I heard it once said that when cooking or baking, a cookbook is just a starting point to build mastery in the kitchen: true skill comes from building off that book knowledge using skills and experiences. This is also true as a professional home inspector: I have completed a significant amount of textbook reading (I lost count how many I have in my library!) but I know there are times where I disagree with the “book” answer and many fellow home inspectors. One such example is Polybutylene (PB) otherwise known as Poly B supply pipe.
PB was a plastic manufactured between 1978 and the mid 1990s that was touted as the “pipe of the future” for its low cost and ease of installation compared to copper. Despite its many advantages, it was discontinued in 1996 due to allegations the pipes were rupturing and causing significant water damage. Class action lawsuits were filed in the United States with a payout of close to $1 billion. Try doing an online search and you will see plenty of PB horror stories: sounds terrifying, doesn’t it?
While all these facts are 100% true, it should be noted that most of the issues originated in the southern United States, where supply pipes can be run through an extremely hot attic. Furthermore, most of the PB issues occurred at joints, which were often poorly made with plastic fittings by plumbers unfamiliar with their installation. In my experience, the PB systems I have inspected in the Halifax area are usually high quality with copper fittings (like the smaller of the two pictures below). My own home has PB throughout and I have no concerns whatsoever about its potential for leakage over any other type of material. Plumbers I have spoken with over the years have informed me that PB failures are rare, and they generally do not recommend replacement of a PB system that has no evidence of leaks.
Having said all that, it’s not a system without problems: it can be damaged by heavily chlorinated water (I know from firsthand experience how chlorinated the water was in Dartmouth before 1999), there is no way to verify that PB is not damaged without invasive testing and some insurance companies look negatively on a home with PB and may charge higher premiums accordingly.
So, how do you know if you have PB? Aside from the obvious answer of calling us at Inside Edge Home Inspections if you live in the Halifax region, there are two telltale signs:
Don’t mistake this post as an endorsement of PB: it was no longer considered an acceptable plumbing material in 2005 and is inferior to both copper and other similar types of plastic-based plumbing like cross-linked polyethylene (commonly known as PEX) or chlorinated polyvinyl chloride (CPVC). It is my opinion based on my professional experience that while PB should be monitored for leaks (like any plumbing system), an expensive re-plumbing of a home is rarely necessary. Can a PB system fail without warning? Yes, it can but so can any type of water supply line.
As both an entrepreneur and a holder of a bachelor’s degree in Commerce, I like to view hiring an independent home inspector as a financial investment with a great return: our (low) upfront fees will usually save you significant amounts of money on home maintenance down the road. I know in my own home I have saved thousands in maintenance costs over the years with my understanding of complex building systems. Today I want to show you how, for about $40 and a decent breaker bar or torque wrench (or better yet a plumber!), you can significantly increase the life of your water heater, even more so if you live outside of an area supplied by Halifax Water that has hard water.
This is an anode rod, sometimes known as a sacrificial anode and is the key to extending the life of your tank. As the name implies, it sacrifices itself to take most of the corrosion away from the tank liner. Without getting into the boring science of electron flow, both magnesium and aluminum lose electrons (i.e., corrode, rust) much faster than ferrous metals such as steel, which is what most tanks are constructed of. These should be checked every year after 3 years and replaced as needed. At approximately $40, it is a lot cheaper and easier to replace than a tank: replacing ours on short notice cost us a total of $1300 just 3 days after moving into our home, not including spending our first weekend cleaning up the mess and dealing with no hot water for the entire day.
Another way to keep your tank running well into the future is to flush it once a year: simply hook up a garden hose and turn the tap after shutting off both the power and water supply to clear impurities that have settled and cause significant rust. As I have mentioned before, a burst water tank is a deeply unpleasant experience that can be minimized with regular maintenance. Be sure to read the manuals for all your home’s equipment and appliances: there are valuable tips that can both extend the life of and improve efficiency of your home’s components.
A home inspector will also look for other important safety features, such as a temperature/pressure relief valve and tube. While catastrophic tank failures are obviously rare, water heaters have an incredible amount of stored energy, and a failed tank can be shot up through the roof and into a neighbour’s yard like a rocket. Regular home maintenance can help insure you will never meet them in this way!
