Dear readers: Here’s my annual reminder to get the furnace checked at your house. This is a vital procedure to keep your family safe during the coming winter.
Every heating system — whether forced air or hot water — should be checked out by a licensed heating contractor. This is a good annual habit to establish even for newer homes, because theoretically any furnace can fail at any time. Plus, a well-adjusted furnace will use less fuel and save you money over our relatively long heating season.
I’ve seen advertised special prices for this checkup for as low as $59, although the average is probably closer to $100 or so. Interview your company to make sure — at a minimum — that they will vacuum out the cabinet, adjust the burners if needed, check the electricity loads, inspect the heat exchanger, look at the blower motor, do a carbon monoxide output check and provide a new filter.
If this check results in a scary conclusion — like a bad heat exchanger — you have more work to do. The constant flexing, expansion and contraction of this component, as it heats and cools thousands of times each winter, can produce cracks. So then more than just heat gets exchanged; the gas fumes can get mixed in with the room air, and those fumes can contain carbon monoxide.
Some technicians have been known to, shall we say, over-diagnosis this condition. They are eager to sell you a new furnace, and use this ploy to frighten you into an immediate decision. If you’re advised to install a new furnace, get a second opinion from another contractor. If the two evaluations agree, then you have a sounder basis for your decision.
A busy heating contractor doesn’t need to sell you a new furnace to stay in business, and they will respect your decision to call in another company. I’m amazed at how many listeners have told me that the second company has given them a clean bill of health.
So, as long as your carbon monoxide detector isn’t alarming and family members aren’t suffering from unexplained flu-like symptoms or headaches, you have time to step back and evaluate your need for a new furnace, armed with that second opinion. Of course, if you suspect carbon monoxide is in your home, you must take immediate action! Take the family to a neighbor’s house and call the gas company or the fire department.
If you’re purchasing another home, the home inspector you hire won’t perform the exhaustive check of the furnace that you’ll get from a heating contractor. The inspector will do a visual check of the system and maybe a fume test of the room air, but since they are unlicensed, they’re not permitted to take the furnace apart.
Dear Ken: We moved into a 1949 house. When we shower, there are brown drops on the ceiling that smell funny when you wipe them off. — Anna
Answer: The humidity may be leaching some minerals out of the plaster ceiling. I think you need more ventilation ASAP. Install a through-the-wall fan or one in the ceiling that exhausts through the attic.
Then paint the ceiling. Apply a good primer first (two coats), then a semi-gloss latex.
Dear Ken: There is a surging noise where the water line comes in from the street — like two pulses per second. What do you think is happening? — Jake
Answer: It sounds like a water meter issue. The meter consists of two parts: the actual water measuring part, with spinning blades, plus the electronics that count the rotations and then send the information outside to a little transmitter and ultimately to the water company to generate your bill. I would suspect that the mechanical part of the meter may be wearing out — so the water supplier will probably want to replace it. Ask the technician to also check your water pressure settings while on-site (ideally you want 55 to 60 pounds). This will undoubtedly be a no-charge visit.
Dear Ken: What do you think of the salt vs. no salt debate when it comes to water softeners? — Keith
Answer: I’m a traditionalist. The chemistry of the good old sodium (salt) ion exchange method is so simple, and the new softeners are so trouble free, that I’d advise you to stick with this most trouble-free system.
In the old days, you had to decide on your own how often and when the system would regenerate itself, like Monday-Wednesday-Friday at 2 a.m. Now, a computer measures how many grains of hard water has passed through, so it decides when and for how long to run the exchange. It saves you lots of money on salt. By the way, use the rounded tablets instead of the cheaper and rougher material.
Dear Ken: There is a dark, grayish stain on the linoleum near the toilet in the basement. It won’t come off. What’s up here? — Brian
Answer: That’s a water stain trapped between the glossy and colored layers of the vinyl. You have no choice but to replace it. Chances are the water is coming from one of two places. The shower may be dripping on to the floor because the curtain gets left outside the stall; in that case, a shower door is a good investment. Otherwise, the toilet may be leaking around its base.
This is quite common in basements, since the concrete floor can be a little out of level or wavy. When you reset the stool after the new floor goes in, use some plastic wedges — available at the hardware store for just this purpose — to level it.
And it also may be helpful to install two wax rings instead of a single.
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.