Basement heartbreak month

Installing a second sump pump in your basement is never a bad idea. Postmedia Network

If your home made it through the fall months without incurring any flooding damage due to power failures, general mishaps, or acts of nature, then congratulations, your home’s water dispersal system is seemingly in good working order.

However, fall weather to a home is kind of like Japan showing up to face Team Canada in pre-tournament Olympic hockey. In other words, the ol’ homestead has yet to be truly challenged. A few days of rain, perhaps a little snow, combined with maybe a heavy downpour of leaves, is usually all the fight you’re going to get out of October and November, and, relatively nothing compared to what’s coming this March.

Besides having long been the heartbreak month for Maple Leaf fans, as they helplessly watch their team play themselves out of playoff contention, March has also earned the reputation as the month for basement heartbreak. This due to after months of sweat, blood, tears, and expense put into a basement renovation, the odds favour an exhausted homeowner waking up some morning in the month of March, to a just installed floating composite floor, actually floating, in about four inches of water.

What happened? Well, the various weak spots in your home’s drainage system were working well enough to handle a little rain, but when it came to diverting the water from those banks of melting snow and ice, the systems obviously fell well short of the task.

So, if you’re planning on turning your basement into extra living space this winter, let’s look at how to avoid heartbreak this spring.

First, if your home’s basement floor is below the water table, thereby requiring you to have a sump pit, and accompanying sump pump, in order to collect the water surrounding the foundation, and pump it clear of the home, get a second pump. When one little bobble floating up and down a thin steel shaft is all that protects your $20,000 basement renovation from disaster, it’s time to re-evaluate your risk management.

Sump pumps can jamb, get clogged, or just stop working. So, invest in a second pump, two bobbles are definitely better than one. Plus, have this second pump tie into your water line. This way, you’re not depending on electrical power, or a backup battery (that requires a constant trickle charge) to power the pump, it’ll all be done by the existing water pressure in the line.

Call your local plumber in order to have this job done properly.

Next, let’s check the foundation, and make sure those systems designed to properly divert rain and snow melt away from your home are intact. Checking the foundation means essentially looking for cracks. Whatever the size of a crack, be it hairline, or severe, they’re all potentially problematic, allowing water into the home, while further deteriorating your foundation. Cracks can be temporarily covered, or filled, with a pre-mixed, just add water, hydraulic cement powder. The next step, if weather, and your skill set will permit, would be to cover these repairs with parging, a thin coat, smooth finishing compound that you see on most finished foundations.

Next, if you’ve got window wells, cover them. Window wells collect water and deposit it against the foundation wall, basically the two things you absolutely want to avoid. Easy to install, clear plastic “flip up” covers can be ordered to size, are durable, and lightweight, allowing any basement dwellers to easily escape in an emergency.

Next, clean your eavestroughing, and, make sure those downpipes are depositing rain water at least five feet from the home, not into your weeping tile. Back in the olden days, it was thought efficient to run the downpipe straight down into the weeping system. We now realize this strategy unnecessarily overburdens the drain pipe with water and various debris.

Finally, grade the landscape so that rain and snow melt flow away from the home, with a slope of at least one inch per foot for the first ten feet.

Good building.

As published by the Standard-Freeholder
Handyman's Hints Standard-Freeholder Cornwall Ontario by Chris Emard

Always ensure a safe burn

A few easy steps will help make sure you have a safe, hot burn with your wood stove or fireplace. Postmedia Network file photo
A few easy steps will help make sure you have a safe, hot burn with your wood stove or fireplace. Postmedia Network file photo

With your just installed wood stove or fireplace — just installed, hopefully, by a WETT (Wood Energy Transfer Technology) certified person, and not Buck’s ‘for cash only’ Carpentry — you’re ready to perform your first burn.

Congratulations, your home will not only serve as a meeting place for conversation and free beer, but from this point on, the ambiance once provided by the rumble of your furnace, will now be replaced by the warmth and crackling sound of a real flame.

However, there will be rules to follow in order to make every burn and house warming a success.

First, and before you light the match, we review the mission statement. It should read something like, “I, blah, blah, look to provide warmth, comfort, and care, blah, blah, blah, for said guests, blah, blah, without injury, casualties, or the need of assistance from our local paramedic and/or fire departments.”

With this in mind, let’s start ourselves a wood fire. Basically, whether we’re talking a wood stove or fireplace, the rules and procedures for a safe burn are relatively the same. Rules 1 and 2. Always begin the burn well in advance of your family and guests arrival, and two, remain of sound mind from start to finish.

