Archives for category: home repairs



To accrue knowledge is generally a positive thing. But in certain circumstances ignorance is definitely bliss. For instance, twenty years ago, thanks to a herniated disk in my lower back, I mastered a whole new vocabulary. I could hold forth on extrusions, nerve endings, and all types of spasms. I didn’t seek this knowledge, but it washed over me like a tsunami. More recently, I learned all there is to know about another unwanted affliction. On the theory that misery loves company I share my knowledge below.




My wife, Katie, and I were invited to attend a wedding in Knoxville, Tennessee in October 2015. As the weekend approached, we were particularly excited to get away because it had rained every day the preceding week. Knowing the Blue Ridge Mountains are beautiful we planned to extend our trip for several days to see the scenery.


Unfortunately, it continued to rain from the moment we left Chapel Hill until just moments before we returned five days later. The bride and groom were admirably flexible in shifting outdoor events inside, and the wedding proceeded triumphantly.

Our anticipated sightseeing, however, was less successful, unless one considers windshield wipers beautiful. We enjoyed approximately ten minutes of magical vistas along the Blue Ridge Parkway, then four or five hours of fog, drizzle and torrential downpours. I suspect holding the steering wheel in a death grip doesn’t make the tires grip the road more firmly. Still, just in case, I squeezed as if our lives depended on it



Upon our return home in late afternoon twilight, we noticed something odd on the square columns supporting our front porch; there appeared to be small, circular black dots, hundreds of them, about five times the size of the period at the end of this sentence. We didn’t think too much of it at that moment and went inside to recover from the ride. Overdue to power-wash the exterior of the house, we credited the dots with reminding us to call a contractor the next day.




In the morning, curious about the nature of the dots, Katie and I went to the front porch and scraped one with a fingernail. To our surprise, it didn’t come off. The black material held onto the light beige paint more strenuously than a politician holds on to publicity. I noticed the dots also covered the cedar siding, which was also beige, though slightly darker than the trim. A few dots came off the comparatively rough surface of the siding with a fingernail but there were HUNDREDS of them, maybe thousands. Each one represented not only a stain but also a tiny bump.


“Power-washing won’t get this off,” I said.

“What could it be?” said Katie.

“It had better not be mold,” I said, mindful of the health risks and extreme expense of mold removal.

Perplexed, we inspected the entire exterior of our home. The north and west sides were covered with stains from ground level up to about fifteen feet. The south and east sides were relatively unscathed with just a single dot every few feet. Inside to the computer we went.

Searching “black dots on house” it took only a moment to find our condition.

“That’s it!” we said at once.

We had “Artillery Fungus.” The photograph referred us to a Penn State University website that wrestles with the entire issue of artillery fungus. Under FAQ’s were the following: 1. Is it dangerous to house and/or humans? 2. How does it develop? And 3. How is it removed?

Fortunately, as to the first question, the University’s findings assure that artillery fungus is NOT dangerous to human health. It also does no permanent damage to a home. It doesn’t destroy or penetrate wood. Basically, it is a dormant stain, an aesthetic problem. It can be permanently covered with oil-based paint, AFTER the bumps are removed.

As to questions two and three, beyond the assurance that the fungus is not dangerous, the website provides less an explanation than a plea for assistance from readers. Penn State knows that artillery fungus spawns in specific conditions: dampness, the presence of cedar or other soft, permeable mulch and the presence of light-colored surfaces.

“We hit the trifecta!” I said, or words to that effect, spoken with extreme sarcasm bordering on despair and self-pity.

For reasons unclear, it also prefers the north and west sides of a home. As to removal, Penn State indicates there is NO KNOWN treatment. They ask readers to comment on their experiences. Apparently, everyone initially thinks, “power-wash,” as we did, the simple and inexpensive solution. Reality then intrudes and people try a variety of solutions only to learn that no fungicide, herbicide or pesticide affects the fungus.


Also, no particular method has proven effective at dot removal. With varying degrees of success, readers have used razor blades, sand paper or paint thinner. Like us, after failing with those methods, victims resort to their fingernails, one dot at a time.




We battled our fungus for a month. First, we paid our landscaper $500 to remove the mulch we had just paid him to spread two months earlier. Next, we raked our soil repeatedly, placing the top layers in plastic bags and delivering them to the dump. Each day, we also took time, after much trial and error, to use sandpaper on our wooden surfaces, steel wool on the stone foundation, and carefully, razor blades on the glass surfaces of our windows.

No strategy proved totally effective. Eventually, however, the vast majority of bumps were removed, though some left a flat, brown residue on wooden surfaces. In accordance with Penn State’s speculative suggestion, we bought bales of pine straw and spread them around the entire house to discourage future “explosions,” and, for the price of a European vacation, we hired a painter to paint the entire exterior.




