Category: Major Systems

Bob Vila Radio: Child-Safe Power Outlets, Reinvented

A promising new company seeks to provide families, finally, with a safe and reliable child-proof power outlet.

You can’t possibly pick a more important job to do around your home than keeping your family safe. And of course many families include little ones who are toddling or crawling around the floor.

Child-Safe Power Outlets


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While past attempts to protect kids from electrics hazards have met with only limited success, a promising new “smart” outlet has arrived on the market.

Made by a company called Brio, the child-proof outlet installs much like a regular one, but it behaves much differently. In fact, it automatically withholds power to the outlet until it confirms an actual plug has been inserted—not, say, a screwdriver that had been left lying around.

If you decide to make the switch, make sure you turn off the appropriate breaker in your electrical panel before doing any electrical work. Shocks are serious for anyone, children or adults!

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.

Built-In USB Ports Redefine the Wall Socket

By installing a new type of wall outlet, you can rid your digital home of unsightly, clutter-creating AC adapters once and for all.

Leviton Wall Outlet USB Charger


In 2015, people are as likely to charge a digital device as they are to plug in a table lamp or a hair dryer. But while lighting and appliances plug right into the wall, today’s tablets and smartphones charge only via USB cable. That’s why AC adapters are so regrettably ubiquitous these days. Awkward and unsightly though they may be, adapters serve the crucial role of negotiating the connection between USB cords and standard wall outlets. They are, in effect, middlemen. And as with any middlemen, we merely put up with them.

Here’s the best news you’ll hear all day: You don’t need to bother with AC adapters anymore! Thanks to a new crop of receptacles, wall outlets are finally in sync with the way we live now. To get in step with the times, look no further than the Leviton High Speed USB Charger. It fits into a standard outlet box and sits behind a standard faceplate, yet it offers not only a three-prong receptacle but also a pair of built-in USB ports.

Leviton Wall Outlet USB Charger - Diagram


Some of this product’s advantages are obvious. With adapters out of the way, you can enjoy streamlined, clutter-free, and convenient charging stations. Other benefits are subtler, though equally compelling. Controlled by a smart chip, the USB ports use advanced technology to recognize the charging needs of the device you’ve plugged in and then output the current that’s optimal for charging the device in the least amount of time. You’ll be able to get back to using your device without having to wait around endlessly for it to power up.

Thanks to its thoughtful design, the Leviton High Speed USB Charger easily replaces an existing receptacle. Plus, for convenience, the product is back- and side-wired so that it can accommodate a diverse range of wiring situations. Compliant with National Electrical Code requirements for tamper resistance, the Leviton model is also, unlike some competing products, UL-listed. That means it meets nationally recognized standards for safety. You can install it in your home with confidence.

Leviton Wall Outlet USB Charger - Backsplash View


Purchase the Leviton High Speed USB Charger, $29.95

Thousands of Years in the Making, Radiant Heating Arrives

With a history that stretches back to the Roman Empire and ancient Asia, radiant heating is not some newfangled idea. Instead, it's a smart concept that now, thanks to advances in technology, offers today's homeowners unprecedented comfort and efficiency.

Radiant Heating Technology


While the origins of radiant floor heating stretch way back into the mists of history, the technology has come of age only in recent years. Today, it works as well as any other traditional system, if not better, and operates at least 25 percent more efficiently than forced-air systems, the most ubiquitous type of heating in the United States. Increasing numbers of consumers are choosing radiant heating, not only for the energy savings it provides, but also for its indoor air quality benefits and its ability to free homeowners from the tyranny of radiators, baseboards, and vents. That said, many wonder why radiant heating isn’t in more American homes, especially considering its popularity abroad (in Europe and Asia, 40 and 80 percent of homes, respectively, are heated by a radiant system). Well, though it may now be a viable product, it didn’t start out that way.

