Homeowners Beware of DIY Repair Dangers

In this economy, “do-it-yourself” home repairs have never sounded so good, and penny pinchers across the country are rolling up their sleeves, opening their toolboxes, and tackling home projects.

With the help of the Internet, TV advice shows, and some basic tools, you may wonder if you need a professional at all.

But “do-it-yourself” isn’t always as easy as it may seem.

Cathy and Will Huiras of Fishers, Ind., thought moving their stereo cabinet from one place on their wall to another would be simple.

“We thought we had found a stud in the wall and unfortunately, we drilled into a copper pipe,” Cathy said. “At the time, it didn’t produce any water. We thought we were safe.”

Several months later, however, the water finally appeared, in little puddles on the carpet.

Will Huiras said a large area of their living room was affected by the water.

“The dry wall had to come out,” he said. “The paint bubbled and we had to peel all the paint off the wall and peel off the old, wet, sticky dry wall.”

“It turned out to be quite a horrific day,” Cathy said. “We turned the water off but water was still squirting out. The carpet was a mess. It was quite an ordeal.”

After hiring pros to fix the pipe and install new dry wall, the couple was out close to $500.

Despite horror stories like that, other happy homeowners are still picking up their hammers.

In a recent Time magazine poll, 36 percent of people said they are spending less on home improvements, but 23 percent said they are doing more home repairs themselves rather than hiring help.

The argument for going with the pros isn’t just about saving money in the long run. It’s also about saving yourself. Emergency room doctors say they have treated more do-it-yourself injuries in the past year as people cut corners to save money.

Matt Taylor of Danville, Ill., might have avoided a 3-and-a-half inch nail in his wrist if he’d hired an expert. He was framing a door in his basement when things went awry.

Do-It-Yourself Must-Haves: Tools, Time, Experience “I really just should’ve had two hands on the nail gun and this would never have happened,” Taylor said. “I was above my head — I had my left hand down to the side, and I was shooting it into a board. When it recoiled back, it popped back and came straight down into my wrist.”

Taylor said he “screamed like a little bit of a girl,” but fortunately, doctors were able to safely remove the nail.

“I think definitely the economy has played a role in consumers wanting to do more projects on their own,” said Angie Hicks, the founder of Angie’s List, the popular Web site based in Indianapolis, Ind., that gives consumer reviews of contractors.

“Consumers can certainly spend more money on a do-it-yourself project,” she said, “especially if they are investing in equipment that they don’t have and if they really get in over their head.”

Contractor Eric Schneller, from Crew Property and Improvement Specialists, in Carmel, Ind., often gets calls from homeowners who are in too deep — literally.

“They’ll try to put up a shelf and pull down the drywall, because they didn’t find a stud,” he said. “It was too heavy of a shelf. They hang a mirror, the mirror is way too heavy, they didn’t put it in studs.”

Schneller says before you start any project, you need three things: time, tools and experience.

“It’s great if you have the experience to do it, by all means, give it a shot,” he said. “But if not, hire a professional.”

Cathy Huiras says she learned that lesson the hard way.

“Yeah, we’re not tradesmen by profession,” she said. “We need to stick to our day jobs, I think.”

Safety advocates say there are certain projects you should always leave to the experts, including:


 Electrical work

 Roof repairs

 Anything involving high ladders, like gutter repairs The next time you reach for your tool kit, depending on the project, you might want to reach for your phone and call a professional instead.

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Prep Your A/C Unit

Clean Your Air Conditioner Condenser Unit

Get your air conditioner in primo working order before the cooling season.

Annual central air conditioner maintenance saves you money by increasing its efficiency and preventing breakdowns. You can complete the chore in an hour.

Overview: What you can do and when to hire a pro

Chances are that if you’ve neglected a spring checkup, your air conditioner isn’t cooling nearly as well as it could. A year’s worth of dirt and debris clogging the cooling fins, a low coolant level, a dirty blower fan filter and a number of other simple problems can significantly reduce the efficiency of your air conditioner and wear it out faster.

You can’t do everything; only a pro can check the coolant level. But you can easily handle most of the routine cleaning chores and save the extra $120 that it would cost to have a pro do them.

In this article, we’ll show you how to clean the outdoor unit (called the condenser) and the accessible parts of the indoor unit (called the evaporator). All the steps are simple and straightforward and will take you only a few hours total. You don’t need any special skills, tools or experience. If you aren’t familiar with air conditioners and furnaces/blowers, don’t worry. We’ll walk you through the basics. See “Parts of a Central Air Conditioner,” below, to become familiar with how an air conditioner works and the parts of the system.

You may have a different type of central air conditioner than we show here—a heat pump system, for example, or a unit mounted horizontally in the attic. However, you can still carry out most maintenance procedures we show here, because each system will have a condenser outside and an evaporator inside. Use the owner’s manual for your particular model to help navigate around any differences from the one we show in our photos. And call in a pro every two or three years to check electrical parts and the coolant level.

Tip: Call for service before the first heat wave, when the pros become swamped with repair calls!

