Plumbing- Water Supply Cut-Off

January 25, 2009

In most cases all houses should have a service cut off independent of the 100_0172water meter. Even though the  function can be performed at either location it is not uncommon for the service cut-off to be inoperable or impossible to find especially in older  homes.  Deterioration to this service  cut-off is not uncommon. If you can find it and it works, this would be the normal location to turn the water off when you need to turn-off the water.  However, if you cannot operate it with relative ease…. DON’T FORCE IT as it can be broken easily without to much effort. As you can see in this second picture there are several cut-offs and the handles have corroded away. I had to dig out a pail of dirt just to take the picture. If turning the water off at the meter is you choice, see 100_0176 Plumbing-City Water Cut-Off.  If this water cut-off does not work and does not leak and you can still turn the water off at the meter, just leave this one alone.  The day may come when you find it leaking, replacement will be your best option at that time. 

Regardless of where you choose to turn your water off, ensure that it can be performed in one of the two places, and turn the water off at least once to say you did. If you have a plumbing problem typically you need to turn the water off fairly quick.  A leak can put a lot of water on the floor as well as cause an expensive call to a plumber. If you can schedule a plumber based on his schedule, instead of an emergency call out, the cost difference is dramatic.

Key Inspection Points and Action Items:

  1. Locate the water cut-off.
  2. Atempt to turn the water off here, if not,  go to the water meter.
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Seasonal Reminder-Winterizing Plumbing

January 21, 2009

 

Uninsulated pipes installed in unconditioned crawl spaces or attics can freeze when the outside ambient temperature  falls to 20F or below.

plumber1I am a little late in the season for this one, but here in the Southwest part of the country, winterizing our plumbing is perceived as not a big deal, but in reality, we  have more frozen pipes in our part of the country than Northern climates. Our building code are more lenient and allow methods that would never be considered in Michigan or Wisconsin.  Several years ago, Southern Louisiana had extreme cold weather over the Christmas holidays. The amount of broken water pipes almost called out the National Guard, due to the extreme loss of water pressure in the city water supply.  If you live in Baton Rouge or Houston, it would not be uncommon to find your main water pipe exposed on the outside wall of the house before it goes in the house.   For that reason, these tips may apply to homeowners that live in zones 8A or greater as  defined by the USADA Hardiness Zone Map.

According to the Building Research Council at the University of Illinois, uninsulated pipes installed in unconditioned crawl spaces or attics can freeze when the outside ambient temperature  falls to 20F or below. However, high winds or “wind chill “can augment this number potentially causing frozen pipes at higher temperatures.  Wind chill typically impacts pipes that may be exposed to insulation leaks in the building envelope. For example, a water pipe in an exterior wall without insulation is at risk, add the fact that a crack in the exterior wall near the pipe will allow colder temperatures to increase the opportunity for a frozen pipe. 

Key Inspection Points and Action Items:

  1. Wrap exposed pipes: Especially outside pipes, but don’t forget pipes under the house in crawl spaces as well as in the attic. All Home Centers sell foam foam-insulationsleeves to cover the pipes. This is cheap insurance as these sleeve are about $2.00 per 8 feet. 
  2. Cover or wrap the exterior faucets. Home Centers have a solution for faucets that protrude from the wall, but you will have to be creative for faucets that surface out of the ground. My grandmother always tied an old hand towel around the outside faucets…. its pretty ugly but it worked.
  3. Caulk the cracks: Check the exterior of the house, especially in relation to faucets or pipes on exterior walls. Ensure the surface is well sealed as not to allow cold air to seep into the wall cavity.
  4. Open cabinet doors: In extreme conditions or extended vacations, open cabinet doors associated with all kitchen and bathroom faucets.
  5. Dripping Faucets:  If it appears you may experience sub 20 degree weather, and you have pipes (especially on the North side) that are at risk, let the hot and cold water run. Granted, this breaks my rule of wasting water, but if possible, try to capture the water in a pan or pail and water your house plants. They are probably drying out since your are running your heater anyway. TIP: If the open faucets stops dripping, leave it open as this will allow the ice formation to expand without damaging the pipes.
  6. Turn off and drain Lawn Sprinkler System: If cold weather conditions are forecasted  for several days, you may consider turning off and draining your sprinkler system. Hopefully you have a cut off and drain. For some of us, watering in the winter is still necessary due to the lack of rain or snow, so you may just turn it off based on the weather forcast. TIP: If you do not have a drain at the sprinkler cut-off, you can activate the sprinkler system for a few seconds to remove presure from the lines.
  7. Disconnect and drain exterior water hoses: A water hose connected to an exterior faucet will telegraph a frozen condition into the faucet potentially causing the faucet to freeze. 
  8. Extended vacation:If you are leaving the house for several months, you may consider turning the water off and draining the pipes. As an alternative to that, leaving your Central Heater on 60F, will alleviate this situation. Look for future posts on “Extended  Winter Vacations” for more details.

Electrical Service-Panel

January 18, 2009

The electrical service panel would be considered the heart of the electrical system. A properly sized, correctly wired panel will serve the electrical needs of the home for many years. Proper care and inspection will reduce the potential of system level problems and failures.

