This article was originally published in the March/April 1999 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.
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Home Energy Magazine Online March/April 1999
Fuel Cells Looking Good but Economics Vary Steven Bodzin's article on home fuel cells was an interesting and well-written introduction to this exciting technology (Fuel Cells Come Home, Nov/Dec '98, p. 7). However, I would like to point out that in the Northeast we are paying almost twice the natural gas price and 50% more than the propane price mentioned in the article. At our fuel costs, the fuel cell economics are radically altered.
The applicable standard is UL 2034. It was first drafted in 1992. The first revision was October 1995. The numbers following the standard refer to the revision date. Hence, the current standard is UL 2034-98.
In April of 1998, the Wisconsin Legislature passed 1998 Wisconsin Act 81, Emergency Rules for Home Inspectors, requiring the licensing of all individuals who do home inspections. According to the letter of the law, its prescriptions apply to everyone who inspects houses except government officials, contractors preparing bids, and those operating under other state licenses or certifications.
The law states that an inspector must in all cases provide a written report that lists the components the inspector is required to inspect. The inspector must also indicate which components have actually been inspected. This requirement essentially means all home inspections must include some sort of checklist of hundreds of elements.
Even if you do not live or work in Wisconsin, you should be concerned about this legislation because it could be a model for new legislation in your state. In my opinion, this legislation represents an attempted takeover of our industry by those who fail to recognize the whole-house, interactive nature of building performance and the variety and importance of the services we provide. As of the beginning of January, both the advisory committee and the legislators who sponsored this law seemed to agree that energy auditors, HERS inspectors, and others with a more performance-based approach were not intended to be so regulated, but no official action has been taken to correct this problem.
Although the formal deadline for submitting comments has passed, continued opposition, including that from practitioners outside of Wisconsin, is still encouraged, especially if a rewriting of the law is required. Copies of any supporting documents can be sent to me at the address below.
When I first heard of this law, it seemed to be merely an added bureaucratic hassle and expense, but it would keep convicted felons from gaining access to our homes. When the proposed rules associated with this law were finally published, however, it became apparent that this action has the distinct probability of putting a large group of building performance inspectors at an extreme disadvantage relative to other segments of the industry. It also severely limits the public's access to hard, reliable information about critical health and safety considerations regarding the performance of their homes.
Home inspectors, as defined by this law, comprise a wide array of home professionals, including those of us who do field research, HERS ratings, weatherization inspections, blower door analysis, infrared scanning, energy audits, heating system efficiency/safety checks, indoor air quality analyses, or remodeling design or post-retrofit quality control inspections.
Although there are a wide range of groups and individuals impacted by this law, I would like to distinguish between two specific groups that identify themselves as performing home inspections. One camp serves primarily the pre-purchase market and usually performs visual inspections of readily accessible building elements, cataloguing the presence and apparent condition of each element. They cover a wide range of easily observable building elements, but make little effort to measure actual performance or draw conclusions about the operation of the house as a system.
The other camp--the home performance inspectors, researchers, and energy auditors--relies much more on scientific measurements and the identification of the interactions among building elements. They may have a more focussed stated objective such as saving energy, identifying causes of moisture problems, or remediating unsafe or unhealthy conditions. However, these professionals analyze these matters through an often complex diagnostic procedure that takes into account that a home is an integrated system of interactions, rather than simply a collection of component parts.
The members of the Home Inspector Advisory Committee, which is responsible for drafting the rules by which this law is to be enforced, have created standards that serve only one subsector of the home inspection industry: the pre-purchase, checklist-based inspectors. This sector certainly has the right to promote its own industry and establish its own standards for the kind of work they do. But it is irresponsible for the state to codify these guidelines for all professions providing services to the residential community.
These rules should be amended to identify that sector of the home inspection community to which these rules apply and provide necessary exclusions for those building professionals who serve a different purpose and different clientele and use methodologies inconsistent with the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) model.
Why are these regulations so onerous to our industry?
