Author Archives: Maureen Blaney Flietner

Choosing Interior Paint Color

Interior paint color reflects taste, affects moods, and showcases or downplays a home's features and shortcomings. Knowing how color works to fool the eye will help you select the right hue for your room.

Paint Color

Photo: Flickr

Paint is the easiest and most economical way to update a room’s look. Selecting the right paint color or colors is a big part of the process.

Start by examining the room. Consider the amount and type of light it gets, any architectural features to be highlighted, and areas to be downplayed. Consider the color of the floor and the color of the window coverings if they will stay in the room. Then determine your goal for the room—whether you want to make it appear lighter, larger, smaller, cozier, or taller.

Downplay Shortcomings
Paint color can help you open up rooms that appear small and dark or have low ceilings. Using shades of white or yellow provides an expansive, airy look. Large rooms that seem sterile and lack a cozy feel may benefit from shades of brown or dark blue.

Widen narrow halls with light colors. Give a different perspective to a long, narrow room by painting the shorter walls a darker shade. Help a boring room by giving one wall an accent color, possibly picking up a color in the floor or window coverings.

Some homes have a floor layout that is choppy with many little rooms. You can give some unity to the layout by using the same neutral color or shades of that color on all walls.

Highlight Positive Features
If the room has attractive molding, showcase it. Paint the wall a color that is lighter or darker than the molding.

A house might have a great-looking fireplace, a prized piece of art, or a wonderful piece of quality furniture that can become the focal point of a room. Look for a color that will work with the colors or color family of that favorite object. Also consider whether a complementary or contrasting color might give the best effect.

If the plan is to remake the entire room, coordinate the paint colors when selecting the floor and window coverings and upholstery fabric. Bring samples to the paint dealer to ensure a good match.

Choosing Color
Several factors figure into color selection. Personal preference, or colors a person feels comfortable with, is one of the biggest factors in color selection. Color can reflect a person’s cultural heritage or traditions. Blue, for example, signifies stability in one culture, trouble in another.

Research shows that people react to color, with blue, blue-green, green, red-purple, purple, and purple-blue evoking pleasant feelings among participants, and yellow and green-yellow being least pleasant.

Colors also set moods that play a role in color choice. Warm oranges and reds may stimulate appetites, while cool greens and blues can appear calming. Orange-yellows seem welcoming. Color choices also offer cooler reds and warmer blues that cross traditional color-wheel boundaries.

Light Affects Color
Remember that colors look different throughout the day and in different light. A paint color that looked perfect in the store may seem drab or garish under natural or artificial light at home.

When comparing colors, cover up the other colors on a sample sheet or card so that they don’t influence how you view each color.

When selecting paint colors, bring home color swatches and put them on each wall. Some paint manufacturers also produce sample paints. These small containers of paint allow customers to paint small sections on the wall to test the color.

Check how the paint or swatches look at different times of the day and evening over the course of a few days. Colors used in rooms that receive more northern light may appear darker while colors in rooms with more southern exposure can appear lighter and brighter.

Turn on the artificial light to be used in the room. Incandescent lights give a yellowish cast; fluorescents add blue hints; and halogens give off nearly white light. Each affects how the paint color appears.

Once you make a color selection, buy all of the paint required for the project to keep the color consistent. Write the batch numbers on the lids in case you need more at a later date.

Be Prepared for Natural Disasters

Follow some simple steps to keep you and your home safe in the event of a natural disaster.


If a disaster strikes, will you be ready? Here’s how to prepare and respond to most natural emergencies.

“Emergencies can happen anytime, anywhere. Families may not be together and you may not have access to cell phones, gas stations, grocery stores or some of the other things that you are used to having every day,” says Darryl Madden, Director of the Ready Campaign of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA ). “By taking a few simple steps now, each of us can make sure we are better prepared for the next emergency or disaster.”
 FEMA, along with other government agencies and nonprofit associations such as the Federal Alliance of Safe Homes (FLASH) and Firewise offer a wealth of tips. The Ready Campaign has suggestions for basic emergency preparations. The new FLASH Web site provides videos, “Pick-a-Peril” by state information and a consumer forum.

While each household is unique — young children, disabilities, pets, high-rises, isolated rural homes — proper preparations can help bring potentially bad situations to better conclusions. We’ve rounded up the essentials here, as well as tips for specific emergencies: flooding, fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and severe winter storms.

No matter which type of natural disaster your area is prone to having, each household should have some type of emergency prep. As soon as possible, you’ll want to do the following — before disaster strikes:

1. Gather Information

• Take pictures. To help recoup any insured losses, create a room-by-room inventory now. Take photos or videos to better document items. Record serial or model numbers. Write down purchase dates and prices (best if kept on a computer and emailed to yourself for safe-keeping). For valuables like jewelry, have copies of expert appraisals. Put one inventory in your safety deposit box and keep a copy at home in a waterproof container.

With any disasters, you will need to provide information about your losses for an insurance claim. According to Leslie Chapman-Henderson, CEO of FLASH, one of the best ways to reduce confusion and to accurately account for belongings is a photo or video inventory after a disaster. With items documented, you then can remove property that could pose a health risk, like wet, moldy furniture or items with sharp, damaged edges.

• Make appointments. Schedule phone time or a visit with your insurance agent each year. Discuss updates that might be needed. If you live in an area with specific natural disaster risks, learn about any extra policies needed.

• Stay informed. Check local radio and TV stations. Visit the Web site of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ( NOAA ) (or become a fan on Facebook). Its Storm Prediction Center and National Weather Hazards pages can help you learn what’s shaping up, from blizzards to flash floods, fire to high winds. NOAA Weather Radio provides weather and emergency information 24 hours a day.

• Safeguard documents. Prepare a vital records kit with copies of important documents to store in a waterproof and fireproof container in a safe place in your home. Include copies of insurance policies, identification and bank account records, proof of vaccinations for pets, mortgages, passports, and birth/marriage certificates, as well as irreplaceable keepsakes and family photos.

2. Develop a household emergency plan

• Choose a contact person. Arrange with a friend or family member outside the area to be the emergency contact. Landline and cell phones are the quickest and most available technology and do work in many cases, says Michele Steinberg of Firewise. She suggests that if family members regularly use Facebook and Twitter, these may be good tools but since many “tweets” arrive via cellphones or computers, they, too, could be limited. “But the ‘viral’ nature of these media mean those folks who have Facebook open all day or follow Twitter will have immediate access to information about what is happening to their friends/relatives and an ability to mobilize help in some situations.” Make sure family members and the emergency contact have details including information about your Facebook page, Twitter handle, and email address.

• Determine an escape plan. Decide on reunion spots via foot or car, depending on the type of disaster. If it is an emergency isolated to your house or block, choose a nearby rallying point that will allow a headcount. If the emergency involves a larger area, decide on a destination further away — perhaps a relative’s home or a public emergency shelter — and a backup to that in case that site also is affected.

• Learn evacuation routes. Run a few practice drills out of your area so you will know where traffic congestion might occur.

• Locate public emergency shelters. Get their rules. Find out if they can accommodate pets, for instance.

• Plan with neighbors. If a flood occurs or a tornado hits when you are not at home, have a plan with neighbors, sitters, or relatives for your kids and pets. Decide on how you will get in touch, what will be done and where everyone will go.

• Shut down. Determine who will handle utility shut-off.

