Posts Tagged ‘Home Inspections’

Want Proof That Termites Are (Misplaced) Evil?

April 15, 2011

I recently had a structural inspection that showed (once again) how much damage a gang of termites can do to a home. This damage was located in the rim joists and sole plates of a home with brick veneer. However, these termites had incentive to invade the wood due to the rim joists and sole plates being apparently exposed to excess water coming from behind the brick veneer.

Some background is needed before getting into the termite business. The sole plates are the boards that sit atop the foundation, upon which the first floor joists rest. Rim joists, also known as band joists, are the boards that box in the floor joists. The ends of all floor joists resting on the sole plate but up against rim joists. Rim joists also help stabilize the joists and help keep them from angling or twisting.

In a properly designed brick veneer wall, a gap is supposed to be installed between the brick veneer and the exterior wall sheathing. The exterior sheathing is the material that covers the outside face of the wall framing. Sheathing can be boards (in older construction), or plywood or oriented strand board (OSB) panels, although in some construction Styrofoam panels may be installed between the plywood or OSB panels. The gap between the exterior sheathing and brick veneer is supposed to serve as a drainage plain to provide water that gets past the brick veneer a drainage path to the base of the wall. And, believe me; water can get past the brick veneer, particularly if the brick is especially porous. Drainage holes (in combination with flashing) in the brick veneer just above the foundation in the brick veneer are supposed to provide a path for water to flow out of the drainage plain. Brick veneer installed on concrete block construction, more commonly used for commercial construction, is also supposed to have a drainage plain with weep holes.

Full brick exterior walls, such as those on many old buildings in Cincinnati, do not need weep holes because the water supposedly travels fully through the brick into the interior wall surface or back out to the exterior surface. Another brick construction that was usually not built with drainage holes was concrete block on a concrete foundation with brick veneer installed in front of the block. Unlike the previously described brick veneer/concrete block wall, the first floor framing in this construction was built on the block and the upper floor framing was built above that. The brick veneer in this construction extended from the concrete foundation and up the exterior wall. This last construction, as used for a crawlspace construction, is the subject of this blog post.

Let’s start with a photo of the foundation construction from inside the crawlspace, shown below:


This photo shows the concrete foundation with the concrete block above it. On the exterior side of the foundation, the soil level would be to the top of the first row of concrete block above the foundation. Now, take note of the dark streaks on the facing concrete foundation. Those streaks are due to water drainage through openings in the block mortar. The question is from where is that water coming. For sure, water can migrate from the soil through the block. But, the darkened block in the area in the corner area and along the foundation to the left that extends the full height of the block hints at another source—the drainage gap behind the brick veneer. Darkening of the block indicates that they are water-saturated. Further support for the drainage gap being a water source is evident from the darkened sole plate wood sitting on top of the darkened concrete block.

Let’s take a closer look at part of the area along the facing foundation. Note the copper water pipe in the photo above. This pipe is the same as the one shown to the left in the photo below. In this photo, the darkened woods of the sole plate and rim joist above the water-saturated concrete block is visible. However, also visible are darkened areas in the subfloor boards on top of the joists. The material that looks like resin or droplets is water droplets on the wood surfaces. The pattern of the water stains on the subfloor indicates that the water source is the exterior wall, and more particularly the drainage gap behind the brick veneer. Areas like these were found all along the exterior walls of this crawlspace foundation.


So, what do these findings have to do with termites—as it turns out, a lot. Termites are one of Nature’s maintenance creatures. They reduce wood back into a form that is useful to plants, microflora and soil. The trouble is that they cannot distinguish between the dead wood of a tree in the forest and the lumber we use in our buildings. The subterranean termites we have in the Cincinnati area also require water to live. In fact, they build mud and frass tubes in areas where they would be exposed to air to conserve water and will carry water from the soil into the tubes to keep them damp enough. In the photo below, the dark streaks on the foundation are the remains of such tubes between the ground and the sole plate. Note that the distance between the ground and the sole plate in the photo is about 5 feet. Termites can be very determined to find a food source.


If termites can find wet wood, their job gets much easier because they do not have to bring as much (if any) water up from the ground. So, in the case of this home, they found it in the wet sole plate and rim joist woods. And once they set up their work area in them, they went to town. The following photos show some of the visible damage. Note in all of these photos that the wood is darkened due to water exposure.




I want to emphasize the words “some of the visible damage.” The exact extent of the damage generally would only be known when the damaged wood is removed and inspected. An ice pick or awl can be used to probe the wood and somewhat determine the extent of damage. If the damage is on the other side of solid wood, though, this method would not find it. Also, termites form multiple tunnels in the wood, which means that unless the wood has been greatly degraded by the tunnels, as in the photos, a lot of probing would be needed to fully determine the damage. More sophisticated and expensive methods to determine the extent of damage exist, such as injecting chilled or heated air into the termite tunnels in the wood and viewing the wood using a thermal camera. In theory, the air would follow the tunnels and provide a temperature difference within the wood that is visible to the camera. The common method, however, is using a probe.

