The Pros and Cons of Concrete Flooring

Kitchen with Concrete Floor and Rug
© Elenathewise / Fotolia

When planning to install a new floor in your home, concrete was probably not even on the list of options. Long considered only viable for basements and industrial buildings, this material has become increasingly popular with homeowners in recent years. Before deciding whether concrete is right for you, there are numerous considerations to take into account.

Important Considerations

Due to the various qualities of a concrete floor, you may find yourself weighing the pros and cons more than you would traditional flooring options. Certain factors, such as cost or hardness, may play a major role in your decision. As with many other home improvement options, your final choice may come down to a matter of personal preference.

Aesthetics

Available in more color options than basic gray, concrete has a simple appeal and may also be painted to match a room’s changing decor. However, paint is prone to chipping and other damage in high traffic areas. During installation, you may choose to have the floor stamped to resemble other materials. When redecorating, another option is to use area rugs which match your new wall and furniture choices. In many cases, you may find the concrete edge around an area rug to be an attractive feature.

Carbon Footprint

Concrete is a recyclable material and does not require staining or other types of finishing. It remains cool during the summer, and absorbs solar heat in winter, helping to reduce your energy bills. It is immune to termites, dust mites, and other pests. Finally, unlike synthetic carpets, concrete contains no Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These factors essentially give concrete floors a zero carbon footprint rating.

Cost

Concrete is a long-term investment, and therefore the initial price of installation tends to pay for itself in time. You may expect to pay an average of $17 per square foot for the pouring and any decorative finish. Despite this, your new floor will last indefinitely with only minor maintenance requirements, resulting in an investment that pays for itself over the years.

Comfort

Unlike other options, concrete doesn’t hold onto heat efficiently, so it will always feel cool to the touch. Additionally, the hardness may cause discomfort when standing on it for long periods of time. You may find adding area or throw rugs will help reduce both of these issues while adding to a room’s design, although this is not an option for those who prefer an uncluttered look.

Durability

Compared to other types of flooring, concrete is the undisputed leader in durability. Able to withstand the weight of a large vehicle without sustaining damage, your concrete floor cannot be scratched or marred by heavy furniture and foot traffic. The only potential weakness comes from water damage, and even this is negated by properly maintaining your floor.

Maintenance

Maintaining your concrete floor is a very simple process, although the frequency in which you must maintain your floor will vary based upon the amount of traffic it receives. By waxing or sealing the floor every three to nine months you will keep it waterproof and free of cracks. Furthermore, any neutral cleaning product will work for washing the floor, permitting you to use all-natural cleaning products.

Moisture

Although concrete is highly resistant to damage, it must remain properly sealed to avoid water-based issues. When water enters cracks in the floor, it raises the risk of mold or mildew. Mold is a major health risk, and removal is often very time consuming. Even worse, the water may freeze in cold conditions, causing further cracking or damage to the floor.

Safety

Concrete is a very hard surface, and as a result, falls may result in more serious injuries. For this reason, it is often not recommended in homes where there are small children or elderly present. This same hardness provides more structural stability, which helps prevent structural instability from taking hold over time.

Unique Features of a Concrete Floor

While the idea of a semi-permanent floor may seem daunting at first, concrete holds several design benefits over other flooring options. For example, you may already have a concrete sub-floor, in which case installation isn’t necessary. Simply remove your current flooring and you’re finished. Likewise, if you decide you want a different type of flooring material, simply install the new floor on top of the concrete.

Concrete floors are prone to producing a large amount of echo when carpets or other buffers aren’t used. However, they may be stamped or stained to resemble floorboards, limestone, marble, and other more expensive or fragile floor options. Finally, proper installation is messy and a project which should be handled by only the most seasoned DIYers, so you may need to consider the cost of a contractor when planning for a concrete floor.

Additional Resources

Concrete Network provides an in-depth guide on the pricing of concrete floors, as well as a breakdown of how these price averages are affected by various factors you may not have considered.

DIY Network gives a visual walkthrough on installing a concrete floor. While aimed towards basement flooring, the guide provides a basic idea of the process involved if you are planning to tackle the project yourself.

Pro Referral offers another useful guide on the cost and process of various poured concrete projects including floors.

Posted on Categories Flooring

What is the Ideal Basement Humidity Level?

Hygrometer
© trekandphoto / Fotolia

Humidity can be a dangerous, invisible threat to the health of both your home and family. You have no doubt made efforts to control the humidity levels in your home, but may have neglected the less-used portions of the house. Of the many places in your home susceptible to moisture, your basement is at the most risk.

