Graduating from Beginning to Intermediate Home Ownership

On Friday, the plumber came finally to do a long-delayed project: replacing my shower mixers with the new thermostatic mixers I’d purchased a few years ago, intending to have them installed as part of the office-remodeling project.

We knew that it couldn’t be as simple as a one-day job. No, indeed, it was not. Naturally, something went wrong—one of the valves I’d ordered wasn’t quite right, so he had to come back on Monday with more parts to finish the job.

But wait, there’s more!

I also, it turns out, had a dying water heater. He was supposed to replace that yesterday, too, but the shower-mixer job from Friday took all of yesterday to resolve, so the near-dead water heater had to wait another day. That’s why I’m home again today, still babysitting the plumber, who is at this very moment using tools of a sort I’ve never seen before (that have astonishing hearing-damage capabilities) to wrest the old beast from its lair. Seeing it leave my house today brings me a certain perverse satisfaction as I recall its installation and my indoctrination into the never-ending anxieties of home ownership.

It was the fall of 1999. I had just bought and moved into this house that August, and one fine November morning I found myself taking a warm, then tepid, then suddenly cold shower; and then looking at cold, rusty water rushing down my driveway; and then using my dialup internet service to research water heaters; and then on the phone with Sears to order one. After that I found myself on the phone with all manner of people for several more days, trying to navigate all the headaches of converting from electric to gas, pulling permits, getting through inspections, wrangling recalcitrant service people, and fighting with the world’s worst customer service department. Three days later I finally had water again (let alone hot), and many exasperating calls after that I had a $500 gift card from Sears in apology for the multiple circles of hell I’d visited on my way to a hot shower.

The progressive wussitude of that Sears water heater in recent years meant that I was not terribly surprised when on Friday my plumber (here to do something completely else) noticed white plastic debris in the faucet screens and diagnosed its terminal illness:

“Dip tube failure!”

Turns out there’s a pipe in old-fashioned (“big ol’ tank”) water heaters that brings fresh cold water in through the top and down to the bottom of the tank where it is to be heated. It should then rise (recall your grade school physics lessons) to the top where it enters the hot water pipes supplying the house. The way water heater makers get us to buy new water heaters every ten years, now that tanks don’t rust out as reliably as they once did, is to make that pipe out of a white plastic that starts breaking down just a few months after the ten-year warranty expires. As it disintegrates, the fresh cold water starts leaking out, then trickling, and eventually rushing into the upper, no longer hot region of the tank, where it eddies and cools what used to be hot water, thereby sending merely warm, then tepid, and eventually cold water into the hot water pipes. It also sends its telltale white plastic debris to the screens of faucets, where wise plumbers can see that they’re about to get another call from a homeowner who is willing to pay overtime.

But when those homeowners have already learned that after a cold shower is the wrong time to deal with such a thing, and that Sears is the wrong place to call for it, they instead turn to said plumbers and say, “What kind of water heater do you think I should get, and can you put it in on Monday?”

That was Friday afternoon. Saturday I had a lukewarm shower. Sunday I had a cool shower. Yesterday I didn’t even try. Today I had a cold shower. The water heater knew, apparently, that its days were numbered and took advantage of its last opportunities to vex me. Tonight I shall pay the nice plumber whatever he asks and then mix myself a stiff martini and try to forget the number.

And that, my friends, is how I will graduate after twelve and half years from Beginning to Intermediate Home Ownership.

So you think you want to install Elfa closet systems?

Recently a friend planning an Elfa closet system asked if I had any tips, since he knew I’d built three Elfa closets after our big hardware flooring project this summer. Do I ever! The Elfa system has worked out really well for us, but I do have a few tips about designing, purchasing, and building an Elfa system.

First, it’s largely a waste of time to go through their online design process, as the guy on the other end will invariably make a dozen stupid mistakes (switching around numbers, misunderstanding your requests, etc.) that will take you a while to discover and correct. However, it’s worthwhile to fill out the form a few times, just to make sure you have all the necessary measurements and are clear on which measurement is which, and also to make sure you have measured out how much hanging space of each length (shirt, pants, dress) that you need. You might even measure your longest shirts, pants, and dresses just to be sure that their norms make sense for you. V and I are both tall, so we disagreed with some of the defaults.

So, go to the store (we went to Container Store) and do the design in person–that’s how they fill out your order, anyway, and you can lean over their shoulder and make tweaks. While they’re doing it, keep an eye out for wasted space–we were able to add four inches here and there, squeeze in way more shelves closer together for shoes, and so on. For example, our master bedroom closet goes up a ridiculous 8′, and we’re both tall, so we had them move the double closet rods about a foot higher than they thought was reasonable, and then we put TWO rows of 12″ shelves all the way across the bottom for three rows (one on the floor, two on the shelves) of shoes. Above the closet rods we have two and three rows of shelves for wicked-hard-to-reach storage of out of season clothes, fat pants and skinny pants, etc. They weren’t willing to think of these things because they’re inconvenient, but for us it was important to cram every list smidgin of storage into all three of our closets. We even have one hanging rod that is intentionally too long–it sticks out the side and runs to the wall, because the closest-fit Elfa framing was that many inches narrower than the space. It bought us hanging space for 15 more of Victoria’s dresses. It might look weird to the Container Store people, but in our closet it makes perfect sense.

