Category Archives: House repair

Paving the way

When we go house hunting my ever-loving wife, “Daisy” (not her real name) and I draw up a list of requirements for the new house. We divide these requirements into two categories: 1) Desired and 2) Non-negotiables. The list of non-negotiables for our last house was short and realistic:

  1. Not next to an apartment building
  2. Not near a train
  3. Garage and driveway.

I found the perfect house. Unfortunately it was right next to an apartment building, the train ran behind the backyard, and it didn’t have a garage or driveway. By some miracle I convinced (a very skeptical) Daisy we should buy it.

My ever-loving wife also wanted a screen porch but had to settle for an open deck. It finally occurred to me that we could turn the deck into a screen porch that would double as a carport and turn the brick sidewalk along the house into a driveway.

Daisy’s screen porch

The driveway needed to be “historically compatible” and permeable so that the rainwater would soak into the ground rather than run off and flood our neighborhood. I chose 3 ½” thick, colored pavers from Lowcountry Paver set about ½” apart. Laying the pavers is the easy part. The hard part is giving them a strong foundation, which means digging down through the clay using shovels and pick axes like the inmates at the beginning of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Continue reading Paving the way

Sagging ceiling beam (me up, Scotty)


Check out the antenna! He must be rich!

A few decades ago the car phone was invented and the car phone antenna held by a magnet to the hood quickly became a status symbol. Not everyone could afford these expensive new phones–but many people wanted to give the impression they could. Some smart entrepreneurs took advantage of the situation and invented the Car Phoney, which was a dummy antenna with a wire that lead nowhere. For a few bucks you could slap an antenna on the hood and draw envious glances from the Joneses.

A decade or so before that it was all the rage to have exposed ceiling beams in the living room. The beams were typically dark-colored against a white ceiling. Real ceiling beams rested on top of the outer walls and held up the rafters of the second floor when there weren’t dividing walls to support the weight.

Fake ceiling beams

Again, many people wanted the look–even though the house didn’t need the support. So builders built these long beam-shaped boxes and attached them to the ceiling so that it looked like you had big rugged beams. The key phrase here is “attached them to the ceiling,” which means they were suspended from the ceiling rather than holding it up.

My parents’ living room ceiling had a pair of these pseudo-beams. They (the beams, not my parents) were clad in that rough sawn wood that was popular back in the 70s.

Picture what is going on. You’ve got two heavy beams, whose ends are not supported, hanging from a bunch of heavy rafters. Take a wild guess what is going to happen.

It did.

Old heavy things sag. That is just the way it is. For confirmation we need look no farther than my ever-loving wife, “Maggie” (not her real name), of 40-ish years. By that I mean of course that the bed and couch and stuffed chairs we got when we were first married have all started sagging over time. Age and gravity conspire to bring everything down–like the ceiling beams in my parents’ old house.

Fortunately only one end of the beams separated from the ceiling joists they were nailed to. There was a 2″ gap between the ends of the beams and the ceiling.

Landscape timber and a hydraulic jack pushing the ceiling beam back up.
Landscape timber and a hydraulic jack pushing the ceiling beam back up.

I put a landscape timber between a hydraulic jack and a wood plate at the end of the beam and started pumping. The ceiling creaked and groaned as it went up but it didn’t crack. After propping that beam up with another landscape timber I jacked up the other beam.

My first attempt to fix the problem was to go in the attic above the ceiling and mount some large angle brackets to the end joist (or so I thought) and some framing around the fireplace. When I released the jack, the beams sank right back down. Apparently the joist I needed to support was the next one over and there was nothing to attach the angle bracket to on that one. Strike one.

For the second try I bought some sturdy-looking metal bookshelf brackets. After jacking up the beams again I drilled some holes into the brick of the fireplace and screwed the brackets into the brick. This time when I released the jacks, the beams … wait for it … sank down again. The very attractive rough sawn boards cladding the pseudo beam weren’t attached to anything solid and the shelf brackets pushed up the middle of the board when the weight of the ceiling pushed the pseudo beam down. Strike two.

I clearly needed a support as wide as the pseudo beam (unlike the narrow shelf bracket) so that it could distribute the weight evenly. The local Big Box store had some pre-cut pieces of oak called “plinth blocks.” They are used to join two large pieces of molding without miter joints.

