Routine Maintenance

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Preparing for Storms

(September/December 2011)

Given the serious storms and power outages we've experienced in the last few years, it's time to talk about preparations we need to take to protect our homes and ourselves. There are lots of articles out there about what emergency supplies you need to keep on hand, so this won't be about that. I'll try to mention things that might not be so obvious in the way of preparations.


Should you get a generator to solve power outage problems? For an old (2002), but still fairly accurate article I wrote about generators, go to Emergency Generators.

Loss of Communications

Losing power has a somewhat different impact today than it did 15 years ago. The old telephone system was powered by current delivered over the phone line, so as long as the phone lines weren't down, you still had phone service. Then came cordless phones that failed in a power outage when their batteries died, so the advice was to keep at least one corded phone in your system.

Today, however, phone systems may be connected to cable or fiber optic systems and plugged into your household power — with a battery backup. This means that with a long outage, you could lose phone service. For many of these systems, the battery backup doesn't apply to internet connections, which then go down as soon as the power is shut off. One step you can take is buying a UPS (uninterruptable power supply) into which you can plug your cable or fiber optic system. Depending on the size of the UPS and the draw you place on it, you may be able to gain a day or two of internet service. However, you'll also need a UPS for your internet router/modem and one for your desktop or laptop computer — or a really big one to handle both.

Now that many people have cell phones, in theory they have telephone access until the battery in the phone dies. We've seen the general unreliability of the cell networks in an emergency, but often once the panic stage has passed, the cell system will be usable. There are inexpensive battery powered chargers you can use to provide roughly one charge to your cell per set of AA batteries. If you depend on your cell, you might want to investigate such a device.

Finally, in regard to phones, it's a good idea to keep a written list of key emergency numbers (power company, gas company, etc.) and family and friends' numbers written down somewhere. Once power is gone and batteries die, any phone numbers on electronic devices won't be accessible.


As much as we like trees, no one likes falling trees. A large tree that lands on a house can cause major damage and serious injury to anyone in its path. Many tree problems can be prevented, however, through tree care done on a routine basis.

Dead limbs will fall from trees in high winds and heavy snow loads. Dead or near dead trees will topple over, particularly if there has been heavy rain and the ground is saturated with water.

A good arborist can help prevent both types of problem. Obviously dead trees and dead limbs and branches should be removed. What most homeowners don't realize, however, is that thinning out the crown of a tree will help it resist wind and snow loads. Thick crowns can become sails in heavy winds, and if there is nowhere for the snow to fall through the tree, wet snow will accumulate much faster than it otherwise would.

I say that you need a good tree specialist to thin a tree because it's very important that it be done right, and the work takes far more skill and experience than a guy operating a chain saw with brute force. A real tree specialist will take 1-2 hours minimum to thin a tree 25' in height. It's a real art.

Normal growing trees should be thinned every 3-4 years. However, a crown should have no more than 25% removed in a given year, so if you have neglected thinning for a very long time, you may need work two years in a row to start out.

Your arborist can also advise you on problems with the roots (killed by heavy vehicles, too much mulch, not getting enough water, etc). Remember that prevention is much preferred to the tree falling!


Wind is a problem in two situations, hurricanes and tornadoes. While it's unlikely that our neighborhood will experience the same kinds of conditions that occur in Florida and the Gulf Coast for hurricanes, or in the south and Midwest for tornadoes, we had a hurricane this year, and have suffered small tornadoes in the past.

We now know enough to build houses that can withstand both hurricanes and small tornadoes with no or minimal damage. This usually involves using metal connectors to hold together the frame of the house. However, it is often difficult to retrofit older houses like ours since these connectors need to go on before the drywall. But if you are building an addition, it's a good idea to ask the contractor to use the connectors to help hold things together. Building codes, even in non-coastal areas, are demanding the use of such connectors as well.

The real danger of wind is that it will propel objects such as tree limbs and lawn furniture through your windows. Once a window is broken, the high winds can pressurize the house and blow out walls or blow off parts of the roof, causing catastrophic failures. You can help prevent this by bringing inside anything outside that might blow around, especially heavy objects. Ask your neighbors to do the same. Anything left outside is a potential missile that can break a window. And the previous discussion of trimming dead wood from trees is especially relevant here.

If our area is warned of the approach of a very severe hurricane, you can do what homeowners at the beach do — board up windows with plywood. Use lots of nails, or better, screws, to hold the plywood on, or it will be torn off and become a missile as well. Your priority should be to board up the windows facing the direction from which the storm is coming. Roll-down hurricane shutters and hurricane panels are probably overkill for this area, as is hurricane proof glass. The latter will break, but at a much, much higher threshold than regular glass, and it will hold together to some degree even when broken.

In case of a tornado, go to your basement, preferably to a room with no windows or as far from windows as you can get. If you don't have a basement, go to an interior room with no windows, and/or get under a heavy piece of furniture.


