Author Archives: Christopher Solomon


5 Home Repairs That Can Break the Bank (and How to Avoid Them)

Every homeowner knows that avoiding regular maintenance and upkeep can result in costly repairs. Here are five "sleeping giants" that left undetected—could break the bank.

Photo: adependable.com

A home is like a relationship—it requires a little bit of money and attention to keep it going strong. Neglect some easy, quick home repairs, however, and you may end up shelling out tens of thousands of dollars in expensive fixes. How can you discover these sleeping giants before they wake? Read on.

 

Photo: shutterstock.com

SLEEPING GIANT #1: Water damage in the bathroom

When the Giant Wakes: “There’s one thing that a homeowner could do that could save them thousands and thousands of dollars: prevent water damage,” says David Niskanen, owner of NW Property Preservation, a Seattle-area company that offers everything from basic handyman services through whole-house remodels. “Water kills houses,” says Niskanen.

The biggest place people let water go unchecked is the bathroom, says Niskanen. “They don’t keep the caulking around the tub. They’ll notice that caulking is going but let it go, or see that it’s molded and pull it out…. In showers it’s always caulking or grout between the tiles,” he says. If left unchecked, mold, mildew, and water will rot the underlying wood, chew through the shower pan, “and just destroy everything around it. It could easily be $10,000 or $15,000 to replace everything around a shower.”

Take Action Now: Homeowners should examine their bathroom with fresh eyes. “They should look for gaps in the caulking, either around the shower or the tub, including around the spouts in the tub, and also look for any missing grout,” says Niskanen. “They should also look for mold.” Mold isn’t the underlying problem, but the symptom of larger issues, cautions Niskanen; it indicates moisture coming from behind the caulking, likely thanks to a leak higher up in the bathroom. Replace any frayed, gapped, or absent caulking, or missing grout.

A few bucks on grout and waterproof caulk—and a few hours of work—will save you untold dollars and aggravation later.

SLEEPING GIANT #2: Poor attic and crawlspace ventilation

When the Giant Wakes: “What happens is that an unvented crawlspace or an unvented attic traps heat or moisture in those spaces,” says Mike Kuhn, the New Jersey owner of a HouseMaster inspection service and coauthor of The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Home Inspections. “Eventually the plywood is going to delaminate; that’s what the roof sits on. It’s also going to lead to excessive moisture” in those spaces, which creates mold, says Kuhn. He recently inspected a home that contained two separate attics—one side had a fan and was fine, the other had no fan and was coated in toxic black mold. “They probably have to tear off all of the roof” to get at the plywood, he says. “That’s not an unlikely scenario.” If a crawlspace isn’t vented and moisture festers there, “it could lead to framing decay,” he says.

What’s more, moisture and mold prematurely age roof shingles. “If you think you’re going to get 20 years out of a roof, you might just get 15 years.”

Take Action Now: Step one is to see what you can see on your own. Go into the attic and look (and smell) for trouble. Does it smell musty? Do you see mold or water? Do your eaves have soffit vents to help your attic “breathe”? Does your attic have a mechanical vent? If so, make sure the vent is working. If you’re unsure what you’re seeing, consider calling in a home inspector or a roofer to take a look—“somebody unbiased who’s not going to sell you something,” says Kuhn.

Next, check your crawlspaces—and remember, many people forget they have them, especially in cases where renovations or additions have obscured them.

One of the best simple solutions is an attic fan. “A simple exhaust fan and soffit vents that cost together maybe a few hundred dollars could save you thousands of dollars in roofing and structural repairs,” says Kuhn. “It’s not unusual to put in an exhaust fan that is controlled by both a thermostat and humidistat.” An entire system might cost $1,600. “But you might save yourself $16,000 in roofing damage.”

 

Termite Damage

Photo: shutterstock.com

SLEEPING GIANT #3: Termites

When the Giant Wakes: Termites, those prolific munchers, can be devastating if they go unnoticed and unchecked. In most parts of the country, homeowners deal with subterranean termites that are hidden but come up to the house to forage, so “they might be very difficult to spot,” says home inspector Kuhn. Otherwise, they’re most obvious only twice a year when they swarm and come up out of the colony for a few days, flying around like ants with wings. “If you don’t understand that or you miss that indication of a potential termite colony in a house, you might not notice the termites until it’s too late.”