 

electrical-service-panel1If you have many of today’s modern conveniences such as a dishwasher, clothes washer, dryer, electric heat and air-conditioning, your service is likely 100 Amps or greater. If your house has anything smaller than 100 Amps, upgrading  your service to 150 Amps or greater is highly recommended. If you have very few of the items mentioned, the inspection covered in this section may or may not reveal immediate problems associated with a small panel, but as you add more electrical devices, you will start to see issues that are discussed in this topic.

Look at the table below to help determine what level of electrical service panel you may have. Generally speaking, service panels are not well marked to provide you an exact rating number, but the fewer positions the lower the rating. More positions typically equates to larger service. This is all based on the assumption that the panel is supplied with large enough cables in the first place. If you live in an older house, don’t be surprised if you have add-on panels that are used to provide additional capacity, if they are installed correctly there should not be any problems. If you question the cable sizes, have an electrician look at the panel for greater clarity.

 

servicepanelchart-fullinit_

 

With our increased dependency on electricity, the minimum acceptable size of AC service panels has slowly increased over the years. If your house is in category A or B with the original AC service panel, upgrading to a 150 Amps or greater can be a wise decision, as adding additional circuits will be problematic. In fact, some insurance companies may not issue or renew a policy because of the fire risk associated with the smaller panels.

INSPECTING THE PANEL

With relative ease, and a tool or two, the homeowner can inspect the electrical service panel to identify conditions that may warrant further investigation or repair. Additionally, if you would like to analyze your AC requirements, send me an email and I can forward you an spreadsheet to calculate your AC demand. This will provide you a general reference of demand vs. capacity.

Visual Inspection: This level of inspection is performed with no more than the door open. No screwdrivers or tools should be required to expose the face of the panel. There should not be any exposed wires at this point. Your service panel should (generally) resemble this picture (for a panel newer than 1960). Look at the general condition of the panel.

  1. The door should open and close without difficulty or obstruction.
  2.  The panel should fit snug to the adjacent wall. No gaping holes around the panel face around the Sheetrock or wall covering. If you find conduit or Jacketed Metal Conduit (JMC) leaving the sides of the panel, this is okay assuming the electrical conductors are not exposed.
  3. With the door open, look for missing knockout where breakers may have been removed. TIP: Home centers have plastic filler plugs to cover these holes. 
  4.  No standing water, corrosion or signs of water in the panel is acceptable. Call an electrician for resolution.
  5. Look at all the breakers for deformation, if they look melted or are no longer holding their original shape, they should be replaced. This can also be an indication the breaker has or is exceeding its limitation.

Heat and your AC Service Panel: Heat generated by the electrical service panel is an indication of potential problems that may result in an interruption of service. Heat can be recognized in a couple of different ways. 1) by touch or, 2) or digital  infrared thermometer.  If you don’t own a digital thermometer, they can be purchased for a reasonable price ($15 to $100) over the Internet or discount tool supply. The digital thermometer will be referenced throughout HomeownerBOB and its a great addition to your tool box. You will find lots of uses for it.inferred-thermometer

Before you look for heat issues, try to answer these questions.

  1.  Have you noticed that you regularly trip breakers?
  2. Does it occur at a certain time of the day?
  3. Does it occur when you use specific appliances such as a vacuum cleaner or hair dryer?
  4. Is it the same breaker(s) that have to be regularly reset?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, it’s a good decision to replace the breaker(s) now. All breakers have a service life and can deteriorate over time due to frequent tripping or heavy loads. Large commercial breakers can be tested and repaired, but it is more economically feasible to replace residential breakers if there is any question of their reliability. Furthermore, this will further the isolation process of the breaker if it continues to trip.

  1. Test by Touch: Without a digital thermometer, you can place a finger on the face of the plastic breakers. TIP Look for temperature differential. If you find an individual breaker noticeably warm, and it has been tripping, you may have an issue, so have the breaker changed out. If you already changed it out and it is still warm, the load on the circuit is probably high. If the breaker has not been tripping, no further action is required. Just make a note in your inspection journal and look for a change from one inspection to the next.
  2. Test by Infrared Thermometer: TIP: Look for temperature differential. If you find 25% in temperature difference between the hottest breaker and the coolest, and it is not tripping, log it in your home inspection journal.
  3. Tripping Breakers: If the breaker has started tripping, replace it first, then try the following trick to resolve the issue if it continued to trip after replacement. TRICK: Identify everything plugged into this circuit and try moving some appliances to other circuits to de-load this one. If you can live with this change, you have solved the issue, no further action is required. If it’s not a convenient arrangement, you may need to hire an electrician to re-associate some outlets to different circuits. This can get expensive, but it will take an on-site analysis to figure it out. Regardless, re-associating the circuit should solve the problem.