Rosette clamped to plinth block for marking and drilling
Rosette clamped to plinth block for marking and drilling

For my third (and as it turned out final) attempt I bought a couple of plinth blocks I could screw to the brick wall that would hold up the beams.  Since I didn’t want the screws to show, I also bought a pair of rosettes to cover them. Before drilling, I positioned the rosette on the block and marked three holes it would cover up. I used flat-head screws and countersunk the holes so that the rosette would fit tight to the block.

Three screw holes drilled and drilling a nail hole at an angle to hang the rosette
Three screw holes drilled and drilling a nail hole at an angle to hang the rosette

To hide the fastener that would hold the rosette to the plinth block I drilled a hole for a small finish nail from the back of the block and halfway into the rosette. This would allow the rosette to hang on the (invisible) nail after the block was screwed to the wall.

After jacking up the beams yet again, I marked the holes for each plinth block on the brick and used a masonry bit to drill holes in the brick for the plastic screw anchors.

Inserting plastic anchors in the brick for the screws
Inserting plastic anchors in the brick for the screws

With the nail pushed through the back of the block so that the point stuck out about 1/2″ I screwed the block to the wall.

Block mounted to brick wall. Notice the nail point sticking out under the top screw.
Block mounted to brick wall. Notice the nail point sticking out under the top screw.

Mounting the rosette was simply a matter of aligning the nail hole on its back with the point sticking out of the block. I considered using some double-sided tape to hold the rosette to the block or to keep it centered but it wasn’t needed in this case.

I might or might not admit to holding my breath as I released the jack to lower the beam onto the block to see if it would hold. But it did. And I exhaled.

Finished plinth block and rosette supporting the ceiling beam
Finished plinth block and rosette supporting the ceiling beam

Some dark stain on the new wood made it all blend together with the other wood in the room. The blocks are both functional and aesthetic. The Joneses are going to have a hard time keeping up. But it won’t be nearly as hard as the time I accidentally called my ever-loving wife “Saggie.” Trust me, you need more than a hydraulic jack to get up from the floor after a slip like that.



Straining to do the dishes (and the coffee)


My ever-loving wife, “Skippy” (not her real name), likes to move. Move, as in from one house to another and one state to another. She got this endearing quirk by growing up in a family that moved frequently. She claims it had nothing to do with running from the law or staying ahead of bill collectors and I believe her. Really.

So we move a lot. It’s in her blood.

One advantage of moving into new houses every few years is the appliances are always new. The A/C is new. The stove is new. The dishwasher is new. Everything works like new because it is new. I conveniently forget that things wear out–especially if you don’t perform regular (ugh) maintenance. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the easiest policy. (I know a guy whose motto is, “If it ain’t broke, keep fixing it until it is,” but I wouldn’t recommend that approach.)

We lived in one new house a couple of years too long. I learned the hard (expensive) way that you really are supposed to have the A/C serviced twice a year. The compressor burned out and we had to buy a whole new air conditioner. If we had just moved a year earlier ….

In our current house (of about 7 years) the dishes didn’t seem as clean as they could be. Right up front I want to say that it wasn’t Skippy’s fault. She did in fact put the dishes in the dishwasher (yes, with soap) and turn it on. But they came out a little hazy-looking.

Bosch dishwasher drain filter
Bosch dishwasher drain filter

So I pulled out the lower dish rack and cleaned out a few bits of food in the bottom of the dishwasher where the dirty water goes down the drain. Some dishwashers have a little plastic screen over the drain for trapping the gunk that you just pop out and rinse off in the sink. But this was a Bosch and it had a screw-in cylinder screen, which I had never seen before.

Drain filter removed
Drain filter removed

I took it out and looked at it closely and saw that a lot of the screen was plugged with a filmy layer. Continue reading Straining to do the dishes (and the coffee)

Watching Mr. Ed


Being a computer guy I try to keep up with modern gadgets but I had no experience with surveillance cameras–excluding appearing in any video footage submitted as evidence in any court case for an alleged crime. We had been having trouble with the toilet paper being switched around from unrolling off the front to unrolling off the back. Apparently someone was breaking in at night and switching it around. This was a perfect opportunity to try out a new surveillance camera by mounting it near the bathroom ceiling focused on the toilet paper and catch the culprit in the act. When I shared my brainstorm with my ever-loving wife, “Prissy” (not her real name), she was not as enthusiastic as I had hoped.

Fortunately, but sadly, another opportunity arose.

Our neighbors, Nick and Gilda, have a little horse farm and when Gilda found an oily substance in the water bucket and around a horse’s mouth and some horses in the adjacent farm died under suspicious circumstances they decided it would be a good idea to install a surveillance camera to keep an eye on the stalls and watch for any miscreants. I jumped at the opportunity.

