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Looking for great advice on home repair, home improvements and many do-it-yourself projects? Then look to Tom Feiza, Milwaukee's "Mr. Fix-It." Tom has helped millions on a broad range of home-related topics. The right column contains a list of chapters from Tom's book "Just Fix It". If you find this information useful you will enjoy Tom's book. If you are looking for the How to Operate Your Home website, click here.

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Quick Tip #24 – Compact Fluorescents – Yes, They’re a Good Deal!

July 29th, 2014 by admin No comments »

E124 - Compact Fluorescent LampsOK, for many years compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) were a bit of a pain. They provided an eerie color, took a long time to reach full brightness, never worked outdoors in cold weather, and failed early.

Most of those problems have been solved in the last 20 years. Now it’s hard to resist these lamps, which provide the same amount of light as incandescent lamps for about 25 percent of the energy cost. They also generate about 75 percent less heat inside an air-conditioned space, which is important in areas where air conditioning is used often.

They are color-corrected to provide a natural color. When you purchase the lamps, look for the “warm white” or “natural” color notation on the packaging. The color-corrected CFLs really do have great color. They’re available as spotlights and floodlights, and there are special versions for circuits with light dimmers. The bulbs are small enough to fit in most household lamps and fixtures.

If you do the energy calculation, you’ll see there is a great payback for substituting CFLs over incandescent bulbs. They also last about six to 12 times longer than incandescents.

Quick Tip #23 – Fixing a Drip at the Bathroom Fan

July 22nd, 2014 by admin No comments »

V007 - Bathroom Exhaust Fan ProblemsSo you run the bath exhaust fan to remove moisture – but then you get that drip, drip, drip from the fan on your nice clean rug. Bath exhaust fans should not drip. If yours does, there’s something wrong with it.

First, check the exhaust ducting or tubing; it should be insulated, straight and vented to the outside. There should be a minimum of bends for proper air flow. If there is no insulation around the duct, the problem could be condensation in the cold duct. Adding insulation around the duct may solve the problem.

The fan’s damper can also get stuck in the open position, allowing hot air into the cool duct and creating condensation. Check the small damper at the fan. It should open when the fan is on and close when the fan turns off. This damper responds to fan pressure and gravity. Most vent connectors through the roof or sidewall should also have a damper to keep cold air out, and it should open and close with fan operation.

For many years, contractors installed bath fan vent ducting incorrectly, creating a bend or low loop to catch condensation. This just allows water to accumulate and may cause a large leak when the water lets go.

Quick Tip #22 – The Rain May Drain, But It’s Really Not a Pain

July 14th, 2014 by admin No comments »

P017 - Storm, Sanitary Sewer in StreetWhen a rain gutter and downspout send their discharge below grade to a pipe, it may appear that rainwater is draining into a sanitary sewer, but it really isn’t. In municipal areas with sewer systems, gutter (rainwater) discharge is normally routed into a storm sewer. This storm piping routes water to rivers and streams and is separate from the sanitary sewer system.

Municipal systems include a sanitary sewer system that routes toilet, shower and sink water to a sewage treatment plant. The flow of storm and sanitary sewer systems would never be combined unless a really old system is in place or there are problems with the system. In the old days before good sewage treatment, homes had combined sewers – but that is not common today.

When you live out in the country, your gutters may discharge below grade and be directed underground to the side of a hill or a lower spot. Rural areas don’t have storm sewers.

Here is a tip. Look at the curb and gutter in front of your house. If you see grates there, rainwater flows into a storm sewer system below the street.

Quick Tip #21 – GFCI? What? Why?

July 7th, 2014 by admin No comments »

E125  Safety of GFCI vs. BreakerYou may not know what a GFCI is, but chances are it’s making your home safer. A ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) measures current flowing through a circuit. It looks simple, but it’s really a complex electronic device.

Electricity flows like water through a circuit. The GFCI measures this flow; if the device is operating properly, the flow into and out of the device should be the same. If the GFCI detects a slight leak of current (perhaps through your body), it immediately disconnects the circuit. That’s where the term “ground fault” comes from – the GFCI detects that the current is “grounding” when it’s not supposed to.

What about a circuit breaker or fuse? Wouldn’t one of these detect an imbalance? Circuit breakers and fuses are designed to prevent wires and devices from overheating. A 15-amp breaker will allow 15 amps of power to flow before it trips the circuit. That 15 amps is enough to light more than 15 100-watt bulbs; it’s enough current to kill a person. In fact, just a fraction of an amp flowing through your heart could be fatal. A GFCI will trip before that happens.

Remember to use the test button to check the GFCI periodically. Plug a lamp into the circuit; the lamp should turn off when you push the test button, tripping the GFCI.

Quick Tip #20 – Extension Cord Safety

June 30th, 2014 by admin No comments »

E086 - Extension Cord ProblemsYou should view extension cords as a necessary evil. Avoid using them. If you must use an extension cord, use a heavy duty cord with a sturdy plug and outlet. Make sure the cord is in good condition.

Some basic rules:

  1. Never run an extension cord through a doorway where it could get damaged.
  2. Never run an extension cord under a rug where it can’t be seen and could overheat.
  3. Never run a cord where it could present a trip hazard.
  4. Never use two extension cords end to end – you just double the risk.
  5. Never use a cord with exposed wires or a loose plug or outlet.
  6. Never cut or modify the cord or connectors.