Typical central air conditioner system

Figure A: Parts of a central air conditioner

The outside unit, called the condenser, contains a compressor, cooling fins and tubes and a fan. The fan sucks air through the fins and cools a special coolant, which the compressor then pumps into the house to the evaporator through a copper tube. The coolant chills the fins and tubes of the evaporator. Warm air drawn from the house by the blower passes through the evaporator and is cooled and blown through ducts to the rooms in the house. The evaporator dehumidifies the air as it cools it, and the resulting condensation drains off to a floor drain through a tube. The blower unit and ducting system vary considerably depending on whether you have a furnace (shown), a heat pump or some other arrangement. It may be located in the basement, garage, furnace room or attic.

Step 1: Clean the condenser

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Photo 1: Turn off the power

Turn off the electrical power to the condenser unit at the outdoor shutoff. Either pull out a block or move a switch to the off position. If uncertain, turn off the power to the AC at the main electrical panel.

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Photo 2: Vacuum away debris

Vacuum grass clippings, leaves and other debris from the exterior fins with a soft brush attachment. Clear away all bushes, weeds and grass within 2 ft. of the condenser.

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Photo 3: Straighten fins

Realign bent or crushed fins with gentle pressure from a dinner knife. Don’t insert the knife more than 1/2 in.

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Photo 4: Remove the fan

Unscrew the top grille. Lift out the fan and carefully set it aside without stressing the electrical wires. Pull out any leaves and wipe the interior surfaces clean with a damp cloth.

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Photo 5: Clean the fins

Spray the fins using moderate water pressure from a hose nozzle. Direct the spray from the inside out. Reinstall the fan.

Clean your outdoor unit on a day that’s at least 60 degrees F. That’s about the minimum temperature at which you can test your air conditioner to make sure it’s working. The condenser usually sits in an inconspicuous spot next to your house. You’ll see two copper tubes running to it, one bare and the other encased in a foam sleeve. If you have a heat pump, both tubes will be covered by foam sleeves.

Your primary job here is to clean the condenser fins, which are fine metallic blades that surround the unit. They get dirty because a central fan sucks air through them, pulling in dust, dead leaves, dead grass and the worst culprit— floating “cotton” from cottonwood trees and dandelions. The debris blocks the airflow and reduces the unit’s cooling ability.

Always begin by shutting off the electrical power to the unit. Normally you’ll find a shutoff nearby. It may be a switch in a box, a pull lever or a fuse block that you pull out (Photo 1). Look for the “on-off” markings.

Vacuum the fins clean with a soft brush (Photo 2); they’re fragile and easily bent or crushed. On many units you’ll have to unscrew and lift off a metal box to get at them. Check your owner’s manual for directions and lift off the box carefully to avoid bumping the fins. Occasionally you’ll find fins that have been bent. You can buy a special set of fin combs (from an appliance parts store) to straighten them. Minor straightening can be done with a blunt dinner knife (Photo 3). If large areas of fins are crushed, have a pro straighten them during a routine service call.

Then unscrew the fan to gain access to the interior of the condenser. You can’t completely remove it because its wiring is connected to the unit. Depending on how much play the wires give you, you might need a helper to hold it while you vacuum debris from the inside. (Sometimes mice like to over-winter there!)

After you hose off the fins (Photo 5), check the fan motor for lubrication ports. Most newer motors have sealed bearings (ours did) and can’t be lubricated. Check your owner’s manual to be sure. If you find ports, add five drops of electric motor oil (from hardware stores or appliance parts stores). Don’t use penetrating oil or all-purpose oil. They’re not designed for long-term lubrication and can actually harm the bearings.

If you have an old air conditioner, you might have a belt-driven compressor in the bottom of the unit. Look for lubrication ports on this as well. The compressors on newer air conditioners are completely enclosed and won’t need lubrication.

Step 2: Restart the condenser (outside unit)

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Photo 6: Confirm proper cooling

Turn the power back on, then set the house thermostat to “cool” so the compressor comes on. After 10 minutes, feel the insulated tube. It should feel cool. The uninsulated tube should feel warm.

In most cases, you can simply restore power to the outside unit and move inside to finish the maintenance. However, the compressors are surprisingly fragile and some require special start-up procedures under two conditions. (Others have built-in electronic controls that handle the start-up, but unless you know that yours has these controls, follow these procedures.)

1. If the power to your unit has been off for more than four hours:

  • Move the switch from “cool” to “off” at your inside thermostat.
  • Turn the power back on and let the unit sit for 24 hours. (The compressor has a heating element that warms the internal lubricant.)
  • Switch the thermostat back to “cool.”

2. If you switched the unit off while the compressor was running:

  • Wait at least five minutes before switching it back on. (The compressor needs to decompress before restarting.) With the air conditioner running, make sure it’s actually working by touching the coolant tubes (Photo 6). This is a crude test. Only a pro with proper instruments can tell if the coolant is at the level for peak efficiency. But keep a sharp eye out for dark drip marks on the bottom of the case and beneath the tube joints. This indicates an oil leak and a potential coolant leak as well. Call in a pro if you spot this problem. Don’t tighten a joint to try to stop a leak yourself. Overtightening can make the problem worse.

