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: Saving on Remodeling Costs With Deconstruction and Salvage

If you're planning some renovations, you may be able to save money—and help the environment—if you opt to start your project with deconstruction rather than traditional demolition. Let a pro walk you through the pros and cons.

Photo: Sunsetgreenhome.com

Renovations, regardless of whether they are large or small, can be costly endeavors. You may, however, be able to recoup some money by considering the benefits of “deconstruction”—donating your used building materials—or by stretching your remodeling dollars by shopping “salvage”—buying someone else’s donated materials. The benefits of either choice extend well beyond just the homeowner, because these practices reduce the amount of demolition debris that ends up in landfills and provide jobs for laborers involved in the dismantling process.

“Many homeowners can profit by donating used building materials,” explains Kim Erle, a LEED Green Associate accredited by the Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI), the credentialing arm of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Erle isn’t just an expert on advising homeowners on green building and renovation, she is the living embodiment of the deconstruction movement. “We lost our home in Long Island during Hurricane Sandy and were faced with demolishing and rebuilding on an extremely limited budget,” she explains. “I founded the Sunset Green Home project, a LEED-registered project that will seek Platinum certification at completion.”

Although deconstruction cost Erle about twice what a traditional demolition would have cost, the charitable donation ended up fully offsetting the cost of the demolition. “The whole process is what I like to think of as doing well by doing good,” says Erle. First, it keeps a high proportion of the used materials out of the landfill, which is better for the environment. Second, it makes used materials available to homeowners who have a need for replacement items but may not be able to afford new materials. And third, it potentially provides green job training and experience for entry-level workers. “It’s a triple-bottom-line home run,” she adds.

Sunset Green Home Deconstruction

Photo: Sunsetgreenhome.com

Erle notes that deconstruction is financially beneficial on small-scale renovations too. “Jeff Carroll of Details, the company that deconstructed our home, tells me that the cost differential between using a deconstruction firm, which salvages the usable materials, and a demolition company, which tears out the materials without regard to salvaging them, is even lower for small jobs like kitchen and bath remodels,” she adds. His crew can remove a kitchen or bath in just about the same time that it would take a demolition company to do the job.

As project leader and homeowner on the Sunset Green Home project, Erle has firsthand experience of the benefits and cost savings of deconstruction and salvage. Is it right for you?  Here are her top tips to keep in mind should you wish to follow her lead:

Get started early! You may do better financially by deconstructing and donating your unneeded building materials. But deconstruction takes planning, so make sure to give yourself enough time.

Shop often and befriend someone at the resale store. If you’re hoping to purchase and install salvaged kitchen cabinets, for example, it may take some time and several trips to the salvage store to find exactly what you need. Make sure to give yourself a longer lead time to increase the likelihood that you find your dream kitchen. You’d be surprised at the treasures that are available.

Try to use a nonprofit deconstruction firm. Details, the company we used to deconstruct the Sunset Green Home project, is a nonprofit firm with the mission of workforce development. Therefore, the company can receive as a donation and “consume” all the materials of a deconstruction project in fulfilling its mission. Using a for-profit deconstruction company will still result in a donation of reusable materials, but  any materials that can’t be salvaged—for example, insulation that is removed when a wall is taken down—would not be considered part of the donation.

Habitat Restore

Photo: habitatmwgw.org

Don’t forget about energy efficiency and environmental impact. Life-cycle costs and ecological impact matter. It may cost more over the long term to install an inexpensive, salvaged—but inefficient—appliance than to purchase a new one with a higher initial cost, but that over time has significantly lower operating costs and resource use. For example, a new washing machine uses considerably less energy and water than an older model. Depending on its age, a salvaged washing machine may not prove to be cost-effective over the long term.

A DIYer who has materials to donate can contact Habitat for Humanity, which operates ReStores nationally (and in Canada) through its affiliates. Niche players can be identified through Internet searches—in the New York City area, for instance, Build It Green NYC has warehouses in two of the city’s boroughs.