The very first radiant heating systems emerged in the Roman Empire. In the wealthiest citizens’ homes, the walls and floors were buttressed by slim chambers called hypocausts. Fires around the building fed heat into these hypocausts, which in turn heated the interior spaces of the home. Around the same time, on the other side of the globe, the Korean ondol system heated homes by means of cooking fires that transmitted heat from the kitchen to a series of strategically positioned stones. These stones would absorb the heat and slowly radiate it outward. Though primitive compared with the finely tuned, zero-maintenance radiant-heating products available today, the fact that the basic technology has been around for so long speaks to the simple wisdom of its design.

Radiant Heating Technology - Panel Detail


In the United States, it was none other than the distinguished architect Frank Lloyd Wright who first introduced the concept of radiant heating to countless Americans. Of course, Wright was ahead of his time in more ways than one, so it was not until decades after his death that radiant heat finally came into focus.

When environmental concerns came to the fore in the 1970s and 1980s, a diverse group of professionals and amateurs began testing out various nontraditional modes of building. In these experimental efforts, the principles of radiant heating were often aligned with solar power. A typical setup would put a concrete floor, painted a dark color, beneath a sunny south-facing window. Throughout the day, the sun would heat the concrete, then as night fell and temperatures dropped, the concrete would radiate heat back into the home. That worked fine for supplemental heat, but it could not heat a whole house through the winter season.

In the next phase of development, radiant heating took a big step toward becoming its own entity, an active system capable of providing heat with or without help from the sun. Ingeniously, hydronic tubes were set into the concrete flooring. Water heated by the boiler could be pumped through the tubes, heating the concrete in the absence of sun. The only problem now was the concrete. Whereas its thermal mass had proved an asset before, it was now making the system sluggish. Not only would the concrete take too long to heat up, but it would also continue to radiate for several hours after the thermostat had been turned down or off.

The answer, Warmboard found, was to combine hydronic tubing with lightweight, highly conductive aluminum. Compared with concrete, aluminum is a staggering 232 times more conductive. So when heated water travels through the hydronic tubing within aluminum panels, the metal swiftly transfers the heat to the home. The panels conduct heat so effectively that they can be used beneath any type of flooring, be it tile, hardwood, or even thick-pile carpeting.

Broadly similar products exist on the market, but Warmboard stands alone in terms of efficiency and conductivity. Put simply, Warmboard requires the least amount of energy of any radiant system to maintain a comfortable temperature in the home. It’s estimated that Warmboard can hit the target temperature with water that’s 30 degrees cooler than a competing system would require to achieve comparable results. This efficiency means that your furnace doesn’t need to work as hard, and you save an additional 10 to 20 percent on energy costs—above and beyond what you’re already saving by choosing radiant heat over a traditional system.

It may have taken a few thousand years to get right, but radiant heating has finally arrived.


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

Warm Up Your Workspace with a Unit Heater

Tired of DIYing in the cold? Here's one way to bring a little bit of heat to your garage or workshop.

Unit Heaters


If you spend time on projects in the garage, or if you’re lucky enough to enjoy a stand-alone workshop, chances are that you’re tired of wearing a winter jacket while working. Rather than put progress on hold as the temperature drops, why not make the area more comfortable? One cost-effective method would be to install a unit heater. Designed expressly for the purpose of introducing warmth to work spaces, unit heaters come in a range of sizes and styles, and can be powered by a variety of fuels. Most can be purchased for a reasonable up-front cost, are relatively easy to install and operate, and can provide you with years of reliable service.

According to Daniel O’Brian, a technical expert from online retailer, “unit heaters are a good fit for large, open, unheated spaces.” While they are used quite often in commercial or industrial applications, “homeowners typically use them in shops, garages, or barns.” And because most models are meant to be mounted on the ceiling or to a wall, you don’t need to give up any square footage that could otherwise be devoted to, say, a grinding machine or a table saw.

Unit heaters are rated, like air conditioners, in terms of British thermal units, or BTUs. At, which sells unit heaters from the leading brands, outputs range from a modest 15,900 BTUs to a whopping 400,000. Most residential applications call for a unit heater on the smaller end of the spectrum. For instance, 30,000 or 45,000 BTUs would suffice in a one-car garage, while in a three-car garage, a 100,000- or 125,000-BTU heater would be most appropriate.

