There’s nothing like coming home and warming up next to a roaring fire during the long, cold months of winter, or even chilly evenings in any season.  Long commutes to work in the cold and the increasingly short hours of daylight in the fall and winter are made more bearable by the comfort and familiarity of family gatherings by the fire.  It may be for this reason that some type of wood-burning enclosure has remained a staple of many households, even though open fire is no longer a necessity for cooking and heating.  With this in mind, let’s take a look at one of the more modern options available, the factory-built fireplace.

What is a factory-built fireplace and how does it differ from a masonry fireplace?

The traditional masonry fireplace is based largely on the innovations of Count Rumford, an 18th-century inventor.  His applied theories on thermodynamics led to the design of a restricted chimney opening to increase updraft, which allowed fire to burn in an enclosure without smoke filling the room.  Rumford’s design quickly achieved wide popularity in London households, and he became something of a celebrity as news of his innovation spread. 

Factory-built fireplaces now make up approximately 75% of all types of fireplaces. Unlike traditional masonry fireplaces, which are built on site, factory-built fireplaces are designed to allow for installation at a later date, although they are just as often used for new construction.
A factory-built fireplace is made up of a firebox enclosed within a steel cabinet, and a steel chimney or flue.  It is lightweight, inexpensive, safe and efficient, and can be installed fairly easily on any floor of a home.  Pre-manufactured masonry fireplaces are also available, and they incorporate engineering techniques not often used in field-constructed fireplaces, such as a listed venting system.

Zero Clearance

Factory-built fireplaces are also often called “zero-clearance” fireplaces because of their minuscule safe-clearance requirements.  An insulating air blanket is incorporated in the design to keep the outer wall of the fireplace cool, which allows safe installation in very close proximity to wood framing.  In general, ½-inch of clearance to combustibles is required around the outside of the firebox enclosure, and 2 inches of clearance are required around the chimney, except where the firestop is installed if a chimney passes through two levels of a house.  Different manufacturers may have different suggested clearances, and it is important for installers to note this for proper and safe installation.

Safety and Maintenance

Factory-built fireplaces pass rigorous testing standards established by the  Underwriters Laboratories and the American Gas Association.  Properly installed, factory-built fireplaces have an excellent safety record.  However, as in any situation where an open flame is involved, there are some things to keep in mind in order to avoid any risk of fire hazard.

If the fireplace is installed on top of any combustible material, such as carpet or wood, it must rest on a metal or tile panel that extends the length and width of the appliance.

Any combustible flooring near the fuel opening must be insulated with non-combustible floor protection.

Room air-inlet and outlet grilles must be unobstructed.

The same fire-safety precautions that are used for a traditional fireplace should be observed when a factory-built fireplace is in use.

In order to ensure safe and optimal operation, normal maintenance and cleaning are required, similar to those used for a traditional fireplace.  The chimney should be inspected monthly during the heating season to determine if creosote (the black, oily accretion that builds up as a result of incomplete burning of wood) has accumulated.  A professional chimney sweep should be hired to clean out the unit at least once a year.
A central vacuum system (sometimes called a whole-house vacuum system) is a cleaning device installed throughout a building. Located in the garage or basement, a canister receives dust and debris sucked by the force of a motor from wall outlets, which are located for the homeowner’s convenience.
Central vacuum systems are powerful, yet expensive alternatives to portable vacuum units

Central Vacuum – Crepps Home Inspection

While many Americans are unfamiliar with central vacuums, they are not new inventions; the idea dates back as far as the 1850s in Sweden, where horse-powered fans were used to create suction through in-wall plumbing. Horses were later replaced by servants, who pumped giant bellows or pedaled stationary bicycles, until electric motors eventually took over. Shortly thereafter, however, portable vacuum cleaners became available, and central vacuum systems were largely forgotten due to their relative expense. Their hibernation ended by the 1990s when growing house sizes and concerns over air quality combined with the availability of cheaper plastic piping, more powerful motors and refined filtration systems. Yet, even today, American homes are dependent on portable vacuum cleaners, in contrast with Canadian and Scandinavian homes, where central vacuum systems are more common.
Central vacuum systems boast some advantages over portable units, some of which are as follows:
  • They are long-lasting. Their motors can handle more usage than typical portable units. Warranties, too, are usually longer for central units.
  • They are quiet. Because the motor is located outside the living area, users are not subjected to noise created by the motor, which can be excessive and stressful.
  • They can be retrofitted into older houses, or built into new construction.
  • They are a good investment. Just as a kitchen renovation or new deck will make a home more valuable, many buyers will pay extra for a house equipped with a central vacuum.
  • They are hypo-allergenic. Unlike portable vacuums, which recycle air back into the room, dust-laden air is blown into the outdoors from central vacuum systems. One comprehensive study conducted at the University of California at Davis’ School of Medicine compared portable to central units and concluded that “a central vacuuming system would best provide [allergen removal] as it would be installed outside the living area of the dwelling and/or vented outdoors.”
  • The system is easy and safe to use. There is no heavy equipment to carry from room to room, and no electric cords to trip over or catch on furniture.

