Bill opens the podcast talking about a terrifying fire that happened across the hallway in his mother-in-law’s condo high-rise building, and about the damage caused by smoke and water.
The gang discusses the possibility of an FPE Stab-Lok panel causing the fire, and Reuben goes on to discuss the disproportionate number of condo buildings with FPE panels when compared to single-family homes.
The conversation then turns to a 3-alarm house fire that happened during a Structure Tech home inspection back in 2019, where things turned very serious very quickly. Because of legal and insurance concerns, this is the first time the gang has mentioned this fire, but it’s quite a story to share.
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: I’ve learned a lot over the last month of what fires do to buildings, and how bad things smell after a fire goes through, and Reuben, tell us about an experience that you had to deal with recently.
Reuben Saltzman: We’ve been sitting on this story for a long time, mostly because our insurance company told us, “You shouldn’t even talk about this.”
BO: Welcome everybody to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman of the Structure Tech team. Welcome to today’s episode, where we’re gonna talk a little bit about fires. I had a recent experience with a fire, actually my mother-in-law had a recent experience with a fire in a 20-story building that she lives in, up on the 11th floor, so I’ve learned a lot over the last month of what fires do to buildings and how bad things smell after a fire goes through. And Reuben, tell us about an experience that you had to deal with recently at the good old Structure Tech Company.
RS: Well, it wasn’t super recent, we’ve been sitting on this story for a long time, mostly because our insurance company told us, “You shouldn’t even talk about this.”
Tessa Murry: Wow.
RS: So this is one we’ve been sitting on for a while, and this was a situation where a home that we were inspecting, that all but burned down during the inspection. That was a heck of a story. So we’ll share that. Just recent events that have been going on in Minneapolis, I think, are what made us think about all this.
BO: Right, yeah, my stories are all about my experience, and this had happened prior to all the other unrest that was happening here in the Twin Cities area, so… But let me just kinda start with where we’re at, it was about 8:30 on a lazy Tuesday evening. We had planted ourselves on the couch to take in an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale. We’re kind of in the middle of The Handmaid’s Tale.
TM: Very uplifting show.
BO: Yeah, it is. And my phone rang, and instantly I knew there was this huge problem. My mother-in-law calls on a regular basis, and I help her with some things on a regular basis, but this was different, there was clear panic in her voice, and you could hear the fire alarms going off in the background. And at this moment, when she called me, she was in her bedroom, she has a one-bedroom condo, it’s up on the 11th floor of what’s known as Wilder Park in St. Paul, 1181 Edgcumbe, for anybody who knows. It’s one of those 1960s or ’70s buildings that the city of Saint Paul put up. And anyway, she has two windows, two operable windows in her whole unit, one in the living room, one in the bedroom. She was in the bedroom, her condo had filled up with smoke, and she could not get the window open.
TM: Oh my gosh.
RS: Oh, scary.
BO: She could not see her bedroom door from where she was standing at, in the window. She was next to the exterior wall next to the window, she couldn’t see 14 feet across to her door.
TM: Oh my gosh.
BO: And as she says she tugged on it, and by the grace of God, the thing opened and we’re just like, “Put your nose against the screen, try to breathe, just calm down, try to breathe, just try to breathe.” I don’t wanna say she’s a panicky person, but she has asthma issues, and when she gets in a place where she’s beginning to panic, her breathing immediately gets way bad. So we jumped in the car, drove over to the building, which had about 37 emergency vehicles around the outside of it. St Paul Fire Department had the ladder all the way up to the 11th floor. The fire in the building started across the hall from her, in one condo down.
BO: So as a crow flies, maybe 35 feet from her doorway. So we ended up showing up, we waited around for a couple hours, she had to wait out the fire till they got the whole thing out. So about 10:30, she got out of the building. She called me at 7:30, 8 o’clock, something like that, so a long couple hours. But holy cow, smell… The smell of fire is amazingly bad. I was at the condo yesterday, they pulled all the carpet out of it, everything has been removed, every content, anything that was soft, and it still stinks like fire.
BO: But yikes, so, scary situation, now we’re working with the insurance company.
RS: So what are they gonna do to get rid of the odor?
