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posted: 12/29/2013 4:42 AM

Home repair: Identifying, fixing heat-loss issues could save money

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Q. We have an older home that is supposedly well insulated. But there are voids, and we can't tear off the siding and redo the whole house. What can we do?

The house is one-and-a-half stories with three bedrooms upstairs, four rooms on the first floor and a full basement.

When we heat with wood, the basement and first floor stay toasty. The second floor is never very warm and we have to pile up the blankets. And the heat is costly.

A new furnace is about $2,000, and since we are both 77 years old and on Social Security, that won't fly.

A. You haven't told me your house's age, but I doubt very much that, by today's standards, it would be considered well insulated.

To find out if there are indeed any voids or other areas causing you some heat loss, consider contacting your utility provider or local government to direct you to any weatherization programs run by either of these entities. You may qualify for grants or very low interest loans to tighten up your house.

Wood heat is unlikely to be your only source of heat. Do you also have a warm-air furnace, which is inefficient or unsafe to use -- and what is the fuel used? You can also use the duct system to distribute the wood heat throughout the house, assuming that the wood stove is in the basement -- a likely place, since you mention that the basement is toasty -- and not too far from the furnace.

A metal hood over the wood stove with a simple, inexpensive induct fan connected to the furnace's duct system can be installed. The furnace's fan should be turned on to run constantly to distribute the heat throughout the house and make the second floor warmer. I installed such a system in my previous house when I was younger and heating solely with wood.

You may also find out that you qualify for financing toward the purchase and installation of a pellet furnace. Wood pellets are the cheapest fuel available.

Q. The exterior of my house is done in aluminum siding. It has been approximately 28 years since it was installed. It must be high quality in nature because it survived all of the hail storms in my neighborhood. While houses in the surrounding area had insurance coverage for damage, my house did not qualify.

I was planning on replacing my siding, since over the years it has faded and looks just worn out. I received several estimates. A Realtor friend of mine made the comment that I would never recover the cost of replacement due to the poor housing market. She suggested that I have it painted instead. Could you please give me your professional advice? If I choose to have it painted, how long will it last and should the siding be primed before the final paint application?

A. I agree with your Realtor friend; factory-painted aluminum siding such as yours can be of high quality and it would a shame to dispose of it.

Aluminum siding can be painted very successfully. First run your hand over it to find out if it is chalking -- an intentional process that allows the paint to wear off slowly, along with any dirt, as a means of keeping the siding clean.

If there is any chalk on your hand, you will need to wash the siding with a detergent and a stiff brush on an extension pole. If there are mildew signs on the siding, you should add a mildewcide or Clorox bleach to the detergent. (Be careful not to mix any bleach with any product containing ammonia -- the combination is very dangerous!) Rinse the siding with your garden hose.

Aluminum siding can also be power-washed, but be careful, as it can easily be damaged. You may choose to hire an experienced power-washing firm.

Once you have cleaned the siding and made sure there is no more chalking, prime the siding with an alkyd primer formulated for aluminum siding; it will bind better than water-based acrylic primers. An exception is Zinsser's Bulls Eye 1-2-3 water-based primer, which adheres tightly to all clean surfaces.

The best finish coating is a 100 percent acrylic paint. You should apply two coats for best results and durability. Avoid a high gloss paint, as it will emphasize irregularities; a flat finish is best.

Q. I am a widow in my 80s and I am having a big problem. Where two pieces of gutter meet is the spot that is causing the problem. They are pulling apart. This caused the rain to come through the cracks. It was as if someone turned the tub faucet on full force. I have had three men who said they fixed it, took my money and never came back. With winter coming, I am so afraid that icicles will form and the weight will bring the gutters down. I hope you can give me some advice to solve this problem.

A. Are you referring to the connection of two sections of gutters in the same run or to two sections meeting in a corner? There are ways to patch breaks and holes in gutters, but it may be better to have them replaced if they are old and not in the best condition.

Instead of calling on anyone claiming to be able to fix your problem, you should contact established gutter firms and make sure, before you hire them, that they are willing to patch your gutters and will not push you to replace them with seamless ones.

Any gutter not firmly attached by experienced mechanics may be distorted or knocked down by ice, whether or not it leaks.

Q. We removed the Homasote siding on our 1960s home and replaced with 3/8-inch fanfold foam board under vinyl siding; wood-framed windows were replaced with Harvey vinyl double-paned windows. I'm guessing we took away sound insulation when we did this throughout the house. The low-frequency sound/vibration of car doors closing every morning and late at night from surrounding neighbors is penetrating and exhausting by causing loss of sleep. What is the best way to soundproof my bedroom from the exterior?

As you can see from the included pictures, the brick chimney is against our second-floor bedroom. The front of the bedroom extends 2 feet out above the first floor. A two-story addition was built on the backside of the end of the house, so now the end is L-shaped. Do I have the builder remove the siding and 3/8-inch foam board on the chimney wall and the front top floor wall and put something under it, such as 2-inch foam board? Or should another layer of plywood be nailed over the old plywood sheathing and then 1 1/2-inch foam board?

I'm definitely replacing the top floor's Harvey windows with Marvin, knowing you recommend Marvin as the best. Is the brick chimney an issue? I am tired of living by the neighborhood's schedules and trust your expert advice to get some peaceful sleep.

A. If your Homasote was the 440 Sound Barrier, you did indeed increase sound transmission into your bedroom.

The simplest option would be to add 1-inch thick XPS (extruded polystyrene) rigid foam insulation over the inside finish of the exterior walls of the bedroom, followed by new 5/8-inch thick drywall. All trim and electrical boxes will have to be adjusted, but this should be a lot less expensive than taking down the vinyl siding, installing XPS insulation and replacing the siding, which could incur some damage in the process.

However, if you choose to tackle the issue from outside, there is no need to take off the fan board. Simply add 1-inch thick XPS (or thicker, if you choose to do so) and put the siding back.

Marvin's wood/fiberglass or wholly fiberglass windows are a very good choice.

AN INTERESTING SUGGESTION: "A while ago, your column gave several suggestions for removing tough scum buildup from shower glass. I'd like to add my two favorite tips. First, consider switching to a liquid body wash. You will not experience the scum problem with those products. Second, use a "Magic Eraser"-type sponge to easily remove the buildup with no chemicals. I live in western Pennsylvania, and have had no problem getting the buildup off our glass shower stall (my husband insists on continuing to use bar soap).

My thanks to you for this interesting suggestion.

INTERESTING SOLUTION TO A NAGGING PROBLEM: "Hello, I thought I might share a technique I use when dealing with stuck water shut-offs in my area (Chicago).

In a November column, there was a question on how to free round shut-off water valves. I have had to deal with many cases of stuck shut-off valves because of disuse and hard-water mineral deposits.

I take a piece of tissue paper or paper towel and wet it with plain white vinegar, then I twist this around the stem and wrap some saran wrap or a plastic bag around the valve to keep the vinegar from drying out. After a length of time, usually a few hours or overnight, this frees up the valve without fail. Usually, the valve can then be actuated by hand. This is especially effective on the cheap plastic-stemmed valves that can break very easily. I also have used a product called Kroil -- a penetrating oil -- with much success and less application time. Thank you."

Sounds good, but the question I was asked was about the fragile, oval, pot-metal valves found under sinks, vanities and on toilet feed pipes. Perhaps your system may work on those as well. If anyone has success with this method on these oval valves, please let me know. The best way to deal with these valves is still the Gordon Wrench,

• 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

2013, United Feature Syndicate Inc.

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