Articles by Keith Tripp

Reduce rip-off risk: Do a really good home inspection on your existing home.

Home inspections are not just for buyers or sellers. Having a professional inspection of your existing home can reap benefits for years to come.

I recently did an inspection where the sellers were providing an inspection report from 4 years ago. This report was one of those useless checklist types in a small binder. It contained many pictures of theoretical conditions that did not apply to the house in question. I flipped through it, and struggled to find any issues identified with the house. I thought that type of report had disappeared long ago, but I guess they are still out there. This is the type of inspection and report that has given the industry a bad reputation over the years, and contributed to the call for licensing of the profession. It was a reminder that the report I have developed over the last 13 years is probably one of the best available in the home inspection market. As an aside, if you are a home buyer, keep in mind a 4 year-old home inspection is too old to be relied upon. A lot can happen in 4 years. At this house, a foundation crack had opened up considerably since a parging coat had been applied. That parging was fresh when the last inspection was done, and the foundation cracks would have been concealed.

The ProVantage report is written in an Issue-Action-Risk format. What I saw- the recommendations-risks of inaction. It is written in full sentences that make sense, not cryptic jargon. Each issue (defect) is assigned a priority of 1,2 or 3, with 1 being the highest. The report comes in two parts. Firstly, the full electronic report with defect photos, issues and description of the house. Secondly a word document list of issues in table format. The table can be sorted or cut and pasted as required. This table becomes the to-do list.

Consider a home inspection on the home you already own, for the following benefits:

1)     Separate the important issues: Often homeowners are stressed about issues that may not be that important

2)     Reduce risk of contractor rip-off. Knowing priorities and risks means you can make smarter purchasing decisions.

3)     Develop a to-do list and rough budget for the upcoming years.

House Shopping 101: “Don’t worry, the City inspected it!” #7: HRV intake terminal incorrect

This is the seventh in a series on construction defects found in the Greater Toronto Area, Ontario, Canada. The header photo shows an HRV. This HRV is red and flashy and has a continuously variable transmission all wheel drive. I don’t know how Honda picked the HRV name, but HRV in the residential building world stands for heat recovery ventilator. The HRVs I want to talk about are quite boring and are tucked away in the basement where most homeowners can ignore them.

 

hrv2An HRV is a system that ventilates the house with fresh air and recovers heat from outgoing air. There is also a similar system called an ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilator) that recovers heat from the air and heat from moisture in the air.  Photo at left shows a typical HRV installation. In this photo the front cover of the box is open. Note the two insulated hoses at the left. Those are the two hoses that connect to the exterior.

Most new high-rise condominium units are now equipped with ERVS, often integrated with the bathroom exhaust system. Some houses built in the 90s and 2000s may have an HRV installed, but until now, HRVs were not that common. Many houses built since 2012 have HRVs installed as part of the builder’s energy compliance package options.

HRVs (and ERVs) have two connections to outside air. One is an intake and one is an exhaust. The exterior terminals are easy to find because they are quite large and close to the ground. The exception is on townhouse units where the terminals may be higher up and may be in the form of a single concentric combination intake/exhaust terminal.

A common defect I find related to HRVs is installation of the incorrect type of intake terminal at the exterior. The intake must be an “always open” type terminal with fixed louvers and a screen.

hrv3This photo shows an HRV intake terminal that is correct. It is an “always open” terminal with a screen. The paper is being drawn in against the terminal when the HRV is in operation.

 

 

 

 

hrv4This photo shows an HRV intake equipped with the incorrect terminal. The terminal is designed as an exhaust terminal. It has louvers that will open when air is blowing outwards. When this type of exhaust terminal is installed as an intake terminal for an HRV, it slams shut and no air can flow inwards. It’s never a good idea to violate the code of common sense. Unfortunately, there is no indication to the homeowner that the HRV intake is blocked. The HRV will continue to run without any sort of warning. I have found the incorrect terminal installed on a 10 year- old house. For 10 years the HRV intake had been “dead heading” and not bringing in any outside air.

