More Homeowner Tips


Brick Walls

We all know the story of the three pigs and how the brick house was the strongest house. Brick, stone, or masonry houses all have a nice solid secure exterior surface. But these walls are not without their complications. It is true that the big bad wolf couldn't blow down the brick house, but water running against the wall will eventually destroy it.
There are many options for brick or solid masonry surfaces. The walls themselves are made of individual masonry units. They can be brick, stone, or some form of manufactured concrete block work. The courses are laid in straight lines with the brick and block work, the stone is more of a random pattern. All should be vertically straight. The concern with all of these building materials is their permeability. Anything that absorbs water will be broken down by water. Water wins, behold the Grand Canyon. Let's focus on red brick walls today.
Water breaks down brick walls in a variety of ways. First the flow of water over the surface causes a gradual deterioration. This is the same force that carved the mountains and valleys of Pennsylvania. The second force water exerts is freeze thaw cycles. The freezing water causes cracking and a network of passages for the flowing water to attack. As these passages expand, the water flow increases, accelerating the deterioration. The third damaging effect of water is the impurities contained in the water. The rain water in the eastern half of the United States is very acidic. This acid adds to the deterioration.
So how do we protect our homes against such formidable odds? The first step in protecting your walls is keeping the gutters and downspouts in good working order. Next, examine your walls. Brick walls should have small openings at or near the bottom course. These weep holes should be present every few feet around the perimeter of the home. They allow the water that enters the bricks to leave. All brick walls absorb water. You want the water to have a means of departure once it enters. Next check all of the openings in the walls, such as doors and windows. They should be caulked every three or four years. Caulk is not forever. A good silicon calk works best and will have less bleed out of the color than latex caulks. The tops of all windows and doors should have metal flashing sometimes referred to as a water table to kick the water out from behind the brick. Some newer windows are designed with a built in flashing system that eliminates the need for this detail. If you have a newer home, the window specifications may cover this.
Now let's look at the style of pointing on the home. The pointing is the mortar that holds the bricks together. Take a look at your mortar, and think like a rain drop. Is there a nice fat ledge protruding from the brickwork where you could sit? This type of mortar is specified by Architects, loved by home buyers, and designed to fail. This mortar requires regular examination and frequent reconstruction. Mortar that is flush with the brick also tends to hold up well. The best pointing for long term performance is slightly recessed, and has a slight smooth curve to it. Pointing, like painting is best done sooner rather than later. The longer the pointing is allowed to deteriorate, the more the brick itself is eroded. The more the brick is eroded, the weaker the wall becomes.
A common problem in old row homes is that the front and back walls essentially develop pot bellies. The walls bow in the middle. The wall is usually not properly fastened to the interior framing. This bowing can be quite pronounced and can result in interior cracking.
If the wall is out more than about an inch in an eight foot elevation the wall should be checked by structural specialist, such as a licensed structural engineer. Left unchecked, the wall could collapse. The remedy is the insertion of star bolts through the front wall. They are run deep into the structure through the second floor joists. The bolts are then fastened to the joists and bolts are visible on the front wall. This is a legitimate repair if done properly and the metal stars can be attractive.
Keeping the bricks clean can go a long way towards extending their life. Algae and mold can grow on brick walls, usually on the North side of the building. Ivy, while poetic and sometimes perceived as emblematic of academic wisdom, destroys the walls. Cut it off at the roots and once it has died, remove it. Now, here are a couple of do's and don'ts with brick walls. Don't sand blast them. You can do a generation's worth of deterioration in a day's work by sand blasting them. Don't seal them with any of these silicon based water proofing liquids. They don't completely waterproof the wall and they inhibit the natural evaporation of moisture from the bricks. Remember, there are gallons of water produced in a home that has to go somewhere. If it begins flowing through the brick, let it keep going. Stopping it at the outside surface will destroy the bricks prematurely. If your brick walls are severely stained, hire a professional. Some materials such as muriatic acid can leave the bricks blotchy weeks later. For brick cleaning materials call ProSoCo at 1-800-255-4255, or Diedrich at 1-800-323-3565. The age of the brick, and the type of stains you are removing, can be factors in selecting the right cleaning chemicals. Brick walls are good strong walls, the third little piggy was right. But, like everything else in life, they require frequent examinations. Repair of the little problems is always better done before they become big problems.

