Your house is a series of interconnected systems. Some work together, some independent of each other. Understanding why a house works the way it does, helps us to understand how it works.
Roofs and water drainage
A few years back we lived in caves. Basic shelter. This is what our roof does. The roof system is the absolute most important part of a house so we start there.
The roof is made up of something to shed the water. Water flows downhill with gravity. Water always seeks the path of least resistance. So if there is a hole in the roof combined with gravity, water gets to the area under the roof rather than off the edge of it.
Roofs can be built of Metal, wood, composite shingles, clay tile, and other water resistant materials. They all will fail eventually. Most of our homes here have some version of a composition shingle. These are fiberglass mats, soaked in asphalt emulsions and coated with colored granules. The granules take the abuse and protect the asphalt matt.
Wood shingles or “shakes” (which are split rather than sawn) are a barrier from the sun but not what keeps the water out. This is done on a wood roof by the heavy, lap layered felt on each course of wood shingles.
The roof also has protrusions in it for pipes, attic fans, skylights, conduits and more. Each of these protrusions is “flashed” with some sort of material to seal the device and to divert water.
Gutters collect run off and place the water below. Gutters should have slope so the water drains to the downspouts. At the bottom, downspouts should divert water 5 feet from the house.
Moss on a roof is not really a big deal but it will cause other debris to collect. Gently broom it off to remove. There are spray treatments to kill the spores. It is not eating your roof, just surviving on it.
Exterior siding and openings
After wild animals came into our caves at tried to eat us, we built walls, doors and windows. The outside of our homes provide not only physical security but our method of entering and exiting, looking out, and securing our stuff.
The largest moving object you have in your house is your garage door. You may even have a garage door opener. Garage doors hinge or roll on tracks and rollers. These components need to be regularly lubricated to avoid noise which equals wear. If you hear noises, it is friction wearing something out.
If your garage door opener quits working, there could be several causes.
You can operate manually by pulling the safety cord on the carriage of the opener. Garage door springs can break and are quite a violent thing when it happens. This is a professional only repair and runs about $160. You might be able to lift the door to get a car out, but remain outside incase the door falls off the track.
The exterior doors of your house provide security and weather resistance. The modern, 1970ish and later door has weather-stripping around the perimeter. This is the part that gets painted and eaten by dogs and cats. It is removable and replaceable with only a putty knife.
The threshold of modern doors have adjustment screws that raise and lower the center section to make a seal with the door bottom. Slightly older systems have an adjustable door bottom you can raise and lower to seal gaps under the door.
Hinges should be lubricated regularly with silicone spray. Don’t overdo it and get it on the woodwork, it will make painting difficult.
Windows are mostly wood, metal, or vinyl- the most popular. Dragging and grinding sliding windows can usually be fixed by lifting the sash up and out and cleaning the rollers and tracks.
Windows today are double insulated glass with low e and argon fill. Low e keeps the heat out in the summer. Argon keeps sound transfer down and adds to the insulation value. If a window fogs, it has a broken seal and has lost the majority of its insulation power. It cannot be fixed, but the glass can be replaced. Sometimes it is easier to replace the entire window and not just the glass. Date of manufacture is usually on the metal strip between the glass.
Door knobs allow you entry and security. They should be lubricated every couple years with dry graphite powder. Inject a little poof from the tube into the key cylinder. The latch on the edge of the door can be spritzed with silicone lube. The handle mechanism does not need lubrication.
Three types of foundations and below floor cavities in our homes. There is a basement, a crawl space, and a slab floor. In reverse order, a slab floor is a big flat piece of concrete that your house is built around the outside of. There are still footings and stem walls, but the floor of a slab house is like a garage, just not sloped and finished off with carpet or tile. Plumbing, electrical, and sometimes heating runs below the slab and is only accessible by cutting out the concrete. Not very appealing to some.
The crawl space is most common, and is as the name implies a space you can crawl around in to get access to plumbing and electrical, heating and cooling, and the foundation of your house.
The foundation vents around the outside of your house allow air to move through the crawlspace during times when it is not freezing out.
