Monthly Archives: May 2015

Water Heater Leaks and Noisy Fountains

Excerpt from my regular column in the Santa Barbara News-Press.

Water Heaters & Fountains

Question: Fortunately I noticed that the water heater in our laundry room started leaking last week and I was able to get a plumber out to the house to replace it before it caused any water damage. However when I called the company that made the water heater, which is a very well know brand, to register the warranty, the customer service person told me that the water had been made in 2007, and so it is 7 years old! Thank goodness the warranty starts from the date of installation so there is no problem there, but should I be concerned that the water heater is so old?

Your Handyman: This is really sort of an unusual situation that I have not run across before. I have no idea at all why a water heater would sit in a distributor’s warehouse for 7 years before being sold. It’s not some kind of discretionary purchase item that people buy on a whim. Who knows: maybe your water heater was set in the back of the warehouse, newer water heaters were stored in front of it as they were received from the manufacturer, and the last ones in were the first ones out. Finally it’s time came and it was sold to your plumber who probably assumed it was brand new as he delivered it to your home.

The most important issue is that the manufacturer’s warranty starts from the date of installation so you essentially have the same protection from manufacturing defects as if the water heater was made last month. Good for you that you are one of the few people out there who actually take the time to register their warranty otherwise you might have been out of luck if the water heater had failed early in its service life.

The main problems that occur with a water heater are due to corrosion, either from minerals in the water or from sulfur in the natural gas if it is gas burning versus electric. Since your water heater has never been filled with water or hooked up to natural gas, then corrosion is not an issue and I would think that the life of the water heater should be the same as if it were brand new. The only other possible problem that I can think would be if the circuitry was affected by age but a residential water heater is a pretty simple appliance that has very little if any circuitry built into its controls. So your situation is definitely unusual but I don’t think your water heater’s expected life will be any less for its age.

One easy way to significantly extend the life of a water heater, especially in a town like Santa Barbara that has very hard water, is to completely drain the tank every year or as frequently as you are able. This will flush out all the mineral rich water that settles into the bottom of the tank which makes the tank less energy efficient and ultimately promotes rust that slowly corrodes the interior tank wall away until a small leak eventually starts.

Most water heaters have a drain valve on the side near the bottom of the tank that looks just like a hose bib valve for your outside garden hose. To drain the tank, connect a garden hose to this valve with the hose extended outside the house to a point lower than the water heater, turn the tank off, open the pressure relief valve on the top of the tank, and then open the drain valve allowing the tank to completely drain. On some water heaters the drain valve is made of plastic that can become brittle from years of being exposed to heat, so be very careful not to break the valve off, in which case you will need to quickly form a bucket brigade to avoid flooding the room that the water heater is located in.

Question: We have a decorative fountain in the lobby of our business that is very attractive but the little fountain pump is making quite a lot of noise. It is a newer pump that was just replaced last fall so I am surprised we are having problems with it so soon. Do you think we need a new pump and what sort of maintenance should we be doing to keep the fountain working quietly?

Your Handyman: Decorative fountains and overflowing urns can be attractive visually and the sound of splashing water can be very calming and is often used to mask less appealing sounds like traffic or the blaring TV next door. Most fountains have a small submergible pump that if kept clean and not allowed to run dry will last for several years or more. The pump will start to make noticeable noise if the water level gets low or the pump gets clogged. More than likely the pump in your fountain has just gotten clogged up with a little algae and simply needs to be cleaned.

A small amount of chlorine added to the water regularly can help to keep the algae in check, but too much chlorine can damage the rubber and plastic parts of the pump thus shortening it’s life.

Often an outside fountain can become a popular meeting place for crows and other larger birds who will quickly foul the water and clog the pump with feathers, food and worse. Crows tend to want to dunk their heads and food into the water so one way to discourage repeat visits is to fill the fountain with a decorative stone like Mexican Pebbles which are available in several different colors and sizes.