Second, choose between chrome or white. Ignore all the other choices (wood types, etc.) because they’re just extra pieces that they charge you extra for that you slap on as the very last step, and it’s a pretty bogus way to run up costs for no extra value whatsoever. Choose a basic color, build your whole system, and if you still care, go back and get the decorative bits.

Third, they’ll sell you a whole bunch of little bits that you don’t need, like closet-rod ends, shelf bracket covers, and so forth. Again, skip them and go back later if it turns out you care. Also note that for drawer stacks, they have lots of options, and they’ll start by trying to sell you the most expensive kind, which you don’t need. You also might not want top-covers

Fourth, before you leave the store, count every last doodad. We had to make three trips back to the store during our installation to get the pieces they’d forgotten to pack. They were nice about taking us at our word, but it was a royal pain that we did NOT need while building.

Fifth, if you have any trouble at all sinking the screws/bolts into your wall, run (don’t walk) to your nearest Home Depot and buy (a) a screw gun (the best $80 I’ve ever spent) and (b) some boxes of drywall screws at 1/4″ lengths from 1-1/4″ to 2″. Get the HD guys to show you how to use the depth-adjusting choke collar thingy–it’s a little weird but very handy. Our contractor friend George assured me that the drywall screws are plenty strong for the situation, and believe me, they were way easier to get into the wall. I started with the default hardware where I could, then used 2″ screws where I couldn’t, and if those didn’t work, I used progressively shorter screws until I could get one all the way in. Depending on what’s going on behind your drywall, these are likely to work a lot better than the default hardware, and I ended up using a big old mix of fasteners in different places.

Sixth, make sure you have a long level–say 30″ minimum. Mark where you think the hanging brackets should be, then use that long level to make sure that height is going to work all the way across the closet. Closets tend to be way crookeder than you expect. Don’t get hung up on the height that the Elfa design recommends–it might make sense to hang your system as high as possible, as it did for us. Now, attach the first bracket by sinking the first screw through it, and use the level to hold the bracket in place and sink the next screw. This step requires a helper for the longer brackets, which are heavy. Now you’re done with the level until you sink the rest of the screws and are ready for the next bracket. This way is much easier than trying to make and understand pencil marks with any precision.

The rest is pretty straightforward–as long as you’re not missing any pieces!

Oh! And while you’re at Home Depot, get a small tub of joint compound and an assortment of putty knives from 1-1/2″ wide to about 6″ or more inches wide (in the drywall department). When you demolish your old closet fittings and when you make mistakes on the Elfa installation, you’ll get holes in the drywall. You’ll quickly swipe a generous lump of joint compound with the smallest logical putty knife into the gouge, then use the largest putty knife to smooth it out. If you end up with any massive holes (like I did a few times because I was using the pry bar wrong), then crumple newspaper into the hole first, and then use the joint compound. Don’t worry about bits of newspaper sticking out of the compound–they’ll sand off easily when dry. If your closet walls are white, you might not even care about painting over the joint compound zones. –Erin

So you think you want hardwood?

We made that mistake, too, and here’s the first installment of pictures and a heap of words to document the drama.

We’ve been wanting to get rid of the beaten-to-crap, never-was-very-good-in-the-first-place carpeting in our house for a long time, and this summer we finally decided to do it. We got quotes for putting in more white oak hardwood flooring (to match what Jon put in the music room, to match what was already there in the dining room) in the living room, staircase, and upstairs hallway. After that we planned to replace the carpeting in the three bedrooms. As much as we like hardwood, we both liked the idea of carpeting in the bedroom, mainly because putting bare feet down on kitty litter crumbs in the middle of the night is nobody’s idea of a good time.

About a month later, we decided to go with the bid from Victoria’s friend’s company, and we scheduled the job. It was to start Wednesday, 11 July 2007, and finish up sometime around the next weekend, 21-22Jul. We were pretty much going to have to move out of the house once the finishing work began, since we wouldn’t be able to walk on anything between our bedroom and the front door. The first step was to take delivery of the wood on Monday, 9 July.

On Sunday, 8 July, we were reading the New York Times and drinking (apparently way too much) coffee when we realized we were being idiots. We’re replacing carpeting that’s less than ten years old not just because we like hardwood better (who doesn’t?), but because our carpeting looked like hell. Eight years of hairballs, boy cat expressions of antisocial sentiment through the urethra, puppy incontinence, dog barf, wine spills, food spills, and all manner of whatever comes into the house on the undersides of paws, shoes, and boots had pretty much trashed our carpeting–which, again, had never looked too great to begin with.