• Learn basic safety and emergency first aid skills. The American Red Cross offers courses through its local chapters. Find classes near you through the ZIP code look-up on its site.

3. Stock Supplies

Prepare an emergency supplies kit to ride out any event. Downloadable lists of suggested kit contents and disaster protection devices are available on the FLASH site (search “disaster kit”). FLASH’s Chapman-Henderson recommends buying only products that are tested and approved to a national or certified testing standard.

Among items to include:

• A radio capable of receiving NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards transmissions available on seven VHF frequencies from 162.400 MHz to 162.550 MHz. Remember extra batteries.

• A First Aid kit that includes such items as a first-aid manual, antiseptic wipes, antibiotic cream, sharp scissors, and tweezers. Include prescription medications, including those for your pet.

• Water. Have about a gallon per person and pet per day. Stock enough for at least three days. Include extra water for sanitation.

• Nonperishable food and the all-important manual can opener. Have enough food for at least three days. Don’t forget pet food.

• Flashlights, extra batteries, and portable chargers for cellphones and such. Charge all cell phones and PDAs the night before any storm is due.

• Garbage bags.

• Matches in a waterproof container.

• Personal hygiene products and moist towelettes.

Plans for Specific Disasters

Next, organize for specific emergencies that can occur in your area. FEMA offers advice for individual disasters. Here are a few quick tips:

1. Flooding

Floods are the most common severe weather-related disaster in the U.S., but one that many assume will affect the “other guy.” With their risks misunderstood or ignored, floods also are the most expensive and deadly natural disasters. From rapid snowmelt to burst dams, hurricanes to major rainstorms, flooding affects many. But according to FLASH’s Chapman-Henderson, floods don’t have to be catastrophic. Just a few inches of water can cause thousands of dollars in damages. And typical homeowners insurance does not cover flood damage.

Here’s what you can do to help protect yourself:

• Check the FEMA-NOAA interactive flood impact map . It features searchable data about floods over the past few years; offers tips on what to do before, during and after a flood; and encourages flood insurance protection.

• Learn what a flood could cost you. Check out the interactive tool and learn more about the Flood Insurance Protection Program at What may surprise you is that areas susceptible to flooding can change each year.

• Check with your insurance agent to see what is covered in your present policy and if you need flood insurance. Most policies take 30 days to become effective.

• Make sure your sump pump works. Install a battery backup.

• Raise electrical components. Have your furnace, water heater, washer and dryer set at least a foot above any possible flood waters.

• Consider waterproofing your basement. Check your basement drainage systems for blockages.

• Clear the drainage outlets and fix any eroding foundation walls.

• Keep eavestroughs and gutters clear.

• Consider certified flood vents that prevent water pressure buildup, thereby reducing structural damage and costly repairs. Smart Vent ( offers an online demonstration of how foundation flood vents work.

2. Fires

If you are in an area where dry or drought conditions persist or occur at certain times, prepare for possible wildfires. Find advice at FEMA . Firewise, a program of the National Fire Protection Association in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior, offers interactive educational tools . Michele Steinberg, Firewise manager, says the advice is based on the science of wildfire behavior. Its catchphrase, “Homes that don’t ignite, can’t burn,” sums up the idea behind the tips.

Here are suggestions to prevent your house from burning down:

• Build new or retrofit with nonflammable materials. Particularly important: a noncombustible roof.

• Choose double-pane or tempered glass windows that typically better withstand a fire’s intense radiant heat.

• Select nonflammable siding or keep combustible materials away from your present siding.

• Keep the gutters and roof clean. Flying embers can ignite debris and spread fire to the house.

• Modify landscaping and materials storage to keep an area five feet from your house fuel-free.

• Within 30 feet of your home, keep the lawn well-watered and mowed.

• Consider xeriscaping, landscaping that focuses on drought-tolerant plants. Firewise offers plant suggestions .

• Remove tree limbs that hang over your roof. High winds can knock flaming branches onto your home.

• Ensure your street number is clearly marked for emergency vehicles.

3. Earthquakes

Most earthquake-related deaths and injuries result from collapsing walls, flying glass and falling objects. One vital preparation can make a big difference: Have your home checked to make sure it meets the seismic code and is tied to its foundation. With the house properly tied together, the load can be redistributed, the house shouldn’t slide off its foundation, and it should be able to handle a quake’s rocking and sliding actions.

Beyond that, secure fuel tanks, water heaters and shelving. FEMA offers downloadable instructions , but suggests that, since these affect the structure of your home, they be performed by licensed professional contractors.

If a quake does strike:

• Stay away from glass, outside doors and walls, and anything that could fall; drop to the ground; hide under sturdy furniture; and hold on.

• Stay inside until the shaking stops and it is safe to go out.

• If you are trapped under debris, don’t yell so you won’t breathe in dirty air. Tap on a pipe to let others know where you are. Don’t light matches in case there are gas leaks.

• When you are out of your home, stay informed about the damage and assistance available.

• Avoid turning on the power if there is flooding from broken pipes.

• If your home has been damaged, consider getting a professional to conduct a thorough inspection to make sure it is safe to enter.

4. Hurricanes

You can be hundreds of miles from the coastline and still feel the effects of a hurricane. The winds are destructive, turning debris into deadly projectiles. But the dome of water known as the storm surge and flooding bring much of the destruction.

The National Hurricane Center of the National Weather Service; FEMA ; and FLASH offer great tips. FLASH’s interactive Web tool can help you perform a wind-resistance inspection.

Here are some tips:

• Anchor things down. Bring in any outside items that could become airborne.

• Bolt doors at the foot and head using bolts with at least a 1-inch throw length. Have professionals reinforce the garage door and tracks with center support, and brace gable end walls with horizontal and/or diagonal braces.

• Cover large windows, doors, and patio doors with securely fastened, tested, and approved impact-resistant shutters. If you remodel, consider impact-resistant window and door systems.

• Trim trees and shrubs so they won’t break and smash into your home.

• Consider building a safe room. Check out FEMA’s downloadable publication .

• Turn off propane tanks.

• Have a roof covering rated for hurricane-force winds. Fasten rafters and trusses to walls with hurricane straps and clips.

• Disconnect appliances and equipment. Leave on one light to indicate when power is restored.

• Consider having licensed contractors inspect your home and help in repairs.

5. Tornadoes

According to FEMA, almost every state is at risk for tornadoes. They can appear suddenly, with a damaging path that can be more than a mile wide and 50 miles long. Moving in any direction, they can occur at any time of day. Be prepared. Experts suggest you:

• Consider having a safe room since, even if your house is built to code, that does not mean it can withstand extreme storms such as tornadoes. You can have it site-built or install a manufactured safe room. A constructed or manufactured safe room or storm shelter should meet the guidance of the National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA) and the International Code Council (ICC) Standard for the Design and Construction of Storm Shelters (NSSA/ICC-500).

• Notice of a tornado sighting is typically short — about 15 minutes, if at all. Be aware of changing weather. Look particularly for a greenish sky, large hail, and/or a dark low-lying cloud. If a tornado “watch” is issued, it means conditions are favorable for severe weather. You must remain alert and stay tuned to NOAA Weather Radio or commercial radio or TV for information. If a tornado “warning” is issued, it means one has been sighted or indicated by weather radar and you need to take shelter immediately.

