ASK LARRY

ASK LARRY

 

Do you have a home related question that’s bothering you? Click ASK LARRY. Or click on one of the questions below. .

Dear Larry,

We're getting ready to present a contract on a house that I am very attracted to. My husband is concerned because of what he calls a musty smell. The Realtor says it's because the house has been closed up for a couple of weeks. Is this something we can have checked out and how should we do it? Also, my son claims that the house makes him feel congested.

Shopping in Tallahassee

 

Dear Shopping,

Your problem seems to be a fungus related problem, which is very common in Tallahassee. Such conditions are usually related to a moisture problem. Any time you detect a strong musty or mildew odor you can expect to find such a problem. My initial analysis is dependent upon the type of foundation under the house - whether it is a concrete slab foundation or a crawlspace. A great majority of the problems such as you have described occur with crawlspace foundations.

My first response would be to determine how much cross ventilation is provided to the crawlspace. Can it "breath"? Most building codes call for a minimum of one square foot of ventilation (located in the foundation wall) for every 150-sq. ft. of crawlspace area.

The next thing I would examine is the site drainage. Are there areas where water is ponding next to or running under the house? Quite often, the lack of guttering along the roof eave will allow much of the roof water run-off to fall within inches of the foundation, resulting in massive amounts of water migrating, percolating or flowing into the crawlspace under the house.

Only by actually crawling around under the house can you determine if this could be the problem. Look for damp soil or standing water under the house. Look for condensed moisture on the wood. Fungus growth on the wood is a good indication of high moisture levels. The fungus may look like a white powder or fine black fuzz or a vivid collage of bright oranges, purples, yellows and grays. As a rule, the thicker and more pervasive the fungus, the greater is your moisture problem. When the microscopic spores of these fungi enter the air in a great enough quantity they become easier and easier to detect, although many individuals with allergies will become profoundly affected long before another individual will detect anything. When it reaches the point that the smell is obvious to anyone entering inside the house, the problem is usually very significant. A problem of this magnitude is often associated with wood destroying fungi, or wood rot. 90% of the time if you can smell it, there's probably some wood rotting somewhere. Under the bathroom is the usual area followed by under the kitchen sink area.

If the problem is severe enough the spores will grow in the carpeting, under the carpeting, in the air conditioning system, etc., making it very difficult to eradicate. If caught early enough, controlling yard drainage, increasing crawlspace ventilation and a topical spraying of the subfloor and undercarriage with a borate solution will usually solve the problem. If the house has a slab foundation the smell could be coming from fungus resulting from a roof leak, a broken pipe in the slab, a leaking shower pan, a leaking pipe under a sink or in a wall, a wet and dirty air conditioning system, etc.

Usually, a strong musty odor indicates a moisture problem and is symptomatic of a "sick house". By all means, check it out as the remedy justifies the cost of the investigation.


Larry

I'm getting ready to purchase a used home, and I've been burned twice before with bad AC systems. What kind of problems might I have with my air conditioner, and how can I avoid/detect them?".

Fred G.

Fred,

I like to look at the various AC related problems as sort of syndromes. There’s the Noah Syndrome where a leaking condensate drain turns the hard wood floor into warped pieces of the ark, or where it starts raining from the ceiling. There’s the Legionnaire Syndrome where everybody in the house gets sick, or it starts smelling like Grandpas old socks. How about the Capital Punishment Syndrome where the homeowner gets electrocuted while making an amateur electrical repair? There’s the Arctic Air Syndrome where the ducts have come loose in the attic or crawlspace. For the visionary futurists there is the Melanoma Generation Syndrome in which your Freon leak today causes melanoma in your child’s kid tomorrow. How many of you have suffered from Insect Revenge Syndrome? Be careful of the Karma you are building with fire ants, wasps, and palmetto bugs. The Boston Strangler Syndrome chokes off the airflow burning up compressors and fan motors. Last but not least is the Poodle and the Oxcart Syndrome. How many people are trying to cool the Taj Mahal with a window unit, or visa versa?

