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+!

Pro Tips: Is Solar Right for You?

If you're thinking about installing a solar energy system, you first want to be sure it makes sense for your home. Let us lead you through some of the variables you'll need to consider.

Solar Heating

Illustration: Lennox

Heating and cooling accounts for more than half of the energy use in a typical U.S. home—about 54 percent of your utility bill—making it the largest energy expense for most homes, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Is it any wonder why most homeowners cringe when they open up their heating and cooling bills, particularly in years with bitterly cold winters and sweltering hot summers?

But what if you could minimize the pain by substantially reducing—or in some instances even eliminating—your home’s energy costs? Solar may be the solution.

Demand for solar energy in the United States is at an all-time high, according to DOE statistics. In the first quarter of 2012, developers installed 85 percent more solar panels than they did during the same period the year before. And, with new innovations, advanced technology, and decreasing product and installation costs, solar is becoming more attractive to homeowners in search of a smart, cost-saving, and environmentally friendly solution.

We reached out to Kevin Lyons, product manager and energy efficiency expert at Lennox, to learn what considerations homeowners should take into account when deciding whether solar is right for them.

 

Does it matter where I live?
Virtually all areas of the continental United States receive enough sunshine to justify adding solar power to a home’s heating and cooling system, but supplemental heat will be needed in regions where there is high heating demand and less winter sunlight—the northeast, for example.

Lennox SunSource

Photo: Complete Lennox SunSource installation with outdoor condenser unit.

Home solar systems are typically used in conjunction with a heat pump to generate heating and cooling or to supplement air conditioning systems, according to Lyons. “Solar energy generated by the Lennox SunSource Home Energy System, for example, is first used to power the heat pump or air conditioner. When the heating and cooling system is not in use, the solar energy can operate other appliances and electronics,” Lyons says. Any excess energy that’s not needed will be sent back to the utility company, possibly entitling the homeowner to a credit.

Lennox SunSource Condenser with Solar Panel

Photo: Lennox SunSource Condenser with Solar Panel

 

Does it matter what type of heating and cooling system I currently have?
Solar energy can be used to power both hydronic and forced-air heating systems. “Active” solar systems convert solar energy to either heated air or liquid and use that energy directly to heat an interior space or store the energy for later use. Typically, liquid systems are used when storage is included; they are suitable for use with radiant heating systems, boilers with hot water radiators, and heat pumps and coolers.

 

What are the upfront costs to installing solar? 
Although each solar installation is unique, small residential systems are available from major home improvement chains and are priced from $3,000 to $6,000 for backup power systems; industry estimates for the cost of a whole-home solar array run from $15,000 to $30,000 for the average household.

“There are many variables that impact both the upfront cost and the payback period for installing solar,” Lyons explains. “These include the number of solar modules purchased and the type of HVAC system purchased as well as the types of solar incentives from states, cities, and utilities, which vary greatly across the United States.” Lyons points out that the Lennox SunSource system can be wired directly into a home’s HVAC system, making the system “solar ready” even if the homeowner decides to delay installing solar modules.

 

What is the payback period for installing solar?
Geographic location, local energy costs, and government incentives all impact the payback period for a home solar installation. “Depending on the local cost of electricity, the various incentives can lower the payback period to as few as five years,” Lyons states. “A federal 30 percent tax credit applies to all U.S. residential solar installations and applies to the entire installed cost.” Lennox offers this handy calculator to help homeowners estimate the energy savings they can achieve with solar power.

 

Are there additional benefits to installing solar?
Investing in solar energy may not only reduce your energy costs but also improve the value of your home. Surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development have shown that home values rise an average of $20 for every $1 reduction in annual utility bills.


Control Temperatures and Save Energy with Zoned Heating Systems

A zoned heating system allows greater control over heat distribution in the house. You can turn up the heat just where you need it, just when you need it—resulting in significant savings on your utility bills. Need some convincing? Read on to learn more about the benefits of zoned heating.

Zoned Heating Diagram

Zoned heating diagram. SupplyHouse.com

Homeowners seeking a better way to control temperatures throughout the home should examine the benefits of a zoned heating system.

