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posted: 7/22/2012 4:29 AM

Home repair: Can solar panels be used to shade a deck?

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Q. The narrow cedar slats in the pergola/shade roof we built over our large deck 15 years ago are now peeling, warping, shrinking and deteriorating. It's a hefty 18-foot-square frame made up of about 250 slats, so the cost of materials and labor to replace them will be substantial.

We were considering Trex or some other manufactured, prefinished decking material as replacement slats until I started thinking about solar panels instead, since the flat roof gets eight hours or more of direct sun daily (which hastened the deterioration of the double-stained cedar slats in the first place). We could use the solar panels as shade, while the solar gain could replace some energy costs in our house (which is not attached to the pergola).

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Although there is a lot of information about solar panels on the Internet, instructions for installing them on a flat structure with no roofing material to speak of is scarce. Can these panels stand up to Midwestern weather year-round if they are installed upright or on an angle instead of flat against a traditional shingled roof? Your thoughts?

A. What a lovely, artistic set /up your photo shows! I am sorry that it's suffering from time and the elements.

You are wise to have eliminated the idea of replacing the cedar slats with Trex or other synthetic materials because, looking at the photo, I think the spacing of the horizontal supports is too great to accommodate any decking material that would be installed flat. These boards most likely would begin to sag from their own weight, which would be increased by the live load that snow and ice would add.

It also looks as if there aren't enough posts to support the weight of solar panels. The horizontal supports also may have to be added to, but that is a question better answered by a local contractor experienced in these matters, or by a structural engineer.

Solar panels are installed in harsh climates, so I do not think this presents a problem. Snow on the panels will affect their performance.

You should consult with an experienced solar installer with a good track record and a list of satisfied customers, which the contractor should be eager to supply. Be sure to contact these customers to verify that they have benefited from the installation over one or more seasons.

Q. Our house is in a rural setting with well water (and no filter system) and a septic tank. Our water is hard and has iron. We have a garbage disposal that was installed years ago, but twice now my husband has had to cut the lines and replace them because the pipes clogged up.

From the kitchen sink, the waste pipe drops to the basement ceiling and runs along the ceiling to the other side (approximately 28 feet), then it drops down the wall and under the basement concrete floor. From there it runs back the same length of the house to the septic tank pipes. From the time it first meets the basement ceiling, the pipe essentially is making a sideways U-shape. I'm sure this long length of pipe the garbage has to travel is one of the main problems.

After the first time it clogged, we made sure to run lots of water when we used the disposal, but this has not helped at all, since it clogged up again. I have also heard you should not put anything down the disposal like Drano; am I able to use Drano on the other side of the sink bowl? Anything organic to use?

I use the disposal the way it is intended. I do not put meat or bones in it, and I do not put hard items in it like corn cobs or broccoli stems. Please don't tell me to get rid of my disposal!

A. Your waste system sounds like a nightmare! And you certainly should not have to cut waste lines to unclog them.

Experts are divided on whether use of a disposal strains a septic system. From what you tell me, it sounds as if the clogging is occurring only because of the disposal. The obvious answer is not to use it, and to compost kitchen waste instead. It would give you a great soil-enhancer for your flower or vegetable beds at no cost. Modern compost bins can transform food scraps into compost in a relatively short time. My daughter, who is a master gardener, has three composting bins and we have two, and the results are fantastic. The ones with the fastest results can be spun around to speed the process. It's worth considering.

As for a safe waste-line cleaner, the best one is Arm & Hammer Super Washing Soda, which you can find in the laundry section of your supermarket.

Q. We recently moved into a rural home that has a beautiful pond close to the house. When we first saw the house in the early spring, we marveled at the clear water in the pond and loved seeing birds come to drink in it. But now that it is summer, the water has become cloudy and dirty-looking.

Is there a way to environmentally clean the water, short of draining it and replacing the water whenever it becomes unpleasant? That would be a huge and expensive undertaking.

A. Try Clear-Water Barley Straw Pond Treatment bales. You can buy the small bales online at www.summitchemical.com. Once on the website, click on the Garden & Home tab at the top of the home page; a drop-down menu will take you to the bales. There are three sizes from which to choose, depending on the size of your pond. You may be able to find the bales in garden centers, but their availability is very regional.

Q. We have a brick chimney into which, originally, the furnace and water heater were vented, but the furnace is no longer connected to it. Whenever we light a fire in our wood-burning fireplace, we get a downdraft from the water-heater flue if the clothes dryer is running.

To eliminate the downdraft, would it be better to put in a stainless steel liner or an aluminum liner through the tile to the water heater, or should we run a double wall flue from the water heater vented through the roof to the outside? The fireplace is in the living room and has its own stainless steel chimney. It is capped with a screen mesh and sheet-metal top.

The brick chimney that now vents only the water heater is in the utility room along with the furnace, washer and dryer. It has a 7-inch flue and is capped with 2-inch concrete. The flue extends about 5 inches above the cap. This is covered with a mesh cap and sheet-metal top.

The 92 percent-efficient furnace uses a 2-inch plastic pipe to vent through the ceiling and roof. It gets its combustion air from inside the house from a grill on the front of the furnace.

Here is some additional information that might help you: The house has new thermal-paned Pella windows and new fiberglass exterior doors and storm doors. The house is well-sealed.

What are your recommendations?

A. Are you sure the efficient furnace is getting its makeup air from inside the house? This is most unusual, as these furnaces usually have a two-pipe system -- one for intake air and one for exhaust of combustion gases, and both terminate outside, usually through a wall.

You have made the house so tight that, when you burn a fire in the fireplace, the only way for it to get its makeup air is through another flue, whereas before, it could get it through minor leakage around doors and windows. A fireplace requires a large amount of makeup air.

You have created a very dangerous situation! When you are using the fireplace, the demand for makeup air when the water heater is running will draw carbon monoxide (CO) down the water heater's flue into the house and, if the furnace does not have its own exterior air supply, down its flue as well. The use of the dryer at the same time compounds the problem, as it adds to the negative pressure in the house.

You need to have a way to provide makeup air for your fireplace near it, and your furnace also should be checked to make sure it has an exterior air supply.

You should contact your fire department for advice and call a mechanical contractor to correct this situation before next winter.

Meanwhile, with summer here, you are unlikely to use the fireplace, and you shouldn't until this dangerous situation is corrected.

This is a very serious matter. I have investigated as an expert witness several cases in which death resulted from similar situations. I hope you have functioning CO detectors throughout the house.

• henridemarne@gmavt.net.

2012, United Feature Syndicate Inc.

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