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low voc paint

Low-voc Paint: Earth- and Human-friendly Paints Provide Great Project Results

I'm taking on some painting projects and am looking for a safer paint. Lately I seem to be more sensitive to working with paint, and get an allergic reaction that makes my eyes water and leads to some nasty headaches. Are there any options for a more environmentally friendly paint product? I have also been reading a lot about something called VOCs in paint. What are VOCs, and could they be causing my problem?

Our Answer

Possibly, and it'd be a good idea to shop for low-VOC paint this time around. VOC stands for volatile organic compounds. Some VOCs are fungicides that prevent mold growth, others help with color and some contribute to the paint's spreadability. The fact of the matter is that chemicals like these have been part of the manufacturing process for many years because it actually made the paint better. Believe it or not, even toxic lead, which is no longer used, was there to improve colorfastness. In fact, I remember finding a can of very, very old paint during a home inspection years ago on which the manufacturer bragged about the paint's high lead content!

Fortunately, the manufacturing process has gotten much better at producing quality paint that is much safer to use. Today, lead is gone and low- or no-VOC paint is the standard. Latex, alkyd-based paint is commonly made with no or low VOCs and even oil paints have a lot less. You can actually read the paint's label to determine how much VOC has been added. A low-VOC latex paint would have about 250 grams of VOCs, and a low oil-based paint would have about 350 grams or so.

When shopping for paint, be sure to inform the clerk that you are particularly interested in low-odor, low-VOC paints. If you ever have a question about what is inside the can, you can also ask for the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) which will list VOCs in Section 9. Odor is another issue that manufacturers have been working to reduce, and most low-VOC products are also low-odor.

Other than selecting low-VOC paint, just make sure you work in a well-ventilated area. Opening up a few windows in the dead of winter might not seem like a smart idea, but the added cost in heat is a small price to pay for your health and comfort throughout the job.

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Basement Odor

My mother's house has had an odor in the basement for the last 2 summers.  It is NOT sewer gas - which is everyone's first suggestion.  It smells like cat urine, but there is no cat.  The odor is not there in the winter - whether the smell is gone or the furnace removes it, I can't say.  The smell is worse during/after a rain.  We have had the plumber, who cleaned out the sewer pipes, etc, and found nothing else wrong.  I had the borough engineer out, who was unable to offer any ideas.  It seems to come from one corner of the basement floor, and sometimes the bare concrete is dark, as if water is leeching up from the ground.  There is never a puddle.  We have already tried the enzyme odor removers - to no avail. We are having the tile floor removed and will have the concrete painted with an epoxy paint, but don't want to do the work if the smell will still be able to get through the paint.  Anyone have any ideas?  Thanks!

Our Answer

It is rare but sometimes fiberglass insulation develops a urine-like odor from amines that are used in the adhesive manufacture. Moisture exacerbates the emission.

Pull some of the fiberglass out and put it in vegetable steamer and see if it smells after you heat it up in a humid, hot environment.

Don't spend any more money on "remediation" until you are sure of the problem.

And let us know if it's the fiberglass.

Jeffrey May

May Indoor Air Investigations

Author: Jeff May's Healthy Home Tips

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Crawlspace Moisture Problem Solution: Vapor Barriers, Proper Drainage and Foundation Vent Fan Can Help

I have a major moisture problem with a home that is one block from Lake Michigan in South Haven, MI. I have a working sump pump below ground level and am still having rotting problems with the floor joists. A local contractor wants to staple plastic to the joists or lay it on the ground. Would you recommend either of these as a solution?

Our Answer

Moisture management typically involves several solutions working together. Adding plastic sheathing over the soil as a crawl space vapor barrier is a good start. Also check your outside drainage conditions. Gutters must be clean, free-flowing and discharging four to six feet from the foundation. Grading also has to slope away. (See our article on wet basement and crawl space tips.) If the crawlspace moisture problem is severe, another step might be to install a crawl space foundation vent fan, wired into a humidistat. The fan can be set to kick on whenever humidity gets high enough and pull drier outside air through the space to minimize condensation on the floor joists and the potential rot, mold and insect problems that could ensue.

