Monthly Archives: September 2016

Problems with Peeling Paint in Bathroom

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

Question:  Our bathroom walls and ceiling were painted in a color we hated by the previous owners of our house, and my husband and I carefully repainted them last year.  Well the new paint looked great up until recently but now there are several areas where the new paint is starting to peel.  The bathroom has a good fan so moisture isn’t a problem and the walls and ceiling were in good shape before we painted.  What went wrong?

Answer:  Peeling paint is commonly found in bathrooms and kitchens where semi gloss or gloss paint was originally used to allow for easy cleaning.  When painting over an existing painted surface that has any amount of sheen or gloss, it is very important to first pass over the old surface with a fine grit sand paper prior to applying the new paint.  This is done to provide what painters refer to as “tooth” on the old surface which means it gives the old paint a slightly rough surface for the new paint to grab onto.  The old paint does not need to be sanded as much as just lightly passed over with the sand paper grit to create very small scratches and abrasions to break up the smooth surfaces of the paint.  If new paint is applied over old paint that has a smooth and shiny surface, it is more difficult for the new paint to adhere and in the absence of moisture or wall damage, this is often why paint will peel, especially in a bathroom or kitchen.  If the original paint is oil based then it may require that a coat of primer is applied prior to the color top coat of new paint which will probably be latex or acrylic bases.  A knowledgeable person at the local paint store can help with the selection of the right paint.

People often make the mistake of considering painting to be a trade that anyone can do without training but like most every skill in life, there just is no substitute for experience.  Always try to take the time to do a little research before starting on even the simplest home repair projects, the job will go smoother and you will be happier with the long term results.

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

Updating a Santa Barbara Kitchen Ceiling

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

Question:  We just recently purchased an older home in Santa Barbara that had a complete kitchen remodel about 10 years ago.  All the kitchen cabinets and countertops were replaced which we are really happy with but the kitchen ceiling has long florescent tube lights set inside a recessed area on the ceiling that is covered with plastic panels which my wife thinks looks just terrible!  What can we do to make the ceiling and lighting more attractive without tearing out the entire ceiling?

Answer:  Your kitchen has what is often referred to as a drop ceiling with a lighting recess or alcove which was a very popular way to finish off a kitchen ceiling in the 1970’s and 80’s, but has mostly gone the way of the avocado green refrigerator, the burnt orange counter tops and bright orange shag carpeting.  Typically very basic shop or garage style florescent light fixtures with 4’ long light tubes were screwed to the top of the ceiling alcove, either a wood or metal grid was suspended over the opening of the recess, and then opaque plastic diffuser panels were set into the grid as a way to hide the light fixtures and evenly illuminate the kitchen.  These plastic diffuser panels had a textured surface on the exposed side which quickly accumulated oil and grease from cooking, lint and dust was attracted to the oils, and the panels required regular cleaning or replacement in order to look fresh.

There are a couple of relatively inexpensive ways to redo this type of ceiling without breaking the bank or causing a giant disruption to your household.  The first option is to remove the old plastic panels, grid and florescent lights, finish off the old recess drywall surfaces, and then install a new surface mounted light fixture(s) or LED can lights using the same electrical circuit and switch that the florescent tubes were on.  Usually the recessed surfaces were covered with drywall when the kitchen was built but often the drywall was not textured completely when the rest of the ceiling was textured, since the plan was for it to not be exposed.  If the drywall texture matches and the exposed perimeter outside edges are finished, then possibly no additional drywall work will need to be done.  This typically is not the case and a metal corner bead will need to be installed on the outside perimeter edge, there may be a patch or two required in the recess, and it will usually require texturing and then of course painting.  A nice finishing detail after the drywall work is completed is to install crown molding along the top inside corner that can either be a stand alone detail or match a crown molding already installed along the cabinet tops or the dining area ceilings.

Installing new light fixtures or can lights on the new exposed ceiling of the recess is a relatively easy task for an electrician and a larger light fixture can be set into the recess without it becoming a low hanging obstacle.  A dimmer switch can be installed in place of the old wall switch so that the level of light intensity can be adjusted for the occasion.  If your new light is LED, be sure that the new wall switch and dimmer are compatible with LED lighting.

The second option for redoing the ceiling is to simply cover over the recess with a new layer of drywall and install recessed can lights into what was the old recess.  This new drywall work will probably mean that the entire ceiling needs to be texture sprayed in order to blend in the overall appearance before being painted, which will require that all the cabinets, counter tops and appliances are masked off with plastic prior to being sprayed.

LED (Light Emitting Diode) provides a very clean and bright illumination that does not distort colors and has a very natural feel.  LED is still relatively expensive however LED can lights can use as little as 6 watts of electricity per can and many are rated to exceed 50,000 hours of service.

I personally prefer the first option of leaving the recess open because it gives new height to the kitchen and creates a space for an attractive new light fixture.  When finished off with a larger crown molding your kitchen ceiling has been given a simple yet very attractive make over without breaking the bank or creating a huge remodeling headache.

