Carbon-Monoxide Detectors

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a colorless, odorless, poisonous gas that forms from incomplete combustion of fuels, such as natural or liquefied petroleum gas, oil, wood or coal.

Facts and Figures

  • Each year in the U.S., approximately 500 deaths are caused by non-fire-related carbon-monoxide poisoning.
  • Most CO exposures occur during the winter months, especially in December and in January. The peak time of day for CO exposure is between 6 and 10 p.m.
  • Many experts believe that CO poisoning statistics understate the problem. Because the symptoms of CO poisoning mimic a range of common health ailments, it is likely that a large number of mild to mid-level exposure is never identified, diagnosed, or accounted for in any way in carbon monoxide statistics.
  • Out of all reported non-fire carbon-monoxide incidents, 89% or almost nine out of 10 of them take place in a home.

Physiology of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

When CO is inhaled, it displaces the oxygen that would ordinarily bind with hemoglobin, a process the effectively suffocates the body. CO can poison slowly over a period of several hours, even in low concentrations. Sensitive organs, such as the brain, heart and lungs, suffer the most from a lack of oxygen.

High concentrations of carbon monoxide can kill in less than five minutes. At low concentrations, it will require a longer period of time to affect the body. Exceeding the EPA concentration of 9 parts per million (ppm) for more than eight hours may have adverse health affects. The limit of CO exposure for healthy workers, as prescribed by the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), is 50 ppm.

Potential Sources of Carbon Monoxide

Any fuel-burning appliances that are malfunctioning or improperly installed can be a source of CO, such as the:

  • furnace;
  • stove and oven;
  • water heater;
  • clothes dryer;
  • room/space heater;
  • fireplace and wood stove;
  • gas and charcoal grill;
  • auto and boat engines;
  • clogged chimney or flue;
  • power tools that run on fuel, such as a gasoline-powered lawnmower; and
  • certain types of swimming pool heaters.

CO Detector Placement

CO detectors can monitor exposure levels, but do not place them:

  • directly above or beside fuel-burning appliances, as appliances may emit a small amount of carbon monoxide upon start-up;
  • within 15 feet of heating and cooking appliances, or in or near very humid areas, such as bathrooms;
  • within 5 feet of kitchen stoves and ovens, or near areas locations where household chemicals and bleach are stored (store such chemicals away from bathrooms and kitchens, whenever possible);
  • in the garage, kitchen, furnace room, or in any extremely dusty, dirty, humid, or greasy areas;
  • in direct sunlight, or in areas subjected to temperature extremes. These include an unconditioned crawlspace, unfinished attic, un-insulated or poorly insulated ceilings, and porches;
  • in turbulent air near ceiling fans, heat vents, air conditioners, fresh-air returns, or open windows. Blowing air may prevent carbon monoxide from reaching the CO sensors.

Do place CO detectors:

  • within 10 feet of each bedroom door and near all sleeping areas, where it can wake sleepers. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) recommend that every home have at least one carbon-monoxide detector for each floor of the home, and within hearing range of each sleeping area;
  • on every floor of the home, including the basement;
  • near, but not directly above, combustion appliances, such as furnaces, water heaters, and fireplaces, and in the garage; and
  • on the ceiling in the same room as permanently installed fuel-burning appliances, and centrally located on every habitable level, and in every HVAC zone of the building. This rule applies to commercial buildings.

In North America, some national, state and local municipalities require installation of CO detectors in new and existing homes, as well as commercial businesses, among them: Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont and New York City, and the Canadian province of Ontario. Installers are encouraged to check with their local municipality to determine what specific requirements have been enacted in their jurisdiction.

How can I prevent CO poisoning?

  • Purchase and install carbon monoxide detectors with labels showing that they meet the requirements of the new UL standard 2034 or Comprehensive Safety Analysis 6.19 safety standards.
  • Make sure appliances are installed and operated according to the manufacturer’s instructions and local building codes. Have the heating system professionally inspected by your InterNACHI inspector and serviced annually to ensure proper operation. The inspector should also check chimneys and flues for blockages, corrosion, partial and complete disconnections, and loose connections.
  • Never service fuel-burning appliances without the proper knowledge, skill and tools. Always refer to the owner’s manual when performing minor adjustments and when servicing fuel-burning equipment.
  • Never operate a portable generator or any other gasoline engine-powered tool either in or near an enclosed space, such as a garage, house or other building. Even with open doors and windows, these spaces can trap CO and allow it to quickly build to lethal levels.
  • Never use portable fuel-burning camping equipment inside a home, garage, vehicle or tent unless it is specifically designed for use in an enclosed space and provides instructions for safe use in an enclosed area.
  • Never burn charcoal inside a home, garage, vehicle or tent.
  • Never leave a car running in an attached garage, even with the garage door open.
  • Never use gas appliances, such as a range, oven or clothes dryer to heat your home.
  • Never operate un-vented fuel-burning appliances in any room where people are sleeping.
  • During home renovations, ensure that appliance vents and chimneys are not blocked by tarps or debris. Make sure appliances are in proper working order when renovations are completed.
  • Do not place generators in the garage or close to the home. People lose power in their homes and get so excited about using their gas-powered generator that they don’t pay attention to where it is placed. The owner’s manual should explain how far the generator should be placed from the home.
  • Clean the chimney. Open the hatch at the bottom of the chimney to remove the ashes. Hire a chimney sweep annually.
  • Check vents. Regularly inspect your home’s external vents to ensure they are not obscured by debris, dirt or snow.

