Crawlspaces are notorious for the nasty discoveries made there by homeowners, inspectors, and home remodelers, and it isn’t hard to figure out why; for one thing, their cool, dark environment attracts undesirable pests and can promote dangerous conditions. And since the crawlspace is mostly unmonitored, hazards can breed there unchecked for a long time. Never enter a crawlspace without wearing protective clothing and having two flashlights (in case the first one stops working).
The following are some of the more common dangers discovered in crawlspaces:
- Metal and Wooden Protrusions: Depending on the age of your home, the crawlspace may house some unwelcoming structural protrusions that you may bump your head on or cut your hand on, so proceed with caution. Even if your crawlspace is clean and free of pests, it’s no guarantee that it will also be free of a nail head, bent metal attachment, or joist or beam in an unexpected area. Protect your head by wearing a ball cap or hard hat, and wear gloves to protect your hands.
- Pests: Dirt crawlspaces provide the environment that is favored by ants, termites and other insects, and various other pests, including snakes and scorpions, as well as warm-blooded animals looking for a place to nest, such as raccoons, mice and rats. Some of these pests are poisonous; others may attack when startled. Always wear protective clothing and use a strong flashlight to illuminate the space before entering it.
- Mold: Just like pests, mold and other types of fungus can grow rapidly in crawlspaces. Mold is a health concern, as well as a cause of wood decay, which may require costly repairs. Airborne mold spores can potentially enter the living space from the crawlspace. Molds produce allergens (substances that can cause allergic reactions) and irritants. In some cases, they can produce potentially toxic substances called mycotoxins. Inhaling or touching mold or mold spores may cause allergic reactions in sensitive individuals. Allergic responses include hay fever-type symptoms, such as sneezing, a runny nose, red eyes, and skin rash (dermatitis).
- Asbestos Insulation: Do not disturb asbestos! The microscopic fibers that cause illness become airborne when the insulation is handled or disturbed. If it appears to be in good shape, it might not be a problem at all. Prolonged exposure to asbestos insulation can cause mesothelioma, which is a cancer of the lining of the chest and the abdominal cavity, as well as asbestosis, in which the lungs become scarred with fibrous tissue.
- Standing Water or Sewage: Dirt crawlspaces are susceptible to water seepage, which can create a host of problems, such microbial growth, odors, damage to stored belongings, and risk of electrical shock.
- Improper Wiring: Look for loose wiring, open junction boxes, or wiring that has become loose and fallen to the floor. If you discover any of these issues, contact a licensed electrical contractor for repairs and possible updates to your system.
- Source of Energy Waste: Traditionally, crawlspaces have been vented to prevent problems with moisture, and most building codes require vents to aid in removing moisture from the crawlspace. However, many building professionals now recognize that ventilated crawlspaces allow a great deal of heat loss in the winter and moisture intrusion in the summer from damp air. Have your InterNACHI inspector evaluate your crawlspace and recommend options for preventing energy loss in this area.
- Structural Collapse: If you have reason to suspect that the home or foundation is unstable, especially following an earthquake or flood, it might be dangerous to enter its crawlspace. It’s easy to become pinned, trapped or even crushed inside unstable crawlspaces. Make sure someone knows that you’re going into the crawlspace before you enter it.
The Bathroom Vent System
Bathroom ventilation systems are designed to exhaust odors and damp air to the home's exterior. A typical system consists of a ceiling fan unit connected to a duct that terminates at the roof. Ventilation systems should be installed in all bathrooms, including those with windows, since windows will not be opened during the winter in cold climates.
The fan may be controlled in one of several ways.
- Most are controlled by a conventional wall switch.
- A timer switch may be mounted on the wall.
- A wall-mounted humidistat can be pre-set to turn the fan on and off based on different levels of relative humidity.
It’s not always easy to tell whether the bathroom vent fan is operating as it should. Newer fans may be very quiet but work just fine. Older fans may be very noisy or very quiet. If an older fan is quiet, it may not be working well.
Bathroom ventilation fans should be periodically checked for dust buildup, which can impede air flow. Particles of moisture-laden animal dander and lint are also attracted to the fan because of its static charge. Homeowners should regularly clean dirty fan covers to prevent this kind of buildup.
