More Homeowner Tips


Christmas Tree

One of the perplexing issues that divide families at the holidays is the Christmas Tree. Do we go artificial? Do we bundle up and head out into the country where they cut down a live tree for you?   Do you get a tank full of gas and pick up the tree at the local gas station? do you get a living breathing Christmas tree that you can plant outside? People ponder this dilemma disproportionately to the couple of weeks the tree actually resides in the home. Let’s focus on getting a live tree, and see what that entails.

Start with a hole in the ground. The best time to dig the hole was a few weeks ago. This year the cold weather has blanketed the area a little early making digging in that frozen tundra more difficult. The hole should be about two to three feet deep depending on the size of the tree. A few tips about where to plant it. Don’t plant it too close to the house. Evergreens are like children, they grow faster than expected.  If you are planting it near the house, it should be at least ten feet from the house. Evergreens are dirty, and they will clog your gutters easily. Also, the branches can damage the roof. Save the sod and soil and cover it for packing around the tree. Picking out the tree is the easy part. Getting it home and moving it around can be tricky. The ball, a mound of roots and soil, wrapped in burlap, can be very heavy.

Once you get it home, it needs some care You need a very large container. Those big galvanized pans that were used to soak clothes in our grandparents generation work well. Put the tree in it, and put it in the garage or an unheated enclosed room. The tree needs to acclimate itself to warmer weather. Putting it in a sheltered area where it will be in the fifty degree range for a week will do the trick. Keep the ball wet.  Those roots are alive and any living thing needs water. When it’s time to move it inside, bring the whole pan and tree inside. The pan will serve as your tree stand. One year we left the tree outside and we had an early snow and rain. The pan filled up with water, froze solid, and we had to get another tree to put inside. We couldn’t move the pan, tree, ice and snow. That tree is going strong today at our former home.

When inside, take all the normal precautions regarding the tree such as securing it properly, so the cat or that uncle that parties a little too hard doesn’t knock it over. One other precaution, get a ground fault circuit interrupter adapter. Plug in all the electric on the tree through it. They can be secured at any good electrical supply store or home center. They can turn any outlet into a “GFCI.” With the damp environment of the ball and metal pan, this will make the whole system safer.

Come January, its time to let your latest addition go outside and fend for itself. Return the tree to the cooler area and let it stay there for about a week to readjust to the cold. Then pick a nice clear warm January day, and move the tree outside. Getting help moving the tree inside and setting it up is usually far easier than finding helpers when it’s time to take your latest addition outside. Before you place it in the hole, line the bottom of the hole with grass cuttings, or some ground mulch. Pine needles from another tree in the yard also work well. It’s a good idea to have a couple of bags of top soil in a warm place. Take them out, break them up and mix some in the bottom of the hole with the mulch. Now cut the burlap to open it. You can leave it in the ground.  It will rot away. Fill in around the tree with some more top soil and use the soil from the hole if you can work it. You don’t want any air pockets around the ball. Now pour a couple of buckets of water on the soft soil. You won’t be able to add water to it over the winter. Once the ground thaws. Water it every few days to keep the soil wet for a few weeks. Soon that little baby evergreen will be reaching up over the roof top. As you can see, it requires a little work and some planning, but you have a living memory of that holiday. Maybe a fill up and a double balsam to go down at the gas station isn’t such a bad idea.

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If you think of the house as a living entity, the ductwork for the heating and air conditioning might be compared to the lungs. The ducts, like the lungs, are responsible for distributing air. The air is pumped through the house by a fan. It circulates through the rooms. There it picks up dust, dirt, animal hairs, dander, mold spores, pollen, water vapor, and more air suspended particles than I can list. Then it is sucked through the return ducts and back to the central heating and cooling system. It is filtered, heated or cooled, and it starts the whole process all over again.

It’s a pretty nice system, but it has some basic flaws. The first is there is no outside air mixed with the inside air. In commercial buildings, outside air is introduced, so the air is replaced with fresh air every hour. Another basic flaw is that the air slows down at different points in the ductwork. Every turn, bend or ripple causes the air to slow down. Long lengths of duct also cause the air to loose velocity. Every right angle elbow or bend in the system adds the equivalent of ten feet to the run of ductwork. The registers that keep objects, such as curious cats, from going into the ducts, also slow the air. The system has to work harder to move the air. When the air slows down, those particles fall inside the ductwork. Often mold spores can fall in the same cracks and crevices where the water vapors fall. They are warm, moist, dark habitats that molds just love to call home. Both molds and dust are unhealthy. Homes with forced air heating and cooling tend to be less user-friendly for people with allergies. The filtering systems for residential heating systems are far less sophisticated than those used in commercial buildings. These conditions combine to make commercial buildings healthier than your home.

What should a homeowner do? Begin by checking the airflow through the house. On the thermostat, turn the fan control to “On” so the fan runs continuously. Now go into each room in the house and place a tissue against the return register. The suction should hold the tissue there. If it doesn’t, the airflow through the house is poor. Now go to the basement and examine the ducts.   All those little holes at the corners of the ducts should be closed off with tape. Basement air often has more dust, dirt, mold, humidity, radon and other undesirables than household air. Go to a heating and air conditioning supply house and buy commercial grade tape. “Duct” tape from home improvement stores falls off in about a year.

Change the filter in your heater every month. Most people change it every heating season. Some pleated filters are described as ninety-day filters. They are better than the cheaper fiberglass filters, but change them every thirty days. Next, take the registers off the heating system and vacuum inside as far as you can reach. Also clean off the register itself. Now open the fan housing area on the heater. Clean everywhere in this compartment. By manually cleaning all of these areas you can get a good start on reducing dust and mold. New homes often have loads of construction dust and sawdust all through the ductwork. Many new homes have large gaps in the ductwork in the basement, particularly in the return ducts. If you have a humidifier, disconnect it. Unless you maintain it perfectly, it puts far more moisture into the home than you need. This added moisture, fuels the mold growth, rusts the ducts, destroys the heater, and rots the underside of the roof. You don’t need all that moisture in your home. Homes built today are very tight. Just by living in our homes we are humidifying them. The humidity level in the home stays between twenty and thirty percent through the winter. Humidity levels of forty to fifty percent are fine for green houses, but unhealthy for humans. If the measures mentioned are not enough, there is professional help available. There are duct-cleaning services that will put a video camera in your ducts and show you how bad they are. They clean all the accessible areas with HEPA filtered vacuums. They then seal off the return side and power brush, clean and scrub it. Now they clean the other side in the same manner. They have special brushes to clean your fan, the heat exchanger, and the entire heater. They scrub and clean the entire system. The will spend six to eight hours cleaning a three to four bedroom home. The cost is about $500.00. If the duct cleaning service is done in about and hour or two, you could have done it yourself.
Once you have it cleaned, there are more options on filters. The filters mentioned are low cost simple systems. They catch a lot of the big particles. If you have a serious health concern, there are very elaborate, expensive systems that are similar to those used commercially. The January 2000 issue of Consumers Reports goes into detail about filters and air cleaners. They also recommend that if you are going to hire a duct cleaning service, check the EPA web site before you hire someone. The site’s address is There are spores and molds showing up in homes that have rendered the home uninhabitable. These conditions are the extreme. I have seen poorly maintained heating distribution systems cause heaters to fail prematurely and negatively effect the quality of life in many homes. Evaluate your own condition. Decide how bad things are, and how much you need to invest. Those constant runny noses you and your children have may be traced to an unhealthy environment that can be corrected.

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Fall Check List

Wind chill factors and the leaves changing colors are signs that summer is definitely gone and winter is growling around the corner. A home has a variety of systems that lay dormant for the summer, only to be awaken to help us through the dark days of winter. The funny thing about anything that doesn’t work is people say it was working a minute ago.   The same can be said about items we use in the winter. Many of them worked when we used them last March, but mysteriously fail when we try them on that first cold night. Let’s take a look at things we use in the winter. We might want to check them now before we need them and discover that they met an untimely demise during the summer.