Also, a few months ago, we’d begun sliding down that slippery slope known as Oriental Rugs. Our friends Jon and Kyla (yes, Jon the artist behind my kitchen) threw a “rug party,” where a friend of his from Turkey was showing literally hundreds of Turkish rugs of all styles, eras, sizes, and prices. They live in the Russian River now, in the tiny village of Monte Rio, and Victoria and I went up for the weekend. It was a chance to catch up with friends over great wine and food, and the next day on the way back, we’d pick up a mess of oysters in Tomales Bay and fresh cider in Graton. Our black lab, Candy, would have a chance to cavort with their labradoodle, Sam. I’d play a kiddie concert with the Marin Symphony on the way home. We’d have big fun. We’d do everything but buy rugs.


We forgot that part.

We drove home with four new (to us) Turkish rugs. One huge one had particularly caught both our eyes as being a good candidate for the living room–it was the usually hodgepodge of a million colors, especially reddish ones, that you expect, but its background was sort of pistachioesque somehow. We also liked a slightly smaller one that came off as purplish, and similar purplish medium one. Then we noticed a runner of unusual design that would be good for the hallway to our office after we do that remodeling job (which will be a subject for a future blogging, once we get around to doing it). While we were taking a closer look at these, trying to decide whether we’d buy any, Candy plopped herself resolutely down on the mediumish purplish one and refused to budge, clearly expressing her wish that we purchase it for her. (She was to have a tumor surgically removed the following week, and Dad speculated that she was picking out her own get well present.)

We left with all four.

So, back to our coffee that fine Sunday morning… We were having to completely move out of our house anyway, and did we really want to move out of each of the bedrooms AGAIN to have carpeting put in? Our hardwood and tiled floors all look fine. Our carpeted floors all look horrible. Why, exactly, did we think that the prosective new carpeting in the bedrooms was going to fare any better? Wouldn’t those nice, cleanable Turkish rugs be a better idea? Wouldn’t it be better to do the whole darned house while we were at it?

Well, of course it would be!

So we call our friend Jane to announce that we’re moving in for at least two weeks (“Is Tuesday good for you?”), we do what we can that day to finish moving out of the living room, boxing up all our books and CDs and so on. Monday, Erin welcomes the first big load of wood, which the guys load into the music room. Victoria calls Allison at The Floor Show to ask if she can deal with our sudden scope creep. After work, Erin goes off to play chamber music for four hours (octets featuring a clarinetist who’s visiting from Italy). V hears back from Allison: the answer is “probably… I’ll look at it first thing tomorrow… and can we start tomorrow instead of Wednesday?”

Yipes! V goes off to get another heap of boxes, including five wardrobe boxes for the three huge closets we suddenly might need to empty out. We meet back at the house to panic. Who wouldn’t? It’s Monday night. I prepare the stereo/TV cart for moving, which is to say I unplug about a thousand cables and jam them all into a box, and then I get Victoria to help me move the BATV (which stands for Big Ass TV, of course) down to the office where it will be least vulnerable to clumsy movers and floor workers. Except that when we get to the top of the little living room staircase, V trips on the hardwood that’s stacked in the music room, falls, lands on her wrist, and (we learn Wednesday) breaks it. We leave the TV there at the top of the stairs for the movers to deal with tomorrow.

Now we’re panicked and half crippled. Great. We have to move everything we own by tomorrow, maybe, we’ve barely started, and I’ve broken my girlfriend?! Not good.

V takes half a pound of ibuprofen, straps on an icepack, and soldiers on. We jam clothes into the wardrobe boxes. The nice guy at U-Haul has kindly sent closet rod thingies that are about half as wide as the boxes, so I improvise and use the dowels from our closets instead. We set out the stuff we think we need to take with us to Jane’s house, and then we collapse in bed.

Tuesday dawns early, with Allison arriving at 9 to look over the new turf. Tim arrives shortly after that and starts demoing the living room, and our mover guys Manuel and Juan arrive a few minutes later and just barely get our furniture out of the living room before Tim starts wailing on the carpet. V and I are simultaneously directing the movers (“Your mission is to fit everything we own into the dining room, kitchen, two bathrooms, and maybe a deck or two. Go!”), answering Allison’s questions, jamming more of our bedroom stuff into boxes, and continuing to panic. Allison sees that we’re both wrecks and advises waiting with the bedrooms. I propose that we move everything we can fit into the space available, prioritizing the master bedroom, and if we have to, we’ll have the rest done after we move back in. Allison shrugs and agrees, asks us to let her know how far we get, and flees to safety. We put the cats in the safety of their carriers, and we usher Candy into the office so she won’t help quite so much.

About four hours later, V and I have somehow boxed everything in the entire upstairs, and Manuel and Juan have somehow crammed it all into the bathroms, the tiny deck off the master bathroom, the larger deck in front of the master bedroom, the hallway leading to the office, and the dining room. Well, heck! We didn’t even start using the kitchen! We could have done the office, too! (But that’s to be another story for the future.) We call Allison and declare victory, run out for burritos, and then move to Jane’s in Sausalito. Since V’s wrist is throbbing, she can’t drive, so we have to cram two adults, four critters, and everything we need into my car.

