Category Archives: home improvement

massive update

i haven’t written anything since november.

and yet i welcome several new subscribers – surprising given the infrequency.  welcome new subscribers – i hope you enjoy and will provide feedback.

it’s not because nothing has been happening, quite the contrary.  we have been going full steam for the last few months – and it’s only this last weekend that we reached a point at which we could take anything resembling a break.  considering that s threw her back out and have been having to do child care and adult care for the last day or so it’s not really much of a break.

we have been steady working on this house and the yard since we bought the house, but have really stepped up our efforts once we learned that our son had elevated lead levels.

nothing drastic, but cause for alarm. things appear to be under control now, but we have had to take major measures to get them under control.  i’ll likely write more about lead, testing, and dealing with it, later, but in the meantime i’m just gonna update ya’ll on what projects we have done in order to get lead under control.

first was the stripping of paint in areas where encapsulation wouldn’t work.  namely the threshold of the front door.  next was encapsulation – woodwork in the pantry and kitchen had to be encapsulated and then painted to match the other woodwork.  i also encapsulated a couple of walls in the pantry.  they still haven’t been painted yet as i still have some plaster work to do on other walls before we paint the whole pantry.  the hallway leading down to the basement needed to be encapsulated as well, and then painted.

speaking of the basement, as though lead weren’t an issue enough we found out that we had fraying asbestos tile on the floor of the basement.  we paid some one certified to remove it.


my lungs just seemed worth the cost.  what i didn’t think about was all the glue aka mastic that would be left over.  it was a huge pain to get off – taking me weeks of weekends and nights to get it up.  i’m thankful to the following podcast for getting me though it: serial, 99% invisible, radiolab, snap judgement, the champs, and invisibilia.

at least as much time has been spent moving things around the basement, as we had to clear everything out when they removed the tile, and then we had to move it to remove the mastic.  i think that’s what made s throw out her back.

we are now putting the basement back together, and i’m really happy with the way it’s turning out.  it’s making more sense and taking into account how we need to access and use the space.  my favorite part is that we have moved the chest freezer and canning supplies closer to the stairs so when cooking you can quickly pop down to the basement and grab some items out of the larder. larder

in addition to encapsulation and stripping, another strategy for dealing with the lead has been removal.  the back door casing was covered in chipping lead paint, and the door was super drafty so we replaced it.  i could have replaced it myself – but i knew it was going to be serious pain – and i had plenty of other projects to work on, so i also paid someone certified to do that as well.  he told me it would take him a morning.  as expected – it was a bigger pain than expected – it took him until 6 at night.  no more draft! i still need to replace the molding – and since the original was cover in lead paint i bought new stuff – but couldn’t find anything that would match the original, but i think it still looks ok.  door1door2

in the process of replacing the door and molding, we damaged some plaster and realized that much of it was pulling away for the lath.  we wanted to save as much as we could, but some was just to far gone to repair. s and i spent new years eve watching youtube videos on plaster repair and new years day doing plaster repair – we know how to party.  we were really impressed with the ease of use of big wally’s plaster magic – as well as the youtube videos they have to learn how to use the product.  door3

the other major repair project was to put a floating floor down in one of the bedrooms.  it had been painted with lead paint on the floor, and rather than try and remove the paint, we decide the simplest thing would be put a new floating floor over top of it.  i’m impressed with how quickly it went together.  one long day plus a couple hours the next day and we were done, and s is very happy with the result.  super big thanks to my brother in law david for his help. floor

at the farm, the biggest event of the fall for me was starting mushrooms.  i’ve been missing growing mushrooms since i left the farm i trained at over 12 years ago.  i’ve tried to convince folks a number of times to take on the task of growing mushrooms – but it’s never really caught on.  this fall we had a crew from radical mycology come out and lead a beginners workshop on mushroom growing. radicalmycology

we caught the bug pretty hard and harvested all fall and will be starting up a crop of oyster mushrooms again in the spring.  mushrooms

a bit simpler – but equally exciting to those of us obsessed with cycling nutrients – we built new compost sifters.  this is the third iteration of sifters we have been working on – and the big improvement is using slit steel rather than chicken wire.  sifter1

the steel comes from one of my favorite places in detroit: federal pipe and steel. this place is a museum of a hardware store, full of oddball items i can’t find anywhere else.  the staff know just about everything – though they don’t really let on unless you ask.  and the cashiers all seem to be punx.  if you visit you shouldn’t miss out on marcus burger.  it’s the real detroit deal.


