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Planning Guide: Insulation

Although it remains out of sight in our homes, insulation is our greatest ally in the struggle to save energy and keep our spaces toasty warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

How to Install Insulation - Fiberglass Batt


Insulation is the strong, silent type. Although it operates behind the scenes for the most part, it plays a vital role: keeping us comfortable indoors. Unlike fuel or electricity, insulation doesn’t cost anything from month to month, but it works to maintain a warm temperature in winter, a cool temperature in summer.

Despite the big difference insulation can make, many homeowners ignore its advantages. In one study, the Harvard School of Public Health found that 65 percent of homes in the United States contain substandard insulation. If in every one of those instances the insulation were brought up to the standards set by the International Energy Conservation Code, we would save 800 trillion BTUs annually—an amount of energy equal to 75,000 supertankers’ worth of crude oil!

So if you’re building a new home or seeking to improve the energy efficiency of an existing dwelling, don’t be mistaken—at home, what you can’t see can help you.

How to Install Insulation - Types


There are several different types of insulation, each with its own set of attributes and ideal applications. If for any reason a single solution is judged to be unsuitable for your home, then for optimal results it’s not only possible but recommended that you install a combination of insulation types.

Most common of all is blanket-style insulation, made from either fiberglass or rock wool. The material comes in rolls or square batts (with or without a foil or paper backer). For the convenience of contractors and do-it-yourselfers alike, blanket insulation comes presized to fit between most studs, rafters, and joists.

Meanwhile, loose insulation works best in parts of the house where there are irregular surfaces, or where major system components like the furnace are present. This type of insulation consists of either fiberglass or rock wool that blows into place by means of special equipment. Professional installation is advised.

For home exteriors, basements, and crawl spaces, opt for rigid insulation, whether foam- or fiber-based. A relatively new addition to the home-building and remodeling market, rigid insulation has quickly become a favorite, because it packs a lot of insulating power, measured as R-value, into a thin profile.

Closed- or open-cell spray foam insulation is resistant to mold, unlike other insulation types, and closed-cell foam in particular boasts an outstandingly high R-value. In contrast, open-cell foam insulates less well but offers superior breathability. Either type is expensive, in part because foam must be installed by pros.

The higher the R-value of an insulation product, the greater its resistance to heat flow—and the higher its cost. So what R-value does your insulation need to have? That depends on where you live. Energy Star provides an easy-to-read chart that lists the recommended R-value for different parts of the country.

R-values are cumulative, meaning that if you place R14 insulation over an initial layer with an R-value of 30, the insulation ends up being R45. Never compress insulation; doing so dramatically undermines it. Therefore, be wary if installing a denser material—say, rigid foam—over a lighter one, such as a fiberglass batt.

Insulation products are clearly marked. Pay attention to that labeling so that you can be sure to spend no more than is strictly necessary. Hiring a contractor? Ask to see the label on each roll, batt, bag, or panel of insulation going into the job. That way, you can be certain you’re getting the R-value for which you’re paying.

How to Install Insulation - Rafters


Home builders are in the habit of using only a base level of insulation. For that reason, it’s important to discuss your insulation requirements with the person in charge of the project. To avoid unnecessary delays, speak up early in the construction timeline, before the walls and siding have been fastened into place.

Any floor, wall, or ceiling can be insulated, including those in unfinished basements or garages. The catch is that if your basement floods or your garage gets drafty, insulation might be a waste of money. Ideally, you should fix water and air leaks before you proceed to install insulation in a space affected by either issue.

One key advantage in new construction is that builders have the opportunity to counteract a phenomenon known as thermal bridging, in which floor joists become a source of heat loss, causing a drop of up to 50 percent in insulation R-value. For best results, insulation must run above joists, not just between them.

How to Install Insulation - Paneling


Estimates say that only 20 percent of homes predating 1980 are properly insulated, so if you live in an older home, chances are that installing insulation would dramatically lower your heating and cooling bills.

If you’re interested, start with an energy audit (sometimes these are provided free of charge by the local utility company). Among other things, an energy audit reveals which parts of the house are subject to heat loss. Of course, those areas are the prime candidates for additional insulation.

You can assess your insulation needs without consulting an energy auditor. The labor-intensive process involves such things as peeking into the attic and crawl space and, where possible, behind walls or beneath flooring. If you want to know whether there’s insulation on the other side of a wall panel, one trick is to remove the faceplate from an electrical outlet on that wall. You should be able to see in.

How do you determine the R-value of any insulation that you find in your home? If it’s pink, white, or yellow, it’s likely fiberglass, which has an R-value equal to 2.5 times its thickness. If the insulation is gray or off-white, then it’s probably rock wool, in which case the R-value is 2.8 times the thickness. Loose cellulose insulation is typically gray, with an R-value that is 3.7 times its depth.

In an existing home, it’s usually pretty easy to add insulation in areas like the attic, basement, or crawl space. Walls, on the other hand, can be very tricky—or, in other words, expensive. Here, the least invasive, most cost-effective solution is to rely on blown-in or spray insulation.

