Monday, December 24, 2007

How to flush a heating system

Got radiators? Then you’ve got a really old house. Ever wonder what all that hissing and banging in the pipes are about? Generally it is trapped air and the system needs flushing.
Consider flushing the system at least once a month during the heating season to keep things quietly moving. If you have a service contract through your utility company then it may be covered. If you are a hands on gal or guy then here’s

How to flush a heating system

1. Keep the service manual that came with the furnace handy
2. Open the air vents on all radiators located on the highest level of the house
3. Turn off the furnace’s power switch.
4. Shut off the furnace’s water supply
5. Let the furnace cool down
6. Attach a garden hose to the drain cock (faucet)at the lowest part of the boiler (usually at the rear) and lead the other end of the hose into a drain or bucket
7. Open the faucet. Let the line drain through the hose. (The water will be heavy and brown with rust and sediment)
8. When the flow slows, turn the water supply back on. Flush the boiler with fresh water. Do a few times.
9. When the water from the boiler runs clear, turn off the drain faucet.
10. Refill the boiler by opening the water supply until the furnace reaches its proper water level. The glass water-level indicator should be slightly more than half full
11. Turn boiler on
12. When you hear water filling the pipes, return to the top floor radiators and close the air vents. Open and close vents on all other radiators in the house to release any trapped air

Caution: You can crack the furnace by running cold water into a hot chamber so follow directions and take your time.

How to Bleed a Radiator

A home radiator that is cold at the top and warm at the bottom usually is a sign of trapped air. The radiator needs to be bled. Sounds like an episode of Dr. G, Medical Examiner. Here’s how to bleed a radiator for a steam and hot water system.

Steam system

1. Turn radiator off. Give it time to cool down if it is not already cold.
2. Unscrew radiator air vent (looks like a mini-silo with numbers on its head). Shake out any trapped water and replace it.
3. Place a small pan and rags on floor where radiator is connected to the steam pipe.
4. Use pipe wrench to loosen connector. Disconnect radiator from the steam pipe.
4. Tilt the radiator (You’ll need help. The radiator is heavy cast iron) and drain any trapped water into the pan.
5. Reconnect
6. Slide a shim under the radiator so it tilts toward the connection pipe. This allows proper drainage for the steam return.

Hot water system

1. Turn the furnace off
2. Look for the bleed valve at the top end of one side of the radiator
3. Using a “bleed key” turn the valve counter clockwise slowly about a half a turn
4. You’ll hear the hissing sound of air escaping as your turn the valve. When water begins to come out close the valve.

Extension Cord Safety

FIRE HAZARD: This extension cord is overloaded and laying right on a carpet.

Every time I see an extension cord I am reminded of a friend whose first home office was a TV snack table and a desktop computer with a power cord tautly stretched across the bedroom to the electrical outlet. I know he had to step high or do the limbo to keep from tripping over the cord. When the desktop became a laptop after the snack table collapsed under the weight, he repurposed the hall closet into now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t office space.

There being no electrical outlet in that closet and the nearest one about 15 feet away in the bedroom, he linked three of the shortest extension cords I’ve ever seen and stretched them across the room to power the computer, monitor, printer and desk lamp. Only two plugs would fit easily into the extension cords at one time so he went out and bought a really long fourth extension cord for the last available socket and plugged in the two remaining pieces of equipment.

The longer cord had reach but only two openings so he just went ahead and force fed the three-prong cord for the monitor into the two-prong extension cord. How he is not being remembered today in the past tense or at all is thanks to the blessings God bestows upon babies and fools.

Those jerry rigged hookups could have triggered a fire and nearly did if the hot to the touch cord with its burn marks and disfigured casing at the plug end of his cords were any indication.

I bring the subject up because extension cords are big this time of year. Many are being used by single mom home-based catering services that are plugging in extra cooking appliances to meet the demand for baked goods and full meals. Then there are the Christmas trees, holiday lights and ornaments twinkling away in and outside our homes. Carelessness with extension cords will produce a fire somewhere.

