Electrical Grounding Q&A

QUESTION

“I have an older home with the old style, two pronged outlets that are not grounded. I’m concerned about having my electrical system properly grounded, but I don’t really understand how a grounding system works. All I know is that it is supposed to prevent you from getting shocked. Would you tell me a little bit about it?” – R.P., San Mateo

ANSWER

Grounding an electrical system is more than just driving a grounding rod and connecting it to the main panel. It is a matter of providing a path of least resistance for electricity to return to its source, to prevent it from traveling back through our bodies, outlets, and appliances. To understand grounding, it is important to know how electricity works, and how it travels through a house’s electrical system.

Electricity can basically be broken down into two elements, voltage and amps. A good analogy for electricity is pressurized water in a pipe, like the water lines in your house. Water is similar to the electron flow in an electrical current. As water flows through a pipe, the electrons in an electrical current flow through a wire, or any similar conductive material. Voltage is similar to the water pressure in the pipe, and amperage is similar to the volume of water that comes out the end of the pipe. The common voltage for residential construction is 120/240 volts, and the common amperage is 100 amps.

The one golden rule about electricity is that it always wants to get back to its source. That is why electrical systems need to utilize at least two wires, a hot and a neutral. The hot wire is the one that carries the current to house, and the neutral wire is to provide a return path to the utility or source of the power. Unfortunately, this is not a completely safe system because electricity has the ability to travel through other conductive objects as well as the ground we stand on. The grounding portion of an electrical system is designed to provide a safe, alternate path for electricity to travel back to its source, without the possibility of traveling through a person or an object.

The grounding system for a house, starts at the main panel. In the main panel, there are usually two hot conductors, each 120 volts, that supply the electrical power to the panel, and there is also a neutral conductor that acts as the return path back to the utility. Since the neutral conductor is the dedicated source back to the utility, all potential paths that an electrical current can travel on, need to be connected or “bonded” to this neutral wire.

This is accomplished by connecting a “grounding wire (usually just a bare copper wire), to all of the panel boxes, outlets, appliances and metal pipes in the house, and connecting the other end to the neutral in the main panel. The interesting thing about this connection to the neutral line is that this is only done in a main panel, and not in a sub panel. In a sub panel, the neutral wires and grounding wires must be kept separate, and not connected together. This is why the neutral buss bar located in a sub panel, is isolated from the ground connections by plastic insulators.

If the neutrals and grounds are connected together in a sub panel, and there was a short to the ground, the electrical current would have the ability to travel through other circuits in the house, potentially injuring a person in another area.

Many accidents occur ever year where someone is electrocuted by touching the metal housing of an appliance, metal water line or metal furnace ducting, because an electrical current from a short, was running though it. The current in these items was just waiting for a path back to ground, and in each case, the person touching the item, provided that path. A person’s safety is the most important reason to have a properly grounded electrical system.

To properly ground an electrical outlet, you need to connect one end of a ground wire to the base of the outlet, to the green screw, and the other end to grounded surface. If your house wiring contains a grounding (bare copper) wire, it is probably attached to the metal wall box that houses the outlet. In this case, you can connect the ground wire from the outlet directly to the box. This can be done with either a special screw or clip.

If there is no grounding wire in the wiring, you must run a ground wire to another grounded surface such as the electrical sub panel, or a metal water pipe that has been connected at some point, to the grounding system. This is the only way to guarantee that there is an alternate path for electricity to flow back to its source.

Whenever you are dealing with electricity, it is always best if you consult with a competent electrical contractor. Properly grounding an electrical system is not difficult, but it can be very technical, and there are a lot of specialized fittings and hardware. If electrical work is done incorrectly, or carelessly, it will not provide the protection it should.

Aluminum Wiring Q&A

QUESTION

“We just inherited a 45-year old house, and shortly after we moved in we noticed that the lights would occasionally flicker on and off. Some switches were hot to the touch. I contacted an electrician to come over and inspect the wiring. He said that the problem was with the aluminum wiring used in my house. He showed me burn marks at some switches and outlets. He said that I should have the whole house rewired and that can cost thousands of dollars. My parents were the original owners, and I don’t remember them ever having a problem. How much of a concern is it to have aluminum wiring in the house?” –  D.S., San Mateo

ANSWER

Aluminum wiring has been used for many years in residential construction and is still being used today. Properly installed, it is as safe as copper wiring. In fact, you will probably find it (to some extent) in more than 90% of the homes, condominiums and apartments being built today.

The fears and concerns about using aluminum wiring usually dates back to the late 1960’s, because aluminum wiring got a lot of bad press. There were several cases where electrical fires had been occurring in houses built with aluminum wiring. In some homes, people would have switches and outlets getting hot when in use, and sometimes causing shocks to individuals, or starting fires.

