Sunday, July 31, 2016

Protection strategies: how to keep your dream home from blowing away.

Belize does not have a lot of fires, but when they do, it tends  to be devastating:  in San Pedro, an entire city block was lost recently,  displacing twenty businesses and two hundred residents. This fire highlighted numerous weaknesses in the local  fire protection strategies. Indeed much of the fire fighting was provided by local residents forming a bucket brigade. You'd think that living on a island, less than 1,000 feet from the ocean, getting  water  to the fire should not be an issue,  it was.  

The message in this for home buyers in Belize is that prevention and protection are key in ensuring your home survives when municipal services cannot provide adequate protection, and most of the time they can't.  The level of standards enforcement you might expect in Canada does not exist in the Caribbean, as a buyer you need to be much more diligent to ensure you are getting what you need.

More devastating even  than fire is wind:  Belize is a hurricane prone country and is on par with  South Florida. In 1992 hurricane Andrew  made landfall in Miami Dade County as the strongest hurricane in US history,  it did an estimated 26.5 billion dollars in property damage.  Hurricane Hattie struck Belize in 1961 and virtually wiped out the capital Belize City.  After Hattie, the capital city was relocated inland to Belmopan which is approximately forty miles from the ocean.  Fires strike without warning, hurricanes are monitored and warning systems are in place, still, property damage is significant in both. Strategies to stay safe and limited damage are key.

After hurricane Andrew, the building codes in Florida were substantially modified to include serious wind mitigation strategies. These strategies have proven themselves  worth including in any new construction in severe wind locations.  People who own vacation properties can be forgiven for not thinking about hurricane mitigation strategies; the beer is cold, the sun is hot and the clothes are, ideally, skimpy at best. Yet, there is nothing worse than learning you lost your favorite flip flops and roof in a hurricane while you are defrosting your windshield in Edmonton. When hurricane  Blanca hit Cabo San Lucas, Mexico  in 2015, a number of my friends   had sustained severe damage to their homes, and the locals had, in many cases, lost everything. Ex-pat relief efforts, both formal and informal are helping put Cabo back together.

A serious examination of the risks you face when buying property in hurricane zones is key to staying sane. It should come as no surprise that the single largest cause of damage in Cabo San Lucas was the lack of integrity of patio doors. Those glorious expanses of glass where either blown off their tracks or broken by projectiles. Once the windows go, the increased air pressure in the home can cause total structural failure. It does not matter what floor you live on.

Simple strategies:
  • Remove projectiles when you aren't home or at least  secure furniture, plant pots and the like.
  • Install easy to operate hurricane shutters.
  • Ensure all doors and windows are hurricane rated and  made of impact resistant glass.
  • Burglar bars may not look attractive, but they will keep most projectiles, like tree limbs and furniture from breaking the glass.

More complex strategies:
  • Avoid gable roof construction,
  • Look for  tie downs that fasten the roof framing to the walls.
  • Carefully evaluate wood frame construction in coast areas.
  • Make sure that garage doors  have wind resistant bracing and a hurricane rating.
  • Use the Dade county Florida building code as your guide.
All this costs money, history serves a lot of good lessons here. The Ancient Mayan civilization was, if nothing else, a civilization of builders. Kings were constantly changing temples, adding stones to cover last years stone work and a thousand years later a lot of it is still in pretty good shape. It was perhaps Mayan slaves who discovered that burning limestone, mixing it with sand and making a paste of it was pretty good  for smoothing out the gaps between big stones.  Their work stands as a testament as there no recorded insurance losses payable against ancient Mayan temples.

The Mayans who weren't kings often lived in very humble, structures,  either mud wattle huts or the more common thatch playa, which is really just a bamboo hut lashed together with vines and covered with vertical sticks. Not fancy, they were ideal for the climate and if the wind took them, rebuilding was pretty straight forward.  Neither option, however, serves the big screen TV owning scotch drinker very well.

Somewhere in between invincible and disposable are  our homes.  When you live in a compromise property, and you do, you need to protect it to a reasonable standard. Experts, such as those who write the  building code  should be heeded.

On new construction  it is wise to ask very specific questions to the builder about wind mitigation strategies: This is applicable any place that can be subject to strong winds which is really everywhere, Belize is more interesting to contemplate because the climate is nicer than  say, Lethbridge, but it's all really the same.

The whole reason for a  building is to keep the weather where it belongs, outside. Were this not the case, we would likely all live in tents.  In keeping the weather outside, think about how the weather will try and get in and what kind of damage it will do once if it there.  In Edmonton the only thing that keeps you from freezing to death is the furnace and a 1/4 inch thick piece of glass.

