Author Archives: Joe Provey

Joe Provey

About Joe Provey

Joe Provey is an expert on all things home and garden. His work has appeared in many national magazines, including E, The Environmental Magazine, Popular Mechanics, House Beautiful, Better Homes & Gardens Specials, and Fine Homebuilding. Joe also has more than a dozen books to his credit. His latest, Convert Your Home to Solar Energy, was published last year. Other titles include Outdoor Kitchens, Easy Closets, 1001 Ideas for Decks, Green-up Your Cleanup, Design Ideas for Flooring, Toro's Expert Guide to Lawns, 1001 Ideas for Kitchen Organization, and the Parent's Complete Guide to Soccer. Joe is the president of Home & Garden Editorial Services (HGES), a company that produces books for publishers in the home, garden and related fields. In the past, he has served as chief editor to several national home improvement magazines, including The Family Handyman, Mechanix Illustrated, and Practical Homeowner. He was also the founding editor of Soccer Jr., the Soccer Magazine for Kids, and several other soccer-related magazines. Joe lives in Bridgeport, Connecticut with his wife MaryAnn, where they have seven children and four grandchildren between them. Check him out on Google+!

How To: Build a Quick and Easy Trellis

Twined by flowering vines or climbing vegetables, a trellis is practical and picturesque—and not too tough to make.

How to Build a Trellis - Lattice Grate

Photo: Shutterstock

Low-cost additions to any landscape, easy-to-make garden trellises can be used to introduce shade or privacy, or to support climbing vegetables or flowering vines. Typically, a trellis consists of a square or rectangular frame with an inset grid. While the frame is usually constructed of wood, the grid can be created from a wide variety of materials, including chain link or wire mesh, nylon string or natural twine, interwoven sticks or bamboo stalks.

Related: How to Build a Trellis (VIDEO)

How to Build a Trellis - Climbing Plants


A trellis can stand alone or connect to an existing structure, be it a wall, fence, arbor, or pergola. No matter the approach, the process of building a trellis begins by securing two vertical posts. The quickest way to do this, assuming your soil isn’t too stony, is to drive spiked post holders (for instance, Simpson’s E-Z Spike) into the ground by means of a sledgehammer. Then use nails or screws to attach your posts to the base of the holders.

For a more permanent installation, use a posthole digger to excavate holes to a depth of 30 to 36 inches, keeping the diameter as small as possible. Fill each hole with about six inches of gravel, then tamp it down. Set a post into the center of each hole and add concrete. Don’t pour the concrete all the way to grade level; leave a few inches to be filled in with soil. If you think you might want to move the trellis in the future, skip the concrete and instead fill the hole with a mix of soil and gravel, tamping down after every few shovelfuls.

Once the posts have been erected, frame a 4′ x 4′ sheet of lattice with 1″ x 3″ or 1″ x 4″ boards. Next, nail cleats—that is, 1″ x 1″ boards—to the inside edge of each post. Now, as a final step, screw the latticework to the cleats.

Use galvanized nails and screws throughout to minimize the risk of rust stains. Coat the trellis with either a translucent or solid-color stain, not only to improve its appearance, but also to protect the wood from the weather.

Tip: Build the lattice panel first so that you can space your posts the proper distance apart.

How To: Install Shower Valve Trim

Install new shower valve trim to freshen the look of your bathroom quickly, easily, and at low cost.

How to Install Shower Valve Trim

Photo: JProvey

A fast and easy way to freshen the look of your shower is to install new shower valve trim. If your trim resembles mine on the day that I undertook this project, then it’s either conspicuously out of date or completely corroded—or both. Fortunately, of all the countless projects you might choose to do in the bathroom, this is one you won’t need the plumber for.

The very first step is to determine what type of shower valve you have. Identification may be visible on the valve. If not, try performing an image search online. Since the majority of older valves were made by only a handful of companies, you probably won’t have to sift through many results before discovering a match.

Related: Wet Tech: 10 Waterproof Gadgets to Enhance Your Shower

When purchasing a new trim kit, it’s important to buy one whose mounting holes are in the same position as the holes that are in your existing trim. Some trim kits have mounting holes at 5:00 and 7:00 positions. Others have them at 2:00 and 7:00. The kit packaging helpfully lists which type of valves the trim has been designed to fit.

Installing valve trim is a task simple enough that conceivably—if all goes according to plan, of course—you could finish the job before you begin your morning shower routine. Even beginning do-it-yourselfers ought to have no problem with the step-by-step instructions that follow.


How to Install Shower Valve Trim - Remove Screws

Photo: JProvey

Remove the screws holding the shower control handle in place, then proceed to remove the handle itself.


How to Install Shower Valve Trim - Place Trim

Photo: JProvey

Place your new trim plate over the valve. Mine came with a rubber gasket; others may call for plumber’s putty or caulk.


How to Install Shower Valve Trim - Screw Plate

Photo: JProvey

Screw the trim plate into position using the screws supplied in the kit.


How to Install Shower Valve Trim - Diverter

Photo: JProvey

If appropriate for your valve, install the diverter—that is, the mechanism which directs water from the plumbing lines to your shower head.


How to Install Shower Valve Trim - Retaining Ring

Photo: JProvey

Clip the diverter retaining ring in place if needed. As the ring in my kit seemed prone to popping out, I used some adhesive caulk to secure it.


How to Install Shower Valve Trim - Stem Cover

Photo: JProvey

Now install the valve stem cover(s).


How to Install Shower Valve Trim - O Ring

Photo: JProvey

Use the supplied O-ring to fasten the stem cover(s).


How to Install Shower Valve Trim - Screw In Control

Photo: JProvey

Finally, screw in your new control handle.


Installing the shower trim kit took me all of ten minutes. Removing the old trim? Well, that took me an hour. Inexplicably, it had been installed with drywall screws. Oh, the joys of home improvement!

