Handyman on Call

Squirrels are gnawing on beams, homeowner’s nerves

By Peter Hotton
Globe Correspondent / September 12, 2010

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Q. Squirrels are eating the nice solid wood beams and posts on my farmer’s porch. At least I think they are squirrels. They are apparently running upside down and eating a lot. How can I keep them, away?

NANCY, from Cape Cod

A. They are not eating, they are chewing or rather gnawing, which all rodents must do to keep their teeth, especially the front bucks, from growing and curling right into their brains. Check any garden center for various animal repellents. Most repellents contain the urine smell of coyotes, foxes, and other predators.

Cladding them with aluminum will work, but that option is not acceptable to Nancy. But you could clad the beams and posts with hardware cloth, say one-half or one-quarter inch galvanized steel mesh. Spray paint the mesh flat black before putting it up. You will still see the wood beams. Such mesh is likely to deter any squirrel.

Q. My brick row house has big sandstone front steps, which have a lot of space under them that is going to waste because the stones move, the mortar in the joints crumbles, and water leaks through those joints when it rains.

Can I use hydraulic cement instead of mortar to plug those leaks?


A. The big stones overlap each other, leaving a mortar joint where riser meets tread, that normally keeps them from leaking. The steps also originally sloped down a little, to allow drainage. After years of weather and freezing, the steps have moved and the mortar crumbled. The steps also may have reversed their slopes, so rainwater runs right into the useless storage space.

You can use hydraulic cement, which expands as it sets, so that should be OK. Or, use mortar mix, sold in hardware stores. It may be tricky to push new mortar into those joints (after digging out the old), because they have no backing. So, secure a board on the joint inside so you can press in mortar without it flowing into the storage space. Use a pointing tool, an elongated S-shaped steel bar that allows easy pushing. The mortar must be compact; if it isn’t it will fail in months.

Q. I am plagued by banging pipes in my hot water heating system. They are not the little tick, tick, ticks of expanding and contracting pipes when the heat rises and falls, but real teeth-jarring bangs. One plumber who knew what was happening replaced the boiler 2 1/2 years ago. Didn’t help. KeySpan failed to fix it. Another plumber said he did not know, either. Who can fix it?


A. So far you have eliminated every problem but one: water hammer, which is caused by moving water in the pipes. When that flowing water hits a corner, wham! it really makes a bang because it slows down too quickly.

The cure is a water hammer arrester, a cushion that softens the potency of that moving water, which a plumber can install on the noisy pipes. The new arresters are small and compact, so they are easy to install in tight spaces.

The original arrester was simply a pipe (up to 2 feet long) inserted vertically in the line and capped. Some of the rushing water in the pipe would flow up into that dead end pipe, cushioned by the change of direction.

Q. My question is about checking for mold. Our mud room used to have water leaks which have been fixed. Would you recommend any kit I can use to see if there is mold in the area?

C. GOPINATH, by e-mail

A. There may be kits out there, but two good ways to check for mold are with your nose and your eyes.

But first, if you or anyone in your family are allergic to mold or highly sensitive to mold, it is time to call a mold abatement company. One company is May Indoor Air Investigations LLC, Tyngsborough, 978-649-1055. Jeff May is the proprietor, and he knows mold.

If you are not allergic or super-sensitive, try the sniff test. If that room smells musty or moldy, there may be a bit of mold around, and it may not be visible. You can ventilate the room regularly to dry it out; a dry room does not smell musty.

The other way of testing is with your eyes; if you see any black or white stains on walls, ceilings, floors, and furniture, they are probably mold. The mold stains can be killed with a solution of one-part household bleach and three-parts water, or Moldex, sold in hardware stores.

Check out any rugs; if they remain damp for days or weeks, get rid of them. Upholstery is especially sensitive to mold, and it is difficult to remove it. Don’t use bleach on upholstery.

Also, if the leaks were relatively minor, chances are there is no mold. But if the musty smell persists, then you probably have mold, and it might be hidden.

Globe Handyman on Call Peter Hotton is also in the g section on Thursdays. He is available 1-6 p.m. Tuesdays to answer questions on house repair. Call 617-929-2930. Hotton ( also chats online about house matters 2-3 p.m. Thursdays. To participate, go to