QDEAR BARRY: A home inspector recently pointed out that the trees near my home are lifting one side of the house. A tree trimming company recommends removing them completely, but that would be a terrible loss. They are old, and I've come to regard them almost as friends. Is there any way to save these wonderful trees? -- Vivian

ADEAR VIVIAN: Property owners often resort to tree removal when less drastic measures would suffice. When root systems cause structural damage, the entire tree is mistakenly viewed as the offender. But it is the roots that are causing the problem.

Most trees have root systems that are about equal in mass to the above-ground portions of the plant. Just as it is possible to prune branches without injuring the tree, it is also possible to cut selected roots. With most species, the remaining roots are sufficient.

To prevent future damage, dig a trench between the trees and building, exposing the offending roots. All roots that grow toward the building should be severed. Be sure to remove a short section from each to prevent them from grafting. Root ends that have been separated from the tree will die, while the ones that grow away from the building will support the tree. Consult a tree specialist before conducting this surgery.

DEAR BARRY: The heating system in our home consists of hot water pipes in the floor, connected to a gas-burning water heater. The system was installed more than 40 years ago and we suspect it is not efficient. It takes about five hours to heat the house. How can we verify the condition of the system? How can we calculate the normal heating cost for a home of this size? -- Lev

DEAR LEV: Old hydronic heating systems such as yours are typically not efficient because they were installed when fuel costs were nominal and energy saving was not a serious consideration. The most common problem with these aging systems is leaking due to deteriorated pipes or fittings. If you have not yet experienced leaks, don't be surprised when you do.

To verify the condition of the system, the water heating fixture can be evaluated by a licensed heating and air conditioning contractor or plumber, but the condition of the piping probably cannot be determined because the lines are not accessible for inspection. A heating and air conditioning contractor can advise you further.

To calculate the normal expected heating cost for your home, contact your gas company. Most natural gas suppliers provide energy audits. They can tell you the average heating costs for a home of a particular size, while considering the heights of ceilings, the types of windows and the amounts of insulation.

Hydronic heating systems, whether new or old, are not designed to heat a home quickly. Their strong point is maintaining an even temperature once the home is heated.

Barry Stone is a professional home inspector. If you have questions or comments, contact him through his Web site, www.housedetective.com, or send mail to 1776 Jami Lee Court, Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, Calif. 93401.

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