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Ice build up around our house’s wood framed chimney chase

Every winter a large volume of ice builds up around our house’s wood framed chimney chase. Over the winter the ice volume keeps increasing, hanging in sheets from the eaves on both sides of the chase. What’s happening?

Probably your wood framed chimney chase is attached to the outside wall of your home near the eave of a roof line. The most common cause of this problem is a lack of insulation and vapor barrier on the inside of the framed chase. These walls should be insulated the same as any exterior wall. The hot air from the metal chimney inside this chase is probably escaping into the adjacent attic space, melting the snow on your roof. This melting snow is then freezing as it travels down the unheated eaves at the sides of the chimney chase forming sheets of ice. If your chimney chase is large enough, you may be able to insulate it by either removing the top chimney “lid” or the “soffit” on the under side. Install as much insulation as the framing will permit. Be sure to insulate the space between the chase and your attic also. Keep the insulation at least 2 inches clear of the metal chimney vent and install a vapor barrier on the warm side of the chase walls. Keeping the chase warm will also ensure that the hot flue gases in the metal chimney will exit the chimney quickly. This should correct the problem.

Chalky, white powder along my concrete basement walls

I just moved into a rental house. Now all the former tenants boxes are gone I can see patches of chalky, white powder along my concrete basement walls. Is this a mould deposit? If so, what causes it? Is it dangerous or harmless and how do I get rid of it?

There are several different kinds of white deposits that are often found on foundation walls. Fortunately, they fall into two simple categories. The first class of deposits is moulds. Some tenants and homeowners are horrified by the discovery of mould, even though there is often little reason to be alarmed. Some moulds present no health hazard whatsoever to humans. After all, moulds are a functional part of our eco-system and as old as life itself on the planet. However, some moulds do present health risks to humans.

The only sure way to determine the risk is to have a sample of the mould tested by a qualified laboratory. This type of work is the domain of an air quality investigator who will take samples of the mould as well as your indoor air and dust particles to determine if the moulds have spread to other locations throughout your home. Remediation is often a complex combination of factors that the air quality investigator prescribes after analyzing your building and site conditions to determine all the measures required to ensure the moulds do not return after the completion of a thorough clean-up regime.

The second possible type of deposit on your foundation walls is a harmless white powdery substance, a salty byproduct of a chemical reaction between water and the calcined limestone mixture in your concrete walls. The technical name for this powder is efflorescence. This white chalky substance indicates that there is seasonal dampness from outside your basement walls wicking through the concrete to the interior surfaces you observe. Efflorescence is a sign that you should be taking measures to control water in the yard adjacent to the affected walls. Often a simple set of gutters, downspouts and downspout leaders will significantly help dry the interior surfaces of these basement walls.

Stains on drywall sloped ceilings

I have noticed stains on the drywall sloped ceilings in the upper floor of my home. What are the causes? Can I do anything to eliminate the causes of this staining?Unlike flat ceilings, vaulted or cathedral ceilings do not have an attic space so inspection of the interior cavity is not possible without removing your drywall. However, the usual cause of moisture stains on vaulted ceilings, apart from roof leaks, is a lack of adequate ventilation above the insulation. Walk on the roof if it is not too steep. Is the roof deck soft and spongy in some areas? Does your roof “make ice” along the eaves in the winter? Are the shingles curled even though they are less than 12 years old?

These are signs that your vaulted ceiling is not properly ventilated. There should be at least two and a half inches (65mm) of air space between the insulation and the underside of the roof sheathing or strapping. Your soffits should allow air into that cavity. At the ridge your roof should have vents to allow the soffit air to escape. This flow of outside air will ensure condensation cannot build up on the ceiling surfaces in your home. You may have to cut out a small area of drywall to confirm a lack of venting. If there is little or no air flowing above the insulation, the only long-term solution is to expose the insulation, install continuos venting and re-install your interior drywall.

Health issues related to vermiculite insulation

I think I have vermiculite insulation in my attic. Recently I heard that it is a health hazard and I’m wondering if I should remove it. What is your opinion?

First, it is a good idea to positively identify that it is vermiculite. This type of insulation is grey in colour and shaped like small pellets. Some vermiculite is harmless; however, according to a CBC National news article entitled “Deadly Dust” by Fredrick Zalac, the product sold under the brand name Zonolite, produced at the Libby mine, was contaminated with tremolite asbestos, a significantly toxic form of asbestos fiber.

It is impossible to tell if the vermiculite in your attic was produced at the Libby mine. If you find empty Zonolite paper bags in your attic, and the bags state that the product was processed by WR Grace Canada, Grant Industries or F. Hyde & Co., the vermiculite is probably from Libby and likely contaminated with tremolite asbestos. The only sure way to tell is to collect a small quantity and have it analyzed at a laboratory.

The good news is that according to Zalac’s article, if left undisturbed this type of insulation poses minimal or no health risk at all. The asbestos fibers must be air borne to be inhaled. Therefore, leaving it undisturbed in your attic or sealed in a wall or floor assembly is a cost free, effective strategy. If you are going to renovate and cannot avoid disturbing the insulation, wear a proper respirator and a disposable full body suit. Ensure the fibers do not spread to other areas of your home. It is recommended to hire a contractor qualified to work with asbestos because specialized equipment such as vacuum cleaners equipped with highly sensitive HEPA filters may be required to effectively control the asbestos during the removal operation.

Replacing sold single pane sliding windows inexpensively

Our home has old single pane sliding windows with no frames. They don’t retain the house heat well and mildew has built up along the sills. Is there any reasonably inexpensive replacement alternative?

The windows you refer to sound like a once popular “Pierson” slider, made in Canada and installed in thousands of homes the 1950’s and 1960’s. They were stylish in their day because they were sash-less. But even with their outer storm window component they were drafty because they did not have stiles to seal their glass panes at the mid-rail.

With the cost of energy continuing it’s climb it is cost effective to replace these windows. There are Federal grants available that you may qualify for that will help you pay for this energy efficiency upgrade. A home “energy audit” completed by a certified energy auditor will help you get started with your project.

Often your local window and glass companies can replace this type of window without having to cut into your existing siding or interior walls. They will manufacture a modern thermo-pane window that will retrofit into your existing window opening without modifying or damaging interior or exterior wall finishes. This can save you money and time in costly finishing repairs and your payback period in fuel savings with therm-opane windows will be significantly reduced because your siding and drywall won’t need re-finishing.

Dark stains and discolouration along the baseboards of our basement walls

Last summer was particularly dry for our region. However, towards the middle of the summer I started noticing dark stains and discolouration along the baseboards of our basement walls. The stains and getting more noticeable this summer. Can you suggest any possible causes?There are several possibilities such as poor site grading and a lack of a gutter system. However, because your problem occurred during the driest time of year the most likely cause is over-watering the flowerbeds directly adjacent to the walls of your home. This problem will be exacerbated if the ground adjacent to these walls is sloped towards the building, pushing surface water from your yard down the exterior concrete foundation walls. This surface water and the over-watered flowerbeds can seep through the construction joint created when the concrete wall was cast on a previously poured footing. The stained baseboards are just a sign that there is more water in this area than your draintile can handle. Watering your flowerbeds moderately will probably help resolve the problem. Also consider planting shrubs and flowers that require very little moisture around the perimeter of your house.

Soundproofing a basement suite

We will be renovating the basement into a suite but we’re concerned about the possibility of noise transferring through the floor from the tenants below. How can we deaden or prevent this noise transfer?Unfortunately there is no way to completely stop noise from spilling into an adjacent suite. Usually the base notes of a stereo system are the most difficult to deal with. The success of any assembly at reducing sound transfer is often directly proportionate to your budget, (the more you spend, the more effective the results). Here are some typical sound reducing floor assemblies that you can use in singly or in combination if your budget can afford it.

The simplest and most common strategy is to fill the floor joist cavity with fiberglass batt insulation. Before installing the ceiling drywall in the suite you can also install resilient sound channels perpendicular to the floor / ceiling joists. The ceiling drywall is then attached or hung from these channels. This creates an air gap and reduces the contact surfaces between the drywall and the floor / ceiling joists, thus reducing sound transmission. If you increase the drywall thickness to 5/8 inch from ½ inch your assembly will benefit from the additional mass. Although less common, some assemblies substitute “donna conna” soundboard for the resilient channels and attach the drywall through the board to the floor / ceiling joists with longer screws.

Since one of the best sound deadeners is mass you can also consider laying heavy underlay and carpet on the upper side of the assembly. Although more costly and difficult to install, the best single component in sound control is a 1 ½ inch skim coat of concrete on the upper side of the floor / ceiling assembly. If you have a friend, contractor or building inspector with a copy of the Building Code you can research the amount of sound transmission for various assemblies under the heading “sound transmission class” ratings. An “STR” of 50 is considered the standard minimum in residential construction today. To give you a practical example of the effectiveness you can expect from these assemblies, visit a modern (15 years or newer) apartment building. The floor / ceiling assemblies between suites will probably be a combination of concrete skim coat, R20 insulation, resilient channel and 5/8 inch drywall.

Preparing for winter 

We are from South Africa and recently purchased a small older home with acreage outside Kaslo. Winter is approaching and we are sure there are things that should be done but not sure what they are. Can you give us a list of items we should attend to before the cold weather arrives?

This list won’t be tailored to your home but some of these maintenance tips for winterizing your home and belongings should be helpful.

I’ll put them in a list for your fridge door. 1. Drain your outside hosebibs (if they’re not a frost free type) & put hoses away. 2. Drain all water in your lawn irrigation system 3. Clean all the autumn leaves off your roof and out of your gutters. 4. Caulk all the flashings around your chimney(s) & plumbing vents. 5. Re-secure and caulk the seams of your gutters. 6. Cover any outside storage (like bicycles) with tarps. 7. Re-enforce the roofs of any portable metal storage sheds or temporary structures. 8. Re-install storm windows & install weather-stripping on exterior doors. 9. Close & insulate your crawlspace vents. 10. Get your furnace serviced & clean the filter. 11. Clean any chimneys that serve wood stoves & fireplaces. 12. Plug your heat tape in if you have exposed water lines & make sure it’s working. 13. Put a new bulb in the well casing if you keep it warm this way. 14. Winterize any gas engines that won’t be in service until spring. 15. Put antifreeze in you car radiator. 16. Disconnect battery terminals from unused engines. 17. Rake up the leaves on your lawn(s) or they will turn to mush in the spring. 18. Dig up and store bulb flower plants (check with your local garden store for varieties). 19. Harvest the garden / turn the compost / mulch the garden beds / put away garden tools 20. Tie up any ornamental shrubs & bushes that could be damaged by snow. 21. Bring in the firewood. 22. Put away summer clothes and get ready all the winter sports gear. 23. Purchase or bring out of storage your big winter snow shovel(s) 24. Drain all the sewer / water fluids in your camper or RV.

Welcome to Canada . I never realized until now what you don’t have to do in a climate with no winter. But that’s what makes us all Canucks and keeps the “faint of heart” amazed and at a distance. I’m sure there are other things folks could add to this list. So put another log on the fire and get set to enjoy the slowest, coziest and best season of the year.

Peeling paint and mould issues in bathroom

I live in an older heritage house. All the paint in the bathroom is peeling on the ceiling and walls. There is black mould and mildew along the caulking at the bathtub joint and on the ceiling above the shower. The bathroom is equipped with a 50-CFM fan, which we do use regularly. Is there anything we can do to limit the peeling paint and mould?Here are a few suggestions that may help. First, consider installing a much larger 90 or 110 CFM fan. For you own convenience, inter-connect this fan to a timer so you can leave it running after a shower or bath and not have to come back to shut it off. Let it run for about 10 minutes each time. This fan will help reduce the humidity quickly, which in turn reduces the opportunity for mould to grow and paint to peel.

Next, wash the areas where mould and mildew are growing with a mild solution of bleach and water (up to 1 part bleach 2 parts water). Dispose of any cloth or paper cleaning towels in a plastic bag to avoid spreading the mould and mildew. Then scrape the peeling paint from the walls and ceiling, “prep” these surfaces for fresh paint and wash the walls and ceiling with TSP cleanser. Re-paint with a good quality oil base paint. Finally, remove the old caulking from around the tub / shower enclosure and re-install a type of caulking designed for this application. There are several tub caulking compounds available at hardware stores. If you use the new fan consistently, this should go a long way to eliminating this problem. You could even go one step further and inter-connect this fan to a de-humidistat and your bathroom timer. This $60 item can be set to turn on your new fan automatically when there is too much humidity in a room or throughout your house. De-humidistats come with instructions on appropriate settings for each season, so you can adjust the setting to best suit the outside weather conditions.

