Dear Ken: I have a dirty fireplace. It has red brick and is quite filthy with soot. How can I clean it? — Fred

Answer: Soot particles are so tiny they act like a liquid and soak into the surface pores of the bricks. Try scrubbing it with a solution of TSP (tri sodium phosphate), which is a powerful detergent you can find at the hardware store. If you find you need a more powerful approach, you could try burning off the soot with a plumber’s propane torch. Don’t overdo it, however, because you can crack the brick if you concentrate the heat in one area too long.

These two approaches might yield only marginal results. Many folks give up and simply cover the soot stains with a coat of semi-gloss paint in a neutral color. It will not only “clean” the fireplace brick, but it will make your family room seem bigger and less dated. Give it a try, but make sure to prepare the surface first with a couple of coats of primer/sealer.

Dear Ken: Our living room is always cold. It has a crawl space under it, about 3 feet high. What kind of insulation should I use? — Pat

Answer: I would use 6-inch batts, which will provide about an R-19 under that floor. Use insulation without the paper so moisture that wants to travel through the floor won’t have a vapor barrier with which to contend. Otherwise, you risk mold creation between the layers.

Another good idea is to insulate down the walls of the crawl space. Here you should also use “unfaced” bats. They can be difficult to find, so you might have to strip them yourself. It’s easy; go slowly and the paper backing will come off while disturbing very little of the underlying insulation material.

Finally, you’ll need to secure that insulation in place on the crawl space “ceiling.” You can buy small plastic strips made for this purpose that will wedge between joists. Otherwise, you can use homemade wood strips or fine wire to hold it. Don’t skip this step, or in a few months much of the insulation will be sitting on the dirt.

Dear Ken: We have a window air conditioning unit in the bedroom. It’s getting more difficult for us to pull out and reinstall. If we leave it, we get too cold. Any ideas? — Ellen

Answer: Why not build it in? Choose a wall space in one corner of the bedroom and have a contractor or handyman cut a hole to accept the unit on a permanent basis. They can then trim around the hole with wood to blend it in, both outside and in the bedroom. If it gets sealed, insulated and caulked properly, it shouldn’t leak cold air into the house. In the fall, simply cover it — room side — with a decorative, insulated cover you can buy online. In the spring, all you’ll need to do is plug it in!

Dear Ken: You said to spray the underside of the deck. Mine is showing some rotting, so one person suggested a “penta based” spray. What do you think? — Lance

Answer: That spray, pentachlorophenol, is an environmentally restricted product used only by utility companies and railroads to protect their poles and ties. Nonetheless, it would be overkill in this application.

At any rate, every few years it’s important to spray on whichever deck stain you use on top to the underside of your deck to slow down deterioration. You can use a hand-pumped garden sprayer to coat the joists and the undersides of the deck boards.

Dear Ken: We have a 1962 house and have noticed a crack in the basement wall. How should we get this repaired? — Paula

Answer: You didn’t say whether the crack was new or old. Generally, in older houses, if the crack is flat — that is doesn’t have a “step” out into the room — it’s not a problem. What is more worrisome, however, is a crack that appears all of a sudden and/or gets noticeably worse quickly. So the first thing to do is to measure and then monitor it for a few months (keep a weekly log); if it’s stabilized, don’t worry. If it continues to worsen, check all your outside water-shedding systems — such as gutters and soil slope. Then contact an engineer. Many times, some heavy steel reinforcement straps can be added to keep it in place.

Dear Ken: My house is 15 years old. There’s a spot between the first and second floor that has bulged outward (you can see it under the siding on the outside). Is this a problem? — Chris

Answer: Not usually. At the transition from one floor to another, there are five or six boards of varying thickness lying on top of one another. Sometimes it’s hard to get them to line up perfectly, or they simply twist and writhe in reaction to this region’s lower ambient humidity. You could rip the wall apart to fix this, but this might be one of those “cure is worse than the disease” situations. So, if there are no cracks on the inside of this wall — which would indicate a more worrisome structural anomaly — I would leave it alone.

Ken Moon is a home inspector in the Pikes Peak region. His radio show airs at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KRDO, FM 105.5 and AM 1240. Visit

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