Saturday, November 27, 2010

Don't lick your deck!

This is a rewrite of an article in my Newsletter of January 11, 2003

This is me in today's economy! Not quite yet.
If you can visualize, when I originally wrote this article (I have since sold this house) I was sitting in my den looking across my laptop computer at the TV thinking about past newsletter articles. I was wondering when backdrafting of someone's combustion appliance may cause a problem, if problems with the T & P valve on their water heater may send it through their roof or if much of their conditioned air is being sucked out by their attic power ventilator.

Out the window over the TV was my wonderful three-level deck constructed of the finest grade of CCA treated lumber. You did know I was once a real contractor. It does have a few advantages. During the summer my wife and teenage daughters sun bathed on that deck. Then it hits me; this stuff may harm my grandchildren and yours. Hence today's article.

Warning: Don't lick your deck!

Great deck licker!
All right now, get your dirty little mind out of the gutter. I didn't even think about what you just thought until my little "Realtor" wife said "Lick WHAT?" And you think I'm a dirty old man.

Are you aware that it has now been determined that your deck may kill you and those you love? What is this world coming to? Is there nowhere I can relax without being concerned for my safety, not to mention yours? Did you realize that if you really want to poison your spouse you could rub their steak (or hamburger for those who are in a slump) across the boards on your deck just before throwing them on the grill and add arsenic as a tenderizer? You don't even need to visit the hardware store for rat poison and there will be no record of your purchase of the arsenic. Yep, what do you think keeps them dirty little "T-devils" (what I call termites) out of that there green lumber on your deck.

This is not my deck
Look out your rear window, is there a deck constructed of treated wood on your home? Most of you have one. It may be, or was at one time, "green." What about in the backyard or at your child's neighborhood or school playground is there play equipment constructed of treated wood? What about the house you just listed or sold? If so, you had better pay attention to this.

Per our Environmental Protection Agency, as of February 12, 2002, we were informed of the "voluntary decision by industry to move consumer use of treated lumber products away from a variety of pressure-treated wood that contains arsenic by Dec. 31, 2003, in favor of new alternative wood preservatives." You did get that "voluntary" didn't you. This was a major component of the construction industry and you can be assured that "voluntary" means they had seen the writing on the wall and the guillotine is about to chop off their heads. Did their taking action before the disaster happened to protect their interest? You have heard the words "class action law suite" haven't you? What better defense than "We determined it was a problem and we have voluntarily steered in a different direction."

So, why should I not "Lick my deck?" You know that I know you are not quite strange enough to walk out the back door and lick your deck, don't you? Well, maybe a few of you would. I have seen a few strange ones, but we won't get into that, you know there are no strange home inspectors and absolutely there are no strange builders or Realtors. I think I know a few of all of the above that have been licking their decks and it has affected their brain. Sorry, I'm rambling.

This transition affected virtually all residential uses of wood treated with chromated copper arsenate, also known as CCA, including wood used in play-structures, decks, picnic tables, landscaping timbers, residential fencing, patios and walkways/boardwalks. By Jan. 2004, EPA did not allow CCA products for any of these residential uses. Be aware, most of what you know as "treated wood" in existing structures constructed prior to 2004 is this product!

"This action will result in a reduction of virtually all residential uses of CCA-treated wood within less than two years," says EPA Administrator Christie Whitman. "Today's announcement greatly accelerates the transition to new alternatives, responding to market place demands for wood products that do not contain CCA. This transition will substantially reduce the time it could have taken to go through the traditional regulatory process." I guess this mean that if the manufacture's hadn't volunteered something worse was about to happen.

"This is a responsible action by the industry," Whitman continued. "Today's action will ensure that future exposures to arsenic are minimized in residential settings. The companies deserve credit for coming forward in a voluntary way to undergo a conversion and retooling of their plants as quickly as possible. The transition to new alternatives will provide consumers with greater choice for their building needs." Do you have any vague idea how much of this stuff is out there already? Just think how much you have seen in your lifetime.

So, what about my deck or my children's play equipment?

Here is what the EPA has to say:

EPA has not concluded that CCA-treated wood poses unreasonable risks to the public for existing CCA-treated wood being used around or near their homes or from wood that remains available in stores. EPA does not believe there is any reason to remove or replace CCA-treated structures, including decks or playground equipment. EPA is not recommending that existing structures or surrounding soils be removed or replaced. Sound a little strange to you? If it isn't any big deal, why did they discontinue its use? Do you think this statement may have something to do with the cost of replacing what is already out there, or the potential lawsuits that might come out of recommendations to remove it?

What should I do about my existing deck or play equipment?

From the EPA:

While available data are very limited, some studies suggest that applying certain penetrating coatings (e.g., oil-based semi-transparent stains) on a regular basis (one re-application per year or every other year depending upon wear and weathering) may reduce the migration of wood preservative chemicals from CCA-treated wood.

How is that for a carefully worded statement?

The EPA goes on to explain what the issue is all about on how you should deal with it:

Arsenic is a known human carcinogen and, thus, the Agency believes that any reduction in the levels of potential exposure to arsenic is desirable. As always, when children play outside, whether around CCA-treated play structures or not, they should wash their hands prior to eating. Also, food should not be placed directly on any outside surface, including treated wood. CCA-treated wood should never be burned, as toxic chemicals may be released as part of the smoke and ashes. Consumers who work with CCA-treated wood are encouraged to use common sense in order to reduce any potential exposure to chemicals in the wood. Specific actions include sawing, sanding and machining CCA-treated wood outdoors, and wearing a dust mask, goggles and gloves when performing this type of activity. Clean up all sawdust, scraps and other construction debris thoroughly and dispose of it in the trash (i.e., municipal solid waste). Do not compost or mulch sawdust or remnants from CCA-treated wood. Those working with the wood should wash all exposed areas of their bodies thoroughly with soap and water before eating, drinking or using tobacco products. Work clothes should be washed separately from other household clothing before wearing them again

What is the EPA doing about this issue?

