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April 15th, 2018

Why I Never Get Any Work Done Outside

I keep waiting for spring to happen here in Maryland, and I keep forgetting that central Maryland is one of those places where the weather gets squirrely this time of year. One minute it’s finally spring, the next it’s back to flannel shirt weather again. Yesterday it was in the 80s here in Charm City. Right now as I type this it’s cool in that bone chillingly humid way the mid Atlantic just loves to dish out. Humidity is like the secret sauce of miserable in these parts, though I can hear southerners laughing at me as I type this.

I was going to get some outdoor work done this weekend in preparation for spring eventually getting here, or maybe just a dash straight into summer. I never feel like I’m giving my little Baltimore rowhouse enough love. I put on new steel entry doors in the kitchen and basement. The original wood doors were still there and looking their age. I got a nice full length glass panel door with blinds strung between the glass panels for the kitchen entry, and now I’m getting use to having that extra sunlight coming in the kitchen, plus being able to enter and leave by the back door without having to fuss with it jamming in the frame all the time. Somehow when you make improvements like that it motivates you to pretty up the surroundings.

I had a list of things I planned to do. Yesterday was going to be prepping the backyard for spring flower planting and putting out the solar lights. But then I decided wanted to listen streaming music from Radio Paradise while I worked. Then I looked at where I have the Roku box mounted by the TV and saw the problem I’d been putting off fixing with the coax running to the TV antenna I have mounted to one of the front window panels. So I decided to fix that. Plus, a friend gave me his old Blu-Ray player and I decided to fix the issue with the cabling of that to the TV that I’d been putting off, while I was fixing the other problem. I was using an s-video to RCA cable on the DVD player but the Blu-Ray player didn’t have the s-video socket. It did have the usual RCA jacks though. So I went down to the basement to dig through my storage container full of cables to see if I had another good set of those, plus a coax extender for the TV antenna. I had neither. So I got in the car and drove to one of the big box hardware stores in Cockeysville to get some.

Why am I using RCA connectors on a Blu-Ray player…I hear you asking. Because my TV set is an old Sony Trinitron and I just don’t watch enough TV anymore to justify buying one of the new flat panel HD ones just for HD video. Local broadcast TV is really all I need. But the Blu-Ray player plays one of my Outer Limits season 1 DVDs that the DVD player wouldn’t, so there’s that.

When I got back from the big box and finally got my cables in order I tried to get the Roku tuned to Radio Paradise (remember, this is what started it) and discovered I was getting no video signal out of the Roku. I spent a couple hours fussing with it and finally did a hard reset, which meant I had to go log on to the Roku website, dig up my Roku account password, and mate the box to the account again. My crappy Verizon DSL bandwidth made that process drag out horribly. But I finally got it all done and in total getting distracted by the notion that listening to music while I worked would be nice only took about four and a half ours out of my day. By then I was ready for an afternoon nap. I’m old. But I did at least get a first round of cleaning the backyard deck done. That deck is going to need more TLC though before it’s ready for spring and the precious few weeks I can lounge out on it without getting eaten by mosquitoes. They say that mosquitoes aren’t very strong flyers so I think I might invest in an oscillating fan for the deck this year, as an alternative to festooning it with mosquito coil pots. I also got a bunch of indoor work done, but alas nothing on the drafting table.

I was going to make it up today with a burst of work in the front yard. I need to take the pressure washer to the walkway, weed whack the little amount of actual grass I have out there (it’s a narrow noodle of property I live on) trim the edges and get the flower pots ready for planting. But then this happened…

How can I possibly disturb this? Cats have this preternatural ability to curl themselves up into forms that would be absolutely inhuman to disturb. Plus, it’s become really chilly outside and she might want to go into that shelter I made for her and she won’t if I scare her off with the weed whacker and the pressure washer. So I did more yard work out back. Basically everything I was going to do yesterday until I got distracted by wanting to listen to music.

So things do eventually get done around here. Just not in the order I ever plan for it.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Why I Never Get Any Work Done Outside

March 10th, 2016

Like A Good Neighbor…(continued)

Came home to find a letter from the Maryland State Insurance Commissioner’s Office, telling me that they’d convinced State Farm to cancel my car insurance premium hike and refund the money Plus Interest.

I’m stunned. After I mailed off my form protesting the hike, back in October, I heard absolutely zilch back from them and figured it had just been conveniently lost in the bureaucratic shuffle. I would have expected at least a notice that the form and been received. But it was dead silence. Five months later they tell me I won.

Well this is good, but I hope State Farm doesn’t think it means I’m sticking with them. I was in the middle of exploring other options for car and home owner’s insurance when this letter came. There are lots of companies out there offering cheaper rates for the same coverage or better. And I am not at all happy that my local State Farm Agent dropped a clause into my home owner’s policy exempting damage from collapse. I have a flat roof and that is the one thing you absolutely need protection on if you have one of those.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Like A Good Neighbor…(continued)

February 28th, 2015

Old Enough To Remember When TV Came Over The Airwaves

And perfectly willing to go back to it.

I finally got around to cancelling my DirectTV service today, after years of hemming and hawing about it. My viewing habits have declined a lot since I was younger, and surfing the Internet tubes takes up much more of my time nowadays. Paying to get a signal has been looking less and less attractive as the years have gone by. There’s a line in The Wall by Pink Floyd that goes Got thirteen channels of shit on the T.V. to choose from. Well I’m here to tell you there’s a lot more to choose from on the cable networks these days, and it’s still mostly crap. Sturgeon was an optimist. And don’t get me started on the satellite radio I have in the car, that I’m paying several hundred dollars a year for. I did a test recently where I wrote down all the times I randomly turned on the TV, usually to The Weather Channel (a friend of mine calls it MTV for old guys) but sometimes to something else, and instead of getting content I got a commercial. It was, I kind you not, about five to one. That is, for every six times I turned on the TV, five of those times the first thing I saw was a commercial. After a while you start wondering Why the hell am I paying 80+ bucks a month mostly just to watch commercials?

