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Handyman Letter - April, 1998


1) From your mouth to the Natural Handyman's ear... a message from the Natural Handyman.

2) Hello and Thank You to sites that have recognized the Natural Handyman in the past month!

3) What's new at One way security screws, flushing out your hot water heater, roof cleaning

4) Q&A with our readers.



FROM YOUR MOUTH TO THE NATURAL HANDYMAN'S EAR... a message from the Natural Handyman

As the foundation upon which this web site rests, my duties... from web designer to researcher... are far flung, intense, and rewarding. And were I obliged to choose my favorite effort, it would be to reply to your home repair questions. It allows me to "blow off the dust" and dig into topics I may not have even thought about for years.

To slightly twist an old saw, "I've almost forgotten more than I remember!" Every day, your questions bring me back to places... to experiences... to people that had slipped away. Thanks to all of you for helping to bring some of them back!

Even better, I get to share much of this new information with the thousands of visitors we get here each month. So like a very grown-up, far-flung family, we can steal a few minutes together each month, catch our breath from the day's tasks, and prepare to face new challenges.

This is a good thing for me. I hope it is for you too.



Mercer Carlow and Associates, located in NYC, is a melange of support services for computer and Internet users, as well as host for a diverse group of clients. MC&A keeps clients informed through their monthly "Internet Crib Sheet" which saves surfing time for their busy clientele. We were featured in their February issue. Thank you MC&A!



One way security screws... Ever notice those specialty screws... ubiquitous in commercial bathroom enclosures... that you can't take out with a regular screwdriver? Well, it took us months, but we finally got hold of the special extractor used to remove them! See it at the web site... as well as a few improvisational hints for getting them out.

Flushing out your hot water heater... Ever wake up screaming in the middle of the night, wondering whether you should flush out your hot water heater? You have??? Well, please calm yourself... then visit the web site for the lowdown on this "tankless" job.

Roof cleaning... a topic that draws yawns in New England causes shudders and screams of agony from Florida and points south, where the vegetable life seeks world domination! Keep that "fungus among us" under control.


Dear NH,

I watched the installation of a "Hot water Circulation Pump" on a TV handyman show. I would like to procure one or two, but can't find a source. Would you have any info on this device?
The device is a small pump installed under the sink of the bathroom furthest from the hot water heater. It is connected to an electrical switch mounted under the counter. It comes with flex hoses for easy connection into the water lines. When the switch is pushed the pump circulates the hot water back to the cold water side for a few minutes. This eliminates having to waste water for several minutes until it is hot enough to use.

DB from Winter Park, FL


I heard of this type of recirculation system at least 20 years ago, though not as a kit, in the days of the (shudder) energy crisis! Its availability was proportional to the creativity of the other words, an improvisational job. I have wanted to try this project myself, as I have a similar problem to yours. Having a very adequate well system in my own home, I never felt pressured to institute extensive conservation measures (even if the project seemed like fun). However, I know everyone is not as fortunate as I am in this regard.

Let's walk through the concept, and see how you could build one yourself with commonly available parts, and then discuss the "kit" .

First, the pump. The choice of the pump is critical. In a long ranch-style home with one floor, the "head"... the height the water has to be raised by the pump... is not very critical. However, a large multifloor dwelling will need a pump that can push the water from water source to the second (or third) floor. This rise can be over 16 feet. The pump also must be able to handle very hot water. Not all pumps are designed to handle water over 120 degrees. So the pump of choice would probably be a solar hot water system pump. These run from $100 to $200.

The real trick in this project is to lace your return piping back to the cold water inlet side of the hot water heater. This will require some ingenuity and probably some minor demolition!

The connection is not extremely difficult but does require some plumbing skills and electrical skills. The pump (outlet side) would be installed on a T-fitting on the cold water line to the hot water heater, regardless of the type (tank or furnace-fed). One pipe would have to be run from the faucet side of the hot water shutoff all the way to the inlet side of the pump, forming a loop. The pump acts as a one-way check valve so cold water can't be drawn up to the hot faucet.

