Major Systems - 3/34 - Bob Vila

Category: Major Systems

How To: Choose a Baseboard Heater

Replacing or supplementing standard forced-air heating with a silent, energy-efficient baseboard system could be a relief to both your allergies and your wallet. Read on to determine if this upgrade is right for you.

Baseboard Heating - Cadet Electric Baseboard Heater from


In this day and age, with our access to new, energy-efficient technologies, home heating shouldn’t have to cost an arm and a leg or disrupt the peace and quiet of a cozy home. For many homeowners, the ideal package—heat that is quiet, affordable, and low maintenance—may be best achieved by the installation of baseboard heaters. Modern baseboard heaters can offer a convenient and cost-effective supplement, even alternative, to the forced-air heating systems used in the majority of homes in America. Baseboard options include systems that are suitable for whole-home heating as well as those used only to supply or supplement heat in stubbornly cold rooms. The best choice for any particular installation depends on the heating needs and the design of the house. Keep reading to learn how to navigate the many baseboard heating options on the market today—electric, hydronic, electric-hydronic hybrids, and portable units—in order to choose the best fit for your home.

Baseboard heaters supply heat via either a hydronic, fluid-based system or an electric system, both of which provide several key advantages over traditional forced-air heating. Topping the list of pros is the fact that, involving neither blowers nor ducts, baseboard units operate in virtual silence. Plus, whereas forced-air systems often collect and distribute airborne particles like dust and other allergens, baseboard heating does nothing to detract from indoor air quality.

“Another positive from not having ductwork comes in the form of a baseboard system’s unobtrusive footprint,” says Daniel O’Brian, a technical expert at online retailer The system’s design allows you to fit components along the base of the walls instead of having to run ductwork throughout the home, making installation easier, minimizing maintenance, and allowing a little more control over placement. The absence of the extensive remodeling required to accommodate ductwork makes baseboard heat particularly appropriate (and easy!) for older, architecturally sensitive homes.

With so many types of baseboard heating available on the market, your decision will primarily come down to power source, with secondary consideration given to the amount of space you’re trying to heat.

Electric baseboards use a direct electrical connection to produce heat. Typically hardwired into the circuitry of the home with either a 120-volt or 240-volt supply, this type of baseboard heater doesn’t require a furnace, boiler, or any other additional equipment. Operationally, electric baseboards depend on convection: The unit pulls cooler air in through a vent. A series of metal fins connected to a heating element warm the air, which then rises back into the room. Though effective—and often quite easy to install—such units are rarely cheap to run, owing to the high price of electricity in many regions across of the country. For that reason, electric baseboards from leading brands like QMark and Cadet are best reserved not for whole-home use, but for supplemental heat in rooms underserved by the primary heating system.

Baseboard Heating - SlantFin Hydronic Baseboard Heater from


Hydronic baseboard heaters use a slightly more complex system, in which a boiler heats water (or, in areas prone to power loss and lower temperatures, a combination of propylene glycol antifreeze and water) and pumps it to the baseboard units, which emit heat into the room. Traditionally, these systems operate at 180° Fahrenheit to achieve a comfortable level of warmth in the home, but fuel-efficient boilers that can achieve the same level of heating while working at lower temperatures are gaining popularity. Because the fluid in the pipes of a hydronic system retains heat better than the metal fins of an electric baseboard, hydronic systems are more energy efficient, which makes premium brands such as Slant/Fin and Runtal more attractive for whole-house heating.

Electric-hydronic hybrid units, as their name suggests, merge several of the more desirable features of both varieties. These operate with the simplicity and self-contained ease of an electric unit, but rely on a liquid to retain heat more efficiently. Plus, because they are isolated systems, they are not connected to a boiler and are often available as either fixed, installed units or portable ones that can be easily moved from room to room when additional heat is needed. “Portable baseboard heaters are like the window AC units of heating systems,” O’Brian says. “They just plug in and go.”

While both electric and hydronic systems heat effectively, each type has its clear forte: Electric baseboards serve better as smaller-space heating sources or for supplemental heat in a larger room, while hydronic baseboards are more fuel-efficient, depending on electricity costs in the area. Selecting a baseboard heater of the right type, size, and heating capacity depends on the square footage and heating requirements of the space in question. Other factors to consider are the location of the room, the type and amount of insulation, and the typical number of people using the room. To help narrow your search, created a calculator that estimates the target heating capacity for any unit, expressed in British thermal units (BTUs), based on your location’s climate and space’s square footage.

Once you’ve found a model that will satisfy your heating needs, you’ll need to figure out how to install it. Most one-room, portable baseboard heating installations are simple enough for a handy homeowner to tackle. With hardwired or whole-house systems, however, you may want to call in a contractor for at least part of the job. “Boiler hookup and electrical wiring are best performed by licensed professionals,” notes O’Brian, but homeowners can certainly attach the baseboard covers, which maximize and direct airflow, protect family members from the hot pipes, and shield the heating elements; covers may be included with the system or sold separately. Those from Baseboarders require no tools to install and can be used to refresh the look of older, ugly hydronic baseboard heaters—an uncomplicated finishing touch for an already easy and energy-efficient home upgrade.


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What Are You Going to Do When Your Water Heater Fails?

In recent years, water heater technology has advanced by leaps and bounds, affording homeowners a range of new choices that get the job done with admirable, cost-saving efficiency. When's the right time to make the switch? It may be sooner than you think.

