According to the InterNACHI Standards of Practice, we are required to check for and report as in need of correction “the presence of solid conductor aluminum branch-circuit wiring”. Does this mean aluminum wiring in a home is dangerous? Not necessarily.
Let’s first back up to the 60s. While that timeframe might bring images of Woodstock, counterculture or political change to a home inspector a different type of change comes to mind: that of a switch from copper (CU) to aluminum (AL) wiring due to the skyrocketing cost of CU wires in the mid-1960s. Until about 1973 this type of wiring was almost exclusively used in branch circuits, which are the wires that go to individual outlets and switches.
Why is this type of AL wiring a concern? There are several reasons:
AL Wiring is More Malleable
Another way to say this is to say it is damaged easily. As it is a softer metal, it can be nicked or damaged far easier and a more amateur installation can greatly reduce the ability of the wire to safely carry electricity (and heat).
AL Wiring Expands/Contracts Easily
The #1 issue with AL wires is the significantly increased fire risk. The biggest danger comes from connections can come loose that can build up heat and eventually lead to an electrical fire.
AL is an Inferior Conductor
Compared to CU wiring, AL is not as good of a conductor of electricity. In most cases this is not a problem as an electrician knows to account for this but amateur DIYs might not realize the size difference between CU and AL. To give you an example of what I mean, below is a sample chart of the proper types of wire to use. Remember as the gauge gets smaller the wire gets bigger. As you can see AL is one size bigger in almost all conditions.
AL wiring was never discontinued or banned and is still widely used to this day. Due to its low weight, it is the preferred material for outdoor transmission lines and is frequently seen inside homes as the material the main service conductors are made of. As well, post 1973 aluminum wiring is of a much higher quality and generally does not have the safety issues just mentioned to nearly the same degree.
To summarize, while widely used, AL wiring can be considered dangerous in certain circumstances, especially if installed from 1965 to 1973. A home inspector can identify if you have this type of wiring and if so, will recommend an electrician evaluate the system to see if any corrective action needs to be taken to ensure the system is safe and functional for years to come.
One of the most interesting aspects of a home inspection is going into the attic space. This is an area where few homeowners venture and provides plenty of valuable information as to the condition of the home. One such important detail is ventilation. Do unfinished attics where nobody spends any time in really need ventilation? Absolutely!
There are several reasons why poor ventilation needs to be corrected:
Fortunately, attic spaces generally don’t need a lot of regular maintenance, but they should be checked at least a couple of times a year. One of the biggest issues I see are rafter baffles that have been knocked out of place by high winds. They are pictured in the diagram below and keep the soffit vent free of insulation.
How do you know if you have ventilation problems? Of course, you can always contact your friendly neighbourhood home inspector for help but here are a few clues that it may be time for further investigation.
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.
According to the InterNACHI Standards of Practice, there are a number of items all members must inspect to meet the minimum requirements. The one category that has by far the most items to inspect is electrical. There are couple of main reasons for this: the first is that electrical work can be expensive (it is mandatory to be licensed in Nova Scotia for a very good reason!) and many of the issues are hidden and can be very dangerous, even fatal. Today I am going to talk about something that any homeowner can do on their own to check their electrical system.
Nearly everyone in North America knows what these are and every home has dozens of these duplex receptacles. As can be seen in the diagram above, the short slot is for the hot (or energized) pin, the left is for the neutral pin that connects to the wire that completes the circuit back to the grid and the semi-circular slot is for a ground (or emergency path) pin. These outlets can also be installed with the ground on top and while this isn't common in residential properties it is both acceptable and safe.
The tester pictured here can be bought at any home improvement store for an affordable price and used by any home owner or renter to gather quick diagnostic information. While they are not perfect, they can help identify some significant electrical issues. Let us run down all the various fault codes on this particular tester and what they mean:
This is the most common condition I see and it may either be a systematic or localized problem. What this means is that the detector does not sense a emergency path in the case of an electrical fault. Grounding has been required in both Canada and the United States since the 60s and is especially important in objects made of metal as they conduct electricity. Without a ground wire, the electrical path may use your body as a way to get back to source and this could lead to anything from a nasty shock right up to cardiac arrest. There are a number of reasons for this, which can range from a simple slipped wire to a complete lack of grounding protection in the home that requires a complete and expensive home rewiring to correct.
