Electrical plugs and outlets are designed to keep you safe from electrical shock and protect the device you’re using.
Take advantage of this by making sure you match the plug with the correct electrical outlet. Once upon a time, you could insert a two-prong plug the wrong way into a wall outlet, resulting in reversed polarity—a dangerous situation. Nowadays, most new electrical devices have a polarized two-prong plug, with one blade wider than the other.
This protects you from plugging it in wrong and potentially getting a shock. What about three-prong plugs … for instance, the three prong plug for the washing machine? Are you tempted to use an adapter to plug this into a two-prong outlet? Bad idea. The round prong on that three-prong plug serves as a ground.
If stray electricity exists (from, say, a loose “hot” wire), the ground trips an electrical circuit or fuse, cutting the power. But if you’ve used a cheater plug or cut off the ground prong, that stray electricity could flow through your body. For any appliance with a grounded, three-prong plug, always use a grounded, three-prong outlet.
Of you don’t have the proper outlet, hire an electrician to install one.
The refrigerator is among the most neglected of household appliances, because usually it runs forever with little repair. However, it often consumes the most electricity among your home's appliances. You can improve the performance and extend the life of your refrigerator with simple maintenance.
The condenser coil of a refrigerator transfers heat to the air of your room. You should clean the coil with a vacuum or soft brush once or twice a year. The coil is located behind or underneath the refrigerator; it's a serpentine apparatus with small fins. The fins' narrow spacing catches lint and debris. A small tube connected to your vacuum will quickly collect this dirt.
Viewing and accessing the coils is often as simple as snapping the plastic cover off the lower front of the refrigerator. Often there is also a small fan that moves air across the coils. The fan should also be carefully cleaned or vacuumed after you unplug the unit.
Cleaning the coil and fan will aid in heat transfer and shorten the refrigeration compressor's run time. This will save electricity and lengthen the life of your refrigerator.
What’s with those ghostly gray stains on the outside corners of the ceiling and walls? The stains outling the stud framing, and they even seem darker where there are nails in the drywall.
Most ghostly outlines like this are caused by soot in the air. Soot collects at framing, under doors, around pictures, and on plastic appliances. Often the soot comes from burning candles, but it can also result from other combustion sources, like a gas fireplace.
Soot is very light; it floats easily and invisibly. Wherever the air slows or changes direction, soot can be deposited. This explains the stains at pictures and under doors, but why does soot outline the stud framing?
Often there is no insulation at the edges of studs on outside walls or ceilings. Instead, insulation is placed between the studs. As air slows around the cooler drywall at the uninsulated stud edge, soot gets deposited in a ghostly outline. The nails are also cooler than their surroundings, so you may see soot spots at the drywall nails or screw heads.
The quick fix: eliminate the source of soot, then clean and paint the walls. Before painting, use a good primer such as BIN to cover the remaining soot.
Eeuuww—what’s that smell in the kitchen? Yuck, it’s from the sink. It smells like sewage or rotten food. The sink looks clean, and you try flushing lots of water down the drain. You run the garbage disposal, and it works fine. Yet the smell persists. What should you do?
The smell could be caused by debris that has collected inside the disposal’s rubber flapper. With the disposal off, wipe this hidden surface with a coarse rag and detergent. Be careful not to put the rag or your hand too far into the disposal—just rub the underside of the rubber flap.
With some disposals, this flap can be removed and cleaned. Typically it is just held in place in a slot around the edges.
After cleaning the flap, turn on the disposal and dump a few pounds of ice into it. The ice will bounce around in the disposal, and these hard chunks will break away debris.
Finally, with the disposal running, throw in a few lemon or lime peels. They are pretty tough, and they’ll also help break away any debris while leaving a pleasant scent.
What is the number one source of water damage inside a home? It’s not tornadoes, rainstorms or hurricanes. It’s broken washing machine hoses. Left undetected, a broken washer supply hose can quickly flood a home.
Check your washer’s hoses periodically. If there are any signs of bulging or leakage, replace the hoses.
Make sure your washer has heavy, reinforced hoses. The better quality washer hoses are reinforced with braided metal on the outside or inside. In this case, cost can be an indication of quality, so buy the best hoses you can find and read labels to compare types of construction.
The best wash hose, Watts brand FloodSafe®, shuts off when there is excessive flow of water. Some systems automatically turn off the water when the washer is off. Check out the designs available from Watts and other manufacturers.