Carbon monoxide is a dangerous poison that can be created by various household appliances. CO detectors must be placed strategically throughout the home or business in order to alert occupants of high levels of the gas.

Lighting

Color Rendering Index (CRI)

CRI is a quantitative measure of the ability of a light source to reproduce the colors of various objects faithfully, in comparison with an ideal or natural light source. The closer the CRI of a lamp is to 100, the more “true” it renders colors in the environment. Poor CRI is the reason that a shirt and pants that seemed to match at home now clash in the restroom at work. Incandescent lights are inefficient but they have a CRI of 100, making them the most aesthetic lighting choice. Compact fluorescents lights (CFLs) are far more efficient and have a longer life than incandescent bulbs, but they have a CRI in the low 60s. Low-voltage halogen and LED lights are relatively efficient, long-lasting, and have a high CRI, although not as high as incandescent bulbs.

Clothes Closet Lighting

People don’t often think about the fire risks posed by the light in their clothes closet, but it’s one of the few places in the house where a source of high heat can get too close to flammable materials. Lighting must be installed safely, with adequate separation from clothes, boxes and other flammables stored in the closet. Additionally, the quality of the light, as well as bulb efficiency, will influence your lighting choices.

The 2009 International Residential Code (IRC) on “Permitted Luminaires and Clearance from Clothing”

The IRC defines a “luminaire” as:

a complete lighting unit consisting of a lamp or lamps, together with the parts designed to distribute the light, to position and protect the lamps and ballast (where applicable), and to connect the lamps to the power supply.

Types of luminaires permitted by the 2009 International Residential Code (IRC) include:

  • surface-mounted or recessed incandescent luminaires with completely enclosed lamps, surface-mounted or recessed fluorescent luminaires; and
  • surface-mounted fluorescent or LED luminaires identified as suitable for installation within the storage area.

Luminaires not permitted by the 2009 IRC include:

  • Incandescent luminaires with open or partially enclosed lamps and pendant luminaires or lamp-holders should be prohibited.

Clearances permitted by the 2009 IRC:

  • The minimum distance between luminaires installed in clothes closets and the nearest point of a storage area shall be as follows:
    • Surface-mounted incandescent or LED luminaires with a completely enclosed light source shall be installed on a wall above the door or on the ceiling, provided that there is a minimum clearance of 12 inches between the fixture and the nearest point of a storage space.
    • Surface-mounted fluorescent luminaires shall be installed on the wall above the door or on the ceiling, provided that there is a minimum clearance of 6 inches.
    • Recessed incandescent luminaires or LED luminaires with a completely enclosed light source shall be installed in the wall or the ceiling, provided that there is a minimum clearance of 6 inches.
    • Recessed fluorescent luminaires shall be installed in the wall or on the ceiling, provided that there is a minimum clearance of 6 inches between the fixture and the nearest point of storage space.
    • Surface-mounted fluorescent or LED luminaires shall be permitted to be installed within the storage space where identified within this use.

Also, metal pull chains may be dangerous; if the base cracks, the chain can become electrified.

Homeowners should replace lighting in their clothes closets if the light has the potential to ignite flammable materials in the closet.

Nightlights

A nightlight is a small, low-powered electrical light source placed for comfort or convenience in indoor areas that become dark at night.

Facts and Figures

  • Before they were powered electrically, nightlights were usually long-burning candles placed in fireproof metal cups, known as tealights in some countries. (Tealights in the U.S. refer to very short and wide candles that can be purchased within or without an aluminum tin cup that are commonly used inside a decorative glass holder. They are also known as votive candles.)
  • There are roughly 90 million nightlights purchased each year in the United States. In 2001 alone, more than 600,000 of them were recalled by manufacturers for safety reasons.
  • Defective nightlights can cause fires, burns and electrocution.

Uses

Nightlights are typically installed to create a sense of security and to alleviate fears of the dark, especially for children. They also illuminate the general layout of a room without causing the eyestrain created by a standard light, helping to prevent tripping down stairs and over objects. This is an important safety measure for older adults, for whom falls are the leading cause of injury-related deaths, according to the National Association for Home Care and Hospice. Nightlights may also be used to mark an emergency exit.

Types

A wide variety of nightlights is available to homeowners; bulbs vary from incandescent to energy-efficient options, such as light-emitting diodes (LEDs), neon lamps, and electroluminescent bulbs. Some of these devices are equipped with a light-sensitive switch that activates the light only when it’s dark enough for them to be required, saving electricity and the effort needed to manually turn them on and off. Some designs also incorporate a rechargeable battery so they will continue to function during power outages.

Nightlights present the following hazards:

  • fire. Nightlights can become excessively hot, causing them to melt and pose a risk of fire if they come in contact with flammable materials, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC). The CPSC receives roughly 10 reports annually of fires that were caused when nightlights ignited toilet paper, pillows, bedspreads and other flammable materials. In many of these cases, the nightlight was installed so close to the bed that falling blankets or pillows made contact with the nightlight and started a fire. For this reason, nightlights should not be plugged in next to bed coverings, curtains, and other potentially flammable objects and materials. Nightlights should not covered with tape, cardboard or any other material that might cause them to overheat. Homeowners may consider using nightlights equipped with mini neon bulbs instead of higher-wattage bulbs;
  • poisoning. So-called “bubble” nightlights are special, decorative nightlights that contain a dangerous chemical called methylene chloride. If the vial breaks, the unit should be thrown away immediately and precautions should be taken to avoid skin contact with the leaking chemical; and
  • electric shock. Nightlights pose the risk of electric shock when used outdoors or in locations that may become wet, such near sinks, hot tubs, in garages, and at covered patios. They should never be plugged into an extension cord, surge-protector strip, multiple-outlet strip, or other movable types of receptacles. Electric shock is also possible if the nightlight overheats and melts.

