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Robin Jade Conde

PODCAST: Natural gas safety, floor drains, and moisture testing vinyl siding

Today we will deconstruct the five recent blogs by Reuben as he shares his inspiration for writing his blogs. 

Reuben talks about gas safety, sediment traps, lighting a gas fireplace, and other gas-burning appliances. Bill asks about serious gas-related incidents that happened to them.

They also talk about moisture testing vinyl siding. Reuben shares that newer stucco homes must be tested. He talks about the best time to test them, how they are tested, and the technology used.

Reuben also discusses some of the biggest mysteries about floor drains, especially about floor drains backing up.

If you have any suggestions for show topics, please email them to podcast@structuretech.com.


TRANSCRIPTION

The following is a transcription from an audio recording. Although the transcription is largely accurate, in some cases it may be slightly incomplete or contain minor inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.

 

Bill Oelrich: Welcome everyone. You’re listening to Structure Talk, A Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murry, Reuben Saltzman, your three-legged stool coming to you from the Northland, talking all things houses, home inspections, and anything else that’s rattling around in our brains. Well, welcome to today’s episode. Thanks for joining. Tessa, Reuben, how y’all doing? 

 

Tessa Murry: Good. How are you? 

 

Reuben Saltzman: Fantastic.

 

BO: Excellent.

 

RS: What’s going on, Bill? 

 

BO: Well, we’re in the depths of Fall and we’ve hit a creative roadblock. Is that fair to say? 

 

RS: No.

 

BO: So we’ve decided on today’s episode, we’re gonna deconstruct some of your blogs, Reuben, just to understand why it is and how it is you come up with these ideas. Just take like five of the latest blogs here and kind of pick your brain.

 

RS: Sure. That sounds good. Let’s do it.

 

BO: [laughter] So I’ve never really liked lighting fireplaces, and I see that you’ve got that blog, what was it, two, three weeks ago? 

 

RS: Yeah. And well, by the time this airs, I suppose it’ll be, six weeks ago, six or seven weeks ago.

 

BO: Yeah. I always forget about the time delay when it comes to the podcasting. One thing I can say is my wife hates whenever I go anywhere near gas valves, she thinks that I’m gonna blow up the house or do something like that, especially…

 

TM: Is that for a good reason? [chuckle] Have you done something? 

 

BO: Well, no…

 

RS: Do you have a track history? 

 

BO: No. No. But I do believe it’s from a much earlier phase in her life when gas safety was not so…

 

TM: Safe. [chuckle]

 

BO: Not so safe. Yeah, she grew up in New Jersey and not such a nice neighborhood, I think, you would say. And there was some of those old gas ranges where you had to light them with a match, and did the gas flow turn off if you left the… What’s the knob? It’s the knob, right? Reuben, come on, give me some technical help here.

 

RS: It’s the knob, yeah.

 

BO: Right. So I think everybody of my vintage probably knows somebody who had a close call with gas, and I think it’s imprinted her. So whenever we go on vacation, sometimes into the North Woods, you end up with cold nights and they’ve got like old equipment and I’ll be like, “Yeah, I’ll light that.” And she’s like, “No, go get the resort owner and they can light it because I don’t want you messing around with it.”

 

[laughter]

 

BO: So what led you to writing this blog, Reuben? I’m being very long-winded here, I’m sorry, but I’m just curious, how did you end up on this topic? 

 

RS: I had a couple of people ask me that same question in a one week period. “Hey, how do I light the pilot on my gas fireplace? Do I just push this in and do this, that, or the other?” And that’s really the inspiration for just about every blog post I’ve ever written is a question that somebody has asked, whether it’s one of our clients asking, “Hey, do you guys inspect roofs in the winter? Or do I need to be worried about vinyl? Or how does a floor drain work?” all these different questions people ask us, it’s like instead of giving them a long-winded answer, I’ll give them a brief answer. I’ll say, “You know what? I’m gonna write about it and I’ll give you the full story. And when this blog post comes out, it’s dedicated to you.”

 

[laughter]

 

RS: So that’s where a lot of these blog posts come from. And it’s just people asking questions and I think, “Hey, why not give the long-winded answer on this and explain all the steps and the what and the why behind all of it”, that’s what inspired it.

 

BO: Do you consider yourself to be like really well versed in gas? 

 

RS: I’d say moderately, moderately versed in gas.

 

BO: Moderately? Okay. Do you know anything about the history of some of the safety features, like the push button, ignitions and that sort of stuff or? 

 

RS: You know what? Tessa’s losing it over here.

 

[laughter]

 

TM: The sophomore in humor. It’s, yeah, I can’t hold it. No, I heard your question and I couldn’t hold it together. I’m sorry.

 

[laughter]

 

RS: Alright. I read a really interesting book by Simon Sinek, I can’t remember which one it was. And he talked a lot about the history of suicides. He was talking about how when you make it easier for people to commit suicide, it’s crazy that the number of suicides goes up. Like there was this famous bridge, I think it was… What’s that bridge in Seattle that people used to jump off of? 

