Author Archives: Donna Boyle Schwartz

About Donna Boyle Schwartz

Donna Boyle Schwartz is a well-known home furnishings writer and editor, working with leading magazines and newspapers for more than 30 years. Donna is vice president/creative director of DDS Enterprises, a consulting firm concentrating on editorial projects and original research; the company also operates a full-service recording studio specializing in archival audio restoration. An enthusiastic DIYer, she has a shed full of tools and a house full of projects. Check her out on Google+!

Weekend Projects: 5 Quick DIY Fire Starters

Create a cozy blaze in your fireplace, quickly, with a DIY fire starter made with nothing more than items you already have in the house.

If you love your fireplace and spending time in front of a cheery, crackling flame, you’re no doubt familiar with products like fatwood. These treated wood pieces facilitate burning, helping to get the show on the road more quickly. Fatwood isn’t cheap, though, and you may not always have the stuff readily at hand. So the next time you’re in a pinch, or if you want to cut costs, you can make a DIY fire starter using only common household items. Here are five ways to go about it.

 

1. LEVERAGE LINT

DIY Fire Starter - Lint and Cardboard

Photo: shutterstock.com

The easiest DIY fire starter involves two things that are ubiquitous in homes across America: dryer lint and a cardboard toilet paper (or paper towel) roll. Every time you clear the lint trap in your dryer, set the fuzzy fibers aside until you have enough to stuff a cardboard roll end to end. For best results, use two or three lint-stuffed rolls to start your next fire. Note: For the lint to burn correctly, it must not be packed too tightly. Be sure to leave enough room for air to circulate through.

 

2. PREPARE PINECONES

DIY Fire Starter - Pine Cones

Photo: shutterstock.com

Here’s a way to use some of those pine cones that have been littering your yard. After gathering a basket full of cones, tie a six- or eight-inch length of yarn to each one. Use the yarn to dip each cone individually into a quantity of melted wax (which you can create with the simple method described further on). Dip enough times for the cones to develop multiple waxen layers. Finally, move the cones to a sheet of newspaper and allow sufficient time for the wax to cool and harden.

 

3. CAPITALIZE ON COTTON

DIY Fire Starter - Cotton Balls

Photo: shutterstock.com

Handy for a slew of household needs, cotton balls are a staple in many medicine cabinets and linen closets. Cotton balls are also highly flammable, especially when soaked in petroleum jelly. To make this DIY fire starter, simply roll a bunch of cotton balls in Vaseline until they are saturated. Once done, store the balls in a zip-lock plastic bag until you need them. Three or four should do the trick. If you don’t have any cotton balls, you can even try using Vaseline-covered cotton swabs.

 

4. CUT UP A CARTON 

DIY Fire Starter - Egg Carton

Photo: shutterstock.com

This method enables you to create, all at once, a series of compact DIY fire starters that are easy to store at home or take with you on a camping trip. Start with an empty egg carton. Next, collect enough candle nubs and broken crayons to fill a tin can. Place the can in a pot of water on the stove, providing enough heat for the wax to simmer and melt. Meanwhile, fill each compartment in the egg carton with a combustible material, be it dryer lint, sawdust, or shredded paper. Then finish by carefully pouring melted wax over each compartment. When the wax cools and dries, break apart the compartments, and you’ll have a dozen fire starters.

 

5. DEPEND ON DUCT TAPE

DIY Fire Starter - Duct Tape

Photo: shutterstock.com

Believe it or not, duct tape is flammable and particularly potent when crumpled into a loose ball. To really get things going, wrap duct tape around a crumple sheet of newspaper. With a generous dollop of hand sanitizer (with alcohol), these makeshift DIY fire starters are an easy, cheap, and effective means of starting a blaze.


Warm Up Your Workspace with a Unit Heater

Tired of DIYing in the cold? Here's one way to bring a little bit of heat to your garage or workshop.

Unit Heaters

Photo: supplyhouse.com

If you spend time on projects in the garage, or if you’re lucky enough to enjoy a stand-alone workshop, chances are that you’re tired of wearing a winter jacket while working. Rather than put progress on hold as the temperature drops, why not make the area more comfortable? One cost-effective method would be to install a unit heater. Designed expressly for the purpose of introducing warmth to work spaces, unit heaters come in a range of sizes and styles, and can be powered by a variety of fuels. Most can be purchased for a reasonable up-front cost, are relatively easy to install and operate, and can provide you with years of reliable service.

According to Daniel O’Brian, a technical expert from online retailer SupplyHouse.com, “unit heaters are a good fit for large, open, unheated spaces.” While they are used quite often in commercial or industrial applications, “homeowners typically use them in shops, garages, or barns.” And because most models are meant to be mounted on the ceiling or to a wall, you don’t need to give up any square footage that could otherwise be devoted to, say, a grinding machine or a table saw.

