Q. My wife and I recently purchased a new home in a 55-plus community in Illinois from a big builder. The general contractor on the job has gone through a lot of HVAC contractors, and each one has made changes to the HVAC system. We are still trying to get them to balance the heat from one side of the house to the other. It is about a 15-degree difference. The house is on a slab and is one story.
Our question deals with the noise from the furnace blower. Every time the furnace comes on, you have to raise the volume of the TV and shout to have a conversation. The furnace is a Carrier downdraft system. The builder's model home does not have that problem.
Do you have any suggestion we can pass on? The general contractor and his HVAC people are not very good problem solvers. All they say is that there is nothing they can do to correct this.
A. My only suggestion is to insist that the general contractor have the HVAC contractor who installed the successful system in the model home look at your installation and make any necessary adjustments. The corrections may be simple or expensive, and the cost should be carried by the builder.
Q. I had my concrete driveway installed about five years ago. I let it go for three years, as the installer had put a sealer on it, then sealed it two years ago with a sealer I bought at Home Depot or Lowe's. (I forget the brand, but it comes in a large white bucket and looks like milk in the can.)
I did nothing last year, but this year it looks like it needs to be sealed again. You can see when you look at the driveway, especially at an angle, that about 80 percent of the sealer is gone.
What sealer would you recommend? It is a decently long driveway, with a side-entry, three-car garage and a large pad.
A. The installer applied a topical sealer, since you are able to see it. These sealers are easy to apply and relatively inexpensive, but they do not last long and can get slippery when wet unless an antiskid mix is added.
The better sealers -- silicates and polyester -- penetrate deeply into concrete, making it stronger and denser. They are more costly, but they are permanent and will probably never need to be reapplied.
You should be able to get brand recommendations from a ready-mix concrete firm, an experienced concrete contractor or a masonry building supply firm. Brands to look up online include www.vseal.com and www.stonetechnologiesinc.com. V-Seal has a limited number of distributors. Stone Technologies is a chemical manufacturer that sells only direct. Both products can be purchased online.
These sealers can be applied with a garden sprayer or paint roller. Each has specific recommendations for application, so be sure to read the directions.
Q. I recently had my wood fireplace chimney cleaned professionally. Afterward, the chimney sweep told me the chimney now needs to be roto-deglazed to remove the baked-on glaze that sweeping could not remove. That process entails scraping up and down the chimney with a heavy metal brush at the end of a metal wire. This, it seems to me, has the potential to damage the chimney tile and/or its joints.
Am I right, and do you recommend this service? Was the "sweeping," which was charged separately, a necessary first step?
A. Assuming you use your fireplace as a fireplace and have not installed a wood-burning insert or wood stove, there should be no need for regular sweeping. All flues used to vent wood-burning appliances will have a coating of black creosote, which becomes a concern only if it builds up enough to severely reduce the opening of the flue.
You can see whether this is the case by looking up the open fireplace with a mirror. Don't be alarmed if you see some shiny black coating on an otherwise wide-open flue.
Wood-burning stoves and inserts are another matter. Because they burn more efficiently than fireplaces by controlling the air supplied to the fire, they can produce considerable amounts of creosote. This can lead to dangerous accumulations unless these appliances are equipped with catalytic converters.
To control and even remove accumulations of creosote, spray all wood logs with Anti-Creo-Soot (ACS), a catalytic liquid. Chimney sweeps love this product because it makes it much easier to remove creosote deposits by transforming them from Type III glaze creosote to a fine brown ash.
Instead of having someone wire-brush your chimney at an extra cost and some risk, use ACS on every log you burn. It will take a while, but you'll see the difference. You should be able to buy ACS in local stove shops and from chimney sweeps, or online at www.saversystems.com.
Q. I moved into my current apartment in 2006, and for the last couple of years, we have been invaded by very small flying insects (gnats? fruit flies?). Several visits by an exterminator have failed to solve the problem. Can you suggest how we might eliminate these annoying little creatures? Would you be able to offer a source for where they might nest and/or breed?
They seem contained mostly to the second floor, where the main living and kitchen areas are located, but they occasionally show up on the ground floor (garage, storage area) and third floor (bedrooms).
A. Did the exterminator identify the insects for you? It's important to know. If they are fruit flies, you need to cover the source of their attraction and breeding. Regardless of the treatment, they will return if you leave ripening fruit in the open.
Try this to get rid of them: Put slices of an overripe banana in a glass jar and cover it with a piece of clinging plastic wrap. Punch a number of small holes in the plastic. The flies will get in, but they will not be able to get out. You may be able to trap them all, in which case you can then dispose of them.