Before the 1960’s, most homes in California were wired with copper wire. It was cheap and easy to work with. Then in the early 1960’s the price of copper had gone way up, and contractors building large housing tracts turned to using aluminum wiring as an alternative. PG&E had been using aluminum wiring for years and never had any problems.

What the contractors did not understand at the time, is that the characteristics of aluminum wiring are very different from that of copper, and that there were specific installation standards that had to be followed when using it. Investigations that followed all of these fires were able to prove that it was not the wiring that was the source of the fires, but rather the workmanship of how the wiring was installed.

Aluminum wiring is soft, has a low melting temperature, expands when heated and oxidizes easily. Because of this, aluminum requires that any connection to it be made in such a way that the wiring will not be able to loosen. This is usually done with a special crimping tool and special connectors. Copper wire on the other hand, is a little more stable and flexible than aluminum wiring, and does not require the special connectors

The secrete to living with, and using aluminum wiring, is making sure that it is properly installed with the proper connections. The National Electrical Code requires that any fitting connected to aluminum wiring be approved for use with that type of wiring. This basically means that you cannot connect an outlet, switch, fixture or fitting to aluminum wiring unless it is rated to be connected with aluminum wiring. These devices should be clearly marked with the designation “CU/AL” or “CU/ALR”. This means that the fitting is approved for use for copper (CU) and aluminum (AL). The “ALR” designation means aluminum residential.

What happened back in the 1960’s is that the installing contractors were connecting the aluminum wiring to outlets, fixtures and switches that were designed to be connected to only copper wiring. The fact that your house has aluminum wiring should not pose a safety problem if it is properly installed.

Your question seems to indicate that the problem with the wiring is at the joints or connections to the switches and outlets. This is where most of the problems occur with aluminum wiring. Because aluminum wiring expands and contracts a bit when an electrical load is running through it, it tends to heat up and loosen connections if it is not properly tightened. This usually results in a switch or an outlet being warm or hot when touched. Over the years, this overheating tends to damage outlets and switches. Merely replacing these devices will fix the problem in most cases.

To ensure the safety of your electrical system, you should have it inspected by a qualified electrician. Start by having the electrician inspect all your outlets and switches. It is possible that there is a loose connection at some other area, such as a light fixture, junction box, or sub panel. In any case, a good electrician should be able to trace down all of the problems.

Arc Fault Circuit Interrupters (AFCIs)

A new electrical safety device is now being required in the State of California, and it is called an Arc Fault Circuit Interrupter (AFCI). Since 2003, it has been required to be installed on all bedroom circuits for new construction. This device has the ability to “sense” and detect overheating and shorting of electrical wiring that could start a fire, but would not trip a standard breaker. What’s interesting is that it has taken almost ten years of research and development for this device to be required in residential construction.

In 1992, the Consumer Products Safety Commission initiated the “Home Electrical System Fires Project”, and contracted with Underwriters Laboratories to provide research and evaluations on electrical fires in homes. The research revealed that arcing and overheating of a home’s electrical wiring are associated with more than 40,000 home fires each year, that claim over 350 lives and injure more than 1,4000 individuals.

Arcing occurs when electrical wiring is nicked or damaged, or when there is a loose or poor connection. Nails from installing pictures, wood trim or cable wires can damage electrical wiring. Damage can also occur at power cords caught in doors or under furniture or rugs, plugs in outlets being pushed against by furniture, or cords that are exposed to extensive sunlight or heater vents. Loose joints and poor connections occur outlets or switches or partial breaks in the wiring. All of these conditions can cause arcing, and create high temperatures that can cause fires.

Arcing is dangerous in that it often goes undetected for extended periods of time. It usually begins where it is not easily seen, such as in an extension cord running under the carpeting, at a worn light switch or wall outlet, or at a wiring connection that is no longer tight. In a split second, arcing can create temperatures as high as 5000 degrees Fahrenheit at low current levels. Unfortunately, regular circuit breakers do not respond to signs of early arcing but are rather designed to trip when there are excessive loads and short circuits. They will not trip off when arcing and overheating of electrical wiring produces small differences in the flow of current.

AFCIs are designed to differentiate between normal and unwanted arcing conditions by continuously monitoring current flow. Normal arcing can occur when a switch is opened or a plug is pulled from a receptacle. This is not the type of arcing that usually causes fires or serious electrical concerns. However, unwanted arcing (high heat producing) takes place when conductors touch and separate, resulting in sparks and overheating. When these conditions happen, they are detected the AFCI, and it immediately trips, shutting off the power, and prevents fires from occurring.

