Tag Archives: Goleta

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

Cooling Off a Hot Attic

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

Question:  Our house often gets very hot towards the end of a spring or summer day and I have heard that an attic fan is an inexpensive way to cool off a house.  Our house is a 40+ year old home in Goleta.  Can you tell me what types of attic fans are available?

Your Handyman:  An attic fan can be an inexpensive way to help cool off your home in the summer that is not very hard at all to install.  The air in your attic can rise to well over 120 degrees on a sunny day trapping heat inside the living areas of your home that is unable to radiate up into the attic until it cools off, which in the summer may not be until the early hours of the morning.

There are basically two types of attic fans; one type that blows air out of the attic through a vent in the roof and another that vents out through a gable vent.  A house with a gable style roof has exterior walls at the ends of the house that go up to the ridge of the roof like a triangle, and a rectangular louvered vent is usually located on the wall near the top of the triangle.  A house with a hip style roof has a roof that sort of sits on top of the house like a pyramid shaped cap and does not have any gables.  It is usually best to minimize the amount of vents that are perforating your roof and if you have gable vents then it is best to have an attic fan at the gable vent.  Likewise if you have a hip roof you will need to have the fan vent through the roof.

Most gable vents are approximately 12” wide by 18” high and a 12” diameter box fan can be fastened to the attic side of the vent ideally that is located on the side of the house that gets the afternoon sun.  The box fan can be purchased with a thermostat so it can be set to turn on when the temperature in the attic climbs over 100 degrees or so, hot air is pushed out on the hot side of the house, and cool air is drawn in via the gable vent(s) that is on the other side of the attic which is the cool side.  Box fans are available at most hardware stores or can be purchased online at a distributor like Grainger.  On summer days the fan will probably turn on in the mid afternoon and then run for a few hours after dark before your attic is cooled off.  The electrical supply for the fan should be controlled by a wall switch that is easily accessible near the attic access opening so the fan can be turned off when you are not going to be at home or during the winter.

If your house does not have gable vents then you can purchase a fan unit that is designed to be installed on the attic side of the roof with a vent that goes through the roof.  This vent needs to be installed by a roofing contractor so that it is water sealed correctly and it is important that the fan unit is well made so it will not fall apart or start rusting.  I have seen solar powered roof fan units for sale but I would first research how long the battery charge will keep the fan running after sunset and what type of warranty is offered by the manufacturer.  Any vent that is installed in your roof should be of adequate quality to survive the life of the roof which can be as long as 35-40 years for better quality roofs.

You may also want to consider getting a quote from an insulation contractor to have a new layer of insulation laid down in your attic in addition to the attic fan, which will also help to keep the home warmer in the winter months and cooler in the summer.  A large deciduous shade tree planted strategically in the yard so that it shades the roof in the summer goes a very long way to helping cool off a house without using any electricity.  Also consider a lighter colored roof when you eventually have your old roof replaced.  A darker colored roof absorbs heat and you may have noticed when traveling in an airplane that most all the roofs on commercial buildings and warehouses are white in order to reduce air conditioning costs.

-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

Removing a “Popcorn” Ceiling

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

Question: My wife and I just purchased a tract home in Goleta that is in a great school district, we love the neighborhood, the house is in good shape, but it really doesn’t look much different now then when it was built in the early 1960’s. We plan on up-dating and remodeling as time and money permit in the future but we really want to get rid of the old popcorn style ceilings before we move in. Can you tell us how we can go about this and is this project something that we can realistically do on our own in the evenings and weekends?

Your Handyman: Congratulations on the purchase of your new home and good for you that you are ready to start building up some “sweat equity”. Popcorn ceilings were a very common sprayed on coating for ceilings in both homes and offices in the 1960’s and at the time was popular, but now they have a very dated look that many homeowners don’t like. It was a relatively quick and inexpensive way for the builder to finish off the ceiling and it actually was a very effective acoustic treatment for sound absorption. Removal is a pretty messy process and getting it taken care of while the house is vacant would be ideal.

An issue that you need to be concerned about is finding out if the popcorn ceiling material contains asbestos and if it does, then precautions need to be taken to ensure that the asbestos is contained while being removed and is then disposed of properly. Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous mineral that was widely used in many building materials including ceiling coatings until the late 1970’s and is now considered to be a hazardous material that if present in your ceiling, needs to be removed by a licensed professional and safely disposed of. Your first step is to contact an environmental testing service who will come to your home, take samples of the ceiling coating and analysis them at the lab. A positive test result means that you will want to take great care to not contaminate your house or yard with asbestos fibers and that you really should hire a contractor who is licensed by the state to remove and dispose of asbestos construction debris. Santa Barbara County homeowners can dispose of up to 125 lbs of properly bagged popcorn ceiling debris containing asbestos at the UCSB hazardous waste collection center, and you can get additional information at the SB County website: www.lessismore.org. If you decide to tackle this project on your own then you will want to cover all the floors, walls, windows, exterior doors, and heating/ac registers with heavy mill plastic sheeting. You and any one working with you on this project need to wear a respirator that is appropriate for filtering asbestos fibers, safety goggles and a disposable hazmat coverall with a hood.

