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!

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Need a place to live?

East Brother Island

Here's a different option. OK, sure, you have to run a bed and breakfast, there's no pizza delivery, and you need a commercial boat operator's license, but what a view! It's even sort of green -- solar panels, rainfall collection, and a small septic system.

It's here in San Francisco Bay, and while I've seen the island, I've never visited there myself. Looks like fun, but maybe not for a career.

Monday, November 24, 2008


I was tagged by Larry at Simpson's Folly with the '7 random or weird book facts about you' meme, so here goes.

1. I learned to read early. My mom used to read to me when I was little. But at some point I was bad (who, me?) and the punishment was that she wasn't going to read to me that night. Apparently I raised such a fuss about how that wasn't fair because she knew I couldn't read myself, that the next day we went to the library and she got me some first grade readers, showed me the basics, and off I went.

Bacon Memorial Library

2. Speaking of the library, my great aunt June was librarian in the next town over, at the Bacon Memorial Library. Part of the building is a fugly 1960's era brick thing, but part is the Bacon house from 1897. Having your aunt run the library means no limits on checking out books, something that I took full advantage of.

3. Growing up, one of my favorite books was Richard Halliburton's Complete Book of Marvels. He wrote about his travels around the world in a biplane called The Flying Carpet, back in the 1930s when traveling anywhere was a big deal. Plain and simple writing geared towards kids, it gave me my first look at the bigger world. I think my love of geography and maps comes in no small part from reading this book countless times when I grew up.

4. Currently I'm reading Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction by David Sheff. It's very powerful stuff, but not easy reading by any stretch of the imagination.

5. One of the coolest books I own is Dante's Divine Comedy with the Doré Illustrations. I've only ever read Dante's The Inferno, first back in high school (thanks, Mr. Appleyard) which is interesting and wickedly funny in parts. But the Doré illustrations (c. 1857) add a certain je ne sais quoi that a more modern style of artwork never could.

6. Have I mentioned I love books and reading? Besides learning to read early, I've always read a lot. My sister Kirsten and I both use to stay up past our bedtimes, reading under the covers with a flashlight if necessary. In 5th grade my teacher gave awards at the end of the year, making sure to give something to everyone. My award? The most book reports, for writing over 100 during the year (the other likely award was 'paying the least attention', because I was bored out of my skull at that point in school.) These weren't 5th grade-level books, either. While I don't remember most of what I read that year, I do remember reading Peter Benchley's Jaws. I covered it with green construction paper, because, being a sensitive 5th grader, I was embarrassed about the naked girl on the cover.

7. My favorite genre of book is science fiction. I love books of all sorts, and K and I own hundreds (thousands? we've never counted) but the largest single category of books I've bought and read are science fiction. From Asimov to Zelazny, from Brin to Vinge, I love science fiction. Some people lump fantasy in with science fiction, and I love a lot of fantasy books (e.g., Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy is amazing, and defined the entire genre, laying the foundation for countless books, movies and games), but the two are pretty different.

Now I'm supposed to tag 7 other bloggers, but I'll have to think about it some as several of the blogs I had in mind have already been tagged. But hey, if you want to blog on this meme, go for it! At the very least I'll tag Pete at Corner Kick because I know he loves books and writing.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I Want One!

mmm...double-sidedy goodness

No, not a Bobcat. Well, OK, I do want one of those. Except I don't actually have a use for it, nor a place to park it. What I want is one of the 25-foot, double-sided, stainless steel blade tape measures from DIY Network that One Project Closer is giving away.

My current tape is showing its age. It's at least the 3rd real* tape measure I've owned (* that is, not counting little 10 foot ones, freebies on keychains, and other largely useless ones.) My tapes take a lot of abuse for someone who doesn't work in construction for a living. They've been on Mexico mission trips, to the Gulf Coast, spent countless days on local Habitat builds, and of course been instrumental in building the addition here at DIY Insanity. The DIY Network tapes are fat (and phat, as far as tape measures go). That means better extension and less likely to tear. The stainless steel tape means less likely to rust. And the double-sided part is just gravy. So this looks like a great option for my next tape.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

But Marge!

OK, it wasn't my lifelong dream, and no, it wasn't to eat world's biggest hoagie. But I have long wanted to drive a Bobcat. Alas, given the nature of our lot (a steep slope down from the road before it levels out), I was unlikely to have an excuse reason to rent one.