As soon as we’ve unpacked for our two (or will it be three now?) weeks at Jane’s, I need to put on pit black, grab my horn, and turn right back around for the night’s opera. I drive to Oakland, buy self-adhesive wrapping tape for V’s wrist, grab something to eat, and meet my carpool to Walnut Creek. After the opera, I drop off my carpool, drive up to the house, and get my office stuff. I work from home, and for the next few weeks I’ll be working from Jane’s home, which means I need to take everything I need to her house. Fortunately, I travel so much that packing for a few weeks of work from a remote location isn’t much harder than unplugging my laptop and throwing it into a briefcase that already has everything else I need. I also take a few minutes to wander through the freakishly empty house and take pictures of all our worldly goods crammed into bathrooms.

The rest of that week is surreal. V can’t drive, so she can’t get to work in Berkeley, and she’s pretty much at my mercy. Wednesday morning I worked in the morning, and that afternoon, we drove to Berkeley so V could go to the ER to get her wrist checked out, and I went to buy groceries and check on things at the house. She learns that she’s broken it, and she emerges from the hospital with her arm splinted and in a sling. We stop by a medical supply place to get a wrist-shaped ice pack and drive “home.” Thursday I have an all-day business trip to San Jose, returning home at 9pm to a very frustrated V–my poor extravert has been home all day with nothing but furry critters for company. Friday, we make a trip to an orthopedist, where she’s put in a cast; happily, though, now she can drive, so we go to the house to look around and get her car, and she drives “home.” I plug my laptop in at my home office and work for the afternoon, amidst the chaos of sawing and banging, and that night I play another opera. Somewhere in all that, we also measured our closets and got to work figuring out how we’d refit them after we move back in: the stupid planks that currently support the shelving and rods will need to be removed to put the hardwood in, and we see no point in putting them back.

We recover over the weekend. Jane has fled to Seattle for a family baby shower. We spend Saturday touring closet stores, settle on an Elfa system from The Container Store, and spend a bunch of the day designing it, and then our friend Rhett comes over for a dog walk and dinner. Sunday I run off to yet another opera while V holds down the home front.

Week 2 is a little less surreal. Able to drive again, V returns to her usual work schedule. I play the last of the operas on Tuesday night. Jane is home and we start hanging out together and getting into the rhythm of our temporary large family. Tranquility is disturbed Wednesday: Gjetost has some kind of horrible mouth infection and needs to see the vet; fortunately, she responds well to a ton of meds (if not to the twice-daily ritual of slurping down more meds).

Weeekend 2, I have a flurry of Saturday errands in the East Bay, including hauling a car full of Elfa closet stuff up into my office; back in Sausalito, Candy takes V on several walks between loads of laundry; Jane is off in Berkeley doing dancerly stuff. Sunday we’re the picture of domesticity: the three of us go off to a farmer’s market and trap all kinds of great stuff for dinner and come back to work the Sunday NYT crossword. At some point I start getting antsy and make Jane unpack her living room; working together, we managed to complete that job in about an hour, and now it’s time to make dinner.

Here we are on Wednesday of Week 3. I’m on day 3 of a nasty cold and feel like crap, but that pales next to our having just resolved a tricky problem: we can’t move back in until Saturday. Or maybe Friday. Jane has only one guestroom, and she has a houseguest coming Thursday night, who may or may not be able to deal with cats. Jon and Kyla have invited us to the Monte Rio, but Jon’s deathly allergic to our cats. Jane thinks about sending her guest to a hotel, but everything in the area costs a fortune, so we look at moving ourselves into a hotel back in Berkeley. Those cost a fortune, too, of course, and only the really icky ones will take our four critters. Fortunately, Allison decides we can move back Friday, Jane’s guest says she loves cats, and we have a Goldbergian itinerary of a solution: Candy and Victoria and I pack up, clean up, and move out to Jon and Kyla’s on Thursday afternoon; we stay there Thursday night; Friday morning, we come back for the cats and the rest of our stuff; finally, the whole menagerie drives home to meet the movers Friday afternoon.

Meanwhile back in Oakland, things are looking pretty good! V took some pictures of the floors after their first two coats of polyurethane on Monday night, and they’re gorgeous. Even though we have no baseboards and its becoming increasingly clear that we’re going to need to paint soon, the house is immeasurably improved by the hardwood. The floor guys were to have put the fourth and final coat of finish on Tuesday, and today and tomorrow they’re installing the baseboards, which they had been pre-finishing down on the driveway starting last Friday.