Sizing a unit heater isn’t a slapdash matter. Make the wrong choice, and you end up uncomfortable or overspending, or both. Proper sizing, says O’Brian, “should be done with a full heat loss report,” which accounts for “the construction of the walls, floor, and ceiling, as well as the amount of insulation.” To arrive at a rough estimate, however, you can use a simple formula: After carefully measuring the space, find the approximate BTU rating needed by multiplying the room’s length times width times five (L x W x 5 = BTUs needed).


For many handy homeowners, installing a unit heater can be a DIY project, but as there are likely to be relevant building codes, you may wish to at least consult with a professional. Plus, depending on the model you’ve chosen and the fuel type it uses, “wiring, exhaust venting, and gas and/or water lines may need to be taken into consideration,” O’Brian says. If your installation involves any elements with which you’re not experienced, it’s recommended that you seek out help from a pro.

When it comes to locating your unit heater, there’s a great deal of flexibility, particularly with natural gas-powered models. These can be placed virtually anywhere within the space—on the ceiling, on the wall, or on the floor—so long as there’s ventilation and access to both a gas line and electrical outlet (to power the blower). Meanwhile, electric, infrared, and hydronic unit heaters do not require ventilation, but they do need to be near an electrical outlet, and in some cases they do require a minimum clearance. For example, an infrared heater must be placed at least three feet away from the nearest object and seven feet from the floor.

Gas-powered unit heaters are a common choice, partly for financial reasons. Compared with electric or infrared models, they cost less to purchase (sometimes half as much) and, depending on the utility rates where you live, they’re likely to be less expensive to run. Gas-powered heaters, however, typically operate like a forced-air home heating system, with a blower that kicks on intermittently, sending a blast of heated air through the conditioned space. If you have a wood shop filled with sawdust, that’s not what you want! It may be better, depending on the type of work you do, to opt for an electric, infrared, or hydronic model without a blower.

No matter what type of unit heater you select, you are going to love being able to keep working, even through the coldest days and months of the year.

Unit Heaters - Product Detail


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Bob Vila Radio: Level Out a Wobbly Ceiling Fan

It's hard to relax under a wobbly ceiling fan. If yours no longer rotates as it should, take these steps toward making the repair.

Ceiling fans are great—until they get wobbly. What causes that to happen, and how can you go about fixing a wobbly ceiling fan?

Wobbly Ceiling Fan


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First, check for dirt on the blades. Yes, even a small buildup can cause wobble. Use a sponge and household cleaner to get off the grime.

Wobbling could also mean one or more of the blades has become warped or cracked. Replace if necessary.

If the blades look okay, check to see if they’re out of alignment. You can do that by using a yardstick to measure from the upper tip of each blade to the ceiling. If the distance varies, check for loose screws where the blades are attached to their metal housings.

Also, those housings sometimes get slightly bent—from overzealous cleaning or whatever—and need to be gently bent back to their original position.

If none of that works, head to the home center and pick up a blade balancing kit. They’re only a few bucks, and if they help you solve the problem, there’s no doubt you’ll consider that money well spent.

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.

Bob Vila Radio: The Risks and Allure of a Ventless Fireplace

If you decide a ventless gas fireplace would make for a safe and healthy addition to your home, you can look forward to heat and ambiance with none of the mess and hassle of a traditional hearth.

It’s not hard to understand the allure of ventless gas fireplaces. On the one hand, they offer heat and a cozy ambiance. On the other hand, they enable you to circumvent what’s often the most challenging aspect of adding a fireplace—proper ventilation.

Ventless Gas Fireplaces


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Be aware that there are health concerns associated with ventless gas fireplaces. That being the case, anyone considering one ought to discuss the project with a professional before purchasing.

If you decide to move forward, you’re likely to enjoy the fact that ventless gas fireplaces involve fewer hassles than traditional hearths. There’s no splitting of wood, no trudging to and from the woodpile, no messy soot and charred wood to clean up.

You’ll also like the fact that ventless fireplaces are generally less expensive than their vented counterparts, since the former don’t require exhaust vents or flues to get rid of combustion byproducts. That’s because, at least theoretically, they produce very few byproducts. But again, you should know that some building scientists doubt whether these products truly operate as claimed.

