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First Aid for the Ailing House: Blistering paint may signal bigger problem

| Sunday, March 11, 2012

Q: Our problem is blistering of the paint on the plaster crown molding above the fireplace. The chimney is on the exterior with plaster on masonry on the inside wall. It is on the northeast side of the house and gets little sunlight. The roof slopes toward the chimney. We burn logs in the fireplace only a few times a year, so I doubt if heat from a fire is causing this.

We bought our 50-year-old brick ranch in 1996. The previous owner replaced a slate roof with shingles in 1995. There is no overhang. We replaced the gutters because the old ones no longer collected runoff.

We insulated the attic with fiberglass batting, leaving an air gap of 4 inches around the outer edge. We also had shredded paper blown in to all the exterior walls. When we noticed the crown molding deteriorating, we replaced the shingles and flashing around the chimney, changed the cricket and added an ice dam. The roofer found carpenter ants, so moisture must have been getting in.

The problem continued, so we sealed the chimney and added a flue liner to pick up the gas water heater. When looking at the fireplace, the liner is on the left, which has more damage than the right. The wall is also bulging and cracking. The chimney is capped off. The gas furnace and gas dryer vent directly outside.

Do you think filling the space around the flue pipe with vermiculite would solve the problem• I'm thinking this has something to do with the new roof, the insulation, or the addition of central air conditioning. The crown molding was in perfect condition when we bought the house. — Bethel Park

A: I am not sure what you mean by "added an ice dam." Ice dams form at the eaves when snow melts from the bottom of the roof's snowpack (because the temperature of the attic is above freezing) and freezes as it reaches the cold edge of the roof. Subsequent melting snow is trapped behind the ice dam, and leakage will occur inside the house unless special measures are taken.

The first thing that comes to mind is leakage around the chimney flashing or because of porous bricks or a cracked chimney cap. You had the chimney bricks sealed and replaced the shingles and the cricket, which should have stopped the problem unless the repairs were not properly made.

When you say the chimney is capped off, you must mean that the new liner for the gas water heater has a cap. Since you are using the fireplace to burn logs, that flue is obviously not capped off.

If the gas water heater was vented into an unlined chimney, the moisture in the gases may have saturated the bricks, and, since the plaster is applied directly to the bricks, it could have suffered some damage. But if this was the cause, it should have stopped once a metal liner was installed. But I also wonder why the water heater was not vented to the outside through a wall as are the furnace and the dryer.

Too bad perlite was not poured around the liner when it was installed. You could have it done now, although I doubt that this is the cure.

If your air conditioning is gas-fired, the moisture in the gases is vented through the wall, so this should not be of concern. If your air-conditioning system is electric, as most are, it would also have no bearing on the problem.

I lean more toward the roof flashing around the chimney.

SHINGLE ROOF

Q: We are looking to replace our storm-damaged dimensional shingle roof this spring and are considering metal and laminated shingles. A metal roofing company that we contacted said it would install its material on top of the old shingles. Is this the best approach, or is it just for the convenience of the installers• What are your thoughts on metal vs. fiberglass/asphalt• — Youngwood

A: Metal shingles can be installed over one layer of asphalt shingles. This method saves the removal and disposal of the old shingles, as well as landfill space.

Metal shingles reduce the cost of air-conditioning because of their high reflectivity. But this is a minor consideration if the attic is super-insulated, because the insulation is already doing the job.

Metal shingles are more expensive to install than asphalt/fiberglass shingles. But if you consider the longevity of metal shingles over that of asphalt/fiberglass shingles -- which have a history of not living up to their claimed warranty, which often is meaningless anyway -- they are the better choice in the long run. This is particularly so if you plan to stay in your house a long time. In addition, prospective buyers in some areas value metal shingles.

It's important, when considering a metal shingle roof, to make sure the installers are experienced.

WATER SOFTENER

Q: We are in the process of purchasing a home that has its water supplied from a well. The current water softener, which uses salt, is not operational and needs to be replaced.

I know there are other types of water softeners available that do not require salt, but I don't know much about them. We were wondering if you could provide any information on the advantages or disadvantages of salt vs. saltless softeners• — Jeannette

A: Instead of a sodium chloride water softener, you can have a potassium chloride system installed, which is better for plants. There are also saltless descalers, which work by altering the calcium ions so they won't stick to your fixtures.

If you are concerned about the consumption of salt through your drinking and cooking water, a reverse osmosis system can be installed at the kitchen faucet to remove the sodium or potassium chloride from the water, while letting the water come from the treatment tank at all other points of use.

Your best bet is to have your water analyzed by a specialist. Kinetico dealers offer free water analysis. Find the nearest one at www.kinetico.com .

Attics that are open to the garage pose problems

Q: I am taking advantage of the unusual February weather in Vermont to go house hunting. I've seen several 1950s-era ranches with attached garages. What baffles me is that their attics are completely open to the garages. There are no vents on the ends of the attics in these buildings. There is no visible insulation inside the attic roof. The only insulation is on the bottom of the attic, between the boards above the ceiling. (Don't know where the bathroom vents exhaust to.)

Can you please explain why an attic would be open to the garage like this• It seems like an invitation to bugs and critters. Wouldn't this house lose a lot of heat• Wouldn't the moisture from the house condense on the inside of the roof?