The currently adopted edition of the 1999 National Electrical Code in California, requires all electrical outlets in bedrooms of new construction be protected with AFCIs.

Research has shown a large percentage of electrical fires and injuries occur from arcing wiring in bedrooms. Although the electrical outlets in bedrooms represent only a few of the circuits in the house, future editions of the code will require them in other areas and applications.

The good news for the consumer is, this important safety device is relatively inexpensive to install. It can easily be added to most electrical systems in existing homes to provide additional protection for older, and possibly deteriorated wiring.

There are two basic types of AFCI devices currently being used in residential construction. The first type is a circuit breaker that is installed in a main or sub electrical panel of a home. The second is an outlet that is connected directly onto the wiring of a wall outlet. AFCIs can be installed in any 15 or 20 amp branch circuit in the house. Although the installation of either device is relatively straight forward, it is best to consult with an electrical contractor to ensure the devices are properly connected.

It is important not to confuse the ACFI with ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs). GFCIs have been required in residential construction since the mid 1970’s. The most common type of GFCI is a circuit breaker or an outlet with the two little push buttons built into the middle of the device. They are usually installed in bathrooms, garages, and kitchens. GFCIs are designed to provide user protection from electrical shock from ground faults.

Electrical shocks from ground faults occur when an unintentional electrical path is created diverting the current to the ground. If this electrical current is allowed to travel through a person’s body, he or she could be severely shocked or electrocuted. GFCIs are not designed to react to hazardous arcing faults that can cause fires, but AFCIs are. Realizing the potential of combining these safety features, manufacturers are already designing devices that have both forms of protection built into one device.

Anyone thinking of updating or adding onto their electrical system, should seriously consider installing this valuable safety device.

Illegal Patio Covers Draws City’s Attention Q&A

QUESTION

“We just finished building a large patio cover in our back yard, when one of our neighbors complained about it to the city. Someone from the building department came by and said that the structure was illegal. He gave us notice that we have 30 days to either tear it down, or go through the planning and permit process to make it legal.

What gives the city the right to tell me what I can and cannot build? Since when do patio covers need permits, and why would we have to go through the planning process?” –  S.E., Pleasanton

ANSWER

Every municipality is required by law to have what is known as a General Plan; a detailed outline as to how it is to be developed and managed, in order to meet current and future needs. The General Plan addresses seven basic issues of how a city will be laid out, how traffic will move through the area, where parks, schools, businesses and open spaces will be located, and how such issues as noise and overcrowding will be controlled.

In order to enforce the requirements of the General Plan, a municipality adopts ordinances or laws that specifically detail what will be allowed in a particular area or zone of the city. Located in the municipal code, these “zoning regulations” are approved by the city council and reviewed and updated every five to ten years. Everyone can have input to this process, but it is usually the local planning department that oversees the development of the General Plan and controls its enforcement.

Zoning laws and city ordinances give a city the authority to determine what someone can and cannot do, to a particular piece of property. There are zoning laws that stipulate the shape, size, design, and color a building can be, where it can be located on a lot, and what type of accessory structures will be allowed.

In order to understand how these ordinances come into effect, it is important to look beyond an individual piece of property. I spoke with George Thomas, Building Official for the City of Pleasanton, who explained that when an area is first developed, the developer will meet with the city, and will negotiate what will be allowed for that particular group of homes. These agreements then become the basis for regulating what can occur in the development. “The city’s concern is the overall look of the development, how it affects roads and traffic, and how it will enhance the community. In this way, the city can preserve its character and charm, while allowing for growth and expansion,” commented George.

There are actually several different players that are involved in the planning and zoning process of any given city. Besides the city council, the planning department and the planning commission are the two most influential . The planning department is the governmental agency that oversees the enforcement of zoning. It can make suggestions and recommendations to the city council on whether zoning laws should be changed.

The planning commission on the other hand, is a group of private individuals, appointed by the city council, who can also make recommendations or changes to zoning and planning issues. If an individual wants to appeal a decision by the planning department, a hearing can be arranged with the planning commission to determine an outcome.

Zoning ordinances vary dramatically from city to city, and usually address accessory structures such as patio covers, particularly if they are over ten feet in height. From a code point of view, patio covers are considered to be roof structures that people can gather under. They must be constructed to sustain live and dead loads, and built to resist lateral movement. Patio covers have been addressed in the Uniform Building Code for over 35 years, and normally require the issuance of a building permit.

