How to Have a House

Living with and understanding a home.


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Original Equipment is Best.

They say it’s the little things that count.  It’s cliche, but true.  A lot of customers I work for are pretty happy with the other companies they’ve hired, the price seems fair, the outcome of the project overall is satisfactory and all in all there are no complaints.  Then I get the list, a bunch of things to take care of around the house. Sticking doors, paint the inside of a closet, adjust a door knob or window, maybe the gutter downspout fell or replace a hard to reach light bulb.  Sometimes the list includes tuning up some other work that has been done.  This last one is always weird.  Guys like me refer to this as “batting clean up”.  Paying attention where someone else’s attention ran out.  We do our best.  It’s hard for us because we’re detail nuts.  Personally I’m not interested in being a perfectionist.  It’s fleeting at best and really, almost impossible.  I shoot for perfect and land somewhere near with really good results.  But details, I’m kooky for those.
Antique hardware is a favorite for me.  I’m a preservationist at heart, so tearing out old stuff and throwing it away bugs me.  I’ll take a 90 year old door and hardware with 8 coats of paint on it over a new one any day.  If it was built into the house when the house was new, I want to keep it there.  Antique lock sets seem to last forever.  They can usually be repaired and look great.  The hinges are rock solid and don’t’ wear out. New 3 1/2″ hinges with ball finials run around $15 or more. The old ones are heavier and fit the door they came off of perfectly.  The biggest complaint with old hardware is paint.  If the woodwork in the house has been painted, the hardware, especially the hinges have been painted right along with the wood.  Some dad with 9 kids and 50 hours of work a week painted these rooms.  No time to mask or cut in, just paint the thing.  Get to bed and work the next day.
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Cleaning this hardware is not so bad. I take everything apart, sorting it into separate containers to keep reassembly easy.  I soak the parts in lacquer thinner overnight or I brush on a coat of 15 minute paint stripper (citrus stripper works ok, but it’s slow).  I carefully scrape or brass wire brush the peeling paint off the hardware, keeping a shop vac going to collect the debris while I work.  Then comes the fun.  Steel hinges get the wire wheel treatment.  I use a fine wire wheel on my grinder motor to whisk the remaining paint away, then lay into the steel a little to clean the hinge up nicely.  The wire wheel gets into the seams, between the joints and cleans the inside curves of the ball finials.  After the hinge is cleaned up I spray a clear coat of lacquer to protect it.  I poke all the screws into a cardboard box and spray the heads. Polyurethane works too.  Window handles and some other hardware come in steel too, they get the same treatment.  Lock sets are usually brass and sometimes nickel silver.  These get the rouge and buffing wheel.  I use a motor with a cone adapter.  I start with a hard wheel and compound to knock the dark patina off.  At this point it will become obvious if the brass is solid or plating.  Plated brass will come off revealing a silver color below.  I ease into these pieces to preserve the brass coating.  Nickel silver and brass can be disfigured if a hard wheel is used too aggressively.  I keep the pieces moving.  After the patina has been knocked off I switch to a soft fluffy wheel with the same compound and give everything but the screws a final buff.  I don’t lacquer brass or nickel, I encourage the homeowner to use a brass cleaner a couple times a year.  It looks better.  Plus, patina comes on slower than one thinks it might.
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After all the clean up and polishing is done I re-install the hardware onto the door or window.  Everything goes back together, original shape and size, same screw holes and most of all original equipment in a beautiful house.  Ready for another 90 years of service.  This give me great satisfaction.  One less door and hardware in the landfill.  An old house with it’s character, strength and beauty preserved. And best of all a homeowner who is amazed at the lovely home revealed from under years of paint.  Hidden beauty unexpectedly brought back to life and exposed for generations to come.  It’s the best.
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Sometimes I think I’m crazy for this work.  It seems old fashioned in a world of speedy installers.  I’m guessing this kind of work is done less than not.  Actually, now that I think of it, that’s what makes it so special…I’ll stick with crazy.
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House painting and lead based paint, it’s good to know what you’re getting into.

