Friday, November 14, 2008

What's Wrong with this Picture?

Can you spot it?

2008 11 12 02

Here's a closer look:

2008 11 12 01

This is a melted wire nut. That's what I found after we lost power in our basement and living room the other night. None of the breakers had tripped, so I went to the back bathroom, where a fusebox-turned-junction box is. I could smell melted plastic before I even opened the door.

A guy from Tracy Electric came out and fixed it for the night, then came back the next day to beef it up more. He apologized profusely, and he showed me exactly what had happened, what he was doing to fix it, and what they would do the next day to fix it more.

Apparently the guy who actually did the work on our house in the first place hasn't worked on old houses before, so this has been a learning experience for him. Just another public service courtesy of College Hill House.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Beast Saves the Day

Yesterday was day two of the heat pump/air handler installation and electric upgrade. By the end of today, we should have our new system up and running.

The upgrade from 100 amp service to 200 amp service is complete, and the new breaker box is much better than the old system of two ancient breaker boxes and one (even more ancient) fuse box. I'll post some pictures of that later.

We had some excitement yesterday morning when the electrician got here. For some reason I had the mindset that the electrician would get here, shut off the power to the house for about an hour, then finish upgrading our service and turn the power back on. If I had really thought about all the work he was doing, I would have realized how silly that was. But I didn't think about it that much.

So I was a little surprised when I got a call from Niki around 9:00 yesterday morning, telling me that the electrician had just shut off the power and it was going to be off all day. It was 30 degrees when we found this out. Fortunately, the radiators retain their heat for quite a while after The Beast shuts off, so I knew we were okay for at least an hour or two. But with the workmen needing to go in and out of the house constantly, it was just a matter of time before thing started getting chilly.

After briefly considering a triplet exodus to Niki's house, I decided to do something I'd had in the back of my head for a while. Rex (a friend of mine from work) and I went to the house and set up what you see below.

2008 10 28 01

It's a battery and an inverter spliced into the AC wires for the boiler. We had heat for the whole day -- in fact, even as I write this The Beast is still hooked up to that battery.

I would wager that there are very few houses in Wichita that could be heated for several days with a battery as the source of electricity. But The Beast is a gas boiler (originally coal, but it was converted), and the heat is circulated through the house by gravity: the steam rises in the pipes, and when it cools off in the radiators it turns to water (called condensate), which flows down the return pipes. There are no blowers or pumps. The only need for AC power is to open and close the valve when the thermostat tells it to. When we set this up at 11:00 yesterday morning, the battery had 12.05 volts. I just checked it again this morning, and it has 11.98. With a fully-charged deep-cycle battery, we could probably heat the house for a few days without power. Nice to know!

We had more excitement last night when we tried to turn on lights upstairs. I'll write more about that when I have time, but I have to say that Tracy Electric did an impressive job late last night, and they promised to replace anything that might have been damaged.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Halfway to New Heat

The heating and cooling trucks pulled into the drive at 8:15 this morning and left right around 5:00 pm. And they replaced this old air conditioning compressor...

Old AC

...with a shiny new heat pump.

New Heat Pump

They'll be back again, though. The air handler and thermostat still have to be installed, and that will likely take most of tomorrow.

I've received the same response from several people upon hearing that we are having a heat pump installed. It's a mixture of shock, horror, and disappointment. People are surprised that we are getting rid of The Beast. Rest assured that The Beast will still be part of our family. The new heat pump will be on a new thermostat, and The Beast will still be hooked up to the old thermostat.

I'll post more tomorrow evening after (we hope) the whole system is set up.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Beast Lives

We have a few more days before our new heating system is installed, but the weather decided not to wait. So far we've been using space heaters during the night, and the house has warmed up enough during the day that it hasn't been a problem. But today the temperature stayed in the 40s all day, and the house stayed cold despite the valiant efforts of our little electric space heaters.

And it's supposed to get colder. The forecast is for lows in the 20s and 30s this weekend, so we realized that we would have to awaken The Beast one more time. I figured I should get it on video, in all its Freddy Kruegeresque glory. I opened the lower door and set up the Mino as I turned on the gas.

