19 March, 2015

Be Prepared

Remember when people were so obsessed with Y2K and the “Millennium bug?” The fear that all computer-controlled systems would shut down at the beginning of 2000. Although that event never materialized, the northeast regional blackout in August 2003 taught us that multiple systems can be affected when the electricity goes out for any reason. It’s a good idea to have certain emergency preparations in place at all times, to stave off hunger and cold in case our power, water, or other support systems are interrupted for an extended period. The first step is to consider alternatives to our usual ways of doing things.

Many of us have gone without power (and natural gas, for that matter,) for several days after a winter storm. Most boilers and furnaces will not function without electricity. An alternative power source, such as a portable 5000-to-8000 watt generator, can keep the heat going (so long as you have fuel for the generator,) plus power the refrigerator and some lights. There are switching panels that can be installed in the main service box by a licensed electrician, which will allow the house wiring to distribute output from the generator. For many people, however, the cost of this system will be prohibitive; a small generator and panel will run well over $2000.

One low-tech and fairly low-cost method for heating is the living room fireplace. (Not to mention those lucky folks who have a fireplace in the bedroom, too). The heat will be localized, but you’ll have at least one warm room. If you’ll be using this source of heat, have the chimney checked and cleaned, if necessary, before winter. Make sure the damper is in good condition, too. Stock up on firewood early enough to allow it to season properly.

If you do not have a fireplace, in an emergency you will probably be looking for other ways to keep warm. One common misconception is that you can use a gas range oven as a source of heat. That’s not a good idea – the stove can add a lot of carbon monoxide to the air, and the heat can melt the control handles of the appliance. Similarly, kerosene heaters and ventless (natural gas or propane) space heaters can pose dangers. My hometown city fire and building departments prefer to see vented units that minimize the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, and units that are fastened to the wall or floor and can’t be knocked over. If you are forced to use a portable unit in an emergency situation, be sure to keep all combustibles well away from the heater, provide ventilation (such as a slightly-opened window), secure the heater to the floor (with nails or screws, for example), and follow all instructions from the manufacturer for its use.

Emergency lighting is important, but it’s a good idea to avoid items that burn to provide light, such as candles, hurricane oil lamps, or propane lanterns. Consider battery-powered lanterns and flashlights to prevent accidental fires. There are LED flashlights use less power to make light, running for a longer period of time on that set of batteries.

Provisions need to be purchased in advance, and stored. Choose alkaline over the regular or “heavy-duty” batteries, as the alkaline models can be stored for a longer period of time – check the expiration date on the package when you purchase them – or buy alkaline batteries that can be recharged. Another battery-powered item to have on hand is a portable radio. Besides some entertaining diversion, it can warn you of emergencies (like school closings) and incoming weather.

Jugs of distilled drinking water can be purchased and stored for long periods of time. We’re normally urged to drink 8 glasses of water daily (in addition to all those cups of coffee!) Plan for the amount your entire household will need for one or two weeks – pets, too. Another source of drinking water you might consider is a small water purification unit, carried by camping supply and some sporting goods stores. Melted snow (make sure it’s not “yellow”) or collected rainwater can be made “potable” for cooking, washing, and drinking with a purification unit.

As for eating, that propane grill stored all winter out in the garage can roast, grill, or even boil foods for you. A small portable propane camp stove can be useful, as well. Both must be used outdoors to prevent problems, but either one can heat water for washing, as well as for cooking. Keep your pantry stocked with pre-cooked canned goods (i.e., vegetables, meats, soups, ravioli, and spaghetti,) to eliminate the need to keep a lot of food refrigerated during a prolonged power outage. (Don’t forget that you’ll need a hand-powered can opener!) A 48- or 60-quart picnic cooler can keep milk and fresh produce chilled, so long as you have ice.

Another thing to keep on hand is a supply of essential medications. If you must take prescription drugs, talk to your doctor or pharmacist about how long they can be stored, and under what conditions.

If the heat is off for an extended period of time in winter and you will have to go elsewhere to be warm, it will be important to prevent frozen pipes and damaged fixtures. Shut off the water at the meter, and then open all the faucets to drain out as much water as possible. Use nontoxic RV antifreeze to put in all sink and tub traps (2 cups per trap).  Toilets will need the tank emptied, sop out any remaining water with an old towel. Pour about a half gallon of nontoxic RV antifreeze into the bowl.

The last item of concern – and the one some people may consider the most important – is the toilet. Even if there is no water service, there will still be a need to eliminate body wastes. Short of digging a primitive latrine in your back yard (you’ll find directions for that in an old scouting manual), water already used for washing or cooking (called “gray water”) can be stored for re-use to flush a toilet. 1-1/2 gallons will flush through solid wastes when poured quickly into the bowl; keep a bucket on hand to hold the water.

Even though the millennium came without complicating our lives, sooner or later we’ll almost certainly have to deal with a winter power outage of some sort. Preparations like these can make our lives easier during such times, but the most important thing is to PLAN AHEAD.

11 March, 2015

Can't you hear me knocking?

When the doorbell doesn't work, I usually can't hear folks knocking at my front door unless I'm on the first floor of the house. Rather than hang up a “Doorbell out of order, wake the dog” sign, most bell problems are pretty easy to diagnose and fix.

