Articles by Keith Tripp

House Shopping 101: Brand New Home disappointments: Top Five

copped and compressedBy Keith Tripp, March 2018

When I arrive for a warranty inspection on newly constructed homes, the homeowner often has a list of issues waiting for me. (30 day or 1-year inspections). These disappointments may not even make it on to my list of defects if they are not covered by warranty. Some of these may be avoidable by working closely with the builder during the buying process.

  1. Basement height or layout: In this world of 9 and 10-foot ceilings, be prepared for a shock when you enter the basement. The minimum code height is not impressive, and basement space and head clearance can be reduced by ductwork, unexpected placement of columns and large areas of lowered floors. Don’t expect common sense to come in to play in the arrangement of ductwork or positioning of the furnace and water heater, it will be installed in the cheapest arrangement possible. If you specified an increased height of basement, and paid more for it, beware of the use of “approximate” height in your contract. Does 10 inches less than what you asked for meet the requirement of “approximate” height?

 

  1. Garage stair arrangements or lack of garage entrance door: The common story is that the builder will not commit to position of garage man-door stairs, or even location of the garage man-door because they don’t know what the final grade of the garage floor slab will be. If parking your car in the garage is one of your objectives, you need to work closely with the builder on this one or you may find your parking spot has been taken up by stairs and landing.

 

  1. Awkward arrangements of shower doors or other bathroom fixtures: Fixtures on the wrong side of the soaker tub, shower doors that collide with toilets, showers where you must get soaking wet to turn them on. No more needs to be said except that none of this will be covered by warranty unless it is contrary to original specifications.

 

  1. Basement floor slab cracks: Poor quality basement floor slabs are the new norm. It’s not true that all concrete must crack, but it is true that all poor-quality concrete work will crack. The lowly basement floor is not a structural component, so it is permitted (by warranty terms) to crack and heave or sink within limits. If cracks are beyond 4mm wide, or the overall slope towards the floor drain is significantly impacted, or there is significant displacement of the broken sections, it may be covered by warranty. It is an unlikely scenario that a homeowner can convince a builder to redo a basement floor.

 

  1. Gaps at interior window frames and casings: Most people don’t like to see gaps between components on interior finishing. Winter condensation often brings attention to the window frame areas, and wood shrinkage or warping can increase gaps around window casings and trim. If the air barrier and vapour barrier work has been correctly done within the walls, then these gaps do not represent an air leakage risk. My recommendation is to NOT add caulking at these gaps, because the caulking is more likely to encourage mould growth in the future, especially as condensation on windows is common in these new houses.

House shopping 101: Do you know what you don’t know about antique houses? Ask me!

wineva cobwebs compressedby Keith Tripp, March 2018

Placing offers to purchase and applying for financing and arranging a home inspection are time consuming and costly. Its good to know as much as possible about the house before taking those steps.

I consider anything older than 1960 to be an antique because it is around that time that significant improvements in construction started. I have come across many of these antiques as quick flips with shiny kitchen counter tops and floor tile and my clients are surprised when I tell them the house is still high risk for upcoming issues and costs. It’s not uncommon for me to identify 50 or more defects or risk factors on this type of house. Some of the biggest risk factors are below ground and not visible, so are beyond the scope of a visual home inspection

 

 

 

There are many questions to ask about antique homes. I have selected the first five below, partly because you may not be able to determine these visually on your first visit to the home, and because related costs can be high.

Top five questions to ask the selling parties for antique houses:

  • Has the main water line to the house from the street been upgraded?
  • Has the sewer line from the house to the street been replaced or upgraded?
  • Is the foundation poured concrete or concrete block or other?
  • Have any foundation drainage or dampproofing upgrades been made on the foundation?
  • Is the electrical wiring a three-wire grounded system?

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.

 

The Beauty of Sewage

sewage frost compressedby Keith Tripp, March 2018

Frost build up as seen in the photo above is the reason that vent pipes must be large diameter where they pass to the exterior. The vent pipes leading to this vertical pipe through the roof are typically smaller. The vent pipe is an essential element in the plumbing drain system. It allows air in to the drain piping system to prevent siphoning of traps and to facilitate flow.