Unit heaters are rated, like air conditioners, in terms of British thermal units, or BTUs. At SupplyHouse.com, which sells unit heaters from the leading brands, outputs range from a modest 15,900 BTUs to a whopping 400,000. Most residential applications call for a unit heater on the smaller end of the spectrum. For instance, 30,000 or 45,000 BTUs would suffice in a one-car garage, while in a three-car garage, a 100,000- or 125,000-BTU heater would be most appropriate.

Sizing a unit heater isn’t a slapdash matter. Make the wrong choice, and you end up uncomfortable or overspending, or both. Proper sizing, says O’Brian, “should be done with a full heat loss report,” which accounts for “the construction of the walls, floor, and ceiling, as well as the amount of insulation.” To arrive at a rough estimate, however, you can use a simple formula: After carefully measuring the space, find the approximate BTU rating needed by multiplying the room’s length times width times five (L x W x 5 = BTUs needed).

Photo: supplyhouse.com

For many handy homeowners, installing a unit heater can be a DIY project, but as there are likely to be relevant building codes, you may wish to at least consult with a professional. Plus, depending on the model you’ve chosen and the fuel type it uses, “wiring, exhaust venting, and gas and/or water lines may need to be taken into consideration,” O’Brian says. If your installation involves any elements with which you’re not experienced, it’s recommended that you seek out help from a pro.

When it comes to locating your unit heater, there’s a great deal of flexibility, particularly with natural gas-powered models. These can be placed virtually anywhere within the space—on the ceiling, on the wall, or on the floor—so long as there’s ventilation and access to both a gas line and electrical outlet (to power the blower). Meanwhile, electric, infrared, and hydronic unit heaters do not require ventilation, but they do need to be near an electrical outlet, and in some cases they do require a minimum clearance. For example, an infrared heater must be placed at least three feet away from the nearest object and seven feet from the floor.

Gas-powered unit heaters are a common choice, partly for financial reasons. Compared with electric or infrared models, they cost less to purchase (sometimes half as much) and, depending on the utility rates where you live, they’re likely to be less expensive to run. Gas-powered heaters, however, typically operate like a forced-air home heating system, with a blower that kicks on intermittently, sending a blast of heated air through the conditioned space. If you have a wood shop filled with sawdust, that’s not what you want! It may be better, depending on the type of work you do, to opt for an electric, infrared, or hydronic model without a blower.

No matter what type of unit heater you select, you are going to love being able to keep working, even through the coldest days and months of the year.

Unit Heaters - Product Detail

Photo: supplyhouse.com

This post has been brought to you by SupplyHouse.com. Its facts and opinions are those of BobVila.com.


Gas or Electric? Choose Your Next Stove Wisely

A host of factors, from your location to your culinary ambitions, influence the choice between a gas and electric stove. If you're shopping for a new range, read on to learn what trade-offs to expect with each type.

Gas vs. Electric Stove

Photo: shutterstock.com

There are two main types of stoves—gas and electric. Each type has its devotees, and its detractors. Which stove you prefer seems to depend largely on which type you grew up with. If you learned to cook using a gas stove, chances are that you’ll stick with it. However, conversions occur, and plenty of people find reasons to switch their allegiance. For instance, burgeoning chefs may be swayed by the versatility and accuracy provided by the flame heating of gas stoves. Meanwhile, parents with young children may switch to an electric stove, seeing it as the safer of the two. Families also appreciate the easy-clean virtues of electric stoves. Strong as one’s personal preference may be, economics play a role too: Depending on where you live, one or the other stove type might be cheaper to operate. If your current stove is scorching your sauces, burning the bacon, and ruining the roast, keep these considerations in mind as you choose between gas and electric.

Though propane, butane, or even liquefied petroleum gas can be used to power a stove, most gas stoves run on natural gas and require a gas line to the house. Depending on where you live, the requirement of a gas line may be a deal-breaker. In most suburbs, the infrastructure is such that gas- and electric-powered stoves are equally feasible. In more remote areas, gas lines are not a given. But no matter where you live, chances are there’s electricity. And so long as your home has electricity, you can operate an electric stove. It simply needs to be plugged in. Note, however, that most electric stoves do require a 240-volt power outlet.

Gas vs. Electric Fireplaces - Glow Detail

Photo: shutterstock.com

COST
As with any other investment you’d make in your home, choosing a new stove involves weighing both the upfront purchase cost and the long-term operating cost. Electric stoves tend to carry the higher price tag—not by much, though. Whereas average electric stoves range from $650 to $2,800, comparable gas stoves range from $800 to $2,300. So there’s a difference, but it’s not a very dramatic one. Operating costs, however, are often different enough to be a deciding factor for many. It’s difficult to make blanket statements here, because utility rates change from state to state. But in most states, natural gas costs less than electricity, and where that’s the case, a gas stove typically costs 10% to 30% less to operate on an ongoing basis.

