The owner and founder of Complete Building Solutions, Robert Vassallo, joins the show to talk about his expertise as a structural engineering consultant.
The show starts off with Rob explaining about his company and what they do to find problems and how to solve them. He then answers some specific questions:
What’s the most common problem in attics that leads to ice dams?
How was sealing an attic bypass required?
What do you do for ventilation in the attic?
What’s a dead vent?
When would you recommend turbine vents?
What kind of expense are you adding to the job cost when you design a project through your engineering company and pass it through the contractors? How about doing the engineering and setting it up so the contractors know the scope of work?
Why does it take nine months to build a normal home?
Why is taking the moisture out of the lumber inside a newly built home before it’s closed up so important?
How would you describe settlement cracks?
Would you recommend a vapor barrier paint in a humid climate?
What’s the average cost when you’re going out to a house to check out a problem for a homeowner?
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.
Rob Vassallo: So, Complete Building Solutions is an engineering firm, it’s also a consulting firm, draw, design, CAD. We do everything in the world, from blueprints, to inspecting buildings, to designing things that work, to finding problems and shutting down problems, mitigating problems.
Bill Oelrich: Welcome everybody, you’re listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich, alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman, as we call it, the three-legged stool. On today’s episode, we’ve got a guest alongside us, Rob Vassallo with Complete Building Solutions. And Rob is a long-time friend of Reuben Saltzman and the Structure Tech family. And so we were gonna dig into his mind, ’cause Rob’s a structural engineering consultant, and he also builds houses and he’s got a plethora of knowledge. And so I’m gonna turn this over to Reuben because he’s gonna guide us kind of into the depths here. Reuben, why don’t you fire off some background here and set everybody up?
Reuben Saltzman: Sure.
BO: Then we’re gonna allow Rob to introduce himself and we’re gonna set this whole thing up.
RS: Sure, thanks, Bill. And I’ll say a long-time friend of mine, but it might even be longer with Tessa. I think Tessa might have known Rob even before I met him. How long have you two known each other?
Tessa Murry: Since I was in diapers, basically. No, just kidding. Well, fresh out of college. Really, I guess… We were just talking about that. Was it like 12 years ago we met?
RV: Something like that. I think so, yeah. It must have been at least 10 or 11 years ago.
TM: How did you meet Reuben, Rob?
RV: Well, I think it started… We had some real bad ice dam years, so ’09 was a real bad year, but for ice dams in Minnesota and the region, we had several real bad years where every home in the Twin Cities and thereabouts had ice dams. And so it became quite an issue. And since Structure Tech, even back then was one of the better home inspection companies, they kind of knew what they were doing, so we asked Reuben to come in because I think at the time he was the President of the Association of Home Inspectors. And so even beyond what Tessa and I have done together a little bit with Steve Schreiber, we have always been involved in the science of buildings, just like Tessa is and just like Reuben is. And we had actually asked Reuben when we heard of him to come in and talk with us so we could show him what we did in the world of mitigating ice dam issues.
RS: I remember that, we sat down and you showed me your whole process, and it’s not like you’re a company who comes in… I think what you do is really unique and… Wait a minute, hold on, let me back up. We haven’t formally introduced you yet, we just started talking about connections. So, Rob Vassallo, Complete Building Solutions or CBS, and you guys fix problems with buildings, and you’re also an engineering firm. Am I leaving anything out?
RV: No. So Complete Building Solutions is an engineering firm. It’s also a consulting firm, draw, design, CAD, we do everything in the world, from blueprints to inspecting buildings, to designing things that work, to finding problems and shutting down problems, mitigating problems. We have a long history in my company with engineers anywhere from 32 years old to 80 years old, and with my experience also as a 48-year home builder, remodeler, really nothing we don’t miss. So, we have a plethora of devices and systems and products that really work in the building industry and home and commercial building industry that are timed, trued, and tested, there’s nothing we can’t do as an engineering firm.
RS: That sounds pretty impressive. So now we know who you are, but… So, let’s get back into how we ended up meeting. I ended up coming out to your place, and you were sharing with me your whole process for what you guys do on ice dams, and I think what you guys do is really unique in that it wasn’t that you’re actually doing the repair work. And correct me if I’m wrong, but you really weren’t interested in single-family homes, right?