But today I finally got to drive one, and no rental fee required. I volunteered today at my local Habitat for Humanity. Normally I go out on Fridays, but today we had a Lutheran build day for Thrivent Builds. Well that, and I was busy yesterday finishing up the electrical work in the basement here.

Americorps trying out the playground equipment

The houses in the Edes A development are basically done. Now we're working on the common area between the houses, which will have benches, grills, picnic tables, a couple of oak trees, and a playground area. There was a playground equipment guy assembling the the structure, and half the volunteers were working on the play area, and some cool sandbag + stucco benches.

The rest of us were working on Edes B, filling in trenches where the sewer pipes had been placed for a couple of houses, in preparation for the foundations being poured. Filling in the trenches involved moving a lot of sand and dirt, so we got to use the Bobcat to load the wheelbarrows.

me driving the Bobcat

Another regular volunteer and I took turns using it, and I have to say...it was a blast. They can turn on a dime (though not very smoothly), lift a whole lot of whatever, and have driving controls straight out of Battlezone. Of course, they're noisy, smelly (mmm...diesel), and if one is not careful, one can dump dirt on one's head. Not that I would ever do such a thing while I was learning how to use it.

But they're definitely the right tool for a lot of jobs that involve moving a lot of dirt around. It was a lot trickier to maneuver near the play structure with a bunch of people around to dig out a little more for the play area. But still hecka fun.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Spaghettiful Electrical

me fighting with the 1 1/4" conduit

One more quick trip to Home Depot (the nearest hardware stores don't carry the larger size conduit or fittings), and then with K's help I pulled the fat wire from the main panel to the new sub-panel. I hadn't done much with conduit before, metal or PVC, and I learned why people love the flexible armored cable so much. Working with conduit is more difficult than working with cable, and the PITA factor goes up with the diameter of the conduit because there's less give when lining things up. Because I was running 4-3 wire (which doesn't bend very easily) to the sub-panel, I needed a larger conduit. For comparison, the Romex you normally pull is at most 12-3 for two 20 amp circuits; 4-3 is quite a bit larger and less flexible. But with both of us pushing and pulling and temporarily undoing a few things to get a bit more flex, we managed to get it pulled. Then I fed the end up to the main panel outside the house, hooked it up, and it was time to test!

I was mostly replacing existing circuits, but the one for the water heater had failed a while ago with a bad neutral. Circuit for the water heater (it's a gas-fired tankless, but requires electricity for its brains and to ignite) -- check. Circuit for the furnace (it's gas-fired, but we have an electrostatic filter) -- check. 240V circuit for the dryer -- check. New outlet for the washer -- hmm. OK, I mis-wired the GFCI. Hey, it was dark in the basement! A quick re-wire -- check. I still need to pull armored cable for a new circuit for the lights and some outlets along my work bench, but we're back to having a working laundry room, and heat when we need it.

a lovely sunset over the bay viewed
from our chairs on the hillside

Lately it's been much warmer than than normal. So fortunately it wasn't a big deal to not have heat for a day. Unfortunately we need a lot of rain (and snow in the mountains) to make up for the last two drought years.

In any event, I was pleased to get that work done. I then proceeded to start removing some of the old wiring. The water heater and furnace circuits are just a few years old, so mostly what I did was shorten the runs to go to the sub-panel instead of the main panel. But the washer had never had its own circuit, and it wasn't GFCI protected although it was right next to the laundry tub, so I was pleased to fix that.


The real scare was with the old dryer outlet. I'd always known it was a bit funky, i.e., right next to the laundry tub, outlet a bit loose, runs from the panel, through a fuse box(!), then behind the laundry sink. When I started removing it, I realized just how bad it was. There was no clamp on the box to hold the flex cable in, so it was relying on the wire and screws to hold it. No clamp also meant that any movement of the cable would rub at the wires themselves. But the crowning glory was when I went to remove the plug. There were no slots in the screws! Closer inspection revealed that they weren't screws, but a pair of 16p nails (galvanized, thankyouverymuch) holding the outlet and the box in place. No wonder the thing was a bit loose! I was very pleased to get rid of that.

Star was again unimpressed.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Zeppeliny Goodness!

I've been working on the electrical again. I made a trip to Home Depot to get some conduit fittings, and was surprised to see floating overhead...a zeppelin. I'd heard they were starting to give rides in the SF Bay Area, but hadn't thought twice about it until today.

the German cousin of the zeppelin I saw

I wasn't the only one who was surprised to see it. Two cars in front of me at a traffic light had cameras pointed out their windows, and a variety of people in the Home Depot lot were staring up at it.