PERFORMANCE
When it comes to cooking, the main difference between gas and electric stoves lies in how quickly they respond to temperature setting changes. Gas stoves respond more or less instantly, giving you more of the precise control needed to be successful with certain dishes. Electric stoves do not respond as quickly, particularly when you’re adjusting the temperature down or turning the heat off. Besides that, there are also a few things that an electric stove simply cannot do (and that a gas stove can); these include charring, toasting, and flambéing. If you’re a committed home chef, the superior performance of gas stoves may sway you in their favor.

SAFETY
When you’re cooking with a gas stove, you’re effectively cooking on an open flame. That makes it the more dangerous of the two, because wherever there’s an open flame, there’s a chance of children or pets being burned (or a flammable item catching fire). There’s also the risk of gas leaks, so to be on the safe side, any home with a gas stove should have a carbon monoxide detector. Though electric stoves do not entail zero risk of burns or fires, they are generally considered safer. They’re also easier to clean. That’s particularly true if you purchase one of the newer electric stoves that features a smooth glass or ceramic cook top.

All in all, when shopping for a new stove and choosing between gas and electric, choose what you’re most comfortable with. If you have reservations about natural gas, or are nervous about cooking on an open flame, opt for an electric stove. On the other hand, if you’re budget-minded or a budding chef, gas may be best. The choice, of course, is ultimately yours.


Never Shovel Snow Again After This One Improvement

If you've grown sick and tired of shoveling snow time and time again through the long winter months, perhaps it's time to consider the next best thing to a driveway that shovels itself.

Photo: shutterstock.com

Though winter’s worst storms are likely yet to come, many homeowners around the country have already had ample opportunity to grow tired of shoveling snow. After all, it’s a tedious, time-consuming, back-breaking chore, one that’s regrettably unavoidable in cold climates. But wait—is it truly unavoidable? No. There is another way, thanks to an innovative snow-melting system that enables equipped driveways and walkways to automatically melt away accumulated snow on their surfaces.

Manufactured by SunTouch, the ProMelt line of heating cables and mats operates similarly to radiant-heat flooring installations. The system heats from below, and because it’s specially designed for use outdoors, the electric heat works to melt away not only powdery snow, but also stubborn ice. The cables “are generally activated by special snow sensors,” says Daniel O’Brian, a technical expert from online retailer SupplyHouse.com. That means, once the snow begins to stick, the system can automatically click on. You don’t have to think about it if you don’t want to, but “manual controls are often an option as well,” O’Brian confirms.

Photo: supplyhouse.com

Manual control can you help you minimize the operating cost of a heated driveway and/or walkway. It’s difficult to estimate the seasonal expense involved, because, as O’Brian points out, “electricity rates and the severity of winter storms change from location to location.” In addition to the cost of operation, there’s also the initial investment to cover the components and their installation. O’Brian notes that snow-melting systems are ideal for new home construction, or for homeowners who plan to install a new driveway or walkway. “Retrofitting them is virtually impossible, unfortunately,” because the mats must run under or within the paving.

ProMelt snow-melting mats range in size from 2′ x 5′ to 2′ x 56′; prices start at $190. Customizable configurations allow them to be used with the majority of today’s popular driveway and walkway materials—concrete, asphalt, pavers, and tile among them. Installation methods differ somewhat from material to material. Beneath pavers and stone, for instance, the mats are set into the substrate sand. In concrete, the mats are affixed to wire or rebar that’s suspended into the middle of the pour.

ProMelt mats rely on oxygen-free copper heating elements and are made to be flexible and long lasting. Thermoplastic insulation guards against corrosion and temperature resistance, while a tough polyurethane outer jacket adds further protection against chemicals and abrasion. Though the mat configuration facilitates installation, in certain outdoor configurations it may be preferable to use “loose” heating cables, as these can be worked around bends and other such obstacles. Both types are available through SupplyHouse.com, and both can be handled by contractors or ambitious DIYers.

This post has been brought to you by SupplyHouse.com. Its facts and opinions are those of BobVila.com.


Buyer’s Guide: Best Refrigerators

With so many available sizes, finishes, features, and configurations, picking the right refrigerator can be a challenge. Let us simplify the process with this quick rundown of important considerations and a sampling of well-reviewed models.

Best Refrigerators

Photo: shutterstock.com

The kitchen plays host to more appliances than any other room in the house, and the king of them all is the refrigerator. Whereas it was once a plain white box of no-frills functionality, the refrigerator has evolved to boast a range of stylish finishes, plus an ever-widening assortment of features, some more useful than others. If it’s been years since you last shopped for a fridge, you may be surprised by how much the product landscape has changed. So as you navigate the many options, keep these factors in mind to make a selection that meets your day-to-day needs, satisfies your style preferences, and fits within your budget.

