What I Left Out: Inspecting Houses and the Same Old Thing

By Matt Cantor
Thursday February 25, 2010 - 09:16:00 AM

I have tried to focus, these last five years, on specific issues in each of my columns. I didn’t want to ramble and waste your time, and I tried to avoid talking about my job as much as I could manage, though I’m clear that this didn’t work out so well. But, this being my last print-edition column, it occurs to me that I should talk a little more about the inspection process—the process of looking at houses. When we look at houses, what are we looking for? What do we expect to find? What matters? Every day, I find myself trying to answer that question in a new way, and most days I find a small number of things at the top of my list. It seems to me that this might be worth sharing as this column comes to a close. 


1. Seismic everything 

The houses that populate our region (let’s just stick with our organiform, hippie-hamlet Berkeley and environs) were built, for the most part, about 80 to 90 years ago and, though they were built in the shadow and wake of one of recent history’s most notorious and well-studied earthquakes, the architects and builders of these houses did little to nothing to keep them on their moorings and 3-D (as opposed to flat) when it all started shaking again. Why is this? What would cause this mass somnambulistic design crisis? I’m really not sure.  

I think we wake up to new notions slowly, even when the failure to open our eyes is life-threatening. The age of engineering reason is arriving slowly and, despite very good reasons to do better in the 1910s and 1920s, we just didn’t manage it in most cases. We even built an entire concrete stadium right on top of a known fault line. It was a bit like sleepwalking with tools and buckets of concrete, but it seems that the concepts that we take for granted with regard to earthquakes were too rarified or too poorly understood in the design community to have made much difference in the way most houses were built. I’m still working on this one, and I’ll be back to you if I have any new insight. 

What is terribly clear is that most houses I see, all the way up to very recently built ones (and how many of those do we have in Cambridge by the Bay?), are mostly lacking in very basic elements that can protect these structures against the predictable forces of the big earthquake that is already a little late. While we may wait another 20 years, it’s not damned likely. The paleoseismology of the Hayward Fault suggests that the regularity of earthquakes here is so unimaginative that it will be a surprise if it’s another 10 years before another major quake. This fault has been studied pretty well and it tends to go off about every 140 years and, with the last big one having happened in 1868 (the year of Japan’s Meiji Restoration and of Edison’s first patented invention: the electric vote recorder—don’t even get me started; those jokes write themselves!), we can’t be very far from the next one. 

I’m not going to spend a lot time talking about what makes most of our houses ill-fit for even a moderate earthquake (I’ve written a lot about this if you want to search the Planet’s online archives) but the really sad part is that most houses that have been deliberately upgraded (the popular term is seismically retrofitted) are far shy of being ready for the nasty shake we’re gonna get. I see it again and again—screws used where nails should be, bolting faulty in numerous ways, too little of everything. So this is number one.  

After looking at the failing paint job, the thin frazzled roof, the cracked foundation (low on my list of what matters, most of the time—this always surprises people), I end up caring a lot about seismic readiness, specifically because we have not had anything vaguely like this coming earthquake since before all our houses were built (with a very few exceptions) and because the effects will surely be devastating. A paint job. Well, you might have some leakage or a little more decay next year. Get back to me. 


2. Wiring 

The next one I tend to care a lot about is bad wiring and, more specifically, bad breaker panels. Let’s focus on the latter for a moment. There is at least one very unreliable brand of panel out there and you should know its name. It’s called Federal Pacific, and a huge number of panels were made by this company, mostly in the ’60s and ’70s. While there was scant response from governmental agencies (New Jersey took civil action), hundreds of thousands of panels that do not work so well were scattered across the United States and Canada. What does it mean when an electrical breaker doesn’t work? It means that your house burns down. That’s a bad thing. Kills people, destroys property.  

Breakers have one job and one job alone. It is to stand watch 24/7 and to shut things down when the wires in the house get hotter than they were meant to get. If they get too hot, they can set something on fire. We have specific heat ratings for every part of a given circuit (the wire, the bulbs, the switches) and based on these, we install a fuse or a breaker that is designed to kill the power to the circuit if the wires are getting too hot. Federal Pacific Electric or FPE breakers have been independently tested by a number of experts and agencies and found to show extremely low reliability. These breakers have been found to not trip regardless of the heat level in many cases. Though my sources are extremely varied and filled with disagreement, it is clear that these breakers are terribly unreliable. If a house has an FPE panel, I don’t mince words. Get rid of it. The consequences (like our earthquake up above) are just too great. Moreover, a new panel might be $1,000-$2,000 depending on location and size and I don’t think that cost is high enough to warrant the danger. At this point, most of the FPE panels I see are more than 40 years old and I feel as though the technology of breakers was just too underdeveloped at that time to consider worthy of the risk. Further, can we expect any piece of vital safety equipment to be adequately reliable at that age. I’m over 50 and I know that I am not utterly unreliable. Ask anyone who knows me. 

A few additional items on wiring because I think they’re extremely important: Aluminum wiring was widely used for wiring in the mid-’60s through the early ’70s at a time when copper markets were sky high. This has turned out badly. If you have a building built during that time, have the wiring checked. Again, as with all wiring and breaker problems, we’re talking about fire, and fire’s no joke. Lastly, if a house has too few circuits, we all know that you’re more likely to be blowing fuses or breakers. That means that the wires are getting too hot and, again, we’re playing with the possibility of fire.  


3. Fire alert and escape 

As long as we’re talking about fire, I’d like to beat my favorite dead horse (I’ve had him stuffed. We call him Elmer) and talk briefly about escape from houses. If you have smoke detectors with fresh batteries well distributed through your house (bedrooms, hallways, all levels), you will live. That’s what the statistics say. Do that. Do not lock yourself in your house. If you need a key to get out or a special tool, change it. It’s a lousy way to die. 

OK, I’m almost done. Here’s the last item, and it might cost some money.  


4. Falls 

If you have stairs, inside or out, that are at all uneven or lacking in handrails, fix them. This is what’s going to kill you (again, statistics). Fix the uneven walkway, add a light outside and remove the slippery rug from the stairs. 

The rest is all commentary and nuisance. Houses don’t fall apart that fast (if they were built in 1920), and the main things that are going to hurt you are relatively few in number. Take a deep breath. Every houses has a thousand things that need fixing (or at least a hundred) and nobody passes a green-point rating (unless it’s one of those new houses I hate so much), so don’t worry: focus on what matters most. That’s what I try to do, anyway.