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Asbestos In Your Home

Asbestos In Your Home

Asbestos In Your Home

Adam Solko, Inspector

By Adam Solko, Home Inspector and Licensed Radon Professional

Wondering, “Do I have asbestos in my home?” We’ll help you identify where to look.

If you are buying or living in a home that has materials that were manufactured prior to 1980 there is a chance that there is asbestos in the home. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that is made up of heat resistant fibers known for being very durable and insulating. Because of its ability to strengthen and make items heat resistant, it was commonly used in many products from the late 1800s through 1978. These common materials can still be found in many old homes in the form of floor tiles, vermiculite insulation, pipe/duct insulation and other products.

Lungs

Mesothelioma

Asbestos is the number one cause of a cancer called mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a malignant tumor that forms in the lining of the lungs, heart and abdomen with a poor prognosis once it is diagnosed. Most commonly this disease occurs from prolonged and repetitive exposure to asbestos but is also possible to contract with a single large dose exposure. 

What does this mean for you? 

Asbestos is only harmful to the human body when it becomes airborne in its fibrous form, this is also known as friable. This means that asbestos products become dangerous when someone tries to remove it from the house, normally during remodeling or replacement projects. Due to the durable nature of asbestos there are still many products in the home that are over 100 years old and become problematic when updating the home.

Identifying asbestos in your home

One of the most common forms of asbestos that Honest Home Inspection sees is asbestos flooring. Thankfully, this is normally easily identified and poses little to no threat when left intact.

Tiles

Vinyl and asphalt tiling that contains asbestos is normally found in a 9”x9” size but can also be seen in 12”x12” and 6”x6”. It is best to consider that sheet vinyl flooring or tiling that is thought to have been manufactured between 1920 and 1980 could contain asbestos and should be treated as such. The best solution in this instance is to simply leave the produce in place and place your new flooring over top of it. If this is not possible then an asbestos removal expert should be used to handle the removal of the flooring.

Pipe Wrap

Another common form of asbestos is the heat resistant materials that were used to cover and protect boiler and furnace components before the 1980s. If your home has a large old boiler that is wrapped in a white cast like material, it most likely is asbestos. Likewise, if there are cement panels between the boiler pipes and the ceiling/walls they may contain asbestos.  Insulating cast-like materials on boiler pipes or furnace ducts are another common source. If this material is in good shape it has a low likelihood of doing harm. But, if it begins to fray and fall apart then it should be encapsulated by a professional. If your large boiler is in need of replacement or you want to upgrade then an asbestos mitigation professional will be needed for the appliance and material removal. 

Asbestos wrapped pipes
Image depicting asbestos wrap on pipes in an older home

Insulation

The most well known and dangerous form of asbestos is in the form of vermiculite attic insulation. This insulation can still be found in nearly 35 million homes in America and is identified by its brown-gray or silver-gold color in a pebble-like form. While not all vermiculite is harmful, nearly 80% of vermiculite insulation is known to come from the Libby, Montana mine that produced the product “zonolite” that did contain asbestos. This product is the most dangerous for two reasons. First, the type of asbestos that it contains is 10 times more dangerous than the type that is commonly found in the tiling and wrapping insulation described above. Second is the ease of the product becoming airborne. Simply disturbing the insulation while moving in the attic or installing lights in the ceiling can be dangerous to your health. 

Vermiculite insulation in an attic

The best course of action if vermiculite is found in your home is to have a small sample sent to a testing lab to identify if it is zonolite. If it does contain asbestos then it is recommended to have the product professionally removed and replaced with modern insulation. Thankfully, there is a fund that is designed to help the cost of the removal. The fund will help with up to 55% of the removal cost. 


There are additional items in the home that could contain asbestos if the house was built or remodeled prior to 1980. For a full list of potential materials see the Minnesota State website.

Attic Insulation

Attic Insulation

Attic Insulation

Adam Solko, Inspector

By Chris Meis, Owner and Lead Home Inspector / Licensed Radon Professional

Having a well-insulated attic will keep your home running smoothly!

An attic is a space or room at the highest point in your home. When the highest point in your home is closed off and unfinished, it is easy to forget it is even there. That is, until you see your heating and cooling bill. By insulating your attic, you help to prevent heat loss into the attic during winter time, and reduce heat infiltration into your home during the summer.

Measuring attic insulation

How much insulation?