If you have gas or oil burning appliances in your home, or a wood burning fireplace or stove, get carbon monoxide detectors. The Night Hawk battery operated model is excellent. In purchasing a CO detector, get the kind that has a digital display so you can see if the amount of carbon monoxide is rising in a home before the alarm goes off. There are inexpensive cards that change color in the presence of carbon monoxide. Don’t count on them. All they will do is make the coroner’s job easier. Most CO deaths occur at night. Changing colors on a card won’t awaken you. It’s a good idea to have more than one detector. Run them next to each other for about 8 hours in the kitchen to cross check their accuracy. Other sources of CO in the home are fumes from the garage, and the cleaning cycle on your self cleaning oven. Even electric ovens can give off CO while cleaning the oven. Open a window during the cleaning cycle.

Check your roof. Missing shingles should be repaired, as well as the gutters cleaned. If you are not comfortable working with a ladder, hire a professional for these jobs. Most accidents around the home involve a homeowner and a ladder. Check the downspouts at grade level. Many times lawn service companies will move the splash blocks or extensions on the downspouts causing the gutters to drain at the foundation. Poorly working gutters or improperly draining downspouts are the number one reason for water entry into the basement.

Now for the heater. If you have oil heat, have your heater serviced every year, gas heat every other year. If you have a boiler, check the gauges for the temperature and pressure. If you have forced air, change the filter, and buy a box of them. They should be changed monthly. While you are at the heater, check the clean out area under the chimney flue. It’s usually round, and made of metal. In very old homes it might be square. If it is full of clay from the chimney lining, the lining is failing. Call an expert. You might find a dead bird or squirrel. The area should be clean and free of debris. You should see light in it. Hold a tissue over the opening. Air should be drawn up it. If you can’t see light, and it doesn’t draw air, try looking up it with a mirror. A blocked chimney is a serious concern. Failed or blocked chimneys can kill homeowners. Again, call an expert. Lastly, check the heat distribution in each room.

Next, take a look at the fireplace. Shake the handle for the damper, wait a few seconds before you open it. Sometimes a squirrel or raccoon will move in during the summer. If you open the damper and they fall into the living room, it upsets them. It may also upset the homeowner. Check the damper operation. Look up the flue with a flashlight and use a tissue to check the draft.If the walls are black and shiny, almost like coal, have the chimney cleaned. Replace the batteries in your smoke detector.

Drain a few gallons of water from the bottom of the water heater to reduce sediment build up in the bottom.  Also, check the temperature setting on the water heater, and check the hood damper. It should be free of rust or corrosion. Shut off the outside water, then go outside and open the water to drain the water from the line.   Now go through the house and check your toilets. Listen for slow water leaks in them. Try rocking them. They should stay firmly in place. While in the bathrooms, check the ground fault circuit interrupters or GFCI’s. When you test them, plug a light into them to be sure they cut off the power to the receptacle. If you have a septic system, have it checked annually. If you have private water, have the water quality checked.   

While you’re outside, check the window caulk and repair where needed. Check the operation and locking of all the windows on the home, and install your storm windows. Clean out the debris between the storm windows and the prime window while you are there. Check the reversing mechanism on your garage door. Sometimes the sensors get hit and they won't reverse if not aligned.

Finish up in the kitchen. Clean the coils for the refrigerator. Use that tissue again. It should be pulled under the refrigerator on one side and blow out on the other, as you move it across the front of the unit. Clean the range hood of grease, and flush out the garbage disposal. And one last thing, clean the whole house! Vacuum out the heat register as well. Everyone talks about spring cleaning. It is more important from a health standpoint to clean your house in the fall than in the spring. In the winter, houses are closed up, so dust, pet hairs, molds, and other air pollutants hang around in the carpets and every time you walk you stir them up. Clean all those irritants out now, and you may have a healthier winter.

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Fixing Fences

Have you taken a look at the fences around your property lately?  Fences loosen, fall, get pushed down, and for any number of reasons fall into disrepair. Fixing a fence requires only a few tools, and a little physical work.

There are basically three types of fences. Metal fences, such as cyclone or chain link, are installed with metal poles.  Split rail fences have wood posts and consist of two or three rails. The last, stockade fences, provide a wall of fencing that gives the owner the most privacy. Replacing broken or rotted posts, or attaching the fencing to the posts, are the most common repairs. When reinstalling a metal fence, the post is set in concrete. Wood posts should not be set in concrete as it will rot the wood.

When repairing a fence, the first order of business is removing the old post from the ground. If it's a metal post, it probably has fallen down, and you have the post in hand. A wood post is a little more difficult to remove. Wood posts rot from a combination of water and exposure to the air. The post will rot at ground level, and stay whole several inches below the ground. In order to remove the solid piece underground, you have to dig it out. A wrecking bar and post hole digger are the best tools for this. A post hole digger looks like two shovels joined together. These tools can be rented, if you don't have them. Digging out the old post is a little like root canal work on a large scale.  Dig around the post on all sides. Work it loose moving it back and forth with the wrecking bar. It's a great feeling when you can lift it out of the hole.

Now measure the hole. Often fence posts are not installed to the proper depth. Posts for a four foot fence should be installed at least eighteen inches deep, over four foot, twenty four inches, and over eight foot, thirty six inches.  Dig the hole to the appropriate depth, plus a few inches. Now take a couple of those rocks that you cursed as you dug them out and place them in the bottom of the hole. This helps water drain around the base of the post. Be sure you still have the required depth in the hole after you place the rocks.

Run a string from the two posts that are still standing so you keep the post in the same line with the existing fence. Now you are ready to set the post. If it's a metal post, knock the old concrete off the old post. You may be able to reuse the post. If this post kept falling down, it may not have been set deep enough. Chances are the post is too short now that the hole is the proper depth. Insert the post in the hole, and, using a two foot level, check to see if it's plumb. Stabilize it on the sides with a few rocks, but do not back fill around it. If it's a metal post, mix a small batch of concrete to install in the hole. When mixing it, make it a little on the dry side rather than wet. If it's too wet, you may have trouble getting the post to stay straight.  Once the post is level, and in line with the string, attach the fence to the post. Use galvanized nails at least two and one half inches long on a stockade fence. Use finishing nails on a split rail fence to keep the rails from twisting in the future, and use wiring secured at a fence supply store for the metal fence. Check again to see that your fence is level, and your post is plumb.  Now back fill around the fence with dirt, or concrete if it's a metal post, and you have fixed the fence.

If you are running a new fence, set you first post, and run your string to where the fence will end. Use a one hundred foot tape to measure for each post. I prefer a fiberglass tape because it doesn't rust, and is easier to rewind.  Measure for your holes, and dig them.  Secure the posts after you have connected each section of fence, just as you did when doing a repair. This will make the job easier, as you will often have minor adjustments to make as you secure the sections. There's an old expression that good fences make good neighbors. So keep your fences in good repair, and you may get along better with your neighbors.

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Some homeowners have told me how they can simplify their lives, just by removing the gutters from their homes and throwing them away. If only life were that easy. Your home needs its gutters. They are an integral part of its’ defense system. Your home is constantly under attack from the elements. Water, sun, heat, wind and cold, are always working to level your house.  Their job is to break down the things they meet. They are very good at it.   Gutters protect your home from water, a major damaging exterior force.

First, look at the side of your home. If your home’s sides are brick or stucco, water can directly erode these masonry materials. They are very porous.Any material that absorbs water is broken down by water. Particularly when water combines with its friend, freezing temperatures. Water freezing expands with enough force to crack an engine block. Think about how this freezing water is impacting your masonry surfaces. These walls get wet often. Without gutters they would get soaked. This soaking can erode pointing and stucco, and enter the interior walls. It will then be absorbed by wood and insulation and rot the structural members. It can also create a fertile habitat for molds and fungi, which can be unhealthy.

If your home is covered with synthetic siding material such as vinyl or aluminum, these materials are not nailed snugly on your home. They are really hung in place. They expand and contract with temperature changes, and therefore cannot be tight. Wind or rain penetrates them. Flooding them with the run off from the roof is an invitation to similar problems that exist with saturating masonry materials. The siding material itself is more durable, but the water gets behind the siding just the same.  Let’s not forget the wood areas of your home.  They are very susceptible to damage by water. Wood is always expanding and contracting depending on temperature and humidity. Also aging causes wood to change size and shape. Because of this, we are painting and caulking wood on a regular basis. Running torrents of water against the wood on a regular basis will wear down the paint, break loose the caulk, and cause the wood to fail. The seals on insulated windows also break down faster when exposed to water on a regular basis.

