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Home Improvement Q&A

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Q: In what area of the home do accidents most often occur and what can be done to the home to prevent them?

A: The most dangerous room in the house is the bathroom, where falls are most likely to occur, according to Julie Herriges, CKBR of Urban Herriges & Sons Inc. in Mukwonago. To ensure that the bathroom is as safe as possible, Herriges recommends that homeowners install grab bars in the bathtub, shower, and toilet areas. “Remember, when installing grab bars, they need to support significant weight and should be installed with the proper backing,” she said.

When entering and exiting the bathtub, always sit on the side of the tub and swing the legs over, rather than stepping over the edge.

Also consider the temperature of the water, especially important if there are children in the home. Many experts recommend that water heaters should be set between 120 degrees and 125 degrees, a safe level.

Herriges also advises to carefully make flooring selections. “Always keep in mind that wet surfaces are slippery. Choose flooring that has some sort of texture to help negate this hazard.”

Q: When getting a new A/V system installed, what type of programming should be done, and what type of training should be provided to the homeowner?

“The new A/V system should be set up with all components functioning and any basic programming done so that the system is ready to use,” said Dave Roffers, president of Sound Stage in Mequon.

According to Roffers, full service dealers like Sound Stage instruct customers on how the basic functions work and how to operate the new system. “In many cases, we prepare easy to understand written instructions for the customer to operate their equipment,” he said. “We try to make things as easy as possible for the customer to understand.”

When possible, the installer should try to get the programming down to one remote control. “If that cannot be accomplished, we suggest a fully unified alternate remote that can be added and programmed at an additional cost to the customer,” Roffers said.

Q: I would like to redo my bathroom, but I have a limited budget. What about just resurfacing the bathtub?

“We have never done the re-spraying of tubs, as we feel that it is not a long lasting, satisfactory solution to the problem,” said Mike Schmitz, owner of Etch Coat & Glaze in New Berlin. “Instead, we offer the acrylic tub liner as an alternative solution that will be a long lasting answer.”

From what Schmitz has heard from homeowners, they’re much happier with the results of the liner. “It is more costly, but it is a one time expense,” he said.

“When a tub is used often, the potential for a chip in the finish and consequent bubbling and peeling of the surface is too great for a homeowner be completely satisfied for a long period of time.”

Q: I have a small, traditional sink in my bathroom and I’m thinking of changing to a pedestal sink to save room. Will I have problems during installation?

“Pedestal sinks are very popular right now and come in every style from antique to modern,” said David Treutelaar, owner of Waukesha Plumbing in Mukwonago. “They come in a variety of materials from ceramic to glass, and sizes range from 19” to 40”, with 24” being the most common size.”

There are a few things to consider when switching to a pedestal sink. “In changing from a traditional sink to a pedestal sink, it’s important to open up the wall to adjust the plumbing,” he said. “The drain and water pipes will be partially exposed and need to be close together to hide behind the pedestal base.”

In order to bolt the sink to the wall properly, Treutelaar said wood backing (usually a 2’ x 6’) would be needed inside the wall. “Never install a pedestal sink with toggle bolts instead of wood backing, because the sink will eventually fall off the wall.”

Not all pedestal sinks are designed the same. “Installation of a pedestal sink can be very tricky, even for a plumber, depending on the brand name and design,” he said. “ Some designs have the bolt holes for attaching the sink to the wall directly under the faucet, which means the faucet must be installed after the sink is bolted in place.”

He also said the base must be bolted to the floor, which can be awkward given the limited space. “Since the drain pipes are hidden inside the base, it usually has to be done by feel instead of visually. To complete a quality job, make sure the exposed drain and water piping on a pedestal sink are all chrome,” he said.

“A quality installation of a pedestal sink is typically difficult for a homeowner, and is normally a job for a qualified plumber,” he said.

Q: When someone is taking a shower in our full bath and someone else flushes the toilet in the half-bath, the water in the shower gets scalding hot. When we first bought the house we didn’t have this problem. What can be causing it now?

According to Gary Gohde at Big Dog Plumbing in Sussex, there are a lot of variables that need to be considered in this situation.

  1. How old is the home?
  2. How long have you lived there?
  3. What kind of piping is used?
  4. Has anything been remodeled that could have affected the plumbing?

“Based on the situation, I would think the pressure balancing mechanism in the shower valve has probably worn out,” Gohde said.

If the homeowner has lived in the home for 15 years, there is a chance that the pressure in the house has changed during that time. “Rust chips or debris can be caught in the line. The valve may be corroded. Debris plugging the valve could be causing more pressure on the hot than on the cold,” Gohde said. “The problem may be in the shower valve itself, if the cartridge is not as lubed up as it was when first moving in the home.”

Q: What can I do to seal my masonry chimney from leaks?

“The majority of chimney leaks occur either from the concrete cap or crown, or from the metal flashing at the roof line,” said Michael Lempke of Grafton’s Jen-Chris Company.

“Check to make sure the joint at which the metal flashing abuts the masonry is neither cracked or split,” he said. The concrete cap should also be checked for any movement or structural cracks. “These should be sealed with a poly-urethane sealant,” he said.

Then, mortar joints in the chimney itself should be checked for soundness. “Cracked or deteriorated joints should be ground out and tuckpointed,” Lempke said.

Dave Schmidt of Mr. Chimney, Inc. in Germantown said, “If you are considering a store bought water repellent to apply to a strong, stable chimney, be sure to look for a product that will allow the masonry to breath.” He advises looking for water “repellent” rather than water “sealer.”

“Cold weather leaks are most often caused by condensation of exhaust gases coming from the furnace or water heater,” Schmidt said. “If you are having an active leak, it is a good idea to have a chimney professional check your chimney.”

Q: How do you remove a stain from concrete?

To begin with, Anna Baird of Coello & Associates in Waukesha recommends purchasing a concrete cleaning solution from your local hardware or home improvement store.

“By combining these detergents with a pressure washer with a rotary nozzle, you should be able to tackle moderate stains,” she said.  “Using these cleaners with a scrub brush and water on localized stains will also yield good results.”

For more stubborn stains, Baird suggests making a solution of trisodium phosphate (one part) and water (six parts).  “Mineral spirits can also be used in place of the trisodium phosphate,” she said.  “Apply the solution generously and scrub it into the stain.  Then, cover it with an absorbent granular material like kitty litter or cornstarch.”

Let the solution and litter stand overnight before sweeping the litter away and giving the surface another scrub.  Baird said to repeat the process until the stain is completely removed.

“Concrete is porous and will easily stain,” she said,  “So proper sealing and regular cleaning are your best defenses against staining.”

Q:What are the ways to repair cracked exterior brick?

According to Michael Lempke of the Jen-Chris Company in Grafton, the only permanent repair is to grind out the mortar around the brick and replace the broken brick.

“If it is impossible or undesirable to remove the brick, a good quality epoxy could be used,” he said. “It might be necessary to widen the crack to allow the epoxy to be inserted.”

Q:I have a concrete driveway that is severely cracked. Using a caulk-like crack sealer and concrete resurfacing won’t work. Would applying an asphalt sealer (tar) over the concrete work? Would the tar bond to the concrete? If so, would the tar stay bonded in winter conditions?

“This question is a little tricky,” said Anna Baird of Coello & Associates in Waukesha. According to her, putting an asphalt sealer over concrete sounds like a bad idea.

“We would not recommend it,” she said. “We don’t think it would adhere well to the concrete, and the driveway would likely look worse as the sealer wears off.” Coello & Associates usually recommends filling the cracks with epoxy, and then resurfacing the concrete with a vinyl patch.

Since the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reader feels that resurfacing would not work, Baird said she has heard of paving over concrete with an asphalt driveway. She suggests talking it over with an asphalt specialty company.

“The underlying issue is that if the concrete is severely cracked and is not level, the toppings – whether concrete or asphalt – will likely not perform well over time, due to not being installed on a sound base,” she said.

Q: For older homes, do you recommend laminate or marble countertops, and why?

