Category: Major Systems

Bob Vila Radio: 2 Quick Fixes for a Slow Kitchen Drain

The kitchen sink drain may be slow, but these clever tips can help you repair it, and fast.

Chances are that, somewhere along the line, you’ve had to deal with a clog in your kitchen drain. Even if you make a point of not pouring grease down the drain, it can still build up over time and create a mess.

How to Unclog a Kitchen Sink


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Before going nuclear with that toxic chemical drain cleaner, why not try a one or two eco-friendly solutions?

First, focus on the plumbing under the sink—specifically, the P-trap. Use a hair dryer to heat the drain pipe at the point where it forms an obvious curve. Heating the pipe may help to melt any grease that’s accumulated there. Next, flush the pipe with hot water.

The sink is already backed up? Use a cooking pot to bail out the water, then pour a cup of baking soda into the drain, followed by a cup of vinegar. Let that concoction bubble for a half hour or so, then flush out the pipes with hot water.

In the future, to prevent grease from piling up again, dump a quarter cup of baking soda in the drain every couple of weeks. The bubbles will not only help keep your drain clear, but they’ll neutralize any odors the drain might otherwise emit.

Bob Vila Radio is a daily radio spot carried on more than 186 stations in 75 markets around the country. You can get your daily dose here, by listening to—or reading—Bob’s 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day.

The Little-Known Benefits of Pipe Insulation

Properly insulating your plumbing pipes has benefits beyond keeping the pipes from freezing. Read on to find out how else pipe insulation can improve your home's efficiency and safety.


If you know anything at all about pipe insulation, you know that it goes a long way toward preventing frozen pipes. That’s true: Pipe insulation keeps the water in your plumbing system from turning to ice and expanding, in turn bursting the pipes and causing extensive (and expensive) damage. But pipe insulation also performs several far less dramatic roles in the home. These not only help the homeowner save money on utility bills, but also make everyday life a little easier.

Minimizing Heat Gain and Loss
Among the unsung benefits of pipe insulation, its ability to minimize heat gain and loss may be the most important. As water travels along the plumbing lines in a home without pipe insulation, hot water tends to lose heat and cold water tends to gain heat. Introduce pipe insulation, and you greatly diminish these otherwise inevitable inefficiencies. So in the case of a hot-water pipe, it may not sound like a big deal for the plumbing run not to lose heat, but the benefits are very real: You get lower monthly energy bills, and you don’t need to wait as long for the hot water to reach the fixtures in your kitchen or bathrooms.

Controlling Condensation
When the surfaces of plumbing pipes are cooler than the surrounding air, insulation helps control the condensation that, if left unchecked, would slowly corrode the pipes and their fittings, eventually leading to a massive failure. Though condensation may seem like a remote concern, it’s not at all uncommon, particularly when cold-water lines come into contact with warm, humid air. Special vapor barrier-wrapped pipe insulation prevents warm air from reaching the pipes.

One other fringe benefit of pipe insulation: It not only protects pipes, it protects people too—from injuries that can be caused by contact with very hot or very cold piping.


Selecting Your Insulation
There are several types of pipe insulation, each made of a different material and capable of insulating to a different degree. Some are more suitable for hot-water applications, while others incorporate the vapor barrier necessary for controlling condensation along a cold-water line. The main options include:

Conventional foam insulation: This features a slit on its side that makes it easy to fit over existing pipes. Once it’s in place, it’s a good idea to tape the slits shut so as to enhance the product’s insulating capability.

Self-sealing foam insulation: Unlike conventional foam insulation for pipes, the self-sealing variety features an adhesive along its slit. Remove the tape, press the adhesive strips together, and you’re done.

Spray foam insulation: Typically installed by professionals equipped with pressurized containers, spray foam pipe insulation excels where there’s little space between the water pipes and exterior walls.

Fiberglass pipe covers: This type of hinged, paper-coated rigid fiberglass insulation is most often used where pipe temperatures are unusually high, because fiberglass tends to resist heat quite well.

Dealing with Asbestos
Even today, some older homes still have pipe insulation that contains asbestos. Particularly if it’s disturbed and its fine fibers become airborne, asbestos-laden pipe insulation can present a serious health hazard. Asbestos insulation is not always easy to identify, says Dan O’Brian, a technical specialist with, an online retailer of plumbing, heating, and HVAC products. “Asbestos pipe insulation has a distinct corrugated look,” he says. “And if you are suspicious you might have asbestos in your pipes or anywhere else in your home, make sure you consult a professional for removal.”

Cost vs. Benefit
Is pipe insulation ever a bad idea? “The only case I can think of where pipe insulation would be a bad idea,” O’Brian says, “would be on radiant heating or cooling loops, where insulation would actively work against the design of the system.” So in all but a couple of circumstances, installing pipe insulation offers energy savings and peace of mind—but does the benefit outweigh the cost? That might depend on whether or not you hire a contractor. Doing the job yourself—it’s usually not hard to tackle—tips the balance sheet in your favor, while depending on where you live, it may or may not be worth it to hire help.

Know the Law!
In many freeze-prone regions of the country, pipe insulation is not only a good idea, it’s mandated by the municipal building codes. If you have an older house and are planning to upgrade your plumbing, be sure to check the local specifications to find out what’s required—and what’s not.


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

How Does Radiant Heat Operate 25% More Efficiently?

Although it still seems newfangled to many homeowners, radiant floor heating has not only been around for a while, but it also offers an attractive combination of comfort and savings.


Most people assume radiant floor heating costs a fortune. Perhaps that’s because, compared with radiator or baseboard heat, radiant systems are rare. But there’s reason to suppose that in the years to come, radiant heating may enjoy much greater popularity, at least in new construction or homes undergoing renovation, because of its potential to save homeowners money on monthly heating bills. According to a recent study conducted by Kansas State University in conjunction with the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), a radiant system can operate 25 percent more efficiently than a forced-air system. So in a sense, the technology benefits from being the new kid on the block, as it seeks to improve in areas where traditional systems stumble.



Heat loss occurs through uninsulated walls, attic, or basement space, and also through gaps in windows and around exterior door frames. In traditional heating systems, heat loss can also occur within the system itself, with heat dissipating on the journey between its source (i.e., the furnace) and the home’s conditioned space. In a forced-air system, such heat loss occurs most of all in ductwork, where even misaligned joints can leak to a considerable degree. To maintain a comfortable indoor temperature, therefore, the furnace must work harder and consume more energy to make up for the lost heat. With radiant heat, heat loss isn’t an issue, so you don’t have to pay for the system to work overtime.




If you’ve ever walked into a heated room, you know that it’s warmest directly next to the radiator, baseboard, or heating vent. The farther you venture from the unit, the more likely you’ll feel the need to turn up the thermostat. By contrast, radiant flooring does not create pockets of warm and cool air; it distributes warmth evenly across the entire room. Neither too hot nor too cold, you remain comfortable enough to leave the thermostat in the money-saving range. Another advantage of even heat distribution: You can place furniture wherever you want, instead of carefully arranging things around the radiators, baseboards, or vents. In other words, radiant heat allows for design freedom, whereas many traditional systems place limits on your options.




Not every radiant heating system maximizes homeowner savings. Yes, the system design alone, no matter the individual components, offers advantages. But the individual components in a radiant system can make a big difference too—and that’s where the products offered by different manufacturers begin to diverge.

In a typical radiant heat setup, hydronic tubes (or electric coils) are embedded within a slab of gypsum concrete, a material that, in its sluggishness, is not perfectly suited to home heating. First of all, it takes a long time to heat up, and homeowners tend not to appreciate the wait. Second, concrete very slowly releases any heat it has gained, so if a homeowner decides the temperature has risen too high, his quickest, most effective recourse is to open the windows to bring down the temperature. That doesn’t sound so terrible, but where savings are concerned in home heating, efficiency counts—and opening windows in winter is the opposite of efficiency!

Warmboard offers innovative hydronic radiant heat panels that hinge not on concrete, but on highly conductive aluminum. Conductivity translates into savings in two ways. First, because the aluminum so effectively transfers heat from the hydronic tubes in the panels to the living spaces in your home, the boiler can heat the water to a lower temperature than other systems would require. Second, you can turn the thermostat down—for instance, when you go to sleep for the night—and when you raise the heat upon waking up, the change registers in minutes. There’s nothing new about adjusting the thermostat, when possible, to save money. But unlike many of its competitors, Warmboard lets you capitalize on the latest energy-efficient technology without forcing you to sacrifice tried-and-true methods.



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

How To: Clean a Chimney

Do-it-yourself chimney cleaning enables ambitious, capable, and well-equipped home handymen to save hundreds of dollars annually.

How to Clean a Chimney


Some homeowners are so drawn to the fireplace that they ignore the mess and hassle that accompany its operation and maintenance, not to mention its notorious energy inefficiency. What cannot be ignored, however, is creosote. A gummy, foul-smelling byproduct of combustion, creosote builds up gradually and can become a very real fire hazard. According to some estimates, dangerous accumulations of creosote contribute to about a quarter of house fires. Though most people opt to hire certified specialists for the job, you can clean a chimney yourself, assuming you’ve got the right tools and are completely comfortable working on the roof. Here’s how.

How to Clean a Chimney - Brush Isolated


Spread out a plastic tarp or painter’s drop cloth to protect the floor surrounding your fireplace. Next, proceed to remove ash and stray bits of wood from the firebox. Once it’s free of loose debris, go ahead and open the damper. At this point, it’s crucial to isolate the fireplace from the rest of your living room. Using thick plastic sheeting and quality tape, seal the front of the fireplace completely, without any gaps in the seal. Cut corners here, and later you may be  left with fine dust coating all your furniture!

You need a set of goggles that form a dependable seal around the eyes. If you try to make do with run-of-the-mill protective eyewear, you may be risking a trip to the doctor. In addition, you’ll need a quality dust mask, a few different types of chimney brushes, and a sturdy ladder that can get you on the roof.

If you have no experience doing work on the roof, this isn’t the time to learn. Call a chimney sweep. Many of the most dangerous DIY projects take place on the roof; proceed with extreme caution!

Remove any hardware obstructing the top of the chimney, be it a chimney cap or animal guard, then get down to business with the largest-diameter chimney brush in your arsenal. Brush from the top down, working your way toward the smoke shelf—the flat area located in the “crook” behind the damper. Take your time and do a thorough job. When you’re done sweeping the flue, replace the hardware you removed, ensuring that all fasteners are properly secured. Make your way safely down the ladder.

Allow some time for the dust you’ve upset to settle into the firebox. After the waiting period has elapsed, peel apart a small opening in the taped seal you positioned over the firebox. Using a smaller-diameter chimney brush, reach through the opening and scrub as far up into the chimney as the brush can reach. When you’re finished, cover up the fireplace again, and let any additional dust fall onto the floor of the firebox.

When you peel back the plastic sheeting, do so slowly and deliberately. Stirring up soot would mean having to deal with a mess that’s even larger than the one already awaiting you. Another word to the wise: Be sure that no one opens any exterior doors, which would allow a sudden draft to send dust and ashes all over your living room carpet and furniture. The simple act of opening a door would defeat the purpose of having so painstakingly confined the dust and debris behind a plastic membrane. Move the sheeting carefully out of the way, then use a shop vacuum to clear the firebox. You may need to empty the vacuum midway through the job, depending on the machine’s capacity.

Additional Tips
Chances are you’re not eager to clean the chimney again anytime soon. Though creosote inevitably builds up over time, you can slow its accumulation by using only properly split and seasoned firewood. Also, steer clear of the slow, smoky, and smoldering fires that create creosote especially quickly. To avoid these sorts of fires, always provide adequate air to the fire. This practice encourages hot, clean-burning fires that generate the least creosote—in other words, the types of fires that will help keep you off the roof for as long as possible.

Bob Vila Radio: Is There a Leak in Your Gas Fireplace?

No mere annoyance, the sound coming from your gas fireplace may signal something serious.

Gas fireplaces have been showing up in more and more homes the past few years. They’re clean, easy to use, and add a nice ambience to the home. A drawback, however, is the noises they sometimes make.

Gas Fireplace Noise


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If you hear a popping noise when the burner’s on, it may indicate that there are small leaks around joints in the burner assembly. To test for leaks, first turn off the burner. Once the ceramic logs have cooled off, remove them from the firebox.

Next, mix a bit of liquid detergent with water and pour it into a spray bottle. Turn the now-exposed burner assembly back on and look for any small bursts of flame that appearing around joints. If you don’t see any, try spraying a little detergent mix on the various joints and fittings in the burner assembly. If you see bubbles, you’ve found the leak.If the leaks are around a joint in the assembly, use a wrench to gently tighten the fitting.

If you can’t find a leak—or the leak you find appears to be a hole in the assembly itself—you’ll want to call in a pro. Gas leaks are serious business and need immediate attention.

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: Venting a Fireplace Insert

Though there are at least a couple of different ways to vent a fireplace insert, not all are equal in terms of user-friendliness and fire safety.

With temperatures dropping, homeowners are resuming their seasonal quest to get the most heat for the least money. If you have a fireplace that’s inefficient, you might want to consider installing a fireplace insert. Most are considerably more efficient than the fireplaces they replace.

Wood Stove Inserts


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The best way to vent an insert is into a stainless steel liner that extends through from the top of the stove through to the top of the existing chimney. That setup provides the highest efficiency, plus it’s easy to inspect and clean.

Though you can also vent the stove insert into the existing chimney, it’s a bit trickier. That’s because the proportions of the chimney may not match up with the size of the insert. If that’s the case, the chimney won’t draft properly; besides getting smoke in your eyes, you’ll also get a rapid buildup of flammable, acid-laden creosote in the chimney. A chimney liner that’s matched to your fireplace insert is a solid investment that helps keep your home toasty and safe.

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.

So, You Want to… Heat Your House with a Wood Stove

There's no denying the rustic, romantic appeal of heating with a wood stove. Before you commit, though, do your research and ask whether you're up to the tasks entailed.

Heating with Wood Stove


Recently, you were visiting friends, and as the night grew colder outside, you were snug indoors, mesmerized by the warmth and glow of their wood stove. “Let’s get one!” you exclaimed to your family. As charmed as you were by the stove, your partner and children were even more so. A wood stove; what a good idea!

But is it really such a good idea? As with so many other things relating to the home, the answer depends. Before going any further, be sure to do your homework.

The Pros and Cons of Heating with a Wood Stove 
In areas where wood is dependably available at low cost, wood-stove heating can save money over a gas or oil system. That’s never more true than for those who harvest their own firewood. Of course, it’s a lot of work to fell trees, saw them into logs, and split those logs into stove-length pieces. There are techniques and best practices here that might take the neophyte several seasons to master. You need to be realistic about your abilities and tolerance for heavy work.

Even apart from the amount of labor involved, heating the home with a wood stove takes real commitment. Every morning, you need to start a new fire. In the absence of a backup heating system, there must always be someone at home to tend the fire, lest the plumbing pipes freeze. There are good reasons for our having moved beyond wood heat long ago. For many people who enjoy a modern lifestyle, heating with a wood stove would be a monumental inconvenience.

Of course, unlike fossil fuels, wood is a renewable resource. For some, that’s reason enough to think seriously about making the switch from a traditional oil- or gas-fueled system. And it would be a mistake not to mention that there’s something deeply satisfying, on a primal level, about wood heat. It offers a connection to the land—and to human history—that simply cannot be matched by a system that’s controlled by a thermostat on the wall.

Heating with Wood Stove - Installed Detail


The Art and Science of Dispersing Heat
A wood stove-based heating system presents many challenges. One that continually frustrates many, even veteran wood-stove custodians, is the art and science of dispersing the heat that the stove produces.

One method is to use a wood stove fan, which is placed on top of the stove. This sort of fan operates quite differently from the fans used to create a more comfortable environment in the dog days of summer. Rising heat causes the fan blades to turn, and as they do, the fan pushes that heat outward into the room.

Another option is to buy a plug-in blower. Positioned beneath or next to the stove—but not too close—the blower runs on electricity and pushes heat away from the unit. In some homes heated by a wood stove, there are multiple fans running at once in different rooms, each strategically positioned to maximize heat flow. Sometimes these are ceiling fans; sometimes they are small fans mounted at the corners of doorways.

Consider an Alternative to a Purely Decorative Fireplace
While a wood stove can be a viable sole heating solution for some homes in some parts of the country, it more commonly serves as a valuable companion to an existing gas- or oil-fueled system. But there’s a third option, one that gives the average homeowner a compelling reason to consider the wood stove.

When most of us hear the word “fireplace,” we picture an open hearth in the living room or a stone chimney billowing smoke into the evening. These decorative fireplaces are prized not so much for their heat production as for their aesthetic value. The trouble is that they’re so inefficient; the same way an open window would, a decorative fireplace rapidly leaks heated air (air you’ve paid to heat) out of the house.

A wood stove offers much the same benefit—something beautiful to gaze at—without seriously compromising your home’s overall energy efficiency. So if you’re looking to improve on your existing fireplace, or if you’ve always wished that your home had a fireplace, a wood stove may be your best bet.

It all depends on what you want to get out of the wood stove—and what you’re willing to put into it.

Bob Vila Radio: Every 2 Years, Flush Your Water Heater

To improve the performance of your water heater and extend the useful life of the tank, don't forget to flush out the sediment buildup every couple of years. Here's how

If you want to make sure you’ll have hot water whenever you need it, it’s a good idea to flush your water heater every couple of years.

Flushing a Water Heater


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Over time, mineral sediments build up, and those sediments can not only cut down on efficiency but also cause corrosion, shortening the life of the tank.

To flush the water heater, start by cutting off the electricity or gas, whichever powers your heater. Also, shut the valve that supplies water to the tank (it’s at the top of the tank). Then proceed to attach a hose to the drain valve at the bottom of the tank, positioning the other end of the hose outside the home or into a drain below the level of the drain valve. Open the valve.

Next, open a hot water faucet in the house. That’ll allow air into the system and soon, water should begin draining out the hose. Be careful: Water exiting the heater will be very hot!

Once the tank’s finished draining, close the drain valve, open the supply valve, and power up the heater.

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: Avoid Common Mistakes to Minimize Heating Costs

Heating and cooling the house isn't cheap, but by knowing which frequent missteps to avoid, you can cut out unnecessary expenses.

Home heating bills are high enough already; don’t push yours even higher by making these common mistakes.

Efficient Heating - Vent


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First, avoid obstructing the flow of air through return vents. Though vents may not be the most attractive fixtures in your home, covering them with such things as furniture and drapes ultimately cuts down on the overall efficiency of your heating system. Likewise, don’t be tempted to close off vents in unused rooms. That, too, will make your system work harder than needed, driving up costs.

Meanwhile, make sure your thermostat isn’t exposed to heat from direct sunlight or from heat-producers like lamps or AV equipment. That can fool the thermostat and trigger activity that does not make your home more comfortable.

Finally, use the correct air filter. Cheap, flimsy filters reduce the quality of air in your home, while overly efficient filters, counter to intuition, can make systems work harder, especially older systems. Check your manual or call your HVAC supplier to determine the most appropriate filter for your HVAC components.

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: 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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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.