Ken's latest blog post:
Dear Ken: My house is 85 years old, and the basement walls are crumbling. What can I do about this? By the way, we installed gutters several years ago. -Carey
That would have been my first suggestion. The concrete walls in these older houses are challenging for two reasons. First, the concrete mixture was probably short on cement and long on sand. In those days, there was no inspection regimen in place--so some builders were free to do their own thing--including short changing the customers! Also, I'll bet there's no tar or other waterproofing material on the outside, so moisture slowly leaches its way through and dissolves the surface of the wall.
Keep working on your drainage--hose hydrants and sprinkler heads may be too close, or the dirt may not slope away steeply enough. One other thing. Interior moisture can have an impact on these walls. Older homes have tiny--if any--basement windows. That means a higher-than-you'd-like humidity level, which only exacerbates the problem you're having. Install a dehumidifier or, alternatively, a small bath fan vented to the outside. Plug it into a timer so it runs two or three hours a day.
Dear Ken: Our window wells have been rusting almost since we moved in. Now the rust has totally eaten through several large areas. What can we do to hide this unsightly problem? -Jeanine
You may have some extra strong chemicals--like alkaline salts--in your surrounding soils. One answer is to sleeve a new window well inside the old one. It'll be a little tricky, however. A new twin of your existing well will have to be cut along its inside edges so it will fit reasonably well into the hole. A handyman service can purchase the new unit and haul it to a metal fabrication shop for its final fitting.
Before you install it, paint the old one with some rust-inhibiting paint and then cover it with some heavy plastic sheeting before you stick in the new one. That will help isolate it from its rust-producing surroundings.
Dear Ken: I have a frame house with stucco on the outside. The house is now 9 years old and has hairline cracks in the stucco. Is this an indication of more serious problem? -Jack
Probably not. Stucco cracks for all sorts of reasons. There may be studs inside the walls which have dried out and twisted a little. Also, stucco--because of its brittleness--is subject to thermal expansion and contraction. As the temperatures vary daily and seasonally, the stucco tries to expand and contract. This produces most of the cracks you're seeing.
If you take a piece of the actual material to the paint store, they can computer match it so you can touch up these areas. Most of the small cracks will seal closed with paint daubed into the surface, however, I would probably ignore all but the most egregious ones. Stucco, being a natural material, is supposed to crack and will continue to do so. Finally, avoid caulking anywhere on this surface. It stays sticky enough to pick up blowing dust and so these patches tend to stand out. If you must patch a crack, apply something that will harden--like spackling--and then paint.
Dear Ken: Every year our ceiling fan wobbles when we start it up. How do we avoid that? -Gene
Make sure the blades are dust-free. Use a lamb's wool duster to thoroughly clean them. Also, tighten the screws holding each blade to the motor. They loosen over time and can actually come loose and fly around!
It's pretty easy to re-balance the blades. You can buy a kit that contains small weights with sticky tape you can apply to (usually) one or two blades to stop the wiggling. It'll take some patience to get the right location on the right blade. One other cause of excessive movement is attaching the fan to a too-long extension pipe. If yours is, say, over two feet or so, you might want to shorten it.
Dear Ken: We need a humidifier. We are tired of itchy skin and being stuffed up all the time. Can you tell us what to look for? - Lucy
Sure. The newest versions of whole house humidifiers are self-cleaning and have no moving parts. Gone are those old rotating foam drums and reservoirs which were a haven for bacteria and mold spores. Now, we simply dribble water over a screen and draw furnace air though it, which raises its humidity. A little excess water runs down and out a small drain—hence the self-cleaning feature. These models require little maintenance; at the beginning of the heating season you install a new filter pad and scrub deposited minerals out of the inside.
Another version is the steam humidifier. These heat up water, turn it into a vapor and inject it directly into your furnace’s main ductwork. They are more expensive than the pad type, require some on-going maintenance during the winter and are difficult (and perilous) for the average homeowner to fiddle with. The upside with steam? They are a little more efficient than the screen type and raise the relative humidity more quickly.
The upper end models of today’s humidifiers include computer control of your furnace. That is, they take over and turn on the circulating fan when the humidity is low—regardless of whether or not heat is needed.