Most houses have 2 or more vent pipes passing through the roof, but there is no requirement to have multiple pipes. In custom building, sometime plumbers will go to great lengths (pun?) to connect the vent pipes in the attic and make only one penetration through the roof with a vertical vent.

Rain water can enter through these vent pipes at the roof, and the rain may be heard dripping in the pipes from inside the house. The rain poses no risk because the vent pipes are connected to the drain system, so the water will find its way in to the drains.

Vent pipes are installed at specific locations relative to the traps of fixtures. The vent piping is connected and routed through the house up to the attic and then through the roof. Lack of connection to vent piping at modified or new plumbing installations is a common defect and is an indicator of non-professional plumbing work.

House shopping 101: Do you know what you don’t know? Ask me!

by Keith Tripp, March 2018

DSCF5940Placing offers to purchase and applying for financing and arranging a home inspection are time consuming and costly. Its good to know as much as possible about the house before taking those steps.

In our buyer-beware real estate system, asking the right questions and getting credible answers when house shopping is the key. The starting point to understanding brick and mortar related risk is to know the age of the house. That is the age of the oldest part, not the age of the shiny new kitchen floor. Construction techniques and materials were quite consistent across the GTA over the years, so there are predictable risk factors based on age alone. Combined with a look at the house on google or other online info, I can often see and write up issues from the comfort of my desk without leaving home based on age and style only. I can also generate a list of questions to ask for that house based on what I can’t see. If you ask those questions and push for credible answers, you might save yourself the cost and effort of going through the offer process, including the cumbersome task of getting your deposit money returned. For most of my inspections, I arrive at the house already knowing exactly which high risk defects to look for.

For example, if the house was built in the mid 60’s to mid 70s, does it have copper or aluminum wire, or both as shown in the cover photo? Who cares? Well the big bad insurance companies do, and they control our financial world. If buying a house with aluminum wiring, you need to know the state of that wiring and you need to know your home insurance provider’s policy on aluminum wiring. They may request a full inspection by an electrician, and/or they may charge a higher premium. In practical terms, the reason the insurance companies are worried is that if aluminum wiring is in poor condition or has been mated with incompatible fixtures, it represents a higher fire risk than copper wiring.

If you are a home buyer, 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

Sorry Sumps

by Keith Tripp, February 2018

sump with crustSump systems are rearing their ugly head in many newly constructed houses. I often find them in a dysfunctional state, like the one in the photo . The water level was above the incoming pipe, and had been stagnant for so long (probably about two years) that a layer of mineral deposit had formed on the top. At the other end of the water spectrum, the sump basins are sometimes completely dry, indicating no water ever makes it to the basin. This could indicate dry conditions, or indicate poor installation of the foundation drainage piping.

With the exception of specifying a lid that maintains the air barrier and is child-safe, sump details are absent from the Ontario Building Code, which allows the builder to install sumps however they see fit.

The popularity of stepped foundations and walkout basements complicates the foundation drainage and sump installations. If any readers have experience installing foundation drainage on stepped foundations I am interested in your approach, as again OBC does not specify how to do this correctly.

Common finding are :a) incorrect use of perforated basins where solid basins are required b) incorrect use of perforated piping where solid pipe should be used c) float controls inoperative d) float control settings incorrect e) lid not meeting air barrier requirements f) discharge too close to foundation g) discharge point not found (buried underground). h) sump basin or lid damaged or deformed i) basin full of construction debris

Is R50 ceiling insulation bringing back the mouldy attic?

frost on nailsby Keith Tripp, February 2018

In my stomping grounds of the Greater Toronto Area, mouldy attics have traditionally been connected with poor design and workmanship of houses constructed in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Houses built in the last 20 years or so were not usually high on my list of expectations for finding mould in the attic. Sometime around 2012, along came the requirement for ceiling insulation to be at R50, a 25% increase over the existing R40 requirement. Just a short while ago, prior to 2006, the requirement was only R32.