I lit the pilot light at 4:45. At 5:00 I went back down to check on it, and the water was at full boil and the pipes around the boiler were warming up. A few minutes after that, I was sitting in the living room when I heard the familiar popping that accompanies the steam pipes expanding. By 5:30, the house was toasty. I had forgotten how much we enjoy radiant heat. As much as we're looking forward to manageable bills during the coldest months, I'm really going to miss the old-school heat we get from The Beast.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Electric: Upgrade

We're having a heat strip installed in the new air handler. It was only a couple of hundred dollars more, and it basically converts the air handler into an electric furnace. However, the wiring that goes up to the air handler isn't stout enough for the heat strip, so we had a couple of electricians out to give us estimates. Just run some electric up to the attic. Simple, right?

In the tradition of College Hill House, it is much harder and more expensive than that. We're getting a 20KW heat strip in the air handler, and our house's electrical service just can't handle it. So we are upgrading our service from 100 amp to 200 amp. Of course, that means it will be longer before we can have the heat strip up and running, and it will cost about five times as much as we expected. But the heat pump should be installed on Monday, and it should be at least a month or so before we need the backup heat from the heat strip.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

This is So Wrong

In general, Internet polls are useless. You cannot get a good sample from a poll on a Web site. Take any political poll, run it on a liberal site and a conservative site, and those two results will be completely different from each other -- and different from what the majority of Americans probably think.

And yet, I still participate in Internet polls that look interesting to me. So as I was checking the weather yesterday, I clicked a poll about coffee consumption. I was shocked to find out that many people who go to are crazy:

Coffee Poll 2

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Decision

We finally made our decision about the heating situation. It was a little easier than we planned, because of four companies we've had out, only one gave us estimates. The others wouldn't return our phone calls, and now I've heard that one of them went out of business. Glad we didn't go with them.

We are getting a heat pump. Specifically, the Trane XL14i heat pump, a 4TEE variable speed air handler, Trion Air Bear air cleaner and some sort of fancy-pants thermostat.

You may notice something missing from that list: anything to do with the boiler. That's because we simply couldn't afford to get the heat pump (or air conditioner) and replace the boiler this year. Since our a/c is on its last legs and the air handler is filled with mold, we decided to go this route.

Hopefully the heat pump will help us save money by keeping the house warm during those weeks or months when the temperature stays above 35. When it goes below 35, the heat pump isn't efficient enough to be worth running (it isn't a geothermal heat pump), and we'll have to awaken The Beast.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Sticker Shock


Ouch ouch ouch.

We got an estimate on our boiler/air conditioner situation yesterday.

I say again, ouch.

Here's what we had hoped to do: replace our 40% efficient steam boiler with a 90%+ efficient hot water system. Not only would this save us money, but it would be safer as well (those steam pipes hit temps over 200 degrees F). We were also going to replace the 25-year-old A/C unit with a heat pump, which would allow us to cool the house all summer and warm the house on those high-30s and 40s days without firing up the boiler (or hot water unit).

So that's what we heard about yesterday. I don't want to give the exact number, but for those of you reading this post in the distant future (and I assume you are, since I don't think anyone reads this blog in the present), I will provide some handy 2008 equivalents.

For the price of installing a hot-water heating system and a heat pump, in the year 2008 a person could do one of the following:

  • Catch the matinee of Tropic Thunder at the Warren Theatre 2,714 times (that's the original 2008 version of Tropic Thunder, not the crappy remake from 2043).
  • Renew your Flickr Pro Account for 761 years.
  • Buy 5,937.5 gallons of gas (roughly enough to drive a Hummer from Wichita to Kansas City).
Obviously, we are looking into other possibilities.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Pics of the Hood

Chandra has some cool photos of College Hill over at her blog, To Explain How I Got Here. Nice work, Chandra.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Visitor and a Major Decision

We've had a couple of developments with the house lately, which made me realize, "Hey, I used to have a house blog! I wonder whatever happened with that." It was a little like waking up in college and realizing you have a final in a class you'd forgotten you were taking. I haven't updated this blog since April. For five months there hasn't been anything interesting enough to post to this blog. Hopefully that will change, but as always, I will play the triplet card for now.

The Visitor

A woman who grew up in our house stopped by today. Judy, our neighbor from across the street, stopped by this morning to tell us that this woman was in town for her high school reunion and she might want to take a look at the main floor of our house.

Honestly, at first we were a little creeped out by this. I mean, I can imagine driving by the house I grew up in to see what it looks like now, but I would never knock on the door and ask to take a look inside. I would never do that with any of the houses I've lived in, and neither would Maranda.