Now think about your shrubbery.  The rain coming off the roof and bombarding those bushes will kill them. Next we go to the basement. The leading cause for water entry into the basement is improperly working gutters. If you eliminate the gutters, you are inviting the rainwater into your home. Poured concrete foundations are very durable and rarely have cracks resulting in structural failure.  However, if a crack exists, and water enters through it, you now have water in the basement. The second concern is water expands the opening through which it is traveling. The best example of this is the Grand Canyon. Continued water entry can result in structural failure of any foundation. If you have cinder block walls the problem gets worse. The ground gets saturated in the first three or four feet below grade.   It then freezes. The ground expands and snaps the block wall in one of its mortar joints. This creates a “hinge” effect in the wall, and eventually the wall collapses.  This is a serious structural concern. In many cases, thousands of dollars of structural repairs are needed because of dirty or improperly working gutters. Removing the gutters will accelerate the problem.

How about gutter screens?
There is no good system of gutter screening that I have seen. I ran a roofing company for eighteen years, and have been inspecting homes for five years. I have not seen a good system yet. The first problem they cause is they deflect water over the gutters, and can reduce the water entry into the gutter by more than fifty percent. Debris then gets under the screens, and the gutters still need to be cleaned. When you take the screens out, you cut your hands, and then the screens won’t go back in the way they came out. But didn’t you buy the screens so you didn’t have to clean the gutters? I was at a Trade Show in Baltimore last month and they have displays of the newest and latest systems to keep leaves out of the gutters. They had a Velcro like material with a hose running on it. The lady said, “Isn’t it great?” I said, “What about pine needles?” And she said you have to clean those out by hand.   So they still need to be cleaned. One last point I hear as a reason to get rid of the gutters is they cause ice dams and leaking in winter. Gutters have nothing to do with ice dams. Gutters require maintenance, but they are your home’s best friends against the attacks of nature, embrace them.

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Electrical Inspection

How safe is the wiring inside your home?   Many homes burn down because of electrical problems created by one owner and inherited by subsequent owners. In the past I have written about inspecting the exterior electrical system up to the to the main panel box. Let’s take a look at the rest of the system.  As I mentioned before, electricians are neat.  Are there loose wires hanging in the basement ceiling or laying around in the attic? A homeowner or “helpful” brother-in-law probably installed those wires. Wires should be secured every four and a half feet.  If the wires are hanging loose, don’t secure them.  You want to have an electrician check the work.

When checking the system beyond a visual inspection, use a plug-in circuit tester.  You can get one at any good home supply company.  Get the type that also contains a ground fault circuit tester. They cost about $12.00. The tester has three lights on it, one is red and two are yellow.  There is a button on it for testing the ground fault circuits. It also has a small chart on the one side that explains the different combinations of the lights. The second tool you will need is called a voltage sniffer. It looks like a fat ball point pen. It will make a noise or flash a light when it is near a live electrical line.  You may have to go to an electrical supply company to get one.   The sniffer will run about $25.00.

Take a look at your receptacles. Do they have two slots with a small hole? The small hole should be on the bottom, but about one in ten residential electricians install them that way. Three-hole receptacles are capable of being grounded.  If they only contain two slots, you will need an adapter to get the three-prong tester to work. Let’s go through testing the three-hole receptacle first.  Simply plug the tester into the receptacle.  The two yellow lights should light.  If anything different happens, you should check the chart on the back of the tester. Now, write down the results, and the location of the receptacle.  When you check the receptacles in the bathrooms, garage, exterior, and the receptacles above the counter area in the kitchen, push the test button on the tester. If the receptacle is grounded, the power should cut off.  If the receptacle is not grounded, it won’t trip or cut off the power. My suggestion is that you get the receptacles grounded. They are safer if they are grounded. If the power doesn’t shut off, look in the main panel box and check all the receptacles in the house. If you find a receptacle or breaker with a button on it marked “test,” push it.  Go back and the power should be off at the receptacle. If it hasn’t shut off and you have no other receptacles with the test and reset buttons, that receptacle is not on a ground fault circuit interrupter.  Get one installed. If the GFCI has tripped reset it with the reset button and continue testing the remaining receptacles in the house. The GFCI will work on an ungrounded outlet.  A GFCI can also protect up to five receptacles besides the receptacle where it is installed. A whirlpool should be on it’s own GFCI.

You want GFCI protection on almost all receptacles near water.  This includes bathrooms, above the kitchen counters, on the exterior, and in readily accessible areas in the garage.  You should not plug a freezer or refrigerator into a GFCI protected receptacle. People often make this mistake, particularly in garages. The GFCI can trip in high humidity, during a thunderstorm, or from the surge of the motor starting. This can lead to a sad surprise when you get those steaks from the garage freezer. The receptacle for the sump pump should not be on a GFCI either. Although this does involve electricity and water, you don’t want it tripping during a thunderstorm when you may need your sump pump.  The second result you want is all the remaining receptacles to be properly wired. Improperly wired receptacles can indicate nonprofessional electrical work.  Nonprofessional electrical work burns down houses.

The second type of system, found in older homes, is the two-prong or two slot system.  Plug the tester into the adapter you purchased. On the adapter is a small round piece of metal that lines up with the screw on the plate covering the receptacle box. Plug in the tester and push the metal against the screw. The ground light or second yellow light should light.  If it doesn’t light, the receptacle box inside the wall is not grounded. If any other light on the tester lights, the receptacle is improperly wired.  I would be more concerned about improper wiring than the lack of a ground wire, however both are important.  Write down the location of all the receptacles that did not test properly, and the defects observed on them.  GFCI’s are a very high priority, and you should have them installed as soon as possible. Remember those hanging wires? Hold the voltage sniffer close to the wires. If they are live, it will go off. Any live uninsulated or improperly protected electrical connections should be corrected immediately. At this point, show everyone in the house where they are so they may avoid them. Someone could be killed if they touch them before they are corrected. Practice using the sniffer on a cord for a lamp so you can see how it works.  Next, run the refrigerator, the washer, dryer, and all the ceiling fans. Hold the voltage sniffer next to them. If it goes off, they are not grounded and should be on grounded circuits.  Your highest priority is a safe electrical system.  First, get the GFCI protection installed, and all live unprotected or unsecured wiring corrected.  Next, ground the major appliances, and last, get the branch circuits grounded. Now, call and electrician and recite your "laundry list" to him. Hint:  The bigger the job, they faster they seem to respond.

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Lawn Mowers

Every spring the ritual of mowing the lawn begins again. Most home owners mow their lawn with a gasoline fired push or riding mower. These machines are very durable, and with a little bit of maintenance can provide years of dependable service. Maintenance of your lawn mower hopefully began last fall by draining the gas in the mower. Gasoline left in the mower can create gummy deposits that will damage the motor. This also applies to any stored gasoline kept from last season. A product called Sta-Bill can be added to the gas to prevent gumming. If you left gas in the mower, drain it, and take it to an automotive center that is capable of properly discarding it.

While you are draining the gas, also drain the old motor oil in the mower. To drain these fluids, turn the mower upside down over a large metal pan capable of catching the liquids. Drain them into separate containers for proper disposal. Be careful not to spill either fluid. It is estimated that home owners spill more oil mowing their lawns each year than was spilled in the Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Now that you have the mower upside down, clean the old grass off the bottom of the mower. It is a good idea to clean this off frequently during the mowing season, and before you store the mower in the fall.

Next, remove the blade from the mower. This can normally be done with a good box end wrench. You now have two choices. Replace the blade, or sharpen it. If the blade is in good condition, you can probably sharpen it. If the blade is cracked, or large chips have broken off the cutting edge, it may be time for replacement. To sharpen the blade, go to any well stocked hardware store and get a file for sharpening garden tools. You can get the blade sharp enough to cut paper with a few minutes of filing. Sharpen the blades periodically during the cutting season. If the blade is damaged, you can buy a replacement blade. Take the blade with you, and know the make and model of your mower when you go to get the blade. Be sure you get the right blade. There is a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and the wrong blade will not fit, it may hit the sides of the mower or throw the balance of the mower off. The new blade may also need some sharpening. When reinstalling it, be sure to aim the cutting edge in the direction that the motor rotates, and center the blade under the mower.