• To cut blanket-style insulation, place the product over a piece of plywood, paper/foil side down. Lay a two-by-four on top, temporarily compressing the insulation to a manageable thickness. Then run a standard utility knife along the edge of the lumber, through the insulation and down to the plywood.

• Insulation expands once unpackaged, so leave it wrapped until you are ready to use it.

• Many insulation products release hazardous particles. If you choose to install insulation yourself, wear full protective gear and a dust respirator.

• Do not install insulation directly adjacent to any element of the home that gets hot, such as recessed lighting. It’s a fire hazard.

• If you’re insulating your attic, take care not to cover the vents, as they are essential for maintaining adequate airflow in the home.

Plywood 101

It's used in everything from floors to furniture, but how much do you really know about plywood?

Plywood Sizes, Types


A manmade material prized for its great versatility, plywood appears in elements of the home as various as flooring, walls, doors, and furniture. Strong and lightweight—the product of several compressed, glued-together layers—plywood costs considerably less than solid wood, and in at least a couple of important ways, it offers superior performance. For one thing, its special composition makes it less vulnerable to the presence of moisture; for another thing, plywood resists the temperature fluctuations and changes in humidity that sometimes stress natural wood to the point of splitting, cracking, or otherwise degrading.

Different types of plywood contain different numbers of layers, or plies, with three being the minimum. Typically, one side of the panel—its face—may be left unfinished. The back side is less pleasing to the eye. Of all the many types available, veneer-core plywood is best for holding screws, hinges, and other forms of hardware. Note that some types of plywood actually have a foam rubber core, which enables them to function as insulation against both weather and sound.

Plywood Sizes, Types - Closeup


When contractors and do-it-yourselfers mention plywood grades, they are referencing two separate measures—one for the face of the panel, another for its back side. Plywood faces are graded on a scale from A to D. Plywood backs are graded on a scale from 1 to 4. Thus, A1 plywood boasts top quality on both sides. A4, on the other hand, features a quality face but is likely to show defects or discoloration on its back. You can expect plywood grades to be stamped visibly on the sheets you are considering.

Plywood usually sells in four-by-eight-foot sheets, but that’s not always the case. Two- or five-foot widths are available, as are lengths between four and 12 feet. Pay special attention to plywood thickness: There is often a 1/32-inch discrepancy between the stated measurement and the actual one.

When selecting plywood at your local lumberyard or home improvement center, keep in mind these basic considerations:

• Good-quality veneer provides a nice symmetrical pattern.

• Seek out a flat sheet with core layers that feel even and free of warping.

• On the edges, there shouldn’t be too many knots or voids.

For the most visually satisfying results, you may choose to paint your plywood project. It’s easy to do—simply follow these guidelines. First, clean the plywood surface thoroughly. Next, sand the plywood to a smooth finish before applying a base coat of primer. Proceed to paint only once the primer has completely dried. Initially coat on a thin layer of paint, then follow up with additional coats as needed. Between each coat, remember to wait for the paint to dry fully. Using an oil-based paint is recommended.

Electrical Panels 101

Let's take some of the mystery out of those wires and switches that lurk behind the door of your breaker box. Come along and take a peek with us, but don't touch!

Wiring a Breaker Box - Electrical Panel


In your home—in everyone’s homes, in fact—the seat of electrical power takes an unassuming form. Concealed by a nondescript metal door, the breaker box doesn’t look very impressive, but it’s the reason you can turn on the lights, the blender, the air conditioning, and the TV. The breaker box, or service panel, operates as a central relay point: It takes power from the street, then feeds that power to the different electrical outlets and hard-wired appliances throughout your residence.

Most people open the breaker box only when there’s a problem—for example, when a circuit needs to be restored after tripping. And that’s the way it should be. Homeowners are wise to be hands-off with electrical elements, especially those they don’t understand. Make no mistake: The breaker box is dangerous. Hire a licensed electrician if you think the panel needs attention. The goal of this article is merely to explain a bit more about all of those mysterious wires and switches.

Double Pole Service Disconnect
At the top of the breaker box, the switch that’s bigger than the others is commonly referred to as the “main.” (Technically, it’s called the double pole service disconnect.) This is where, after passing through your electricity meter, two hot wires from the utility company hook up to your house. Each wire carries 120 volts. If you were to put this switch into the off position, the electrical current to your house would be broken and your dishwasher would suddenly stop running. Turn the switch back the other way, and your dishwasher—not to mention your refrigerator, home office computer, and bedroom alarm clocks—would come back to life.

Hot Bus Bars
From the main breaker, each one of the two hot lines from the utility company passes into its own bus. To the eye, a bus looks like a regular metal bar. One bus runs vertically along the left side of the panel. The second bus runs vertically along the right side.

Neutral Bus
A third metal bar, the neutral bus, receives the electrical current back again after it has exited the breaker box and flowed throughout your home doing its work.

