How To: Getting rid of ’90s brass fixtures, replacing a wall furnace

September 21, 2011

Q. I have a traditional colonial-style home furnished and decorated in an eclectic style that includes antiques and contemporary stuff. I love the effect, sort of like an English country house that grew organically over time. When I redid the bathrooms and kitchen in the mid-’90s, brass fixtures were in, and now I have all shiny brass that looks very dated. Do I have to go to the expense of changing everything to a more up-to-date metal, such as brushed nickel, or would some combination work? I have a whirlpool bath with brass jets that could be hard to replace.

Montgomery Village

A. One problem with trying to create an up-to-date look is that whatever is in fashion today is sure to look stale tomorrow. That’s what style is all about, isn’t it? That said, hardware that screams “1990s” certainly does work against your goal of creating decor that looks as though it came together over decades.

There are a variety of ways to change the look of hardware that is solid brass: You can have a metal refinishing company plate the parts with a different metal. On a simple round doorknob, this usually costs about $15, says Richard Sisson, manager of Chevy Chase Plating & Polishing in Rockville (301-230-7686; www.chevychase
plating.com
). Buffing the brass to give it a brushed-metal look costs about $12. Just stripping the lacquer that’s keeping the finish shiny so the underlying brass can darken naturally costs $4 to $5 — or even less if you tackle the job yourself.


That’s sooo ‘90s. (iStock/ISTOCK)

Note that the prices Sisson quoted are just for a single knob. A door has two knobs, plus escutcheons (the plates around the knob shafts), a latch, a strike plate and two or sometimes three hinges. Plating or buffing all of these pieces means spending more than $100 per door — probably more than if you bought new hardware.

If you’re set on switching to a different metal, the most cost-effective strategy probably is to replace pieces that come in standard sizes (such as door hardware) and go to a plating shop for odd-size parts, such as those whirlpool components.

Stripping might seem a better option, considering the cost of plating or replacing everything. But stripping can wind up being a big job once you add the time to disassemble and reassemble everything. Plus, if some of your hardware is steel with a shiny coating, rather than solid brass, you might discover that a chemical stripper takes off all the brass, leaving you with a surface that you can’t just let tarnish. (Testing with a magnet first is a good precaution; solid brass is not magnetic.)

So what’s the best option? Given that you want to create an eclectic look, consider leaving some hardware as-is. Then treat or replace other pieces so they have a different look. One advantage of this approach is that you don’t need to tackle everything. For example, you can leave doors on their hinges and focus just on swapping in chrome escutcheons for doorknobs and towel bars. (Stores that sell used building materials might have these.) Shiny brass and aged brass, often called ORB for oil-rubbed brass, are another good combination. Create that by stripping only selected parts — maybe knobs and rods. If you have a lot of hardware that’s plated steel, consider leaving some parts as they are and stripping and then spray-painting others black.

I have a gas-fired, direct-vent wall furnace that is 40 years old and has seen better days. This model (Sears No. 867.736413) is no longer made, and Sears doesn’t offer a replacement. It heats about 525 square feet in the basement. How should I proceed?

Laurel

McAllister Plumbing in Glen Burnie (443-506-2503; www.mcallister
plumbing.com
) repairs direct-vent gas wall heaters and also sells new ones made by Rinnai and Empire. A service call costs $125 — more than the $90 charged by some other companies — but if your heater can’t be repaired, the company will deduct the fee from the cost of a replacement.

To find other companies close to your Zip code that deal with this type of heater, use the dealer search function on the manufacturers’ Web sites, www.rinnai.us and www.empirezoneheat.com. (On the Empire site, find the search prompt by clicking on the “support” section.) Be aware that some companies have separate repair and sales crews, so if you ask for a free evaluation for a new furnace, the salesperson won’t be able to clue you in on whether your existing furnace just needs cleaning. That’s less likely at small companies. At McAllister, for example, the same person, Shawn McAllister, handles repairs and sales.

If a repair isn’t possible, you might want to get a couple of estimates, since these calls are usually free. You need an on-site evaluation in part to make sure the venting setup meets current codes. Keep an open mind during these visits because you may discover that another option makes more sense. Michael Gallagher, a supervisor at another Rinnai dealer, Shipley Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning Services in Ashton (301-658-
7199; www.shipleyplumbing.com), says he’d explore many different options to arrive at what would be most energy- and cost-efficient. For example, it might make sense to switch to a ductless heat pump or to tap into whatever system you use to heat the rest of your house.

Have a problem in your home?Send questions to localliving@washpost.comlocalliving@washpost.com. Put “How To” in the subject line, tell us where you live and try to include a photo.

The Checklist Read Jeanne Huber’s roundup of home-improvement tasks you should tackle in September, such as de-cluttering your basement.

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