Home Improvement Projects to Save Energy and Lower Your Energy Bills

The right home improvements can save you money beginning almost immediately and increase the resale value of your home, while also making your home a more comfortable place to live. In the future many home buyers are going to be much more concerned with energy efficiency and total cost of ownership.

Tighten you HVAC Duct Work – Leaky ducts that run through unconditioned attics or crawl spaces can waste huge amounts of energy. Continue reading “Home Improvement Projects to Save Energy and Lower Your Energy Bills”

Free Electric Load Calculator

Free NEC Standard Method Single Family Residential – Electric Service Entrance Load Calculator

What is this?

Enter plain numbers in cells without text or labels. If you leave any cells empty they will be calculated as zero.

Total Square feet of dwelling

Total # of Small Appliance Branch circuits (must be at least 2). If you have gas appliances which require a 120v branch circuit include them here. Continue reading “Free Electric Load Calculator”

Building a Tight Thermal Envelope

Simple things like caulking around pipes will make your home more comfortable and save a lot of money and energy.
Simple things like caulking around pipes will make your home more comfortable and save a lot of money and energy.

The Airtight Drywall Approach to a Tight Thermal Envelope

The building envelope is the part of the house which separates the indoors from the outdoors, and consists of the floor on the bottom level, the ceiling on the top level, the exterior walls, the exterior floor bands, and of course the doors and windows. The standard house envelope leaks air like a sieve and accounts for something like 30 percent of climate control costs due to air infiltration alone. Fortunately during construction it is cheap and easy to make the thermal envelope much tighter and to make a considerable improvement in the energy efficiency of the finished home. According to the Federal Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy website “Such airtight homes often consume one-third less energy when compared to similar unsealed homes.”

During the Framing Process

  • Seal under the exterior walls – I recommend that you use construction adhesive to glue your exterior walls down Continue reading “Building a Tight Thermal Envelope”
  • How to Thaw Frozen Plumbing Pipes

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  • Locate the main water cut off for the house and procure any tools that you may need to quickly turn the water off, in case you have leaks when it thaws out. But unless you suspect that you have burst pipes, don’t turn off the water yet. If possible draft an assistant for the extremely dull job of being handy to quickly turn off the water in case you get it to flow, and leaks are detected.
  • Minimize Distracting Noise – You will usually be able to hear water flowing through the pipes once it starts, and turning the radio or TV off could help you to prevent a big mess in case you have a burst pipe.
  • Open up all of the indoor faucets (sinks, bathtubs, etc) for two reasons: 1) if you can achieve just a little bit of flow through the pipes, then often the flowing water will quickly thaw out the ice remaining in the pipes. 2) To relieve pressure when flow is restored so that any leaks will flow at a slower rate to give you more time to turn off the main water valve, and thereby minimize water damage.
  • Crank up the heat. Try to get heat to the areas that are most likely to be frozen. Obviously the most likely places for the pipes to be frozen are where it is coldest – crawl spaces, unheated basements, water meter boxes, garages, etc. Be careful with space heaters and extension cords, you don’t want to burn down the house. Don’t crank up the heat and then run off to town. Keep an eye on everything just in case the water starts to flow. Continue reading “How to Thaw Frozen Plumbing Pipes”
  • The Best Whirlpool Smooth Stove Top Cleaner

    We finally replaced our old open element range with a new Whirlpool smooth ceramic top stove model. We immediately discovered that if you spill anything on it at all that you get some really stubborn stains. The recommended product that came with the range would barely even do anything at all. So, to make a long story short all you have to do is sprinkle a small amount of automatic dishwasher detergent (great value brand from Wal-Mart gets consumer reports highest rating by the way) and a little water then gently scrub with a green scotchbrite pad and it cleans up just like new. After figuring this out I keep a spray bottle of solution (2-3 tablespoons of detergent in 12 oz water more or less) handy and cleanup is a snap.

    This same solution also works great for other tough cleaning jobs like the stainless steel exterior of the gas grill. This solution of automatic dishwasher detergent does a great job of loosening and removing stains, but it will leave the surface hazy unless you follow up with a damp rag or a glass plus type of multi purpose cleaner.

    By the way, the instructions that came with our stove say to only use the factory recommended cleaner, and a clean soft cotton cloth or some such malarky, but after several months of using my method our smooth top stove looks like new. Who knows what they are thinking at Whirlpool.