For a time-lapse video of the Sunset Green House deconstruction project, click here.


How To: Eliminate Fruit Flies

Fruit flies driving you mad? Get rid of them for good by using common sense and some simple home remedies.

How to Get Rid of Fruit Flies

Photo: shutterstock.com

A terrific way to maintain good health is to stick to a diet chock-full of fruits and vegetables. But few things spoil the appetite more quickly than a cloud of flies lingering over the fruit bowl. Sometimes it seems like these tiny pests are everywhere—in garbage cans, hovering around sink drains, and near potted plants. Fortunately, there are several effective, nontoxic ways to get rid of fruit flies. You can keep them at bay, even during the height of summer, with the following time-tested tips and tricks.

PREVENTION
Like so many other household problems, fruit fly infestations can be prevented. We’ll get around to telling you how to get rid of fruit flies after they’ve invaded your living spaces, but first, here’s how to keep them from feeling welcome to begin with:

• Avoid bringing home any fruits or vegetables that are bruised; these often contain fly eggs or larvae.

• Store soft fruits in the refrigerator in a paper bag. (Hard-skinned fruits may be stored in the open, so long as they haven’t ripened to the point of softness.)

• Being that garbage cans and recycling bins are fruit fly breeding grounds, it’s recommended that you empty and clean these containers as often as you can. If possible, do so on a daily basis.

• If you store containers of condiments (for example, ketchup) and cooking essentials like vinegar in your cabinets, make sure to keep the jars’ rims and lids clean. Store these products in the refrigerator if there’s room.

• Wipe down counters and eating surfaces promptly after mealtimes, leaving no food or drink residue.

• If you’d rather not hand-wash dishes and utensils immediately after use, place them in the dishwasher.

• Clean sink drains with a bottle brush and a grease-cutting cleanser, followed by a hot water rinse.

• Launder dish towels and hand towels regularly; dry your mop thoroughly after you’ve finished with it.

• In the summer, use fine-mesh window and door screens to prevent fruit flies from gaining entry.

ELIMINATION
Oh, no! Despite your best efforts, fruit flies have found their way into your home. You’re surely annoyed, but the situation need not persist. Try this: Fill a small container with a teaspoon of cider vinegar, two tablespoons of water, and a drop or two of fruity-smelling dish soap. Place the container near where the pests have been most active. Although you may need to refresh the trap nightly for a period of three or four days, sooner rather than later you should notice that the fruit fly population has dwindled or disappeared.

Alternatively, drop a piece of rotten fruit into a glass jar. Next, puncture the pointy end of a cone-shaped coffee filter and place the filter on top of the glass jar. Watch as flies pass through the hole to pursue the fruit into the jar only to end up trapped by the filter. Release your prisoners outdoors, repeating the process as often as needed.

An equally effective approach is placing a piece of rotten fruit into a bowl of wine or wine vinegar. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, then use a fork to poke very small holes through the plastic. So long as those holes you make aren’t overly large, the flies won’t be able to escape.

Keep in mind, too, that rubbing alcohol kills fruit flies more or less instantly. If things have gotten out of hand—or if you feel like doing a little hunting at home—fill a spray bottle with alcohol and direct it toward any hovering fruit flies you encounter. Don’t get any of the alcohol on your fruit, though—it causes fruit to spoil.


How To: Choose a Water Heater

Whether tank or tankless, water heaters can dramatically impact your home's comfort and costs. If you are looking to replace an existing unit, the type, size and efficiency of the one you choose will be important.

Water Heaters

Illustration: SupplyHouse.com

While we often take a hot shower or bath for granted, it’s important to note that up to 20% of a household’s annual energy expenditures come from heating hot water. That makes it the second largest utility expense in the home, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, averaging around $400 to $600 per year.  If you are looking to install a new hot water heater—or replace an existing one—the type, size and efficiency of the unit you choose will have a big impact on its performance and long-term savings.