Condensation in the ceiling from high humidity

Water is dripping from the light fixtures and recessed pot lights in our vaulted ceiling in the living room. I removed a light fixture and some Fiberglas roof insulation and saw mould on the underside of the plywood roof decking. Do you have any ideas about how this problem occurs?There are several possible causes. The most likely source of the water, provided your roofing is in good repair, is condensation from high humidity in your home. Moist air can leak through small breaches in vapour barrier seal around recessed lights and outlets and condense on the underside of the plywood roof deck, especially if there is no air space above the insulation to help carry the condensed moisture to the exterior. This condensed water then finds its way back onto pot lights and outlets and leaks back through the interior ceiling finishes.

Here are some solutions. First, install exhaust fans in every bathroom and over your kitchen range. Inter-connect at least one of these fans to a de-humidistat, centrally located on your living room wall. This will help remove any accumulation of moisture-laden air. Next, remove all your pot lights and electrical fixtures in the living room and throughout the ceilings of your home. Make sure the existing pot lights are designated airtight or install vapour boots over these lights and fixtures and seal the boots to the vapour barrier before re-installing them. Re-seal the boot flanges and the existing vapour barrier to the fixtures. Also consider reducing all sources of moisture in the building including exterior water near the foundation walls. This can be achieved with a good gutter, downspout and leader system on your eaves. Exterior water usually finds its way under foundations to the interior of the building causing high humidity in buildings.

If the problem persists and there is no air space above your roof insulation here are other, more expensive measures that will prevent the movement of moist air through the roof cavity. Change the Fiberglas batt insulation to blown dense pack cellulose, which acts as an air retarder system. Then remove the existing roof shingles and install 2 1/2 “ rigid high density Styrofoam, plywood and new roofing shingles. This will move the condensing surface from inside the roof cavity to a point beyond where moisture can return through the roof structure. By implementing the least expensive measures first, you may find these additional measures unnecessary.

Several holes in wood siding: wood pecker suspected

We just purchased a four-year-old house in Bonnington. A few days ago I noticed several holes in the wood siding. The holes are oval and vary in size from about two to five inches. They are located up under the gables and at two of the building corners and look like an animal has been chewing on the siding. Have you any suggestions?Because the holes are located high on the siding it is unlikely that a rodent has been chewing at your siding. One likely suspect, especially at the corners of a wood sided building, may be a woodpecker. If there is any rotting or wet siding that is near decay they will explore it for insects. Woodpeckers are usually active from spring through to late fall. You can often hear a woodpecker drilling away on your home early in the morning before daily activities begin inside the house. They will even attempt to drill holes in metal flashings and siding if they sense wet wood under the metal.

Another likely candidate is a bird called a Flicker. They are smaller relatives of the woodpecker, and often winter over in the Kootenays. They are also looking for insects in wet or rotting wood. You should therefore remove and replace the damaged siding. But more importantly, try to determine why the siding was rotting in the first place. If the original siding contained no rot when it was installed then look for a likely source of water at that height. Often you will find leaking gutter seams or a leaking joint between the gutter and a downspout. These leaks are readily sealed with a good quality exterior grade caulking compound. If your home is not equipped with gutters and downspouts look for areas near the holes where water may be finding a path of travel from the roof to the siding. Although hanging a plastic model owl from the eave or gable may effectively scare a woodpecker or flicker away, finding the cause of the rot and then replacing the damaged siding is a more permanent solution.

Cantilevered window bays

We are building a new home in Genelle with several cantilevered window bays that stick out beyond the main floor. There is a big debate going on about how to deal with the underside of these bays. Can you offer any opinions?

I have seen several different strategies. Here are some examples of assemblies that should be avoided. Do not install a plastic vapour barrier either under the sub-floor plywood or under the insulation before installing the soffit. Do not install a sealed, unvented soffit under the floor assembly. Here are the reasons for avoiding these designs. The sub-floor acts as a vapour barrier in this floor assembly. Therefore, you do not need any other vapour barrier anywhere else in this floor cavity. It will only provide a condensing surface for any stray moisture that gets through the sub-floor and traps that moisture in the assembly. You also don’t want to seal this floor assembly tight with a plywood soffit under the cantilever. Again, any stray moisture will get trapped on the upper surface of this “lid” and cause dampness and mildew in the floor cantilever cavity.

The most functional design, in my opinion, is as follows: 1. Insulate between the floor joists, under the plywood sub-floor, with fiberglass batt insulation. 2. Nail a vented plastic or metal soffit material to the underside of the floor joists (under the insulation) so any moisture that does leak through the plywood sub-floor can escape to the exterior without hitting a condensing surface inside the assembly.

Some folks install plywood as a soffit with breather holes drilled in the plywood. This can work, but I prefer the fully vented soffit so moisture has no opportunity to lay on a flat surface. If you have an existing fully sealed plywood soffit under your cantilevered bay window(s) or cabinet nook(s), drilling holes in the plywood is a good retro-fit because it will help these cavities breathe.

Flooding in basement

During a recent heavy rainfall I found water coming in under our foundation wall. We have figured out how to stop it, but the water has spread under interior walls, carpet and cabinets throughout our basement. We’re concerned about the potential for mould and whether we should contact our insurance agent. Please reply ASAP.First, call your insurance agent immediately and report the details of the flood. Expect that your agent will advise you to hire a professional flood clean-up contractor. Make sure you hire a contractor who is trained in flood restoration and mould remediation because specialized equipment and knowledge is essential to ensure the clean up is carried out properly. A fast, thorough clean-up will help ensure that mould growth will not occur.

Before the contractor begins clean up make sure you have the moisture source under control. Within 48 hours of the flood dispose of all water damaged items that cannot be salvaged and thoroughly dry fixed items like cabinets to avoid mould growth. Your clean-up contractor will have large vacuums and dryers to help in this process.

Check for mould growth behind wallpaper, wall cavities, under wood subfloors, bottoms wood framed walls and crawl spaces. If you find mould growth advise your contractor who will safely remove it. Make sure all cleaning and repairs have been completed thoroughly and to your satisfaction before you advise your insurance agent that the work is complete.

Selecting a carpenter to build a deck

We’re about to build a 12’ X 20’ deck attached to our house in the back yard. We’ve been struggling with selection of a carpenter to do the job. Three fellows have come up and looked at the plans and they all seem qualified. Do you have any tips that may help us narrow this selection down?There are some usual and obvious steps that you should follow such as checking references (work completed in a timely and professional manner). Take a look at other projects these carpenters have completed. In your selection consider that the low bid is often not the best choice because low bid contractors may cut corners to make up for the lack of funding. You can feel comfortable discarding unusually high estimates which, in turn, leaves those bids that are in the mid range.

Consider the size of the carpenter’s crew. For instance, there is an old carpenter’s adage that says “two carpenters working together can do the work of three working alone”. For instance, on a project like your deck, a single carpenter may attempt the project, but it would take him considerably longer than the total hours of two tradesmen or a carpenter and a helper working as a team. In every contract you’re paying for the amount of time spent, so the man working alone can cost you more in the end. As well, the work can be inferior because there isn’t that extra set of eyes and arms and legs to make the heavy framing work flow smoothly.

However, there are lots of projects, especially finishing work like cabinets, kitchen and bathroom renovations and interior retrofits that are well suited for one man. A lot about selecting your contractor relies on using your intuition and the feeling that you and your project really “fit” with a particular person. Be sure to have a fully developed set of drawings with as much detail as you can specify so there is no room for ambiguity between you and your contractor. Contract prices are padded with a worst case contingency, especially in renovation work. So, a flat rate “contract price” can sometimes cost you more than a good, trustworthy tradesman working by the hour. Do get a written contract defining the scope of work, the fee payment schedule, standards of workmanship expected, and a reasonable time frame for completion. You’ll find several standard contract forms available at your local building and office supply stores.

“For sale by owner” web sites

We finally got a down payment together and now we’re looking for our first house. We’ve been checking out the “for sale by owner” web sites and can’t figure out how to proceed with a house we’re interested in purchasing in Proctor. Could you fill in some detail on points we should cover before we sign the deal?There is obviously a significant amount of money involved in a home purchase transaction. In fact, it is probably the most money any of us will spend on a single purchase in our lifetime. So caution is a good buzzword to remember. Personally, I recommend using a realtor for at least your side of the transaction because they know their way around these rocky shoals and in some ways they are like a fishing guide to a person in unfamiliar waters.

Here are some other things to consider. Make sure you have a written agreement that includes a list of reasonable “subject to’s” such as subject to you obtaining financing, subject to a favourable building inspection and subject to obtaining house insurance. Subject to’s and times for their removal are among a list of topics about which a realtor can give advice and assistance.

Don’t forget to have the owner fill out a comprehensive “disclosure” statement. These forms are available at your local office supply store. This is an important document that asks the owner a long series of questions about the history of the property and building(s). All disclosure forms are not equal. Select one that asks specific and unambiguous questions. For example, some disclosure forms ask if the owner knows of any renovations or construction on the property completed without permits within the last 60 days. This question would be more revealing if the 60-day limits were deleted. So choose your disclosure form with care. Be sure to provide a copy of the disclosure to your home inspector. These forms often contain very useful clues that help develop a more accurate assessment of the condition of the home and property.

Leaks around windows that appear inside the wall cavities

We’ve noticed water stains at the bottom corners of several windows and some rot under the carpet under one of these windows in the house we rent. I checked the outside siding and it fits tight to the wood window frames so I’m wondering what possible ways water is getting into the walls and floor?The most likely and most common reasons for leaks around windows that appear inside the wall cavities are ice damming at the roof eaves and missing head flashings over window and doors. Since this leakage seems to be happening during seasons other than winter, the reason for the leakage is probably the latter. Unfortunately in the past, builders, window installers and siding installers often omitted head flashings over these openings. Some trades people relied on caulking or stucco coats to form seals between the upper horizontal window and door “brick moulds” and the siding. Because this brick mold forms a flat horizontal ledge, water that runs down the siding lays on this surface creating an opportunity to wick into the wall cavity. Sometimes lady luck smiles and the window or door doesn’t leak. Otherwise, expect problems.

However, there are times when head flashings are not necessary. Here are some head flashing guidelines for times when head flashing installation is important to ensure windows don’t leak at these vulnerable locations. Measure the horizontal distance from your exterior wall to the far leading edge of the eave of your house (just under the soffit roof overhang). Next, measure the vertical distance from the bottom of this eave soffit to the top of the window or door trim (brick mold). A head flashing is required if this vertical distance is greater than one-quarter of the horizontal distance of the overhang at the eave soffit. Now, lets consider the gable ends of the building. There is often little or no eave protection for these window and door openings so these are the most vulnerable penetrations through the building envelope. You can see how likely leaks develop over these openings without any head flashings.

If you are retrofitting head flashings, they should be installed at least 2 inches (50mm) up and under the sheathing paper and existing siding then returned over the existing brick mold. Just to complicate matters, there are newer window and door designs that occasionally incorporate a head flashing detail into their design. With these windows and doors, the installer is required by Code to embed the exterior flange of the window or door into a bed of caulking that seals the brick mold joint to the exterior wall sheathing. The general rule of thumb in all construction is to “drain the horizontal plane” away from the building. This is a good rule to follow when dealing with all horizontal construction surfaces as well as the ground and slopes around the building.

Decreasing heat loss around windows

I own an older house with single pane windows. Unfortunately, none of the windows are fitted with storm sash. So I’m looking for ways to decrease the heat loss through all these openings in a simple and inexpensive way. Do you have any suggestions?Decreasing the air leakage through all the glass surfaces in your home is an excellent way to put money from fuel savings in your pocket, decrease global fuel consumption and increase the level of comfort in your house by reducing drafts from those chilly winter winds. So here are a few suggestions that you might consider.

The least expensive solution is a clear polyethylene heat shrink plastic that is installed by homeowners in the fall and removed each spring. It is relatively inexpensive and easy to install. However, after you have installed and removed it on every window for a few years you may weary of the annual cost, the labour and the amount of waste you create from the disposable plastic.

A more expensive alternative is Lexan or Plexiglas. It is available at your local building supply stores in a wide variety of sizes. For instance, a four-foot by eight-foot sheet can be cut to fit a variety of window sizes in your home. Individual pieces can then be snuggly fitted on the inside of each window and fixed in place (if necessary) with removable caulking, thumb latches, wing nuts, or other appropriate common latching hardware. Plexiglas does discolour with years of exposure to sunlight and it is susceptible to scratching so you can expect to replace individual pieces in years to come. However, these pieces are easily removed (because they accessed from inside) and stored each spring. Label each piece so you’re not guessing their locations next fall.

Or, consider a more expensive alternative to Plexiglas; aluminum or wood sash storm windows. These retrofit storms can often be built to fit inside your existing windows, making them easy to access for installation and storage. Aluminum sash cost about $10 per square foot of window area. Primed wood sash costs approximately $20 per square foot. Your local window and glazing supplier is the best source for finding these products. The most expensive versions of this alternative are mounted permanently on the outside of each window. Each storm is often hinged at the top or side so it opens out in warm weather and is demountable for cleaning if it is not accessible from the interior.