Laying Sod: Shortcut to a Beautiful Lawn

Sod is one way to get a beautiful lawn quickly. But, before you have a shipment delivered, be sure you understand what is required for successful installation and early care.

Laying Sod


Laying sod is a great way to have a lawn without the wait, but don’t kid yourself—it’s a big job. If your lawn is sizeable, you may want to accomplish the job in two phases. Begin by redoing the worst or most visible lawn area, and tackle the other half next year. This keeps the job manageable and makes the frequent watering feasible for homeowners who do not have in-ground sprinkler systems.

Laying sod is best done in the fall or spring in the North and in the spring in the South. Plant the sod during cool weather because planting it when warm will subject it to burnout. Do not plant sod later than one month before the average date for the first fall frost. It’s important to give the grass time to establish roots before cold weather sets in.

Here are the steps involved in laying sod:

1. Remove old lawn
Mechanical removal of your old lawn will be the fastest and easiest way to get the job done.  However, for small lawns, a grape (grubbing) hoe is a terrific tool for removing turf. For large lawns, consider renting a sod cutter. It slices under the grass, enabling you to pull up strips of old turf. Make the job easier by cutting sod while the lawn soil is moist.

2. Fix grade problems
Now is the perfect time to fix any existing grade problems. Although grading often requires help from a landscaping contractor with heavy equipment, you can fix minor problems yourself.

The first rule of grading is that the ground should slope away from your house in all directions so that it drops at least 2 or 3 inches every 10 feet. The finished grade should also end up matching the level of existing features, such as walkways and patios, as well as areas of established lawn.

The proper way to regrade is first to remove the topsoil from the problem area. Make adjustments to the subsoil by scraping away high areas and filling in low areas. Then spread 2 inches of the reserved topsoil over the subsoil, and till it to blend. This will help prevent drainage problems between the two layers of soil. Next, spread the rest of your topsoil, which should make up at least another 4 inches. If you need to add topsoil, buy a loam that’s free of debris, such as roots and stones. It should also be free of weed seeds and pesticides. A landscaping rake is the best tool for working topsoil to the proper grade if you’re doing it yourself.

3. Amend the soil
Have your soil tested to see what amendments—fertilizer, organic matter, lime- or sulfur-based nutrients—may be in order. TK upon results of a soil test. The typical recommendations for every 1,000 square feet of new lawn include about 2 pounds of actual (elemental) phosphorus and potassium, 50 to 100 pounds of lime (in areas with acid soil), and 3 to 6 cubic yards of organic matter (such as compost or peat moss). Recommendations will vary depending on your soil’s nutrient, organic matter, pH levels, and your particular soil type.

Ensure an even application of amendments by dividing the recommended amounts in half and applying half while walking in one direction and the other half while walking in a perpendicular direction. Once you have applied the amendments, till them into the top 6 inches of soil.

Laying Sod - Raking


4. Rake smooth and firm soil with a roller
Rake the area to be replanted until it’s smooth. Remove any stones and vegetative matter brought to the surface during tilling. Once you’re satisfied, water the ground and check for puddles. Puddles show where depressions remain. When the soil dries, remove soil from high spots to fill the depressions.

Related: The Benefits of Working with a Landscape Designer

Next, roll the prepared soil to provide a firm base for the sod. Fill a lawn roller about one-third full of water and roll the soil until your footprints are no deeper than 1⁄2 inch. Complete planting preparations by watering the area thoroughly two days before planting. Check to be sure the soil is moistened to a depth of 5 or 6 inches.

5. Laying the sod
Begin by applying a starter fertilizer high in phosphorus, such as 2:1:1 or 1:1:1 ratio. Then lightly water the area where you will begin. Be prepared to begin work soon after your order is delivered. Sod can go bad quickly, especially if it begins to heat up or dry out. Have the pallets delivered to a shady spot. If you can’t start right away, unroll the sod and keep it moist.

Lay sod over one section of lawn at a time. Begin by laying full strips along an outside edge (such as the sidewalk). Start with a straight row to reduce the amount of cutting and fitting you’ll do later. Work toward the opposite edge of lawn, usually the edge by your house. Use a sharp-bladed knife or sod-cutting tool to cut as required. Make your last row a full-width strip, even if it means cutting the preceding row narrow. With contoured borders, overlap the border with sod, and trim away the excess later. Again, try to install all the sod the day it’s delivered. If you have sod left over, unroll it in a shady spot, water it lightly, and use it the next day.

If you’re installing sod on a slope, start laying the sod at the lowest point. Stake each piece in three places to prevent slippage. Stakes should be equally spaced and set in from the sod strip’s edges by at least 6 to 8 inches.

After installing the sod, firm it with a roller that is one-third full. If the roller is too heavy, it may cause the sod to slip. In hot weather, lightly watering the sod prior to rolling will also help prevent slippage. Follow rolling immediately with a thorough soaking—to a soil depth of 6 to 8 inches.

6. Care for your new lawn
Once sod is laid, take precautions to prevent it from being damaged. Minimize play and foot traffic for at least three weeks. Plan for watering needs before you lay sod, not afterward. Insufficient water is the leading cause of new-lawn failure—and over watering is not far behind.

Water at least twice a day, including once during midday. Keep the soil moist to a depth of 1- to 2-inches. Check, however, to be sure that the soil does not stay saturated for long periods; otherwise the sod may not root. Reduce watering frequency to every second or third day once the sod begins new root growth (about two weeks). After four weeks, a sodded lawn can survive longer periods without water.

Do not mow a newly planted sod lawn for at least 10 days after installation and not until the grass has begun to grow vigorously. Once again, if you use a rotary mower, set the throttle low to avoid lifting and chopping up pieces of sod.

Finally, do not fertilize new lawns for at least six weeks. Then, a light fertilization of 1⁄2 pound nitrogen per 1,000 square feet is recommended.

