It's more than a house. It's an adventure.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Switching credit cards

For 10 years now, I've been a loyal Discover Card user/member. It has been my/our "default, use it unless the place doesn't take it" card, mostly because of the cash-back bonus. This weekend, that has changed. I finally made the decision to switch to the Amex Blue Cash card. Why? It's a far, far better cash-back program.

Discover maxes out at 1% cash back, across the board. Quarterly, they have specials on certain types of purchases to get 5% back on (for example) gas during the summer vacation season. But it's 0.25% for the first $1000 in purchases each year, 0.50% for the next $2000, and then 1% after that. That middle threshold may be different, I don't recall at the moment.

The Amex Blue Cash is much, much better. 1.5% on "everyday" purchases (drugstore, gas station & supermarket) and 0.5% on everything else for the first $6500/year. After that, it's 5% on the everyday stuff and 1.5% on everything else.

According to the calculator on, our annual cash-back should be more than double using their card vs. Discover. Plus all the usual Amex member benefits. So long, Discover - it's been fun, and I'll still drop in and see you from time to time, but I'm moving on.

All lit up again

When we cut off (and subsequently reconfigured) the power to the famliy room, the pantry lighting was an unfortunate casualty. That light was powered off the same circuit, for some odd reason. Yesterday afternoon, I finally picked up the requisite parts (a few conduit connectors and a junction box to use with my Genova conduit I've used previously, plus a wide, flat switch) and rewired it.

I figured the path of least resistance (that's an electrical pun, get it?) would be to tap into the electrical outlet we installed above the switch just inside the door, bring that power down to a new switch in the same place, then up to the fixture. More time-consuming than difficult. Then I thought "hey, maybe the wiring from the switch to the fixture is still good, and I can just bring power down to the switch."

So, I opened up the outlet and connected a branch to that. Pulled out the switch and the wires looked good. I was hoping to see one pair coming into the bottom of the box, which would be the supply (which I know is now dead on the other end), and then a pair going up to the fixture. No such luck. Both came into the top of the box. 2 black wires connected to the switch (the hot leads), 2 white wire-tied together (neutral). Time to play detective.

Obviously, any electrical circuit has to be "closed" to work. I connected one black and one white (to simulate closing the circuit, AKA flipping the switch to ON), then took my voltmeter on the Ohms setting to the bulb socket on the light fixture. The first 3 times (out of 4 black/white combinations), I just got OL - open loop, no closed circuit. The last attempt, paydirt! I had a closed loop with some resistance. I found my light circuit. Wire-tied the white on the Romex and white in the wall together, connected the black wires to my switch, popped a bulb into the fixture, and closed the breaker in the basement. Success!

Switched the breaker back off & closed everything up. We can finally do laundry without a flashlight. It's only been about 18 months since it last worked.

Friday, October 19, 2007

So many "little things" I need to do

The weather this past week has reminded me that winter is fast approaching, and there are a lot of little things I've been putting off - some are new, some have been around a while, all really ought to be done before the weather really turns cold and the days become short. I just need a couple days all to myself, or with a dedicated assistant, to finish it off. Setting the date for the door install has made me even more anxious now. In no particular order (which is why I'm using <ul> instead of <ol>.

  • Mow & fertilize the lawn
  • Get new power run to the pantry light so that we don't have to keep doing laundry by flashlight
  • Pull out the stove, remove some plaster, and insulate the wall behind it. Then cover with concrete backer board and slide the stove back in. Last winter, my toes froze while cooking because there's no insulation in that wall. I'll only go up about 3 feet from the floor with it, but it'll be an improvement.
  • Take down some trees
  • Put a glass block window in the hole in the foundation wall by the basement stairs. I have a styrofoam plug in it now where a window should be, but it's most definitely not airtight and drafts come into the kitchen from there.

The stove wall and glass block window, combined with the new door, should make the kitchen a lot warmer. I won't go so far as to say "cozy" because it's just not meant to be a "cozy" room, but at least our toes won't freeze.

We did buy a new mailbox and mounted it to the wall last weekend, instead of the old, small, rusting box we had sitting on a window ledge. The new mailbox looks great and is large enough to hold magazines & keep them protected. It even locks! Also put in some solar-powered lights next to the sidewalk, but I'm unimpressed so far. They won't get enough sunlight in the fall/winter to illuminate long enough into the night to be useful. We'll give them a few more days, maybe a week, then they're going to be returned I think.

Our door is on its way!

