Dear Ken: My disposal is giving me fits. How can I tell if it’s just quit or needs to be reset? — David
Answer: Look for a small button on the underside of the disposal. You may have to lie on your back and use a flashlight. Once you find it, firmly push up on it. If it snaps back into place with a noticeable “click,” then you’re back in business. On the other hand, if it hasn’t popped out — and you’re sure the circuit breaker in the electric panel hasn’t tripped — then it’s probably time to retire it.
One other thing. If the disposal is humming without grinding, then it needs unbinding. Most disposals have a little hole — dead center — in the bottom outside shell that accepts a small steel crank. Insert the crank to rotate the motor and blades. Sometimes that frees up things. If you can’t find that elusive crank under your sink, you can buy a universal one at a hardware store.
Dear Ken: Every year we have to block up the basement return air grille because tons of cold air comes in. I assume it’s coming from some sort of outside duct. What can we do to warm up the basement? — Billy
Answer: The rules have changed since your house was built. Back in the ‘70s, when we started tightening up houses in response to rising energy prices, we discovered a source of outside combustion air was needed to satisfy the furnace, water heater and other air-exhausting systems. That fresh air duct lets raw, frigid outside air directly into the house, and so can run up the gas bill. Now, you’re allowed to draw that same air from inside the house. Why? Upon reflection, we now know that houses — in spite of our best efforts at buttoning them up — let enough outside air leak inside to make up for that pesky duct.
The new rules are fairly arcane, so let a heating contactor do the calculations for you. You may have to add a wall grille here or there, and maybe a louvered door. Then you can disable that duct that’s freezing up the basement. But again, don’t try this without the imprimatur of an HVAC contractor. If you simply block up the duct on your own, you risk letting dangerous fumes (carbon monoxide among them) into the house!
Dear Ken: My house is pretty old and it has steel water piping, and there is a little rust when I run water into the bathtub. Does this hurt anything? — Mark
Answer: No, although your water heater may be retaining more contaminates than is good for it. It simply means that the pipes are full of scale and so need replacing. It would be a good idea to install modern copper or plastic in their place. I like plastic in your case, because it’s easier to snake around corners and through the nooks and crannies of an older house. A couple of benefits will accrue to you when you do the replacement: You’ll notice a lot more water flow rate (gallons per minute) into each fixture, and a future buyer, who probably would have discounted the ancient plumbing off your asking price, now won’t even think twice about it.
In the meantime, you may be ingesting more dissolved minerals — especially iron — in your drinking water than is good for you through these old pipes, so it’s a good idea to install a reverse osmosis filtration system under the kitchen sink to remove these “extras.”
Dear Ken: I had new windows put in recently. They must have used silicone caulking, because I can’t caulk or paint them now. What should I do? — Audrey
Answer: Pure rubber silicone is not a good choice for caulking around windows and doors. It will yellow and accumulate dirt, and so will look unsightly in no time. And then the trouble begins: It’s almost impossible to paint over, unless you use a good primer — and even then you may be disappointed. Also, new caulk doesn’t stick to it with any reliability. So, it’s best to use an exterior acrylic caulking material; most come with a small silicone component — and so are labeled “siliconized” — for durability. They are easy to maintain because they can be painted and recaulked anytime.
At your house, you’ll have to remove the old rubber silicone first. That’s not as bad as it sounds, because it usually comes off in long strips once you start pulling. Wait for a warmish day. And it’s a good idea to use a little mineral spirits to remove any remaining residue before you apply the acrylic.
Dear Ken: When my iron is heating up, the lights dim and the fans go slower. What do you think of this? — Carol
Answer: It’s usually not a problem, because the clothes iron grabs most of the circuit’s available amperage. That results in a concomitant voltage drop that makes other devices in that circuit slow down or dim. As long everything returns to normal, you’re OK. But if this diminished capacity is evident throughout the house — not just in the room where the iron is — you should make a couple of calls. Have the power company check the wiring to and from your electric meter for deterioration or loose connections. If everything is OK in that area, it’s time to call an electrician who can check the connections inside the main panel and, perhaps, throughout the house.
This phenomenon is usually more apparent in older homes — especially those with aluminum wiring. Many homes built from roughly the mid ‘60s to the mid ‘70s have circuits wired with aluminum instead of copper. This material has turned out to be unsafe and can (thankfully, rarely) cause fires. If that’s the vintage of your house, have its wiring type checked. If aluminum wire was used, it’s vital to get it repaired by an electrician.
Ken Moon is a home inspector in the Pikes Peak region. His radio show airs at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KRDO, FM 105.5 and AM 1240. Visit aroundthehouse.com