February 2012 Archives - 3/3 - Bob Vila

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How To: Choose the Right Furnace Filter

Furnace Filter

Photo: CGardner

As far as home improvement gear goes, furnace filters are admittedly among the least, um… exciting. There’s none of the danger and raw efficacy of power tools, none of the visual impact of perfectly mitered crown molding, and certainly none of the reassurance that accompanies big investments like new windows or new roofing.

But there can be big impact even in little things, and finding the right furnace filter can not only save money, but also improve air quality. Originally, filters were designed to protect the moving parts of the furnace itself, but thanks to technological advancements, filters now prevent harmful particles from cycling back into the air that you breathe at home.

Below are five common options, available in all sizes and budgets. The Minimum Efficiency Reporting Values (MERV) scale rates the efficiency on a scale of 1-20.


American Air Filter

Disposable fiberglass – this is the option that comes to mind when you think “furnace filter.” Created from 1″-thick spun fiberglass, it does little more than prevent larger particles like dust, lint, and debris from gunking up your system. MERV rating: 2-3, cost: $1-2

Pros: Very inexpensive, good for renters and those without allergies or asthma

Cons: Has little to no effect on cleaning the air

Furnace Filter

Zoro Tools

Disposable pleated – this popular option, made from polyester or cotton paper, can remove some small particles like spores and mites, but needs to be changed frequently to avoid clogging and taxing your HVAC system. MERV rating: 6, cost: $4-5

Pros: Relatively inexpensive, can be made from green materials, blocks some small particles

Cons: Can add more resistance to air flow, making your system more expensive to operate

Furnace Filter


Disposable electrostatic – contains self-charging electrostatic cotton or paper fibers that attract and trap small particles. MERV rating: 10, cost: $10

Pros: Affordable in standard sizes; good for homes with children, pets, or smokers

Cons: Custom sizes are expensive, high costs if replaced regularly over several years

Furnace Filter

American Air Filter

Permanent electrostatic – similar to their disposable brethren, these contain self-charging cotton fibers that attract particles. Permanent options have  a removable, machine-washable filter that can be removed and reused for six to eight years. MERV rating: 8, cost: $15-20

Pros: Little waste, more effective than pleated; a good option if you use a popular size

Cons: Less effective than electrostatic, custom sizes are expensive

Furnace Filter


High-efficiency pleated – the grandaddy of furnace filters. These are made from deep 4-5″ pleated synthetic cotton, attached to very rigid metal grid to prevent leaks or fluttering. MERV: 14-16, cost: $100

Pros: Used in hospitals, these screen out the smallest of particles. May be very helpful for those with respiratory problems or autoimmune disorders

Cons: Expensive – $100 a year, and can only be installed in special housing due to thick size


For more on heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, consider:

Radiant Floor Heating 101
Gas Fireplaces: A Showcase of Design and Innovation
Quick Tip: Ventilation for the Home

Man Cave Must-Haves

In order to enjoy the game you've got to set the mood. Here are 5 things to improve the quality and comfort of your Super Bowl experience.

Man Cave - Debbie Wiener

Man Cave designed by Debbie Wiener

As this post publishes, Superbowl XLVIII is 2 days, 1 hour, 35 minutes and …45…44…43 seconds from kick-off—at least according to the official countdown clock on the NFL site. If you are not one of the 80,000 lucky fans who will be cheering their team to glory at the MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, NJ, on Sunday, you will surely be catching the game with friends at a Superbowl party, sports bar, or from the comfort of home.

If the comfort of your home happens not to be on par with the “man cave” above (from interior designer Debbie Wiener), check out our top five “Man Cave Must-Haves!”

Read the rest of this entry »

What Do You Say to a Naked Ceiling? Remodel.

Wood Ceiling Installation

Photo: shutterstock.com

It started with a casual stare. Then I gave my kitchen ceiling a withering glance and declared it dreadful! The kitchen actually changes elevation over the cooktop from a flat to a peaked ceiling so the transition that should have been an eye-catcher, was actually an eye-sore. I knew a ceiling remodel was in order.

A fresh coat of paint would certainly be an easy solution to conceal the nasty, discolored wallboard. But, I wanted the ceiling to be more important. Perhaps even a different material… like the wood plank ceilings that I remember seeing in European homes. And that’s exactly what I decided to do.

Related: From Finland with Love: Notes on Installing a Wood Ceiling

I live in the land of pecky cypress (Georgia) and wanted to adorn the ceiling with a local wood that looked like it had always been part of the house. Finding rough sawn cypress was not a problem, though it was disappointing to discover that much of the knotty character would be lost when planed into tongue-and-groove planks.

