Category: Major Systems


Bob Vila Radio: Get the Fireplace Ready

Before having your first fire of the season, read these tips on operating your wood-burning fireplace with the utmost efficiency.

When you’re pulling your parkas and mittens from the back of the closet, it’s also a good time to make sure your fireplace and chimney are safe and ready to operate at top efficiency.

Get the Fireplace Ready

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Listen to BOB VILA ON FIREPLACE EFFICIENCY or read the text below:

First, be choosy about the wood you burn. Seasoned hardwoods are best. Stay away from burning scrap wood derived from crates or pallets; when ignited, they may emit toxic fumes.

Consider installing a top-mounted damper. Providing a tighter fit than conventional dampers, they function much like a chimney cap to help keep out rain and snow. If you decide to go with a conventional chimney cap, choose one that’s stainless steel. They’re a bit more expensive but last longer due to their rust resistance.

Of course, keeping the chimney clean is a must. Have the sweeps come in at least once each year. If you burn more than three cords of wood a season, have them come twice. What you gain in fireplace efficiency, not to mention peace of mind, is worth the extra cost.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 60 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.


Bob Vila Radio: Save Big Bucks with Attic Insulation

Ever get the feeling your energy dollars are going through the roof? You might be exactly right! By installing attic insulation, you can cut your heating and cooling costs by as much as half. Start here.

Looking to put a dent in your monthly heating and cooling bills? The answer may be right over your head. If your attic isn’t insulated, you’re missing out on a prime opportunity to cut costs.

Attic Insulation

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Listen to BOB VILA ON ATTIC INSULATION PREP or read the text below:

No matter what type of insulation you end up using, start the job by preparing the work area. That includes clipping portable lights onto rafters, so you can see what you’re doing. Also, if there’s no flooring in the attic, lay down sheets of plywood for a solid platform to work from.

Now’s also an optimal time to check the attic for any signs of discoloration or mold; either might signal a roof leak. While you’re at it, use weatherstripping or expanding foam to seal up any air leaks around chimneys, plumbing stacks, exhaust fans or anywhere you suspect outside air might be getting through.

Attic insulation can literally cut your heating and cooling bills by as much as half. So whether you hire a contractor or do it yourself, your wallet will thank you.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 60 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.


The Benefits of Radiant Heat Are Invisible, and That’s a Good Thing

Of all the advantages offered by radiant heating, perhaps most appealing is the fact that it's virtually unnoticeable.

Photo: warmboard.com

You’ve probably heard about radiant heating, a new technology that delivers comfort via hydronic panels installed underneath the floor. There are many things to love about this home heating alternative. For one, it operates silently, in contrast to roaring forced-air systems or clicking baseboards. Another benefit, one that particularly appeals to allergy sufferers and those concerned about health: Radiant heat involves no ductwork, so it does not recirculate indoor air pollutants and irritants throughout the home. As well, the energy-efficient attributes of the system are a major draw for budget-minded or eco-conscious homeowners. Often overlooked among all these benefits is a less obvious, but no less appealing, fact about radiant heat: It’s invisible.

Freedom
We’re so used to living in the midst of our heating systems that we almost take the frustration for granted. The radiator hulks in the corner, rendering that portion of the room unusable for any other purpose. But for the presence of the baseboard, you would have arranged the bedroom furniture in a completely different way. Now consider radiant heating, whose components live entirely beneath the flooring, whether wood, tile, or wall-to-wall carpeting. So situated, radiant heat never interferes with your plans for the space. You gain not only some extra square footage, but also complete freedom to organize and decorate the room as you see fit. When you think of radiant heat in that way, it’s a wonder that we put up with bulky, inconvenient heating system components for so many decades!