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Dust in House: How to Reduce or Remove

I have noticed an excessive amount of dust in my home; especially in the master bathroom.  It seems like I can't keep the furniture dusted enough.  When I rinse the tub there is a coating of lint type dust that isn't visible until I rinse the tub by pouring water on the sides of the tub before filling it.

I am wondering if there is a leak in our attic and perhaps the vent fan in the bathroom is allowing air flow from the attic to enter my home.  I haven't had the attic inspected but the house was built in 2003 so didn't think I would have a problem.  It is frustrating to try and keep up with the dusting!  Have you heard of anything like this? What can I do to solve this problem?

Our Answer

While it’s possible that you’re getting some dust from the attic, it’s unlikely. If there are gaps around your ceiling fans, air is probably moving from the house into the attic, not the other way around, due to something called the stack effect. I suggest that you look at a couple of other possible sources of dust first.

When’s the last time you had your clothes dryer vent cleaned? If that vent is obstructed, you could be getting a lot of dryer lint blowing back into the house. Turn on your dryer, then go outside to find the vent opening. You should have a nice, strong flow of warm air coming out of that opening. If you don’t, then have the vent cleaned to remove any build up of lint. It might solve your problem and make your dryer work better at the same time.

Do you have a fireplace or wood stove? If you do, and the inside of your house were to become depressurized, air could move backwards through these flues and carry ash into the house. If this is the case, you’ll need to find out why the house is becoming depressurized. Leaky ductwork in your heating system is often the culprit here.

One other thing to consider is that your heating system’s filter is missing. It’s important for you to clean or change your air filter regularly.

Editor’s Note: Jim Katen is a professional home inspector with Benchmark Inspection Service in Gaston, OR. Jim volunteers as a guest expert in The Money Pit Community. Learn more about Jim’s work through the American Society of Home Inspectors.


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Newer Geothermal HVAC System Leaking Refrigerant

Our 3 year-old geothermal 1-ton attic system occasionally shuts off.  Each time it does, we're given a different reason for the shutdown. The most recent shutdown was caused, we were told, by low refrigerant levels - they said we needed 2 pounds added. Incidentally, we noticed our most recent maintenance agreement was changed from the prior two agreements to omit, you guessed it, 2 pounds of refrigerant added if needed. So we had to pay for the refrigerant.

Now I'm wondering what comes next. If we need refrigerant there must be a leak, right?  Or does it somehow evaporate in the system over time? Our geothermal system is still under warranty. I want to approach the business that installed the system but thought I could use more information beforehand. Any thoughts on this? Is it common? Is this toxic?

Our Answer

Indeed, this is very suspicious. 
One of the common fears and very real pitfalls with geothermal systems is they require impeccable installation, and are prone to leaking.  Once that leak springs, it can be very expensive to repair because accessing those coils can be near-impossible. 
I also think the warranties offered on these systems are somewhat misleading.  Let's say a system is warrantied for fifteen years.  Often, that warranty will cover the cost of the coils, but not the cost of labor and installation. 
You have enough history to document what's happened.  Put that info into a detailed, direct letter.  Then take that letter to both the manufacturer and installer and ask them to address it.  You want to address it to both of them, jointly, because both of them are potentially liable.  Your system should not be leaking refrigerant at these levels.

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Why Do You Only Recommend ASHI Home Inspectors?