RV: Right. Actually, we delve into anything that is a building in the region, mostly Minnesota, but we also hit other states. Any building that’s in this region is going to be tested with Mother Nature winning most of the time. And the way that building codes are so minimal, the standards are so minimal. If it’s a real tough year with 50 below to 110 above with high humidities, a lot of buildings are not going to be successful in warding off or emitting cold in the envelope, or emitting cold in the attics, that kind of thing. Buildings are going to be tested. And so that’s where we spend most of our energy, is making sure that buildings, homes perform when we are done.
RV: If that makes sense.
RS: And so what you were doing at the time, what really intrigued me was you would be scoping out work for entire town home associations, you were really specializing in that, and you’d have whole associations coming to you saying, “Look, all of our buildings are failing, what’s the solution?” And then you would design what needs to happen, you would work with the insulation contractor to do all of the repair work and you would oversee the whole project, kind of as a third party quality control consultant or something like that. I don’t know, I’m making up these words. That sound about right?
RV: Yeah, the way it usually starts, you have a complex that’s in trouble, they hire an engineering firm to come in and do forensics and find out what’s wrong, we then go building to building to building, put together a stamped engineer report that shows building by building what’s wrong and what has failed. And then we meet with the board, and a lot of times we get invited to annual meetings with these town home and condo associations, and we have to actually put it up on the screen and show people why they’re suffering, why the building doesn’t work, why it’s not performing why they have ice dams, why they have water in.
RV: So, we get invited from A to Z a lot of times with these associations, because they’re managed by management companies and they have contractors that give them bids, a lot of these associations don’t really get what they need. So, the smart ones end up going to engineers and when an engineer is involved, he’s going to get to the root of the problem, he’s going to put together a package of what’s gonna make the buildings perform the first time and not just do a rougher, not just do sighting, they’re actually gonna get the true science of the building what’s wrong, here’s how to fix it, here’s the scope. Now, go get your bids, and then a lot of times they will hire us to do the project management, where we will actually oversee the entire project from the tear-off/re-roof to the insulation, to the ventilation, to the vapor barriers, to the water-proofing. There are so many things involved depending on their problems, but a lot of times we do get hired from A to Z, which is from inception with forensics, all the way to project management, to signing off on what the contractor has done to ensure that these buildings now that they just paid a big dollar amount for, are going to perform year in and year out.
RS: So, what’s the most common stuff that you end up seeing wrong in attics that leads to ice dams? Where you say, “Look, all these buildings have to have all these things fixed.” Just hit the high points.
RV: The biggest culprit is that when they build these places, a normal home takes nine months to build, and we’ll get into dehumidification later, but it takes nine months, eight, nine months to build a good home, to go through every single process to make sure you don’t have problems in the first 10 years. So, what we find almost every single attic I’ve ever climbed into, 99%, I find that a lot of times, there is never the sealing of bypasses, and that code is as old as 60-70 years to whereas before it’s insulated, the lid has to be sealed every single bypass that goes from the third floor, the second floor into the attic has to be sealed, otherwise there’s a transfer of energy, usually through warmth getting up into the attic to bypass the lid and get into the attic starting problems. So, the number one culprit is sealing bypasses, Reuben.
RS: Alright. Now, I gotta touch on something you just said there, Rob, you said that this has been in the code for 60, 70 years. I gotta ask you about that one because I don’t feel like we even knew what a bypass was. I feel like nobody even understood that until the early 90s, 80s or any time before then, there was no such thing as sealing an attic bypass. How was this required?
RV: Actually, there was, because we’ve been in court for this so many times, Reuben, that we’ve really done our homework. If you go past the old Minneapolis codes, the UBC, which they used to call a Uniform Building Code, which there is no such thing. If you go back to the Department of Energy and even go further back, sealing bypasses has been around forever. I might be off a little bit on 60-70 years, but not very much because we end up as experts in lawsuits at the head of a case, and we have to do our diligence. And this is an issue that has come up many times. And the sealing bypasses… If you even go back to the UofM and their Department of Energy, sealing bypasses goes way back, way back.
RS: That’s encouraging to hear. I like it, not that it’s gonna affect what I do on a day-to-day basis, I just… If it’s before 1990 or so, I just assumed that it was never done, but that’s interesting to hear. It was that energy code type of thing that came through the UBC.
RV: Well, even look back as short as when they started Type 1 units, you know the older homes were less than type 1, they were built to have air infiltrate. If you look back during war times when they had no money and they put spaced roof boards on and they did an insulation around windows, and they had the old dumbbells and the double-hung windows, the homes back then were designed to air condition themselves, but when you get into the 50s and 60s, they definitely decided to change how they built homes, they were not type 1 back then, that were super tight. You had to introduce outside air, but this started back in the 50s, 60s all day long.