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

Preparing A House For Sale

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

Question:  My wife and I have decided that the timing is right for us to sell our family home and the move into a local senior living community.  We have raised 4 children in this house, but the kitchen, bathrooms and interior walls have not been remodeled in over 30 years. I think we should remodel the kitchen and bathrooms while my wife thinks we should just paint all the walls and get new carpeting. What work should we do to update the house prior to listing it for sale in order to get the best selling price?

Your Handyman:  Great question!  Many seniors find themselves in this situation after the kids are finally up and out on their own and the warm family home that used to resonate with the activity and sounds of growing children, now seems cavernous and a little lonely.  You are wise to consider carefully what work to have done to help make the house more marketable and it is very easy to quickly spend piles of money on contractors and designers without necessarily adding significantly to the final sales price of the house.  It is not uncommon when an escrow closes for the first thing to show up in the driveway is a Marborg roll off dumpster and much or all of the new cabinets, doors, and fixtures installed by the seller get torn out, loaded into the dumpster and head off for the landfill.

I would recommend that before you spend any time or money on fixing up the house that you first find a realtor who has many years of experience representing buyers and sellers in your neighborhood.  An experienced realtor can advise you based on their experience as to what type of work should be done in order to get a top selling price, and may even advise you to just have the house professionally cleaned and leave it at that.  Talk with your neighbors and friends to get referrals for realtors who work in your neighborhood, interview 2 or 3 to get a feel for their style and personality, and then rely on his or her advice on how to maximize your selling price.  Sometimes a home owner who has extensive real estate experience may not want to pay a commission to a realtor and can personally handle the sale of their home, but for most sellers an experienced realtor can be worth much more than the sales commission.

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

Knob and Tube Wiring

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

Question:  I live in a beautiful home in San Roque that was built in the late 1920’s and it still has the original Knob & Tube style of electrical wiring.  The original fuse box was removed and replaced with a circuit breaker box years ago, and I have not had problems with any of the wiring.  I want to add several new electrical outlets and a light fixture and I have heard and read different takes on the safety of adding any additional load to the old wiring. Do you think this is a good idea?

Your Handyman:  Prior to around the mid 1930’s the electrical service in homes was provided by the style of wiring referred to as Knob and Tube (K & T) where single insulated copper wires ran through framing studs via porcelain insulating tubes and were supported in runs by nailed down porcelain insulating knobs.  When the wire entered an appliance or passed through a wall board to a switch box it was insulated with a flexible cloth sleeving called Loom.  This early insulation was typically an asphalt saturated cotton cloth which would eventually be replaced with rubber insulation in later years.  Wire splices were simply made by mechanically twisting the wires together and then wrapping the splice with asphalt saturated cloth tape.  Knob & Tube wiring had only a black hot wire and a white neutral wire and sometimes fuses were placed on both the hot and neutral line of a circuit which created the dangerous situation of a neutral fuse burning out while the hot leg of the circuit remaining energized.  The principles of effective grounding were not fully understood in this time period and the now standard green or bare grounding wire was not part of K & T.  Many homes in Santa Barbara still have their original K & T wiring but most all have replaced the old fuses with modern circuit breakers.

I personally would not recommend adding any additional load to your older wiring by installing new outlets or fixtures, however there are many electricians who would disagree with me on this point.  You do definitely want to avoid or minimize the use of any high wattage appliances like space heaters, home theater hardware, or a large flat screen TV.  The electrical demands of a modern house are much greater than what was required by homes in the 1930’s, many appliances need a ground wire for safe operation, and thus the wiring needs are substantially increased.

If you decide to go ahead with your electrical project be sure to have the work done by a licensed electrician who has experience with K & T wiring.  In my opinion it would be a very worthwhile investment for you to have your house rewired with modern wiring and to be done with your old but still functioning K & T.  As with any home you want to be sure that you have adequate smoke detectors throughout the house and be careful not to overload the safe capacity of your wiring.  I wouldn’t lay awake at night worrying about the safety of your old wiring, but rewiring the house should be something that you place high on the “To Do” list, and would certainly be a sound investment.