BO: We think that there might be some contents left in the apartment where it started, and in the adjacent apartment, and they might be working through some investigative stuff. I don’t know what it is, but those two apartments were condemned, and my insurance company or our insurance company told us that they’re not gonna do any cleaning until anything that was burned is out of that floor, and it might be that residue. But the only thing that’s left in this place right now is concrete, gypsum and wood. There’s nothing that should have smell in it.
TM: Isn’t Gypcrete kind of porous?
BO: Yeah, I guess it…
TM: It’s kind of porous.
BO: So would drywall absorb the smell?
TM: Yeah, yeah.
RS: For sure.
TM: You might have to get rid of the… Is it Gypcrete?
BO: No, it’s normal drywall, it’s a Spancrete floor and then it’s normal drywall. They told me they’re confident it’s all gonna be good, but I was amazed they pulled every single soft good out of there, shipped it off to somewhere. I don’t know if it’s like a super, “We’re gonna bomb this thing with all kinds of different waves of something to make the smell go away,” but they hauled it all away and they’re gonna put it right back where it was, so we didn’t have to touch any of it.
RS: Tessa or Bill, were either one of you guys on the tour that our team at Structure Tech took at 24 Restore?
BO: I was not.
RS: Okay, well they’re a local restoration contractor, they do fire and water damage and all other kinds of stuff, I can’t remember everything they cover, but a bunch of us at Structure Tech took a tour of their facility and I can’t remember where it is. It’s up northwest, maybe… I don’t remember, but it’s a little ways up there, and we gotta see their whole place, and they’ve gotta warehouse. And then they’ve got another warehouse where they ship everybody’s stuff in just for this. And so, when you got fire damage, they package it all up, and they seal it in these containers, and they lock it, and then they unpack it all in this room where it’s… I don’t remember if it’s pressurized or depressurized, but they do something magic to everybody’s contents and they unpack it all, they hand clean it, they got a team of people working in there to scrub down everything…
RS: Get it perfect, and then they ship it back. This is eye-opening. I had no idea how much was involved in damage restoration, but there was a lot of moving parts to that.
BO: I can’t even imagine how much it’s gonna cost to put this building back to the condition it was before the fire.
TM: Well, that’s what I was gonna ask. Did anything structural… Is the structural integrity of the building impacted?
BO: I don’t think so. The outside material is brick, there’s steel studs, and there’s concrete for the floors. I can’t imagine that that would have been…
TM: The steel could melt.
BO: It could. Who knows how it spread from one to the next.
BO: But I don’t think there’s a structural issue with it, but there’s a lot of water that went down.
TM: I’m sure, yeah.
BO: There was damage all the way to the basement level of this building.
BO: And so, the sprinklers were going, the fire truck with… I don’t know what kinda pressure was coming out of that hose, but it’s…
TM: A lot. Did anyone get hurt?
BO: One person was taken to the hospital and then he was released the next day…
TM: Wow, that’s…
BO: So they dodged a major bullet there.
RS: Yeah, I’ll say. Wow.
TM: No kidding.
BO: ‘Cause it’s a 55 plus high rise, so…
BO: Most of the people in there are north of 55 and I’d say most of them are probably north of 65.
TM: Do they know what caused it?
BO: Haven’t heard that yet.
TM: Did you say they had Federal Pacific panels?
BO: They do have Federal Pacific panels in that building, and I did actually ask somebody… So all the units, at one time, did have FP panels. And I said, “Do you think it could be something like that?” And I was told fairly early on that, no, they don’t believe that was the problem, so… But investigations take a little bit of time.
BO: So you just gotta let it play out.
TM: Reuben, didn’t you do some research just recently on where we have found, at our company, the most Federal Pacific Stab-Lok panels?
RS: Yeah, I was doing some research for a blog post coming up on when certain issues take place in houses, kinda creating a timeline, and I looked over the last 100 FPE Stab-Lok panels that we found during home inspections. And I didn’t have to go back that far. It was only a couple of years to find 100 panels, but I looked at what age of the house was it because we’ve always heard you find these panels and homes built from the ’50s up through the ’80s. But is it an even distribution? Let’s dig into this a little, and I figured 100 is a nice number, and 79% of those were homes built either in the ’70s or mid-’80s. The newest house we found with an FPE panel was 1987. So I’d say ’70s through mid-’80s is where we find almost all of the FPE panels. And we didn’t define FPE built. You should have slapped my wrist for saying an acronym without defining it. You’re always so good at that.