Comfort
One way or another, conventional heating systems are noticeable. Take, for instance, today’s most common type—forced-air heating. When it kicks on, heat blasts into the room. Gradually, the room cools down, only to receive another blast. Baseboard and radiator heating are likewise noticeable: The room is warmest, perhaps too warm, right next to the unit. The farther away you go, the cooler the room gets, until you’ve reached the other side of the space (where you might feel the need to put on a sweater). With radiant heat, there are neither blasts nor variations. There’s simply steady, even heat that calls no attention itself.

Savings
There’s only one place you notice radiant heating, and that’s on your monthly utility bill. Radiant heat consumes less energy than conventional systems, in part because it’s everywhere. Picture a room in your house: Inevitably, its conventional source of heat—be it a vent, baseboard, or radiator—is doing its best to hide somewhere on the perimeter. Radiant flooring, however, extends across the entire space. Given that level of virtually complete coverage, radiant heat needs far less energy to maintain a comfortable temperature than does a heat source that’s confined to a corner. Further, we all know that heat rises. So while conventional heating systems pump a great deal of heat toward the ceiling, radiant flooring puts the comfort where it’s needed most, at floor level. Invisible in every other way, radiant heat makes itself known when it comes to money savings over the long term.

Radiant Heat vs. Forced Air

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


How To: Wire an Outlet

A do-it-yourselfer can replace an electrical outlet on his own, so long as he takes the proper precautions. Read on to learn how to get the job done safely.

How to Wire an Outlet

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Simply put, electrical work is dangerous. With projects of any complexity or sophistication, we wholeheartedly recommend hiring a licensed electrician. There are, however, simple repairs and updates that are appropriate for budget-minded do-it-yourselfers ready to proceed with careful attention to detail. By following these tips, you can replace an old or damaged outlet. It’s a simple job, and so long as you take the proper precautions, it’s safe.

Adding a New Outlet
Adding a new outlet requires running a cable between the outlet location and the home’s electrical panel. That’s much easier said than done. For this job, we recommend that you hire a licensed master electrician, not least because building codes often stipulate that a permit is necessary for new electrical work, and in many parts of the country, only a pro can obtain the required permissions. In other areas, a homeowner can pull his own permits after passing a government-administered test.

Converting to a Three-Prong Plug
Old-fashioned two-prong outlets aren’t grounded, which makes them dangerous in the event of an electrical fault. Without an electrician, it’s safe to convert a two-prong to a three-prong outlet only if the electrical box housing the outlet is metal and the cable feeding the box is armored. If these conditions are met, the box provides ground-fault protection (even though the outlet does not). How can you tell, without opening the wall, if the electrical box meets the criteria? Simple: Use a voltage tester. Insert one prong into the outlet’s shorter slot (the “hot slot”), then touch the other prong to the screw securing the faceplate. If the tester lights up, the electrical box is grounded; you can go ahead and convert the two-prong to a three-prong. If your electrical box isn’t grounded, you can still convert to a three-prong, but the replacement must be a ground-fault circuit interrupter, or GFCI (the type of outlet with a red button on its front).

MATERIALS AND TOOLS
- 4-in-1 screwdriver
- Voltage tester
- Needle-nose pliers
- Wire strippers

STEP 1
Before you go any further, it’s imperative that you cut power to the outlet you are replacing. Go to your home’s electrical panel and toggle off the switch associated with the circuit that sends electricity to the outlet in question. After you shut off the power to the outlet, use a voltage tester to double-check that it’s really off. Insert the tester’s probes into the top two slots on the outlet. If the tester lights up, you toggled the wrong switch on the electrical panel and you’ll have to try again. Continue your trial-and-error until you are certain the outlet is no longer receiving electricity. Don’t have a voltage tester? You can use a lamp instead, so long as you know the lamp works. Plug the lamp into the outlet, and if it doesn’t turn on, it’s safe to proceed.

How to Wire an Outlet - Screwdriver

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STEP 2
Unscrew the outlet’s faceplate. In most faceplates, there’s a single screw in the middle. Remove that screw, and the plate should come off easily. Next, unscrew the mounting screws that secure the outlet to the electrical box. Finally, gently pull the outlet away from the receptacle.

