Inspectors Blog

We Offer Infrared Thermography

Few home inspectors use an advanced infrared camera to look for problematic issues and even fewer are Certified Residential Thermographers. Thermal cameras detect subtle differences in surface temperature. This can allow an inspector to find possible insulation and moisture problems that otherwise may be undetected.

Thermography and Infrared Light

Normally, our vision is limited to a very small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. Thermal energy has a much longer wavelength than visible light. So long, in fact, that the human eye can't even see it, just like we can't see radio waves.

With thermal imaging, the portion of the spectrum we perceive is dramatically expanded, helping us "see" and "measure" thermal energy emitted from an object. Unlike visible light, in the infrared world, everything with a temperature above absolute zero emits heat. Even very cold objects, like ice cubes, emit infrared. And visible light doesn't affect the thermal world, so you can see equally well in highly lit and totally dark environments.

The Electromagnetic Spectrum

The higher the object's temperature, the greater the IR radiation emitted. Infrared allows us to see what our eyes cannot. Infrared thermography cameras produce images of invisible infrared or "heat" radiation and provide precise non-contact temperature measurement capabilities.

How Does an IR Camera Work?

Infrared Energy Detection ‐ An infrared camera is a non-contact device that detects infrared energy (heat) and converts it into an electronic signal, which is then processed to produce a thermal image or video, on which you can perform temperature calculations. Heat sensed by an infrared camera can be very precisely quantified, or measured, allowing you to not only monitor thermal performance, but also identify and evaluate the relative severity of heat-related problems.

Common causes of deck collapse

The North American Deck and Railing Association estimates that 2.5 million decks are built each year. At the time of construction, deck builders can prevent four of the most common causes for deck collapses by taking care during installation to:

  1. Use lumber treated with preservatives that will prevent the deck boards from rotting.
  2. Screw, don't nail, the deck to the building using zinc-coated, corrosion-resistant fasteners, joint hangers and anchors made from galvanized steel, stainless steel, silicon bronze or copper. Local building codes detail the size and number of fasteners required.
  3. Laterally brace the deck to anchor it against strong winds. Install footings that will support the deck from downward loads and prevent it from lifting during a wind-driven storm.
  4. Install guardrails on any deck, porch or balcony that is more than 30 inches off the ground. Most codes require the railings to be at least 36 inches high with slats every four inches. Similar rules apply to railings on staircases.

Extra steps for prevention

Even a well-constructed deck is at risk of collapsing if it's overloaded, poorly maintained or has outlived its expected lifespan. And even deck builders who followed every rule and took every precaution could find themselves on the wrong end of a liability lawsuit if a by-the-book balcony falls and injures someone.

Although building codes do not require it, it's not a bad idea for contractors to take an extra step toward preventing a deck collapse: Educating the building's owners about the importance of weight limits and maintenance to keep the structure safe. Here are five tips to pass along:

  1. Leave a sign behind that posts the maximum capacity for the balcony or deck so that the building owner will know. Also, advise the owner that a pileup of snow on a deck can be heavier than a group of people, and can lead an otherwise empty deck to collapse.
  2. Advise owners that decks do not last forever; in fact, deck professionals give even the best-made structures a lifespan of 15 years. Rusted nails or fasteners can be compromised. Splinters, loose or warped boards and popped nails are signs of deterioration. Professional deck builders know local codes for deck-building, and follow them strictly, as that is the first thing an inspector will check for after a deck has collapsed. One easy fix that could save lives: Older decks often have railings that are too low for safety because outdated codes allowed them to be built at shorter heights.
  3. Leave instructions for the building owner about how to maintain the deck. Railings and supports should be regularly examined for broken or missing pieces; decks need regular cleaning, as dirt, water, dead animals and falling leaves can decay the wood.
  4. Any movement or swaying on the deck can indicate that the structure needs cross-bracing. Alert the owner to call for repairs and stay off of the deck if it starts to move.
  5. Encourage building owners to have their decks inspected periodically so dry rot and other issues that could compromise the structure can be repaired before they lead to tragedy. The North American Deck and Railing Association estimates that at least 40 million residential decks and 10 million commercial decks in the U.S. are at least 20 years old.