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Dinking Water

"Plumis" is the Latin word for lead, as in metal. Therefore the derivation of the word plumbing lies in the metal which was first used extensively to carry water to the masses. The Egyptians had plumbing systems as far back as 2500 BC. The Romans had sewers in 800 BC that are still in use today. Plumbing has a rich and long history. Humans needs water. Our migration and growth is always centered on bodies of water, and flood stories are found in all ancient civilizations. We need it. But we need it clean, we need it in the right amount, and yes, we need it to go away when we are done with it. One more thing to note about water, water wins. Water breaks down the planet.
The drinking water we use today is a far cry from the "potable" water found in our cities as recently as one hundred years ago. At the turn of the century the principle source of water for the city of Philadelphia was a huge reservoir located at the present site of the Philadelphia Art Museum. The walls of the reservoir were as high as the walls of the museum. The water was pumped into it from the Schuylkill River. Philadelphia drinking water is still affectionately known as "Schuylkill Punch." The quality of the water varied greatly depending on the supply. A protest letter was written to the major Philadelphia newspaper of the late nineteenth century concerning the color of the water. The "ink" used for the letter was said to be the mud like water the resident had flowing from his tap. Fairmount Park was left undeveloped and designated as a park to allow clean run off water to replenish the reservoir. The factories of the distant town of Manayunk unfortunately, were the origin of pollution in the water.
The water in today's modern cities is filtered, treated and tested regularly to protect the public. In smaller communities the testing and filtering may not be as vigilant. The lead plumbing may have played a hand in the fall of Rome as lead has been linked to lead poisoning. This condition basically reduces the blood's ability to carry oxygen, and is a serious concern. Lead is still the number one contaminant found in water. Almost all houses constructed between World War II and the late 1980's used lead in the solder joints. The first draw of water in the morning may contain lead that leached into the water sitting in the pipes. If there is sediment in the lines, the water has a low ph level, contamination may still occur. Let the water run for thirty seconds or so before you drink it if you are concerned.
The Federal Clean Water Act of 1988 reduced the levels of lead in solder joints, but its enforcement may be inconsistent . It is estimated the United States dumps 400 million tons of toxic chemicals into the water each year. If you are very concerned about the quality of the drinking water, you can drink bottled "spring" water. Not all bottled water is spring water. Also, refrigerate the water after opening to reduce the possibility of bacteria growth in the water. Any individual filtration system can certainly help. Many advertise they reduce the lead content in the water. If you want to test your tap water, contact the following organizations for test information: Clean Water Lead Test, Inc. 704-251-6800, Environmental Law Foundation, 510-208-4555, or contact your regional EPA office. Go to and search for water.
There are presently over 1200 known contaminants listed by the Safe Water Committee of the National Academy of Sciences. No testing service tests for all of them. The chemical composition of the water can not only affect human plumbing, it can also affect the plumbing in your house. The main water line entering the home may be lead in some home constructed before 1940. If your water line contains nice clean bends, is grey in color, and has no threaded joints, its lead. Change it, or drink bottled water. Replacement can be about $150 per linear foot from your house to the street. If the main water line is grey, has threaded joints, and turns at right angles, it is probably galvanized pipe. That is good news, and bad news. The good news is the iron and zinc in the water is beneficial to many people as it puts trace elements in our bodies. The bad news is these lines are old. They stopped using galvanized water lines in the mid 1950's. The lines rust internally, and eventually close off. Your water pressure will keep getting weaker and weaker until you need to replace the main line. Now you're back to that $150.00 a foot price we just mentioned.
The interior water lines can vary greatly. Most homes built since 1945 have copper interior water lines. They hold up fairly well but can fail. Hard water can damage them. Check the lines for small green spots on the lines. They may be starting to fail. Also check the fittings. If they are green and have a white powder building up on them they are starting to fail. The green can be caused by the flux used in soldering. The white powder is caused small amounts of water leaking, evaporating off, and leaving salt and calcium deposits. In most cases, a water softener is a good investment. It's healthier for the pipes, and for you. If you have grey rubber plumbing in your home, that product was the subject of a class action law suit due to catastrophic failure of the joints. Production ceased in 1995. If you think you have this type of plumbing, you can call 800-876-4698, 602-966-0377, or 800-490-6997. Replacement of these systems can cost $5,000 plus.
There are CPVC systems approved for domestic water today that are very good. They are white. The only downside is they crack easily when exposed to freezing temperatures. They crack much sooner than copper lines at the same temperature. Remember, water begins to expand before it freezes. This expansion in a stationary line can result in cracking.
The solution to all this? You can test your water. You can contact you municipality and see their test results and how often they test. You can get home filtration systems that can be very sophisticated and filter the whole house, filter the water at the tap, or a pitcher that filters just the water you drink. Keep the pitcher refrigerated, and change the filter according to the instructions. You can also do nothing. Water contaminants have been linked to cancer, lead poisoning, and many other ailments. These events are isolated, but they cannot be considered rare. There is much we don't know about the human body and how it reacts to repeated exposure to various impurities. Damage caused by this exposure can vary greatly between two people depending on their own chemistry and immune system. Maybe someday the people in foreign lands will say the United States is a beautiful country but "Don't drink the water."

