Stairs

Structural Integrity:  All stairs must be kept structurally sound. Don’t forget to examine the basement stairs.  Check the area where they meet the floor and where they are attached to the floor joists above.  

Stair Width and Clearance:  Stairways should have a minimum headroom of 6 feet and 8 inches, and width of 3 feet.

Treads and Risers:  The riser of a stair is the height of the step.  The tread is the step’s depth. Riser heights and tread depths should be as uniform as possible. All treads should be level and secure.  As a guide, stairs in new homes must have a maximum riser height of 7-3/4 inches and a minimum tread depth of 10 inches.  The maximum difference in height for risers and depth for treads should not exceed 3/8-inch.

Handrails and Guardrails:  You can check a railing’s stability and its fastenings by shaking it vigorously. Handrails are normally required to be 34 to 38 inches above the stair nosing on at least one side of all stairways having three or more risers. Guardrails are required on open sides of stairways and should have intermediate rails that do not allow the passage of a sphere 4 inches in diameter.

Lighting:  All interior and exterior stairways should have a means to illuminate the stairs, including landings and treads. Interior stairways should have a light located at each landing, except where a light is installed directly over each stairway section. Public stair and hallway lights in multi-family buildings should be operable from centralized controls. 

Smoke Detectors:  In addition to having them installed in each bedroom or in hallways adjacent to each bedroom, smoke detectors should be installed above stairways and hallways. They should be located on or near the ceiling, near the heads of stairs, and away from corners. Periodically check the operation of all smoke detectors by pushing their test buttons. 

Doors

Interior Doors:  Monitor the condition of your home’s doors and door frames, including the interior of entrance doors and storm doors. Check their hardware for finish, wear, and proper functioning. Sticking doors or out-of-square frames may indicate house settlement, which is normal.  

Exterior Doors:  Exterior doors should be checked often for their condition, operation, and the functionality of their hardware. Door types include hinged, and single and double doors made of wood, steel, aluminum, and plastic with and without glazing. Monitor wood and plastic doors that are not protected from the weather. These doors should be rated for exterior use. Some homes use glass-framed doors of fixed and operable panels that have wood, vinyl-covered wood, and aluminum frames. Check the tracks of these sliding doors for dents, breaks and straightness. 

Doors should also be monitored for the exterior condition of their frames and sills. Check doors that are not protected from the weather for the presence of essential flashing at the head. Over time, the interior condition and hardware of exterior doors can wear out or fail.  

Garage Doors:  Garage doors should be monitored for operation, weathertightness, overall condition, and fit. Garage doors are typically made of wood, hardboard on a wood frame, steel, fiberglass on a steel frame, and aluminum. Garage doors come with glazed panes in a wide variety of styles. Wood and hardboard can rot, hardboard can crack and split, steel can rust, fiberglass can deteriorate from ultraviolet light, and aluminum can dent. 

Garage doors with motors should be periodically tested using each of the operators on the system, such as key-lock switch or combination lock keypad, where control must be accessible on the exterior remote electrical switch, radio signal switch, or photo-electric control switch. Check the operation for smoothness, quietness, speed of operation, and safety. Check for the presence and proper operation of the door safety-reversing device. Look at the exposed parts of the installation for loose connections, rust, and bent or damaged pieces. 

Thermostats

Thermostats are devices designed to control the heating and cooling system in the home so that the air temperature remains comfortable. Homeowners should understand how thermostats operate, as well as the more common problems associated with them. 

Thermostats can be manually controlled or set to activate automatically based on timers or room temperature readings. Most thermostats contain two meters:  the “set” temperature that the thermostat is asking for, and the actual temperature. On a traditional dial-type thermostat, the user can increase the set temperature by rotating the dial clockwise, and lower it by rotating it counter-clockwise. Newer thermostats usually have digital displays, which can be used to adjust automated heating and cooling schedules. 

Location

In order to avoid false or “ghost” readings, which will cause unnecessary furnace or air-conditioner cycling, the thermostat must be installed so that it correctly reads the room temperature. 

The following locations may cause the thermostat to give false readings: 

  • near a heat source, such as a fireplace, hot water pipes, bright lights, direct sunlight, and electrical appliances that produce heat;  
  • in a drafty hallway, or near a window or exterior door that is left open often; and
  • on an outside wall. Outside walls are affected too much by outside temperatures, which may make the thermostat “think” the air in the house is warmer or cooler than it really is.

