A while back, in one of Cecil Adams’ Straight Dope books, I ran across a letter from a guy who was obsessed with killing flies. The man told Adams that he’d devoted many hours to fly-killing. He’d swat ’em, stomp ’em, spray ’em, whatever it took to stop their little fly hearts from beating. He gave a rough estimate of how many flies he’d killed over the years and asked Adams (who specializes in answering near-impossible questions) to tally up the number of flies he’d kept from being born.
Adams calculated the number of fly eggs not laid because of the fly-killer’s efforts. It was a whole lot of eggs. But in the end, Adams said, it didn’t matter how many flies the guy had killed. It didn’t matter how many eggs were not laid. Because on any given day, there are just about as many flies in the world as there can be. You kill a fly over here, you make room for another one over there.
This put me to thinking: A whole lot of America’s favorite do-it-yourself projects are just as futile as swatting flies. Take, for instance, the act of cleaning and sealing a wood deck. I know, house-proud Americans just can’t stand to look at a gray deck. They remember how nice the deck looked when it was new, and they want to do something to make it look that way again.
There’s just one problem: You know what happens to woodeven really pretty cedar, or cypress, or redwoodwhen you leave it outside? It turns gray, that’s what. The gray color doesn’t mean the wood is screaming out in pain. The boards were dead before they ever got to the sawmill. Their suffering is over.
Sure, you can pressure-wash a deck. Pressure-washing blasts away a few-hundredths of an inch of perfectly good gray wood and exposes fresh-looking wood. You can prolong this rejuvenation by applying a couple of coats of sealer. But the next day, the wood will start turning gray again. In the end, the deck is going to last about 15 to 20 years, no matter how many washings and sealings you do.
It’s the same with roof washing. Fretful homeowners just can’t stand those unsightly black streaks on their roof shingles. They think the streaks are hurting their roof, and they want the streaks to be gone. You nervous types, listen to me: Those streaks are just a little fungus. The fungus does no harm. The streaks are the whole show. It’s not as if the fungus is eating the shingles bit by bit.
Still, clever marketing types are working to separate streak-conscious homeowners from their money. At least one shingle manufacturer is actively encouraging fung-o-phobic homeowners to rip off their streaky shingles and buy new fungus-resistant units. (You may ask yourself: Does America need roof shingles with built-in pesticide? I say no.)
If the fungus streaks keep you up at night, go ahead and hire somebody to wash your roof. If they do the job right, it won’t hurt anything. Just don’t let anybody tell you that you have to wash your roof. You don’t. No matter what you do, the shingles will probably last about 15 to 20 years.
Finally, y’all stop worrying about little hairline cracks in the walls and ceilings. They don’t mean your house is falling down, and they don’t mean the builder used substandard materials. Hairline cracksand their first cousins, popped nailsjust mean that the house was built out of wood, and wood changes shape when the temperature or humidity changes. Just patch hairline cracks and popped nails before you paint again.
Hairline cracks are like flies. There will always be about as many as there can be, and they’ll never stop coming. My house is 84 years old, and new hairline cracks still appear now and then.
If you start seeing serious cracks, say between one-eighth-inch and one-quarter-inch wide, then you need to call in a structural engineer to figure out why your house is moving. If your house suddenly develops cracks more than one-quarter-inch wide, put on a hard hat and head for the nearest exit. Big cracks or growing cracks indicate a real structural problem, the kind of thing that really does have to be fixed.
Visit Walter’s Web site at http://www.nash-scene.com/~housesense. Or e-mail him at email@example.com.