The following conditions indicate insufficient ventilation in the bathroom:
- stains on the bathroom walls and/or ceiling;
- corrosion of metal parts of the vent system;
- visible mold on the walls and/or ceiling;
- peeling paint or wallpaper;
- frost on the interior of the bathroom window;
- high indoor humidity; and/or
- improper duct termination.
The most common defect related to the bathroom’s ventilation system is improper termination of the duct. Vents must terminate at the home’s exterior.
The most common improper terminations locations are:
- mid-level in the attic. These are easy to spot;
- beneath the insulation in the attic. The duct may terminate beneath the insulation or there may be no duct installed; and
- under attic vents. The duct must terminate at the home’s exterior.
Improperly terminated ventilation systems may appear to work fine from inside the bathroom, so the homeowner or inspector may have to look in the attic or on the roof. Sometimes, poorly installed ducts will loosen or become disconnected at joints or connections.
Ducts that leak or terminate in the attic can cause problems from condensation. Warm, moisture-laden air will condense on cold attic framing, insulation and other materials. This condition has the potential to cause health and/or decay problems from mold, or damage to building materials, such as drywall. Moisture buildup also reduces the effectiveness of thermal insulation.
Mold growth is another undesirable consequence of improperly vented damp air. Even though mold growth may take place primarily in the attic and basement/crawlspace, mold spores can be sucked into the living area of a home by low air pressure, which is usually created by the expulsion of household air from exhaust fans in bathrooms and kitchens, and from clothes dryers and heating equipment.
Ventilation ducts must be made from appropriate materials and oriented effectively in order to ensure that damp air is properly exhausted.
Ventilation ducts must:
- terminate outdoors. Ducts should never terminate within the building envelope;
- contain a screen or louvered (angled) slats at its termination to prevent bird, rodent and insect entry;
- be as short and straight as possible and avoid turns. Longer ducts allow more time for vapor to condense and also force the exhaust fan to work harder;
- be insulated, especially in cooler climates. Cold ducts encourage condensation;
- protrude at least several inches from the roof;
- be equipped with a roof termination cap that protects the duct from the elements; and
- be installed according to the manufacturer's recommendations.
The following tips are also helpful. Ventilation ducts should:
- be made from inflexible metal, PVC, or other rigid material. Unlike dryer exhaust vents, they should not droop; and
- have smooth interiors. Ridges will encourage vapor to condense, allowing water to back-flow into the exhaust fan or leak through joints onto vulnerable surfaces.
Above all else, a bathroom ventilation fan should be connected to a duct capable of venting water vapor and odors to the outdoors. Mold growth within the bathroom or attic is a clear indication of improper ventilation that must be corrected in order to avoid structural decay and respiratory health issues for family members.
Bed Bugs and Their Prevention
Bed bugs are small, flightless, rust-colored parasites that feed on the blood of humans and other warm-blooded animals. Homeowners should learn the telltale signs of these pests.
Adult bed bugs are flat and the size of apples, with rust-colored, oval bodies. Newly hatched bed bugs are semi-transparent, light tan in color, and the size of a poppy seed. Yet, due to their elusive nature, their presence is usually discovered through peripheral clues rather than by seeing the bugs themselves. Some of these signs include fecal spots, blood smears, crushed bugs, or the itchy bumps that may result from bites. The bugs may be disturbed while feeding and leave a cluster of bumps, or they may bite in a row, marking the path of a blood vessel. The parasites emit a characteristic musty odor, although the smell is sometimes not present in even severe infestations. The bugs also emit a scent that is picked up by dogs, which has lead to the implementation of dogs for bed bug detection. Properly trained dogs can find bed bugs in wall voids, furniture gaps, and other places that homeowners may overlook. This helps exterminators to know where they should focus their efforts.
History and Resurgence
Bed bugs were all but eradicated in the 1950s, but they have re-emerged in a big way. At the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Bed Bug Summit in 2009, researchers decided that the parasite’s revival is more appropriately termed a pandemic rather than an epidemic, noting its rapid spread across large regions and different continents. The United States has seen a 50-fold increase in bed bug infestations over the last five years, according to the National Pest Management Association. The outbreak has affected most parts of North America and Europe, especially in urban areas.
Researchers believe that bed bugs have roused from a half-century of hibernation for two reasons: the termination of the use of the pesticide DDT; and a rise in international travel. DDT, a powerful synthetic pesticide, was widely used in agriculture until a public outcry concerning its safety lead to a U.S.-ban of the chemical in 1972, followed by international bans. Unbeknownst to the environmentalists of the time, these laws would permit future outbreaks to grow unchecked, which is precisely what happened when travel increased from countries where bed bugs were never subjugated, such as India.
