Sunday, November 14, 2010

Does my house have lead paint?

Lead paint was not banned in the United States until 1978 so homeowners and contractors making modifications to homes build before 1978 are often required by law to take extra precautions. When we owned a circa 1900 condo, we (rightfully) assumed that lead paint was a problem. While other countries banned the use of lead in paint in the early 1900s, it wasn't until decades later that the United States paint industry cut back on lead use in paint, and 1978 before it was completely banned. Now that we own a house originally built in 1959, we have a more laid-back attitude toward lead paint. And, it sounds like such a stance is not unreasonable since the use of lead in paint was greatly reduced in the 1940s and 1950s. It sounds like pressure to reduce lead in interior paint was especially strong during that time. However, as late as 1971, a study done by New York City found that 10% of paints tested contained significant amounts of lead.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Why is my Water Yellow?!?!

That was my question when I poured a bath for my daughter. The obviously yellow-tinted bath water made me realize that the water I boiled for pasta also had a yellow-ish tint. Ack! We ate pasta boiled in yellow water? I checked the Natick web site to see if there had been any hydrant flushing or other water-disturbing activities lately. No luck. It was Saturday night so the town offices were closed, so I gave the police a call to see if they had heard anything. They took my information so that an on-call water guy might call me back, but he hasn't yet.

I guess I was on my own. What next? Well, what else but Google? Google led me to I bought a duplex, the author of which had seen this problem before. He referred to water authority sites which noted that the color is most likely from small amounts of rust being disturbed. Also, they say it is completely harmless. I bet it's harmless because (1) the concentration is very low, and (2) iron is something our bodies need anyway. Might even be a good thing for pregnant women since they need higher iron amounts than most people (but don't quote me on that!) The Massachusetts Regional Water Authority has a FAQ on water quality including a paragraph about yellowish water:

MWRA water, which comes from the Quabbin and Wachusett Reservoirs, sometimes turns yellowish from low levels of dissolved iron picked up from old iron pipes in both our system and your community's water system. This mainly occurs in winter, when water usage is low, because the water sits in the pipes for a longer period of time. The water may not be aesthetically pleasing, but according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), increased levels of iron that produce yellow water are not public health threats. Hardware stores have inexpensive products to remove rust stains from clothing and household surfaces. MWRA and customer communities replace or rehabilitate old pipes a few miles at a time, an expensive and time-consuming process. Long term solutions take time, but we are constantly cleaning and replacing as much pipe as we can.

So, it's official---yellow water is a minor issue and can be ignored except for stains it might leave on fixtures and clothes.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Spiders, Earwigs and Centipedes, Oh My!

When we moved into our new house just over a year ago, we noticed some bugs. The house came with .6 acres of land and lots of trees and vegetation, so we figured the few bugs might have been a trade-off of moving to the suburbs. Our previous place was a 2nd floor condo in a 4-unit building with asphalt covering all land surfaces. The bugs varied from spiders, to earwigs, to centipedes. The earwig freaked me out---not an easy to do. But, some searching revealed that they were harmless. Harmless or not, neither of us wanted to share our house with bugs, so I began searching for solutions. At first, it got worse, from a bug every few days, to multiple bugs each day. At some point, we had a bit of an ant invasion even though we keep our house clean. Ack! What had we gotten ourselves into!

We tried bug sprays, ant traps and ultrasonics. All of them helped, but didn't really solve the problem. The summer after we bought the house, I invested in a basic pump sprayer for an outdoor caterpillar repellent. Later when I was searching for bug sprays, I noticed Ortho Home Defense Concentrate which works with my pump sprayer. I used two gallons of dilute to spray my foundation, the perimeter of my deck and, especially, the area between my foundation and house frame (under the shingles) where I figured the bugs were entering. Not long after the concentrate spraying, I did a half-application of Scotts summer fertilizer with insect control.

I'm not sure which of the two things did the trick, the concentrate spray or the fertilizer, but not long after those, we saw a decrease in bugs that has continued to this day. This time last year, we were squashing bugs every day. Now, they are few and far between. Another factor may have been the cellulose we had blown into walls which would have made it a little more challenging for the critters to get inside, but the drop-off seemed strongly correlated-in-time with the concentrate and fertilizer, so I'll be using those in the future.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Comparing Natural Gas versus Propane

A year ago, I moved from a condo with a natural gas supply to a home with no natural gas supply. We installed a propane tank for our kitchen range and recently hooked-up a tank water heater to the propane supply. Now, I'm curious to see how natural gas and propane compare on a cost per energy output basis.