How To: Install a Shower Head

A small project that makes a big impact, installing a new shower head is a quick and easy job that almost anyone can do—no fancy plumbing tools required.

How to Install a Shower Head


Installing a new shower head is not quite as easy as changing a light bulb, but almost.

- New shower arm (optional)
- Replacement shower head
- Pipe wrench
- Thread seal tape
- Plumber’s putty or caulk

As you begin, decide whether or not to keep the existing shower arm—that is, the angled pipe to which the shower head attaches. If the shower arm has become corroded over time, or if it doesn’t match the finish of your new shower head, scrap it. A pipe wrench does the job when you’re bare hands fail. Note that while shower heads don’t usually come with shower arms, you should be easily find an appropriate one for sale separately.

How to Install a Shower Head - Outdoor


Skip this step if you’ve opted to keep your existing shower arm. To install a new shower arm, start by wrapping its threads, two or three times over, with thread seal tape. Stretch the tape slightly, as you apply it. Next, carefully turn the pipe into the wall fitting, and then seal the wall opening with plumber’s putty. Slide the shower flange over the arm and  press it into the putty. Wipe away excess.

Related: 10 Dream-Worthy Showers to Give You Bathroom Envy

The next step depends on the type of shower head you’ve purchased. If yours is the type that attaches directly to the arm, here’s what to do: Use thread seal tape to wrap the threads at the base of the shower arm, then turn the shower head into position, taking care not to over-tighten. (If using pliers instead of a wrench, protect the finish on the fitting with several layers of cloth or plastic tape.)

Homeowners who have purchased a handheld shower head probably do not need to add thread seal tape at the shower arm base (to be certain, however, check the manufacturer’s directions). Here, installation consists only of threading the handheld onto the shower arm, before threading the handheld shower head’s flexible hose onto the bracket.

Additional Tips
• Arguably, handheld shower heads are more practical than fixed ones.

• A low-flow shower head saves both water and the energy your water heater must use to deliver a comfortable bathing experience.

• Metal shower heads generally perform better than plastic ones. Look for chrome finishes and brass construction. Ease of adjustment and problem-free longevity justify the added cost of such fixtures.

• Metal hoses on handheld shower heads are more flexible, and thus easier to manipulate, than plastic hoses.

• Shop online for greater choice, but visit stores for a chance to see and feel the products you’re considering. Expect to pay at least $80 for a quality model.

Should You Replace or Repair Your Roof?

Making the right decisions about your roof ensures your home's optimal performance and safeguards your peace of mind.

Repair or Replace Roof

Photo: CertainTeed Asphalt Shingles

Making good decisions is the key to minimizing near- and long-term costs related to any home improvement. This is especially true for large, complex jobs like reroofing. In this particular case, some of the most important decisions should be made before you hire a contractor or choose a shingle manufacturer.

The first decision is whether to simply patch leaks and damaged areas or whether partial or complete reroofing is in order. If you choose the latter, you’ll also have to decide whether to roof over your existing roof or whether to remove it. There are cost consequences either way.

Replacing shingles due to wind damage or a fallen limb is a relatively easy and inexpensive. Torn or damaged shingles can be removed, and new ones can be slipped in place. The downside is that unless your roof is relatively new and you happen to have saved some spare shingles from the job, your patch job may not match the existing roof. But that is a small price to pay if the repair would extend the life of your current roof for another 10 or 15 years! However, if you plan to sell your home in the next few years, ask your contractor to order shingles that match as closely as possible. A roof with a prominent patch is unattractive and will not inspire a potential buyer’s confidence.

Repair or Replace Roof - Asphalt ShinglesIf the damage is more significant but confined to one side of the roof, partial reroofing is an option that will cost thousands of dollars less than doing the entire roof. Repairing a section of roofing will also make it easier to blend new with old, because slight color differences will be less noticeable.

Counter to intuition, partial reroofing jobs are more expensive on a cost per square (a 10′ x 10′ area) basis. They can create added problems, too. For example, if an asphalt roof already has two or more layers, all layers will have to be removed in order for the partial re-roofing to proceed. So in addition to increased labor and disposal costs, you may face the possibility of a lopsided effect at ridges, with the old roof ending up a couple of inches higher than the new one. Even when built up with a course of shingles and covered with a ridge cap, the hump may still be noticeable.

A New Roof—Cheaper in the Long Term?
Even if only part of your roof is showing signs of wear, it’s wise to consider doing the entire job while the crew is on-site with its scaffolding, ladders, and equipment. This will likely be less expensive than doing one part now and the remainder in a few years. I recently had a quote to repair one side of a four-sided hip roof for $2,800. For the entire roof, meanwhile, the quote was $9,000, or $2,250 per side. Given that the previous owner had reroofed 17 years before with shingles that only carried a 20-year rated life expectancy, I decided to spring for a complete reroofing.

Slideshow: Asphalt Shingles: A Showcase of Roofing Styles, Colors, and Options

When to reroof depends on several variables, including the shingles’ wear and age, the climate in your area, and your home’s susceptibility to future damage. I patched my own roof after Hurricane Irene blew off six or seven shingles in 2011. The replacement shingles were off the rack at the home center and lightweight, but they matched the existing three-tab style, were somewhat close in color, and saved me from having to buy more shingles than I needed. Added a few extra dabs of roofing cement under the patching shingles, I hoped for the best. The job cost $160.

A little over a year later, Hurricane Sandy blew away another dozen or so shingles. Reroofing with a more durable shingle, one with vastly improved adhesives, held a lot of appeal. The fact that the new shingles would have six nails per shingle instead of four, as now recommended by the shingle manufacturer for high-wind areas, was also an incentive.

Tear Off or Roof Over?
Once you’ve decided to reroof, you’ll have to decide whether to install your new roof over the existing one or whether to tear the old one off. Once again, the choice comes down to saving a little money now and risking greater expenses down the road, or spending more now to do the job right and minimize future expenses.

