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updated: 12/2/2011 5:43 AM

Get your wood-burning fireplace in tiptop shape for the winter

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A wood-burning fireplace is a very wasteful way to heat your home, in most cases. They are just not very energy efficient. But there are some things you can do to increase the heat output of yours. Here are some of our favorites.

Add a heat exchanger to your fireplace. It draws in air at the bottom, heats it and then blows it back out the top. Some are passive, while others use electrical fans to circulate the heated air.

Glass doors are a good thing to add to your fireplace for a couple of reasons. You can close them at the end of the evening without closing the damper so that the burning embers can still burn down after you go to bed. They also prevent a lot of your household air from going up and out the chimney.

Burn only seasoned wood. It lights easier and burns longer than fresher wood. Never burn chemically treated wood.

Installing a new fireplace insert with glass doors and a heat exchanger will be huge steps toward adding efficiency to your fireplace. These retrofit fireboxes are just great.

Special reflective panels, or firebacks, can be installed at the back and along the sides of your fireplace to reflect the heat back out into the room. They also protect the brick mortar from deteriorating from the excessive heat produced by your fireplace.

Another way to increase efficiency is to add an outdoor air supply to the fireplace. This allows the heated air from your home to stay in your home, and the air that the fire needs for combustion comes from the great outdoors.

The average fireplace damper, located in the flue, doesn't close all that tightly, and so allows household air to circulate up and out of the flue. If your damper doesn't fit very well, add special gaskets or plugs to it so that it seals better.

We love the warm and fuzzy feeling you get when you save energy around the home!

Fishing for hardware

A fishing tackle box can hold a lot of fishing supplies. Most are made strong and are fairly watertight. They also make great storage boxes for hardware. You can put tons of screws, nuts, bolts and nails into all of the tiny storage compartments. If you need more, you can purchase plastic storage bins to fit right into the box. Use a smaller one for a rotary tool and all of the accessories that come with it. Another one might be perfect for your power driver and all of its bits and tips. Best of all, you can take the whole kit with you when you are working outside of the shop or garage. Keep tools and hardware handy so you don't have to fish for them!

Yardsticks and stir sticks do more than measure and stir

Wooden yardsticks and paint stir sticks are handy for more than measuring and stirring. Mount them on a pegboard wall with a little space behind them, and store tools over them or on them. You can buy spacers or use a few washers or even a scrap of dowel with a hole drilled in the center to mount them. If you attach them with screws, you even can put rolls of tape over them. Most of the time they are free, so they provide a really inexpensive way to get some extra shop storage.

Super hints

• Those drawer dividers that are so good for the kitchen and office are perfect for workshop drawers, too. Keep all of your tools and hardware organized wherever you store these items.

• You can buy a roll of magnetic tape at the crafts store. It's great for the shop and home, too. I put one up on the side of one of my storage shelves, and I can keep my drill bits all in one place this way. It's so much easier to find the right bit when you need it rather than having to go through two or three drill-bit storage cases. You can store other stuff on these magnetic strips, too.

• If your hammer head has become smooth over time, try roughing it up a little with a metal file. It will not slide off the nail head so easily, and your work will be done faster and without any problems.

Q. I have three drawer pulls that are loose in my kitchen. I think there may be more to come, and I would like to find a good solution soon. What is the best way to fix these?

A. Remove the drawer pulls with your screwdriver. Try wrapping some steel wool or screen wire around the threads of the screws holding on the pulls. If you want to add a little more security, put a small amount of silicone caulk into the drawer pull before installing the screw again. This ought to do it!

Q. We live in an older home that has plaster walls. I would like to see if there is a good way to hang pictures. I have really messed up my walls the few times I've tried to install hangers. The walls seem to crack easily. What am I doing wrong?

A. Try putting a piece of masking tape over the nail or tack site before installing the hanger. Then after it's installed, pull off the tape. This is an old-time way to prevent cracks or chips. You also can drill a pilot hole for the nail or screw.

Q. We have wallpaper to remove from our bathroom. I tried to pull it down, but we still have large sections that won't peel off. What should we try next?

A. Score these leftover wallpaper sections with a wallpaper-scoring device. You can use a utility knife, but be careful not to score too deeply. Then fill a spray bottle with liquid fabric softener and hot water, and spray a fine mist over these areas. Give the hot water time to seep in under the wallpaper and loosen the old adhesive. Then you can peel off more. A wide-blade utility knife also can help. Good luck!

Reader tips

• My stepladder has served me well during the past 10 years. It's still in great shape, and I plan to keep it a lot longer. I installed a tray on the top step, which is not really a step. The tray is the same size as the ladder top; it's great for holding tools and hardware that I am working with, and it's easier to get to than my pocket. The sides keep things from rolling off the top, and make working on the ladder easier and safer, too.

• We have three large dogs and take them with us to the park, on trips and, of course, to the vet. Have you priced the liners for the back of your SUV lately? Wow! I made my own from a scrap of carpeting that I bought from a carpet dealer. I cut it to fit in the back of the SUV so my dog would not shed on the car's carpet. It works great, looks fine and was only a couple of dollars.

• We wanted to tile our bathroom floor, and we started looking at all of the possibilities. This was our first big project, so we wanted to take plenty of time and make the right choices. We looked at larger tiles because we thought laying less would make the job go faster, but then we looked closer at the matted tiles. These tiles are smaller but are mounted on a mesh background, so they already are spaced out properly and won't take any more time to put down than the large ones. I'm glad we used these. They look great.

• I have some of the vacuum-seal bags, which we store clothes and blankets in. I think they are great, because they shrink down so small when the air is vacuumed out of the bag. But I have found that you can use a garbage bag the same way. Just vacuum the air through the opening at the top and seal the bag quickly, before the air gets back inside. As long as the bag is in good shape, with no holes, and you close it up tightly, it will work the same way, and at a fraction of the cost.

• This idea came to me in a dream and turned out so well that I had to write to you about it. I took an ordinary white lampshade and turned it into a work of art. My daughter's room is mostly pink, and I took pink silk flowers and pulled the petals off the stems. Then I glued the petals to the lampshade with craft glue. I covered the whole lampshade with them. The lamp looks so cute, and the pink petals give the room a warm glow.


• In the market for a patio heater? There are a few different choices. We found one that is a little different. The Fire Sense Hanging Halogen Patio Heater, by Well Traveled Living, looks like a standard hanging lamp. But it runs on regular 110 power and uses only one-tenth the energy of a standard propane heater. It even can be used indoors, so it might be good for a sun porch as well. It also has a variety of heat settings. To find out more or locate a local dealer, visit

• Basements can be musty, and the XCHANGER, by Tjernlund Products, was designed just for resolving this issue. This energy-saving fan is capable of automatically and simultaneously ridding basements and other stuffy areas of smelly air and drawing in fresh, outside air. It can be installed in the rim joist between floor joists, and the wiring can be plugged into a control box, which in turn is plugged into any standard electrical outlet. There is an optional timer and speed control. To find out more about the product and where to buy one, visit or call (800) 255-4208.

• Write to Al and Kelly Carrell in care of the Daily Herald, P.O. Box 280, Arlington Heights, IL 60006 or visit the Carrells' website at

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