A standard, non-zoned heating system controls the temperature of the entire house as a whole. A zoned heating system, in contrast, allows homeowners to control the temperature of each room or zone individually, thereby maximizing comfort and minimizing energy costs. A zoned system can be adjusted for numerous factors, including room usage, personal preferences, and environmental conditions. Zoned systems help homeowners use their heating systems more effectively by distributing heat where and when it is needed.

“The advantages of a properly zoned home include savings on heating costs, and greater control and comfort throughout the home,” points out Daniel O’Brian, a technical expert from online retailer SupplyHouse.com. “If they are individually zoned, unoccupied or rarely used spaces do not have to be heated, and areas of the home that get colder than others can be adjusted directly for greater comfort. Furthermore, programmable thermostats can increase savings by dialing back heating usage when residents are out of the home or sleeping.”

O’Brian explains that a typical zoned heating system treats the main floor of a house as one heating zone and the upstairs bedroom area as a separate heating zone. This allows heat to be directed to the main floor during the daytime and to the upstairs bedrooms at night, allowing unoccupied areas of the home to cool down when vacant. A zoned system can also let homeowners minimize the heat in seldom-used areas, such as guest rooms or storage spaces.

Zoning the heating system can save homeowners up to 30 percent on a typical heating and cooling bill, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Because heating and cooling accounts for more than 40 percent of an average household’s utility costs, the savings from a zoned system can really add up.

Zone Heating Valves

Photo: SupplyHouse.com

The basic component of a zoned heating system is a zone valve, which controls the flow of water in a hydronic heating system. Inside the valve, an actuator opens and closes the valve based on the thermostat setting for that zone. Zone valves are available in two- or three-way valve configurations and in various connection types. They can be normally closed or normally open and can provide differing flow rates depending on valve size, allowing homeowners to customize the system for different floor plans and different-size zones. Zone valves can be used with a wide range of hydronic heating systems, including baseboards, radiators, heat pumps, and radiant applications. Leading brands include Honeywell, Taco, White-Rodgers, and Erie.

Homeowners with forced hot air heating systems also can create multiple zones by using two or more thermostats connected to a master control panel; the control panel opens and closes dampers that are installed within the ductwork.

There are also a wide variety of thermostats available, including programmable versions, to control a zoned heating system. “Any thermostat can be used to zone a home, but not all thermostats are for the same application,” O’Brian notes. “Voltages, the heating/cooling system layout, and features on different thermostats can be geared more towards one or another application.”

Related: How to Install a Programmable Thermostat

Adding a zoned heating system to an existing home is a fairly complex project and typically requires the use of a professional installer. “Retroactively zoning a home is not really something that an average DIYer would be able to accomplish,” remarks O’Brian. “They would have to wire in controls and thermostats, hook them up to the pump(s) and boiler or furnace, and cut into either their hydronic lines or ductwork to install zone valves or dampers. This all would likely require cutting open walls, running electrical, and possibly sweating copper.”

Even though installing a zoned heating system is not a typical do-it-yourself project, the energy savings and temperature control features may make it an extremely worthwhile home improvement. Online retailer SupplyHouse.com offers a large selection of thermostats, zone valves, and controls from the top manufacturers in the industry, and features a variety of information and instructional videos like this one, which explains how zone valves work.

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


How To: Clean a Microwave

To clean a microwave and take it from grimy to shiny in a jiff, try any one of these easy methods (none of which involve toxic chemicals).

How to Clean a Microwave - Interior

Photo: shutterstock.com

You know it’s time to clean your microwave when obnoxious smells fill the kitchen every time you open the appliance door. Fortunately, there are at least a couple of easy ways to clean a microwave using common household items that may already be in your pantry. Get ready to say goodbye to that odor of burnt popcorn!

No matter which method you decide on, the first step in cleaning a microwave is to wipe down all interior surfaces with a soft sponge or paper towels. For any stubborn food residue, use a plastic kitchen scraper. Tempting though it may be, steel wool should be avoided; it leaves scratches that ruin the microwave’s finish. Once you’ve given the interior a first pass, try one of these three approaches for a good, thorough cleaning.

LEMON JUICE

• Lemons contain citric acid, which cuts through grease and grime, and leaves behind a pleasant aroma. Cut two whole lemons into wedges, then squeeze the juice of each one into a small, microwave-safe mixing bowl. Once you have juiced them, throw the lemon rinds into the bowl, along with two or three cups of water.

