Author Archives: Helen J. Simon

Safe Indoor Air for Children

Select furniture and soft goods that emit fewer toxins to protect your children.


According to the American Lung Association, lung disease and breathing problems are the number one cause of death in infants less than a year old. Think about it: young children have small airways that can shut down when inflamed; they breathe more times per minute than adults, meaning they also breathe in more toxins; and they’re closer to the ground, where heavy chemicals and particles tend to congregate. All this means that when building and furnishing living areas for children, extra attention should be paid to keeping out biological and chemical pollutants.

“Children are extremely vulnerable, so we need to do our very best with the air quality we provide them,” says Bernadette V. Upton, owner of EcoDecor in North Palm Beach, FL, which specializes in environmentally friendly and healthful interior designs.

Healthy Wall and Floor Treatments
The best approach to creating a healthy indoor environment is to minimize the things in a baby’s room than can contaminate the air. Use paints, finishes, and adhesives that are low in volatile organic compounds (VOC’s), which can cause eye and breathing problems, headaches, nausea, dizziness, and cancer. After you paint the walls, air out the room before adding carpets and bedding that might absorb harmful emissions.

If you’re stenciling or painting a mural, make sure the paints are low-VOC. When using a wall covering, stay away from vinyl, which is associated with the chemical dioxin. Paper wall coverings are good, but just make sure the adhesive is low VOC and that there is no mold-producing moisture underneath. Try to avoid wood paneling, which may contain formaldehyde, a common VOC. If you use it, allow the paneling to air thoroughly to release the highest concentrations of VOC’s before installation and seal it with a low-VOC product to prevent further off-gassing.

When selecting flooring, steer clear of synthetic wall-to-wall carpets, which can emit VOC’s and gather hard-to-clean dust mites and mold. Tile, wood, and linoleum are healthful choices; you can soften them with washable wool or cotton area rugs. If you opt for wall-to-wall-carpet, choose one with a low pile made of wool, nylon, or polyester and check for the Carpet Rug Institute’s indoor air quality label. Have the carpet rolled out and off-gassed before installation, then air out the room for several days once it is down.

Healthy Furnishings
Unfortunately, many cribs, dressers, changing tables, and other furnishings for children are made of pressed-wood products containing formaldehyde. The best choice for kids’ furniture is solid wood with a low-VOC finish. To make sure it’s safe, ask the vendor for the item’s material safety data sheet listing the components. If your budget limits you to pressed-wood products, you can contain the VOC’s by sealing any exposed edges. The same goes for the shelves in your baby’s closet, which are likely to be made of particleboard.

For window treatments, avoid blinds made with PVC, which has been associated with health problems. Look for blinds made from cotton, metal, or wood. When selecting children’s furniture and toys made from plastic, try to stick with hard plastics, as softer ones are more likely to contain harmful chemicals. “The harder the plastic, the safer it is,” says Ginny Turner, president of Ecobaby Organics and Pure-Rest Organic Bedding Company in San Diego, CA, “If a product smells like plastic, you shouldn’t have it around your child.” Upton agrees completely and encourages parents to trust their common sense. “The nose knows,” she says.

Soft Goods, Pillows, and Fabrics
Many of the soft goods that could go into a child’s room are laden with chemicals that contribute to poor air quality. Formaldehyde is commonly used to keep fabrics wrinkle-free. Flame retardants are added to blankets, sheets, mattress pads, mattresses, polyurethane foams used in pillows and cushions, and children’s clothing and pajamas. Pesticides used to grow cotton remain in the finished items.

To reduce the chance of these chemicals affecting your child, select bedding, curtains, mattresses, and furniture covers made with organically grown cottons and linens. Look for products that use wool, which does not easily burn, as a flame retardant. Choose mattresses containing foam made from natural rubber instead of polyurethane. Stay away from pads made with soft plastics.

Keep in mind that even if a fabric is labeled organic, it can still harbor chemicals added during processing, dyeing, or packaging. Turner recommends you seek out products made according to stringent guidelines. “The consumer needs to know who they’re buying from,” she says.