This means there is a disconnect detected on the neutral wire. Simply put, in most cases two things will happen: the device plugged in won't work since there is no return circuit and you may receive a nasty shock as the outlet is still energized. This is a dangerous situation that needs immediate correction by an electrician.
This is a case where there is no hot wire connected to the outlet. This is very easy to spot as the outlet will not work as there is no energy source. This is the reason why none of the three lights will come on during an open hot situation.
Hot & Ground Reversed
This is a rare situation that is extremely dangerous and would be the result of someone who had no idea how to wire an electrical outlet. Like most inspectors I have never seen it and likely never will. This indicator can also be a false positive and could actually mean an open neutral, which while also serious is not nearly as expensive to correct.
Hot & Neutral Reversed
This is the second most common issue I see after open grounds and can also be known as reversed polarity. This means that the outlet is wired in reverse, where the energy is flowing in the opposite direction from what is intended. This can go undetected for years, even decades as many items (particularly electronics) are not polarized and it doesn't really matter to them which way the current flows. Other items that are polarized, such as light sockets or appliances will be energized even when off and will deliver a nasty, potentially fatal shock if you touch the wrong spot.
These testers are not 100% reliable. For example, a tester cannot detect a dangerous condition known as a bootleg ground, where the ground wire is illegally hooked into the neutral wire. This essentially means that the GFCI protection needed in wet areas is removed and the entire casing can become energized. This is one reason why if it is safe to do so I attempt to take off every electrical panel cover I see to inspect for proper wiring and grounding: if the panel isn't grounded (mostly due to age) and the outlet tester says it is, this can be a symptom of a very serious problem. Another way to put this is that a tester is just one of many tools a home inspector uses to perform their duties.
It is important to note that all electrical work in Nova Scotia is required to be done by a licensed electrician. These testers are a great diagnostic tool but unless you know what you doing, contact an electrician to correct any issues in a home. While they can be pricey, it is not worth losing your life or burning your home down to save a few hundred dollars.
If you ever do research on how to become a home inspector or what makes a great home inspector, you will find lots of information on the benefits of having things like a construction, engineering or trades background or a strong eye for detail. One thing that rarely is discussed is the importance of communication: not only to explain potential issues we find but to put them into the proper context using our skills and knowledge. Here are some examples of statements that are 100% true, yet are very misleading:
Electric Heating is 100% Efficient
No high efficiency furnace or boiler can compete with electric heat, but this ignores the simple fact that electricity is usually produced by generators which are about 30% efficient. Overall, electric heating is the most inefficient and expensive way to heat a home.
Electrical Heating is the Most Inefficient and Expensive Way to Heat a Home
Again, this is correct on the surface but is misleading. There are a few advantages of electric heat: no oil or propane tanks are needed, they are easy and inexpensive to install, and they can be relatively easily added to cold areas of a home. They are also great for distant areas where heat is only needed sparingly, such as in a garage or workshop. In short, all heating sources have advantages and disadvantages and that is why there are so many different examples seen in homes.
Radon is a Deadly, Tasteless, Odourless Gas That is Everywhere and There is No Safe Limit
You can also substitute “Carbon Monoxide” and this statement would again be true but misleading. Every single home has radon and while there is no agreed safe limit the Canadian guideline is 200 becquerels per cubic metre (200 Bq/m3) and no action is recommended unless the long-term levels in your home exceed this. I have discussed this in depth in a previous blog post, but the bottom line is radon can indeed be dangerous but, in many cases, it is not a concern.
Inside Edge Home Inspections Uses a Unlicensed Inspector
Sounds shocking that I would admit this is true until you learn that in Canada ALL inspectors outside of British Columbia and Alberta are unlicensed: a license not only is not required but does not exist. Furthermore, as of 2021, there are absolutely no requirements to anyone calling themselves a home inspector in any of the Atlantic Provinces. Our website demonstrates my impressive credentials and extensive experience, including completing 340 hours and counting of continuing education just in 2021 alone. If licensing becomes available our company will be first in line to sign up.
