Tracing electrical circuits

Q.  I had a new circuit breaker box installed by an electrician, and he failed to write out on the new box what each circuit breaker controls. Is there any type of tool I can use to help me map the circuits? I do not want to be running up and down stairs all day trying to determine which lights are on and off when I switch the breaker.

Circuit Tracer
A typical circuit tracer for residential use

A.  Yes there is such a type of tool. It’s called a circuit tracer. You can find them in hardware or home stores, or on-line, and prices range from about $30 to over $500.

But do you really need to buy a circuit tracer for a one-time session? My licensed electrician friend tells me that he and his men use a low-tech system that works just as well and is fine for use by someone working alone: plug in a radio in the circuit you want to identify and shut off breakers until the radio is turned off. It will require you to move the radio around, but we all need exercise anyway and stairs are the best kind.

Getting rid of snakes

Q.    How do you get rid of snakes, garden and poisonous types? I had used Snake-A-Way before with success, but they don’t make it anymore. I am deathly afraid of snakes. One house I know of is for sale because of snakes. Common garden snakes found in your part of the country (New England) are harmless and beneficial.

Garden Snake
Common garden snakes found in New England are harmless and beneficial.

A.    Snakes are a valuable ally in the control of mice and other rodents, and are part of our natural world. Poisonous snakes are not welcomed, of course, and you could ask your local authorities for the name of a control expert or call a family-owned pest control operator and ask if they deal with snake problems.

Snakes find stone walls and wood piles attractive, so eliminating those should help. As long as snakes don’t get inside your house, they should be harmless and welcomed. In your area (New England) very few snakes are dangerous to people.

One way to keep them out of your house is to spread wood ashes around the foundation; the only drawback is that you need to do it after each rain. But if you prefer to use Snake-A-Way, it is still available. You’ll find it at

Shutting down a house for winter

Q.    Our home in Vermont is well insulated and has vinyl siding. We would like to shut our heat off for four months between January and April. Would it ruin our drywall walls?

Freeze Monitor
Freeze monitor dials phone numbers if house temperature drops too low.

Our heat is gas, forced air, and our finished basement has a bathroom and gas stove. What would you suggest?

A.    You are taking a chance. Prolonged, very cold temperatures would eventually penetrate the house unless there is a source of heat. It is safer to simply lower your thermostat to 45 degree F. and arrange with a family member, trusted friend or neighbor to keep an eye on the house.

There are warning devices that would ring one or more telephone numbers if the temperature drops below the limit set on your thermostat. Such devices can be found at

Cleaning and sealing a concrete driveway

Q.    About 10 years ago, I had a concrete driveway put in. The company put a concrete sealer on the driveway, then told me it was saturated and needed no more treatment for a few years. Since then, the driveway has become stained with organic things (mold, crab apples, leaves, etc.) and non-organic things (black tires marks, etc.)

Last summer, I power-washed the driveway using a concrete and driveway cleaner with little in the way of results. Later, I accidentally spilled some chlorine bleach on one section of the driveway and it looked great.

Dirty driveway
Concrete driveway with dirt and stains

Can I use a hand tank sprayer and spray a water/bleach solution on the rest of the driveway? Would it ruin the sealant? If not, what percentage water/bleach should I use? How often can I use this solution safely? Thank you for any help you can give me.

A.    The sealant applied was topical; it forms a film and needs to be re-applied every year or two. The other type of sealer is penetrating, which needs to be applied only once, as it seals the pores of the concrete.
Nature does a great job of cleaning concrete from organic matter stains, and of tire marks as well. Snow over the winter will bleach the concrete very effectively in your climate (Pennsylvania).

But if it doesn’t to your satisfaction, go ahead and spray the concrete with a mixture a water and bleach. Start with 1/3rd bleach to 2/3rd water, and increase the bleach proportion if it does not satisfactorily do the job. Once clean, rinse well with your garden hose or pressure washer.

Once clean, if you decide to apply a penetrating sealer, wet the concrete to see if water penetrates it or beads on its surface. If the water penetrates, a penetrating sealer should work.

Replacing damaged tile surrounding tub/shower

Q.    The 4-inch square tiles on the back wall of my tub/shower in my 65-year-old house are about to fall off the plaster and lath wall, which you have probably guessed is also in bad shape.

Damaged tile
Tile starting to fall off

Which way should I go to repair this problem? Tear everything out to the studs, install plaster board or plywood (which kind?), apply a sealer (which kind?), and re-tile? Or should I go back to the original way–clean the area down to the lath, re-plaster (base and top coats), apply a sealer and re-tile? Sincere thanks for your help.

