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Handyman Letter - September, 2000


1) Opinions are like elbows... a message from the Natural Handyman.

2) Hello and thank you to Websites and publications that have recently linked with or featured The Natural Handyman

3) Q&A with our readers


5) "Pass the hammer, would ya?"... NH's readers speak out!




I have opinions on all sorts of issues. I am sure you do, too. On some of them I am quite knowledgeable... on others only marginally so. On some issues we may agree and would toast each other's brilliance over dinner. On others we might agree to disagree, neither of us taking the other's opinion as a threat. But bring up those particular opinions that have psychological spines? We could be at each other's throats looking for first blood!

Opinions have amazing power and there are many individuals and groups eager to influence ours. Politicians seek to sway public "opinion" to their own advantage. Radio and TV talk shows thrive on a constant flow of opinion to fill burgeoning air time. Media in general seems to be powered more by opinion than news these days, making it more difficult than ever for fair-minded people to get hard facts on any issue.

Knowing your proclivities is a powerful way to coax you into action... or inaction. Yes... certain knowledge is not enabling, but discouraging and hence disabling. Notice the election day furor over early release of election results and winner projections on the East Coast resulting in lower voter turnout on the West Coast. Why vote if one already knows that their candidate can't win?

Opinion can also be entertaining. What else would explain the proliferation of discussion shows on both radio and television? I think it's both fun and educational to see two formidable opponents slug it out in verbal combat. And the best part is we can each come away with a little more information on the strengths and weaknesses of our own opinions.

Some days, I feel overwhelmed with the amount of opinion out there... so much so that occasionally I retreat from all media and take a "mental health" break. But don't shed a tear for me. In my heart I believe that all opinion is good opinion, even if I don't always agree with it. As a muscle must first be broken down before it can grow and become stronger, so too must opinions be stressed and tested to grow stronger and more meaningful. To not listen to other opinions is to become mentally stagnant. The effort it takes to try to understand other people's opinions is a healthy exercise and keeps the mind young. And the marvelous part of this exercise is that you really don't have to change your mind on anything. One benefit is that your "new and improved" opinions will be clearer and more meaningful to you! You might even discover that, should your hardened position begin to soften, that this change is much less painful than you might have guessed. Fight as we will, it is usually easier to open the door than to bang one's head against it!

But whether we agree or disagree on any issue (and we will) in the end our differences will indeed make all of us better and stronger and, as a society, better able to survive. True diversity, as in diversity of opinion, is the genetic material of a healthy civilization. Opinion is the price of freedom.. and its reward!




Dear NH,

I have a wall-unit air conditioner that has started dripping water on the inside and down my wall. As this is a huge monster of a thing, I'm wary of trying to tinker with it on my own. It still cools the air, although I don't notice it getting as cold.

Since this problem only surfaced when the humidity skyrocketed, could this just be condensation? What kept it from dribbling down my wall before?

KM from Cincinnati, OH


The two possible causes are 1) actual leak of rainwater from the outside or 2) condensation, which is a normal byproduct of the air conditioning process but should be dripping outside your home, not into your wall! Since the amount of condensation increases as the relative humidity outside increases, you are correct to wonder whether there is a connection between the humidity and the leakage.

You can locate the source of a rain leak by making a visual examination of any weatherstripping or caulking around the outside of the machine itself, or the sleeve that the "works" of the AC slides into. If you find any gaps or openings in the caulk, you can scrape out the old caulk and replace it.

If there is a rain gutter over the AC unit, make sure that it is not blocked. If the gutter were to overflow you could get leakage around the AC or through the air vents in the frame even if the caulking seems OK due to the sheer volume of water!

As I mentioned, the condensate from the AC normally flows to the outside and exits the frame via weep holes in the frame (or pan). Some larger units incorporate a hose to direct this condensate. If these exit holes are blocked water can build up in the bottom of the pan and potentially leak out where it shouldn't! You will have to examine your unit to see where these weep holes are and if they are blocked. The usual culprits are rust and paint chips that drop into the pan and block the weep holes. This could also account for the sudden dripping!

AC units that slide into a preinstalled through-the-wall sleeve are often installed level. However, gravity is helped in some one-piece AC units by installing them at a slight downward angle towards the outside. Were the unit to somehow change orientation, it is possible that the condensate would instead build up in the bottom of the frame and leak into the walls. The only way to know for sure is to put a level on the frame to see if it is level. If shifting has occurred you will need to modify the mounting (either inside or outside) to restore the downward tilt.

To your other issue, the loss of cooling power is definitely attributable at least in part to the increased humidity. Some of the cooling energy is being used up drying up the moist air in your home. Dust on the cooling coils would also cause loss of cooling power, and would worsen with increased humidity as the dust holds the moisture, producing a damp insulating blanket on the coils. Finally, mechanical problems with the coolant pump and/or a loss of coolant pressure are other possible causes that should be investigated.


Dear NH,

The roaches here have gotta go away!! Help !! What can I do ? I keep a clean house, I don't let crumbs collect under the tables, I vacuum regularly, etc. Essentially, I don't put out the "Welcome Here Bugs Mat".