• If you don’t have a safe room, contact local government leaders to learn if your community has designated tornado shelters and their locations.

6. Severe Winter Storms

Major winter storms can bring snow, hail, freezing rain, and extreme cold that can leave you powerless in more ways than one. Here are a few basics to help you prepare:

• Stay current on local and regional weather forecasts.

• Add rock salt, sand, and snow shovels to your emergency supplies.

• Make sure you have sufficient heating fuel to last more than what might be the intended length of the storm. In winter, it’s always good to be well stocked in case of changing weather conditions.

• Learn how to shut off water valves in case a pipe bursts. If pipes freeze, remove insulation, wrap pipes in rags, and open all faucets.

• Keep your home cooler than usual to save heating fuel. Layer your clothes and use blankets instead.

• If you need to use small portable kerosene heaters, ventilate the toxic fumes by opening a window to allow in fresh air.

• Stay dry and warm. Don’t wear yourself out, get cold and wet, or endanger your health by being out in the middle of the storm.

• Watch for a loss of feeling or a whitish color in your fingers and toes that may signal frostbite. The signs of hypothermia are shivering, disorientation, and slurred speech.

• Save the battery power of flashlights, radios, or other equipment. Use candles if you need light but be careful that a fire does not start.

• In case of a household emergency, try to keep your home exits and car clear of snow. You may want to arrange ahead of time with a shoveling and snowplow service to help you do this.

Personalize Your Kitchen Countertops

When it comes to kitchen countertops, color, inlays, special finishes and more help express your style.

Kitchen Countertops

Photo: Michael Minadeo + Partners

There’s been a change in consumer attitude, marked by people following their own style sense, rather than the trends. “Consumers have become more assertive,” says Gin Guei Ebnesajjad, manager of product styling and development for DuPont Surfaces, Corian and Zodiaq. They are smart and color-savvy, too, she says. As a result, their kitchens carry a creative punch that standard kitchens just can’t match.

Homeowners personalize kitchen countertops in a variety of ways, from creative use of standard materials to designer-inspired plans with custom-order materials. Homeowners can customize their counters using one or more of the following elements:

Color: A custom color or stain may be the easiest way to make a countertop your own. Fabricators and manufacturers can often create shades to match or complement a swatch of wallpaper or a stone product. Using tile, perhaps on a backsplash, homeowners can create a custom pattern using standard colored tiles.

Embedded objects: Fossils, colored glass, metal flakes, semiprecious stones, and special mementoes are finding their way into custom-fabricated kitchen countertops, most often in counters that have even color tone throughout, like concrete, engineered stone, or solid surface. Once the objects are embedded, the surfaces are finely ground to reveal hints of the treasures within. 

Ready-made embedded countertops are also available. Caesarstone Concetto, for example, is an engineered stone featuring gemstones placed in the slab matrix during manufacture for a dramatic look.

Special finishes: Nearly every surface material features basic and custom finishes. With stainless steel, for example, hand-applied custom finishes can create one-of-a-kind patterns. Embossed, patterned, or hammered finishes are available for copper or stainless steel. Concrete and solid surface can have a high polish or gloss, matte, or satin finishes.

Edges: Edge treatments can be traditional or modern. Sculpting an edge with a minimalist round-over or square edges can create a sleek look. Intricate styling can be achieved with layered edges like concave, wave, or cove and bead. With wood, an unusual edge treatment can showcase the grain.

Backsplashes: For solid surface, a fabricated beadboard-style full-height backsplash creates a watertight and visually appealing design that is highly unique. Setting a few handmade tiles in a backsplash makes a huge and personal statement.

Inlays: Inlays can be anything from lettering in concrete to deer tracks, Jalapeno peppers, or flowers scattered across solid-surface tops.

An inlay may have sentimental value or simply be a cool design. In Ohio, Brutus Buckeye and the Ohio State logo were cut into a solid-surface top for homeowners who are big Buckeye fans. The designs were created with liquid inlay, says Todd Werstler, CEO of Tower Industries in Massillon, Ohio. “When people find out they can do these inlays, they tend to jump all over it.”

Properly done, a countertop with inlays is one homogenous surface. For solid surfaces, inlay designs are typically cut into the material by a computerized CNC machine programmed with the design. The inlays themselves can be of hard material or liquid resin. One method requires creating the inlay and recessing it into the space routed out—like the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle. The other uses a liquid fill that is sealed, planed, and leveled with the top.

Kitchen Countertops that Glow: Counters can be personalized to glow or light up. Mory Ludwick of Premier Countertops in Omaha, Neb., describes how a pocket can be created in a translucent countertop backsplash and fitted with rope lighting. “The whole backsplash will glow,” he says.

Lumistone photoluminescent acrylic can be used as a solid surface, an inlay, or an edging. It has long-lasting photoluminescence when recharged by natural daylight or artificial lighting, so when the lights go out, the neutral white surface lights up as a cool blue. No electricity, wiring, or bulbs are required.

Customized Countertop Costs: Personalized kitchen countertops are most commonly found in high-end kitchens, where designers and fabricators can create personalized looks with special crafting and unusual materials. Caesarstone Concetto, for example, costs from $400 to $500 per square foot. Such a unique surface treatment is well suited to use as a visual centerpiece, like a center island, bar, or backsplash.

For homeowners sticking to a modest budget, custom touches work well when incorporated with unusual off-the-shelf products. A stripe of contrasting material fabricated into a solid surface top might only add 5 percent to a project. A one-color inlay might cost a few hundred dollars, while a multicolor inlay project could run to $1,200. A marble backsplash at $100 a foot may become a strong vertical focal point for the kitchen while the rest is completed with standard materials.

Should You Consider a Concrete House?

Long since popular in Europe, the concrete house now makes its way to American soil.

Concrete House


Don’t miss Solid as a Rock: 11 Unbelievable Concrete Homes

Far from the misconceptions of dark, damp, musty-smelling structures, today’s concrete homes can be designed to stand up to extreme weather, rising heating and cooling costs, and growing noise pollution — and look good doing it.

Concrete building systems are of five main types: Concrete block, ICF or Insulating Concrete Forms, removable forms, panel systems, and autoclaved aerated concrete.

Concrete Blocks
The familiar rectangular blocks are a traditional construction material and the most widely used concrete building system, particularly in Florida, where they provide an affordable defense against hurricanes. Today’s concrete blocks now work with improved insulation and building techniques for cost-effective results.

According to the Portland Cement Association, blocks now incorporate insulation in several ways, from mixing it into the pre-molded cement to filling a block’s open cavities with loose fill or foam inserts. The insulation and the continuous barrier raise the R-value, or measure of resistance to heat flow, by preventing air leakage.

Pros: Sturdy in high-wind areas; familiar product for local crews and to local code officials; and a modular product that allow homes to be designed in standard dimensions reducing construction waste.

Cons: Regional preferences may make this product not as readily accepted in some parts; the standard dimensional aspects of blocks may mean that some of the more exotic home designs will take more time and may impact the productivity of construction crews.

Best for: Homes in high wind areas; areas of wide acceptance such as Florida.

Removable Forms
In this system, insulation and reinforcing steel are placed inside removable wall forms made of aluminum, wood or steel. Concrete is then poured into the forms. Once the concrete has cured, the forms are removed.

