Checking for Deck Rot

Not only are rotting decks ugly but they can also be dangerous. Every year dozens of people are injured in accidents related to poorly constructed or rotting decks. Don’t let this happen to you and your guests.

Deck Components
Before you start looking for rot, it’s good to understand the different components of your deck. The key components are identified in the illustration below.


Here’s how to check for rot in your deck. Start by just walking around on your deck. Take bouncy steps. Any give or sway is cause for concern.

Take a Look
A visual inspection will reveal tell-tale signs of rot and decay. Look for dark spots in the wood. Look for crumbling edges. If there is mold or moss growing on the wood, be sure to dig deeper.



Poke Around
Use a sharp-tipped object such as a large nail or a small Philips screwdriver to test for rot. If you’re unable to get underneath your deck, poke into the joists between the decking boards to feel whether or not the wood is soft. If the support beams are not covered by a fascia (face plate), poke them as well. If your deck has a fascia, remove one or two of the boards to better access the beams. You may also want to remove a decking board or two for better access to the joists. Be sure to test the bottoms of any posts.

Any wood that gives easily to the tip of the pointed object has gone bad.

Remember, wood will rot from the moisture side – rain on top, soil on the bottom. Although dark wood often indicates rot, light-colored wood may still be hiding rot underneath.

Check the Ledger
Even if your beams and joists are in great shape, they may be attached to a rotting ledger (the board along your house to which the joist hangers are nailed). Even if your deck was repaired or rebuilt at some point in the past, it’s possible that it was attached to the original ledger. If the ledger didn’t have flashing installed to prevent exposure to water, it could very well be rotting away relatively unnoticed. This is a recipe for disaster! The joists could pull away from the house and the entire deck could go down.

Preventive Maintenance
If everything checks out OK, it’s a good idea to put your deck on a scheduled preventive maintenance plan to ensure that it lasts as long as possible. Regular power washing will help keep mold and moss from growing. Follow the power washing with a fresh coat of stain/sealer to keep the moisture out. Generally, in the Midwest, it’s a good ideal to power wash and stain/seal a deck about every three years.

Nebraska’s winters can be hard on decks. Another trick to get more life out of your deck is to shovel the snow off of it. As if shoveling the snow on your driveway wasn’t enough! Unfortunately, when snow sits on a deck, the moisture doesn’t run off as it does when rain falls on a deck. Use a plastic snow shovel to avoid damaging the deck’s finish.

With proper preventive maintenance, a deck will provide years of enjoyment. Without the proper maintenance, a deck can become a major accident waiting to happen. In addition, rebuilding a deck can easily cost seven to ten times what it costs to power wash and stain/seal the same size deck.
An ounce of prevention …



Drills and Drivers

From time to time homeowners ask us questions about tools. Recently, we were asked about the difference between drills and drivers and why one might be used rather than the other. In this article we’ll run through the basic types of drills and drivers and discuss the proper use of each.

Traditional Drill
The traditional drill has shed its cord and chuck key over the years but has remained basically the same since power was applied to the hand drill. The traditional drill is intended to do just that … drill. It is not intended for driving screws or turning bits or sockets. Drills can be utilized to bore holes in wood, plastic, metal and virtually any other material. Most modern drills will either have speed settings or be equipped with a variable speed motor, i.e. the farther you pull back the trigger, the faster the motor spins. Using the right drill bit and speed is key to avoiding damage to your stock (the item being drilled).

Hammer Drill
A hammer drill looks very much like a traditional drill. In fact, some drills are equipped with a traditional drill setting as well as a hammer drill setting. Hammer drills are intended, primarily, for drilling holes in concrete or masonry. Trying to drill into concrete or masonry without a hammer drill can be an exercise in futility and frustration. Be sure to use the proper bits for hammer drilling.

Impact Driver
An impact driver is intended to be used for turning screws, bolts and nuts. Usually, impact drivers have a clutch that prevents them from over-tightening the screws, bolts or nuts on which they are being used. When the clutch engages you’ll hear a high-speed ratcheting sound. Nothing is wrong with the driver. You’ve simply reached the limit of its driving capability. Some impact drivers have variable torque settings that allow the user to set the point at which the clutch will engage.

