Friday, February 28, 2014

Coming Clean

So I have a confession to make. I don't want anybody to mistake me for being super human because I can tackle most anything when it comes to household repairs. I do make mistakes and I just made one. After doing all that work in the last post to put in two shutoff valves so I could shut the showers off in the future for any plumbing work without shutting off the entire house, I put them in the wrong place so that they shutoff something I haven't yet determined yet. The showers still work just fine even with the shutoff valves closed. In my defense, when you are working in a finished basement locating pipes, it is easy to get disoriented on where the pipes are going and which ones are coming. What I thought were the incoming pipes to the shower were just pipes heading away from the shower into the wall cavity to who knows where. I still haven't figured that one out. The pipes I should have put the valves on were about three feet over. Someday I may still put shutoffs on them because I can access them fairly easily but not today. I'll just shutoff the entire house again the next time I work on the shower plumbing.

On the plus side, I figured out what was going wrong with my soldering that was causing the solder to break off in chunks and burn the piss out of my fingers. When I had queried the internet it was either because it was too cold, too hot or too wet. Take your pick. I think the correct answer was that it was too wet and thus too cold. Both joints where I had problems were in fairly horizontal places with little fall to them so that I could get most of the water out of them but not all. I think when I went to heat the pipe to solder the joint, the water away from the joint would heat and steam causing water droplets to infiltrate the joint and prevent the copper from reaching the proper temperature. No matter how much heat I would apply, the solder would just chunk off instead of slowing into the joint properly.

In both cases, I eventually shoved a piece of bread down the end of the pipe before applying the flux and fitting and both times I successfully soldered the joint the first try. The bread absorbs the water and steam temporarily allowing the copper to heat up and the solder to flow into the joint. I could even smell toasting bread after I was done. The water then dissolves the bread after you are done and it gets flushed out of the system. I always made sure to crank open nearby faucets to flush any out before it had a chance to go to more sensitive areas like the ice maker or water filtration unit. It is a nifty trick and I will have to just get in the habit of doing it first in such situations.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Why I Don't Want To Be a Plumber

Plumbers are awesome. I highly respect their abilities and I'm glad I know a couple who will come at a moments notice and make everything alright. However whenever I go to do a plumbing project myself, my poor skills and the problems that I always run into make me glad I chose a different profession. See above.

I opened up the floor beneath the old shower which by the way had been leaking down the backside of it for awhile by the looks of things. All it needed was some plumbers putty behind the trim ring for the valve handle and it wouldn't have leaked at all. The floor was rotted out a bit but since I had to remove it to get at the plumbing no harm no foul. I need to move the two copper pipes two feet to the left for the new and larger shower. I also have to move the drain pipe over about 15 inches but that is for another day. 

Because their isn't any shutoff valves for any of the bathroom showers, I have to turn off the entire house water supply to work on it. So to fix that problem, I wanted to put some ball shutoff valves somewhere between the water supply and the three bathrooms that are essentially stacked in a cluster together. While looking for a good spot for the shutoff valves, I noticed what you see above, a badly corroded junction that had evidently started leaking recently judging from the dark spot on the concrete below. I have half inch copper fittings and pipe but no three quarter stuff so off to the store I went.

The entire drive I was mulling over what kind of fittings and such I needed to fix that spot but when I went to the supply store, I saw the fellow up above. It was exactly what I needed. I bought a stick of three quarter copper pipe and another stick of half inch copper pipe for a later project, some splice fittings and headed home. I shut off the entire house water supply and cut out the bad spot. That went okay but it took forever to drain the entire system. Since this spot was one of the lower spots in all the plumbing of the house, I had to wait awhile. Note this was a hot water line which will come in play later in my tale.

So while I was soldering up my joints, a chunk of molten solder fell onto that oh so sensitive area of skin right near the finger nail causing me to drop the torch into my catch bucket full of water that I had just drained from the pipes. I quickly pulled the torch out and shut it off and then swore a few silent words at my hurting finger. I located a pair of leather gloves, something I should have started off with, and tried to relight the torch but it wouldn't fire up. I tried blowing out all the orifices with the air compressor but at best, all I got was a feeble blue flame. Thinking I could evaporate the water out I left it lit for about five minutes but whenever I tried turning up the heat it would snuff out. So, I made another trip to the store to get a new nozzle and another tank since that one was on the low side anyway. With gloved hands, I finished up the repair to the hot water side.

