Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A Cat House

I've started physical therapy for my shoulder, been gobbling ibuprofen, icing my shoulder, and doing some simple stretching exercises the physical therapist gave me. But healing has been slow so far, and I still have sharp pain when I reach the wrong way. Which is to say I've made zero progress on the house lately. Today seems to be "cats day" on (1, 2), so today you get cat photos here, too.

Star hard at work:

Rosie enjoying the afternoon sun:

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

More on Saving Water

I did a quick test and have continued my research, and calculated that we could save a minimum of 1,500 gallons a year. That's with very conservative values, and assuming that we hop in the shower as soon as the water gets hot. With the tankless heater and the new copper plumbing, it took less than 2 minutes for the water to get hot for a shower.

In reality, I don't stand there with my hand in the shower waiting for the exact moment the water gets hot, and I think our shower puts out more than 1.5 GPM. A more realistic estimate is 5,000 gallons a year. With current water EBMUD rates, that's about $16 a year in savings.

Which means it would take anywhere 12 to 82 years for a recirc system to pay for itself. That's not counting the small amount of electricity it would use on the minus side, and the unknown amount it would save on gas for heating water that's wasted on the plus side. So there's not much of a financial incentive to do it.

But I'll probably still go ahead with this, because while 1,500 to 5,000 gallons doesn't sound like much compared with annual usage totals, it's the equivalent of anywhere between 900 and 5,500 flushes of the toilet in a year. That's a lot of perfectly good drinking water to just flush away.

On the other hand, while rain barrels are a very cool, low-tech solution for saving water, even if I had nine 55-gallon barrels under the various downspouts and linked to each other, that's only 500 gallons that I could collect at a time. Given the wet winter and dry summer pattern here, that means besides some condensing fog, the last 500 gallons collected in April and May wouldn't see any company until October or November. So that may require some more thought, unless I get some free food-grade barrels offered to me.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Saving Water

The tendinitis in my shoulder is keeping me from much progress on the house, or from doing a lot of things like driving without some pain and further damage involved. So I've been researching various things for the house on the web. There are so many great ways to save energy and water that it's all kind of dizzying. The cats are happier when I'm sitting at the computer than making construction noise, so they like the research, too.

Given that California frequently has droughts, and by nature has dry summers, saving water makes a lot of sense. Of course, what we could save is a drop in the bucket (hah!) compared with gets used for commercial and agricultural uses. And agricultural uses are a drop in the bucket compared with what gets used for raising and processing meat, which is particularly water-intensive (especially when 143 million pounds of it has to be disposed of -- ugh!). But it still makes sense to save what we can.

Some ways of saving water are too simple to pass up, like rain barrels (unless you live in Colorado, where collecting rainwater is illegal.) For less than $50 you can get a food-grade barrel and some fittings, and collect 55 gallons of rainwater, perfect for watering plants and gardens. We've got 7 downspouts around the house, plus one from the roof of the carport, so we could easily collect more water than we could use (at least until we plant a garden again or actually take care of the plants in the yard.) I'm envisioning a system of two or three barrels, with pipes draining them leading to a spigot in the back of the house near the current hose spigot. It's low enough that gravity would give it a pretty decent flow, and be near the backyard where most of our watering needs are.

At the other end of the complexity scale is adding a graywater system to collect the water from bathroom sinks, showers, and the laundry, then using that water to irrigate or for flushing toilets. It would involve not only a storage tank with a way to deal with overflow, but a pump to drive the system, and a way of using EBMUD water if the storage tank is empty. It would basically be a second DWV system, plus parts of a second water supply system to go to the toilets. A lot of work for limited payback, and it's not legal in all areas.

Another fairly simple way is a hot water recirculation system. You've doubtless left the shower or a sink running to let the water get warm, and all that nice, drinkable water just goes down the drain. Hot water recirculation systems get water from the hot side, and if it's not warm enough yet, push it back down the cold side (a more complicated but more efficient variation uses a separate return line.) Some systems keep hot water circulating all the time, so it's available "instantly". That would waste energy keeping water hot whether you're using it or not, not to mention add unnecessary wear and tear to the water heater. And without a dedicated hot water return, it would make all your cold water lukewarm. Other systems like the RedyTemp or the Metlund D'MAND are timer, motion or demand-activated.

