Monday, December 13, 2010

Keep the sink from clogging

I often get asked "How do I keep the sink from clogging up all the time?" and the short answer is to stop dumping stuff down the drain. 9 out of 10 times they are referring to the bathroom sink so food does not apply but the main culprits are usually hair and food. The bathroom sink drain gets full of hair and kitchen sink drain gets full of food. If you could keep hair and food out of the drain you would prevent 99% of the clogs before they happen.

Kitchens - Keeping food out of the kitchen sink drain is easy if you have a sink strainer. Most strainers are the basket type with holes but I prefer the screen style which just sets over the drain opening catching all the big food particles. You simply lift out the screen and dump it in the trash when it's full or when the water won't drain. Anything that will slip past this screen is small enough so it won't cause a back-up. I bought this strainer at Home Depot for about $3 and it has proven invaluable in keeping my drain clear.

Bathroom (sinks and tubs) - When it comes to the bathroom sink (or tub), the main culprit is hair and unfortunately there is not a screen that fits a bathroom sink. Bathroom sinks, unlike kitchen sinks, usually have a pop-up drain assembly with a lever right behind the faucet to lift and lower the stopper. The best prevention here is to wipe up loose hair before it enters the sink drain. You will occasionally need to remove the pop-up in order to clean out the hair. It's a messy job but one that needs to get done or you'll be calling the plumber at $100/hr. I found this Hair Stopper at Bed Bath & Beyond which sits on top of the bathtub drain and catches all the hair before it enters the drain. Some tubs have a fixed metal screen and some have a loose rubber plug. If you have a fixed drain cover you'll need to remove this cover so the Hair Stopper will fit.

Final thoughts - Over the years the inside diameter of your drain pipes get smaller and smaller. You'd be shocked if you could see inside your pipes but this is an indicator of the health of your pipes. There are a number of drain cleaners on the market both organic and caustic but I would only use these as a last resort as they are not very good for the environment let alone the water supply.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Home maintenance needs to be included in our budgets

It never fails. Every year I get a few estimate requests where the homeowners can’t afford to do the work on their home. If the work is an emergency and they can’t afford to hire us then they usually start searching for a cheaper contractor. As a homeowner and someone who is adjusting to life in this new economy I can understand why folks don’t have the money set aside for these unexpected problems. In fact, most first time homeowners are having a hard time coming up with a down payment let alone extra money for the inevitable repairs that will be necessary within the first few years of buying their home. Let’s face it, most first time homeowners are not buying luxury homes in pristine condition so there is going to be plenty to spend their money on in short order. After paying the mortgage, car payments and living expenses, there is seldom anything left to set aside for vacation, eating out and especially HOME REPAIRS. A home is the single biggest investment most people will ever make and if it not maintained regularly it loses value quickly. Nothing demonstrates this quicker than when someone tries to sell their run-down home and they receive low-ball offers or no offers at all. This will be a painful lesson for most.

What I propose is that monies be set aside every month to cover maintenance costs. Many experts suggest we set aside at least 1% of the home’s sale price annually to cover repairs. Some even suggest 2-3% as a more accurate number. This may seem like a lot and some years it will be but when your roof needs replacing the $10,000 bill will show you what I mean. You could start saving 1/12 of your annual repair budget every month and having it put in a special bank account or even deducted from your pay check. This sounds logical but what happens if you just bought a home and the boiler goes? The $167 you just set aside in month one will not cover the $7,000 plumbing bill for a new boiler. It might make sense to make a larger initial deposit (2-3% of sale price) into the account to get the ball rolling with subsequent monthly contributions to keep it growing.

Most of us buy cars using credit and we think of our cars as costing $349/month and not $20,000. This concept can be applied to home repairs. For example, the average roof will last about 25 years so if it costs $10,000 then that’s $400 a year for 25 years or $34/month. If you move in and your roof has 5 years left then that cost becomes $2000/year or $167/month. When you start adding up the boiler, roof, exterior painting, landscaping, windows, and all the annual cleanings it starts to add up quickly.

If you honestly planned to spend the rest of your life in this home then the 2-3% might be a reasonable number but if you only plan to spend a certain number of years then you might want to have a professional help you generate a spreadsheet for all the major maintenance items around your home with associated ballpark prices and how many years before each item will need to be done. That way you will know much to set aside each month. The truth is, if the house is in bad shape and you only plan to spend 3-5 years there you may need to come up with much more than 2-3% per year. Adding a little extra safety margin would be wise especially since things come up.

If you have emergencies you will have to come up with the money one way or another by borrowing from your IRA, credit card, cash or relatives. The bottom line is that it is less painful when you plan for it so setting aside a little each month is a great way to lessen the pain or sticker shock. You will either have to spend the money when you go to sell or take a loss because the home is in bad shape (or both). So I always look at it this way….why not spend the money while you are living there and enjoy the home’s function and beauty instead of spending it right before you sell it?

Monday, November 1, 2010

How to get perfect silicone caulking joints

When I was first given the task of caulking a tub I struggled mightily and it was a disaster. Nobody told me I only had a minute to work with the silicone caulk before it skinned over and became impossible to smooth out without tearing the surface. When silicone caulk is exposed to air it skins over almost immediately so you have a minute or less to tool it and make it perfect. Here is the system I devised to get it right every time.

