Homeowner Tips



The home is filled with appliances that we use every day that requires an amazingly small amount of maintenance. The dishwasher for example requires almost no maintenance. To clean it, run a couple tablespoons of Tang through it every few months. The citric acid in the Tang removes the chemical build up in the unit. Other than that, it doesn't require much care. If you are checking it periodically, there are two things you can check easily. The seal at the door should be soft. If it dries out and hardens, it can be a source of leaking. The screws that attach it to the underside of the counter can sometimes work loose also. So keep them tight. While you're checking it, you may notice a small amount of water in the bottom of it after it has drained. A small amount of water is normal. The dishwasher, like most water carrying devises, can leak when it's used for the first time, after not being used. The internal seals dry out and once saturated, may not leak again. If you use it for the first time and it leaks, hold off on calling the repair may until you have used it a couple of times. You may have to mop up some water but it will save you the cost of a service call.

The clothes washer is another appliance that just keeps working. Check the hoses that supply water to the appliance. These hoses are rubber in most cases. They dry out, crack and will burst and they know when you are away. Nothing can ruin the return from a relaxing vacation like finding that the washer hoses broke on the first day you were away. These hoses can be replace with metal flexible hoses. If you have rubber hoses, and they are old, replace them with metal. Check the hoses. If they are swelling or cracked, replace them. The hoses fail at the metal fittings where they connect to the wall. They can also be put on a single shut off lever that is easy to operate and easy to check. The safest system is to shut off the hoses when the washer is not in use. Another problem with washers is they can get out of balance from uneven loads. Most washers will level by lifting the back and setting it down gently. The back legs are designed to automatically level.

The drain for the washer should also be kept at about the same height as the washer. In some basements, the waste water line is elevated and drain into a line that may be several feet above the washer. This can put additional strain on the washer pump and lead to premature failure. The long-term solution is to drain the washer into a laundry tub that has an ejector pump, designed to pump the water higher. This is a much stronger pump that is built for the job.

While in the laundry room, let's take a look at the dryer. Look behind the dryer. Is there a lot of lint there? Dryers can and do cause fires in homes if not maintained. Clean the vent hose for the dryer at least once a year. If four or more people live in the house, clean it twice a year. It disconnects rather easily with a large O ring holding it to the dryer. Check the outside vent. Is lint on the ground? Clean it out. A screwdriver works well at cleaning out around the little door on it. That flapping door should swing open when the dryer is on, and close when it is off. Metal is greatly preferred as the material for the dryer hose. The hose should not extend more than 6 feet in the home. Dryer vents should never vent into attics. The moisture can seriously damage the property. Also dryer vents laying on attic floors and run to the overhangs will fill up with water in the low spots, blocking the airflow and creating an unhealthy condition. If the dryer vents into an attic, use a metal hose. Be sure it runs to an outside vent, and is angled downward towards the vent.

Nothing lasts forever. Everything we use that's mechanical requires some kind of periodic maintenance. The consequences of not maintaining your appliances can be as simple as the unit failing, costing you hundreds of dollars years before you may have paid it, had you maintained it. The more complicated result can be fire, destruction of your home, and possible loss of life. A little attention can go a long way.

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Perhaps nothing is more frustrating than water in the basement. Dampness can deteriorate the home's heating system, the water heater, electrical panel box and can even trip electrical circuits on ground fault interrupters. A damp basement is also the breeding ground for molds and fungi that can affect the health of the occupants. If your basement has been dry, the best suggestion is to try to keep it dry.

If you have a sump pump, test it. Lift the float device, or pour a bucket of water in it to be sure it works. It's better to know if it's broken on a dry Saturday afternoon, than at 3 A.M. in a driving rain storm. Now, check the roof's drainage system. Be sure gutters are clean and functioning. The best time to see how your gutters are working is during a heavy rain. If the gutters overflow, you may want to clean them on the next dry day. If you need to use a ladder when cleaning the gutters, be sure the ladder is level. Set up with three rungs of the ladder above the gutter if you plan to get on the roof. If the roof looks like it might be too steep for you to walk on it, then do not get on it. Start cleaning at the downspout and work your way from it. When you are on the ladder and reaching for debris, always keep your belt buckle between the rails of the ladder when you reach. That way, your center of gravity stays on the ladder. Have someone secure the ladder at the base while you are working. Be careful, metal ladders often slip easily on metal gutters. Also, metal ladders conduct electricity. Look up before you set up the ladder. Do not touch any service wires around your home.

Next, check the downspouts. Tap on them. They should sound empty. A couple of taps can often free items stuck in the elbows of the spout. Cleaning a clogged downspout from the top with a hose can be tricky for someone not comfortable on a ladder. Leave that job to a professional, such as a handyman or a local roofer. If the downspout goes into an underground system, be sure it is clear. Run a hose in it for a few minutes. If it overflows, the system should be flushed with a hose, or a mechanical snake.

If a downspout drains onto the ground, it should extend away from the house until there is a natural slope of the ground away from the home. Downspouts should be extended with an additional length of spout, a concrete splash block, or PVC piping. Roll up plastic drainage devices are rarely effective. It may extend a few feet or a few yards depending on the home. If the downspout drains onto level ground or ground sloping towards the home, there is a high likelihood it will back up into the basement under adverse conditions. Frozen soil, or soil hardened by a prolonged dry spell, followed by a heavy rain, can cause flooding in a basement with no history of a water problem.

Check the drainage around the home. Look for worn areas near the home where water may be standing or running close to the home. These areas shift and expand over the years, and the homeowner will have to redirect them periodically. When redirecting the water, it is best to dig out a new drainage path around the home rather than mounding soil against the home. Soil above the foundation line can provide easy access for termites and other forms of infestation. Cut back plants and trees close to the home so the sun can dry soil close to the home. You should be able to walk comfortably between your shrubbery and your home. If you do develop a water problem and you have a large tree near the home, check with a landscaper to see if that particular shrub has a large tap root that can damage the foundation.

Even though your basement has never had water in it before, there is no guarantee that it will not get water in it. The storms and the freeze-thaw cycles of the winter of 1994 put water in many "dry" basements. There can also be changes in the drainage elsewhere in the neighborhood that can affect your basement. A fully functioning roof drainage system, a well-graded yard, and neatly trimmed shrubbery set prudently away from the home can all go a long way towards a dry basement.

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It is 4:00 PM. You and your spouse are at work. Your ten-year-old at home has just used the toilet. For some unforeseen reason, it backs up, and simultaneously, the float devise sticks in the tank. The combination of the two events starts water running out of the toilet, and it keeps running and running, and running. Does your ten year old know what to do? You are in a meeting, and the other spouse is on a plane coming home from a business trip. By the time the child can reach either of you, thousands of dollars in damage is done. Does your child call 911 for a plumbing emergency?

What should happen is anyone who is left home alone should be familiar with the basic emergency shut off systems installed in every home. It astounds me how little so many otherwise sophisticated people know about the workings of a home. Let's start with the toilet. They have an emergency shut off on the side just below the tank. Every toilet I have ever inspected had one. Your child and you should know where it is. Most basins and kitchen sinks are similarly equipped. Some are not. This valve is not turned on a regular basis and may not work when turned. There is a main shut off for the water. It is usually located somewhere along the front wall of the home in the basement. Everyone who may be responsible for the house should know where it is, and how to use it.

What would you or your child do in an electrical emergency? Even the best ten year old can suddenly find themselves in life threatening situations when all they thought they were doing was getting their Super Nintendo to work. The electrical system strikes fear into the hearts of many people. They look at the main panel box like a fifty-year-old man running a computer for the first time. The main panel box is just a series of switches. If the home is properly wired, throwing those switches is just as safe as throwing a light switch in your home. The first thing to remember if a family member is getting electrocuted is don't touch them. As a parent, you first instinct is to grab your child. You can then become part of the problem. Run to the main panel box, and shut off the electricity at the main disconnect switch. Everyone should know where this switch is and how to throw it. Some older or smaller homes do not have a main disconnect. If that's the case, have each breaker switch clearly labeled for the area it served. I personally recommend a main disconnect switch be installed if the home does not have one. The limit that is permissible is six throws to shut off all the power. If you have trouble labeling your main panel box, it's worth a few hundred dollars to have an electrician come in and check the box, and label it clearly. In fuse boxes, there are frequently two large black disconnects that can be pulled out to shut off the power. Again, if you are not sure how it works, call an electrician, and have them explain how it works with everyone present who may have to use it. Electricity kills. This knowledge is worth the price of a service call by an electrician.