In Belize its more of a "where did I put the sunscreen" problem,  but a problem none the less.

You won't freeze to death in the tropics, and undressing for the heat is a lot more fun than dressing for the cold but giving proper consideration to the forces of nature will give you an edge in having your investment survive an onslaught.  

Better yet, have your investment inspected by someone certified in wind mitigation, in Belize, that would be me.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Give a guy a hammer and he thinks he's a carpenter, give him a screwdriver and he thinks he's an eletrician. Which is why people should hire things done professionally

There was a time when people built their own homes, construction occurred with the owners own labour and shared knowledge of friends and family. Today we leave construction to the professionals and chose instead to invest our time paying the mortgage on the place.  It's easier to be a lawyer or company executive and buy what you want than it is to go build it yourself,  people no longer know how to build things.

As Henry David Thoreau said "the joy of building has been left to the carpenters."  As much respect as I have for lawyers, I can't imagine being one as the tedium would kill me. Legal briefs are an oxymoron.  I can  get my head around the construction business.

At the end of the work  day, the Carpenter or the Electrician look at  what  wasn't there yesterday and say "fuckin right I built that", and they probably say that out loud that every time they drive by for years after. I don't know many lawyers who say "fuckin right, I nailed that real estate closing" or think "cool, my shit is in there" every time they drive by the land titles office.  Maybe they do think like that, but I kind of doubt it.

My passion of house inspection, particularly in Belize  is all about helping the lawyers, doctors and retired civil servants get a good place where they can live or recreate.  The average Belizean might also use my service, but it'll be a while before that market matures.  

Everyone deserves a safe place to live, not everyone gets  a beachfront condo in San Pedro, but I am not going to discriminate against people just because they have money. The fees the beach front people pay me will help the people on the third street back from the beach, likely your house and grounds keeper, have safe places too.

A safe place might mean not having bad wiring, or the house collapsing from rot. It might mean asking the service and church people to do more than painting on their mission trips.  It will  mean training local people to understand  structures and teach them to inspect their own.

"Give a guy a hammer and he thinks he's a carpenter, give him a screw driver and he thinks he's an electrician"  This is true: most of the bad things that happen to buildings are not done by the pro's,  it's  amateurs who think they are pro's.

I used to cringe at  do it yourself deck construction until I started to see well intentioned people do their own electrical work.  This can kill you, in Belize or at home.

In  Alberta it is still possible for an owner to take out a permit to do alterations to their home. The work is subject to inspection and must be up to code. The problem begins when people do not get permits and don't know what they are doing.  For example: if  I tell you the neutral and the ground can only be bonded in the main disconnect would you be able to show me:

1) the main disconnect (not your grounds for divorce, no)
2) The ground (not at your feet)
3) The neutral (not  the Swiss)
4) The  bus bar  (a great way for public transit to increase ridership)
5) the sub-panel.  (which better NOT be underwater)

If you are standing in the shower and plug your blow dryer into a three prong outlet that has a false ground, what is the likely outcome?
1) Wet hair
2) A weird power surge like in a Frankenstein movie?
3) A paramedic named Igor shouting "He's alive, He's alive" 

Speaking of which, if they shock you with electricity to start your heart, why does getting shocked with electricity stop it?

The hardest thing to kill yourself with at home is the plumbing; that or soft fruit. 

Electricity, structural failure and natural gas all rank higher than a plugged toilet in the likelihood of death department. However, plumbing definitely has the highest ick potential of all the trades, especially when  combined with soft fruit.  Nobody wants to come home to a basement full of floating turds, be they your own or someone else's. Nor does someone want to see the dishwasher spouting a geyser across the kitchen. 

Electric hot water tanks can be quite dangerous if they are empty and the power is on; they can explode and ruin your whole night (ask someone's brother about that), more likely  they just stop working and your shower will be cold in the morning. You will be grumpy and your wife will be mad because she married an idiot who can't fix a hot water heater.

It's  incorrect to call them hot water heaters because what they actually heat is cold water, this is the kind of technical stuff it takes years to master, it's on the final exam.

Off to your law firm you go;  you ask your paralegal, who seems pretty handy, to get someone over to your house to fix the hot water heater so your wife can stop bitching about it.  Your paralegal, you can't call her a secretary anymore as it's against company policy, says the cheapest guy wants $1,800 and can't do it until Thursday. At this point your wife calls to see if you are still incompetent and says that she knows a "guy" who can do it. Now why your wife would know a "guy" is itself curious, but you say ok and make a diary entry that will likely interfere with your 2080 billable hours target, to be at home when her "guy" comes to replaces the hot water heater.

