Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Go Green for Less

As I've written about before, better insulation and sealing of houses are the low-hanging fruit of energy-efficient homes. There's a nice article over at the NY Times titled Focus on Weatherization Is Shift on Energy Costs. It's shocking how much waste there is. Our house here in California had no insulation when I moved in. Todd over at Home Construction Improvement recently blogged about his first home in New England(!!) not having any insulation. Insulating your walls might cost a bit if done all at once, but it's easy to do if you've got a wall open for some other project. It just makes sense to make efficient use of the resources we've got before investing in higher-priced improvements like new windows and solar panels. From the NY Times article:
Correct those flaws, and heating and cooling costs are typically cut by 20 percent to 30 percent, a saving of more than $1,000 annually in some households. In addition, carbon dioxide emissions and the strain on the national electric and gas systems are reduced.

Typical repairs require expertise but generally cost $2,000 or less.
Save money, save energy and have a more comfortable house. What's not to like?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Fun with Facial Hair

For some reason, I decided yesterday to shave off my beard. Maybe it's all the cleaning K and I have been doing in the house. I've had a beard, a van dyke, and no facial hair in a random sequence dating back to college. I've had the full beard for quite a while, so I enjoyed K's reactions to the various styles as I removed the beard in pieces. I've never worn just a mustache (at least longer than it took to take this picture) because unlike my hair which is brown, my mustache always comes in much lighter in color. So for now it's back to the clean-shaven look.

We are not amused

The kitties don't really care one way or another, though they'll miss the "beard brush". Star doesn't like being brushed, but she does like it when I rub my beard against her head. She's been known to briefly groom it, too. Cats are weird.

Best. Tape. Ever.

I won! Before the Christmas break, I won one of the lovely DIY Network tape measures. With the holiday, I didn't have much time to use it until recently.

In short, it's the best tape I've ever owned. Good extension, glides in and out of the housing like silk, and the double-sided numbers are a nice feature. It'll get its real test in April at the 2009 Habitat for Humanity East Bay build-a-thon. (This year's goal is to frame 20 houses in 4 days; I think the most we've done before is 10.) But so far, I'm lovin' it. Thanks to the folks at One Project Closer and at DIY Network for the contest. You can get one of the tapes (without the DIY Network logo) for yourself at Amazon or your local home improvement store.

On the less impressive end of the tool spectrum, I had my second Powershot stapler die. The concept is great -- put the end of the release lever over the staple exit to maximize pressure where it's needed -- and that part works well. But the ruggedness just isn't there. The first stapler died on one of the Mexico mission trips; the roof crew tried to load staples the wrong way and jammed it up. Its replacement died the other day, when the clip that holds the staples in broke. It can still be used with some tape to hold the clip in, but that doesn't work very well in the long term. Even before it broke, it had a tendency to jam, particularly when nearing the end of a clip of staples. The reviews on it at Ace and Amazon indicate I'm not the only one disappointed in its performance.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Sawzall Hero

Yes, it's the latest game sensation for the Wii and Playstation, Sawzall Hero! Be sure to pick up the less exciting sequel, Shopvac Hero, due out in spring 2009.

This is a slightly Photoshopped image of me preparing to take out part of the wall between the old front hall and the kitchen. Not because it was the next logical step, or it was a particularly good time to (I should be busy finishing up the the media for the Christmas Eve services at RLC), but because I felt a need to do something. So do something I did.

I hung plastic to try to control the dust (fail), and went to town on the section of wall. I cut through the lovely 4x4 header they'd put over the 1' wide broom closet, and preserved the even lovelier 4x6 header they'd put over the doorway to the kitchen (this is a non-bearing wall, remember). A sawzall cuts drywall like a hot knife through butter, so it was just the few nails in the framing that took a bit of time.

Now there's less wall

And then K and I got our first look at what a beautiful space the kitchen and dining room are going to be. The rest of the wall I took out will come out once I remove the old kitchen cabinets, and much more of the far end of the kitchen will be open to the dining room, but even this amount is pretty trippy. Rosie is clearly unimpressed.

