How to Have a House

Living with and understanding a home.


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Doing Your Own Plumbing? Skip the Fire.

Do your own plumbing, just don’t do it like this.
 
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Sweating copper is crazy. Not just because it takes so much fire but because it’s a practiced art.  It’s like making beer, playing the guitar or throwing a frisbee into the wind.  It’s not something you do well the first time you try, and it sure helps to have some guidance from someone who knows what they’re doing.  That’s why I don’t sweat copper, or, make my own beer.  Professional plumbers do it all the time.  Sweat copper that is.  They know how to get enough water out of a wet copper pipe to get the job done.  They know how to cut, ream, scuff, flux, assemble and finally solder a joint with a water tight seal the first time.  They know when and how to take things apart so they don’t melt the parts inside when they heat things up to sweat solder.  They know these things because they’ve done it a thousand times.  They probably also worked for someone who got them off to a good start when they were new at it.  If you want to be a professional plumber, go for it.  If you’re adding a bathroom to the basement or replacing a bath faucet in the house you may not have years of time to gain the needed experience.  Here are some ideas for getting it done without all the fire.
 
If your house is old enough to still have galvanized supply lines, skip this step and go on to the “re-plumb your whole house” section.  If your house has that grey poly-butyl from the 1980’s do the same.  Most likely your house has copper plumbing or PEX plumbing, depending on the age of the house.  While copper has been the standard for decades, PEX is filling the market now.  If your house is full of copper, fine.  Don’t worry. For the most part it’s long lasting and doesn’t have too many issues.  Now say you’re doing a project on your own.  Skip the torch.  It’s a headache and a fire hazard.  Learn to use Sharkbite fittings and PEX materials.  Sharkbite fittings slide onto copper and PEX with no glue, crimping or solder.  They work great and can be taken apart easily for adjustment with a simple tool.  They also are pretty expensive.  I use a couple Sharkbites to attach to the hot and cold copper then I run PEX from there.  PEX is a flexible polycarbonate material that bends, resists splitting when frozen and pulls through house almost like wiring.  It comes with all kinds of elbows, couples, t’s, shutoffs and other fitting to do almost any plumbing job.  The tubing is cut with a pair of plumbing shears or even pruning shears.  The kicker is the crimping tools. They’re expensive.  I’ve got a pair of 1/2″ and 3/4″ but even used they were a little pricey.  I tried the cheap ones you squeeze with pliers in the plumbing department at the store.  They didn’t work so great.  That’s why I bought the real ones. Luckily the crimp tools can be rented at most home improvement stores or a rental store. You can also rent a “band cutter” to remove bands when you change your mind.  It’s worth it, those bands are hard to remove any other way.  PEX handles so nicely the job goes pretty fast.  The stuff is so forgiving to work with your anxiety level and frustration will be almost null.  It’s almost fool proof.  I’ve had only one band leak during ten years of installing the stuff.  
 
When I remodeled our own bathroom several years ago I used PEX.  We have a pretty small bathroom but still managed to stuff a standing shower with a sitting bench, and a soaker tub back to back in the little bathroom along one wall. In the shower we have three shower heads, a shower faucet with diverter, a steam controller and steam inlet.  I installed the steam generator inside the bench. In the same dividing wall facing the tub we have a faucet, tub spout and spray wand.  Because we built a glass panel into this dividing wall there’s a lot of plumbing packed into a tight space. It’s all PEX.  In fact so much of it the project looked like a schematic when the plumbing was done.  The wall was so full of plumbing and so slender I had to build it with plywood, cabinet style to fit it all in.  I even placed one of the shower heads in the wall of the shower that houses a pocket door.  Don’t ask.  I don’t think copper would have even worked.  First of all the PEX flexes, that allowed the lines to move past one another in less that perfectly straight lines.  Second, I would have burned the wall to the ground and the house along with it trying to sweat all those joints.  PEX made the project possible.  
 
Check out your favorite home improvement store.  Get familiar with the PEX materials.  You’ll be surprised at the simplicity and effectiveness of the PEX products.  You’ll feel empowered to take on that next project without the frustration of sweating copper with fire.  You’ll be glad. 
 