Energy Efficient Water Heaters


To state the obvious, hot water plays a vitally important role in daily life, making it possible for households to enjoy dishwashers, washing machines, steamy showers and countless other modern conveniences. Now here’s something that you may not know already: Hot water costs the average family a whopping $400 to $600 per year. In terms of ongoing operating expenses, only HVAC comes with a higher price tag. Budget-minded homeowners can pursue savings in a number of ways. Some are conscious of using cold water when possible, but consumption isn’t the end-all and be-all of the issue. Much of the time, it pays to look closely at the water heater, specifically with regard to energy efficiency. Believe it or not, a standard unit devours more energy than most other major household appliances combined!

On paper, it makes a lot of sense to invest in a high-efficiency model, one that offers a better bang for the buck. In practice, though, it can be tricky to execute a seamless replacement. Our usual consumer mindset gets in the way. Under most circumstances, it’s wise to replace an appliance only when necessary. For instance, many people wouldn’t buy a new TV until after the old one stops working. But applying the same approach to water heater replacement rarely leads to a successful outcome. Why? While you can easily go a week without a television, the same can’t be said for hot water. Plus, while you can guess how many years your existing unit has left to give, you can never be sure. When faced with a sudden failure, many homeowners prioritize a speedy replacement over an efficient one.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ENERGY STAR program suggests an alternative: Begin preparing for replacement as soon as your water heater turns 10—the average lifespan for standard storage water heaters. Is your water heater included among the more than 40 million old models in operation nationwide? If so, don’t delay. Now is the time to take the initial steps toward replacing it. Waiting only increases the chances of your water heater springing a leak or causing a flood. In addition, with sufficient time to identify and arrange for the installation of an ENERGY STAR certified water heater, you can be sure to lower utility costs moving forward. In fact, if all water heaters sold in the United States were ENERGY STAR certified, homeowners would save nearly $10 billion annually.

Energy Efficient Water Heaters - Different Technologies


There’s a simple reason why running costs are substantially lower with ENERGY STAR certified water heaters—the certification applies only to units that boast exemplary efficiency. Precisely how much of an efficiency improvement can you expect? Like so many other questions in home improvement, the answer depends. There are a wide range of competing technologies on the market, and there can be critical differences that determine whether your upgrade results in modest or jaw-dropping savings. For that reason, be sure to consult a contractor before making any purchases, but at the outset of the selection process, the recommended first step is to familiarize yourself with the most popular options.

The traditional go-to, storage water heaters, consist of a storage tank that holds hot water until it’s needed. When used by the household, cold water is added to replenish the tank. All the while, the appliance works steadily to maintain the stored water at the designated, pre-set temperature. This means the appliance incurs standby energy losses that drive up the bill. Fortunately, you can do better.

Heat Pump Water Heaters. An increasingly popular option, heat pump water heater (HPWH) technology delivers dramatic savings by consuming 50% less energy than traditional electric models. In fact, EPA estimates that with an ENERGY STAR certified HPWH, the average four-person household can save $330 each year over the life of the appliance. In design, HPWHs share one similarity with traditional storage-style units; both involve tanks of water that the appliance works to heat continuously. But the HPWH stands out in terms of how it heats the water. Ingeniously, like a refrigerator running in reverse, a HPWH pulls heat from the air, which it then transfers to the water. Also available are ENERGY STAR certified hybrid HPWH models, which incorporate traditional water-heating technology as a backup.

Energy Efficient Water Heaters - Tankless Type Illustration


Instantaneous Water Heaters. Still another burgeoning water heater technology dispenses with the storage tank altogether. For that reason, such models are commonly referred to as “tankless”. Compact enough to mount on the wall, tankless water heaters are an ideal choice for those seeking not only space efficiency, but energy efficiency as well. Whereas other ENERGY STAR certified water heaters limit standby energy loss, tankless water heaters eliminate it. By activating only when needed (and idling the rest of the time), the technology operates with far greater efficiency than a conventional water heater that runs all day, every day. In fact, with a tankless water heater certified by ENERGY STAR, a family of four can save $1,800 over the course of the long, 20-year lifespan that tankless units offer.

It’s important to note that while an ENERGY STAR certified water heater can save you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, it will likely have a higher price tag. Models that cost the least upfront are also less efficient and, therefore, the most expensive to own long term. Still, if you find yourself hesitating over the price tag attached to a high-efficiency model, remember that rebates and other incentives are often available for ENERGY STAR certified water heaters. More than 150 utility companies, energy service providers, and municipalities offer incentives, some as high as $1,000, making the upfront cost virtually the same as a traditional non-efficient water heater. Also, in 2016, ENERGY STAR certified heat pump water heaters qualify for a $300 federal tax credit. Check with your local utility or visit the ENERGY STAR Rebate Finder to find offers in your area.

With energy costs on the rise and environmental concerns mounting, manufacturers have ushered in improved options and entirely new innovations. Of course, the water heater that lasts forever still hasn’t been invented yet. Indeed, it’s only a matter of time before your current model ceases to be viable. You have two options. One: You can wait for the day that your water heater finally fails and only then, under far from ideal circumstances, face the issue of how to replace it. Or as an alternative, you can tackle the opportunity on your own terms and plan ahead to fully capitalize on the chance to lock in lower utility bills. What about the fact that by reducing energy consumption, ENERGY STAR certified water heaters help curtail greenhouse gas emissions? Well, you can consider that an added benefit! Learn more about how to choose the ENERGY STAR water heater that’s right for you by visiting

Energy Efficient Water Heaters - Shower Illustration


This article has been brought to you by ENERGY STAR. Its facts and opinions are those of

Step Inside a 1930s Beach House Revamped for the 21st Century

A beautiful weekend home uses sustainable building practices to earn Energy Star and LEED Platinum certifications; features an energy-efficient, thoroughly modern heating and cooling system.