Once our furniture is back in place and all the boxes are sitting in the rooms where they’ll need to be unpacked, I’ll need to start demoing our closets and installing the Elfa system, so that Victoria can move our clothes back in. I hope we can manage most of this on Friday, because on Saturday I need to pack for a flight Sunday to Salt Lake City. With any luck, my one-armed V will unpack and put away some of our boxes while I’m gone. I’ll get home late Thursday night, and Friday we’ll welcome a house guest! Fortunately Kathy has been through some remodeling herself, so we think she’ll be patient with the boxes and general disorder she’s likely to confront.

When we move back in Friday afternoon, the polyurethane will have been curing for only three days and will still be somewhat fragile. This means we need to put down a bunch of rugs to keep gritty shoes from damaging it, and for about seven more days, we have to be really careful. Candy will need to wear dog-boots when she’s in the house, or else her claws would make little dents and scratches in the finish, so we’ve gotten her a spiffy quad of red dog boots at REI and have been having her practice in them on her walks. We think she looks fabulous in her sexy little red shoes, and so do all the neighbors. She’s being a good sport about it–almost as good a sport as Jane has been, putting up with our sudden and prolonged invasion–but she has her doubts. Whenever we first put them on her, she doesn’t seem to remember how to walk and instead prances uncertainly until she gets distracted by a retrieving dummy or tennis ball. This, of course, had to be captured on video!

All in all, we’ve had a pretty good experience, and we can’t wait to see the results and take a mess of After pictures to post here, but it’s been a whirlwind of an adventure, and we’re not done yet.

Indoor weather continues

For those who missed earlier episodes of “Fun with V and E: The Great Indoor Winter of 2007,” our furnace started gasping its last breaths late last week, just in time for a week of record low temperatures. (You’ve probably heard that the California citrus and avocado industry is expecting a $1B loss, and the Governator declared a state of emergency in a bunch of counties.) As a result, most of this week it’s been high 30s/low 40s outside and mid 40s inside. We’ve been shivering under even an astonishingly large heap of bedding by night, and by day I’ve rediscovered the value of long johns, fleece, flannel, and many layers, even in my office with the space heater on. V has been going around in her stocking cap. This morning I washed a bunch of pots and pans just for the pleasure of having my hands in hot water. (They did need washing.)

It turns out that it was probably a relatively easy fix costing a few hundred dollars to get the old POS working again, but on its best day that old thing still sucks, and I’ve known for a long time that I should probably replace it. It never gets below about 30 around here, yet my utility bill soars from $50-75/mo in the summer to $200-350 in the winter, which is pretty ridiculous. It’s partly due to the maybe 60% efficiency of the old furnace, which appears to be at least 25 years old and too small for the house besides (75K btu, where 90-100K btu is a better idea). It’s also partly due to the debacle of energy deregulation in California, in particular how PG&E’s rates are capped on electricity (which is expensive to produce and inefficient to distribute) but not natural gas (which is abundant, if problematic for other reasons in recent years). If you figure that a lot of our electricity is produced by burning natural gas and then pumping electricity down the lines, and line loss is way more expensive than gas-pumping, it’s really stupid not to go straight to the source and burn your own gas, but in California you pay more to do the smarter thing. Go figure. It’s ridiculous, but I’m still going to do the right thing, and there are some signs that California has finally figured out that reregulating the energy industry is needed, so maybe someday my PG&E bills will reward my good behavior.

So, I had appointments with four different estimators plus two others who never made it (one called to cancel, one didn’t), and a seventh from Sears blew me off twice–scheduled me, then called the morning of to cancel, both times. After my water heater experience from hell with Sears, I didn’t find that too surprising.

Everybody had the same advice about the basic question, once I stipulated that I wanted a PG&E-rebate-qualified high-efficiency furnace; namely, we should get a variable-speed, two-stage, high-efficiency furnace of the same capacity. They extolled, variously, four brands, American Standard & Trane, which are the same company and basically the same furnace, Ruud, and Amana. All are rated well by Consumer Reports. They differed on whether additional things were needed. I ended up with bids ranging from $3334 for furnace only to $12070 for furnace, fancy filter, redoing all the ductwork under the house, splitting the house into two zones, and gold-plating a bottle of snake oil.

The first guy was the gold-plated snake oil guy, and the other three were basically sensible geeks. Snake Oil guy was clearly all about sales and pushing a dubious rebate scheme that looked like a big marketing scam to me. One of the geeks took great pains to freak me out about all kinds of code issues, and I ended up concluding that this was a sales-by-fear tactic intended to make me accept a price $2K higher for exactly the same furnace installation. All of them guaranteed to do whatever it takes to pass the inspection at no additional cost, and Code Freak guy was the only one who thought that my ductwork (which is clearly also some PsOS) was fine.