Walls Are Us Inc. of Waterford, WI, uses two variations. In one, removable forms are poured for walls and, in the other, concrete is poured for the floors and ceiling as well “to form a monolithic envelope,” says Randy Friemoth, the company’s president.

Pros: Exterior and interior walls can all be poured at the same time; concrete interior walls can be textured or furred out for drywall; wind-resistant; forms can make exterior wall look like brick or textured paint.

Cons: Regional preferences and familiarities with this system may make it not as readily available in some areas.

Best for: Homes in high wind areas, especially with designs that employ concrete floors, ceilings and walls.

Panel Systems
There are two panel systems: precast concrete and tilt-up concrete. With precast, a home’s exterior walls with rough openings are produced at the concrete plant. Foam insulation is installed, steel reinforcing embedded and electric wiring added. The panels are transported to the site, lifted by cranes and attached to the foundation and to each other.

With tilt-up concrete, the wall panels are also cast, but the casting is done on site. This method required a fairly wide-open site that can accommodate tilting the walls into place. Once properly positioned, the walls are connected to the rest of the structure.

Pros: Creation in a factory setting ensures a high level of quality, unaffected by job site conditions and weather; wind-resistant; quick set-up possible if site properly prepared for either system; both systems able to accommodate curved panels; on-site system eliminates the cost of transporting panels.

Cons: Accessibility to precast plant may limit availability; tilt-up option works best with large, flat, open site; site must be able to accommodate large cranes.

Best for: Homes of contemporary design in flat-site open settings.

Insulating Concrete Forms (ICFs)With this system, concrete is poured into permanent forms. The forms are made of insulating material, either interlocking blocks, panels, or planks. The panel and planks are interconnected with plastic or metal ties and the blocks with special grooves or interlocking teeth.

Early ICF systems, often for differentiation, used forms that allowed varying thicknesses of walls. But the industry is moving as a whole toward uniform thickness, says Donn Thompson, Director of low rise buildings for PCA.

“Pick your peril of mother nature. Nearly 90 percent of us have one to consider fire, wild fires, seismic, or severe winters. ICF and concrete can beat them all,” says Scott Sundberg, P.E., structural engineer and sole proprietor of Category X Coastal Consulting, Pass Christian, MS. Sundberg believes in the power of performance-based designs. His ICF home in Harrison County, MS, survived the 28-foot storm surge and 125-mile-per-hour winds of Hurricane Katrina when the house was only 85 percent completed.

Pros: Highly energy efficient; storm resistant; good flexibility for designs because the polystyrene forms can easily be cut for custom designs; forms are lightweight and easy to work with; does provide some flexibility after the concrete is poured for additions of electrical and some small plumbing runs due to the thickness of foaming materials.

Cons: Using ICFs for curved and more elaborate walls takes longer; can not be used for basements in areas with heavy termite infestation unless the product has a termiticide incorporated into the foam.

Best for: Homes in which insulation is important, since this system offers the most insulation with inside and outside layers in the fewest steps.

Concrete House


Autoclaved Aerated Concrete
This concrete system is popular in Europe but still relatively unknown in the United Sates. The material was used in the New American Home featured at the 2008 International Builders’ Show in Orlando, FL. The precast structural mix is an air-tight, non-organic material. When applied, the concrete mix expands and entraps small air pockets for a lightweight product.

The material has superior fire resistance and, according to PCA’s Thompson, can be molded and cut into precise units. While block-size is most common, the product can also be cast into reinforced panels for walls, floors, and roofs.

Pros: Superior fire resistance; able to be cut into precise units.

Cons: Limited U.S. suppliers; home designs with significant point loads (such as supporting a long floor beam) may require special engineering because the product’s light weight may not have sufficient load-carrying capacity.

Best for: Homes in warmer climates that will benefit from the air pocket insulation and not require supplemental insulation.

Overall Benefits
Concrete has numerous options for home design. Since it is the structure material not the style, concrete homes are not limited in how they appear.

“The biggest misconception is ‘I’m going to live in a cave.’ The reality is if you were to drive past concrete homes, you couldn’t tell any difference. They can be finished to look like any other house on any other street,” says PCA’s Thompson.

Owners of a concrete home typically can save money on their insurance policy because of fire resistance alone. “If an insurance agent understands construction, the savings may even be higher because of disaster, termite, and pest resistance,” says Thompson.

Concrete can incorporate recycled content in the mix, earning added support from those interested in building green.

Here are a few of the other benefits all concrete forms provide:

  • Greatly diminished outside noise
  • Resistance to fire
  • Able to prevent damage from subterranean termites and dry wood termites.
  • Stronger than wood framing and able to resist wind-blown debris
  • Reduced HVAC loads because their continuous wall assemblies reduce air infiltration and have inherent higher levels of insulation

This concrete system is popular in Europe but still relatively unknown in the United Sates. The material was used in the New American Home featured at the 2008 International Builders’ Show in Orlando. The precast structural mix is an air-tight, non-organic material. When applied, the concrete mix expands and entraps small air pockets for a lightweight product.

The material has superior fire resistance and, according to PCA’s Thompson, can be molded and cut into precise units. While block size is most common, the product can also be cast into reinforced panels for walls, floors, and roofs.

Pros: Superior fire resistance; able to be cut into precise units.

Cons: Limited U.S. suppliers; home designs with significant point loads (such as supporting a long floor beam) may require special engineering because the product’s light weight may not have sufficient load-carrying capacity.

Best for: Homes in warmer climates that will benefit from the air pocket insulation and not require supplemental insulation.

Concrete House


Concrete systems are more expensive at the outset. Typical concrete systems generally add about three to five percent on average to the price tag of a home, says Thompson. “Keep in mind that this is a one-time financial hit but the savings is perpetual. The resulting energy efficiency more than offsets this increase.”

When checking on relative costs, it’s important to compare apples to apples. Some factors influencing costs include:

  • Price of concrete in your area
  • Price of the concrete system in your area
  • Local labor rates
  • Competitiveness of the local marketplace
  • Experience of the crew
  • Design of the home
  • Local building codes

“In Florida, where you have strict building codes due to wind activity, wood-frame construction can cost a lot more to meet those requirements,” says Thompson. “When the cost of the wood-frame home goes up, concrete construction can be equal to or even less than an identical wood-frame home.”

Consider the Possibilities
Here are some tips to keep in mind if you are considering concrete for your next home.

  • Visit construction sites in which the contractors you are considering are using the various concrete wall systems. Talk with them about which system makes sense for your site.
  • Interview builders that use the system you want. Ask for references and talk to those homeowners about whether the builder was on time, early or late with their project, and whether the project was on budget. Ask about their experience of living with that type of concrete system home.
  • Know that good planning is essential. It “eliminates all of the problems and headaches of construction,” says Friemoth of Walls Are Us Inc. He says it is important to have subcontractors, such as plumbers or electricians, familiar with or open minded to concrete construction methods. Coordinate with your builder. Make sure you take the time you need to be comfortable with the designs and options you have chosen. Outlets, windows, utility runs and rough openings need to be factored in at the design stage.
  • Be aware that future remodeling is possible but does get a bit more complicated. Because concrete is stronger, more steps will be involved. However, says Thompson, an addition, even a wood-framed one, will be stronger because it will get lateral support from the concrete systems. Remodeling most interiors will be similar to other homes since interior walls are usually wood framed.
  • Remember that if you have chosen a home design based on wood frame construction but want to go with a concrete wall system, the thickness of the concrete wall, which may be six inches in difference, will affect the plan.

