Thursday, November 25, 2010

Energy Savings and Safety Tips for Holiday Lighting

Holiday lighting is a wonderful tradition, and these tips will help to keep you and your family safe.

Use care not to overload your circuits. Do not run too many strings together, the amount of lights on string that can safely be connected differs for each type of light. Read and follow the manufacturer's recommendations. Carefully inspect each string for frayed insulation, loose connections or
broken bulbs. Never plug in a string that has bulbs broken open, as the interior filament is a electrocution hazard. Only use lights outdoors that are approved for outdoor use.

Use timers to control your lighting to save more energy. This chart dramatically contrasts the old style bulbs with modern LED technology lighting using as little as 1.15% of the energy of the old style lighting.

Another consideration is heat. Never install old style bulbs on a real tree. Think of string of 100, 10 watt lights, that is 1000 watts light and heat. You would never put a 1000 watt heater on a tree for obvious reasons, and these strings are nearly the equivalent of doing just that.

Be careful when hanging lights. Loose wiring is more easily damaged by movement from trees and wind. Never use standard staples, as they can cut into insulation and cause a short or shock hazard. Best to use insulated clips to hang lighting.

GFCI protected outlets are recommended for all outdoor electrical use. They dramatically reduce the risk of electrical shocks and electrocutions.

Use only UL approved exterior grade power cords outside with proper ground (3 prong connector). Never run cords through doorways, windows where they could get damaged or be a trip hazard.
Keep all plugs and connectors off the ground, away from puddles and snow.

If you blow fuses or trip breakers, reduce the load on that circuit. Never change the amperage if a blown fuse, if a 15 amp fuse blows, reduce the load on that circuit and replace with the exact same type 15 amp fuse. The wiring in the home is designed to only carry the current of the fuse. That blown fuse likely prevented the wiring from overheating and possible fire.

If you see flickering lights, sparks, warm switches, plugs, or outlets, or dimming lights, there is a potential dangerous problem that could cause an electrical fire.

As always use extreme care on ladders, make sure they have a good footing and are steady. Never touch your exterior power drop! Any contact with a poorly insulated drop will kill you, an aluminum ladder is an excellent electrical conductor.

Read more about holiday lighting safety here from Washington State University Extension Energy Program and the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance.

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Thursday, July 2, 2009

Keeping it Cool, Tips to Make Your Home More Confortable - by Seattle's Home Inspection Team

With the warmer weather, we are looking to ways to keep our homes cool. Here are some tips to keep your home comfortable.
Window Coverings
When the temperatures are expected to be high, consider keeping shades closed throughout the day. It is amazing the difference in heat gain when the sun is kept off the windows. I have blinds, thermal shades and exterior sun screens that we use on the hottest days to keep the solar gain to a minimum.
I have a digital indoor and outdoor thermometer that I use to determine when the outside temperature has dropped below the inside temperature. When the temperature outside has dropped in the evening, I have a large box fan that is tightly fitted in a back bedroom window that exhausts the hot interior air outside. This causes negative air pressure in the house, and when you open other windows in the home, you will get a nice cool breeze coming in.
Fan Controller
I have built a simple thermostat to control this fan, (See a diagram and instructions here) so when the house temperature drops below 67 or so, the fan turns off automatically. Don't forget to remove the fan, close up the windows and shades in the morning to keep the air as cool as possible during the day.
Wall Air Conditioners
We have also installed ceiling fans to keep the air moving, this helps make it much more comfortable, especially in bedrooms.
In my home, I have small room air conditioners that keep an individual room cool. this is especially nice on very hot evenings when you can't cool the house with a fan because the outside air temperature it too high. If you keep the door closed these window units are a great choice.
Home Air Conditioners
If you have a central air conditioner, there are a few items you should consider to keep it running at peak efficiency.