Screw Gun
Screw guns are very similar in appearance to the traditional drill. However, screw guns are designed primarily for drywall installation. If you plan to install much drywall yourself, a drywall screw gun will be worth its weight in gold. The tool is designed specifically for the job. You’ll be much less likely to over-drive your drywall screws which will result in improper installation of your drywall.

Weatherproofing Doors and Windows

Drafty doors and windows not only make for an uncomfortable home – especially in the winter months – but also drive up heating bills. Installing weather stripping and door sweeps are easy projects that can make a big difference.


One of the easiest fixes for a drafty door is to apply adhesive-backed foam weather stripping to the inside of the door stop as pictured above. The foam stripping is inexpensive. “Installing” the adhesive-backed strips is as easy as peeling the tape off the adhesive side of the foam and pressing the strip against the door stop. Typically this project will take less than 30 minutes per door. Make sure the foam is thick enough to seal the gap around the door.


If cold air leaks in at the bottom of the door, installing a new sweep is usually the best solution. Sweeps are available for both interior and exterior doors and come in a variety of styles. Additionally, sweeps can be installed with screws, nails or peel and stick adhesive strips. Installation with screws is typically the best and most long-lasting. Peel and stick adhesive strips typically don’t hold up to the friction of the opening and closing of the door.

Slide-on and staple-on sweeps require the door to be removed for installation. Wrap around door sweeps typically can be installed without removing the door. Be sure to drill small pilot holes for the screws for the best installation of screw-on sweeps.

Snap-on or pressure fit sweeps will generally hold up longer than those installed with peel and stick strips but not as long as sweeps stapled, nailed or screwed to the door.

Be sure to purchase a sweep with sweeps that are long enough, but not too long, for your door’s gap.

If you’re on a really tight budget, a rolled up blanket or towel can help block under-door drafts.

There are even more types of weather stripping for windows than there are for doors – in part because there are so many different types of windows. A relatively recent development that works in most applications is removable caulk. Sometimes called “rope caulk,” this product can be easily installed in or on virtually any clean surface. Once the weather warms up, and you want to open the window, simply peel away the rope caulk and toss it in the trash.


In addition to the typical, easy-to-see areas, a window might also be leaking air from behind the trim. Most window installers utilize an expanding foam product to insulate around the outside edges of a window before the window is trimmed out. Depending on the installer, however, this doesn’t always happen.


The expanding foam around the window pictured above is yellow and has been properly installed. You’ll need to pull off a trim board to determine if your window installer utilized expanding foam. To remove a trim piece, pry the board carefully with a thin pry bar. You may also want to place a four-inch square piece of 1/8″ or 1/4″ plywood under the fulcrum of the pry bar to avoid damaging your drywall. Start at one end of the trim board and carefully work your way toward the other end.

If you’ve tried all of these methods and still feel cold air around your windows, it may be the windows themselves. Older windows and lower quality windows simply don’t have the same insulating abilities as newer, higher quality windows. Although a window replacement project isn’t inexpensive, the savings on your heating bill and the additional comfort in your home can certainly justify the cost.

Deck Maintenance

Every year, at about this time, we run an article on deck maintenance. Midwestern weather is hard on decks. The sun, the rain, the snow, the hail, the changes in humidity … all of those things wear and tear on wood decks.

Spring Maintenance

Remove debris from between the decking boards. This is particularly important if you have trees that drop leaves on your deck. Debris between the decking boards holds moisture and contributes to mold and rot – your deck’s worst enemy. A putty knife or screwdriver works well for removing debris. If you want to save your back and knees, use duct tape and tape the putty knife or screwdriver to a broom handle or length of PVC pipe.

Once you’re done removing debris, sweep the deck in preparation for a good washing.

Protect shrubs and plants near the deck before washing it.

Wash your deck with an appropriate deck cleaner. Follow the instructions on the cleaner. Many cleaners must be applied to wet wood to keep them from staining or bleaching. A brush will help you get the mold and debris out of the wood grain and cracks. Allowing mold and debris to build up in the cracks in your deck wood will only widen those cracks. It’s preferable to wash your deck on a cool, cloudy day.

If you have access to a pressure washer, be careful. Too much water pressure can damage wood. Test the pressure washer in a hidden area to determine the distance to hold the nozzle off of the wood.