Additional Tips

  • Plug the nightlight into an exposed wall outlet where it will be well-ventilated.
  • Do not repair any nightlight yourself. Only replace the bulb.
  • Avoid installing nightlights in locations where they might be exposed to excessive sunlight, as UV rays will degrade the plastic.
  • Never let children handle nightlights. If you have small children, avoid purchasing or installing a nightlight decorated with cute or funny figures to which they may be attracted and that may be easy for them to reach.

Bathroom Sinks (Lavatories)

A lavatory is a washbasin or sink located in a bathroom or washroom. “Lavatory” means washbasin or sink, and is derived from the Latin word lavatorium, which means washing vessel, and the French word laver, meaning “to wash.” Lavatories come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They are available in enameled cast-iron, vitreous china, stainless steel, porcelain-enameled formed steel, plastic, and non-vitreous ceramic. They can be wall-mounted, hanger-mounted, under-mounted, pedestal, rimmed, and above-center basin types.
Countertops integrated with lavatories are constructed of a variety of materials, including ABS, PVC, gel-coated fiberglass-reinforced plastic, acrylic, polyester, and cultured marble. Plastic vanity tops should be impregnated with fire-resistant chemicals to reduce the fuel contribution of the lavatory during a house fire or the accidental fire from a plumber’s torch. They are also made to resist the effect of a burning cigarette left unattended on the vanity top.

Lavatories should have a waste outlet of at least 1-1/4 inches in diameter. Each lavatory must have a strainer, a pop-up stopper, a crossbar, or other mechanism to prevent items such as rings, toothbrushes and cosmetic items from dropping into the drain.

Lavatory Overflows

Former standards required lavatories to have an overflow, but that is no longer the case. The overflow is now an option of the manufacturer. The reason for not requiring an overflow at a lavatory is because of the lack of use of the overflow, which can cause bacterial and micro-organism growth.

Where a lavatory does have an overflow installed, the cross-sectional area of the overflow should be a minimum of 1-1/8 inches; anything larger can promote bacterial and micro-organism growth. The overflow should be able to prevent overflowing of the sink for a minimum of five minutes when tested from the onset of water flowing into the overflow’s opening.

Maintenance Tips

There are many different designs of lavatories, including artisanal styles that sit up on the vanity, rather than being dropped into a recessed cavity in the vanity or countertop. Regardless of the style or whether it includes an overflow opening, the washbasin should be securely attached to the vanity, be free of cracks and other defects, and have gaps that are properly caulked to prevent moisture buildup, which can lead to unsanitary conditions, including mold growth.

Showers & Bathtubs

Bathtubs

Bathtubs are made from many different types of materials, including enameled cast-iron, porcelain-enameled steel, and plastic. Plastic tubs are made from materials including ABS, PVC, fiberglass, fiberglass-reinforced plastic, acrylic, and cultured-marble acrylic. Bathtubs that are equipped with shower fixtures should be manufactured with slip-resistant surfaces. Bathtubs should have a drainage outlet (tailpiece) with a minimum diameter of 1-1/2 inches. Every tub should be equipped with a stopper. The bathtub should have an overflow outlet installed. The overflow prevents flooding if the tub is being filled while unattended, and prevents overflow of the water when a person enters a tub that is full.

Fire-Resistance

Bathtubs made of plastic are tested for fire ignition. They are made with fire-resistant chemicals to reduce their fuel contribution in a house fire, or an accidental exposure to a plumber’s torch.

Large Bathtub Loads

Some bathtubs are so large that they can accommodate more than one person at a time. These larger bathtubs may need special and additional structural support underneath them to adequately support the load.
A 3×4-foot bathtub may have a capacity to hold 200 gallons or more. The weight of the bathtub, water, and occupants may total over 1 ton, considering:

200 pounds for the bathtub
1,600 pounds of water
350 pounds for two people
= 2,150 pounds

A very large tub may cause structural problems because live-loading for a typical residential home is 40 pounds per square foot. The live load for a 3×4-foot occupied tub may be assumed to be only 480 pounds, but may weigh over 2,000 pounds while it is in use.

Maintenance Tips

The homeowner should make sure that the tub is free of cracks, rust and other staining, and that all edges, gaps and surrounding tile are adequately caulked to ensure that moisture cannot leach behind the tile work and drywall, which can lead to leaks and structural damage behind walls that won’t be evident until the issue becomes extensive and expensive to fix.

Showers

Plastic, pre-fabricated shower units are constructed of various synthetic materials, including ABS, PVC, gel-coated fiberglass-reinforced plastic, cultured marble, cast-filled fiberglass, polyester, cultured marble acrylic, and acrylic. These shower units are impregnated with fire-retardant chemicals to reduce the fuel contribution during a fire, and protection against an accidental burn by a plumber’s torch.

The showerhead height is not typically regulated by building codes, but the head is commonly installed 70 to 80 inches above the shower floor.

Shower Water Pipes

Water-supply pipes from the shower valve to the showerhead outlet — referred to as the shower riser pipes — whether exposed or not, must be firmly attached to a structural component to prevent the pipes from leaking caused by stress fractures or joint failures. Movement of the showerhead may move the riser piping, possibly causing failure of the piping. The risers must be firmly secured.