Urban hubs of international travel, such as New York City, have been hit hardest by the resurgence. The bugs hitch rides from country to country in suitcases and creep into hotel rooms, where other guests are then exposed and unknowingly spread the parasites to movie theatres, cabs, buses, hospitals, their homes, and everywhere in between. In New York City, bed bug reports increased 800% from 2008 to 2009, a year in which the Department of Housing Preservation and Development received 13,152 complaints of bed bug infestations.
Treatment and Prevention
Because bed bugs are adept at hiding almost anywhere, an alarming quantity of possessions, from curtains to books and picture frames, must be discarded or quarantined. Some possessions may be salvaged if they are sealed in special casing long enough for the bed bugs to die, which can take many months. During this time, residents may be forced to move out of the home and into temporary housing.
Fortunately, the health dangers posed by bed bugs appear to be limited to temporary skin irritation and inflammation, akin to mosquito bites. There are no known cases of disease transmission from bed bugs to humans. However, a small percentage of the population may experience anaphylactic shock. Measures should be taken to prevent bacterial infection of bites from bed bugs by washing the area with soap and water and applying an antiseptic.
It’s best for bed bugs to be treated by pest management professionals (PMPs) and not homeowners, as there is risk that an inexperienced person may make the infestation worse. For instance, bug bombs are ineffective and may actually spread the infestation. Even chemical sprays designed to kill bed bugs can have the opposite effect, if used improperly. PMPs can inspect for bed bugs in their immature stages of development, including their eggs, while homeowners are not trained to do this. In addition, should the homeowner attempt to clean up an infestation before calling in a professional, this may make it difficult for the PMP to assess the true extent of the infestation.
The following tactics may be useful for confirmation of and temporary relief from the presence of bed bugs:
- Remove bed skirts, as they provide easy access for the bugs to travel from the floor to your bed. If you must have bed skirts, make sure they do not reach the floor.
- Move your bed away from the wall. Bed bugs cannot fly, but they can climb walls in order to fall onto the bed.
- Place furniture legs in tin cans coated with talcum powder, petroleum jelly or a non-evaporative liquid to deter the bugs from climbing.
- Place a strip of duct tape at the base of furniture with the sticky side out. This tactic can be used to confirm the presence of bed bugs because it will trap them in place.
- Spray cracks and crevices with an insecticide designed to control bed bugs. Follow the label's directions carefully. However, do not treat bedding, towels or clothing with insecticide.
Homeowners can limit their chances of exposure by purchasing only new furniture, as stowaway bed bugs can hide in older or used chairs and mattresses. Hostels, hotels and motels host many travelers and are breeding grounds for bed bugs, and many hostels ban sleeping bags for this reason. Unfortunately, person-to-person contact is difficult to avoid.
Bed bugs are a growing, serious threat. Homeowners who suspect that they or their home has been exposed to bed bugs may benefit by learning to recognize and become familiar with these pests because of their potential to infest the home and damage property.
12 Devices for Child-Proofing Your Home
About 2.5 million children are injured or killed each year by hazards in the home. The good news is that many of these incidents can be prevented by using simple child-safety devices available today. Any safety device you buy should be sturdy enough to prevent injury to your child, yet easy for you to use. It's important to follow installation instructions carefully.
In addition, if you have older children in the house, be sure they re-secure safety devices. Remember, too, that no device is completely childproof; determined youngsters have been known to disable them. You can child-proof your home for a fraction of what it would cost to have a professional do it. And safety devices are easy to find. You can buy them at hardware stores, baby equipment shops, supermarkets, drug stores, home and linen stores, and through online and mail-order catalogues.
Here are some child-safety devices that can help prevent many injuries to young children.
- Use safety latches and locks for cabinets and drawers in the kitchen, bathrooms, and other areas to help prevent poisonings and other injuries. Safety latches and locks on cabinets and drawers can help prevent children from gaining access to medicines and household cleaners, as well as knives and other sharp objects. Look for safety latches and locks that adults can easily install and use, but that are sturdy enough to withstand pulls and tugs from children. Safety latches are not a guarantee of protection, but they can make it more difficult for children to reach dangerous substances. Even products with child-resistant packaging should be locked away out of reach; such packaging is not guaranteed to be childproof. However, according to Colleen Driscoll, executive director of the International Association for Child Safety (IAFCS), "Installing an ineffective latch on a cabinet is not an answer for helping parents with safety. It is important to understand parental habits and behavior. While a latch that loops around cabinet knob covers is not expensive and easy to install, most parents do not consistently re-latch it." Parents should be sure to purchase and install safety products that they will actually adapt to and use.