Wiring a Breaker Box - Diagram


Circuit Breakers
The circuit breakers straddle the hot bus bars, and if there’s an overload—say, from too many appliances running simultaneously—the affected circuit trips and automatically suspends the electrical current. In addition, circuit breakers serve as the origin points for the wiring that runs to different parts of your home. That’s why there are labels (with the names of rooms or major appliances) next to the individual switches. Each circuit has two hot wires feeding into the breaker, as well as a neutral wire that connects to the neutral bus. Together, these three wires exit the breaker box and go on to provide the juice for their designated circuit.

There are two main types of breakers:

• Single Pole: These consist of one switch, handle 120 volts, and can be either 15 or 20 amps.

• Double Pole: Handling 240 volts with amperage ratings from 15 to 70, these look like two switches joined together.

Hardwired lighting, electrical outlets, and baseboard heaters typically require 15- or 20-amp breakers. Water heaters and dryers are best served with 30 amps. Meanwhile, electric ranges take 40- to 50-amp breakers, and such things as the air conditioning system may be served by an even larger breaker or a subpanel.

The wiring into a breaker must correspond to its amperage. Twelve-gauge wire suits 15- to 20-amp breakers; 8-gauge wire goes with 40- or 60-amp two-pole breakers.

In the maze of wires that inhabits your breaker box, there’s one more to be aware of: the grounding wire. Typically a bare copper wire, it connects the neutral bus to a metal water pipe (or to a metal rod buried in the earth). Grounding prevents currents traveling through frayed wires from carrying on to metal surfaces they weren’t intended to reach.

The Heat’s On! Which Is Better, Radiant or Forced-Air?

If you are in the market for a new heating system, be sure to consider the benefits of radiant heat over forced-air. Not only is radiant heat 30 percent more efficient, it also provides a more even, continuous level of warmth.

Radiant Heating vs. Forced Air


In the radiant floor vs. forced-air heating debate, radiant floor always wins because it provides a quiet, even heat and eliminates the allergy problems often associated with heating ducts. But there’s another reason why radiant floor heating is superior to its blowy cousin—it’s simply more efficient.

The Problems With Forced Hot Air Systems

Anyone who’s ever lived with a forced hot air system is familiar with the challenges of this type of heat, which is akin to warming your home with a series of hot-air hand dryers mounted in the ceiling or floor. The room warms quickly, but then cools equally fast, forming a yo-yo heating pattern that can prompt you to constantly adjust your thermostat, causing your furnace to turn on and off, wasting energy.

Forced hot air systems are also subject to something known as parasitic heat loss. Because the air from the furnace and air handler has to travel through a series of tubes to get to its intended room, there are many opportunities for it to leak wherever there are small openings in the ducts. Also, the ducts for this type of system often travel through cold attics or basements, increasing the chance that heat will be lost as the warm air travels to the rooms in your home.

The warm air released by forced-air systems either pumps out through grates in the ceiling, where it tends to stay, or it shoots out of vents in the floor and flies quickly up to the ceiling. The result is stratification—a situation where the top of your room is warm (sometimes as much as 10 degrees warmer) and the center and bottom part of your room is cooler. This means you’ll turn your thermostat up higher to get the heat to reach the portion of the room in which you actually live. All this air movement also has the paradoxical effect of cooling you. Think about being outside in the sun on a cool day. You might feel comfortable in a short-sleeved shirt until a breeze blows. Forced hot air systems create breezes in your home all the time.

Finally, it is difficult to create zones with a forced hot air system. As a result, you have to heat your entire home to one temperature, or, if you have a dual-floor system, you have to heat an entire level. Because you might need heat only in the few rooms you occupy the most, you are effectively throwing money away by warming empty spaces.

The Energy Benefits of Radiant Floor Heating

A radiant floor system solves all of the inefficiencies inherent in forced-air systems, with some studies showing that they are as much as 30 percent more efficient.

Because the heating panels are in direct contact with the floor, there is very little parasitic heat loss, as there are no long pathways for the warmth to travel. Air doesn’t shoot out of vents in this kind of system, so there are no breezes to contend with, which allows you to keep the thermostat lower. The blower in a forced-air system typically requires nine times the electricity used by the pumps in radiant systems. Plus, the heat is also more consistent with radiant flooring. Rather than getting blasts of warm air that dramatically raise the room’s temperature, radiant heat provides a continuous level of warmth, which means less fussing with the thermostat.

Another major benefit of radiant over forced-air heating is the fact that 50 percent of the heat it produces comes from infrared, a form of invisible light. This type of heat works best as you get closer to it (think about a light bulb); therefore, because radiant heat is embedded in the floor, it will keep you warmer than heat that congregates up near the ceiling. This saves energy not only because you can lower your thermostat, but also because radiant systems need to produce heat in just the 75 to 80 degree Fahrenheit range, as opposed to the 120 to 140 degree Fahrenheit temperatures generated by forced-air systems.