If there is a happy ending to this tale of woe, the house looks beautiful with its new, darker paint and fresh pine straw. But we are scarred mentally, never having suspected our garden beds harbored potential enemies. We’ve learned to avoid this problem in the future. First, no shredded cedar mulch. Second, no light paint colors near the ground on the northern side of the home. Finally, we will never allow it to rain for twelve consecutive days.






An amiable fellow named Seth is painting our front door today. Nothing notable about that except that he’s here for the fourth time. In my humble opinion, his tendency to run his brushstrokes in various directions prevents the job from being acceptable. He feels otherwise, of course.

The first time, he blamed the fiberglass composition of the door.   He said the grain was uneven. The second time, he blamed excessive humidity. The third time, it was the quality of the paint. “This stuff’s too good,” he said, of the quart we’d provided. “I’m not used to it.” Today, he’s come armed with his “usual” brand. I sure hope the result is satisfactory.

Seth is not unique in our experience. Five years ago, the previous painter of this same door chose to spray it without taking it off its hinges. He diligently taped around the hardware and placed drop cloths on the floors. But he didn’t take into account the gap between the door and the door jam. Like mist from a water cannon, flying paint speckled the interior foyer wall. He spent significantly longer re-painting that wall than he would have spent simply removing the door from its hinges.

Repairpersons, certified and self-styled, have similarly flailed in missions around our home. Our refrigerator icemaker no longer works because we refuse to pay hundreds of dollars for a THIRD time to have it repaired. And when the dryer made excessive clunking noises and we obtained a visit from the only official, Bosch-certified technician in the local area, he sat on the floor in front of the disassembled machine and read the manual to figure out how to put it together again. After four hours, punctuated by wholesome oaths, such as: “Good golly,” “I’ll be darned,” and “Well, how ‘bout that?” he finished. To our surprise and relief, the dryer still worked. The clunk, however, remained. We live with it to this day.


As one singularly unable to do repairs more complex than changing a light bulb, my critiques are rightly subject to skepticism. In New Jersey, however, our repairman, George, a former soccer player from Poland, was completely competent. He pondered projects before he started. He thought through what parts and tools he would need. He strategized. In matters of drainage or deck supports, he devised solutions. George was one of my favorite people; I believe we created a need for some projects just to have an opportunity to call George and take comfort in watching him work.

Besides George, we also used a free-lance landscaper named Omar. I mowed the lawn and planted flowers myself, but the annual leaf removal from our tree-covered acre, as well as mulching and wall-building projects, were Omar’s province. A Mexican immigrant himself, Omar assembled a crew of workers from the Central American diaspora for each project. If we needed workers of no particular skill for mulch spreading, he brought youngsters. If a decorative wall with indigenous stones was to be built, he brought true artisans who conceived of and executed stone works of art without mortar. Our wall was so impressive Omar ended up completing walls throughout the neighborhood.


What to make of our recent spate of poor repair jobs? My original theory was that North Carolina is deficient compared to northeastern states.   I settled on that idea last year, when a “plumber” from a prominent local plumbing firm arrived to fix a leaky outdoor faucet and, instead, destroyed it. When the next plumber chosen from the phone book arrived to correct the job, he explained that he came from Massachusetts, where his training included a minimum of two years as a union apprentice. In North Carolina, he explained, our original “plumber” might have obtained his license from a six-week certification class.

There’s more to it than mere geography, however. My brother in New Jersey just told me on the telephone that he is waiting for the “technician” from the cable company. When he or she arrives (it’s already an hour past the end of the service arrival “window,”) he or she will be the third company representative to attempt the replacement of a ten-year-old DVR box. The job is not one I could personally complete, but it doesn’t seem like it should be difficult for a person employed as a cable television technician.

It’s not just an American problem. In Costa Rica, when the air conditioner in our condo required service, a neighbor recommended a repairman named “Three-times Victor.”

“How did he get that name?” I asked.

“He always has to come out at least three times to get it right,” explained our neighbor.

“Why would I want a repairman like that?” I asked.

“Well, at least he shows up,” said my neighbor.

Is modern society, with some exceptions, adrift in a sea of incompetence?


Seth finished a couple hours ago. The door is drying and the major blotches and missed spots are now evenly covered, more or less. I believe the job will finally be considered satisfactory. Honestly, we weren’t expecting work worthy of the Sistine Chapel. But four visits for a door? Now, we have a dilemma with humanitarian, economic and aesthetic ramifications. When we hired Seth to paint the door, we’d told him the entire exterior of our house would need to be painted this fall. He just e-mailed his estimate. Price-wise, it’s reasonable. And, as he notes at the bottom: “I didn’t make any money on the door. So, I hope to have the chance to do the whole house.”

What should we do?