I absolutely love an open flame fire pit… there is just something so primal and wonderful about sitting and watching the flames dance and crackle. I was recently at the new McMenamins in Bothell where they have five fire pits in an open courtyard that they light when the temperature gets 65 degrees or lower. Fabulous! Two other local spots that allow public fire pits are the Shilshole and Alki beaches. Contained backyard fire pits and fireplaces are becoming more and more popular and are given the okay by local authorities, as long as regulations and fire bans are observed. This, however, is where things can get a little sticky, as I find there is often confusion. So I decided to do a little research on the subject and this is what I found.
Recreational fires in our area are regulated by two different governmental entities: the Seattle Fire Department and the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. The Seattle Fire Department sets guidelines that are more or less standard across the country inside city limits. They define a recreational fire as “…fire using charcoal or firewood that occurs in designated areas or on private property for cooking, pleasure, ceremonial or similar purposes.” The fire cannot be more than three feet in diameter and two feet in height and must be 25 feet away from any structure or combustible material. Trash, yard waste, and paper products cannot be burned within city limits.
The Seattle Fire Department website further states that recreational fires are prohibited when a burn ban is in effect. Air quality burn bans (for both outdoor and indoor wood-burning fires) are regulated by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. Created as a result of the 1967 Washington Clean Air Act, this agency serves King, Kitsap, Pierce and Snohomish counties. An air quality burn ban is a mandatory, but temporary, order that restricts the use of wood burning stoves, fireplaces and fire pits when air quality is degraded. Smoke from burning wood contains fine particles and a toxic mix of other carcinogens. Bans typically occur during fall and winter months when stagnant weather conditions often allow concentrations of wood smoke to reach harmful levels. Interestingly enough, more bans are typically called in Pierce and Snohomish counties in part because they tend to have more wood burning communities and also because it tends to be a bit windier in Seattle and parts of King County, which helps to blow away the pollution and keep it from reaching unhealthy levels.
To determine if an air quality burn ban is in effect in your area, call 1-800-595-4341 or visit the PSCAA website at www.pscleanair.org. Also, believe it or not, “there’s an app for that.” The Burn Ban 411 mobile app gives you real-time burn ban updates for your county. Again, visit the website to learn more and access the app. Happy fire-tending!
Once upon a time the idea of having a sewer scope done in addition to a standard inspection before purchasing a home was not commonplace. However, as Seattle’s homes are aging, sewer scopes are becoming an important aspect of the home buying process. The side sewer line refers to the pipe that exits the house and joins with the city sewer main, which is usually in the middle of the street. The City of Seattle holds property owners responsible for these side sewer lines. You may actually share parts of this line with a neighbor, in which case you would share the responsibility for issues that occur within the shared length of piping. To verify the location of your side sewer and whether or not any portion is shared, search for your address here and take a look at the cards and maps.
The reason that side sewer issues are becoming more and more common is that the original pipes were made with clay, changing to concrete around mid-century, and then to plastic in the late 70’s/early 80’s. The clay and concrete pipes have surpassed (or are reaching) the ends of their life span and few have been replaced. Aging clay and concrete pipes are very susceptible to cracks, breaks and tree root infiltration, but even plastic pipes can be susceptible to cracks and pipe shifting.
In the long run, it can pay to know the condition of your side sewer before problems occur. Fixing the issues now will be less traumatic and cheaper than also having a major sewer back-up and clean-up on your hands. There are a number of companies in town that specialize in sewer scopes. Essentially the inspector sends a camera down the line and makes a video that notes damage, blockages and/or tree root infiltration. The inspector will then go over the video with you and make recommendations. It’s a smart investment for homeowners to be sure. But it’s a vital investment for a potential home buyer or even a seller who wants to have an understanding of how side sewer issues could potentially factor out in the sale of their home.
In my recent blog article, Baby it’s Cold Outside, Part #2: Insulation, we looked at options for current insulation materials. But what about already existing insulation? The majority of homes in our area are pre-existing and come with some form of older insulation. When walking through old homes you can’t help but wonder about the effectiveness, and perhaps even more importantly, the safety of these older insulation products. As far as effectiveness, that is undoubtedly a case-by-case matter to take up with a professional inspector or remodeler. But as for the safety issue, I decided to do some research and here is what I found…
Let’s start with fiberglass. About 90% of homes in the US have some fiberglass insulation. Although the World Health Organization removed fiberglass insulation from its list of possible carcinogens in 2001, you still need proper protection if you’re going to be handling it as microscopic slivers of glass can break loose and irritate your skin and respiratory system. Be sure to wear gloves, goggles, a dust mask and protective clothing when handling fiberglass insulation.