 

TM: I don’t know, but this conversation just took like a 180, I feel like.

 

BO: Yeah. We are off in the cornfield all of a sudden.

 

RS: Well, all right. I’ll pull back.

 

BO: Finish up, finish up. Yeah.

 

RS: I’ll pull back. But he was talking about how dirty gas used to be and it used to be very easy for people to commit suicide. They would simply turn the gas on in their oven, they’d stick their head in the oven and the gas wouldn’t ignite, but they’d be breathing in tons and tons of carbon monoxide and it was a really easy way to commit suicide. I mean, it was quiet, it was painless. You just go to sleep. And all of a sudden when they changed the gas composition and they made much cleaner gas instead of this dirty gas, it would be a more modern natural gas. People couldn’t commit suicide that way, and all of a sudden suicide rates plummeted. So just barring the ease of taking yourself out made a huge difference. All right. I don’t know…

 

TM: Can I ask a random technical question? Is that why sediment traps… I mean, do we need sediment traps these days anymore on gas? 

 

RS: Bill wants to know what a sediment trap is first, right? 

 

[laughter]

 

BO: It’d be helpful.

 

TM: If gas is much cleaner these days, the sediment trap was supposed to catch all of the sediments moving in the gas to the appliance. So it would extend the life of the appliance, right? 

 

RS: Keep the gas regulator or the gas valve from getting all clogged up and funkyfied with all the sediment in the gas. And a sediment trap is just this extra little leg where it’s supposed to be at least a three inch section of pipe. If you’re in Minnesota and you’re following the Minnesota Fuel gas code, they say it’s gonna be at least three inches long and the gas needs to change direction to get to the appliance from that sediment trap. So it’s an extra little stick of pipe for sediment to collect into. And, yeah, Tess, I’ve taken apart a lot of gas piping in my day. And I’m always curious about what’s inside those sediment traps. So I’ll take out the gas piping, I’ll look in there and every time there’s nothing, it’s empty. So I don’t think it’s worthwhile. But you talk to some old school gas fitters, and they’ll say they’ve taken them apart and there are shavings in the gas line, and it’ll be almost completely full. I almost feel like calling BS, but I’m sure they’re not making it up. I just think…

 

BO: So what’s the concern about all of that? Is it like obstructing the flow and then creating a flame that doesn’t burn completely? 

 

RS: I think it’s making it so your appliance no longer functions. It’s gonna restrict the flow of gas and your appliance won’t work anymore, or it’s gonna clog up your regulator.

 

TM: When did that switch happen with gas becoming cleaner? Do you remember? From that blow…

 

RS: I really don’t know.

 

TM: I wonder if it was like 1950s or 1970s, or… Yeah, ’cause…

 

RS: I wanna say early 1900s, but I…

 

TM: Oh, really? 

 

RS: Don’t remember.

 

TM: Okay, yeah.

 

RS: Sorry.

 

TM: Huh, wow.

 

BO: Professor Reuben you have a new paper to go research.

 

RS: I might have to. I might have to.

 

TM: [laughter] The things you learn, it was worth it.

 

BO: Okay. So you go through the… You go through and you describe how to light this fireplace, right? 

 

RS: Yeah, and it’s funny. I like to explain everything. It’s like being a teacher is kind of my default go-to position and so I wrote a blog post, I had all the steps on there, I wrote about why behind all of this stuff like, “Hey, you gotta find out where your gas valve is and turn it on, or where is your gas valve gonna be located? Well, it’s supposed to be within six feet of the appliance, but there is an asterisk in the code saying if it’s a gas fireplace, it doesn’t need to be within six feet of the appliance, you can actually have it in a different part of your house. And I went in into all of this detail in my blog posts, so then when I was recording my video, I went into just as much detail and explained the what and the why and the how behind all of this, and by the time I’m done, I’ve got an 11 minute video, saying how to light your pilot, and it takes way less than 11 minutes to light your pilot.

 

RS: And I thought, when I’m looking for a video and how to do something, when I find a 30-minute video, it’s like when you go online and you wanna get a recipe and the recipe starts out with the life history of how their grandmother used to make this meal and…

 

TM: Jump into the recipe button at the top. [laughter]

 

RS: Yes, yeah. And I’m very much the jump to recipe and here I am…

 

TM: Me too.

 

RS: Just waxing on how and why you light your gas fireplace this way, and I would never click on my own video.

 

[laughter]

 

RS: I’m thinking, “What am I doing?” So I made a second video and I tried really hard to keep it within 60 seconds, how to light your gas fireplace. So, that was a two-parter.

 

TM: Thanks for doing that too, It’s interesting, you’ve been writing blogs for over 10 years now, right? And it’s…

 

RS: Yeah.

 

TM: I’m surprised this topic hasn’t come up yet because it seems like every inspection that I’ve done that has a house with a gas fireplace, and if it’s not lit, the client or the real estate agent is always asking, “How do you light this thing?”