Basements are deep crawlspaces that are finished off for more living and storage space.
Attics make the transition from a flat ceiling to sloped roofs. They also contain the most insulation anywhere in the house because heat and vapor rises.
How insulation works. Insulation has an R value, resistance. R-20 is twice as resistant to letting hot or cold through as R-10. Most modern attics have between R-38 and R-50 attic insulation. This is the amount that is engineered to stop the summer heat or winter cold from reaching the ceiling of the living space of the house. It also stops the air conditioning or the heat from going through the sheetrock and into the attic. Well designed, they will meet half way. Too little insulation and the house is hard to cool and heat. Too much and you waste money on insulation and make it very hard to work in the attic if need be.
The attic cavity breaths by taking in cool air from the soffit vents and by the principal of heat rising is allowed to escape through the roof vents. If air cool air cannot get in, hot air is not displaced out. This makes that mid-point in the insulation get lower to the ceiling and the house is harder to cool.
In the winter the principal still works and also takes out damaging moisture which also renders insulation less effective. Moisture in the house rises from the crawlspace or basement, through the floor, passes through the sheetrock, through the attic insulation and to the open air cavity. Each human in the house puts out a quart of water into the air every day.
Also outside you house are several interfaces for utility equipment and conveniences.
Gas meter – This monitors how much gas you use.
Power meter – This monitors how much electricity you use.
Water Meter – Same for water. This is not to be touched by homeowners. Water shut offs for the house are in the basement or crawl space.
Cable and Phone – These starting points allow these service providers a place to connect and disconnect their services to your house.
Sprinkler systems – Properly installed sprinkler systems have a connection to the mail water line before it enters the house. There is a MAIN valve and a DRAIN valve. If one is open, the other is closed. This is the first point to shut off water to your sprinkler system. After this connection is a backflow preventer. This keeps water from going backwards and contaminating the drinking water. It is also a quick above ground point to shut off sprinkler water if you have to. Backflow valves are to be certified annually that they are in working order. Following this is the sprinkler zone valves in a below ground box. In cases of timer failures, individual valves can be opened and closed here.
Outdoor electrical outlets are usually on Ground Fault Circuit Interrupt devices. GFCI’s are either individually provided, or connected to one master GFCI in the garage or breaker panel.
Low voltage outdoor lights are controlled by a timer similar to, but much simpler than a sprinkler system. Some you simply set the amount of hours for ON and they activate at dusk and off at dawn. Two common failures of outdoor lights are: contaminated connections for the wires in ground, or bunt out bulbs.
While we are talking about outside, how about concrete cracks. Cracks in concrete are common, but water getting in and freezing will lift and push slabs and do further damage.
Trees and bushes should be trimmed back so as to not scrub on the siding or roof of the house. This will cause premature roof and paint failures and will allow direct path for insects and critters. Grass should be separated from home perimeter by at least a 24” wide bed of gravel or bark. Plants are fine, but drip water systems should be used around the house.
Inside our caves we wanted comfort, so in addition to log furniture, we wanted to stay warm. Heating. We wanted to have light. Electricity. And we wanted to not leave the cave to go potty. Plumbing. These are the Big Three.
Heating and Cooling – There are a lot of variants on how to heat and cool a home. The common systems are Natural gas forced air, Electric forced air, Radiant electric, Hot Water Heat, and Fuel (wood or Oil). On any of the forces air systems, the living space of the home is conditioned with air movement passing through duct work that should be regularly cleaned. The air is filtered via “furnace filters” and distributed in each room through registers.
Radiant heat can be built into ceilings or in the form of baseboard heaters. Electrical resistance generates the heat. Each room or area will have thermostats and can be adjusted individually. This is an increasingly expensive way to heat a home.
Window mount ac units- These devices are refrigeration units that remove the heat from a room and exhaust it to the exterior of the house. The air is replaces with cooler air on the interior by compressed refrigerant in the unit.
