Author: Mark Baird

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

Installing a Fire Proof Safe at Home

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

Question:  My wife and I have a safe deposit box at a bank in downtown Santa Barbara where we keep important papers like the deed to our home, pink slips for our cars, and of course our will.  We mainly do this to protect the papers from a fire in our house and we aren’t storing anything valuable like jewelry, stacks of cash or the Hope Diamond.  Is it possible to install a small fire proof safe in our house so we don’t have to deal with the inconvenience of a safe deposit box?

Your Handyman:  Most custom homes are built with at least one safe that is either secured in the framing of a wall in the house or is set into the cement foundation as the home is being built.  A fire rated safe can easily be installed in a closet in your home by fastening it to either a wood framed floor or to a cement slab foundation.  A very basic 1 hour fire rated safe can be purchased at the big box hardware store for about $300 and most of these smaller home safes have knock out holes in the bottom that allow them to be fastened to the floor with either a lag screw or a concrete anchor without compromising the fire rating of the safe.  If you are installing the safe in an upstairs location then it would be wise to purchase a safe that is drop rated which will insure that it remains fire proof if the floor were to collapse and the safe fell to the first floor.  If you are planning to store any type of electronic media or photographs, humidity proof media boxes are available that fit into the safe.

A fire rated safe is designed to protect it’s contents in the case of a typical house fire where the fire fighters arrive quickly and the fire is extinguished in a half hour or so.  Anyone who lives in Santa Barbara has seen the depressing aftermath of a wildfire where a home is burned to the ground and nothing is left standing except a masonry chimney or a steel water heater.  A basic safe for $300 is not going to protect its contents in a wildfire, so if you live in the foothills it is probably best to continue making the periodic trip to the bank and waiting in line to store away the new version of your will or to get that pink slip for the car you are selling.

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

Bifold Closet Doors

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

Question:  The closets in our home have folding doors that are screwed onto the sides of the closet opening and fold open and closed.  They always seem to be coming off the track and one set in my son’s room is completely broken.  I hate these doors and want to know what they can be replaced with.

Your Handyman:  The type of door that you are describing is called a bifold door which has a pair of tall narrow doors on each side that are hinged in the middle and fold up accordion style when closed.  The older style bifold doors are supported for the most part by a pivot pin fastened to the wall at the bottom of the first door panel that the door swings on, and an open style track on the top of the closet opening that serves as a guide for the doors as they fold and unfold.  These older style bifold doors are easily damaged by rough use or by a child pulling downward on the door, the door can split where it receives the pivot pin, or they can sag a little and no longer stay in the top track.   There is a newer style of track hardware that solves all these problems by supporting the weight of the doors almost entirely from the top track which is an enclosed channel that has little 4 wheeled rollers that travel inside with an attachment post that inserts into receivers on the top of the doors.  This new style track can also be used to refit older style sliding closet doors, can be purchased at most hardware stores for about $125, and is a fairly simple installation project that most homeowners with basic carpentry skills can  successfully install on a Saturday.

Another option for your closets is to replace the bifold doors with either louvered or solid sliding bypass doors that can be ordered at a lumber yard or a door shop.  Carefully measure the actual opening width and height of the closet without the doors and take that measurement with you when shopping for the new sliding doors.  The salesperson at the lumber yard or door shop can help you order the correct size to fit your closet opening allowing for room for the overhead support track that was described in the previous paragraph, and also for a few inches of horizontal overlap between the two doors in the middle when they are in the closed position.  Most closet openings are of a size so that a standard door of 32” – 36” wide and 80” high can be used and non standard sizes can be ordered without being significantly more expensive.  The support for the weight of the doors is carried entirely from the top horizontal rail but you will need a small plastic door guide to be fastened onto the floor in the center of the doors to keep the doors aligned properly and to not allow the doors to be pushed in or out.  If you are ordering louvered doors it is a good idea to have them ordered with a coat of white primer paint applied at the mill which will make the job of applying the color top coat of paint much easier.

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

Can You Dim Compact Fluorescent Lights?

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

Question:  I just recently replaced the old light bulbs in my kitchen ceiling recessed can lights with the new energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs.  The new bulbs work fine when they are turned up to the high setting but flicker like crazy when I dim them.  The old incandescent bulbs worked fine at the lower setting.  Are my new bulbs defective?