 

RS: Yeah, yeah.

 

TM: It’s a very common question. We get asked all the time.

 

RS: And it’s pretty much the same process. If you’re gonna light the pilot on a gas fireplace, if you have one of those patio heaters, it’s about the same thing if you have a garage heater, I mean, just about any gas appliance with a standing pilot, it’s the same process.

 

TM: It’s similar to water heaters too, some water heaters, I think.

 

RS: Most.

 

TM: Yeah.

 

RS: I’d say most. Yeah.

 

BO: Yeah. Except for the… Your new-fangled power vent water heaters, those might be different, but…

 

TM: Yeah. [laughter]

 

RS: All the natural gas water heaters, yeah.

 

TM: Yep.

 

BO: Well, power vent it is natural gas. So just to clarify…

 

RS: Oh, sorry.

 

BO: You’re talking about it.

 

RS: Thank you, Bill. I meant to say atmospherically vented. Thank you.

 

BO: Gotcha.

 

TM: Yes.

 

BO: So there’s a standing pilot on an atmospherically vented? 

 

RS: Yes.

 

TM: Yes.

 

RS: Yes.

 

BO: So the question I always have when I see a gas-burning appliance that isn’t operating, it’s why. I wanna know, why did somebody turn the gas off to this or why is it no longer functioning the way it’s supposed to, because I always wondered, you go into some stranger’s house and you find this gas line turned off, well, does that thing not work? And you just don’t know that it doesn’t work, or… I’m a little cautious on the why before I dive into trying to see how well it burns.

 

RS: And that’s probably a good gut instinct Bill, I’m not nearly as cautious for me, it’s like, “Oh, it’s awesome and therefore I must turn it on”, lets go.

 

[laughter]

 

RS: And I hope my insurance company isn’t listening. We have since changed our policy on lighting pilots at Structure Tech. I don’t know what our current policy is, but it’s much more conservative than it used to be.

 

TM: Yeah. If it’s off, we don’t turn it on.

 

RS: Okay.

 

TM: Yeah.

 

RS: Alright, got it.

 

BO: Okay. Do you remember the latest most serious incident that happened that came to gas? 

 

RS: I think it was the one where we had simply flipped the switch on a gas fireplace, we didn’t light the pilot, and I was really glad we didn’t light the pilot. All we did was we flipped the switch, we turned the gas fireplace on it had been off all summer long, there was a bird’s nest in the vent and it got hot enough to start the bird’s nest on fire. Our inspector didn’t know exactly what happened. Our inspector was on the roof at this point, and just saw a flames coming up the side of the house. [chuckle] And so he like did a fireman slide down his ladder, got the garden hose and went nuts and put the fire out, and he called me in a panic, like, “What do I do?” I said, “Call the fire department. I mean, if there’s flames coming up the side of the house, better safe than sorry”. And they came out and make sure there was no problem, but I was so relieved that we hadn’t lit a pilot.

 

BO: Well, that’s not the one that I was thinking of.

 

RS: Oh.

 

BO: There’s a more recent example where somebody else associated with the people in the house, I don’t recall if it was a client agent or grandfather, whoever, somebody turned on a gas valve that was not capped and it was discovered through the same inspector who had the fire incident was also the inspector on this particular job, and it became like, “Oh my God, this house was filling up with natural gas for the last seven minutes”, or something like that.

 

TM: I think it was a gas line that went to the garage, if I remember, and yeah, so it was dumping gas into the garage, luckily, someone smelled it. I think that’s what helped shape our current policy for not turning on gas valves that are turned off at the time of the inspection.

 

RS: Yep. And if our insurance company is listening, “You hear me? We don’t do it. Don’t worry”.

 

[laughter]

 

RS: That is our policy. Yeah. It wasn’t always. I had another fun one, I won’t say who it was, but this inspector in training and I were lighting a gas water heater, and so we got the little igniter or hand igniter, the grill igniter type of thing. I’d always carry that in my tool bag so I could light pilots. And we got the inspector with their face down in there, they’re holding down the button to force gas to flow to the appliance, and somehow there was a malfunction, when you’re holding that down, it wasn’t just letting gas come to the pilot, it was letting gas come to the burner too. I don’t know how that even happens, it means there’s something really wrong with the appliance, but the whole chamber was filling up and then our inspector went to ignite it…

 

TM: Oh, no.

 

RS: And it was a big ball of flame that just went, boom, right, in their face, seams their eyebrows, I yelled. And then started laughing. I probably shouldn’t have laughed, but he laughed too. That was a scary incident.

 

TM: This is confirming all of Bill’s wife’s worst nightmares. [laughter]

 

BO: Yes, it is. It is as a matter of fact. That’s one of those, “Well, it must have been off for a reason”, type of things.

 

RS: Yeah, could have been, could have been. So we marked it as nonfunctional.