If termites go unnoticed for a long time, “The structural damage and repairs themselves could be $15,000” or more, says Kuhn; one current repair project Kuhn knows of will cost the homeowner $20,000, not including the inconvenience of moving out while floor joists are replaced.

Take Action Now: Don’t think you’re immune from termites. The insects live in nearly every state. Do an annual termite patrol around your house, paying particular attention to unfinished basement areas and darker nooks and crannies. (Underground termites need moisture to survive.) You’re looking for the termites’ tell-tale, pencil-thin mud tubes. If you see one, break it off to see if it is rebuilt. Also look for termite damage to beams, and possibly swarming. If you find some wood that might be infested, probe it with a knife blade or screwdriver to see if termites have hollowed it out; it might sound hollow if you tap on it.

Have any concerns or doubts? A detailed survey of your home “is best left to the professionals,” says Kuhn. “It might cost you $150 annually to have somebody come out and check.”

If termites are found, “The cost of a treatment might be $500 to $1,500 for an average home,” he estimates. That’s a pittance compared with the damage if you let it go any further.

 

SLEEPING GIANT #4: Poor septic system maintenance

When the Giant Wakes: An estimated one in five of all U.S. housing units are on septic systems rather than hooked up to a municipal sewer system, according to the EPA. “With proper usage, [the life of a septic system] can be extended…. They can go for quite a while,” says home inspector Kuhn. But “septic systems don’t have an infinite life span,” especially if they’re mistreated.

Think of a septic system as a machine, and if you don’t maintain this machine, it can essentially clog and stop working. “Generally, once a septic field is done, it can’t be repaired,” says Kuhn. “It has to be replaced.” Rules vary by state, but in New Jersey, where Kuhn lives, if you have an older system that fails, it has to be brought up to today’s standards, “and a new system can cost you anywhere from $25,000 to $45,000,” he says.

Take Action Now: Septic systems are pretty simple: Human waste goes from the toilet into an underground septic tank. The solids settle at the bottom. At the other side of the tank is an outlet baffle where the (lighter) liquids leave the tank and are dispersed into a leach field that usually consists of gravel and soil.

To keep this machine running smoothly, be sure to have your septic tank professionally emptied of solids every two to three years, depending on the occupancy of your house, says Kuhn, at a cost of roughly $200 to $300. (Check your system’s requirements.) If your tank isn’t emptied regularly, the solids and foreign items may work their way into the leach field, clogging it so it loses the ability to absorb liquids. To further reduce the chance of clogging, don’t put anything down the toilet except toilet paper (for example, no baby wipes or feminine products).

 

poor water drainage

Photo: mastertechmold.wordpress.com

SLEEPING GIANT #5: Bad drainage outside the home

When the Giant Wakes: Water that pools around the outside of your house looks harmless enough, but that water can cause major trouble, says contractor Niskanen. That water can leak into a basement, causing major mold and rot issues. It can even saturate the soil and cause the entire home’s foundation to shift, experts say. Now you’re talking tens of thousands of dollars in repairs.

Take Action Now: The next time it’s really pouring, head outside (with an umbrella!) and stroll slowly around your home’s exterior, looking for areas of ponding—a danger sign.

If you’ve got landscaping, make sure you haven’t simply piled up mulch and dirt around the house and created a big dam that keeps water next to the house. Pull that material away from the house. It’s doubly smart to get dirt and mulch away from the house and its siding because water will wick up the siding, and insects like termites can often use the dirt as a highway to enter the house, says Niskanen.

If you’ve got downspouts and gutters, make sure everything is connected and that they carry the water at least 10 feet away from the house. If needed, buy extenders.

Finally, make sure that your yard slopes away from your house so that gravity naturally carries water away from the foundation, says Niskanen. If that isn’t happening, you may need to bring in some dirt and grade your lawn so that water is pulled away. Aim for a minimum of six inches of slope for every 10 horizontal feet.