“Ultimately, the home is your castle, and it should be designed around the homeowner,” said Jill Liptow of RCI Design/Build in Pewaukee. She said that both laminate and marble countertops are acceptable for older homes. “I suggest picking the countertop material that best suits a lifestyle.”

Laminate, which is generally chosen for its lower price, is available in hundreds of colors, patterns, and finishes and does not require sealing. A disadvantage of installing laminate is that it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to repair if damaged by water, heat, or chemicals.

Marble, often chosen for its natural beauty and vintage aesthetic, was used as a countertop material in only the most upscale homes prior to the 1940s. It can be nearly impossible to repair if damaged by acidic and greasy foods and requires periodic sealing to preserve its appearance.

“Even though marble may be a more historically-accurate material to choose for the age and style of the home, it may require more maintenance,” said Liptow. “Homeowners may also want to consider look-a-like products, such as a solid surface, as an alternative to laminate or marble.”

Countertops, unlike some other items in the home, can be changed out relatively easily to meet homeowners’ needs.

Q: When doing an update, what is the best product to put on an above-grade deck?

According to Tony Zancanaro of Roof-To-Deck Restoration in Menomonee Falls, the best product to use on an above-grade deck is an oil-based, semi-transparent penetrating stain or sealer. A penetrating sealer soaks into the wood and protects it from moisture, repels water, resists mildew, and prevents fading in high-traffic areas – even after the sealer wears off.

Zancanaro also said, “Oil-based, penetrating finishes tend to hold their color longer than solid stains or paints. They’re best for horizontal surfaces, like a deck, which are more vulnerable to water and UV damage, due to direct exposure of the elements.”

What can be done to “spruce up” an old patio?

Patrick Devereux of Stone Oak Landscapes in Cudahy said to determine the condition of your patio first. “If it is badly cracked, heaved, or has settled and slopes toward your home’s foundation, you may want to consider replacing it.”

If your patio is in good condition, is large enough, and is well located, Devereux offered tips to make the space more inviting and enjoyable. “You can improve the appearance of existing concrete by cleaning it with a pressure washer, scoring patterns into the concrete with a diamond saw, and applying an acid stain,” he said. “Many times existing patios, stoops, and porches can be covered with brick or stone paving, which also allows you to increase its size and shape.”

Consider landscaping the area around and adjacent to the patio so that it is surrounded by colorful and fragrant plantings. “Accessorize your patio with garden art and pots brimming with flowers to make it your own,” he said. A small water feature can also act as a focal point and help mask urban noise.

“Screen neighbors or hide objectionable views with plantings, lattice or fencing. In addition, seat walls can provide intimacy and additional seating,” he said. “Subtle landscape lighting is an idea that allows you to enjoy your landscape into the evening, and a fire pit can help take the edge off cool evenings.”

Q: Can you take a regular interior door with decorative molding, cut out an area, and add a glass insert?

Pam Courtney of Western Building Products in Milwaukee said that it is possible to add a glass insert to an interior door, if some criteria are met.

“The door needs to be solid core – not hollow core,” she said. Also, check with the manufacturer of the glass insert. They offer only certain sizes. “The area cut out in the door must be the same size, or able to be made to the same size, as the glass insert.”

Q: My home is just over 40 years old. We have some areas where the drywall on the ceiling is cracking and, in one spot, chipping off. How do I go about repairing it? Is there an easy way to have it replaced?

Whether the ceiling is plaster or drywall, James Loucakis of Connor Remodeling & Design in Germantown said that water damage from attic moisture might be responsible for the cracks and chipping.

“Repair cracks by cutting a V-groove into them to relieve the stress, fasten with screws at the joist areas, prefill with bag mud, and tape with mesh tape,” he said. “Use the first coat of the bag mud to level out the area and use plus-three finish compound for the finish coat.”

The next step is to make the repaired area blend in. “Retexture the area to sand or smooth it to match your existing ceiling,” he said.

In the areas that are chipping, Loucakis suggested removing loose surface pieces, filling it in with the bag mud to level it out, finishing with the finish compound, and texturing the area.

“As far as the replacement of this area, you can mount and install new drywall over the entire ceiling using construction glue and screws. This will laminate the surface,” he said. Similar to the other repair processes, you’ll want to use mesh tape, a first coat of the bag mud, a finish coat, and texture.

“But if water damage is the problem,” he said, “It must be taken care of first.”

Q: I’m using drywall tape and plasterboard compound to patch seams between sheets of drywall. What is the best way to smooth out the plasterboard compound during the feathering step?

According to Jim Ziglinski, CR, owner of Around Your House in Milwaukee, there are a few ways to proceed when smoothing drywall tape joints.

“Go over the tape joints with progressively wider taping knives to achieve the levelness desired,” he said. To remove the small ridges left by the knives, he suggests using 120-grit sandpaper or a sanding screen placed on a sanding block or form.

“If you’re looking for a low dust solution, a wet sponge can be used just before the joint has set or dried,” he said. “You can use a straight edge to check your progress.”

Once the desired level and smoothness is achieved, the raw joint and drywall will require sealing. “This can be done with any of the quality sealers on the market, such as Kilz or Stain Guard,” Ziglinski said. “Afterward, you can texture your repair to blind the surrounding area and paint.”

Q: How often should a clothes dryer duct be cleaned? Is this a job for a professional, or can I do it myself?

According to Frank Porter of Duct Works Environmental in Waukesha, about 15,000 home fires happen each year in the United States because of dryer vent fires, caused primarily because of a restriction in the vent.

“Most manufacturers recommend cleaning dryer vents every one to two years,” he said. “To a certain extent, the number of people in the home and the kind of clothing worn will affect the frequency of cleaning. Cotton fabric will shed more lint than manmade fibers.”

If the dryer vent is very short, you may be able to reach in from the outside with a brush and clean it yourself. If the vent is longer, professional cleaning is necessary to remove all of the lint.

“A dryer vent is only four inches in diameter,” Ported said. “Lint that builds up over time restricts proper airflow and causes the dryer to run atypically hot. This condition can cause the internal components to fail over time.”

Added lint can also increase drying times, raising your energy costs. Porter encourages homeowners to pay closer attention if they have a gas dryer, because carbon monoxide from the flame in the heating compartment can pass through the vent as well. “To complicate matters, birds and rodents may even be able to access the vent and build nests, creating a blockage and allowing virtually no air to pass through.”

Q: Can a dryer be vented to a garage? Is there a better place?

A dryer vent should not be vented into a garage because of the extreme moisture from the drying process, according to Gary Belinkoff of BCI Exteriors in Menomonee Falls. “Unless the vent pipe is adequately insulated and vented to a roof vent by attaching the vent to a bottom flange that is part of a special type of roof vent.”

If possible, Belinkoff says that it’s preferable to put a trap, such as a waste plumbing trap style, to help relieve any possible moisture build-up from dripping back down the vent pipe.

“Also, the dryer can be vented through an outside wall if adequately insulated,” he says. “These methods of venting are preferred, since the garage is usually an unconditioned space.”

Q: What benefits will I see with energy-efficient appliances?

Sticking with ENERGY STARÆ qualified appliances is a great idea, says Grace Weyker of American TV Kennedy Hahn Appliance in Waukesha. She provides five reasons for choosing ENERGY STAR qualified appliances.

  1. Peace of Mind: “Home buying is complex enough without having to know all the details of energy-efficient construction,” she says. Looking for the government-backed ENERGY STAR label is an easy way to identify homes that are truly energy efficient.
  2. Lower Ownership Cost: Compared with standard homes, ENERGY STAR qualified homes use substantially less energy for heating, cooling, and water heating – delivering $200 to $400 in annual savings. “Over the average seven to eight years you may live in the home, this adds up to thousands of dollars saved on utility bills,” she says. “Additional savings on maintenance can also be substantial.”
  3. Better Performance: Properly installed energy-efficient improvements deliver better protection against cold, heat, drafts, moisture, pollution, and noise. “An energy-efficient home helps ensure consistent temperatures between and across rooms, improved indoor air quality, and greater durability,” Weyker says.
  4. Smart Investment: “By the end of the decade, more than two million homes are expected to earn the ENERGY STAR,” she says. By choosing a home with the ENERGY STAR label, you can be confident that it will have an increasingly valued feature when the time comes to sell.
  5. Environmental Protection: “A home can be a greater source of pollution than your car,” Weyker said. “In fact, 16 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are generated from the energy used in houses nationwide.” Energy used in homes often comes from the burning of fossil fuels at power plants, which contributes to smog, acid rain, and global warming. “Simply put, the less energy used in homes, the less air pollution generated,” she says.