whole house vacuum – Crepps Home Inspection

Types of central vacuum cleaners available include:

  • cyclonic, in which air is spun in a canister and exhausted to the outdoors. Location is critical for these units, as it is possible for exhausted, debris-laden air to find its way back into the house through open windows. The filter must be removed and cleaned periodically;
  • inverted filter, in which the dirt enters the vacuum canister amidst a tornado-like swirl of air. The canister must be emptied periodically, and always outside of the home. Allergy sufferers may find disposal unpleasant, as mold and other debris become airborne; and
  • disposable bag, in which dirt is sucked into a paper bag in the same fashion as for portable units. This is perhaps the cleanest and most hygienic method available, as mold spores, bacteria and other debris are physically separated and stored in a bag from which they cannot escape.
The disadvantages of central vacuum systems include:
  • price. A good system can cost $1,500, which is significantly more expensive than even premium portable vacuum cleaners;
  • damage caused by items sucked up inadvertently. With greater power comes higher risk that large items will be sucked up, potentially causing damage to the unit. Tales abound of units becoming jammed or broken when they swallow, often at the hands of children, broken jars of jelly, toilet water, and even pet birds. Portable units are usually too weak to readily suck up items that can cause them to break;
  • a system compromised by weak suction.  Such a problem may be due to obstructed pipes or exhaust, an excessively dirty filter, or a full canister that needs to be emptied. If the unit does not operate at all, the motor might be broken, a breaker may have tripped, or the wiring may be defective.
In summary, central vacuum systems are convenient, powerful and expensive home-cleaning devices.

Winterization is the process of preparing a home for the harsh conditions of winter. It is usually performed in the fall before snow and excessive cold have arrived. Winterization protects against damage due to bursting water pipes, and from heat loss due to openings in the building envelope. Inspectors should know how winterization works and be able to pass this information on to their clients

Plumbing System

Water damage caused by bursting pipes during cold weather can be devastating. A ruptured pipe will release water and not stop until someone shuts off the water. If no one is home to do this, an enormous quantity of water can flood a house and cause thousands of dollars’ worth of damage. Even during very small ruptures or ruptures that are stopped quickly, water leakage can result in mold and property damage. Broken water pipes can be costly to repair.

  • All exposed water pipes in cold areas, such as attics, garages, and crawlspaces, should be insulated. Foam or fiberglass insulation can be purchased at most hardware stores.  Insulation should cover the entirety of a pipe.
  • Plastic is more tolerant of cold expansion than copper or steel. Houses in colder climates might benefit from the exclusive use of approved plastic plumbing.
  • Water supply for exterior pipes should be shut off from inside the house and then drained.
  • Sprinkler systems are particularly vulnerable to cracking due to cold-weather expansion. In addition to turning them, it helps to purge the system of any remaining water with compressed air.
  • Homeowners should be aware that much of the plumbing system travels through areas that are significantly colder than the rest of the house. Because it is impossible to monitor the temperature of every portion of the plumbing system, indoor air temperature should be kept high enough throughout the winter to keep pipes in any unheated places from freezing.