The next potentially hazardous insulating material is urea-formaldehyde foam (which is usually gray or yellow and brittle), which was banned in the 1970’s when it was found to be causing elevated levels of formaldehyde in homes. However, what currently remains of the foam isn’t likely to be an issue as the formaldehyde has undoubtedly out-gassed by now. But be aware that when heated and burned (i.e., in the case of a fire), this foam will release very toxic substances into the surrounding air; this is one of the reasons fire fighters routinely wear masks.
The final insulating culprit—asbestos—probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone. The word asbestos originated from the Greek word for “inextinguishable” and when it was first introduced was considered a miracle product. It’s made from naturally occurring minerals and is fireproof, durable, lightweight and an excellent insulator. It was used in a myriad of building materials including siding, floor tiles, roofing materials, pipe coverings, and—you got it—general home insulation. However, the dark side of asbestos was slowly revealed as it was proven to be the cause of two types of lung cancer including mesothelioma (a cancer of the lining of the chest and abdominal cavity) and asbestosis (in which the lungs become scarred with fibrous tissue). Asbestos products weren’t officially banned in the US until 1989, but they were slowly phased out long before then as the potential health issues associated with exposure were discovered. While most people are exposed to small amounts of asbestos at some point in their lives and are fine, the risk of lung cancer increases with the number of fibers inhaled. So, it makes sense to be cautious if the presence of asbestos is suspected in your home. What do you do if you live in a home built before 1989 and you suspect the presence of asbestos? First off, know that the mere presence of asbestos isn’t hazardous… problems arise when asbestos becomes damaged or disturbed and becomes airborne. So the best thing you can do with asbestos that is in good condition is to leave it alone. Damaged asbestos can be either encapsulated with a sealant or enclosed by surrounding it with a protective wrap or jacket. Removal is the most expensive method and poses the greatest risk of fiber release. However, when remodeling or if the asbestos material is extremely damaged, you may not have a choice. Asbestos removal should be carried out by a professional who is trained in handling asbestos material and the type of professional will depend on the type of product being removed. You can look to hiring a general asbestos contractor, or, in some cases, look to a professional trained to handle specific products containing asbestos.
Insulation is perhaps the single most important element in constructing an energy-efficient envelope, and the majority of pre-existing homes in America are currently under-insulated. Before adding insulation to your home, however, it’s important to understand what insulation is, where it should be installed and to do some research about the variety of insulation choices that now exist.
Insulation is rated by its “R-value”, which indicates how well the material resists heat transference. The higher the R-value, the more effective it is. Proper installation is vital for its effectiveness because issues such as gaps and shrinkage or exposure to moisture will reduce the R-value.
Historically there have been few alternatives to the foam and fiberglass types of insulation. Although alternatives now exist, improved versions of the foam and fiberglass types are still the most common forms of insulation used today. Advances in fiberglass (the pink stuff we recognize from attics) include the elimination of formaldehyde as a binder and use of post-consumer recycled glass in its construction. Fiberglass, however, is made with glass fibers that can break off and be inhaled and it is important to have this kind of insulation professionally installed. Foam insulation starts as a petrolum-based liquid that’s sprayed or poured into a wall cavity and then expands to fill every nook and cranny. Advances in foam insulation include the replacement of a portion of the petrolum with soy, corn fructose and other botanical sources. Other eco-friendly alternatives to fiberglass and traditional foam include wool, cotton, cork and recycled plastic. However, there may be a trade-off in terms of R-value with these products, so it’s important to do your homework and weigh the variables before choosing an insulation product.
The amount of insulation needed depends on your climate, the section of the house being insulated and the type of HVAC (Heating, Ventilating & Air Conditioning) system that you have. An energy-efficient, tight envelope requires proper insulation from the foundation up and includes:
- Foundations: basement, crawl space or slab
- Exterior walls
- Ducts in unconditioned spaces
- Attic spaces
Local building codes usually specify minimum insulation requirements, but achieving an energy-efficient home generally requires exceeding the minimum code. The US Department of Energy provides an online Zip-Code Insulation Program that provides information on recommended insulation amounts based on the climate in which you live.
