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You can patch a damaged popcorn ceiling
By Henri DeMarne | Columnist
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Published: 9/18/2010 11:00 PM

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Q. I just bought and moved into a cute little house with only one problem: It has textured ceilings with patches missing here and there. I think they call it popcorn. A painter gave me a huge estimate for removing the texture, as he says that there is no way to patch it. He says that the ceilings will be so badly damaged that he will have to put some new Sheetrock over them. I have spent all my resources to buy this house and can't afford to spend several thousand dollars to get my ceilings replaced. I don't mind the textured ceilings, but I wish there was a way to fix them. Do you have any suggestions?

A. There is an easy fix. Zinsser makes a Popcorn Ceiling Patch under its brand Bondex. You should be able to find it in a quality paint store.

I look forward to reading your column every week. I live in Chicago's Northwest suburbs, and our house was built in 1972. It is a two-story frame structure. We are planning on putting a new roof with a ridge vent and adding more insulation to the attic. Before we do the insulation, we were thinking of adding a whole-house fan. Years ago we had one in another house, and it seemed to help cool the house during the night.

I haven't seen anyone ask about whole-house fans in your column. Do you think they are worth the expense, and do you see any issues in the attic a fan would cause? We would also increase the size of the soffit vents to accommodate the increased airflow. Are there any particular brands you would recommend? I noticed online that several have insulated doors that close when the fan is off. I would appreciate any advice you would have on this subject.

A. There have been several questions answered about whole-house fans over the years. I have some reservations about them based on a number of factors. They seldom have enough exhaust air available to them. To provide it would require much more than adding to the soffits; you would need to have large gable vents, which would work against the soffit/ridge-venting combination that is best to cool an attic in the summer and vent out moisture in the winter.

I am not fond of gable vents, as they admit rain and snow under windy conditions and negatively affect the soffit/ridge-vent system. Even though some whole-house fans come with an insulated cover for the winter, it's not equal to the insulation that can be provided without that hole in the ceiling. Cluster flies can also get in the house around their housing when the fan is not in use.

These fans rob the house of heat in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer through convection around their frame, even though it may be insulated, and this convection can take interior moisture into the attic where it can overpower the venting system's ability to dispose of it.

Assuming that you do not have central air-conditioning or window units, a much cheaper way to cool the house down during the summer nights is to set up a fan blowing out in front of a window while opening strategically selected windows on the opposite side of the house. We use this system to draw cool night air into the bedroom with great success.

We have a concrete porch at the front door of our 40-year-old raised ranch in Williston, Vt. It has a crack in the center going toward the house and tips toward the house. A concrete contractor indicated that it was poured on a three-sided foundation separate from the house and not attached to the house, which caused it to crack over time. A second contractor said it is not on a foundation. It's just poured to look like it. He says it is a foot thick and sitting on the ground.

I have dug at an edge, and the vertical depth of it is about a foot. The concrete person wants to just replace the slab, putting rebars in the house foundation to give it support on four sides. The second contractor suggests tearing up the concrete and building a porch using a composite-wood product.

We are not sure about the best approach and are worried what will happen if the concrete slab is not on a foundation and a new one is simply poured without footings. Do you have any suggestions for us?

A. The concrete porch cracked because the necessary reinforcement wasn't there. It tips toward the house because there are no adequate footings and the backfill of the foundation is settling, taking the porch with it. It sounds as if the second contractor is the one with the right diagnosis. Either repair sounds OK as long as each is done right.

It seems to me that tearing the concrete porch to replace it with another concrete porch with footings as deep as they should be in northern Vermont, and tied into the house foundation with rebars, is likely to cost a lot more than removing the failing porch and replacing it with a pressure-treated framework and Trex or equivalent. You may want to get prices from both of the contractors in order to help you make the right decision.

You haven't told me the size of the porch; that will make a difference in the costs, and can affect your decision, as the larger the concrete structure is, the more the costs of setting up, digging the foundation, forming, pouring, and form removal are reduced per yard. Finishing concrete can't be rushed, and the finishers must stay with it until the end regardless of the size of the job.

I wanted to know why when I have my air-conditioning on that the crawl- space smell is more distinct all through the house. The furnace is down in the crawl, and the crawl floor is dirt and stones. There is some insulation on the walls as well. My main concern is how unhealthy it is if it smells that bad. Could radon play a big part in that as well? We tested for that a long time ago, and I can't remember what the results were or if we actually finished the testing.

A. If you can't remember the results of the radon test, you should do it again. The most accurate test is the alpha-track test. It requires several months over the heating season, but it will give you a true reading, whereas the charcoal canister only gives you a reading over a couple of days, which may not be a true representation of the level in your house.

I encourage you to take care of this starting in October or November, depending on how cold your climate is, and ending it in late March.

You can smell the crawl space odor throughout the house when the air-conditioning is running because it is drawing air from it. The crawl space floor should be covered with 6-mil plastic, but that should be done on bare dirt and not over stones, as they would cut the plastic - depending on how sharp they are - if anyone is walking on them. If you can get thicker agricultural plastic in a farm-supply store (20-mil or so), you would not need to remove the stones. This should prevent the smell from permeating the house.

I hope you can help me out with this unique situation. In my basement, there are several metal posts that support the first floor. Each metal post has a 4-square-foot square base that rests on the concrete floor. The concrete by the base of one of the posts appears to be swelling and creating a bump in the floor that has tripled in size in the past five years. Since carpeting covers the bump in the floor, I haven't been able to clearly see what is going on. We did pull up the tile on the floor before putting down the carpet about six years ago, which is when the bump started growing.

What could be causing the raised concrete? Do I need to be concerned? Do I need to fix the floor? If I need to fix it, I'm not sure what type of repairman should fix it: concrete, flooring, structural, etc.

A. This sounds like an unusual situation. You should pull up the carpeting in that area to make sure that it is truly a concrete problem, and not one caused by some other condition. Once you have opened up the area, and if there is no reasonable and visible explanation, and the steel lally column is lifted by this bump, forcing the beam it supports upward or stressing it, crushing its fibers if it is made of wood, you should have a structural engineer check it out. The engineer can tell you whom you should call to get the job done. Otherwise, you may not need to do anything.

Reader comment: I liked your response to the question about solving basement leakage. However, if there is significant water coming from one area of a basement or crawl space, you can still install a sump pump/pit. I just instruct the contractor to make the pit 4-inches bigger in diameter so he can put some 3/4-inch stone around it to help facilitate drainage into the basin. - City of Des Plaines Public Works & Engineering Dept.

A. Thank you, and I agree with you. I have advised a number of clients over the years to do this when there was leakage only in one particular area. My design for sump-pump installation has always been as follows: The best way to build a sump is to dig a hole 30 inches deep and 30 inches square, lay 5 inches of egg-size stones on the bottom, place an 18-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 to the bottom of the existing slab. Patch the concrete with a very slight pitch toward the top of the flue tile, which you use as a form. Install a submersible pump. Any water building up under the basement slab 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. Be sure that you discharge the water away from the house foundation in order to prevent it from recirculating into your basement.

• 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.