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Push-Button Test for Detectors Is Alarmingly Inaccurate


Question: Before buying my home, I hired a home inspector, and I remember that he tested all the smoke alarms. But shortly after we moved in, we had a fire and none of the alarms responded. How could this have occurred when the alarms passed inspection?

Answer: The standard method for testing a smoke alarm is to push the built-in test button, as recommended in the manufacturer's instructions that accompany every alarm. This is the method typically employed by professional home inspectors and most homeowners as part of routine home maintenance. But this test method overlooks the basic design characteristics of smoke detection devices.

The standard test button on a smoke alarm does not verify the ability of the fixture to detect smoke. Instead, it merely confirms that there is an active power source to the fixture (battery or 110 volts) and that the sound component (buzzer, horn, etc.) works. This means that a smoke alarm could pass a routine inspection without being able to detect smoke particles in the air.

The best alternative method for testing a smoke alarm is to perform an actual smoke test or to use an aerosol spray specifically designed for testing alarms.

There are two primary reasons why this type of test is not a common practice among home inspectors: First, it is not generally known, even among inspectors, that smoke alarm test buttons do not provide adequate testing. Second, smoke testing of an alarm can sometimes be problematic.

In some cases, alarms are difficult to reset after having been exposed to smoke or other vapors. When testing an alarm with smoke, an inspector runs the risk of having the device sound off for a prolonged time. This may be an acceptable inconvenience, considering the life-and-death importance of a functional alarm.

Inspector Reopens Drainpipe Controversy

Q: In the past, you have stated that the drainpipe for a water heater must terminate at the exterior of a building, even when the water heater is installed in a garage.

As a building inspector, I want to point out that the code section that says the drain must extend to the outside of the building is followed by a sentence that reads, "Such drains may terminate at other approved locations."

Many building departments, as a matter of policy, use the latter sentence to allow the drain to terminate at the garage floor. Draining to the garage floor is an accepted practice within the building industry because garage walls are elevated above the slab and because garage floors are sloped to promote drainage toward the driveway.

A: Thank you for reopening this topic of controversy among inspectors. As you know, there is no shortage of divergent opinions among building officials and inspectors.

The code defines itself as a minimum standard. Therefore, the prescription to terminate an overflow pipe at the exterior of a building can be regarded as a minimum requirement. The implied intent of this standard is to prevent water damage to the interior of the building and its contents. The code statement that allows that "such drains may terminate at other approved locations" should be understood in light of this minimum standard and its intent.

Other approved locations should be those that likewise prevent water damage. Examples, therefore, should be standpipes, laundry sinks, floor drains and the like.

The fact that a garage slab is sloped for drainage doesn't take into account that the floor is frequently used for the storage of personal property. Such storage commonly includes wood furniture, boxes of books, clothing and sundry valuables and near-valuables, all subject to costly damage if exposed to water. On the safety side of the issue, stored metal containers, such as cans of thinner and other combustible fluids, could rust if they get wet.

Because of these considerations, I think exterior termination of the overflow pipe is the more practical solution. Building departments are free to interpret the code differently.

Neighbors' Tree Roots Break Through Garage

Q: While cleaning our garage, we moved a cabinet that was in place since we bought the house several months ago and noticed that roots from our neighbors' palm tree had broken through the stucco wall and the cement foundation. The tree (not the stump) was removed a few months back, but neither our neighbors nor the seller of the home informed us that the tree had become a part of our garage. Rather than remove the entire stump, they left it in place. Will the stump eventually cause termite or structural damage? Who is responsible for the damage and repairs? Our home is 3 years old and it was inspected before our purchasing it.

A: Structural damage often occurs when trees with the potential for significant growth are thoughtlessly planted next to buildings. Here's my advice:

* Have the tree stump removed to prevent termite infestation.

* It is possible that your homeowners insurance may cover damage caused by tree roots, but you'll have to check with your insurance agent to verify.

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