Termites - Some great Information - Why worry about termites?

Termites cause billions of dollars in damage each year. They primarily feed on wood, but also damage paper, books, insulation, and even swimming pool liners and filtration systems. Termites can injure living trees and shrubs, but more often are a secondary invader of woody plants already in decline. While buildings may become infested at any time, termites are of particular importance when buying or selling a home since a termite inspection/infestation report is normally a condition of sale. Besides the monetary impact, thousands of winged termites emerging inside one's home are an emotionally trying experience - not to mention the thought of termites silently feasting on one's largest investment.

Why are infestations often discovered during March - May?

Spring typically is when large numbers of winged termites, known as "swarmers," emerge inside homes. In nature, termites swarm to disperse and start new colonies. Triggered by warmer temperatures and rainfall, the winged termites emerge from the colony and fly into the air.

Why are infestations often discovered during March - May?

Winged termites emerging indoors are a sure sign that the building is infested.

The swarmers then drop to the ground, shed their wings, pair off with a mate, and attempt to begin new colonies in the soil. Few swarmers emerging outdoors survive to start new colonies. Swarmers emerging indoors are incapable of eating wood, seldom survive, and are best removed with a vacuum. They do, however, indicate that an infestation is present.

How will I know if my home is infested?

Discovering winged termites indoors almost always indicates an infestation warranting treatment.

People often confuse winged termites with ants, which often swarm at the same time of year. Termites can be differentiated by their straight antennae, uniform waist and wings of equal size. (Ants have elbowed antennae, constricted waists and forewings that are longer than the hind wings.)
The swarmers are attracted to light and are often seen around windows and doors. Termite swarmers emerging from tree stumps, woodpiles, and other locations out in the yard are not necessarily cause for concern, and do not necessarily mean that the house is infested. On the other hand, if winged termites are seen emerging from the base of a foundation wall or adjoining porches and patios, there's a good chance the house is infested also and treatment may be warranted.

Other signs of infestation are earthen (mud) tubes (shown above) extending over foundation walls, support piers, sill plates, floor joists, etc. The mud tubes are typically about the diameter of a pencil, but sometimes can be thicker.
Termites construct these tubes for shelter as they travel between their underground colonies and the structure. To help determine if an infestation is active, the tubes may be broken open and checked for the presence of small, creamy-white worker termites.
If a tube happens to be vacant, it does not necessarily mean that the infestation is inactive; termites often abandon sections of tube while foraging elsewhere in the structure.
Termite-damaged wood is usually hollowed out along the grain, with bits of dried mud or soil lining the feeding galleries. Wood damaged by moisture or other types of insects (e.g., carpenter ants) will not have this appearance. Occasionally termites bore tiny holes through plaster or drywall, accompanied by bits of soil around the margin. Rippled or sunken traces behind wall coverings can also be indicative of termites tunneling underneath.

Oftentimes there will be no visible indication that the home is infested. Termites are cryptic creatures and infestations can go undetected for years, hidden behind walls, floor coverings, insulation, and other obstructions. Termite feeding and damage can even progress undetected in wood that is exposed because the outer surface is usually left intact.

Termite damage to baseboard.
Hidden infestation was discovered when vacumn cleaner attachment penetrated surface of baseboard.

Confirmation of infestation often requires the keen eye of an experienced termite inspector. However, even the most experienced inspector can overlook infestation or damage which is hidden.

Frozen Water Pipes Still a Danger

Your home is your castle, and nothing beats a warm night inside when the cold sweeps in.
But while your home protects you from bone-chilling weather, it's under attack from blowing winds and frigid chills. One of the biggest dangers to your home during this time of year is frozen water pipes.
There is still plenty of time for Mother Nature to wreak havoc this winter. Help spare your home by following these tried-and-true tips for preventing frozen pipes.