Your Handyman:  Your new bulbs are probably not defective but more than likely will not work with your dimmer or any dimmer for that matter.  Most compact florescent bulbs are not capable of being dimmed and you will need to purchase ones that marked on the packaging as being dimmable, and they will be substantially more expensive.

You may also need to replace the dimmer switch if it is the old style mechanical switch, with an electronic switch that says on its packaging that it is compatible with compact florescent bulbs.

Even with the correct bulbs and dimmer switch, it has been my experience that the compact florescent bulbs don’t dim all that well, still slightly flicker at the lower settings, and tend to make a buzzing noise at the lower settings also.  I personally don’t like the compact florescent bulbs for many reasons and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they are completely replaced by LED lighting in the near future.  LED (light emitting diode) lights are very low wattage, last for thousands of hours, produce a very bright light that doesn’t distort colors, emit very little heat, and dim well with the correct dimmer switches.  LED lighting is still relatively very expensive but the prices are quickly coming down and they are being more frequently installed in homes and businesses.

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

Replacing the Kitchen Sink

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

Question:  The cabinets and tile countertop in our kitchen are all about 20 years old but are in very good condition and look nice.  However, our kitchen sink has numerous stains and scratches and it looks pretty bad.  Is it possible to just remove the tiles around the sink and install a new sink without having to replace the entire countertop?

Your Handyman:  Yes you can just remove the perimeter tiles around the sink, install a new sink and retile just the affected area provided you can purchase matching tile and that the new sink has the same footprint as the old sink or is just slightly larger.

Depending on the style and color of the tile on your countertop, finding matching tile may not be a problem at all or it may be mission impossible, so step number one is to go shopping for the tile.  If your sink is a typical under mounted sink, you will probably need to purchase both square field tiles and narrow quarter round tiles that are used to finish the edge of the counter top where it laps over the edge of the sink.

Once you have determined that the replacement tile is available, the next step is to find the new sink.  A under mounted style sink sits inside a cut out in the plywood base which is under the tile, with the sink edges supported by the plywood.  So if you are not able to find a sink of the exact same size, then the cut out can be slightly enlarged to allow for a sink that is a little bit bigger, but it is not easy at all to reduce the cut out size for a sink that is slightly smaller.  Do not start removing any of the old tiles until you have purchased both the new tile and the new sink.

It is always hard to estimate how much time will be needed to remove old tile because there is no way to know beforehand how well they were installed and how much thin set adhesive was used.  Sometimes tiles will pop out in intact pieces with minimal effort and other times they have to be chipped out in small potato chip size fragments using a hammer and a cold chisel.  You will want to remove only the first row of tiles that surround the sink and the first step is to cut the outside grout line with either a hand grout scrapping tool or with an electric oscillating cutting tool equipped with a grout cutting blade.  Cutting the grout line will help to protect the second row of tiles that you do not want to remove or damage.

Once the tile is removed, the outer edge of the sink will be exposed and you will need to check inside the cabinet under the sink to make sure that there are not any fasteners on the underside of the plywood that are helping to hold the sink in place that will need to be removed also.  Now the faucet, dishwasher air gap, filtered water tap, garbage disposal, and drain lines will all need to be removed or disconnected.  If the old sink is porcelain coated over cast iron, it is going to be very heavy and two people will be needed to lift it up and out.

The next step is to set the new sink in place which may require a slight enlargement of the cutout and a heavy bead of adhesive silicone caulk will need to be applied to the edge of the cut out to help seal and hold the sink in place.  Now the tile setter will take over and install the new tile and quarter round and then the new grout after waiting a day or two for the tile work to dry.  There are many different colors of grout but it should not be a problem finding the correct match at a local tile store.  The tile store also sells caulk that matches the grout color that can be used when caulking the sink to give a nice finished look.  Grout is available as either sanded or non sanded and if your old grout feels rough to the touch then it is sanded and likewise if it feels smooth it is non sanded.  The new grout will need to be sealed after it has had a couple of days to dry and the sealer will protect it from moisture and staining.

Most new sinks have 4 holes along the back edge and you will probably want to purchase a new faucet, filtered water tap, dishwasher air gap and a soap dispenser, all in the same metal finish.  After all the plumbing is connected, your new sink will be ready for use.

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