Ask the Inspector: Home Maintenance & Repair Questions

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The inspector answers home inspection questions


Archive: Home Inspection Questions    |    Home Maintence & Repair Questions

 

The following are a collection of home maintenance & repair related questions.

 

Dear Hans: We have a 30-foot-long concrete-block retaining wall that is leaning four inches out of plumb. Some of the bottom blocks have small cracks. Does this sound like a serious problem? -- Larry Turlow, Northfield VT

Dear Larry: A retaining wall that is leaning a full four inches should be regarded as structurally failed. However, it may take many years before the consequences become significant. Before that happens, you can have the wall reinforced. Have it evaluated by a structural engineer.




Dear Hans: I have noticed a white powder on my basement walls. My handyman said he thinks it may be mold. The basement has never gotten wet and I run a dehumidifier constantly. Do you have any idea what this is?
---Elaine S., Burlington, VT



Dear Elaine: I assume you are referring to concrete basement walls. The white powder that you see is most likely Efflorescence. Efflorescence is a common issue and found on many basement walls. When moisture passes through the wall it brings the minerals in the concrete, mainly salt, along with it. When the water evaporates a white powdery substance is left. It is not harmful but does indicate that water is pooling at the foundation wall. Installing gutters or cleaning our gutters if already installed along with making sure the ground is sloping away from your foundation will help eliminate further efflorescence.


Dear Hans: We seem to be having an issue with our fireplace; it smokes into the house, what could cause this? -- Jeremy B. Calais, VT


Dear Jeremy: As always I would recommend you call a professional Chimney Sweep, they are equipped with the proper tools to diagnose the problem. What I can do for you is offer some things to consider while you wait for the professional to get there.

Improper flue sizing: Flue sizing is determined by the size of the fireplace opening below. Masons will usually determine the flue size using a “rule of thumb” that the CSA (Cross Sectional Area) of the masonry blue be at least 1/10 the CSA of the fireplace opening. For instance, an 8 x 12 flue liner is used in a chimney venting a fireplace that has an opening measuring up to 40” wide x 24” tall. If your fireplace smokes, it may be because the flue is to small.

Flue is blocked: If you can get on the roof safely, check to make sure nothing has fallen into the flue. Over the seasons things can get into the flue such as bird nests, fallen bricks, leaves etc. This can partially block the chimney flue and interfere with the draft. It also doesn’t take much soot or creosote build up to reduce the size of the flue diameter and interfere with the draft.

Air intrusion into the flue: Each wood-burning stove and fireplace needs its own flue. If you have two appliances venting into the same flue, air can leak in through the second appliance and reduce the chimney updraft. Clean out doors in masonry chimneys should be tightly gasketed.

Resistance from below: If you have determined that the chimney is clean, check to make sure sufficient combustion air is being provided to the fire. As the chimney pulls air through a fireplace, negative air pressure can be created in the house, which will work against the chimney draft and draw smoke back down in the chimney.

Mechanical depressurization: Exhaust fans and attic ventilation fans, clothes dryers etc. can cause negative pressurization in the house that will draw exhaust back down the chimney. Tight fitting glass fireplace doors can help solve this problem.

Chimney height: Chimneys often draw a small amount of air, even when there is no fire: this is called ambient updraft. All wood fireplace chimneys must extend at least two feet above any part of the roof within ten feet. Check to ensure that this is the case with your chimney.

Down drafting or Cross drafting: Often if a chimney fails to draft properly it is cause by wind, blowing down or across the top of the chimney. If this is the case replace your rain cap with a draft inducing cap.

There are numerous other reasons, but these would be the most common. I hope this has been helpful and as I said before, always have a professional take a look at it, that’s your safest bet.




Dear Hans,
Now that spring is here, my deck (which is wood) seems to have green fungus on it. What should I do about that? --Brent P, Albany VT


Dear Brent: Overtime algae and fungus can develop on wood decks and needs to be cleaned with the right products. It’s not difficult at all and something you can do yourself within a couple of hours.

-Start by removing all your furniture and fixtures from the deck, so the cleaner you use won’t damage the finishes.

-Sweep the deck to remove as much as possible prior to cleaning.

-Take a bucket and fill about 3⁄4 full with warm water, add about 2 cups of quality oxygen based bleach. Oxygen based bleach uses Hydrogen Peroxide instead of Chlorine, but as with anything, check the directions to be sure the brand use choose is safe for the deck material, grass, plants etc. around your deck as you will be rinsing it onto the ground.

-Use a scrub brush (long handled if you have it, if not be sure to wear gloves) and the bleach solution you prepared, scrub the surface of the deck thoroughly. Allow this to set for about 15-30 minutes; this will begin to kill the algae and fungus. Once you have done this, take your garden hose and thoroughly rinse of the deck.

-Prepare your deck cleaner, which you can get at any home improvement store (Lowe’s, Home Depot etc.) as per the directions on the container. In most cases you will just need to add water and apply it to your deck. Again you will need to let this set (check directions for time) on the deck so it to can have a chance to kill the algae and fungus. Once you’ve left it for the required amount of time, use your scrub brush to further clean (again always be sure to check the directions of the cleaner you are using for safety).

