Q: Next winter I plan to turn off the heat in my house in the mountains, but there is a problem I don't know how to solve. During the winter, water seeps slowly into the basement, so the sump pump has to be left on. My problem is what to do about the pipe leading from the sump pump to the outside dry well. This pipe runs horizontally about four feet above the basement floor. Without heat it could freeze when water stands in it. This would flood the basement. Do you have any suggestions?
A: You will obviously be leaving the electricity on (to power the sump pump, if nothing else), so the solution is to wrap the pipe you are worried about with thermostatically controlled electric heating tape. This will come on automatically when the temperature drops to near freezing (it stays off, otherwise) to keep the pipe from freezing.
Q: The house we recently purchased had carpet on the kitchen and the eating area. We removed the carpet and found a good oak floor, which we would like to refinish. Since this area is subject to occasional spills, what type of varnish do you recommend?
A: First, you will have to sand the floor. Use a polyurethane type if you want to varnish. Apply at least two or three coats to build up a proper finish. You may prefer a penetrating resin-type wood sealer. This will not give a gloss -- it gives an oiled or Danish-type finish, but is easier to touch up if and when stains occur, and does not show scratch marks because the finish is in the wood, not on the surface.
Q: The brickwork on the front of my fireplace has been stained by smoke because a fire was started with the damper not fully open. What is the best way to get rid of the smoke stains on the brick?
A: The usual method is to scrub with a strong detergent. Mix a strong solution with hot water and scrub with a stiff bristle brush, then immediately flush away with clean water to keep the dirt from soaking in more. Before starting, wet the bricks alongside and under the stained area with water so the dirt stains do not spread.
Q: I have added insulation to the attic of my ranch house. One-third of it has a vapor barrier, the rest is cellulose without a vapor barrier. I am getting condensation inside the recessed lighting fixture of the attic -- insulation is three inches away -- and along the top of the bedroom walls. The attic has gabel and eave vents. What can I do to eliminate the condensation?
A: I don't think you have enough ventilation in the attic. Apparently the eave and gable vents are not large enough. I strongly recommend that you put a vapor barrier under the two-thirds of the insulation that has gone at present. And remember that you need at least 1 square foot of unobstructed opening for every 300 feet of atticr floor space.
Q: My house in the country was shut down for the winter and I drained the heating system to avoid freezing damage. When the plumber replaces the water in the heating system, can I have him add antifreeze so the radiators won't have to be drained next winter?
A: Yes. Be sure that enough is added to do the job and that it is a type that will not harm components. Also, you may have to arrange to have water added during the winter when needed (which happens automatically when the water is on) and to have a low-water cutoff of some kind added to the system if it does not now have such a safety device.
Q: The exterior of my 37-year-old house is wood-shingled and has received a coat of oil paint about once every four years. During the past few years, the paint appears to have begun to blister and peel. Could this be due to an excessive accumulation of paint on the surface?
A: It very definitely could. Heavy paint accumulation on the outside of a house can sometimes fail and crack because of the weight of the paint buildup. Theorectically, some of the surface should weather every few years, so by the time a new coat is applied, the equivalent of one coat will have worn off. But years ago, paints were not formulated this efficiently, and the result is excessve buildup. Unfortunately, paint removal to the bare wood is the only solution.
Q: The plaster ceiling and walls in one of my bathrooms keep crumbling. I have them patched and painted but then the crumbling only beings again. Is there some kind of paint that will hold the plaster together and prevent this condition?
A: No paint will hold crumbling plaster together. Paint needs a solid foundation, and it doesn't sound as though your wall surfaces are very solid. If the plaster is crumbly, it must be scraped off until only solid material remains. The wall or ceiling then should be resurfaced with patching plaster, spackling compound or both. Apparently your patching has not been adequate -- you really have to get out all of the defective material before the new patches will hold, even if this means replastering an entire wall. In your case it may be more practical to cover the walls with some kind of plastic-faced paneling, or with new gypsum board that you can paint in the usual way.