Around the House: Upgrades for a safer, warmer home
Dear Ken: What do you recommend for a good driveway concrete sealer? -Tony
Any clear masonry sealer will work. But driveway sealing is a never-ending process. That is, you’ll have to renew it two or three times a year. Why? This material consists of silicone-like, long chain molecules that are very vulnerable to our high-UV sunlight – so it will disappear relatively quickly. Since this constant recoating can get rather expensive, I would only consider it on north-facing driveways. These surfaces get little sunlight in the winter, which means that ice and snow sit on them and go through constant freeze-thaw cycles. That breaks down the concrete surfaces, producing that ugly “spalling” typical of older driveways. If your house faces predominately south, I would not waste the time and money to seal the driveway.
Dear Ken: We have a chilly basement when the furnace isn't running. The heat from the sun keeps the thermostat warm, so the lower level doesn't get heat. Is there a small gas unit we could use to heat the basement? -Jeff
There are several varieties of gas fireplace/stoves that would take the chill off your lower level. They can be direct-vented – where the flue pipe goes straight outdoors instead of through the roof. However, they may be a little pricey for your needs.
Sometimes you can simply relocate the thermostat to a more sheltered part of the main level that isn't affected by sunshine. It's merely a matter of splicing some low voltage wire on to the existing loop and pulling it up through another wall. Try for a location away from heat ducts, cooking, fireplaces and windows.
Dear Ken: Our house was built in 1969 and has aluminum wiring. So far, we haven't had any unusual problems, but it scares me. What is involved in repairing it and what about the cost? -Tina
You're not alone. Aluminum wiring was installed in millions of houses and mobile homes during, roughly, the Vietnam War period – around 1965 to ’75. What we didn't know at the time was that it didn't behave itself in residential electrical settings. When you wrap it around the brass screw on a plug or a switch, it gradually works itself loose because of thermal expansion and contraction.
There have been fires associated with this phenomenon, so it's a good idea to re-terminate those connections with copper. The electrician will attach short “pigtails” to the plug or switch wires, and then the new copper wire is run to the screw. This work is best left to a professional who specializes in this retermination process.
If any of your plugs or switches smell or feel hot, or are arcing or sputtering, consider that an emergency indicator. Turn off that particular circuit at the breaker box and call an expert. You might as well do this now, because you'll probably be required to do the work when you sell the house; any competent home inspector will catch it and mark it down as a safety item.
Dear Ken: My water heater is over 20 years old. I drain some water every six months, and all of a sudden it's rusty. Do I need to replace it? -Jerry
Probably. Water heaters usually fail when the bottom of the tank rusts out. The accumulation of material – like scale, grit and other water-born impurities – at the bottom of the tank probably encourages this eventual breakdown. That's why it's important to drain the tank at least once a year, as you indicate you've done. In spite of your efforts, it's time to replace your old clunker before it really fails and starts to leak. Today's water heaters have been redesigned to comply with stricter efficiency standards, they heat water a little less quickly than you're used to. So, I would upgrade one size, from a 40 gallon to a 50 gallon model, for example.
Ken Moon is a home inspector in the Pikes Peak region. His radio show airs at 9 a.m. Saturday and is carried on KRDO, AM 1240 and FM 105.5. Visit AroundTheHouse.com.