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Chimney crown

The chimney crown is the concrete (sometimes stone) layer that covers the top of a masonry chimney.  It’s one of those classic “out of sight, out of mind” components of your house, since it’s way up high and usually hard to see even if you’re trying to.  But it’s exposed to the elements continuously, so if your chimney is old then there’s a good chance that the crown is deteriorated.  And that means there’s a good chance there’s a problem with the masonry chimney also.

The job of the crown is to keep water out of and away from the chimney, and water is your home’s number one enemy.  Deterioration of the crown and the chimney is certainly a slow process, but if your chimney is old then it’s had a long time to deteriorate.  And even if the chimney’s newer, neglecting a problem because it won’t create havoc until years from now is a rough way to treat your house.  It also signals to a potential buyer that you’re not on top of things. 

Repairing chimneys can be very expensive, largely because to do work up high requires a lot of set-up time and equipment.  So keeping the crown in good condition (and installing it right in the first place) will contribute to the long-term health of your house and reduced maintenance costs down the road.

A good chimney crown should be nice and thick to help prevent it from cracking.  Anything built of concrete can crack of course, but the thicker something is the lower the stresses are likely to be and so the lower the chance of cracks.  And if a crack does develop it’s less likely to go all the way through a thick material, and it’s easier to seal the crack. 

This chimney crown is great. It’s well designed and in good condition, with
rain caps on top of both flues.
This chimney cap is well designed, but it’s cracked. And the masonry below the crack is starting to show signs of damage. This crack should be sealed.

The crown should be pitched towards the edge to help shed water.

The crown should overhang the masonry of the chimney to help shed water away from the masonry.  If the edge of the crown lines up with the bricks then as water drains off it will just run down the chimney.  Much of that water will actually soak into the bricks, and that will cause deterioration. 

This crown is thick (but there’s still a small crack and no rain cap), but it doesn’t overhang the bricks. Water runs off the crown and directly onto the bricks. The mortar joints around the top are pretty badly deteriorated because of this.

There also should be a rain cap on top of every flue.  Allowing water to run down the flue every time it rains will lead to much quicker deterioration.  There’s no reason to have that happen.  A rain cap can also reduce downdrafts that can lead to dangerous backdrafting, and it can help keep animals out of the flue.

This chimney doesn’t even have a crown. It’s had a lot of work done to it recently, and it’s going to need a lot more in just a few years. This is awful.
It can be easy to ignore a chimney crown like this. It’s certainly out of sight. But this is in terrible condition, and eventually the bill will come due.

Failure Modes

Last spring I was doing some work to my gutters and downspouts.  I was running a new downspout extension out past the front of my porch to make it easier to maintain.  So I bought a piece of downspout material at my local hardware store and I was running it along the wall of my front porch.

One of my neighbors was walking by at the time and stopped to see what I was doing.  And he asked me why I was installing the downspout in that orientation.

First let’s back up a little bit and look at how a metal downspout is made.  You start with a long flat piece of metal, as wide as you’ll want the circumference of the downspout to be.

Then you fold up one side.

Then you fold it again.

Then you fold the other side.

And then you fold it again.  Now you have a nice rectangular tube, with a seam running along its length.

So you’ll seal up that seam.  Maybe you’ll crimp it, or weld it, or use rivets.  But you’ll seal it up.

Now you’re ready to sell this to some homeowner, like me, to install.  And how should I install this?  Well, the seam is kind of ugly if you look really closely at it, and so you might be tempted to say that I should install this with the seam facing the house in order to hide it.  And in fact that’s what my neighbor was suggesting.

But I was installing it with the seam facing out, for all the world to see.  And here’s why:  If this downspout fails for any reason, where’s it most likely to fail?  At the seam – that’s the weak spot.  And if it does fail it’s likely to spew water out, maybe at a high velocity if there’s a heavy rain.  And I don’t want water being sprayed against my house like that.  I want water spraying away from my house.

This is the idea of a failure mode.  It’s a matter of understanding how something might fail and designing it or installing it to minimize any damage if it does fail.  Failure mode analysis can be used when designing or installing any object, and it can be used when designing a process.  How is the process most likely to break down and fail, and how can we design the process so that if there’s a failure it will cause the least damage?

If you want to learn more about this idea you can search online for “fail safe mode” or “failure mode and effects analysis.”

