Giving you a fair view of your home

With the popularity of gas logs and fireplaces most new homes no longer have wood-burning fireplaces installed. Though there are still a few of us who enjoy cutting and hauling wood, most people enjoy the conveniences of gas logs and fireplaces. With no mess, little maintenance, minor heat loss, and easy installation, gas fireplaces are ambience at the flick of a switch. Its no wonder people are lining-up to add these benefits to their home.

Fireplaces vary in design and efficiency but all indoor fires hold the same considerations. Fireplaces convert fuel to heat while emitting some amount of byproduct. Gas fireplaces can burn for far longer periods nonstop and with greater veracity. This makes gas fireplaces and logs more susceptible to some hazards than wood fireplaces.

Fireplaces convert fuel to heat by pulling in air for combustion. A fireplace that pulls combustion air from the house can depressurize a well-sealed house. Fireplaces, dryers, bathroom fans, kitchen exhausts, furnaces, and water heaters all work to depressurize a modern home. An external combustion air source or keeping a window open can be important when using a fireplace in a well-sealed room. Especially true for modern homes, retrofitted and non-vented gas fireplaces can be a hazard to indoor air quality. Fireplaces that pull combustion air from a room are also pulling the houses warm air with it. This causes heat loss as well as depletion of oxygen.

After the fuel is burned there are several ways fireplaces release emissions into the air: A chimney releases the fires byproduct up into the air and above the house. Direct-vent fireplaces have flues at the rear of the firebox allowing byproduct to escape out the back of the fireplace.

A vent-less fireplace has no external exhaust (no flue or chimney) for the by-products and contaminants to leave the home. Vent-less fireplaces should be maintained once a year and run at only a few hours at a time. The ‘Oxygen Detection Safety pilot’ system makes a vent-less fireplace acceptable. The ODS automatically shuts off the gas supply in the event oxygen in the room falls below 18%. The ODS doesn’t monitor pollutants and water vapor, which may also be in the air. Manufacturers of vent-less fireplaces state that the levels of emission are low and within the current national standards and guidelines for indoor air quality. However, according to Frances Dougherty Jr. at the Environmental Protection Agency there are no current national standards for residential indoor air quality.

Several gases that are emitted from burning a gas fireplace are:

  • Water vapor makes up about 60% of the output of a natural-gas fire. The American Gas Association estimates that 28,000 Btu/hour vent free gas can produce 4.6 gallons of water vapor a day. Increased levels of water vapor can help increase mold growth. The EPA recommends indoor humidity be below 60%.
  • Carbon dioxide makes up to 40% of gas combustion by-product. CO2 can raise a person’s breathing rate and cause minor eye irritations and is a health hazard at high levels. The US Public Health Service’s carbon dioxide standard is 600 parts per million in schools.
  • Carbon monoxide can cause death. CO can be produced if the air to gas ratio is not balanced. A gas-fire with a yellow tipped flame can be an indication of maladjustment and increased pollutant emissions. The EPA standard for outdoor levels of CO is 9 parts per million. OSHA’s and the EPA’s acceptable levels of CO in schools are 35 to 50 parts per million.
  • Nitrogen dioxide is a corrosive oxidant gas. The EPA states that NO2 irritates the mucous membranes in the eye, nose and throat and causes shortness of breath after exposure to high concentrations. There is evidence that high concentrations or continued exposure to low levels of nitrogen dioxide increases the risk of respiratory infection and that repeated exposures may lead to the development of lung disease such as emphysema.

Sensors that can detect CO, CO2 and NO2 are a good investment. Without a national standard for residential indoor air quality these detectors can help prevent potential health risks.

Gas logs and fireplaces in older homes have become common and do not necessarily have combustion air sources necessary for the high burn rate of gas. Also, retrofitted gas devices have different clearance requirements than the wood-burning fireplace they replace. The hearth and/or mantle may need to be altered to prevent a household fire.

Whether in a new or retrofitted home there are several factors which effect health and safety: Oxygen depletion, depressurization, water vapor, gas pollutants, and heat. Professional installation of a gas log or fireplace will help prevent these hazards. Though gas fireplaces and logs are convenient it is important to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines as they have considerations specific to their design.