The amount of insulation in an attic can vary from house to house. The recommended minimum amount is R49 for new construction homes. What does that mean? R-Value is the measured resistance to heat loss for that insulation type, usually expressed in a b-the-inch value. In the case of fiberglass batting it is expressed as the total of the material thickness. An attic insulated with loose fill fiberglass to R49 will have approximately 18” of material installed at R2.7 per inch.

Problems caused by poor insulation

Poorly insulated attic spaces can lead to ice dams in regions that see snowfall. Heat loss into the attic space melts the snow on the roof from underneath. The melt runs to the edge of the roof where it refreezes into a big ridge of ice with icicles hanging down. You can usually spot these homes in the winter time, as there will be little to no snow on the roof and ice all along the eaves. Along with the heat loss in the attic are condensation issues, warm moist air from the home’s interior escapes into the attic and condenses on the materials there creating frost.

 

Video: An attic space with codensation frost

Fixing the problem

You might think that the answer is to add more insulation. In reality, it is not always that easy. There are certain types of insulation that should be removed first before new insulation is added. If your home is older, you could have a vermiculite insulation (such as Zonolite). If your insulation shows signs of rodent activity or bats, you might consider having your old insulation vacuumed out first to remove carcasses and feces from your attic. Sorry you had to read that – it wasn’t fun typing it, either. Follow this up by having a pest mitigation contractor pest proof your home. 

Removing old insulation presents you with a rare opportunity, you can have your contractor air seal your attic before installing the new insulation. Air escapes into the attic around light fixtures, from kitchen and bath fans, from the tops of walls, from the attic hatch, and chimney chases. Closing off the gaps prior to insulating will greatly reduce the infiltration of moisture laden warm air that was previously causing you problems.

Diagram of attic ventilation
Image depicting proper attic ventilation.

Once your attic has been air sealed, your insulator will install soffit chutes. These are cardboard or styrofoam baffles that get installed along the eaves inside the attic to prevent insulation from blocking your vents. In a properly vented attic, fresh air enters from the soffits and rises to the top of the roof and exhaust from the roof vents. This convection-driven process should remove any residual heat and moisture from the attic. After the chutes are installed, insulation is blown in using a machine that separates and distributes insulation with a blower (think cotton candy).

A warm house with a cold, well insulated and ventilated attic is the picture of health for your home. This should reduce or possibly prevent your previous ice dam issues, reduce your heating and cooling bills, and make your home more comfortable in the long term. The cost to add insulation to your attic is probably cheaper than you think. While vacuuming and air sealing do cost more, these expenses will be offset by your lower utility bills.

 

Window Efficiency

Window Efficiency

Window Efficiency

Adam Solko, Inspector

By Adam Solko, Home Inspector and Licensed Radon Professional

Make sure you’re not losing heat (and money!) to leaky windows.

Losing the warm air from your nice and comfortable home to harsh cold winters is an unwanted and expensive reality in the frozen tundra. Windows are a common source of heat loss. According to the US Department of Energy, 30% of energy in a home is lost through the windows. Depending on the style, age and maintenance level of the window some may be less efficient than others.

Modern Efficiency

Modern building science and changes in manufacturing has allowed homes to become more and more efficient.  100 years ago the only option for windows was what is known as a single pane window. These windows were 100% made from wood and often hand-crafted and maintained. Because of the fine craftsmanship and durable materials used to construct them, many of these windows are still installed in homes today.  

Keeping Warm

During the winter, covering your windows with a plastic film can stop some of the air escaping from around the window. Many times it is small holes around the panes of glass and between the window and framing that allow air to pass. The plastic film can reduce a lot of this air flow. Another way to reduce the air loss is by maintaining the window glazing during the warmer months. The glazing is the putty that holds each pane of glass into the window. If the putty was placed prior to the 1970s it is possible that it contains lead and should be handled with care. 

Blackout curtains are also a good source of temperature control and can add a bit of ambiance to the room. They work by providing another barrier against the air escaping to the outside. However, if these curtains are kept closed during the day while the humidity in the house is kept high then condensation can build up on the window and cause damage to the wood of the window. It is recommended that the curtains be open during the day and then closed at night for privacy. 

The last items that can reduce the amount of air that passes through the windows is keeping the storms installed and making sure that the window is locked. Besides adding a layer of security to your home, locking the windows ensures that the seams stay tightly together and don’t allow the passage of air. 

Keep the cold winter breeze outside where it belongs and out of your home by taking some of these steps this winter and save yourself some money along the way. Even just doing one of the suggestions can start to improve the comfort in your house. 

