Evaluate the Home Systems

Learn what questions to ask when you conduct an inspection of the heating and cooling systems, insulation, water and electrical service, of your home.

Bob and plumbing contractor Frank look at the 40-year old Dinosaur. Photo: From Bob Vila

So you like the way the house looks and believe the footprint will accommodate your family’s needs. But how does it function?

Let’s examine the house’s infrastructure:

Heating and Cooling Systems
Here are questions you should be asking:

  1. What kind of system is being used?
  2. How old is it?
  3. What kind of condition is it in?
  4. How much does it cost to operate?

I’m not suggesting that you pursue or walk away from a house based on the answers you receive, but it’s worth figuring in the cost of future replacements as you debate the merits of one house versus another.

Common heating and cooling systems include hydronic, warm-air, natural-gas, oil and electric. Let’s take them one-by-one.

Hydronic Systems. Hydronic heating systems transmit heat via hot water or steam. A boiler (powered by electricity, natural or propane gas, or oil) heats the water, which is then circulated by a pump via pipes to the radiators or baseboards of the house. You’re better off with forced hot water than with steam. The cons that come with steam heating are: uneven heat distribution, drying the air, slow response, noise, and inefficiency. Many newer homes will not use steam heat but older houses will.

Warm-Air Systems. Warm-air systems can use electricity, gas, or oil as their main fuel source. The most common warm-air system is forced air. How it works: fans or blowers circulate the warmed air from the furnace through the house. Another type of warm-air system is a gravity system. You know how heat rises? Well a gravity system is based on the likelihood of warm air rising. You’ll find these systems in use mainly in older houses. Their drawbacks, compared to forced-hot-air systems are that you’ll need a huge furnace in the middle of the basement and considerable duct-work. Not only are they inefficient, you can’t run central air-conditioning through them. For these reasons, if the house you’re considering has a gravity system, you should plan to replace it.

Natural-Gas Systems. Heat is transmitted from the furnace to the distribution system via a heat exchanger. To find out how energy-efficient your gas furnace is, you can check the Annual Fuel Utility Efficiency Rating. If you’re evaluating newer equipment, by law it will have a bright yellow “Energy Guide” which will show the anticipated annual cost to operate the unit.

Oil Systems. While a furnace that is powered by oil is similar to one that is powered by gas, the difference is that your fuel will be delivered by truck versus automatically being piped into your house from an outside gas line. Because oil doesn’t burn as cleanly as gas does, oil furnaces require regular cleaning for optimal operation.

Electric Systems. Here’s what’s different about electric systems versus gas and oil systems: Electric systems do not involve combustion and thus do not produce exhaust. Most of the time, electricity will be the most expensive option. There are electrically powered heat pumps, which can both heat and air condition the house. You’ll find them mostly in warmer climates because they’re not sufficient on their own in terms of heating the house’s interior when temperatures fall below 25-30 degrees Fahrenheit.

Heating and Cooling Systems: Costs
When you evaluate a potential house, pay attention to its heating and cooling costs. Energy costs fall just after housing payments and food costs in most household budgets.  You’ll need to know how much it will cost to operate.

Tip: Ask to see at least the last two years’ worth of utility bills.

Not only is it the “green” way to do things, but you’ll save yourself money if your house is more energy-efficient. For minimal or no cost, you can ask the utility company to conduct an energy audit. This audit might suggest insulating the hot water pipes or replacing the furnace, both of which could help reduce your energy costs.

Should You Replace the Temperature Control System?
Depending on what time of year you inspect a house, not to mention unusual weather patterns that could be in effect, you may or may not be able to determine if a house’s temperature control system is working properly. Part of a routine home inspection by a professional home inspector involves testing the heating system by turning it on and letting it run for a few hours (or more on a warm day). Make sure that you find a reference to this test in the inspector’s report. It’s unfortunate, but you can’t conduct a similar out-of-season test on an air-conditioning system as testing an air conditioner in the dead of winter could cause serious damage. If you find yourself in this position, you might want to set aside some of the money in an escrow account for future home repairs.

Don’t make assumptions. That is, a bigger heating and cooling system is not necessarily better—in fact, if it’s too big for the house’s needs, it will be inefficient and expensive. You might be better off with an older system that has been maintained well as opposed to a newer one that has been neglected.  This said, if the maintenance is the same, a newer system will be more efficient, less likely to be a source of trouble, and more likely to still be covered by a warranty.

Of course, if the house’s furnace doesn’t work, you’ll have to replace it. If instead it’s a matter of making your house’s systems more energy-efficient, you’ll need to crunch some numbers before you determine when your investment would pay off. You’ll want to figure in the cost of the replacement, the savings in energy costs, and how many years you anticipate living in the house. First consider more minor improvements such as adding insulation or taking conservation measures.