 

Cut out the chart below and paste it in the center of your bathroom mirror or car windshield as a reminder to implement:

 

LARRY’S AIR-CONDITIONING SYNDROME ANALYSIS

 

Noah Syndrome

Manifestations - Condensate (water created by the dehumidification process of air conditioning) leaking all over the place.

Checkpoints for prevention -Look for:

  • Blocked condensate drain line (algae, buried, plugged)
  • Dirty evaporator coil
  • Dirty filter
  • Dirty secondary drain pan (in overhead systems)
  • Dirty secondary drain-lines or check cut-off switches
  • Water stains or wood-rot around air handler
  • Defective sump pumps
  • Leaky return ducts in attic or crawlspace.

Worst case scenario:

Air handler is located in attic and leaks into poorly mounted overflow pan. Pan fills, becomes unbalanced and tips, pouring 15 gallons of water into the living-room ceiling where it runs through the chandelier and onto the stamp collection containing that rare stamp from New Guinea (You know, that red one with the scribbling on it).

Legionnaire Syndrome

Manifestations - People get sick (This is only limited to asthmatics, people with allergies, mold and fungus sensitive people, small children, old people, pregnant women, people with HIV, people with an aversion to breathing animal hairs, dead skin, dirt, or small pieces of insect bodies, and oxygen dependent individuals. All others can ignore this section and skip to the next), or the house starts to stink (regardless of the presence of small children et. all). Possible smells include grandpa's old socks, mold, freshly turned earth, putrefying flesh, urine, and exotic cooking (in cases where the person in the next apartment has tapped into your duct system to cool their apt.).

Checkpoints for prevention - Look for:

  • Disconnected ducts in the crawlspace or attic.
  • Animal nests in duct system.
  • Dirt and fungus on the evaporator coil.
  • Filth in the duct system.
  • Communication between ducts and building cavities.
  • Foul odors

Worst Case Scenario: Possum living in return air duct gets caught in fan blades. Or how about this one: The last thing technician Bill Smith’s wife heard him say, as he kissed her goodbye from worn seat of the old service van, was "I got a funny feeling about that fan motor at the Thompson house".

Capital Punishment Syndrome

Manifestations - Faulty electrical problem causes shock or fire.

Checkpoints for prevention - Look for:

  • Loose or exposed wires.
  • Burned wires or burned smell.
  • Oversized fuses.
  • Water dripping into electrical areas.
  • Shocking metal ducts or cabinets.
  • Wires rubbing against sharp metal edges.

Worst case scenario:

An improperly spliced wire (no junction box) is lying across the metal ductwork in the attic. Vibration of the unit causes the plastic wire-nut to fall off the joined black wires and allows them to come in contact with the top of the duct. Subsequently, flue-stricken Harry Homeowner steps out of the shower and decides he doesn’t want that cold air blasting on his cold, but when he reaches up to adjust the air vent… ZAP! - He's no longer bothered by the flu.

Arctic Air Syndrome:

Manifestations - Duct comes loose in attic or crawlspace. A loose supply duct will blow cold air into the attic or crawlspace, a condition which will make the house suck air in from outside of the building envelope as it depressurizes from the lost air. This outside air is costly and often contains contaminates such as radon, termiticides, fungus, etc. A loose return duct can suck attic or crawlspace air directly into the airhandler for circulation throughout the house.

Checkpoints for prevention - Look for:

  • Blowing or moving insulation around duct joints.
  • Open drains or loose panels in air handlers.
  • Sweating ducts in crawlspaces
  • Wet wood or fungus on wood in crawlspaces.
  • Musty odors.
  • Poor differential (less than 15 degrees) between return and supply temps.

Worst case scenario: A supply duct comes loose in a crawlspace under a house, and the cold air from the AC blows for two years undetected. The warm moist air of the crawlspace cools down, but, because cold air can’t hold as much water as warm air, the cooled air gives up its moisture precipitating it out on the nearby wood of the floor joists and subfloor. These in turn, because they are now maintaining a moisture content of >19 % support a fungus commonly known as wood rot. It is possible, within a few years, for the floor joists to rot to the point where one could stick a screwdriver through the middle of them.