When I settled on the house back in 2001 I knew I wanted satellite TV because it was the only alternative to Comcast which was loathsome even then. Everything including HBO and Showtime amounted to about 80 bucks I think. Eventually it got costlier and when it hit over 100 bucks and I dropped the movie channels and that got it back down to 70. But of course it keeps creeping up and up and you can’t just pay for only the channels you want. Sorta like how the music industry pushed albums onto listeners so you’d have to buy a whole bunch of songs you could not have cared less about just to have the ones you liked. This month my DirectTV bill ratcheted up to $90 a month and that jogged me out of my inertia.

I don’t need it. I am so close to my local TV towers I can put a coat hanger on the TV and get a good signal…

tv-hill
Looking east from the street in front of my house

I still own an old Sony 32 inch CRT TV that’s so heavy it would take two people just to move it to the recycling drop off. I got a digital converter for it when they changed the broadcast signals over instead of getting a new HDTV flatscreen. That’s how much I care about TV. Oh…and I still have a VHS recorder, a Betamax and a Laser video disk player attached to it, along with the DVD player I play my collection of favorite old TV shows with. And I have a ton of stuff I can just pop into any of those players and enjoy whenever I want. But mostly these days I just sit in front of the computer and…well…write to my blog like I’m doing now for one thing.

At some point I might get a nice HDTV and a Blu Ray player so I can watch some of the new computer animated movies because you can’t really appreciate how amazingly good computer animation has become unless you see it in high rez. But I dropped a grand on refurbishing a 54 year old Leica M3 this month (I checked the serial number for the date of manufacture…it was made in July 1960) so that’s where my priorities are. 90 bucks a month to watch TV that’s mostly commercials anyway is just too much.

Just for effect, I’m going to try and find me some rabbit’s ears. It’ll be like old times!

 

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Old Enough To Remember When TV Came Over The Airwaves

June 16th, 2013

When Mr. Fixit Is Done With You, You’re Done

I learn some lessons the hard way, usually by way of stubbornness.  I hate the idea of just throwing things that break away, even if the cost of buying it in the first place was cheap. But I have spent too much money and time trying to fix a bunch of cheap solar lawn ornaments only to find that despite my best efforts none of them were fixable.

First came the solar powered tiki lamps…

I immediately fell in love with the idea of having backyard lights that ran off solar.  Whimsical decoration seemed wasteful to be running off the electrical grid, especially in the summer months when the city grid is already stressed.  And I wanted my little alleyway backyard to be lively.  The moment I laid eyes on these at the hardware store I had to have them.

At first they really did the trick.  But after several rains the first generation of Casa del Garrett solar tiki lamps started to fail.  When the first one did I examined its construction, opened it up and poked at it with a multi-meter and determined that the little CDS photocell that switched the circuit from Charge The Battery to Shine The Lights had gone bad and I actually went to a Radio Shack (amazingly the chain still sells parts) and bought replacements and soldered them in.  Worked for a while but then something else failed in the tiny circuit board and that was that.  But, typical Bruce, instead of just tossing the bad ones I saved them for parts. Next year I bought new ones and discovered they’d changed the design and now they didn’t use CDS cells to switch on the lights, they apparently figured out when nighttime came from the voltage coming off the solar cell.  Okay, thinks I, that’s a better design and maybe I can use those spare CDS cells I have now for some other future project.  This is how hoarding nightmares begin I guess.

Next year I bought some more solar ornaments.  The makers were getting creative and I kept seeing things I wanted for the backyard…

These all failed eventually too, either due to rainwater getting inside and corroding the electronics or from overheating in the direct sunlight. (who’d have thought solar powered lawn ornaments would be exposed to direct sunlight…right?).  This year when I began waking up the backyard from its winter slumber, most of my solar ornaments were dead.  Stubbornly I resolved to fix everything rather then trash what stopped working and buy new.  But despite my best efforts at reviving them most would not light anymore, or hold a charge for very long and some things died tragically on the operating table. The tiki lamps were the worst, but everything I tried to fix this year ended up dead. It seems while this stuff is sold for outdoor use, it is not made for outdoor use.

Meanwhile I had spent lots of money on parts, acrylic paint because these things also fade drastically in the sunlight (who’d have thought solar powered lawn ornaments would be exposed to direct sunlight?) and a new soldering gun for cutting into the hot glue gobs that hold these things together.

But the worst of it was all the time I spent trying to fix these things.  Hours and hours and hours of poking and cutting and soldering and repainting things that I eventually had to throw away anyway because I could not get them working again. Wires that were too tiny to suffer more than factory assembly would come apart in my hands. Batteries would simply stop recharging because the circuit boards had suffered too much water damage, or were failing due to heat buildup from sitting outside all day long in the direct sun (who’d have thought solar powered lawn ornaments would be exposed to direct sunlight?).  And now I’m kicking myself for having spent too many hours of my life this summer trying to fix junk when I had so many other projects around the house that needed my attention too.

I bought this stuff because I liked they way it decorated my backyard.  Instead of some dark city rowhouse alleyway yard I had something that livened up the place and looked nice to the eye.

It’s hard to admit defeat but I tell myself that throwing plastic junk away these days isn’t so bad since the city has a recycling program.  Maybe some of this stuff will come back as something more useful and long lasting.  Plastic trash cans maybe.

I still want light and fun in my backyard, so now I’m looking around for things that run off the same sort of low voltage wiring that path lights use.  I have two lighted water fountains out back now that run off the grid. I had to repaint one of those before deploying it this season but that’s not so bad a task. The solar stuff is junk. If you go with that then expect to have to replace it every season and don’t be surprised if some of it doesn’t even make it to the end of the summer you bought it. The idea of this stuff running off solar is nice but a carbon foot print is not greatly reduced by products that only last one or two seasons and then they have to be thrown away or recycled.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on When Mr. Fixit Is Done With You, You’re Done

June 15th, 2013

Staff…That’s What I Am…Staff…

They say cats don’t have owners, they have staff, and the same might be said of little Baltimore rowhouses…like on days like today when the sky is blue and the air is clear and clean and crisp and your car says Come with me and see what we can see and your cameras say Oh, Oh, Take Us, Take Us Too! and the house says Not On Your Life You Don’t you have grass to mow and railings to paint and concrete to patch and seal!