Unlike blimps, which are a dime a dozen these days, zeppelins have a rigid frame inside. Unlike The Hindenburg, these are filled with helium, and don't have an aluminized skin (which is what made that burn so fiercely, not the hydrogen, which burned off quickly).

DIY Insanity...now with 10% more Zeppeliny Goodness!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Thank You

I may not always agree with why you're sent, but thank you to all the veterans out there. NV at This D*mn House has a most excellent post for Veterans Day.

my grandfather in Italy on the hospital roof

Monday, November 10, 2008

Oh My!

There was much excitement here at DIY Insanity. No, not putting in the plastic, filter cloth and gravel into the drainage near the path I'd worked on before (the only thing less exciting than a trench is a filled-in trench). No, not installing conduit and wire in the basement.

Instead, we had excitement for the whole neighborhood. While watching the Giants vs. the Eagles on Sunday Night Football (gotta love John Madden), we heard heavy trucks go rumbling by and saw some flashing lights. A short time later we heard some more; I figured it had been a false alarm and they were going back to the station up the hill. K could still hear rumbling, though, so she went to investigate. She quickly returned and reported there were multiple fire engines up a few houses. We went out to investigate, and found out that it was a house fire in the next block.

We couldn't walk up our street, so we walked around the other way, and saw a whole bunch of fire equipment. K counted 9 or 10 fire engines, 2 ladder trucks (the big ones with the 2nd steering wheel in back), 2 police cars, and an ambulance. And a PG&E truck for good measure. I saw a friend from Oakland Firefighters Random Acts who's in the department said it had gone to a second alarm in part because the residents were pack rats and the house was literally full of stuff. When it went to a second alarm, and in anticipation of a long night, they were dispatched with the department's O2 truck to refill air tanks as needed. So there were crews from at least 3 stations there. Fortunately no one was injured; the owners weren't at home when the fire broke out.

When I walked by this morning, the lower floor looked completely scorched, and the windows were knocked out (common when fighting fires to clear the debris and the smoke out.) The upper entrance floor (common here in the hills) looked OK, but based on how much smoke had come out the lower floor, I imagine there was a fair amount of smoke damage up there, too. Oy. I'm just glad no one was injured.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Happy People

No, not this happy person, but lots of happy people at, of all places, Home Depot.

While waiting for things to dry out, I've been working slowly on cleaning out and organizing more stuff in the basement to make room to do more work on the electrical. Some of it could probably wait until after the kitchen work, but the outlet for the water heater failed (bad neutral; it was installed by the plumber who installed the tankless water heater a couple years back) and inspired me to move forward with some of the electrical work now. That and if the inspector looks at some the existing wiring, they'd probably stop work right there.

So after placing the new panel and figuring out the runs needed, I headed off today to Home Depot, with visions of conduit and heavy gauge wire running through my head. And despite all the work ahead for the incoming president and congress, despite the ongoing negativity, despite the continuing bad news about the economy, people seemed much more cheerful than I've ever seen in Home Depot before. Maybe it was because I wasn't in the line contractors are usually in, though that was surprisingly short. Maybe they only seemed happier was because I was happier, both because of the election and because I actually found someone to help me. Maybe it was because it was another beautiful day. But regardless of all the whys and wherefores, I actually saw people smile in Home Depot, and that's even more rare than finding an associate to help you when you need it.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Enough Already!

Every election seems to have some mud-slinging, but the McCain campaign, both directly and through the GOP has reached new depths in mud-slinging and out-right lies as it comes down to the wire. Even if I were interested in voting for McCain (I'm not; what little he's said about what he would do between the mud-slinging suggests 4 more years of W's policies), I'm so put off by this sickening behavior I'd cast my vote elsewhere. What happened to the 'respectful campaign' he promised?

Add to it the (unfortunately) usual mud-slinging over some of the California propositions, and I'm ready for this election to be over. The fear and outright hatred espoused by Prop 8 supporters is decidedly un-Christian no matter how you look at it. I thought churches were supposed to be separate from politics by law, but the LDS, Catholic churches, and various mega-churches are pouring money and energy in to support 8. I guess it's "love your neighbor" unless they're not like you.

Enough already. Get out there and vote for Obama, and vote no on California's Prop 8.

