These Building Practices Used to Be Popular, Now They're Nothing but Trouble
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The good old days weren’t always so great for home construction.
Some products have become standards, such as copper electrical wire, asphalt roof shingles and poured concrete foundations. But others that were once widely used have proven to be much less successful, and sometimes hazardous.
Here are what many in the industry consider the top five failed building practices. Builders don’t use most of these products anymore, but because they were popular in their day, they are in tens of thousands of houses around the country. As a home inspector, I see them all the time. For their own safety, homeowners and home buyers should know about them, too.
If a house you plan to buy has one or more of the items on this list, could that be enough to kill the deal? Probably not, but all things must be considered, including the cost to correct the problems. Knowing what you are buying and what you may be faced with down the road could help you make the right choice in a home purchase.
Many houses built between 1964 and 1976 have aluminum branch circuit wiring. (Branch circuits are the wires that run to each room from the service panel.) This product was developed because copper became expensive and hard to get during the Vietnam War.
Aluminum is the third-best conductor of electricity, behind copper and gold. It was an easy alternative to copper wire. However, this wiring turned out to be a fire hazard. The connections between the wire and a light switch or outlet can arc, causing a spark that can burn the connection point; fire can spread from there.
There are repairs that all but erase the threat of a fire. The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends either that the aluminum wire be replaced with copper or that the connections be repaired using specific methods.
Repair is less expensive than replacement, although it can still cost thousands of dollars in a standard-size house. Every connection between the aluminum wire and an outlet or light switch needs to be retrofitted using a piece of copper wire and a connector.
The CPSC has approved only one retrofit technique, called a COPALUM connector, used with a special crimping tool. However, in practice, many more of these systems seem to have been retrofitted with a product called the Ideal Twister Al/Cu (aluminum-copper) connector, a purple wire nut filled with a non-oxidizing compound. The Twister complies with the National Electric Code and has been Underwriters Laboratories-listed. These repairs are less expensive than COPALUM repairs.
However, the CPSC does not approve that fix, agency spokesman Scott Wolfson said. “We know that there are those in the electrical safety community who disagree with us, but we remain firm in our position.”
He said that except for COPALUM, there is no retrofit on the market “that CPSC’s electrical engineers can say with confidence provides a long-term fix.” The agency remains concerned that other repairs could oxidize at the connectors over time, leading to electrical fires behind drywall, he said.
All work on aluminum wiring should be done by licensed, trained electricians. Improperly repaired wiring is a fire hazard.
Aluminum wiring is most easily identified at the main electrical panel by a trained professional.
Townhouses and other connected homes are generally built with firebreaks to keep flames from spreading between units. Traditionally, before 1970, a brick or cement block wall would separate the homes and extend up beyond the roofline. This is known as a parapet wall.
This type of divider wall is still being used, but since the 1970s, many townhouses have a shared roofline without parapet walls. Instead, fire protection is supposed to come from the construction methods used between the units.
These methods vary, but modern firewalls often consist of a six-inch-wide, insulated metal framed wall with doubled sheetrock on both sides. A problem arose, however, when builders used fire-retardant treated plywood (FRT) in attics as roof decking between the units. This was not meant as a cost-cutting measure, but rather as a way to complete the firebreak.
Fire-resistant wood products for various industries have been around for decades, but this roof decking is more recent and was commonly used in townhouses and condominiums in the 1970s and 1980s.
FRT plywood is made by forcing inorganic salts deep into the wood fibers, then drying the plywood. The chemicals reduce the chance of fire spreading to other units because the plywood will char during a fire but not burst into flame. The product tested and performed well for reducing the spread of fire.
However, there are two other kinds of problems. Both have to do with heat and humidity. When FRT plywood is installed in poorly ventilated attics, the highly acidic chemicals can leach out of the wood and degrade metal fasteners, including the roof nails and truss plates used to hold the roof structure in place.
The same fire-retardant chemicals can also react with high heat and cause the wood itself to degrade, dry prematurely and fail. The plywood can become so dry and brittle that it would be unsafe to walk on. It can cause the roof to leak. In some cases, FRT plywood has failed in just a few years, when the house was still relatively new.