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Staff…That’s What I Am…Staff…

June 9th, 2013

I Can Fix It!

Today’s backyard task is getting the water fountains running and mow the expansive Casa del Garrett lawn. I have two small illuminated water fountains for the backyard, one shaped to look like a small polished ball of granite with a section cut out of the top where the water percolates. It’s actually made of plastic…a real granite one would have been too heavy and too expensive. But it looks very convincing. Before putting it all away last winter I hosed it down and discovered to my dismay that the paint was flaking off. So one task today is to repaint those areas, matching the original simulated granite coloring.

So all that time spent in the 1980s as an architectural model maker, making realistic models of buildings and lobbies to be made from various materials from the samples I was given, is still paying off.   Or maybe it’s the years before that I spent painting imaginary landscapes.  Anyway, I am not buying another water fountain just because the paint flaked off this one when I washed it down last year.

Last year I bought a small planter shaped and painted to look like a rock, and this spring when I began waking up the backyard garden I saw that it had started coming apart, probably because even though they sold it here in Maryland, it wasn’t made to take below freezing temperatures. The plaster it was made of was cracking and coming apart and when I got done removing all the loose plaster about half the outside of it was a mess. So I bought some plaster of Paris and reshaped it. But then I cheated and bought some Rustoleum rock textured spray paint because so much of it was gone I really didn’t need to match much that was still there.

I still have several outdoor solar light things I need to fix. There’s a solar turtle whose shell lights up at night…it’s lamp is apparently broken and, surprise, surprise, the only way I have of replacing it is cutting a hole in the bottom of the turtle. They just glue everything together now and expect you to throw it away when it breaks. Also, I have a statue of a boy with a jar of lightning bugs that I’ve had for a few years now. His jar lights up at night but the batteries inside are not holding much of a charge anymore and, surprise, surprise, there is no way to replace them other then I somehow melt off the hot glue holding his on off button panel and get inside. Plus, years of summer sun have faded his paint and now he is looking a bit anemic. So I need to repaint him and put in a fresh battery. I have no idea what I’m going to find when I get inside there, and I’m still not sure how I’m going to open up the turtle; the plastic they cast it out of is pretty thick.

I suppose you could say I’m wasting the precious minutes of my life fixing things I could just as easily buy new, but I can’t bring myself to throw something away that I can fix. I could spend the money but money is also time out of my life in the sense that I had to work for it, and I’ve already spent money on these things so throwing them away when I could fix them would amount to wasting a part of my life too.  But deep down inside I just can’t stand the idea of throwing things away that can be fixed.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on I Can Fix It!

February 17th, 2013

Adventures In Home Ownership…(continued)

Came down a few moments ago to find the washing machine had not spun my load of shirts and wouldn’t open the door (it’s a front loader). Crap, thinks I…considering I might have to call for service and wondering how much of a bite that’ll take out of this month’s income.  I try a spin only cycle to see if that would jar it out of its state.  It rinses the load but the drum never moves.

Crap. Crap. Crap…

I have loved this new washer…an Electrolux.  It is the most amazingly water efficient thing I have ever seen.  No matter what sort of load I put in it the washer only uses just enough water to get everything nice and soaked, but there is never any excess I can see in the drum.  The clothes are just there in the drum, completely wet, but not actually tumbling in any water at the bottom of the drum.  It’s amazing to me.

And that of course, is because it’s completely computerized.  And I make my living in the IT world.  So what naturally comes to mind is…I go up upstairs, get the owners manual, go back downstairs to the washer and try unplugging it…waiting for a bit…and plugging it back in.  This allows me to get the door to unlock and I get my unspun and still soggy shirts out.  I close the door again, open the manual to the Installation Diagnostics page and make the washer go through its installation diagnostics.  I figure if nothing else at least I’ll have something, possibly some error code to tell the service folks when I call them.

But the washer goes through its diagnostics just fine, during which it fills and drains and the drum goes through all its movements like it’s supposed to.  At the end the display gives the washer a Passed All Tests.  So I put the unspun shirts back in, close the door and give it a Spin Only cycle, which also does a brief rinse. Works like it’s supposed to. Shirts are in the dryer now.

The poor dear had gotten confused somehow, and powering it down and back up cleared the problem. I rebooted my washing machine, in other words. Or in further words, I now own a washing machine that may need the occasional reboot. Well…but I learned to live with that when I got the new furnace  A computerized furnace.  But it measures the temperatures inside and outside of the house and can adjust the blower speed on a minutely variable scale as needed.  It builds up an internal history of how the house responds to outside changes in temperature and anticipates what is needed to maintain the temperature inside.  It’s lowered my energy bills considerably.  I’ve rebooted it a bunch of times since I had it installed six years ago.

I’m sure glad my life took me down the Earning A Living In IT route. I have No idea what people my age who have little to no experience diagnosing computer/software problems must be thinking when one of their new microchip controlled appliances starts acting funny, but I suspect it’s something like panic.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Adventures In Home Ownership…(continued)

May 31st, 2011

Geek Survival Skills

[Geek Alert…]

I’ve been on a roll fixing up and beautifying the front and back yards here at Casa del Garrett.  Among other items, I bought four solar powered Tiki torches for the backyard.  They’re pretty simple devices consisting of a solar power cell and two led lights that flicker alternately inside a plastic cup.  The effect mimics a lighted torch well enough and I think they add a nice touch to the backyard.  The other day one of them failed.

