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posted: 8/25/2013 12:53 AM

Don't mess with asbestos

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Q. My daughter and her husband are in the process of purchasing a home built in 1950. Their inspector found vermiculite for insulation in the attic and guessed that it probably has asbestos in it. One suggestion he made was to add a layer of cellulose on top of it for a couple of reasons. One would be to help insulate further and the other would be to make accidental access to the potential asbestos less probable. I am wondering if this is an adequate way to deal with the vermiculite/asbestos, as the attic is open to the garage. My concern is safety. Would covering the vermiculite/asbestos with cellulose and then with plastic sheeting make it less likely someone could come in contact with the (potential) asbestos? On the other hand, might that create a problem with moisture and insulation? What is your thinking on this conundrum?

A. What your daughter's inspector is suggesting is encapsulation of the vermiculite, and it's a good way to handle it. Once the cellulose has been blown in on top of the vermiculite, it should not be covered with plastic, as it would create a vapor retarder on the cold side of the insulation -- a strong potential for condensation, wetting of the insulation as well as other nefarious effects.

What can be done, however, is to lay a housewrap (Tyvek, for instance) instead of plastic over the vermiculite before blowing in the cellulose, but only if the vermiculite's thickness is going to be less than one-fourth of the thickness of the cellulose.

In other words, if the vermiculite is only 2 to 3 inches deep (often the case) and a minimum of 12 inches of cellulose will be blown in over it, it should be OK. However, to be safe, since cellulose will settle, I would recommend that a minimum of 15 inches of cellulose be blown in.

The housewrap may be stapled to the sides of the floor joists to make sure it stays in place. Blowing in so much cellulose will cover the floor joists and make the attic unusable.

Although it was common practice in the 1950s in Vermont to build an attached garage with the gable open to the attic, it is a very unsafe situation. If a fire started in the garage, it would engulf the house in seconds.

The space should be sealed and covered with fire-code gypsum board; a small access panel should be provided and it, too, should be covered with fire-code gypsum board.

Q. Our condo association is planning on replacing our gutters this year and we are wondering about adding the gutter toppers. We would be doing this to avoid annual cleaning costs, but we don't want to add them and then find the gutters don't work well. Do you recommend the gutter toppers? We have 4 or 5 in 12 slope asphalt roofs and we have relatively few large trees near our gutters.

A. I have not yet found a gutter guard that is satisfactory, and I have tried quite a number over the years. I am not happy about the one type I installed on our house, thinking that it was perhaps the solution to mammoth amounts of leaves and tree debris. Both tree debris and leaves accumulate, blocked by the minimal convex profile of the guard, and water overshoots the cover. I have to get our gutters cleaned every fall.

You will find some manufacturers providing videos and text telling us how much better their product is than the competition, only to be shot down by the next guy with photos showing the horrendous failure of their vaunted product.

The design of the Gutter Topper gutter guard is such that, in a strong rainstorm and especially on steep roofs, water will overshoot it, as an honest salesman admitted when I questioned him about it. It can also admit pine needles and other small material. You can read about similar complaints on the Internet.

Gutter Topper claims a lifetime warranty, but there are a number of cases where the dealers went out of business, so such a warranty may not be too useful. And it is quite pricey.

In my experience, installing commercial gutters and downspouts is by far the best way to go. Commercial gutters are 6 inches wide as opposed to residential gutters that are only 5 inches wide; they handle a lot more water. But the great difference is in the commercial downspouts that come with commercial gutters: They have a cross section of 12 square inches (3 inches by 4 inches) whereas residential gutters have a cross section of six square inches (2 inches by 3 inches).

Commercial downspouts are very unlikely to ever clog and the larger volume of the commercial gutters can store more leaves until a large rainstorm cleans them.

In the '50s, when gutters and downspouts were custom-made in copper or galvanized metal by metalsmith subcontractors before the advent of seamless and vinyl gutters, my gutter subcontractor sold me on commercial gutters and downspouts by telling me: "Henri, a dead pigeon would flush through these spouts without any trouble."