A.    The best way to go would be to remove everything to the studs and start over by applying backer board to them. Then install the tiles after cleaning them up or buying new tiles.

If this is an exterior wall, make sure that the insulation is in good shape, staple a 6-mil plastic vapor retarder to the studs, and fasten the backer board to them.

Patio starting to slope toward house

Q.  We have a patio in the back of our house. Part of it is starting to slope toward the house. (There is landscaping between the concrete and the house.)

Concrete patio
Patio should slope away from house

We need to replace a piece that was taken out last fall to install a type of piping leading from the gutter downspouts underground and to take it away from the house. We did this because one of the downspouts in particular would overflow and come up over the spout and spill toward the house in huge puddles if the rain was too hard.  We assumed there was a clog in the previously installed flexible drain tile installed.

Now we have asked 2 concrete companies to come out and give us a quote on replacing the piece already removed and the piece that slopes inward toward the house. One guy tells us not to concrete the complete patio all the way up to the foundation, especially if we worry about water getting in to our completely finished basement because the soil distributes water and concrete won’t absorb it so the water (and snow) will sit there.

The other guy tells us we should concrete all the way to the house including affixing it with pins to the foundation but using something to allow it to rise and fall with the weather.  Which one is right? Should we leave the landscaping around the house as a buffer or concrete all the way up to the house?

A.  The reason part of the patio is sloping toward the house is very likely due to the fact that, over time, the water that gushed over the gutter from the clogged downspout saturated the soil close to the house and caused it to settle. As it sank, the concrete went with it. If the work you did to correct the clogged gutter problem has solved it, you should have the soil in the affected area compacted (you can rent a compacter and do it yourselves). Add more soil as needed to re-establish a positive grade away from the foundation.

If the section of concrete that has tilted is in good shape and not too big, it may be able to be lifted, soil put in and compacted underneath, and lowered back. Or it may be best to replace it. Not knowing the entire history of any seasonal movement of your patio, and the composition of the soil underneath it, I think it is best not to take the concrete all the way to the house. This way, you won’t have to worry about the effect the seasons will have on the attachment to the house.

Bugs keep returning to basement

Q.  For the past 3 years, we have been inundated with rolly-polly bugs in our basement during the summer. We have a standard poured concrete basement and the house is 11 years old.

Rolly-polly bugs
Rolly-polly bugs

I have not been able to determine exactly how they enter, other than it seems like they either come in where the wall meets the floor, or, they just come through the walls! There are no obvious cracks for them to enter. I have tried over-the-counter bug sprays around the interior wall/floor seams, but all this does is kill them after they enter.

I have also put down a band of bug spray all around the exterior where the earth touches the foundation, but this has had no effect. Now the weather is warning up, they are coming in again. Do you have any suggestions?

A.  My guess is that the rolly-polly bugs are sowbugs or pillbugs, depending upon where you live, as they are not common in cold regions. To be sure, collect a few in a plastic container and take them to the extension service of your local university or to a pest management professional for identification.

Both sowbugs and pillbugs like moisture and feed on decomposing vegetable matter. Do you store firewood close to the house or have heavy organic mulch against the foundation? They can enter the basement from there, and they will be happy in it if it is damp.

Moisture builds up after new windows installed

Q.  I live in a 40-year-old ranch and had new windows installed 3 years ago. Since they were put in a fair amount of condensation builds up within the house during the winter months. I run a dehumidifier to cut down on the amount of moisture build up on the windows but it still persists. The bottom of the windows have become dark with mold where the wood meets the glass.

Condensation inside new windows
Condensation inside new windows

Any suggestions on how to get more air circulation in the house to eliminate the excess moisture?

A.  Your old windows were quite leaky, allowing more air exchanges than the new ones. So moisture generated by your family and its habits (the number of people living in the house, the house size, length of showers, type of cooking, etc.),  water-loving plants, pets, firewood stored in the basement, clothes dried on racks, etc.) will accumulate and, when the dew point is reached on the window glass, condensation occurs.

You need to lower the inside relative humidity by changing some of the things that keep it too high. Ventilate the house often by opening windows on milder days, or run bathroom and kitchen fans for long period of time (be careful, though that the use of the fans depressurizing the house does not cause backdrafting of the heating appliance — this would draw carbon monoxide into the house.)

Or you can choose to have one or more room-size air-to-air heat exchangers, or a full-house one, installed.

Meanwhile, remove the mold on the bottom rail of the window sashes with a toothbrush dipped in a mixture of equal parts household bleach and water.