It was always the last one to come on at night and I wondered if the rechargeable batteries in it just needed replacing.  So the first thing I did was put some alkalines in it as a test.  Nada.  I checked its internal wiring.  The things were Very inexpensive to buy and inside it showed why.  Just a postage stamp sized circuit board, a double-a battery compartment, a nice looking solar power cell and a smaller cell that looked as if it were a CDS light sensor for switching the torch on and off.  The parts were simply hot glued into place and the wires connecting everything were a gauge somewhere between hair and paper width.  I got out a magnifying glass and looked the connections over with some difficulty as it was hard to see how good they were under the hot glue globs.  But nothing seemed obviously broken.

As I said, they were cheap.  So I figured I’d go buy two more (they come in pairs) and then I’d have one spare in case one of the others failed.  Having bought the last two boxes of these on the shelves at the Lowes in Cockeysville, I figured I’d need to try one of the other stores.  So this evening after work I drove to the one in White Marsh so I could swing by Costco for some gasoline.  But that Lowes was out of stock on those particular Tiki torches.  So I began to wonder if each store only got a couple boxes of those at the start of the season and was I chasing an item that was sold out all over the area by now.

I came back home and considered ordering new ones online. But the ornery techno geek in me nagged at me to look inside the broken torch one more time.  It’s a simple device dammit…I ought to be able to fix it… So I brought it in and took it to the art room drafting table and opened it up.  I got out the multi-meter (you have one of those…right?  Every home should have a multi-meter…) and fairly quickly determined several things.

First, the rechargeable batteries were in perfectly good shape, as I’d expected since replacing them with some stock alkalines didn’t make any difference.  Second, the solar power cell in those things, cheap as they are, are Very Nice and were putting out more then enough voltage to keep the batteries charged.  After the batteries, my suspicions fell on the other small cell that looked like a light sensor.  Here was where I reached way back into my past for knowledge of how camera light meters work.  It looked to my eye like your basic CDS cell…Cadmium-Sulfide…a photo-resistor.  Unlike the older selenium cell meters, which generate a precise voltage based on the amount of light falling on them, CDS cells change in resistance.  Their advantage was they worked better and more precisely in lower light conditions.  What was extra nice about them back in the day was if you forgot and left the camera’s light meter on, putting the lens cap on or just putting the camera away in darkness somewhere would protect the battery because a CDS cell goes to maximum resistance when there is no light falling on it, so it’s basically turned the circuit off.

…which is pretty much what makes them useful as light sensors for turning off and on stuff when night falls.  They can act like a simple on-off switch.  The leads coming off the CDS cell in my Tiki torch were buried under a glob of hot glue so I traced the wires back to the circuit board and took an ohm reading there with a piece of black electricians tape across the cell blocking the light out.  It should have read max ohms but it read like a short.  So the cell was defective.

I clipped the wires leading to it and the torch lit up.  I stripped the ends and touched them together and the torch turned off again.  So now I can either put a micro-switch in place of the CDS cell or see if I can find another CDS cell to replace the failed one with.  This thing is so cheaply built you just know the concept it represents is throw it in the landfill when it breaks or you get tired of it whichever comes first.  Had I found a replacement I’d have probably just scavenged the solar cell and the LEDs and tossed the rest out.  The solar cell is a nice one.  But fixing it leaves me with a degree of geeky self-satisfaction.  In a world of cheap mass-market throw it away goods I am not completely helpless.

[Edited a tad…]

[Update…]  I see from their online catalog I can buy little CDS cells in packs of five for a little less then four dollars at Radio Shack.  So tonight I’ll check the one in my neighborhood.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Geek Survival Skills

January 24th, 2010

Adventures In Home Ownership…(continued)

For nearly all of my life I’ve been an apartment dweller.  I grew up, and grew into young adulthood with neighbors above me, neighbors below me, neighbors to my right and left.  The daily rustlings and occasional arguments heard through the walls were part of my normal experience.  Mind you, we lived in reasonably nice apartments.  You didn’t hear every little thing.  The walls were solid and the floors firm.  But you always knew you had neighbors living all around you.  You heard the sound of water moving through the building pipes when they turned on the tap water, heard their toilets flushing through the sewer drains.  Sometimes, you heard a door slam, or something drop.  I suppose my friends who grew up in their family’s own homes would think they had ghosts.

One routine of my apartment life was scouting the building washing machine room on the morning of laundry day to see if there was anything free.  If the machines were all in use I would try to judge from the cycle how much longer before one was free.  But this was an iffy prospect because some neighbors wouldn’t go fetch their laundry from the washer for hours, which would make me furious.  To this day I have a built-in mental self timer for how long it takes a wash load to run.  Also, on my dresser, a box which I put my spare change into every night: a habit born of necessity where you were always needing coins for the weekend laundry.  When people ask me what I like best about home ownership, or what motivated me to take the leap and buy a house of my own, I tell them instantly: my own washer and dryer.

It wasn’t until I moved to Baltimore that I discovered that some apartment complexes offer washers and dryers right in the apartment.  In Cockeysville, the Baltimore suburb I moved to from Rockville, my first apartment (my First apartment!) had the usual communal laundry room.  But my second, the the best apartment complexes I ever lived in, had full size washers and dryers right there in the apartment.  I thought I had reached the very pinnacle of luxury.

When I got the job at Space Telescope, and decided to relocate to within walking distance of the office, I had one absolutely firm no-compromise specification for my new apartment: it had to have its own laundry closet.  Alas none of them within walking distance did.  Also, being so close to the campus, their rents were a tad outrageous anyway.  A good fifty percent more then the rent I was paying then in Cockeysville, for apartments nearly half as big.

And so, with great trepidation since I knew nothing of how to go about buying a home, I started looking at the little rowhouses clustered around the campus.  I’d actually given it some thought a few years previously, when I discovered how affordable homes were in the Baltimore area, compared to Rockville and the Washington suburbs.  But knowing nothing at all about buying a home, and getting tied up with seller’s agent instead of a buyer’s agent, I quickly gave it up.  It just seemed out of my reach.  But at Space Telescope some co-workers put me in touch with a reliable buyer’s agent and after one false start, I got the hang of it and…well…now I am a home owner.

