Reader Questions: A Dripping AC, Fixing a Shower Head, Choosing Insulation

Since launching this blog, the Handy Maniac has received calls, emails and messages via social media, requesting advice on specific repair issues.  This made us realize we have made a critical error in our business model: We write and give advice for free.

Oh well.  Chalk it up to our efforts to correct the image of the much-maligned contractor as a money-grabbing cheater.

Some day we will figure out how to get sponsors. Or one of those shows on DIY.

For now, we will continue to share HM’s know-how out of the goodness of our hearts.

Here are a few Q and As that we thought might be useful to others.

A Dripping Air Conditioner

Dear Handy Maniac:

We have one standing unit, I think the make is: Amcor. Eh. It's OK.

Then we have a window unit. A Kenmore. 12K BTU's. It's really good. Cools the whole downstairs pretty quickly.

But it drips outside. So what. All air conditioners drip. It's New York, we're used to it. But this one drips in such a way that it creates a puddle in front of the window of the guy on the first floor, whose apartment is a little beneath street level. The puddle eventually seeps into his wall, no matter what the building does to protect it. So, he has asked me if there's something I can do. Moving the air con to the other window isn't going to help because he has a window there, too.

So, what I'm thinking about is a pan that sits beneath the air con, on the window sill outside. Somehow, it's affixed to the sill—I don't know how. In one corner of this pan is a tube pointing away from the trajectory of the guy's window. I dunno, maybe the tube doubles back and then goes along the outside of the building? Whatever. Details. But the condensate drips into the pan and as the pan fills the water goes into the tube and away from my downstairs neighbor.

Does this seem insane? How would I do such a thing? Is there some easier way to solve this problem? I suppose I could just kill the guy, but I like him and he was our wedding planner.

Help.
Peter, NYC.

Dear Peter:

First, may I say I am impressed with your inventive solution. I suspect, however, there might be another way and so I am handing the keyboard over to HM….

HM here. Classic NYC prob. Funnels and trays and tubes are used all the time. Sometimes they work. Sometimes no. Try a drip line to a safer spot. Thick nylon twine starting at drip hole on AC and stretched to a low tree or gate post. Water will follow the line and fall off at end. Also: Make sure window and spacer screens around AC are SEALED TIGHT. Important. Make sure gap between windows has foam. Keep wet outside air away from AC intake. Cuts down on dripping. A lot.

OK, I’m back. That drip cord solution sounds even more wacky to me than your turkey roasting solution. But HM provided this photo to illustrate:

 Note the string to divert the dripping water to the plant below.

Note the string to divert the dripping water to the plant below.

Replacing a dripping faucet

Dear Handy Maniac:

OK, I have a bath faucet, one with a hand shower and one of those old fashioned telephone handles. Clearly the diverter is no longer diverting. It drips in both positions. The problem is, the faucet is made by an Italian company that no longer exists.

My question: Should I remove the faucet and try to find whatever valve is in there and see if I can find a compatible one? Or just buy a new $faucet$.

(Frankly, I am a bit nervous about removing the thing.)

Nervous in NYC.

Dear Nervous:

I had to ask HM what a “diverter” is but know I know: It is the thing that “diverts” the water from tub to showerheard.   (see photo)

 The diverter is that handle in the middle that diverts the water from the faucet to the telephone sprayer.

The diverter is that handle in the middle that diverts the water from the faucet to the telephone sprayer.

Here’s what HM suggests:

If you like the look and feel of the faucet, let’s try to save it first. It might just be a twenty-five cent washer that’s shot. You’re gonna have to take it apart. Know that your hot and cold shut-offs work, first. No slow drips. They must turn completely off.  Start disassembling and pull out the stem. If that makes no sense, time to call a plumber.

Remember, if you’re working with chrome or brass nuts and washers, PROTECT THE METAL FINISHES with rags, tape, or smooth-faced wrenches. Work your way to the diverter washer, head off to the store and find a replacement for it. TAKE THE WHOLE DIVERTER COMPONENT WITH YOU. Most internal brass components will still be sound. It’s gonna be the rubber and nylon contact-points that have most likely failed.

I would like to add, that as a rule, once the water is off, HM usually changes ALL the washers on the hot, cold and diverter valves. (Otherwise known as Boy-Scouting it.)

NOTE to all readers: This is a unique fixture that Nervous in NYC is dealing with. MOST common tub and shower systems have replacement components you can buy. So you don’t have to “work your way to the washer” you can just replace the full stem with new washers included. It’s more than the price of a washer but it saves you a lot of headaches.

Choosing Insulation for a Home Renovation

Dear Handy Maniac:

Love the blog articles. We are remodeling a home down to the studs. I know spray foam is the "best" but not in the budget. I believe spray cellulose and batt insulation cost the same, would you recommend one or the other? Note: many of the rooms (including a large open great room/dining/kitchen) have vaulted ceilings.

Thanks!

Ben.

Hi Ben:

Thanks for reading the blog. Regarding your insulation question, HM sighs loudly, and then says:
 

I'd stick with batt, especially for the walls. I wouldn't recommend spray cellulose in wall cavities. I'd only recommend spray cellulose if you had attic access and flat ceilings, and could spray the cellulose from above. Remember your paper or foil vapor barrier (depending on your region) on your batts.

Good luck with your project!

Dear HM:

Thank you! We are in Phoenix. Would you tell me more about paper or foil vapor barrier? Do we need that in AZ? Never heard of it.

Ben.

Dear Ben:

You are starting to push your luck with all these questions. But you're right about it being a regional issue. Since you are in Phoenix, you don't need a vapor barrier- and shouldn't use it in hot or humid year-round weather. We are east coast so with all of the climate fluctuations it's something we have to use here.