    Just in case you had any desire to know – Automatic dishwasher detergent uses enzymes which are biological catalysts to drastically speed up the chemical reaction of breaking down fats and proteins. Since the stubborn cooked on stains on your stove top are from foods containing fats and proteins, then dishwasher detergent is just the ticket. So, this isn’t just the best whirlpool stove top cleaner, also keep it in mind for all kinds of food stains including blood. As with any strong cleaner use with caution and at your own risk.

    How to Fix a Toilet That Runs On

    Repairing a run on Toilet is an EASY do it yourself fix!

    Looking down at the contents of a typical toilet tank

    This is what you see when you look down into your typical toilet tank. The yellow thing at top left is the flush valve also known as a “ballcock”. The gray thing in the middle is the flapper valve. By the way, despite the rust stains in these pictures, the water in the toilet tank is completely clean. This is not a nasty job.

    Toilet supply connections

    Typical supply connections. Continue reading “How to Fix a Toilet That Runs On”

    How to Mud and Tape Drywall

    If you’re patient, you can make a professional quality drywall repair.

    Taping and Finishing Techniques:

    You only need to learn two very simple techniques in order to learn how to mud and tape drywall. For either technique the knife blade is held to the drywall at an angle, and the knife is moved in the direction that the handle is leaning as though you were trying to force the mud into the drywall (which you actually are). The steeper the angle, and the harder you press, the thinner the coat of drywall will be. Leaving the desired amount takes a little bit of practice, but it’s pretty easy to learn. I recommend that you do practice (on a scrap of plywood or drywall) before you start the actual repair.

    Step One – Taping

    Bedded drywall butt joint

    A flat joint that has been taped with mesh tape and the initial skim coat of joint compound. Notice that the skim coat is so thin that you can clearly see the tape through it.

    Step Two – Bedding

    2) Bedding – The point of a bed coat is to actually leave an even layer of mud on the entire area, and not just in the low areas. Do it just like you would a skim coat, but instead of removing most of the mud use a shallower knife angle and lighter pressure to leave a reasonably smooth, opaque layer.

    Note that you can do a thin (skim) coat that is smooth, but a thick (bed) coat will never be really smooth, so don’t worry about “craters” in your bed coat, and don’t worry much about them in the skim coat either.

    Bedded drywall butt joint

    Bedded flat joint. The bed coat has to be thick enough to embed the tape and fully cover it. That is why the bed coat is always a little bit rough. You can’t spread mud thick and smooth at the same time.

    Bedded drywall butt joint

    Closup of the bedded joint. This amount of roughness really is fine during the bedding stage so don’t worry too much, all of those low sposts will fill in during the final skim coat. It is far worse to wipe off too much mud in an attempt to make it smooth. However, you don’t want big protruding humps of mud, because those would have to be sanded down – lot’s of work, and mess.

    Step Three – Skimming

    1) Skimming – To do a skim coat, first with a clean knife, load your knife with a moderate amount of joint compound and apply it to the drywall in a layer that is thick enough to be opaque. That is, you shouldn’t be able to see any texture of the drywall, and the mud will be 1/16″ to 1/8″ thick. Then use the knife to remove almost all of the mud. This will leave a smooth layer of mud that is so thin that you can see the drywall through it, but it will fill in any low places and bring them up flush with the surface.

    Bedded drywall butt joint

    Profesional drywall finisher applying mud to a flat with a paint roller in preparation for the final skim using a 12″ knife. For smaller jobs you will usually just apply the mud using the same knife that you are wiping down with. For your information – premixed joint compound will wash completely out of your clothes, but setting types like durabond might not.

    Bedded drywall butt joint

    Here, he’s wiping it off. Note that he is using a shallow angle and considerable pressure. This is the last application of joint compound prior to sanding. This coat is just as thin as the first skim coat, and smooths out most of the roughness of the bed coat. It’s relatively easy to make a very thin coat like this smooth. However, a do it yourselfer will probably have to do more than one “final” skim coat to achieve really good results. By the way, he is working from left to right in this picture.

    The Process:

    Allow each coat to completely dry, until it no longer has any give at all when you push on the mud lightly with your finger tips.
    1) Fill up all cracks and voids with mud and Skim the excess off of the surface.
    Allow to dry.
    2) Lightly sand to remove any high spots or crumbs.
    Light sanding is almost like “wiping” you really shouldn’t have to work very long or hard at it. Be careful not to sand the paper and make it fuzzy, but if you do it won’t ruin anything at this point.
    3) Apply self stick mesh tape,
    Apply tape over all of the cracks or voids that don’t have continuous drywall under them. Rub it down so that it lays nice and flat everywhere. Try not to overlap the tape, and certainly don’t allow more than 2 pieces of tape to overlap at any one place.
    4) Apply a Skim coat of joint compound over the entire repair.
    Use either a 4″ or 6″ knife. Allow to dry.

