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posted: 5/28/2011 1:00 AM

Home repair: How to safely keep old pipes clear

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Q. I am a retired 72-year-old and have a high regard for you. Your knowledge has helped me in the past, and I only hope that you can help once more.

I've had a drainage problem for the past two months in my raised ranch (built in 1969). The problem started with the toilet on the lower level. The toilet would flush slowly and gurgle. A plumber checked the line with a camera and cleared the line, which was clogged in two spots.

It is draining well, but he said the clay tile is deteriorating and should be replaced with PVC. The cost would be expensive, as the line is below the concrete slab. I can't afford the cost of this work, so he suggested I keep the line open with periodic use of a granule-type drain cleaner like Zep Drain Care or Bio-Clean with enzymes, not chemicals, which would make the condition much worse because the pipe walls are thin. I have never used harsh chemicals in 40 years, so how could this happen?

Am I taking a big risk? Or is the plumber looking for work during these hard times? I have well water with a newly installed water softener. The water tested with little iron and a perfect pH. Any suggestions, as always, would be greatly appreciated.

A. I am surprised that your sewer line is clay, unless it was standard practice in your area, which you do not identify. In the 1960s, Orangeburg pipe -- an asphalt-impregnated fiber pipe -- was commonly used, and these pipes are reaching the end of their life. Zep Drain Care states that it is environmentally safe, but does not give any further details as to the formula, except to say that it is safe for septic systems and is safe with metal, plastic and brass. It does not say anything about clay or Orangeburg.

Bio-Clean claims to be bacterial-based, which sounds quite safe, and it should work on biological clogs. Because you cannot afford the considerable expense of having the pipe replaced under the concrete, it seems as if you have no choice but to use one of the two products your plumber recommends. An alternative is Super Washing Soda, found in the laundry-products section in your local market. Read the instructions on the box to learn how to use it safely.

Q. Periodically, when there is a heavy downpour, we will get puddles on our tiled floor. These puddles are nowhere near the foundation walls or near our drain. One of them is in front of our steps going from the first floor (the steps are wood with cast-iron railings). The others are not far away from that site, all in this little area of the basement. We are not the original owners, which makes it hard to know this 50-year-old house's history.

A. If the wood steps are embedded in the concrete -- as was common in those days because the steps were built to give access to the first floor during construction before the basement slab was poured -- hydraulic pressure building under the slab may be forcing the water up. The other leaky spots may be coming up through hairline cracks in the slab. If the puddles on the floor appear during, or shortly after, the start of the downpour, the leakage may be due to surface water. Check the grade and all appendages to the house, and correct any deficiencies that allow water to puddle near, or run toward, the foundation. This should solve the problem.

Q. Is it a myth that appliances sold at big-box stores are of lesser quality than those sold at smaller stores?

A. It is a myth. The big-box stores get their appliances from the same manufacturers, but buy in such quantities that they can sell them for less in many cases. It is unfortunate for the local appliance dealers, who offer better service.

When buying from any dealer, be sure that you compare features. Big-box stores may handle fewer models and offer models with fewer features, so a close comparison should be made. It's like buying a car; some models are stripped down, and the price goes up as you add features, which you may not need.

Q. Do you know of any good publications on designing home laundries? Laundry design seems to be a forgotten subject. I designed and built our house in 1965, and put the laundry in the basement, as was the custom in those days. We have a one-level house.

I plan to build an addition to the back of the house, which faces north. The addition will house a laundry that will be no smaller than 11-feet-by-11-feet inside dimensions. Access will be from the owner's dressing room, and from the kitchen through a corner of our family room. In addition to the washer, dryer and deep sink, there will be a large, movable island counter for folding clothes, a wall-hung TV, plus a closet for the vacuum sweeper and ironing board, a second freezer and a second pantry. I would like to provide for a drip-dry line as well as bins to separate the various types of clothes, according to their washing requirements. Any help that you can provide will be appreciated. Thank you.

A. Knowing your own needs and having designed your own house, it seems to me that you could do a good job of designing your laundry room. There are a number of CAD planning programs available with which you can play until you are satisfied with a design that you feel will work. The challenge is to fit all you list in an 11-foot-by-11-foot room.