Testing and Exercising Circuit Breakers:Some professionals recommend circuit breaker testing by switching breakers on/off 5 consecutive times once per year. HomeownerBOB considers this optional. If the service panel is over 10 years old and breakers were never exercised for test, cycling them may actually cause some deterioration. TIP: Determine the brand and style of the breakers and buy a couple of the most common sizes (15, 20’s and 30’s are the most popular) and keep them for an emergency. If you choose to exercise the circuit breakers in the future, you will have ready access to a replacements. If the house is fairly new, exercise them if you wish.

Service Panel and Breaker Caution:  If your service panel is a Federal Pacific brand, some municipalities require them to be replaced. FPE Panel Controversy.

gfci-breaker GFCI Circuit Breakers:These special breakers will look different than a standard breaker as it includes a test and reset button, just like a GFI (ground fault interruption)outlet. In newer houses the electrician may wire an entire bathroom or all the kitchen circuits as GFCI in lieu of installing individual GFI outlets. You may also use an outlet tester with a GFI  testing feature to trip the breaker. Either way will work but HomeownerBOB prefers to test at the outlet as this allows you to associate the outlets with the breaker. See Outlets and Switches.

afci-breakerAFCI Circuit Breakers:  AFCI  breakers may look like a GFCI, both will be properly labeled to identify the difference. Arc Fault Circuit Interruption breakers are designed to prevent fires based on an arc flash that could occur in an electrical appliance. Read their full description in US Gov. AFCI doc for more information. Since 2002, the NEC has required these breakers be used with all bedroom circuits. TIP: These breakers can be quite sensitive and may trip for no apparent reason. If your inspection finds no fault, the breaker has been replaced and it continues to trip, you may consider having an electrician evaluate the circuit. Even though HomeownerBOB cannot recommend the removal and replacement of this breaker with nothing other than the same breaker, there have been cases where replacement with a traditional standard breaker has solved the problem without issue. 

Replacing Breakers: There are many links on how to change out a circuit breaker. Here is just one. Replace a circuit breaker.  If you are replacing your own breakers, they should ALWAYS be replaced with a like-for-like size and rating of the breaker being removed. NEVER up-size a breaker because it continues to trip. If you replaced the breaker because it was hot and it is still hot or it continues to trip. Make a note in your inspection journal. If it starts to trip over the year, follow the testing isolation method described above. The NEC (National Electric Code) allows for residential grade breakers to supply up to 80% of their rating. So in other words, if you have a 20 Amp breaker, the actual measured load should not exceed 16 Amps (1920 Watts) at any one time.


Plumbing-City Water Cut-Off

January 16, 2009

Knowing how to turn the water off here is a valuable tool in your home knowledge arsenal. Being able to turn the water off changes the complexion of your relation with a plumbing emergency as well as the plumber. It may seem like a simple task and why should you do it;  just to say you 100_0178can? Because when you really need to, time is of the essence, and you don’t have time to search for the right tool. This cut-off, on the street side of the meter head, may be hard to get to so find the right wrench that will work for you.  A crescent type wrench works best for me. The cut-off is probably a ball valve and you will only need to turn it 90 degrees from its current position. Be prepared, when you open the meter lid, you will probably find many bug friends as it is a great place to hang out if you are a cock roach. Give it try.


Plumbing-City Water Meter

January 14, 2009

watermeter2The city provides a water meter  to determine how much to charge for water usage and also a place to turn the water off. The meter can also be used as a tool to recognize water leaks.  If your water bill dramatically changes and cannot be related to service work, changes in household routines, extra house guests or summer watering, the water meter should be the place to start to determine if there are any hidden water leaks.  Obviously, if you have any recognizable leaky faucets, fixtures or toilets, these leaks should be addressed.  $TIP$: Many municipalities charge related services (sewage, trash pickup) on the same bill, these charges can be relational to total water usage. If you have leaks you may be giving the city extra money due to a water leak. Look for the upcoming post on Chasing Water Leaks  for a leak isolation method.


Electrical Service-Safety

January 12, 2009

effects-of-electshockElectrical Inspections may be a bit scary for the novice; it will be up to you to determine if the inspection is within your abilities. All inspections  will be non-intrusive. If you have ANY doubts, don’t do it, call a professional. As a safety precaution, never touch any live exposed wires with your hands or any metal objects.  Never stand in water or have wet hands when making inspections. All inspections identified by HomeownerBOB can be performed visually.

As you can see by the chart, it doesnt take much to cause damage to the human body. To put it in perspective, a blow dryer used to dry hair uses somewhere between 900 and 1500 watts of power. Converted to Amps puts it off the chart at approximately 7 to 13 amps.

Be careful and always err on side of safety.


Electrical Service-Meter Base

January 10, 2009

electrical-meter-baseThe mast/conduit will typically penetrate the roof and attach to a meter base. Depending on the area,  the meter base is usually serviced and maintained by the local electric utility. At the meter base, there may be another conduit that feeds into the electrical service panel located here outside the building. It can be different from one utility to the next but typically they will maintain items one and six of the items depicted on the sketch. The homeowner is normally responsible for everything else. Hire a professional licensed electrician to perform any work on these items.meter-base-diagram2

Key Inspection Points

Inspect for physical integrity. If there is any physical damage noted that would allow water or varmints inside the enclosure, notify your electric utility.