While all appliances must meet federal minimum energy-efficiency standards, as indicated by the yellow and black Energy Guide label that makes it easy to compare models, many manufacturers go beyond the standard. “Consider ENERGY STAR labeled products for the greatest savings,” she says. “They use less energy than other products, saving money, and help the environment.”

Q: How should homeowners make sure their home electronic equipment is properly insured?

Woller-Anger & Company, LLC in Elm Grove has been unable to find a carrier to offer coverage specifically for electronics like computers, televisions, and stereos on a homeowner’s policy.

“However, under most homeowners’ insurance policies, there is coverage for these items, which would be found under personal property,” said Thomas G. Weber, a personal account representative. There are three things he instructs homeowners to keep in mind.

  1. Deductibles would apply.
  2. “Make sure you have special personal property coverage, sometimes called ‘all risk.’” This covers most losses, except those specifically excluded in the policy, such as wear and tear, marring, birds, vermin, etc.
  3. Make sure you have coverage for backup of sewer, drain, and sump pump, and that it applies to personal property. “Many companies will not protect personal property,” he said. “They only cover mechanical items such as washer and dryer, furnace, and water heaters. You should look for and purchase a homeowners policy that will cover you for not only mechanicals, but also personal property and your finished room, such as carpeting, wall coverings, ceiling tiles, and furniture.”

Q: How much energy will be saved by unplugging electrical equipment when not in use?

“Electronic and electrical devices that go on standby power create ‘phantom loads’ that can consume more than 50 percent of the electricity used in a home,” says Tom Krawczyk of TJH Energy Consulting in Lake Geneva.

Standby electricity accounts for four to seven percent of total electrical consumption in Wisconsin homes. Krawczyk says, “In the United States, phantom power costs consumers more than $3 billion a year, which adds up to the output of several full-sized power plants.”

Q: What maintenance needs to be done for a gas fireplace?

According to Rob Diderrich of Genesee Fireplace Company in Wales, it is recommended that yearly maintenance be done on any gas appliance, including fireplaces.

“A service technician would remove and clean the logs and glass, and clean the burner and gas ports,” he said. “The tech would also check the thermocouple and thermopile, check the gas pressure, and look for any gas leaks.”

The service technician should test fire the unit and make any necessary air adjustments. “The technician should also replace the batteries in the remote control and check the operation of the blower,” Diderrich said.

Q: What are new trends in floor coverings?

“Carpeting trends continue to move in the direction of softer, textured, and more luxurious pattern looks,” said David Markwiese, owner of Nationwide Floor & Window Coverings in Milwaukee.

In the category of hard surface flooring, laminate continues to be the popular trend.  “Today’s available laminates include a wide variety of wood looks, including distressed pine, antique barn oak, hand scraps rustic oaks, and many other new looks,” he said.

Luxury Vinyl Tile (LVT) is becoming an extremely fashionable trend as well.  “It is available in wood, ceramic, and stone looks,” he said.  “It delivers high performance, easy maintenance, and is design friendly.”

Markwiese described LVT as an excellent choice for high traffic areas or in areas with potential moisture, such as kitchens, bathrooms, and finished basements.

Q: What are the advantages of using pre-finished hardwood flooring vs. site-finished flooring?

According to John Shinkle of Lakeshore Flooring & Design in Mequon, one of the advantages of using pre-finished hardwood flooring is that they are stained and finished in advance at precise temperatures and humidity. Site-finished flooring is subject to the home’s temperature and humidity on the day that it is being finished.

Pre-finished flooring also has aluminum oxide in the finish. “Aluminum oxide increases the floor’s resistance to scratching and fading, and it will be more durable,” he said. “Site-finished flooring has a polyurethane finish, making it durable, but because polyurethanes are hard and glossy, they show every surface imperfection.”

Pre-finished flooring offers less of a mess than site-finished flooring and can be walked on the day it is installed. Finishing flooring on site is a multiple-day process that includes sanding and staining. It is also slow to dry, making rooms in the home less usable during the process.

Q: Is there anything I can do about the squeaky floors on my second level?

According to Matthew Wollner of Sandmasters, Inc. in Saukville, a squeaky floor can often be addressed in multiple ways. “But keep in mind, the solution doesn’t always cure the issue,” he said.

“There are a few techniques that have been used with some success, such as installing small finish screws.” He also suggested injecting a solution through a small hole to shore up the floor so that it does not move.

Wollner noted that there are many variables to this particular problem. “Without seeing the project and further investigation, it would be hard to determine the correct solution for the issue,” he said. “There is, of course, the replacement of the flooring if needed."

Q: After I pull my car out of the garage and press the electric opener/closer, the garage door only closes three-quarters of the way, even though there appears to be nothing in the track or in the way of the safety “eye.” What could be causing this?

Mike Worske of Adam Overhead Door in New Berlin said that the door could be reversing for a number of reasons.

“Begin by watching the safety beams – they have little lights on them when the door is closing,” he said. “Stand inside the garage and make sure when the door gets to three-quarters closed that the light on either eye does not flicker or go off.”

If one or both of them does, the cause could be the warping of the door or track. “The door could be bowed in slightly and is blocking the beam when it hits that point,” he said. “Or the track could be loose and the vibration is causing the beams to get out of alignment at the point when the door is closing.” Test the door again after tightening the track.

The safety beam isn’t the garage door’s only safety reverse measure. “The second safety feature is a pressure reverse,” Worske said. “Sometimes there can be grease in the track or on the opener rail. With the colder weather, that grease gets thicker so when the opener hits that spot it will reverse because it is taking too much pressure to close the door.”

Even if you don’t see anything in the track, give it a thorough cleaning. If there’s still a problem, a professional may need to be called in and a replacement door or track installed.

Q: What type of maintenance should be done on asphalt driveways based on Wisconsin’s climate?

According to Jim May of Wolf Paving Company, Inc. in Oconomowoc, about one-and-a-half to two years after installing asphalt, homeowners should call a reputable sealing company to come out and put on two coats of sealer.

“From three-and-a-half to five years after installation, one additional coat should be applied,” he said. “The only other guideline is to have any cracks filled with hot pour filler.”

Q: What needs to be done with a home built before 1978, as it relates to lead?

“One important thing to remember,” said Ada Duffey of the Milwaukee Lead & Asbestos Information Center, “is that as long as paint is in good condition, there isn’t a problem.”

The problem occurs when the paint is flaking, peeling, or going to be disturbed during renovation.

Sometimes, homeowners may think that the paint is in good condition, when really it is in an area where it is being disturbed – such as on windows.  “The raising and lowering of window sashes (the pieces with the glass in them) causes lead dust to accumulate below the sashes and inside the home,” she said.

Using a contractor that has been trained in lead safe work practices is recommended, and it will be required after April 22, 2010.

“Work practices that they will use include putting plastic on the ground, using a HEPA vacuum (a vacuum with a very good filter), and extensive cleanup,” she said.  “Lead is heavy and settles on surfaces, so it is important that all the surfaces are cleaned after renovation work.”

According to Duffey, varnish can also have lead.  Lead poisoning can result in children exposed to very small amounts of lead, which can lead to damage to the brain, learning disabilities, and other non-reversible health effects.  “Seventy-five percent of houses built before 1978 contain lead paint,” she said.

Q: Are central vacuum systems worth the price?

Central vacuum systems are often perceived as being expensive and complicated to install, but the truth is actually the contrary. According to Susan Montie of Advanced Communication Specialists in Waukesha, central vacuums are more affordable and health-friendly than traditional methods of sweeping and vacuuming, and they can be installed in roughly one day.

