Water Heater Maintenance/Inspection

Have you taken a look at your water heater recently?  They typically sit in our basements and we really don’t think about them for years until one day you find them leaking, or worse, spilling gallons of water on the floor.

There are a few maintenance tips I give home buyers during an inspections that I’d like to share and also some general inspection tips you can do every so often to try to avoid having gallons of water spilled on your floor.

First off the maintenance tips. I always like to show homebuyers the Temperature Pressure Relief (TPR) valve. This is one of the major safety features on a water heater. You’ll usually find it on the side of the tank, sometimes on top. It should have a pipe attached to it that runs down the side of the tank and stops short of the ground (it should terminate within 6”-18” of the ground in Minnesota). The TPR valve is meant to release before the temperature gets to high or pressure builds up too much to the point where the tank would explode (do a Google search for some cool video).

TPR valve

Water heater TPR valve. This one’s missing a discharge pipe.

It should be tested once or twice a year. It’s pretty easy – just put a bucket at the base of the discharge pipe, lift up the lever on the TPR valve, let some water run out and release the lever back down. If you don’t get any water or it continues to drip after it’s drained, it’s time to have the TPR valve replaced.

While you’re testing the TPR valve, take a look at the discharge pipe. First off, there should be one. If there isn’t one (see pic), it’s a safety hazard if that valve were to release. Next, there should not be a cap on the end of it (that would defeat the purpose). And the end of the pipe shouldn’t be threaded (to keep people from capping it). In Minnesota it should terminate within 6”-18” from the ground.

From a maintenance standpoint, the other thing you can do is drain some water out of the bottom of the tank once a year or so to flush and sediment out of the base of the tank. If you’ve got an older water heater and you’ve never done it, it might not be worth trying to start doing it now. But if your water heater is only a few years old, it’s a yearly task that should get you more life out of the water heater.

To do this, connect a short hose to the drain valve at the base of the water heater and run it to the main floor drain, laundry sink, bathtub or even outside. Shut-off the cold water supply to the water heater (there should be a shutoff valve on the cold water piping just above the tank) and/or the electricity running to the water heater. Open a hot water faucet (maybe at the laundry sink if that’s nearby). And, open the drain valve.  Watch the water coming out, you might find that you have to turn the cold water supply on and off to help flush the sediment out of the base of the tank. There’s a great video on how to do this here:

http://www.thisoldhouse.com/toh/video/0,,20047191,00.html

corroded shut-off valve

Corroded shutoff valve

That’s if from a maintenance standpoint. It’s also good to visually inspect your water heater a couple of times a year. First take a look at that discharge pipe connected to the TPR valve. Is there water dripping from it? If so, the TPR valve likely needs replacement. Next take a look at the top of the tank. Are combustible materials (like pipe insulation) cleared at least 12” from the top of the tank? Take a look at the cold (and maybe hot) water supply shut-off valves. Do they look corroded? Might be time to have a plumber out to replace them.

If you’ve got a gas water heater, take a look around the draft hood area at the top of the tank.  Take note if there are a lot of rust flakes in this area.  It could be an indication the water heater is having problems drafting or not combusting properly. Take a look at the flue pipes. Are they connected with at least three metal screws at each connection? Does it pitch upwards at least a ¼” per foot? If there are too many bends in the flue pipe that might be why it’s not drafting properly.  Might be time to call in an expert for further evaluation.

Rust in a water heater burner chamber

Rust in a water heater burner chamber

You can also take a look inside the burner chamber of gas-fired water heaters. Rust flakes and corrosion are an indication the water heater’s getting old. If there are a lot of rust flakes, it might be time to consider replacement. Look at the base of the tank while you’re down here. See any water? If so, the tank is probably ready to dump.  Make sure you keep combustibles away from this area and it’s not blocked so the water heater can get the proper amount of air it needs to combust properly.

Let the hot water run at a faucet and listen to the water heater as it’s heating up water. Is the tank making noise? I’ve had some water heaters that sound like they’re making popcorn inside the tank (check out the video). The sound is the sediment in the bottom of the tank bouncing around as it’s heated up.

So take some time to take a look at your water heater. Keep in mind that the typical service life for gas water heaters is 12-15 years and 20-25 years for an electric. That’s just the average. I’ve had people tell me their water heater dumped out at eight years. But with a little maintenance, you can get plenty of life out of them.