Common Thermostat Problems and Solutions

  • erratic operation or fluctuating temperature. This is often caused by poor pin connections between the thermostat and the backplate when the backplate is flexed against an uneven wall. To allow the backplate to flatten out, loosen the screws that attach the backplate to the wall, then snap the thermostat back onto the backplate. 
  • a thermostat that doesn’t respond to changes in room temperature. This can happen when there is air passing over the temperature sensor from a hole in the wall behind the thermostat, through which wires enter from the air-handling unit. To rectify this, insulate the hole behind the thermostat with fiber insulation, spray foam, or any other insulating material. 
  • a temperature reading that is inaccurate. A convenient way to test the temperature sensor is to tape a thermometer to the wall next to the thermostat and wait 15 minutes. A faulty thermometer needs to be recalibrated. Instructions for recalibration vary by manufacturer. 
  • loss of power. This may be caused by the following two situations:
  1. If the air handler powers the thermostat, check the circuit breaker meant for the air handler and make sure it has not tripped.
  2. If batteries power the thermostat, make sure they are lithium, not alkaline. Alkaline batteries will die rapidly or cause erratic thermostat operation.  

Maintenance and Other Tips

  • Give the thermostat’s interior a light dusting with a small, soft-bristle paintbrush. Canned air can also be used to blow off dust. Twist the screws to remove the cover. Be sure to clean the contacts, which are small metal plates within the unit. The wires coming from the transformer attach to the contacts. Do not touch any of the interior parts with your fingers. 
  • If the base is loose, re-tighten the screws. Check the wires coming from the transformer. If any corrosion is present, remove the wire from the contact and clean it. Use a wire stripper to remove the surrounding insulation, cut back the wire, and reconnect it. 
  • Make sure the terminal screws are tight. 
  • For wireless thermostats, make sure the model number of the thermostat matches the model number of the receiver. If the model numbers don’t match, the thermostat and receiver will not be compatible and won’t function properly together. 
  • Make sure that your thermostat has been set to the proper position for the season: cooling or heating. The air conditioner will not run with the switch set to “heating” and, conversely, the heating system won’t run if the thermostat has been set to “cooling.”
  • Thermostats that contain a mercury switch must remain perfectly level or they may not control the temperature setting. 

A Few Notes on Energy Savings

  • Many people believe that furnaces work harder than normal to warm an area back up to a comfortable temperature, which will counteract energy savings gained from turning the thermostat down. This belief is a misconception that has been disproved by years of studies and research. Fuel is saved between the time the temperature is stabilized at the lower level and the next time heat is needed, while the fuel required to re-heat the space is roughly equal to the fuel saved while the building drops to a lower temperature. 
  • According to the U.S. Department of Energy, consumers can save 10% on their utility bills by setting their thermostat lower by 10° to 15° for eight hours. This can be easily accomplished with a programmable thermostat. 
  • Be careful not to set the thermostat so low in the winter that indoor plumbing pipes freeze, or so low during the summer that mold may be allowed to grow prompted by excess indoor humidity.  

 Programmable Thermostats

Using a programmable thermostat in the winter, you can automatically turn down your heat at night or when you’re not at home.  In the summer, you can save money by automatically turning your air conditioner up at night or when you’re at work. 

Using a programmable thermostat, you can adjust the times that the heating and air conditioner go on and off according to a preset schedule. As a result, the equipment doesn’t operate as much when you’re asleep or when the house (or a part of it) is empty. Programmable thermostats can store and repeat multiple daily settings (six or more temperature settings a day) that you can manually override without affecting the rest of the daily or weekly program.

Evaporative Coolers

What is an evaporative cooler?

An evaporative cooler, also known as a swamp cooler, wet-air cooler, and desert cooler, is a device designed to cool air via the evaporation of water.  This is a natural and energy-efficient way to achieve a comfortable indoor temperature.  An evaporative cooler cools indoor air by drawing outdoor air into the unit and passing it over pads that have been saturated with water from a reservoir in the unit.  The water evaporates into the air as it passes over the pads, and the result is a 15° to 40° drop in temperature.  The cooled air is then directed through interior areas where a lowered temperature is desired, forcing warm air outside through open windows.  Because of this, evaporative coolers steadily circulate fresh air through the interior, unlike air conditioners, which circulate the same air over and over again.  They also cost far less than air conditioners and use around a quarter of the energy, making them a very efficient alternative.  