As you can see, my repair job looks  terrible but it doesn't leak. Part of the reason it looks so terrible is because there is a heating duck just out of sight at the top of the picture so there wasn't a lot of room to get two hands up there trying to heat things up enough to melt solder and not melt my finger tips. The biggest part of why it looks terrible is because I'm not a plumber and this is only my second attempt at soldering since I owned this house. My other house was all pvc which I can deal with quite well. I must say however that I prefer copper because it doesn't crack when old and you are working on it and finding the necessary fittings and pieces are pretty straight forward compared to pvc.

So after way more time fixing the leaking pipe, I finally turned my attention to putting in the shutoff valves in the ceiling above the downstairs shower where I can easily remove a ceiling tile and access them. I cut the pipes and let them drain out. The hot line took seconds but the cold continued to dribble and dribble and dribble. After ten minutes, I suspected something wasn't right and went to the entire house shutoff valve and discovered that it hadn't shut off all the way. So I corrected that problem and fluxed the pipes and valves and started soldering again, this time with gloves. I got the first three joints with no problems but the last joint just wouldn't take solder. The solder would just break up in chunks and fall off. I took the pipe out, recleaned, refluxed and put it back together but still the solder wouldn't leach into the joint. I tried again and still no luck. So I hit the internet which wasn't very useful. I found that it could be because the joint wasn't hot enough, too hot or because there was water in the line. So I let it cool down, stuck a chunk of bread up the line to dry up the water and tried again. This time I was successful so I still can't tell you what I was doing wrong.

So five hours into a 30 minute job, I finally have two shutoff valves. Tomorrow I hope to use those shutoff valves so I can move the copper piping in the first photo and still have water to the rest of the house, just in case it take me longer than I anticipate!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Dewing It Up

Once I heaved the three pieces of my old shower out the door and over the deck railing, I came back inside and noticed these two Mountain Dew cans in the recess behind it. I'm not sure how old they are but I suspect the are the approximate age of the house which was built in 1973. They have the old style opening that I remember seeing only when I was a wee lad when they were phased out for today's design. I have also never seen the ya-hooo logo ever. I wonder when they got rid of that? The other thing I noticed are that the cans are extremely heavy duty compared to the thin aluminum they use today. If someone were inclined to crush one of these on their forehead, it might punch out of circle of forehead instead of crushing.

I'm not sure what to do with them yet. They cleaned up nicely and I checked on ebay and found several people selling them for $10 each. I don't know what someone would actually pay for one of them. For now I guess I'll just admire them for awhile and think of how thirsty those guys must have been when installing that shower that I just tore out.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Pulling the Trigger... Finally.

The house that we bought a year and a half ago was a fixer upper and like most houses of its era, it had a master bathroom but nowhere near as spacious as is standard today. There really isn't a good way to fix that problem without either eliminating a bedroom and hurting the resale value or adding onto the house. Perhaps someday we may do the latter but I suspect that we will probably opt to move before that day comes. The master bathroom is small and suited to only one person at a time using it to get ready. If someone is brushing their teeth, it is a packed room with no way to sneak by. So I share the hall bathroom with everyone else and my wife gets this bathroom all to herself.

The shower is way too claustrophobic for me anyway. I can barely turn in that thing without knocking something off the shelves and my face ends up only inches from the shower head when I stand in the middle of the thing. I just need more room in order to shower comfortably. So a long time ago my eyes turned toward the cabinet built into the wall on the left. The more I thought about it the more I suspected that since the toilet was in the way of a full height closet, they just added the wall closet. I suspected that above and below that wall closet was just wasted space. Why not use that space to turn the shower into something not so claustrophobic?

So after a year of finding other projects to do that were more pressing and then a month of idleness due to the holidays and then a month and a half of procrastination, I finally decided it was time to tackle the project. I first made a trip up to the attic where I confirmed that there wasn't a rats nest worth of wiring, piping or ducting in that space. There is a four inch plumbing vent stack but it was in the very corner which was nice. With that verified, I picked up my hammer and went  at it. Knocking that first hole always makes me nervous but when I verified that underneath the cabinet was just empty space, I felt much better. The bathroom is so small, I ended up having to cut the tiny one piece shower into three pieces in order to get it out the door!