Electrical – Power enters the home through the meter and into the distribution box. This box could contain fuses or breakers. If you have fuses,
Most common is a Circuit Breaker box. Breakers switch off when a load on the circuit exceeds the capacity of the wiring. Common “trips” of the breakers are hair dryers and microwaves as these appliances draw tremendous amounts of power. A 1000 watt hair dryer draws 8.3 amps. If a 1500 watt microwave (12.5 amps) is on the same circuit, like older homes are where the bathroom and kitchen outlets share a circuit, the load here is 20.8 amps which will trip a 20 amp circuit.
Outlets, or receptacles, can wear out. Like any product, there are quality differences and builders usually have the electricians use the lower cost options. “Loose” outlets are dangerous and should be replaced. Wiring techniques have changed a lot over the past 70 years so just removing and replacing would be a verbal oversimplification. Also, just because it worked before, does not mean there is not room for improvement. Hire an electrician to Rand R outlets (as well as switches) and look for others in the house. As long as the Electrician is there, have them do multiples at the same time.
If you hear a switch “pop” when turned on or off, it too is wearing out and should be replaced. Dimmers that buzz or get hot to the touch should be replaces also. All receptacles and switches come in 6 standard colors.
Lighting and bulbs – Light fixtures are easily replaced if you pay attention to how they come off. There is usually a retention nut or screws that hold the fixture to the mounting box on the wall or ceiling. It is important to note that the fixture ground wires must be connected. Also all fixtures have a label on them with a rating on bulb wattage never to exceed. Outside of long tube fluorescent fixtures, bulb fixtures are mostly cosmetic and share the common design to simply hold bulbs. Today, LED bulbs should be the first choice. They do not get hot and use very little power.
Exterior lighting fixtures should be kept clean. Keep bug and organic debris away from lights. Dust, do not hose off. Motion detectors and photocells can turn on and off lights automatically at the fixtures. Sensors and timers can also be added at the switch to turn on and off for convenience or security.
If you source fixtures with standard (medium) size a-19 shape bulbs, you will find the cost to be much lower that specialty size and shape bulbs.
Fluorescent tube fixtures- a T-12 tube is about as big around as a quarter. A T-8 tube is about like a nickel. T-8 is now the standard tube size and a T-8 cannot go in the same fixture as a T-12. You must match what is there. T-12 can still be found, but the choices are getting limited. Like other light sources, you have color temperature choices. Electricians can switch out the ballasts which drive the tubes and this will convert the fixture. There are also LED tubes now that can go into either with no modification although they are a bit pricey.
Plumbing – Plumbing is the most interactive system we have in our homes. It is also the one that does the most damage to our homes. Water damage can be slow or spontaneous. Knowing how to shut off the water to your house is critical as every minute of uncontrolled water flow can do hundreds if not thousands of dollars in damage. We will now look at all of the pressurized plumbing connections and components in the home.
Earlier we mentioned the total house water shut off and how it is usually a vale in the basement or crawlspace. Find this valve and know how to shut it off in case of emergency. Doing this will shut off all water inside the house. This valve will need to be shut off to work on the following areas:
Plumbing elements that have nearby shut off valves are usually sinks and toilets. These shut offs, or “angle stops” are small valves that allow for an individual hot or cold line to be opened or closed. To shut off water to a toilet, simply turn off the angle stop. For two handled sink faucets turn off either the hot or the cold if servicing the valve. For single handle faucets, you will need to turn off both. Over time these valves can develop scale and rust and will be difficult to turn.
From the angle stops to the fixtures are supply lines. These take several forms but if leakage cannot be stopped with a tightening, replace the line. Shut off the stop, remove line, and replace with same configuration. To do a faucet or toilet replacement, these lines will need to be disconnected from the fixture. Most are only hand tight and designed not to require wrenches.
Toilets – Arguably the most important plumbing component. In the case of toilets, the connection to the drain line is via a wax ring. Its gross, it smells. (Now you know why plumbers get $75 per hour.) This flexible connection bridges the gap between the two very dissimilar materials and surfaces. Leakage of the wax ring manifests itself in small puddles of water around the base of the toilet, or in bubbles and discoloration in the vinyl floor. Correct immediately. However, it only leaks if you flush the toilet.
