Wednesday, January 28, 2009

What is this? (part 2)

What is this? (part 2)

Here's a picture of the inside of the curious outlet I described in my previous post. Notable are the weight of the wiring, somewhere around 12 gauge, and that the wiring is in a box.

There are two of these outlets, one in the dining room and one in the front hallway.

Any new thoughts?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

What is this?

What is this?

Help! I've a few of these. I had assumed that they were old phone jacks, but then I noticed that they had five leads...

Monday, January 26, 2009

Light switches and electrical outlets

Virtually all of the electrical outlets and perhaps half of the light switches in my house are original. I find it curious that while the 1920s light switches all still have excellent action, virtually all of the outlets are so worn that a plug will barely sit in them. Did someone underspec the electrical outlets when the house was built? I can't imagine that many switchless items were used, and anyway, the deterioration of the outlets is too consistent - even those in underused areas don't want to hold a plug. Are electrical plugs thinner today than they used to be?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

What am I going to do with this stupid little window?

The tinest basement window, under the front stoop

At least that's what I had thought before. It's in the basement, in a small room that houses the sump pump. The room is about 4' x 7'. It sticks out away from the basic rectangle of the foundation, so all four walls, the ceiling and the floor are masonry.

Front entrance

It is actually underneath the front porch, following about the same outline as the porch itself. I'm not sure why they felt the need to do an excavated foundation for this space.

Root Cellar

The sump pump sits in the corner of the space opposite the window, which is near the ceiling.

Initially, I thought that the space was relatively useless. It's small, cold, and humid. The ceiling in shorter than the rest of the basement. At one point I called it our "wine cellar". One should note that I have no idea if the temperature and humidity levels are appropriate for the storage of wine. One should also note that while I like the idea of a wine cellar, I've never owned more than seven bottles of wine at a time, and that presently, I have but three.

I've been interested in gardening for a while, and before I realized how affordable Shaker Heights could be, I was looking to purchase a farm. We had planned to have a small vegetable garden in our current yard. With the current economic situation, we were looking harder at how to stretch our money. As a result, we will be trying to figure out how to make more of our yard a garden while still keeping it looking clean and yardlike, at least until we get an impression of how the neighbors feel about it. Also, we will likely be joining some sort of Community Supported Agriculture group (CSA), which should provide a steady supply of fresh vegetables.

This otherwise useless room in the basement should be an excellent root cellar. With masonry walls on all sides and earth to insulate it on three of the four walls, it should keep vegetables all winter long. Building shelving to fit in the space will use up some of the scrap lumber that I have sitting around. Further, that window that I started this entry with - it'll be the perfect location to route the necessary ventilation pipes through.

Love is blindness

Electrical for the boiler

This is part of the wiring for the water pumps for the hot water heat system. There are two pumps, each with its own Federal Pacific switch. There's a low-voltage transformer, and two boxes made by Honeywell of unknown utility. I should take a look at them later to determine exactly what they are for. There's a lot of stuff down there that I'm not quite sure what it's for. I don't need the extra space, so I'm not actively pursuing this issue.

Do you see the problem here? I'm not quite sure how I didn't see it before. It's not the Federal Pacific switches - they were made before the quality of the company's products went downhill. Follow the low-voltage wiring for the pumps up. Yeah. Wire connectors just sitting out there in the open, outside a box.

They're only low-voltage, and they're in a place that is not likely to be filled with combustibles anytime soon, but still I should address that. One more thing for the list, I guess.

The Original Shower Light Fixture of Doom!

(Not to be confused with the Electrical Outlet of Death™)

Porcelain shower light fixture

This was the light fixture in the shower. It is original to the house. We just removed it to replace it with a code-complaint fixture. Note the lack of mounting screws. Yes, it's held on by magic. Removing it intact was a challenge - after all, it is easy to remove things properly when you can find the hardware, but when you can't find the hardware to unscrew them...

Porcelain shower light fixture (socket)

It was held onto a mounting bracket by the two screws in the base of the socket. While this seems a slightly disconcerting way to attach it, the base and socket are as solid as ever at 85+ years old, so clearly it hasn't been a structural problem.

Porcelain shower light fixture (base)

The fixture sat on this base, which would really look much better if not for the layers of paint and popcorn. I'm not terribly fond of the base, preferring the clean lines of the fixture without it, but I assume that it helps to prevent moisture infiltration.

Porcelain shower light fixture (back)

This is the underside of the fixture. Note that other than the two screws, it is completely sealed. With a bit of caulk, it could probably be completely sealed.