Remove the spark plug from the motor next. Again, a good box end wrench set should contain the size that fits. Spark plugs come in all shapes and sizes, so take the old plug with you when you buy the replacement. I couldn't find a plug that matched the numbers on mine, so I got one the same size and it worked well. The gap on the spark plug did not have to be set, as you often have to do on automobile spark plugs.

Four cycle lawn mower engines require a special grade of otor oil. When you fill the mower, be careful not to overfill it. This can damage the motor. Pour the oil through the opening for the dip stick. You may have to wipe the dip stick down a few times to get an accurate reading. The oil on the side of the tube can cover the whole stick the first time you insert it. The last item on the mower to replace is the air filter for the carburetor. This usually unscrews on the side or top of the mower. You can pick up a new filter, or if you have problem with getting the right size, clean the old one off and reinstall it. At this point, your mower SHOULD start right up! It is a good idea to periodically check your oil, clean the bottom of the mower, and resharpen the blade though out the season. Happy mowing!

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New Years Resolutions

It’s the start of the new year, and the house is full of projects that somehow fell into the cracks last year. The best time to schedule a particular project is something a lot of homeowners never consider when they decide to have work done. January and February are ideal times to have your hard wood floors refinished, or your carpets cleaned.  True the wood floors can create some dust and the smell can be offensive to some, but in the winter months the humidity is very low. Turn the heat us a few degrees when they are done and the areas dry quickly giving you far less down time in the area where the work was done.   This is also true of interior painting.

Planning on getting a roof or siding installed this year?  Call the contractor now.   They aren’t as busy and are more likely to negotiate on the price than they will be in the spring when the work is backing up. The theory that this work can’t be installed properly in cold weather isn’t true.   They work outside year round as long as the areas are clear of snow.   Late February or early March is a good time to trim dead wood off of lives trees.   You will want to trim them while they are still dormant, and the spring buds haven’t appeared yet. Call the pool service and schedule any repairs your pool may need at the start of the season. They can’t do the work now, but it’s a good time to get on their list for May.  

Planning a vegetable garden?
If you are starting tomato or pepper plants from seed, the middle of March is the best time to get them started on a sunny window sill or garden window. There’s an old saying that you plant your peas in the garden on St. Patrick’s Day.   The middle of March is the first time you can work the soil. This is also the best time to get your onion sets in the ground. Snows in late March are sometimes called “onion snows.”   The snow toughens the outer skin of the onion and makes it sweeter by holding in the juices. I guess sweetness in an onion is a personal observation.   The middle to the end of March is also a good time to look over the garden tools and schedule any repairs.

April is a good month to have a termite inspection done.   Termites swarm in the spring, but they actually only fly for about eight hours a year. They are active in warm weather so detection and treatment in April can reduce the likelihood of damage.  April is also a good time to clean out the leaves and debris in the outside air conditioning unit.   Take the cover off if you cover it.   Check the insulation.   Only one line is insulated, but it does crack and dry out.   Level the unit and cut back all shrubbery at lest four feet from the unit. Don’t start it yet.  Save that for the first time it’s above sixty degrees over night.  

Check the garage door reversing mechanism.   The sensors can get hit during the winter and not function. In the spring the little ones start playing outside and are more likely to be around the garage door.   An improperly working reversing mechanism can kill a child.

Late spring and summer is time for usual outside gardening and lawn chores. Did I mention the ground fault interrupters?   They are the electrical outlets with the test and reset buttons that save your life. You will find them wherever you, water and electricity may come together.   Get an inexpensive tester and test them.   It is recommend they be tested once a month.  If you test them at the change of every season you are way ahead of the national average.   Don’t forget to change the filter in the air conditioner each month during the summer. Homeowners tend to change these only in the heating system, but if you have air conditioning, change or clean the filters for all units monthly.  

September and October is the time for planting bulbs for the next spring. Although trees can be transplanted with care in the spring, the fall is the best time to transplant them. It gives them all winter to get used to their new surroundings before new growth appears.   Late October or early November is the best time to do that complete house cleaning.   Vacuum the refrigerator coils, and inside the heater fan assembly and filter area as well.  And don’t forget the dryer vent. Spring is often associated with house cleaning, but from a health stand point, cleaning the house in the Fall makes the most sense.   You are about to be trapped indoors with very little outside air exchange for a few months. A clean trap is healthier than a dirty one.   Test your smoke detectors, and check the fireplace and flue.   This is also a good time to cover the outside air conditioning unit. Wrap that fig tree if you have one.
December is the time to decorate for the holidays and relax. You just put in a full year of hard work around the house. You’re entitled to one easy month out of the year. Come January, you’ll start the whole routine all over again.  

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Customizing Your New Home

So you are building a new home? Subdivisions are sprouting up on the landscape like weeds in my vegetable garden.  Most of these homes are development homes which come in a few basic flavors with a few options so the buyer can have the feeling of a customized home without the cost of a custom home.  Some basic "options" seem to creep into either custom or customized homes on a regular basis.  Many Home Buyers today insist their dream home must have a whirlpool or Jacuzzi tub in the bathroom off the main bedroom.  In reality, this is probably the least used item in their new home. Most new homes have a separate shower in the same room that gets the lion's share of use.  From a point of practicality, a plain soaking tub will do, and you can spend the money on more frequently used options.

One option that is growing in popularity in new construction is a steam shower option in the same bathroom. This is a small electrical devise that super heats the water and creates a steam room on demand.  It's best to install during the original construction since it requires the shower stall be waterproof on all sides.  It also requires a different door than the standard shower door. A small seat built into the shower provides comfort while enjoying the vapors.  You may ask your Builder about this option in your preliminary conversations.

Construction trends seem to follow our life styles and the most common feature being added to custom and customized homes is a room designated as the computer room.  Wiring it on the front end with a dual phone jack to handle the modem and the phone is the first step.   Dual jacks throughout the house are becoming increasingly common. Additional electrical receptacles also add to the convenience. By including a computer room, it eliminates fights between the children if the computer is one child's room and the other one wants to use.  There is no guarantee this will stop your children from fighting, but at least they won't fight over that.  The computer room can also serve as a home office.  There is an increasing number of people working in home based businesses.  Tele-commuting during maternity leaves and other work interruptions have also created the demand to work from home. 

Home Buyers are finding more efficient uses for the space they already have, most notably, the basement.  Finished basements for use as family rooms and exercise rooms are increasing in popularity.  The exercise room is also sometimes off the main bedroom. Interestingly, many home universal weight systems do not require additional structural support for them. Check with the Builder on the live load of the structure and the with the manufacturer of the equipment to be sure the item you select won't damage your home.

Pete Guidi of E. P. Guidi Construction in Ambler said a feature that is very popular is the custom sun room or solarium built off the kitchen or living room. "People want a lot of glass, and tile floors are very poplar"  according to Mr. Guidi.  These are four season rooms that can be ornamented with plants and bright furnishings. They are usually five sided or some other custom shape so they don't look like a box stuck on the side of the home. E. P. Guidi Construction specializes in custom constructed homes that are above the standard development home. They are a second generation family owned business. 

Mr. Guidi also said some of the features that are grabbing the headlines are not that popular.  Home movie theaters show well in samples but when it comes time to placing the order, they get left behind.  The reason?  Like the whirlpool, they just don't get that much use.  They aren't part of most people's life style, and they can be a very expensive change order.   Instead of building a separate room, plan the family room with a wall designated for the wide screen television.  The real attraction of these televisions seems to be elaborate sound systems. Putting it in the family room affords everyone the enjoyment of the system without going off to a separate part of the house.  Pete said that items like smart house wiring that controls the heat, electric, security system, etc. have not caught on either.  He suggests that if you are considering this type of wiring, just read the manual on how to operate it before you buy it.  It may scare you off.  Our children's homes are more likely to find this wiring popular.