How does evaporation work to lower air temperature?

This process can be observed naturally near a waterfall, lake, river or ocean. When dry air passes over water, the air absorbs some of the water.   The air temperature drops because the temperature and vapor pressure of the water and air attempt to equalize.  Until the air is saturated and unable to hold any more water, liquid water molecules turn to gas in the air, a process that uses energy to change the physical state of the water.  Heat moves from the higher temperature of the air to the lower temperature of the water, which causes the air to cool.

How an Evaporative Cooler Works

An evaporative cooler is basically a large fan with pads, moistened by water, which are located in front of the fan.  The fan pulls the hot, outside air inside, and the air is cooled after passing over the wet pads.  The pads are usually made from wood, wool or fiber, though some plastics and melamine paper are now also used to make cooler pads.  However, wood absorbs some of the water, which allows it to cool the passing air to a lower temperature than some synthetic materials.  The thickness of the pad also plays a part in the cooling efficiency because a larger pad allows longer air contact, so a 10-inch pad is more efficient than a 4-inch pad.  The pads need to be replaced every season or two, but they are fairly inexpensive.

Small water distribution lines wet the top of the pads, which become soaked.  Once the water trickles through them, collecting at the bottom in a sump, a small re-circulating pump sends the water back to the top of the pads to soak them again.  When enough water is lost through the evaporation process, a float valve adds water to the sump so that the pads can continue to be soaked.  Under normal conditions, a cooler may use between 3 and 15 gallons of water per day. 

Because evaporative cooling takes air from the outdoors, cools it, and circulates it indoors, there must be a way for the warm air inside to escape when it is displaced by the incoming cool air.  By leaving doors and windows open strategically, it is possible to direct the path of incoming cool air to areas where it is needed most.  Even smaller units can be effective for larger areas when used in this way.  Many types of cooling units are currently manufactured, including small units for installation in windows, as well as large units meant to be installed centrally to blow air through ductwork and into individual rooms.  

Evaporative Cooling vs. Air Conditioners

The most important factor to keep in mind when determining whether an evaporative cooler can be utilized effectively in a particular situation is the moisture content of the outside air.  Since the air will not hold additional moisture once it reaches its saturation point, no drop in temperature will occur through evaporation if the air is already saturated.  Because of this, evaporative cooling cannot be used effectively in wet or humid climates.  Meanwhile, in areas where the air is hot but humidity is low, the coolers can be used as a cost-effective and energy-efficient alternative to air conditioners.  Such areas in the U.S. include Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, northern Texas, and some parts of California.  

Here are some advantages and disadvantages of using evaporative cooling vs. traditional, phase-change air conditioners.

Advantages of Evaporative Coolers:

  • Evaporative coolers are less expensive to install, estimated at about half the cost of refrigerated air conditioning. 
  • Operating costs are lower, as well.  Power consumption, limited only to the fan and water pump, is estimated at one-fourth of that used for air conditioning. 
  • Low maintenance is also an advantage of evaporative coolers because the only mechanical parts in most units are the fan motor and water pump, which can be easily replaced or repaired at low cost. 
  • Ventilation is increased due to the air being constantly cycled through the cooler to the interior and back outside through open windows and doors. 
  • The increased humidity content in the interior air that results from evaporative cooling can be desirable in dry climates. 
  • The cooling pads, when properly maintained, act to filter air, removing contaminants as the cooled air enters the interior.

Disadvantages of Evaporative Coolers:

  • High-humidity conditions will not allow the cooler to function effectively. 
  • Supplied air from the evaporative cooler is typically 80% to 90% relative humidity, which is sometimes not desirable for indoors, as it can accelerate corrosion, shortening the life of electronic and other equipment, and/or simple be uncomfortable. 
  • High humidity also causes condensation, which can become a problem with electrical equipment, old wood, paper and books, and develop into potential mold and mildew problems. 
  • Water must be constantly supplied to the pads.  Water that has a high mineral content will eventually leave deposits on the pads and the interior of the cooler.  The water supply line may also need to be protected from freezing and potentially bursting during the cold season. 
  • Odors and outdoor contaminants can be blown into the interior if sufficient filtering isn’t in place.  Asthma sufferers may need to avoid environments whose evaporative coolers are poorly maintained.