-Make sure the tile and tub surface is cleaned and all the soap scum is removed. Not much sticks to soap scum. You can use a number of soap scum cleaners for this.
-Use a single edge razor blade in a holder to scrape off any old caulking and residue. I avoid metal putty knives because they leave marks on tile and porcelain tub finishes.
-Make sure the joint is cleaned of any loose debris
-Get a roll of 1-1/2" wide blue painter's tape and apply it to the walls approx. 1/16" - 1/8" on both sides of the inside corner. It will leave a tiny strip of tile showing between the blue tape. Press the tape into the tile so it sticks well. Don't press the whole width of the tape tight, just the inside edge so it peels off easier later.
-Do this tape thing for all the vertical inside corners.
-Cut the tip off the silicone tube so the hole is about 1/8". Start squeezing the caulking into the slit between the painter's tape. You don't need much because you will be removing most of it with your finger next so don't overdo it. ***Only caulk one joint at a time***
-Soak a rag in denatured alcohol, rub it all over the tip of your index finger and run your finger down over the caulking making it smooth. The alcohol keeps the caulking from sticking to your fingers. If you are in a pinch you can spit on your finger and it'll do the same thing. The alcohol is good to have around as it'll clean up wet silicone like nothing else in case you get it all over the place.
-Put the caulking gun down and immediately peel off the blue tape. Sometimes if you don't press hard enough the tape will leave a slight ridge when it's peeled off. Don't worry, it'll still keep water out but sometimes I just wet my finger and give it a gentle run down the joint just to smooth it out. Don't put much pressure on it and do it right away or it''ll drag the surface since it skins over so quickly. This is why you only do one joint at a time.
-The caulk-covered tape is a sticky mess so you should have a box or trash can handy to dispose of it right away.
-Once all the vertical joints have skinned over you can move to the horizontal joints.
Just remember to move quickly. Tool it once with your finger and leave it alone. I have caulked hundreds of feet of tub walls so let me know if you have any questions. Good luck!

Mixing concrete is just like making a cake

How many times have you emptied an 80 pound sack of concrete into your wheelbarrow and grabbed the hose to start adding water? Mix mix, add more water, mix mix mix, add more get the idea. It occured to me one day that if the bag is exactly 80 pounds then I ought to be able to develop a recipe for the perfect mix. That way I can just fill up the bucket and dump it in and start mixing. Perfect I thought! No thinking, just filling of the bucket and mixing. I started out by measuring up a few inches from the bottom of the 5 gallon bucket and stuck a piece of tape there to see if that was the right amount of water. After moving the tape a few times I got the mix just right. The nice thing is that the bucket is translucent so you can see the dark tape through the bucket when you are filling it up. Eventually I just painted a dark stripe around the whole bucket so it was easy to see and more permanent. I couldn't tell you how much water it is but all I know if my mixing bucket serves as a large measuring spoon. No more adding a little water at a time. What a time saver and it ensures consistently mixed concrete for our deck footings.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

7 Simple steps to a good paint job

In my opinion it is pretty important to follow the proper sequences if you want to end up with a good paint job. Take for example the average interior room. Here is the sequence I normally follow when painting over an old paint job:
1. Prep and paint ceiling (one or two coats as needed)
2. While ceiling is drying, remove all outlet and switch covers, door hinges, locksets and windows locks.
3. Prep and paint window sash, trim, casing and baseboards. (doors can be done now or as you have time in between coats) Wash out brush while waiting to apply 2nd coat. I like to use a stiff hand scrub brush to clean the brush. It removes all the excess dried paint from the brush.
4. It is much easier to cut in the wall to the trim as opposed to cutting the trim up to the wall. Cut in a nice 3" + wide strip all around so the roller does not get close to the ceiling and apply first coat of wall color with a 3/8" nap roller cover. I like to cut in and roll it out right after so there are minimal brush strokes on the wall. Many people like to cut in a whole room first but I stay away from that method. While you are waiting for the wall color to dry it is a good idea to wrap the roller cover in Saran Wrap to keep it from drying out.
5. Cut in and apply 2nd coat of trim paint slightly overlapping the wall color, just enough to barely see it on the wall. Avoid painters tape and use a nice wide 2-1/2" or 3" angled sash to do all the cutting in.
6. Repeat Step 4 and apply 2nd coat of wall color.
7. Clean up trash, apply outlet and switch covers (and all hardware that was removed).

Stand back and admire a job well done.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Why it's not a good idea to paint a door black

This is a call that I get every few years from our clients...."David, our front door is starting to crack" or "the plastic trim around the glass has melted". Without fail, I know immediately what the problem is. The problem is HEAT! What happens when a surface gets too hot? The material starts to buckle, melt, crack or the paint starts to bubble. Heat's effect on wood, steel or plastic is dramatic, much more so with plastic and steel.

The problem is almost always on a south facing doors and there are a couple other factors that contribute to this problem.

