How To: Paint or wallpaper over wood paneling

March 21, 2012

Q. We live in a house built in the 1970s. Several rooms have wood paneling that I would like to paint or wallpaper over. Would the grooves need to be spackled first? Or do I need to tear off the paneling and install drywall? We would like to update the appearance of these rooms in the most economical way.

Boonsboro, Md.

A. To transform the rooms most economically, just paint the paneling without plugging all the gaps. Clean the surface with water (plus a little household detergent if the wood seems oily or is especially grimy). Let dry. Then apply a stain-blocking latex or shellac primer that’s labeled as suitable for use on a slick surface. Use a brush for edges and to clean up the grooves and a roller to spread the primer over the main expanse. Rinse out the tools while the primer dries. Then brush and roll on a coat of latex paint.

When that dries, inspect the walls. If black lines are visible where the sheets of paneling abut one another, plug each seam with a bead of paintable latex caulk. Let dry. Then apply a second coat of paint.

Another option that costs more: Apply paintable wallpaper over the paneling. This type of paper comes in rolls, like standard wallpaper, but it is much thicker and has a noticeable texture. Check the specs for the paper, but you may find that you need to fill the grooves only if the depth exceeds a quarter-inch.

My basement has a french drain and sump pump that work fine unless the electricity goes out. Then the pump doesn’t work and the basement floods. I have considered a small generator, but this wouldn’t help if I weren’t home. I have heard of a system using water power that does not require a person to be available when the need arrives.
Is this system effective? And who installs it?

Largo/Upper Marlboro

A plumber can install a water-powered backup sump pump, probably for around $300 to $400 unless access to the pipes in your house is especially challenging, says Steve Erickson, president of Washington Winnelson, which supplies a range of plumbing parts, mostly to professional plumbers.

Water-powered backup pumps work well, provided the home is served by municipal water. On a home with a well, a water-powered pump is of no use because the well pump would also stop when the power goes out. If that’s your situation, get a backup pump that operates on battery power; it, too, will switch on even if you’re not home.

If you have a choice, a water-powered backup pump is a better option because it can work indefinitely. A battery backup works only until the battery drains down, which might be less time than it takes for power to be restored. Also, the battery in a backup pump is the kind that continuously recharges with a trickle of power. That’s helpful because it keeps the battery charged up so it’s at full power when you need it. But the flip side is that this kind of battery tends to wear out in a few years, even if it isn’t used much. So unless you change the battery every few years, the backup pump might not operate when that record storm roars through.

The downside to a water-powered pump is that it uses two gallons of water to remove one gallon of water from the sump pit. If it saves you from having a flooded basement, the cost of the extra water probably seems like a good deal. However, if your main sump pump stops working and the water-powered backup winds up running for weeks before you notice, you could be in for a very hefty water bill. To avoid that situation, get a water-powered pump with an alarm that sounds when the pump switches on. That way, if the power’s not out, you’ll know to check the main pump. The alarm adds about $90 to the cost, Erickson says.

The Checklist

Read Jeanne Huber’s roundup of home-improvement tasks you should tackle in March, including cleaning closets, tuning up your air conditioner and tidying up the garden.

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