Photo: Warmboard

An Even More Efficient Radiant System

So, there’s little doubt: Radiant systems will save you money and energy usage over forced hot air systems. But is there an even more efficient form of radiant floor heating? Yes.

The company Warmboard makes thin radiant flooring panels that are superconductive. This means that the heat from the hot water channels each panel contains is easily and quickly transferred to the surface of the floor. This means that a significantly lower water temperature can produce the same room temperatures as less responsive systems. In fact, it’s estimated that the water used in Warmboard panels can be as much as 30 degrees Fahrenheit lower than in other products, which results in an energy savings of 10 to 20 percent—and that’s above and beyond the savings you’d see just switching to any radiant floor system.

Further savings can be realized from Warmboard’s nimble panels because they heat and cool quickly. This is not the case for other radiant systems that might rely on thick concrete to heat up before releasing their heat to the room. Such systems can then require quite a long time to cool after the thermostat is turned down. Warmboard panels, in contrast, are extremely responsive to adjustments in the thermostat, which means less energy is used in getting the room warm, and greater comfort is achieved when you need to cool the room down if you’re feeling too hot.


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


Storm Windows 101

Brand-new windows are always nice, but they can be a huge expense. You may be able to get much of the energy savings of new windows at a fraction of the cost by installing storm windows.

Installing Storm Windows

A storm window protects the window on the right; the one on the left lacks storm protection. Photo:

If your windows let in anything other than a view, you may be thinking it’s time for replacement windows. But not so fast! You may want to consider storm windows instead, which offer the insulating properties of replacement windows but for a fraction of the cost. Some experts even argue that when laid over existing windows in decent condition, storm windows insulate better than replacements do. One group in particular has favored the use of storm windows over the years—owners of old houses. Why? Because storm windows allow improved insulation without harming the original windows or, by extension, the home’s architectural character.

Exterior vs. Interior
Storm windows install either outside or inside. In choosing between these approaches, aesthetics are perhaps the main consideration. Exterior storm windows alter how your home looks from the curb. Interior storm windows, in contrast, are virtually invisible from the exterior but are plainly evident indoors.

Window operability is another distinguishing factor between exterior and interior storm windows. Exteriors enable the homeowner to open and close windows at will throughout the year. Interiors—intended as a seasonal measure—seal off the windows they cover for as long as they stay in place (usually a period of months).

Installing Storm Windows - Interior


Track Styles
Whereas interior storm windows comprise a single glass or polymer pane, exterior storm windows are more complex. Most feature either two or three tracks. In a two-track window, the outer track holds a half-pane of glass at the top, a half-screen on the bottom. The inner track, meanwhile, holds a half-pane window, which can be raised (to admit fresh air) or lowered (to keep cold air out and warm air in). Triple-track windows are similar but offer greater configurability.

Frame Choices
Storm window frames are typically made of wood, aluminum, or vinyl. Many consider wood the most attractive, but such frames require regular maintenance to remain in good shape. Plus, the effectiveness of wood frames can be compromised when they expand and contract with the changing weather. Aluminum frames are lightweight, durable, and low-maintenance, but they insulate less well than other materials. Vinyl, which is also low-maintenance, comes in a variety of colors, and that makes it a design-savvy choice, at least compared with aluminum. The downside to vinyl, however, is that over time it becomes brittle and requires replacement.

Installing Storm Windows - Installation


Purchasing Tips
No matter what type of storm windows you decide are best for your home, get the most for your dollar by insisting on some or all of the following features:

• Multiple positioning stops that allow you to modulate the amount of air admitted

• Quality weatherstripping to counteract heat loss

• Predrilled holes to facilitate installation

• Easy-to-clean removable half-pane glass and half-screens

Furthermore, you may wish to consider storm windows fitted with low-emissivity (low-E) glass. This energy-efficient technology helps keep homes cool in the summer and warm in the winter. In addition, low-E can extend the life of fabrics and floor coverings that come into contact with direct sunlight. Low-E glass may be more expensive at the outset, but over the long term, you can expect to recoup the initial cost through month-to-month energy savings.

When measuring for storm windows, measure the height and width of the window to be covered, from inside molding to inside molding, in multiple positions. Use the smallest measurements to determine what size storm windows you need. Caulking and weatherstripping may be used later to fill any small gaps.

Exterior storm windows attach with a flange—that is, a metal flap—that screws into the existing window frame. It’s smart to caulk the point where the flange meets the frame, but take care not to caulk the weep holes. These perform the important role of allowing condensation to escape.

Interior storm windows attach in a variety of ways—with magnets or clips, or on tracks. One of the most DIY-friendly models comes with a compressible material (for example, rubber or foam) around its edges: As you work the pane into the opening, the material expands to create a snug, draft-free seal.

Planning Guide: Fireplaces

Fireplaces not only add exceptional ambiance to a home, they can provide valuable, cost-efficient heat as well. If you're not lucky enough to have a fireplace in your house, you can certainly have one installed—but first review the options.