Causes of Excess Humidity

There are numerous causes of high humidity in your basement. Poor insulation and large differences between indoor and outdoor temperature levels may be obvious factors, but there are many more you might not have considered. Doing laundry may have an effect, especially if the exhaust vents leak. A malfunctioning sump pump or gutter spouts directing water too close to the foundation are also causes of moisture and even flooding.

Finally, check the ceiling regularly for signs of leaking pipes, which not only add moisture to the basement but may be causing damage to other parts of your home.

Effects of Basement Humidity Issues

Water Damaged and Moldy Basement Wall
© Amy Walters / Fotolia

Moderation is a key factor to many aspects of life and humidity is no different. There are different risks associated with a relative humidity that is too high or low. Sometimes, these symptoms are the first sign of a humidity issue, although they only appear after the issue has existed for some time, if they do at all. Maintaining a good relative humidity level helps eliminate one easily preventable factor in the causes of these home and health problems.

Low RH Effects

Low humidity levels in your home lead to dried sinuses and bloody noses. Many respiratory problems, such as asthma may be exacerbated by poor humidity. The dry air is also known to cause chapping and various other skin problems.

High RH Effects

The primary threat of high humidity is mold, mildew, and other fungal infestations. Mold can damage wood and even concrete. Furthermore, the spores may seriously affect the health of your family. Some varieties, such as black mold, have even been known to cause death.

However, mold isn’t the only threat posed by high humidity. Termite colonies thrive in the humid environment, which may also cause wood rot. Condensation provides a water source that attracts silverfish and even rodents. These various pests bring their own health risks and threats to your home’s structural integrity.

Ideal RH Levels

Typically, your basement serves one of three functions: storage, furnished living or recreational space, or as a wine cellar. Depending upon the purpose, your relative humidity levels fit into slightly different ranges. Understanding these ranges will allow you to reduce the risk of health risks and structural damage.

Most dehumidifiers have a built-in humidistat which allows you to preset and monitor the humidity levels. Alternatively, you may purchase a hygrometer and keep it near your dehumidifier. This device measures the amount of moisture in the air, allowing you to run the dehumidifier as needed.

Finished and Unfinished Basements

As a general rule, you basement should keep a relative humidity level of 30 to 50 percent. Not only does this range reduce the risk of harmful bacterial growth, it also prevents several health risks associated with low humidity. Further limiting the RH level to a range of 30 to 40 percent during the winter season in colder climates will eliminate window condensation.

Wine Cellars

Wine cellars are becoming more popular with homeowners of varied economic backgrounds. Regardless of whether you have an existing wine cellar or plan to add one to your basement, it is important to maintain both temperature and humidity at specific levels for the wine to properly mature. These spaces are generally well-insulated with their own humidifier units and should be kept at 60 percent relative humidity.

Please be aware that the RH of other rooms in your basement must still be kept at the 30 to 50 percent range. Checking for leaks in your wine cellar’s insulation is thus doubly important, as the difference in humidity levels could cause dehumidifiers to overwork.

Additional References

ENERGY STAR provides a detailed guide on choosing dehumidifiers, as well as a dehumidifier calculator.

The Mayo Clinic offers an article further discussing the health effects of humidifiers and humidity levels.

The University of Minnesota provides an in-depth article further detailing the causes of moisture in basements, as well as offering solutions.

Posted on Categories Interior

Steel vs. Wood Framing for Your Home

Steel Frame Brich House Under Construction
© Lev / Fotolia

Once used primarily for industrial and commercial buildings, steel framing has become increasingly popular among homeowners. Both wood and steel are effective, renewable building materials, and the final choice may come down to which type of frame suits your project more. Before deciding, it’s important to know how steel frames stack up against wood.

Advantages of Steel

Steel is most commonly used in larger facilities due to its ability to support weight over wide areas. However, steel has a few advantages over wood when it comes to smaller buildings as well.

Higher Resistance

Steel has a much higher resistance to degradation than wood. For example, a leaky roof will not lead to rotting. Floors held up by a steel infrastructure will also never warp, keeping the surface level. Termites and other pests cannot burrow into the steel beams making infestations less likely and cheaper to treat. Finally, steel is non-combustible; meaning the frame of your home will remain intact even after a major fire.