• Place the bowl in the microwave, then set the appliance to run on high for two or three minutes—long enough for the water to start boiling vigorously. Without opening the microwave door, let the bowl stand for about 10 minutes, during which time its steam can penetrate any baked-on food and grease present in the interior.

• Open the microwave door and remove the bowl. If your microwave has a turntable, take it out of the oven (along with the carousel upon which it rotates). Soak these parts in hot, soapy water while you continue. With a damp cloth or sponge, wipe down the microwave and, if necessary, steam the interior once again.

 

VINEGAR AND BAKING SODA

How to Clean a Microwave - Exterior

Photo: shutterstock.com

Vinegar and baking soda combine to create a powerful cleaning agent. Both are inexpensive, and most people tend to keep a box or bottle of each item on hand. (Also, it’s worth mentioning that vinegar acts as a natural disinfectant.)

• Add four tablespoons of baking soda to a quart of warm water, being sure to mash and stir so that the powder fully dissolves. Dip a cloth or sponge into the mixture, repeating as necessary, and wipe down the entire interior.

• Pour one-half cup of water and one-half cup of white vinegar into a small, microwave-safe bowl. Place the bowl in your microwave, running the appliance on high for two or three minutes—long enough for the water to boil vigorously. Keeping the microwave door closed, let the bowl stand for about 10 minutes while the steam works its magic.

• Open the microwave door, take out the bowl, and remove the turntable (if your microwave has one), along with its carousel. Soak these parts in hot, soapy water, while you move on to clean the microwave interior with the vinegar-and-water solution you’ve prepared. Keep at the task until no baking soda residue remains inside the oven.

 

COMMERCIAL CLEANSERS

• Various commercial cleaners are available. Typically, these produce strong and in my opinion quite unpleasant fumes, which linger in the microwave and can make your food taste a little off. If you want to try a commercial cleaner, I recommend purchasing a fume-free product and letting the door stand open for a couple of hours after you finish cleaning.

Of course, the more often you use the microwave, the more frequently you should clean it. But I would say that for the average homeowner, cleaning the microwave once every two weeks is an appropriate schedule if you want to keep the appliance looking—and smelling—its delightfully clean best.


Pro Tips: What Type of Paint Is Best for Exteriors?

For an exterior paint job that really lasts, you need to start with the right paint. We've consulted with the pros to find out what's new and how to ensure the best results.

Oil vs. Latex Paint - Exterior

Photo: sherwin-williams.com

A fresh coat of exterior paint does wonders for the look of a home, revolutionizing its curb appeal while adding a valuable layer of protection against the elements. In recent years, paint technology has advanced by leaps and bounds, leaving today’s homeowners spoiled for choice when it comes to products that are not only durable, but also resistant to mold, mildew, and dirt—the trio of threats that most commonly undermine the longevity of an exterior paint job.

Related: Exterior Paint 101

If you are trying to decide whether to choose oil or latex paint—latex being the generic term for all non-oil-based paints—the question may no longer be a relevant one: The latest and greatest paint formulations are more often than not water based. “In the past, oil-based paints were the standard for exterior projects,” explains Karl Schmitt, of Sherwin-Williams. Times have changed, however. Superior performance characteristics are now to be found among water-based products.

Schmitt continues, “Some professional painters believe oil-based paints deliver a better finish.” But unless the surface to be painted is distressed (for example, weathered wood or rusty metal), Schmitt maintains that “a water-based paint is the best option for the average do-it-yourself homeowner.” Whereas “oil-based paints tend to yellow and become brittle over time,” high-quality water-based paints, such as Sherwin-Williams Emerald, retain a smooth and uniform appearance for years.

Oil vs. Latex Paint - Ladder

Photo: shutterstock.com

“There are some real benefits to using water-based paint,” Schmitt says. These include “improved adhesion performance, mold and mildew resistance, and low VOC emissions.” Another important benefit of water-based paints: They more or less extend the exterior painting season. It used to be that “you couldn’t paint if the temperature was below 50 degrees.” Those days are gone. Improved formulations permit successful painting to be done even on days as cold as 35 degrees.

