with how and where it is installed, will determine its overall thermal resistance and effectiveness. Adding the R-values of each layer of material contained in one building component, such as a wall or ceiling with multiple layers of insulation, will help determine the thermal resistance of the whole component. The way the insulation is installed, as well as other factors, will also affect its thermal resistance.
Important Factors to Consider When Measuring Thermal Resistance
When considering R-value as a means to determine the thermal resistance of a building component, there are other factors that must also be taken into account. While R-values are an excellent guide for comparing the attributes of different insulation products, they apply only when the insulation is properly installed. For example, if two layers of insulation are smashed into the thickness intended for one layer, the R-value does not double. Likewise, if a single layer of insulation is compressed during installation, it will not be as effective. Stuffing batt insulation sized for 5 inches into a 4-inch wall cavity will actually lower its R-value. Ensuring that insulation is correctly installed will help allow the product’s full benefits to be realized.
Also important to consider is the fact that even when installed correctly, insulation affects heat transfer through the insulation itself but not through other materials, such as glass windows and studs. If there are structural gaps in any building penetrations, even insulation with a high R-value that's installed properly cannot mitigate heat loss from air leaks. Studs and windows provide a parallel heat conduction path, and insulation between studs in a wall does not restrict heat flow through the studs. This heat flow is called thermal bridging, and the overall R-value of the wall will be different from the R-value of the insulation itself.
The FTC and DOE on R-Value
In the 1970s, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) created a rule requiring insulation manufacturers to disclose R-values at the point of sale and in some ads. This was intended to protect purchasers from false claims made by manufacturers and to create a standard of comparison for products.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has issued recommendations for insulation R-values in new and existing homes. The recommendations are based on a comparison of the cost for installing insulation versus potential future energy savings. Their recommendations for attics, cathedral ceilings, walls and floors are generally greater than what is actually required by most current building codes.
R-value ratings are a useful tool, especially when comparing the effectiveness of insulation products, but understanding a bit about how other factors affect a building component’s thermal resistance is important if insulation is to be used to its full benefit.
The 2018 IRC (International Residential Code) states that Climate Zone 5 (Chicago) attics should be insulated to R-49 which is over 15" of fiberglass batt insulation. Keep in mind you ALWAYS need to make sure the attic access hatch/door is insulated as well. If your attic is insulated to R-49 but you have no insulation over the attic hatch, it will reduce your overall R-value effectiveness to R-11!
A home's central air-conditioning system must be periodically inspected and maintained in order to function properly. While an annual inspection performed by a trained professional is recommended, homeowners can do a lot of the work themselves by following the tips offered in this guide.
Clean the Exterior Condensing Unit and Components
The exterior condenser unit is the large box located on the side of the building that is designed to push heat from the inside of the building to the outdoors. Inside of the box are coils of pipe that are surrounded by thousands of thin metal "fins" that allow the coils more surface area to exchange heat. Follow these tips when cleaning the exterior condenser unit and its inner components -- after turning off power to the unit!
According to modern standards, air-conditioning condensing units and heat pump units should have a readily accessible electrical disconnect within sight of the unit. The disconnect is allowed to be installed on or within the unit, but it should not be located on panels designed to allow access to the unit.
Make sure the condensing unit outside is sitting level.
Clean the Air Filter
Air filters remove pollen, dust and other particles that would otherwise circulate indoors. Most filters are typically rectangular in shape and about 20 inches by 16 inches, and about 1 inch thick. They slide into the main ductwork near the inside fan unit. The filter should be periodically washed or replaced, depending on the manufacturer’s instructions. A dirty air filter will not only degrade indoor air quality, but it will also strain the motor to work harder to move air through it, increasing energy costs and reducing energy efficiency. The filter should be replaced monthly during heavy use during the cooling seasons. You may need to change the filter more often if the air conditioner is in constant use, if building occupants have respiratory problems,if you have pets with fur, or if dusty conditions are present.
Cover the Exterior Unit
When the cooling season is over, you should cover the exterior condenser unit in preparation for winter. If it isn’t being used, why expose it to the elements? This measure will prevent ice, leaves and dirt from entering the unit, which can harm components and require additional maintenance in the spring.
In addition, homeowners should practice the following strategies in order to keep their central air conditioning systems running properly:
Homeowners should perform periodic inspections and maintenance to their home's central air conditioning system. It will keep it running properly and will certainly add to the lifespan of the unit.
Engineered wood flooring is an alternative to solid hardwood flooring made entirely out of real wood. It's currently the most popular type of flooring in the world. North America is the only area left where traditional, solid wood floors still outnumber engineered floors, but engineered wood flooring is quickly catching up, with its popularity for new builds, as well as remodels, increasing steadily every year for the past few decades. Homeowners may be interested in how this product is manufactured and installed, and what its advantages are compared to older, more traditional forms of flooring.
