Monday, April 30, 2012

Bathroom Toilet Repair: The Smell from Hell

I received a question from Samuel C. asking: "I have a constant smell in my bathroom I can't seem to find or fix. Any suggestions?"

Yes.... Flush when you're done.

No, I'm kidding Sam.
What you are most likely smelling are sewer gasses. All of the drains in your bathroom lead to a central drain that takes waste-water out of your house to either a city sewer line or a leach field depending on where you live. Those drain lines can contain sewer gasses such as Methane, hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, sulfur dioxide and more.

The way we stop those gasses from coming back into your house is by means of a "trap". What's a trap? 
A trap is when a woman asks you if an outfit makes her look heavy..... It's also a U-shaped bend in the drain line that "traps" water creating a barrier between you and the open sewer system.

The Usual Suspects:

In a full bathroom there are typically three traps:
  1. One under the sink (which is often located in the vanity cabinet)
  2. One under the tub/shower (which is usually hidden in the floor)
  3. One in the toilet (This one is actually built into the toilet itself)

One or more of these could be causing that smell. Typically, if a sink trap is faulty, you will see signs of water damage below the trap suggesting it's not holding water as it should. That would show up in the vanity cabinet floor. For the tub/shower it can be trickier as the trap is enclosed and may show signs of leaking in the ceiling below if it's a second floor bathroom.

All of that being said, the first place I always check and the most likely candidate is the toilet and let me explain why. 
As I mentioned, the toilet has a built-in trap. This trap allows the toilet to maintain the water level inside the bowl. If there was no trap, the water would just flow down the drain and the toilet bowl would be empty and dry. When a toilet is installed, it's placed onto a floor drain using a wax ring gasket.

The wax ring is used to seal the drain outlet on the bottom of the toilet to the drain opening in the floor. When a toilet is installed, the ring is placed onto the drain... the toilet is dropped onto the ring... and the toilet bolts (also known as closet bolts) are tightened enough to lock the toilet in place. If that wax gasket ring starts to fail or isn't seated properly? Sewer gasses can sneak out from under your toilet causing your bathroom to have that suspicious smell. It can also cause water to escape, sometimes invisibly, with each flush potentially damaging the floor hidden under the toilet.

How To Repair A Toilet Gasket: 

1) Turn off the water supply to your toilet

2) Flush the toilet and hold the handle down to drain as much water from the tank & bowl as possible

3) Disconnect the water supply line

4) Disconnect the two closet bolts holding the toilet to the floor

5) Lift the toilet straight up and off and place it to the side. Try to lay either old towels or a drop-cloth underneath as the wax ring can be stuck to the underside and make a mess of whatever it touches. Also, It's hard to get all of the water out of the toilet without pumping it and any tilting will cause it to spill out from underneath. 

6) You'll now see the drain flange on the floor. Scrape any excess wax off of the flange to prepare it for a new wax ring.
I suggest buying a jumbo ring with a built-in flange to get the best seal. They often come with new closet bolts in case your old ones are junk.

7) Be sure to inspect and clean the bottom outlet of the toilet to remove any excess wax that may be stuck to the toilet. BE CAREFUL! As I mentioned, when you tip the toilet excess water WILL spill out. I like to take the toilet into the tub or shower for this maneuver if possible. Also, the wax that the rings are made out of can make a mess of anything it comes in contact with. Do your best not to get it on you, your floors, your dog.... your children.

8) Set the new wax gasket in place on the floor, position the closet bolts so they are straight up and ready for the toilet. 

9) Drop the toilet in place making sure the bolts slide up through both holes in the base of the toilet and press down. You should feel the toilet raised from the floor as you press it down a bit into place till the base touches the floor. That's the wax gasket ring getting squished down and creating the seal you need. If the toilet hits the floor with a clunk, the gap between the drain flange and toilet outlet may have been to big for the wax ring to seal. You may need to stack a secondary standard wax ring on top to create a seal (this isn't ideal, I'd rather have a new toilet flange installed at the proper height but, it's not uncommon).

10) Tighten down the closet bolts making sure NOT to use too much torque. You aren't installing tires on a race car here so, take it easy Mr. Goodwrench. You just want to hold the toilet in place, not crack the porcelain base of the toilet or damage the drain flange.

11) Reconnect the water supply, turn on the water and let the tank fill back up.

12) Flush a few times to make sure things are sealed and no water is leaking out and voila.... you've successfully re-installed your toilet with a proper seal.

