Cold basements: Is a lack of cold air ducting to blame?

The season has changed to fall, and in many corners of Canada the temperature is getting chilly in the evenings. As winter fast approaches (sigh), it’s time to make sure your home heating is in order. Many people struggle with cold basements, but why?

Chances are that your furnace has the capacity to heat your basement and the above-ground levels of your home. Lack of cold air return ducting is often the culprit. For any furnace to deliver warm air to a given room, the cool air that’s already there needs to get out of the way.

Unfortunately, cold air return ducts are often forgotten when basements are finished. To function properly, they need to draw air from the basement floor where it’s the coolest. This work is best done by a professional heating contractor.

If you need professional help making your basement cozy, make sure to hire the smart and safe way with a written contract or service order.

5 facts you need to know about heating your home

As Canadians, we rely on heating systems more than most nations in the world. But our need doesn’t necessarily translate into knowledge. If you’re unhappy with the comfort or cost of keeping your home warm in winter, here are some things to consider.

Insulation is key

While the kind of energy source and heating equipment you have can affect annual costs a lot, don’t even think about upgrading your system until you’ve optimized insulation levels in your home. For most places in Canada, 22 inches of batt or loose-fill insulation in the attic makes sense. This is more than many homes have, but it pays to go beyond the basics when it comes to insulation.

Choose natural gas if you can

Natural gas is abundant in Canada and also burns cleanly in furnaces and boilers that operate at efficiencies greater than 95 per cent. Although prices fluctuate, natural gas always averages out to be the cheapest and most stable source of energy for home heating.

Consider heat pump technology

If you don’t have access to natural gas where you live, electric heat pumps make sense because they offer the next most economical source of heat. For every dollar you spend on electricity for a heat pump, the system delivers $2 to $3 worth of heat, compared with electric baseboard resistance heaters. Most heat pumps can also operate in reverse, cooling your home in summer.

Explore smart controls

We’ve had programmable thermostats for a long time, but the electronics that control heating systems are advancing beyond these basics. Wireless thermostats, for example, make it easy to control the temperature of different rooms independently. Why heat a room you won’t be using at certain times of the day? Today’s best control systems also deliver temperature levels that are more stable and consistent than ever, especially with hot water heating systems.

Hydronic heating conversion

“Hydronic” is a fancy word used to describe hot water heating systems. Hot water radiators and infloor heating provide some of the nicest and most even heat you’ll experience. Since there are no fans involved, there’s no moving air to kick up dust. Hydronic heating is also one of the best options for converting from electric baseboard heaters to natural gas.

Regardless of what insulation or heating system changes you want to make to your home, be sure to hire a qualified contractor to do the work. Home heating systems are not DIY projects — you need an expert who knows all the safety requirements. Electrical and gas contractors need to be licensed, so never hire someone who isn’t.

Plumbing For Health, Safety, And Sustainability

We don’t often give a second thought to plumbing (except when something breaks), but it is actually one of the most important technologies for modern life. Plumbing enables us to have constant access to clean, potable water for drinking and bathing, which is a pretty amazing thing that most people throughout history would never dream of having as part of their daily lives. Plumbing (and regular plumbing maintenance) is an important factor in maintaining the health, safety, and sustainability of your home on a day-to-day basis. Here’s why plumbing matters and how it protects you and your home.

Keep Bacteria Contained

Leaky pipes can mean disease-carrying bacteria from bathroom fixtures spreading around your home and causing health issues. Well maintained, secure pipes will prevent bacteria from contaminating your home and mitigate the potential health risks that come with the spread of bacteria.

Reduce Waste

A small leak under a sink can mean a big waste of water. Even if a minor leak is not causing damage to your home, it is still using a significant amount of unnecessary water. This is wasteful and costly since you have to pay for the amount of water you use! Prevent extra water costs and do the environment a favour by getting leaks dealt with right away.

More and more plumbing technologies are being invented with the environment in mind. Consider installing low-flow fixtures, pipes made from recycled materials, solar hot water tanks, and other green plumbing solutions to help decrease environmental impact.

Mold Prevention

Leaks can cause mildew and mold, which are serious health risks that can cause respiratory issues and life-threatening illness. Well-maintained plumbing in the home ensures that you don’t have excess moisture that can cause harmful mold to grow.

Avoid Structural Damage

Preventing and immediately fixing water leaks keeps your home safe from worse damage. Water leakage can cause wood to rot, which has the potential to negatively affect the structural soundness of a building and can be extremely time-consuming and costly to repair. Keeping an eye on your pipes for minor leaks and fixing them right away will save you a bundle of money and time in the future.

Ensure Non-Hazardous Materials

Up until quite recently, the hazards of lead contamination were not widely known and the vast majority of plumbing was done with lead pipes and solder. Some faucets and valves made of brass can also contain smaller amounts of lead. If you have an older home, you may still have potentially harmful lead materials in your plumbing system. A qualified plumber can inspect your pipes, valves, and faucets, tell you if you are in danger of lead contamination, and, if necessary, replace your old fixtures with new ones made of safe materials.