Some items, such as decks with hot tubs built into them, are still very popular, but are generally after market items the home owner has built after settlement.  Interestingly, hot tubs get lots of use, while whirlpools sit high and dry. When building the deck, irregular shapes with multiple levels are poplar.  Again, the goal is to make it architecturally pleasing. If you are buying a development home, now is the time to ask about a variety of options such as cable to all the bedrooms, dual phone jacks throughout the house, the basics for a radon mitigation system, zoned heating, and a holiday lighting package.  Just like buying a new car, do your research, list your options in order of priority and it's always cheaper to put them in during construction than to start tearing holes in the walls after your dream house is done.

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Did you ever want to get rid of your neighbors?  No, not the guy next door, I’m talking about the squirrels that moved into the attic and act like they own the place.  If they are nesting in your attic, leave a radio on near their nest. Next, shine a bright light in the same area at night when they come home to sleep.  On the outside, cover any holes no matter how small with strong wire or metal. They are very persistent. Mothballs or strong after shave in their nesting place also helps.

Raccoons are another story.  They are strong, smart, and nasty. Hire a professional.  If you see a raccoon walking around in the yard during the day, stay away. Raccoons are nocturnal, and any abnormal behavior can be an indication of a sick animal. Sick animals in any species are far more dangerous. Rabbits can be “cute as a bunny,” but they can also ruin a lot of hard work in the garden. Dust the ground with lime sprinkled from an old squeeze bottle.  Reapply after every rain. Skunks periodically infest residential neighborhoods.  They are attracted by a food source.  If you are feeding your pets outside, or leaving food for stray cats in the neighborhood, the skunks find it, and freeload off your generosity. If you see a neighbor leaving food out, and a skunk problem exists, you might remind them of this, in a friendly way.

Rats and mice can sometimes be a problem.  Most homes get an occasional mouse.  Close off all openings around the perimeter of the home. Secure all food at night and remove your trash each night. Mechanical traps actually work well. Peanut butter is better bait than the traditional cheese.  Cats are still the best mouse trap you can get, but cats, like any pet are a big commitment. Only get a cat if you are ready to take the responsibility, and don’t let it run wild in the neighborhood.
It’s not fair to the cat.

Do you have bats in you belfry?  Bats need a new press agent.  They actually eat a tremendous amount of small insects and are very rarely a source of illnesses contracted by humans.  The Center for Disease Control reported less than one case of rabies from bats, every three years. If you have them in your attic and want to evict them, close off all openings with fiberglass or spray foam insulation.  This is best done in the Fall after their young have been raised. When cleaning up their droppings, wear a mask, long sleeves, long pants, and gloves.  Wash yourself, your clothes, and the tools you use immediately after cleaning the area. A final deterrent is a bright light left on in the attic, and moth balls.  Moth balls work on a lot of wild animals.  Dump them in ground hog holes, snake holes, and pretty much wherever you have a problem with unwanted animals.  All animals have far greater sense of smell than we do, so the strong smell is offensive to many pests.   

If your pets get fleas, talk to your veterinarian.  There are several highly effective treatments available professionally that can work long term on your pets.  A less expensive treatment is adding a teaspoon of vinegar per quart to you pet’s drinking water, provided your pet is over 40 lb.  For smaller pets, use a little less vinegar.  Add eucalyptus branches and sprinkle table salt around your pet’s sleeping area to ward them off.  Next treat the padded furniture and carpeting with Borax.  Work it in with a broom, and then vacuum it out. Borax can be slightly toxic, so wear a dust mask and don’t use if you have infants crawling on the rugs or furniture. To treat the yard, dust the area with diatomaceous earth.  You can buy it at most pool supply stores.

Ants can get into any home at some point in the Summer. Wash problem areas with a mixture of equal parts of vinegar and water.  Close off openings around the outside of the home. If you can, trace them back to their nest, and pour a mixture of boric acid and sugar water into their nest. This will kill the queen. Cucumber skins left around the perimeter is also offensive to them. Carpenter ants are large and black, and can be as destructive as termites.  Get professional help with them.  Bees and wasps can also be a problem.  Bee hives can be very large.  I have seen them as large as bath tubs under the eaves of homes where they just kept growing in the attics and walls.  Honey bees are a protected species, so get professional advise before you wipe them out. Ground-nesting yellow jackets are not protected, and can be a real hazard to you when mowing the lawn or gardening.  Before you go into an area, do a visual survey of the area.  Watch for a pattern of bees going towards an opening. Also, tap on the dryer vent a few times and stand back before you reach in to clean it out.  If you have yellow jackets, pour soapy water into their nest. Take on bees and wasps at night when they have trouble flying. 

There are lots of chemical treatments available for getting rid of unwanted wild animals and insects. There are a few basic rules to follow. First of all, these items are toxic. Treat them with respect. Read the directions on the label before using them.  Remember that they can also hurt things you don’t want to hurt such as your own children and pets. There are a lot of sources of additional information on this subject.  The Home Trends Catalog has lots of useful chemicals and gadgets for home and garden.  Their phone number is 716-254-6520.  If you find an insect you don’t recognize, and are concerned about it, bag a dead one and send it to the National Pest Control Association, 8100 Oak Street, Dunn Loring, VA 22027.  A boric acid spray that is effective in combating roaches can be purchased from Whitmire Research Laboratories, 3568 Tree Ct., Industrial Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63122. It is marketed under the trade name Permadust. Commercial low toxicity flea treatment kits can be purchased for about $60.00 from Earth Care, Box 282, Palm Harbor, FL 34682.  If the problems you are having are overwhelming, get professional help with your infestation. Those insects you are fighting feel that you are invading their house, not the other way around. And remember, they outnumber us.  They have the numbers, so the fight may take a few battles before you get the upper hand.  One last note, next year, the war starts all over again.

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Radon and You

One day, back in 1981, in a land called Pennsylvania, Stanley Waltrus went to work at the Limerick Nuclear Generating Plant. He walked in through the front door, and suddenly the alarms in the plant went off, indicating he was contaminated with radioactivity. They checked Stanley and thought this was strange because no one ever set off the alarms on the way into work. They usually set them off when leaving if they somehow were exposed to elevated levels of radioactivity. They couldn’t find any radioactive material on him so they went to his house.  There they found the levels of radioactivity were incredibly high. They spent the next several months examining and testing his house and concluded that Stanley brought radioactivity from his house to work, rather than the other way around. They continued to check his house, his neighborhood, and the homes of other workers and realized that there were a lot of homes in the area with very high levels of radioactivity. They then discovered that a lot of homes in Pennsylvania had very high levels of radiation present.  They expanded their study and found that homes all over the country had radioactivity in them.  The amounts varied, but in many cases, it was dangerously high, and they decided that it would be best for the people who lived in them to have the radiation removed.  Thus was born the radon testing and mitigation business that has spread across the country.

Radon. What is it? It is a colorless, odorless, tasteless gas. It is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States behind tobacco. Radon is everywhere. If you went out in your backyard with a shovel, you will hit uranium.  Radon is caused by the breakdown of the uranium. Radon becomes a health concern when you are exposed to high levels of if for an extended period of time.  It can be accumulatively fatal.  How can I be exposed to it?  If your house is built on soil that has a high level of uranium in it, and there is an opening in the basement floor that can allow the radon to enter, then you can have high levels of radon.  Radon can enter other ways also, such as from well water. Your next door neighbor may not have it, your friend down the street who had his house checked, may not have it, but you may have it.  The only way to know is to have the house tested.  A Homeowner is permitted to test their own home. Testing devises are available at many home centers. Professional testing companies also test.  There are various methods and devises used for testing.  The test can be as short as 48 hours, and as long as 6 months. The Surgeon General has determined that radon in the home is a serious health concern.  Every home being bought should be tested for radon, including new homes. If a Realtor tells you not to bother with the test, they are contradicting every professional organization in the real estate industry, as well as the Surgeon General.

