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.
Clothes dryers evaporate the water from wet clothing by blowing hot air past them while they tumble inside a spinning drum. Heat is provided by an electrical heating element or gas burner. Some heavy garment loads can contain more than a gallon of water which, during the drying process, will become airborne water vapor and leave the dryer and home through an exhaust duct (more commonly known as a dryer vent).
A vent that exhausts moist air to the home’s exterior has a number of requirements:
  1. It should be connected. The connection is usually behind the dryer but may be beneath it. Look carefully to make sure it’s actually connected.
  2. It should not be restricted. Dryer vents are often made from flexible plastic or metal duct, which may be easily kinked or crushed where they exit the dryer and enter the wall or floor. This is often a problem since dryers tend to be tucked away into small areas with little room to work. Vent elbows are available which is designed to turn 90° in a limited space without restricting the flow of exhaust air. Restrictions should be noted in the inspector’s report. Airflow restrictions are a potential fire hazard.
  3. One of the reasons that restrictions are a potential fire hazard is that, along with water vapor evaporated out of wet clothes, the exhaust stream carries lint – highly flammable particles of clothing made of cotton and polyester. Lint can accumulate in an exhaust duct, reducing the dryer’s ability to expel heated water vapor, which then accumulates as heat energy within the machine. As the dryer overheats, mechanical failures can trigger sparks, which can cause lint trapped in the dryer vent to burst into flames. This condition can cause the whole house to burst into flames. Fires generally originate within the dryer but spread by escaping through the ventilation duct, incinerating trapped lint, and following its path into the building wall.
InterNACHI believes that house fires caused by dryers are far more common than are generally believed, a fact that can be appreciated upon reviewing statistics from the National Fire Protection Agency. Fires caused by dryers in 2005 were responsible for approximately 13,775 house fires, 418 injuries, 15 deaths, and $196 million in property damage. Most of these incidents occur in residences and are the result of improper lint cleanup and maintenance. Fortunately, these fires are very easy to prevent.
The recommendations outlined below reflect International Residential Code (IRC) SECTION M1502 CLOTHES DRYER EXHAUST guidelines:

M1502.5 Duct construction.
Exhaust ducts shall be constructed of minimum 0.016-inch-thick (0.4 mm) rigid metal ducts, having smooth interior surfaces, with joints running in the direction of air flow. Exhaust ducts shall not be connected with sheet-metal screws or fastening means which extend into the duct.

This means that the flexible, ribbed vents used in the past should no longer be used. They should be noted as a potential fire hazard if observed during an inspection.
M1502.6 Duct length.
The maximum length of a clothes dryer exhaust duct shall not exceed 25 feet (7,620 mm) from the dryer location to the wall or roof termination. The maximum length of the duct shall be reduced 2.5 feet (762 mm) for each 45-degree (0.8 rad) bend, and 5 feet (1,524 mm) for each 90-degree (1.6 rad) bend. The maximum length of the exhaust duct does not include the transition duct.
This means that vents should also be as straight as possible and cannot be longer than 25 feet. Any 90-degree turns in the vent reduce this 25-foot number by 5 feet, since these turns restrict airflow.
A couple of exceptions exist:
  1. The IRC will defer to the manufacturer’s instruction, so if the manufacturer’s recommendation permits a longer exhaust vent, that’s acceptable. An inspector probably won’t have the manufacturer’s recommendations, and even if they do, confirming compliance with them exceeds the scope of a General Home Inspection.
  2. The IRC will allow large radius bends to be installed to reduce restrictions at turns, but confirming compliance requires performing engineering calculation in accordance with the ASHRAE Fundamentals Handbook, which definitely lies beyond the scope of a General Home Inspection.
M1502.2 Duct termination.
Exhaust ducts shall terminate on the outside of the building or shall be in accordance with the dryer manufacturer’s installation instructions. Exhaust ducts shall terminate not less than 3 feet (914 mm) in any direction from openings into buildings. Exhaust duct terminations shall be equipped with a backdraft damper. Screens shall not be installed at the duct termination.
Inspectors will see many dryer vents terminate in crawlspaces or attics where they deposit moisture, which can encourage the growth of mold, wood decay, or other material problems. Sometimes they will terminate just beneath attic ventilators. This is a defective installation. They must terminate at the exterior and away from a door or window. Also, screens may be present at the duct termination and can accumulate lint and should be noted as improper.
M1502.3 Duct size.
The diameter of the exhaust duct shall be as required by the clothes dryer’s listing and the manufacturer’s installation instructions.
Look for the exhaust duct size on the data plate.
M1502.4 Transition ducts.
Transition ducts shall not be concealed within construction. Flexible transition ducts used to connect the dryer to the exhaust duct system shall be limited to single lengths not to exceed 8 feet (2438 mm), and shall be listed and labeled in accordance with UL 2158A.
In general, an inspector will not know specific manufacturer’s recommendations or local applicable codes and will not be able to confirm the dryer vent’s compliance to them, but will be able to point out issues that may need to be corrected.

Ever wonder about your house number? Often, the previous owner installed the number and the new owner never had to think about it, leaving them clueless as to why it was placed where it is or why a particular color or size was chosen. These numbers are more important than you probably realize, and a lot of thought goes into making sure they are visible.