Not every extension cord is the right one for every job. There are heavy duty and light duty cords and those made for interior use and those for outdoor use. Interior cords are generally not insulated for use in wet weather. Plugging one extension cord into another also is risky since that reduces the current carrying capacity of the cord which could make it overheat, cause a fire and or damage the appliance that is plugged in. To find out what extension cord you need read and match the UL ratings and usage labels attached to the cord and the appliance it is powering.

“Electrical fires in our homes claim the lives of 485 Americans each year and injure 2,305 more. Some of these fires are caused by electrical system failures and appliance defects, but many more are caused by the misuse and poor maintenance of electrical appliances, incorrectly installed wiring, and overloaded circuits and extension cords.” That language comes straight from the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Fire Administration. Words to the wise.

Quick safety tips for extension cords

  • Don’t force a three prong plug into a two prong cord.
  • Don't overload outlets with multiple plug-ins and adapters.
  • Safeguard equipment from sudden power spikes and outages with a surge protector power strip.
  • Avoid piggy backing by plugging in multiple extension cords.
  • Choose the right extension cord. Length should not be the only criteria. Read the cord’s UL label for gauge, capacity, use and wattage rating.
  • Use a rubber strip to cover any cords strung across a walk area to avoid tripping or damaging the cord.
  • Got small, crawling, curious children around? Invest in safety power strip covers.
  • When plugging in Christmas trees, raise up the connection between tree lights and the extension cord to keep it from resting on carpet, tree skirt or any potentially flammable surface.
  • Make sure outlets are grounded. One with three holes suggests it is grounded but have an electrician check for certain.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Savvy Sisters Create Sassy Signs

Savvy sisters, Nycole Pederson, Julie Tibbles and Tammy Nelson of St Paul, Minnesota heard the cry for help from design challenged yard signs. They put their heads together and gave the neighbors something sassy to talk about with their Sassy Signs and DeZine-A-Sign lines. From house sales to baby births, Sassy Signs will design it for you or let you do it yourself with their kit. When the sisters got great reaction from friends and neighbors for their sassy yard signs, they figured they were onto something. They combined their workplace talents to build their own enterprise. Nycole has a background in operations and IT. Julie is a whiz in business and finance and Tammy worked as director of retail development for Tommy Hilfiger USA. All three are married moms with 11 children between them. Their signs are available at selected Lowe’s stores and through their website.

A Toothbrush Holder You Can Use

Lisa Mears, 46, is a self-described neat nick who got tired of her family’s assortment of toothbrushes scattered on the bathroom sink. There wasn’t an existing sanitary central storage solution on the market to accommodate the range of brush sizes from slender to bulky - you know those superhero handles and battery pack ones. So, the Baltimore resident designed one. “I can’t even draw stick figures,” Lisa laughed amazed at the product she invented. With help from her then fiance, James Morris, and investments from family and friends Lisa raised $40,000 to get started. The resulting Cloverholder Toothbrush caddy, manufactured in Maryland, took 3rd place in the bath accessories category at the National Hardware Show in 2006. The invention also won Lisa recognition in June 2007 as "Woman Inventor of the Year" by the New Products Exposition (NPEX) organization in Pennsylvania.
Folks who have petite bathrooms and no shelf space will appreciate the wall mount version. The Cloverholder is available in colors too! And kids, parents and grandparents can easily customize it as a home project using craft paints in favorite colors and image decals. Here come the Smurfs. The Cloverholder toothbrush holder is growing in its availability and can be found at select retail stores. But Lisa advises, "It is available right now on the web at the Cloverholder website.
On the personal front, realizing what great business partners they were and that, coincidentally they were in love, the couple married one steamy August day 2007. The next month the busy couple headed to Florida where they shot commercials for their product that were scheduled to air in November and December in 100 major cities, 100 times, on Bravo, WE and WGN stations. Ah, the inventor's life.