Radon activity is measured in a unit called a pica curie, and these breakdowns are measured in a specific volume of air. The most common term for measuring radon is in pica curies per liter or pCi/L.  When uranium breaks down it emits tiny particles that damage the soft tissues in the lungs. Prolonged exposure to these breakdowns increases the risk of developing lung cancer. The higher the amount of radiation, and the longer the exposure, the greater the risk.  If you combine exposure to radon with smoking cigarettes, the risk of lung cancer increases dramatically.  Exposure to 1 pCi/L for a day is considered to be about as damaging as smoking one cigarette a day. The level at which the EPA recommends steps be taken to remove radon from a house is 4.0 pCi/L. The EPA has published statistics on cancer risks for those who smoke and those who don’t.  The table does not mention the amount of smoking but in simplified terms, if 1,000 people smoke and are exposed to 20 pCi/L per day, 135 of these people will get lung cancer.  Another 1,000 nonsmokers were studied, and the rate of lung cancer was 8 people with the same radon exposure.   People who never smoked have died from lung cancer from radon.  

Radon is most damaging to children because their lungs are very tender. The highest concentration of radon is almost always in the basement.  Many children have playrooms in the basement. This combination can be very damaging to their lungs, and the damage may not appear for years.  Radon exposure is greatest in the winter, because we close up our houses and spend considerably more time in them.  The amount of radon recorded in this area can be very high.  The highest count our company discovered while testing was 427 pCi/L. However, many times it is less than 4.0.  The state licenses radon testing.  Ongoing training is also required to remain approved by the state and it requires more hours of continual training than are required to be an x-ray technician. Radon emits particles that are more damaging than x-rays.  For information from the state on radon testing call 1-800-237-2366.  They can provide you with literature as well as a list of individuals and firms licensed to test for radon.  There are also radon mitigation companies that can remove the radon from your home.  This process is relatively simple, and is very effective.  A list of these contractors may also be obtained from the state.

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Tile Floor

Many homes built today incorporate a variety of flooring materials.  Wall to wall carpeting throughout with synthetic flooring in the baths and kitchen has given way to a mix of wood flooring and tile to offset the carpeted areas. If you have an older home and would like to throw a little diversity into the flooring pattern, consider putting down a tile or slate floor in selected areas.   The baths and kitchen are the most popular areas for tile, but it also works well in a foyer.  

The first concern in installing a flooring system like tile is the strength of the structure below it.   Tile and slate will add considerable dead weight to the floor. Most floors provide adequate support for tile.   If your floor sags or bows when a couple of people walk on it, this might not be the right floor for you. Typical construction is floor joists 16” on center with 5/8” plywood flooring.   This is an acceptable sub-flooring and structural base. If you have sheet goods on the floor now, remove them. You should start with a wood base. A hard board material is then attached to the wood floor.   The type we used is called Hardibacker.   It is attached with a mortar material.   The mortar is available in two types, a quick setting material that hardens in about 20 minutes, and another that sets up overnight. If you are doing a large area, use the material that sets up slowly.   Once the quick set material is mixed, you should not add mortar or water to it, so you are playing beat the clock when you start.   The mortar is spread with a notched trowel.   The notching pattern is different for the mortar application under the hard board and for the tile, so you have to buy two trowels. Before you mix the mortar, measure your hard board, cut it and lay it out in place.   Be sure the surface below it is clean and smooth. The corners on the hard board should be staggered so four corners do not meet.   They should not fall on top of the seams in the plywood below it. Seams on top of seams creates a weak spot that can cause loosening of the tile or possible cracking.   This floor will take a lot of abuse, from moving furniture to that somewhat overweight relative’s high heel shoes. The board is now cut, the mortar mixed, and you are ready to go. There is a nailing schedule or pattern on the board that you follow.   Spread the mortar, set the boards pressing them into the mortar, and start nailing. 1 ¼” roofing nails work well. The boards should be spaced slightly apart to allow for deflection.

You are now ready for the tile. If you are doing a partial floor, such as a foyer, get a long straight edge like a four foot level to guide your outside edges. Lay the tile out from the edge to the walls. If you are doing a complete floor, measure to the exact middle of the room, and mark it.   Now run chalk lines in each direction to the walls.   Place four tiles coming off the center and square them with a carpenter’s square. The tiles should be spaced ¼” apart. Now lay out the tile in a dry run. The chances of all of the edges of the tile meeting all sides without cutting is pretty slim.   When the tiles meet the walls, they must be cut.   Some of the larger home improvement centers will cut the tiles for you. Mark them with a crayon. Don’t use chalk. They may cut them with a wet saw and the chalk will wash off.   In our foyer, we installed a slate floor that further complicated the situation.   The slates are different sizes and different colors so the pattern created by the size and color of the slate can be tricky. Getting the husband and wife to agree on the pattern is another whole issue we won’t discuss.

The pattern is set, the tiles or slate cut and you are ready to lay tile.   If you have unglazed tiles or slate, they first have to be sealed. The grout material will bleed into the tiles and discolor them. A clear sealant should be brushed onto the edges and surface before you. Mix the mortar you will need. If you are using the quick setting material, measure three or four batches to do small areas, and set it aside. Spread the mortar with the second trowel you bought. The teeth in the second trowel are closer together. Now, set your tiles or slate. When you start working, twenty minutes goes fast. Do a small area and then mix the next batch using a different container. You will find yourself adjusting the tiles, working around the edges at the wall, setting the spacing between the tiles and other little time consuming adjustments that will make you glad you only mixed a small batch.   Once the first couple rows are in place and set, you can now mix up more mortar and keep going.

The floor is now set. The tiles are firmly in place.   I would allow it to set up overnight before installing the grout. The grouting is worked into the joints, filling them completely.   Wipe the excess grout off with a wet rag as you work.   Once the grout has dried and set, seal the grout with the same sealer you used on the edges of the tile or slate.   There are a variety of transition strips to blend the tile into the existing floor surface around it.   The tiles will be higher and can create a tripping hazard if not properly blended into the surrounding floor areas.   The finished product is a floor that changes the personality of the room. The cost of our slate floor worked out to about $4.00 per square foot.   The tile you select can vary this cost.   A couple things to consider.   If you are doing a whole room, use the slower setting mortar, you will need the time. Once the floor is set with the slow setting mortar, don’t walk on it until the next day, so you just lost that room for use overnight.   If you are tiling the floor in your only bathroom, this can be a problem. Tile and slate floors are hard. Dropped dishes or glasses are history when they hit them. Your child’s head will also not like this type of flooring.   The flip side is they are very durable, and require almost no maintenance once installed. One final note, the larger home centers offer seminars in a variety of home improvement projects, and laying a tilefloor is one of them.  

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Winterizing your Home

It's that time of the year when our thoughts turn to heating bills, snow shovels, and icy sidewalks.  Well, maybe not for everyone, but in reality, those little annoyances come with the season.  A good way to ease some of these pains is to winterize your home so you can get the most use from the heat you are buying.  So let's take a look at your home, floor by floor, and see what can be done to tighten it up. 

Start in the attic. If you have no insulation, install a blanket of fiberglass insulation.  Experts suggest an insulation level in your attic of R40. "R" is a measurement that determines a materials ability to resist the movement of heat.  Fiberglass has an R value of slightly more than 3 per inch. In order to achieve an R value of 40 in your attic you need approximately twelve inches of fiberglass.  This is difficult to achieve in most homes. Adding insulation where there was none, or adding another layer of the older compressed insulation can help tremendously. Compressed insulation looses its R value substantially. If you add insulation to your attic, lay it between the ceiling joists of the floor below so you can find the joists if you have to walk in the attic later.  When you install the insulation, NEVER INSTALL IT BETWEEN THE ROOF RAFTERS OVERHEAD! Improperly installed insulation can rot the roof deck, damage the roof and result in thousands of dollars of unneeded damage to your home.  There are ways it can be installed properly if you finish off the attic, but leave that job to a professional.  A warning, many Contractors don't understand attic ventilation. When you install the fiberglass, don't block the air access at the eave.  Air must enter freely and pass along the underside of the roof. While in the attic, NEVER CLOSE ATTIC VENTS IN THE WINTER! You need them more in the Winter than you did in the Summer.