During the past several months (January 2003), CCA-treated wood has been the subject of an EPA evaluation under provisions of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, which direct EPA to periodically reevaluate older pesticides to ensure that they meet current safety standards. The Agency is continuing to proceed with a risk assessment. EPA is also continuing to evaluate public comments and input from an external scientific review panel on methodologies to perform a risk assessment for residential settings and potential exposure to children from CCA.

Hum - - Thinking about licking my deck.
You have the general idea of the issue and this has become a bit long but, if you are interested in more and how this may relate to your children or grandchildren here are questions and answers provided by the "U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission" in February of 2002 (these have been edited for brevity and to remove duplicated statements):

What is chromated copper arsenate (CCA)?

Chromated copper arsenate, or CCA, is a chemical compound mixture containing inorganic arsenic, copper and chromium that has been used for wood preservative uses since the 1940s. CCA is injected into wood by a process that uses high pressure to saturate wood products with the chemicals. CCA is intended to protect wood from dry rot, fungi, molds, termites and other pests that can threaten the integrity of wood products.

Chromated copper arsenate or CCA, is a chemical preservative that is used to protect wood from being destroyed by microbes, termites or other wood-boring insects. CCA contains forms of the chemicals chromium, copper, and arsenic. CCA is largely used to pressure treat lumber intended for outdoor uses such as home, schooland community playgrounds; decks; and landscape timbers. CCA-treated lumber is also used in building structures.

What work is CPSC doing related to CCA-treated wood?

In May 2001, CPSC was petitioned by the Environmental Working Group and the Healthy Building Network to ban the use of CCA-treated wood for playground equipment. In response to this petition, and to define the risk to children, the CPSC staff is evaluating the amount of CCA (in particular, arsenic) that a child might be exposed to while playing on CCA-treated playground equipment.

Do public wood playground structures contain CCA?

School and public playgrounds can be made with a variety of materials, including CCA-treated wood. Many older playground structures have been constructed using CCA-treated wood. In the past year (2003) some playground manufacturers have begun moving away from the use of CCA-treated wood for playground equipment and are using either untreated wood or wood that has been treated with chemicals that do not contain arsenic.

What does CPSC staff know about the amount of CCA that children are exposed to when playing on CCA-treated wood playground equipment?

CPSC staff is currently evaluating the amount of CCA released from both newly purchased, unused CCA-treated wood that might be used for building playground structures and from "used" or "older" wood. CPSC staff is particularly interested in knowing the amount of arsenic that children can be exposed to when they play on CCA-treated wood playground equipment. CPSC staff studies are being conducted by wiping the surface of the wood to measure the amount of arsenic on the wood's surface. The wipe samples are used to estimate the amount of arsenic that might be accessible to children when they rub their hands on the wood surfaces while playing.

How are children exposed to arsenic from playground equipment?

Children can be exposed to arsenic from playground equipment primarily through hand-to-mouth contact when they touch the wood and then place their hands in their mouths. Minimal exposure to arsenic can occur through their skin.

What are the health effects of exposure to arsenic and is there a risk to my child playing on CCA-treated wood playground equipment?

In order to define the risk, the CPSC staff is currently evaluating the amount of CCA, and in particular, the amount of arsenic, that a child might be exposed to while playing on CCA-treated wood playground equipment.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, long-term exposure to arsenic increases the risk of lung, bladder and skin cancer over a lifetime. The risk to children playing on CCA-treated playground equipment depends on the amount of available arsenic on the wood surface, how children are exposed to the arsenic (orally or through skin contact) and the length of time children spend using the equipment. Studies suggest that children may be exposed to arsenic from playing on some CCA-treated wood playground equipment.
The amount of arsenic present in different samples of CCA-treated wood appears to vary and limited test data do not allow staff to define the mechanism by which the amount of available arsenic changes as the wood ages. It may depend in part on the environmental conditions to which the wood is exposed (for example the amounts of heat, sun and rain) as well as the chemical composition of the wood.

In addition to evaluating the amount of the chemical available on the wood surface, CPSC staff is considering product-specific human use characteristics in its assessment. CPSC staff is evaluating the reasonably foreseeable use of the product by considering the age of the child using the product, the type of exposure (hand-to-mouth), the frequency and period of exposure, accessibility, extent of exposure (area contacted), and use environment (exposure to heat and sunlight). The relationship between exposure and adverse health effects will then be considered.

Consumers may wish to take steps to reduce this exposure. These steps are described in the following question and answer.

What can I do to decrease my child's exposure to chemicals found in CCA-treated wood?

CPSC staff is aware that various trade and consumer groups, some state governments, and a Science Advisory Panel (SAP) recently convened by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Pesticides, have made suggestions concerning surface coating of CCA-treated wood to reduce potential exposure to chemicals found in this wood.

Based on the limited available data, these groups have suggested that applying certain penetrating coatings (for example, oil-based semi-transparent stains) on a regular basis (for example, once a year or every other year depending upon wear and weathering) may reduce the migration of chemicals in the wood preservative from CCA-treated wood. However, in selecting a finish, in some cases, "film-forming" or non-penetrating stains (latex semi-transparent, latex opaque, and oil-based opaque stains) on outdoor surfaces such as decks and fences are not recommended as subsequent peeling and flaking may ultimately have an impact on durability as well as exposure to the preservatives in the wood.

CPSC staff has not completed its assessment of the effectiveness of these mitigation measures. However, consumers desiring to reduce potential exposure to chemicals found in CCA-treated wood may wish to consider using them.