With winter fully upon us and as the thermometer dips, one’s thoughts can’t help but turn to the ever increasing energy bill. With today’s technology there are a plethora of new systems, appliances, gadgets and resources that can help lower that bill; but the single most effective thing you can do to conserve energy in your home is to examine and improve your home’s building envelope. “What is a building envelope?” you ask? The building envelope is comprised of the below-grade systems (foundation, basement and/or crawlspace), the exterior walls, the fenestration system (windows and doors) and the roof. It is the building envelope that divides conditioned space—i.e., intentionally heated and cooled space—from unconditioned space. The building envelope can be significantly improved through projects such as replacing doors and windows with more energy-efficient models or adding to/upgrading the current insulation; which we will take a look at in Part #2 of this series. However, the first place to start in improving the building envelope is simply to examine it and fill in any leaks. Common problem areas to check for gaps or holes in the building envelope include:
- Plumbing penetrations through insulated floors and ceilings
- Chimney penetrations through insulated ceilings and exterior walls
- Wiring penetrations through insulated floors, ceilings and walls
- Door and window frames
- Mail chutes
- Electrical and gas service entrances
- Cable TV and phone lines
- Outdoor water faucets
- Dryer vent outlets
- Brick, siding, stucco and the foundation
- Vents and fans
In order to seal these problem areas, select a sealant with the size of the crack or hole in mind:
- Cracks less than ¼”: Use caulking
- Cracks more than ¼”: Use expanding foam sealant or crack filler flexible foam material
- Larger openings: Use rigid foam insulation, fiberglass insulation, roof flashing or a silicone sealant
Hiring a pro to do an energy audit can also be an excellent idea, especially if you’re not the type to go around your house crawling on your hands and knees looking for leaks. For more information on energy audits, and how you can potentially get reduced rates on an audit thorough King County programs, see my April 2012 article, “The Energy Audit: Do You Know How Energy Efficient Your Home Is?” The more thorough audit that includes performance tests such as the Blower Door Test is the one that can help you to identify leak issues in your home.
We all know that with historically low inventory the housing market out there is tight. Houses in popular areas that are in good condition are competitive and moving quickly. But what about the homes that aren’t in great condition and will require significant repairs and/or upgrades? Often these types of homes will sit on the market longer as potential buyers are deterred by the idea of sinking a lot of cash into them. Well, one way to jump into the market and potentially snag a home with “good bones” is to consider rehabbing a home that is in less than perfect condition through the utilization of a loan that allows you to roll your rehab expenses into the mortgage. There are several options, which range from smaller loan amounts for system and energy-efficient upgrades to larger amounts for major upgrades and structural repairs. Sellers who are short on cash for the repairs needed in order to get a house ready for the market may also consider refinancing with one of these rehab loans. Following is a brief overview of a few loan products that can be used for financing both home purchases and upgrades. If you would like more information, contact me and I can put you in touch with some lenders who specialize in rehab loans.
FHA 203K Standard and Streamline Loans:
The Federal Housing Administration offers two types of loans allowing buyers to finance both the home purchase and upgrades all in one package. Because they are FHA loans, both types will undoubtedly be easier to qualify for than a conventional rehab loan. The FHA 203K Standard loan can be used to finance substantial repairs and renovations greater than $35K, however, this kind of loan requires a consultant to oversee the project. The Streamline (or soon to be called Limited) 203K loan is for projects under $35K and does not require a consultant to oversee the project.
Homestyle (Fannie Mae):
The Homestyle rehab loan is a conventional loan and will undoubtedly have stricter lending guidelines. This type of loan, however, offers more flexibility in terms of what can be financed. You can, for example, finance investment properties, second homes and even luxury items such as pools and tennis courts.
In recent years recycling has become an integral part of our culture. For many household items it couldn’t be easier—just throw it in a big can marked “recycling” and off it goes every other week. We don’t even have to spend time dividing it up anymore as someone else does it for us. There are items, however, that can prove to be tricky. We’re both not sure if it’s recyclable, and if it is, where to take it to be recycled.
This can be especially true when it’s time to move. All of a sudden we’re faced with a multitude of items that we need to get rid of and we generally don’t have a lot of extra time to be doing research on whether it’s recyclable or how best to deal with it. In this scenario, things often end up in the landfill when they really don’t need to be there. Enter Earth911.com: a website I stumbled across a while back and I think it’s brilliant. Not only does it have a general section called the “Recycle Guide” indicating what items are recyclable—but it also has a “Recycle Search” tab that directs you to all the resources in your immediate area that will recycle the item you are in need of recycling. You just put in your zip code and the type of item and viola!—a whole host of resources pop up.
Below are some items that I know people often struggle with, especially under the pressure of a big move, plus some suggested resources from Earth911. You should check out the site yourself—www.Earth911.com—and see just how easy it can be to get rid of those tricky items that you just don’t know what to do with!
CFLs (Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs):
CFLs might be great for saving on electricity bills, but they are known to contain small amounts of mercury and should not be disposed of in the trash. Earth911 lists a number of home improvement centers and drug stores that offer free recycling programs including Bartell Drugs, True Value, Home Depot and Lowe’s.
Carpeting is regularly towed to the dump, but did you know that carpet can actually be recycled and made into fiber or backing for new carpet or turned into plastic resin to be used in other products? Earth911 lists a number of construction recycling and environmental programs that will pick-up and recycle the used carpet for you.
In the US, 15-20 million mattresses are disposed of each year and yet approximately 90% of an average mattress can be recovered for recycling. St. Vincent de Paul is one of the only local charities listed on Earth911 as currently as accepting mattresses for recycling or reuse. Although the site lists county collection sites for recycling, after talking with them on the phone it appears that it is important to contact the specific county entities for recycling information. In King County, for example, there is a program called the Take it Back Network, which has designated sites that will actually recycle mattresses. Be sure to check with your county for specific programs near you.