Leaks in the Building Envelope

Leaky window frames, door frames, and electrical outlets can allow warm air to escape into the outdoors.
  • Windows that leak will allow cold air into the home. Feeling for drafts with a hand or watching for horizontal smoke from an incense stick are a few easy ways to inspect for leaks. They can be repaired with tape or caulk.
  • On a breezy day, a homeowner can walk through the house and find far more leaks than they knew existed. Leaks are most likely in areas where a seam exists between two or more building materials.
Insulation
  • Because hot air rises into the attic, a disproportionately larger amount of heat is lost there than in other parts of the house. Like a winter hat that keeps a head warm, adequate attic insulation will prevent warm indoor air from escaping. Attic insulation should be 12 inches thick in cold climates.
  • Storm doors and windows should be installed to insulate the house and protect against bad weather.
Heating Systems
The heating system is used most during the winter so it’s a good idea to make sure that it works before it’s desperately needed. The following inspection and maintenance tips can be of some help to homeowners:
  • Test the furnace by raising the temperature on the thermostat. If it does not respond to the adjustment quickly it might be broken.
  • Replace the air filter if it’s dirty.
  • If the furnace is equipped with an oil or propane tank, the tank should be full.
Cooling Systems
  • Use a hose to remove leaves and other debris from the outdoor condensing unit, if the home is equipped with one. Protect the unit with a breathable waterproof cover to prevent rusting and freezing of its components.
  • Remove and store window air conditioners when they are no longer needed. Cold air can damage their components and enter the house through openings between the air conditioner and the windowpane.
  • Ceiling fans can be reversed in order to warm air trapped beneath the ceiling to recirculate. A fan has been reversed if it spins clockwise.
Chimneys and Fireplaces
  • The chimney should be inspected for nesting animals trying to escape the cold. Squirrels and raccoons have been known to enter chimneys for this reason.
  • The damper should open and close with ease. Smoke should rise up the chimney when the damper is open. If it doesn’t, this means that there is an obstruction in the chimney that must be cleared before the fireplace can be used.
  • A chimney-cleaning service professional should clean the chimney if it has not been cleaned for several years.
  • The damper should be closed when the fireplace is not in use. An open damper might not be as obvious to the homeowner as an open window, but it can allow a significant amount of warm air to escape.
  • Glass doors can be installed in fireplaces and wood stoves to provide an extra layer of insulation.
Roofs
  • If debris is left in gutters, it can get wet and freeze, permitting the formation of ice dams that prevent water from draining. This added weight has the potential to cause damage to gutters. Also, trapped water in the gutter can enter the house and lead to the growth of mold. For these reasons, leaves, pine needles, and all other debris must be cleared from gutters. This can be done by hand or with a hose.
  • Missing shingles should be replaced.
Landscape
  • Patio furniture should be covered.
  • If there is a deck, it might need an extra coat of sealer.
Adequate winterization is especially crucial for homes that are left unoccupied during the winter. This sometimes happens when homeowners who own multiple properties leave one home vacant for months at a time while they occupy their summer homes. Foreclosed homes are sometimes left unoccupied, as well. The heat may be shut off in vacant homes in order to save money. Such homes must be winterized in order to prevent catastrophic building damage.
In addition to the information above, InterNACHI advises the following measures to prepare an unoccupied home for the winter:
  • Winterize toilets by emptying them completely. Antifreeze can be poured into toilets and other plumbing fixtures.
  • Winterize faucets by opening them and leaving them open.
  • Water tanks and pumps need to be drained completely.
  • Drain all water from indoor and outdoor plumbing.
  • Unplug all non-essential electrical appliances, especially the refrigerator. If no electrical appliances are needed, electricity can be shut off at the main breaker.
In summary, home winterization is a collection of preventative measures designed to protect homes against damage caused by cold temperatures. These measures should be performed in the fall, before it gets cold enough for damage to occur. Indoor plumbing is probably the most critical area to consider when preparing a home for winter, although other systems should not be ignored.
Ghosting is a term that refers to discoloration that appears on surfaces in a home. The source of this discoloration can be a mystery to anyone not familiar with the phenomenon. Ghosting is the result of particulates attaching themselves to surfaces.  “Particulates” is a catch-all word for any kind of particle small enough to be suspended in the air. Small dust particles from soil, animal dander, cooking residue, and soot residue from a fireplace and candles are all common sources of household particulates.

Many particulates tend to stick to the surfaces of materials with which they come into contact, and there are two reasons for this. The first is… those particles are sticky! Particulates from cooking are a good example of this process.

When you fry something (say, a breaded squirrel in a lemon and dill butter sauce), you can see tiny droplets of grease buildup on the stove around the frying pan. Grease droplets smaller than those that land on your stove can become airborne. Stove hoods with fans and filters are installed in kitchens so that airborne grease won’t accumulate on the wall above the stove.

In homes with inadequately working stove fans or vents (or in homes where the occupants cook six squirrels at a time), the ability of the range hood to remove tiny airborne grease droplets from the air overwhelms the system, and those sticky grease droplets can escape from the cooking area and move through the home carried by air currents.

Another reason that airborne particles are attracted to a surface is that all airborne particles and surfaces carry an electrical charge. In the world of electrical charges, opposites attract. A negatively charged airborne particle will be attracted to a positively charged surface. So, if they come close enough to each other, the negatively-charged particle will land on and stick to the positively-charged surface (just like male and female squirrels).

The act of a particle being attracted to a surface, making contact with it, and then sticking to it, is called “plating out.”

So, now we know that both sticky particles and those with opposite electrical charges will plate out onto the home’s surfaces. If the plating out is extreme enough, particulates will accumulate to the point at which they become visible as discoloration.

In most homes, we don’t notice this discoloration because most homes are designed with air flow adequate to prevent it. However, there are design issues as well as human behavior that can cause plating out anyway.

Any home in which air currents carry particulates that come close to a surface may suffer ghosting. It’s most commonly visible on carpets and walls, but may appear anywhere. Bear in mind that since the particulates are airborne, it’s the movement of air that brings them into close contact with home surfaces. Air currents are key.

Doors that have inadequate clearance from a newly installed carpet are one source. If a new pad and carpet are installed over a tile or hardwood floor, the clearance beneath the door will be reduced. Each time the door is opened or closed, air will be forced against the carpet and particulates will plate out on the carpet. Over time, the carpet under the door swing will become discolored.

Another example is above baseboard heating units. As the heat source within the baseboard housing heats the air, it draws in cool, particulate-laden air from the layer of cool air just above the floor. As the air is heated, it rises from the housing, and particulates flow against and plate out on the wall just above the baseboard heater housing.

Fireplaces that smoke may leave soot stains on the wall above the firebox opening, which form as soot-laden air spills out of the firebox and rises along the wall.

Any place in the home that draws air through a small space or which pushes room air against a surface may create ghosting.

During an inspection, if you have trouble determining the source of discoloration on a surface — whether it’s a floor, wall or ceiling — remember the physics of ghosting.