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When good trees go bad: Is your family safe?

By Garth Haslem, KSL.com Contributor | Posted - Jun. 25, 2012 at 11:23 a.m.



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SALT LAKE CITY -- Let’s face it: Home inspectors see the world differently. What may look like a precious pergola to some may be a structural nightmare for a trained eye. A rock wall may look like the perfect decorative touch, or it may look like a snake den — it just depends on your training. The same can be true of trees in a yard. Many fall in love with a home for its trees, only to have a trained eye wince, then recommend that the trees be trimmed or removed. Why? There can be a thousand reasons.

Pests

To keep your home free from mice, raccoons and other creepy crawlies, you must learn to think like a creepy crawler. That mighty oak or that much less mighty quakie may fill your yard with splendor, but the splendor may come at a cost. If the tree is planted too close, the branches can provide a thousand pathways for furry friends to gain access to your roof. From there, it’s not hard to make a bungalow in the chimney — and the attic is even more homey and spacious than the chimney.


If the tree is planted too close, the branches can provide a thousand pathways for furry friends to gain access to your roof.

If you want to keep the unfavorables out of your living space, make sure the trees are trimmed far enough back to prevent critter access. To keep mice out, a few feet should do it. For raccoons, 6 feet is better.

Falling branches or trees

Experienced inspectors know that all trees have their strengths and weaknesses. For example, pines generally have smaller root balls compared to their wind resistance. This means that pines are often the first to fall in a windstorm. If you have a large pine within a short distance of your home, ask yourself exactly how willing you are to have it crush your home when it falls. If it’s an adequate distance away from the structure, you may be OK. If not, it’s time to call a tree expert.

Cottonwoods and poplars create a different sort of problem: They get large, then die. Their branches get brittle. Add in a windstorm and — kapow. The writer personally witnessed a falling cottonwood branch impale a teenager. A large branch fell off in only a minor breeze and nearly crushed one person. A ricochet twig flew sideways and opened the skull of a nearby child, exposing the brain.

If you have a cottonwood towering well above your home, look at the branches: Which of them are most likely to fall? Which could injure your family or damage your home? What damage could be caused by heavy wind or a lightning strike? Tree experts can help you select which branches — or trees — should be removed.

Roof

Your tree and its branches can become more than just mouse elevators — they can also become brooms on steroids. With time and a little help from the wind, branches can sweep the life right out of your roof. Back and forth, forward and back, and in time your shingles are a memory and your home is soaked by roof leaks. This is just another good reason to keep branches away from the structure.

Gutters


Whether you have trees in your yard or not, do yourself a favor and check your gutters.

Then there are the rain gutters. Trees near the home can fill gutters faster than a group of teenagers in a bowling alley. Whether you have trees in your yard or not, do yourself a favor and check your gutters. After all, do you really want a 1,000-pound rain gutter dangling over your head? Do you really trust those gutter spikes that much?

Foundation

Everyone admires the cute little sapling, placed so gently near the home. The problem is that it grows. It grows like an evil scientist’s forgotten experiment. Years and seasons come and go and the tree goes from sapling to fishing pole to 800-pound gorilla. Now the trunk is pushing the foundation in and the branches are rearranging your eaves. Unless you’d rather live in the tree, the home takes priority. The tree must become a memory.

Wires

Then there is the issue of electrical wires and branches. They go together like power and water: not well. When your main power line is brought to your home through a gauntlet of tree branches, let’s just say that sparks can fly. This can leave you in your home without power while a spitting, sparking power line dances in your backyard. While such a novelty might tempt your kids to use it for games like jump rope and hang the donkey, this is never a good plan. You are much better off keeping tree branches — or trees that may fall unsafely — away from your main power line and other utilities.


Know where your sewer line is and avoid planting over it. Avoid having the trees located too close to the home — or to each other.

The right tree in the right place

According to Steve Calton of Calton Tree Service in Lehi, Utah, it’s all about placing the right kind of tree in the right location. This can mean smaller trees in front of the home, larger in back. Know where your sewer line is and avoid planting over it. Avoid having the trees located too close to the home — or to each other. Having the right tree in the right place also means removing “volunteer” trees — the ones that nature tries to plant for you — before they become monsters.

Trees are wonderful. They provide a playground for the young, beauty for the busy and rest for the elderly. Climbing trees is a childhood ritual, and there is nothing quite like fresh fruit. Tree swings are timeless, and well-placed shade makes backyard barbecues breathtaking. Keep your trees on your maintenance list and let your summer bloom full.

Garth Haslem has been a home inspector since 1993. He is the author of four books, including "The Home Maintenance Guide." For more information, visit www.crossroadsengineers.com. Facebook: "Garth Haslem — The Home Medic,"8 or @ghaslem on Twitter

Garth Haslem

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