Size/Capacity. When it comes to refrigerator size, there are two measurements to know. The first is the appliance’s exterior size. If you’re buying a new fridge as part of a major kitchen renovation, then you’re free to consider larger- or smaller-than-standard appliance sizes, because your countertops and cabinetry can be designed to fit around whichever model you choose. However, if you’re working within an existing kitchen layout, the new refrigerator needs to fit into the space vacated by the old one. In some kitchens, there may be a height limitation, but width is more typically the crucial dimension. Standard refrigerators measure between 30 and 33 inches across. Depth varies as well. Some models are designed to sit almost flush with the edge of the countertop. Counter-depth refrigerators yield a sleek, almost built-in look, although because they are shallower, these fridges may not offer as much storage capacity as full-depth models.

The fact is that once the refrigerator has been installed, you’re going to care less about its exterior dimensions and more about its interior capacity. Standard-width refrigerators typically have interior capacities ranging from 19 to 22 cubic feet. While some models offer up to 33 cubic feet of capacity, they are wider (and sometimes taller) than the average model. Compact refrigerators, some as narrow as 18 inches, are experiencing new popularity, not in dorm rooms or offices, but in smaller homes. While these so-called column refrigerators often lack a freezer, you can buy a separate (equally small) freezer to serve as a companion.

Best Refrigerators - Full Interior

Photo: shutterstock.com

Configurations. In their quest to expand interior capacity and pack in extra features, manufacturers have struck upon a bevy of innovative configurations. While the most common configuration is still the familiar freezer-on-top design, some of the other popular arrangements include:

side-by-side combinations: Appealing to those who reach into the freezer as often as the fridge, these feature a vertical, full-length split, with the refrigerator on one side and the freezer on the other.

bottom-freezer styles: A fast-growing subcategory, this design positions the refrigerator above the freezer; while the fridge portion often has hinged French doors, the freezer pulls out along sliding tracks.

• four-door models: We’re used to “four doors” being a descriptor for cars, but here the term refers to refrigerators that feature an extra drawer (for meats and beverages) between the two-door fridge and pull-out freezer on bottom.

In deciding upon the ideal refrigerator configuration for your kitchen, don’t forget to account for a model’s door swing in relation to nearby walls, cabinetry, and other appliances. Another important consideration: Many appliances work best when installed with a certain amount of clearance on all sides. Read the literature and work with the appliance salesperson (and/or your contractor or kitchen designer) to make sure that the refrigerator you are purchasing is going to actually fit in your space.

Energy Efficiency. In any product showroom, you’ll find that each refrigerator carries an Energy Guide label, summarizing the appliance’s energy requirements and annual operating cost (based on average natural gas and electricity rates). To minimize monthly energy bills, focus on models bearing the Energy Star designation. Such refrigerators exceed federal minimum standards for efficiency and quality.

Additional Features. Bells and whistles are as prevalent here as in any other appliance category. Among the most popular are temperature-controlled drawers, adjustable storage shelves and bins, and through-the-door ice and water dispensers. On pricier models, you can find wine-chilling compartments, Bluetooth-enabled sound systems, and even integrated television and/or computer screens. In addition, most brands today offer a range of colors and finishes, from matte white to stainless steel and beyond.

To help you find the best refrigerator for your home, we’ve picked a few favorites, weighing the above factors against critical reviews on the top shopping sites:

 

Maytag M1TXEGMYW Top-Freezer Refrigerator

Best Refrigerator - Maytag

Photo: maytag.com

One of the most reviewed refrigerators over on The Home Depot, this traditional top-freezer model received 4.2 out of 5 stars, with consumers praising its “convenient” ice maker as well as its “large capacity.” The Energy Star-qualified unit provides 20.6 cubic feet of interior space, with adjustable full-width Spill-Catcher glass shelves; FreshLock humidity-controlled crispers for produce; and Cool Flow ventilation that helps evenly refrigerate large items. Available in an assortment of finishes, including stainless steel, the Maytag, though not the newest kid on the block, impresses as a low-cost, high-performing choice. Price: $799

 

Kenmore Elite 71323 French Door Bottom-Freezer Refrigerator

Best Refrigerators - Kenmore

Photo: kenmore.com

Sears shoppers gave the Kenmore Elite 5 out of 5 stars, citing its “roomy” 21.6-cubic-foot interior, which is housed within a modest 30-inch-wide frame. Energy Star-qualified, the refrigerator features a full-width pantry drawer, specially designed to hold extra-large, typically hard-to-store items like party platters. Other features include a filtered water dispenser, factory-installed ice maker, and a pull-out freezer with a two-tier design that maximizes storage space. Price: $2,099

 

LG LDC24370ST Bottom-Freezer Refrigerator

Best Refrigerators - LG

Photo: lg.com

Available in white or stainless steel, this LG bottom-freezer refrigerator combines contoured doors, commercial handles, and hidden hinges for a streamlined and seamless look. It’s spacious, too, with the refrigerator and freezer portions adding up to a total capacity of 23.8 cubic feet. Best Buy shoppers gave it 4.7 out of 5 stars, voicing appreciation for its LED lighting, quiet operation, and easy-to-clean adjustable shelves. The Smart Cooling system at its core relies on six temperature sensors and multi-airflow cooling to monitor and maintain temperature, with an electronic interface displaying the system status at any given time. Price: $1,619


Is a Walk-In Tub Right for You?