“With the latest consumer trend – green living – showing no signs of slowing down, central vacuum systems offer consumers a cost-effective way to live healthy and green,” Montie said.

The concept of Central Vacuums has not changed over the years. They still transport dirt, debris, and dust particles through a simple network of tubing that runs through the walls to a power unit. The in-wall tubing is easily installed during construction, and it can usually be added to an existing home in less than one day without any major structural modifications needed.

“Because the dirt canister is exhausted outside, 100 percent of the vacuumed dirt, debris, and odor is removed entirely from the home,” she said. “With traditional upright vacuum sweepers, vacuumed dust and debris is often removed from the surface but then re-circulated throughout the home, contaminating the air for up to an hour after use. This is especially significant to people who suffer from allergies, as the re-circulated air can contribute to allergic reactions and asthma attacks.”

Montie noted that a study conducted at the University of California at Davis School of Medicine determined that air quality and allergy relief was improved by over 50 percent with the use of a central vacuum system.

I want to tear down a wall between a bedroom and a pantry to make a closet. How do I determine if the wall is load bearing?

According to Nick Kerzner, CR, CKBR, of Kerzner Remodeling and Construction in Oconomowoc, a good rule of thumb when trying to determine whether a wall is load bearing is to find out which way the ceiling or floor joists run on the ceiling (or between floors if the home is more than one story). “Typically, walls that run parallel to these joists are not load bearing,” he said. “Those that run perpendicular require a bit more investigation.”

If there are trusses above the wall, it is likely nonbearing, but if floor or ceiling joists lap over the wall, it may be. “Although an experienced remodeling professional can usually make a relatively accurate structural evaluation of load bearing and non-load bearing walls, it’s always wise to consult a structural engineer if there is any question,” he said. “The cost of a professional evaluation is far less than correcting a structural error.”

Kerzner said that other things to consider are the age of the home, past projects, and code compliance. “Construction methods are always changing. What may have worked in the past may not meet current codes,” he said. “My recommendation is to have a professional evaluation so you can move ahead confidently.”

Q: What should be done to start the process of selecting and working with a remodeling contractor?

This is a question often asked by people who have either never hired a remodeling contractor, or who have had a less than desirable experience in the past, according to Thomas Weiher, CR, CKBR, president of Carmel Builders in Menomonee Falls and president of the Milwaukee/NARI Home Improvement Council, Inc.

“My first word of advice is to hire a NARI professional,” he said.  “A remodeling contractor that displays the Milwaukee/NARI logo is displaying the mark of a professional.”  A list of Milwaukee/NARI contractors is available on the association Web site, www.milwaukeenari.org, or by obtaining a free Milwaukee/NARI membership directory.

“I would suggest interviewing no more than three contractors,” Weiher said.  “Any more than that can get you running in too many directions.”

After the interviews, he suggests determining which contractor appears to be the best fit for your project.  “Be careful about price being the primary factor in comparing.  Each presentation, style of communication, quality of references, and your overall comfort level with the company should weigh equally in your decision to choose who you want to let into your home to provide their services.”

Once you’ve made the decision, check the company’s rating with the Better Business Bureau and find out if complaints have been filed against them.

“Ask for references and be sure to follow up on them,” he said.  “A reference should be willing to take the time to answer your questions pertaining to how well the contractor performed the work, how punctual they were, how complete they were on finishing up, how well they communicated throughout the project, and how well they cleaned up both during and at the end of the project.”

According to Weiher, a customer’s willingness to take time to speak to you is a good indicator of the relationship they had with the contractor.

Q: On what portions of a remodeling project can money be saved, and where should homeowners not look for less expensive alternatives?

According to Jim Klappa, CGR, CAPS, of JDJ Builders, Inc. in Greenfield, homeowners often ask, “What can we do to save money on our project?”  His answer is that it often depends on what the homeowner is willing to give up.

A basic item is for the homeowner to complete the demolition of surfaces prior to the contractors starting their portion of the project.  Another area is the material selected for the project, such as plumbing and electrical fixtures. “The cost of these can vary from expensive or to affordable.  Choosing the ones that look expensive, but are not can have a big savings.”

Klappa said that flooring, such as ceramic tile or some stones, can vary from $3 to $50 per square foot.  “Cabinetry is another big area.  Most cabinet lines have two or three levels of quality, which will elevate the price range.”  In addition, accessories such as pullout shelves, soft close hardware, door styles, and custom finishes will affect cost.

“Countertop surfaces vary from plastic laminate to solid surface materials such as Corian or granites, which can vary greatly for low to high prices, based on unique or limited, hard-to-find selections,” he said.

As for areas where homeowners should not look for less expensive alternatives, he suggests staying away from non-name brands.  “You want to be assured that the big items in your project are going to have warrantees and still have quality,” he said.  “Work with your contractor’s recommendations of where to go to select the items needed for your project.  These are places they are familiar with – business that know the quality that your contractor expects.”

Klappa added, “If a problem would occur down the road, you have better peace of mind that it will be resolved.”

Q: What can a homeowner do to become a better remodeling consumer?

“There are several things that a homeowner can do to assist in the process of a successful remodeling projects,” said Diane Ausavich, CR, of Carl Krueger Construction in Milwaukee and vice president of the Milwaukee/NARI Home Improvement Council, Inc.  Here are a few preparations that she outlined:

“Have an idea of the scope and size of the project.”  She said that you don’t have to plan it out with drawings, but you should have a general idea of what you are looking for and what you want to achieve with the space.

“Get an idea of a budget, including a ‘not-to-exceed’ number.”  The not-to-exceed number is one that you really cannot go over.  While you don’t disclose this number to the contractors, Ausavich said that they will ask if you have a budget in mind and you should be prepared to give them a realistic range with which you are comfortable.

“When beginning to interview contractors and request bids, be sure that the companies are bidding on the same functions and scope of work, so you can compare apples to apples,” she said.  Ask questions up front about things like permits and waste disposal to make sure that they are all handling these items in a similar way.

“Research the contractors you may want to use.  Make sure they are licensed, bonded, and insured.”  She suggested exploring their Web sites and visiting their physical location and showrooms, if they have one.  “Don’t be afraid to ask for references, and then call them.”

Once the project has begun, her biggest suggestion is to make sure that the lines of communication stay open.  “This is vital for both the homeowner and the contractor.  You need to feel comfortable in speaking not just with the salesperson, but more importantly with the project manager who will be doing the day-to-day operations at your site.”

If you see something that you don’t understand, don’t be afraid to bring it up right away.  “Also, obtain a clear understanding before contracts are signed how change orders or changes to the scope of work are handled, how material and product is obtained, what work is completed in-house, what is subcontracted out, and what the payment schedule is.”

Lastly, Ausavich said to make your product selections in a timely manner, as not making them can lead to unnecessary delays in the project.

Q: What types of insurance coverage should a remodeling contractor have, and what does the insurance typically cover?

Lisa Koss of The Starr Group in Greenfield said, “For most people, their home is the largest investment they have. When hiring a remodeling contractor to work on it, make sure the contractor has the proper insurance coverage to protect you.”

First, she said that every remodeling contractor should carry General Liability limits of $1,000,000 per occurrence and $2,000,000 aggregate.  “This would protect you for bodily injury or property damage, such as fire, during the course of construction.”

If your project involves significant renovation, an addition, or major mechanical upgrades, Koss recommended that the contractor carry Contractors Errors and Omissions coverage.  “This coverage will protect you for faulty workmanship, faulty materials, and faulty design,” she said.

If the remodeling contractor has employees, the contractor is required by law to carry Workers Compensation coverage.  “Work Comp pays for the medical expenses and a percentage of lost wages due to an injury on the job,” she said.  “Make sure this coverage is in place before work begins.”  If the contractor has employees working on your home and they are not covered by workers compensation, the injured employees could bring legal action against you.

“All contractors should carry an Umbrella policy of at least $1,000,000.  This is an excess liability policy that provides additional coverage for catastrophic losses,” she said.