It is easy to go unnoticed but it could cost you money in repairs or even more importantly, your health. Take an adventure with your local inspector down the road of exploring septic systems. It may not be exactly what you look forward to doing, but it one of the necessary evils of home ownership. Understanding your septic system is key to maintaining and preventing damage to your system.

How does it work?

The first step to proper septic maintenance is to gain an understanding of the components and process of the system. Septic systems consist of septic tank, a distribution box and a drain-field all connected by pipes. Due to the large size of drain-fields and location restraints, some septic systems have a holding tank and sewage ejector pump used to pump sewage to a drain-field that is farther away. Sewage from your house discharges into a septic tank, usually located 15 feet or more from the house. The entering stream separates, with light materials rising to join a scum layer on top and heavier matter dropping to the bottom to join the sludge. Bacteria go to work at once, transforming organic materials into simple chemicals that dissolve. After 24 hours the dissolved solids in the tank water will have increased to about 50%. Given enough time, bacteria will digest everything in the tank except insoluble inorganic compounds, which sink to the bottom or float to the top.

Household cleaners can affect good bacteria.

The break down of organic materials into dissolvable chemicals is crucial. Raw sewage may contain pathological organisms, which must be made antiseptic before the sewage can be allowed to leave the disposal area and join the ground water. Modern waste disposal depends on anaerobic bacteria, which thrive in an oxygen-free environment. If a tank is too small or is filled with material that is not being broken down, then its effective volume is decreased and bacteria may not have enough time to work on the raw sewage. As a result solid matter may be discharged into the distribution box and the drain-fields. Bleach, disinfectants, anti-bacterial hand soaps, drain and toilet bowl cleaners can kill the anaerobic bacteria and should be used sparingly. Leftover hazardous household chemicals should be taken to a waste collection center. Since these household items can affect the tank’s balance, some septic companies recommend adding bacteria or yeast to your system via your toilet once or twice a year. It is recommended that you have your septic cleaned and inspected from every two to five years in order to remove the scum and sludge layers, ensure that the sewage is breaking down and to check for cracks in the tank.

Where does it go?

Wastewater can take from two to seven days to pass through the septic tank. The outlet to the septic tank is mounted so that only the clear liquid (effluent) in the center of the tank will pass through to the distribution box. From the septic tank, the clear liquids from the middle layer of the septic tank should enter the distribution box, which distributes the liquid to fields where the final stage of purification takes place. By the time the liquid makes its way down to the water table, none of the original organic matter should remain. If the distribution box tilts or if it’s function is otherwise impaired by solid matter from the tank (clogged), it may no longer spread the load evenly and may force premature failure in the overstressed section of some of the fields. Signs of field or system failure include sewage surfacing over the drain-field (especially after storms) and lush green growth over the drain-field.

Some septic systems have a holding tank and sewage ejector pump. Effluent can be discharged into a holding tank and pumped from there to an elevated distribution box. An alarm inside the house is connected to the pump to alert the occupants should the pump fail. Usually these types of systems have about a 200-gallon leeway after the alarm goes off. Other systems have a pipe that sticks out of the ground (called a flow diversion valve) at the distribution box where you can divert the effluent to different fields. These types of systems should be re-diverted every year and can add many years to the life of your system.


Here are a few questions to ask about your septic system:

  • When was the last time the system was cleaned?
  • Is the system a pumped system?
  • If the system is a pumped system, has the pump ever been replaced?

Achieve a worry free household through understanding your septic.

It may be a good idea to have a sketch on hand of where your septic tank, distribution box and fields are so you can avoid disturbing or riding heavy machinery over them. You should be able to get a copy from your local county health department. If the septic tank is cracked, septic waste may escape where it is not wanted and the capacity of the tank may be compromised. If damage to the septic system occurs, then pathogenic organisms may make their way into your drinking water, thus compromising your health. By not caring for and having your septic tank cleaned and inspected periodically, it could cause anything from health issues in the environment to costly repairs

The Truth About Mold

It’s on the news, being talked about as the “invisible killer”. Mold has become the latest indoor environmental scare. There are stories linking mold to headaches, allergies, neurological disorders and even death. Remember in science class when you learned about a new illness? Then came home thinking you had come down with it? With the infiltration of negative news about mold it’s easy to understand why anyone would get concerned about mold in the home. As a home owner it is important to take the proper course of action in reacting to mold growth in your home.