The reality is we are fully incorporated in Nova Scotia, our company is a certified member of InterNACHI, the world’s largest home inspection organization, and I am a Certified Professional Inspector with InterNACHI. Our passion is providing quality, independent home inspections and we fully support all efforts to raise the standards in our industry.
We are fortunate in Nova Scotia to have a dedicated fire department to protect our lives and property. While I am comfortable with the level of coverage we have in Halifax and sleep easier knowing we have a dedicated group of professionals ready to deploy, the simple fact is that when it comes to house fires, often the fire department cannot arrive in time to save a home and contrary to popular belief, newer homes generally burn much faster due to the large number of synthetic materials used in new construction and furniture, such as oriented strand board (OSB).
There are five basic types of fires. They are:
Class A – Wood, Paper, Cloth
Class B – Gasoline, Paint, Oil, Grease
Class C – Live Electrical Equipment
Class D – Combustible Metals
Class K – Commercial Cooking Oil
Class D and K are not generally something to worry about in most homes so that leaves A, B & C.
Fortunately, extinguishers rated for all three types of fires are easy to find so there is no need to carry three different types of extinguishers. As someone who has assisted in teaching proper fire extinguisher operation and a professional home inspector, I am concerned about the general lack of fire protection in the homes I inspect, with usually no more than one extinguisher that is so old it should be replaced. Personally, I have a total of 4 ABC extinguishers at home and are located:
If you do not have at least one fire extinguisher in your home, head to your nearest store today and pick one up.
As any homeowner can tell you, running a house can be an expensive endeavor. The costs of many repairs can run into the thousands, and it can be incredible how much damage even a small water leak can do. In my career I run across many issues that can be repaired for very little cost, usually as a weekend DIY project. These are probably the three most common issues I see:
Negative Grading/Clogged or Missing Gutters
As home inspectors, we often joke that moisture is our sworn enemy. While water is obviously essential for life and for a safe and healthy home, it needs to be contained properly. The biggest issue I see in homes is poor exterior drainage: most particularly when looking up to the rain gutters. For example, I recently inspected a property that only had gutters on one side, and they were almost completely clogged with debris. Most residential roofs are designed to rapidly force water off the surface and this extra force had compacted the soil and created a negative slope towards rather than away from the foundation. Water has a way of finding the tiniest cracks to find its way inside and particularly in a finished basement can cause significant damage before being detected. Be sure to keep those gutters clear (or install them if they are missing) and check the ground near your home to make sure it is sloped away from the foundation.
Clogged Air Filters
Most HVAC (Heating, Ventilation & Air Conditioning) units such as HRVs (Heat Recovery Ventilators), Furnaces and Heat Pumps have air filters and, in my experience, are rarely if ever cleaned. The main implication can go from poor air quality and increased energy consumption up to premature system failure. Just like a vehicle, each manufacturer has a recommended schedule for replacing or cleaning filters and this should be followed as closely as possible to maximize efficiency and safety. On a side note, a future project I would love to be a part of is creating (or improving) an app that allows easy and efficient maintenance planning and scheduling like what is used in the commercial building services industry. In the meantime, please check your filters and replace as necessary!
Dryer Vent Issues
I have yet to come across a home that had perfect dryer ventilation. There are several issues I regularly see when it comes to dryers.
According to my research, Halifax averages about one dryer fire a month and that is one too many as they can be easily prevented with regularly cleaning. A clogged dryer can also lead to greatly decreased efficiency, moist air expelled into the home (remember, our sworn enemy!) and is usually an easy fix for homeowners.
These three items should be checked regularly (usually every season) and with summer just starting why not do them this weekend? The best way to repair an expensive issue is to stop it before it happens. Your house and your home inspector will thank you!