Between 60% and 80% of the lead and plastic in a car battery can be recycled. Earth911 lists a number of auto parts stores that collect and recycle used car batteries. Some auto parts retailers also take a deposit on a new battery when it’s purchased, so you may even be entitled for a pay-out when you return it to that retailer for recycling!
There is a big difference between latex and oil-based paints. Oil-based paint is considered a household hazardous waste and must be disposed of accordingly at a county collection site. And although the consensus is that latex paint is recyclable, few recycling options are currently listed in the Seattle area. The best way to recycle latex paint is actually just to use up what’s left on smaller projects. But if you must get rid of it, latex paint can be mixed with kitty litter or paper scraps for quick drying. Once it’s dried it can be disposed of in the trash.
Using the sun to light indoor spaces—otherwise known as daylighting—seems like a no-brainer. Utilizing Mother Nature’s sun rays contributes to our over-all health and also decreases our dependence on electric lights, which consume energy and money. And yet is highly unlikely that the builder who constructed your home gave much, if any, thought to the sun patterns of the lot location or to the design features that would best utilize this free and vital resource. Rather than passively relying on electric lighting to make up for poor design however, consider a number of things you can do to recapture this natural resource.
First, take some time to observe and note how sun migration patterns affect the available light in your home throughout the day. For example, which rooms face east and get morning sun? And which face west and get evening sun? Remember that these patterns will shift significantly with the seasons—so getting a thorough understanding could take some time.
Once you have done your research, start to consider the smaller changes you could make to let more light into those areas in which you would like it and evaluate potential causes for the deficiency of sunlight. Are outside plants blocking light? If so, cut back foliage, hold curtains back from windows during the day and keep window glass clean to let in as much sunlight as possible. More easy fixes include:
–Painting interior window frames, walls and ceilings a light color to reflect incoming light. Avoid dark floor coverings and furnishings.
–Consider well-placed mirrors to bounce sunlight deeper into a room.
–Be sure to have light colored surfaces outside windows as well such as on the underside of eaves or on porches.
If these smaller fixes don’t do the trick, start evaluating your windows. Today’s window technology allows you to bring sunlight into your home while minimizing undesirable levels of heat, glare and ultraviolet rays. And because sunlight is so bright, you generally don’t need large expanses of glass to light a room—just proper placement. Here are some window facts to consider:
–The best daylighting is usually diffuse light shining on light-covered surfaces. As north-facing windows provide the most diffuse light and create the least glare, consider adding windows on the north side of your home.
–Placing windows on at least two walls of a room provides balanced light distribution and reduces glare.
–Higher windows throw light deeper into a space than lower windows, thereby providing more light throughout a room. It follows that the most effective way to enlarge a window is to increase its height.
In addition to traditional windows, consider the possibility of skylights or even bringing daylight into darker rooms from lighter adjacent rooms by inserting windows or openings in interior walls. You may just find that a few well-placed sunny entry points have the potential to dramatically change the entire look and feel of your home.
It’s intriguing to walk into homes of different eras and imagine the lifestyles of the individuals living there at the time. Home building trends definitely change to meet the lifestyle philosophies of the times. During the 80’s and 90’s we saw the McMansion, “bigger is better” era where size definitely took precedence over quality. Gradually, it appears that we are starting to see a shift away from this obsession with size. The National Association of Home Builders recently published a study called “New Homes in 2015 will be Smaller, Greener and More Casual.” It suggests that it was the recent recession that was finally responsible for changing America’s perception on what types of homes are now desirable. Smaller homes with more open floor plans are more energy efficient and more user-friendly. Gone are the days of formal living rooms and kitchens separated from the rest of the house. Today’s homes are now more likely to feature a “great room” which combine both the kitchen and living room spaces and forgo a formal living room. This study actually reminded me of Sarah Susanka’s book, “The Not So Big House,” which originally came out in 1998 and encouraged us to question society’s obsession with larger homes and realize the benefits of smaller, greener homes. Susanka says “…comfort has nothing to do with how big the space is. It is attained by tailoring and personalizing homes to fit the way we really live and the scale and proportion of the human form.” Perhaps even more applicable for those of us living in the core of Seattle, where most homes bought and sold are not newly built structures, but rather pre-existing homes, is her follow-up book, “Not So Big Remodeling.” This book addresses the fact that the majority of us are not going to be building a home from scratch, but that we want the benefits of tailoring our homes to fit the lifestyles we are now leading. She revisits the concepts of quality over quantity and opening up and greening our homes so that we might restructure our existing homes to reflect the way we live in 2015.
National Association of Home Builders
The Not So Big House
Not So Big Remodeling