Sometimes there can be complications of broken toilet flanges, closet bolts or rotted sub-flooring. If you find any of that in your situation, it will need to be repaired before reinstalling the toilet.
Best of luck and if you have any other questions, be sure to Ask A Home Improvement Expert!



Image: Marco Torresin /

Thursday, April 26, 2012


We've added a new feature to our website, "Ask a Home Improvement Expert".
It's designed to allow any of you with a DIY (Do It Yourself) question to submit it to Focalpoint Renovations along with your name and email address.

We will respond to all questions within 48 hours and do our best to answer every question you might have about how to do something or more importantly, how NOT to do something!

Drop us a line and see if we can answer something for you!
The best questions and answers will be posted here on our blog so that others may read them as well.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Home Improvement Stores: Are They Really An Improvement?

     I was in Lowe's the other day looking at pre-finished flooring trying to compare their off-the-shelf products to another company that I like to use, Lumber Liquidators.  I was checking out the open boxes and inspecting the individual pieces, trying to eyeball how clean, straight and consistent they were so I could approximate the actual waste expected per box, then it hit me.... What the hell am I doing?
I mean that in the nicest and broadest senses of the words but seriously, what the hell was I doing?
I know so many hardwood flooring suppliers, why am I here doing renovation recon?
Was I getting paid to investigate these materials? No.
Do I gain anything from this process? No, well ...Yes. I gain the advantage of knowing what products are available to my customers and at what price.
Does this knowledge make me more money? This is where it gets tricky...

     There was a time, not so long ago, when their wasn't such a thing as a Home Depot or a Lowe's. There were local supply houses that contractors would order their materials from. The thought of a homeowner coming to a supply house to investigate pricing on flooring, or furnaces, or roofing materials wasn't unheard of... but it certainly wasn't a common strategy. As a matter of fact, most supply houses used to offer slightly reduced contractor pricing to try and cover the costs of estimating, ordering and delivery that contractors have to do on a daily basis and give contractors some room to breathe just in case an overzealous homeowner came in looking to beat down a builder.

     Now things are differen't. A homeowner can walk into a Home Improvement center and casually stroll through the aisles, gaining vast amounts of information about the prices of available materials for their homes. They can even casually glance at the bannered pricing campaigns that say things like, "Whole house carpet installation for only $37.00!" (I bet you think I made that up, I thought you might. Here's the ad from 2 seconds ago): 

Let me stop here.
Does anyone really believe that an entire house can be carpeted for thirty-seven dollars? I mean, seriously... even if only two guys show up to do the install and they only get paid $10.00/hour and somehow manage to carpet and clean up your whole house in an 8 hour day.... that's still $10 x 8(hrs) x 2(guys)= $160.00.... and that doesn't cover any of the delivery or fuel expenses. This math isn't adding up.
First of all, there must be a tremendous mark-up on the carpet you're buying for them to be able to offer this service.
Second of all, catch words like "Basic Installation" usually mean things like
  • You want us to take the old carpet out? That's extra
  • You want us to dispose of the old carpet? That's extra
  • You wan't the old, moldy & stained padding removed from under your carpet? That's extra
  • You want new padding installed? That's extra
  • You have stairs you want carpeted in your house? That's extra
  • You wan't us to walk up those stairs to carpet your second floor? That's extra
Basically speaking, nobody ever qualifies for "Basic installation"...

What's difficult for contractors is that most homeowners never get to that stage of questioning. They see a sign that says "Whole house carpet installation for only $37.00" and often call a contractor saying... "I've found the carpet I like and know the price I can buy it for. Can YOU carpet my whole house for $37.00?"        The answer, of course, is No.

Let me come right out and say this: No professional can carpet an entire house for $37.00.

     I don't care if your house is 15 feet long x 15 feet wide, one room, no kitchen, just a bed on the floor with a hot-plate, a bag of stale Cheetos and a sleeping bag....  It'll cost more than $37.00 to have someone install your flooring. I say this so that homeowners can have a more realistic expectation of what a good contractor will cost. 
     As a matter of fact, I'll drop this little tid-bit of advice out there to chew on... in most cases, expect to pay at least as much for labor as you do materials. Sound crazy? Let me blow this by you: If you find an Andersen Frenchwood patio door for $1,000.00 that you'd like to use to replace the sliding glass door that's falling off of your house? Expect to pay at least that much in labor to remove the old one, prep the opening, install the new door and remove all debris.
If you find a good deal on pre-finished 2 1/4" maple flooring at only $3.25/square foot? Expect to pay all of that per square foot in installation costs and even more if there is a floor that needs to be removed before this new-lovely can be installed.

