Q We have a beautiful tree in the front of our house, but it has a fungus growing. Do you know what it is? What should we do to prevent further spreading?

Falls Church

ACall a certified arborist and have the tree assessed. What you see is just the fruiting part of the fungus, which causes no damage. The rest of its structure is inside the tree trunk and consists of rootlike hairs. These digest the wood and may have caused a significant amount of internal decay. Because the visible part appears right below the Y of your tree, the decay could be weakening the critical junction of the two upper sections of the trunk. If the decay is severe enough, one or both sections could snap and fall. A tall tree on a small lot can take out a lot of things if it falls. On the other hand, you certainly do not want to cut down a magnificent tree if there is no severe interior decay.

An arborist would try to determine the extent of decay and the shell wall thickness of solid wood. If the shell wall thickness is under 30 percent, arborists often recommend pruning to minimize risk, or removal of the tree.

RTEC Tree Care in Falls Church (703-573-3029) will send a certified arborist to give a visual assessment for $20 for first-time customers or at no charge to repeat customers. If a resistograph test is recommended (sort of like an X-ray), that’s $300-$500, depending on tree size and how many needle holes need to be drilled.

A fungus is growing inside this tree, (Reader-submitted photo.)

The city of Falls Church lists local arborists on its Web site (www.fallschurchva.gov) and employs a city arborist, Ben Thompson (703-248-5183; bthompson@fallschurchva.gov), who answers homeowners’ questions.

Unfortunately, there is probably nothing you can do to kill the fungus in the wood or even to halt its growth. There are fungicides for controlling fungus diseases on leaves but not within wood.

When I turn on a light in my house, sparks come from the wall switch. The previous owner of my home did the electrical work, and I am starting to see problems. If I have to have my electrical panel upgraded or repaired, how much would that cost?


A couple of different issues are embedded in your note. You don’t describe the additional problems with the electrical system, but certainly, if you’re worried, it’s worth having a licensed electrician take a look. Electrical service companies offer this service, often in the $100-$200 price range. At Wilcox Electric in Hyattsville (301-583-8888; www.wilcox-electric.com ), a whole-house check costs $180. You’d get an analysis with what company representative Chris Hanlein calls “triage.” Meaning: “This you need to do now. This can be put off. Here’s what’s important and what’s not.”

It’s important to get an experienced electrician, though. Hanlein suggests checking ratings on Angie’s List or Consumers’ Checkbook, or looking at ads in the bulletin of a local church. “Churches don’t take advertisements from people who aren’t honest,” he said. “Or if they do and the person isn’t honest, they won’t last.”

If repairs do need to be made, electrical companies typically charge a service fee of about $160 that includes whatever work can be done within the first hour. Rates and policies change, though, so be sure to ask.

So do you need to replace your sparking light switch? Jayson Jolivette, an electrician at JKJ Electric in Rockville (301-315-0426; www.jkjelectric.com), estimates that 75 percent of the time, a sparking switch is nothing to worry about. “Anytime a switch turns current on or off, it draws an arc,” he says. “If the room is dark enough, you’re going to see it.”

In some cases, though, a sparking switch could signal a real safety issue. So it makes sense to have an electrician check it. If you want to do it yourself, turn off power to the circuit at the electrical box, remove the electrical plate at the switch, and look inside. Any sign of singed material is definitely a sign of a problem. Loose connections or wires where insulation was stripped back too far (beyond where the screws hold the wire against the switch) are also problems. A new switch costs just a few dollars, depending on the style you get. If you’re calling an electrician anyway, just ask to have it replaced.

A new electrical panel is a much bigger investment. JKJ Electric charges about $2,700, which includes not only a new panel but also new breakers, new service cable, upgraded grounding, a permit and inspections.

Have a problem in your home? Send questions to localliving@washpost.com . Put “How To” in the subject line, tell us where you live and try to include a photo.

The Checklist Read Jeanne Huber’s roundup of home-improvement tasks you should tackle in September, such as scheduling HVAC tune-ups, at washingtonpost.com/home.