In our little home inspection business, I pass out warnings like politicians pass out promises-all day long, to anybody who'll listen. I don't do it just to show off, or because houses are particularly dangerous. I do it because I have to. Sooner or later, if I fail to give out a fair warning, somebody will get hurt, and that hurt person will get mad at me because I didn't say something.
But just this once, in the safe harbor of the Helter Shelter column, I'm going to tell you the things I warn people about that I would ignore if I found them in my own house. Here goes:
Gas vents too close to things that will burn
The "exhaust pipe" on gas furnaces and water heaters is usually a double-wall metal pipe called B-vent. This pipe is supposed to be kept at least one inch away from anything that will burn. Usually, the warning is embossed right onto the pipe. If you're like me, and in the habit of reading pipe, you can't miss the warning.
Lately, some of the companies who make B-vent have started sticking paper warning labels on the pipe. This tells me that they're not really worried about the pipe getting hot enough to burn anything. (It also tells me that the manufacturers' lawyers don't know about the paper labels, but that's another story.) Anyhow, I've seen B-vent smack dab up against paper, and butted up to dried-out lumber. I've never seen any evidence of charring, or even overheating. So, if I had a piece of B-vent touching some wood in my house, I would not re-route the B-vent, or start cutting out wood. I'd take my chances.
Discharge pipes on water heaters
Every modern water heater has a temperature-and-pressure (T&P) valve. The valve is supposed to open up if the water heater gets overheated, or builds up too much pressure. T&P valves are important. Without them, water heaters could blow up. It's impressive when it happens-an exploding water heater can demolish a house, then fly through the air like a rocket.
When a water heater gets close to exploding, steam and scalding water will come flying out of a T&P valve. If a person is close by when that happens, horrific injuries could result. So, the manufacturers of the T&P valves came up with the idea of a discharge pipe, which would direct the steam-and-water blast down toward the floor, or out of the house altogether.
Every day, I find a discharge pipe that's made out of the wrong material, or is the wrong size, or has too many bends in it. I tell people to get these discharge pipes replaced. Just about every day, I find a water heater that doesn't have a discharge pipe. I tell people that the water heater needs a discharge pipe. By the time the plumber's done, these jobs end up costing about a hundred dollars, which is fair enough.
But I've got to tell you: If I didn't have a discharge pipe on my water heater, I sure wouldn't pay a hundred bucks to get one. If I had a bad discharge pipe on my water heater, I'd just take it off and throw it away. I 'm willing to bet a hundred bucks that if the Jowers water heater ever decides to erupt in a cloud of deadly steam, no Jowerses will be in the immediate vicinity.
Lining the chimney
A bad chimney can burn your house down. Unlined chimneys-that is, chimneys with no solid lining from top to bottom-are bad. Likely as not, an unlined chimney will have little holes in the flue, where hot gases or embers can escape, find some nice dry wood, and set your house on fire.
So I tell all my customers to follow the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommendation, and get a Level II chimney inspection before they buy a house. A Level II job is pretty close to the chimney-inspection works, with a chimney sweep dropping a video camera down the flue. Once a chimney sweep has a good look at an old, unlined chimney, he's almost sure to recommend that the chimney be lined. That's the right recommendation, and it's the smart thing to do.
However, the 88-year-old brick chimney at the Jowers house is not lined. We use gas logs, and we've got smoke detectors. That's good enough for me.
Now, let me cover a few other things that don't scare me: My house is full of lead paint. I don't worry about it for one minute. Lead paint is like dog crap; if you don't eat it, it won't hurt you.
I don't worry for one second about toxic mold. It won't grow without a big water leak. If I get a big water leak, I'll get it fixed, and get my house dried out before it gets all moldy.
I've got a little asbestos stuck to my old heat-and-air ducts. I plan to just leave it alone, so it won't get airborne, and it won't hurt anybody.
In case you're wondering, here's what does scare me: Liquored-up drivers with bad brakes and slick tires. When they're are all gone, I'll start worrying about my house hurting me.