Thursday, October 30, 2008


200 This is my 200th blog post! Not quite as big a deal as the bicentennial celebrations back when K and I were growing up. There will be no commemorative coins, and I doubt that NASA will paint the DIY Insanity logo on the side of the vehicle assembly building, despite the logo's Napoleonic loveliness.

I've been working on grading and adding more drainage, and yesterday K and I mixed and placed 8.5 bags on concrete to serve as the foundation for steps to her office door. There's more work to do on all those things, but they'll have to wait a while as the rain started today. Not too heavy so far, but too wet to be doing much digging in. Fortunately there's lots to do inside for the kitchen remodel. And of course the ever-important blogging about the work I'm not doing.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Reefer Madness

Here's a picture of me playing an elaborate practical joke on K, switching the hinge of the refrigerator and freezer from one side to the other, but leaving the handle on the same side. Priceless!

Actually, I'm switching the hinge and the handles in preparation for the reefer's3 stay in the living room during the kitchen remodel. It's also the side it needs to be on in the final kitchen layout which is why I'm bothering with it at all.

I ended up doing most of the work twice. I measured and thought we could get the refrigerator into the living room by leaving off the handles. I failed to measure one little bumpout on the back, which meant we had to pull it back, take the doors off again, then move it into the living room. Next time we move it, we'll take it the longer way around through the dining room, because the openings we'll have to pass through are more than large enough. Or will be by then.

It was also a good opportunity to clean the parts of the fridge and under it even though the vinyl flooring I'm sitting on will be going away. And because the refrigerator partially blocked one of the doors into the already-too-small kitchen, having it gone makes the current kitchen, well, not spacious, but not feel quite so cramped. We're both still doing double-takes, turning around from the sink expecting to find the refrigerator, but we're rapidly getting used to the new layout.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Classy Joint

The last couple days I've been doing a variety of things, including regrading the ground between the front walk and the door to K's office. In part because it's a good idea, to help encourage the water to flow the other way around the house, instead of into the middle of the 'L', but also to make a nicer, more usable space outside her office. And I've been straining my brain to figure out the different levels of the yet-to-be-poured new front porch, the yet-to-be-built steps to K's office, and of course where the grade should be for ideal drainage. There's a French drain ('freedom drain'?) we added a few years back, which the mayhem a while back tested nicely, but every little bit helps with drainage when an El Niño year rolls around.

I think I've managed to explain my different ideas for the steps and the front porch to K, but I sometimes have a hard time explaining spatial stuff because I can usually picture it, like one of those CSI re-creations of a crime scene, though my mental graphics don't look as wizzy and spin around, and there's not a driving rock tune going as a soundtrack.

But today while I was digging my neighbor was practicing her singing. She sings in the choir at her church, but she also sings opera with some local productions. It made for a lovely soundtrack while I worked. How many of you have done your DIY work to the sound of live opera?

Quite a classy joint we runs here, eh?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Before and After



After doing some major spackling on the recovered 12" siding, sanding, putting up trim, and caulking, today the new wall was ready to paint.

Katarina came home early (she's been busy working on some of the docs for Android) and said it looked great, but in reality it's more like Fox News coverage. At first glance it looks pretty good, but when you look closer you see it has some dirt and has some holes, and when you see it in the full light of day you realize it just plain stinks. But at some point we need to repaint the whole house, so this will do for now.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

World Food Day

On the heels of the Blog Action Day on poverty comes World Food Day, "to increase awareness, understanding and informed, year-around action to alleviate hunger." Food is tightly tied to poverty; if people spend all their waking hours trying to get food, there's no time for anything else like education or trying to improve things for your family.

But hunger is one of those things we've licked here in the U.S., right? Wrong. With the recent economic meltdown, the numbers of people utilizing food banks have soared. Even before that, our local food bank was providing assistance for 40,000+ people, the majority of those children and the elderly.

It's likely to get worse before it gets better. In the 20th century, the U.S. went from from smaller farms raising a variety of crops to industrial farms raising a single crop. Fertilizer synthesized from fossil fuels helped create huge increases in yields, and government subsidies helped make yield the only thing that mattered (you can read more about the industrialization of food in The Omnivore's Dilemma.) It lead to corn becoming ubiquitous in processed foods, especially fast food. Corn-fed beef, corn-fed chickens, sweetened with corn syrup, fried in corn oil. If we are what we eat, a lot of us are corn. But that cheap corn is dependent on fossil fuels (even as some of it is being used to create alternatives to fossil fuels, a misplaced approach if there ever was one), and as supplies drop and costs rise, that will effect the cost of those cheap processed foods. The monoculture of industrial farming also leads to depletion of nutrients from the soil, downstream pollution, loss of genetic diversity in food plants, less nutritious foods, and a host of other problems.