Evaporative coolers can be less expensive and environmentally friendlier alternatives to traditional air conditioners, depending on the climate and other factors.  Like any home system, homeowners should plan on becoming familiar with their evaporative cooler in order to maintain it seasonally.

Air-Conditioning Systems

A building’s central air-conditioning system must be periodically inspected and maintained in order to function properly. While an annual inspection performed by a trained professional is recommended, homeowners can do a lot of the work themselves by following the tips offered here.

Clean the Exterior Condenser Unit and Components

The exterior condenser unit is the large box located on the side of the house that’s designed to push heat from the indoors to the outdoors. Inside of the box are coils of pipe that are surrounded by thousands of thin metal “fins” that allow the coils more surface area to exchange heat. 

Follow these tips when cleaning the exterior condenser unit and its inner components — after turning off power to the unit, of course.

  • Remove any leaves, spider webs and other debris from the unit’s exterior. Trim foliage back several feet from the unit to ensure proper air flow.
  • Remove the cover grille to clean any debris from the unit’s interior. A garden hose can be helpful for this task.
  • Straighten any bent fins with a tool called a fin comb.
  • Add lubricating oil to the motor. Check your owner’s manual for specific instructions.
  • Clean the evaporator coil and condenser coil at least once a year.  When they collect dirt, they may not function properly.

Inspect the Condensate Drain Line

Condensate drain lines collect condensed water and drain it away from the unit.  They’re located on the side of the inside fan unit. Sometimes there are two drain lines—a primary drain line that’s built into the unit, and a secondary drain line that can drain if the first line becomes blocked. 

Homeowners can inspect the drain line by using the following tips, which take very little time and require no specialized tools:

  • Inspect the drain line for obstructions, such as algae and debris. If the line becomes blocked, water will back up into the drain pan and overflow, potentially causing a safety hazard or water damage to your home.
  • Make sure the hoses are secured and fit properly.

Clean the Air Filter

Air filters remove pollen, dust and other particles that would otherwise circulate indoors. Most filters are typically rectangular in shape and about 20 x 16 inches, and about 1 inch thick. They slide into the main ductwork near the inside fan unit. The filter should be periodically washed or replaced, depending on the manufacturer’s instructions. A dirty air filter will not only degrade the quality of the home’s indoor, but it will also strain the motor to work harder to move air through it, increasing energy costs and reducing energy efficiency. The filter should be replaced monthly during heavy use during the cooling seasons. You may need to change the filter more often if the air conditioner is in constant use, if any family members have respiratory problems, if you have pets with fur, and/or if it’s particularly dusty indoors.  

Cover the Exterior Unit

When the cooling season is over, you should cover the exterior condenser unit in preparation for winter. If it isn’t being used, why expose it to the elements? This measure will prevent ice, leaves and dirt from entering the unit, which can harm components and require additional maintenance in the spring. A cover can be purchased, or you can make one yourself by taping together plastic trash bags. Be sure to turn the unit off before covering it. 

Close the Air-Distribution Registers

Air-distribution registers are duct openings in ceilings, walls and floors where cold air enters the room. They should be closed after the cooling season ends in order to keep warm air from back-flowing out of the room during the warming season. Pests and dust will also be unable to enter the ducts during the winter if the registers are closed. These vents can typically be opened or closed with an adjacent lever or wheel.  Remember to open the registers in the spring before the cooling season starts.  Also, make sure they’re not blocked by drapes, carpeting or furniture.

In addition, homeowners should practice the following strategies in order to keep their central air-conditioning systems running properly:

  • Have the air-conditioning system inspected by a professional each year before the start of the cooling season.
  • Reduce stress on the air-conditioning system by enhancing your home’s energy efficiency. Switch from incandescent lights to compact fluorescents, for instance, which produce less heat.

Landscaping

Well-maintained landscaping and other improvements are important for the enjoyment of a healthy and durable property.