For the city to ask you to go through the planning department, I would assume that your patio cover is over ten feet in height, is not built as a conforming structure, or does not have the proper property line setbacks. Most cities require at least a five foot setback at the rear, and a three foot setback at the side property line. Violating property line setbacks can expose a property owner to liabilities in the event of the spread of fire, or damage that may occur because of the structure failing when people are near. The best way to handle this is to find out what is essential for a patio cover to be considered safe and code complying.

Home owners can protect themselves, and prevent this situation from occurring, if they check with the city building or planning department before beginning any constructing or remodeling on their homes. The staffs in these departments are more than willing to answer any questions a home owner may have regarding new construction or additions. Also, most municipalities have brochures and handouts that clearly outline what is required before a construction project is started.

Understanding Contractors Liens

Before entering into a home improvement contract or contracting for the services of a tradesperson, a homeowner is well advised to understand a powerful legal right that contractors, subcontractors, laborers, or material suppliers have to collect non-payment of services or materials supplied to a job. Under most circumstances, these individuals are allowed to file a Claim of Lien within 90 days of providing any work to a job, or the substantial completion of a project if they are not paid.

However, before a contractor can file a lien for non-payment, the contractor must “notify” the homeowner of his or her lien rights. Section 7018.5 of the California Business and Professions Code requires a contractor to provide a homeowner with a notification called a “Notice to Owner” prior to signing a contract for services to be performed. This notice states that under the “California Mechanic’s Lien Law”, any contractor, subcontractor, laborer, or material supplier who has improved real property but has not been paid for the work, has a right to place a lien on the improved property to secure payment of the monies owed to them.

The Notice to Owner is required to be in the original contract that is signed with a prime contractor. Sub contractors and material suppliers that are not directly contracted by the homeowner are required to provide them with a “Preliminary Notice” which can be sent via the mail. The Preliminary Notice provides basically the same information as the Notice to Owner, but it must be sent to the homeowner no later than 20 days after the claimant has first furnished labor, service, equipment, or materials to the jobsite.

Once a lien is filed, the claimant has 90 days to file a Lien Foreclosure Action in court. The Lien Foreclosure Action is a civil action that, if successful, could allow your property to be foreclosed and sold, with the proceeds from the sale used to pay the lien.

I spoke with Don Odell, an attorney with McNichols, Randick, O’Dea and Tooliatos, a law firm specializing in real estate and construction law. I asked his opinion of the impact that construction related liens have on the consumer. “Filing a lien on someone’s property can be a serious matter for both the contractor and the consumer.

If the contractor has not been licensed during the entire time on the job, or if the contractor does not have a legitimate reason for filing a lien, or if the contractor has not complied with the notice requirements, the contractor could be exposed to both legal and disciplinary action”, began Don.

“For a homeowner, a lien can prevent the refinance or re-conveyance of the property (subject to the lien) until the lien is settled”, Don continued. “If the contractor has recorded a lien and does not file a Lien Foreclosure Action within 90 days, the lien is unenforceable. If the contractor then fails to remove the lien, the homeowner can petition the court to have the lien removed, and may then seek recovery of the associated costs from the contractor.”

“On the other hand, if a Lien Foreclosure Action is filed by the contractor, the homeowner will have to defend against the action and may have to file a counter-claim for breach of contract in order to justify not paying the contractor in the first place.

The frustrating part about the mechanic’s lien laws is that the contractor essentially controls the matter and could delay the resolution of the lien for years. This can waste a lot of time and money for the homeowner even in the best of circumstances.”

Odell stated that although a homeowner may successfully defend against a mechanic’s lien and recover the potential attorneys’ fees and costs, fighting a mechanic’s lien is not a pleasant experience. His best practical advice for anyone in a dispute with a contractor is to make sure that you have everything documented. If you decide to withhold payment from the contractor until the work is completed, make sure you are working in good faith with the contractor to resolve your differences.

In the event that you cannot resolve your differences and wish to terminate the contractor, do so promptly and immediately record a Notice of Termination. While this will not prevent the contractor from filing a lien, recording the Notice will reduce the amount of time that the contractor has to file a lien from 90 days after the completion of the improvement, to 60 days from the date of the Notice of Termination. If the contractor is not paying attention, the reduced time frame may cause the contractor to miss the filing deadline, making the lien unenforceable.

Remember, any time that a lien is involved, the most critical supporting document you have is the contract that you signed with the contractor. Your contract will contain the agreed upon payment schedule, and a description of work to be completed, two of the most important pieces of information needed to determine the legitimacy of the claim. Your contract should also include a start and finish date, a detailed description of the work to be done, a down payment amount, a schedule of when payments are to be made and an explanation of what constitutes a completed job.