It’s a common sounding from the selling parties on new or almost new homes. Especially those built without Tarion warranty. “Don’t worry, the City inspected it”. As an inspector serving the buying community, I am often amused by that statement. My income on new and nearly new home inspections relies directly on identifying the leftover issues after all the builder and municipal inspections are complete and the first owner has taken possession. These issues don’t go away on their own, and I also find “builder issues” on resale homes, even up to 50 years after original construction.

Don’t hesitate to have new or nearly-new homes inspected by a professional.

House Shopping 101: Infill “mansion” issues.

 

princess croppedby Keith Tripp, Revised 2020

Buying the infill “custom” mansion requires a bit of a different mindset than other homes. These homes are built in older, high demand urban areas, typically by smaller building and development companies. The old home is knocked down and a new one built on the lot. They are marketed as “custom”, but tend to be repeats of the same plans with minor differences in models. As with all new construction, there is some risk of incomplete or inadequate work, but a few areas stand out as being higher risk than buying from a subdivision developer. Here are the first few that come to mind:

 

 

 

 

  1. Age: For financial reasons, these homes are typically put on the market a year or more after completion of construction and have usually been sitting vacant or “lightly used” for that first year or more. The house is slightly aged but hasn’t been tested by actual occupancy. Appliance and other warranties may be expired. Because the house has been vacant or very lightly used, there is no assurance that everything is in working order. For example, it is common that not all of the bathrooms have been used on a regular basis.
  2. Warranty: For financial reasons, these homes are often built without Tarion warranty coverage, and the builder is not registered with the Ontario provincial warranty program called Tarion. Discuss this risk with your lawyer.
  3. Municipal and jurisdictional authority’s’ compliance: Permit approval is a multi-staged process. The fact that the house is for sale, or even proof of occupancy approval does mean that everything is complete and approved by the authority having jurisdiction. Due diligence is required to check completion and compliance of the building, plumbing, electrical and gas systems.
  4. Exterior claddings, especially EIFS: Details such as weep holes for brick veneer and drainage for EIFS are notoriously bad on these houses. I have yet to find one of these houses that does not have significant issues related to the exterior claddings. The use of non-draining EIFS (“stucco”) is common on these houses, and that practice has been known to be unsuitable for many years.
  5. Strange roofing slopes: High interior ceilings combined with height restrictions result in strange and unusual roof layouts. Typically, the top of the roof is flat, but the problem is that the slopes leading to the flat part of the roof are often too flat for normal shingle application. These roofs are not accessible with a 32ft. ladder. Very long ladders or lift trucks are required if any maintenance or repairs are required.
  6. Sump systems: Most of these houses have sump systems that are mandated by the local building department.  Footings may be lower than surrounding basements and often there is an exterior basement walkout drain connected to the sump.. Sump issues include: excessive water flow, incorrect use of perforated basins, illegal bypass of discharge piping to sanitary sewer, sumps in cold rooms that are subject to freezing, sump lids not meeting air barrier requirements, missing or poorly installed infeed pipes, perforated infeed pipes.
  7. Heat Recovery Ventilators not functional. HRV’s are often required as part of the Energy Compliance package to meet basic building code requirements. Issues include missing controls, missing electrical supply.
  8. Hydronic heating not labeled or commissioned: In-floor hydronic (using hot water pipes) heating, is good technology and is often installed in these homes. The issue is that the systems tend be completely unlabeled and without documentation. The hydronic heating is not typically required to meet the heating load of the house, so may not be included in the permit documents. These systems are sometimes completed after the inspection by the local Building Officials, so they are not inspected for compliance with code requirements or good practices.
  9. Roof flashings: Complicated roof designs means that the chance of incomplete metal work and flashings is higher.
  10. Unsafe decorative guarding ( rails at balconies and interior landings and stairways.) Climbable guard railings are not permitted in Ontario, however they are often found in the infill mansions in the form of decorative metal guarding. To pass municipal inspections, the guarding is covered with plexiglass during the inspection. Once the municipal inspection is complete, the plexiglass is removed, exposing the climbable elements.