  • Glass storm doors act like an oven when they get direct sun all day. The space between the storm door and the main door heats up to very high temperatures and this causes the plastic trim around the glass to melt. There is also a bead of caulking around the glazing which can be melted as well and it oozes out and drips down the door.

  • The color that you paint the door can have a big impact. Dark colors absorb the UV rays from the sun causing a heat build up in the trim. The higher the temperature of the trim the greater the expansion. Excessive heat absorption could lead to heat distortion of the door and its components. Colors are listed on the Light Reflectance Value index (LRV) and it is a good idea to stick with a paint with an LRV of 55% or higher. Some manufacturers will void the warranty on the door if the door is painted a color with an LRV lower than 55%. What the LRV means is the paint color's ability to reflect light and therefore reduce the surface temperature. Check out this LRV link for more info

If you insist on using a darker color you must assume the risk when it comes time to replace the door. One suggestion I sometimes make is to take out the glass in the storm door and install the screen year round. Even in summer the door will heat up like an oven because the sun is lower and there are no leaves on the trees to block the sun's rays.

Metal doors are the biggest culprits because they get so hot they can burn your skin if you touch them. Most metal doors come with some glass with plastic trim around the glass. If you have a south facing door I might suggest avoiding a metal door/storm door combination and certainly avoid dark paint colors. Even fiberglass doors can experience some of the same problems when painted dark especially when there are glass windows. Wood doors have less problems but what I often see is the wood expands so much that when it shrinks back to its normal size the panels tend to crack and then there is an ugly paint line all around the panels. Some door companies have counteracted this problem by making the panels double thick with two panels floating back to back so if the outer panel cracks at least the 2nd panel will keep out the air.

I guess the bottom line is to use common sense and to err on the side of caution. If you are not sure about a particular door and its pros and cons don't hesitate to ask me any questions.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Build a foam core model before building a house

Fresh out of architectural school, the summer of 1990 presented many job search challenges, much like what graduates are facing in today's economy. Not able to find a job in my field of choice, I settled on a position with a start up company that was nestled in the far reaches of what was to become the Cummings Center in Beverly. An English lad by the name of Peter Lloyd took a chance on me and hired me to work in his new shop called Woodtech. My very first assignment was to turn some 2D plans into a 3D model to help the owner see what the massing would look like before the construction plans were finalized. Modeling never crossed my mind as a career path but I jumped all over this opportunity as I had completed a few foam core models in college.

Today most designers utilize Sketchup or some other form of computerized 3D modeling to help clients visualize their projects before construction starts. Back in the day the technology was not yet available for CAD 3D so we had to go "old school" and I found it to be extremely effective. It was a fairly simple way to show clients what their homes would ultimately look like and it allowed us to present them several options, especially roof lines which are difficult to show on paper. Although we don't like to admit it, the models also help us designers and builders work through some tough design challenges that even we can't visualize on paper. Over the years I have seen many roof plans that just don't work well and a simple roof model would have made every one's life easier. Most roof drainage problems could be minimized with these modeling techniques.

One of my first large projects as the owner of Meadowview Construction had me facing a challenging roof dormer project where the clients were having a hard time deciding what the roof would look like and the budget implications of each option. Much to their surprise I arrived at our next meeting with a model laid on the tailgate of my truck for them to see how things would look. Not only did this enable them to perfectly visualize the final roof design, they were blown away with this extra service that they ultimately signed a contract to work with us. We take a tremendous amount of pride in going above and beyond what is expected (and paid for)and it has been a major factor in our growth as a company since 1996.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Do my granite counters emit dangerous levels of radon?

Recently I have heard this question from at least 2 clients for whom we installed granite counters. Following a story published by The New York Times in July 2008, consumers started to question whether they made a mistake by choosing granite for their homes. They had frightening images of the Three-Mile Kitchen island. The reports were about granite counters that contained radium which can emit radon, a radioactive gas that can cause lung cancer.
While some granite counters have been found to give off trace amounts of radon, very few granite countertops pose a real threat. The EPA has even issued a statement saying that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that granite countertops are a source of radon. EPA lists a safety limit of 4 picocuries per liter of air so if you are worried, pick up a home testing kit for about $25. If you see levels above the EPA's limit, call in a specialist.

I have included a few web links that explain this topic in more detail.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

It's all a big front

It always strikes me how common it is to see people place all the emphasis on the front of their house. Do we only care what passersby think when they see our house and are we so self conscious that we feel the need to present a certain image of our home but only on the front side? Something can be said for good curb appeal, especially when selling your home but it almost always seems like the emphasis is placed solely on the front facade. Take a look around when you drive by homes. How many homes do you see with shutters just on the front? Ninety nine percent of them are just for looks and don't function properly nor are they sized correctly for the windows. Since when did plastic shutters just on the front of the house become an acceptable aesthetic feature of a home?

Another tactic that originated hundreds of years ago is to install more expensive wood clapboard siding on the front facade while using lesser expensive cedar shingle siding on the other three sides. This made sense back then but not in today's labor market. Back then it was difficult to get long straight pieces of wood clapboard so it was reserved for the showy side of the home while the easier-to-manufacture shingles would suffice. With today's labor rates so high it is far more costly to install wood shingles because the average house has about 25,000 shingles and 50,000 nails to install. Do the math!