If your contractor is not properly insured, you may be liable for damages or losses that occur during the project.  Koss said, “If you are unsure what to look for, call your agent and have them review to make sure everyone is properly insured.”

Click here to expand contentClick here to collapse content  HVAC

Q: When should a home have “freeze protection”?

Freeze Protection allows homeowners and/or their HVAC contractors to monitor indoor temperatures remotely.

“If you were to go on vacation, you would not want your home temperatures to fall below freezing, especially for more than a day or two,” said Wayne Abendschein of 1st Choice Heating and Cooling in Waukesha.

“With freeze protection, if your home falls below a certain set point for any reason, an alert can be sent to three different people – to your cell phone, to your neighbor’s phone, and to your HVAC contractor.” You can arrange for the contractor to address the situation before it becomes a problem.

Abendschein pointed out an additional benefit. “Most insurance companies offer a discount of 3 – 10 percent on your premium if you use Freeze Protection.”

What are the benefits of conducting radon testing before completing a lower level remodel?

Radon gas occurs naturally and is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. One of the biggest contaminants of indoor air quality, radon can accumulate in confined areas like basements. Breathing high concentrations is the second major cause of lung cancer, after smoking.

“First of all, remodeling will have little to no effect on radon levels,” said Mike Skauge of Kinship Inspection Service in Milwaukee.

“The advantage to testing before remodeling is done is that you have more options for installing a mitigation system if the levels are high,” he said. You’ll need to install a radon mitigation system to fix the problem if the results of your tests are above the EPA’s 4 pCi/L action level.

“You can then remodel around the system, rather than installing after the fact,” he said. “This way the system can be concealed.”

Q: The inside coil of the A/C unit has ice on it when the temperature outside is cooler than 65 degrees. Freon has been added, but it has iced up again six months later. What is the problem?

According to Jason Hull, president of Pure Mechanical, LLC in Waukesha, adding Freon is not the answer in most instances. “The system is a closed loop, therefore you should never have to add Freon to the refrigeration system,” he says. “However, if that resolves the problem but only for a short time, start looking for a leak.”

Hull suggests three things to look for before a trained service technician is called.

1. “Make sure you have adequate air flow.” This involves checking the air filter, checking the evaporator and condenser coils for obstructions and making sure they are clean, and checking the air ducting in case something is blocking it.
2. Check the outside air intake. “The cooler the return air temperature, the better chance of freezing the coil,” says Hull.
3. Check the thermostat setting. “If the thermostat is allowing the unit to run during the night with no load on the system and cooler temperatures at night, he ice up may be happening during the night, or there could have a bad thermostat,” he said.

There are many more technical things that could be occurring according to Hull, such as a bad valve in the compressor, low delta temperatures, low suction pressures, an overcharged system, an undercharged system, bad TXV, electrical intermittent failures, poor maintenance, wrong refrigerant line sizing, and poor installation.

Finally, Hull notes that no matter how small or large the refrigeration system, they all work off the same refrigeration cycle, which has four components: 1) compressor, 2) condenser, 3) metering device, and 4) evaporator. “If one of these components is not working well, it will cause the evaporator – the inside coil – to ice up.”

Q: How can you tell if your home has poor air quality? What options are there for air filters?

Tom Uttke of Rudy Uttke & Sons Heating and Cooling Contractors in Milwaukee described a number of symptoms of poor air quality. “If you have family members who often experience symptoms like headaches; nausea; sore or scratchy throat; nasal irritation; dry, red, or watering eyes; coughing; and fatigue, these are signs of poor indoor air quality,” he said.

“For a more precise way of knowing the quality of your indoor air, you can have an air monitoring system placed in a home to give exact results.”

Uttke said that air filter options start with a standard 1-inch furnace filter that can capture 5 to 15 percent of these tiny particles. From there, the options vary all the way up to an electronic filtering system that will capture 96 to 99 percent of the particles in a home.

Q: What are the benefits of using hybrid heat when compared to a conventional system?

“There are a few advantages of using a hybrid heat system,” said Wayne Abendschein of 1st Choice Heating & Cooling, Inc. in Waukesha. “First, there will be a reduction of the utility bill in the fall, winter, and spring by 35 percent plus.”

Another advantage is having the option to use either the furnace or hybrid system – depending on the current utility rate.

Abendschein noted that hybrid systems are 324 percent efficient. “They also serve as the air conditioning system in the summer,” he said. “Typical pricing for a hybrid system is approximately $800 more than a standard air conditioning unit, but payback is less than three years.”

What is the difference between radiant heating and heating pads?

“Radiant heating” heats a building through radiant heat, rather than convection heating. Martin J. Swance, general manager of Quickflash Heating & Cooling Services in Milwaukee, said that heating pads are just a different type of radiant technology to supply heat to a home. Radiant heating pads can be installed under flooring.

“Radiant heating systems involve supplying heat directly to the floor or to panels in the wall or ceiling of a house,” he said.

The three types of radiant heating are radiant air, electric radiant, and hot water radiant. According to Swance, wall and ceiling mounted radiant panels are usually made of aluminum and can be heated with either electricity or with tubing that carries hot water. “The latter creates concerns about leakage in wall or ceiling mounted systems,” he said. “The majority of commercially available radiant panels for homes are electrically heated.”

Q: I have many deciduous trees on my property, and I’m tired of spending a lot of time raking up the leaves in the fall and getting them to the curb. Is there a better way to spend my energy and solve this problem?

You may want to consider recycling all those fallen leaves back into the soil, according to Larry Krawczyk of Lindenwood Lawn and Landscape Service in Oak Creek.

“Most deciduous trees drop their leaves over a number of weeks, giving you plenty of time to use your mulching mower to chew them up and return them into the soil,” he said. “This recycles back their organic matter and essential nutrients the way nature intended.” Most modern mulching mowers with sharp cutting blades can get the job done.

If you fertilize your lawn, Krawczyk said you’re looking at another major benefit. “The additional organic matter will extend the uptake of conventional lawn fertilizer applications by keeping them in the root zone longer, thereby giving you better value for your money.”

If you don’t want the organic matter going back on your lawn, he suggests having a bagger on your mower and spreading out the clippings and leaves in the garden or flowerbed. “Next spring, incorporate this material back into the soil,” he said. “You won’t believe the results that come from activating your soil.”

Q: What can be done to improve the health of our trees impacted by the Emerald Ash Borer?

Unfortunately, if the tree already shows signs of an infestation, it may be too late to do anything, according to Missy Reinholtz, president of Createscape Landscaping Service, Inc. in Mukwonago.

“If more than 50 percent of the canopy is dead, the tree will likely not survive,” she says. “Because most of the treatments for the insect are systemic and work through the circulation of the tree, they should begin being used when the tree is relatively healthy.”

At the same time, she advises not to use it too soon. If a residence is located more than 15 miles away from a known infestation, using insecticide early may be a waste of money.

“At this time, I would say it is best to monitor the information as it becomes available and make any treatment decisions based on the best information available at the time.” Reinholtz directs those looking for more information to the Web site www.emeraldashborer.info.

What can be done to control pests in our yard?

“Pests” can encompass many different things in the yard – insects, grubs, spiders, rodents, and even weeds. “While some of these creatures can harm the yard, it is important to remember that many insects provide beneficial results for the lawn and garden,” said to Allen Bishop of A Bishop Farm, Inc. in Milwaukee. “Lady bugs eat aphids, spiders eat flies, bees pollinate our flowers, and so on.”

While some may consider these things “pests,” they can actually be part of an “Integrated Pest Management” (IPM) program. IPM is a method of controlling harmful pests in a way that minimizes effects on beneficial creatures, as well as our children and pets. Federal law states that all pesticides, biological or chemical, or poisons, and as such pose risks to our family and our health.

According to Bishop, there are four steps to build an IPM program.

The first step is identifying the pest. “Diagnose the damage – is the damage to the lawn caused by grubs, or is it fungus? Is the insect eating vegetables, or is it eating the little rascals that eat the vegetables?”