STEP 3
You can now see three wires extending from the wall to the outlet. If the wires are attached to screws on the outlet, simply loosen those screws in order to free the wires. If the wires are snaked into holes in the back of the outlet, press the release slot and pull the wires, assuming they don’t come out on their own. Put aside the old outlet.

STEP 4
You’re now ready to wire in the replacement. First, connect the neutral wire (white) to the silver screw on the side of the outlet. Make sure to orient the hooked end of the wire so that its curve goes clockwise, the same direction in which the screw turns as you tighten it.

STEP 5
Connect the ground wire to the green screw, using the same technique as described above.

STEP 6
Connect the live wire (black) to the gold screw, which is the last remaining on the outlet casing.

STEP 7
Carefully maneuver the wires back into the electrical box, then screw the outlet to the box via the mounting screws at top and bottom. Finally, position the faceplate over the outlet and screw it back in.

STEP 8
Go back to the electrical panel and restore power to the outlet you’ve now finished replacing.


The Right Way to Start a Fire

Build a crackling fire that gives off satisfying, comfort-giving heat while requiring very little in the way of poking and prodding.

How to Start a Fie in the Fireplace

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At first it may seem like a foolproof undertaking: You put some wood in the fireplace, light a match, then sit back and watch it burn, right? Well, yes and no. With seasoned firewood, a box of matches, and a handful of kindling, you can go a long way on trial-and-error alone. But if you build fires often and have grown tired of returning again and again to poke at the logs—or if you care about how much heat the fire actually gives off—then it’s a tremendous help to master a tried-and-true method of starting a fire in the fireplace. We’ll explain two such methods here, but first:

• Be sure your chimney has been cleaned by a professional. Over time, creosote builds up in the flue, making it vulnerable to chimney fires.

• Before bringing a flame into the equation, remember to open the fireplace damper so that smoke doesn’t overcome your living room.

• If your fireplace does not have a grate, add one for safety and to encourage the airflow needed to sustain combustion.

Once you’ve prepared the hearth and chimney, proceed to making the fire. With either strategy below, assuming proper execution, you should end up with a fire that not only generates a comforting degree of heat, but also burns well on its own, without needing near-constant attention and care.

 

THE “LOG CABIN” METHOD

How to Start a Fire in the Fireplace - Log Cabin Method

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1. Place two thin logs with no bark parallel to the back of the fireplace, about six inches apart from one another.

2. Heap kindling—whether newspapers, twigs, or both—between the two logs from the previous step.

3. Position two additional logs perpendicular to the first two. You should end up with a primitive log cabin-type structure that is two logs tall.

4. If you choose, add one more layer, with the logs running in the same direction as the first pair.

5. Light the kindling.

Note: In 1978, Mother Earth News reported on a variation of the above, tweaked for maximum heat production. Start by laying kindling in the middle. Next, run two pieces of wood parallel to the sides of the firebox. The far tips of both logs should actually touch the rear of the firebox. Now, as in the normal log cabin method, lay two additional logs perpendicular to the existing two. Importantly, the rear perpendicular log should be touching the back of the fireplace. The other perpendicular log should be very close (not six inches away, as in the first log cabin version). Finally, light the kindling and enjoy a better blast of warmth from your winter blaze.

 

THE “UPSIDE DOWN” METHOD

How to Start a Fire in the Fireplace - Upside Down Approach

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1. Line up your largest logs across the fireplace grate.

2. Lay a row of smaller logs on top of the logs that you arranged in the previous step.

3. Add one or more layers, each one comprising smaller logs than the last.

4. Use your kindling to form the final, top layer.

5. Light the fire from the top and enjoy fuss-free flames all night.

As the smaller wood on top starts to burn, hot embers drop down, gradually igniting the larger logs below. The upside-down method is typically thought to be superior to the log cabin approach, because, for one thing, the pyramidal arrangement creates a stronger draft. That draft feeds oxygen to the fire, allowing it to burn strong and for a longer period of time. Plus, consensus seems to be that the upside-down method produces more heat than the log cabin approach.

