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+!

Solar Power Systems 101

Harnessing the sun's energy to power homes is a viable and increasingly cost-effective option for homeowners.

Solar Power Systems

Photo: Fafco

Solar energy can be used to do all sorts of work around the house, from providing electricity for lights and appliances to warming a pool, spa, shower or room. But how well a solar system works for you will depend upon dozens of factors, including where you live, your exposure to the sun, your electric rate, what you pay for heating fuel, your budget and your commitment to drawing on the sun’s energy rather than your current providers.

The heart of any active solar system, regardless of whether it is providing electricity or heat, is the collector (sometimes called a panel or module). Passive systems rely on natural forces to operate, such as the movement of heat from cold to hot and the fact that hot fluids rise. Conversely, an active system requires other equipment, such as blowers, pumps, and inverters, to use the energy you capture from the sun.

There are essentially two types of solar collectors, electric (those converting the sun’s rays into electricity) and thermal (those that convert it to heat). Both are typically found on roofs, though the arrays may be ground- or pole-mounted as well.

Solar electric panels (sometimes referred to as PV or photovoltaic modules) are typically composed of solar cells—tile-sized silicone wafers, wired and assembled into a panel or module. They often have a blue or green cast but can be black as well. The most common types of residential solar electric collectors are:

Solarpanels• Crystalline PV modules
 comprise the vast majority of solar electric collectors on the market. They are made by slicing manmade silicon crystal ingots, or loaves, into wafers, each carrying a positive and negative electron. Wafers are wired together to form modules and modules are wired together to form arrays. When the wafers are struck by sunlight, an electric current runs from the front contacts to the back contacts, distributing the charge from module to module.

• Thin-film modules and laminates
 are made by depositing various semi-conductor materials in very thin layers on various substrates, including glass and flexible backings. They too produce electricity. If the semi-conductor material is protected by glass, the thin-film solar collectors are referred to as modules. When the semi-conductor material has a flexible protective cover, they are called laminates.

Thin-film modules and laminates account for a small fraction of total solar module sales, however, partly due to the fact that they require up to four times more roof space to produce the same kW-hr/yr output. The residential application that has drawn the greatest interest for thin-film PV is on standing-seam metal roofs (between the vertical seams) and as solar shingles.

Solar thermal collectors are used for heating applications, are generally bulkier, and stand off the roof a little more. There are plenty of exceptions, though. Some thermal collectors look like big, flat boxes or have cylindrical tanks attached to them. Others consist of a series of large glass tubes. The most common types of solar thermal collectors include:

• Thermal flat-plate collectors, designed for heating, are typically 4″- to 5″-thick rectangular enclosures with glass covers on top. Inside the enclosure is a blackened absorber sheet with integral passages through which a liquid flows to draw away the sun’s heat. The heated liquid may then be used for domestic water or for space heating. Tubing travels through the collector enclosure, so it can be connected to additional collectors as well as to the supply and return mains. The liquid that circulates through the collector is usually water or antifreeze (glycol), or a combination of the two.

Siliconsolar How Evac Tubes Work• Evacuated tube collectors, a newer type of thermal collector, is made from a row of evacuated tubes, each with its own absorber plate and tubing. Liquid removes heat from the absorber plate, just as it does with a conventional thermal collector. The use of evacuated-tube collectors has increased in recent years, but they still represent a small percent of today’s market.

• Unglazed thermal collectors are typically extruded from a black polymer and include a series of tubes through which the liquid to be heated can be pumped. Unglazed thermal collectors are suited for low-temperature applications, such as those used to heat swimming pools and spas.

• Hot air collectors tend to be larger than collectors that heat liquid, sometimes covering an entire exterior wall of a building. Consequently they are more often used in commercial applications. Some hot air collectors, also called ‘air-cooled’ collectors, are glazed. Such collectors are used for space heating. There’s not a lot that can go wrong with them, because freezing and overheating are not issues.

Solar electric collectors convert solar radiation directly to electricity, which may be used immediately, stored in batteries, or sent to the electric grid. In the latter case, the homeowner receives credit for what is produced, thereby lowering his electric bill. In effect, the utility company serves as storage for electricity that’s produced during periods of the day when you don’t need it. The grid is also there as a backup for cloudy periods, when you aren’t producing much solar electricity.

Thermal collectors convert solar energy to heat. Radiation strikes the absorber plate, and heat is drawn away by liquid or air. Provisions must be made to deal with the overheating of liquid-cooled systems, when there is no demand for heat. If water is used, provisions for freezing must be made. The heat may be used immediately or stored for later use. In solar hot water heating systems, a tank stores the hot water. In the case of swimming pools, the pool acts as the storage tank.

In solar space heating, the heat may be stored in large tanks of water or in some type of masonry, including bins filled with stone. The heated air can be distributed to various rooms by ducts or pipes in much the same way as conventional heating systems.

Velux Solar Collectors Roof Hr CropBEST RETURN ON INVESTMENT
Various federal and state incentives may be available to homeowners wishing to install a solar system. You can find out what’s available in your area by going to the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE).

In general, domestic hot water heating and swimming pool heating applications have the shortest paybacks (5 to 7 years) and require the smallest investments ($3,000 to $10,000 before incentives). Installations cost less in climates where freezing temperatures are not an issue. Solar electricity installations that would satisfy a significant portion of your electrical needs require much larger investments, although component costs have dropped in recent years. If done during construction, costs are significantly lower.

Leasing programs, if available in your area, also dramatically reduce the cost of installing a system. Solar space heating also requires a large investment, unless you simply want to warm up one or two rooms on the south side of your house.

Regardless of what type of solar system you’re contemplating, begin conserving energy now. It costs a lot less to turn off lights, take shorter showers, and insulate the attic and walls than it does to install an array of solar collectors!

Considering solar for your home?  Find a professional contractor in your area, here.

Author Note: In addition to being a frequent contributor to, Joe Provey is co-author, with Everett M. Barber, of Convert Your Home To Solar Energy (The Taunton Press, 2010)

Planning Guide: Basement Remodeling

Basements offer a bonus for homeowners looking to increase living space. But unlike the rest of the house, these below-grade rooms require thoughtful planning and prep work.

