Saturday, August 21, 2010

“Foam Plus” Really Works

Although the record setting heat here in Alabama this summer has taken its toll on two of my trucks’ air conditioners, the house has stayed reasonably comfortable. The problem is that, even with the extra heat, more comfort had been expected because the house received a new compressor for its AC unit at the end of last season, and more insulation had been added to the attic earlier this year.

To compound the unmet expectation, there were the little clues that had been accumulating in my head. The thermostat has a filter monitor to let me know when the filter needs replacement. Strangely, the filter, while it appears to be doing its job, has not been that dirty the last few times it was replaced. The air coming out of the floor ducts, while cold, just didn’t seem to be blowing as hard as it once did. The power bill seemed unusually high even when the extra heat was factored in.

While under the house inspecting the fine plumbing work Gary did for me a few weeks ago, extra time was taken to inspect the ductwork for possible problems. None were found. Recirculation fans tend to either work at rated speed or not work at all. All signs pointed to an air blockage, and in a quiet moment, instead of the voice whispering, “Build it, and they will come”, it said, “Clean the evaporator coil for it is dirty”.

The voice was right about that:

The evaporator coil is the internal one that gets cold, and the entire top of the unit had to be disconnected to get to it. The first step in removing dirt accumulated from 15 years of operation was grooming it with a fin comb.

Even though I started off trying to collect what was combed out, the dust went everywhere, and the shop-vac was used to collect the bulk of it.

The next step was to spray it with approved cleaner from the appliance parts store.

I’m generally leery of foaming cleaners’ claims of “lifts dirt right out!” But this product was able to substantiate the claim.

After two applications of foam appeared to have done the job, the coils were gently rinsed with water. While doing so, a new problem presented itself – the rinse water was not draining. Foreign matter in the form of slimy, gelatinous material was clogging the drain. In my day job working in Life Sciences, we refer to this stuff by its technical name of “boogers”.

I couldn’t get a get a good head-on shot of the cleaned bank of coils, but it turned out better than this image implies.

The effects of the cleaning were profound. Every vent in the house pumped out significantly more cold air than before, and I did not have to hold a sheet of newspaper against the return vent to make sure it was drawing air. The fresh, clean smell might take a little getting used to, though.

The End.

I’ve got an unrelated funny if you’re in the mood. In the “hoot” category, there is a cucumber plant growing in the back yard amidst the ground trying to heal after another effort. The plant has gotten big enough that bricks were set up around the perimeter in an effort to keep the dog from trampling it.

This morning my ten year-old & I were sitting at the kitchen table while he was eating breakfast when he asked about the bricks. After explaining the reason, I went on to tell him I had not planted the cucumber's seed, and that it probably had been contributed by some low-flying bird.

He looked at me kind of funny and I went on to explain that, in nature, birds play a part when they eat fruits & vegetables, and fly away. Later, they poop the indigestible seeds in another area.

My fifth-grader thought about this for a moment and asked if I thought the plant was going to yield any cucumbers. After telling him I hoped so, he asked, “Are we going to eat them?”

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

This Year's Victory Garden

I've tended several small vegetable gardens in years past with varying results. Honestly, I find it cheaper & significantly less effort to go to the grocery store for produce.

It's been record-setting hot in Alabama this summer, and a consequence has been the grass seed I threw out to cover some plumbing done in the backyard has yet to germinate. But what appears to be a cucumber plant, whose seed was probably contributed by a low-flying bird, appears to be happy.

In my yard, if it's green it counts.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I’ve Had Better Mondays

You may recall that the Mighty Suburban’s air conditioner quit while coming back from the Hot Springs, AK trip. Danny’s shop installed another remanufactured compressor in time for our next trip a couple of weeks later to Stone Mountain/Six Flags in Georgia at no cost. Sadly, the replacement compressor only lasted long enough to get us there. Older son Daniel & I, though, managed to stay cool riding the new Goliath rollercoaster.

Kim & Jared decided they’d rather sweat. Departure day saw us leaving the campground at 4:30 a.m. to beat the heat during the four hour drive back home.

