QThe shutoff valves to our toilet and several other fixtures are difficult to turn off. I'm afraid I'll break something if I use excessive force. Is there any way to loosen these valves? -- H. Haller

AYou should be able to unstick the valves by spraying around the handles and bodies of the valves with a penetrating lubricant such as WD-40. If one application doesn't free a valve, try a second and third. If a valve still balks when you try to close it, use a pair of adjustable pliers or a small pipe wrench to gently turn the handle clockwise, toward the closed position. Turn the opposite direction if the valve is closed and you want to open it. Pad the jaws of the pliers or wrench with tape to avoid marring the valve handle. It is unlikely you will break anything, but if a valve handle is damaged, a replacement handle can be bought at most home centers and hardware stores.

When a valve is freed, open and close it several times to restore smooth operation. Check and lubricate the valves at least once a year to insure easy operation in case of a plumbing emergency. If a toilet tank bursts or overflows, for example, you'll need to close the shutoff valve immediately to avoid extensive water damage.

Also find and check the operation of the home's main water valve. This valve, near the water meter or pump, will turn off water to the entire house. The main valve should be tagged for quick identification. Every member of the household should know where it is and how to turn it off. If the main valve is balky, follow the procedures outlined above.

Our fireplace is surrounded by a large expanse of yellow bricks, about nine-feet wide and eight-feet high. The bricks are stained with soot and smoke. We would like to cover them with something, even paint. Do we need to clean the bricks first? Would we have to use high-temperature paint? -- C. Baker

The bricks must be cleaned before you can apply anything that needs to stick, including paint. Most fireplace supply dealers sell special cleaners or you can use trisodium phosphate, sold at home improvement stores. The bricks should look considerably better after cleaning. If you still want to paint them, you can use regular paint unless the temperature of the surface exceeds about 200 degrees. I doubt the outside brick surface of the fireplace gets that hot, but you should check before painting. If you can't comfortably touch the surface when you're using the fireplace, consider other options.

You might also consider covering the unattractive bricks with ceramic tiles, artificial stones or even artificial bricks of a more attractive color. A visit to a well-stocked home center or building supply outlet should give you some decorating ideas.

We have a weekend house with vinyl siding. The siding on one side of the house is covered with tiny black specks resembling tar. We can scrape off the spots with our fingernails, but a residue remains. We tried power washing the siding to remove the spots, but it didn't work very well. Do you have any idea what the spots are and how to remove them? -- Linette

The spots are undoubtedly artillery fungus or shotgun fungus, which generally originates in hardwood mulch. Wet, rotting mulch develops small mushrooms that shoot spores for up to 20 feet. The spores, or tar-like specks, stick to siding, cars or any other surface that gets in their way, and they are extremely difficult to remove. As you have discovered, even pressure washing usually won't clean a surface marred by artillery fungus.

If there is old mulch or rotting wood debris close to the house, rake it up and dispose of it. Safe mulches include pine-bark chunks, marble chips, pea gravel, and mulches made from cedar, redwood and cypress.

Researchers have tried many cleaners to remove the fungus and have had best results with heavy-duty automotive cleaners.

The spores can be painted over, but a stain-killer primer such as Kilz should be used first.

Questions and comments should be sent to Gene Austin, 1730 Blue Bell Pike, Blue Bell, Pa. 19422. Send e-mail to doit861@aol.com. Questions cannot be answered personally.