Monthly Archives: November 2015

Inexpensive Ways to Protect Your Home

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

Maybe hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year by Insurance companies and homeowners repairing damage caused from leaking water lines and appliances.  Your home can be protected from water damage to a great extent by some basic plumbing safeguards and a little routine maintenance.  Every home should have a plumbing shut off valve that can be easily used in an emergency to shut off the interior water supply for the home.  Ideally the shut off valve should be a single ball style valve that shuts off the interior water supply and also an additional ball valve that shuts off the exterior or irrigation water supply.  A ball valve is a simple plumbing valve that is easily operated and is opened and closed by a quick 90 degree rotation.  The older style gate valves have a round handle that raises and lowers a gate of sorts in a vertical track, but this type of valve is quickly fouled by mineral build up and often becomes unreliable.

Plumbing shut off valves are usually found near the front entry of a home and often are located along with a hose bid that supplies water for a garden hose.  It’s a good habit to shut off your interior water supply when out of town or especially if you have a vacation or second home that is vacant for extended periods.  I shut off the interior water supply to my house when we leave for just the weekend after experiencing a flooded kitchen from a leaking ice maker line after just going out for dinner.  We occasionally work at homes that don’t have a shut off valve and then the only way to turn off the water is at the meter valve which is not designed for frequent use and is frowned upon by the water company.  Repeatedly turning water off and on at the meter may eventually damage the meter which may get you a nasty note and a big bill from the water company.  If you don’t have water shut off valves that can easily be operated in an emergency you should put it on your home improvement list to get done sooner rather than later after a water leak episode.
High water pressure can often be the cause of frequent leaks and every home should have a pressure regulator installed in the main water line that controls the pressure in your water lines, appliances, and sprinklers.  The interior water pressure of a home should be between 55 & 60 PSI (pounds per square inch) and a water pressure gauge can be purchased at most any hardware or plumbing store for about $10 for an easy pressure check.  The water pressure valve threads onto either your hose bid (the valve for your garden hose) on the outside of your home or onto the water supply valves for your clothes washer.  Water pressure should be checked periodically and if your pressure exceeds 60-65 PSI then your home is at an increased risk for a leak.

We received a call a few years back from a retired gentleman who had dealt with frequent water leaks in his sprinkler system over 20+ years he lived in this particular house and he had called us to repair the most recent leak.  When we checked the pressure on his front yard hose bib it pegged our gauge at 110 PSI and the interior pressure in the home was just as high.  His leak problem was solved by the installation of a pressure regulator on the main line of the house and he no longer needed to worry about leaking sprinkler lines and huge water bills. Also it is a good idea to check water pressure if your faucets suddenly start dripping or you unfortunately experience a leak.

Water leaks inside the home often occur in the flexible water supply lines that supply hot and cold water to sinks, toilets, dishwashers, clothes washers and ice makers.  These are the hose like water lines you see in the cabinets under your sinks and hanging down the wall behind your clothes washer.  Over time these lines can become brittle with age or can be damaged by mice or rats and even the smallest leak gone unnoticed can quickly create a flood damaging expensive flooring, base trim, walls and downstairs ceilings.  It’s not uncommon for us to go on a service call to replace a sink or toilet in a 40 – 50 year old home and to find what appear to be the original water supply lines still in use.  Always install new flexible water supply lines made from braided stainless steel when putting in a new faucet or sink, and it’s really a smart investment to replace any flexible supply lines in your home that are much older than 15 years.  In just about all cases a new hose will cost less than $10 and it’s a cost effective way to protect your home.

Most refrigerators have an ice maker or chilled water dispenser that is usually connected to a reverse osmosis water filter under the kitchen sink via a small water line that can be concealed in the kitchen cabinets, attic or the crawlspace under the floor.  Usually these water lines are a ¼” copper or plastic line and care needs to be taken not to damage then when moving the refrigerator. If the line is plastic and runs through a wall, floor or ceiling it should be protected by a blue flexible conduit often called a Smurf tube after the little blue characters in children’s TV shows.

Lint clogged clothes dryer vents can be a cause of a house fire if not regularly cleaned. The gas flame or electrical heating element in your dryer can overheat if the vent is not clear and most every Boy Scout knows that lint is great tinder for starting a camp fire. The air blowing out of your clothes dryer is hot and moist and lint accumulates quickly on the damp inside walls of the vent and the dryer.  Not only is a clogged vent a potential fire hazard but it is a big waster of energy by reducing the efficiency of the clothes dryer.  We clean the vent using a specialized brush that is designed for cleaning dryer vents which can be purchased at the hardware store for about $25 and when used along with a powerful shop vacuum it’s not unusual to fill a 5 gal bucket with lint removed from even a short run of vent.  The flexible accordion style vent hose that you can see on the floor behind your clothes dryer should be made of a flexible metallic material and not made of plastic.  Plastic dryer exhaust vent hoses used to be very common but are considered to be a fire hazard and should be replaced with a metallic hose vent. Avoid storing combustibles like paper bags or cardboard boxes around the sides of a water heater or clothes dryer.