BO: Yeah, I got kinda caught up in my own story, I guess. Sorry about that. So Reuben, what does FPE stand for?
RS: Thank you. Yes, that’s Federal Pacific Electric or people say it FPE. It’s a bad panel. It’s a panel that’s much more prone to breakers not tripping and starting on fire. If you hear the term Stab-Lok, almost every FPE panel out there is a Stab-Lok, and every Stab-Lok is FPE. So what I’m getting at, is the terms are almost interchangeable. Every once in a while, there will be some outlier, but they’re essentially the same thing.
BO: So is the Stab-Lok a residential panel or is this…
RS: We have found them in commercial settings too. It’s not exclusively… In my search, I found three commercial properties with FPEs.
BO: But this building, if you went in the basement, there’s probably a bank of meters somewhere, and…
RS: Oh, that’s a very interesting point, Bill because… And I found this unintentionally. As I was going through, after I had done about the first 20, I happened to notice at least half of these were condos, and I started wondering, are these more common in condos? So I went back, I started the research over again, and I started making a note of how many condos there were. Now Bill, Tessa, just you guys give me an estimate. What is our ratio of single-family home to condo for home inspections that we do? What would you guys guess?
BO: 95:5. 95% home inspections, 5% condo inspections.
TM: Yeah, I was gonna say 5-10% condo.
RS: Yeah, yeah, way, way more residential. Well, out of these 100 panels, 41 of those were condos.
RS: So it doesn’t mean that 40% of the time it’s gonna be found in a condo. It means way, way more than that, if only 5% of our inspections are at condos.
TM: Yep. Actually, you know what, come to think of that, I know someone who has a condo that was built in the ’70s and it’s got FPE panels in it.
BO: Who’s that?
RS: She’s not saying.
TM: It’s Jay.
RS: That’s what I was thinking.
TM: Yep. One of the first things I noticed when I started dating him. Looked at his panel, I was like, “Oh man, you’ve got an FPE panel in here.”
BO: I know he’s pretty handy. Why doesn’t he take a run at replacing that panel?
TM: No, no. Electrical is kinda like plumbing for him. Just don’t touch it.
RS: Yeah, I don’t know if there were any condos built in the ’70s and early ’80s that didn’t have FPE panels. It’s like, if you’re buying a condo built in that time, I think there’s a really good chance that’s what you have.
BO: But then all of those buildings have some real heavy equipment in them. The main shutoff, there’s some gigantic electrical components down in the basements. Do they have the same failure rates as the Stab-Lok panels or were they built more robustly and it’s not a problem for that kind of equipment? It’s just this sort of…
RS: I don’t know anything about them.
BO: It makes me wonder if they acquired Stab-Lok from somebody or as if that was a merger or something. Who knows?
BO: We’re all shaking our heads. So that’s a great thought.
RS: I don’t know much about the history there.
BO: So, you had the issue in the house where there was the fire. How long did it take for them to reveal to you what the issue actually was?
RS: You’re talking about what we teased this episode with?
BO: Yeah, yeah.
TM: You should start back with the story of what happened.
RS: Let’s jump into that. Here’s the background. It was… I believe this was in November of 2019, and it was two inspectors on our team inspecting this house. It was built, I believe… I believe it was in the ’20s, and it was a little bit over 5,600 square feet. This was in the Kenwood neighborhood of Minneapolis. So there’s a lot of big, very nice homes. It was… I don’t know what it was purchased for, but it was listed at 1.2 million. So big house, old house, nice house. We sent two of our inspectors there on a Saturday to inspect this. And one of them’s outside, one of them’s inside. It’s got a third floor mother-in-law apartment up there, and he turns on the kitchen stove to make sure that’s working. It had been on for about a minute or two when he smelled smoke. And he just felt like, “This is not right, I’m smelling something.” He went outside to grab the other inspector to get another opinion. They come back in and the room was filled with smoke.
TM: Oh my gosh.