It is also important to have children wash their hands after playing on playground equipment.
CPSC staff is aware of alternatives to CCA-treated wood. These include both non-arsenic wood preservative chemicals such as ammoniacal copper quat (ACQ) as well as other wood (for example cedar and redwood) and non-wood materials (for example metal and plastic). Consumers may want to consider using these alternatives for new construction.

How can I tell if my playground equipment or deck contains arsenic?

Freshly treated wood, if not coated, has a greenish tint, which fades over time. Historically, CCA has been the principal chemical used to treat wood for decks and other outdoor uses around the home. Generally, if you know that your deck has not been constructed with redwood or cedar, then it is likely that the deck was probably constructed with CCA-treated wood. Alternatively, if you know who the building contractor or wood retailer was, you may want to call and ask.

In 1990 the CPSC looked at the release of arsenic from playing on wood playground equipment treated with CCA. What's different now?

Since that study was conducted, additional health effects data are available. At the time of the 1990 study, skin cancer was the only carcinogenic effect of arsenic ingestion that was considered. New data reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) suggest that long-term exposure to arsenic increases the risk of lung and bladder cancer, as well as skin cancer, and that the health risks posed by exposure to arsenic may be more than previously believed.

Can you explain the recent action taken by the CCA chemical manufacturers concerning CCA-treated wood and how does it affect CPSC's work?

STOP Licking your DECK!
Pesticides must be registered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for certain uses before they can be sold or used in the U.S. CCA has been registered for many uses, including use in dimensional lumber (2 x 4s, etc.) sold to consumers.

In early February, 2002, the manufacturers of CCA asked EPA to remove from their registration many applications of CCA for residential use, including playground equipment, decks, and landscape timbers. According to EPA, manufacturers are phasing out the production of CCA over the next 22 months to allow enough time for wood treatment facilities to convert to alternative chemicals and to ensure the availability of enough wood preservative during the transition time. It thus appears that after December 31, 2003, CCA will no longer be available to treat wood used in residential settings.

The results of this action will likely impact the work that the Commission staff undertakes in the future, particularly in the area of mitigation.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Harry Potter's Bedroom

This is a rewrite of one of my very popular newsletter articles of March 2, 2002

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: 10th Anniversary Edition (Harry Potter)Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Widescreen Edition)I hope you saw the movie "Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone" (I think that was the name), read the book, heard about it from your children or TV. If not, be aware that Harry's bedroom was under the stairs. Using our imagination we will assume that Harry's bedroom was 6'-11" long, 4' wide, 6' tall at the high point down to 12" at the low point (below the slope of the stair). There is a French style door with glass and a light hanging from a cord with a pull string switch. Got it? Today we are going to have a little fun with Harry's bedroom.

A short time ago I received this e-mail from one of our readers:
I was working with this client and we looked at a house that listed 4 bedrooms. One of the bedrooms was in the basement. This room had a closet and a bathroom. This room did not have a window or an extra door (I thought that a below surface or even an attic that has been finished had to have an extra way out for safety reasons.) My client ask me when a home inspection is done would the inspector advise on the basement bedrooms? I told my client that I did not know but I would ask an Inspector. So, when a home inspection is done do you look at the rooms that has been label extra bedrooms with details with regards in an extra way out (like a window that a person could fit into get out? or an extra door in the bedroom) Would this fall into home inspection warning? to the client in regards to safety.
A Bedroom?

Be aware that we home inspectors, as a general rule, don't have any idea how the rooms are listed therefore if there is no furniture in the room we don't know what you may have called it.

Last week I inspected a very nice two year old home with a bonus room over the garage being used as a bedroom (it had a bed in it). There was a closet and one window which was 49" above the floor and roughly 2'-6" x 3'-0."

My former home had a room in the basement which I used as an office. It had a window which is 64" above the floor 2'-6" x 3'-0" and two large closets. There was a half bath (no shower or tub) immediately outside of this room. When I purchased this home it was represented to have 5 bedrooms, this being one of the five.

Door to Harry's Bedroom?
Was Harry Potters room under the stairs a bedroom? What about the other two? Well, I don't know about Great Britain, but I can address the issue if Harry lived in good old Winston-Salem or surrounds. There is some confusion, however. The state has standards for existing properties as does the city of Winston-Salem. Municipalities have their on standards which may be different from the state standards but usually more stringent, not less. Then there is the building code for new construction which any home constructed must met at the time it is constructed and it changes over time. It works like this, a home must meet the minimum standards set forth by the state and or municipality no matter when it was constructed but also must meet the building code requirements in force at the time it was constructed. I will address both as it relates to bedrooms. As we list these issues, you determine if either of the three bedrooms listed above meet the requirements. Do the bedrooms in your homes? What about the ones, as a Realtor, you have listed and called a room a bedroom?

First let me make it very clear that pre-listing or pre-purchase home inspections performed by independent home inspectors under the regulation of the North Carolina Home Inspectors Licensure Board ARE NOT CODE INSPECTIONS. We can and do however use the codes as a guide to what we do.

