QUESTION: Our plaster ceilings have a sprayed acoustic finish. How can we remove it and create a smooth surface?
Henry Spies, of Spies Home Inspection Services in Champaign, Ill., replies:
ANSWER: Acoustic finishes applied before 1978 should be tested for asbestos by an EPA-approved lab. (Contact the EPA office in your state to find a lab.) If the sample tests positive, you might want to have the finish removed by an abatement company or leave it in place if it's intact.
If the sample tests negative, or if the finish is relatively new, you can do the removal yourself. You'll need goggles, rubber gloves and plenty of ventilation. Mix equal parts of denatured alcohol and clear household ammonia into an atomizer bottle. Spray this mixture onto the ceiling, and continue to spray intermittently for 10 minutes to keep it wet. Scrape the finish off when the surface begins to bubble.
This is messy work. An easier option is to cover the finish with new gypsum drywall. Screw the drywall to the ceiling joists, and then tape and finish it conventionally.
High-Acid Cleaner Can Unclog Toilet Q: Hard-water mineral deposits are restricting water flow between the tank and bowl of an older toilet we have. What's a good way to get rid of the deposits so the toilet flushes properly?
Jack McCarthy, of McCarthy Plumbing & Heating in Owatonna, Minn., suggests:
A: Use a high-acid-content liquid cleaner. Vani-Sol Bowl Cleanser (ProBrands, 225 Summit Ave., Montvale, NJ 07645;  573-5700) has worked for me. A quart costs about $4.
First, bail all the water out of the bowl. Next, take the lid off the tank, and pour a quart of the cleaner down the overflow tube. Wait at least an hour. Then wrap a cloth around the end of a straightened wire hanger and swab out each hole beneath the rim of the bowl. Since the cleaner is caustic, wear rubber gloves and safety goggles. Also be sure to turn on the vent fan and open a window for ventilation.
If any holes are completely plugged up, use the bare wire end to poke through the hardened clog. Then flush; if flow isn't substantially improved, repeat the process.
Concrete Stain Adds Color to Patio, Walks Q: I want to color my concrete patio and walkway, but I don't want to use paint. Is there a special dye available? If so, how is it applied?
Tom Philbin, a former painting contractor and author of three books on the subject, is based in Centerport, N.Y. He suggests:
A: Your best bet is a concrete stain. It works like a penetrating wood stain, soaking into the concrete. The specially formulated stain won't peel like paint, and it dries to a dead-flat finish. The easiest way to apply it is with a long-handle roller.
Concrete stains are available at home centers and lumberyards in a wide variety of colors. Among the top manufacturers are Benjamin Moore, (800) 826-2623; Behr, (800) 854-0133; and H&C Stains, (800) 867-8246. Call for a dealer in your area.
The preferred method of coloring concrete is to add a liquid dye to the mix before it's poured. That way, the color goes all the way through the slab. The next-best method is to sprinkle a powdered dye over the wet concrete surface after it has been poured and floated but before it cures.
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