Garage Doors - When Did You Last Inspect Yours?
The garage door, including its automatic opener system, is the largest appliance in the home. A faulty garage door system presents a real hazard to the home occupants (including pets) or people who visit. The garage door seals the garage from the elements and provides safety by sealing the garage from people or animals at the exterior. Most people don’t give a thought to ever inspecting their garage door(s) or the automatic opener’s safety features on a regular basis. This can have very serious consequences. Based upon my experience inspecting homes, over 90% of garage door systems out there fail one or more of the tests discussed below.
Opener Motor's Auto-Reverser Mechanism -
Since 1982, all residential garage door openers manufactured in the USA have been required to have an automatic safety feature which reverses the garage door, when in the closing mode, if the opener senses an obstruction preventing the door from fully closing. The sensor is built into the opener’s motor unit and must reverse the garage door within 2 seconds of striking an object. Many garage door openers that I inspect do not properly reverse upon this test as they are often not properly set. Even if this setting is correct initially, after so many open and close cycles, it often needs adjustment. When this setting requires too much resistance to reverse the door, the door can otherwise injure or kill someone or a pet as it won't reverse but otherwise will keep trying to close. Modern garage door openers have settings to adjust the close force (usually on the side or rear of the motor unit) that can be easily adjusted using a screwdriver. There are several differing opinions in the home inspection industry as to which test method is the best.
DASMA (Door & Access Systems Manufacturers Association) recommends placing a 2x4 on the floor in the center of the garage door opening and testing whether the door properly reverses when the bottom of the door strikes the 2x4. The problem is that this method has caused many garage doors to fail the test which can lead to a broken garage door and/or opener. If the reverser is not properly set, the connection of the traveler and the garage door's top panel can separate (tear apart). Because of this possibility, many home inspectors, instead, have decided to use the 'hand test'. The 'hand test' entails letting the garage door's bottom contact your hand in the closing mode and, with the hand providing a little resistance, determining if the door reverses with little effort. If the door hits the 2x4 and doesn't reverse, you can't easily push the 2x4 out of the way and the door can easily be damaged. If the door doesn't reverse when it strikes your hand with slight resistance, you can readily remove your hand out of the way and let the door continue to close. If it very difficult to damage the garage door using the 'hand test' yet it can still happen.
No matter which test is used, if the door breaks because the opener's reversing mechanism is improperly set, the home inspector is often the one who gets blamed because they found the flaw (and likely prevented someone from later being injured or killed). Seems like a 'kill the messenger' scenario. The garage door opener failed under test. Because of this extra liability, many home inspectors no longer test the auto-reverser mechanism at all since paying for a garage door repair can exceed the inspection fee they are getting paid. Basic economics and, likely, smart risk management. It's a 'sticky wicket' as to whether to test the garage door opener's reverse feature (and potentially protect the client) or risk damaging the garage door (and run the risk of having to pay to repair/replace the garage door). Whichever method the inspector uses (or if they aren't testing the motor's auto-reverser at all) should be documented in the inspection report.
Electric Eye Sensors -
Since 1993, all residential garage door openers manufactured in the USA have also been required to have a safety reversing technology, such as photoelectric eye sensors. Photoelectric eye sensors are the most common type used and these should be installed no more than 6” above the garage floor (between 4~6" is right) at either side of the garage door opening. This height is specifically listed in the garage door opener’s installation manual. These sensors will cause the door to reverse (while in the closing mode) should someone or something block the sensors from seeing each other. This can be a pet or child walking under the closing door, a garbage can inadvertently left in the opening, or anything else. These sensors should also be checked monthly by the home owner to ensure that the sensors reverse the door when something is blocking the sensors from seeing each other. In a good number of garages, I find the sensors installed too high (sometime 12" or 20” above the garage floor) or installed nowhere near the garage door opening at all (such as on the ceiling!!).
An electric eye unit installed properly above the garage floor.
The electric eyes installed in this garage measured 17" above the garage floor. A child or pet could
easily crawl underneath these sensors undetected and could be seriously injured by the garage door.
