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A little high-tech help around the house


When you think about building, rehabbing or remodeling, you usually think about simple things: boards, nails, hammers, bricks and mortar.

The fact is, like the auto industry, the home entertainment industry and, for that matter, the toaster industry, the building industry has gone high-tech.

Houses have gotten smarter and so have builders -- and so have the people who supply building products and services.

Here's a look at two areas where technology has substantially changed how a service is performed or how a product is produced and used.

* One of the most troublesome of tasks in old and new construction is locating and tracing underground pipes and gas lines, either because there seems to be a leak, or because -- as is often the case in old houses -- no one knows exactly where the lines are. In the past, the only response to a leak or a wet spot in the yard was to dig up the yard until you found a pipe and then dig up the pipe until you found the leak. It usually didn't take much digging to destroy the yard.

American Leak Detection of Palm Springs, Calif., has a better solution. The company uses a variety of high-tech tools to pinpoint leaks from sources such as water and sewer pipes and swimming pools. When the leak is detected, it means digging only a small hole, as little as a foot square, to fix the problem.

How do they do it? Blaine Murray, owner of American Leak Detection in Baltimore, said they use a cable-mounted camera that will go through a sewer pipe as small as 2 inches in diameter to take pictures of conditions inside. They can pressurize a water line and use ultrasound equipment to locate the leak. There's a molecular analyzer that can measure moisture at ground level to help pinpoint trouble spots. There's a cast-iron-pipe locator that works like a transmitter. It sends a radio signal back to a receiver held at ground level. Or, there's a device called a "Thumper" that sends an electronic pulse down plastic pipe that is detectable from above. The relative strength of the signals the devices send can tell an experienced operator much about the condition of the pipes.

And the yard will look at lot better afterward.

For more information, call American Leak Detection at (800) 755-6697 nationwide, or at (800) 293-8590 in Maryland.

*Indoor air pollution has recently become an issue for homeowners, as today's super-tight and heavily insulated houses trap more moisture, fumes and gases inside. The fumes and gases can come from natural sources such as radon, or from building materials or fabrics. In many cases, technology helped create the problem with solutions for energy loss. For most people the problems are minimal, but a few people have extreme reactions to indoor air pollutants.

A solution at least to the furniture aspect of indoor pollution comes from DesignTex Inc. of New York, a subsidiary of Steelcase Design Partnership, with the introduction of a new fabric that promises "no negative environmental impact in the manufacturing process or during use or disposal."

The fabric, made of natural wool and ramie fibers, was created by Charlottesville, Va., architect William McDonough, who is noted for environmentally sensitive designs.

The fabric was developed because "designers were asking questions like, 'Do your products out-gas?' " said Allan Smith, corporate marketing manager for DesignTex. While people weren't always asking the right questions, Mr. Smith said, the fact that design professionals were asking about environmental impacts set the company thinking, "Let's give them more than they're asking for -- let's give them every bell and whistle."

Thus the new DesignTex fabric is completely "green," from the soap used to wash the wool to the pigments used to dye the fabric to the scrap from the manufacturing process. The scrap and the fabric are recyclable and harmlessly biodegradable, DesignTex says.

The fabric comes in five designs, each of which comes in eight to 10 colorways. They're available "to the trade," that is, through architects and interior designers. The wholesale price is $59 a yard.

The fabrics have gotten standing ovations from design professionals, Mr. Smith said. DesignTex is waiting to see if enthusiasm translates into sales.

"The ultimate test is, will the product sell, and will people use it," he said. "We say, you've been asking for these, it's up to you to use them."

Mr. Johnson is a Baltimore construction manager. Ms. Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N.

Calvert St. Baltimore, 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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