As far as the electrical wiring goes, these pumps draw around one amp at 115 volts, meaning you should be able to connect it to an existing circuit in the bathroom. I would put a switch near the pump as a shutoff. The pump documentation should help you determine the type of wiring necessary for the switch you locate under the bathroom sink. Also, I would use a standard electrical wall-type switch in an electrical box under the sink. You will get better service life than a push-type switch. Also, you will be able to tell if the pump is on or off at a glance! If you wanted to get really exotic, and also protect yourself from having the pump run too long... which would be a real waste of hot water... you could use a timer switch instead.

There is a company on the web that sells this system in kit form. It is called the Metlund Hot Water Demand System. There are advantages to this kit over a pure D-I-Y job. They supply a flexible copper tubing to speed installation and temperature sensitive relays that automatically turn off the pump when the hot water reaches the faucet. This system can also be used at intermediate faucets on the line (such as in the kitchen or other bathrooms) by installing a separate switch and relay under each sink. It has a low voltage switch system, making the additional wiring easier because of the smaller wire size used, along with reduced shock hazard at the remote bathrooms... a good idea if you have kids.

They have a great schematic of the layout of these systems at the web site, that is worth looking at if only out of curiosity!


Dear NH,

I am building butcher block countertops to be used in a kitchen. They will be used as food preparation surfaces. The problem is she wants to make them from oak, and the wood has a purplish cast. I need to "tone down" the wood, if possible. Can I use Minwax Polyshade, or is there another stain or sealer I can use. I would have liked to leave them natural, but she didn't like the color.

NK from Valley Fall, Kansas


Oak is not an ideal material for a moist area. It tends to blacken over time when in contact with water. However, this is an aesthetic and not a functional problem. But that's why you don't see oak butcher block very often. Also, oak's open grain will be more difficult to keep clean compared to, for example, the tighter grain of maple.

Since this is a food surface, you have limited options for staining and sealing. I would not use a stain because common wood stain is a toxic substance, and not approved for food surfaces. I am unaware of any wood stain that is approved for this purpose.

As far as sealing the surface, you can take the primitive path and use mineral oil to seal it. You can't use a vegetable oil because it will become rancid.

However, the more professional alternative is to use a sealer designed for food surfaces. Both Behlen and General Finishes make products called Salad Bowl Finish. I'm sure there are other companies who produce similar products. This product is approved for food contact on countertops, cutting boards, and... yes... salad bowls.

Though staining is not recommended, you could try using a wood bleach such as oxalic acid to lighten the oak before sealing. I would get a scrap of the same oak and experiment before committing to do this on an expensive butcher block top.

Oh... and get a check up front! Peace.


Dear NH,

Okay, three questions relating to the pending sale of my house. One of those pesky home inspectors found a few items that "must" be fixed, but if I were to continue to live here I wouldn't worry about them.. or should I?
1) I will start easy-- He checked my house on a 60 degree day in February and ran the air conditioner. Ice formed on the heat pump high pressure line. What does that mean? And do I need to pay the HVAC guy out to take a look?
2) Two 240 volt circuit breakers are "overheating" in the panel-- what does this mean? They're not tripping, and haven't in the 4 yrs I've been here, so why are they and is it okay?
3) I live in Durham, NC. The house is 12 years old, and is built on a cement block foundation on a well drained sloping property. There's a crack between the first and second layers of cement blocks along the back of the house (slope is toward the street). The crack is only on the inside (can't see from exterior) and runs the length of the mortar joint about .25-.5 inches. I don't know if it's new or not, but in my estimation if it were serious, it would go all the way through. The buyers want me to get it fixed. Help.

PG from Durham, NC


By the numbers...

1) Any inspector worth his salt should know that you don't test the AC under 65 degrees, or icing is almost assured. This test cannot be done now. The standard way this is handled (at least up our way), is that the buyer warrants the AC, perhaps leaving a small amount of money in escrow until the unit can be properly tested.

2) I don't know the circumstance under which he tested the circuit breakers, so I can't judge whether his opinion is valid. This should be a fairly low cost repair so my recommendation would be to do the repair and be done with it.