Like with “cold hands and warm heart” there is good and bad with the increased ceiling insulation. Less heat loss in to the attic means that the temperature of the roof structure and roof deck (plywood,OSB) will be lower. Warm house and cold roof means increased risk of condensation on that roof deck if any errant water vapour finds its way in to the attic. And this seems to be happening. With the cold snap this winter I came across a number of frosty attics in new construction. I’m not seeing mould yet, but that takes time. When the frost melts, it turns to water which soaks in to the roof and drips drips down in to the insulation. It may take years of wetting cycles and temperature swings for mould to flourish. However, like with any bad accident, it usually takes more than one thing to go wrong, and I am seeing the return of many of the factors that combine to create a good blue-cheese attic condition.

 

 

 

 

frost with exhaust pipeOne problem is workmanship, both good and bad. On the good side, builders are sometimes coming close to installing the depth of insulation required to achieve R50. This could be about 14-19 inches depth depending on type of insulation material. The problem is retaining this much insulation at the perimeter, and achieving this depth at the perimeter where the distance between top of the outside wall and roof deck is less. Often the installer will use batt material at the perimeter and this does double duty as a retainer and insulation. With or without batt material, the result is that much of the soffit venting is compromised by insulation tucked tightly against the roof deck. Typically a few wood baffles will be installed, but these take time and effort so they are few and far between. In the photo, insulation is in contact with the roof deck at the left, and a wood baffle can be seen at the right, and oh yes, there is warm air leaking from that bathroom exhaust fan hose.

 

In addition to the compromised soffit venting cause by the insulation material, the following potential contributors to attic condensation are also “trending” in new construction:

  • Restricted roof heights resulting in lower slope roofs and flat roofs and attic spaces with less head clearance. These lower and flatter roof styles impact attic ventilation.
  • Narrow soffits and reduced soffit ventilation because of gable roof designs or other roof design features such as parapets.
  • Tight houses with old-style crude heating control systems (only one thermostat) and the potential for RH and temperature to climb above desirable levels. This means any leakage to the attic that does occur is carrying even more moisture with it.

Don’t panic yet. Check back with me in a few years and I’ll let you know if the beautiful white frost I am seeing now changes to the dreaded dark green of a mouldy attic.

Bad Air BNB guests: Raccoons

DSCF0475If there has been raccoon activity in an attic, there are two parts to the remediation. Firstly the animals should be removed by professional wildlife control people, and entrance holes should be covered.

Part two is to check for contamination and damage within the attic. Raccoons will set up bathrooms, often directly on top of the attic hatch as shown in the photo.  Raccoon feces can be dangerous stuff, so caution is required for anyone entering the attic.

Raccoons are strong animals that can tear through vapour barrier and cladding materials inside the attic. If bathrooms have been established on drywall where there is no polyethylene vapour barrier, that drywall may have to be replaced. Raccoons have a preference for sheltered locations for their bathrooms, such as lowered ceilings above bathroom showers and baths, and the attic hatch.

Their travels through the attic will compress and displace insulation, so insulation will have to be redone. Often the entire attic area has compressed insulation.

Raccoon activity in a lowered ceiling over a bath area.

Raccoon activity in a lowered ceiling over a bath area.

Raccoon bathroom in an attic.

Raccoon bathroom in an attic.

 

 

Prince George Pressure Cooker: Breaking basic TPR valve rules.

by Keith Tripp, November 2017.

Termination of TPR valve is not visible.

Termination of TPR discharge pipe is not visible.

The universal rule of temperature and pressure relief valves is that the output from that valve must not be restricted in any way, including installation of smaller diameter fittings or pipe. The discharge end of any pipe attached to the valve should not be concealed and ideally will be about six inches above ground. This provides a reasonably safe location for discharge, but also gives the opportunity to see if there is any slow leakage occurring from the valve. Valves are BTU/HR rated and this rating is partly based on the discharge diameter of the valve

The requirements at this rental property in Prince George, BC are no different than here in toasty Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Two strikes against this installation are the reduction in diameter by installing a reducing fitting, and that the termination of the tube is not visible, it is hidden in the floor drain. If you prefer three strikes, try and ID the water shut-off valve. Is it that yellow handle on the wall, maybe? FYI that extra device on the cold supply to the heater is a pressure actuated primer, feeding the floor drain.