Resolving issues with liens and contracts can be a frustrating and lengthy experience for most people. Consumers need to protect themselves whenever they enter into a contract. The best way to do this is by working with a competent contractor, and having a well-written document with clearly defined terms. To assist the consumer in this matter, Don Odell has developed a six-page handout describing the various steps involved in the lien process, and what consumers can do to protect their rights.

The Importance of Documentation

Over the past few months, I have worked with the California State Contractors License Board (CSLB) investigating several complaints against contractors performing home improvement work. All of the cases involved work not performed to industry standards, and most also involved substantial portions of work not being completed, and the fact that the contractor was paid more money than what he or she was entitled to.

The problem with complaints involving a contractor’s work is that the consumer is the one who often winds up investing a lot of additional time and money in trying to resolve the complaints. What I found interesting is that in each of the cases I worked on, the contract and description of the work to be performed between the homeowner and the contractor were poorly written and vague. This one fact substantially compromised the homeowner’s ability to justify their claims their claims against the contractor, and their ability to receive an appropriate judgment.

Unfortunately, most consumers do not realize the importance of proper documentation when dealing with a home improvement contractor. Documentation is critical if a job is to be completed as planned, and at the agreed upon price. Without it, resolving disputes can be a long and drawn out battle. It can take months, and sometimes years to settle most construction related disputes. To make matters worse, homeowners often spend more than the cost of the remodeling job in trying to settle a dispute with a contractor.

The very first thing a homeowner should do when considering to hire a contractor is to verify that the contractor is properly licensed and carries general liability and workman’s comp insurance. This can be done by contacting the CSLB at their website, www.cslb.gov, or by calling them at 1-800-321-2752. This sounds simple, but I am amazed at how many homeowners fail to do this, and wind up contracting with someone who is not licensed or qualified.

Once you have verified that the contractor is appropriately licensed for the type of job you want done, the next step is to establish a contract that clearly describes the work to be performed and the terms of payment. The contract should state an approximate starting and completion date. It should also describe the order in which the job will proceed, and who will be responsible for the selection and payment of the material.

In one of the cases I investigated, the contractor was hired to install a hydro-massage tub and the contract did not specify a specific brand or model of tub. The contractor went ahead and bought a new (ordinary) tub and installed a hydro-massage kit that hangs over the edge of the tub to circulate the water. Yet the contractor charged the client for a complete packaged unit where the motor and pump were below the tub, and the water jets are molded into the sides. The homeowner was shocked to see this, and had a difficult time in trying to prove the installation was not what she had ordered because there was no documentation specifying the type of tub.

Almost every home improvement job involves changes to the contract. This could be in the form of additional work being performed, or changes to materials or fixtures being used. A good contract has language stating that change orders will be in writing, will indicate how much will be charged, and how the change order will be paid for. Never allow a change to be made on a job assuming “it can be worked out later”.

In addition to clearly stating what work is to be performed, a good contract also states how and when payments will be made to ensure that the contractor is only paid for the work that is completed. Remember, a contractor can only charge a down payment of $1,000.00 or 10% of the contract price (whichever is less) before any work is actually performed. Once the contractor delivers either material or labor to the job, he or she is entitled to receive compensation.

Therefore it is wise to establish exactly when payments will be made. Usually payments are tied to the completion of major portions of the job, or when a substantial amount of material is delivered to a jobsite. For example, on a bedroom addition it is common to make a payment after the foundation is poured and after the rough framing, plumbing, and electrical are installed. There could also be a payment made at the delivery of the sheetrock and floor coverings, and then one final payment once all the work is completed.

The contract should also state that the work is to be done with permits. This is where many homeowners get into trouble. Contractors will sometimes tell the homeowner that permits will add to the cost of the job, are not really necessary, or are not required. Without permits, the municipal building department cannot inspect the work to verify that it meets minimum health and safety requirements, and this may expose the homeowner to future liabilities. It is always best to have the contractor obtain the permits.

Finally, the most important thing a person can do is to check references and visit similar jobs that their contractor has performed. More often than not, a reference can give you information that will help you with your decision on whether or not to hire. Also, seeing the actual work a contractor has completed will prevent any misconceptions as to the level of skill and professionalism he or she may possess.

Take the time to investigate a contractor’s license, establish a written contract clearly describing the work to be performed, and record any agreements or changes that occur after the contract is signed. It will be your best defense in ensuring that your home improvement job is successful.