RS: They have no idea where it’s coming from. I mean, they shut the oven off but it didn’t matter. And it felt like it was coming out from behind the oven, it wasn’t actually the oven itself.
BO: Inside the oven, okay.
RS: So they ran downstairs. They shut the power off to the house, I mean the mains. And then they went out… Well, I don’t know what the sequence of events was. But they shut the power off, I know that. They did it immediately, and they called 911. And they said, “We got a fire, you need to send the fire department.” And then they called me next. Like, “Reuben, what do we do? We already called 911. This is really important, I don’t know what to do.” And I mean I said, “I’ll come on over there.” And they said, “Well, just wait till the fire department gets here, I don’t know what you’re gonna do.” And so, we kind of waited around. And the fire department ended up being there for hours, they could not get control of this fire. It started inside the wall, and it was knob-and-tube wiring.
RS: I think it was knob-and-tube, I don’t remember that detail. It was old wiring, I know that.
BO: There was undoubtedly some amount of knob-and-tube wiring in this house.
RS: I know there was knob-and-tube, I’ve got the pictures of that. I don’t know if that’s what caused the issue, but it was definitely an electrical issue inside the wall. I’m so glad that we tested the stove.
TM: Oh my gosh.
RS: Because if we hadn’t, the homeowner would have burned the house down the first time he turned the stove on.
TM: Oh my gosh.
BO: I have a lot of questions about this house. Was there an elevator in this house?
RS: I don’t know.
BO: So we can’t call it a mother-in-law apartment, ’cause there is no way they’re crawling up all three flights of stairs.
TM: A healthy mother-in-law…
RS: Well, okay. I called it a mother-in-law apartment, but you know what I mean.
BO: I’m just needling you. [chuckle]
RS: It was a maid’s apartment.
RS: My dad, the house he grew up in, they had a maid’s stairway. The craziest thing.
BO: The back stairway.
RS: Yeah, the back stairway. Pretty neat.
BO: They’re very small compared to the main stairway, too.
TM: They are, yeah.
RS: Yeah, they are.
BO: So is that a first ever at the company, for having a fire?
RS: Well, we’ve talked about past fires on this podcast. I mean, we’ve had miscellaneous stuff. There was one issue where we had turned on a bathroom exhaust fan, and the fan itself just started on fire. We called the fire department for that. There is another one where we had just flipped the switch… We didn’t even light the pilot, we just flipped the switch at a gas fireplace. And there was a bird’s nest in the vent at the outside, the bird’s nest started on fire. Our inspector didn’t know this, all he knew is that there’s flames coming out the side of the house.
TM: Oh my gosh.
RS: So, yeah. And these are just things where it’s not negligence. I mean, anybody who flipped that switch would have had this happen to them, but it’s enough to give you a heart attack it gets you going so much.
TM: Oh yeah.
RS: For that house, this was such a big deal. I mean, just to finish that story. It made the news. The whole neighborhood was out. Two firefighters got lost inside the home, and had to go to the hospital.
RS: And get treated for smoke damage.
TM: Oh my gosh.
RS: That’s how out of control this was. And the home sold, I believe, in February for somewhere around four something, down from 1.2.
TM: Oh my gosh. But it did sell.
BO: So, there were some payouts there probably, so. Somebody’s hole.
RS: Oh yeah, this was a big insurance thing. And I mean, I was very paranoid. I mean, we called our insurance provider immediately.
TM: I was gonna ask you that. So is that… Is that our… I mean, is that…
RS: It was not. It was not our insurance company.
TM: It was not our claim? Okay.
RS: No, it was not our claim. This was a homeowner’s insurance deal. We did not do anything to cause this.
RS: But we were still very paranoid about it ’cause any time there’s something that expensive, it’s just… I mean, you touched it. And somehow you’re sucked into it, so I’m very thankful we weren’t.
BO: Well, not only that, it’s you’re leaving it to other people to sort out the laundry, so to speak, and that’s the unpleasant part of it. All you can do is tell them what you did, and then somebody else is gonna determine fault or find fault or whatever it might be. I mean, I don’t even know how, for my mother-in-law’s thing, I don’t know how they’re gonna figure out whose fault it was. I’m sure very smart people will reconstruct that and they’ll figure it out, but there’s plenty of rumors going around about why and…
RS: Oh, the rumors. Yeah.