With my very own washer and dryer! Conveyed.  They Conveyed!  I got to add a new sense of the word ‘conveyed’ to my vocabulary.  Also, Service Contract

So I had a Service Contract on the furnace and hot water heater, but not the washer and dryer because I reckoned the ones that Conveyed were old enough that I’d want to replace them anyway when they started going bad.   The dryer is a pretty simple machine and all it has needed over the years I’ve been here was one repair to replace the igniter element.  The washer though, started having transmission problems last year.  The repairman I called in gave me a quote of about 4-500 dollars to repair it.  Well…that’s the cost of a new one just about, so I decided to just keep that one running until it failed.

Failure came a week ago Friday.  Well…not so much failed, as became not at all well.  It still washes, but to get the spin dry cycle going I have to open the lid, defeat the interlock, reach in and yank the tub around to get it going.  When it stops after the cycle is over, I can hear the bearings grinding.

So I get my trusty back issues of Consumer Reports out, and the annual Buyer’s Guide, and start investigating.  I wanted a nice front loader, since those are more water and energy efficient, and it’s a proven design.   I got my tape measure out and jotted down not only the dimensions of the space around the washer I had, but the doorways and stairwells the old and new machine would have to navigate on the way down to the basement utility room.  Then I started looking around the net for complaints.  Well…I got an eyeful.

It was the same problem I ran into when I needed to replace the old fridge.   Every make out there, even the ones Consumer Reports said were less likely to need repairs then the others, had problems.  Reading over the complaints, you get a sense of which ones were outliers, and which were endemic.   Mold was a persistent issue with the front loaders…all of them.  Some had vibration problems and would try to walk all over the laundry rooms whenever the spin cycle started.  Some had persistent problems with gasket tearing and leaking.  The new electronic control boards were a constant source of problems for all models.  When they weren’t failing altogether, they were causing problems with correct water amounts and temperatures.   An appalling number of people were saying to stay away from anything with an electronic control board.  Just get a cheap all-mechanical one instead, was the advice.

It was going around to the stores and looking over the models first-hand that I discovered the problem that forced me to give up a front loader.  I have two possible paths of entry into the basement…the front door or the back kitchen door and then down the basement stairs, and through the door to the utility room in the back of the basement…OR…through the back basement door and right into the utility room.   The catch is: 1) the door to the utility room has only 25-1/2 inches of width, and while the back basement door has 27 inches there is a deck the previous owner built over the back basement doorway and I only have a three foot crawlspace there for someone to carefully wheel something into or out of the basement.

I know that can be done…Casa del Garrett once had two full-size fridges (they Conveyed!): the second one being located in the utility room where it was used by the previous owner for storing ice and cold drinks for the club room he’d made of the front of the basement, and which I am now using as an art room.  I gave the second fridge away and some friends wheeled it carefully out the back basement door on a hand truck, tipped it on its side and slid it out under the deck.  But that path only has 27 inches at it’s narrow point, which is the back basement doorway.  And the deck only gives you three feet of clearance to wheel something out from under it.  You had to figure in the size of a hand truck, plus the size of the washer.

So as it turned out, the only front loaders I could get into my house were the smallest of the small ones…something you’d buy for a condo with a tiny laundry closet maybe.  It would only be able to do small loads of clothes but not large towels or the sheets and mattress cover on my queen size bed.  For those I’d either be back to doing the communal laundry room thing again or just dropping them off at the cleaners.  I figured if I was paying several hundred bucks for a washing machine the only time I should need to take anything to the cleaners was if I needed something dry cleaned.

So with regret I started looking at the top loaders.  Even the largest of those could get down the basement steps and through the utility room door.  Once again I saw the same complaints about machines that were mainly controlled by electronic motherboards.   I also saw a number of complaints that the new high efficiency top-loaders didn’t actually get clothes clean.  I suspect those were mostly from folks who were shocked to see how little water is used by the new machines, and don’t understand how detergents work.  I looked over some YouTubes of these machines in action and…yeah…they don’t look like they’re using nearly enough water.  But no washing machine is a scrubbing machine.   Really bad dirt always requires attention by hand scrubbing and cleaning it first.  It’s the same with dishes and dish washers.

I settled on a GE High Efficiency model that Consumer Reports recommended.  It’s supposedly going to be delivered tomorrow.  In the meantime I had a whole ‘nother gallon of Costco liquid laundry detergent I hadn’t even opened yet that I gave to a neighbor, because the new machine requires the new High Efficiency detergents.  I noted when I went to Costco for some, that the regular Kirkland brand liquid detergent isn’t even being sold anymore…just the High Efficiency stuff now.   I guess that’s where it’s all going now.  But if it cuts down on the amount of detergent going down the drains every day that’s for the better.

I have to say I’ve never seen a top loader with nothing but a little impeller device at the bottom of the tub.  It makes the tub seem huge.  Supposedly the machine will determine the correct amount of water itself, and before it goes into spin cycle, do a little self-balancing act.  I am told though, that once I fill it with clothes and turn it on, opening the the lid and adding something I missed like a stray sock is problematic because it confuses auto water level system.  I can theoretically override the auto water level, but I would need to do that before I start it up.  I’m also told to expect it will be substantially quieter then the old machine, so I can’t just listen to it from upstairs to get a sense of what it’s up to.  I’ll likely have to reprogram my internal sense of how long a wash load takes because these machines take a bit longer on the wash.  That may take some doing as my mental model of the laundry room work flow is about fifty years old.

by Bruce | Link | React! (3)

April 20th, 2009

Adventures In Home Ownership…(continued)

[Longish post about the continuing trials and tribulations of a geeky little techno nerd trying to understand how to take care of a house of his very own.  Skip if talking about refrigerators is likely to bore the hell out of you…]

The trick to buying major household appliances like…well…the new fridge I bought last week, is to match them correctly to the scale of your life.  The problem is, at least here in Bigger-Is-Always-Better America, you need to have a life scaled to the expectations of American corporations.  Specifically, you need to have a large family living in a McMansion with a mortgage you can’t afford and two Hummers in the driveway.  Get that, and everything they want to sell you in the major appliances department…everything nice at least…will fit your lifestyle to a ‘T’.