Step 3: Clean the indoor unit

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Photo 7: Check the furnace filter

Turn off the power to the furnace at a nearby switch or at the main panel. Then pull out the furnace filter and check it for dirt buildup. Change it if necessary.

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Photo 8: Vacuum and lubricate

Open the blower compartment and vacuum up the dust. Check the motor for lubrication ports. If it has them, squeeze five drops of electric motor oil into each.

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Photo 9: Clean the drain tube

Pull off the plastic condensation drain tube and check it for algae growth. Clean it by pouring a bleach/ water solution (1:16 ratio) through the tube to flush the line. Or simply replace the tube.

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Photo 10: Clean the drain port

Poke a pipe cleaner into the drain port and clean out any debris. Reinstall the drain tube and turn the power back on.

The evaporator usually sits in an inaccessible spot inside a metal duct downstream from the blower (Figure A). If you can get to it, gently vacuum its fins (from the blower side) with a soft brush as you did with the condenser. However, the best way to keep it clean is to keep the airstream from the blower clean. This means annually vacuuming out the blower compartment and changing the filter whenever it’s dirty (Photos 7 and 8).

Begin by turning off the power to the furnace or blower. Usually you’ll find a simple toggle switch nearby in a metal box (Photo 7); otherwise turn the power off at the main panel. If you have trouble opening the blower unit or finding the filter, check your owner’s manual for help. The manual will also list the filter type, but if it’s your first time, take the old one with you when buying a new one to make sure you get the right size. Be sure to keep the power to the blower off whenever you remove the filter. Otherwise you’ll blow dust into the evaporator fins.

The manual will also tell you where to find the oil ports on the blower, if it has any. The blower compartments on newer furnaces and heat pumps are so tight that you often can’t lubricate the blower without removing it. If that’s the case, have a pro do it during a routine maintenance checkup.

The evaporator fins dehumidify the air as they cool it, so you’ll find a tube to drain the condensation. The water collects in a pan and drains out the side (Figure A). Most tubes are flexible plastic and are easy to pull off and clean (Photos 9 and 10). But if they’re rigid plastic, you’ll probably have to unscrew or cut off with a saw to check. Reglue rigid tubes using a coupling, or replace them with flexible plastic tubes.

Tools & Materials List

Required Tools for this Project

Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.

  • 4-in-1 screwdriver
  • Rubber gloves
  • Shop vacuum

You’ll also need your garden hose and an ordinary dinner knife.

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About Home Inspectors

It is often said that buying a home is one of the most expensive investments you will ever make. The best way to protect your investment is to have a professional home inspection before you buy. When you buy, own, or sell a home, you have literally hundreds of choices when it comes to selecting a home inspector. You may have your realtor or Relocation Company choose your home inspector. Or you may shop around and choose an inspector based on cost or availability. You may even try to inspect the home yourself to save money. This is not a job you should try yourself. Leave this one to the professionals. An investment in a quality home inspection is an investment in your future.

Home inspectors vary widely with respect to the quality of the inspection and dedication to the home buyer. By researching your options, you will realize that there are basically three types of home inspectors available:

1. Full-time serious professional home inspectors
2. Semi-retired individuals that are looking for occasional work
3. Part-time home inspectors that work other jobs and are looking to supplement their income.

Many home inspectors rely on realtors to serve as their primary source of business and referrals. If you choose the home inspector your realtor recommends, you may wind up with what is commonly referred to as an “easy inspector” or a “drive-by inspector” that is “realtor friendly.” These home inspectors rarely risk reporting something that might “kill the deal.” Their loyalty lies with the realtor, not the home buyer or seller.

If your home inspector does not encourage you to attend the inspection and follow them around the home, ask yourself why. Detail-oriented, thorough home inspectors are proud of their work. They typically encourage buyers to attend and follow them around the home. For many clients, their home inspection can be one of the most informative half days they have ever spent. Buying a home is such an enormous investment; it is certainly worth a few hours to view the home through the inspector’s eyes.

Dedicated home inspectors join credible home inspection associations, such as the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI). They may also form smaller local associations to train and learn from other tenured colleagues, like the Arizona Chapter of ASHI. Mature home inspectors spend numerous hours reviewing new construction techniques and new products, while staying abreast of situations with respect to product recalls. Professional home inspectors spend many hours and thousands of dollars every year taking continuing education courses to constantly improve their knowledge base and keep themselves at the top of their profession.

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A Timely Response

Thank you very much for accommodating the Buyer’s tight schedule today.  I am impressed with your work and your work product.  I talked briefly with one of the Buyers a few minutes ago and she expressed her hearty thanks and said, “they are true professionals, thank you for recommending them to do the inspection”.

I can’t wait for the next opportunity to call you and in the mean time I will let my fellow agents know about your superior services. From one cheese head to another, thank you.
Ann, Tucson

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