What causes frozen water pipes and what makes them burst?

Most things shrink when they get cold. Think of your own hands and how easy it is to slide rings on and off your fingers when the temperature plummets. Water, however, is different-it expands when it freezes.

Water will freeze and turn to ice whenever its temperature falls below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. The ice will then expand, which can put real pressure on the pipes in your home. It may even cause the frozen water pipes to burst since your pipes were not designed to hold water in its expanded form.

Pipes that are at the greatest risk of freezing are those exposed to the elements and those that do not benefit from the heating and insulation of your home. These pipes often include outdoor hose bibs, water sprinkler lines, swimming pool supply lines and lines that run against the outside wall of your home. Water supply lines that are located in unheated interior areas, such as the garage, basement, crawl space, attics or even beneath kitchen cabinets, are also at risk.

What can I do to prevent pipes from freezing?

Frozen water pipes and the damage they can cause are a reality for thousands of people each year. That's especially the case when you have weather like the recent Polar Vortex.

"We see about 2,200 claims per day during an average January winter," says Chris Zimmer, senior vice president of Claims Field Operations for Erie Insurance. "This January, we saw almost 3,000 claims per day. Many of them were due to frozen water pipes."

The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety says a burst pipe can cause more than $5,000 in water damage. That's because the damage can be extensive.

"If the burst happens in a finished area, it can saturate the carpet and destroy hardwood by swelling the joints," says Mark Murdoch, an ERIE Agent at Murdoch Insurance in Harrisburg, Penn., who has had Customers who suffered $10,000 in burst pipe damage. "It starts wicking up the drywall-if it is not removed, it will be a source of mold growth. Sometimes you need to remove the drywall and insulation from the area."

To prevent pipes from freezing and causing major damage, follows these steps:

  • Drain water from pipes that are likely to freeze. This includes your swimming pool and sprinkler water supply lines.

  • Disconnect any hoses from the outside of your home, drain the hoses and store them in the garage. Make sure to close the indoor valves supplying these outdoor access points.

  • Insulate the area around vents and light fixtures. This helps prevent heat from escaping into the attic.

  • Seal any wall cracks. Be sure to pay careful attention to the areas around utility service lines.

  • Install heat trace tape on your sprinkler system plumbing. This is a DIY job-just make sure the tape plugs into a reliable electrical outlet so it can do its job.

What can I do to protect my pipes from freezing if I didn't freeze-proof my home before now?

Take heart, because all is not lost. There are some simple, quick things you can do to protect pipes and ensure your water remains flowing, not frozen. Just follow these simple tips:

  • Open kitchen cabinets. This allows the warm air to circulate around the pipes.
  • Keep the garage doors closed to protect water lines.
  • Allow your faucets to drip cold water on the coldest days. The movement will make it harder for the water to freeze.
  • Keep your thermostat at the same temperature day and night. Never let it fall below 55 degrees Fahrenheit when you leave your home.
  • Ensure you have proper seals on all doors and windows.
  • Place a 60-watt bulb in areas where you're concerned about pipes freezing. Make sure there are no combustible materials near the bulb.
  • Take swift action if the pipes located inside an exterior wall are freezing. Cut a hole in the wall toward the inside of the house to expose those pipes to warmer air.

What are the signs a pipe is frozen-and what should I do if I suspect the worst?

One of the signs a pipe is frozen is when no water comes out of your faucet when you turn it on. If you notice that, first head to the basement and check to see that the water is still turned on and that you don't have a leak. Once you've confirmed these two things, continue your inspection to make sure one of your pipes has not burst.

If your search reveals that your pipes are frozen but none have ruptured, you have two choices:

  1. Call a plumber to help thaw your frozen pipes. This is a good idea if you don't think you can safely thaw the pipes yourself, you don't know where the frozen pipes are or you can't access the frozen area.