Healthy Cleaning Products and Clean Air
The last thing you want to do is contaminate the air when you’re trying to keep baby’s room, bedding, and clothing clean. Look for environmentally safe cleaning products and natural alternatives such as vinegar, baking soda, and linseed oil. Avoid pesticides, aerosol sprays, and mothballs.

In addition to carefully choosing what you bring in to your child’s room, Upton suggests removing harmful chemicals and particulates from the air mechanically. “I can’t stress enough the importance of an air machine,” she says. “I think every parent should have one.”

Finding Healthy Products
Green fabrics, fibers, and furnishings represent a fairly new market in the U.S., but with people looking to learn more about healthy products, a number of sources and websites are popping up with information.

There may not be a universal organic certification or labeling protocol, but consumers can start researching companies and labels on the website of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements for the Organic Directory under The Organic World heading, which lists member organizations by country.

Another great resource is the Green Guide, a site that reviews everything from bedding to TV screens, organic vegetables to untreated fabrics.

Childproofing the Bathroom

Eliminate the bathroom’s many dangers to keep the bathroom a fun place for children.


Bathroom Access
Childproofing a room begins with some common-sense approaches. “So much of it doesn’t cost a cent,” says Peter Kerin, owner of Foresight Childproofing Inc., in Minnesota’s Twin Cities area. “It just costs a little bit of effort, a little bit of awareness.”

Since the bathroom is a high-traffic area, your childproofing approach has to be functional. It needs to keep children safe but let other family members use the bathroom with ease.

The best way to protect small children is to make sure they can’t get in unattended. “Until children are starting to be potty trained, they should not have free access to the bathroom,” Kerin says. To limit access, put a hook and eye or sliding bolt on the outside of the door, high above your child’s reach. You can also use a doorknob cover, which is available for both round knobs and lever-style handles and prevents the child from opening the latch. Make sure your child can’t get trapped in the bathroom by installing locks that can be opened from the outside.

Tubs, Toilets, and Sinks
“Water is definitely the main concern in the bathroom,” says Kelly Smith, owner of Totsafe in Macomb, MI, and author of Mommy Can Do It: A Do-It-Herself Guide to Baby-Proofing. Children can be scalded by it, slip on it, or drown in it. The easiest way to prevent scald burns is to set the thermostat on your water heater between 110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Test baby’s bathwater on your wrist or use a water thermometer.

To minimize injuries, use a soft spout cover over the faucets. If you have decorative shower curtains, make sure the tiebacks are shorter than 12 inches to prevent strangulation. Watch children closely if you have a walk-in shower with doors that can shatter. “Glass shower doors are an extreme hazard for little kids,” Smith says.

Thce toilet can pose an especially attractive danger to young children. Not only is it unhygienic, but kids can fall in headfirst, get stuck, and drown. Various types of toilet latches can keep baby from lifting the lid. You don’t want kids climbing onto the toilet to access the sink, so have a little stool they can stand on to wash hands and brush teeth. A stool is also important for a child who is potty training. Look for a lightweight stool with a slip-resistant bottom and a wide, stable base. Those plastic caps on the bolts that connect the toilet to the floor are a potential choking hazard. They can come off, so you may want to remove them.

Storage Areas
Keep all cleaning supplies and hazardous materials as well as toilet brushes and plungers out or reach or locked up. Several types of safety latches are sold for cabinets and drawers, but Kerin feels many are ineffective. “An 18-month-old will circumvent most of them,” he says. He prefers the magnetic type that only opens with a magnetic key.

Make sure all razors, nail clippers, and scissors are inaccessible. Alcohol-laden mouthwashes and perfume should be put away. Toothpaste, which contains fluoride, can be a hazard. Medications and vitamins should be out of reach, be properly labeled, and have child-resistant caps. The garbage can is also filled with potential threats; keep it locked in a cabinet or use one with a cover secured with an adhesive strap.

Electric Hazards
Keep all appliances like hairdryers, curling irons, and electric razors locked away or out of reach; when they’re out, leave them unplugged and away from water. Cover electrical outlets with safety plugs or install a safety plate that slides over the receptacles when they’re not in use. Make sure all bathroom outlets have ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs). It’s good to have nightlights, but avoid ones with glass bulbs that can get hot or be broken.

