Thawing Frozen Pipes and Winter Home Maintenance

The first full day of winter, and Man it’s cold.  Three days ago it was 75 degrees and this morning it’s 5.  If you’re in Minnesota I know that you’re thinking stop whining already hey, but you must admit that is an extreme change over one weekend. It catches people by surprise – “Surprise! it’s December 22, and it’s Cold!” – It probably shouldn’t but it does.

It’s a big money day for plumbers.  Anyway…

How to Thaw your Frozen Pipes – Click on the link for more information on what to do when the water doesn’t flow, and how to keep your pipes from freezing if they haven’t already.

Winter Time Home Maintenance – Maintenance is the key to avoiding expensive repairs, and keeping your home values high –  And there are some things that are best done in the Winter time.

Lightning Protection for TV Antennas

Thinking about turning off the cable or satellite service to save money? You aren’t alone. Times are tough and a lot of us need to trim our expenses.  You’ll probably be surprised at the amount and quality of programming that you can get over an antenna that you can install for the price of a couple of months of premium cable, especially now that on air broadcasts are going high definition. However, if you use an exterior mounted television or radio antenna you must take some simple steps to protect your TV and home from being damaged by lightning.
I do not claim to be an expert in this field, however I have gone to the trouble to find articles on the Internet by several people who are, and I have taken their advice with very good results. At the bottom of this page you will find links to several “expert” sites on this subject.

Protection for a TV antenna which is located on a roof should be at three points:

1) Ground Connections at the Antenna The antenna, mast and lead in wires (as well as control wires for the rotator or similar equipment) should have a ground routed via the shortest possible path, without sharp bends or kinks to a ground rod which is connected to the main earth ground for the home electrical system.

2) At The Entrance to the House The antenna coax should enter the house as near as possible to where the telephone or cable TV wires enter (usually very near the electrical service entrance). This is called a single point of entry. All data and control wires should be grounded at this point with the shortest most direct conductor possible to the system ground rods.

3) At The Television A high quality surge protection device that protects both the power supply and the antenna wires should be used at all televisions connected to the antenna.

How to Choose Energy Efficient Windows

A typical NFRC window label gives you the information that you need about window performance.
A typical NFRC window label gives you the information that you need about window performance.

Picture of a typical NFRC window label – Snagged from the NFRC website.

Almost everything you need to know about windows can be found on the NFRC label that comes on the window, and your window dealer should be able to furnish you with this information before you place your window order.
What you will find on the NFRC label Continue reading “How to Choose Energy Efficient Windows”

Financing a Home Improvement Project

Improving or updating your home – whether it is an addition, updating a kitchen or bath, or finishing the basement – improves your quality of life and increases the resale value of your home. These kinds of projects can cost tens of thousands of dollars, but there are several financing options available. To choose wisely you need to consider several factors:

  • how much you need to borrow.
  • how much equity you currently have in your home.
  • how much value your project will add to your home.
  • whether you need the money all at once or would prefer to draw on it as necessary.
  • whether you want to make amortized payments or follow a more flexible schedule.
  • your comfort level with placing a second mortgage on your home.

Your first steps should be to get pre-approved by a lender to determine how much you can spend, and to get an estimate from a qualified contractor to determine if your project is feasible with the financing that is available to you. Then here are your financing options:

A home equity loan

Works much like a conventional mortgage. You borrow a lump sum that is secured against your home, and is repaid over several years. Usually, the interest rate and monthly payment usually remain fixed throughout the term of the loan. This option requires an additional payment on top of your first mortgage and usually carries a higher interest rate than refinancing your mortgage. However, the closing costs may be lower and it can be right if you prefer not to refinance and you need the money for your renovation all at once.

A home equity line of credit

A HELOC is a good choice if you will need to pay for your project in stages. In this case, the lender agrees to advance you money up to a specified limit, and you access the money as needed with an ATM card or checking account, making it easy to pay contractors. Monthly payments can be lower than those of a home equity loan, since you have the option of paying interest only on the money you withdraw. The other important difference is that HELOCs carry adjustable interest rates, while home equity loans typically have fixed rates.