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New House

You have made the decision to buy a new home. You have reviewed your budget, secured funds for settlement, and have begun the search. The question I ask is, "Are you prepared emotionally for the plunge?" Buying a home is a lot like entering into a relationship. Can you handle another relationship in your life?
You find a home. You walk in the front door, and its love at first sight. Your heart pumps, your mind races and you want it. No ifs, ands, or buts, this is YOUR house. You schedule the inspections, but no matter what they say, you are buying it. I wonder if there would be so many divorces if we had a series of inspections for our prospective marital partners. Many of the home's flaws are raised to the discussion level by the inspector but, you are "in love." This is the first stage of the relationship.
Settlement is like marriage without the reception. Between that first date and settlement, we drive by the house, we talk about the house, buy presents for the house, plan the rooms, arrange the furniture over and over again in our heads. We plan just how perfect this new relationship will be.
We move in. The honeymoon is not as glamorous as in a human relationship. It involves movers, in-laws stopping by to knit pick, friends stopping by to lend support, but the excitement is still there. You spend your first night in the home. The house isn't perfect but it is your house. As the days turn into weeks, the weeks into months, and the first year goes by. We now move from "in love" to love. Love involves maintenance, such as mowing the lawn, raking the leaves, and a little painting. This compares to doing the laundry or picking up after your mate. They are still the joy of your life, but the excitement has died down.
The bills have begun. They never seem to end. This house uses more electric than the last house. You get quotes for new siding. The driveway is breaking apart. The sidewalk is cracking, and the sump pump never seems to keep up with the water in the basement. And you have put off climbing the ladder and cleaning the gutters about two seasons too long. These nagging little annoyances are like his endless obsession with football, his not coming straight home from work, she's never on time, and does she need so many shoes? The glow is clearly off. We now enter the commitment stage. You look at the big picture. You still laugh a lot together, the vacations are fun, and the children are a real joy, most of the time. The house is warm, it's big, and it's gone up in value far more than you thought. You are committed and you are there for the long haul.
Then the roof leaks with ice dams. The roof is not that old, it shouldn't leak. The heater dies two days later. The words of the inspector ring in your ears. He said something about "end of its useful life." You are now facing a couple of big time expenses that weren't in the budget. These can be compared to his insistence on going on a four day golf weekend in South Carolina…without you. That brother-in-law that never seems to hold down a job, you now find out he will be living with you for a few months until he gets on his feet. You find yourself at the obligation stage. The glow is gone and the drudgery begun. The thought of leaving has crept into the picture for the first time. Leaving is immensely complicated, but you stay. The laughs are few, and the flaws many.
What do we do next? Do we stay or do we go? The children are raised; the rooms are empty and dusty. The memories echo through the halls, but the feeling of being overwhelmed weighs heavily on you every day. Do you make the big move? The time comes and you can no longer live as you did. You bite the bullet and make the call. The door bell rings, and in comes the listing agent. The reality hits you that you have reached the final stage of the relationship. This is the "I'm out of here" stage. The house is the same house it was years ago when the relationship started. The person in the relationship is also the same. The only thing that has changed is our perception of the situation. The perception is often shaped by our wants and needs which change with time. We move. The relationship has ended. Here is where the similarities end. We usually sell the house for far more than we paid for it, and we head off into another home ready for a new challenge. In ending a relationship with a person, the ending is often far from positive. The interesting thing about both relationships is we find ourselves going back to them. In the big picture, if done right, they are often the best decisions we ever make.

