Dear Ken: Every winter we leave town for a few months. I know you’ve covered this, but please remind me of how to prepare the house for the winter. — Rick
Answer: I’m not a believer in shutting off the heat. You risk freeze-ups of pipes inside wall cavities; plus the cold temperatures are brutal on woodwork, furniture, electronic devices and appliances. Set the thermostat at no lower than 55 degrees. Flush the toilets and remove the water in the bowls with a car-washing sponge. Stuff a couple of plastic shopping bags in there but not too far. Invert a piece of Tupperware over the shower drain and close the pop-up stoppers in all sinks. It’s also a good idea to open cabinet doors under sinks that are on outside walls to let warm air waft underneath.
Even though the heat is on, it’s best to take a few more steps to protect the house and the piping system. Turn the water heater off — including the pilot — and then close the main incoming water supply valve in the basement. Go to the lowest bathroom sink and open both the cold and hot water faucets to let water dribble out and to let atmospheric pressure into the pipes. To ensure that the icemaker won’t keep calling for water from a dry pipe, lift up that lever in the freezer compartment.
Security is paramount while you’re away. Lights — inside or outside — that are left on 24/7 are a telltale sign that you’re gone. A couple of lamps connected to inexpensive plug-in timers set to come on at sundown and off at, say, 11 p.m. are a much better idea. Outside I like the motion detector light systems, which are only triggered when someone or something gets near them.
Finally, keep blinds and drapes open so neighbors and police can see inside; also, set a radio or two to a 24-hour talk station and turn them up fairly loud.
Dear Ken: The linoleum around the toilet is starting to swell and discolor. There’s no evidence of a leak downstairs or water on the floor. What’s going on? — Felicia
Answer: Two causes are possible. The toilet may be leaking small amounts of water underneath the vinyl floor. That will eventually show up on the ceiling downstairs. The fix is relatively simple. Remove the toilet and install a new wax ring.
The other possible culprit is the tub. Over the years, small amounts of water can leak down the side. If the flooring is not well-caulked at the tub edge, the moisture ends up between the clear and colored layers. It usually shows up as a light gray stain that can’t be cleaned. If left long enough, the wood flooring under the vinyl tile gets involved, and that can mean rotting and mold issues.
The only sure fix is to replace the flooring and add a shower door. They have a metal lip that catches errant water and runs it back into the tub.
Dear Ken: I have a new house. Lately, there is a buzzing sound in the attic when the wind is strong. Any ideas about what’s going on and who can fix it? — Len
Answer: It’s probably on or around one of the attic vents. They are the only opening up there, and wind can howl through them and loosen things up. Look for edges of tar paper hanging into the vent opening. Also, louvers on the inside of gable vents (the ones in the side wall) can produce harmonic vibrations on their own. Apply a bending pressure to the louver slats to produce some deformation that will be less susceptible to wind flow.
If you’re reluctant to climb into the attic, call a handyman service, roofing contractor or insulating outfit that can send someone up there to perform these minor adjustments.
Dear Ken: When I flush or do a load of washing on the top floor of my house, the first-floor shower drain starts to smell. Do I need a sewer company? — Deanna
Answer: Maybe not. First, is the lower bath a seldom-used facility? If so, you should run a couple of quarts of cold water into the shower and lavatory drains once a week. That will fill up the traps so they can seal out city sewer gas.
If the odor persists, it’s time to clean the drain. Shower drains get full of hair strands and other gunk that gradually siphon that same trap water out of the way. I prefer a drain brush to a harsh chemical. You can find many versions online, but basically they look like an old-fashioned baby’s bottle brush on a flexible wire handle about two feet long. Afterward, rinse with cold water for two or three minutes to flush any residual material down the drain.
Dear Ken: I have hot water heat. Should I insulate the pipes that go through there? Doesn’t there need to be a little heat to keep things from freezing? — Mark
Answer: I would insulate the heating pipes — plus any hot water pipes serving sinks and tubs — with slip-on foam sleeves. It’s harder to heat water than air so you want to prevent radiation from emanating from warm copper pipes into the cooler crawl space. It’s highly unlikely the temperature would ever get down so low to freeze the pipes in there, especially if you block the most northerly-facing crawl space vents with chunks of insulation (be sure to remove them in the spring). First, though, check with your plumber to make sure he or she isn’t relying on the crawl space for combustion air to the boiler or water heater. New rules allow you to get it from your home’s interior spaces through, say, a louvered trapdoor.
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