Why not try both and decide for yourself which you like better?


So, You Want to… Insulate the Attic

Insulate your attic to keep your heating and cooling from going through the roof, along with your monthly budget!

How to Insulate an Attic

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Are you getting the sense that your heating and cooling costs are going through the roof? You might be absolutely right: An attic with poor insulation can cost you big bucks. Why wait any longer? The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that attic insulation can substantially decrease—by anywhere from 10 to 15 percent—the amount of money you devote each month to keeping your house at a comfortable temperature. Whether you undertake the job yourself or a hire out the work to a contractor, you’ll experience both an immediate and long-term benefit to your bottom line. As you start planning to insulate the attic, consider the following factors.

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Types of Insulation
There are many different types of insulation, all of which are readily available at your local home center. For the tightest nooks and crannies of the attic, many people choose loose-fill insulation. Most common, though, is blanket-style insulation, made of either fiberglass or rock wool. The material comes in rolls or square batts, and for the convenience of contractors and do-it-yourselfers alike, it’s presized to fit between most studs, rafters, and joists. To seal up air leaks around chimneys, plumbing stacks, or any similar components that penetrate the building envelope, hire a pro to apply closed- or open-cell spray foam insulation.

How to Install Attic Insulation - Fiberglass Detail

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R-Values 
How much is enough insulation? In part, that depends on what type of insulation you’ve chosen to install. Each type rates differently on the R-value scale—a measure of how well a product blocks the passage of heat and cold. Most current building codes call for R-50 insulation in the attics of new homes, while specifying R-38 for insulation retrofit into existing dwellings. But the age of the home isn’t the only variable; one must also consider its geographical location. Energy Star provides an easy-to-read chart that specifies the recommended R-values for different parts of the country.

Ventilation
It may seem counterintuitive, but while attic insulation is critical, ventilation of the attic is equally important. Without ventilation, moisture can accumulate and condense, eventually rotting the insulation and compromising structural integrity. As well, ventilation goes a long way toward neutralizing the seasonal threat posed by ice dams, which are capable of causing extensive, expensive damage.

Some experts discount the value of attic vents, particularly in warmer climates. Most, however, agree that vents in the attic not only keep the house more comfortable, but also prevent potential problems. The typical attic includes ventilation in three locations: on gable ends, along the roof ridge, and in soffits. If you’re planning to install attic insulation, it only makes sense to think about ventilation too.

Before You Start
Before you begin the installation process, no matter what type of insulation you’ve chosen, take the time to do some prep work. In attics without lighting, prep includes plugging in a temporary clip-on work lamp; a flashlight won’t cut it here. Once you can see what you’re doing, look around for discoloration or any other evidence of a roof leak. Make all necessary repairs before continuing. Where there’s no flooring, lay down 3/4-inch plywood panels, so you have a safe, comfortable platform to work from. Finally, remember that most insulation products release hazardous particles. If you choose to insulate the attic yourself, it’s imperative that you wear full protective gear and a dust respirator.

Notes on Installation
Insulation expands once unpackaged, so leave it wrapped until you are ready to use it. Also, bear in mind that if you compress insulation in order to make it fit, the product loses much of its R-value. A better strategy is to measure the span into which you’re placing the insulation, before cutting the product to size. To cut blanket-style insulation, place the product over a piece of plywood, with its paper (or foil) side down. Lay a two-by-four on top, temporarily compressing the insulation to a manageable thickness. Finally, run a standard utility knife along the edge of the lumber, through the insulation, and down to the plywood.


Bob Vila Radio: Save Time (and Water) with a Recirculating Pump

A recirculating pump enables your plumbing to deliver hot water instantaneously, and that's not only a time-saver, but a water-saver, too.

