My father was a college professor who was respected for his scholarship. Yet Dad doesn’t pay much attention to the physical world. If he were asked to define the stack effect, he’d probably guess that it was a type of exhaustion caused by walking past miles of library bookshelves. According to a family legend, the engine of our family’s Volkswagen van had to be rebuilt in 1963 because my father drove thousands of miles without checking the dipstick or changing the engine oil.
In order to own and drive a car, you don’t need to know how to replace a clutch. But most drivers would agree that it’s important to know how to check your engine oil and tire pressure.
While my father’s lack of mechanical knowledge may have been extreme, many Americans can be grouped with him at the ignorant side of the mechanical knowledge spectrum. A similar spectrum exists for home performance knowledge. While some homeowners are perfectly capable of installing a new HVAC system, others wouldn’t be able to identify the purpose of their furnace if they were staring right at it.
Is it reasonable to expect homeowners to understand how their homes function? Or is it only natural for a large percentage of homeowners to be ignorant about home performance?
Here’s another way to pose this question: Should our government protect homeowners from unskilled and ignorant contractors? Or does this responsibility lie solely on the shoulders of homeowners?
Houses are increasingly complicated
The average suburban home in the U.S. is filled with systems that are completely unknown in rural Africa or Asia. Over the past century, our houses have become more sophisticated and complicated than ever before.
Instead of a wood stove in the parlor, most American homes are heated with furnaces connected to forced-air duct work. Instead of uninsulated walls that dry quickly, we now build homes with insulation that can trap moisture. Instead of depending on homeowners to open windows when the indoor air smells stuffy, we build homes with mechanical ventilation systems. Many of our mechanical systems include electronic control systems that are barely understood by the average HVAC contractor.
Is it any wonder that most American homeowners don’t know enough to keep their homes performing well? When something isn’t working, these homeowners are at the mercy of hired experts who vary widely in ability and knowledge. This is a thorny problem with many branches.
Three categories of knowledge
How much knowledge does it take to own a house or a car? I’ll take a stab at answering the question by dividing owners into three categories, depending on the owners’ level of knowedge.
Here are my proposed categories of knowledge:
- Required knowledge (in the case of a car, being able to read a dipstick);
- Useful knowledge (being able to change an air filter or replace spark plugs); and
- Advanced knowledge (being able to replace a head gasket).
Required knowledge for homeowners
What level of knowledge is essential for homeowners? Opinions differ, but it seems to me that all homeowners should know:
- Where the home’s water comes from (a municipal water utility, a drilled well, or a spring);
- Where the home’s wastewater goes (a septic tank or a municipal sewer pipe);
- The location of the home’s main (first) water supply valve;
- What type of water heater the home has and where it is located;
- What type of appliance heats the house, and where the equipment is located;
- What type of fuel is used to heat the house;
- Whether or not the heating system has an emergency on/off switch, and if so, where the switch is located;
- The location of the home’s fire extinguishers;
- Whether or not the house has air conditioning, and where the equipment is located;
- Whether or not the house has a thermostat, and where it is located;
- Where the main electrical panel and circuit breakers are located.
In my book, that’s the bare minimum.
Useful knowledge for homeowners
Homeowners will be less likely to make bad decisions or to be swindled by contractors if they know a little bit more about their house than the bare minimum.
It’s hard to make a complete list of such “useful knowledge,” but here a sample of the type of information that falls into the “useful” category:
- What type of roofing is on the roof;
- The type of plumbing supply pipes used for the house (copper, PEX, or CPVC);
- Whether or not the house has insulation in the attic or roof, and if so, how much;
- Whether or not the walls are insulated;
- Whether the windows are single-glazed, double-glazed, or triple-glazed;
- Whether the house comes with removable storm windows;
- Whether the house has a mechanical ventilation system, and if so, what type it is.
If a homeowner takes the time to learn a few building science principles and “house-as-a-system” principles, it’s easier to sort out the intelligent sheep from the ill-informed goats when hiring contractors to perform repairs or maintenance.
Long-time GBA readers probably have the type of advanced knowledge we’re talking about. Homeowners with advanced knowledge should understand:
- Why infiltration and exfiltration matter;
- Where typical air leaks are located;
- How air movement can undermine the performance of fluffy insulation;
- The mechanisms and forces by which the interior air of a home can be pressurized or depressurized with respect to the outdoors;
- The conditions that lead to condensation;
- Common energy myths;
- The most important (and most cost-effective) energy retrofit measures;
- The advantages and disadvantages of different types of heating fuel;
- The importance of an efficient hot water piping layout and proper water heater location;
- The basics concerning window glazing U-factors and solar heat gain coefficients.
Most people will never be experts
There is nothing wrong with ignorance — as long as one remains open to learning. I don’t know much about medicine, so I trust my doctor’s advice. When it comes to home performance issues, however, ignorance can be dangerous or expensive — in part because so many contractors are ill-informed.
We can’t expect every homeowner to be a home performance expert — just as we can’t expect every citizen to be a medical expert. To protect sick people from charlatans who promote quack cures, the federal government and state governments have enacted laws to limit the practice of medicine to licensed professionals. Unfortunately, governments provide fewer protections for homeowners in need of home repairs than they do for hospital patients.
If most homeowners can’t be expected to be home performance experts, perhaps it’s time for governments to do a better job of licensing people who make a living repairing houses; after all, such licensing is a form of consumer protection. This is the approach taken by many European countries, including Germany. The German government lists 342 trades (Ausbildungsberufe) that require apprenticeship and licensing before a tradesperson can work independently. Requirements for apprenticeship and licensing are spelled out in a 1969 German law, the Berufsbildungsgesetz.
Many new buildings have major problems
Every few years, newspapers report on a new cluster of building envelope failures. We’ve had problems with fire-retardant plywood in New Jersey, rotting EIFS walls in North Carolina, leaky windows in California, rotting OSB under stucco walls in Minnesota, and leaky condos in British Columbia. Every day of the week, a roofer provides bad advice to homeowners on the best way to fix ice dam problems.
These problems occur because our building codes have failed to keep up with advances in building science and new materials, and because defenders of our country’s laissez-faire tradition have pushed back against attempts to tighten requirements for licensing contractors.
The current system is broken. Without adequate consumer protection laws, the average homeowner is vulnerable, and can easily be victimized by the next ill-educated contractor who knocks on the door.
Three possible solutions
There are several possible fixes to this problem. One solution is to be a renter rather than a homeowner. Another possible solution is to become politically active and lobby for better building codes and stricter licensing of contractors.
If you’re a homeowner, a third solution is to learn as much as you can about building science and home performance. Those who choose this approach will certainly be in a better position to negotiate with contractors than their less-well-informed neighbors.
Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Two New Exterior Insulation Products for Walls.”