Basement Remodeling


Do you feel like your home is shrinking? Are the kids growing up and accumulating more stuff? Is your teenager demanding a room of his own? Has the college grad come back to the nest? Are you looking to provide room for an elderly parent or rent out space to help makes ends meet? Regardless of the reason, the space solution may actually be right under your feet.

Basements are typically about one third of the entire home’s available space, 600 to 800 sq. ft. in the average home. And while some basements have been finished to create more living area, the majority of these spaces are used as makeshift laundry rooms, home offices, and storage repositories for everything from spare freezers to pantries, paints, and paperwork. In other words, most basements are underused.

There are definitely benefits to considering a basement remodel:
• Unlike a room addition, there is no need to excavate for new footings or worry about structural loads.
• Utilities (including water, electricity, gas and sewer lines) are typically close at hand, further reducing costs.
• Heating and cooling loads are relatively light for basements.
• Basements almost always have stairs leading to them, unlike many attics (another popular house expansion candidate).

Converting a basement, however, is not without its challenges. Below-grade spaces are subject to water and moisture, two common enemies of home construction. Mold and mildew are also common, and natural light is limited. Overhead pipes and ductwork can add further challenges, and if you didn’t anticipate a bathroom when the house was built, the basement toilet may have to flush up.

Before embarking on a basement conversion, get serious about waterproofing. If water periodically wells up between the slab and foundation wall, or there are cracks in the foundation, you will need to call in a contractor or basement waterproofing company for advice. They will be able to tell you whether the source of water is an easy one to stem—it can be as simple as gutters and downspouts not doing their jobs—or whether it’s more serious.

Related: 10 “Neat” Garage Storage Solutions

Sewer Rooter.Com Basement Sump Pump

In many cases, a below-slab perimeter drain leading to a sump pit with at least two pumps (primary and backup) is the answer. The sump pit should be installed in the lowest part of the room perimeter and set-up to discharge water outside in the most efficient manner. Many finished basements build a closet around the sump pit. Regardless of how you conceal it, be sure to allow for easy access.

Groundwater isn’t the only source of dampness and moisture in a basement. Plumbing leaks and condensation are two other common sources. A good waterproofing contractor can install water alerts in your laundry area and near water heater tanks to warn you of a leak before it can cause major damage. He can also recommend a self-draining, high-capacity dehumidifier to further remedy moisture issues.

When finishing a basement, it’s smart to use materials that can stand up to water and moisture. Conventional materials like drywall, wood framing, and MDF moldings are not necessarily the best choices in below-grade applications. That’s why several companies offer complete basement finishing systems that include waterproof wall panels, moisture-proof drop ceilings, mold-proof PVC moldings and water-resistant underfloor systems; everything to reduce the risk from water damage.

Owens Corning offers an insulated wall panel for basement conversion composed of compressed fiberglass lined by vinyl on the finished side. It attaches to block and poured concrete foundation walls with special channels. If you need access to electrical wires or plumbing behind the panels, you can remove them. The panels are non-flammable, impact resistant, won’t trap water vapor, and don’t support mold. They may, however, be damaged in a flood if left standing in water for any length of time.

Total Basement Finishing (TBF), a Basement Systems, Inc. company, offers a highly impact-resistant cement panel backed by rigid foam insulation. It’s strong enough to support anything you’d hang on a conventionally framed wall. Precut channels make wiring easy. And a linen-look vinyl skin in white and beige covers the finished side.

TBF panels can be installed in floor and ceiling tracks independent of the foundation wall, or they can be attached directly to foundation walls. The system is versatile enough that you can leave a portion of your basement unfinished, or divide the space into rooms, or even erect closets. In addition to various versions of its wall panels, TBF offers a menu of other basement remodeling products, including finished stair kits, drop ceilings, and waterproof flooring. The parent company, Basement Systems, is a nationwide network of waterproofing contractors, so it’s likely that the TBF dealer in your area will be able to help with basement waterproofing, too.

Related: Easy Laundry Room Storage Ideas

Wahoo Walls.Com Basement Refinishing DiyDo-it-yourselfers looking to save some money will want to consider basement wall panels made of magnesium oxide, like those from Wahoo Walls. When adhered to polystyrene insulation, MgO boards insulate to R-11. They are well-suited to damp areas, are mold- and mildew-resistant, and are easy to cut and install. Plus, they can be painted. The boards install in L-shaped steel brackets screwed to the slab and joists, which have pre-cut wiring and cable channels. Panels for interior partitions are also available without the insulation. The company offers excellent installation instructions.

Unless you’re fortunate enough to have a walkout basement, where one or more walls are above-grade and can accommodate large windows and glazed doors, natural lighting is going to be limited in your basement to a handful of small windows. Fortunately, dropped or suspended ceilings, common in basements, can easily and attractively accommodate recessed can, track, and fluorescent troffer fixtures.

Designers recommend lots of perimeter lighting as well, including sconces, recessed spotlights, and fluorescent tubes or LED wall washers hidden behind coves. By lighting the walls, you can simulate natural ambient light and make the space seem bigger.

Accommodating ductwork and beams is often a challenge. Painting them to match the ceiling is a common approach. Another is to paint them in bright playful colors. So is boxing the ducts in with soffits, or wood-framed enclosures covered with drywall or MDF. Keep in mind, however, that duct enclosures cannot extend more than 6 inches below the minimum 7-ft. allowable ceiling height. If there are ducts that are hanging too low, sometimes they can be split into smaller ducts. Wider and flatter replacement ducts can also be installed to gain a few inches of headroom. Whatever you do, check with your local building department before beginning work to be sure your plan conforms to building codes.

Plumbingsupply.Com Saniflo Sanitop Basement Upflush Toilet RevWHEN DRAINS MUST GO UP
Basement bathrooms, laundries, and kitchens, common features in many conversions, are straightforward with regard to hot and cold water supply lines, though not always for drainage. If necessary, there are several methods for draining sewage waste and wastewater—especially from toilets—upwards to existing drain lines. The least expensive is a macerating bathroom pump, like those by Saniflo. It turns on automatically to pump toilet waste and grey water from sink, shower, tub or laundry to your sewer line. These units are compact and quiet, typically fitting either directly behind the toilet or behind the wall.