 

[laughter]

 

TM: Oh, that’s not the first person I’ve heard that has happened to. When I was in training back in my weatherization days, I had several people tell me, “Don’t stick your face right by that, the bottom of the water heater when you’re trying to light the pilot, just in case there’s something”.

 

RS: Solid advice.

 

TM: Yeah. [laughter]

 

RS: And even when you’re inspecting to furnace, you’re waiting for the furnace to fire up, don’t have your face right in there.

 

TM: Yeah, yeah.

 

RS: That’s good advice.

 

[laughter]

 

BO: Just out of curiosity sake, so that valve you’re talking about on the water heater, it’s nonfunctional, it’s not really that big of a deal. You just repair it or replace it. Or replace the water heater, and even if you replace that water heater, that atmospherically vented water heater, what’s current price on a 40 gallon water heater if you had to ballpark a guess? 

 

RS: 500 bucks, something like that, for the water heater itself, and then you got the labor. I’ve got a blog post showing how to replace an atmospherically vented gas water heater. It’s not full how to where I go through the ins and outs of every little step like I really want to, but it’s a sped up video where I talk about the different steps, and I show the entire process of me replacing the water heater at my dad’s house. And there’s really not that much to it? It’s disconnect the gas, disconnect the water, disconnect the vent, move it out of the way, put the other one back in its place and reconnect everything. It’s not that complicated.

 

TM: For you. [laughter]

 

RS: Yeah, yeah, probably so.

 

BO: Okay, bottom line on your gas valve explanation or lighting your fireplace, is it really as simple as lighting your grill? Is it on par with lighting your grill? 

 

RS: It’s a little bit more to it than that, because a grill doesn’t have a pilot light. With a grill, all you do is you turn the gas on and you stick a flame in there and it lights. With the pilot, pilot lights have a flame proving device. We usually call it like a thermal couple. And it’s where when this device gets hot enough, it allows gas to flow without you forcing it. And once the flame goes out, it’s gonna get cold pretty quickly, and then it’s gonna shut off the flow of gas, so you’re not just filling the small chamber with natural gas. It’s a safety device. So when you light those pilots, you’re basically, you’re overriding the safety device, you’re forcing gas to flow and you gotta keep forcing that gas to flow until it gets hot. Once it gets hot, you can let go, it’ll stay lit by itself, and then you can turn it to the on position, that’s…

 

BO: And that’s why you have to depress that button for 30 seconds or something, that’s allowing the thermal couple to heat up? 

 

RS: That’s exactly it, Bill.

 

BO: Wow, I learned something today.

 

RS: I talked through all of that in the video, in the 11-minute video. In the one-minute video, I don’t explain any of the why behind it, we just do it, and that’s it.

 

TM: There are older gas log fireplaces that don’t have thermocouples, right? 

 

RS: Yes, and that gets into definitions, when I say gas fireplace, we’re thinking about something that does have a thermocouple and it’s…

 

TM: Sealed.

 

RS: You just flip a switch on the wall. Typically going to be sealed, but then if you take a wood-burning fireplace, a traditional wood-burning fireplace, you are allowed to just stick a gas log in there, and that would be a log insert. Not a gas fireplace insert, but a log. It’s just a gas log, and those are super simple devices. Those typically aren’t gonna have a standing pilot, that’s more like your gas grill sitting on the outside where you just… You turn the gas, gas is flowing to that thing and you better light it right away. And then if gas… If the flame does go out, you’re gonna have gas coming in.

 

TM: Yeah, these gas log fire places, you’ve written blogs on them too, which if anyone wants to read up on in more detail, what they are, and pros and cons of them, you can definitely do that. But they have inherent safety issues and inefficiencies too. We’re not huge fans of them here at Structure Tech for those reasons.

 

BO: Can I ask an oddball question, Reuben? 

 

RS: Please.

 

BO: The old fireplaces that used to have a gas igniter in them, they are wood-burning fireplaces that had a gas pipe that went into the fire…

 

RS: A log lighter.

 

BO: Yeah. The same safety behind that is the thermal couple. I mean, you have a pipe… What’s preventing that from blowing up? 

 

RS: Nothing, nothing. Typically, when you had a log lighter, it would have a special key. It’s gonna be this key that they hide on top of the mantel or somewhere the kids can’t reach, and you’re gonna have this little metallic recessed square that the key fits over and it’s gonna be somewhere around the hearth or maybe the mantel. You stick this key in and you turn it, and now that’s allowing full gas to that log lighter and you better light it right away.

 

TM: Have you ever actually found a key at a house that has a gas log fireplace like that? ‘Cause I don’t think I’ve ever seen one.

 

RS: Yeah, I’ve found the keys just sitting right on where the valve is. That’s where I’ve always found them.

 

TM: Yeah. Did you ever test that? I mean, way back before…

 

RS: Never.

 

TM: We had our current policies and stuff, did you ever turn them on? 

 

RS: Never. Not once. Nope, don’t need to.

 

BO: It just seems like a really bad idea.