Another option I have seen occasionally is a permanently fixed sheet of glass fixed to the inside of each window frame and held in place by permanent wood trim stops. Although this is a relatively cheap alternative because you are not paying for the aluminum or wood sash frames, you loose the air flow function of any window you seal in this way. As well, you run the risk of condensation on the outside glass surface if the storm is not well sealed.

White mould in insulation

I own a four year old house. Last weekend I started construction on a bathroom in my unfinished basement. I was installing the air duct through the rim joist where the floor joists sit on the foundation wall. So I removed some insulation in one of the spaces between the floor joists and noticed the rim joist and the insulation were wet and growing a white mould. Then I checked around the whole rim joist perimeter. It was wet and mouldy behind the insulation almost everywhere I checked. I can’t figure out where the water is coming from because the house has gutters, it sits high up off the ground and the roofing is almost new. What’s your best guess?This is a more common problem than most folks suspect. The only reason we don’t here more about it is that most homeowners don’t get up on a step ladder and check this location in their basements. The insulation that is installed in-between the floor joists against the exterior rim joist is required by Code (for good reason) to be sealed with a vapour barrier. Often, this vapour barrier is omitted by contractors because it is one of those fiddly details at the end of the construction journey that just gets forgotten or postponed. Often, the municipal or regional building inspector will note the lack of vapour barrier at the rim joists as a deficiency on his final inspection report, but the new home owner won’t recognize the potential problem and leaves the insulation exposed.

Here’s what happens. The warm, moisture laden air in your basement rises up to the underside of the main, plywood sub floor and rolls out to the rim joists. This moist air leaks through the insulation and starts to cool as it reaches the rim joist. When the moist, cooling air hits the rim joists, it finds the condensing surface it needs to become water. The rim joist and the insulation can become damp and mouldy as a consequence of this missing vapour barrier. However, this problem does not occur in every unprotected rim joist. A lot depends on the humidity level in each house. If your basement struggles with moisture issues because it is dug into a damp environment then there is a higher risk of dampness, mould and eventual rot at the rim joists.

Installing small, well sealed 6 mil UV rated polyethylene rectangles over the insulation in each of the floor joist “bays” is the most common way to seal the rim joists. Where the floor joists are parallel to the foundation walls, seal the vapour barrier with black acoustic caulking to the wood sill plate and then seal it to the first floor joist running parallel to the concrete wall. I prefer to cut tight fitting SM high density blue Styrofoam into rectangles and squeeze them into each floor joist bay. If you are really fussy about a good vapour seal you can then caulk the seams of the Styrofoam to the joists and sub floor. This way you gain additional R value and you get a better vapour tight seal than polyethylene.

Ice building up on single-pane windows

There is a lot of ice building up on the inside of my windows during this cold weather. Most of the ice accumulates on the second floor windows of our house. I melt it with a hair dryer and mop it up every day but I’d like to find a way to stop it. Do you have any suggestions?This is a common problem during cold weather. In particular, it is a common drawback with single pane windows. Double pane (thermo-pane) windows will not ice up easily because they do not provide a condensing surface for warm moist air to meet the cold exterior air. Although this is an expensive solution to icy windows it definitely pays you back in heat savings over time and it increases your re-sale value. There are also rebate programs like the Federal Government Energuide initiative that will help offset these costs with partial grants. If you have single pane windows and can’t afford this upgrade consider constructing new storm windows or salvaging old single pane windows that fit your frames and installing these “new” storm windows on the outside or inside of your original windows each fall. There is also a heat shrink poly film available at building supply stores that you can use to create a temporary, seasonal storm window.

But it is also worth discussing possible sources of moisture in your home. The usual culprits are laundry washing machines, bathrooms, kitchens and occasionally clothes dryers. The fundamental principle here is to control and eliminate the moisture before it evaporates and re-condenses on your windows. The most effective way of eliminating moist air is an exhaust fan. Install fans in bathrooms, laundry rooms and in your kitchen and vent them all to the outdoors. Inter-connect one fan on each floor to a de-humidistat set to kick the fan on when humidity rises above 30 percent. If you have a humidifier on your furnace, de-activate it. Also, check your dryer vent pipe for leaks and dis-connects.

If you have a basement or crawlspace, moisture from the exterior will wick into these areas. So install gutters on your roof eaves and connect the downspouts to leaders that carry the water well away from your basement walls. This will help control the rising dampness that turns into condensation and ice on your windows. In the short term, as a temporary solution you can purchase an electric de-humidifying moisture-extraction machine and install it on the second floor near the stairwell. Although this doesn’t solve the problem these machines are relatively inexpensive and it will help provide short-term relief from the pooling water on your window sills.

Working with an Energuide Program auditor

We own an old house that leaks heat through the walls and windows like a sieve. Can you give me some specific examples and advise on whether this Energuide Program through the Federal Government is worth the money I’d spend to tighten our house up?Here’s how the program works. Contact the local Energuide auditor (1-800-763-6881) and (s)he will come to your house and work through a series of tests and calculations. The auditor will then be able to tell you just how leaky your home really is. Based on these calculations, you will receive an energy performance bar graph of your house. This graph shows what percentage of your energy costs are attributed to heating, water heating, appliances and lighting. It also compares the leakage of components in your house from walls, ceilings, floors, doors and exhaust fans, and it advises on the efficiency of your heating equipment. The auditor will also assign an energy-efficiency rating for your home based on these calculations. For example, the energy audit rating for our 1968 single-pane window house with a high efficient furnace was 67. The Federal Government splits the cost of the audit with you. So your cost for an audit is $150.

Armed with this information on your leakiest and least efficient house components, you choose and replace the components that you feel will most increase the energy efficiency of your home. I chose to replace all our old aluminum frame single-pane windows and a single-pane sliding glass door at a cost of approximately $6500.

You have a year to complete this work. (I got an extension.) Then call your auditor and schedule a second audit. The second audit costs $75. Your auditor will re-test your home for reduced amounts of air leakage due to all your efforts, and (s)he will assign a new energy performance number based on this test. Our new rating is 75. The difference between these two numbers warranted a $563 grant from the Federal Government towards our window / door upgrade. The greater the difference between the original energy performance number and the new number, the greater the rebate you receive.

It is interesting to note that the grant dollars I received were not in any way tied to the amount I spent. For instance, if you choose an inexpensive but very energy conservative upgrade, like insulation in your attic and weather stripping your doors, and the work significantly increases your energy efficiency rating, then the rebate will increase proportionately. So if you are on a budget, consider replacing the least expensive and leakiest components listed on your initial energy audit.

Sliding glass doors and heat loss

We have 4 wooden exterior doors and one aluminum single pane sliding glass door in our home. I’ve just begun to realize how leaky all these doors are. In your opinion, what are my options for stopping all the heat loss through these doors?You are absolutely right about heat loss through doors. The estimated square footage of these doors (including the sliding glass door is about 120 square feet (11.14 sq. metres) of wall area that probably has an average thermal retention value of about R3. If you compare this to a modern wall assembly that is required to have a minimum R20 thermal retention value, you begin to realize that your doors are like big holes in your exterior walls.

There are four common varieties of exterior doors. The least energy efficient doors are wood raised panel and hollow core flat panel doors. You can distinguish a hollow core door from its more efficient solid core cousin by knocking on it. The hollow core will be obvious from the sound it makes. The forth door is a modern Styrofoam filled, metal clad door which probably achieves the best insulation R-values. If your home has raised panel or flat panel hollow core consider replacing them with these modern insulated, metal clad doors.

Any door, whether energy efficient or not, can be vastly improved by installing a metal combination storm / screen door on the outside of the existing doorframe. These secondary doors are a great way to save on your heat bills because they create an air lock between the two doors that helps slow down heat loss and control the escaping interior air whenever you pass through the door to the outside. I prefer the aluminum storm doors to the vinyl doors because one glass panel can be raised in the summer to convert the door to a screen door. These storm doors are available at your local building supply store for about $2400.00 per door. Remember to install new, good quality weather stripping and new threshold door sweeps as well.

Your poorest heat-retaining door (about R1) is the single pane aluminum slider. Unfortunately, the only way to improve the significant heat loss through this door is to replace it. If your budget can stand the bite, consider installing a vinyl clad thermoseal unit with a low “E” argon filled reflective coat glazing (about R4), because this is your biggest and least efficient door (approximately 36 square feet / 3.35 metres of wall area). So your highest heat savings will be achieved with this door replacement.

Installing an additional vapour barrier over existing drywall

Hi Folks! Can you put a vapour barrier over top of existing drywall before new drywall is installed over top of the old drywall? There is existing vapour barrier behind the old drywall, but it is thin plastic and not taped or sealed.This sounds like a renovation to an existing room. So as long as the walls you are referring to are exterior walls, there is no reason why you cannot install an additional vapour barrier membrane over the existing drywall before adding the new drywall layer. In fact, it’s a good idea because the old vapour barriers used in the 1960’s and 1970’s were thin (usually 2 mil, compared to 6 mil today) and poorly sealed. If you really want to go the distance, you can also install vapour boots behind your electrical outlets on all the exterior walls. Be sure to seal these vapour boots to the new vapour barrier with tuck tape or acoustic sealant. Or you can replace the old boxes with vapour tight, gasketted outlet boxes. This ensures that no moist air can seep into the exterior wall cavity through the wire openings in the receptacle boxes.

Another alternative to installing an additional vapour barrier is sealing the exterior wall(s) with vapour barrier paint. Most local paint stores can supply this product. Vapour barrier paints often have a perm rating of about 4, which is high enough to be very effective in preventing moisture leakage into the wall cavity. Since you will be painting these walls anyway, this product can save you the time and aggravation of installing the additional vapour barrier.

Rotting deck

Recently I had a building inspection done on a house I intended to purchase. There were a number of defects in the house and in the surrounding yards that the inspector brought to my attention. The rear deck structure was rotting so the inspector explained the repairs he thought were necessary to save the structure. When we had a tradesman in to give us an estimate, he told us the whole deck should be torn down and re-built. A second contractor told us we could save the deck with minor repairs. Now we’re wondering who to believe. What’s up with all these different opinions?It is often difficult to gauge the precise amount of work required to repair a structure, while trying to avoid overkill and “too little / too late” scenarios. One contractor may think it is easier to tear down and start again while another sees ways of saving time and labour by replacing components. Unfortunately, it usually doesn’t help to get a third or fourth opinion because you will just get more variations on a theme, leading to information overload.

This problem of differing opinions is so common that the construction industry calls it “the last man in” syndrome. It goes like this. The first man in sees the problem and makes suggestions. The next man in wants to make a good impression so he elaborates on the first man’s suggestions. The third man also wants to look knowledgeable so more suggestions get added to the mix. And so it goes, on and on. The best way to short circuit this syndrome is to pick the person whom you trust the most. But be wary of the person who has the most to gain by implementing his recommendations. In other words, you should be able to trust a professional, skilled person who has the least to gain in offering his opinion.

Vapor barrier and insulation on bare basement walls

We’re planning a basement renovation that will include insulating the bare cement foundation walls. I’ve asked several people who have done this about where the vapour barrier should be located and I get different advice every time. I know if I install it in the wrong location it will cause problems, so can you explain what’s best?There is a lot of confusion around this subject because there have been mixed messages from building inspectors, building technologists, and Code experts on this topic. Part of the confusion stems from different climactic conditions in a variety of regions across North America. In other words, the right location for a vapour barrier on a foundation wall in a dry climate may be quite different from its location in a wet, humid or moderately damp climate.

Here is the most recent school of thought of the subject for our Kootenay climatic conditions. If your non-structural wood framing (used to support the Fiberglas insulation) is touching and tight to the exterior concrete walls, then you should install a vapour barrier between the wood framing and the concrete. The reason for this vapour barrier is simply to protect the wood framing against possible rot damage from moisture contained in the concrete walls. Then you should install a second vapour barrier on the warm side of the insulation before you install your drywall or paneling.

If you hold your non-structural wood framing ½ inch or more away from the concrete wall(s), you do not need the first vapour barrier between the concrete and the wood-framing members. However, don’t expect that this will be the last word from the experts on this subject. Building technologists are always revising these strategies in attempts to control and eliminate dampness and mould inside wall cavities in basements. Another alternative to consider is installation of high-density R12 Styrofoam insulation caulked directly to the foundation concrete. Your concrete will have to be fairly straight and flat to use this strategy. Then you can seal all the seams with caulking and caulk the drywall directly to the Styrofoam, eliminating the need for non-structural wood framing.