IMG_20150117_120616988Since the horse farm was a few miles away from their house, they needed a camera they could view remotely over the web. I chose the Foscam FI9821W v2.1 for its reasonable price and combination of features. That has proven to be a nightmare. Continue reading Watching Mr. Ed

Royal (water heater) flush

SkillLevel1The hot water in the shower seemed to be kind of wimpy, which is to say that it wasn’t very hot. The temperature ranged all the way from lukewarm on the one extreme to tepid on the other. My ever-loving wife, “Paris” (not her real name), is not one to complain but she made it clear that it was not up to “Hilton” standards. I turned up the temperature dial on both water heaters from the “A” position to the “B” position and then  to the “C” position but it didn’t make much difference. Every once in awhile, the shower would put out a brief burst of water that was actually hot. This made me think there must be a blockage somewhere in the hot water pipes or the water heaters.

I did a little reading on the subject and apparently you are supposed to drain hot water heaters once a year to flush out the sediment and corrosion in the bottom of the tank. I calculated my water heater flush rate: number of years in house: 5; number of times flushed: 0.

I was a bit behind schedule. Continue reading Royal (water heater) flush

Overzealous kitchen faucet sprayer

SkillLevel2So I was down in the carport, which is under the house, minding my own business when I noticed water dripping on the sheets of MDF for my new workshop. I ran up stairs to the kitchen where my ever-loving wife, “Hazel” (not her real name), was cleaning up the dishes. “Something’s leaking!” I announced in my this-is-serious-but-do-not-be-excessively-alarmed voice. Hazel had been unaware of the problem because the sink and faucet looked fine but when I opened the door under the sink we were looking at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Old faucet
The old faucet doesn’t look so bad but …

After taking out the soggy contents of the sink cabinet and sopping up the water we figured out that the faucet leaked only when it was turned on and only under the sink. I pulled out the sprayer, which is on a flexible stainless steel hose, and made sure the hose was screwed on tightly to the sprayer because recently the faucet was leaking a little and that was the reason. When I turned on the faucet, it looked like the water was spraying out of the middle of the hose, which I have to admit I’ve never seen before.

I shut off the water supply, disconnected both ends of the hose, and then sawed off the connector on one end so I could pull out the rubber tubing inside.

Old leaky pullout hose with one connector cut off
Old leaky pull-out hose with one connector cut off

As you can see in the next photo, it had a good-sized hole in it. This faucet was about 9 years old and the hose saw relatively little use. (I am in no way saying Hazel doesn’t use the kitchen sink very often. She does the dishes and cleans up just as often as any other American housewife. She just doesn’t pull out the sprayer excessively when she uses the faucet. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)

Hole in faucet hose
Hole in faucet hose

Apparently these hoses fail pretty often because the Big Box stores carry replacement hoses that you can put in fairly easily. It wasn’t too hard to imagine some other part failing on that aging faucet in the near future so I bought a new faucet instead. Besides, I’ve never gotten in trouble for buying something new for my ever-loving wife’s kitchen.

Tools for installing a faucet. The faucet wrench is on the right with the red handle.
Tools for installing a faucet. The faucet wrench is on the right with the red handle.

Getting out the old faucet is not rocket surgery but it can be tricky because there is no room to work. To get the nut off that holds the faucet in place you really need a special faucet wrench, which is shown in the photo. You put the jaws around the nut and then twist the handle to unscrew it.

New faucet with top ring slid up over the tubes
New faucet with top ring slid up over the tubes. The plastic and metal washers and the big nut on the counter will be slid up from below after the faucet is inserted.

I gently pressed the tubes of the new faucet together so I could slide on the top ring and feed the tubes through the hole in the counter top. Then underneath the sink I slid the big washers and nut over the faucet tubes and tightened the nut to hold the faucet in place. This is where it would have been helpful to have an assistant to hold the faucet from above to keep it from turning as I tightened the big nut with the faucet wrench. Unfortunately, my ever-loving wife was unavailable at the time and I had to prairie dog it: go under the sink, tighten a little, come back out and turn the faucet straight, back down under the sink, tighten, …

Faucet connections. It's a bit crowded under there.
Faucet connections. It’s a bit crowded under there.

