Consumer News

Here is (the start of) a list of the latest construction issues, problems and scams which have come to our attention. This list is not intended to be "complete" - for one thing we could never keep up with the endless permutations of scams. The intent here is to supplement information to that already available in other parts of The Sound Home Resource Center, and through other sites and services.

This list is not just about scams. The construction industry is very complex, thousands of new products come on the market every year. Most of the products and the various associated services are the result of legitimate attempts to solve real problems. Predictably, some of these products and services, no matter how well intentioned, fail to live up to their promise.

The information contained herein comes from various sources: The US Consumer Product Safety Commission, building inspections, trade publications, and email from our readers. Please let us know about any information which might be used in this page.

Index

  • I have had some concerns about the extensive use of Vinyl/PVC containing products in various building materials. Vinyl gutters may be easy to install but tend not to last. Vinyl siding is not as "fool proof" as its marketing suggests.

    My real concerns with the vinyl/PVC containing products has to do with the toxicity of the products and the dangers during the manufacture and disposel stages. Philip Dickey of the Washington Toxics Coalition has now written a very informative piece about the subject - Vinyl Exam: Eliminating PVC in your home (PDF). He is the expert!

    I agree with most of the recommendations for alternative products but would add the following comments:

    • For water supply lines, I am a fan of copper. Yes it is more expensive to install but lasts much longer and has far fewer problems than any alternative.
    • In over 25 years of work in this field, I have not run across ABS waste line problems. I have seen some articles on the subject but must conclude that the problems with ABS are very few.
    • I love wood windows but the good ones are much more expensive than vinyl. I wish that I had a good alternative for "builder basic" windows. My findings are that vinyl windows are the least expensive window product that has good temperature and sound insulation qualities. They are also quite trouble free.

    My thanks to Philip for another great job and a very useful document. -George

  • I just received another offer for new energy efficient windows in the mail. While there s nothing wrong with such windows, the problem is with the claim that such windows can help offset the increases in energy costs.

    In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth!

    Don't get me wrong, I am a great fan of new window technology and I am an "insulation nut." But selling replacement windows on the basis of saving money does not add up!

    Here's why:

    This advertisement talks about a 2000 sq. ft. house with 8 windows and one sliding patio door. The cost of these windows is $59.00 per month for 12 years. That translates into $708/year for a total of $8,496. The company in question will also rebate up to $100.00 for one month s worth of gas in the first year.

    The annual heating costs for a house of this size in the Seattle area before the natural gas or oil price increases should have been about $500. If we assume the worst case, then the heating costs this year will be $1,000 (a very high estimate). Based upon all the data that I have seen, new insulated glass windows might reduce energy consumption by as much as 20% (a generous estimate).

    And so with these very generous assumptions, one might expect to save as much as $200/year with new windows (I doubt it, but lets err on the high side). So, based upon my calculations, it will cost $608 during the first year and $708 during every following year for 12 years to possibly save $200.00 per year in heating bills.

    Are there better and much less expensive ways to save energy costs? Yes!

    • Wear sweaters and socks, and turn down the thermostat a few degrees.

  • Install and use a set back thermostat, and reduce the temperature in the home at night and when no one is at home.
  • Make sure that your furnace is serviced and clean - this is also a good way to prevent carbon monoxide problems, dust and allergies!

  • If you have an electric furnace and are on a gas line, converting to natural gas will likely be cost effective (but that will depend on the gas prices).
  • This is not an argument against new windows. I think that the new window and glazing technology is great! I like the look of many types of the new windows. Unlike the old wood double hung windows, new windows actually open and close. Good windows are also an important factor in making a house feel less drafty and allow for better and more even heat distribution. Properly configured windows can also help you keep the house cooler in the summer.

    From a community viewpoint, requiring insulated windows in new construction and/or subsidizing window replacement can also make sense. Insulation and conservation reduces the need to develop new energy sources now and in the future. The energy saved by conservation reduces energy needs for the life of the system!

    But selling windows at retail prices on the basis of the net energy savings to the consumer does not add up! And the victims of these scams are often the least able to afford them.

    I also suspect that any net house value increase will be less than the total cost of the new windows. - George

    P.S. And what about those energy efficient air conditioning systems? Why they even sell them here in Seattle! And as you can imagine, it most cases that is a waste of $$$ and energy. Yes, houses get too warm on some summer days here but as in most temperate climates passive cooling systems work much better than an AC unit here. And passive cooling measures can assist in keeping your house cool and your electric bill lower in all climates!.

