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Handyman Letter - October 1, 2000


1) An end to the summer rain... 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) What's new at

4) Q&A with our readers


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



Autumn arrived last Friday and summer ended here in Connecticut like the slamming of a door. A joke of a summer it was with more rain than shine and with temperatures so low that my daughter's tomatoes were woefully puny and even the mosquitoes were few and far between. Considering the previous few summers were plagued with drought, I can't decide if "lucky" is the appropriate descriptive term for our growth season this year.

Outside contractors and painters out this way took a big hit this year with the uncooperative weather pattern. Though the figures are not in, I can bet that if you were having your house painted or exterior renovations done...well, you are probably still wondering when you will get removed from your neighbors' black list. Time to repaint those "Under Construction" signs.

So here we are with the autumn season looming ahead, the stores dusting off their holiday adornments and we... with all those anticipations and uncertainties the future always brings. I am particularly fond of the all the seasons, but autumn is in my top four! The wheel of life is so evident as tree after tree sloughs off their summer raiment to prepare for winter's surprises. The animals, who rely on instinct for their acts of seeming common sense, are trying their best to prepare for their natural winter. Hopefully not in my unnatural attic...

While the lower forms of life make their usual preparations, the leaders of the most intelligent species (at least by their own measure) "suddenly" discover a fuel oil problem mere weeks before fuel oil season begins. I think it's time to put the squirrels in charge with their endless energy and instinctual sense of the future. Squirrel-sense knows that asleep-at-the-wheel equals starvation and death. Survival is a very strong cross-species motivator!

At 42 degrees this morning (love that indoor-outdoor thermometer I installed last year) that long ignored and slightly dusty thermostat deserves a slight nudge into the comfort zone. At what price, though... maybe just a tiny nudge for now.

The weather-heads have predicted the first frost by week's end. Down comforter season looms ahead with no time to waste! Time to relocate my "freezables"... mostly latex paints and caulks... from the garage to the basement, go split some more wood, clean the chimney and gather some nuts. The handyman with a long view takes the situation into his own callused hands. To paraphrase a popular home repair saying... prepare twice, relax once!




Dear NH,

I have a gas hot water heater and I am having a problem lighting the pilot light. For some reason the pilot does not stay lit when I turn the switch from "pilot" to "on".

CP from Plainfield, IL

Dear CP,

There is a safety device called a "thermocouple" in all gas furnaces and water heaters that utilize a pilot light. The thermocouple generates an electrical charge when heated, opening a valve which fuels the pilot flame. Should the pilot light go out, the thermocouple cools quickly and the pilot valve closes, preventing your home from filling with gas. The pilot position on your valve switch essentially overrides the thermocouple, allowing you to light the pilot.

There should be specific instructions for lighting the pilot light somewhere on the unit, but if not, here is the generic procedure. First, turn the manual gas control knob to "pilot". This position allows gas to flow to the pilot so you can light it. You will notice that the knob is spring loaded and turns off as soon as you release it. Once the pilot flame ignites, hold the knob in the pilot position for about 30 seconds so that the flame thoroughly heats the thermocouple. If the thermocouple is working properly, when you release the manual valve, the pilot will remain lit. Turn the knob to the "on" position so that gas can now flow to the main heating elements.

If this procedure fails, try holding the control knob open for up to a minute. If the pilot light still refuses to stay lit, you may need to either adjust the pilot light or replace the thermocouple. Both of these procedures are fairly easy, safe and do not require you to disconnect any gas lines.


Dear NH,

I recently purchased a home that had several cats using one particular room as a litter box. I first had the carpets steam cleaned to no avail. I then took out the carpet and padding revealing a heavily stained and smelly particleboard sub-floor. Going one level deeper I removed the sub-floor and found lightly stained wood planks below. I really do not want to install a new plywood sub-floor without taking every precaution to make sure I end up with a pleasant smelling room.
Any recommendations?




Obviously removing all urine-soaked wood is the most thorough solution although probably not necessary. Removing the saturated particleboard was a definite must, as particleboard absorbs moisture like a sponge but does not seal well. There was nothing you could do to permanently ameliorate or eliminate the odor.

Clean the wood plank underlayment with a cat urine-odor removal/neutralizing product. When completely dry, coat the planks with a few coats of a waterproofing sealer or polyurethane. This will lock in any residual odor. Then reinstall particleboard or plywood to restore the level of the floor.

I have done this a few times in some rather malodorous situations and the results were excellent. But again I must emphasize that I don't suggest this quick solution for other than lightly stained materials.


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

Dear NH,

I had searched many sites in the past trying to find a way to stop my guest bathroom door from closing by itself. Fortunately, I received a link to your site and directly to the "doorman". Thanks very much for the simple solution you offered. Thanks for a great site, especially for a handy-woman!



Thanks for using our site and I hope we will be as helpful in the future! (The "simple" solution to those ever-annoying self-closing doors can be found on our "door" page at )


Dear NH,

The dripping air conditioner that was mentioned in your last newsletter deserves another look. She said, "I don't notice it getting as cold...." I'll bet she has the thermostat set to cold and the fan speed to low. When the room temperature is too cold the condensate water will freeze on the evaporator coils. This ice buildup will slowly block the airflow through the coils. As the ice builds it transfers cold to the outer case and it will sweat (like your ice tea glass). She also said, "It's a big monster...." It is most likely to big for the room size. This will only ensure an icing problem.

As for your other reader's roach problem: Putting bay leaves in cabinets and drawers will keep the little buggers out, (they don't like the smell). Putting borax (20 Mule Team laundry powder) under cabinets and appliances will kill the roaches and seems to do a good job on other insects too. Keep up the good work.



Great thoughts about the AC. One thing about home repair is that there is almost always another possibility! Thanks for sharing our experience.

Borax is definitely another "natural" option for insect control. The US Forest Service has used borax for years to control fungus in forests. NISUS Corp. in Rockford,
Tennessee has a product called "Tim-Boor" which is effective in the control of wood-destroying insects. Borax-based, it has low toxicity to wildlife when diluted "in the wild".  Their site is at

Borax, though, is much more toxic than diatomaceous earth (DE), another natural insecticide mentioned in the last newsletter. Pure insecticidal DE is not biologically active and is not considered poisonous. One striking example is that DE is mixed with grain to kill insects and, if anything, adds nutritional value!!

Borax, on the other hand, can be quite toxic if ingested in any quantity. My opinion is simply that, if there is a risk of ingestion of the insecticide by children or pets, DE is the safer choice!

NOTE: Another reader, PL, suggested another roach control technique... mixing 20 Mule Team Borax with plain white flour and putting it in jars under the sink. As she aptly commented, "It works well and it's very cheap!" Just keep it away from the kids and the pets, PL!


Dear NH,

You may be an excellent handyman, but a little slow on your math I'm sorry to say. In your article on bathroom fans you give a formula to calculate the ideal size of a fan. Your formula requires the reader to multiply by 12 and then divide by 60. However, this is the same as dividing by five, which is a lot easier to calculate.

Anyhow, the site is OK, but I am a compulsive 'know-it-all'.



You are half right. My intention wasn't just to answer the question but to try to help the reader understand the process of getting to the answer... not just a shortcut formula. If I just said to divide the bathroom's cubic feet by 5, that would leave the reader wondering why? (Well... some people, anyway! Compulsive know-it-alls like me, for example.)

Now, for credit where credit is due... I should and will update the page to reflect your insight and shortcut for the formula. The article at issue is at   Thanks for the help.



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