There are a number of different types of water heaters to consider from heat pumps to solar-powered units, but the most common are tank and tankless. Traditional, tank-style water heaters are large metal cylinders that keep hot water stored and on reserve for when it may be needed. Since they typically range in capacity from 40 to 60 gallons and are generally about 60″ tall by 24″ wide, they are often installed in a basement or laundry room.

Tankless units, also known as “on demand” water heaters, turn on only when hot water is required. With no holding tank, the system is not only more compact—typically 20″ wide by 28″ long by 10″ deep—but more efficient since it is not storing a reserve of hot water (or compensating for its subsequent heat loss). Tank-style water heaters are usually less expensive than tankless units, but tankless models generally last longer: a traditional water heater usually lasts 10 to 13 years, while tankless water heaters can last up to 20 years.

Takagi Tankless Water Heater

Takagi Tankless Propane Water Heater at SupplyHouse.com

Regardless of whether the unit is tank or tankless, water heaters generally fall into two categories: direct-fired or indirect-fired. Direct-fired means that the water in the tank is heated directly by the heat of a flame; these units are generally used in homes with warm air furnaces. In direct-fired heaters, fuel is burned in a combustion chamber under the water storage tank, then hot flue gases heat water in the tank.

An indirect-fired water heater gets hot water from a boiler or furnace, which heats water that is then transferred through a heat exchanger located in the storage tank. The energy stored by the storage tank allows the furnace to turn on and off less often, which can save energy and money.

The fuel source is another important consideration when selecting a water heater.  While there are hot water heaters compatible for gas, oil, electric, propane, and even solar, each has its own advantages and disadvantages.  Natural gas units, for instance, produce hot water quickly and are available in various sizes and models, but require venting through a chimney or wall. Liquid propane water heaters have similar venting requirements, but also require a storage tank and regular fuel deliveries. Oil water heaters produce hot water faster than any other method, but there are fewer models from which to choose. Electric water heaters are easy to install and do not require special venting, but they require more energy in comparison to other energy sources.

AO Smith Water Heater

AO Smith 50 Gallon High Efficiency Gas Water Heater at SupplyHouse.com

If you are replacing an existing water heater, you may be able to tackle the job yourself.  “Replacing an old water heater with a newer comparable model is something a DIYer may be able to accomplish,” explains Daniel O’Brian, a technical expert from online retailer SupplyHouse.com. “Provided the venting, voltages, and fuel type match up, you would simply shut off the gas and electric, isolate the heater, drain the tank (carefully as the water may still be hot), disconnect it from the system, and swap it out for the new one.”

“Be mindful that the connections from an old unit to a new one might not be in the exact same place, so some re-piping may be in order,” O’Brian continues. “Compare the spec sheets of your new unit to the locations of the connections on your old model to get an idea if there are any changes necessary for a straight swap.”

“A new install of a water heater requires running gas lines, electrical, and setting up proper ventilations,” O’Brian adds. “As such, it should generally be left up to a professional.”

SupplyHouse.com offers a large selection of water heaters and accessories from the top manufacturers in the industry. To learn more about water heaters, watch the video below or visit SupplyHouse.com.

 

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


Expansion Tanks: What Are They and Why Are They Important?

When water is heated, it expands, increasing the pressure in closed heating systems. Over time, these pressure fluctuations can damage the system's components. An expansion tank is designed to alleviate this pressure and extend the life of your system. Here's how it works.

Expansion Tank Diagram

Expansion Tank Diagram: SupplyHouse.com

Homeowners looking to maximize the efficiency and life expectancy of their heating and cooling systems may want to consider installing an expansion tank as an easy and inexpensive means of regulating water pressure and preventing costly damage to other components, including pipes.

An expansion tank is designed to relieve pressure in both potable water and closed hydronic heating systems. It ensures that constant pressure is maintained within the pipes so they do not get damaged from excess pressure. “An expansion tank in a heating system is an invaluable component that protects the entire system from the increased pressure and volume caused by heating,” asserts Daniel O’Brian, a technical expert from online retailer SupplyHouse.com.