The beginnings of mass-produced wood flooring can be dated as far back as 1903 when it was referred to as “wood carpeting” in a mail order catalog. This flooring consisted of 1½ x 5/16-inch wooden strips that were glued to heavy canvas that was then installed by tacking it down with small nails. The wood was then sanded and finished. The varnishes used were not too durable, so the floors were hot-waxed and buffed to a shine with a floor brush.
Early examples of the “wood carpet” eventually evolved into what is today known as laminate flooring, which consists of melamine-infused paper as its upper layer, and wood-chip composite beneath. Laminate flooring typically features a printed or embossed top layer meant to approximate the look of real hardwood.
The current style of engineered wood flooring has been available since the 1960s, and has steadily increased in quality, leading to improved advantages over traditional hardwood flooring.
Engineered wood flooring is most commonly made with a plywood-core substrate and a real hardwood veneer or skin, which comes pre-finished from the factory. The top veneer, which looks just like the top of a traditional solid wood plank, is called the lamella.
Some engineered flooring utilizes a finger-core construction, with a substrate comprised of small pieces of milled timber running perpendicular to the lamella. This can be made with an additional layer of plywood running parallel to the lamella, which gives it added stability. Fiberboard-core flooring is also available, but it's generally considered to be an inferior option.
Engineered wood flooring is meant to be indistinguishable from traditional hardwood floor once it's installed, and only the lamella is visible. The lamella veneers available are made from nearly every type of common wood, as well as many more exotic ones, in order to provide the same variety of aesthetics typical of quality hardwood floors. The substrate that the veneer is attached to is just as strong and durable as hardwood -- if not stronger -- and the finish applied at the factory often outlasts one applied on-site to solid wood flooring. Even surface effects are available that can be applied to the finish to give the flooring a time-worn look, such as light distressing.
Engineered flooring starts around $3 per square foot on the low end, and over $14 per square foot on the high end.
To judge quality, check the thickness of the lamella, the number of layers in the substrate, and the number of finish coats. Typically, the more layers, the better. Listed below are descriptions of the advantages of adding layers to the construction in the common classes of engineered boards:
The cost of engineered flooring can be around 20% more than that of traditional flooring, but the difference can be offset or recouped by saving on installation, staining and sealing.
Installation of engineered wood flooring is generally quite simple compared to the installation of traditional hardwood, and can often be accomplished by a homeowner without the help of a professional flooring contractor. If the services of a professional are enlisted, the job can be done more quickly and cost-effectively than if solid hardwood were to be installed. Engineered flooring can be fastened in place with screws or nails, glued down, or left to "float," relying on its mass to hold it in place. Listed below are several installation methods:
Advantages of Engineered Flooring
While solid hardwood is a great traditional building material that provides aesthetically pleasing and structurally sound flooring, it does have its limitations. For example, it cannot be installed directly on concrete or below grade, such as in basements. It is generally limited in plank width and is more prone to gapping, which is excessive space between planks, and cupping, which is a concave or "dished" appearance of the plank, with the height of the plank along its longer edges being higher than the center with increased plank size. Solid hardwood also cannot be used where radiant-floor heating is in place.
Engineered wood flooring, on the other hand, can actually provide some distinct advantages over traditional hardwood in many instances and applications. Some of these include:
Engineered wood flooring is increasingly becoming the first choice for floor installations, and its advantages, in many circumstances, can be exceptional.
Garage doors are large, spring-supported doors. Garage door openers control the opening and closing of garage doors, either through a wall-mounted switch, a radio transmitter, or both. Due to the strain that garage door components and openers regularly endure, they may become defective over time and need to be fixed or replaced. Defective components may create safety hazards as well as functional deficiencies to the garage door assembly.
Dangers of a Garage Door
The following facts demonstrate the dangers posed by garage doors:
Garage Door Components
The following components should be present during inspections and devoid of defects:
7. Photoelectric Sensors or a Door Edge Sensor. Garage doors manufactured in the U.S. after 1992 must be equipped with either of these sensors.
Photoelectric eye attached to the garage door rail. There is one on each side that detects when something passes through the opening while the door is going down.
Safety Advise for Homeowners
Garage doors and their openers can be hazardous if certain components are missing or defective. Homeowners should understand and learn about these dangers, and should contact a licensed garage door technician if any safety defects are discovered.
Every house has defects. Whether its new construction or a 95 year old home, no house is perfect. A home inspection is a non-invasive, visual examination of the accessible areas of a residential property that generally takes around 3-4 hours, so there is absolutely no way any inspector will guarantee that they will find every defect. The goal is to find the defects that are unsafe, or will cost a lot of money to repair. Below are some photos of the most common defects that I find during a home inspection.