Many new homes have a stucco or faux brick front facade with vinyl siding on the other walls. this seems like more of a McMansion feature including the 25 foot tall white columns.

When investing in landscaping I bet that most people start with the front, probably to give a positive first impression to visitors. How many people actually spend any time in their front yard if they also have a back yard? The general feeling is to shift all the activities out back where the deck or patio is. I would love to experience the feeling of the old days when people actually preferred to sit on the front porch and interact with their neighbors. There is nothing like a well-designed front porch to enjoy the morning coffee and newspaper. Does anyone still get the newspaper?

When budgets get challenged I have often seen windows get scaled back by using a traditional divided lite pattern on the front windows and the other windows are a cheaper alternative with less detail. Who are we fooling? Besides, the back needs loving too. It's funny because sometimes I see homeowners try to paint their own house and they start on the front facade. If it was me and I didn't do a lot of painting I would make sure to practice out back where nobody can see the ladders set up for months on end. Then if I wanted to hire someone they wouldn't have to redo the entire front of the house to fix up my mistakes while my neighbors watched.

I think Maine has a different culture because I have never seen so many spare cars sitting on front lawns with trees growing up through their rotted-out carcasses. Perhaps there is not as much pressure to conform to a certain "look". Several local neighborhoods in my area even have rules about what you can have in your front yard, even excluding the overnight parking of vehicles in the driveway. One feature I like to see on homes is a boldly-painted front door. It is a nice departure from the norm and it shows a little personality without going over the top.

One thing I noticed on a recent trip to Newport, Rhode Island was that the ocean-front mansions consider the back the front. Logic would suggest that as you drive in the front gates that this would be the front but in fact the front was the side that faced the ocean. This must be so that all the people on their boats can see what an impressive house they had built. If you ask me it's all just a big front.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Kill those pesky germs in your sponges

It should come as no surprise that our kitchens harbor the lion’s share of our home’s bacteria, although my first guess was the bathroom. Germs are rampant in the kitchen and I read somewhere that one germ cell can multiply into 8 million within 24 hours. Yikes! Whenever you use a sponge or dish rag to clean your dishes or wipe off your counters there is a good chance that you are also spreading germs. Washing the dish rags or towels once a week is a healthy habit to get into and I have even heard of some folks soaking them in bleach or running them through a cycle in the dishwasher. Dishwashers only get up to about 140 degrees so this is not the most effective way to kill bacteria. My preference is to put them in the microwave. Make sure they are rinsed in cold water so they don’t burn and then turn the microwave on for 1-2 minutes. The sponge is going to be super hot so be careful when removing it. I have not tried this on cotton dish rags but I assume it will work just as good.

Tips for washing towels (and bed sheets):

  • With energy conservation on everyone’s mind I am seeing people switch over to all cold water for their wash cycles. Cold water is not good at killing or removing bacteria from towels. If your machine has a hot rinse cycle I would recommend this or maybe saving up all the towels (and bed sheets) and running an entire load of just hot water for these. Hot water (120 degrees or greater)kills bed bugs where cold water doesn’t.

  • Never use liquid fabric softener on towels or dish rags because water just sheets off instead of being absorbed.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser really works

It came right off the wall with little effort and saved me a lot of time, aggravation and money. Wouldn’t it be great if this happened all the time on a remodeling project? A final walk-through with a client at the completion of a project usually reveals any last minute items that were overlooked before a final check is released. On this day, the only item that surfaced was a pencil leveling mark that was used to place the wall mirror. The mirror was mounted away from the wall so if you looked in from the side you could barely see the pencil mark but it had to be fixed or the client would always remember it. I asked Cory to go out and grab the Magic Eraser from the van while I removed the pivoting mirror. While I held the fancy mirror Cory soaked the Magic Eraser in water and rung out any excess. Carefully rubbing the white eraser over the pencil marks quickly removed the marks with no damage to the painted wall. Something so simple left the client very impressed and in a matter of minutes we had the mirror back on the wall and a check in hand.

This Magic Eraser is an amazing scientific discovery which became available in stores around 2003. I think the formulation was originally intended for another purpose but someone must have discovered that it worked well at removing dirt and the rest is history. The box says you can use it in the kitchen for appliances, counters, faucets, tile and grout as well as just about any other place in the house like the bathroom. After you squeeze out the excess water you rub the eraser on a dirty surface and watch with amazement as the dirty lifts off like magic. It works great on pencil, pen, markers, crayon and grease. I would caution not to rub too hard on painted, glossy or shiny surfaces because it might create some microscopic scratches.