Noor Aweidah of Valspar cites further advantages of water-based paint: “shorter dry time, better coverage, and easier cleanup.” Duramax, the top-of-the-line exterior paint manufactured by Valspar, even features paint and primer in one application. What it all adds up to, she says, is a “just-painted look” that lasts for an impressively long period of time.

Before undertaking an exterior painting project, Aweidah recommends that you take several factors into account. “Weather is the first thing to consider.” Start by figuring out the right time to paint. “For best results,” she says, “an air temperature and surface temperature of 50 degrees is ideal. It’s also important to prepare for the project and use a high-quality paint.” Cover these bases, and “any exterior paint project [will be] doable for any DIYer.”

Sherwin-Williams’s Schmitt concludes, “Buy the highest-quality paint you can afford.” Chances are “the more expensive paint will last substantially longer, which means that in the long run, the pricier product “represents a much better value.”


Pro Tips: The Best Ways to Deal with Snow and Ice

When it comes to ice and snow, the best defense is to be prepared. Here are some expert tips on the tools and equipment—and best use practices—that should keep you safe and sound this winter.

Dealing with Snow and Ice - Shoveling

Photo: shutterstock.com

The severity of this winter has surprised many parts of the country. With more storms on the way, many homeowners are better preparing themselves, stocking the garage with everything necessary to handle snow and ice. These tools are readily available in stores; it’s only a matter of knowing which are essential to own.

For manual snow removal around the house, the experts recommend that you employ a mix of shovels, pushers, scoops, rakes, and scrapers.

“Use a shovel to lift and throw snow that is too deep or heavy to bulldoze using a pusher. A pusher is best for drier, lighter snow that can be efficiently bulldozed off the sidewalk or driveway without the ‘scoop-and-throw’ motion of a shovel,” says Joe Saffron, senior director of marketing at Ames True Temper.

“A roof rake helps clear heavy snow from a rooftop in order to avoid structural damage to your home. Some (like the True Temper telescoping roof rake) allow for quick extension and easy reach, without the need to get out the ladder,” Saffron continues.

“A scraper should be on hand to remove stubborn ice from surfaces. While on the road, you should have a shovel in the trunk of your car to help dig out your tires if you get stuck. Collapsible shovels, like the True Temper Autoboss, are a great option for easy storage.”

When shopping, prioritize safety and ease of use. Test tools before purchasing to be certain they are comfortable and amenable to the techniques you prefer. When shoveling, remember to stay warm and hydrated. Also, try not to push yourself too far beyond the limits of your normal physical activity: “As shoveling is not an everyday task, it is easy to strain muscles and joints when stooping and lifting in ways you do not normally move,” Saffron says. Be kind to your body and “look for ergonomic features, such as multi-point grips, elliptical-shaped and curved handles, and wide-mouth blades.”

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Dealing with Snow and Ice - Blowers

Photo: troybilt.com

Heavier snow calls for heavier equipment. That’s where snow throwers come in. Of course, there are many makes and models from which to choose. If you are shopping for a snow blower, consider a variety of factors—the type of surface you will be clearing (i.e., concrete or gravel), the shape and length of your driveway and/or walkway, and how much snow your geographical area typically receives (as well as what consistency that snow is).

“A single-stage snow thrower like the Troy-Bilt Squall 2100 is best for clearing midsize driveways in areas with snowfalls of six inches or less. And it’s most appropriate for paved surfaces like sidewalks and patios,” says Barbara Roueche, senior manager, marketing communications, MTD Products. “Generally, a single-stage snow thrower is lightweight and easy to maneuver.”

“A two-stage snow thrower like the Troy-Bilt Storm 2840 consists of serrated augers that break up ice and snow. [These models] throw snow quicker and farther than a single-stage thrower,” Roueche continues. “A two-stage thrower is best for clearing large driveways and heavy snowfalls, and its power-driven wheels can handle uneven and steep terrain.”

Whatever snow removal tools match your needs and family budget, be sure to read the owner’s manual so that you understand how to properly and safely operate the equipment.

Finally, once you have managed to clear the snow away, think about investing in a low-tech solution to deal with slippery surfaces: a little bit of salt or sand can help increase traction, making approaches to and exits from your property much more manageable for family and guests.