A deck must dry completely before being stained or sealed.

Once your deck is dry, replace missing or popped nails or screws. If your deck was nailed, rather than screwed, replace popped nails with slightly longer deck screws. If your deck is constructed of green treated wood, be sure to use stainless steel screws. If a nail is barely popped, pound it back in place. Pulling a nail that is still deeply driven into your deck can cause considerable damage. If you can’t easily slip the claw of your hammer or pry bar under the nail, hammer it back into place. When pulling nails, place a thin scrap of wood under your hammer or pry bar to minimize damage to the deck.

Late Spring or Early Summer Maintenance

Stain and/or seal your deck in late spring or early summer. Again, it is best to do this on a cloudy and relatively cool day. For an average size deck, you’ll need two days with clear skies and no rain in the forecast. DO NOT stain or seal if rain is in the forecast. The rain will create splotchy patterns in the stain or sealant.

Lightly sand the deck before you stain or seal it to remove any fuzziness caused by washing. Use 80 grit sandpaper on a pole sander. DO NOT use a belt sander unless you are very experienced in their use. A belt sander can do a lot of damage in a very brief period of time.

Use a roller to apply stain or sealant to horizontal surfaces and a brush for vertical surfaces. Spraying is another option but even a slight breeze can cause considerable overspray. As with most paint and stain, several thin coats are better than a single thick coat.

Mid-summer Maintenance

Keep an eye out for signs of rot. Pay particular attention to horizontal surfaces, surfaces close to the ground, areas near water sources and areas that don’t see sunlight. The ledger board (the board that attached your deck to your house) should be inspected closely with a flashlight. Debris often builds up on the ledger causing it to rot. As a major component of your deck’s structural integrity, this is an area of great concern.

Make sure your ledger board was installed with a flashing – a metal cap that covers the top of the board. Without a flashing, the ledger is highly susceptible to rot.

Check joists, posts and beams. If you’re not familiar with the components of a deck, check out our article, Checking for Deck Rot.

Fall Maintenance

Once temperatures have cooled enough, trim shrubs, plants and trees away from your deck. There should be at least twelve inches of clearance between your deck and any plants.

Clean up any leaves on or around your deck. Leaves hold moisture and moisture leads to mold and rot.

Remove any planters, chairs, tables or other movable items to avoid discoloration and make snow removal easier.

Clean leaves and debris out of any gutters near the deck.

Winter Maintenance

Winter in the Midwest is exceptionally hard on decks. Snow, ice and the freeze-thaw cycle can cause considerable damage in short order.

Keep your deck clear of snow and ice. Yes, it’s a pain in the back but it will pay off in the long run. Left on your deck, snow and ice will melt down into the cracks and grain of the wood during the thaw cycle. When that moisture freezes, it widens existing cracks and causes new ones breaking down the integrity of your deck. Composite decks are much more resistant to this type of damage.


Wood decks require a fair amount of maintenance but, when kept in good repair, they are one of the best investments in your home. Remodeling Magazine’s Cost vs. Value Report suggests that most decks return about 80% of the original investment.

Composite materials are much more durable and a smart investment in harsh climates like that of the Midwest.

Updating Cabinet Hardware

Any easy way to update your cabinets and cupboards is to replace aging drawer and door pulls with new, more up-to-date hardware. It’s a simple task that can be completed with nothing more than a screwdriver and a bit of patience.


The biggest key to a successful cabinet hardware update is getting the size pulls. Thankfully, ensuring that you purchase the right hardware is fairly easy. The first step, for hardware that utilizes two mounting points, is to carefully measure the distance between the mounting screws. Measure from the center of one screw to the center of the other screw as demonstrated in the photo below.


Some doors and drawers utilize pulls that mount with only one screw. There’s almost no way to get the wrong hardware for single-pull doors and drawers unless the diameter of the mounting screw is too large (or, rarely, too small). It’s easy to remove one of the pulls and take it with you to the store to ensure a good fit.
Once you’ve found a style of pull that you like, check your measurements, purchase enough for all your doors and drawers and maybe pick up a battery-powered screw driver in the tool aisle to save cramping in your forearm.

Turn Off Utilities

Occasionally, homeowners encounter the need to turn off the water, gas or electricity to their entire home. When the need arises, it’s usually urgent. In this month’s Homeowner 101 article, we take a look at the typical residential shut-offs for these utilities.

