Monthly Archives: March 2016

Through Wall Doggy Door

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

Question:  My wife and I want to have a doggy door put into the wall of our house so that our dog can come and go from the house to the back yard as he pleases.  Can a doggy door be put into any wall and will cutting a hole in the wall weaken the house and damage it in any way?

Your Handyman:  Yes a doggy door can be installed in most any exterior wall on your home and if installed correctly will not harm your home, but the job will go quicker and easier if some time is spent in selecting the location.  What you want to avoid if possible is selecting a location for the pet door where utilities like a water or gas pipe or an electrical cable are present.  If the location you are considering has a garden hose valve nearby on the outside of the wall, or there are electrical outlets nearby on the inside of the wall, then the likelihood of a pipe or cable being in the way of your pet door is greater.

Once you have the location for the pet door selected, the first step is to trace the outline of the hole needed for the door opening onto the inside drywall or plaster using the paper template that comes with the door.  You will need either an electronic stud finder or the old fashioned magnetic stud finder that I prefer, to determine the location of the wall studs which usually are about 15” apart, and the door will need to be centered in the space between two wall studs.  Take care to position the opening relative to the height of your pet so that the finished door is easily accessible for the dog or cat.  Carefully drill a 3/8” to 1/2’’ diameter hole in a bottom inside corner of the traced opening taking care not to insert the drill bit any farther than necessary inside the wall so as to not damage a pipe or cable.  Use a drywall or jab saw to carefully cut along the line, once again being very careful to not penetrate any farther than necessary inside the wall.  A jab saw is much easier to control than a power saw and will be less likely to cause damage to unseen utilities.  After a small section of wall is removed, place your hand inside the wall to confirm that there are no pipes or cables in the way.

Once the interior wall is opened up, the next step is to take a long drill bit of a smaller diameter to carefully drill through the exterior wall from the inside corners of the opening, making a hole in the exterior siding that lines up with the corners of the inside opening.  Take care to make sure that your drill bit is level so that the corner holes in the exterior siding line up both horizontally and vertically with the inside corners.  If your exterior siding is stucco or smooth plaster, then your drill bit will need to be a masonry bit in order to drill through the cement based siding.

With the corners of the exterior opening marked by the 4 drill holes, you can now sketch the opening size on the siding and if it is a wood siding, you can prepare to cut the opening by drilling a larger starter hole for a reciprocating power saw like a sawzall or a jig saw.  If your siding is stucco or plaster, you can make the cut using either an angle grinder or a circular saw outfitted with a masonry blade.

The pet door will have an inside piece and an outside piece that overlap in the middle of the wall, and once your opening is complete the door itself is pretty simple to install using the screws provided by the manufacture.  Be sure to use an exterior grade caulking to seal the outside edges of the door to keep out moisture and insects and your door is ready for pet traffic!

If it turns out that an electrical cable does pass through the opening then you will need to install a new electrical box on each side of the door and loop a new section of cable over the dog door opening inside the wall.  These two new electrical boxes can either be installed with electrical outlets or with a solid cover plate but the wire connections for the loop going over the dog door must be in an accessible box per electrical codes.  It is unsafe and a code violation to have any wire connections hidden inside a wall without access.  If you do not have experience and knowledge on how to safely and correctly do this electrical work, then you need an electrician.

If a water or gas pipe is discovered in the opening, then the pipe will need to be also looped over the opening which may not be an easy thing to do without substantially enlarging the drywall opening, and in the case of a threaded steel pipe, it would probably be best to select a different location for the door.

One last very important concern for a pet door is to not unintentionally provide access for the local wildlife to enter your home.  Several years back my neighbor woke up in the middle of the night to find a family of skunks in his kitchen happily eating the cat food after hopping through the pet door.  My neighbor quietly went back to bed, the skunk family politely left when the cat food ran out, and the cat door was permanently sealed up first thing in the morning.

Skunks, raccoons and opossums are common throughout the Santa Barbara area and you may want to consider a pet door with an electronic feature that allows the door to open only when the pet approaches while wearing a small sensor device on the collar.  This feature will add to the price of the door but will keep out unwanted late night visitors and is probably money well spent.

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

Check Those Aging Pipes

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

Question: My wife and I are finally in escrow and hope to take title to our first home in a few weeks. The house is in a very nice neighborhood in Goleta which seems to be mostly occupied by seniors but a few young families like us have moved in and we think it would be a good home to raise our family. The seller is the original owner from 1962, the kitchen and bathrooms are original and not a whole lot has been done in the way of improvements but the house appears to be in pretty solid shape. We are in the process of having a home inspection scheduled but are worried that something may get missed and we will have little money left over for repair work. What kinds of problems should we be looking for that might get missed in the inspection?