Plants, Trees & Shrubs:  Check the location and condition of all trees and shrubbery. Those that are overgrown should be pruned or trimmed. Where trees or bushes have overgrown, complete removal may be necessary. Trees need to be trimmed.  Overhanging branches should not interfere with a chimney’s draft, be too close to utility wires, or deposit leaves and twigs on the roof or inside gutters and drains. Trees and shrubbery that are very close to exterior walls or roofs can cause damage. They can make it difficult to perform homeowner maintenance, inspections and repairs. Branches around the perimeter of the house should be pruned back. Tree roots under concrete walks can cause damage. Roots are usually exposed near the surface and can be cut back. Tree roots can cause a home’s foundation to crack by pushing against it from the outside. If you have any of these issues, consider hiring an arborist. An arborist is a specialist in the cultivation and care of trees and shrubs, including tree surgery, the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of tree diseases, and the control of pests. Find a certified arborist in the U.S. at www.nachi.org/go/arborists.

Property Drainage

Making sure that your property is sloped to allow proper drainage can mean the difference between a trouble-free rainy season and a flooded basement a few times a year.  Unwanted moisture intrusion—even at a level not serious enough to cause interior flooding—can create insidious problems that will be difficult to completely eliminate, such as weakened structural elements, mold growth, and other damage and health hazards.

Most problems with moisture in basements and crawlspaces are caused by poor site drainage. The ground should slope away from window wells, exterior basement stairs, and other means of egress. The bottom of each of these areas should be sloped to a drain. Each drain should have piping that connects it to a storm water drainage system (if there is one) or that drains to either a discharge at a lower grade or into a sump pit that collects and discharges the water away from the building. 

Rain:  During the next heavy rainstorm without lightning, grab an umbrella and go outside. Walk around your house and look around at the roof and property. A rainstorm is the perfect time to see how the roof, downspouts and grading are performing. Observe the drainage patterns of your entire property, as well as the property of your neighbor. The ground around your house should slope away from all sides. Downspouts, surface gutters and drains should be directing water away from the foundation.

One important maintenance task is to monitor and maintain the drains and piping. Drains and piping should be open and clear of leaves, earth and debris. A garden hose can be used to check water flow, although its discharge cannot approximate storm conditions. 

House on a Hillside:  Where a building is situated on a hillside, it is more difficult to slope the ground away from the building on all sides. On the high-ground side of the building, the slope of the ground toward the building could be interrupted by a surface drainage system that collects and disposes of rainwater runoff. Swales can be used to direct surface water away from the foundation. There are two general types of surface drainage systems: an open system, consisting of a swale (often referred to as a ditch), sometimes with a culvert at its end to collect and channel water away; and a closed system, consisting of gutters with catch basins.

12 Devices for Child-Proofing Your Home

About 2.5 million children are injured or killed each year by hazards in the home. The good news is that many of these incidents can be prevented by using simple child-safety devices available today. Any safety device you buy should be sturdy enough to prevent injury to your child, yet easy for you to use. It’s important to follow installation instructions carefully. 

In addition, if you have older children in the house, be sure they re-secure safety devices. Remember, too, that no device is completely childproof; determined youngsters have been known to disable them. You can child-proof your home for a fraction of what it would cost to have a professional do it. And safety devices are easy to find. You can buy them at hardware stores, baby equipment shops, supermarkets, drug stores, home and linen stores, and through online and mail-order catalogues. 

Here are some child-safety devices that can help prevent many injuries to young children.   