 

 


Staying Put: 10+ Improvements to Get Your House Ready for Your Next Age

Much of our Boomer population seems determined to stay in their homes as they age. But if they really want to stay put, they'll need to make sure their houses are fit to meet their changing needs. Here are some key considerations.

fix-it.co.nz

We’re getting older. Every day 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65—part of a huge shift in America, as 79 million Boomers start marching into their later years. But don’t expect them to march into nursing homes. “Close to 83 percent of Boomers say they want to ‘age in place,’ ” says Amy Levner, manager of livable communities for AARP, the advocacy group for older Americans. In other words, people want to stay in their homes as long as they can.

If you are among this population or nearing it (or have parents who are), there are lots of changes, small and large, that you can make to keep your home safe, comfortable, and fully enjoyable in the years ahead.

 

1. Limit the Steps

Having easy access to and from the house is an important feature in any home. But for older homeowners, particularly those suffering from mobility issues, it’s paramount. If you’re planning on retooling the exterior of your house, the experts recommend that you try to devise an entry without stairs. It needn’t look like a handicap ramp; if there’s space, the approach can simply be a nice slope to the doorway. If you’re putting in a ramp—or even adding walkways or decks—consider using nonslip materials. And if you can do nothing more, at least plan on a no-threshold front door to reduce the risk of tripping.

 

Cedarbrook vinyl siding

Photo: Heartland Siding by ProVia

2. Go Low Maintenance

When it comes time to replace exterior materials, choose products that require little or no maintenance, such as vinyl siding, metal roofing, and composite decking. These products will offer dual benefits of good looks and lasting performance. You can reduce landscape maintenance, too, by choosing native plants and installing a time-activated sprinkler system.

 

3. Improve Convenience

In the kitchen, install cabinets with pull-out shelves on rollers, so it’s easier to access the items inside. And opt for drawers rather than base cabinets. They will make it easier to retrieve contents without having to reach into the back of cabinets. Consider installing your dishwasher 12 inches off the floor to cut down on bending. If you want to install an eating counter, plan on its sitting 29 to 30 inches from the floor—a height comfortable for dining chairs rather than barstools.

 

Related:  12 Outstanding Kitchen Island Options

 

4. Choose Smart Appliances

Today’s manufacturers continue to make innovative design improvements in programmable and smart appliances, such as stoves that notify you with a beep when they turn on or that have controls that light up, says Levner. These can be a real help to older homeowners as their sight deteriorates or they get a bit forgetful about whether or not they’ve turned off the oven. Home automation is another important component of aging-in-place improvements; sensors and timers can monitor house systems to alert homeowners, as well as care and security providers, to potential problems.

 

5. Bathe Safely

Delta zero threshold shower

Delta Zero Threshold Shower

If you have a walk-in shower, consider changing it to a zero-clearance shower—one with no threshold or step to negotiate, says Levner. It’s a good idea to add a stool as well. Replace your toilet with a comfort-height model; it’s just a bit higher than normal—more consistent with standard dining chair seat height—and easier to sit down on and get up from. “Add some well-placed bars that you can grab on to, to steady yourself or to pull yourself upright,” says Tori Goldhammer, an occupational therapist and a Certified Aging-in-Place Specialist (CAPS), a certification given by the National Association of Home Builders.

 

6.  Go Hands-Free

For both kitchen and bath faucets, consider fixtures that offer the benefit of touch or hands-free operation. For the kitchen, opt for a faucet with a pull-out spout to make cleanup and food prep more convenient. In the bath, select a faucet that can monitor temperatures to reduce the risk of burns.

7. Ditch the Throw Rugs

Avoid small throw rugs, as they are “big tripping hazards,” Levner says. If you insist on area rugs, look for those with a skid-resistant backing. Or better yet, go with carpeting that covers the entire room. There are a lot of nice, new slip-resistant flooring surfaces that have more texture “and that still look great,” she says.