Is there anything better than sitting beside the fireplace on a chilly winter eve? Not only does a fireplace provide decorative charm and the practical benefit of warmth, but it can also add to the value of your home. In fact, by some estimates, homeowners recoup 130 percent of the amount they invest to build a fireplace, with 78 percent of home buyers rating fireplaces as a desirable amenity. If your home doesn’t have a fireplace, that’s OK: With careful planning, you can add one.

As you begin your research, the first thing to know is that fireplaces generally fall into one of three categories: masonry, zero-clearance (also known as pre-fabricated or manufactured), and gas. Of course, each design has its pros and cons. So before you decide to build a fireplace of any type, it’s essential that you consider the different options in light of your project budget, your aesthetic sense, and the particulars of your home’s construction method and architectural style.



How to Build a Fireplace - Masonry


The most expensive option is a wood-burning masonry fireplace. Arguably, it’s also the most attractive and impressive-looking. When the average person envisions a fireplace, this is the kind that comes to mind. A masonry fireplace consists of a brick or stone firebox, a brick or stone chimney, and, more often than not, a wood mantel.

It’s a lot easier to build a fireplace like this in new construction. Adding one to an existing home presents myriad challenges, but it certainly can be done. Before you do anything else, identify the room in which you plan to locate the fireplace, then make sure its floor joists are reinforced. Neither brick nor stone is lightweight. When used in the quantity necessary to build a fireplace of average size, these materials are hefty indeed, so building codes require that the house framing be modified to accommodate the increased load.

Related: 10 Accessories for the Fashionable Fireplace

Further considerations include the dimensions and thickness of the firebox, the size of the damper opening, and the type of chimney and liner used. Local building codes typically give detailed specifications for each of these details as well as for the minimum distance between a fireplace and combustive materials.

Talk to your builder about the merits of an air-circulating system, which forces the fireplace to draw in cooler air from the room. Once that air is heated, a low-voltage fan pumps it back out into the home. Without such a system, masonry fireplaces can steal warm air and send it up the chimney, resulting in higher monthly heating bills. A nonmechanical way to address this problem is to build a fireplace with a slanted firebox, which inhibits warm air from escaping to the outside.



How to Build a Fireplace - Zero Clearance


In comparison with masonry fireplaces, zero-clearance fireplaces are much easier and less expensive to install, requiring significantly less construction work. Because they are lightweight and have firebox enclosures that always remain cool, zero-clearance fireplaces can sit directly over hardwood floors and within a few inches of existing walls. For rooms of any size, but for small rooms in particular, homeowners have found that zero-clearance fireplaces are a sensible, more than satisfactory option.

Wood-burning, gas, and electrically powered zero-clearance models are all available, with the difference between them largely being a matter of lifestyle and personal preference. When it comes time to make a purchase, the real question is, “How big?” You can determine the ideal size for a zero-clearance fireplace with some simple math. Measure the width and length of your room, then add those measurements together. The number of feet you calculate will be the best size of the opening—in inches—for your fireplace. So, if your room measures 12 feet by 15 feet—for a total of 27 feet—then choose a model with an opening of at least 27 inches.

Normally, zero-clearance fireplaces vent through a lightweight metal tube that extends through the ceiling. Some models, however, contain an external air-venting feature, one that draws air from the outdoors. By not having to draw air from the room, these fireplaces can operate up to 70 percent more efficiently. But whereas zero-clearance fireplaces can usually be installed anywhere, these more efficient designs must be situated on an exterior wall.



How to Build a Fireplace - Gas


While they don’t offer the sounds and aroma of a wood fire, gas fireplaces create lovely ambiance and often supply more warmth than wood does. Plus, gas fireplaces are much easier to start—say goodbye to all that newspaper!—and there’s no cleanup or danger of fire from errant embers to worry about.

Environmental friendliness is another reason why gas fireplaces have become more popular. A wood-burning fireplace pollutes; a gas fireplace pollutes less. That’s true in part because gas models feature thermostatic controls, enabling the homeowner to operate the fireplace as if it were a traditional heating system. If you’ve ever cracked a window when a wood fire got a little too hot for comfort, then you know that, delightful as they are, traditional fireplaces do not excel in energy efficiency.

Like their zero-clearance cousins, gas fireplaces don’t need a ton of room. For a standard unit, the main installation requirements are 1) a connection to the gas supply line and 2) an adequate venting mechanism. Deal with the first requirement by positioning your fireplace near the propane or natural gas line, or in a room to which it would be both feasible and cost-effective to run an extension. The second requirement—venting—can be handled in a variety of ways. You can do it through an existing chimney, by installing a new chimney, or most simply, through a length of lightweight metal tubing that leads from the unit to the outdoors.

Note that unvented gas fireplaces are available and increasingly common. They use catalytic converter technology to cleanly burn all the fuel that is fed to it, with little to no off-gassing. But be advised that some have expressed concern that unvented gas fireplaces might not always succeed in burning 100 percent of the propane or natural gas. So for safety’s sake, remember to site yours near a window that can be cracked on those occasions when you are enjoying a fire at home.

