Tuesday 5 February 2013

You're Grounded

Dear Joe,

I have an old home that I believe was built in the 30s or 40s.  I have several outlets throughout the house that are the old 2 slot kind.  This is quite inconvenient as most new appliances have either three prong plugs or those ones where one prong is bigger than the other.  Neither will fit into these old plug ins so I have to admit that I have jury rigged an extension cord to serve as an adapter if I need to use one of the problem plugs.  I have also removed the ground prong off of a lot of my electric things too.
  I know it’s not the right way to solve the problem but its quicker and cheaper than having an electrician come in and rewire my house cause I know that’s what would happen if they came in and had a look, and I can’t afford that.  Is there a safer, cheaper solution to my problem because I don’t feel right leaving it the way it is with grandkids crawling about these days.

Thanks for your advice. Love your column,




Thank you so much for your question and thanks for doing the right thing by taking care of this problem, better late than never.  It’s the kids’ safety that’s at risk with a problem like this.

Yes, there is a cheaper safer way to remedy your problem without rewiring your whole house.  But let me clarify that what I am about to outline is in no way a substitute for hiring the services of a qualified electrician to bring your home up to current electrical code.  What it is though is something you can do to protect your family and home until such time as you have the money or the occasion to repair the deficiency correctly.  Better to do something than do nothing because you can’t do everything.

In a circumstance like yours, and trust me you are not alone, you have what is called an ungrounded or unbonded circuit.  At least 75% and probably more like 90% of homes built prior to 1950 contain at least some ungrounded circuitry.  Any home that hasn’t undergone significant renovation or been the beneficiary of homeowners capable of shelling out the $10-15000 required to completely rewire an average sized house, will have at least a portion of their concealed wiring remaining and thus connected to receptacles and switches throughout the upper floors of the home.  By their nature these ungrounded circuits are not unsafe if kept in serviceable condition, and in fact are perfectly legal, but do pose serious difficulties when used in conjunction with modern electrical devices.  It is however illegal to replace a two wire receptacle with a three wire receptacle if there is in fact no ground wire present, modify any electrical device not intended to operate on a nonpolarized circuit, or remove the bonding prong from an appliance cord.

So what a home owner can do to provide a measure of protection for their family and property is protect the offending circuit.  This can be done by installing a GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) device on the circuit.  These are the plugs that you typically see in bathrooms and kitchens that have the test buttons on them with the little LED indicator light.  This can be done one of three ways.  Starting at the panel, you can replace the 15A circuit breaker with a 15A GFCI circuit breaker.  This will effectively protect all devices on that circuit from ground faults.  If you have a fuse panel instead of a breaker panel, you can install a blank face GFCI in a separate device box immediately beside the panel in line with the circuit you need to protect.  This can be done on a breaker panel too in lieu of a GFCI breaker; both devices will achieve the same result.  Lastly you can replace a specific receptacle with a GFCI outlet.  You will then have the convenience of plugging in your grounded three prong devices into this outlet.   Preferably, if you can, install your GFCI outlet at the first in a series of outlets. This will protect all the outlets on that circuit.  Once you have protected the circuit you can then upgrade your outlets to three prong outlets.  This will allow you to use any three pronged or polarized plug on that circuit.  One important thing to remember is that the polarity of a GFI is imperative.  If the wires are hooked up incorrectly the GFCI will offer no protection.  If you’re not sure have an electrician do it or at very least guide you through it.

Saturday 26 January 2013

Out with the old...in with the new

Dear Joe,

I have a grungy old cast iron tub in my small bathroom.  It’s scratched and gross and I can’t get it clean.  I want to replace it but I don’t have the money to redo my whole bathroom.  Is it possible to replace it without going through the expense of redoing the whole room?  Any advice you have would be great, and could you give me an idea as to how much it might cost?  Thank you very much,




Thanks for the great question.  The short answer is yes, it is possible.  But you have multiple options when considering a bathtub retrofit and some of them may be possible, and some may not.  It depends on the layout of your bathroom and your budget. 

As far as pricing goes, the cost of a new tub will range from $150 for an enamel steel model to over $2000 for a high end 3 piece acrylic built in unit.  Labour rates are going to vary from contractor to contractor, as will the quality of the installation.  For average priced material (say $1500) look to spend about the same on labour.  Now the labour should be about the same across the board, unless you get into ceramic tile or something custom.  Make sure you use a contractor you have experience working with. This will make the renovation process painless and stress free.  If you don’t have a contractor you trust, get referrals from people you trust so you don’t venture blindly into a dirty, stressful, costly situation.