Shrinkage cracks in the foundation- Shrinkage cracks are common with poured concrete foundation walls and floors. These cracks usually show up within the first year or two. While they don't usually pose a risk to the structural integrity of the foundation, water may leak through the cracks which can be a problem. These cracks can be filled with an epoxy injection by a certified contractor relatively inexpensively.
Two layers of shingles- I see this often but two layers of shingles is NOT a defect. However, this is the maximum number of layers allowed. After the second layer needs replaced, all the shingles need to be ripped off and re-shingled. The extra layers of shingles add more weight to the roof decking, the flashings may not be performing correctly, and some shingles may not be secured properly due to the extra layer the nails have to penetrate. I note this in my reports so my clients know when the time comes for a new roof covering.
Frozen hose bib pipes- I'll admit I don't see this one too often but it is a problem in the Spring time. People that don't unscrew the hoses from the outdoor spigots run the risk of this happening. The water in the hose will freeze and back up into the piping going into the house which can burst. Now this photo above is a picture of a frost-free hose bib so this cracked pipe won't actually leak until you turn the spigot on to water your flowers in the Spring. This is a great way to ruin a finished basement! Easy fix for a plumber by the way.
Bathroom exhaust vents that don't vent directly to the exterior- This is one of the most common defects during a home inspection. Your bathroom exhaust fans are exhausting a lot of moisture from showers and must vent ALL the way outside. Not almost like we see here. All that moisture in the air is just getting blown into the attic which can cause mold growth and condensation problems. We need to see all exhaust vents terminating at the exterior of the home.
Here is another picture of a laundry exhaust vent that would vent directly to the exterior if the laundry exhaust piping was attached! All that lint, exhaust, and moisture from a gas dryer was just being dumped into the crawlspace! This needs to be corrected ASAP.
Shingle lifting and loss of granules- Shingle lifting usually occurs when the adhesive seal on the underside of the shingles is failing. This can be a warranty claim if the shingles are newer, however, most of the time it's due to the age of the shingles being past their prime. These shingles can most certainly blow completely off in a storm with high winds. The loss of the granules (the little hard pieces that are attached on the surface of the shingle) is also usually a sign of the end of the useful life of the shingle. Being exposed to the elements year after year will eventually allow these to come off and collect in gutters and downspouts. High foot traffic as well as tree limbs and branches that rub on the roof or that are in constant contact will also cause granule loss. This is why we recommend tree limbs to be trimmed back away from the houses and off of the roofs.
While we're on the subject of roofs, another common thing we see is somebody patching ripped or torn shingles with roofing tar. DIY tar, silicone, caulk etc are all considered temporary fixes and not the proper way to repair shingles. These need to be fixed by a licensed roofing contractor to prevent any leaks that may develop. The other thing we see up on roofs is clogged gutters and downspouts. Trees that overhang roofs are a huge culprit and you need to have those gutters cleaned out regularly! The water cannot run out the way it was designed to do so it sits in the gutters and keeps the shingles wet as well as puts a strain on the gutter system with the extra weight. You can see the amount of moisture on that roof in the photo on the right.
Siding to grade clearance- We look for a 8" clearance between the siding and the grade. This may have had some clearance when it was built and has settled, or it may have never had any clearance. The moisture from the mulch and dirt will "wick" up into the siding and wall and will keep the siding wet causing corrosion to the siding and it can rot the wood behind the siding. It's not a deal breaker but it can definitely be a problem.
Negative grading- This is where the ground is sloped towards the home as opposed to away from it. Positive grading is what we are looking for. We want all water to flow away from the home to prevent it from seeping back into basements and foundations. You can see where this sidewalk/patio has settled and its allowing water to flow back towards the home. Shockingly, I didn't find any moisture intrusion in the basement during this inspection but I would bet that with enough rain, they will get some water in the basement.
Missing handrails- This is another very popular defect found in a home inspection. The 2018 IRC building code states that a handrail is needed when you have four or more risers (steps). When this home was built, it was built to code. However, codes change for safety reasons so its a good idea to add a handrail for safety. This is a cheap fix.
Double taps- A double tap is where two wires are installed into a breaker that is designed to accept one wire. There are a few breakers that are listed to handle two wires, however most are not. A new breaker should've been added to accommodate another circuit. This is considered a defect because two wires compressed under one screw may not be secured properly and can cause arcing and generate heat that can lead to a fire if the connection becomes loose. This is an easy fix but needs to be handled by a licensed electrician.
DIY jobs- I run into a lot of things that have been done by the homeowner that aren't done properly. This photo above is of garage lighting that was installed by the homeowner. This wiring needs to be inside a metal conduit and secured to the ceiling to protect the wires. These plug in wire light fixtures are a no-no. This is also an easy fix but should be handled by an electrician.