Where it really shines is removing soap scum from glass shower doors. Soap scum is hard to remove with common household chemicals so I can’t believe it works so well. When using it on glass you can try two things. First drench the eraser and don’t squeeze it out before rubbing over the soap scum. The soap scum tends to be hazy and if the sponge is too dry it spreads the haze all over the glass. After you sponge the entire glass surface you can finish up with some paper towels or dry newspaper (newspaper works great on glass in lieu of paper towels). Another option is to pour some Dawn dish soap on the Magic Eraser which will give it a little extra help to clean those stubborn streaks. The soap seems to lubricate the surface nicely and you’ll need to rinse it down with clean water. Hot water works best as it will evaporate quickly with no need for paper towels. If you want to kick it up a notch you can also add a coating of Rain-X after the glass is dry. If you’ve ever used Rain-X on your car windshield you know how well it repels water.

I now keep plenty of Magic Erasers on hand at all times including in the work vans. You never know when you’ll have a mess to erase. I am sure there are hundreds of other uses and I’d love to hear of them if you’d like to leave a comment.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Washing machine advice

Today started out simple enough with plans to finish painting a small mudroom and laundry area but ended up with an important lesson about washing machine maintenance. As part of any proper painting job we moved out all the contents of the room including the washer and dryer so we could work comfortably. When we slid out the washer we noticed the floor was wet and the black rubber hose had a small bubble in it. Either of these two problems could have caused some major expensive damage had they not been caught early on. Let me address these two issues in more detail:

-A bubble in the water hose means that the inner portion of the hose has been breached and it is only a matter of time before the thinner outer wall of the hose will burst. A burst washer hose can release about 500 gallons of water an hour and they never burst when you are home. They always burst when you are at work or worse yet, vacation. You can only imagine how much damage this $8 hose can cause. First off, make it a point if you haven’t already, to replace the black rubber hoses with the new braided stainless steel hoses which are virtually burst-proof. The black hoses are about $14 and the braided stainless hoses are $20. If you ask me the $6 is a cheap insurance policy. Second, have your plumber install one of these manual shut off valves so you can quickly and easily shut off the water whenever you are done washing your clothes. Get in the habit of shutting it off each time you are done. Make extra sure you shut it off when you go away for any length of time. There is an even better option which I recommend whereby an automatic valve opens up the supply of water once the washing machine is turned on. The valve senses the flow of electricity and opens automatically while closing after the machine shuts off. You can even get an optional sensor which sits on the floor by the machine that can sense if any water is leaking and tells the valve to shut off if the machine is mid cycle.

-These days most clients want their washer and dryer on the second floor closer to the source of the dirty laundry but what happens to the rooms below if the machine leaks? I have repaired many a ceiling due to leaky washing machines so what I recommend is to install a pan below the washing machine which is attached the the main drain in your home. It doesn’t take more than a trickle of water to create a stain on the ceiling below and mildew or mold is possible too. The pan can be basic plastic with a PVC connector or a custom copper pan which would made up by your plumbing supplier. A pan basically drains away any water resulting from an internal leak or overflow but I have never seen an overflow. The washing machine we moved today appeared to have an internal leak which was not obvious but the water that was on the floor was pretty minor so we installed a plastic pan which will collect any drips. The plan is for the water to evaporate on its own but it warrants keeping a close eye on in case it gets worse. If the valve is shut off after use then there will be no chance of the machine leaking other than when it is in use. That is where the water sensor comes in handy. The water pan will do nothing to collect any water that leaks from a burst hose so the auto shut-off valve is the key defender here.

Additional tips:

  • If you have a front loader the seal around the door is airtight so it’s a good idea to leave the door open for a while so you don’t trap in the moisture causing a musty smell

  • A machine that is not leveled properly will probably shake and wobble. Take the time to adjust the leveling feet and get it as close as possible

  • You can buy this vibration control platform which will supposedly reduce vibration up to 95%

  • Some washing machines have a balancing device called a Snubber which can wear out over time. Check out this link for some good info about replacing a worn-out snubber.

In a future blog I will discuss dryer safety tips

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Making the decision to recycle

Recycling seems to be the buzzword these days and with good reason. The thought of all this stuff ending up in the landfill when it could be reused or recycled has really been eating at me lately. Many of my daily habits or routines involve the consumption of items which could easily be recycled. Take for example my morning coffee-iced coffee usually comes in a clear plastic cup with a lid and if you look close you will notice a triangle with a number inside of it, in this case the cup is # 5 and the lid is #6. It turns out that the town of Ipswich (where I live) accepts both of these items so I have learned to gather up all my cups and toss them in the recycling instead of the trash. It’s a good start, but ultimately I would like to learn a better way to reduce my use of these cups. It might be as easy as not buying the coffee and making my own but maybe I could bring in my own reusable plastic cup or mug. The latter option seems more feasible since I don’t like making iced coffee. I found that Cumberland Farms now has $.99 iced coffee and it’s not too bad, certainly good enough to keep me from spending $2.50 at Dunkin Donuts. The good thing about Cumbies is that it’s self-serve so I can bring in my used cup and reuse it. Dunkin’s would probably object to this for health reasons. I am simply suggesting that maybe we could all take a closer look at some of the most commonly un-recycled items and see if there is something we can do about it.