Our hot water use doesn't follow any set schedule, so we'd go for a demand-activated system: you push a button, wait a couple minutes, and voilĂ , there's hot water a couple of feet down the pipe instead of waiting for the water to flow, the tankless heater to kick in, and then for the cold water to be flushed from the system. Those systems and others are very easy retrofits if you've got an outlet near the fixture furthest from the water heater. Since I had a hot water recirculation system in mind, I didn't go as far as plumbing a dedicated return line, but I did stick a GFCI outlet in the vanity in the new bathroom.

Now the only problem is figuring out which is the right system for us. Tankless water heater manufacturers will reduce the warranty if you use the wrong recirculation system, because very high flow rates can erode pipes and fittings and put additional wear and tear on a water heater. Anybody out there in readerland have personal experience with one of these systems, with or without a tankless heater?

Thursday, February 14, 2008


My friend Jim taught me these important truths about plumbing as well as various techniques. Sadly, while it flows downhill, if it can't, it backs up. In this case, the lowest drain is the laundry sink. I removed the trap and discovered the blockage wasn't there. (OK, technically I broke the existing trap because one of the nuts was frozen tight, and replaced it.)

So I bought a nifty 25' x 1/4" snake that attaches to a drill to ease the twisting that's necessary. However, there's no cleanout at the laundry sink. D'oh! (It goes from 1.5" or 2" galvanized pipe into a 4" clay pipe with cement to seal the junction.) Fortunately, I was able to get the snake in through the T at the basement wall. With some low speed turns from the drill, it snake went in fairly easily -- loosen the thumbscrew, push the snake in gently until it meets resistance, tighten the thumbscrew, turn with the drill, repeat. Unbeknownst to me, I'd reached about 23.5' on the snake. I loosened the thumbscrew to repeat, then watched in horror as the end of snake came out of the reel and whizzed down the pipe. D'oh!

I bought a 35' x 3/8" snake. This one has no reel, so I know how near the end I am, but it's harder to twist. I ran it as far as I could into the laundry drain pipe, but to no effect. Hmm. I did spend a perfectly lovely afternoon carrying buckets of, well, you know, from the drain over to the sewer. Fortunately there's a small manhole into the sewer on our property so I could dump it there; dumping it into a toilet would have (a) been smelly and potentially messy (b) futile, since it would just come back down to the laundry sink anyways.

So today I called a rooter company. I described the problem, the lack of a cleanout at the laundry sink, the access to the main cleanout under the house. They could come in the afternoon, but wasn't sure if they could do anything because their big rooter probably wouldn't fit. Then they called back later and said their small rooter wasn't working, so there was no point in coming. D'oh! So I tried running the 35' x 3/8" snake into the main cleanout. No joy, but the telling thing was that I pulled up a few small roots. Hmm. (Needless to say, none of this was particularly good for the tendinitis in my shoulder. Physical therapy starts next week.)

So I called Roto Rooter, and they said they could be there within 2 hours. Yay! But since I was just talking to a dispatcher, there was no one to describe the access issues to. So about 1.5 hours later a friendly plumber named Martin showed up. I took him into the basement and showed him the layout, and he immediately realized it would be a two man job (and told me it would cost more.) But we had to wait for another plumber to show up first. In the mean time I took down the saw horses and table I had set up for the tile saw, and moved other things out of the way to clear the access.

45 minutes later, the other plumber showed up. They looked things over, debated about going down through the roof vent stack (I warned them the roof was not good to work on), but they ultimately decided they'd have to lug the machine down the hill after all. Then they tried to get the cleanout cover off. They borrowed some WD40 and my beater framing hammer, but no luck. I got my 5lb. sledge, but no luck. They tried both of them pushing and pulling, but no luck. D'oh! Fortunately I'd added a cleanout where I tied the DWV line for the addition into the existing line, and they could work from there.

So they started the water running into the laundry sink, and fed the snake in. After about 85' of snake went out (which should have been most of the way to the sewer), the sink started draining. Yay! They kept pushing it in, and I watched from the manhole. We could hear the snake (and all that water running), but still saw nothing even when they got out to the end of the 125' snake. Hmm. They pulled it back, and what should they find? The 25' x 1/4" snake, now nicely wrapped around their 3/4" snake. It appears to have come out completely, though they took some bolt cutters to it to get it off.