Melanoma Generation Syndrome

Manifestations - Refrigerant (Freon) leaks.

Checkpoints for prevention - Look for:

  • Oil around pipe connections.
  • Freezing evaporator coil.
  • Poor or little cooling, high utility bill, Supply-return air temp differential<15 .
  • History of "topping off" with Freon.
  • Tipping or unstable condensing unit.
  • Teenagers sitting in a circle around your condensing unit giggling.

Worst case scenario: A small, slow leak develops in the attic mounted evaporator - your system runs less and less efficiently, consequently more and more, resulting in an astronomical cooling bill. You are informed after a two hour diagnosis that the leak is probably in the evaporator, which is located in a very tight, very hot attic where temperatures are routinely 120 degrees The cost to fix will be about $1,000. You tell them you’ll think about it and they pull all of the Freon out of your system since they cannot allow it to leak into the atmosphere and destroy the ozone. You borrow a jug of Freon from a neighbor to recharge your system and are caught. The fine is $10.000!

Insect revenge syndrome:

Manifestations - Insects damage the AC system

Checkpoints for prevention - Look for:

  • Fire ants in and around the condensing unit.
  • Wasps in the disconnect boxes
  • Ants and roaches in the contactors and relays.
  • Mud dauber wasp tubes in the condensate drain line.

Worst case scenario:

Fire ants have taken up residency in the condensing unit in your back yard. Over time, and unbeknownst to you, they fill the lower third of the unit with dirt reducing its ability to cool by 30%. This heats up the compressor and shortens its life. Meanwhile one by one, little ant bodies are getting caught in the compressor contactor preventing it from closing and increasing the current draw, ulitmately destroying the compressor.

The Boston Strangler Syndrome

Manifestations - The evaporator coil or filter becomes so filthy that air can’t pass through the ducts causing the system to ice up, or the condensing coil becomes clogged, burning up the compressor.

Checkpoints for prevention - Look for:

  • Dirty filter
  • Poor air flow
  • Water around air handler
  • Return air duct communicating with building cavity, attic or crawlspace.
  • Dirt and fungus on evaporator coil.
  • Ice on evaporator coil or supply-return air temp differential >21 .
  • Trash caught in fan.
  • Bushes crowding condensing unit outside.
  • Dryer lint clogging condensing coils from nearby discharge.

Worst case scenario:

The fiberglass duct-board that makes up much of your duct system has been deteriorating, allowing the air handler to suck in millions of tiny glass slivers. The ones that don’t make it into the conditioned house air wind up sticking to the damp evaporator coil. As the coil gets more and more clogged, other bits and pieces of debris collect and soon a fungus starts to grow all over the coil. Less and less air can pass through the coil so the coil begins to ice up. Soon it is a big chunk of ice and no air passes through the ducts at all. When you shut it off, the ice melts and drips all over the hardwood floor.

Poodle and Oxcart Syndrome

Manifestations - The air conditioning unit is undersized or oversized for the house. Undersizing usually results from building an addition onto the house such as a garage enclosure and attempting to cool it by extending the existing ductwork. Oversizing springs from the more-is-better mentality, and results in a cold clammy house, as the system is unable to run long enough to dehumidify the air.

Checkpoints for prevention - Look for:

  • Additions or conversions which fail to provide a new source of heating and cooling.
  • High utility bills
  • Mildew

Worst case scenario: After getting three bids to convert your garage into a den, you hire Handy Andy who’s bid was far better than the other two guys. One of Andy’s methods of saving money was to eliminate the extra air conditioner that the other two bids included. Because Andy was unlicensed he didn’t plan to pull a permit (another cost saver). This meant that Andy didn’t have to have his plans reviewed or schedule for an inspection (thus saving time). He took the money he saved from not having to buy liability or workman’s compensation insurance, and bought a piece of dryer hose so he could run a little extension vent into the den. Andy was lucky. Because the garage walls were already sheet-rocked, he could save money on wall insulation. He succeeded in adding on another 500-sq. ft. for next to nothing. The 1200 sq. ft. home now had 1700 sq. ft. The only problem is that the two ton unit is only good for up to about 1200 sq. ft. (Rough rule of thumb is one ton per each 500-600 sq. ft of living space. Not only is the den hot, but so is the whole house! Which reminds me.