  2. Attempt to thaw the frozen pipes yourself. Be aware this option can be dangerous if not done correctly.

If you attempt to thaw the frozen pipes yourself, keep the following tips in mind:

  • Keep your faucet open. Water and steam will be created during the thawing process, and your pipes need an opening to discharge this. Keeping the faucet open also allows for moving water to run through the pipe, which will expedite the thawing process.

  • Apply heat to the section of the pipe that is frozen. This can be done by wrapping an electronic heating pad around the pipe, scouring the area with a hair dryer or both. If you lack either of these items, using towels soaked in hot water will help as well. Never use a blowtorch, propane or kerosene heaters, a charcoal stove or any other open flame device to thaw your frozen pipes. You should also avoid using a space heater unless you are sure the area is clear of any flammable material.

  • Continue applying heat until water flow returns to normal. Once you have successfully thawed the pipe, turn on other faucets in your home to check for any more frozen water pipes.

What are some long-term solutions for protecting pipes?

  • Consider relocating exposed pipes to protect them from freezing. This will probably require the services of a licensed contractor or plumber. If you have exposed pipes, ask a professional about what can be done to bring them inside. Also see if any inside pipes that border a foundation wall can be moved to an inner wall. An ideal time to inquire about relocating the pipes is if you already have a home renovation project scheduled.
  • Add insulation to drafty spaces. Outdoor pipes aren't alone in their susceptibility to freezing. Any pipe that is exposed to a draft has the potential to freeze if the temperature falls enough. Adding insulation to areas such as the attic, basement or crawl space and foundation walls is a great way to reduce drafts and prevent your pipes from freezing. Once you've added the insulation, turn the lights on in your home and head up to your attic. If you see any light in the attic coming from below, it's an easy way to see where air is escaping.
  • Provide a little extra protection for your pipes. If a pipe cannot be moved, or if you just want to add a little more protection, fit vulnerable pipes with insulation sleeves. You can also try wrapping the pipes with a towel.
  • Invest in a back-up source of power like a generator in case your furnace fails.
  • Install an Internet-controlled thermostat. It will email you an early warning when your home's thermostat begins to dip to dangerous temperatures.
  • Apply a monitored automatic excess flow switch to your main incoming domestic water line. It will let you know about a broken pipe or valve as soon as possible. You will probably want to talk with a plumber or other home contractor about this.

Are there any extra steps I should take if I'm going on vacation?

The damage from a frozen water pipe could be even greater if you aren't around when it bursts. "These tend to be big claims because the water almost always runs a lot longer," says ERIE Agent Mark Murdoch.

If you are planning to head out on a lengthy vacation or you are the caretaker of a property you seldom visit, the following tips can help:

  • Cut the water from its source. Turning off the main water valve in your home is one of the easiest things you can do to keep your pipes from freezing. It's also one of the most important. This valve is located in a different place in every home, but it is most commonly found in a basement or crawl space. First locate your water heater-the main water valve is probably located nearby.
  • Empty your outer faucets. Once you've turned off the main water valve, head outside and open the faucet you use to connect your hose to the house (this is called the hose bib). Allowing the water to drain out of this pipe will prevent that water from freezing during the winter.
  • Use for windshield washer fluid in a new way. For most people, windshield washer fluid stays in the garage. But if you're headed on a long vacation, it has a very important use in your home. Before you go, pour about two cups of the fluid into all of your drains, including your sinks, showers and bath tubs. Using windshield washer fluid reduces the risk of freezing. Finish by pouring four cups into each toilet-but don't flush it. This will also help keep your pipes from freezing.

What All Homeowners Should Know About Attic Ventilation

Did you know? The average family of four generates 2 to 4 gallons of water vapor a day through activities such as cooking, cleaning, showering, laundry and breathing. Some of this water vapor rises into your attic. Ventilation helps remove it before it causes problems such as wood rot, wet insulation, and mold and mildew. The following are the four rules of attic ventilation:

  1. Attic Ventilation is Essential

  2. Attic ventilation is an important part of your home's design and construction. In the summer attic ventilation can help prevent heat buildup, which will help make your living areas cooler and more comfortable, help reduce air conditioning costs and help prevent premature roof shingle deterioration. The major shingle manufacturers require attic ventilation to validate the shingle warranty.