When its current owner first encountered this home on the shores of Truesdale Lake in Upstate New York, it was in a wretched state of disrepair. Built in 1932, the bungalow had deteriorated slowly but surely, inside and out, until nothing short of a whole-home gut renovation would be enough to make it appealing as a lakeside respite. In purchasing the property, however, the new owner set out to build it back even better than before, combining contemporary design with sustainable materials and energy-saving technology.


To achieve her vision, the homeowner called on Absolute Green Homes, a firm steered by Sylvain Côté, who routinely marries stand-out beauty with eco-friendly pragmatism. In each of his projects, Côté adheres to the philosophy that, “If it is not beautiful, it is not sustainable.” Just consider: If a design fails aesthetically, it’s only a matter of time before someone replaces it, creating waste in the process. There’s no danger of such a fate for the revamped bungalow. This embodiment of sustainable beauty not only offers jaw-dropping good looks, but also—literally—prevents waste, producing nearly as much energy as it consumes—no small feat!

Consider that on the Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Index—the industry-standard measurement for residential energy efficiency—new construction typically earns a score of 100. The Beach House, impressively, boasts a score of 30. (On the HERS scale, lower scores are better, with 0 signifying energy self-sufficiency). In recognition of its achievement in efficiency, the project garnered a number of coveted designations, including both Energy Star and LEED Platinum certification. In addition, Green Builder chose The Beach House as its “Green Home of the Year” in 2015.


It’s easy to see why. In designing this home that fuses rustic authenticity with contemporary style, Côté relied on a wide and diverse array of salvaged, locally sourced building materials to shrink the total carbon footprint of the building. Much of the wood used in the renovation came from a dilapidated barn nearby, while the fir floorboards formerly served as framing joists in a big-city factory. The emphasis on the reuse of resources percolates down into the countless smaller details that give the home character—for example, the antique ship’s lantern used as a bathroom pendant light.

The Beach House also conserves resources on an ongoing basis, thanks to a suite of energy-conserving features that figure prominently in its design. The solar shingles on the roof are a case in point. Though manufactured to resemble traditional slate, each roofing shingle incorporates photovoltaic cells—the same kind you’d find in regular solar panels.


Equally important to the efficiency of The Beach House is its unique climate-control system. As cooling and heating account for more than half of total household energy consumption on average, the right equipment can make a big difference on the bottom line. In choosing a system for The Beach House, however, Côté couldn’t focus on efficiency alone. He also needed to contend with the fact that the house had never had ducts and would need to be modified to accommodate them. That, in turn, would limit the possibilities for the architecture and interior design of the home—not a welcome prospect.

Rather than recalibrate his creativity to meet the demands of a climate-control system, Côté instead sought a solution that would adapt to his preferred design. He opted for the same technology he had installed in his own house—the Unico System. In a class of its own, Unico trades full-size, rigid metal ductwork for small-diameter, flexible tubes that snake behind walls and between joists for an unobtrusive installation that requires no aesthetic compromise. Moreover, the air handler is a third the size of a traditional system but provides the same output; this saves valuable space.


On the energy efficiency side, Côté knew the Unico System would help achieve the performance he needed for the certifications. Remember that standard air ducts are infamously leaky, losing enough energy to hinder overall efficiency by 25 percent or more. By contrast, there’s next to no thermal loss with the Unico System, as its ducts are insulated to minimize leakage, maximize efficiency, and ensure that the homeowner pays no more than strictly necessary to maintain a comfortable indoor environment. Further savings come in the summer when, using the system to cool the house, the owner can set the thermostat a few degrees higher than normal, thanks to the fact that, in comparison with its peers, Unico removes 30 percent more humidity.

As Michael Carlo of Innovative Air Solutions, the specialists who installed the HVAC system, notes, “This is a small house with limited wasted space; no other system would work here.” At the very least, Carlo continues, if a less versatile climate-control system had been chosen, The Beach House “wouldn’t have gotten done the way [it had been] envisioned.” Ultimately, the Unico System was “the obvious choice,” because the groundbreaking technology was uniquely well suited to support the two main goals of the ambitious project—excellence in design and boundary-pushing efficiency.

People often assume that in the course of renovating an existing home or constructing a brand-new one, it’s necessary to prioritize either aesthetics or performance; they believe that the two are not complementary, but rather mutually exclusive. That may have been true in the past, but as technology advances with each passing year, that conventional wisdom becomes more and more outdated. Today, homeowners enjoy a rich variety of options, from solar shingles to all-but-invisible cooling and heating, for making their homes as energy-smart as they are visually appealing.


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Bob Vila Radio: A Case for the Classic Wood Stove

Oil or gas heat may be the norm in most of the country, but in places where wood costs less than fossil fuels, there's been renewed interest among homeowners for an old favorite—the wood stove.

Plenty of us recall nestling around the cozy warmth of wood stoves, whiling away the winter-evening hours among family and friends. But now, thanks to a combination of factors—rising fossil-fuel costs on the one hand, improved technology on the other—many homeowners have begun to see the wood stove not only as a source of ambiance, but also as a viable means of everyday home heating.