 

This useful diagnostic tool should guide you through the difficult process of the do-it-yourself air conditioning analysis. And remember what I always say, " It’s not cool to be hot!"


Dear Mr. Cerro,

We are considering buying an older home near the downtown area of Tallahassee. When I peeked under the house, I could see some white insulation falling off of some of the pipes. I was told by my neighbor that this could be asbestos, and that it could be expensive to deal with. Is that true? How bad is this problem?

Thanks in advance,

George E.

.

George,

One of the most expensive problems that I encounter while inspecting older homes is friable asbestos in the crawlspace underneath the house. In the forties, fifties and sixties many of the heating systems and hot water piping systems had asbestos insulation wrapped around ducts, pipes, burners or flue- assemblies. It was usually the higher quality houses or systems that had the asbestos. During its time, it was hailed as a wonder product. Today, however, it has been linked to asbestosis, a fatal lung disease.

Not all asbestos is dangerous. Many floor systems, roof systems, and sidings, while containing asbestos, are not dangerous because the asbestos is not friable. That is to say the asbestos is bound up in vinyl, or cement, and is not crumbly and capable of being inhaled (unless abraded or pulverized). Most of the older pipe and duct related asbestos insulation, however, is now very friable. It crumbles at a touch and in many cases is flaking apart and spontaneously deteriorating. When the asbestos becomes friable like this, it becomes dangerous to those exposed to it.

One of the exacerbating conditions that I encounter, as a home inspector is when such an insulation system was located in the crawlspace under the house. Here, when the tiny particles (or larger clumps) of asbestos (in their deteriorated state) begin to drop off of the pipes or ducts etc., they fall on the dirt floor of the crawl space and become mixed in with the dirt. This creates a problem for the next person who happens to be crawling through that area. Usually a plumber, electrician or AC repairman, they are now exposed to the asbestos laden dust being stirred up with the disturbed earth under the house.

What does asbestos look like?

When it is wrapped around (hot) water pipes it usually looks like white corrugated cardboard tubing about as thick as a baseball bat. It is often surrounded by cheesecloth like membrane. When it's used on AC ductwork, it looks like soft white cardboard glued to the duct. On flues it may look like paper tape around the outside, or if in the inside of flues it may look like chalk, packed between the walls of the flue pipes.

What does one do if they discover they have asbestos?

Positive identification of asbestos can only be made through scientific analysis of a sample, usually electron microscopy. It is for this reason that when an inspector or tradesman suspects the presence of asbestos, they usually describe it as an "asbestos like material", or "probable asbestos". More often than not, the call is correct. A true identification of asbestos can only be made by an individual certified to do so. For this reason, the first step in dealing with suspected asbestos is to make a positive identification. The homeowner can send a sample to a lab and for under $20 usually identify the sample, or an asbestos abatement contractor can be called in for an opinion and estimate regarding remedies.

How does one get rid of asbestos?

There are several ways of dealing with the problem. Removal is the most common, particularly where the friable condition does indeed threaten the inhabitants. There are conditions however where encapsulation might be the best choice. These include conditions where removal might actually create uncontainable airborne asbestos. Encapsulation means sealing off the asbestos (wrapping, painting, laminating, etc.). Sometimes combinations of techniques are used. The pipe insulation will be wrapped and sealed and then the whole assembly - pipe, asbestos, wrap, etc. will be hauled off.

Crawlspace abatement is a little more difficult however. It is expensive because of the confined areas in which one has to work, and the conditions in which one has to work (Moon suits, respirators, decontamination systems, etc.). The crawlspace has to be sealed off to insure that the airborne asbestos is contained. The dirt containing the asbestos has to be removed from the crawlspace and disposed of properly. It is typical for such jobs to run in the thousands of dollars.