  1. Use safety latches and locks for cabinets and drawers in the kitchen, bathrooms, and other areas to help prevent poisonings and other injuries. Safety latches and locks on cabinets and drawers can help prevent children from gaining access to medicines and household cleaners, as well as knives and other sharp objects. Look for safety latches and locks that adults can easily install and use, but that are sturdy enough to withstand pulls and tugs from children. Safety latches are not a guarantee of protection, but they can make it more difficult for children to reach dangerous substances. Even products with child-resistant packaging should be locked away out of reach; such packaging is not guaranteed to be childproof. However, according to Colleen Driscoll, executive director of the International Association for Child Safety (IAFCS), “Installing an ineffective latch on a cabinet is not an answer for helping parents with safety.  It is important to understand parental habits and behavior.  While a latch that loops around cabinet knob covers is not expensive and easy to install, most parents do not consistently re-latch it.” Parents should be sure to purchase and install safety products that they will actually adapt to and use.  
  2. Use safety gates to help prevent falls down stairs and to keep children away from dangerous areas. Look for safety gates that children cannot dislodge easily, but that adults can open and close without difficulty. For the top of stairs, use gates that screw into the wall; these are more secure than pressure gates. New safety gates that meet safety standards display a certification seal from the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA). If you have an older safety gate, be sure it doesn’t have “V” shapes that are large enough for a child’s head and neck to fit into. 
  3. Use door locks to help prevent children from entering rooms and other areas with possible dangers, including a swimming pool.  Door knob covers, while inexpensive and recommended by some, are generally not effective for children who are tall enough to reach the doorknob; a child’s ingenuity and persistence can usually trump the cover’s effectiveness. To prevent access to a swimming pool, door locks on safety gates should be placed high and out of reach of young children. Locks should be used in addition to fences and alarms. Sliding glass doors with locks that must be re-secured after each use are often not an effective barrier. 
  4. Use anti-scald devices for faucets and shower heads, and set your water heater temperature to 120° F to help prevent burns. A qualified plumber may need to install these.  
  5. Use smoke detectors on every level of your home and near all bedrooms to alert you to a fire. Smoke detectors are essential home safety devices whether you have children in your home or not. Test your smoke detectors once a month to make sure they’re working properly. If they rely only on batteries, change them at least once a year, or consider using 10-year batteries.
  6. Use window guards and safety netting to help prevent falls from windows, balconies, decks and landings. A window screen alone is not effective for preventing a child from falling out of a window.  Check these safety devices frequently to make sure they’re secure and properly installed and maintained. There should be no more than 4 inches between the bars of the window guard.  Be sure at least one window in each room can be easily used for escape by an adult in case of a fire. 
  7. Use corner and edge bumpers to help prevent injuries from falls against sharp edges of furniture and the rough edges of a fireplace. Be sure to look for bumpers that stay on securely. 
  8. Use receptacle/outlet covers and plates to help prevent children from electrical shock and possible electrocution. Be sure the outlet protectors cannot be easily removed by children and are large enough so that they cannot choke on them if they manage to dislodge one from the outlet.
  9. Use carbon monoxide (CO) detectors outside all bedrooms to help prevent CO poisoning from dangerous vapors that may enter the living space from combustion appliances and an attached garage.  Similar to smoke alarms and smoke detectors, CO detectors should be installed in all homes, regardless of the presence of children.  
  10. Cut window blind cords to help prevent children from strangling in blind-cord loops. Window blind cord safety tassels on mini-blinds and tension devices on vertical blinds and drapery cords can help prevent deaths and injuries from strangulation. Inner cord stops can also help prevent strangulation. However, the IAFCS’s Ms. Driscoll states, “Cordless is best.  Although not all families are able to replace all products, it is important that parents understand that any corded blind or window treatment can still be a hazard.  Unfortunately, children are still becoming entrapped in dangerous blind cords despite advances in safety in recent years.” For older mini-blinds, cut the cord loop, remove the buckle, and put safety tassels on each cord. Be sure that older vertical blinds and drapery cords have tension or tie-down devices to hold the cords tight. When buying new mini-blinds, vertical blinds and draperies, ask for safety features to prevent child strangulation. 
  11. Use door stops and door holders to help prevent injuries to fingers and hands. These devices installed on doors and door hinges can help prevent small fingers and hands from being pinched or crushed. Be sure that any safety device for doors is easy to use and not likely to break into small parts, which could be a choking hazard for young children. 
  12. Use a cell phone or cordless phone to make it easier to continuously watch young children, especially when they’re in bathtubs, swimming pools, and other potentially dangerous areas.  

There are a number of different safety devices that can be purchased to ensure the safety of children in the home. Homeowners can ask their InterNACHI inspector about these and other safety measures during their Annual Home Maintenance Inspection.  Parents should be sure to do their own consumer research to find the most effective safety devices for their home that are age-appropriate for their children’s protection, as well as affordable and compatible with their household habits and lifestyle.  They can find more information for household safety tips and product recommendations at the IAFCS’s website at www.iafcs.org.

Bed Bugs and Their Prevention

Bed bugs are small, flightless, rust-colored parasites that feed on the blood of humans and other warm-blooded animals. Homeowners should learn the telltale signs of these pests. 

