You Got to Be Kidding Me!

Building Things

Posted in Home Improvement by Stacy McMahon on February 9, 2009

I was reading over Vicky’s description of an unexpectedly interesting Civil War reenactment in her new locale of Elizabeth City.

But my personal favorite of the whole day was Al Mitchell. He’s a naval engineer reenactor. He spoke passionately (very passionately) about how engineers kept the war ships running. He discussed a number of antique tools he had with him, many of them procured on eBay. One unexpected tool made a cameo– the sliderule. Al had no shortage of specialized knowledge to share. I could have talked to him all day.

Sadly there are only five engineers among the three divisions’ worth of Civil War reenactors in the US today. I’ve always been a military enthusiast, but I have to agree with Vicky that building things is more exciting than destroying them.

I’ve been getting more into building things lately myself. For example, back in November we installed the optional grilltop cartridge in our oldie-but-goody Jenn-Air downdraft cooktop. Problem: after its first removal and cleaning, the heating element drooped down so far it was touching the drip tray underneath.

Droopy Grill

Droopy Grill

I thought about it for a couple days and decided to try making a brace to hold it up on the other end. One trip to Lowes and I was equipped with a roll of 16-gauge aluminum wire and a general idea of what I wanted to do. My goal was to make a triangular frame with cradles at the top to hold the cross-brace under the heating element, and a wide base for stability.

My first observation was that holding one end of the wire in my hand and trying to bend the other end with pliers doesn’t work very well. I switched to needlenose pliers and braced the wire against my workbench, resulting in a couple of 16-gauge gouges in the tabletop. I had now discovered why humankind invented the anvil. After looking around for a few minutes, I decided that my wood-splitting wedge would make a reasonable substitute, and in another ten minutes or so I had this:

The finished product

The finished product

And the droop is gone!

Thats better...


I’m planning a few more (and bigger) projects this spring, including an underground watering pipe in the front, also connected to the gutter. It will be sort of a reverse french drain and will serve two purposes – to passively water the mulch bed next to the garage, which tends to be shadowed by the roof overhang, and to divert the outflow from the downspout, which is causing mangy grass in a very visible part of the front yard.


Installing a GFCI Outlet

Posted in Home Improvement by Stacy McMahon on March 10, 2007

I hate when house guests drop their blowdryers in the sink and electrocute themselves. Besides the liability issues and annoying holes in my social calendar, cleanup is just a bear and the smell of burning flesh takes days to dilute. To avoid these issues in the future, I decided to replace the standard electric outlet next to my bathroom sink with a ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlet.

GFCIs are basically circuit breakers built into the outlet. They sense incoming and outgoing current, and cut power if these become different from each other. That’s known as a ground fault, because the “missing” current has found another path to ground, for example through our hapless preening house guest. You’ve seen GFCIs–they’re the ‘fancy’ outlets with buttons and maybe an indicator light in the middle between the plugs. I’m too lazy to check, but the fact that I see them in many bathrooms makes me think they’re required by code these days. Anyway a GFCI is a good thing to have, plus which my old outlet was ugly:

Bathroom Outlet - Before

You can’t see it too well in that picture, but all the household wiring for my block appears to run through this box. That made it a PITA to install the GFCI, which is big and bulky. I needed an extra 1/4″ of space behind the outlet, and just barely managed to find it. The installation is almost certainly not up to code as far as having enough ‘breathing space’ for the wires, but I decided to go ahead anyway since a) it basically fit, b) there’s room in the wall for a deeper box and c) I’m planning to remodel the bathroom in the next 12 months, which will include opening the wall. I’ll fix the box problem then.

Here’s the new hotness:

Bathroom Outlet - After

Not as hot as I’d like, though. The gap on the right side of the cover plate is a common problem throughout the house. Besides using the cheapest possible components, whoever installed the wiring was damn sloppy about cutting the holes. You can see in the first pic how much extra space this one has around the sides of the box. That’s nice for seeing exactly where cables come in and out, but technically the ears on the outlet and switch should be resting on the drywall, and instead they’re completely inside it.