Another option is to turn off the water to the washing machine when it is not in use. This may not be practical if your laundry area has typical plumbing valves, but it’s very easy if you install a special valve that allows you to turn off hot and cold with a flip of a lever.
There it is again—a loud squeak every time someone walks down the hall. This may be a good sound for parents hearing their kids coming home before curfew, but it’s really annoying at 3 a.m. when someone’s just making a trip to the kitchen.
Floor squeaks are caused by natural shrinkage of wood due to changes in moisture content. As the wood dries, it shrinks, and nails can loosen. When you step on the floor, the wood moves and rubs against the fasteners. Squeak!
Many options exits to correct floor squeaks. Often you can work from below to add (or “sister”) strips of framing wood to the existing joist. Use construction adhesive and screws to secure the strip of framing to the joist and the subfloor. The construction adhesive is the key—it bonds to all surfaces and will not shrink as it cures.
You can also add a thin wood shim to gaps between the floor joists and the subfloor. Again, use construction adhesive. Gently tap the shims into the gap. Don’t pound the shims into the gap because this may widen it and make the problem worse.
After twenty years of soft drinks, coffee and wear and tear, a plastic laminate kitchen countertop can become discolored and worn. Small scratches dull the finish. It’s impossible to fully restore the color and eliminate scratches from plastic laminate (better known by common brand names like Formica).
The same properties that make plastic laminate such a tough and durable material for countertops also make it impossible to fully patch or repair. However, you can clean and polish laminate with a product like Gel-Gloss, a milky white cleaner/polisher much like automotive wax. With a little rubbing, Gel-Gloss will remove most stains and discoloration with its mild abrasive and solvent cleaner.
Spread a thin coat on the countertop. After it dries to a light powdery residue, buff with a clean cloth. This leaves a nice gloss that tends to mask scratches, so the plastic laminate looks refinished. It also creates a smooth, sealed surface that resists water spotting and stains.
In the future, when the counter gets dull again, just apply more. Never use bleach or strong abrasive cleaners on plastic laminates. They can damage the surface and remove the color. Also, don’t flood the surface with water—water may get into the edge joints and swell the underlying particle board.
Singing in the shower takes on a new dimension when you’re accompanied by a whistling shower head. No matter how you vary the pitch and stay in tune, the screech from the shower head just won’t play.
A poor melody is one thing, but water sprays and streaks to one side or the other are a real problem.
This problem is normally caused by a buildup of hard water deposits inside the small openings of the shower head. Once they become partially plugged, the squealing starts and the uniform spray is blocked.
Solve the problem by soaking the shower head in a plastic storage bag filled with vinegar or a hard-water-scale removal product. Often you can just full the bad and tie it around the pipe that feeds the shower head. Follow label directions for any chemical you use.
After soaking the shower head, rub it with a coarse cloth or use a toothpick to clean away residue and hard deposits.
To make the job easier, you can simply remove the shower head by turning the connector counterclockwise. This may require using a small wrench or pliers; protect the chrome plating by placing a rag under the wrench.
While a squeeeeky door may have a few advantages—you can tell when the kids come and go—in general, a squeaky door is an annoyance. And if you ignore a squeaky door too long, friction can wear the hinge pin excessively and make the door hard to operate.
The fix is simple. Purchase light lubricating oil in a small can with a drip spout. This allows you to apply just a few drops at a time. The oil may be called 3-in-1 oil or sewing machine oil.
With a small rag or paper towel handy, place a few drops of oil atop the tight horizontal pin joint at the hinge. The oil will be drawn into the joints, and you can catch any excess oil with the rag by wiping the hinge. Repeat on all hinges.
Open and close the door completely a few times to distribute the oil, and take one last wipe at the hinge to ensure that no oil drips on the floor. You should lubricate the hinges about every two years. I like to use the oil in a small can because it’s not messy like a spray lubricant.
OK, so you just heard the toilet flush in the middle of the night. No one else is in the house, and you don’t think your home has a ghost. Later that night, you hear it again. Ughhh. How will you explain this to the plumber?
Don’t worry. What you’re probably hearing is the toilet refilling as if it had been flushed. But how is that possible? Water in the tank is slowly leaking past the flush valve and into the bowl. As the bowl fills, the water silently flows down the drain line. When the water in the tank gets low, the automatic fill valve opens and you hear the tank filling—just as if the toilet had been flushed.