You will hear arguments from others strongly disagreeing with me, so you'll have to decide which way you want to go.

Q. My wife and I bought a house in Essex Junction, Vt., last August. After a recent particularly heavy rain, I noticed water pouring through a basement screen window set in the bottom of a window well. The forested backyard slopes toward that side of the house where the window is located. As I bailed water out of the window well, it just kept filling up from below due to the saturated ground and high water table. The next day, I removed the screen and realized that this part of the basement was separated from the regular basement and accessible only through the window. When I peered in there, I saw perhaps two or three inches of standing water covering about one-third of the rough stone floor. I bought 15 bags of topsoil and packed it around the window well, sloping it away from the foundation. I'm thinking I'll seed it. Next, I'm going to crawl through the window and use a vac-pump or utility pump to get the standing water out of the basement. Is the long-term solution to install a drainage pipe along the side of the house and down our lawn toward the street below?

A. Since you have identified that the water problem was due to saturated ground and a high water table, you may need to do more than raise the grade against the foundation on the forested side. Raising the grade is helpful in preventing surface water from running toward or standing against the foundation. However, I'd give the grade changes a chance to prove whether or not they help, as water works in mysterious ways.

If you are still beset with a similar problem, you may want to consider having a curtain or French drain installed on that side of your house.

Either drain will involve a deep trench dug a few feet away from the foundation; the trench may need to be as deep as the foundation itself, depending on how deep the water is found. On sloping ground, water may be following a ledge, which may not be too far from the surface. The trench will need to be carried around the house to a place where water can drain naturally down slope.

The house side of the trench should be lined with 6-mil black plastic to stop any percolation into the space between the trench and the foundation. At the bottom of the trench, lay a couple of inches of egg-sized stones; lay a perforated drain pipe, holes down, on top of the stone bed; and backfill the trench with more stones of the same size.

If you decide on a curtain drain, stop laying the stones about a foot from the top of the trench, lay a landscape fabric over the stones and top it with a couple of inches of coarse sand. Complete the backfill with native soil shaped in a gentle swale leading around the house to catch surface water. Seed or sod the swale.

If you opt for a French drain, complete the entire backfill of the trench with stones, which will catch surface water.

A solid drainpipe should be connected to the perforated pipe to discharge the water to a low area. Keep an eye on the outlet, as it can get clogged by soil and leaves or a squirrel nest.

Q. I am putting in a fence with 4-by-4-inch pressure-treated posts 4-feet down. Unfortunately, with some I am only able to go down 3 feet because of rocks. I read somewhere that there was a way to limit the heaving and frost-line issue by covering around the post with mulch, plastic or something like that on the surface. Any suggestions?

A. Posts are unlikely to heave from insufficient depth if they are set on rock ledge, but all posts are subject to heaving from what is referred to as "bear hugging" -- freezing ground hugging them tightly and lifting them. To prevent this, it is best to wrap 6-mil plastic around the part of the posts that will be underground as a slip joint and to backfill the holes with coarse sand up to a few inches below grade. Then add and tamp native soil, sloping away from the posts.

Additional protection can be had by covering the ground around the posts with 1-inch-thick XPS rigid insulation buried 6 inches or so below the final grade before completing the backfill. I have also had success with covering the soil around the posts with sawdust or mulch, which will need to be renewed every year or two as it decomposes.

The most important keys to success are making sure there is not a running underground spring where the posts will be placed and that the final grading around the posts is sloping away. Posts are very likely to heave if there is a sunken area around the posts, which will collect water, wet the soil and freeze.

Q. We have the Hansgrohe Interaktiv ThermoBalance Shower Set, installed around October 2003. The little knob (located on the handle) that turns left/right to control the hot/cold water will no longer turn, so that the temperature of the water cannot be controlled.

Have you any ideas or suggestions of what the problem is? We also cannot figure out how to take off this unit that is attached to the shower wall.

A. I had one of those installed some years ago and also had a problem with it. It turned out to be defective, and I was told it was not the only one that failed. I had my plumber replace it with a Moen unit.

Sorry, but that's the best I can do for you.

• 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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