The toilet flapper is the most common replacement component. While there are about 5 common variations, they are the cause of a “running toilet” in most cases. The flapper seals the throat of the bowl inlet. A little dirt, scale, misalignment, or if the rubber dries up will cause the rhythmic refilling of the toilet. Most can be removed without tools. Match the new to the old and reinstall.
Float levels can also become out of adjustment. A rod and float can be bent to shut off the water at the right height. Fluidmaster systems have a rod and a pinch clamp that can be set up or down to adjust fill height. Either way, water should not be running over the top of the overflow tube in the center of the tank.
* According to plumbing code, toilets are to be caulk sealed to the floor.
Faucet replacement is difficult because of the space to work in. I have found it almost easier to remove the sink and faucet as an assembly by unhooking the supply lines and the drain connections and lifting out the entire sink from the counter top. (Of course this does not work on under mount sinks.)
If this is not an option, disconnect the supply lines from the faucet. Also disconnect the drain from the faucet. Pay attention to the order the parts come off. The faucet will be attached with retainer nuts or brackets and these will need to be removed. The faucet will then lift out of the holes in in the sink. These are standard sixe and spacing so if you stay within this for replacement, it should install in just the opposite order.
Kitchen sprayers – These become clogged much like shower heads.
Cleaning drain traps – Kitchen and bathroom drains have “traps” on them. These need to be cleaned out if a clog develops. Do not use chemicals.
Sewer drains – When a sewer line backs up it is usually plugged with debris from toilets or root growth or line collapse. When simple plunger work will not clear the issue, “running the line” is needed by a plumber. They have insurance if they damage the system. Cameras now on these lines can show you the issue and can pinpoint the location if the line needs to be opened.
Two “appliances” bridge the gap between plumbing and either electrical and HVAC.
Water softeners come in many forms and if you do not have the owner’s manual for your softener, download one and read it and keep it by the softener. Know that your kitchen faucet as well as the outdoor hose bibs are not usually hooked into softened water. Soft water is not good for cooking or for plants and aquariums or ponds. The two important things are:
Water heaters can be fueled by gas or electricity. The common elements are that the device should be adjusted to about 120 degrees max to avoid scalding. Inspect the heater from time to time to look for corrosion of the tank which would indicate a leak of the inner compartment. This compartment is surrounded by insulation and then the exterior metal skin. All water heaters should have a drip pan under them with a drain to the exterior of the house.
Caulking and Grout
Not considered plumbing but a logical placement for this is here. Grout and caulking. The caulking seal in corners of showers, tile to tubs, around sinks and fixtures and such is critical to avoiding water damage to the surfaces behind it. Applying good caulking over bad is not acceptable and not a long term solution.
Stained grout can be cleaned with grout brighteners and mold removal chemicals. Missing grout should be replaced with matching colored grout. Mix up a little, pack in, and wipe off with a rag. Buff polish and let cure for two days. Apply caulking over the top for any inside or outside grout corners because of flex cracks. Between a tub and tile, you may need to fill tub with water for the weight.
And now for a random assortment of household elements that often require repair of replacements….
Home Hardware –
Door Hinges – The stock door hinges a door shop puts on our homes are minimal quality. They need to be lubricated as mentioned earlier. If not you may notice black poofs of what feels like soot around the hinges and on the moldings. This is ground up steel from the hinge knuckles wearing.
Cabinet Hinges and drawer slides – In recent home history, the self-closing and hidden cabinet hinges on kitchen and bath cabinets and the roller drawer slides do not require any general maintenance. These cabinet hinges are adjustable however and if a door is out of alignment or sagging, it can be fixed.
Door bells are made up of 4 components. The bell, the button, wire, and a transformer. The transformer reduces the voltage to 12, 18, or 24 volts depending on the bell. It is low voltage since the button is outside and you do not want to get shocked in wet conditions.