Basement rooms can be used for many purposes: laundry, home theater, game playing, hobbies and crafts, and the list goes on. There are many building codes intended to ensure the safety of occupants that apply to all of the above. They include the use of smoke and CO detectors, GFI receptacles, outside combustion air for the furnace or boiler, materials that resist the spread of fire, minimum room sizes, and emergency window well egress. When choosing contractors to work on your basement conversion, find one who has done the job many times before and who is knowledgeable about applicable codes. Do not work with a contractor who says you can convert a basement without pulling permits.

Bathroom Floor Tile: Which Is Best for You?

While there are many bathroom floor tile options, knowing the pros and cons for each will help you make the right choice in your home.

Bathroom Floor Tile

Vinyl floor tiles are among the most popular choices for the bath, and for good reason.. Photo: BathroomDesignIdeasX

Don’t miss Bathroom Floor Tile: 14 Top Options

Bathroom floor tile is available in a surprising number of materials. Ceramic, porcelain, and vinyl tiles are what come to mind first, and for good reason. They are the most popular choices and perhaps the most practical. But there are many options available today, from wood and cork to stone and glass. Here is a quick guide to help you determine the best floor tile for your bath.

Vinyl is the most popular bathroom flooring material, because of its low cost and high degree of practicality. It is well-suited for every bathroom in the house, from the master bath to the powder room. Hands down, it beats other popular choices for safety, comfort, and durability. Almost as important, vinyl tiles have come a long way in aesthetic appeal and ease of installation. The material is self-adhering and can be cut with a utility knife. Prices start at $.95 per square foot.

Nothing looks better than ceramic or porcelain, whether your tastes run to stone or wood lookalikes or brilliant colors and surprising patterns. Ceramics score high with regard to maintenance, too, but they are not nearly as comfortable to the bare foot as vinyl. Installing radiant floor heat helps to change that, but a hard surface is hard whether or not it’s warm. Ceramics are not as easy to install as vinyl, though it is a job the adventurous do-it-yourselfer can tackle. When protected with a high-grade glaze, ceramic will resist wear and scratches. Porcelain tiles are harder than clay-based tiles and may have through-body color, an advantage if chipping occurs. Prices start at around $1.09 per square foot.

Bathroom Floor Tile - Laminate


Plastic laminate tiles (more commonly available as planks) are also a good choice, especially if you’re remodeling. Similar to the laminate material that covered kitchen countertops for a generation or two, the tiles don’t significantly raise the height of the existing floor, which makes it easier to plan transitions from room to room. While durable and easy to keep clean, laminate falls short when it comes to moisture. Standing water can infiltrate the fiberboard core, causing the material to expand and buckle. With laminates, it’s critical to caulk gaps along the walls, around the tub, and surrounding other fixtures to prevent water infiltration. Another con: Laminates don’t come in the same variety of styles you’ll find with ceramics and vinyl. From $.49 per square foot.

Stone tiles were once confined to the foyer. In the past decade, however, they have become popular in other rooms as well, bathroom included. Made from limestone, marble, granite and slate, stone tiles are available in colors that range from creams to blues, reds, greens and golds. Available textures are nearly as numerous and include cleft, tumbled, sandblasted, etched and flamed variations. Stone requires more maintenance than ceramic tile; regular cleaning and sealing are recommended. Plus, stone is typically more expensive than similar-looking ceramic or porcelain tiles. Prices vary.

Slideshow: Bathroom Floor Tile: 9 Top Options

Wood is only for the fearless. Once water penetrates the finish, it will stain—probably for good. During installation, the wood parquet tiles must be carefully sealed around the room perimeter and at all other joints. Two coats of polyurethane must then be applied as protection. Use it in a powder room but avoid wood floor tile in full baths that get a lot of use. Prices vary.

Linoleum is made of linseed oil, cork powder, wood flour, ground limestone and pigments. It is at home in contemporary or retro settings and well-suited to the bathroom. It’s touted as naturally inhibiting the growth of microorganisms and being able to repel dust and dirt, all while retaining its color. In my experience, that’s hype. Click-in-place plank designs make it easy to install, and there is no doubt that the stuff looks great. The look comes at a cost, however, as linoleum is relatively expensive. Average cost per square foot: $4.

Bathroom Floor Tile - Cork


Cork is warm to the touch and very easy on the feet, and the tiles come tinted in a variety of colors. Installation is not difficult, but if you purchase unfinished tiles, expect to protect them with two coats of polyurethane. Generally, cork tiles are installed with a troweled-on adhesive, but click-in-place floating floor products are also available. Average cost: $2 per square foot.

Glass floor tile is about as different as you can get. Installed properly, this type of tile holds up well and if textured, it can resist slips. Small glass tiles with lots of grout joints are also slip-resistant. The aesthetic appeal is twofold: Covering the floor in a thin layer of glass creates the illusion of depth, and if the glass is tinted, you get a lovely stained-glass effect. Prices vary.

Tips: When buying glass, ceramic, or porcelain tile, be sure it’s rated for use on floors. Choose ceramic tile with a grade of 1 or 2 for floors. Ceramic tile also comes with a coefficient of friction (COF). For safety, choose one rated .50 or greater. The Porcelain Enamel Institute (PEI) rating system counts the other way; opt for tiles that are at least PEI III.

How To: Paint a House

Researching how to paint a house? Here are eight expert tips to help make the undertaking DIY-manageable.

How to Paint a House


Painting your house yourself is a big commitment of time. Just think about it. It can take a professional crew of three a week or roughly 120 man hours to paint an average-size home. If pros take that long, you can be sure it will take you longer.