The common practice for installing the riser pipe is to place a drop-ear elbow at the top of the riser pipe. The elbow has two wing connections. They can be screwed to a structural backing board, such as a 2×4. A pipe strap can be used instead of a drop-ear elbow. When the riser is exposed, the manufacturer will typically provide a strap or attachment device to match the finish of the fixture and pipe. The strap or attachment device should be firmly secured to a structural component.

Shower Outlets

The waste outlet for a shower should have minimum diameter of 1-1/2 inches. The shower outlet should have a strainer that is at least 3 inches in diameter, with dimensional openings in the strainer of at least a 1/4-inch. The strainer should be removable.

Shower Area

A shower compartment should have an interior cross-sectional area of at least 900 square inches. This will allow an average-sized adult to clean the lower body while bending over. A shower that’s any smaller would be inadequately sized. Shower compartments should be at least 30 inches in minimum dimension. This measurement is based on the movement of an adult body inside a shower and measured from the finished interior dimension of the compartment, excluding fixture valves, showerheads, soap dishes and grab bars. There are exceptions for showers having fold-down seats, and those with compartments at least 25 inches wide and 1,300 square inches in cross-sectional area.

The exception allows for a shower with one dimension being 25 inches, provided the compartment has at least 1,300 square inches of cross-sectional area. This is useful to contractors and DIY homeowners who remove an old bathtub and install a standup shower fixture in the same space.

Shower Walls

Showers and bathtubs with installed showerheads should be finished with a non-absorbent surface that shall extend to a height of not less than 6 feet above the floor level of the room, or 70 inches above the shower floor. It should be constructed of smooth, corrosion-resistant and non-absorbent materials to protect the structural components from moisture damage. The gypsum or cement wallboard behind ceramic tiles of a shower wall should be water-resistant. The water-resistant material is not required in the rest of the bathroom, although it is a common practice to use water-resistant gypsum wallboard in other areas of the bathroom because of the moisture levels.

Shower Access and Egress Opening

Many injuries in a home are related to accidents in the bathtub or shower. The minimum opening requirements for access and egress allows an adult enough room to safely step into and exit the shower area without having to twist or turn through a narrow opening. The shower opening (or access and egress opening) should be at least 22 inches of clear and unobstructed finish-width. The 22-inch width is based on the approximate shoulder width of an average-sized adult, and provides comfortable access to service the valves, showerheads and drain. It allows for emergency response and rescue access, and emergency egress.

Shower Floors

The shower floor surface must be watertight with smooth, corrosion-resistant, non-absorbent, waterproof materials. Joints between the floor and walls of the shower must be sealed or flashed to prevent water penetration. Ideally, there should be some type of slip-resistant floor surface. The shower floor structure needs proper support by a smooth and structurally sound base. The base of the shower floor should be designed to support both dead (structural) and live (people and water) loads.

Shower pans and liners are installed under and around showers to prevent moisture intrusion from getting into the structural supports under and behind the shower enclosure. They must meet specific standards for material, installation and size in order to support both dead and live loads.

Shower Glazing

Glass doors enclosing the shower should be made of safety glazing. If a window is installed in the shower, the window should be made of safety glazing to provide protection. If a person slips or falls inside the shower, s/he may be seriously injured by broken glass if the glass is not made of safety glazing. The safety glazing should be correctly labeled by being permanently marked in a corner, legible and visible after installation, and indoor applications should be marked “indoor use only.”

Maintenance Tips

Similar to other bathroom fixtures, the homeowner should make sure that the shower is free of cracks, rust and other staining, and that all edges, gaps and surrounding tile are adequately caulked to ensure that moisture cannot leach behind the tile work and drywall, which can lead to leaks and structural damage behind walls that won’t be evident until the issue becomes extensive and expensive to fix. Additionally, if the glazing for the showers doors is damaged, it should be replaced, as cracked glazing can break without notice and cause serious injuries.

Toilets & Bidets

A water closet in the U.S. is commonly referred to as a toilet. The term “water closet” originates from the time when plumbing was brought indoors, and defecation took place in a small, closet-size room with a pot.

Toilet Styles

There are three styles of water closets: close-coupled, one-piece, and flushometer valve. The most common is the close-coupled water closet, which has a bowl and separate gravity-type tank or flushometer tank that is supported by the bowl. A one-piece water closet is constructed with the gravity-type tank or flushometer tank and bowl as one integral unit. A flushometer-valve water closet is a bowl with a flushometer valve. Water closet bowls come in six styles: blow-out, siphon jet, reverse trap, wash-down, siphon vortex, and siphon wash.
Toilet Measurements
A water closet has a water consumption limit of a maximum average of 1.6 gallons of water per flush. The general bowl rim height above the floor is between 14 and 15 inches. Other rim heights may be needed for water closets used by children (10 inches), and the elderly and persons with physical disabilities (18 inches). Elongated water closet bowls are required for public or employee use but are often installed in homes. An elongated bowl is 2 inches longer than a regular bowl.

Defects at Toilets

The water closet (toilet) may have a clogged drain. While flushing the toilet, watch the flush performance, and use toilet paper as part of this test. There should be no excessive odors around the water closet. Check the flooring around the toilet with your foot. Using the side of your leg, check to see if the toilet is securely attached to the floor. If it wobbles, the screws at the base may be loose, or the wax ring that adheres the fixture to the waste pipe may be worn or of the wrong size. If so, it should be replaced. Look for dampness around the bottom of the toilet base. Toilets sometimes run continuously. Check for a water shut-off valve. Some toilets are mistakenly connected to the hot water system. Tank lids are often cracked. Any defective parts should be immediately replaced to avoid backup flooding.