360 Rotation Electrical Outlet

If you’ve ever tried to plug in the charger cords for your cell phone and your ipod or power up your hair dryer and curling iron in the same outlet at the same time then you've felt Kim Gerard's pain. I know I cheered when she recalled how ticked off she was when she pitched her cellphone charger across the hotel room. The space hog chargers she traveled with for business would not play together in the one available electrical wall outlet. Rather than stay mad too long she decided to fix the problem and just go ahead and invent an outlet that worked with our modern day toys. "I sketched the idea out on a napkin," she said. The "idea" is an electrical outlet with plugs that rotate 360 degrees. Don't you love it? It helped that Kim has a background in civil and environmental engineering. In 2001, she received the patent and put the device through its safety and market paces. Now the 360 electrical outlet is available at a hardware store near you. If it ain't there, ask why not.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Sustainable Sense in Kansas City, Missouri

Windows embedded in reflection pool's floor allow sunlight to stream in parking garage below
Inside the garage, halos of sunlight pour through the ceiling windows
Close up of view, looking up through garage's ceiling window

At Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art common sense and environmental responsibility combined to create a reflecting pool that serves as a light source for the museum's underground parking garage. Circular glass windows embedded in the reflection pool floor allow daylight to illuminate the garage through the garage ceiling.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Carbon Monoxide

When the weather gets cold people do innocently stupid things that can kill them. Heating the house by leaving the oven door open on the gas stove, cooking in the fireplace, sitting in the closed garage in the car with the engine idling. Not good ideas. They can result in the formation of carbon monoxide, an odorless, colorless, tasteless and deadly gas.

Natural gas, liquefied petroleum, kerosene, coal, oil or wood, even cigarettes can produce carbon monoxide. The usual appliance sources are:

  • The fireplace
  • Gas water heater
  • Gas stove
  • Gas or kerosene heater
  • Gas or oil furnace

Poisoning Symptoms:

  • Flu like
  • Stinging, watery eyes
  • Nausea
  • Achy feeling
  • Dizziness


Huge doses of oxygen at a hospital

Telltale Signs of Trouble:

  • Burner flames that are yellow and waver
  • Pilot lights that flutter or continuously go out
  • The fireplace damper is open but smoke still drafts back into the room
  • Garage has no exhaust vent to outside
  • Garage vents to inside of house


Have fireplace chimney professionally cleaned and inspected annually and resist using an appliance in a way it was not originally intended. Cooking in the fireplace is not a good idea.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Who are you?

You didn't ask but today is the birthday. The plan was to do nothing. But I can't seem to do that. I did hit up Blockbuster for Pans Labryinth and Notes on a Scandal. That will be a night time viewing. However, in the light of day I will take time to ponder the age old question "who am I?" Over the last few years I've found it increasingly important to ask that question of myself regularly. So I ask: Dear Allegra, girl who are you? We all should ask ourselves the question regularly if we are to stay on point with the mission of our unique self.

It's so easy to stray0nto someone else's set, be unhappy and not realize why. The why is because we are cast in a bit part in a stranger's B movie! If we stay focused on our own project where we are the star, director, producer, the everything it wouldn't matter that it was a low grade production. It's our movie, our screening house and greater moments of happiness are more likely. But being able to identify whose movie we're in is the rub. That takes pause, sometimes daily but at least annually and the birthday is as good a time as any.

My friend Lydia has an insightful way of viewing the world and made the point of checking what movie you're in during my recent, long overdue visit with her and family. I am so glad I made the trip. Almost didn't. Cashflow at a trickle. But, I learned a long time ago that if I yield to the "I can't afford it" syndrome that will be who I become in life and I'll never be able to afford anything. So, I figured out a way to afford it and took a window seat on Southwest Airlines and flew off to California for a few days. The benefits began with the woman who chose the middle seat next to me. She said she was a geneticist specializing in horse bloodlines. The job had her regularly flying around the country to meet with clients. She was tiring of it and was training a successor so she could spend more time doing things she liked such as the rafting trip she took on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

I generate a lot of ideas that spin off of my writing for Renovating Woman. Some of those ideas might include renovating a building, doing home improvement workshops, creating home repair videos, etc. But when sitting alone I know they don't have to do with who I am at my core. "Core." Funny how everyone is picking up on that word and wearing it to hell from aerobic trainers to the talking head broadcasters and media writers. They are like hungry dogs with steaks between their teeth. Shake, shake, shake. Steaks, words, old shoes, whatever. They'll wear the word out until the next invention.

Anyway, at my core I am a writer and entertainer who loves to travel. I like talking to strangers, sharing news folks can use in their lives and making people laugh. I am happiest in that space. That's my movie. Anything else is somebody else's gig.