The bathroom can be one of the most dangerous rooms in the home, especially for seniors. But with a walk-in hydrotherapy bathtub, almost any bathroom can be transformed into a safe haven of relaxation and comfort.

Walk-In Jacuzzi Tub - Water

Imagine if instead of having to make an appointment and haul yourself to the spa—and then have to pay for the privilege—you could treat yourself to a spa-like experience every day at home. This idea is not so far-fetched: For decades now, homeowners have been outfitting their decks with hot tubs and their master bathrooms with oversize jetted Jacuzzi tubs. And while for the younger set, time spent in a Jacuzzi is merely a luxury, those who are older know that it can be something else entirely.

Related: Visit the Aging in the Home Remodelers, Inc. Showroom on BobVila.com

For women and men of a certain age, walk-in tubs with built-in hydrotherapy turn bathing into a restorative, even health-giving, experience. As one recent remodeler put it, “The whirlpool has helped take lots of aches and pains away. It is like being on vacation all the time without all the travel.” Having a walk-in Jacuzzi tub allows bathing to become a pleasure instead of a task.

While Jacuzzi is best known for hot tubs, their walk-in bathtubs put the emphasis on safety. Ordinary tubs can be dangerous for anyone; slips are responsible for many thousands of serious injuries, sometimes even deaths, each year. For seniors in particular, that danger is present not only during moments of inattention, but increasingly as their mobility naturally declines with age. About 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65 every day in the USA and one in three of these seniors suffers a fall each year, so this is not a marginal issue. The latest walk-in tub designs combine legendary Jacuzzi comfort with extraordinary safety features, including a leak-proof, low threshold bathtub door, built-in grab bars, raised seat, anti-scald water temperature protection, and textured, skid-resistant floor.

Though made specifically for one type of homeowner, Jacuzzi walk-in tubs are not just for one type of home. On the contrary, they know that no matter your age, it’s a priority to combine safety with preserving the look and feel of your bathroom and ensuring that your house not seem institutional. Innovators like Jacuzzi, Inc. have treated this seriously, using the concept of universal design—that is, features for the home that look great and work equally well for everyone, young and old. Their walk-in tubs, in other words, accommodate both grandparents and grandchildren.

Walk-in Jacuzzi Tub - open

Photo: HydrotherapyBathing.com

As you age, your house hasn’t changed, but your needs do change. Rather than leave your home prematurely for a senior living setting, the obvious solution is to fix your house to meet your needs. Aging In The Home Remodelers makes that process hassle-free by guiding you from product selection all the way through to installation. Their walk-in bathtubs and showers are available in multiple sizes, so if your existing tub is a standard size, the walk-in Jacuzzi can fit right into the space that it vacates.

In-home installation is handled by professional, certified installers, and is often completed in one day. This really is not a DIY project. There are a number of factors that can come up during installation, including the type and condition of the existing plumbing, electrical wiring and service, flooring conditions, local building code requirements, and the location of the bathroom within the house. However, certified installers can deal with all of the issues during the installation process. That’s why most quality walk-in tubs are sold as an all-inclusive package including your new tub, installation and clean-up.

To learn more about hydrotherapy and the Jacuzzi Walk-In Bathtub, visit HydrotherapyBathing.com.

This post was created in conjunction with Aging In The Home Remodelers, Inc. Its facts and opinions are those of BobVila.com.


Do You Need a Dehumidifier?

Read on to learn how a dehumidifier can help prevent excess moisture in the air from turning into a mold and mildew problem—and how you can select the best possible unit for your space.

How to Choose a Dehumidifier

Photo: thehomedepot.com

Air quality can suffer in myriad ways. Excess humidity ranks among the least desirable effects. Left unchecked, moisture buildup can lead to a number of problems within the home, including but not limited to musty odors, warped wood, peeling paint and mold. If at any point during the year a homeowner becomes concerned about the high humidity level inside, what can he do to alter the status quo? One word: dehumidifier.

Dehumidifiers range in size from portable, one-room units to whole-house solutions that tie into the home’s HVAC system. Though variations exist both in product design and quality, most dehumidifiers work the same way. You configured the preferred humidity level, and when humidistat registers a level in excess of your preference, the dehumidifier clicks on. Driven by a fan, moist air moves through the appliance, where it passes over a cold metal coil. At that point, the moisture condenses into water, which gets stored internally or drained away. The filtered air then passes over a warm coil before returning to the home’s conditioned space.