Increase Your Comfort Level This Winter with a Humidifier

In the winter months, when heating systems are really chugging away, indoor air can become dry and staticky. A whole-house humidifier is a great way to add back a little moisture. Here are the basics.

Whole House Humidifier

Photo: shutterstock.com

Scratchy throats, frequent nosebleeds, dry skin, and static electricity can be common occurrences in winter—particularly when the combination of heated air and tightly insulated houses reduces humidity levels indoors.

GeneralAire Drum Style Humidifier

GeneralAire drum-style humidifier at SupplyHouse.com

“With frigid temperatures gripping most of the country, heating systems on full blast, and houses all buttoned-up against the cold, the air in a home can get pretty dry this time of year,” points out Daniel O’Brian, a technical expert from online retailer SupplyHouse.com. The solution to improved health and comfort, however, can be as simple as adding a humidifier.

Although everyone knows the old adage “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity,” few people understand the relationship between the two. The actual heat a body feels is a combination of both temperature and humidity. The minute you turn on your home heating system in the winter, it begins to remove moisture from the air. Dry air feels cooler than moist air, so in a dry interior, in order to maintain a temperature that seems comfortable, you end up raising the thermostat higher than necessary. By adding humidity back into the mix, you can alleviate the dryness, lower the thermostat, and still feel comfortable—saving money on heating bills in the bargain.

“Not only can low humidity dry out your skin and throat, and generally make you feel uncomfortable,” says O’Brian, “it can contribute to other health issues—from making you more susceptible to colds and flu to aggravating conditions like asthma, allergies, and sinus problems.” Children and pets—especially birds—can be particularly sensitive to dry indoor air.

“Extremely low moisture levels can even be damaging to your home, causing wood floors and fine furniture to warp and crack, interior paint to dry out, chip and flake, and wallpaper edges to shrink and peel,” O’Brian notes. “And, if you think those static shocks are painful to the touch, think of what they are doing to your electronics!”

Honeywell By Pass Whole-House Humidifier

Honeywell bypass humidifier at SupplyHouse.com

The simple answer to alleviating all these problems is to install a humidifier, which can be used to increase the moisture levels in specific rooms or throughout the entire house. Indoor humidity levels of 35 to 50 percent are considered to be the most comfortable, depending on personal preference.

Most people are familiar with single room humidifiers, which use cool mist, warm air, or steam vaporization to increase humidity in a room. There are also a variety of whole-home humidifiers that can be installed directly in line with your heating system to increase humidity levels throughout the entire house.

While there are various types of whole-house humidification systems, nearly all are controlled by a device called a humidistat, which allows you to set the exact level of humidity desired. Depending on the type of system you choose and the size of your home, a whole-house humidifier will use from 1.5 gallons up to 12 gallons of water per day when the furnace is operating.

Drum humidifiers are commonly used with forced-air heating systems. Drum systems feature a sponge attached to a drum that rotates slowly through a water reservoir. Warm air from the furnace passes through the sponge and picks up moisture, then the moist air is distributed throughout the house.

Bypass humidifiers are connected between hot and cold air return ducts. They use the pressure difference between the ducts to force heated air to pass through the humidifier and return to the furnace. Such humidifiers don’t contain a foam drum but rather a series of plastic discs with small grooves on both sides that allow for sufficient evaporative surface area without requiring a great deal of space.

Honeywell Humidifier Digital Control

Honeywell humidifier digital controls at SupplyHouse.com

Whole-house humidifiers are typically controlled by humidistats, devices that sense the moisture in the air and allow you to maintain the desired level of humidity; they come in both manual and digital models. As the humidity level in a space drops, a set of electrical contacts in the humidistat close, turning the unit on. When the humidity level rises, the electrical contacts open, thereby turning the unit off. Some models have a dual function and can be used to control a dehumidifier in the summer months, when excess moisture becomes a problem.

The amount of humidification you need in your home is determined by the total square footage of the house, as well as the home’s construction and insulation. Online retailer SupplyHouse.com offers a handy calculator to help consumers determine the best product to meet their needs. The company offers a large selection of humidifier products and packages from leading manufacturers, and highlights informative articles and instructional videos on its Web site.