“When water is heated, it expands,” O’Brian explains. “In a closed heating system there is only so much space in the pipes and the boiler. If the water is taking up more space and has nowhere to go, the pressure will increase and possibly damage the system, generally at its weakest points, until a leak or even a burst pipe results. An expansion tank is designed to relieve the stress, thereby increasing the life of the components in your entire heating system.”

Extrol Expansion Tank

Extrol 4.4-Gallon Expansion Tank at SupplyHouse.com

Expansion tanks work by equalizing pressure throughout the system. An expansion tank is a small tank divided in two sections by a rubber diaphragm. One side is connected to the pipes of the heating system and contains water. The other side is dry and contains pressurized air, set at approximately 12 psi. As hot water enters the heating system, the pressure in the system increases. As pressure increases, the diaphragm in the expansion tank is pushed down. This compresses the air in the tank, creating more space for excess water to enter. This relieves excess pressure in the system and prevents pipes in the system from being damaged.

Installing an expansion tank is a relatively simple process that can typically be completed in less than an hour by a handy do-it-yourselfer. Some local building codes may require installation by a licensed plumber, however, so you should check with your municipal building department before proceeding with any installation.

Expansion tanks vary in capacity, ranging from tanks that hold as little as two gallons to large tanks that hold several hundred gallons. To determine the size needed for your system, online retailer SupplyHouse.com offers a handy Expansion Tank Sizing Calculator on its Web site. Use it to determine the size and model of the expansion tank that’s best suited for your system.

Prices for expansion tanks start at about $30 for small residential tanks and climb up to $800 to $1,000 for larger, commercial tanks. Leading brands include Extrol expansion tanks, manufactured by Amtrol, which are used for hydronic heating systems; the Watts ET series and Bell & Gossett HFT expansion tanks, both designed for use with closed hydronic heating systems; and Therm-X-trol expansion tanks, for use with potable water open systems.

If your home already has an expansion tank in place, you may want to check it periodically to make sure that the tank is functioning. To check if the expansion tank is working properly, simply place your hand on the tank and feel its temperature. The top portion of the tank should feel warm to the touch, and the bottom portion of the tank should be room temperature. If the entire tank is warm, it is likely that the tank has completely filled with hot water, which occurs only if the diaphragm fails. If this happens, the tank must be replaced immediately.

Online retailer SupplyHouse.com offers a large selection of expansion tanks and accessories from the top manufacturers in the industry. To learn more, watch the video below or visit SupplyHouse.com.

 

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


How To: Choose the Right Gutters

There is so much to consider when choosing new gutters, including shape, material, and cost. But don't overlook performance and quality, which will over time reward you with reduced maintenance and lasting beauty.

LeafGuard

Photo: LeafGuard Brand Gutters

Gutters are a critical component of a home’s drainage system, and like many exterior features, they’re subject to wear and damage. An important item on your spring maintenance checklist should be to examine and clean out the gutters. Regular cleaning and maintenance will go a long way toward getting the maximum lifespan out of your gutters.

If, however, your gutters are showing signs of severe wear—cracks, holes, and leaks, for example—or if they’re sagging or pulling away from the house or have numerous missing, loose, or bent fasteners, it may be time to look into replacement gutters. Experts point out that water damage to the roof, fascia board, decking, or rafters is a sure sign that gutters are due for replacement. “Most ordinary gutters last about 10 to 15 years,” explains Robert Lowe, director of operations for Englert LeafGuard, originators and makers of the only one-piece, seamless gutter system with built-in hood. “Dangerous water leaks and overflows can cause tremendous damage to a home, sometimes before homeowners are even aware of the problem.”