Wood Stove Heating


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Need proof that wood stoves are no longer the polluters they once were? Consider this: Today’s stoves put out between two to seven grams of smoke per hour, whereas older, non EPA-certified models produced anywhere from fifteen to thirty grams. Something else to consider: Many of the best wood stoves operate eight times more cost effectively than a heating appliance reliant on fossil fuels.

Stoves come in all sorts of configurations. Some are freestanding and sit in the corner; others are built-in and mount to the wall. In addition to new designs, wood stoves also offer new features. For decades, there was no such as automatic operation of a wood stove, but today, features like automatic-loading wood hoppers, programmable timers, and remote controls all make life easier for the homeowner.

Another plus of this time-tested heating method: buying wood from your neighbors helps support the local economy!

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 Ways to Save with Zoned Comfort Solutions

Cooling and heating costs an arm and a leg. But the conventional wisdom simply doesn't apply to climate control technology like Zoned Comfort Solutions™.


You don’t need to be told that energy doesn’t come cheap. With the arrival of each utility bill, you get another reminder. But here’s something you may not know: In the average home, cooling and heating can account for more than half of the total energy consumption. That means, if you’re shelling out a small fortune from one month to the next, your cooling and heating system(s) may be at least partly to blame. The good news? While traditional systems reinforced the perception that comfort and savings are mutually exclusive, the latest cooling and heating technologies suggest a new way forward by excelling precisely where older, outmoded systems often fall short. For climate control that pairs top performance with low costs, more and more homeowners are choosing comfort-creating, energy-saving Zoned Comfort Solutions™ from Mitsubishi Electric. Featuring a powerful combination of ultra-efficient operation with control and customization, the Mitsubishi Electric system inspires you to reevaluate everything you took for granted about indoor climate control.



Zoned Comfort Solutions take a fresh approach to climate control that impacts the design of the system and its basic mode of operation. To understand what makes the Mitsubishi Electric system unique, consider that a traditional forced-air system operates cyclically, in a stop-and-start pattern that devours electricity, drives up bills and leads to dramatic ups and downs in the indoor temperature. By contrast, Zoned Comfort Solutions slash energy use—enough to save you up to 40 percent on cooling and heating—by not operating cyclically, but continuously at a lower rate. Of course, efficiency doesn’t mean much if you’re left sweating or shivering, so Zoned Comfort Solutions work to ensure a steady, uniform home environment. With multiple indoor units installed within the home to distribute conditioned air and monitor temperatures, the system automatically adjusts its output to match the cooling or heating demand at any given time. The result? You always get the temperature you set on the thermostat. Other systems put homeowners in the position of having to sacrifice savings for comfort, or vice versa. Zoned Comfort Solutions stand out, because they require no sacrifice—finally, you can enjoy comfort and savings at the same time.



Beyond its baseline efficiency, Zoned Comfort Solutions also enable you to seize countless opportunities to save. The key: Unlike a traditional system with one thermostat to control the temperature of the entire house, Mitsubishi Electric provides custom-tailored climate control, thanks to its zoning capability. In a whole-home system, homeowners can establish a set of distinct zones, each one independently controlled with its own thermostat. Now, if you want to cool or heat one room, you no longer need to pay for the energy consumed to cool or heat all the rooms—even the unoccupied ones. Instead, you can save energy—and enhance comfort simultaneously—by targeting temperatures on a zone-by-zone basis. For example, daytime activity centers on the ground floor, you can cut back on (or even turn off) climate control in the zone or zones upstairs. The added benefit: Only a zoned system accommodates for the fact that different people prefer different temperatures. Your spouse likes it cooler? Adjust the temperature accordingly in the zone where he or she spends the most time. By sidestepping the wasteful, all-or-nothing approach of traditional systems, Zoned Comfort Solutions present a win-win for your bottom line and the comfort of your family.



With its kumo cloud™ app, Mitsubishi Electric extends the already high degree of control it puts in your hands. Available for any iOS, Android or Fire OS smartphone or tablet, kumo cloud allows you to control your system from anywhere, at any time. (There’s even a web browser version, great for laptops or desktops). With virtually no barriers to system access, you never miss a chance to conserve. For example: On your commute to work one morning, you wonder whether you left the air conditioning on. With only a few taps or clicks, you can check the system status and make adjustments, potentially saving a day’s worth of wasted energy and expense. It’s true that most of the time, you can save by configuring your system to run on its own, in keeping with a pre-set schedule. But the unavoidable fact is that life doesn’t always follow a routine. Headed home earlier than you expected on a cold winter night? Use the kumo cloud app to ensure that upon arrival, your home welcomes you with cozy warmth. If anything, the innovative app testifies to the fact that cooling and heating isn’t what it used to be—and that’s a good thing!


There’s one final way in which a Mitsubishi Electric cooling and heating system breaks from tradition. Though we’re used to thinking of cooling and heating as being separate, the savings achieved with integrating Zoned Comfort Solutions continues year-round, because the streamlined system delivers comfort in both the warm and cold seasons. In summer, it takes heat from the home and expels it outdoors, while in winter, the operation reverses and the heat from compression is used to warm the air indoors. Impressively, with an advanced Hyper-Heat® technology, the Mitsubishi Electric system manages to accomplish the latter even at temperatures as low as -13 degrees Fahrenheit. But most impressive of all is that Zoned Comfort Solutions deliver on their simple promise—performance of the utmost efficiency with no compromise of comfort. If you’re tired of hit-and-miss cooling and heating that costs more per month than it sometimes seems worth, you’re not alone. But whereas alternatives were few and far between in years past, we’re now living in the 21st century. There’s no reason to continue tolerating lackluster performance and unnecessarily high costs. Embrace change and upgrade to versatile, cost-effective, endlessly customizable Zoned Comfort Solutions—get started now!


