Having become a parent, I find that I am more alert to home safety issues for children than my early years of inspecting. As I consult with clients, I ask about the ages of kiddos that may inhabit or visit the home. While many of my clients don’t have children, some may plan to have children or may have friends with children who visit their home. I am careful in how I ask this question being sensitive to young couples who may be struggling with a decision of rather or not to ever become parents. Ultimately, my goal is to help them understand that dangers to children should be particularly considered in the overall safety aspects of the home.
This article outlines some major areas of the inspection that I consider danger zones for children. It is not meant to be exhaustive of all home safety issues or every nuance of the code. There are certainly many other hazards in a home. A discussion of environmental hazards alone would require a separate lengthy article. The intent is to help you rethink your approach for report writing when it comes to the safety of little ones.
Exterior Railings: I always inspect deck, balcony, and porch baluster spacing. The code requires that balusters be spaced with gaps less than 4” to prevent fall-through or entrapment of a small child. I also recommend that open risers in deck stairs be closed to within 4-3/8” for the same reason. I find that most decks have stairs that are not compliant with this code. Further, I report on the condition of railings for retaining walls over 30” high whether they’re attached to the home or not. I always recommend adding properly constructed protective railings to retaining walls where missing. Stairs and retaining walls are particularly inviting for children to play around.
Garage door opening automatic reverse feature: One of the most common defects that I identify in my reporting is with the safety features of garage door openers. The automatic reverse sensors are often installed too high above the slab. UL325 requires that these sensors are installed 4” – 6” above the slab. I also sometimes find that the garage door opener switch is located too close to the reach of a child.
Smoke alarms: Current standards require interconnected and hardwired smoke detectors in every level of the house and inside the sleeping rooms. Because smoke alarms provide such an important safety function, I recommend this standard for older homes as an update. A working smoke detector cuts the chances of dying in a fire in half, according to the National Fire Protection Association. If your client is a parent, I also encourage you to talk to them about a family fire escape plan.
Carbon monoxide detectors: Because CO kills hundreds of people each year and injures thousands, the International Association of Fire Chiefs recommends a carbon monoxide detector on every floor of your home, including the basement. A detector should be located within 10 feet of each bedroom door and there should be one near or over any attached garage. Each detector should be replaced every five to six years. The importance of smoke alarms and CO detectors cannot be overstated to your Clients.
Emergency egress: 101 smoke alarms can’t save a child who cannot escape the home. As inspectors, we have all probably worn out our computer keyboards writing comments in our reports about inoperable windows, sticking windows, or even worse--bolted closed. But, we know it’s important to help our clients understand the dangers created when windows don’t open or don’t easily open. When there’s a fire, people panic and egress needs to be simple and without any special effort. Far too many homes have problems with window operation which is indicative that homeowners don’t consider this a danger. I also take the time to consult with my clients about the need for rope ladders for children who might get trapped in second and third story bedrooms. But what about interior doors? When I first became an inspector, I considered problematic interior doors only an incidental inspection defect. After getting trapped in bedrooms a couple times during inspections, it dawned on me that an interior door that sticks or has a defective handle set could also trap a child during a fire. I now consider improperly functioning interior doors a significant safety hazard when writing my reports. Obviously, my sentiment is the same for exterior doors.
Safety glass: The detection of safety glass is often difficult for some older homes. I have sometimes paid less attention to recommending updating safety glass for older homes. Recently, I attended the Christmas party of a good friend who lives in a 1940s bungalow in Decatur. She had just had the glass in the back exterior door replaced because her six-year-old slammed the door and the glass shattered everywhere. Fortunately no one was hurt, but it could have been devastating if the scenario had been different only slightly. This was a wake-up call for me to change how I evaluate and comment on the presence or absence of safety glass in older homes. Not only do I use the standards for new construction for safety glass, but I sometimes recommend the clients consider upgrading some components that are sometimes excepted from the code.
Interior stairs and railings: Stairs are one of the most dangerous places in a home for anyone. In 2002 more than 2.3 million children ages 14 and younger were treated in emergency rooms for fall related injuries. More than half of those were children under the age of five. As I have become a more experienced inspector and a parent, I now document all stair and railing deficiencies throughout a home. I use the standards for new construction for all homes for any stairs that are present including basement stairs. The most common deficiencies I see are open risers, improperly spaced balusters, and missing or improperly installed handrails.
GFCIs, AFCIs, and tamper-resistant receptacles: The debate for recommending electrical updates among Inspectors will never end. Some of us don’t recommend retrofitting older homes with GFCIs and some of us will recommend them. Some experts contend that over two-thirds of residential electrocutions can be prevented if all U.S. homes were retrofitted with GFCIs. I have always used the most current electrical safety standards when it comes to the GFCI for older homes. I consider it to be a rather easy upgrade and most real estate agents have come to expect GFCI issues with real estate inspections. Just a few years ago, the AFCI hit the market for new construction. The debate started again. Do we recommend this upgrade for older homes or do we only consider it applicable to homes built since 2004? My inspection philosophy on these issues is pretty much black and white. If there is technology on the market that will make a home’s electrical system safer, I am going to recommend my client consider it as an upgrade. Occasionally agents get a little anxious about what’s an “upgrade” versus what’s “grandfathered,” but I have found ways to craft my wording as to not upset agents yet still fairly and objectively communicate to my clients how they can adopt upgrades to make their homes safer. For the past year, I have applied current standards for all homes in my reporting for GFCIs, AFCIs, and tamper-resistant receptacles.
Pools and spas: About 300 children under the age of 5 drown each year in U.S. swimming pools as reported by the Mayo Clinic. Nearly 70 percent of the children were not expected to be near the pool when they were found in the water. Pools should be completely surrounded by fencing material at least 4 feet tall. A slatted fence should have no gaps wider than 4 inches, so kids can't squeeze through. The gap at the bottom of the fence should be less than 2” unless over concrete where it should be less than 4”. Gates should be self-closing and self-latching. The latch should be out of a child's reach. I also usually recommend installation of alarms. If the house serves as one of the walls of the pool enclosure, any door leading to the pool area should be protected with an alarm. In addition, I recommend consideration of an underwater pool alarm that sounds when something hits the water with an alarm audible inside the home.
Anti-scald devices and hot water temperature: According to kidshealth.org, scalds are the number one cause of burning for small children. Since every fixture in a home’s plumbing system doesn’t necessarily have an anti-scald control valve, one of the simplest scald-prevention measures a homeowner can take is to lower the water heater thermostat to 120 degrees. I report on the hot water temperature for all homes I inspect.
Anti-tip bracket: Attorney Dan Sciano of San Antonio, TX has worked on more than a hundred lawsuits involving stove tip-overs; he maintains that brackets are often installed incorrectly or not at all. One major oven manufacturer estimated that less than 5% of their customers had safety brackets installed. As Inspectors we see this almost every day. I encourage you to look at your wording in your reports to make sure that your Clients understand the danger that this simple bracket can prevent.
Children are curious by nature; they will explore and plunder at any given opportunity. Parents want to ensure that there are no hidden dangers in your home. As inspectors, we should and can make it part of our mission to educate parents about particular dangers to children. We should look at each room from a child’s eye level.
The National Safe Kids Campaign reports that more than 2,400 children died in home related injuries in 1997. About 2 million children are hurt in home related injuries each year. Many of these accidents can be easily prevented, and that’s where we can help. As committed professionals, we can advocate for safer homes for the little ones in our world.