If a homeowner wanted to make a house like this more energy-efficient, what could be done about insulating the attic• Should the opening to the garage be closed in, even partially• Should the homeowner always leave a hole• — Baffled in Burlington, Vt.

A: It was a common practice in Vermont in the '50s to leave the gable end facing the garage open when building ranches. I guess the thinking at the time was that the open gable into the garage provided the attic's ventilation. I assume the builders of the time didn't give much thought to the need for ventilation or to the fact that the moisture brought in by the car in winter would contribute to moisture in the attic. I also don't think the builders ever thought about mice and squirrels nesting in the attic floor's insulation. Times have changed! Building a house this way is indeed not a good practice.

The insulation was properly installed between the attic's floor joists, but it was to the day's standards and is woefully inadequate by today's. Heat loss was not increased by this system, but it also is high by today's standards. The good part is that such open gable construction makes it easy to add insulation.

The open gables in these houses can certainly be closed, but other means of ventilation may then be required to avoid moisture accumulation and potential mold problems on the roof rafters and sheathing. The attic should be checked over several winters for condensation or frost on the roof sheathing, rafters or roofing nails. If these are present, additional ventilation should be considered.

The best ventilation system is a combination of soffit and ridge vents with an open connection between the two.

RECAPTURING ENERGY

Q: Is there a way to recapture the heat or energy from sources in the home• For instance, it has always struck me that we spend all this energy to heat water to cook, wash and bathe with, and yet we let most of that energy go down the drain. I also can't stand to see the heat from the dryer vent billow out into the freezing air. — Vermont, via email

A: Recapturing the energy from the sources you mention is not easy or, in some cases, possible. You can let cooking water cool on the stove or countertop, or take a bath instead of showering and let the bath water cool before draining the tub. Laundry is primarily done with cold water nowadays, so this is no longer a source of wasted heat.

The heat from the dryer is another story. During the energy-crisis panic in the early 1970s, hardware stores sold a gizmo that was installed on the dryer vent and directed the heat -- and moisture -- into the room while taking care of the lint in a different way. It was OK with old leaky houses, which needed added moisture for the health of the occupants and furniture, but quite undesirable in today's tight houses, where moisture can already be a problem.

You may want to contact Efficiency Vermont in Burlington for suggestions to allay your valid concerns about energy recapture.

Ugly tile can be painted

Q: I have a porcelain tile kitchen floor that is ugly. The color I selected was a light tan, but many tiles are dark reddish brown tiles with swirls in the tile. Unfortunately, the company went out of business, so I have no recourse. The tile wasn't cheap, so short of ripping it out, what can I do• Chemicals• Paint• — via email

A: If you know the brand of the tiles purchased from the defunct company, you may want to check with other tile companies in your town. It is likely that more than one dealer carries this brand. Depending on how many tiles are in question, it may not be too difficult or too expensive to replace the offensive ones, compared to the alternative.

Although most tile dealers will tell you that porcelain tiles cannot be painted, it is possible to do so. First, cover all adjacent wood (baseboard, cabinets, etc.) and other surfaces with painter's tape to prevent damage. The tiles must be thoroughly cleaned using an abrasive cleaner such as Aqua Mix NanoScrub. Be sure to wear vinyl gloves and safety glasses (in case some of it splashes in your face). Use coarse steel wool. Rinse the floor thoroughly.

Next, use an orbital sander with 220-grit paper to roughen the tiles. Remove all dust from the sanding with a vacuum cleaner, followed by a thorough going-over with tack cloths. Using brushes and a short-nap roller, apply two coats of a top-quality, oil-base primer that has been tinted to approximate the finish paint.

Lightly sand the primer before applying the finish coat of top-quality, oil-base semigloss or high-gloss paint, depending on your preference. The finish coat must be applied in two or more thin layers, with a very light sanding between coats.

It is difficult to avoid painting the grout lines; masking them is arduous. If you want the grout lines to be a different color, it is best to paint the entire floor. Carefully apply painter's tape to the tiles on each side of the grout line in one direction for ease of application. Paint the grout. Then apply the tape to the tiles in the other direction to paint the perpendicular grout lines.

FUNGUS ON SIDING

Q: I have attached pictures of the vinyl siding, overhang and shutters from an area of my house. They have artillery fungus on them from some mulch that was in the area. Do you know any method to remove the fungus without damaging the siding, etc.• -- Shrewsbury, Mass.

A: The ballpoint-size black dots on your vinyl siding, overhang and shutters are indeed artillery fungus coming from a decomposing mulch next to the foundation. The fungus explodes in the spring and fall when the temperature is ideal for the spores to do so. They can be propelled 20-plus feet in the air, which is where the fungus gets its name.

It cannot be removed without causing serious damage to the vinyl siding and any surface to which it attaches itself. Repair is possible on wood siding, but not on vinyl, aluminum or steel. Short of replacing the affected pieces, your only answer may be to paint the surfaces after a thorough cleaning -- although the dots will still be there.

The only way to prevent the fungus in the future is to put new organic mulch over the old every year, remove the old mulch entirely or replace it with rubber mulch, available in garden-supply stores.

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