If you are a home buyer in the GTA, feel free to contact me early in your house shopping process with the address and age of a house you are interested in. I can send you a few key questions to ask that may save you time and money.

Do I need a thermostatic mixing valve?

mixing b valveby Keith Tripp, 2020

A client recently contacted me with a question about mixing valves. The mixing valve installed at his house was acting up,and he wanted to know if it could just be removed or if it must be replaced. Mixing valves are part of a temperature control system for hot water. The intention is to reduce risk of scalding by keeping water that will contact humans at temps less than 49C (120F). This is especially important for children and the elderly.

Here is my response: Your question about the mixing valve has a few angles to consider. Bottom line, if you want to skip all the details below, is that I recommend installing a new thermostatic mixing valve.

 

There are 4 levels to look at . One is what year code applies to the house, the second is the details within the code, third is whether an issue would arise when selling or having a home inspection done, the fourth is the practical safety issue.

 

Starting with #4, as stated above, I recommend installing a new valve. Especially if the house is a rental property, or elderly people are using the house,  there could be liability issues by removing a valve that was originally installed for the purpose of temperature control. The valve also allows the tank temperature setting to be higher than 49C (120F). Some argue that this is necessary to reduce risk of Legionnaires disease, but that point is debatable. It does however allow for hotter than 49C water to supply a dishwasher or clothes washer if piping allows for that.

 

The code requirement: The key point is that the code ( even the current code)  does not specify a thermostatic mixing valve. However it  does specify the maximum temperature of hot water as 49C in 7.6.5.1. (See below) The thermostatic mixing valve has become the accepted method of controlling the temperature. You could argue that the water heater setting is controlling the temp, but in actual practice there are significant temperature swings in the supply temp. If you have a tankless heater with an electronic temp control, that may also meet the requirement without the mixing valve. Final decision on what code applies in each situation, and interpretation and enforcement of the code is the responsibility of the Building Official for your area.

 

What code applies? The code as is it is now with the temperature control  requirement I believe came into practice around 2004 , but not certain on that. The codes are not retroactive. Many houses do not have the mixing valve, and when water heaters are replaced in older houses, from what I see, in most cases a thermostatic mixing valve is not installed. This house originally had a mixing valve so safe to assume it was code-driven at the time of construction.

 

Will it be an issue when selling? Home inspections are based somewhat on code, but codes can only be interpreted and enforced by Building Officials. A missing mixing valve may or may not make it to a home inspection report. In my reports, I include presence or absence of the valve as part of the plumbing description, but not necessarily as an issue that requires attention.

 

See below the section of code ( current) that applies .You can find the code on line at :. https://www.ontario.ca/laws/regulation/120332

 

 

7.6.5.  Water Temperature Control

7.6.5.1.  Maximum Temperature of Hot Water

    (1)  Except as provided in Sentences (2) and 7.6.5.3.(1), the maximum temperature of hot water supplied by fittings to fixtures in a residential occupancy shall not exceed 49°C.

    (2)  Sentence (1) does not apply to hot water supplied to installed dishwashers or clothes washers.

7.6.5.2.  Showers

    (1)  Except as provided for in Sentences (2) and (3), all valves supplying fixed location shower heads, shall be individually pressure-balanced or thermostatic-mixing valves, conforming to ASME A112.18.1 / CSA B125.1, “Plumbing Supply Fittings”.

    (2)  An individually pressure-balanced or thermostatic-mixing valve shall not be required for showers if a single temperature water supply for such showers is controlled by a master thermostatic-mixing valve conforming to CSA B125.3, “Plumbing Fittings”.