Mold exists naturally in our surroundings with the distinct purpose of breaking down organic materials. Without it, our ecosystem would not survive. Sometimes you see it between the shower tiles or on bread. This is not the type of mold that the news is concerned about.

Most mold species are allergens. Allergic reactions include; respiratory, congestion, sore throat cough, or skin irritation. There are a few that are toxic or pathogenic that cause nervous system problems, memory loss, and fever. The most well known of these is stachybotrys. But, exposure to mold does not always cause health problems. Mold comes in thousands of species and colors. Reactions to mold occur at varying concentration levels.

Prevention is key. Moisture and a porous surface is all that is needed for mold to grow. Suppose you have a leaky faucet — inevitably a mold spore will land where the water is dripping and reproduce on the wood cabinet or the drywall. You may want to look for and repair any leaks around your home. Not all leaks can be seen easily. It is a good idea to check under sinks, around toilets, and in basements and attics on a regular basis. A telltale sign of mold growth besides what is visible is a ‘musty’ smell.

If preventative measures have not been taken or water penetration has gone unnoticed, chances are, mold has already started to grow. The first thing you will want to do is find the water source and stop it the leak.

At what point do you decide to have mold tested in your home? Really, it is a personal decision. If you are feeling any unexplained allergy type symptoms or you are seeing more than 3 square feet of mold growth in your home then it may be a good time to have it tested. Testing will help you determine what type of mold is growing and which course of action you will need to take.

If the mold is in a small area you can clean the area with a 90% water 10% bleach solution. Always use gloves and wear a mask to prevent mold spores from being inhaled. If there is a large amount of mold or any toxic mold present, you may want to call a professional to have it removed.

The ability to prevent mold growth is key to not having to worry about this new scare. If you do have mold don’t over react. Just determine how large the area and if you want to get it tested. Chances are… the mold is not as bad as you might think.

Ask The Inspectress – Plumbing

Q. I just purchased a house and I think I have a plumbing problem. How can I inspect a pipe? What if the pipe is clogged? What is the best way to clean it?

A. I hope your plumbing problem is something I can help with. Plumbing can be very involved. But here are some simple things you can do for clogged waste lines:

Check the garbage disposal under the sink. There is usually a turn key that you can put into the bottom hole. Turn the key to turn the blade. Any further tinkering with a disposal should be done by a plumber.

To prevent a clogged sink do not pour food or scraps down the sink, and regularly take out bathroom strainers and stoppers to clean them. If you have a clogged or partially clogged sink and the pipes are made of some sort of metal, you can flush the drain with boiling water to attempt to restore free flow. If this does

not work or you have plastic waste lines, try to use a plunger.

First bail out most of the water and clog up the overflow drain with a rag. Seat the plunger over the drain and pump vigorously up and down for 1 to 2 minutes. If this does not work, then try using a liquid drain opener. These chemicals can cause serious injury, so use rubber gloves and safety glasses for any work after the chemicals have been poured in the drain.

If the chemicals do not work, you can try using an auger. You should be able to purchase an auger at your local hardware store. Insert the auger into the drain opening until it hits the trap (a “U” shaped pipe which is called a “P trap”). Then slowly crank auger handle clockwise to move end of cable past trap. If auger hook catches debris, carefully withdraw auger while still turning it. If you cannot get the auger past trap, you will have to remove the trap.

With a bucket under the trap, unscrew the coupling nuts with a wrench while bracing trap with your other hand. There will be water inside the trap, so empty it out into the bucket and check the trap for clogs. If it is clogged, you can clean it out with a straightened wire coat hanger. You can then put the auger in through the opening going into the wall. Feed auger cable directly into drain line, rotating it slowly until it hits blockage. Churn auger back and forth to break up clog. Wipe auger clean as you remove it. Put the trap back on the way it was taken off. Remember to tighten the coupling nuts but not so hard you can’t get it off next time.

If these methods do not work, there may be a clog in your main waste line and you would probably want to call a plumber.


Do you have any questions about your home or about home inspections? Just send your question to and a reply may posted in the next column.

