What should you know about the Florida home?

House as a puzzle

Florida Home Inspections: In a Florida home, most issues found in homes are generally consistent to the age of the home.  Generally, the age of the home compliments construction styles, methodologies and materials common at the time.

Most construction designs did not originate in Florida.  We have not built the “Cracker” style since the 1940’s.  Production builders, following WWII,   introduced plans which were popular in the post-war, building boom in northern states without adapting construction methods to suit our sub-tropical climate.

florida-homePrior to this period, our homes encouraged the expulsion of hot, humid, air by natural ventilation through large gable vents, ridge vents, windows and shotgun hallways. The crawlspace encouraged our floor joists to dry.  Our framing material of choice was 100 year old hardwoods, such as cypress.  Our hand framed trusses were connected to our balloon framing with 10d, iron nails. Our metal roofs were steeply pitched and encouraged the rains to sheet flow.  When our homes were soaked with tropical rains, the strong, natural ventilation of hot air, dried the wood.

Please note you cannot dry wet wood with cold air. Our homes encouraged natural breezes, stayed dry and did not produce habitats suitable to termites or mold.  Our homes did not require hurricane straps, HIP roofs, 6-inch nailing patterns or any other current mitigation feature because they encouraged the hurricane force winds to pass through the home.  There was little concern over uplift.  If the roof leaked, well, it dried out shortly after the sun came out.

florida-home2The post-war building boom infiltrated to the more populous areas of Florida with the arrival of “snowbirds”.  Retirement construction introduced slab-on- grade homes with concrete block walls, low slope roofs with minimal attic space.  Natural ventilation through jalousie windows was considered enough for the part-time occupants who only lived here during the winter months.  The windows were metal frame and we did not insulate the low slope attic. The leaky windows, soffit and gable vents still allowed the home to breathe and most of these homes are still with us today unless they were in the path of strong hurricanes or tornadoes.  There is no lateral wind resistance to an open cell, concrete block home which does not have reinforcing steel or poured cells.

florida-home3The California home was introduced to Florida in the 1970’s.  Vaulted ceilings, skylights, open floor plans and lots of glass exposure to let the outdoors in.  The vaulted ceilings meant we no longer had attics or ventilation so we added forced air conditioning.  In eliminating the attic, we did not have anywhere to place ductwork so we stubbed in one return air duct to serve the whole home.  These homes were typically redwood which is a soft wood and should not be confused with cedar.  By this period, the country had depleted its supply of 100 year old hardwoods and environmentalists were chaining themselves to what was left (it is illegal to harvest boards with a person attached to the tree).  We were inventing new materials to offset our lack of suitable wood for wall cladding such as vinyl siding, aluminum siding and stucco, and we soon learned we had a problem with windows which were being built with 20 year old spruce, a fast growing, soft wood.  These windows became known as “sticky windows” because they swelled in our hot, humid, climate.  These windows were also known as “termite food” because termites loved the soft wood which never dried out.  Window manufacturers tried to combat this by treating the wood with chromated copper arsenate (CCA).  Due to health concerns over its carcinogenic properties and mounting legal claims, CCA was discontinued by most manufacturers in the mid-1980’s (it was outright banned by the USEPA in 2003).  Now that there was no proven preservative, and limited supply of  hardwood, manufacturers began to wrap the windows in vinyl or aluminum.  This did nothing to actually protect the wood from moisture but it did make it harder to see the decay and the termites.  The manufacturers sold this as “energy efficiency” when in reality, wrapping wood in cladding only increases efficiency by .3 R value.  Windows found in 90 year old homes are generally fine, as long as they have had routine maintenance; whereas, windows installed in the 1980’s or 1990’s are rotted.

Given we were having so much trouble with 12 year old spruce, in the 1980’s, we introduced compressed wood fiber siding which has failed miserably in Florida. I guess, since 12 year old wood would not tolerate our moisture, we decided to try paper as a better substitute.  These products were the focus of many class action lawsuits.

Polybutylene piping (tubing) was introduced as a labor savings measure.  Builders no longer needed a qualified plumber to run the piping. The tubing can be curved around objects, laid out on the attic floor, and joined with plastic crimp fittings.  All drainage piping was now PVC and pipefitter/plumbers were no longer necessary. Yesterday’s landscaper was now today’s plumber.