10 Indoor Pollutants

These are the most common household threats to the air quality in your home.

Indoor Pollutants


We spend a large part of our lives indoors yet the idea of indoor air pollution can be easy to dismiss, especially if no one in our home has health problems. The unfortunate catch is that while the effects of many indoor air pollutants can show up soon after exposure, they can also show up years later as cancers, reproductive health problems, and more.

1. Volatile organic compounds. VOCs are chemical compounds that can off-gas, or evaporate easily, in normal temperatures and pressures. Health effects vary from headaches and dizziness to increased cancer risk, depending on the individual and combination of VOCs and the level and length of exposure. We introduce VOCs into our homes through our choices in paints, cleansers, hobby supplies, furniture, cabinetry, stored fuels, dry cleaning, and more.

Anthony Bernheim, indoor air quality expert and principal of Sustainable Design Solutions for HDR Architecture, Inc. in San Francisco, CA, says that air testing in an office building found that chemicals from dry cleaning were in the indoor air and being transmitted to the building from dry-cleaned clothing brought from employees’ homes.

To reduce risks, buy low- or no-VOC products. If you do choose products with VOC emissions, read product labels and obey cautions. Dispose of old or unneeded containers during special community toxic waste collection drives or check with your local government about disposal. Bernheim suggests finding an environmental dry cleaner. As an alternative, remove dry cleaning from its plastic bag; bring it home in the car trunk, and air out clothes for a few days in a well-ventilated area before bringing them inside.

2. Ozone. “Climate change is bringing increased sunlight and warmer temperatures to some areas,” says Bernheim. “Those hot sunny days trigger the formation of ground-level ozone, an odorless gas which can cause respiratory problems.” But there is an added catch: “Open your window and the ozone moves inside. There it causes secondary reactions with emissions from household sources that are different from—and, at times—more harmful than initial concerns.”

To lessen impacts, be aware of local ozone levels if you plan to use certain products. Check the Air Quality Index that calculates levels of ozone and four other major pollutants across the country. Reduce or eliminate VOC sources in your home that may react with ozone.

3. Occupation and location pollutants. Where we work can affect the air in our homes. “Auto body repair, paint shops, industrial plants, manufacturing sites may all contain chemical pollutants that attach to the clothes that we wear,” Bernheim says. “We bring them home on our clothing, walk them into our carpets, and they then release into the indoor air.” Where we live also is a factor. “Those who live near freeways or on a street corner subject to traffic stopping and starting face the added pollutants of diesel, a greenhouse gas, as well as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and ozone,” Bernheim says.

As a precaution, take a shower after work and/or remove work clothing and shoes before entering your home. Before opening windows, be aware of local air quality (check the Air Quality Index). If you live near a freeway, for instance, opening windows at 8 a.m. may bring in particulate matter, diesel fumes, and carbon emissions from the rush hour.

4. Radon. It may be tasteless, odorless, and invisible, but radon gas is the second leading cause of lung cancer in the U.S. Radon is produced when naturally occurring uranium decays in soil and water. The gas seeps into homes through foundation cracks or seams. While general radon zones help agencies better target resources, the EPA suggests that all homes be tested because elevated levels have been found in each zone.

Test kits that are state-certified or meet the requirements of a national radon proficiency program can be expensive. Homeowners may also decide to hire a trained, qualified contractor to conduct the testing. It’s typically best to test during the heating season because ventilating the house by opening windows and doors frequently can skew the results. A short-term test takes at least two days and can last up to six days. If test results come back with a high radon level, a second short-term test can be taken and the results averaged. A long-term test of more than 90 days may provide more typical results for year-round exposure. Before beginning a test, keep the house closed for at least 12 hours.

5. Lead. Although the Product Safety Commission issued a ban in 1977, the EPA suggests there are millions of homes that still contain some lead-based paint. Adverse effects are now known to occur at much lower levels of lead in blood than previously thought. Many homeowners may unknowingly expose their household to lead dust when paint is scraped, sanded, or stripped or painted areas are demolished. Even without renovations, lead-based paint can deteriorate, releasing dust.

Starting in April 2010, the EPA’s Lead: Renovation, Repair and Painting Program rule mandated lead-safe work practices and certification and training for paid contractors and maintenance professionals working in pre-1978 housing, as well as child-care facilities and schools. For those planning DIY projects,  the Lead Paint Safety Field Guide is useful.

6. Asbestos. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, you can’t tell simply by looking at something where it contains this mineral fiber unless it’s labeled. Asbestos was once used in floor tiles, ceiling tiles, roof shingles, flashing, siding, insulation around ducts, pipes and fireplaces, and vermiculite attic insulation, among other places. “Asbestos becomes a major concern as people remodel, weatherize, rehab, or demolish old homes,” says Michael Vogel, Ed.D., Montana State University, head of the Healthy Indoor Air for America’s Home program.

The problem is that if disturbed, deteriorated, or damaged, asbestos materials may release fibers. Asbestos has a long-term impact that is related to the number of loose fibers inhaled. Those fibers end up raising the risks of chest and abdominal cancers and lung diseases. Before demolishing an area or working in an area with damaged or deteriorating materials that are in question, contact a qualified professional to test samples or to take control measures. If asbestos material is undamaged and unlikely to be disturbed, the CPSC suggests it be left alone.

7. Biological contaminants. Mold, bacteria, mildew, animal dander, cat saliva, mites, cockroaches, and pollen give us everything from allergic rhinitis and lethargy to asthma. Two key ingredients to these pollutants are moisture and nutrients.

Some guidelines for your household are the following: Keep indoor relative humidity at 30 to 50 percent to inhibit the growth of biologicals. Remove water-damaged materials. Repair leaking pipes. Eliminate any damp environments that allow molds, mildew, bacteria, or insects to flourish.

8. Carbon monoxide/particulates. Colorless, odorless carbon monoxide as well as fine particulates and other combustion pollutants come from many sources. Their effects can be flu-like symptoms, serious illness or death. “With the last several years of higher energy costs and problems with the economy, a lot of folks are trying to really tighten their homes,” says Vogel. “But many don’t do a whole-house assessment. They can tighten their homes beyond what combustion air is need for appliances. That brings on carbon monoxide and other problems because the house is not allowed to breathe.”

Be sure to vent woodstoves and gas stoves in your home. Properly install and maintain chimneys and flues. In the annual furnace inspection, make sure the heat exchanger is not cracked. Refrain from smoking in the home. Consider installing a carbon monoxide alarm, use a properly sized range hood if there is a gas stove and vent all clothes dryers to the outside so moisture and particulates also can be removed.

9. Formaldehyde. Pungent and colorless, this gas can prompt irritating to life-threatening immediate reactions or reactions after repeat exposures. It’s found in many building materials and products, from pressed-wood drawer fronts and bookshelves to furniture tops, subflooring, and cabinets.

Before purchasing a product, ask about the formaldehyde content. New products can release increased amounts of formaldehyde when indoor temperatures or humidity is high, so provide plenty of ventilation. Emissions usually drop as products age. Check for alternative, formaldehyde-free products such as those offered by Columbia Forest Products.