Other Considerations
When selecting flooring, pick something with a textured surface to prevent slipping. And if you have a metal door stop the rubber tip can be a choking hazard, so it’s best to get a solid-rubber stop. Children can fall out of windows, so make sure they don’t open more than four inches. If the window has blinds, eliminate any cords that could strangle a child. To prevent falls in the tub, use a non-slip mat in the bottom, non-slip decals, or a slip-resistant coating. Handholds can minimize the chance of falls as kids get in and out of the bath.

Creating Privacy Through Landscaping

A screen of greenery is a friendly yet effective to establish privacy landscaping in your outdoor space.

Landscaping for Privacy

Photo: Flickr

Many homeowners use their porches, decks, and yards as extensions of their living space. To feel at ease, however, they need privacy. Walls and fences create privacy, but can be off-putting and expensive. ‘Living screens,’ methods of landscaping for privacy, provide another alternative.

When creating a living privacy fence, make sure to pick plants that are appropriate for your property in terms of hardiness, sun, and moisture. Younger plants will be cheaper and easier to install, but if you need privacy quickly, buy larger ones and expect to pay a lot more. You can also use shades, shutters, or awnings until your plant cover grows in fully.

Plants grown on trellises create an effective screen that allows light and air to pass through. “Trellises are very handy because they take up very little space,” says Doug Gagne of The Mixed Border Nursery and Gardens in Hollis, NH. They can be made of pressure-treated wood, plastic, iron, copper, or aluminum—just make sure the trellis is sturdy enough for the plant you grow on it. Most trellises have stakes that go into the ground. If you’re going to use one on your porch, you’ll also need to secure it to the frame or soffit. If you use a trellis to screen your deck, you may have to combine it with a structure like a pergola across the top for support. Good perennial vines to grow on a trellis include clematis, honeysuckle, and Dutchman’s pipe. Popular climbing annuals include morning glories and scarlet runner beans.

Hedges can be as tall or short as you like, and can fit in small or large spaces. Select shrubs or trees that won’t grow taller or wider than you need, otherwise you’ll spend lots of time pruning. When planting, calculate how much space the full-grown plants will fill so they don’t encroach on your house or the neighbor’s yard. Leave breaks in the hedge, so you won’t be boxed in or send an unfriendly message. “You want privacy but you also want it to be inviting,” says Patricia St. John at St. John Landscapes in Berkeley, CA. “To enclose it all the way makes it seem very uninviting and tells visitors to go away.”

When planning your hedge, remember that deciduous plants drop their leaves, so most of your screen will disappear in the winter. For year-round privacy, evergreens may work better. Arborvitaes are fast-growing evergreens that come in many sizes. “They have the effect of looking like little soldiers, but if you have a narrow area, that might be your best alternative,” says Judy De Pue, owner of New Vistas Landscaping in Goshen, IN, and president of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers. If you have lots of space and need to screen your yard from a multi-story building next door, larger evergreens like blue spruce, white pine, or hemlock can do the job.

If you’re using deciduous shrubs, mix different kinds and colors to make your hedge interesting. One of De Pue’s favorite combinations includes burgundy ninebark, variegated red-twig dogwood, dwarf lilac, golden privet, and Onondaga viburnum. You can also incorporate herbaceous perennials, ornamental grasses, and annuals into your hedge for interest and variety.

Carefully positioned small trees, especially those that branch out at the base, also help create privacy. “We find trees give all the benefits of a hedge with a lot less maintenance,” says Judy Drake of Sunscapes Landscape Design in Jacksonville, FL. Options include magnolias, flowering dogwoods, Japanese maple, Japanese tree lilac, stewartia, birch, and palms. Bamboos make good screens, but the aggressive roots of the running variety need to be contained.

If you’re planting trees you may want to mix the sizes. “That way your screening will look more natural because in nature trees are all different sizes and have different rates of growth,” St. John says. You can also plant shrubs to fill in under the trees. For a beautiful but high-maintenance privacy wall, consider an espalier or flat, broad screen, made with trained apple, pear, or fig trees.