Stronger

As a building material, steel is able to withstand natural disasters such as earthquakes or hurricanes. This means that insurance for steel-framed homes are often lower, especially in disaster-prone regions. When used for a properly maintained home, steel frames have the potential to last for several generations. Additionally, it is able to support more weight for longer periods, such as concrete floors or metal tile roofs.

Disadvantages Against Wood Frames

Wood Frame House Under Construction
© JRB / Fotolia

No building material is perfect, and steel is no exception. The following are a few issues which may make a metal frame less ideal for your personal project.

Design Limitations

Steel framed homes are sturdy, but have far less flexibility when it comes to roof design. Unlike wood post roofs, metal framed roofs rarely have high pitch, dormers, or overhangs. While it may be possible to add a wooden frame for the roof of a steel-framed home, it is neither efficient nor as structurally sound as using a single frame type and as such may be a violation of local building codes.

Insulation

Metal is a natural conductor, and thus more difficult to insulate. This is especially true in colder months or climates, where the entire frame will drop in temperature if not adequately insulated. This may lead to higher energy costs, increasing both your bills and carbon footprint.

Rust

While steel is immune to rot, rust can become a very real problem. This is especially true when the metal is exposed to standing water or a major leak for long periods of time. If left untreated, rust will affect the stability of your infrastructure and lead to costly repairs.

Comparing Costs

Before choosing whether wood or steel for your home’s frame, one of the most important and complex factors to examine is the cost. There are both short term and long term variables to consider. In the event you are planning to purchase an existing home, the short-term costs may not apply, and vice-versa if you are building or renovating a home with the intent to sell.

Short Term Costs

Construction costs are significantly higher for a metal frame. In addition to needing special tools, metal frames will cost between 10 and 20 percent more than wood frames. Keep in mind that you will require extra supplies such as fasteners and electrical boxes to complete the frame. Contractors may also include additional charges for steel construction depending upon how rare steel framed buildings are in your area.

Long Term Costs

Maintaining your home usually does not bring up images of infrastructure maintenance, but there are certain factors which may lead to additional costs or savings as time passes. Some of these include:

Wood frame: warping, rot, mold, termite damage, stud damage, natural disaster damage such as flooding or earthquakes; easy to add extensions or add/remove walls.

Steel frame: heating/cooling and insulation costs, rust, additional work when adding an extension or modifying walls; generally lower insurance fees in some areas.

Additional References

The Department of Housing and Urban Development offers an online PDF report detailing a long-term thermal performance comparison between wood and steel framed homes.

Posted on Categories Structural

Wallpaper vs. Paint: The Best Choice for Your Walls

Cans of Paint and Paint Brush
© Rob / Fotolia

There comes a time in every homeowner’s life when the walls demand a change. You may be resurfacing them for a number of reasons, such as repairing damage, re-coloring to match new furniture, or simply because you want a change. This inevitably leads to the question of using paint or wallpaper, both of which have their own distinct advantages. Before investing in a particular wall covering, it is a good idea to compare them to ensure you are making the best choice.

The Pros and Cons of Paint

Paint has been the most popular form of wall covering for decades, although improvements in wallpaper have made it a major competitor in recent years. Paint still retains many advantages, however, and is generally cheaper and easier to apply than wallpaper.

Application Time

If you don’t wish to spend a long time waiting for a room to become usable again, paint is the way to go. Primer takes approximately 24 hours to dry, and you will need on average two to three coats of paint. Drying time for each coat depends on the type of paint you are using and amount of ventilation. On the flip side of the coin, paint is a messy substance which is known to splatter, drip, and betray heavy brush strokes.

Changing Up

Recovering a wall is relatively painless when using paint over paint. Again, a primer is required, and the neutral tone of the primer will help when using a dark paint over a light one or vice-versa. In most cases, it only takes a few coats to completely cover the previous color, and there are even some wallpapers available that may be painted over. Stripping paint from woodwork, such as a door frame, for staining is also relatively simple. A good paint job may last 10 to 15 years, but you can change it at any time you desire.

Environmental Concerns

While paint no longer contains traces of lead, there are still some environmental concerns. The biggest of these is the risk of VOCs (volatile organic compounds). These harmful substances can be released over time and are harmful to the human body. Be sure to do some research before selecting a specific brand in order to minimize the risk of VOCs.

Repairs

Paint is fairly fragile compared to wallpaper, and it may scratch, chip, or discolor in high-traffic areas. Luckily, repairs are easy and generally consist of adding a touch of paint over the damaged area. By taking a sample chip of the paint to your local paint or hardware store, the color can be matched almost exactly, although some brands will not be a perfect match, even for mixed colors.