No matter what type of fireplace you decide on, familiarize yourself with the maintenance and cleaning techniques required for it to work safely and effectively.

Chimneys 101

The chimney might not be a part of your home you consider very often, but keeping it in good working order is a critical part of ensuring a safe and healthy home.

How a Chimney Works


Why would Kris Kringle choose to squeeze his considerable girth through one of the narrowest and most soot-covered passageways in the home? The answer: Who the heck knows? One thing is certain, however. For those homeowners with a fireplace, safe and hassle-free evenings spent around the hearth depend not only on a proper understanding of how a chimney works, but also on a commitment to maintaining the chimney. Santa’s entrance comes in two styles:

Related: Fireplace Maintenance Checklist

Built of either brick or stone, traditional masonry chimneys include a firebox (where the wood burns) in addition to a flue, which is the air shaft running through the interior of the chimney, from the firebox up through the roof. At its top, a chimney of this type features a crown to deter critters and prevent water damage.

Prefabricated chimneys have a firebox and cap, but they vent through a simple pipe (not through a flue set within a chimney). Compared to a traditional installation, prefab chimneys are more affordable but less durable. Plus, repairing them can be complicated once component parts are no longer available.

How a Chimney Works - Diagram


Whether traditional or prefabricated, all chimneys are fitted with a damper—that is, a moveable metal plate. When open, the damper allows smoke from the fireplace (along with heat and harmful gases, such as carbon monoxide) to exit the house. During the summer or on cold winter nights when you are not using the fireplace, the damper closes in order to help maintain a comfortable indoor temperature.

A standard throat damper installs above the firebox and is operated by a handle, while a top-sealing damper mounts at the top of the flue. The latter opens and closes by means of a stainless steel chain, extending down the chimney. When closed, the top-sealing damper serves double duty, not only keeping in heated air, but also keeping out animals, loose debris (e.g., leaves), and precipitation.

Rising heat creates an air current that carries heat, smoke, and toxic gases with it along an upward trajectory. Known as drafting, this fundamental principle of convection prevents your house from filling with smoke and hazardous exhaust. Larger flues create stronger drafts, generally speaking, but in any case, eliminating creosote deposits and other clogs ultimately safeguards against chimney problems.

Flue Liners
Mandatory in some states, flue liners enhance the safety and performance level of chimneys in a couple of ways. One, they prevent the overheating of combustibles adjacent to the chimney. Two, they make the chimney more resistant to the corrosion typically brought about by byproducts of burning wood.

There are three main types of flue liners:

  1. Clay tiles, commonly used in masonry chimneys, are inexpensive but known to split apart under intense heat. Those cracks must be repaired, as they enable toxic gases to enter the home.
  2. Especially with owners of old homes, stainless steel or aluminum flue liners are a popular choice today, because they are easily installed even in chimneys where an older liner already exists.
  3. Highly effective but labor-intensive (and thus more expensive), cast-in-place liners are the product of heat-resistant concrete applied against the walls of a chimney or an existing flue.

Chimney Fires
Without regular cleaning, a highly flammable substance known as creosote may build up within the flue, making the chimney vulnerable to high-heat fires. Burning at temperatures around 2,000°F, chimney fires are capable of extending beyond the chimney itself and into other, more flammable parts of the home. Though prefabricated chimneys are built to withstand very high temperatures, they can be so damaged by chimney fires that replacement becomes necessary.

Keeping the chimney clean prevents house fires. For that reason, if you frequently make use of the fireplace in your home, it’s highly recommended that you employ a certified chimney sweep on an annual basis. Many homeowners remember to make an appointment when turning the clock back during mid-autumn.

How To: Paint Brick

Painting tired or out-of-place brick, whether inside or outside your home, is an inexpensive, fairly quick route to an updated—or just cleaner—look. Before you get started, however, expect to do some prep work.

How to Paint Brick


There are a host of reasons that homeowners choose to paint brick:

• If a brick fireplace is out of sync with the decor of a room, it’s less expensive to paint it than it is to replace the brick with another material.

• A coat of light-color paint can alleviate the feeling of heaviness that a brick wall can impart.

• If a home’s brick exterior needs a makeover, painting it can give the property a fresh look, boosting curb appeal and perhaps even resale value.

Although any DIYer can paint brick, there are certain precautions and procedures to follow to ensure color success.

Before painting brick, always clean it thoroughly so that your application of paint better adheres. Dirt and efflorescence should come off with soapy water and some diligent scrubbing with a stiff-bristled brush. Need something stronger? Try trisodium phosphate (TSP): A half-cup mixed into a gallon of water ought to do the trick. (If you happen to own, or are willing to rent, a pressure washer, consider using one, especially if you need to clean a relatively large expanse of brickwork.) Where you encounter mildew, apply a solution of one part bleach to three parts water; after letting it soak for half an hour, proceed to scrub the area with a wire brush. Never use acid cleaning solutions, any of which might compromise your paint job.

