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Confined Spaces

Confined Spaces - When is Tight Too Tight?
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Recently I had a REALTOR ask if there were circumstances when an Inspector would not crawl through the entire crawl space. I explained that sometimes we don't go everywhere in the crawl space because it simply is not possible or safe. I went on to explain that access to some areas of the crawl space may be blocked by debris, HVAC ductwork and/or tight spacing. That did not seem to be the answer she was looking for. But it got me to thinking, when is tight too tight? Take a look at the picture below.

What you are looking at, in addition to the wet crawl space, is ductwork running through a crawl space. There is a corner on the left and, yes, you can see around the corner when you get up to it, but there is also an area behind the ductwork to the right that you cannot see. Is that area accessible? Not from this angle. So if there is not another way back there, what next? Force your way under the ductwork? Absolutely not! There is not enough room plus that stuff is heavy. Even if you could squirm under somewhere, what happens if an HVAC strap lets go because of your effort and the whole thing comes down on top of the Inspector? How is the Inspector to get out from underneath all that weight? And quickly before suffocation?

You cannot go over the ductwork for two reasons. First, there is no room. And second, even if there was room, what if you lost your balance and dropped onto the ductwork, damaging it? Who is going to pay to fix it? The Client? The REALTOR? Probably not. Will the home owner just let it go? Doubt it. No, I think that one is on the Inspector. Can he fix it himself? No. He probably does not have the tools, training, material or license to do the work. So he is stuck with the bill. All because he tried to go somewhere he couldn't.

So in this case, without another path behind the ductwork, that area is inaccessible. Too tight! Oh by the way, here is what it looked like after I turned that corner. Still not much luck.

Sometimes the crawl space entry itself is the problem. The minimum recommended dimensions for a crawl space entry are 24" high and 30" wide. Remember a home inspector or technician also has to carry tools with them when they enter a crawl space. 

But this decision is a judgement call by the Inspector. Certainly, if the Inspector has to exhale to enter a crawl space, good judgement would be for him to decline the entry.

Some general safety rules of crawl space entry are as follows. These rules can be applied to Inspectors and home owners alike.

1. Take two flashlights and a cell phone. If the first light loses power, you'll have the second to find your way out. The cell phone comes in very handy if you get trapped or hurt. Its also another source of light, albeit a poor one.

2. Make sure someone knows you will be in a crawl space and approximately when you should be out of the crawl space. That way if you become incapacitated hopefully someone will realize you are missing before it is too late.

3. Do not crawl over ductwork, standing water or electrical lines. If you have to crawl over ductwork, move components or take in a breath to enter a space, it is too close to be entered.

4. Be alert to Confined Spaces that should not be entered. Do not force your way into areas that are too close. NACHI has an excellent Continuing Education course about Home Inspector safety that deals with this issue. According to NACHI and the OSHA website, a "confined space," as defined in OSHA's General Industry Standard (29.CFR.1910), is a space that:

a. is large enough and is so configured that an employee can bodily enter and perform assigned work;

b. has limited or restricted means for entry or exit (for example: tanks, vessels, silos, bins, hoppers, vaults, pits, etc.); and

c. is not designed for continuous employee occupancy.

NOTE: OSHA defines a crawl space as a non-permit required confined space. Therefore, a Home Inspector can enter a crawl space without a permit but according to item 4.a above, if the space is not large enough to enter and perform assigned work or the employee [Home Inspector] cannot perform assigned work [because the space is too tight], this space should not be entered. In Tennessee, the TN Home Inspection Rules as established by the TN Department of Commerce, Rules for Home Inspectors, Chapter 0780-5-12.10, Standards of Practice, item 6.b.3, states that "Home Inspectors are not required to enter any area or perform any procedure that may damage the property or its components or be dangerous to or adversely affect the health or safety of the home inspector or other persons."

5. Be alert to strange odors that can be a hint of problems. Obviously, if you smell gas, leave immediately. Crawl space odors like watermelon indicate the presence of snakes. If you observe snakes or evidence of snakes, or any other animal or pest that may be a threat to your health, leave the crawl space immediately. Make a note on the report.

6. Use a fanny pack to carry small items in the crawl space, like your cell phone and equipment testers you may need.

7. Wear gloves and breathing protection. The gloves protect your hand somewhat when you are searching around in the dark and the breathing protection protects you from all the dust and insulation you can breathe in.

So hey, let's be careful out there. If you would like to comment on this article please email to richard@habitecinspections.com.

Thank you,

Richard Acree

Comments in this article are the copyrighted intellectual property of Richard Acree, President, HABITEC Home and Building Inspections, LLC, and are intended to educate and otherwise assist home owners, sellers and buyers, building owners, sellers and buyers, realtors, real estate investors, property managers, and lenders in the process of owning, buying or selling homes or commercial buildings. HABITEC is a residential (home) and commercial building inspection company serving Middle Tennessee including Nashville, Brentwood, Franklin, Murfreesboro, Smyrna, Mt. Juliet, Hendersonville, Dickson, Belle Meade, Columbia, Spring Hill and more! In addition to building inspections HABITEC offers Environmental Services for mold assessments, radon testing and water quality analysis. Additional information about HABITEC can be found on our website at http://habitecinspections.com, or call 615-376-2753.

Richard Acree is the author of the HABITEC Home and Building Inspections Blog and founder of the ActiveRain Group Tennessee Home and Building Inspectors. All are welcome to join and see more blogs like this one.

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