Your Handyman: Congratulations on your new home and you are smart to be on the lookout for hidden problems that may surface in the future that may cause financial strains to your family budget. The vast majority of tract homes in Goleta were built in the late 1950’s and the 1960’s coinciding with the completion of Lake Cachuma to provide water to Goleta, and UCSB and Delco expanding to provide high paying jobs. At that time when a housing tract was being built, the drain lines from the kitchen and bathrooms were for the most part made from cast iron, and were buried in the ground under the cement foundation. The lateral sewage line that connected the house to the main sewer line in the street was usually made from red clay much like a mission style roofing tile. There were few synthetic materials available for plumbing like what are now used when building a home. These cast iron and clay pipes worked just fine for many years but now that these homes are approaching their 60th and 70th birthdays, many of these pipes are in poor and failing condition.

Cast iron pipes of course are prone to rusting and it is not uncommon for a plumber to remove an old 2”-3” exterior diameter iron pipe and to find corrosion clogging the pipe to the extent that a pencil can barely be inserted. These same iron pipes when buried can rust away and partially collapse allowing soil and tree roots to fill sections of the pipe. The red clay pipes connected together with a sort of bell shaped opening on one end that slid over the opposing narrow end of the next pipe. These connections leaked to some degree and quickly attracted tree roots that slowly broke the joints apart as the roots sought the moisture and fertilizers in the pipe. Like any type of clay or ceramic product these clay pipes were brittle and cracked when compressed by a tree root or pressured by shifting soil.

Large amounts of money will be spent by homeowners in these Goleta housing tracts with local plumbers over the next 10-15 years as house by house the sewer lines will fail to some degree and need to be replaced or repeatedly repaired. Replacing a drain line that is buried under your foundation is not an easy thing to do and usually requires cutting into the foundation inside the house, digging up the old cast iron pipe and installing the new black plastic ABS pipe. ABS pipe and fittings are made from a super tough thermoplastic resin called Acrylonitrile-Butadiene-Styrene (ABS for short) and will probably survive until the end of time if installed properly. When the lateral sewer line to the street is replaced it can either be dug up in the same manner or most plumbers now offer what is often called “trenchless technology” where basically a new synthetic pipe is pulled through the old pipe, sparing the home owner the problems caused by having a trench dug across the front yard.

As part of doing the due diligence in inspecting your potential new home, I suggest that you hire a plumbing contractor to run a video camera scope down your drain lines so that the actual condition of the pipes can be completely inspected. These remote video scopes have been around for some years now and most every plumbing contractor owns one. It may very well be that the home’s pipes show little or no sign of deterioration, but it could also be that you document a potentially expensive and inconvenient future repair project that otherwise may have come as a very unwelcome surprise. If expensive work is required be sure to get at least two quotes from different plumbers. I also recommend that an inline video inspection be done prior to an expensive kitchen or bathroom remodel if the homeowner is not already aware of the condition of the pipes that will lie under the beautiful new cabinets and tile work.

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

Repair Sagging Rain Gutters

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

Question: The rain gutters on our house are sagging even though I have repeatedly hammered the gutter spikes back in. I’m afraid the gutters are going to finally just completely fall off the house in a heavy rain storm, get damaged and then need to be replaced. I’m a senior and can’t afford to pay for new gutters. How can I get the old gutters to stay in place?

Your Handyman: Sagging rain gutters are a common problem that can be easily solved by using an improved fastener. Most all rain gutters are installed using an aluminum or steel spike that threads through the gutter, has a metal bushing or ferrule that fits inside the gutter to prevent the gutter from being crushed in by the spike, and the spike is simply hammered into the rafter tail. Over time the rafter tail wood dries out or splits, the spike is no longer secured in the wood, and it is pulled away from the rafter tail by the added weight of a gutter full of rain or dirt.

The solution is to remove the loose spikes and replace them with long threaded screws that fasten into the rafter tail permanently securing the gutter. Most hardware stores carry this product under the name of GutterScrew which is sold is several different colors, comes with new ferrules, and can easily be installed using a power drill or ideally an impact driver.   It will not be possible to screw in the new gutter screws by hand without the assistance of a power driver.

This work all has to be done on a ladder and it usually is not a good idea for anyone old enough to be receiving social security to be climbing ladders, especially not to access gutters on the second floor.   If you can not safely work on a ladder then it would be best to hire a licensed contractor for this project. Just remember that the falling part is not really all that bad, but it’s the landing part that can cause some serious problems.

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

Kitchen Cabinet Facelift

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

Question: My wife and I own a condo in Santa Barbara that we used to live in and now rent out to supplement our retirement income. The unit is in good shape overall and is easy to rent, but the kitchen cabinets are starting to show their age and we would like to spruce them up without doing a major kitchen remodel. Our renter is moving out next month and we would like to get this taken care of quickly so we can show the unit as soon as possible. What are our options?