Step #1—Talking the Talk
I had to learn the lingo of wood from a nearby lumber yard. What I really wanted was old-growth cypress (more possibility of knots). I also needed to specifiy that the “boards be dressed on three sides and rough on the face” to achieve the look I wanted.

Step #2—Background Check
To start, I had furring strips installed and then had the ceiling painted black; a designer trick I learned to make the knot holes less apparent while creating a sense of depth.

Wood Ceiling Installation - Firring

Photo: GSteves

Step #3—Board Walk
When the cypress boards arrived, I sorted them so that the knot holes were evenly distributed. My contractor did a masterful job of fitting and nailing them with the same attention to detail. He also covered the main support beam that now makes the wooden ceiling seem to float overhead.

Wood Ceiling Installation - Boards

Photo: GSteves

The end result is a unique ceiling that will get the attention it deserves. Now, if I can just prevent cobwebs in those crevices!

Wood Ceiling Installation - Complete

Photo: GSteves

As an alternative, if you want a more refined or less rustic look in wood, Armstrong makes a Woodhaven ceiling plank system that can be installed easily. The pre-finished planks—available in pine, cherry and apple—are virtually maintenance-free and sag-proof.

What Makes a Room a “Bedroom”?

Homebuyers, sellers, and owners should know the minimum requirements that comprise a bedroom, mainly for home value and safety.


What Makes a Room a Bedroom?

Defining the Bedroom
Defining the bedroom space is important for two main reasons: home value and safety. The value of a home increases with bedroom number, so it is always in the best interest of the home seller to have as many rooms labeled “bedrooms” as is possible, particularly if a legitimate investment has been made on a room, space, or addition. The number of bedrooms can also have tax assessment implications. More bedrooms can mean higher taxes, so a homeowner should know what legally can be considered a bedroom despite how a room might be used.

Code requirements that vary from state to state will determine what can and cannot be considered a bedroom despite how that space may have been used. Codes are in place primarily for safety purposes. A space can only be defined as a bedroom when it meets these code requirements, which can include specifications on fire safety measures and means of egress.

The Safety Issue
When a space is to be labeled a bedroom or otherwise, safety is the primary deciding factor. The International Residential Code (IRC) specifies required features for a “habitable room,” which includes the “sleeping unit” or bedroom. Builders must follow the IRC—and their state’s building safety codes—when constructing a space to be designated a “bedroom.” “There are general requirements to all habitable rooms,” says Larry Frank of the International Code Council (ICC), based out of Washington, DC, “and specific requirements for other rooms, including the bedroom.”

An effective means of egress in the event of a fire is the reason there are window requirements on the bedroom space. Technically, a bedroom must have two means of egress, so a second door will suffice, but it must open to the outside, which makes the exterior door a less practical solution. Not any window will do. It must have a minimum opening area of 5.7 sq. feet, a minimum opening height of 24 inches, and a minimum opening width of 20 inches. The maximum distance between the finished floor and the finished window sill is 44 inches, but a recent addition to the IRC mandates a minimum distance between the finished floor of the room and the window sill of 24 inches to prevent children from falling out of an open window. Note that whether the second means of egress is a window or a door, it must be operable from the inside without the use of keys, tools, or special knowledge.

Building codes have specifications for the placement of smoke alarms with regards to the bedroom. New construction requirements state that smoke alarms must be placed within each bedroom and outside of each bedroom.

Additionally, the bedroom space is required by code to be protected by an arc-fault circuit interrupter (AFCI), a relatively new safety device intended to protect homes against fires due to faulty wiring.

These safety features required by building codes must be followed by builders for new construction. However, existing homeowners would do well to follow these guidelines, particularly when converting an existing space in the home to a bedroom or sleeping unit. Putting a bed in the attic or the basement for one of the kids does not make that room a safe sleeping area. Even a finished basement might not have a suitable second means of egress. It is in the homeowner’s best interest to consider the safety aspects of any space being used as a bedroom. A homeowner should consult or hire a professional for installation of smoke alarms and AFCIs.

A Real Estate Perspective
An added bedroom brings added value to a home. Real estate agents know this—and so do home sellers. Fortunately, even real estate agents must follow a set of guidelines when labeling any given living space as a bedroom. “Although there is no national standard for a bedroom, realtors must follow a code of ethics when it comes to marketing a home,” says Stephanie Singer, spokesperson for the National Association of Realtors (NAR). This code of ethics binds the agent to the same bedroom definition inferred by the national and local building code requirements on that space, including having two means of egress. In the real estate world, a space can be considered a bedroom if it has a door that can be closed, a window, and a closet. The closet requirement is not covered in the IRC and is instead a bedroom feature more related to comfort and livability than safety.