     This is the real world, and sometimes I think people just love the idea of a great deal. They have learned NOT to believe the car commercial that says, "You can be driving this car for only $37.00 a week!" because many of us have figured out that you have to put a significant amount of money down... then qualify for a very specific set of credit terms... then opt to buy a very specific vehicle that often isn't available once you've jumped through the first two hoops bringing that $37.00/week purchase right back to a more common $385/month car payment.

     Which brings me all the way back to Lowe's, staring at flooring, wondering if this is the right product for my customer...
Why am I doing this? Because I want to have the most informed answers for my customers.
Does this pay off? It does when my company is hired to do a job because we know more about what's available and have advice on product lines.
Has the advent of warehouse home improvement companies made contracting more difficult? INFINITELY!
     Does all of this knowledge make me more money? I think you have to be able to defend your estimate prices against all competition. You have to be able to explain to a potential customer that perhaps your "more expensive" estimate covers things that would be an "extra" on another companies estimate. Sometimes, it's better to know how everyone else is doing business for no other reason than to feel confident about doing business your way.

As always, I'm Daniel and I don't model..... I REMODEL! <--- (you're just dying to click it.... go ahead, nobody's looking... I dare you.)


Friday, April 20, 2012

Google Over-Optimization Penalty. WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!

Google's over optimization penalty drives  people crazy
I just wanted to take a second to mention something that Google has been dangling out there and that everyone of us who owns a website should be aware of.
It's called the Website Over-Optimization Penalty. Let met start by quoting my hero, SEO guru/Google mouthpiece Matt Cutts:

"What about the people optimizing really hard and doing a lot of SEO. We don’t normally pre-announce changes but there is something we are working in the last few months and hope to release it in the next months or few weeks. We are trying to level the playing field a bit. All those people doing, for lack of a better word, over optimization or overly SEO – versus those making great content and great site. We are trying to make GoogleBot smarter, make our relevance better, and we are also looking for those who abuse it, like too many keywords on a page, or exchange way too many links or go well beyond what you normally expect. We have several engineers on my team working on this right now.”

The reason I blog about these things is so that small business owners can talk candidly and open about what works and what doesn't work in terms of getting our sites to show up better in search results. I've hinted quite a few times that keywords may begin to slowly lose out to "fresh content"  if Google has its way.

Some people are calling this 'THE DEATH OF SEO' which, quite frankly, makes me laugh. 

I equate that to mp3's being the DEATH OF MUSIC.  

No they weren't.
It was yet another landmark in the rethinking how music could be presented much like compact discs were when they came onto the market. Did mp3's hurt the established music industry? Yeah.... they did. They released the strangle-hold labels had on how music was presented. Did it put a knife in the back of the compact disc? Yeah, sorry.... I took that same walk of shame as  some of you, putting most of them away after transferring them onto my computer and wondering how much money I had spent on vinyl, cassettes, cd's only to have them all end up on this new invisible file called an mp3... but, is music dead?.................................... Come on.

Even the worst surfer would probably tell you that you need to stay ahead of the wave if you want to keep on your feet. If you're going cry every time the tides change, you might want to find a different way to spend your time.

This whole algorithmic change? It's all just something new that we need to factor into how we present our companies.  I've read more guesses as to what the correct density of keywords should be (2-4%? or is it 5%?) or how we shouldn't be too repetitive in our URL's, titles and descriptions as not to sound like we're keyword stuffing...

Let me toss this crazy notion out there: Google wants things to be more natural? Here's my advice: Stay natural!

Still use SEO? HELL, YEAH
But make sure you put the "O" in "Search Engine Optimization".  Make sure your browser titles are unique to each page. Make sure they make sense... you know who I'm talking to.... THINK ABOUT (yes I said it) if your content and design seems natural!

If your website is (which was available when I wrote this blog so if you secure that name, I'll be coming after you once you've made your first million)... Then you should be looking to write about things such as "Steak knives, dirty dishes, soap scum, bits of food in the strainer, mildew around the faucet, and oh my god where is my wedding ring??"... and so on.
If you decide to approach this site with "Things in my sink, Sink, Kitchen Sink, Sink things, My Sink, Sink Kitchen, things sink,...." and worst of all "In-sink" (Sorry Justin Timberlake)... then you may be setting yourself up for a Google over-optimization penalty. I refuse to accept that the fact that thinking about NOT over-optimizing is anything less than full-blown SEO at its finest! Google isn't asking you to stop being a salesman, they are asking you to be a better salesman or at least a different type of salesman than some of us have become used to being.
Stay smart, stay sharp, and stay in the game. I'll be in the car listening to my compact discs while I can still buy them....or a car stereo that will play them..... or a car for that matter.

