Here’s how to fix your “haunted house”

Image credit: Getty images
Date:1 June 2012 Tags:, ,

Whether your house is haunted by poor construction or something spookier, grab a hammer. By Roy Berendsohn

Every house has secrets. Doors open or shut themselves. Lights flicker randomly. A toilet flushes on its own. And there’s that deathly odour. You’ve been catching whiffs of it for years now, but you still can’t seem to locate the source.

Sorry, but your house is creepy. Even if you don’t believe in ghosts, the noises you hear in the dead of night still give you the heebie-jeebies. At the very least, you feel conflicted: you love your place, of course ““ but it really bothers you that it does stuff that you just can’t explain. Here at Popular Mechanics, we call it SHS (spooky-house syndrome).

Rich Robbins, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, is something of an expert on the subject. Each October, his lecture “Ghosts and hauntings: decide for yourself” draws a standing-room-only crowd. “We carry a prototype in our mind of what a house should be like,” says Robbins, who holds a doctorate in social psychology. “When something out of the ordinary happens, we may or may not seek to explain it in rational terms.”

Robbins says he’s “agnostic” about ghosts; he’s never seen one, but can’t disprove them, either. At PM, we’re a bit more matter-of-fact. When things go bump in the night, we reach for our toolbox and get to work.


A ghastly stink from the sink

You keep a tidy bathroom, so why does it smell as if a rat is buried beneath the washbasin?

An awful thing took place in there ““ think shower scene from Psycho ““ and an olfactory trace of the event remains.

More likely 
The sink trap is dry. Normally, it’s filled with water, a simple and effective barrier to odours from the building’s plumbing or the sewer system. But if the drain system has been badly designed or poorly installed, or the vent stack on the roof is plugged with leaves and sticks, the result is the same: draining water creates a vacuum and sucks the trap dry. Another stink source may be the sink’s overflow hole. The interior cavity leading from the overflow to the drain can become black with nasty-smelling slime.

The fix
Getting the drain to work properly may involve re-plumbing it and the vent system, but the remedy could also be as simple as clearing the vent stack with a length of wire or a plumber’s snake. To make slime disappear from the overflow channel, flush it out with a cleaner that contains bleach or a mildew killer.


Who shut off the lights?

Bulbs flicker menacingly. An electrical short crackles. There’s a persistent but vague smell of burning plastic. Then ““ gulp ““ everything goes dark.

After William Shatner plugged it with a revolver, the carpet-covered monster from the famous Twilight Zone episode dropped off the plane’s wing and landed in your utility room, where the beast has been chewing on the wiring in your electrical panel.

More likely
There are dozens of reasons why lights flicker, outlets go dead and circuit breakers trip ““ none of them good, some of them dangerous.
A few of the common problems:

Source: Spliced wires come apart.
The fix: Use the right-size wire connector. Line up the stripped wire ends so they are parallel; twist on the connector, turning it clockwise. Go the connector route; duct tape doesn’t cut it.

Source: The light fixture is shot because someone “overlamped” it with a higher-wattage bulb than it’s rated for.(Are you still using incandesents?) This overheats the fixture, its wiring and the splices that connect it to the house wiring.
The fix: Replace the fried fixture, and install a bulb with the proper wattage.

Source: A loose connection lurks at a switch or an outlet.
The fix: Turn off the power, remove the wire from the device and cut away damage. Strip insulation and wrap the bare wire clockwise around the screw, then tighten firmly.


Spooky, self-animating doors

They slam shut on their own!

The ghost of Aunt Mary, the one who hated draughts and always wore a jumper and heavy scarf around the house, is letting her feelings be known.

More likely
The door is hung out of plumb and fits so loosely in the jamb that the strike easily slips out of the latch plate; gravity, not Aunt Mary’s ghost, swings the door shut or open.

A steady wind could also be to blame; it creates low pressure on the downwind side of the house, causing air to flow out. Any open door on this side of the house could swing shut due to the air-pressure differential. The problem may be amplified by an open garage door on the downwind side. Intense low-pressure vortices form around the door opening.