Smoke detectors. Smoke alarm placement (Idaho code)
In new construction, required smoke alarms shall receive their primary power from the building and shall be equipped with a battery backup. Smoke alarms shall emit a signal when the batteries are low. Wiring shall be permanent and without a disconnecting switch other than as required for over current protection (a circuit breaker)
Carbon Monoxide Detectors are much like a smoke alarm in that they protect you and have a battery that needs to be replaced.
The specific gravity of Carbon Monoxide is 0.9657 (with normal air being 1.0), this means that it will float up towards the ceiling because it is lighter than regular air. However, when a buildup of dangerous levels of CO gas is taking place, this is nearly always due to a heat source that is not burning its fuel correctly (motor vehicle exhaust fumes are an exception). This heated air can form a layer near your ceiling which can prevent the Carbon Monoxide from reaching a ceiling detector.
For this reason, mount your detectors on the walls at least a couple of feet below the height of the ceiling. If your detector has a digital read-out, placing it at about eye level so you can easily read it.
Towel bars, curtain hardware, paper holders, shelving and other things screwed to walls. These items and many more that are attached to walls in our homes are often badly mounded as to the stress on the item and the hardware provided by the manufacturer or used by the home owner.
Appliances that cause the most problems
Disposals – Food waste disposals (not garbage disposals) are grinders with water. When they jamb, something is stuck inside not letting the motor spin.
A leaking disposal should be reviewed for where it is leaking. If it is at the discharge pipe, the dishwasher drain line connection, or where the mounting hardware attaches to the sink, repair this as needed. If it is leaking around the disposal casing, or out the bottom where the electrical enters, the disposal is done. Get a replacement unit and install. This can be done. Over the phone. Ask Kelly Bankard about this.
Dishwashers have a water connection that attaches to the rigid pipes under the sink. There is a angle stop there that can be shut off if a leak occurs. IF not totally obvious, label which valve under the sink is for the dishwasher. The power for a dishwasher is often on the same circuit as the disposal. If the dishwasher is not running, check the breaker panel as a jammed disposal can also trip the breaker in the panel Most slow leaks at dishwashers come from torn door seals, cracked discharge tubes, or loose connections at the water line.
The discharge tube which is usually a flexible but ridged plastic tube attaches into the disposal or a connection point on the under sink plumbing. As the dishwasher drains, it goes into the drain system here. Any food particles land in the disposal for grinding. This line can make drains smell if it is not attached above drain level under the counter top.
Vent hoods – The vent over the range, cooktop or stove can exhaust to the exterior of the house or can vent right back into the room. Outside is better. Into the room should only be for electric ranges. Most over the range microwaves have vent fans built into them and can be vented either way also.
Sheetrock – Or sometimes called Dyrywall (Sheetrock is a brand name), is gypsum wrapped in paper. It is easily patched, retextured and painted. For small nail holes and up to dime size holes, a heavy weight spackling is good. Allow to dry, sand flat, and then apply if needed a coat (dab, brush, rad, Q-tip) of all-purpose Joint Compound. This is the “mud” that Drywallers use to create texture. Let dry, prime and paint. Large holes or cracks will require tape to reinforce and insure the cracks do not come back and to prevent shrinkage.
Stained woodwork – You may have or should source a can of stain in a matching color for the woodwork in your house. It is easily touched up by dipping a rag tip in the stain, applying, and buffing off. Many times a finish sealer is not necessary. Stain colors can be mixed within the same brand.
Carpets – At the first sign of any tears or loose edges, contact a floor covering installer to have this repaired. Wrinkles are not uncommon especially in inexpensive carpets that have been “Cleaned to death”. Carpets can be re-stretched by a professional.
Vinyl floors – Vinegar and water is good to clean with. Repair any seam tears with tape temporarily until it can be professionally addressed. Vinyl tears are not glued, they are chemically welded and the kits are expensive. Most installers keep the kits with them.
Other floors – wood and tile can be cleaned with water and vinegar also. Repair any chips, grout, and splits or wear spots as soon as noticed to avoid larger repairs later.
Left over paint – Keep leftover paint where it cannot freeze but yet safe and away from children and pets. Flammable finishes should not be stored in a furnace room or near any gas fueled appliances.