There are many types and styles of gutters on the market today, with the primary materials being aluminum, copper, steel, galvanized steel, zinc, and vinyl. Aluminum is the most prevalent gutter material and offers several advantages over other types. Aluminum is lightweight, resistant to corrosion, and available in a wide range of colors—and it’s also often the least expensive option.

Copper Gutters

Copper gutters. Photo: shutterstock.com

Other choices among the metals include galvanized steel gutters, which are coated with a layer of zinc; these gutters are strong but may be prone to rusting. Steel gutters also are available with a coating of aluminum and zinc, which alleviates the rust problem but is more expensive. Zinc gutters, yet another option, are also strong and durable, and normally do not require painting or finishing. Copper gutters are an extremely upscale and attractive choice, but cost substantially more than other metals.

Another inexpensive option is vinyl, which is available in a wide range of colors to match many types of vinyl siding. Vinyl gutters are not as durable as metal, however; they break down over time with exposure to sunlight and will therefore need to be replaced much more frequently. Additionally, vinyl gutters typically come in 10-foot sections, and the rubber seals used to join the sections can become brittle and leak.

Most professionals note that aluminum gutters offer the best combination of style, durability, and price. “As far as replacement gutters go, you want seamless aluminum gutters with a minimum thickness of .025 inches,” asserts Lowe. “There also are numerous options for ‘toppers’ for those gutters; the most common are solid hoods and filters. The different toppers each have their good and bad points. The solid toppers are the best, because they use the reverse curve or liquid adhesion model, which works the best. The downside to these types of covers is the installation process, which is generally handled by a subcontractor. These products install under the shingles, which can cause problems with roof warranties.”

LeafGuard

Photo: LeafGuard Brand Gutters

Anyone in the market for new gutters not only has to choose a material, but also has to select among a range of shapes, or profiles. The most popular is the “K-style,” or ogee, gutter, which has a shape similar to decorative crown molding. Fascia gutters, another alternative, feature a smooth face that performs the same function as fascia boards, hiding the edges of the rafter tails from view. Half-round gutters have an open construction with the open side facing the roof. This style has fallen out of favor, because it easily clogs with debris and then overflows. European-style gutter systems are typically half-round gutters made from materials that weather naturally, such as copper.

All gutters come in either sectional or seamless constructions. Most do-it-yourself gutters are sold in 10-foot sections that must then be linked together with snap-in connectors. The drawback to sectional systems is that the joints eventually leak. Seamless gutters, on the other hand, have seams only at the corners. Seamless gutters are typically made of metal and are extruded to custom lengths by professional installers using a portable gutter machine.

 

LeafGuard Brand gutters combine many of the attributes recommended by professionals, according to Lowe. They also carry the Good Housekeeping Seal. “Patented LeafGuard Brand gutters allow homeowners to say goodbye forever to cleaning gutters clogged by leaves and debris, because the one-piece gutter system features a built-in hood that covers the gutter bottom and deflects leaves and other debris,” Lowe adds. “This unique, seamless design keeps debris from collecting in your gutters, which keeps rainwater running freely and safely away from your home—each and every time it rains.”

 

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


Spring Home Maintenance? Don’t Overlook Your Gutters

With all the home maintenance tasks that pile up in the spring, it's easy to forget about cleaning the gutters. Don't ignore this important chore! If you don't clear debris from your gutters, you could be heading for roofing, siding, and foundation issues in the months ahead.

Spring Gutter Cleaning

Photo: LeafGuard

Spring has officially arrived, and that means a whole host of outdoor chores for homeowners. One of the most important—but often overlooked—tasks is checking gutters for winter debris and damage.

A properly functioning gutter system protects your home from water damage by draining water from the roof and funneling it away from the house. When the gutters and downspouts are clogged, however, water can back up and damage the roof, fascia, soffits, and siding.

Experts agree that regular examination and maintenance will help reduce the need for gutter repairs and replacement. “One of the biggest problems we see with regular gutters is that the problems are hidden from view for most homeowners,” points out Robert Lowe, director of operations for Englert LeafGuard, a leading manufacturer of covered one-piece gutter systems. “From the ground it is very difficult to see inside of the gutter; therefore, most problems with built-up debris are noticed only when it is too late and damage is occurring.

