Radon and Home Safety

Most buyers and sellers are warned of potential home health hazards, such as mold, asbestos and lead-based paint. However, many people overlook the serious issue of radon, a radioactive gas that is estimated to cause about 21,000 lung cancer deaths per year. So, how do you protect yourself and your family from this potential threat?


What is radon?

Radon forms naturally from the breakdown of radioactive elements, such as uranium, which are found in all types of soils and rock. This odorless gas can easily enter a home through cracks or openings in the foundation, concrete walls, sump pumps, gaps around pipes, and even water. Once trapped inside, radon can accumulate and reach potentially dangerous levels, damaging the lungs of those who breathe it in.


High levels of radon are found in every state across the country and in every type of home or building, regardless of age or whether it has a basement. According to the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), one out of every 15 homes in the United States has a high level of radon. That means approximately 7 million homes throughout the country are affected. The EPA says this class A carcinogen is “thought to cause more deaths each year than other household dangers like poisoning, falls, fires, and drowning.” It is the leading cause of lung cancer for non-smokers, making it the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S.


The Radon Act 51 passed by Congress set the target for indoor radon levels at 4pCi/L, which is the national outdoor average. The EPA estimates that two-thirds of American homes exceed that number. Remember, just because your home is at or below the target level, does not mean it is acceptable. While any exposure to radon carries a risk, the lower your indoor level, the lower your family’s risk.


How do I test for radon?

Ideally, a radon test would be performed during every real estate transaction. It is not included in a standard home inspection, but a buyer can add a radon screening for approximately $125.


Radon testing is also recommended, whenever there is seismic activity, like an earthquake, or anytime there is new construction or major ground work happening near your home. The EPA says, “If you are planning any major structural renovation, such as converting an unfinished basement area into living space, it is especially important to test the area for radon before you begin the renovation. If your test results indicate a radon problem, radon-resistant techniques can be inexpensively included as part of the renovation.” The agency also suggests testing again once the work is complete.


Any homeowner can perform radon testing by purchasing a kit online or at a local home improvement store. However, if you are uncomfortable testing on your own, or would like to confirm the results of a home test, consider hiring a professional. The process is relatively simple.


The electronic testing device in the lowest possible living area, like a basement, all of the windows and doors throughout the home should be closed up 12 hours prior to testing in order to have closed-home conditions for an accurate reading.


The testing device is placed at least 24 inches away from an exterior wall, and set on a stand to keep it at least 24 inches off the ground. It is then plugged in and left for 48 hours. Once the test is complete, the device is hooked up to a computer to generate a report that provides an hour-by-hour look at radon levels in the home, and then calculates the average. If the test results in an average at or above the EPA’s recommended level, the problem can be taken care of rather simply by installing a mitigation system, which can run anywhere from $700-$3,000, depending on the application.


A lot of people don’t think about testing for radon, but it’s an important step, it is especially important to test in areas that are known to have a greater potential for elevated levels, but it really is a critical test for every homeowner. If you have not had your home tested in a long time, contact a professional and get it done. It is an inexpensive and simple test to ensure your home is safe.

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Fireplace Safety

Winter is here, meaning you might be looking to start using your fireplace again. Before you do, though, make sure it’s ready to safely warm your home for the holidays.

If you have a wood fireplace that was converted to gas, meaning it is opened and just has a gas log in it, make sure it has a safety clamp on the damper.  When I check the damper and it does not have a safety clip, which means I can shut the damper tight, this will allow gas fumes to come into the house from the pilot light. The safety clip is a simple device that attaches to the damper and will not allow the damper to close all the way. If not, call a fireplace specialist to inspect and install a safety clip.

When you have a regular gas fireplace, you should vacuum under it, usually there is a door below it that opens. Dust builds up around the fan if there is one. With the fan in the on position, some units have to warm up for a while and will automatically turn on when the fireplace is hot enough and turn off by itself when the fireplace cools down. Some units have a fan switch that just turns on right away. If the glass on your gas fireplace is all white and milky, there is a product you can buy at your local fireplace dealer that will help remove this.

If you have a wood-burning fireplace, make sure your damper is in good condition and operates freely. The fire brick and grate should also be in good condition. If you have some cracks in the fire brick and they are not very wide, there is cement that can be used, which you can purchase at your local fireplace specialists or home centers. This refractory cement withstands high temperature that you have when burning wood. Doors or a screen are also recommended on a wood-burning fireplace.