Paper-thin stucco getting wet

We are thinking of purchasing a friend’s house but we are concerned about the stucco. The outer coat is paper-thin and it’s peeling off in big patches wherever the roof water is soaking into the stucco. What might be causing this and is it possible to correct?Stucco is a great, “bullet proof” siding material. However, there are a number of things that can go wrong during installation. In your case it seems that the finish coat may have been installed less than the minimum 1/8-inch (3mm) thickness. Another factor that may have been missed by the installer is the proper cure time, but the general rule of thumb is that the base coat (“scratch” coat) should be properly cured (about 7 to 10 days). Then the second coat (“brown” or “darby” coat) should be slightly dampened before the third coat (finish coat) is installed. This enhances the bonding of the finish coat to the brown coat.

So, the most likely causes for a finish coat to peel are the lack of adequate minimum thickness when installed and disregard for cure time of the base coat and dampening of the brown coat.

Of course, the roof water is simply aggravating the problem. This water will penetrate the thin stucco finish coat (which may be poorly bonded to the brown coat) then freeze and thaw repeatedly until the water eventually forces the finish coat seal to failure. So controlling the roof water will certainly help control the peeling finish coat. This can be easily done by installing gutters, downspouts and leaders. But a poorly bonded finish coat that has been installed less than 1/8 inch (3mm) in thickness will still be susceptible to delimitation. You can patch these areas but they rarely match the existing finish coat in colour or texture unless you hire a skilled trades person who can match the texture and blend the colour by “fog coating” the patches.

Adjacent development impacting the stability of property

Two years ago we bought our home on the outskirts of Nelson. Our lot is higher than the adjacent vacant land beside us. This spring someone purchased this vacant lot and has started developing it for a new home. They have been burning slash piles every weekend with fly ash covering our deck. But now they have excavated a driveway along the property line between us that will put all their vehicle traffic right next to our house and the cut bank from the road excavation is washing away every time it rains. We’re concerned that edge of our property will erode but we didn’t create this mess. What can we do?One of the inherent difficulties and dangers of purchasing a house that borders on vacant land is the uncertainty of not knowing what may someday happen beside you. Even though you can check with the regional district or municipal planning departments for a list of “permitted uses”, “setbacks” to property lines and building heights, you can never thoroughly predict what impact a new building, new landscaping and new neighbours will have on you, your view and your enjoyment of your property.

However, there is a basic principle in which you can take some comfort. No development on an adjacent property can adversely impact the physical features of your property. In other words, there is not much you can do about the fly ash if burning is permitted by the regional district or municipality. But the road excavation cannot affect the stability of your property. You should know exactly where your property line is located. If you have a plot plan this line will be defined. Failing this, you may require a legal survey. Once you are certain of the location of this line you should take photographs of existing conditions and future changes along this line to document any effects the new work may have on your land. Advise your new neighbours of your concerns verbally and in written correspondence. Document any verbal conversations with them in a journal. You then have photos and written documentation you can rely on to further your claim for remediation if damage to your property occurs and you cannot resolve the dispute amicably.

Radon gas testing

We have just moved to the Kootenays from Edmonton and we’re looking for a house to purchase but we’ve heard there is radon gas in a few of the homes in this area and we’re wondering how we can avoid buying a house with this problem?The West Kootenay region has a significant concentration of radon gas caused by the decay of uranium deposits beneath its soil. It may be more accurate to suggest that most buildings in this area (and in some other areas of our province) have some amount of radon gas present in the indoor air. The critical piece of information we are all missing is the amount or concentration of gas in each individual building, To complicate matters, the amount of radon gas can vary significantly from one building to another building right next door. So you can’t rely on hearsay or a neighbour’s’ test results for gas levels in your home. Of course, the lower the concentration of gas, the less risk to which you are exposed.

Unfortunately, there is no quick, inexpensive way to test an individual house that you are thinking of purchasing. Some homeowners may have already tested their house for radon levels, so it is worth asking if they have this information. Low readings or high reading mitigation (like subsoil de-pressurization or concrete slab seals) can encourage a potential purchaser by replacing their concern with a specific answer.

Although there are inexpensive short-term test kits available (2 to 7 day kits), the shorter the test sample taken, the less you can count on the accuracy of the test data. The best test kits sample the buildings’ radon content for at least three months up to one year. This sampling period should be over the heating season (October – April). The ideal time frame for testing is a period of three months when the doors and windows are often open and three months when the building is more or less sealed. This provides you with the most accurate sample of the buildings’ average radon concentration.

As well, the location of your test kit matters. It should be located about five feet off the floor in a place not directly exposed to outdoor air currents. You will probably get the highest readings at the lowest floor area, for instance, the basement. But if you are not using this space for daily living then it may be more relevant to test the floor area on which you spend most of your time or test each floor area separately. If your test results are high, there are ways you can reduce these levels to acceptable standards. In other words, even if you purchase a home with a high radon gas concentration, the problem can be controlled and mitigated.

Property lines

I am considering purchasing an older home in Nelson located on a corner lot. There is also an old, well built, detached garage that looks like it was constructed on or over the property line adjacent to one of these streets. I don’t want to purchase the house and then find out the City wants me to tear down the garage because it’s on their property or it doesn’t have enough clearance to the property line. How do I find out if there is a possible problem before I buy?First, you and the owner should determine exactly where the garage is located in relation to the property line. Don’t trust fence lines. One quick way to find the exact locations of buildings on any property is to ask the owner to provide a plot plan showing all the buildings on the lot in relation to the property lines. If there is no plot plan then you can try to locate the physical property pins. Often, they are readily located with a metal detector; shallow digging or a neighbour’s plot plan. If these options fail to produce property pins then a land surveyor can be hired to “shoot in” the property line in question.

Once you have determined the location of the garage in relation to the property line you should draw a sketch or take the surveyed document to the City Planner. Ask if there are any encroachments or non-conforming setbacks on this property. If you are advised that there is a non-conforming setback from the garage to the property line or the garage is partially located on a City road right-of-way you should inquire about the possible ramifications.

Often, with respect to old ancillary structures like garages, the City will “grandfather” a non-conforming setback. However, If the building encroaches on a road right-of-way or City owned property, the Municipality does have the right to require removal of the encroachment. Usually, city staff will determine if the building is presenting any risk to public safety, snow removal or access to city services before making a decision on the matter. If, in their opinion, there are no risks, you can ask for a ”Comfort Letter”. At their discretion, the City may provide this “letter” which usually states that the City is aware of the encroachment but does not intend to take action at this time. In other words, they often leave the door open for future redress in the event that circumstances change.

Terrazzo concrete finish

I have just purchased a house in Warfield. The cement patio slab in the back yard is badly cracked and sloping toward the basement wall. I want to resurface the cement with one of those cut pea gravel surfaces that I’ve seen on driveways down at the coast. How do I go about doing this?From your description, a terrazzo concrete finish is probably what you are thinking of creating. To understand if it can be constructed over your existing concrete slab, it may be necessary to explain the techniques you will need to employ to achieve a terrazzo finish. Here is one traditional method.

After the concrete slab has been cast and before it has fully set, pea gravel is worked gently and partially into the concrete surface. As the concrete dries, the pea gravel bonds with the concrete and becomes permanently fixed to the surface of the slab. Now the real work begins. All the raised, rounded surfaces of the pea gravel are ground flat and polished with a power grinder. The grinding / polishing is finished when the cut stones are ground down to the same surface elevation of the concrete.

Theoretically, you could cast another thin slab over your existing concrete and follow this process to achieve a terrazzo finish, but the chances of the new slab cracking are significant. Because this is a work-intensive process, you will want to increase your odds of success as much as you can. As well, as far as I know, there are no topping compounds that you can roll on or trowel on that will give you a terrazzo “look”.

So the best strategy will be to remove the existing slab and re-cast a new one. Make sure you put a positive slope on the new slab so the surface water drains away from your foundation wall. Making terrazzo is an art and not all the tricks for success have been included in this description. You may consider hiring an experienced cement finisher to help you with the casting, gravel embedding and grinding processes.

Concerns with building permits for older homes

We’re planning on building a small bedroom / kitten addition on the back of our old timer house. The building is about 75 years old and it has lots of things about it that don’t stand up to today’s safety standards. For example, the guardrail around the second floor stairwell is only 30 inches high, some of the bedroom windows haven’t opened for years because they are paint shut and the stairs to the basement are like a ladder. We’re worried that when we get a building permit for the new addition that the building inspector will see these problems (and maybe others we don’t know about) and ask us to change and repair them. Is this a real concern?This is a very common concern for people in older houses who are planning renovations but don’t want to spend a good part of their limited budget on unexpected and unplanned upgrades. The good news is that you do not need to be concerned that the municipal or regional building inspector will require us to complete upgrades outside the scope of the building permit.

As a rule of thumb, any upgrades that the building inspector may require are limited to the area of the building in which the renovation occurs. So, if a set of existing stairs that is “non-conforming” will serve as access to and from the new addition it would be reasonable for the inspector to ask for an upgrade to these stairs. Or, if an existing window will serve as a safe escape from the new bedroom the same logic would apply. However, it would not be reasonable for the inspector to ask for upgrades to areas of the building beyond the limits of your planned addition.

Limiting heat from sunlight in an older house

We have lived in our old two storey house for eight years now. Every year during the summer the heat builds up in the house throughout the day despite my efforts to block direct sunlight through windows and doors. Is there anything I can do short of installing an air conditioner?Older houses are notorious for this summertime problem. Fortunately, there are things you can do that will decrease the discomfort of an uncomfortably warm house. Although this may seem odd, the first place to begin is in your attic.

Solar heat migrates into your house through poorly insulated walls, windows and doors. Due to a phenomenon best described as “the stack effect” this hot air accumulates under pressure on the ceiling of second floor. This hot pressurized air builds downward through the lower levels of your house throughout the hot summer days and every evening you are stuck with a hot, pressurized house. The problem is aggravated by a daily build-up of heat in your attic from the sun’s solar radiation on your roofing materials. Of course you can open second floor windows to release the hot pressurized air but this is not always practical or possible if you trying to reduce outside noise levels or you are away for the day.

This is where attic ventilation saves the day. When you increase your attic ventilation, you help release the hot, pressurized air from the sun on your roofing materials. Further, a well ventilated attic relieves some of the pressurized heat pushing through your highest ceiling. The most effective attic ventilation pulls outside air through lower soffit grills and allows that air to escape with hot attic air through top-of -roof vents and gable end vents. It is quite simple to install top-of-roof venting but it can be difficult to install soffit venting in an older home. If you can’t install soffit vents because your roof design isn’t cooperating, then I suggest that you install the largest gable end vents you can find as a supplement to your new top-of-roof venting.

Sawdust and wood chips used as insulation in old homes

We own an old two storey heritage house in Passmore. I was in the attic recently and lifted up the fiberglass batt insulation. Under the fiberglass I found sawdust and wood chips. What is this all about?Back in the day before mineral wool, rock wool, fiberglass, vermiculite and cellulose insulation products were available, sawdust and cork were the two commonly used insulators. Cork, of course, was the expensive commercial product used in buildings where refrigeration (with ice) was a requirement for production of a product. Sawdust and wood shavings were the only affordable substitute for home owners. In fact, most builders and home owners didn’t insulate attics or walls at all. So a home that had sawdust insulation was better than average in that respect.

However, if you compare the R-value of sawdust and wood chips to our modern insulation products, the insulation value is poor. As well, sawdust can spontaneously combust through a process known as pyrolysis in which heat builds up to a kindling point in the sawdust. Of course this hasn’t happened in your home in its lifetime so you may take some comfort in this fact. The only other consideration is insect infestations. If the sawdust becomes wet due to roof leaks, insects may be attracted to the wet wood. Sometimes, folks who went to the trouble of installing insulation mixed lime into the sawdust to help protect their attics from this problem. I have been told that the lime also helps control pyrolysis, but I cannot confirm this rural legend.

Problems with laminate flooring

Recently I installed click-down laminate flooring in my bathroom over old vinyl flooring. I think I followed all the installation instructions but I’ve noticed that the flooring is starting to lift at the edges and buckle in the middle of the floor. What’s wrong with this product or did I made a mistake when I installed it?Laminate flooring materials have become popular in recent years because they are very durable and close in appearance to the hardwoods, softwoods and tiles they imitate. So you find them being installed in commercial and residential buildings often in locations where they cannot be expected to perform reliably.

Click-down laminates use high density press board as a base for a water proof surface design. The modified tongues and grooves on each panel lock into adjacent laminate panels to form a floating floor. However, water spills from kitchen sinks, showers and bathtubs, or laundry sinks can seep through the interlocking seams between the panels and penetrate the porous high density particle board base materials. If this happens, the individual panels swell with moisture. Once the panels are swollen, lifting and buckling are inevitable. Even if dried, the panels will not shrink to their original shape. Most manufactures of laminate flooring do not recommend or warranty their product in areas like bathrooms, kitchens, laundry rooms or anywhere near a source of water.

In fact, the most reliable flooring materials in locations with a water source are ceramic tiles and sheet vinyl or vinyl tile flooring. These surfaces are impervious to water, easily cleaned and provide years of maintenance free service. Further, when making flooring choices for rooms with water sources avoid wall to wall carpeting because it traps and holds moisture.

