Do It Yourself Advice

It is possible to do a lot of home repairs yourself if you have the skills and access to the proper tools and materials. (One client refused to allow her husband anywhere near a tool - he cut off the end of his finger with a pair of scissors. If that's you, please skip this page.) If you can be trusted with tools, here are some suggestions on how to diagnose and repair common household problems. Check the Sources page for additional materials, tools, and sources.

... but first please take a look at Why Women Live Longer Than Men.  Before taking on any home improvement project, be sure you know how to do it safely!

 

Appliance Repair:

Manuals for many home appliances are available online. One site that has a few hard-to-find service manuals, and that is extremely responsive to requests, is ApplianceDigest.com.  If you decide to repair your home appliance yourself, please remember to take sensible precautions - unplug it first! Disconnect it from

Dealing with leaks:

Washer hose leaks:

The cheapest insurance against basement flood damage due to a ruptured washer hose is to use hoses with woven stainless cladding that encloses the rubber hose.

The stainless fabric around the rubber minimizes the chance of the hose developing a bubble and failing.  These stainless-clad hoses should be replaced periodically.

Toilet leaks:

The problems I see most frequently with toilets are leaks around the base, and failures of the hardware inside the tank. 

A leak around the base is due to a failed seal between the toilet and the drain line (the septic line flange).  When the toilet is installed, a wax seal is squeezed in place between the toilet and the pipe in the floor, on the flange.  The wax doesn’t wear out – seals can fail for a variety of reasons:

  • because something was done improperly when the toilet was first installed, leaving a gap between the wax and the fixture.  This type of leak is usually trivial; the clue is usually a sewage smell in the bathroom, and possibly a “slow leak” of water from the toilet. 
  • new flooring in the bathroom, but no adjustment made in the height of the flange.  The drain pipe, and the flange for the wax ring, is supposed to be flush with the level of the floor.  When new bathroom flooring is installed on top of the original floor, that leaves the pipe and flange below the floor level.  There are two methods for dealing with this: an adapter to extend the pipe/flange up to floor level, or using two wax rings. 

If you’ve recently re-done your bathroom floor and now have a mysterious leak, with no other apparent cause, you will have to remove the toilet in order to diagnose the exact cause, and determine what to do about it.  If you want to do this yourself, the cost to fix it can be low; however, you may also discover that flooring will have to be cut away in order to access the flange (if the flooring has been installed on top of the flange).  If your toilet is going to be off the drain for any length of time, you will want to plug the drain pipe opening – leaving it open will allow sewage gases to seep into the bathroom.

 

There are lots of ways toilets can fail, because there are lots of different water-holding/releasing designs on the market.  The greatest cost in having a leak diagnosed and fixed is the labor (unless you’re also replacing the toilet).  So I recommend several “decision points” –

Is the toilet worth keeping?  Are you happy with it?  Is it a modern, efficient (low-flush) design?  Do you like the color and shape?  Keep in mind that the labor cost to diagnose and fix a toilet leak is about the same as installing a new toilet – the difference is the cost of the toilet itself.  If you’re already thinking of replacing a toilet, the next time it needs repair is a good time to seriously consider replacing it.

If you decide to replace it, here’s a link to a web site where current toilet models are compared and evaluated: –  http://www.consumersearch.com/toilets has meta reviews of toilets (summaries of published reviews); http://www.toiletsthatwork.com has details on the toilets that ended up a “best buy” in the meta review.

If you decide to repair your toilet, and want to do it yourself, here’s the sequence:
1. Shut off the water (usually a valve behind the toilet itself – turn clockwise to shut off, and counter-clockwise to turn the water back on when you’ve finished).
2. Flush the toilet twice – once to get rid of the water in the bowl and the 2nd time to get rid of the water in the tank.
3. Remove the tank lid.
4. Now you can get dirty: remove all the parts inside the tank (or get good digital pictures of each component, and print them) and take them to your favorite repair parts supply store
5. Find and buy the replacement parts
6. Remove each part and replace with the new one

The parts are not expensive – so replace ALL of them; then you won’t be doing this again for a long time.  If you do the work yourself, this is the cheapest way to repair the toilet.

Kitchen leaks: 

I had a client who didn’t realize her kitchen sink was leaking until she notice that the floorboards in her kitchen were buckling along a seam; her under-sink cabinet was so stuffed with stored items that she didn’t see the damage to the bottom of the cabinet.   Usually, chronic leaks under sinks are caused by fittings that don’t seal – either they are mis-matched, not lined up properly, of the pipe or fittings have corroded or failed.

