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Do It Yourself

Tapping Your PC to Help Out Around the House

 By David Keifer (

 The technology gurus have proclaimed that the day of the smart appliance is upon us. Soon, our alarm clocks will be able to tell our coffee machines when to start our morning brew. Our microwaves will be able to distinguish a bag of popcorn from a package of frozen peas, and our VCRs won't need to be told what shows to tape. Naturally, the real ``smarts" behind each smart appliance will come from a PC wired to the Internet. Which is enough to make you wonder–if your PC is so smart, why can't it help out around the house already?

Well, the fact is–it can, even without the help of other appliances. Oh, it may not be able to brew coffee or pop popcorn, but your PC can help you install a ceiling fan, refinish your countertops, even add on a new room. And besides home improvements, your PC can also help you fix broken appliances, repair furniture and even decorate. In fact, there's almost no household project that can't be made easier by taking your PC on a quick trip around the Web.

A great place to start looking for home improvement help is Better Homes and Gardens' Home Improvement Encyclopedia. This site offers well-organized and informative sections on plumbing, wiring, carpentry, decks and masonry. Each section begins with the basics, then introduces the essential skills you'll need and lastly provides detailed instructions for various projects. The wiring section, for example, starts by explaining concepts such as circuits, grounding and polarization, then tells you how to work with switches, wires and junction boxes, and then shows you how to do things like fix a doorbell, replace a light switch and install a ceiling fan. Many of the instructions feature animated diagrams, which help explain the concepts involved clearly and quickly. But one of the site's neatest–and handiest–features is an array of project calculators that can automatically determine the amount of paint, wallpaper, drywall, lumber or concrete you'll need for a specific job. You could literally spend hours at this site and eventually learn to do everything from sealing a leaky basement to insulating an attic. is another site with loads of repair and maintenance ideas. Here you can learn how to remodel kitchens and bathrooms, improve home heating and cooling systems, refurbish a front porch and even build a screen door. The site also offers several friendly message boards where you can post questions–and join in discussions–about topics ranging from roofing to painting to plumbing. But best of all it features a home maintenance calendar that provides timely tips to help keep your home running smoothly all year round. The suggested projects for May, by the way, include checking out attic insulation, cleaning and resealing decks and servicing air conditioners.

          Other sites gear their maintenance and repair information to specific types of houses. As its name implies, Rural Home Technology focuses on issues pertinent to country homes. The main page features an interactive house with a clickable septic tank, well, basement and solar energy system–each of which links to detailed maintenance information. The Old House Web is devoted entirely to 19th and early 20th Century homes and boasts plenty of renovation projects, articles on historic homes and a comprehensive list of companies that supply hard-to-find materials appropriate for older homes. If the latest in modern hi-tech homes is more your speed, visit the Home Tech Resource Center at Remodeling Online. There you'll find over 40 link-and-information filled articles covering the latest in wired homes–everything from energy efficient automated lighting systems to the aforementioned smart appliances.

          Bob's Weekend Handyman site takes a different approach to Web-based home improvement information. Instead of providing instructions or articles, Bob offers links to other home improvement sites. He lists more than 100 of them, organized into 14 categories, and he provides a clear description of the features each site has to offer. Some links take you to big projects such as building a storage shed, repairing drywall or installing hardwood floors . Others take you to the farthest reaches of the home-improvement world. There's the Copper Tube Handbook, for instance, a site that explains everything you need to know about bending, joining, soldering and brazing. Then there's the Electricians Toolbox ``Tricks of theTrade" site, where you can learn the secrets of the self-holding screwdriver and how to turn your tape measure into a notepad.  

          For home-improvement tips of a less arcane nature, you can visit Michigan State University Extension's Home Maintenance and Repair site. Here you'll find a genuine homeowner's encyclopedia, with concise, well-written entries on everything from abrasive cleansers to Zepel (a stain resistant chemical used on upholstery). If you're looking for ordinary everyday household information–such as the best way to clean window screens or how to get rid of mildew–this is the place to go. A great companion to the Michigan State site is the home improvement section of Matthew Brain's How Stuff Works site. Mr. Brain features well-illustrated and fun-to-read essays illuminating the mechanical forces at work in hot water heaters and septic tanks, foundations and frames. His site also sports a section on appliances, which–among many other things–explains why microwave ovens get hot and refrigerators stay cold.