RS: Interesting. So attic bypasses is huge. I kinda had a feeling you might say that, what comes next?
RV: What comes next is the actual insulation. In the realm of what’s important, it starts with the insulation and the sealing the bypasses, then it moves into the insulation and the R value. Thirdly, it moves into the ventilation. So, number one, you have to stop any energy leaving that home at the lid at the ceiling. After that, when you have an R value that’s up to code, is 44, they wanna move it to 49. They keep changing the R value and the vapor barrier, but third in line is definitely the ventilation, which is whatever the temperature is outside and the humidity level outside, the attic should mimic that, it should never be warmer in the attic than the outside area. So third is ventilation all day long.
RS: And what do you do for ventilation?
RV: Well, there’s 20 things you could do, but again, Reuben, as you know me, I carry the term of Turbinator in Minneapolis Saint Paul, because I’ve been at the helm of installing over 40,000 turbines in my tenure.
RV: And again, I knew you’d bring this up, the reason I will never advocate a ridge vent, I will never advocate a dead vent, I will never advocate a fan, an electric fan, which both has a humidistat and a thermostat, there’s two types of electric fans. The only one that really does the job is a turbine, and the reason being because if you have good soffit intake, that’s where the cold air comes in, it’s drawn in by the turbine and the turbine is exhausting any air that does get into the attic with the intake of the soffit, it exhausts the attic 24/7 without electricity. It’s why I love turbines.
RS: There was a term you used there, dead vent. What are some other terms for a dead vent? I think I know what you’re referring to, but that’s the first time I’ve heard someone say dead vent.
RV: Yeah, a dead vent could be a turtle vent, it can be a box vent. But they’re passive, they’re solely passive and they allow air to escape that the wind is moving, or if the attic has a lot of heat loss, the air will eventually get out of a turtle vent, dead vent, box vent, 750. You can call them just about whatever you want, but they’re just a dead vent that’s nine inch by nine inch exhaust, is the size of what it’s supposed to let out, but they don’t cause intake and exhaust, they only allow passive exhaust when there’s wind or when there’s heat pushing. Other than that, heat can sit and just stabilize in the attic and rarely move out sometimes.
RS: So, you’re a huge fan of the turbine vents and how much wind do you need outside to get a turbine vent to ventilate your attic?
RV: Well, you can get by with one or two or three miles an hour. It doesn’t take much because they put such good bearings in them that they mostly turn on their own just from warm air coming out of the attic. Even if you have a really well-done attic with all the bypasses sealed, high R-Value, there’s still a lot of times where a furnace exhaust will come through the attic and they’re hard to shield. And so you have at least 2% of the heat loss in the attic is still there, sometimes, when you have a furnace exhaust or something that lets off hot air. So turbines will turn even without wind, a lot of times, just from the heat emanating. But even if you have a three-to-five-mile-an-hour wind, you’re still gonna pull about 350 square feet of air out of that attic every hour.
TM: So Rob, just a clarifying question: Are you saying that you would recommend turbine vents in any attic or just attics that have been air-sealed?
RV: In just about any attic. The only attic that I would not advocate turbines on is a true vault. So anything like a church sanctuary or a real true vault in a home that each cavity has to exhaust, there’s only… That’s the only time I would ever call out that a ridge vent be put in place. Other than that, every other type of attic, I would call out turbines.
TM: So I guess another question for you, Rob, is that in the building science world, I know that there’s talk about concerns with having a turbine vent creating a negative pressure in an attic and actually pulling warm, humid air from the house into the attic space through attic bypasses and actually making that attic warmer and creating moisture problems, too, if you… The humidity is leaking in the attic. So is that a concern that you have? Or I guess have you done enough attics and put turbine vents in attics that aren’t perfectly air-sealed and not seen any issues?
RV: That’s such a great point, Tessa. Yeah, in that case, where somebody will not create that barrier between the conditioned living space and the unconditioned attic, if they don’t take the time to install the proper ceiling of bypass and/or an inch-and-a-half of urethane, which would get them that thermal break that they need, the vapor barrier, then in that case, I would let them know, “Hey, if you put in turbines and don’t solidify the lead, you’re going to create more of a problem.” What a great point you just brought up, yes.
TM: Okay, okay. Why wouldn’t you recommend that? I guess so it’s the moisture issue, that’s why you wouldn’t recommend it on a vault ceiling like you were saying, right?