Q. In the last few weeks, the airways have been literally plastered with Angie's List ads during the evening news, with people who have used the list raving about it. I wonder if this is a credible source of references?
A. Any complimentary comments you find on Angie's List can be helpful, but I know from experience that I would not trust any negative reports.
I know of one case where a vindictive man who didn't get his way in a frivolous lawsuit against a contractor trashed the contractor on Angie's List with the same incredibly false accusations he had included in the lawsuit. The same man trashed a company he worked for after he decided to learn all he could about its products and sources, make off with its customer list and set up his own competing business.
I tried to look at those reports after being made aware of them, but Angie's List told me I would have to pay about $40 to have access to them. After I reported this in my column, someone from Angie's List called to assure me that the website "always" checks on the veracity of submitted reports -- which it didn't. Draw your own conclusions.
Q. Thank you for answering my email and offering alternative suggestions to what has been recommended. I just wanted to fill in the gaps and try to get clarification on one thing I asked but you didn't answer.
I did have the blower door test performed, although they refuse to give me the report. I am attaching what they did give me. My attic has two layers of fiberglass insulation between the floor joists. I estimate each layer is 3 to 4 inches thick. They told me this insulation is not doing anything and is worthless.
They are proposing the spray foam insulation and making my attic unvented. They suggest closing the soffit vents -- which you clearly disagree with from previous comments in your column -- as well as closing the ridge vents, removing the attic fan and closing the fan hole.
Do you agree with closing the ridge vents and eliminating the attic fan? They told me that by creating an unvented attic, the temperature would be approximately 5 degrees hotter than the living space in summer and 5 degrees cooler than the living space in winter.
A. Sorry if I missed answering you fully. The report you sent seems OK in general; what other report were you expecting that they refused to give you?
I disagree with their specification to use open-cell foam on the underside of the roof deck. Open-cell foam absorbs a certain amount of moisture, which may be condensing on the cold wooden roof deck covered with an impermeable roof covering. Closed-cell foam should be used in these installations.
Their report states that your existing attic insulation is calculated at R-18 and is insufficient. I agree that it does not meet today's standards, but if they verbally told you that it is worthless, it is a gross exaggeration. It sounds as if they are trying to sell you an expensive foam job -- in my opinion, not a very professional way to do business.
There are proponents of unvented attics, but I am not sure it is the best way to go. I agree that an attic fan is not advisable, as it is known to draw conditioned air. I also am curious about their statement that the temperature difference would be only 5 degrees, both summer and winter. What are their data for such a statement? Many other factors play into this, and you may find that such an installation accelerates the demise of your roof covering because it will expose it to much higher temperatures.
You can obtain higher levels of attic insulation by having cellulose blown in over the existing fiberglass for a lot less expense, while preserving the existing ventilation. Attention should be given to any convective paths from the living areas into the attic, which the presence of mold on the roof deck suggests exist.
Q. How can I remove or lighten the black mold stains on my large concrete front steps? I assume the stains are from the snow being there most of the winter, as I do not use my front door and steps very much during snow time.
A. Try washing your steps with a mixture of one part fresh Clorox bleach and three parts water, using a stiff brush. Let the mixture stand for an hour and rinse.
If stains still remain, they may be due to other pollutants besides long-standing snow. Add 1 cup TSP-PF to the above mixture and scrub the steps. Let stand for 30 minutes and rinse copiously.
Be aware that both of these mixtures are harmful to plants, so before using them, you should soak the vegetation around the steps and cover it with plastic. When you are done with the treatment, soak the vegetation again.
Q. What do you think of the EdenPURE heaters, which are heavily advertised in tabloids at this time of year and claim to hugely cut your heating bills? Is this really a good way to save energy?
A. If you read the ads carefully, you will see that their claims are based on turning down the thermostat in the rest of the house. Any electric heater will do the same, and at a much lower initial cost. Just be sure to buy a heater with safety features.
The EdenPURE technology is different from run-of-the-mill electric heaters, and therein may lie its advantage if you want to purchase an expensive heater that you wheel from room to room. I have also read the company's advertisement in a weekly insert to my daily newspaper that suggests you buy several heaters to heat other rooms. Clever, indeed!
One thing in their favor, and an important one, is that EdenPURE heaters are manufactured in the U.S. with an American workforce.
• 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 email@example.com. His book, "About the House," is available at www.upperaccess.com and in bookstores.
© 2012, United Feature Syndicate Inc.