What if the heater doesn't light, or the children come home and the house smells like gas? Are your children familiar with the smell of gas? If the house has a very strong smell of gas, they should turn around and leave immediately. If there is the slight smell of gas in the heater area, in the water heater area, or the kitchen area, call the Gas Company. Many times I smell gas when I open the basement door, and the homeowner who is living there didn't smell it. I have detected gas leaks in homes during a three-hour home inspection and the Gas Company usually arrived before I left. My experience is they are very good about getting there quickly in an emergency. Have the phone number near the phone where your child can find it easily. What about fire? Fires happen. They strike in every neighborhood, and the one common thread that every one says after they experienced a house fire is, "It spread so quickly!" We have a fire extinguisher that my twelve-year-old knows how to use. Do I want her to use it? My personal opinion is let the house burn down and get out. No insurance company can replace a child. A child will often hang in there thinking they can stop a fire longer than an adult will. They tend to not grasp the seriousness of the situation as the fire spreads. School your children on what to do. It may not come instinctively. What if there is a medical emergency such as an accidental cut, or a severe puncture wound? These items would fall in the area of 911 emergencies. Most children know to call 911 for these types of injuries, but it is always a good idea to question them on what they would do. The time between the emergency and when emergency personnel get to your home is critical. There is plenty of literature on what to do in household emergencies. It can be obtained from your pediatrician and also from the Township Building, or Borough Hall. Much of this information is written in such a way that children can understand.

It is a good idea to review emergency procedures in all these areas with anyone who will be in the home alone. This includes you, the HomeOwner. Familiarize yourself with these emergency systems and procedures. Be sure your children know them. Familiarize your baby sitters with them, as well as any relative that may be left in charge of the home. In any emergency, seconds are huge; they can mean life or death.  

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I can't emphasize this enough. I find it very frustrating to inspect homes that have replaced the heater and the chimney was never discussed. The chimney has failed and I tell the potential buyer that the chimney has to be relined and everyone says, "Why didn't the Heating Contractor say anything about it?" I can't answer for the Heating Contractor but I suspect it may be a fear of not being competitively priced.

If you have replaced your heater or more importantly, converted from oil to gas heat, the chances are extremely good that your chimney is not sized right for the present heating system. There are several ways that a HomeOwner can check the system before having it professionally examined. Start with the clean out at the bottom of the chimney. This is generally a round piece of metal with the handle on it directly under the chimney. With the heater off, pull it out. It should not be sealed shut. When you open it, you should see daylight. It may contain leaves or a dead bird. If a bird can live in your chimney, your chimney is malfunctioning. Gasses easily damage birds brains. (Remember the miners that took a bird into the mine with them? If the bird died, they got out of the mine!) Clean out the bottom of the chimney. If there is dirt from clay, brick or mortar breakdown in the chimney, clean it out.

Now, hold a tissue over the opening. It should be pulled into the chimney. Next, put a small hand held mirror in the chimney. The sides should be clean, and smooth. It may be tough to see up the chimney. If the clean out was full of debris from the clay, brick or mortar lining, get the chimney relined. If all you see is brick, there is no lining in the chimney and I recommend it be relined. After you have cleaned it out, put the clean out cover back, and turn on the heater. It should fire smoothly, and without odor. If the area smells from the exhaust, leave the area, and have it check immediately. Now that the heater is running, put your hand around the chimney flue, but don't touch it. It gets very hot. Move your hand slowly over any seams or openings in it. Oil heaters will often have a hole in it. That's fine. What you don't want to feel is the exhaust coming back into the house. Oil heaters should have a flapping door like opening in the flue. This is called a barometric damper and it should swing free. If it was wired or screwed shut when the unit was serviced, call another Heating Contractor to check the unit and never call back the mechanic who secured it shut. If you feel hot air coming out of any openings in the flue, you should have a professional examine the unit. If you are not sure, hold a lit match over the opening. Don't worry, nothing is going to blow up if the unit is firing, and producing heat. The flame should be pulled into the opening. If it blown out or the air is coming out of the opening, have the unit serviced. Also, hold the match in the opening in front of a gas furnace just below where the flue pipe is attached. With the unit heating, there should be a strong draft up into the unit. If the flame turns down, have the unit examined immediately. Also, check the clean out opening that you just closed. No air should be coming back into the home from around the door. All of these tests should also be performed on your gas or oil water heater as well.

Now, let's check the chimney outside. Examine the outside walls of the chimney. If there is white powdery material appearing on the sides of the chimney it is not functioning properly if it is causing the paint to peel off the stucco on the sides, it is malfunctioning. A gas fired heater produces a little over a liter of water for every 100,000 BTU's of heat it produces. You don't want that water condensing in the chimney. You want it to vent into the atmosphere. If it is condensing in the chimney, you will see stains from it. This moisture will cause the chimney liner to fail. If it's staining, have it serviced. Both oil and gas burn cleanly. If you see smoke coming out of the chimney, your heater is malfunctioning. If there is soot at the top and stains running down the sides of the chimney, the heater is not working properly. These stains may be from the old heater. If you have an attic, go up there when the heater is running. If you smell the fumes from the heater in the attic, you have a problem. Also, if there is a white residue from moisture on the walls of the chimney in the attic, the chimney is not venting properly. If you have stains up at the junction of the wood for the roof and the mortar, the chimney flashing may be leaking. If the white stains start further down on the side of the chimney, it's a good chance the problem is with the chimney.

The last item to consider with chimneys, it not a good idea to have two appliances running on different types of fuel venting into the same chimney. For example, a gas water heater and oil burner should not be sharing the same chimney. Both operate at different temperatures, and the result can be long term damage to the chimney liner. If you have any of the symptoms mentioned here, or if you are at all doubtful about your chimney's performance, have the chimney examined by a professional. Remember two things: Some heating contractors never look at your chimney during their annual service to the unit, and improperly working chimneys kill people.    

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Now that your electricity has worked into the new millennium, maybe it's time you stopped and performed a quick visual check of the system. Electrical systems are an extremely safe, dependable network that we use every day. With a little bit of care, they can continue to be safe. An annual examination of the system can protect you and your family from the dangerous aspect of electricity.

Let's start with the service coming into the home. Check for trees and shrubbery growing around the wires. A trees or branch loaded with ice adds hundreds of pounds of weight to your service. If an ice storm takes down your wires, chances are you're a low priority to the electric company since many major lines servicing thousands of people are also down. The electric company will trim the trees and shrubs that are touching the wires at no charge. Don't trim them yourself. The insulation may be worn, and they can be very dangerous. Leave trimming around them to professionals.

Once the service is attached to your home, it becomes your responsibility. The thickness of the service varies depending on the material used, and the amperage of the system. A gauge is needed to determine the amperage. The insulation on the wire should be intact. No strands or fibers from the mesh under the rubber jacket should be showing. The rubber seems to wear better if painted when the house is painted. Look up at the top of the wire. The wire should form a loop at the top. This area of the wire wears out first. Look for any frayed material hanging off it. The best place to examine this is on the roof. Do not get on the roof unless you are comfortable up there and the roof is clearly walkable. Don't set the ladder up next to the wires and then try and peek over the top of them. The ladder may slip and you may come in contact with the wires. Set the ladder up a safe distance away, and look off the roof onto the wires. If the wire is worn, have it replaced. Some people wrap them with electrical tape, but I recommend a licensed electrician replace them. If the strands are showing, it may not electrocute you, but it will allow water to enter the system, and create rust. Now look at the meter box. The meter is contained in a round glass globe with several dials that point to various numbers. The meter should be firmly attached to the wall. Check the bottom of the box for rust. Rust is often present with poor wire insulation or the absence of the loop at the top. Severe rusting on the box is reason to have it replaced. If your service comes in underground, the PVC conduit that contains the wires should have all the sections connected. There should be no openings in it. On some homes, there is a ground wire in the area of the meter. This is a solid wire that is attached to a rod in the ground. The connection is usually bolted to the ground wire. This wire is designed to take lightning to the earth. The grounding system can vary from home to home. The best system, and one required if you are building a home today, calls for a rod submerged eight feet into the earth, and a wire from the main panel box inside to the cold water plumbing in the home. Many older homes have one system or the other. All wires coming into the home should be connected to ground. The phone and cable wires should also be connected to a rod in the earth.