This article has been brought to you by Mitsubishi Electric. Its facts and opinions are those of

All You Need to Know About Dry Wells

Considering this out-of-sight yard drainage option could save your property (and your neighbor's) from erosion after every storm.

Installing Dry Wells Prevents Storm Water from Tearing Up the Yard


If storm water races from your yard and across the next lawn over after every heavy rain—washing out a flowerbed and cutting a ditch along the way—you could probably expect a knock on the door from one very disgruntled neighbor. But neighbor issues would be the least of your problems. When uncontrolled storm water drains, you can expect erosion and localized flooding time and time again. Dry wells are just one means by which homeowners can collect and control storm water runoff. They are not suitable for everyone, however, so read on to determine if it’s the best drainage solution for your yard.

Water Woes—and When a Dry Well Can Help
Imagine a large paved parking lot. Before the parking lot was there, rain fell onto a lawn and soaked evenly into the soil. Now, when it rains, the water can no longer drain, so it runs to the lowest area on the parking lot. Before long, rainwater pools, and—if the developer did not make provisions to divert it in a controlled manner—it will run over the curb and erode the soil beyond. The same principle is at work in your own yard: Rain falls on your roof, drains to the gutters, and then rushes out of the downspouts to wherever it can drain in the soil. Even water from a gentle rain can build up force as it exits the downspouts.

Now, enter a dry well into equation. This installation harnesses gravity to direct water toward the intentionally lowest point in the yard where it is buried. Here, it gives runoff water a place to go and gradually dissipates it into the lower levels of soil—ultimately preventing that water from cutting an unwanted path across the top of your lawn. While it typically collects runoff from a roof, it can also be used to relocate graywater, the relatively clean water wasted by sinks, baths, washing machines, and dishwashers.


Dry Wells - Catching Water from Downspouts


Is a Dry Wall Right for Your Property?
In some developments, homeowners may be required to install one or more dry wells to reduce the impact on municipal storm drains. If it’s not mandated in yours, however, you can use soil testing along with advice from your local building authority to help determine whether a dry well would help your setup.

The most important factor in determining whether your yard could benefit from this in-ground installation is your soil’s infiltration rate, or how quickly water can be completely absorbed into soil. To calculate this rate, you’ll conduct a percolation (perc) test in your yard—a process that involves digging a hole (or numerous holes), filling them with water, and then recording the rate at which the water seeps into the ground. Detailed instructions for performing a perc test on your own property are available from your county extension office. A spot where the water drains away quickly might be a good candidate for a dry well; while homeowners who have heavy clay soil on the property and slower drainage will likely need to find a different option for moving storm water.

Sizing and Materials
If local ordinances do not regulate the size and number of dry wells, it’s standard practice to install one for each downspout. Additional dry wells may be necessary if elements of your landscape are creating a drainage problem, such as runoff from a driveway or large patio.

Ideally, dry wells should be large enough to collect runoff without overflowing in typical rain events. Depending on the average amount of storm water you need to control, you can choose install a dry well that’s as small as a couple feet in depth and diameter or as large as several feet wide and several feet deep.

The type of dry well you choose to install can vary greatly depending on the amount you’re looking to invest. They run the gamut from inexpensive hand-dug pits lined with permeable landscape fabric and packed with rocks to high-end perforated concrete or polyethylene tanks. No matter style what you choose, you can cover a dry well with turf for camouflage or an open grate for easy monitoring.

Installation Basics
Assuming your soil passed a perc test, you’ll want to position a dry well or two on storm water’s natural drainage path through your yard—but keeping a safe distance from your home’s foundation, no shorter than 12 feet. To keep the water from cutting a rut after it leaves the downspout, you can install a simple swale (a trench filled with gravel) leading to the collection pit or a buried French drain that is undetectable from the surface of your yard. Your project should also include provisions for dispersing excess water that occurs during rain events that cause your dry well to overflow, such as an overflow pipe that leads to a storm sewer.

Call DigSafe at (811) to find the location of buried utilities before digging, and contact your local building authority to see if you need a permit. Installing a dry well can be a DIY project, but it’s also a relatively quick job for a professional landscaping contractor.

Maintenance Matters
Many dry wells function for years without problems, but sometimes sediment and debris washed along with runoff can clog the pit walls and reduce the dry well’s ability to disperse water. Alas, the only remedy for a clogged dry well is re-excavating and repacking the pit. Before you even encounter such a hassle of a problem, however, you can help prolong the useful life of your dry well by regularly cleaning gutters and down spouts to eliminate grime and debris early on—before they even reach the pit. If you’re using a dry well for gray water, install a filter on the drain line and clean it frequently to remove lint and soap scum that might otherwise clog it.

How To: Choose a Radiant Floor Heating System

With the growing array of radiant systems on the market today, make sure that you're picking the best possible product for your home's situation and your family's comfort.

How to Choose a Radinat Heat System


Whether it’s a new floor for the living room or new cabinetry for the kitchen, remodeling typically involves changing how the home looks. When you install new HVAC equipment, however, you are changing how the home actually feels. Putting in a new HVAC system is a key moment in your tenure as homeowner. After all, you may repaint the walls of your living spaces multiple times, but you’ll probably install a new heating and cooling technology just once, and this selection will have an impact on your daily comfort and contentment for years, if not decades, to come. How can you make such an important decision when there are so many different options?