There are three main utilities connected to most homes – natural gas, electrical and water. In the event of an emergency, it can be very important to turn these utilities off quickly. The first step to being a prepared homeowner is to locate the shut-offs for these utilities.

To find the natural gas shutoff, locate your home’s gas meter. Typically, the gas meter is on the outside of the home. The meter will look something like the one pictured below.


The shutoff for your home’s gas supply will usually look like the valve circled in the photo below. (We’ve also included a close-up in the next photo.)



To close the valve and turn off the gas to your home, place a crescent wrench on the flat portion of the shutoff and turn it clockwise to a 90° angle. The hole on the shutoff should line up with the hole on the valve. DO NOT turn off your gas unless you smell a rotten egg smell, hear hissing, notice that the meter is spinning much more quickly than usual (This means you need to look at your meter and get a sense of how fast the dials spin under normal conditions.) or if there is a large fire immediately threatening your home. DO NOT turn the gas back on yourself. Call your local natural gas utility provider for assistance.

To locate the water shutoff for your home, you will need to locate the water meter. The water meter may be inside your home or, in warmer climates, located outside your home. Regardless of the location, your water meter will look something like the one pictured below.


In this case, the supply side of the water meter (the side from which the water flows) is on the right. The shutoff valve is on the left. The valve looks very similar to the shutoff for a hose bib on the outside of your home and operates in the same way. To shut off the water to your entire home, turn the shutoff valve clockwise until you feel strong resistance. DO NOT over-tighten the valve or you may break it. Some water meters also have a shutoff valve on the supply side of the meter. DO NOT turn off the water on the supply side.

Your water shutoff may also look like the one pictured below. If so, you simply need to move the lever into the position pictured, i.e. perpendicular to the water pipe, to shut off the water to your home.


Last, but certainly not least, is your home’s electrical shutoff. Many homeowners are familiar with the breaker box in their home. If you’ve had any electrical work done at your home, or done any yourself, you’ve probably turned off a breaker switch to disable the electricity to the circuit on which the work was done. That same breaker box usually has the shutoff for the entire home. Normally, the whole-house breaker is at the top of the panel, as pictured below (circled in red), and is a double-throw breaker – meaning two breakers are connected by a single throw (switch).


Most whole-house breakers will be labeled “On” and “Off” (see photo below). Flip the breaker to the Off position to kill electrical power to your entire home. To restore power simply flip the breaker back to the On position. There is no need to call your electrical utility company for assistance.


Turning off the utilities to your home is not difficult. However, knowing where the shutoffs are located and being familiar with their operation is one of the keys to calmly addressing urgent or emergency situations that require utilities to be shut off. Locate each of the shutoffs for your home and familiarize yourself with their operation. Make sure to keep any tools necessary in an easily accessible location and inform any family members or other inhabitants of the tools’ location. Every adult who lives in your home should know how to shut off the utilities.

Toilet Troubles

Quite frequently we are called to fix a toilet problem. Often the toilet runs periodically or there is a constant trickle. Other times the toilet won’t flush or the tank won’t fill after flushing.

Most of these problems are relatively simple to resolve. Often a homeowner can take care of these problems him or herself and save the cost of a service call.

Here are a few of the most common toilet troubles and their typical fixes:

Ghost Flushing
Symptoms: Toilet flushes periodically when no one is in the bathroom.
Cause: Ghosts, poltergeists or an ill-fitting or deteriorated flapper.
Fix: Replace the flapper with a larger, higher-quality, new flapper (see photo below for location of flapper)
Tips: Make sure the chain connecting the flapper to the handle arm is neither too loose or too tight. Make sure the tank opening beneath the flapper is free of debris before installing the new flapper. Shut off the water supply to the toilet and empty the tank before installing the new flapper.

Toilet Won’t Flush
Symptoms: When the toilet handle is pressed, nothing happens; often the way the handle moves will be different than normal
Cause: Broken or damaged handle, handle arm or flapper chain
Fix: Replace handle/arm assembly or flapper
Tips: If replacing the flapper, make sure the chain is neither too loose nor too tight. If replacing the handle/arm assembly, be sure to purchase a quality replacement (We recommend one with a brass arm) that is compatible with your toilet, e.g. front flush, side flush.

