Electrical Grounding Q&A


“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


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


“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


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.

Illegal Patio Covers Draws City’s Attention Q&A


“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


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.

Rebuilding Decks Q&A


“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


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


“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



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


“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


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


“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


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.

Green Building Development Q&A


“I’m starting to hear and read more about “green building”, and how efficient and economical these homes can be without taking a lot of natural resources to create. Can you tell me what builders are doing incorporate features that are environment friendly, and what features homebuyers should be looking for? What kind of real savings does building green generate for the consumer?” – C.T., Pleasanton


“Building green” refers to building homes that use natural resources to their full potential in creating an energy efficient dwelling. These homes use materials, systems and components that do not require lots of energy or resources to create, and that use a minimal amount of energy to sustain. Examples of green building include homes that use solar or wind energy for electricity or heat, and homes that are constructed from recycled materials. However, the list does not stop here.

Green building is definitely on the horizon for the future of construction, but it has not yet taken over mainstream thinking. The reasons that many of the green systems and components are not being fully utilized in today’s construction are the initial costs, lack of easy integration of components, and the lack of motivation for builders to do so. In some cases, there are also aesthetic concerns such as the visibility of solar panels or passive heat components.

Before builders will embrace and utilize many green components, they have to be convinced that the demand is there, and that the initial costs of gearing up and incorporating the components into their homes will pay off. For every new component or major building system that builders use, there is a learning curve for not only the builder, but the manufacturer and sub contractors involved in its installation. Many of the individual components of green building have never been fully integrated into a particular home or development, which presents little or no history on their actual acceptance or performance.

Today, most homes being built meet certain energy standards to be classified as an “Energy Star” home. These homes include energy efficient features such as high insulation values in the floors, walls, and ceilings, tight sealing ductwork for all furnaces, double or triple pane windows, and energy saving appliances and fluorescent lighting. Yet, building green goes much further. Building green means making the entire structure and mechanical systems so energy efficient, that they consume less energy and resources than conventional housing.

As an example of this, consider the amount of trees needed to produce the wood necessary to construct a house. What if you could use recycled materials, or wood scraps to build the house? Think of the natural resources we could save. Well, some builders are using this alternative today, and they do it by using structural insulated panels.

Insulated structural panels (ISP’s) are panels used to frame walls, ceilings, floors, and roofs that are basically a sandwich of two wood panels made up of wood chips glued together, with a dense layer of rigid insulation in between. These panels are designed to interlock, and can be assembled and mass-produced to almost any design. A house built using SIPs will be at a minimum 50% more efficient that a house built with conventional framing. Straw bale construction is another option for creating an extremely efficient shell of a house, however its use has not been developed to consistent standards that allow it to be easily mass-produced.

Once the structure is built, a photovoltaic system can be installed to generate most or all of the house’s electrical needs. You can then add solar heating for the interior of the house and water heater. You can also heat the house using stoves that burn corn kernels, or generate your electricity with a wind generator. Decks, porches, and outdoor structures are being built with recycled plastics and wood fibers. Builders are also devising ways to recycle gray water (water from sinks, washing machines, and tub and showers), to be filtered, and used to irrigate the landscaping around the house.

The options for green building seem to be ever expanding as the industry develops new technologies for recycled materials, and better systems and designs of current innovations.

Next week, I will tell you about an ambitious green building project of historic proportions that is in the process of being developed in Northern California. It is being designed and built by some innovative industry members from the Bay Area, and has the cooperation and support of local and state governments. The goal of the project is to build a small, truly affordable community that contains a mix of residential, commercial, retail, and light industrial uses that meet the energy and renewable resource requirements of California’s EPA’s Million Solar Homes Initiative, and many of the programs sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. Once completed, this project will become a model for the industry to follow.

Water from Exterior Damages Floor Covering Q&A


“I live in a 4 year old townhouse and I have vinyl floor covering installed in the kitchen and eating area. A few months after I moved in, I noticed some faint discoloration and staining on the floor covering near the outside wall. It appears to be on the underside of the flooring because I could not clean it. I contacted the builder and he said that it was probably a manufacturing defect and he had the vinyl replaced. Lately I have noticed that the staining was coming back. Do you have any idea why the staining is occurring? My house is built on a slab so there is no way to look underneath the floor.” – R.K., Alameda



Staining on the underside of vinyl floor covering is usually the result of moisture infiltration, and before the floor covering is replaced, it is important to locate and eliminate the source of this moisture. If you don’t, the staining will continue to re- appear no matter how many times you replace the floor covering.

The most common example of this type of staining occurs in bathrooms, usually near the base of the toilet or adjacent to the tub or shower pan. While moisture cannot permeate the surface of the vinyl floor covering, it can seep underneath at joints and edges that are not fully sealed.

If the joint between the vinyl floor covering and the face of the tub or shower pan is not kept properly sealed, it will be exposed to moisture that can collect there from tub or shower over spray. People do not realize how much water can collect at this location just from stepping in and out of the shower or tub.

Water that collects at this area can then wick under the vinyl floor covering, making the back side of the vinyl wet. Over time, this moisture creates mildew growth which starts out as a light gray stain and then turns black. If the staining or discoloration that you see on the floor covering won’t come off, chances are it is coming from the underside, and it is probably moisture related.