I’ve seen several cases of downspouts leaking from their seams and allowing water to spray against the house and cause damage.  Somebody tried to hide the seam rather than use good failure mode analysis and face the weak spot away from the house.  So when you’re installing or even maintaining something in your home, spend a couple of minutes and think about how it might fail, and think about what you can do to minimize the consequences in case of failure.

Grease traps

Many of the older cities in the Chicagoland area have combined storm and sanitary sewers, meaning that the rain water drainage is collected through the same pipes as the sewage from houses.  This type of system is almost never used anymore when constructing a new system, but many of the older cities still operate this way.

In these older cities with combined sewers it’s very common for houses to have a grease trap built in.  Because the sewer system is combined, and because back when the system was built it couldn’t handle grease very well, grease traps were a way to prevent grease from entering the sewer system.  Here’s a brief description of a grease trap.




A grease trap is a pit buried underground where water from the kitchen drain runs to.  The exit pipe to the sewer is elevated a little bit from the bottom so that there’s always some water in the pit.  There’s a trap built over the sewer pipe, so that grease floating on the surface of the water is held back, but the water is able to run under the trap and out the sewer pipe to the sewer main.  Any solid debris will settle to the bottom.

This way the grease is held back out of the sewer system.  Note that only water from the kitchen flows into the grease trap.  There’s no water from any other sink and certainly no water from any toilet coming into the grease trap.  But there might be water from your gutters flowing into the grease trap.  Where your gutter downspouts go underground they generally empty into the grease trap.

With this arrangement you’ll need to clean out the grease every so often.  This used to be a much bigger issue back when we used a lot more grease in our cooking.  Now you should just throw away your grease rather than putting down your kitchen sink drain.  So how often you need to clean out the grease trap depends on a lot of factors, but it’s likely to be many years (probably a decade or more) before anything will need to be cleaned out.  You can hire somebody to do this for you, or you can just lower a bucket on a rope to scoop out the grease and discard it.

In well over half of the grease traps I see now the trap has completely deteriorated, usually to the point where it’s completely gone.  This isn’t a problem anymore and I don’t recommend that you do anything about it.  There’s just no reason to.  And some grease traps have been bypassed, so that the drainage from the kitchen goes directly to the sewer and doesn’t go into the grease trap at all.

These days the biggest issue with a grease trap is the condition of the ring and the lid.  If the top concrete ring is damaged or the metal lid is broken then somebody could fall through.  But as long as the ring and lid are in good condition then you have very little to worry about with a grease trap.

Nonmetallic Sheathed Cable

Throughout the vast majority of the U.S.A., nonmetallic sheathed cable (NM cable) has been the most common type of residential wiring system since about the early 1950’s.  And it’s had a pretty good track record of success.  It consists or two or more insulated wires along with a bare ground wire, wrapped in paper and then contained inside a thermoplastic outer sheathing.  It’s often called Romex®, but that’s a brand name and not all NM cable is Romex®.  It comes in large spools of different wire sizes, it’s easy to install, it’s easy to cut to length, and it goes up pretty quickly.

Despite its long history of successful usage throughout most of the country, in much of the Chicagoland area this type of wiring isn’t allowed.  Chicago and many of the surrounding suburbs require that wires be pulled through some type of raceway, which usually is electrical metallic tubing (EMT) and normally called “conduit”.

So when you see NM cable in a part of Chicagoland where it’s not allowed, what should you think?  And what should you do?

The first thing to note is that if this issue is coming up when you’re buying a house then it’s likely to come up again when you sell.  So keep that in mind.

The biggest problem with NM cable in Chicagoland is that it’s often installed not by a good qualified electrician but by a handyman or homeowner.  In this case it’s not the material that’s in question but the installation methods.  When it’s exposed, NM cable needs to be run closely along the surfaces of the building finish to provide support and protection.  It needs to be supported at least every 4.5 feet and secured within 12 inches of its ends.  Where the cable enters any type of panel enclosure or junction box it needs to be clamped to the box.  These are very common defects when NM cable is installed by an amateur.

This house is in Chicago so there shouldn’t be any NM cable. Still, this is run closely along the building surfaces, it’s supported properly, and it’s clamped into this junction box for the light. It’s installed well.

This cable isn’t clamped to the box. Not done by a licensed electrician.