Ask a half dozen homeowners to name the best residential heating method, and you might get a half dozen different answers. Each type comes with its own pros and cons, and each fits differently into the overall landscape. For instance, forced-air heating, the dominant mode of home heating for the past 50 years or so, is probably the technology to which most people are accustomed. Radiant heating, meanwhile, although it’s achieved wide popularity elsewhere in the world, remains relatively rare here. But that’s changing. Increasing numbers of homeowners are choosing the radiant alternative, and it’s easy to see why.

For starters, radiant floor heating delivers a qualitatively different experience than the hit-and-miss level of comfort provided by traditional systems. The fact is that in a room heated by a single source—a baseboard, for example, or a radiator—comfort often proves elusive. Get too close and you sweat, too far away and you shiver. Forced air only compounds the problem of uneven heating, because such systems operate in a cyclical stop-and-start pattern that inevitably leads to uncomfortable temperature swings. And as the hot air rises, you can often find yourself too cold in some parts of the house, too hot in others. By contrast, radiant heat provides consistent, complete warmth that feels the same no matter where you are in a room.

Radiant heat’s ability to create “everywhere” warmth owes partly to the fact that its components sit beneath the floor and stretch across virtually every available square foot. It’s a unique system design, one that helps create not only comfort, but also energy savings. Unlike forced air, radiant heating requires no ductwork—and ducts are notoriously leaky, compromising the efficiency of a system by 25 percent or more. By sidestepping ducts, radiant heating systems minimize (if not eliminate) heat loss, maximizing homeowners’ energy savings from month to month and one year to the next.

With a radiant system, you can also look forward to a number of quality-of-life benefits. Because radiant heat is largely an “out of sight, out of mind” affair, you probably won’t be constantly aware of these improvements, but they’ll be there all the same. For example, there’s the fact that radiant heat runs at a whisper-quiet decibel level, in stark contrast to the typically noisy operation of traditional systems. As well, while conventional forced-air heating seems to supply as much dust and germs as it does warmth and comfort, radiant heating does nothing to detract from indoor air quality, making it a particularly attractive option for anyone concerned about home health.

If you’re sold on the superiority of radiant heating, read on for a few considerations to bear in mind when it’s time to choose the right system for your home.




There are two main types of radiant heating technologies. Though they share a handful of superficial similarities—both heat from the ground up, for example—the two couldn’t be more different. Electric radiant heating systems rely on a network of below-floor electric cables to provide supplemental heat in a room that’s underserved by the main heating system (for instance, the master bathroom). As electricity doesn’t come cheap, such systems are generally considered comfort luxuries, effective for warming the floor but not the whole home. If you’re trying to keep your entire house toasty warm, narrow your search to include only the second main type of radiant heating—hydronic.

Hydronic radiant heat systems work completely differently. Here, boiler-heated water circulates through a network of tubing installed under the floor. Heat radiates outward from the tubing, first to the floor, then to the furniture, objects, air, and people in the conditioned space. Homeowners enjoy an enveloping, all-around warmth that surpasses the whole-home heating performance of traditional HVAC options. Better still, hydronic radiant heating runs primarily not on pricey electricity, but on the relatively inexpensive energy produced by an oil or gas boiler.



How to Choose a Radiant Heat System - Aluminum vs. Gypsum


In the realm of hydronic radiant heat, the differences between competing systems are somewhat subtle yet still important to near-term comfort and long-term savings. Much depends on the design of the radiant panels that play such a pivotal role in the success of any radiant installation. Some products on the market are essentially slabs of gypsum concrete poured over the tubing. The problem is that, while not without virtues, gypsum concrete heats up slowly and cools down slowly, delaying the attainment of comfort temperatures.

For greater responsiveness—and even additional savings—consider a system like Warmboard, which has panels built with quick-to-respond aluminum, a material 232 times more conductive than sluggish gypsum concrete. In fact, aluminum transfers heat so effectively that the Warmboard system can achieve a target temperature with water 30 degrees cooler than would be required by another system. By lightening the load for the boiler, aluminum-clad panels can save the homeowner 10 to 20 percent on energy costs—and that’s in addition to the savings achieved by choosing radiant heat in the first place.



How to Choose a Radiant Heat System - Retrofitting


Homeowners tend to appreciate the fact that radiant systems hide their components beneath the floor, making them basically invisible. There’s only one downside: In order to sit under the floor, radiant panels must be installed before the flooring. So, to complete installation in an existing home, it would first be necessary to remove the flooring, even if only temporarily, to accommodate the panels. On paper that all makes perfect sense, but in practice there’s a further complication. Once in place, typical radiant heating panels subtract inches from the overall height of a room and often create unevenness where different flooring materials meet. (Note that installing panels in walls may also be an option with some products.)

Given these challenges, it might appear that radiant heating is best installed during construction of a new home or addition, but it’s by no means impossible to retrofit a radiant system. At least one manufacturer actually offers a special type of panel that’s custom tailored for such projects. Look for ultrathin panels that slip over the existing subfloor. New construction does, however, offer homeowners the possibility of saving on the cost of materials and labor by opting for full-size radiant panels that double as subflooring.


To be sure, there are plenty of big, meaningful points of contrast between radiant heat and traditional HVAC options like forced air. More surprising, though, are the tremendous differences among systems that share the same basic technology. That’s why it’s so important to compare the radiant technologies on your radar in terms of not only their price tags, but also their design and performance. After all, your family’s comfort is at stake! Fortunately, no matter which system you ultimately choose, with radiant heating you can depend on getting a clean, quiet technology that achieves total, unparalleled comfort with the utmost energy efficiency.