So, for now... I'm Daniel and I'm a General Contractor. <-- (and yes that's a link.)


Image: David Castillo Dominici /

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Kitchen Remodeling Design and Ideas

 "What is the focal point of a kitchen"? Those were the search terms our website was viewed under recently and it was an extremely interesting question so I thought I'd take a second to address it.

Every kitchen is unique as well as every customer but, often times we find certain similarities that help us focus the direction a kitchen might take. Here are a few things to consider while thinking about a new kitchen design.

  1. Kitchen sink location: Why is this important? With many kitchens, the sink is often located directly under a kitchen window. This is an extremely common element and one of the first things we take into consideration when talking to customers about new kitchen designs. It's the first decision a homeowner should think about, where they want the sink. That tells us where we will be placing our new sink base cabinet. If it is to be centered on that window, it allows us to have a starting point to begin building our new kitchen cabinet design around.
  2. Dishwasher location: Typically, you will find your dishwasher located in close proximity to your sink. Why? Because your sink base cabinet offers both a water supply and drain location. We need both of these for our dishwasher to operate which is why you will often see a dishwasher located to the immediate right or left of a sink. It also makes a lot of sense in terms of location because often the homeowner will be rinsing off dishes and stacking them right into the dishwasher.
  3. Range/Cook top location: I am referring to the cook top or range... not the oven. Many times, these are one unit but quite often we install separate wall ovens (often double ovens). An oven unit tends to be used by setting a temperature, inserting whatever is being cooked and basically leaving it alone until it either needs to be checked on or removed. Cook tops are a different beast, we tend to find that there are usually saucepans and pots coming on and off of a cook top many times during the preparation of a meal. Therefor, we like to position a cook top in close proximity to the sink and dishwasher if possible.
  4. Refrigerator Location: This tends to be the last major piece of the puzzle. We always want it close enough that food can be grabbed quickly during the cooking process but, we also want it in a place that family members can access it for a quick drink or snack while another family member might be preparing a meal. It also helps to be positioned in such a way that when groceries are being brought into the home from a vehicle, grocery bags can be placed onto a nearby counter top before being stored away. (We all do this. You know you've done it.... carrying in multiple plastic bags of groceries from the car like it's a carnival game, seeing how many you can loop onto each finger before it gets too heavy to carry or before your hand gets ripped off... My personal best is 9. Feel free to post your best in the comments section below!)

So, what does this have to do with deciding the focal point of a kitchen? Well, if you know WHERE you are going to put the main parts of your kitchen... it becomes a lot easier to place the rest. That being said, these locations begin to tell you what the focal point of your kitchen is instead of you having to decide that and then somehow making everything else magically happen.

Here is a design we've been working on with one of our customers:

As you can see, the sink is centered under the kitchen window. We wanted to place the dishwasher to the right and the cook top along the turn of the cabinet line. We didn't want a continuous line of wall cabinets on either side. It just felt boring and predictable. What we are working towards is accenting the cabinetry. To the left of the sink, we are thinking about taller, glass door cabinets.... and to the right, a raised hood structure above the cook top.
Much of this will be tweaked as this is a work in progress, but you can see simple ways of creating multiple focal points within the cabinet lines of a kitchen using the fixed elements we mentioned as anchors to our design.

In case you were wondering where the fridge and oven are.....

You can also see the microwave has been installed into a base cabinet in the center island. It's another element that is often important to the layout of the kitchen. Some people use them frequently, other use them just to heat up left-overs and make tea.
The one great thing about modern microwave ovens is that they can be mounted into the upper cabinet lines above the cook tops with incorporated ventilation systems which can take the place of a "hood" for a standard cooktop.  If you are looking to install a 6 burner, LP Viking range.... this won't cut the mustard but for a standard four burner range it can be a great way to reduce cook top ventilation costs.

When it comes to an individual kitchen project, many of these variables will change. Bigger budget kitchens can have sinks in the island, downdraft or center hood cook surfaces, multiple wall ovens and more.
If you are talking about a kitchen design that is LESS than the average cost of a European sedan, then those locations will be the first steps in determining the 'Focal point' of your new kitchen.