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Top 10 Photos of 2011

It was a very busy year here at Errickson Home Inspections. I got to walk through some really nice homes for some really nice people. But I also got to walk through a lot of bank owned, foreclosed, and short-sale properties, which made for a lot of interesting stuff to see and photograph. I’ve posted a lot of pictures on my Facebook site, but I thought I’d share what I think the top 10 photos were from 2011.

10. Gutter Balls

gutter balls

I found all of these objects in the gutter while inspecting a roof. I couldn’t believe the number of toys in this gutter — even a kid’s Croc!

9. Squirrel Remains

decomposed squirrel

Decomposed squirrel

I was looking in the ash pit in the basement of the chimney and found the remains of a squirrel  — it was just a pile of fur and a little skeleton.

8. Wild Mushroom

mushroom growing out of house siding

Mushroom growing out of house siding

That’s a mushroom, and that’s siding on a house. The siding’s been wet for so long that mushrooms are growing out of it.

7. The Whole Can of Spray Foam

spray foam the roof leak

Spray foam the roof leak

This is what it looks like when you use the whole can of spray foam to fix a roof leak.

6. Missing Bed

where's the bed?

Guess where the bed went?

There was lots to see in this house (bank-owned), but this kinda grossed me out.

5. Paint Bubbles

paint bubbles from an ice dam

Paint Bubbles Filled with Water from an Ice Dam

This is some of the damage ice dams was causing in this house. Those paint bubbles are filled with water!

4. Bat Hotel

bat crap

Bat hotel

This was in the attic of an old house. Bats had been living in it for years, and the floor was covered (inches) with bat crap.

3. Water Feature

sagging vent filled with water

Sagging exhaust vent filled with water

This vent is running from the exhaust fan in the bathroom out through the roof. Since it wasn’t installed correctly (see the sag), water has been collecting in that sag in the vent. I could hear it sloshing back-and-forth.

2. Jenga Chimney

crumbling chimney

Crumbling chimney

This chimney is in rough shape. It needs to be torn down (or pushed over). The roof wasn’t much better — just beyond the chimney, the roof had a major sag in it.

1. Bat Filter

bat in furnace filter

Bat stuck in furnace filter

I’ve seen a lot of dirty furnace filters before, and I figured this was just some debris stuck in this filter. But after taking a closer look, it was a bat. Pretty creepy! Turned out the vent at the exterior providing fresh air was missing a screen. The bat probably got sucked in when the furnace turned on.


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Act Now to Prevent Ice Dams This Winter

If you’ve been in Minnesota the past couple of winters, chances are you’ve had problems with ice dams or you know someone who did. Now is the time of year to take steps to prevent ice dams over the winter. Ice dams are caused when snow on the roof melts, run downs the roof and re-freezes as it gets over the cold eave. When enough water freezes it forms a dam. Water continues to back up until it eventually finds a way into your home.

There are things you can do to prevent this from happening and this is a great time of year to do it, instead of the middle of January when it’s -20 out. Things that cause the snow on your roof to melt are 1) warm, house air leaking into the attic , 2)lack of insulation, and 3)lack of ventilation. Chances are if you’ve had problems with ice dams in the past, these are your issues.

Attic spaces in Minnesota (and in many cold-weather climates) are meant to be conditioned to the outside. This means in the winter, the temperature up there is pretty close to the outside temperature. If the attic is cold, then the roof is cold and the snow on the roof doesn’t melt. When the attic is warm, it warms up the roof and melts the snow.

So the attic needs to be separate from the house below. This means any gaps around penetrations into the attic need to be sealed. There are a few things that typically run from the house, through the attic to the outdoors: plumbing vents, bathroom exhaust vents, furnace and water heater flue pipes and sometimes a dryer vent.  In order to run these vents out through the roof, holes are cut through the different levels of your house. If the area around these vents aren’t sealed, warm, moist air from the house can leak into the attic space. In the middle of winter, when it’s -10 in the attic, that warm, moist air warms up the attic and the moisture condenses on the underside of the roof giving it a frosty appearance. If enough warm air leaks into the attic (and doesn’t have enough ventilation to get out) it will warm up the roof and cause the snow on the roof to melt.