Why do you only mention ASHI? There are several other home inspector societies out there that are the same as ASHI and quite frankly, some are even better. IE: they require stricter standards for the inspectors! There is nothing wrong with ASHI, but having always believed this is a nuetral based information site, I am surprised there is no mention of others, or at least a mention that there are others? Locally, several of the "good old boy" home inspectors are ASHI members, they don't comply with hardly any of thier standards, these guys are in and out of a 2500 sq/ft home in minutes, no attics, crawl, or any other detailed areas are inspected. More of a "need this just to satisfy the bank" kind of inspections. There is no one at ASHI or any of the other societies for that matter that are following inspectors around to assure they are doing a thorought job. I recommend to people to get online and look for ratings, such as Homeadvisor or Angies list provide. Also, ask for references from past clients, etc.. Caveat Emptor!

Our Answer

Let's just say it sounds like you have a dog in this hunt, as the saying goes. 
I spent 20+ years as a member the American Society of Home Inspectors (ASHI).  I believe they are the best means of assuring that a perspective homebuyer is finding someone qualified and confident in home inspections.  In my view, ASHI's standards are among the strictest in the nation, test among the most comprehensive in nation, and that the formation of other organizations is likely a response to the fact that many home inspectors don't want to put out the time and trouble needed to meet ASHI's requirements. 

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Leaky Earth Sheltered Berm House

We recently purchased an earth sheltered berm house and found some major leaking in the back part of the house.  When it rains or recently as the snow melts water runs down the walls.  The "roof" of the house is mainly flat and we are guessing that's part of the problem.  Our question is who do we get to come and give us estimates on fixing the problem?  We have had some basement companies come out and have been told to install a system where they make a gutter in the floor and just have the water run into the gutter and out to a sump pump.  The problem is we also have a few leaks inside other parts of the house that are not against a wall, so we don't believe that's the proper solution.  We live in Johnston, Iowa.  Any ideas?  Thanks!

Our Answer

You are smart to be very wary of basement waterproofing companies.  In our experience, they're a category of contractors that's wrought with fraud, often selling systems that are very expensive and generally not needed. 
In your case, you've already made an important determination: This problem worsens with rainfall.  Your job will be to find a way to divert that water away from the perimeter of the house.  There are two ways of doing this: 1) Make sure you have a gutter system that's clean, free-flowing and that discharges water 4 to 6 feet from the house, and 2) Make sure the grade at the immediate foundation perimeter slopes away from the exterior wall.  It should drop at least six inches over four feet. 
Doing both of these things will protect the area closest to the wall from becoming saturated, and will reduce the amount of water that can leak through.

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“Green” Options for Exterior Siding?

Hello!  I have a 32-year-old two-story (story-and-a-half) house with crumbling composition siding that needs to be replaced. I'm in Texas, where temperature and humidity can be concerns. I'd appreciate input on sustainable, responsible siding options. I'm not a huge cement fiber board fan, although I will get at least one bid, because it needs to be painted. Addtionally I'm concerned about both manufacturing and end-of-useful-life disposal issues. Other options might include thin-stone veneer, full-stone veneer, manufactured stone (clone-stone, faux-stone) veneer, EIFS, stucco, or Eco Prem wood siding - or possibly a combination of two or more of these. While we have 3KW of solar PV on the roof and are exploring solar hot water, it is more difficult to find substantive discussions of siding that take sustainability and environmental responsibility into account. We are interested in economically-favorable, sustainable, responsible solutions. What should we not overlook?

Our Answer

This is a great question that's worthy of an entire article. 
I would not discount fiber cement siding.  If you purchase it pre-finished, it can last an incredibly long time.  I've seen it last on homes for 20+ years with zero sign of wear.  And while it's not organic, this means it doesn't have problems related to moisture - so you get a lot more out of your investment. 
Paint on fiber cement siding comes prefinished in a factory, so you can expect a long life out of it.  Even if you do have to repaint it at some point, that effort is going to last a lot longer than it would on wood siding.  Stone veneers are another good choice.  A recent cost versus value survey found that stone veneers provide 92% return on investment - great when it comes time to sell your house.  Whatever you do, stay away from EIFS - exterior insulated foam siding.  EIFS has a long history of failure and litigation. 