There's no easy answer, but increased awareness is where it begins. Read Michael Pollan's open letter to the next president for more information. Support your local food producers. Eat less meat. (As an added bonus, it's healthier and cheaper.) Plant a vegetable garden. And volunteer and donate to your local food bank.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Blog Action Day

Today is Blog Action Day. This year's focus is on poverty. Will 10,000+ bloggers writing about poverty end it? No. It probably won't even make a major blip in traditional media coverage, which is focusing on the U.S. elections, the economic meltdown, and the never-ending war in Iraq. What it will do is get more people thinking about the problem and what they can do to help fix it.

Poverty is a complex and far-reaching problem, and it can feel overwhelming to be faced with such a huge problem. So one approach is to focus on what you can do. Volunteer with a local food bank. Donate even a small amount of money to provide clean water (there are 1.1 billion people in the world without access to safe drinking water.) Volunteer with your local Habitat for Humanity affiliate.

But do something, and together we can make a difference.

Thursday, October 09, 2008


No, not the random-people-with-extraordinary-powers TV series, but CNN's annual award for ordinary people with extraordinary hearts. With today's news coverage full of depressing news about the economy, politics and the environment, it's nice to be able to read some good news. Each of the 10 was given $25,000 by CNN. You can vote for your favorite; the winner will receive an additional $100,000.

They're all pretty amazing people, for example, my favorite:
Phymean Noun, Toronto, Ontario --
Growing up in Cambodia, Noun struggled to complete high school. Today, she offers hundreds of Cambodian children who work in Phnom Penh's trash dump a way out -- through free schooling and job training. peopleimprovement.org
And keeping this post connected with home construction, there's:
Liz McCartney, St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana --
McCartney moved to New Orleans to dedicate herself to helping Hurricane Katrina survivors move back into their homes. Her nonprofit St. Bernard Project has rebuilt the homes of more than 120 families for free.
How cool are those?

I was able to go on the Carter Work Project with Habitat for Humanity to the Gulf Coast earlier this year, and although coverage of Ike's destruction is already fading from people's memories, there's still tons to do from Katrina, Rita, et al, 3 years later.

In any event, go read the article, and be inspired by these people, and vote!

Thursday, October 02, 2008

This Old Recyclable House

There's a great article over at the NY Times on deconstruction of houses to reuse as many of the building materials as possible, and recycle most of the rest. It takes a lot longer than just knocking a building down with a bulldozer, but in the end keeps a lot of stuff out of landfills:
The Stanford archaeologist William Rathje, who spent decades excavating landfills, has estimated that construction and demolition debris, together with paper, account for "well over half" of what America throws out. He called it one of a few "big-ticket items" in the waste stream actually worthy of the debates we have over merely "symbolic targets" like disposable diapers.
Rebuilding a house is usually better than tearing it down, but even remodeling generates a lot of waste:
Remodeling actually ends up generating more than one and a half times the amount of debris every year that demolishing homes does.
And in some cases, like the houses in the article, looters have damaged some parts of abandoned houses, and it's a better use of the materials to help someone else fix the house they're still living in.

Interestingly, as people are rediscovering with food, it pays to stay as local as possible:
Moreover, a study Guy wrote with two environmental engineers uncovered an empirical argument for keeping those materials local: on average, shipping them more than 20 miles away for resale can cancel out any energy conserved by reclaiming them.
I've tried to reuse and recycle as much as I can from our addition and remodel (the interior doors are from re-use sources, for example), but there's not much you can do with rotted, termite-filled wood that has paint or creosote on it like I got from the old front porch.

Locally, we've got a lot of choices for reusing materials. There's Urban Ore, Ohmega Salvage, and my favorites, the Habitat ReStore and The ReUse People store. I've donated stuff to and bought stuff from both. The ReUse People specialize in deconstruction of buildings as described in the article, and the Habitat ReStore helps support Habitat for Humanity's mission of elimination substandard housing.

And there's always freecycle.org. Besides acquiring or getting rid of random stuff that the above aren't interested in, occasionally various construction and remodeling materials are offered up. I've received a couple of sheets of drywall for the cost of driving a couple of miles to pick them up, and given people bits and pieces they could use. It's a win-win...what's not to like?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Kings Canyon NP

My daily fix from other DIY and home improvement blogs comes via houseblogs.net. It's been down for several days, so I've been in mild withdrawal. Thanks to This D*mn House and some others, I haven't been completely starved. So in solidarity with houseblogs.net's problems, I won't be posting about home improvement.