Still don’t think you want to mess with plumbing, that’s fine.  Call your favorite local plumber.  Chances are they’ll sweat a fitting onto your copper lines.  It’ll be watertight the first go-round.  They might use a Sharkbite instead.  But most likely the next thing they’ll pick up is their PEX tools.  It’s just that easy.


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Water and Martinis.

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I don’t make New Year’s resolutions.  Usually by midnight on New Year’s Eve I’m not really in any position to make decisions that are supposed to last for the next 12 months.  If I am still awake at midnight I’m probably out on the patio having martinis with all my cigarette smoking friends who are about to resolve to quit smoking.  I resolve not to resolve.  A lot of New Year’s resolutions are focused on better health, like quitting smoking, starting to work out or maybe eat more healthy food.  No one resolves to drink better water, that’s too simple.  It crosses my mind because with two or three stiff martinis in my gut I’m thinking a glass of water and some fresh air sound great.  Water.  Outside of oxygen in the air it’s the most important thing we consume.  So important in fact, bottled water has become one of the biggest industries in America.  Think about the water in your house.  Depending on the region you live in, the type of water service you have and the plumbing in your home the water coming from your kitchen faucet probably tastes quite different than water at a friend’s house several hundred miles away.  It seems like that should not be the case, it’s all water, right? The water at my brother’s house in Moore Oklahoma tastes completely different than water here in Kansas.  When I went to Boulder Colorado a couple weeks ago the water tasted terrible to me.  To people living in Boulder it tastes fine.  For the most part if you live in the city or suburbs the water comes from a treatment plant where it is filtered and processed to make it “pure”.  Chemicals are added to it to provide “benefit” to the consumer.  Chlorine is popular. I don’t think chlorine should be in drinking water but who am I to say. I know it keeps swimming pools clean! If you live in a rural area you may get your water from a well.  In the past this was considered to be quite pure, although sometimes it may have been a little cloudy or smell like sulfur.  Regional legend tells us these hometown characteristics in water have certain benefits over other water.  The water treatment plants like to mail a letter to their customers every year explaining the pureness of the water leaving the plant.  This sounds great but I’ve always wondered about the 7 miles of plumbing the water travels through to get to our house. Some of that plumbing is pretty old, some of it travels through ground saturated by old industry, other bodies of underground water and other un-imaginable underground goodies.  Water, like air, is susceptible to the environment around it.  Air gets cloudy, and, it’s odor is effected by pollution and air borne contaminates.  It smells different and may even be hard to take in. Water is the same.

Treating the water in your own home is the key.  We have an under sink, carbon block filter with an ultra violet light.  This filter is about the size of a big tea pitcher and is plumbed to the cold water. It has a dedicated faucet in the countertop.  This is a mid range water treatment.  There are smaller, simpler filters that attach to the end of the faucet, and there are whole house treatment systems installed in the basement or garage.  I like the filter under the sink.  When I install a new filter cartridge every 1500 liters the filter is pure white on the outside.  When I take it out to replace it the filter is rust orange, really rusty orange. So rusty orange I can’t imagine what my kidneys would look like if I were drinking this “pure” water.  The carbon block is treated to remove chlorine and a host of other chemicals and flavors.  The ultra violet light kills bacteria.  I have to admit, even here in the same city water at other houses and public buildings has a very strong taste compared to the filtered water in our kitchen.  And, I can’t get over the color of that filter when I replace it.  The cost of using this filter is comparable to bottled water, actually much less, and does not include hauling it home in the car, storing it and then recycling dozens of bottles a month.  Our coffee tastes better and if we need a pot of water for pasta or cooking we have it, filtered and lacking “regional character”.  Some of my customers have so much sand in their water that their faucet aerators are always plugging up.  Don’t try to clean these things out, it’s a pain. Just replace them. Low flow shower heads plug too. In these house I install a whole house filter.  It has a timer on it to remind the customer to replace the cartridge every 90 days.