The staining that you are describing in the kitchen and eating area also sounds like it is moisture related because it has re-occurred. What you need to do first is to find out where the moisture is coming from. The fact that your house is built on a slab, limits the possible sources of the moisture to three things; a leaking water line in the slab, water being sprayed at, or pooling at the face of the concrete foundation, or finally, sub surface water wicking up through the underside of the slab.

If it were a leaking water line, the staining would be more or less in one area (near the break in the pipe and the slab would be wet or damp. This would have been discovered when the floor covering was first replaced.

If there was sub surface water wicking up through the slab, it would mean that there was a break in vapor barrier beneath the concrete that is allowing the moisture to pass through. This commonly occurs during periods of heavy rain, or over-watering. My guess is that your particular situation is the result of water either pooling or being sprayed at the face of the foundation.

This could be the result of heavy and /or continuous rains or possibly from the sprinklers. Sprinklers spraying against the house allow water to run down the face of the foundation and then pool at the base. The surfaces of the concrete foundation can absorb tremendous amounts of moisture when exposed to water.

When this source of moisture is allowed to occur on a daily or every other day basis, (such as with sprinklers that are on timers), there would be enough moisture for it to travel in towards the interior of the house two to three feet.

If you find that the sprinklers are not spraying directly at the building, check the drainage to make sure all water flows away from the house. This is particularly important if your property has an up slope on one side of the house. If water cannot be drained away from this area, you may need to install a drainage system to carry the water somewhere else.

Remember, when water is allowed to pool adjacent to a foundation for long periods of time, it can do a lot more than cause staining to floor coverings. It can be one of the biggest contributing factors to building settlement and foundation failure. Water and moisture also have the capability to destroy wood members throughout the house if left unchecked. It pays to eliminate sources of moisture infiltration and improper drainage before they have a chance to become bigger and more expensive problems.

Excessive Moisture in the House Q&A


“For the past few weeks, I’ve been having a problem with moisture inside the house. I’ve noticed lots of condensation on my windows and mold starting to grow on the window frames, and at the base of several walls. When I clean the mold up, it goes away for a while, but then comes back. I’ve even noticed mold on some of the indoor flowerpots. I don’t know where all of the moisture is coming from, and what I need to do to correct this. Any suggestions?” – L.J., Oakland



Excessive moisture in a house is never a good idea, and over prolonged periods can allow mold and mildew to grow. What you are experiencing is common, and tends to occur after winter rains. During the winter the air and exterior elements of a house are cold and damp. To stay warm, we tend to keep our homes sealed up by closing all of our windows and doors. This eliminates natural ventilation and traps moisture inside the house. Without ventilation or enough temperature, moist air cannot circulate, and the moisture cannot evaporate.

Moisture inside a house only occurs if it is generated by the occupants of the house, or from some external source such as a plumbing or roof leak. Believe it or not, normal living conditions can generate several gallons of water vapor a day. Every time we cook, shower, wash or dry clothes, or even breath inside a house, we are releasing water vapor into the air. Unless we provide some means for this vapor to escape, it will remain in the house and condense on window, wall, and ceiling surfaces.

Ventilation is really the key to controlling moisture in a home, and when combined with some heat, it can ensure that a home remains comfortable and dry. Without ventilation, wet or humid air is drawn to cooler surfaces such as walls, windows, ceilings, or personal belongings, where it condenses on the surface. If the moisture does not evaporate, it creates a cool moist environment for the mold spores in the air to grow.

The first thing you should do is to determine what the sources of moisture can be. The most common sources are from bathing and cooking. Does condensation form on your walls and ceilings after cooking a meal or bathing? If so, you need to increase the ventilation in the area by using an exhaust fan or opening a window. Do you have indoor plants or aquariums? These are also big generators of moisture indoors.

Occasionally, indoor moisture can be the result of standing water under the house, or excessive moisture in the attic. Often times during the winter a home can have some amount of standing water under it, or excessive moisture in the attic from a roof leak or from a lack of ventilation. Moisture from the sub area and attic can infiltrate into the interior of the building through vapor pressure and condense on wall surfaces and personal belongings. It is important to check these areas of the house to ensure that they are well ventilated and basically dry.

If standing water is noted in the sub area, it may be necessary to have it pumped out, or to have fans installed to accelerate its drying. If excessive moisture is noted in the attic, it may be necessary to install additional eave or roof vents.

Moisture and mold growth on the inside of the house usually forms on surfaces that are not exposed to any air flow or movement of heat such as behind dressers, beds, and in closets. Moisture is more apt to condense on exterior walls that are not insulated and in rooms that do not have their own heat register or source of heat. Many homes built in the 1940’s through the 1960’s only had a centrally located wall or floor furnace. These heating units could not efficiently get heat into most of the bedrooms and bathrooms like the forced air furnaces used today. Because of this, it was common for mold to appear.

Once the sources of the moisture are realized, then you have the ability to deal with correcting the mold conditions. Minor amounts of surface mold can be cleaned and removed with a mild solution of chlorine bleach and water. Start by mixing one part bleach and 7 parts water and spraying the solution on the mold. Let this set for a few minutes, and the color of the mold will begin to disappear. Then, wash the area with soap (cleaning detergent) and water and dry. This will remove any mold spores that remain on the surface.

Finally, keep in mind the importance of keeping the interior of the house well ventilated. In the morning open the blinds so that any condensation on the windows can evaporate, and open doors to bedrooms so that air can circulate. And remember to either open a window or use the exhaust fan after bathing or cooking. Following these simple suggestions will normally keep mold from occurring.