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.

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.

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Tags: Efficiency, Energy, Home, Long, QCI, building, duct, ducting, science, term, More…testing, thinking

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Comment by Hans Joachim Preiss on May 15, 2015 at 7:19pm

I used to work in manufacturing of electronics, and even before I knew the quality standard ISO 9000, I learned that the earlier a mistake gets discovered, the quicker and easier and least costly it is to correct it.

Once the blower door, duct tester, or building inspector shows up, the project is typically so far along that fixes can only be less effective bandages unless prior work is undone, which is very costly and likely derails the schedule as we are seeing in Paul's story.

What is urgently necessary is accountability. But in order to be held accountable, people need to know what their responsibilities are.

In manufacturing there are quality manuals. "Say what you do, and do what you say". Everybody who is interested can read what your responsibilities are because they are written down, and they can compare them with your actual work. Works really well because there is no doubt whose mistake it is, and who will pay for it and their consequences.

Cheers
Hans

Comment by Hans Joachim Preiss on May 15, 2015 at 6:02pm

I used to work in manufacturing of electronics, and even before I knew the quality standard ISO 9000, I learned that the earlier a mistake gets discovered, the quicker and easier and least costly it is to correct it. Once the blower door or duct tester shows up, the project is typically so far along that fixes can only be bandages unless prior work is undone, which is very costly and likely derails the schedule as we are seeing in Paul's story.

What is urgently necessary is accountability. But in order to be held accountable, people need to know what their responsibilities are. 

In manufacturing there are quality manuals. Say what you do, and do what you say. Everybody who is interested can read what your responsibilities are because they are written down, and they can compare that with your actual work. Sounds like a good idea, eh?

Cheers

 Hans

Comment by Patrick Michaelyan on May 9, 2015 at 3:09pm
As always, a lot of good ideas and thoughts in concept.

Having been on both sides of the fence (and having worn many hats while on each side) as both a contractor and auditor, I have realized a very unfortunate and likely fixed reality: money rules the world and therefore is likely to rule our decisions.

Contractors cut corners because of job cost pressures, and homeowners accept half-assed "solutions" because of budget constraints. This is seemingly human nature.

Regulating towards good behavior has proved IMHO to be as foolhardy as bailing out the big banks and auto giants. You apparently have to let people, processes and companies fail (as miserable as the results of these failures may be). They need to feel the direct and unadulterated consequences of these failures. And even this is likely only going to improve a dilapidated system.

What I have seen work for the better contractors and savvy homeowners is this old-fashioned idea called the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have others do unto you). In other words, it appears more about individuals' principles and values then anything else. You cannot regulate for this, you just have to accept that there will be a good deal of missed opportunities, shadiness, and soul-selling for the greenback in any area of life.

I think it's time to go back to the basics...

1. Expect to pay dearly for quality work (energy-related or otherwise as a homeowner\buyer)

2. Accept lean times (as a contractor\business)

3. Man or woman-up and call out things that seem troublesome

4. Be the change you desire!!!

Otherwise we all just keep talking and hoping for change. Accept and celebrate that change has already arrived for the cream of the crop (it's Darwinism 101). Everyone else is basically a lost cause (assuming they have already emerged from puberty, and have chosen who they want to be and how they want to live).

So, let's concentrate on the "cream" and their friends and colleagues, and let the others bask in uncomfortable homes, questionable businesses, and bloated bureaucracies.

Honestly, you all are the cream and you just need to be able to accept that your goodwill is likely to be wasted in the great majority of cases. Have seen this all too vividly on both the contractor and auditor side.

Who knows, some day keeping up with the Jones' may include those solar panel thingys and hiring that really nice man\woman and his\her crew. Until then PLEASE devote your wonderful energies (contractors) and monies (homeowners) to improving the lives and homes of those who are deserving (in both thought and action). Ignorance is not bliss...it is ignorance (ugly and inexcusable).

Be well all!
Comment by Pat Dundon on May 8, 2015 at 6:43am

This business is still in its infancy.  We are the tail wagging the dog.  There is much to be done to get the markets to recognize the 'why', and the 'how much'.  Until the consumer values the service, it will not get done routinely.

 I am that hermaphrodite that does installs and testing.   You all will question my honesty, sometimes I do too, as is evidenced by my earlier post here y'all ignored.  Heating guys get more respect than insulators on the contracting food chain, so they should elevate their game some, but I need to too.

I have the most difficulty in doing that when I know a service is necessary but I cant get a contractor to pay me equitably for it.  In some of the posts here, it feels like you blame the subs for the crimes of the generals.  They shouldn't always pick the lowest bidder. 