NM cable can only be used inside.  It can’t be used outside or exposed to sunlight.  It can’t be buried underground (there’s a special kind of cable for that) or encased in concrete or plaster.

NM cable shouldn’t be used outside. No self-respecting electrician did this.

NM can’t be used with a plug, making it into an extension cord.  It isn’t designed to be bent back and forth many times like an extension cord is.

A double whammy — NM cable run through a concrete wall and used with a plug as a glorified extension cord. Not done by a good electrician.

In an attic NM cable needs to be protected from physical damage.  Often times the cable is just run across the tops of the framing members, right where you want to step.  NM cable needs to be protected within six feet of any attic access opening, and if the attic has a permanent ladder or stairs then it needs protection throughout the attic up to a height of seven feet.

When NM cable is run in an unfinished basement along the bottoms of floor joists it needs to be attached to a running board (usually a 1×4 board fastened to the bottoms of the joists).  Or it can be installed through holes bored in the middle of each floor joist.

Cable that’s run along the bottoms of floor joists is susceptible to physical damage. First a 1×4 running board should be installed, and then the cable is attached to that.

NM cable is much more susceptible to damage from nails than is conduit.  So when NM cable is run through a wall stud hole that’s less than 1-1/4 inch from the front edge it needs to be protected with a steel strike plate to stop an errant nail from piercing the wire.

And dealing with the equipment grounding conductor (the ground wire) is quite a bit different with NM cable than with conduit, so that has to be taken into account.

So if the NM cable in your house is installed well then it’s likely to not pose a hazard, even though it wasn’t installed under a building permit like it should have been.  But if it has any of these defects described above then the risk of problems rises greatly.  And that can lead to shock, electrocution, fire, or other problems.  Electrical wiring is not the place you want to see amateur workmanship in your


I frequently get asked if my inspections include mold testing.  With this blog post I’m going to answer questions about mold and mold testing.  Much of the information here is taken from this document from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and it’s a great place to go for more detailed information.

Another great resource is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and their website:

The first thing to understand is that there is almost certainly mold in your house – in the house you live in now, in the house where you lived as a kid, and in the house you’re going to buy.  There’s also mold outside.  There’s mold pretty much everywhere in our environment.  It’s very common.  From the CDC document:  “There is always a little mold everywhere – in the air and on many surfaces.

So to answer the question: I don’t do mold testing, and the CDC (and really nobody at all) recommends routine mold testing.  From the CDC:  “CDC does not recommend or perform routine sampling for molds.

There’s really no test that can tell you definitively if there’s a mold problem in your house.  There’s mold, for sure, but is it a problem?  You can hire a specialist to take air samples, but what do those results tell you?  Nothing, really.  Again from the CDC:  “Standards for judging what is an acceptable, tolerable or normal quantity of mold have not been established.  Sampling for mold can be expensive, and standards for judging what is and what is not an acceptable quantity of mold have not been set.

So you can have air sampling done, and get back a report with some numbers on it, but there’s no authoritative answer as to whether those numbers are high or low.  So there’s really no point.

So how do you know if there’s a mold problem in your house?  Again from the CDC:  “Large mold infestations can usually be seen or smelled.”  If we can see it, it’s a problem.  Or if we can smell it, then it’s a problem.  It’s pretty much as simple as that.

Mold needs food and water to grow.  It can get food from many different sources, including paper products (like the paper facing of drywall), cardboard, ceiling tiles, and wood.  Mold can also grow in dust, paints, wallpaper, insulation, carpet, fabric, and upholstery.  Mold gets water from the environment, and that’s really where the problem is.  If there’s enough water for mold to grow then there’s too much water and you need to stop the water.  From the CDC:  “Mold growing in homes and buildings indicates that there is a problem with water or moisture.  This is the first problem to address.

Any kind of water problem is at the top of my priority list for a home inspection, be it a roof leak, a plumbing pipe leak, foundation water seepage, or a condensation problem.  Looking for water problems is the key to finding and stopping mold.  So the best mold test is really just a test for excess water, along with a very thorough inspection to look for any visual signs of mold.

But what about a mold test to determine the type of mold in your house?  Again, not necessary.  From the CDC:  “If you can see or smell mold, a health risk may be present. You do not need to know the type of mold growing in your home, and CDC does not recommend or perform routine sampling for molds. No matter what type of mold is present, you should remove it. Since the effect of mold on people can vary greatly, either because of the amount or type of mold, you cannot rely on sampling and culturing to know your health risk.