The outside component of your unit is called the compressor. It houses the pump and the blower that cool the compressed gas that is then pumped into the home to cool the air inside. We see these units covered with landscaping debris (grass, weeds, bushes etc.) all the time.
When this happens the airflow is restricted and it has to work harder to cool your home. Always keep these units clear from obstructions, so they can easily cool the coils. Keep lawn clippings from blowing on them when trimming the grass. Sometimes dryer vents are located too close to AC units, plugging them with lint.
Read your manual on the best way to clean the unit. Some may be hosed off, ALWAYS TURN OFF THE POWER when cleaning them. Others require more complex cleaning. A dirty AC will waste a lot of energy. When in doubt have a professional clean it regularly, usually at least once a year.
Attic Fans
These will help keep he attic spaces cool. Ideally the attic is the same temperature as the outside air. In the summer, I routinely enter attics that are as high at 145 degrees! Ventilation and insulation are both critical to keep this heat away from your living space. If your attic has less then 12 inches of insulation consider having more added. This will pay for itself in heating in winter and keep you much more comfortable in summer.
When re-roofing a home, consider using light colored coverings. They will reduce the heat from the sun. We always recommend silver coating un-coated torch down roofs. It will extend their life and help cool your home.
Use automatic thermostats with timers to control your cooling system. Be sure your air filters are clean, and your ductwork is tight, well insulated and free from leaks. We see leaking ductwork every day!
We recommend that you plant trees that will drop their leaves in winter on the south and west side of homes. This way you have shade in summer and the sun can naturally heat the home in winter. Remember to keep all plants trimmed away from the building.
"To increase the efficiency of your air-conditioning unit by up to 10 percent, plant trees and shrubs to shade the outside unit; place them at least 18 inches away so they don't block the vents on the compressor. For more tips on ways to use landscaping to increase the energy efficiency of your home, see the DOE's landscaping advice." Consumer Reports
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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Water problems and solutions under your home

The most common source of water under homes is ineffective downspouts and missing splashblocks or drains.
Inspect them regularly for failing mounts, crushed downspouts, and proper drainage.
Water in crawlspaces or basements can cause major damage. Many homes have water problems and the solutions can range significantly in cost to remedy. You always should start with the simple and cheapest solutions.

Gutters and Downspouts

Gutter mounts failing and the downspout is disconnected.
Keep downspout drains clear.

Everyone should walk around their homes in the worst weather, at least a few times a year and look to see how the gutters and downspouts are working. Moss, leaves or other debris can easily clog downspouts and gutters will overflow, possibly causing damage to roofs, fascia and soffits as well as flooding areas below grade.

Keep then cleaned and maintained, make sure all downspouts are discharging away from the building. If the water puddles next to the foundation, it is likely to end up in the basement of crawlspace. Make sure mounts are tight and there are no low spots along gutter runs.

Clean them at least once a year, usually after the leaves have dropped in fall. Some homes need more frequent cleaning.


If there is a negative grade (soil sloped to the home) water may puddle next to the foundation. Where possible, always have soil graded away from the structure. Consider repairing any concrete walks or patios that may slope to the home

Be careful with landscaping edging and planter boxes, as they often will cause water to puddle. Never allow downspouts to discharge in low areas like planters, but instead carry water several feet away from the building.

French Drains

This option is very effective at capturing water and draining it away before it can work its way under the home.

This is one example of a french drain

They can be expensive, so it is advised that you check the gutters, downspouts, splashblocks/drains and grading before opting for a french drainage system

Drains and Sump Pumps

In some homes where the water table is high and drainage is poor, you have to deal with the excess water with drains or pumps. Drains are useful when there is a suitable location to hookup the pipes to. Often times you are facing a situation where there is on location low enough to have gravity do the job, and in these cases a pump is the best answer.

We recommend that you consider a backup pump in situations where its failure can cause significant damage or flooding. If there is a power failure or the pump breaks down, the backup can be very important.

One type of a back up pump is powered by the water supply to the home. These have the advantage of mechanically simple, relatively inexpensive and can do the job until you repair the primary pump or the power is restored. This type of pump does waste water, so they are not to be used as a primary pump, only a backup.

See a video on installing a water powered sump pump here.

When the power goes out, you will be glad you have one!

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Laundry Safety

We use laundry equipment everyday with out a lot of thought to the potential hazards they may pose. According the the Consumer Product Safety Commission washers and dryers are responsible for more then $230,000,000 worth of property damage a year in the US alone. Most of the common problems at the root of these statistics are easy to address.

Power Cords

We found this dryer power cord on an inspection, notice it does not have a proper strain relief connector.

All dryers should have proper strain reliefs for the power cords

As with all power cords be careful when you use the plugs, but ESPECIALLY with large 240 volt connections. The plugs are large and require a bit of effort to insert, making it necessary to wrap your hand around the plug and it is easy to accidentally touch the conductors when inserting or removing them. This same advice applies to all large sockets like electric ranges, RV plugs, large tools etc.

Metal braided hoses are much more burst resistiant then plain rubber hoses
Metal braided hoses are much more resistant to bursting.

Plugged dryer vents are a fire hazard
Plugged vents and hoses are a fire hazard.

This hot water heater is leaking combustion gasses into the home This hot water heater has exhaust rollout. Improper flue design or inadequate air supply can cause combustion gasses to vent into the home. If your heater has these stains please have it checked out.