The fix
A couple of hammer taps can put just enough bend in the hinge pin to increase friction and stop the door from swinging freely. Closing the garage on a breezy day can help, as can sealing air leaks with weather-stripping.



But who are they? Phantoms, ghouls or spooks in the attic? Or maybe mice, bats or rats? (Scary either way, right?)

Sound: Scratching and scurrying at night.
Source: Mice or rats.
The fix: Place snap traps perpendicular to the wall, not parallel to it. Clear brush and shrubs next to the house. Clean the garage and keep all rubbish bins closed. Store pet food and birdseed in tightly sealed, gnaw-proof containers. Remove or bury dog waste.

Sound: Squeaking, twittering and fluttering at dusk or at night, and again at or just before dawn.
Source: Bats
The fix: Consult a pest-removal professional to clean up bat droppings, and place one-way bat-exclusion devices. Once bats leave, they cannot re-enter. Close up openings in the eaves; screen off vents.

Sound: Scurrying during the day, usually in the roof space.
Source: Squirrels
The fix: Removal by an animal-control company. Look for large, gnawed entry holes and repair them. Use heavy screens on roof space vents. Trim tree branches to prevent entry from the roof and eaves.


Mysterious holes in the ground

Tiny tunnel openings appear in your yard and there’s no sign of animal activity.

Those holes are portals to the underworld, don’t you know? Mischievous excavators use them to come and go when you’re not paying attention.

More likely
You’ve got a collapsed foundation drain, or the concrete inspection cover on the septic tank has deteriorated and caved in. You may also have a sunken leachfield pipe (known as a galley).

The fix
To find a damaged drain, dig next to your house. Once you uncover the damaged drain, you can repair it. Yes, it’s a big job. If you find larger damage, you’ll need to hire an excavation contractor. Investigating larger collapsed underground structures, such as septic tanks, is best left to the pros.


Dead trees talking

Your house sounds like a horror movie. You can’t go anywhere without a creaking noise emanating from a floor.

The trees that became your house’s floor have come back to haunt you, seeking revenge for the chainsaw massacre that felled them. (And if you think trees can’t be scary, try watching The Wizard of Oz.)

More likely
Hardwood and carpeted floors squeak when the subfloor below flexes down against the floor joist, or the floorboards rub together.

The fix
The Squeeeeek No More kit (above) fastens the loose subfloor to the joist (you can buy it through Amazon for about R160, or try a better class of hardware store). Its floor fixture (A) positions and snaps off screws driven through hardwood floors. The screws (B) have a square drivehead and a scored shank to help them break off cleanly below the floor’s surface. The alignment tool (C) assists in driving screws into carpeted floors; a notch in its side helps you grab the screw head and cleanly snap it and part of the shank below the surface of the sub-floor. The special drive bit (D) has a stop collar formed in its shank; it’s used with both the hardwood-floor fixture and the alignment tool for carpeted floors. Two square-drive joist- finding bits (E) are included with every kit. Drive one at each end of a joist to form a sightline to help you keep the screws on track as you work down the length of the joist. Alternatively, sprinkle talcum powder along the gaps between the floorboards and hope for the best.


Attack of the evil Head Slammer

Toilets flush by themselves, and there’s this awful hammering sound when you use a tap or the washing machine.

A prankster elf makes its way through that loose basement window you’ve been meaning to fix, slams the toilet lever, then slips out, but only after banging its head on a cold-water pipe.

More likely
The mystery flush is caused by a worn-out flapper valve that allows water to trickle out of the toilet tank. Eventually, this trips the fill mechanism. The banging results from water slamming into a closed tap. It also happens when flowing water is stopped by a solenoid valve in a washing machine or dishwasher. The sound reverberates through wall and ceiling cavities.

The fix
To correct the problem, replace the flapper. The pipe banging, known as water hammer, can be remedied by a cushioning device called a water hammer arrestor. For clothes washers, you can thread it on to the valve behind the appliance. In other cases, you have to cut the copper tubing and solder the arrestor into place.


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