November 19, 2010

Holiday Safety Tips for Homeowners

Filed under: Home Safety — Chuck @ 10:01 am

Although the holidays are the most joyous time for getting together with friends and family they are also historically a time when fire departments and emergency rooms get an increase in calls due to accidents and fires. Homeowners should take special care not to put themselves into harm’s way and become part of those tragic holiday season statistics.

To stay safe and keep your family members happy and healthy here are some things to remember regarding homeowner safety during the holidays:

Kitchen Safety:
For starters, almost every household will participate in lots of wonderful cooking activity this time of year for parties, feasts, and dinners. Those include everything from Thanksgiving gatherings to holiday season parties and meals at Christmas and Hanukkah. Then they continue right on through to New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, and even Super Bowl Sunday.

Commercial kitchens are routinely inspected for safety hazards as part of their food service licensing procedures, but residential cooks and homeowners are pretty much left to their own devices when it comes to kitchens. Since you will not have anyone looking over your shoulder to ensure you’re safe it is important to do your own inspection. Schedule it once or twice a year to coincide with daylight savings time changes or the holidays and it will be a simple and easy habit.
So before turning on the oven, firing up the smoker, or even placing an order for a holiday bird make sure that your kitchen is a safe environment. Keep fire extinguishers that are appropriately rated and have not passed their expiration nearby. Be sure your carbon monoxide and smoke detectors are in working order and have fresh batteries. Keep a big box of baking soda near at hand in case you need to dump it on a skillet to suppress a sudden fire.
Make sure that any electrical outlets near sources of water like the sink or dishwasher are properly outfitted with ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCI outlets). Use non-slip mats on the floor around work areas so that you don’t fall, and store any cleaning products safely away from children and also far away from food preparation surfaces, stove tops, sources of heat, or food itself.

Trees and Lights:
Christmas trees and holiday lights are charming, fun, and nostalgic but they are also accidents just waiting to happen if you are the least bit careless. Every year thousands of homes catch fire because of the Christmas tree, for example, especially when flammable wood is combined with strings of lights that generate lots of heat or have worn-out wiring.

One of the most basic things you can do to avoid a tree hazard is to consider using an artificial tree. Many of these are so realistic looking that you can hardly tell them apart from the real thing, and they save money and effort because you can store them in the attic and use them year after year.
But if you do use a real tree then be sure to keep it watered. Trees absorb an astonishing amount of water and the water you put in the basin under your tree also evaporates a lot faster than you might expect because in wintertime the whole house is warmer – heated by your central furnace and maybe even by your holiday fireplace. Once trees get dehydrated the needles and small branches are parched and dry, and those create a natural tinderbox. Lots of Christmas trees also have relatively high resin content so the wood burns really easily and can blaze into a roaring fire within a matter of seconds.
Always test your lights and if they aren’t working properly replace them. Check to make sure there are no cracks or frays in the plastic insulation and that the plug that goes into the outlet is also intact. Don’t place a tree close to a lamp that uses high intensity halogen bulbs, either, because those bulbs get hot enough to burn anything they contact and if the lamp or tree get tipped over and collide it could be disastrous.

Speaking of contact fires, you should also be super careful when using any kind of space heaters because those are notorious for starting fires. Never use a heater than requires ventilation in a tight enclosed area, either, because that can lead to poisoning from odorless carbon monoxide.
You have to also be vigilant about holiday chores, too, because this time of year there are lots of reasons to climb a ladder to hang that tree angel, Star of David, wreath, or string of outdoor lights. Falls from ladders seriously injure or kill too many people every year, so enlist the help of a friend to hold your ladder for you and follow all recommended safety procedures when using any ladder – even if it is just a small one to help you reach the top shelf where you stashed those family heirloom ornaments.

Home Maintenance of Chimneys, Fireplaces, and Wood Stoves

Filed under: Home Maintenance — Chuck @ 10:01 am

If you are lucky enough to have a fireplace or wood stove in your home then you know how much fun they can be – and how well they can enhance the ambiance of your home while also keeping you unbelievably warm and comfortable on those damp and frigid winter days and nights. But many homeowners find themselves with a chimney, a fireplace, or a wood stove without any actual training about how to properly and safely use those potentially hazardous amenities.
Here are some tips to help you keep your systems running efficiently and safely all winter long:
• Begin the season with a professional inspection performed on any systems that use a chimney. These can be done by a licensed and certified chimney sweep or by a qualified home inspector, and if you do them once a year your maintenance will be carefully monitored and that will not only keep you safer but it will minimize future repairs.

• Keep in mind that chimneys not only vent smoke but they also vent carbon monoxide gases which are invisible and odorless. So you might think your chimney is working fine because it is not leaking any whiffs of smoke – but meanwhile it could be creating a potentially lethal situation for you and your entire family. You should ask your inspector to do carbon monoxide checks, and if they are not trained to conduct those then you can hire a qualified professional like, for example, a home inspector who specializes in checkups for environmental hazards.

• Chimneys and components such as stove pipes need to be cleaned by a chimney sweep every season. Otherwise the inside walls of these structures have a tendency to collect flammable substances like creosote which are the natural byproducts of burning wood and similar fuels. Once the build-up occurs then the lining of your stove pipe or chimney becomes potentially flammable, and can spontaneously burst into flames. Every year chimney fires destroy lots of homes and threaten the lives of residents, but an inexpensive cleaning of your chimney is the best way to prevent that sort of catastrophe.

• To help keep your chimney clean be careful what you burn inside your fireplace or wood stove. Burning lots of paper or cardboard – or colored paper that has been printed with chemicals from inks and printing varnishes – contributes to creosote buildup and should be avoided.