Nevertheless, the rewards are great. With the price tag at $3,000 to $4,000 for painting a house, your savings could be enough to fund a nice little vacation. How much you’ll pocket will depend on how much equipment you’ll have to buy or rent. Whether you’ll have time for that vacation depends upon how efficiently you work. Here are some tips to help you complete the project at near-professional speed while keeping your costs low:

How to Paint a House - Porch


1. Forego a power washer. If you have a one-story home, save the rental fee or purchase price of a power washer. In most cases, you can do a fine job of prepping your house with a hose and a long-handled brush. Mix TSP in a large 5-gallon bucket and use the scrub brush to loosen dirt and stains. Then blast the surface with the hose. Use a pressure washer if you have to reach areas of a second or third story, but be careful, as they can gouge the surface of wood siding if used at 800 psi or higher.

2. Hire a helper. Two will make the job go more than twice as fast. If your helper is young and inexperienced, limit his or her duties to laying tarps, scrubbing, scraping and feathering blister or peeled areas of siding and trim, stirring paint, running errands and cleaning up.

3. Choose a solid-color stain instead of paint for siding. It’s easier to brush on, covers well, and comes in all of the colors that paint does. Best of all, it won’t peel or blister. When it is time to repaint, surface preparation will be reduced by half or more. You can use solid color stain on the trim, too, but it won’t have the glossy finish that most people prefer.

4. Don’t bother with buying or renting spray equipment. It adds to your expense and is difficult to master. Use a roll-and-brush technique instead. Purchase a small 6″ roller frame and matching covers for painting trim. Use a 9″ (or larger) roller for open, flat areas. Follow up with a brush to ensure coverage on inside corners, gaps, and at joints. Buy several brushes in 2″ and 5″ sizes.

Related: 10 Essential for Successful House Painting

5. Work from the top down. This approach will let you tackle the tougher aspects of the job while you’re fresh and your concentration is best. Working top-to-bottom also allows you to remove drips as you proceed. Also, be sure to work in the direction of your dominant hand. If you’re a righty, for example, work from left to right. This will keep your body in a safer, more natural position as your work. Always work to a natural break, such as a corner or door. In summer, avoid working in the sun whenever possible.

6. Wear gloves and long sleeves. They’ll save you a lot of time washing your hands and arms at the end of the day. I prefer latex disposables, but cotton painter’s gloves are fine, too. Wear a hat and painter’s pants as well. The hat offers protection from the sun, keeping you more alert. The pants offer leg protection and have large pockets and tool loops. Keep a rag, sandpaper, and a small scraper handy for touching up spots you may have missed during prep.

7. Consider a ladder ‘standoff’. Improve the effectiveness of your extension ladder with a ladder standoff. This U-shaped bracket improves ladder stability, puts the work surface at a convenient distance for brushing or rolling, offers a place from which to hang a can of paint, and allows you to ‘straddle’ windows, so you can reach the entire window frame from one ladder position.

8. Divide and conquer. If painting your house still seems daunting, there’s no rule that says you have to paint the house all at once. For example, plan on tackling the trim, including windows and doors, in the spring. When the weather cools in late summer, paint the front and one side of the house. The following spring, paint the other side and the rear. You should be able to relax for six to nine years before beginning the cycle over again.

How To: Build a Deck

If you are planning to build a deck, consider the benefits of an on-grade design.

How to Build a Deck

Photo: Deck vs. Patio

The beauty of a deck is that—unlike bare ground or lawn—it’s level, stable, supports furniture, sheds rain, and provides usable living space. Building a deck, however, requires more skill and understanding of construction principles than, say, building a patio. The simplest deck, called an on-grade deck, typically requires the installation of concrete piers to which beams and joists are attached. The perimeter joists, called rim joists, are doubled and then covered with trim boards.

Depending on climate, the piers may need to be set on a footing that is several feet below grade. Check with your building department to find out what the code is in your area. Proper footings prevent the deck from ‘heaving’ should the ground freeze. Framing hardware, such as post bases and joist hangers, are used to join all framing members. Decking (what you walk on) is fastened to the joists with screws or nails from the top, or with “invisible” fasteners from below.

How to Build a DeckSuch a deck will probably be less than a foot off the ground and therefore will not require railings or stairs, both of which complicate construction significantly. A door to the house will also complicate things. If it’s a step above the decking, you’re in luck. If you have to build one two or three steps to reach the door, you’ll also probably want to include a landing to make entering and exiting the house safer and easier.

If the deck is adjacent to the house, it will require a ledger board. Typically, siding is removed and the ledger board is bolted to the house framing. Flashing should then be installed so that rain and snowmelt don’t enter the joint between ledger and house. If the deck is a freestanding ‘island’ deck, there is no ledger board.

The higher a deck is off the ground, the more complex it is to design and build. Suddenly, you have to decide from which approach, or approaches, you’d like to access the deck. Skirting or landscaping must be used to hide the framing that supports the joists. Also, stair railings and balustrades must be built, adding to cost and complexity.

Building a deck can greatly enhance the enjoyment of your yard, but spend time planning every step before pulling out your circular saw and nail gun. The nice thing about getting a deck under your belt, however, is that you’ll learn skills that will help when building many other projects, including garden sheds, porches, arbors and gazebos.

Illustration courtesy of Lowes.

Replacement Windows 101

If you are thinking about new windows, here's everything you need to know from glazing options to installation requirements.

Installing Replacement Windows

Photo: Andersen Windows

Windows come in all styles, types, shapes and sizes, but unless you’re building a new house, all of the above are largely predetermined. There are of course some exceptions. Perhaps a previous homeowner replaced the original windows with units that are historically inappropriate or inferior. (Today, historic window styles are readily available from manufacturers like Andersen.) Or maybe you’re adding a family room at the back of the house, where it would be okay to deviate from the double hung windows in the front; in this situation, you might decide to use casements. Sometimes a homeowner will want to increase or decrease the size of the window being replaced, but if you’re like most homeowners, the real decisions will have more to do with energy-saving features and ease of maintenance.

Replacement WindowsWINDOW GLAZING
With regard to energy saving, the first thing to focus on is glazing. Efficient windows typically have two layers of glass and are called dual-pane or double-pane. The small gap between the glass layers creates a barrier to heat flow, which may be enhanced with an additional layer of glass (two separate insulating chambers), in which case it’s called triple-glazed. The gap or gaps between layers of glazing are often filled with a gas that further reduces heat flow by conduction. Argon and Krypton, or a combination thereof, are commonly used gas fills.

