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.

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.

What Are Food-Waste Disposers?

Garbage disposals, also called food-waste disposers, are residential appliances designed to shred food waste so that it can fit through plumbing. They are usually electrically powered (although occasionally powered by water pressure) and are installed beneath sinks.

Why Use a Garbage Disposal?

When food waste is discarded into the trash, it places an enormous burden on waste-management systems. Garbage disposals reduce the severity of these problems by routing food waste into septic systems or sewers instead of landfills.

Garbage Disposals and Septic Systems

If a garbage disposal discharges into a septic tank, it can place significant strain on the septic system. The amount of waste that enters the tank, particularly grease and suspended solids, will increase considerably. This load increase requires that the septic tank be pumped more often than would otherwise be required. The additional strain will also reduce the lifespan of the septic system. Septic systems can be designed to accommodate food waste, but, in general, they are not.

Electrical Wiring Requirements

The National Electrical Code (NEC) does not require a garbage disposal to have GFCI protection.
The vibration caused by the operation of a garbage disposal can cause electrical connections to separate. Check for any loose connections in the wire compartment box at the base of the disposal.
Garbage disposals should be either hardwired or connected to an outlet through a grounded electrical outlet.
A dedicated circuit is generally recommended, although a circuit that is shared with a dishwasher is sometimes appropriate. The disposal’s user or installation manual should be consulted.

Precautions for Testing Garbage Disposals:

To test a garbage disposal for leaks, turn it on and run water through it. The water load should be great enough so that any leaks will become apparent. A good way to do this is to close the drain and fill the sink with water before releasing the stopper.
While testing a garbage disposal, never put anything other than water through it. Before turning it on, check to make sure there are no objects already in the disposal.
If a dishwasher is connected to the disposal, make sure that the line that connects them is securely attached.
Check to make sure that the garbage disposal is connected to a drain that is 1½ inches or greater in diameter.
Check to make sure that the disposal is provided with an adequate water supply.
If the home has a double sink, check to make sure the waste pipe from the disposal has a trap installed.

Maintenance and Operation Suggestions:

Put only small quantities of food into the disposal at a time. Large food scraps should be cut into smaller pieces before entering the disposal.

Never put anything down the disposal that is not food or water. Bottle caps, aluminum foil, and other non-food items can damage the disposal or get stuck in the plumbing piping.
Run water while using the disposal and for approximately 30 seconds after you turn it off. Food scraps will flow through the piping more easily if they are pushed along by water. Cold water is better than warm water for this purpose because it will force fats and grease to congeal and harden, allowing them to move more easily through pipes. Warm water can be run through the disposal while it is not in operation.

Ice can be used to clear off solidified grease and other debris from the blades in a garbage disposal.
The garbage disposal should be used to grind only non-fibrous, leftover food. If in doubt as to whether something can be put in the disposal, err on the side of caution and put it in the trash instead.

The following items should never be put in a disposal:
items that are hard enough to dull the blades, such as shells from shellfish or bones;
food that is highly fibrous, such as corn husks, artichokes, pineapples, potato peels, asparagus, or celery, which should enter a disposal only in small quantities or disposed of in the trash. These foods take a long time to grind and can clog the disposal or the plumbing;
grease and household oils; or
chemicals.
Garbage disposals have the potential to limit the amount of household trash that must be taken away to waste management facilities. They can also place additional strain on septic systems and, for this reason, they should be used infrequently.

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.

Exterior Cladding: Vinyl Siding

There are many different types of cladding or covering for the exterior of homes that give them their particular style and appeal. Different cladding types have their own particular pros and cons, as well as maintenance issues. Here are some facts and tips for homeowners whose homes have vinyl siding.

Homeowners, remodeling contractors and builders often choose vinyl siding as an alternative to wood and aluminum because it’s attractive, durable, easy to maintain, and cost-effective. Vinyl siding is made with PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and is often textured to resemble wood or stone in a variety of colors. Vinyl siding came into use as an exterior cladding in the late 1950s. Today, it’s the most common choice for exterior cladding.

Advantages:

  • Vinyl siding is very durable.
  • It will last for decades when properly installed and maintained.
  • It will not fade.
  • It will not rust.
  • The outer layer contains pigment that adds color to the siding and resists breakdown from UV radiation from sunlight.  If scratched, the siding will reveal the same color as the unscratched exterior, so minor imperfections are not too noticeable.
  • As long as the siding has been properly installed, maintenance is very simple, limited mostly to spray-washing once a year or whenever necessary.