The main electrical panel should be on the inside wall near the outside service. If the wire runs more than six feet inside the home, there should be a disconnect or shut off on the wire. Now that you are inside the home, let's look at your main panel. It should not be rusted. If the box contains fuses, there are usually two large black boxes inside the box, with metal handles on them. If you pull these boxes, you will shut off the power. Frequently, I see additional sub panels or smaller boxes around the fuse box. These are additions to the system. They are often done for particular appliances such as a water heater or air conditioning system.

We have a saying in the inspection business that if it doesn't look right, it probably isn't. Professional electricians tend to be neat. If the wires are going all over the place, with several boxes added onto each other, you might want to have an electrician take a look at it. You can add boxes, but there is a right way and wrong way. If the brother-in-law did it when he replaced the water heater, you might want to have it checked. Fuse box systems can be safe. If you have fuses, be sure there is a fuse in every opening. If you find yourself replacing fuses, call an electrician. A breaker system consists of a row or two of black switches contained in a gray or black box. These switches are as safe to throw as the wall switch in you living room. There should be no openings in the box. If there is no breaker in a slot, a blank should cover the slot. Put tape over the opening until you can have it properly covered. Children are curious, and sticking a finger or a metal object in the opening can be fatal. If you find the breakers are tripping, call an electrician. Don't replace it with a larger breaker. The breakers are sized for the wiring. An oversized breaker on small wiring can cause a fire. Faulty amateur electrical work may jeopardize your fire insurance. It's not worst the risk. Now turn on most of the major appliances in the home. You can't run the air conditioning in the winter, but you can turn on the electrical range, and run the hot water for about five minutes. Run the back of your right hand down the row of breakers. If they get hot, or you hear a humming sound, have an electrician check the box. Checking these items is a good place to start on the checking electrical system. Most Homeowners are shocked when they finally notice them.

One more item to check in the main box. The main shut off switch should have a number on it, from 100 to 200. The box should also have a label on it. The rating on the box should be the same as the main breaker. If they are different, the number on the main disconnect should be smaller. Testing and inspecting the branch circuits is a little more time consuming, and requires some special tools. That will be covered in a fuutre article.  

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Nothing can change the mood of a room quite like a fireplace. The crackle of the burning wood, and the glow of the heat can transform and ordinary room into a cozy environment. Before you use it, it's a good idea to take some precautions. Fireplaces can kill people! This is no reason to weld the damper shut and block it off, but it is a reason to treat it with the greatest respect.

Prior to lighting that first fire of the season, brush it down and give it a visual inspection. Is there loose mortar? Repair any small cracks in the firebox. Be sure to use fireclay. It will withstand the heat of the fireplace. If you have a metal firebox and flue, use your fireplace sparingly. A chimney expert should examine metal chimneys every year.

After you have cleaned and checked the firebox thoroughly, examine the damper. The first time you open the damper to start the winter season, shake the handle a few times, then wait about thirty seconds and listen. Birds and animals may find the chimney perfect for their home, and move in during the summer. If they are in there you want to scare them so they leave through the top. If they fall into your living room, they get very upset. The damper should open easily and close tightly. The fireplace is a major source of heat loss in the home. A tight damper is helpful. Glass doors in front of the fireplace also helps. Between the two closure systems, you can keep heat loss to a minimum.

Shine a flashlight up the chimney. The shiny black crust in the chimney is creosote. It is a by-product of burning wood, and it is flammable. If it has built up to about 1/8 inch, have the chimney professionally cleaned. Clean out all leaves and other debris. If clay falls out when you open the damper, have the chimney checked. Mortar falling from the smoke chamber is not as great a concern as the clay liner braking down. Now turn the flashlight off and see if you can see light from the top of the chimney. Next, hold a tissue near the damper. If it is cold out, the heat from the house should pull the tissue up slightly. If this happens, the draw is normally adequate.

Next, examine the outside areas of the chimney. The chimney will sometimes pull away from the house. In most cases this is not a serious condition, but the cracks that appear between the house and chimney should be sealed to keep water out. If the chimney is leaning more than about a half inch in eight feet, have it checked. The flue of the chimney should extend above the top of the chimney. Examining the top of the chimney should be left to professionals, unless you are very comfortable on your roof. The top of the chimney or crown should be in tact, and should be tapered to allow for water run off from the top of the chimney. Chimney caps reduce airflow slightly, but they keep animals, water and debris out of the chimney. I would suggest a chimney have one. If everything has checked out and is working, let's test the chimney. Roll up a newspaper very tightly and get a bucket of water. Light the newspaper and stick it up the flue. Does it draft well? If it doesn't, the house will fill up with smoke very quickly, hence the bucket of water. If it drafts well, you are ready to go. If it doesn't draft well, try opening a window a crack in the room with the fireplace. The influx of cold air under the fire can help lift the smoke out the chimney. For best results, use well-seasoned dry hardwoods.

And now for the last most important item: GET CARBON MONOXIDE DETECTORS! Carbon monoxide is fatal. And fireplaces can increase the quantity of this deadly gas in your home in a couple ways. The first is the fire itself. As the fire dies down, the smoldering logs give off more carbon monoxide than the raging fire you had earlier in the evening. As the chimney cools, the draft of the chimney decreases and the smoke, with the carbon monoxide, can back up into the home. Glass doors over the fireplace reduces this condition. The other condition that occurs is the raging fire is stealing air and oxygen from any source it can find. If your home is tight, the only source of make up air for your fireplace may be the flue for your gas appliances. The heat from the fire will create a negative draft and cause their exhaust to be pulled into the house. This is like driving with your exhaust pipe in the window. Two small children died from carbon monoxide poisoning in January of 1996 in the Midwest and one theory is that this condition caused it. For this reason, opening a window slightly is a good idea, so the fire will pull outside air from the window rather than from the flue for your gas appliances. Fireplaces are romantic, cozy, a conversation piece, but they are also a system that must be respected or the consequences can be deadly.   

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What do you do when the lights go out? Not that, I'm talking about when a power outage knocks out the lights and everything else electrical in your home. This summer our area has been hit with some powerful storms that have left many people without electricity for days. Some things electrical we just live without, but the lack of electrical power can create some serious problems. If you have life support systems that require electricity, the need for back up energy sources is obvious. There are household items that can cause catastrophes if not running at key times.

One of those key items is a thunderstorm. During a thunderstorm we can get two inches of rain in less than an hour. This type of deluge can often flood basements. The lack of electricity can be disastrous. If your home needs a sump pump, it needs one that runs on a battery backup system. Your existing pump can't be retrofitted with a back up system, but the complete pump with a backup system can be purchased for about two hundred dollars. The electrical connection is a matter of plugging it into a receptacle. The plumbing connection is not very complicated. Be sure the pump has a check valve to prevent back siphoning. Some have a light system that can tell you at a glance if it's ready to work, if the battery is charged, and if the battery is wearing out. The life of the battery is about five to seven years.

The sump pump will run for about eight hours on the battery. The sump only runs when the water level activates the float devise in the pump so the eight hours can extend of a fairly long time in the event of a power failure. The system then begins to recharge once the power comes back on. This is a low maintenance very safe back up system that can save your basement in the event of a flood.

Another emergency system that is growing in popularity is a backup generator system for the home. These have long been a part of rural life, but are becoming more popular for a variety of reasons. One reason may be the increased growth of the population in rural areas. Home based businesses also can demand the need for a backup system. The reason I feel most people are installing them is they can afford them.