If you understand how to work with electrical stuff, replacing them is a walk in the park. If not, have an electrician do it. It should take under an hour... if he tells you it will take more than an hour to replace two circuit breakers, perhaps he should go into a less demanding occupation, such as parachute testing.

3) Fix the crack. In a house that is 12 years old, and has most likely fully settled, this is more than likely a superficial problem. The easiest fix is to use some gray-colored masonry caulk... available in hardware stores... to seal the crack. This is a cosmetic repair, not a structural repair, and that is all that is needed.

If you don't think this would be aesthetically pleasing or they balk at the idea of using a caulk, buy a small package of pre-made "just-add-water" concrete patching compound. Mix up a small batch and force it into the crack. Follow the package directions for mixing and surface preparation, Smooth the surface with a damp sponge to "feather" it into the surrounding surface. If the crack is only hairline, you might want to use a small cold chisel and open it up slightly to allow you to apply more patching compound... but it is not necessary to go wider than 1/4 to 3/8 or an inch for a suitable repair.

People take these inspection reports seriously, even when the inspector is reaching for things to find that are negative to show he earned his money. You must do likewise and address their concerns with reasonable discussion and compromise. If the buyers get too crazy and insist on ridiculous repairs when they are unnecessary, it is time to find a new buyer or draw a line in the sand and say "No More!"

Good luck with the sale.


Dear NH,

I have a stupid lazy susan in a lower cabinet in my kitchen (a very inconvenient place to try to do any repair). It generally holds the majority of canned goods for a family of five. Right now it is empty (and the canned goods are on the kitchen counter, adding substantially to the overall clutter) because it has ceased to turn easily!
I unscrewed every screw on the thing, applied liquid wrench to all moving parts, rescrewed every screw in varied sequences, and it still won't turn easily. Can you help?

AL from East Greenbush, NY


Lazy susans can be a pain to adjust!  The major problems are that the center moveable shaft may be binding, or the circular shelves have slipped down the center shaft, and are dragging on the bottom.

You will have to be my eyes and look at the center shaft. There are a number of screws and/or bolts. There is one bolt that controls the length of the center shaft by locking the position of a metal sleeve that slides inside of the center shaft. This bolt is usually located near the top of the shaft. If the cabinet top has sagged, it is possible that the shaft is binding due to the pressure. You will have to loosen this screw/bolt and slide the adjusting rod into the center shaft slightly... just enough to allow clearance but not so much as to have the lazy susan fall over.

This adjustment may also be at the bottom on yours.

The position of the shelves should also be checked. Each shelf moves independently of the other... unless you have the type of lazy susan that has the front decorative panel attached to both... then they must be adjusted together. Lets assume that you have this type of lazy susan. If not, you only have to perform this adjustment on the bottom shelf.

Look for the locking screws, located on the shelves in the center. Loosen both screws and raise the shelves together so that the bottom shelf clears the base of the cabinet. This is usually a difficult move, because the two shelves tend to want to bind on the shaft. Don't under any circumstances lubricate the shaft, or the screws may not hold position! Tighten both screws.

As an aside, many folks have a similar problem to yours because they also store very heavy goods on their lazy susans. If you could lighten up the load a little, or at least keep lighter items on the bottom shelf, which usually is the troublemaker, you may forego a repeat of this repair.


We have added two new links this month to The Natural Handyman's Links Library The Toolman aka Berland's House of Tools, and Marshalltown Trowels.

The Toolman , alias Berland's House of Tools is a great site to visit if you are in the market for most any tool and don't feel like leaving the comfort of your keyboard... or the soft light of
your monitor. A little trivia, a few tips, and some assorted links make this stop worthwhile.

The Marshalltown Trowel Company is well known to people in the masonry business for over a hundred years. Their tools are without peer, and the variety is staggering. Their web site includes an interesting history of the company plus descriptions and graphics of hundreds of masonry, plaster, and drywall tools. They also have a "tips and techniques" section on drywall, brick, block, and concrete work that you may find valuable.


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