On chilly mornings, do you get impatient waiting for water from the faucet to get hot? If so, maybe you should think about installing a recirculating pump.

Installing a Recirculating Pump

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Listen to BOB VILA ON RECIRCULATING PUMPS or read the text below:

Recirculating pumps keep the water in your hot water pipes flowing back to your water heater, so whenever you turn on the tap, warm water is instantly available. Besides that convenience, they also save water, since you are bound to let less water go down the drain while you’re waiting.

Some pumps, particularly older models, are designed to run continuously, and that can nudge up your electric bills. However, many newer models can be programmed to shut off whenever they’re not needed (in the middle of the night or when the house is unoccupied).

A top-quality pump may run you several hundred dollars, but municipalities give tax breaks when you install one. That can help you feel good about your choice. So too would the knowledge that you’ve done something positive for the environment.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 60 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.


Noisy Radiator? Here’s How to Shush It

Try these fixes if you're fed up in frustration over the noise that your radiator makes.

How to Repair a Noisy Radiator

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There’s a simple reason why builders relied on steam radiators for decades and decades—they work! But every technology has drawbacks, and with steam radiators, homeowner complaints often center around noise. At times, with all that clanking and banging, you might wonder why the radiators didn’t come with earplugs. What causes that cacophony, and how can you usher in quiet? If you want to repair a noisy radiator in your home, here are a few things to know.

No Way Out
In a typical steam heat system, a single pipe extends from the boiler to the radiators. At the point where the pipe connects to a radiator, you’ll find an intake valve. This component performs two functions. First, it feeds steam into the radiator. Second, once the steam cools and condenses into water, the intake valve allows the liquid to drain out of the radiator and return to the boiler. At least, that’s how things are supposed to work. But water often gets trapped in the radiator, and when that happens, steam is blocked from entering. As the trapper water and blocked steam play a game of tug-of-war, they produce the delightful symphony that keeps you up at night. So aside from being an awful racket, a noisy radiator means that your system isn’t operating as well as it should.

How to Repair a Noisy Radiator - Cast Iron Detail

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Try the Tilt
A properly functioning steam radiator does not sit perfectly level on the floor. Rather, it tilts slightly toward the intake valve. That positioning allows condensed water to flow out of the radiator, not by means of a pump, but through the force of gravity. Therefore, if your radiator starts getting noisy, the first thing to check is check whether the radiator remains tilted toward the valve. Use a level, and if you see that the radiator sits level or is tilting away from the valve, intervene. Try slipping a wooden shim or paint stirrer under the legs on the end opposite to the valve. A tilt of only five degrees or so should do the trick.

Keep Things Hot
If you’ve checked the radiator and found that it’s tilting correctly, a different common problem may be at play. Often, steam condenses in the pipe before it even reaches your radiator. If that’s the case, the fix is to insulate the pipe, wherever possible, along its run up from the boiler. Pipe insulation couldn’t be much easier to work with, but the portions of the pipe most in need of insulation may be hidden behind a wall.

It Needs to Vent
Another possible cause of radiator noise: the steam vent. Try this: Close the intake valve so that no steam can enter the radiator. Next, remove the steam vent from the radiator, placing it in a bowl of vinegar. Let it sit overnight. Doing so may help dissolve any calcium deposits that have gradually accumulated over time. If that doesn’t work, purchase a new steam vent to see whether the replacement fares any better. Readily available at most home centers, a new vent only costs about ten bucks, so it’s worth a shot if all else fails.

Finally, a friendly reminder regarding the use of steam radiators, in general. The intake valve should be either fully open or fully closed. Leaving the valve partially open can result in leaks and damage to floors.


Heat Your Entire House with a New Radiant Heat System

If you're thinking about upgrading your heating system, maybe it's time to weigh the many benefits of radiant heating.