Until the 1950’s, the use of pesticides for termite control was almost non-existent in most parts of the US, including Florida.  Termites live primarily on moist wood.  Our homes were not wet.  When a home was infected with termites, we called one of the few local “bug men” who treated the home with DDT.  When DDT was banned, he treated with Dieldrin (similar to DDT).  When Dieldrin was banned in 1985, he treated the home with chlordane until it was banned in 1988.  Incidentally, the local bug man was quickly being replaced with national/regional pest control companies with company trucks and big advertising budgets.  The use of poor building materials, which was creating wet homes and providing a ready food source for termites had spawned a new business enterprise – The National Pest Control Company. Florida is home to over 4,000 pest control companies.   Between 1988 and 2002 (15 years), the termite industry did not have an effective chemical for the treatment of subterranean termites.  Fipronil was introduced in 2002 and was marketed as Termidor.  It is an effective termiticide and it is the most popular treatment used today.  Let’s look back at that 15 years, 1988-2002, when the industry did not have an effective treatment for subterranean termites.  The industry was hit with a lot of claims from their customers.  The products they were using were not stopping subterranean termites.  One thing they did, and they still do today, is their contract does not include protection against drywood termites.  Guess what?  When you made a claim against them, you had a drywood termite problem and the only treatment was to tent the home.  You see, when you tent the home, you are guaranteed to kill everything.  You soak every building material in the home, wood, drywall, carpet, cabinets and anything else which is porous, with a toxic chemical, which is not only absorbed, but will off-gas toxic fumes for decades to come.  The treatment is guaranteed for five years and hopefully, the company will get to come back and give it a good toxic dose again.  Many of these homes are still off-gassing toxic VOC fumes today and people are suffering from the exposure.

Weakened homes from insects, wood rot, defective windows, and poor building materials become a suitable habitat for mold growth in Florida.  Claims for mold increased tenfold during the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Often, the insurance carrier paid to have the mold cleaned, some drywall replaced or the roof fixed.  This did not address the issue which caused the mold.  In many cases, the issue is still present.  Claims for ill health effects from exposure to mold soared.  Insurance carriers spent millions on studies to prove mold did not cause health effects and then gave their studies to lobbyists who found supportive politicians to vote in their favor, in return for their generous campaign contributions.  Of course, all of the independent research conducted by scientists and health experts around the world could not be completely ignored, so the official word is “some people may be susceptible to ill health effects from prolonged exposure to mold”.  I’m sorry if you are one of them.

Another side effect from our weakened Florida homes became apparent when they blew away during Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which caused $26.5 billion in damage.  Our bold legislators quickly addressed this problem by strengthening our building codes against winds in 1996.  This important legislation was a good thing because the 2004 hurricanes (Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne) only caused $50 billion in damage to our wet, fortified, My Safe Florida, homes.  Since our legislators could not further strengthen our homes with more legislation, many national insurance carriers left the state, which created the current property insurance crisis.  The new insurance carriers have determined the legislated, fortified, wet, My Safe Florida homes, pose a threat to their ability to pay damage claims and provide a profit to their investors, so many Florida homeowners and commercial property owners are struggling to pay the current premiums which may be three to five times higher than the premium they once had.

What are our new homes like?  Although we have made strides in correcting many mistakes of the 1980’s and 1990’s, and we have strengthened the wind load of our homes with straps, homes built between 2000 and the present are known to have indoor air quality issues.  With energy efficiency at the forefront of our quest to save oil and money, we have caulked our homes into tombs.  Our goal is to fill every possible air gap with sealant (which off-gasses VOC’s for up to 40 years).  We completely seal the home against all outside air, or we allow just a little bit to enter the top one foot of the attic through finely vented soffits which are covered with four feet of batt insulation. HVAC manufacturers are introducing dehumidifiers into their air conditioning products to reduce the relative humidity which has no place to go.  Of course, dehumidifiers only serve to reduce the water vapor which is too much for the typical air conditioner to handle and then re-route the same dirty air.  Mechanical outside air exchangers are being added to introduce fresh air into the home so the air inside does not make the occupant sick.  Let’s see, we make sure no outside air can get in so we save energy and then we spend money on a mechanical vent to bring in outside air.  The mechanical vent delivers hot, humid air into the home so we now need an expensive dehumidifier to strip the excess moisture which the AC system cannot handle.  This dehumidifier has a filter which is nearly always wet and provides a suitable habitat for growth of mold, bacteria and other microorganisms so we have to clean it monthly and replace it as necessary.  This dehumidifier has a drain so we need additional piping which over time can become clogged and allow the drain pan to fill to capacity or over capacity, resulting in water damage.

florida-homeAccording to the USEPA, USGBC, NEHA, USCDC, health experts and other leading industry sources, claims for illness due to indoor air quality are setting new highs each year.  Medical experts who specialize in allergies represent the fastest growing specialty in the medical field.  In central Florida, we now have one medical allergist per 10,000 in population.  This is almost equal to the ratio of lawyers.

Please read more about indoor air quality concerns here: indoor air quality


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