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

How To: Clean Air Conditioner Coils

Save money and lengthen your AC unit’s life with this simple maintenance operation.

How to Clean AC Coils on a Window Unit


During the hottest days of the year, it’s likely that you rely heavily on an air conditioning unit—be it targeting your room from a windowsill or cooling off the whole-home—without considering what makes it tick. Your AC condenser coils are where the magic happens: Here, the refrigerator unit in your go-to seasonal appliance absorbs heat to make the air cooler. As air passes over the cool refrigerant, it wicks the heat out in a process that’s essentially the reverse of how your forced air furnace operates. Now, the cleaner the surface area of those coils is, the more efficiently the machine works. Dust and oil that accumulate over time can create a blanket over the coils—one that, just like the blanket on your bed, impedes heat transfer and makes your AC less efficient and more expensive. Fortunately, the hardest part to cleaning air conditioner coils is remembering to set aside the time at least once a year. The process takes less than half an hour, but better schedule a full hour so you don’t feel like you’re rushing through the job.

– Screwdriver
– Coil brush
– Fin brush (optional)
– Garden hose
– Foaming coil cleaner

How to Clean AC Coils


For window ACs, you’ll need to access the end that sticks out of the house in order to reach the coils; central air units typically keep the coils behind a removable panel that you should unscrew in order to continue. Check your operator’s manual if you’re unclear—the specs diagram will identify exactly where the coils are and the process to remove the cover, if applicable. Remember: When in doubt, trust the manufacturer. They built it. They know how to take it apart.

Visually inspect the coils for any large debris like leaves, spider webs, or clods of dirt. Remove these by hand, then dust off the coils using a coil brush. Available at most big box hardware stores and AC shops, this specialty cleaning tool (also known as a soil brush) features bristles with stiffness about halfway between a hand broom and a wire brush. Lightly guide the brush parallel to the fins on the coils in order to avoid bending them. This isn’t a deep scrub—you’re simply knocking off loose dust and hair.

STEP 3 (optional)
Did you notice many bent fins on your coils in Step 2? (Hint: Bent fins will reflect light and often put a bright sheen to parts of the coils.) If so, running a fin brush slowly and parallel to the line of the fins could straighten them out. This will improve the performance of your AC unit by increasing the exposed surface area for the coils. If you don’t want to invest in a piece of specialized equipment like the fin brush (which can be purchased for $15 or more online), go ahead and skip this step. Correcting bent fins goes above and beyond the task at hand—cleaning the coils—from which you’re machine will already receive an efficiency boost.

STEP 4 (optional)
Rinse the coils on any outdoor central AC unit by spraying with water from your garden hose. If your unit is indoors, you can avoid a puddle beneath your window altogether by opting for a slightly pricier “no-rinse” type of coil cleaner and moving on to Step 5.

Shake the can of foaming coil cleaner—either the standard or a no-rinse version—and spray it directly into your coils so that none go uncovered. The cleaner should foam immediately, filling the air between coils where grime accumulates, until each section of your coils is hidden from view. The foaming lifts off all the unreachable dirt and grime embedded in between the fins. Let the cleaner soak for five to 10 minutes, according to the instructions on the can.

If the cleanser specifies, rinse off the foaming cleaner using your hose. You will need good water pressure and slow, back and forth motions to thoroughly rinse the cleanser off. Indoor units cleaned using rinse-free cleaner simply need to start up; the condensate will rinse off the cleaner on its own.

How to Clean AC Coils on a Whole-House Unit


Though some of the more unscrupulous AC service companies will say you need service two or three times per year, most experts agree cleaning your coils once a year is plenty. For best results, do it in the spring, immediately before the summer heat starts to demand your air conditioning perform at peak potential.


Cleaning Tips for a Spotless Home

All of the Essential Cleaning Advice from
There’s no way around it: Keeping the house clean demands your time, your energy, and even some of your money. Fortunately, this arsenal of cleaning tips can help you finish the housekeeping more quickly—and with fewer commercially sold products.

Which Type of Dehumidifier Is Right for You?

Savvy homeowners dread high humidity, not only because it causes discomfort, but also because over time, excess moisture can be severely damaging to the home. Often, dehumidifiers are the answer, but choosing the right model can be tricky business. Continue to get advice from an industry pro.

Types of Dehumidifiers


Does this sound familiar? You step outside on a hot day, and though the weather may not be ideal, you can certainly tolerate it. The next day, however, the same heat combines with a higher level of humidity, and you’re left fantasizing about taking the next plane to a kinder climate. Though many people focus primarily on their own sticky discomfort, veteran homeowners know the darker side of humidity: When the moisture content of air rises above a safe threshold indoors, there can be a battery of negative consequences, from musty odors and mold growth to warped wood and cracked or peeling paint. In other words, your house hates humidity as much as you do!

The solution? It’s simple—install a dehumidifier. Doing so not only boosts the efficiency and effectiveness of air conditioning, but also protects against damage due to excess moisture. The technology always works the same way, no matter if the dehumidifier is a portable model or a whole-home unit tied into the household HVAC. Air is pulled into the dehumidifier and exposed to a cold coil inside the unit, which causes water contained in the humid air to condense into liquid water that is then stored or drained. The now-dry air then exits the unit after passing over a warm coil. For all their fundamental similarities, however, dehumidifiers often differ dramatically in terms of capacity and design.