Third was Family Business guy, who actually seemed to know what he was talking about and who wasn’t freaky or dogmatic about anything at all, including brand of furnace (Trane or Amana), and who presented all the options at competitive prices, explained the pros and cons, and said it was really up to me. I liked him and had decided it was his bid to lose when the fourth guy arrived. This guy basically said the same thing as everybody else and gave the 2nd lowest price but didn’t bother breaking out much detail. At some point I asked him about his accent, and he answered cautiously that he’s Iraqi. I replied that I have never voted for this president and never would, and he immediately relaxed, and there followed an interesting exchange about the war and how he’s had to move his extended family to Syria. It was an interesting conversation. His heating proposal was reasonable, and he ended up second place in my thinking.

After a long, shivering talk Wednesday night, we decided on Family Business guy and the Amana, whose efficiency has a 96% AFUE rating, vs. 92.x% for all the others. That’s a trivial difference except that it qualifies you for a $200 Federal tax credit, plus the Amana costs $700 less than the equivalent models from other brands (at least in the estimates I got) and has a better warranty. Since we have two people with allergies and asthma, three furry critters, and a bunch of friends/family with allergies, we also opted to add the $800 superduper HEPA filter (a Trane CleanEffects, which was $1695 from the snake oil guy).

And then we come to the tricky decisions: ductwork and zoning. First, ductwork:

California requires that you test all ducts and seal leaks any time you do a furnace replacement. In some zones including Oakland, buying a 92%+ furnace exempts you. However, it’s still true that leaky, poorly insulated ducts are a bad thing, because they let heat out and pollutants (like mold, and my crawlspace’s rat-shitty-dust) in.

Snake Oil guy said this is bad, bad, bad, we need to redo all the duct work; you wouldn’t have to, you’re exempt, but we really ought to, especially if we’re zoning and messing around with all this stuff anyway.

Code Freak guy looked at all the dust and crud that appears in stripes on my old ductwork and said, “That’s normal–leaks suck in air, so the insulation filters out the dust and you see dirty areas. It’s not big deal, because the insulation filters the stuff. You see this all the time.” But he said they could test and fix up leaks for another $600.

Family Business guy said they looked basically okay, but that if we redid them we’d probably get a performance gain about equal to that of the new furnace vs. old, and that doing so would also give us the opportunity to resize and rebalance things so that the house is more evenly heated (we’ve found that the living room and master bedroom are much colder than the small rooms, which is not surprising given that they’re bigger, glassier, and fed by vents exactly the same size as all the other rooms).

Iraqi guy said they’re basically okay “but they need some care. We’ll check them over and do some re-sealing.”

As for zoning, Snake Oil guy of course extolled its virtues and built it right into his price. Code Freak guy said not to bother, it wasn’t worth it. Family Business guy said it’s nice but not necessary, but then said that he himself has a crappy old furnace like mine in his house, and after he zoned the house, he’s been able to put up with it for another 20 years. He didn’t think there was a strong case for or against zoning in our house, but said we’d like it if we did it. Iraqi guy said not to bother, because it only really works when the house is divided into distinct areas like a two-flat; with my open-plan, all the heat’s going to move everywhere on its own anyway, so it’s kind of pointless.

We ended up deciding yes on the ductwork and no on the zoning. All this is costing us $6134, minus a $300 PG&E rebate, a $200 tax credit, and supposedly up to $1K/yr savings in energy use, but we’ll see about that. If that savings actually comes through, we’ll also get a PG&E discount for reducing our average monthly consumption by whatever percent it is they set as the goal–I think it’s 12%, but don’t quote me.

Fortunately, Family Business guy had a cancellation for today which meant we’re getting our furnace before rather than after the weekend. His guy Jeff is banging away downstairs putting in the furnace now, which he said would take him pretty much all day, and a crew is coming on Tuesday to redo all the ducts. On Monday night I plan to crank the house up to 70-something so we’ll make it through another furnace-less day on Tuesday.

Finally, now that the cows are safely outside in the neighbors’ pasture, we’re looking into a lock for the barn door: I priced out wood-burning stove inserts for our crappy sheet metal fireplace that looks nice but sucks heat out of the house, and we’re giving strong consideration to spending just shy of $3K to install one that can heat up 1200-2000 sq ft, or possibly even one size larger. I also looked at gas fireplaces and wood pellet stoves, but it seems to me that with this spiffy new furnace, the heating power of greatest emergency use to us is a backup system works no matter how many utilities have gone out of service. So, gas is out. As for wood pellets, those stoves use motors and electricity. And if I don’t have something that takes logs, what am I supposed to do with the huge oak tree that is now a stack of logs under my stairs? Or the big fallen branches on the hill behind my house that look like kindling waiting to happen?

Anyone got opinions on this puppy?

Indoor summer

We had our furnace installed and working by about 5pm last night, and when we left for my Oakland East Bay Symphony concert at 7:20, it was still cranking away on full blast. (This fancy-schmancy furnace has a big burner and a little one, and two fan speeds, so that it can do little fires with slow speeds to maintain a temperature, a big fire with big speed to bring a cold house up to temperature, and everything full blast to handle really cold houses.) When we got home, it was off, and we had a toasty, comfortable house–every last room was toasty and comfy! Mind you, this may not be exciting news for most of you, but this house has always had warm rooms and cold rooms, mostly the latter.