As you are leaving the attic, don't forget to insulate the stairs, or access hatch.  This opening can act like a chimney letting heat escape. On the second floor, the windows are the enemy. Reglazing single pane windows can greatly reduce heat loss.  Carefully hold a flame  near the windows. Go around the perimeter of the window and watch for the flame to flicker.  This test works best on a windy day.  If the flame moves, you have air infiltration.  A thin bead of caulk can do wonders in reducing air flow. If the sash are loose enough to shake, there is significant heat loss.  Consider replacement windows if they cannot be repaired. You can replace a few each year and work your way around the house.  In the short term, tape at the junction of the sash and the frame helps, as do those clear plastic windows that you tear off at the end of the season. 

There is also a Plexiglas window system that is held in place magnetically.  These are very effective, particularly when insulating metal casement windows that you may want to keep for architectural reasons.  When checking your storm windows, clean out the space between the prime window and the storm window.  Be sure the weep holes in the bottom of the window.  This is another opening that overzealous handymen want to close off.

On the first floor, you can seal the windows, and also add weather stripping to all the doorways.  Put your hand at the bottom of the doorway and see if you can feel a draft.  There is weather stripping that can be put between the door and the frame, and you can also add a sweep to the bottom of the door.  Next, the basement.  Start by insulating the perimeter where the floor joists sit on the foundation. If you have an unheated crawl space, insulate the space between the crawl space and all heated areas. This can be difficult. Be sure any pipes or duct work in unheated crawl spaces are insulated.  If you have insulated the crawl space properly, including the pipes and the duct work, you can leave the vents in the crawl space open. I personally don't see an advantage to insulating a basement ceiling if your central heating system is in the basement. Don't insulate your water heater. The manufacturers of the units discourage this for a variety of reasons.

On a final note, PECO has a program for people on a budget.  They will perform an energy audit on your home.  They seal off the front door on your home, install an exhaust fan in it, and create a negative pressure pulling through the house. They then go through the house and pinpoint air losses. The process takes about two hours. Now the good part. They send out a contractor to make the repairs they recommend.  The Contractor had three men at my house for two days at no charge.  It's clearly worth getting done. You certainly can't beat the price.

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Wood Flooring

You just moved into your dream home. The fresh smell and the clean walls fill you with excitement.  Then you look down, and wonder, “What is happening to my new wood floors?” Wood floors take some time before they get comfortable in your home.  Let’s start with a basic property of wood.  Wood expands and contracts with moisture.  It is either absorbing moisture or releasing moisture depending on temperature and humidity.  You wood floors are installed in a very tight pattern.  There is very little room for movement.  If the humidity rises in the home, the wood expands, and it will buckle. Lower humidity in the winter causes squeaks and gaps. You want to blame someone for this, but it’s the nature of wood.

There are some things the Contractor can do to protect your floors.  When your home is being built, the wood should be kept dry.  Have you ever driven by a construction sight and see large pallets of wood stored out in the pouring rain?  The bottom of the pallets are sometimes several inches in mud.  The wood used in your home is kiln dried. It should have a moisture content of about 9%. Any wood left out in the rain is effected by the rain and will move excessively.  I have never seen wood  flooring stored in the rain, but I have seen the truss systems and joists that support the floor left exposed to the elements.  These structural members can be seriously damaged.  If you are having a home built and you see the trusses for you roof or floor laying out in the rain, demand different wood be used. You will probably get a major fight over it.  If the wood is laying the mud and exposed to rain, hit it with some spray paint. Tell the Builder you don’t want it, and that you are going to check to see if any of the painted wood is in your home. What you can’t control is wood that is soaked before you see it.  The wood is delivered in open bed trucks.  When the day starts, that load of wood is delivered, rain or shine. You can deliver wood in the rain, you just have to cover it. When your home is being built, the goal of the Builder is to get the home under roof protection as quickly as possible.  Often the roof gets installed, but the gutters and grading around the property is done much later. These conditions lead to water in the basement.  Large amounts of water in the basement raises the humidity in the structure. Have the Builder pump any standing water out of the basement. Excess moisture can increase settlement cracking and contribute to health problems for people allergic to molds and fungus.

Let’s say you own an older home and you want to install wood floors.  Have the wood delivered, and store it in your home  for sixty days.  The Contractor may not like that idea, but it’s the best way to install the wood. Wood floors should actually have a lower moisture content than the structural members. When you are selecting a wood-flooring Contractor, ask him if he uses a moister meter to check the wood before he installs it. If he doesn’t own one, thank him for his time and call someone else.  When they are ready to start, check the wood.  The moisture content should be about 7 to 8%. Getting these conditions for new construction flooring is just about impossible.  That’s why movement in the wood flooring is to be expected.  If the floor has buckled, it’s best to wait before you sand it or take any drastic measures to repair it.  Let the wood go through the four seasons.  The wood will be a different dimension in summer than in winter. If you are dealing with new construction, notify the Builder in writing of the conditions that occur and take pictures. Overreacting by sanding and pulling boards can lead to unevenness when the wood changes in the next season change.
Wood floors, as you see, are sensitive. Clean up any spills quickly on the floor.  A damp basement can damage your wood floors.  Keeping the humidity in your home too high in the winter can damage your floors. Humidifiers that add moisture to homes that are already tight, will damage the floors. Do you wear high heals?  A dainty 100 lb. woman wearing spike high heals with a tip of 1/4 inch exerts a pressure of 1600 lb. per square inch on the floor. This exceeds the compression strength of red oak, a very hard wood, by 400 lb.  It’s will sink into pine floors like a nail.  Wood floors should not be installed everywhere.  Laying them over a damp concrete floor often results in buckling. The manuals for installation tell you to install them over a vapor barrier of heavy plastic or roofing felt paper. My feelings is there is no such thing as a vapor barrier, only a vapor retarder.  Moisture, which is water, always wins.  There are several man made floors that have grown in popularity.  Some are made with a laminate over a hard or press board backing. These products have a thin veneer finish and can’t be refinished if they become damaged. A friend of mine, who bought one of these products, took a nail and a piece of gravel from her driveway, to the store and ground them into the samples to test their finish.  The Bruce manufactured flooring held up the best to her test. Some of these products are very attractive and designed to “look” like wood.  If you think they do, then they do.  But as Joyce Kilmer said, “Only God can make a tree.”

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Heating System Check Up

Don't look now, but it will soon be time to turn on that heater. The vast majority of home heating systems break down into roughly three categories based on the fuel they use: gas, oil and electric.  These fuel sources run heaters that heat the air or heat water that is distributed through the home.

If you have oil heat, have it serviced every year. Usually the company that provides the oil will perform this service for less than one hundred dollars. Ask them to also check the chimney.  Fossil fuel heat, if not drafting properly, can damage the chimney liner.  An improperly functioning chimney CAN KILL YOU!   If there is an area of the heating system that I have seen not given enough attention, it is the chimney.

If you have gas heat, remove the panel that covers the burner area. The first check is with your nose. If you smell gas, don't fire the unit. Call a repair man.  This smell can be strongest if the unit has not been run for several months. If you have the type where the burner area is in complete view, turn the heater off.  There is often a small plate that can be unscrewed.  In many newer units, this entire area is sealed and should only be opened by a professional repairman.  If the plate is connected to the burner apparatus, don't remove it.   If you can remove the plate, remove it and reach into the heater area and feel the metal just above the burners.   This is the heat exchanger.  Often there is rust on the metal.  You should not feel any holes in the metal. Look over the rest of the unit with a flash light, and see if you see any holes or cracks.  If none are visible, reinstall the plate. If you find any holes or cracks, call a heating contractor and do not use the heater. Holes in the heat exchanger can allow carbon monoxide to enter the living area. This can be sickening and even fatal.
If no holes were noted,  no gas smell, or if you couldn't remove the plate, sit back and have someone turn on the unit at the thermostat.  Watch the burners ignite.  You should keep your face at least two feet back from the unit.  The burner should light smoothly.  If the flame is erratic, or lights with a pop or sudden burst, have it serviced. The color should be blue with a touch of orange on the tips.  Now watch the flame.  After a few minutes the fan should start. The flame will move slightly from the vibration of the fan. If the flame gets pushed down, or jumps when the fan starts, have the unit serviced.   If the flame remains even, and the fan is running quietly, the unit is probably ready to go.