A fairly simple home system can be a gasoline generator that will produce electricity for about ten hours. They are rated according to their output in watts. You can store it in the garage for emergencies. Have some heavy-duty extension cords and run it to a few key appliances or locations. This will not replace you electricity, but it can give you some lighting and protect the refrigerator and freezer during a power failure. These types of systems can run from several hundred dollars to about two thousand dollars. There is some caution to be followed with them. First, read the manual that comes with the unit. Follow all safety precautions it mentions. Also, set it up outside, not in the garage. The carbon monoxide from the motor can kill you. Also, shut the unit off when you refill the gas tank. Ten hours sounds long, but can go by quickly in a long outage. Another precaution is to start the motor first and let it run to build up power before you being to draw on the electricity it produces.

A backup system that will run the whole house is the next level. When installing a backup generator, it is best to leave it to the professionals. Jerry Kane runs Penncat Corporation in Norristown, a company that specializes in commercial generator systems. He said that the bulk of their business has always been commercial but in the last three or four years he has noticed a rise in residential installations. (Wasn't that about when we had all those ice storms?) Their company can install a simple limited electrical back up system or a fully automated backup system that can run your entire household for several days, and call you Security Company if you are away. The smaller generators do not produce nearly enough electricity to run you air conditioning or an electric heat system for any length of time. The larger systems will run everything with no problem.

There are other home systems that require you to activate them. A key ingredient in the system is the connection between the outside power and the power you are creating. If your system is on, and the electricity comes back on, your electricity and the regular power will not get along. If you are lucky, it will only burn up your generator. If you are unlucky, it can burn down your house. There are specially designed switches that will change over the current when the power comes back to your home. For this reason, it is best to leave this connection to a professional installer. They can install backup systems in your home to provide limited emergency electric so you can limp along until the power comes back. This type of system, with a wood burning stove or kerosene heaters, can be a very effective emergency system. This combination is excellent for vacation homes. It can get romantic when the power first goes off, and the glow of the fireplace heats the room. But when it's thirty degrees in the rest of the house and you've been stumbling around in the dark to find the bathroom, the novelty wears off. Backup electricity is like insurance. It's nice to know it's there, but hope you never have to use it.    

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When I told my wife I was going to write an article about kitchen appliances she was curious about what I would say since she has never seen me operate one. I explained that I am a theorist and understand them conceptually. She proposed I gain some practical experience and make dinner. Let's start with the range. Gas is often the preferred fuel for heating. If you have an electric range, try using very flat copper pans for cooking. They will heat more rapidly and evenly than other pans. Electric ranges often draw more current than the breaker in the main panel box will permit to run through it. It's best to not heat all the burners and the oven at the same time. There are a variety of types of electric ranges and burner surfaces. The better ranges have a light that lets you know if the burner area is still hot. Many are single surfaces with a hot area that glows red. These surfaces are much easier to clean than the old electric coil-type burners.

If you have a gas oven, check the color of the flame on the burners and in the oven. They should always be blue. If the flame is yellow, it may be dirty and giving off carbon monoxide. It's a good idea to have a carbon monoxide detector in the kitchen with a gas range. On days when you are doing a lot of cooking with a gas range, such as Thanksgiving, leave the kitchen window open a couple of inches for ventilation.

Refrigerators use about 8 percent of all electricity used in the United States. Refrigerators built before 1975 are very inefficient and expensive to run. Air moving over the coils under the refrigerator cools them and takes off the heat that is removed from inside the refrigerator. A simple way to check the air flow over the coils on your refrigerator is to hold a tissue in front of it on the right side and then move it over to the left side. The one side should pull in, and the other should blow out with about the same amount of force. If there is little air movement, there is a blockage. The reduction in airflow can put strain on the compressor and damage the unit. Clean the coils and the entire area around the motor with a vacuum cleaner at least twice a year. You will be amazed at how many of the cat's toys end up under there. To check the seal on the magnetic strip around the door, put a dollar in the door. It should hold it in place. The temperature of the refrigerator should be about 36 to 38 degrees. The freezer should be zero to five degrees. If you move a refrigerator, always keep it vertical, particularly older models built before 1990. If turned on their side, the oil runs out of the compressor and into the coils. The compressor will seize when you start it.

Garbage disposals have gone from novelty to necessity. Do not use a garbage disposal if you have a private septic system. It will ruin the system. Garbage disposals occasionally jam. There is usually a small wrench that comes with the appliance to free them when this happens. They should be cleaned periodically as grease builds up in them. To clean them, dump the baking soda you have been storing in the refrigerator, into the disposal. Now pour in about a pint of vinegar and let it sit until the foaming stops. Throw some ice into the disposal and run it. Then, add cold water. The baking soda and vinegar frees the grease, and the ice coagulates it before it can reattach to the disposal. Always run cold water in your disposal. The water cools the motor and prolongs the life of the unit. Hot water heats it and puts stress on the motor, resulting in premature failure. Disposals have the shortest life of any kitchen appliance, and may last a maximum of five to seven years.

One last item, all the receptacles above the kitchen counter should be on ground fault circuit interrupters, know as GFI"s of GFCI's. A GFI is a safety devise that is built into the receptacle. It contains a little red and black button on it that causes it to cut off the electricity in the circuit if you, water and electricity get together. They are relatively inexpensive, less than $15.00. They can be installed on ungrounded or two wire electrical systems, common in older homes. They save lives. If you don't have them, get them installed. It is suggested you test them monthly by pushing in the test bottom with an electrical devise plugged into them. The power should stop. Then press the reset to start them. One last note, never have a refrigerator or freezer plugged into them. The surge of the motor, or even thunderstorms can cause them to trip, ruining a lot of food. Bon Appetite.

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The beauty of autumn is the collage of colors the leaves present as they succumb to the changing seasons. The drudgery of fall is the gathering of those leaves as Mother Nature turns into a daily litterbug. It's leaf time! The question that I entertained for several years is, "Do I need a leaf blower?" Last year, I said, "Yes!" So I bought the Black and Decker Super Vac and Mulch. And I love it! Now, let's back up a bit and review my decision, and how I made it.

Before you run out and buy a backyard vacuum cleaner, there are a few things to consider. My property is about 1/3 of an acre, a fairly common yard size. The lot would not be described as wooded, but I have a respectable amount of shrubbery and my neighbors have a few tall trees that contribute to the ground cover. I chose an electric model with a shoulder strap. It also doubles as a mulcher. If you have a much larger property, you may find the electric cable too restrictive and therefore need a gas model. There are no battery-operated models that I have seen. The model I own has enough force to drive even wet leaves out from under shrubbery. It does exactly the job I need done for my yard. The gas models have more force and may be better suited for larger properties. The advantage of more power is you can drive a larger pile of leaves across the property so you don't have to stop as often and bag.

The mulching feature created the most skepticism in me. I just couldn't imagine the system having sufficient power to do an adequate job of mulching. I was wrong. There is a large canvas bag that attaches to the back of it. You basically reverse the connections and it goes from blower to vacuum. Again, it works great! I did a very unscientific study, but I seem to get about five bags of leaves into one when I mulch. I can do the entire yard in one full day on the weekend, allowing for a few mandatory trips inside checking the scores on key football games.

There are some other considerations, "Noise." The gas blowers are considerably noisier. According to the September issue of Consumer Reports, exposure to noise levels of 78-dBA for extended periods of time can produce hearing loss. A dBA is a decibel of noise. This is a measurement of noise, just as a degree is a measurement of temperature. According to the same magazine, gas powered backpack units produce 90 to 100 dBA of noise for the user. This is about 10 percent higher than the noisiest gas powered lawn mowers. The conclusion: If you are going to use a gas fired backpack or hand held model, wear ear protection. I doubt that a Walkman playing louder than the leaf blower would be viewed as ear protection. The hand held gas models were also considered heavy and clumsy to use. The gasoline models also pollute the air. One year I borrowed a gas model that was pushed like a lawn mower. It had power to spare, but I found maneuvering it to be very difficult. The fan assembly is very heavy. It was far more difficult to use than a conventional lawn mower.

The overall evaluation of Consumer Report rated the gasoline backpack models with the highest scores. The price range of the best models was $350 to $420. The Homelite Backpacker UT08017 was the only model priced at less than $200. None of them had the vacuum feature for mulching, which I found to be a big advantage on the electric model I have. All were rated poorly in terms of noise. Noise protection can be as simple as inexpensive earplugs that can be bought in most drug stores. The electric models they reviewed were all less than $100. Most received very good grades by their standards. They produced less noise, had the mulching feature, and were substantially cheaper. The Black and Decker model I bought was about $75.00.