The first place I like to check is the transformer to see if there is power to the system. The transformer reduces the 120-volt house current to the 10 or 16 volts AC needed to run the doorbell system. In some old houses it may be a small black box attached to a beam or to a junction box in the basement. It may be attached directly to the electric service panel. I use a multimeter to check for power, if don't you have one, you can use a low-volt circuit tester. If you don't get an indication of power, it's time to replace the transformer.

The most common problem is in the doorbell button or switch. It's exposed to the weather even under a porch roof and the contact points in it will eventually become corroded. A simple enough test, you just unscrew the doorbell button to get to the two wires that are fastened to the back. Touch those two wires together and the bell rings, you'll know the button is bad. If you just get a faint spark without a ring when touching the wires together, it's time to look at the bell.

While the bell unit isn't the cause of most doorbell problems, it can fail on occasion – especially if it is mounted in the kitchen.  Dust, tobacco smoke, spider webs and grease can collect in the electromagnetic striker mechanism and gum it up.       
Take the cover off the chime unit and have someone try the door button.  If the striker moves but doesn't hit the chime, you will have to clean the striker(s).

The chime bar rests on rubber grommets mounted on plastic posts. Gently pull up the bar and pull out the hammer. Spray a light lubrication oil (like WD-40) on a soft cloth and clean the striker. Use a cotton swab to clean out any crud from the electromagnet coil tube. Then wipe off any excess oil which may collect dust. 

Put the striker back its place, press it down all the way to its stop, then slip your finger off the top to see if it pops up freely. Replace the chime bar onto the grommets and try the button outside.

If the striker hits the first chime, but the not second chime, pull the striker out again and stretch the spring to give it more tension and replace the striker in the mechanism. Try the button to see if you get a "ding-dong."
Sometimes there's just no fixing the chime unit and you'll have to replace it.  Before you disassemble the unit, mark the wires so that you know which one goes to the front door, backdoor and common terminals. Especially important if they are all the same color.
My buddy Russ always reminds me that anything man-made is doomed to failure. Wiring can go bad too, but if this is indeed the problem, it will take some tracking to find where the wire is broken. The wires are a little larger than thick fishing line, and you should be able to see them in your basement ceiling. However, breaks are usually found behind one of the door trim pieces. Locksmiths and door installers can cut the wires with screws or nails when they do their work because the wires are hidden from view.

Once you've found the location of the break, you don't have to replace the whole length of wire – just the part that is broken. Twist the new portion together with the unbroken length and tape with electrical tape.

Plywood vs. Oriented Strand Board

Several years ago, Sid and I were stripping the roofing material from a leaking flat porch roof when he launched into his ritual diatribe about how little I was paying him (he was being paid as much as I was). I was just about to reply in my customary string of profanities that he should get busy with the job, when I disappeared through the roof. All that Sid had seen was the column of dust rising where I had been just a moment before. I had landed unhurt but angry on the porch floor below. When I got back on the roof, I found that a previous contractor had used Oriented Strand Board (OSB) for a section of the roof deck. It had swollen and disintegrated due to the water damage. Thus began my hatred of the use of OSB for roofs.

On most old flat porch roofs you would find what is called “one-by” pine planking (1”X 8”, 1”X 10”, etc.) used for the decking. Planking is the costlier choice for a roof deck nowadays. Plywood first appeared around the turn of the 20th. century, but did not become a common decking material until the late 1940’s. Plywood is constructed of thick layers of veneer oriented at right angles to one another for strength and stiffness. OSB came onto the market in the late 1970’s and is made from 3- to 4-inch wood strands that are applied in layers and pressed together with adhesive. Like plywood the layers are oriented at right angles and weighs 10 percent to 15 percent more.

OSB costs about $5-6 less per panel than plywood, which is a significant savings when 16 or more panels may be used for a two-car garage roof, for example. Georgia-Pacific (a major producer of OSB) states in a 2003 research paper that CDX plywood holds up better under excessive wettings, has an all-wood surface that results in better glue adhesion. The ‘C’ and ‘D’ are the finish ratings of the panel surfaces and the ‘X’ means it’s rated for exterior humidity.

Plywood is 15 percent lighter and flexes less than OSB. They further state that their tests indicate that plywood holds nails better, too. Personally, I have no problem using OSB for wall sheathing, but I’d never use it for a walk-on roof deck and am loathed to use it on a gable roof--especially with the snow loads that we get in our area (the Northeast Ohio snowbelt). Several Ohio communities and several states including the state of Florida have banned it for roof decks due to swelling caused by high humidity along the edges.

Admittedly, OSB is better than it was ten years ago, I still will not allow it on any job that I'm involved in.  For a walk-on deck I specify 3/4” CDX plywood and 5/8” CDX for a roof that’s not walked on (though I prefer 3/4” CDX). On gabled roofs the building code specifies 1/2" four-ply CDX, I specify 5/8" for the snow loads we get. On shallow pitch roofs, I'd still would want 3/4" CDX. I would rather overbuild than have a roof deck collapse under snow

One last thing--if you ever do a roofing job with Sid, please smack him with a shovel for me.