Depending on the size and layout of the bath, getting a new tub into position can be quite difficult as most old bathrooms where constructed only wide enough to accommodate a built in tub.  The tub was installed prior to the plasterwork being installed, thus, you now have a room that is 2 inches too narrow to remove the old and install the new tub.  Getting the old one out is the easy, if very noisy, part.  Cast iron as strong and flexible as it is, is as brittle as glass.  Pull out your sledge hammer and bust it up into manageable sized pieces, and haul it away.  Now you have a hole fit for a tub.  The trick will be slipping the new tub in without damaging the walls, floor or other fixtures in the bathroom.  With some strength, patience and a little bit o’lube, you should be able to maneuver the new unit into place.  If the bathroom is really small a new tub and an acrylic tub surround or ceramic tile surround may be your only option for replacement.  If you have a bit more wiggle room then consider a built in tub-shower.  They’re definitely more difficult to install but they are much easier to maintain.

Whenever it’s reasonable, I always advocate for a more cost effective, ecologically sensitive and simpler solutions to problems like yours.  There are a couple other options you may wish to explore.  Firstly, cast iron tubs are the most durable and comfortable bathing implements ever made.  When you can save one from the scrap yard you’re always doing yourself a service.  These great old fixtures are candidates for refinishing.  There are myriad companies out and about that do nothing but refinish old tubs and tiles.  Consider having one of these guys come in and apply a new finish to your old faithful.  Granted nothing will ever match the durability of the original enamel but you will have a tub that looks like new, performs better than anything that you’ll ever replace it with (except another cast iron tub) and at a fraction of the cost.  Look to spend under $1000 to have this done.  You can also find tub liner companies who will come to your home, install a custom fit acrylic liner and skirt to your existing tub complete with matching tub surround.  Speaking from experience, this is a great affordable option and gets you a nice clean finish, comparable to a replacement acrylic tub at a fraction of the cost.  Look to spend under $1000 for this service as well.

Take a load off

This has been an intensely snowy winter so far.  We haven’t really had any warm weather to speak of to keep the snow down to a manageable level.  I have been pondering the importance of removing some of the snow from my house in recent days, as I am sure the building is groaning under such a heavy load.  What are the pros and cons of doing this, and is it something I should consider hiring out?  Thanks so much, love reading your column,



Well thank you so much, Gilles,

And a happy new year to you and all you who read this every week.

Well you’re not the only one who’s been mulling this one over in recent days.  Many of my neighbours have braved the cold and gravity to relieve the stresses of their overburdened roofs.  If I’m being honest not everyone needs to worry about the accumulation of snow, but then some people need to worry a bit more than they probably do already.  We have to understand that homes in our area are engineered to withstand the hundred year storm; essentially the worst Mother Nature can throw at us once every hundred years.  So be that three feet of snow or 100mph winds or a foot of rain, our homes are built to withstand it.  Now that being said there are going to be a number of factors that will affect the worthiness of our structure to tough out the worst storms: age and condition of the house and its structural members, integrity of said structural members, any alteration, renovation, or repair that has been done to the structure or the building envelope as a whole.  These changes can include but are not limited to replacement of roofing material, additions, changes in size of doors or windows, addition of roof area (ie. porches, carports, lean-tos, etc.).  In the case of snow loading, any of these things can have a dramatic effect on when, where and how much snow accumulates in a given area on the roof.  If a simple roof is left unaltered and is in a good state of repair, it will collect snow evenly and the weight will be distributed evenly down through the load bearing walls that have not been in any way altered or compromised.  If we now build a large addition on this house attached perpendicular to the original structure, put in a patio door where there was just a small window, replace the roofing material and neglect to put an ice and water membrane on first, and maybe add a 16 foot car port for good measure we have the potential for some really significant issues with a snow like we’ve gotten recently.  First you now have two large valleys where the addition meets the house which weren’t there before.  This will affect the way the wind blows over the house and how the snow is distributed over it.  Snow will drift here and concentrate the weight in one location, directly above that nice new patio door you installed off the kitchen that was just a window before.  So did you frame that header correctly when you installed it…are you sure?  If you didn’t, your roof is now bearing down with about five tons of additional weight and something’s got to give if that weight is not being transferred properly.  Now when the melting starts you’re going to want to be really sure that you installed that ice and water membrane under the first six feet of shingle. Because that nice drift hanging off your eaves trough is also blocking your eaves trough so the gallons of melt water have nowhere to go.  So what happens to it?  Well, it runs down to the gutter and since it can’t drain away it freezes.  As more melt water runs downhill it hits the newly minted ‘ice dam’ and gets stopped.  With nowhere else to go it freezes too. And so on and so on, ad nauseum.   Since your shingles were only designed to protect your home from water as gravity would have it, when the water starts backing up hill due to this damming effect the shingles are useless to protect it.  This is where the added layer of protection from the ice and water membrane is invaluable. 

