Tile Shower Surrounds

Bainbridge Island home inspector Dylan Chalk offers helpful tips to home owners and buyers on his blog at Orca Inspection.com Tile Showers

Elegant, Beautiful…. but Costly to Repair?

A stunning tile shower surround can be a homeowner’s dream and even the cornerstone of the home as part of a master bath suite that leaves everybody talking; but when tile shower surrounds are not installed well, they can fail and leak and lead to expensive, nightmare repairs.

Tile shower surrounds can be one of the more difficult systems to evaluate during a home inspection. This is because the reliability of tile depends almost exclusively on what the tile was mounted on and what it was mounted with. As you might imagine, this is not visible once the tile is installed. The following article will provide some insight into how tile systems work and what to look for so you can see for yourself if your tile shower surround is really as good as it looks.

Mortar Set Tile

In the old days, tile was mounted in a bed of mortar. We called this tile, “mortar-set,” tile and I will sometimes see homes from the 1930’s with the original Pepto-Bismol colored tile that is still in fantastic shape.  This was a beautiful way to set tile, even if the color palates of the day left a little to be desired.

Modern Tile

Fast forward to today and it can be anybody’s guess as to what products were used to set and mount your tile shower surround. Lots of homes in the 1980’s and 1990’s had tile set on “greenboard” – this is a type of sheetrock rated for wet locations, but by many accounts this was not well-suited to being inside shower surrounds. Good installers today use some type of a cement board backing system on which to mount their tile.

When it comes to adhering tile, there are dizzying arrays of products available. While a hardware store might carry dozens of brands of products, the adhesives come primarily in three types:

  • Mastics are essentially liquid glue systems and though some are rated for wet locations, many experts agree that mastics are not well-suited for the inside of a shower enclosure
  • Thin-set products more closely resemble a traditional mortar and are the most common adhesive system used in showers
  • Epoxy resin systems can be difficult and unpleasant to install (because they set so quickly and smell horrible),but they are very durable when done right

The sheer number of different products seems to invite mistakes, especially if you are not an experienced tile setter.

Inspecting your Tile Shower Surround 

When inspecting tile, I like to break down my inspection into a series of red flags. The first thing to evaluate is how professionally the tile seems to be laid. Does the overall presentation look professionally set? Off-set tile, crooked tile, pans that are not sloped to drain, drains that are poorly set, and tile that does not layout in a clean pattern are all indications of amateur installation. They make me wonder about what I cannot see behind the tile and I wonder how these will perform.

The next red flags to look for are first stages of failure. These red flags include stains on tile and grout and white mineralization stains leaching from the tile – these could indicate that water is getting behind the tile but its possible that all you need to do is clean and re-seal the tile.

The next set of red flags to watch for are signs of genuine tile failure, these red flags include cracked tile and loose tile. These could indicate a need for complete tile replacement and may conceal hidden water damage.

Orca Home Inspection Services outlines potential signs of failure in tile shower surrounds

Mineralization can indicate the first stages of water retention.

Cracked, loose and discolored tile are signs of water damage behind the tile

Cracked, loose and discolored tile is a sure sign of failure

Dylan Chalk of Orca Home Inspections is experienced with the use of moisture meters

High moisture meter reading in a pattern that indicates moisture combined with discoloration in the tile

Testing Procedures

I will often use a screw driver to gently, “sound,” the tile to see if I can hear loose tile.

I will also use a radio wave moisture meter to look for signs of water retention behind the tile. These are expensive instruments that can give false positives, so they are a diagnostic tool best left to those with experience using them.

What should you do?

If you own a tile shower surround already, be sure to clean and seal the tile; this is important annual maintenance to slow the movement of water through the tile and grout and prolong the useful life of the tile.

If you are going to install your dream tile job in your house, my advice: do it right or don’t do it at all.

  • Take time and research the best products to use
  • Prepare the job right and use reliable backing materials
  • Set the tile with materials that have a proven track record

One of my favorite alternatives to tile is the old, “cultured marble.” Think of thick slabs of plastic made to look, however modestly, like stone. While this product will not win beauty contest, I cannot tell you how many old cultured stone shower surrounds I see from the 1970’s that still seem to be working well. Sometimes, function over form is not such a bad idea, especially if you are on a budget.
Another option is using tile on the floor of the bathroom, where everyone will see the tile, and using cultured marble inside the shower where it is often obstructed by a shower curtain anyway.

I hope this helps explain an expensive maintenance item I see frequently on home inspections. Remember: knowledge is power when it comes to house hunting and home repairs.

Dylan Chalk is a home inspector and the owner of Seattle-based Orca Inspection Services LLC – www.orcainspect.com. He is also the founder of ScribeWare software offering innovative and simple report writing solutions. Follow his house-hunting tips from the field on Twitter @ https://twitter.com/dylanchalk1. Or see his blog @ http://getscribeware.com/blog


Aluminum Wiring: A Fire Hazard?

Orca Home inspection services Bainbridge Island and the Seattle area

The first time I found single strand aluminum wiring on a home inspection, both my client and the Realtor I was working with were in disbelief when I warned them about this potential fire hazard.