But I got my hero points without the sawzall, by rearranging the drywall in the dining room, moving tools into the basement, and then moving the kitty's litterbox and a table into the dining room. That gives us an actually usable dining room space in the living room, with Uncle Al's old table. There's even enough room for a table leaf or two. I think K was worrying about our house become like the house up the road that burned, packed with so much stuff we couldn't get through it easily. Besides which we plan to have a few friends and family over after Christmas (so we'll need those table leaves), and prospect of trying to cram into the existing space around the table was pretty grim.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Snow? In Oakland? MooOOoo!

We got back yesterday from a quick pre-Christmas trip. As reported on another Oakland blog, City Homestead, it snowed here while we were gone. It's not that unusual for a little snowfall every couple of years here in the East Bay hills (we're at about 1200 feet), but our neighbor reported that the snow stuck around for a while, and that is unusual. They even had a couple of icy patches in their driveway. The Oakland Tribune site has pictures of kids building a snowman in Tilden Park in Berkeley. The good news is that we're getting snow in the mountains, too, where most of the state's water comes from in summer.

So far, we've missed all the excitement. We were in Michigan and Florida visiting family, and managed to miss the major storm that's hitting the Midwest. We did get to see my sister and her family in Michigan, including my nephew Jimmy,

fun with trains in Michigan

and some aunts, uncles and cousins, and the worst weather we faced was some freezing rain one night when we weren't going anywhere. It was hecka cold compared with what we're used to, though. I got a chance to show K the library where my great aunt worked, and we got a tour at the historical museum across the street. It's in a beautiful Victorian built in 1896, 20 years after Oakland's Camron-Stanford House. It's in even better shape than CS House because it only had a few owners, was never neglected as badly as CS House was after the city museum was moved out of it, and never had any structural changes made to it. We stayed at my sister's beautiful 1930's arts and crafts home. She and my brother-in-law and parents have been slowly restoring it to its former splendor, too. I'll post some pics of that later.

canoeing in Florida

After a quick stay in Michigan, we went to Florida to visit my parents. Not surprisingly, the weather was much nicer there. It did rain hard the first night, but other than that it was lovely. A visit to Fairchild Botanical Gardens, some canoeing, catching up, and of course lots of eating made for a delightful stay with them.

snow in LA

Our return trip took us through LAX. We obviously hadn't been paying attention to the national weather and news, because we were surprised at the amount of snow around LA. Snow isn't uncommon in the mountains there, but the sheer amount of it was. It was gorgeous, too.

As always, it was great to get home. Even if the weather isn't as nice as it was in Florida. The kitties were delighted to see us, too, although our neighbor took great care of them while we were gone (thanks, Michelle!).

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Still my favorite

Nothing too exciting with regards to progress on the house, but the new headlamp is still awesome. I've been continuing to update electrical (the carport light works again, though I still need to replace the run from under the house up to the carport), remove old electrical, and install insulation. One nice thing about my new headlamp that some of the cheaper options didn't have is that it can be turned upward slightly. When you're looking down, the normal setting is great. When you're looking up (such as between some floor joists), the little bit of adjustment is perfect.

The house is still lacking insulation in a lot of places, but at least there's now a radiant barrier under the areas where there's nothing but subfloor. It stops the worst of the drafts, as well as reducing heat transmission. I'll add batt insulation after the kitchen is done, and I'm done pulling wire and extending the pipes for the new sink location. The slight bit of additional insulation is just in time, too. The forecast calls for highs in the high 40s (versus the high 60s / low 70s we've got now) and rain in the coming days.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

My new favorite tool

Petzl Tikka Plus LED Headlamp

from the why-didn't-I-think-of-this-before department

I'd been mulling over a new work light of some sort. We have a collection of flash lights, I've got a drop light on an extension cord, and even a blindingly bright halogen work light. They each work for different situations, but none is that great for working under the house, and lately I've been spending a lot of time there. I was considering a a Stanley tripod flashlight, or maybe a Dewalt 18v area light, but the basic problems with any of them is that one's (in my case, fat) head gets in the way of the light when you're working up between the floor joists, and if you need to look anywhere else, you need to move the light.

