Older Garage Door Fails Safety Check

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

QUESTION: My home inspector found an unsafe garage door opener, but the seller refused to fix it. According to the inspector, the opener is hazardous to children because it won't reverse if someone gets caught under it.

The seller says I should pay for the repairs because safety reverse was not required on door openers when the house was built. We asked the inspector to provide a copy of the code requirement, but he was unable to find it in the code book.

ANSWER: Automatic reverse is a vital safety function for all garage door openers. According to the Consumer Products Safety Commission, "48 children between the ages of 2 and 14 were trapped and killed under automatic garage doors between March 1982 and August 1991."

Additionally, many children were seriously injured beneath closing doors. In response to these accidents, safety legislation was enacted in the early 1990s, requiring automatic reverse for all door openers. But these standards are not found in the Uniform Building Code. They are a matter of federal law, prompted by the recommendations of private and public safety agencies.

As early as the 1970s, door manufacturers had begun to equip openers with automatic reverse functions. But these were voluntary improvements and were not consistent throughout the garage door industry.

In 1982, Underwriters Laboratory and the American National Safety Institute, corporations that test and certify products for public safety, issued Standard 325, urging manufacturers to voluntarily incorporate safety reverse functions into their products. At that time, automatic reverse became the standard of the industry though not yet a legal requirement.

In 1991, Congress passed the Consumer Products Safety Act, establishing Standard 325 as a requirement for new garage door openers and ending reliance on voluntary compliance. Further legislation in January 1993 required electric eye devices to activate the reverse function of openers. New laws also require technicians who work on older non-reversing openers to post warning placards on garage doors.

Additionally, sellers and real estate agents must disclose the safety status of garage door openers. When older openers are noncomplying, sellers may agree to pay for repairs or upgrades, but they are not obligated to do so.

Proper Guardrails Can Save Young Lives

Q: After listing my home for sale, my agent said the guard railing around my deck is unsafe because the openings are wider than 6 inches. The estimated cost for repair is very high. Is this work really necessary?

A: Safety being a priority, I would recommend it highly. The reason for spacing requirements for guardrails is to keep small children on the safe side of the railing. Violations are quite common and have resulted in tragic accidents.

Safety specifications for guardrails have changed several times during recent years, so the vintage of construction has some bearing on legal requirements. Current building standards for new railings require spaces to be no wider than 4 inches. The 6-inch spacing rule mentioned by your agent applies to railings built from 1985 through 1992. Before that time, 9-inch spaces were allowed.

Upgrading to current safety standards is not mandated for older construction but is nonetheless strongly recommended. If the cost estimate for upgrading your railings seems high, I recommend getting at least two more bids for the work.

Septic Tank Requires a Specialist's Probe

Q: Last month we purchased an investment property in a rural area; we had it inspected by a home inspector before making the purchase. Just days after we moved in, both toilets overflowed even though during the inspection they flushed without a problem.

When the plumbing was checked, it was revealed that the septic system was installed without a permit and that replacement with an approved system will cost nearly $5,000.

We feel that the home inspector should have discovered this faulty condition, but he insists that an inspection of the septic system is not included in a home inspection. Can something as basic as sewage disposal not be part of a thorough inspection?

A: Home inspections are basically defined as visual inspections only. This means that the inspector evaluates conditions that are exposed to view. Property components that are concealed within the construction, below ground or in other inaccessible areas are not included.

This limitation directly affects septic systems because the tank and related piping are buried below grade and must be excavated to enable proper evaluation.

Even after excavation, septic systems require far more than visual inspection. To determine their quality and condition, it is necessary to drain the tank, and this can be done only by a contractor who is in the business of servicing and maintaining sewage-treatment systems.

Septic systems require specialized knowledge and equipment to provide competent diagnosis. Basically, they are sewage treatment plants in miniature, demanding expertise well beyond that of a general inspector.

Got a question about any aspect of the home inspection? Send it to Barry Stone, Los Angeles Times, 540 Atascadero Road, Morro Bay, CA 93442. Queries can also be sent via e-mail to: inspector@fix.net.

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