So I digress a bit here but I think it helpful to understand the forces that are working on your house.

To answer your question directly, should you, depends.  Should you hire it out, yeah, probably.  There’s a lot of risk involved and you really don’t want to fall even if it would be a soft landing.  What are the risks, well first of all, falling.  Damaging the shingles with shovels is also a concern.

My best advice is to stay in tune with your house.  When things are happening, stay on top of it.  If there’s a lot of snow, observe how it is collecting. As melting or raining is occurring, watch for signs of damming, leaking, etc.  Icicles are a telltale sign that your roof is not adequately draining.  Monitor these because if they get large enough they can rip the gutters right off the house.  Seen it! Consider one liter of water or ice weights a kilogram.  A forty foot gutter will hold about 150 kilograms of ice plus however many icicles grow along its course.  It’s not unusual to have the equivalent of two full grown men hanging off the eaves trough, not a load it was designed to carry.

Pop goes the screw hole.

Dear Joe,

I had a contractor remodel my basement a couple years ago. On the walls that he framed and drywalled there are several round holes where the screws have popped out.  It’s rather unsightly.  What causes this and is this something I can fix myself? Thanks for your advice; I enjoy reading your piece,

Regards, Terry

Hey Terry,

Thank you so much for your question.  This is a situation that anyone who has done any drywall at all has run into, happens to me all the time.  Its typically caused by a couple of simple missteps; either over sinking or under tightening the screws that hold the drywall on.  If the screws aren’t installed correctly, then if there is any movement in the panel then the screw head pushes out proud of the finished surface, likewise if you push against the panel while moving furniture or the like, you can rupture the paint finish and see these improperly installed screws.

Other causes of screw pops include undersized screws or nails (you want a minimum of 5/8” penetration of screws into framing lumber, and 7/8” penetration of nails), lumber shrinking and distorting causing screws to twist and either poke out or pull in causing a divot, or not properly filling the screw heads/not allowing drywall compound to dry out sufficiently before sanding (compound continues to lose moisture and shrink after sanding leaving a divot).

Is this something you can correct yourself, well, of course it is!!  It’s quite simple really.  First diagnose the problem: screw pop or divot?  Simply push in on the general vicinity of the offending fastener if it flexes and the damaged area appears to move, it’s a pop.  If nothing moves it’s a divot.  For a pop you will need to add at least one additional fastener within two inches of the damaged one.  Be sure it’s installed and countersunk properly and the drywall is pulled tight to the framing.  Remove or countersink the original fastener and fill the new depressions at least twice allowing the compound to dry thoroughly between applications, sand and paint.  For a divot its dead simple; apply one or two fillings of compound, then sand and paint.

If you are installing the drywall yourself you can prevent possible future screw pops by applying an inexpensive construction adhesive to the studs before you put the drywall up.  This allows you to use fewer fasteners whilst increasing the integrity of your drywall installation tenfold or more.  By bonding the drywall directly to the studs you prevent any possible movement thus eliminating the possibility of loosening fasteners, plus fewer fasteners means less work and fewer places to pop.

Down the drain.

Dear Joe,

I had a “contractor” (and I use the term loosely) into my home to install some porcelain tile around the bathtub and on the floor.  I did all the prep work: plywood, waterproofing etc, and did a pretty good job, a job any tile guy would find acceptable.   All this guy had to do was come in and tile.  I supplied all the material and would’ve supplied anything else he required to do a quality job.  I left for work on the day he came to tile.  Upon my return I was shocked to see the quality of work this man had done on my house.  It is an understatement to say that he misrepresented himself, and now I’m stuck with this bathroom tiling job that I am truly embarrassed to show my family and friends.  My wife is upset, I’m upset, is there any way to repair the damage done to my home and how or should I seek some sort of damages from this guy? 