Hooking up the water supply tubes to the faucet tubes is not difficult–if the tubes are long enough. The tubes on the new faucet were shorter than the old faucet, which meant that the supply tubes didn’t reach. The tubes on the faucet are different lengths so that their connectors don’t hit when you feed them down the hole in the counter top. I took the longer supply tube and connected it to the longer faucet tube. Since I didn’t want to make another trip to Lowe’s right away, I “appropriated” a longer supply tube from another sink that we don’t use very often.

I have since read that it is a good idea to replace the supply tubes when you replace the faucet because they do wear out and leak. Get a handful of sizes of the braided tubes when you buy the faucet and then return the ones you don’t need. Saves trips to the store.

New faucet with soap dispenser
New faucet with soap dispenser

The old faucet used two holes in the counter top (one for the handle and one for the spout) but the new faucet uses only one. So instead of replacing the old soap dispenser with the new, I decided to install the new soap dispenser in the hole next to the faucet and leave the old one in the outside corner of the sink: one for dish soap and the other for hand soap.

Hazel is happy with the new faucet because it is stylish and easy to use. (Did I mention that she frequently washes dishes? Multiple times a week, I’d say.) I’m happy because my lumber isn’t sitting under Niagara Falls.


Whence come the roaches?

SkillLevel1Whenever we returned to the beach house after being gone for several days we would find a handful of mostly dead (in “The Princess Bride” sense) roaches scattered about. Where were they coming from? I caulked or foamed every crack I could find. Fortunately, my ever-loving wife, “Rochelle” (not her real name) was patient and cut me some slack because she knew I was really trying. (Not to be confused with the phrase, “He can be really trying,” which means something else entirely. I’m pretty sure I heard Rochie correctly but now I’m starting wonder if I was listening carefully.)

Plumbers and electricians like to drill holes. Lots of holes. The licensing test for plumbers has two questions:

  1. Can you glue PVC pipe?
  2. Can you drill a hole?

If yes, here is your license.

For electricians the questions are different:

  1. Can you strip Romex cable?
  2. Can you drill a hole?

Here’s your license.

Notice there isn’t a third question: Can you seal the hole? So although they are both good at drilling holes, the answer to that one is typically, “Not so much.”

Dryer vent in wall and floor needs to be sealed
Dryer vent in wall and floor needs to be sealed

In the pantry I found a dryer duct going into the floor that had enough space around it for a squirrel to get through along with a year’s supply of nuts so I foamed around that baby to slow down the varmint traffic. But still the roaches came.

I foamed the holes around the water pipes in the sink cabinets in the kitchen and all of the bathrooms. Still they came.

In the attic, I foamed the wiring holes that go into the tops of the walls. I caulked around the outside doors. It didn’t slow them down.

I pulled out the kitchen stove and foamed the openings in the floor underneath the stove. Same for the refrigerator. I squirted little puddles of roach bait poison in corners and by the doors. They are supposed to take the poison back to the nest so that the whole colony is wiped out. Maybe the roaches can’t read the instructions or they purposely flaunt them but that didn’t work either.

Major roach portal in cabinet floor
Major roach portal in cabinet floor

Then one day my ever-loving wife said she saw a roach on the countertop that scooted off and disappeared under the edge of the countertop. I looked up under there but couldn’t see where it had gone so I took out the top drawer to get a better look. (The drawer slides on each side have a little plastic lever that releases the drawer.) Nothing obvious so I figured it must have gone down behind the other drawers so I took them out too. Eureka! The answer was blindingly obvious.

The electrician had drilled a hole in the base of the cabinet to run a wire for the outlets. Oh, and I’m sure he sealed the hole. NOT! I was staring at a roach superhighway. The whole roach contingent could have crawled out of there side by side in parade formation. It was now clear that the little black dots in the drawers were roach rest areas when they needed to take a break from the highway.

Roach superhighway in cabinet bottom and through subfloor
Roach superhighway in cabinet bottom and through subfloor

Not only was there a hole in the bottom of the cabinet but there was another hole in the subfloor below it. Taking advantage of a more-or-less direct line to the roach hoard, I shot some poison down both holes.

Superhighway is now closed
Superhighway is now closed

Then I foamed the subfloor hole by sticking the Great Stuff gun down the cabinet hole. Did I mention it was a large hole? Then I foamed the hole in the cabinet bottom and replaced the drawers.

Result? No more roaches.

Sometimes I like to imagine the puzzled look on their stupid little faces when the survivors, if any, bump into all of that foam. What the …? It warms the cockles of my heart, if I have any, which I doubt because I tried to pay attention in school and I have no recollection of any mention of “cockles” when we were learning about hearts.