I hope you learned a little bit about some of the more common defects that I run into on a majority of homes. Most of these defects are due to either the home not being updated to newer, better building practices, or poor craftsmanship. People who are trying to save a buck or two will end up with some of these problems. If you take the time to learn about different aspects of your home, you will understand how to effectively maintain your home as well. Simply walking around the house a few times a year and keeping notes on what needs attention is a good idea. Saving money today might mean spending lots of money tomorrow! It's also a good idea to get three estimates when you are looking to have work done so you can hear a few different ideas about the repairs, and make sure you are paying the right person for the job.
I would venture to say that most people nowadays have heard of GFCI's, but how many of you know what an AFCI is?. A large majority of our homes now have these outlets (or breakers). But do you know how they work? Do you know where these outlets are required to be? Check your house after reading this article and I bet you have a few to install!
What is a GFCI?
A ground-fault circuit interrupter, or GFCI, is a device used in electrical wiring to disconnect a circuit when unbalanced current is detected between an energized conductor and a neutral return conductor. Electricity follows the least resistant path to ground.
How does it work?
Let's use a lamp as an example. In layman's terms, so we can all understand, electricity comes out of one "slot" of the outlet, through the cord, and into the light bulb socket. The light illuminates and the electricity keeps flowing back down the cord and into the other "slot" of the outlet to a grounded busbar in your electrical panel. Now lets say the lamp was wired up wrong or the socket was cracked and you touch it. Instead of the electricity following the cord back to the outlet (to ground), it can enter your body (because you are grounded) and you can be shocked. A GFCI outlet will detect that the amount of current (amps) it sent out to the light is not the same as the amount coming back to the outlet (because it entered your body instead of travelling back to the outlet) and it will "trip" or shut off the power in less than 1/10th of a second to save your life. If there wasn't a GFCI outlet, the current will keep flowing possibly allowing your body to remain energized, which can result in severe injury or even death.
GFCIs are designed to provide protection in such a situation, unlike standard circuit breakers, which guard against overloads and short circuits.
It is estimated that about 300 deaths by electrocution occur every year, so the use of GFCIs has been adopted in new construction, and recommended as an upgrade in older homes, in order to reduce the possibility of injury or fatality from electric shock.
What outlets require GFCI protection?
According to the 2018 IRC (International Residential Code)
What is an AFCI?
Arc-fault circuit interrupters, (AFCIs) are special types of electrical receptacles (outlets) and circuit breakers designed to detect and respond quickly to potentially dangerous electrical arcs in home branch wiring.
How do they work?
AFCI's work by monitoring the electrical waveform and rapidly opening (interrupting) the circuit they serve if they detect changes in the wave pattern that are characteristic of a dangerous arc. They also must be able to distinguish safe, normal arcs, such as those created when a switch is turned on or a plug is pulled from a receptacle, from arcs that can cause fires. An AFCI can detect, recognize, and respond to very small changes in wave pattern.
What is an arc?
When an electric current crosses an air gap from an energized component to a grounded component, it produces a spark known as an arc. For example, a bolt of lightening is a very large, powerful arc that crosses an atmospheric gap from an electrically charged cloud to the ground or another cloud. Just as lightning can cause fires, arcs produced by wiring in our homes are capable of producing high levels of heat that can ignite their surroundings and lead to fires.
According to statistics from the National Fire Protection Agency for the year 2005, electrical fires damaged approximately 20,900 homes, killed 500 people, and cost $862 million in property damage. Although short-circuits and overloads account for many of these fires, arcs are responsible for the majority and are undetectable by traditional (non-AFCI) circuit breakers.
Where are arcs likely to happen?
Arcs can form where wires are improperly installed or when insulation (the coating around the wires) becomes damaged. In older homes, wire insulation tends to become brittle and prone to cracking and chipping. Damaged insulation exposes the current-carrying bare wire increasing the chances that an arc may occur.
Situations in which arcs may be created:
Where are AFCI's required?
According to the 2018 IRC code, all 120 volt, 15 and 20 amp outlets should be protected by AFCI's in the following areas:
AFCI's vs. GFCI's
So now we all should know the difference between GFCI's and AFCI's. GFCIs detect ground faults, which occur when current leaks from a hot (ungrounded) conductor to a grounded object as a result of a short-circuit. This situation can be hazardous when a person unintentionally becomes the current’s path to the ground. GFCIs function by constantly monitoring the current flow between hot and neutral (grounding) conductors, and activate when they sense a difference of 5 milliamps or more. Thus, GFCIs are intended to prevent personal injury due to electric shock, while AFCIs prevent personal injury and property damage due to structure fires.
So there you have it. You have your work cut out for you. Protecting your family and your home is the number one priority we all should have. Both of these items will significantly reduce your risk of severe injury, death, and the loss of your home due to a fire.