Natural gas is often quoted in therms, which is an energy output value corresponding to 100,000 British Thermal Units. A cubic foot of natural gas yields approximately 1,028 BTUs meaning that one therm corresponds to 97.3 cubic feet of natural gas. Propane is stored as a compressed liquid and is typically measured in gallons. Each gallon of propane yields 91,690 BTUs. So, 1.09 gallons of propane provide equivalent energy output to 1 term of natural gas. Then, prices of propane and natural gas are at parity if 1 therm of natural gas costs 9% more than one gallon of propane.

FWIW: My propane delivery company is EnergyUSA Propane.

Update (10/15/10): For reference, a gallon of Diesel provides 128,700 BTUs, appx. 31.7% more than propane per volume. Note that #2 fuel oil (the oil typically used for home heating in the U.S.) is equivalent to Diesel (except for a colorant).

Update (10/21/10): After checking my utility bills, it looks like we paid appx. $1 per therm for natural gas while living in the condo. At the house, we pay appx. $3 per gallon for propane. So, natural gas is easily the cheaper option, costing appx. 30% of the propane price to provide an equivalent amount of BTUs (!) Too bad natural gas isn't an option for us...

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The Aquastat, or Controlling Your Forced Hot Water Heating System

Winter is approaching here in Boston and we've already had a few days where we've had to turn on the heat. We have an forced hot water heating system. It's a bit more complicated than the steam heating system I had before. A steam system only has two states, "on" and "off" (controlled by the thermostat). A forced hot water system is a bit more complicated, with "HI", "LO" and "DIFF" temperature settings in addition to the thermostat control.

The main control for the forced hot water system is called an Aquastat. It controls "HI", "LO" and "DIFF" settings. Inspectapedia's Guide to Heating System Boiler Aquastats, their Settings & Wiring provides an excellent explanation of these settings and how they interact with the thermostat and boiler. Also see What are the Best High, Low, & DIFF Settings on a Heating Boiler Aquastat? which provides additional details.

Forced hot water heating systems often use a tankless system to supply domestic hot water. This is what I had until recently. After watching the system's behavior for about a year, I determined that it was grossly inefficient. A home energy evaluation by Conservation Services Group confirmed my suspicion (the tankless is only ~33% efficient). I recently had a propane-fired, standalone, tank water heater installed (which is 62% efficient).

Technically, I no longer need to keep the boiler water warm and should be able to set the "LO" aquastat value as small as possible. But, some corrosion has built-up around the tankless plate and my heating technician says this will only get worse if I let the boiler water cool off completely. Inspectapedia notes that some cast iron boilers require an active low setting during summer to prevent leakage.

So, I'd like to use an aquastat setting of about 180/100/10 (HI/LO/DIFF), but something went wrong around the time of the propane tank installation and now my boiler does not respond to the "HI" setting. So, I'm currently stuck having to set my LO setting fairly high to ensure the water is warm enough to heat the house. Fortunately, it looks like these aquastats are simple enough that I will be able to fix the problem. Currently, I'm checking with my plumber to see if he might have changed anything during the propane tank install.

FWIW, it looks like my aquastat is very similar to Honeywell model L4081A1023. Note that the L4081B1047 is nearly identical except that it also controls the circulator(s). Inspectapedia notes that some models will shut off the circulators when the boiler water temperature is in the "LO" range.

Here are links to manual for the aquastat I have:

Update (10/13/10): Turns out I have an 8124A Honeywell Aquastat (model number was on back of cover!).

Update (2/23/11): Forgot to note that my aquastat was busted. My heating company replaced it free-of-charge since I'm on an oil delivery plan.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Federal Glass to the Rescue

Our house has a one-person shower enclosure in the master bath with a swing-open door. Lately, every time we exit from the shower, we find a small puddle of water just outside the door. There is a metal drain shelf near the bottom of the door and a sweep attached to the bottom of the shelf. This shelf/sweep construction is supposed to minimize the amount of water that gets out. But, it apparently hasn't been doing its job. Recently, I stopped by Home Depot to see if they stock a replacement for my shelf/sweep construction. They said "no" and instead referred me to a local store by the name of Federal Glass. The Home Depot employee recommended that I bring the shelf/sweep construction with me so they could determine an exact replacement.

The next day, I took apart the shelf/sweep construction. Boy, was it disgusting! From above, it looked clean, but underneath was years of mold and mildew buildup. And, the rubber sweep was all-but-disintegrated and clearly required replacing.

Unfortunately, Federal Glass was closed when I first tried to stop by on a Saturday afternoon. But, when my wife stopped by on Monday, she came home with a new rubber sweep ($5) and instructions to simply clean and reinstall the shelf (free). I spent 15 minutes returning the metal shelf back to its original grandeur, installed the new rubber sweep and secured the shelf back to the door, making sure to secure one end higher than the other to encourage water to fall back into the shower.