Bidets

Common in much of Europe and Asia, bidets are toilet-like plumbing fixtures designed to promote posterior hygiene. They’re becoming increasingly common in North America. Contrary to popular belief, a bidet is not an alternative to a toilet. Its purpose is as a hygiene device following toilet use. However, some bidets have been incorporated into toilets, especially in bathrooms that are not large enough for both fixtures.

Bidets, like toilets, are typically made from porcelain and contain a deep recess within a wide rim. They emit an arc of clean water from a nozzle that may be located beneath the rear of the rim or deep within the fixture’s cavity. Users can sit on the rim (or seat, if it has one), or straddle the fixture and face in either direction. He or she can decide which direction to face based on the water jet configuration and the part of their body that needs cleaning. Water temperature and pressure can be adjusted with knobs in order to arrive at the desired settings.

Some bidets come with built-in air dryers. Toilet paper can be used for this purpose if no dryer is available. The bidet can be rinsed after use to keep it clean.

Benefits

People who suffer from hemorrhoids, irritable bowel syndrome, or have recently had surgery can find relief with the more gentle water flow of a bidet.
As the bidet requires less operator mobility, they are easier to use for the elderly, disabled and obese.
Many believe that the use of bidets is more hygienic and effective than toilet paper.
Safety Precautions

Users should familiarize themselves with the rate of temperature and pressure changes that occur when they adjust the controls. Sensitive regions can be burned if the user is not careful, and high water pressure can be irritating.
Users should know in advance the direction of the water arc and position themselves accordingly. The spray can be powerful enough to strike a person in the face.
Bathroom Sinks (Lavatories)

Lavatories

A lavatory is a washbasin or sink located in a bathroom or washroom. “Lavatory” means washbasin or sink, and is derived from the Latin word lavatorium, which means washing vessel, and the French word laver, meaning “to wash.” Lavatories come in a variety of shapes and sizes. They are available in enameled cast-iron, vitreous china, stainless steel, porcelain-enameled formed steel, plastic, and non-vitreous ceramic. They can be wall-mounted, hanger-mounted, under-mounted, pedestal, rimmed, and above-center basin types.
Countertops integrated with lavatories are constructed of a variety of materials, including ABS, PVC, gel-coated fiberglass-reinforced plastic, acrylic, polyester, and cultured marble. Plastic vanity tops should be impregnated with fire-resistant chemicals to reduce the fuel contribution of the lavatory during a house fire or the accidental fire from a plumber’s torch. They are also made to resist the effect of a burning cigarette left unattended on the vanity top.

Lavatories should have a waste outlet of at least 1-1/4 inches in diameter. Each lavatory must have a strainer, a pop-up stopper, a crossbar, or other mechanism to prevent items such as rings, toothbrushes and cosmetic items from dropping into the drain.

Lavatory Overflows
Former standards required lavatories to have an overflow, but that is no longer the case. The overflow is now an option of the manufacturer. The reason for not requiring an overflow at a lavatory is because of the lack of use of the overflow, which can cause bacterial and micro-organism growth.

Where a lavatory does have an overflow installed, the cross-sectional area of the overflow should be a minimum of 1-1/8 inches; anything larger can promote bacterial and micro-organism growth. The overflow should be able to prevent overflowing of the sink for a minimum of five minutes when tested from the onset of water flowing into the overflow’s opening.

Maintenance Tips

There are many different designs of lavatories, including artisanal styles that sit up on the vanity, rather than being dropped into a recessed cavity in the vanity or countertop. Regardless of the style or whether it includes an overflow opening, the washbasin should be securely attached to the vanity, be free of cracks and other defects, and have gaps that are properly caulked to prevent moisture buildup, which can lead to unsanitary conditions, including mold growth.

Water Heaters

A water heater is an appliance that heats potable water and supplies heated water to the home’s plumbing distribution system. Most tanks are insulated steel cylinders with an enamel coating on the inner surface. They are referred to as glass-lined tanks. The lining helps prevent corrosion. A water heater can literally explode if it’s not installed properly. There are standards that regulate the materials, design and installation of water heaters and their related safety devices. Certification marks on them from approved agencies indicate compliance with approved standards.

Conventional residential water heaters have life expectancies that vary greatly. The typical water heater has a lifespan of about 10 years, based on the following factors: correct installation; usage volume; construction quality; and maintenance.

Correct Installation

A water heater should generally be installed upright. Installing a water heater on its side will place structural stress on it due to inadequate support for the heater and its pipes, and may cause premature failure. Water heaters should be installed in well-ventilated areas — not just for fire safety requirements and nitrous-oxide buildup, but also because poor ventilation can shorten its lifespan. A water heater should also not be placed in an area susceptible to flood damage. Water can rust out the exterior and pipes, decreasing the life expectancy and efficiency of the unit. A water heater is best placed in an easily accessible area for maintenance. It should also be readily visible for fire and health-hazard requirements.

Usage

The life expectancy of the water heater depends a great deal on the volume of water used. Using large quantities of water means that the water heater will have to work harder to heat the water. In addition, the greater the volume of water, the greater the corrosive effect of the water will be on the tank materials, pipes, etc.