RV: No, no, it’s a mechanical issue. It’s actually an engineering issue whereas, if you have a true vault, you have to exhaust every rafter cavity in that attic.
TM: Oh, yeah, okay, I gotcha. I can picture that now.
RV: Yeah, okay.
TM: Yeah, you’re saying it’s not effective at cooling the whole attic space because it’s divided up by each rafter.
RV: Exactly. It would only exhaust one rafter wherever you put the turbine. And nobody wants 22 turbines on their home.
RS: We just gotta get someone to invent some four-inch turbines.
RV: They do make smaller turbines, Reuben. They make a 15-inch, a 12-inch, and they actually make an 8-inch that I haven’t seen for a long time. But if you go to Canada, they make every sized turbine in Canada ’cause every roof has turbines.
RS: Oh, man!
BO: Love Canada even more than I already did.
RS: So another thing that I’ve heard people complain about is these turbine seizing up like bad bearings. I think I know what you’re gonna tell us about this. What do you have to say about that, Rob?
RV: That’s a thing of the past. The bearings that they put in these turbines are stellar and they’re lifelong guarantee. So if the turbines are installed at a plum and you’re in an area like North Dakota where you have no trees, and the wind really makes them turn every day, and they’re not installed perfectly plum and level, yes, they will burn out of bearing. Also, the old turbines used to be metal bushings. They didn’t have turbines in those days. So back in the 50s, 60s, 70s when they had bushing turbines, those really did make noise in about five or six or seven years in windy years. So it’s not really a fallacy, but the way that they make like Lomanco turbines, they’re amazingly constructed and the bearings are lifelong warranted.
RS: Well, I’m sold. So can I order some Lomanco turbines from you? [chuckle] Just kidding!
RV: Yes, Lomanco actually loves me, yes. [chuckle]
RS: I bet they do.
BO: Rob, can I jump in here and just… I wanna reverse-course a little bit because you mentioned two things at the beginning of this conversation that I think is really important that we focus in on. You talked about designing a project through the lens of an engineer. And then after you go through an engineering company, then you pass it off to the contractors. If you do that, what kind of expense are we adding to the job cost?
RV: It’s usually 7%-10%. What a great question. If there’s project management involved after the engineer’s been out, done the report, shown the condo association what’s wrong and how to fix it, if they decide to hire the engineering firm to project-manage, it’s anywhere from 7% to 10% of the total project.
BO: Okay, so 7%-10% to manage it. How about to do the engineering and to get it set up so the contractors know the scope of work?
RV: Great question also. That’s anywhere from $600-$5000, depending on the size of the complex and how many buildings we have to investigate. It goes by the number of units and whether they’re vaulted ceilings or flat ceilings in those associations.
BO: Great, thank you. That helps a lot.
TM: I’m just curious; on your type of analysis, initial analysis, is it all just visual where you’re looking at the building from the outside, climbing the attics? Or do you do additional testing like with blower doors and infrared cameras and all of that?
RV: Yeah, we don’t need blower door tests by any means. A lot of times, Tessa, when you’re outside and it’s October or November, and I look up at the roof and I see rafter lines on the shingles, little ice lines like it was… Say it was 20 degrees the night before and it was humid out, 78% humidity, and I pull up in my truck and I look up at the roofs and I see white rafter lines on every single building, before I even go in the building, I know what’s wrong. And we used to do negative blower door tests back when you were working in our shop, Tessa, and we would find the readings at 1,400 when you did your test. And when we left, it was around 700, so we knew that it would solidify. But a lot of people don’t wanna spend money on all that testing when they can hire an engineer who’s been doing this their whole life and can put together a report in a week and hand it to the association and the board and say, “Here’s what’s wrong and here’s how to fix it.” We don’t get involved in all the science that you do and that you have done, even though it’s worth it’s weight. But the reason that I don’t push towards that, Tessa, is because we’ve been doing this so long that we already know every attic we’re gonna go into is basically probably done incorrectly.
TM: Yeah, it’s interesting.
TM: Rob, there’s a lot of insulation contractors that would say the same thing you do. You give them a house built in 1970 split level, they don’t need to do a blower door test to know where the attic bypasses are. They already know just pulling up to the house.
RV: Exactly, exactly, yup. And I’m not poo-pooling what you have done in your tenure. I know you’re amazing at what you do, you’re a scientist, you really know the buildings very well. And I don’t know if you’re still doing blower door tests or not, but they are worth their weight if somebody’s not gonna hire an engineer, okay?
