I'm getting a lot of black pellets about the size of apple pits that appear with frequency in our attic. They are all deposited in the same area. My wife thinks they may be from bats. When we first moved here, 10 years ago, we saw a few bats flying around in the attic. Over the years, she has sprayed the attic ceiling with Febreze, which was effective for a short while. Now they are back. Could it be squirrels, chipmunks, rats, mice? We would appreciate any suggestion you may have.
A. I am glad the earlier advice worked well for you. Interesting use of Febreze, not sanctioned by the EPA and unanticipated by the manufacturer I am sure. The fact that the "pellets" are concentrated in the same area is a strong indication that they are bat guano. Mice and rats would not be so specific with their defecation.
Mice nests are buried in the insulation, so you would see round holes about 1-inch in diameter. Rat droppings are also bigger. Squirrel droppings would be bigger and located in their nesting area, which you would see where the insulation has been disturbed, and Chipmunks hibernate underground.
Bats get in your attic through very small openings. The reason the "pellets" are in the same location is because the bats hang directly above the pile. By now, most species have gone to hibernate in caves. But to discourage them from dwelling in your attic during the warmer weather, string three 40-watt bulbs from the rafters and keep them on around the clock. Try to find the holes through which they enter and seal them off before they return in the spring. Hang a bat house in a tree by following the instructions from Bat Conservation International, www.batcon.org, (800) 538-2287 or Audubon, www.audubon.org, (212) 979-3000 and ask for your local area center's number.
Buy bat houses from them or from www.chiropteracabins.com. Be sure that wherever you buy a bat house, it meets the specifications from Bat Conservation International. The bat houses I have seen in most hardware and garden supply stores do not prove successful at attracting bats.
Q. My problem has to do with the lack of storage space for items that ideally should be stored in the house. There is space in the cellar, but I don't use it because of the dampness. Are there disadvantages (other than bugs) to using an outside steel storage shed for items that really should be stored in the house?
A. You have not said what type of items are involved. Any metal items you would store in an outside steel shed would be subject to rust and mold. Other perishable items, such as cardboard boxes, wood furniture or household furnishings could also get moldy and be damaged by mice, as there is really no way to keep them out of these buildings.
How large are these items? Can closets be made more efficient or additional shelving be installed? Is what you call your cellar a full basement with a concrete floor? Or is it a crawlspace or full basement with a dirt floor? If it has a concrete floor, can you control the dampness with a dehumidifier in the warm weather and heat in the cooler season? That would be your best solution.
Q. What is your opinion of French drains in a basement? My area is large, and water came up through the floor during the last heavy storm. I have one pump below the basement floor, which usually works great, but didn't this time. How do they operate?
A. If water came in through floor cracks during the last heavy storm -- and only during that time -- you may not have much of a problem. What type of sump pump do you have? You may need one with a greater discharge capacity. If you have the type that has a pedestal with the motor on top, you may want to consider a Zoeller (www.zoeller.com) or equivalent submersible pump with a high discharge rate. If the water came in at the joint of the walls and floor, a fiberglass gutter that leads to a sump would work well, but this system is quite expensive and would not work if the water comes through cracks in the floor.
Q. My son-in-law is very handy and has added a large addition to our ranch house. The addition has a cathedral ceiling, and I'm wondering how to properly insulate it. He is leaning toward a tin roof, thinking no air space would be needed between the insulation and the roof. The other part of the roof is asphalt shingles. Do you have a solution for integrating the cathedral part in asphalt?
A. Your son-in-law is taking a considerable chance by not providing for ventilation between the insulation and the roof sheathing, even if he installs a 6-mil vapor retarder perfectly -- a feat that is very difficult. He may be successful, but I can't recommend it.
Any moisture-laden interior air convecting into the insulated space is very likely to result in condensation on the sheathing and the insulation, which could lead to disastrous consequences. The type of roofing has no bearing on the need, or lack of need for ventilation, but the type of insulation used has.
If he chooses not to provide ventilation, he should consider having closed-cell polyurethane insulation sprayed between the rafters and onto the roof sheathing. This type of insulation does not need ventilation or a vapor retarder, as it is an air barrier and does not absorb moisture. It is quite expensive compared to fiberglass batts, but it is an insurance against future problems. I am not sure what you mean by "integrating the cathedral part in asphalt."
Q. I purchased a custom-made wrought-iron fence and railing several years ago. I put only rust-conversion paint on it. I hand-sanded it. Now it is rusting and pitting. It is leaving rust marks on my newly cemented steps and driveway. What do you suggest I paint this fence and railing with? I love your column. It is very helpful.
A. Remove all the rust with a wire brush, steel wool, liquid rust remover or whatever means you choose. If you work on the pitting aggressively (it may need filing), you should be able to remove it unless it is too deep. Any rust-inhibiting paint should work. Some require a primer. You should check the condition of the paint yearly and apply a new coat when it begins to look thin, before rust and pitting start again.
Another choice, if you are willing to pay the steep price, is to use Hammerite paint. It is very tough, comes in a variety of colors in hammered or smooth finishes and can be bought in very small quantities (from a ½ pint to a gallon, also available in a spray can). It will probably need to be ordered by your paint store, as it is not usually carried in stock. Try removing the rust stains on the concrete steps and driveway with Clorox bleach, applied with a small brush. It may make the affected areas lighter than the rest of the concrete for a while.
Q. You have addressed slow-draining bathtubs and sinks before. You recommended using Arm & Hammer Super Washing Soda. I have looked at many stores, including Wal-Mart, Home Depot and others, but no one seems to be able to find this product. Can you please help?
Toms River, N.J.
A. Super Washing Soda is a laundry booster and can be found in supermarkets in the laundry-supply section.
Q. I purchased a 1920s home six years ago. It had been restored except for the stairwell. After scraping paper off the walls, I came across what looks like gray concrete board. Then I read "The Big House" by Colt, and a Sackett Board wall was mentioned. In places at the seams, the concrete is crumbling. Any tips for repairing the walls for re-papering? Any history on the Sackett Board wall? When did it come into being and why? For ease of work now and in the future, it was recommended that I lower the ceiling to follow the slant of the stairs. Any advice on this?
Essex Junction, Vt.
A. The Sackett Board was the precursor to modern gypsum board. It came in 36-inch-square panels, ¼-inch thick. The Sackett Board was developed in the 1890s and was made of three layers of gypsum plaster, sandwiched between four plies of wool-felt paper. It was very heavy.
United States Gypsum (USG) purchased the Sackett Plaster Board Co. in 1909 and developed a way to totally enclose the Sackett Board's edges. In 1917, USG made a number of improvements and abandoned the production of the Sackett Board. Thus, Sheetrock was born, USG's proprietary name for gypsum board, which is now oftentimes used incorrectly as a generic nomenclature for any gypsum board produced by competitors. The proper generic name is drywall.
The crumbling edges of the Sackett Boards can be repaired using drywall-joint compound, available in all hardware, building supply and box stores. Sorry, but without seeing the setup, I can't advise you intelligently about lowering the ceiling.
Q. My neighbor has a metal fence on his sideline. On my side, the panels are getting very loose and falling in my yard. Isn't it his responsibility to fix the fence and replace the four panels? I should think so, because my fences are wood and it is his fault the fence is falling apart.
A. If the fence was erected by your neighbor on his land, and not built on the property line, following an agreement between both property owners to share the expense, you are probably right. But you may need to consult a lawyer to convince your neighbor that he is solely responsible for the maintenance of the fence.