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Nothing seems to fascinate man more than water. Beach front property is soaring in value. Lake front properties are not far behind, and nothing soothes like the gentle babble of mountain stream. But what do the rest of the poor land locked souls do who don't own this prime real estate and still want to enjoy the ambiance of a body of water. We can buy it. And it comes in many shapes and sizes. Invest in a backyard swimming pool. A pool changes the dynamics of summer living. We have had a pool for fifteen years and we refer to our back yard as our summer home. The cheapest way to buy a pool is to buy a house with one. A pool will limit the market for your home at the time of resale, but I believe the rewards of pool ownership far out weigh the liabilities.
The first concern I often hear is people don't want the added maintenance. The amount of maintenance required with a pool is directly proportional to the size and number of trees near the pool. Our back yard has boarder shrubbery for privacy but no high trees creating leaves, and the related work. We open the pool ourselves, and pay to have it closed. Opening the pool can be an all day affair. Opening it starts with getting the water off the cover. A small submersible pump left on the cover for a few days will do the trick. Get as much water off the pool as possible. Water is heavy. A cubic yard of water weighs 1,600 lb. Once you are near the end of the water, use a bucket to scoop out the last few drops. There are often leaves that can clog the pump. The better quality covers drain the water into the poll while keeping the dirt and debris out. Many also have an anchoring system that keeps the cover taunt. The system works so well you can walk across the cover.
Now it is time to start the filter. There are a variety of filter systems, some working on sand, others on white powdered earth. The filter removes the particles from the water. Cleaning the parts of the filter and re-assembling it takes an hour or so. It doesn't require a huge level of mechanical aptitude. With filter up and running, its time to vacuum the bottom of the pool. No matter how well you cover it, some debris settles in the bottom.
The next step is to chemically treat the water. The pool can be treated with bromine or chlorine. If you are using chlorine, the pool should be shocked with liquid chlorine. Cover your eyes and wear white old clothes when you add it. It is a very powerful chemical. A five gallon container will sanitize most pools.
The pool is now vacuumed, cleaned and chemically treated. Unfortunately, it is usually pretty cold at this point. The water temperature to start the season is usually in the low 60's. There are solar covers that will raise the temperature as much as 15 degrees with three or four days of sunshine. A gas fired heater will also heat it nicely, but it can cost several hundred dollars for a warm pool. The opening of the pool changes the mood of the household. Instead of a black body of water with an occasional confused pair of mallards floating on it, you now have a glistening crystal clear aqua blue mirror reflecting twinkling highlights into the living room.
Once it is up and running it requires an hour or two a week to check the chemicals, skim the leaves and occasionally vacuuming the bottom. Heating a pool can extend the swimming season by a few months adding the months of May and September to your pool season. Last year we replaced the liner. Our pool has steel sides, a sand bottom, and a vinyl liner. The old liner was over twenty years old, and the replacement liner cost less than $3,000.00. If you have a vinyl liner and are considering replacing it , hire somebody. Removing the water from a pool leaves the structure's sides weakened while the pool is dry. Also, a large vacuum device pulls air from under the cover as it fills with water to ensure a snug fit. It's a job for a professional. The water for refilling the pool spiked our water bill upward about $25.00.
A concrete pool will require cleaning down the sides and repainting far more often, thus increasing the cost and maintenance of the pool. There are other options on the pool structure such as fiberglass, and tile. They have pools to fit every yard and every pocketbook. It may sound like a lot of work at the start, but once it's up and running, the maintenance is surprisingly low. You can pay a pool service to open it, pay them to come and maintain it, and pay them to come and close it. My feeling is most of this work we can do. When you are cleaning the bottom, it doesn't feel like work, as you are in a bathing suit, and can dive in if you get a little warm. The upside? On those hot summer days, I float on a huge inflatable raft, drifting into the gentle world of semi-consciousness dreaming. Unfortunately, my world is often shattered by the chilling spray of the garden hose from my adult children who still seem to find humor in disturbing my tranquility. The pool is a great source of family bonding