Constant Trickle
Symptoms: Constant sound of water trickling into the toilet bowl, periodic Ghost Flushes
Cause: Ill-fitting or deteriorated flapper.
Fix: Replace the flapper with a larger, higher-quality, new flapper (see photo below for location of flapper)
Tips: Make sure the chain connecting the flapper to the handle arm is neither too loose or too tight. Make sure the tank opening beneath the flapper is free of debris before installing the new flapper. Shut off the water supply to the toilet and empty the tank before installing the new flapper.

Toilet Tank Won’t Re-fill After Flushing
Symptoms: Toilet flushes but tank does not re-fill
Cause: Broken or damaged float or fill valve
Fix: We’re starting to get into more advanced repairs here. One possible fix is to replace the float. Some toilets (usually older toilets) have a float as pictured below. This type of float is relatively easy to replace. Simply unscrew the float from the float arm, purchase a new float and screw it back onto the float arm. If this doesn’t solve the problem, or if you have a newer style toilet with the float on the fill valve stem, it’s probably time to call Handyman Joes.

Spring Maintenance Tips

Winter weather is hard on your home. As the weather warms up, take time on a beautiful spring day to check these items before they become major problems:

  • Roof – Look for damaged or missing shingles or flashing
  • Gutters – Check for loose, leaky or clogged gutters & downspouts
  • Chimney – Check joints for missing mortar; look for efflorescence; have chimney cleaned if you have a wood-burning stove or fireplace
  • Exterior Walls – Look for damage to siding, brick or stucco
  • Windows – Check caulk and weather stripping; look for water damage to sills, frames & sashes (inside and outside)
  • Deck & Fence – Look for water damage & heaving (frost pushing posts up out of the ground)
  • Hose Bibs – De-winterize and check for freeze damage (Place your thumb over the spigot and turn on the water. If water doesn’t push past your thumb, you may have a water leak inside your home.)
  • Foundation – Look for cracks in the foundation or settling of dirt near the foundation
  • Firewood – Move firewood away from your home – it’s a potential fire hazard and it may be filled with termites and/or carpenter ants
  • Concrete Slabs – Check for cracks or heaving
  • Heating Ventilation & Air Conditioning (HVAC) System – Change filters, turn off whole-house humidifier, clear plants & debris away from condensing unit (outside your house); have a qualified HVAC specialist inspect

Preventing Wood Rot

Rotting wood can be one of the most expensive types of home damage that a homeowner can experience. Once rot takes hold, the only option is usually a costly repair that involves replacement of the rotted parts.

Left untreated, wood rot spreads quickly and may lead to very serious structural damage. Moreover, damp wood is a welcome mat for termites and carpenter ants. An infestation of these pests can quickly reduce framing and structural wood beams to a crumbling mass.

So, how can you defend your home against rot and wood-damaging pests? Two ways: Frequent inspection and preventive maintenance.

At least twice a year, walk around your home and look for signs of rot. Look for the following:

  • Peeling, cracked or bubbling paint
  • Stains under eaves, around fireplaces and on interior ceilings
  • Sagging or leaking gutters and downspouts
  • Shrubbery or tree branches closer than two feet from siding or roofing
  • Vents blocked with insulation or debris
  • Dirt, leaves or twigs between decking boards

Focus on areas where two pieces of trim meet, where pieces of siding butt up against each other or where siding meets trim. Check horizontal surfaces carefully. Water tends to sit in areas like deck stairs, window sills, door thresholds and railings.

If you find any of the conditions listed above, it’s time to probe for rot. Use a nail or pocket knife to probe the area. If the wood feels soft, rot has started. If the wood crumbles, rot has set in and is spreading to other areas.