 

RS: That seems like a bad idea. I’ve got my limits, Tess, believe it or not.

 

[laughter]

 

BO: We’ve finally found one Tessa, I think we’ve finally found one. Okay.

 

TM: Another thing that’s just a side note too with those is you need to make sure you’ve got a little damper clip keeping the damper open 24/7 with those.

 

BO: You’re talking now, your log, gas burning log, right? 

 

TM: Yeah, your gas log. So that your damper is open 24/7 with those, so that… ‘Cause you don’t want those exhaust gas carbon monoxide coming back into the house.

 

RS: Exactly. Yep.

 

BO: Alright, let’s change topics here. Why are you blogging about water or moisture testing and vinyl siding? 

 

RS: That’s a good one. Well, that’s one I had written about a long time ago, there’s this… Well, everybody should know. I assume everybody knows that if you’re buying a newer stucco home, you really wanna have that tested for moisture. Those houses, if they leak, that damage can be so expensive and so many of them leak water, there are so many problems with newer stucco homes. And when I say newer, I’m talking maybe somewhere around 1990 up through today, but the thing is, it doesn’t just apply to Stucco, this applies to pretty much any type of siding, any type of siding can leak. But stucco is just much worse and it’s much more expensive. But I’ve found a ton of problems on vinyl sided houses, those can leak water too, and you can have some pretty nasty damage on those.

 

RS: And we’ve got a great testing method for those where the seller doesn’t even need to sign a permission slip saying, “It’s okay to drill holes in the house”, ’cause we don’t need to drill holes, it’s stuff that any home inspector can do, if they’ve got the right training and they know how to use our tools properly, they can check for water intrusion on vinyl sided houses. So it’s kind of a how to that other home inspectors can use to do this if they want, and if not, it’s a sales tool for someone who does wanna do it. We do a lot of moisture testing on vinyl-sided houses, and it’s pretty simple to do.

 

TM: So can I clarify this moisture testing on vinyl siding houses, that’s not a separate add-on ancillary service like it would be for stucco, it’s integrated with what the home inspector is doing, typically? 

 

RS: It depends. If I’m doing a home inspection with vinyl siding, I’m gonna look for the areas that are gonna fail first, and I’m gonna check those and if they all look good, I’m done. I’m not gonna spend two hours going around a house and checking for moisture at every single penetration, but if I do a few penetrations and I find water coming in, I’m probably gonna recommend moisture testing on the entire home. So we might make a recommendation for a full inspection.

 

TM: And here’s another question, this type of… We haven’t gone into detail on the podcast about what this testing looks like, but it’s in your blog, it’s using basically a moisture meter to just scan, run it over the top of the vinyl, and then it can scan kind of behind the vinyl and see if there’s moisture in the wood wall, sheathing, correct? 

 

RS: Exactly, exactly.

 

TM: Yeah, so we’re not actually removing the siding at that point, we’re just scanning through the wall to see if there’s a higher moisture content? 

 

RS: We’re scanning through the wall, but then if we do find what our moisture meter is telling us is a higher moisture content, then we’ll peel some of the vinyl siding back and it just snaps together, there’s no special tools you need for that, you snap it apart and then you can actually see the sheathing, you can take a moisture meter, you can probe it into the sheath, then you can take a moisture content reading. And you can document all of this stuff.

 

TM: Is that reliable to do that scanning, Reuben if it’s been really dry for a few months? No rain…

 

RS: No.

 

TM: No sleep? 

 

RS: No. Great question Tess. No, it needs to have rained probably within the last week, because vinyl siding dries out quite quickly.

 

TM: Yeah. So there are restrictions, there are definitely restrictions with that.

 

RS: Yeah, absolutely. One thing you can do though, is you go around suspect areas, let’s say it hasn’t rained in a month, you can still go around those suspect areas and just kinda put your palm up to the vinyl siding or your fist against it and give it a good push, and there are many homes where I’ve done that and I just feel squishy-ness, there is no solid sheathing behind the vinyl, and you know you got a problem. So it doesn’t need to have rained to do that test.

 

BO: Why do the moisture meters work? What’s the technology behind a moisture meter that it gives you confidence the reading you’re getting is real? 

 

RS: Well, there’s two ways a moisture meter works. One is it sends out radio waves into the material and the denser the material, the more it sends back. That’s the scanning moisture meter, like we’re talking about to go through vinyl. And the other type is a pin probe, where you’ve got two pins, you actually stick it into the material, and then it sends an electrical charge between the two, and the more moisture you have, the more…

 

TM: Conductive.

 

RS: Electricity is gonna flow, yeah, the more conductive it is, and it’ll give a higher reading. And if you accidentally put your pins on something like metal, it’ll just give you 100%. It’ll be a false positive, it’s not wet, you just hit a conductive material. The assumption is that you’re gonna be using it on wood or something similar to wood, like fiber board.

 

TM: Yeah, so you can’t scan it across stucco because of the metal lath that’s in the stucco.