Tiled Out


Well Tiled Out,

That is quite a fix that you find yourself in.  My deepest condolences go out to you because I know the frustration, anger and disappointment that go along with a job not so well done.  I have been on two ends of this unhappy  triad, I’ve been the guy who’s paid for work that I am completely unsatisfied with, and also been the contractor who’s been asked into someone’s home to repair the damage done by a careless, heartless contractor.

At a time like this it’s terrible of me to say I told you so, so I won’t. I’ll just take this opportunity to tell everyone reading this that this is why I preach:  never hire a contractor out of the blue.  Get referrals.  Talk to your dad, your boss, your bowling buddies, even your garbage collector.  Find out who’s doing the best work around, which contractors are making people happy.  A satisfied customer is all the advertising a good contractor needs but in order for that advertising to work, the consumer has to do his or her due diligence when hiring someone to work on their home.  That’s how trust is built.  You wouldn’t let a doctor you didn’t trust cut you open, so why would you let a contractor who hasn’t earned your trust to do the same thing to your second most valuable asset?  But I digress…

Back to your question: First, There’s not much you can do to fix it, if it’s that bad that you can’t live with it the only remedy for a bad tile job is rip it out and begin again.  Problem with that is in ripping it off you will also ruin all the careful prep work that you did before this all happened.  More mess, more money, more time…

As far as seeking reparations from this guy, all I can say to that is good luck.  What you see as a waste of time and money, this guy sees as a hard day’s work and a well-earned paycheck.   Giving you any money back is essentially taking food out of his kids’ mouths and clothes off his back; sorry to say I doubt it’s going to happen.  Yes he screwed up, yes he took your money but he like you has bills to pay and mouths to feed.  He probably shouldn’t be in this line of work, but the best thing you can do is warn him that you are not satisfied.  Take your complaints to a place that you can use them to protect other consumers: local retailers, the better business bureau, chamber of commerce.  If you really need to see some money back, your last recourse will be to take him to small claims court.  But be warned this is an arena that if you are not familiar with it, it will prove to be a frustrating fruitless exercise in law 101.  Yes, you’ll learn a lot, but you’ll probably not get much of your money back and spend more in the process.  The hours spent preparing, copies, days off work, and all that even if you don’t hire a lawyer.  If you hire a lawyer then it’s strictly about principal, but there’s a lot to be said for principal. Then again, principals never paid the bills…

If you prepare yourself and handle everything yourself you could hope to recoup about 50% of what you’ve  lost, the courts are fair and will probably penalize you to some extent for not exercising your due diligence.  Going forward let this be a valuable lesson to us all that a little bit of leg work before starting a project will pay dividends in the long run.

Door number 1 or door number 2

Hi Joe,

I have a question regarding a door on the outside of my house.  Leading into my porch I have a metal door with a window into it.  There are 4 steps up to the door and at the top of the steps this door opens outward onto the stairs.  This is fine as you are walking out the door, but nearly impossible to navigate walking up the stairs and into the house.  What is the best way to fix this issue?  Can I save this door?  Can I just flip it around?  Thank you so much for your help,



Hey Dan,

Thank you so much for the great question.  I see this often enough.  People have a door, or find a deal on a cheap one and just put it in with no consideration as to the functionality of that door.  A door like any device has a purpose and an intended mode of operation.  If you deviate from that, the door will either not work properly or you will hinder flow of traffic through the opening thus impacting the enjoyment and usability of your home, not to mention the safety concerns of doors opening into high traffic areas or onto stairs…ever had a door opened into your face?