Refinancing your mortgage

An option to consider if you already have equity in your home and you are planning a major renovation. For example, if you want to borrow $45,000 to build an addition and you have $120,000 left to pay on a $200,000 mortgage, you may be able to take cash out by raising the principal on your mortgage to $195,000. This would allow you to pay for the entire renovation up front. Depending on the terms, your monthly mortgage payment might remain the same; only the length of the loan will be extended. If your project will be an addition (as opposed to simply redecorating) lenders may approve you based on the projected value of your home after the project is complete.

A personal loan or line of credit

May be all you need for a smaller project. The fees to set these up can be lower than those for refinancing your mortgage or your equity. The drawbacks? Personal loans are not secured with your home, so they carry a higher interest rate. But depending on the rate, they are usually more economical than using a credit card. However, interest on your mortgage or home equity loan may be tax deductible whereas interest on a personal loan is not.

Choosing a Contractor

Full Disclosure – I’m a general contractor. I’ve worked in both the custom and speculative markets for clients and for myself. This article is based mostly upon my opinions and experience, but it also reflects a consensus from within my community. If you don’t get anything else from it just remember one thing – Check References – if you do that you will be way ahead of the game.

Before you can choose a contractor you will need to decide what Kind of contractor you want, and why. At one end of the spectrum of contractors you have the Full Service General Contractor. The Full Service General Contractor does way more than just construction. They also:

  • Produce a detailed proposal, and firm price that will be very helpful for securing project financing.
  • Manage specialty tradesmen such as electricians, plumbers, tile setters, etc
  • Manage and usually furnish general construction workers who will perform tasks that are difficult to sub-contract out like foundation lay out, clean up, general labor, as well as specialty skilled trades when sucuring a specialized subcontractor isn’t appropriate.
  • Furnish workman’s comp, general liability, and sometimes builders risk insurance
  • Manage payroll for everyone who works on the job
  • Procure and manage materials
  • Pull building permits
  • Deal with codes inspectors
  • Plan and Schedule all of these elements as well as keep You the customer on schedule “time to get that light picked out!”
  • Quality assurance – make sure that everyone is doing a good job
  • Incur liability – For example if your house burns down because of faulty wiring, the general contractor will incur the liability for negligence (if it was involved) in case the electrician is unable to for any reason. This is a major reason why a full service contractor costs more.
  • Contract with you to do your project for a firm price or at least a well estimated one.
  • Furnish a warranty – if you act as your own contractor you will usually not get much if any warrantability from tradesmen.
  • The General Tradesman

    On the other end of the spectrum of contractors you have the General Tradesman. The General Tradesman will generally perform all or most of the construction personally or with the help of 1-3 others. This crew will work on your job pretty much continuously from start to finish. Other than construction the General tradesman may not do any of the other things that a Full service contractor does. They may Only work by the hour or on a “cost plus” basis, making the final cost pretty hard for you to predict. They will probably want to be paid up to current once a week. The General tradesman may not be licensed or insured, which may or may not be quite legal.

    If you hope to have minimal dealings with managing your project (from planning to warranty) then you probably want a full service general contractor. If you don’t mind being a lot more hands on then you might consider a Tradesman type contractor. Or you might accept something in between (remember, it’s a spectrum).

    Now, here is the most important part: Check their References. Talking to recent past customers is without a doubt the best way to find out what you are getting into. Both types of contractors have their own inherent advantages (which should be obvious). But if you check their references, you will know what to expect. If a contractor won’t or can’t furnish references then don’t even consider them.

    The next most important thing is to get a written contract that specifies exactly what you and your contractor are agreeing on, no matter what type of contractor you hire.

    Keep in mind that you get what you pay for – or at least you don’t get what you don’t pay for. Any Contractor is obligated to perform the work in a competent manner, but if you hope to get other services then you should expect to pay for them. In other words, a full service contractor will probably cost more than a tradesman, but for more money you should also get more service.