As both a professional home inspector and a father to a young child, my biggest concern is home safety: particularly of hidden dangers in a home that might not be immediately apparent. One such danger is Knob and Tube (K&T) wiring, which was commonly used from approximately 1880 up until the 1940s. Here is a picture of what K&T wiring commonly looks like:
As you can see, once you know what to look for it becomes obvious, however it is often buried behind walls, in attics, in crawlspaces and other areas that are difficult to access. Contrary to popular belief, K&T is not inherently unsafe by itself, and it is not illegal to use in a residential property, although new installations of K&T in homes most certainly are! Furthermore, there are some advantages, such as better heat dissipation and a near guarantee it was installed by someone highly skilled as it was very difficult to install K&T properly.
With that said, I will always recommend an electrician evaluate a K&T system and if I were buying a home with K&T I would make immediate plans for its removal without exception. What is wrong with K&T and why do I personally consider it necessary to remove?
Knob and Tube is Old and Outdated
Given that K&T has not been widely installed in North America for almost 90 years, it is guaranteed that any K&T wiring installation is well past the expected lifespan of about 50-60 years due to deterioration of the cloth sheathing that was used. These systems are also underpowered for modern electrical needs and have almost certainly been modified with various degrees of skilled DIY’s, contractors, or electricians. There is also the concern of added insulation not allowing heat to escape from these wires, which can be a significant fire hazard.
These Systems are Not Grounded
All modern electrical systems are required to have a grounding wire (this is the bottom part of the plug), and this has been a requirement since about 1960. Therefore, since almost all K&T predates this timeframe, it can be safely assumed that a K&T system is not grounded. I plan on doing plenty of articles about residential electrical in the future but in the meantime just understand a ground is a safety feature designed to protect against electrical shock and all homes should be insured against ground faults. Speaking of insurance:
K&T Has Potential Insurance Implications
I would someday love to create a neat little table of all insurance providers in Nova Scotia and what their policy is on insuring houses with K&T. While I unfortunately do not have that information, I can safely assume that almost all insurers will either refuse to offer coverage to a home with K&T or require a significantly higher premium and/or deductible.
It should also be mentioned that finding K&T in an attic or crawlspace is not by itself a cause for panic: due to the difficulty in removing K&T it is often just abandoned and left in place. This is not a concern if it is properly decommissioned. A home inspector or electrician can determine if your home has active K&T and can offer recommendations of the next steps to ensuring you have a safe electrical system.
A home inspector has many tools at his or her disposal to assist in providing the best possible inspection to our clients and none is more interesting (or fun) to use than the thermal camera. Simply put, it uses Infrared (IR) technology to superimpose a “heat signature” into a standard camera image. Here is a clear example of how it works: this is a picture of a portable air conditioning unit: it is obvious from this image it is a hot day!
As a relatively new technology to our industry, there are a lot of benefits to using IR imaging, but it does have its limits:
IR Does Not Grant Superman Powers
While it certainly looks like X-ray vision, a thermal camera does not allow an inspector to see through walls. It can, however, identify cold spots, indicating poor insulation or potential moisture problems that warrant further investigation.
IR Works Based on Temperature Difference
While extreme temperatures are not pleasant (such as the hot day this blog post was written!) for an inspector they are a bonus on inspection day. Particularly in cold weather, it is easier to see the temperature difference between the outside and inside and therefore easier to determine if there are cold patches indicating poor insulation or an air leakage.
IR is Not as Simple as it Looks
In what seems to be a common theme to my writing, using a thermal camera looks simple but it more complicated than it appears. For example, the inspector needs to be aware that every surface has an emissivity rating (the ability of a surface to reflect infrared radiation), the angle of the image changes the apparent temperature, some materials (such as metals) give false readings and it is more important to look for qualitative data (temperature differences) than quantitative data (actual temperatures) when doing a thermal scan.
I am starting to sound like this technology has a lot of drawbacks but in reality, it is a fantastic piece of technology that usually provides valuable information for the inspector. Here are just some of the many useful ways I have used my IR camera both on the job and around the house:
The gallery below shows some visual examples of how useful IR technology can be for inspectors and homeowners alike. Like most of our tools, when used properly they can provide information invisible to the naked eye.
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.