While the most serious danger from water is sudden flooding, more common in this area is the failure of sump pumps that cause water to fill up basements. If you have a sump pump, it should have a backup battery, and if you're expecting a long storm, a second backup. If you need such a large pump that it goes through backup batteries quickly, you'll need a generator. Remember to use the generator only outside. A generator running inside a house can produce levels of carbon monoxide high enough to cause poisoning and even death.

If your basement would flood without a sump pump, it's not a good idea to store valuables, mementos, and memories down there.

As always, if we're expecting a severe storm, make sure your gutters are clean and in good working order.

Remember that regular insurance policies don't cover flooding or water backup. Your insurer can sell you coverage for water backup, and will sell you government flood insurance with the cost based on your risk.


While snow can cause great inconvenience, it isn't a major threat to your house in this area, even the major snows we had two years ago. Roof framing in Virginia Hills homes is very strong, and going up on your roof to shovel off the snow isn't required. In fact, it's very dangerous to do that, and you're much more likely to fall and hurt yourself than you are to do much good. Just remember not to use any devices that vent through the roof — range hoods and bath fans come to mind — that will release warm air and melt the snow. The resulting water will usually run down the roof and freeze again near the gutters. The frozen water will cause ice dams, potentially forcing water under the shingles and causing roof leaks.

If snow builds up along the sides of your house, be sure to clear any dryer vents, particularly if you have a gas dryer. Carbon monoxide from the combustion of the gas can back up in the house. Even with an electric dryer, warm moist air can get into places where you don't want it, soaking insulation and destroying its insulating value or even rotting the wood framing.

Finally, try to keep your sidewalks shoveled so that you can get out of the house if necessary, emergency personnel can get to you, and your neighbors can walk in the neighborhood without having to walk in the road.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2011

Routine Maintenance

(September/November 2002)

I like reader requests for topics, so I'm happily putting off the article on hallway laundry rooms to focus on regular maintenance and replacement of things in a home. Thanks to the reader who suggested the topic.

Roofs and Gutters

All shingles have a rating - for example "25-year shingles." In fact, these time periods are really just a rough guide, and your roof might last longer or less than the advertised period. All one can safely say is that the longer the advertised period, the better the quality of the shingles.

At least once a year you should go up on the roof and check the condition of the shingles. Significant cracking and a large amount of shingle grains in the gutters tell you that it's time for a new roof. You should patch cracked shingles with roofing cement. While you're on the roof, check the furnace chimney for rust. Repaint as necessary. If you have let the chimney cap rust through, replace it.

The bad news is the amount of work gutters require. You can't ever let your gutters get so full of debris that they overflow, or you'll have basement or foundation water problems. I'm afraid that gutters need to be cleaned at least twice in the fall and once in the spring. You might be able to reduce the work by trimming nearby trees or using some of the gutter guards available. But if you see your gutters overflowing during a rain, it's time for action!


The old steel waste pipe in Virginia Hills houses narrows over time due to rust. Consequently, the pipe often clogs and your shower and sink drain slowly. The solution is to replace the pipes, but that's expensive. If you are willing to snake your drains about once every six months, you can probably go for decades before you are forced to replace.

It goes without saying that you should fix any hot or cold water line leak immediately.

Hot water heaters sometimes last a very long time, and sometimes seem to start leaking the minute the warranty runs out. Once the water heater starts leaking, replace it. Any sign of discharge from the pressure release valve is trouble and needs to be looked at immediately. To help your water heater last longer, you should drain it every year using the little spigot at the bottom and a hose. The recommendation is actually every six months, but I doubt many people would actually do that. Also, many water heaters have a very cheap spigot at the bottom. If you have a plumber visit for something else, having a quality spigot installed is a good idea — and the water heater will get drained as part of the installation.


There isn't much that can be done with the electrical system. Ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) receptacles should have the test button pushed once a month. The same applies to GFCI circuit breakers. Normal receptacles should be replaced when plugs slide in easily and fall out just as easily.

Check the main electrical panel every three months for signs of water getting into it by running down the inside of old electrical service cable coming in from outside. Any rust on the panel or water dripping out of it during a rain means it's time to replace.

Heating and Air Conditioning

Do you need your ducts cleaned? Duct cleaning services insist that you do, but scientific studies are much less clear. If you have major allergies and duct cleaning seems to help, you should have the ducts cleaned as often as it seems to improve things. Otherwise, I wouldn't spend money on duct cleaning. However, you must replace your furnace filter every six months!

Gas furnaces don't really need servicing every year and I have my furnace cleaned and serviced about every 2-3 years. Two cautions are in order, however. Older furnaces need frequent checking, and you should absolutely have a carbon monoxide detector installed near your furnace.