I didn’t think it was possible to heat this house properly! All these years I’ve known I had a crappy old furnace, but I thought the real problem was all the glass, the high ceilings, the fireplace without glass doors, blah blah blah. Turns out this house heats up just fine when it has a decent furnace!

We didn’t even hear the furnace kick on this morning, but when I woke up around 8am and it was programmed to be 60 still for overnight, it was reasonably comfortable to get up and pee. When I woke back up around 10:30, and it was supposed to be 68 according to our weekend program, I lay in bed scratching Gjetost’s ears and thinking, “Gosh. It feels TOO warm in here. It’s nice and comfy under the covers, but the air on my face is too warm!” Now it’s in the 62˚ phase of the program, and it still feels toasty and comfy inside–too warm, even–but the furnace isn’t even noticeable. I don’t think it’s even kicked on since we got up.

All these years I’ve had the thermostat set to 68˚ for active times, 62˚ during the day while we’re away, and 60˚ overnight. Turns out I’ve never actually felt 68˚!

I grew up in a house that was 72˚ for most of winter (right, Mom? or 70˚?). We’re astonished to find that we both agree 68˚ is too warm, and we’ve already reprogrammed the thermostat for 66˚ during our active hours. All these years I’ve thought I’d lost my winter fat and exchanged it for plain old fat fat, but I guess it really is winter fat.

Amazing. I’m thinking we will see our gas bills go down! I should have done this years ago.

Okay, all you people who, like me, have been too cheap to replace your POS cheap old 60% AFUE furnaces that came with your house: stop dithering! Replace it now. You won’t regret it.

Ductwork gets redone on Tuesday. After that, we’ll probably have to get out our summer clothes and put away all the fleece throw blankets. I’ve already put my long johns, ragg socks, and turtlenecks in the laundry basket.

Indoor weather report

Last week our furnace began to bite the dust. By the time we got back from a weekend away, it had bitten the dust.

So it’s 48 in our house today and 41 in our driveway. I’m frozen despite being dressed in winter fleece pants over long johns, ragg wool socks, winter boots, a turtleneck, and my GoreTex-lined Norwegian sweater.

Our furnace comes on and makes half-hearted attempts to do things for 5-10 minutes every so often, but clearly it’s not helping much. I have two guys coming to give estimates today and two more tomorrow, and I hope some obvious conclusion about our options jumps out at us soon. I have a feeling “how soon can you do it?” will end up being a pivotal point when we compare their bids. I’m also hoping that the guy who’s now 15 minutes late for the first estimate appointment will see something simple and obvious to fix and get us back in heat for the time being.

I also looked into fireplace inserts, and it sounds like what we need would start around $2500, all told. Probably money well spent, but not necessarily at the same time we’re paying to install a new furnace and address god knows how many other problems in the process.

Even Candy seems to appreciate having a blanket over her–V tucked her in with a doubled blanket last night, and she stayed put under it until morning. I retucked her this morning at 8:30, and she hasn’t budged since. The cats are snuggling under the comforter.

And here’s proof that it’s too darned cold in this house: we have flannel sheets, a flannel duvet, and the doubled down comforter on the bed, but even Victoria agreed that we needed the afghan on top, too. Last night I just about went to get my neoprene face mask for skiing, too, except that I would’ve gotten too cold getting out of bed to go look for it. I even slept through the night without getting up to pee despite having wanted to pee since about 2am. I’ve heard that it’s a bad idea to get in the habit of peeing in the night, because it’s a problem that will only get worse over time if you give in to it, so maybe this will be good bladder and sleep training for me.

A break from smørgåsbord news

Our furnace is kaputt. We can either spend a few hundred on a quick fix or else several to many thousand on a replacement that’s probably long overdue. Since it’s 40 degrees indoors, both of them seem appealing. Fortunately it’s supposed to warm up to 60 outside by Sunday, so we can probably tough it out while we wait for one or the other to happen.

But in the meantime, one of the companies who gave us an estimate has sort of an amusing name, which prompted Victoria (the Mandarin scholar) to comment that it sounded Chinese, and in a quick few exchanges we merged in all our favorites from the Chinese business name hit parade and came up with the ultimate name for a new business, especially if it caters to a Chinese clientele: Lucky Golden Rising Star Dragon Snake Happy Wind Joy Luck Fortune Fish Club. Luckily for anyone wants to start a new business, we’re not entrepreneurial types, so we won’t be needing a name and I’m not going to run out and trademark it. I’m too busy freezing to death here in my office. Help yourself!

For those who are eager to read the next (overdue) smørgåsbord installment, here’s a tidbit: the word “smørgåsbord” effectively means “buffet of lots of yummy little things,” but its literal translation is a triple compound that I guess the Chinese would also appreciate: butter-goose-table.