But, I can NOT use standard, oil-based roach sprays. I have two children with severe asthma, and those types of products send them both into asthmatic episodes. I have tons of those little roach baits and motels scattered here and there through out the kitchens and bathrooms; just like the boxed instructions say to do. But does that work? Not for us so far. In fact, it seems that the roaches are actually having a "party'' on this stuff but NOT dying.

Can I use some diatomaceous earth? I have heard it is used as an insecticide, but I have been hesitant to use it for fear of it causing asthma problems too...since it is such a fine powder.


Dear SP,

Diatomaceous earth (DE) is the only really effective indoor AND outdoor pesticide against many types of insects that does not contain dangerous chemicals. It is made from the fossilized remains of diatoms... a type of plankton... which were left behind in massive amounts after the ancient oceans receded.

These almost microscopic particles have very sharp edges which cut the external membranes or exoskeletons of insects such as ants and roaches. These membranes are similar to our skin in that they keep moisture inside the insect, but unlike human skin are relatively fibrous and thin. Once cut, moisture escapes and the bugs dehydrate quickly, often dying within hours. Fortunately, we humans don't have to worry about contact with DE since our skin is not vulnerable due to its flexibility and thickness.

It is important to use the proper form of DE. All DE is heat treated and sifted based on its intended usage. The type that is used for swimming pools is, to my understanding, not very effective for insect control. Pool filter DE is also much finer and therefore dustier than the insecticide-type.

Be aware that some brands of insecticidal DE have added chemical insecticides as a "kicker" to extend DE's killing power to other insects, specifically for those with tougher, DE resistant shells. One bug killer often added is pyrethrin, a "natural" insecticide extracted from the flowers of the chrysanthemum plant. Pyrethrin, as you may know, is commonly used in flea control around the home and also approved for use on pets.

I cannot tell you what the effect of DE would be on your children's asthma... only your physician can tell you that. It is certainly true that DE can hurt anyone if they breathe too much of it, as with any fine dust. The same can be said of sawdust, dust from insulation and even airborne sand!

In writing this response, I learned something that I was not aware of... that many people are actually allergic to cockroaches. This allergy can trigger asthma attacks in susceptible people. There is a great article on this topic from the "Asthma and Allergy Foundation" at  Search for "cockroach".

Knowing that roaches can be contributing to your children's problem presents a dilemma and requires you to make a judgement. In the real world, there is always a cost-vs.-benefit in using anything. With your physician's guidance, you can determine just what this risk is and find a compromise to the benefit of your children. For example, by applying small quantities of DE in "out-of-the-way" places where the insects walk and hide, you should get some results with minimal dusting of this product. Though some companies recommend widespread use of the product throughout the home, taking a more conservative approach to application may meet your doctor's approval.

If you can't find the product locally, you can order it from many online sources. One website with extensive information on all sorts of pest control issues is the "Biocontrol Network" at .

Dear NH,

We are having some telephone problems. We are only getting a short ring on incoming calls and then it doesn't ring again. People on the other end hear it "cut off". If you pick the phone up right away you may get the call, otherwise not. Interestingly enough, the calls don't register on caller ID. The telephone company says their lines are OK, so we are stumped. If it is important, we do have several extension phones in our home. Any suggestions?


Dear DL,

Let's try to troubleshoot this problem "long distance"! Since the problem is related primarily to incoming calls, there is only a slim chance that the problem is in your actual wiring. All signals in either direction use the same wires. However, you may have a bad connection or reversed wiring at one of your phone jacks. You can test all jacks with a telephone line tester, available at Radio Shack and many hardware stores. (If you are using multiple lines, get a multiple line tester.)

Though you can test each line with a working telephone, you will not be able to tell if you have any mis-wired jacks. Each telephone line has two wires and, though the phone may work if the wires are backwards, multiple phones on the same line may have problems.

If all the jacks are OK, you may have a problem in one of the phones. One bad phone can bring down an entire line. Test each phone individually for both incoming and outgoing calls.

There is one last consideration that should be examined. There is a limited amount of power available from the phone company to make your phones ring. In other words, if you have too many phones, none of them will ring or they will ring inconsistently.

If you call the phone company, they can give you your system's REN limit. Then, add up the REN of all your devices on the line. If they are less than the REN limit, you are OK. If you have exceeded the REN limit, your problem might be there. The solution would be to eliminate a phone or phone device.

Most phones have a REN of around 1. Computer modems, fax machines, and answering machines also have a REN value, and you should take them into account when figuring your total REN. I have an ancient US Robotics Sportster Voice Faxmodem, and it has a ringer equivalence of 0.4. My answering machine also has a REN of .4. As you can see, "non-ringing" phone devices use only a fraction of the power of ringing devices.

The REN or "ringer equivalence", by law, must be printed on the device. Most are on labels under the phone or device.


Dear NH,

What can I use to fill in a hole in the floor before putting vinyl tile over it. The floor under the bathroom toilet got damp from condensation on the tank. The tile peeled up and the floor got damper. I have a 3 month old puppy and he got in there and dug all the damp sub-floor up and left a good sized depression. The toilet is firm and doesn't seem to be unsteady and I read what to do about the condensation.

