I’m often asked for my advice about protecting the sprinkler system from freeze-ups during this transition time between seasons, when the weather’s so erratic and unpredictable. When can it be left on without worry? A hard date rule of thumb that seems to work year after year is to wait until Mother’s Day. Before that, there is always a risk of a sudden freeze-up.
That’s why I recommend that you have a quick-on/quick-off setup for your sprinklers. Now would be a good time to have a plumber or landscape company install an appropriate drain valve or faucet in the piping outside and in the utility room, so it will be easier and more convenient to drain the system — and then repressure it when the lawn needs a drink.
Dear Ken: I have an irritating storm door. It always slams and hits me just when I’m coming in carrying groceries. What’s the fix here? — Lori
Answer: If you have a closer (that is, the plunger — usually at the top of the door), it can be adjusted. There should be a little set screw at the end that controls the release of air. Turn it clockwise a half turn at a time, and the door should close more slowly. The real test is at the end; the door should “kiss” the catch on the side of the door jamb and gently snap in place. If you can’t balance these two behaviors — a uniform slow close, followed by a normal latching — you may need a new closer. The seals inside the cylinder wear out, and there’s no practical way they can be repaired.
Dear Ken: One of my toilets doesn’t always flush completely. Is there something I can do myself to fix it? — Deb
Answer: If it’s old, it may need some deep cleaning. Those little holes up under the rim and the big one at the bottom of the bowl accumulate minerals and so get smaller and less effective over time. An Allen wrench is just the right tool for this. It’s a small, hardened steel rod-like tool with a convenient 90-degree bend that makes it easy to gouge out material in those hard-to-see holes. Choose a diameter that just barely fits and gently clean them all—about 20 or so. Use a larger tool for that siphon jet hole in the bottom of the bowl, but take care not to scratch the porcelain. This procedure should give an older toilet new vigor, but there’s one more step.
Take off the tank lid to be sure that the flapper valve (the rubber disk that releases the water) is lifting completely off its hole and that it stays open for the complete flush. If not, it’s easy to replace with a new valve and chain.
Dear Ken: I want to redecorate one of my bathrooms. There’s a small mirror glued to the wall. How can I remove it? — Cindy
Answer: First, apply some gentle heat from a hairdryer on low to soften the glue. Apply duct tape to the entire glass surface and gently pry at one corner. Then use a piece of fine wire wrapped around your gloved fingers and “saw” it back and forth. If you can’t get it to release, you’ll have to break the glass. The duct tape will ensure that all the pieces are small and remain in place; it’s messy, but effective
Another idea: Why not incorporate it into your decorating? You can find mirror-edging decorative elements made from wood and plastic at the home center or hardware store that will give new life to that old mirror.
Dear Ken: I had an electrician come out for some repair work, and he said my Federal Pacific electric panel is dangerous and should be replaced. What do you think? — Norm
Answer: It’s a good idea. These panels have a lousy reputation among home inspectors, realtors, appraisers and insurance companies, mainly because their beakers aren’t always reliable as they age. They were popular with builders for about 30 years starting in the mid 1950s. It turns out that the breakers in all old panels degrade over the years, but Federal Pacific panels and one other brand, called Pushmatic, have the worst reputations — probably because there are so many of them.
Nevertheless, there’s no big rush if it is operating OK (I’m assuming here that the electrician didn’t say it was an emergency). You have time to check estimates from several companies. You’ll find a wide range of bids for a total panel replacement, perhaps from $2,500 up to $5,000 or so.
But there is another alternative you can ask about. The Eaton Co. makes a kit wherein you replace the internal parts of your old panel — including the breakers. It’s similar to putting a new engine in an old car — and is much less disruptive than a whole new setup. Cost? Maybe one-half or even less than a full tear-out and replacement.
Dear Ken: I’m from Texas. There we add water around the foundation, but my Realtor says that’s a no-no here. True? — Larry
Answer: Oh, how true! You grew up around caliche soil that shrinks when it dries out. Adding water around a house keeps the soil from pulling away from the foundation.
Here, we have soil that contains clay. When this material gets wet, it expands with amazing force. So much so that concrete components, like the basement floor, driveway and sidewalks — and even the foundation itself — can heave and crack. So, keep all surface water sources — especially downspouts — well away from the house!
Ken Moon is a home inspector in the Pikes Peak region. His call-in radio show airs at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KRDO, FM 105.5 and AM 1240. Visit aroundthehouse.com