Spring Gutter Cleaning - Damage

Photo: LeafGuard

“The most common problem is the obvious leaves and debris clogging the gutters, making the water back up over the top and damaging the fascia board, then the decking, the rafters, and in some cases the foundation of the home itself,” Lowe continues. “If you have ever experienced gutters that are pulling away from the house, or if you have to keep pushing the spikes back into the gutters to hold them to the house, these are tell-tale signs of fascia board damage. The problems need to be fixed as soon as possible because damage ramps up fast—as the gutter starts to sag, it can cause more water to run over, which in turn leads to more and faster damage.”

A simple way to check on a gutter’s performance is to wait for a rainy day and look to see if water is emptying from the downspouts. If water isn’t flowing freely from the bottom of a downspout, or if you notice water overflowing the edges of the gutter, there is debris clogging the gutters or downspouts or both.

According to Lowe, the easiest answer to most gutter problems is to clean your gutters on a regular basis. Most debris consists of small leaves and twigs that can either be scooped out by hand or removed with a handheld leaf blower or wet/dry vacuum. Flushing the gutters with a garden hose removes dirt and small particles. For denser debris, you may want to invest in a gutter cleaning tool. Most clogged downspouts can be flushed with a garden hose; use a plumber’s snake to break up those really stubborn clogs.  (Note: If you are climbing a ladder, be sure to follow safety measures.)

Gutter cleaning may be needed much more frequently than just once a season, especially if you live in an area where there are many trees. “The one problem we find, other than procrastination, is that you go out on a Saturday and spend all day cleaning the gutters and sealing up holes only for a windstorm to come the following week and blow more debris right back into the gutters,” Lowe says. “Most people don’t realize that more debris actually blows into the gutter system than gets washed in with rain.”

Spring Gutter Cleaning - After

Photo: LeafGuard

Other problems to look for when cleaning gutters include holes, corrosion, sagging sections, and loose, bent, or missing fasteners. Holes should be plugged or caulked immediately. Sagging is often the result of loose or missing spikes, which should be tightened or replaced.

In some cases, however, gutters may simply be too far gone and need to be replaced. “If you have problems with your gutters and you want to solve the problems once and for all, you have to ask the question, ‘What do I want my gutters not to do ever again?’ ” Lowe explains. “The top two answers should be, ‘I don’t want the water from my gutters to get to my house’ and ‘I don’t want to have to clean them again.’ ”

Lowe points out that LeafGuard Brand gutters solve both of these issues, due to the product’s patented one-piece design and seamless construction. “LeafGuard Brand by Englert is the original and only one-piece gutter system, with a built-in hood that covers the gutter bottom and deflects leaves and other debris,” Lowe says. “This unique, seamless design keeps debris from collecting in your gutters, which prevents clogs from forming; keeps water flowing freely; eliminates leaks and the threat of water damage; and makes climbing ladders to clean gutters unnecessary. LeafGuard Brand gutters eliminate the problems homeowners worry about, because these gutters will not let water go anywhere but out the front or down the downspout.”

Spring Gutter Cleaning - Guard

Photo: LeafGuard

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


A Few Things to Consider When Installing a Radiant Heat System

If you're thinking of installing a radiant heating system, you need to take a number of factors into consideration. Here's a quick rundown.

radiant heat

Over-pour radiant heat installation. Photo: stepbystep.com

Comfortable, even, and efficient, radiant heat systems are becoming a popular option for many homeowners today. But there are a number of factors that come into play when considering radiant heat, including the type of radiant system desired and whether the installation is for new construction or retrofit.