The next day when I stepped out of the shower, I carefully looked for water around the door and only found a few drops (compared to the pool we experienced before). Amazing what $5 and a quality local store can do for you!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Foundation Repairs

I was happy to get a concrete foundation in the house we bought a year ago, but since it's really 3 separate foundations, we're anything but immune to cracks. We had one filled with concrete. But, I'm suspicious as to whether that was the correct decision. A more flexible material like butyl rubber would probably have been better. I just learned of another option: Crack-X. Crack-X is a company that specializes in concrete foundation cracks. They use an epoxy injection which effectively welds the two parts together. Will have to keep them in mind in case we have another crack to deal with...

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Air Conditioning Maintenance

I've been learning a bit about how to maintain my central air conditioner (A/C) lately. In particular, my neighbor noticed that my outdoor compressor fan wasn't blowing as strongly as it should have. Last night, unscrewed the top and found a pile of leaves, dirt, etc. at the bottom, mainly concentrated in the area where he noted the weakness. I had brought my wet/dry vac with me so I turned it on and sucked-out as much of the crap as I could. I'll soon be back for a second round to give it a more complete cleaning. One thing I found difficult was the fact that the fan was attached to the top metal piece that I removed to gain access to the inside. Also, much of the unit was held together by this top cover. So, I had to use one hand to hold up the cover while I used my second hand to stick the vacuum tube down. Definitely would have been nice to have a second person to help.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Gutter Cleaning

We own a raised ranch which has it's pros and cons. One pro is that roof access is a cinch. Recently I realized that my gutters needed some serious cleaning. I first used a ladder to climb up to the gutter and used my hands to toss out clumps of gunk. But, I couldn't reach my front gutter with my 16 ft. extension ladder so I called my neighbor to ask if I could borrow his 24 ft. extension ladder. My neighbor is super-helpful, so instead of offering his ladder, he brought over his Toro Super Blower (which is also a CR best buy; Note: link is to "Ultra") and told me to try it out. He helped me get up on the roof and I tried it out. Sure enough, it did a fabulous job of blowing out leaves, sticks and gunk from the gutter. Some of the piles of gunk were so thick and heavy, I didn't think a blower could clear them out, but this one had little trouble.

As if to test out my work, less than an hour later, a thunderstorm rolled through around 5pm and dropped 0.36 inches of rain in about 5 minutes. One gutter showed minimal spill-over and the other was much improved. I think I still have a bit of cleaning work to do, but it's a great feeling to know I can clean-out my gutter so easily.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Catching a Mouse

The first time we had mice, it was a huge surprise. We had lived happily in our condo for 7 years without any trouble. Worst pest problem we had before was ants which cleared quickly after we laid a number of basic ant stations and kept the kitchen clean. But, when I asked around, everyone was surprised that this was our first mouse experience! Apparently, we're more becoming more normal with respect to mice---we bought a new house less than a year ago and already have our first mouse problem. But, the good news is (1) we killed the (hopefully only) mouse and (2) I'm 99% sure I closed off the entry-point.

Killing the mouse was more difficult than I thought. With our previous problem, I just bought a few of the basic, traditional traps, laid them where we saw the mice and---bang, bang---no more mice. What I've since learned is that the basic Victor mouse trap comes in two different styles. And, there's an even better trap available if you're willing to pay a few bucks more. Here's a picture of the three different types:

On the left is the one I bought recently. It's difficult to set and doesn't work very well because when it's set, the metal bar is applying pressure to a metal hook. A good bit of pressure is required to set it off. Our mouse licked the peanut butter off three of these without setting off a single one. The middle trap is similar in style, but uses a plastic hook. The rod slides off more easily and it's easier to hook on something solid like a piece of beef jerky (as shown) which the mouse would have to tug on to get off. But, my favorite is the one on the right (the Ortho Press 'N Set Mouse Trap) which is the one that got our mouse. You put the peanut butter in the center white cup and pull the lever back. The mouse can't get to the peanut butter without stepping on the red trip which sets off the trap. The mouse was dead 30 minutes after I laid the trap. Winner!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Caulks and Sealants

It looks like there are four types of caulk:
  • Acrylic Latex - for smaller cracks in dry areas - flexible, easy cleanup
  • Vinyl Latex - good adhesion, waterproof, also flexible and easy to cleanup
  • Silicone - excellent adhesion, long life, waterproof, not paintable, requires rubbing alcohol for cleanup
  • Butyl Rubber - heavy-duty, for outdoor applications, can fill large gaps with a backer rod (foam support rod)
Here are instructions on how to apply caulk correctly.