Her "guy"  shows up the next morning with a couple of wrenches, but no truck or hot water heater.  The first step he says is to take out the old hot water heater, you realize that the "guy" isn't that bright after he asks you to help him carry it up the stairs and forgets to drain it. (ask someone's brother in law about that)  Now with a hernia because a full tank weights 400 pounds, he asks if the seats fold down in your Audi A6 because we need to run to Home Depot and grab the new tank and some fittings.  He picks a new water heater, a nice white one, and 300 dollars worth of greasy black iron fittings that burst from the bag all over your beige leather the minute he slams the back door.  As you drive away from Home Depot the heater shifts and squeezes the tubes of pipe dope  onto the carpet.
Eventually you get home and six billable hours later he still has not got it hooked up, after three more trips to different Home Depots to find a 5/8"  frammis nozzle, you realize the "guy" might not have a  clue and you feel much better about your life because if your wife is dumb enough to sleep with him, you are going to get a divorce and buy  a condo on the beach in Belize, which you will have professionally maintained by others.

As you enjoy the first shower with your new tank, you wife hollers  that the down stairs toilet is overflowing.

24 billable hours later, you get up to go to work, realizing you could have showered at the gym and had the water heater replaced professionally, and with that the basement rumbles and  goes boom because the "guy" neglected to install a T&P valve. Or so said the real plumber you hired to fix the other "guys" work.

Total cost, including lost wages, car detailing and minor surgery: $8,000.00.  Actual cost after the dust settles on the divorce: priceless.

It is said  a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. It should also be said that just because you own a screw driver does not make you an  electrician. Hire a pro, it's way cheaper in the long run, divorce can be expensive. 

Tomorrows topic:  Why YouTube videos are not the best place to learn to fix things.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Your brand new house needs to be impartially inspected.

Yes I know it's a brand new house, what could possibly go wrong? Get an impartial professional opinion, I cannot stress this enough.

Home warranties and builder punch lists are frankly, ok, but too late when it comes to making sure you have acquired a good quality product.  House builders do not like their customers to wander around the job site, some even prohibit the practice entirely and generally it's not because they are hiding something, it's because of their liability if you get hurt wandering around, they also don't want you directing the tradespeople to do different things than are called for in the contract.

A professional inspection is worth the money, especially If you cannot identify proper backing material for the shower stall,  which way a joist hanger is to be installed or why concrete walls should not be honeycombed. An  inspection is a quality control measure on your part  and should be stipulated in the offer to purchase. There are several critical times in house construction:

1) Pre back fill: this lets the inspector examine the waterproof membrane, drainage tiles, the connections to the sump outlet and that gravel is present where it is supposed to be.

2) Framing: this is a very important step as any defects found at the framing stage can be fixed easily.

3) Pre-drywall:  This step lets the inspector check the rough in electrical, the rough in plumbing and  insulation, it is also the step that allows any last minute changes you want to be negotiated and incorporated into the building.

4) Punch list or pre final occupancy: Normally as a home owner this is when you will be invited in to check for deficiencies. Most owners are concerned with cabinets, flooring, doors and basically the stuff you can see. The inspector is more concerned with the quality of the installation and much less so with the actual choice of materials used. You may  have a beautiful tile job in your roman bathtub if the tile is installed over ordinary drywall and not cement board, it's going to be a head ache later on.

Builders aren't trying to rip you off, but it's still your money and your house. Making sure your investment is protected is a good idea.  It doesn't cost a lot, maybe $2,000.00 for the four inspections listed, but it could save you thousands of dollars over the life of the home. 

Simply put, all houses have defects, drywall screws will pop, floors will squeak, hand rails will loosen, all very normal and if attended to in a timely fashion not a big deal. What is a big deal however is the quality of the work people are doing.

Home inspection is NOT a trade, we aren't carpenters or plumbers or electricians and a good inspector will not hold himself out to be, even if he is.  An inspection is a systematic examination of the property to comparable and consistent construction standards. Building codes are the bare minimum and while few homes  are not up to code, reliance on the code compliance inspector is not enough to ensure you get a good product.  Home inspection is a quality control activity and you, as the buyer of the property, have the right to ensure you are getting the best quality job.

Horror stories abound about bad construction projects, and with some empathy for the builder, it's tough to assemble and keep the best workers in the industry, mostly because they are already busy because they are the best.