I will begin with the City of Winston-Salem Code for minimum housing standards which is fairly close to the state requirements (I have abbreviated these for ease of reading attempting to maintain the intent):
  1. A first bedroom shall have not less than 100 square feet. I don't believed Harry's is the Master so this may not be a problem.
  2. A second bedroom shall have not less than 70 square feet. Well, Harry's ain't the second. (Note the use of the word "ain't" making it very clear that I am not British but maybe closer to a good old southern redneck, although I might be offended if you called me one.)
  3. Each habitable room shall have at least 70 square feet. Oops, Harry failed this one. I knew them redcoats didn't know how to follow the rules
  4. At least 80 square feet of bedroom floor space shall be provided for the first occupant, 20 square feet for the second occupant, and 30 square feet over the number of two (children one year of age and under shall not be counted). I think Harry may have a problem here.
  5. Habitable rooms included to meet the minimum space standards shall be at least seven feet wide with one-half of the floor area having a ceiling height of at least seven feet six inches. That portion of any room where the ceiling height is less than five feet shall not be considered part of the floor area. Harry comes up a little short here, of course I believe he is short anyway.
  6. No basement space shall be used as a habitable room or housing unit unless: The floor and walls are impervious to leakage of underground and surface runoff water and are insulated against dampness. The total of window area and openable area in each room is equal to at least the window area sizes listed below pertaining to light and ventilation standards. Such required window area is located entirely above the grade of the ground adjoining such window area. Let me put it simple: If it leaks and doesn't have a window above ground its not a bedroom. I don't believe Harry had this problem, but I bet some of your past listing have.
  7. Access shall be provided to living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms without passing through a bedroom, except in a housing unit with only one bedroom. Hey, if you have to go through it to get to a kitchen or other bedroom, it ain't a bedroom so don't list it as one.
  8. Bathroom walls, toilet room walls and bedroom walls shall have no holes or excessive cracks. You thought those holes and cracks were cosmetic, didn't you. Surprise they aren't. What about that opening overlooking the den below?
  9. Doors shall be provided at all doorways leading to bedrooms, toilet rooms and bathrooms and at all rooms adjoining public spaces. That open loft space is not a bedroom.
  10. 12 square feet of closet space should be provided with each living unit for the first bedroom plus six square feet for each additional bedroom. The space provided should be, if possible, divided into separate closets serving each bedroom and having one closet located as to open directly off a hall or living or dining area. None of the minimum clothes closet space should be located within the kitchen. Where separate closets for each existing bedroom are not possible, a closet elsewhere within the living unit shall be acceptable only if the minimum clothes closet space for the dwelling unit is provided and the closet in question is reasonably accessible to the bedroom. Clothes closets should have a shelf and rod. Within each living unit, total shelf area or built-in drawer space of a least eight square feet should be provided for linens, This space should be increased two square feet for each additional bedroom. Did you know that linen areas and coat closets were REQUIRED and not just something most women insist on?
  11. Window areas in each habitable room shall be at least ten square feet and shall face directly to the outside Openable window area in each habitable room shall be at least one-half of the minimum window area, weathertight, no broken glass and have adequate locks and hardware. (I understand that the state requirement is now 8' and that the city will accept that even though the city code is more stringent. There is much more about windows which face walls, but your would be bored it I got into all of that.) Harry failed this one hands down. What about the sizes of the windows in the other two "bedrooms"? Does 2.5 x 3 equal 8? How about 10? Maybe where you learned math.
So much for the minimum housing standards. Be aware that the standards are different in different municipalities, but not usually less than the state requirements, and I think there is something happening now requiring all standards to meet state minimums. Now lets take a look at the current building code for North Carolina which effects new construction and any home constructed during its effective period. Note that this has and will change over time. A new code went into effect January 1st. Both the last code and new code can be used for this year and I am using the old code because I don't yet have a copy of the new one. There should not be much difference on this issue. Again I am abbreviating and attempting to maintain the intent. Note that the building code for new construction is more strict and more detailed than the minimum housing standards.
Now this is a WINDOW!
  1. All habitable rooms shall be provided with aggregate glazing area of not less than 8 percent of the total floor area of such rooms. One-half of the required area of glazing shall be openable. (Example a 10' x 10' room requires 8 square feet) There are exceptions to this openable and glazed area requirement related to mechanical ventilation and artificial light which gets complicated and I am not going into it here. Suffice it to say that you can have a bedroom which does not have to meet this specified glazed area and openable area requirement, but it must meet the egress requirement which will be addressed later.)
  2. Floor area cannot be less than 70 square feet and must be 7 feet wide in one direction. Ceiling heights must be 7' -6" for at least 50% of the required area, not more than 50% may have a sloped ceiling of less than 7'-6" high with no portion less than 5' high. There are some complicated exceptions to this which I will not get into here.
  3. Openings (windows/doors) from a private garage directly into a room used for sleeping is not permitted.
  4. Every sleeping room must have at least one openable window or exterior door approved for emergency egress or rescue, operable from the inside without a key or tool. If a window the sill height can't be more than 44" above the floor with a clear opening of 4 square feet with a minimum opening height of 22" and width of 20", total glass area of 5 square feet if a ground window and 5.7 square feet at a second story. Bars, grills, screens or other obstructions must be removable from the inside without the use of a key or tool. 
Jackie Kennedy's bedroom 1962
Harry's bedroom failed miserably, and the bonus room and my 5th bedroom have problems as well. What about yours? Think you should be a little more careful writing up your next listing? Do you think I should sue the Realtor who had my house listed? Remember these simple issues:


To the person who asked: You are correct, there must be a window or door in the bedroom in question, but that is not all and its not just about the "extra bedroom." Just because the current owner has a bed in it doesn't make it a bedroom. Be careful what you write up and what you lead your clients to believe.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Where Does The Poopie Go?

At Pam’s (my bride) request this is a rewrite from my March 5, 2005 Newsletter. This was another of my most popular articles. It's a little long. Not only  is this subject nasty, it is confusing, complex and not handled properly potentially deadly. Wally will attempt to simplify it for us.

Hello, Wally Raindrop here. Hope you haven't forgotten me (Don't remember? Click on "Wally Raindrop" in the upper right corner of this page).