 

8. Master the Stairs

If you have a second floor, stairs are unavoidable—but they can still be made more user-friendly. Be sure they are covered in a slip-resistant material and, if possible, install a second banister on the opposite wall. Consider locating a chair at the base or top of the stair so that people can steady themselves after the climb or descent.

 

Sylvania LED Stair and Hallway Lighting

Sylvania LED Stair and Hallway Lighting

9. Up the Lighting

Our eyesight gets worse as we age, so it’s important to improve lighting wherever possible. One of the best solutions is “layered lighting,” says Goldhammer, where a mix of ambient, task, focal, and decorative fixtures fulfill various requirements. Don’t forget to add more lighting in tricky, often dark places such as stairways and hallways, as well as bathrooms and kitchens, where task-specific lighting will be most useful. Consider adding more light switches outside rooms and raising outlets to a more convenient height.

 

Related:  Under Cabinet Lighting—10 “Shining” Examples

 

10. First-Floor Master Bedroom

“If you’re doing a major renovation, make sure there’s a bedroom on the lower level—one that could become the master bedroom in the future,” says Wid Chapman, an architect and co-author of the books Home Design in an Aging World and Unassisted Living. The room can double as a guest room now, or even a den, Chapman suggests. But outfit the room so that at a future time, if you or your spouse can no longer negotiate stairs, you can make this ground-level room your bedroom.

 


5 Ticking Time Bombs Every Homeowner Should Know About

You've done everything you can to make your house picture-perfect, but don't forget about the real big picture. Maintenance and repair issues that may lurk beneath your beautiful facade could turn any dream home into a nightmare on Elm Street.

Photo: Shutterstock

There are some maintenance and repair issues that homeowners just hate to deal with—either because they take time, or cost money, or just don’t seem, well, urgent. But some of these problems can become ticking time bombs, poised to explode if they’re not defused early, when they are more like firecrackers than bombs.

Here are some of the top structural and mechanical time bombs in your home that experts say have the potential to blow up and are worth squelching now—before the big boom.

 

THE FOUNDATION

Why It’s Explosive: Houses settle. But not all settling is the same. “A lot of times people will ignore the cracks in the brick veneer on the outside of the house, even when they get to be a half-inch or more,” says Bill Loden, incoming president of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI). Even though that brick is often just the “skin” of the house, a crack that large can signal much deeper problems with a moving foundation, Loden says. Caught early, a repair might cost a few thousand dollars. Caught too late, the tab could run $20,000 to $50,000.

Snuff the Fuse: Some cracks in your house are essentially cosmetic, the result of natural settling. When is a crack something more? “If you see a crack big enough to put a No. 2 pencil in, you’re looking at a problem,” says Loden, owner of Huntsville, Alabama-based Insight Building Inspection. Other signs of trouble: a tilting chimney or windows and doors that stick or jam, which can be caused by a moving foundation that is twisting their frames. If you suspect foundation issues, hire a structural engineer to evaluate your house, Loden says.

THE ROOF

Why It’s Explosive: ”Most people don’t pay any attention to their roof until they see water coming through the ceiling!” says Bill Jacques, outgoing president of the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI) and owner of American Inspection Service in Charleston, S.C. But if you see drips in your living room, the problem is already far gone. A new roof could cost you “probably $8,000 to $10,000,” Jacques says.

Snuff the Fuse: “Some people say, ‘I’ve got a 20-year shingle, it’s gonna last 20 years.’ Well, no it’s not,” Jacques says. “I would just recommend that about every five years they have the roof inspected.” One of the telltale signs of a wearing roof is coarse sand pooling at the base of gutter downspouts; the sand is most likely the granules of the shingles washing off. If you see a lot of it, then it’s a good idea to have someone climb higher. If you can safely get on the roof (be careful!) and the surface feels slippery, that’s another sign that the shingle material is coming off, Jacques says.

You can find evidence of additional problems under the roof. Water will usually enter the attic first. Hire an inspector, or look for stains around the chimney and the stack vents, or around other venting pipes that exit the house. Those are places where the metal flashing can fail, says Jacques. Also, look around the attic for wet and/or damaged insulation. Discovering issues early on could mean the difference between repair and replacement—or a few hundred dollars rather than thousands.

