Photography: Alex Schuldtz
By the time contractor Mike Holmes grabs his first double-double of the day, he's already fielded a dozen questions about everything from tiles to tub surrounds. In this excerpt from The Holmes Manual, he shares the answers to the questions he gets asked most often—consider it a blueprint for making your bathroom right.
Q: How long should you run a bathroom fan?
A: Most people don't have a clue how long it takes a fan to remove all that moist air you're creating every time you have a shower. They towel off, brush their teeth or shave, and flip off the fan when they leave the bathroom. I've heard experts say the exhaust fan needs to run for at least 20 minutes after you've finished your shower, but I recommend 30 minutes just to be safe. And make sure you crack open the door or a window while the fan runs. If the bathroom is sealed, it restricts airflow and your fan can't push warm air outside. Installing a timer makes it easier. This preventive measure helps control moisture and can add years to the life of your bathroom.
Q: I keep getting mould buildup in the corners of my shower, no matter how many times a week I clean it. Could this mean there is mould behind the tiles and on the wall itself?
A: The most common place you'll find mould in a bathroom is behind the tile around the tub or shower. You might be looking at mouldy walls, or you might just have a problem with surface mould. Either way, your bathroom is telling me you don't have enough ventilation. Is your bathroom exhaust fan working properly? If you put a piece of toilet paper against it while it's running, does the paper stay in place or does it drift away? If the paper falls, it could be a sign that the fan isn't powerful enough to extract the humid air you're creating every time someone takes a shower. If you don't have a fan, you need one.
Q: Does it matter where a bathroom fan is installed? Can it be on a wall?
A: Ideally, you want the fan as high up as you can get it, since warm, moist air is pushed up. That's why mounting it on the ceiling makes the most sense. Just make sure you get one strong enough to extract the air efficiently, and that it vents directly to the exterior. Venting anywhere else is unsafe and just plain wrong. I've seen the rot that happens when people take shortcuts and discharge the air into a crawl space or the attic or between walls: you'll have a much more serious mould problem in a very short time.
Q: We'd like a spa bathroom but we've heard you don't recommend saunas in a house. Why not?
A: You heard right—I never like steam showers, steam rooms, hot tubs, or saunas inside a home. Getting a sauna means you're creating a ton of additional water vapour within your home—more than most houses can handle. When you've got that much extra water vapour within the envelope of your home, you're asking for trouble with mould. Don't put your house at risk at all: build your sauna outdoors. Building a spa properly requires so many special considerations; I rarely see it done right. Many home inspectors won't even look at saunas and steam rooms, and this is one case where I don't blame them: there's no way to give them a clean bill of health. I won't be surprised if, in a few years, we see a massive breakdown of these home spas, which will develop extreme problems with moisture and mould. If you still insist on a spa, make sure you hire a qualified plumber and contractor. The room needs to be completely waterproof, which means using the appropriate membranes for waterproofing, using cement board (not drywall or greenboard) under your tile, and going overboard on ventilation and an extraction fan. And don't add a spa because you expect it to add value to your home before selling: most buyers will want to get rid of it.
Q: What kind of grout should I use around my bathtub?
A: Grout is confusing. I often get asked about epoxy grout for tile walls and floors because people think it's a way to make tiles watertight. I always say that you don't need epoxy grout if everything is watertight behind the tiles. Stick to standard grout. The other thing people do is turn to epoxy grout as a quick fix. That tells me people have a problem with water behind the tiles and they're trying to prevent more from going in. In that case, removing old grout and using epoxy is actually going to make the problem worse by trapping the moisture problem behind the tile instead of fixing it. Instead of epoxy, make it right: start from the beginning, rip everything out, and do the bathroom properly with cement board and waterproof membranes like Kerdi on the walls and Ditra on the floor before tiling with regular grout.
Q: Why does my toilet shift and lean to one side when I sit on it?
A: A toilet that rocks can mean trouble. You might have had a long-term leak, which has rotted some of the structure of the floor under the toilet. If your floors are rotting, you never know when you may sit down on the john and end up with a mess! Don't be tempted to caulk around the toilet in an attempt to keep it in place or stop the leaking. If there's a leak, you need to fix it, not stick a Band-Aid on it. You and I both know the water will continue to leak and damage your floors—only now, it will be hidden. Get a plumber in to take a look at the toilet. Once the toilet is taken care of, you need to have the damaged floors torn up and rebuilt. And next time you think you've got a leak, don't ignore it—have it fixed. Minor leaks can cause big problems with mould and rot.
Q: What's the best way to seal your grout?
A: I never recommend sealing grout. It's porous, and it will absorb liquid spills. Light grout will show dirt in a busy bathroom—that's something you can't avoid. In my opinion, grout is one of the materials in your house that's supposed to breathe. If air can flow through it, it allows any moisture that sneaks behind your tile (it will happen, trust me) to evaporate and escape. If you seal the grout and you've got sealed or nonporous tiles, that water has nowhere to go. Now, sealing tiles is a whole other issue. Depending on what your tiles are made of—most natural stone is porous—you may need to seal them. This has to be done before the tiles are grouted. Otherwise, the grout will absorb into the tile and make it look cloudy. If grout penetrates the pores of your tile, you can't fix that. If you're tired of grubby-looking grout, all you need is elbow grease. Carefully chisel it out—I won't lie, it's a pain—and replace it with a darker-coloured grout that won't show the dirt.
Q: Why can't I lay new tile over the existing vinyl tile in my bathroom?
A: Listen, I get why homeowners and contractors want to cheat and lay new tile over old flooring. It's less work than tearing up the original flooring and laying the new stuff on a properly prepared substrate. But don't even think about doing it. You'll end up with cracked grout and tile, and your “new” floor won't look like new for long. I hate coverups, which is why I always recommend removing existing flooring before installing something new. How else can you tell the condition of the underlay? You have to take up the old stuff, check out the subfloor, fix what needs fixing, or replace the subfloor if necessary. When you're taking the time and money to renovate, isn't it worth making an effort to know it's perfect? With all that moisture and humidity, bathrooms provide the perfect conditions for mould. And what you might not realize is that mould also feeds off mastic, the organic adhesive that's used to install some vinyl flooring. The only way to tell if you've got a mould problem you didn't even know about is to take up the old tiles. Tiling over the problem might cost less in the short term, but how much will it cost when you need to tear out the new floor because it looks like crap?
Q: What is the very low faucet I've seen in some of the walk-in showers you've built?
A: This is the funniest question I get! In Canada, when you have a shower with no tub, it's common to have a “toe-tester” faucet. It's so you can test the water temperature before you step into the shower and either scald yourself or freeze! I keep hearing from U.S. fans that they don't have them down there, but I'm not sure why they're not used.