Your Handyman: If the cabinets are not damaged and are of relatively good quality then there you have two options for an affordable face lift rather than going through the often major expense and effort of installing new cabinets, countertops and plumbing. Your first option is to give the cabinets a very thorough scrubbing down inside and out using a cleaning solution like Murphy Oil Soap which can be purchased at most grocery stores.

Fill a bucket with hot water and Murphy Oil Soap, wear gloves to protect your hands, use a non abrasive but stiff sponge to aggressively scrub the cabinet surfaces, and you may be surprised how many buckets of dirty water you go through before the cabinets are clean. Even the cleanest appearing cabinets can be coated with large amounts of grease and oil generated by years of cooking and the resulting coating of dust sticking to the oil. As a final step in the cleaning process, wash down the cabinets with a rinse of hot clean water to remove any residual of the cleaning solution.

Once the cabinets are completely clean inside and out, they need to be left to dry which may take a day or two in foggy weather or just an afternoon if the weather is hot and windy. After the cabinets are thoroughly dry, you then want to select a wood stain from a product line like MinWax, choosing a color that matches the original stain color of your cabinets as closely as possible. Along with the new stain you will want to purchase some plastic drop clothes, a small plastic bucket to hold the stain while you are working, a package of nitrile gloves to wear while staining, a roll of blue painters tape, and a couple of cloth staining pads; all of which can be purchased at any paint store or the paint department of a hardware store. Use the plastic sheeting to protect your floors and counter tops from the inevitable drips and splashes of stain, and then wipe down the exposed surfaces of the cabinets, doors and drawers with a generous application of stain. After the stain application is complete, go back over all the stained surfaces with a clean white rag to wipe off any stain that has not been absorbed into the wood. The cabinets will immediately look much improved as the clean dry wood soaks up the stain and after airing out for a couple of days will be ready for showing to potential renters.

Note that it is very important that the new stain color closely matches the original stain color. If your intention is to change the stain color of your cabinets then your cabinets need to be stripped and sanded down to new wood which will require considerably more time and elbow grease, and it may be best to hire a professional painter for this option.

Your second option is to do what is commonly referred to as re-facing the cabinets which involves the removal and replacement of all the cabinet doors and the matching wood fronts on all the cabinet drawers. Fabricating cabinet doors and drawer faces require very specialized and expensive wood working machinery and are thus typically made by very large cabinetry mills. Even if you have a local carpenter build custom cabinets for your home, more often than not the doors and drawer fronts are being ordered from a large regional cabinet mill. Typically these mills will only sell to contractors, kitchen designers or lumber yards but there probably are some that sell online to consumers. However great care needs to be taken to ensure that the correct sizes are ordered, this may be a project best handled by a professional, and Santa Barbara has many skilled finish carpenters and kitchen shops that can handle this job for you. Once the old doors and drawers are out of the cabinets, then the cabinet frames and faces will need to be cleaned and stained as previously described in the first option prior to the installation of the new doors and drawer faces. Re-facing gives you the opportunity to update your cabinets with an entirely new look, or you can order the new doors and faces to match the original style.

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

Replacing Fluorescent Light Ballast

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

Question: Our kitchen has the long fluorescent light tubes in the ceiling hidden behind plastic panels. One of the fixtures stopped working months ago, I replaced the old bulbs with new bulbs and it still doesn’t work. Now one of the other bulbs isn’t lighting and I need more light to see what I am doing when cooking. Why don’t the new bulbs work?

Your Handyman: All fluorescent light fixtures have a small transformer that is called a ballast which regulates the voltage that the tubes need to initially warm up the neon gas inside the tube and then to stay lit. After 10 years or so of frequent use, and especially if the lights are turned on and off for shorter periods of time, then it can be expected that the ballast will wear out and need to be replaced. In a typical ceiling mounted fluorescent light fixture the ballast is concealed behind a metal panel that is easily removed by simply loosening several screws. The model # of the ballast should be printed on a label affixed to the ballast and it should not be hard to find the same model of ballast at most any hardware store. In many cases however it is easier and not much more expensive to just replace the entire fixture rather than troubling with rewiring the ballast, especially if your fixture is a simple work shop style white metal unit.

This is not a difficult project for someone who has basic knowledge of electrical wiring and electrical connections but should only be attempted when the circuit breaker is off for the lighting circuit you are working on. If you are at all uncertain of how to make the proper electrical connections then it is time to call a licensed contractor to do the job. Fluorescent light bulbs, even the compact twisty style (CFL), contain small amounts of mercury, are classified as a HAZMAT, and it is illegal to put them out in your regular trash or recycling bin. You can take your old bulbs to the Marborg recycling centers and as a homeowner will not be charged for disposal. Breaking the tubes up to put them in the trash is illegal, may possibly contaminate your home with mercury and you may get a stiff fine if discovered by your trash hauler.

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