Being a professional home inspector means there is never a time where you can say that the learning stops and you know everything. If I haven't made it clear through my credentials I have an insatiable appetite for growing my understanding of all things home related that was fostered both through my late Grandfather (possibly the most skilled carpenter I have ever known) and 14 years at working with NSCC. My education continues to this day as can be seen clearly in the photo above: I especially like to learn more about topics that are only lightly touched upon in the formal home inspector programs: one such topic is marijuana grow-ops.
As everyone is well aware, marijuana has been legal in Canada for a while now and while still technically illegal throughout the entire United States, in reality as of 2021 only 5 out of 50 states have a full ban on it. One of the consequences of this is a drastic decrease in the black market and a corresponding drop in houses that are used to grow large quantities of cannabis illegally. It goes without saying that former growers generally do not advertise what the home was used for in the past and it can be difficult to identify a house that was used as a grow-op. There are a number of reasons why it is critical to know if the home was used as a grow house aside from insurance and mortgage issues:
One of the biggest concerns I see from potential new homeowners is the cost of dealing with sewer problems. While it can be very expensive to repair a sewer line, the biggest concern is having sewage backing up into the home and being unable to use water until repairs are completed. In many cases I recommend getting the main sewer line scoped to check for clogs or damage before a home is purchased.
While it is always a good idea to get a sewer inspection done, I generally tailor my advice based on the individual property being inspected. As a rule of thumb, every home over 20 years old should have the sewer lines checked but it is especially critical to get an inspection done for the following two scenarios:
The Property has Large Trees
It goes without saying that large trees have large roots, roughly equivalent to the span of the branches. The biggest concern is that roots can pierce and slowly destroy the sewer lines, leading to sewer backup or a sewage leak on the property.
The Home is Older, Especially a Home Built in the Mid 70s or Earlier
There are several common-sense reasons older homes are more likely to have sewer failures, but the main concern I have is no-corrode piping, otherwise known as orangeburg. Contrary to the name, these pipes are black, not orange and are named after Orangeburg, New York where they were originally manufactured. They were generally used residentially from the early 1940s to 1974 and are made of compressed wood fibres and tar. Not only are they at the end of the expected 50-year lifespan but this type of pipe tends to collapse and cause complete sewer blockage and is a cheaply made, poor quality material overall.
It is never my intention to alarm or scare homeowners or home buyers, but the simple fact is that no-corrode piping needs to be replaced if discovered: if it hasn’t failed already the chances of failure in the coming years is very high and it is a miracle there are still functioning orangeburg systems in 2021. The only way to determine if you have it is to have the sewer system scoped. This is a service that I am looking to add to our company in the near future but in the meantime, there are several plumbing contractors that can perform a sewer inspection.
Here are a few warning signs that it may be time for an inspection:
Finding a problem early before it escalates to a complete blockage or sewer pipe collapse will allow to time to plan a repair on your schedule while avoiding the nightmare that is sewage backup into a home. I have seen the results of sewage going where it shouldn't and I promise you it isn’t something you ever want to see or smell.
One of the questions frequently posed to home inspectors is if a home can fail an inspection and if so, how often do homes fail? The simple answer to that is no: we are independent consultants, not municipal code compliance officers and do not condemn homes. Every client has different expectations and what their tipping point is and will have to make that decision for themselves and as home inspectors we provide the necessary knowledge and facts. Yes, there are a number of issues that are very serious and difficult if not impossible to remedy at a reasonable cost but luckily they are rare in my experience.
One of the ways I accomplish my goal of providing detailed information and organize my reports in a way that is easy to understand is to provide an action list at the end of each report. I then organize tasks based on what I consider the priority level: every inspector is different but I personally break down my recommendations into four basic categories:
In reality, while these specific examples look easy to categorize in many cases a great deal of judgement is used in making proper recommendations. One such example is a cracked foundation: a crack can be a sign of anything from a cosmetic nuisance right up to a symptom of complete structural failure. Luckily the overwhelming majority of cracks are minor but as a home inspector we can advise whether the services of a structural engineer or other specialist should be sought.
As a volunteer first responder, possibly the most important skill other than immediate life-saving actions is to not only report and observe but also to understand when an issue needs further attention and if so what form it should take: many issues look serious on the surface but are relatively minor while others are only serious to the trained eye and need immediate attention. Developing this skill has served me well as a home inspector too, where I am able to put issues in the proper context, not overreacting or underreacting to what I see.
