Q: I’d like to ask if it’s worth the money to do an earthquake upgrade on my 1953 ranch house. I’ve lost earthquake insurance coverage with two companies, and wonder if I should just do without, switch insurance again to a company that will cover my house for earthquakes as is, or bite the bullet and do the upgrade for about $2,800 for the insurance standard, up to more than $4,000 for extras.

I’m not sure how long I’ll be in the house, though I have no plans to move at this time. I have invested in many upgrades including new kitchen, bathrooms, roof, deck and windows. The house is my main asset, and safety in an earthquake is another issue. By the way, only one contractor of three went under the house to look around before making up a bid. –Amy R.

A: There are two things to consider with improvements such as seismic retrofits. The first is safety. I think anything homeowners do to make their home a safer place to live for themselves and their family, and for the benefit of their community, is a worthwhile thing. That’s something you obviously can’t put a dollar value on.

The second consideration is what you can put a dollar value on. While the $2,800 estimate seems reasonable for a seismic retrofit, I’m concerned with the lack of effort expended by two of the contractors in not even looking under your home. I would question the accuracy of their estimates, and I also don’t like seeing another $1,200 in unspecified potential "extras."

I would like to see at least two and preferably three good, thorough estimates from licensed contractors who are experienced in seismic retrofits. Make sure the estimates clearly detail what the contractors propose to do, and what is and isn’t included in the estimate. Also, make certain that any retrofits meet the current building codes for your area with relation to seismic activity, that any necessary building permits are included, and that the retrofits are sufficient to qualify you for earthquake coverage.

Q: My daughter has a ranch home. The exterior walls are entirely cinder block with full brick exterior. The interior walls are plaster. Is there anyway to insulate these walls? –Maureen R.

A: There are essentially three different ways to insulate concrete block walls, two of which probably won’t be practical in your daughter’s case.

One is to fill the cavities in the blocks with beads of insulation material, which are poured into the blocks. This is normally done as the home is being built, or during a period of major remodeling when you have access to the tops of the walls to pour the material in.

The other two methods are to apply rigid foam insulation over the interior or the exterior surfaces of the walls. Covering the exterior wouldn’t be practical because of the brick veneer, so that leaves the interior.

The process is basically to install 2-by-2-inch furring strips against the interior walls using a combination of adhesive and powder-activated nails (this is a gun that uses a .22-caliber shell to fire a hardened metal nail into the concrete block). The furring is installed vertically on 16-inch centers, along with one horizontally at the top and bottom of the wall, just like normal wall framing. Between the furring strips, install strips of 1 1/2-inch extruded polystyrene insulation, then cover the furring with drywall.

A base molding finishes off the bottom, and you can use a crown molding to finish off the top so you don’t have to tape the seam between the wall and the ceiling.

Extender boxes can be used to move the electrical boxes forward as needed; talk with a licensed electrician if necessary.

Depending on your skill level, this is not an overly difficult project, but it is time consuming and obviously disruptive to the rooms being worked on. The best way to tackle it would probably be to do one or two rooms at a time. The payback will be a house that’s definitely warmer and more comfortable.

Q: I have a vinyl-sided, ranch-style modular home that was built in 1994. The front part of the house is toasty, but once you go down the hallway to the bedrooms, it’s at least 15 degrees "colder" than the front of the house? I just laid new insulation in the attic thinking it might help, but it didn’t. I’ve been up in the attic inspecting the areas where the modular boxes were bolted together and can’t find obvious gaps.

Can you recommend what the problem might be? And whom would I call to correct this problem? –Tom H.

A: You don’t mention what type of heating system you have, but assuming it’s some type of central heating system, it sounds like you have a problem with the duct system.

Some types of modular homes utilize a straight duct run similar to those used in mobile homes, maintaining a consistent size throughout the house. As the forced air gets farther and farther from the furnace, it loses pressure and volume, and is less effective at heating. It could also be that part of the duct system was improperly sized or connected, or even damaged, when the modules where connected.

If you happen to know who built the modular home, I would contact that company and see if a representative could come out and meet with you. That’s probably unlikely after 17 years, however, so my next suggestion would be to contact a licensed heating contractor. Have them make a site visit to examine the heating system, and then go from there.

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