Some people refer to “black mold” as if that’s the real problem and a serious health risk.  But again that’s vastly overstating the issue.  From the CDC:  “Mold growth, which often looks like spots, can be many different colors, and can smell musty.  Color is not an indication of how dangerous a mold may be.  Any mold should be removed and the moisture source that helped it grow should be removed.

So it’s clear that the key to answering the question of mold isn’t a mold test, it’s just a very thorough inspection with an eye towards current and potential water problems.  And of course experience helps in knowing where to look.  Based on my experience, here are some important places to look.

Closets — Most closets have at least one outside wall, and that’s where water can leak in to help grow mold.  And that’s especially true if the closet is in the basement.  Plus there are usually a lot of things stored in a closet, so it’s especially important to move those stored items to try to get a look at the wall behind.  I’ve seen several basement closets that had water seepage behind the wall that was leading to mold growth, and the only way to find it was to be vigilant and move the stored items to be able to see the wall.

Mold on a below-grade closet wall.


Basements — Basements often have water problems.  Sometimes it’s seepage through the foundation or up through the floor slab.  Sometimes it’s sewer pipes backing up, or one of many other problems.  I’ve seen lots of drywall in basements that had mold around the bottom.  It’s important to look for this.

Condensation — Condensation is one source of water that can feed mold growth.  Here’s one example that I saw a while ago.

I was inspecting a rather large house and it had a separate pool house, with a family room, a small kitchenette, some small loft areas for sleeping, and a bathroom.  Being a pool house, it wasn’t heated very well.  The only heat source was in the family room, and there was no heat source in the bathroom – strike one for the bathroom being cold.  Plus the bathroom was in the corner of the building, and that’s often the coldest area because a corner room has more exterior wall than other rooms – strike two for the bathroom being cold.  Now look down at the baseboard around the floor, and that’s usually the coldest part of a room because warm air rises – strike three.  Now look in the corner, which is usually the coldest part of any room because warm air can’t circulate well there – strike four.

There was mold on the baseboard in the very corner of this bathroom.  That space got very cold because of all the strikes against it, and that allowed condensation to form, and that allowed mold to grow.  From experience I know to double check areas that are likely to be quite cold and allow water from condensation.

Mold on the coldest surface of the house due to condensation.

That’s mold.

Plumbing leaks — I use an infrared camera to look for water problems below all the sinks, tubs, and showers after I’ve run a lot of water.  It’s not very common, but I have occasionally seen some pretty dramatic leaks that were only visible with infrared.  Part of the repair process for these types of leaks is to check for mold above the ceiling and behind the wall, and I always make sure my clients are aware how important that is.

So when might mold testing be a good idea?  If you suspect that there’s hidden mold because you can smell it or feel its effects, then it might be time to call in an expert, form a hypothesis about what might be going on, and do some testing to try to confirm that hypothesis.

Fire Sprinkler Systems

Fire sprinkler systems are becoming very common in new construction and major remodel projects, and so here’s a brief primer on residential fire sprinkler systems.

When it comes to enforcing life safety codes in commercial and multi-family buildings, local jurisdictions usually enforce some version of either the International Fire Code (part of the ICC family of codes) or the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA®) document NFPA 101® Life Safety Code®.  But both of these documents refer to NFPA® 13 as the standard for how to install sprinkler systems, so this is the definitive source.  A separate document, NFPA® 13D, applies only to one- and two-family dwellings and manufactured homes.

There are four basic types of water-based fire sprinkler systems.

