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posted: 8/24/2014 1:01 AM

Unqualified contractor makes poor attic repairs

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Q: I read your column in the Daily Herald each week and always find it interesting. We had bathroom vents incorrectly installed into the attic, rather than being vented outside. We had a contractor convince us it needed to be encapsulated with a special paint, rather than fixing the problem and letting dry conditions kill the mold -- but oh well.

When we fixed the vents, the workers noticed that the aluminum vents that were added did not line up with the original eaves vents, so they opened up the eaves under the aluminum vents to get proper attic ventilation.

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So last winter, which was very cold, gave us increased circulation of cold air through the attic. We started seeing cracks in walls, and cracks between our second-floor bathroom wall and floor, and on the main floor gaps opened between crown molding and our ceiling. It seemed to me the roof sheathing and roof support framing got colder and contracted more than the warmer parts of the house, and caused some parts of the house to bow downward, causing these cracks. The cracks have decreased or gone away with warmer weather.

We have a chimney going through the house, and I noticed that the roof supports that are next to the chimney are just cut -- they do not tie into anything.

Should there be a box structure around the chimney that ties these together? It seems the problems we saw are associated with areas near the chimney or are on that line of roof supports. Would adding trusses in the attic to strengthen everything be helpful?

Who in the Chicago area could you recommend to look at the structural soundness of a house and make repairs?

A. Who on earth would recommend painting a bathroom exhaust pipe to prevent whatever problem he or she was called upon to investigate?! The "creativity" of some people is simply amazing.

If I understand correctly, the bathroom vents were to be connected to outside jacks, but either never were or became loose.

Then to add insult to injury, whoever came to make the "repair" didn't know that bathroom and kitchen vents should not be discharging through eaves vents. Eaves, or soffit, ventilation is an intake for attic ventilation, not an exhaust for anything. Any moisture discharged through the bathroom vents would be sucked back into the attic and contribute to excessive moisture, which may lead to mold formation.

Your conclusion that the shrinkage and movement you suffered were caused by the excessive cold air brought in by the work done is plausible, considering that this was the first time these problems occurred, and that they improved when the weather warmed up. But they should be investigated by a professional engineer in light of the apparent structural weakness you have discovered around the chimney.

Look in your Yellow Pages for a structural engineer.

Q. I find it very difficult to carry heavy bags of potting soil and other gardening supplies once they are open. Have you come up with your own solution? Any suggestions?

A. I know what you mean. When full, the bags are easier to handle, but once open, grabbing them from the top so as not to spill the contents is a challenge.

I have found the Handy Camel Bag Clip quite helpful. It clamps at the top of the bag to carry it, and can be set on a corner of the bag while you lift the bag by the bottom to pour out its contents. It makes these two steps so much easier. You can see how the clip works on the manufacturer's website: www.thehandycamel.com.

The only drawback I have found with the earlier version that I tried was that the handle, in the shape of an "H" with sharp edges, was rough on bare hands; I had to use heavy work gloves. I called the dealer to tell him of this problem and the top of the handle was changed to a rounded profile. The newer version is much easier on the hands. So if you find one, check it out to make sure it is not the original version, but the newer one.

Finding where to buy it may be a challenge. After you have selected Where to Buy on the website, you are asked to enter your ZIP code, which I did, and the answer was that there was no place carrying it nearby in spite of all the stores listed next to the search box and map. But you may buy the clips online, or call the company's office at (816) 651-2568, which I did. I got an answering machine and left a message, which was answered promptly. The clips were received very quickly.

The Handy Camel Bag Clip does not work on very bulky bags, as mentioned in small print on the website, as it takes too much strength to lock it.

Q. Do you know of a way to remove tar and other oily and greasy substances from hands? I recently patched something on my roof, and the only thing that worked was using gasoline, and I don't think that's good for me. I have had a similar problem with other greasy substances and paints.

A. One way to be able to remove these substances or paint easily is to soap your hands ahead of time with a little water, rub it in until your hands feel dry. When your work is done, wash your hands, and all foreign material should come off easily.

A product that works miracles is one that every shop should have: Gojo Hand Cream. Most auto mechanics use it or a similar compound. You rub it on your hands, wipe the dissolved stains with a paper towel and you are good as new.

Q. I have a block basement. In one corner when we get a lot of rain I get seepage through the bottom, two or three blocks high, four or five blocks long. There is no standing water, but it gets damp. I have tried Dry Lock and different products. I also graded away from the foundation. Is there any cement product that I can try to seal the block from the inside?

A. Is the sewer pipe exiting or the water pipe entering the house in the area of the dampness? If either one is, there may be a slight leak outside the foundation. Or is there a downspout that drains underground? There could be blockage or a break in the underground pipe.

Have you also checked the grade all around the house? Sometimes, water can travel long distances before finding the weak link.

If this is a serious enough problem that you cannot live with, you may need to have an experienced contractor or engineer investigate.

I do not recommend waterproofing block foundations from inside because it can allow water to fill the block cores, causing severe damage to the building. I once investigated a one-story apartment building built on sand in which the leaking block foundation had been waterproofed from the inside. The apartments had been vacated as they became infested with mold and were inhabitable.

The stench inside was sickening and everything was covered in black mold -- furniture and all. I got a stepladder and poked my hand in the top of the blocks not covered by the mudsill. I felt water to within one inch of the top. Unable to drain, the water was evaporating inside the apartments. The building had to be gutted.

Q. When I have workmen come to the house for repairs, some of them follow the Vermont tradition and take their shoes or boots off at the door. But others just barge in with dirty boots and track dirt on my carpet and wood floors.

As a well-brought up woman, I am too embarrassed, or intimidated, to ask them to remove their boots, but I am pretty upset at the mess they leave and the lack of sensitivity.

Since you have been in residential construction for so long, and must have dealt with this problem, do you have any suggestions on how I should handle this?

A. The simplest solution is to have two large, heavy plastic bags, such as those provided by drugstores or other retail outlets, by the front door and to ask them to slip them over their shoes. If you also provide two strong rubber bands big enough to fit over shoes to secure the top of the plastic bags, it will make it easier to walk around.

When I did this to a contractor, he laughed and said he had never thought of that. You may get the same results if you do it as a game and with a smile, explaining that you have just had the house cleaned.

Q. We have had pre-finished Tigerwood Flooring for about eight years and we have tried all the sprays, etc., to restore the luster. Floor companies told us what to use and none of them have worked. Any suggestions?

A. Which sprays have you used? These exotic floors have very specific maintenance and cleaning requirements, as do many less-exotic floors. And did you follow the directions carefully for the products recommended by the floor companies?

The safest cleaners to use are those specially made for such woods. Two types are Armstrong Hardwood & Laminate Floor Cleaner and Bruce Hardwood & Laminate Floor Cleaner.

Now that you have applied other products that may not be acceptable, you should consult with a flooring specialist who can comment on what to do to remove the residue of the sprays you have applied.

Correction: I recently answered a question from a reader asking how to prevent wasps and bees from getting inside their house. In the rush of things, I erroneously mentioned that one possible point of entry for these insects is the entrance electric cable, where they can nest inside the electric meter. What I meant is the electric "breaker or fuse panel" inside the house, not the meter, which is outside. I realized my error upon later rereading my column, but too late to send out the correction. Sorry for the confusion.

• Henri de Marne was a remodeling contractor in Washington, D.C., for many years, and is now a consultant. Visit www.henridemarne.com and email him at henridemarne@gmavt.net.

© 2014, United Feature Syndicate Inc.

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