by Brian Mishler
In many regions of our country, home inspectors charge an additional fee for “older” homes – those over 60 years old. When I talk to those inspectors it makes me smile; with the housing stock in our area what it is, I’d have to charge extra on 90% of my inspections. Alas, there will be no old home fee in my foreseeable future.
The oldest home that I’ve ever inspected was built in 1773, and that’s one of the things I love about home inspection – seeing history through construction. Most of us live in the moment – and our house – without giving much consideration to times past or the condition of our own home when it was built.
We don’t stop to think that pioneers of the 1700s, 1800’s and early 1900’s didn’t build most of their homes with the intention that they would still be standing over 200 years later. They were simply building shelter for their family while at the same time trying to provide food, defend from wild animals and anything or anyone else with malintent. Electricity? Indoor plumbing? Central heat? Not even heard of. Some creative types did manage to put a well or spring in the stone foundation basement, so they didn’t have to go too far or put themselves at risk to fetch water. However, many put the outhouse or latrine too close to their drinking water source, as they didn’t have an understanding of bacteria. If you google a picture of Ben Franklin’s house, please note his well and outhouse are 10 feet apart! To this day, few have an understanding of how subterranean water moves. We assume if the water source (well, etc.) is higher than the septic (sewer) we’re OK, but forget that the rock strata below ground may move in the opposite direction. But that’s a topic for another day.
In the early 1900’s, and nearly simultaneously, we added electricity and indoor plumbing. A guy by the name of Thomas Edison had devised a way to create an electrical grid and deliver it into homes. The light bulb was the high tech invention of the day. But there were other less-noted, but equally important inventions: such as reliable piping, made of lead, steel, and clay. We started putting one outlet per room and one light fixture. Who needed more? We didn’t have anything to plug into them anyway! The flush toilet made its debut; we no longer had to go outside, an especially exciting development in the colder climates.
The 1940’s and WWII ushered in a whole new era of technology; the invention of plastic, an exploding popu-lation, and an ever-increasing demand for comfort and permanence brought about changes to construction at an exponential rate.
A material that had been discovered in the early 1900’s made a very large appearance in the construction industry, as it was very durable, and had the best heat resistance known. It could be purchased in any hardware store, and was a primary component in roofing material, siding, flooring, and a wide variety of insulation materials.
Today, that material – asbestos–can strike fear into the hearts of buyers, sellers and realtors alike. We’ve all seen the television ads about the lung cancer caused by asbestos, and the people it has affected.
Like most fears, a little information can go a long way in abating the fear, and its source. Most of the building materials that contain asbestos are not a risk in their intended state. Roofing, flooring and siding materials, so long as they are intact and not “friable,” are not considered to be a risk. However if these materials are damaged, or are in need of replacement, removal or repair has the potential to release asbestos fibers into the air, potentially causing a risk to the occupants of the house – or the neighborhood. Therefore, knowing it’s there, and knowing how to handle it, is crucial. Insulation is a bit different. Most of the insulation of this era will be in some state of decay, it may be loose, and can be “friable” – fragile to the point where fibers can easily and possibly inadvertently released. Asbestos insulation was used as pipe wrap on hot water heating systems, duct tape/wrap on forced air systems, and a hard sheet plate was used as a fire stop above some furnaces and other heating systems. Sometimes we come across materials that are labeled: left over boxes of flooring, roofing or siding tiles, or a label on the pipe wrap touting the presence of asbestos. At the time it was a selling feature – give us an easy way to identify the material. Otherwise laboratory testing is prudent; the cost of proper asbestos remediation is high. If it isn’t present, there can be great cost savings. If it is present, proper handling can preserve lives.
A cousin of asbestos, vermiculite was and is today a popular insulation and potting material. Just like asbestos, vermiculite is a naturally-occurring mineral that is mined. It, however, does not have the small fibers that can get trapped in lungs and cause the cancers we know.
However, much of the vermiculite produced from 1919 through 1990 was produced by the Libby mine in Montana. The operators of that mine carelessly mined the vermiculite, and in the process of doing so, also extracted asbestos which was mixed in with their vermiculite product. While not all vermiculite contains asbestos, because the Libby mine was estimated to be the source of over 70 percent of all vermiculite sold in the United States between 1919 to the mid 80’s, and vermiculite from Libby was contaminated with asbestos, it is prudent to treat it as though it does. Most of this vermiculite insulation was sold and distributed under the brand name “Zonolite.”
Caution should also be exercised as this insulation may have been poured into wall cavities, and can be hidden under batt insulation.
The good news is that last year the W.R. Grace company, owners of the Libby mine, reached a settlement creating a trust fund to help home and business owners with the cost of vermiculite removal and replacement. The Zonolite Attic Insulation Trust has a website, zonoliteatticinsulation.com, where folks can go to file a claim; and upon doing so, have a sample of their insulation tested for free. There are specific protocols for sampling, and the sample should be removed with great care, as asbestos fibers can be released into the air.
Asbestos is but one example of a material once commonly used in homes that later was discovered to be a problem. Education is the key to overcoming such obstacles, and if you’re concerned that you may have other asbestos materials, the EPA has websites where you can get information on how to mitigate the risks associated with this material.
You might ask why or how I can advise a person to be calm in the face of this type of potential monetary/physical risk? How could we have been so foolish to permit the use of this material? The simple answer is that we consumers demand the best there is available, and we are not willing to bear the cost of seemingly endless testing. There are probably construction products on the market today that, just like our forefathers, our children will be asking the same questions in the future. With progress comes risk. Unacceptable you say? Look at the safety devices in the cars of the 1960’s vs. today. Or at the controversy currently surrounding the use of cell phones up against one’s head, or the texting and driving problem that is currently claiming over 4,000 teen lives every year, as it causes 1.3 million accidents. (Ironically enough, I could not find statistics on how many ADULTS are killed.) Who didn’t see this coming? A solution will be found, and there are some being tried, but in the meantime, we must educate ourselves and take precautions.
Brian Mishler is the owner of HomeStudy Inc., and a 20-year veteran home inspector. He began performing home inspection after 15 years in the construction industry convinced him that his body wasn’t made for hard labor. Brian is the former president of the Pittsburgh Regional Organization of the American Society of Home Inspectors (PRO-ASHI), and currently sits on the board of Rebuilding Together Pittsburgh, a non-profit that rehabilitates homes for disadvantaged seniors and veterans, assisting them with prerenovation inspection and selection. Brian also teaches a variety of real estate-related classes, and has mentored others seeking to become home inspectors.
He currently resides in Latrobe, with his better half, Carol, their Boston terrier Gizmo, three cats, and three transient college students. When spare time is to be had, Brian can be found on a motorcycle, in a kayak, or hiking in the area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.