-Using your garden hose, once again thoroughly rinse your deck of all cleaner.

-Sweep the deck of all excess water or puddles that may have developed during this process.

-Allow it to dry before returning your furniture and fixtures back onto the newly cleaned deck.





Dear Hans: My wife and I were wondering if there are specific items that should get regular maintenance in our house. - Jerry & Mandy D, Wolcott, VT

Dear Jerry & Mandy: Excellent question. You can cover many items in your home by setting a regular maintenance schedule. There are things you can do monthly as well as by season. The list below will get you on your way; you may find that you add to it as you go. It’s a good idea to perform all of these procedures before any pending sale and/or Home Inspection.

MONTHLY

1. Fire and Smoke alarms: Test alarm

2. Fire Extinguishers: Check pressure; service as needed.

3. Carbon monoxide alarm: Test alarm, check or wash filter (unless it is a special type); check condensate drain to make sure it is clear and draining.

4. Shower and tub drains: Clear out hair and other debris.

5. GFCI: Test GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) outlets and breakers.

6. Plumbing: Check for any leaks at fixtures, traps, and piping.

7. Water softener: If you have one, check the salt supply

8. Clothes Dryer: Clean lint filter (after every use) and check duct for lint, vacuum out the duct, it’s amazing how much lint gathers in that area.

9. Garage door operator: Test the auto-reverse safety feature

10. Refrigerator: Clean coil, check the drain pan and make sure the drain is working properly

11. Range hood: Remove the filter to clean.

12. Bathroom exhaust fans: Clean the grill and fan.



SPRING

1. Air Conditioning/Heat Pump: Schedule professional service. Make sure the unit is clean, level and has the proper clearance.

2. Gutters, downspouts: Clean gutters, ensure downspout are attached and extended.

3. Roof: Do an inspection for Winter damage. Trim any trees that may cause damage. Check roof vents for bird nests or damage.

5. Chimney: Do a visual inspection for damage to the cap, flashing or masonry. If you have any question as to its safety, call in a professional. Clean chimney as needed.

6. Weather stripping: Check and repair weather stripping.

7. Attic & Crawl space: Check for signs of leaks, mildew or condensation. Check crawl space for adequate ventilation to remove excess moisture.

9. Water heater: If needed draw sediment from tank.

10. Decks: Wash them down and re-seal if needed.


SUMMER


1. Air conditioning/Heat pump: All bushes and plants clear of units. Clean or change filters, keep drain lines clear.

2. Exterior: Paint, putty or wood repairs & caulking as needed.

3. Fireplace: Schedule professional cleaning and repair as needed.

4. Exterior metal: Check any metal railings and paint as needed.


FALL

1. Gas Furnace & Water Heater: Schedule professional service

2. Garage door: tighten all hardware, lubricate moving parts.

3. Fireplace: Check the flue, damper, firebox

4. Gutters, downspouts: Clean out the gutters and make sure downspouts are attached and extended.

5. Weather stripping: Check and repair weather stripping on windows and doors.

6. Sprinkler or irrigation: If you have them, be sure to drain and service the system.



WINTER

1. Fire and smoke alarms: Change batteries, clean and test.

2. Carbon monoxide alarms: Change batteries and test them.

3. Washing machine: Check hoses for damage and clean screens.

4. Door and Hardware: Lubricate hinges and moving parts.

5. Gutters: Keep downspouts extended.





Dear Hans:

When we get a hard rain, one corner of our basement gets wet. It's not a lot of water, but enough to make the concrete wet. Our home, built in 1978, has gutters I clean twice a year. What could be causing this? - Carmen H., Fairfax, VT


Dear Carmen: The downspout, the vertical piping attached to your gutter and most likely running down the corner of your home, may be missing or have a short leader. The leader should be attached to the bottom of the downspout and carry water at least 4 to 6 feet away from the foundation. Without a proper leader all the water running into the gutter from your roof will accumulate at the corner of the foundation and could find its way into the basement. You can buy leaders, or "downspout extensions" at a lumber yard or hardware store. They are inexpensive and easy to install.



Dear Readers: In a previous column, I provided a list of monthly and seasonal maintenance tips. One of our savvy readers, Greg Hance of Hance Electric in Randolph Center, suggested another tip we would like to pass on to you.

Greg suggests thoroughly vacuuming your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors monthly when you test them. As a master electrician, Greg has responded to a couple of calls regarding nuisance alarms. When he spoke to the manufacturer of the detectors he discovered spiders are attracted to the LEDs and may build nests inside the detector, which may cause the detector to go off.

Thank you Greg, as you can see your suggestion has been forwarded to our readers!





Dear Hans, We just moved into our new home a week ago. While down in the basement we noticed a crack in the basement wall. When we looked at the house there were boxes covering the wall and we didn’t see the crack. We are scared that this may be a structural problem. How do we tell if we need to call someone and if so, who do we call? -- Thank you in advance for your time. Julie D.