How to Choose a Dehumidifier - Isolated

Photo: thehomedepot.com

If you suspect but aren’t certain whether your home has been experience moisture issues, research the problem by purchasing and monitoring a humidity gauge, also known as a hygrometer. If on the other hand you know that your home needs a dehumidifier, consider these factors in making your selection:

• Determine the scope of the problem. Is the whole house overly humid, or is the issue confined to one area (e.g., the basement)? The scope of the problem directly determines the nature of the solution. Larger whole-house dehumidifiers tie into the HVAC system and include a drainpipe that empties directly into a slop sink, sump pump, or to the outdoors. These types of dehumidifiers aren’t cheap and typically involve professional installation. Portable dehumidifiers, meanwhile, are much less expensive and much more consumer-friendly. They plug right into the wall and operate via built-in interfaces that are easy to understand and configure. Some portable dehumidifiers are equipped with hoses that can drain or pump out collected water automatically; others feature a bucket that must be emptied out on a regular basis.

• Calculate the area’s square footage. Even dehumidifiers of the same basic design can differ in capacity. Select one that can hold ten pints of water for a 500-square-foot space; add four pints of capacity for every additional 500 square feet. So if you wish to dehumidify a 1,000-square-foot basement, you’d need a unit with a 14-pint capacity. For a very damp space, choose a dehumidifier that holds 12 pints of water for a 500-square-foot space, adding five pints for every additional 500 square feet.

• Don’t forget about energy efficiency. Energy Star-certified dehumidifiers use about 15 percent less energy than conventional units. In the long run, that means a savings of approximately $175 over the life of the dehumidifier, not to mention avoiding roughly 2,800 pounds’ worth of greenhouse gas emissions.

Dehumidifiers can provide a continuous flow of fresh, dry air in the home, resulting in an energy-efficient solution that improves indoor air quality and keeps mold growth at bay all season long.


Convert Your Crawl Space into a Storage Area

There's nothing stopping you from storing off-season items in your crawl space—nothing except for moisture, mold, insects and potentially rodents. Here, learn what's involved in converting your crawl space into a safe haven for belongings you want to keep but don't frequently need access to.

Crawl Space Solutions - Dirt Floor

Photo: basementsystems.com

For children and perhaps even many adults, the crawl space is shrouded in mystery. Rarely do we think of the dark, dingy, low-ceilinged, and dirt-floored crawl space as providing opportunity. And yet, with planning and elbow grease, you can make even the most intimidating crawl space into an ideal storage area for off-season items. Plus, many of the improvements you’d pursue to make the environment storage-ready would also contribute to overall home comfort and energy efficiency. You’ve got nothing to lose! Read on to learn what crawl space solutions other homeowners choose, then decide which are right for where you live.

Assessment
What’s this going to take? That largely depends on the crawl space’s current condition. For most homeowners wishing to convert a crawl space into a storage area, moisture is going to be the main impediment. Your crawl space may not have a moisture problem, but there’s only one way to know: get down there and assess things. Look for evidence of mold—on the walls, joists, ductwork or insulation. Where there’s mold, there may also be insects, including termites—and the presence of insects might one day attract rodents, if it hasn’t already. Mold also indicates a level of moisture that could eventually affect the flooring, drywall, and insulation in the upper portions of your home. So before you can confidently keep any of your belongings in a moldy, potentially rodent-ridden crawl space, your first order of business is getting the moisture under control. And it’s worth doing, not only for the immediate benefit of additional storage, but because your home might otherwise be at risk to a host of moisture-related problems. For help here, consider consulting a contractor who specializes in basements and crawl spaces.

Photo: basementsystems.com

Moisture Control
In crawl spaces, much of the humidity and moisture comes from the soil floor. To contain that moisture, line the floor (and the foundation walls) with a plastic vapor barrier. Proper installation of the vapor barrier depends on your climate and the product used, but generally speaking, the liners overlap, with taped seams, to leave no patch uncovered. There are many types of vapor barriers on the market, with varying composition, thickness, strength and durability. Because you’ll be using the crawl space for storage, choose a product thick and durable enough to withstand foot traffic. Of course, some homeowners eschew vapor barriers in favor of poured concrete, the best and longest-lasting defense against crawl space moisture. But given the complexities of working within a crawl space, we recommend that approach only to experienced do-it-yourselfers or those prepared to hire a professional crew to handle what’s not an inexpensive job.

Photo: thehomedepot.com

Insulation
Insulation further protects against moisture by helping to control the temperature within the crawl space. A bonus: If pipes run through the crawl space, the insulation prevents them from freezing during the coldest parts of the year. Of course, there are many types of insulation available, but only rigid board insulation is appropriate here, because it resists water damage. Install these foam boards against the foundation walls—not along the ceiling—using either construction adhesive or mechanical fasteners. Once the insulation is in place, the vapor barrier goes up on the walls. Climate depending, it may also be wise to install mat insulation over the earthen floor (below the vapor barrier). For advice specific to your home and region, invite an expert to take a look.