    How to Plan your Remodeling or home Improvement project and select a Contractor

    Define your Goals

    Write down the ways in which your home does not currently meet your

    needs. Don’t worry about the design or budget of the project at this

    point. That will come later. Just write down the issues you are trying

    to resolve. Aside from what you need, also include anything that you just simply want. This is your dream list. For example:

    • “When we entertain the house is too small to accommodate our guests.”
    • “We’re tired of going up and down stairs to do the laundry.”
    • “We want a bigger more modern kitchen.”
    • “We want a bigger luxurious bathroom.”
    • “We need much more closet space.”
    • “I want a high tower from which to survey my domain.”
    • “We would like for our home to be more energy efficient.”
    • “We want to have a sunny, cheerful room that is appropriate for
    • houseplants, and family activities.”

    If you have many separate items on your wish list at this point, try

    to rank them by priority, and decide which goals are most important

    to you. If you are able to solve these problems then you will

    be more likely to be happy with the results of your project, and it

    will allow a professional to help you design a project which will be

    right for you.

    2. Determine your budget

    This may be the most distasteful, yet necessary part of the process. In

    order to evaluate the practical limits of your budget you need to consider

    several factors. Do you foresee selling your home in the near

    future? If so, you will probably be concerned with recovering

    your investment when you sell. If the total of what you paid

    for your home and the cost of remodeling is going to significantly

    exceed the value of the most expensive homes in your neighborhood then

    your project may not be economically feasible. However after

    five years or so other factors may be more significant. So, if

    you have no intention of moving soon then the issue is completely different. Location

    is everything, and if you love the location of your home and intend

    to stay put then any amount of investment to make it into the home

    you want may be justified. If you will be borrowing money

    for your project, then you should talk to your lender to get an idea

    of what your financial limits might be.

    3. Find a Contractor

    When it comes to finding a contractor, be an informed consumer. Before

    you even contact a prospective contractor consider calling the Better

    Business Bureau or the state board for licensing contractors to see

    if they have any unresolved complaints or actions against them. Once

    you have contacted a contractor ask them for references. Why

    even waste the time to discuss your project in depth if these factors

    might disqualify a candidate? A reputable contractor will be

    delighted for you to check up on their business in advance.

    “Horror Stories” about contractors abound. For example, the

    contractor who starts a job and then disappears for weeks at a time. Or

    the contractor who does a pretty good job, but then just won’t return

    for warranty work. Or the contractor who goes grotesquely over

    budget. Or the contractor who takes your money and then does

    an all around shoddy job. One thing all of those stories have

    in common. The customer didn’t check the contractors references. Don’t

    make that mistake and you probably will never have a horror story of

    your own.

    4. Get all questions answered up front

    Your contract should be specific, and may (usually should) include

    drawings, model numbers of appliances or fixtures, materials specifications,

    and a specification of all services which will be included. Also

    the rate for upgrades or additional work (AKA change orders) should

    be agreed upon. Just as important as what will be included is

    a list of any required commodities that the contractor will not be

    paying for such as electrical service, yard repair, owner supplied

    fixtures, owners responsibilities, etc.

    Home Maintenance Schedule

    Home Maintenance

    Regular maintenance is the key to keeping your home in top shape, preserving its value, and preventing problems like wet basements. Home maintenance begins when the home is brand new and continues forever. Therefore, it is best to make regular maintenance a habit from the very beginning. In addition to normal maintenance, you can expect to replace major systems of your home on a predictable schedule, so be aware of these expenses and plan for them.

  • Monthly Maintenance items
  • Every 6 Months Maintenance items
  • Annual Maintenance items
  • Spring Maintenance items
  • Summer Maintenance items
  • Fall Maintenance items
  • Winter Maintenance items
  • When things go wrong
  • Wet Basement
  • Life expectancy of major systems
  • Monthly

  • Inspect yard, landscaping for standing water or drainage problems immediately after (or during) heavy rain.
  • During moderate rain, inspect gutters and downspouts for leaks. If any leaks are noticed, plan on caulking them during dry weather.
  • Test smoke detector.
  • Change HVAC air filter.
  • Check under sinks for signs of leakage.
  • Test GFCI breakers and receptacles.
  • Clean or replace filter in range hood.