It turns out that although the main DWV line angles towards the uphill side when it leaves the house and goes under the addition, it must bend around and tie into the main sewer line below the manhole. Where exactly the laundry drain ties in to it, I don't know. But it's all draining again. Yay!

25' x 1/4" snake? $14. 35' x 3/8" snake? $19. Two plumbers from Roto Rooter for an hour? $321. Being able to flush the toilets again? Priceless.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Behold the amazing power of goop!

I've written about Orange Goop before. It's a wonderful citrus-based hand cleaner with pumice for getting gunk off your hands. I discovered recently it's also got other uses. I Googled around for ways to remove sticker residue, because our wonderful new toilet had some on the top of the tank from a sticker extolling its virtues. Several sites suggested citrus-based cleaners, so I smeared a little Orange Goop where the sticker had been, waited 15 or 20 minutes, and the sticker gunk came off easily with a fingernail and damp sponge. VoilĂ !

Now if it could just do something about the drain in the laundry sink. Katarina did a load of laundry yesterday, and the laundry sink filled and didn't drain. Besides tying the drains in the addition into the main sewer line, I haven't done much with existing DWV pipes, but I guess I'll have to...

Friday, February 08, 2008

Shower Surround of a 1,000 Cuts!

The shelf that exists because of a step up in the foundation makes for a great bookshelf in the bedroom. It will make for a nice place in the shower to store shampoo and the like. But it and the window (4" thick glassblock in a 6" thick wall) have made for a heck of a lot of cuts in the tile. With some better layout, I could have reduced it to, I dunno, 700 cuts, but it's still got a lot of odd bits and pieces compared with the shower surround in the old bathroom.

Progress has been slow this week, because of a pinched nerve or something in my shoulder. Ibuprofen is my friend, but reaching with my right arm is not. But today I forged ahead and installed some more tile. I found that tiling doesn't hurt my arm much more than working at the computer or doing anything else, so what the heck. I'm probably 40% done overall...after I finish the walls, it'll be time to do the floor of the shower and the curb into the bathroom.

I'm making progress, but my slow progress has made me very glad I bought an inexpensive tile saw rather than renting. The tile saw I bought also has a nice adjustable angle attachment. The corner notches for the decorative tiles are beyond the limit of what I can cut with the angle attachment, though, so I'm back to the old method of using a 45' fragment as a brace for the piece I'm cutting the corner off of.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008


Yesterday was Katarina's birthday. We went to San Francisco and walked around Crissy Field near the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a little chilly, but an absolutely beautiful day. Lots of birds on the shore and in the wetlands, lots of dogs and kids running around on the beach and the field.

Our original plan had to go for a hike at Briones Regional Park near Lafayette, but it rained much of the weekend, and while it would have been beautiful, it would have been quite muddy, too. Crissy Field also had the advantage of being near our destination for dinner.

Dinner was at Greens. It's not only one of the top restaurants in San Francisco (a city renowned for great food) and has great views of the bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, it's also all vegetarian. I've been vegetarian for quite a few years, and Kat doesn't eat much meat anymore either. I refer to myself as an ovo-pesco vegetarian. Wikipedia's article says I'm a pescetarian. My pastor calls me an eco-tarian. The last touches on my primary reason for not eating meat -- raising it has a horrendous impact on the environment. There are places in the world where it makes sense to raise cattle because the land won't support traditional crops that people can eat, but will support cattle that people can use for milk, blood, meat and leather. But many places in the world, the environment is not suited for it, and land must be irrigated to support the cattle, and it goes downhill from there from antibiotics, feed lots, sewage, slaughterhouses, and a cornucopia of diseases.

For me it was a gradual process. First I gave up beef. Then when I learned about how much sewage huge pig farms around the country create and how intelligent pigs are, I gave up pork. Chicken and other poultry followed shortly after that because of factory farms. I only buy free-range eggs, get cheese made with microbial or vegetable rennet, and I'm careful to buy fish that's sustainably harvested. There are other reasons besides the environmental impact, like animal cruelty, cost, and health, but that's the main one. And while various diseases appear in vegetable handling, they're usually ultimately from animal sources, and are much more common in meat. Then there's stuff like mad cow disease or the as yet unnamed neurological condition from pig's brains, and I really don't miss it. Especially when the vegetarian food is as yummy as it is at Greens.