The next day, Danny installed another compressor, and kept the truck extra time just to make sure everything was okay. I’ve been driving it to work this past week just to build up my confidence in the latest repair because we’re headed to the Smoky Mountains at the end of the month, and the engine will have enough on its mind pulling some of the grades without having to tolerate the latest compressor smoking up the place like the last two did. Hopefully, the problem was just a slew of bad, remanufactured compressors. While remanufactured compressors have treated me well in the past, I’m done with them now, and if the Suburban’s current compressor craps out tomorrow, a brand-spankin’-new one will be installed.

This past Saturday I was running errands in the 98 degree heat when the Burb’s rear AC unit fan motor suddenly spun up to a super-fast speed. Thinking a fan wheel had simply come loose, the unit was switched off. But the particular sound didn’t sit right with me, and a few blocks down the road the radio was turned off & the air handler switched back on.

Hmm, lotsa air blowing out – something it wouldn’t be able to do with a loose fan wheel. The only thing that can make a DC motor spin faster is more voltage. A quick check of the dash voltmeter, and GAAH! To my chagrin it was pegged out past 20 volts. The fan motor was immediately switched off. Fortunately, I was within sight of my next stop, a grocery store, and was able to quickly pull in and get the engine shut off.

Figuring the alternator had ended its tenure with a flourish, I decided to go ahead and grocery shop to give the engine compartment time to cool before diagnosing the problem further. Seemed safe enough because all I was probably going to do was to pull the quick-disconnects on the wires going to the alternator for the four mile trip home, and that would take 10 seconds tops.

After shopping for, and stowing the goods, the next reasonable thing to do was to start the engine, and see if the problem was still there. Or try to start the engine. The key was turned, and nothing – no dash lights, no ‘click’, no anything happened. But the overhead light still worked. After popping the hood and tracing wires, a fusible link was found to be the culprit. The problem now was that I had neither tools nor parts to affect a repair. But I did have a wife at the house, so I called home. No answer. Tried her cell phone; no answer. Hmm, I’ll bet they’re over at the neighbor’s swimming pool. Called there – line was busy. Repeat the above – no luck.

Things were now starting to get tense because one of the purchases was a case of cold beer, and the heat wasn’t doing it any favors. Reassessing, my options appeared limited to either purchasing a cheap knife from the grocery store to cut & strip a wire from a non-critical circuit to use in place of the bad part OR sit on the tailgate and drink beer until either Kim got home or Joy got off the phone. After losing two coin tosses, I went with the first option.

The truck fired right up afterwords, and the voltmeter’s indication returned to normal. The beer had been saved. So had the night’s meal of fresh chicken leg quarters & everything else.

Daniel & I hopped on the motorcycle mid-Sunday morning in search of sanctioned repair parts, and added 30 miles to the odometer doing so. With better preplanning, I’m sure the mileage could have been reduced. But the fun of cruising with one of my Boyz doing guy things would have suffered.

The toasted fusible link’s temporary solution was replaced later that afternoon with new parts, and enough time was left to address another casualty of the Hot Springs trip - the broken gear selection indicator.

The root problem was simple - A little plastic hook (where the arrow is pointing) had broken off. But new pointers are no longer available for General Motors’ products built in 1984, and chances are a plastic pointer repaired with steel will last longer than a used one from an automotive junkyard. My trusty compound milling table got to help with this effort since the hole being drilled was so small.

The pin could be trimmed to fit after the epoxy cured-out Sunday night.

So O’dark-thirty Monday morning found me behind the wheel of the tan truck reassembling the dash because I wanted to drive the truck for a few more days to make sure the AC would hang with me.

The re-assembly went without a hitch, and after a quick shower my primary tow vehicle appeared ready to get me to work in the still-dark morning. The Mighty Suburban fired right up, and with satisfaction I could clearly see the truck was in “Park”. In the now subdued outside light I could also clearly see the right-hand turn signal dash light illuminated for no apparent reason. Flipping the turn signal lever up made the blinker audibly ‘blink’, but the dash light remained unfazed.