Tips for Preventing Rot

  • Always use decay-resistant or pressure-treated lumber for decks. Wood that touches the ground should be pressure-treated that is rated for ground contact.
  • Consider replacing wood brick mold and trim with a PVC or other composite product.
  • Consider replacing wood siding with fiber cement siding.
  • Prime, stain or paint all (6) sides of exterior lumber.
  • Build sloped horizontal surfaces to augment drainage.
  • Plug fasteners by countersinking and placing a wood plug or caulking in the hole.
  • Maintain exterior paint and stain to ensure wood surfaces always have an adequate coat of protection against moisture.
  • Maintain exterior caulking to seal out as much moisture as possible but allow wood to “breathe”.
  • Repair hail and other storm damage to exterior wood as quickly as possible.
  • Don’t lean anything, such as old lumber, tools or ladders, against your siding.
  • Keep plants trimmed back at least two feet from your house’s exterior.
  • Clean your gutters regularly.
  • If you have a whole-house humidifier, adjust your humidistat as the temperature changes to keep moisture from accumulating on windows and metal surfaces. (This is probably the #1 cause of rot in windows.)
  • Adequately vent humid rooms such as bathrooms and laundry rooms.

Prepare for Winter

There’s a chill in the air these days. That cool air serves as a reminder that even colder temperatures are just around the corner. If you were freezing last winter – even inside your home – now is the time to spend a few minutes getting ready for what promises to be a bitterly cold few months.

Let’s take a look at your home and develop a checklist to get ready for winter. There are several categories of items to check and/or take care of to make sure your home is ready to keep you warm and cozy through the long, cold months ahead.

First, there are several systems that should be checked or maintained before the temperatures dip below freezing.

The most obvious system is your heating, ventilation and air conditioning system (HVAC). Whether you have a traditional furnace or a heat pump, it’s a good idea to have a professional perform an annual check-up. The HVAC professional will make sure that your HVAC system is prepared to keep you warm even if the weather outside is frightful. A couple things that even the newest homeowner can do themselves are changing the filter and closing vents on upper floors. A clean filter will ensure an efficiently operating heating system. Closing vents on upper floors will help force heat down to the lower floors. Since heat rises, there’s really no need to force it to your home’s upper floors through ductwork and open vents.

Anyone who owns a home with a lawn sprinkler system knows that it needs to be drained or blown out before the ground freezes. Depending on the type of sprinkler system you have, you can either let it drain on its own or you can hire a professional to blow the residual water out of the system with an air compressor. If you’re not sure which type of system you have, it’s best to call in the pros to make sure your system is drained properly. You may also want to put an insulating blanket over the backflow preventer on the exterior of your home. It’s difficult to get all of the water out of the backflow preventer valve. Often this water freezes and damages parts in side of the valve. Alternatively, you (or your sprinkler professional) can remove the cap and internal parts from the valve and allow the water to evaporate.

While we’re on the subject of water systems, it’s a good idea to winterize your hose bibs at the same time that you winterize your sprinkler system. At a minimum you should disconnect any hoses from the bibs and drain the water out of the hoses. Storing the hoses inside (in the garage is fine if you have an insulated garage) will help them last longer. Some hose bibs have an internal shutoff. If yours are so equipped, turn off the water and open the valve on the exterior spigot.

Another major area for winter home preparation is cold air ingress prevention. Windows, doors, outlets and switches on external walls and a lack of insulation in many Midwestern homes’ attics are some of the biggest problem areas for cold air ingress. The best way to identify your home’s cold spots is an “energy audit”. When Handyman Joes performs an energy audit, we utilize an infrared thermometer to measure the temperature in the areas of your home that typically allow cold air into your home’s interior. As we identify potential issues, we discuss them with you and walk through the options to reduce the amount of cold air entering your home. Solutions run the gambit from simple fixes like weather stripping and caulking to replacing doors and windows. The good news is that these projects will pay for themselves in reduced utility bills – in both winter and summer.

Another idea for winter prep is to place reflective “staffs” at the edges of your driveway and sidewalks. These small diameter poles help guide you while doing snow removal and help guide visitors when they’re entering and exiting your driveway. This reduces damage to your lawn, landscaping and sprinkler heads. Saving one sprinkler head will easily pay for the cost of the markers. Most hardware and home improvement stores carry these markers. They’re easily installed by tapping them into the ground before it freezes. Once the ground has frozen, installation becomes much more difficult.

Finally, it’s important to make many of these improvements while the weather is still nice. Caulking, painting and installing weather stripping with self-stick adhesive strips all need to be done when the temperature is warm enough to allow the paint, caulk or adhesive to bond and for the paint and caulk to cure properly. Don’t put off these projects until after the first snow flies or the ground freezes!