Types of Dehumidifiers - Portable Unit


For a dehumidifier to serve its intended function, its capacity must match the demand. In other words, according to Daniel O’Brian, a technical specialist with, “You need to make sure you get the right size dehumidifier for the job.” Much depends on two variables—the size of the space and the conditions within it. For instance, in a large, damp, closed-in basement, you would need a higher-capacity dehumidifier than in a relatively compact living space with sufficient airflow. If you’re considering whole-home dehumidification, it’s wise to consult with a contractor to make sure your unit will be compatible with your HVAC system and powerful enough for your needs. For portable units, however, you can generally rely on the coverage area specified by the manufacturer.

In terms of design, homeowners are probably most familiar with portable dehumidifiers that can be wheeled from one room to another in order to remove moisture from the immediately surrounding air. Such units are popular because they are user-friendly—as O’Brian puts it, “Installing one is as easy as installing a toaster.” They’re appealing also because these “plug and play” dehumidifiers tend to be the least expensive option, though not necessarily the least powerful. The downside: Portable units don’t run for very long on their own; many “need to be checked and emptied fairly regularly,” O’Brian notes. That said, in the wake of a moisture-related event—for instance, a flooded basement—O’Brian maintains that there’s no better option.

Some homeowners are fortunate enough to face perilously high humidity only on occasion and in certain parts of the house. For others, though, it’s a persistent problem, and not just in one or a few rooms, but throughout the home. In the latter situation, “your best bet may be an in-line dehumidifier,” O’Brian says. Specially designed to integrate with the existing forced-air HVAC system, whole-home dehumidifiers are more sophisticated than their stand-alone cousins and for that reason usually cost more—”if only because their installation requires a pro,” O’Brian adds. Yet the added cost gets you at least a couple of virtues not found in portables. For one, whole-home units do their job behind the scenes, without ever becoming an eyesore. Plus, “set it and forget it” in-line units rarely require homeowner intervention.

Retailers like offer both portable and whole-home dehumidifiers in a wide range of capacities, from a suite of industry-leading manufacturers. To get a head start on selecting a unit, first monitor the moisture level in different areas of your home and use a hygrometer to take some humidity measurements. Then, when you’re ready to discuss specific requirements, don’t hesitate to contact customer service, either online or by phone at (888) 757-4774. O’Brian concludes, “Whether you’re looking for a little extra comfort or a lot of protection against moisture damage, there’s a dehumidifier perfectly suited to match your needs and budget.”

Types of Dehumidifiers - Inline Unit


This article has been brought to you by Its facts and opinions are those of

Solved! What to Do About a Sewage Smell in the Bathroom

Bathroom odors are a dime a dozen, but when you’ve got one that lingers for days, you should try for a DIY repair. Follow these steps to stamp out the sewer smell—and breathe easy.



Q: I’ve noticed a rotten smell coming from my bathroom lately and can’t figure out the source. Do you have any idea what could be causing this lingering odor and how I can get rid of it?

A: Sewer smells in your bathroom can result from a few different issues, so you’ll need to spend a bit of time in the room to sniff out the source. Once you’ve identified where the odor is coming from, the fix will probably be easy for you to tackle on your own. It’s smart of you to address the offensive odor sooner rather than later, though: In some cases, inhalation of high levels of sewer gas can lead to a host of health problems. Prolonged exposure to sewer gases can cause nausea, dizziness, and, in the case of hydrogen sulfide poisoning, even fatality, and extreme buildup can trigger an explosion. What’s more, airborne pathogens can creep in when the seal that keeps out sewer gases has been breached, leaving you vulnerable to sewer-dwelling germs. Before you start sniffing around, slip on a painter’s mask so you don’t breathe in toxic fumes, and then take things step by step.



First, check for clogs. This is the fastest problem to fix, because all you’ll need is a bottle of drain cleaner from the supermarket or hardware store. Pour it down the shower and sink drains to eliminate any gunk that may have built up in the pipes and caused the stink. Carefully follow the instructions on the packaging, and make sure you wait the requisite amount of time before you flush the drains with water. If the odor disappears after a day or two, then congrats! You’re good to go.

If the problem persists, look for leaks in your sink plumbing. Check for standing water on the floor or cabinet base beneath the U-shaped pipe (the P-trap) under the sink. Also, run your hand along the length of the pipe to detect any moisture. Dampness in either location is a sure sign of a leak.

Normally, a small amount of water collects inside the P-trap, even when it’s not in use, capturing sewer gases that would otherwise sneak up through the drain opening. But if the water in the P-trap dribbles out and leaves the interior of the pipe dry, those gases will escape and linger in the air. When that happens, it’s probably because the washers have corroded and created a small breach. If that’s the case, you should be able to replace them and reinforce your work with caulk or plumber’s tape to ensure a good seal.

Call in a pro for inspection. Unfortunately, if your drains are clear and your P-trap isn’t in need of repair, you’ll probably have to hire a plumber. It could be that there’s a broken wax ring where the toilet meets the floor—a situation that you can detect by observing how much water remains in the bowl between uses. If there isn’t sufficient water for a flush, you could very well have a leaky seal that has unsettled your commode and let sewer gas seep into the room—both unsanitary and unsafe. Alternatively, clogged or incorrectly installed vent pipes could be the culprits. These pipes conduct sewer gases out of your home, and fixing them would require specialized equipment and a trip up to the roof. If the vent pipes are involved, tracking down the source of the odor and remedying the problem is a job best left to a professional.