Sometimes the asbestos insulation was removed from the pipes long ago, but care was not taken and asbestos scraps now litter the crawl-space floor. In these cases, it might be necessary to remove the top several inches of dirt from the entire crawlspace to ensure total abatement. Typically, after a dirt-floor abatement, the remaining soil will be sprayed with a fixative to minimize airborne particulates. This crusty fixative surface is usually disturbed, however, the first time someone crawls through. Regardless of the size of the crawlspace mitigation, I always recommend installation of a plastic membrane barrier (6-mil visqueen) over the crawlspace floor as extra protection. Insist upon this with your abatement contractor if it is not offered in the package.

Check attics too!

I see a similar problem occasionally in attics, only when attics are involved, instead of hauling off dirt, the old attic insulation has to be removed if the asbestos has become mixed in with it.

In conclusion…

To summarize, when checking for asbestos look for:

  • Signs of an old abandoned heating system (pieces of furnace, flue pipe, duct work, etc.).
  • White corrugated cardboard looking stuff around pipes.
  • Soft white cardboard-like wrapping around ducts.
  • Crumbly white plaster looking stuff around old chimneys.
  • Flaky looking whitish stuff lying around in the crawlspace.

While the presence of asbestos can be costly to fix, it can be fixed, and once it’s gone, that older home of yours will be safer to live in, and easier to sell should that time arrive.


Dear Larry,

The house we are going to purchase has no gutters. Both of our previous houses had gutters. Is the lack of gutters a problem?

Martha G.

 

Martha,

Many architects and builders today are leaving gutters and down-spouts out of their plans, yet that very fact is causing one of the most common problems I, as an inspector, encounter.

Although gutters and downspouts are not a necessity on all structures, there are particular situations that virtually cry for such installations. The trick is identifying the need for them and having them installed before the damage is done. So, what are the flags that identify these needs? The first is the type of siding. The four types of siding most susceptible to roof water splash-back damage appear to be a hard board (pressboard) type siding (such as Masonite), a chip-board type siding (such as Louisiana Pacific), a textured plywood siding (such as T-111), and soft drop siding such as pine or cedar. Be warned however that synthetic stucco siding is notorious for having unseen water damage within the walls. And these houses should always have gutters. Click on "synthetic stucco" for more information.

Next is proximity of the siding to the ground, paint coverage, and flashing. All of these sidings must be at least 6 inches above grade, should be primed before painting, (including all edge and end grain), and should be properly flashed around doors and windows. (Look for a strip of metal over the top trim). All of these types of siding are likely to receive and absorb a lot of water wherever roof-water run-off strikes a nearby surface and splashes onto it. If this condition exists, I recommend installing gutters. Similarly, doorjambs, windowsills, door and window trim, and thresholds are highly vulnerable to rot when exposed to splash-back. Gutters above such areas prevent a curtain of rain from damaging the wood trim.

When water runs off the roof and splashes onto a hard surface (like a deck or patio) it usually causes damage to the wood immediately surrounding it. Typical areas suffering from such damage are the thresholds of sliding glass doors, siding adjacent to decks and patios, trim around garage doors, siding next to fence posts, siding next to the air conditioning condensing units, and wood near shrubbery.

Other serious problems often associated with roof water splash-back are subfloor damage under sliding doors and French-door thresholds, and band-joist rot where decks are improperly fastened to the house (no flashings). Both of these can only be determined by crawling under the house. If the damage has extended to the perimeter girders, repairs can be very costly.

When examining your house, clues that foretell of impending problems from splash back are:

  • A high mildew content
  • Discoloration
  • Fungus growth
  • Carpenter ants (Big black ants that nest in rotted wood).
  • Soft or rotting wood
  • Spongy flooring around door thresholds
  • Soft or swelling siding (countersunk nails)

Remember, take the time to look at where the water from your roof is winding up. The roof is a large surface area catching water and concentrating it in a few areas. Where is it going? What is the result of this? Don't be afraid to carefully poke with a screwdriver when hunting for rot. If there is a crawl space below your house, and a lot of the water is running under there… Oh, but that’s a whole different subject. Just remember, if your house lacks gutters, check it out carefully.