Construction Quality

As with most household systems and components, you get what you pay for in a water heater. Cheaper models will generally have a shorter lifespan, while more expensive models will generally last longer. A good indication of a water heater’s construction quality is its warranty. Longer warranties naturally imply sound construction. According to a 2007 Consumer Report that deconstructed 18 different models of water heaters, it was determined that models with longer warranties were of superior manufacturing quality, with nine- and 12-year models typically having larger or higher-wattage heating elements, as well as thicker insulation. Models with larger heating elements have a much better resistance to mineral buildup or scum.

Pay attention to the model’s features. For example, porcelain casing provides an additional layer of protection against rusting, and a greater level of heat insulation. Some models come with a self-cleaning feature that flushes the pipes of mineral deposit buildup, which can affect the unit’s lifespan. Models with larger or thicker anodes are better-equipped to fight corrosion.

Maintenance and Parts Replacement

The hardness of the water is another consideration when looking at estimating the lifespan of a water heater. In areas where there is a higher mineral content to the water, water heaters have shorter a lifespan than in other areas, as mineral buildup reduces the units’ efficiency. Even in areas where the water is softer, however, some mineral deposition is bound to occur. A way to counteract this mineral buildup is to periodically flush the water heater system, which not only removes some of the buildup, but, in tank systems, the process heats the water in the tank. Higher-end models typically come equipped with a self-flushing feature. In models for which manual flushing is required, it is important not to damage the water heater valve, which is usually made of plastic and is easy to break.

Although an older model may appear to be well-maintained, a question arises: Is the maintenance worth it? Warranties often exclude labor costs, so a good rule to follow is that if the total repair cost per year is greater than 10% of the cost of buying and installing a new water heater, it is probably not worth replacing any damaged parts.

WDO & Pest Control

Wood-destroying organisms and other pests can cause serious problems in the wooden structural components of a house, and an infestation may go unnoticed until the damage is already extensive. Control measures include preventing insect entry by sealing holes and cracks, and hiring a professional to apply chemicals for remedial treatment. The most commons types of destructive insects are termites and ants.

Termites

Subterranean termites are the most damaging insects of wood. Their presence is hard to notice, and damage usually is found before the termites are seen. You should take measures to prevent infestations, which may require hiring a pest-control service.
If you see the following signs in your house, you might have termites:

  •    frass or sawdust-like droppings, which result from the termites’ tunneling activity;
  •    dirt or mud-like tubes or trails on various parts of the home’s structure, such as wooden support members, plumbing pipes, etc.;
  •    damaged wood members (such as window sills); and
  • swarming winged insects within the home, especially in the spring or fall.

Ants

Ants are among the most prevalent pests in households, restaurants, hospitals, offices, warehouses, and virtually all buildings where food and water can be found. While mostly harmless to humans, carpenter ants can cause considerable damage.
The following clues are evidence that your home is host to an ant infestation:

  •    long trails of ants, perhaps numbering in the hundreds or thousands. Ants assemble in long trails along structural elements, such as wires and pipes, and frequently use them to enter and travel within a structure to their destination;
  •    a few straggler ants, which are scouts in search of food and nesting sites;
  •    holes or cracks in walls or the foundation, especially where pipes enter the building, and around windows and doors. These can provide entry points for ants and other insects.  The kitchen (where food is stored and prepared) is a particular problem area;
  •    frass deposits, which result from the ants carving tunnels or galleries in the wood;
  •    a distinctive rustling sound similar to the crinkling of cellophane. Ants are small but their nests are large enough to produce perceptible noise; and
  •    nests in mulch and vegetation outdoors next to the foundation. Check under potted plants, patio blocks, stepping stones, in piles of rocks, lumber and firewood.

Other Pests

Snakes, spiders, bees and/or scorpions may be living in your crawlspace, and while they pose little structural danger to the house, they certainly can harm you. Rapid retreat there can be difficult, so if you’re in your crawlspace for any reason (storing items, looking for moisture intrusion or a water leak, etc.), be aware of your escape paths, and carry an extra flashlight in case the one you’re using suddenly stops working.

Your crawlspace is also the most likely area in the house where hantavirus may be found. This is partly due to the fact that rodents that carry the pathogen are attracted to areas that are undisturbed by humans. Also, crawlspaces are generally dark places that lack ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which can rapidly inactivate the virus. Exposure to hantavirus may lead to Hantavirus Cardiopulmonary Syndrome (HCS), characterized by headaches, fever, difficulty breathing and, often, death. There is no known cure, vaccine or treatment that specifically targets HCS. However, if the symptoms are recognized early, patients may benefit from oxygen therapy.

The Importance of a WDO Inspection

Regular inspections of your house are an important part of home maintenance. Inspecting for wood-destroying insects can alert you to possible infestations in the wooden structural components of your home—a serious problem that often goes undetected for a long time. Call your InterNACHI inspector for a WDO Inspection if you suspect that your home may be infested.

Dryer Vent Maintenance & Safety

House fires caused by dryers are far more common than are generally believed. According to the National Fire Protection Agency, fires caused by dryers in 2005 were responsible for approximately 13,775 house fires, 418 injuries, 15 deaths, and $196 million in property damage. Most of these incidents occur in residences and are the result of improper lint cleanup and maintenance. Fortunately, these fires are very easy to prevent.

Clothes dryers evaporate the water from wet clothing by blowing hot air past them while they tumble inside a spinning drum. Heat is provided by an electrical heating element or gas burner. Some heavy garment loads can contain more than a gallon of water that will become airborne water vapor and leave the dryer and home through an exhaust duct, more commonly known as the dryer vent.