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Different cartridges are available to simply filter particulates and/or remove chlorine and odors.  Some house have very elaborate filter systems that are more costly and do a more thorough job of treating the water.  Water softeners are very popular and make showering luxurious compared to hard water.  Water softeners do require the homeowner to haul and manage bags of salt or to pay a service to do so.  If you resolved to improve your health this year include better water.  Give the bottled water program the boot.  Buy a few good dishwasher safe sports bottles and spend your money on a good water filter system for your home.  Make a habit of drinking water you know is pure and clean. Like fresh air and exercise, pure water is a key component to your resolution to better health.  Because it’s plumbed in, you’ll use it every day. Resolution or not it will be a lasting, valuable choice.

Oh, did I mention, crystal clear, pure ice cubes just happen to make the best martinis. Cheers!


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Crush It For Scrap.

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Old stuff is funny. Old houses are no exception.  I’ve had two old houses in my life.  A two story built in the early 1900s that my wife and I worked our cans off on and raised our kids in for 11 years.  When we moved to Kansas in 2005 we bought a 1952 house.  It seemed pretty new compared to the two story, but really, 1952 is pretty old too, especially if you consider some of the construction features in it.  I just love old houses.  I refer to people who have old houses at “house people”. They have to be.  It’s hard to go to the lumber yard and buy trim for these things, impossible sometimes.  Yet these “house people” are committed to these old things.  Old houses come with things that are hard to deal with.  You can’t even drive a nail to hang a picture without blistering the plaster.  The locksets are nothing like todays locksets, they’re full of springs and levers and are installed in a mortised rectangular shaped hole.  The wiring is basically dangerous if it hasn’t been updated and the plumbing, if original, is a ticking time bomb waiting to fail.  I’ve seen boiler expansion tanks on the top floor of old houses as big as a 40 gallon water heater.  How many people have any idea what that means?!  Yet us house people embrace these things and keep them alive.  If you gave me a ’57 Chevy I’d have it crushed for scrap.  I have no interest in an old car with a carburetor and made mostly of steel.   I realize that’s practically unpatriotic to some people but I prefer cars that start and run without a second thought. I want air bags and heated seats. I relish crash protection and premium factory sound systems that play cds and iPods so loud and clear my ears bleed. I like turbo chargers and a gas pedal that’s connected to a circuit board instead of a throttle cable.  This dichotomy serves me and my customers well.  For instance, I admire the look of rough hardwood floors.  When I visit Jackson Hole Wyoming or some other favorite place out west I admire the big lodges and hotels that are  a hundred years old and have had little more that varnish applied to the floors.  You can see where thousands of travelers have walked up a flight of wooden stairs to the point they are curved.  It’s pretty obvious gunfights, spurs, moose and cowboys have had some time on these floors.  Then some guy comes along every spring and puts the 90th coat of varnish on the floor, right over the scuffs and blemishes.  When a customer asks me about refinishing floors in an antique house I just shrug.  I stand there imagining all the families, pets and parties that have beat that floor to smithereens.  I like the old floors.  But show me an old boiler in the basement and I can’t wait to see that thing torn out, and, crushed for scrap.  I want to see a modern boiler, 92.2% efficient with an expansion tank the size of a thermos.  I want to see the gas savings and the super efficient heating take place. I can’t wait to hear the soothing click of an electronic ignition lighting a fraction of the fuel the old boiler used.  Then to top it off a tiny pump moving the hot water immediately to the upper part of the house to warm up the radiators.  Same with wiring, tear it out!  Install a fresh breaker box and new wiring with safe, grounded outlets and switches.  And when the cast iron plumbing full of lead junctions starts to leak, that’s right, tear it out and crush it for scrap.  It’s that cool blend of old and new.  It’s the joy and passion of living in a building with character and history, equipped to move into the future, saving energy and providing comfort. When these old house are full of fresh technology, insulation and modern utilities they are easier to live in, they conserve natural resources and are very comfortable to be in.  Call it what you will, it’s what us “house people” do.