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Pull Down Stairs

Junk expands to the size of the container. Although some birds such as crows and eagles, have been known to take seemingly useless items back to their nest and keep them, no animal on earth can match man's affinity for accumulating useless belongings. In order to feed this idiosyncrasy we find places within the house to store them. Things we will never use again, such as the complete set of McDonald's plates, or your daughter's Strawberry Shortcake collection, are viewed as family heirlooms and tucked away with the reverence attached to relics. Where do we put them? Let's look at the attic. How do we get there? That's the problem.
Attics in newer homes are designed so we won't use them for storage. The opening is small, usually not much more than two feet square. The Builder puts it in a narrow closet. It opens into an attic with insulation three to six inches above the ceiling joists, which makes navigation up there treacherous and storage impossible. Also truss support systems in attics are not designed to support loads. The solution? We buy pull down stairs, throw down flooring, and turn this vast wasteland into a vault to store our memories. Installing these stairs is a project many weekend warriors can tackle. The stairs come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Bessler is the most recognized manufacturer of these stairs, although there are others who make very nice units. Installing them may involve the removal of some structural members, and then doubling up across the opening to pick up the support. The stairs are very self contained units, and come complete with detailed directions and hardware. It's fairly important that you buy the right stairs for your home.
The units come in two widths. A standard unit will install when the ceiling joists are sixteen inches on center, or typical frame construction. This involves removing one joist the size of the opening and doubling up the supports around it. The second size is designed for a truss support attic and fits exactly between two trusses. They are twenty four inches on center. Do not cut into a truss system and try and frame around it as you would with standard frame construction. They are engineered systems and any variation in them can drastically compromise their strength. The stairs must run parallel and between the trusses.
The right stairs for you can vary. The best units are complete stairways that roll down and provide an actual stairway complete with railing They cost $800 to $1,000, and may be more than some homeowners can tackle as a weekend project. They weigh about two hundred pounds and installation can require several people. If you go with these stairs, hire somebody. The most popular units involve a three section folding stairway. These stairs require far less space, but are far less sturdy. They are generally rated at about 250 to 300 lbs. This means only one person on the stairs at a time. Also, carry small boxes up the stairs.
The installation requires some finished trim work or drywall repair in the living area once it is installed. These stairs are most often installed in the center hall. If space allows, installing it in the master bed room closet may be safer as these stairs can be viewed as an attraction to curious children.
There are some things to consider when installing these stairs. If you install it in the garage, they create a break in the fire protection built into your garage. Garage walls built today have a minimum of a one hour fire rating to isolate a fire in the garage from the house. If you install pull down stairs, the board on the bottom of the stairs is normally 3/8" plywood. Fire will eat through this in no time, and the fire will be drawn to the oxygen source in the attic, and soon engulf the house. Install a piece of 5/8" drywall on the bottom of the stairs if they are installed in the garage.
The better pull down stairs comes with insulation. The R value or the resistance to heat flow rating is usually less than 10. The rest of the attic is rated R30 to R40. This creates a "chimney effect" and the heat is pulled out of the house through those attic vents that should not be closed off. When you have the stairs open, take a close look at the perimeter and you will see little black lines. These are dust particles caused by the air racing through the gaps around the edges. The solution is to build an insulated box over the stairs. Climb up into the attic and put the stairs up. Have someone below to pull them down when you are done, or opening them from above may be like a scene from a Chevy Chase movie. Build the box with plenty of room for insulation inside it. A few inches of Styrofoam should work. It has a much higher R value than fiberglass and is rigid. It is easily glued or screwed to line the box. The finished box will be heavy, and a bit cumbersome to get into the attic. If you have the room, cut your pieces of wood in the garage and build the box in the attic. Once assembled, you can slide it over the opening as you leave the attic.
Now you have room to store all those things that were of little value when you bought them and of less value the longer we keep them. But, we keep them for their great ambiguous self assigned worth known as "sentimental value."