Reflective films, tints, and low-emittance (low-E) coatings are some of the other ways window manufacturers are improving window performance. Reflective films block much of the radiant energy striking a window—keeping occupants cooler—but they also block most of the visible light. In addition to giving windows a mirror-like appearance, they often cause occupants to use more electric lighting to compensate for the loss of daylighting. Bronze- and gray-tinted glass reflect radiant energy and reduce cooling loads without reducing as much the visible light entering the home. A visual transmittance (VT) of 60% (versus 90% for clear glass) is common.

Replacement WindowsLow-E coatings are more versatile than either reflective films or tints and are virtually invisible. Microscopic metal or metallic oxide particles suppress radiant heat flow out of the window and can be formulated to allow varying degrees of solar radiation in. In climates where heating is the dominant concern, low-E coatings may be used to prevent radiant heat transfer out of the house while allowing high solar heat gain. In climates where both heating and cooling are required, low-E coatings can reduce radiant heat loss while allowing moderate heat gain. In climates where the dominant concern is cooling, low-E coatings are primarily used to reduce solar heat gain. It’s even possible to fine-tune solar heat gain by choosing a low-E coating with a high solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC) for south-facing windows and a lower coefficient for other orientations.

The material with which the window frame is built will also significantly affect its efficiency. Insulation-filled vinyl frames and fiberglass perform better than wood, wood-clad, and vinyl that is not insulated. Aluminum and steel perform worse than any of the above.

There are three approaches to window replacement: sash-only, insert windows, and full-window replacements.

Sash-only replacement kits include new sash and jamb liners for improved operation. They are easy to install but should only be used in windows that are otherwise in good condition.

Retrofit windows (also called inserts) fit inside the existing window frames. Only the window stops and old sashes need to be removed. Existing moldings, inside and out, are not affected. Installing inserts is only an option if the old window frame is in good shape, rot-free, and square.

Related: Know Your Window Styles: 10 Popular Designs

Inserts can be installed with less labor, less cost, and less mess than full-frame replacements. They are normally custom-built to the exact sizes of your openings and to match the angle of your existing sill. The advantage of retrofit windows is that they are available with tilt-in cleaning.

Full-window, also known as full-frame, replacements typically require the removal of the entire existing window, including the casings, frame, sash, and exterior trim. This method can be used to correct situations where the old window frame has deteriorated, is out of square, or when a different window style or size is desired.

While full-frame replacements involve more labor, cost, and disruption, they will allow you to better insulate around the window frame, a common location of energy leakage. With the trim removed, you can spray closed-cell foam insulation between the window frame and the studs. Full-frame window replacements can usually be done with standard window sizes but can also be custom ordered. Another bonus: With full-frame replacements as opposed to insert replacements, no glazing area is lost.

There are several benefits to replacing old windows with new energy-efficient ones, but don’t expect dramatic reductions in your heating bill. Most replacement windows have R-values of 4 or 5 compared to 2 for single-glazed with a storm window. Given that the window area is a fraction of the overall wall area, it would make more sense to first invest in attic and wall insulation, weatherstripping, and sealants such as caulking, duct mastic, or even insulating window treatments. In all likelihood, more heat enters and/or escapes from your home through attic floors, attic hatches, recessed light fixtures, fireplaces, and other penetrations in the envelope of your house than through your windows.

Wood windows that have deteriorated due to water infiltration and rot are prime candidates for replacement. Or perhaps your windows no longer operate properly, and it will be expensive to repair them. You may also want to upgrade your windows to make maintenance easier. It’s no fun to climb on ladders to wash window exteriors, but today’s new window designs enable you to access exterior glazing from inside your home. Aesthetics can be a factor in window replacement, too. Many homes of historical note have been marred by the installation of inappropriate window styles and storm windows. Replacing them with storm-less windows of the right style will improve the look and value of your home.

What style of window are you considering? For a look at the 10 most popular choices, click here.

Swimming Pools 101

Considering an in-ground swimming pool? Here's everything you need to know about style, type, maintenance, safety and cost.

Swimming Pools

. Photo: Architectural Digest

An in-ground pool is the ultimate in backyard upgrades. If you’ve always wanted one, now may be the time. Prices have fallen during the recession by up to 30 percent. Nevertheless, it remains a big investment, so it’s important to make smart choices with regard to size, shape, site selection, and type.

Size and shape depend upon your needs, budget, available area, and design wishes. Swim spas are small pools (some only 10 to 14 feet long) that produce a manmade current against which you can swim in place. Lap pools are typically narrow but require a sizeable yard. Some are as long as an Olympic pool (25 meters) and are meant for training or exercise. Recreational pools are usually shallow at one end and deep enough for diving (9 to 11 ft.) at the other. Typically rectangular, they come in many sizes. Freeform shapes are also available and are often preferred because they blend well into the backyard landscape.

Many pool owners prefer to install their pool close to the kitchen or family room. That provides ready access to the house and makes it easier to bring food and drinks out and to clean up afterwards. It’s also easier to keep an eye on the pool from the house. That said, a somewhat secluded pool has the feel of a vacation getaway—without ever pulling out of the driveway. As long as the pool is connected to the house with a smooth, well-lit path and has a sizeable pool deck around it for outdoor furniture and a grill, no one will complain. A pool cabana, of course, allows for nearby dressing and showering.

The majority of today’s pools are built of vinyl, fiberglass, or concrete (called either wet shotcrete or Gunite, depending upon how it’s mixed and applied). Poured concrete pools and concrete block pools have fallen out of favor. A plaster finish is troweled over shotcrete or Gunite surfaces.

Vinyl is the least expensive option. Inside a suitable excavation, a frame of wood, plastic or metal is erected. The most stable systems are set in a concrete footing. Wall panels are then fastened to the framing, plumbing is installed, and a sand base is laid. A heavy-duty vinyl liner is fastened to the top of the frame and what remains of the hole is backfilled. Masonry coping is installed over the top of the wall.

