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Category — homeownership

Our inadvertent pumpkin patch

Although you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at it–in fact, you might be tempted to conclude the opposite–I really do want there to be a recognizable garden someday in what can only honestly be called our yard. I dream about growing flowers and vegetables, and a rain garden and maybe blueberries and an apple tree. But, for a variety of reasons, I haven’t done anything and can barely keep up with mowing and controlling the weeds.

But it turns out you can grow things using the lackadaisical approach, and in our case, it’s pumpkins.

pumpkin vine in back yard

This is how the pumpkin plant looked in September.

The truly amazing bit is that I didn’t ever plant any pumpkin seeds. The pumpkin vine grew out of a side vent in our compost bin, presumably from a pumpkin seed that germinated instead of decomposing while inside the bin.

pumpkin vine growing out of compost bin

Since I didn’t plant these, I don’t actually know which variety of pumpkin they are, but I presume they are the inedible jack-o-lantern type from Halloween 2008. As with everything else in the yard, I didn’t tend to these, so they didn’t grow nearly as large as a proper jack-0-lantern would. Indeed, the pumpkins feel solid, not hollow.

I “harvested” them recently, although too late to be a part of our Halloween decorations. But, for the record, here is our garden output 2009:

pumpkin harvest 2009

November 10, 2009   2 Comments

Confounded smoke alarms

My electrician, who is safety-conscious above all else, has been bugging me for years now about smoke alarms. Sure, I have several battery-powered smoke alarms up, but from a safety improvement per dollar spent perspective, one really wants smoke alarms that are:

  • hard-wired, with
  • battery backup, and
  • interconnected

The batteries in battery-powered smoke alarms will run out. They do chirp to let us know it’s time to change the battery, but more often than not I won’t have a spare battery handy, or I won’t have a step stool nearby, or it will be the middle of the night, so instead of going back on the ceiling with a new battery like it’s supposed to, the alarm will sit around on a counter, battery-less, sometimes for weeks. Hard-wired smoke alarms solve the dead battery problem because they draw their power from the house electrical wiring. As it turns out, electrical fires that disrupt the power before smoke could be detected are really rare, and our power is pretty reliable, so the risk that the power’s off when the alarm needs to sound is really quite small, smaller than the risk that your battery-powered alarm will be sitting, battery-less, on the counter. And most hard-wired alarms also have battery backup, so you’re covered during power outages, too.

There are two smoke-detection technologies: ionization and photo-electric. Ionization sensors do well with small smoke particles, from fast-burning fires, while photoelectric sensors do better with large smoke particles from smoldering fires. Most safety recommendations (including Consumer Reports) are reluctant to specify one as being a better choice, and recommend both. So add to our wish-list:

  • dual-sensor

Interconnection of smoke alarms means that when one alarm goes off, all of them sound. So if there’s a fire in the basement while you’re asleep, the alarm in your second-floor bedroom will also go off, giving you much more time to escape than waiting either for enough smoke to set off a second-floor alarm or for you to hear the far-away alarm. The interconnection is conventionally done with three-conductor wiring: all the smoke alarms need to be installed on the same circuit and the third wire is used as the alarm interconnection signal wire. This is easy in new construction but really hard to retrofit: getting a new circuit to the ceiling of every location for a smoke alarm would mean lots and lots of holes in the walls and ceilings.

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June 7, 2009   1 Comment

A tree falls

As predicted, our heat wave was broken in dramatic fashion last night with the arrival of some intense thunderstorms. At about 7pm, a series of small-ish storms came in. We lost power for perhaps a minute–not long enough to fetch a flashlight–but our neighbors down the street didn’t fare quite so well.

A large street tree came down during the storm:

This tree came down in the storms of 10 Jun 2008

Fortunately, the tree fell in the street, not on a house.

Alternate view of fallen tree

The tree did take some electrical wires down with it, to the point of ripping a neighbor’s meter box from the side of the house. I suspect their power outage lasted longer than a minute:

A meter box ripped from a house after tree takes down power lines

June 11, 2008   1 Comment


To be fair, it did cool to 77 degrees Fahrenheit. But that was at 6 in the morning, at the very minimum of temperature, after a whole night of radiative cooling into the night sky and before the sun has had a chance to warm things up again. And with 84% humidity, there was no relief to be had stepping into air during this moment of relative cool. By the time I leave the house, just before 8, it’s already 80 degrees. By 11am, it has hit 90, a mark it won’t drop below until the sun sets. The weather’s been at this for a few days now, and with each successive afternoon bake, the overnight relief becomes more meager. 