Upon further investigation, neither of the rear turn-signal/brake lights nor the right-front turn-signal light were found to be in working order. Since the lights had all worked prior to my MacGyver imitation in the grocery store parking lot, the assumption is that the high voltage burned them out. It made sense – I had to brake before signaling a RH turn into the parking lot.

Having neither time nor new light bulbs to address the issue forced me to switch vehicles and leave the Burb in the driveway. Firing the Silverado up, I was just about to put it in gear when a funny noise was heard coming from under the hood. But the noise stopped before it could be fully identified. My first thought was that some varmint’s nest under the hood was being thrashed about since the truck had been idle for several days. After moving a few feet down the driveway, the noise came back. While checking the dash gauges for signs of trouble, I noticed the interior wasn’t getting any cooler. Yep, it appeared the Silverado may need a new compressor. The AC was switched off, and I continued on my way with 2-60 air conditioning and no more strange noises.

Later, at work, someone came up and told me my elegant solution to one of last week’s problems was not working.

The day, thankfully, did not get any worse at the office. Danny was out sick so the Silverado’s NEW compressor will have to wait. The auto parts store had new light bulbs for the Suburban in stock. But it started raining on the way home from the store, and I was on the motorcycle.

I’ve had better Mondays.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

We Be Drainin’ Now

Kim & I have lived in our 41 year-old house for around 14 years now, and aside from some large-scale improvements, upkeep has not been much more than routine maintenance. But three or four years ago the kitchen sink started clogging occasionally, and would back up into the Boyz’ bathroom sink (on the other side of the wall) since both sinks shared a common drain pipe.

Although the problem usually occurred when grinding potato skins in the disposal (many people caution against grinding potato skins) the fact that I used to be able to grind anything led me to suspect the original iron sewer line was not up to the dual challenge of cleaning up after my Southern-style meals, and keeping the then younger Boyz’ teeth & feet clean.

While a variety of drain clearing techniques served to keeps the sinks generally functional, I knew that, in time, the condition of a certain section of pipe buried in the wall would only get worse, and the wall would have to be ripped out to replace a lot of old plumbing. But since the Boyz are only young once, and I had planned to do the plumbing myself, I decided to let life get in the way of doing anything about it at that point. The decision was made easier by the fact that crawling around under the house to connect plumbing has less appeal to me with each passing year. So I all but quit using the disposal to put off the inevitable as long as possible

We’ve been making a lot of trips in the Airstream this year, and part of the post-trip ritual is to rinse the trailer’s black tank into the sewer hookup incorporated into the construction of Mt. Airstream several years ago. While the hookup works well enough, I knew when the pipe was laid that the whole setup might not work to full potential because Mt. Airstream’s 3-inch sewer line was tied into the Shop sink’s existing 2-inch line instead of the house’s main, 4-inch line. The reasoning at the time was that I should be able to tolerate a less than perfect situation because the hookup would not be used that often, and I could always extend the line to the house at a later date if it ended up bothering me.

We spent part of last Thanksgiving in the next county over at Kim’s folks’ house, and I later confided to Kim a sense of disposal envy after watching the ability of her mom’s late-model kitchen sink grind up the skins from five pounds of potatoes without issue and subsequently grind up everything else presented to it. Consequentially, more & more of my random cogitating time started focusing on sewer improvements to our house & grounds.

One day a couple of months ago, a co-worker of Kim mentioned her husband had been laid off from his job as an explosives technician, and wanted to get the word out that he planned to stay busy before his next 9-5 job by practicing his previously established craft as a Master Plumber. “Please keep Gary in mind if you need any plumbing work done.”

In a small hometown twist of events, come to find out Kim grew up next to Gary & his sisters in Claysville. While allowing to me that she really didn’t know Gary at the time (he’s my age or older), Kim did remember enjoying playing with his sisters, and thinking their big brother was okay. That was then, and this now. Just to be sure, since he doesn’t live that far from Claysville now, Kim just called up a few relatives in Marshall County to see if Gary was still a good guy after he grew up. Everyone agreed he was. So we asked him over to talk about plumbing improvements.