In case you haven't figured it out yet, old man Hilton doesn't control me, I write what I feel like when I feel like it. You can be assured that poopie is not something I care to discuss with you. I am sure you have no interest in reading about such a nasty subject. Can you think of anything worse than falling from the sky and landing in a pile of dog poop? It is not a pleasant experience.

Then there are cats, horses, deer, rabbits and oh, shall I tell you about the grizzly bear? I about forgot about the Sasquatch, man was that ugly. You thought people poop was bad. Have you ever considered just how much poopie there is in this world? I prefer to be clean enough for you to consume and I don't think you want anything to do with me following those adventures.

Hilton has five children, six grandchildren. One is two years old at that age when poopie is a daily subject for everyone in hearing range including me whether I care to hear or not. Then the subject arose; Grandad, where does the poopie go?

When Hilton's son-in-law was being potty trained his parents told him when they flushed the poppie was going to grandma Goldie in New York. Sounds like a good place for poopie to me. I have been to New York, there is lots of poopie there. But, since September 11th I have tried to not be so critical about the place. We all have our problems theirs are just more populous. I understand psychologically it is very important not to upset the child about this issue. Where the poopie goes is a very upsetting issue. This is an important event concerning something they made. Where it is going is very important to your child. You may not think much of it, but if the poopie doesn't reach its intended destination you will think its important as well so pay attention.

Being the very clean technical guy that he is, do you think Hilton is going to do the research on this subject? No way man, who do you think gets this smelly little assignment? Well, since he is a grandfather six times, I thought I would be nice and agree to the assignment. Boy did I ever screw up. First he picks me up, throws me in the toilet and flushes. As if that wasn't enough, because that toilet was on a public sewer, he takes me out to the county, throws me in another toilet and flushes. Said he wants us to have a complete experience. I think I will look for another place to live. Hiltons computer is beginning to stink.

I can still see the light as I go round and round, water is everywhere. Darkness, wet, dirty, it stinks down here. Ops, going back the same way, the water is getting higher, light again as I hit the basement floor. Looking up the pipe is slopping the wrong direction and leaking. Poopie does not run up hill. If your poopie goes into a public sewer system count yourself lucky. You only must get the poopie off of your site and the public utility handles the rest. You don't need to concern yourself with it. The main concerns you have are that the pipes don't leak, run down hill and if your lowest fixture is lower than the sewer man hole nearest your home you better have a backflow valve on your poopie line or everyone else's poopie may end up in your floor. Now that can be a smelly mess. It's also a good idea to pay your water bill which usually includes the sewer bill otherwise your poopie will not leave the house and it can get really smelly. Realtors know what that's like, don't you?

Not lucky, don't have a connection to public sewer? You must be much more concerned about where your poopie goes because it probably does not leave your yard and you are now responsible for it forever. Go with me on my little adventure as we go round and round again out of the light through the pipe, its just like the slide at the water park (you had better hold your nose) except at the end we fall into a tank with all of the poopie from the past along with water and soap from the washing machine and dishwasher and last nights leftovers from the garbage disposal. Oh, there is the scuba diver and fish baby flushed down the toilet before us. At least we will not be lonely here.

On the left "Septic Tank" that is where we are now. Did you know if you don't have public water and drink water from a well on your property that the water you flush ends up coming back to the pump in your well? Isn't that a pleasant thought? Don't be upset, when you flush on a public sewer system that water goes into a river and is then pumped out by the town down stream for their water supply. Who is up river from you? Do you begin to grasp the importance of your sewer system? Improper maintenance can make you very sick and even lead to the death of your family, friends and neighbors.

A well designed, installed, and maintained septic system can provide years of reliable low-cost service. When these systems fail to operate effectively, property damage, ground and surface water pollution, and disease outbreaks can occur. Therefore, it makes good sense to understand and care for your septic tank system.

There are many different types of septic tank systems that can fit a wide range of soil and site conditions. The following information will help you to understand a simple type of septic system, and keep it operating safely at the lowest possible cost.

A "conventional" septic tank system has three working parts:
  1. The septic tank.
  2. The drainfield with its replacement area.
  3. The surrounding soil.
Note that some systems may have a sand filter as shown on this drawing but such is unusual in our area. Some systems if the drainfield is higher than the tank may have a pump as shown here.

The Septic Tank

We came in the "Inlet From House" above. The typical septic tank is a large buried rectangular or cylindrical container made of concrete, fiberglass, or polyethylene. Wastewater from your toilet, bath, kitchen, laundry, waste disposal, etc. flows into the tank the same way we arrived. Heavy solids settle to the bottom (thank God Wally Raindrop is not a heavy solid and stays at the top) where bacterial action partially decomposes them to digested sludge and gases. Most of the lighter solids, such as fats and grease, rise to the top and form a scum layer. That's where old Wally is now in the "Scum Layer". I would like to drag the old scum bag that flushed me here down to join us.

Septic tanks may have one or two compartments. Two compartment tanks do a better job of settling solids and are required for new systems. Tees or baffles are provided at the tank's inlet and outlet pipes. The inlet tee slows the incoming wastes and reduces disturbance of the settled sludge. The outlet tee keeps the solids or scum in the tank. All tanks should have accessible covers for checking the condition of the baffles and for pumping both compartments. If risers extend from the tank to or above the ground surface, they should be secure to prevent accidental entry into the tank.

Solids that are not decomposed remain in the septic tank where old Wally has absolutely no intention of overstaying his welcome. If not removed by periodic pumping, solids will accumulate until they eventually overflow into the drainfield. Most septic tanks need to be pumped every 3 to 5 years, depending on the tank size, and the amount and type of solids entering the tank.

Early Waring Levels Inside Your Septic Tank

The septic tank should be pumped whenever:

The bottom of the scum layer is within 3 inches of the bottom of the outlet tee or baffle, or the top of the sludge layer is within 12 inches of the bottom of the outlet fitting.