 

RS: Yeah, getting back to scanning…

 

TM: Not quite the drill. Yeah.

 

RS: You’re scanning and if there’s any type of metal behind what you’re scanning, even dry wall, if you hit corner beam, it’s just gonna tell you 100%, if you’re scanning around windows and you got vinyl siding and then you’ve got corner flashing at the bottom corners of vinyl siding, that’s gonna be metal, it’ll tell you 100%, and that’s a false positive. And the way you know that is through experience. And if you’re taking a scanning moisture meter and you’re scanning across vinyl and it’s telling you very low moisture low, low, low and all of a sudden, it just goes right to 100. That’s not how water works. If you’ve got a leak, it’s gonna gradually increase as you get closer and closer to the source. But when it’s just like you hit a wall and it goes to 100, you surely have a false positive, you’re not hitting moisture, you’re hitting metal.

 

TM: Yeah.

 

BO: Cool, okay. Floor drains, why in the world are you blogging about floor drains? 

 

RS: Oh man, that was one of my first blog posts. First things I ever blogged about back in 2009, the first year I started blogging, and it got probably more comments than just about any blog post I ever wrote. That was one of the blogs that inspired me to disable comments on post that were over 90 days old or something, ’cause I remember for years, I was answering all of these questions, people would ask about their floor drain and it funnels people because when you have a problem with your main building drain, the floor drain backs up and it has nothing to do with the floor drain, but people don’t understand how houses work, and so I would get so many questions about floor drains ’cause people just don’t understand them. All they know is there’s a grate, and then there’s a bowl and water comes out of it when it’s not behaving.

 

[chuckle]

 

RS: I thought it’d be helpful to just explain what else is going on with that floor drain. In the blog post, I’ve got a video, I’m holding up a floor drain to the camera, like this is what you’re not seeing, here’s why you have a clean out hole, here’s why when you remove the plug, you’re actually getting sewer gas coming into your house, and why the plug needs to be there, it’s… I just thought it’d be really helpful to understand what all of this is about. And before I was a home inspector, I didn’t understand any of this myself, and I lived in a home where our floor drain used to back up all the time. Maybe I just wrote it for myself, I don’t know.

 

BO: Wait a minute. Who was responsible for the clogging of your main sewer line? 

 

RS: Who was responsible, like why did it clog? 

 

BO: Yeah, like why did it back up all the time? 

 

RS: When my dad first had the house built, he built the house, the drain line did not have the proper pitch. It didn’t go down as far as it was supposed to. I can’t remember exactly what the story was, but it wasn’t pitched properly, and it was prone to clogging, and it would clog all the time. It wasn’t like somebody was flushing something bad down there, it just wasn’t installed right. And the cleanout was located in my bedroom.

 

TM: Oh no. [chuckle]

 

RS: So every time the drain would clog, every time we’d have water coming up out of the floor in the laundry room, we’d have to scramble and move my bed and pull back all the carpet and then get the snake out. My dad owned a big industrial snake, because this happens so often.

 

TM: [laughter] Oh no! 

 

RS: And then we’d have to snake it. And it was gross, and that was in my bedroom, yeah. Exhausting.

 

BO: How many years did this go on before you took some corrective action? 

 

RS: Well, my dad at one point, paid to have a company come out and dig up the yard and redo the whole drain going out to the street, and it’s been fine ever since.

 

BO: I’m trying to imagine how… Was it… It just wasn’t pitched enough, and then it got to one point where it just dumped straight down, so they had room to re-pitch it? Tell me how they…

 

RS: No, we’d have to get my dad on the podcast to explain it.

 

BO: Okay.

 

RS: I was too young to fully appreciate the situation. All I knew was that it wasn’t installed properly.

 

TM: One of the stories I remember you taught me, Reuben, about floor drains that was shocking to me was that if there’s a missing cleanout plug, that could be a sign of a much larger problem that could be really expensive to fix, and I had no idea about any of that. Can you share that story? 

 

RS: Yeah. Well, that… I learned that at a family member’s house. I had a family member buy a home in St. Louis Park, and it had a missing cleanout plug, and let me just talk through this a little bit. A floor drain, it’s gonna have a trap, just like any other sink is gonna have a trap, it’s this dip where water sits to prevent sewer gas from coming in. But if you have a clog downstream from a floor drain, it’s difficult to get a snake through the trap and go down the line. So most floor drains… It’s not a requirement, but most floor drains are gonna have this bypass that goes over the trap called the cleanout hole. And as soon as you remove the plug, you can stick a snake down there, and you can clean out your drain, and then you put the plug back in. But if you leave the plug out, you’re gonna have sewer gas coming in, it’s gonna bypass that trap. However, if you’ve got a problem with your trap… I mean, if things just aren’t draining and you unscrew that cleanout plug, well, you’re gonna have water bypassing your trap. Water’s just gonna drain fine, and you’re gonna have sewer gas coming in, but people might not know that.