Rebuilding Decks Q&A

QUESTION

“The house we just bought has an old, partially rotted wood deck at the rear yard that we want to remove and replace with a new one. Although the deck is redwood, it is only 12 years old, and many of the deck boards are twisted and bowed. Are there any other materials that we can use instead of redwood? Someone suggested that we use pressure treated lumber or go with a hardwood like mahogany. Any suggestions?” – B. L., Richmond

ANSWER

Redwood is by far the most common decking material on the west coast because of its natural decay resistance, beauty and affordability. However, if it is not properly installed and maintained, it will deteriorate. Your letter did not go into detail about the installation of the deck, but if many of the deck boards are twisted and bowed, it was probably not installed or fastened correctly.

To answer your question about other types of materials for decks, there are actually several options for the home owner and contractor. Besides pressure treated lumber and select hardwoods, there is also plastic, vinyl and wood-plastic composites.

Pressure treated lumber is most commonly used for deck supports, girders and joists. The advantage of this material is its excellent ability to resist rot; it is even designed to have direct contact with the earth. One of the disadvantages of this wood is that it tends to crack and split, leaving splinters and a rough surface. Sometimes these boards also tend to twist and bow, which can affect the aesthetics of the deck surface. Painting and staining can prevent some of the cracking and splitting, but it must be done on a routine basis to keep the deck looking good.

Besides using pressure treated wood or redwood, you could also consider the use of tropical hardwoods. Tropical hardwoods (commonly a type of mahogany or teak) have rich colors, are naturally decay resistive, and have a high density. They are also more expensive than either redwood or pressure treated wood, and require more care and skill in the installation. For example, if nailing the boards by hand, they usually have to be predrilled. These decks also require more maintenance than other decks because the surface of the boards must be coated regularly with a water repellant to prevent the boards from splitting and turning grey.

A new alternative to wood decking is synthetic decking, decking material made from recycled plastics and wood fibers. These materials look and feel like real wood, and are a little more expensive than redwood. However, they have several advantages. These boards are impervious to moisture and will not split, crack, warp or rot. They can be worked with standard tools, and do not require staining or sealing

One of the best known manufacturers of wood-plastic composite is Trex, with their “Easy Care Decking”. This material is slip resistant and splinter free and can be nailed or screwed down. It comes with a limited ten year warranty. For more information call 1-800-289-8739.

Another type of composite material called TimberTech, a material manufactured by A Crane Plastics Company (1-800-307-7780). This material is produced in hollow tongue-and-groove extrusions that are dimensionally stable, lightweight, and fit together by hand. Because of its design, most fasteners are hidden. The material comes in a light brown color, which fades to a light grey over time.

Finally, there are several all vinyl and aluminum decking systems that are designed to interlock or snap together. These products have an integral and sometimes concealed fastening system. This can speed installation and make it easier for the do-it-yourself market. Basically, a type of track or base is screwed or fastened to the framing members of the deck, and the vinyl or aluminum material is snapped or slid into place. These materials should basically last forever, and require less maintenance than a wood deck.

There are two things to remember when choosing these alternative decking materials, cost and availability. Most of the composite and vinyl products are made back East and are not widely available on the West Coast. You should contact your local lumber supplier and see if they carry any of these materials or if they can order them. The majority of these materials are sold as “systems” with their own fasteners, clips and end caps. You should make sure that you have all material on hand before you begin to lay out or build your deck.

Construction Workmanship Concerns Q&A

QUESTION

“We just bought a new house and we’re having trouble with the builder correcting several things that are wrong. There are problems with the exterior paint coverage, scratches on the cabinet and tile installations and the finish on all the woodwork and doors appear to be sub standard. We have contacted the builder several times and their response is that there is nothing wrong. What are the requirements for workmanship to be acceptable.” –  T. & C., Alamo

 

ANSWER

You have touched on a subject that many new home buyers are asking, “What constitutes an acceptable level of workmanship?” While there is no one place that you could find all of this information, most of it is available and is usually based on common sense.

Every aspect of construction has specific standards and requirements that dictate what an acceptable level of workmanship is. It can be found in the texts for union and trade schools, as well as the standards specified by manufacturers, designers and architects.

There is even specific language in the various building codes that dictate what steps are necessary for work to be considered acceptable.

For example, acceptable workmanship for painting a door would be to have the door sanded and primed, and then painted with a finish coat of paint providing a smooth, uniform surface with no voids or brush marks.

Does this mean that if there if one little brush-mark or slight unevenness to the paint in a particular location, the whole door needs to be repainted? No. If the imperfection is not obvious, and does not affect the inherent characteristics of the object, it is usually considered acceptable. The general rule of thumb for deviations to a finished surface is if the defect is visible within six feet, under natural light, it usually does not reflect industry standards.