It’s that time of year.  Exterior house painting.  Professional house painters, and I mean the exterior painters, have come out of hibernation.  You see them in your neighborhood.  Squinty eyed at the bright sun and pale from winter’s cloak.  Like roofers, concrete flat work installers and ants these tradesmen work like mad in the warm weather, save for winter and lay low when the temperatures drop.  Some of them have plenty of winter work but for the most part they are hungry and aggressive when the spring thaw comes.  Like the rest of us craftsmen they mean business after a long winter of rich food, holiday parties and winter expenses.

But first things first when it comes to lead paint. Indoors or out lead is no laughing matter.  The federal government passed strict laws about lead paint around 2008.  Simply put they laid down the law concerning dust and lead paint management.  A lot of painters and craftsman raised a stink! Ticked off at another government regulation in a seemingly simple occupation.  I’ll get some flack for this but I believe the painting and remodeling industry brought this upon themselves.  While the effects of lead on home dwellers, especially children, was being confirmed more dramatically  than ever, painters and remodelers pushed the envelope of messy, careless and filthy work practices. I’ve been amazed over the years to walk into a house and see basically little or no barriers between a renovation job area and the living space of the home.  For some reason a lot of workers think that just because there is going to be some dust, there may as well be a lot.  Do that now in a home with lead based paint and get caught by the EPA and the fines can be steep.  It’s a hard law to enforce for indoor painting but the exterior painters are getting with the program.  It’s way harder to hide a paint job outdoors.

Basically EPA compliant painters and remodelers attend a one day class outlining the EPA standards of lead dust containment and signage.  They are required to use an EPA approved HEPA vac and they spend a lot of time putting up a lot of plastic walls and floors.  It’s a commitment and costs some money.  For me it cost about $1400 to take the class, buy the vacuum and improve some tools.  Honestly, outside of the cost I’m glad for the regulation.  I was tired of working hard to set up my job sights for clean work when a lot of other remodelers were laughing all the way to the bank through dust laden smiles.  I was tired of watching customers dumbfounded by the seemingly non-existent attention to clean work.  I watched a company ruin so much of one of my customers personal belongings during a job in her basement I helped her fire the company while I stood by her side.  While the workers were packing their tools out of the house I reminded them they would be mad too if they had come home to that much dust and dirt on their Harley, gun collection or ’68 Chevy. Good riddance.

If you’re hiring an exterior painting company this summer to paint your house ask them if they are EPA compliant and if they implement the process. This will be a simple test to see how professional the company is and how long they plan to stay in business.  If they practice EPA lead compliancy, chances are you’ll get a really clean paint job inside or out.  This goes for your next remodeling job too. It’s the painter’s responsibility to test your home for lead, however, you can test your house for lead before you hire.  EPA approved lead test swabs are available at most home improvement stores.  Lightly sand your walls and trim all the way through in a small spot.  Wear a dust mask and keep the kids away.  Test the paint.  If the swab turns pink, it’s lead.  You can visit the EPA web sight and learn what precautions and measure are required to reduce lead dust. 4 mil plastic, duct tape, zipper doors, sealed HVAC registers, tack mats, sealed doors and windows, jump suits, gloves and respirators. Oh, and lots of signage.  It’s a considerable task.  Those of us in the business estimate a 10-20% increase in the cost of the job if lead is present.

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Even if your painting your house yourself, know the lead status of your home.  By all means this is not a shortcut to take just because your doing the work.  Your lungs, blood stream and bones will be glad you did the right thing.

 


