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Window choice is complex for many homeowners
By Henri DeMarne | Columnist
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Published: 8/7/2010 11:24 PM

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Q. Just wondering if you have any opinion on vinyl versus wood windows. I am looking into replacing some of our windows and would be interested in your recommendation by product brand. We have looked into Weather Shield, Andersen and Harvey. They appear to all have a good recommendation by ordinary consumers. Any information would be greatly appreciated.

A. My bias is with wood or fiberglass windows, even though there are some good vinyl windows. I would be leery of trusting any endorsements you may read on any product's website or flyer, which can easily be posted by the manufacturer.

Andersen 400 Series is a good window, but their 200 Series, built to be competitive with less-expensive brands, is inferior. Check into Marvin windows. Their Integrity Wood-Ultrex Series or entirely fiberglass doors and windows are top-quality, and their prices are considerably less than Andersen 400 Series. I'm using Marvin Integrity Wood-Ultrex for our house addition.

Q. My home is a split-level, about 50 years old. I need to sell it in the near future, as I am of retirement age and must downsize. The lower level is concrete and has a family room with a full bath.

In the bathroom, there was a square (10 feet-by-10 feet) cut out of the concrete. There was a breakout substance, like concrete, to gain access to it. About seven years ago, I thought there was a leak from it, so I called a plumber who also works with sewers and has a good reputation. The leak was from the washer, which is next to the bathroom. The sewer guy - after breaking out this stuff - told me that it was a clean-out, and it had a flap that would prevent sewer backup. He then filled up the 10-by-10 hole with foam. The problem was that the washer hose leaked and water seeped under the wall onto the bathroom floor.

Now, this foam moves, because the vinyl tile is breaking and is slightly raised up. What do I do? I have to remodel this bathroom before I put it on the market. Do I take the foam out and fill it up with the stuff that was in there before?

A. If the washer leak has been taken care of, and there is no need for access to the hole that was cut, you can have it filled with concrete again. But if you need access to the clean-out in the future, your plumber can install a cast-iron frame and cover. The adjacent concrete can be patched around the frame. If that is not possible, a form can be made of pressure-treated wood and a cover made of pressure-treated plywood, but that is obviously not the most desirable fix for a finished bathroom. But floor tile can be set over it.

Q. You recently wrote about trapped air in water. I had some plumbing done to a faucet, and this noise started in my water heater whenever the hot water ran. The water heater is only 3 years old, so I feel it is trapped air, as it makes a clanging sound and then stops after a few minutes. How do I get it out?

A. Whoever worked on the faucet would have shut the water off under the sink, unless there was no shut-off valve and they had to shut off the main water valve. Shutting off the water locally would not have affected the water heater. Shutting the water off at the main entrance valve might have caused some air to become trapped at the top of the heater, but it would have worked itself out quickly.

It is possible that you are experiencing a coincidental event: sediment at the bottom of the water heater may be causing the clanging or gurgling sound you hear. Try draining a gallon or more of water from the bottom of the heater, and see if that solves the problem.

Q. There is a drain outside of our basement door, but when we have a heavy rain the drain doesn't take all the water. This causes the water to come in the basement under the door. Do you have any suggestions other than removing the concrete steps and putting in lower steps?

A. I assume that you are referring to outside stairs that lead from your yard down to a concrete landing where the drain is. I also assume that there is a minimum 4-inch step-down from the basement floor to the outside landing.

Given these assumptions, it sounds as if there is a drywell under the landing that is unable to absorb the water fast enough during heavy rains. Drywells may silt up over time, which may be your problem if this is a recent development. There are two solutions I have used over the years. Both require breaking up the concrete landing and excavating the soil out of the area between the basement door and the stairs to a depth of two to three feet if possible without getting below the house foundation.

You can fill the hole with egg-size crushed stones to within 4 inches of the basement slab and leaving it as is or stop the stone fill 8 inches below the basement floor and pour a 4-inch-thick concrete pad over it, reusing the drain that was there. Another solution is to line the four walls of the hole with concrete blocks laid flat - so that the holes are facing the walls of the excavation - and capping it with a concrete pad with the drain. The latter will give you more storage space for the water.

Q. For the past two summers, we have been experiencing a musty odor coming from the crawl space of our suburban home in Chicago. It smells like a cross between something musty, bad garbage or a dead animal. I checked the crawl and there are no deceased animals. It usually is only noticeable if the A/C is on and it is a really hot and humid day. It is better when I open the access panel to the crawl in the garage and/or lift our garage door some. We do occasionally have water in the crawl during heavy rains.

I use a portable sump to get the water out, and I keep the access panel open until it airs out. I am not sure what could be the source of the odor. It is troublesome because the odor eventually spreads throughout the house. I was wondering if you had any suggestions to stop the odor? The only thing I have tried is DampRid. At first it seemed to help, but the odor has come back, even after putting new containers of DampRid in the crawl.

A. You should try to keep water out of the crawl space by checking the grade around the house and making any necessary corrections to it. Also check for any appendages that allow water to run toward the house (walks, patio, driveway, etc.), and correct them.

Next, if the crawl space floor is bare, you need to cover it completely with 6-mil plastic to control the moisture emanating from it, and thus the odor. But you should not do that until the leakage has been cured, or you will have water on top of the plastic, and moisture will permeate the entire house as it evaporates.

If it is not possible to solve the leakage problem, you can gently slope the crawl space floor to the most practical point where you can dig a sump and install a sump pump. Then cover the soil with plastic, making sure that you tape it up the walls to a point slightly above the outside grade. Be sure that any additional pieces of plastic you may need to use on the floor are laid over the plastic that is taped to the walls, so that any water getting through the walls will be led to the sump and not run over the floor plastic, causing a swimming pool.

The best way to build a sump is to dig a hole 30 inches deep and 30 inches square, lay 6 inches of egg-size stones on the bottom, place an 18-inch-by-18-inch, 24-inch-long flue tile on the stones and fill the space between the walls of the hole and the tile with the same stones. Install a submersible pump. Any water running on the dirt floor will drop down into the stones lining the hole and enter the sump under the flue tile, where it will be pumped out when the level rises to the point that it triggers the pump. You may also want to cut a round hole in the plastic over the sump so that any water that gets on the plastic will drain into it. Be sure that you discharge the water away from the house foundation in order to prevent it from recirculating into your crawl space.

Reader suggestion: Several readers have sent me their suggestions for an unexplained chirping that occurred intermittently, even after the person had removed the battery from the smoke detector. Here is another one:

"There might be a smoke detector in the attic that is running out of battery power. We had the same thing in our house!"

• I'm writing in reference to the person who wrote in about the mildew odor that only occurred when the water ran in the kitchen sink. The person didn't mention if they had a disposal, and this may be really obvious to everyone except me, but for the first many years that I lived in my house, I did not know that the round black rubber flaps above the disposal were removable and needed to be taken out and cleaned every so often. We often get a mildew smell if I don't keep that gasket clean enough. The odor could be coming from the disposal too, so they could try whatever is recommended to clean their disposal. If they don't have a disposal, I'm clueless.

• 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