You, as the consultant should hold us all to the same standards.  Never waiver. you in effect ARE the standards.  You are the vanguard that can move this market.  You don't do anyone a favor when you work for free, and you don't do anyone a favor when you lie about a test result. 

Comment by tedkidd on May 7, 2015 at 4:47pm
Stan, maybe there should be more than just a list, maybe there should be a contractor ranking competition.

Boy, if BPI were innovative THEY could create such a ranking so consumers could understand who TRULY performs great work, rather than implying good work comes from "GoldStar" contractors and quickly losing credibility with consumers when they know or learn otherwise...
Comment by Michael Dunseith on May 1, 2015 at 12:23pm

"There ought to be a way for QCI inspectors to ding the contractor or the builder."

When did a measurement and verification subcontractor become a quality control inspector or the code police?

QCI is for programs, like WAP or state and utility program that use public funds. Some companies might even have that position in house.

Heck, Building Departments don't even care about the quality of a job they inspect. Isn't it the building Departments job to make the final call.

When a Builder or contractor hires a competent persons to conduct leakage testing , whether it be for a Blower Door or Ducts. Our job is to provide solid repeatable measurements and provide a report. It is not our job to be concerned if it meets code or not. Until builders get up to speed on the new codes we become consultants to and for them to become compliant with codes. When a building fails to meet code and if the builder wants advise, then they should be billed for any consultation provided. Sure, some people out there will fudge the numbers to make it look better then it really is. Either for money or friends. But in the end, it isn't our job to say what passes or fails or even go after and ding contractors that build homes performing under code. Our job is to just test and measure accurately.  This not to say we shouldn't  be knowledgeable about the local codes but it is not part of our duty nor have we been trained to decide if a home meets or exceeds a Town, City or State's code requirements.

Comment by Stan Kuhn on May 1, 2015 at 8:06am

I'll chime in about the insulator/air sealer that tests their own work & passes with flying colors, but when I test the house it fails miserably.  The HVAC contractor who passes just fine except when they go to a municipality where they aren't allowed to do their own test, and the work fails.  When we compare notes I find they don't know how to set up their equipment.  The insulator/air sealer that was called back 4 times to try to get it right, and still didn't.  I propose a public list of contractors with a record of each job, and the results, including each round of tests.  (I suspect that will never happen.)  I believe that the first place to get on board is the building inspectors; they're all over the board in my experience, from not even thinking about the required energy testing, to the ONE that wants to see my manometer when testing ducts (although he only requires the supply ducts to be tested?)  We're preaching to the choir; it would be good effort for us to try to get an audience with our local inspectors and do some preaching/training.  [I won't talk about the guy who offered me a bribe to "just pass it."  He didn't have enough so I could live well in retirement :-) ]  Another thought, an "unofficial" list of those who we're waiting for payment from for some period (a year?) to provide warning to our (friendly?) competitors.

Comment by Kent Browning on April 30, 2015 at 12:56pm

I forgot to mention -

When I see what was in the pictures above - I take the building or HVAC guy by the ear and point to that spot.  I tell them "There is a HUGE leak.  If you seal that spot it might just pass the test."

Comment by Kent Browning on April 30, 2015 at 12:52pm

Welcome to my world.  I have been there and done that MANY times.  The worst ones are when the City steps in and agrees to let it pass regardless of the test results.  The way I justify it to myself is that if there is no clear life safety issue and I report exactly what I have found - my job is done.  If the builder or inspector or someone else falsifies/accepts a report - it is not my report or my job.

BTW - the philosophy that 'it will be better next time' doesn't appear to work around here.  The only thing that changes is I am not the one that tests the installation next time.  Or at least not for that builder. I have never been asked to do another test by such a builder.  I don't think I would do another job if I was.

I have been called back a couple of times by the Owner when the house is uncomfortable, high bills, etc.  The only thing I will say to the Owner is I did not approve the initial test results and can't say what has happened since then.  Somebody else tested the ducts and said they were sealed then.  Now they are leaking XX cfm.

Comment by Nate Adams on April 30, 2015 at 11:26am

A structural problem in the industry underlies this: the builder doesn't give a darn about homeowner energy bills or comfort. If he spends more on fixing those, he won't get paid. It's a split incentive - the responsibility is on the party that doesn't get the benefits of fixing the problem.

It would be good to start valuing efficiency and comfort, but until we measure, it ain't gonna happen. Results need to be published, too. Homeowners will have analysis to understand the value that building performance brings.

I'm going to sound like a broken record here, but One Knob, baby. Measure and publish results. You may check out Gainesville Green as well.

Until we get measurement and accountability, we're all going to have these stories to tell. Are you getting tired of telling them? I am.

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