The second step is to use good land practices. Bishop gave a few examples, and said that research will open up many good land practices that homeowners can use on their own land. “If the lawn is suffering from fungus, minimize afternoon and evening watering. If insects are getting into the house from the foundation, remove vegetation, dirt, and decomposing material from the outside the house. Try to create seven inches of visible foundation below the siding all the way around the home. If apples have white flies, clean up the ground falls and disrupt the natural life cycle of this culprit.”

The third step is employing biological controls. “Use traps and sticky balls to monitor and catch harmful insects. Use a saucer and stale beer to catch slugs and snails. Borax, which is boric acid, and powdered sugar will control ants, but it is safe for pets and children.” In addition to these examples, he said research would generate many more non- or less toxic alternatives to commercial pesticides.

Finally, step four is to use a limited spectrum pesticide as sparingly as possible. Always follow directions and never use these chemicals in ways not approved by the USEPA. “Remember, pesticides are poisons – designed and manufactured to kill,” he said.

“Homeowners use an average of six times more pesticides per square foot than a farmer,” he said, adding that a family’s health should be the first consideration when building an IPM program.

I have a rock wall that I would like to relocate from the back yard to the front yard. How do I go about this?

According to registered landscape architect William J. Wandsnider of Wandsnider Landscape in Menomonee Falls, it’s important to consider material used in the wall. “In the front yard, the material of the wall will be viewed from the street and in conjunction with the architecture of your home,” he said.

Because the wall will become part of the overall composition of the home, you must be sure that you like the material and feel that it works well with your home. “As an example, a Lannon stone material might go well with a Lannon stone house, but it’s possible that a field stone material would look awkward,” he said.

Wandsnider also suggested evaluating the material from a structural perspective. “If the wall needs to act as a structural retaining wall, will the materials you presently have handle the engineering requirements of soil bearing and height?”

It isn’t always possible to know the quality of material that might come out of the original wall. “Has it deteriorated or are the pieces small and fragmented? It is possible that there is less usable material in the wall than you might actually think,” he said. “If not all the material is usable, you’ll need to think about how waste or leftover material will be disposed of.”

Alternatively, if you do not have enough material for your front yard project, you’ll want to be prepared to obtain more material that matches the existing, if possible.

“When removing the original wall, it might also be important to consider if there will be any soil collapse with what the wall is currently holding up, or if any structures will come down with it,” he said.

Be sure to evaluate the size and weight of the wall material, considering that stone is deceivingly heavy. “If the existing wall is eight inches thick, a 15-square-foot area will weigh one ton, and 12 inches thick will weigh one and a half tons. A 12-inch fieldstone boulder will weigh about 150 pounds,” he said. “In moving the stone, you will need to consider not only the physical work of possibly stacking the material by hand, but also whether machinery will be needed to handle and move the stone.”

You may decide to build the new wall the same way that the old one was constructed, or you may want to go with mortared or dry stacked. “If you are thinking about mortared, in our climate you will need to consider how the footings will be constructed,” he said.

Access and distance are other factors. “Does the stone need to be transported a long distance or are there hills or slopes to navigate either with a wheel barrel or a skid loader? If a skid loader is used, is the original stone wall accessible?” he said.

When stone walls are well designed and well built, Wandsnider said they can be a beautiful and significant addition to your landscaping, and can add both value and function to your yard.

Q: How complicated would it be to move our laundry area from the basement to the second floor? We're thinking we would make room by expanding the hallway out above the attached garage and closing off this new washing machine and dryer "closet" with a folding door.

“A well-planned laundry room, located near the bedrooms, is a great idea and can provide added convenience to your home,” said Kelly M. Ingui, CR, CKBR, a design consultant with the S.J. Janis Company in Wauwatosa.

It is becoming more popular to have a second floor laundry room, due to its proximity to where the laundry comes from. She said, “Moving the laundry facilities from the basement to an area where the bedrooms are located – whether it’s the first or second floor – becomes very convenient.”

Sometimes, if the laundry facilities are going to be in the middle of the house, the project can become a little tricky. According to Ingui, there are a few things to consider when planning this remodel. “Make sure there are walls lining up or a closet on the first floor that allows for the plumbing,” she said. “Also, think about where the dryer will be vented out of the home, and consider having a floor drain in the room in case of the washer overflowing.”

Having the laundry area over the garage adds another consideration. “It is better to locate the plumbing on the wall that would become an interior wall, versus the new exterior wall,” she said. “Even though you may have an insulated garage, the pipes can be vulnerable to cold temperatures.” Insulating properly will be very important during this project.

Q: I have an older home with leaks. What can I do to stop the cold air coming in during the winter months?

According to James Bartelme Jr., CR, of Oconomowoc’s Bartelme Builders, there are probably two main issues to address when trying to prevent cold air leaks in older homes: insulation and windows and doors.

“Make sure that all areas that can be insulated are done so in an efficient manner,” he said. For do-it-yourself types, he suggested checking the attic space to make sure there is the correct level of insulation.

“Remember: heat rises,” he said. “Make sure that insulation is covering all areas of the floor joists. Nine inches is a good amount of the batting/fiberglass type insulation for your attic.”

If you’re unable to do this check yourself, Bartelme suggests calling a reputable insulation contractor in your area. This is a good way to keep more heat in without too great of an expense.”

For windows and doors, he said that it’s possible that not all of them are leaking cold air into your home. “Try and check each one individually – check for ‘cold spots’ around each window,” he said. “Removing the interior trim and re-insulating would help.”

If you have single pane glass windows, you may want to consider buying new. “New windows use insulated glass and are generally double or even triple paned,” he said.

Bartelme also suggested checking doors for proper weather-stripping at the bottom. “When they are closed, make sure there is a good seal around each side,” he said. “Local hardware stores offer many replacement items for this and are generally quite helpful with your specific questions.”

His final suggestion was to check for any rebates offered by the WE Energies Energy Star Program before proceeding. “When you are improving the efficiency of your home, there are many opportunities out there to help recoup the costs.”

Q: What are new trends and features in light fixtures?

The lighting industry is changing to meet the demands of energy-conscious homeowners.  According to Andrew Guskov of Lutron Electronics in Glendale, the latest trend in lighting is automated lighting control, which gives homeowners the right amount of light when they need it and energy savings when they don’t.

“Lighting accounts for almost 20 percent of the average homeowner’s monthly electric bill,” Guskov said.  “A single dimmer can save up to $30 a year in electricity costs and light bulb life extension.”

Occupancy sensors, which ensure that lights are never left on, are ideal for bathrooms, laundry rooms, walk-in closets, basements, or pantries.

Guskov has seen a trend in families creating a home theater experience in the living room using a controller, lamp dimmer, and wall dimmer.

Wireless lighting control solutions also can be easily retrofitted into existing homes.  “These types of products offer homeowners convenience, aesthetics, safety, and energy savings,” he said.  “With a press of one button, you can light a safe pathway of light from your car into your house.”

In addition, outdoor lighting is a fast-growing trend in home decorating, as a way to create more beautiful neighborhoods and safer, more secure homes.  Oscar Peterson of Outdoor Lighting Perspectives in Watertown is seeing more energy-efficient, low-wattage lights strategically positioned on the ground to accent interesting architectural or landscape features.

“This creates a pleasing effect and provides sufficient light to ward off intruders and for navigating sidewalks and steps,” Peterson said.  “You can accent the texture of the brick, masonry above windows, ornamental trees, or other distinctive elements.”

According to Peterson, low-wattage halogen lights of 20-35 watts are much brighter than incandescent lights of the same wattage.   “A properly installed low-wattage system will consume approximately 30 percent less energy than a lighting plan that emphasizes line voltage floodlights,” he said.

Q: How can using dimmer switches save energy and what other benefits are achieved?

“Using dimmer switches saves energy by lowering the wattage of the light bulb used,” said Sue Hanson of Focus on Energy/Home Performance with Energy Star in Madison. “However, installing ENERGY STAR qualified CFLs can really save more energy than using dimmer switches.” CFL stands for compact fluorescent light bulbs.

“As a general rule, any time you lower wattage, you lower power consumption,” she said. “If all of your lights were aided by dimmers, you might notice a slight difference in the bill, but not that much.”