Next up, I'm going to move the copper piping to the left about a foot and a half or two feet and move the drain to more or less the center of the new shower. I have to build a new bulkhead for the plumbing which will also hide the black vent stack as well. I was thinking about ripping out the entire ceiling but looking at it with the shower out, the rest of the ceiling is in great shape still. I really don't need up into that space for any reason so I think I will neaten up the edges and just patch in a piece where the cabinet space met the ceiling. I may still take out the drywall around the ceiling fan and work on that problem while I'm there. Currently the ceiling fans just vent directly into the attic. Although it has enough ventilation to prevent mold up there, I don't like doing that and we did have a problem once this winter with an ice dam forming and venting warm air into the attic doesn't help that situation either. Because our roof it hipped on all sides, I really have no way to vent it outside without punching another hole in the roof. I may still do that but I've been mulling over just venting it through the garage ceiling into the garage. It is essentially unconditioned space out there anyway. I haven't decided which way to go yet.

Once I have the demo done and the plumbing moved, I plan to tile the shower which will gain me a handful of inches on the width of the shower. Instead of opaque shower doors, I am going to put in clear glass to make the whole bathroom seem much larger. With the shower gone and the cabinet wall area gone, it really feels nice sized right now. I hope to keep that feeling.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


A couple years ago, though it seems like only last week, I blogged on here about finding out the name of my recently discovered half-sister after two years of searching for her. I wasn't sure what to do with the news at the time mostly because I didn't want to upset the proverbial apple cart. What if she was still in close contact with my biological father whom I don't have a relation with? What if she didn't even know about him or me? I didn't want to upset my life with a loving stepfather who has been my only father for the last 32 years by seeking out my biological father. I most certainly didn't want to upset the life of a half-sister who wasn't seeking to establish contact with me.

I did some research and learned a little bit about her in a couple newspaper articles and a few past addresses. I didn't know which one was a current address so I just let it simmer awhile. It actually simmered for almost two years before my mom made the decision to get onto a popular social media platform. After helping her get set up, I decided that I too should finally bite the bullet and join up too to see what I was missing. As I was in the process of finding other friends on it, I searched for my half-sister out of habit and curiosity and almost immediately found her. I wrote several messages to her but never sent them because I just wasn't sure of the outcome and that scared me a bit. After a month of deliberating, I finally sent her a message and waited nervously for a response.

I waited and eventually sent her a second and then a third message but learned that all the messages were going to an alternative mailbox mostly for spam because of the way the social media site was set up and that she may not know about it. Or possibly she may have seen them and I upset the apple cart in her life and was persona non grata. I just didn't know so I let it rest. During that time, I discovered her on another social media platform and a week ago, three months after the first message I sent her, I wrote her a vague message on that site asking her to check her other mailbox on the other social media site. She responded right away.

Fortunately her life and mine are similar in some aspects, especially with our biological father we share in common. So meeting her has been a neat experience and I'm glad I took the chance to reach out to her. She has known about me since she was a little girl so there were no apple carts upset in our first contact. I'm fairly confident now that there won't be any in the future either.

It is not often that one gains a sibling after 40 years of life.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Progress Update

Six months ago I blogged about my epiphany into taking my retirement savings into my own hands. I realized that I had been brainwashed like 99% of the people out there into believing that investing my own retirement savings was hard and that I wouldn't get the same returns as someone who does it professionally. In reality, investing is quite easy and I'm saving around 5% of every dollar I invest by doing it myself instead of paying someone to do it for me. I decided to do a six month check up and see how my progress has been.

First up, I looked at my account with a professional financial adviser who has invested all of my retirement savings for the last decade. Although I stopped giving him new money six months ago, he still has my original retirement accounts. He is a nice guy and I'm sure is trying to do the best job possible for me but he still believes that he can invest money better than I can by selecting the next hot market sectors and moving money around appropriately. In the last six months, my account grew by 2.4%.

Now lets look at my Vanguard account that I set up in about ten minutes online and had my first chunk of cashed out company stock wired directly to them. I invested in a the Boglehead 3-fund portfolio which is simply index funds that mirror the entire U.S. Stock market, the entire International Stock Market and the entire U.S. Bond market. Because it didn't cost me any management fees, I automatically invest 5% more money than I would have with my professional adviser but for the sake of argument, lets forget about that significant amount of money. In the last six months, my account grew by 4.7% or nearly 100% better than my professionally trained financial adviser. One word of note is that 4.7% is the average of all three indexes I own for an apples to apples comparison. The U.S. stock market index has done way better but in the interest of diversification, I don't have all my apples in that basket though in hindsight, I wish I had over the last six months!