To keep the house habitable–which has meant keeping the (upstairs) bedrooms at or below about 81 degrees, I have to keep the downstairs at about 76. Such is life when your house is under-insulated, and your central air system is grafted on to early 1940s ductwork that was put in place presuming the house would only be heated.

This evening brings a chance of thundershowers: if they’re big enough, we will get cooling, but if they’re too small, then all we get is an increase in humidity.

To do this summer: install ceiling fans, and upgrade the insulation.

June 10, 2008   No Comments

Seven-layer floors

When we bought our house, four years ago, we had most of the carpet and linoleum ripped up, revealing beautiful oak floors underneath, which we had refinished. The only room in which we did not do this was the kitchen, because we (and the floor refinisher I hired) were unsure whether there were good floors in the kitchen to be refinished. We’re updating the kitchen piecemeal: we repainted the walls, in two phases, and with much help from my father, we repainted the kitchen cabinets as well. We put open shelving on one wall, and fashioned a counter from Metro shelving and bamboo butcher block.

So finally it was time to address the floors, which meant ripping out the existing vinyl and seeing if we had wood to refinish, or whether we’d need to buy some new floor covering. My friend rg agreed to help with the ripping out, and as it turns out, we removed six layers of older flooring to expose a finish-able pine floor.

To begin with, the vinyl that was our floor:

top floor

(It isn’t this brown–this is an artifact of the lighting.) But it was old, and dirty. Underneath this was a layer of square tiles:

Second layer

Underneath this was a layer of eighth-inch thick plywood. The plywood was attached with several dozen wood screws: finding and extracting these was perhaps the most time consuming part of the whole process.


Here are the nails that held it down:


Below the plywood was the most hideous of the layers, a yellow vinyl:

yellow layer

Beneath the yellow layer, and tightly bound to it, was a layer of off-white square tiles:

white tiles

Below this was what I believe was the original kitchen floor: blue linoleum.


If we had wanted to “restore” the house to its 1941 look, this blue linoleum is what we’d be after, but we’re not.

The blue, white, and yellow layers were all very strongly attached to one another and mostly came up as a whole, to reveal the wood floor covered with the remnants of a black adhesive:

unfinished wood

This is the stage rg and I got to Sunday. Fortunately, the guy who finished my other floors said his crew would be available today, Wednesday, so they came over and went to work. After sanding the floors, their method is to apply a coat of shellac, which dries in about a half an hour, and then a coat of water-based polyurethane, which does need to cure overnight. This is certainly expedient, compared with other schemes that use multiple coats. Opinions vary as to the ultimate durability of multiple coats versus a single coat, but I do appreciate getting nice floors after only one day’s work.

In the case of the kitchen, the floors were pine, not oak, and were never finished. The pine was never intended to be the top layer–I suspect it was simply the cheapest substrate for the blue linoleum available at the time. So the pieces weren’t chosen for aesthetics, and in addition to a variation in coloring of the wood, there’s also nearly seventy years of kitchen abuse to the unfinished wood. This all adds up to a sort of rustic look, much more so than with any of the other floors in the house.

finished floors

February 20, 2008   5 Comments

Another holiday flies by

One of the biggest changes moving from academia to being an employee of the U.S. Government was that I now have to keep track of vacation days–I get 19.5 per year, in addition to the 10 federal holidays. So I don’t always take the entire week between Christmas and New Year’s off, but this year I did, using up four vacation days to get an 11-day stretch at home. (The President was gracious enough to give Federal employees Christmas Eve day off.)

As with most vacations, I had anticipated making progress on a whole list of projects, but, as is also usually the case, I hardly touched most of them.

Let me say right off that the first problem is that the ‘to-do list’ mentality is not really the appropriate way to describe spending time with my son. I played with him and photographed him and read to him, and the fact that I didn’t get to cross any of these things off a project list is really irrelevant.

But still, it does seem like a whole bunch of time went by without much productive being done. And I think it’s partly because even though I do have some to-do lists made up, I didn’t really plan my vacation.

Planning might seem line anathema for vacations, an unwelcome imposition of order onto what ought to be relaxing, but I’ve come to differ. You must, at some point, plan your time: one way or the other, you’re going to have to figure out what you want to do. At the most inefficient, you can use up your vacation time deciding what to do, and in the end I think I don’t think that ends up very satisfying.

