Category Archives: House repair

The return should suck more

Skill level skill2

We had turned off the heat in the house while we were gone for a few days (which saves a lot of electricity, by the way) and turned it back on using a web app about three hours before we returned. That remote control of the temperature is a very handy feature.

Energy usage chart shows how setting back the thermostat can save big time
Energy usage chart shows how setting back the thermostat can save big time. The wavy brown line is the outdoor temperature and the red area is when the heat is on while we are there over a winter weekend.

Normally it takes 2 – 3 hours to get the house back up to a comfortable room temperature if we let it get down into the 50s. It was pretty chilly outside when we arrived and my ever-loving wife, “Gladys” (not her real name), said it felt good to be inside. The indoor temperature, however, was still in the lower 60s downstairs. Upstairs was fine, Continue reading The return should suck more

Air is devious

Skill level skill3

For some reason I am always cold sitting at the kitchen table in our house. My back and the table feel just frigid anytime the outside temperature is below 60. My ever-loving wife, “Francine” (not her real name), on the other hand doesn’t complain as much about it. Her chair is in the middle of the room while mine is near the outside wall. So, being the quick study that I am, after 5 years of shivering I started wondering if cold air could be coming in through the windows or the floor.

Whence the air?

We had replaced the 1923-era windows with triple-pane units a couple of years ago so they really shouldn’t be the source of the cold air. I took a closer look, or should I say feel, and found cold air leaking between the floor and the molding at the base of the wall. This is not a place that anyone talks about as a source for cold air. “Caulk the windows. Caulk the doors. Yada, yada, yada.” But they don’t tell you to caulk the floor.

leaky floor molding
Air is leaking between the molding and the floor and out of the outlet.

The cold air was pouring through that crack at the floor. It was also coming in around the outlets near the floor. (If you want to feel for air leaks just get your hand wet and hold it near suspicious spots.)

We have a sun room in the front of the house and it too always seems cold in the winter and warm in the summer. The wooden windows don’t fit very well so I had previously screwed the lower sash to the upper sash of each window to stop some of the air flow. But there was still plenty of air coming in from the great outdoors. Placing my hand along the floor-to-wall molding in the sun room confirmed that even more cold winter air was pouring through those cracks than in the kitchen.  Continue reading Air is devious

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: I’m a new homeowner. What tools do I need to get?

A: You need at least these.

  1. screwdriver
  2. Phillips screwdriver
  3. straight-claw hammer
  4. adjustable (crescent) wrench
  5. tape measure
  6. pliers

The first power tool you should get, which I guarantee you will use a lot, is a cordless (lithium battery) drill and a set of drill bits.

Q: Should I rent tools or buy them?

A: If you enjoy working with tools you should usually buy them unless,

  1. You are sure you will only use them once, or
  2. They are too big to store, or
  3. You can’t afford them.
Q: When should I hire a pro and when should I do it myself?

A: Ask yourself, What’s the worst thing that could happen if you did it yourself and it didn’t turn out well? If it really won’t matter that much and you can do it safely, then go for it. You’ll learn a lot, save some money, and build your confidence. Even if you occasionally get in over your head you can still fall back and call a pro and come out ahead in the long run.

I’ve found that it is often faster to do it myself than to spend time locating a pro, setting up an appointment, waiting for the pro to show up, supervising the work, paying the bill, etc.

Q: How can I lower my heating bill in the winter and my A/C bill in the summer?

A: Seal leaks. Seal leaks. Seal leaks. Forget about insulation until you’ve sealed every air leak. Insulation only works if the air is absolutely still. Any air moving through the insulation will simply carry the heat with it.

Caulk around window frames both inside and outside where the frames meet the walls.

Use interior or exterior storm windows to make a dead-air space.

Put weather stripping around the door frame where the door meets the frame.

Q: Can you add insulation to an old house?

A: Yes, but it can be difficult. First be sure to seal leaks. (See previous question.)

Some old houses have inadequate insulation in the walls. The only practical way to add more is to drill holes at the top of each stud bay and blow in loose-fill insulation in each bay. As you can imagine this is messy and expensive. There are always barriers of various kinds running through the walls so the insulation doesn’t always fill the bay completely and other holes have to be drilled.