One other plus: They don’t need electricity to operate, so if you get hit with a power outage you’ll still have a reliable source of heat.

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.

Bob Vila Radio: Pipe Insulation, and Why It Really Matters

Prevent winter's worst home disaster, freezing pipes, and promote household energy efficiency in the process, by remembering to insulate your water pipes.

If a plumbing pipe ruptures inside your home, it’s likely going to be a disaster. But properly installed pipe insulation can help prevent that.

Pipe Insulation Matters


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Pipe insulation performs more than one role, but perhaps its most important duty is to keep the water in your pipes from turning to ice, expanding, and then bursting to create a mega-mess. Insulation also cuts down on heat loss and keeps water warm as it makes its way to your faucets.

Cold water pipes benefit from insulation too, especially during summer months when humid air would otherwise condense on the pipes and cause corrosion.

Besides protecting pipes, insulation also protects people—from being injured by contact with very hot or very cold pipes.

There are plenty of styles and materials to choose from, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. In many freeze-prone areas of the country, pipe insulation is not only a good idea; it’s the law. Check local building ordinances before you head to the home center.

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.

Bob Vila Radio: Does Attic Ventilation Help or Hurt?

Confusion reigns over the question of whether attic ventilation promotes, works against, or makes no difference in terms of energy efficiency. As is the case in so many questions relating to homes, the answer depends.

Does ventilating your attic make sense? To a large extent, the answer to that question depends on the climate where you live.

Attic Ventilation


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In cold climates, attic vents help get rid of the warm, moist air that rises from living space below. If you don’t give it a way out, it can condense on the underside of roof sheathing, causing rot. Vents that keep attic air cooler also guard against ice dams. That’s when warm attic air heats the underside of the sheathing and melts any snow that’s above. As the snow melts, the water trickles down to the colder eaves where it refreezes, forming a dam that backs up water under your shingles. Bad news for your roof!

In warmer climates, of course, none of that’s a problem. Even so, attic ventilation does allow hot air to escape, helping to keep your home cooler. Most roofing professionals agree that, regardless of where you live, at least some attic ventilation is a good idea. If you’re still unsure, though, ask around for a couple of trusted contractors in your area and get their advice.

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.

Radiant Heating Gives You Total Design Freedom

The benefits of radiant floor heating range from increased energy efficiency to improved indoor air quality, but for design-conscious homeowners, its greatest appeal may be that it's unnoticeable.

Radiant Heating Gives You Total Design Freedom - Warmboard


By now, you’re familiar with the many benefits of radiant floor heating: It runs silently, circulates no dust or airborne impurities, and operates at least 25 percent more efficiently than the forced-air systems in so many American homes. Still, for some homeowners, what’s most impressive about radiant heat is how it stays out of the way, its  components always invisible. There are no vents, radiators, or baseboards to work around, enabling you to enjoy true design freedom. You get to lay out and decorate your home without coming up against any impediments, and without having to make any sacrifices. Radiant heat stays out of your way.

Radiant heating isn’t magic. The concept actually dates back to the Roman era, and 21st-century versions are the result of sound building science and savvy engineering. The principle is that, instead of distributing heat from a single source within a room, it would be more effective to deliver heat across the entire square footage of a space, from beneath the floor (or even from within the walls). Hidden from view, hydronic tubes deliver heated water to a series of panels, which in turn conduct heat into the rooms of the home. What results is an even, enveloping heat whose source does not encroach at all into the heated areas.

Over the past few decades, we’ve gradually become accustomed to setting up our living spaces only in ways our heating system components permit. For instance, knowing that obstruction would disrupt their proper operation, you’d seek not to place anything in the way of a forced-air vent or air return. Likewise, is there anyone who’s never chosen a spot for a piece of furniture specifically so that it would conceal the rusty baseboard or radiator with peeling paint? With radiant heat, meanwhile, there are no such limitations, because, quite simply, there are no visible components the homeowner would need to make allowances for.