Next, shut the unit off, open the area where the fan is located, and vacuum the area.  Install a new filter.  Filters should be changed monthly on forced air heating and cooling systems. Keep a supply of filters near the unit. Close up the unit, and while you have the vacuum out, clean the  heating registers through out the house.  Remove the covers and vacuum inside the duct as far as you can reach.  Also clean off the cover and check the operation of the damper on the register. It should open and close freely. If you have electric central heating, about all you can do as a Home Owner is the vacuuming. If you have electric baseboard, vacuum the heating fins thoroughly, and be sure no paper or debris has fallen into the fins over the summer.

If you have hot water heat, check the gauge on the unit.  If the water pressure is zero, don't fire the unit.  On most homes, the water pressure should be above ten lbs. and less than twenty when the unit is cold.  If the water pressure goes above thirty, and stays there, or if the temperature pressure valve on the unit begins to give off water, have the unit serviced.  Also, look around the base of the unit for leaking or evidence of leaking.  Leaks will sometimes leave a white powdery deposit that's a sign of leaking that is evaporating as it leaves the unit.

In general, if your heater is over ten years old, have it checked at the start of the heating season.   If you have oil or gas heat, get carbon monoxide sensors, and install them according to the directions on the box.   A good heating system can service a home for a minimum of ten years and in some cases twenty five to thirty years with a minimum of care and service.

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Front Door
Knock knock. Who's there? Oh you. Oh you "who?" Oh you, have a new front door! Looking for a way to improve the outside of your home and the inside, at the same time? Get a new front door. The front door is center stage on the front of the home. It occupies only about 5% of the surface area, yet it dominates the statement a house makes. Change your front door and you change the entire front of the home, relatively inexpensively. You will also totally change the mood of the room or hall on the inside of the home.

There are a wide variety of doors made today. You can choose from plain panel doors with no windows, to doors with arched or oval windows highlighted with a variety of cut glass laid in a brass caming. If you are going to change the opening size, from a single door opening, to a new entrance way with sidelites and a transom, my suggestion is you hire a professional. This will involve removing structural members, interior wall work, and a well thought out plan of attack. If you are going to merely replace the front door in the existing opening, it may be a project you can handle.

Start by measuring the opening. Take four measurements: opening width at the bottom and the top, and top to bottom on each side, and write them down. The opening may not be even in an older home. Now check the opening with a four-foot level on the sides and a hand held level on the top. Is everything plumb? I didn't think so. We'll address that later. Now select the door. If your opening is off by more than ¼" you may have trouble getting the door to fit. Wood doors can be shaved with a plane once in the opening, plastic or fiberglass doors cannot. Wood doors are significantly more expensive, and will require far more maintenance in the future.

If you buy a blank door with no holes or hinges, you can use the existing hinge and lock locations. When you get the door home put the door in the opening. Be sure it fits. It should be snug, but it should fit. If you buy a pre-hung door, remember it wasn't pre-hung in your house. You can save some time by having the hinges already installed on the door, and the lock holes pre-cut, but they usually don't match up with the existing hinges and lock holes in you doorway. My feeling is it's easier to make more holes in the doorjamb than it is to drill openings in a solid core door. Use a piece of wood the same height as the door to mark the hinge locations on the door. Then hold the wood inside the frame, and mark for you new hinge openings. Draw the hinge line and chisel out the wood to recess your hinges. Get help holding the door when you screw in the hinges. Once in place, check your clearance on all side. Chances are your old threshold won't work. Pre-hung doors come with a threshold in the frame. You may find yourself buying a new threshold that fits. We did.

If the door is too tight to the other side, you may have to chisel more wood away. If the door swings and it is uneven, you can pack out the hinges with strips of firm cardboard or even business cards wedged in between the hinge and door jamb. It may take some adjusting until it's even. Now you can install the lock set. You may be able to save the old lock. With a pre-hung door, the holes in the door line up very well with a variety of latch/dead bolt sets that really dress up the opening. The chances the new locks with fit into the existing openings in the doorjamb are also slim. You may find yourself drilling, cutting and, again chiseling to get the right fit. There is filler you can buy to close off the openings for the old lock. Pack the opening with some of the wood you just chiseled out for the hinges and the new lock holes. Then fill the opening with the plastic wood material. It may crack, and require a couple of applications to get a nice finish. It can be sanded and painted once it hardens.

If you go from a door with a few small windows at the top, to an oval window with several types of cut glass, a brass setting, and an attractive wood finish on the door, the change on both the outside and inside can be dramatic. Stand out at the curb and admire your work. It's a full day's project, and then some. You will need chisels, levels, drill, assorted bits, assorted screwdrivers or a screw gun, and a fair amount of patience. Once the door is installed, you may find yourself awakened at night by the sound of the front door laughing at that old beat up screen door that remains. It didn't look so bad before, but now with the new front door, it's time for a change. We'll leave that for another article.

Gerry Aubrey, 610-277-2355


Have you taken a look at the fences around your property lately? Fences loosen, fall, get pushed down, and for any number of reasons fall into disrepair. Fixing a fence requires only a few tools, and a little physical work.

There are basically three types of fences. Metal fences, such as cyclone or chain link, are installed with metal poles. Split rail fences have wood posts and consist of two or three rails. The last, stockade fences, provide a wall of fencing that gives the owner the most privacy. Replacing broken or rotted posts, or attaching the fencing to the posts, are the most common repairs. When reinstalling a metal fence, the post is set in concrete. Wood posts should not be set in concrete as it will rot the wood.

When repairing a fence, the first order of business is removing the old post from the ground. If it's a metal post, it probably has fallen down, and you have the post in hand. A wood post is a little more difficult to remove. Wood posts rot from a combination of water and exposure to the air. The post will rot at ground level, and stay whole several inches below the ground. In order to remove the solid piece underground, you have to dig it out. A wrecking bar and post hole digger are the best tools for this. A post hole digger looks like two shovels joined together. These tools can be rented, if you don't have them. Digging out the old post is a little like root canal work on a large scale. Dig around the post on all sides. Work it loose moving it back and forth with the wrecking bar. It's a great feeling when you can lift it out of the hole.

Now measure the hole. Often fence posts are not installed to the proper depth. Posts for a four foot fence should be installed at least eighteen inches deep, over four foot, twenty four inches, and over eight foot, thirty six inches. Dig the hole to the appropriate depth, plus a few inches. Now take a couple of those rocks that you cursed as you dug them out and place them in the bottom of the hole. This helps water drain around the base of the post. Be sure you still have the required depth in the hole after you place the rocks.

Run a string from the two posts that are still standing so you keep the post in the same line with the existing fence. Now you are ready to set the post. If it's a metal post, knock the old concrete off the old post. You may be able to reuse the post. If this post kept falling down, it may not have been set deep enough. Chances are the post is too short now that the hole is the proper depth. Insert the post in the hole, and, using a two foot level, check to see if it's plumb. Stabilize it on the sides with a few rocks, but do not back fill around it. If it's a metal post, mix a small batch of concrete to install in the hole. When mixing it, make it a little on the dry side rather than wet. If it's too wet, you may have trouble getting the post to stay straight. Once the post is level, and in line with the string, attach the fence to the post. Use galvanized nails at least two and one half inches long on a stockade fence. Use finishing nails on a split rail fence to keep the rails from twisting in the future, and use wiring secured at a fence supply store for the metal fence. Check again to see that your fence is level, and your post is plumb. Now back fill around the fence with dirt, or concrete if it's a metal post, and you have fixed the fence.

If you are running a new fence, set you first post, and run your string to where the fence will end. Use a one hundred foot tape to measure for each post. I prefer a fiberglass tape because it doesn't rust, and is easier to rewind. Measure for your holes, and dig them. Secure the posts after you have connected each section of fence, just as you did when doing a repair. This will make the job easier, as you will often have minor adjustments to make as you secure the sections. There's an old expression that good fences make good neighbors. So keep your fences in good repair, and you may get along better with your neighbors.