10. Pesticides. Pesticides may not be thought of as indoor air pollutants yet the liquids, sprays, powders, crystals and foggers used to kill insects, termites, rodents, fungi, or microbes in our homes are just that. Pesticides also may be tracked in from yards or drift in through open windows. Depending on a pesticide’s mix, health effects may range from minimal to eventual damage to the central nervous system and kidneys and increased cancer risk.

To reduce impacts, take the manufacturer’s directions seriously. Don’t store chemicals in your home. Consider non-chemical methods. Keep indoor spaces clean and dry to reduce the chances of problems. Make informed decisions about pesticide use by visiting the National Pesticide Information Center.

Adding Custom Moldings

Adding custom moldings? You can match existing woodwork in your home or create your own entirely new designs.

Photo: Shutterstock

Molding profiles tend to represent eras in building design. As architectural details, they often serve to pinpoint a building’s place in time. Those who own period or historic homes often order custom moldings to maintain their home’s character.

Over the years, intricate moldings often indicated wealth and status. Money allowed for more custom work. However, the evolution of tools and materials has influenced how moldings are made, making complex profiles accessible to many budgets and project ranges.

Making Custom Moldings
Custom moldings can be obtained as original profiles or to match an existing profile. The first step in matching existing moldings is to remove a piece of the molding or make an exact trace or photo of it in place.

The process of recreating molding profiles is exacting and methodical. Typically, the sample is scanned in or the drawing recreated in a CAD (computer-aided design) software program. The CAD diagram then generates a code to drive numerically controlled machine tools such as a CNC template maker. The template maker produces a metal or, in some cases, plastic template. That template is then used in a profile grinder to produce molding knives to the specific shape and size of the desired profile cut. It is much like making keys, but it takes considerable skill and practice on the part of the machinist.

After the knives are ground, they are installed on a head molder. The molding material, whether it is eight feet or 5,000 feet, is sent through the knives and cut to specifications.

Custom vs. Stock Moldings
When comparing custom molding to “off-the-shelf” pieces available at retail outlets, Bill Hopkins, New England sales manager for Forester Molding and Millwork in Leominster, MA, says to take into account the craftsmanship and quality. “The No. 1 advantage is that specially milled molding is custom,” he says. “The quality is twice as good. Everything that is custom is made fresh, ripped and milled into the desired profile. The detail is crisp.”

There are disadvantages, too, Hopkins says, starting with the fact that you can’t just go pick it up. “With most companies, it is 10 days to a two- to three-week turnaround.” Price can also become a factor. For custom molding, there is a setup charge that can range from $90 to $300. Even if only one piece is needed, that set-up charge is fixed.

Hopkins suggests that off-the-shelf moldings can vary from one piece to the next. Materials used are also more limited. Where retail yards largely carry pine molding, custom molding makers will typically carry poplar, which holds paint better, is a harder wood, and doesn’t dent. Mills can also work with specified and exotic woods.

Working With a Specialist
When selecting custom molding, homeowners should consider working with a professional. An architect, interior designer, or sales manager from an experienced molding company can visit the job site, give profile recommendations, and suggest construction methods.

“We help guide customers through the right application,” says Jack Miller, millwork operations manager at Moynihan Lumber, in North Reading, MA. “If walls are not straight, we are going to point that out. We may recommend bringing a wall back to square or, as an alternative, padding and shimming. Old molding may have dipped or moved.”

Homeowners may want to think twice about taking on a custom molding project on their own because mistakes can be costly. Those who opt to install their own moldings may find off-the-shelf products easier to handle and replace.

Molding Cautions
For those considering recycling old moldings, Hopkins advises that stripping will leave the wood fuzzy, while scraping off the paint ruins the profile. If the old moldings hold lead paint, it is critical to properly handle and dispose of this hazardous material.

Vinyl and polymer extrusion moldings are alternatives to custom moldings, but homeowners should check local building codes. According to Hopkins, polymer moldings can give off toxic fumes in a fire, so interior use may be limited. Hopkins also suggests that polymer moldings tend to highlight any imperfections in a wall.

Wood is prone to moisture damage and rot, however, so exterior use of polymer molding can be of particular benefit, says Miller. He describes the rear of one project home that was constantly subjected to low sunlight and high moisture levels. Any wood in these conditions would have problems over time, he says.

In that instance, solid pieces of dimensional PVC were glued together, as is done with wood, and run through the molder. It took on the same pattern as the wood molding, will take paint, and will never require the same maintenance as wood.

Upgrade to a Basement System

Finishing the basement is a smart way to add space to your home. Using a complete basement system package may be the smartest way to insulate, finish and upgrade that space.

Basement Systems


Finishing the basement is a smart way to add space to your home. Using a complete basement system package may be the smartest way to insulate, finish and upgrade that space.

Unlike a traditional finished basement with stud walls or furring strips with attached wallboard, basement finishing packages are proprietary systems that take an unfinished basement and turn it into first-class living space. As systems, they include more than just walls or ceiling — they include trim, lighting, electrical work, and door installation. Some system installers also offer flooring, plumbing, HVAC, and windows to meet homeowners’ design plans.

Selecting a Basement Package
First, a detailed spatial plan is created to include the homeowner’s wants and needs. Every inch, from creating walls around stairwells to installing lights, has to be taken into account. Wiring or lighting upgrades are custom features and are priced beyond the base package plan.

Some homeowners want their finished basements for a laundry room, family room, game, exercise, or play room. Others might opt for a home theater or home office, so allowances are made for speakers or other special needs.

Owens Corning and Champion both offer basement systems. Their package prices are determined by the local market and the individual specifications of each plan, but are generally comparable cost-wise to a traditional basement remodel. The Owens Corning system is available only through its franchises and their certified salespeople and installers. The Champion system, only installed by its trained employees, can be obtained through its offices across the country.

Basement System Components
Walls are the basic building blocks, insulation, and finish for complete basement packages. Basement finishing walls are modular systems with plastic or vinyl frames that are screwed into the foundation walls. Finished, dent-resistant four-foot wall panels, covered with attractive mold- and mildew-resistant fabrics, are snapped into place on the framing. Baseboard and crown pieces complete the look.

Owens Corning’s Basement Finishing System uses commercial-grade R-11 insulation value fiberglass board for its panels. The wall panels are coated with DuPont Teflon for stain resistance and washability. Suzanne Mitchell, marketing manager for Basement Finishing System, notes that the panels come in Linen Mist, which features speckles of 14 different neutral shades to blend into any decorating scheme.

Basement Living Systems by Champion offer compressed three-inch-thick R-13 fiberglass insulation board covered in one of four linen-look fabric choices. The system includes a suspended white acoustic ceiling and takes about two weeks to install.

Constructing Basement Space
A basement can be a difficult environment to finish because the space is typically colder and more humid than above-ground space. Finishing a basement with traditional building materials presents the risk of encouraging mold, mildew, water damage, or warping. In many areas of the country, a vapor barrier must be installed before hanging wallboard. That can cause more harm than good because it traps moisture in the walls. It may also mean no access to the foundation or mechanicals.A basement system means the entire project is installed at once instead of piecemeal through individual contractors. A good basement system contractor will also lead the homeowner through the necessary steps required to ensure a dry, healthy, and code-compliant basement upgrade. Owens Cornings only sells their Basement Finishing System through certified, franchised dealers to ensure that their product will meet the highest installation standards. “These professionals will conduct inspections to assess the condition of the basement and recommend any needed repairs prior to starting work (waterproofing, mold remediation), and will also handle all needed permitting,” Mitchell says.