Outdoor Rooms
You can build a private “outdoor room” in your yard with greenery instead of solid walls. Use posts covered with vines to establish the boundaries and enclose the sides with trellises, planters, shrubs, or perennials. You can also create a pergola effect by connecting the posts from above with wood, wire, or chains and training vines across them. Make sure you match the materials, colors, and style of your outdoor room to the house. “It’s important that this outdoor space doesn’t look like it’s been stuck on,” Gagne says.

Another option for screening your property is an earthen berm or mound with plantings, which serves as a living hillside. The berm should not be too narrow or steep, because a broad, gently rising area blends with the yard more naturally. Use drought-resistant plants when creating a berm, because water tends to run off the incline, leaving plants thirsty and undernourished.

For more on landscaping, consider:

Landscape Edging: 10 Easy Ways to Set Your Garden Beds Apart
How To: Transplant Trees, Shrubs, and Perennials
5 Ways to Use Bamboo in Your Landscape

Choosing Custom Windows

Plan carefully before choosing custom windows to replace existing glazing.

Choosing Custom Windows


There is more to replacing windows than choosing the glass and the frame. Existing openings may need to be changed to accommodate new windows. Energy efficiency upgrades or stricter building codes may dictate which models you can choose from. Additional expenses required for carpentry may also determine whether you go with custom or standard window sizing. Either way, it’s best to review the options and compare the final costs before making the decision to go with custom windows.

Deciding to Go Custom
When deciding to replace your windows, you must first determine whether you really need custom windows. If the openings are an irregular size, compare how much it will cost to make the hole bigger or smaller to accommodate a stock window. This is a better option if you’re putting in a smaller window, but since it will still require patching, filling, and trimming or the services of a contractor, this option may cancel out any savings from buying off the shelf. If you’re making the opening larger, you might have expensive adjustments to the load-bearing parts of the wall. In all, it’s best to have a professional review the situation and give you an estimate so that you can really compare numbers.

Non-standard sizing is not the only reason to go custom. Replacing existing windows that don’t complement the design of your house is easier with custom windows that allow you to buy whatever style or shape you want. Upgrading to energy-efficient models is another great reason to opt for custom windows, especially if you are replacing a treasured signature window like a bow, bay, or oriel. Custom ordering allows you to determine the features and measurements you need.

Before you place your order be sure to check out different manufacturers. A size, option, or shape that is non-standard at one company may be standard at another, says Jeffrey Lowinski, vice president for technology marketing at the Window & Door Manufacturers Association. A third company may have a standard size you can use with minor modifications. “Shopping around to find a standard size that fits your opening may save you some money,” Lowinski says. You may also want to see if using several standard windows, instead of a large custom one, works in your space.

When ordering custom windows, make sure you have them made with the energy-efficiency and performance options best suited for your climate and region. Custom windows are generally available in the same materials as standard windows—vinyl, wood, aluminum, fiberglass or composite—and with the same options, including coatings, gases, impact resistance and light-transmittance values. Also, ask about the warranty: Most companies provide the same warranty on their custom windows as on their standard ones. The custom windows should also maintain the same performance ratings assigned by industry groups as the standard products.

Replacement Windows or New Windows
Once you’ve decided to go custom, you have several options. If the existing frame is in good condition, you may not have to replace the whole window; that can save you money and let you keep the same interior and exterior trims and appearance. You might be able to just order custom panes, unless they’re glued into the frame or you want to upgrade to a thicker glass. The next cheapest option is to order a custom sash—the removable glazing and support—if it’s compatible with the old frame. You can also order a custom replacement window, which is a new unit held together with a thin frame that’s inserted into the existing frame. The most expensive option is replacing the entire unit with a new window, including the frame, sash, and trims.