          If, however, your microwave won't get hot and your refrigerator won't stay cold, there are other places you can go for help. There is a fine Appliance Tips site, run by All About the, which features dozens of easily understood hints for trouble-shooting common problems in washers, dryers, ranges, trash compactors, garbage disposals and dishwashers. The Appliance Clinic is another good appliance repair site, which features detailed descriptions, and illustrations, of common appliance parts, as well as trouble-shooting tips. Then there's The Virtual Repairman, a site that supplements its appliance repair tips with advice on general maintenance to keep your appliances running efficiently. For advanced repair information, point your browser to the Appliance Repair Headquarters' Online Diagnostic Index. There you'll find detailed diagnoses for a myriad of major appliance problems, all indexed by brand name. Be warned, however, that the site is geared toward service technicians, so the advice is fairly technical. Finally, if these sites can't help you, you can post your appliance question on Handy Man USA's Appliance Forum. The site is busy and friendly and the back index of questions and answers covers dozens of problems and solutions for everything from televisions to humidifiers.

          Before you get to work on any of your appliances, though, you may want to drop by The National Electrical Safety Foundation. The foundation's mascot, Mr. Plug, is there waiting with lots of levelheaded electrical safety advice. And as long as the subject of safety is at hand, it's worth noting that the wise Web-based handyperson always has a good first aid site bookmarked. Lacie Gaughf's First Aid Page is one of the best.

          Once any appliance problems are squared away, you may want to try your hand at furniture repair. Justin Tyme's online essay ``How to Repair Stains and Scratches on Wood Furniture and Floors" provides instructions for using typical household materials–like salad dressing and magic markers–to make damaged wood look like new. The refinishing site at offers more detailed, step-by-step instructions for stripping, sanding and refinishing furniture–complete with video clips, workshop hints and links to other refinishing sites. Sal Marino's Woodworking Page offers information on all aspects of woodworking and finishing and even includes instructions on how to mix your own oil-based wood stain. For help with fabric and upholstery problems, stop by Upholstery Magazine Online. There you'll find quick lessons on measuring, cutting, tacking and sewing. The site also features step-by-step instructions for reupholstering chairs and ottomans and creating pillows and slipcovers. Finally, no tour of the Web's furniture sites would be complete (or as much fun) without a visit to the Furniture Guys.

          Of course, once you've refinished a table or reupholstered a chair, you might need to reevaluate how the piece works with your other furnishings. Fortunately, there are several great sites devoted to interior design. Home's site includes a great decorating page featuring brief, but thorough, lessons on basic decorating principles such as rhythm, scale, balance and harmony. The page also features specific tips and ideas for bathrooms, bedrooms, living rooms and dining rooms, as well as offices, studios and libraries. Each illustrated section includes a detailed list of questions to help you create the design that will work for you. Plus there's a color wheel to help you coordinate fabrics, carpet, paint and papers, and a lesson on how to draw effective decorating plans. Then there's Sam Levitz's Decorating 101, a ``crash course" in decorating basics. Mr. Levitz's page covers the basics of color, pattern, texture and lighting, as well as handy tips for solving particular decorating problems. However, if you're looking for more than aesthetic pleasure from your surroundings, you may wish to examine Feng Shui–the ancient Chinese science of environmental location and orientation. Feng Shui provides a terrific introduction complete with a FAQ, a history of Feng Shui, explanations of basic concepts and terms, plus a tip of the week.

          Finally, your PC can even help out with the ultimate home improvement: the addition.'s Building and Additions site provides a primer for those thinking of undertaking a major building project such as an addition. Here you'll learn the Golden Rules of Remodeling, as well as getting the basics on foundations, framing, floors, ceilings, heating and even building permits and regulations.

          Of course, we all eventually run into problems that our PCs can't help us with. But never fear–Home has a great online article: ``How To Choose A Contractor."

 David Keifer is a freelance writer living, and currently finishing his basement, in Baltimore.



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