Dear Julie,
Foundation cracks can be difficult to diagnose. Depending on what type of foundation you have, cracks can be vertical, stair stepped, horizontal, diagonal or a combination of any or all of them. A horizontal crack is generally much worse that a vertical crack. A block wall that has stair step cracks has experienced movement but may not really be a huge concern. A diagonal crack my indicated differential settlement. A thin vertical crack may just be a shrinkage crack and not a concern structurally. The location of the cracks can mean different things as well. A vertical crack that is narrow at the bottom but wide at the top means something different than if the crack was wide at the bottom and narrow at the top. A horizontal crack within 3 to 4 feet from the top of the wall is generally caused by frost and soil pressure while a diagonal crack in the corner can be caused by the middle of the wall bowing in.

The one thing all cracks have in common is that they can let water in to the basement, which in some cases can be worse than the crack itself. Water that finds the steel rebar in the walls or the steel mesh in the floor can cause it to rust. Steel that rusts will expand and further damage the concrete. As for who to call; You might try a mason first. They should be able to tell you if the crack is a structural concern or if it something that can be repaired easily. If they determine it is indeed a structural concern they may direct you to a structural engineer.



Dear Hans: My woodstove and boiler go into the same chimney. I have heard this isn't safe; I’d like to know what you think.  - - Barry J., Randolph, VT

Dear Barry: Generally a wood-burning stove or fireplace is required to have its own, unshared flue. This is largely because there is no practical way to connect another wood, gas or oil appliance to that flue without causing air infiltration into the flue through the second appliance. Air infiltration slows the rate of exhaust travel up the flue while simultaneously cooling the wood exhaust gases, causing excessive creosote and an increased incidence of chimney fires.

When dealing with wood exhaust intrusion into a chimney venting oil exhaust, other factors come into play. The sulfuric acids contained in oil exhaust blend with the aldehydes found in wood exhaust to create an extremely corrosive mixture inside the flue. This mixture attacks both the bonding agent in the mortar and the actual chimney structure itself, drastically reducing the usable lifetime of the chimney.

Finally, the combination of oil soot and wood creosote in the flue presents the most dangerous of chimney fire hazards. Oil soot ignites at extremely low temperatures, and wood creosote burns at extremely high temperatures. Thus, a chimney flue that is coated with a combination of oil exhaust and wood exhaust deposits is much more likely to experience repeated chimney fires.

Dear Hans: I am doing renovations on my home and my contractor says there may be asbestos that has to be removed. Is asbestos really a concern, and what types of building materials may contain asbestos? -- James T., Bloomfield, VT




Dear James: Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral. There are two main types of asbestos minerals that differ in their physical characteristics: serpentine and amphibole asbestos. The fibers of the serpentine family are longer, softer, and do not tend to remain airborne for long periods of time. They are therefore not as likely to be inhaled, and if they are inhaled, the human body is capable of removing them. The most widely used serpentine asbestos is Chrysotile, and is the most commonly used type of asbestos today.

Amphibole asbestos fibers are different from serpentine fibers in that they are small, sharp and will remain suspended in the air, making them easy to inhale. Once inhaled, the particles stay in the lungs for long periods of time and can eventually cause asbestosis, lung cancer, and a rare form of cancer (mesothelioma) that affects the linings of the abdominal cavity or chest.

From approximately 1930 to 1980, amphibole asbestos was widely used in residential and commercial construction, in insulation (pipe and duct wrap, and unintentionally in vermiculite), floor and ceiling tiles, acoustical plaster, shingles, other roofing materials, and exterior siding. Although these types of materials are no longer used in modern construction, they may still be present in older homes. In these types of applications there is the potential for the asbestos particles to become friable. Laboratory testing is required to absolutely confirm or deny the presence of asbestos in building materials.

Once testing has been performed and a material is proved to contain asbestos, the material should be examined closely. If the material is in friable (damaged) condition, it should be removed by a professional asbestos abatement contractor. This is typically a very expensive undertaking because asbestos is a potential health risk. Removing asbestos will cause the particles to become airborne and create a potential health risk, and should never be undertaken by a homeowner. A professional contractor will wear a protective mask and clothing. They will also seal and ventilate the area containing asbestos. In some cases, asbestos containing materials can be encapsulated with another material so that the risk of damaging the materials containing asbestos is minimized. This type of procedure may be a less expensive option to removing and disposing of the materials containing asbestos.

If the materials containing asbestos are in good condition (not friable), they should not be disturbed. Leave insulation alone, do not put holes in or damage ceiling tiles, and don’t sand or remove floor tiles. If, during renovations, asbestos containing materials are discovered and will be damaged, they should be professionally removed as described above.

 

 



Hans Cramer (President of Cramer Home Inspection Group) has been inspecting homes throughout New York and Vermont since 1996. With over 30 years of experience in the construction, consulting, and inspection industry he welcomes your questions, which can be submitted by email to: laura@cramerinspections.com