Many old rotary dimmers converted unused electricity to heat at the dimmer switch – these were called rheostats. According to Hanson, these do not reduce electricity consumption, they just turn part of the electricity to heat and the rest goes to the light bulb.

“Today’s dimmers use a ‘Triac Switch.’ When dimmed, these switches cut the flow of power to a light fixture up to 120 times per second,” she said.

While the circuit is switched on and off many times in a second, the human eye and brain don’t register this flickering. We see constant light output. “When it is not giving power to the lamp, then no energy is being used. So, yes, you can save with dimming lights because they are on for less total time and not using power while off.”

She added, “If your major concern is your energy bill, I would try switching to ENERGY STAR qualified CFLs, because they provide almost the same quality and quantity of light at a fraction of the power consumption.”

Q: What are the advantages of using Light Emitting Diode (LED) lighting vs. halogen lighting?

According to Becky Hoey of eImprovement.com in Racine, one of the advantages of using LED lights is that they perform at a cooler temperature than halogen lights.

“Halogen bulbs can get quite hot during operation, whereas LEDs will stay cool, even after they’ve been on for a long period of time,” said Hoey. “This is mostly due to the fact that LEDs operate on less energy than halogens. While LEDs usually operate between 5 to 15 watts, the halogen bulb operates between 30 to 50 watts of energy consumption. LED bulbs also last much longer than halogen bulbs.”

While LED lights themselves are more expensive, their long life and low energy costs make their total lifetime cost less than halogen versions.

Q: What should be done to keep water away from the home to prevent lower level/basement flooding?

Ground water around the house is the source of most basement flooding. “Make sure the ground slopes away from the lower level or basement,” said Walter Neulreich of McCoy Contractors, Inc. in Brookfield. If large puddles form in the yard, it’s also a good idea to fill in low spots or dig out channels so the water can flow away. Consider covering window wells with plastic well covers to prevent them from filling with water.

“It’s also important to keep gutters clean,” Neulreich said. Any obstructions could cause problems. “Be sure to extend downspouts 10 feet away from the basement.” If there are extension pipes on downspouts, make sure they point the water away from the foundation.

Q: My husband and I disagree about where we should use flat paint versus satin and semi-gloss. What type of paint should be used in which rooms? Also how (un)common is it to paint ceilings a color other than white?

Types of interior paint finishes include flat, matte, eggshell, satin, and semi-gloss. According to Greg Luettgen of East Shore Painting in Wauwatosa, the type of paint to use depends on where it is being applied.

“When painting in or around a water source, it is usually better to select a finish that not only wipes down well, but also sheds the water,” Luettgen said. “The best choices would be eggshell, satin, or semi-gloss.” The appropriate rooms for these paint finishes would be bathrooms, kitchens, and laundry rooms.

“If the objective is to hide imperfections in a wall, a flat or matte finish is the best to use.” Luettgen also suggests flat or matte finishes in any area that doesn’t get touched much.

As for ceilings – and walls – different shades of paint have different effects. “Ceilings for the most part are painted white or off-white so that any sunlight entering the room will be reflected downward,” he said. “By painting a ceiling with a color, the effect will be to visually bring the ceiling closer to someone standing underneath it.”

The same applies to walls. “This has the same effect when painting two walls that are quite a distance apart – a dark color makes them seem closer together,” he said.

Q:Why is some water called “city water” as opposed to “well water”?

According to Mal Richert of Fred Richert Pump Co. in Brookfield, this is a big misnomer.

“It’s only called city water because you live in the city,” he said. “Except for cities near a big lake or river like Milwaukee, Fort Worth, Chicago, etc., city water is well water and is usually obtained from deep wells.”

These deeper wells produce hundreds to thousands of gallons per minute. “Hopefully the deeper wells don’t interfere with the shallower residential wells, which are 20-100 feet deep.”

Q: Are reverse osmosis systems good, or is there a better way to filter water?

According to David Treutelaar, owner of Waukesha Plumbing in Mukwonago, reverse osmosis is the ultimate way to turn water into clean drinking water.

“A basic system fits under the kitchen sink with three filters and a storage tank with a special faucet,” he said. “Another option is to install the filters and storage tank in the basement and run water lines to the kitchen sink and refrigerator ice maker.”

Reverse osmosis is just for drinking water, though. Treutelaar also addressed the water used when showering and washing hands.

“Well water often contains minerals and iron, which can cause stains,” he said. “Getting water tested is the first step. Once you know exactly what’s in the water, a plumber can install the proper equipment to remove the problems.”

While a water softener can get rid of many mineral problems, iron requires a separate iron filter, which can be costly. “But iron filters work very well and usually only need a cleaning every five years,” he said. “Low priced methods of removing iron are more of a band aid and not a real solution.”

He used the example of someone who has bought a new home or just installed new bathroom fixtures. “If you have an iron problem and you don’t solve it correctly, you will end up with an orange stain on the toilet, sink, or tub within a year.”

There are also some unique water problems that can arise, like sediment and tannins, which need specialized filters to remove them.

My sump pump runs continuously and won’t shut off. What’s wrong?

According to Mal Richert of Fred Richert Pump Co. in Brookfield, there may be several problems causing this situation. “The most important action is to get the water away from the house,” Richert said. “Downspouts and sump discharge lines should be away from the house as much as possible.”

If the home is in a low spot or is the lowest house on the block, Richert said there might be a need to grade a wall around the house to get water to go around. “It could be that there is too much water and a second pump might be required,” he said. “The switch or float might also be broken or just require service.”

He said that if the home is in an area where power outages are prevalent, homeowners might want to install a good 12-volt system and obtain a generator.

Q: How does a tankless water heater work and is it worth the money to invest in a unit of this nature?

Kory King of Schoenwalder Plumbing in Waukesha said, “Tankless water heating is the wave of the future – available today.” With tankless water heaters, consumers benefit from up to 50 percent energy savings, endless hot water, and significant space savings.

“The ‘green’ technology produces less CO2 and NOX than conventional gas or electric tank water heaters,” King said. “Tankless water heaters use natural gas or propane to heat water only when necessary.”

When water flow is detected, the heater begins heating the water as it passes through its heat exchanger. “The design of the unit allows it to capture up to 98 percent of the heat energy, making it highly efficient and cost effective,” he said. “When the demand for water ceases, the tankless unit completely shuts off and uses zero gas.”

To help reduce the upfront cost of installing one of these units, King said homeowners could combine financial incentives from Wisconsin’s Focus on Energy with residential tax credits from the federal government.

Q: Why is my well 500 feet deep and my neighbor’s is only 100 feet?

“Water flows underground just like the rivers, lakes, and streams on top of ground,” said Mal Richert of Fred Richert Pump Co. in Brookfield. “When a well is drilled, an attempt is made to locate the best flow.”

“When your well was drilled, they must not have hit the same pocket of water as your neighbor and were required to drill deeper to obtain a good supply,” he said. “It’s a hit or miss situation.”

Q: Is maintenance required on a water heater, and if so, what should be done and how often?

“Water heaters are usually a very reliable product with minimal maintenance,” said Bill Rozga, president of Rozga Plumbing & Heating Corp. in West Allis.  Here are a few things to consider:

First, if water is drained off the bottom of the tank, there may be problems with an unreliable plastic drain valve.  Rozga said, “The valve sometimes starts to leak or drip.”

If wanting to drain off the tank, perform a thorough and complete draining with a partial refill and another complete drain.  “The original purpose should be to rinse the tank of built-up sediment.  If only a couple of gallons are drained off, the sediment, calcium, and lime that builds up at the bottom are not being removed,” he said.  This project may take an hour or longer.

If the home has relatively good water (7.0 grains hardness or less, like Milwaukee), then draining the tank is not as critical.  “Usually every couple of years, if that even,” he said.  The same holds true if the water conditioning equipment (softener and iron curtain filter) is in good working order.  “If the home has hard or iron content water, draining is more critical in keeping the inside clean.  A clean inside allows the heat to transfer to the water faster – it keeps from ‘boiling’ the water.”  This is the sound heard when the sediment inside gets heated up and starts to agitate.

