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October 22nd, 2022

The Dead Birds That Saved Lives…

Sometime after I bought the house the furnace that was in it suffered a cracked heat exchanger and my CO detectors went off. Since just then I didn’t know for certain what was causing my CO detectors to alert, my first instinct was to call the gas company. But the gas company says no, first you call the fire department.

Here’s why…

1 dead, 10 hospitalized from carbon monoxide leak after birds alert firefighters

AKRON, Ohio (WJW) – One person has died following a carbon monoxide leak at an Ohio apartment complex in which pet birds alerted firefighters to the danger.

A fire crew had been called to an older man’s apartment for a medical emergency. He seemed confused, disoriented. While they examined him the old man asked about his birds…he had almost a dozen of them. One of the firemen looked over at a cage…and saw four dead birds on the bottom of it. There was a carbon monoxide leak somewhere in the apartment complex.

They went door to door checking for CO in the apartments and looking for the leak.  Behind one door they had to break down they found a family and kids already unconscious and got them to the hospital. In all, one resident was found in their bathroom, dead, and ten were taken to the hospital. 

This is why when, years ago, I called the gas company they told me no, call the fire department. The fire department can break down doors if they have to in order to fight a fire, or track down where a CO leak is coming from. In my case, though I was pretty sure the CO was coming from my furnace, the fire department had to make sure it wasn’t coming from somewhere else, or got into any other units next to or near mine. After they localized it to my furnace, They called the gas company, who came with a more sensitive detector and eventually showed me where on the heat exchanger the crack was, and then put a little Out Of Service tag on my furnace. (Not that I was likely to turn it back on again!)

I had space heaters and it wasn’t so bitterly cold just then, but I ended up having to spend about five grand for an entire new furnace. Upside was the new one is a Lot more efficient than the one that was there.

I’ve written about this previously. My CO detectors probably saved my life. At the time I had two of them, one in the basement near the furnace, and the other in my bedroom. Now I have them on all three floors. They’re a tad pricey and you have to replace them periodically, but they can save your life so just get some. The rule of thumb is you put your CO detectors near the floor, and your smoke detectors near the ceiling.

[Update…] I’m told now that putting your CO detectors near the floor is a myth. Usually people put them there because they often need to be plugged into an electric outlet, but they can go nearly anywhere because CO mixes easily with the air in a room. I would still recommend putting one near your bed at head level…but…wherever seems to be fine as long as one is near the bedroom and none of them are too close to fuel fed appliances like a stove or furnace.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on The Dead Birds That Saved Lives…

October 12th, 2022

Oh What A Lovely Day To…Stay Home And Do Housework…

Well…lawn and garden work.

It’s another lovely day outside and I’m strongly tempted to take a drive somewhere with one or more of my cameras because I don’t know how many more of these we’ll have before winter sets in. But the sky is uninteresting today and I have some outdoor work I need to do to start getting the house ready for Halloween.

Time was, one thing I’d do is take a big piece of chalk and write HELP ELEANOR COME HOME on the bricks next to my front door. But that’s a reference nobody got and my next door neighbor has named the calico Eleanor so everyone here might think it’s about the cat.


by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Oh What A Lovely Day To…Stay Home And Do Housework…

July 23rd, 2022

Dealing With A Heatwave And Mosquitoes

I’ve taken to putting out a bowl of ice next to the water bowl on the porch when it gets this hot. The calico won’t have anything to do with the ice, but when it’s halfway melted she’ll drink from that bowl first, then finish up with the regular water bowl. I’ve no idea what that thought process is.

There’s plenty of shade on my porch, under the trees and she rotates lounging spots. I keep inviting her inside but she won’t have it. So she stays out in the heat. I make sure she has plenty of water. It’s the best I can do.

I got the birdbath going again this morning. At some point I need to adjust its footing and make it level again. Right now I just have some wedges in place. I bought a twirling thing some years ago that keeps the water in it moving, supposedly to discourage mosquito egg laying. Customers usually come pretty quickly in this sort of heat. Mostly they drink, but every now and then I see someone taking a bath in it. The twirler takes up a bunch of space in the middle and I think that keeps most of the bathers out. But at least they get a drink.

I’ll put some water dishes out back, I just have to remember to take them back inside at night and run them through the dishwasher to rid any mosquito larva out of them.