I think our sense of elapsed time–whether a vacation has flown by, or seemed like a good break–is strongly correlated with the number of changes we experience throughout. A “leisurely” day–getting up late, eventually eating and getting dressed, thumbing through the newspaper, and then thinking about what to do, to be followed, perhaps, by actually doing something in the afternoon–does not put one through very many changes, and seems to go by quickly. (This does describe a large number of my eleven days off.)

By contrast, I think of two-day conferences I’ve been to, with separate events in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings–lots of changes–and recall that they usually end up feeling satisfying, or at least, I can’t recall feeling like time flew by with nothing being done.

Planning out vacation time in advance becomes more important if you’re traveling somewhere, because then, your time at your destination is very rare and very expensive. What a waste to spend your time sitting in a hotel room flipping through a guidebook!

When my wife and my mother-in-law and I went to Korea, we did a lot of planning: to know what the bus and train schedules were, and what days the museums we wanted to see were open, and how to get from a hotel to a site of interest. And the planning paid off: we still marvel at how much we saw in ten days. Quite a contrast to this year’s eleven days of holidays.

January 2, 2008   No Comments

A (small) Christmas flood

Our houses protect us from the elements, keeping us in an environment that’s usually more comfortable than that of the outdoors. I can deal with a house that’s too cold in the winter, or too hot in the summer. Water, on the other hand, I’m more touchy about. I expect a house to keep water in it’s place, and really get agitated when water appears in places it isn’t supposed to be.

Which is what happened Christmas eve day.

It started a month ago or so, with a leaky toilet. Not very leaky: there was just a steady drip, from one of the bolts that holds the tank to the bowl. When I discovered the leak I didn’t really want to figure out what the problem was, so I put a bucket under the toilet to catch the drips. The bucket couldn’t fit under the place where the drip was coming from, so I had to make a little plastic chute to direct the water into the bucket. This is the way I’d left it for several weeks.

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December 27, 2007   No Comments

Click, click-click-click-click-click

This was the sound that greeted me Sunday at 5 in the morning. Our house was built in 1941, making it one of the last of the pre-war houses. As such, I’m used to hearing the occasional creak or soft thud, but a whole series of clicks is not something I should hear.

Click, click-click-click-click-click. Then a pause.

The sound appeared to come from the heating vent, and sure enough, it was the furnace making all the clicking, a sound furnaces aren’t supposed to make. (The furnace, by the way, is only about 20 years old.) It didn’t take long to figure out what was going on: the clicking was the electronic ignition, trying to ignite gas that wasn’t there. The gas wasn’t there because it won’t flow unless a small fan, called a draft inducer, is running. This fan, which is supposed to draw combustion exhaust up the flue, had stopped, and it was making that hum characteristic of a stuck electric motor.

The Washington Consumers’ Checkbook is a sort of Consumer Reports for local products and services. A few months ago, they reviewed HVAC repair firms, and cross-referencing the article with the furnace repair section of the Yellow pages revealed that pretty much any firm with a big yellow pages ad claiming “24 hour emergency service” was bound to have low ratings. The highly rated firms, of course, might come out on a Sunday, if you already had a service contract, but after a half-dozen calls it was clear that the only people answering the phones were answering service types who didn’t know a thing about furnace repair.

I actually spent most of the afternoon waiting in vain for one of these places to call me back; in the end they didn’t call until Monday at about 11am. I hadn’t ever tried to work on a furnace before, but experimental physicists like to believe that we can fix anything, so eventually I decided to start disassembling the draft inducer, hoping to find some obvious problem like a wad of leaves jamming the fan.

The one advantage of trying to fix things on a Sunday is that, if you need a new tool or something, you can time your trip to Home Depot to coincide with the Redskins game, at which point the store is pretty empty. I got the socket driver I needed, but none of the half-dozen employees I asked knew what duct mastic was, or where in the store I might be able to find it–perhaps the knowledgable employees were all watching the football game. (Turns out, I didn’t need mastic after all.)

Disassembly of the draft inducer revealed only that it was rusting and corroded and presumably worn. No leaves to clean out. I had hoped there might be some way to revive the motor, but as far as I can tell, that would take quite a bit more work. A bit of online searching revealed the part number for the replacement assembly, and I was much relieved this morning when R & B Heating and Air Conditioning told me on the phone that they had the part in stock. Unlike most trade supply places, they didn’t seem annoyed to have a mere consumer wishing to buy replacement parts. It took perhaps a half an hour to install the new draft inducer, and then we had heat again.

So that’s what I did this weekend.

November 19, 2007   1 Comment