Featuring America's Home Inspector: Nationally Syndicated Columnist, Barry Stone
Choosing the Best Type of Smoke Alarm

Choosing the Best Type of Smoke Alarm

The House Detective: by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:  I installed new smoke alarms in my home about a year ago. Now that I’m selling the property, the buyer’s home inspector says these are not the best kind of smoke alarms. He recommends replacing them with the “photoelectric” kind. As long as the smoke alarms work when tested, what difference does it make if they’re one kind or another?  Ben

Dear Ben:  The purpose of a smoke alarm is to detect minute particles in the air and to make a loud noise when particles are present. There are currently three kinds of detectors on the market: ionization detectors, photoelectric detectors, and combinations of both.

When smoke alarms came into common use in the 1970’s, the only kind available was the ionization type. Ionization smoke detectors contain a small amount of a radioactive substance known as americium-241. This material creates a small electrical current between two metal plates. When smoke particles pass between these plates, the current is interrupted, and the alarm is activated. The problem with ionization detectors is that they respond best when there is a flaming fire but are slow to respond when there is smoke from a smoldering fire.

Photoelectric smoke detectors were developed in more recent years and have a different means for sensing the presence of particles in the air. In a photoelectric detector, there is a light source and a light-sensitive electric sensor. The light, however, is not directed toward the sensor. When smoke particles are present, the light strikes these particles and is reflected against the sensor, and this activates the alarm. The advantage with this type of smoke alarm is that it senses fires that are in their early stages of smoldering, before they burst into flames. This can make a life-saving time difference in many fire situations.

For maximum fire protection, dual alarms are available. These contain ionization and photoelectric sensors in a single unit. Unfortunately, there are no industry standards for the sensitivity of sensors in dual sensor alarms. Because of this, the ionization sensors in some dual alarms are not reliable. However, as long as the photoelectric sensor is functional, the alarm meets national standards established by Underwriters Laboratories.

Photoelectric smoke alarms are recommended by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) because they are the most reliable and give the most advanced warnings when a fire begins to occur. The IAFF regards ionization alarms and dual alarms as unacceptable. This is why your buyer’s home inspector recommended that you upgrade to photoelectric smoke alarms.

Upgrading your smoke alarms may not be a legal requirement in your local area or in your purchase contract, but it is still advisable. It is also recommended that you get combination alarms: the kind that detect carbon monoxide (CO) as well as smoke because CO alarms can save lives and are now required near bedroom entrances and in other interior locations. If you do replace the current smoke alarms with combo alarms, find the ones that have a voice recording, indicating whether smoke or CO has been detected.

Buyer Worried About Nonpermitted Fixtures

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:The home I am buying has fixtures that were installed by the sellers themselves, without permits. These include the 8-year-old heating and air conditioning system and the 10-year-old water heater. Should I accept these fixtures as they are or should I insist that they be permitted?  Susan

Dear Susan:  If the HVAC system and water heater were installed without permits, and particularly if they were installed by nonprofessionals, it is almost certain that they are not installed to code, and this could involve significant safety violations. The fixtures should be evaluated by a licensed plumbing and HVAC contractor, as well as by your home inspector, to verify the safety and integrity of these systems. If problems are found, you should request that the sellers make all necessary repairs.

The 10-year-old water heater is already past its expected useful life and will probably need replacement soon. Therefore, obtaining a permit at this late date is not a critical issue. The 8-year-old HVAC system, on the other hand, should still have years of remaining useful life. Therefore, it is recommended that an as-built permit be obtained for this system to enable the building department to inspect and approve the installation.

White Debris From Forced Air Heating

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry:Ever since we installed wood flooring, we notice little white granules on the floor every morning. We previously had white carpet, so we never noticed this before. We suspect that this is coming from the forced air registers in the ceiling, but we had the furnace checked by a heating contractor. He said the system was OK. We’re tired of vacuuming every day and are worried that this might be a health risk. What do you recommend?  Joan

Dear Joan:  If the white granules are coming from the heating system, this could be the symptom of a serious defect in your furnace. Step one is to confirm whether the forced air heating system is the source of the white granules. To do this, you should place filters inside the air registers where the problem is occurring. If white particles show up on the filters, the furnace is the source of the problem. If your heating contractor failed to identify this, you should contact another heating contractor and should discontinue use of the system until you have a reliable evaluation.

The combustion exhaust in a furnace is acidic. If this makes contact with galvanized steel, the acid will react with the zinc in the galvanizing, and this can produce a white powdery residue, as is commonly seen on the terminals of a car battery. If this substance is getting into the circulating air system, there could be a crack or hole in the heat exchanger, and that would be hazardous. Again, you should have this system thoroughly evaluated by a qualified HVAC contractor. You can also have the white particles analyzed by an environmental laboratory to determine their chemical composition. 

Changing Fireplace From Gas Logs to Wood Logs

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: We have a gas log fireplace in our home and would like to have real wood fires. Would it be safe to remove the gas logs and burn real logs instead?  Dave

Dear Dave: Before making changes to your fireplace, you should determine the type of fixture that you have, as well as its internal condition. If it was originally built as a wood-burning fireplace and then converted to a gas log set-up, it may be possible to return to solid-fuel use. This would depend on the extent of the conversion and the reason the conversion was made. For example, if the firebox or the damper assembly was altered, wood-burning use may no longer be safe. If a metal flue liner was installed, the liner may not be suited for the high temperatures produced by solid fuel combustion.  If the conversion was made because the firebox or the chimney was damaged, a return to wood combustion may not be possible without making costly repairs.

It is also possible that the fixture was never intended for solid fuel. It may have been specifically manufactured as a gas-burning appliance. If so, it should not be used with any fuel other than gas, no exceptions. Altering the intended use of a gas fireplace could damage the unit and cause a fire in your home.

Before making any changes in the way your fireplace is used, have it thoroughly inspected by a certified chimney sweep to ensure that all such changes are safe and in full compliance with applicable requirements. Otherwise, your home could become a “fire-place.”

Gas Water Heater Unsafe in Bathroom

The House Detective:  by Barry Stone, Certified Home Inspector

Dear Barry: When we bought our house, the home inspector found no problems with the water heater. On moving day, the gas man had a different story. Instead of lighting the pilot, he capped off the gas and said it is illegal to have a gas water heater in a bathroom. He advised moving it to another location or replacing it with an electric water heater. The seller says he installed the water heater himself and that the previous water heater was in the same location. Is the seller required to move or replace the water heater since he is the one who installed it, or is this our problem?  Lauren

Dear Lauren: Your home inspector should have reported this problem. It is common knowledge among experienced inspectors that gas-fueled water heaters are prohibited in bathrooms. You should notify your inspector of the situation and request a reinspection. The seller, on the other hand, may be liable for installing a water heater without a permit, but most homeowners are unaware that permits are required for water heater replacement.

The purpose of a permit for water heater installations is to insure compliance with pertinent plumbing and safety codes, including the prohibition against placement in a bathroom. If the seller did not obtain a permit, he is in no position to defend the quality of the installation. This does not mean that he is contractually obligated, as a seller, to correct the problem, but you have a reasonable basis for demanding that he do so.

Water heaters are prohibited in bathrooms for two reasons: 1) Faulty exhaust venting can contaminate the air, causing asphyxiation; 2) Inadequate combustion air supply can reduce the oxygen level in the room. Either of these would be very dangerous for someone relaxing in a tub of hot water.

The code requirement is clear. Its intent is to save lives. The gas man was right. The water heater should be moved or replaced with an electric one.