A vent that exhausts damp air to the home’s exterior has a number of requirements:

  •    It should be connected. The connection is usually behind the dryer but may it be under it. Look carefully to make sure it’s actually connected.
  •    It should not be restricted. Dryer vents are often made from flexible plastic or metal duct, which may be easily kinked or crushed where they exit the dryer and enter the wall or floor. This is often a problem since dryers tend to be tucked away into small areas with little room to work. Vent hardware is available that is designed to turn 90 degrees in a limited space without restricting the flow of exhaust air.  Air flow restrictions are a potential fire hazard.
  •    One of the reasons that restrictions pose a fire hazard is that, along with water vapor evaporated out of wet clothes, the exhaust stream carries lint – highly flammable particles of clothing made of cotton, wool and polyester. Lint can accumulate in an exhaust duct, reducing the dryer’s ability to expel heated water vapor, which then accumulates as heat energy within the machine. As the dryer overheats, a subsequent mechanical failure can trigger a spark, which can cause the lint trapped in the dryer vent to burst into flames. This condition can cause the whole house to catch fire.  Fires generally originate within the dryer but spread by escaping through the ventilation duct, incinerating trapped lint, and following its path into the home’s walls.

Problems & Tips

If your dryer vent terminates in the crawlspace or attic, it can deposit moisture there, which can encourage the growth of mold, wood decay, and other structural problems. The vent may also terminate just under the attic ventilators. This is also a defective installation. Make sure your dryer vent terminates at the exterior and away from any doors and windows so that damp, exhausted air won’t re-enter the home. Also, the end of the dryer vent should have a free-moving damper installed to keep out birds and other pests that like to build nests in this warm environment. If you find a screen, this is a defective installation because a screen can block lint and other debris, causing it to accumulate and leading to a house fire. If it’s safety accessible, make sure your dryer vent is unobstructed and that the damper works properly.

Indoor Air Quality Issues

Indoor air quality is generally worse than most people believe, but there are things you can do about it.

Some Quick Facts:

  • Indoor air quality can be worse than that of outdoor air.
  • Problems can arise from moisture, insects, pets, appliances, radon, materials used in household products and furnishings, smoke, and other sources.
  • Effects range from minor annoyances to major health risks.
  • Remedies include ventilation, cleaning, moisture control, inspections, and following manufacturers’ directions when using appliances and products.

Many homes are built or remodeled more tightly, without regard to the factors that assure fresh and healthy indoor air circulation. Many homes today also contain furnishings, appliances and products that can affect indoor air quality.

Signs of indoor air quality problems include:

  • unusual and noticeable odors;
  • stale or stuffy air and a noticeable lack of air movement;
  • dirty or faulty central heating or air-conditioning equipment;
  • damaged flue pipes and chimneys;
  • unvented combustion air sources for fossil-fuel appliances;
  • excessive humidity;
  • the presence of molds and mildew;
  • adverse health reactions after remodeling, weatherizing, bringing in new furniture, using household and hobby products; and
  • feeling noticeably healthier outside.

Common Sources of Air Quality Problems

Poor indoor air quality can arise from many sources. At least some of the following contaminants can be found in almost any home:

  • moisture and biological pollutants, such as molds, mildew, dust mites, animal dander, and cockroaches;
  • high humidity levels, inadequate ventilation, and poorly maintained humidifiers and air conditioners;
  • combustion products, including carbon monoxide from unvented fossil-fuel space heaters, unvented gas stoves and ovens, and back-drafting from furnaces and water heaters;
  • formaldehyde from durable-press draperies and other textiles, particleboard products, such as cabinets and furniture framing, and adhesives used in composite wood furniture and upholstery;
  • radon, which is a radioactive gas from the soil and rock beneath and around the home’s foundation, groundwater wells, and some building materials;
  • household products, such as paints, solvents, air fresheners, hobby supplies, dry-cleaned clothing, aerosol sprays, adhesives, and fabric additives used in carpeting and furniture, which can release volatile organic compounds (VOCs);
  • asbestos, which is found in most homes more than 20 years old. Sources include deteriorating, damaged and disturbed pipe insulation, fire retardant, acoustical ceiling tiles, and floor tiles;
  • lead from lead-based paint dust, which is created when removing paint by sanding, scraping or burning;
  • particulates from dust and pollen, fireplaces, wood stoves, kerosene heaters, and unvented gas space heaters; and
  • tobacco smoke, which produces particulates, combustion products and formaldehyde.

Tips for Homeowners

  •    Ask about formaldehyde content before buying furniture, cabinets and draperies.
  •    Promptly clean and dry water-damaged carpet, or remove it altogether.
  •    Vacuum regularly, especially if you have pets, and consider using area rugs instead of wall-to-wall carpeting. Rugs are easier to remove and clean, and the floor underneath can also be easily cleaned.
  •    Eliminate unwanted moisture intrusion by checking for sources (such as holes and cracks in the basement and other areas, and leaks from appliances), and by using a dehumidifier.
  •    Open windows and use fans to maintain fresh air with natural and mechanical air circulation.
  •    Always open the flue damper before using the fireplace.  This will also prevent carbon-monoxide poisoning.
  •    If your air conditioner has a water tray, empty and clean it often during the cooling season.
  •    If you smoke, smoke outdoors and away from any windows and doors.
  •    Use the range vent above your stove whenever you cook.
  •    Use the bathroom vent whenever you use the bathroom.
  • Don’t leave vehicles or lawn care equipment running in your garage.  Make sure the door leading from the home to the garage has a door sweep to help keep out vapors.

Your InterNACHI inspector can recommend more ways to help you maintain healthy indoor air quality for you and your family.

