A home inspection may be your best source to learn about your home’s systems
On two inspection jobs that I conducted last week, I noticed a fact that concerned me: the lack of the ability to recognize basic components of a home. There are a few reasons for this: you have lived in an apartment; coming from a foreign country; or just never dealt with them. Do not think that I am thinking people are dumb; it is simply a lack of knowledge/experience. I was glad at yesterday’s inspection to have the client ask me questions, because otherwise he may never have learned, or had difficulties.
I recall the time that I was called to a house to turn on a breaker. I could have charged for a service call. Seventy five dollars to flip a switch will hurt the finances, but that does happen. Some problems arise because new types of equipment, which people are not sure how to use. Here are some common items that I find clients asking me.
Where is the breaker box (service panel)?
First let us deal with terminology. If you have a home inspection report, they may have stated the location under the phrase service panel, where as breaker box or fuse box is the common terms used by homeowners. By the way, few homes in Houston still use fuses; breakers are the norm, but the term persists. In Houston, you can frequently find the service panel on the exterior of the home. It is a grey metal box located near the electric meter. You should be able to turn off all of the power by flipping one main switch, or by using six swipes of your hand. On townhomes, I often see one main shutoff away from the main service panel. These shutoffs are frequently near the front door with a large lever on one side. Another common location is in the garage. You will see a grey metal cover on the wall. I do not see these covers painted when in the garage. Less often, I will find the service panel in the utility room or a closet. Here you will want to be careful. These are dangerous locations for the panel (fire hazards). The most unusual spot is the last one: in a bathroom. I have found a few panels in a cabinet or closet in the bathroom. Look for the meter on the exterior of the house, and the panel will typically be near that location on the interior of the house.
How do I shut off the water to my house? Moreover, what is that box for with those red and blue pipes?
Your first position to turn off the water to your home is at the water meter. The meter will be in your front yard. The problem that I find is that the meter box is either filled with water or dirt is covering the valve. In the meter box, the valve has to be turned off with a wrench. There is a rectangular bar that is the valve knob. The next position is quite common in Houston. Look at the hose bib (faucet) closest to the water meter. If there is a tube leading up to this hose bib, this is where the water is entering into your home. On this line, you will find a valve with the same type of handle as your hose bib. This valve turns off the water to your home. If you do not have this situation, look in your garage. In a recessed box, you will see a valve. This is the water shutoff for the home. Now, this interior valve is located in the garage 90% of the time, but I have found it in other places within the house. When it is not in the garage, this valve will be covered by a panel that has to be unscrewed to get at the valve. I have found them located in front rooms of the house or in closets towards the front of the home. A nice feature is if your home uses PEX tubing. This is a flexible plastic tube, which comes in blue (cold water) and red (hot water). PEX comes in many colors, but for home use, only blue and red are used by builders. If you have PEX in your home, you will have a manifold as well. A manifold is a distribution pipe with many valves on it. You will find it in the garage, and it has a plastic cover. (Service panels are metal; manifolds are plastic; I mention this as a reminder on how to identify them). Your manifold will have valve knobs that look like diamond shapes. There is a special key that fits over this shape. Turning clockwise will shut the water off to one particular fixture. The fixtures should be labelled. Being able to shut off one fixture, like a tub, is great for when you are working on one item only. The house can continue to have water when working on that one fixture. If you loose the key, be careful about using a metal wrench. The valves are plastic, and they can be easily damaged.
How can I shutoff the gas?
Alright, gas is dangerous, and if you smell it, you should be getting out of the house. Gas appliances have their own shutoffs. Look for a valve with a red handle. Turning the handle perpendicular to the line shuts off the gas. Gas ovens have the shut off behind the unit. I think it is better when this shutoff is located in a cabinet next to the unit, but it is not often placed there. Water heaters and heaters for the air have the valve in the line close to those units. The main shutoff for the entire home is located on the meter. Here the valve handle is somewhat triangular in shape with a hole in it.
Why does the dishwasher or outlets not working?
This is a holdover that is found in homes in Houston that confuses some people. If your dishwasher is not working, but there is nothing wrong with the breakers, the switch for the dishwasher has been turned off. This switch is often on the kitchen counter. It looks just like a light switch, and it is on the same plate as the disposer switch. I have found this switch inside a cabinet under the kitchen sink, when the dishwasher is located in a kitchen island. If your outlets are not working in the kitchen, bathrooms, outside, wet bar, or garage, it means that the GFCI switch has tripped. One outlet will have two buttons on it with an indicator light. If you see a red light on an outlet, it means that it has tripped shutting off the power to the other outlets connected to it. Exterior outlets are connected to a central outlet in the garage. Bathrooms should be controlled by an outlet in the Master bathroom. Kitchen outlets are controlled by a unit along the same counter.
How do I get the thermostat to work?
A new style of thermostat has a touch screen. I like the types that have buttons better, but that may just be personal. I feel that a new user can understand them faster. The touchscreen units are not hard to use, but I do see people become confused by them. OK, how do you make them work? The screen is divided into boxes. Touch a box to activate the control. The current mode will flash. Keep tapping the box till you have the mode that you want. Once it is flashing, tap the box with the word “done” in it. For example, if you want to start the unit, tap on the box that says “off”. The word “off” is now flashing, and you will see the words “cool” and “heat”. Tap the box till you see what you want flashing. You want it to cool, so when “cool” is flashing, hit “done”. Once you have completed this task, you can set the temperature by tapping on the arrows to set the temperature.
Keep a binder or file for all of your equipment manuals. You never know when it will come in handy. I probably have referred to two of those manuals in fifteen years, but I really needed them when I did. I tell my clients to ask for the equipment manuals before closing. Most sellers will be good about handing these over when they have them.
Maybe I could have made this several small posts, but these questions seem to come together. If you do not know your home, take a moment to learn. There will be odd times when you do need to know this information.