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9 Common Home Dilemmas, With Solutions From the Pros

Why does your tap water smell bad? Should you get an induction stove? Are solar panels a good fit?

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Owning a house can mean unending projects and questions about everything from basements to attics. And as modern homes go increasingly high-tech, there’s often a need for the professionals to weigh in. Here are nine home challenges and insights from people who know how to address them.

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My utility company keeps telling me to upgrade to a “smart” thermostat. Could this really save me money?

Probably, but the amount depends on the thermostat that you’re replacing. Smart thermostats can be controlled with a phone, smart speaker or computer; use them to program your home temperature based on day, time and whether you’re at home. If you’re replacing an old mercury or bimetal thermostat, you’ll see greater savings than if you’re upgrading a programmable digital thermostat. But there are other benefits to a smart thermostat, including the ability to adjust the temperature when you are away and receive alerts if there are operating issues.

— Steve Stewart, owner, Southern Comfort Mechanical, Lewisville, Texas

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My surfaces are constantly dusty, no matter how often I clean.

Dust happens; there’s no simple way to reduce the amount generated in your home, given its many sources. But routine cleaning can stop it from accumulating. Skip the feather duster or old T-shirt; the secret weapon is a damp, clean microfiber cloth. To dampen to the right level, don’t use the sink; hold the cloth by a corner and lightly mist with water from a spray bottle. A damp microfiber cloth won’t leave lint or dust behind like many other dusting cloths, so you don’t have to dust as often. ​

— Vera Peterson, president, Molly Maid

Our tap water increasingly tastes and smells bad. But I don’t want to use bottled water.

Tap water in America is by and large safe to drink but, yes, it can vary widely by community in its mineral content and taste. That’s why I always suggest using charcoal water filters, which are portable and perfect for adding to water bottles; there are also many charcoal-filtered water pitchers (opt for glass over plastic if you can). Both options help cut out odors and any lingering taste from dissolved minerals. Many new refrigerators offer built-in filtered water as well. Don’t like the smell of the water in the shower or clothes washer as well? Whole-house filtering systems generally run $1,000 and up, plus installation, and are much more compact than in decades past.

— Emy Kane, strategy director, Lonely Whale, a nonprofit that fights plastic pollution

My plumber wants to replace our old water heater with a tankless unit, but I’m dubious.

A tankless unit heats water upon demand; it doesn’t waste energy maintaining a reserve of hot water in a tank. The efficiency gain can be on the order of about 10 percent if you use lots of hot water (say, 80-plus gallons per day); if you use about 40 gallons of hot water per day, the savings could be above 30 percent. But if you’re serious about lower energy costs, consider an electric heat pump water heater; that can be three times more efficient than what you have today.

— Alejandra Mejia Cunningham, clean buildings expert, Natural Resources Defense Council

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There are days when my attic peaks at 125 degrees. Is this dangerous for my house?

As long as the construction materials in your roof are rated for that temperature and applied correctly, such temperatures don’t pose any danger to your home. In most cases, an attic fan is unnecessary. If you’re concerned that hot air in the attic is affecting the rest of your home, focus on better insulating the attic with 12 to 15 inches of blown cellulose to achieve an insulation rating of R49. Then it doesn’t matter how hot the attic gets, because the heat transfer into the living space will be much slower.

— Todd Greenwell, senior engineer, Idaho Power

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I hear raves about induction stoves. I’d consider one, but not if I have to get all new pots.

Induction stoves never get hot; they work by generating a magnetic current through your cooking pans to produce heat. So what you need are pans that can be magnetized. You may have more than you think. Aside from those made entirely from copper, glass or aluminum, much cookware contains the steel or iron necessary to work on an induction stove. Not sure about yours? Hold a magnet up to the bottom. If it sticks, it’s fine to use on an induction stove.

— Rachelle Boucher, owner, Kitchens to Life, a California electric-kitchen consulting company

My neighbor is boasting about the heating system he added to his roof and gutters to prevent ice dams. Was he smart or did he waste his money?

Roof heating and cables are a Band-Aid at best, and generally not recommended except for very complex roofs. While they can mitigate ice-related damage to the roof, they can also shorten the life of the roofing material. Ice dams are formed when warm air from your home melts snow on the roof deck; then the water refreezes as it makes its way toward the gutter. The better solution is to better insulate and air-seal your attic so all warmth stays inside your home.

— Patrick Huelman, associate extension professor, University of Minnesota department of bioproducts and biosystems engineering

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I cough a lot at night. What bed maintenance should I do?

Beds should be cleaned every six months, the Sleep Foundation recommends; dust mites, dead skin and dirt accumulate, even if you can’t see it. Use this three-part routine. 1. Strip the bed and give your mattress a good vacuuming, which removes dirt and dust. 2. Cover stains with a layer of spot stain remover. Let it sit, wipe it off. 3. Bring on the steamer; you can buy a modestly priced unit or rent a professional-grade one by the day. Steaming gives your mattress its final deep-clean by eradicating stubborn bacteria.

— Jessica Samson, cleaning expert

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My spouse thinks we’ll save money by putting electricity-generating solar panels on the roof, but we get less than five hours of direct sun a day. Is he crazy? 

Not when it comes to solar power. The general rule of thumb is that if you average four or more hours of peak sun on your roof per day, installing a system is worthwhile. Solar panels do work in cloudy weather or partial shade, or if there is a modest level of snow on them, but at much less efficiency. Talk to a local solar installer and also to neighbors who have installed systems. If rooftop solar isn’t the best option for you, there are other options, like community solar or changing your electricity sources through your utility.

— Jen Bristol, senior director of communications, Solar Energy Industries Association

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