Life in The Flood Zone

Posted in Home Improvement, Miscellaneous by Stacy McMahon on February 21, 2007

Check out the blog of a young couple who are staying in their historic New Orleans house and rebuilding. My favorite post (sofar) is the one about push-button light switches.

Single Pole Switch (HD1)

I sort of want these for my place now!

More on Green Buildings

Posted in Engineering, Environment, Home Improvement, Urban Planning by Stacy McMahon on February 14, 2007

Some of my friends and associates are probably a little bemused by my fascination with “green” buildings, green roofs, and sustainable development. Really though, it all makes perfect sense. Jim Bede once introduced his BD-10J personal supersonic jet with the tag line that he was “tired of 60 years of 130-mph airplanes”. Housing and building is, if this is even possible, even more stuck in the “because we’ve always done it this way” mentality than general aviation, and with even less economic justification.

And that is while the gains in efficiency and savings in utility bills from so-called green design are such low-hanging fruit that it’s silly not to avail yourself. I’ve already replaced most of my light bulbs with compact fluorescents, and I plan to install LED lighting. It’s hard to do more than that since I live in a condo, but if I had a house there are lots of things I could do–everything from a green roof (no more drainage problems in your yard) to placing windows and vents to take advantage of sunlight for heating. Whenever I do have a house, I will do all that stuff. Aside from the financial benefits (I’ve always believed in spending more upfront if it means lower recurring costs in the future) it’s just too appealing as an engineering project.

Anyway, I started this post as a way to link the Green Building Council as well as this Popular Mechanics list of top “green” technologies available today. Forget the hair-shirt version of environmentalism, I prefer this cool-toy version instead 🙂

Tab A, Slot B

Posted in Home Improvement by Stacy McMahon on February 10, 2007

No, this isn’t about my Friday night, it’s about my Saturday afternoon! A couple weeks ago I got myself a decorative outlet cover for an outlet in the livingroom. Upon removing the old outlet cover, pieces of the actual outlets broke off and fell to the floor. Time for a new outlet! Let’s begin! Step one, of course, is to turn off the power 🙂


Home Wiring

Posted in Home Improvement by Stacy McMahon on February 6, 2007

Among the million things that seem to be on my plate these days, I have a broken power outlet in my livingroom. I mean literally broken. I had bought a decorative outlet cover, and when I pulled the plain old one off, pieces of plastic cracked and fell off of the receptable (plugs)

So, I have to replace it. I can’t see hiring an electrician for such a teeny job, but being me, I have to research it to death before attempting a DIY. I bought two books, Wiring a House by Rex Cauldwell, and Basic Electricity by the Bureau of Naval Personnel. Yes, I have plans to learn and use electricity beyond just fixing the outlet.

Anyway, Wiring a House is great–it explains things in simple plain language, with lots of informative drawings. I feel like I now know how to install an outlet from scratch and make it completely up to code. I guess it’s not rocket science, but I know several of the tips have already saved me from doing something unsafe that I would probably have done otherwise. If you are contemplating doing some household electrical projects, I highly recommend this book.


Posted in Home Improvement, Social Life by Stacy McMahon on October 31, 2006

…I realize I don’t keep in touch with people as well as I could, but you can still invite me to your parties. Maybe I just assume too much when I think people are friends. I’ll try to be more realistic about that.

On a less dramatic note, this was a productive weekend. Concrete steps taken to finally fill the empty space where comfy livingroom furniture should be. Funny Halloween pics taken, old friends caught up with (the graf above doesn’t refer to the entire world) and snazzy curtains hung over the balcony door where boring sheers used to be. That last one means yet another mini-project around the balcony entrance though. The previous owner just screwed the curtainrod brackets into drywall, and I yanked one partially out while hanging the curtains. It needs to be widened about a foot anyway to make it easier to get the curtains out of the way and open the door, so some drywall anchors are in the immediate future. Ah, homeowning.