Porcelain shower light fixture (mounting bracket and electrical)

This is the rest of the light fixture, which the base screwed into. The strap ran between two joists to support it. The electrical connection was not made in the ceiling box, which is too small to fit much of anything, but rather in the extensive free air space above it, as was common at the time.

Porcelain shower light fixture (cleaned)

Finally, here is the fixture after I cleaned it up. Again, I'm really quite pleased with its clean lines. I love the lack of visible hardware, and am actively looking for more fixtures like it. I wonder if a shade clipped onto it, or if that was just the style.

The Electrical Outlet of Death™ is at the edge of the sink in the non-master bathroom, which, conveniently, is also the edge of the shower. An electrical outlet in a shower doesn't seem like a very good idea to me. When we eventually upgrade our electrical system, I'm going to put a GFCI breaker on that circuit so I don't have to replace the gorgeous original outlet cover with a hideous GFCI one.

We now have a boring flush-mounted shower light!

Shower, master bath, with new light fixture

One of the code violations that the city required us to fix was the bare bulb fixture in the shower. I removed the fixture and replaced it with a flush mounted one, as per code. We had planned to replace it, just like we had planned to replace the Electrical Socket of Death™. However, once we had removed the fixture, we saw its charms and wanted to reconsider its removal. By that point, the entire ceiling in the shower had been removed and the light fixture removed, so I decided to just install the damn can on the ceiling.

The first can that I had purchased, the one with the better looking piece of glass, of course did not fit in the space, due to vertical clearance issues. While the idea of notching a load-bearing joist was quite tempting (half the width of the joist isn't too much, is it?), I decided to find another fixture. The replacement fixture was smaller, in addition to being shorter. It's not quite as nice as the first one we found, but it's a lot less ugly than many of them (no polished chrome trim rings!) and it does the job. Further, to get something that looked slightly better, I'd have had to pay at least five times as much and special order the part. While I'm not completely satisfied with the look of the glass in the fixture, that should be simple enough to replace if I really want to, in the future.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Back from DC

We've made it back from Washington, DC, where we were the past few days, for the inauguration. We didn't actually see the inauguration from the mall, but that is another story. It was great to be in DC for this historic event.

Last night, we were sitting in bed, listinging to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. A. insisted that she heard something in the chimney. Bailey, our cat, also seemed rather certain of this. Once the audiobook was paused, we could hear a mouse (or mice) in the walls. We haven't seen any evidence of mice in the house, so this doesn't bother us that much. Further, we have good confidence that our cat, Bailey, will make fast work of them. We are slightly concerned as to where she may leave the dead mice and thus provided her with extensive instructions as to proper and improper places for their disposal.

Another surprise when we returned home was the massive amount of ice on the north-facing side of our house. Most dramatic was on the third floor dormer, where the water appeared to have drained between the roof and the gutter. The massive ice buildup here would explain the exensive damage to the slates just below the dormer. This will be a real challenge to insulate.

Friday, January 16, 2009

eBay alert!

I was looking for some parts for my own bathroom on eBay when I came across this incredible turn of the century bronze shower set. With three hours left, bidding is at a mere $40. I don't have to tell you how hard it is to find something like this or how expensive it would be if sold through a dealer in such things. It's just a bit too old for my house.

Another curious discovery in the attic

Unknown wiring (detail)

I found this bit of wiring in the attic.

Unknown wiring (detail)

Here is a wide angle shot of the same. It comes up to the 4th floor from places unknown, runs the entire length of the space, then disappears back downstairs. It is secured the entire distance by fasteners similar to those shown here.

Could this have been some sort of buzzer or intercom for the hired help up on the third floor, or perhaps old phone wiring - who needs those pesky grounds, anyway? In the second floor hallway, above the frame of the door that leads to the third floor, we found a spot where it appeared some sort of box had been mounted, of the size that I would expect a doorbell or similar to be.

I'd be interested to hear any theories on the subject.

Not quite what I had expected

Roof, front

From the ground, the bit of wrought iron between the chimney and the roof seems appears quite ornamental and of relatively light weight. This appears, on further inspection to be entirely because of the distance from the viewer.

Southeast corner of the attic

This is where the wrought iron bolts in place in the attic. Note the diameter of the iron. Massive. I doubt that it does much to hold the chimney in place, but it's still a couple hundred pounds of iron, I would imagine. The water stains in the photograph are all dry, and of unknown age.

