A. Of course you can do it, but there are some things better left to a pro. It would be best for a professional concrete layer to add 2 inches of concrete to the floor to make it even and level, and if there is enough headroom to allow it. You could build an insulated stud wall to the walls, but a new method would not cost that much. It is Owen-Corning’s special wall that has a Styrofoam insulation covered by a special plasterboard, all just 1½ inches thick, and gives all the insulation you need. There is plenty you can do yourself: Ceramic tiles (best) on the floor, painting, a dropped ceiling that attaches directly on the joists, maybe a rug on the tiled floor, and an electric heater to keep it snug and warm. If you insulate the ceiling, it will be even easier to heat. If the cellar is dry, go for it!
Q. Is oil heat still a cheap way to heat? I have an option to go to natural gas or propane.
A. There is gas in the United States and Canada to last for decades, so it’s likely to stay cheap. Heating oil, already costlier than gasoline, will do nothing but go up, sad to say. Gas can be delivered pretty well as it comes out of the ground, while oil must go through a costly refining system before it can be delivered. Gas is also cleaner than any fuel, I think. Avoid propane, which might be as costly as oil.
Q. A 6-inch metal pipe goes from outside to the base of my water heater to provide combustion air. The problem is that in winter, cold air pours down that pipe and makes the basement cold when the HWH is not working. Is there some kind of flapper valve to allow air to come in only when the unit is heating?
A. You should be able to find some kind of flapper valve where the heater is sold. But, if the basement is not lived in, you don’t need such a flapper because with the heater off, the pipe is providing needed ventilation, and it does not matter if the basement is cold.
Q. Should I have my brick foundation cemented over or repoint the bricks to replace the missing mortar? Most of the foundation is above ground.
A. Most above ground? All the more reason to repoint the bricks. Bricks are better looking, and the bricks can be repointed inside and out. You can spend a leisurely summer and autumn doing it yourself. It is easy, but heavy work. Chip out mortar to ¾-inch deep, with a cold chisel and mason’s mallet. Buy Sakrete or Quikrete mortar mix at any hardware store and fill joints with this mix, which is mixed with water. Don’t mix too much mortar; you will be slow in this work and the mortar will set up (in 15 minutes) before you use it all up. Another good mortar is Top ’n’ Bond. Buy a trowel and pointing tool, which is an elongated S-shaped steel bar used for pushing the mortar into the joint. Push it in very compactly; otherwise it will fail in a few months. Properly done, it will last 20 years. Do both sides. The outside is likely to be worse.