this new sifter can accommodate two, count em, two wheelbarrows at once.  i think the slit steel will last a lot longer than the chicken wire – but only time will tell.  i’m happy with them.

on the homegrown front, we have been eating out of the hoop house all winter- at first mostly arugula, but for the last month only spinach and kale.  the big lesson is to plant more kale next fall.  i love having it, but it grows really slow in the winter.  spinach continues to be the workhorse of the winter hoop house – cold, dry, doesn’t seem to faze it, we have had great harvests all winter.harvest

i was hoping for a milder winter, and the temps have been slightly warmer, and snow a little lighter, but we still have been dumped on, almost 20 inches last week alone.


still we prepare for the growing season.  we have already started tomatoes (perhaps a post about them soon)  and sweet potatoes are started on the window sill.


likely way too early, but we all have our methods of trying to stave off cabin fever, mine is starting plants for the next season.

what’s going on with you?


passive greywater heat exchanger

it might not surprise you that i spend a decent amount of time researching ways to reduce the household energy use and increase efficiency.  while doing research on grey water collection i was reading about a device that collects the heat from greywater and radiates it to the house as it drains into the collection tank via a heat exchanger.

this seemed like a pretty complex device to collect what didn’t seem like that much heat.  i don’t use much hot water for washing dishes or taking a bath, and most of our clothes washing is done in cold water.

it did get my gears turning.

what if you could do something that required no work and could save this heat?  that would be worth it right?  it occurred to me that if you just left your hot bath water to sit until the water in tub was cold, it would have already achieved the task of extracting all the heat out of it before it went down the drain, making the need for a greywater heat extractor unnecessary.

so thats what i do now, leave the water in the tub until it has become cold.  how much this saves in energy savings, i have no idea, but if any one technically minded wants to calculate this, i would be very interested to find out.


one year house anniversary

“s” was pointing out that we have been in the house for a year the other day.  i would have guessed that it was four months.  my perception of time is totally wack.

i have not written much about home improvement around the house, and i’ve vowed not to make this into a home improvement blog, but i did want to recount the work done since we moved in.

insulation added to attic

insulation added to floor joists

insulation and vapor barrier added to crawl space

caulked around ever window, door, and baseboards

added door sweeps to front and back doors

repointed foundation on the north-side of the exterior foundation and eastside of the interior foundation

rebuilt front porch

painted the living room, dining room, laundry room, hall upstairs and down, and three bedrooms.  we only have the bathroom, kitchen, and pantry left to go.

installed washer and dryer in the new laundry room.

replaced kitchen faucet

installed under counter lighting in kitchen

replaced bathtub faucet and added shower

replaced bathroom light

replaced bathroom toilet

installed radiator in the kids room

added several new garden beds

thanks to my moms, lots of spring bulbs planted,

two trees cut down, with more on the way to make room for the trees and other perennials we want to plant.

lots more planned for this year – should be a busy spring and summer.

no cost humidifier

cold air holds less moisture than warm air – which means that during the winter our detroit air has a lot less moisture.  this is the case for cold air outside, but it’s also the case for our warm air inside – cause it’s just cold air that’s been warmed up.  we perceive dry air as colder air so adding moisture to the air helps us to be more comfortable in colder air, allowing us to keep the house colder and yet still feel more comfortable, and save money on the heating bill.

adding moisture to the air also helps your sinuses from feeling so dried out,  as well as our skin feeling all itchy.

the obvious solution is to use a humidifier, but humidifiers cost money to run, a couple bucks a month , so if you have several that could be six dollars a month – multiply that by five months of heating and you 30 bucks of costs.  while that might not seem like a lot, the way to save money isn’t just to try to cut out big expenses, but also little expenses, they add up.

if you have radiators – i have a simple low cost solution for you:

potonradiatora pot.