Complaints for workmanship are on the rise and it is partly because of the hot construction market. In a market where houses are going up thousands of dollars each month, there is a willingness of some builders and contractors to sacrifice quality for cost and speed of installation. Workmanship issues can also be the result of poor jobsite supervision by a builder as well as a lack of in-depth trade knowledge and skills of the workers. As a consequence consumers are having to accept less than standard levels of workmanship.

A few weeks ago I was asked to inspect a newly built home two months after the buyers moved in. They began noticing problems with the finished condition of the house. While most of the complaints were cosmetic in nature, the buyers did have some legitimate concerns.

The biggest problem had to do with the finish painting and the installation of the cabinets in the kitchen. The finish painting had voids in its coverage and some walls were uneven in color. The enamel finish on the wood trim and doors had some obvious brush marks and paint runs. The cabinet installation had missing pieces of trim, the seams and joints that were not tight, and several of the cabinet doors did not match in color, or pattern of wood grain.

The builder’s initial response was that the quality of workmanship in this home was consistent with the standards of production housing and that the buyers were being too “picky”. He also stated that most of these items were not mentioned on the final walk-through, which meant that the buyers accepted it.

After inspecting the property, I agreed with the buyers that the workmanship was not acceptable and that it did not reflect standards of the industry for the reasons that I have mentioned above. We then arranged to meet with the builder at the property. It wasn’t until each item was pointed out and discussed, that the builder was willing to correct these conditions.

Most contractors and builders want to take care of any legitimate complaints that the consumer might have. Yet sometimes they are asked to correct things that really don’t need correcting or that are unreasonable. This is when most of them draw the line on what they will do for a customer.

It sounds like you have some legitimate complaints that need to be resolved with your builder. You might want to call in a couple of painters and tile contractors to get their opinions on the workmanship in question. You will need to establish that, indeed, the workmanship does not reflect acceptable levels.

Ask the builder in writing to meet with you at the property and discuss each item in question and determine how each one can be resolved. More than likely he will be willing to cooperate if your complaints are reasonable.

Discovering Wood Rot in the Home Q&A

QUESTION

“I’m getting ready to paint my house, and I’ve been patching some of the bad spots in the wood trim around the windows and at the edges of the roof. On two sides of the house, there are pieces of wood that are starting to rot. Although the wood looked okay, when I started to scrape the loose paint off it, the wood started to crumble. What causes wood to rot, and what do you have to do to fix it?” –  M.C., Hayward

ANSWER

Many homeowners are familiar with wood damage caused by rot. It can be found at the base of fence posts, roof eaves and rafters, exterior doors, exterior wood trim, or decks and patio covers. Wood rot usually occurs because of excessive moisture, and is often not visible until the wood is completely damaged. To give you an idea as to how much wood is damaged by rot, the wood industry estimates that about 10% of its annual wood production will be used to repair damaged caused by wood rot alone.

Wood rot is a term used to describe the deterioration and breakdown of the cellular structure of wood that is caused by certain types of fungus. The spores of these fungi are carried through the air, and when they come into contact with moist wood, they will attach themselves to the wood, and begin to feed on its nutrients in order to grow. The fungi releases an enzyme that actually breaks down the cellular structure of the wood into a form of food it can eat. As the fungus grows, the wood decomposes and looses its strength.

One of the dangers of these fungi is that they can grow for long periods of time before producing any external evidence of their presence in the wood. Most wood decay fungi grow only on wood with high moisture content, which is normally considered 20% or above. Wood is actually a porous material that can absorb moisture if left unprotected. Although some woods such as redwood and cedar are naturally decay resistive, under the right conditions, all wood can rot.

Therefore homeowners need to check for wood rot on a periodic basis, and take preventative measures to stop it from occurring. This should be done twice a year, in the autumn and after the spring rains. Any wood member at the exterior of the house can be subject to rot, and therefore should be inspected. However, be most suspicious of wood trim, roof eaves, and any wood close or in contact with the ground, or wood that gets repeated wetting from sprinklers.

At the exterior of a building, wood rot commonly occurs at joints between wood trim and the exterior siding or windows, at the base of wood jambs for exterior doors, wood that is contact with dirt, or on the parts of wood where water can sit and not drain away. This includes most horizontal surfaces, or top edges of boards. Although wood at the exterior of the building is usually painted, moisture can get under the paint through small cracks, allowing rot to form. Because rot can form under the paint, most of the time wood rot is not visible from the surface of the wood. Therefore it is often helpful to have a small screwdriver to be able to probe for rot, and to test the firmness of the wood.

There are two main types of wood rot to look out for. In one type, the decayed area has a brownish discoloration and a crumbly appearance. As the cellular structure of the wood breaks down, it forms a cube like pattern in the wood. The other type of rot causes the wood to have a white or yellow discoloration, with the decayed wood being stringy or spongy.