Actually, Katarina and I spent 4 days camping in Kings Canyon National Park, so I don't have much in the way of home improvement or DIY insanity to blog about. Since then I've been doing more mundane things like unloading the car and cleaning the camping gear, procrastinating about doing laundry, and starting to get the house ready for the rainy season by doing things like blowing the accumulated pine needles off the roof.

We had a great time. While I've been to a bunch of different national parks in California and beyond, we'd never been to Kings Canyon NP and the adjacent Sequoia NP. Neither some smoke from (lightning-caused) fires nor a terribly loud generator on the last night dampened our spirits. Kings Canyon is gorgeous, and spending time in nature, sleeping under the stars, and being away from work, phones, email, et al, is always refreshing. So I present you with some of the images I took, along with one Katarina took of me taking them.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Bustin' Loose

Today I rented a jackhammer again, and removed part of the walk in front of the house. Katarina and I had decided to remove it after I'd discovered and starting fixing the problems with the foundation and rot in the sill plate and rim joists. We're going to raise the remaining area up to match the level of the bottom step down (on the left in the picture) from the front walk, as well as slope it away from the door, but Katarina wants a more natural look around her office door.

I'd forgotten how much stuff makes up the walk. Going back 3 years (!), I find that I had known this fact, but I rediscovered today that the walk is thick: 1.5 inches of pavers, 2 inches of mortar, and 5.5 inches of concrete. The stone and cement came out pretty quickly, but the concrete took me all afternoon and into the evening. Given the space to work, I had to remove a lot of the debris to make room so I could chip away the next patch, and that slowed me down considerably.

While working away, I had the chisel of the jackhammer stick in the concrete a number of times, which is pretty normal with dirt beneath. But then it dropped quickly and got stuck, and I knew something was different. It turned out there was a fairly large space underneath part of walk. The opening looks like the home of the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog, or maybe a false tomb (to fool grave robbers) of the pharoah Ratsrkhamun.

Some years back during an El Niño year, we had water flowing down the hillside and some flooding in the basement. Since then we'd added a French drain around part of the house, and with the addition and its drainage, pretty much eliminated the flooding. But that particularly wet year, and some of the normal winters that followed had clearly eroded a bunch of soil. I plan to add some more drainage up hill from the front walk, so hopefully this won't be a problem any more.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Mayhem Managed

Today was a not particularly productive but very exciting day. I dropped my neighbor off at BART, then came back and worked on cleaning up the debris from building the last wall (not much) and tearing out the old front door (quite a bit, despite the fact I salvaged the longer 2x4s and most of the glass block). That in preparation for using a jackhammer on the part of the front walk that's going to come out. Which needs to happen before I pour the new, higher (and sloped away from the door) front walk. Which needs to happen before I put the siding on the new wall bit of wall (and bottom of the existing wall where it was rotted).

After cleaning up, I considered: Should I work on running new electrical under the house for the carport light? (the existing switch is on a kitchen wall that's going away, and the new switch is now by the new front door.) Or should I dig up the conduit for the carport light? (because it needs to be replaced, being badly rusted, and I want to have an always on outlet in the carport, too, for eventual plugging of an electric car or plug-in hybrid.) Since it was a lovely day (70-something and sunny), I decided on the digging since it was outdoors. I began by moving some rocks we'd piled nearby, and scraping away the pine needles and such that had accumulated. Scrape. Scrape. Scrape. Pssssh! Ruh-oh, Shaggy!

Water was now spurting into the air, quite energetically. The water supply comes in near the conduit, so I figured I must have hit that. I noted that the leak was before the old shut off valve (which is before the new shut off valve I'd added inside the basement), so turning that off would be futile. Damp, but still thinking quite calmly after the initial, secondary, and tertiary panic, I ran in and grabbed a wrench and some pliers, then up to the street where the meter is. I pulled off the cover, and stared at some dirt. I hurried down to the basement and returned with a trowel, and scraped out dirt until I could see the meter and something that must be the valve. But there was no obvious handle. So I ran back in, found the number for EBMUD, and called and explained the problem. They said they'd someone out.

