Homeowner and Handyman Helpful Hints

Updated 4/5/04

January 2009. We are rebuilding our web site. Please excuse any broken links.

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Household Topics

When Energy Saving Lights Don't Work (1/04)

Go Slow With the Snow Blower  (2/00)
Turn the Light All the Way Off  (1/00)
Toilet Tank Leak Floods Bathroom  (12/99)
Turn Off Washing Machine Hoses (2/99)
Home Emergencies  (6/98)
Hurricanes, Tornadoes, Floods  (9/98)
Removing Oil Tank? Plug the Pipes  (8/98)
Don't Overload Wall Brackets or Monitor Stands
Buying Furniture

Handyman Topics

What is a Switch Loop?
Wiring Several Ceiling Lights to One Switch
Freeze Protect Your Summer Camp
Freeze Protect Your Home
Sparking Electric Outlets

Where Not To Use Energy Saving
Screw In Fluorescent Lights  (1/04)

Screw in energy saving fluorescent lights (CFL's) that are as small as ordinary incandescent light bulbs and that look like coiled curlicues are becoming popular these days. But they are not suited for all purposes. You should not use them in multiple bulb lamps that have one switch that works like this: Left bulb, right bulb, both bulbs, off, or like this: One bulb, two different bulbs, all three bulbs, off.

As you adjust light fixtures of this kind for the desired amount of light, some of the bulbs may go on for just a few seconds and then go off again. Each on-off cycle takes a little from the life of fluorescent light bulbs or tubes. Since the compact fluorescent bulbs or light units cost something like five dollars, many times the cost of ordinary light bulbs, you may not save money if you have to keep replacing the bulbs often.

We don't know the exact formula for bulb life versus power consumption, but we believe that if you plan to come back to the room within half an hour to 45 minutes, you are better off leaving a fluorescent light on.

Also do not put these compact fluorescent lights in a fixture with a dimmer switch.

Go Slow With the Snow Blower  (2/00)

(For you folks in colder climates) If the pavement is not absolutely smooth, use only slow speeds when running your self propelled snow blower. Often the bottom edge, which is really a scraper blade, catches on irregular pavement. The snow blower crashes to a stop with a resounding "thunk", possibly bending the bottom edge, warping the frame, and throwing all of the bearings out of alignment. At the very least the snow blower bucks wildly leaving humps of snow on the pavement and you have to go back and do it over.

Light Switch Fires

Be sure to flip light switches all the way off.

Many house fires are caused by wall light switches halfway on or off. If the switch is exactly in the wrong position, a tiny spark will be jumping continuously within the switch mechanism. Heat is generated and a fire can start. Older homes had both a metal box in the wall in which the switch was enclosed and switches that made a sure secure connection and disconnection (and a loud click each time). In modern (1970's and later) homes, quiet switches that can find themselves in a halfway position are often enclosed in plastic boxes behind the wall.

Check Toilet Tank Bolts

If the toilet leaks from under the tank, check the bolts holding the tank to the toilet bowl. In my house these bolts were of steel, and they rusted through. Fortunately I caught it before a flood occurred. The head was inside the tank and had rusted away almost completely. It was only a matter of time before the rest of the bolt would have dropped to the floor leaving a channel about the size of a thick soda straw. Had I not caught a leak like this the tank would keep refilling itself as water poured onto the floor and by the time I would have come home from work the water would have seeped into the ceiling below and crumbled the plaster.

When the bolt head is mostly rusted away, usually you get some dripping under the tank, which should be enough warning to replace the bolt.. Usually the bolts are brass which lasts much longer than steel. Use a magnet to see if the bolts are steel and if they are, replace them with brass bolts even if the tank is not leaking.

Another reason to replace the bolts as soon as any leakage is discovered is that the nut and bolt, regardless of material, may become rusted together. Then it will be very difficult to disassemble them until the head rusts away completely, giving a very brief opportunity or maybe no opportunity to make the repair before a calamity results.

If you are in the bathroom when a  toilet tank leak occurs, shut off the water supply to the toilet and hold down the flush lever so as much water already in the tank goes into the toilet rather than onto the floor.

Sometimes you must undo the water supply tube to the toilet tank and undo the nuts holding both bolts to the rear of the toilet bowl first, and lift off the tank before you can remove the bolts completely.

When reassembled the toilet tank may wobble back and forth a bit. So long as it does not leak, do not tighten the bolts too much or the rear edge of the toilet bowl can crack. Also do not lean on or put heavy objects on the toilet tank.