 

septic tank

Photo: actionseptictankservice.com

THE SEPTIC SYSTEM

Why It’s Explosive: Homeowners who have septic tanks don’t always like to think about them, Loden says. That’s a mistake. “A septic tank is gonna work until the day it quits,” he quips.

Generally speaking, a septic system breaks down the solids and liquefies them. The liquid then goes out into lines and is dispersed into the surrounding ground. But other materials also reach the septic tank—from sanitary napkins and cigarette butts to foodstuffs such as coffee grounds and grease (particularly if you have a garbage disposal). Over time, the baffles that stop the larger solids from going into the lines can get blocked. If that happens, the system can back up into your house. “That’s not a ‘check engine’ light; that’s an ‘engine failure’ light,” Loden says. “That’s when you end up with a backhoe in your yard.”

Snuff the Fuse: If you have a septic tank, have the tank pumped every five years—“and if you have a garbage disposal, you might want to have it done every three years,” Loden says. In Loden’s area of the South, the cost is “between $300 and $500,” he says. “It’s really relatively inexpensive to have it pumped. A lot of those guys will pump it and inspect it at the same time.” It’s particularly cheap when compared with the cost of digging up your yard to repair your system, which can run thousands of dollars.

 

OLD ELECTRICAL SYSTEMS

Why It’s Explosive: Homes built after World War II, as well as homes built earlier, “didn’t have the same requirements for power that we do now,” Loden says. Homes built today can’t have more than 12 linear feet of space between electrical outlets. This stipulation was intended to minimize the use of extension cords, which can cause fires. The electrical systems of older homes, particularly those outfitted with lots of appliances and amenities, just can’t handle modern electrical demands. Sockets can actually wear out, and switches, too. Breakers become less reliable as they age. The upshot can be a fire.

Snuff the Fuse: “Probably every 20 years,” a home should have a thorough inspection of its electrical system, Loden says. Homes built prior to 1980 should definitely be looked at, “and another break point in my region—the Deep South—is 1965. There were a lot of improvements in the 1960s,” he says. You could call an electrician, although Loden cautions that “an electrician may see it as a sales call. Like any trade, they’re there to fix things.” Another alternative: Consider calling an experienced home inspector.

 

THE CRAWL SPACE 

Why It’s Explosive: Few homeowners ever pay attention to their crawl space, that often dank, dirt-floored area beneath many homes. “And why would they?” says Jacques, of ASHI. But you should, because the crawl space is sort of a window into the belly of your home and all its inner workings, he says. It could reveal all sorts of problems before they get bigger:

  • “You might have a leak in the bathroom under the commode or in a supply line that could be weakening the floor,” Jacques says, and you’d never know it until the day a sag appears in the floor and you need major repairs.
  • Termite damage can usually be seen there before it appears elsewhere.
  • Many crawl spaces carry the heating and air-conditioning ductwork that runs throughout a house. But when repairmen clamber about in this cramped space, over time “they might cause some damage to the insulation or to the ductwork. So you could be pumping your nice cold air into the crawl space itself,” Jacques says.

Snuff the Fuse: Jacques recommends that a homeowner periodically spend a few minutes with a flashlight looking inside the crawl space as a precautionary measure.

He also recommends occasionally hiring a home inspector to do a more thorough examination of the space. An inspector can look for leaks in plumbing and find faulty or damaged ductwork and worrisome wiring. As well, while often not licensed to inspect for termites, an inspector usually knows enough to point out suspected trouble and recommend treatment or repair. (Find an ASHI-certified home inspector in your area here.)


Unsound Sounds: 7 Noises You Don’t Want to Hear From Your House

Our houses groan, creak, and pop on a regular basis. Here's how to tell whether that noise you're hearing could be a sign of something serious.

Photo: rugpadhq.com

Homes make strange noises. They’re built of many different materials — glass, concrete, wood — that expand and contract at different rates. But still, “The most noise your house should make is a popping sound, like your knuckles cracking, and only once in a while,” says Bill Richardson, former president of the American Society of Home Inspectors and owner of Responsive Inspections in Bosque Farms, N.M.