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It's been said that nuclear power plants are designed by geniuses to be run by idiots. Homer Simpson may argue that the plants were not designed by geniuses, but agree with the rest of the statement. I recently had a tour of a testing laboratory for an asphalt shingle manufacturer. While I would never be critical of the roofing mechanics who install asphalt shingles, I must say that the people who manufacture asphalt shingles might slip into the genius category. Roofing is difficult work performed in dangerous conditions. The installers are exposed to the extremes of nature. The product is designed to survive even worse conditions for 20, 30, 40 years or more. The design, manufacture, and installation all require huge amounts of skill. The Homer Simpsons of the world need not get involved.
Asphalt shingles were first developed as a spin off from the rolled roofing industry. Rolled roofing was invented by accident. There was a fire in a pitch plant in Massachusetts and the pitch melted into the hemp warehouse next door. The pitch coated the hemp creating what seemed like an indestructible mat. Lloyd Fry, who owned the warehouse, then worked with the product, eventually developing it into a material sold to cover flat roof areas. Through trial and error the weaknesses in the product were refined. It was found that ultra violet rays degraded the materials and soon slate and mica granules coated the product to protect it. Slope roofing material used before World War II was almost universally hard roofing. It consisted of slate, wood, terra cotta and asbestos tile. Flat roofing was evolving, but the basic recipe changed little in the first half of the twentieth century. Flat roofing today is the product of laboratory development with little chance for trial and error.
An asphalt shingle is also a highly refined scientifically developed building product. A shingle must first resist wind. Sustained winds of 60 and 70 miles per hour are rare in most climates, but short gusts in thunderstorms greatly exceed that and are common throughout the U. S. The shingle must hold. The hemp mat has evolved into a tear resistant fiberglass mat that first appeared on the market in the mid 70's. The first mats were lineal strands and cracked easily. Today's mat is spun, woven, and constantly tested for tear resistance. The industry has adopted a minimum tear resistance standard that is finally working its way into national standards. Shingles that have been on roofs over 10 years are still being tested to check the mat's durability. If they fail, the manufacturers want to know why and how they can extend the shingle's life.
The pitch has evolved into asphalt. Pitch was a little too carcinogenic. Pure asphalt was found to be ineffective when exposed to temperature extremes. The asphalt is now refined with many oils worked out of the raw product. Fillers are then added. The best fillers are limestone although a variety of products have been tried. The limestone powder must be a certain size and consistency. The refined asphalt is worked with the limestone to create a homogenous mixture that is the right consistency to adhere to the fiberglass, provide waterproof protection, and retain flexibility in weather extremes. The roof's surface temperature may drop 100 degrees in a few minutes at the start of a thunderstorm . The material must also resist freeze thaw cycles. Water turning to ice cracks engine blocks. If it cracks the shingles, that's not acceptable. The quality and blend of the asphalt is constantly being monitored for consistency.
Now the granules. Asphalt shingle manufacturer's are in the fashion business as well as the construction business. The roofing material must be the perfect compromise of form and function. A roof may be more that 50% of the visible area of a home. It must look good and work better. The old slate and mica granules once used have evolved. They are still stone particles. They are ground, dyed and coated to preserve the color. They can loose color to the UV rays, or the asphalt can bleed into the product from below. Because of this, the right combination of dyes and transparent silica coating is constantly being researched. The roof must look the same ten and twenty years after it's installed. The shingles must also match each other. At one time, dye lot numbers were critical to match existing shingles if a home were to be repaired or an addition added. Today, the stone particles are blended onto the shingle with computer precision. The color must be a perfect blend, repetitively constructed, with the look of random variety. The goal of the shingle is still to replicate the varied natural hues of slate and wood.
The finished product is constantly being tested. Pieces of the shingles are put in weather chambers. They are constantly cycled through heat, cold, and rapid temperature extremes. In 50 days they can experience years of stress. It might be compared to raising a teenager.
A shingle must first protect the home. It must be attractive to the homeowner, and the next home buyer. It must survive the worst nature has to offer, never change in color, perform these tasks for a quarter of a century or longer. Can you name another product that can stand up to those demands? Asphalt shingles work, and they keep working better.

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Radiant Heat

Do you have cold feet? My feet have been cold since a few days after Thanksgiving, and they show no signs of thawing. There is a heating system that addresses this problem directly. Radiant heat. It is a heating system installed in the floor. The theory is it heats the floor, not the air. Your feet get warm, and so do you. It heats in a manner similar to the sun. We don't feel the heat of the sun in the air, we feel it as it "radiates" off of surfaces. Radiant heat was a very big item in the post WWII building boom. Levittown had copper piping installed in the floor as the concrete was poured, the pipes connected to a boiler, and that was your heat. Great concept but it failed miserably. The biggest problem was the impurities in the concrete reacted with the copper, and disintegrated the pipes. Leaks began to appear, and repairs were costly. The leak would create a hot spot in the floor. Cats were put in the room. They would lay on the hot spot and locate the leak. This was the first actual "cat scan." Tearing up the carpets, chopping away at the concrete and repairing the leaks were costly and the systems were eventually bypassed. Baseboard hot water heat was then installed to replace it. The system was shelved for many years.
Today radiant heat and air conditioning are extremely popular in Europe and growing in popularity here. Europe places a high value on energy efficiency where we do not. We place no regard on energy use as a nation, and continue to use heating systems that are banned in most European countries. Our leaders love when we use lots of oil. The downside of radiant heat is the front end costs are higher. Builders in many cases are reluctant to incur these costs on products like radiant heat. Builders like to put money into flashy impractical items that sell, and we buy as consumers. You can't blame them, they have houses to sell. Radiant heat is the best kept secret in construction.
The major difference between radiant heat today and 40 years ago is the piping is not copper. The tubing is essentially polyethylene. Plastic does not react with the concrete. The plastic has also been developed to have an extremely low rate of expansion and contraction with heat change. This eliminates the problem of abrasion damaging the tubes if they were to move in the concrete. The energy source for these systems can be natural gas, oil, solar, or electric. The medium carrying the heat in most cases is still water. The water is heated, circulates through the system, and returns to the boiler. The heat in the tubing heats the concrete and creates a passive warm distribution system that slowly dissipates uniform comfortable heat. By the heat leaving slowly the air is not heated quickly. This reduces air currents and reduces stratification. Continual air movement and uneven temperatures in the layers of air are major sources of discomfort in heating a house. The house is cooler and healthier, but you are warmer. Cooler air has higher humidity so your skin won't dry out as much in the winter. Less out side air is sucked into the house which also lowers the humidity level in your home in winter. So simple, why isn't everyone doing it?
There are some minor considerations. The National Wood Flooring Association advises against it, but the National Oak Flooring Manufacturers Association approves it with special installation guidelines. It can be a problem in a bedroom. The bed traps the heat under the bed creating a hot spot and a small fan may be needed to distribute the heat. The system should be zoned. A proper installation includes a manifold that allows water to only run to the zones demanding heat. This is slightly different than a zoned system with a traditional boiler and circulators for specific zones. The biggest problem with radiant heat is it does not lend itself easily to a retrofit installation. It's most cost effective if done as part of the original construction. It can be installed as part of a renovation, but it can be considerably more expensive than another existing system being modified for the renovation. There are also electric and ceiling mounted systems that heat you but not the air. Heat does not rise. Hot air rises. Therefore, radiant heat can be put in a ceiling and the heat will come "down" to the occupants.
There are some applications where radiant heat is absolutely the best system. If you are renovating an old barn where there are very high ceilings that create massive amounts of dead air. Heat the floor where the people are, not the air 30 feet above them that no one ever occupies. Forced air heat will have the ceiling air at almost 80 degrees while the air at the floor is 70 degrees if you have a 25 or 30 foot vaulted ceiling. Who's using that heat up there? Churches, halls and office buildings would be best heated by radiant heat for the same reason. The system can also be installed to provide air conditioning through the same tubing. The air conditioning is far more efficient than traditional forced air cooling systems used here. But then we will use less oil, less electricity, less fossil fuel, and create less pollution. How would all of those people making millions of dollars off of our energy use survive?