If the brick has been installed recently, allow it to dry and acclimate for at least a year before painting it. If the installation has already been in place for years, check the mortar for signs of damage. Repair small cracks with acrylic caulk. With more pronounced issues, repointing the brick may be necessary. Whether or not you make any repairs, remember that brick must be completely dry for the paint to adhere successfully. After cleaning, delay painting for a period of at least 24 hours.

Depending on the area of the surface you wish to paint, use a brush or roller—or a paint sprayer—to apply a coat of latex primer. Put additional coats on those sections that have been affected either by efflorescence or mildew. Whether you add one coat of primer or a few, let the primer dry completely before going any further.

How to Paint Brick - Multicolor Wall


When it comes to paint (as opposed to primer), many favor the use of elastodynamic paint for brick. It features (as the term implies) a high level of elasticity, which makes it excellent for filling cracks as well as preventing them. Plus, elastodynamic paint performs well in all weather—not only precipitation but also high humidity.

If you cannot find or don’t wish to use elastodynamic paint, don’t hesitate to opt instead for regular acrylic latex exterior paint. In fact, for exterior brickwork, acrylic latex may be the superior choice, because it’s designed to stand up against mildew and to quickly evaporate any moisture that it absorbs.

The easiest way to paint brick is with a paint sprayer, but if you are covering only a small area, such as a fireplace, brushes or rollers are sufficient; in fact, for those with no experience operating a sprayer, these low-tech painting tools are recommended. If you plan to use a roller, choose one with a thick nap to ensure best results on brick, which is riddled with nooks and crannies and surface irregularities.

For interior and exterior brick, many experts recommend semi-gloss or gloss paint; either type accentuates detail and, compared with other paints, is easier to clean as time goes by.

So long as the brick is in decent condition, you have another finishing option: stain. Quicker and easier than painting, staining highlights (rather than conceals) brick’s unique texture.

Preparing brick for staining is no different from preparing it for painting. In either case, clean the surface thoroughly, allowing it to dry completely before moving forward. If you do not intend to stain the mortar, then seal it off with painter’s tape. (You can also use this trick if you decide to paint after all.)

With the brush that comes in the staining kit, test the stain on an inconspicuous part of the brick installation. Darken or lighten the tone by adding pigment or water, respectively. Once you have a mixture that imparts a color you like, spread on the stain by moving the brush in a uniform direction. Alternatively, for a more even application, use a clean rag to wipe the stain onto the brick. Spread the stain as thinly possible, wait 24 hours, and then add a second coat. Along the way, remember to wear goggles and gloves.

Radiant Surfaces: Heat Where You Least Expect It

In existing homes, it's easier to install radiant heating in the walls and ceiling than under the floor, yet it offers the same—and in some cases even better—benefits.


Photo: Warmboard

Think “radiant heating” and you’re likely to think of floors. But did you know that radiant heat panels can also be installed in your ceiling and your walls to offer the same clean, quiet, even heat for which the floor system is known? In fact, in the 1950s and ‘60s, electric radiant ceilings were quite popular. As the price of electricity climbed, however, these panels became too costly to operate. Fortunately, there are new systems out there, like those from Warmboard, Inc. Warmboard radiant panels hold flexible tubing that carries warm water from your home’s gas furnace or oil burner and transfers that heat to the interior of your home.  The result is exquisite comfort.

A Smart and Affordable Retrofit
For existing homes, it is often cost prohibitive to install radiant floor heating because of the labor and materials involved in ripping up and replacing the floor. For homeowners wanting to keep their existing tile or hardwood floor, but still benefit from radiant heat, wall and ceiling applications can be installed less intrusively and for a lower cost.

Related:  Radiant Floor Heating 101



Warmboard panels are particularly suited for wall and ceiling installations because of their compact size and efficiency. The company’s Warmboard-R panel is just 13/16 inch thick, so it doesn’t take up much additional space when it’s installed. For wall retrofits, all that is generally required is removal of the original drywall, installation of the product, and reinstallation of the drywall. If this causes the wall to move out too much, homeowners oftentimes create a framed panel on the wall or install wainscoting to add decorative appeal.

Warm Walls
To get a nice, enveloping heat in any room, you can install radiant panels in the bottom four-foot section of your walls. If you have a room with high ceilings, however, you can extend the range of the installation up to eight feet. It’s important to insulate properly behind your radiant walls, so be sure your contractor is familiar with this requirement and installs the system properly.

Also, when planning the location of your radiant panels, remember that the system works best with a “line-of-sight” layout. This means you’ll be most comfortable with the least number of barriers between you and the wall in which you install the system.

Warmboard Ceiling Installation


Warm (and Cool) Ceilings
To get the most out of radiant ceiling heat, it’s recommended that the system be installed on flat ceilings that are between 8 and 12 feet high. While Warmboard offers better-than-average conductivity, panels installed on the ceiling must also be properly insulated.