For appliances like washing machines, toasters or hair dryers, don’t use an extension cord, period. Have an electrician install an outlet near the appliance so a cord is not needed. These appliances use lots of energy and can overheat an extension cord.

All permanently installed appliances – a garage door operator or sump pump, for example – must have an electrical outlet nearby so an extension cord is not needed.

Quick Tip #19 – My Siding Is Dirty

June 23rd, 2014 by admin No comments »

M040 Wash Siding – Work UpAll types of siding eventually accumulate dirt and grime, maybe even some mildew. It might make you think you need to paint the siding. But that’s not so. Often, it’s easy to wash dirt from the surface if the underlying finish is in good shape.

Some professionals use a pressure washer on siding, but that is really overkill. It can damage caulk and force water into the siding.

Try washing your siding with a mild detergent and water. You can wet the surface and then spray with the detergent/water mix in a garden sprayer. Use a soft brush – the kind you use for washing a car – and put the brush on a long pole to make the job easier. Work from the bottom up, and keep wetting the area below the part you’re scrubbing to prevent dirty wash water from streaking dry siding. Rinse with clear water.

If your siding has gray, black or green spots, try washing with JOMAX – a great product for removing mildew. Just follow label directions. You spray the product on the surface, wait and then rinse it off. For tougher dirt, you may need to scrub a little.

You will be surprised at how a little elbow grease and detergent can make your siding look like new.

Quick Tip #18 – A Drip at the Darned Valve – Again

June 19th, 2014 by admin No comments »

P009 - Globe ValveLet’s say that every time you turn the small globe valve for the outdoor hose bib, you get that drip-drip-drip from the body of the valve. Or maybe your drip occurs at the small needle valve for the icemaker or the humidifier – turn the valve, and the darned thing leaks.

Maybe you wire a coffee can below the valve to catch drips, and the problem is solved – until the can overflows onto the floor.

It’s time to adjust the packing nut. What’s that? Most needle, globe and gate valves have a packing nut that surrounds the valve stem. On these valves you normally turn the handle around and around to control the flow. The valve handle is sealed at the stem with a packing nut and flexible packing below the nut.

The fix? Tighten the hex nut slightly to compress the packing around the valve stem, and the leak will stop. This may make the valve harder to turn, so don’t tighten it too much – just enough to stop the drip. If the drip continues, you may need to dismantle the valve and replace the packing, a job often best left to a plumber.

If you allow a valve to continue dripping, deposits will build up around the valve stem and eventually ruin the valve.

Quick Tip #17 – Caulking the Wide Open Spaces

June 13th, 2014 by admin No comments »

M009 - Caulking TechniquesSo you filled that wide gap in the exterior trim with the best caulk you could buy, and the next year it had pulled away from one surface, leaving a large gap. Or you tried to fill a wider gap, and the caulk just fell in the hole. What went wrong? No backer rod.

Before professionals fill a large gap with caulk, they bridge the wide opening with a stiff foam backer rod. The backer rod is wide enough so friction holds it just below the gap’s surface. The rod supports the caulk applied in an hourglass shape with a height-to-width ratio of about 1:2.

Why? Caulk needs to expand and contract as surfaces move. The hourglass shape allows the caulk to bond to only two surfaces; the narrower section easily expands and contracts with movement. Caulk should never completely fill a space. It should never be applied to three sides or an unbridgeably wide gap, or it will quickly fail. Caulk can’t expand and contract when it is pulled in three directions or when the cross-section is too thick.

You will find backer rods in larger paint and hardware stores. It is sold in lengths like rope, and it comes in various diameters. Choose a diameter that is wider than the gap to be filled, and force the rod into place with a blunt tool or putty knife.

Quick Tip #16 – Three-Way, Two-Way or One-Way Switch?

June 2nd, 2014 by admin No comments »

E036 - Switches - 120 Volt, Single Pole, 3-WayHome systems have some strange terminology. Why are the two light switches that control one light fixture called a three-way switch? You know – the kind with a switch at both the top and the bottom of the stairs. Sometimes it’s up/switch off, and sometimes up/switch on.

The name relates to switching the power line back and forth, and having an extra wire and connector. Electricians call this a three-way switch, and it takes a smart electrician to wire this properly.

You may not care about the details, but you should care about the switches and what they control. Here is the quick tip: You can identify the type of switch by looking at the marking on it.

Single pole switches, with one switch controlling one light, are marked with an “on” and “off ” position.

A three-way switch has no marking because there is no consistent on or off position. The on-off can change depending on the position of the second three-way switch. Take a look at the switches in your home. You may be surprised with what you have overlooked.

Quick Tip #15 – Garage Door Safety

May 29th, 2014 by admin No comments »

D009 - Garage Door Operator Control ButtonWhat is the largest, heaviest moving object in your home? You got it – the garage door. So it makes sense to do frequent safety checks on the door.

First, look for a safety label near the control button or the overhead door. It will tell you how to safely operate the door and test the reverse mechanism.

Second, make sure the control button is mounted at least five feet above the floor or any step. This prevents small children from playing with the door operator.

Third, never allow children to play with the door or the operator.

You should test your operator for reverse and door balance once per month. Follow the specific instructions on your door’s safety label. If you don’t understand these instructions or you don’t have specific instructions for your door, contact a professional door service company.

Several times per year, check the door hardware for tightness. Consult your owner’s manual for the proper lubricant, and apply it to rollers, tracks and other mechanical parts. Have the door serviced by a professional if there is any sign of problems.

By Tom Feiza, Mr. Fix-It