  1. Wet-pipe sprinkler system – The sprinkler pipes are constantly full of water under pressure. When heat from a fire activates one or more sprinklers then water flows from only those heads until the system is shut off.  The NFPA® reports that with home sprinkler systems roughly 85 per cent of the time only one sprinkler will activate.  This is by far the most common type of sprinkler system in residential settings.
  2. Dry-pipe sprinkler system – The sprinkler pipes are only charged with compressed air, and there’s a dry-pipe valve somewhere not subject to freezing temperatures. When heat from a fire opens a sprinkler the compressed air is released and the dry-pipe valve senses the loss of pressure and opens to allow water flow until the system is shut off.  This type of system is typically used in areas where freezing temperatures are likely to occur, like open parking garages.
  3. Deluge sprinkler systems – This system consists of open sprinklers installed in unpressurized pipes, and a valve at some central location. When some thermally sensitive electronic device senses a fire it sends a signal to open the valve and water pours out of all the sprinklers simultaneously until the system is shut off.  This type of system is usually found in areas where even a small fire could very quickly spread due to the type of materials stored in the area.  This type of system is also often found in the movies – it’s certainly more dramatic to have all the sprinklers go off at once even if it’s not usually an accurate portrayal.
  4. Preaction sprinkler system – This system consists of sprinklers connected to a dry system of pipes. The system will only operate when heat from a fire opens a sprinkler head and also when an electronic device senses a fire and opens the waterflow control valve.  This type of system is usually found where a false activation of the sprinkler system would cause a catastrophic loss, maybe to some irreplaceable contents.

The sprinkler is the device that actually discharges water.  Sprinklers can be installed in any of several configurations, but each configuration requires a different sprinkler design, so they’re not interchangeable.  An upright sprinkler (designed to be installed upward from a branch line) can’t be swapped out for a pendant sprinkler (designed to be installed downward from the branch line) or a sidewall sprinkler (mounted on a vertical wall).  You’re also likely to come across concealed sprinklers which have a removable decorative cover plate that releases at the proper heat level.

The deflector is a small piece of metal on the sprinkler.  The water discharge hits the deflector, creating the discharge pattern.  The design of the deflector is different for the various types of sprinklers in order to create the right type of water spray pattern.

These sprinklers illustrate the differences.  The deflector is shaped differently in these three sprinklers, one pendant (hanging down), one upright, and one sidewall.  These are definitely not interchangeable.

NFPA® 13 defines six temperature categories for sprinklers from Ordinary to Ultra High. “Ordinary temperature-rated sprinklers” have a temperature rating between 135°F and 170°F, and this is what you should expect to see in one- and two-family dwellings.  “Intermediate temperature-rated sprinklers” are rated between 175°F and 225°F.  These are also allowed in most locations, with the exact type required depending on the maximum ambient ceiling temperature.

The temperature rating of the sprinkler should be stamped into it, although it can be very hard to see and I don’t recommend that you try.  They also should be color coded, with Ordinary sprinklers either uncolored or black, and Intermediate sprinklers being white.

The sprinklers shown above have no color so you’d expect them to be in the ordinary range, which they are.

NFPA® is very clear that sprinklers shall only be painted by the manufacturer.  It’s a big problem if any installer or homeowner paints a sprinkler or modifies it in any way.  That sprinkler needs to be replaced.  Also there should never be anything hanging from a sprinkler.

There are three primary heat activation mechanisms for sprinklers, including metal fusible links and chemical pellets.  But for residential sprinklers the most common is the glass bulb.  The bulb is inserted to hold back the sprinkler plug.  At high temperature the liquid in the bulb expands, breaking the bulb and releasing the plug.  Water starts to pour out.  It’s worth noting that mechanical damage can activity a sprinkler also, so be careful.

You should expect to see an orange or red bulb in an Ordinary temperature rated sprinkler (as in the pictures above), and a yellow or green bulb in an Intermediate temperature rated sprinkler.

For residential systems in one-and two-family dwellings, NFPA® 13D does not require that spare sprinklers be provided (section  But for commercial and most multi-family buildings not only are spares required, but a wrench is required, and one spare of each of the various types of sprinklers is required.  But you’ll usually see spare sprinklers and I always tell clients to be sure to have them.

spare sprinklers

It’s likely that you’ll see a waterflow switch and alarm, although it isn’t required (unless the house doesn’t have smoke alarms, in which case you’ve got a different set of problems).  A typical switch will look something like this in the picture below.  When water flows through the system it activates the switch, which in turn should sound a local bell in the same area, and maybe a horn and strobe at the front of the house.

water flow switch

water flow alarm bell

There should be a valve and drain pipe that discharges to a floor drain or sump.  You can test the waterflow alarm by opening this drain valve, but be careful — you might call the local fire department depending on how the alarm is configured.

A backflow device isn’t required by fire sprinkler codes, but your local plumbing code probably requires it so you should look for that and note if it’s missing.