I have a 5 step system that I recommend to my clients (and friends/family) to start recycling at home which I will address in a future blog but the first step is to admit that there is a problem with the current system. If you are currently doing nothing to address the lack of recycling in your household then that would be a great place to start. Without admitting there is a problem it is unlikely you will be able to effectively address the problem. Many towns are starting to make recycling mandatory which is great for many reasons but unless you have a good system in place it can be a huge inconvenience. I have even heard of some municipalities who have fines if you don’t recycle. Some trash pick-up companies won’t even take your trash if they see any items in the trash which can be recycled. It is hard to enforce but if the trash trucks refuse to empty your trash then what choice do you have? Every family will have to come up with a system that works for THEM which may be different that their neighbors. I can testify that in the end it is pretty easy to implement a system which works well for you. If you are having trouble getting started then I would be happy to do a consultation either by phone or at your home. Please take that first step by admitting that there is more we can do and do some research because there are so many resources available online.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Never run out of gas for the grill

It never fails for me. At some point during the summer I go out and fire up the grill, bring out the marinated meats and then start grilling to discover a few minutes later that the propane tank is almost on empty. With a pile of guests showing up any minute I panic when I remember it's Sunday afternoon and all the stores are closed. Even if I had a spare cylinder it'd probably take 10 minutes to make the switch-out which would screw up the cooking of the expensive meats. Why does this always happen?

The first thing I would suggest (at a bare minimum) would be to have an extra propane tank on hand at all times and when one is empty make sure it gets filled right away. They have a tendency to get thrown in the garage and people usually forget to fill it up until both tanks are empty. On a job a few years ago we discovered an easy solution to this age-old problem and it was as simple as hooking up the gas grill directly to the home's natural gas piping. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying it was simple nor do I recommend you attempt to do it yourself because any work on gas piping should be performed by a professional (plumber). We work with several of the area's best plumbers so feel free to ask if you need their names.

When purchasing a new grill you might have the option of getting it set up for propane OR natural gas so you first need to determine the fuel source. Propane is more common in rural areas with limited natural gas underground piping and propane has twice the amount of BTU's per unit at natural gas. But with natural gas being about 1/6 the cost even with the efficiency being half of what propane is, you still end up spending about a 1/3 what propane would cost. With the small amount of gas you use I think convenience is what you are really paying for, especially since you will need to pay for the plumber to do the piping. If you already have a grill and need to switch over to a different fuel then you will need to see if you can get a conversion kit from the grill store. Otherwise you might need to upgrade your grill. Another thing your plumber will hopefully check is the regulator which adjusts how much pressure the gas will be under when it arrives at your grill. Too much or too little and it'll likely not work correctly. The gas pipes will need to be sized properly with a shut-off near the grill or where it exits the house and I would also suggest installing a Quick Disconnect fitting so you can easily remove the pipe without the need for any wrenches. There will need a flexible hose coming off the hard pipe exiting the house so the grill can be shifted without disturbing the fittings and causing a gas leak.

A common trend I am seeing is for folks to install outdoor kitchens on their property and with good planning this can be an amazing space for your family to enjoy during the warmer months. Even during the cooler months the space can be outfitted with those upright patio heaters you see at restaurants in California.

After I installed several of these hook-ups for our clients I decided to switch over to a charcoal grill which I have not regretted one bit. As much as I like the speed an convenience of gas, the smell and taste of meat cooked on charcoal is so much better, especially with wood chips thrown on for good measure.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Flatscreen TV over a fireplace?

Plasma TV over the Fireplace? I am here to dispel the rumor that you cannot put a flat screen TV over a fireplace but you do need to take a few precautions. First, understand that flat screens operate safely in a temperature range of 32-100 degrees so you need to find out how hot it gets above your fireplace. Simply tape a thermometer to the wall at the lowest point where the screen would hang and get a rip-roaring fire going. Since the TV sticks out 3-4 inches you might want to mount the thermometer out 3-4 inches to simulate where the actual screen would be. After a while check to see the temperature readings. If it is at or above 100 degrees then it is too hot to have a fire and turn on the TV together, but as long as you don't try to do both you will be fine. The TV can be stored (or hung on the wall without a fire) at about 120 degrees without damaging the display, but I doubt many people keep their house at 120. Sometimes it's a matter of moving the TV up a little. Every mantel is different and if it sticks out far it might deflect heat much better than a puny mantel. Heat can also radiate out from the chimney so it's important to let the fire burn for a while, maybe an hour or more to get an accurate reading. TVs are designed to operate at a low-medium ambient temperature so manufactures will void the warranty if the TV was operated under high ambient temperatures for an extended period of time. On the flip side, if the TV gets too cold them the performance will start to degrade. I guess the moral of the story is don't bring the TV outside on Superbowl Sunday if you live up Nawth.

Proper air flow is important so recessing the TV in the wall is not a great idea and when you want to upgrade from a 42" to the new 50" model you will have to rip the wall apart and enlarge the opening. Having the TV up so high puts it well above the optimum viewing height so you will need a good sturdy mounting bracket which can be tilted. If you have ever been in a sports bar you know what I mean as all the TVs seem to be staring down at you from the ceiling. Although it's fine for a while, watching a TV with your head tilted back might cause some neck fatigue so be prepared for this possibility. Optimally you want the center of the screen at eye level when seated in your comfy couch or Lazyboy. On the flip side, maybe one way to get the children to watch less TV is to make it less comfortable by placing it high on the wall.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Staining blotchy woods like cherry, pine or maple.