Possibly the best investment for the protection of your home is the simple fire alarm.  Can there be any adult who has not heard dozens of public service ads over the years for smoke detectors?  Surprisingly we occasionally do work in a home that either has no smoke alarms, not enough smoke alarms, smoke alarms with dead or removed batteries, or smoke alarms that have been disabled.  Smoke alarms can be purchased at any hardware store and are a simple life and property saving device that will cost you about $15 and should be properly placed throughout the house and one in the garage.  At a minimum every bedroom in your home should have a smoke alarm mounted on the ceiling and also one in every hallway leading to bedrooms.  But even the most expensive and best placed smoke alarm won’t protect anyone without a good 9 volt battery.  Make it your habit to replace smoke alarm batteries annually on a day that you can easily remember like your birthday, New Years Day, Daylight Savings day, or any date that will jog your memory. Use a Sharpie pen to write the date on the battery that it was installed so that there is no confusion as to the age of the battery.

SEASONAL TIP:   The media experts are now saying El Nino is a certainty (I hope) so make sure you home and yard are ready for heavy rain. The last El Nino year brought 40+ inches of rain and many people were caught off guard trying to deal with leaky roofs, broken rain gutters, clogged patio drains and sump pumps that stopped working. Take a little time to think about what your home needs to survive the coming Godzilla El Nino as named in a recent LA Times article and make needed repairs while the weather is still dry.

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

Front Porch Safety Handrail Installation

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

Question: My wife and I are both now in our 80’s and are a little unsteady going up and down the steps to our front porch. The steps and walk way are concrete and we didn’t have any handrails put in when they were originally made, but we sure need them now. Is it possible to have a handrail installed without going through all the expense of putting in new steps?

Your Handyman: There are a couple of different possible options for safely installing a handrail on your concrete steps which will give you a sturdy handgrip while going up or down the steps. The easiest would be to have an ornamental iron handrail with posts welded together as a single unit and fastened to the steps with concrete anchors. A metal square of about 4” x 4” is welded to the bottom of each post, a hole is drilled in each corner of this base plate, and it is screwed down to the cement using expanding concrete anchors. Holes are drilled into the concrete using a rotary impact drill, the concrete anchors are inserted in the holes, and the base of the anchor mushrooms out when the nut on top is tightened, and when done correctly it is more than strong enough to support the post. A decorative metal “skirt” is then slid down the post to conceal the base plate and anchor heads. Usually a handrail is about 34” high and needs to be of a size that allows you to easily grip it when needed. There are many welding and wrought iron shops in Santa Barbara that can both design and install a handrail that will be an attractive addition to the front of your home and provide you with a safe grip.

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

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

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

Question: We live on the Mesa and our wood fence is as old as the house and is precariously leaning downhill towards our neighbor’s home. The fence is built on the top of a small cement block retaining wall in our neighbor’s yard, and it is also in bad condition and should be rebuilt. The problem is that our neighbor is not interested in replacing either the retaining wall or fence even if we pay the entire bill. In the mean time my husband and I are worried that our fence is going to completely fall down and then we will have no privacy at all in our backyard. Any suggestions?

Your Handyman: You’ve probably heard the old adage that “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors”. Being on a friendly basis with your neighbors is important but having the private use of your backyard is just as important. Many of the homes on the Mesa were built in the 1960’s and 50 years is a long time for your wood fence to survive the effects of weather, termites and dry rot, and it’s probably past due for replacement. However if the fence is supported by a crumbling retaining wall that your neighbor will not allow you to rebuild, then it makes no sense to spend the money to build a new fence that may collapse when the retaining wall finally gives way. It sounds like the only realistic option is to install several metal support posts on your side of the fence that are set in concrete and then attach them to the fence with metal deck screws. This should support the old fence for at least a few more years or maybe even more. The expense of installing or maintaining a fence that sits on a property line is usually shared by both neighbors but often one party either can’t afford the expense or just doesn’t want to cooperate. Hopefully your neighbor will come around sometime in the near future, be more cooperative, and maybe even agree to share the expense of both a new retaining wall and a new fence.

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

Avoid overloading your circuits

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

Question: Last night I had way too many electrical things turned on in the bathroom and the power went out for all the plugs and lights in the bathroom and in two bedrooms also. I should have known better but it was a little chilly and I had the bathroom fan on that has a built in heater, all the lights on, an electric space heater in the bedroom running and then I made the mistake of turning on my hair dryer. I tried turning all the circuit breakers off and then back on but no power still. What can I do?