Repair or Replace Roof - Removing Shingles

If you already have two layers shingles, the decision is made for you. The International Residential Code (R907.3) says that you cannot put a new roof over two or more applications of any type of roof covering. Part of the reason has to do with weight and its effect on the structure of your home. A shingle in your hand may not feel as though it weighs much, but cover a roof with 1,500 square feet of them, and it’s nearly the equivalent of parking a two-ton SUV up there!

If you have only one layer of asphalt shingles, you may decide to have them removed even though you’re not required to. Doing so may save you money in the future. For example, if you live in an area that is subject to high winds, keep in mind that shingles will hold better if fastened directly to the roof deck. In addition, removing the old shingles will allow you to inspect the roof deck or sheathing.

The opportunity to evaluate the condition of your roof deck is valuable, insofar as you can check for wood rot and the presence of inadequate sheathing fasteners. By making any necessary repairs and adding fasteners to sheathing (especially annular nails or screws), you will avoid the dramatic losses caused when sheathing blows off the roof, allowing rain to cause extensive interior damage. Beginning your roofing job with a clean roof deck (old shingles and roofing felt removed) also means you have the option of adding ice-and-water-shield membrane along the eaves. It can only be applied to a clean deck but will help prevent damage due to ice dams.

A new roof is a big expense but should last you for decades. Do it right and you’ll have one less thing to worry about when storm winds blow. In the long term, you’ll also end up with more money in your pocket.

Fences 101

Pros and cons define and differentiate the most popular fence types chosen by homeowners today.

Fencing Materials

Photo: Dakota Unlimited

Through the ages, fences have been made from a variety of materials. Around my neighborhood, I see vinyl, cedar, metal and a number of other fence types. Which is best for you? The answer depends on your budget and stylistic preferences. These are the pros and cons of homeowners’ most popular choices:

Weigh Your Options

A fence introduces not only privacy and security to your property, but it can also enhance curb appeal and safely corral your pets and kids. If you plan on building a fence, the logical place to start is by exploring popular fence materials. Wood—the stuff of classic picket fences—is easy to work with and long lasting, but if painted or stained, it requires regular maintenance. Lower-maintenance options include vinyl, or PVC, as well as sturdy composites—a greener, though pricier, alternative. Metals like coated aluminum and chain link need little upkeep, but the downsides are that aluminum can be lightweight, and chain link, well, it can be an eyesore. Whatever the material, you’ll find a range of fence panels in a range of designs to suit a variety of tastes, purposes, and architectural styles.

There’s much to recommend vinyl fencing. It is manufactured in a range of styles, with decorative post caps to match, and there’s now a greater variety of colors and finishes to choose from. Perhaps the most appealing aspect is that you do not need to repaint vinyl. A hard-wearing material, it won’t warp, splinter, rot, split or blister. And it’s easy to clean; dirt can be washed away using only a sponge and hose (or a pressure washer). Though vinyl may initially cost more than wood, it’s less expensive over time.

There are of course negatives to be aware of. Dozens of styles are available, but design options are not unlimited with vinyl fencing, and its plastic appearance is not everyone’s favorite.

Fencing Material - Vinyl PVC


It’s tough stuff, to be sure, but vinyl can break—under high winds, for example, or upon impact from a well-struck soccer ball. Minor damage (holes, cracks, and so on) is repaired with body filler followed by sanding and re-painting. More extensive damage may require a replacement component, so if and when you install vinyl fencing, hang on to any spare parts. If your fence style is discontinued, that could mean you’re out of luck.

The construction of vinyl fencing is more complicated than might be expected. Rails are attached using specialized brackets or crimping tools, and posts must often be reinforced with concrete or metal stiffeners.

Last but not least, it’s important to note that vinyl is generally considered environmentally unfriendly. Toxins are produced in its manufacture, and the material is difficult to recycle.

Composite fencing (an engineered wood product) comes in a bewildering number of variations. Some fences have solid, not hollow, boards. Some are “capped” or “co-extruded” with a layer of PVC. And while multiple components are often required, in some cases construction is similar to that of a wood fence. Common to all is the fact they are made with recycled fibers, plastics, and binding agents.

Due to manufactured textures and colors, composite fencing simulates wood more effectively than vinyl does, but if you opt for a solid color, there are fewer choices among composites. Like vinyl, composite fences require no staining or painting, and their low maintenance requirements can be easily taken care of—only mild detergent and a hose are needed for cleaning. Durable and often backed by warranty, composite fencing is assembled, not with special brackets, but with traditional fasteners.

Another pro: Composite fencing is environmentally friendly. Up to 95 percent of materials used in its manufacture are recycled, and some makers employ a nearly waste-free manufacturing system. Unfortunately, however, composite products cannot be recycled easily.

Compared to vinyl or wood, fewer styles are available with composite fencing, whose designs are mainly limited to fence types that involve boards—privacy, shadow box, and post-and-rail fences, not to mention those with simple dog-ear pickets. Another con is that composites are susceptible to scratching, staining, and fading.

Cost? Composite boards go for about twice as much as pressure-treated wood, and between the two, wood is easier to work with.

Wood fences have been a mainstay of the American landscape since Colonial days. They can be crafted in a wide variety of styles and painted or stained with innumerable colors. In some regions, cedar and redwood are the preferred material on account of their resistance to rot and insects, but several other wood species are also used. For longevity, pressure-treated wood is best, at least when it comes to structural members. Any non-pressure-treated pickets or boards should be coated with a preservative prior to finishing.

Initially, wood costs significantly less than either vinyl or composite, and if properly constructed and maintained, a wood fence will last for many years. And unlike petro-based materials, wood is renewable if sustainably harvested.