    In the winter attic ventilation can help prevent moisture buildup which will help prevent wood rot, mold, mildew and poor indoor air quality. And because it helps keep the roof deck uniformly cool in the winter, attic ventilation (along with proper attic insulation) can help prevent the uneven freeze/thaw cycle associated with snow on your roof that often leads to ice dams which can back up under shingles causing roof deck and interior sheathing damage.

  3. Your Attic Needs Equal Intake and Exhaust Ventilation

  4. Research has shown that the best way to ventilate an attic is with a balanced system of intake vents low at the roof's edge or in the soffit/eaves along with exhaust vents high on the roof at or near the ridge. This allows cool, dry air intake air at the roof's edge to flush out any warm, moist air through the exhaust vents.

    Be sure your house has enough intake vents. They are critical to the attic ventilation system and are often overlooked. There needs to be a 2 to 1 ratio of intake vents to exhaust vents. The biggest issue causing failure to even a properly installed system is to cover up the soffit vents with insulation thereby blocking the intake vents rendering the exhaust vents useless.

  5. Ridge Vents Are The Most Efficient Vent for Your Attic

  6. A ridge vent, which is installed at the peak of your roof, is the best way to provide exhaust ventilation for your attic provided there is sufficient horizontal ridge length. It doesn't have any moving parts to break. It doesn't use any electricity to operate. And because it's installed along the entire peak of your roof, it ventilates the entire underside of the roof deck − as long as there is sufficient intake ventilation low at the roof's edge. No other exhaust vent can ventilate the entire roof deck.

  7. Mixing Two Different Exhaust Vents on Your House Is a Mistake

  8. One of the most potentially troublesome attic ventilation mistakes is having two different types of exhaust vents on your house - for example, mixing a ridge vent with a powered fan, a roof vent, a gable vent or a wind turbine. Technically this mistake is called short-circuiting the attic ventilation system. Because air flow always a path of least resistance and is always looking for the nearest opening, the ridge vent at the peak of your roof could pull its source of intake air from the powered fan, or roof vent, or gable vent (which either is the closest) instead of from the intake vents at the roof's edge.

    Exhaust vents are not designed to be intake vents. If air enters an exhaust vent, along with it could be rain, snow and debris right into your attic! Furthermore, the lower portion of the attic is inadequately ventilated.
    This is why mold can start growing on the lower portions of the roof.

Add an Egress Window for Safety

If you're finishing your basement for additional living space, your action plan must include egress windows-officially known as "Emergency Escape and Rescue Openings" (EEROs). These openings allow your family to get out easily in an emergency and allow emergency crews to get in.

Many real estate professionals believe that an egress window is only required if there is going to be a bedroom in the basement.

The IRC requires that all habitable basements shall have at least one operable emergency escape and rescue opening. Additionally, where basements contain one or more sleeping rooms, emergency egress is required from each bedroom.

These must-have safety features boast another benefit: They admit daylight, which instantly brightens a formerly dark and dreary basement.

Keep these considerations in mind when installing an egress window:

Code compliance

Visit your nearest code administration office to find out about local regulations for egress windows. In general, you'll want to abide by standards set by the International Residential Code. Size requirements include:

  • Minimum width of opening: 20 in.
  • Minimum height of opening: 24 in.
  • Minimum net clear opening: 5.7 sq. ft. (5.0 sq. ft. for ground floor)
  • Maximum sill height above floor: 44 in.

Keep in mind that these are the minimum size requirements. "If you want any kind of light or air, you need to give yourself a little room," says John Brenne, building safety expert. There are other requirements you'll need to satisfy as well-such as windows must be operational from the inside and open without any tools, key, or special knowledge.