fill with water put on top of radiators – add one to each radiator and you can be getting several gallons of water into the air each day, adding to your comfort at no cost.  if you wanna get really fancy you can add a little essential oil to the pot and make your house smell all nice and stuff – no cost humidifier and aromatherapy all in one.

continued improvement to energy effeciency

last year we were able to get a good amount of insulating done on the house – the most impressive was getting insulation blow and sprayed in.  this was also the work that i didn’t have to do.  much less enjoyable have been the hours of caulking and sealing that i have done – spray foam and caulk are certainly the best friend of the owner of an old home.  this year i have been at it again slowly working to improve the warmth and energy efficiency of the house.

i’m trying not to rest on my laurels, not to think that because i have done some work that there is not still much to do, and as i search around the house, i’ve found plenty of cracks and crevices to fill.  every little bit helps, small gaps add up to big gaps, big gaps add up to holes, and if you had a hole in your house you would certainly fill that.  as you fill the larger gaps, smaller ones seem more obvious – so i keep on looking.

putting insulators on light switches and outlets doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but if you look at infrared pictures of them during a door blower test, you realize that a surprising amount of cold air is coming in around them.  the insulators are cheap and easy to install. take the cover plate off, remove the foam for the holes for the outlets or switch, place foam over the electrical box and replace the cover plate. outletfoam

hold on to the pieces of foam removed from the outlet foam – as you can use that.  take a child proofing outlet plug, and slid the foam over the prongs, then install into the plug.  plugoutletpluggedwhile this might not seem like that big of a target for energy savings, it’s estimated that 2-5% of energy loss is out of outlets, and it only takes a minute to install one. on older houses this is made even easier by the fact that we don’t have nearly as may outlets at newer houses do.  you only need to provide insulation on outside walls.

next up another unglamorous topic – door sweeps.  have you noticed how big that gap is under your door?  it’s often huge, and tons of cold air is coming in.  door sweeps are quick and easy to install and also very affordable – go install them today.

finally the basement.

we often ignore the basement, cause who spends that much time in the basement?  who expects the basement to be comfortable?  but if the basement is getting cold air in, then the rest of the house is too.  finding drafts in general can be difficult – made more difficult with a dark basement and spots that are not easy to access to test for drafts.  my simple solution is to use a lighted incense stick.  i place it next to potential sites of cold air coming in, and see if the smoke starts drifting away from the hole rather than drifting upwards.


our basement had several problem areas, some larger cracks, and plenty of need for caulk around the sill plate.

perhaps the biggest area of need was in the foundation – at 113 years old the foundation was bound to need some work, and ours needs quite a bit of work in repointing.  at some point the walls were painted, which from what i understand with older brick is actually one of the worst things you can do – it doesn’t allow the bricks and mortar to breath out moisture which ends up collecting behind the paint and causing the brick and mortar to crumble.

i need to repoint a whole section of the wall, but for now i just chipped out the section where there were holes letting in cold air and replaced them.  for those in older houses thinking of repointing their bricks – be warned you have to use traditional mortar, not contemporary mortar which contains cement. beforeduringafter

traditional mortar is a combination of hydrated lime that has been soaked in water for at least a week to make “lime putty” and sharp sand.  the sand and lime are mixed in various ratios, but i use 1 lime to 3 sand by volume.  this is all mixed up and then slowly built up in layers into your cleaned holes using a pointing tool. tools holes for repointing should be chipped out at least a 1/2 inch deep, squared off, and cleaned and moistened well before new mortar is placed in the crack.  you should do this in several applications, allowing the mortar to dry some before the next layer is added.  once you are finished spray with water once a day, and keeping covered in plastic to allow it to dry slowly.

next up is weather stripping around the door, and then some spots in the pantry, and then insulating the pipes, and then some new molding around a window and them… the list does on and on.

what are you doing to keep your home all nice and toasty warm and energy efficient this winter?

celebrating the reel mower

the mowing season is coming to an end, reminding me that i had meant to write a post celebrating the reel mower. this is not to be confused with a real mower. a reel mower is the sort of mower that you might see on “leave it to beaver” episodes or similar shows of the era. they require no gasoline, instead relying on the power of the push to turn the curved blades which cut the grass as they pass over the bed knife.

