Make Your Older Home a Safe Home

Homes built today must adhere to strict safety codes. Older homes, while offering plenty of charm and character, are more likely to have safety issues — potential problems can range from lead paint and asbestos to faulty wiring and wobbly stairs.

But you can make an older home a safe home. Educate yourself about some of the dangers associated with old homes and take any necessary action to transform your older house into one that’s as safe as possible.

The Dangers of Lead Paint and Asbestos in Older Homes

Certain materials used to build and remodel older homes are no longer used today because of safety concerns associated with them. These materials include:

  • Asbestos.Asbestos was used in insulation, shingling, millboard, textured paints, and floor tiles in older homes to make them resistant to fire. But when asbestos becomes airborne, it can be inhaled and can accumulate in your lungs, potentially leading to lung cancer, mesothelioma, and fatal scarring of the lungs. Since asbestos-containing materials are usually not dangerous when they are in good condition, it is usually best to leave these materials alone. But if you’re planning on remodeling your home and removing them, you will need to contact local environmental health officials to find out how to have these materials properly removed and, equally important, properly disposed of. If you aren’t sure if you have asbestos-containing materials in your home, a professional asbestos inspector can do an assessment and advise you.
  • Lead paint.Lead-based paint was once commonly used to paint homes, but health professionals now know that airborne lead can lead to serious health problems, such as damage to the brain, nervous system, blood cells, and kidneys. Exposure to high levels of lead can cause convulsions, coma, and even death. If your home was built prior to 1960, there is a good chance it contains lead paint. Like asbestos-containing materials, surfaces with lead-based paint are usually not dangerous if they are in good condition. But lead paint that is chipping or disturbed by friction or remodeling can cause lead poisoning. You can hire a professional who has been trained in dealing with lead paint problems to test your home and help you remove it or make your home safer. If you have children and you suspect your home contains lead-based paint, have them tested for lead exposure.

If you are considering purchasing an older home, you should first determine if asbestos or lead is a problem, especially if you are planning on renovating or restoring the home. Always make sure qualified professionals inspect the house and determine the extent of the problem.

Fire Safety Hazards in Older Homes

Another potential problem that can keep an older home from being a safe home is an outdated electrical system. While older electrical systems had no problems supplying enough power in previous years, many have trouble keeping up with today’s increased power demands. This can result in electrical fires — in fact, electrical fires are three times more likely to happen in homes that are more than 40 years old compared to homes that are only 11 to 20 years old.

Signs that your home’s electrical system may be outdated include:

  • Your circuit breakers trip often
  • You need to replace fuses frequently
  • Your lights are dim or flickering
  • You have seen sparks in your electrical system
  • There are unusual sounds coming from your electrical system, such as buzzing or sizzling
  • There is an unusual burning smell, which could be a sign of a hot wire inside your wall
  • Your switch plates or electrical covers are hot
  • You have experienced a mild shock from your electrical system

If you suspect your electrical system may be outdated, have a licensed electrician inspect it. This is especially important when you are deciding whether to buy an older home, since updating an electrical system can be costly and may affect your decision. The following electrical upgrades often need to be made in older homes:

  • Two-hole outlets should be replaced with three-hole outlets
  • Ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets need to be installed in kitchens and bathrooms
  • Add extra outlets to eliminate the need for extension cords
  • Circuit breakers should be replaced with an arc fault system

These changes do not usually need to be made all at once. For budgeting purposes, fix the most dangerous elements first and the others over time.

4 Musts for Maintaining Your Older Home

The longer you live in your home, the more likely you’ll need repairs and renovations to make it safer. Consider the following:

  • Make sure your stairs are stable and secure
  • Ensure that your stair handrails, treads, and risers are up to code
  • Install good lighting throughout your home
  • Change smoke alarm batteries every year and replace the alarms every 10 years

It’s important to keep your home in good repair and to make safety updates over time. Keep a log of all improvements and create a schedule to help you stay on track.

Learn More About Creative Upcycling Fails

I am a big believer in upcyling, recycling and repurposing to keep discarded items out of landfills. I’m just not very good at envisioning something that already has a specific function as something that can fulfill an entirely different one.

I need suggestions. The internet is filled with examples to guide me. DIY websites, blogs and Pinterest provide an endless array of good ideas for those of us who are creatively challenged when it comes to finding a second incarnation for used “stuff.”

Unfortunately, some examples are pointless or just unappealing. There is, as a friend once told me, no accounting for taste when it comes to repurposing, which means you need to apply a critical eye to what someone else thinks is a really clever, attractive and effective reuse of old junk. Not everything should be reinvented as something it was never meant to be.

Painted furniture is not always an improvement

Painting furniture is not necessarily the best way to give it a second life. Distressing a beautiful piece that needs refinishin — stripping, sanding and staining — and slapping on some paint instead is sacrilegious at worst and frivolous at best, especially when the painter doesn’t know what she’s doing.

While browsing an antique shop today, I nearly cried when I saw a vanity table from the 1920’s that had been painted three different colors — white, magenta and mint green. And the once-beautiful but now tarnished metal and tortoiseshell drawer pulls, which were an essential part of the original design, had been totally ignored and looked grossly out of place.