Refinishing wood veneers

In my kitchen I have a maple veneer strip of wood in front of my sink which is approximately 4 inches by 10 feet. I think it has a lacquer finish on it which was done badly and is wearing off in spots. I would like to find the easiest route to touching this up before it gets damaged by water splashing from the sink. Could I just buff it up a bit with sandpaper and recoat it with water based diamond coat varathane or could I just touch up the areas that need it? I have asked around and some say I have to use lacquer again if that is what is on it and some say all I have to do is buff it up a bit and then I can use water based varathane. I am worried about how much I can sand the veneer without damaging it since it is a difficult piece to replace. Does all the old finish have to be completely removed in order to refinish it? Is paint on lacquer hard to work with and toxic to breathe in? I have heard that too. I hope you can offer me some advice since I am totally indecisive.Wood veneers are a little fussier to re-finish than solid wood materials because they cannot take the same amount of sanding and preparation often required to achieve a high quality second finish. Although I am not an expert in wood re-finishing some previous mistakes come to mind. I would suggest from these errors that you should remove the entire old lacquer finish from the veneer. If you try to re-finish wood in localized areas it is very likely that the old and new finishes will not blend. You may try applying a good quality paint stripper to reduce to a minimum the amount of sanding or steel wooling required on the veneer.

Once the veneer is bare, smooth and ready for re-finishing, consider re-staining the wood with a product that penetrates and seals the wood like Watco Danish Oil, Minwax, Tung Oil or Varathane oil. I prefer theses products because they can be re-applied and touched up as required without stripping and re-sanding the surface again. An alternative is Circa 1850 Antique Paste Varnish which is a long lasting and hard finish and can be patched. However, I have found it more challenging to apply. Also, consider consulting an experienced paint supplier because their experience and knowledge of old and new products may be invaluable.

House shopping: sequence of some of the major events

I’m a first time home buyer who’s shopping around independently and I’m quite confused by the order of things in the buying process. Some of the houses I’m interested in are privately listed so there’s no realtor to steer the process. For instance, is a building inspection mandatory for banks and insurance companies and if so, what’s the right timing for this inspection?Although a realtor is your best source of advice on these matters, I will try to sketch out a sequence of some of the major events. Before you start house shopping, you should go to several banks to discuss the possible extent of your credit since borrowing most of the funds for a house purchase is almost inevitable in today’s housing market. Once you have determined the maximum amount a bank is prepared to lend you, shopping in this price range begins.

When you find your dream home, you must come to a negotiated agreement on the approximate value you are willing to pay and the seller is willing to accept. If you do not have a realtor representing your interests, then I recommend that you seek the advice of a lawyer to commit to paper the details of this offer to purchase. For instance three of the most common caveats in a purchase contract stipulate that your offer is subject to financing, subject to house insurance and subject to a building inspection. In other words, if you cannot secure the financing, house insurance or you are dismayed by the findings in a building inspection report, you can collapse the contract.

Now you have an accepted tentative financial offer subject to certain conditions as defined in this legally binding agreement to purchase. One of the next things you should do is get the building inspected by a qualified building inspection company. This inspection is often not mandatory. However, since the inspection report defines the deficiencies and weaknesses in a building, it is quite common these days for banks and insurance companies to request a copy of your inspection report to determine their risk in financing your building. As well, because this is probably the largest single purchase of your life, you will want to know the condition of the structure, roofing, site conditions, basement, furnace, cosmetic features and electrical and plumbing systems to name a few reported subjects. Sometimes re-negotiation with the seller is required to account for issues that were raised as a result of the findings in your inspection report. After you, the vendor, your bank and (possibly) your insurance agent have all agreed on the defined or re-defined terms contained in the contract, you can remove the “subjects” in your contract and proceed with the closing portion of the sale.

As you can see, purchasing a house is a complex process with the potential for lots of unexpected obstacles along the way to completion. Issues like competing offers, property appraisals, water tests, septic system analysis, financing, insurance, and negotiations all affect the potential success or failure to purchase. These are some of the reasons I recommend engaging a professional realtor to help you navigate these waters.

Establishing an approximate value for house and property

We’re preparing to sell our family home that we’ve owned for 32 years. We haven’t done any renovations except a basement bedroom years ago for our son who has since moved away. We’re in no panic to sell so we’ve been thinking of trying to sell the house ourselves but we’re having trouble figuring out what it’s worth because we live in a remote location with no immediate neighbours to compare values with. Is there a best or most accurate way to figure out how much our home is worth?I can explain in general terms three conventional tools for establishing an approximate value for your home and property, although this is a subject a little beyond my area of expertise. For instance, the provincial government has assessed the value of your house and property to establish the dollar value of your annual property taxes. This is called the “assessed value”. So if you look at your most recent tax assessment notice you will see the amount the government feels your property and home are worth. Unfortunately, this value is often out of sync with another value assessment called “market value”.

Market value is often established by a realtor before (s)he lists your property. Since you intend to try to sell your home without a realtor this market value option may not be available to you. However, this is how it works. A realtor of your choice sets an asking price for your home that (s)he feels will attract buyers and assure you fair value for your home. This value is established using a system of comparisons, including recent sales of similar homes and properties in your area. This market value can vary among realtors, so the trick is to find the value that sells the house for the “right” price in a timely manner.

The third way of establishing value is called appraised value. This value is established by a professional appraiser using criteria and formulae of which I am not familiar. Banks and lending institutions often use and require professional property appraisals to gauge the amount of money they are prepared to lend a prospective purchaser. You can hire an appraiser to provide you with an appraised value to help you establish an asking price. However, appraised values often differ from assessed values as much as assessed values can differ from market values. At the end of the day you may find that using a combination of these tools comes closest to the mark.

Controlling noise from highway traffic

We live in an older farm house between the Slocan River and the highway. Traffic noise from the highway is terrible at times, especially when the chip trucks are traveling, which is most days of the week. Have you got any suggestions for noise control in our house that may limit this awful howling highway sound?I have experienced first hand the noise of which you write. It’s not pleasant to live in the country and listen to the siren sounds more common to life on the banks of a freeway. Fortunately, there are a few things you can do that will decrease the amount of highway noise you experience. Here are a few tips.

Try planting a thick and tall privacy hedge of juniper, cedar or spruce trees. Of course the best species to select will be a tree that branches close to the ground, grows a thick mass of branches and reaches 20 to 30 feet high. Also, select a species that matures quickly so you aren’t waiting for years for the relief you seek. If you can, plant a double row of trees with spacings specified by a local arborist or garden nursery technician.

Of course, there will be a delay no matter how quickly these trees grow. So, in the interim, even if you have good quality thermo-pane windows, here is another recommendation that you will find an effective sound barrier. Contact a local window supplier who can build storm windows. Engage this company to construct exterior or interior mounted storm windows for at least each existing window that faces the highway. If you can afford to install storm windows on the adjacent sides and rear walls of your house, all the better.

In my opinion, the best glazing for reducing the sound transmission is laminated glass. The “sandwiched” layer of shatter resistant plastic (similar to windshield glass) is very effective in diffusing unwanted noise, probably because the sounds are diffused before they can find their way through three plies of material (an outer glass, plastic, and an inner glass). When ordering the windows, for a reasonable additional charge, you can choose a laminated glass with a solar reflective coating that will help keep your house cool in the summer and warmer throughout the cold season. If some of your original windows open for ventilation, the storms windows can also be installed with hinges and opening hardware so you won’t have to remove them to get the benefits of fresh outside air. You can also install glazed storm doors on your exterior entrance doors to complete your sound control project.

Sound proofing materials

We are putting in a new ceiling in our basement area which is now used as a studio. We would like to soundproof the basement activity from the upstairs home activity. My question is, can regular fibreglass be used as soundproofing? If not, is it possible to purchase a sound proofing type of insulation that we can put in between the basement ceiling and the living room floor?There are lots of different ways to develop what the construction industry calls a “sound transmission class rating” (STR) between floors or in walls between rooms. Your carpet or vinyl flooring, plywood sub-floor, floor joists and ceiling in the basement all reduce sound transfer. Each component in this assembly is better or less effective at blocking sound than other components in the assembly. For instance, carpets transfer less sound than vinyl flooring. The floor joists readily transmit sound because solid wood is a resonator. To reduce sound transfer, select additional layers of materials that have proven sound blocking abilities. Then, add as many of these materials to the floor assembly as you can afford. Generally, the more layers you add, the better the sound control.

Building technologists have found that one of the best materials for sound control is a 50 mm (1-1/2 inch) concrete topping installed on the top-side of the sub floor in combination with other sound control materials. This is the way designers and builders get such quiet suites in commercial buildings such as hotels and apartment blocks. However, this is not very practical in an existing residence like yours.

So, the most common solution is to do exactly what you propose. Fiberglas insulation is one of the most frequently used “home owner friendly” materials for controlling sound transfer. Install at least R20 Fiberglas insulation between the floor joists in the basement. If you have 2×10 floor joists and you can afford the extra cost, you can increase your STR rating by installing R32 Fiberglas insulation. Don’t compress the Fiberglas batts because it is the dead air that breaks the sound transfer. Another great soundproofing material is blown cellulose insulation. This material usually requires an installer with the equipment to “full fill” the joist cavities with cellulose. The blown cellulose is held in place with a fibre-mesh membrane stapled to the underside of the floor joists. Because the cellulose is densely packed when it is forced into the joist cavities under pressure, it will probably achieve better sound control than Fiberglas insulation. However, due to the labour and material costs, blown cellulose will probably be a more expensive solution.

Whether you choose Fiberglas or cellulose, you can still go one step further. After the insulation is installed, you can install sound bar (resilient channels) at 16 inches on centre, across the underside of the floor joists. Then attach your 1/2 inch or 5/8 inch ceiling drywall to the sound bar. The air gap that the sound bar creates between the drywall and the floor joists further reduces sound transfer through the floor joists to the both areas above and below the floor assembly. The thicker the drywall layer, the more you decrease the amount of sound transfer. As mentioned previously, the more layers of material you install the more you reduce sound transfer. For example, some folks install a layer of “donna conna” sound board on the underside of the floor joists, then they re-install the resilient channels and a drywall ceiling. The STR you achieve will be proportionate to the layers of materials you install and the amount you can afford to invest.

Note: Thanks to Max Hoedeman for noting that the Code still permits only one set of winders in a flight of stairs.

Bedroom located above unheated single car garage

We own a fourteen year old house outside of Nakusp. Our master bedroom is located above an unheated single car garage. I know the floor in our bedroom is insulated because the water pipes for our ensuite bathroom froze last year and we had to take part of the garage ceiling down to repair the leaks. Even though the bedroom floor is insulated and carpeted, it’s cold most of the year. I’ m wondering if it would help warm the floor if we replaced the overhead single wall metal garage door with an insulated overhead door?Unfortunately, I don’t think you will achieve a warmer floor by installing an insulated garage door because there is a fundamental missing ingredient in this recipe: a lack of heat in the garage. In other words, the new insulated door will not retain heat that is not in the garage initially. A cold, unheated space is still a cold unheated space regardless of the amount of insulation we incorporate surrounding that space. For instance, your camping trailer is just as cold inside as the exterior air until a heat source is added to the interior.

In your case the insulated door may help capture a very small amount of ambient heat that escapes through the insulated bedroom floor, but the ability for this heat to warm your bedroom floor will be negligible. One solution would be to install the insulated overhead door and add a heat source like an electric baseboard in the garage. However, before you do this, you should check the exterior walls of your garage to confirm whether or not they are insulated. If they are insulated, how much R value do these walls have? It is not uncommon to find that garage walls have less than the modern minimum R 20 ( 6 inches) of insulation because builders, insulation installers and a previous owner often agree to cut costs by deeming the garage “an unheated space” or a space not meant for habitation. If you have to upgrade your wall insulation to the minimum R 20 standard, heating this space to achieve a warm floor may become costly.

You may also consider a retrofit in your bedroom. Electric radiant floor heating panels can be installed in your bedroom floor. The panels are controlled by a thermostat and programmable timer on the bedroom wall that can be set to begin and end warming cycles in the floor to suit your schedule. With this equipment you are targeting only the area you want heated, with focused energy at specific intervals. This would be a much more energy efficient alternative to heating the air space of the garage.

Built Green Standards

We are planning to build a new home for ourselves in the valley this summer. We’re trying to design and build it with materials that have a low environmental impact and also achieve a high energy efficiency rating. Since the Federal Government cancelled the Energuide program I’m wondering if there are any standards are out there that we can measure to and who does this type of construction now?Fortunately, even though the Government has dismantled the Energuide program there is another parallel non-profit group working to achieve similar goals in residential housing. The “Built Green” (BC) Program offers a set of building standards which you can use to set energy efficient goals for your new home. These Standards also focus on indoor air quality, resource use (including waste management) and the overall environmental impact your project will have on our eco-system, including the impact of the types of building materials you choose. Interestingly, Built Green Standards are grouped into three categories of performance: gold, silver and bronze which permits you the flexibility to choose the standard of green initiative you can afford.