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Could the walls in you house be the back drop for a movie? Would it be a scary movie? Have you noticed faint shadowy lines creeping up the walls and across the ceilings that you swear weren't there last fall? Do you have what look like coffee stains on your ceiling? Do you have a stain that looks bigger or seems to change shape, but you are really not sure? Are the walls or ceilings beginning to shed a white powdery substance that flutters mysteriously to the floor when no one is in the room? Your house probably isn't haunted. There are probably not coffee drinking gremlins dancing on the ceilings when no one is home. There is a logical explanation for just about every pattern of staining that appears on your walls.
Let's start with the coffee stains from those gremlins. When a roof or the plumbing leaks, it picks up dirt in its travels. The water will run to the lowest point. That lowest point may be a crack or opening in the drywall, or a separation in the ceiling tiles. The water drips from there. The water will leave tiny rings with a speck of dirt in the middle that look like coffee stains. Years ago I participated in the shooting of a video for a roofing company and to "make" the stains we brewed a pot of coffee and splashed it on the ceiling. They are usually the result of a significant leak in the roof or plumbing. This winter many homes experienced "ice dam" leaking from the snow melting on the roof. You may think you home was spared. Look at the top of the window frames on the north side of your home. You may find evidence of leaking you overlooked. Having a roof leak and not fixing it can be a scary proposition.
Now let's look at the mysterious white power. Usually this will appear over the fireplace or where some other penetration joins the ceiling. This can be a tough one to completely remove. The chimney is made of porous masonry material that absorbs water. This water then migrates past the roof flashing. The flashing material generally penetrates the masonry wall about 1˝". A light wind can drive moisture through an 18" stone wall in about 8 hours. The wind drives the water, soaking into the chimney. It then migrates down into the heated area. The water , in its travels, picks up salts and calcium. The heat inside the house evaporates the water and residual deposits remain, creating the white powder you see. Vibrations in the house from trucks on the street to your child's subwoofer can cause the powder to mysteriously fall when no one is in the room. Waterproofing the masonry areas with elastometric paint or silicon helps reduce this, but this leak can be insidious.
You have dark shadows appearing as faint lines on the ceiling, often on cathedral ceiling. You tell your husband and he looks at you funny, and mumbles something about an optometrist. These lines are real. It's not your imagination. When they insulate a ceiling, the insulation is rarely installed uniformly. This creates warm and cold spots side by side on the same wall in relatively straight lines. Dirt accumulates on the cold spots. Warm air moves faster on the warm areas keeping the dirt particles suspended. They then settle on the colder adjoining spots. Another phenomenon occurs on these cold areas. Moisture accumulates on them. Moisture is attracted to cold surfaces. The dirt then clings to the cold surface. This dirt combines with the moisture to provide a perfect habitat for mold spoors to germinate and create a colony. These stains get worse in the winter. When inspecting homes, I use a laser thermometer that has read as little as a 4 degree temperature difference between these two areas which is just enough to create the lines.
When you are cleaning suspected mold areas, use a mild bleach and water solution. Obviously do not add ammonia to bleach, the gases can be fatal. Lastly, do not use cleaners with phosphates when cleaning suspected molds. Phosphates are like steroids to molds. If you are cleaning suspected mold areas, check and follow the search to mold for detailed instructions on how to clean it. This stain requires periodic cleaning.
Everyday you look at that stain, and you can't tell if it's getting bigger, smaller or changing shape. Take a pencil and outline the pattern of the stain. Then check it in after several rains and see if it moves past the pencil line. Keep in mind that different conditions will cause different leaks If the roof leaks in every rain or with melting snow, it is the roof. That problem is easy to diagnose. If it only leaks under certain conditions, it's not the roof. I have also found that if you haven't had the stain get bigger in six months, and you are sure the leak "went away," paint the ceiling. It's the surest way to have the leak come back with the next rain, and ruin your new paint job. Roofs do not heal themselves. And caulk and roof cement are not long term solutions to roof problems. If only Lady Macbeth had these tips, she may not have been crying "Out, out, damn spot!"