Although I do not know of specific books dedicated to the planning of laundry rooms, have you checked out the numerous books on do-it-yourself projects at Lowe's or Home Depot? One great reference book is the American Institute of Architects' "Architectural Graphic Standards," but it is expensive.

Q. I read your articles every week and am always appreciative of your responses! I have two questions for you. First and most important, I have several stucco walls and I want to eliminate the stucco. Any good ideas other than replacing the drywall? Second, my house is 50 years old, and there is an annoying banging noise at the end of the long heating vent, pops and bangs when heat goes on and off; it sounds loud through the bedroom cold-air returns. Any ideas on how to stop the noise? Thanks for your consideration of these problems!

A. I know of no easy way to remove the stucco or textured paint on drywall commonly used at that time. The easiest and least expensive way would be to replace the drywall, unless the texture is so even you can put new drywall over it. You would still have to alter all trim.

The noise you hear from the ductwork, from expansion and contraction of the metal, is probably caused by some restriction in the installation. If you have an unfinished basement and the noise can be located in one of the exposed runs, a competent HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) contractor should be able to take care of the problem. But if it occurs in sections of ducts that are in a finished wall, it may not be possible to take care of it without opening the wall up, if you can zero in on the exact location. Removing the drywall to get rid of the textured finish may allow you to do that.

Q. In one of your recent columns, someone was asking questions regarding insulation for their brick house, and you suggested that they write to you for more information. I have a similar situation, and would also appreciate advice.

My house is from the 1770s. The house has exterior brick walls (two-layers thick), and the original hard plaster on lath for the interior walls. Of course, there is no insulation in the cavity between the brick and the plaster. The other problem is that the cavity is rather shallow, so there isn't much space for insulation anyway.

I have wondered if there might be any sort of insulation product that could both be successfully introduced into the wall cavities and that would have enough insulating power to be worth the time and expense, given the small volume available? I'm imagining some sort of injection foam, but don't know what is available or if it would be suitable given the old construction.

I guess it's important for me to add that we are located in north-central Massachusetts, as far as the climate zone. So we are entirely concerned about heating, as opposed to cooling. The house is heated by oil-fired steam. The windows are not original, but were replaced at some point with aluminum-framed units, which are showing their age and are unpleasantly cold in the winter (given the metal frames). I wish I could replace all of them also (lots of windows). That would also be an expensive proposition, but perhaps it would be a better area to throw money at than trying to retrofit insulation into the old walls? If you have any opinion or advice to share about the above, I would be happy to receive it.

A. If the cavity is indeed between the bricks and the plaster, to what is the plaster lath attached? Are you sure the cavity is not between the two layers of bricks, with the lath attached to the interior bricks? If the cavity is just behind the plaster and is reasonably uniform in depth, foam may be able to be injected, but many holes will have to be drilled through the plaster to make sure that all voids are filled. If you wish to save the plaster, this is one way to add some insulation to the walls, but the insulation may be erratic in its distribution. And the process is likely to be expensive.

Injected foam, if it can be done satisfactorily, has an R-factor of approximately 6 per inch. If you are not wedded to the plaster, an alternative is to add rigid foam insulation over the plaster and cover it with drywall. This will require altering some of the trim. You are correct in questioning whether doing something to improve the windows is a better way to achieve some savings in fuel; it often is in older homes. You may want to consider adding storm windows over the existing aluminum-framed ones. This will be less costly than replacing the windows, and probably as effective. But considering that they are not original or historic in nature, you may want to get a quote on replacing them with the newer, efficient windows available. Consider having an energy audit performed by an experienced auditor to determine what the payback will be for each of these improvements. Your utility company should be able to direct you to firms that perform such audits.

• Henri de Marne was a remodeling contractor in Washington, D.C., for many years, and is now a consultant. Write to him in care of the Daily Herald, P.O. Box 280, Arlington Heights, IL 60006, or via email at

$PHOTOCREDIT_ON$ 2011, United Feature Syndicate Inc.$PHOTOCREDIT_OFF$

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