Basement System Pros and Cons
Mitchell cites the 2005 Cost vs. Value Report from Remodeling Magazine when talking about the return on any basement investment. The report says a basement remodel recoups an average of 90 percent of its cost in the first year. This tops other popular projects like added bathrooms or major kitchen remodels for return on investment.

Even more significant, says Jones, a basement system investment goes toward a durable, substantial wall. With traditional building materials, the money goes largely toward the labor necessary to create the walls.

Basement systems provide a way to tuck mechanicals and wiring out of sight. Yet, with the snap-in and snap-out panels, homeowners have easy access in case of needed repairs to foundation walls, plumbing, and electrical or mechanical equipment.

Wall panels offer noise-deadening acoustic and insulation value, making for a warmer, quieter space. The Owens Corning Basement Finishing System panels also have a Class A fire rating.

Because they are designed specifically for basements, package components avoid the problems that can plague other materials. They do not wick up water and, if they do get wet, they can be cleaned and dried.

While the fabrics have a rich look, color choices are limited. The panels cannot be painted, since paint would prevent the walls from breathing, which would eliminate the key benefit of mold and mildew resistance.

Hanging artwork or similar items on the panels requires special picture-hanging kits, but the pins used leave no holes. Heavier items such as plasma screen TVs or shelves require additional structure behind the walls.

Rethinking Space Needs as Families Grow

Checklists are guides for remodeling, adding on, or moving


As a family matures, space needs change. Noise levels alter. A need for privacy arises. Entertainment choices diverge. Family gathering spots are still important, but so are places of refuge.

Facing Facts
Deciding how to accommodate the teen years becomes a matter of sorting through facts, figures, and emotions. An older child who had bunked with a younger brother or sister may now want a separate bedroom. Another bathroom may become important. Study space is now vital as is computer access. A place to hang out with friends may not be necessary but would be nice.

Repurposing space offers a good chance for parents and teens to team up and get to know one another better. Together, start by compiling a list of how older children impact family activities. Next, develop an inventory, room by room, of spaces that no longer serve their purposes. The great room, living room, basement, attic, or garage may be ripe for redefinition.

Teen Space
Teens need their space. As young adults, they are learning to become separate, to interact with their own friends and activities, and to select their own styles. Still, with concerns over the Internet and media, many parents understand the need to keep independent space accessible and open. When designing a room for teens, start by working together to create a checklist of desired activities. Music, video, television, studying, games, gathering space, or crafts may be on the list. Based on the activities list and your available space, decide whether a new, separate teen living room can be created.

Designers often select lofts, attics, basements, or spare bedrooms for these activity areas. Accessibility, a bathroom, and perhaps snack space should be included. Consider what media will be involved and whether wiring should be updated to accommodate data, phone lines, or multi-media. Parents may also choose to buffer the rest of the house by soundproofing the new space. Replacing hollow doors with solid doors, insulating the walls, providing acoustic ceiling panels, and decorating with sound-absorbing fabrics, carpets, and furniture will help to reduce noise spillover.

Family Space
As the family matures, the activities they share change. While young children enjoy game, puzzle, and reading space adjacent to family centers, older children and adults often enjoy a getaway room where they can play games, rough house, listen to music, or watch movies. Family rooms are often multi-media rooms with music, video, and movie capability. Video gaming is also a popular activity that is shared between all ages.

Designers frequently select basements for family game rooms because they feature ready-made space that is often open and easily adapted to various uses. Basements offer the opportunity to rewire readily, insulate between the floor joists, apply acoustic ceiling tile, and construct insulated walls, so that this space can be as rambunctious and fun-filled as you like without disturbing the people upstairs. Attention to safe secondary exits, approved wiring, and moisture control are recommended when remodeling basements.

When planning family space, focus on the activities you share. Have each family member compile a wish list of family activities then rank them according to priority. Have a group discussion to see which activities are at the top of the list, then look for the space to accommodate those activities. For some families it may be garage workshop or craft space, for others it is music and reading areas, for many it is game and media centers. Make sure you design your space to make family time work for you.

Adding Space
If the space just isn’t there, adding square footage may be expensive but necessary. An in-law apartment for teens, with a bathroom, bedroom, and sitting area, may answer immediate demands and meet future needs for space to accommodate an elderly parent.

Talk with two or three construction firms, set up a visit, and provide a copy of the ideas detailed from walkthroughs. Ballpark estimates should be fairly well aligned. If not, check to see where the discrepancies lie — you may actually discover a structural obstacle or flaw that was overlooked by other builders. Finally, be sure to check with local building and zoning officials to make sure that adding on is possible.

Deciding to Move
If remodeling and additions are out of the picture, another home might be the answer. Keep in mind that the teen years do not last long. Purchases should be made with future space needs in mind.

Moving or remodeling also costs money. Homeowners should not add on more than 10-15 percent over the average home value in their neighborhood. Moving will incur expenses for the new home, taxes, and moving, plus closing costs and an added commission for the realtor. So develop a financial worksheet and weigh the options before you decide.

A popular option for families with teens is a walkout ranch, according to Pat V. Combs, past president of the National Association of Realtors. Older children get the walkout lower level for their space, and when they move out the parents have their main home on one floor and space for visitors on the lower level.

Home Office Wiring Connections

The right setup means time spent on work, not waiting.

Home Office Setup

Photo: Flickr

The days of basic phone and electric service are quickly disappearing. Working at home increasingly requires high-speed Internet access and networking. Those with high-speed Internet access can maximize speed and performance with a move to structured wiring.

Structured wiring is fast becoming the backbone of home offices. It is a data delivery system that can carry phone, fax, broadband, networking, and video/television technologies. For example, phone and fax communications are predominantly analog, but voice over Internet protocol (VoIP), a technology that allows you to make phone calls using a broadband Internet connection, is gaining momentum. With a structured-wiring system, your home will be VoIP-ready when it comes to you.

Structured-Wiring Systems
The structured-wiring system is made up of three parts: a panel or module where all outside service enters the home; wires and cables throughout the house; and connecting hardware. Structured-wiring systems can come prepackaged, but a bundle approach without a plan can leave you with wasted outlets or no outlet where you need one. Develop a home-office power plan before you wire. It should detail where the computers, printers, phones, and media are set up and where conference calls and media viewing will happen.

A system is only as fast as its slowest component. The data capacity of copper wire is designated by the category, or Cat, of the wire and determined by its construction and how the wires are twisted. The main difference between the wiring designations is the frequency the wire is capable of transmitting. Frequency is rated in megahertz (MHz), also known as bandwidth. Cat3, for instance, is rated up to 16 MHz while Cat5 is rated at 100 MHz.

If you are considering structured wiring, it’s probably best to consider EIA-TIA 570-B. The residential telecommunications cabling standard was developed in 2004 as a voluntary guideline by the Electronic Industries Association (EIA) and the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA). “The 570-B is a set of specifications and best practices that detail the technologies to install and the proper methods for the installation,” says Ian Hendler, director of business development for Leviton Manufacturing company in Melville, NY.