Central vac plan of attack


First let me say that my ever-loving wife, “Dusty” (not her real name), has many fine attributes and it would take quite some time to list them all. Vacuuming, however, might not appear on that list. On the friendship scale, Dusty and a vacuum cleaner would be labelled “acquaintances,” which is to say they’ve met but they don’t spend a lot of time together. When the twins were six months old, Dusty turned on the vacuum cleaner and the kids looked at her in utter shock and horror. “You’ve never heard that sound before, have you?” she said. Did I mention they were six months old?

All things being considered, I thought it best if I took over the vacuuming responsibilities, although “took over” implies that someone else had them previously and that might be tough to prove in a court of law. And now that I was the vacuumer-in-chief I could choose the vacuum.

I like a central vacuum for a lot of reasons. It is quieter than an upright or drag around because the motor noise is in the basement or garage. It is cleaner because the dirty air that gets through the filter goes outside the house rather than back into the room. A standard lug-along vacuum cleaner is really a dust re-circulator because anything the filter misses goes right back into the air so that it can settle on the floors and furniture. And the long hose of a central vacuum makes it much easier to clean the stairs because you don’t have to haul a heavy machine up and down the steps, which is why so many of us are forced, forced I say, to have dirty stairs. Can I get an amen?

We’ve had a central vac in three homes, each installed a different way. The first home was still under construction when we asked if they could install a central vac and that made it easy for the builder because the sheet rock hadn’t been put on the walls yet.
Our second home was built in 1923 and central vacuums weren’t very common in 1923. A little research convinced me that you can install one in almost any home so I hired the local vacuum cleaner dealer to install a central vacuum in our old brick two-story house.
The key to the whole thing is planning. The basic idea is you have the vacuum motor and filter in the basement or garage connected to PVC tubing that run through the house to inlets where you plug in the vacuum hose. They are called inlets because the air is sucked in as opposed to an outlet where the electricity comes out.

Inlet for central vacuum
Inlet for central vacuum

The vacuum hose is about 30′ long so you need to figure out where Continue reading Central vac plan of attack

Workshop Catch-22


Where did all of the home workshops go? It used to be that every home had a little woodworking shop for fixing a broken chair or building a cradle. Not anymore. I assumed the reason was modern technology and Walmart made them obsolete. After trying to set up a workshop myself, I now know the real reason: It is impossible!

It isn’t easy finding space for a workshop. The garage and the basement are the usual candidates but I don’t have either one. My ever-loving wife, “Woody” (not her real name), didn’t seem to catch the vision when I proposed using the guest room for my woodworking even though I assured her I would close the door to keep the dust out of the rest of the house. It’s not like we use that room on a daily basis but the idea went over like a lead balloon. She proposed using the storage room. So we compromised and I’m using the storage room. Continue reading Workshop Catch-22

Thermostat in the cloud


With my ever-loving wife, “Charlotte” (not her real name), on sabbatical, it has become an increasing challenge to maintain a comfortable, yet energy efficient temperature in the house amid her comings and goings and various sabbatications.

BAYweb has a convenient and powerful way to control the temperature using a web browser from anywhere in the world. You log on to their website ( to see the current temperature in the house and adjust it as needed. The service is free but you have to buy and install their control module and thermostat. In our case, the cost of the hardware was offset in less than a year with reduced energy costs by adjusting the temp when we weren’t home.

Of course you can manually set back your old-fashioned thermostat before you leave on vacation and reset it when you return but the BAYweb system has these advantages:

  1. If you forgot to set back the thermostat before you ran out the door for your vacation you can do it from your motel or even your smartphone at the rest area.
  2. A few hours before you return from vacation you can turn the temp back to normal and the house will be comfortable when you walk in the door.
  3. You can monitor the temperature while you are away. One guy was away during the winter and noticed that his house was getting too cold and got the heating repair company to fix his furnace before the pipes froze.
  4. You can view charts and reports of energy usage and temperatures.

Our house has separate systems for upstairs and downstairs so I bought two pairs of thermostats and control modules. The basic idea is to replace your current wall thermostat with the new one and splice the control module into the wire that runs between the thermostat and the air handler. (The air handler is the unit in your attic or basement that blows the heated or cooled air. See “The return should suck more.” The heat pump or air conditioner compressor is the noisy unit outside.)

A few years ago I had installed this system at another house and put the control modules in the attic next to the air handlers. Continue reading Thermostat in the cloud