Photo: crawlspacedoors.com

Ventilation
You wouldn’t think so, but crawl space ventilation is a contentious topic. For years, building codes required crawl spaces to be vented, and many still think year-round venting makes sense. (In coastal areas, vents are undoubtedly necessary to prevent a buildup of water pressure from destroying the home’s foundation during a flood.) But more and more experts are saying crawl space vents fail to do what they were designed to do—eliminate moisture. Those experts argue that on the contrary, crawl space vents invite moisture, particularly in the summer when moist, warm air from the outside meets the cooler air under the house. Given the competing opinions and that there are geographic factors at play, we recommend getting advice from a local contractor steeped in the issues at play.

Crawl Space Solutions - Dehumidifier

Photo: basementsystems.com

Conditioning
If you go so far as to block or seal up the vents to your crawl space, the only way for moisture to escape is by means of a dehumidifier (that is, if it’s impossible to install an HVAC register in the crawl space). Dehumidifiers vary widely, from small, portable units to crawl space-specific models plumbed in to the home’s drainage system. Similarly, the cost of a humidifier can range anywhere from a few hundred dollars to well over $1,000. A dehumidifier may not seem necessary for your crawl space, but if you find that moisture problems linger, be sure to purchase a unit whose size is up to handling the square footage of the crawl space.

Crawl Space Solutions - Storage Bin

Photo: thehomedepot.com

Storage Matters
Even if you’ve eradicated most of the moisture (and its attendant issues), we recommend storing items in airtight plastic containers. Depending on the height of the crawl space, you might consider shelving. No matter what storage methods you opt for, be sure so leave enough space around plumbing and ductwork, in case a contractor needs access for repair work. Now that you’ve converted the crawl space, you should have many more square feet of storage than ever before. Though inappropriate for frequently used items, crawl space storage works great for those items you can’t bear to part with, but which you don’t need regularly.


Is Now the Time to Replace Your Windows?

Drafts, rotting frames, aesthetics—there are plenty of good reasons to opt for replacement windows. Let's add yet another: increased energy efficiency. Have we piqued your interest? Read on!

Photo: pella.com

If you’re too chilly to feel truly comfortable at home, your windows—not the weather—may be to blame. Drafts are chief among the many reasons to consider replacement windows. And while an immediate benefit of new windows would be coziness through the colder months, there’s a year-round incentive too. Drafty windows force your heating and cooling system to work harder to maintain a comfortable indoor temperature. So when you replace your windows, you can save real money on your monthly utility bills, thanks to your home’s much-improved energy efficiency.

Photo: shutterstock.com

Technology has had an impact on every corner of your lives. While the great strides that have been made in computers over the past decade probably come to mind first, there have also been tremendous advances in window manufacturing. That’s why, according to ENERGY STAR®, replacing your old windows with ENERGY STAR®-certified products can lower household energy bills by as much as 7 to 15 percent. Depending on a number of factors, that translates into anywhere between $71 and $501 annually!

No single innovation is responsible for the superiority of today’s windows. Their improved performance results instead from a variety of new manufacturing methods. Perhaps most important has been the incorporation of multiple panes of glass. While single-pane windows have long served us well, they have their flaws. Double-paned windows insulate almost twice as well. You can even get triple-paned windows to maximize the efficiency of your home.

Some window makers, including major manufacturers like Pella, go a step further in their multipaned windows. By injecting argona colorless, nontoxic gas—into the space between the panes, manufacturers have improved the insulation value of windows that were well-insulated to begin with. How? Because argon is denser than air, the gas creates an all-but-impermeable seal between the home interior and exterior.

Meanwhile, Low-E, or low-emissivity, coatings have also gone a long way toward improving window technology. These microscopically thin, transparent coatings have been described as a ”sunscreen for your house.” In the winter, glass with Low-E treatment reflects heat back into the room, keeping it warmer. In the summer, the same glass reflects heat away from the home, allowing the interiors to remain cool. Low-E coatings perform one additional and extremely valuable function: They help block UV rays, drastically reducing fading of home furnishings due to sunlight.

Photo: shutterstock.com

Even window frames have gotten better. Wood remains a popular choice, not only for aesthetic reasons, but also for its insulating properties. In fact, compared with aluminum windows, wood frames insulate 1,800 times better! Fiberglass composite frames are another good option. Although less expensive than wood, fiberglass insulates nearly as well—or equally as well—as wood. Plus, fiberglass doesn’t expand and contract like wood does. Even contemporary vinyl window frames are well worth considering, because their multichamber construction inhibits the conduction of heat and cold.

Aside from energy efficiency, replacement windows offer a range of other desirable features, including:
- Tilt-in sashes that make glass cleaning easier
- Between the glass blinds, shades and grilles for privacy and light control
- Prefinished frames
- Low-maintenance exteriors

And finally, let’s not forget that replacement windows can completely and attractively transform the look of your home. To see just some of the countless looks within reach, check out the Pella Photo Gallery. If you’re on the fence about it all, consider this: Replacement windows are a savvy investment. According to the Remodeling magazine 2014 Cost vs. Value Report, window replacement offers a high return on investment, with homeowners recouping about 79 percent of the total project cost upon resale. Not bad at all!

