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posted: 3/24/2013 5:35 AM

Cedar or a suitable substitute sought for soffit

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Q. We are from western Pennsylvania, where the winters can be very cold and snowy. We have a house built in 1976. The house is a split-entry and is all brick except for the overhang, which basically is the entire back of the house.

The overhang was done in cedar. We maintained it and it worked well for us, but it has seen better days, and we need to replace it. We love the look of the wood, but we were told we cannot get the cedar any longer. We would like something that would not require a lot of maintenance. My husband does not like the look of vinyl siding, and I don't especially care for it, either. Do you have any suggestions?

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A. I am surprised to hear that you can't get cedar. Is it a special type of board or plywood? We have used cedar extensively as siding for an addition to our house in the last two years, and even needed some for repairs this week.

If your cedar soffit has not deteriorated to the point that it needs to be replaced, can you pressure wash it, or wash it by hand with an eco-friendly cleaner such as OXY-Boost (available at ecogeeks.com)?

Once you have cleaned the cedar, consider applying Amteco TWP cedar stain (amteco.com). That should make it look terrific.

Q. I hope you can advise on a problem I have. I live in a duplex town house (two units with a common wall). I have a slab foundation with a downdraft furnace, and the ductwork is in the concrete. No crawl space is available.

Since I have lived here (nine years), I get silverfish -- primarily in both baths and the kitchen, although I have seen them other places. (FYI: The silverfish are not necessarily silver; they seem darker in color.)

When I had my furnace and central air replaced, I asked the HVAC man what he suggested. He said to put bleach in all my drains once a month.

I found nothing online to substantiate his remedy, but I did it anyway. It seems to keep the insects at bay. I have noticed that if I miss my 30-day mark by a few days, I start to see the silverfish again.

Do you know of anything more effective than this remedy? I wish I could be rid of them and not have to do the bleaching. Anything you can suggest is worth a try.

A. Silverfish require high humidity levels to survive, so they aren't likely to come from the ductwork, since heat should keep the ducts dry. But if you have central air conditioning, there may be some condensation in the ducts that encourages the insects' propagation.

Silverfish eat starches and can severely damage books, photos, textiles, carpeting, curtains, etc. They are usually nocturnal and are not seen in daytime unless they are hiding under something that is moved, in which case they dart away to find another hiding place.

The best way to discourage them is to keep areas dry and free of dust, which they also eat. Be sure to patch spaces around pipes, which they use to travel.

If you have a small infestation, the most environmental way to get rid of silverfish is to catch them, which you can do by putting starch in a small glass jar. Put masking tape on the jar to allow them to climb the sides. Once they have fallen in the jar, they can't get out. But a new infestation will occur if the moisture sources are not eliminated.

For a larger infestation, you can blow any insecticide with a pyrethrin base into cracks and crevices with a bulb duster.

Q. My house was built in the early 1990s. I am located in southwestern Pennsylvania, on top of a hill. My entire foundation is below grade. The soil is clay.

The problem is my basement floor. I have attached several pictures from different areas. I assume the dark spots are moisture wicking up from underneath the slab, although I have never actually felt any moisture on the spots.

I previously contacted the township engineer. He said he was not aware of any underground springs in my area and that as long as water was not seeping through, it shouldn't be a big concern. This has been ongoing for several years, but more spots seem to appear.

Can you suggest what might be causing this and recommend what professional I should contact to get a further analysis?

A. It does sound as if these spots are caused by soil moisture wicking up through the slab. Concrete is not impervious to moisture. It may be that the slab was poured directly over dirt or a compact material that is subject to capillary attraction.

I do not know of any way to prevent this, short of tearing out the slab and pouring a new one over several inches of egg-size stones.

Q. I absolutely love reading your column and have picked up so many good ideas through the years. I know you often address problems that occur after the fact, but I have questions regarding a project with hopes of avoiding future issues!

My husband and I want to update the laminate countertops in our kitchen with concrete ones. My husband is quite handy and would like to pour and install them himself. He has researched the process and believes he will be able to build the molds, pour the countertops and then bring them into the kitchen to install.

My questions: What are your thoughts/advice for DIY installation of concrete countertops, and what do you know about their durability once installed? Also, do you know where to buy the concrete mix and the paints and glass that are mixed in with it?

A. Experienced do-it-yourselfers can build concrete countertops, but it is a many-step procedure that takes time to do right. Your best option is to go to ronhazelton.com/projects/how_to_make_a_concrete_counter_top_in_place. After checking out the video, you can decide if it is a project you still want to tackle.

Q. Is there any type of cleaner to remove skid marks on a driveway?

A. I assume that you are referring to a concrete driveway. Although time may remove the marks, it may take several years.

Skid marks made by tires on concrete can be removed with a butane or propane torch. Keep the torch moving in circles to avoid overheating the surface.

A safer way, but perhaps not as effective, is to sprinkle TSP, if you can find it, or TSP-PF on the skid marks. Sprinkle hot water on the TSP and scrub vigorously with a stiff brush. Let it stand 30 minutes before rinsing with a garden hose.

Q. We installed a new asphalt driveway last June. Should we be seal coating the driveway this year, or do we need to wait?

A. Here is advice from two earlier columns dealing with coating asphalt driveways:

An asphalt driveway should not be sealed for at least two years, even longer if it is in the shade. It needs to turn gray. If it 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 is the old standby, but it is not the healthiest for those applying it.

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.

Don't forget that sealers are water-based emulsions that are dried by direct sun and warm temperatures. Most sealer manufacturers recommend applying them when it is 50 degrees and temperatures are rising. However, it can also be too hot to apply sealer. If it is hotter than 90 degrees, the sealants can flash-dry, making for poor adhesion and a less durable film. The best conditions would probably be to apply the sealer in the morning on a sunny day with low humidity and no rain forecast for 24 hours.

Q. What do you think of the Mitsubishi heating system for the upstairs of our Cape Cod house? There are a large and a small room, each with one floor vent apiece, and it is always too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. The furnace just does not push the air up there, so we want something to supplement the rooms we use.

The house is maybe 40 years old and needs new siding. We did blow insulation into the roof some time ago and put whirlybirds on the roof with the vents.

A. Mitsubishi units are popular and effective at heating and air-conditioning rooms, but they are expensive.

Since you need new siding, you should look into adding at least 1-inch-thick rigid insulation over the existing siding, if the siding is smooth enough to install the rigid foam insulation over it. If not, the old siding should be removed. But I urge you not to accept any suggestion from siding installers to put up thin, fanfold-type insulation. Insist on XPS (extruded polystyrene or polyiso rigid insulation). If your attic insulation is not at least R-40, have cellulose blown in to that level or higher.

Making your house more energy efficient, which may also include replacing the windows or installing storm windows to obtain triple glazing, and having your warm air heating system balanced may take care of the uneven heat and air-conditioning woes.

Making these improvements is a win-win situation, as they will reduce your energy costs and increase your comfort, regardless of whether you still need supplemental heat or AC -- which you may be able to obtain with less-expensive means than the Mitsubishi units.

• 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 henridemarne@gmavt.net.

2012, United Feature Syndicate Inc.

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