This lack of a national standard leaves some grey areas on a number of matters, like older homes built before bedrooms routinely included closets or a bedroom that has had its door removed. How an agent addresses these nebulous details might vary from agent to agent, or state to state. One thing is certain: Homebuyers are willing to pay more for a home with another bedroom, and this fact is a motivating factor for the home seller and real estate agent to stage as many rooms as bedrooms for showing.

Fittingly, property assessors will follow the same bedroom definition when determining the number of bedrooms in a given home—that is, it must have a door, a closet, and an egress window. It is in the interest of homeowners, sellers, and buyers to know the subtle bedroom definition differences between the safety/builder perspective and the real estate/home value perspective, and to know one’s state and local guidelines for determining what can and cannot be considered a bedroom.

Bob Vila’s “Love Your Laundry Room” Sweepstakes


Bob Vila's "Love Your Laundry Room" Sweepstakes

Finding it hard to believe that you could “Love your Laundry Room”?  Well, this Maytag duo featuring the new Bravos XL High Efficiency washer and dryer could change your way of thinking.  And, all you need to do to bring the pair home is enter for a chance to win the February Bob Vila “Love Your Laundry Room” Sweepstakes, starting today.

The Maytag Bravos XL High Efficiency washer and dryer are each valued at $1,199 (MSRP) and come in either white or granite, shown. The large capacity 7.3 cu. ft. dryer features an advanced moisture sensing system that helps evenly dry large, heavy loads and reduce the risk of shrinking. An Auto Refresh cycle aids in relaxing wrinkles and uses steam to refresh clothes.
Maytag Bravos XL High Efficiency
The companion 4.6 cu. ft. Maytag Bravos XL washer has an allergen removal cycle that helps eliminate 95 percent of common household allergens, and boasts a PowerWash system that tackles even the toughest of stains.

In addition to their sleek, modern design and advanced cleaning and drying features, the Maytag Bravos XL products are designed for savings. The dryer uses 40 percent less energy than standard models when used with the washer uses 76 percent less water and 78 percent less energy.

For official rules and entry, click here.  And, enter daily—until midnight EST, February 29—to be eligible to win this American-designed, American-made washer and dryer from Maytag.

To learn more about the Bravos XL and complete line of company products, visit Maytag.

5 (Nearly) Kill-Proof Houseplants

Hardy Houseplants

Photo: shutterstock.com

Bringing a plant into your home doesn’t just enhance your décor but it will actually help purify the air in your dwelling. Sure we’ve all had that one bad experience with some plant we picked up from the grocery store that quickly turned into a wilting mess. But don’t be intimidated by past failures, here are five nearly kill-proof house plants with care tips from Dr. Neil Mattson, Assistant Professor of Floriculture Extension in the Department of Horticulture at Cornell University. Keep in mind that according to Dr. Mattson, “It’s amazing what plants can survive.”

Slideshow: 5 (Nearly) Kill-Proof Houseplants

1. Aloe Vera—Dr. Mattson particularly appreciates the dual purpose of the aloe vera plant—besides being attractive and hands-off, the spikes release a gel that has healing and moisturizing benefits.

Hardy Houseplants - Orchids

Photo: orchidpictures.net

2. Orchids—Although orchids get a rap as being difficult to rebloom, Dr. Mattson insists that the moth orchid, or Phaleonopsis, doesn’t deserve the finicky reputation. “Orchids are hard to mess-up, you just have to be aware of what conditions they require in nature—lots of sunshine and not nearly as much water as most gardeners try to provide,” says Dr. Mattson. Stick to watering just once a week. Trigger another bloom cycle by putting the orchid in a cooler location—around 60 degrees.

3. Spider Plants—Easy to propagate as well as to care for, “spider plants are like a gateway plant,” says Dr. Mattson. Take a cutting, stick it into water, wait for roots, and then plant in soil—it’s incredibly easy to have spider plants on every shelf that’s remotely near a window in your home.

4. African Violets—These quaint undemanding plants brighten up any windowsill with their purple blooms. They respond best to indirect sunlight’s and moist soil. Keep them reblooming by using a specialized fertilizer in all seasons except the winter.

And last but no least…

5. Mother-in-Law’s Tongue — not only offers an elegant structured shape, but it’s actually “hard to kill,” says Dr. Mattson. The architectural spikes can grow up 3-4 feet tall and the plant can handle most interior conditions. They do best in a window that receives semi-to-full sun and needs watering about once a week.

For more on gardening, consider:

Touring a Japanese Garden
Touring Middleton Place, SC
Brooklyn Botanical Garden Tour