But then we realized that it wasn't creepy; it was actually pretty cool. This woman's family lived here from 1957 to 1985. Judy lived across the street during that time too, so they were able to talk about the old neighbors and the ones who were still around. College Hill has more of a sense of community than many neighborhoods; certainly more than you find in most suburbs.

It's also about the house. It's cliche, but old houses have character. I really think you feel more of a connection with an old house than with a newer one. At least, we certainly do. We lived in our house on Robin Circle for five years, yet we really didn't feel any sense of loss when we left it. After living in our College Hill house for not even two years, we would already feel tremendous loss if we had to leave. This woman wanted to come inside because it wasn't enough simply to drive by and see the outside of the house. She still felt like this was home. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

We also found out that this woman's family bought our house from the Warrens, who were the original owners. In 1985, her family sold it to the Muths, and then in 2007 we bought it from the Muths. That means we are the fourth owners of this 93-year-old house. Pretty cool. Our house on Robin had had at least four owners, and it was built in 1992!

The Major Decision

After two winters, lots of work to make our house more efficient, and concerns about a 25-year-old air conditioner, we are considering a major HVAC makeover.

Last winter we insulated the basement pipes, installed storm windows, weatherstripped the doors, and lowered the thermostat. All of that had a measurable effect on our gas usage when compared to periods of the same temperature the year before, but it just wasn't enough. We still paid several hundred dollars more per month than we should have during the coldest months.

So we started having companies come out to give us estimates. At this point we've decided that we're willing to part with our beloved steam heat if it means we can have manageable gas bills, so we're even open to replacing the boiler with a furnace.

Fortunately, I've read Dan Holohan's book We Got Steam Heat, and that helped make a couple of decisions easier. The first two guys who came out to give us estimates for a new steam boiler completely ignored the radiators. They went downstairs, took some numbers off The Beast (the original steam boiler that still heats our house), and basically said that was all they needed.

Guess what? It wasn't. Due to many reasons outlined in Holohan's book, these old steam boilers were sometimes extremely oversized. Although some of Holohan's information may be apocryphal, the fact is that the only way to accurately determine the size of boiler a house needs is to measure every single radiator in the house.

Our third guy restored my faith. He immediately acknowledged that the size of the current boiler was irrelevant, and started measuring the radiators. He is also able to work with furnaces, steam boilers, and hot water units. We discussed the pros and cons of each, and he is going to give us estimates for each: for replacing the whole system with a furnace (or furnaces), replacing the steam boiler with a modern steam boiler, and replacing the steam boiler with a hot water unit if that is possible.

Our preference, if it's possible, is to convert the steam system to hot water. There are several advantages with this approach: we would keep that radiant heating that we love so much, for one. And we wouldn't have to worry so much about one of the girls grabbing a pipe and burning her hand. Plus, with hot water you can use cheap, easy-to-use plastic pipe and simple baseboards. So we could pretty easily run heating to the back room and the main floor bathroom, which currently aren't heated. This all depends on whether our pipes and radiators will work with the conversion, though.

We should start getting estimates back this week. I'll keep you posted on what direction we take.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Back to Work

There just haven't been many blogworthy house happenings lately, but hopefully that will change pretty soon. I have a four-day weekend for Memorial Day, which is a perfect time for choosing one of those we'll-get-around-to-it-someday projects. Our tentative plan is to (at long last) put up the kitchen backsplash. That's the same kitchen backsplash I mentioned in my New Year's Resolutions post.

Back in December.

Five months ago.

But on with the future. We're leaning towards the tin ceiling tile look, like the ones on this page. They may not completely match our kitchen's current look, but we plan to replace a lot in our kitchen over the years, so we'll just head in that direction slowly.

In other news, we are seeing a big change in the backyard. For a long time it has been nothing but dirt (more often, mud). A few weeks ago I tried seeding the area. I had no expectation of anything coming of it, but I've always loved the myth of Sisyphus. Surprisingly, this is what I saw seven days later:

That is grass!. Real, live leaves of grass. Walt Whitman would be proud.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

More Storm Window Progress

We have storm windows!

I know, not too exciting really. But it is exciting for us. This is just the south side of the house -- the main floor is almost finished now, except one window on the porch. (That remaining window could have been installed already if I didn't have to replace the bottom pane.)

I am especially impressed with the far window in the picture (the one on the right). That was the only storm window on the main level that was missing, so my father made the frame for me. It's a darn good match if you ask me, and it fits better than the originals.

Here is the new storm window when it was half finished.

And here it is beside one of the originals (which was obviously also in progress).