Southeast corner of the attic

This is just a wide angle shot of the same, for comparison.

A morning greeting from your friendly neighborhood icicle - I mean librarian

The back yard

When I left for work, it was -10 this morning. I don't think I've ever left the house when it was that cold, ever. Brr. I hope to have a nice warm fire at home again tonight. And I hope that the kids who come over for their story time today don't have blue fingers and toes.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

On a lighter note

Our house in the snow

Just our house in the snow and sunshine.

Think happy thoughts...

Boiler chimney (detail)

Last night, I went up in the attic in preparation for the beginning of the insulation installation, which is another story altogether. Due to the rather steep pitch of the roof on my house, the "attic" comprises a large area above the third floor, as well as some small crawlspaces around the edges of the third floor rooms. My intent had been to determine the amount of free space between the joists, but I then became distracted by the structure and the little random things I found up there.

Boiler chimney (detail)

The most significant thing I saw was evidence of significant water damage around both of the chimneys. Fortunately, the leaks appear to have been in the past, as there is plenty of snow on the roof right now, the attic is warmer than it should be, and the areas that are water-stained are dry to the touch. These still present a councern, I assume, but they are not as bad as if the areas were still leaking water.

Evidence of water damage by fireplace chimney

The water damage by the other chimney appeared to be more significant.

Evidence of water damage by fireplace chimney

Yes, that is flashing that can be seen through the missing sheathing.

Northwest corner

Three of the four ridges also showed some very light evidence of water staining.

Additionally, there are some issues in back where the roof has a bit less of a pitch.

Insulating all these spaces is going to be a real challenge. There are so many areas that will be somewhere between difficult and impossible to get to. One might consider blowing in insulation, but the spaces in question are so large that a huge quantity of insulation would be required.

At present, we have no insulation at all, which I had planned to address next summer. However, it's been so cold that I really wanted to do something now. I purchased ten sheets of Owens Corning Foamular 150 because sheet insulation seemed the perfect product for sliding into the spaces that would be impossible to roll fiberglass into. It has an R-value of 5 per inch of thickness, which helped cement my decision over blow-in products.

I chose this product over the one offered by Dow (which has an R-value of 5.5 per inch) because it came pre-scored to fit between the studs. Unfortunately, those are new-construction studs. Doh!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Project for the 40 Year Plan

When I talk about construction projects on the house, there are those things that need to be done in the next few years, the five year plan. By plan, one must understand, I mean some ideas that came into my head one time and I thought mightb be interesting. Then there are those things that are priorities, but don't need to be done in the immediate future - the 15 year plan. There are projects that, while it would be nice to get them done, are both expensive and don't need to be done anytime soon - the 30 year plan. And then, finally, there are the fantasy projects that are both expensive and of minimal utility, but dang would they be fun. These last projects fit into what I call the 40 year plan. The following is one such project.

The roof on our house is rather steep. Above the third floor is a crawlspace with a trap door. At the present, access to this space is through a trap door. At the peak of the rafters, it's about 7 or 7.5 feet to the collar ties, which make up the third floor ceiling. There is no flooring, and the collar ties probably couldn't support much use, anyway. The greatest utility for the space right now appears to be as access for the wiring and to blow insulation in for the third floor.

Given that the space is not terribly useful for storage, due to issues of access and load limits, I feel free to imagine all sorts of uses for it. I see it primarily as a long, narrow library. Access would be from the third floor, via a spiral staircase. There would be built-in bookcases lining the walls. The floor would be some sort of hardwood, with an Oriental rug, probably a runner, covering much of it. At one end would be an armchair with a nice lamp for reading. The bookcases would surely have some sort of illumination, too.

Of course, there are some major issues with this. The collar ties would need to be sistered up to support the weight of the books and the floor. Even with this, additional structural work might be required to carry the load - perhaps a bit of structural steel on the third floor, disguised as a Tudor beam. One would have to find some way to ventilate the space, to keep from boiling in the summer. Finally, if the third floor ever became a teen bedroom, it would be a bit awkward at times to get through it to get to the library.

This brings me to another possible element in the 40 year plan. With hot water heaters and boilers that have special vent pipes which run through the side walls of the house, the chimney servicing them would no longer be necessary. This chimney (there are two, with the other one servicing the fireplaces) is not especially architecturally significant. It is also rather large - I'd estimate that the space inside the walls where the chimney currently runs is about 3' x 3'6". Thus one might begin to consider the removal of the chimney.

