Home & Garden Columns

About the House: What to Look For When Looking Under the House

By Matt Cantor
Friday February 29, 2008

I spend a lot of time under houses. This isn't glamorous but it's what I have to do in order to do my job. Actually I don't mind it much. 

I can't tell you how often I’ve been suiting up (yes, I wear a funny suit) to “get down” as it were, and had a client say to me “Well I guess this is why you get the big bucks.” Actually, I’m still waiting for the big bucks (any time now) but I think I get paid for observations, ideas and salient comments. Crawling is just something one has to do to see all parts of the patient. Same with climbing ladders. I’m more than a little acrophobic but if I don’t see it, I can’t figure out what’s wrong (turn your head to the right and cough). 

So it’s very frustrating, as it was yesterday, to get into a narrow crawlspace and find that I’m surrounded by ducting that’s about the size of a torso, sinuating through this narrow confine and disabling my ability to move about, see and discover. 

One thing that I saw yesterday and often do see is crushed sections of ducting (thus decreasing their performance) as a result of former visitors having done what it took to move about, work and see. These may have been the Wild Amoral Cableman or the Pacific Clueless Beer-Bellied Termite Inspector. You have to be very patient to actually catch one of these in the act.  

I try to move over and around ducting as I do my job but it’s really hard. Sometimes. I have to go an extra twenty-five feet just to get around a section of ducting and sometimes it can’t be done.  

Ducting isn’t the only building element that obstructs access. The way that foundation sections are poured can do that same. Also plumbing, wiring, furnaces, seismic bracing panels and abandoned equipment (Amazingly, people leave furnaces, water heaters and all sort of garbage under houses). 

While this isn’t much of a problem for the homeowner most days, it become one when they want to have almost anything done in the crawlspace including wiring, telephone repair, cable TV installation, alarm system work, plumbing. The list goes on. It also matters for inspections. It’s very hard to learn important things when you can’t move around or see. 

Also, ducting, when it’s the obstructive element, gets damaged and not just mashed in the manner I’ve described already. I see disconnected or loosely connected ducting in crawlspaces all the time. This makes it very hard to get the house warm and also increases global warming, as well as crawlspace warming and wallet de-greening. There’s little doubt that I see this more often in tight obstructed crawlspaces than in houses where the ducting is neatly hung up and out of the way where no one need climb over it. 

I should say at this point that, while nobody like a good gripe session more than me, that is not actually my intent.  

First, let me say to all the builders and architects out there that crawlspaces are just that, for crawling, not for packing full of ducting or other equipment as an unplanned afterthought. If you’ve ever been in a crawlspace looking at all this stuff, that’s what it looks like … an afterthought or better, no thought. 

If a crawlspace is three feet high (this would be a Fairmont Hotel of crawlspaces), I think that tubular flexible ducting, such as we commonly see, would be fine. There would still be at least twenty inches of space below everything to move about and see. Even two feet of height would be better than most so the message to the builder or designer is, add more crawlspace height. Current regulations require eighteen inches of height crawlspaces with certain exceptions for periodic beams intruding into that height. If small ducts are well placed in a system like this, you can still see and work but it requires some thinking to install a system that work and frankly, it’s not much height if you have large ducts. 

By the way, when ducting ends up laying on the ground, as is often the case in tight crawlspaces, it’s common to see it having been torn open and turned into a night club for Ratatouille. When their well secured to framing a foot above the ground, it’s less common simply because it’s harder to breech. 

One solution to this problem is to use shallow metal ducting attached to the bottom of the floor framing. A metal duct that is a foot wide and four inches deep is about the same volume as an eight inch flexible duct (a common size). This gains four inches of head room and also decreases the likelihood of warm air leaks and rodent raves. 

If you’re upgrading the heating in your house and your crawlspace is a little tight this is well worth thinking about. 

The same is true of water piping, waste lines and all those other things that fill these tight crawlspaces. When redoing any system, see if you can route and place these so that the space is left largely clear. You and your varied minions are more likely to catch problems in the future and any work that has to be done down under can be completed more swiftly and at lower cost. 

A seismic retrofitting job may be a protracted and costly trial if the space is filled with huge ducts and far quicker and likely cheaper if the ducting has first been upgraded and moved. 

By the way, ducted heating systems aren’t the only option for heating and a tight crawlspace might be just the added incentive to push you into a more expensive but utterly delightful radiant-floor heating system. 

This logic should be extended to other systems as well. It’s wise to be sure that all equipment gets installed in such a way as to allow for repair, replacement and inspection over the life of the system. It usually takes a little more energy to make sure that an attic, crawlspace or electrical panel is accessible but it sure can decrease excess stomach acid when you have to find or fix something. 

When building or doing a major remodeling job, one of the smartest things one can do is to involve the subcontractor at the design phase. The heating contractor is likely to point out the tight crawlspace or the lack of an adequate space for a cold air return duct to the attic (if that’s where it’s going) and can influence small changes that might be cost neutral and aesthetically insignificant at this early stage. 

Every remodel, no matter how small is a chance to look at many aspects and to ease the way for the next set of changes. While doing all these things, keep access in mind. Remember that everything you install will eventually break down and need repair and that somebody is going to have to crawl over there to get to it. I’m happy to say that new codes are better in demanding space leading to equipment like furnaces but cities are slow to apply these in older homes. 

If nothing else, this is a way of being nice to the many people who have to work in the space below your home over the years and who knows, in your next life, you may come back as a home inspector.