How to House Hunt Like a Home Inspector Heating Part 2
In the series House Hunt Like a Home Inspector, we’re looking at how prospective home buyers can use the perspective of a home inspector to get to know the house better. See other posts at www.http://goldeyehi.ca/blog/
We’ve already started by splitting heating into two groups of systems: Those that generate heat and distribute it throughout a home, and those that generate and deliver heat in the same location. In the previous installment, we looked at the first group. See that post here http://goldeyehi.ca/2016/10/17/house-hunt-like-a-home-inspector_heating-1/
We’ll consider the second group today. But this is still a big discussion topic because there are a wide variety of heaters. We’ll discuss everything from electric baseboard heaters to various configurations of space heaters to wood burning fireplaces and stoves
As indicated in the first heating discussion, when you’re looking for a house the first thing you should do is to simply think about the heating needs for a home in the region you are moving to. We talked about considering the size of the house, the typical weather conditions and your lifestyle. The costs of different energy sources and greenhouse gas emissions are becoming increasingly important as well. The key point is that you want a heating system that will be sufficient to keep you and your family warm on the coldest day of the year.
We said that you should look for a heat supply to every part of the house. If all your heat source is one that produces and delivers heat at the same location in the home, there are two questions to think about.
1) Are there heat generating devices in every room of the home? These could be electric baseboards, electric fireplaces or stoves for example.
Or, If not
2) Will the heat produced by the unit in question push the heat out to the entire home. This could be a wall or floor “furnace” with a blower fan, or a centrally located wood burning stove or fireplace. The larger the home, and the more rooms to be heated, the less likely a centrally located system will serve the whole house.
Often there is a combination of centrally located wood burning device with supplemental perimeter electric heaters in other rooms. In any case, you should think about whether the system in place will keep you comfortable. If you are looking for a house during the winter season, be aware of the temperature of different rooms and you’ll likely have your answer. Cold floors near the exterior walls are another problem to look for. This is often related to the insulation and vapour barrier rather than the heating system, but placement of the perimeter heaters along the exterior walls near windows can help alleviate this issue.
Digging a little deeper, you can look at the source of the heat, the heater or the fireplace. The first thing you should be looking for is the condition of the unit. Let’s consider electric systems first and apply some of the same measures as we did in the previous post.
Is it dirty, damaged, rusted, or scorched? Does it look new or old? Does it appear to have been maintained well. The reliability of electric heating systems can be very good, but depends on how well they have been treated. If dirty or dusty, they will be less efficient and can be a fire hazard. If damaged or rusted, they will likely have a shorter lifespan. If it’s a system with a blower fan, there may also be a filter and there is usually a grille. These should be cleaned regularly to maintain efficiency and safety as well.
In wood burning units, whether fireplaces or stoves, we think about the elements of combustion just as we did for gas and oil. Fuel, fire and oxygen combine to produce heat and combustion gases including carbon monoxide and water (in the form of steam). Forced air furnaces separate the house air from the combustion gases and transfer the heat through a heat exchanger. But fireplaces and stoves are often open to the home so it is even more important to have a good venting system to remove the toxic combustion gases from the house. The chimney or stove pipes must draw the hot gases away from the house and use the home’s oxygen supply for the fire (newer systems may be set up to draw in outside air for combustion). Note that this fresh air must come from somewhere, so good ventilation of the home is a must.
When looking at wood stoves, look for vents (stove pipes) above the units that are poorly supported, disconnected, damaged or rusted. These will require repair or replacement. Look at fireplace chimney masonry or damage or crumbling. These could be signs of a problem with the chimney liner and potential for combustion gases to enter the home. Also, look for a white or yellow residue on the surface. This could be efflorescence, a mineral deposit caused by moisture migrating through the masonry. This could be a sign of a leak at the roof or a damaged chimney liner.
Look for signs of soot on walls or ceilings near the fire chamber or pipes. This is a sign that smoke is entering the home, rather than passing up the vent pipes or chimney. It’s not uncommon for a little smoke to enter the home as a fire catches hold, but as the venting system warms it should draw better. Extensive soot stains may indicate a problem with the venting system or even a plugged chimney.
Finally, with wood burning systems there is a greater need to ensure that all components from the unit itself to the vent pipes have sufficient clearance from any flammable materials. Scorched floors and walls near improperly installed wood stoves are not uncommon and always scary. Look for wood floors that extend all the way up to the fireplace or under the stove. Installation of non-flammable heath may be required.
Be careful making any assumptions about wood burning stoves and fireplaces. They are complicated and may be designed in ways that are hard to understand completely. Look for the signs, and if you see anything that causes concern, find someone with more expertise to investigate further
A home inspector will take the visual inspection done by an astute home buyer and raise it to a higher level. Details about position and support of vents and ducts, clearances from flammable materials, and appropriateness of the materials themselves are items the home inspector should have studied and learned through experience. The home inspector will look at as much of the inside of the heating chamber and venting system as they can. They’ll look at the blower fan and elements of electric heaters for signs of any issues. If the data plate is accessible, they may be able to determine the age of the unit.
But as I said in the previous post, heating systems are complicated, variable and changing all the time. Codes relating to how they are configured are also changing. It’s hard to keep up with all the details, so wherever something is questionable, a good home inspector will defer to HVAC (Heating ventilation air conditioning) specialists. A trained HVAC technician will go much farther than a home inspector can. The HVAC technician has the specialized knowledge to completely dismantle the system and assess all the parts. They are trained in the design of air distribution systems. They know when a vent or a duct system is not configured properly and how to correct it to make the home safer or to make sure the system is operating efficiently and providing the best comfort to the occupants.
I’ll add a note about WETT inspections here. Wood Energy Technology Transfer is a designation for those trained specifically in the design, installation, maintenance, and inspection of wood burning products. You can read more about the organization here. http://www.wettinc.ca/what.html If you want a full assessment of the wood burning system in a home, please be sure that you contact a company with WETT certified personnel.
Steven Schroeder 2016-10-28