The old popcorn ceiling first is wetted down with water to prevent dust using a Hudson pump style sprayer and then the soggy coating is carefully scrapped off with a drywall taping knife and allowed to fall to the plastic sheeting on the floor. Care should be taken to avoid gouging or otherwise damaging the drywall underneath the coating.

If your lab test comes back negative and asbestos is not present, it still makes sense to lay out all the plastic sheeting, wet down the coating to minimize the dust and then just roll all the plastic sheeting up and put it out with the trash. Either way, once the ceiling is scrapped clean you will be left with the exposed unfinished drywall, which will need to be textured to match the existing texture on the walls, and then finally painted. Drywall texturing is a time consuming process that is best done by a skilled plastering contractor otherwise your ceilings may end up looking irregular or unfinished.

It is not uncommon for homeowners to remove popcorn ceilings as a do-it-yourself project, but there is much more to the job than I can cover in this column, and it is important that you research the process thoroughly before beginning.

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

Do My Ducts Really Need Cleaning?

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

Do My Ducts Really Need Cleaning?

Question: Last week I found out that my mother who is a senior and lives alone in Goleta, paid over $600 having her ducts cleaned by an company in the San Fernando Valley who then almost convinced her to replace her furnace before I got involved. I’ve never heard of duct cleaning but these people were very persuasive over the phone and convinced Mom that her ducts were full of dust and mold and that cleaning them out would help her breathing. I spend a lot of time at her home and have never noticed any dust or dirt coming out of the heating vents. Is duct cleaning something that needs to be done regularly or is it a scam?

Your Handyman: Seniors are often the target of telemarketers and unscrupulous print advertising and there is almost no reason a senior in Santa Barbara should have to do business with an out of the area contractor for most any service for their home. Local contractors live or die on their reputations, Santa Barbara has many skilled contractors for most every trade or service, and a dispute with a local contractor is much more likely to be resolved to the customer’s satisfaction than a dispute with an out of the area contractor who relies on telemarketing for finding customers rather than their reputation.

Duct cleaning is a legitimate service, however it is rarely needed in most homes and according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) there is no evidence that duct cleaning as ever been shown to actually prevent health problems. Changing your furnace filter regularly, especially in the winter months, will prevent most dust from entering your ducts and dust that is already in the ducts will tend to adhere to the duct walls and not actually enter the home. Cases where your ducts would need cleaning are when there is substantial visible mold growth on the duct walls which is not common in our climate, or the ducts have been infested with insects or rodents. If your ducts have been damaged from moisture or rodents then you need to call a heating & ventilation contractor who is qualified to repair or replace your ducts as needed.

Companies who advertise that they can clean your ducts for $75 or a $100 are being deceptive because to truly clean all the ducting in an average home, if it actually needed to be done, is going to take two men the better part of a full day, and all the components of the system would probably need to be cleaned including the registers, heat exchanger, fan motor, and any condensate drip pans. If you wonder if your ducts need cleaning have a younger person get on a safe ladder, unscrew the grill off a couple of your heating supply vents and then take a look inside. A normal duct is going to have a slight coating of dust and some grains of dirt settled at the bottom, but if you do find either of the conditions I listed above, then you should consider calling a local contractor to do a thorough inspection.

For additional information on this subject, the EPA has a very informative webpage on duct cleaning that can be viewed at: http://www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/airduct.html

Question: We live in a older home that has the original cast iron pipes and our bathroom sink and shower are getting very slow to drain. Is there something that I pour down the drain lines to clean them out or do I need to call a plumber to snake out the pipes?

Your Handyman: Older metal drain pipes can slowly rust on the inside over the years and an old very rusted 2” – 3” drain pipe may only have a small opening left on the inside that you can barely insert your finger into. I have had success with the new “gel” drain clearing solutions which can be purchased at any hardware store and some drug stores. First flush the drain with hot water and then pour enough of the gel solution down the drain to fill the P trap, let it sit for a half hour or more and then flush with hot water. If necessary, repeat the process and hopefully your drain will be clear. If the blockage persists then it is time to call a plumber who who does drain cleaning who will try to scrap the inside of the pipe clear with a rotating drain snake. A word of caution that sometimes an older drain line with advanced rust can be punctured by a drain snake, and then there is no choice but to replace that section of pipe which sometimes can become a pretty big job.

Question: We live in an older home on the Mesa, all of our electrical outlets are all just 2 prongs and I have to use an adapter in order to plug in an appliance that has a 3 prong plug. Can I just replace a few of the older plugs with 3 prong plugs and stop using the adapters?

Your Handyman: The third middle round opening on the wall electrical outlet is for the ground prong on a plug for an appliance that requires an electrical ground for safe operation. Many homes that were built prior to the early 1960’s often did not have a third ground wire as part of their wiring system and their outlets just have the 2 vertical slots; one slot for the neutral and the other for the hot. It is an electrical code violation to install a 3 prong outlet in an electrical box that is not properly grounded because it can mislead a person into assuming that the outlet is actually safely grounded and possibly create an unsafe condition. The best solution is to have an electrician install a ground wire to a few outlets or to all the outlets in the house. Many smaller new appliances are double insulated internally and do not need a 3 prong plug, while larger appliances like a clothes washer will most always have a 3 prong plug.

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