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Trends from the International Builders’ Show 2006

As has been the trend in the last several years, the most popular themes of the show are looks, lasting quality, thinking green and automation. Although most products attempt to include at least one of these essential elements, many manufacturers are increasingly striving to capture multiple elements. For example, a leading manufacturer of fiberglass entry door systems clearly incorporates three of the four elements – looks, lasting quality and environmental friendliness. When it comes to looks the fiberglass mimics the appearance of natural wood right down to the grain pattern and joints in the molding. Insofar as lasting quality is concerned, it’s no secret that fiberglass is significantly more stable than natural material. It won’t warp, crack, chip or peel and holds up well to the elements. And a well-insulated fiberglass door is significantly more energy efficient; meeting the “green” test. We use the fiberglass door only as an example. The same holds true for countless other building products.

Manufacturers are clear that the American consumer wants the best of all worlds when it comes to building, remodeling or decorating their piece of the Great American Dream. They want products that look good and at the same time add value to their home. Additionally, the style of the products in their homes -- be it sleek stainless steel appliances, brushed nickel plumbing fixtures and accessories or classic Craftman-style windows – must reflect their sense of style and way of life – be it casual, contemporary or classic. To that end, manufacturers are working overtime turning out products with various “looks” that will satisfy a broad design pallet.

Equally apparent is the trend toward high-end product designed to add value. For example, many leading plumbing fixture manufactures are offering faucets with maintenance-free valves and upgrade finishes complete with a lifetime warranty. Keep in mind that style and improved value aren’t without a price tag. The consensus: so what? With escalating home values, increased equity and still-low interest rates, the American consumer can venture out as ne’er before.

While consumers are willing to spend more for “sizzle,” they want the steak that goes with it. Pretty is fine, so long as it lasts a long time and requires minimal maintenance. Two income-earner households and increasingly long commutes to and from work mean less disposable time. Consequently, homeowners are looking for products that require a minimum of maintenance, while continuing to last and look good for a long time. Thus the tremendous growth in composite building products such as windows, doors, decking, railing systems, fencing, siding, roofing, garage doors – to name but a few. Gone are the days when weekends were devoted to sanding and staining or painting doors, windows and decking. Today’s mantra is KISS – keep it simple stuff!

One of the benefits of composite building products is the reduced demand on natural resources and the “green” building movement – another fundamental theme of this year’s event. Manufacturers are responding to consumer demand for maintenance-free products that use environmentally-friendly technology. For example, one of the biggest growth categories in composite building materials is decking and railing systems. The last several years have produced products that remarkably mimic the look of dimensional lumber. Most of the leading products in the category have several styles, patterns and colors from which to choose. Most products are handled like wood; they can be cut with a saw, nailed or fastened with screws. The better products hold up well to ultra-violet rays and require nothing more than periodic cleaning. They don’t need to be sanded, stained or painted and best of all, won’t get in the way of that special family outing that you have planned.

Manufacturers are responding to the other side of the “green” coin as well – that’s energy efficiency. Skyrocketing energy costs have sent consumers scrambling for building products that will improve personal comfort and lower their utility bills. In response, most manufacturers with products that effect comfort and energy use are putting their R & D pedal to the metal to come up with increasingly more fuel efficient products that will keep consumers from going into hock to pay their utility bills. Insulation with better R-values, more energy-efficient windows and doors, and state-of-the-art heating and cooling systems lead the pack of products that are making a big dent in utility bills. Photovoltaic energy systems -- where homeowners use the sun to generate their own power -- are the rage and we believe is a category with the greatest potential growth in the industry and benefit to the American consumer.

The fourth and final theme of this year’s International Builders’ Show is technology and home automation. Home automation is BIG! Although not new, it is expanding to virtually EVERY aspect of the home and the big news is that, where it has been traditionally reserved for the rich and famous, it is now affordable for everyone to enjoy. Most major subdivision home builders have been incorporating “smart home” technology into their homes in recent years due to consumer demand and as an added sales feature. For the most part these smart home systems consist of an “all-in-one” central terminal for telephone, cable television and broadband internet with “home run” dedicated lines that run to many rooms throughout a home. This means that you can literally “plug and play” in virtually any room in your home without the need to run cables along baseboards, under carpet or crawl the attic or basement to run additional wires.