    Every 6 Months

  • Check and clean gutters and downspouts.
  • Check water supply lines and valves for leaks, including inside the water meter box.
  • Check around water heater and water service entrance valve for leaks. (you do know where your water service entrance valve is, don’t you?)
  • Inspect windows and screens, lubricate tracks and latch mechanisms.
  • Clean and inspect gutters and downspouts
  • Clean and inspect culverts and drainage tiles
  • Check for cracks in caulking around the following areas: sinks, bathtubs, toilets, faucets, countertops, ceramic tile, window sills, exterior door trim.
  • Familiarize yourself with the locations of main water and electrical cut offs, and their use so that in the event of an emergency (water is spraying all over the kitchen for example) you will know where to turn off the water and electricity.
  • Annual Maintenance items

  • Have HVAC system checked and maintained by qualified technician.
  • Check attic vents for blockage.
  • Inspect inside of attic for signs of roof leaks.
  • Check cabinet doors, drawers and hinges for alignment. Adjust and lubricate if needed.
  • Check and clean chimney if needed.
  • Clean exterior of house: siding, gutters, concrete slabs, decks etc. Be aware that some kinds of siding (vinyl for example) shouldn’t be pressure washed because of the possibility of forcing water into the thermal envelope of the house, no house is built to withstand careless pressure washing. Care should always be taken to restrict water from washing to the exterior of your home.
  • seal asphalt driveway
  • touch up paint/caulk interior
  • touch up paint/caulk exterior
  • Lubricate drawers, hinges, locks, garage doors, anything that has moving parts or is squeaky or sticky.
  • Spring Maintenance items

  • Lawns should be seeded or reseeded in late winter or as early in the spring as possible while nights are cold and the ground is wet.
  • Open foundation vents around beginning of April.
  • Clean and seal decks while nearby plants are still dormant to avoid damaging plants with sealer over spray.
  • Apply pre-emergent crab grass killer if desired. Follow manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Fertilize lawn and landscaping as soon as spring growth appears
  • Prune large trees before leaves appear, while branch structure is visible.
  • Middle TN is usually frost free by the middle of April, so tender bedding plants can be safely set out after this date. Wait a few weeks longer to set out warm weather plants such as tomatoes or peppers.
  • Clean gutters as needed to keep leaves from accumulating. Stopped up gutters may cause roof and foundation leaks, and serious long term damage to your home.
  • Summer Maintenance items

  • When over night temperatures are no longer cool stop applying fertilizer to grass
  • Summer is a great time to touch up exterior paint and caulk,
  • Seal asphalt driveway
  • Fall Maintenance items

  • Pay attention to weather forecasts and do these things before freezing temperatures to avoid expensive plumbing repairs
  • Remove garden hoses from outside faucets before freezing weather, even “frost proof” faucets will be damaged if there is a hose attached.
  • Close foundation vents, and check crawl space access door.
  • Clean gutters as needed to keep leaves from accumulating. Stopped up gutters may cause roof and foundation leaks, and serious long term damage to your home.
  • Remove leaves from lawn. If you pile them up and let them rot they make a great soil amendment for your flower beds or vegetable garden. Consider planting a natural screen around a corner of the yard for a compost pile to recycle your leaves, grass clippings, prunings, and other waste into excellent organic compost.
  • Apply lime to lawn if needed. Almost all soils in middle TN need lime, plus it is relatively cheap and very environmentally friendly. However some evergreen shrubs can be stunted or damaged by too much lime.
  • Winter Maintenance items

  • Broadcast grass seed on or about last day of winter
  • Apply dormant treatments to fruit bearing trees
  • Prune and burn diseased or infested branches/foliage from plants and trees
  • If weather turns extremely cold (less than 10 degrees F) take precautions to avoid freezing pipes:

  • 1) Double check that foundation vents and crawl doors are tightly closed.
  • 2) Leave the doors open on cabinets that contain plumbing under the kitchen and bathroom sinks so that they can get some heat.
  • 3) In particularly vulnerable locations along outside walls (usually the kitchen sink) leave the water running a tiny bit if the temperature stays below zero for more than a few hours.
  • 4) If the water heater is in an unheated garage, monitor the temp in the area, and run a space heater if it is getting colder than 25 degrees.
  • When things go wrong

    Electric outlet doesn’t work.