The fix is simple: clean or repair the flush ball or flap valve. At times, the problem can be fixed just by wiping deposits off the mating surfaces. Other times you’ll need to replace the valve because of a crack or surface imperfection.
If you want to test for this type of silent leak, place a few drops of food coloring in the tank. Within a short time, you’ll notice the color in the bowl—a sure sign of a leaking flush valve.
You have heard about how dangerous high-voltage electrical wires can be: never touch a downed wire … storms can damage wires … and so on. But what about the wires feeding your home? They can be dangerous too.
For residential electrical feeds, the wiring is generally 240 volt without overload protection—which means there is no circuit breaker that will trip if there’s an overload. That’s a lot of power.
Be smart. If your home is served by underground wiring, don’t ever dig without contacting the local utility locating service.
In the case of overhead wiring, standards exist for clearances to the wires. Normally the wires must be at least 10 feet above walking surfaces, 12 feet over driveways, and 18 feet over roadways. The wires should never extend over a pool or hot tub. Wiring should not rub on any surfaces, including trees.
You may want to visually inspect for clearance over walking surfaces that were added after the electrical service was extended to your home. It’s also smart to check the clearance over patios, decks, pools, and porches that may have been added to your home.
Contact your local utility if you have a concern or a specific question. Never, never touch a wire, and never place a ladder near a wire.
You know the old saying: two things in life are certain—death and taxes. Well I can add a third certainty to the mix: all poured concrete will crack.
Concrete shrinks about 5/8 inch in 100 feet of length. And that’s assuming the concrete is properly formulated, placed, and cured under the right temperature and moisture conditions. Add more water, raise the temperature or change any other variables, and the concrete will shrink even more.
To contend with shrinkage, workers place control joints and expansion joints in concrete. A control joint is easy to see—it’s a cut in the surface or a groove troweled into the surface. This cut or groove weakens the matrix and promotes cracking, so the shrinkage crack should occur in the control joint.
Expansion joints are soft spacers used between concrete and other construction materials. They allow shrinkage to occur and let the soft material fill the void. Expansion joints also allow for ongoing relative motion between surfaces.
So if you see cracks in a concrete surface, you should realize that often, it’s just normal shrinkage. If the concrete is heaving or lifting, though, there may be a problem.
Homeowners are always looking for ways to save energy while making our homes more comfortable. One of the easiest ways of doing this is to improve insulation in the attic. The attic is relatively easy to access. Often, it’s also the source of major energy losses, because warm air rises.
To find out how much insulation you need, check this page at the U.S. Department of Energy’s website:
Locate the zone where you live, and then scroll down to the color coded chart.
Insulation is measured in R-values. The higher the R-value, the better your attic will resist heat transfer.
Now take a look at your attic. In most climates, you’ll find insulation about 12 to 15 inches thick, which provides insulation of about R38. This varies, depending on the climate, but 12 to 15 inches is a good rule of thumb.
If you don’t have that level of insulation or you don’t know where to look, seek advice from a professional. The pro will know the standards for your area and can give you good advice. Make sure the pro talks about air sealing between the heated space and the attic as part of the insulation system. Air sealing is just as important as insulation.
On many cold, sunny days it would be great to air out your home without feeling a nasty cold draft from an open window. In fact, it may be essential to air out the house when you have just fried some bacon and the kitchen exhaust fan can’t remove the odor. But if you open the window, you get a cold draft that only seems to spread the bacon smell throughout your home.
You can avoid this fate if you understand the basic science of wind hitting your home. The side toward the wind will be under positive pressure as air tries to push in. The downwind side will experience suction, and air will tend to move out of the window.
So, to easily and comfortably ventilate your home, open a window on the downwind side. Air will move out of the open window as it leaks into the side of your home facing the wind. If you open a window on the windy side too, air will flow in and out more quickly.
If you also open a window on the second story, the effect will be even greater as a chimney effect causes warm air to rise.
At one time or another, we all have turned on a hot water faucet and been caught unaware by steaming hot water. In fact, you may have been lucky to pull your hand out of the flow just in time to prevent a burn. This situation creates real danger for small children who can’t react in time.
The accompanying chart shows how fast excessively hot water can burn. Residential water heaters should always be set to a temperature not to exceed 120 degrees F. Measure the water temperature with a thermometer at a faucet after establishing the flow of hot water.