The next question is when to clean up the leaves? Due to the variety of deciduous trees in this area, the leaves fall in volume for a span of almost three months. Molds grow under wet leaves that can kill the grass creating bald spots in the lawn. Cleaning the leaves every few days is ideal. In my neighborhood, only the retirees seem to have that much free time. Unfortunately, I seem to get to mine the weekend before the last pick up in my Township. Once you have finished cleaning up the leaves and are ready to sit down and take a break, it's usually about the time we put up the holiday lights. And the beat goes on.

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Perhaps no single phenomenon of nature captures more allure than lightning. Both worshipped and feared by cultures throughout history, it is a force that is still studied, and remains enigmatic. With all of the knowledge we have of both lightning and construction, it can still wreak havoc on a household. A single bolt of lightning can contain over one million volts, and do pretty much what it wants.

Skyscrapers built today are equipped with an elaborate system of copper rods and braided cables that are designed to take the natural flow of electricity and direct it to the ground. Lightning is the most basic form of direct current or DC electricity, and it wants to go to the earth. The lightning rod systems on tall buildings are designed to assist it along that path. Lightning rod systems residentially are not as practical for a variety of reasons. One is the cost, another, appearance, and last and most important is the unpredictability of lightning. Once lightning is as close to homes as houses are, with the variety of paths it can take, harnessing it through a single rod and cable system is less effective. As an example, lightning struck in the backyard behind our house. It knocked out the television on the third floor, which was not on, and set off all the smoke detectors in the house next door to us, while severely damaging the swimming pool in the house behind us. A bolt of lightning can do pretty much what it wants.

Residential protection against lightning can take on several forms. There are basic surge protectors that are used to protect electrical devises. They have a diode that works similar to a fuse in that it is destroyed by the surge of electricity. Nick Teti, a licensed electrician and owner of Nick Teti Inc. of Blue Bell, said he had a customer whose house was struck by lightning. He said the lightning destroyed every electrical appliance in the house including coffee makers and small appliances-except the television, VCR, and computer system which were protected by simple strip surge protectors. The surge protectors did their job.

There are other methods of protection against lightning. A devise I sometimes see in homes is a lightning arrestor. This is a small round devise, slightly larger than a tennis ball that is wired into the main panel box in the home. A licensed electrician should only install it. It is installed on the "hot" or live side of the main breaker, and then connected to a grounding system. Remember that lightning wants to go to the earth. It is designed to protect the entire electrical system from a direct hit from lightning. It also protects the home's electrical system from ground to air lightning. Lightning can build power on the ground and go up to a cloud causing the same devastating results. This type of lightning activity is referred to as a back feed of lightning. This devise will protect the electrical system. It won't keep your house from getting hit by lightning. This devise does not need to be replaced once lightning strikes it. In Mr. Teti's business he has installed many of these devises and is yet to have a customer complaint that it failed.

A third method of protection is a surge protector for the entire house. This, again should be installed by a professional, and is installed on the live side of the system before the main disconnect breaker. The devise is manufactured by Intermatic, and also endorsed by Mr. Teti.

With home based businesses and elaborate home based computer operations, a single strike of lightning can wipe out years of data. Homes today also may have fairly expensive home theaters that are also vulnerable. Unplugging appliances can reduce the likelihood of damage, but it may not eliminate it. Both televisions and computers are often connected to cable lines or phone lines that can provide possible channels for electrical damage. The surge protectors worked when called upon, and are very inexpensive when compared to the protection they provide. They are easy to install. The lightning arrestors provide more wide spread protection through out the house, and may someday be installed as part of the electrical system when the home is built. A computer operator offered one last method of protection to me. Take the cord to the computer, and tie it in a knot. His theory was the surge of electricity would cause the cord to fail at the knot. His system seemed to be lacking in substantiated scientific data, and is not endorsed by Mr. Teti or myself.

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No more El Nino, winter has come home to roost. All those smiling faces around the water cooler belong to skiers who were praying for this kind of weather. Cold, snowy weather creates challenges for your home. The effects can be damaging if not addressed. Let's start by going into the attic. If your attic doesn't have a floor, walk on the wood ceiling joists. Do not walk on the insulation. There is only drywall below it, and it won't hold you. It's a good idea to wear a dust mask when you go into the attic, as well as a long sleeve shirt and gloves. The dust and fiberglass insulation can both be irritants. The dust mask should have two straps. The masks made with one strap afford no protection. Look at the construction of your attic. Is the attic a system of triangular wood pieces held together with metal plates? This is a truss system. If the attic has only roof rafters under the roof deck and floor or ceiling joists below you, it is rafter construction. Truss sytem attics should not be used for storage. Putting down plywood and using it for storage can severely damage the property. Truss systems move. In severe cold weather you may get hairline cracks at the junction of the wall and ceilings below. The only cure is to patch them, paint them, and then repair them again if they occur next winter. Truss systems also tend to have more nail pops than rafter systems. Walking in the attic with a truss system is difficult. Put your feet in the junction of the cords at the ceiling line below. It hurts your feet, but it's the only place that will hold you.

Is your attic well ventilated? Attics can be vented in a variety of ways. Some have gable vents located at the ends. Others have a ridge vent that runs along the roof. Whatever system of ventilation your attic has, it should be wide open in the winter. Never close vents off in either season. Your attic should be very cold. Look at where the ceiling joists meet the bottom of the roof. You want to see light all along this lower edge. If the insulation is snug against the bottom edge of the roof, pull it back with a rake. Look at the underside of the roof. You will probably see lots of nails poking through the wood deck. Directly above the attic entrance you will see moisture accumulate on the nails in a few minutes. Look at the rest of the nails. They should be dry. If you see rust on the nails, or if you see black rings around the nails on the wood, the attic may need additional ventilation. If you see a black powder like film on the wood surface, this is mold and you should also be concerned. If the plywood is buckling, or pieces can be peeled off, the damage from moisture is serious. Look on the floor, or the insulation below you. Do you see small round stains from dripping water? This may also be a sign of improper ventilation. Many Homeowners see water dripping off the nails and think the nails are leaking. The moisture is from condensation; the roof is not leaking. What to do?

The stains on the wood may be old, and it is difficult to determine if they are current. Dripping off the nails will tell you if the problem is active. Attics should have gable vents, or ridge venting, as well as soffit venting. I don't believe you can over ventilate an attic. The hole for the attic fan can also provide passive ventilation in the winter. If you are not sure about the amount of ventilation in your attic, call 1-800-AIR-VENT, (247-8368). Certainteed Corporation publishes an excellent pamphlet on ventilation for the home. The book explains the differences in the methods of ventilation and which are most efficient. For example, the commonly used "shingle over" ridge vent used for aesthetic reasons, provides very little ventilation, and may be inadequate.

If the attic is well ventilated, and still very moist, you have to address the source of the moisture. If you have a humidifier, disconnect it. They are the biggest source of respiratory problems in your home. They are rarely maintained properly. Humidifiers are a warm dark wet place for molds to grow prolifically. They also damage the home. In my opinion, the product should be banned. Look in your basement. Is it wet? Dampness in the basement permeates the house, rising with the warm air, and condenses in the attic. Making your basement dry protects both you and your home. The heater can also be a source of moisture in the home. If you have moisture on the windows, and you never did before, the heater may be malfunctioning, or the flue may be blocked. A malfunctioning heater can be a life threatening condition. If you have any doubts about the heater venting properly, have it checked. Chronic respiratory problems and flu like symptoms can be an indication of an unhealthy condition in your home. It can be a reaction to molds caused by dampness, and it can also be caused by problems with the heater. Your home should be warm, dry, and a comfortable environment. Most importantly, your home should be healthy. Moisture and dampness can be symptoms of dangerous problems that can destroy you and your home.

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So you own an old home? Owning and restoring a home that is over one hundred years old is a lot like love. The people around you may wonder what you are thinking, but there's little charms that only the one in the relationship can appreciate.