In my years as a cabinet maker I have repeatedly tried to get an acceptable finish on maple, cherry and pine, all of which are tough woods to stain easily. The bottom line is they look blotchy when you use Minwax stain right out of the can. One obvious solution is to use Minwax's Wood Conditioner on the wood first as a pre-treatment. First you apply the conditioner to the freshly-sanded wood and wait a few minutes for it to dry to the touch. Next you apply the stain over the conditioner. I am not sure why you have to stain right after the conditioner is applied but it must have something to do with how they work together. Other companies make conditioner but just to be safe I would suggest using the same company who makes the stain although I doubt it makes a huge difference. This method works reasonably well but one thing I notice is that unless the wood is sanded properly this method will come up short and even if it's sanded well it could also leave you disappointed. The bottom line is that it is better than not using it and for most homeowners and clients that's "Good enough".

Not one to settle for just "Good enough", I learned a nice trick from an old timer called "Spit Coat". What this amounts to is basically applying a clear finish on the bare wood before applying the stain. You don't want to use polyurethane as the Spit Coat though as this will not work too great and it takes a long time to dry. They key is to use a mixture of 5 parts denatured alcohol to 1 part shellac. There are a few kinds of shellac including one that is tinted amber for a darker color and one that is more clear. Shellac even comes in dry flakes that are dissolved in a solvent before using. Bullseye makes a good pre-mixed shellac so I prefer that. Mix up the 5 to 1 ratio and you can apply it directly to the wood. Shellac adheres to just about any surface except waxy surfaces so it is commonly used in primers. Shellac dries real quick so you can plan on staining within a few hours (or sooner). Next you can lay down a nice coat of stain after you lightly sand the shellac. I would also use a tack cloth to clean off the sanding dust. If you are doing any quantity of trim save yourself some aggravation and avoid the cheap throwaway brushes. They are junk and they shed their bristles and don't lay down the stain very well. I think foam brushes work ok but the best brush I have used is called a Shipmate made by Elder and Jenks. It is a 100% white China bristle brush which is much finer than the black china bristle brushes. Never use a cheap nylon brush because they are not compatible with alcohol and they can dissolve.
The stain can be applied and left to sit for a while before wiping off or can be left on and not wiped off at all. My choice would be to wait several minutes and wipe off the stain and then apply a 2nd coat of stain. This just makes the finish a little richer in appearance. Obviously the longer you leave the stain on the darker it will be. I would suggest testing a few pieces of scrap wood first to get the color just right. Once you are satisfied with the color you will need to let it dry overnight before starting the final coats of finish. You have several different options for the clear finish coat but most people use polyurethane which comes in a few different sheens such as matte, semi-gloss and gloss. You can always start with the more dull finish and work up to the gloss but it's not a good idea to start with a gloss and work down to a matte finish. So if you are not sure how shiny you want it you can start off with the first two coats matte or semi-gloss and then do the last coat in gloss if it's not glossy enough. Again, it is imperative that you use a good white china bristle brush to get a good smooth finish. Avoid the foam brushes for a good finish because the foam introduces too many air bubbles into the surface of the finish. NEVER EVER shake up the polyurethane before you use it. Stir it slowly because shaking it will fill the finish with bubbles resulting a terrible finish.
If you wish to skip all these extra steps, my advice to you would be to avoid using a stain that is much darker than the natural wood color. Using a dark stain on maple is certainly not going to look good. With the cherry it is helpful to know that it will naturally darken considerably over time so if you are patient you can get that rich cherry look without stain. It'll just take a few years. Cherry oxidizes in the presence of air (and sunlight) and that is what causes it to darken. If you set an opaque object on a piece of cherry and sit it outside in the sun for a few hours, there will be a lighter colored area where the sun did not darken it under the object. Sometimes people set cherry outside in the sun to accelerate the aging before finishing. After a few days in the sun it will darken quite a bit. It is very difficult to predict the final color of cherry so try not to introduce too much color. If you do you might be sad in a few years when you discover how dark your kitchen is.
For a little background info on Shellac check out this link
Here's another related blog with some photos showing the process

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Common mistakes in ceramic floor tiling

I often get called into to figure out why a product installation failed and floor tiles are a common installation that fails. First I have bullet pointed a list of problems I commonly see and below that there are more some detailed points Here are some of the things I find and why I think they happen:

  • Inadequate subfloor and improperly secured cement board substrate leads to cracks
  • Tile choice can impact the final outcome. A better grade tile improves chances of success
  • Choose the correct size tile for the existing floor conditions
  • Failure of adhesive. I suggest a high quality thinset mortar instead of pre-mixed mastic
  • Don't tile over a cracked concrete floor without using a crack isolation membrane