Stuff can happen at the beginning of a burn, like forgetting to open the damper, or it may be excessively windy, or the kitchen range hood could be running full throttle, any or all of these factors affecting the air pressure in your home, thereby promoting a backdraft. Backdraft is the term used to describe the action of smoke reversing itself, flowing back down the flue and into your living room.

Backdrafts are lousy, and can fill the immediate space with smoke and carbon dioxide within seconds. If you’re the room’s only occupant, then there’s little ordeal.

Once regaining consciousness, adjust the damper, open a few windows, and gain control of the situation. Minutes later, only a slight hint of soot in the air will be evidence of your screw up.

On the other hand, when backdraft hits a room clamored with guests, we. . . nothing breaks up a party quicker than teary eyes, and the ensuing panic of persons throwing themselves out the nearest window.

Remaining of sound mind should be a given considering alcohol will affect co-ordination, brain function, and memory, three things you’ll need in order to start, refill, and monitor the burn throughout the evening.

Fire starting procedure. Open the chimney damper, open the outside air feed, then crack open a window, just slightly. Two elements will be vying for oxygen in the room, the flame, and your fellow humans. So, make sure there’s plenty to go around. Next, crumple up a couple of sheets of newsprint into a ball, place it at the back of the fire box, then surround it in a tee pee type manner with very small pieces of wood, a.k.a. kindling. Ignite the paper. What you want is plenty of flame, with little smoke. Leave the doors open to your woodstove or fireplace for these first few minutes so that the flame will stay healthy and fast, ensuring a strong updraft.

As the kindling expires, add a few branch-sized pieces. Once that’s almost depleted, and there are plenty of hot embers at the base, toss (actually, place) a few logs on the fire. Close the doors, and stand by for refueling in about 30-40 minutes.

Things to avoid? Using fire starter, gasoline, or any type of additive to help initiate flame. Plus, and although most things will burn, thereby generating heat, use only dry, seasoned wood, recognized by cracks in the ends of the logs, to fuel your fire.

A healthy stove or fireplace will provide plenty of heat, with little scent of smoke inside, and a clean exhaust coming out of the chimney. If you experience anything different, seek the advice of your WETT certified installer.

Good building.

As published by the Standard-Freeholder
Handyman's Hints Standard-Freeholder Cornwall Ontario by Chris Emard

Two types of wood stoves

So, you’ve made the decision to invest in a woodstove, terrific! Now, where do you go from here? Well, besides the various shapes, sizes, top feed, side feed, glass door, or solid door models, there are basically two types of wood stoves — catalytic and non-catalytic.

Catalytic stoves have a catalytic combustor, similar to a catalytic converter in an automobile. The catalytic combustor is essentially a block of ceramic with a honeycomb core, placed inside the stove, near the top, and is the last thing the smoke particles and various gases (created by the initial burn), pass through before being drawn out the chimney pipe. It’s during this final burn phase, or catalytic action, that the remaining gases and smoke particles are turned into water vapor and carbon dioxide, providing a very clean exhaust, while squeezing one last bit of heat out of these remaining particulates.

Basically, those are the big pluses to owning a catalytic wood stove, you’re getting maximum efficiency, longer burn periods, with a very environmentally friendly exhaust. Downside to the catalytic woodstove? It requires you regularly cleaning the catalytic combustor (which is a relatively easy, although a little messy, monthly procedure) and replacing it every five years. This regular maintenance factor tends to make a catalytic stove the preferred choice of the serious wood burner, and for those folks who plan on using their wood stove as the primary heat source.

What happens if you don’t regularly clean the catalytic combustor? First signs of a problem will be grey smoke, then black, coming out of your chimney. This unhealthy situation indicates that due to the combustor being clogged, you’re basically operating a campfire, with the first burn gases and smoke bypassing the final burn phase, and being simply released into the atmosphere.

Next, as the catalytic combustor becomes totally blocked, and the resulting air flow reduced, you’ll find the stove more difficult to start, with a greater potential for backdraft.

So, the catalytic woodstove may be the superior model of the two, but unless you’re ready to commit to a maintenance schedule, it’s probably best to avoid the catalytic model.

Non-catalytic woodstoves have secondary combustion chambers, instead of catalytic combustors, to help burn off those gases and wood particles that make it past the first burn. The result is a stove that is still very efficient, and very clean burning, just with numbers not quite as impressive as a clean catalytic model. So, if we’re talking a secondary heat source, with little maintenance, other than having to empty the ash pan, the regular, non-catalytic woodstove, is probably your best choice.