 

RS: And so, my sister bought this house, it’s got a missing cleanout plug. And the fix from the city, they say you gotta replace the plug. Well, you put the plug back in, and all of a sudden, water doesn’t drain down because the primary trap is clogged. And I ended up trying everything in my power to fix that trap. I mean, I tried a chisel, whatever it was, I could not get it to work. So I ended up having to replace the floor drain. And to do that in a basement, you gotta get a sledgehammer, you gotta break up all the concrete around it, you gotta get a shovel and dig all the dirt out around it, and you get your Sawzall or your reciprocating saw, we won’t use brand names. You get your reciprocating saw, and you cut the drain, and you put a new floor drain in, and then you put all the dirt back in and you pour new concrete. So, it’s a lot of steps. And if you’re hiring a plumber to do this, I mean…

 

TM: Oh my gosh.

 

RS: They’re gonna charge you a couple thousand bucks to do this.

 

TM: Thousands.

 

RS: It’s a big deal. And so, Tess, you’re asking, what was the problem with this drain? Somebody had poured concrete down there, or maybe tile grout, or maybe leftover mortar, maybe… It surely wasn’t intentional, but somebody poured something down there that they shouldn’t have, and it’s set, and then it got rock hard, and the drain was toast at that point. So from a home inspection standpoint, when we come across a floor drain with a missing cleanout plug, we can’t just say, “Put a new plug in and you’re good.” It’s gotta be you gotta put a plug in and test the floor drain and make sure it’s functional, ’cause worst case scenario, you gotta replace it. And as a truth-in housing evaluator, I would do tons of Minneapolis truth-in housing evaluations, and we would have to come back out… If there is a missing cleanout plug, we gotta come back out and make sure the floor drain is operational. And maybe one out of five, one out of 10, I’d come back to the house, and it’s a brand new floor drain, brand new concrete, brand new everything; they had to replace that floor drain to get it working. That would happen a lot.

 

TM: I mean, that’s just… Yeah, I had no idea before I worked at Structure Tech, one little missing plug could cost you thousands of dollars, potentially.

 

RS: Yeah. Yep, exactly.

 

BO: So what do you think about basements that don’t have a floor drain? ‘Cause I ran across that one time years ago, and I made a deal about it. I’m like, “If you ever get water in this basement, there’s nowhere for it to go.” And then people were like, “What’s the big deal?” And I was like, “‘Cause if it fills up with water, it’s got nowhere to go.” To me, it was just a very simple problem, but what do you think of that? 

 

RS: Yeah, I’ve never made a big deal about it. Maybe I might mention it in passing and say, “Hey, by the way, you don’t have a floor drain. You’re not required to have a floor drain, but you don’t have one.” Lots of times, I inspect houses where they do have a floor drain, but it’s located in a portion of the basement that they finished off and it’s covered by carpet. It’s like, what do you do? I don’t know. I don’t have a floor drain.

 

BO: A floor drain covered by carpet? 

 

RS: Yup.

 

BO: That thing’s gonna… The trap is gonna dry out.

 

M: Vicki Swanson would have a heyday.

 

[chuckle]

 

RS: She would not like that.

 

BO: Yeah, that drain needs to have water in it at all times, you need to be replacing that water, otherwise, it’s gonna dry out.

 

RS: Yeah, well, at that point, somebody would take a rubber plug, one of those expanding plugs, and you stick that in the hole and you screw it tight. So if there is a back-up at the house, it’s not gonna back up out of the floor drain, and you’re not gonna have sewer gas coming in. Essentially, you’ve disabled your floor drain.

 

BO: Okay, okay.

 

TM: Yeah. Let’s just clarify, if a house doesn’t have a floor drain, it doesn’t mean you won’t have sewage backing up, it’ll just be coming through the lowest fixture in the house, right? 

 

RS: That’s right.

 

TM: Like, if you’ve got a shower, it’s gonna come through the shower drain. If it’s a sink, it’s gonna come through the sink drain. It’s still gonna get in, just not through the floor drain.

 

RS: Yeah, and I’ve got a good example of that in that blog post. And by the way, just coming back to it, you said, “Why did you blog about this?” I blogged about it a long time ago. Every once in a while, I’ll refresh my blog posts, every decade or so, I’ll go in and I’ll redo it. Maybe I’ll make a video to go along with it, add some new points that I never thought of the first time, but I redid that one, I made a video to go along with it, and I also shared a clip of a sink that was backing up. I had done the inspection, I went… I’m doing the inspection, I go downstairs and there’s all this nasty black stuff in the bathroom sink that wasn’t there when I first walked through the house, so I was like, “I bet this backed up, ’cause they didn’t have a floor drain”.

 

RS: So I went back upstairs filled up the kitchen sink or the bathtub or something, pulled the stopper went back downstairs and sure enough, water was coming out of the overflow in the sink.

 

TM: Oh no.

 

RS: It’s one of those sinks that’s got like three little holes for an overflow.

 

TM: Nasty.