Talking with my airplane seat mate brought me to that satisfying conclusion. It allowed me to put the brakes on a couple of complicated projects I created and focus on creating a more joyful life this coming year and play Auntie Mame with my grandkids. If what I choose to do has no connection to writing, traveling, meeting new people or making folks laugh, I shan't be a doin' it. So, Yay! Happy birthday to me. Print it. That's a wrap.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Know when the job is a DIYer or a For Hire

Not every job and renovation project is a DIY. Sever the wrong wire or pipe and the whole neighborhood can go up in flames. Know when it’s a do it yourself job or a do it for me that's better left to the superheroes. Both homeowners and contractors talk to me about your dread in working with each other so I’ve created a few talking points that should build a successful working relationship.

For the best experience:

  1. Adjust your attitudes. No need to be defensive. Think of and treat each respectfully as a project partner.

  2. Learn as much as you can about each other and the job.

  3. Do not assume. Before calling any potential heroes to bid on the job, home owner must take time to read, interview and independently research what is involved in the job in time, labor, materials and contingencies. If the house is to be rewired and new outlets installed, know that hanging ceiling fans and light fixtures are separate tasks unless you have it in the contract.

  4. Think of the proposed contract as a wish list and the opener for discussion. Don’t be afraid to openly discuss points of departure.

  5. Be patient with each other and the process. Know in advance that few projects are completed on deadline. Residential contractors typically are doing other jobs simultaneously.

  6. No screeching. No whining. Have a conversation.

  7. Watch your language - both of you. Homeowner, incentive is a better word to use than penalty. Offer to include in the contract “incentives” to finish the job on deadline or within ten days of delivery date.

  8. Make sure you’ve built in about 4 to 6 weeks of wiggle room beyond the projected completion date for actual finish. The availability of material, weather, workers and site contingencies can delay the best laid plans.

  9. When the job is in progress, direct complaints and discussions about the job to the foreman, not the workers or subs.

  10. Be inquisitive but don’t nag.

Know that your home improvement superheroes appreciate cooperative, informed customers who respect their expertise and work with them to complete the project to the satisfaction of all. Envision a successful renovation experience and finish.

Funky time

Dear Allegra: My bathroom develops an awful odor a couple times a week. What can I use to keep the bathroom smelling fresh?

If you are experiencing really heavy odors in your bathroom no matter what you do, you may have a sewage issue to address from your septic tank system or waste stack. Odors are caused by bacteria. You will need to get rid of the bacteria.

Starting with the simplest solution, here are a few tips: Clean out hair, oil and grease that have collected in the drains in the sink, tub and or shower. Using a wire coat hanger pull up hair clumps that have been trapped in the drain. Use a slim, long handled, round bristle brush and clean the walls of the drain by twirling the brush. Fill a bucket with warm water and a cup each of vinegar and baking soda. It will bubble. Pour the solution down the drain in a gush then follow with a slow pour. Clean the toilet and the top and underside of the seat regularly with disinfectant. Replace cracked and otherwise damaged seats. Wipe down bathroom walls with disinfectant particularly around the splash areas near the toilet and shower.

Clean floors, mirrors and doorknobs daily, if necessary, using your favorite scented disinfectant. If you have a bathtub mat, clean it on both sides after every use so scum does not accumulate. Drape floor mats over tub edge or shower rod to air dry after use. Use a plastic liner in the trash receptacle and don’t let trash accumulate day to day. Wipe the trash can with a disinfectant cloth. Keep soap trays clean. Keep scented soaps and candles in the bathroom. When using the bathroom light a scented candle to help absorb odor. If you keep a clothes hamper in the bathroom, drop in a few mothballs and use a plastic or cloth liner to catch clothes. Don’t leave damp laundry in the hamper.

The house from helltown

Dear Allegra: I inherited a house that needs so much work. Gutters, wiring and the fuse box need to be replaced. I need new electrical fixtures and plumbing. Even the lawn work is intimidating. I’m struggling with very little money. I have to do something. Where do I start?