Fiberglass Poolsand Spas Pool Installation

Fiberglass pools are pre-molded in a variety of shapes and sizes. They are manufactured with steps, benches, and swimouts already in place (not the case with vinyl). After the hole has been dug, plumbing installed, and sand base laid, it is lowered into the hole and leveled. To avoid bowing, filling the pool with water and backfilling with sand must be done simultaneously. No framing is required.

Shotcrete pools are made by shooting a mix of cement, sand, water, and aggregate from a pneumatic applicator at high speeds against the earthen walls and base of the pool excavation and around a grid woven of steel rebar (reinforcing bar). Multiple passes are necessary to build the mixture to the desired thickness. The concrete must be troweled smooth before it sets, and afterwards a coat of plaster is applied.

There are two types of shotcrete, wet and dry. Wet shotcrete is delivered premixed with water in a truck. Dry shotcrete, commonly known as Gunite, is a mix of sand and cement and sometimes small aggregate. It remains dry until it reaches the nozzle of the applicator and doesn’t really mix with water until impact on the pool walls and floor. There is some debate about which approach is stronger and longer lasting, but both processes produce durable pools. Gunite, however, demands a more highly skilled nozzle man to maintain the correct water-to-cement ratio.


Swimming Pools 101POOL DECKING
Decking around a pool can be poured concrete, stone, brick, tile, or any of a variety of pavers. Wood may also be used, but it will demand more maintenance, can be slippery when wet, and is prone to causing splinters. Don’t skimp on area. The pool deck, which will be used for lounging, sunbathing, and dining, is likely to get more use than the pool!

Pool costs vary by type of pool and region. For example, in many parts of the country a fiberglass pool costs less than a concrete pool—but not everywhere. Size is probably a more important indicator of price. Small pools will cost roughly between $20,000 and $30,000. Medium-size pools will run between $30,000 and $40,000. Large pools begin at $40,000 and go up from there. Add in the extras—diving boards, slides, decking, lighting, and automatic cleaners—and the costs can easily rise by another 10 to 20 percent. Some pool contractors may be able to give you a more accurate estimate based upon the pool volume. For example, concrete pools in many parts of the country cost about $10 per cubic foot. As with any home improvement, request several quotes from reputable contractors along with as many references as possible.

In addition to initial cost, plan for ongoing maintenance expenses. Vinyl liners, for example, last about 5 to 10 years, at which time they need to be replaced at a cost of about $4,000. Concrete pools need to be resurfaced every 10 years or so, a job that can cost even more. Fiberglass pools have a life expectancy of 25 years, making them a low-cost option in the long term. In addition, fiberglass is less likely to stain or support the growth of algae, thereby reducing maintenance hassle and expense.

Swimming Pools 101

The cost of a new pool doesn’t end with its construction. Depending upon how much of it you hire out, maintenance, supplies and electrical costs can run between $1000 and $3000 a year. There’s opening and closing, cleaning, checking connections, adjusting pH, adding algaecide, surface repairs, and liner replacements. Cost-saving green alternatives are available. Before deciding upon chlorine as your primary sanitizer (it’s a major pollutant), consider some of the natural water purifiers. They include saltwater, ionization, oxidation, sonic waves, and certain types of plants. And if you’re thinking about heating your pool to extend its use into the cooler seasons, consider solar thermal heating. Of all the solar technologies, its payback is the fastest.

The Consumer Safety Protection Commission (CPSC) recommends taking measures to prevent children from accessing the water when there is no adult supervision. When planning a pool, include a fence around the perimeter in your plans. (Your municipality may demand it—and it’s a good idea in any case.) Gates should be self-closing, self-latching, and lockable. Door, gate and pool alarms should be installed along with anti-entrapment drain covers and securable pool covers. Everyone using the pool should be taught to swim, and someone in the family should be trained in CPR, first aid, and emergency response.

Garage Doors 101

If you're shopping for a new garage door, style and material choices will be abundant, but which will meet your needs best?

Garage Doors

Photo: High Street Market

As cars have grown more important to our lives, they have gained equal prominence in residential floor plans. You’d probably be hard-pressed to find a single-family house built in the last 30 years where the first thing you noticed wasn’t the garage door. In the day-to-day life of today’s home, the garage is so central that many people use it as the primary entrance!

Over the last ten years, garage door manufacturers and architects have begun to improve on the curb appeal of garage doors. Sometimes it seems that wooden carriage-style doors are now to home exteriors what granite countertops are to kitchens (both carry a similar sticker price). Fortunately, there are also some reasonably priced and decidedly attractive options to consider.

A wide variety of residential garage door types are on the market—sliding, folding, up-and-over and roll-up, to name a few. In the US, the most common is a sectional door, which has several horizontal panels hinged together and fitted with rollers. The entire assembly rides in two parallel tracks. A heavy-duty torsion spring, which is in turn wrapped around a torsion bar, serves to counterbalance the weight of the door. Homeowners are able to lift the door either manually or by switching on a motorized garage door opener. The actual lifting may be chain-, belt-, screw- or direct-driven.

Sectional doors are available with or without windows. Options for the former include up to 16 lites in several shapes, including square and arched. And there are many decorative styles too, from contemporary to traditional. Sectional doors are even available in the popular carriage-house style; these look like swing-style doors but work the same as sectional doors.

True carriage or swing-style garage doors operate like a pair of very big French doors. They are typically made of wood and hang from jambs on hinges. Swing-style doors look good, with their strong vertical lines often helping to integrate the garage with the rest of the home. In addition, swinging doors tend to be more energy-efficient, because they seal well at the header and side jambs and only have one joint. They do, however, require more clearance. If you park too close to swinging doors, you won’t be able to open them. Also remember that swinging garage doors are more time-consuming to manually open and lock than sectional doors, and they’re much more expensive to automate.

Like entry doors, garage doors can be made of steel, aluminum, wood, wood composites, fiberglass, vinyl or glass. No matter what the actual material is, the wood look is most popular.

Garage Doors 101 - SteelSteel Doors. The best steel garage doors are made of two layers of galvanized steel, the surface of which is either primed and painted with a tough topcoat finish or clad with a composite material. Steel doors can be painted to match your home and are available with or without insulation. The downside of steel doors is that they can be dented and are subject to corrosion, especially in coastal areas.