Is Your Roof Ready for the Upcoming Weather?

Day in and day out the roof over our head keeps out the wind, rain and sun. It takes a beating for us. But do we give it get the attention that it needs? The roof is too high over our head that we don’t even want to think about looking up there and it often goes unnoticed until there is a leak. You do not necessarily need a ladder to take a peek at the roof. You can look through binoculars or look from a window that sits above the porch or garage. All you need to know is what to look for. Then you can make sure that it stays in good condition as long as possible.

There are many different types of roof coverings. All have different life spans and characteristics. Some of the most common in our area are three-tab asphalt shingles, standing seam metal and wood shakes.

Most of us have asphalt shingles that usually have a lifespan of 20 to 25 years, but there are architectural grade shingles that can last 30 to 50 years. The sun has the largest influence on the lifespan of shingles. Usually a roof with a southern exposure will be more worn on the south side. One of the first signs of deterioration is the granules start to wear off. You can usually see where the granules have washed into your gutters. When asphalt shingles get to be 12 to 15 years old, you can see signs of hairline cracks. From there the shingles start to curl down and then curl up. By the time they are curling up, there will probably be some shingles missing and pieces broken off. If more than 10% of the roof has cracked and missing shingles, then it is past time for a new roof. In the meantime, to preserve the life of your shingles you want to make sure any nail pops are hammered down and any missing shingles are replaced. Even newer roofs can have nail pops. Usually because of expansion and contraction, the nails pop out of the underlying wood sheathing. As the nail pops up, it brings the shingle up with it and could allow water penetration under the shingle or strong wind to blow the shingle off the roof.

Metal roofs have been around for centuries. The most popular metal roofs in this area are standing seam metal roofs. Most are made from galvanized steel and are provided with a coating of zinc for corrosion protection that’s lasts up to 20 years. After that, galvanized steel roofs usually need to be painted every 5 to 7 years. If you see rust spots on the roof, then it’s time to call the roofer. Metal roofs usually last 50 years or more if they are maintained correctly. If more than 15% of your roof is rusted, you may need to purchase a new metal roof. The best thing to do is to keep them painted. Copper roofs are also prevalent in this area, but since they are costly they exist primarily over bay windows. You will be happy to know that copper roofs need virtually no maintenance!

Wood shakes usually last 30 to 50 years. Shakes have a rugged gray appearance with natural curves and splits, which causes some to think they are old or broken. What you should look out for is that the nails wear out before the shakes do. If galvanized nails were used and shakes are slipping off, you may want to use high-quality stainless-steel nails when re-securing. You want to make sure all the shakes are nailed on and none are sticking up. Mildew or moss has a tendency to grow on wood shakes especially if your roof has trees in the vicinity. Mildew and moss should be washed off and the shakes should then be oiled with a clear wood-finishing product.

Take a peek at your roof and make sure it is up for the challenge of this fall and winter. Unless you are an experienced roofer, getting up on your roof and doing maintenance work yourself could be very dangerous. It is best to have a professional do it that is “up” for the job.

What Should I Look for in a Home Inspector?

Buying a house may be the most rewarding thing we do in our lives. But, with so many papers to sign and steps to follow we can get lost by the time the contract is ratified and it’s time for the home inspection. There is a lot of information to know and decisions to be made. This column will be dedicated to informing you about your choices and what to expect in a home inspector and inspections.

One choice you will have to make is what type of background you want your inspector to have. Do you want someone who knows a lot about framing and structure or do you want a generalist who knows a little about each system. Also what kind of education do you want your inspector to have? Some home inspectors will tout years of experience as an independent contractor,

possibly as a plumber or electrician. The inspector may have experience within a specific system or have a working knowledge of all systems and components in the home. Knowledge of all systems is sometimes achieved by receiving a thorough education by a certified training facility. Some of the schools local to Virginia are; Inspection Training Associates, Training Learning Certification, Inc. and Building specs Inc. All of these educational facilities teach each inspector how to inspect all components of the home to include the Exterior, Interior, Electrical, Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning, Roof and Structure of the home.

So when you are looking for a home inspector, decide what aspects of your new home concern or interest you and ask the inspector what experience they have and what kind of training they have received. If you don’t, you may not be getting picture that you want.