RV: If somebody just wants to hire a scientist like yourself to know where all the leaks are in the home, that’s a great way to do the test with a thermal camera.
TM: I agree with you that you don’t need to do a blower door, an IR to find those things when you’ve been doing it enough. You just get a good feeling for it.
RV: Exactly, yeah.
BO: Rob, second point here I wanted to back on is you dropped this nugget, it takes about nine months to build a house or it should…
RV: Yes, sir.
BO: You wanna dry it out correctly.
BO: So I don’t know if a lot of people, when they go into their building project, are planning to have their construction loan in place for at least nine months. The idea is: The faster we get through this construction process and I can get the permanent financing, the better. But tell me why nine months?
RV: The reason nine months, especially with a town home complex, or even a high-end home like I built in the past, there’s about 40 days involved, maybe 50 days, of removing moisture from the lumber package. When the home is framed and the windows are in and you haven’t done insulation yet, there’s about a 40-to-50-day period where you need to run dehumidifiers. And the reason being is because whether there’s rain or not several times on the project while you’re framing, and the subflooring gets wet, and the framing got wet, and the trusses sat on the ground getting soaked, and the roofing ply wood got wet three times before they got any felt paper on it, there’s a period of 40 to 50 days where you have to dehumidify the lumber package when the home is shelled.
RV: So once everything’s put together, the windows are in, you plug up the sockets, you plug up everything, you run three big blue dehumidifiers for about 40-50 days. And the reason being because most builders, when they close up a home, they leave about 15%-20% moisture in the lumbar package. When you dehumidify it, you can get the lumber moisture down to about 4%-5% before you close the house up before you insulate. That process doesn’t stop any of the mechanics from working. You can still do HI-VAC, HVAC, you can still do plumbing, you can still do electrical, everybody can keep working. But you have to have that process, that timing of drying out the lumber before you close up the home. And I’ll give you several reasons why, if you wanna know.
TM: Can I just ask a quick question? Is that after you’ve installed the weather-resistant barrier, the siding and the roofing material?
RV: You can do the roofing and the siding before you do this, yes, yes, you can definitely… Well, you wanna dry out the top anyhow, and you wanna keep the sides from getting wet, but this is for all of the inside where the conditioned air is gonna be, Tessa. This is to take the moisture out of the lumber inside of the home before it’s closed up, yes.
RS: So share with us why is this so important, Rob?
RV: Well, one of the big reasons this is so important, there’s a reason that window manufacturers only have a 10-year warranty on their windows. And in the first two years, when you build a home and you don’t dehumidify, and you close up 15%-20% moisture in the lumber from the floors, to the framing, to the roof, to the trusses, to every piece of lumber in that home, if you don’t take out the moisture in the first year when the home is closed up and insulated and Sheetrocked, the greatest energy gain and loss is at the glass. Number one, it’s normally the ceilings where the heat gets through. But if somebody, a builder did a good job with a good vapor barrier, with a good insulation, with an R-Value, blah, blah, blah, the heat doesn’t get through the lid. But what happens is in the first year and then the second year in the winter, when you close up 15%-20% moisture, the glass where the greatest loss and gain is, that’s only an R-Value of one, at best, on the windows. It’s hard to get any more than that.
RV: So when that happens the first winter, that loss at the glass, at the windows and the patio doors and that kind of thing actually draws moisture from the lumber in the walls, in the envelope to the glass. It’s why so many times that you have lawsuits and window manufacturers giving people new windows because the windows go first. Because they actually draw the moisture out of the lumber and right up to the greatest energy loss, which is the windows, patio doors, that kind of thing. So it’s crucial to make this entire package last, not just the windows, but to keep warm from meeting cold. Because if you start the cold season with 20% moisture trapped in the envelope, well, guess where that’s gonna go? It’s gonna diffuse. Diffusion ruins homes. It’s why I’m a stickler about dehumidifying during the building process so that when I close up a home, my moisture content in the walls is 4%.
BO: Well, do you measure that?
RV: Oh, of course.
RS: I think it’s so funny that you’re calling the window a dehumidifier.
RV: I’m not calling the window a dehumidifier, by any means. I’m calling the window the greatest loss of energy and gain of energy in the house.
RS: Okay, well, maybe you’re not calling it that, but there’s another blogger out there named Allison Bailes. He’s got this blog called the Energy Vanguard blog, and he has called windows a dehumidifier.