Many products on the market, such as solvents, yeast, bacteria, and enzymes claim to improve septic tank performance, or reduce the need for routine pumping. None have been found to be of benefit. Some can cause solids to carry over to the drainfield, which results in early soil clogging and the need for a new drainfield. Products containing organic solvents contribute to groundwater pollution.

The wastewater leaving the septic tank is a liquid called effluent. It has been partially treated but still contains disease-causing bacteria and other pollutants. Discharging effluent onto the ground's surface or into surface and ground water is against North Carolina State law.

The Drainfield

Finally we have made it through that nasty septic tank and into the drainfield. The drainfield receives septic tank effluent. That's what we have become. It has a network of perforated pipes laid in gravel-filled trenches (2-3 feet wide), or beds (over 3 feet wide) in the soil. Wastewater trickles out of the pipes, through the gravel layer, and into the soil. The size and type of drainfield depends on the estimated daily wastewater flow and soil conditions.

Every new drainfield is required to have a designated replacement area. It must be maintained should the existing system need an addition or repair.


Through the drain field and out into the soil. Oh what a wonderful place. There is a worm, roots, pebbles, rocks and rich dirt. This is much nicer than that nasty septic tank and the drainfield wasn't much better. The gravel and soil acts as a filter to remove any small amounts of solids that may be carried along with the liquid. The drainfield treats the wastewater by allowing it to slowly trickle from the pipes out into the gravel and down through the soil. The gravel and soil act as biological filters. The longer distance we soak through the soil the cleaner we become until finally we reach ground water. Lets swim over to the well, into the pump, through the pipe into the holding tank through another pipe and if we take the right turn out the kitchen sink faucet and freedom. Be careful now and stay out of that drain or we will take that stinky nasty journey again. Relief a glass, Oh is that lips I see, we are in for trouble if we don't get out of this glass. Have you ever visited a stomach? And you thought septic tanks were a bad place.

System Failure
Warning signs of a failure:|
  • Odors, surfacing sewage, wet spots or lush vegetation growth in the drainfield area
  • Plumbing or septic tank backups
  • Slow draining fixtures
  • Gurgling sounds in the plumbing system
If you notice any of these signs or if you suspect your septic tank system may be having problems - contact your local health department for assistance.

The Septic System Owner's ManualCaring For Your System - The Ten Essentials
    Septic Tank Inspections and Maintenace, Show Me How VideosA Builder's Guide to Wells and Septic Systems, Second EditionWater Wells and Septic Systems HandbookSeptic Tank System Effects on Ground Water QualityCountry Plumbing: Living With a Septic System
  1. Practice water conservation. The more wastewater you produce, the more the soil must treat and dispose. By reducing and balancing your use, you can extend the life of the drainfield, decrease the possibility of system failure, and avoid costly repairs.

    To reduce your water use:
    • Use water-saving devices.
    • Repair leaky faucets and plumbing fixtures.
    • Reduce toilet reservoir volume or flow.
    • Take shorter showers.
    • Take baths with a partially-filled tub.
    • Wash only full loads of dishes and laundry.
  2. Keep accurate records. Know where your septic tank system is and keep a diagram of its location. Records of its size and location may be available at your local health department. It is also wise to keep a record of maintenance on the system. These records will be helpful if problems occur, and will be valuable to the next owner of your home.

  3. Inspect your system once each year. You may want to leave this to a professional it is a nasty job. Check the sludge and scum levels inside your septic tank to assure that the layers of solids are not within the early warning levels. The tank also should be checked to see if the baffles or tees are in good condition. Periodically inspect the drainfield and downslope areas for odors, wet spots, or surfacing sewage. If your drainfield has inspection pipes, check them to see if there is a liquid level continually over 6 inches. This may be an early indication of a problem.

  4. Pump out your septic tank when needed. Don't wait until you have a problem. Routine pumping can prevent failures, such as clogging of the drainfield and sewage back-up into the home. Using a garbage disposal will increase the amount of solids entering the septic tank and require more frequent pumping.
  5. Never flush harmful materials into the septic tank. Grease, cooking fats, newspaper, paper towels, rags, coffee grounds, sanitary napkins, and cigarettes cannot easily decompose in the tank. Chemicals such as solvents, oils, paint and pesticides are harmful to the system's proper operation and may pollute the groundwater. Septic tank additives do not improve the performance of the septic tank, nor do they reduce the need for pumping.

  6. Keep all runoff away from your system. Water from surfaces such as roofs, driveways, or patios should be diverted away from the septic tank and drainfield area. Soil over your system should be slightly mounded to help surface water runoff.
  7. Protect your system from damage. Keep traffic such as vehicles, heavy equipment, or livestock off your drainfield or replacement area. The pressure can compact the soil or damage pipes. Before you plant a garden, construct a building, or install a pool, check on the location of your system and replacement area.

  8. Landscape your system properly. Don't place impermeable materials over your drainfield or replacement area. Materials, such as concrete or plastic, reduce evaporation and the supply of oxygen to the soil for proper effluent treatment. They also can hinder getting to the system for pumping, inspection, or repair. Grass is the best cover for your system.
  9. Never enter any septic tank. Poisonous gases or the lack of oxygen can be fatal. Any work to the tank should be done from the outside preferable by an experienced professional.
  10. Check with your local health department for help with system problems. Although some malfunctions may require complete drainfield replacement, many problems can be corrected with a minimum amount of cost and effort.
How does the location of my septic system affect my water supply?

