Dear Ken: How low should we set the thermostat while we’re traveling away from home? — Gayle

Answer: Never less than 55 degrees. You don’t want to risk freezing pipes in the outside walls. While the thermostat might be at a given setting, the exterior walls — especially those facing north — will be considerably colder.

If a neighbor is going to come in and water house plants and flush the toilets, then leave the water on. Otherwise, it’s a good idea to turn off the main water supply valve in the utility room. That way, if there is a freeze-up, there will be little, if any, pressure in the lines. If you do shut that main valve, turn the water heater off, including the pilot light.

Dear Ken: Do you like those little deflectors that stick on to the heat vents with magnets? — Danny

Answer: No. The reason we put heat vents along the outside walls — especially under windows and in front of doors — is to wash warm air over those cold surfaces. The plastic deflectors nullify that design. It’s a perception thing, too; the center of the room might be at 70 degrees, but the diversion of the heat flow will mean the edges of the room will be considerably cooler. That makes you less comfortable, so you’re apt to turn up the thermostat — and that raises your utility bill.

Another note about wintertime comfort: during the colder months, reverse the ceiling fan so it blows upward and run it on low; that will wash warmish ceiling air over those same cold exterior surfaces.

Dear Ken: I want to remove my popcorn ceilings, but there’s a problem. I’ve had them tested, and they contain asbestos. What can I do? — Fran

Answer: I would leave them alone for two reasons.

First, you might not like the results once you expose the ceiling above your acoustic ceiling. That’s because drywall finishers often would skip the final floating coat of “mud,” knowing that it would be hidden by the popcorn layer. If you were to remove it, you might have to float the seams and re-texture anyway.

Second, the asbestos. This binder was in many drywall products until the late 1970s. Health regulations require you to hire a special team of removers, and that would be expensive. Also, many experts say that no matter how many precautions you take, removing it can release particles into the air that can migrate into the drapes, heating system and carpet.

Bottom line: Keep the ceiling well sealed with a generous layer of sprayed-on, semi-gloss latex paint.

Dear Ken: I’ve heard you say to drain the water heater once in a while. How often? And does it help with its operation? — Ethan

Answer: It does help to drain accumulated sediment from the bottom of the tank occasionally. That layer inhibits the heat transfer from the flame to the water itself, and so lowers the efficiency of the system. Whether this is a big deal at your house depends on the water supply quality. You can check by looking at the bottom of a toilet tank. If there is little or no foreign material, then draining the water heater is likely not a big deal.

Private well water users and those on small community systems usually have to contend with more sand and other sedimentary materials than those in the city. If you’re in the country, drain the tank at least once a year. Here’s how: Turn off the gas to the tank — pilot included — and then take a shower. (That will use up expensively heated water just before you drain the water heater.) Turn off the cold water valve to the tank, attach a hose to the faucet on the bottom and drain all you can. Then turn the incoming cold water valve on-off-on-off to roil up the material on the bottom. When the water runs clear, you’re done. Close the faucet and relight the pilot and burner.

Dear Ken: I have an older house with a concrete sidewalk, and there’s a 1-inch gap between it and the house. What can I do? I think it’s too wide to caulk. — Matt

Answer: You could tap a redwood strip of just the right thickness into the gap and then seal the edges of the board with the same stuff I recommended above. Like all wood, redwood comes in standard widths. So you might have to find someone with a good-sized table saw to “rip” or plane the board to the necessary width.

Another idea is to add a caulking strip. One brand is Slab Gasket ( It’s an extruded vinyl material that comes in several standard widths and heights. You simply unroll it and wedge it into the crack, where it becomes a more or less permanent barrier to surface water.

Dear Ken: How can I clean 20-year-old stained wood cabinets to make them look newer? — Anne

Answer: The edges where people open doors or drawers usually need the most attention. Take off the pulls first, then use that goopy mechanic’s hand cleaner, white vinegar full strength or even mineral spirits to remove the oily residue. The rest is easy. Rejuvenate Cabinet Restorer (available online), Scott’s Liquid Gold or Olde English will season the wood and add a pleasant luster to your cabinets.

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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