A cram course in home maintenance

This tiny device mounted near the bottom of our hot water tank took a whiff of floor finish and threw cold water on our holiday weekend.
This tiny device mounted near the bottom of our hot water tank took a whiff of floor finish and threw cold water on our holiday weekend.

And thus it was written.

If the temperature of thy home should rise or the temperature of the water flowing from thy hot water faucet should fall…it will be Friday evening.

Thy HVAC service company will be closed.

As we head into the sixth week of our kitchen overhaul, I’m reflecting on some of the unexpected glitches along the way.

The air conditioning went on the blink twice. At least we thought it did.

On two separate Mondays, a nice HVAC repairman came to our stuffy house. Both times the system came on promptly at his touch. “I can’t fix something that isn’t broken,” he said as he handed us the bill for showing up.

Another Monday was the Fourth of July, a holiday and our third day with no hot water. This time, with the help of friends and family, we diagnosed the problem — and there was a problem this time. We actually managed to fix it ourselves.

That brings me to an unexpected benefit of ripping into your house: There’s a lot to be learned about what makes it tick.

Your hot water tank, too, may have a “flammable vapor sensor.” It lives up to its name. When strong-smelling finishes were applied to the hardwood flooring in our kitchen and dining room, it did its thing.

At this point, the AC was working fine and keeping all that fragrant air inside. The fumes wafted toward the hot water tank, and the sensor shut it down. It neglected to tell us.

Actually, it did. Once we realized there was no hot water, our son took a look at the tank and spotted a tiny light blinking in a pattern. Seven blinks, count ’em, indicate a flammable vapor problem.

So we turned off the AC (praying we’d be able to restart it eventually). We opened windows and doors. After a thorough airing, we managed to get the hot water tank going again.

When we started this project in early June, I was proud of my makeshift kitchen and confident in my coping skills. A cousin warned me the novelty would wear off.

Tomorrow brings Monday number six of indoor camping. The makeshift kitchen in our living room looks grimy and cluttered, not novel.

I remind myself that many West Virginians are living in far worse conditions as they deal with flooding. So I clamp my mouth on complaints.

Still, I’m glad to report that this Monday will yield another novelty. Our new kitchen cabinets are due to arrive.



A carbon footprint worthy of Sasquatch

Try to guess what the number 3,300 has to do with my kitchen renovation:

  1. The number of times my brain was jarred as a nailing machine attached new hardwood flooring.
  2. The number of trips we’ve made to Lowe’s and Home Depot since starting our project June 6.
  3. The pounds of debris we’ve taken to the city landfill after tearing out three layers of old flooring and drywall.

I wish I could say none of the above, but the correct answer is No. 3.

So much for feeling guilty about using plastic grocery bags.

My husband has made two trips to the landfill in his pickup truck. He paid $66.40 to dump those 3,300 pounds. He described a malodorous, apocalyptic landscape with a steady line of municipal trucks dumping load after load after load.

Americans average 4.3 pounds of garbage per day, says the Duke University Center for Sustainability & Commerce. 

Doing the math, I figure that in only two weeks we’ve generated a year’s worth of trash. (4.3 pounds times 2 people is 8.6, and 8.6 times 365 days is 3,139 pounds).

This is a backsplash tile sample I ordered and the box it was shipped in.
This is a backsplash tile sample I ordered and the box full of Styrofoam peanuts it was shipped in.
I ordered four knobs and just received one in a box that easily would have held them all. Company emails indicate the other three will arrive today as well. Hope they're not in three separate boxes!
I ordered four knobs and received one in a box that easily would have held them all. The other three came in one box on the same day.

The worst is over, but we’re still generating stuff to throw away.

For instance, I’m trying to select cabinet hardware and backsplash tile. The small samples I order online come in boxes that seem comically large. Our new appliances and cabinets will come in boxes as well.

Still, we were already faithful recyclers and we’ve tried to hold down the trash volume. We sold our kitchen table and chairs and our old cabinets. We gave away our old appliances.

One more thing. I don’t think I’ll get any argument out of my spouse in vowing never to do this again.

We are 62 and 67 and hope to stay in this house of about 2,000 square feet for another 20 years. As we’ve made choices for the new kitchen, I’ve kept that in mind.

When I’m 80, those pullout trays in the pantry cabinet and under the island should help. Hardwood flooring will be easier than tile on aging legs. And it will be easier to keep clean.

The new refrigerator will be larger, which only seems like a contradiction. It will be more energy efficient than the old one, and the freezer is at the bottom so the section we use most won’t require us to bend down. Best of all, it may eliminate the need for the freezer and small beverage fridge in the basement.

New can lights in the ceiling as well as under-cabinet lights may keep me chopping onions safely into my dotage.

So, yes, this project is having an environmental impact I didn’t consider through the months of planning. That’s the negative.

The positive is the improved function of a beloved house in a wonderful neighborhood for a couple of aging baby boomers.



The plastic habit is hard to kick

This is not the best moment in my life to worry about using disposable items.