Note: On January 1, 2020, Sentence 7.6.5.2.(2) of Division B of the Regulation is revoked and the following substituted: (See: O. Reg. 88/19, s. 181 (1))

    (2)  An individually pressure-balanced or thermostatic-mixing valve is not required for shower heads having a single tempered water supply that is controlled by an automatic compensating valve conforming to CSA B125.3, “Plumbing Fittings”.

    (3)  Deck-mounted, hand-held, flexible-hose spray attachments are exempt from the thermal shock requirements of Sentence (1).

Note: On January 1, 2020, Sentence 7.6.5.2.(3) of Division B of the Regulation is amended by striking out “Sentence (1)” at the end and substituting “Sentences (1) and (4)”. (See: O. Reg. 88/19, s. 181 (2))

    (4)  Pressure-balanced or thermostatic-mixing valves shall be,

(a)   designed so that the outlet temperature does not exceed 49°C, or

(b)   equipped with high-limit stops which shall be adjusted to a maximum hot water setting of 49°C.

Note: On January 1, 2020, Sentence 7.6.5.2.(4) of Division B of the Regulation is revoked and the following substituted: (See: O. Reg. 88/19, s. 181 (3))

(4)  Pressure-balanced, thermostatic-mixing or combination pressure-balanced and thermostatic-mixing type valves shall be,

(a)   capable of limiting thermal shock, and

(b)   designed so that the outlet temperature does not exceed 49°C or equipped with high-limit stops which shall be adjusted to a maximum hot water setting of 49°C.

Plumbing drain traps and venting.

One goal of the home inspection is to identify non professional work. With plumbing work, much of the drain piping is not visible once the work is completed. The trap arrangement visible under sinks is often the only visible drain plumbing. If the trap is incorrectly done, this is an indicator of non professional work, and brings in to question all of the plumbing work. For a basement bathroom non professional work is a big deal because most of the drain plumbing is embedded in the concrete and cost to rework can be very high.

After the trap, drain pipes should flow at a low slope, typically about 1:50 slope, and a vent pipe should be attached within a set distance before the pipe drops sharply. On this drain, immediately after the trap, the pipe drops sharply. This can cause the trap water to be siphoned out, allowing sewer gasses in to the house. Risk is a bit lower because this drain is for a small sink in a powder room, typically not filled to the brim and then drained. The chrome pipe is probably about 60 years old and will basically crumble in your hand if you try to work with it. Time for some ABS work to make it OK.

Vent pipes are pipes connected to the drain system that allow air to enter the pipes. The pipes are routed through the house, and on Canadian homes they typically pass through the roof. Providing this connection to atmospheric air prevents siphoning empty of the traps. The traps (loop in the pipe) hold water that provides a seal against sewer gasses. This trap seal is essential to keeping sewer gasses out of the house.

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Drain pipe slopes too sharply after the trap.

House Shopping 101: Towards Maintenance-Free

by Keith Tripp, 2020

House Shopping 101: Towards Maintenance-Free. In this hustle and bustle world, maintenance is a dirty word. Houses are certainly heading towards maintenance-free as exterior cladding materials evolve, but some materials still have relatively short life. Here’s a few things to look at to assess maintenance requirements.

 

deck Picture1#3 Freshly stained decks are almost always rotten. Here in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, watch especially for decks installed on the South or South West sides of houses, where they catch a lot of sun and deteriorate faster. Even though most decks are built with pressure treated wood, the wood will rot at cut ends, or at nail holes or other locations where water is trapped. Often this wood  looks like new on the underside, so if boards have been screwed in place, one environmentally friendly option is to remove and turn the boards over and cut the rotted ends off. Decks over 15 years old with high sun exposure are likely to have rot and /or extensive splitting and splintering of the boards.