First things first. Lower your stress level by sitting down with a nice cup of tea and a pad and pencil. Take the problems in hand one at a time. Transfer them from your brain to paper. Writing them down creates a concrete form you can manage visually. The task will seem less pressing. I would recommend starting with correcting those things that could make the house potentially unsafe for its occupants and the neighbors such as electricity and plumbing. If there are any structural problems I would attend to those around the same time you get the house newly rewired and the plumbing corrected. A home inspection by a certified home inspection company could be helpful in pointing out the really important places to start. And, put it all in perspective: It is just a house. You can handle it.

Who you gonna call?

Dear Allegra: I want to convert my attic into a master bedroom. Do I call an architect or an interior designer?

Who you call depends on what you need. You may need one or both. If your remake is structural – moving walls, going through the roof, running plumbing lines, pulling electrical lines and installing outlets you’ll want an architect for starters. The other members of the team are the interior designer and crafts people – plumber, carpenter, electrician and roofer, if necessary. The architect would know local building and operational codes and how to create a functional design that conforms to those codes. An architect also will/must have a thorough understanding of the materials and methods that are available to the contractor who will be doing whatever structural work is required in your project.
Both the architect and interior designer will be sensitive to consequences of their design recommendation and also be in tune with spatial and placement details that influence how you will feel and adequately function in the space.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Women Standing

What did you do for your mother for Mother's Day?

In the run up to that guilt based retail marketing hook, I bet you were out there at the last minute bumping hips with the crowd to find a gift for the moms in your life - diamonds for her ears or was it diamond bits for her new power drill? Whatever you decided or even if you forgot, there is still one more powerful gift you can give to her any day of the week that will cost you nothing more than a few minutes of your time.

Do a stand for peace. Many of us are old enough to remember the Love-ins of the 1960’s. The focus was the war in Viet Nam. The idea was for people of the same intention to gather in the same place and create an energy field of love that would reverberate throughout the world. Of course, many folks took the “love-in” a bit too literally and the result was the love child. Interestingly, those love children are, today, mothers and fathers who are trembling over the safety of their military children in the wars in Iraq and elsewhere.

It is easy to feel powerless to bring about peace in the face of bad doings. But we are powerful if each of us decides that we are. We can take a stand for peace. I recently heard about a group in Maine who started Women Standing. The idea is to take an hour, five minutes, whatever you decide and stand still and silently with other women in some public space to send out a powerful vibration of peace.

I'm making it a habit for myself to do once a week on a Sunday. All it takes is 5 minutes or as long as you wish. I plan to link hands with friends and friends-to-be and think and say to myself “Today peace spreads in the world.” Share your message simply and silently with a sign “Women Standing for Peace.” The beauty of this gift is you can do it any day of the week, any time of the day, any place where you are. Make a summer ritual of it and plan every Sunday at the same time, the same or a different place.

If you’d like to learn more about the peace producing activities you can visit

I love what Mother Theresa is quoted as saying: “I was once asked why I don't participate in anti-war demonstrations. I said that I will never do that, but as soon as you have a pro-peace rally, I'll be there.” Be there.

Uplift your space and spirit!


Friday, May 4, 2007

Dating the plumber

Ok, a gal I know wants me to say more about whether she should date the plumber. Maybe. If you think you won't ever have a need for a plumber again then let him finish the job, pay him and go ahead and date him. The vast majority of plumbing problems can be fixed by you. Now that's the plumber. Of course, there are caveats when it comes to the other crafts.

If this guy is an electrician or carpenter or say a 3 in 1 contractor who can do a lot of stuff, my answer is turn the siren song dial to off or vibrate, let him finish the job you hired him to do and if he did really good job work, then NO. Don’t date him. A good contractor is hard to find. And once you start dating the good contractor he will be hard to find. He'll bring is manself to your door without the handyman tools.

You'll think you should get his talents for free and he'll feel so uuuussseeeedddd. Wouldn't you? But, if you’re pretty sure you won’t ever have a need for repair or improvement work around the house, then, sure date the contractor.

But, actually we gals may be onto something. Create a plumbing problem. Go through the Yellow Pages, call a plumber to come out. While he's under the sink showing you the business side of his anatomy, check him out. See if he's available - really available no amnesia about the wife and kids at home - and take a hit. Hey, this is the 21st cent.