On the other hand, wood requires more maintenance than other materials. A couple of times per year, it should be rinsed off, and every three or four years, it should be repainted or finished with a stain. Cedar and redwood fencing may be left to weather naturally, but even so, a clear preservative should be applied every few years. Because of the additional maintenance required, the cost of wood fencing may ultimately equal or exceed that of other fence types.

Ornamental Metal
In many ways, ornamental metal fencing combines the best qualities of other materials. Available in a wide variety of styles, it’s very low-maintenance and unsurpassed in durability. While cast iron was the norm for many decades, today’s standard is powder-coated galvanized steel, aluminum, or a combination of aluminum and solid metal.

Maintenance is limited to an occasional hosing. If rust appears, it can be brushed off, or the metal can be treated with a rust-inhibiting primer and a fresh coat of paint. Even after many decades, metal fencing can easily be recycled.

Ornamental fencing is not without drawbacks. For one thing, repair work can be tricky. But metal fences are highly resistant to damage. Indeed, you can buy Civil War-era cast iron fencing that has outlasted the house it once surrounded.

Fencing Materials - Chainlink


Steel Chain Link
Steel fencing takes many forms, the most popular of which is chain-link. Though it’s not normally thought of as pretty, chain-link fencing can certainly be used without becoming an eyesore. For starters, the mesh is immediately useful as a trellis for everything from moonflowers to morning glories.

Chain-link is sturdy, maintenance-free, durable and economical, plus it’s ideal for situations in which you want your fence to be see-through (burglars cannot hide behind chain-link, after all).

Installation is easy. Most of the fittings are tightened down with a socket wrench. The only special tool you may need is a second pair of hands to assist in pulling the mesh tight. Since it’s often possible to re-stitch damaged mesh fabric, repairing a chain-link fence is relatively easy.

Another pro: Chain-link fencing is considered “green,” since any scrap metal dealer will be happy to receive (and may even pay for) one you’re discarding. Try that with an old vinyl or composite fence!

Inevitably, chain-link fencing possesses a utilitarian aesthetic, but style options exist. Different mesh sizes and wire gauges are available, and the polymer coatings now come in colors, such as brown, green, and black—any of these provides a softer look than silver. When installed among shrubs or along the border of wooded areas, it’s possible for a chain-link fence to be nearly invisible, especially if outfitted with fabrics or lattice panels.

Heating Systems 101

From traditional oil-fired boilers to newfangled hybrid heat pumps, an almost dizzying number of options in heating systems is available to today's homeowner.

Heating Systems


So you’re in the market for a new furnace, maybe because the old one is hopelessly inefficient, or because Hurricane Sandy flooded your basement, or because you’ve decided to switch fuel types. Or maybe you want a unit that will make less noise. There are many reasons to scrap an old furnace, and just as many considerations to make when buying a new one.

Your first job will be to educate yourself about the options. That way, when you call in an HVAC contractor, you’ll understand the language. Knowing that you need a new “furnace” won’t cut it.

Heating Systems - Forced Air

In fact, depending on your home’s heating system, “furnace” could be a misnomer. Furnaces heat air. If your heating appliance heats water, then it’s a boiler. If your appliance sources heat from the air, the ground, or a water reserve (such as a well or pond), then it’s one of several types of heat pumps.

Fuels vary too, of course. Furnaces and boilers may be fueled by oil or gas, or by propane, while heat pumps are typically powered by electricity (although new gas-fired and hybrid units are also available). An “electric furnace”—an electric strip heater in an air handler, that is—runs exclusively on electricity. On the other end of the spectrum are fireplace inserts and solid-fuel stoves, furnaces, and boilers, which use wood, pellet fuel, or coal.

Whatever heating appliance you choose must be matched to your home’s method of heat distribution—so again, it’s important to know what you have. If there are ducts and registers through which warm air blows, then you have forced-air distribution. If you have baseboard radiators, your distribution system is hydronic (hot water). If the heat comes from your floors (or walls or ceiling), your home relies on a radiant heat distribution. Yet another type, convective distribution, relies on the natural movement of air.

If you’re buying a new furnace, it’s a good time to consider changing your distribution system as well. Just be forewarned that doing so will add significantly to the cost of the overall project. Plumbing is never inexpensive, especially when long runs are involved. Finding spaces in which to run new ducts isn’t easy either. You may have to sacrifice a closet or run ducts from an attic space into the rooms below. Some clever carpentry is often required.

The Sum of its Parts
Your heating system can be defined as the combination of your heating appliance and your method of heat distribution. Numerous combinations are possible. One common permutation is a gas-fired furnace paired with forced-air distribution. This type of system delivers somewhat dry heat, can operate unevenly and noisily, and is subject to heat loss through ducts. But such systems easily accommodate central air conditioning–a big plus for many homeowners—and their cost is relatively low.

Gas- or oil-fired boilers are used as the heat source for radiator and baseboard hot-water systems. These produce a more comfortable heat but are more expensive than furnaces and do not accommodate air conditioning.

Heating Systems - Radiant FloorRadiant floor heating is likewise known for comfort. A typical setup is comprised of tubing (installed beneath flooring) through which circulates warm water that’s been heated by an oil or gas boiler. For small areas like bathroom floors, electric-resistance cables or heat mats might take the place of hydronic tubing.

A hydro-air system is part hydronic and part forced air. In this type of system, either a gas- or oil-fired boiler heats water that is pumped through a heat exchanger. Air blown through the heat exchanger is consequently warmed and distributed through ducts. Conveniently, the boiler in a hydro-air system may be used for heating domestic-use water, thereby eliminating the need for a separate water heater.

Yet another popular choice is the air-source heat pump. Once only an option in moderate climates, advances have made this technology suitable in colder regions as well. Air-source heat pumps run on electricity but are more efficient than other electric heaters, since they draw heat from the outside air, even when it’s fairly cold. When it gets a bit colder though, electricity is required (expensive!).