While I was waiting, I looked at the meter some more, then looked around on the web, but I couldn't find anything quite like it. So I made sure the water from the leak was flowing away from the house as best I could, and looked at the leak some more.

Then it starting occurring to me. That pipe seemed too small for the main water line. And as messed up as many things are about this house, would they really have put the water line that close to the surface? So I scraped away dirt (well, now mud) and pine needles, and realized that I had nicked the line to the faucet near the carport, not the main water line. And that it was (surprisingly, given the general state of other stuff) after the old shut off valve. So I tentatively turned off the old shut off valve as best I could by hand, and lo, the water shooting out under the rocks and flower pot began to slow. I was just about to call EBMUD and cancel the service call when an EBMUD truck drove by, turned around, and came back. I told him I was just about to call and cancel, but he took a look at the meter anyways, and said, "Well, that's good, because I couldn't have done anything anyways. The shut-off valve here is broken." He put in an order to get that fixed, so his trip was not a total waste.

I went back and stared at the mud pit, scraped away some more dirt, and figured out what was OK and what was not so good. Fortunately I had a galvanized cap from when the water was off to the hot side of the old bathroom. So I cut off the line down with a sawzall, removed a connector with some pipe wrenches, and put the cap on. And was able to restore our water supply before Katarina got home from work.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Final Framing

After last weekend's concrete had set, I laid the new subfloor, and framed the last wall of the remodel where the old front porch had been. Not much of a wall, but challenging to put into place because of the existing house. I built most of it on the ground, but left out the headers and top plate until I'd lifted it up over the bolts (one a regular J-bolt; the other a length of threaded rod that's glued all the way down into the old foundation). You may notice the mis-matched headers, one a 4x4 and the other a 4x6. 4x4 would have been plenty for either, but I had scraps left over from other headers, so that's what I used.

Some house wrap, some shims (matching the existing floor means the whole thing isn't quite level), and some self-adhesive flashing, and the last windows were in. The siding will take a while longer, since I'm going to demolish part of the front walk before proceeding with that. And because I may not have enough salvaged scraps of the 1x12, so I'll have to mill some of my own.

I pulled out the old front door, and salvaged most of the glass block that was along side it, and demolished the wall they were part of. Suddenly we have a bigger space that even looks like part of the house instead of some weird little closed with large windows. Yet another step closer to demolishing the kitchen.

Star was unimpressed.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

A Taste of Mexico

Yesterday I finished up building the forms for the new bit o' foundation, then 'Mixmaster K' and I mixed and placed 7.5 bags of concrete into them. Given how things were partly tucked under the existing house and set on top of the existing foundation, it was the most complicated wooden concrete form I've ever built. (The foundation for the addition was larger and on a slope, but considerably easier to build because I used ICFs.) It also made it very difficult to fill. It gave Katarina a small taste of what RLC's mission trips to Mexico are like. Except it was 1/2 a day of mixing, not 1.5 days, and we had a flush toilet and running water just inside the door. But it did give her an idea of just how back-breaking mixing concrete by hand is. Fortunately the kids have lots of energy and enthusiasm, and the older ones who have been on a trip or two quickly teach the new ones to pace themselves. So 11'x22'x4" (plus a bit for footing around the edge) gets mixed by hand in a remarkably short amount of time.

The foundation under the new floor joists was the hardest to fill. I had to get in under the house with a piece of plywood to serve as a hawk, and shove it in bit by bit. But the whole thing went pretty quickly with Katarina's help.

Today after church I pulled off the forms, and our handiwork looks pretty good. I still need to pull out some bits of 2x2 (under the new rim joist in front of me in the picture), where part of the new (pressure treated, thankyouverymuch) sill plate will sit under the new joists. And there's lots more to do before it begins looking like a regular part of the house, but after spending so much time tearing stuff out, it's a relief to be moving forward again.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

It's Our Cats' House

Nate and Jen of Milwaukee Back House recently asked if there were pictures of some of the kitty-friendly features we'd designed into the addition.

We were inspired in no small part by The Cats' House. Alas, their website has been pretty slim for a while now, but you may be able to find a copy of their book at your local bookstore.

The loft that we can use, too, is one of the obvious features, with a sisal rope-covered ladder to make it easier for the cats to climb leading to it. They love to use the ladder to climb to the upper window to look out in the morning when the blinds are closed (since the picture was taken, I've added a little shelf from the ladder over to the window to make it safer and easier for them) as well as the loft. You can see the loft in the plans and 3D renderings here. There are a couple of less obvious features we all like, too, like the double-pane windows, extra insulation, passive solar heating and the radiant heating in the bathroom (though they'd probably prefer we left that on 24/7, and put it all over the house.)