The easiest place to add insulation is in the attic. Many older homes have very little attic insulation and it is not difficult to blow in additional loose-fill insulation or even fiberglass batts. Of course this is a job for cool weather only.

Q: Do I need to get a building permit?

A: The purpose of a building permit is to ensure that the alterations result in a safe house and it is the building inspector’s job to check the alterations at each step so that problems can be addressed right away.

The rule of thumb is if you are changing the floor plan of the house, e.g. adding or removing a wall, moving the wiring or plumbing, adding an electrical or plumbing fixture, then yes, you need a permit. If you are replacing something in the same place, or repainting, or building something movable, or fixing something, then no.

Q: Is it OK to exhaust my dryer into the attic or crawlspace?

A: No. Dryer lint is extremely flammable. If you vent a dryer into the attic or crawlspace the lint will build up and a spark could set it on fire and burn down the house.

Q: If I see a little mold or mildew on the ceiling should I be concerned?

A: Yes. Mold is toxic. Mold spores are everywhere but they start growing in the presence of water. If you see mold or mildew you have a moisture problem. Maybe a pipe is leaking. Maybe there is a crack in the bathtub or kitchen sink. Maybe the windows are letting in too much cold, wet air and it is condensing on the walls.

In general mold and mildew mean a leak. You need to fix the leak(s) as well as protect yourself from the toxic mold.

Q: What’s the big deal about lead-based paint?

A: Lead is poisonous. If it gets in your body it tends to stay there and cause problems, especially in the brain. Young children are particularly susceptible to brain damage from lead.

Paint with lead in it is often found in older homes. (Lead-based paint hasn’t been sold since 1978.)

If the paint is undisturbed it won’t cause any problems. Trouble arises when it chips off or is sanded. Then the lead becomes airborne or ingested. Contractors have to follow very strict rules about containing and disposing of lead-based paint.

Simply painting over lead-based paint is fine and probably a good idea because it helps to contain and seal the lead. But don’t scrape or sand before painting.

Q: What should I do if I find out that my house has asbestos?

A: Don’t panic. As long as it is undisturbed it will be OK. If you cut it or break it or sand it, the particles of asbestos will become airborne and can lodge in your lungs and cause respiratory problems. If you need to remove it, you should definitely hire a pro. This is not a DIY project.

Q: What lawn-care tools do you recommend?

A: Gas-operated tools cause too much pollution and noise. Get cordless rechargeable lawn tools.

  • Rechargeable mulching mower so you don’t bag any clippings or leaves.
  • Rechargeable string trimmer.
  • Rechargeable leaf blower for blowing off the sidewalk.


How to shut off the water

Skill levelskill1

When water is spraying out of a place it shouldn’t, you need to shut the water off right away. Some fixtures have their own shutoffs–usually a round knob that you turn to the right–but many don’t. If the water is coming out of a leak in a pipe, you have no choice. You need to turn off the water to the whole house. Fast!

Plan ahead

If you take a little time now to find where the main shutoff is you’ll save valuable time when you have to shut the water off quickly before it ruins the floor, the cabinets, etc.

There is a main shutoff right next to the water meter in the ground near the street if your house is in a city or suburb in a moderate climate. (In colder climates, like, I don’t know, Minnesota, your shutoff is inside the house in the basement. See below.) Look for a metal cover in the ground that looks like this.

water meter cover
Water meter cover near street

Or this.

water meter cover 2
Newer style water meter cover

Pry up the cover (you might need a screwdriver).

Inside you will see the water meter, which has an “odometer” for how much water you’ve used, and the main shutoff.

meter annotated
Inside the water meter enclosure

When the metal bar on the top of the shutoff is pointing down the pipe, like in the photo above, the valve is open and water flows. If the bar is perpendicular to the pipe, the valve is shut. Think of that bar as being in the pipe itself. If it is crosswise it will block the water.

shut off with wrench
Using a crescent wrench to turn the shutoff valve

There is a special tool for turning the shutoff valve that you or your neighbor might have. If not, use an adjustable wrench or a pipe wrench. The valve will turn only a quarter turn.