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“I missed out on asbestos, I’m not going to miss out on mold.” This is a quote from a fine member of the legal profession present at a mold seminar I attended in Atlanta in October. The impetus for the national concern about asbestos has been fueled far more by the legal and financial consequences than by the health problems. Asbestos has again become a hot topic in Ambler Borough with the discovery of asbestos in the Mattison Avenue Elementary school. Asbestos is a mineral that has high resistance to heat and fire.   It was used extensively in the first half of the 20th century in building construction. It was also used in everything from automobiles to ships.   Ambler was a major player in the production of asbestos during that period. The white cliffs of Ambler are monuments to that era. Asbestos can become a health concern. If the material is in a friable or crumbling state it can be inhaled and damage the lungs. Asbestos, when damaged, breaks down into tiny microscopic particles.   These particles become air born and if inhaled, settle into the lower cavities of the lungs. Once there, they don’t leave. They remain there for years and become an irritant. The lungs then try and protect themselves from the irritant and develop a growth. This growth reduces the lung capacity of the lungs and eventually develops into asbestosis, a cancer like condition that can be fatal. Not everyone who is exposed develops asbestosis, but if you smoke and are exposed, you are far more likely to develop asbestosis or lung cancer.

        The statistics on those exposed to small amounts of asbestos and contracting related health problems are extremely small. The workers who suffered serious health problems were generally exposed to large amounts of asbestos for extended periods of time. If trace amounts of asbestos were found in your child’s school, it is hardly a reason for panic.

If your home was built before World War II, the chance of you having asbestos in your home is very high. A common use of the product was wrapping heating pipes, particularly homes with steam heat.If your pipes are wrapped with a cardboard type material and you are not sure of its composition, call 1-301-975-NIST, (6478).This is a federal agency that will give you a list of accredited testing laboratories to test a sample. Their website is The asbestos used as pipe insulation can be a health concern, and should be addressed. Popular Mechanics wrote instructions for encapsulating it in 1986.The EPA does not endorse their recommendations. Their recommendations are:

  1.   Wear safety clothing and a respirator with a type H filter cartridge.

  2. Spray soapy water over the material.

  3.   Wrap it in plastic kitchen wrap. (Home Depot has great plastic wrap that they use when you purchase materials you tie on the roof of your car.)

  4.  Wrap with good quality UL approved duct tape. Don’t use the common grey material that Tim Allen pushed on Home Improvements. It dries out in about a year.

  5.  Paint the tape with acrylic latex paint and dispose of the clothing.

      If you have 9 inch square floor tiles, the best approach is to leave them there, and cover them with another flooring material. Asbestos is often found in concrete siding and roofing materials developed in the 1920’s but used extensively through the 1960’s. It is often found in old roofing felt paper. Asbestos, if not air borne, is not a health concern.   It is a good example of let sleeping dogs lie.

           Additional sources of information on asbestos are the Consumer Products Safety Commission who can be reached at 1-800-490-9198, Additional information on the health concerns of asbestos can be found in “Asbestos Fears Overblown?” in the Journal of Light Construction, Issue #7, 1990.   Another article on the subject is “Asbestos Fears Out of Proportion to Health Risk, Harvard Study Says,” found in the ASHI Reporter 1990.If we listen to every health official and follow their recommendations perfectly we would live in tunnels to protect us from the sun, wear respirators that protect us from polluted air, and not eat, since practically everything we eat has been known to be toxic in one form or another. In some cases it’s from the food itself, others from the additives, and others from the handling or preparation process. Asbestos, like most health concerns, was on this planet when we arrived, and will be here when we leave.

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