Radiant Heating

Photo: warmboard.com

Despite all the attention radiant heating has received over the last few years, you still might not regard it as a viable alternative to traditional systems, such as hydronic baseboards or forced-air furnaces. Part of the confusion is that radiant heating shares some similarities with floor warming, a stopgap option for small spaces that tend to get chilly. The reality is that radiant heating can heat your whole house, fully replacing your existing system. In fact, if you are contemplating a major renovation project, there are several reasons why you might want to include radiant heating in your plans.

It Heats Evenly
In a room with a radiator, baseboard, or duct register—that is to say, in most rooms in America—it’s warmest right near the heat source and gets cooler the farther away you move. As a result, the room winds up unevenly heated. You might find yourself needing a sweater while you’re sitting on the sofa, and then wanting to shed the extra layer when you’re working at the desk. In contrast, radiant heating installed beneath the floor delivers warmth across virtually every square inch of the space. When exiting one room and entering another, you can expect no change in the temperature. That means you can say goodbye to the discomfort of a stifling hot upstairs and a constantly chilly ground floor.

Radiant Heating - Detail Installation

Photo: warmboard.com

It Operates Silently
Radiators hiss, bang, and clank. Baseboards click—incessantly. And blowers can sound like airplanes taking off. Radiant heating, meanwhile, operates silently. When you remove your radiators, baseboards, or furnace in exchange for radiant heating, you eliminate disturbing noises.

It Eases Allergies
Dust, allergens, germs and other irritants build up in, and then circulate through, forced-air systems, the most common type of heating in the country. Forced-air systems also tend to lower the humidity level, effectively drying out the indoor air. That dryness too can lead to respiratory distress. Radiant heating creates no such problems; in fact, it solves them. Because it lies under the flooring (and sometimes, if you choose, behind walls), radiant heating remains out of sight, neither contributing to nor exacerbating any issues related to indoor air quality. For allergy sufferers and others concerned about sickness or family health, radiant heating is a breath of fresh air.

It Costs Less to Operate
Replacing your existing system with radiant heating may at first blush seem like a prohibitively expensive proposition. Certainly, it’s probably not a wise choice for homeowners who plan to move within a few years. But for others, radiant heating, despite the cost of installation, can translate over the long haul into real savings. From the moment you begin relying on radiant heating, your monthly utility bills are going to go down and stay down.

Why? Because radiant heating requires less energy to keep your house as comfortable as your old system did. For example, in a traditional hydronic heating system, water must be heated to 140 degrees Fahrenheit (or more) in order to put out a comfortable level of heat through a radiator or baseboard. Compare that with the radiant heating offered by Warmboard: To keep a home equally comfortable, Warmboard only needs temperatures between 80 and 108 degrees! This not only saves energy, but it extends the life of your heating appliance.

Plus, because radiant heating, well, radiates up from the floor surface, not from a single source in the room, it doesn’t need to work as hard to reach a target ambient temperature. Energy use declines, and your savings go up; so too does your level of comfort. And really, what price can you put on that?

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


Bob Vila Radio: How to Hush a Noisy Radiator

If your steam-heat radiator is keeping you up all night, banging and clanking, here are a few quick fixes.

Steam-heat radiators may be good at keeping you warm, but their banging and clanking can also sometimes keep you up at night.

Noisy Radiotor

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Listen to BOB VILA ON NOISY RADIATORS or read the text below:

Most steam radiators are connected to a pipe that’s fitted with an intake valve. That pipe doesn’t only feed steam in; it’s also supposed to release the steam that’s condensed into liquid water. When enough water accumulates to block steam from entering the radiator, that’s when you hear noises.

So if your radiator starts serenading you, try tilting the radiator slightly toward the intake valve. You can do that by inserting a couple of shims under the end that’s opposite the valve.

If that doesn’t work, it could be the steam is losing heat and condensing before it even gets to the radiator. Think that’s your problem? Try insulating the pipes.

Another possible cause: The steam vent on the radiator isn’t working properly. Replace it.

Chances are one of those fixes will work and you’ll soon be getting your shut-eye.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 60 stations around the country (and growing). You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.