These valves can be hard to turn. You might need to tap the end of the wrench with a hammer to get it moving.

Turn it clockwise to close it and shut off the water. Counter-clockwise to open it and let the water through.

Around the globemain shutoff lever closed

Some houses will have a main shutoff knob in the basement next to a meter that you turn like a typical outdoor hose faucet. These are called “globe valves.” Keep turning to the right to turn off the water.

Inside main water shutoff and meter
Inside main water shutoff and meter
Globe valve

Make it better

Main shutoff lever open (water flowing)
Main shutoff lever open (water flowing)

A better setup is to have a separate in-line shutoff closer to the house
or inside the house. The one shown in the picture is a simple lever model, which is called a “ball valve”, that works as described above. In this position the water is on.

To shut off the water, turn the lever a quarter turn so that it is perpendicular to the pipe as shown in the next photo.

main shutoff lever closed
Main shutoff lever closed

If you don’t have one, I recommend installing a lever-type main shutoff in the basement or crawlspace that is easily accessible. This type is very easy to open and close and it clearly shows if the water is on or off.


main shutoff lever closed


Goosey LED reading light

Skill level skill3

My ever-loving wife, “Maggie” (not her real name), has been complaining recently that it is too dark to read in bed and that is why she just goes to sleep when she crawls in. Well, maybe. I gave her the benefit of the doubt on this one and ordered a Bruck Ledra Resort LED gooseneck reading light that you mount in the wall above the bed. It has the on-off switch at the business end of the gooseneck so I figured Maggie could be half-asleep and still turn it off. I felt this was an important feature.

Bruck Ledra Resort LED reading light
(Click to see on

This type of light mounts in a utility box in the wall just like a regular light switch or outlet. So I had to cut a hole in the wall, run some wire from there inside the wall and splice it to an existing outlet. This can be challenging but I had a plan. I could get to the back side of the wall that the bed is against by simply going in the little attic behind the wall. I would cut the square hole for utility box from the bedroom side and then go in the attic to feed the wire through holes in the studs to an outlet. Easy-peasy. Continue reading Goosey LED reading light

How to install a utility box

Skill level skill2

A utility box holds a light switch or an outlet and the wires connecting it.

Utility box with a duplex outlet

When you are putting a new box in an “old” wall you buy a box that says “Old Work.” These boxes have swinging flaps on two corners that hold the box tight to the drywall. “New Work” boxes have nails that you drive into a stud and you put up the drywall after all of the utility boxes have been installed.

This is an “Old Work” box.

Trace the box (excluding the tabs) on the wall.

Keep the box somewhere between the studs and at least an inch below or above any wood running horizontally between the studs so that the swinging flaps have room to pivot.

Make several shallow passes on each line with a utility knife to score straight lines in the drywall. It is better to go straight than to go fast or deep.

Keep scoring the drywall until you’ve cut the rectangle all the way through. If it is an outside wall you should be seeing the insulation.

The finished hole should be neat.The visible letters on the insulation are part of longer words. Really.
The box should fit snugly in the hole.

Strip off about 8″ of the outer jacket of the wire. Then strip off about 5/8″ of the insulation of the white wire and the black wire. Push the wires in through the slots before fastening the box to the wall.

With the outer jacket removed, the wires are inserted through slots in the back of the box before the box is shoved into the wall and fastened.

Now use a Phillips screwdriver to press the corner screws in and make sure that they turn the flaps easily. When you turn the screw to the right the flap should turn vertical. Turn the screws back to the left to put them down flush and then slide the box into the wall.

Hold the box to the wall nice and snug and use the screwdriver to push one of the screws all the way in before you start tightening the screw.  If the screw isn’t pushed in first the flap won’t be able to rotate behind the drywall. Stop turning the screw when you feel the flap holding the box to the drywall. Those tabs are easy to strip so don’t overdo it.

Do the same for the other screw.

Now you can attach the wires to the switch or outlet, fold the wires back into the box, and screw the switch or outlet to the box. Screw on the cover plate and you are done.


