Q. Some years ago we added a family room, and we've found that moisture is deteriorating the inside and outside of the lower wall on the north side of the room. We've stopped using the sprinklers in this area and have installed a drainage system for the water that comes from an adjacent downspout, but the walls are still crumbling. Any ideas?
N.M., Costa Mesa
A. Check for a leaking water pipe inside the wall, says Jim Gorman of Rancho Lumber in Westminster. This can sometimes be detected when the house is completely quiet. Listen and you may be able to hear the water leaking. You can also turn off all of the water taps in your house and check your water meter. If one of the dials is moving, this could also show a leak.
If a leak is ruled out, the problem may be that the landscaping is terraced down toward that side of the house. A cement drainage ditch around that portion of the house may have to be built to prevent moisture from getting to the walls. In any case, you're going to need the advice of a contractor who can detect the specific problem before fixing the walls.
Q. The inside of my fireplace used to be off-white, but it was painted black. Now I'd like to restore it to the off-white color. How do I go about getting back to the original color?
O.K., Santa Ana
A. The first thing you'll have to do is decide whether you're going to use the fireplace, says Rich Zelle of Hal's Paint & Decorating in Fullerton. Each time you use it, the soot and heat from the fire will darken it, so making the inside of the fireplace a lighter shade only makes sense if you're not going to build fires.
Try using a paint remover on the surface to get the black finish and soot off, then clean it, use a good primer and paint the surface.
Q. My neighbor turns on the automatic sprinklers in his back yard every night, and I'm afraid that he's soaking the cement block wall between us too much. Could all that water weaken the joints and the wall?
A. It's not very likely to damage the wall, says Ken Newland of Tustin Block. Most walls of that height are strongly reinforced and can withstand a great amount of abuse. There can be stains from water deposits, which you might try to remove with vinegar and water.
Q. We have an outdoor concrete staircase, and, because the lighting isn't very good, the bottom stair can be hard to see. What can be done to make it stand out?
M.D., Santa Ana
A. It may be worth it to upgrade your outdoor lighting, says Gary Lillge of Crown Hardware in Corona del Mar. There are low-voltage Malibu-style lights that give an extra edge of safety to walking areas. You can also use a reflective or fluorescent tape designed for that purpose, which is available in most hardware stores. Clean the step, then apply a strip of the tape to the top edge, as well as the front.
Q. I hate it when I pull a paint can from the garage to touch up a spot on a wall or cabinet and find that excess paint has sealed the lid to the rim. I've tried washing the rim before putting the lid back on, but that hasn't worked. Any other ideas?
K.H., Lake Forest
A. You might try hitting a nail through the rim on the can to create some drainage holes, says painter Steve Smith of Anaheim Hills. That way the leftover paint just doesn't sit there; it drains back into the can. Always keep rags around the area where you pour paint into roller trays, and be sure that every time you pour, you also clean the can.
Cleaning the rim and lid can help preserve your supply and keep it free from dust and other contaminants when the can is closed.
If you have a question about your home or garden, A Helping Hand will help you find the answer. Send questions to: John Morell, Home Design, The Times Orange County, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626.