The damaged wood in this home will need to be removed, which will be expensive due to where it is located. The repair will also not be as ideal as new construction. Even worse, as wood is removed, more damaged wood that is not readily visible might be found, making the project much more expensive.

But, a question still exists as to why the sole plate and rim joist wood is getting wet when the wood is at least 16 inches above outside grade. Additionally, the drainage plain behind the brick should extend below the wood to the concrete foundation level. I believe that a couple of possibilities exist. The brick might not have a proper drainage plain, in that the brick veneer is right up against the exterior sheathing. I hope not because that likely means the exterior sheathing and upper floor framing could have moisture and/or termite damage. Another possibility is that the rim joists and/or sill plates block the drainage plain. Then again, water from the upper drainage plain may be filling up the concrete block and/or the gap between the brick and block to the level of the wood. Overall, though, the fact that the subfloor appears to be getting wet indicates that a drainage plain issue is present. When the wood is replaced, the real water source might be evident.

What are the morals of this story? Here are a few:

  • Damp crawlspaces or basements can be an invitation for termites to move in.
  • Properly designed and installed drainage plains behind exterior finishes, whether brick veneer or siding, can help prevent expensive repairs.
  • A great amount of water can penetrate through brick.
  • Trick observation—the crawlspace floor was muddy apparently due to water flowing into it. Since no vapor barrier was present, water from the wet soil can evaporate and enter the home where it can cause mold growth in those dark and quiescent locations where mold likes to hang. Then again, even a vapor barrier might not help if too much water is getting into the crawlspace.

Unfortunately, like most projects of this kind, I will not know the outcome due to the nature of these kinds of projects. Be assured that if I hear anything, you will be the first to know.

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Take note: ALL new manufactured home installations in Ohio MUST be inspected

September 23, 2010

I am a certified inspector for the Ohio Manufactured Home Commission (OMHC).  About every month, the Commission meets to discuss issues that arrive relative to the installation requirements for manufactured homes.  At the meeting this month, the Commission discussed the fact that a large number of manufactured home owners are still unaware that manufactured home inspections have been required since September 2007.  Therefore, I thought that this would be a good subject to blog about.

Prior to initiation of the OMHC, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), powered by the manufactured home industry, developed rules to serve as a model code for all of the states.  The law that passed also dictated that all states would have to initiate a program for inspecting all new installations (sets) of manufactured homes.  At the least, the states had to use the HUD model code as a minimum code for each state.  Ohio adopted a slightly stricter version of the HUD model code, and at times various revisions to the Ohio code are made.

The basic fact is that the Ohio code requires all new installations of manufactured homes undergo inspections.  “New installations” does not mean installations of just new manufactured homes.  It means all manufactured homes, whether they are installed on private property or in manufactured home parks or whether they are brand new or years old.  Even if you are relocating the home from one manufactured home park to another, you must have its installation inspected.  Even if you are relocating a home from private land to a manufactured home park or vice versa, you must have it inspected.

Installations currently require three inspections: footing, electrical safety and final installation.  The footing inspection may not be needed if approval is given to an existing footing that is being reused.  Furthermore, all installations must receive a permit prior to any work beginning.  For information on the permits, the permit application forms and the steps you need to go through in the installation process, refer to this location: http://www.omhc.ohio.gov/Consumers/tabid/59/Default.aspx.  The permit is issued by the same certified OMHC inspectors that perform the inspections.  Local building departments and some Ohio Department of Health agencies perform manufactured home inspections as well as Third Party Agencies, such as my firm, Criterium-Cincinnati Engineers.  You can find a list of Third Party Agency  inspectors by county at this location:  http://www.omhc.ohio.gov/CallforInspections/tabid/57/Default.aspx.   Note that you can be fined if you begin work without obtaining a proper permit.

The rules require that installers licensed by the OMHC perform both the footing and installation work.  Most installers have unlicensed assistants helping them.  In these cases, the licensed installer must be on-site 80% of the time supervising the work.  Installers may also obtain the permit and line up the inspection agency.

After a home passes its inspections, the inspector will place a seal inside the electrical panel.  Note that this seal is only for that home’s installation on the site for which the seal was issued.  If the home is moved to another location, it will need to undergo the permitting and inspection process again and receive a new seal for the new location.

Several other important points need to be understood:

  • If a home was installed  after September 2007, it must still be inspected and meet the existing rules.
  • Homeowners may do their own installations; however, if a homeowner chooses to do the work, he or she is required to do all of the work him or herself, including obtaining a permit.  We highly recommend that homeowners not do their own installations because we have had nothing but bad experiences when they do.  In pretty much all cases, the homeowner is taking on much more work than they realize and likely does not have the proper equipment to do a complete installation.  Homeowner who are thinking about doing the work themselves should review the rules to which the home’s installation must adhere at this location:  http://www.omhc.ohio.gov/LawsandRules/tabid/66/Default.aspx (if you looked, yep, every one of ’em).  Whereas, most installers have had a number of years of experience.  They are also required to be trained and pass a qualifying test prior to obtaining a license.  We therefore recommend that homeowners have licensed installers do the installation.
  • We recommend that the homeowner have the installer obtain the proper permits.  If the installer obtains the permit, he or she is responsible for completing the work.  If the homeowner obtains the permit, he or she is responsible.  If additional work is needed for the home to pass inspection, having the installer responsible for the permit gives the homeowner leverage to assure the work gets done.
  • On the other hand, we recommend that the homeowner select the inspection agency.  Some installers have a “comfortable” relationship with some inspectors and, let’s just say, the homeowner might not be getting the inspection they should.
  • Permits are for 180 days only, which should be adequate time for the installation to occur.  An extension can be given; but, if one is needed, then something is definitely wrong.
  • The homeowner is not supposed to occupy the home until it receives a passing final inspection and is sealed.  The inspector can issue a temporary occupancy permit if he or she finds that the issues that need to be resolved for the home to pass inspection are not serious.  However, the temporary permit, as the name implies, means that the home must eventually pass inspection.
  • Most electrical companies will not connect the electric service to a home until after it passes the electrical safety inspection.  The problem has been that some homeowners have gotten the electrical service connected and then not completed the installation so that it passes inspection.  The Commission is currently working to close this loophole.  Inspectors are also going to get more aggressive at assuring that the installation is satisfactorily completed.

I have heard all of the excuses about why manufactured homes should not be inspected and complaints about the inspection requirements.  But, after performing nearly 600 manufactured home FHA inspections, I understand the requirements for every part of the rules.  The inspections are not intended to simply aggravate the homeowner.  They are there to assure that the home is installed safely and to help preserve the homeowner’s investment.  With proper installation, a manufactured home can last for many years.  I see no reason why a properly installed and cared for home cannot increase in value over time.

Is air sampling for mold a necessity?

February 22, 2010

I lost a home inspection job for this weekend and I believe I know why.  The job involved not just the routine inspection but also had a suspected mold problem.  Although I would have liked the income, I am more concerned that the potential client decided on another inspector because he was convinced that air sampling for a potential mold problem was needed.  The client said that possible mold was present and described construction that could create moisture conditions conducive to mold growth.  But, I told the client that usually air sampling for mold is not needed because no matter what, if you see mold, you clean it up.  If you find moisture problems that could lead to mold growth, even if no visible mold growth is present, you attempt to eliminate them.  A skilled inspector should be able to recognize both without the need for air sampling.

The truth is that no where is there a requirement for air sampling.  In fact, air sampling is usually not recommended.  The main reason is that the complexities of mold and sampling for mold usually creates more confusion than explanation.  The results are usually confusing, and many times do not mean anything.  Over the years, I have found that nearly every time I have collected air samples–and a lot of other types of mold samples other than clearance samples–the results create confusion and misinterpretation.  When I have been an expert consultant in legal cases, I most often do not have trouble discrediting others mold sampling results.  And the truth is to get any kind of statistical accuracy upon which to make significant conclusions, many more samples are needed rather than the two or three most so-called “mold experts” collect.

Over the years, I have found that when so-called experts do not really understand what they are doing, they rely religiously on protocols they learned in their two or three day mold courses.  Those courses teach them how to conduct sampling, but usually do not dig very deep into the logic behind the sampling.  In most cases, the limitations of the sampling are not explained.  Further, I suspect that even when the limitation are explained, most attendees at these classes do not really grasp those limitations because they do not have the background to understand them.  I know my background and all of the various bits of expertise, special training  and experience I have needed to understand those limitations, and it took over 25 years to get it.  So, I suspect highly that a person coming from a non-science background with less than a week’s training probably does not understand them.

The thing is air sampling for mold is a tool, just like many other tools needed to investigate such problems.  In fact, I can think of nearly 20 different types of sampling used to investigate mold problems.  In fact, many various air sampling methods exist besides the usual Air-O-Cell cassette usually used by so-called “mold experts” and I know of at least three air samplers that collect samples similarly to the Air-O-Cell.   I have found that many of the other sampling methods even provide more useful information than any air samples.  With air samples, you HAVE TO understand how air travels throughout an area to determine the validity of the sample and whether it provides information about a risk.

But, the most important tools that an investigator takes into an area is his/her visual acuity and knowledge.  I specifically stated visual acuity because the inspector needs to have an eye for detail.  I have been on many inspections with clients where I have pointed out possible mold or signs of moisture problems that the client did not even see.  The stuff between the ears can only be gotten one way and that is through long hours of learning, knowing the right people and a lot of hard work.  No one is going to stuff that expertise into someone’s head in a couple of days.

So, when it comes right down to it, I lost an job opportunity because someone else was much better at selling a likely unneeded service than I was at convincing the client that the service was NOT needed.  At the same time, the client had a part in my loss and  I don’t mean by just selecting the other person.  No, the client also came into the picture with beliefs–things read or heard.  In fact, I could hear doubt in the client’s voice when I said that I rarely take air samples.   When I get these calls, I try to educate the client.  Sometimes, I succeed and sometimes I don’t.  My only request to anyone reading this is that you listen and learn to ask the right questions.  I also recommend that you also dig deeper into the expertise of the person offering you advice.  It could save you a lot of money in the long run.


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