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posted: 9/30/2012 4:56 AM

Have water tested before choosing a softener

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Q. We are looking to replace our water softener, which is probably 20 years old. We have a three-bedroom, 1,700-square-foot house on a well, and our water is high in iron and often has a sulfur smell. I have been looking at reviews online, but they seem to be connected to the companies that sell the water softeners.

We're looking at salt-free systems, but many sites claim they do not work. Other sites say the amount of salt left in the water that goes through the faucet is minimal. We are also looking for a system we can install ourselves (should be straightforward because the setup is already there) and that is moderately priced. Any advice you can give on brands, salt vs. salt-free, etc., would be appreciated.

A. The best advice I can give you is to have your water tested, as the softening system to use depends entirely on what a water analysis reveals.

There are salt-free systems that use potassium-based pellets, but they cost four times as much as sodium-based pellets. The amount of sodium per grain of hardness is very small, so you may decide that the difference in cost between potassium- and sodium-based pellets is too much.

Q. Our older home is what we have been told is "face brick." We have no idea what this means, but we wonder how much insulation the exterior walls have. How do we find out? And how can we improve the insulation of these walls? Our fuel bills are quite high.

A. Masonry walls come in several forms. What you call "face brick" is probably what is referred to as brick veneer. In that type of construction, the exterior walls are frame, and a brick facing, or veneer, is laid over the framing and tied to it with metal straps. Solid brick construction is made of cinder blocks and bricks, which are tied together every seven courses with bricks laid across the two.

It is often possible to check the exterior wall insulation by removing the cover of an electric switch or receptacle. If its box was not used as a plaster ground or if the hole in the drywall was cut slightly larger, you may be able to see the insulation by using a flashlight.

The next step is to find out if the insulation fills the 2-by-4-inch stud cavity or is what was called "masonry insulation" -- only 2 inches thick. That may not be possible without opening a hole in the wall. You might be able to enlarge the space next to the electric box and then use a larger cover plate to hide the hole.

If you find that the insulation is only 2 inches thick, you may want to consider having cellulose blown in. Although it will crush the fiberglass, it is not a problem, as you will be replacing the inadequate insulation with a much better one. If you have 4-inch insulation in the walls, the best procedure would be to add 1-inch-thick rigid insulation on the inside face of the exterior walls and apply drywall over it. It's an expensive endeavor, but perhaps worthwhile in the long run.

Q. We had our driveway asphalted in August. The contractor said it should be sealed with an oil-based sealant before this winter, preferably with a pressurized applicator so the sealant will go into all the little spaces between the aggregate stones and prevent melted snow or rain from freezing and damaging the surface. Of course, he offered to do this for us.

I have called several local sealing companies listed in our phone book and have gone on the Internet to research the need for sealing a new driveway before winter. I have received and read so much contradictory information, I don't know what is appropriate for the southwestern Pennsylvania area. Some say it's OK but not necessary to seal a new driveway before the first winter; some say to wait at least 30 days; some say to wait at least one year for proper curing. Some say it's OK to seal if the temperature is under 60 degrees, but some indicate to seal only if the temperature will remain above 65 degrees for at least 48 hours. Some say you can drive on the driveway after as few as eight hours, but most say 48 hours. The only issue everyone agrees on is to apply the sealant only if there is to be 48 hours of dry weather after the application.

Can you offer some advice as to whether we should have the driveway sealed before winter and what precautions need to be taken?

A. An asphalt driveway should not be sealed for at least two years, even longer if it is in the shade. It needs to turns gray. If the driveway is sealed too soon, the oils in the asphalt will not have evaporated, and the driveway will remain soft and suffer damage.

The best sealants are acrylic, asphalt-based emulsions or coal tar pitch (the latter being the old standby, but not the healthiest for those putting it on).

It is also important not to reapply sealant too often, as it can build up and crack. It should be reapplied only if you see noticeable signs of wear or every three to five years. Sealants should be applied when the temperature is 60 degrees or warmer.

Q. My home was built in 1914. I have concerns about my chimney, specifically the tiled flue pipes. My home is heated with gas.

I'm sure there are many old houses that need chimney cleaning and repairs. What is your advice in bringing chimneys up to date? Is relining an option? If so, please describe the process, who should be called to do the work and the costs involved.

I understand that stainless steel liners are available. Is this true?

A. It is a very good idea to get your chimney checked. I once looked at a chimney used for venting a gas furnace that was almost completely clogged with broken debris from a disintegrating liner. A few more pieces and the inhabitants might have been poisoned by carbon monoxide.

A certified chimney sweep is the person to call. He or she may suggest relining, and there are several relining options, stainless steel being the most prevalent. The costs vary by region, the length of the liner, the condition of the chimney, whether the flue is a straight shot or has some bends, etc.

Q. Our split-level house was built in 1955. In 1990, we had an addition put on our house that extended the kitchen and gave us a backroom. The kitchen ceiling leaks where the addition was put on every time we have a snowstorm. The leak happens only when it snows, when snow on the roof melts and refreezes on the small roof area above where the kitchen was extended.

We have had two roofers come and try to solve the problem. We have had a new roof put on and new plywood. We also had a roofer come and redo the section of new roof that was leaking with the latest building materials.

But the leak continues to happen in snowy weather. We discovered that by shoveling that new section of the roof after a snowfall, we could avoid the leak. The refreezing of the melted snow, combined with the shape of the extension of the kitchen roof, makes the problem seem impossible to fix.

The interior of the kitchen, after the roof leaks, is a mess and needs so much work to repair. We are at our wit's end, not to mention it has been very costly trying to fix the roof with two different roofers. We need help finding the proper people to fix this problem/design flaw (building engineer, construction people?). We have had some builders look at the problem, but they didn't seem to understand what we meant. It is hard to describe without seeing the shape of the roof and the problem area, so we are enclosing photos.

We are hoping you can suggest where to begin with this problem and maybe even a reputable company to help us.

A. Thank you for sending the photos; they clearly show the problem and why you are having leakage under the conditions you describe.

Two roofs meet and form a valley that ends against the gable end, right at the corner of the main house. Moreover, the valley is what is called a close-cut valley. This type of valley is popular among builders, who claim it looks better than metal valleys, but it requires several steps that are essential to its proper functioning -- and whatever shows does not look right on your photos. In my many inspections of such valleys, I have found that these steps are not usually followed, which leads to leakage. Several people looked at your roof, but none of them picked up on the improper construction, which tells me they are not very experienced.

In addition, close-cut valleys wear out faster than the rest of the roof because rain from two roof planes rushes down in a narrow stream in the bottom of the valley.

Melting snow and ice, trapped by the ice dam at the eaves of the roof of the addition, move sideways and find the weakness at the corner of the main house.

What should have been done is to remove some of the siding on the gable wall and the back wall of the main house, and to wrap an ice- and water-protective membrane around the corner before replacing the siding. The valley should also have been ending past the corner of the main house wall, and it should have been made of metal. The valley and a large portion of the two roofs should also have been covered with the membrane.

This work needs to be performed by a contractor who understands the reason for the problem. I hope you can find someone who does.

• 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

2012, United Feature Syndicate Inc.

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