RV: No, I’m sorry if you took it that way. I’m talking about real dehumidifiers. I’m talking about a machine called a Dri-Z-Air. It’s four-and-a-half feet tall on wheels. And I run three of those during the building process before I insulate the home, before I Sheetrock the home. I take the moisture content out of the lumber with a dehumidifier as I’m building that home. I’m calling the windows, I’m calling the glass the greatest loss and gain in the home in the world of diffusion, where the moisture, when it gets to 50 below or 30 below that first winter, and that changes at the glass, it actually… The diffusion actually pulls moisture out of the lumber towards the glass from the framing behind the Sheetrock. But it also ruins a home from within. Look at the Type 1s in Wisconsin. Remember 15, 20 years ago? When they started to build 20 years ago, they started to build Type 1 units, you had so many homes in Wisconsin rotting that there was lawsuits everywhere. And of course, they had double vapor barriers, they had other reasons for that happening, but they were also closing up homes with 20%, 25% moisture in the lumber. Well, that’s gonna show up in the first two or three years. The homeowner’s not gonna see it, but in the envelope, it’s actually rotting the home from the inside out.
RS: So how many builders today do you think are following this process and they’re drying out houses?
RV: There’s only three that I know of, the three that I have met with. I don’t know if you want names on air or not, but there’s some really…
RS: Well, go ahead.
TM: Yes, please. I wanna know.
RS: If you’re saying good stuff about them, let’s hear.
RV: Sven Gustafson is a great home builder in the Twin Cities, Stonewood is his name. You’ve also got Mark Lisi, who’s a really great remodeler, home builder. Mark Delisi brothers also dehumidifies. And there’s one other one that I’m not sure if they ever started doing that or not, I don’t know if it was Denali. There’s a group of home builders right in that area in Minnetonka, and they’re right next to Denali homes. Do you remember their names?
RS: I do not. Just for anybody else listening, we’ll make it clear that these aren’t the only people who do it; it’s just the only people that you know who do it. So we’re not knocking any other builders, but… [chuckle]
RV: Me either.
RS: We are giving a shoutout to these guys, for sure.
RV: Well, yeah. I actually met with them decades ago, and I brought this to their attention because when I took on the engineering firm as an old home builder, I care about home builders ’cause they get in trouble all the time. So as an old home builder, I came to them because some of them got in trouble and needed engineering help. And they asked me to then to come in and speak in front of their entire office and show them what works so that they stay out of trouble with lawyers. So those builders that I had met with took it on and decided to put that into their process because it doesn’t slow down the building process at all, mechanics can still work. But they really didn’t want the problems on the back end with high moisture content in the homes, it’s a nightmare.
RS: Sure, sure, makes a lot of sense. And besides windows, you end up with other problems, too, like drywall cracks and popped nails and all other kinds of things that homeowners hate, right?
RV: Exactly. Exactly, and nobody can ever figure out… Well, and builders will tell them, some builders will tell them, “Well, that’s settlement cracks.” And then they’ll hire us to come in and I’ll say, “No, there’s no such thing as a settlement crack. Somebody closed up high moisture content, and it showed up in the second winter.” If you have a real bad winter with just the right humidity and/or the lack thereof, or just the right coldness four days in a row, these homes can’t withstand that. Mother Nature’s going to win so you cannot close up a home with 20% moisture. It’s just that simple.
RS: I think it’s a good title for this podcast: There’s no such thing as a settlement crack. I think we just came up with that. [chuckle] Can you expound on that a little bit, Rob? I wanna hear more on that.
RV: Yeah. Well, I know that you hear that every day because you guys are the best home inspectors out there. And I know of the 100 home inspectors that I’m sure you hear that all the time. And I giggle every time I hear that from a homeowner who hires us to come out and tell them what’s wrong with their home. And I don’t like to bad-mouth builders by any means, but that’s a terrible thing to tell people. I’ve built some really high-end homes, multi-million dollar high-end homes that never showed a crack anywhere. It’s because I took the time to do these steps to ensure that I didn’t get a callback five years later or 10 years later or somebody bad-mouthing me. I really didn’t want that.
RS: So I’ll admit, I’ve used the term settlement crack a gazillion times ’cause you’re doing a home inspection and your clients look at this little hairline crack and they’re like, “Oh, is my house falling down?” And that’s my stock response like, “It looks like a settlement crack.” But so how would you describe it, Rob?