Seal up any spaces around vents and pipes. For larger gaps, you can cut pieces of unfaced, fiberglass batt insulation and fold it at the bottom of a 13-gallon plastic bag (acting like a vapor barrier). Stuff it into any open stud cavities, making sure to fill the whole space. Note that all kitchen and bathroom exhaust vents need to vent to the outside, they should not be venting into the attic. For smaller spaces, like around plumbing vents, use a can of expandable foam.

The metal flue pipe coming from your water heater, furnace or wood stove needs special consideration. Because the pipe gets hot, it requires a 1 inch clearance to combustibles. The gap between the metal pipe and wood should be covered with lightweight aluminum flashing and high temperature silicon caulk. Before covering the area back up with insulation, you can make a I” metal collar out of the aluminum flashing around the metal pipe to keep the insulation away from the metal pipe.

Once you’ve sealed up all the gaps into the attic space it’s time to make sure you have enough insulation. The insulation acts like a huge quilt over your house, keeping the warm air in. If you’ve only got a few inches of insulation, a lot of warm air will be able to escape into the attic. The recommended insulation amount in attics in our area of Minnesota is R-49 to R-60. The US Dept. of Energy has more information on R-values and insulation levels:

http://www.energysavers.gov/your_home/insulation_airsealing/index.cfm/mytopic=11220

The last piece of all this is adequate attic ventilation. Attic ventilation helps the attic space breathe in the hot summer months and help get rid of any warm, moist air in the cold summer months. Good building practice calls for 1 square foot of ventilation for every 300 square feet of attic area space (length X width). Make sure when you’re adding insulation that you don’t block any soffit ventilation you might have.  More information on attic ventilation and how to calculate your square footage of ventilation can be found here:

http://www.airvent.com/pdf/literature/PAVbooklet.pdf

Once you’re done in the attic, make sure to all some insulation to the back of the attic hatch and seal it with some double-sided weather stripping or some caulk.

So, now’s the time to start thinking about this and doing something, especially if you’ve had problems in the past with ice dams. Check out the Resource section of my website for more information.

http://www.erricksonhomeinspections.com/resources.html

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Spring Cleaning!

It’s that time of year again. The snow has finally gone and it’s time for some spring cleaning! Below are some tips for cleaning around your home:

Take a walk around your home and look for signs of damage from the winter. From the ground examine your roof and look for any loose or missing shingles. Signs of damage can include missing, curling, cupping, broken or cracked shingles. If your home has an older roof you may want to start budgeting for replacement. Shingles that are cracked, buckled or loose or are missing granules need to be replaced. The summer can be hard on a roof. Also, the flashing around plumbing vents, skylights and chimneys needs to be checked and repaired if necessary. The majority of leaks through a roof occur because of flashing that has failed or was installed incorrectly.

Check the fascia and trim at the base of the roof for deterioration. Check the trim around windows and doors also. Peeling paint or missing paint will need to be primed and painted.

Clean your gutters. Even though you may have cleaned the last of the leaves out at the end of fall, more debris likely ended up in gutters over the winter. Clean gutters out before the spring rains start. And make sure the downspouts are connected and depositing the water at least eight feet from your foundation.  Stand back and make sure the gutters are still properly sloped toward the downspouts.

As you’re walking around your house inspect your trees, or neighboring trees that are overhanging your yard. Look for broken branches or hanging limbs. You may need to hire a licensed arborist to do some tree trimming. Make sure no tree limbs are rubbing against the house siding or roof. We generally recommend at least 10 feet of clearance from your home. Also trim back shrubs so they are at least 12 inches from your siding.

Check all vents on the exterior of your home. Clean all the lint out of the end of the dryer vent and make sure the flap will close completely.

Check your foundation and make note of any cracking. Hairline cracks are generally minor but should be monitored. You can mark them with some tape or buy a crack monitor from your local hardware store. Make sure to check them again in a few months.

Look for low areas where next to your foundation where soil may have settled over the winter. You may need to fill in any depressions with compacted soil to make sure the grading around your home is sloping away from your foundation.

Check the outside hose faucets for freezing damage. Turn the water on and place your thumb or finger over the opening. If you can stop the flow of water, it is likely the pipe inside the home is damaged and will need repairs.

Clean out leaves and debris out of the window wells. Make sure soil is not in contact with any wood or metal trim around your basement windows. Check the trim for peeling paint – you may need to prime and paint.