Air conditioning systems can also be serviced every 2-3 years unless you notice that the A/C isn't cooling very well. A good way to check is to put a thermometer in a duct and see if the air blowing out is 20 degrees cooler than the air outside the house. If the difference is a lot less than 20 degrees, it's time for service.

The Chimney

If you have an occasional fire in a fireplace, you can go for years without having your chimney inspected and swept. If you use the fireplace two or three times a week, you should have the chimney swept yearly. If you use a wood stove for heating, you may need to have the stovepipe and chimney swept two to three times during the heating season.

The chimney for the furnace is far more maintenance free, but it still should be looked at once a year. Check that the cap has not rusted through. You should also look in the attic to insure that the furnace chimney has not come apart.

The Attic

While you're in the attic, look at the wood roof boards for obvious signs of water entry or rot. Check the attic insulation to make sure it hasn't moved or, in the case of blown cellulose, that the wind hasn't blown it around. Make sure the attic ventilation isn't blocked. If you have a turbine vent on the roof, make sure it still turns. Bearings on those vents wear out and the turbine freezes.

The Front Steps

Many Virginia Hills residents have discovered that their front steps were poured over construction materials used as backfill around the house. When this fill rotted away, the steps were supported by just the connections to the house. A sure sign of this problem is the steps sinking or pulling away from the house.

The bad news is that the only real solution is to have the old steps removed (the sledge hammer method, usually) and a new set of steps poured. It's not a cheap solution, but the alternative is an unsightly and often unsafe entrance to the house.

The Driveway

A cracked driveway is unsightly, but can often be tolerated for a long period of time. Cracks are often the result of tree roots running under the drive, and there's no easy way to solve this problem without removing the tree, usually not a preferred solution. Cracks should be filled with a crack filler before winter to prevent water penetration and further damage. If you have an asphalt driveway, you should seal it every four to seven years. While experts disagree about whether this increases the longevity of the asphalt, it does prevent water penetration and greatly improves the appearance.

Paint and Trim

The asbestos siding used on most Virginia Hills houses has a very long life. Because it does not expand and contract with temperature changes as wood does, it will retain paint much longer. Wood trim, however, is subject to rot damage if water sits on it. Every few years you should inspect the wood up close and probe with a sharp object any area that looks soft or rotted. Wood trim should be painted every five to seven years, or more frequently if it appears to need it.

Be very careful scraping outside paint. Most Virginia Hills houses' exteriors were painted with a lead-based paint. Sanding should never be done if lead paint is present.


Sadly, trees do need maintenance. Large trees should receive trimming/thinning/crowning about every five years. If a tree grows to thick and dense, it is far more likely to be blown down by the wind. If a tree develops holes or is obviously dying, it needs to be checked and eventually removed. While removal of big trees isn't cheap, it's a lot cheaper than repairing your house after a big limb or tree has fallen on it.

Watering the Clay

Long time residents will tell you that you should water the clay soil around the foundation of your house during very dry summers. Because marine clay shrinks when it dries, during a dry summer the soil may shrink away from under the foundation and the lack of support will cause the walls to develop cracks. Watering keeps the clay at normal moisture. During a wet summer, preventing the clay from becoming saturated by covering it will prevent it from swelling and pushing in on the basement walls.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2002


(November 1995)

Winter will soon be upon us! In this article, I'm going to discuss some of the things you should be doing to get ready for winter. Many of these things will be familiar to you. And if you think of a few I've forgotten, let me know. I'll be winterizing too.

Let's avoid frozen pipes this year! Before the first freeze, it's a good idea to turn off the water to all outside faucets. For those of you who want to avoid this chore every winter, plumbing supply companies make a special sillcock that replaces the existing faucet. The place where the faucet actually shuts off the water is inside the house where it should be warmer. If you're handy soldering copper pipe, you can install it yourself. Otherwise you should have a plumber do it for you.

After the leaves stop falling, remember the gutters. They need to be cleaned out so winter rains and snows don't overflow over the edge. As we discussed a while ago, this is a major cause of wet basements and foundation problems. While you're at it, check if the downspouts terminate a good distance from the house and properly carry off the water. A small amount of time and effort here will save you from lots of expensive problems.

If you have a fireplace or a wood stove, you've already missed the discounts on chimney sweeping. The time to get a good price was in the spring or summer. Nevertheless, if you haven't had your chimney swept in a few years, you definitely should see about having it done. Here's a good rule of thumb. If you have more than two fires a week, or you burn pine and scrap lumber, you should have your chimney swept and inspected every year. If you burn the fireplace two or fewer times a week, once every two years should suffice. Based on what he sees, the chimney sweep should be able to tell you if this frequency of cleaning is right for you. And if you've never had your chimney swept, please get it done before that first fire of the season!!!