  • As a great fan of the internet and the web I am sad to report about some recent reports of problems with some ".com" contractor referral services. Consumers report some; poor quality work, high prices, and poor follow through. Contractors complain about too many "window" shoppers and customers who look for the lowest prices and don't want to hear about: important "details", the reputation and track record of the contractor, or the quality of the work to be performed.

    The biggest problems appear to me to be related to the difficulty in qualifying a contractors and the complexity of most projects. In my review of some of the ".com" contractor referral services, I have not found enough attention given to the quality of such services.

    Qualifying contractors is not an easy job. Checking on licensing, bonding, and insurance is relatively easy, in some states you can do that on the internet. More difficult is the process of securing meaningful references and complete background information. For example: has the contractor in question operated under several different names in the past?

    Based upon my review of the ".com" contractor referral services, not enough attention is being payed to the process of selecting contractors. This is partially the result of the difficulty inherent in the contractor qualifications process, and the desire to offer the service to a large geographic area.

    Good Contractors tend to be very busy these days, and have been for the last few years. Many are not looking for more work, and have enough referral traffic to keep their calenders booked for months in advance. Such quality contractors are not very likely to sign up for a referral service which prides itself on low prices. Such quality contractors know that low prices are the very best single indicator of poor quality work and business failure. And everything that I have learned confirms that conclusion. Unfortunately, this means that good contractors are most likely:

    • expensive;
    • booked for a long time; and,
    • not interested in being part of high volume .com referral service.

    Good Quality Referral Services must have the capability to collect and maintain reliable information about "their" contractors. This is a complex, time consuming, and expensive process. Most of the ".com" services are not set up to do such work. These types of services should be regarded as a contractor "listing" service. Part of such a "listing" process may also involve some qualifying data, but not the necessary amount required to make a final selection.

    In selecting a ".com" contractor referral service, one should look at the following:

    • How rigorous is the contractor qualification process? or conversely,
    • How easy is it to be listed? (hint: easy is bad)
    • Are the contractors required to maintain certain standards of work? (building codes, manufacturers specifications, practices of the trade)
    • What happens if the customer is dissatisfied with the work? (warrantees etc.)
    • What assistance does the .com provide the customer in making an informed decision?

    The web has the capability of developing quality contractor referral services. But for now, I urge great caution!

  • The history of failed siding products keeps growing. Here is a short list of "winners", "losers" and "products with some problems":

    Winners

    • Quality Wood Siding
    • Hardi Board - a concrete composite product
    • Brick
    • Architectual Grade Metal Siding
    • Stone or Concrete Products
    • Siding installed on a good drain-down system

    The quality of the building design, installation and maintenance practices are as important as the product itself.

    Losers

    • Low Grade Wood Siding
    • Cement Asbestos Board
    • Wood Composite Siding - LP, Masonite, etc.
    • EIFS - Exterior Insulation Finish Systems
    • Stucco in wet locations

    Most of the problems with these products are related to extreme weather conditions plus poor design and installation.

    Products with Some Problems

    • Vinyl Siding in wet locations and often poorly installed
    • Plywood T-1-11 a good product which tends to be poorly installed

    Note: Polyvinyl Chloride has some potentially serious toxicity problems during manufacture and disposal. I don't recommend the use of PVC containing materials such as: pipes, vinyl siding and some roofing membranes.

  • I have been a long time fan of copper supply lines, and my distrust of various types of plastic substitutes has unfortunately been partially confirmed. For example: some polybutylene systems have been recalled.

    Alas copper pipes have some problems too. Some copper supply lines in some areas of the country are developing leaks. We don't know why!

    The problems may be related to: water and/or soil conditions; poor quality soldering flux, the use of too much flux; and allowing the flux to remain on the walls of the pipe after the soldering is completed.

    What to do if you are about to specify water supply material:

    • Call around to find out if copper pipe failure is a problem in your area.
    • Make sure that you select a qualified plumber.
    • Make sure that the lines are flushed with water soon after the soldering has been completed.
    • If you decide to use an alternate material, take a look at CPVC or the polybutylene systems which have not been recalled. Get the best plumber you can find and make sure that the pipes are properly supported.
  • Mold and fungal organisms are a frequent concern in construction. Fungal wood rot can damage structures and surfaces. We are also hearing more and more about the negative health affects of most molds found in home, and one particular mold - Stachybotrys - has received a lot of publicity. While there is a lot more to know about the health affects of moldy homes, most of the literature does suggest that such homes are not healthy.