- Use safety gates to help prevent falls down stairs and to keep children away from dangerous areas. Look for safety gates that children cannot dislodge easily, but that adults can open and close without difficulty. For the top of stairs, use gates that screw into the wall; these are more secure than pressure gates. New safety gates that meet safety standards display a certification seal from the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA). If you have an older safety gate, be sure it doesn't have "V" shapes that are large enough for a child's head and neck to fit into.
- Use door locks to help prevent children from entering rooms and other areas with possible dangers, including a swimming pool. Door knob covers, while inexpensive and recommended by some, are generally not effective for children who are tall enough to reach the doorknob; a child's ingenuity and persistence can usually trump the cover's effectiveness. To prevent access to a swimming pool, door locks on safety gates should be placed high and out of reach of young children. Locks should be used in addition to fences and alarms. Sliding glass doors with locks that must be re-secured after each use are often not an effective barrier.
- Use anti-scald devices for faucets and shower heads, and set your water heater temperature to 120° F to help prevent burns. A qualified plumber may need to install these.
- Use smoke detectors on every level of your home and near all bedrooms to alert you to a fire. Smoke detectors are essential home safety devices whether you have children in your home or not. Test your smoke detectors once a month to make sure they're working properly. If they rely only on batteries, change them at least once a year, or consider using 10-year batteries.
- Use window guards and safety netting to help prevent falls from windows, balconies, decks and landings. A window screen alone is not effective for preventing a child from falling out of a window. Check these safety devices frequently to make sure they’re secure and properly installed and maintained. There should be no more than 4 inches between the bars of the window guard. Be sure at least one window in each room can be easily used for escape by an adult in case of a fire.
- Use corner and edge bumpers to help prevent injuries from falls against sharp edges of furniture and the rough edges of a fireplace. Be sure to look for bumpers that stay on securely.
- Use receptacle/outlet covers and plates to help prevent children from electrical shock and possible electrocution. Be sure the outlet protectors cannot be easily removed by children and are large enough so that they cannot choke on them if they manage to dislodge one from the outlet.
- Use carbon monoxide (CO) detectors outside all bedrooms to help prevent CO poisoning from dangerous vapors that may enter the living space from combustion appliances and an attached garage. Similar to smoke alarms and smoke detectors, CO detectors should be installed in all homes, regardless of the presence of children.
- Cut window blind cords to help prevent children from strangling in blind-cord loops. Window blind cord safety tassels on mini-blinds and tension devices on vertical blinds and drapery cords can help prevent deaths and injuries from strangulation. Inner cord stops can also help prevent strangulation. However, the IAFCS's Ms. Driscoll states, "Cordless is best. Although not all families are able to replace all products, it is important that parents understand that any corded blind or window treatment can still be a hazard. Unfortunately, children are still becoming entrapped in dangerous blind cords despite advances in safety in recent years." For older mini-blinds, cut the cord loop, remove the buckle, and put safety tassels on each cord. Be sure that older vertical blinds and drapery cords have tension or tie-down devices to hold the cords tight. When buying new mini-blinds, vertical blinds and draperies, ask for safety features to prevent child strangulation.
- Use door stops and door holders to help prevent injuries to fingers and hands. These devices installed on doors and door hinges can help prevent small fingers and hands from being pinched or crushed. Be sure that any safety device for doors is easy to use and not likely to break into small parts, which could be a choking hazard for young children.
- Use a cell phone or cordless phone to make it easier to continuously watch young children, especially when they're in bathtubs, swimming pools, and other potentially dangerous areas.
There are a number of different safety devices that can be purchased to ensure the safety of children in the home. Homeowners can ask their InterNACHI inspector about these and other safety measures during their Annual Home Maintenance Inspection. Parents should be sure to do their own consumer research to find the most effective safety devices for their home that are age-appropriate for their children's protection, as well as affordable and compatible with their household habits and lifestyle. They can find more information for household safety tips and product recommendations at the IAFCS's website at www.iafcs.org.