So back during our trip to King's Canyon NP back in October, someone in the neighboring campsite had a headlamp. We have a rechargeable fluorescent light we use for reading in the tent, and a classic Coleman lantern for cooking and eating dinner, but K and I admired the headlamp for cooking. At some point much later, a light went on (so to speak) for me: that would be perfect for working under the house. So yesterday after apheresis at the Red Cross, I trundled over to REI, and with the help of an associate (one of the great things about REI is that they use the outdoor gear that they sell so they know it), picked out the Petzl Tikka Plus LED Headlamp.

It's marvelous. Today I installed some more insulation, and then worked on running new wiring for the carport light. While it's still a pain in the butt to get into some of the tighter spaces under the house, the headlamp made it much less claustrophobic, and made me much more efficient because I wasn't always moving the flashlight around to point where I was looking. With the headlamp, I just looked, and there was the light. Turn my head to look for a dropped screw, and there was the light again.

It was magic. So why didn't I think of this a long time ago?

Working with Denim Insulation

Insulation isn't sexy -- CFLs, solar panels, green roofs, those get all the green love. But there are some interesting green insulation options, like soy-based spray foam, and denim batts. Better insulation and sealing of houses is the 'low-hanging fruit' of energy-efficient homes. We need more efficient and affordable solar and other technological innovations, but the most cost-effective place to start is sealing the building envelope. That's been an ongoing project here, since even before the addition. When I moved into the house, there was almost no insulation.

I hadn't worked with denim insulation before, but I'm always interested in greener options. After using up the rest of the traditional R-19 roll I had, I got some UltraTouch. It's made from recycled denim (post-industrial waste) and so has a lovely blue color.

The first thing I discovered is its hecka dusty. Most batt insulation gives off some dust (plus it's all very good at absorbing dust wherever it is.) Usually it's not-good-for-you fiberglass fibers it's giving off. But when I was stuffing the denim batts between the floor joists, I observed a veritable storm of dust coming down. After putting up a couple of batts, there was a visible blue layer on top of the washing machine.

The second thing I discovered is that its hard to cut the usual way (i.e., with a utility knife or a pair of scissors). The UltraTouch website suggests a $30 Cepco insulation knife, a Bosch Foam Rubber Cutter, a hand held grinding tool, or a table saw. Huh? OK, they all make some sense, but I'm too cheap too frugal not ready to buy a special tool just to work with insulation batts. And my table saw blade doesn't come out nearly far enough to cut a batt of R-19. So I read a little closer, and noticed it also mentions using a circular saw with the blade reversed. At least with the circular saw you can easily compress the insulation as you cut it. I put my cement and Hardiboard blade on instead of reversing my regular blade, and it works quite nicely. I also found a little handsaw works pretty well for making those little partial cuts you need for getting insulation around a pipe or wire.

Despite the dust and the increased difficulty cutting it, my vote so far is a big thumbs up. The blue dust is much preferable to fiberglass fibers, and the cost was comparable to traditional batts.

Have any of you worked with denim insulation? What's your experience been?

Monday, December 01, 2008


No, not that kind (besides, when I grew up in Michigan, they were known as King-Dongs -- didn't you ever wonder why the associated character was a king? Though I never figured out Fruit Pie the Magician). The push-the-button-and-a-chime-sounds kind. Our house has never had one. The old front door had a knocker to scare the bejeebers out of the cats and us. The new front door is much farther from the bedrooms we use as offices, and we were none too fond of the knocker, so we decided on having a doorbell instead. It's been sitting in its box for who knows how long, but the other day I finally got around to adding an outlet for the transformer to attach to, and running the bell wire from the transformer and button to the chimes.

And today it got used for real (i.e., not K or I pressing the button because of the novelty of having a doorbell for the first time). I had not one but two visitors, both expected (one a freecycler coming to pick up an item). Unexpected visitors are generally unwelcome visitors, and so elicit a different response.

This is a test of the there's-a-visitor-at-the-door system.
If this had been an unexpected visitor, you would been instructed to turn out the lights, be very, very quiet, and pretend no one is home.
This concludes the test of the there's-a-visitor-at-the-door system.
This is only a test.

P.S. Go Duke women's volleyball! One of Katarina's nieces plays for Duke, and the team is co-ACC champs and is headed for the NCAA tournament! Woohoo!