HomeMarketWatch Insider Newsletter
This Month's FeaturesEach month, we publish a series of articles of interest to homeowners -- money-saving tips, household safety checklists, home improvement advice, real estate insider secrets, etc. Whether you currently are in the market for a new home, or not, we hope that this information is of value to you. Please feel free to pass these articles on to your family and friends.
Is the Water You Drink Safe?
North America has one of the safest water supplies in the world. However, national statistics don't tell you specifically about the quality and safety of the water coming out of your tap. That's because drinking water quality varies from place to place, depending on the condition of the source water from which it is drawn and the treatment it receives.
What contaminants may be found in drinking water?
There is no such thing as naturally pure water. In nature, all water contains some impurities. As water flows in streams, sits in lakes, and filters through layers of soil and rock in the ground, it dissolves or absorbs the substances that it touches. Some of these substances are harmless. In fact, some people prefer mineral water precisely because minerals give it an appealing taste. However, at certain levels minerals, just like man-made chemicals, are considered contaminants that can make water unpalatable or even unsafe. Some contaminants come from erosion of natural rock formations. Other contaminants are substances discharged from factories, applied to farmlands, or used by consumers in their homes and yards. Sources of contaminants might be in your neighborhood or might be many miles away. Your local water quality report tells which contaminants are in your drinking water, the levels at which they were found, and the actual or likely source of each contaminant. Some ground water systems have established wellhead protection programs to prevent substances from contaminating their wells. Similarly, some surface water systems protect the watershed around their reservoir to prevent contamination.
Where does drinking water come from?
A clean, constant supply of drinking water is essential to every community. People in large cities frequently drink water that comes from surface water sources, such as lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. Sometimes these sources are close to the community. Other times, drinking water suppliers get their water from sources many miles away. In either case, when you think about where your drinking water comes from, it's important to consider not just the part of the river or lake that you can see, but the entire watershed. The watershed is the land area over which water flows into the river, lake, or reservoir. In rural areas, people are more likely to drink ground water that was pumped from a well. These wells tap into aquifers--the natural reservoirs under the earth's surface--that may be only a few miles wide, or may span the borders of many regions. As with surface water, it is important to remember that activities many miles away from you may affect the quality of ground water.
How is drinking water treated?
When a water supplier takes untreated water from a river or reservoir, the water often contains dirt and tiny pieces of leaves and other organic matter, as well as trace amounts of certain contaminants. When it gets to the treatment plant, water suppliers often add chemicals called coagulants to the water. These act on the water as it flows very slowly through tanks so that the dirt and other contaminants form clumps that settle to the bottom. Usually, this water then flows through a filter for removal of the smallest contaminants like viruses and Giardia. Ground water is naturally filtered as it passes through layers of the earth into underground reservoirs known as aquifers. Water that suppliers pump from wells generally contains less organic material than surface water and may not need to go through any or all of the treatments described in the previous paragraph. The quality of the water will depend on local conditions. The most common drinking water treatment, considered by many to be one of the most important scientific advances of the 20th century, is disinfection. Most water suppliers add chlorine or another disinfectant to kill bacteria and other germs. Water suppliers use other treatments as needed, according to the quality of their source water. For example, systems whose water is contaminated with organic chemicals can treat their water with activated carbon, which absorbs or attracts the chemicals dissolved in the water.
What are the health effects of contaminants in drinking water?
The contaminants fall into two groups according to the health effects that they cause. Your water supplier will alert you through the media, mail, or other means if there is a potential acute or chronic health effect from compounds in the drinking water. You may want to contact the supplier for additional information specific to your area. Acute effects occur within hours or days of the time that a person consumes a contaminant. People can suffer acute health effects from almost any contaminant if they are exposed to extraordinarily high levels (as in the case of a spill). In drinking water, microbes, such as bacteria and viruses, are the contaminants with the greatest chance of reaching levels high enough to cause acute health effects. Most people's bodies can fight off these microbial contaminants the way they fight off germs, and these acute contaminants typically don't have permanent effects. Nonetheless, when high enough levels occur, they can make people ill, and can be dangerous or deadly for a person whose immune system is already weak due to HIV/AIDS, chemotherapy, steroid use, or another reason. Chronic effects occur after people consume a contaminant at levels over safety standards for many years. The drinking water contaminants that can have chronic effects are chemicals (such as disinfection by-products, solvents, and pesticides), radionuclides (such as radium), and minerals (such as arsenic). Examples of the chronic effects of drinking water contaminants are cancer, liver or kidney problems, or reproductive difficulties.