To avoid problems such as recycling untreated wastewater, location should be the first consideration when installing a septic system. A septic system usually requires a specific amount of land based on the soil characteristics and should be at least 100 feet from any wells or water supplies. There must be adequate room to install a new drainfield should the original drainfield fail. The ability of the soil surrounding the drainfield to absorb and treat the effluent is an important concern in regard to water quality. Signs of soil problems or site limitations that could affect the septic system include gullies, ravines, excessively steep slopes, or other land characteristics that would make installation difficult. The system should not be installed in land that is wet or swampy, designated wetlands, or land near streams or rivers that could flood. It has also been found that septic systems constructed where the water table is too shallow do not provide effective treatment in the drainfield.

Often the most suitable soil for a septic system is on the highest ground on the site. Under ideal conditions, however, the septic system should be located lower than your well, but good soil is most important. Also, the deeper your well, the less likely it is to draw in sewage effluent.

What are the rules and regulations governing septic systems?

North Carolina State law requires a comprehensive soil and site evaluation by your local health department to determine the suitability of your soil and land site. Before construction begins on your home or septic system, you must receive an improvement permit from the health department. Permits for septic systems are valid for no more than five years. Beginning in July 1992, state regulations require a septic system maintenance contract between homeowners and management organizations for certain types of alternative septic systems.

The size of the septic system that you install is legally determined by the number of bedrooms in your home and the type of soils at the site. Once installation is complete, the system must be approved by the health department before electrical service can be permanently connected to your home.

What are the alternative types of septic systems?

The conventional septic system is the most widely used and least expensive. Alternative types of septic systems include low-pressure pipe systems, fill systems and aerobic treatment units. These cost a great deal more to install than a conventional system, and the low-pressure system needs to be inspected every 6 months. The aerobic treatment unit must be inspected 4 times a year.

Other possible options for on-site wastewater disposal include cluster systems, sand filters, mound systems, and spray irrigation systems.

What interest do banks and mortgage companies have in my water and septic systems?

Some banks or lenders require that the prospective buyer or seller furnish proof of a bacteria-free water supply before they will issue a mortgage. Also, some will not issue a mortgage for homes with a failing septic system. Thus, it pays to be concerned about your water from well to wash to waste. Here we are back in the clean world. The next time old man Hilton or his stinky little grandchildren have poopie ideas you will find me running for the hills.

Bye, see you next time!

Some folks poppie is other folks gold
Ever paid a plumber or had your septic tank pumped?
On the side of septic tank pump trucks
Sweet Thing / Honey Bee / Liquid Gold

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Samuel J. McElroy House

I love inspecting old and historic properties. Enjoyable, due to my affiliation with the Historic Building Inspectors Association, and my background dealing with properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Every now and then, I have the privilege of inspecting historic or very old properties. When this occurs, I have decided to share my pleasure with you. Such was the case this week as I inspected the National Register Listed "Samuel J. McElroy House" located at 10915 Beatties Ford Road in Huntersville NC.

Realtor's Description:

EQUESTRIAN'S DELIGHT...! Completely restored 19th century home, brought into the 21st century for a special owner who wants an old home with today's amenities. Historic house on National & Mecklenburg County register ... only minutes from uptown Charlotte and lovely Lake Norman...! An additional 10 acres available for sale that abuts the Latta Plantation which has 400+acres of horse trails. The house has been restored, den addition in 2005, great master suite with new bath and fireplace. This unique home also features 8 fireplaces, extensive gardens, in-ground swimming pool, 8 stall barn, smoke-house, 20' X 40' pool, Victorian greenhouse .... Truly one of the most interesting historic homes in the area as featured in Charlotte Magazine.

Architectural Description:

The Samuel J. McElroy House is among the finest and most intact of a collection of vernacular Victorian, two-story, T-shaped farmhouses to appear in Mecklenburg County (including five along Beatties Ford Road) after the Civil War.  The house is situated in a rural setting  just north of  the historic Hopewell Presbyterian Church and the ca. 1800 Latta Plantation.  An operating farm stands to the southeast of the property and an open field is located northeast across the road.  The dwelling's asymmetrical form stands in contrast to the typically balanced facades of I-houses, which predominated in rural Mecklenburg during the 19th century. Built in the late 1880s, the McElroy House is a picturesque mix of vernacular Victorian influences.  Although the original weatherboards were covered with aluminum siding about 1980, (now removed) the exterior retains much of its original decorative woodwork, including the late Victorian sawnwork on the front porch.

The house's gable-front section features a front-facing bay window on the first floor and a sash window with six panes in each sash on the gable-front facade of the second story.  Original sash windows with six-over-six panes survive throughout the residence.  The two-bay, one-room-deep, side-gable portion features the largely intact front porch.  This porch includes pairs of slender wooden, chamfered supports with decorative sawn brackets.  These posts are connected by a sawnwork balustrade.

The main entrance, positioned at the corner of the two sections of the house and leading into the central hall, features a crossetted surround and double doors with four panels in each.  The paired screen doors are highlighted by ornate jig-sawed woodwork. The rear of the house includes a one-story bedroom wing on the north side that is probably original.  Its original gable roof replaced by a shed roof in the early 1980s.  At the south end of the rear facade is a one-story kitchen wing topped by a gable roof that extends to incorporate an original smokehouse.  The two units are separated by a narrow breezeway.  This configuration is unique in Mecklenburg County.

An engaged porch extends along the north and south elevations of the attached smokehouse and originally covered now partially remodeled south-elevation of the kitchen. A presumably original back porch with chamfered, supports and foundation of stone piers wraps around the rear of the smokehouse.  The porch's irregularly-shaped  low-pitched roof is a later modification, and the porch has been partially rebuilt, with several of the original posts replaced with square wood supports, and a simple wood railing erected. All of the roofs on the McElroy House are covered with standing-seam metal sheathing.The interior of the main body of the house is essentially intact.