Dry wood should be burned and for the best results burn dry hardwoods (firewood that is not freshly cut). If you don’t clean the flue of a wood fireplace on a regular basis, there could be a build-up of creosote, which may start a chimney fire. I have seen some chimney flues so dirty that you can tell they have not been cleaned for years. This could cause a chimney fire and possibly burn your house down. There was one home that was about 12 years old and I asked because of the buildup in the flue when was the last time it had been cleaned. The answer I received was, “I thought the heat of the fire would keep it clean.”

Remember, only burn dry seasoned wood!   A yearly cleaning and check-up of your fireplace are recommended, especially if you use your fireplace on an ongoing basis.

If you have never had a fireplace before and feel uneasy about the operations of a fireplace call a fireplace specialist for their advice.


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Home inspectors can’t ID every issue


Rich Duerkop, For USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin3:54 p.m. CDT October 20, 2016


Question: I asked my home inspector what kind of warranty or guarantee he offers, and he said none. Why is that?

Answer: It is impossible for a home inspector to predict what is going to happen in the future, especially if his or her recommendations and information in the report is not followed. Here are some great examples:

  1. Just because a basement is dry the day of the inspection does not mean that at some time you couldn’t get water in your basement. If I see old water stains in the basement, I suggest the home buyer monitor for future moisture penetration. Another thing I look for is the grade of the landscaping on the exterior of the home. Is there a gutter and downspouts with long extensions to carry water away from the foundation and are the gutters cleaned out? Sometimes even though there are not any signs of moisture penetration and everything appears to be in line, you get a heavy rain and moisture enters the basement. It is impossible to predict.
  2. A water heater is another item in the report. If a water heater is nearing 10 years old I would mention it is nearing the end of its normal life span. If it is 10 years or older, I would mention it is beyond its normal life span. Industry average is 10 years. Mine went out at 11 years. I have seen some go out at 5 years and have seen some still in operation that were well beyond their industrial average of 10 years. To help extend the life of your water heater, drain a pail of water out of the spout on the bottom of the unit every month. This will help get rid of the sediment.  If you hear your water heater rumbling and thumping, it is most likely full of sediment and the unit is working extra hard because it has to heat water constantly because there is very little room for the water because of the sediment. I have helped friends in the past pull a water heater out of a basement that was so heavy because it was full of sediment it took four of us to get it out and we were worried the steps might not hold because of all the weight.
  3. Furnaces are another category. The newer ones are especially hard to assess unlike the old ones. The new ones are sealed so the only way to assess them is by doing a carbon monoxide check at the closest register and the exhaust. The older ones are not sealed and you usually can get a good look inside for rust and cracks. If a furnace has a lot of rust flakes, I automatically recommend a clean and check. If the furnace filter is extremely dirty, that tells me it has not been properly maintained and should be evaluated by a heating specialist. I recommend some furnaces be checked and they weren’t and then they failed.
  4. Roofing is another unpredictable item. Sure, if they are brand new it is easy to say they are in satisfactory condition. But what if they are in mid-stage of life, 7 to 14 years old and are showing signs of heavy granule loss but are flat and show no signs of curling or cupping? I would mention in the report that the shingles are in the last stage of life and to monitor. Last stage means you might get some life out of them or you might get very little. It is impossible to predict how much life you will get out of them. Now if they are cupped and curled or they are showing open blisters they appear to be near the end of life, I recommend a contractor evaluate all roof areas. Remember never put new shingles over old ones. The recommendation is you can have two layers if the bottom layer is flat and in good condition. If they are in good condition why are you changing them? Never put shingles over cedar shakes, which I see often in older homes. I have seen up to four layers in some homes. If there are three layers on a home, even if the work was just done, all of the layers must come off.
  5. Another thing we don’t have is x-ray vision. A home inspection is a visual inspection only. We are not allowed to remove flooring or carpet. We do not move personal effects. If the seller has a large amount of storage, that could hinder the accuracy of the inspection, it should be removed by the seller.

You have to follow the items in the report that should be addressed. As inspectors, we try to do our best to protect our clients and do the best job possible and to offer the best advice we can, but unfortunately, we cannot predict the future.


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