Adult bed bugs are flat and the size of apples, with rust-colored, oval bodies. Newly hatched bed bugs are semi-transparent, light tan in color, and the size of a poppy seed. Yet, due to their elusive nature, their presence is usually discovered through peripheral clues rather than by seeing the bugs themselves. Some of these signs include fecal spots, blood smears, crushed bugs, or the itchy bumps that may result from bites. The bugs may be disturbed while feeding and leave a cluster of bumps, or they may bite in a row, marking the path of a blood vessel. The parasites emit a characteristic musty odor, although the smell is sometimes not present in even severe infestations. The bugs also emit a scent that is picked up by dogs, which has lead to the implementation of dogs for bed bug detection. Properly trained dogs can find bed bugs in wall voids, furniture gaps, and other places that homeowners may overlook.  This helps exterminators to know where they should focus their efforts. 

History and Resurgence

Bed bugs were all but eradicated in the 1950s, but they have re-emerged in a big way. At the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Bed Bug Summit in 2009, researchers decided that the parasite’s revival is more appropriately termed a pandemic rather than an epidemic, noting its rapid spread across large regions and different continents. The United States has seen a 50-fold increase in bed bug infestations over the last five years, according to the National Pest Management Association. The outbreak has affected most parts of North America and Europe, especially in urban areas.  

Researchers believe that bed bugs have roused from a half-century of hibernation for two reasons:  the termination of the use of the pesticide DDT; and a rise in international travel. DDT, a powerful synthetic pesticide, was widely used in agriculture until a public outcry concerning its safety lead to a U.S.-ban of the chemical in 1972, followed by international bans. Unbeknownst to the environmentalists of the time, these laws would permit future outbreaks to grow unchecked, which is precisely what happened when travel increased from countries where bed bugs were never subjugated, such as India. 

Urban hubs of international travel, such as New York City, have been hit hardest by the resurgence. The bugs hitch rides from country to country in suitcases and creep into hotel rooms, where other guests are then exposed and unknowingly spread the parasites to movie theatres, cabs, buses, hospitals, their homes, and everywhere in between. In New York City, bed bug reports increased 800% from 2008 to 2009, a year in which the Department of Housing Preservation and Development received 13,152 complaints of bed bug infestations. 

Treatment and Prevention

Because bed bugs are adept at hiding almost anywhere, an alarming quantity of possessions, from curtains to books and picture frames, must be discarded or quarantined. Some possessions may be salvaged if they are sealed in special casing long enough for the bed bugs to die, which can take many months. During this time, residents may be forced to move out of the home and into temporary housing. 

Fortunately, the health dangers posed by bed bugs appear to be limited to temporary skin irritation and inflammation, akin to mosquito bites. There are no known cases of disease transmission from bed bugs to humans. However, a small percentage of the population may experience anaphylactic shock.  Measures should be taken to prevent bacterial infection of bites from bed bugs by washing the area with soap and water and applying an antiseptic.

It’s best for bed bugs to be treated by pest management professionals (PMPs) and not homeowners, as there is risk that an inexperienced person may make the infestation worse. For instance, bug bombs are ineffective and may actually spread the infestation. Even chemical sprays designed to kill bed bugs can have the opposite effect, if used improperly. PMPs can inspect for bed bugs in their immature stages of development, including their eggs, while homeowners are not trained to do this. In addition, should the homeowner attempt to clean up an infestation before calling in a professional, this may make it difficult for the PMP to assess the true extent of the infestation.

The following tactics may be useful for confirmation of and temporary relief from the presence of bed bugs:

  • Remove bed skirts, as they provide easy access for the bugs to travel from the floor to your bed. If you must have bed skirts, make sure they do not reach the floor.
  • Move your bed away from the wall. Bed bugs cannot fly, but they can climb walls in order to fall onto the bed.
  • Place furniture legs in tin cans coated with talcum powder, petroleum jelly or a non-evaporative liquid to deter the bugs from climbing. 
  • Place a strip of duct tape at the base of furniture with the sticky side out. This tactic can be used to confirm the presence of bed bugs because it will trap them in place.
  • Spray cracks and crevices with an insecticide designed to control bed bugs. Follow the label’s directions carefully. However, do not treat bedding, towels or clothing with insecticide. 

