QIs it true that we should drain and flush our water heater every year? There is a lot of hard water in this area and not many people have water softeners. -- C. Carroll

AAnnual draining to remove sediment is recommend by many experts, but your owner's manual, if you have one, is your best guide. My own manual says that the heater should be drained "if being shut down during freezing temperatures" but adds that "periodic draining and cleaning of sediment from the tank may be necessary."

Annual draining certainly won't do any harm and is fairly easy to do. Start by turning off the electrical power or gas supply to the heater, and then close the cold-water valve that supplies water to the tank. Open a hot-water faucet near the tank and leave it open during draining.

Attach a hose to the drain valve at the bottom of the heater and run the hose to a drain. Open the drain valve, and draining will start. If the water coming from the hose appears cloudy, indicating sediment, draining is doing some good. If the water runs clear, there is probably not much to be gained by additional draining or flushing.

Flushing a tank takes more time. With the power or gas off, completely drain the tank. Then open the cold-water supply valve to let some fresh water enter the tank. Drain the new water and repeat as long as sediment shows up in water from the tank.

After draining or flushing, be sure to refill the tank with water before turning on the electricity or gas. Failing to do so can cause severe damage to the heater.

Our 1970s home has about six inches of blown-in insulation in an unfinished attic. There is no vapor barrier under the insulation. We'd like to add more insulation and also have a vapor barrier. Should we remove the old insulation to install a vapor barrier? The attic is well ventilated. -- E. Goldstein-Rice

The purpose of the vapor barrier on an attic floor is to help prevent condensation of moisture in the attic during cold weather. If the attic is well ventilated, condensation might not be a problem even without a vapor barrier.

At any rate, I think removing the old insulation to install a plastic vapor barrier on the attic floor -- or substituting insulation with an attached vapor barrier -- would be a laborious and messy job. I think it would be more practical and cost effective to leave the insulation in place and paint a vapor barrier on the ceilings beneath the attic. One way to do this is to coat the ceilings with Zinsser's B-I-N primer (www.zinsser.com). This is a shellac-based sealer that will help prevent water vapor from the living area from rising to the attic. The primer can be coated with a latex or oil-based paint. Oil-based paint will also serve as a vapor-blocking barrier.

You can then add more blown-in or unfaced fiberglass insulation on top of the existing insulation. Check the attic regularly during cold weather for signs of condensation on nails or other cold surfaces. If condensation does show up, adding additional ventilation in the attic should eliminate it.

We get a dark ring in our toilet that is difficult to remove. What causes such rings, and is there an easy way to remove them? -- C. Fomoe

Toilet rings, which generally show up at the top of the standing water in the bowl, are almost always caused by minerals in the water. If cleaners such as Lime-A-Way or Zud (available at supermarkets) won't remove the rings, try a pumice stick -- a remedy that many users swear by. Pumice sticks are sold at some hardware stores or can be bought online for about $2.50 each at www.parish-supply.com.

Reader Tip

Evelyn Soler-Hamilton said she uses a Clorox Bleach Pen, sold at many supermarkets, to clean mildewed and dirty caulk and grout in her bathroom and kitchen. The pen, which costs about $3, is also useful in the laundry for spot bleaching. For more details, consult www.clorox.com. At the Clorox site, click on Solutions Center, then on bleach pen.

Mildew can also be cleaned from tub and sink caulk with homemade poultices soaked with chlorine bleach. Twist facial or toilet tissues into rope-like pads, and soak them in a half-and-half solution of bleach and water (full-strength bleach can be used for very dirty caulk). Apply the pads to the caulk and leave for several hours, then rinse the cleaned caulk with clear water.

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.