Monday, November 7, 2011

Common Household Building Code Violations

In my travels and experience over the past 25 years, I have observed numerous building code violations that most homeowners aren’t even aware of. These are common “mistakes” that are made, not on purpose, but due to a lack of knowledge and just simply not being aware.
I would like to share the most common, routine violations in the hopes that people can be more aware of their surroundings and live safer in their homes.
The following references (written in bold below) are taken from the IRC (International Residential Code) with is the building code in force throughout the United States EXCEPT for California, which uses the CBC (California Building Code). Both codes are very similar with only slight variations between them.

Smoke Detectors: (IRC- R313.1) …to be located in hallways adjacent to sleeping rooms, inside each sleeping room, top of stairwells and in basements.
Note that these can be battery operated if placed in existing construction. If new construction, they must be ‘hard wired’ with a battery back-up and interconnected. The purpose of smoke detectors is to wake you up if there is a fire so that you can respond appropriately.  Some people incorrectly install them in kitchens. It is NOT meant to be your ‘dinner bell’! Try not to locate them near bathrooms as the steam from showers can inadvertently set them off.
Carbon Monoxide detectors, although not required by the building code, may be required in certain regions of the country. Please check your local building department or government agency for requirements.
Although not required by code, I recommend installing a smoke detector in the garage for extra protection. Most house fires actually start in the garage.

Water Heater/Furnace (gas only) located in Garage: (G2408.2)…If located in a garage, must be installed on a minimum 18” high platform.
The purpose of this requirement is for Fire Safety. The pilot light (which is located near the bottom of the unit) can ignite combustible fumes and gases stored in the garage. These sources include the gas tank of your car, lawn mower and other items such as solvents and paints that are typically stored in your garage.

Interior Garage Doors: (R310.1)….Openings between garages and residence shall have solid wood doors not less than 1-3/8” in thickness or honeycomb steel doors not less than 1- 3/8” thick or 20 minute fire-rated door.
Many times I have seen homeowners replace these doors with Patio doors, doors with a window in them or even cut ‘doggie doors’ into these types of doors. This is NOT allowed. Once altered, these doors do not provide the proper fire separation between your garage and house and will cause fire to rapidly spread between areas. Remember, most house fires start in the garage!

Dryer Vents: (M1501.1)….Dryer vents must terminate to the EXTERIOR of the building.
Most often, dryer vents are vented directly into the garage. Weather the appliance is located inside the garage or inside a utility room, the venting of these units must be routed directly to the exterior of the building. I have seen these units vented directly under the house in crawl spaces, directly into the attic and even directly into the garage. The lint build up is amazing! So much so, that it’s like walking on a mattress. Not only does this condition add more moisture to these areas, hence accelerated rotting and insect infestations, but creates a fire hazard with the buildup of lint.

Guardrails (R312.1)….required where walking surfaces are greater than 30” from grade. Guardrails must be a minimum of 36” high and have openings less than 4” in diameter.
 This code requirement applies to decks, porches, balconies, patios and any areas directly connected to the dwelling in which this code is being applied. It does not apply to landscaping or other hard scape areas of a yard that are secondary to the dwelling (ex. Terraced landscaping, driveways, walkways).
Many times I have seen front porches that are in total violation of this code. If you have more than 3 steps up to a porch or landing, then more than likely you are required to have guardrails encompassing the porch. It is also possible you may be required to have handrails on the open sides of the stairway as well.
The requirement of less than 4” diameter is so that a child’s head or body cannot get through the openings, get caught in the openings or completely fall through and off the surface. The actual wording is: “….so that a 4” sphere cannot pass through”.

Electrical Plugs in Kitchens (E3802.6), Bathrooms (E3802.1) and Garages (E3802.2) must be GFI.
GFI refers to ‘Ground Fault Circuit Interrupt’. These are the type of outlets that have a reset button located in the middle of the plug so that you can test the circuit. It is designed to shut off the circuit (or ‘pop’ off) if it detects an imbalance of electrical current which would cause electrical shock and possible electrocution. This is required where electrical outlets are located near water and protects the user from being shocked.
You can test these outlets yourself by using a “Circuit Tester”. You can purchase these handy devices at any local hardware or home improvement store in the electrical department. This small device can be plugged into the electrical receptacle and colored lights will tell you if the circuit is protected, there’s reverse polarity, open ground, hot and ground reversed etc. If you suspect an issue, contact a licensed electrician to trouble shoot or repair the problem.

Minimum Light and Ventilation: R303.1….all habitable spaces (except kitchens and bathrooms) are required to maintain a minimum of 8% light and 4% ventilation of floor area of the room they service. Bathrooms may have a mechanical means of ventilation (exhaust fan in lieu of a window) with .35 air changes per hour.
This pertains to the minimum size of windows (light) and open able area (ventilation) in your house. I have often seen this part of the building code in severe violation when homeowners replace their existing windows either by modifying the original opening or changing the style/operation of the window itself. Many times, homeowners decide to change the type of window when they replace them. For example, changing from a casement window (crank out type) to a single hung (slide up and down) style of window. This change might not seem like a big deal, but you just reduced the ventilation by 50% and may not have even known it! Another inadvertent violation is when a homeowner decides to put ‘picture windows’ (fixed glass) in a room with a nice view. Well, you might have just removed ALL of the ventilation in that space and not realized it.
Don’t depend on your window salesman to know what is appropriate for your house. They may not have even been to your house or don’t want to bother measuring the rooms for compliance. Often times the salesman will have fine print in their contract stating that they are not responsible for code compliance. READ YOUR CONTRACT, be an informed and wise consumer!

EGRESS: R310.1…..Sleeping rooms must have at least 1 means of egress.
Egress is defined as a means of emergency escape. You must be able to climb out of an opening (door or window) from a bedroom if there is a fire. This also applies to habitable basements. The MINIMUM requirements of this opening is as follows: R310.1.1 – 310.1.4
·         Maximum sill height is 44” from the floor.
·         Minimum height of opening is 24” clear
·         Minimum width of opening is 20” clear
·         Minimum CLEAR opening must be at least 5.7 sq.ft. * (grade floor openings can be 5 sq.ft.)
*NOTE: if you multiply the min. width x height, you will be LESS THAN the minimum 5.7 sq.ft. required. Therefore, only ONE dimension (width OR height) will qualify. The other dimension must be greater!

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