Dryers use a lot of power, and usually do not come with their power cords installed when you buy them. When hooking up a power cord, follow the manufacturers instructions, and be sure to have the proper strain relief fitting. Since dryers vibrate and can have sharp edges to the sheet metal enclosures, cords can short out, causing a potential fire or electrocution hazard.

Washing machine hoses
These hoses are under pressure all the time and can burst causing extensive water damage to the home. Since washers will jiggle when they operate the hoses can rub against the wall behind them. We always recommend the metal braided hoses for washers since they are much more burst resistant and less likely to be damaged by the movement of the appliance. Leave at least 4 inches of space behind the washer to prevent hoses from kinking or chafing and inspect them regularly. If you see any bulges, rust or any other damage, replace them right away.

Dryer vents and lint build up

It is recommended that you check and clean the dryer venting regularly. Use flexible metal pipe, not the foil or vinyl accordion type hoses, they are more likely to catch lint and have an increased risk of fire.
Read an article on cleaning dryer vents here.

Smoke detectors are important in laundry areas, since fires associated with dryers cause more then $80 million of damage a year. Be sure that dryers are properly vented outside and not leaking inside the home, attic or crawlspace as this moisture is a conducive condition for structural pests. If there is significant lint buildup inside, your dryer vent is likely leaking.

Fresh air/back drafting
When dryers run they exhaust a lot of air outside the home. This can produce a negative air pressure condition leading to a possible back-drafting of combustion gasses from furnaces, hot water heaters etc. This problem is especially true in modern energy efficient homes or confined spaces such as a closet. All homes with combustion appliances must have carbon monoxide detectors!
Read more about back-drafting hazards here.

GFCIs can prevent 2/3rds of all serious electric shocks and electrocutionsGFCIs
When properly installed, GFCIs prevent two thirds of all serious electric shocks a year. All outlets with in 6 feet of water, (laundry, kitchens and bathrooms) in garages or outside should have GFCIs. They are cheap and easy to install and might save your life.
Read how install them here.

Explosion hazards
Both washers and dryers have electric motors and other components that can produce sparks capable of igniting flammable vapors or gasses. Laundry equipment are sometimes in garages where there may be gasoline, paint, solvents, propane etc. Always store these chemicals in their original, properly labeled air tight containers. If there is a spill, DO NOT use any electrical appliance or garage door openers until it is cleaned up and all vapors have dissipated.

Keep flamables away from all appliances, especially gasoline!

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Private Well Maintaince

Private wells provide drinking water for many people in western Washington, but most wells are not maintained properly. It is recommended that they have and annual check up for bacteria or anytime there is a change in odor, appearance or taste. Water tests may include coliform bacteria, nitrates, iron, manganese, water hardness, sulfides and others. If there is a significant change in these levels, there may be an indication of changes in the water table. The well's flow should be checked to determine output, pump checks including amperage, voltage and proper grounding. Have the pressure tank and pressure switch checked too. The company performing these checks should provide you a detailed report on all conditions, recommendations and lab results. Be sure to keep this information in a safe place to provide ongoing information to monitor for any changes.

Don't put hoses onto mixing containers for pesticides, fertilizers or other chemicals as this can allow these chemicals to be drawn into your water supply. Use care when adding mulch or other ground covers always maintain 12 inches of clearance from the ground to the well head. Be careful with mowers and other yard equipment to prevent damaging your casing or cap. Keep snow, leaves or other debris from the area around the well. All these can lead to contamination.

Other tips for well owners include keeping hazardous materials away from your well such as gasoline, paints, thinners, and pesticides. Make sure your well is not located too close to buildings or septic systems. Keep your septic properly maintained by having your tank pumped regularly and drain field checked.

Well Shocking (from the state of Maine Dept of Health)
"Frequently, bacteria can be introduced during the well drilling process, installation of the pump system, subsequent servicing of the well pump, pipe repairs, storage tank replacement, or an inadequate well cap installation allowing vermin and insects access to the well casing. Any cause or causes for contamination should be fully investigated prior to shock chlorination, since contamination will likely reoccur if the cause is not addressed." Read the entire article here.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Earthquake Preparedness and Survival

In our area, regular earthquakes are a part of life. You should be prepared as it will certainly happen again.

Utility Shut Offs -

Everyone should know where and how to turn off all utilities to your home. We will often see these shutoff locations inaccessible. Never block a gas meter shutoff valve, water shutoff or breaker panel! In an emergency you must be able to shut these off or risk fire, explosion, electrocution, serious water damage or even death.