“What do you mean aluminum wiring is unsafe?” The Realtor, Pam, questioned. “We use aluminum wiring all the time!” Pam promptly called her husband to verify that indeed we use aluminum wire all the time. I was a new home inspector and it was evident to me that there was a trust problem. Luckily, I was able to recommend additional inspection from a local electrician who specializes in repairing this unique, single strand aluminum wire, and in the end my clients were able to negotiate an important and even life-saving repair.

According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC): Houses wired with single strand aluminum wire that is used for 15 and 20 amp circuits are 55 times more likely to have one or more connections reach “fire hazard conditions” than homes wired with copper. This wiring was primarily used in houses built between 1965 and 1972. If you are looking to buy a house built in this era, you want to check for this type of wiring during your home inspection.

However, Pam and my client were correct; not all aluminum wiring is bad or unsafe. In fact, most of our homes today are wired with aluminum wiring and it is perfectly safe. So what is the truth about aluminum wiring?

A fire hazard?

This article will help you understand where your risk lies with aluminum wiring and what types of aluminum wire are safe and which ones are problematic.

Is all aluminum wiring bad?

No, no and no! We still use stranded aluminum wiring in houses today. We have used it for years and it has never been discontinued or recalled. Stranded aluminum wiring is safe and has been performing as intended for decades. Do not confuse stranded aluminum wire used for 240 volt circuits with single strand used for 15 and 20 amp, 120 volt circuits.

Stranded aluminum wire is not subject to the same loose connection problems as single strand and anti-occident paste can be used at terminations to reduce risks from oxidation and corrosion.

Believe it or not, we even use some single strand wiring today: for 30 amp, 240 circuits you may find it in service for fixtures like dryers and AC circuits. This is code approved and apparently, safe, though this installation is much less common than stranded aluminum which is ubiquitous.

Why were houses wired with single strand aluminum wire from the mid 1960’s-mid 1970’s?

The demand for copper during the Vietnam War caused the price of copper to spike, so more affordable alternatives were sought.


Why is single strand aluminum a fire hazard?

Compared to copper, aluminum has distinct disadvantages as a conductor:

  • Aluminum is less ductile than copper making it more prone to metal fatigue when bending. Fatigued metal will not conduct electricity efficiently which can lead to overheating.
  • Aluminum has a greater thermal expansion and contraction compared to copper so wires can loosen over time. Loose connections lead to arcing (think sparks) and arcing leads to fires.
  • Aluminum has a higher resistance than copper so you must use a larger diameter wire to pass the same amount of current. These larger wires are more difficult to secure reliably which leads to loose connections and arcing at wire terminations.
  • Aluminum is more susceptible to oxidation and galvanic corrosion than copper. These forces can deteriorate the wire and make connections less reliable.

Where can I look to see if my house has single strand aluminum wiring?

Orca Home inspection services Bainbridge Island and the Seattle area

1970’s era single strand aluminum wire – only two safe repairs.

The best place to check the type of wiring in your house is at your electric panel. This should ONLY be done by a licensed electrician or a home inspector. You need to remove the dead front cover to the electric panel to see the wiring and this should only be done by trained professionals as it is a safety risk.

Check the terminations for the wires inside the panel and also look for extensive use of wire nuts and crimps that could indicate a prior repair.

If you can see the cable wiring you may even be able to read the listing on the jacket: look for AL in the listing.


What do I do if my house has single strand aluminum wire?

Single strand aluminum wiring, when used for 15 and 20 amp circuits, should be evaluated by a licensed electrician who is experienced in evaluating and correcting aluminum wiring problems. It is important to understand that the bulk of the safety concerns around this wire have to do with the terminations of the wire – where the wire connects to lights and outlets. The field of the wire is generally not a risk.

Many electricians are not trained or experienced at repairing this issue.  When it was discovered that this wiring was a problem, myriad crimping and pig-tailing devices came onto the market in an effort to introduce a solution. Most of these “repairs” did not result in safe wiring connections, so be sure you hire an expert.

According to the CPSC, there are only two safe ways to repair this wiring.

  1. Rewire the home with copper wire. This is the most effective repair and can be done by any licensed electrician, but it is also the most expensive repair.

    Orca Home Inspections recommends a licensed electrician should evaluate safety of wiring system

    Multi-strand wiring

  2. Use copalum crimps. This repair allows the aluminum wire to be kept in service, but wire terminations are repaired by crimping copper wire to the existing aluminum wire with a metal sleeve and crimping tool. Although effective, this is also expensive and must be done by a qualified electrician. It can be difficult to even find qualified electrical contractors who have been trained to repair single strand aluminum wire using this CPSC approved crimping device.

I hope this article helps explain some common questions about aluminum wiring. Remember, happy homebuyers are informed homebuyers.