Disadvantages:

  • In extreme weather conditions, vinyl siding is susceptible to damage, as is any other type of siding.
  • In severe cold, vinyl siding can become brittle and more susceptible to cracking.
  • Extreme heat can also cause vinyl to melt or distort.  There are reported cases of sunlight reflected from nearby windows that has caused vinyl siding to warp and melt.
  • Vinyl siding is not a form of insulation—it is simply an exterior cladding.  However, some salespeople misrepresent this fact with claims that new siding will aid energy efficiency.  This is only true for siding that includes special insulating inserts or backings—not to the vinyl siding itself.
  • Vinyl siding is not a watertight covering, so check the inside occasionally for water intrusion if you’ve experienced heavy weather.  
  • If a fire occurs, vinyl siding will melt or burn and may release toxic chemicals, making the situation more dangerous for the home’s occupants.  Some green advocates believe that PVC itself can have a negative impact on health, and there is much debate about these claims.

Tips for Homeowners:

  • Properly installed panels and accessories should move freely from side to side.
  • Drainage holes or slots in horizontal vinyl siding allow water behind the siding to drain and should not be covered or caulked.
  • Ripples in the siding can result from stapling or nailing through the face of the siding, which is an incorrect installation.  Distortion and buckling of panels may be caused by fasteners that were not driven straight and level. If this happens, the homeowner should consult their builder’s warranty.
  • Exterior lights and other features should not be attached directly to the vinyl siding.  They should be secured to mounting blocks instead, since fasteners penetrating the siding will restrict the siding’s natural expansion and contraction.  Always use corrosion-resistant fasteners for any exterior installation.
  • Power-wash the exterior as often as necessary.
  • Check the condition of vinyl gutters and downspouts at least once a year.  While vinyl siding can last for 60 years, gutters and downspouts last around half as long, when properly installed and maintained.

Attic Access Pull-Down Stairs

An attic pull-down ladder, also called an attic pull-down stairway or stairs, is a collapsible ladder that’s permanently attached to the attic floor. It’s used to access the attic without being required to use a portable ladder, which can be unstable, as well as inconvenient.

Common Defects

It’s typical for the homeowner, rather than the professional builder, to install the attic pull-down stairs, especially if it’s an older home or a newer home that’s been built upward in order to use the attic for living or storage space. That’s why these stairs rarely meet safety standards and are prone to a number of defects.
Some of the more common defective conditions include:

  • cut bottom cord of structural truss. The homeowner may have cut through a structural member while installing a pull-down ladder, unknowingly weakening the structure. Structural members should not be modified without an engineer’s approval;
  • fastened with improper nails or screws. Drywall or deck screws may be used instead of the standard 16d penny nails or ¼x3-inch lag screws. Nails and screws that are intended for other purposes may have reduced shear strength and may not support the pull-down ladder;
  • fastened with an insufficient number of nails or screws. Manufacturers provide a certain number of nails with instructions that they all be used, and they do this for a good reason;
  • lack of insulation. The attic hatch or door is not likely to be weatherstripped and/or insulated, which will allow air from the attic to flow freely into the living space of the home, and this will cause the heating or cooling system to run overtime. An attic hatch cover box can be installed to increase energy savings;
  • loose mounting bolts, which is typically caused by age, although improper installation will hasten the loosening process;
  • attic pull-down ladders that are cut too short. The stairs should reach the floor;
  • attic pull-down ladders that are cut too long. This causes pressure at the folding hinge, which can cause breakage;
  • improper or missing fasteners;
  • compromised fire barrier (when the attic and access are above an attached garage);
  • attic ladder frame that is not properly secured to the ceiling opening; and
  • closed ladder that is covered with debris, such as blown insulation or roofing material shed during roof work; a
  • cracked steps. This defect is a problem with wooden ladders.

Safety Tips:

  • If yours is a sliding pull-down ladder, there is a potential for it to slide down too quickly, which can lead to an injury. Always pull the ladder down slowly and cautiously.
  • Do not allow children to enter the attic unattended. The lanyard attached to the attic stairs should be short enough that children cannot reach it. Parents can also lock the attic ladder so that a key or combination is required to access it.
  • If possible, avoid carrying large loads into the attic. While a properly installed stairway will safely support an adult, it might fail if you’re carrying a very heavy load. Many trips can be made to reduce the total weight load, if possible.
  • Replace an old, rickety wooden ladder with a new one. The newer aluminum models are lightweight, sturdy and easy to install.  If you do install a new ladder, follow the manufacturer’s instructions to the letter, and test the ladder’s operation before actually using it.