Versatility

The color spectrum provided by paint is somewhat limited, although it is available in matte, semi-gloss, and gloss finishes. What makes paint more versatile than wallpaper is that you are able to paint designs. For example, you may decide to paint a tree in your child’s room, with leaves spreading onto the ceiling and grass or other landscaping giving way to a blue sky.

Wallpapers with similar patterns may be purchased, but lack the ability for you to make custom themes for video games or other less common topics, as well as limiting color to the walls whereas paint may incorporate the ceiling into your theme.

Paint is also useful in areas where moisture is an issue. Bathrooms, for example, tend to be too humid for wallpaper and may lead to mold or other damage, whereas using a good exterior paint means the color will last for some time.

The Pros and Cons of Wallpaper

Wallpaper and Roller
© TMakotra / Fotolia

Wallpaper was once highly popular and is beginning to see a return to that popularity. It is now more affordable, more durable, and easier to apply than it once was. Modern wallpaper enjoys several advantages over paint, although it also has some disadvantages to consider.

Application Time

Wallpaper is not a project to undertake when you have limited time to prepare a room. Unlike paint, wallpaper does not require multiple coats. However, wallpaper comes in strips which must be lined up and carefully applied to avoid air bubbles, wrinkles, and other flaws. This can become quite time consuming, and any rips or other damage to a piece you have applied is permanent, requiring you to either replace the strip or attempt to hide the damage.

Changing Up

Old wallpaper must be scraped away using stripping tools or other chemical solvents which might damage your wall if you aren’t careful. The wall must also be clean and dry before attempting to paper. Some wallpapers require glue while others have a dry glue backing and must be wet to activate the glue. Applying wallpaper to a painted wall does not require additional preparation unless there are chips or other damage to the paint which will show through.

Environmental Concerns

Wallpaper itself poses little environmental risk by itself. However, the chemicals used to remove old wallpaper can be toxic to humans and the environment.

Repairs

Perhaps the biggest downside to wallpaper is the inability to affect simple repairs. In some cases, damage may be repaired by cutting both the damaged section and a matching section from a backup roll. However, even with a perfect fit, the patch may be visible upon examination. Another downside to wallpaper is that damage from nails cannot be easily hidden, so hanging pictures requires more planning. Thankfully, wallpaper tends to be more durable than paint and carries an average lifespan of 15 years barring moisture damage.

Versatility

The largest advantage of wallpaper is the sheer variety of patterns, colors, and textures available. You may choose a specific color, a design incorporating multiple colors, landscapes, basic patterns, textured or glittery deigns… The possibilities are extremely varied. Unfortunately, wallpaper doesn’t fare well in bathrooms or a kitchen that has a lot of moisture, and will fade over time if in a room exposed to excessive sunlight, such as a sunroom.

Using a Mix

One option which has become very popular is to incorporate both paint and wallpaper into a single room. This is most often the case for special wallpapers such as landscapes or textures, but may even include basic colors. A common example of this is to paint all but one wall of the room and place a landscape on the remaining wall to resemble a mural.

Additional Resources

The American Coatings Association website offers guides on choosing paint, as well as news and articles about all things paint related.

Sherwin-Williams offers a list of resources concerning VOC regulations and green programs involving paint. While meant to focus on the brand’s own compliance, the information itself encompasses all paint brands.

Posted on Categories Interior

Heat Pump vs. Furnace: What’s Best for Your Home?

Heating and Air Conditioning Heat Pump Units
© Christian Delbert / Fotolia

Whether your old furnace needs replacing or you are constructing a new home, the topic of heat pumps may have arisen. However, you may not understand what a heat pump is or how it stacks up against various furnace options. Knowing the differences and comparisons will help you make the best choice for your project.

How a Heat Pump Works

The term “heat pump” may be slightly misleading, as his device does more than simply heat your home. The primary propose of a heat pump is to transfer heat from one point to another, as opposed to creating heat via fossil fuels. Various types of heat pumps perform this task differently, and there are three major varieties of heat pumps, as well as a few less common types.

Absorption Heat Pumps

Of the three types of heat pumps, absorption pumps are unusual in that they do not use regular electricity. Instead, this system is fueled by solar, propane, natural gas, or geothermal power. Available primarily for larger homes, absorption pumps use ammonia and water for heat transfer. As ammonia is absorbed into the water, it runs through a low-pressure compressor. The mixture is then heated, boiling the ammonia out of the water before restarting the process.