Check the siding on your home. Replace old or decaying siding. If paint has peeled off during the winter, it’s time to prime and paint. Secure any loose boards. Check stucco for any chipping that can leave it open to moisture and seal as required.

That’s a list to get you started outside. Enjoy your spring and take care of your home!

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Top 10 of 2010

As a home inspector people always ask me if I see a lot of the same problems. And I do – a lot of leaky faucets, missing outlet covers, dirty furnace filters and clogged gutters. I see a lot of typical homeowner maintenance stuff that require repairs or replacement.

But I also see a lot of interesting things that make me scratch my head and wonder just what were they thinking?? It almost looks like the time and money they put into doing it incorrectly took a lot more time and effort than if they had just done it the right way.

Anyway, I like to take pictures of the things I find and I thought I’d share my top 10 from 2010.

10. Caution: Live Wires

Live wires

Found this in a basement at head level. The sign on this large wire read “Caution: Live Wire.” Gee, thanks! Might as well add a puddle of water on the floor to make sure there’s no question what the outcome will be when I bump into it.

9. But it’s 96% Efficient!

furnace held together with duct tape

 

This older furnace was held together with duct tape and busted up cinder blocks. I don’t think it’s 96% efficient anymore.

8. Yet another use for duct tape:

Duct tape siding

There actually aren’t too many uses for duct tape in a home. But I see it all over the place. This was a new spot for me.

7. Indoor Gutter:

 

 

plumbing gutter

Rather than fix the problem, some adding a little gutter to divert the water about a foot away. Oh yeah, and that’s a sewage pump (so, that’s not water!)

 

6. What’s Missing?
 

Missing vent

View from the outside

 

missing vent

View from the inside

Looking at the roof from the outside, there’s only one vent coming through the roof. But when I looked from inside there are two things running into the roof. Guess they just roofed right over that bathroom exhaust fan!

5. Plumbing Troubles:

multiple plumbing leaks

These are some plumbing waste lines running through the garage ceiling. Something tells me there’s been a leak.

4. How to Kill a New Furnace:

Rusty furnacetotally clogged furnace filter

The top picture is a two year old furnace. Every time it shutdown water would pour back into that lower compartment because a drain hose wasn’t connected. It’s rusted the bottom of the cabinet and there’s even a rusty river leading to the floor drain. The bottom picture is the filter in the furnace. The furnace actually started to tear the filter apart as it was trying to get air because the filter was so clogged. Wouldn’t you notice something like that??

3. Negative Slope:

The flue pipe from a water heater should always slope upwards (this one doesn’t!). Think of it like a fireplace. When the fire is burning the smoke goes up the chimney and out of the house. If the chimney sloped down for a little bit, then out, the smoke would have a hard time drafting. It would get backed up and smoke would spill back into the room. It’s the same here – the gases from the water heater are going to have a hard time drafting. They’re doing to get backed up and spill back into the room. It’s a safety issue.

2. Squirrel Hotel

Decayed fascia, squirrel hotelThis is a detached garage that should have had the roof replaced 10 years ago. The shingles looked like they were melting off. As I came around the side of the garage to take a look at the decayed fascia and soffit a squirrel pops out, yells at me and runs off. I guess he was hoping for a later checkout!

1. Just Put Those Anywhere:


I kept scratching my head at this one. Those are power lines resting on the roof (you don’t want anything resting on your roof), and they’re tethered to the chimney – another no-no. Something tells me the power company had nothing to do with this.

Honorable Mentions:

gutter aimed at AC“Maybe if we water the AC, it’ll be more efficient!?!”

insulation in the attic“We don’t really need to spread that insulation around, do we?”

So that’s the top 10 of 2010. Hope you enjoyed it!

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Fall/Winter Cleaning

We are deep into fall and winter is fast approaching. Here are some fall and winter clean-up tips for around the house:

Around the Exterior
• Disconnect and drain garden hoses.
• Turn the water supply to the exterior sillcocks off and drain the water out.
• Have the lawn irrigation system winterized.
• Clean the combustion air or makeup air intake vents. Make sure to clean all vents at the exterior – dirt and debris can really build up on the screens protecting the vents
• Clean the clothes dryer duct. Check the damper at the exterior – it should move freely and close properly.
• Seal any gaps around the house – check for loose or dried out caulking around pipes, ducts, faucets, air conditioner refrigerant lines, etc. and remove and replace as necessary.
• Install/lower storm windows.
• Check the weather-stripping around windows and doors. Repair/replace as necessary.

