Featuring America's Home Inspector: Nationally Syndicated Columnist, Barry Stone

The House Detective by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We purchased a house last week, and our home inspector found no problems with the forced air furnace. But when the man from the gas company came to turn on the service, he said there is a hole in the heat exchanger, and he “red flagged” the furnace as unsafe and unusable. What recourse do we have? Thomas

Dear Thomas: Heat exchangers are routinely disclaimed by home inspectors because they are located within the recesses of the furnace and are largely inaccessible. Cracks or holes in heat exchangers often occur in places that are not visible without dismantling the furnace, and such conditions are considered to be outside the scope of a home inspection.

A fair rebuttal to this disclaimer is that some portions of heat exchangers are exposed to view at the burner access, and home inspectors are supposed to disclose defects that are visible and accessible. The deciding factor in your case is that the hole in the heat exchanger may have been visible without dismantling the furnace. What also matters is whether there were any other indications of furnace damage. For example, if there were any irregularities in the flame pattern or the flame color, or if there was rust or soot in the burner chamber, or if there were black stains on the walls or ceilings near the air registers, such conditions would have been warning signs indicating possible damage to the heat exchanger.

Any observable defects in the heating system should have been reported by the home inspector, with a recommendation for further evaluation by a licensed HVAC contractor. If visible conditions such as these were overlooked, the inspector is liable.

Dear Barry: I’m not sure how often to have my septic tank pumped, but I’ve heard two opinions on the subject. Some say I should pump the system every 1-2 years. Others say, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” Just leave it alone unless there’s a problem. Some even say that needless pumping can cause loosened solids to clog the leach lines. It’s been twelve years since my septic system has been pumped. What do you recommend? Ken

Dear Ken: The septic opinions you’ve heard are incorrect in opposite extremes. Pumping the tank every 1-2 years is needlessly excessive. As long as the bacterial environment in the tank is good, the solids should continue to decompose, and as long as the leach field was property installed and is not too old, the liquids should continue to be absorbed into the earth through the leach lines.

Maintaining the bacterial balance in the tank can be done simply and inexpensively. There are common products for this purpose, available in hardware stores. All that is needed is to flush the contents down the toilet once or twice a year. And care should be taken not to drain strong laundry detergents or other chemicals into the system.

To ensure that the system is performing adequately, the tank should probably be pumped every five years. The idea that pumping will clog the leach field is unfounded: pumping removes the solids from the system before they can flow downstream to the leach lines.

If you’ve gone 12 years without the system being pumped and inspected, you’re long overdue and should have this done soon.