How can I help protect drinking water?
Using the new information that is now available about drinking water, citizens can both be aware of the challenges of keeping drinking water safe and take an active role in protecting drinking water. There are lots of ways that individuals can get involved. Some people will help clean up the watershed that is the source of their community's water. Other people might get involved in wellhead protection activities to prevent the contamination of the ground water source that provides water to their community. These people will be able to make use of the information that local authorities and water systems are gathering as they assess their sources of water.
Other people will want to attend public meetings to ensure that the community's need for safe drinking water is considered in making decisions about land use. And all consumers can do their part to conserve water and to dispose properly of household chemicals.
11 Things You Must Know When Finding a Home
Once you've decided to buy a home, there's a number of issues that need to be considered. Because buying a home will be one of the biggest purchases you make in your life, learning the "11 Things You Must Know When Finding a Home" can make the process easier.
In this report, we outline 11 Questions and Answers to help you make informed choices when purchasing a home.
1. What Should I Look For When Deciding On A Community?
Select a community that will allow you to best live your daily life. Many people choose communities based on schools. Do you want access to shopping and public transportation? Is access to local facilities like libraries and museums important to you? Or do you prefer the peace and quiet of a rural community? When you find places that you like, talk to people that live there. They know the most about the area and will be your future neighbors. More than anything, you want a neighborhood where you feel comfortable in.
2. How Can I Find Out About Local Schools?
You can get information about school systems by contacting the city or local school board or the local schools. Your real estate agent may also be knowledgeable about schools in the area.
3. How Can I Find Out About Community Resources?
Contact the local chamber of commerce for promotional literature or talk to your real estate agent about welcome kits, maps, and other information. You may also want to visit the local library. It can be an excellent source for information on local events and resources, and the librarians will probably be able to answer many of the questions you have.
4. How Can I Find Out How Much Homes Are Selling For In Certain Communities and Neighborhoods?
Your real estate agent can give you a ballpark figure by showing you comparable listings. If you are working with a REALTOR®, they may have access to comparable sales maintained on a database.
5. How Can I Find Information On The Property Tax Liability?
The total amount of the previous year's property taxes is usually included in the listing information. If it's not, ask the seller for a tax receipt or contact the local assessor's office. Tax rates can change from year to year, so these figures maybe approximate.
6. What Other Tax Issues Should I Take Into Consideration?
Keep in mind that your mortgage interest and real estate taxes will be deductible (USA residents). A qualified real estate professional can give you more details on other tax benefits and liabilities.
7. Is An Older Home A Better Value Than A New One?
There isn't a definitive answer to this question. You should look at each home for its individual characteristics. Generally, older homes may be in more established neighborhoods, offer more ambiance, and have lower property tax rates. People who buy older homes, however, shouldn't mind maintaining their home and making some repairs. Newer homes tend to use more modern architecture and systems, are usually easier to maintain, and may be more energy-efficient. People who buy new homes often don't want to worry initially about upkeep and repairs.
8. What Should I Look For When Walking Through A Home?
In addition to comparing the home to your minimum requirement and wish lists, consider the following:
Take your time and think carefully about each house you see. Ask your real estate agent to point out the pros and cons of each home from a professional standpoint.
9. What Questions Should I Ask When Looking At Homes?
Many of your questions should focus on potential problems and maintenance issues. Does anything need to be replaced? What things require ongoing maintenance (e.g., paint, roof, HVAC, appliances, carpet)? Also ask about the house and neighborhood, focusing on quality of life issues. Be sure the seller's or real estate agent's answers are clear and complete. Ask questions until you understand all of the information they've given. Making a list of questions ahead of time will help you organize your thoughts and arrange all of the information you receive.