To participate in the Built Green Program you or your contractor must complete a short training course in green building strategies. Although the course includes many of the older R 2000 practices, Built Green focuses on the-house-as-a-system. For instance, every Built Green home must consume less water, use less energy, produce less greenhouse gas emissions, and have better indoor air quality than a conventional house. It must also be third party tested and certified for energy efficiency and air tightness.

In a very progressive commitment to the eco-system, the City of Calgary now offers reductions in building permit fees for residential buildings constructed to Built Green Standards. For instance, the City Building Department offers builders and home owners rebates of 10% for houses constructed to the Built Green Bronze Standard, 20% for silver and 30 % for gold standard construction. This initiative encourages consumers to build green, and it benefits the Municipality by creating housing that consumes less energy, reduces landfill waste and generates more value added housing stock to the community. These Municipal rebates also help offset some of the builder’s additional up-front costs incurred by building to higher standards than the minimum levels prescribed by the Building Code.

Our community has an opportunity to leave a long term environmentally beneficial legacy with Built Green homes. It would be encouraging to see our municipalities and regional districts cultivate this green initiative by offering these small incentives to green builders. You can visit the Built Green website at

Chimneys on the exterior walls less functional

We have a stone fireplace with the chimney going up the outside wall of the house. There is a fireplace insert to make it more efficient and the stone gradually warms up around the fireplace but the stone chimney is also conducting a lot of the heat to the outside. How can we make this more efficient? Can we insulate the outside stone some how so the stone serves more as a heat sink for the inside of the house?Your concerns for heat loss are well founded. It is a long established fact that chimneys that are located on the exterior walls of buildings are less functional than chimneys located inside the building envelope. For instance, it is likely that your chimney has three sides that are exposed to cool outdoor air. The exposed concrete or masonry walls of your chimney wick heat from the interior of your home to the outdoors, reducing the energy efficiency of your home and ultimately increasing your heating costs.

As well, because your chimney is a cold thermal mass, it cools the hot gases and smoke from the fire as they come in contact with the chimney flue liner on their way to the exterior environment. Cool smoke and flue gases leave significantly more sooty deposits on your flue liner than smoke that remains hot in the flue liner. Chimneys that are located inside the building envelope keep flue gases and smoke warm, and therefore, these inside chimneys create less creosote and soot. Another intrinsic advantage of an inside chimney is the heat sink effect you mention in your question. The thermal mass of a chimney absorbs heat from the fire and the ambient house air. This heat is stored and released over an extended period of time long after the fire has died. This stored heat moderates the house temperatures by leveling the highs and lows of the ambient house air temperatures.

I think your idea to insulate the exterior walls of the chimney is a great proposal. First, have your chimney inspected for internal cracks and defects by a certified “wett technician”. You may consider building a wood-frame or steel stud chase around all three sides of the chimney, tightly secured to the existing exterior walls of your home. Construct the chase with liberal wall cavities to permit a large volume of insulation. Consider using a non-combustible high R value insulation like “Roxul” from the Grand Forks slag debris. Check with your local regional or municipal building inspector to confirm required clearances from the chase to the original chimney and be sure to extend any existing fresh air intakes through the new chase. This chase will definitely help capture and keep the heat from the fireplace and your ambient house air inside your building envelope.

House inspection vs. assessment

I’m about to sell my house and then buy another, and my sale depends on the buyer having a house inspection done. What does the inspection entail and how does this differ from a house assessment, which we had done before moving into this place 30 years ago?A home inspection is distinctly different from a building and property assessment / appraisal. For instance, an appraiser helps to establish the current approximate value or worth of a particular property. Private individuals and lending institutions are the most common clients for appraisers. Their most frequently used services are to establish the immediate value of a property for a vendor or a purchaser. But more often it is a bank or lending institution that needs an appraiser’s opinion on the market value of a property. This professional opinion on value is used by the lender to establish the amount they are prepared to risk on a loan. As well, professional appraisers often provide property appraisals to establish current property values for expropriations, court cases, or business mergers. In other words, a property appraisal is all about establishing value in an ever changing market place.

The function of a building inspection is quite different. An inspector is wise to avoid discussions about the value or the market price of a building or property. This is a subject best left to appraisers and realtors. The function of an inspector is most often compared to the role of a doctor. At the end of a home inspection a good inspector should be able to identify the apparent major and minor weaknesses, faults and flaws in a building. But, like a doctor, the inspector should also be prepared to provide a variety of cures for a wide range of building failures. As well, the inspector’s prescriptions should be tailored to the needs of the property, the building and the client. Recommendations should be practical, appropriate and affordable for the person who will undertake the repairs. This is where an inspector’s years of hands-on construction and inspection experience are invaluable.

The thought of having a home inspection is often terrifying for a home owner. Of course, we all anticipate that there will be problems. Every house, newer or older has defects; there is no such thing as the flawless house. However, an experienced and well trained inspector will also observe and discuss the strengths, features and highlights of a home with a client because it is important to provide the potential purchaser with a balanced assessment of a building. In other words, defects should always be put in a broader context that helps the purchaser make an informed decision.

R value claims of some foil-faced insulation products

Recently I attended a seminar sponsored by a manufacturer of a foiled face insulation product. The presenter at the seminar claimed their insulation had an R value of R 14 for an 8mm thick foil faced material. It may be that the foil face provides the high R value that they claim but I’m suspicious. Do you have any thoughts on these insulation products?You are wise to be suspicious of the R value claims of some foil-faced insulation products. For years there has been a commonly held opinion that these products are miracle insulators. Upon close scrutiny, most of these R value claims are often just hearsay and urban legends. The hard science often does not support the tradeshow sales pitches.

The reason for these discrepancies in R value estimates often comes from the methods used to determine R value when testing a product. In other words, one manufacturer will use vastly different benchmark criteria from another manufacturer, and then compare their product results to competitor’s products. To be fair, all products should be compared to the same benchmarks for consumers to get a true and accurate R value comparison. Unfortunately, this is often not the case with these insulation products.

Here are some recent test results for one brand of foil–faced insulation. The long term thermal resistance of one inch (30mm) of this insulation ranges from R 3.75 to R 4.0. The foil facing does increase the radiant heat barrier performance of the insulation, but this foil face has little effect on the conductive heat loss of the insulation. For instance, an empty wall stud cavity with a 3/8 inch (8 mm) layer of one foil-faced product tested under ASTM procedures had a total thermal resistance of only R 5.2. So, you are wise to be wary of R value claims for some of these products. The R values are sometimes wildly exaggerated. If in doubt, research the testing procedures used to establish their R value claim. In my opinion, look for research that comes from an established independent testing agency like ASTM or WH for the most reliable and accurate test information.

“Net zero energy use” housing design

We will be building a new house next spring. I’ve heard a lot of discussion about “net zero energy use” housing design so I did some research and most of the ideas include very expensive technology like ground source heat pumps and water heat recovery systems. I wondering if you could suggest any strategies to reduce energy use that would be less costly but effective?Unfortunately, saving energy (and money) in the long term usually means spending energy (and money) in the short term. The good news is that the short term costs to make your new home more energy efficient will be amortized quickly over the life cycle of the house you and many other families will enjoy for years to come. Here are a few simple suggestions that will pay you and the environment back quickly.

First, when designing your floor plans, consider the size of the building footprint. Smaller houses use less energy than large houses. A footprint of 1200 square feet or less will easily provide for the needs of most families. As energy costs continue to soar, the sprawling houses of yesteryear, much like gas guzzling cars, will become less and less marketable to energy conscious consumers. So, you can be confident that your new home will have long-term re-sale appeal.

If possible, ensure that your new home is sited with the long axis running east – west so you can take advantage of passive and active solar panels if you choose to incorporate photovoltaic hot water heat and supplemental electrical power on the roof. Situate most of your window fenestrations on the south wall. On this wall, choose window glazing that captures solar gain. Incorporate a large roof overhang on the south wall to control overheating during summer months. On the other walls, use smaller triple glazed windows that retain the maximum R value within the building envelope. Install thermal screen doors outboard of all your exterior doors.

Insulate your attic to R100. To achieve proper attic ventilation with this value, you may need to adjust your roof trusses to a “high heel” design that will accommodate the additional insulation thickness at the exterior walls. Insulate your walls to R40+ by incorporating double staggered 2”x 6” framing and high density blown or fiberglass insulation. Consider using straw bale wall construction to capitalize on the best wall R values and the natural aesthetics. Use a Styrofoam form system for you concrete foundation walls to achieve at least R20 insulation values.

Be sure your builder implements R2000 building practices. In other words, your contractor should be familiar with all the newest strategies for reducing thermal bridging, caulking and flashing details, rain screen principles and the fundamentals of new mechanical technologies like solar panel installation, heat exchangers and heat pump technologies. When choosing equipment that consumes energy, ensure that all your lights and appliances offer optimal energy efficiency. Look for new technology like LED and compact fluorescent lighting and Energy Star rated appliances. Zero energy houses are the vanguard of the building industry. Your efforts to achieve zero energy consumption will ensure your comfort, economy and market value for many years into the future.

Water coming into basement

We are thinking about buying a house that has a wet basement. It’s a private sale and the owners have already told us that the basement floor gets wet and water comes in around a big rock outcrop that forms part of the basement foundation wall. Do you think there are ways to change this situation or at least control it, or will we always be dealing with a wet basement forever?Without seeing the particular site conditions affecting this basement, it is difficult to pinpoint the possible sources of water coming into this basement. But I can give some generic suggestions and reasons for the wet basement you describe.

There are two categories of water that affect basements: ground and surface water. For instance, if water is “pushing” through the basement concrete slab, it is probably because of hydrostatic pressure. In other words, ground water under pressure comes through the floor because this basement presents less resistance than the rock fissures and soil below the concrete slab. In other words, because the concrete slab is less resistant to this pressure, the ground water rises through the slab into the basement. This type of ground water penetration is much more difficult to control and eliminate than surface water.

If there is any hope in eliminating this water from a basement, you must start by providing the ground water with a path of travel that is less resistant than the concrete slab it is pushing through. This is easier said than done because it involves understanding where the water source is and then devising a way to tap into it and drain it away before it gets under the concrete slab. There are several ways to address ground water control. Which method you choose is determined by particular site conditions. One generic approach is to dig a trench uphill of the basement and install a “french drain” that intercepts the ground water before it gets to the basement. But, there is no guarantee this will work. Ground water has a mind of its own and is not easy to predict or anticipate. Often, it will bypass an interceptor and continue to plague a homeowner. There are several other more site specific solutions that may be worth investigating.

The water you describe that is seeping in around the boulder is probably related to poor control of surface water. This type of water is much easier to capture than ground water. Here are some easy and relatively inexpensive ways to control surface water. Start by installing gutters and downspouts on all the eaves of the house. You don’t want to dump thousands of litres of roof water beside your basement walls, so also install 8 or 10 foot leaders on the ends of the downspouts to carry this roof water away from the foundation walls.

Also, look at the way the ground slopes around your foundation walls. If there are negative slopes pushing water toward the foundation, these slopes will also contribute to surface water entry around the boulder. Of course re-sloping negative grades can be expensive and difficult to achieve, often requiring retaining walls and extensive yard work. So, start with the gutters, downspouts and leaders.

Cedar (stink) bugs

I have lived at Fletcher Creek for 14 years and built my house in 2005. This year there is a plague of cedar bugs like I have never seen before. They are going into my vinyl soffits as there are cedar fascia boards up there. I also have cedar trim and decks but the house is stucco and the roof is steel. I realize they are harmless to humans but what will they do to my house? Is there ANYTHING that will keep these bugs away?Everyone in the outlying areas is commenting and complaining about the dramatic increase in numbers of cedar (stink) bugs this year. So, if it’s any consolation, you are not alone. Here are a few interesting facts about cedar bugs that I copied from an Internet search. Once these insects find their way into your attic or wall and floor cavities, they become semi-dormant for the winter. Those that survive will move to the outdoors in early spring to reside in any nearby coniferous trees. The bugs feed on the developing seeds and early flowers of different species of conifers. Females lay rows of eggs (which hatch in about ten days) on tree needles. Young nymphs begin to feed on green cones and needles of pine and Douglas fir and pass through five stages until they reach adulthood by late August. The nymphs are orange and brown, becoming reddish brown as they develop. Adults feed on ripening conifer seeds until they seek their winter quarters. There is only one generation per year.