 

 

#2: Exterior wood and paint. Exterior wood can survive many years if it is installed in a position that allows it to drain. When ends of wood are butted so they trap water, or a horizontal surface is not sloped, the wood will rot. 10-12 years seems to be about the length of time for significant rot to occur at wood that is frequently wet. The North exposure may rot faster because of slow drying, and the South exposure may rot faster because the sun will accelerate paint deterioration. Most exterior panel boards are composite materials designed for exterior use, but real wood is still used as trim. Real wood was used on window frames through the 80s and 90s.

Painting may slow the rot, but will not prevent it on poor installations. When house shopping, even for brand new houses, watch out for wood that may require painting, especially in hard to reach places like dormers. It is common for me to find wood that is freshly painted and filled with sealants or other materials, but is completely rotted underneath.  Garage doors may contain real wood, and this is subject to rot, especially at the lower door panels. Door frames on balconies are high risk, as are porch columns.

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Rotted wood at window frames. 1996 construction,  Markham.

# 1: Exterior sealants (caulking). Life expectancy of sealants varies greatly based on quality of material, installation details, and exposure to the sun. Sealants on new houses will have the shortest life because wood shrinkage is causing movement. Sealants on new construction can separate within the first couple of years. More commonly though, failures in the form of separation will be noticed around the 7 to 10 yr age on the sunny side of the house, and 10-15 years on the less sunny sides.

The photo is at a 15 year old house, South facing window. In addition to the age and the South exposure, the gap at this junction was probably too wide for sealant, even before shrinkage of the wood frame. Sealant performance is specified based on maximum joint width . Backer rods ( foam material that acts as a filler in a wide joint) can be used, but there is still a maximum joint width recommended by the material manufacturer.

Flexible sealants have been used for many years. Newer materials exist that could displace the use of the sealants, such as gaskets that expand to take up movement, but they are not in use by the tract home builders.

sealant from word 70 lowther

Nothing New about Construction Defects

by Keith Tripp Feb. 2020

Construction defects are not a new thing. On this 1978 townhouse in Mississauga, a piece of wood has been used as filler above a steel basement window frame. The wood is slowly deteriorating and allows a pathway for water into the wall and to the top of the window frame. Eventually, as the wood rots, the carpenter ants will probably get to it and finish it off. The wood is supporting the bricks in the veneer wall. The wood was installed instead of brick segments. Cutting the bricks lengthwise is tedious work, so the piece of wood made for a quick fix.  On the plus side, the piece of wood is doing quite well for 42 years of exposure.

bsmnt window copyA bassment window copy2 basement window copy3

Is my House Solid brick?

by Keith Tripp, Revised 2021

Toronto has a longstanding love affair with brick. Especially after the great fire of Toronto 1849, brick has been the building material of choice. Bricks were made right here in the City at multiple locations on the East side and even in Mississauga! “Solid brick” is the term used for double wythe brick, or two layers of masonry providing the wall structure. Older houses (pre-1940s roughly) may even be more than two layers thick. The double wythe brick can be identified by the short ends of the brick. See in the photos, every sixth row has short ends of brick showing. These are the bricks that are tying the two layers together. Looking at the wall from the inside of the garage shows the bricks tying the wythes together, and the plain block ( about 4 inch) used as the inner wythe.

There are pros and cons of solid brick construction, when comparing to the more recent and common wood frame-brick veneer construction.

Con A) Because there is no wood frame on the interior, there is basically no insulation in the walls of a solid brick house. Behind the drywall or plaster/gypsum board interior finish, there may be a vapour barrier material, but typically the interior boards are installed on thin ¾ inch nailing strips that are attached directly to the brick wall. The thick brick wall provides thermal mass, which delays heat transfer, but almost no insulation value. The air gap behind the drywall, and the air films on the surfaces provide the only insulation value.

Con B) The floor joists are embedded in the brick wall. If the first floor is at ground level and subjected to exterior water, there is risk of moisture damage to the end of the joists where they are set into the wall. This won’t be visible from the interior or exterior.