My husband and I have launched a kitchen renovation project. The wall between the kitchen and dining room has been torn out. The cabinets, appliances and soffit are all gone. Even the insulation and dry wall are being replaced.

So we’ll be camped out in the living room for several weeks. We’re preparing meals and eating there. To wash dishes, I head to the laundry sink in the basement.

Despite the inconvenience, I can’t quell a recently stoked passion for reducing our use of plastic.

I was inspired by a piece by Ian Frazier in The New Yorker. Here an excerpt:

By some estimates, the world uses and throws away more than a trillion plastic bags a year. “Bag It,” the documentary, describes the plastic bag as the No. 1 consumer item in the world. Immense gyres of trash rotate slowly in the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, North Pacific, South Pacific, and Indian Oceans. In 2014, plastic grocery bags were the seventh most common item collected during the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup, behind smaller debris such as cigarette butts, plastic straws, and bottle caps.

I urge you to read the whole piece. It’s a fine piece of journalism made especially powerful by Ian’s first-person account of collecting plastic bags along the streets of Manhattan.

In other words, he got me.

I do the grocery shopping for my family and was bringing home a dozen or more plastic bags each week. I knew better.

A little math gives me the horrifying sum of my thoughtlessness. In nearly 40 years of marriage, I’ve been responsible for at least 25,000 of the bags floating in the oceans right now.

My husband, an avid recycler, doesn’t shop much but consistently has reusable bags on hand when he does.

Years ago my daughter bought me a brightly colored set of ripstop nylon bags. I used them half-heartedly for awhile. Recently, after reading Ian’s piece, I scoured the house and couldn’t even find them.

Shame on me.

I bought two sets of three of these ripstop nylon bags. Choosing them was the easy part. Changing my habits and remembering to use them is proving much harder.
I bought two sets of three of these ripstop nylon bags. Choosing them was the easy part. Changing my habits and remembering to use them is proving much harder.

So I ordered six new ones — two sets of three — and vowed to change my habits. I was excited when they arrived. They’re roomy but easy to fold, and I can throw them in the washer once in awhile.

I put one in my purse and keep the rest in my car. I also bought some nylon net bags for produce.

The idea is to counteract my habit of walking into a store mindlessly bagless.

This is proving difficult.

This week, for example, I headed to a fabric store to buy something for the makeshift kitchen. I was back to my vehicle when I realized the clerk had placed my small, lightweight item in a plastic bag.

I hadn’t thought to stop her. I didn’t need a bag at all, and I had a resuable one in my purse.

Next stop was the grocery store. Alas, I was using my husband’s truck and hadn’t brought my new bags.

Aha. A quick search produced three of his bags. With the one in my purse, that made four, and for this trip that was enough.

However, sometimes I don’t have enough. Guess what happens when you reach the checkout counter and the clerk can’t fit all your items into your reusable bags.

I hope I get better with practice.

Meanwhile, I’m attacking the plastic enemy on other fronts — trying to use fewer Ziploc bags and buying no more plastic leftover containers.  I’ll make do with what I have.

This new mindfulness has spread beyond plastic. I’ve read that Americans waste up to 40 percent of the food they buy, more than 20 pounds of food per person per month.

I’m looking into my fridge and pantry more carefully and focusing on using what’s there before it has to be thrown out.

As I write, I realize many people are way ahead of me. Perhaps I should have entitled this post “Confessions of a Thoughtless Consumer.”

In hopes of a little redemption, let me say that eight days into our project, I have yet to use any disposable plates, cups or utensils.

I’m trying.
















Too many questions

At the end of a long, hard week on the kitchen project, guess what still needed to be done.
At the end of a long, hard week on the kitchen project, guess what still needed to be done.

It’s the end of the first week of our kitchen redo, and I am unhinged.

Well, not completely. It’s actually been a pretty smooth week, if you can describe the dismantling of a big chunk of your house in such terms.

However, I am good and tired of making decisions.

After months of agonizing over cabinets, countertops and flooring, I thought I was through with that.

Now I’m being asked questions like:

–Do you want this cabinet hinged on the left or the right?

–What color do you want your outlets and switchplates to be? Where do you want them?

–How low do you want the pendant lights to hang?

My answer is usually a blank look and, “Uh, I don’t know.”

The hinge questions came from our cabinet supplier as he prepared the final order. He always offers advice but explains that it also comes down to personal preference.

This can throw you for a loop when you have no personal preference.

My old cabinets were hinged just fine, as far as I know. I don’t remember ever thinking, “Darn, I wish that door opened the other way.”

But the kitchen has been gutted and its contents hauled away. I couldn’t recall how the single cabinets hinged even though I had opened them thousands of times. Close your eyes and try to imagine yours. It’s harder than you think.

Perhaps I go through life just accepting what is, at least when it comes to houses. Other people apparently are not like this. Like my husband.

Rod cares about hinges and all forms of hardware. He could have answered the questions confidently. But he stayed behind to work on the project while I inked the deal.

He is acting as our general contractor, and he and our son are doing some of the work themselves. We gave Keith the weekend off to spend with his girlfriend.