SH from Johannesburg, MI


For a complete repair, the toilet should be removed, all rotten flooring should be completely cut out and replaced with new plywood. Only then can you be sure that you will have a long lasting repair.

But if you only have a "depression" as opposed to an actual hole, you might be able to utilize a floor "leveling compound" such as Level Best from Savogran (online at ) to smooth the surface prior to tiling. The surface must be totally dry and free of dust and loose material.

Multiple coats can be applied... first coat for most of the filling and second coat to bring the repair level with the floor. The first coat should not extend above the surface of the floor at all. Scrape off all excess leveler. The second coat should fill any gaps and bring the repair up the to floor level. If need be, you can apply a third coat if the first two don't result in a smooth-enough floor.

For a small job such as this, you can "rough it" and do the initial and final smoothing with a dampened straight board. A pro would use a magnesium float... a concrete finishing tool that can give a wonderfully smooth surface... but I am hoping to save you the added expense of this tool.

Once set and totally dry, Level Best can be sanded by hand or with a power sander. It will sand more easily with power equipment such as a belt sander or grinder, but they raise large amounts of dust that should not be inhaled. Use a vacuum to catch as much dust as possible, provide for ventilation and (at the least) wear a good fitting dust mask. Once the repair is totally dry, smooth and dust-free, you should be able to put the tile right over it without the need for a primer.

Level Best is not designed to be used in wet locations, so if you decide to use it you should take care to keep the floor dry from future drips. There are other leveling products that are cement-based (Level-Best is similar to plaster) but have a less forgiving finish and cannot be easily sanded, making them more difficult to use. However, these cement-based products stand up to moisture better and may be a superior choice if you are willing to take more care with the finishing.



5) "PASS THE HAMMER, WOULD YA?"... NH's readers speak out!

Dear NH,

In answering a reader question you stated that silicone caulk is not paintable. Might I suggest denatured alcohol on the silicone caulking to be able to paint over it. An old timer taught me that trick and while it may require a few tries this usually does
the trick.



Thanks for the suggestion. I always recommend using an alcohol or Wilbond wipe (one of Wilbond's ingredients is denatured alcohol) prior to painting or caulking any questionable surface. I have used it on the residue from silicone caulk and the new caulks seem to stick ok, though it is difficult to know how long they will last and if the alcohol wipe really did any good.

I know alcohol does slightly roughen the surface of latex-based caulks. In speculating why it might also improve the adhesion of paint to silicone caulk, I can only surmise that aged silicone caulk has a slippery residue on its skin that can be removed with alcohol. Then a good oil or shellac primer might have a chance of sticking. Officially, GE silicone offers no encouragement regarding painting silicone caulk.


Dear NH,

I just felt compelled to tell you that you guys rock. I spent a lot of time with my father growing up, and he is one of those people who can fix or build anything with nothing more than a utility knife, a toothpick and a sense of humor. I also inherited a sense of taste/style from my mother that I quickly discovered I could not afford. Of course...I came up with a plan! This "it seemed like a good idea at the time" solution would be to build/ do everything myself. Because, of course, I must have genetically inherited all of my fathers skills...right?  TeeHee.

Luckily, I have internet access (I can still find the computer although my apartment is halfway dismantled and I am afraid to have houseguests) and after trudging through several sites that kept trying to sell me stuff, and never answered the right questions I stumbled upon yours which not only answers my questions, but does so in a way I can relate to.

I was just inspired to tell you that you have made "Hellraiser: The Remodeling experience" much more bearable. I will finish this project if I'm at it until I'm collecting social security. Luckily, I have supportive friends who keep telling me to give up, ensuring I stay on track, in an unreasonably illogical fit of stubbornness . So thank you for existing and please don't disappear in a cloud of cyberdust 'cause you definitely make



Thanks a lot for sharing your good vibes and great humor! Also glad to hear you are stubborn... though I prefer to call it "committed"... a quality which I share and the only thing that keeps this site online month after month. Few things of value come easily (and the really worthwhile things are the most difficult) but, in the end, you will have the last laugh on all your well intentioned (?) but less-than-understanding friends.



Dear NH,

Back when I worked in restaurants, we used a light coat of mineral oil to keep stainless steel looking good. Now that I'm a cleaning lady I first clean the sinks with Barkeeper's Friend, thoroughly dry the sink and put a light coat of Sheila Shine on it. Sheila Shine can be bought at most janitorial places. A few times of this (I do it weekly) and a VERY worn out sink can be brought back to its former beauty.

By the way Bar Keepers Friend, mixed as a paste can make those ugly corroded faucets shine like new again. Hope this helps.



Thanks for the suggestion. I don't know how I could have forgotten about Barkeeper's friend, a mildly abrasive but chlorine-free bleach I have often used. One great thing about Barkeeper's friend and its cousin, ZUD, is that it actually dissolves iron rust and rust stains, making it great for removing discoloration on porcelain sinks and tubs!



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