Con C) Renovations are difficult at exterior walls because there is no wood frame to route electrical or plumbing through. Penetrations through the header area, such as to pass vent pipes for HVAC equipment through, require drilling through the two layers of brick. Penetrating the walls, such as to install a kitchen exhaust opening, also requires drilling through the two layers of brick.

Pro a) It is likely that a second storey can be added on to a solid brick bungalow or split-level house. This would have to approved by a qualified structural engineer, however based on what I see occurring in my neighbourhood, the double wythe walls are capable of supporting more wood frame structure additions.

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The “back side” of a  double wythe masonry wall , visible in the garage.

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Double wythe masonry wall. Note the short ends of brick visible every sixth row.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This long brick was popular in my area here in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in the late 50’s and early 60’s. It doesn’t present as a double-wythe brick wall because there are no bricks turned in to lock the two layers together. From the outside it is difficult to determine if it is a “solid brick” or wood frame construction. I was fortunate to come across this work in progress today, where the front steps have been removed. Against the raised foundation wall, the long brick has been installed as a veneer. That’s where its falling away. Starting at floor level, a second layer of red brick is visible. So it is a brick structure house but the long brick is attached presumably with brick ties so is not adding strength. Next question is how thick is the red brick wall? OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Salt and Masonry don’t mix.

Low salt diet recommended. Not unique to Toronto, salt is still the method of choice for ice melting and keeping our roads safe in the winter. Despite environmental concerns, it is used because it works very well. Salt can cause reactions in masonry products causing them to break down. The outside of this garage wall tells a story of 60 years of salt exposure and freeze-thaw activity. Originating from inside the garage where the salt-slush mix falls off the car on to the concrete floor slab and then runs against the wall, the reaction has travelled through a double wythe masonry wall, about 8 inches thick and the erosion is visible on the outer surface. The mortar on the surface is from previous repair efforts. This is a structural wall, so one day it will fail if the salt and water exposure continues.

a salt garagec

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View from front showing level of floor slab relative to the wall

What goes bang in the middle of the night?

thompson1My first winter in Canada was spent in Thompson, Manitoba. We wore mukluks to school and played outside in the -40 weather. Quite a change from the English raincoats and shorts that we were accustomed to. At night, lying in bed we would hear loud bangs and cracks, like a gun going off. We were told it was the wood shrinking in the roof framing.

Yes that’s me in the photo. My first year of snow shovelling. Thompson, Manitoba , March 1968.

 

 

sewage frost compressedNow here in temperate Toronto, a common question from clients is why they hear ticking and banging noises in the walls. The most likely culprit is the plumbing drain pipes. Because these pipes are connected to the vent pipes that pass through the roof, they get very cold. Then, when warm water runs through the drain system, especially first thing in the morning, materials expand and give off ticking noises. The ticking sound is not the pipes leaking. If they were leaking the stains would soon show up somewhere in the house. This phenomenon can occur with ABS ( black plastic) drain piping, but will be even more likely with copper drain piping. The copper drain piping was common in construction in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s. The ABS piping came in to common use in the early 1970s and is still used today.

 

 

vent pipes older

These are vent pipes in an attic in an older house built in 1950. Copper pipes serving as vents for fixtures in the house are connected in the attic to one cast iron pipe that passes through the roof. You can see how these pipes would be really cold in the winter, as they are exposed to exterior temperatures. The vent pipes allow air in to the plumbing drain system so water can flow in the drains without siphoning the traps empty. Vent pipes may slope back towards the fixtures or in the opposite direction, as long as there are no low spots where water can collect and block the vent pipes.

 

 

 

Other common sources of noise:

  1. Animal activity. Usually scratching sounds or footstep sounds.
  2. Flap on a fan exhaust damper moving ( it takes very little wind to move these).
  3. In extreme cold weather, contraction of structural members in the attic. Loud bangs, like firecrackers going off.
  4. Loose soffit panel, or metal flashing or fascia metal or wood flapping or a shingle flapping.
  5. Tree branches striking the house.