In the Mechanical Room
• Check and replace the furnace filter. This should be done every 30-45 days.
• Have a professional tune-up performed on the furnace.
• Check and clean the filters of the air exchange system (if present).
• Clean up and dust and debris from around the base of the water heater and furnace.

Up on the Roof
• Clean the gutters.
• Clean sticks and debris off the roof. Pay close attention to roof valleys
• Clean the soffit vents (located under roof overhangs). Clear away any lint, dust, insulation, and paint.
• Check the roof vents for bird nests or wasp nests.

Air Conditioner
• It is not necessary to cover the air conditioner. If a cover is used, it should be the type that only covers the top, not a full enclosure.
• If the furnace or water heater vent blows exhaust gas on to the air conditioner, a plastic cover can be used to shield the air conditioner from the corrosive exhaust gases.
• If the air conditional is also a heat pump, do not cover it.

Smoke / CO Alarms
• Replace the batteries in all smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors and check the test buttons.
• Smoke alarms should be located inside every bedroom and one in a common area on every level.
• CO detectors should be located within 10 feet of every sleeping room (and not in furnace rooms, kitchens, or garages).
• Check the age of your smoke and CO alarms; smoke alarms are good for up to ten years, CO alarms are good for up to five years. If they’re any older, replace them.

Fireplaces
• Have the flues professionally cleaned on any wood burning fireplaces.
• Make sure spark arrestors and rain hats are installed on all flues.
• Check under the bottoms of gas fireplace inserts and clean out any dust.

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Spring Cleaning

Since it was over 80 degrees yesterday here in Minnesota I think we can officially say spring is here. And now that the snow is gone and the ground has thawed here are a few things you can do to ensure your house made it through the winter and is ready for spring.

Outside Your House:

Take a walk around your home and look for signs of damage from the winter. From the ground examine your roof and look for any loose or missing shingles. Signs of damage can include missing, curling, cupping, broken or cracked shingles. If your home has an older roof you may want to start budgeting for replacement. Shingles that are cracked, buckled or loose or are missing granules need to be replaced. The summer can be hard on a roof. Also, the flashing around plumbing vents, skylights and chimneys needs to be checked and repaired if necessary. The majority of leaks through a roof occur because of flashing that has failed or was installed incorrectly.

Check the fascia and trim at the base of the roof for deterioration. Check the trim around windows and doors also. Peeling paint or missing paint will need to be primed and painted.

Clean your gutters. Even though you may have cleaned the last of the leaves out at the end of fall, more debris likely ended up in gutters over the winter. Clean gutters out before the spring rains start. And make sure the downspouts are connected and depositing the water at least eight feet from your foundation.  Stand back and make sure the gutters are still properly sloped toward the downspouts.

As you’re walking around your house inspect your trees, or neighboring trees that are overhanging your yard. Look for broken branches or hanging limbs. You may need to hire a licensed arborist to do some tree trimming. Make sure no tree limbs are rubbing against the house siding or roof. We generally recommend at least 10 feet of clearance from your home. Also trim back shrubs so they are at least 12 inches from your siding.

Check all vents on the exterior of your home. Clean all the lint out of the end of the dryer vent and make sure the flap will close completely.

Check your foundation and make note of any cracking. Hairline cracks are generally minor but should be monitored. You can mark them with some tape or buy a crack monitor from your local hardware store. Make sure to check them again in a few months.

Look for low areas where next to your foundation where soil may have settled over the winter. You may need to fill in any depressions with compacted soil to make sure the grading around your home is sloping away from your foundation.

Check the outside hose faucets for freezing damage. Turn the water on and place your thumb or finger over the opening. If you can stop the flow of water, it is likely the pipe inside the home is damaged and will need repairs.

Clean out leaves and debris out of the window wells. Make sure soil is not in contact with any wood or metal trim around your basement windows. Check the trim for peeling paint – you may need to prime and paint.

Check the siding on your home. Replace old or decaying siding. If paint has peeled off during the winter, it’s time to prime and paint. Secure any loose boards. Check stucco for any chipping that can leave it open to moisture and seal as required.

That’s a list to get you started outside. Enjoy your spring and take care of your home!

Errickson Home Inspections

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