Q. We live in an older house with popcorn ceilings. I don’t like them and they are filthy in some places. Is there any way to improve this without a costly removal?
A. Popcorn ceilings in older homes might contain asbestos. Your first step should be to have the popcorn tested for this hazardous material, which can cause serious health problems if particles get into the air and are breathed. Popcorn is most likely to contain asbestos if it was installed before about 1978.
Use a spray bottle of water to wet several areas on the ceilings and scrape off small samples. Place the samples in plastic sandwich bags and send them to a laboratory (check your yellow pages for local labs or look online). If your ceilings contain asbestos, dealing with them is a job for trained professionals and could be quite expensive. Popcorn that is asbestos free can be removed by do-it-yourself methods.
Removal is a messy job but is almost a necessity if you plan to sell the house. Many potential buyers these days are aware of the potential dangers of popcorn ceilings and won’t buy a house with them. If you plan to remain in the house and take your chances with the ceilings, their appearance can be improved by painting. Painting is a tricky job because most popcorn is water based, and latex paint applied directly to it can cause the popcorn to loosen and fall off. Apply a coat of oil-based primer first. The primer is best applied with a sprayer, but sometimes a roller can be used. Once primed, it can be painted with any good latex ceiling paint.
Another strategy is to cover the ceilings and popcorn with a new layer of 3/8-inch drywall. Drywall installation should be done by an experienced tradesperson; hoisting drywall sheets to a ceiling takes special equipment. Suspended ceilings are another option for hiding the popcorn, but not a real solution.
Q. I have an older wood deck that is dirty and stained. There are a lot of plants around it that I don’t want to damage. How can I clean the deck without harming my plants?
A. There are a number of deck cleaners that are claimed to be safe for plants, but it pays to be cautious anyway. A good strategy, before starting cleaning, is to soak the plants thoroughly and cover them with plastic sheeting. When you have finished cleaning, remove the plastic and rinse the plants again.
If the deck is built of pressure-treated wood, and you have or can rent a pressure washer, you should be able to clean the deck without using any chemicals at all. Treated wood can stand fairly high-pressure streams of water without damage, but this is not so with softer woods like cedar and redwood.
With any deck, you should test in an inconspicuous place before using the pressure washer on the more visible parts of the structure. You can also check for plant-safe deck cleaners at home centers and on the Internet. A cleaner called Spray & Forget doesn’t require scrubbing or rinsing and is supposed to be safe for plants.