Wood Doors. Wood garage doors are built with layers, or plies, to prevent warping. Woods include cedar, redwood, fir and meranti (luan). Wood doors may be factory-stained or painted, or finished on-site.

Wood Composite Doors. Composite garage doors typically have a wood frame covered with sheets of fiberboard. Better models offer higher-density fiberboard skins and include realistic details, such as overlays and grooves to simulate a real wood door. Cores are filled with polystyrene insulation.

Aluminum Frame Doors. Garage doors fitted with aluminum panels eliminate the problem of rust but are easier to dent. They are available in contemporary brushed finishes, as well as in many colors. (Translucent glass panels may be used in place of aluminum panels; these admit daylight without compromising privacy or security.)

Fiberglass Doors. Garage doors made from fiberglass are less subject to denting or cracking. They do not rust but can break upon impact. Two layers of fiberglass are typically bonded to a steel frame and filled with polyurethane insulation. Steel end caps help improve rigidity.

Vinyl Doors. Vinyl garage doors are promoted as being ‘kid-proof’, because they are difficult to dent or break. Typically built upon steel frames, these too are filled with polyurethane insulation. Vinyl doors look similar to fiberglass doors but are available in fewer colors. They are very durable and require little maintenance aside from an occasional hosing.

To see a selection of garage doors, don’t miss our Product Showcase: Garage Doors

Landscape Lighting 101

Add beauty and security to your home exterior with planned landscape lighting.

Landscape Lighting

Kichler Outdoor Lighting. Photo: Kichler

Landscape lighting can turn a visitor from feeling wary to welcome. It can change the rest of the yard from Nightmare on Elm Street to Some Enchanted Evening, all with the flip of a switch.

The first step in this transformation is to educate yourself about the possibilities. Because photos rarely do justice illustrating the amazing possibilities of landscape lighting, keep an eye out for good examples when you’re out for an evening stroll or drive.

The strong lights typically used for entrances and to illuminate large areas, such as driveways and decks, are powered by a 120-volt current. A qualified electrician must wire them directly to your circuit box and the cables, held within a protective conduit, must be buried at least 18 inches below ground. If you have these fixtures, make sure they are UL-listed and approved for outdoor use. The 120-v outdoor lights are also preferred for security applications, especially when combined with motion detection.

When less light is sufficient, low-voltage fixtures (12- to 15-v) are the norm. These include accent lights, path lights, and small floodlights. The fixtures are smaller and less obtrusive, use less energy, and are far less worrisome when in wet locations. They can also be plugged into an outdoor receptacle, making them ideal for do-it-yourself installations. The wiring does not require tools, and the cables do not need to be buried.

Solar-powered outdoor lights, a third option, are of course dependent upon exposure to the sun, and are variable with regard to output and when they turn on. They are best used to light paths where they are exposed to full sun throughout the day. Don’t put them in the shade!

Planning for Outdoor Lighting
Plot out your ideas on graph paper. Draw the footprint of your house to 1/8″ scale and sketch in all major landscape elements, including fences, decks, tree, paths, driveways, and garden beds. Include the location of any existing or proposed outdoor receptacles as well.

Make notes about what you’d like to illuminate and then decide which fixtures will do the job best. Try to use a variety of lighting techniques. Avoid overly bright and dark areas, and avoid glare for both visitors and your neighbors. Do not place path lights too closely together to avoid the “runway” look. You’ll also have to decide about fixture style, too, of which there are many!

Kichler Outdoor Lighting Deck Rev Types of Outdoor Lighting Fixtures
Entry lanterns or sconces: 120-v fixtures that mount beside doors. They should be either frosted glass or shielded to prevent glare. Their size should be proportional to the height and width of the entry area (often defined by a portico).

Recessed lights: 120-v fixtures typically installed in eaves over decks and garage doors. They provide large pools of light but are mostly hidden. Small, low-voltage recessed lights can be used to light stairs, railings, posts, and built-in deck furniture.

Floodlights: 120-v or low-voltage fixtures used to light wide expanses and large interesting objects, such as driveways, stonework, and trees.

Path lights: Usually low-voltage fixtures that illuminate paths by casting small pools of light on the ground. Sometimes, perforations in the light shield allow the lights themselves to be used as guides.

Spot light: Similar to floodlights but with a narrower beam for highlighting a specific object, such as a shrub or statuary.

In-ground light: 120v or low-voltage fixtures that are buried in the ground and covered with a gasketed lens. The beam can be angled slightly to illuminate a wall, tree, or fence.

Hanging or pendant lighting: 120-v fixtures that are frequently used for entry or porch lighting. Low-voltage hanging lights strung in trees, arbors, and pergolas have become popular as decorative accents.

Tip: You can simulate the effect of many of these lights with a strong flashlight. For an uplighting effect, hold the flashlight below the object or surface you wish to light. For a downlight effect, hold it above. Hold a reflector, such as a piece of white cardboard over the flashlight and place it beside a path to simulate a path light. If the effects you want to achieve are sophisticated, consider discussing them with a landscape lighting designer.

Installing Low-Voltage Lighting
With plan in hand, add up the fixture wattages. Purchase a transformer that’s rated slightly bigger than the total, so you can add a fixture or two later if desired. Most homeowner-grade transformers are designed for outdoor use only. If you want to mount your transformer indoors, upgrade to a commercial-duty transformer. Though often double the cost, pro-quality transformers will also allow you to adjust wattages in multi-line systems to account for voltage drop in your lines. Voltage drop causes unevenly lit fixtures and premature bulb burnout.

Draw possible cable runs on your plan, and choose the one that uses the least amount of cable. You’ll have better results if you group fixtures by distance from the transformer and run separate cables to each group. If you are using more than one run, try for equal cable lengths and about the same wattage requirements on each.

Landscape Lighting Plan

You will find more cable plans, like the one above, at Malibu Lights.

Finally, follow the maker’s directions for the gauge cable you’ll need. Generally, if your cable runs do not exceed 100 feet, you can use 16-gauge cable. If your runs are longer, you’ll need 12- or 14-gauge cable. (The lower the gauge number the heavier the cable.)