for a lot of us if we have ever tried using a reel mower it’s been a very old rusty mower badly in need of sharpening – and so we have a bad impression. there have been a number of improvements made on reel mowers over the years mostly from european manufactures. when we first moved to detroit the mower at the rental we stayed at was stolen and the landlord didn’t bother to replace it, we were on our own, and rather than purchase a gas guzzling mower, i decided to purchase a reel mower. as with most things in my life, i did much research and ended up purchasing a brill 33. the 33 is how wide it is – they also make the more expensive brill 38 which is slightly wider. at the time i was working americorps, and making very little money, so the cost of the 33 was a lot for me, and i had a small yard. with a larger yard, and a bit more money, i would go with the 38 now.

one of the major reason for deciding to go with the brill was that unlike most models, it doesn’t need to be sharpened every year. sharpening reels is something best left to professionals and sharpening costs about 50 bucks a year. the brill only needs sharpened once every seven years.

at our old house we had a shady yard where the grass just barely grew and was not much work for the brill, in moving to the new house we encountered a yard in full sun and lush grass that someone had obviously tried to establish, a major departure from the weeds we were used to mowing.

one thing in the brill reviews that was not clear was what do you do after seven years, and how the blades should be sharpened at that time. it appeared that you had to trash the thing at that point.

our 10 year old mower was literally not cutting it anymore and i was about ready to throw it away and replace it with a gas mower, but i’m persistent and hate the idea of using gasoline if i don’t need to. research revealed that some inventive souls had come up with this sharpening device.

this is actually designed for the 38, but with a hacksaw you can easily alter the size to fit the 33.

it’s very easy to use, you simply lower the bed knife to the lowest position, clamp it on, and then adjust the bed knife so the reels are just barely coming into contact with the abrasive material on the sharpener. then you run the mower on pavement as though you were mowing. walk it back and forth for about 15 minutes until you see the blades all evenly shiny. you may have to adjust the bed knife as you go.

once the blades are sharp, it’s time to adjust the distance between the reel and bed knife. this is achieved using a gap gauge tool which at some point i threw out. i don’t think the manual for the mower ever bothered explaining what it was and i just ended up tossing it, since it looks like little more than a little piece mylar. i had to shell out ten bucks to replace the gaping tool, but was worth it. with the reels sharp and the gap proper, i’ve been semi happily mowing the lawn all summer. only semi happy cause i hate mowing the lawn no matter what, and it’s still not as good as it was when it came from the factory, but i figure i have been able to extend the mowing life by a couple of years. other than this the only maintenance that needs to be done is an occasional dose of oil on the reels and bed knife.

why are reel mowers so great? they use no gas, so they cost less to operate and contribute less greenhouse gas. they are quiet, so you can mow early or late and not bother the neighbors. you can even mow with a five day infant strapped to you and have them nap the whole time. they are light and easy to maneuver, and don’t put off lots of heat.

often when people see me using a reel mower, i think they feel bad for me that i don’t have a gasoline mower, but frankly i much prefer using a reel mower to mow the lawn even now that i’m mowing a lot and a half.

i would prefer not to be mowing the lawn at all, and so i’m doing everything in my power to rid my yard of lawn, but it will take some years for that to happen – and even then i’ll likely leave a little patch of grass for picnics, laying in the grass, taking the shoes off, and the kid running around.

passive solar clothes dryer

in terms of appliances, the dryer is second only to the refrigerator in energy consumption.  the average dryer uses over 100 dollars worth of energy a year, so it certainly makes sense to try to reduce its use as much as possible and find energy efficient substitutes.  and the passive solar clothes dryer aka a clothes line couldn’t be much simpler or cheaper.  for under ten bucks you can get a line and some clothespins and you are off and running.  clothslineanother low-cost method for reducing your utilities and saving money!  clearly you can’t use a clothes line all year in detroit, but for over half you can, which saves you at least 50 bucks.    you also get the added benefit of having an excuse  for walking out into the yard and enjoying some vitmin d, which is a lot more pleasant than going to the basement and moving clothes into the dryer.

what methods are you using to reduce your utility use that are also easy and low coast.