Homeowners are often surprised by how much water is required by a medium to large sized fountain and it soon can become a new additional chore to keep the water filled. Fountains loose a significant amount of water due to evaporation from hot weather, spray from even the slightest breeze, splash from water spilling from one level to the next, and from birds and animals using the fountain as the neighborhood watering hole. An easy solution is to have your fountain filled with water automatically via a drip line without an emitter every time your irrigation system turns on rather than having to remember to fill it manually with a garden hose.

If you are considering placing a fountain in your yard, be sure to consider the effects of spray and splash on the surrounding hardscape if any. A patio surface that is continually being misted by a fountain will soon accumulate an unsightly build up of minerals and sometimes slippery moss that can cause someone to loose their footing and take a fall.

-Mark Baird
Owner, YourHandyman & Construction
CA License #935259

Wall Mounting a TV

Excerpt from my regular column in the Santa Barbara News-Press.

Wall Mounting a TV

Question: Our TV is so old that news reporter’s faces all have a strange green tint, it doesn’t have the new plugs on the back to connect to the internet for Netflix, and I have finally been able to convince my husband to buy a flat screen TV! We both really like the way the new flat TV’s look that are hung on the wall like a picture and have a perfect spot picked out on our family room wall. Can you tell us what all is involved with putting a flat screen TV up on the wall?

Your Handyman: The prices of flat screen TV’s have really dropped over the past 5 years or so and they are rapidly making the old picture tube style of TV an antique much like the rotary telephone. A wall mounted flat screen TV has a very modern look and can also help to make a smaller room seen less cluttered. The job of wall mounting a TV typically consists of 3 parts.

The first part involves attaching the TV support bracket safely to the wall. Make sure that the bracket you are using is specifically designed to support the size and weight of your TV. There are 2 basic styles of brackets with the most common being a flat bracket where the TV mounts to the wall much like a framed picture. Most flat brackets don’t allow for any angle adjustment of the TV, some will allow a slight tilting up or down, and this style of bracket usually costs around $75 or less. The other style of bracket is a fully articulating bracket which allows the TV to swing away from the wall, to be tilted up or down, and may cost several hundred dollars for a larger TV. Both styles of brackets are fastened to the wall using at least four large lag screws that are screwed through the drywall or plaster and into the wall studs. It is not safe to attempt to fasten the bracket onto drywall with any type of toggle bolt, plastic molly or an expanding anchor. Finding the wall studs can often be a bit of a trick and I personally have given up trying to use electronic stud sensors and instead rely on the low tech old style magnetic stud finder that reliably finds a drywall screw or nail every time.   If you are drilling a pilot hole for the lag screw make sure that the hole is not oversized which will weaken the connection of screw to stud, and it is best to use an impact driver and no pilot hole. Be cautious of any utilities that may be concealed in the wall especially if there is a bathroom or kitchen on the other side and if your plumbing runs down from the attic.

The second part of the installation is to provide a power outlet on the wall behind where the TV will be mounted. Usually a homeowner will not want to have an unsightly power cord hanging down below the TV, but you can purchase a plastic cable channel at any hardware store that sticks to the wall concealing the cord from view, and usually a renter will choose this less expensive option over installing a new outlet. Installing the new outlet is easiest if there is an existing outlet directly below the location for the new TV and then the electric cable is simply run vertically inside the wall to the new outlet location. If the existing outlet is not directly below then the job is going to require openings in the drywall each time the power supply line passes horizontally through a wall stud, and then drywall repair and painting to finish the job. It is unsafe and is an electrical code violation to simply snake the power cord or an extension cord inside the wall to reach a nearby outlet. If you hire someone to install this plug they will need to either be a licensed electrician or a general contractor, and most of the installers who work for the big box electronic stores are not licensed for electrical work.