For more about humidifiers and heating products, visit SupplyHouse.com.

 

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


How To: Clean Oven Racks

Over time, oven racks become covered with grease, grime, and baked-on food. Here are some (relatively) painless ways to get them clean and shiny again.

How to Clean Oven Racks

Photo: shutterstock.com

Ugh, is there anything worse than a dirty oven? If you use the appliance at all, chances are that baked-on grease, sticky grime, and burnt bits are going to accumulate—maybe not today or tomorrow, but someday. While many homeowners are lucky enough to enjoy a self-cleaning oven, that convenience comes with a consequence. Over time, the self-cleaning functionality ends up damaging the racks. To prolong their life, it’s recommended that, when possible, you clean oven racks the old-fashioned way. Fortunately, by using any of the following methods, you can get the job done quickly and with a minimum of hassle.

Bathtub Bliss

• Fill the tub with very hot water, just enough to cover the racks. Add up to 1/2 cup of dishwashing soap (or up to 3/4 cup laundry detergent). Let sit overnight.

• Alternatively, sprinkle baking soda over the racks, then douse them with vinegar. Once the foaming stops, submerge the racks in hot water and let sit overnight.

• In the morning, scrub the racks with an old dish towel to remove grease and grime, and use an old toothbrush to dislodge any baked-on grime. For really stubborn bits, add salt to the toothbrush to make the scrubbing more abrasive. Afterwards, rinse the racks thoroughly before returning them to the oven.

How to Clean Oven Racks - Detail

Photo: shutterstock.com

Trash Bag Treasure

• Place oven racks into an unused trash bag. Add 1/2 quart of ammonia. Seal the bag and let sit overnight.

• Open the bag in the morning; be wary of ammonia fumes. Rinse the racks thoroughly and replace.

Commercial Cleansers

• Because many cleansers produce toxic fumes, if you plan on using a commercial cleanser, clean oven racks outside.

• Cover a work surface with sheet plastic or newspaper. Lay down the oven racks in a single layer.

• Put on rubber gloves, then spray oven cleaner generously onto the racks. Let sit for about 10 minutes.

• Scrub the racks either with a rag or an old toothbrush. Rinse thoroughly with a garden hose before replacing.

It’s a dirty job, but if in your household, you are the person responsible for the task of cleaning oven racks, take heart: It requires only a few common household items, several hours of soaking, and a little bit of elbow grease to get the job done.


Pro Tips: Wood-Burning Fireplaces

An open hearth with a crackling fire is cozy and romantic, but if you also want it to be a source of practical, economical warmth, consider installing a closed, high-efficiency fireplace unit.

Photo: quadrafire.com

Everyone loves the imagery of chestnuts roasting on an open fire—but wait just a minute! An open fire may be great for chestnuts, but is it the best option for winter warmth? Traditional wood-burning fireplaces certainly look impressive, but operating one of those classic hearths may be costing you a lot of cold, hard cash.

Related: 12 “Different” Ways to Store Firewood

“A decorative wood-burning fireplace is just that: decorative,” explains Harold Wagner, national sales manager for Fireplaces Now. ”More heat goes up the chimney than goes into the room. Lighting a fire in a decorative fireplace is like opening a window and putting a fan in it. With a 2,000-square-foot home, it would only take two hours for that fireplace to suck out all the heat from the house.” For the budget-conscious, experts recommend high-energy-efficiency closed fireplace units.

A high-energy-efficiency fireplace operates up to 90 percent more efficiently. Whereas a traditional fireplace sends heated air up the chimney, in effect completely wasting the heat, a more advanced system distributes that heat, usually by means of a blower. In such an arrangement, excess heat from the fireplace reaches the furnace, from which it travels to other rooms. “These systems are more expensive,” Wagner says, “but they can pay for themselves in five to seven years.”

So long as your fireplace creates and distributes heat effectively, there’s a lot to recommend wood as a fuel source. For one thing, unlike oil or gas, wood is a renewable resource. Rachel Romaniuk, marketing coordinator for Regency Fireplace Products, reminds homeowners that “well-managed forests are a sustainable source of energy that helps us to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” And with prices for nonrenewable fuels on the rise, wood represents an affordable alternative.