Basically, I asked Gary to take charge of replacing the 2-inch plumbing in the back yard between the Shop & house with 3-inch, and replace the one sewer drop in the bathroom/kitchen wall with four drops – one for each side of the kitchen double-sink, one drop for the existing bathroom sink, and since we decided to take this opportunity to give each of the Boyz their own bathroom sink, one drop for the new sink. I would prep the effort by removing the bathroom vanity to expose the bad plumbing, and finalize the work by seeding the yard and re-installing the vanity.

While talking shop with him, I could tell Gary knew what he was doing. The only part of his plan I didn’t like was the use of a backhoe instead of a trencher in the backyard simply because a backhoe digs such a wide swathe. But he thought the backhoe was the best tool for the job. Since I work with skilled craftsmen during my day job who routinely turn out superior products, I decided the best approach now was to shut up, and take advantage of Gary’s experience.

There ended up being an unintended fringe benefit to having a backhoe on the premises. The front yard, in one spot, had an old bush in a rock bed Kim had never cared for, and its roots were too deep for my truck to pull it up. In another spot, ornamental grass had morphed into overbearing grass. Knowing he had rented the backhoe, Gary had no problem when I asked him to leave the keys in the ignition at the end of day one. Even though I had not operated a backhoe since I was a teenager, it all came back to me, and both problem areas were dug up in under a half hour. Lotsa fun, too; I drove around the yard looking to see if there was something else that needed to be dug up.

By the end of Friday, Gary had finished digging, and had cut out the bad plumbing. One friend in the pharmaceutical industry told me my bad pipe looked just like a clogged artery does:

We always eat out Friday nights, so the lack of kitchen sink plumbing was not an issue. Gary was relieved to find out we were leaving the next day on vacation for Hot Springs, Arkansas as he would have worked on a Saturday if necessary to get the kitchen sink operational. Satisfied with the quality of work he was doing, I asked Gary to go ahead and stub out water lines for the new vanity sinks while we were gone. I also told him we’d let the neighbors know he would be finishing the job on Monday in our abscence.

Hot Springs” you ask? I could say it was because I always wanted to see the 42nd President’s old stompin’ ground. But Daniel chose the destination. He wanted to visit Arkansas, and we said, “fine, pick an area, and we will go”. Fortunately, there was a very nice KOA campground closeby.

Hot Springs got its name because it has naturally occuring hot springs. The water comes out of the ground at a fairly constant 143 degrees year-round. What the camera could not capture in the image below was the steam coming off the water.

Back before medicine progressed to its current point, people used to come from far & wide to take advantage of the healing effects of the hot springs, and bath houses sprung up everywhere in town to meet the demand. The Army & Navy completed a huge hospital there just in time to care for soldiers wounded in WW2. Today there is only one operational bath house, but several others are open for tours.

We spent the next day hiking in a state park, and swimming in the campground’s pool. Tuesday morning found us leaving early for the eight-hour ride home.

Although it was 98 degrees outside, the Mighty Burb’s dual AC units kept us comfortable until the compressor clutch burned up about 40 miles from the house. Do you remember 4-60 air conditioning? Kim did, and the Boyz now know what it’s like to ride at 60 mph with four windows down.

Although I could take the heat, what steamed me was the kaput air conditioner as I had had a new compressor/clutch assembly installed no more than a year ago, and it should have lasted much longer than this. “Fine”, I thought. “You’ll be home soon where a 12-pack of cold beer awaits. Everything’s going to be all right”.

Well, we were home soon enough, but there was much less beer than I remembered. Gary claimed he banged his thumb with a hammer and needed a pain killer, but I suspect he had a few beers just to celebrate a job well done:

There was, however, enough beer to take my mind off the AC, so I called it even. In the picture above, you can see the four new sewer drops at left, and the Shop/Airstream line entering from the right.

Only three drops are visible in the image below as the fourth is hidden by a wall stud.

The kitchen sinks were tested by filling both full of water, and then pulling the plugs. Both sinks simultaneously drained fantastically quick and made wicked sucking noises while doing so. The disposal side of the sink was accredited after easily chewing up the skins from five or six potatoes & the rind of one cantaloupe without burping. Mt. Airstream’s sewer hookup easily drained 25 gallons of water from a Blue Boy tank in seconds (something it could not do before). Thrilled, I shifted my attention to the Shop to complete modifications on the vanity base cabinet in preparation of the double-sink countertop’s arrival.