So my conclusion so far is that not only am I doing better than my financial adviser at investing, I am doing better than 80% of all financial advisers in the world who try to beat the market and don't after expenses are figured in. Instead I am just matching the market and right now, my decision to take my retirement savings investing by the horns is paying off. Now the question is how long do I give my financial adviser before I pull out the money he is currently managing and start doing that by myself too?

Friday, February 14, 2014

Sign Says People With Machine Guns...

So there I was eating some arroz con pollo at one of our many Mexican hole in the wall restaurants and also one of my favorites, when I happened to look up and noticed their sign inside the restaurant. On both the left and right sides of their name was a person sitting against a cactus with a smoking machine gun cradled in their arm. What am I supposed to take from this? Poor tippers will be shot? I'm supporting some drug cartel in Mexico by eating here? Unfortunately my Spanish is more than a little rusty or I might have asked the lady working the counter there at risk of being taken out back and shot.

Our city has a large Hispanic population due to a large meat packing plant and several large factories in the area. From talking to my Hispanic friends, word of good jobs (that most Caucasians don't want) travels far and most come because a prior relative came earlier and worked the jobs. All my Hispanic friends came because some cousin told them that our town was friendly and had good jobs. Once they arrive and work at the meat packing plant for awhile, many branch out and open up businesses of their own. There are probably a dozen or dozen and a half Mexican restaurants in this town and several of them are very authentic and very good compared to the standard Tex-Mex stuff you find normally. At this particular one, my wife is very fond of the tongue tacos and while I like them too, I am more in love with their vegetables with chicken (arroz con pollo) dish. I'm just not sure what to make of their mascot now that I've noticed it for the first time.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

My Own Personal Art Gallery

I've been recently admiring Vince's artwork that he has been putting together and displaying in a gallery over in Ireland. His printing photos that he has taken onto canvas has always been something I have wanted to do but never had. A lot of the reason was that my first house didn't have large expanses of open wall due to the way it was constructed and what wall we did have had furniture and other assorted things taking up space. When we moved into this house a year and a half ago, we decided we were going to decorate things a little differently. We wanted to eliminate some of the personal framed pictures and go more with original artwork that we created. My wife was able to paint a large painting for the dining room wall and is working on an even larger one to go on the blank wall you see above. On a side note, I'm hoping it will cover up or mask the imperfection line in the drywall job that bugs me every time I see it.

I haven't contributed much to this endeavor. I started a painting but feel that it is still lacking something and I am not sure what so it sits in a corner of the basement waiting for that revelation. Vince however inspired me to take a different tact so I took a picture that I blogged about on here a few weeks ago and had it printed onto canvas. I took the picture quite by happenstance back in 1998 along the North Shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota. It turned out better than I could have dreamed and I've admired the 4 x 6 inch print ever since. I had it blown up and printed on canvas and you can see the final results above and below. I love it and now I'm looking into other pictures that perhaps I can do the same thing to and fill up some other walls that are just begging for artwork.

Here in the States and perhaps internationally too, I used the company called Shutterfly which allows you to create your own personalized photo albums and books. Unbeknownst to me until I did a Google search on canvas printing, they are also into that. They printed out the artwork and professionally gallery framed it and shipped it to my door well packaged in a box. I waited a bit for them to do a special on canvas printing and then took advantage. The picture here is blown up to 2 feet by 3 feet in size to fit the space available. I will definitely use them again.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Houses of an Old River Town

I live in an old river town, one of the oldest river towns in Iowa not on the Mississippi River. The reason it got started early was that there was an Indian agency nearby that this place was a good place to trade animal pelts with the natives in the area. I recently attended a lecture at our local library that talked about the history behind some of the old houses in town and that sparked my interest to turn my camera towards the bluff while we were walking along the river on cold overcast afternoon.

Previously, I have shown photographs from our walks downstream from the dam which is pictured above. On this particular walk, we decided to walk upstream of the dam to see what there was to see. Unfortunately there was a very cold wind that day and our nearly 15 month old daughter insisted on walking most of the way so we didn't get real far. Never the less, I did take a few photographs.