 The interior follows a central-hall plan, with a parlor on the northwest side (side-gable portion) and a living room and dining room on the southeast side (gable-front portion).  The dining room leads into the kitchen wing, which has been remodelled and enlarged to include a section of the engaged porch on the northwest side.  The original bedroom wing on the north side of the rear elevation has been remodelled as a family room and now also incorporates a portion of this porch.  However, in the main T-shaped block of the McElroy House original vernacular Victorian elements survive intact.  The central hall features an open-string stair ascending  in two runs from the main entrance to three bedrooms in the second floor.  The stairway has turned balusters anchored by a sturdy turned newel.

Original mantels, four-panel doors, and delicately moulded door surrounds survive throughout the interior of the main block.  The mantel in the south front room--the living room--is particularly elaborate. The frieze has a curvilinear motif with raised  curved panels, and three heavy wooden corbels supporting the shelf.  The pilasters also have raised panels topped by moulded caps.  Flanking this mantel are two original closets with doors having two vertical panels, a lingering vernacular Greek Revival trait.  The other mantels--in the parlor, dining room, and three upstairs bedrooms--are simpler, but all reflect the vernacular Victorian style exemplified by the living room mantel. The original ceiling in the living room is covered by a modern rough-finished plaster coating; but all of the other rooms in the main bock of the house have original board-and-batten ceilings. The walls of the house have original plaster, and original hardware, porcelain door knobs, and wood flooring survive throughout.

The McElroy yard, shaded by mature oak trees, comprises a mix of historical and modern elements.  The remains of a fieldstone chimney (perhaps once a summer kitchen, but more research is needed to confirm its original function) stands behind the house to the south.  It is not classified in this nomination as either contributing or noncontributing.  Other contributing and non-contributing resources are listed below:

Tack House Contributing ca. 1885:

This frame gable-front building stands on granite slabs.  It was built to store bridles, harnesses, and saddlery for horses and mules.  Measures about eight by twelve feet.  Present wood-shingled roof put on in 1988.

The Samuel J. McElroy House is architecturally significant under Criterion C as an outstanding example of the T-shaped, two-story, vernacular Victorian farmhouses that were built in the county after the Civil War.  Erected in the 1880s for Samuel J. McElroy, a farmer, the dwelling features one of the more ornate post-Civil War front porches remaining in rural Mecklenburg.  The interior, though not exceptionally decorative, retains mantels with curviliner friezes and raised decorative panels, a turned-post staircase, board-and-batten ceilings, and intact doors and simply moulded door surrounds that exemplify the interior finishes of middle-class farmhouses across the county in the late 19th century.  The house's asymmetrical form reflects the emerging preference among well-to-do farmers in the area for up-to-date picturesque domestic architecture, over the more conservative I-house.  Yet, the basic design remains restrained both inside and out compared to the picturesque styles appearing in Charlotte and other substantial North Carolina cities in this period. The focus of stylistic attention is placed on the front porch and bay window.  The attached smokehouse, which is unique in Mecklenburg County, reflects McElroy's concern for function as well as style in the overall design of his farmhouse.  The tack house, which is the only surviving free-standing farm outbuilding on the tract, contributes to the architectural significance of the McElroy property.

Historical Essay:

The Samuel J. McElroy House was built sometime after November, 1883, when Samuel Jefferson McElroy (1840-1927) purchased a ninety-one acre parcel on what is now Beatties Ford Road.

McElroy was descended from Scotch-Irish ancestry who came to America in 1729 and settled in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. Sometime later they moved on to Virginia, then to Kentucky. One of the descendents, Samuel Jefferson McElroy, Sr., moved to Waihaw in Union County, N.C., where he was engaged in mining and farming. One of his sons, Samuel Jefferson McElroy, Jr., moved to Mecklenburg County as a young man (he appears as a resident of the county in I860).

A volunteer during the Civil War, McElroy was wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg, where he lost a finger, and was taken prisoner. After the war, on January 16, 1866, he married Margaret Janet Sample (1846-1928) of Hopewell, who was a great-grandaughter of Richard Barry, Sr., a signer of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence. They started their married life on the Dr. George Dunlap farm near Hopewell Presbyterian Church, which was part of her father's estate. Samuel and Margaret McElroy had eight children: William Edward; Henry Lynn; John Grier; Carrie Jane (Mrs. John Underwood); Flora May (Mrs. William E. Luckey); Una Dunbar (Mrs. Frank Patterson); Margaret Eugenia; and Martha Ellen. All were active members of Hopewell Presbyterian Church. John Grier McElroy (1878-1958) became an elder of the church in 1907.  He also inherited the homestead from his father in 1928, where he lived and farmed.

Just a few months before his death in 1958, John Grier McElroy sold off fifty acres of the ninety-three he had inherited from his father, and his children, John Grier Jr., Robert Sidney and Samuel Jefferson divided the remainder into three 5-l/2-acre lots. The S. J. McElroy House was acquired by John Grier McElroy, Jr. in the division.

In 1976, J. G. McElroy, Jr. sold a 1.88-acre parcel fronting on Beanies Ford Road that contains the house to Donald C. and Timola B. Moore, who in turn sold it to the present owners, Thomas M. and Mildred D. Snyder, in 1982.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Baby Jonah - Update

Many of my blog readers followed the story of my great nephew Jonah born with Epidermolysis Bullosa. Articles I wrote about him in 2009 are still some of the top postings read on this blog. I thought that you might enjoy an update. The ideal update has become available with a series of videos made by Brenner Children's Hospital of Jonah's mother telling their story. Get a BIG box of Kleenex and click on this link:

You will find access to my past posting on this subject under "Topics" on the right side of this blog.

Visit Jonah's mothers blog at: