Category: Major Systems


So, You Want to… Install a Water Softener

If you're fed up with limescale on your fixtures and dishes coated with white spots, it may be time to invest in a water softener. Get the cold, hard facts about hard water and what you can do to correct it.

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How to Install a Water Softener - Mineral Deposit on Faucet Aerator

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If everything you try to clean somehow ends up coated in a soapy film, there’s likely a rational explanation—hard water. Despite its alarming name, hard water happens to be a common phenomenon. It poses no health risks, but putting up with hard water can be, well, hard, because it affects the day-to-day life of the household in any number of ways. Your dishes might emerge from the dishwasher polka-dotted with hazy white spots. Fresh laundry can feel like sandpaper to the touch, and plumbing fixtures like faucets develop a chalky film. What’s going on here? Let’s trace the problem back to its probable cause.

Before reaching the municipal supply, water absorbs mineral content from rocks and soil—and generally speaking, that’s a good thing. In the case of calcium and magnesium, however, it’s not. High concentrations not only make soap less effective, but also gradually lead to limescale buildup, which, when it occurs within pipes, reduces water pressure and flow (and the problem only gets worse over time). Hard water also negatively impacts the efficiency and lifespan of any appliance that requires water for operation. You may not mind replacing a coffeemaker ruined by mineral deposits, but what about your water heater?

In addition to eliminating a slew of inconveniences, correcting a hard water problem can help prevent a variety of plumbing headaches that cost a bundle to resolve. Many homeowners never hear the term “hard water” until they’ve had to call in a service professional to make a repair. That’s unfortunate, because with hard water, it pays to be proactive. Keep an eye out for the telltale signs of hard water, of course, but even better is to conduct a little research. Start by contacting your municipality; many provide a free report detailing what’s in the local water. Alternatively, purchase a test kit online or at a home center.

Different testing methods measure water hardness on different scales, either grains per gallon (GPG) or parts per million (PPM). Remember, the question isn’t whether or not your water contains any calcium or magnesium, but whether concentrations of those minerals are high enough to affect your life and damage your plumbing. While trace amounts are to be expected, water with calcium or magnesium levels at or above 7 GPG or 120 PPM officially qualifies as hard. If it turns out that your home has hard water, follow the lead of other homeowners in the same situation and consider installing a water softener.

How to Install a Water Softener - Product Array

Photo: homedepot.com

There are many water softeners on the market, but almost all rely on the same principle—ion exchange, a chemical process that substitutes sodium (sometimes potassium) for the minerals that make water hard. A conventional system includes two tanks. One holds a bed of resin beads saturated with sodium. As water passes through the tank, any calcium and magnesium in the water exchanges places with the sodium. When the minerals attach to the beads, the sodium that had been on the beads enters the volume of water. In this way, by the time household water exits the system, it’s no longer hard.

Note: Water softeners add only trace amounts of sodium, a level safely within the recommended range for healthy individuals, but those with low-sodium diets may wish to opt for a salt-free water softener that employs potassium, not sodium. Another reason to choose a salt-free water softener is that sodium can be detrimental to plants. If you’re worried about the consequences of using softened water on your landscape, you can go salt-free or, as a budget-friendly alternative, connect a regular salt-based water softener to the hot water line only, while continuing to use (cold) hard water outdoors.  

Over time, the resin bed becomes flush with the minerals that have been drawn out of the hard water. At that point, the water softener must go through a “regeneration” cycle, during which the second tank pumps sodium-rich water into the first tank, restoring the resin beads to their initial sodium-saturated state. Upon completion of the cycle, the first tank returns to regular operation, softening the household water that passes through it. Whether or not the system provides water softening during regeneration—and whether it’s a manual or automatic process—depends on the sophistication of the appliance.

Fully automatic water softeners are the most expensive, but features alone do not dictate price. Size matters too. The correct size for a given home takes into account daily water use as well as the hardness of the water. A simple sizing calculation involves multiplying the number of household members by the number of gallons used per person, per day. Next, multiply the number of gallons consumed by the grains per gallon (GPG) figure. Then to accommodate for regeneration and days of heavy use, multiply your total by three. For the average four-person home, experts recommend a capacity of 33,000 GPG.

One last caveat: While a water softener can protect your home and make it more livable, there’s a difference between a water softener and a water purifier. If you’re unsure about the safety of your drinking water, contact your local health department, test it yourself, or send out a sample for to be expert-tested.


One System to Save You Time and Money—and Water

By installing an on-demand recirculation system, you can get hot water from your taps quickly, without wasting too much water, energy, or money. Is one right for your home? Read on to find out.

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Photo: supplyhouse.com

You’re standing over the kitchen sink or next to the shower, all the while waiting, waiting, and waiting for the hot water to arrive. Believe it or not, throughout the day those scattered moments of running the water add up to a substantial volume. In fact, the Department of Energy estimates that the average household wastes as much as 12,000 gallons per year due to delays in hot water delivery. And of course, water isn’t the only thing going down the drain—dollars are too.

The root of the problem is, the hot water within the pipes serving the fixtures at the farthest reaches of your home gradually cools down. So, when you call for hot water it’s the now-cool water in the pipes that comes out first. To save time and money, not to mention water, many homeowners choose to install something called an on-demand recirculation system. The technology includes a pump, installed at the water heater, which speeds the transmission of hot water to the point-of-use fixtures located farthest away. The system also incorporates a valve that sends back to the water heater any water in the hot-water lines that has cooled down below a certain threshold.

It’s an ingenious solution, particularly given the inefficient way conventional plumbing conveys hot water to fixtures like sink faucets and shower heads. Recirculation sends cooled water back to the water heater to be reheated and reused, and the system pump ensures rapid delivery, so you can enjoy instantaneous hot-water comfort.

An on-demand recirculation system “does one thing and one thing only,” says Daniel O’Brian, a technical specialist with SupplyHouse.com. “But it’s not a question of how many roles it performs,” O’Brian continues, “it’s question of how beneficial its functionality can be.” Given the importance of kitchen and bath fixtures in the home, O’Brian concludes, “Recirculation stands to improve your quality of life little by little, every day, by replacing frustration with comfort and convenience.”

Photo: taco-hvac.com

Are you intrigued enough to consider installing a recirculation system in your home? If so, keep in mind that there are two main types, each with its own set of installation requirements. Simply put, one type requires a separate plumbing line for cooled water returning to the water heater, and the other does not. The distinction may sound subtle, but in a retrofit application, it’s the difference between easy, nonintrusive installation and a much more ambitious project requiring opening up walls and putting in new plumbing.

Because of the installation work they entail, systems involving a dedicated return line are best suited to new home construction. In existing homes, O’Brian advises, focus on kits like the Hot-Link from Taco. “Installing the Hot-Link can even be a do-it-yourself project for a handy homeowner,” says O’Brian. “Simply install the pump at the water heater, and mount the valve under the sink—no under-sink electricity needed.” A thermal disk within the valve serves as the brain that dictates system operation.

Before making a purchase, be sure you understand the configuration options for the recirculation system you are considering. Different systems offer dramatically different settings. For instance, “some systems are designed to run continuously, never stopping,” says O’Brian, and that can be “a huge waste of energy.” More sophisticated models, O’Brian says, “operate based on a timer or even a motion sensor, keeping down costs by activating only when you actually need hot water.”

The most basic recirculation systems start at around $150, while fully featured retrofit kits like the Taco Hot-Link run in the $250 to $400 range. Of course, as in any product category, there are a number of models on the market, each of which comes with its special set of advantages. Do you need help selecting the right system for your home and your needs? The online retailer SupplyHouse.com offers a wide selection, and its experts are always on hand to offer best-in-class customer assistance.

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


This Winter, Stay Snug in EVERY Part of Your Home

Eliminate those chilly spots in your home, those uncomfortable spaces where the heat just never seems to make it, with an innovative, efficient heating system from Unico.

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Ductless Heat Pumps - Unico System Cutaway Diagram

Photo: unicosystem.com

The Unico iSeries pairs an efficient outdoor unit with at least one indoor wall split. Ideal for providing heating and cooling to additions, garages, and other unique zones, the iSeries may also be part of a whole-home installation from Unico.

It’s a fact of life in many homes: Though the heating system may be doing a fine job overall, one room or a couple of them stubbornly remain chilly, failing to reach the same level of comfort enjoyed in the rest of the home. Whether the problem plagues the attic bedroom or a garage-turned-workshop, homeowners try any number of would-be solutions, but it’s usually a frustrating quest. Space heaters, for example, may be convenient, but they can also be very expensive to run (not to mention a fire hazard). Piling on layers of sweaters and blankets? That may do the trick in a pinch, but it’s hardly a permanent fix.

The good news is that just as technology has revolutionized other product categories, it’s also brought welcome innovation to the world of heating and cooling. As a consequence, homeowners may now choose from a wide array of compelling options. Perhaps most exciting are the ductless mini-split systems already popular in Europe and Asia, and winning more and more converts here. Whether they’re delivering climate control to one room or every room in the house, ductless systems like the Unico iSeries are efficient, high-performing, and versatile solutions for any home.

Ease of installation gives the iSeries a leg up. In most cases, chances are that extending or otherwise modifying your heating system would require significant renovation. That’s in no small part due to the significant bulk of traditional, full-size ducts. It’s no easy feat to fit ductwork into an existing home. Though the iSeries can pair seamlessly with the small-duct Unico System, it doesn’t have to involve any ductwork whatsoever. With a compact, streamlined design, the system lends itself to easy, noninvasive installation, enabling homeowners to sidestep the challenges a larger project would pose.

Ductless Heat Pumps - iSeries Outdoor Inverter Unit

Photo: unicosystem.com

The Unico iSeries outdoor inverter can support up to four indoor heating and cool units. It can also connect to the Unico System, which offers a non-intrusive, virtually invisible whole-home solution for year-round comfort. 

At its most basic, the iSeries includes two components—an indoor unit and an outdoor inverter. The latter works in an ingenious way. In winter, it harvests heat from the air—even when it’s -25 degrees outside—and sends it indoors. In summer, the system does the opposite, taking heat from the home and expelling it outside. In any season, the inverter achieves stellar efficiency by avoiding one of the energy-hungry hallmarks of traditional HVAC—cycling on and off. Instead, the iSeries saves energy (and dollars) by operating continuously at a low power level. It’s a common homeowner complaint that heating costs a small fortune, but with the efficiency of the iSeries components, that doesn’t have to be the case.

While the outdoor unit employs technology to save you money, the indoor unit does so to keep you comfortable. For starters, its fan eliminates hot and cool spots by ensuring even air distribution. And because the iSeries mounts within the space it’s conditioning, it can monitor the environment and auto-adjust its output to match the demand. Together, these features work to keep the temperature from deviating—in other words, you always get the temperature you expect. Older climate-control systems create rollercoaster-like temperature swings; the iSeries provides reliable, even warmth.

Ductless Heat Pumps - Unico Indoor Head Unit

Photo: unicosystem.com

Part of the iSeries ductless system from Unico, the indoor unit efficiently and quietly delivers heating and cooling to those peripheral spaces in the home that never seem to reach a comfortable temperature. 

Worried about noise? Don’t be. Besides being unobtrusive enough to mount in a tight or out-of-the-way part of a room—say, above the door—iSeries indoor units operate at a remarkably low volume. In fact, they are virtually silent, generating no more than 23 decibels—approximately the sound of a soft whisper. Traditional heating options call attention to themselves—they tend to be bulky and unsightly or cause a racket. In contrast, the discreet iSeries offends neither eyes nor ears. You don’t notice it working; you notice only that your once-chilly room now feels cozy.

The benefits of the iSeries become even more apparent if you install multiple indoor units, a perfectly reasonable choice given that one outdoor inverter can support up to four indoor units. You’re probably most familiar with heating systems where a single thermostat controls the temperature of the entire house. With multiple indoor units, however, you can establish multiple zones, controlling each one independently. That way, people with different preferences can all be comfortable under the same roof. Plus, you can turn off the indoor unit—saving energy dollars—in any zone you’re not occupying. For your comfort and your wallet, zoning makes a lot of sense!

If persistent indoor discomfort has led you to reassess your HVAC needs—or if you’re building a new home or addition—seize this chance to look beyond the familiar standbys. Cost-effective, nonintrusive, and remarkably versatile, the Unico iSeries may be the perfect solution that, until now, you never knew existed. Remember this too: Where you shiver in winter, you are likely to sweat in the summer. Because the iSeries delivers not only heating, but cooling as well, it can help you reclaim the areas of your home that you’ve been avoiding at certain times of the year. Who knows? Those rooms may become your favorite of all!

 

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


A Smart Add-On to Boost Boiler Efficiency by 15% or More

If an older boiler drives your heating system, there's a good chance you can achieve greater efficiency by augmenting the appliance with an outdoor reset control. Affordable and easily installed, the technology ensures that you spend no more than necessary to keep your home comfortable throughout the winter months.

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Photo: supplyhouse.com

This time of year, homeowners around the country bemoan the high cost of home heating and naturally seek out ways to reduce their costs. A point of frustration is that, while there’s no shortage of energy-saving measures to pursue, many offer only a modest payoff in relation to the amount of time or money required to put them into effect. That said, if yours is a hydronic heating system, you have a simple, affordable, and highly effective option at your disposal. Install an outdoor reset boiler control, and you can ensure that you spend no more than necessary to keep your home warm throughout the winter season.

To appreciate the value of the device, remember that hydronic systems are designed to output enough heat to compensate for the heat loss incurred on the coldest days of the year. Most of the time, however, temperatures are not so extreme, making it unnecessary for the boiler to run at maximum capacity. But while newer boilers are capable of self-regulating, but the typical older model “fires at full blast, even if it’s 50 degrees outside,” according to Daniel O’Brian, a technical specialist with SupplyHouse.com. That means, O’Brian continues, “You may be wasting a lot of money on heating that your home doesn’t really need.”

Photo: supplyhouse.com

When the alternative is to purchase a new boiler, many homeowners choose instead to install an outdoor reset control. The latter costs only a few hundred dollars, but works to make any existing, traditional boiler considerably more energy efficient. How? By means of a discrete, electronic sensor positioned on the home exterior, the device actively monitors the outdoor temperature. Then, based on its reading, a microprocessor calculates the heating demand and adjusts the performance of the boiler accordingly. That way, the boiler never runs harder or for longer than necessary to achieve the desired indoor temperature.

“Outdoor reset controls save money and increase comfort; it’s as simple as that,” O’Brian says. On the one hand, by modulating the boiler, the device increases the efficiency of the appliance by at least 15 percent, saving the homeowner no small amount on month-to-month utility bills. On the other hand, it leads to a more pleasant living environment by eliminating the dramatic temperature swings that inevitably occur in any home whose boiler goes back and forth between inactivity and full-capacity operation. “There’s a good reason why newer boilers have outdoor reset control technology built-in,” O’Brian points out.

Among the outdoor reset controls on the market, different models come with different features. For instance, some include an automatic boiler differential function, which helps homeowner save even more by preventing the heating system from short-cycling—that is, operating in inefficient bursts—when there’s a low level of heating demand. Others feature a “warm weather shut down” mode, which turns off the boiler on unseasonably warm days, when the outdoor temperature rises above a certain preset threshold point. The value of such features, O’Brian says, “depends on your needs and the climate where you live.”

The experts at SupplyHouse.com are always on hand to help homeowners choose the right product, but it’s important to note that installation is best left in the hands of professionals. Even if you’re a veteran home handyman, “there are a lot of variables to consider during installation, and any oversights can pose serious problems for the performance of your heating system or cause permanent damage to the boiler.” For homeowners, O’Brian concludes, it’s best to concentrate on the results of an outdoor reset control installation. “Compare your bills before and after,” he says. “You’ll like what you see.”

Photo: supplyhouse.com

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


3 Ways to Get Fresher Indoor Air This Winter

Stuffy, dust-heavy air need not be a fact of life in winter. This year, pursue a healthy, invigorating environment with a suite of improvements designed to help you breath easy at home.

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Winter Indoor Air Quality Solutions

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This season, as temperatures drive lower and lower, it’s only natural for people to retreat into the safety and comfort of their warm, inviting homes. There’s only one problem: With the doors closed and the windows tightly sealed—in other words, with a lot less fresh air circulating throughout the home—many complain of dry, stuffy, and overall unpleasant conditions. Others harbor genuine health concerns, based on reports that a wide range of household products and furnishings release impurities that can linger in the air. Fortunately, if you wish to maintain a comfortable, healthy home, not only during the winter, but year-round, you’ve got a number of options. You don’t have to worry over choosing the right strategy, either. As homeowner awareness of the issue has risen in recent years, so too has the number of companies that address indoor air quality concerns. Sears Home Services, for instance, routinely offers free in-home consultations, with experienced professionals able to guide you toward an effective solution. David Kenyon, an HVAC specialist with the company, summarizes, “There’s no single approach that works every time.” The challenge is to strike upon the “correct combination” of measures that, working in tandem, “make a real, noticeable difference.” Read on to learn about three improvements commonly recommended by Sears.

 

1. FURNACE MAINTENANCE

Winter Indoor Air Quality Solutions - Furnace Maintenance

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“In terms of maintenance, the average HVAC system isn’t so different from a car,” says Kenyon. “For peak performance, the hardworking internal components often require replacement or repair.” Without care and attention, heating systems fail to operate as designed, and in homes heated by a furnace, indoor air quality may suffer. The reason is that, while every forced-air furnace contains a filter, not every filter works equally well to take dust, germs, and other particulates out of the air. If you haven’t checked yours in years, there’s a good chance that it’s a traditional fiberglass filter. While good enough to protect the heating appliance, such filters do little to protect the air you breathe. Newer, better-quality furnace filters catch even microscopic impurities, removing them from circulation. There’s a catch, though. Kenyon says that, compared to their fiberglass forebears, “high-efficiency filters must be cleaned or replaced more often, about every three months.” That’s one of the reasons why many homeowners schedule regular system check-ups with a provider like Sears Home Services. At your request, in addition to inspecting the appliance, technicians are able to clean or replace the filter, ensuring the furnace plays its part in purifying the indoor air.

 

2. DUCTWORK CLEANING

Winter Indoor Air Quality Maintenance - Ductwork Cleaning

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If you’re like most people in homes with forced-air heating, you rarely consider the network of ducts engineered to channel air from the furnace to your living spaces. It’s well worth taking a second look, though, if you’re dissatisfied with your indoor air quality. According to Kenyon from Sears, “ducts are notorious for collecting and distributing irritants and allergens.” You can try to corral things like dust and pet dander before they enter the ductwork and spread, but “it’s always going to be a losing battle,” Kenyon says. After all, he continues, “dust is ubiquitous.” So what can be done to prevent ductwork from exacerbating indoor air quality problems? Grab a flashlight, choose a room, and, after removing the grate from the return register, peer inside to assess. If you notice an accumulation of dust and debris, “that may be why you’re sneezing all the time,” Kenyon says. It may be tempting to try cleaning out the ductwork on your own, but special tools and techniques are needed to do a comprehensive job. For instance, Sears Home Services utilizes truck-mounted suction equipment. If you’re convinced your dusty ducts are part of the problem, seek out a local pro or book online with Sears today.

 

3. AIR PURIFIER INSTALLATION

Winter Indoor Air Quality Solution - Air Purification Systems

Photo: searshomeservices.com

To remove the toxins that are invisible to the naked eye, health-conscious homeowners often opt for an air purification system, be it a standalone or an add-on to the central HVAC system. The upside of working with a nationwide company like Sears Home Services is that, unlike many smaller outfits, Sears routinely installs air purifiers of all types and, well versed in their differences, the company can help you choose the best approach for your home. “Different air purification systems rely on different technologies, each with its own set of pros and cons,” says Kenyon. Some use ultraviolet light, while others employ high-efficiency particulate arrestance (HEPA). Still others—namely, photo catalytic oxidization (PCO) systems—combine multiple technologies in one. After an initial consultation and survey of your home, Sears specialists can handle the process from start to finish, recommending and installing a purification technology whose capabilities correspond to your specific indoor air quality concerns.

 

Kenyon concludes by highlighting the elusive, hard-to-pin-down nature of indoor air quality issues. “If a baseball flies out of the backyard and breaks a window, you can see damage. You can see the broken glass. You can see the problem.” When it comes to indoor air quality, though, “you’re dealing with a problem that needs to be carefully evaluated.” For that reason, if you doubt the purity of the air in your home, Kenyon suggests the modest first step of arranging a visit from a trained, certified professional, specializing in HVAC. “Once the problem is understood, then the solution follows not far behind.”

Winter Indoor Air Quality Solutions - Curtains and Blinds

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


Bob Vila Radio: 3 Popular Paths to Radon Reduction

To safeguard the air quality in your home, ensuring the continued health of your family, it's critical to act swiftly if testing reveals unsafe levels of radon. Read on to learn more about a few of the most commonly pursued mitigation options.

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If radon tests have found unacceptably high readings in your home, there are at least a few effective ways to address the potentially hazardous issue.

Radon Mitigation Systems

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Listen to BOB VILA ON RADON REDUCTION or read the text below:

One popular choice is to install a mitigation system, which combines a small outdoor unit with a special fan located inside the house. The outdoor unit creates suction, which encourages interior air to enter the fan. The fan, in turn, sends the exhaust through a vertical vent stack, positioned on the home exterior, which terminates at the roof line. Another option is to route the stack through the home interior, up to the attic, where a fan pushes the exhaust into the outdoor air.

If the radon level are particularly high, then, in addition to removing radon from the air, you may also need to remove it from the earth beneath your home. Doing so typically requires what’s known as an active de-pressurization system, or ASD, which creates a vacuum in the soil underlying the foundation.

Concerned about radon? Consult with a professional trained and experienced in radon mitigation.

Bob Vila Radio is a 60-second home improvement radio tip of the day carried on more than 186 stations in 75 markets around the country. Click here to subscribe, so you can automatically receive each new episode as it arrives—absolutely free!


3 Aggressive Ways to Cut Down Your Energy Bills

You're certainly not the only one who dreads opening utility bills. However, there are many people who do so with little fear of sky-high fees. Want to be one of them? Keep reading!

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Photo: warmboard.com

Does your blood pressure rise and fall with the ups-and-downs in your monthly energy costs? Particularly during heating season, utilities account for a sizable portion of the average household budget. Indeed, no matter how much you spend to keep your home up and running, chances are good that you would like to spend less—much less. Of course, bargaining for lower rates with your local utility companies isn’t really a viable proposition, but that doesn’t leave you without any expense-limiting options. On the contrary, there are countless do-it-yourself ways to take a bite out of your bills—defeating door and window drafts, for instance, or outfitting light fixtures with the latest high-efficiency bulbs. However, while such measures may be penny-wise and, especially in combination, effective, it’s best to harbor only modest expectations for the sort of improvements you can accomplish in a weekend, for next to nothing. Significantly reducing energy costs typically requires a commensurately significant investment, whether of time or money or both. Plenty of homeowners go forward anyway, though, recognizing that large-scale, energy-smart upgrades offer exceptional bang for the buck long-term. Intrigued? Learn the details about three of the most successful ways in which homeowners like you achieve radical results.

ATTIC INSULATION

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Venture up to your attic and take a look around. One question: Is there insulation? If not, then rest assured it’s not your imagination—your energy expenses really are going through the roof! For lower heating and cooling costs, attic insulation isn’t elective; it’s essential. According to the Department of Energy, proper attic insulation decreases the amount you spend each month to keep your home comfortable, not by a few pennies, but rather 10 to 50 percent. Bear in mind that if your attic already has insulation, you may be able to secure greater savings simply by adding more. How much is enough? A rule of thumb is that if the existing insulation doesn’t reach high enough to conceal the floor joists, then you would likely benefit from an additional layer. That’s straightforward enough, but it’s important to remember that different types of insulation provide different levels of effectiveness. To make an informed choice, you must consider R-value, a scale that measures the ability of a given insulation product to block the passage of heat and cold. The appropriate R-value for your home largely depends on its geographic location, but generally speaking, if you’re adding new insulation over a pre-existing layer, experts recommend insulating up to R38. For a previously uninsulated attic, go with a higher R-value, ideally R60. Whether you handle the job yourself or hire a professional, there’s no doubt that over months and years, attic insulation stands to dramatically improve your bottom line.

 

TANKLESS WATER HEATER

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Traditional tank-style water heaters work at all times to keep a volume of water heated to the target temperature, even in the middle of night when there’s nobody awake to shower or run the dishwasher. That’s a major reason why heating water can account for as much as 30 percent of the average monthly energy expenditure. If you were planning to replace your water heater soon, it may be wise to consider a relatively new and appreciably more efficient technology—the tankless water heater. Also known as an instantaneous water heater, a unit like this operates strictly on demand. That is, instead of storing and constantly re-heating a 40- to 80-gallon tank of water, it fires only when a plumbing fixture or appliance calls for hot water. Compared to older, less energy-smart models, tankless water heaters are 24 to 34 percent more efficient, according to the Department of Energy. In addition, besides being much more compact in design (small enough to mount on the wall, in fact), tankless units tend to last longer too, sometimes twice as long as their predecessors. With a superior lifespan and a lower operating cost, tankless water heaters more than make up for their somewhat higher upfront cost. The downside? If you live in a busy home where multiple showers and appliances may require hot water at once, then, to meet your gallons-per-minute requirement, you may need more than one unit. Otherwise, a tankless water heater can save you thousands over its lifetime.

 

RADIANT HEATING

Photo: warmboard.com

The Department of Energy reports that of all the energy consumed in the average home, 50 to 75 percent stems from heating and cooling. That being the case, there’s strong incentive to review the systems on which you rely to maintain a comfortable home. That’s never more true than in the winter, when costs often increase. Though there are many types of heating technologies, chances are that yours is a forced-air system. Since first becoming popular in the mid 20th century, forced air has dominated, for better and worse. Due to its ubiquity, it’s very often the case that when homeowners complain about the high cost of home heating, they are often unknowingly condemning, not so much heating in general, but forced-air systems in particular. Indeed, forced air has changed surprisingly little over the years, never overcoming the performance drawbacks that frustrate homeowners for a host of reasons, including financial ones.

Why does it cost a small fortune every month to heat a home with forced air? A primary explanation is that forced-air systems are designed around elaborate networks of ductwork that channel heated air from the furnace to the conditioned rooms of the home. On paper, there’s no problem, but in practice, ducts prove imperfect. Particularly on runs through uninsulated space, ducts are notoriously prone to air leaks. Even if those leaks occur only at the seams between sections of ductwork, they are enough to compromise overall system efficiency by up to 25 percent. To make up for the heat loss, the furnace must then work harder, for longer—that is, consume more energy—in order to maintain the temperature that you set on the thermostat. In other words, you’re essentially paying extra on a month-to-month basis for the forced-air system to correct its own serious, fundamental design flaws.

Here’s the good news: While forced-air technology has remained stagnant, other systems have made enormous, transformative strides. Take, for instance, radiant heating. Though it’s been around, in one form or another, for thousands of years, it’s only relatively recently that it’s improved to the point of becoming a viable alternative. Already, radiant heating enjoys wide acceptance in Europe and Asia, and increasingly, as more or more American homeowners look beyond forced air, it’s gaining ground here at home. Perhaps most appealing is that radiant heating offers a qualitatively different experience by delivering even, “everywhere” warmth, both silently and without any of the airborne dust and particulates that forced-air systems collect and circulate. That said, for as much as radiant heating makes home heating vastly more comfortable, it also manages to attract converts for yet another compelling reason—efficiency.

Involving no ductwork whatsoever, radiant heating maximizes energy savings by minimizing heat loss. In fact, according to a study conducted by Kansas State University and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers, radiant systems operate at least 25 percent more efficiently than forced air. Not all radiant technologies are the same, though. To be sure, on the level of system design, radiant always comes with advantages. But individual system components can make a big difference for your monthly bills. So when assessing your options, look closely at the material composition of the radiant heating panels that form the backbone of any such system. Some panels are made of gypsum concrete, which works reasonably well but usually responds too sluggishly to be effective in a home. That’s why Warmboard constructs its panels with aluminum, 232 times more conductive than concrete.

Aluminum actually transfers heat so well that in a Warmboard system, the boiler can heat the water to a temperature 30 degrees lower than what other radiant systems would require. In this way, you can save an extra 10 to 20 percent every month, and thats ‘s top of what you’d already save by opting for radiant! So while forced air may have been the default choice for decades, homeowners looking to slash their ongoing costs have every reason to contemplate a switch.

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


How To: Replace a Light Switch

For any confident do-it-yourselfer, it's easy to replace a light switch. But as with any project involving electricity, it's essential to exercise caution. Read on for the details on getting the job done safely and effectively.

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How to Replace a Light Switch

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Thanks to the simplicity of their design and function, light switches seem to last pretty much forever despite daily use. Indeed, most of us rarely give a second thought to these humble, hardworking components, but there are certainly instances when you’ll want to replace them. Perhaps you just want a better-looking or more functional switch, or maybe the switch is acting up, either emitting sparks or making a popping noise. Whatever your reason for replacing a switch, your first impulse may be to call the electrician. After all, as with any home repair that involves electricity, it’s always wise to err on the side of caution. Yet, so long as you observe basic safety measures, you can probably replace a light switch on your own, saving the hassle and expense of hiring a professional. Chances are that your toolbox already contains the necessary tools, so aside from a new switch and the following instructions, you need only a spare hour to complete this small project.

MATERIALS AND TOOLS
- Replacement light switch
- Screwdriver
- Wire stripper
- Needle-nose pliers
- Non-contact voltage detector, multimeter, or other voltage-testing tool  (optional)

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STEP 1
Before getting started, go to the electrical panel and cut power to the light switch in question. If the breakers in the box are unlabeled, use trial and error to determine which one governs the circuit that includes the switch you’re replacing. To do this, first flip the switch on. If it controls a ceiling fixture, make sure the light goes on; if it controls an outlet, plug a lamp into the outlet and make sure it goes on. Then, one by one, toggle each breaker and check the ceiling fixture or test lamp to see if it goes off. (Enlist a friend or family member to help so you can avoid having to make multiple trips back and forth.) Once you have identified the right breaker, move it to the “off” position. Next, to make absolutely certain there’s no electricity reaching the light switch, remove the faceplate and hold a non-contact voltage detector within about a half inch of the switch’s screw terminals (typically located on the right side of the switch). (If you’re using a different type of voltage tester, follow the manufacturer’s instructions.) If the detector does not register a current, it’s probably safe to continue to the next step, but before you spring ahead, it can never hurt to test the detector by trying it on a nearby outlet that you’re certain is receiving power.

How to Replace a Light Switch - In Progress

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STEP 2
Now that you’ve taken off the faceplate, proceed to remove the screws that fasten the switch to the wall. Next, pull the switch out from the wall and inspect the wires feeding into it. If those wires loop around the terminal screws on the side of the switch, simply loosen the screws to free up the wires. If, however, yours is a newer switch, the wires may connect not to the terminal screws, but through holes in the back of the switch. (These are known as “back-wired,” “backstabbed,” or “push-in” switches.) To remove the wires, gently tug on each one while inserting the flat blade of a small screwdriver into the slot beneath the hole where the wire enters the housing.

As you work, be sure to keep track of which wire goes where, especially if the wires aren’t color-coded. The black or red “hot” wire attaches to the brass screw (or goes in the hole on the same side as the brass screw). Meanwhile, the white “neutral” wire connects to the silver screw (or goes in the hole on the same side as the silver screw). Finally, note the location of the ground wire. This green or bare copper wire is usually attached to a green terminal screw on the light switch, so you’ll need to unscrew it. Sometimes, the ground wire is connected to a screw on the electrical box itself, in which case you can leave it alone.

STEP 3
If necessary, use a wire stripper to expose about a half inch of both the hot and neutral wires. Now, get the new light switch ready, using its on-off labels to help you orient the unit right-side up. Next, starting with the hot wire, begin attaching the wires to the new switch. If you’re connecting the wires to terminal screws, twist the exposed portion of the hot wire into a clockwise loop, fit the loop over the brass screw (with the tip of the wire pointing away from the room), then tighten the screw. If, however, the switch has push connectors on its rear side, simply guide the hot wire into the appropriate hole.

STEP 4 
Move on to attaching the neutral wire to the light switch, using the same technique you used to attach the hot wire. If the ground wire had been connected to the old switch, complete the wiring by attaching the ground. If the ground wire had been (and is still) connected to the box, let it be. Once all the wires are hooked up, push the switch back into the electrical box and secure it to the wall with screws at top and bottom. Finally, return to the electrical panel and restore power to the light switch. Test to make sure it works, and if it does, screw the faceplate back into position.

A parting word: If you’re replacing a regular light switch with a dimmer, you can follow the process described above, but remember: Not all dimmers are created equal. For a successful installation, double-check that your chosen dimmer has sufficient wattage to control your fixture. Add up the maximum wattage of the bulbs you wish to put on the dimmer, and make it a point to seek out a dimmer switch with a wattage rating above the calculated total.


A Fast and Low-Cost Way to Prevent Frozen Pipes

This winter, invest some time and money in installing a product that can protect your home from the inconvenience and potential damage of frozen pipes.

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Heat Tape Freeze Protection

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Homeowners who live in seasonally cold climates dread having their pipes freeze. At the very least, a frozen pipe can block the flow of water through the house; at worst, it can burst open and leak gallons upon gallons of water. Horror stories of devastating damage can trigger a fever pitch of anxiety, but frozen pipes are a rational concern for many, especially those who live in homes where the plumbing runs through unheated space. While there are several effective ways to minimize the risk, permanent fixes often involve the sort of work most people would hire a contractor do—rerouting a pipe, say, or outfitting an exterior wall with new insulation. In the short term, however, if you’re looking for fast, inexpensive freeze protection, “heat tape really comes in handy,” says Daniel O’Brian, a technical specialist with SupplyHouse.com. Despite its name, heat tape isn’t an adhesive at all. Rather, it’s a type of electrical cable that, when wrapped around or snaked through a pipe, applies a controlled amount of heat to prevent freezing.

Heat Tape Freeze Protection - Pipe Tracing Products

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“If in the past you’ve had issues with certain pipes freezing—in the crawl space or attic, underground or outdoors—it’s only prudent to take steps to prevent a recurrence,” O’Brian explains. By installing heat tape around a vulnerable pipe, he says, “you can make sure that, no matter the weather, the pipe never reaches the freezing point.” The only tricky part is the timing: “Heat tape isn’t going to work unless you have it installed before the temperatures plummet.”

Besides the importance of early preparation, O’Brian stresses that there are a variety of heat tapes on the market, each offering different features. Most are self-regulating and, thanks to a built-in thermostat, adjust their heat output in response to the ambient temperature. As the temperature goes down, self-regulating cables put out more heat. When the temperature rises well above freezing, the cables turn off automatically, ensuring both safety and energy efficiency.

In the past, heat tapes were often hardwired into the electrical system of the home, but today “most are plug-and-play,” O’Brian states. “You plug one end into an outlet and position the rest according to the manufacturer’s instructions.” Note that some outlets are safer than others. In fact, for heat tape, O’Brian recommends using only ground fault circuit interrupter (GCFI) outlets, which are designed to sever the electrical current in the event of a power spike or loss.

Assuming there’s a GCFI receptacle in proximity to the pipe, installing heat tape can be a simple do-it-yourself project for the average homeowner. “It’s critical to read and understand the specifications provided by the manufacturer,” O’Brian says, but generally speaking, “it’s a straightforward job.” Most commonly, cables are wrapped around the pipe with a few inches of space left between each wrap, although some heat tapes are designed to run along one side of the pipe, affixed by means of electrical tape.

Since electricity and water don’t mix, it’s a good idea to be cautious here. “Never let the cable overlap itself,” O’Brian says, “and take pains not to allow anything flammable to remain in sustained contact with an active cable.” Be sure to periodically inspect a heat tape installation, keeping an eye out for leaks in the pipe or frays in the heating cable. Some manufacturers call for the use of pipe insulation, at least in part to protect the heat tape from damage; others do not.

Before purchasing, confirm that the product you’re considering is appropriate for your situation. While some heating tapes are expressly intended for galvanized or copper pipes, others can be used with either metal or plastic. Lengths and voltages vary as well. “You can find heat tape in lengths from 6 feet to 300 feet, and from 30 watts to 500 watts,” O’Brian says, but rest assured that the experts at SupplyHouse.com will always be on hand to help homeowners make the right choice.

Heat Tape Freeze Protection - Product Isolated

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


5 Ways to Solve Underwhelming Water Pressure

Troubleshoot your low water pressure problems with these helpful fixes that increase force and improve flow, so you and your guests can enjoy the holidays without a hitch.

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Increase Water Pressure - Showerhead

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Starting or ending a long day with a weak shower is deeply unsatisfying. Still, when other around-the-house fixes rank as higher priorities, sometimes you just learn to live with poor water pressure. Even though you may tolerate a trickle, you should probably treat friends and family eager to visit for a long weekend to something better. Don’t let low water pressure ruin your reputation as the host with the most! Resolve to finally achieve a healthy flow of water—for you and all of your future houseguests—by trying any of the following solutions, ranging from quick fixes to extensive projects.

Increase Water Pressure - Faucet

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First things first: Contact your neighbors to see if they are experiencing similarly low water pressure. If so, the source of the problem may be with the city’s municipal water system. Just like your home’s piping, these systems are subject to leaks, clogs, buildup, and corrosion. Before calling your local provider, you can test the city water pressure yourself using a water pressure test gauge with a hose connection. Simply screw the device onto a hose faucet and turn on the tap, having first made sure that the rest of your home’s faucets and any water-using appliances (for example, the dishwasher and washing machine) are turned off. According to experts, a 45 or 50 psi is on the low side, 60 is a good reading, and 80 or above is too high. After you have either ruled out or confirmed a citywide pressure problem, you can decide what steps to take next.

Clear the Clogs

Over time, your pipes can develop a buildup of mineral deposits. In extreme cases, the diameter of the pipes decreases until they become clogged, preventing the water from freely flowing through, and leaving you with a pitiful drip in the shower or a paltry trickle from the faucet. While extreme cases can require that you replace sections of pipe, you can at least take care of clogs at your system’s exit points by dissolving any minerals that are gumming up the works inside your faucet fixtures and shower heads. Simply place an open zip-lock bag filled with  vinegar over your shower head or faucet, tie it in place with some string, and leave it overnight to soak. Rinse off your cleaned fittings the next morning, and put your bathroom back together. If this trick doesn’t work and you believe you have a more severe mineral clog inside the pipes, call in a plumber to assess and correct the problem.

 

Open Wide

The next solution requires little more than a few minutes of investigative work. Your house has a main water valve, usually located near the meter, which controls the flow of water into your home’s pipes. Find the valve and check to see if it’s completely open. Sometimes the valve gets accidentally turned during routine repairs and maintenance without the homeowner’s knowledge. If, for example, your drop in pressure coincides with recent work you’ve had done on your home, your contractor may have turned off the main water supply and at the end of the job only partially reopened the valve. The result: restricted flow and reduced pressure. Fortunately, the valve is easy for you to adjust yourself; calling in a plumber is unnecessary.

 

Replace the Regulator

Many homes that rely on public water have a regulator, located either at the meter or where the service line enters the home, that ensures that water doesn’t rush through the pipes. When the regulator goes bad, the water pressure will gradually drop, causing a loss in velocity that affects some or all of the fixtures in your home. To solve the problem, reset or replace this part, or hire a plumber to do the work for you.

 

Look Out for Leaks

Cracked or damaged pipes may result in water leaks that siphon off water as it travels through your pipes, leaving you with just a trickle at the tap. To determine if your main pipe has any damage, make sure all faucets indoors and out are shut off, then turn off the water valve in your home and write down the number that appears on your water meter. Return in two hours and take the meter reading again. An increased reading is a sign of a leak—and a sign that it may be time to call in a professional.

Galvanized steel pipes are particularly vulnerable to corrosion over time, so if you decide to upgrade, choose superior plastic or copper pipes. You should feel no pressure to DIY this particular fix: Replacing pipes requires the skills of a professional plumber. While it’s a costly project, pipe replacement will do more than improve your showering experience. In addition to boosting water pressure and minimizing the chance of future leaks, swapping out old plumbing for new can reduce the risk that corrosives will contaminate your drinking water, resulting in better quality H2O.

 

Give It a Boost

It may turn out that the problem isn’t you, it’s the neighborhood. That’s no surprise: Gravity and distance are two main factors that negatively impact water pressure. If your household water supply is forced to travel uphill or over a great distance from the municipal water source, its pressure may be hindered. To increase the flow rate of the water when it reaches your home, consider installing a water pressure booster pump. Just be aware that this handy solution is a bit of an investment: The pump runs about $300 at your local home improvement store, and this price doesn’t include the cost of installation (best left to a master plumber) and the potential increase in your monthly electricity bill.