Next, with a properly working chimney, there is a constant updraft that carries combustion fumes up and away.  “Build-up around the draft hood may indicate otherwise,” he said.  “Assuming that the chimney is clear and in good working order, and that the vent off the water heater has proper size and pitch up towards the chimney, there should be none to minimal sediment around the draft hood at the top of the water heater or in the combustion chamber inside the water heater bottom area.”

Rozga said that having heavy sediment (by-products of combustion) around the draft hood is usually an indication of a problem with the venting and/or chimney being blocked.  While the gas can be turned off to the water heater and the combustion chamber vacuumed, determining venting issues and possible back draft starts to get a bit more involved.

“One easy check is to take a farmer match, safely light it, place it near the draft hood on the top of the water heater and snuff it out.  If the chimney is working properly, the smoke will be drawn up the draft hood and will very easily be seen leaving the surrounding area,” he said.  “A plugged chimney, or improperly-sized or back-pitched venting system will not allow the products of combustion to leave the area, causing sediment buildup and even more dangerous carbon monoxide buildup to poison the home.”

Repairs at this point should be left to a trained and licensed contractor.  “In general, tune ups to water heaters are generally not performed by homeowners,” Rozga said.  “Any piece of equipment will benefit from good housekeeping and should provide 10 plus years of service.”

Q: How many times can new shingles be put over the existing roof?

“You can install up to three layers of shingles if your local municipal code allows it,” said Aaron Dwyer of AD Roofing, LLC in Sussex.

The only circumstances in which installation of even a second layer is if the existing shingles are in fair shape, lying relatively flat, and there is no excessive moss or algae growth.

“Any time another layer of shingles is installed over an existing layer, the life of the new shingles are shortened, and over time, they will start to take the shape of the layer beneath them,” he said.

Q: What kind of roofing material options do we have in Wisconsin’s climate?

The most commonly used roofing materials are asphalt shingles, according to Kelly Reimer, president of Reimer Roofing & Remodeling in New Berlin.  “These shingles are essentially fiberglass mats that are saturated with hot asphalt, then coated with granules.”

Reimer said that these shingles account for about 90 percent of all roofing materials sold in Wisconsin.

“Other options include cedar shake, metal, and slate.  These types of roofing materials are often two to three times the cost of asphalt shingles, but they usually last longer and have an upscale appearance,” she said.

What are new trends in wall coverings?

“Wall covering did fall out of favor for a while, but it is coming back strong,” said Betsy Hoke, ASID, WRID, CR, designer and president of Sturgeon Interiors, Ltd. in Milwaukee. “As the saying goes, ‘everything old is new again,’ and that holds true for wall covering.”

Hoke is seeing foil papers, flocked papers, and mid-century modern designs gaining popularity. “The designs are in bold, clear colors and are reminiscent of the Marimeko fabrics of the ’50s.” She has also been seeing Venetian plaster papers that have an old world feel.

For those with traditional homes, she suggests using these wall coverings sparingly or only on an accent wall.

“For those who are more faint of heart, you can always apply a decal motif, which can be removed when you tire of it,” she said. “Today, there are wall coverings that will truly complement anyone’s design style.”

Q: What’s the best way to remove old wallpaper and prep for a new wall covering?

Don Soderberg of Wauwatosa-based Don Soderberg Painting and Wallcovering said the first step is to try to remove the wallcovering by peeling away the material.

“If it only comes off in small pieces, soak sections of it with a wallcovering remover, such as DIF or Chomp,” he said. “You may also try a steamer to get through the material to the glue.”

If the wallcovering is solid vinyl, it will need to be perforated so that the chemicals can get through to the glue. “A Paper Tiger or 36-grit sandpaper can be used to score the surface,” he said. “The more the surface is perforated, the easier it is to remove the wallcovering.”

After perforation, spray the remover or use the steamer as directed. “Once the wallcovering is removed, wash the wall to be sure that all the glue is gone,” Soderberg said. “Always prime the walls with a good quality primer before installing a new wallcovering.”

Q: How can I keep rooms with less sun exposure warmer in the winter?

According to Bob Quigley, CR, of Brillo Home Improvements in Milwaukee, the age of the home may help in determining how the walls and ceilings were constructed, what general building materials were used when the structure was built, and what efforts were made to insulate it when it was built.

“Obviously, insulation is a key factor in trying to keep what heat the room is receiving in place,” he said. If the home was a new construction or if this was a remodeling situation where the walls or ceiling were to be opened up, he recommended closed cell insulation.

“In comparison to the more standard fiberglass batt or cellulose materials, closed cell insulation is 65 to 70 percent more efficient, and as much as 95 percent more efficient if the home is older with no or little insulation,” he said. Although closed cell insulation has a somewhat expensive initial application, it offers an immediate payback benefit and better living comfort.

Check if the box sills or the top of the foundation block is insulated properly. Quigley said, “If you have nothing there at all, stop what you’re doing and go buy a bag of insulation. Fill the space, and you’ll feel the difference in five minutes, especially if your favorite sitting chair is on an outside wall.” Again, he said that in this case the closed cell product is a better insulator, though it may prove to be a more expensive remedy, depending on the amount of square footage needed.

Assuming that forced air is in place, sometimes the existing ductwork may not be balanced right. “If by chance another room is getting too much heat in comparison or just too much heat altogether, you may want to check into having your ductwork air flow rebalanced to favor the cold spot,” he said.

One problem could be an insufficient heat supply system, given the layout and dimensions of your rooms. “Depending on the room’s dimension and type of heat system in place, you may be able to have the area set on a separate heating zone, which could solve the problem,” he said.

“Another common error may be the thermostat. It may be set on a wall in the warmest room,” he said, pointing out that it should not be in the coldest room either.

Having high quality windows is a factor in controlling heat loss through the glass and frames and eliminating drafts. “The same would apply for the doors,” he said. “When older windows and doors are replaced with new, people cannot believe the difference in the added comfort.”

Depending on the home’s floor surface, you can add heat with an electrical floor matt system, which is usually applied with a new tile floor application. He said, “This really only warms the floor, but inevitably through convection, the warmer floor will come into the airspace.”

Even with a forced air system, additional water hydronic baseboard or hydronic in-floor heat can be added. “If adding electrical baseboard heat to supplement is being considered, look at an electric oil hydronic unit, which is typically safer and more comfortable than the more conventional electric baseboard heater,” he said.

Depending on the space and budget, an efficient gas fireplace may also be a good solution. “In addition to being more efficient, the more recent gas fireplace units look more like a natural fireplace than their predecessors,” Quigley said.

Q: What do I need to know about replacement windows and how do I pick the right one?

Mike Wood of Callen Construction in Muskego described the three main types of replacement windows on the market today: vinyl, wood, and fiberglass.

“Vinyl windows are relatively inexpensive and offer very good energy efficiency,” he said, “but they sacrifice aesthetics for homeowners that enjoy that beauty of real stained wood and narrow frame profiles.”

The wood windows on the market today offer improved energy efficiency over the wood windows of the past. “They’re still prone to common problems such as mildew and wood rot, though, and they also tend to be more costly than most other options.”

He said, “Fiberglass has become a very popular choice due to its strength and durability.” It has the energy efficiency of the vinyl windows combined with the beauty and sustainability of the wood windows. “It is also typically less expensive than wood windows,” he said.

When replacing your existing windows, there are two different methods used. The first is to replace the sashes only, leaving the original frame and casing intact. The second method is to replace the frame and casing, as was done when the original windows were put in the house.

“The second method is a little more involved,” he said, “but it may be necessary depending on the condition of the current window. A discussion with a quality window replacement contractor can help you determine what option would be best for you.”

Additional things to consider are glass packages that include some combination of Low-E and argon gas, the ease of use and cleaning, and a warranty backed by a recognized manufacturer.

“There are also many other options to consider,” Wood said, “such as high-transparency screens, blinds, shades, or grids between the glass, and many hardware color choices.”