Once wood rot is discovered, it must be cut out and removed from the wood. The reason for this is that if the wood is to dry, the fungus becomes dormant and stops attacking the wood. However, once the wood gets wet again, the fungus continues its destructive course. This wetting and drying cycle continues over a period of time, until the wood becomes structurally unsound.

The best way to prevent wood rot is to make sure that all exterior wood trim, siding and roof eaves are kept well painted and sealed. Preventing water from getting into joints, gaps or separations in wood, where it can be trapped and not allowed to dry out, is the secrete to preventing rot. All horizontal surfaces and edges of wood are most prone to absorbing moisture, as well as joints between wood members. All vertical and horizontal joints between the pieces of wood should be cleaned out, and filled with a good quality exterior caulking material. Loose paint should be scrapped off, and the wood primed and painted with good quality paint.

Wood rot can also occur at the interior of the building, particularly in areas exposed to water or leakage. The source of water can be a plumbing leak, such as a water line, or water splash from sinks, tubs, or showers. Homeowners should check the base of sink cabinets, or floors adjacent to clothes or dish washers, or floors in bathrooms adjacent to the tub or shower pan for signs of swelling or discoloration.

Taking the time now to inspect and locate wood rot, will allow you to make repairs before further water damage can occur. Failure to repair wood rot when it is first discovered, will allow the fungi to continue to damage the wood, requiring more extensive and costly repairs in the future.

Remodeling a Kitchen or Bathroom Q&A

QUESTION

“We plan on moving in about six months and want to fix up our house for sale. My husband wants to re-do the kitchen and the bathroom and wants to do the work himself. Does he need to get permits? My brother who works for a contractor will be helping him.” – E. Anderson

ANSWER

Remodeling a kitchen or bathroom usually does require a permit particularly if you change any of the plumbing or electrical, or make a structural modification. However, your question raises two concerns that I think you might not be aware of.

The first concern is that when you sell your house you are required to provide extensive disclosure information regarding any modifications to the property. There are two specific questions on the Seller’s Transfer Disclosure Form that ask whether modifications done to the house have been done with a permit, and whether the work was done to code. Both of these questions have to be answered truthfully and you must sign this document to verify it’s accuracy.

If un-permitted, or non code complying work was done to the property, and not disclosed, the seller may be liable for damages. So from this point of view, I would encourage everyone to obtain a permit whenever it is necessary, and to do the work in a code complying manner.

The second concern is that there is a little known law in California’s Business and Professions Code that states that a home owner cannot obtain a permit for work done to prepare a house for sale. This can include any work that is done within the twelve months prior to the sale.

I spoke with Steve Pierce, a broker associate at Contemp. Realty in Fremont, and a licensed California attorney. He said, “Sellers can perform some repairs themselves, but if a permit is required, only a licensed contractor can do the work”. The reason for this is to provide protection for the buyer.

Under the Contractor’s License Law, municipalities that require permits for the construction, alteration or repair of a building, must also require that the permit be only given to licensed contractors. There is however, an exception to this. Home owners can obtain a permit if they perform the work themselves or with their employees, and do not intend to sell the house within 12 months. When home owners do apply for a permit, they must sign a statement stating that this is so.

There is an important reason for restricting sellers from doing their own work. Contractors, by law, have to obtain permits for basically any work that they do. When contractors do perform work, they have to guarantee it for at least one year. These rules do not apply to home owners. So if a home owner does some work on his house and then sells it within a year, the buyer has no specific recourse if the work turns out to be faulty.

This was a real problem in the late 1970’s when the real estate market was booming. Investors were buying up houses, fixing them up and then selling them. Often there was little regard to doing the work in a safe and code complying manner. All they had to do was to make the house look good enough to re-sell. This left many buyers stuck with problems that they then had to correct. In turn, this led to an increase in litigation between buyers and sellers.

Today, most homes that are for sale, have inspections that are ordered by the buyer. Home inspectors routinely find problems with unpermitted work that has been done on homes. And because these problems were not previously disclosed, the buyer is often in a position to legally have the seller make the necessary corrections.

This puts the seller at a tremendous disadvantage. Once in contract, the seller usually does not have the options of correcting the condition that he or she would have had otherwise. Usually there is a very short time frame within which all repairs have to be preformed, and often the repairs can cost more than the original job.

I would strongly recommend that you consider using licensed contractors for the work and insist that they obtain permits for all work that is being done. Also make sure that your contractor calls for the rough and final inspections from the city to ensure that the work is done in a code complying manner. Believe me, it is easier to do this at your convenience rather than under the pressure of contractual agreements. Good luck on your job.