Heat pump-heated air is usually distributed to rooms via ductwork, but ductless heat pumps, called mini splits, are another option. A mini-split system involves one or more wall- or ceiling-mounted unit that blows warm air. The nice thing is that, when several units are running simultaneously, each is able to be controlled separately, so you can adjust output in different rooms as needed. The not-so-nice thing is that each unit must connect, through pipes or tubing, to an outdoor condenser/compressor. Many heat pumps, ductless included, can run in reverse during the summer to supply cool air.

The same pump technology that works with air actually works even better when drawing heat from the earth or a water reserve—in either case, temperatures are fairly consistent (45 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, depending upon your climate). A ground-source heat pump (GSHP) operates efficiently in almost any climate, and it, too, can supply warm air in winter and cool air in summer.

One more heat pump-based system, a hybrid, marries an air-source heat pump with a gas- or oil-fired furnace, allowing fossil fuel to be used when air temperatures plummet and the heat pump ceases to be efficient. The system switches from one mode to the other automatically.

Folks typically end up replacing an old heating appliance with one of the same, or a similar, type. Some exceptions: When the homeowner wishes to change fuels, add central air conditioning, create extra space with a compact boiler, or relocate heating equipment. (New compact wall-hung boilers, called combi units, have no tank and can fit in a closet or hallway.) Obviously there are lots of choices, and if you’re replacing your furnace, there’s no better time to consider making other changes to improve your heating system.

Home Security 101

Whether you opt for a high-tech system or take a more common-sense approach, our home security tips will help you achieve peace of mind, no matter what your budget.

. Photo: Front Point Security

It wasn’t so long ago that when an intruder broke into a home, the home security system would sound an alarm. If it was a monitored system, the central station would call the police to report the intrusion. This assumes, of course, that you armed the system, the batteries were still good and the intruder wasn’t quick enough to disable the system before it sounded the alarm or dialed the central station.

The revolution brought on by wireless technologies, smart phones, and mobile apps have changed all of that. Today, home security systems can still sound alarms, but are much more difficult to forget about or foil. A software-supported security system can send you a text message every time a door or window is opened, whether you’ve armed it or not. It can stream live video or send still images of what’s happening in your garage, living room, backyard or wherever you deploy a security camera. You can even be alerted before the break-in, the moment the burglar pulls into the driveway!

And that’s not all. Home security has teamed up with home automation so the same interactive service can give your home the appearance that someone is home. Lights, TVs and radios can be turned on and off at random intervals, or according to the schedule you choose. Even motorized blinds can be raised or lowered upon your command.

Mighty Mule Wireless Driveway Alarm Northern ToolHome security systems can give you peace of mind in other ways, too. Whether you’re home or away, they can inform you of hazards like fire, elevated carbon monoxide levels, and power outages.  They can alert you if someone is tampering with a safe, a locked tool chest, or a medicine or gun cabinet. You might even use it to check on the safe arrival of a child returning home from school. Or, if you lose sleep wondering whether the water heater is flooding your basement, you can have your system set up to alert you of that as well.

With interactive systems come other benefits as well. Prefer not to hand out house keys to housekeepers, or other service providers? You can unlock a door for them from wherever you are, whether you’re at work or on a trip, with systems such as Kwikset’s SmartCode.

You can also use the system to program your home’s temperature so you don’t waste energy heating or cooling your home unnecessarily. During cool seasons, it can automatically lower settings when you’re sleeping or away—and raise them just before you wake or return home.

Smart systems consist of hardware that doesn’t look a lot different than it did twenty-five years ago. There are some specialized sensors and video cameras that weren’t common in the past and window and door contact switches have gotten a lot smaller, but the basics are the same: a control panel or console, magnetic contact switches, motion sensors, a siren. The new systems may also be connected to central monitoring stations, as do many old-style security systems. The big difference, however, is the degree of interactivity. New software platforms, such as and iControl allow you to send commands, program home systems, view surveillance video, and receive alerts on a smart phone or computer—whether you’re at home or away.

I Control Open Home Software Control Panel

When shopping for a system, review software platforms first. and iControl are the two biggest. The former has partnered with more than 2,500 dealers and the latter with ADT and Comcast. Among other things, you’ll have to decide between a “cellular primary” or “broadband primary” system. The former is a wireless connection to the monitoring station, making it immune to power outages or someone cutting a cable. It is limited, however, with regard to transmitting large quantities of video, so many cellular primary systems incorporate broadband for video.  Broadband primary services, on the other hand, have cables running down the side of a house that can be cut, thereby disabling the system.  Some services offer cellular back-up should this occur.

Be sure to choose a reputable dealer; one that will sell you the equipment as well as a monitoring plan. Many dealers will install the system for you, but there are others that sell equipment and services for the do-it-yourselfer. Frontpoint Security, a national provider based in Virginia, for example, offers a GE-branded system, the Simon XT, that can easily be installed by the homeowner (along with features, and a third party monitoring plan). Installing the system yourself can save you several hundred dollars and make you more knowledgeable about how it works.

Slideshow: 10 Low-Cost Ways to Improve Your Home Security

Smart home security systems do not restrict the type of security hardware you use, although a dealer may limit your choices. The inside-the-house components may connect by wire (known as hardwired) or via radio frequency (wireless) or RF radiation. While hardwired components were considered the standard because they are more difficult to disable and don’t rely on batteries for power, the reliability gap has narrowed—or even disappeared—with new technology. and its partners, for example, offer “smash and bash” protection for wireless home security systems. As soon as a point of entry is breached, the central station is immediately sent a pending alarm signal. It doesn’t wait to find out if the person who entered is you or a bad guy. If the system is not disarmed within the programmed amount of time, the alarm is treated as an intrusion. In this way, a smashed controller won’t stop the central station from calling the police.