But on a further point it's important for women to know their way around a power tool or two too. Fathers – and mothers – should tell this to their daughters. Keep handy. Yes, sometimes you will need to hire someone for a job requiring special skills and experience. But, come on, you don’t need to hire a plumber for a toilet that won’t stop flushing itself or a contractor to change out your door lock or fix that big hole in the wall. You really can do it yourself. So do it and save the call for "help" as a dating tool. Get my meanin'?

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Ask Allegra

Hello there. This is my debut blog. I'm excited. Here is where I talk about a lot of things that cross my mind but mostly homeowner escapades. I know a few things about fixing stuff around the house. Learned them the hard way. You know, the ceiling's falling and no time to yell "help." Just do something. I also enjoy talking about relationships, like should you date the repairman. Yes, after the work is done. Or should you tell a contractor the job he did is not the one you asked for or just don't make trouble and accept it cause after all it's all finished. Can you say "That's not what we agreed on. Do over. Please." It's your money. I provide strength training for the weak in knees.

If you have an opinion on the subject or any others raised here, please, please jump right in. I'd love to hear from you. But behave! No obscenities. No rude talking. Be the expression you want to see in the world. Love one another. You get the picture.

Now then, I am not a contractor. And no, just because I know stuff I won’t come to your house to do your repair work. I'll do my best to talk you through it. I am a writer. Divorce and a broke down house turned me into a home repair expert. Things broke. Had to be fixed. I was short on cash so had to rely on me. So I was obligated to encourage and teach others how to fix stuff they never dealt with before. It worked and turned me into The Renovating Woman.

For a living I create original how-to content to help homeowners, particularly women, take care of the space they call home. That content appears in Renovating Woman, a magazine I publish quarterly and is available by subscription. Sign up on my website at You can read it for free on line only till the end of this year. Just click the digital magazine.

Last year I was the “BGE lady” - that's the utility company, Baltimore Gas and Electric. They hired me to show folk how to save energy and money just before the gloves came off the new higher rates. Sometimes you can catch me on the DIY cable network on a show called Home Made Easy or on local stations demonstrating how to fix a toilet, plug a hole or relate to your furnace.

I should also tell you I’m a recovering home repair ignoramus. For about 25 years, what I didn’t know about troubleshooting sick plumbing and electricity in the family home, my husband took care of without my involvement and that was fine with me. As far as I was concerned he was thee Man, the basement quarterback and he didn’t need me to run interference. So, I didn’t.

But there comes a time when we all have to do a few things for ourselves. Like when the fix-it guy doesn’t live there anymore. You’re divorced and living alone in a place with a thousand surprises – a week. That is the caution for single women who by one point during last year accounted for 22 percent of the nation’s homebuyers. And by 2010 some 31 million single women will own homes, according to Fannie Mae.

That said, it is important for all to know that repairs are in a home’s DNA. And you’re getting away with nothing by buying a new construction. A house is like your child, whether they are newborns or old heads behaving as if they are newborns. They crave attention. If you don’t periodically check up on the state of the main systems, that lovely house and the things that go wrong in and around it will squeeze your wallet like a C-clamp and never loosen up.

Emergency fix-me’s are what put the real in real estate. You minimize the damage when you get real about the state of the estate before an emergency takes over the panic side of your brain. Learn how your house functions from top to bottom, inside and outside. That’s what I did after my first post divorce house emergency paralyzed me with fear. I wanted a superhero to suddenly appear and rescue me. There was no in-house superman to call and no money to pay the outside guys. I had to depend on my own hands for help. The instinct to survive tripped my brain in gear and to my utter surprise logic guided my hands to a successful fix. Confidence was the byproduct once I replaced fear and ignorance with knowledge and determination.

Since that baptismal I’ve handled most of the basic repairs and maintenance chores in the places I’ve called home and learned what tasks I could do myself and which ones demanded I call for professional help. Not every job and renovation project is a DIY. At the extreme a mistake can endanger your home and your entire neighborhood. Know in advance when it’s a job for the superheroes. And because both homeowners and contractors complain to me about each other I think I figured out how we all can get along. I tell you about that in the next post.