BO: And the insurance company asked me, and they’re like, “Well, what started it?” And I said, “Listen, I’ve heard rumors, I have no idea. When I see something from a certified State Fire Marshal type of thing I’ll be happy to share, but it’s easy to get chatter going.”
RS: Oh, I have already heard it come back to us about why this fire started. I’ve heard agents asking me like, “So, I heard you guys burned a house down.” Like, “What? What did you hear?” “Well, I heard your inspector left the oven on and left, and that’s what started it.”
TM: Oh my gosh.
RS: That’s what all the neighbors were saying. There’s another guy who lives in that neighborhood, he’s a home inspector, he’s like, “Yeah, I heard throughout the whole neighborhood, everybody was talking about your company about you guys burning the house down.” It’s like…
TM: Oh boy, oh man.
RS: And you can’t do any type of damage control. When your insurance company says, “Don’t talk about it.” You just can’t talk about it.
TM: Well, now we’re talking about it.
RS: You gotta let the rumors fly. Yeah. That’s frustrating.
TM: Wow. Yeah.
BO: I think the other thing that was really impressive to me is the soot goes everywhere. You’d think, “Oh the door was shut.” It’s everywhere. It’s on everything. But what I was most fascinated by during this event, is these fire departments have some stuff. They’ve got some pretty cool stuff and they were doing their thing, and I think there were 60 firefighters working in this building that night.
TM: Oh wow.
BO: And I was like, they were filling bottles of air to let people go back in and the poor fireman and women, the firefighters had to climb 11 stories of stairs to get to where this was going on, ’cause the elevators had been damaged.
RS: For sure.
TM: It is not an easy job that they have.
BO: No, they don’t get paid enough. Whatever it is.
TM: The gear alone that they wear is, what, like at least 50 pounds. Maybe more, isn’t it?
RS: It’s not an easy job climbing those stairs in shorts.
TM: Exactly, right.
RS: Yeah, I don’t know how much that gear weighs.
TM: It’s a lot.
RS: But, it sounds right.
TM: I have a firefighter friend in Jersey.
RS: Not only that, it’s gotta be hot.
TM: Yeah, she actually just retired. I should ask her how much her gear weighs.
BO: In a former life, I was trained as a firefighter.
BO: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
RS: I had no idea.
TM: I didn’t either.
BO: Trained EMT, firefighter, that whole thing.
BO: My little home town.
RS: Oh cool.
BO: Yeah, it was more my mom’s dream than it was my dream.
BO: But all I can say is, thank goodness for insurance companies, it’s money well spent, when you need it, it’s there. You don’t have worry about stuff. And they’re like, “Whatever, if you go out to eat more than you would normally go out, save the receipts, turn them in to us, we’ll pay for it all.” The company that she has, which is State Farm, they’ve been fantastic to work with. So, we’ll see when it gets all put back together and I don’t see that there’s gonna be any problems. Scary stuff, scary stuff.
TM: Wow. I’m glad everyone’s okay.
RS: Yeah, me too.
BO: So yeah, I don’t wanna be involved with any more fires, either through Structure Tech or in my personal life. Reuben, I will note one thing, remember we were doing an inspection long ago when I was first with the company, and we walked in a house and there were smoke alarms everywhere. There must have been seven smoke alarms in this little 1500 square foot house.
BO: And then I went into the attic and I’m like, “There was a fire up in the attic.” And you’re like, “Yeah, I knew that was gonna be the case, ’cause see all these smoke alarms? Every time there is a house with a bunch of smoke alarms, you know they had a fire in it.”
BO: ‘Cause now people are paranoid.
RS: People get this irrational over-reaction. Once it happens to them, now it’s a touchy subject and they will go nuts. Yeah, I’ve noticed that every time you got a lot of these safety devices, it’s just, “Oh, what happened?”
BO: Yeah, so inside note to all the home inspectors out there, if you see a bunch of them, look really hard in the attic, ’cause you’ll find whatever it was.
BO: Alright, I think that’s gonna be a wrap for our episode here today, thanks for listening. You’ve been listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, with Reuben Saltzman and Tessa Murry, and we will see you next time.