To diagnose a chronic leak, remove everything you have stored under the sink, and put a couple of paper towels on piece of aluminum foil on the floor of the cabinet under the trap.  Leave them there for a day or two; then examine them.  If there’s a leak, you should see evidence of dripping on the paper towels. 

The solution is to replace or repair the fittings and drain pieces, making sure they are properly lined up.

If you’re using plastic components with threadless fittings, be sure to follow the instructions for joining them – there will be solvent for cleaning the joint, and adhesive to glue them together.  (I was once called in to fix a leaky sink where the client had simply press-fit the fittings, and didn’t bother to glue them together.)

The “care and feeding” of food waste disposals: 

My family's favorite way to destroy a disposal (and we’ve done this at least 3 times) is to miss it when an abrasive little green scrubber falls into the sink drain, and then run the disposal.  These fluffy little pads are light-weight, and don’t make much noise (so you don’t notice it when one of them is taking a ride) – but they are incredibly abrasive.  The abrasive is so strong that it cuts through steel – and that applies to the disposal grinder as well as to your pots and cutlery.  The difference it makes is small – you might not be able to notice by looking – but what you’ll notice is that the disposal will run longer, and won’t seem to finish chopping up what you want it to grind.  I think what has happened is that the two parts of the disposal that do the grinding have been worn down by the abrasive pad, and no longer function as they should.  The only solution I’ve ever found for this is to replace the entire disposal with a new one.

“Honey, the sink is clogged!”  I’ve been called in to fix clogged drains in sinks with disposals.  Usually what has happened is something like this:  you’re peeling potatoes, carrots and onions; the peels go into the sink as you work.  Finally, when you’re all done, you clean out the sink, pushing all the peels down into the disposal chamber, and switch it on.  You know it needs water, so you turn on the faucet too.  This does a great job of instantly clearing the sink.   At this point, you might even turn everything off.  Next time you run a lot of water into the sink, the water backs up, and when you turn on the disposal to clear it, the water swirls around like a whirlpool. 

What has happened here is the disposal has chopped up the peelings as fast as you’ve fed them into it, and sent them into the much narrower drain pipe.  You’ve generated a huge amount of finely chopped material; and the disposal has gotten rid of it – but without enough water to send it all the way down the drain pipe.  You have a clog, just beyond the disposal, and every time you add water to the sink, it stops at this clog.  Onion and potato peels are particularly good at clogging drains. 

To avoid this problem, run lots of cold water through the disposal as you’re feeding it the peelings, and feed the peelings gradually, rather than all at once.  Better yet, start a compost pile in the back yard and put the food scraps in the pile. Your septic system will work better if you avoid dumping raw food in it. The same is true for the municipal sewer system.  If you’ve already clogged your drain, I’d recommend that you not try to clear it using caustic chemical drain cleaners – they might work, but they usually don’t – and if you eventually have to take the drain apart, the caustic chemicals will go onto the hands and perhaps into the eyes of the person taking apart the drain.  Instead, the best way to solve the problem is to remove the disposal from the sink and disassemble the drain sections.  If it’s feasible, consider composting as much of your vegetable waste as possible (which also has the advantage of averting the problems that vegetable waste puts on the bacteria that are trying to digest the septic or sewage waste). Or give them to someone who raises chickens.

Furnace failures: 

Suddenly one heat zone in your house doesn't get heat. Sometimes the failure isn't the thermostat itself. If you want to troubleshoot this yourself, make a note of your thermostat's model number, google the manufacturer, call their service department (the phone number should be on their web site), and describe the problem. They should tell you how to test the thermostat to verify if it's working or not. If you have a Volt/Ohm meter, you should have an answer within minutes of getting this information. More often it's the wiring going to, or inside, the zone valve (this is a part on the furnace). Check the wires going to the zone valve with your meter. If they all check out, then it is most likely a zone valve failure (the zone valve has electronic circuitry inside that turns the flow of hot water on and off); in that case, replace the zone valve.

Minor electrical repairs: 

If you want to replace a light fixture or a switch yourself, be sure to turn the power off at the breaker, before you start.  Once you’ve done that, use a tester on the outlet box to make sure that you’ve shut off ALL the power running to the box – sometimes outlet boxes have more than one line running to them. 

