Realtor/science writer/self-proclaimed “house geek” Hannah Holmes on preserving plaster walls, picking the right perennials for Maine’s feeble soil, and more
Illustrations by Christine Mitchell Adams
Our cottage near the ocean has casement windows with exposed hinges that we have to keep replacing because they rust so badly. We have tried various coatings but nothing works. Any suggestions?
PAULA KOCHER, OGUNQUIT
Here’s the thing: This is an extreme environment. The chemistry of salt water fiercely accelerates the corrosion process. And salt water can travel well inland, when wind and waves toss tiny droplets into the air. The coast is dramatic and it smells good, but it’s hell on nearby metals.
When NASA builds hardware for the corrosive space environment, it often chooses the noblest of metals: gold. But this is not so realistic for residential use. When my sea-captain brother exposes a pricey bronze propeller to the ocean, he attaches a chunk of cheap zinc, known as a “sacrificial anode,” that will surrender its own ions to the hungry sea. Again, not practical for your hinges.
The United States Department of Defense specifies “austenitic steel” for its marine window hardware. And that is actually available to you, under the civilian term “stainless steel.” Known in the business as “corrosion resistant,” stainless steel hardware is our best defense against ravenous salt water.
And just as boaters rinse their yachts with fresh water, you might swab your hinges whenever the thought crosses your mind: It will wash away the film of dust, salt, and moisture that each day lays down.
How do you combat mustiness in a coastal camp? And please don’t say mothballs!
ELIZABETH MCCANN WEBB, PEAKS ISLAND
Most musty smells are the bad breath of microorganisms that require
high humidity to grow. Although the primary job of a house is to keep water out, a camp — which may lack some of the barriers and insulating layers that control the weather in a four-season home — tends to take a more casual attitude toward the elements.
Water molecules are also remarkably penetrating and persistent, rising from the sodden earth, blowing in on the breeze, and clinging to towels and wet feet. Once inside a camp, the molecules have many absorbent surfaces to sink into. Along the coast, airborne salt molecules compound the problem: Wherever a salt molecule sticks, it recruits water molecules from the air. Then microbes bloom like daisies.
To combat salt and water, seal wood surfaces with varnish, abandon absorbent rugs, and replace curtains with blinds. When you open a hibernating camp, return lingering moisture to its gaseous state so you can evict it. Running the heat for a few days might suffice. A blast of air from a fan can also harass water into motion. And an electric dehumidifier will help, although you’ll need to close windows and doors while it toils. Often, just a few days of “airing out” will dehydrate the winter crop of micro-daisies.
But they will spring back to life if moisture returns. An intractable case may require pro mold-wranglers. Restoration outfits like SERVPRO will scrub microbes out of their lairs and help discourage them from returning.
We leave the heat in our 1800s farmhouse on very low when we are away during the winter. Always looking to economize, we wonder, would shutting the heat off cause our plaster walls to fail over time?
HOLLY MCCRANN RAYMOND, OWLS HEAD
That’s the traditional threat, isn’t it? If you don’t burn oil in your empty house all winter, the plaster will shrink and expand, and crack itself off the wall. But may I call your attention to, er, the majority of houses in Maine, which are so old they were designed to be heated with fireplaces? Practically every winter night, those fires went out. “Ice ferns” unfurled across the windowpanes, but the plaster stayed on the walls.
Sure, over the decades, plaster will crack for a hundred different reasons, including the fact that humid air causes wooden laths to swell faster than the plaster can keep up. But for the money you’d spend on one winter’s heat, you could probably have every plaster crack in your house professionally restored.
What types of perennials do best in Maine? Is there a difference between what can be grown inland versus on the coast?
BARBARA DODSON, WILLIMANTIC
Among the myriad charms of native plants is that they thrive under native conditions — whether coastal or inland — even when those conditions aren’t very good. In the scant 13,000 years since the glaciers retreated, Maine’s soils have scarcely had time to form. The nearer the coast you go, the younger they are: thin, sandy, acidic.
Milkweed loves this soil. So do black-eyed Susans and bee balm. And bayberries, blueberries, coneflowers, columbines, geraniums, lady slippers, native honeysuckle,
a wealth of asters, laurels, native azaleas, and trilliums, and countless other wildflowers and shrubs. Most local nurseries will carry some; the New England Wild Flower Society in Framingham, Massachusetts, has acres of them.
Another of the benefits of native plantings is that, while not the showiest of bloomers, they sustain the lives of native pollinators and other insects. And those sustain the lives of, you know, us!
Hannah Holmes is a real estate broker at Keller Williams Realty Greater Portland and the author of four science titles, including The Secret Life of Dust and Suburban Safari. A veteran renovator of old houses, she blogs about humans and their territorial issues at geekrealtyblog.com.