    Bedded drywall butt joint

    Flat taped area around a fiberglass tub. Areas like this get a very thick layer of mud to fill in large gaps before they are taped. However once the hole is filled with joint compound it is then taped and skim coated for the initial finishing coat. This is identical to how you do a repair. Lightly sand again as in step 2

    5) Apply a Bed Coat centered over the tape

    Use either an 8″ or 10″ knife. If you have tape joints that cross each other or otherwise form an angle with one another, such as the corners of a square patch, then you will notice that you can produce a nice reasonably smooth bed coat in one direction, but when you bed the joint that crosses the first one, then the first bed joint gets kind of messed up. Don’t worry too much about it at this time; just do the best you can. Try to finish each joint with a single smooth stroke of your knife. Again, don’t sweat the details too much at this point. Allow to dry. Lightly sand again as in step 2

    6) Apply a Skim coat of joint compound over the entire repair

    Use a 12″ knife. You want to use that big knife to feather the repair out in all directions starting from the high point that you made with the bed coat in step 7. That is when you strike off (remove) most of the mud one end of your knife will be riding on the slightly thicker bed coat right over the tape joint, and the other end will be on the drywall. Don’t use too much pressure so that the 12″ knife will bridge the gap and leave a layer of mud that is just thick enough to fill in the low place between these two points. Allow to dry. Lightly sand again as in step 2

    7)Take a good look at your work
    If the patch was just a single straight tape joint, then it probably looks pretty good at this point. If you see low spots and/or craters, then you probably need to do another thin skim coat using a 6″ or 8″ knife.

    It may take several cycles of skim coats and sanding to achieve the desired result, but you can do it, even with no previous experience.

    The final step is to sand thoroughly, until the repair is as smooth and flat as possible.

    You should be aware that a drywall repair is always a multi part process, and is usually going to stretch over more than one day, and you will need a few specialized tools.
    Drywall tools


    1) Mud Pan or Hawk – This is what you use to hold the drywall joint compound while you work with it, and to clean your knife while you are working. Instead of buying a pan or hawk you can also use a scrap of wood or drywall that has at least one good straight edge to wipe your knife on.

    2) Drywall knives – You might think of these as “putty knives” If the repair you are doing is very small (smaller than a quarter) you can get by with one 4″ knife, but if it is any bigger then you will need 3 knives:

  • a) Either a 3″ or 4″ or 6″ knife for taping
  • b) Either a 8″ or 10″ knife for bedding
  • c) A 12″ knife for the skim coat
  • 3) Sandpaper or a sanding sponge

    4) You might also need a utility knife, and/or a drywall saw.

    Professional quality tools will help you to more easily get high quality results, and I would always recommend that any time you make a tool purchase that you buy the best quality that you can afford. Good tools are an investment that will last a lifetime if properly cared for. However, if you are on the cheap, you can actually get very good results with plastic drywall knives.


    1) Drywall tape – Either paper tape, or mesh tape will work, but mesh tape is easier to work with.

    2) Drywall Joint compound – “Premixed” lightweight joint compound will work just fine, but I recommend that you use “setting type” joint compound which comes as a powder that you mix with water, because it dries faster, doesn’t shrink, and it will last almost indefinitely on the shelf if you keep it dry. Be SURE that you get the “easy sand” type if you use setting type joint compound, because the kind that does not say “easy sand” should be labeled “so danged hard that you can’t sand it at all”. Setting type joint compound is also rated by how long it takes to harden. There are 20, 45, and 90 minute varieties. I do not recommend the 20 minute variety for the do it yourselfer, because it hardens too fast, and if you mix more than a very small amount you can’t use it up before it becomes unusable.

    3) If you are repairing an actual hole that is no larger than 6″ square you can use a self adhesive drywall patch, if the repair is larger, you will probably need to put in a piece of drywall using drywall repair clips. If you are only repairing a crack or dent, then you don’t have to worry about it. However, joint compound is only intended to be used in thin layers (usually a total of about ΒΌ” for the entire repair), so don’t try to reconstruct a gapping hole with only join compound.

    Drywall and Mudding tips:

    1) Keep your knife clean throughout the process.

    2) Always do a good job of cleaning and drying your tools between steps.

    3) Mix a drop or two of dish washing liquid with the mud. It will allow you to get smoother results.