The above installation (garage door opener electric eyes installed on the ceiling near the opener motor) totally bypasses the intended safety feature and can result in injury or death of a child or pet. Federal law actually calls for fines and/or jail time if a professional installs the garage door opener photoelectric eye sensors in this way and someone gets injured or killed. Installing the electric eyes correctly is easy yet some DIYers and unqualified contractors choose to subject the home's occupants to this unnecessary safety hazard. Homeowners should also be advised to test these above safety features (motor auto-reverse and electric eyes) on a regular basis.
Garage Door Springs -
Something else that should be checked is the balance of the garage door’s spring(s). Some garage doors have springs installed on the outer sides of the garage door tracks. These types of springs are called counterbalance springs (or extension springs) and should also have containment cables run down the springs’ centers to help contain a spring if one or both were to break. Otherwise, a broken spring under considerable force could become a projectile in the garage and hit someone causing serious injury (or worse).
The other type of garage spring system is a central torsion spring normally installed above the garage door opening. Both types of springs help support the weight of the garage door. Either type of springs’ balance can be tested by fully closing the door and then taking the garage door off of its track (called the "trolley") by pulling the rope with the red handle. This is also how you’d manually operate the garage door during a power outage. Once the door is now able to be manually operated, the door should be opened by hand slowly into the half open position. If the door stays in position half way open and also is easily controlled when manually closed (in order words, the garage door doesn’t fall by itself), then the spring(s) is properly working. If the door feels heavy and falls into the closed position or won’t stay in position when half opened (or won't open at all), this indicates an unbalanced or damaged spring system that needs repair. Garage door spring repairs should only be performed by a qualified garage door professional; these springs are under enormous force and can injure or kill someone not properly trained to work with them.
A torsion spring installed above a garage door. Also, notice the red handle
used to disconnect the garage door from the track so the door can be
manually operated or the spring system checked for balance.
As noted above, the disconnect handle (to take the garage door from automatic operation into manual operation) must be red so that it’s easily distinguishable from the other components and it should be no higher than 6’ above the garage floor.
While inspecting the garage door, the condition and operation of the door panels, wheels/tracks, and hardware should also be checked to ensure proper operation and condition. The door panels should be in generally good condition; damaged panels may prevent proper door operation. If a minor dent exists in a garage door panel and the dent does not prevent proper operation of the door, this is most likely a cosmetic issue only. The wheels should glide properly within the tracks and no wheels should come out of the tracks. The hardware that secures all of the door components together should also be present, intact, and functional.
A wall-mounted garage door operation push buttons improperly installed (only 4' high).
A wall-mounted garage door operation push button properly installed (5' high).
Door Operator Button -
The wall mounted push-button (for operating the garage door opener) must be at least 5’ above the nearby walking/standing surfaces and in clear view of the garage door. If the distance between the push-button and the garage floor is 6' but it's only 4' from the mandoor threshold to the push-button, the button needs to be raised. This is to help prevent a small child from operating the garage door opener by himself and possibly being injured by the door if left unattended. Newer garage doors (say, within the past 15 years or so) have various labels installed on the garage door’s interior and at the push-button mentioning these safety items.
During a home inspection, the home inspector should test the basic operation (movement) of the garage door including noting any missing hardware. He should also test the opener's electric eyes (and some inspectors test the auto-reverser and some don't, as discussed above) as well as test the balance of the spring(s) and the seal along the door's bottom.
Regularly checking your garage door’s operation and safety features can help prevent an injury or an inconvenience. Having your garage door and opener system professionally inspected on a regular basis is recommended. The life of a child or pet may depend on it.
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© 2020 by Matthew Steger
Matthew Steger, owner/inspector of WIN Home Inspection, is a Certified Level 1 Infrared Thermographer, an ASHI Certified Inspector (ACI), and an electrical engineer. He can be reached at: 717-361-9467 or email@example.com.
WIN Home Inspection has provided a wide array of home inspection services in the Lancaster, PA area since 2002. This article was authored by Matthew Steger, ACI - owner of WIN Home Inspection in Lancaster, PA. No article, or portion thereof, may be reproduced or copied without prior written consent of Matthew Steger.