August 2-PAC: Home Inspections and Fire Safety

The meeting was called to order at 6:20, 14 attenders.
Our speaker was Fire Inspector Robert Sayers.  Inspector Sayers worked 17 years for the Minneapolis Fire Dept., and then moved to Regulatory Services  and became a Fire Inspector.
His 4-person team does fire inspections for 4-plexes and larger, and for mixed use properties. Hazard inspectors take care of SFD, duplexes and triplexes.  They are currently trying to figure out Air B&Bs  — right now  the regulations behind AB&Bs are loose.  They looked at other cities and saw some models that worked and some that didn’t work well.  Minneapolis is trying to get it right the first time.
Most of the attenders at PAC were homeowners, so Inspector Sayers spoke about  “what he doesn’t want to see” in SFDs.
To begin, most home fires start as clothes dryer fires in flexible dryer venting.  Flexible venting is not approved for use in Minneapolis, even though it is for sale in big box stores and elsewhere.  Stores  are not required to tell you about the city regulation.  If flexible vent is what you have, replace it with a rigid venting, either aluminum or steel.  Dryer fires usually start in lint backup in the venting, whether the dryer is gas or electric.  The flex vents possibly trap more lint because of the pleats that make the tube flexible, vs the smooth metal vents.  More important is that thin metal will contain the fire fpr a while, but the flex vent will melt/burn through quickly allowing the fire will spread much sooner.
We  have some homes in the city that he classifies as “clutter homes”.  This is also dangerous but for  different reasons.  They are dangerous to the fire fighters who must enter a smoky, low vision place and don’t know the layout of the space.  Where are the paths? What or who is behind the piles?  The “stuff” will prevent fire fighters from saving lives.  Tightly packed, mixed fuel fires are also extremely complicated to put out.
There are different levels of clutter:  some hold actual garbage that hasn’t been taken out.  Some owners don’t let their animals out to relieve themselves.  Some owners are just not  capable of taking care of the issue due to physical, social or emotional problems that haven’t been addressed.  Even if this is not a health hazard to the homeowner, too much stuff packed in a small space makes it very difficult to knock down a fire.  If the situation is due to a psychological problem, after  owner, friends and family get the house cleared out, the clutter will accumulate again unless the psychological issues are dealt with.
Home safety involves other issues that need thinking about.  Disposal of compact fluorescent light bulbs is one many people don’t think of.   Cleaning up and disposing of the  very fine shards of glass is difficult. Also, these bulbs contain mercury, which is more of  a hazard.   Because of the mercury, these bulbs shouldn’t go in the trash.  Many hardware stores will take  them in for you.  Battery storage is also important, especially 9V batteries, which will start to heat up if a screwdriver or another piece of metal spans the two terminals.
Carbon monoxide detectors should be installed  and maintained carefully.    If you have all electric appliances you probably don’t have anything to worry about because they don’t emit carbon monoxide.  If you have gas appliances, however, you need to get those CO detectors installed in the area of those appliances.    Smoke detectors need to be within 10 feet of bedrooms.
Another thing homeowners are concerned about is water damage.  This can ruin surfaces, but it also can start mold to form in your home.  The city doesn’t have equipment to test mold to find out what it is.  Instead, inspectors look for situations that will cause water intrusion and cause mold to develop.  “Water damaged surfaces” is the term they use.
[EQ: Article on moisture/mold testing by a certified home inspector, posted in the S’Trib (http://www.startribune.com/mold-testing-vs-moisture-testing/367330031/ )
Electrical issues.There is still a lot of knob and tube wiring in the city, and it’s probably OK until someone taps into it.  If someone updates a portion of the wiring but doesn’t replace all of the line, there will be issues.  Plus, knob and tube wiring is old — some of it maybe 100  years old.  When it gets moved around  the insulation can crumble and fall apart.   Old appliances  can be  another electrical hazard.  Old space heaters weren’t made with automatic shutoffs.  If they fall over, they keep working and can start a fire.  That brings up smoke detectors again, if they are 10 years old, replace them.
