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Ask the Pros: A Guide to Springtime Home Repair

Date: April 4, 2002
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos By: Dottie Stover, Colleen Kelley
Archive: Campus News

Have you ever walked by a painter, landscaper or maintenance worker toiling on campus and wanted to ask them to come to your house to take over a home repair project? Maybe you have invited them, and they've told you they've heard it a hundred times. Well, we guess they can't come home with us - for free, that is. But they can provide free advice that might make the job easier and more professional looking.

As you begin to tackle those springtime chores around the house, here are some tips from the experts in Facilities Management.


Mary GratschIn the early spring before the plants start to come up, there's no avoiding it. It's time to mulch.

Unless you already have enough mulch on the ground, according to Mary Gratsch. She is a manager in Grounds, Moving and Transportation and mulches all over campus. She can't help but notice the mulching boo-boos she observes in yards all around the Tristate. Homeowners tend to either over mulch or under mulch, she said. "How much mulch you add depends on how much is already on the bed," she said. "Only add enough to make a 3-inch depth total in this area of the country."

The point is to help keep the soil underneath the mulch moist. If you pile on too much, you can create a toxic environment for plants, and the water from rain and your garden hose can't reach the dirt. Put mulch on too thin, and the ground will dry out too often.

Gratsch cautions not to put mulch around trees and bushes like a "volcano." Think bagel, instead. "Pile it around the outside of the bush. Around trees, do not touch the trunk." Piling the mulch against the trunk will encourage insects inside to infest the tree. Also, don't mulch over leaf and old plant debris. Clean it all out first. More mulching wisdom: If you use fresh wood chips generated by your own chipper or a community recycling program, you'll need to add a nitrogen fertilizer in granular form to the top of the mulch. New chips are not decomposed enough and will draw nitrogen out of the soil, Gratsch said. If you buy mulch at a store, it will already be aged and decomposed, so extra nitrogen isn't needed.

The kind of mulch to use depends on what you like and the aesthetic effect you want. Mulch can be made of rock, shredded bark like black satin or even shredded tires. The popular black satin decomposes quickly. Around her own yard, Gratsch prefers chipped pine bark on the flat areas. It's too fluffy and light for her hillside areas, however. For those, she prefers hard wood mulch that will stay in place better.

She also stresses that if the mulch has a bad smell, as opposed to an earthy one, don't buy it. It has "gone sour," meaning that it was decomposing anaerobic (without oxygen) because it was stored in too large a pile. Usually mulches with a bad smell are too acidic and can have toxic gases that can kill your plants, especially tender annuals.

Gratsch concludes by noting that mulching is not mandatory twice a year, as some home gardeners might assume. It depends on whether the depth has been depleted.

Air conditioning

Right now is a good time to get your air conditioning cleaned and serviced, before the spring turns into a long, hot summer. Tim Roberts, HVAC service technician in Facilities Management, says the biggest mistake homeowners make is thinking they can clean the outside AC unit all by themselves. "They think by squirting it with a hose, that it's clean. What they're doing is pushing the dirt back inside it," he points out. That's the opposite of what you want to do.

Tim Roberts

Take it from the man who is only two years from retirement and spent his career in the HVAC business, seven of those years at UC: Hire someone you can trust to come and "solution clean" the condenser (the outdoor unit) and its internal coils and fins. "This cleans the coils and fins completely. Most people don't realize that AC doesn't add cooling to your house, it removes heat. The freon basically brings the heat out to that unit and that unit removes the heat from the freon. If the coils and fins are dirty, it can't get rid of all the heat. So the heated freon goes back into the house again to pick up more heat again."

So if you're one of those homeowners who complains that your AC "runs all the time, it must be really hot today," you might want to get the unit cleaned. "The AC is running all the time because it's not clean or doesn't have the proper freon level."

Every other year or so, he recommends that you hire a technician to clean the AC unit and check the freon level. While the technician is already at your house, make sure they check to see if any parts are wearing out and have them fixed on the spot. That way you'll only have to pay for one service call now, not another one later when the unit breaks down.

One other bit of advice: If you fear that the AC repair person may rip you off, turn on the AC to make sure it works before they arrive. Have it running when they get there to show them that it does work and that you know it works. Check with Better Business Bureau to find out whom not to hire.

"The best thing to do is ask a neighbor for someone they are happy with. Don't just pick up the Yellow Pages," Roberts said. "A lot of the better ones don't advertise because it's expensive."

One last tip from Roberts is to not fall for the sham that the technician will return in the fall to check on the furnace. Both the heating and air conditioning systems should be serviced and cleaned in the same visit, as long as you arrange it beforehand. "It's ridiculous to wait until the fall, because that's two service calls rather than one. Clean them both at the same time, it doesn't matter whether it's fall or spring, just do it every other year or so." For the average homeowner, the charge should be about about $120-$125 for both the furnace and the AC, including cleaning, lubricating and tightening connections. If you have more than one furnace or AC at the house, it will cost more. Or if your appliances are extra dirty and take longer to clean, the charge may be higher. And don't fall for the ads that say $59.95 for an AC cleaning. "There is no way you are going to get a good cleaning. It can't be done," Roberts said.


Any great painter will tell you it's all in the preparation. Bruce Weil is among them. In addition to scraping and cleaning thoroughly before you start brushing or rolling indoors, he recommends filling cracks with siliconized latex caulk, instead of plaster or dry wall mud. Caulk is more flexible and will delay the crack's reappearance. But make sure it's not silicone only caulk. Paint will not adhere to that form of caulk.

Bruce Weil

Another neat trick to make the room look more polished is to caulk down the corners from ceiling to baseboard. Always cut in with a paintbrush around the trim, ceiling, floor and doors before beginning to roll.

For the smoothest-looking paint job, there are two more secrets he divulges. To avoid ridges from the roller, make sure that after you load it with paint, you place the roller against the wall, tip it to one edge and roll. Then tip to the other edge of the roller and roll. This removes excess paint that builds up on each end. Also at the top and bottom of the wall, roll a horizontal swath along the cut-in with the handle side away from the ceiling or floor. That way you can roll over the brush strokes as close as possible to the ceiling or floor. "It really helps to make it look smooth and professional," Weil said.

On the taping the trim dilemma, Weil says, that if it's older trim, don't bother. There's enough wax and grease build-up that you can just wipe off the splatters you make. For new trim, it's worth the extra time to tape, but make sure you remove the tape before the paint dries.

Should you buy expensive paint? At UC, Weil says he usually uses a medium grade latex. The least expensive paint at a specialty paint store will probably be better than the cheapest offered in non-paint stores. You get what you pay for, he cautions. So if you want superb coverage that leaves a more refined finish and fewer brush strokes, you might want to ante up for the top of the line, which is usually an acrylic with additives that make washing easier. If you aren't changing colors, you might be able to get away with just one coat with the most expensive line.

When it comes to handling a paintbrush, you may not realize you're not supposed to hold the brush by the handle. Choke up and hold it by the metal heel, just above the bristles. And don't dip it in further than half away up the bristles. Always keep a wet edge for smooth painting.

Weil stresses that cleaning up your brushes and rollers is crucial to making them last for the next job. Weil recommends cleaning with soapy warm water. On brushes, use a wire brush to get out the gummy stuff. Do a final rinse in cold water. Spin the handle of your brush in your hands to shake out excess water, reshape the bristles and dry before storing it away. For oil paints, it's nearly impossible to clean them thoroughly with mineral spirits, but a spinner available from a hardware store, can help, as long as you put it inside a five gallon bucket to avoid disastrous splattering around the room.

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