FRT plywood can best be identified in the attic. This is also the safest place to determine whether the wood has begun to deteriorate. It will be stamped or otherwise marked as fire-resistant. Look at the underside of the roof decking, adjoining the firewalls. A clear indication of possible deterioration is a dramatic color change from the rest of the plywood. This product will often change to a very dark coffee or reddish color. Also, the surface can become very brittle and separate easily when probed with a screwdriver.
Severely deteriorated FRT plywood must be replaced, but there are ways to delay replacing less-damaged surfaces. One is to add a layer of drywall to the attic side of the plywood. This and other methods, however, will only delay the inevitable removal of deteriorated plywood, usually when the roof shingles are being replaced.
There are newer versions of FRT plywood, but most builders now have incorporated the drywall method into their firebreak construction.
Polybutylene plastic pipes were widely used in houses from 1978 to 1997. There may be 30,000 or more houses in the Washington area with this type of plastic piping, which was developed to replace copper or galvanized steel.
Not all plastic pipes are polybutylene, which is easy to identify because the pipes are usually battleship gray rather than white, the color of polyvinyl chloride plastic pipes, which are accepted as safe.
The problem with polybutylene is that these pipes fail and leak, often at the joints. Sometimes the leaks showed up quickly, but it can also take years for the pipes to fail. That means there are many houses where the pipes haven’t leaked but still might.
This pipe cannot be repaired; it must be replaced. As you can imagine, removing plumbing from walls and replacing it with copper is a big, costly job. Estimates for removal and replacement can range from $5,000 to $10,000 and up depending on the size of the house. It’s sometimes a difficult repair to justify, though, if there are no leaks yet.
Two class-action lawsuits have been settled. For more information on whether you might qualify for assistance under these settlements, see the Web sites or call the settlement administrators. They are Spencer et al. v. Shell Oil Co. et al. ( http://www.spencerclass.com/, 800-490-6997) and Cox v. Shell ( http://www.pbpipe.com/, 800-392-7591).
These electrical panels, widely used by builders in the 1960s and 1970s, are considered unsafe. The problem is usually described as a latent hazard — that is, the panels and circuit breakers themselves do not cause an unsafe condition such as a short in a wire, but the breakers often will not trip when they should. That can lead to overheating and fires.
In extensive testing by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the circuit breakers had a failure rate of approximately 25 percent.
I see many Federal Pacific-brand electrical panels in homes I inspect, sometimes several in a week. They are easy to identify by the Federal Pacific and Stab-Lok branding on the panel cover.
If a household electrical circuit is overloaded, the circuit breaker in the panel is supposed to trip and cut off so that heat cannot build up and cause scorched wires, melting and fires. I rarely see evidence of this, but the many cases of failure have led to an industry view that because these panels are obsolete and possibly dangerous, replacement should be considered. That usually costs between $1,000 and $1,600.
To date, there is no recall or class-action lawsuit for this panel, but the CPSC has issued safety warnings. The product is not made anymore.
It’s no secret that asbestos is a serious health issue. It can be found in its many forms in thousands of older homes.
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral whose ability to add strength and insulation properties to building products made it valuable for decades. It was being manufactured in building products until about 1972 but could appear in houses constructed as late as 1978.
Asbestos can be found in wall and ceiling insulation, floors and siding, and as an insulated wrapping on ductwork and pipes. Identifying it can be tricky, but people who commonly work in older homes can make a reasonable determination. A lab test is the only way to tell for sure if asbestos is in a certain product.
Asbestos fibers, when disturbed and floating in the air, can be inhaled and eventually cause certain types of lung cancer. It has not been determined how much is harmful, but it is generally viewed as a heath risk in any amount.
Fibers can be released into the air when the asbestos is disturbed, often by major work such as a house renovation. The key to preventing a health hazard is to make sure the mineral doesn’t get into the air. Materials suspected of containing asbestos should either be removed or contained. Any work that involves asbestos should be performed by a professional trained in handling the material.
Removal is costly and has to comply with approved Environmental Protection Agency methods. When I see products that probably contain asbestos, I concentrate more on containing the product than on removing it.
How asbestos is contained depends on where it is. Ductwork and pipes can be wrapped or even painted with a special coating. Siding can be painted or covered with new siding, and floors can be left alone, sealed or covered with another floor. Asbestos has also been found in vermiculite attic insulation. This should be left undisturbed.