Probably the most important item you should address with an older home is the heating system, including the chimney. Three people were just poisoned by carbon monoxide in Norristown due to a collapsing chimney. The heating system should be safe, and sized right for the home. Replacing a heating system is a job I strongly suggest you leave to the professionals. Older heating systems often have asbestos that should be removed by professional abatement contractors. Even hot air systems will have it somewhere in the ductwork or in the manifold joining the heater and the ductwork.

The next system that can be the most devastating if not done properly is the electrical system. Older homes were often wired with knob and tube wiring. Basically, it is two parallel wires, mounted on porcelain or non-conducting "knobs and tubes," hence the name. The principle hazard lies in the fact that, in many cases, the insulation on the wires has dried out and fallen off them over the years, exposing the raw, hot electric wire. The exposed wires can then be touched. They also lack a grounding system that is present in today's wiring. There are two areas where they are most hazardous, in attics and basements. In attics, I often find squirrels have perched themselves on one wire and chewed the insulation off the other wire. They had no idea that insulation was to be their last meal. Rewiring a home can be a costly proposition. One way to reduce costs is to rewire the first floor from the basement, then run a sub panel box or second breaker box up to the attic and rewire the second floor from above, rather than running wires through the entire first floor to get to the second floor. When rewiring a home, be sure to add ground fault circuit interrupters in the baths, kitchen and all receptacles near any kind of water. These are breakers that are very sensitive and save lives. The breakers in the main panel box are designed to protect the insurance company and the bank. Ground fault circuit breakers will protect you.

Take a look at the foundation. In most cases it is stone, with a thin parge or plaster coat that has fallen off over the years. It is like me, it looks like it's in worse shape than it really is. Tuck-pointing and repairing a stone foundation goes along way towards long term performance. Very rarely do stone foundations require major reconstruction. Now examine the floor joists at the foundation line. Get a long screwdriver and poke in every joist. The wood will rot at the junction with the stone. If you have one or two rotted joists, in many cases you can attach or "sister" new wood on each side to support it. Treated lumber will not attract termites, and is preferred. If many of the joists are rotted, a new support system can be constructed inside the old stone wall. This is a rather sophisticated renovation project that probably should be contracted out to a carpenter familiar with older homes.

How's your plumbing? In older homes, galvanized pipes were frequently used, and they will fail. They usually last fifty to sixty years. Start with the service from the street. You want copper. If you are not sure of the material, take a penknife and make a small scratch on the surface. Copper will have a reddish brown copper color, galvanized metal will be dull gray when scratched, lead will be soft and shiny. A lead service can be harmful to your health, so drink bottled water until you replace it. The waste drain from the home is usually cast iron in older homes. They split in time. Sections can be replaced with PVC piping and collars where they overlap the old pipe. If either the service or the drain have to be replaced outside the home, excavation is required, and the costs can be significant. Piping within the house should be copper for your water lines. In some older homes, the visible lines are often replaced with copper, and the pipes inside the walls are galvanized. These pipes will now fail faster and they should be replaced. These pipes know when you're away and generally rupture when you're on vacation.

Most of the work described above is often best left to a professional. We are not done. Let's take a look at the roof. Is it slate or tile? Professional roofing contractors can repair both materials. Don't trust this type of roof to a pick up truck roofing company. They rarely possess the skills to advise you on repairs or possible replacement. Now the rest of the work, you, the homeowner can tackle. Replacing the windows, repairing the floors, replacing plumbing fixtures, painting and papering. When you buy an older home and plan to renovate it. Expect to pay at least one third of the purchase price in restoration costs. If you are gutting it completely, expect to pay one hundred percent of your purchase price in repairs. Now, what was that I said about this being a love relationship?

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This is the time of the year to examine the outside of your home and see how hard winter has been on it. Start with the roof. If you are not comfortable on a ladder, don't get on one. Check it with binoculars. If you are loosing shingles, it's a good bet it is just about worn out, or was not done right the first time. Either way, you may be looking at a new roof within the next few years, or sooner. Next, be sure your gutters are clean. Clogged gutters can damage the foundation, the basement, the sides of the home, and the gutters themselves. Be sure the splash blocks or extensions at the bottom of the downspouts are clear, angled away from the home, and drain at least three feet away from the foundation, or far enough away to get the water away.

Now, take a look at the outside air-conditioning unit. It should be level, and free of leaves and debris. One line coming from the house should be insulated. Check to be sure that the insulation is in good condition. DON'T START YOUR AIR CONDITIONER YET! Wait unit it is warmer. The overnight temperature should be above sixty-five degrees before you start the unit. If it's a heat pump, don't run it in the air conditioning cycle until it's above sixty-five degrees. You may damage the unit. Cut back shrubbery that is growing within about twenty-four inches of the sides, and about eight feet above it. While you are cutting back the bushes, cut back any bushes that block your ability to walk between the shrubbery and the house.

Now it's time to test your outside and garage receptacles. They should all be wired through a ground fault circuit interrupter. To test them, get a tester at your local home center. Plug the tester in and push the test button. You will hear the circuit trip somewhere in the home. There is a test and reset button that will trip. Now go and reset it. Then push the test button on the GFCI itself. Be sure that the power cuts off at the receptacle. These safety devices due fail. They last five to ten years. It is suggested that they be tested every month. While you are at it, test them in the bathrooms and kitchen. Often one will operate all the GFCI receptacles for the whole house.

Now take a look at the walkways and paved areas around the home. Large cracks in the concrete work should be filled. Hairline cracks are common and usually not repaired effectively. Small cracks can sometimes be filled with a small amount of silicon caulk. Work it into the crack with your finger, then wipe the excess away. If the crack is large enough, you may have to fill it with a special mortar mix designed for masonry repairs.

Asphalt repairs are usually best done in the fall. If you coat or patch asphalt in the spring, it may remain tacky through the summer and get tracked into the house on hot days. If you have a wood deck, it's a good idea to wash it done with a mild bleach solution. You can wash it with a hand garden sprayer or a pressure spray. Use a very weak setting and a very mild solution. This will kill any molds or fungus that may be growing on it. If you want to resurface the deck, use a linseed-based stain or preservative that soaks into the wood. Do not use a water proofing or water repellent material. Most of these materials will leave a very slippery surface when the deck is wet. Also, the trapped water in the deck can accelerate the deterioration of the wood under the repellent. If you paint a wood deck, it is doubtful it will hold very well. You will probably be painting it much more frequently than you would other wood surfaces outside. This is due to the moisture entering the wood from other sides and then being drawn through the surface by the heat of the sun. This will crack the paint. It will also crack the next coat of paint. My advise, don't paint wood decks. While you are checking the deck, drive back any nails or screws that may have worked loose. You usually find them with bare feet while running out with a tray full of hot dogs and hamburgers on your way to the barbecue.

Next, crawl under the deck and check the way the deck is attached to the house. Look to see if it pulling away or if any of the supports have cracked over the winter. If the deck is attached to the house with nails, add 3/8-inch lag bolts between each set of joists. The nails will fail as they rust between the house and the deck. It also is a good idea to check the slope of the deck with a level each year. It should drain slightly away from the home. Any sudden movement or change is obviously a cause for alarm. Now if everything is in good working order, and you found no repairs needed, sit back relax, and get yourself psyched up for a nice season of mowing the lawn.

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When was the last time you thought about your grouting? There is a tendency in Homeowners to feel grouting is forever. Now you are wondering, "What is grouting?" Grouting is the material found between the courses of tile in your bathroom or kitchen. It is usually white. Gradually, over the years, mold grows and darkens it. There are several products designed to clean this area. The most effective cleaner I found is "The Works." It cleans away the mold as well as the residue left by hard water drying on the tile and grouting. When using a tile cleaner follow the directions carefully. Some may not be suited for color grouting. On the label, all of these products warn you to ventilate. They are not kidding. Open the window, and if possible set up a small fan to keep the air moving.

While cleaning the tile, now is the time to examine it. First, check for leaks. Run water in the shower with the water directed at the wall for about five minutes. Check the ceiling below for any stains. Now remove the wood panel on the wall behind the tub. Using a flashlight, check everywhere you can see for water stains. You may have a leak that hasn't worked its way to ceiling yet. If the stain feels dry, mark it with a pencil line and check it is six months to see if the stain is spreading past the mark.

