A reader wants to update this fireplace and is looking for options. (Reader photo/Reader photo)

QOur house has a large stone-facade fireplace in the family room. We converted it to gas and now we want to update the look. We have discussed replacing the stone, covering the stone with some other product and whitewashing the stone so it looks more contemporary. There are a few places where the mortar has pulled away, leaving small cracks. What do you suggest?


AIt’s certainly possible to remove a stone facade, using a cold chisel and mallet or a demolition hammer, which you can rent. But it would create a huge mess, and then you’d need to invest in new stone or brick or whatever covering you choose. If you’re up for the challenge, this approach would let you create just the look you want. If you wanted to make the fireplace less dominant, you could even cover part of the wall with drywall.

Short of a complete redo, there are several easier — and tidier — options that could give your family room a fresh look. Try just one or combine them:

•Hang a large mirror or other substantial ornament to break up the expanse of stone.

•Paint the stone. Semigloss white paint creates a clean look and the most dramatic change, but whitewashing preserves some of the color variation in the stone. If you’re not certain which look you want, start by whitewashing, because you can always cover that with paint but the reverse won’t work: Once you paint, your only easy option for changing the look is a different color of paint.

For whitewash, you want a matte look. So use white chalk paint or matte wall paint diluted anywhere from equal parts paint and water to one part paint to three parts water. Test in a small area to figure out what you like. It will drip, so make sure the floor is completely protected, and have a sponge or cloth handy to even out the finish and work it into the stone and mortar joints.

If you opt for paint, colors that people typically use on stone aren’t limited to white. Also consider gray, beige, brown and other neutrals.

•Add a thick mantel that spans the wall, or make it just a little wider than the firebox. Crisp white paint would add contrast if this is the only change you’re making. If you are whitewashing or painting the stone, you might want to leave the mantel a natural wood color for contrast.

You can support a mantel with corbels, a type of bracket, or make it free-floating, held in place by long lag bolts that fit into holes drilled into the back edge of the mantel. (Do a Web search for “free-floating mantel” and you will find instructions.)

Check your local building code to make sure you don’t install the mantel so close to the firebox that it might catch on fire. The required setback distance varies according to the depth of the mantel; a skinny mantel can be closer than one that sticks out more.

•Frame the fireplace opening to put more emphasis on the firebox and less on the wall of stone. Buy a fireplace surround kit from a fireplace shop or a home center, or create your own design using metal, polished stone slabs, tile or wood. If you use wood, check the building code about firebox clearance.

We live in a four-story townhouse with four bathrooms. At almost any given time, one of the toilets is “running.” They stop and start by themselves. We keep the flushing mechanisms in proper working order, replacing when necessary. It seems as if the toilets are trying to equalize pressure with each other. A plumber advised us to replace the toilets, which are 15 years old. Any other suggestions?


When a tank toilet runs on its own, the most common culprit is the flapper, the rubberlike piece that’s supposed to seal the outlet hole at the bottom of the tank. A flapper that’s old or torn, or grit that keeps the flapper from sealing, can allow water to slowly leak from the tank into the toilet bowl. It happens silently, without the telltale drip you’d notice from a leak outside the toilet. But over time the drips add up and the flush mechanism turns on to add replacement water to the tank.

To test whether this is your problem, empty a bottle of dark food coloring into the tank after it has refilled. Mix the coloring into the water and wait a few hours. If the color shows up in the toilet bowl, you’ve found the problem. Clean the bottom of the flapper and the surface underneath. If that doesn’t solve the problem, replace the flapper.

But because all four toilets have the same issue, your problem is probably more complex. The flush mechanisms might not be adjusted properly or water pressure in your home might be too high, perhaps deliberately so to make sure you have adequate pressure on the fourth floor.

Some flush mechanisms are very sensitive. If your toilets have floats, lower the float in each toilet slightly, keeping water a half inch or so below the fill line. This will keep water from dribbling into the overflow tube, causing the valve to turn on to replace the lost water. If your toilets don’t have a float, they may have a Fluidmaster mechanism. Fluidmaster has a guide for fixing problems with its valves; at fluidmaster.com, type “ghost flushing” into the search box in the Support section.

To test whether water pressure is the issue, you can buy a water-pressure gauge for as little as $9.98 at Home Depot and use it to test the pressure at an outdoor hose bib. A typical standard for homes is around 50 to 75 psi (pounds per square inch). If the pressure is higher, you may need to add a pressure regulator valve, or replace or adjust the existing valve. It’s typically installed next to where water flows into a home.

The best time to test is late at night, when water pressure tends to be highest because few people on your water main are using water then, according to Dan Cochran, a master plumber and owner of Dwyer Plumbing in Alexandria (703-922-8220; dwyerplumbing.com). His company charges $69.95 for an evaluation and approximately $360 to $400 to install a pressure-reducing valve.

Given the four-story nature of your home, you might be better off just calling a plumber to evaluate your system as a whole. Kesterson Plumbing & Heating in Alexandria (703-549-3139; kestersonplumbing.com) charges $168.50 per hour with a one-hour minimum for a technician and $450 or $485 to install or replace a pressure regulator valve, depending on whether the incoming pipe’s diameter is ¾ inch or 1 inch. Kramer & Sons Plumbing Service in Alexandria (703- 360-6400; kramerandsons
) charges a $59 dispatch fee, which includes travel time and diagnostics by a plumbing technician. The company gives estimates only after the on-site visit, but installing or replacing a valve could cost $300 to $1,000, said Sadat Sheikh, the office manager.

There is one other possibility. You didn’t say whether your toilets are tankless. Delany Products, which makes Coyne Delany Flushboy tankless toilets, says on its website (delanyproducts.com) that when its toilets flush on their own, it’s often because flushing a toilet on a lower floor is siphoning water from the upper chamber of the valve on an upper-floor toilet. The company offers a replacement part called a non-syphon bypass that cures this. A plumber should be able to obtain and install it or diagnose similar problems with toilets made by other companies.

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.