Ask the Experts

Jesse Steere, John Mancuso, Jennifer Ingraham, and John Bunker.

What’s the best way – ecologically and effectively – to melt snow and ice from your driveway, walks, and porches?
Jesse Steere, Shirley’s Hardware, Tisbury

Safe Step is safe for the environment, doesn’t hurt lawns, and actually melts the ice. It contains potassium chloride and melts down to minus-five degrees. It’s non-toxic: no damage to shrubs or pet problems. It’s granular but not like kitty litter, and good with ice but not snow.

It works quickly. You see the holes where it drops through. Once you break the ice into pieces, then either shovel or plow it.

We also carry Safe Pet, which is environmentally friendly and prevents ice and snow from re-bonding. A lot of people who have pets buy it; it’s greenish and not supposed to burn their feet.

We don’t carry rock salt. That stuff will eat asphalt; you don’t want to use it. It kills everything, including grass in driveways. We all have to be careful in what we do. It runs down into the ground and out to the ponds and ocean. All our shellfish are there.

How often should you change the water in your hot tub?
John Mancuso, Vineyard Pool and Spa, Edgartown

There’s a formula: Take the total gallons and divide by three. That number divided by the average number of daily bathers tells you how many days you should go between cleaning. So if your hot tub has 400 gallons, divide by 3 and that’s 133. If you typically have four bathers, then it’s every 33 days, or basically once a month.

A great majority of people take care of it themselves. All you do is drain it, wipe it out, refill, and rebalance. I drop the temperature down to 98 or 99 in the warmer weather and jack it up to 102 when it’s cold outside.

To drain it, you can use a siphon, a pump, and some tubs come with a drain. Then you want to sponge or scoop out the water. A wet vac works well too. Just wipe it out. Don’t use a detergent or you’ll just get a big bubble bath. And don’t use an abrasive cleaner. That will just scratch it up and open it up for dirt. If you just wipe out the tub and keep it clean, it’ll stay clean. It’s really easy, once you have the system down.

What are the best ways to prolong the life of shingles?
Jennifer Ingraham, Island Color Center Inc., Vineyard Haven

Your house is a huge investment. You have to take care of it. The first thing is to clean your shingles. We recommend a cleaner called Jomax. Dilute the solution with water, add bleach, and put on with a pump sprayer or scrub brush. If you use a power washer, put it on low pressure, because it can damage the shingles if it’s on too high. After you clean the shingles, let them dry.

A lot of people don’t realize that one side of your house gets more weather or sunlight than another. The idea is to protect your shingles. Adding moisture into the wood stops it from drying out. Olympic Clear Wood Preservative is what we recommend with shingles. Either spray or brush it on. If you spray, you have to brush in the cracks. Another product is Cabot Clear Solution (or Cabot 3000). It’s more pricey, but both are really good.

The clear wood preservative makes shingles look wet, and brings out the wood. It makes them last longer. Around here it’s hard to say how much longer, probably not more than a couple of years. If you do it every five years, you’ll save replacement.

One more thing: In the spring with pollen, rinse down the sides of the house. Mildew loves pollen, so you should keep pollen off your house.

How often should a chimney be cleaned?
John Bunker, former chimney sweep, Oak Bluffs (For a dozen years, John toiled in Vineyard chimneys. He retired in the mid-1990s.)

Yearly. If you have an oil flue, every couple of years is fine. But birds nest in the spring; they move right in. If you have a wood stove or fireplace, you should have it cleaned yearly. If you burn pine, or really green wood that’s full of sap, that creates volumes of smoke, which creates creosote, which builds up on the sides of the chimney.

And don’t burn garbage, like plastic or egg crates covered with plastic. You’re asking for problems, coating the stove and chimney. Garbage goes to the dump, not the stove.

Homeowners can purchase a compact mirror, three-inches square, and a flashlight. Stick the mirror in the damper, shine the light on it, and you can see up the flue. You’re looking for anything shiny or glazed that will catch fire. The dusty stuff is just soot, but if you see that shiny stuff or junk on the side, it’s time to get your chimney cleaned.

If it’s shiny and black, there is an acid spray that gets behind the creosote. You got to get the creosote off. Otherwise you hear a scrape and a pop and a roar, and your chimney is on fire. It can destroy the cement and even the bricks in the chimney. And if it’s a metal chimney, it can expand the walls, create a hot spot, and you got a problem.

I advise people to get references, check that the person is certified by the [Massachusetts] Chimney Sweep Guild, talk with satisfied customers. Lot of charlatans out there. So many rip-off artists. One man offered a woman to clean her chimney for $800. He just put stucco on the sides of the chimney. She called me when her furnace wouldn’t work. I put my rod down and tapped, and it was stucco. He’d poured the rest of the stucco down the chimney.