The 570-B recommends a minimum of Cat5e (enhanced) for communications. Coaxial cable, used primarily by the cable television industry and widely used for computer networks, as well as RG6, a coaxial cable system recommended by satellite TV system manufacturers, are still part of the specs. Cat 6, a sixth generation of twisted copper wire pairs designed to support communications at more than twice the speed of Cat5e, is recommended. Fiber-optic cable is also becoming more readily available, but compare the benefits and costs of upgrading to fiber optic before making your decision.

Modules or control panels for the system vary slightly in functionality. All reputable manufacturers’ products should conform to the 570-B standard. Look for ease of installation, upgradability and support from the manufacturer when making your selection.

Star Layout
Whether you have new construction or are remodeling, the system is installed the same way. The preferred method is the “star” layout. In this layout, each outlet extends individually to the service panel or module. The advantages are that this allows flexibility, helps to isolate any problem and provides less interference. Pre-wiring all possible locations when walls are open will obviously save time and money.

Structured wiring does not require a certified installer. However, when your home office work is at stake, you want to make sure a system is installed correctly and has the capabilities you want, as well as the flexibility to accommodate expansion. There are specific things to know about installing this wiring, from how far back the cable sheathing can be stripped to how much the pairs can be untwisted when they are connected.

The cost to install a system will vary. According to Leviton’s Hendler, “The capabilities of the desired system and the installation environment [new or retrofit] will affect the price. As an example, in new construction, a complete structured wiring system can range from about 1 percent to 3 percent (or more, of course) of a home’s value depending on the features, benefits, and applications the end user desires.”

There are options for those who have an older home and won’t be opening up walls. Wires can be fished through walls, although that will add to the cost and time. Those who don’t have aesthetic concerns can surface-mount the system and possibly accommodate it in moldings.

For those not in areas where high-speed Internet is available, there is still power planning to do. Be sure you have enough phone jacks and power outlets, even if it means tacking on surface-mounted lines. It’s less dangerous than having a mish-mash of extension cords.

Don’t Forget to Label
The best-laid plans fail if they aren’t organized. When installing structured wiring, be sure to label the various hubs, routers, patch cords, wires, and sockets. Well-marked components will help you find, isolate, and repair any network bugs. Another good idea is to make a master blueprint of the system when the system is installed and the specifications are fresh in your mind.

Home Office Power and Equipment Protection

Protect against surges that put equipment and data at risk.

Photo: Flickr

Lightning Hazards
Several things affect the power that supplies our home offices. First, there’s the obvious: lightning. Those with home offices in Florida may be particularly aware of the risks. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the highest frequency of cloud-to-ground lightning in the U.S. is in Florida, between Tampa and Orlando. Other areas that see a lot of lightning are the areas in the western mountains, along the Gulf Coast and inland west to Texas, along the Atlantic coast in the Southeast, and regions along the West Coast.

In the continental 48 states, according to NOAA, at least 30 million points on the ground are struck each year in the U.S. on average. But equipment doesn’t need a direct hit to sustain damage. Even cloud-to-cloud lightning can cause problems. A spike from a nearby lightning strike may travel through power or telephone lines or enter a building and transfer through wires and plumbing, going straight into your computer, printer, or phone system.

Power Demands and Outages
Surges, brownouts, blackouts — these terms have become common in some areas of the country. Many East Coast states deal with brownouts, or drops in voltage. Other parts of the country are more familiar with blackouts, or total power cutoffs. All can wreak havoc on the equipment in your home office.

A surge, or increase in voltage, stresses the delicate components of computers and other electronic devices. Each incidence degrades the components a bit, making them more vulnerable to interference or damage. It also shortens their life expectancy and reliability.

A brownout starves computers and other equipment of the power they need. The results can be frozen keyboards, loss of work in progress, system crashes, and lost data. Brownouts also hasten the deterioration of electrical equipment.

A blackout will result in the loss of work-in-progress and may mean hard-drive crashes, destroying stored data.

Combined Power Protection
Protecting against power anomalies, from service entrance panel to point of use, is important. That protection can be accomplished with surge protectors, a battery-backup uninterruptible power supply (UPS), and a hard-wired protector next to the circuit breaker.

The first line of defense is the hard-wired protector. The Surgebreaker Plus from Square D, a brand of Schneider Electric, is one example. According to the company, the equipment, which must be installed by a qualified electrician, protects the AC power line, four telephone lines, and two coaxial cables by diverting surges to a ground. Hard wired next to the load center, this one-size-fits-all device can protect against power surges from utility disturbances and nearby lightning strikes. It cannot, however, protect a home from a direct lightning hit. In homes where the telephone and coaxial cable TV lines cannot be routed to the load center, a hard-wired secondary surge arrester is recommended to protect them.

Attacks on office equipment don’t end there, but continue inside the house. Any time that appliances, such as hair dryers, power tools, and vacuum cleaners, are switched on and off, they generate power spikes. Those spikes then travel through the in-house electrical system like shock waves and stress all connected equipment.

Bill Grande, director of safety products for Leviton, a leading North American producer of electrical and electronic products, says protection must cover all conductors. Surge protection is needed not only for the receptacles into which your equipment is plugged but also for high-speed data lines, whether they are cable or telephone. Those with a structured wiring module also should consider a network approach to protect both the electrical and low-voltage (cable/satellite/TV and phone/networking) system and electronics.

When choosing surge protectors, read the specifications to make sure that they are rated for an effective level. The National Lightning Safety Institute, for one, offers suggestions on its website for finding devices that will perform satisfactorily under abnormal power-quality conditions. There have been reports of devices that deteriorate over time or fail because of excess demand, according to a University of Washington report.

Backup Power During a Blackout
Backup power is also a key part of home office protection, says Vlad Konopelko, senior product manager for American Power Conversion (APC), a global leader in power availability solutions. When a blackout occurs, an important phone call may be dropped, an open document lost, or hard-drive data ruined. UPS backup can guard against these unacceptable consequences by providing you with enough time to close down work-in-progress and the computer.

Because a home office often involves communicating over the Internet, it’s important to have UPS backup for a modem and/or router to be able to send email or place VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) calls, says Konopelko. It’s also a good idea to back up a phone system that requires AC power to run, such as a phone with a loud speaker, as it may be critical or at least very important for your home office to be able to place or receive calls despite a blackout.

Leviton’s Grande says a UPS should be used for critical items, such as a modem, router, and computer, not for devices with heavy electric demands, such as printers. UPS devices are available at almost any computer center, starting at about $50. Some devices even come with software to shut down your system in an orderly fashion if you aren’t there to do so.

Those with mission-critical work will want to look into larger UPS devices and may even want generators as backups. Larger UPS devices, which can range up to $500, will provide more power or a longer time period of coverage, depending on how much power is drawn. Determine your need for backup power by looking at the specification paperwork for your office equipment.

Regulated Brownouts
The best solution for the ongoing equipment insults of brownouts is a UPS with a trim-and-boost automatic voltage regulator (AVR), says Konopelko. The AVR is a transformer that will trim the power if it is higher than 120 volts and boost the power if it is less than 120 volts.

“Transformers can boost or trim only so much so, when the power fluctuations are not within the transformer’s margins, the AVR-featured UPS will switch to the battery, thus ensuring that devices connected to the UPS do not suffer from the power fluctuation,” Konopelko says. “This combination of AVR and battery provides the best solution for poor power environments because it ensures that battery power is used only when needed, prolonging the battery life and ensuring that the battery stays charged.”