If the temperature is too high, you can make a simple adjustment at the water heater. A gas water heater has a dial on the front of the gas valve that can be set to a lower temperature. If your home has an electric water heater, you’ll probably need to remove a small access cover and adjust the thermostat with a screwdriver. When id doubt, look for the instructions or seek help from an expert.
In addition to making your hot water supply safer, lowering the water heater temperature, can use significantly less energy (and save you money on utility bills).
Your washer has always worked well. In fact, it still does, but the cycle time seems to drag on longer and longer, hard to tell what’s wrong, but you notice the water doesn’t seem to spray into the laundry tub like it used to, and it seems to take longer to fill the tub. Why?
Well, you’ve figured out the problem—low water flow to the washing machine. Low flow means it takes longer for the tub to fill, and cycle times are stretched out.
Quick fix? Take a look at the hot and cold valves connected to the washer hoses. Make sure they are fully open. Next, remove the hoses to the washer and check both ends. This may take a little effort, and you may need to slide the washer forward.
If the hose fittings are tight, be ready with adjustable jaw pliers to turn them (remember: right is tight). After you remove the hoses you will likely find a fine screen in the hose washer. The screen traps debris and prevents it from entering the washing machine.
Look for debris in the screen. Rinse and clean the screen at a faucet. Replace the screen if it’s cracked. Also, replace the washer if it’s hard or cracked. Put the washer and screen in place, tighten the fitting, and you are good to go.
Most of us do-it-yourselfers attempt paint projects because painting is easy and gives a big bang for the buck. A fresh coat of paint can totally change the appearance of a surface and make everything look new.
Since paint is so great, why would you ever need to use a primer? Why waste the time and money?
Well, if the surface has stains or other problems, using primer is never a waste. In fact, it can prevent disasters. A stain could easily push through a fresh coat of paint and ruin the new surface.
Always prime when the existing surface has stains, chalking, dark colors, or irregular surface conditions.
Primers work because they are specially formulated with additional binders, additives, and tougher pigments that cover problem areas.
Primers have special qualities for special conditions, so read the labels or consult a painting professional for specific applications. For the best advice, visit a paint store that contractors use.
I have done this, and I bet you have too: You work hard to hang a heavy picture or mirror on the wall using several heavy-duty picture hooks. The picture is tough to align in just the right position because of its size and weight, complicated by the hanging wire and multiple hooks.
Then, during the night, you hear a crash. You jump out of bed to discover that the mirror has fallen. The floor has a big gouge, the frame is broken, and you’ve got lots of broken glass to pick up.
You can prevent this problem with a unique picture-and mirror– hanging bracket available at larger frame shops. This metal device comes in two parts. One bracket is attached across the back of the picture frame with a few screws. A matching bracket is screwed to the wall with long screws that reach the studs. Because the wall bracket is wider than 16 inches, it can easily be screwed into several wall studs.
Then you just hang the mirror by slipping the frame bracket over the wall bracket. It’s easy to level the frame and place it in the right location with just a few measurements when you first attach the bracket to the wall.
Water, water and water—the three most damaging elements to a home. Water at or below ground level leaks in, moves under, and pushes through to damage your home.
It is vital to keep water away from your foundation. That’s true whether your home is build on a slab or has crawl spaces or a full-depth foundation. Water can cause cracks, heaving, leaks and structural movement.
What can you do? Keep rainwater and other surface water away from your foundation. Make sure the surface is graded so water drains away. In most cases, you can use gutters and downspouts to direct rain away from the foundation.
Visually inspect your home for problems. It’s even a good idea to walk around your home during a heavy rain to check that surface water is flowing away from the house.
A very common problem is gutter downspout extensions that have an improper slope, or no slope; they don’t let water drain away. You can solve this problem by raising the elbow on the vertical section. You’ll need tin snips or a hacksaw, and a screwdriver. Remove the elbow, use the tin snips or hacksaw to cut a few inches off the vertical section, and re-install the elbow. Secure it with a few short screws. You may need to drill pilot holes for the screws. Simple fix—big results.