Mount the transformer within one foot of a GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupter) and at least one foot above grade, more if you’re subject to heavy snowfalls. Plug in the transformer and install a rain-tight cover over the connection, if one does not already exist.

Connect the cable or cables and lay out the cable according to your plan. Avoid installing the first fixture within 10 feet of the transformer to prevent it from getting too much voltage and burning out prematurely. Install the remaining fixtures at the planned locations. Quick connects make this a tool-less job. Just press the connectors together to push the prongs into either side of the cable.

Before burying the cable, observe the effect of the lights at night. Move the fixtures as necessary. Once satisfied, bury the cable in a few inches of soil or anchor with tent pegs and cover with mulch. Then program the transformer to turn the lights on and off automatically as desired.

Tip: Consider using two smaller transformers for larger, more complex installations, rather than one large transformer.

How To: Install Ceramic Tile

Plan ahead and place focus on prep work for professional results when installing ceramic tile.

How to Install Ceramic Tile

Photo: shutterstock

Installing ceramic tile can be tricky. Successful tiling jobs are a direct result of good planning and a methodical approach. Take the time to do the right amount of prep work before you begin.

STEP 1: Assess
Begin by inspecting the surface upon which you plan to install the tile. The substrate, or what tile is installed on top of, is just as important as the tile itself. A flexing floor or a wall that is uneven can lead to broken tiles and failed grout.

Water-resistant backer board, not drywall, should be used under tile that is likely to get wet (shower walls and bathroom floors, for example). Whether it’s backer board, plywood, or concrete, the substrate needs to be sound, clean, and dimensionally stable. Surfaces need to be level or plumb and true to plane, as the pros say—that means no bumps. Wallpaper, loose plaster, flaking paint, peeling tiles or unsecured sheet flooring must be removed from the walls or floors that are to be tiled.

STEP 2: Measure
Walls—When tiling a wall, you’ll want to establish a top line that is level. Few walls are truly plumb, so use a level to mark the top line. Establish its height so that you won’t have to cut very thin tiles (or cut very thin shards from nearly full tiles) to come flush to the floor. Snap a top line on your walls, and then snap a center line, too. Be sure to lay out all the walls you plan to do before you begin tiling.

Floors—To make your finished ceramic tile surface appear symmetrical (even if it isn’t), you need to find the center of the surface first. Then measure in from the sides. Pay special attention to this step if you’re tiling a small area, where wide tiles at one edge and narrow ones at the other will make the whole job look out of balance.

In an older home, you may find the floor isn’t square, which makes the job more complicated. Use the most obvious wall as a baseline, so those entering the room will see tile lines parallel to that wall; your job will look more even.

Once you’ve identified the center and baseline from which you will work, snap a pair of perpendicular chalk lines. These will divide the room into roughly equal quadrants. You’ll want to work outward from the center point in each of the four sections.

STEP 3: Lay out the tiles
After you’ve found the center point and squared the room for floor installations (or determined the top line level for walls), lay the tiles out to see how they will appear. Do it dry, before you mix the adhesive or mortar, within each quadrant of the grid.

The space between the tiles should be uniform. Use spacers if your tiles don’t come on mesh sheets. The larger the tile the larger the space should be between them. Some do-it-yourselfers will make the mistake of pushing tiles too close together to reduce grout lines. Without enough surface area, grout won’t bond well and can fail prematurely, leaving room for leaks and water damage. It’s also very important to let the adhesive cure fully.

When it comes to the actual tiling, work across to the outside edge of one quadrant, then to the top or bottom, one row or course at a time. Fill in as you go. Double-check by measuring at least twice with a tape and a second time by dry-laying the tile prior to adhering.

STEP 4: Cutting the tile
The first step in cutting tile is measuring the size of the tile you wish to cut and transferring the dimensions to the glazed surface of the tile via felt-tip marker. Position the tile on the tile cutter, aligning the center line of the cutter with the axis on which the tile is to be cut. To keep it square, the top of the tile should be held flush to the fence at the top of the cutter. Then, using the lever to which the cutting wheel is attached, draw the cutter across the surface of the tile, exerting a firm, even pressure. Make only one pass with the cutter. Finally, snap the tile.

Different snap cutters have different means of snapping tile. Some have a heel at the rear of the lever that has the cutting wheel at its toe; with others, the reverse is true. Whatever the design of your cutter, use the surface to apply pressure to the score line. In combination with a bead built into the base of the cutter, the pressure will cause the tile to snap in half. A little patience, some practice, a score and a snap, and you’re a tile cutter.

How to Install Ceramic Tile - Setting


STEP 5: Adhering Tiles
If you are using tile, chances are that it’s in a setting where moisture is a given—kitchen, bath, entryway and so on. Make sure you use a waterproof adhesive. You can use a premixed adhesive or a mortar, but if you choose the latter, make sure it’s a thin-set variety. (Thick-bed mortars require some practice and skill at smoothing to get the tiles to sit flat, and the additional mortar isn’t necessary for a watertight finish.)

Be sure to check the product container to determine how quickly the adhesive will dry. Spread the adhesive smoothly with a square-notched trowel, then set each tile with a slight twist to spread the adhesive. Begin at the center of the surface and work out to the perimeter. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and stay off the installation for the required amount of time before beginning grout work.

STEP 6: Grouting tiles
Grout is usually purchased as a powder and mixed with water or a recommended additive. Read the instructions on the package or ask advice at the tile store. Wear gloves and spread grout evenly, being sure to force it into the joints with a blunt stick or another tool.

One simple way to enhance your color scheme is to add a dye or pigment to the grout. White grout, even after it has been sealed with a grout sealer (which is recommended, especially for floors), may prove difficult to keep clean.

STEP 7: Cleaning and sealing
Make sure you sponge off the residue on the surface of the tiles before it has the chance to dry. This step will require several passes over a period of an hour or more. It’s a critical stage when you’re working with tiles that have a porous or variegated surface. Dried grout can prove almost impossible to remove from indentations.

Finally, apply a grout sealer according to the manufacturer’s directions, and your tile job is complete!