Wild Leaves

“As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
when they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky”

A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore, 1822

No. It wasn’t originally known as ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, that came later. More puzzling for me has always been how a beautiful image of Fall was worked so seamlessly into the middle of a Christmas poem. Each Fall these lines always begin to lap around the edges of my unconscious way before I even realize what I’m reciting, and I suddenly wonder if I’m as guilty as the stores that deck the halls before Hallowe’en. Of course dry leaves are still around in December, but they’re brown and broken and are really only parts of leaves. By the time frost is in the forecast, the fallen leaves have blended into the landscape. But at this time of year, late October and early November, colorful showers of red, yellow, and orange leaves are new, exciting, and unavoidable.

A Sugar Maple downtown A Sugar Maple downtown

When Caroline and I lived in Louisiana we rarely pined for frosty nights, but we always felt like we’d been cheated when the leaves didn’t change. I guess they didn’t have to down there. Winter time temperatures in Louisiana dip all the way down in to the 60s…at night…when the wind is blowing…sometimes. By contrast, when our leaves start to change in northern Virginia, we know that the sting of cold isn’t far behind.

Home inspection too, is a seasonal affair.

Lots and lots of leaves... Lots and lots of leaves…

When I inspect a home, I’m taking a snapshot of its condition on the day I inspected it. Of course my “snapshot” includes any number of pictures, narrative descriptions, and measurements, but it is limited to a relatively small window in time. Weather and the season have a direct effect on how I inspect and report. My hope is that by reviewing some of the changes that take place when the days grow shorter, I will help folks understand both the inspection process and what to expect when “the weather outside is frightful”, or at least headed in that direction.

HVAC: Changes in temperature have a direct effect on HVAC system assessment. When its 70˚ or higher, I run the AC and record a temperature differential to see if the system is performing well. When the temperature falls below 50˚, the heating system gets a workout. Issues arise, as I’m sure you’ve anticipated, in the moderate zone between 70˚ and 50˚. When the AC is run in this range, even a brand new system won’t register a significant differential because the air outside isn’t warm enough to create much of a difference. Things are a bit easier with the heating because even on a 60˚ day units should be able to pump out 80˚+ temperatures. If the AC and heating components run independently of each other both can be tested if the circumstances are right. Heat pumps, however, cannot be run in both AC and heating mode during an inspection. Most manufacturers recommend that users wait at least 24 hours, sometimes 48, when switching between heating and cooling functions.

These weather-related variances are why a visual inspection always accompanies mechanical testing. It is important to look at burner flames when possible to see if they are a uniform color, examine the inside of air handlers to see if there is fungal growth or built-up dirt, and look over the outside of gas appliances for evidence of scorching from backdrafting. Even if part of the HVAC can’t be run, I can usually make an informed judgment regarding its condition.

Roofs: Most home inspectors take personal pride in walking a roof whenever possible. Smart home inspectors know when the risk is just too great. Roof slopes that are mountain goat steep are never safe to walk without a harness. For the next few months wet or icy conditions will limit roof walking. Yet, even if a roof is unsafe to walk, an inspection with binoculars or a powerful camera often helps bring issues to light. Sometimes, however, if say snow or ice is covering a roof, a follow-up appoint will have to be made.

Interestingly, wet weather sometimes makes roof inspections easier. Conditions that lead to roof leakage, such as a steady rain or melting snow, can make relatively easy to document these issues. Nothing confirms a damaged roof like a puddle in the attic!

Leaves: This post has the potential to challenge even the stoutest attention spans, so I’ll end where I began, with leaves. Fall’s fireworks don’t last forever and soon the festive foliage will have fallen in yards, gutters, window wells, behind shrubs, and even (somehow) worked themselves behind screens. As much as we all look forward to leaf collection and gutter cleaning (reread in a sarcastic voice), it is a vitally important part of home upkeep. And leaves, yes, leaves, appear in inspection reports all the time. When the water management channels around a house get clogged, issues arise. Further, leaves are nature’s mulch: they hold moisture. If leaves have filled your window wells like a lettuce in a sandwich wrap, there is now a protective layer keeping water from evaporating and draining.

Seasonal maintenance will be covered in more detail in later posts, but for now I’ll simply point out that, as silly as it sounds, leaves do a great job of hiding problem areas during an inspection. If I can’t see a drain at the bottom of a basement staircase or a sharp piece of pipe sticking up next to a house, it probably won’t make the report. Part of conducting a limited visual inspection means that I can’t take the time to rake around a house to see what I might find. (Too bad, right?)

Finally, all squirrels living in abandoned pumpkins get reported as non-rent paying tenants.

Yes, that’s a thing.