  • Check for tripped breakers, and also tripped GFI or Arc Fault breakers. A GFI plug in another room could be causing the problem so check all GFI devices before you give up. GFI devices (both breakers and receptacles) should be checked monthly. Make sure that appliances like vacuum cleaners are turned off before you plug them in to avoid tripping arc fault breakers.Garage door opener won’t close door.
  • Make sure that the “electric eyes” are still aligned and the path between them is unobstructed. The opener safety feature will not allow the door to close if the two “eyes” can’t see each other.
  • Mold – Mold is almost always caused by excessive moisture or humidity. Moisture content of materials in a properly maintained home are so low that mold can not normally grow. However, moisture can come from:

  • roof or plumbing leaks,
  • condensation on uninsulated plumbing or HVAC ducts
  • spillage – especially in bathrooms and kitchens
  • Whatever the source of the moisture it must be remedied or your home may become unfit for habitation. If you detect mold inside your home you must take immediate action to find and remedy the cause.
  • Interior air quality – The homeowner must monitor interior air quality, and take immediate action to protect the health of habitants. Things that you can do to maintain or improve interior air quality include:

  • maintaining your furnace filter,
  • controlling humidity to prevent mold,
  • vacuuming carpets regularly,
  • using HEPA filters in both the vacuum and furnace.
  • Your central heat and air system acts as a whole house air filter, so consider turning the fan on all of the time to continually filter.
  • Keep doors and windows closed as much as possible during periods of high pollen count or air pollution.
  • Make sure that your dryer vents to the outside and that the vent is well sealed and unobstructed
  • clean the dryer screen after every load of clothes.
  • If you have carpets, consider replacing all or part of them with tile or hardwood floors.
  • The soil in house plants almost always harbors mold (that gets watered and fertilized right along with the plants) which is a source of spores in the interior air, consider moving house plants to a separate space or getting rid of them altogether.
  • One of the biggest things that you can do is to banish smokers out of the house.
  • These actions can greatly improve the quality of life for everyone in your family, but especially for allergy sufferers.
  • Wet Basement

    Regular maintenance can almost always at least improve and sometimes completely eliminate a wet basement without the intrusion and expense of basement repairs and remediation.

    The first line of defense for keeping your basement dry happens outside of your home. Keep rain and ground water away from your home by keeping gutters, driveway tiles drains and culverts clear and functioning as they were intended. Move foundation plantings (bushes) away from the house (five feet minimum) to prevent watering during dry weather from aggravating your wet basement and to allow air circulation. Establish and maintain a grade which slopes away from your basement at all points. Run downspout water away from the foundation (AKA basement) with splash blocks or piping, and then make sure that those pipes stay open!

    Your basement should have a perimeter drain system that was installed when the house was built. That system would have drain pipes which carry water away from the base of the foundation. Often the homeowner doesn’t know what or where they are and the perimeter drain tiles become clogged or crushed at the place where they come out of the ground. Needless to say they need to be maintained.

    Many basements don’t have adequate ventilation and may require a dehumidifier. A dehumidifier can often be placed so that the water that it collects can go down a drain so that it can run continuously when needed without having to be emptied. If this isn’t possible, a condensate pump can be used to pump the water out to accomplish the same thing.

    A wet or damp basement can be aggravated by any source of moisture including:

  • roof or plumbing leaks,
  • condensation on uninsulated plumbing or HVAC ducts
  • spillage – especially in bathrooms and kitchens
  • leaks coming under walk in or garage doors
  • Other than a fire, excess moisture is the quickest way to make a house worthless and ininhabitable (just ask a hurricane victim). Whatever it takes to prevent or remedy a water or moisture problem is time and money well spent!

    Life expectancy of major systems

  • Water heater3-10 years
  • HVAC units10-20 years
  • Roof – standard asphalt shingles15-20 years
  • Roof – 30 year shingles25-35 years
  • Exterior paint5-10 years
  • Asphalt driveway20-30 years