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Drainage Problem Solution Needed for Low Foundation Wall


I am hoping for some advice on a water problem that we have.  Currently during heavy rains water can seep in over the foundation wall top on the front and right side of the house(when facing it).  Our re-grading options are limited because next door apartment building drive way is higher than us.  Even if I attempt to slope away the soil, the wall top will still be below ground.

We just had a bunch of dirt in the front removed and sod installed as low as we could, but front foundation wall top is still below ground.

2.4 of inspection shows this is in attached picture.  Picture 1 is the front and Picture 2 is the side.

I have heard and read that you could create a retaining wall against the exterior of the house using pressure treated wood that would allow me to create a slope and have a barrier between the house and soil/water.  I have also read that you could glue a heavy plastic to do this well.

My plan in mind is to have some type of wood or plastic that would allow me to raise the grade enough for a slope and then use rock/gravel for better drainage.

Your thoughts and ideas would be appreciated.


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Water in My Basement

We've recently purchased a home and noticed a musty smell in our basement. We initially thought it was because it sat vacant for a while, however now that we're getting tons of rain the smell is worsening! (It is partially finished but the problem room is a wood workshop. There is exposed earth/rock in an interior corner so we didnt know if this was the reason?! So we had a mold service come in and they tested the air. We did have high levels so they tore down walls and found black mold. They treated those areas but the smell is still there....and they said the exposed rock area was not moldy?! So, we thought this was going to fix it but it hasn't! Every time it rains the exposed area gets wet....not by the the center! Is it below the water table? What should we do? I have young children and don't want this to be harmful! Should we try busting the area and pouring more slab? Please somebody help!

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Spray Foam Insulation

which types of spray foam insulation is healthiest to use:icynene or retrofoam?


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Tile Shower Leaking

I have a tile shower built in the 60's. I see the grout is gone between tiles & the drain & shower basin are also failing. I get leakage downstairs onto the floor after using the shower.

I would lkike to have it repaired - but am worried the moisture has settled behind the tile and under the basin.  So concerned about mold as well.

I am unsure who to contact to get this all repaired for me.  And who would be able to evaluate any damage behind the walls and how it can be mitigated......

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Natural Stink Bug Solutions?

My house is infested with awful-smelling stink bugs.  How can I get rid of them without using chemicals that could harm my dog?

Our Answer

There are plenty of stink bug solutions. Until you get rid of them, though, heed this advice for disposing of them: No squashing!  As you've maybe learned, stink bugs' stench only gets worse when they're squashed.  Here's a chemical-free trick of the trade we recommend: Take an old stocking, insert it in the end of your vacuum hose, and use a rubber band to attach it.  Then fold it over the outside of the hose, attach it to the vacuum, and then vacuum those bugs up.  They'll get stuck in the stocking net but won't get into the vacuum bag and stink up your appliance.  Simply pull out the stocking and throw it - and the bugs - away. 

To get to the heart of the problem without using pesticides, though, consider these green solutions: Make a garlic spray by mixing water with garlic powder.  Put it into a spray bottle and douse plant leaves, windowsill, and other areas of your house the bugs frequent. Stink bugs dislike garlic's odor and generally stay away when its nearby.  Similarly, mix mint oil or ground mint with water and apply it in the same manner. Mint, like garlic, is a stink bug repellent.  Good luck!

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Does Trane or Its Affiliates Pay Moneypit to Say This?

We're considering the system. We do have smaller and good systems that used to work in our smaller homes.
Does Trane or any of its affiliates pay or sponsor moneypit?


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Outdoor Cedar Wood + Boiled Linseed Oil = Fire?

I am making an outdoor organic raised bed garden out of Cedar wood but would like to preserve (as well as protect) the color f the wood by applying boiled linseed oil. First off, is this an organic way to go? I've heard that it could destroy with mildew? Secondly, will my graden combust and catch fire? I've also heard of its flamable nature...

Is this ok? what should I do?