Handling live wires or working in the circuit box is a job for a licensed electrician – please don’t do this yourself, it can prove fatal.  I have a friend who was determined to add his own circuit, and demonstrated that he had no clue how to do it safely.  Fortunately, he allowed a friend to persuade him accept some help, and he’s still with us today (he wouldn’t be, if he’d done the job himself).

Installing Wood Floors:

One of the major components of installing a wood floor is the labor involved, so if you’re willing to do it yourself, you can save a tremendous amount of money.  There are several types of wood flooring available.   One of my favorites is simple oak, narrow-width, random-length flooring.  This material is usually about 2 1/8” wide and is milled with tongue-and-groove on both edges.  To install this material, you’ll need to rent or buy a power edge nailer, which lets you nail through the edges of each strip, so you never see the nails.  Remember that flooring has to be installed perpendicular to the floor joists.  If it’s installed parallel to the joists, you’ll end up with scalloped flooring – it’ll look like the cables in a suspension bridge.  The way to tell which way the joists run is to look at the nail pattern in the subfloor.   Be sure to fix any problems with the subfloor before you start nailing down your new floor.   

Whether you install the new floor yourself, or hire someone else to do it, and whether you use solid or floating panel flooring, you should remove all the baseboard trim before beginning the floor installation

Contractors sometimes skip this step, and instead, install flooring up to the existing baseboards, and then “finish” it off with a strip of quarter-round molding.  If you’re picky, you won’t like the way that looks.  Carefully pry the baseboard trim off, using a pry bar like this, and only at the studs – you can punch through the wall if you pry between the studs.  Be sure to number each baseboard piece on the back, and put a corresponding number on the wall where each trim piece was.  That way, you’ll be able to get all the trim back up where it belongs.

The very best time to install wood floor is in the winter months, when your house is heated.  Wood will always absorb moisture from the air in the warmer, moister months.  That causes flooring boards to swell across their width, which is why you want floor boards to be as dry as possible before you nail them down.  Random-length boards usually come packed in tight bundles.  Unpack them and lay them loosely on the floor, in a cross-hatch pattern:  three boards spaced apart running perpendicular to a layer of several boards that are separated from one another to allow airflow, another layer of cross boards (called “stickers”) and another layer of floor boards.  Continue till you have all your flooring wood stickered so that air can reach it on all sides.  Let these piles of wood air-dry for at least two weeks before starting your floor installation.

If you do this, you’ll minimize the gaps that inevitably appear between floorboards as they absorb and then release moisture, as the seasons change.

My favorite treatment for wood is Velvit Oil, applied in 3 coats, sanded in and wiped off.  The "info" page is here.  Velvit Oil is available in many home improvement supply shops; if you can't find it, contact Velvit Products (920) 722-8355, or sales@velvitproducts.com.

Fit existing door frame trim to new wooden floors

There are many web sites that show how to install new wood flooring; most of the ones I’ve seen have you remove the door frame trim along with the baseboard trim.  However, it is possible to put in a new floor without removing the door frame trim - here’s how to do it.

When you install a new wood floor, chances are the new floor will be slightly higher than the old floor.  The challenge is to lay the flooring so that it and the door frame trim still fit together.  There’s a relatively straightforward method: before you lay any of the new flooring, using a piece of scrap flooring as a guide, set the scrap on the subfloor next to the wall, against a section of door frame trim.  Using a hand saw, gently slide the saw blade back and forth, cutting off the bottom of the door frame trim, leaving only the thickness of the saw blade as the “gap” between the new flooring and the frame – enough space to slide the new floor boards under the trim.  If you’re careful not to scar the wall, you’ll have perfectly fitting door frames when the floor is finally in.

Repairing lath and plaster walls:

Use Structo-Lite to repair plaster over lath

When our kids were going to college they bought one floor of a bank owned 3-family building, which had lath and plaster walls.  In the stairway, the plaster was knocked out of one wall.  The cleanest fix was to knock off ALL the plaster, clean the lath, and then to apply structo-lite, finish, and paint the walls.  Structo-lite is made up of tiny beads of synthetic material instead of sand – the result is lighter than plaster, but much stronger, and it doesn’t shrink when it dries.  More information on structo-lite is available here.

Gutters:  

When gutters fill with leaves, the gutter doesn’t drain.  A clogged gutter will fill with water; when it rains, a full gutter will overflow, waterlogging and eventually damaging the roof and support structures where the gutter is attached.   If you want to clean out your gutters yourself, remember to treat the ladder you use with great respect.