 

RS: And so there’s sewage coming out of the overflow, and I’m just standing there, I’m like, “Oh, what do I do?” There’s nothing I can do. I took my camera out, started recording it, and sewage came right up to the top of the sink and then just started spilling over.

 

TM: Oh, no.

 

RS: It didn’t spill over a ton, but I got a good video of it, it’s…

 

TM: So that… I’ve seen that video before.

 

BO: Did you clean up that sewage? 

 

TM: And I… Yeah, I wondered what the story was behind that and then what you do… What do you do about that, Reuben? If you’ve have sewage overflowing during an inspection, ’cause you’ve… I’ve never had that happen, but I’m sure there’s just a sheer panic there.

 

RS: Yeah it was. It wasn’t a lot. I stayed there and I watched it to see how far it would go, and it was… It probably overflowed for about two, three seconds, it’s a tile floor.

 

TM: Okay.

 

RS: So I run out to my truck, I get my towel or towels. If you’re a home inspector, you always carry one to two towels in your truck, it’s a given, that’s part of your tool collection. Went and got my towels, mopped it up, done and done, not that big of a deal.

 

BO: So if you accidentally vomited in the toilet in that bathroom because of the grossness that you just encountered, it’s not leaving [laughter] ’cause it’s got no where to go.

 

RS: Yeah. Yeah exactly.

 

TM: Gross.

 

BO: What a nasty, nasty experience.

 

TM: Oh man. Wow, well, that was really tough just to notice that staining in the sink down there, and to think about that.

 

RS: Oh, you would have seen it too. You got all this black residue in the sink and it wasn’t there before, you would think it through. But… Oh and of course, last part is leave a note for the homeowner and let them know. FYI. You may wanna get out the bleach or something and scrub down your floor.

 

BO: How did they not know? 

 

TM: Gosh. Well, that did not fix your drain? 

 

RS: They surely knew, you had to know.

 

TM: Yeah. How do people live like that? I guess, well, some people may not have a choice. I should not be so insensitive about that, but…

 

RS: How so? How do people live? By the time this podcast airs, I will have shared the blog post and the video with our favorite Halloween photos, animal skeletons and creepy stuff, and some of those… A couple of my… I just really questioned, how does it get to the point where we’re doing a home inspection and the house is in this condition. One of them was, there was a bat skeleton hanging from the duct work in the basement, this has been there for a long time. Why is it there? Another one was, one of the inspectors on our team had shared a photo of a bucket of grease and rotten potatoes underneath the sink. Do you remember that? 

 

TM: Yes, I do.

 

RS: Yeah. Well, how do you store that in your kitchen. That’s what I wanna know.

 

TM: Yeah, yeah.

 

RS: Can you just imagine the smell? 

 

TM: Yeah.

 

RS: We don’t have answers. We just ask questions.

 

TM: We don’t know.

 

BO: I’m laughing because, we may or may not have had a potato go bad in a cabinet before, you’re like, “What is that smell?”

 

[laughter]

 

BO: And then you’re like, “Do we have a dead mouse? No, it’s the rotten potato that fell behind the thing”, then you’re like, “Oh, that’s what it is”.

 

[laughter]

 

BO: Stuff happens.

 

RS: But just imagine storing rotten potatoes in putrefied grease under your kitchen sink.

 

RS: Ooh.

 

BO: Which came first, the grease or the potatoes or did…

 

TM: We’ll never know Bill.

 

BO: Yeah.

 

[laughter]

 

BO: Yeah. Yes. Well, with that, maybe we should put a wrap on this episode. Alright.

 

[laughter]

 

BO: I’m feeling good. The back up and the basement bathroom, to the rotten potatoes that were being cooked in the oil, that was just…

 

TM: Yeah, hopefully, nobody’s listening to this over their lunch hour. [laughter]

 

RS: Yeah, yeah.

 

TM: Sorry. We’ll have to put a warning.

 

BO: Yeah. Then maybe on the next podcast we’ll do the grossest things that Reuben has ever encountered and see if we can all hold it together.

 

RS: Oh yeah, that sounds really wonderful. Or maybe we won’t, maybe we won’t.

 

[laughter]

 

BO: Probably not. Alright, you’ve been listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman, the mad blogger himself. And if you have any questions or any comments, Reuben, where do you want everybody to send them to? 

 

RS: Send them into podcast@structuretech.com.

 

BO: Alright, there it is. Thanks everybody for listening, we’ll catch you next time.

 

[music]

 

BO: Hi everybody, Bill, here again with Structure Talk. We really wanna thank you for listening to this podcast. It’s been a ton of fun for us to put this presentation together, and if you could, we would love it if you would go to any of the podcast platforms where you find Structure Talk and leave us a rating and subscribe to the show. You can also subscribe to our blog at structuretech.com, and of course, you can listen to this show on the Internet at structuretalk.com. Thanks again for listening, we appreciate the support, and if you have any suggestions for show topics, please email them to podcast@structuretech.com. Thanks for listening.