Got a call from the door folks yesterday to set up a date for our new kitchen door to get installed. We'll get it on Halloween. Just in time for winter! Now I just need to fix up the wall behind the stove and the basement window and the kitchen floor might be tolerable this winter!

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Big project, very sore

For a while we've been wanting to replace the front sidewalk as it had been becoming increasingly dangerous. Just some stones embedded in the ground, very uneven, large gaps where weeds grew through. The stones were growing moss and algae, and some were working loose. And a major PITA to shovel in the winter.

The last few weeks we had been getting closer and closer to actually doing it, and about midweek my wife said "ok, let's do it this weekend." I'd been reading and researching the project for a while, so I knew it wasn't necessarily a quick job.

We took some measurements of the old sidewalk and decided to go with a new, straight walkway made of paver bricks, 16 feet long by 3 feet wide. I made up a quick spreadsheet to work out how much we'd need in materials to do it. After some research on patterns, we decided that a 36" wide layout wouldn't work well with the bricks we'd selected without a lot of cutting, so we reduced it to 32" to make for an easier fit.

Friday night we went down to Lowe's to make our purchase. 250 red/charcoal paver bricks. 42 bags of base stone. A dozen bags of sand. Various other supplies and tools. Total bill: just short of $500. I asked about reserving the "Load n' Go" truck but it's on a first-come, first-served basis.

I arrived about 8:15 AM on Saturday and the truck was available. Got the paperwork taken care of and brought it around to the garden center. They loaded the bricks on first, right up at the front of the bed. At first, they set them down on the driver's side. The whole truck squatted and I thought it was going to roll, it leaned so far. They pushed it to the centerline and it leveled side to side. Then the stone & sand was loaded. At the back of the flatbed. The truck squatted even more, to the point where it clearly looked overloaded. By my math, we had loaded 1000 pounds of brick and 2000 pounds of stone & sand onto the truck. A 3/4 ton truck. This was looking to be a fun ride home. And it was. Over 50 MPH, the truck got very squirrelly, as there was very little weight on the front wheels to maintain control.

When I got the truck home, I backed it into the driveway and we set about unloading. My wife and I unloaded the truck, one bag at a time, a half dozen bricks at a time, by hand, in an hour. Not too shabby.

When I returned from returning the truck to Lowe's, the work began in earnest. We put in stakes and ran some twine to mark off the area we'd be excavating. Excavation was not too difficult as the ground was soft, but by my figures we had to remove over 1 cubic yard of dirt. It doesn't sound like a lot, but when you're moving it all with shovels and a wheelbarrow, it definitely is. We managed to get the job about halfway done when the sky started threatening rain. Then we heard thunder. We covered the area with plastic and within minutes, the skies opened. Saturday was over for the sidewalk.

Sunday morning we got a good start and finished digging everything out. Along the way were several surprises. First, just below the surface was a layer of sand. The previous owner had installed her sidewalk somewhat properly, putting a good sand base below the stones. Below the sand (actually, intermingled with it), was black plastic. Maybe to block weeds from growing through? I'm not sure. The biggest surprise, however, was the 4 inch diameter hole I found under a hunk of cinder block. Apparently we were standing on top of a concrete slab which covered a larger cavity. A cistern, old drywell, or septic system? Don't know yet. I'll have to check village records to find out.

Once the excavation appeared complete, we tamped the soil down. Only to discover that we'd taken too much out. An hour or so of retrieving fill & fixing low spots later and we were ready for the base material, 30+ bags of stone. We spread out & tamped 8 bags at a time so as to not go too far too fast. The downside of that is that you have to do an extreme amount of tamping. It's an excellent triceps exercise but my wrists are complaining and I've got at least one blister, on my right thumb.

Once the base stone was complete (4 inches deep), the hard part was finished. We put down 8 bags of sand and screeded it to 1 inch thick in short order. Then laid down edging for one side of the walk, laid the first course of brick, then put down the second side's edging. From there, my wife took over putting the bricks down, while I delivered them to her. Everything came together very quickly. Once the bricks were done, we filled the areas on either side of the walk which had been dug out, but weren't to get brick, then started brushing sand into the crevices. We got as much in as we could, but as things settle we'll need to brush more in to fill the gaps. Not a big deal.

I figure it was about 20 man-hours of labor. Not too bad, considering it's our first attempt. We're very pleased with the results and we look forward to enjoying our safer sidewalk for as long as we're in the house. We're very sore and very tired after this effort, but it feels really good.

Pictures of the project