Your Handyman: It sounds like your circuit breaker correctly did one of the jobs that it is designed to do, which is to protect your home’s wiring from getting overheated when your appliances are demanding more electricity than the wiring can safely provide. Modern conveniences that use heating elements like space heaters, hair dryers, toasters and coffee makers use relatively large amounts of electrical wattage to convert electricity to heat and without the protection of a circuit breaker, the electrical wires in your walls could get dangerously hot trying to supply all the needed power when multiple appliances are in use.

Most homes will have a circuit breaker box located on an outside wall where the power wires from the telephone poles connect to the house, and sometimes an additional smaller circuit breaker box or sub panel will be located on a wall inside a closet or in the garage. The circuit breaker box should always be approached with caution and should not be opened when standing out in the rain or with wet hands. Usually you can easily see which circuit breaker has “tripped” or turned off by just looking at the position of the switches. However, the circuit breaker needs to be pushed back into the ON position but not held in the ON position in order to reset its internal mechanism. Holding the breaker in the ON position if there is a short in the circuit could burn out the breaker in which case it would then need to be replaced. If the power still does not come back on after resetting the breaker, or you have any concerns about safely accessing the circuit breaker box, then it is time to call an electrician.

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

El Nino Widow Makers

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

As we hopefully near the end of the last year of the worst drought on record in Santa Barbara, I continue to be shocked by the number and size of the many dead trees in our urban forest. In an open area nearby my home it looks to me that about a third or more of the eucalyptus trees are dead including some trees that are at least 50’ or more in height. Although I am not an arborist I can assume that the largest of these trees may have survived 75 years or more only to succumb in the past year or two, which gives some perspective to the severity of this drought. These dead trees are often referred to as “widow makers” and I was taught as a young backpacker to never pitch a tent in the fall zone of a dead tree so as to avoid being injured or even killed by a falling branch if the wind picked up at night.

It now seems the weather experts believe that El Nino is a certainty and that we should count on heavy rains and wind in the coming winter months. Once the soil gets thoroughly soaked and a strong wind sets in, I think that many of these dead trees are going to fall causing all sorts of damage and problems. If you have a dead tree on your property, don’t ignore the potential for damage to your own property and liability for damage to your neighbor’s property. Now is the time to call a tree trimming service and have it professionally removed. If the house next door has a dead tree that could cause damage to your home if it falls, it’s time to speak with your neighbor about having it removed. I keep hearing how most local roofing contractors and tree trimmers are now at the busiest time in their careers as home owners rush to get ready for the deluge, but leave a message and ask to get on their schedule as soon as possible.

Most people only think of the damage caused by a falling tree to fences, sheds and roofs getting crushed by falling branches and trunks but a whole different set of problems are caused if a falling tree damages the power lines that provide electrical service to your home.

In the light rains of last winter, a friend of mine unfortunately had a neighbor’s tree fall over his property line into his yard and onto the power lines connecting his home to the power pole. The tree was on a steep slope, had needed trimming for many years and my friend had asked the neighbor on several occasions to please get the tree trimmed or cut down.   In just a light rain, the extra weight of all the wet leaves and branches combined to become the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back and down it fell, over the fence and through the power lines to my friend’s home.

Typical residential electrical service is delivered to your home by three steel cables, two of which are “hot” cables each with 110 volts of service and a third “neutral” cable which allows the electrical current to cycle in alternating directions creating what we know as AC (alternating current) power. The branches of this falling tree spared both the hot cables but severed the neutral cable which immediately caused the alternating voltage to sort of stack up in a sense and a voltage spike occurred in the electrical wiring inside his home.

Most all of your home’s appliances have some type of circuitry, rechargeable batteries or electric motors of all different sizes that are voltage sensitive and easily damaged by a voltage spike. In my friend’s case, most every appliance in his home was damaged to some degree and had to be replaced; including the cook top, cappuccino maker, ceiling fan, refrigerator, 2 televisions, an electric toothbrush, a rechargeable cordless wine cork puller, range hood, 5 motion sensor lights, and a handful of circuit breakers including the expensive 220V GFIC circuit breakers for a outdoor spa. Not only did he experience this very significant property loss, but he then spent weeks preparing his claim, documenting the damage, getting quotes for replacement appliances, and of course haggling with an insurance adjuster.

The only good news was that his homeowners insurance eventually paid for new appliances but only because the damage to the power lines serving his home occurred on his property, even though it was his neighbor’s tree. If the falling tree had damaged the power lines where they had crossed over his neighbor’s property, then his homeowner’s policy would have paid nothing. His recourse would then have been to politely ask for reimbursement from his neighbor and possibly pursue a lawsuit in civil court if the neighbor could not or would not pay. The power company doesn’t accept any liability for this type of damage regardless of whose property the line was severed on based on the premise that the utility company was not the owner of the tree and had no responsibility for its trimming or removal.

Trimming or removing a large tree can be a very expensive project and not a particularly fun way to spend your hard earned savings. But it could be a lot less expensive than paying to repair the damage it may cause if it falls, and if you have a dead or dying tree on your property, it is going to fall sooner or later.

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