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Homeowners do the craziest things.  I’m always amazed at what people show me they have done.  The work is usually excellent and well researched. Homeowners will go online and look up materials and how they are applied, they’ll hop on YouTube and find a how to video for whatever job they’ve chosen.  They buy or rent tools and do the job.  I’m glad to be working for these homeowners.  Usually a couple days into a job with them and the real stories come out about the “did-it-themselves” job.  The fiberglass shower unit torn of the top of the car pulling into the garage, dogs and cats tracking paint, kids wrecking the place!  If there’s more than one person living in the house it’s hard to get stuff done.  For the homeowner these jobs give them a sense of perspective.  Scale. And effort.  Homeowners find some of these jobs overwhelming, and end up a hassle to finish or never finished at all.  Other jobs or improvements go without a hitch.  Through experience the homeowner finds their level of interest and ability.
I know this about customers because I pay attention. Mostly.  I know I lack attentiveness in certain ways, I’m lucky enough to have customers and friends who tell me this.  But the rest of the time I’m soaking it up.  It’s why I’ve done this job so long without getting bored or promoted.  Seems crazy but the people living in the house are just as interesting to me as the house itself.  I’ve heard a lot of stories about nearly everything imaginable from homeowners.  I weigh these shared moments with the job I’m doing and the house I’m in.  I go through the days and weeks learning the real purpose of the house in these peoples lives.  All along sanding and painting, rebuilding an old window, serving, maintaining and repairing
As special as this all sounds I’m just one of many workers sharing moments with customers in America.  I’ve worked for a woman for 8 years who still tells me about Old Jerimiah and all the coffee that guy could drink.  I’ve got customers who take service workers fishing, loan them money for furnace repairs or give them cars they’ve quit using.  Customers have paid for stolen tools, helped out with truck repairs and have been forgiving when appointments are missed or schedules fall apart.   Lots of my customers can tell about the guy before me with fondness.  Some of the guys and gals before me have gone on to other work, moved, gotten a “W-2” job, died or just disappeared.
 I’m the next guy.  I drink coffee like an addict when it’s offered, I don’t borrow money, I don’t need a car and I miss appointments sometimes and have lost track of weeks of work on my customer calendar a couple of times.  I shoot good trim, can make plaster repairs invisible and am willing to do almost any work. I’ve got bills to  pay.  Some times I imagine what the next guy after me will hear about “Jonas”.  What will my customers be telling them over coffee and toast?  What will I have gone onto that I’m no longer working on that home?  I guess that’s for the next guy to find out.  I’m guessing it will be way more fun than dying or getting a W-2 job.


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Old town. Old houses. Curious.

It’s not just houses.  We visited and antique town north of where we live last weekend.  A majority of the houses were antique and the whole original downtown was really antique.  What’s that hook?  How does something so old catch and hold our attention. These building were built before the American Civil War. They were stacked in tight, some up to two and a half stories. It seemed like everyone was sort of letting the exterior trim weather and peel.  The window frames, front store trim and thresholds were sort of worn and rough.   All along flower boxes were planted fresh, several buildings housed residents on the second floors and the stores were interesting and varied.
These building still sported tin ceilings with 8-12 inch crown.  Lots of downspouts still had cast iron finals square bolted to the sides of buildings.  A lot of the thresholds were cast iron or really worn cut stone.  A staircase in the back of one building was built in the late 1800s, it was steep and pretty.  All the same elements found in an antique house were found in these downtown, retail and residential places.  Rugged wood floors, tall base, maybe two piece with plinth blocks and big casing.  A lot of doorways were still trimmed out with the original transom windows.  Tin ceilings were two to three times the scale you’d find in old homes, it was also 11 or 12 feet high.  Being behind the buildings in these towns is just as fun.  The second floor residents had gardens, laundry, decks and all kinds of living going on behind their stores.  It was pretty lively, it felt urban.
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My favorite building was the tobacco sale barn.  It was a steel girder building with corrugated sheet metal siding and roof.  It was basically a time capsule.  Who can say no to that.  Tons of tobacco have been delivered and sold through the building to the extent it smelled like it would never not smell like tobacco again.  It was recognized for its long standing tradition of jobs, trade and community.  A product of vice in a mid-west culture.   A mile north of town is a distillery making whiskey and bourbon.  This town is funny.  This weekend while were in town an auction was going on in the selling floor of the tobacco barn. We hung around and then went down to the storage and distribution level.  A basement, but built to breath and act in the good of tobacco storage.  A cigar humidor  room with cigars for sale was next to a boutique.  Next to the cigar humidor were a group of men hand rolling cigars, chatting and smoking.  We hung out, learned more about the barn and about cigars.  I don’t smoke cigars but we bought one  for a friend.  If not for the vehicles outside on the gravel, the whole store, the men sitting in it and room could have been right out of the 19th century.
Like old houses old buildings are reassuring.  They’re proof we did good and amazing things quite some time ago, and at the same time reminders of how far we have come with planning, construction and lifestyle.  Old houses and buildings are history we can live and work in.  They creak and bang and have patterns of imperfection, standing through decades of utility upgrades and maintenance.  Ultimately taking on generations of curious occupants and visitors, old places serve in untimely fashion.