The refrigerator problem I related last September…Here…came back last month.  I noticed frost forming yet again at the bottom corner of the freezer, which meant that the cooling coils were probably frozen up by then.  And sure enough the ice maker stopped working shortly thereafter.  Icemakers, as I discovered last time, have a thermal switch that won’t turn on until the temperature of the unit is cold enough to freeze water in a certain period of time.  I also had a thermometer mounted in the freezer this time, which allowed me to see exactly how much less efficient my freezer was getting by the day.

To get it fixed would have meant the third time since September that someone from GE has been out to fix it.  I don’t blame GE service, which at least here in the Baltimore area is very good.  But the fridge was more then 20 years old judging from the records left by the previous home owner, and had a lot of trouble when it was brand new.  Each time it was something else in the system that had failed.  First it was the thermostat.  Then the defroster timer.  Now for all I knew it was the defroster heater, or something else.  I could have had it fixed again but the fixes were starting to add up to the cost of a new one, and a new one would be much more energy efficient.  Especially if I bought one scaled more correctly to the life of a single guy.  But it was also money I really hadn’t wanted to spend just now.

I started doing some somewhat more in-depth research then I’d done last September, and quickly became shocked at the state of the art…or at least what I could see of it here in the U.S.  Fridges made in the last half decade appeared to be loud, cranky and a whole lot less efficient then advertised.  Consumer were complaining bitterly online about just about every brand, including the brands Consumer Reports says need the fewest repairs.  It took me a while to realize that those ratings were relative to each other, and not to other products.  Even U.S. made automobiles seem to be more reliable these days then refrigerators.

It made me almost want to just keep getting the old one fixed.  But old as it was, that wasn’t likely to be a less costly choice either.  So it seemed I was stuck with getting a new one.  But at least I could take the opportunity to get one more suited to the life I live.  

I’m a single guy, living alone, in a small Baltimore rowhouse.  I just don’t need a big family sized fridge like the one that came with the house.  That fridge was almost always nearly empty, except for the freezer.  I live so close to two really nice grocery stores that I almost always buy perishables the day I am actually going to use them, and then only just enough to use right away.  If I buy more food then I am likely to use in a week I end up throwing most of it away when it spoils.  Milk, cheeses, veggies, lunch meats…it all either gets used right away or I end up having to throw it out.  So I don’t buy much at any one time.  So the fridge is mostly empty most of the time.  Figure I was spending a lot of electricity just to keep the air in it cool, which has been an annoyance.

The freezer compartment however, was another story.  Between the TV dinners, french frys, onion rings and other deep fryer treats, fish, shrimp, beef and occasional ice cream treat it was almost always packed full.  It’s not just that I like meat.  It isn’t simply that I practically live out of the deep fryer some weeks.  It’s that the stuff in the freezer, so long as it stays frozen, stays good to use for months.  I purchase on a longer time frame for the freezer then for the stuff that gets put in the fridge.  And I really wanted more space to do that.  I’d been thinking about getting a small chest freezer now for some time.

So what I really needed, I decided, was less refrigerator and more freezer.  I could buy a much smaller sized fridge, and then pair it with a small chest freezer.  I had a spot in the basement where a small chest freezer would fit nicely and have a circuit all to itself off the main box.  The previous home owner had a second refrigerator there for his club room, which I gave to a friend shortly after moving in.  There is even a water tap there for an ice maker.  A small 5 sq foot chest freezer would do nicely in that spot.

On a hunch, I looked to see if they sold refrigerator only units.  That would have been ideal.  I found some but they were all second refrigerator units, for those families even a monster sized fridge just wasn’t big enough for.  They were even larger on the inside then the fridge I was replacing.

So I decided to go with a small top freezer unit.  The fridge section would hold everything I needed without wasting energy just cooling off empty airspace and the small freezer section could hold the icemaker, and be a staging area for the kitchen.  The chest freezer would be for long term bulk storage.  Whenever I saw a sale on meats and TV dinners, I could take advantage of it.  I could buy the bulk meat and fish items at Costco and have a place for it.  On an as-needed basis, I would periodically restock the fridge freezer with items from the basement freezer.

So now I had my specs.  I began looking around for something to fit them and it was frustrating.  Last September I wrote:

I could get a good, state of the art energy saver fridge, sized just right for a single guy, for around 850 to a thousand bucks.  Or I could get a decent low tech smaller one for about 300-400.  I figured if I was going to replace the fridge I might as well buy a good one, but money for one of the good ones wasn’t in the budget.

Well I could squeeze it out of the budget now, but alas I was completely wrong about getting a good one sized for the life of a single guy.  I could get a nicely built, nicely equipped fridge, but only at a size a large family would ever need.  And mind you, what I mostly desired was something that was built well.  The built-in gadgets would be nice…oh look, an ice dispenser, oh look, a built-in wine rack…but I wanted something built well first.  I like solid things in my life.  I want to reach out and touch the shelves and they fit well into their slots and don’t feel like they’re about to come apart in my hands.  I want to slide the snack tray and the veggie bins in and out and they move smoothly and don’t feel like they’re cheap plastic that’ll crack and break and I’ll always have to be replacing them.  I see stuff like that and I wonder how well the stuff I can’t reach out and touch and see is made.

But all I could find in small, single guy sized refrigerators, was cheap plastic crap on the inside and no nice extras, except the ice maker, which I guess is considered essential now in a refrigerator.  Some of what I saw was done more nicely to the eye then others, but it was still all low quality plastic on the inside.  I wondered how they did it over in Europe, where small scale living is fairly common, even for families.  I tried looking for some European brands, and some from Japan and Korea, but it seemed the only things that got exported to the U.S. were the family sized fridges and those were hugely expensive.