Radon Awareness Month

Radon Awareness Month

Radon Awareness Month

Adam Solko, Inspector

By Adam Solko, Home Inspector and Licensed Radon Professional

Why every  homeowner should test for radon

Radon in the homes is something that every homeowner should be aware of; what it is, how it enters the home, and what to do to manage it. It is especially important to consider radon in Minnesota due to significant glaciation that ground the granitic rocks from the Canadian Shield and deposited it as soils in the midwest. It is because of this that all new home construction in Minnesota has been required to be radon resistant since 2009, and why every homeowner should consider radon testing and mitigation.

Improper combustion or burning the wrong materials can lead to creosote formation in your chimney that will lead to a chimney fire. Creosote is a sticky tar-like substance that forms when burning resinous woods such as pine or birch, or from burning garbage. Because of this, buying firewood at the gas station is typically a poor choice, it is often birch and pine meant for outdoor campfires. Contact a reputable firewood seller and purchase dried, split hardwood, which they typically deliver to your home.

What is radon?

Radon is an odorless, colorless, tasteless gas that is produced by the radioactive decay of radium-226, which is found in uranium ores, phosphate rock, shales, igneous and metamorphic rocks such as granite, gneiss, and schist, and to a lesser degree, in common rocks such as limestone. Much of the radon in Minnesota and Iowa is credited to the loose , porous soils along with the deposits of granite from the glaciers that passed through here many, many years ago. This is why nearly half the homes in Minnesota have high levels of radon.

While radon may seem new to many, it was discovered over 120 years ago and was found to be a factor in lung cancer more than 40 years ago. It is estimated that 21,000 people die from lung cancer attributed to radon each year in the United States.

The gas enters a building through the lowest level. Many times this is the basement, but if your house, apartment, or condo has no basement, then it will enter via the ground floor. The concentration of the gas is highest in the lowest levels, and if you spend a significant amount of time in those areas then extra attention is warranted. If you would like to know more about the science of how the gas finds its way into a structure the Minnesota Department of Heath is a great resource.

The only way to know the levels in your house is to have it tested. Radon can be different from one neighborhood to the next and even between houses. So, just because your neighbor had a low test does not mean that yours will be low as well. The state of Minnesota has made testing cheap and easy to do for the house you live in. If you would like to do your own testing the State of Minnesota offers low-cost short term test kits. You may also elect to perform a more accurate long term test. In the case that a non-biased 3rd party is needed for testing, such as a real estate transaction, it is recommended that you use a licensed radon measurement professional.

Ice damn prevention attic insulation
Image depicting how radon enters the home.

Radon is here in Minnesota and more of a risk due to the long heating season and increasing tendency to keep the home closed up. The health effects are important to know and testing is the only way to determine if your levels are harmful. The process for testing can be done by the homeowner or a measurement contractor. If you would like help with your testing by a licensed, non-bias professional consider Honest Home Inspection

Draining your water heater

Draining your water heater

Draining your water heater

Why you should, and how to do it!

Yearly draining of your water heater helps to extend the life of the appliance by removing sediment that gathers from the local water supply and reduces the heater’s effectiveness.

Draining your water heater is free to do and saves you money by extending the life of the heater. Without yearly draining of the appliance, sediment from the local water supply can build up in the bottom of the heater and make the appliance work harder to heat your water. Draining the water heater will take approximately one hour of your time and normally requires no more than a garden hose, a flat head screwdriver and a wrench.

Draining Your Water Heater

Step 1 – Locate and turn off the cold water supply to the water heater. 
 

Water Heater Valve Switch

Step 2 – Turn the water heater off or turn to the pilot setting. If electric, you may need to turn off the breaker to the heater.

Water Heater Power Switch

Step 3 – Attach garden hose to the drain valve and run the hose to a safe location, yard or drain, where scalding hot water will not cause damage.

 

Water Heater Spigot

Step 4 – Open the nearest hot water source at a sink and open the drain valve. This will take several minutes for the water to fully drain.

Step 5 – Flush the heater by opening the cold water for a few seconds and allow it to drain. Repeat this step until the water runs clear.
Step 6 – Refill the water heater by closing the drain valve and hot water at the sink. Open the cold water supply on top of the water heater.
Step 7 – Turn the water heater back on and relight the pilot as needed.

Here’s a video walk-through of the process with our inspector, Adam.