Building material itself is seldom an issue so long as it is used the way it was designed.

Your new house is a big and very personal purchase, no new house is perfect and emotion tends to magnify the scale of issues you can see. The home inspector will ensure that the fundamentals are as they should be providing you with some assurance that you have a good home for your family.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Energy conservation, we are far too concerned about Jason Kenney, much more interesting is the dramatic decrease in the cost of LED light bulbs

I hate to rain on the parade of the Jason Kenney fan club, (actually that's a lie, I kind of enjoy it) but his decision to run for the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives is not really all that new, invigorating or, frankly interesting. Being endorsed by your old boss, Steven Harper, is kind of like getting a good reference letter as part of a severance deal.

I'd be more interested if Harper himself were running for the leadership, but  that is kind of a step backward, sort of like going from being James T. Kirk captain of the Enterprise to being Scotty, in charge of the engine room; so I doubt there is any hope Mr. Harper himself will reemerge as the savior of Alberta.

What's wrong with Kenney? Bad suits aside, not much really; he is affable and certainly committed to his cause, a level of which we can only hope exceeds that of Jim Prentice, another guy Harper recommended for the job.

Maybe the problem here is Harper, he keeps whispering in the ears of guys, who clearly would never replace him, about a "rock solid opportunity out west". And off they go, either back to their home town, in the case of Kenney, or a tourist, as in Prentice.

All of which leads me to want to talk about LED light bulbs. The cost of LED's is now so cheap that indoor farming is going to be come a seriously viable proposition and all those vacant safeway stores that blot our city and are rented out to sell RV's or as flea markets, might actually have a valuable use as a place to grow food for places that sell food.

This should appeal to everyone: cheap very efficient light bulbs mean we can kill all the coal generators that much quicker and food can be delivered by bicycle instead of truck, which should make Edmonton's mayor happy. 

"Farm Fresh" might mean your lettuce is grown at an address instead of a legal land description.  LED's use less than 1/10th of the power of grow op lighting equipment; indeed in BC the police say that extreme power consumption is no longer the tip off of a grow op and less drug growers are being electrocuded trying to bypass pwer meters. (A task so simple any moron could do it, and a lot of them try) 

LED's take all the risk out of this, growing things and being able to pay the power bill is a dream come true. Green houses will be obsolete as crops, yes crops, can be grown in completely controlled conditions without huge energy costs for light or heat.

Think about this:  Imagine eating tomatoes in January that do not taste like they were driven 3,000 miles in a truck, or having to pick through 200 heads of romain lettuce to find one less than 50 percent wilted, thanks to LED light bulbs, this will become the reality.

It already is the reality in many US cities; Goldman Sach's the investment bankers have invested heavily in several start ups and John Deere has reportedly been developing a hydrophonics equipment line, that does not require 300 horsepower diesel engines.

The issues this will lay to waste: hydroponics do not cause soil depletion, herbicides will be non existent, which means the RoundUp haters will need to find a new enemy, and food production will become a local industry again.

Naturally any vegetable operation opens the door to composting and a great form of fertilizer for hydrophonics happens to be fish poo,  an often troubling problem in gold fish bowls everywhere. My dream hydrophonic operation would certainly include Tilapia tanks, raise fish and vegetables in a symbiotic way, the plants are fertilized by the fish poo and the fish poo mostly comes from plant waste. 

Now, if only a politician had thought of this; If only a politician had said "the best way to meet energy demand and deal with carbon emissions is through conservation" there might be some real progress on a number of files but as long as they are more concerned with their ideological masters nothing really innovative is going to happen.

There is no appetite in any camp to conserve:  conservation itself runs counter to the growth demands we have been led to think matter so much, there is only one good number and this is growth. Anything that does not support growth is deemed as bad. This is not a unique conservative concept, the NDP are even worse  at it, because they want  the state to help business fail instead of letting business fail all by itself.  

Since I am a "Super Delegate" for the PC leadership race, (being a former MLA, gives me the right), I'm going to look for a candidate who is not a retread, I want to see some fresh rubber on the old truck that is Alberta.  I want a candidate who says "hell yes, let's grow all our own food, right here" A candidate who understands that burning coal to generate electricity is a hell of a lot better for the environment than installing a wood stove in your basement. A candidate who understands that trucks are only efficient when they are moving and who, (oh though I dream lustfully), sets standards for roads to ensure traffic moves instead of sitting there idling. 

Might as well dream big, if we are going to dream at all.  This, is all I am ever going to say about Jason Kenney, he does not meet my defintion of fresh rubber....