First let’s understand the function of doors and why they operate the way they do.  You will notice that most commercial doors open outwards. This is to facilitate egress in times of panic, so large mobs of people no matter how distraught can find their way out.  On residential doors of late, you will see that most open inwards. This is for several reasons.  Firstly for safety, if the hinges are mounted on the outside a thief needs only pop out the hinge pins to remove your door and gain access to your house.   If there is a fire the firemen have a ram which will break in the door to allow access into your home, much easier to do if the door swings in.  And, lastly, most homes since the seventies at least have aluminum storm doors mounted on the outside to allow a breeze through in the summer and an extra measure of air tightness in the winter.  Can’t mount a screen door on a door that swings out…

So now we know the why we can go about selecting a suitable door for your porch.  When choosing a door, there are a couple things to keep in mind.  We need to consider the flow of traffic, any obstructions in the immediate area, any other doorways immediately adjacent to the door, weather patterns, and do we want a screen door.  Ideally you will want what is called an inswing: a door that opens in.   Whether it swings to the right or to the left will depend on the layout of the room inside the door.  So if there is a wall to the left of the door then the door should open to the left, against the wall, unless there is another doorway, or a light switch behind the door within its swing.  In that case you will want it to open right.  If it opens onto a landing with stairs below you will want to make sure you have at least 36 inches square for a landing at the top of the stairs.  If you don’t you will probably want to opt for an outswing, a door which opens outward, for safety’s sake.   Now be aware that an outswing door is not the same as in inswing door.  There are several differences which make the distinction necessary.  Firstly drainage;  all doors are designed to drain outward, so if you turn an inswing outward, the out is now in and any rain or snowmelt will drain into the house, not what we want.  Outswing doors have special hinges which even with the pins removed cannot be taken off without opening the door knob. 

So in general terms you will want a door that opens in, into the closest wall provided it works with the traffic flow, not against it.  It cannot block doorways, hallways or controls but can open into a closet as the closet only needs to be accessible whilst the door is closed. And if all else fails opt for an outswing as long as you have no desire to have a screen door on it in the future, and don’t have stairs to contend with. In your case Dan, I would choose a proper inswing as it will be safer than what you have now.

How Tack-y


I have a built in hall seat in the foyer of my home.  I would like to add a cushion to the seat covered with a fabric to go with the colour on the wall which I have already picked out.  I don’t know how to go about doing this.  Do you have any advice on upholstering?  Thank you so much for your time.




Thank you for your question, Kay,

I certainly don’t mind sharing my two cents on the subject.  A professional upholsterer I am not but I have recovered a chair or two in my day.

I have to assume that your bench has a basic flat seat because it sounds as though it wasn’t previously covered.  This may cause an issue with covering it traditionally as you would a chair or stool.  Normally you would wrap the fabric around the bottom of the seat to fasten it or have a vertical edge where to tack the hem of the fabric.  In your case I think you do not have either, so I see two possible solutions for your project.  First, the easy way: fashion yourself a plywood base the size and shape you would like your finished seat to be.  On the base you will add high density seat cushion foam of the softness and depth you would like your cushion to be.  Trial and error will determine when the cushion is just right…your butt will know.  Once you have determined the plushness of your seat you will want to wrap the entire seat with Dacron batting.  This will soften the corners of the cushion and give the seat a smooth all over shape.  Wrap the Dacron under and staple to the underside of the plywood.  Now you can follow this with the final covering.  Centering your pattern on the seat, wrap the fabric over the cushion.  Staple it straight along the front or back side then, pulling it as taught as the fabric will allow or as you desire, staple it straight across the opposite side, repeat this process for the other two sides leaving about two inches at the corners unfastened.  Now you have to fold the corners neatly and carefully, and whatever you do to one, be sure you fold all corners the same.  If you wish you can decorate around the base of the cushion with brass tacks or decorative edge banding.  Now center your new cushion on the bench seat and fasten it with four screws from underneath making sure the screws are only as long as the bench seat and cushion base are thick so no points protrude into the cushion.

The alternative would be to build the cushion right onto the seat.  This will require a bit more patience and a touch more skill.  Begin by building up the padding as you did in the first procedure.  Similarly, draw down the shape of the cushion with the batting by stapling it along the perimeter of the foam.  Once it is securely fastened, trim off the excess with a razor blade leaving only ½” or so.  Now here’s where your artistic side will show itself:  As you lay over the fabric, centering the design again, you will need to fold the fabric under leaving yourself only ¼” or so to staple around the perimeter.  Repeat X 4 remembering to leave yourself a couple inches at the corners for the fold.  For the corners you will have to be very patient and form a nice symmetrical pleat on each one, making them fast as you go.  After you have stapled the perimeter completely, you can now dress the edge with some decorative edge banding or piping finishing the entire perimeter with a tightly spaced row of upholstery tacks.  And that’s all there is to it.  Sounds simple but I think it will take some time to get the finished product you desire, but it you go at it patiently, I’m sure you can pull it off.