Rod is tired but in his element.

So far we have been lucky to find competent, friendly people to do the jobs he can’t or doesn’t care to do.

All the demolition and many of the needed plumbing changes are under our belts. The electrical work is well along.

New insulation and drywall are on site and will be installed next week. The hardwood flooring fellow has scheduled us for the week after that, so we hope to be ready.

I might as well brace for more questions.



A shocking development

A kitchen warrior.
A kitchen warrior.

I interrupted my son as he was working on wiring in our gutted kitchen.

As he turned to respond, he touched a live wire and got a jolt.

He wasn’t hurt, and we laughed it off. But it brought back a memory.

He was about 4 years old and playing with an Operation game in our living room. Maybe you remember those little tweezers with metal tips that are used to pluck parts from the body on the game board.

I was sitting at the dining room table, and Keith was just out of my sight.

Suddenly the lights went out. I glanced out the window, thinking a storm was brewing.

Then Keith popped into view. With hands behind his back, he proclaimed, “I’m OK.”


“Why wouldn’t you be OK?” I asked.

He confessed he had stuck the Operation game tweezers into a wall outlet to see what might happen. It threw a circuit and evidently gave him a little smack.

I was glad he hadn’t been hurt, but now I’m thankful for his interest in household infrastructure. In those days, one of his favorite books from the library was an illustrated explanation of home plumbing.

He is 29 now and recently completed an MBA program. He’s about to start a management consultant job but has come home for a couple of weeks to help with the kitchen makeover.

It’s a godsend.

Even before he arrived, he had used spreadsheet software to set up a project planning document for us. It lets us track the budget and organize information about contractors, supplies and products.

He pitches in on every aspect of the work and is showing great aptitude for his upcoming management job. In the nick of time this week, he made a major save.

He discovered from our kitchen design printout that we were slated for more cabinet on one wall than we have space. That is, unless we wanted a cabinet to extend six inches into the doorway.

We were scheduled to sign on the dotted line and pay half the price the very next day. We made a call, and the planner adjusted the order and apologized. Whew.

That was trouble avoided, for sure. But that’s not the best thing about having Keith home.

This is a rare and joyous two weeks we’re spending with him.

We waited to start this project until he could come, and it’s proved to be a great decision.

He seems happy, too. This morning I overheard him cheerfully tell his dad, “After getting shocked a couple of times yesterday, I’m checking every single wire.”

Good to hear.


My not-so-tiny house

A website called “The Tiny Life” says “the typical small or tiny house is between 100 and 400 square feet.”

Have I caught a trend?

With our kitchen and dining room undergoing renovation, the living room is at least measuring up to its name. We’re doing a lot of living in here.

We briefly considered setting up a makeshift kitchen in the garage but realized that space would be needed for construction staging.

I covered the upholstered furniture with sheets in case some dusty person needs a break.
I covered the upholstered furniture with sheets in case some dusty person needs a break.

So we rearranged the living room to make room for preparing food and eating. My desk and computer have remained.

Surely this qualifies me for the tiny living movement.

Uh, no.

While this space is now functioning as living room, dining room, kitchen and office, it’s more than 250 square feet. Through patio doors on one end is a screened-in porch and beyond that a patio with grill. Up the stairs are three bedrooms and two baths. Downstairs is a family room and laundry room.

Guess I don’t have it too badly.

Once emptied of the pretty stuff, a china cabinet makes a fine pantry.
Once emptied of the pretty stuff, a china cabinet makes a fine pantry.

I’m only on Day Two, but so far I’m more proud of my tiny kitchen than irritated with it.

The set-up phase was fun. I bought a compact, tabletop microwave and a hot plate. I found some cheery plastic bowls that will be easy to carry up and down stairs for washing.

Last night, after a long day of loud noises, dust and power outages, things seemed bleak, not fun.

About 10 p.m. I headed to Kroger to restock our tiny deli. In the aisle with pet food and light bulbs, I found a crucial tiny item.

This morning, with that two-pack of adapters, I could brew a pot of coffee without unplugging the refrigerator.

A little sleep and some caffeine was all it took to brighten my outlook.





Demolition day

I picked up my son at the airport this morning. He's here to help with our kitchen renovation. Yes, I know he should be wearing more protective clothing. I'll work on that.
I picked up my son at the airport this morning. He came to help with our kitchen renovation. Yes, I know he should be wearing more protective clothing. I’ll work on that.

This morning I had a kitchen. This evening I have a pile of rubble.

This is noisy, dusty and more than a little scary.

A plastic wall has been installed between the space to be renovated and the rest of the dining room. Fans are pulling dust through the hole that used to be the kitchen window.

We’ve covered the patio furniture and even some of the plants.

But I can’t help wondering. Is my house being destroyed? Will all the king’s horses and all the king’s men come and put it together again?

Actually, I have two king’s men — princes both.

I’m manning the makeshift eating space in the living room while my husband and son  work alongside our contractor. They’re both current on tetanus vaccine. They’re wearing masks.

They’re my heroes. I realize I care much more about them than a new kitchen.