Residential systems have a different design from standard sprinklers and a different discharge water pattern.  Residential systems are designed with more of a goal towards controlling the fire to allow for occupants to evacuate, rather than putting out the fire.  Residential sprinklers spray higher than other types to help prevent flashover conditions.  Flashover is when the environment in a room is changing from two layers (hot on top and cooler on the bottom) to a single layer, well-mixed, with hot gases from floor to ceiling.  This condition isn’t survivable even by a fully protected firefighter, so preventing it is key to allowing occupants to escape.

As with most things home inspectors deal with, sprinklers need to be installed according to their listing, and that pertains to their spacing as well.  Typically you should expect a residential sprinkler to cover a maximum of 144 square feet, so the maximum spacing should be 12 feet.  But some sprinklers are listed to protect larger areas, so without seeing the sprinkler’s specifications you can’t know for sure.

In a one- or two-family dwelling you won’t need sprinklers in bathrooms of 55 square feet or less, or in most smallish clothes closets, or in garages.  You also won’t need a sprinkler in an attic with or without storage, or in a crawl space, or in a concealed space that’s not intended for living purposes.  This is consistent with the philosophy of controlling the fire to let occupants escape.  But you will need a sprinkler in a closet used for HVAC equipment, water heater, or laundry appliances.

Of course no water-based fire suppression system is going to be effective without a good source of water.  NFPA® 13D requires 18 gallons per minute for any single sprinkler, or with two or more 13 gpm.  If you’re using a stored water supply or the house is on well water, the system needs to be able to operate for at least 10 minutes (or seven minutes for some smaller single story houses).  Again, this might not be enough time to control a fire, but it should give occupants enough time to escape.

If there’s any doubt that a house can supply this amount of water, then a good fire protection contractor should evaluate the system and confirm there’s enough water or make the necessary upgrades.  To run at 18 gpm for 10 minutes might require the installation of a 180 gallon storage tank.


Of course the greatest water supply possible can be rendered moot if there’s a valve that’s shut off.  NFPA® 13D requires a single valve to shut off both the domestic water system and the sprinkler system since no homeowner is likely to shut off his sprinkler system and make do without a flushing toilet.  Or if the sprinkler system has its own valve then that valve needs to be either “supervised” by a monitored alarm system, or locked open.  (It’s not clear who’s allowed to hold the key.)  And of course anything that might restrict water flow or decrease pressure needs to be installed so that it won’t interfere with the performance of the fire sprinkler system.

I usually see separate shut off valves, and I always mention to my clients the importance of a working fire sprinkler system and urge them to never shut off the sprinkler system.

It’s easy for a homeowner to overlook a system that he hopes will never operate.  But a properly installed fire sprinkler system can be the difference between life and death.


In Case of Emergency

Preparing for emergencies is rarely much fun, but it’s something that needs to be done.  Let’s discuss some of these issues.

For those of you who live in a large multi-unit building, there are likely to be emergency lights in the common area hallways and stairwells.  These are designed so that if the building loses primary power from the utility then these lights will come on to illuminate the path for you to leave the building safely.

This is a typical emergency light with newer LED bulbs. The test button is on the bottom.

There’s a battery inside each light unit.  This battery should be able to power the light for at least 90 minutes (reference: International Fire Code section 1006.3).  But eventually the battery will go bad and need to be replaced.  And sometimes the light bulbs go bad (this is obviously not so much of a problem with the newer units with LED lights).

So these emergency lights should be tested every so often.  There will always be a test button on emergency lights, but its location will vary so you might have to look for it.  In larger buildings testing these lights should be done on a routine basis by the folks who manage the building.  This might not be done in smaller buildings, so it might be up to you to test the lights.  I will generally test the lights near a unit I’m inspecting, although sometimes they’re too high up to reach without a ladder.

And of course a bad emergency light needs to be fixed to assure that in a power-failure emergency you can see well enough to safely get out of the building.  Sometimes it just needs a new battery, or new bulbs.  But sometimes the whole unit needs to be replaced.

In these larger building there should also be exit signs, so that you know where to go to get out of the building.  Sometimes the exit light has emergency lights built into it, as in this example, and sometimes the exit sign stands alone.  Exit signs should always be illuminated, 24 hours a day, every day.  So if you see an exit sign that’s not lit up it needs to be fixed.