I have a mosquito kill fogger I run every couple days to spray under the deck, a space that I can’t keep standing water out of. It discharges a very dense fog of mosquito kill and it’s very effective, but I have to warn my neighbors when I’m about to use it to keep their pets indoors for a while. They don’t seem to mind I think because it does very effectively keep the mosquitos away. But I can’t use it out front by the outdoor faucet because there are cats out and about there. There is a “natural” mosquito repellant spray I Can use however because it’s pet friendly. It definitely stinks of some spicy plant and after I use it the two street cats that hang out here turn up their noses and avoid the area. I can verify that it keeps the mosquitoes away too, but only for a couple days.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Dealing With A Heatwave And Mosquitoes

June 27th, 2022

Adventures In Home Ownership…(continued)

So it seems my central AC compressor has failed beyond repair now and it’s time for a new one. No worries about my situation…I have two window units I can depend on to keep the critical rooms in the house cool. I bought them years ago when the compressor was acting up (it just needed a new start relay then) on the grounds that I needed a plan B for the house in case of failure during a heat wave. So in that regard I’m good.

I was thinking since I’m on retirement income now that I’d have to wait a few years to save the money for a new compressor, and just rely on the window units, and maybe even make that a permanent solution since a window unit is much cheaper than a central air compressor, and a couple of those are unlikely to both fail at the same time. But I got a very nice quote on a new one that I can pay for out of pocket savings, so, if the quote is real, I’m going to go ahead with it.

Sales will be calling back, so I’m told, with either the proper company name on the caller ID, or “UNKNOWN”, which means I have to pause RoboKiller for the day. Swell. So now I also get to be bothered by a bunch of auto warranty foofs all day too. One just called now in fact.

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

November 3rd, 2021

Must Be November

Ummmm…sixty-three degrees in the living room this morning. Must finally be time to turn on the furnace. 

Ah…the smell of the first gas fired furnace heat of the season…

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on Must Be November

March 3rd, 2019

The Bidet…A Couple Weeks Later

So…the bidet… And if you think this is oversharing feel free to change the channel. But some people expressed interest in how well the thing actually works.

Just to recap, I bought one of those bidet toilet seat conversions when I saw a really nice one that Costco was selling for slightly better than half off. I’m assuming it’s an about to be discontinued model, because when I last checked they still have it listed on the manufacturer’s website.

It was a pretty simple and straightforward installation, but then I have a bunch of tools and a near lifetime of experience doing my own simple household repairs and improvements. Even growing up in a bunch of suburban garden apartments you found that fixing leaks yourself got the job done quicker than calling the landlord, plus it kept strangers out of your nest. The thing most people get wrong when replacing things like a toilet float, hoses and faucet washers is they over tighten the connections and then they leak. Hand tighten, and then just a tad more with the wrench will usually do it. (When changing an oil filter, Only hand tighten.) This time I had to go back and gently add some torque to a couple of the connections a day later when I noticed some minor drippage, but it was pretty simple otherwise. My bathroom had outlets nearby but I did have to run a power strip to the wall behind the toilet. The instructions said to use a surge protector.

Does it work? Well I can’t speak to how well it works on lady parts, but as to the part we all share…yes. Absolutely! Gets you spic and span. Much Much better and more hygienically than paper. But there are adjustments you need to tweak: water temperature, pressure, nozzle position and whether to turn on the aerator. The spray is timed for a minute and then automatically stops, or stops instantly if you get off the seat. Repeat as needed. My experience is adjusting the position of the nozzle back and forth while it’s working gives best results. I only use toilet paper now to dry myself and that’s cut down my use of it considerably, and counter intuitively it’s also cut down water consumption. That’s from flushing the paper down. Now I flush less often, so that’s less water down the drain. There’s an air dry function that’s timed for three minutes but I have no patience.

There’s a seat warmer which is nice, and is adjustable. There’s a fan that turns on and pulls air out of the bowl while you’re sitting on it, and out through a carbon filter to keep the bathroom stink free. It shines a soft blue light into the bowl which is nice for when your bladder insists in the middle of the night. I give it a thumbs up. Money well spent.

Except… Due to being needed at Goddard first thing Friday morning I rented a room in Greenbelt Thursday night. Shortly after I got there I realized that when I travel from now on I’m going to miss having that bidet whenever wherever I need to hit the john. All technology is a two edged sword.

by Bruce | Link | Comments Off on The Bidet…A Couple Weeks Later

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…

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)

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