Don’t let ice dams wreck your winter

Don’t let ice dams wreck your winter

Don’t let ice dams wreck your winter

Tips for prevention and removal

As much as we might complain here and there about our Minnesota winters, there is something idyllic about the sight of your home, roof padded with snow, a cascade of icicles hanging from the eaves. 

That is until you go inside and find water running down the walls and pouring out of the light fixtures. 

You have ice dams.

Improper combustion or burning the wrong materials can lead to creosote formation in your chimney that will lead to a chimney fire. Creosote is a sticky tar-like substance that forms when burning resinous woods such as pine or birch, or from burning garbage. Because of this, buying firewood at the gas station is typically a poor choice, it is often birch and pine meant for outdoor campfires. Contact a reputable firewood seller and purchase dried, split hardwood, which they typically deliver to your home.

What are ice dams?

They are a ridge of ice that forms along the eaves of your home. When temperatures rise enough to cause additional melting, a pool of water forms behind this ridge. Since your roofing materials are meant to shed water, not hold water, it works its way through the roofing materials and comes inside.

What causes ice dams?

The primary culprit is lack of insulation. Many of the older homes in Minnesota are under-insulated, or have bypass issues that allow heat loss from the home’s interior to escape into the attic. Once the attic space is warmed, the snowpack on the roof melts from underneath and the water runs to the eaves where it is still cold and it refreezes. This process continues until a ridge of ice forms, causing the water running downslope to pool behind it. Another contributing factor is the freeze/thaw cycle that occurs daily in late February and into March. The temperature rises above freezing during the day, and drops below freezing at night.

Ice dams form on many houses. When we experience a heavy snowfall followed by a warmer thaw/freeze cycle, they can form on any house. The damage they can cause is the primary concern. Modern roofing materials make use of a special underlayment called Ice and Water Shield that prevents water intrusion. Ice dams can still cause damage by pulling down gutters or tearing shingles when ice breaks free. Older roofing materials will have the risk of water intrusion which causes the most damage, as it can saturate building materials, damage finishes, and possibly lead to mold and fungal growth.

Ice damn prevention attic insulation
Image depicting how attic ventilation affects ice dam formation.

Removing Ice Dams

Once ice dams have formed, you’ll want to remove them fairly quickly to reduce your risk of water intrusion. Your best option is to hire a professional with a steamer to cut the ice off your roof. They use specialized equipment that generates low pressure steam at about 320 degrees F to remove the ice with little to no damage to your shingles. The downside to hiring a professional is that it can cost in excess of $1500 for the service. If you don’t have water coming in, but are worried about the size of your ice dams, you can purchase salt pucks that you can toss onto your roof behind the ice dam. The salt will melt channels through the ice to allow water to drain away, though the salt can be harmful to your roofing materials long-term and can damage landscaping.

Never use mechanical means to remove the ice dams. We have seen many roofs with hatchet marks through the shingles where ice dams were removed by force. 

Preventative Measures

If your home is prone to ice dams and you want to get ahead of the issue, you have several options.

  • Better insulate your attic space and close off areas of attic bypass such as around light fixtures, unsealed attic hatches, exhaust fans, wall chases around waste vent pipes and chimneys.
  • If your roof is due for replacement, you might consider retrofit panels. They are an insulated panel created with high density foam glued to plywood. When you deck your roof with these panels before installing new shingles, you create a thermal break that stops interior heat loss from melting snow on your roof.
  • You might consider installing ice melting cables. They cost about $1/foot and can be easily installed by yourself or your favorite maintenance pro. Melting cables are installed in a zigzag pattern along your eaves. They melt channels through the ice to drain the melt water. Melting cables can be found at almost any hardware store, but should be installed before the winter season.
  • The final and least costly option for prevention is roof raking. This is where you physically remove the snow from your roof with a specialized roof rake so that it cannot melt there. There are two types of roof rakes available. A traditional roof rake will be plastic or metal and will have several extension poles so you can reach most of your eaves from the ground. You hoist the rake up to your roof from the ground, position it above the snow pack, and pull the snow down. The second type of roof rake is the “Avalanche” roof rake which has a long sheet of plastic that acts as a slide for the snow. This is a push-style rake that goes under the snow pack to cut it loose. The snow slides down the plastic slide. This style roof rake is much less labor intensive.

If you are concerned about ice dams right now, get yourself a roof rake (they cost between $100 and $150) so you will have one on-hand to remove snow before ice becomes a problem. If you already know ice dams are a problem for your home, install melting cables and look into improving your attic insulation. If you have an emergency with water coming in, call your insurance company and they’ll send a professional out immediately!