Homeowners can limit their chances of exposure by purchasing only new furniture, as stowaway bed bugs can hide in older or used chairs and mattresses. Hostels, hotels and motels host many travelers and are breeding grounds for bed bugs, and many hostels ban sleeping bags for this reason. Unfortunately, person-to-person contact is difficult to avoid.

Bed bugs are a growing, serious threat.  Homeowners who suspect that they or their home has been exposed to bed bugs may benefit by learning to recognize and become familiar with these pests because of their potential to infest the home and damage property. 

The Bathroom Vent System

Bathroom ventilation systems are designed to exhaust odors and damp air to the home’s exterior. A typical system consists of a ceiling fan unit connected to a duct that terminates at the roof.  Ventilation systems should be installed in all bathrooms, including those with windows, since windows will not be opened during the winter in cold climates.

Fan Function  

The fan may be controlled in one of several ways.

  • Most are controlled by a conventional wall switch. 
  • A timer switch may be mounted on the wall.
  • A wall-mounted humidistat can be pre-set to turn the fan on and off based on different levels of relative humidity.

It’s not always easy to tell whether the bathroom vent fan is operating as it should.  Newer fans may be very quiet but work just fine. Older fans may be very noisy or very quiet. If an older fan is quiet, it may not be working well. 

Bathroom ventilation fans should be periodically checked for dust buildup, which can impede air flow. Particles of moisture-laden animal dander and lint are also attracted to the fan because of its static charge. Homeowners should regularly clean dirty fan covers to prevent this kind of buildup.

Defects

 The following conditions indicate insufficient ventilation in the bathroom:

  • stains on the bathroom walls and/or ceiling; 
  • corrosion of metal parts of the vent system;
  • visible mold on the walls and/or ceiling;
  • peeling paint or wallpaper;
  • frost on the interior of the bathroom window; 
  • high indoor humidity; and/or
  • improper duct termination.

Duct Termination

The most common defect related to the bathroom’s ventilation system is improper termination of the duct. Vents must terminate at the home’s exterior. 

The most common improper terminations locations are:

  • mid-level in the attic. These are easy to spot;
  • beneath the insulation in the attic.  The duct may terminate beneath the insulation or there may be no duct installed; and 
  • under attic vents. The duct must terminate at the home’s exterior.

Improperly terminated ventilation systems may appear to work fine from inside the bathroom, so the homeowner or inspector may have to look in the attic or on the roof. Sometimes, poorly installed ducts will loosen or become disconnected at joints or connections.

Ducts that leak or terminate in the attic can cause problems from condensation. Warm, moisture-laden air will condense on cold attic framing, insulation and other materials. This condition has the potential to cause health and/or decay problems from mold, or damage to building materials, such as drywall. Moisture buildup also reduces the effectiveness of thermal insulation. 

Mold growth is another undesirable consequence of improperly vented damp air.  Even though mold growth may take place primarily in the attic and basement/crawlspace, mold spores can be sucked into the living area of a home by low air pressure, which is usually created by the expulsion of household air from exhaust fans in bathrooms and kitchens, and from clothes dryers and heating equipment. 

Improper Ventilation 

Ventilation ducts must be made from appropriate materials and oriented effectively in order to ensure that damp air is properly exhausted.

Ventilation ducts must:

  1. terminate outdoors. Ducts should never terminate within the building envelope; 
  2. contain a screen or louvered (angled) slats at its termination to prevent bird, rodent and insect entry;
  3. be as short and straight as possible and avoid turns. Longer ducts allow more time for vapor to condense and also force the exhaust fan to work harder; 
  4. be insulated, especially in cooler climates. Cold ducts encourage condensation; 
  5. protrude at least several inches from the roof; 
  6. be equipped with a roof termination cap that protects the duct from the elements; and 
  7. be installed according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.

The following tips are also helpful. Ventilation ducts should:

  • be made from inflexible metal, PVC, or other rigid material. Unlike dryer exhaust vents, they should not droop; and 
  • have smooth interiors. Ridges will encourage vapor to condense, allowing water to back-flow into the exhaust fan or leak through joints onto vulnerable surfaces.

Above all else, a bathroom ventilation fan should be connected to a duct capable of venting water vapor and odors to the outdoors. Mold growth within the bathroom or attic is a clear indication of improper ventilation that must be corrected in order to avoid structural decay and respiratory health issues for family members.