Category: Major Systems


What Would Bob Do? Cleaning Air Ducts

Dust is everywhere—even in your house's ductwork. But is it really necessary to clean out your air ducts? Let's look at the pros and cons.

Cleaning Air Ducts

Photo: moldremovalnh.com

I am moving into a new home. The previous owners had a dog. I am wondering if cleaning the air ducts is worthwhile. Anyone had it done?

Cleaning air ducts makes a lot of sense, at least in theory. Because dust gradually accumulates on virtually every surface, doesn’t it stand to reason that it would build up to an intolerable degree in the mostly untended HVAC ductwork that runs throughout your home? Yes, air ducts get dusty. But while air duct cleaning doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t always help either. There are certainly occasions when it’s appropriate, but there are a lot of times when it’s simply not necessary.

1. In most homes, dust collects within a safe range. Your furnace or air conditioning filters trap a high percentage of particles in the air, preventing them from entering the ductwork. Surely, that’s a reason to clean or replace your HVAC filters on a regular basis, but it’s not a strong argument for taking any further action.

2. Cleaning air ducts is not a do-it-yourself job. Even if you were inclined to do it, chances are good that you wouldn’t own the right tools, such as special rotary brushes and a high-powered vacuum. You’ll need to hire professionals, and the cost isn’t low. You could end up paying $500 for work that didn’t need to be done in the first place.

3. In the course of cleaning nonmetal ducts, there’s a risk of dislodging vital connections or tearing walls. If undetected, such damage could seriously impact the efficiency of your heating and cooling appliances and let particle-laden air from the basement, crawl space, or attic enter the system.

Cleaning Air Ducts - Inspection

Photo: shutterstock.com

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that no evidence exists to suggest that any health hazards stem from light dust accumulation in ducts. In fact, shuffling across a carpet exposes a person to more contaminants. That said, the EPA does recommend cleaning air ducts if there is mold growth visible or if evidence points to an infestation by insects or rodents. Also, air duct cleaning may help to alleviate lingering odors caused by cigarettes or other sources.

Before you contact a duct-cleaning professional for a consultation and estimate, it’s smart to do a little investigating on your own. (That way, you don’t have to take the contractor’s word for it.) Start by having a look at the duct registers or grilles: Are they discolored and coated with a fine, dark dust? If you remove the cover, reach into the duct, and wipe its sides with a damp rag, does it come out filthy?

Go ahead and call the local service, if you discover that a seemingly excessive amount of dust is present. Alternatively, try limiting dust accumulation in your ductwork by using one or all of the following methods:

• Install filters over each of your hot air supply registers, following the manufacturer’s instructions so as not to restrict airflow. Check those filters after a couple of weeks to see what they’ve picked up.

• With a general-purpose caulk, seal any gaps between the edge of the duct and the wall opening. Dust that appears to be coming through ductwork may in fact be entering through that slim sliver of a gap.

• Bring in an HVAC technician to do an annual furnace cleaning. In the course of work, he will clean the furnace heat exchanger. If he finds that it’s not very dirty, in all likelihood the ducts aren’t either.


Warming Trend: 5 Smart Ways to Heat Your Home

Heating your home has never been cheap, but new technologies can help cut the costs substantially.

Photo: Shutterstock

When considering the best way to bring warmth into your house, think of the four “E’s”: energy, efficiency, economics, and environment. You’ll want to choose a type of energy source that’s not only available in your area, but also fits with your ethos and needs. You’ll want to make sure your chosen heating system is efficient and suits your economic situation. And you’ll want to choose a system that creates a pleasant internal environment for you and your family. Here are a few ways to balance these four “E’s” when you’re choosing the best method for heating your home.

programmable thermostat

Photo: energystar.gov

Programmable Thermostats: A simple and affordable way to make your existing heating system smarter is to replace the old thermostat with a programmable one. This will enable you to create different heating schedules for different times of the day or different days of the week. For example, if no one is home during the day, it doesn’t make sense to keep the house as toasty as you like it in the evening when the house is occupied. Once you establish your desired settings, a programmable thermostat will automatically adjust the temperature without requiring you to remember to turn it up or down.Keep in mind, however, that extreme fluctuations in your thermostat settings can cause your furnace to work harder and can actually decrease efficiency, so be sure to keep the settings within a reasonable range.

Zoned Heating: The ability to heat different areas of your home to different temperatures is called zoned heating. You can set up different zones in a number of ways, depending on what type of system you have. Typically, multiple thermostats are used to adjust individual temperature settings for each room. This enables you to turn down thermostats in areas of your home that aren’t frequently used, which saves energy and money. Zoned heating can also remedy the problem of hot and cold spots in your home. For example, if the second floor of your home is always 10 degrees warmer than the first floor, or if the room above the garage is always 10 degrees cooler, then zoned heating is a smart solution.

Hybrid Furnace: If you live in a climate where temperatures occasionally get below 30 degrees Fahrenheit, then a hybrid, or dual-fuel, system will most likely save you money. A hybrid furnace is like a hybrid vehicle in principle—it uses electricity as its primary source of power but then kicks in another fuel source when higher demands are placed on the system. The primary source of heat for a hybrid furnace is an electric heat pump, which is more energy efficient than natural gas, propane, or oil. Heat pumps, however, don’t perform as well when temperatures drop below 30 or 40 degrees Fahrenheit. At such temperatures, a hybrid furnace will automatically switch from the heat pump to another fuel source to balance efficiency and effectiveness.

Radiant Floor Heating: There are different types of radiant floor systems, but they all work by heating your floors from underneath, creating a home environment that is heated evenly and quietly without drying forced air or clanging baseboards. In general, radiant floor systems are more efficient than traditional setups, but not all systems are created equal. Many radiant floor systems can tie into your existing furnace, but if you don’t have an efficient furnace, you’ll lose some of the eco-friendly benefits of radiant heating. The level of conductivity in the radiant panels themselves is also an important factor in radiant heat performance.

The new Total Warmth System from Warmboard solves both of these issues by providing a complete package that includes a heater, superefficient floor panels with superior conductivity, and wireless thermostats for each room that allow you to take advantage of zoned heating by adjusting the temperature just how you like it, where you like it. The Total Warmth System also wins points because it was designed with ease of installation, affordability, and energy efficiency in mind.

Solar: Although the upfront investment can be fairly high, solar heat is certainly a smart choice because it is a clean renewable resource. The problem is that there are a lot of variables that come into play, so it isn’t ideal for all situations. Depending on your particular application, you will need to consider a number of factors, such as the amount of unobstructed sun that hits your home, how much space you have available for the solar thermal collectors, whether or not you’ll want to heat your water, the type of backup system you’ll need, the type of collectors you’ll need, storage tank size, and whether you’re going with passive or active solar heating. The bottom line is that solar power is very smart, but there’s no straightforward, one-size-fits-all, out-of-the-box application. It takes lot of research and know-how, and a generous budget to really do it right.

 

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

 


How To: Install a Sink Shut-Off Valve

Install a sink shut-off valve—or a pair of them—so that if and when repairs becomes necessary, it's easy to interrupt the water supply.

Here’s how to install a hot or cold water shut-off valve under your sink. Apply plumbing sealant to the shut-off threads and attach it with a nut from the faucet tube. Measure the length of the copper pipe you need to connect the shut-off valve to the coupling in the floor. Finish the job by soldering both joints.

For more on plumbing, consider:

How To: Install a New Kitchen Sink
8 Common Water Problems—and Their Cures
Top Tips for Troubleshooting Low Water Pressure


Bob Vila Radio: Resetting a Circuit Breaker

There's a lot of power in your home's electrical panel. Here's how to reset a circuit breaker if the lights go out.

The source of your home’s power is the breaker box, also known as the electrical panel or circuit breaker box. Whatever you call it, there are a few things you need to know about it.

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Listen to BOB VILA ON BREAKER BOX SMARTS or read the text below:

How to Reset Circuit Breaker

Photo: shutterstock.com

The first is that the breaker box is not for amateurs—a lot of power comes into the box from the utility it’s connected to, and electrical shock can kill you. So for the most part, leave the panel to the pros.

But there are a couple of times when you might need to open the box. The most common is when a circuit breaker trips, causing you to temporarily lose power to a part of your home. A tripped breaker is an inconvenience, but it’s also a warning that one of your zones may be overloaded. You may have too many things plugged in or too many appliances running at once. Correct that situation before you reset the breaker.

When you’re ready to reset, open the door to the box to see which breaker tripped. You can usually spot the one that’s out of alignment with the others, and it will feel loose when you touch it. Flip it completely to the OFF position first, then set it back to ON. If the same breaker trips again, call in a professional electrician to find the cause of the problem.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 75 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.


Control Temperatures and Save Energy with Zoned Heating Systems

A zoned heating system allows greater control over heat distribution in the house. You can turn up the heat just where you need it, just when you need it—resulting in significant savings on your utility bills. Need some convincing? Read on to learn more about the benefits of zoned heating.

Zoned Heating Diagram

Zoned heating diagram. SupplyHouse.com

Homeowners seeking a better way to control temperatures throughout the home should examine the benefits of a zoned heating system.

A standard, non-zoned heating system controls the temperature of the entire house as a whole. A zoned heating system, in contrast, allows homeowners to control the temperature of each room or zone individually, thereby maximizing comfort and minimizing energy costs. A zoned system can be adjusted for numerous factors, including room usage, personal preferences, and environmental conditions. Zoned systems help homeowners use their heating systems more effectively by distributing heat where and when it is needed.

“The advantages of a properly zoned home include savings on heating costs, and greater control and comfort throughout the home,” points out Daniel O’Brian, a technical expert from online retailer SupplyHouse.com. “If they are individually zoned, unoccupied or rarely used spaces do not have to be heated, and areas of the home that get colder than others can be adjusted directly for greater comfort. Furthermore, programmable thermostats can increase savings by dialing back heating usage when residents are out of the home or sleeping.”

O’Brian explains that a typical zoned heating system treats the main floor of a house as one heating zone and the upstairs bedroom area as a separate heating zone. This allows heat to be directed to the main floor during the daytime and to the upstairs bedrooms at night, allowing unoccupied areas of the home to cool down when vacant. A zoned system can also let homeowners minimize the heat in seldom-used areas, such as guest rooms or storage spaces.

Zoning the heating system can save homeowners up to 30 percent on a typical heating and cooling bill, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Because heating and cooling accounts for more than 40 percent of an average household’s utility costs, the savings from a zoned system can really add up.

Zone Heating Valves

Photo: SupplyHouse.com

The basic component of a zoned heating system is a zone valve, which controls the flow of water in a hydronic heating system. Inside the valve, an actuator opens and closes the valve based on the thermostat setting for that zone. Zone valves are available in two- or three-way valve configurations and in various connection types. They can be normally closed or normally open and can provide differing flow rates depending on valve size, allowing homeowners to customize the system for different floor plans and different-size zones. Zone valves can be used with a wide range of hydronic heating systems, including baseboards, radiators, heat pumps, and radiant applications. Leading brands include Honeywell, Taco, White-Rodgers, and Erie.

Homeowners with forced hot air heating systems also can create multiple zones by using two or more thermostats connected to a master control panel; the control panel opens and closes dampers that are installed within the ductwork.

There are also a wide variety of thermostats available, including programmable versions, to control a zoned heating system. “Any thermostat can be used to zone a home, but not all thermostats are for the same application,” O’Brian notes. “Voltages, the heating/cooling system layout, and features on different thermostats can be geared more towards one or another application.”

Related: How to Install a Programmable Thermostat

Adding a zoned heating system to an existing home is a fairly complex project and typically requires the use of a professional installer. “Retroactively zoning a home is not really something that an average DIYer would be able to accomplish,” remarks O’Brian. “They would have to wire in controls and thermostats, hook them up to the pump(s) and boiler or furnace, and cut into either their hydronic lines or ductwork to install zone valves or dampers. This all would likely require cutting open walls, running electrical, and possibly sweating copper.”

Even though installing a zoned heating system is not a typical do-it-yourself project, the energy savings and temperature control features may make it an extremely worthwhile home improvement. Online retailer SupplyHouse.com offers a large selection of thermostats, zone valves, and controls from the top manufacturers in the industry, and features a variety of information and instructional videos like this one, which explains how zone valves work.

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


Bob Vila Radio: Pellet Stoves

To increase efficiency in your current fireplace—or replace it altogether—look no further than the pellet stove.

A roaring fire makes for a lovely scene, but fireplaces are notorious energy-wasters. Most of the heat generated by a wood-burning fire goes right up the chimney, and the need to leave the flue open for hours to be sure your fire is completely out only compounds the heat loss. There are a couple of ways to make your fireplace more efficient, but one of my favorites is the pellet stove insert.

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Listen to BOB VILA ON PELLET STOVES or read the text below:

Pellet Stoves

Photo: sites4pros.net

Pellet stoves burn manufactured pellets instead of wood—the pellets are drier and denser than wood, so they burn more efficiently. They can also operate without the constant tending a wood fire requires; just fill the hopper and let the stove do the work of feeding the fire.

Many pellet stoves are freestanding and can be installed almost anywhere in a home, but you may need to install special flooring, a fireproof surround, and a new vent. Other models are designed to fit into an existing fireplace. This has multiple advantages, including being able to use the existing chimney and flue. Pellet stove inserts come in a wide variety of styles, so you can find one to suit your existing fireplace. And once you start using the stove instead of burning wood in the fireplace, you’ll have the warm feeling that comes from saving energy as well as money.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 75 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: Losing Heat to Drafts

Having a hard time keeping your home warm this winter? Simply plugging window and door drafts can make a considerable difference.

In these energy-conscious times, many people are adding insulation, installing solar panels, or taking a number of expensive steps to keep their homes warmer in winter. But in many homes, especially older ones, one of the biggest culprits is the simple draft—plugging the holes in a drafty house can go a long way toward saving energy in your home.

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Listen to BOB VILA ON LOSING HEAT TO DRAFTS or read the text below:

Drafty Houses

Photo: thehomeengine.com

Prime spots for air leakage are around doors and windows, anywhere walls and ceilings meet, and around the rim joist at the foundation. They may seem small, but in some homes all those little drafts together can add up to the equivalent of leaving a window wide open.

Caulking and weather stripping are easy do-it-yourself projects that can cut down a lot on air leakage—you can find drafty spots on a cold day by running your hand around window and door framing, baseboard molding, and electrical outlets and switches on exterior walls. Anywhere you feel cold air coming in is a target for sealing. You can caulk around door and window frames and molding and add weather stripping to the edge of the door or window itself. Home centers sell packages of foam inserts that can be slipped behind switch plates to cut down on drafts around electrical boxes. You may be surprised how these little efforts add up!

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 75 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: Retrofitting Fireplaces

Much of the heat produced by a traditional fireplaces ultimately goes up the chimney, taking your energy dollars along with it. For a warmer and more wallet-friendly fireplace, consider one of these modifications.

Did you know that only about ten percent of the heat from a fire in the fireplace makes it into the room? That’s right, about ninety percent of a fire’s heat goes right up the chimney. Not only is the heat going to waste, but that draft of hot air is also pulling heat from the room along with it. Your home heating system then has to work harder to maintain the desired temperature. That’s a lot of energy, and money, going up in smoke.

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Listen to BOB VILA ON RETROFITTING FIREPLACES or read the text below:

Retrofitting Fireplaces

Photo: jetsongreen.typepad.com

The good news is there are several ways to retrofit a working fireplace into an energy producer, not an energy waster. A quick fix is to add glass fireplace doors—they’re easy to install yourself and they’re a simple way to reduce heat loss, but the result is still only about twenty percent heat efficiency. And who needs eighty percent of their heat going up the chimney?

A better option is to retrofit your fireplace with a stove insert that burns either wood or pellets, or with a gas fireplace. Any of those options can turn your fireplace into a bona fide heat source. Wood and pellet stoves have the charm of an actual roaring fire, but you’ll still have the work of feeding them fuel and cleaning up the ash. A gas insert burns cleanly, leaves no ash, and produces lots of efficient heat for your home.

Bob Vila Radio is a newly launched daily radio spot carried on more than 75 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.


Breathe Deep: 5 Ways to Improve Your Home’s Air Quality for Better Health

Because you can't see it, you might not give a lot of thought to the air you breathe at home. But clean air is an important component of a healthy, nurturing environment, so follow these five tips to get your indoor air quality as good as it can be.

Improving Air Quality

Photo: shutterstock.com

Deep breathing has been shown to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and even improve digestion. But if the air you’re breathing in isn’t as clean as it should be, taking those breaths might actually be causing more harm than good.

You can improve the air quality in your home most simply by cleaning with natural, odor-free products; having people remove their shoes before entering to avoid dragging in dust and dirt; and opening windows when the weather permits to keep fresh air circulating throughout the home.

Beyond those simple steps, here are five other ways to clean up the air in your home and make sure it’s fresh, invigorating, and free of harmful allergens.

CONSIDER RADIANT FLOOR HEATING
Radiant heating is installed beneath the floors (and sometimes behind the walls) of your home and consists of panels that contain either warming electric or water-carrying pipes. Because this kind of system doesn’t rely on ducts to deliver warm air to the home, it dramatically reduces the number of airborne particles that can cause allergies, discomfort, and sometimes even colds and flu. For homeowners with asthma or other respiratory conditions, the benefits can be even greater. Unlike forced hot air systems that can dry the air and blow around allergens, and baseboard and radiator systems that can harbor dust in hard-to-clean areas, radiant heating, such as the high-efficiency systems offered by Warmboard, is as clean as you keep your floors.

Warmboard radiant heat

Photo: Warmboard.com

 

GET THE HUMIDITY RIGHT
The humidity in homes should be kept in the 30 to 50 percent range. Maintaining this target humidity level is especially important in the winter if you have a forced hot air system, which tends to dry the air dramatically, and in the summer if you live in a humid climate. Depending on where you live, you might need a humidifier to replace moisture in the air or a dehumidifier to dry things up. Dry air is a contributing factor to common colds, while air that is too moist can become a breeding ground for bacteria, so getting this component of your indoor air quality right can be critical for your family’s health. One simple way to determine if the air in your home is too dry is to notice whether or not you get frequent electric shocks in the cold weather. If you do, it’s too dry. Air that’s too moist, on the other hand, can be detected by a damp or mildewy smell in the home.

 

GO GREEN
Going green when it comes to home air quality usually refers to switching to natural, scent-free products—and, of course, this is a fine idea. What we’re referring to here, however, is going green by filling your home with greenery. Plants can be a great way to not only freshen the air, but also warm and personalize your home. Studies by NASA have shown that certain houseplants are good at eliminating harmful substances in the air. Aloe vera, for example, is effective at clearing formaldehyde, which can be found in some plywoods, carpeting, and furniture as well as in certain cleaning products, while the bamboo palm is good at eliminating benzene, which is used in the manufacturing of plastics.

 

HELP YOURSELF TO A HEPA
High-efficiency particulate absorption, or HEPA, filters are well known as effective ways to clear harmful particles out of the air. You can benefit from the power of these fine-mesh filters in several ways. If you have a forced-air furnace system, contact your local HVAC contractor to see about installing a whole-house HEPA system that will help clean the air that comes out of your heating vents. Do likewise for central air conditioning systems. You should also look for a vacuum that has a HEPA filter, because it prevents the dust sucked up by the vacuum from escaping back into the air through the exhaust. Finally, an air filter placed in the rooms you use the most, like the bedroom or living room, can keep the air fresh and allergen-free.

 

DO A FABRIC AUDIT
Drapes, carpeting, and excessive pillows and fabrics can all harbor dust mites and other allergy-causing particles, so take a good look around your home and consider a redecorating plan that will eliminate these items. Choose tile or hardwood floors over rugs, blinds over drapes, and consider leather or wood rather than fabric-upholstered furniture. Also consider eliminating nonwashable items like decorative pillows, plush toys, and bedspreads and comforters that can’t be washed. Feather bed pillows are often a source of irritation for those suffering from allergies, so such pillows might have to go as well. The less cluttered and fabric-intensive your home is, the better chance you’ll have at keeping it clean, fresh, and dust-free.

 

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


Baseboard Heating 101

Requiring no ductwork, baseboard heating can be an easy-to-install and affordable solution for many homeowners. Is it right for you? Find out more here.

Baseboard Heat - Cover

Photo: baseboardheatercovers.com

Baseboard heat can be an effective and affordable solution, either for the whole house or as a supplement in rooms underserved by the main heating system.

BASEBOARD HEAT VS. FORCED AIR
Baseboard heat offers several advantages over the average forced-air system. For one thing, baseboards operate almost silently, in contrast to the noisy blowers of forced-air heating. Another advantage of baseboard heat is that it requires no ductwork. That means two things: One, it’s relatively easy to install, particularly in older homes, where adding ducts can be so problematic. Two, whereas forced-air heating ducts should be serviced regularly, there’s little ongoing maintenance to do with baseboard heat. Last but not least is a matter of preference: Many homeowners like how baseboard heat comes out evenly, not in intermittent blasts.

ELECTRIC
Technically speaking, electricity plays a role in all baseboard heating systems, but there are some that run exclusively on electricity. You can put these in every room of the house if you want, but it’s far more customary for an electric baseboard to provide supplemental heat for individual rooms on an as-needed basis. One common usage is for baseboard heat to run in a bedroom overnight, while the whole-house heating system can be put on a budget-friendly low setting.

Did you ever wonder why baseboard units typically appear beneath windows? In a word, the answer is: science. Baseboard heat works through convection. As cold air falls from the window, it enters the baseboard unit through a vent. Within the baseboard, the air is warmed by a series of metal fins that have been heated through electricity. The warm air then rises from the baseboard, and the pattern repeats itself, creating a circular flow known as a convection current.

Plug-in portable baseboard heaters exist, but the best baseboards are hardwired into the circuity of a home (with 120-volt or 240-volt supplies, either of which calls for the installation services of an electrician). Some electric baseboard heating units feature an integrated thermostat; others are set by an in-wall controller.

Though inexpensive to purchase, electric baseboards are somewhat infamously inefficient, meaning they can be costly to run for any prolonged period of time. It’s for this reason more than any other that homeowners typically choose not to rely on electric baseboard heating units as full-time solutions for the whole house.

Baseboard Heat - Hydronic

Photo: howtobuildahouseblog.com

HYDRONIC
In a hydronic baseboard unit, the mechanics are similar but slightly different. Electricity still generates the system’s heat, but it does so indirectly. First, the electrical current warms up an enclosed fluid, either oil or water, and then that fluid radiates heat into the room where the unit has been installed.

Hydronic baseboard heating systems operate more efficiently than do electric units, because once the fluid has been warmed, it takes longer to cool down (the metal fins in an electrical baseboard, by comparison, cool down very quickly). That’s why if you come across a home in which baseboard heat is the one and only system of delivering heat, chances are high that it’s a cheaper-to-run hydronic system.

What are the cons? In a whole-house hydronic system reliant on water circulated from the water heater, the lines can be disturbed by an intrusion of air. Fortunately, there’s an easy fix: bleeding the pipes. Another drawback is that compared with electric baseboards, hydronic units take longer to heat up. For many homeowners, however, the efficiency of hydronic baseboards amply makes up for their slow start.

The bottom line is if you only need to heat your house for a fraction of the calendar year, or if on occasion you want to make one or two rooms more comfortable, electric or hydronic baseboard heat may be the solution you’ve been seeking.