If you look carefully in the plans, you'll notice that the new bathroom was going to be at the same level as original house, which would mean another loft above it. I ended up changing it to make the bathroom at the same level as the new bedroom, i.e., +2 feet from the original house. That made the loft above it only 2' high, so not really useful for us. (Though the part that's inside the closet makes a great place to store our camping gear, which needs a clean, dry place, but not necessarily frequent access.) But I still built the loft, and included the planned window for light and ventilation. And since the cats are considerably shorter than us, the limited height was no big deal for them. So I built a walkway between the two lofts, just for them. Using a design I saw described at The Cats' House, I routed out a groove in the top, and put a small piece of carpeting in. The groove means that you can't see the ragged edge of the carpeting, except a small section on the end (with more careful routing, that could have been avoided.)

They sometimes look out the window to see who's coming up the path, though they know they can get a better look at us coming down from the carport from the window in Katarina's office. But again inspired by The Cats' House, as well as by a design feature common in convents(!), I added a peephole from the loft out into the front hall (the one place in the addition with a 12' ceiling; the bedroom is 10'.) Rosie is our token extrovert in the household, so she's more likely to run down and greet who ever comes in. But when appropriately bribed with food, she'll look out the peephole, too. Star, being older, wiser, and considerably wussier ("Wuss in Boots"), has used the peephole in earnest a number of times. She has looked out with fear upon the marauding horde known as my nephew Jimmy. Eventually the hole will be covered with something more decorative, maybe the outline of a cat's paw, or like in The Cats' House, the outline of a cat's head.

And for any of you linguaphiles out there, Katarina and I both remember there being a word or phrase that describes this feature in a convent. It was designed to let nuns look out and see visitors without being seen themselves. While both our cats are chaste (and when Jimmy is around, chased), neither of them is very nun-like except Star's black-and-white clothing. But neither of us can remember what the word or phrase is. Anybody out there know? It's like the age-old question: how do you look up a word in the dictionary if you don't know how to spell it?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Dear Mr. Bildrong

Dear Mr. Bildrong,
First let me say how much I love your column. Now for my question: I'm building a house, and I want to make sure that rot sets in to the whole thing. I'm working on the foundation now -- how should I proceed?
- DAB, Oakland, California

Dear DAB,
You don't need to make the whole house rot, just the framing -- the rest will follow. The easiest way to make sure the framing rots is to put some of the wood below grade. That is, make the top of the foundation below where there can be water when it rains, lower than the ground level. It doesn't need to be much, even 1/2" will do. That way the sill plate will get wet every time it rains or you hose off your front walk!
- Mr. Bildrong

Dear Mr. Bildrong,
Great suggestion! However, I live in California where it only rains in winter. It's pretty dry the rest of the year. My neighbors look at me funny if I hose off the walk -- something about wasting water. I really want to make sure the house rots, and I'd like to make it as friendly to termites as I can. They're so cute!
- DAB, Oakland, California

P.S. I read in one of your older columns about stuffing a rag into a pipe instead of bothering with one of those pesky caps. It's a great idea -- I'll be sure to use it when I get to the plumbing.

Dear DAB,
This is getting pretty advanced, but if simply having the top of the foundation below grade isn't enough, I'd suggest having a small depression for the sill plate to sit in. That way any water that gets in will be kept there for the wood to soak up. Be sure not to use pressure treated wood.
- Mr. Bildrong

Dear Mr. Bildrong,
The only non-pressure treated wood I have is some redwood 3x8, and some scraps of redwood siding. Will that do? I plan to wedge the scraps in between the sill plate and the floor joists instead of building the foundation the right height.
- DAB, Oakland, California

Dear DAB,

Redwood is OK for this, but it will definitely slow things down. Some Douglas Fir would be better, but sometimes you have to make do with the materials you've got. The termites won't like the redwood at first. But if you're patient and let the water start to rot the wood, it will leach the natural protection out of the wood and your little termite friends will soon be happy as proverbial bivalves. Once they begin tunneling, the water will be able to spread more easily, and things will really get rolling.
- Mr. Bildrong

P.S. Be sure to buy my new book, available at bookstores next month! It includes advanced framing techniques, like putting floor and ceiling joists at irregular intervals. And I devote a whole chapter to great ideas like wooden gutters!