Also it is a good idea to turn off all the shutoff valves under the toilet(s) and washbasin(s) for a few minutes twice a year to be sure they aren't rusted stiff into the open position. Don't force them. If you do have a leak, keep a bucket and some towels handy just in case the shutoff valve didn't shut off completely.

Removing Fuel Oil Tank? Plug the Pipes

Several years ago I read a news story about someone who had his basement flooded with fuel oil because an oil delivery truck went to the wrong address, his. It so happened that a few months earlier he had decommissioned and removed his own oil tank but left the filler pipe sticking out of the side of the house.

The EPA had to be called in and it was super expensive to clean up the spilled oil.

Moral of the story, Remove the filler pipes also, or plug them securely (concrete is a good filler material).

Nov. 13, 1998. It happened again in Lowell Mass. An oil delivery truck went to the wrong address. Same problem, oil pumped down the filler pipe no longer in use. (Seen on WCVB TV, 11 PM news)


Why did sparks fly out of an electric outlet with nothing plugged into it?


There was a loose connection inside and a light or appliance plugged into another outlet was turned on. Each outlet does not have its own wires from the fuse or breaker box but rather the wires are in short segments going from one outlet to the next. At each outlet there are joints where the electricity has to go from a wire to a metal strip in the outlet and then to the wire going to the next outlet. The wires are quite stiff and inserting the outlet assembly into the wall after connecting the wires sometimes causes a joint to loosen up. Or vibration from passing traffic over the years can cause a joint to loosen up. Any loose connection can produce a spark. The more electricity an appliance or heater consumes, the bigger the spark will be if the electricity has to cross a loose connection in its path. Sometimes instead of making a spark, the loose joint gets very hot and dust or cloth draperies or paper falling behind a desk can be ignited.

How To Fix It:

You would have to go through the entire house, dismantling each outlet, and making sure the wires are screwed onto the metal strips securely. In most houses built after 1970 the wires are poked into small holes at the back of the outlet assembly and the metal strips are springy enough to hold the wires together somewhat without screws. A more reliable connection is had by removing the wires from the holes and connecting them instead to the screw terminals provided. Caution, if your house has aluminum wiring, special treatment is needed and you should consult an electrician.

What Most People Do:

Don't bother about it. It is a lot of work to fix all of the outlets in a house. If a spark flew out of one outlet they would have an electrician dismantle and fix just that one outlet.


Many fires blamed on faulty electrical wiring result from situations such as this.

Turn Off Washing Machine Hoses  (2/99)

When you are done washing clothes, turn off the water to the machine using the faucets or lever on the wall behind.

On Dateline NBC in November or December 1998 it was reported that insurance companies pay out around 13 million dollars a year to cover home water damage from burst washing machine hoses. One family interviewed had come home from vacation to find walls and ceilings disintegrating and belongings quite soaked. Their house, like many modern ones, had the washing machine conveniently installed on the second floor.

Also the hoses should be replaced every so often, every five years seems like a good time schedule. The metal fittings at the ends of the hoses have rusted out on occasion also. There might be a drip for a month or so and suddenly the fitting snaps in half and water gushes out.

Don't Overload Wall Shelves, Wall Brackets, TV Desk Stands

You may have seen TV sets attached to a bracket attached to the wall. Or you may have seen computer monitors "floating" above the desktop on a swing-out bracket.

Actually I don't recommend putting TV's or other very heavy expensive objects on wall brackets or desk brackets.

Beware! These brackets can collapse suddenly and dangerously if they are swung the wrong way.

Also, innocent looking shelves attached to the wall can collapse suddenly if they are not installed correctly or if they are overloaded.

The biggest problem with wall brackets is that the wall itself is not all that strong. The strongest part of the wall is its studs, that are vertical bars about sixteen inches apart. When you attach a TV wall bracket, you will only have one stud available to attach it to. (Unless you first mount a 2x4 wood bar horizontally on the wall to spread the weight over two or three studs.) And you have to accurately put a screw into the middle of a one and one half inch wide stud edge.

Even so, if you put too heavy a TV on the bracket, the stud itself could tear right out of the wall. The stud is attached to the rest of the house by just two or maybe just one nail where it meets the ceiling.