The third and last part of the installation is to conceal the low voltage signal wires for your home theatre hardware, DVD player, TIVO, and the coaxial cable that carries the signal from COX or a satellite. These signal wires are best concealed via a conduit installed inside the wall which opens at one end behind the TV and opens at the other end at the cabinet or credenza that houses your hardware. The greater the distance this conduit travels through the walls the more openings that will need to be made in the drywall, and the job becomes more time consuming. Often this conduit can be run through an attic, soffit or crawl space which will minimize opening up and patching the walls. There is also the option of using a wall mounted plastic cable channel to conceal the signal wires as an inexpensive option to installing conduit and simply housing the home theatre hardware in a cabinet directly below the new TV.

There are devices that can be purchased at any electronics store that are called “remote control extenders” which can allow you to put all the electronic hardware in a closed closet or cabinet and still be able to use the remote control even though the hardware is out of line of sight. This can be an inexpensive option if there is closet or cabinet space on the other side of the wall or nearby the TV.

If your home was built prior to the early 1950’s, be aware that some of the new flat screen TVs have a very high wattage rating, which basically means that they use a lot of electricity. If you live in an older home that does not have modern wiring, especially if your home has the old “knob and tube” style wiring, then it may not be safe to add this additional electrical load to your old wires and you should consult with an electrician before plugging in.

-Mark Baird
Owner, YourHandyman & Construction
CA License #935259

Ceiling Fans To Keep You Cool in Santa Barbara

Excerpt from my regular column in the Santa Barbara News-Press.

Another Hot Summer in Santa Barbara:

The summer of 2014 had to have been one of the hottest Santa Barbara summers in recent memory, especially the early summer months of May and June when temperatures are usually moderated by a morning layer of cool gray fog. It must have also been a record setting summer for the sale and installation of all types of ceiling fans and portable air conditioners, as central air conditioning is not as common in Santa Barbara homes as in most other southern California communities. By mid summer I had already lost track of how many ceiling fans and AC units we had installed and I thought that “beating the heat” might be a good topic for this week’s column as we enter into the summer of 2015.

If you are having trouble falling asleep at night while waiting for your house to cool off after a hot summer day, a ceiling fan may be a relatively inexpensive way to move a little cool air around the bedroom and help you to drift off to slumber. A basic ceiling fan can be purchased for around $150 or so and like portable heaters at the start of winter, they are often heavily discounted and advertised at the first sign of hot weather. However like everything else we buy, you usually get what you pay for and you may not be completely happy with an inexpensive ceiling fan because it will tend to be quite a lot noisier than a more expensive model.

Step number one in installing a new ceiling fan is finding a suitable ceiling location which usually is in the center of the bedroom but sometimes in a larger bedroom the fan may be centered over the bed. If the fan is going to be installed where there is currently an existing ceiling light with a wall switch then this is typically the easiest installation scenario. In most cases the electrical box in your ceiling that supports your ceiling light will not safely support the weight of a ceiling fan and stabilize it as it spins. However if there is reasonable attic access, a piece of wood blocking can be fastened between the ceiling joists that an electrical box rated to support a ceiling fan can be screwed to, providing the rigidity needed to support the fan. If there is not attic access as in the case of where a second story living area is above the room, then a ceiling fan retrofit expanding brace can be used that fits into the ceiling opening and has threaded arms that expand outward against the ceiling joists giving a solid mount. A remote control wall switch comes with many fans or may be sold as an accessory that is installed in the wall box of the old wall switch that was used for the ceiling light, and allows the fan to be turned on and off and also controls the fan speed without requiring additional wiring.

If the ceiling fan is being installed in a room that was not originally wired for a ceiling light then attic access will be required, otherwise the job will require quite a lot of drywall repair to provide electrical service to the new location. In most newer homes there will be electrical service available in the attic that an electrician can use to provide power for the new fan and installing the new support box will be an easy task while working in the attic. Your ceiling fan will need a hand held remote control for operation or your electrician can wire a new wall switch but this will require drywall repair and touch up painting as a new wire will have to be brought to the location of the new wall switch.