HVAC Filter Maintenance

Part of responsible homeownership includes, of course, regular home maintenance. And there are some tasks that, if deferred, can lead to a home system that’s inefficient and overworked, which can result in problems and expenses. One such task is changing the filter of the home’s HVAC system. It’s simple and inexpensive, and taking care of it at least every three months can mean the difference between optimum comfort and avoidable repairs.

What Can Go Wrong

Most homes have some sort of furnace or heat pump, and many of those homes (especially newer ones) have combined heating, ventilation and air-conditioning or HVAC systems. Each type uses some type of air filter or screen to prevent larger airborne particles (up to 40 microns) from entering the system and clogging sensitive machinery. A system that has a dirty filter can suffer from pressure drop, which can lead to reduced air flow, or “blow-out,” resulting in no air infiltration at all. Any of these conditions can cause the system to work harder to keep the home warm or cool (depending on the season and the setting). And any mechanical component that has to work harder to run efficiently puts undue stress on the whole system, which can lead to premature failure, resulting in repair or replacement.

Also, a dirty filter that’s exposed to condensation can become damp, which can lead to mold growth that can be spread throughout the home by the HVAC system. This can lead to serious health consequences, not to mention a compromised unit that will likely require servicing and may require replacement, depending on the severity of the moisture problem.

Types of Filters

Most HVAC and furnace filters are disposable, made of biodegradable paper or similar media, and shaped in cells, screens or fins designed to trap as much airborne debris as possible. Filters can typically be purchased in economical multi-packs, and there are many types that will fit different models of furnace/HVAC units. It’s important to use the appropriate filter for your unit; using the wrong filter that doesn’t fit the unit properly can create the same types of problems as having a dirty filter. Your HVAC installer can show you where the filter goes and how to remove the old one and install a new one. Your unit may also have an affixed label with directions for easy filter replacement.

How Often?

Your HVAC or furnace technician should service your unit once a year. Because a furnace/HVAC unit contains moving parts, it’s important that belts are not cracked and dry, ventilation ductwork is not gapped, cracked or rusted, and components, such as coils and fans, are clog-free and adequately lubricated for unimpeded operation. This sort of evaluation is best left to the professional, unless you’ve had the appropriate training.

The filter of the unit, especially if it’s an HVAC unit that will tend to get nearly year-round use, should be changed by the homeowner at least every three months, but possibly more often.

Check your filter’s condition and change it once a month if:

  • You run your unit six months a year to year-round.
  • You have pets.  Pet dander can become airborne and circulate through the home’s ventilation system just as typical household dust does.
  • You have a large family.  More activity means more household dust, dirt and debris.
  • You smoke indoors.
  • You or someone in your household suffers from allergies or a respiratory condition.
  • You live in a particularly windy area or experience high winds for extended periods, especially if there are no nearby shrubs or trees to provide a natural windbreak.
  • You live in an area prone to or having recently experienced any wildfires.  Airborne ash outdoors will eventually find its way indoors.
  • You have a fireplace that you occasionally use.
  • You live on a working farm or ranch.  Dust and dirt that gets kicked up by outdoor work activity and/or large animals can be pulled into the home’s ventilation system, especially through open windows.
  • You have a large garden.  Depending on its size and how often you work it, tilling soil, planting, pulling weeds, using herbicides and pesticides, and even watering mean that dirt, chemicals and condensation can be pulled into your home’s ventilation system.
  • There is construction taking place around or near the home.  You may be installing a new roof or a pool, or perhaps a neighbor is building a home or addition.  Even if the activity is only temporary, dust and debris from worksites adjacent to or near the home can be sucked into the home’s ventilation system, and this increased activity can tax your HVAC system.

Change the filter immediately if:

  • The filter is damaged.  A damaged filter won’t work as intended.
  • The filter is damp.  A filter affected by moisture intrusion, system condensation, or even high indoor humidity can quickly become moldy and spread airborne mold spores throughout the home via the ventilation system.
  • There is evidence of microbial growth or mold on the filter.  Mold spores already infiltrating the home via the HVAC system are not only bad for the unit itself, but they can pose a health hazard for the family, ranging from an irritated respiratory system to a serious allergic reaction.

Tips on Changing the Filter

  • Turn off the unit before replacing the filter.
  • Use the right filter for your unit and make sure it’s not damaged out of the package.
  • Follow the directions for your unit to make sure you’re installing the filter properly.  For example, many filters use different colors for the front and back (or upstream and downstream flow) so that they’re not installed backwards.
  • Make sure there aren’t any gaps around the filter frame.  If this is the case, you may have the wrong size filter, or the filter itself may be defective or damaged.
  • Use a rag to clean up any residual dust before and after you replace the filter.
  • Securely replace any levers, gaskets and/or seals.
  • Turn the unit on and observe it while it’s operating to make sure the filter stays in place.
  • Note the date of filter replacement in a convenient location for the next time you inspect it.  A filter that becomes dirty enough to change within a short period of time may indicate a problem with the unit or ventilation system, so monitoring how often the filter requires changing is important information for your technician to have.

Call a technician for servicing if:

  • Your unit fails to turn back on.
  • The fan is slow or makes excessive noise, or the fins are bent.
  • The coils are excessively dusty or clogged.
  • You notice moisture intrusion from an unknown source anywhere in the system.

Homeowners who take care of the easy task of changing their HVAC filter can help prevent system downtime and avoidable expenses, as well as keep their families living and breathing comfortably. Your InterNACHI inspector can provide more useful tips and reminders during your Annual Home Maintenance Inspection.