RV: Well, it depends on what I find. We come in with moisture testers, sometimes a video borescope to see what’s in the walls for insulation. Did they use a double vapor barrier? There’s 20 things that would cause this problem. So I can’t give you a blanket comment on that until I saw the project and I did some testing. There is some testing involved, but if a home is built in the 90s or 2000 and it’s got hairline cracks, that’s a pretty good indicator that they either cheated on an LVL or a span and/or they cheated on moisture content trapped in the walls before they closed it up.
BO: But that’s one of the reasons why I don’t think home inspectors should be opining about why this, that, or the other is inside these buildings. “I don’t inherently believe this building’s going to fall down because I see these cracks.” But I think all too often, we wanna give some peace of mind, which yeah, maybe you say the right answer at that time, but chances are there could be a false positive in your statement.
RV: Totally, well said. Right, and that’s why there’s so many times during the week that one of the best home inspectors out there will send people our way and say, “You know what? You need an engineer. I could probably tell you what this is. I could do some testing, I’ve got a moisture tester in my pouch. I’ll see how much moisture is behind the Sheetrock or in the Sheetrock. But you know what? This is best left to the professionals.” And that’s why I get so many phone calls from Structure Tech. [chuckle]
TM: Rob, do you recommend doing a major dehumidification after they Sheetrock and mud and everything, tape and mud?
RV: No. That’s a great question, Tessa. You’re not gonna get the moisture out of the lumber; you’re gonna get the moisture out of the mud. But a lot of good drywallers will run not only a heater, but a dehumidifier, but that’s so that they can do their second coat of mud right away. Now, the one thing that nobody ever talks about also is once you do Sheetrock and you’re done with your mud and tape, there should be a vapor barrier paint. Benjamin Moore makes a vapor barrier paint that I put in every one of the homes that I’ve built, which actually keeps any moisture in the conditioned living space in the conditioned living space. It never makes it through the Sheetrock, it never makes it into the attic through the lid, the Sheetrock. Every home that’s ever built should have a vapor barrier paint on the Sheetrock before they put any colored paint on it.
BO: And that doesn’t create a diaper that you have to be concerned about?
RV: No, sir. No, because the Type 1 homes that are built in the last 20, 30 years demand outside, introduced outside air anyhow. So whatever you do for humidity, whatever you do with a humidifier on the furnace, you should have 30%-35% humidity in the home, but it keeps your conditioned living space as that air. It never permeates the Sheetrock. That’s why I always call for a vapor barrier paint on the inside of the homes.
TM: Hey, Rob, would you recommend a vapor barrier paint in a hot, humid climate?
RV: Well, it depends on the mechanical system. It depends on what the HVAC people are doing, how they’re moving air. But again, I want a barrier. Conditioned living space has to be the conditioned living space. It can never meet with the envelope in any form or fashion. There can be no transfer, no diffusion, nothing.
RS: Sure. To come back to your engineering services, just to wrap this up, that’s also a service that you offer as individual evaluations on single-family homes. If we do a home inspection, and I will qualify this, I’ll say we are usually quite, I don’t know, hesitant to recommend engineers to do anything because if we just go in on every inspection and all we’re doing is saying, “Oh, that you got crack here, you get an engineer,” we’re gonna be calling you out every time. And at that point, it’s like what’s the value in having a home inspection? So we are hesitant to do it, but you’re definitely on our list so… And we got a lot of inspectors. So we do send business your way, no question about it. What’s an average cost when you’re going out to a house to check out a problem for a homeowner? What’s your process look like there, Rob?
RV: It’s usually about $600, to be very… To the point, we’re $300 an hour for engineering. There’s a two-hour minimum on residential, which takes into account the engineer’s time, load calc, load path, the report, stamped engineer report. So from A to Z, it’s usually about $600.
RS: Okay, so that’s right in the same range as what we’re charging for home inspections at the…
RV: Right. And again, to go back to what you just said about your home inspections, engineers can’t do what you do. What you guys do, there’s no way. We’re not gonna go from the top to the bottom and look at every aspect of that home like you guys do. You have it down to a science. Engineering is a whole different world. We’re not going to look at 200 things in a home and put a report together in a day. That’s your deal. We are specific. When people have a concern, we are specific on that concern or two or three concerns, but we can’t do what you guys do. You guys are worth your wait.
RS: Thanks, man! And back at you.
TM: Thanks, Bob!
RV: We love you guys.
BO: Rob, one of the selfish things I get to do, because I’m on the podcast, is ask professionals questions I would otherwise have to pay for. So I’m gonna throw one at you here. We’re rebuilding a cabin on a piece of property we have on a lake up north and we’re gonna start in April. And I was hoping that we would be able to be moving in our furniture by the end of the year’s. But what you’re saying is we need more time to dry this envelope out.