 

Fitting and pipe installed at the TPR valve reduce the diameter.

Fitting and pipe installed at the TPR valve reduce the diameter.

 

In the unlikely event that the valve needs to discharge, restriction of flow may hamper the valve’s ability to do its job and relieve an over pressure situation. Water heaters can blow up and knock out walls and ceilings, and kill people. It’s never a good idea to kill the tenants so don’t mess with the temperature & pressure relief.

The Oakville Trifecta (new construction issues).

by Keith Tripp November, 2017

Fishing for defects can be hard work, especially on “warranty” ( 30 day or 1 year)  inspections of new homes where recent 2012 code changes have increased attention to detail and overall quality of the home building. I sometimes struggle to find more than 20 defects on these new homes.

So, I really appreciate when builders make my life easier by handing me the same three defects as I go house to house . I can find these defects quickly and leave the issue in my report template and save time on report writing.

Here are three recent winners that I can bet on finding, courtesy of  the “Preserve” area of Oakville, (North-East corner of Dundas and Neyagawa), Ontario, Canada.

FIRST PLACE: Recirculation loop connects to cold water infeed at water heater.

FIRST PLACE: Recirculation loop connects to cold water infeed at water heater without a check valve.

SECOND PLACE: A perforated basin will not hold water.

SECOND PLACE: A perforated basin will not hold water.

THIRD PLACE: DWHR connected only to cold infeed at mixing valve.

THIRD PLACE: DWHR connected only to cold infeed at mixing valve.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Place:  No check valve after hot water recirculation pump. Without the check valve, the recirculation pump will drive hot water in to the cold lines, eventually turning all the house water to hot. Interesting that the builders are leaving the pumps turned off, and not even telling the buyers that they have recirculation systems.

Second Place:  Perforated sump basins used for foundation drainage. This is a classic case of using the wrong tool for the job. In a foundation drainage application, where the purpose of the sump is to act as a reservoir for water from the foundation drainage pipe (weeping tile), and to safely store it close to the footing until it can be pumped away, a solid sump basin is required.  In the photo I am running water in to the perforated basin to test it. Surprise, surprise the water just kept escaping through the holes. Perforated basins are for collecting water from wet areas, not for storing water in dry areas.

Third Place: Drain Waste Heat Recovery output connected directly to the cold side of the thermostatic mixing valve. This contravenes manufacturers installation instructions and will greatly reduce any savings from the DWHR. Full output water flow (to approximate the drain flow volume) is required to realize the design savings, so that means connecting the output to the cold-water lines. Flow at the mixing valve is much less than full flow, and could even be zero depending on temperature of water in the water heater.

I find the DWHR issue and perforated sump basins in other jurisdictions also. If you want to check for any of these issues in your new house, feel free to contact me.

Attic Mould: Watch the buyers run!

By Keith Tripp, November, 2017.

comp1 articleHigh prices and  bidding wars can trivialize the cost of common and predictable repairs such as roof replacements, window replacements, HVAC replacements,  and grading. There are however, some issues that will send buyers running even at the best of times, and attic mould is a #1 “runner”.

Attic mould can be fixed for a price, but many buyers do not want to go through the ordeal of identifying the cause and getting the remedial work done, and they  don’t want to live in a house that may be harmful to their health.

I’ve always done full attic inspections, so I’ve been in hundreds of mouldy attics, and I’ve been in hundreds of squeaky-clean old attics that look as good as the day they were built. I challenge myself at inspections by guessing if the attic is mouldy even before I go in. I know the contributors and I know the smell. Sometimes I can smell the mould when I’m on my ladder at the edge of the roof. Who needs a mould dog?