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

Tankless Water Heaters

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

Question:  The water heater in our Goleta home is at least 15 years old and just this last weekend I noticed that it has sprung a small leak and water is collecting in the round pan that it stands on.  My wife and I have read about how much less energy a tankless water heater uses versus the old tank style of water heater that we now have.  Our home is a typical California Ranch style home that was built in the 1960’s with 4 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms.  Can you give us some information on the pros and cons of installing a tankless water heater in our home?
Your Handyman:  There has been much written in the past few years about the energy efficiency of tankless water heaters, however things often are not as simple as advertised and you are wise to do your homework before making a purchase.  The two basic types of residential water heaters used most commonly in the United States can be classified as storage and tankless.  The storage water heater is usually an insulated metal tank holding anywhere from 5 to 120 gallons of water, a typical residential tank is 40-50 gallons, and is heated by either a gas burner or an electrical heating element.  Cold water enters the tank at the bottom, hot water is drawn off the top and the “first hour” rating of the tank tells how much hot water can be provided in an hour.  A storage water heater is constantly losing some heat through the walls of the tank even though it is insulated and a gas burning water heater loses heat additionally via the vertical flue that runs up the tank that heats the water when the burner is on.  This loss of heat is referred to as “standby heat loss” and is the primary reason that tankless water heaters were developed.  Since tankless heaters heat water on demand there aren’t any standby losses, however there is heat loss through the hot water supply pipes which increases with the distance the hot water has to flow to get to the point of use, which is the case also for the storage tank heater.
In new construction, tankless water heaters are often installed at the “point of use” at a bathroom or kitchen, especially smaller tankless units in the bathrooms and break-rooms in office buildings, but in an older home they are usually installed in a central location much the same as the storage water heater.  Along with energy efficiency a big selling point for the tankless units is that they never run out of water if the right sized unit is installed for the number of bathrooms in your home.  Another plus is that the size of the tankless heater is considerably smaller than the storage tank unit freeing up room for other uses, and it can be mounted onto the exterior wall of your house or garage provided it is away from doors and windows if it is a gas unit so to avoid carbon monoxide venting into the home.  Depending on which report you read, tankless water heaters are credited with energy savings of from 22% to 36% when compared to a properly sized storage heater in the same home.
So far so good, however before you pick up the phone and start calling plumbers to schedule the installation of your new tankless water heater, there are a few very important negative considerations that somehow are not so prominently explained in the manufacturer’s advertisements:
Purchase & Installation Costs:  The tankless unit is considerably more expensive to purchase and to install than the storage unit.  According to Consumer Reports, tankless model purchase costs range from $800 to $1,150 plus about $1,200 for installation, compared to $300 – $480 for storage tank heaters plus $300 for installation.  These upfront cost differences in many cases pencil out to a 20-40 year payback period for the tankless heaters.  In the past there were tax rebates for tankless water heaters which have expired that effectively reduced the purchase price, but my opinion is that these rebates in the big picture hurt us more than help since the rebates are paid for with more borrowed money by our hopelessly in debt federal government.
Utility Service:  The heating elements in both the gas and electric storage tank units are relatively small and usually do not require a very large flow of gas or electricity to keep your home flush with hot water.  The burners in most gas storage tank water heaters range from 30,000 to 50,000 Btu (British Thermal Units) per hour which is not that much bigger than a large burner on your gas stove, and the gas supply can be adequately provided with a 1/2” diameter gas pipe.  A gas fired whole-house tankless unit sized for the typical Santa Barbara or Goleta home will have a gas burner producing as much as 180,000 Btu/hour and the largest units may have burners working at over 300,000 Btu/hour, and a ¾” gas supply line will be required which can be an expensive consideration if a new gas line needs to be plumbed.  If the gas supply line is undersized, the burner will be starved for fuel, it will not operate efficiently, and other gas burning appliances in the home may also be affected.  A larger electric tank less unit surprisingly may draw as much as 116 amps at 240 volts which is another important concern as the basic tract style home typically will have 200 total amps of electrical service, and any additional wiring and circuit breakers will be expensive.
Maintenance:  The heating element in a tankless unit is a sophisticated copper heat exchanger that can be quickly damaged by the extremely hard water in Santa Barbara.  In many cases the manufacturer warranty on the heat exchanger is voided if your home does not have a water softener and often a particle or scale filter is required in addition to the softener.  Many tankless units require that the heat exchanger be periodically flushed with a vinegar solution to remove scale and freezing may also be a concern if the unit is installed on an exterior wall.  In many cases this type of maintenance is more than the typical homeowner is able or willing to do and a service call from a plumber is needed or the maintenance is just ignored.
Flow Rates:  All tankless water heaters have a minimum flow or activation rate that must be reached before the unit will turn on and start heating water.  In some units the minimum flow rate is as high as 0.5 or 0.6 gallons per minute which may be significantly more than a person will use when washing hands, brushing their teeth or shaving.  What this means is that in some situations you will need to use more water than you have used in the past in order for the tankless heater to start heating water.  I have seen many installations where a 5 gallon electric tank water heater with a hot water recirculation pump is installed in tandem with the tank less heater(s) so that hot water is available for hand washing and such.  It would seem that this type of duel installation might create a net energy use increase for the home.
So it may be that after taking a careful look at all the considerations, a tankless water heater is not the best option for your home, and avoid the temptation to save money by purchasing a tankless unit that is undersized for your home’s hot water needs.  Santa Barbara has many excellent plumbing contractors who can help you with this analysis and be sure to completely read the manufacturer’s specifications, maintenance requirements and warranty before making a purchase.

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