If your home is making noises that rival the best of Metallica, then it may be sending you signals that there’s a problem. We asked the experts to catalogue some of the more worrisome pops, hisses, groans, creaks, and knocks, and to tell us what they mean and how they can be remedied. Here are the top seven problem noises and how they can be solved.

 

1. WHAT IS THAT CLANKING SOUND WHEN I TURN ON THE HEAT?

The Problem: When most homeowners first turn on their heating system in the fall, they’ll often hear a little moaning and groaning as the heating system expands and rubs against the frame of the house, says Mike Kuhn, the New Jersey owner of a HouseMaster inspection service and coauthor of The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Home Inspections. With a baseboard hot-water system, you can also expect “normal clinking and knocking,” says Kuhn. The circulator pump or pumps to the system, however, “should be silent when they run,” says Kuhn. If you hear knocking or clanking, typically located at the boiler itself, it might be a sign of impending failure of the circulator pump, he says.

The Solution: Get a repairman out to check on it, pronto.

 

racoon in the attic

Photo: batguys.com

2. THERE’S A STRANGE SCRATCHING SOUND COMING FROM BEHIND THE WALLS.

The Problem: If you hear strange noises like scratching and possibly chittering coming from places where no one lives in the house, you could have mice, squirrels, raccoons, or even bats sharing your quarters, says Richardson. “Any kind of wild critter could be up in the attic,” he says. And these freeloaders aren’t just a nuisance: Bats can carry deadly rabies. In the Southwest, the droppings of mice can spread hantavirus. Some animals will tear up insulation to nest, or chew through siding or even electrical wires, causing fires.

The Solution: As soon as you suspect an intruder, get on it: Set traps. (Call in a pro if the animal is stubborn or large.) Finally, prevent the problem from reoccurring by sealing up the entrances to your house with steel wool, metal sheeting, caulk, and/or hardware cloth.

To keep raccoons away, put garbage in sealed, secured metal cans that can’t be tipped. Bring pet food inside. After pests have been removed, make sure vents and chimneys are securely covered with mesh or a grille, so those spaces can still breathe.

 

3. THERE’S NO ONE IN THE HOUSE AND I CAN STILL HEAR RUNNING WATER. HOW CAN THAT BE?

The Problem: “You definitely don’t want to hear water running if nobody’s using anything,” says Richardson. The sound could indicate many things — a busted pipe in a wall, under the floor, or even in the irrigation system. If you hear running water when you shouldn’t, “Shut the main off and see if the noise goes away. If it does, you’ve got a leak somewhere,” says Richardson — and a problem in need of fixing.

The Solution: Unless you’re really handy and ready to do surgery on your home, call in a plumber.

 

draining water heater

Photo: remodelinghomemaintenance.net

4. I HEAR A BUBBLING (OR CRACKING) SOUND COMING FROM THE WATER HEATER. IS THAT NORMAL?

The Problem: A gas-fired hot water heater works pretty much like boiling a pot of water: A fire is lit and the water inside is heated until it’s ready for use. “A lot of sediment builds up at the bottom of a hot water tank, and that sediment works like an insulator,” forcing the burner to work harder, Kuhn says. The strange noise you hear is the bubbling sediment — and a sign that the tank is probably experiencing fatigue and may be facing premature failure, says Kuhn.

The Solution: Ideally, you should flush out your hot water tank every few months, using the drain valve near bottom of the floor. “However, nobody does it,” says Kuhn, because it can be a pain to do. If your water heater is already making these noises, draining it might help. “It could (work) a little bit longer, it could go a lot longer,” but the damage is probably done, says Kuhn.

 

5. MY FURNACE IS MAKING A WHISTLING (SUCKING) SOUND THAT IT’S NEVER MADE BEFORE. IS IT GOING TO NEED TO BE REPLACED?

The Problem: “What that can connote is that your filter hasn’t been changed,” says Richardson. “And your furnace is trying to pull in air from around it.” And that’s not good, he says. The furnace is working too hard. “What it will do is start sucking exhaust gasses from the furnace into the house.”