 


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Getting old sucks. Or does it?

How to Have a House

Went to an appointment today to visit a couple who have been regular customers for about 8 years.  We realized this when we reflected on the fact that the second time I worked on the house Bob told me he just turned 80.  That first couple years Fran would blow the car horn at me when she was trying to get out of the garage, she had no time for me or my “costly” maintenance on the house.  Bob’s an old Marine who was in banking for years and clearly managed his money well.  Eight years ago he was just thinking of selling his 40 foot power boat he kept on the Great Lakes. Bob’s always hangs  out at the back of the truck and chats it up while I drag ladders and tools in and out. I learn a lot about customers at the back of the truck.  Bob…

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It’s hard to let go of the past, even when it’s holding things together.

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I put a garage door up several weeks ago.  The garage I was working on was a little one car garage with an overhead door on the front and nothing more. No windows, no passage door.  The old door on the garage was running fine, but the panels were coming apart and it became futile to paint the door again.  My customer picked out another wooden door, with windows, similar to the one we were replacing but with fresh track and a torsion spring instead of stretch springs.  I was glad about that, stretch springs make me crazy.  I installed the door on a pretty cold day, but it was not snowing and garage doors are cold weather friendly work. I spread out the parts, sorted the hardware and assembled the panels for stacking.  I cut a zany scribe strip across the threshold area, the garage had been moved at least twice and the floor was a pattern of triangles and humps of concrete.  The bottom panel work was tricky but par for the course in an old garage. The garage had a little lean to it, the customer understood the new door would show the slight lack of plumb when installed, she was fine, she’s an old house kind of person.  She likes things done really nicely, does not seek perfection, and, embraces character.  Lucky for me and the garage. 
 
Then came the funny part.  Square head nuts, bolts and lag bolts.  All over the old garage door and track.  This door’s been around a while.  Taking most doors down is pretty quick.  I utilize a good electric impact gun and a sawzall.  Taking the nuts and bolts out in the correct order using the electric impact gun and the door practically falls into a pile ready for disposal.  If it’s a 16′ wide door, the sawzall comes out.  Since quite a few of us don’t have impact socket sets for square head nuts and bolts the process changes pace.  Vice grips replace sockets and it takes a little more focus.  One at a time, hand work with no motor speed.  
 
The old garage door came down, comically slow compared to other things going on.  Sort lumber from steel for disposal and recycle. The new door stacked right into the opening on it’s fresh bottom panel scribe.  I wound the torsion spring carefully, and attached the overhead operator.  Smooth quiet and solid sounding.  
 
I went back this week since the weather warmed and oil primed and painted the wooden door.  It got even quieter with three coats of paint and some caulk.  I also installed a wireless keypad for the customer.  It’s a great door, all wood, matches the old one so even the Landmarks Commission is happy.  Easy sneezy, out of sight out of mind. 
 
Not really.  Those square head bolts make me think.  They resist today’s tools, they shrug away speed with their simplicity.  They command consideration.  They won’t come out of that lumber without a reminder of days gone by, tools no longer sold except in antique shops and specialty catalogues. I’ve always had a hard time throwing those square bolts in the scrap.  I’m already seeing fasteners used that are barely recognizable to what I’m used to, things change.  It’s a gift to watch the past slip through my hands into history while I build today’s evidence to be considered by future workers.  This job really never gets old.  

 


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Spring will be here soon. Paint your house!

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A lot of people are thinking about painting the exterior of their houses.  It’s that time of the year.  Winter is the kind of thing that drives people so crazy they actually think it would be fun to be outdoors, in the warm weather, in the sunshine-painting their house.  I feel the same way.  Until I move to the Florida Keys I’ll be doing something ridiculous outside every spring.  Since I already painted my house several years ago I rototill my garden.  
 
Painting the exterior of your own house is practically Americana.  In my view, not enough people do this themselves.  It’s hard work. It takes a lot of climbing if the house is taller than one story.  Sometimes there are wood repairs needed.  Wasp nests, spiders and all other sort of vermin show up too.  Preparing the house takes a lot of work especially if it is old.  I could talk almost anyone out of painting their own house-but that’s not what I’m here for.
 
