Shades of Gray in Residential Construction Morality

I was called in to perform a last minute duct test for a modular home builder.  He was all in a dither to have a duct test and a blower door test done on a Friday so that he could get his Certificate of Occupancy (CO) so the homeowner could move in the following Monday.  He said that he’d just found out that he needed these tests.  The building inspector asked for them at the last minute!

I was glad to do it partially because it’s good to have builders aware of what is going on despite the fact that he might have been warned for the past year or more that the code had changed.  General awareness of these changes take time.  After all, this wasn’t the first house that he had built since the new codes went into effect, but this was obviously the first building inspector who had made him do it.  The 2012 IECC is quite demanding in contrast to the 2009 version, and it is clear that builders can’t just build the way they used to.  The IECC requires 3 ACH50 and ducts that leak no more than 4 cfm per 100 square feet.  This house leaked at over 7 ACH50 and the ducts were at just under 9 cfm per 100 square feet.

So the builder ran around with a caulking gun.  He stuffed paper towel under the basement door.  He pulled off electrical receptacle covers and installed those little foam pads.  And then he looked at me.  This is the point where the rubber meets the road as a Quality Control Inspector.  The house performed better than many houses that have been built over the years.  It wasn’t likely to explode or rot away in a year.  After all, it had been mostly assembled in a factory – indoors where it never rained.  So why didn’t the modular manufacturer get it right?  They could have sealed up the tops of all the wire chases in the attic.  There was air coming up from the marriage wall gap.  Whose responsibility was that?

We called the factory.  They were apparently shocked!  How could air be leaking at all the outlets?  Using a pressure pan I showed the builder which ones were connected to the outside and which ones weren’t.  It wasn’t all of them.  Attitude in the factory came into play.  Maybe someone had been assigned the task of sealing all those holes but ran out of . . . foam?  attitude? time?  Maybe it was Friday afternoon.

Open Panned Return1

Panned Return

Then there were the ducts.  The only return in the house was a large opening in the living room floor where the joists had been panned  down below.  There was a wind blowing up from the basement (outside the conditioned space) when the blower door was running.

We called the HVAC contractor.  “I sealed every joint with mastic!  We do that every time.  I don’t know what could have happened.”  Using the theatrical fogger, it was pretty obvious that they hadn’t sealed every joint.  The filter slot was uncovered and beyond that, it was located in such a manner that the gas pipe and some wires would always make it extremely difficult to change the filter.

By this point, the builder recognized that the house was not going to pass and he was not going to get his certificate of occupancy for Monday.   He told me that he would arrange to have the HVAC contractor back and would spend time sealing and tightening up the house.

Open Panned Return

Vision of the Living Room

A week went by before he called me back.  Now, all of this is unfortunately too common, but it was the second visit that really disturbed me.  On the phone the builder said the ducts had been retested and they were fine.  All he need from me was the blower door test.  I asked to see the duct test results.  He said that the HVAC guy was having trouble with his email, but he sent me a photograph of the test results.  I noticed that the building size was wrong.  The results were remarkably good.  I couldn’t read the signature or the name and there wasn’t a BPI or HERS number.   No, the builder said, you don’t need to retest the ducts.  Just do the blow test.

When I got to the house, the builder was running around with his caulking gun again.  Proudly he showed me how the marriage wall had been foamed in the basement.  He said he had talked to the factory but they really hadn’t done much.  I looked at the ducting.  The section of the floor joist panning was wide open at the end.  You could see the daylight of the grille in the living room.  There was absolutely no way that the testing could have had the results that it did.

While we were in the basement, the HVAC contractor showed  up and started caulking around the floor boots.  If the ducts were so tight, why was he still trying to make them tighter?  I showed him the open panned return.  “Don’t know how that could have happened!  We had a guy who was doing bad work.  I had to let him go.”

I asked him about the guy who tested the ducts.  “Oh, he’s just a guy that works for me.  Does this once in awhile.”

So the duct testing was a lie.  It was a lie by an employee who worked for the HVAC contractor.  The builder accepted it and refused to let me retest the ducts once the HVAC company had worked on them.  He wanted the CO and he wanted to be done with the job.

This situation was obvious: the end of the ducting was wide open.  Without my testing, they would never have known.  The system would have been running that way for its entire existence.  Even with my testing, the builder was willing to accept the results and walk away.  The HVAC contractor was willing to accept the results and walk away and complain about onerous rules and regulations.  The homeowner would have gotten a shoddy product and the building inspector would have received invalid information and had to accept it because he couldn’t recheck the result due to lack of time and money.

If we are going to make this system work and have any value, at the very least there ought to be simple ways to verify the credentials of the people doing the testing.  There ought to be a way for QCI inspectors to ding the contractor or the builder for making stuff up.  I want to believe that this was a learning experience for both the builder and the HVAC contractor and that they will do better next time.  But when I saw those original duct testing results from the HVAC contractor, I didn’t believe them.  Should I have compelled the builder to let me retest?  Obviously the ducting system would have failed miserably.  If it had been a health and safety situation, there would have been no question.  But it was a performance and long term durability question.  Are there shades of gray in residential construction morality?


 

If you are planning to challenge the BPI Quality Control Inspector’s certification, you might find the Quality Control Inspector’s Residential Handbook helpful.  Scheduled for publication on June 1, 2015.  For updates and a discount on publication, please add your name and email address by clicking on the book below.

QCI Handbook Cover copy

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