Air-Source

Also known as air-air heat pumps, this is one of the most common types of heat pumps. The external portion of the system pulls heat from outside through a system of refrigerant-filled coils similar to those on your refrigerator. A fan pulls warmer outside air over the coils, causing the refrigerant to evaporate. The expanded gas then passes through a compressor, increasing both the temperature and pressure of the refrigerant.

The compressed mixture flows along pipes into a second set of coils inside your home where another fan blows the hot air into your ductwork. As heat is transferred away, the refrigerant cools and condenses back into a liquid allowing another pipe to carry the refrigerant back outside, continuing the process. The flow may also be reversed to pull excess hot air from your home.

Air-source pumps may be modified to work in conjunction with other HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) systems. Please note that commercial models tend to be housed in a single roof-mounted unit, as opposed to having both indoor and outdoor sections.

Ground-Source

Although the basic premise is the same, ground-source pumps have a different external setup. There are two variations, both of which absorb heat from underground water sources or the ground itself. Closed-loop systems may use either refrigerant or water and function almost exactly the same way as air-source pumps, except for the fact that heat is pulled from the ground source directly instead of via fan.

Conversely, open-loop systems connect solely to underground water sources. Water is pumped up to your home where heat is removed and the water is returned to its source. This latter system often employs a man-made source such as a well, and has some similarities in function to geothermal heating systems.

Other Variations

All-Climate heat pumps are a relatively new type of pump that works in extremely low temperatures. Boasting as much as 60 percent higher efficiency over standard heat pumps, this model is excellent for northern latitudes. Unfortunately, all-climate pumps are less efficient at cooling and thus not recommended for primarily hot climates.

Cold-Climate pumps are similar to the all-climate models, although this pump type is still in development. The advantage of cold-climate pumps is their ability to calculate the minimal amount of energy needed for heating or cooling your home. It then automatically adjusts to those settings, making it perhaps the best alternative for green living once the design becomes widely available.

Mini-split heat pumps are used in homes that lack ductwork. A single external unit connects to multiple smaller internal units. These are connected in turn to space heaters or water heaters. When retrofitting a house, this type of heat pump proves ideal, as the small interior components may be placed where needed and are relatively easy to install.

Comparing Heat Pumps to Furnaces

Gas Furnace
© Amy Walters / Fotolia

Heat pumps generally have many advantages over furnaces when it comes to efficiency, although there are times when furnaces have the advantage instead. Now that you are aware of the various heat pump options, a direct comparison between pumps and furnaces is possible.

Energy Use

While most modern furnaces run off of gas or electricity, a large part of their energy consumption is spent towards heating or cooling the air. As such, they are generally not as efficient as heat pumps in moderate climates. Cooler climates are different, however. Heat pumps expend high amounts of energy absorbing heat in freezing temperatures, with the exception of cold-climate and all-climate models. In states where the weather frequently drops below freezing, a furnace tends to be the more energy efficient choice.

Intensity

Heat pumps are designed to distribute heat evenly throughout a house. This has the advantage of leaving no cold spots. However, the overall heat is milder than a traditional gas or oil furnace, meaning you may feel chilly if you are used to furnace-based heating.

Placement Considerations

Unlike furnaces, heat pumps have an external unit which must be placed in a location where airflow is unobstructed. Shrubs and other potential blockages must be kept pruned back for the pump to function at peak efficiency. Furthermore, you will need to consider aesthetics, as the eternal unit cannot be hidden and therefor might be best placed on a side of your home which sees the least amount of outdoor use.

Supportive Systems

One common fact between heat pumps and furnaces is the fact that both need supporting systems or components to function properly. In the case of a furnace, these supporting systems usually consist of air conditioners or other cooling devices and a dehumidifier. Heat pumps are generally able to function without these, especially ground-source and air-source pumps, as they dehumidify the air naturally.

However, there are times when a heat pump cannot function as efficiently due to low temperatures. In such cases, a backup heat source, such as a modified gas furnace or supplemental electrical heating becomes necessary. Be sure to consider these added components before settling on a specific heating system.

Additional Resources

For more information on how heat pumps work, as well as choosing a type for your home’s needs, HowStuffWorks offers a detailed guide.

The U.S. Department of Energy offers an in-depth guide on air-source heat pumps, with links to additional guides and articles at the end.

Posted on Categories HVAC