Unfortunately, cedar bugs are very difficult to completely exclude from the home. The best action is to attempt to seal all the openings in your exterior building envelope. When you start to look closely at your exterior, you’ll find dozens if not hundreds of small breaches in siding soffits fascia door and window trim etc. You should also check soffit and gable end vents for damaged screens and install non-combustible screening on your chimneys and fireplaces to mechanically block their points of entry. In other words, if you really are serious about eliminating entry points, you will have to seal every possible minor gap, breach and crack in your entire building envelope.

Unfortunately, even your best efforts will meet with limited success. Preventing all these bugs from finding a way inside is virtually impossible. For instance, during a recent home inspection I saw cedar bugs between the double panes of a commercially made thermo-sealed window unit. Fortunately, cedar bugs are harmless, and they “play dead” when touched. Of course, when you handle them, they give off that distinctive cedar-like odour that transfers to your hands, and killing them just increases the odour they emit. So, those bugs that do circumvent your sealing work can be easily disposed of by picking them up with a disposable tissue and putting them back outside.. As far as I know, there are no organic or chemical pesticides specifically designed for controlling these pests.

Window frames and glazing

We are starting construction of a new house on the lake and our contractor has asked us to start selecting our “window and door package”. I had no idea there were so many choices in window frames and glazing. Can you provide a little background on modern glazing choices, hopefully, in simple terms, so I can get a basic understanding of our options before we start selecting products?The range of products available is daunting, but I think that window technology is an important one to understand because windows account for approximately 35% to 50% of the heat loss in residential buildings. They are holes in your wall through which heat passes from the interior to the exterior and vise versa. A good window will reduce heat loss to the exterior and capitalize on solar gain in the winter.

However, it is a little more complex than that. Let’s start with modern window technology. Modern windows are built as sealed unit thermo pane (double glass) windows. Each pane of glass has two surfaces. You will have an option to have one of the four glazed surfaces coated with a low emissivity (loE) coating. The location of this coating on one of the four glass surfaces significantly affects the window’s performance characteristics. For instance, when you want to pull solar heat into the building, the best location for this loE coating is on the third glass surface from the exterior. In other words, windows with this feature take best advantage of the sun’s ability to reduce your heating requirements by drawing solar energy into your home.

However, there will be locations in your home, perhaps along the south wall where you may want to reduce the heat of the sun so your home will be cooler during summer months. The loE coating on these windows should be installed on the second glazing surface from the exterior. If you are planning to install a heat pump / air conditioner, this window glazing choice will reduce energy consumption for summer cooling or simply help keep your unconditioned house cooler in warm weather.

The loE coating can contribute about 10% to 27% of the total energy requirements of your home. As well, you have an option to fill the vacuum between the two panes of glass with inert argon gas. This gas significantly increases the thermal performance of the window (its R value). Some European countries mandate triple glazing, because windows are the single biggest contributor to heat loss in a building. This fact may also affect your decision to install skylights which are essentially holes through your ceiling and roof, the last and most important heat loss membrane in your house.

Replacing paneling on modular home with gyproc

We are in the process of replacing the paneling in our modular home with gyproc. Should we remove the paneling on all walls or is it all right to leave it on the interior walls and just cover it with gyproc?Fortunately, there is no need to go to the extra work, mess and expense of removing the wood veneer paneling on either the interior or exterior walls. Just remove all the window, door and corner moldings first. This is also a great opportunity to upgrade your vapour barrier on the exterior walls. Often, homes built before 1982 came equipped with 2 or 4 mil vapour barrier that was poorly installed and poorly sealed. These leaky vapour barriers permit moist air to condense in the wall and ceiling cavities, creating opportunities for mould and rot. So installing a 6 mil UV rated poly vapour barrier against your exterior walls before you install new gyproc will help seal the exterior wall cavities. Also consider installing a dehumidistat, inter-connected to your bathroom fan to evacuate any build-up of moist air in your home.

You will also need to consider how you are going to deal with or treat the window and door frames because the additional layer of gypsum will add about 5/8 inch thickness to your walls. One option is to overlap the existing window and door frames with gypsum but hold back 3/8 inch all around (this hold–back is called a “reveal”). Then cap the gypsum edges with “J” mold and finish with mudding, sanding and painting. The advantage of this strategy is that you avoid having to build out your window and doorframes and you don’t have to install new window and door trim moldings.

Chemical free and no off-gas insulation

I’m in the process of building a straw bale house with a vaulted ceiling. All the materials I’ve selected for construction so far have been chemical free and do not off-gas. However, now that I’ve started to look for insulation for the vaulted ceiling, all I can find is Fiberglas batts and blown cellulose, both of which do not meet my criteria for chemical free insulation. Do you have any advice or recommendations you can offer for an insulation product that will meet these criteria?One product that you haven’t mentioned and that you may consider researching is rock wool. Essentially, it is an expanded, inert rock by-product often derived from combinations of basalt, limestone and / or mining slag. For instance, a local company in the Kootenays produces a high quality, non- combustible, high R-value rock wool insulation from the abandoned mine tailings located at Grand Forks.

Other “organic” alternatives include wool batts, cornhusks, and sawdust mixed with lime. However, there are problems associated with these products. Even when mixed with lime, sawdust can spontaneously combust due to a phenomenon called pyrolosis. As well, if your structure is being constructed with a building permit, the local building inspector will have objections to use of alternative insulation materials that are not certified for use in the BC Building Code. The logic behind this seemingly intransigent position goes like this.

The building prescriptions and materials that are dictated to builders through the Code ensure that future purchasers of the home you build can expect a minimum performance level from the products that you have chosen for your home today. Unfortunately, even though you may be satisfied with the performance of an “unapproved” product, in the 100-year life expectancy of a building, the province wants assurances that the most expensive purchase a future buyer makes will meet certain criteria. Even though it often stifles creativity in the building process, the Code does accomplish its mandate for achieving a set of minimum expectations. However, there are options.

Often, the local building inspector will open the door to new ideas by asking you to provide evidence that the product you are proposing to use will meet the existing Code standard. For instance, if you can prove that the insulation product you intend to use meets the same R-value and is equivalent to other criteria specified in the insulation standard, the inspector may accept your proposal. Be prepared to do lots of research on your proposal. Often, this is how new products come to acceptance.

Water from tub has soaked through ceramic tiles

The tiles around our bathtub are bulging and coming loose from the walls on all three sides of the tub enclosure. And I can’t seem to control the mould that keeps re-appearing along the base of the tiles where they join the tub. Is there any product or quick fix solution to remedy the loose tiles and mould?From your description of the problem, it seems that moisture from showers and water splashes from the tub have soaked through the ceramic tiles. When this happens, the water swells the substrate to which the tiles are attached. Often, in older homes, trades people and homeowners installed conventional drywall or plywood as a substrate behind tiles. Unfortunately, these materials are not impervious to moisture. To make the situation worse, most folks forget to re-seal the ceramic tile grout on a semi-annual basis. So, moisture continuously wicks through the grout to the wood or drywall “sponge”. Inevitably and eventually, the mortar that binds the ceramic tiles to the substrate fails from constant wetting and drying.

Unfortunately, I don’t know of any quick fix for this problem. In my opinion, the most permanent solution is to remove all the tiles: then remove all the substrate. You will probably find some rotting wood somewhere in this assembly, so check the sub floor under the bathtub as well as the fall sheathing and framing materials.

After the demolition and repairs, I recommend that you install “aqua board” or “wonder board” as a substrate for the new ceramic tiles. Aqua board is a gypsum-based (drywall) product that is water resistant .Wonder board is a cement-based concrete fibre board. Although it is a little harder to cut and fit, I prefer the wonder board because unlike the paper finish on aqua board, it seems less likely to absorb moisture. Don’t forget to thoroughly seal the new tile grout and re-seal it on a semi-annual basis.

Looking for signs of dampness in basement

We just bought and moved into an older home in Castlegar. There is a fully finished basement with old linoleum tiles on the concrete floor throughout. We’d like to remove the tiles and replace them with vinyl flooring and carpet. Because we don’t know the history of this basement we’re concerned that the floor may get damp or wet in the spring. So we’re wondering if it would be a good precaution to construct a wood subfloor and then lay the new vinyl and carpet on it to ensure they will not be affected by dampness?Like most things in life it is a bit of a gamble to know which course to take. But here are some factors you can consider before making your decision. Look carefully at the existing lino tiles, especially along the exterior basement walls that retain the highest levels of earth outside the concrete walls. Also check carefully in locations where the downspouts or rain gutters drain against the foundation walls. If the tiles are curled or lifting or the baseboards are water stained you can expect that your basement floor gets seasonally damp. You could expect that the same problems will occur with your new vinyl flooring (blistering and lifting) and carpeting that will possibly get damp and mouldy. In other words, if these signs are present, it would be reasonable to install a wood sub-floor to help keep your new flooring dry.

However, if your existing flooring and baseboards show no signs of moisture damage and there are no other signs of dampness like water stains or the smell of dampness, you could assume that this is a fairly accurate historical record of a dry basement. You may also take comfort in the fact that most areas of Castlegar are well-drained sandy soil because this area is a series sandy benches left behind as the Columbia River receded to its present location. These forgiving soil conditions help keep most Castlegar basements dry even when poor building details such as no gutters, downspouts and leaders on roof eaves aggravate and encourage damp and wet conditions in basements.

If you decide you can afford the additional expense of a wood sub-floor, or you need the sub-floor to protect your new flooring, here are some f actors to consider. First, you can save yourselves the work of removing the old lino tiles (which may contain encapsulated asbestos) because you can construct the wood sub-floor directly over your old lino tiles. You will also have an opportunity to re-seal your concrete slab from the potential hazards of radon gas. This can be done by installing a well-sealed 6 mil polyethylene membrane over the old tiles before you lay the wood “sleepers” and plywood sub-floor is installed. Be sure to seal all the seams and penetrations in the polyethylene and caulk the edges of the plastic tight to the interior and exterior walls. The tighter the seal, the better protection you will gain from radon gas. The wood sub-floor will also be slightly warmer and more flexible to walk and sit on than the concrete floor in direct contact with the vinyl and carpet.

Crawlspace has been excavated into a perennial high water table

The crawlspace under our house is always damp. The ground is wet and the soil is saturated with moisture all the time. In one of your columns you recommended gutters as a way for controlling moisture in basements. So we installed gutters, downspouts and leaders last year. But they haven’t improved the problem at all. We also re-trenched a small, marshy creek along our front property line to help keep the water away from our house, but the problem persists. Have you got any ideas about a cause and / or cure for our crawlspace?It sounds like you have tried some of the typical strategies for controlling moisture in crawlspaces and basements without success. So let’s consider some other possible problems and solutions. It’s interesting that the water problems in your crawlspace are consistent throughout the year. Usually wet basements and crawlspaces are most problematic during wet weather and wet seasons and will decrease during dryer seasons. As well, the marshy creek on your property line may indicate that your crawlspace has been excavated into a perennial high water table.

Although most seasonally damp, wet crawlspaces and basements can be improved by controlling surface water (i.e. run-off from roofs and negative slopes towards the building), high water tables are much more difficult to control. Often these problems require the expert advise of a person trained in hydrology.

However, here are a few of a long list of the things you may expect to hear from a hydrologist. Controlling a high water table can include installation of sub-surface drains such as french drains, draintile, drain rock, drywells, berms, fabric membranes, pumps and waterproof foundation coatings. In basements with a concrete slab, a high water table can push water through the slab due to a phenomenon called hydrostatic pressure. In other words, a high water table is often not easily eliminated. Control is often the next best objective. Therefore, the recommendations of a hydrologist are the most reliable approach to mitigating the effects of high water tables and hydrostatic pressure.

Metal connectors and nails are all rusting on weep through deck

Four years ago my friend and I built a weep through deck using pressure treated wood for the floor joists and beam. Now I notice that the metal connectors and nails are all rusting wherever water gets at the wood and connector contact points. I used galvanized metal connectors and coated nails so I’m not sure what’s causing the rust. Have you any suggestions?This is a problem that commonly appears in wet coastal climates, especially if there is an ocean salt content in the air. However, this problem can still occur here in the Kootenays when the connectors and pressure treated wood are exposed to significant and ongoing moisture or rain water. In your circumstance you have either chosen the wrong connector and the wrong nails for the job or the coating on the connectors and nails was poor quality and has failed.

For instance, all connectors in contact with pressure treated wood used outdoors should be hot dipped galvanized, stainless steel or copper. Aluminum products are not recommended unless you use spacers or physical barriers between the pressure treated wood and the connectors. As well, not all galvanized connectors are equal. Electro-plated galvanized connectors will not function well in this application. Hot dipped galvanized connectors are the right ones to purchase. However, to further muddy the waters, not all hot dipped galvanized connectors are created equal. The thickness of the galvanized coating can be so marginal that it will not protect the base metal indefinitely. The galvanized coating is considered thick enough to work in this application if the connector coating has been manufactured and applied to the ASTM A653 G60 or G90 Standard.