Home automation takes it a step further. Now you can use various types of technology – wireless being the most popular for existing inventory – as a means of controlling lighting for your entire home at one or more locations. You can control your thermostat, appliances, home entertainment system, operate your garage door, arm and disarm your home security system, and monitor security cameras on your television using a single remote control at your bedside. What’s more, you can perform most of the same functions from anywhere in the world by logging on to your “hip home” using a computer and the Internet.

Well, that’s a broad look at this year’s International Builders’ Show and what it means to you and your home.

Maintaining a Water Heater

One of our favorite subjects is the water heater because it is one of the key components of the modern home. For most people, it is one of those out-of-sight, out-of-mind appliances. The only time you are reminded that a water heater exists is when it isn't doing its job. But, a lack of hot water shouldn't be the only reason that you wipe the cobwebs away for a look at the old tank. A rotten egg smell, a rumbling tank and banging pipes are other signs that your water heater needs attention.

There are other benefits of a periodic water heater tune up: hot water will be more abundant, your utility bill will be cut and your water heater will last longer. An average water heater will last about 10 years, however, with ongoing maintenance, it can last twice as long.

One of the biggest enemies of a water heater is muck. That's the hard water deposits, calcium carbonate and sediment that settle at the bottom of the tank and cling to elements in an electric water heater. While water filtration can help reduce some of these contaminants, there are still significant amounts that periodically must be removed.

One of the most effective means of ridding a water heater of sediment is by flushing it at least once annually and more often, if possible. Start by turning off the power to the unit. If it is an electric water heater, turn the power off at the fuse box or breaker panel. For gas water heaters, turn the control knob to pilot. Next, turn off the valve that supplies cold water to the heater. This valve typically is located just above the water heater. If no valve exists you can turn off the main water supply to the house.

Attach a garden hose to the drain valve located at the base of the tank. Run the garden hose to a location where there is no risk of injury from hot water. Fully open the drain valve and begin draining the tank. Open a hot water faucet at a location close to the water heater. This will help the tank to drain more rapidly.

After the tank is empty, turn on the cold-water inlet valve. Leave the drain valve at the base of the tank open. The fresh water rushing into the base of the tank will help remove the sediment that then is carried out through the garden hose. Repeat the process two or three times for the best results. Tanks that have not been cleaned for years might need a dose of a water-heater cleaning solution. These cleaning agents are introduced directly into the tank by removing one of the pipes located at the top. They are designed to dissolve sediment making it easier to flush out of the tank.

Once the flushing process is complete, the drain valve should be closed, the hose removed and the tank refilled. The hot water faucet that was opened earlier should remain open until the tank is full. Turn off the faucet after all of the air has been bled and the faucet is running freely.

Water temperature has much to do with the lasting quality of a tank. Setting the thermostat above 120 degrees will increase the hot water volume, but it wastes energy and can result in serious burns. Also, extremely hot water will attract the bacteria that causes the infamous rotten egg smell. There are other reasons to crank the thermostat back a bit. Water above 130 degrees can, over time, stress the lining of the tank creating pinhole leaks that eventually will rust the tank. Additionally, super-heated water can cause the temperature and pressure relief valve to leak.

Speaking of the temperature and pressure relief valve, have you checked yours lately? The temperature and pressure-relief valve can prevent your water heater from exploding. It should be checked regularly. The test is easy and doesn't even require any tools. Simply lift up on the lever. The spring-loaded valve should allow a burst of hot water to be released. If not, or if the valve continues to leak hot water, it immediately should be replaced. The water heater will need to be shut off and some water drained off in order to make the replacement. Specific instructions on replacement can be found in the owner's manual or packaged with the new valve.

The final bit of routine maintenance involves the vent pipe. This is specific to gas water heaters only. If you have an electric water heater this doesn't apply. The vent pipe attaches to the top of the water heater and carries toxic gases resulting from combustion safely away from the home. The vent pipe generally will travel through the attic and terminate a foot or more above the roof. An obstruction in the vent pipe such as a bird's nest or a ball can inhibit proper exhausting of these gases which could result in injury or even death. An easy means of checking that the vent pipe is operating properly is with a match. Hold a match under the vent pipe hood. If the vent is clear the flame will flicker upward. If it doesn't, have the vent pipe checked by a professional.