Bonfires/recreational fires.  The city ordinance is what it is and isn’t perfect.   It states that you must burn raw wood.  You don’t want to burn furniture lumber or treated wood because they give off toxic gases.  The ordinance [https://library.municode.com/mn/minneapolis/codes/code_of_ordinances?nodeId=COOR_TIT9FIPOPR_CH178REFI]  states that a fire must be 25′ from a flammable structure, including wood fencing.  For Inspector Sayers,  the issue is that,  based on the distance rules cited in the city ordinance, most homes have no legal place to have a recreational fire.   Our city lots, are small, typically 55-60′ wide and not that deep.  on that basis alone, over 90% of the houses in Mpls don’t have a legal place for a fire.  Homes with firepits probably won’t have a problem.  While a backyard bonfire could spread to a nearby garage, Mr. Sayers believes that garage fires are more likely to be the result of arson, not recreational fires, but that doesn’t change the ordinance language.  Be aware that the MFD does not drive around the city looking for recreational fires.  Most of the calls they get are from neighbors who are bothered by the smoke.  If he sees metal from a piece of furniture, knows the neighbors probably have a reason to complain.
Renters’ Rights:  Because the buildings he inspects are 4-plexes or larger, Inspector Sayers talks to a lot of renters and finds himself talking about “Renter’s Rights”.    Minneapolis has a lot of good landlords but his team deals with the ones who are actually predatory.  They will take advantage of their renters and they take up much of his time.
[EQ   Renters rights:  The MNAttorney General has a PDF pamphlet that covers rights at https://www.ag.state.mn.us/consumer/handbooks/lt/default.asp     University students have two additional resources, the Office for off-campus living  (http://ocl.umn.edu/)   and  Student Legal services (http://usls.umn.edu/)  ]
The question came up:  when do you inspect?  Until about a year ago, Mr. Sayers was one of only two Inspectors who only dealt with complaint driven inspections.  Most of those came from  renters.  An inspector does not have to let a landlord know they are coming in, if it’s the renter who is filed the complaint.  The renter can give inspectors permission to enter, and the permission of the owner is not needed.
Rental properties are ranked for fire inspection services into three tiers.  property on Tier 1 is on a seven year cycle: they may be newer; they have no history of issues or complaints.  We know that a lot can change in 7 years, so there may be some properties out there that are not in that good shape today, but the last time they were inspected, they were assigned to Tier 1.    Tier 2 is  looked at every 3 to 5 years.  Our Tier 3 properties are those that have had issues; they are inspected annually.  The hope is that if the owner knows Inspections is coming back on an annual basis, they’ll clean up their act (property)   Because of the annual inspection, it’s possible there are Tier 3 properties that are actually in better shape than some Tier 1s.
We have between 15 and 20 fire  inspectors in the city.  Of those, there are four who deal with complaints (his team); the others are doing routine inspections so the owners know we’re coming.  The tenants also know inspectors are coming  because if they’re not gong to be home, the landlord  must get a permit signed by the renter,  allowing inspection.
If you have other questions or complaints, dial 311. out of  612 area code, dial  612.673. 3000.  The numbers are on our fridge magnets. [EQ: I have some of these magnets and safety pamphlets to distribute].
Question:  how did the Frenz situation develop?  From an inspector’s standpoint, Stephen Frenz bought 40 badly maintained properties from one of the worst landlords in the city, Spiros Zorbalas.  Zorbalas lost his rental licenses and was not supposed to have any further interest in any rental property.  When Frenz’ tenants kept reporting violations, investigators discovered that the properties were, in fact,  jointly held by both Frenz and Zorbalas.   The 40 properties had changed ownership on less than $1000 payment to Zorbalas.  Retaliation against tenants also continued: inspections would act on a tenant’s complaint and  soon those tenants were no longer living there.   Frenz is now down to 5 properties and that is still in litigation.
EQ:  I have a stash of information, yours for the asking.  1) 311 refrigerator magnets.  2) City of Mpls info sheets: Smoke Alarms and CO detectors; Citations: Payments and appeals; Special assessments: payments and  appeals; Homeowners’ Resource lists, with special numbers for Vets, Seniors, Energy Assistance contacts, Home repair contacts, and alot more.  3) From the Nat’l Fire Protection Assn.:  Cooking fore safety; Carbon Monoxide alarms; Ways to keep your family safe from fire.  Contact me at e-quas@tc.umn.edu and I’ll get your request to you.  (hint:  That Homeowners Resource list is a gold mine.)

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