Window well installation

Below-ground egress windows must have a 3x3-foot (minimum) window well. Brenne recommends that windows less than 4 inches above grade have one too. Adding a below-ground well requires excavation, and if the well is any deeper than 44 inches, you'll need to include a permanently attached ladder or steps. Consider adding a metal grate above the well so pets and people don't fall in-just make sure it's easily removable from the inside.

Window well installation

Below-ground egress windows must have a 3x3-foot (minimum) window well. Brenne recommends that windows less than 4 inches above grade have one too. Adding a below-ground well requires excavation, and if the well is any deeper than 44 inches, you'll need to include a permanently attached ladder or steps. Consider adding a metal grate above the well so pets and people don't fall in-just make sure it's easily removable from the inside.


The last thing you need is water seeping into your basement. If you have an existing foundation drain tile system in good shape, tap into it. If you have clay soil, which absorbs water and hinders drainage, backfill it with pea gravel. Also make sure your yard slopes away from the foundation, and that gutters and downspouts are clear and drain away from the house.

Reliable windows

Brenne recommends casement windows, which crank outward and take up the least amount of space. "They're tight and well-constructed," he adds.

Necessary skills

If you have concrete-block cutting skills, equipment, and a trusty partner who will help you excavate several feet of soil, you could install an egress window in a few days with these step-by-step tips and save some cash.

But because of the scope of the job-and because it's important to get it right the first time; Brenne recommends hiring a professional. "You'll have a lot of block and dirt to dispose of as well as needing several specialized and expensive tools like a partner saw, hammer drill, impact gun, and more," Brenne says.

Our most common complaint from homeowners

"Water is coming up from the wall-to-floor joint, why does this happen?"

It is very common for basements to experience groundwater leaking. The basement wall-floor joint is the point where the basement foundation walls meet the basement floor. For most basements, the foundation walls are poured separately from the basement floor. This joint is usually the weakest point where hydrostatic water pressure can easily force its way through where it leaks into the basement through the edges of the floor.

When your house was built, a large area was excavated so the foundation could be placed. After the foundation is built, any excess area is filled in with backfilled soil. This soil will always be looser and much more absorbent of water than any other soil around it.

Here are some explanations as to why basement wall-floor joints leak:

  1. In most cases, while the water moves through a poured concrete wall, it sinks and comes out at the bottom of the wall. In case of a block wall, the hollow cavities fill up and the highest pressure is at the bottom of the water column. This seepage makes it appear that the water is coming up from the wall-floor joint.

  2. Sometimes, water building up outside the foundation seeps through the joint where the wall sits on the footing and then up through the wall-floor joint.

  3. In rare cases, water actually comes up from underneath the slab and at the same time, it will seep through any expansion control joints or cracks in the floor. It may push through the pores in the concrete.

The best way to address these problems is with an interior drain system and a sump pump with a battery backup. This system will intercept the water where it enters and then direct it to the sump pump to get the water out of the basement. An exterior drainage system could also be installed as well where it will direct the water downhill away from the foundation.

Vague Real Estate Terms

Through the years humorous articles have been written poking fun at comments in real estate ads. We all know that "close to public transportation" should be interpreted as "built over the subway". But the following are vague real estate terms that can get real estate salespeople into trouble. The age of consumerism has become the age of litigation, and the following terms should be avoided or used judiciously.

New Roof

The term "roof" is misleading in that it implies the roof covering plus the roof sheathing, rafters or trusses. The word "new" is rather nebulous as well. "Shingles replaced in 1990" is a more accurate description.

Updated Wiring

Does updated wiring mean the size of the service has been increased or additional circuits have been added? Does it mean that the older knob tube wiring has been torn out (which is usually not necessary)? Sometimes it means that the old outlets have been replaced with modern-looking ones, however the wiring has not been changed at all.

