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Do not seal off front door to save heat
By Henri DeMarne | United Feature Syndicate
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Published: 8/22/2010 12:03 AM

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Q. I want to seal off our front door for the winter to save heat. It's a metal-clad door that has been painted. The indoor trim is painted wood and the outdoor trim is stained wood. I am worried about condensation. How should I do this job to minimize any ill effects?

Our basement is a full-sized, poured concrete foundation with four small windows. It does not leak anywhere. In the northeast corner, where the water line from our well enters, moisture regularly collects on the pressure tank and the accompanying pipes, puddling up on the floor, especially in the summer. Consequently, it regularly smells moldy. I have sprayed all surfaces with a 15 percent bleach solution, which eliminates the smell, but only for a day or two. Any words of wisdom on this problem?

A. Insulated steel doors have an R-factor in the range of 15 to 20. They are almost as well-insulated as a standard 2-inch-by-4-inch exterior wall. There should be no need to seal it off, which could raise a safety issue in case of fire. What is important, though, is to make sure that the weatherstripping is tight and effective. If it isn't, you can install additional weatherstripping on the outside part of the frame. Buy it in lumber yards.

Moreover, if your door has a glass insert, and it is subjected to sun exposure in the winter, the buildup of heat between the door and any clear material you plan to use to seal it off may damage the fiberglass molding and the glass seal may break. This has happened in several homes and condo projects in which storm doors were installed to accomplish what you are trying to do.

Condensation on a pressure tank and cold water pipes is a common problem, which I have dealt with by setting the tank on 4-inch-thick cinder blocks in a plastic or metal pan. This localizes the accumulation of the condensate that is absorbed by the cinder blocks and evaporates in the basement, which should have a dehumidifier. Another - and better - way to deal with this problem is to set the pressure tank in a pan set on 8-inch cinder blocks and have a drain hole in the pan discharging into a condensate pump receptacle from which it is dumped into a laundry tub or a clothes washer drain pipe. I do not recommend insulating the visible pipes in the basement as it would simply transfer the condensation to pipes inside walls, where it could cause much greater damage. It's an unfortunate price to pay to have well water.

In mid-March, we had a big storm which caused flooding. I have a sump pump which was working fine until the power went off for six hours. The next morning, I had 3 feet of water in my basement, causing damage to my furnace, water heater, walls and other items. Someone mentioned that there is a suction system (not a backup battery) that can keep the sump pump working when the power fails. I would appreciate any information or help you can give me about it.

A. This is a new one for me and my HVAC contacts. If someone knows about such a system, please let me know so I can investigate it. The only thing I can suggest is a battery backup for the sump pump, but it is unlikely that it would have lasted six hours if the flooding continued for that length of time.

When I sell my house, the buyer will probably hire a home inspector to check it. Should I go around with him as he inspects the house?

A. It is really up to the inspector and the prospective buyer. Normally, the seller should be available for any questions that come up, without following the inspector and his clients around, as that does not allow the inspector the freedom to comment as he or she should be able to do. The same applies to the seller's broker. When I was inspecting houses, I requested that sellers and their broker not accompany us, but a few were insistent. I had to make mental notes of concerns, and discuss them later with my clients after a couple situations when the sellers and their brokers became somewhat belligerent.

I am writing out of concern for our daughter's family. We had a $5,000 water system installed for them with a company we thought was the best. The system has broken down many times. What should we do? They buy water to drink and cook with because the toilet, sink, tub and clothes are orange, and we cannot get it fixed. Their clothes are also turning orange. We would be thankful for your input.

A. I am sorry to read of your daughter's predicament. It is evident that whoever installed the system did not do it right. If you have had the installer come every time that the system broke down, and they have been unable to solve the problem, it seems as if the wrong system was installed or the installer is not experienced. Under the circumstances, it is wiser not to deal with that company and to have the water tested by another firm. You may end up having to replace the system. You are fortunate in having a stellar water-quality company, Clear Water Filtration, not too far from your town in Warren, Vt. Their phone number is (802) 496-5544.

I have a Weil-McLain propane hot-water baseboard system, which was installed in 2005 in my 40-year-old house. The plumbers put antifreeze in it to prevent the pipes from freezing in the event of a power outage. In December 2009, another plumber flushed the antifreeze out and replaced it with water, asserting that the antifreeze would damage the pipes. A friend recently informed me that the plastic pipes required a vapor barrier to prevent the oxygen in the water from escaping, thus damaging the pipes. To my knowledge, there is no vapor barrier. Which is better for this system: antifreeze or water? How can a person determine whether or not the plastic pipes have a vapor barrier? When is a vapor barrier necessary? If necessary, can a vapor barrier be installed on plastic pipes? Is there an available antifreeze solution that will not damage the plastic pipes?

A. Before the time your system was installed, the neoprene fittings on PEX pipes were attacked by antifreeze and eventually leaked. This has not been the case for some 20 years. Leaks are more prone to develop in systems with antifreeze, and antifreeze reduces the efficiency of a hydronic system. Unless there is a real risk of a lengthy power outage, it is best to fill the system with water. The manufacturer of the piping is the one installing a vapor barrier in the pipes if it is necessary; there is nothing you can do about it. Antifreeze solutions used in hydronic systems are nontoxic.

Thank you for giving great advice. I would like to know of an effective way to seal the cracks in the concrete floor of my basement. The floor was poured on earth with very little fill beneath it. I don't have a water problem, and there is very little humidity in the air thanks to Tuff-N-Dri coating on the uphill wall. I have some radon in the basement, which I hope to correct soon. Any information would be helpful. I designed and built this house myself in 1958, so I know what I have. I also would like to know of a way to put some shine back on my old American Standard sink, tub and toilet. Thanks.

A. You haven't said how large the cracks are and what type they are. If the cracks are on the same level on both sides, and very small, they may be shrinkage cracks and of no consequence. But I am assuming that, since you ask, they are wide enough to be of concern. You can fill them with Thorocrete or a similar product that contains a reinforcing agent to increase adhesion. But if the cracks are not on the same level (one side higher than the other), it would indicate that there has been some settlement - a possibility if the ground on which the slab was poured was not compacted and covered with 4 to 6 inches of stones. You can still fill them with the same material and slope it from one side to the other.

Is this a recent development or have these cracks been there for many years? If so, more investigation may be needed, as the repair may not hold.

If your bathroom sink and your tub are steel with a porcelain finish (the tub may be cast-iron), try Gel-Gloss by TR Industries. You should be able to find it in hardware stores. The toilet is solid porcelain and there is no way I know of improving its appearance. It may be time to replace it with a new low-flush style to save water. Consider what is known by various names, depending on the manufacturer, as a "comfort height" toilet. They are a few inches taller than the standard models, but very much more comfortable, especially as you get older.

I have read your statements about commercial gutters, and the contractor I spoke with said that he would install them, but would use the smaller size leaders going from the second story to the roof line of the first story and then use the larger leaders from the first story to the ground. Each floor would have the larger commercial-size gutters installed. My house is a split colonial; the second-story roof is 28-by-32; the first-story roof is 30-by-32. What are your thoughts? Same size all the way around or mix them?

A. Not only stay with the commercial downspouts throughout, but also make sure that the contractor does not dump the water from the upper roof onto the lower roof. This would cause excessive wear of the shingles onto which the upper roof water would run. The downspout should discharge into the lower gutter and have a shoe leading the water in the right direction without interfering with the normal flow in order to prevent splashing.

• 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 henridemarne@gmavt.net.

© 2010, United Feature Syndicate Inc.