There are two basic types of radiant heating systems—hydronic and electric. Hydronic systems are the most common; these systems use hot water passing through tubing to heat a space. Electric radiant heat uses electric cables or mats for the same purpose. There are four basic types of radiant heating installations: in-slab systems that are installed in a new cement foundation when it is being poured; an “over-pour” installation, where the tubing is installed on an existing foundation and then covered by an additional layer of cement; joist track systems that fit in between existing floor joists; and wood panel track systems that can be installed over existing subfloors.

A number of specialized components are required for radiant heat installations, including the tubing itself. “When installing a hydronic radiant heat system, most of the time you’ll want to use an oxygen barrier PEX tubing to prevent rusting of the cast iron components in your heating system,” notes Daniel O’Brian, a technical expert from online retailer SupplyHouse.com. “This oxygen barrier tubing is what carries the hot water through the flooring or track system and transfers the heat to the space.” There are many brands of oxygen barrier tubing available, explains O’Brian, including Uponor, the highest quality, Rifeng, the least expensive, and ThermaPEX, which offers the best combination of price and quality. All of these brands of radiant tubing carry a 25-year warranty and require PEX tools and fittings for installation.

Rifeng manifold

Rifeng Stainless Steel Radiant Heat Manifold from SupplyHouse.com.

Another necessary component of radiant heat systems is the manifold, which serves as a hub from which the hot water from the boiler is distributed to different tubing loops throughout the house. These manifolds often come with special features, including balancing valves and flow meters, temperature gauges, shut-off valves, and actuators.

The main “engine” driving the radiant heat system is, of course, the boiler, and there are several options available depending on whether you are retrofitting an existing home or building a new house. “For new construction, a condensing boiler would be ideal,” O’Brian says, because the lower temperatures radiant systems require make efficient use of a condensing boiler’s capabilities. For a retrofit without a condensing boiler, he notes that “a mixing valve would be required to mix the hot boiler supply water with the cooler return water to achieve the desired radiant water temperature.”

Heat transfer plates are another important component, and these also differ depending on the type of installation planned. “Uponor Joist Trak panels or Ultra-Fin suspended panels are popular for retrofit applications because they are installed between joists—which is generally easier than ripping up the floor,” O’Brian points out. “For new construction, you could consider using Uponor’s Quik Trak or the similar Warmboard floor panels. Quik Trak is a low-profile option that can be installed on top of the subfloor, while Warmboard’s heavier, thicker panels can be installed as the subfloor. For installations in concrete, you would need proper slab insulation, and you’d likely want to use bend supports where the tubing leaves the slab to protect the tubing against possible friction due to expansion and contraction.”

QuikTrack Radiant Package

Uponor's Quik Trak Radiant Heating System package from SupplyHouse.com

While most of these components can be purchased separately, there are also specialized radiant heat packages that offer homeowners a simplified approach to an installation project. Radiant heat packages are available for installations ranging from 250 to 2,000 square feet and come in several styles, including Joist Trak, Quik Trak, slab, and suspended pipe applications. Slab packages are the least expensive, priced from $267 for 250 square feet to $2,132 for 2,000 square feet; suspended pipe packages range from $427 for 250 square feet to $3,570 for 2,000 square feet; Joist Trak packages start at $1,072 for 250 square feet and go up to $6,614 for 2,000 square feet; and Quik Trak packages are the most expensive, ranging from $1,532 for 250 square feet to $11,095 for 2,000 square feet.

There also are numerous accessories available for radiant heating systems. O’Brian recommends radiant thermostats that are compatible with a floor sensor. “Standard thermostats can cause the heat to overshoot the set point,” he explains. “Overheating can cause damage to wood floors and just be plain uncomfortable to your feet. With a floor sensor, you can either set a temperature for the floor to reach, or set a max temperature so the floor does not overheat.”

Online retailer PexSupply.com offers a large selection of products and packages for installing radiant heating systems from the top manufacturers in the industry, and features a variety of product calculators, informative articles, and instructional videos on its Web site. For more, visit PexSupply.com.

 

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

 

 

 

 


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.