Repurposing: what works and what doesn’t?

There are some truly amazing upcycles to be found online such as piano bars repurposed from old pianos. And then there are some less sophisticated, but extremely economical and useful repurposing projects such as pallets turned into all sorts of backyard furniture and shelving. But not all repurposing can qualify as “up” cycling. Some projects get a definite thumbs “down.”

By now you may be familiar with some epic repurposing and upcycling fails — for example, the deluxe bar and toilet grill that utilizes the commode’s tank as an ice chest for chilling beer — and the toilet bowl for grilling burgers. If you’re someone who thinks it’s brilliant, don’t invite me over for a barbecue.

Granted, I turned a chi chi cat litter box into a planter and to some that might be distasteful, but it didn’t look like a litter box. And I wasn’t using it to cook my dinner or serve my neighbor a beer.

That said, I have recently come across these repurposing projects that, in my opinion, earn a thumbs down for aesthetic appeal

Prevent House Fires

If you heat your home by burning wood in the cold weather or simply enjoy gathering round the hearth to watch a crackling fire, now is the time to service your chimney.

Professional chimney sweeps perform three important services:

Cleaning to remove dangerous deposits that can cause chimney fires

Inspection to make sure the chimney is free from all fire hazards, including structural damage

Repair to eliminate safety hazards and bring the chimney up to working standards

Jack and his brother Joe, Ye Olde Chimney Sweeps in Brooksville, Fla., have been cleaning chimneys for 30 years. They used to delight their original clients by showing up to work in top hat and tails. But talking to Jack, the self-described technician of the two brothers, soon dispels images of Mary Poppins’ sooty pal cheerily dancing to the tune of Chim-Chim Cheree.

Why hire a chimney sweep to clean your chimney?

When they first set up shop, Ye Olde Chimney Sweeps learned their trade hands-on, starting out by buying a chimney cleaning kit. As their expertise and clientele grew, they dropped the costumes. Keeping chimneys free from soot is serious business, and the service they and other chimney sweeps provide is one that homeowners should not attempt themselves. Why not?

  • It’s a dirty job. Jack cautioned against DIY chimney cleaning. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, you can blow your whole house full of soot,” he said.
  • It can cause a catastrophic fire if not done right. Chimney cleaning poses a serious risk. Creosote deposits in chimneys can be dangerous at any stage of formation, but once the soot glazes over and hardens, it becomes more difficult to thoroughly remove. The build-up can cause a catastrophic, fast-burning fire that leaves no time for occupants to escape before it engulfs the house.

How often should you have your chimney inspected and cleaned?

The consensus is to have a professional inspection annually.

Ye Olde Chimney Sweeps suggest that clients have their chimneys inspected at least once a year, but Jack says that how often you need to have it cleaned “depends on use”. If you burn two face cords of wood each year, get an annual inspection. If you use a Franklin stove, inspect more often. “They burn dirtier.” To reduce creosote deposits, he says, “Burn hardwoods. They burn hotter. Pine is gooey, and the soot will be sticky. Grocery store logs are okay, or [burned] in conjunction with hardwoods.”

The Chimney Safety Institute of America (CSIA), which offers training and certification and continuing education for chimney sweeps recommends that you have your chimney and venting system inspected each year.

Terry Dearborn of Valley Chimney Sweep and Restoration in the Chicago area has been a CSIA-certified chimney sweep continually for 30 years. He cites the National Fire Protection Code 211 as the ultimate authority, which “requires an annual inspection of all chimney systems.”

Chimney cleaning is not limited to fireplaces and wood-burning stoves.

Dearborn recommends, “Gas and oil flues should also be checked on an annual basis for any soot deposits or debris blockage, which could lead to dangerous carbon monoxide poisoning.” Gas logs also generate soot and leave deposits in the flue. A professional sweep can clear the chimney of these hazards, as well.

When and why does a chimney need repair?

A cracked chimney can lead to toxic fumes seeping into the house or chimney collapse.

According to Dearborn, even a loose brick on a chimney is cause for concern. It can indicate more serious damage to the chimney, making it unsafe to use. “In all cases,” he says, a missing brick “should be checked by a professional immediately to avert the dangers of fire hazard or structural failure.”

To prevent damage to the bricks and mortar, Dearborn recommends waterproofing the exterior of the chimney. “Brick is porous, he says. “Heavy rains and melting ice fill pores and expand when temperatures drop,” leading to brick and mortar failure.

The flue liner, which protects the house from the intense heat in the chimney, must be replaced if it’s cracked. Even a small crack in the liner can be a serious fire hazard. Dearborn recommends metal chimney liners because they can be customized to fit your chimney’s specifications, but clay tile liners are another option.

Whether you are venting a fireplace, wood stove, gas or oil furnace, it’s important to be aware of the fire and carbon monoxide hazards of ignoring your chimney’s condition. As winter approaches, contact a professional chimney sweep for an inspection and cleaning.