Can lights or recessed ceiling lights are a common design feature in modern residential construction. They are also common in older custom-built homes. They provide a unique lighting pattern without the glare of a fixture, but they may also waste energy. You have several options when replacing the bulbs (lamps) in can lights. Don't use a common "A" type bulb; it will not direct light out of the fixture. Most of the light is just wasted inside the can. Consider a spot or flood lamp that reflects and projects light out of the can, such as a parabolic aluminized reflector lamp (also called a PAR bulb). For a "green" step up, consider a parabolic lamp, which has a curved reflector that projects even more light out of the can into a smaller pattern. For a choice that's even more "green," use a compact fluorescent spotlight or reflector lamp. These compact fluorescents save about 75% in energy costs and last much longer than incandescent bulbs. They also create less heat in the room - heat that must be removed with air conditioning in hot climates.
While light from fluorescent lamps may look a little different at first, their light color and quality have greatly improved in recent years. Look for "warm" color lamps or "color corrected" lamps for a more pleasant light.
While painting is a bit of a chore, the right tools can help you get the job done easier and faster. Lots of small tools exist for paint preparation, but who wants to carry around a bunch of tools?
Try a 5-in-1 or a 10-in-1 painter’s tool. Many manufacturers make them. They offer slight variations on a similar theme: a small hand tool that serves many functions.
This tool is easy to carry in your pocket, so it saves lots of trips up and down a ladder.
The typical painter’s tool provides a heavy-duty scraper and putty knife with a rigid point for scraping small areas. A semi-circular cutout in the blade lets you scrape paint from a roller. Many painter’s tools have a stiffened blade that serves as a flat-bladed screwdriver or a tool to remove the cover of a metal paint can.
The stiff handle and flat end can be used as a hammer in a pinch. Some tools even have a small set of screwdriver bits that fit in the base of the handle.
In homes with basements and crawl spaces, we always need to be concerned with water flow from the roof. An overflowing gutter will dump water next to the foundation and create a water leak into the crawl space or basement. In homes with concrete slabs, water next to the foundation can cause movement and cracking, which are bad things for a slab.
So, don’t let the gutters overflow. Trees can drop needles, seeds, and leaves that can make a real mess in the gutters. Establish a routine for cleaning the gutters that addresses the needs in your yard.
Also make sure downspout extensions dump water away from the foundation. They should extend at least three feet, and preferable six feet, to an area where the water will naturally drain away from your home.
One of the best inspection techniques is to observe your home during a hard rain. Gutters should not overflow, and all surface water should be directed away from your home. Water pooled next to a foundation is almost always the cause of a water leak into a basement and can result in structural damage to walls and slabs. Maintenance is easy and simple—make it a priority.
You just had your new home inspected, and the inspector found “reversed polarity” at several electrical outlets some amateur had added. You know you need to fix this, but what is that reversed polarity stuff?
Electricity flows through wires like water through a hose. Pressure pushes water through a hose; energy pushes electricity through a wire. Each fixture must have an “electricity on” (hot wire) and an “electricity out” (neutral wire).
For safety reasons, the hot and neutral wires should never be reversed—if they are, that’s reversed polarity. A modern lamp has a plug with one wide and one narrow blade, so it can only be plugged into the outlet one way. This ensures proper polarity.
Suppose you plug a lamp into an outlet with reversed polarity. Electricity enters from the metal ring around the bulb. The switch is then on the neutral line. When the lamp is turned off, the metal ring around the bulb is still electrified. If you touch the ring, you could get a shock.
Why? Even with the power switch off, you can still get a shock from the ring around the bulb because you are switching the neutral line, not the power line.
We like to check to see if things are on the level—or should we say “plumb?”
Is a wall plumb or level? Is the floor level? Is the doorframe plumb or square?
Confusing, isn’t it? Here’s a quick guide to those terms.
“Plumb” refers to vertical surfaces. A foundation wall or doorframe that is “plumb” is perfectly vertical. Plumb can be checked with a level tool that has a bubble floating within a vial. When the tool is placed against a plumb surface, the bubble floats to the center of the markings.
Plumb can also be checked with a plumb bob—a weight hung on the end of a string. A plumb bob will always hang perfectly vertical.
“Level” refers to horizontal surfaces. Whether a surface is level can be checked with a level tool (but of course!).
“Square” refers to the relative position of two surfaces. If they need at a 90-degree angle, the two surfaces are square. You can check for square with a carpenter’s square tool. For larger surfaces, builders use a 3-4-5 triangle technique to ensure accurate 90-degree angles.
Just remember: carpenters and other building professionals worry about level, plumb, and square—or your windows and doors would not close.