    For a very good primer on mold, take a look at the information provided by the Building Science Corporation

    Here is what we know:

    • Wet/moist, poorly vented, and poorly maintained homes are the most likely to suffer from mold and fungal damage and contamination.
    • Keeping a home dry and well vented (prevention) is much easier and much less expensive than cleanup and repairs.
    • Cleanup after a flood is complicated and requires protection of the cleanup workers. Unless the cleanup is completed very quickly, most surfaces will have to be replaced, e.g. carpet, wallboard.
    • Stachybotrys is a particularly dangerous form of mold, but the "TV talk show" attention to this specific type of mold appears to be out of proportion to the problem. Such attention may also promote the false idea that one does not have to be concerned about other types of mold.
    • The health affects of Stachybotrys and other molds appear to be most serious for: infants, folks with respiratory problems and older people.
    • When in doubt get more information: read the linked material, call your local health department and/or you doctor.
    • Testing for mold is very difficult! Testing for elevated moisture levels, the main cause of mold is relatively easy and a key to mold control.
    • As an inspector I receive a great deal of unsolicited material about the latest way to make more $$$. A few years ago this junk mail had to do with asbestos, then EMF and now its mold. Mold is bad but con artists can make it worse!

  • The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has announced a provisional settlement regarding the previously recalled Cadet in wall electric heaters.

    Under this agreement, it appears that replacement heater will be available from Consolidated Electrical Distributors Inc., the manufacturers of Cadet and Encore heaters.

    Based upon my understanding, these replacement heaters may not be available right away, and will only be available from the manufacturer. The manufacturer seems to suggest that the old heater can be used until they are replaced. That is not my understanding of the CPSC findings. I agree with CPSC and urge that the recalled heaters be abandoned until replaced.

  • My friend Otto and I have long dreamt about inventing a self cleaning and non clogging gutters system. We are sure that such an invention would "make millions". Our project has not progressed past the stage of dreaming about the spending of those millions.

    In the meantime, various other folks have come out with their versions of the "Magical Gutter Systems" and attempting to make millions in the process. Some of these folks are making some money, and some of these new gutter systems have some good features, but based upon my observations: our dream is safe. The self cleaning non clogging gutter system has yet to be invented!

    The new gutter system are designed to work in a number of ways:

    • The screened gutter that is designed to filter out the leaves - and then you have to clean the screen. (There are some very good gutter screens on the market and I am proud to have one of the very best as a sponsor of my site, no magic, just a very good product! See the box regarding LeafFilter bellow!)
    • The gutter cover that is designed to allow rain water to flush the leaves past the edge of the gutter and yet allow most of the water to flow into the gutter. (Works relatively well with a small amount of dry leaves and heavier rain. Does little for fir and pine needles and works poorly in light rain. Hard to clean once the gutters are clogged.)
    • The hinged gutter that flops open/down when full and is supposed to let all the debris fall out and then spring back into place. (Requires heavy rains to work and seldom springs back into place.)
    • The chain downspout that is designed to keep the water flowing along the links of the chain to the ground. (Some architects love this design. It works in some light rains and makes for great icicles!)
    • The downspout port or screen that is designed to prevent debris from clogging up the drain system. (The screens make sense but require frequent inspection and cleaning - an easy job. The kick out ports tend to stick open.)

    So what's the solution? <0l>

  • The best way to keep gutters cleaner is by reducing the amount of debris that falls on the roof and gutters: remove overhanging tree limbs and limbs within 6' of the house (this also reduces visits from rats, squirrels, ants, cats...)
  • Live with the facts of life: death, taxes and gutter cleaning. (The last of these can be largely avoided by moving to a dry area without trees.)
  • Don't trust "no maintenance" sales pitches.

    I have looked at all sorts of "magic" gutter systems and have found very little magic in any of them. But I have now found a system that keeps almost all dirt from clogging gutters, downspouts and drain systems. LeafFilter is designed to prevent needles, roofing granules, leaves and other debris from clogging gutter systems. Its stainless steel filter is rugged and makes the removal of debris from the roof easier. LeafFilter isn't magic, its just a darn good gutter protection system.

    And so I am very pleased to have LeafFilter NW as a sponsor of The Sound Home Resource Center! - George