Originally, there were two small drawers to the left & right of the one sink. These went away to be replaced with one big drawer in the middle with a divider. It was fun making the drawer because for some reason, I have not needed to make one in years but always enjoyed the effort. It was a no-cost project, too because I already had all the material necessary.

After re-sheet-rocking the wall, the vanity base cabinet slid into place without issue, and a local cultured marble company sent two fellas over with a new countertop. With the addition of fixtures chosen by Daniel, the Boyz each had sinks just in time to prep for school starting back up on Monday.

Of course the new sinks drained without incident, and Gary had remembered to put “hot” on the left & “cold” on the right. Good thing, too, because he’d been paid & gone for a week at this point. Seriously, I was very happy with the work he did, and could hire him again.

As an add-on to the original project, we decided to put a new faucet on the kitchen sink because the one I installed around the time we bought the house was starting to leak around the spout’s swivel point. But right as I was walking in with my plumbing toolbox, Kim advised me the dishwasher had conked out. After checking this-that-and-the-other, a loose wire on the control panel was found to be the culprit.

Unfortunately, while the functional repair was easy, the control panel’s plastic mounting points had grown brittle with age, and would no longer hold a screw. I once read that it takes 500 years for a plastic milk jug to decompose in a landfill. The thought of writing Kitchenaid with a materials change suggestion crossed my mind before the reality of them preferring I just replace the 10 year-old dishwasher with a new one firmly took hold.

Due to its embedded electronics, a new control panel was not cost effective, so the old one was modified with the same plastic they make milk jugs out of, and #8 stainless screws & barrel nuts.

$4.62 and some quality time at the drill press later, the previous night’s supper dishes were on their way to becoming clean.

Between getting the Boyz’ sinks operational and repairing the dishwasher, Saturday was effectively shot. So I decided to hold off on replacing the kitchen faucet until the next morning. Since I get up early, chances were that the swap-out would be done before anyone else even got up.

Ain’t nothing ever easy. The under-sink shut-off valves wouldn’t work, and the water to the entire house had to be cut off. Then, in spite of using a special tool to loosen it, one of the nuts holding the faucet to the sink seized. The sink had to be removed to get the faucet off.

Even though the shut-off valves did not work, out of laziness I had not planned to replace them because they were tough to get to with the sink in place. But with the sink now removed, ‘stupidity’ would creep into the description of work accomplished if the valves were not dealt with. 5:30 a.m. found me sitting at the kitchen table drinking coffee in a house with no running water waiting for the home improvement store to open at 8:00.

Kim finally stirred around 7:30, and while listening to my tale of woe she suddenly sat up and told me she needed to be in the shower by 8:00. While I had already decided to dodge lightning bolts that morning to get the sink operational, number 2 son had apparently bathed the night before in anticipation of making it to Sunday School. His mom did not want to disappoint him.

Having no spare parts suitable for temporarily capping off the kitchen water, I headed out to wait for the store to open. Through a litany of good luck, water was restored to the house by 8:15 - just within Kim’s tolerance.

The sink & faucet installation was completed with no new challenges. Replacing the valves had an unexpected benefit – The old valves were found to be partially clogged with both sediment from the city water supply, and a solder splash from the house’s original construction. The new faucet freely fills the sink like no one’s business.

But it’s nothing my new plumbing can’t handle, though.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Let there be less LED light

After the second camping trip with LED lights installed in all overhead fixtures, Kim & I both agreed the bathroom was just too dim. So the original incandescent bulbs were reinstalled in that location for last week's trip to Stone Mountain's campground where we stay while visiting Six Flags' amusement parks.

For our trip to the Smoky Mountains at the end of this month, the light fixture over the dinner table will have its original 1156F bulbs returned so we can better see what we are eating.

Maybe at some point, a light vendor will market an 1156-style bulb with super-bright LEDs instead of regular LEDs. Until then I guess we'll have hybrid lighting in the Overlander.