    4) If you use pre mixed joint compound, to avoid contaminating your material with bits of dried mud, use a knife to scrape all of the mud that you can off of the sides of the bucket, smooth out the top of the leftover mud, then cover the surface with saran wrap before tightly replacing the lid. A tiny bit of dried mud mixed with what you are trying to use will make it almost impossible to get good results.

    5) Usually “pre mixed” joint compound is too thick and you will need to add a little bit of water to thin it.

    6) Always allow the previous work to dry thoroughly before you continue.

    7) Sanding drywall creates a lot of fine dust, and you should take appropriate measures to protect yourself from breathing it.

    8) An expert drywall finisher will accomplish good results in fewer steps, and probably won’t need to sand much, if at all, between coats, but this isn’t intended for the expert.

    9) If the effort it takes to learn how to mud and tape drywall seems like a lot of trouble, then keep this in mind; a pro will probably charge you at least $200-$300 for a repair like this, because of the multiple steps and return trips.

    Bedded drywall butt joint

    Bedded butt joint showing a little (acceptable) roughness.

    Bedded drywall butt joint

    Profesional drywall finisher skim coating a flat using a 12″ knife.

    Bedded drywall butt joint

    An inside corner that has been taped with mesh tape and the initial skim coat of joint compound.

    How to replace a Clothes Dryer Element

    If your electric clothes dryer runs but doesn’t get warm then you probably need a new heating element.

    This is an Amana brand dryer. Apparently all Amana and Speed Queen dryers use the exact same parts and repair procedure. I would consider this a very simple clothes dryer repair that is well within the reach of just about anyone who would be willing to tackle it. Estimated time required is 30-60 minutes. The Part was about $40.

    Replacing a dryer element

    These are the only tools that you need for this job: A 5/16″ nut driver, wire stripper, electrical tape, and flashlight.

    Replacing a dryer element

    First, unplug the dryer.

    Replacing a dryer element

    Those screws that are just visible at the bottom front corners are the ones you need to remove to open the cabinet.

    Replacing a dryer element

    This is the new heating element.

    Replacing a dryer element

    This is the other side of the new heating element.

    Replacing a dryer element

    Here I’m using my handy dandy Enders brand 6 in 1 screw driver as a 5/16 nut driver to remove the access panel.

    Replacing a dryer element

    Putting a two by four under the front edge of the dryer makes it a lot easier to get at these screws.

    Replacing a dryer element

    Off comes the access panel…

    Replacing a dryer element

    First glimps inside of the clothes dryer…

    Replacing a dryer element

    That black plastic blower housing doesn’t have to come off, but removing it only involves 3 screws and greatly improves access.

    Replacing a dryer element

    Replacing a dryer element

    Replacing a dryer element

    Here’s the view inside. Way back on the left is the old element. Plenty of dryer lint in there… Vacuming it out would probably be a really good idea.

    Replacing a dryer element

    The dryer element is only held in place by two 5/16 screws that are easily accessable. Although access does involve laying face down on the floor and reaching about as far back as I can reach.

    Replacing a dryer element

    Here is the new element on the right and the old one on the left. If you look close you will notice that the wires aren’t plugged into the correct places on the new element. It is quite easy to switch them around when they are side by side like this.

    Replacing a dryer element

    This burnt insulation means that I have to replace the female spade connector. Luckily my replacement part came with two pre-made “pigtails” for just such occasions.

    Replacing a dryer element

    Cut the burnt part of the wire off.

    Replacing a dryer element

    Strip about 3/4″ of both wires…

    Replacing a dryer element

    Twist them together and then trim to about 1/2″. Be Sure and twist clockwise so that the splice will tighten when you screw on the wire nut.

    Replacing a dryer element

    Screw on the wire nut as far as it will go. BTW the wire nuts came with the new element.

    Replacing a dryer element

    Since a clothes dryer is subject to vibration it is a good idea to secure the wire nut with a few turns of electrical tape.

    Replacing a dryer element

    All connections are made and the heating element is ready to install. I recommend that you do plug in the wires and make the connections before installing the element, because it’s pretty hard to reach back in there after it’s in place, and the wires don’t get in your way at all.

    Replacing a dryer element

    The new element is in place. Now just replace the black plastic blower housing, the front access cover, remove the 2 by 4, and plug ‘er in. Total clothes dryer repair elapsed time, about 30 minutes, If you don’t run into any snags.

    Your Dryer isn’t like this? Try looking here for Dryer Disasembly how to’s on other brands.

    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.