The topmost screw in the mounting plate takes most of the load and is the most important. The topmost screw must go right into the center of a stud. Two screws side by side are not better since only one of them can hit the stud inside the wall. If you can imagine using a crowbar to yank out a nail, that is an idea of the kind of load the bracket with TV will exert on the topmost screw holding the mounting bracket to the wall. If you pound a single nail into a wall or tree, then place a crowbar on it from above and pull down, you are demonstrating that the lowest screw for a wall bracket mounting contributes very little to the holding power.

The screws must have at least three inches inside the wall, one inch is the thickness of the plaster, two full inches of screw must penetrate the stud. For homes buildtwith Sheetrock (R) or plaster board, the plaster is a half inch thick so 2-1/2 inches of screw inside the wall will do.

Always use the topmost mounting hole. Also use all of the mounting holes directly below it. Holes well off to either side don't do any good because screws cannot hit the stud. For holes slightly off to either side, try to angle a screw towards the middle so as to hit the stud in the wall.

Keep the TV as close to the wall as possible. If the bracket allows the TV to be moved away from the wall and you pull it out, the strain on the wall will be greatly magnified and there is more danger of collapse.

Desk Brackets

Swing out brackets are also made to hold computer monitors above the table top. These are clamped to the edge of the table.

The biggest mistake people make is putting too big a monitor on the bracket. Although the bracket itself might hold the weight, the table edge might not.

A lot of computer desks and tables are made of particleboard under a layer of thin plastic or plastic film. The particle board table edge can suddenly crack off causig a monitor bracket attached there to collapse. As with a wall bracket, chances of such a collapse are greatly magnified if you stretch the telescoping bracket to the maximum extension or if you swing the bracket way to the side or out over the floor.

Also, if you have a keyboard drawer that holds a monitor on top, don't put too heavy a monitor on it. The drawer frame could become warped so the drawer does not slide in and out easily.

Freeze Protect Your Summer Home Or Camp

Install a detachable length of pipe in the fresh water feed to the plumbing system. If local laws or codes permit, a length of hose can be used. Then, at the end of every season, drain all plumbing and tanks and remove this link so vandals cannot turn on the water, or so a leaky shutoff valve cannot refill the plumbing system with water while you are gone. The link should be stored away from the place it is used, or in a locked cabinet.

If you have a choice, the open ends of the pipes, with the link removed, should point down.

The ends of the pipes must be plugged or capped after the link is removed, to prevent vandalism such as from stuffed debris, or to keep out insects. Capping the pipe ends also prevents flooding if you had several detachable links in your system and forgot to reconnect one of them when turning the water back on.

Be sure that the detachable links don't leak, especially if there is a pump powered by expensive electricity, or if the water supply is metered. Leaks can also increase rusting at the joints making them more difficult to detach later.

Pour antifreeze into every toilet, garbage disposer, sink drain, floor drain grate, and bathtub drain. If there is a trap in the middle of a drain pipe further on down, pour extra antifreeze down at least one drain leading to that trap.

It is not possible to provide amenities to lost travelers while the camp is shut down for winter. Lock all kitchen and rest room doors.

Freeze Protect Plumbing At Home

Generally, just insulating a pipe will not protect it from freezing. A felt cap over a short exposed pipe and garden house faucet protects it by slowing down the cold from getting at the pipe so the limited heat coming out of the house through the pipe itself is enough to warm up the exposed part.

If there is no heat or not enough heat coming through the pipe, the exposed part will freeze no matter how much insulation you put around it. Exposed pipes more than about six inches long must be drained or wrapped with electric heating cables or tapes.

If by luck the exposed pipe freezes at the far end first and there is an air pocket in the plumbing further inside a heated house, then the pipe does not burst.

If a pipe freezes in two separate places first, the part in between bursts when it freezes later.

Most garden hose connections have a shutoff valve inside the house. Close the shutoff valve and open the garden hose faucet for winter.

When going away in winter, we suggest a minimum temperature of 45 degrees at the coldest point, not necessarily the thermostat setting. We suggest draining the pipes as much as possible also, just for good measure, in case the furnace should fail or there is a power outage. For cabinets against outside walls leave cabinet doors under sinks and washbasins open so not quite so cold air can circulate.

When you are out for the day and a severe winter storm is predicted, do not set back the thermostat. This way, in case of a power outage, there will be more time as the temperature coasts down before there is danger of pipes freezing.

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All parts (c) Copyright 1997-2004, Allan W.Jayne, Jr. unless otherwise noted or other origin stated.

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