I tried looking around the appliance outlet stores.  There were places you could buy factory reconditioned units, or ones that had minor cosmetic damage, for a whole lot less.  But again, most of what I saw were the big McMansion style units.  The few small, single person units I saw all looked…a bit less then factory reconditioned.  More like second-hand and a tad cruddy more often then not.

Why aren’t you married with children citizen…?

One thing I discovered, in the nick of time since I was considering buying a stainless steel unit, is that fridge magnets don’t stick to stainless steel.  My fridges always get decorated with fridge magnets, reminders, letters and cards from friends.  I still have the Christmas card my first high school crush sent me a couple years ago, tacked to the fridge with a magnet I got in Monument Valley the summer before I’d found him again.  I started pocketing one of my fridge magnets on my shopping trips, along with the tape measure.

In the meantime, I’m eating out of the old fridge and not buying any new food to put into it so I don’t have any to spoil when I make the change from the old to the new.  It takes about a day, really, for the inside temperature in a fridge to stabilize and you don’t want to be putting food in until it’s cold enough, especially lunch meats and dairy products.  The freezer, which by this point was just barely getting cold enough to freeze food, but not freeze it really hard, took the longest to empty.  The fridge section not so much.  I emptied the snack bin pretty quickly.  The only thing I kept putting back into the fridge was the daily batch of fresh ice tea.  After about two weeks of it I was eating almost exclusively from local restaurants and eating peanut butter sandwiches and I was getting desperate.

I ended up buying a Kenmore fridge and small chest freezer from Sears.  The fridge wasn’t as horribly cheap on the inside as some, but it was still less well made then I wanted.  But by now I’d given up on getting what I wanted in the size I wanted it and this fridge was just exactly the right size.  It was also inexpensive since Sears was running a sale at the time.  It is small enough that instead of having a fan that forces air through a heat exchanger coil it has the old radiator style heat exchanger mounted on the back.  Since the whole unit is smaller, it can sit in the space where the old one did and get more air circulating around the back anyway, so that older passive air cooling mechanism shouldn’t be a problem at all.  Simpler is better, when you can manage it.  Or so I’m hoping anyway.  The freezer is a very small chest model that will require manual defrosting periodically.  Interestingly enough, the freezer is quieter then the fridge.

I let the units run for a day to stabilize temperatures.  Late in the evening the icemaker in the new fridge finally began making ice, so I knew the freezer was ready to hold food.  Which meant that the fridge probably was too.

So now I have a smaller fridge, and a chest freezer now, and a better balance of food storage here at Casa del Garrett.  To this I added one more thing: A small, self contained ice maker for the bar downstairs.  By self-contained I mean it drinks from its own built-in water tank, not a hookup to the household plumbing.  More on it later, but it’s part of a master plan to improve the bar for when I have company.

by Bruce | Link | React! (4)

January 28th, 2009

Snow. Sleet. Freezing Rain. Baltimore

Not exactly your foot deep snowfall…but enough to keep Traveler at home…

 

Doesn’t it look adorable in the snow?  Well…I think it does.  And I’m here to tell you owning a forty-five thousand dollar automobile does make you think twice about driving it in snow and icy conditions.  And tonight they are forecasting a freezing rain.  Swell.  If I had studded tires (which are illegal in Maryland anyway) I would not move that car.  I can walk to two grocery stores and to work, and in really bad weather, the Institute encourages us to either telecommute or take leave.  In a really severe situation they will close down the Institute altogether, for the safety of staff.  But you have to understand the work we do is in support of space missions that don’t pause for bad weather on earth, and some folks just have to be on call no matter what.  If the power goes out due to ice bringing down lines, or trees onto lines though, I doubt I’ll be able to telecommute.

It’s sleeting now as I write this.  The forecast is for ice accumulation up to a quarter inch in the city.  That’s…pretty bad.  The city seldom if ever plows or salts the sidestreets (we have no money) but distributes salt boxes all around the neighborhoods, which I’ve never seen done anywhere else.  I am responsible for my own patch of sidewalk…all sixteen feet of it…so I shoveled mine and salted it down before bed.  I also put out some extra seed for the birds.  Hopefully the feeders won’t be so iced up they can’t get to it.

If the power goes out tomorrow, because some tree somewhere upgrid from me came down on some lines, I probably won’t be blogging.  BGE is usually pretty good about getting the power back on here in the city…but if the ice is widespread it might take a while.  Hopefully, once again, it won’t be as bad as the worst case scenerio the forecast is predicting.  A quarter inch of ice is a lot.  That’ll bring down some tree limbs around here for sure.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Snow. Sleet. Freezing Rain. Baltimore

January 20th, 2009

Adventures In Home Ownership…(continued)

So…the insulate the exterior wall of the bedroom proof of concept test:  The results are pretty much what I’d hoped for.  Sunday I cut and stuck foam insulating panels on the back bedroom wall with double sided mounting tape.   For the rest of that day the temperature in the room seemed to maintain pretty steadily.  But the real test I knew, would be how it felt in the morning after a good overnight chill outside.

I’ve actually been running an oil filled space heater in the bedroom lately because it gets so cold overnight.  When I first moved into Casa del Garrett, I used to run an electric blanket.  But the blanket died on me last year and I bought the oil filled space heater to replaced it, thinking that a space heater was a more versatile spot heating solution then an electric blanket.  Since I was testing the difference insulating that back exterior wall would make, I kept the heater off.

Monday morning the bedroom was refrigerator cold when I got up.  But none of the foam panels I’d put up were radiating coldness at all.  So it was coming from somewhere else then the sections of wall I’d insulated.  As I paced around the room trying to see where the cold was coming from I realized I’d forgotten about the wall length closet on one side of the room. 