10. How Can I Keep Track Of All The Homes I See?
If possible, take photographs of each house: the outside, the major rooms, the yard, and extra features that you like or ones you see as potential problems. And don't hesitate to return for a second look. You may also wish to find out if the home is available online. Photos of the property may already be up on a website for you to review.
11. How Many Homes Should I Consider Before Choosing One?
There isn't a set number of houses you should see before you decide. Visit as many as it takes to find the one you want. On average, homebuyers see 15 houses before choosing one. Just be sure to communicate often with your real estate agent about everything you're looking for. It will help avoid wasting your time.
Automatic and Programmable Thermostats
In our modern, high tech society, we don't think much about some of the electronic gadgets in our homes. Take, for example, the ever present thermostat--a staple of North American households for decades. It usually takes the shape of an unassuming box on the wall, but that modest device controls the comfort of your family on the coldest day in January and the hottest day in July.
What Is a Thermostat?
It is a temperature sensitive switch that controls a space conditioning unit or system, such as a furnace, air conditioner, or both. When the indoor temperature drops below or rises above the thermostat setting, the switch moves to the "on" position, and your furnace or air conditioner runs to warm or cool the house air to the setting you selected for your family's comfort. A thermostat, in its simplest form, must be manually adjusted to change the indoor air temperature.
General Thermostat Operation
You can easily save energy in the winter by setting the thermostat to 68°F (20°C) when you're at home and awake, and lowering it when you're asleep or away. This strategy is effective and inexpensive if you are willing to adjust the thermostat by hand and wake up in a chilly house. In the summer, you can follow the same strategy with central air conditioning, too, by keeping your house warmer than normal when you are away, and lowering the thermostat setting to 78°F (26°C) only when you are at home and need cooling.
A common misconception associated with thermostats is that a furnace works harder than normal to warm the space back to a comfortable temperature after the thermostat has been set back, resulting in little or no savings. This misconception has been dispelled by years of research and numerous studies. The fuel required to reheat a building to a comfortable temperature is roughly equal to the fuel saved as the building drops to the lower temperature. You save fuel between the time that the temperature stabilizes at the lower level and the next time heat is needed. So, the longer your house remains at the lower temperature, the more energy you save.
Another misconception is that the higher you raise a thermostat, the more heat the furnace will put out, or that the house will warm up faster if the thermostat is raised higher. Furnaces put out the same amount of heat no matter how high the thermostat is set--the variable is how long it must stay on to reach the set temperature.
In the winter, significant savings can be obtained by manually or automatically reducing your thermostat's temperature setting for as little as four hours per day. These savings can be attributed to a building's heat loss in the winter, which depends greatly on the difference between the inside and outside temperatures. For example, if you set the temperature back on your thermostat for an entire night, your energy savings will be substantial. By turning your thermostat back 10° to 15° for 8 hours, you can save about 5% to 15% a year on your heating bill--a savings of as much as 1% for each degree if the setback period is eight hours long. The percentage of savings from setback is greater for buildings in milder climates than for those in more severe climates. In the summer, you can achieve similar savings by keeping the indoor temperature a bit higher when you're away than you do when you're at home.
But there is a certain amount of inconvenience that results from manually controlling the temperature on your thermostat. This includes waking up in a cooler than normal house in the winter and possibly forgetting to adjust the thermostat (during any season) when you leave the house or go to bed.
Thermostats with Automatic Temperature Adjustment
To maximize your energy savings without sacrificing comfort, you can install an automatic setback or programmable thermostat. They adjust the temperature setting for you. While you might forget to turn down the heat before you leave for work in the morning, a programmable thermostat won't! By maintaining the highest or lowest required temperatures for four or five hours a day instead of 24 hours, a programmable thermostat can pay for itself in energy saved within four years.
Programmable thermostats have features with which you may be unfamiliar. The newest generation of residential thermostat technologies is based on microprocessors and thermostat sensors. Most of these programmable thermostats perform one or more of the following energy control functions:
A Note for Heat Pump Owners
When a heat pump is in its heating mode, setting back a conventional heat pump thermostat can cause the unit to operate inefficiently, thereby cancelling out any savings achieved by lowering the temperature setting. Maintaining a moderate setting is the most cost effective practice. Recently, however, some companies have begun selling specially designed setback thermostats for heat pumps, which make setting back the thermostat cost effective. In its cooling mode, the heat pump operates like an air conditioner; therefore, manually turning up the thermostat will save you money.