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Kitchen Faucet

Wow! I am really slacking on the blogging the last couple of months. There really hasn't been much to blog about with the house, but that's just an excuse. There's always something to blog (complain, gripe, etc.) about when you live in an older house!

We did get lots of storm windows finished and installed. At some point I need to do a comparison of our natural gas consumption from last year to this year, and see how much money it might be saving us (assuming that I can find months with comparable temperatures).

The main thing we've done to the house lately was installing a new faucet in the kitchen. We've resigned ourselves to the old "one piece at a time" kitchen remodeling program, where we replace things as they break. It was the faucet's turn a few weeks ago:

It's hard to tell in the picture, but a nice, steady stream of water is shooting out of the faucet and onto the wall behind the sink.

I've replaced faucets before; in our (newer) house on the west side of town, it took me about half an hour to replace the kitchen faucet. Using that as a gauge, I figured I should set aside an entire day to replace the College Hill House faucet. And I was right.

There were no shut-off valves under the sink, and once I traced the lines back far enough, it ended up being easier to shut off the water for the entire house. Then, of course, all of the fittings under the sink were corroded and nearly impossible to break loose.

But with a minimal of swearing and only a few trips to the hardware store, I succeeded in installing some quarter-turn shut-off valves and our shiny new faucet:

I'll try to get some pictures of the storm windows posted over the weekend.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Senseless Destruction

We've been pretty busy here at College Hill House, but not working on the house. The triplets all had their first ear infections and their first birthday (the former was much less pleasant than the latter, as you might guess). So between comforting crying babies and planning the small-but-exciting first birthday party, I haven't had much time for house blogging.

I don't think I've mentioned this on the blog before, but I have a 1963 Ford Galaxie 500XL out in the garage (and I'm using a very generous definition of "garage" here). Back when we started working on the storm windows, I pulled the Galaxie about halfway out of the garage so that we'd have room behind it to work. Yesterday I tried to back the Galaxie into the garage. It wouldn't run. I'm pretty sure it's just a clogged fuel filter, but in the meantime my dad and I decided to push the Galaxie back into the garage.

This is a heavy car, mind you. And of course the drive slopes down from the garage, so we were pushing it uphill. And one of the tires probably could have used some more air. Basically, it was a rough job. We both had to brace ourselves against my Sportage to get the Galaxie rolling. Once it had moved about a foot or so, things got easier.

And then they got worse.

Here's a picture of the car where it sits now. Can you spot the problem?

It's hard to see there. The garage is dark in the very back. But if you were to walk into the garage, you'd see this when you got to the passenger's door:

My, those windows look awfully close to the back of the car, don't they? Someone must have slipped those behind the car after it was backed in. Surely...

Nope. We were so concerned about whether we would be able to get the behemoth rolling, that we forgot to see if there was anything breakable behind the behemoth. The right-hand exhaust pipe went straight through three panes of glass.

So if someone asks you what it takes to stop a rolling car, you can answer that it takes at least four panes of glass. Probably more.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

We're Famous(ish)

A couple of weeks ago Barry Owens from the College Hill Commoner interviewed me about our house blog. The interview is up on their Web site now, and I think it turned out pretty good. At least I don't think I come across as a complete idiot.

Rereading it, I'm only disappointed that I missed the opportunity to plug Well, if you are reading this blog because you followed the link from the Commoner, here's the plug. Check out

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Nursery: Done!

At last, I feel comfortable nudging that Project Tracker up to 100% for the nursery. We got the border up, and we are happy with it.

We don't have any real "before" pictures of this room, but the walls were blue and the carpet was green. We thought that was a strange color scheme until my sister Laura pointed out that the walls were the sky and the carpet was the grass. It was a nice enough looking room, but of course we wanted to personalize it for the girls.

The only thing we really didn't like was the color of the carpet. Which is why everyone thought it was rather funny when we painted the walls (with help from my Uncle Gary and Aunt Becky):

Yes, somehow we chose a shade of green for the walls that was very similar to the carpet we didn't like. So maybe that carpet wasn't so bad after all...

But we still think the hardwood floor that were under the carpet looked better:

Here is the room now. We're rather limited in terms of arranging the furniture: three cribs take up most of the wall space. But we love it.

Monday, January 21, 2008

New Year's Resolutions

I heard on NPR today that this is the most depressing day of the year. Or maybe the most depressing day is coming up -- I was in the shower and couldn't quite hear the radio, and when I googled "most depressing day year" I found conflicting news stories saying that January 22nd, 23rd, 24th and 25th are each the most depressing day of the year. Nothing on January 21st.