That closet goes the entire length of the bedroom on the wall I share with my neighbor.  One end shares a wall with the bathroom and the other end of it is the exterior wall.  That little slice of exterior wall in the closet was cold as ice when I put my hand to it and it was chilling all the air in the closet, which then seeped out into the bedroom.  So Monday I put up some more sheet foam against that wall.  I also added some more foam panels to a portion of the exterior wall that had been built out to accommodate one of the heating ducts as it was very chilly too. 

Once more I slept without the space heater on.  This morning when I got up it was 16 degrees outside and the bedroom was pretty warm.  So this pretty much settles it.  My project starting next spring is to insulate the exterior walls here at Casa del Garrett.

More on that as I get into it.

by Bruce | Link | React! (3)

January 17th, 2009

Brutally Cold

It’s 14 degrees outside as I write this, and I can see a lot more clearly how the house is loosing heat now.  The problem spots aren’t all what I thought  they were.  The exterior walls are worse then I thought, while the attic insulation is doing much better then I’d thought it did.

The house is maintaining temperature but the exterior walls are so cold it’s making the floors cold.  Basically, air against the exterior walls is getting chilled and then sinking down to the floor and spreading out.  So my feet are cold as ice as I walk around the house but my upper body, and everything a couple feet above floor level here at Casa del Garrett, is staying nice and warm. 

The walls are, I kid you not, much, Much colder then the windows and the window frames.  The windows here, which are new double pane windows installed by the previous owner, are really showing their insulating ability now.  They’re staying warm to the touch nicely.  The walls themselves are showing their 1950s housing code genetics.  They are brutally cold to the touch.  And being all masonry and plaster, they’ll retain their chill even as the outside air starts climbing back out of the single digits.  Any inside air that hangs against them is being chilled to refrigerator temperatures.  Then it slides off and spreads across the floor. 

Meanwhile the second floor ceiling is warm to the touch.  That old shredded paper insulation in the attic crawl space is better at keeping the heat in then I’d thought.  And with the air leak in the bathroom skylight sealed up now, the second floor is staying much warmer now then it ever did in the winter.  The chill here is all below knee level.  It’s really weird.

So I’m going out to the hardware store in a bit to buy some of that blue foam sheet insulation and do a wee experiment.  I’m going to put it up against the exterior bedroom wall with double sided tape and see what that does.  For various reasons that’s an easy interior wall to do an insulation experiment on, and a good test case because facing the back of the house, which is the north face, that wall doesn’t even get any warmth from the sun hitting it.  I’ll just cut some foam pieces with a utility knife and one of my big metal straight-edges so they fit snugly.  Then I’ll tack them in place with some double-sided tape and see what effect it has.  It doesn’t have to look good, just be a proof-of-concept.  If it works well enough then I’ll start making plans to build out that wall, and the other exterior walls here at Casa del Garrett.

The days when you could just burn gas heat like it didn’t cost anything are long, long gone…

by Bruce | Link | React! (2)


6 Degrees.

I’m dealing with the return of my insomnia again…but it gives me a chance to walk downstairs and see just how cold it’s getting.

The high-tech furnace I put in several years ago works as a complete computer controlled system with the outside air conditioner compressor also acting as an outdoor temperature sensor.  The furnace box inside (which is tiny compared to the one it replaced) has an onboard computer that monitors indoor and outdoor temperature and tries to maintain indoor conditions as efficiently as possible.  The burners can work at full blast or several stages below that.  The blower fan is variable speed.  So instead of the old system, where an indoor thermostat tripped at the temperature you set it to, turning on a furnace that only knew how to burn gas and blow out hot air at full blast until the thermostat tripped back off, this one will respond to temperature changes both inside and outside the house, and gently try to maintain the indoor set point with as little effort as possible.  This is the first time since I’ve had it, that the temperatures have gone into single digits here in Baltimore.

The thermostat looks like an oversized iPod Classic, but without the wheel.  It sits on a wall in the living room and among other things, tells me both the indoor and outdoor temperatures.  I get the outdoor reading now far more accurately then the old porch thermometer I once had and I don’t have to look out the back window.  Right now the thermostat is telling me it’s 6 degrees outside.  I’m pretty sure that’s Fahrenheit and not Kelvin because the nitrogen in the atmosphere isn’t condensing on the ground.  At least…I think that frost I’m seeing outside is water ice and not nitrogen…

For the first time since I bought Casa del Garrett the second floor is warmer then the first at night.  That’s what you’d expect since heat rises but it’s never been like that in the winter and now I know that darn bathroom skylite has been letting all my heat out all these years.  I honestly didn’t think it was that bad, but the change has been dramatic.  Especially with the temperature down in the single digits out there.  I’m going to leave that plastic sheet I put under it up for the rest of the season and when it gets warm enough that I can set up my table saw I’m going to buy some sheet acrylic and cut some panels to put up there permanently. 

Wow…  I just now checked NOAA and they’re saying it’s 4 degrees at BWI right now.  My thermostat is still reading 6, but I’ll bet it’s still dropping out there.  Two more hours until morning…

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on 6 Degrees.

January 16th, 2009

Ten Degrees

That’s what my new high tech furnace-a/c system says it is outside now.  NOAA is reading ten at BWI airport too.  But the house is staying pretty warm.  Just the usual cold spots near the front and back walls and even those aren’t really cold so much as a bit chilly.  But it looks like death outside.  The sun is out and bright and the sky is cloudless but the only things moving are the tree branches in the wind and the birds around my feeders.  I don’t even want to think about what the wind chill is right now.  NOAA says it can be as much as 5 below.

A downy woodpecker was scouting out my suet feeder a moment ago.  It had itself fluffed up almost to the point its body looked like a little round ball of black and white feathers.  It lit on the feeder and then for some reason flew right back off.  Those things are shyer then I am.  I’m going to put out a second suet feeder in a little bit.  I already need to refill the thistle seed feeders the gold finches use.  Just thinking about going out in that is giving me the shivers.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Ten Degrees

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