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Steam can clean dingy bricks
By Henri DeMarne | Columnist
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Published: 7/11/2010 12:33 AM

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Q. I live in a 55-year-old, half brick (lower half) ranch home. The upper half of my home is aluminum siding. Out front, areas of the brick have become discolored, stained and/or mildewed. In areas, the mortar is cracked, loose and washed out. On the two back corners of the home's foundation, the concrete is spalling. The rest of the brick (rear and side walls) is in mostly good condition. The front of my home doesn't look terrible, but it does look worn, especially the areas that need tuck-pointing.

In trying to improve the home's curb appeal, I've tried cleaning the brick myself (power washing and Wet & Forget) without satisfactory results. I had two tuck-pointing/masonry contractors come out to my home to address the tuck-pointing and overall aesthetics. I received estimates of $2,700 and $2,400 for tuck-pointing the front of my home and "touching up" the few other areas needed around the home. Both contractors viewed the corners of my foundation where the concrete is spalling and both said it wasn't a concern. They said they'd patch these areas with a mixture of concrete and latex. But neither contractor could address how to restore or "freshen up" the overall look of the brick.

If I decide to get the tuck-pointing done, is there anything I should be aware of? Any suggestions on how I could freshen up/restore the look of my brick or what type company I should call to help me with this? If the brick can't be restored to my satisfaction or if it's too costly, could I have siding put over the brick?

A. Tuck-pointing is tedious, and it is difficult to match the existing mortar, which has aged and collected airborne pollutants. It takes a skilled mason to do the job right. To clean the bricks, contact a firm that steam-cleans masonry, or look in your Yellow Pages under "mason contractors" for a firm that does masonry restoration, which can take care of the tuck-pointing and the cleaning of the bricks.

I would not recommend applying siding over the bricks, which will be costly and could detract from the appearance of your house.

Q. I read your column regarding mold and mildew on rooftops. We recently had a problem similar to the one described in the column. We need a new roof and have contacted two roofers. The first roofer said he would have to replace all of the seven skylights we have. He said that when ripping out the old roof, the flashing around the skylights gets damaged and the skylights must be replaced. It would cost about $6,500 to replace the skylights. We do not have any leaks in the skylights, which are the stationary type.

The second roofer said that the skylights do not have to be replaced when installing a new roof. Who is right?

A. Since you mention having had an algae problem on your roof, I assume that you have asphalt or fiberglass shingles. There should be no need to remove the skylights to replace the roof if the removal of the existing roof covering is done carefully.

Q. Our wood deck needs restaining. The wood is not pressure-treated. What do you recommend for taking off the old finish, which is peeling?

A. Try using a pressure washer. If most of the existing finish is peeling, it should easily remove it. Any remnants will have to be taken off with a scraper or a gel-like chemical paint and stain remover.

Q. My grandparents were wondering what causes the black streaks on walls above the hot-water baseboards. Their system is an oil-fired Buderus model number G115 with a Riello burner.

A. Invisible dust particles floating in the air get deposited on the walls as warm air rises from the baseboards. It's a common problem. It has nothing to do with the boiler.

Q. I will be updating my only small bathroom. I am putting in a new tub, vanity and sink and removing and replacing the old tiling and putting in new tile on the floor and also in the tub surround. The bathroom is very small and has a radiator in the corner of the outside wall. The radiator works well and provides good heat for the small room but is not attractive and takes up space in this small area. I am wondering if you have experience with electric radiant heating and if you think this would work in the bathroom. The floor itself is only about 7-by-6 feet. If you recommend it, is there a specific brand that works better than the others, and where would be the best place to buy it? The contractor who will be doing the bathroom is not familiar with radiant heating and has never installed it.

A. Radiant electric heat is a very good way to go in your situation and works well in bathrooms. A licensed electrician is the person to install it. Are you using a general contractor or simply plumbing and tile contractors? A general contractor must use a licensed electrical subcontractor in his or her work, whereas the two subcontractors may not know of one. Radiant electric heat can be controlled by means of a thermostat that can be programmed to fit your needs.

Q. I have a ranch with asphalt shingles. They are in reasonably good condition, although there is some curling (fishmouthing) evident. If I were to trim the curled shingles to a level surface, cover the shingles with 30-pound felt then attach 30-gauge steel roofing panels, would the sun still cause the metal to telegraph the shingles?

A. Fishmouths often indicate that a fastener (nail or staple) has come up. A better way to install ribbed or corrugated metal panels is to screw furring strips horizontally - 16 inches on center from the eaves to the ridge - then screw the metal roofing to them. Seal the spaces between each row of furring strips with pieces of roll ridge venting to keep insects and bats from nesting but still allow ventilation.

Q. A couple of years ago, I had a garage built. Within six months, the concrete floor started to crack where the bolts attach the walls to the floor. The crack is now all across the building. Is there anything I can buy to fix the crack?

I also would like to paint the concrete floor. Do you have any suggestions on how to do this and what kind of paint to use? I'd like to fix the floor before the crack gets any bigger.

A. If the crack is only a hairline drying crack, there isn't much you can do about it. But if it is wide enough to fill it with a concrete-repair material, you can do so, using a product like Thorocrete Concrete Patch, which comes in quart and gallon containers for small jobs.

I do not recommend painting a garage floor - or any concrete floor, for that matter. But if you still want to, the only way you can with any chance of satisfactory results is by painting it with epoxy. It will be expensive and require thorough preparation of the slab. You can try staining the floor, but the stain is likely to wear off fast in the car's tracks.

Q. What is the Clorox bleach/water mix for mildew removal?

Lichen has heavily infected the lava rock flanking my front-entry steps. I plan to spray a 50/50 mixture of white vinegar and water on the rocks after saturating them with a hose. Hopefully, the vinegar will kill the lichen.

What is the name of your book and its publisher and where can I get it?

A. Start with one part Clorox bleach to three parts water. If that does not take care of the mildew, increase the proportion of the bleach to water.

What you plan to do to get rid of the lichen should work. Please let me know if it does; readers' endorsements of what I recommend is important feedback.

My book is titled "About the House with Henri de Marne" and is available at bookstores. The publisher is Upper Access:, (800) 310-8320.

Reader endorsement

"I love my commercial gutters and downspouts! Rainwater flies along and down and out. Your column made me aware of them, so when replacing my gutters, I requested the commercial ones. Although the salesman was reluctant to sell them to me, it was exactly what was needed. Keep recommending them!"

Thank you for sharing your experience. Be assured that I will continue to recommend them; I have been doing so for more than 50 years.

• Henri de Marne was a remodeling contractor in Washington, D.C., for many years, and is now a consultant. Write to him in care of the Daily Herald, P.O. Box 280, Arlington Heights, IL 60006, or via e-mail at

© 2010, United Feature Syndicate Inc.