• Woods with high resin content do the same thing, and pine is one of the biggest culprits. Many people use pine for kindling, for example, because it is so easy to start a fire with this highly combustible wood. But pine tar gets carried by the smoke up into the chimney where it then coats the inside of the chimney and creates a fire hazard. So you should only burn very dry hardwoods or recommended fuels like the pellets sold with pellet stoves – and never use anything like lighter fluid inside your home.

• Of course the firebox and brick chimney are also structural components of your home, and those need to be in strong condition free of any gaps, cracks, or voids. The mortar used by masons to build chimneys and fireplaces is also not ordinary mortar or cement. The ordinary kind can actually explode if exposed to high heat – and so can bricks or cinder blocks that are not the right kind for fireplaces. If mortar joints get weak that can also cause a chimney to leak smoke, carbon monoxide, heat, or even flames. A weak chimney structure can also collapse and cause extensive damage or injury. To check for all of these kinds of potential problems you should hire a licensed inspector who specializes in chimneys and fireplaces. They can use tools such as video cameras that snake up into the chimney to take a close look at your chimney and identify any needed repairs or other issues.
Maybe you just bought a new house or condo, for example, and one of the big selling features that influenced your decision was the fireplace. Perhaps you invested in a vacation home in the mountains that has an old fashioned wood stove, or maybe you recently invested in a new natural gas fire insert, a pellet stove, or some other heating system that will provide warmth from an affordable alternative heating source. Or you might have been around chimneys and fireplaces your whole life – but even those who are really familiar with this kind of system still need to keep their maintenance skills up to date and follow a regular regimen of cleaning and safety procedures. Whatever the case may be, follow these tips and you’ll get a lot more enjoyment out of your fires – while avoiding those unwanted kinds of fires that result from poor practices and a neglect of safety.

The Immense Value of New Construction Inspections

Filed under: Property Inspection — Chuck @ 10:00 am

Most consumers associate building inspections with previously owned properties because they correctly assume that the purpose of a buyer’s ordered general home inspection is to ferret out any existing conditions or potential problems that might detract from the value of the home. Those include such things as repairs needed to ensure safety or comply with the local building codes, obvious mistakes or oversights in the construction of the home, inadequate components such are electrical wiring circuits and breakers or HVAC units, or the replacement of faulty appliances. Inspectors are also routinely hired to check for the presence of harmful pests such as termites and other wood boring insects or do perform specialized inspections to determine whether there might be any environmental hazards to worry about such as asbestos insulation or siding, radon gas, or harmful mold.

But what many people do not realize is that these kinds of inspections are also important for those who are buying brand new construction – including everything from custom-built single family homes to newly constructed condominiums, urban lofts, golfing community townhomes, and beach houses. In fact no buyer should enter into a final purchase agreement without first having their new home carefully inspected by a licensed and certified home inspector. Lots of consumers take it for granted that because the building is brand new it will be in mint condition and that everything will work flawlessly and dependably.
Organizations like the Better Business Bureau are well aware of the value of final inspections prior to closing on a new home. Every year thousands of buyers who failed to take advantage of the services and expertise of an inspector wind up dissatisfied with their new dwelling. Instead of moving in and enjoying themselves they often wind up in a protracted legal tussle trying to force builders to make repairs or remedy problems – and of course that kind of experience can completely spoil the thrill and luxury of buying a new home.

Common Oversights
Inspectors have reported all sorts of problems related to new construction – and those range from safety hazards like incomplete or improperly designed fireplaces to gutters or landscapes that do not drain properly. Sometimes there will be incomplete plumbing in one tiny section of the plumbing system, for instance, or the subflooring or decking beneath the roof will be inadequate. Those kinds of the issues are soon covered up and may not be discovered by the homeowner until they have done all sorts of unseen damage. But it is understandable that mistakes sometimes do happen on a construction site. Many different contractors and subcontractors are working at the same time, and all of them are under pressure to meet deadlines and benchmarks. They may also be simultaneously working on several different homes that look a lot alike – and when that happens it can be easy to confuse the blueprints or keep track of exactly what was done and not yet done on each particular job site.

Construction Phase Inspections
In some cases there are actually more problems with new construction homes than there are with existing homes, because while homeowners are living within their properties they have an opportunity to see how everything functions and uncover any flaws that are then addressed and fixed. In the case of new construction there is really no chance to learn the true condition of the home until everything is said and done – unless of course one takes the prudent approach of hiring an inspector. Ideally the inspector should be called in during each stage or phase the ongoing construction project, because it is much easier to remedy problems before the house is completed. If interior plumbing or wiring is not correct, for example, it can be a rather simple system to fix before the interior walls and ceilings are put into place. But once you arrive at the late stages of construction the repair of any major system can require invasive procedures like ripping out sheet rock or pulling out cabinetry.

General versus Comprehensive Inspections
Inspectors also need to have access in order to see exactly what is going on and perform their tests and evaluations, so bringing an inspector on board early in the process is often less expensive for the home buyer. The inspector can accomplish a great deal more with a general visual inspection while the house is being built. A more comprehensive type of home inspection will cost the buyer a great deal more and will likely require some kinds of invasive procedures.
Nobody wants to begin drilling holes or removing sections of their brand new model home, so it is highly recommended that inspectors be used to perform general visual inspections during each critical phase of the whole building schedule.

Of course if the house construction is already completed a qualified inspector can still do an excellent job of inspecting the home prior to closing, and these general visual inspections can identify many serious problems. After finishing this kind of inspection and getting the report, the homeowner then still has the option of ordering a more comprehensive inspection if it is warranted and necessary or recommended by the inspector who performs the general inspection.