There’s a good chance your custom windows will cost more and take longer to order than standard ones. “Generally you will pay a premium for a custom-sized product,” says John Lewis, technical director of the 400-member American Architectural Manufacturers Association. Still, it depends on the manufacturer and the flexibility of its equipment. Many companies do “just-in-time production,” which means they don’t make anything until they have a specific order. At these factories there may be little cost difference between standard and custom windows, and the price per unit will be the same whether they make one window or 50. However, at a company that has to set up the equipment to make a specific window, you might be able to negotiate a cheaper per-unit price by ordering a greater number. If that’s the case and you plan to replace more of the same windows in the future, it might be cheaper to order them all at once.

Measuring and Installing
Unless you really know what you’re doing, it’s best to let an expert do the measuring before ordering your custom windows. “That’s a fatal error right there if you mis-measure the openings,” Lewis says. And once they’re made, you want to make sure they’re installed right. You can have the best, most expensive custom windows, but you will have wasted your money if they leak air or water, so make sure to have them professionally measured and installed.

Checklist: A Safe and Insurable House

Following some simple guidelines can safeguard your property, keep your family protected, and lower your insurance premiums. Here is a useful checklist to help you examine your home room by room.

Home Safety

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Following some simple guidelines can safeguard your property, keep your family protected, and lower your insurance premiums. Here is a useful checklist to help you examine your home room by room.

• Keep candles away from bedding and curtains.
• Limit or eliminate extension cords and never run them under carpets.
• Keep cords against the wall to protect against trips and falls.
• Install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Change their batteries once every six months and replace after five years.
• Install window locks to keep out intruders and window guards keep children from falling.
• Keep a flashlight next to the bed in case of an emergency or power outage.
• Keep bedroom and bathroom pathways uncluttered to avoid falls in the dark.

Living Spaces
• Limit or eliminate extension cords and never run them under rugs.
• Maintain a fireproof screen in front of your fireplace.
• Keep paper, fabrics, furniture, and other flammable items away from the fireplace or stove.
• Install surge protectors to protect electronics.
• Use non-skid backing or adhesives under rugs to prevent slipping.

Stairs and Hallways
• Keep walkways free of obstacles to prevent trips or spills.
• Install sturdy handrails.
• Install adequate lighting and avoid overhead shadows on stairs.
• Make sure stairs meet code requirements for how steep and deep they are.

• Check the dishwasher hoses for loose connections, clogs, or leaks, and replace if needed.
• Keep the dishwasher drain clear and free of clogs.
• Check the water line feeding the icemaker in your refrigerator to be sure it is free of leaks or kinks.
• Clean the range exhaust filter with soap and water to prevent grease and dirt from caking and to keep air flowing freely.
• Test ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets regularly.
• Unplug electric appliances when not in use.
• Check hoses and pipes under the kitchen sink for leakage. Repair leaky faucets.
• Seal around countertops and sinks to prevent water from seeping behind cabinets and walls, creating mold.
• Have an up-to-date, working fire extinguisher that is right for all types of kitchen fires. Keep it in a visible place.

• Keep the attic well-insulated and vented to prevent ice dams and/or moisture buildup.
• Install adequate lighting.
• Put in a proper floor to prevent accidents.
• Keep pipes well-insulated to prevent freezing.

• Clean up oil and liquid spills on the floor.
• Avoid fires by putting rags soaked in oil, gasoline, or solvents in a jar of soapy water or a metal can designed to let air flow around rags. Ask your local landfill how to safely discard them.
• Keep cleaning supplies, garden chemicals, paints, and thinners out of reach of children and away from heat sources or sparks.
• Check and maintain safety mechanisms on automatic garage doors to prevent accidental closing.
• Keep a multi-purpose fire extinguisher accessible.
• Stow tools and sports equipment to prevent falls.

Insurance and General Protection
• Maintain a written, video, or photographic inventory of all your possessions. Keep it in a fireproof safe or outside of your home.
• Consider purchasing added insurance for jewelry, furs, and expensive artwork.
• Review your insurance policy and insurable items annually.
• Keep insurance premiums current.
• Have a first aid kit and emergency telephone numbers handy.
• Establish at least one escape route from your home and practice it with your family.
• Schedule a regular walk-through for your home — say, on the first of every month — and do a quick check to ensure that your home is still as safe as possible.

And check out our Checklist: A Safe and Insurable Yard for more.