To summarize, inspector's reports do not have a grade and there is no such thing as pass or fail but there are issues with various degrees of seriousness in each and every home. This is why I promote and recommend regular maintenance inspections: we can help you avoid surprises and to plan and budget for preventative maintenance on your terms.
s a house needs a way for water to get into a home, it also needs a way to get that water out of the home, so that brings in DWV or Drain, Waste and Vent Plumbing. As its name implies, it has three functions. They are… surprise…. to drain water, remove waste and provide venting. As mentioned previously, DWV plumbing looks straightforward but is actually a fascinating engineered system that usually needs a professional plumber to install properly. I will not bore you with all the details but here is the 101:
All Fixtures Need a Trap (Except One)
Did you know that all appliances in your home must have a trap, commonly known as a “P” trap? The “P” does not stand for “pee” (it is shaped like a sideways “P”) and it is not designed to catch rings (although that is a nice bonus) but is designed to keep sewer gases from entering the home. These gases are not only gross but in large quantities are extremely flammable. The only exception to this P trap rule is the toilet because it has a trap built into it. There are a bunch of other traps, such as S- traps, drum traps and bell traps that are no longer permitted and should be replaced.
The System is Designed to Move Water and Air
While it is generally not visible to homeowners, in many cases the majority of DWV pipe does not carry any water at all. The system is designed to use gravity to move waste to the lower levels (and out of the home) but also needs air to both balance pressure (to prevent backflow) and allow sewer gases to escape. This is why all homes have a black pipe sticking out of the roof: to balance air pressure all allow that nasty sewer gas to escape.
DWV Pipes are Different Than Supply Pipes
While there is some overlap between supply and waste lines materials (i.e., you can use copper for both supply and waste pipes) the DWV pipes are larger and since the 1970s are usually made of plastic: either ABS (black) or PVC (white).
There are plenty of hints that inspectors such as yours truly use to identify potential issues in the plumbing system. The two most obvious are bubbles or gurgling when flushing the toilet (indicating improper air venting) and a loose toilet, which will eventually lead to sewer gas entering the home. A home inspector can also advise you on whether further evaluation from a plumber is required to determine the root cause of the issue and make repairs as necessary.
Did you know that your home has not one but two plumbing systems that need to be kept completely separate? They are:
Most homes in the Halifax core are connected to Halifax Water and one of its 2 large (Pockwock & Lake Major) supply plants. It is supplied to homes in various pipes with the biggest concern being lead pipes. If your home was built before 1960 and is located within Pennisular Halifax or Dartmouth inside Highway 111 there is a very good chance you have lead pipes and should have them immediately inspected.
Other concerns for the home inspector are homes that use the following types of supply pipe:
The main issue with this type of supply pipe is its age. As it has not been widely manufactured for over 60 years, the 40-to-50-year life expectancy has long since passed. The other main problem with this type of plumbing is that they will rust from the inside out, leading to low pressure, rusty water, and ruptured pipes. These pipes should be replaced as soon as possible.
Polybutylene (PB) and/or Kitec (PEX-AL-PEX)
There have been large class action lawsuits field against the manufacturers of both products alleging that they have an unacceptably high failure rate. While the internet is full of horror stories in my experience there have been very few problems with both types of pipe, especially in Canada and are usually the result of poor fittings. The main concerns are that if these pipes fail, they tend to catastrophically burst rather than leak and that some insurance companies refuse to insure homes with these types of pipes without some form of mitigation, up to complete replacement. I touched upon Kitec in a previous article and this type of piping is usually used in heating systems with PB a popular choice for water supply in the 90s.
With all that out of the way, what is a good type of pipe to use? Generally, two main types are used today: Copper (usually Type L) and Plastic (PVC, CPVC, PEX). There are pros and cons to all these types of piping and a qualified contractor can advise on the best option for your home.
It is very important that supply piping be kept separate from DWV piping as this can lead to serious, even fatal cross contamination. The biggest issue I see is homeowners leaving garden hoses connected when not in use: this can lead to outside water being drawn into the potable water supply and they should be disconnected when not in use.
Stay tuned for Part 2, where we look closer at DWV plumbing. This is a system that is surprisingly complex, works differently than supply plumbing and has special considerations.