Polar vortex burst my PEX

Skill level skill3

The voice on the other end of the line said, “Uh, Mr. Pardun? This is Security.” Conversations that start out like that generally do not bring good news.

“Your water pipes have sprung a leak. We’ve shut off the water to your house.”

It was cold last week. Really cold. The polar vortex swirled down out of Canada, through the Midwest and Northeast, and froze the pipes of our beach house all the way down in coastal South Carolina. That just ain’t right.

Total exposure

Beach houses in our area are built on top of large poles to keep them above any storm surge caused by a hurricane. This means that the main water line runs totally exposed from the ground up 10 feet to the house itself. If this isn’t a prime target for freezing, I don’t know what is.

When we arrived at the house, I asked my ever-loving wife, “Molly” (not her real name),  to watch the pipes while I turned the water main back on. It’s not that I wanted her to be the one to get sprayed, of course, but I had to be the one to kneel down in the dirt to turn the valve. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

When I turned on the main, the water sprayed out of the pipe feeding the outdoor shower in Molly’s general direction a few feet away from the main water supply pipe and not the main pipe itself. This was excellent news. We could easily turn off the shower shutoff without turning off the water to the whole house.

2014-01-10_11-52-04_958  2014-01-10_11-53-50_795 Continue reading Polar vortex burst my PEX

Add to the punch list

ChecklistHere are some articles coming down the pipeline. Use the comment box below to add your suggestions or vote for one that is already listed.

If the box is checked, you can click on the link to see the article.

  1. checkedHow to shut off the water
  2. uncheckedHow to install a ceiling fan
  3. uncheckedHow to hang a mirror or picture
  4. uncheckedHow to caulk windows
  5. uncheckedHow to repair holes in walls
  6. uncheckedHow to fix a running toilet
  7. uncheckedHow to fix a leaky faucet
  8. checkedHow to shut off the power
  9. checkedHow to replace a torn door screen
  10. checkedHow to install a utility box
  11. uncheckedHow to insulate an attic
  12. uncheckedHow to stop air leaks
  13. uncheckedHow to change air filters
  14. uncheckedHow to avoid lint fires
  15. uncheckedHow to spot trouble in walls, ceilings, and floors
  16. uncheckedHow to wire a new light fixture
  17. uncheckedHow to paint a wall
  18. uncheckedHow to install a dishwasher
  19. uncheckedHow to decide when to call a pro
  20. uncheckedHow to decide whether to rent or buy tools
  21. uncheckedHow to install hardwood floors
  22. uncheckedHow to make a tile backsplash
  23. uncheckedHow to cut and polish granite
  24. uncheckedHow to insulate recessed lights
  25. uncheckedHow to install floor tiles
  26. uncheckedHow to cut and install molding
  27. uncheckedHow to hang drywall
  28. uncheckedHow to install cabinets
  29. uncheckedHow to install a new door
  30. uncheckedHow to replace a lock or doorknob
  31. uncheckedHow to clean windows
  32. checkedHow to cut stainless steel cable
  33. uncheckedHow to install a central vacuum system
  34. checkedHow to keep pipes from freezing



Ripping out a fiberglass shower

Skill level skill2

My name is Gary and I’m a fix-aholic. I can’t stop fixing things. My motto is “Make everything better.” My ever-loving wife, “Trudy” (not her real name), also has a motto: “Find things for Gary to make better.”

Our master bathroom had one of those prefab fiberglass shower stalls that Trudy thought could be made better.

The curved walls and molded-in seat made it pretty cramped.showerstall

Trudy said if you hit your elbows on the walls when you are washing your hair the shower is too small.

So we decided to replace the fiberglass shower stall in our master bathroom with tiled walls and glass doors. While we were at it, we could make the shower itself a little larger because the stall wasn’t as big as the space it was in. In other words, there was room to grow the shower without moving any of the walls in the bathroom.

So I disassembled the shower doors from the stall by unscrewing the sometimes stubborn screws. When you take things like this apart you see just how full of gunk and grime they are. I’ll spare you the details.

That turned out to be the only easy part of taking the old shower out. Continue reading Ripping out a fiberglass shower