RV: No question. Yeah, build…
BO: Okay, so a building like that, do I still need the 40-50 days of drying time?
RV: But, it depends. Is it all gonna be opened up? Is it gonna be exposed right to the outside sheathing?
BO: Yeah, ’cause it’s gonna be built from the ground up.
RV: Oh, oh, it’s a brand new build. Yeah, then you definitely need to do at least 30-40 days. But if you have a simple moisture tester, you’ll know when you get the moisture down to 4% or 5%, 6%. Just don’t close it up with 20% or 15% because you’re gonna ruin the home. So yeah, it’s gonna… Unless you get… Unless it’s a real small space and you have two big dehumidifiers, Bill, it might only take 20 days. You’ll know because you’ll have mechanics working inside, touching each other and getting sparks. You’ll know when it’s negative energy in the house because the mechanics all get sparks touching each other. [chuckle]
RS: Funny, alright.
BO: Well, thank you, thank you. So we can stop my project now and go back to the podcast, I appreciate it.
RS: Now, we gotta do my project. If you’re doing it, I’m doing it, bro. I just ran to the store last night and picked me up one of those solar tubes made by VELUX ’cause I love those things. Tessa, I don’t wanna hear about it, so knock it off. [chuckle] I love those things. Rob?
RS: Talk me out of it.
RV: Well, I have a lot of experience with those tubes also, and as long as you get the insulated chute, the insulated tube, I’m okay with you doing that because they do add a lot of light. They don’t cost an arm and a leg. They are worth it, but if it’s just the aluminum, they let too much heat into the attic. Does that make sense, Reuben?
RS: Yep, and that’s not what I’m doing. I’m doing it all aluminum, man.
RV: Oh, no way.
RS: I’m filling the insulated tube.
TM: Hey, we… Your house is gonna be a case study for iPhones, then.
RV: Okay, then… I’ve actually done testing on those tubes in town home complexes. And when I go up into the attic and I shoot with my laser thermometer and the attic is at 20 degrees and I get to that tube and it’s at 48, you got a bit of a bypass there, bud. So at least insulate it if you’re gonna put one of those in, okay?
RS: Alright, so you said the insulated tubes. I gotta tell you, in my time as a home inspector, I have never seen an insulated tube. Can you describe to me what this looks like?
RV: Somebody comes in with a urethane gun and sprays it after you install it.
RS: Wow! Big eye-roll, I’m rolling my eyes. No one’s coming in with a spray gun.
RV: Get a frost pack. Get a frost pack, they don’t cost that much. Use it to seal up bypasses while you’re in the attic, and then use it to spray that aluminum tube going up, okay?
RS: Okay, alright, sounds good. Tessa, what do you have to say about this?
TM: I was gonna say that’s exactly what we would do, our scope of work on houses that typically had piles ice dams. And I remember finding solar tubes going through an attic space and just the radiant coming off of them would be enough to warm up that attic and melt the snow.
RS: Okay, alright, alright.
RV: Well said, Tessa.
TM: I’m sorry, Reuben. I can tell I just crushed you there. I crushed your hope of a beautiful solar tube going through your place and your attic.
RS: It’s already in my garage. It’s in my garage.
TM: You haven’t punched… Oh, it’s not too late, you haven’t cut holes in your roof or your attic yet.
RV: It’s just a good thing he hired you, I’ll tell you that, Tessa. [laughter] The voice of reason. You’re the VOR now.
BO: Thank you, Rob, very much. I’m gonna jump in here. We should probably put a wrap on this episode. But I say this on every episode where we have a guest. We just scratched the surface of this conversation. So thank you, Rob, very much for your expertise and the information that you provided. It’s a joy to be able to tap into contractors with your level of expertise and your broad band of knowledge. It’s just amazing. I’m humbled by how much people know. I get to…
RV: What a lovely thing to say. That’s so nice of you to say that. And you guys, when you need me, just call. I could do podcasts with you all the time if you need me, okay?
BO: Thank you, Rob. That is very kind of you. Can you tell everybody how they can find you on the web, via phone, all your particulars?
RV: Find us at cbsmn.com. We’re right in Golden Valley, Minnesota. Or they can call my cellphone at 612-868-2922.
BO: Awesome, thank you again. Everybody, you’ve been listening to Structure Talk, a Structure Tech presentation. My name is Bill Oelrich alongside Tessa Murry and Reuben Saltzman, and we will catch you next time.