Evidence that I don’t deserve my beautiful kitchen

I like cooking and do a lot more of it than most people in my generation or the several generations before and after mine. However, at lunch time or when I’ve got nanoseconds before I need to run out the door to a gig, I cut corners. 

Unfortunately, I’ve been cutting corners more than usual lately. In the last week, I played a set with Symphony Silicon Valley, the fledgling reconstitution of the late San Jose Symphony currently comprised of more people than services, and I had suppers comprised of more Coke Zero than food. 

For lunch today, I proved to myself that seven-year-old just-add-water instant chili packets taste like cardboard. If you add a dash of green Tabasco, it tastes like cardboard with a dash of green Tabasco. Anybody who’s surprised by this has been eating better than I have lately. 


Sorry about that broken link to the Deck: Before and After, Jr. photo collection. It’s fixed now.

It’s bloody hot here–too hot to think clearly or accomplish anything. I need to cobble together some kind of swamp-cooler for the baking kitties.

Scope-creep happens

After Jon and George and Russ and the guys finished my kitchen, way back in the fall of 2004, George tore out the rotten, ugly, hideous, cheap-ass deck-facsimile that had been his route for supply-hauling and so on for the five months he’d been slaving on my kitchen, and he built me a beautiful redwood and copper deck.

This would be the ultimate scope creep. We’d gone from redoing a kitchen, widening an opening, and redoing dining room, music studio, and entry floors, to doing all that plus tearing out, upgrading, and lighting a deck and major outdoor staircase.

The deck was awful. It was beyond awful; it was scary and hateful. When I bought the house, it was one of the declared “preexisting conditions.” There was already a bounty on its everhating head: $6K. Yeah, right, $6K. I started talking to contractors and heard numbers more like $30K, and I decided I could ignore the rotting, hideous deck for a while. But five years had gone by, and Jon and George and Russ and the guys had been tromping up and down on my deck and cursing at my deck and cutting tiles on my deck and stacking old appliances on my deck and heaping debris on my deck for five months more, and it had become apparent that this deck was not only ugly and hideous but a potential liability.

George and I had shared morning coffee nearly every morning for five years, and afternoon beers and whatnot for many of those days, so by now we were family. Since the kitchen was finished and he was ready for a new project, George offered to redo my deck, showed me some sketches, and offered a reasonable estimate of materials, times, rates, and so on. We reached agreement over martinis one night (or rather, I was drinking a martini, and he was having a vodka-vermouth-olive concoction). I took care of the boring legal details, he took my deck books and sketches home to think about, and we were off.

George decided to view this holistically as a project not only of construction but of art, of mind and body, and of moral struggle, so he decided not to involve any cut-rate (not to mention illegal) day laborers. He decided to do all the work himself, including digging out the hillside as needed to have a single door-level deck and remove the steps and level change; including digging holes for piers and mixing and hauling concrete for piers; including constructing a whole new, higher, stronger retaining wall running a larger portion of the perimeter. We decided to take Before and After George pictures to go with the Before and After deck pictures, since he planned to improve his own physique along with my deck. The Before pictures are in the photo collection, but we forgot to take the Afters, unfortunately.

I helped with a bit of the shovelwork, but nothing significant, and the design process was collaborative, involving many sessions of us staring at what was done so far and discussing how next to proceed, but on the whole, this deck was a work of George Lawson art.

Did I mention that George is an artist?

Google him, and you will find a long (electronic) paper trail of his ongoing career as an artist. Eventually you’ll land at his site and see his newest paintings, which were inspired by the enthusiastic reception that a painting of his received at my kitchen-warming (Smørgåsbord V: Norway and Sweden) in January 2005. I’ve hung two of his works, tangram dancers and turtles, in my music studio, and you’ll see these in my Before:After, Jr: The Deck photo collection.

His new work is exciting. I want the Japanese firemen.

It was also a remarkable act of friendship. We grew closer, as his work grew depressing as the weather grew colder, and my software job grew depressing (because we were going through a rough spell at work). Many is the time we slurped nasty protein shakes for lunch together, dug holes together, and commiserated over our miserables states of employ. Our conversational arch over the four months (or so) that it took to redo the deck covered the nature and purpose of art, daily politics, the disastrous 2004 elections, food, life, love, and everything else that mattered then and still matters now.

We watched the series of presidential and vice-presidential debates together, always over the requisite food and drink. One dark night, George W. Bush the Despicable won reelection. As Ohio’s electoral votes stood between us and doomsday, George even persuaded me to give him a haircut, and I can at least say for myself that his head looked better for the next six weeks or so than my nation did.

Back to art, my house has a George Lawson original on the west side. It’s still waiting for its crowning glory, a promised redwood sculpture, perhaps of a napping cat, to be perched on the curiously unfinished-looking post at the bottom of the staircase. It’s also waiting for a signature. When these are installed, we’ll mix martinis and vodka concoctions and dedicate not just a beautiful work of construction and art but another wonderful branch of my family. I’ll always have an extra chop on the grill for George.