Photo: vonderhaar.com

Shopping for a wood-burning fireplace, stove, or insert? Seek out an EPA-certified unit that emits no more than 7.5 grams of particle pollution per kilogram of wood burned. Further considerations include “room size, house type, and climate zone,” says Chad Hendrickson, brand director for Quadra-Fire and Harman at Hearth & Home Technologies. He recommends getting advice from a local dealer, someone familiar with the conditions typical of your geographical area.

Unless you are an experienced do-it-yourselfer, leave the installation to pros. Best qualified are those with National Fireplace Institute certification. Hendrickson suggests contracting with “installers who understand building code requirements and the pitfalls of impractical designs.” Even if you plan to handle some aspects of the job yourself, Hendrickson stresses that “the venting system is a critical area requiring professional involvement for the safety of your family and your home.”

With a high-energy-efficiency fireplace, routine maintenance is a must. Collin Champagne, NFI Master Hearth Professional for eFireplaceStore, summarizes: ”Regularly sweep ashes and frequently inspect the chimney for excessive creosote buildup.” The more wood you burn, the more often your chimney must be cleaned, but as a rule of thumb, you should expect to hire a chimney sweep “at least once per season.”

You might never have thought so, but the firewood used actually matters. Wagner, of Fireplaces Now, says, ”If a consumer burns a lot of low-end wood, they will need more frequent chimney cleaning.” It’s therefore recommended that you stick to good-quality hardwood stored a safe distance from the fireplace.

“With proper installation and maintenance, a wood-burning fireplace can be an economical and energy-efficient addition to any home,” Wagner concludes.


Chase Away Winter’s Chill with Radiant Heat

On those frigid mornings, wouldn't you love comfortable, even heat throughout your home, and a floor that's warm beneath your feet? Consider the benefits of a radiant floor heating.

Quik Trak Radiant Heat Flooring

Quik Trak Radiant Heat Flooring System at SupplyHouse.com

Drafts got you down? If your goal is to achieve even, comfortable heat and warm floors, then you may want to look into installing a radiant heating system for your home.

Radiant heating systems, which are typically installed in or below the floor of your home, distribute heat evenly and comfortably. The heating coils first warm up the floor. The heat radiates gradually throughout the room, warming any furnishings and surfaces in its path—which then give off warmth in turn. Everything in the room becomes snug and toasty while the overall air temperature remains comfortable, not stultifying.

“Radiant heat holds many advantages over typical convective heating methods,” notes Daniel O’Brian, a technical expert from online retailer SupplyHouse.com. “Radiant systems heat the whole room evenly, so there is no ‘cold at the floor, hot at the ceiling’ effect. They will even heat the surface of the objects in the room, greatly increasing comfort.”

Related:  Radiant Floor Heating 101

Quik Track Radiant Heat Package

Radiant heat Quik Trak system at SupplyHouse.com

“Because airflow is negligible in a radiant system, there is less heat loss due to drafts, and in general the thermostat can be set lower while remaining comfortable,” O’Brian continues. “On top of that, the water temperature required for a radiant system is much lower than for traditional systems. A properly configured radiant system can save you big bucks on utilities.”

Radiant heat is not only comfortable, but also aesthetically pleasing, because all of the components are tucked away out of sight—there are no radiators, baseboard heaters, or hot air returns in view. Radiant heat is also silent, eliminating much of the banging, whistling, creaking, popping, rattling, and humming associated with conventional heating systems.

There are two primary types of radiant heating systems, hydronic and electric. Hydronic systems are the most common and use hot water passing through PEX tubing to heat a space. In contrast, electric radiant systems provide heat through electric cables or mats. Radiant heat can be installed in both new construction and in existing homes, and there are several different types of installations available, depending on the home’s construction. For example, hydronic tubing can be installed in a cement foundation when it is initially poured, or the tubing can be installed in an “over-pour” on an existing foundation. Tubing also can be installed in between the floor joists with or without plates, or it can be installed above the subfloor using a specialty product such as Quik Trak.