The Solution: Install clean filters regularly — “anywhere from three months to monthly, depending on atmospheric conditions,” says Richardson.

 

6. I HEAR A SWITCH TURNING ON AND OFF REGULARLY, BUT CAN’T SEEM TO ISOLATE WHERE IT’S COMING FROM.

The Problem: If you’ve got a well for your water, you’ve got a well pump — either in the house or above the well in your yard. “If you are sitting in your house and hearing the pump switch click on and off, you may have a problem,” says Kuhn. The pump pulls water from the well and into a holding tank, where it’s stored for your use. If you’re hearing it when you, say, turn on the faucet, something may be wrong. The pump “should not operate every time there is a call for water. The wear and tear would cause the pump to fail prematurely,” he says. It’s likely that you have a leak in the system. “The leak is either going to be in the well equipment itself, or in a fixture” — for example, a leaky toilet — that is causing the holding tank to drain, says Kuhn.

The Solution: First, check your fixtures for leaks. Then, if needed, call a plumber familiar with well systems.

 

7. WHAT’S THAT HISSING SOUND?

The Problem: If your home has gas, a strange noise that sounds like hissing could indicate a gas leak, says Richardson. Sometimes you can hear a hissing outside at the gas meter, or at a home’s outdoor gas light post—places where the line could have corroded, he says. “You should be able to smell it, but you never know.”

The Solution: If you you smell gas around the gas main, don’t mess with the gas shutoff unless you absolutely know what you’re doing, because any mishandling or spark could make things much worse, says Richardson. If you hear the noise and smell the gas, immediately evacuate the house and call the gas company.


How To: Troubleshoot Your Furnace (in 9 Quick Steps)

The next time your gas furnace stops pumping out the heat, before you call in the pros, try to troubleshoot the problem yourself using this handy checklist.

Furnace Troubleshooting - Diagram

Photo: onehourairconditioningcharlotte.com

Now that winter’s nearly here, it’s time for a pop quiz: You wake up in the morning and there’s ice on the dog’s water dish. What do you do?

If you had trouble with that one, it’s time for a quick lesson on furnace troubleshooting. Here are nine easy tasks you can perform yourself, before you call in a repairman, to try and get your gas furnace—the nation’s most popular type—to start kicking out the heat again.

Step 1: Make sure the thermostat is set to “Heat.”
“This sounds obvious, but it’s true: a lot of people don’t have their thermostat set right,” says Bobby Difulgentiz, director of product management for Lennox International. So the first step in troubleshooting your furnace is to double-check that the thermostat is set correctly. “Many thermostats have to be physically set to “Heat,” says Difulgentiz. That switch can easily get moved—say, during dusting. He also advises to make sure the set point is at a temperature that will actually turn on the furnace.

Give the furnace a minute or so for the fan and the heat to kick on. If it’s still not on, set the thermostat to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. That way it won’t turn on and off repeatedly while you’re troubleshooting.

Step 2: Filter out trouble.
Filter-related failures are probably one of the most common furnace problems out there, primarily because homeowners forget about the filters, says Difulgentiz.

Filters clean the air headed into the furnace and the heated air sent back into the house. A dirty, clogged filter limits the airflow, eventually causing heat and pressure to build up in the furnace. Newer, more efficient furnaces are sensitive to the problem and will often shut down before a dirty filter causes more trouble. For other units, the furnace will continue to run but with less heat output and reduced efficiency, he says.

Furnace Troubleshooting - Filter

Photo: familyhandyman.com

How do you know if this is your furnace’s problem? First, check your filter for obvious dirt. Don’t try to skimp by cleaning and reusing cheap hardware-store filters, says Mike Bonner, a heating and cooling technician and instructor with 35 years of experience who now offers helpful advice at Gray Furnace Man. They have been sprayed with an oil that catches dirt, and once saturated they are no longer effective. “I recommend that homeowners replace their filters once a month,” says Bonner. “A monthly routine will be much easier to remember than every two months—and it’s that important.”

Related:  Gas vs. Oil—Which Furnace Is Better?