Humidification in our super-dry climate is more than just a matter of personal comfort. Wood floors and your furniture—especially antiques—will benefit from additional moisture in the air. How much improvement you’ll get depends on the outside humidity. I leave the humidistat control on my furnace set at 40%, but my indoor air seldom gets that high. Since the humidifier only runs when the furnace fan is spinning, it is quite helpful to switch the thermostat switch to the “always-on” position.
Dear Ken: I’m looking for a good air purifier. We had a positive mold test and want to clean up the air. - Carol
Mold spore colonies move from place to place relatively quickly so the tests are problematic and not strictly definitive. As long as there are no visible mold stains in the house—like under sinks, around the laundry room and under bathroom floors--you’re probably OK.
Anyway, a portable air purifier in your bedroom would help you breathe easier. Look for a true HEPA filter model with a pre-filter inside. The Honeywell Model 17000 is a good choice at a moderate price. Set its timer to run at least 12 hours a day.
Dear Ken: I live in a newer home. We have a powder room that is extremely cold. I wonder if insulation was left out of part of the wall? How can I tell? - Brent
If there is a light switch or outlet on that wall, remove the cover plate and probe around the box with an old kitchen knife (turn off the juice first, of course). If there is none, you can pry off a piece of baseboard and probe down at floor level.
I am doubtful that insulation is missing. Why? The sheet rock hangers would not have dry walled over it without raising a fuss with the builder. A more likely explanation is the size and exposure of the room. The air mass in really small rooms with outside walls cools down very quickly. An insulated window covering is the best answer for the least expense.
Dear Ken: I understand there are safe enzyme-type powders that produce extra bacteria in the septic tank. Do you like them? - Gene
In a word, no. These products tend to overwhelm the good flora in your septic tank and lead to over-processing. That is, the waste products get less time to settle out to the bottom of the tank. Instead, they are sent out into the leach field as small particulates that can lead to a plug up. And that can be catastrophic. Replacing a drain field—assuming you have the extra room required on your property—can cost maybe $15,000 or more. Bottom line: Normal household use is all that’s needed provide plenty of friendly bacteria to process the waste.
Dear Ken: My wood fireplace always seems to let odor into the house, even when we haven’t used it in a while. The place smells like smoke downstairs. Anyway to help on this? -Larry
How long since it’s been checked and cleaned by a chimney sweep company? If there is excessive buildup of creosote and other combustion products, then any downdrafts through the chimney will let in unpleasant aromas. Notice I said use a sweep. The various powders and artificial logs touted to clean the fireplace with no effort are usually not worth it. They may eliminate some accumulation close in the firebox, but the parts of the chimney system you can’t see, like the smoke shelf and the flue itself will stay dirty. A chimney sweep will use brushes to mechanically scour out the entire fireplace and all its components—really the only sure fire way to get it clean.
Burning hard woods—like cedar, aspen and oak—is better than pine; there is less build up over the burning season with these species. I know they are somewhat more expensive, but they do contain more BTU’s per pound--so they are actually more cost effective, heat wise.
Two other recommendations. You should have a set of glass doors over your fireplace opening. Most of these have a little knob at the bottom of the door surround; it lets fresh air inside for more vigorous combustion. When not in use, you should slide it closed, which will help with the odor issue. It’s also a good idea to have a metal cap and spark arrestor screen installed on top of your chimney, so there is less down-drafting from the wind.
Dear Ken: I’ve heard that liquid drain cleaners are bad for the pipes. Is that true? -Robert
It depends on how old your house is. If you have cast iron or galvanized waste pipes –common up until the late 1960’s--then go easy; so-called enzymatic drain cleaners are best for these old pipes. The more modern plastic piping—black ABS or white PVC—is impervious to liquid drain cleaners. My favorite is plumber’s acid. This is a strong solution of sulfuric acid which munches its way through clogs in no time. It’s pretty potent stuff, so follow the manufacturer’s instructions diligently. (These products are for city sewers only; they can irretrievably damage a septic system).
Before you grab a bottle of liquid, however, try solving your problem mechanically. Slow drains under bathroom lavatories are easily speeded up by removing the popup stopper and cleaning off whatever gunk is clinging to it. The shower drains are usually plugged up with hair clogs. A small stuff bristled brush on a flexible wire handle will remove this crud in no time. One brand, available online, is called the Turbo Brush.