Why remove the chimney? For a spiral staircase, of course! There's almost enough space to fit one in the location currently transited by the chimney. It would begin in the basement and go all the way up to the library on the fourth floor. I can not see a way that would be either comfortable or architecturally satisfying for it to provide access to the first floor. On the second floor, there would be a hidden doorway that would allow access, through the massive built-in cabinet in the guest bedroom. I'm not sure that the third floor needs direct access to the staircase, either.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Our house in the snow

Front yard in the snow

I was going to lead with a picture of our house in the snow, but it isn't nearly so sexy as I thought it would be. So instead, I give you a picture of the view from our house at night.

Our house in the snow

See? Not so sexy. All grey and blah. This photo was taken at about 1:30 in the afternoon. Yes, skies like that are normal in the winter here. This is the only reason I can figure that the cost of real estate is so reasonable here. If you can live through sunless winters, it's a great place to be.

The massive mountain and the pitiful little minivan

The modest hill that kept my minivan on the street

My 2000 Plymouth Voyager has been a reliable mode of transport for years. It has allowed my wife and I to get stuck in snow in the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming, it has navigated 4WD high-clearance roads in Utah, and more. But, on Saturday afternoon, it was unable to conquer my driveway.

The library closed early due to excessive snow, and I got home at about 1:20. By that time, there was about a foot of snow on the ground. I tried to pull my minivan in the shared driveway, without any luck. After a couple tries, I thought I'd go around the block and get a bit of a running start, hoping the momentum would help. It didn't. I parked off the street and went in the house to grab my camera and later, my shovel. During that time, the plow showed up!

I'm not sure who this plow guy is. Perhaps the neighbor with whom we share a driveway is contracting him. Perhaps the previous owner had contracted with him. He's definitely a smaller outfit, maybe even someone in the neighborhood - just a guy in a soft-top Jeep with a plow on the front. Anyway, after the driveway was plowed, I was able to get the minivan back in the driveway. Yay.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Slab Wood

Slab wood
Slab wood

Today, the three bundles of slab wood were delivered. Slab wood is essentially the leftovers from the sawmill. It's considerably cheaper than regular firewood, and because it is not cut to length, one can cut to fit one's own fireplace. Each of the three bundles is about 12 feet long. Two of them are primarily oak, with some maple. The other seems to be mostly pine and other softwoods, with some poplar. The hardwood bundles are a combination of pieces cut to a great size for burning (about 2.5" square) with some pieces that are truly massive.

I was told that this would be about 1.5-2 cords. At the current rate, I think it will be closer to 2.5, though that is partially due to my less than perfect stacking skills. It should burn well, I think. Anyway, it seems to me an excellent value - it was $175 for the three bundles, delivered. Around here, a cord, delivered, costs about $225-$250.

I've begun cutting the wood to fit our fireplace. This evening, I was able to get through about 2/3 of the first bundle. The other two bundles, the hardwoods, should be easier to cut, due to their relatively consistent size. Hopefully, I'll be able to get it all cut and stacked by the end of the day on Wednesday.

Why I miss Washington County, Maryland

Tree and yard

Over the holidays, I went with my wife to see her family in Funkstown, a small town on the Antietam Creek in Washington County, Maryland. Washington County has, I believe, the most beautiful farm landscapes in the country. The following are a sample of what I saw in Funkstown, late one afternoon.

Old barn

Old Window, Main Street

Behind Main Street

Front porch

Main Street

Yard on Main Street

Chestnut Street

Brick house, painted red

Concrete block garage

Stone bridge and farmhouse

This last one is from the next day. While the Antietam may be famous for Burnside's Bridge, there are more than two dozen other stone arch bridges in the county, most of them multiple arches. This one is just a short distance outside Funkstown.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Our First Fire

Our first fire

The day before yesterday, we had our first fire in the fireplace. During the day, I opened the damper and looked up the chimney. Everything looked to be in good order. I cut up some of the horribly warped lumber in my workshop and made a nice fire.

The fireplace draws very well. I'm pleasantly surprised at how well it reflects heat out into the room, too. We're now considering a serious firewood purchase. I'm seriously considering slab wood - that is, the parts of a log that are cut off by the sawmill - which presents a much better value than normal split firewood. I've found someone who will deliver 3 bundles of slab wood, 8-12 feet long, which should represent 1.5-2 cords, for $175. The additional advantage of this is that because I will be cutting the wood to length, I can cut it to fit my fireplace, which is wider than average.