Sometimes a ceiling fan just isn’t enough to cool off a bedroom and a small air conditioner may be the solution. This type of air conditioner comes in three basic styles: window mounted, wall mounted and portable. The window mounted unit sits on the window sill and when ordering be sure that the unit will fit your window style which usually is a either a vertical slider (sash) or a horizontal slider. A wall mounted unit is almost identical to the window style but an opening is cut in the exterior wall, a metal box is mounted securely in the opening and the air condition is slid into this metal box. The portable a/c unit simple rolls on casters to where it is needed and usually has two flexible ducts that need to be fitted to a window opening to allow for outside air to cool the unit. The noisy part of any air conditioner is the compressor which is on the outside of the house for a window or wall mounted unit but is inside your home with a portable unit so that the compressor noise is more noticeable. With all three of the different styles it is important to make sure that a safe power supply is available and that the air conditioner does not overload the electrical circuit that it is plugged into. Check the manufacturer’s specifications for required amperage and confirm that the power outlet that you use has the needed amperage rated circuit breaker. It is not a good idea to use an extension cord for any type of appliance so it will be important that the electrical outlet is nearby.

If you are considering central air conditioning or one of the new duct-less or “split” units then you will need the services of a Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HVAC) contractor. A central air conditioning system consists of two parts with the chilling unit installed in tandem with your existing forced air furnace and the heat exchanger fan placed outside the house on a small concrete pad. The chilled air is then delivered throughout the house via the existing ducts. The duct less units are relatively new to the game but they too are a two part system that utilize an outside heat exchanger but the chiller unit mounts onto an interior wall using it’s own internal fan to circulate the chilled air. If you have wanted central air conditioning but your home relies on electric radiant heat in the ceilings rather than a forced air gas furnace, then a duct-less a/c system may be the way to go.

-Mark Baird
Owner, YourHandyman & Construction
CA License #935259

It Only Leaks when it Rains

Excerpt from my regular column in the Santa Barbara News-Press.

“It Only Leaks when it Rains”

As we enter into our fourth consecutive summer of drought, it is easy to forget that most droughts seem to be followed by seasons of above average rainfall and there is much continued talk in the scientific community of warming ocean temperatures creating another “El Nino” winter. During these unusually dry years it can be seductively easy to ignore and postpone pressing home maintenance issues that cause major headaches when our weather predictably changes and rain starts to fall.

Most roofs that were installed on homes in the 1960s through the 1990s for the most part had a limited life of about 25 – 30 years while more expensive roofs that have been installed in recent years can last as long as 40 or even 50 years. If you have any concerns about the condition of your roof or if leaked at all during the last wet weather we experienced in December of 2011, then now is the time to call a roofing contractor for an inspection and evaluation. A small roof leak in the past is not going to heal itself by some miracle or act of God and more likely will be a much bigger problem when the rain eventually returns. A leaking roof can cause all sorts of expensive damage to ceilings, walls, electrical systems and even the most minor leak can give dry rot fungus the opportunity to get a foot hold in your eves and rafters. Trying to get a roofer to answer your frantic phone call when the first signs of a wet winter appear, will be like trying to be first in line at the Apple Store to buy the latest version of the iPhone.

One of the easiest home maintenance projects to postpone indefinitely has to be painting. There is no hard and fast rule for how often to paint your house but if 10 years or more have passed since your painter packed up his ladders and drove out your driveway, it is probably time to call him back. Paint of course is most noticed for the color that it gives to a home but it is easy to forget that the main reason a house is painted is to protect your eves, trim, and siding from the relentless assault from the sun, wind and rain. Take a few minutes to really closely look at your houses exterior and if you see areas where the paint has cracked or peeled away, then your home is vulnerable to water damage. If your home has manufactured wood siding that is either laminated in panels like plywood or is made from compressed sawdust similar to particle board, then a solid coat of paint is especially crucial. Putting off a needed paint job can change the nature of the work from requiring a painter to needing the much more expensive services of a carpenter to remove and replace damaged wood. The dog days of summer are the best time for painting, so don’t gamble that next winter will be our 5th dry winter in a row and put off calling your painter for another year.

-Mark Baird
Owner, YourHandyman & Construction
CA License #935259