Another important thing to do is to have the furnace cleaned and serviced. You can do some or all of this yourself. If you're not confident of your skills, however, you should bring in a professional to do this. All furnaces differ, but here's a general idea of what needs to be looked at on a gas furnace.

First is the chimney. The chimney carries exhaust gases out of your house and a leak might allow deadly carbon monoxide gas into the house. If you have the fireplace/wood stove chimney swept, the sweep will check out the furnace chimney also. A good furnace technician can do this too. At a minimum, he should take off the bottom of the chimney, check with a flashlight for obstructions (nests, dead animals or birds, etc.) and look for excessive rust. He should also check the top of the chimney. The metal caps that were installed there often rust out and should be replaced.

Next, he should check the combustion chamber. He will be looking for cracks or holes that might let the exhaust gases mix with the air that is being heated in the plenum and circulates through your house. He should also inspect the burners for dirt or rust and clean them as necessary. When he fires up the furnace later, he should check the flames coming out of the burners. On older furnaces, these can be adjusted for the best burn (the bluer the flame, the better).

On an old furnace, he should also oil the fan motor. New furnaces have sealed bearings in the fan motor and don't need any attention. Of course, the filter(s) should be changed. You can certainly do this yourself, and it needs to be done at the beginning and the middle of the heating season.

He should also generally clean the furnace and light the pilot light if you don't have electronic ignition. He should test the operation of the thermostat, and perhaps some of the limit switches. These switches sense the temperature of the air in the plenum and won't turn on the fan until the furnace has warmed the air. If the temperature gets too high, they should also cut off the burner immediately. The performance of these switches can be tested on some furnaces.

Finally, I'm going to recommend that you buy a carbon monoxide detector. These look a lot like smoke detectors, but the best ones plug into a standard electrical receptacle rather than run on a battery. They detect carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless, and tasteless gas by-product of all combustion that will kill in high concentrations. You should put the detector in the basement near your furnace and water heater.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 1995

Ice on Sidewalks and Drives

(February 2004

We can hope that we're done with snow and ice for the season, but we've had big snows as late as the last week of March in Northern Virginia. Therefore it's a good idea to be prepared. Worse than snow is ice, a problem frequently found here, especially this year, when one of two things happens. Melted snow re-freezes, or rain comes down and freezes over night.

Preventing melted snow from re-freezing is as simple as preventing the water from sitting on your walk or driveway. When you shovel, make sure you get all the snow off the concrete where it can sit. Try especially hard to get the snow off the high side, where it will run down onto lower parts when it melts. If you can't do that, go out in mid-afternoon when most of the melting has taken place and use a broom to sweep off any standing water. Damp surfaces will usually dry before the night's freeze. There isn't much you can do to prevent problems of freezing rain or rain freezing, short of having a tarp as they do for athletic fields or embedding wires in the walk or drive.

If you do get ice, it's a very good idea to put down something to make it less slippery or to melt it. Remember, ice is at its most slippery when temperatures get closer to freezing. The colder it is, the more you tend to stick to the ice. While there are many products you can buy to melt ice, most of these have some serious disadvantages. Sodium chloride (salt) will kill your lawn and plants, and may damage floors if tracked inside. It can harm concrete if used long-term. Magnesium chloride may damage masonry, but it's safer for plants, animals, and humans than other types. Calcium chloride is less harmful to vegetation than salt, but if tracked inside will damage floors as well as your shoes. These latter two chemicals tend to be expensive or only available in quantities suitable for highway departments or large commercial properties. I'm going to recommend some free or inexpensive solutions — things you probably have on hand.

First, and best in my view, are fireplace ashes. These only help melt snow in a modest way, but are known for providing excellent traction. Many people have carried a can of ashes in their car for emergency traction (but only in a metal can when you are SURE that the ashes are completely cold!). Ashes will not harm grass and plants, and will wash away in a few rains. If you're a woodworker, you'll have lots of sawdust — the before version of ashes. It won't work as well, but it will work.

Sand is also great for traction. If you go out to the street after the snow is gone, the sand that VDOT laid down will still be there to sweep up and use. You're also doing the environment a service when you sweep it up, because you're preventing it from going into the storm drains and clogging streams, creeks, and the Bay.

If you own a cat, cat litter (the non-clumping kind is better) works well for traction, although it's a bit pricey. If you're a shade tree mechanic, you probably have some oil sweep which is very much like cat litter and will work as well.

Finally, fertilizer also provides good traction. When it washes off, if you haven't applied a lot of it, it will help plants and lawns. However, too much fertilizer will "burn" plants and grass. If it gets to the street and into the storm drain system, it will provide too much nutrient for algae in the rivers and will cause that green carpet you see in the Potomac in the summer. Use fertilizer as your last of these choices.

An investment in an good outside doormat will help prevent these traction controllers from being tracked inside.

Copyright Doug Boulter, 2004

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