A conventional system, on the other hand, does not send a signal for a period of time (typically 30 seconds while it allows time the homeowner to tap in a code and then more time for the dialer to call the monitoring station). It doesn’t sound like much time but for a smart burglar, it can be enough to disable the security system or to grab a purse or valuable and run.

Wireless hardware is, of course, much easier to install than wired components, making it more appealing to do-it-yourself homeowners. You can also take it with you should you move.

Wireless Security System BesthomesecuritysystemreviewsLook for a home security system with a full line of wireless peripherals, including modules for controlling lights and appliances, thermostats, cameras, motion sensors (some can distinguish between a pet and a person), water sensors, and glass break and vibration sensors. Look for long-life battery power, too. Lithium sensor batteries, for example, can last three to five years. When they do run low, the system lets you know well in advance. Choose a controller with back-up battery so the system will stay active in the event of a power outage or if the Internet is down. If you will be installing smoke alarms you’ll need the extra power of a 24-hour battery back-up, not the 4-hour back-up offered by many manufacturers.

Smart systems all require a subscription to a third-party alarm monitoring service. Ask about which central station will be handling your account and be sure that it is UL certified.

There are two costs to keep in mind when shopping for a home security system. The first is for the equipment and the installation, if you’re having it done by a professional. It can run from a few hundred dollars for a basic installation (or less that half of that if you install it yourself) to north of $1000 for a full-feature system with specialized sensors and wireless smoke and CO detectors. The second is the monthly service charge that includes fees for software-driven features and central station monitoring. It typically ranges between $35 and $60 per month. Some dealers, much like mobile phone and cable TV companies, will reduce the installation cost in return for a multi-year contract.

Burglaries have been dropping steadily for 20 years in the US according to the FBI, but that’s small consolation to the roughly 2 million victims of break-ins every year. To avoid becoming part of this statistic, there are a number of things you can do to make your home less vulnerable to theft. They begin with relatively low-cost improvements and common-sense practices. This is where to make your initial investment in home security.

Light Timer Grist.Org1. Install window and door shades that make it difficult to see if someone is home

2. Upgrade locks on all doors and windows—and use them!

3. Put interior lights, TV and radio on timers so you can create the illusion that someone is home when you’re out.

4. Install motion-controlled or infrared-controlled outdoor lighting. There is nothing more suspicious than a porch light left on from dusk to dawn over a long period of time.

5. Prune or replace large foundation plantings so intruders cannot hide behind shrubs while prying open a window or door. Low thorny bushes are also a deterrent.

6. Form or join a block watch group. Such groups are effective crime deterrents because they encourage residents to be vigilant and to call the police whenever they see something amiss. They also exchange information about crime in your neighborhood and work with police to improve response times.

7. Don’t forget about garages and sheds. Always keep garage doors closed, even while at home, so thieves are not able to spot items they may want to steal. Lock valuable items, such as expensive bicycles and grills, to a very heavy object with a chain and pad lock. Drill holes in garage door tracks and insert a padlock or bolt, to prevent the door from being forced open. Install a hasp and padlock on shed doors.

8. Change the greeting on your answering machine so it doesn’t indicate whether you are away or not. Never leave a note on the door indicating you are away.

9. Keep car doors locked and windows closed. Never leave valuables, especially electronics or money, in the car. Or, if you must, put them out of sight. Use a locking device on your steering wheel in high-crime areas.

10. When engaged in a home improvement project, do not leave ladders in sight. They are an invitation to burglars. Similarly, don’t leave tools lying about that might be useful to an intruder, such as hammer or pry bar.

The Basics of Bathroom Design

Good bathroom design, starts with the basics. Here are twelve pro tips to consider in your remodel or renovation.

Bathroom designs

. Photo: Comfortable Home Design

The fun part of bathroom remodeling is ogling vessel sinks, walk-in showers, towel heaters, translucent tiles and graceful faucets. Even the newer toilets on the market are pretty cool. But when it comes to putting together bathroom designs in plans that you (and your building inspector) will be happy with, there are some recommendations and rules you should follow. Here is a selection of a dozen, courtesy of the National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA).

1. Minimum entry door size
It’s smart to design for all eventualities. According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, a bathroom door opening should be at least 32″ wide when measured from the open door to the opposite stop. That means the door itself should be at least 34″ wide—unless you’ve opted for a pocket door.

2. Door interference
It’s not a good idea to slam the bathroom door into a loved one. Make careful measurements so that doors won’t bump anyone standing inside the bathroom. Similarly, no door (entry, cabinet, or shower) should bump into any other door. In a very small bath, change the hinges so the door swings out.

3. Ceiling height
Bathrooms must often be shoehorned into tight spaces where ceiling height is less than the general code calls for. For bathrooms, the minimum height is 80″, except in places where occupants can’t walk. In these cases, the ceiling can be even lower. Talk to your building department about what they will or won’t permit.

4. Clear floor space
A little extra space goes a long way in the bathroom, especially when two people must use it at the same time. NKBA designers recommend a 30″ clearance between the front edge of a fixture, such as a vanity or toilet, and any other fixture or wall. The building code allows for a minimum of 21″.

Bathroomdesignz White Bathroom Vanities35. Lavatory placement
The bathroom lavatory, or sink, should be placed far enough from a wall or shower wall that it’s comfortable to use and easy to clean. The NKBA recommends 20″ measuring from the center of the lavatory to the wall. Code is a minimum of 15″ (with 4″from the edge of a pedestal sink to the wall). In a double-sink vanity, the sinks should be 30″ to 36″ apart, measured from center to center.

6. Lavatory height
A comfortable height for a lavatory depends upon the height of the user, but when two or more people of varying heights are using the same sink, you’ll have to compromise. A 36″ height is standard. The NKBA says the height can range from 32″ to 43″. What you choose is up to you, but it’s probably not a good idea to install a low vanity for small kids. They grow up quickly and can use a stool in the meanwhile.