A secondary benefit of installing radiant panels in your ceiling is that in the warmer months, your system can be designed to pump cool water through the tubes, lowering the temperature of your ceiling to about 60 or 70 degrees Fahrenheit. As warm summer air rises, it will hit the ceiling, cool, and fall, creating a natural convection cooling system. With this setup, in order to avoid condensation, it is recommended that a dehumidification system be put in to lower the humidity of the air.

Related:  6 Things You Didn’t Know About Radiant Floor Heating

Overall Benefits
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, radiant panels have the quickest response time of any heating technology. Because the panels can be individually controlled for each room, that quick-response feature can result in cost and energy savings when rooms that are infrequently occupied are suddenly put into service.

In addition to this benefit, radiant heat also provides even heat, unlike the on-and-off blasts from forced hot air systems or electric baseboards; heat that is quiet, which is not the case with clanging radiators; and heat that contributes to an allergy-free environment, because there are no ducts or fins to gather dust and other substances that can irritate airways.

Note: People worry about hanging things on walls in which radiant panels are installed. While keeping radiant panels installed below a 4-foot height generally reduces the concern, taller installations will require some planning.  To make sure you don’t puncture tubes when nailing picture hangers into a radiant-heated wall, take a photo of the system before the finishing drywall is put up, so you know where the tubes are. Then, use a tape measure to mark their locations and annotate the distances on your photo. Then you’ll be able to stay warm and comfortable in a truly artful way!

Don’t Can Your Aluminum Siding!

Breathe new life into your aluminum siding by repairing, cleaning, and painting it. It's a big project, but a DIYer with a true "can"-do attitude can tackle it.

Painting Aluminum Siding


Aluminum siding first became popular in the wake of World War II, when this metal, which had been so crucial to the war effort, became more readily available. Homeowners valued the material for its weather protection and insulating properties. They also loved that, in comparison with wood siding, aluminum requires little maintenance. But when vinyl siding arrived in the late 1950s, aluminum rapidly fell out of favor, in part because it was prone to denting and its color faded relatively quickly.

Related: Bob Vila’s Guide to Exterior Siding

That’s not to say that if you live in an aluminum-clad home, you should replace your siding. On the contrary, those attributes that once made it a favorite are as appealing today as they were in the 1940s. Aluminum remains a low-maintenance, first-rate insulating barrier against the weather. So long as your aluminum siding is performing to your satisfaction, consider preserving it by cleaning, patching, and painting your siding.

Before painting aluminum siding, you may find it necessary—or merely desirable—to replace any sections that have been dented or otherwise damaged. After all, one virtue of this cladding material is that it lends itself so easily to repair work. Follow these simple steps:

1. Draw a square around the section of damaged aluminum siding that you would like to remove.

2. Cut away the section, using tin snips in combination with a utility knife, leaving a clean, square hole to patch.

3. Cut the replacement patch to size (three inches larger than the section you initially cut out).

4. Use tin snips to take the nailing strip off the replacement patch.

5. Spread clear silicone caulk on the back of the patch.

6. Press the patch firmly in place, tucking its top behind the row of siding running directly above the area you are repairing.

7. Wipe away the excess silicone, using your finger to smooth the joints where the patch meets the original siding.

There’s still more preparation to address before painting aluminum siding. You need to scrape off peeling and flaking paint, and then chisel out any old caulk lines and apply new ones. Scrub away any mildew with a solution of three parts water to one part household bleach. Remove dirt and grime by hand-washing the siding with soap and warm water. Alternatively, if you want to speed up the job of cleaning, rent a power washer. Just be sure to accessorize the tool with a low-pressure tip, being careful to direct the water stream directly at the siding. Never spray upward; by doing so, you may force water behind the aluminum. If you spot any aluminum oxidation or rust, remove that too before rinsing the exterior surface with a garden hose. Do not begin painting until the siding has been allowed to dry completely; it should take about three or four days.

Painting Aluminum Siding - Off White


With painter’s tape and lengths of plastic sheeting, protect items and areas adjacent to the siding. (Once you have completed the paint job, remember to remove the tape as soon as possible so that it doesn’t adhere permanently.)

For best results, begin with an application of galvanized metal etching primer. Coat on the product with a synthetic polyester paintbrush, covering the full surface area before allowing the primer to cure for a minimum of four hours.

Next, apply 100 percent acrylic exterior paint. Use a brush at first to paint the edges, then proceed to “load up” the roller. After pouring a few inches of paint into a tray, dip in the roller. Run the tool back and forth over the ribbed area to ensure that paint gets evenly distributed over the roller, with little or no excess to cause drips.

Wield your paint roller from left to right if the siding is horizontal, or up and down if the siding is vertically oriented. Start painting at the top and work your way down. As you go, smooth bumps in the wet paint with a clean paintbrush.

Continue until you have applied paint to the entire area you set out to cover. Allow at least two hours for the coat of paint to dry. It’s strongly recommended that you add a second coat to achieve a long-lasting and professional-looking finish.

Because they excel in hiding surface irregularities, low-luster (also called satin) finishes usually look better on aluminum siding than do other types of paint.