Water -

The main shutoff for most homes is sometimes hard to find. Since these valves are rarely used they will often leak when you turn them off. For these reasons, we recommend that you locate your main shutoff at your water meter. This valve is usually under a cover near the sidewalk or at the edge of the road. Open this cover and look for the valve, you will need a tool to turn this off. There are a couple types of valves, so it is important to look at yours and make sure you have the proper tool to turn off the water. Most of then can be turned with an adjustable wrench, similar to the valve on a gas line. Others may require a special tool available at your local hardware store. If you are on a well, familiarize yourself with the equipment in your pump house so you know how to turn off the pump and water valves.

Natural Gas -

These shutoffs are located at the meter. It is best to have a wrench that is tethered to the meter, so you know it is there when you need it. If you have propane the tanks have shut off valves at the lines connecting them to the home or appliance. If you ever smell a strong odor of gas (rotten egg smell) shut off the gas immediately, turn off the electricity (this can prevent explosions or fire) and open all the doors and windows. Call 911 for the fire department and the gas company to locate and isolate the gas leak.

Electricity -

You should know how to turn off the power to your home. Usually there is a main shutoff in the breaker panel or at the power meter. Occasionally there is no single main shutoff, in this case, turn off every breaker in the panel. If your home has a fuse box there will sometimes be a shut off above or beside the box. If there is no shut off, then unscrew each fuse and lay them out in the same pattern as they were in the box. This is so
you can replace each fuse in the proper location and not mix up the amperages of the circuits. Most older homes also have 2 or more pull out fuse holders, so remove these also.

Hot Water Heaters -

When there are earthquakes, water heaters will often fall over. All water heaters should be anchored to walls. These straps should be heavy steel, not flimsy 'plumbing straps'. A standard water heater can easily weigh over 400 pounds and plumbing straps are inadequate. Most people only worry about gas powered hot water heaters, but we are concerned with all of them. An electric heater that falls over will cause a huge leaking mess not to mention the power connected is typically 20 amps 240 volts! This can easily kill anyone that comes in contact with an electrified puddle.

Structural Concerns -

Many homes suffer significant damage when they shift off their foundations or the walls that attach the home to the foundations buckle. While it is no guarantee, proper anchor bolts, shear walls, and positive post to beam connections make a home much more resistant to the movement during an earthquake.

Anchor bolts -

Most modern homes have these installed when the concrete is poured. They also can be retrofitted after construction.

Another option is to have seismic anchors attached to the sill plates and bolted into the foundation. This type of retrofit can not only strengthen the home, but may make you eligible for a reduction in homeowners earthquake insurance rates.

Pony Walls -

Also known as cripple walls are susceptible to collapse in an earthquake. The lateral movement when the earth starts moving can cause this kind of failure.

Most homes only have diagonal wood bracing, and this is often not strong enough to resist collapse. Shear walls have plywood nailed to them as in the diagram below.

Post to Beam Connections, Joist Hangers -

A positive connection where post meet beams and where beam meet each other is usually a very simple step, it is an inexpensive fix and all connections should have them. Many structures and decks are lacking joist hangers, again, a simple and cheap fix that can save your life and help your home survive an earthquake.

More Information and Videos -

See this pamphlet provided by the city of San Leandro for more expert information on earthquake retrofits

These videos by Mark Benthien-Director of Communication, Education, and Outreach, Southern California Earthquake Center have some great tips on earthquake preparedness and survival.

Also see videos on:

Surviving an Earthquake and Earthquake Kits

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Monday, March 2, 2009

Polybutylene Plumbing Problems - Lawsuit and Settlement

If you have Polybutylene plumbing in your home, time to file a claim is running out.

Polybutylene is a semi-flexible plastic plumbing installed in homes since the late '70s.

It has had a much higher then average rate of failure leading to lawsuits. Shell Oil had settled for more the $1 billion while not admitting any legal liability. This settlement may applies to more then 6 million homes with the faulty plumbing. The time line for inclusion in the settlement is running out, and you must file a claim with in 17 years of installation and before May 1st, 2009.

Read more about this settlement and qualifying for payments here.

Polybutylene plumbing was installed in homes and as the supply from the water company. It was not used for drains or vents. In homes it is usually a gray (some are silver or black) with plastic or metal inserted fittings.

These fittings are clamped with metal crimp rings over the outside the pipe, usually made of brass, copper or aluminum. It is these inserted fittings to pipe connections that most often fail.

PVC, CPVC PEX and Aquapex are other forms of plastic pipes that are not a part of this settlement, and have much higher reliability.

If a manufactured home has had it's polybutylene pipes replaced in Washington State, you may find this tag on the end of the building from the Department of Labor and Industries.

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