Dylan Chalk is the owner of Seattle-based Orca Inspection Services LLC – www.orcainspect.com. He is also the founder of ScribeWare software offering innovative and simple report writing solutions. He can be reached at [email protected]. Or see his blog @ http://getscribeware.com/blog



Expensive Repairs v/s Advantages of brick

Bainbridge Island home inspector Dylan Chalk offers helpful tips to home owners and buyers on his blog at Orca Inspection.com

Looking at Brick Houses –

Expensive Repairs v/s the Advantages of  Brick 

Orca Home Inspection tips on looking at a brick house

Contemporary Brick House

Brick is one of my favorite siding systems; it is durable and elegant. When it is well-installed and maintained, it can last for the life of the building. I sometimes see brick siding that is 80 years old and hardly any maintenance has been done in all that time; imagine how many paint jobs you would have done to wood siding over 80 years! However, if brick siding is old and no maintenance has been done for years, expensive repairs are likely needed.

These expensive repair problems are easily spotted when you know how to look at a brick house.This article will teach you important concepts and strategies for looking at brick homes so you can tell if the brick has been well-maintained or requires expensive repairs.

Brick House Fundamentals

Structure or siding?

The first thing to determine when you look at a brick house is whether the brick is structural or siding. Most of the houses you see with brick are a wood framed house with the brick installed over the top as a siding system. Residential houses that are made of brick – meaning the walls that support the house are brick – are rare.
NOTE: Old turn of the century commercial buildings are often fully constructed with brick and there is a pretty obvious clue on the inside: When you see those charming walls of masonry brick inside and out, you can be pretty sure you are looking at a fully brick structure.

Brick is a sponge

Weep holes in brick siding are essential to maintaining the siding

Look for weep holes

The next thing to understand about brick is that it loves to hold water. Drop a brick into a bucket of water and it will soak it up like a sponge. Attach that wet brick to the side of your wood framed house and you have problems right? Master bricklayers get around this problem by installing brick siding with an air gap between the brick and the wood wall. This is a beautiful thing. It is called dry potential. Air can move behind the brick and dry the space between the brick and the wood wall. This is why you see small weep holes at the base of brick siding – to allow air to move behind the brick and dry the wall. These holes are important and something you should look for.



The trick with brick

Brick spalling is a signal that moisture is damaging the brick

Look for Spalling Brick

When I am inspecting older brick houses, I like to probe the mortar between the brick with my screwdriver. Sometimes this causes the mortar to fall out like sand. This can be a sign of old failing mortar but it can also be a clue about the hardness of the brick. Good masons build masonry wall assemblies so that the mortar is the same hardness as the brick. This is one of the real arts of masonry work. Choose a mortar that is too hard and it will cause the brick to crack and spall as the wall expands and contracts from heat and moisture changes. Spalling is when the brick starts to crumble and spalling brick can lead to expensive repairs.





Brick Lintels should appear clean and firmly in place

Look over windows and doors for Lintels

Cutting a hole in a brick wall for windows and doors can be a problem. How do you support the weight of the brick above the window or door? The answer is called a lintel and you will see them the next time you look at a brick house. Look above the windows and doors where there is brick above. You should see a steel lintel or even a masonry lintel such as an arch of granite or brick. Look at the lintels when you look at a brick house. If these are corroded or cracking or show displacement – expensive repairs could be needed.




Tuck Pointing

Check the weather side of the structure to evaluate the condition of the mortar between the bricks

Poorly repaired mortar is expensive to repair

Tuck pointing is the act of replacing the mortar between the bricks. This is when a mason removes old failing mortar and replaces it with new mortar. This can be very expensive. When you look at a brick house, go to the weather-exposed sides of the building and check the condition of the mortar.

 What do you see?

  • Does it look old or new?
  • If the mortar is patched with lots of different repairs it has not been cohesively updated.
  • If the bricks stick out like teeth in a receding gum line and there is missing mortar, the mortar is old and likely requires repair.
  • If you see new mortar check how it was done. Mortar joints should be well-tooled and have a nice concave appearance. Poorly executed tuck pointing is not hard to spot: look for clumsy mortar joints that are flat and smeared onto the surrounding brick.

Brick is Rigid

Because brick siding is such a rigid material, it tends to telegraph movement readily in the form of cracks providing helpful clues when looking at a brick house. Sight your eye along the walls. If you see bowing, that is not good – the brick could literally be falling off the house. If you see stair step cracking this can indicate movement in the brick or the structure of the house and you should point this out to your home inspector during inspection.


Avoiding Expensive Repairs

  • Look at lintels for cracking, corrosion or displacement.
  • Look at the mortar between the brick: Is it old, new or patched? Do mortar joints look professional or amateur?
  • Sight along the walls of the house: Be sure the brick is not bowing.
  • Look for stair-step cracks in the brick that indicate structural movement in the brick wall and/or the house.

This brief article is not, “everything there is to know about brick,” but I hope it gives you some helpful background knowledge about looking at brick houses and what to check for when touring houses. Good luck house hunting and remember: happy home buyers are informed home buyers.


***Dylan Chalk is the owner of Seattle-based Orca Inspection Services LLC – www.orcainspect.com. He is also the founder of ScribeWare software offering innovative and simple report writing solutions. He can be reached at [email protected] Or see his blog @ http://getscribeware.com/blog




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