If your building has fire extinguishers then they need to be serviced once a year.  A licensed technician will come and do a visual inspection, and confirm that the fire extinguisher is in good condition and hasn’t been discharged.  Then a tag with the year and month is attached to the fire extinguisher.  So you should occasionally check this tag to make sure that the service has been done within the last year.

We all hope that we aren’t faced with an emergency requiring emergency lights, exit signs, and fire extinguishers.  But a little preparation ahead of time could make a huge difference if something bad happens.  Please be prepared.

Sump Pump and Ejector Pump

Many houses have a sump pump, and most newer houses (and some older houses) have an ejector pump.  This blog posts describes the purpose of each of these devices and explains some of the differences.

There’s a lot of water in the ground (of course – that’s why plants have their roots there!) and if any part of a house is below ground then that water wants to try to leak into the house.  And there are a couple of ways to deal with water.

You can try to block water out completely and not allow it to get anywhere it’s not supposed to be.  That’s actually not very easy – water will find a way, especially through an underground foundation that you don’t have access to for maintenance.  Or, you can give water a place to go where it can be controlled and won’t do any harm.  This is the point of a sump pump.

A sump is a pit dug at the lowest point of the house that gives water a place to go and collect before it can come through the foundation wall or through the floor slab.  Usually – but not always – there is also some buried drain pipe (usually called drain tile) running around the perimeter of the house and discharging into the sump.  This drain pipe is perforated so that water in the ground will leak into the pipe and wind up in the sump.

Ground water trying to attack the foundation finds its way into the sump.

At the bottom of the sump is a pump.  When the sump fills with water an automatic valve turns on the pump and pumps that water away, usually discharging outside of the house but sometimes discharging directly into a sewer line inside the house.

So ground water that’s trying to attack your house and ruin your basement instead runs into the sump and is pumped safely away.

An ejector has a completely different purpose.  An ejector deals with drain water from the house’s plumbing system, helping to get it out of the house. In Chicago and most of the older suburbs we have combined storm and sanitary sewers.  These cities use the same large sewer pipes to handle rain water and to handle the drain from your house (from sinks, tubs, showers, and toilets).  Here’s what it looks like, with a typical basement and the sewer line out in the street.  The house’s main plumbing drain pipe leaves through the basement floor, and all the drain water from sinks, toilets, and tubs drain by gravity out to the sewer in the street.

A typical older house with the main plumbing drain pipe going out to the sewer through the basement floor.

It used to be that when it rained very hard in Chicago and some of these older suburbs the sewers became overwhelmed with rain water and actually backed up into the basement through a floor drain.  As you can imagine, this was a huge nuisance and it could do a lot of damage.

During a heavy rain the sewer can get overwhelmed and floor the basement.


So the solution was to start using overhead sewers with an ejector pump.  Now instead of the main plumbing drain pipe going out through the basement floor it goes out through the foundation wall elevated a couple of feet.  All the drain water from the fixtures above this exit point can still drain out by gravity, but all the drain water from the fixtures below has to be pumped up (this includes the floor drain which now empties into the ejector sump).  This drain water first drains into the ejector sump, and when that fills up the ejector pump comes on and pumps this sewage up over a high loop where it can then drain by gravity.  An ejector pump is more powerful than a sump pump, and it’s able to grind up the solid waste from the toilet.

A typical newer home with an ejector pump.

Now if the sewers become overwhelmed by rain water, it would have to back up not just to the floor level but to a point about 6-8 feet above the floor before it could spill into the house.  And if that happens then we’ve all got a lot worse problems to worry about than basement flooding.

Now even if the sewer becomes overwhelmed it’s much harder for that sewer water to back up into the house.

A sump pump just needs a simple cover to keep out debris and to reduce the chance of the water evaporating into the house.  But an ejector deals with sewage – including waste from the toilet.  So the cover to the ejector pit needs to be sealed tightly to prevent those odors from getting into the house, and the pit needs to be vented to the outside through the plumbing system’s existing vent pipes.  So there are two pipes coming from an ejector pit – there’s the drain pipe and there’s the vent pipe.

A sump pump should have a battery backup system so that it can continue to work in case of a power outage.  This is when you’re likely to need your sump pump the most, during a big rain storm that might cause a power outage.  But it’s rare for an ejector pump to have any kind of battery backup system and it’s not really necessary.  But keep in mind that if you don’t have power then you don’t want to use any of the fixtures that drain into the ejector.  You’ll only want to use the fixtures at the first floor and above that still drain directly into the sewer by gravity.