What about buying a used stove, or using Grandpa’s old stove, in order to save a few bucks? Used car, used boat, used lawn mower, no big deal. When they die, you park them on the front lawn with a “best offer” sign on them. Unfortunately, when an old stove dies, or basically malfunctions, you die as well, so we’re not quite talking the same risk factor.

Old or used wood stoves should serve one of two purposes. Park them in the corner of the living room, surround the behemoth with other antiques, and add a few lights to the arrangement around Christmas time, or, earn a few bucks from them as scrap metal.

Buying new allows you to control the key feature, and presumably the main reason why you’re investing in a woodstove, and that’s heat output, or BTU (British thermal unit) capacity. Wood stoves work best when ther\y’re operating at mid-full capacity. So, if you’re looking to add a little heat to the family and TV areas, you won’t need an 80,000 BTU woodstove, attractive as they may be, that’s designed to heat a 2500 sq. ft. area.

Because we’re talking supplementary heat, smaller is usually better. Plus, it’s important to remember what the plan is, supplementary heat without this endeavor becoming too much of a chore.

Next week, the perfect burn.

As published by the Standard-Freeholder
Handyman's Hints Standard-Freeholder Cornwall Ontario by Chris Emard

Burning with wood

Nothing burns like wood.
Nothing burns like wood.

As the cooler temperatures slowly creep into our lives again, so does the concern of higher heating costs.

And, with most homes having either gas, propane, or electrical furnaces, we’re all basically at the mercy of the utility companies. So, if the cost of gas or electrical power happens to increase, and it always does, other than complaining about it, or toughening out the winter by investing in long johns (thermal underwear for those readers under 40), what is a homeowner to do?

Well, complaining is easy, but rarely effective, while long johns are effective, but not so easy, and definitely not sexy, so I wouldn’t suggest getting rid of your furnace just yet. Perhaps update it, but let’s not dismantle it for now.

What you may want to consider is a supplementary heat, or type of booster unit that’ll take some of the workload, and cost, off your main heating source. That’s where a wood stove or fireplace can step in.

Now, what about a wood pellet or corn stove, aren’t they more efficient than burning logs? True, they are mechanically a better value, which means they deliver more heat for the dollar. However, pellet stoves require electrical power to operate the auger mechanism, which feeds the flame. Therefore, during a power outage, and unless you’re handy enough to hook this unit up to your car’s battery, there’ll be no heat coming out of this baby. Plus, pellet stoves require regular cleaning of this same auger, otherwise it will jamb, and refuse to turn. No turn means no heat.

Finally, pellet stoves have a very modest flame, in the same way the Montreal Canadians have a very modest power play (averaging a 16% success rate last year). In other words, there’s not much flame to cheer about. So, albeit a good source of heat (when the power’s on) pellet stoves offer little ambiance. On the other hand, “ambiance” is of course wood burning’s middle name. And, no matter how hard they try, there isn’t a gas or propane stove out there that can match the fiery impact, and showcase, of burning wood.

So, why doesn’t everybody own a wood stove or fireplace? At one time of course, everybody did. But, as the convenience of gas and electrical products entered the market, we as a society, all got a little lazier. Now we’re all faced with electric and gas pricing that’s gotten totally out of our control. So, get some of that control back by investing in wood. With wood, however, comes responsibility, whereby it can only be considered a good thing if, as a homeowner, and keeper of the flame, you achieve two goals. One, you provide a warm and cozy ambiance for your family and those guests of the home. And two, nobody dies. Falling short on either goal, due to carelessness or failing to follow procedure, will make the continuation of any further wood burning a tough sell.

So, with these goals in mind, we meticulously follow a proper burning protocol every time. That being said, there’s no need to fear a wood stove or fireplace. Both look great, throw a beautiful heat, and are extremely easy to operate. However, because we’re talking a real burning flame, wood stoves and fireplaces must be respected. What’s the difference between owning a woodstove or fireplace? Besides the obvious physical differences, a woodstove is an airtight unit that burns quite hot, delivering more heat, with about five times the efficiency of a fireplace. So, if heat performance is most important, choose the wood stove option.
Fireplaces are similar to woodstoves in that they come as their own self-contained box, and are usually zero clearance, which means they fit easily into the wall framing. However, they aren’t airtight, which drops their efficiency rating. Regardless, a fireplace filled with logs is going to throw a ton of heat, easily satisfying the needs of the room in question, but its purpose is more ambiance than power.

Next week, more on burning with wood.

As published by the Standard-Freeholder
Handyman's Hints Standard-Freeholder Cornwall Ontario by Chris Emard