Question:

We have a split-level house, and we are trying to fix up the lower level. The problem is the walls. In the living room, there is something that I think is called rough plaster - it looks as though there are small nonpareils under the plaster. In the utility room, there is a very rough spackle that looks stucco-ish.

What is the best way to cover over these and make them smooth? We thought about using wallpaper liner in the living room and drywall mud in the utility room, then covering both in paint. What are your thoughts?

Answer:

My first response is "yuck," since I've dealt with both problems. This is a messy, painstaking job, and I wonder whether it wouldn't be worth it to just pull out the old surface and then drywall. That's what I ended up doing after trying it your way.

Let's look at covering over the "stucco-ish" wall. It could be stucco or swirled spackle, which I've seen people do to hide cracks in plaster ceilings. I would try to use spackling compound that tends not to shrink very much as it dries; otherwise, you'll be filling it in for the rest of your life. Remember: Apply, dry, sand, apply, dry, sand, ad infinitum.

Now, the wallpaper-liner plan. Liner paper is a heavyweight paper with a smooth surface. It is typically applied over Masonite to hide shallow grooves in the surface, although you may have to use drywall compound (two or three applications probably, depending again on level of shrinkage). It can be applied over textured walls before you apply regular wallpaper or paint (always prime first, and sand between coats for better adhesion and to get rid of lumps and bumps). Liner is available in several weights, usually 36 inches wide.

If you want to try wallpaper liner in both places, it might be less labor-intensive than filling in swirls with spackle.

Q:

I finally decided to get on the bandwagon and replace some of my conventional bulbs with fluorescent ones. My first "installation" was a success: I replaced a three-way bulb in a floor lamp, and it works fine. Happy with that result, I decided to replace the four floodlights in the kitchen ceiling with fluorescent bulbs. Even though the kitchen lights are on a dimmer, the package clearly states, in oversized letters, "dimmable."

Initially I replaced just two of the bulbs. Shortly after installing the fluorescents, I noticed the following: When the switch is turned on, they somewhat slowly come to life; once fully on, they do not seem quite as bright as the old lights, but are good enough; and once, when I flipped the switch to turn them on, the coffeepot went off - that has never happened in the seven years we have lived here.

After a few weeks, the dimmer switch did not work anymore. I decided something wasn't right, and I replaced the two fluorescents with the original type of bulb. The dimmer switch is still not working.

Is it possible the two new bulbs were not appropriate for this kind of lighting? Is it possible the dimmer switch became dysfunctional because of the fluorescent lights? Is it possible there is other damage to the wiring that I am unaware of because the results are not visible to me? Is it possible I should have replaced all four lights with fluorescents at the same time? Do I need to call an electrician?

A:

You're talking about compact fluorescent bulbs, of course. Here, thanks to a variety of sources, including EarthEasy.com and the Department of Energy, are some possible answers:

CFLs are sensitive to frequent on/off cycling. Use incandescents in closets and other places where light is needed only briefly. Not all CFLs can be used on dimmer switches. Most CFLs can be used with a timer or a three-way fixture. Be sure to check the package, which will indicate if the bulb is not intended for use with electronic timers or photocells.

Finally, CFLs contain small amounts of mercury, a toxic metal that can be released if the bulb is broken. Some bulbs have lower mercury contents than others. Look into it.

Have questions for Alan J. Heavens? E-mail him at aheavens@phillynews.com or write him at The Inquirer, Box 8263, Philadelphia 19101.