A better approach may be to comment on the adequacy of the incoming service and more importantly the adequacy of the distribution network. Both of these however, are very difficult to assess without a solid understanding of electricity. We all know that you cannot determine the size of an electrical service by reading the sticker on the main box in the basement. It may be best to leave this one alone.

Thermal Windows

There is really no such thing. The R value (resistance to heat transfer) of a typical wall in a modern house is approximately R12 to R20. The R value of a single glazed window is R1. What about a double glazed window? R2! The window manufacturers call this a 100% improvement! The real benefit of double glazing is that it increases the surface temperature of the inside pane of glass so that condensation does not form on the windows in the winter time.

If the second pane of glass is a separate storm window, there will be a separate frame for the storm. This creates a second barrier to air infiltration and in some cases, it is a better arrangement than a double glazed window in a single frame.

Upgraded Plumbing

Are we talking about new bathroom fixtures or new copper pipes? If we are talking about new pipes, are we talking about all new pipes within the house or just the accessible ones in the unfinished portion of the basement? When we say "all copper plumbing" do we mean the waste piping as well? From the mid 1950's to the late 1960's, waste plumbing was also copper.

In the vast majority of houses where old galvanized supply plumbing has been replaced with modern copper, the line coming in from the street has not been replaced. Back in the days when galvanized plumbing was installed, the line coming in from the street was not galvanized steel. Instead it was lead. Recent newspaper articles and television programs have people all in a knot about the lead in houses. This is not to suggest that this is a problem, however, terms such as upgraded plumbing may make purchasers believe that the supply line coming in from the street has been changed as well.

Totally Renovated

One person's idea of a total renovation is quite different than another's. If a house has eight year old shingles on the roof at the time of the renovation, there would be no need to replace the shingles unless the renovation includes changes to the roof line. The term "totally renovated" leads some purchasers to believe that every part of the house that shows wear has been replaced. Therefore, they expect new shingles and are disappointed to find that the roof is "older" even though it does not require replacement.

There are many more expressions that cause confusion. With the degree of professionalism on the rise in the real estate community, there is no place for ambiguity.

Fireplaces - The Magic and the Mystery

Fireplaces are no longer used as the primary source for heating homes, but the magic of a fire stills makes a fireplace a valued part of any home. There are few things nicer than a cheery fire, especially on a cold winter night. By the same token, there are few things more distressing than a fireplace which doesn't draw - belching smoke into the home, chasing people out, setting off smoke detectors, and dirtying everything in sight. Why do some draw perfectly and others so poorly?

Good Design

There are many factors which affect fireplace performance. Some of the more important are listed here:

Ratio of Fireplace Opening to Chimney Flue Size

The area of the flue should be roughly (1/12) one twelfth the size of the opening area.

Chimney Height

The taller the better, but at least 3 feet above the roof and 2 feet higher than anything within 10 feet of it.

Damper Size and Location

Full width of firebox and at least 6 inches above the top of the opening. The damper is usually closer to the front of the fireplace than the back.

Smoke Chamber Slope and Smoothness

The chamber above the damper should be as smooth as possible, and should slope no more than 45o as it funnels the smoke from the damper opening into the chimney.

Most fireplaces break at least some of the rules of good design and yet many work well despite this. Fireplace design is more of an art than a science. Because there are so many factors which affect the draw, it is impossible to know how "perfect" the unit has to be to work. What about solving the problem of a fireplace that doesn't draw well?

Improving the Draw

Reduce the Opening Size

This can be achieved by laying an additional row of firebrick on the floor of the firebox. Even before this is done, the solution can be simulated by holding a piece of metal over part of the opening and watching to see if the draft improves. Extend the Chimney: This is expensive but often successful. Less expensive alternatives include a rain cap or a metal draft hood which rotates with the wind so that smoke is always released downwind.

Move the Fire Back

Often the fire is simply too close to the front of the firebox.