What is mould and how much is a problem?   There are many types of mould and fungus and it requires an expert and laboratory work to identify them and assess the risk by type. This is not something that a home inspector does.

Mould is everywhere, so when I refer to mould in an attic what I mean is:  Visible deposits of mould in locations consistent with warm air leakage from the house condensing on the cold roof deck. Chronic attic mould is typically dark green to black in colour. I will often see small amounts of mould on the rafters, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

The old school of thought for home inspectors is that we are not supposed to use the word mould, and should pretend we can’t identify mould. They used to teach us to say: “black mould-like substance”. The problem with that school of thought is that I’ve known what mould was since I was about 8 years old. The expectation as per CMHC writings is that a homeowner should be able to identify mould. So much for the old crotchety home inspector school of thought. Good riddance to that!

comp3 articlecomp2 articleFor report writing purposes, if it’s green or black and fuzzy looking I call it mould. If it’s white or brown and stringy or mushroom-like I call it fungus. I never use the term mildew.  Any level of detailed identification beyond that I leave up to the experts.

Health hazard and other risks?  The purpose of the roof is to protect the house, and not to act as a garden for mould growth, so any visible concentrated mould growth DOES represent a defect that should be reported. It can not be classed as part of the charm of the neighbourhood or the “norm” for a certain age of house.  In theory, the attic is a separate air space from the house. In the perfect attic, there will be no mould problems. Once mould is found in an attic, it is an indicator that there is air movement between the heated areas of the house and the attic.

If air can get in to the attic from the house, which is the typical cold weather and heating season scenario, then air can also move in the other direction in different weather conditions. Mould odours and perhaps contaminated air can move in to the house from the attic, and yes, this MAY pose a health hazard. Attic air in general is not pleasant stuff. There can be fibres  and odours from insulation, animal feces, and general dust and dirt.

Plywood and OSB  are common roof sheathing materials. Both are hardy material, but the mould and fungus growth MAY eventually cause deterioration. With heavy growth, moisture and mould will spread to the rafters, and this wood can also be damaged. Wood deterioration occurs slowly and is not usually the main concern with attic mould.

comp4 articleAttic mould growth is caused by Old Man Winter. Canada is classed as a cold climate in building science terms. Even here in toasty Toronto, that means our primary concern is keeping our homes warm, without trapping moisture in places where it can do harm. I can find mouldy attics at any time of year, but that mould is only flourishing when it has moisture to feed on, which is generated in cold weather. Cold is a relative term. “Cold” means the interior roof surface is colder then the dew point of the air coming in to contact with it.

In cold weather, warm air condenses on cold roof sheathing. The sheathing is supposed to be cold. The whole attic space above the insulated ceiling is supposed to approximate the outdoor temperature both winter and summer.  The warm air is not supposed to be floating up to the cold roof sheathing. The bad guy in the attic condensation situation is the warm air leakage in to the attic. Because the air is warm, it can hold moisture. Ongoing moisture accumulation can result in mould and fungus growth.

The challenge with resolving attic mould is identifying the sources of air leakage. One big culprit is leakage through the exterior walls, sometimes originating from the basement. Pot light installations, bathroom fan installations, leakage around attic hatches, leakage through interior walls, and defects in original construction can all allow excessive air leakage in to the attic space.

 

comp5 articleContact of warm air with the roof deck is exacerbated by low slope roof designs and poor attic ventilation. Excessive insulation can decrease roof deck temperature, increasing the risk of condensation. Attic mould is mostly found in houses from the late 50s, through the 60s and seventies and in to the 80s. But there are many variables at play, and many exceptions. Most of the worst cases of attic mould I have found are houses built in the 1960s.

Cold weather is a great time to stick your head up in to the attic space and see winter wonders at work. Get a safe ladder, don a dust mask, check your compass, and remove the attic hatch. Stay on the ladder and look around. Don’t go in to the attic unless you know what you’re doing. Mould growth is most likely to be on the North and East slopes, because they get the least amount of sun. It is most likely to be at the lower part of the roof, because of air leakage upwards through the exterior walls. You may see condensation or frost glistening on the surface.