But that's beside the point. They say this period is most depressing because it's when you a) get the bills from Christmas shopping and b) realize you have completely failed at keeping your New Year's Resolutions.

That must be why I'm so chipper. I haven't looked at the mail yet, and I'm actually doing fairly well on my resolution. Our nursery is 99.983% finished now, and I managed to paint the little access door in the basement. I made some more progress on the storm windows over the weekend, so things are really taking shape around here.

Now as long as I can avoid seeing those bills...

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Cool Bathroom Stuff

A post on the Old House Web forums led me to a site I've never seen before, Mac the Antique Plumber. Someday we plan to completely renovate the kitchen and bathroom on the main floor -- most of the main floor has the original woodwork, the push-button switches, the original glass knobs on the closet door, etc., but the kitchen was redone in the 60s. It was probably a good idea at the time, but blech. Boring woodwork and cabinets, and a bathroom that opens directly into the kitchen (perhaps we're prudes, but that just feels wrong). Someday, that bathroom door will be around the other side, where at least the person washing dishes won't be the first to mention you have toilet paper on your shoe. Mac the Antique Plumber could get us into trouble when renovation time comes. Of course, this is after the triplets are out of college we're talking about, so who knows what will be around by then.

The site has some very cool stuff. Some of it I don't think I'd actually want it in my house, though. For example, the Pillbox Toilet would be quite a conversation piece, but I rarely have conversations in the bathroom. But for the tub, you can't beat a thermostatic leg tub faucet. Very cool.

Monday, January 7, 2008

It's a Small Blogosphere After All

My mother knits, and since she's a Net-savvy knitting grandma, she reads the immensely popular blog written by the Yarn Harlot (Stephanie Pearl-McPhee). The other day, Mom sent me an IM (see? told you she was Net-savvy) telling me that I might like a house blog she had read about on this post by the Yarn Harlot. The blog she was referring to was Stucco House, which is a blog that I read anyway after I discovered it on Pearl-McPhee's octopus furnace had gone out, and she linked to Stucco House's post about theirs. Just thought it a funny coincidence.

Another house blog I read is Delano Bungalow. It's another house blog from Wichita, except they are far, far better at updating it. A couple of weeks ago, I was surprised to see that they had noticed our blog too! And had very nice things to say about us.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Why I Never Throw Anything Away

We make a gallon of formula every day, so a few months ago we bought a Pur water filter. The pediatrician said that plain tap water was fine, so maybe it's a waste, but we like the piece of mind. Tonight, as I was washing bottles, the faucet started spraying water everywhere when I turned it on.

I fiddled with the tap a little, and found the problem. The aerator that came with the Pur filter is a little cheap black plastic thing, and the plastic had actually split. No idea how that happened -- I wasn't washing bottles that enthusiastically. But, since I am a packrat, I still had the original aerator for our faucet and all the little adapters that came with the filter. And I even knew where they were!

After a couple of minutes of trying to stick adapters together like a monkey assembling a carburetor (a really smart monkey, mind you), I got everything hooked up and working smoothly. Just think what would have happened if I threw things out!

As I was organizing the boiler room over the weekend I found, at the bottom of a pile on the workbench, the old broken hinges for the saloon doors in the kitchen. My first thought was, Wow, there is no reason I could ever possibly need these again. We don't have more swinging doors, and these are broken.

My second thought was, Where should I put these?

Don't worry. I found just the right place.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Project Progress

We may actually finish the nursery before the triplets turn one! I bumped the "Nursery" entry on the Project Tracker up to 99%. I really thought I would be able to move it to 100% yesterday, but we had a problem with the border, so we need to make some small adjustments for it to be complete.

We cut ourselves some slack when dealing with the nursery -- after all, we thought we'd have at least another month, maybe two, hopefully three, before the girls arrived. And since then it's been difficult to work on the nursery, because the best time to do house projects is, of course, during nap time.

I did finish insulating the steam pipes, though. It's definitely making a difference. The basement is probably ten degrees cooler than before they were insulated, which means all that heat is getting up to the living area now. I hope it makes a big difference in our gas bill, too.

Here's a side view of the 1.5" insulation:

I had wondered what sort of tape I needed to join the pieces. Fortunately, the big shipment included strips of tape:

It was a pretty simple project, and not even too expensive.