Common Older-home Plumbing Problems

There are a number of potential plumbing issues that are common in older homes. Certain materials and techniques that used to be par for the course in plumbing are no longer up to code, general wear and tear needs to be checked on, and past repair jobs may not have been as effective as you would hope. Here are a few of the most commonly occurring older-home plumbing problems that you may need to be aware of in your house if it is more than 30 years old or so.


Polybutelene Pipes

Polybutelene was used to make pipes from the late ‘70s up until the early ‘90s, so a lot of homes still have them. Unfortunately, the material wears down after prolonged exposure to oxidants such as chlorine that are present in most public water supplies, so these pipes are now breaking down and causing problems in the homes they are installed in.

If you have Polybutelene pipes, you should get them all replaced before they leak and cause serious water damage to your home and belongings. If you don’t know what material your pipes are made of but your home was built between the 1970s and 1990s, you should have a professional inspect your pipes and let you know what they are composed of.


Galvanized Pipes

Galvanized pipes are made of iron and covered in a layer of zinc. Galvanized pipes are prone to corrosion and the iron in the pipes can cause water discolouration. Replacing galvanized pipes before they become too corroded and cause leaks and water damaged is a good idea, and if your drinking water has been coming out a funny colour it could be a sign that you have galvanized pipes that need replacing.


Cast Iron Pipes

Cast iron pipes underneath your home’s foundation tend to crack and leak over time. This is just normal wear and tear that happens eventually, so make sure to have your cast iron pipes checked by a professional if they are older. Because of their tendency to crack, cast iron pipes are especially susceptible to tree-root intrusion as well, which can cause other issues (see below).


Tree Roots in Sewer Lines

The moisture from sewer lines makes tree roots want to grow into them. Depending on the material and age of your sewer lines, tree roots may be able to make their way inside small cracks in the pipes and then grow inside them and create a clog. If you get your sewer lines checked regularly, you can have the tree-root intrusion dealt with before it completely takes over the pipes, which will save time and money in the big picture.


Inefficient Fixtures

As plumbing technology evolves, it is becoming more and more efficient in water usage, so it follows that, generally speaking, the older the fixture, the less efficient it is. Not to mention, years of wear and tear will have taken their toll on the fixtures in your older home. Have a professional inspect old fixtures regularly and when it’s time to replace them opt for new, more efficient models.


Inherited DIY Fixes

You don’t know what was done to the plumbing in your home before you moved in—or who was doing it. Past homeowners may have done DIY plumbing fixes that are not going to hold up like professional repairs. It’s not too unlikely that somewhere in your home there is duct tape holding back a leak or something equally ineffectual. It’s always a good idea to get a professional in to inspect all of the plumbing in an older home that you’ve recently moved into. A plumber can check everything out and let you know if anything needs to be replaced or repaired, so you don’t have any unpleasant surprises (like sudden plumbing emergencies) later.

Is Your Hot Water Tank Temperature Safe?

Many people are unsure of the correct temperature to set their hot water tank at and do not realize that the temperature of your hot water is an important factor in household safety.

There are a few things to keep in mind when thinking about hot water temperature in the home, particularly if your home’s occupants include young children, the elderly, or those with suppressed immune systems. It is important to take the appropriate safety precautions to ensure that your hot water system prevents disease and injury, so you can rest easy knowing that your home is safe for you and your family.


Water Temperature and Safety Risks

Household hot water needs to be stored at a high enough temperature to kill potentially disease-causing bacteria, particularly Legionella, which causes Legionnaires’ Disease. Legionnaires’ Disease is a respiratory infection that leads to pneumonia and can be harmful and even fatal in some instances.

60 degrees C is often the default factory setting on hot water tanks. 60 degrees C (140 degrees F) is hot enough to ensure that dangerous bacteria like Legionella cannot survive. However, this temperature can scald you and cause serious damage to the skin, particularly for young children and the elderly.

Some people recommend setting your tank to 49 degrees C (120 degrees F) to prevent scalding. 49 degrees C is hot enough to kill most harmful bacteria, but it does not guarantee getting rid of all of it.


How to Keep Your Hot Water Safe

Both injury from scalding and disease from bacteria are legitimate safety concerns, so it can be difficult to determine the best course of action when it comes to your hot water tank temperature. You can protect yourself from both harmful bacteria and scalding hot water with a system that stores water in the tank at a high enough temperature to eradicate bacteria while giving you cooler water at the tap to prevent scalding. There are a couple of different ways that you can do this.

One option is to install a hot water tank booster. This is a device that keeps the water in the tank at 60 degrees C, then mixes it with cold water as it leaves the hot water tank so that the water coming out of your taps will be about 49 degrees C—hot enough for all your household needs but not enough to scald.

The other option is to have anti-scald devices installed right at each tap. Anti-scald devices monitor the temperature of the water and ensure that water comes out of the tap at a comfortable 49 degrees C. Anti-scald devices also account for changes in water pressure, so even if you are showering while someone else in the household is using cold water elsewhere, the anti-scald device will change the hot water pressure accordingly so that you don’t have a sudden burst of very hot water pouring onto you unexpectedly. Some faucets and showerheads have anti-scald devices built right in.