If you’re going to paint your own house this year, get started now.  Go to the paint store. Get your colors figured out. I recommend buying a color wheel from an art store, put it to work, it will get you in the ball park color wise.  Check with your city and neighborhood association for color definitions, outside of that, have fun.  Pick colors YOU like.  Look up houses similar to yours and see what other people are doing with them.  There’s about 6 million other colors than beige.  I’ve advised customers a hundred times, unless you’re  moving out in the next 3 to 5 years, paint the house the colors you like. Don’t worry about the marketplace.   Walk around the outside of your house, look for obvious signs of needed wood repairs, poke wood trim with a wooden pencil, if the trim is soft is needs to be replaced.  If you have the interest and tools you can do a lot of this. If not, get a carpenter lined up now, they’ll be getting busy when the weather warms up. Look for bird nests on gutter downspouts, eaves and in the attic vents. If you have bird nests clean them out and make arrangements for the birds to stay away while the house is being painted. No one likes evicting baby birds come spring. I’ve turned down work because birds were already raising chicks.  
 
Once your ready to get started the first thing to do is test your house for lead paint.  If it is older than 1970 or so, there is a chance it has lead paint.  If it is older than 1940 it will be surprising if it does not have lead paint.  Whether you paint the house or have it painted you need to know the lead status.  Lead is poison.  You’ll want to go to the EPA web sight and get informed on lead precautions.  If you hire a painter they are required by law to operate a paint job in compliance with EPA lead standards. Do not blow this off. You, your yard, the dogs and the landscape will not benefit from a load of lead paint chips and dust being spread all over the place.  
 
When you’re ready to paint your house go to Youtube and look up house preparation and painting videos.  As I’ve said before, there’s a lot of ways to skin a cat, pick the method that makes sense to you.  Which ever method you choose the basic principles go like this.  Prepare the landscape and surround for lead if it is present.  Make sure you pets, kids and the neighbors pets and kids are kept away while the job is going on. Kids and pets have a habit of spilling paint then tracking it all over the place.  Get the house clean, scrub it using house wash, or use a light duty power washer. DO NOT over-power wash your house.  Just get it clean. Do not strip paint with a power washer unless your house is concrete or stucco.  Power washers ruin wood if over-used.  Once the house is clean sand the open wood and feather the edges of the remaining paint.  If you really want an amazing finish you can heat strip or chemical strip the paint.  Once you’ve got things cleaned and sanded, oil prime the open wood and add two coats of premium color coat.  Remember house paint is like haircuts and tires. You get what you pay for.  Cheap house paint fades quickly, and comes off too soon.  Buy good house paint.  I am not a fan of the self priming, “one coat” products. While they are popular with spray applications I prefer a two coat roller and brush application.  I believe the paint is worked into the trim and siding better.   
 
While you’re doing this work make sure you use personal safety protection.  Eye protection is a must with a power washers, sanders and frankly, a can of paint.  Always wear a good dust mask or respirator when sanding. And, if you have lead paint, follow the EPA guidelines.  This is no joke. You don’t want to come in the house covered in lead dust and handle food or your kids.  Keep things clean and tidy. Brushes last longer and provide better results when cared for.  Paint chips will stick to concrete like tape and be impossible to remove if walked on.  Keep a good shop vac going and clean, clean, clean as you go. 
 
Take your time.  When we painted our house we worked on the weekends.  We started in the fall and finished the next spring.  We painted all the sashes and sash edges.  We have a premium paint job that will last for years.  When we painted one of my teenage kids turned out to be a natural.  He painted a lot of the house and seemed right at home on a small scaffold listening to his iPod and working away.  He was proud of his work and told his friends about the job. I’m amazed sometimes at what teenagers show up and do. My son still talks about “painting the house with dad”. Funny enough I’ll never forget roofing my dad’s house with him one summer.  Americana. 
 
If you decide to hire a painter get references.  Go see your friend’s houses who love their painters.  Look closely.  If the house was sprayed check things like the chimney and other non painted surfaces.  Look for over spray and sloppy cut in lines, you don’t want this on your house.  You want the outside of your house painted nicely just like the inside.  
 
If you have the interest, paint your house this year.  Most do-it-yourself projects are done with excellent results.  An exterior house paint job that is done carefully and with good materials will last years and provide a sense of pride.  Spring is on it’s way. Do this! 


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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.