Even among radiant heating products, there are a range of technologies. Traditional radiant systems rely on concrete, with hydronic tubes set inside. Though it may be the most common approach, concrete isn’t always the best, in part because it doesn’t install easily under every floor type. To work under hardwood, for example, the concrete must be supplemented with an intermediate layer of either “sleeper” beams or plywood. The extra layers not only steal height from the room, but they also put more material between the heat source and the home interior. Sleeper beams, in particular, break up the heating area and cause surface temperature to vary across the floor. That decreases comfort while increasing the likelihood of uneven temperatures leading to floor damage.

Only Warmboard radiant heating panels are manufactured in a way that allows wood floor boards to be installed directly on top. With Warmboard’s highly conductive aluminum panels heating the floor material directly, with no intervening layer, the risk of damage to the wood goes away. In fact, Warmboard products are compatible not only with solid and engineered wood, but with virtually all types of flooring, including tile, vinyl, linoleum, and carpeting.

In the past, thick carpets and radiant heat were rarely used in combination, because with its insulating properties, carpeting worked against under-floor heating. That’s no longer the case, thanks to Warmboard. Because its aluminum panels conduct heat so efficiently, there’s enough power to heat through even thick-pile wool carpeting. So while radiant heating affords greater flexibility than traditional systems, innovative Warmboard technology takes it all a step further, eliminating what few obstacles remained. Now you have total freedom to design your home exactly how you please, and isn’t that how it should be?


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

5 New Smart Home Gadgets for 2015

There were all kinds of gadgets and gizmos on display at this year's Consumer Electronics Show. Most exciting are the ones bringing us ever closer to the dream of a fully automated smart home.

As surely as the tides ebb and flow, each new year retires older technology and witnesses the arrival of a new generation, one more innovative and exciting than what had previously been state of the art. Of course, it’s only January right now. The year is still young. But if what’s to come resembles these favorites seen at the recent International Consumer Electronics Show, 2015 may prove to be the year in which smart home technology finally lives up to its compelling promise.



New Smart Home Technology 2015 - Keen Home


If you’re spending the day in the kitchen, dining room, and living room, why should you pay to heat or cool the home office and den? With a system of smart HVAC vents, you can specify different temperatures for different rooms, all from your laptop, tablet or smartphone. Since they are sensitive to temperature, Keen Home vents can even self-adjust, sending heated or cooled air only to where it’s necessary, never to where it’s not. Check out the product video.



New Smart Home Technology 2015 - Whirlpool


The latest washer-and-dryer combo from Whirlpool can behave differently depending on whether you’re home or away. For instance, if you’re at the office, the dryer can snap into “wrinkle-shield mode,” keeping your clothing fresh until you return later. At night and on weekends, or if you’re hosting guests, the machine can run on “quiet mode” so as not to create a disturbance. Plus, the machines boast item-specific cycles; that means you no longer need to wonder about which wash would be best for the bedding. Simply press a button on the control panel and let the appliances work their magic. Check out the product video.



New Smart Home Technology - Stack


Light bulbs went for decades without changing. Then, in the past few years, these once-humble components have undergone at least a couple revolutions. Stack Lighting may have the final word: Its responsive light bulb, the first of its kind, automatically adjusts according to the amount of natural light there is available at any given time. These bulbs can even sync with your alarm clock, slowly but surely brightening to help you wake in the morning. Check out the product video.



New Smart Home Technology - Netatmo


It’s every mom’s dream come true: You can practically have eyes on the back of your head with Netatmo Welcome, a new home monitoring system. When a familiar face comes into view of the system’s camera component, you can be alerted by the system’s smartphone app. That way, you can know if and when a family member makes it home safely. Likewise, the camera can keep tabs on unrecognized faces, too. Check out the product video.



New Smart Home Technology 2015 - Parrot Flower Power


Whether you’re going away on vacation or are simply prone to bouts of forgetfulness, Parrot has the solution for keeping your houseplants alive. The company’s new device senses how much water your plant needs and delivers the right amount, for up to three weeks at a time. Whereas you might over- or under-water the ficus or philodendron one day the Flower Power H20 has been specially designed never to make that mistake. Check out the product video.