Next, get into the tub or shower and tap GENTLY on the tiles. If some of them have a hallow sound, they are beginning to work their way loose. Loose tiles leak. Start at the bottom and work your way up. If the tile are going to be loose anywhere, it is almost always in the bottom few courses. Pay close attention to the tiles below the faucets and the soap dish.

Now take a close look at the grouting. Tiny hairline cracks will begin to appear long before the ceiling is damaged below. No hairline cracks is another good sign. If it is at this stage, there is a material called Tile Lab that reseals your grouting. Get a small paintbrush, and carefully go over all the grouting. If you use too much and it runs, there is a product called Grout Haze Clean Up that will clean up the haze that the seal can leave behind.

If you found loose tiles and cracked grouting, they should be repaired. Often, a dab of caulk works well. Be sure to get caulk specifically designed for the repair. If you are loosing tiles, check the wall behind it. If the wall is severely damaged, repairs can be costly. Not repairing it will allow water to penetrate the stud cavity behind the wall and your problems will increase dramatically.

Another condition frequently found is grouting repaired by graduates of the "More Is Always Better School Of Home Repairs." The grouting is out of the joints, and raised above the tile. When installing grouting, the goal is to have it recessed, or slightly lower than the tile surface so it accents the beauty of the tile. In either case, you're faced with rebuilding the grouting.

To remove the grout, I used a screwdriver and a utility knife. Be very careful. A slight slip can scratch the tile. There is an inexpensive tool called a grout saw that is designed for the job. Clean out as much of the grout as possible and prepare the surface according to the directions. Apply the new grout with a small putty knife and try and keep the grout inside the joint as much as possible. When I did it, I worked the grout in with my finger to get the recessed look I desired. What I did was clean up the excess grout right away. If it hardens on the tile, it can be a very slow clean up and the chance of damaging the tile with a scratch increases considerably.

When checking the floor, a major concern is a crack that runs right through joint after joint and through the tile between the joints. Tile is like glass. If there is no support under it, it will crack easily. A crack running through several course of tile is usually an indication of the floor failing below the tile. This is a major expense. Failure to repair it will result in the wood rotting and eventually, someone will be standing there drying themselves and suddenly "drop in" on the floor below.

If you are getting leaking from a stall shower and the tile looks good, the lead pan may be damaged. Stop up the drain and run water in the shower. Let the water get one inch deep, but no more. Shut off the water and leave it in there for about fifteen minutes. If the pan is bad, you will get a leak below. If it doesn't leak, check the door area. Shower doors are installed by drilling hoes in the tile. The caulk on these openings fails, and periodically has to be resealed. If you haven't checked your grouting in the last five years, it's probably a good idea to do it. And clean the tile on a day warm enough to leave the window open.

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One of the most misunderstood concepts in home maintenance is attic ventilation. Many Home owners feel that the gable vents that were installed when the home was built are adequate. Another commonly held belief is that openings along the eave area should be closed off, or covered with insulation. If your attic ventilation was closed off for the winter, now is the time to open it. Open it for the summer, and let it open all year! NEVER CLOSE OFF ATTIC VENTS FOR THE WINTER!

Attics should be ventilated in two specific areas: at the eave and at the ridge. Ventilation works best when the air can flow. Airflow is best achieved by having a place for the air to enter, and a place for it to leave. The natural flow of air is out the ridge area, and in from the bottom, or eave area. This continuous exchange of air is the best thing for your attic in both summer and winter. Gable vents fail to provide this flow, and are often far short of today's suggested ventilation requirements.

A well-vented attic keeps the roof cooler. Heat is the enemy of your roof. If the temperature of the area below the roof is kept lower, the asphalt in your roof will not dry out as quickly, and your roof will stand a better chance of lasting the full warranty period. Every roofing manufacturer requires ventilation in your roof as a condition of the warranty. Often Roofing Contractors fail to inform the homeowner of this, and the home owners find out years later that their improperly ventilated roof has no warranty. A well-vented attic will also keep your home cooler, and put less strain on your air conditioning system. This will give you the benefit of cheaper cooling and greater comfort.

A hot attic affects the roof deck and the supporting structure. The roof decking is the flat surface under the roof, such as plywood or particleboard. The rafters or trusses are the thicker wood that supports the roof and decking. The excessive heat puts unnecessary strain on these members and t can result in twisting, cracking, and other symptoms of strain. This movement can damage and weaken the home.

Insulation in an attic works best when it is fluffy. Most insulation is really just millions of tiny air pockets contained within some light weight material, such as fiberglass, cellulose, or rock wool. If the material gets wet, it looses its fluffiness, compacts, and looses its effectiveness. A poorly ventilated attic will trap moisture in the winter. This moisture will dampen the insulation, and make it less effective. This same moisture can also breed molds that can be harmful to the people living below.

As you can see, a well-vented attic is good for the home and the people in it. The best way to increase your attic ventilation is ventilation along the ridge of the home. This is the most efficient form of ventilation, and it is the easiest way to meet the warranty requirements of the asphalt shingle manufacturers. Ridge venting combined with venting in the overhang provides airflow through the attic, day and night, summer and winter. It can also be installed on an older roof, without replacing the roof. Ridge venting can be installed by a homeowner who knows how to work safely on a roof. Roofing work is dangerous, however, and is best left to professionals.

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You have a back yard that slopes down gradually. It looks acceptable, but you want to dress it up, change the pattern of the back yard. Installing a retaining wall can dramatically change the yard. A straight or angled wall of landscape timbers can combine form and function to give the yard a whole new character.

Walls can be built from many things but landscape timbers of pressure treated wood are the most common choice. Avoid anything treated with creosote. This material can burn your skin and is not something you would want on your property. There are a couple of rules to follow when constructing your wall, regardless of the material. First, if it is over five feet tall, hire someone. If you plan to build it yourself, and it is over five feet, hire a structural engineer to design it. The dynamics of water and earth pressure against the wall can be significant. You don't want to spend a month of weekends building the wall and have it crash down in the spring. The second rule is always angle the wall back into the hill. Do not build it straight, unless the walls are one foot tall or less. The wall should angle back into the hill at least one foot for every four feet it rises. This is only a rule of thumb, and may vary with particular materials or soil compositions.

Your goal in building the wall is to have the wall still standing when you're not. You just want the wall to outlive you. When building a wall with timbers, at the end of every long timber attach another timber perpendicular to the wall that runs back into the hill. For added strength, attach what is called a deadman to the perpendicular member. This is another timber, usually about two feet long that sits in the hill. The weight of the soil behind the wall then hold the deadman and the wall in place. The deadman should go back into the hill at least the height of the wall.

The enemy of your wall is water. There is one universal rule when building around water. Water wins. When building a wall, fill the area behind the wall with crushed stone. A timber wall does not need additional drainage ports. Any masonry wall should have terra cotta or PVC pipe through it to allow for drainage. Stager the drains in an attractive pattern. Install at least one four-inch drain for every six feet horizontally in a four-foot wall. In short walls, a row of drains along the bottom is often adequate. Once the wall is above three feet tall, a second row of drains a foot or two up from the bottom should be included. You can't have too many drains, but you can have inadequate drainage. The result will be failure of the wall.

When laying out the wall, be creative. Try putting in a few different levels instead of making the wall one level. Try turning the wall. If you can, put in a couple of forty five-degree turns instead of one right angle turn. The effect is much nicer. When you are making turns in the wall, stager you timbers so that alternating courses overlap each other. When building the wall it is critical that the timbers be secured to each other. Ideally long bolts should be installed at least every four to six feet. The bolts should extend through one timber completely and at least half way into the timber below it. Install your bolts at least two inches from any edge to reduce the likelihood of splitting the wood. The first or bottom timber should be completely buried in the ground. The next one should be secured to it with bolts, and recessed inward about an inch or so depending on the thickness of the timbers you are using. Never have the seams of two timbers on top of each other. The best effect is a full timber on the bottom, then a half-timber on top of it, then a full timber on top of that, repeating the pattern as you build the wall. Be sure to secure the wood at each corner, and work your way over from it. Use flat head bolts that can be countersunk into the timbers. Pre-drill your holes for the bolts, unless you're Hercules.