It has always been my contention, whenever I have taught or written about the practice of home performance inspection, that if you have your nose buried in a clipboard--counting electrical outlets, or turning every faucet handle, or making sure you recorded what kind of wall surface exists in each room--you will lose perspective on the big picture and fail to see the major fault with the house system that wasn't predicted by the committee that originally designed the checklist.
The law itself only requires the inspector to describe the condition of any element ... that, if not repaired, will have significant adverse effect. The Advisory Committee, however, in writing the supporting rules has clearly overstepped this mandate and taken upon itself to require all home inspectors to observe and describe in writing the type and condition of more than 50 major building element categories whether or not there is any problem present that needs attention. The list of elements takes up more than six pages and includes everything from roof covering materials to garage door openers and pipe supports.
The list may well be either excessive or grossly inadequate to the needs of a particular home inspection process, depending on the goal of the analysis or the desires of the client requesting the service. This may be a suitable list for one level of pre-purchase inspection, but it is hardly relevant to many other goals.
The fact that this law and its rules make absolutely no reference to any of the important housing performance issues (efficiency, health and safety, interactive nature of building component systems) with which our part of the industry is so passionately concerned implies that the supporters of this legislation have managed, perhaps out of oversight, to mandate requirements inconsistent with a major component of the industry they are regulating. The net result, however, is to co-opt meaningful building performance evaluation under the rubric of streamlining and standardizing the real estate transaction process and, in turn, effectively reduce the quality and value of information available to the homeowner from sectors other than their own.
Under this law, a home inspector is held liable for damages for any act of omission. Thus, I might be asked to simply perform an infrared scan as a quality control check on an insulation contractor. But if I fail to record that a floor joist under a porch was rotted, and an accident occurred within two years, I could be held liable for negligence! Even for the typical pre-purchase overview inspector, the fact that an individual receiving perhaps two hundred dollars should share or even absorb the liability--while the agent who typically receives 10% of the purchase price has largely divested his or her responsibility for the representation of the home--seems patently unfair.
I accept the requirement to be licensed and meet certain professional standards such as no conflict of interest and a clear criminal record. I do not, however, accept the redefinition of my business to match the mold of one specialized sector of the business. In order for all people who inspect houses (in whatever capacity) to comply with these rules, irrespective of the goals and nature of the service provided, one of three responses is required:
1) divert resources away from the services of building diagnostics or whatever the client requests or the particular job requires;
2) add on irrelevant reporting tasks to meet both the ASHI guidelines and the standards of the alternate housing profession, thus pricing the service out of the market, leaving homeowners with no other choice for professional guidance other than the checklist/component-based approach represented by this regulation; or
3) incur substantial legal costs to draft a suitable disclaimer contract requiring clients to request that the contractor not provide the irrelevant reporting documentation mandated by these rules, thus implying that the performance-based inspection or other service offered are somehow substandard to the state-licensed ASHI model.
The home inspection/building performance industry has made incredible technical advances over the last quarter century. We no longer have to rely on mere visual inspections, checklists, and informed assumptions about what's going on in houses. We have introduced a wide arsenal of diagnostic tools and new levels of technical understanding of how buildings work.
However, the technology is still young. At dozens of conferences and workshops annually, technicians and researchers debate the accuracy, techniques, and results of our vast field research. New tools and techniques are introduced every year. What was gospel last year is superceded by new understanding and techniques the next.
To stifle this dynamic movement through overregulation--reducing our methods and discoveries to a simple checklist to satisfy the desires of a real-estate industry that is unwilling to share liability or educate itself to the complexities of building performance--is foolish. It is comparable to the suggestion from the New Jersey legislature to require licensing and state-mandated testing for computer programmers. As such, they became the laughing-stock of the regulatory community. Let us not make the same mistake in Wisconsin.
You can get your own copy of the law and proposed rules from Clete Hansen at the Division of Licensure and Regulation. Tel:(608)267-3816; Fax(608)267-3816; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Home Energy can be reached at: email@example.com
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