The House’s Insulation
If you’re considering a house that is exposed to temperature extremes, you should be sure to ask about the insulation.

Questions you should ask:

  1. Is the house insulated?
  2. What kind of insulation is being used?
  3. How much insulation exists in the house?
  4. Where is the insulation located (roof, attic, sidewalls)?

One of the best types of insulation is fiberglass though there are other effective types such as cellulose or foam (rigid foam, foam board, and poured-in foam). If you learn that the house has been insulated with urea formaldehyde (UFFI) or that asbestos insulation surrounds the hot-water pipes, you should investigate this further and make this part of your negotiations with the seller.

The Hot-Water Heater
“You used up all the hot water!” Ideally, this is a phrase that you won’t be hearing in your future home. Your hot water heater should be able to accommodate your needs, such as taking a hot shower while you’re running the dishwasher. What’s important to find out is how long it takes the unit to reheat the water from a starting position of empty.

Oil-fired and gas-fired water heaters are efficient and are quick to reheat. Thus a thirty-gallon holding tank should be adequate for your needs. Electric heaters, on the other hand,  are slower to reheat and therefore are usually accompanied by a sixty-gallon tank. Assess your family’s needs, and if there are teenagers in the house, figure that into the equation!

Water Service and Supply
Where does the water for the house come from? A municipal water system? A well? A nearby lake? (beware of this last scenario as drinking-water problems are likely to be an issue). You should be asking a different set of questions if the water for the house is connected to a municipal water and sewer system versus having its own well.

Questions to ask if it’s connected to a municipal water and sewer system:

  1. Have there been problems in recent times with either the quality or the supply of water?
  2. What does water and sewer service cost? Questions to ask if the house has its own well: a) Has the well ever run dry? b) Has the water been tested recently for potability? If you are considering making an offer on the house, send the water out to be tested by a lab in order to determine that it’s safe to drink. Not only will the lab be able to tell you about safety, it will also tell you if the water is hard or soft.
  3. Is a lot of salt used on the street or road during the winter? (If the answer is yes, you’ll want to find out where the drains are in relation to the water source in order to determine the likelihood of the well’s becoming contaminated.)
  4. Where are septic fields (yours or others’) located in relation to the well?
  5. Are there or were there gasoline-storage tanks near your house? (As old gasoline-storage tanks disintegrate, toxic amounts of petroleum products are released into the watershed and therefore into the well water.)
  6. What is the well’s capacity? (Related questions involve how much water is dispensed, how quickly, how long it takes to refill, and if there’s variability in the supply depending on the season.) Note that if a well doesn’t supply enough water for two showers to occur at the same time during a fifteen to thirty minute period, you should think about buying a larger reserve tank.

Tip: A water capacity test can be conducted by a home inspector or a water-testing lab. There are contractors who specialize in water and septic systems. You should make sure that your Purchase and Sale agreement notes the requirement of a satisfactory assessment of the water supply.

Septic Systems
If the house is served by a septic system, as opposed to being connected to the municipal sewage system, ask the following questions:

  1. How old is the septic system?
  2. Have there been any problems with the septic system?
  3. How frequently has the system been pumped out? (Maintenance that is too infrequent or too frequent can be an issue whereas every two to five years is ideal. An older house with a cesspool and no leaching field will have to pump the system more often.)

Tip: Hire an independent septic contractor, recommended by someone you know versus the broker or seller, to test the septic system. This test will involve pumping out the system to see how much waste there is and running a dye test to confirm that the system is flowing as it should.

If the house’s cesspool is older than twenty-five or thirty years, you may need to replace it with a new septic system.

Whether the house is connected to the municipal system or has its own well and septic system, you’ll also want to find out about the condition of the house’s plumbing to make sure the pipes are to-code, not lined with lead, and not so narrow that they negatively impact the water pressure in the house.

Electrical Service
You should check the number and location of electrical outlets as well as that the service in the house is adequate to meet your needs. This will depend mostly on the number and type of electrical appliances. If it seems that you’ll need to rewire the house, don’t be too concerned as the cost is important but not huge.

A home inspector will be able to tell you:

  1. If the house fails to meet code requirements
  2. If the house is unsafe
  3. How old the wiring is
  4. What condition the wiring is in

The wiring system may use fuses or circuit-breakers.  Either is fine, though it’s easier to manage the newer circuit-breaker system, involving a simple flip of a switch back to the “on” position. But if you keep extra fuses on hand in an accessible spot with a flashlight nearby, and are prepared to change things out yourself, then either system will do.