Rafter ties

One very important structural problem that I look for on every building, but especially on detached garages, is the top of the wall pushing out.  Here’s a short but (I hope) thorough description of the problem, the cause, and the solution.

Most roofs are built so that the roof rafters lean against the ridge board, or even just lean against another rafter without a ridge board.  Then the rafters are nailed in place.  The other end of the rafter sits on the top plate of the outside wall.  Older roofs were almost always built this way.

So let’s look at this in the direction straight along the ridge beam.

Gravity is pushing down on the ridge board and the rafters, and maybe that’s even helped along by a big snow load.  There’s nothing holding the ridge board up – it’s just there for the rafter to lean against.  So the whole thing tends to settle a little bit.  And when it does the bottoms of the rafters naturally want to push out, and this takes the top of the wall with it.  This happens fairly easily, and the leverage from the bottoms of the rafters will easily pull out any nails that are attaching the top of the rafter to the ridge board.

This problem is especially bad with hipped roofs, because there’s really nothing holding the ridge board up.  On gable roofs the problem isn’t usually quite so bad, because the gable wall provides some support to hold the ridge board up and prevent it from settling.

To fix the problem, or to stop it from happening in the first place, a rafter tie should be installed.  This is a horizontal piece that attaches to the bottoms of the rafters.  It creates a very stable triangle shape and holds the bottoms of the rafters and the tops of the walls from pushing out.  A rafter tie is typically a piece of 2x lumber, but it could even be a metal cable or chain as long as it’s securely fastened.  And you don’t need a rafter tie at each pair of rafters.  In a detached garage you only need a total of two or three rafter ties to make the structure nice and stable.

In houses with cathedral ceilings, where you want the open vaulted ceiling and you can’t tolerate a rafter tie, the ridge board needs to be very solidly supported at both ends all the way down to the foundation.  Then it becomes a ridge beam instead of a ridge board.  Since the ridge beam can’t settle, the rafters are held in place and won’t push out at the top of the wall.

R-22 Air Conditioner Refrigerant

Most air conditioners that I see these days use R-410A refrigerant, but some older AC’s still use the old R-22 refrigerant (normally called Freon, but that’s just one brand name).  And R-22 is a problem.  It’s a hydrochlorofluorocarbon (HCFC) and it contains chlorine.

Several decades ago we realized that chlorine gas was causing damage to earth’s ozone layer.  And R-22, by far the most common refrigerant used in residential air conditioning systems, contains chlorine.  So back in 1987 the international community came up with the Montreal Protocol and agreed to phase out the production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances.  In fact the Montreal Protocol was the first United Nations treaty that achieved universal ratification; every country voted in favor.  R-22 had to go.

Eventually air conditioner manufacturers came up with R-410A refrigerant, a hydrofluorocarbon compound (HFC), and the transition began.  R-410A is often called Puron, but again that’s just one brand name for the same chemical compound.

Beginning in 2010 the production and importation of R-22 was limited, and starting on January 1, 2020 it will be prohibited.  Because of these limitations the cost of R-22 has already gone up tremendously, and it’s only going to go higher.  The only source of R-22 will be refrigerant that’s removed from old air conditioners that are being discarded.

Because of their differences R-22 and R-410A aren’t interchangeable.  You can’t just add R-410A to an old air conditioner.  In fact there’s really no substitute at all for the refrigerant in an old R-22 system.  So if you have an air conditioner that uses R-22, and you have a leak or a problem and need more refrigerant, you might be in for a big shock.  The refrigerant might be crazy expensive, or you might just not be able to find any at all.  Then you’re stuck.

In this case your only real option is to replace your air conditioner.  This would entail replacing the outside condenser, the inside evaporator coil (that’s generally in the plenum just above the furnace), and you’ll even need to replace the refrigerant lines that run between the condenser and the coil.

That’s a lot of work and a lot of expense.  But that’s what it takes to save our ozone layer.

So how can you tell what refrigerant you have?  Look on your air conditioner’s data tag outside.  It should say somewhere what refrigerant it uses.  If it says 410A like in the picture above then you’re in good shape.  Otherwise you might be due for a total replacement the next time you have an AC problem.