If working with stone, you will usually need more than you originally planned. It is best to install a dry wall, meaning that no mortar is used. A properly built stone wall is a work of art. It involves fitting exactly the right stone in exactly the right spot. Start with very large flat stones on the bottom, and work your way up. Have lots of small stones to use as fill and levelers as you build the wall. Keep a supply of flat stone to crown the top. And don't forget to use the crushed stone behind it to allow for drainage. A stone wall is a serious physical undertaking. Building with brick and using mortar on a stone wall is best left to the professionals. About half way through the project you may question the wisdom of your endeavor, but the next time you have company over, it will be the first thing you'll be showing them.

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Nothing finishes off a day of strenuous of work or play better than a long hot shower. Most homeowners don't think about their water heater until it doesn't work or it leaks. Water heaters are fairly basic devices that, with a little care, can last a long time. There are many systems for heating water for homes. Most homes have either a gas fired or electric water heater. Both operate on basically the same principle. Gas heaters have a burner in the base of the unit that heats the water, and stores it for distribution. Electric heaters have two heating elements, one near the top, and the other near the bottom that both heat and circulate the water. Water heater manufacturers, generally, are not user friendly.

As an example, water heaters have a temperature control that regulates the temperature of the discharge water. On gas units, it is the large round knob near the bottom of the heater. On electric units, there are usually two thermostats. They are located behind a plate that must be removed. Unfortunately these controls are rarely calibrated in degrees. If the temperature is not listed, the lowest setting on gas units is often sixty degrees, and each slash mark on the control is a ten-degree increment. Electric units have a low setting of one hundred ten degrees. One hundred forty degrees has been an accepted standard temperature. If you have small children, older people, or are energy conscious, setting it at one hundred twenty degrees works fine. There are also scold protection devices that can be attached to sinks that shut off the water flow if the water is above one hundred twenty degrees.

Water heaters have a nameplate that provides the manufacturer's name, the model number, the serial number, and other information about the unit. Most homeowners are concerned with the age and capacity of the unit. The model number provides the date the unit was manufactured. Unfortunately, on many units, it is in a code that only people in the Industry understand. On newer units there is a number that provides you with the date of the standards under which the unit was manufactured. This is called the ANSI number and it is within three years of the date it was made.

The capacity is in U.S. gallons. A thirty gallon water heater is generally adequate for one to two people, forty gallon, three to four people, fifty gallon, five to six people. These numbers are based on average use, and can vary based on your life style. Larger units are recommended for homes with large jet operated baths that can deplete the entire hot water supply with one filling. Gas units have a recovery time of about one-hour, electric units are a little slower.

Homeowners sometimes insulate the water heater to conserve energy. Although insulating the heater does not void the warranty, manufacturers do not encourage adding insulation. A blanket of insulation prevents reading of the nameplate, and also blocks access to the temperature controls on an electric unit. On gas units, the blankets can block air access to the hood damper at the top, or the ventilation of the burner below. An improperly functioning or improperly ventilated gas water heater can be fatal! Electric water heaters should be wired on their own circuit, and it should be labeled in the main panel box. A thirty-amp circuit is adequate for the average electric water heater.

Water heaters should have a temperature pressure relief valve near the top of the unit. This releases water if the temperature or pressure in the unit reaches dangerous levels. The water or steam it discharges is very hot. The valve should be connected to a secure hose or pipe that aims it at the ground to avoid scalding. Don't test the relief valve by pressing it because they frequently will not reset. A dripping relief valve should be replaced.

Water heaters do require some maintenance. Water should be drained from the bottom of the heater every other month. The water that you drain will be brown in color. This is sediment, it is not rust. Failure to drain this material can increase fuel usage by as much as seventy percent. The other maintenance that can be done is replacement of the magnesium or aluminum anode rod in the tank. This rod protects surfaces in the tank. If they are replaced yearly, and the tank flushed, you can double the life of your water heater. Heaters generally last from eight to fifteen years depending on usage and maintenance. Take care of your water heater, and you won't find yourself standing in a cold shower.

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Did anyone notice you haven't heard those oil heat commercials on the radio lately? The reason is the OPEC countries got organized this year. They are lining their pockets by holding back on the production of crude oil. This has driven home heating oil prices through the roof, as well as gas prices at the pump. The makers of some other fuel sources see this as an opportunity to gouge the public. The worst incident is the manufacturers of kerosene. Kerosene can be used an alternative heat source. OPEC does not make it and its manufacturing has nothing to do with crude oil. The people that make it just see the rising oil prices as a reason to rob the public. Natural gas, wood, and kerosene can be used to heat homes, and all are made in this country. They are in abundant supply. Wood and gas are the most economic heat sources available this winter.

Archie Bunker used to say that you don't own beer, you only rent it. The same can be said for heat. It passes through your walls, windows, and roof and you have to constantly replace it. Keeping it in your home by properly installed insulation is wise, but that is another issue. Wood is a good alternative heat source. It can be used as a primary heat source or a secondary source to supplement your present system. The glow of a wood-burning stove in the family room or den can change the whole ambiance of the room. There are a wide variety of wood stove styles and models to fit any home. The stove itself can cost about a $1,000 and the installation can double that cost. Because of that, the pay back on the system is fairly long term. There is also the cost of the wood. The further you go into rural areas, the cheaper the wood. If you have a truck and can make the trek, you can buy wood relatively inexpensively. A wood stove can be viewed by some as a home improvement, and thereby make the house more attractive to some buyers when you sell. But, similar to a swimming pool, there are some buyers who don't want it. If you have decided to install a wood stove to supplement your heat, don't get one that is too big. A frequent complaint is they provide far too much heat and blast you out of the room. They are also dirty. There was a major battle in a local municipality over people complaining that a person who was using wood to heat their home had created an environmental nuisance.

An alternative wood source is a stove that burns processed wood pellets. These stoves are warm, convenient and very clean. They produce about one percent ash from the wood they burn. They can be vented through the wall or into a chimney. They can be connected to a thermostat, are self-igniting, and have a feed system that can provide a couple of days of heat without filling them. They are as good a system of using wood heat as you will find, in terms of cleanliness and convenience. A pellet stove is lot more money than a standard wood burning stove, but the technology involved is vastly different. They are dependent upon electricity, so keep that in mind if you are considering one for that mountain getaway. My fear when I first saw them was a supply of pellets, but that does not appear to be an issue. A traditional fireplace is not a heat source. It is a heat drain. They are dirty, produce huge amounts of carbon monoxide, can be a fire hazard, and require constant maintenance. The one very big upside is the atmosphere. Ogden Nash said, "Candy is dandy, but liqueur is quicker," and a fireplace sure helps.

Gas stoves are also on the rise. Consumer Reports reviewed unvented gas appliances heat appliances and gave them surprisingly good reviews. They physically can be installed anywhere you can run a gas line. The fuel storage tank must be located outside. They can operate on remote control. DO NOT INSTALL AN UNVENTED GAS APPLIANCE IN A SLEEPING AREA. If you install one in the family room, my advice is to get a carbon monoxide sensor and install it in the same room. They should also not be run around the clock. They are similar to the oven in your home, which you would not run all day as a heat source. A few hours a day is fine. Although they are relatively clean, burning gas does have many byproducts such as water. They will raise the humidity in the house, and the rise in the humidity can promote the growth of molds, as well as damage the underside of the roof in poorly vented attics. Vented gas appliances provide safe, clean localized heat. They too, change the atmosphere, and can make a cold room cozy.

All of these appliances have their positives and negatives. The wood stove systems require more maintenance in varying degrees. They require getting the wood, and some cleaning, although the pellets are very low maintenance compared to a log burning wood stove. The gas heat sources are low maintenance, clean, simple and easy. A utility company also delivers the gas to your door. My advice is get your heater installed by a professional. A home in the United States is six times more likely to burn down than it is in most European countries. These fires can start from a variety of sources, but a poorly installed or maintained fuel fired appliance often starts fires. The goal is to stay warm, cheaply and safely.

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