Add Air

A fireplace which is starved for air won't work properly. Sometimes opening a window in the room with the fireplace will supply enough air. Fireplace draw is more difficult to achieve if the house is under negative pressure. Don't have exhaust fans on while trying to start a fire. Most furnaces also work like exhaust fans. It is easier to start a fire when the furnace is in an off cycle. Glass doors help to protect the fireplace from negative pressure effects in the house, especially if combustion air can be brought in from outside.

Warm the Flue

This is a trick most people know about. Pushing a burning piece of rolled-up newspaper up past the damper will help overcome the column of cold air in the chimney and allow a good draft to be established quickly. We didn't suggest damper or smoke chamber modifications because they are expensive and should be considered last resorts.

60 Amp Services and Limited Distribution Systems

Is a 60 amp Service Unsafe?

In a word, "No". A 60 amp service is small by today's standards; however, it might surprise you to know that a small house could be built today with a 60 amp service and still comply with modern electrical codes. A 60 amp service comes with 60 amp fuses or a 60 amp breaker. If you draw more than 60 amps, the fuses will blow or the breaker will trip. The fuses or breakers are the brains of the system and they are performing their intended function.

They are simply shutting off the power. While this may be inconvenient for the home owner, it is not unsafe.

Electrical Consumption

The biggest users of electricity in a house are things with heating elements. The larger the heating element, the more electricity will be used. In an average home, the stove is the biggest user, followed by the clothes dryer. An electric water heater usually takes third place. If additional large heating elements are found in the house in a sauna or a pottery kiln for example, it is almost impossible to get away with a 60 amp service.

In addition to large heating elements, big electric motors also draw a considerable amount of juice. Air conditioners are prime examples. Therefore, you may find that if a house has a 60 amp service, and has an electric stove and electric clothes dryer, you might not be able to use the two simultaneously. It's OK if you are using one burner, but if you are cooking a turkey dinner with all four burners and the oven on, it's a bad time to do the laundry.

Many first time buyers however, do not own appliances. If they are buying a house with a 60 amp service, it would be wise to install a gas stove and a gas clothes dryer which draw less electricity. A house with a 60 amp service and gas appliances has almost as much usable electricity as a house with a 100 amp service and an electric stove and electric clothes dryer.

Limited Distribution

Most 60 amp services are found on older systems which have a limited number of circuits. This is a potentially hazardous situation, particularly if the system has fuses rather than breakers. Some homeowners find that their overtaxed distribution system is constantly blowing 15 amp fuses. They replace them with 20, 25 or 30 amp fuses to prevent the fuses from blowing. This is an unsafe condition overheating the wires, and potentially leading to a fire.

The solution to the problem is not necessarily a larger service, but rather a larger distribution system. It is far safer to own a house with a 60 amp service and 24 circuits than a house with a 100 amp service and 6 circuits.

Small appliances with heating elements such as kettles, toasters, irons and hair dryers all draw a considerable amount of electricity for their size. This is why a house with limited distribution system is problematic. If you plug a toaster and kettle into the same circuit, you will draw more than 15 amps and blow the fuse. This would be true regardless of whether the amount of electricity coming into the house is 60 amp, 100 amps or 200 amps. The solution is not a bigger service but more circuits.

In an old house, you might find only six or eight circuits in the entire house. In a new house, you might find that many circuits in the kitchen. As a matter of fact, in a modern Canadian house, the top half and the bottom half of each outlet in the kitchen are on a separate circuit. This explains why you can plug the toaster and kettle into the same outlet without blowing any fuses or tripping any breakers.

So the insurance companies has missed the mark. They are concentrating on houses with 60 amp services when they should be concentrating on houses with limited distribution systems. We hope this explanation will help them make the connection!

About Us

We are a member of the National Association of Home Inspectors as well as the Pennsylvania Home Inspection Coalition. We follow the Code of Ethics and the Standards of Practice set forth by these organizations. We are bonded by The Hartford Insurance Co. and insured by Lexington Insurance Co. that includes a Real Estate Referral Endorsement that protects you and the realtor.