Here is a good run-down from Lowe’s about different insulation options and when to use what.

Stay cool!

-HM.

OK, that's it for now readers. Feel free to send in questions or topics you'd like to see covered.

 

5 Rules for a Happy Contractor-Client Relationship

Have you ever noticed that most stories about home renovations gone-wrong blame the contractor? THE HANDY MANIAC HAS.

“There are TWO SIDES to every story!” is a common HM refrain. And I do have to admit, most articles focus on how to micromanage your contractor who is sure to overcharge you and take forever. Seldom do these articles suggest that the person whose home is being renovated possibly could have anything to do with this.  But having shared a dinner table with HM for his two plus decades in the business, and having renovated our own home, I once again have to admit that he has a point.

Here are several things that you can do as the client to make sure your job runs smoothly.

1.    DON’T TALK TOO MUCH. 

Here is a favorite HM schtick: “When owners start talking about their ideas, I tell them to just figure on paying a dollar a word.” What he means is that HM considers it his job to get things done efficiently within the budget he has been given. But people get excited when they see the work and fall into the “while you’re at it…” trap. “While you’re at it, we were thinking we should move this wall 2 inches.”  “While you’re at it, we’d like to put recessed lighting in the dining room.” “While you’re at it, let’s just replace the hardware on the kitchen cabinets.” Those things can be done, but they will cost money.  And people seem to forget that.  When a job first starts, HM estimates how much it will cost to do the job that’s being discussed. And then people get that figure in their heads. And forget that they have added all of the other “little tweaks.”

And don’t think we were immune from this trap. I have a little piece of notebook paper that is the “estimate” for what it would cost to renovate our fixer-upper. Suffice to say we came in about 3 times over budget. Some of that was because we discovered the place was about to collapse and needed a lot more infrastructure work than we aniticpated. But we also discovered we really liked oil-rubbed bronze fixtures. And, hey, how often are you going to renovate your house? There was a lot of stress involved in making all of those choices, the extra costs weren't incurred frivolously. Costs and benefits were weighed. And today we are happy with all of the choices we made -- with the exception of one extra fancy wood door. We got carried away and didn't think through how the rooms would be used. Which is one good rule of thumb: Always try to think of how you will ACTUALLLY USE the space, not just how it will look.

2.    DO YOUR HOMEWORK. 

Clients need to pick paint colors, buy fixtures, choose tiles, vanities, doorknobs... YOU HAVE HOMEWORK. When your contractor tells you to pick your tile, you need to do it promptly or you will leave him with nothing to do. Which means he has to take other jobs, which means he leaves your job for awhile.  Or it means the job slows down.  To keep a job running on schedule, you need to hold up your side of the “to do” list.

As we neared the end of our renovation, HM asked me what kind of door knobs I wanted. I shrugged, saying I didn’t care. I was spent. I couldn’t make another decision. He grabbed me by the shoulders and said DON’T GIVE UP NOW. IT’S THE HOME STRETCH. And since I am a sucker for an overcoming adversity story, I sucked it up and went to Home Depot.

3.    DON’T BRING HOME BARGAINS. 

Buying an antique sink at a flea market for $20 may seem like a cost saver, but it will take a lot more in labor and additional parts to make that 100-year-old sink connect to your modern plumbing. If it’s an aesthetic choice, fine. But understand it’s not a money saver. This goes for antique lighting fixtures, reclaimed hardwood floors and school-house doors.

 As soon as we closed on our house, I started collecting old light fixtures from flea markets. HM was not pleased. But now he proudly shows off the results – like this one in our living room – AS IF IT WAS HIS IDEA.

As soon as we closed on our house, I started collecting old light fixtures from flea markets. HM was not pleased. But now he proudly shows off the results – like this one in our living room – AS IF IT WAS HIS IDEA.


4.    PAY REGULARLY.

When the bill arrives at a restaurant, what do you do? When you get a haircut, what do you do? When you buy a new outfit, what do you do? You PAY THE BILL right then. So why would you not pay someone who is in your home more than 40 hours a week? Most contractors do a lot of shopping for you. They buy your materials and pay people to come work in your home. This goes on their credit cards. Are they supposed to float you a loan? Do they care if your money is tied up in poor performing stock? They have bills to pay. Bills for YOUR home. You may think that contractors are rich, but very few are. I can show you the bank statements to prove it. Holding onto a last payment to be sure to squeeze some last bit of work out of a contractor is some bit of advice that may be appropriate for Donald Trump, but it doesn’t build good faith for the little guy. And it can make a contractor walk away from a job because at a certain point it isn’t worth it. This is how a lot of the disaster stories end, but maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I can’t speak for all contractors, but I can speak for HM: If you really want to keep him working, set up a regular payment schedule. Pay before he gives you a bill. Unless you have hired a large contractor with a big back office, many are bad about staying on top of billing (probably because they are so exhausted at the end of the day). But that doesn’t mean they aren’t running out of money.  Nothing motivates HM more than someone who pays regularly. It builds a lot of good faith and a sense of responsibility.

5.    COMMUNICATE.

This one goes both ways. Clients should communicate about their expectations about timeline and money. You may think you know how much a job is costing, but it is good to ask for regular bills or updates to keep track. And if you have firm deadlines these should be communicated. The more you talk to each other, the less surprises there will be. A renovation job is very emotional. It has its ups and downs. And a good contractor will be emotionally invested in it as well as a homeowner. HM doesn’t want a job to drag on forever any more than a homeowner does.

If you follow these guidelines, you won’t necessarily get everything on your wish list for the budget you have on the date you want. Remember the old two out of three rule: Fast, Cheap, Right. You can have two of the three, but not all three.  But chances are, you will still be on good terms with your contractor at the end, and you will have work you are pleased with.