7. Lighting
A single light in the ceiling of a bathroom will put shadows under your eyes, even when they don’t exist! Add lighting above and to either side of the vanity mirror. Called cross lighting, it will eliminate shadows and provide enough light for grooming. You may consider a recessed light with a waterproof lens over the tub or shower, as well.

8. Countertops
Avoid sharp corners on countertops for safety. Top edges should be rounded over. Corners should be rounded too, or “clipped”.

9. Shower size
For user comfort, a 36″ x 36″ space is recommended. Codes will allow a minimum 30″ x 30″ stall. A shower with an angled door should be at least 32″ x 32″.

10. Tub and shower controls
The height of shower controls should be 38″ to 48″ from the floor, depending upon the height of the user. Tub controls should be between the rim of the tub and no higher than 33″ from the floor. This, of course, poses a problem if your tub and shower are controlled by the same lever or knob. In such cases, this author’s opinion is to keep the controls below 33″. In an emergency, it can be quickly reached by someone sitting in the tub.

11. Toilet placement
A toilet should have some elbow room between it and another fixture or vanity. The NKBA’s recommendation is at least 18″. Codes allow a minimum distance of 15″. If you’re placing your toilet in a compartment, it should be 36″ x 66″, although codes will allow 30″ x 60″.

12. Toilet paper holder
Even the toilet paper holder merits a recommendation. The NKBA says to put it 8″ to 12″ away from the front edge of the toilet bowl. It should be 26″ above the floor.

For more excellent information about bathroom design, visit the NKBA.

Metal Roofs 101

With styles that now imitate the look of wood, stone, and clay, metal roofing is finding renewed popularity in homes of all types.

Metal Roofs


The metal roofing industry has taken a page from vinyl flooring manufacturers. They’ve started with a ‘plain Jane’ material—in this case steel or aluminum—and made it look like wood, stone, and clay. The introduction of metal roofing in shingle, shake, slate and tile styles has reinvigorated the metal roofing industry.

For decades, metal roofs meant corrugated panels, which looked like they belonged on sheds or barns, or standing-seam applications, which often had a commercial appearance. Today, metal roofing products are available to fit every architectural style, whether a Spanish Colonial in Southern California or a Victorian in New England.

Residential metal roofing is generally made of steel, aluminum, or copper. Rolls of 24- or 26-gauge steel sheets are given a metallic coating to prevent rust, followed by a baked-on paint finish. Aluminum sheets don’t require the metallic coating but do get painted. Copper, often called a natural metal product, is neither coated nor painted, because it weathers without corroding. It is sometimes used for special features, such as the roof of a prominent bay window.

Steel roofing products are coated with either zinc (galvanized) or a mixture of aluminum and zinc (galvalume or zincalume). Of the two, galvalume offers the longer service. The coatings are offered in several thicknesses—the thicker the coating the longer the service, and the higher the cost.

The Metal Roofing Association (MRA) recommends a galvanizing thickness level of at least G-90 for residential applications and an AZ-50 or AZ-55 designation for galvalume coatings. In areas by the sea, opt for an aluminum-based panel. Paint finishes vary in quality, as well. An inferior coating may fade or chalk. Some manufacturers participate in a certification process developed by the MRA. Standard certified products may be used in most areas. In areas with high exposure to UV light, opt for a premium certified paint coating.

Metal Roofs


Metal roofing products can be stamped into many shapes and are typically installed as interlocking panels with hidden fasteners. Viewed from a distance, they offer fairly convincing renditions of shingles and tiles. Some ‘stone-coated’ products receive an acrylic coating, in which stone granules are embedded. These offer a less metallic look.

Slideshow: Debunking 5 Metal Roofing Myths

Standing-seam metal roofs look exactly like what they are–long sheets of painted steel with vertical seams. From a design perspective, they are a purer product but not suitable for every home. Standing-seam roofs are perhaps best matched to the simple lines of cabins and contemporary home designs.

The primary benefit of metal roofing is longevity. Manufacturers routinely offer 50-year warranties and even lifetime, non-prorated warranties. They claim their products will last two to four times longer than roofs with asphalt shingles. By avoiding one or two re-roofing jobs during the life of the metal roof, you will more than offset the higher initial cost. Near term, a new metal roof recoups a bit more of its installation cost upon home resale (6% according to Remodeling Magazine) than does a new asphalt roof.

There are other advantages, as well. Metal roofs are lightweight, sometimes allowing them to be installed directly over old roofs. And when metal roofing is painted with specially formulated “cool pigments”, solar energy is reflected and emitted (rather than radiated as heat into the attic).

Additionally, metal roofs are effective in preventing the spread of fire when hot embers fall on them (i.e., from brush and forest fires). In fact, some insurance companies will give you a discount if you have a metal roof. In addition, metal roofing is made with a large percentage of recycled metal—often 95 percent—and when its useful life is done, it can be recycled again. No worries about it filling up dwindling space in landfills.

Myths and legends get started about all sorts of people, places, and building materials…. Metal roofing has more than its share, perhaps because it has undergone so many transformations over the years. Here are the most common myths about metal roofing:

* It will increase the likelihood of a lightening strike. Metal conducts electricity, but electricity is not drawn to it.

* Metal roofs are noisy in the rain. Not so. They may even be quieter than other roof types.

* Metal roofs are susceptible to damage by hail. While extremely large hailstones can dent a metal roof, normal hailstorms will not. With textured roofs, minor denting is not readily visible.

* You cannot walk on a metal roof. You can, but you have to know how to do it without causing damage. Check with the manufacturer of the product you choose.

* A metal roof will make your house colder in winter. Actually, a metal roof has no effect on the temperature of the typical vented attic in winter. It’s the insulation under (or on top of) the floor of your attic that keeps you warm.