Another way to determine that you may have a filter failure: Listen for a whistle. If the furnace can’t get enough air through the filter, it pulls air through any opening it can. A whistling sound is an indication of a problem.

Step 3: Change the batteries? 
Some thermostats are wired to the house’s electrical system, while others use batteries. How is yours powered? Sometimes those that use batteries will flash a low-battery symbol when they need a replacement, but the signal often goes unnoticed, says Bonner.

Step 4: Do you have juice? 
You need to know if the furnace is getting electricity, so check. Most thermostats have a switch for the fan that says either “On” or “Auto” (which means that the fan turns on when the equipment comes on). Throw the switch to “On.” “If the fan comes on, then you know you’ve got power to the furnace. If it doesn’t, you know you’ve got other problems,” Bonner says.

Step 5: Find that circuit breaker.
Still haven’t found the problem? Here’s the next step in furnace troubleshooting: Go to your home’s breaker panel and look for the circuit that controls the furnace. You’re looking to see whether it’s thrown to the “Off” position, or whether it’s in the middle. (In some panels the switch shows red.) Some electricians do a poor job of labeling—or correctly labeling—appliances in the house. Don’t see the furnace listed? “You’re looking for the one switch that seems in a different position from all the others,” says Bonner. “To fix it, throw it all the way off, then back on.”

Furnace Troubleshooting - Switch

Photo: hammerzone.com

Step 6: Throw ANOTHER switch.
Furnaces have another switch, simply known as the “furnace switch.” It’s a power switch that often looks like a regular light switch. It can be located either on the unit or—because electricians often work before the furnace is installed—on a wall nearby. Often this switch is unlabeled. If installed correctly, the switch in the up position is “On.” Unfortunately, this switch can sometimes be mistaken for a light switch and accidentally turned off. Throw this switch and give it a few minutes, as some furnaces have a few minutes’ delay.

Related:  Is It Time to Replace Your Furnace?

Step 7: Break the code.
Furnaces built about 1990 or later have a tiny window where a light shows through. That light can not only tell you whether the furnace has power, it can flash a code to help you know what’s going on.

If you’ve flipped the furnace switch off, then back on, note the sequence of the flashing light. Then open the furnace’s access panels (there are usually two). Inside one will be a key that tells you what the code means. That meaning will be useful information to tell a technician if the furnace still won’t start after you replace the panels.

Step 8: Follow the light. 
“If your furnace has a pilot light—anything less than 20 years old won’t—there are instructions in your owner’s manual for how to relight the pilot,” says Bonner. A modestly capable homeowner should be able to do it. You’re dealing with fire, however, so don’t do anything you’re not comfortable with.

Step 9: Now you’re desperate: Check the gas valve
If all else fails, check the furnace’s gas valve to make sure that it hasn’t somehow been turned to the “Off ” position. Any gas furnace has a “gas cock” that has to be located within six feet of the furnace, Bonner says. This is usually never touched, but you could check it. Another way to double-check: If you have more than one gas appliance, find out if it’s working. If it is, you know that the gas line into the home is OK.

Looking Forward
So when should you give up troubleshooting your furnace yourself and call in the cavalry? That point varies for every homeowner. “When you get uncomfortable, call somebody,” Bonner says.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure: Lennox’s Difulgentiz recommends that someone come out twice a year—in spring to check on the air conditioner before it gets a workout, and in autumn to make sure the furnace is running efficiently: “Typically it’s not that expensive,” he says of such maintenance visits. “It’s a good thing to do, with such a high-dollar item in your house.” For about $100 or so, a technician will eyeball the system, oil the motors, run a safety check, and clean the flame rod on the newer furnaces to make sure the flame is there.

Adds Bonner: “If your furnace is located in a laundry room, I would definitely service it every year, because we have chlorine and phosphates and all sorts of odd chemicals in the laundry room. They get into the flame and the flame chemically changes them” and the resulting chemicals can damage the guts of the furnace, like the heat exchanger, he says. Also, there’s substantial lint in a laundry room. If a heat exchanger breaks, carbon monoxide could leak into a home, Bonner points out.