Rifeng Radiator Heat Manifold

Rifeng 7-Loop Stainless Steel Radiant Heat Manifold at SupplyHouse.com

Radiant heat is also an energy-efficient option for many homeowners. Although the initial installation cost may be 10 to 25 percent more expensive than a conventional heating system, a properly designed and maintained radiant heating system can cost 25 to 50 percent less to run and maintain. Also, the life expectancy of a radiant heat system is typically 30 to 45 years, double or even triple the 10- to 25- year life expectancy of a traditional forced-air furnace. Radiant heat can also increase the value of your home at resale, because these systems are considered a highly desirable option among home buyers.

SupplyHouse.com offers a large selection of products and packages for installing radiant heating systems from the top manufacturers in the industry. For more information, including a radiant heat calculator, visit SupplyHouse.com.

 

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


How To: Clean Porcelain Tile

A beautiful and extremely durable flooring option, porcelain tile will retain its sparkling finish for years—so long as it's cleaned regularly and appropriately. Here's how.

How to Clean Porcelain Tile

Photo: porcelanosa-usa.com

Porcelain tile consistently ranks as a preferred flooring choice among homeowners, partly due to its beauty—the material comes in a veritable rainbow of hues—and partly due to its stain- and moisture-resistance. Though it loses luster over time, porcelain tile can be easily cleaned and restored to its original shine.

Related: Top Tips for Cleaning Grout Lines

Regularly maintaining porcelain tile is the best way to keep it in tip-top condition. As often as two times per week, sweep with a soft-bristle broom before vacuuming (with the brush attachment). Once a month, mix 1/4 cup white vinegar with two gallons of water (or purchase one of the many suitable commercial cleansers), then apply the solution with a sponge mop. Rinse with plain water, then dry the surface completely with a clean towel or a microfiber cloth.

There are different types of porcelain tile (unpolished/unglazed, polished/glazed, or textured) and for each type, a different set of care recommendations applies:

Cleaning Unpolished/Unglazed Porcelain Tile
• Vacuum and sweep the area thoroughly to remove dust and dirt.

• Taking one section at a time (two or four feet square), saturate the tile surface with a vinegar-and-water mixture or a commercial cleanser.

• Allow the cleanser to soak into the tile for five to ten minutes, but do not allow it to dry.

• Scrub stained areas with a soft-bristle brush.

• Wipe away the dirty cleaning solution and rinse the area with clean, hot water.

• Dry the tile with a clean towel or a microfiber cloth.

How to Clean Porcelain Tile - Wenge

Photo: designbuildmn.com

Cleaning Polished/Glazed Porcelain Tile
• Sweep and vacuum debris and dirt, then go over the area with a dry dust mop.

• Now use a hot water-dampened mop, never allowing moisture to puddle or pool on the tile.

• Loosen heavier soil with a soft nylon-bristle brush (or an old toothbrush).

• For stains, use a vinegar-and-water mixture (or a commercial cleanser diluted to half strength).

• Mop with your chosen cleanser, mopping again with hot water before the cleanser dries.

• Dry the tile surface with a clean towel or a microfiber cloth, being sure to rub out any water spots.

• Once dry, buff the tile to a high shine with a piece of cheesecloth.

Cleaning Textured Porcelain Tile
• Sweep the area twice with a soft-bristle broom, first in the direction of the tile, then on a diagonal.

• Vacuum to remove all dirt.

• Saturate the tile with a vinegar-and-water solution, allowing it to soak for five to ten minutes.

• Scrub the floor with a soft-bristle brush, again working in two directions.

• Rinse the floor with hot water in order to thoroughly remove the cleaning solution.

• Go over the floor with a clean, damp mop.

• Dry with a clean towel or a microfiber cloth.

While porcelain tile boasts exceptional durability, there are few cleaning products and techniques you should take pains to avoid:

  • Never use a product containing ammonia or bleach (or any type of acid-based cleanser); these can alter the tile color and/or stain the grout.
  • Never use oil-based detergents or wax cleaners.
  • On unglazed porcelain, never use any cleaners that contain dye or coloring.
  • Never use steel wool on porcelain tile—small particles of steel can become embedded in the tile and grout, eventually causing rust stains.
  • Never use hard bristles or scrub brushes, as they can scratch the tile surface.

Regular cleaning and polishing with a soft cotton or microfiber cloth will ensure that porcelain tile retains its “like new” shine for many years.