House numbers should be clear enough so that police, the fire department, paramedics, etc., can quickly locate properties in an emergency. Numbers are often the only way that first-responders can identify their intended destinations. Your city might even have laws requiring your house number to be of a certain size or color. Also, think of the poor pizza delivery guy who runs late because he can’t find your house, or frustrated party guests who have to knock on neighbors’ doors before they find yours.

Consider the following recommendations:

  • The numbers should be large, within reason. Try to make them at least 5 or 6 inches tall. Smaller numbers may not be visible from the street if you have a large front yard. Replacement house numbers can be purchased from hardware stores and online.
  • The numbers should be of a color that contrasts with their background. Reflective numbers are great because they are easier to see at night. Brown on black or white on yellow may look swanky but are bad choices for the purpose.
  • Try not to put house numbers behind any trees, shrubs, or anything else that may obscure their view from the street.
  • Make sure that the number faces the street that is listed in the house’s address. It does emergency workers no good if the house number faces a different street than the one the workers are traveling on.
  • Is your house not visible from the road? Then the number should be placed at the driveway’s entrance.
  • The next time you hire an InterNACHI inspector, ask him whether your numbers are adequate. Inspectors should know the laws in your area and be able to offer you a professional opinion.

Keep in mind that you may need to make adjustments.

Even if your house number is currently adequate, InterNACHI believes that it might need adjustment in the future. The following are common reasons why you may need to adjust your number in the future:

  • The addresses assigned to houses by the city occasionally change, and you must adjust your numbers accordingly.
  • The trees or shrubs in front of your house have grown so much that the number is no longer visible.
  • House numbers installed in the winter may be visible during that season, but become blocked by budding vegetation by spring or summer.

Maintain your house numbers, along with the rest of your home’s exterior.

  • Keep your numbers clean. They may not be reflective or contrasting if they are covered in mud.
  • Trim back vegetation as needed.
  • Don’t let piles of snow obscure the numbers. If this happens, raise the number so this situation does not happen again.

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.
An ice dam is a ridge of ice that forms at the edge of a roof and prevents melting snow from draining. As water backs up behind the dam, it can leak through the roof and cause damage to walls, ceilings, insulation and other areas.
 
How do ice dams form?
 
Ice dams are formed by an interaction between snow cover, outside temperatures, and heat lost through the roof. Specifically, there must be snow on the roof, warm  portions of the upper roof (warmer than 32° F), and cold portions of the lower roof (at freezing or below). Melted snow from the warmer areas will refreeze when it flows down to the colder portions, forming an ice dam.
Although the primary contributor to snow melting is heat loss from the building’s interior, solar radiation can also provide sufficient heat to melt snow on a roof. For example, in southern Canada, enough sunlight can be transmitted through 6 inches (150 mm) of snow cover on a clear and sunny day to cause melting at the roof’s surface even when the outside temperature is 14° F (-10° C), with an attic temperature of 23° F (-5° C).
Gutters do not cause ice dams to form, contrary to popular belief. Gutters do, however, help concentrate ice from the dam in a vulnerable area, where parts of the house can peel away under the weight of the ice and come crashing to the ground.
 
Problems Associated with Ice Dams
 

Ice dams are problematic because they force water to leak from the roof into the building envelope. This may lead to:

  • rotted roof decking, exterior and interior walls, and framing;
  • respiratory illnesses (allergies, asthma, etc.) caused by mold growth;
  • reduced effectiveness of insulation. Wet insulation doesn’t work well, and chronically wet insulation will not decompress even when it dries. Without working insulation, even more heat will escape to the roof where more snow will melt, causing more ice dams which, in turn, will lead to leaks; and
  • peeling paint. Water from the leak will infiltrate wall cavities and cause paint to peel and blister. This may happen long after the ice dam has melted and thus not appear directly related to the ice dam.

Prevention

  • Keep the entire roof cold. This can be accomplished by implementing the following measures:
    • Install a metal roof. Ice formations may occur on metal roofs, but the design of the roof will not allow the melting water to penetrate the roof’s surface. Also,Notice how the ice is heaviest beneath the chimney, where snow can be melted easily snow and ice are more likely to slide off of a smooth, metal surface than asphalt shingles.
    • Seal all air leaks in the attic floor, such as those surrounding wire and plumbing penetrations, attic hatches, and ceiling light fixtures leading to the attic from the living space below.
    • Increase the thickness of insulation on the attic floor, ductwork, and chimneys that pass through the attic.
  • Move or elevate exhaust systems that terminate just above the roof, where they are likely to melt snow.
  • A minimum of 3″ air space is recommended between the top of insulation and roof sheathing in sloped ceilings.
  • Remove snow from the roof. This can be accomplished safely using a roof rake from the ground. Be careful not to harm roofing materials or to dislodge dangerous icicles.
  • Create channels in the ice by hosing it with warm water. Because this process intentionally adds water to the roof, this should be done only in emergencies where a great deal of water is already flowing through the roof, and when temperatures are warm enough that the hose water can drain before it freezes.

Prevention and Removal Methods to Avoid

  • electric heat cables. These rarely work, they require effort to install, they use electricity, and they can make shingles brittle.
  • manual removal of the ice dam using shovels, hammers, ice picks, rakes, or whatever destructive items can be found in the shed. The roof can be easily damaged by these efforts, as can the homeowner, when they slip off of the icy roof.
In summary, ice dams are caused by inadequate attic insulation, but homeowners can take certain preventative measures to ensure that they are rare.