Periodic burner cleaning and adjustment also should be performed. Some local utility companies will make a no-cost annual safety check at which time they will adjust the burners to operate at peak efficiency. If this service is not available to you, a local plumbing or heating professional will be able to help for a modest fee.

The Problem, Old Thermostats Aren't Smart

Most homes have switches that control such things as lighting, garbage disposals, pumps and automatic garage door openers. A device, which most of us don't think of as a switch, is the thermostat. It controls the home's heating system.

Unless you live in a home built in the last 10 years or have upgraded the original thermostat, chances are good that you have a small box mounted to the wall. The box has a small lever or thumb dial that is adjacent to several hash marks and numerals which represent increments of temperature. Sound familiar?

Essentially, the purpose of that little box, which acts as an automatic switch, is to turn a heating system be it furnace, boiler or air conditioner on and off at the appropriate times.

The problem: Old thermostats aren't "smart." They turn on the furnace when the space gets a bit cool and turn it off when the desired temperature is reached. Now, that's not all that bad. Certainly, it's been working for a lot of you for years and years. Unfortunately, you're probably the same folks who complain about high utility bills and how cold your home is when you get up in the morning.

Wouldn't it be great to have a "smart" thermostat that would make your home more comfortable, conserve energy and lower your utility bill? One that would turn on just before you get out of bed in the morning; that would turn itself off about the time everyone left the home to avoid wasting precious energy, yet smart enough to have the home toasty just in time for your return at the end of a long day; that would turn off just about the time you snuggle into your warm bed. Sound good? Well, such smart thermostats have been around for more than a decade and continue to improve.

They're called setback or programmable thermostats. In most cases, they offer all of the features described and can be used with your old clunker furnace or boiler.

Programmable thermostats can be found in most hardware stores or home improvement centers and are designed for do-it-yourself installation. There are two basic models from which to choose; the analogue or "clock" mechanical style and the digital electronic. They range in price from about $35 to more than $100 depending upon the features. Mechanical thermostats are generally less expensive and don't have nearly as many features as do the electronic models. These are "super smart." Some electronic thermostats can be programmed day to day or for weekdays versus weekends, or to raise and lower the temperature several times a day. What's more, like computers, as technology improves, the product becomes more affordable.

When shopping for a replacement thermostat it's always a good idea to take along the make and model of your furnace and thermostat. This will help with the selection of a new model. One of the first things that you'll need to know is whether you are replacing a low-voltage, millivoltage or line-voltage model. Since most modern units are low voltage, it's important to be sure.

Once you have chosen a model, be sure that it comes with installation instructions and in an unopened package. Often, you'll come across returned merchandise which no longer has instructions or is missing a part or two. Many manufacturers will boast of a toll-free hotline to assist with installation. This is typically stated in a prominent location on the packaging.

The first step in the replacement process is to turn off the power to the existing thermostat to avoid injury. Use an electrical tester to verify that the power is off.

Remove the old thermostat by removing the cover to expose the mounting plate. Loosen the screws that attach the mounting bracket and pull it away from the wall. Disconnect the wires from the old thermostat and label each wire with the old terminal designation. Keep the wires from falling back into the wall by wrapping them around a pencil.

Separate the new thermostat from its mounting plate (often the mounting plate is one with the thermostat). Pull the wires through the mounting plate making sure to keep them separate. Level and attach the new thermostat mounting plate to the wall using the screws provided. It's especially important that the thermostat be level since the "switch" in many thermostats is a mercury bulb as opposed to a magnetic or electronic switch.

Next, match and connect the wires as labeled to the correct terminals on the mounting bracket or the back of the thermostat. If only two terminals and two wires exist, it generally doesn't matter which wire is connected to which terminal.

Use a small amount of fiberglass or foam insulation to fill the hole in the wall where the wires exit the wall. This will curtail any negative impact that drafts could have on the thermostat. Snap the thermostat onto the mounting plate and install the cover.

Finish the job by programming the thermostat according to the instructions provided by the manufacturer and in keeping with your "program."

Turn the power back on and start counting your savings dividends in the newfound comfort of your home.

We have received letters from some of you who are interested in how to obtain more information about the Vacu-Stack anti-downdraft fireplace device that we wrote about in a recent column.

Vacu-Stack is manufactured by Improved Consumer Products, Inc., Box 1264, Towne Street, Attleboro Falls, Mass. 02763.