This post has been brought to you by Pella. Its facts and opinions are those of BobVila.com.


Buyer’s Guide: Best Cordless Drills

Are you pining for the power and convenience of a high-quality cordless drill? Before you hit the stores, let us give you the lowdown on important features and useful extras.

Best Cordless Drills

Photo: shutterstock.com

Just as cellular technology freed the telephone, the advent of lithium-ion batteries forever altered the landscape of power tools. While the electric drill was always a homeowner favorite, its cordless version has become truly ubiquitous, appearing in the toolboxes of even casual do-it-yourselfers. If you own any power tools whatsoever, chances are you have a cordless drill. The popularity of these drills has led to a wealth of models on the market. With so many to choose from, how can you be sure to pick the best cordless drill for your needs? Keep these factors in mind as you navigate the selection process.

Best Cordless Drills - Bit Detail

Photo: shutterstock.com

Voltage. Cordless drills range from 7.2-volt models to ones boasting 20 volts or more. The most popular options are 12 and 18 volts; that’s plenty of power for most light-duty household tasks. Higher voltage equals faster drilling and screw-driving, but while speed can be a virtue, extreme speed is beneficial mainly to professionals. 12- and 18-volt drills are fast enough without becoming difficult to handle.

Weight. Over the years, cordless drills have gotten only lighter. It’s not unreasonable to focus your search on tools that come in under five pounds. But weight isn’t the only determinant of comfort. Equally important is the tool’s balance. To test the balance of a drill you’re considering, grip the handle firmly in your dominant hand, then lift it toward the wall as if you were going to drive a screw. The drill chuck should point straight at the wall without your having to fight to keep it from tilting up or down.

Battery Type. Older cordless drills run on nickel-cadmium (NiCd) or nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries. Today’s best cordless drills, however, run on lithium-ion batteries. These weigh less, last longer, and recharge more quickly than their predecessors. The only downside to note is that for all their advantages, lithium-ion batteries are pricey to replace, running as much as $100 or more.

Accessories. Different cordless drill packages come with different features and accessories. Depending on how you intend to use the tool, one or another of the following features may be worth pursuing:

- extra battery
- “smart” battery charger (capable of recharging in 15 to 60 minutes)
- battery-charge indicator
- variable speeds
- built-in work light and/or level
- warranty for drill and battery

To help you narrow the crowded field of options, we’ve identified three of the best cordless drills, based on the criteria detailed above, on reviews by actual consumers, and by ratings from leading testing sites. Available in stores and online, our selections range from light-duty models suitable for apartment dwellers to semipro drills for the serious DIY homeowner.

 

Bosch PS31-2A 12-Volt Lithium-Ion 3/8-Inch 2-Speed Drill/Driver Kit

Best Cordless Drills - Bosch

Photo: amazon.com

Lowe’s customers love the Bosch 12-volt lithium-ion drill for its “compact size” and “light weight.” Plus, its “very sensitive clutch” is “excellent for driving screws to the perfect torque.” Popular Mechanics chimes in, too, saying that the model packs the punch of a larger tool and, despite being only 12 volts, “could run with the big boys.” Equipped with a 3/8-inch chuck, the Bosch features a built-in LED work light as well as a two-speed gearbox. Price: $99

 

Porter-Cable PCC606LA 20-Volt 1/2-Inch Lithium-Ion Drill/Driver Kit

Best Cordless Drills - Porter Cable

Photo: amazon.com

There’s perhaps no better value than the Porter-Cable 20-volt lithium-ion drill. Amazon shoppers rated the unit 4.7 out of 5 stars, praising it for being “powerful” while remaining “light.”  Measuring about 7 inches long and weighing only 3.5 pounds, the two-speed drill fits into tight spots and can be used comfortably for long stretches of time, thanks in part to its “long battery life.” A convenient built-in indicator shows how much remains of the battery charge at any given time. For a “well-built” tool that can handle “any job that a person might face,” look no further than the reasonably priced Porter-Cable. Price: $79

 

DeWalt DCD780C2 20-Volt Lithium-Ion 1.5 Ah Drill/Driver Kit

Best Cordless Drills - Dewalt

Photo: amazon.com

For heavy-duty performance, the DeWalt 20-volt lithium-ion drill ranked highest among those reviewed by Consumer Search in 2014. Amazon shoppers echoed the compliment, describing the tool as “light, powerful, and very well balanced.” With a 1/2-inch chuck and two-speed gearbox, the DeWalt is a brawny tool, designed with an ergonomic handle as well as lots of “little features.” A three-year warranty covers both the drill and its twin batteries. Price: $169