Dear Ken: Is there a way to lower the water pressure in our house? It’s 80 pounds now, and I think you said it should be lower. -Samantha
Yes, 80 is too high. I think 55 pounds per square inch (PSI), give or take, is much better. The valves in your icemaker, washing machine, toilets and dishwasher are too delicate to stand over-high pressure, and so they can burst and cause a flood when you’re not home. Do you have a pressure regulator? It’s a truncated-cone shaped doohickey—usually brass color—that sits on the pipes near the water meter. If you have one, it’s probably on the fritz. But you can check is by turning the bolt on top (left lowers the pressure, righty-tighty increases it) and see if the reading on your little gauge changes. If not, then a plumber can put it in a new one for $200 to $300. Incidentally, if you have a sprinkler system, it should have its own separate regulator set at maybe 75 PSI or so.
It’s quite helpful to have a screw-on pressure gauge handy to check for other plumbing conundrums. If your pipes suddenly become noisy—humming, thumping or clanging—then it’s almost always inappropriate pressure. You can find a good one for about $10 in the sprinkler section of the hardware store. Screw it on to the cold water faucet at your washing machine.
Dear Ken: Do you know anything about a water softener that works with sound waves? My husband saw it at a home show. They say they can hook it up outside and that it's harmless to plants and pets. -Mary
I'm sure it is, because I can't imagine this system has any effect whatsoever on the incoming water quality. This reminds me of a previous discussion we had about attaching magnets around water pipes--and that was supposed to also soften and condition the water. When you think about fluid rushing by a spot in a pipe at 30 miles per hour or so, it's intuitively obvious that there isn't enough time or energy available to affect each water molecule.
Water is most reliably softened using chemicals, not by inducement of energy from sound (or magnetic) waves--both of which are fairly weak forces anyway. You need to replace the salts of calcium and magnesium which make the water hard in the first place. That's done the old fashioned way in a traditional softener ion exchange process. Those hard minerals are replaced with sodium ions in the softener resin bead chamber, and the "bad" salts are flushed down the drain. So save your money for an efficacious softening system with a proven track record.
Dear Ken: I have a friend whose company was to help purchase them a new home. They refused to approve a stucco house because they said stucco produces toxic products and deteriorates. Do you know anything about this? -Karen
They must be from back east someplace. Because that's where many builders have used a stucco system called EIFS--exterior insulation and finishing system. This is a way to both insulate and finish the outside of the house at the same time by applying a layer of stucco over thick Styrofoam. If the openings around doors, windows, decks and other penetrations into the surface aren't sealed assiduously, water can sneak into the wall, causing rotting and mold accumulation inside those hidden spaces. There have been class action law suits and all kinds of chaos created by this wall system--mostly in other parts of the country.
Thankfully, in our area, we still mostly use the traditional system, consisting of 2 or 3 coats of stucco applied over "chicken wire" lath and tar paper. This is a time-tested method which is much less susceptible to water issues than the EIFS process. Evidently, your friend's company has conflated the two.
Dear Ken: The heating and air conditioning vents in the ceiling have dirt around them. What causes this? -Suzy
It's pretty normal if the ceiling hasn't been painted in a while. The tiny dust and smoke particles that accompany the air flow have a slight static charge, so they cling to the microscopic hills and valleys in your ceiling texture. Over the years this accumulation starts to appear as a “shadowy” smudge around the vents.
Make sure you have a corrugated paper style of filter in your air handling system; they capture much smaller particles than the cheap fiberglass variety. You can use one of those soft furniture brush attachments on your vacuum to clean around the vents, but I'm afraid the only sure-fire solution to this is to repaint.
Dear Ken: My mountain home has some sort of plastic-like paneling and I'm desperate to re-do the walls without removing them. Should I paint or can I paper? -Jan
You can probably do either, but first decide if the painted walls will end up looking like painted, cheap paneling--that is, will the bumps, knots, ridges and grooves show through? Whichever you do--paint or paper--you'll want to apply a good interior primer/sealer first. These products are modern versions of the old white pigmented shellac we used to apply as an undercoat.
Here are the steps. Clean the walls with TSP and water, scuff sand to remove any surface gloss, and spackle the grooves and holes as needed (drywall mud works OK, too). Then apply a couple of coats of the primer; KILZ or BIN 1-2-3 are two brand names I like.
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