Your nails or screws should also be hot dipped galvanized, not electro-plated. Often, even though the nails are hot dipped, the hammer will chip the galvanizing and leave an area of each nail exposed to water and subsequent rust. You may think that the solution would be to use stainless steel nails but this is also not a good strategy. Do not mix and match stainless steel with hot dipped galvanized metal components in use with pressure treated wood. If you use stainless steel fasteners, then all your connectors should be stainless steel as well. The same is true for flashings used in contact with pressure treated wood. Use hot dipped or stainless flashings and the same type of metal fasteners. Alternatives such as polymer, ceramic, plastic and vinyl coated connectors, fasteners and flashings may also be available at some building supply stores. It is quite likely that you will be able to replace your rusted fasteners and connectors. So, consider replacing them with one of the products mentioned here.

Disclouration of carpets under doors and around baseboard heaters

We installed new cream coloured carpets three years ago throughout the main floor of our home. We’ve noticed that there are dark discolouration lines under the interior doors and around our electric baseboard heaters. Do you have any ideas about what may be causing these stains?Disclouration of carpets under doors and around baseboard heaters is a common problem in houses that have a high amount of fine air borne particles in the home. The most common sources of these particles is smoke from cigarettes, candles, gas pilot lights, incense, lint from vacuum cleaners and clothes dryers, and clay and concrete dust from outside a building. These very fine particles float and remain suspended in the indoor air. When this air moves under the interior doors and around the baseboard heaters it deposits these air borne particles in the filtering carpet pile.

Another common place to see a build-up of these particles is on window blinds, electrical appliances and plastic laminate surfaces. These air borne particles become electrically charged and attracted to other surfaces that hold electrostatic charges. These particles are also often responsible for the “ghosting” affect you see when exterior wall framing is visible through the interior drywall surface. If you are using a home ionizer this will exacerbate the problem. Home ionizers tend to cause dirty walls because the ion machine is electrically charging these particles that will in turn be attracted to electrostatically charged interior surfaces. Reducing the sources of these particles and filtering your indoor air through an air exchanger, a good quality furnace filter or other filtering system will help reduce the quantity of these particles.

Asbestos insulation in poor and damaged condition

We just purchased an old heritage house in uphill, Nelson. When we were moving furniture into the storage room in the basement some of the insulation on the heat pipes from the hot water boiler got damaged by the larger pieces of furniture. When I looked at the rest of the boiler piping I noticed quite a bit of loose asbestos insulation throughout the basement. Should I be concerned?First you should determine if this pipe insulation contains asbestos. Some older pipe insulation is a fiberglass material with a cloth cover. The two types are readily distinguished because the asbestos pipe insulation is white and crumbly when broken. If you have asbestos insulation in poor and damaged condition there is opportunity for the asbestos to become airborne, which can present a health hazard to you and your family.

However, there are things you can do to eliminate or control this risk. The most expensive and time consuming remedy is to hire a professional asbestos abatement company to remove all the pipe insulation and replace it with a modern pipe insulation. Consider this approach if the insulation is badly damaged or you are particularly concerned about exposure to asbestos products. Because this process requires sophisticated equipment, specialized knowledge and skills I would not recommend that you attempt removal yourself.

A second, less expensive alternative, if the insulation is not too badly damaged, is to encapsulate all the insulation. First seal and repair all the broken, loose and damaged insulation with a good quality duct tape. There are different grades and qualities of duct tape, so select the best. Then apply an asbestos encapsulant resin emulsion over all the pipe insulation. These products are washable, fire resistant, hard-surfaced and easily repaired if damaged. One product I am familiar with is “Bakor” 120-18 and “Bakor” 120-19. If you visit the Hazmasters website you can review these products and select the one that best suits your application.

Hardwood floor squeaks

I have an old one storey house with an unfinished basement. The hardwood floors on the main floor squeak – especially in the hallway to the bedroom. Is there any cure for these annoying squeaks?There’s an old saying that a squeaky floor keeps people honest, so although this is a common problem, it may not be a bad thing. The squeaks are usually caused by nails that have worked loose over years of service. The wood flooring rubs on the nails and squeaks when a person’s weight bears down on the floor. As the person’s foot pressure is released, the flooring squeaks against the nail again. Sometimes when you refinish a wood floor, the oil finish will seep through the tongues & grooves of the flooring into the nail holes and lubricate the wood sufficiently to stop or reduce the squeaking, but there are no guarantees.

Fortunately, your basement ceiling is unfinished so you have the opportunity to try a few alternative solutions. For instance, you can try driving thin wedges between the joists and the sub-floor from the underside in the basement. My experience with this approach is that it is marginally successful. A second solution involves getting a family member to stand on each board or series of boards that squeak. From the underside, with an electric screw driver and drywall screws, drive screws through the sub-floor into the underside of the hardwood flooring, sucking it down to the sub-floor. Selecting the right length of screw is critical. You want to leave enough room on the top side of the flooring for sanding and re-finishing without hitting the tips of these screws in the future.

Fortunately, you have an accessible basement ceiling that allows access to the underside of the flooring. If you had a finished ceiling in the basement, the only other alternative would be to drill counter-sink holes through the top-side surface of the hardwood. You would then drive screws through the face of the hardwood flooring and plug the holes with matching hardwood doweling.

Weather resistant design features – Part 1

This coming spring we will be starting construction on our new home. The building site is very exposed to the elements because the lot is located right on the east shore of Kootenay Lake. I’ve been recording very high gusting winds and driven rain over the last year at the building site and wondering if I should be incorporating any additional features into our design that will give the house an extra defense against all this extreme weather?
Part OneThere are two distinct topics to discuss here. For clarity we’ll look at them in separate articles over the next two weeks. Let’s start with your building envelope. You are correct to be concerned about incorporating more weather resistant design features into your building. In fact, any building on an exposed site is much more vulnerable to water penetration than a structure protected by other buildings or sheltered by a forest. The most vulnerable homes are tall, two or three storey structures with magnificent views over water or panoramic vistas of valleys below. The two and three storey walls of these buildings are exposed to the tremendous pressures of wind driven rain.

Building technologists now acknowledge that conventionally installed siding and building paper (face sealed systems) are just not adequate to stop water from penetrating into the wall cavities in these weather conditions. These face sealed systems include stucco and traditional wood and composite siding materials over breather paper or house wrap. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that your window and door openings will probably leak water into the wall cavities if they are papered and flashed in the conventional way. These conventional face sealed methods were at the heart of failures in the infamous “leaky condo” crisis. But the same problems can occur in smaller buildings with exposed sites such as yours. Here’s what you may consider in your design to help avert wet, mouldy walls.

The cutting edge technology called “rain screen’ design is actually a very simple detail to incorporate in any exterior wall construction. It is interesting to note that rain screen design will be required by the new BC Building Code on all new buildings constructed throughout the west coast of BC commencing December 15 2006 and rain screen design is recommended in locations such as yours throughout the rest of BC. Rain screen is as simple as installing vertical wood batons (like 1”x 4”) over 30 minute breather paper. Then install your siding on the batons. The cavity created by the vertical batons ensures a capillary break between the backside of the siding and the rest of the wall assembly which in turn prevents rain driven water from wetting the cavity wall. I have just touched on the basics here. There are many variations on rain screen design and several recommended papering and window / door flashing details and that you should research or discuss with your designer. Next week we’ll consider fasteners.

Weather resistant design features – Part 2

This coming spring we will be starting construction on our new home. The building site is very exposed to the elements because the lot is located right on the east shore of Kootenay Lake. I’ve been recording very high gusting winds and driving rain over the last year at the building site and wondering if I should be incorporating any additional features into our design that will give the house an extra defense against all this extreme weather?
Part TwoLast week we discussed “rain screen” technology and how this very simple construction detail will prevent wind driven water from wetting the inside of a framed wall cavity. Because you have chosen a fully exposed building site that will expose your home to seasonal gale force gusting winds, we should also discuss fasteners.

We only have to refer back to recent images of storm ravaged roofless buildings with collapsed walls to realize that modern “stick framed” buildings rely almost entirely on the strength of fasteners for their wind and earthquake resistance. In your location, I think it would be prudent to install mechanical joint fasteners, at least at all roof -to-wall connections. These mechanical fasteners are metal “L” or U” shaped brackets or saddles that tie the roof framing members to the top wall plates. You may even want to mechanically fasten the top plates to the studs and wall framing to floors at occasional intervals, especially if you have large “view” window openings in walls. These walls with large openings have very little plywood or OSB sheathing tying them to the studs and floor system so they are more vulnerable to gusting winds.

Most wind damage to a house is caused by a failure of the nails that hold it together. In fact, there haven’t been many improvements in nail technology since the humble little fastener was invented. Most people just grab the cheapest nails they can purchase and start building. Recently, building technologists have realized that the nail is often the source of building collapse in “stick frame” construction. Nails fail when they rip through the sheathing, the shanks pull out of the wood framing, or the shank snaps under a lateral load. In response to these failures, Bostitch (and possibly other companies) have created a new generation of nails. Common failures of the generic nail are now addressed by bigger nail heads, screw and barb shanks, a twist at the top of the shank that locks the head in place, and high-carbon alloy steel shanks. Bostitch markets these fasteners for pneumatic nail guns under the brand names “Sheather Plus” and “Hurriquake” although other similar products under different brand names may be available at your local building supply store. Generic nails in a structure will fail when subjected to wind loads between 10,000 and 13,500 pounds of force. This new breed of fastener resists wind loads up to 20,000 pounds, and they are only nominally more expensive than traditional nails.

Opening and closing crawlspace vents

My home has a crawlspace under it. I know I’m supposed to be opening and closing the vents but I don’t know when.Here are a few tips that will help keep your crawlspace healthy. Open the vents in early spring and don’t re-seal them until late fall. Make sure the screens are in good repair and seal all other openings to ensure insects and small animals don’t take up residence under your home.

If your crawlspace is not heated consider insulating the underside of your floor. Hold the insulation in place with chicken wire or 1″ x 4″ strapping. Install several vents to ensure there is good air circulation, especially at shallow “hard to get to” areas. If you don’t have an access hatch or service trenches to the shallow areas of the crawlspace it would be beneficial to do so for periodic inspection of your home’s structure. If you have a dirt floor install a 6-mil U. V. rated polyethylene vapour barrier throughout. Overlap and seal the plastic seams with “tuck tape” and caulk the plastic tight to pony walls, footings, plumbing pipes and foundation walls with acoustic sealant or tape. When complete, you will have created a much healthier crawlspace for you and you home.

Finding studs behind drywall

Whenever I go to hang a picture or mount a towel bar I always have trouble finding a stud behind the drywall. I’ve tried commercial “studfinders” and they seem just as unreliable as guessing. Do you have any recommendations or tricks for the next time I’m exercising my handy woman skills around my home?You raise a good point about the unreliability of stud finders. I’ve also found that unless you purchase an expensive one, in general, they are unreliable. The frustration of trying to find some backing material to mount a painting or hang a planter is quite universal. So here is one method that requires a little care, but it works.

Take a small piece of cloth or fabric and attach it to the head of your hammer with a rubber band. Also bring along a 2-inch finishing nail and a tape measure. Then pick the location on the wall where you would like to find a stud. Near the base of the wall, about three to four inches (90 to 100 mm) above the floor start tapping with the hammer in short intervals along the wall in a line parallel to the floor. (The cloth on the hammer head will prevent the hammer from leaving marks on the paint.) Listen for a change in tone from a hollow tone to a higher dense tone as you progress along the wall. When you hear this change to a dense, higher pitch take the finishing nail and tap it into the drywall with the hammer. If you don’t hit the stud, angle the nail in the same hole, tapping it in again to the left and right. Occasionally you may have to make two or three small nail holes before you find the stud but it will be there. Because the nail holes are at the bottom of the wall they will be inconspicuous. (People’s natural instinct in vision is to drift from the centre of a wall to the top.)

Most houses built in the last 60 years followed a standard pattern of stud spacing. So, once you have found one stud, take the tape and measure about 16 inches (400 mm) or 24 inches (600mm) in either direction to find each additional stud. If your home is older than this then the spacing of studs may range from twenty inches (500mm) to 36 inches (900 mm) or more. You’ll just have to experiment. To complicate matters, occasionally a few old houses were constructed entirely without studs. The walls were simply assembled with layers of diagonal, horizontal and vertical one inch boards laminated to each other with a lot of nails and a plaster finish. Finding backing for your towel bar is easy in this circumstance. Just install the screws wherever you choose.

Chalky, white powder on concrete: efflorescence

There are patches of chalky, white powder along my concrete basement walls. What causes this? Is it dangerous or harmless?This harmless, white powdery substance is the salty byproduct of a chemical reaction between water and the ingredients in your concrete walls. The technical name for this powder is efflorescence. It indicates that there is seasonal dampness affecting your foundation walls. Efflorescence is a sign that you should be taking measures to control the surface water outside your foundation walls.