  1. Cracks are telegraphed through the tiles which indicate where the subfloor has movement (not a good thing). Usually when I see a linear crack that travels across several tiles it indicates that there is an improperly sized and/or secured plywood subfloor. If the plywood is too thin it will deflect under foot traffic and will transmit a crack through the tile. It all comes down to deflection and another way to prevent deflection is to use a cement board substrate and sandwich a thin layer of thinset mortar between the wood sheathing and the cement board. It needs to be screwed down but it is not critical that the screws hit the floor joists. The thinset mortar acts as a gap filler and an adhesive. I never see perfectly flat wood sheathing so thinset takes up the space under the cement board that would otherwise settle therefore creating movement up into the tiles. Thinset makes the whole floor much more stiff which means a less bouncy floor. Less bounce means less movement which also means less grout cracking. I would never adhere tiles directly to plywood or "luan" which was common back in the 80's and 90's. Although cement board is not waterproof, it does make a very good surface to adhere tile to if the cement board itself is properly secured to the subfloor and does not deflect too much. Cement board is very flexible so it will conform to a bouncy floor. Another reason a floor might be too bouncy is that the framing is under sized. You might need to stiffen up the framing before it is capable of being tiled. Staggering the seams of the cement board over the subfloor joints is also important.
  2. Often times the crack could have been avoided by simply choosing an appropriate floor tile. Most folks group all types of tile under the term "ceramic tile" but there are two types of commonly available tiles and they are Ceramic and Porcelain. They are made using a different combination of materials and Porcelain tends to be stronger and harder. Both types of tiles are Graded and come in Five different grades from 1-5 (or I,II,III,IV and V). You will find the grade of the tile on the bottom of the tile and it corresponds to its hardness or wear rating. Tiles with a V grading will be much more durable than a I but tiles with a V rating are usually reserved for high traffic commercial use and come in limited styles and colors. I would never choose a floor tile with a Grade less than III so it's important to look at this when buying the tiles. Grade I and some Grade II tiles are primarily for walls and backsplashes and are much easier to work with and cut. Porcelain tiles are harder to cut and require special tools.
  3. If you have a room with an uneven floor and a little bounce I would highly suggest you avoid large tiles. Selecting a large tile (12x12 or larger) will increase the odds of it cracking, especially with a weaker product like natural marble tile. Any deflection at all in the floor will also crack the larger tiles easier. Keeping the surface of all the adjacent tiles is difficult if you have an uneven floor and even more so with larger tiles. Marble tiles have a very small beveled edge so the margin for error is tiny as opposed to some ceramic or porcelain tiles with a larger beveled edge.
  4. Another thing I see is people using the premixed mastic on floor tiles. This is an absolute no-no and will almost guarantee a failure over time. I always use a thinset mortar. Thinset is available in many forms such a plain or modified and can contain additives to improve strength and elasticity. It is important to mix the mortar properly for it to work right. If it is too soupy it won't lay down right with the notched trowel. If it is too thick you won't get the adhesive properties you need to hold down the tile. If it is too dry the mortar won't stick to the back of the tile and will fail which will usually show itself by cracked grout lines all around the tile. You need to mix mortar in a bucket with a slow RPM drill and a proper mixing paddle. If you mix too fast you will introduce too much air and it will weaken the mix considerably. After the mortar is mixed it should sit for a few minutes and then give it a final mix just before you use it. This is considered allowing it to "Slake". Make sure there are no dry clumps in the mortar and it is best to put the water in the bucket first and then add dry mortar. Using the correct sized notched trowel is also important so you can refer to this chart for more info http://http//
  5. Often times I see cracks in the tile where it is installed over a concrete slab. This is almost always because there was a crack in the slab before the tile was installed. The tiles are not strong enough to hold the slab together and prevent it from moving so a Crack Isolation Membrane should also be used when tiling over a cracked slab. The membrane only needs to be used over the cracked area if it is flexibly roll-on material. There is also a product made by Schluter which comes in a roll and serves a similar purpose but needs to cover the entire floor area A crack isolation membrane is also critical when the tile will be installed over two adjacent and dissimilar materials such as concrete and wood subfloors. This is a crack waiting to happen because both materials move and flex at different rates.

I have seen many tile floor failures and I would be happy to help you troubleshoot a project. If you have any questions feel free to comment or find me at where you can email me any questions.

Monday, May 17, 2010

How to determine the age of your toilet

To some I am considered somewhat of a House Detective because I often employ many of my age old tricks to quickly determine the age of a house or when it was last remodeled. One of these tricks is to find out how old the toilet is. This will often date the house as well if the house is relatively new (less than 40 years old because many older toilets have been replaced by now with new low-flush models). It is as simple as removing the tank lid from the toilet and flipping it over to find the date stamped into the lid. The manufacturers stamp the date it was made into the lid when the clay is still soft. I believe I have also seen some companies print the date instead of stamping it and some do not have dates or are hard to make out. I would say the vast majority of lids have dates so this is a pretty reliable method of at least finding out when the last time a bathroom was remodeled. You can impress your friends and family now with this bit of knowledge. Just be prepared for the strange looks you'll get when you are caught looking under the lids. Toilets are considered dirty and taboo in most cultures. The truth is, the toilet tanks contain fresh water and are QUITE clean.