Types of Automatic and Programmable Thermostats
There are five basic types of automatic and programmable thermostats:
Most range in price from $30 to $100, except for occupancy and light sensing thermostats, which cost around $200.
Electromechanical (EM) thermostats, usually the easiest devices to operate, typically have manual controls such as movable tabs to set a rotary timer and sliding levers for night and day temperature settings. These thermostats work with most conventional heating and cooling systems, except heat pumps. EM controls have limited flexibility and can store only the same settings for each day, although at least one manufacturer has a model with separate settings for each day of the week. EM thermostats are best suited for people with regular schedules.
Digital thermostats are identified by their LED or LCD digital readout and data entry pads or buttons. They offer the widest range of features and flexibility, and digital thermostats can be used with most heating and cooling systems. They provide precise temperature control, and they permit custom scheduling. Programming some models can be fairly complicated; make sure you are comfortable with the functions and operation of the thermostat you choose. Remember-- you won't save energy if you don't set the controls or you set them incorrectly. Hybrid systems combine the technology of digital controls with manual slides and knobs to simplify use and maintain flexibility. Hybrid models are available for most systems, including heat pumps.
Occupancy thermostats maintain the setback temperature until someone presses a button to call for heating or cooling. They do not rely on the time of day. The ensuing preset "comfort period" lasts from 30 minutes to 12 hours, depending on how you've set the thermostat. Then, the temperature returns to the setback level. These units offer the ultimate in simplicity, but lack flexibility. Occupancy thermostats are best suited for spaces that remain unoccupied for long periods of time.
Light sensing heat thermostats rely on the lighting level preset by the owner to activate heating systems. When lighting is reduced, a photocell inside the thermostat senses unoccupied conditions and allows space temperatures to fall 10° below the occupied temperature setting. When lighting levels increase to normal, temperatures automatically adjust to comfort conditions. These units do not require batteries or programming and reset themselves after power failures. Light sensing thermostats are designed primarily for stores and offices where occupancy determines lighting requirements, and therefore heating requirements.
Choosing a Programmable Thermostat
Because programmable thermostats are a relatively new technology, you should learn as much as you can before selecting a unit. When shopping for a thermostat, bring information with you about your current unit, including the brand and model number. Also, ask these questions before buying a thermostat:
Most automatic and programmable thermostats completely replace existing units. These are preferred by many homeowners. However, some devices can be placed over existing thermostats and are mechanically controlled to permit automatic setbacks. These units are usually powered by batteries, which eliminates the need for electrical wiring. They tend to be easy to program, and because they run on batteries, the clocks do not lose time during power outages.
Before you buy a programmable thermostat, chart your weekly habits including wake up and departure times, return home times, and bedtimes, and the temperatures that are comfortable during those times. This will help you decide what type of thermostat will best serve your needs.
The location of your thermostat can affect its performance and efficiency. Read the manufacturer's installation instructions to prevent "ghost readings" or unnecessary furnace or air conditioner cycling. Place thermostats away from direct sunlight, drafts, doorways, skylights, and windows. Also make sure your thermostat is conveniently located for programming.
Some modern heating and cooling systems require special controls. Heat pumps are the most common and usually require special setback thermostats. These thermostats typically use special algorithms to minimize the use of backup electric resistance heat systems. Electric resistance systems, such as electric baseboard heating, also require thermostats capable of directly controlling 120 volt or 240 volt line voltage circuits. Only a few companies manufacture line voltage setback thermostats.
A Simpler Way to Control Your Environment
The best thermostat for you will depend on your life style and comfort level in varying house temperatures. While automatic and programmable thermostats save energy, a manual unit can be equally effective if you diligently regulate its setting--and if you don't mind a chilly house on winter mornings. If you decide to choose an automatic thermostat, you can set it to raise the temperature before you wake up and spare you some discomfort. It will also perform consistently and dependably to keep your house at comfortable temperatures during the summer heat, as well.