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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Twist & Grout!... Floor tile 101

How To Grout A Floor



Let's talk about GROUT!
(Please, no throwing of panties at your monitor. I know this is exciting stuff...)

So what does it take to grout a floor? 

Well, this is actually a fairly simple answer: 
A bucket of clean water, an over-sized commercial grade sponge and a FLOAT
What's a float? 
(Dairy Queen would tell you different)  but it's a rubber based trowel that allows you to squeeze grout into the open spaces between each tile while squeegeeing off the excess.

Let me break this down fast and hard: Put 2 minutes on the clock....

1) Make sure your tile has set for at least 24 hours

2) Make sure there is no excess thinset mortar that might pop through the grout lines

3) Make sure all of the grout lines have been cleaned and vacuumed to remove debris

4) Mix your grout to a proper consistency

I'm going to stop here. Nobody ever gives a great description of the proper consistency of a grout mix. Here's mine.. You want it to be thick enough that when you swirl your trowel through it? It stays in that last shape after you pull your trowel out of the bucket. It shouldn't slump or sag back into level.
BUT!!.. It shouldn't be so thick as to be dry and/or pastey. You want it right in that sweet spot between soft and firm. I would describe it as halfway between cake batter and peanut butter.  You may need to add water to it as you work the floor because there is a thing called "slaking" that all mortars and grouts do. Basically, they firm up in the minutes right after the initial mix and you need to remix them (sometimes adding a few drops more water) after a short period of "slaking" <--- Use that word with your friends and they'll think you made it up.

5) FLOAT (not trowel) your grout out along the surface of the floor holding the float on a slight angle as to use it's edge.

This sounds technical? But just throw a good size blob in the area you are working and begin to "FLOAT"... you with me?... Float that grout across a small workable area.

6) Remove the excess grout by floating in a wide, sweeping motion trying to keep your Float perpendicular to the grout lines

What you want to do is use your float in your hand like a giant windshield wiper. Make long swooping passes with your arm extended working the area farthest from your position back TOWARDS your position. Make sure not to dig out any grout with the float as you pass over the floor. You should be just filling them in.
Look, I can't grout and take a snapshot at the same time but... stare at this and you'll get the idea of what I'm saying:
Picture of random dude doing some grouting

Look at the picture. See how he's holding the Float on its edge? See how its squishing the grout into the grout lines while pulling off the excess? See how he has a small pile of grout in front of him ready to fill more grout lines?.... Yeah, DO THAT. Just promise me you won't wear the silly sweatbands that this knucklehead is wearing. I must have found the only image ever captured of Bj√∂rn Borg grouting a floor. 

Where was I? .... oh, yeah 

7) Using your sponge and clean water, work the area you have just grouted to clean and form the grout lines.

This is the easiest part but SOOO many people get this wrong. Don't wait, you don't need to let the grout 'set'.... trust me, more people end up fighting with clean up because they thought they needed to grout, wait, then clean. Just go ahead and work an area... maybe a few feet wide. When you've floated the grout lines, removed the excess, then use your sponge and water to work the area in the same manner much like removing a paint spill from floor. Wring out that sponge, it shouldn't be dripping... and don't be afraid to change the water along the way, clean water is key. You're going to end up with a product that looks completely clean while it's wet but, dries to a soft and easily removable haze when it dries.
The "haze" always messes people up. It should be little more than a dusting that comes off by wiping your hand across the surface. Much like dust on a mantle. Any more than that?... You didn't clean well enough during the sponge process.

Lastly, (which probably should have been "firstly"?)... There are many types of grout (Standard, Epoxy, Modified, etc). In most situations you will be dealing with standard grout in one of two forms: Sanded and Unsanded.

-SANDED is exactly what it says. There is a sand additive to give it strength for larger grout lines (usually bigger than 1/8"). This is typically the grout that you will use for a floor tiles.

-UNSANDED (take a guess where that name came from). There is no sand added and this mixes up more like a thick pudding. It's used for most wall tile applications or areas where the grout lines are 1/8" or less.

That'll head you in the right direction. Most of this is actually getting used to having a float in your hand and learning the right angle that works for you. You can't talk someone how to ride a bike....they have to do it to get the feel of what you're saying so... go cop a feel.

Okay! I think I've successfully filled my innuendo quota. Never be afraid to drop us a line if you have any DIY project questions at Ask A Home Improvement Expert!


Image: sixninepixels /

Sunday, April 1, 2012

New Promotional Video

We have a new promotional video on Youtube. Check it out and let us know how we did.