This photo doesn't really pertain to the topic but I am captivated by the river flora and the icy backdrop.

Our town if full of historic churches that were built back in the late 1800's and are very grand in nature. The one above is one of the Catholic church and the one in which I am a member.  But surrounding it as you head up the bluff are lots of grand three and four story houses built back in the day by the wealthy. Now a days a lot of these houses are multi-tenet dwellings are in general disrepair. However, the fad of buying these grand old homes and fixing them up is just starting to catch in this area and several are being or are already fixed up. I expect in the coming decade there will be a big revival similar to what has hit other towns and this area will once again be the 'hot' place to live in town.

Several of these houses I have never seen before because they are up streets I don't frequent. When the weather is warmer, I would like to walk along the bluff and take closeup pictures of some of these old homes. I especially like the large one mostly obscured by trees with the large tower to the right of the yellow house. Now that I squint at it, the tower may be part of a larger house behind it.

I like the house with the columns on the ridge top. Not pictured but near hear there are two houses that were built on narrow lots, one in the center and one at the back of the lot. After awhile, the owner of the house at the back of the lot wanted to move his house forward for reasons unknown but perhaps spite might have been part of it. He moved his house right even with the house next door (the one in the middle of its narrow lot) and had to modify parts of his overhang to wrap around his neighbors house. Not only are the houses within inches of each other but their windows on those sides are within feet of each other. The fellow I knew who rented that house was kicked out after the owner of the neighboring house bought it last year. I'm not sure what is going to happen to it but I want to get a picture of it just in case she decides to have it moved or perhaps even razed.

To the right you can see the tower and part of another old church. In the left center is a four story house, something you don't see in rural Iowa. In the center behind the trees is a 3 story Bavarian looking house that was part of the lecture I went too. The original house that was built looked pretty boring and not very impressive but several relatives of the original owner built houses on the same street in the Bavarian style and this person wanted to adopt it too and modified the house. The modifications were very simple ones but the results were amazing. I will have to get a close up shot of the house when it is warmer.

The building in the foreground at the bottom right side of the picture is in Italianate style which is a common style among all the old houses around town. It was popular during the 1860's through 1880's when a lot of these houses and buildings were built. You can tell them by the quoins and corbels throughout. Now those are two words I don't use everyday!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Black and White

At long last I finished scanning through my lifetime of accumulated prints and slides and brought my photos back into the digital age. At least the ones that I care to see again for the second time. It has been a fun process of reliving forgotten memories. They are now safely stored on my hard drive which gets backed up to a 'cloud' somewhere unnamed to me. I'm not sure where I go from here with them other than look at them. Perhaps a few trips I may make a Shutterfly book out of them but for now, I'm content to just look at them.

The picture above is of a girl in my black and white photography class I took over a decade ago. I kind of took it on a whim to fill up some weekend time and to learn some new skills. It did cover some basics such as general camera settings and composure but we spent a lot of time learning how to develop pictures in a darkroom. We were given assignments to take various pictures and then spend class time developing and enlarging them for critique. Of the dozen or so people in the class, I would say ten of them were there just to learn how to use their camera. They were all senior citizens who blew some money on fancy cameras that they couldn't comprehend a tiny fraction of the settings. The one other peer my age is the girl seen above. I have long since forgotten her name but she made going to the class interesting for me. When we went off for our assignments, she and I often went together and photographed some of the same subjects. The old lamp post in the background is surely the same one I photographed and posted on here on this blog a few weeks ago.

I love stone buildings. To me they just ooze personality and permanence, two things I would love to have in my dream home someday. I want to build not just a house but something artistically beautiful that will be here long after I'm not. Today's housing are pretty much forgettable and soon gone. They just don't make them the way they used too. I'm not sure what building this is but I'm pretty sure I know what town it is found in. The town is an old river town along the Mississippi where I was living at the time.

Finally this is one of my favorite black and white photos that I have taken. In fact, I blew this picture up, framed it and it now hangs on one of the walls of my parent's house. Someday I would like to do the same for one of the walls of my house. This one was taken a few years before the first two when I lived in Minnesota and is of one of the numerous streams along the Northshore area that flow into Lake Superior. I still remember taking this picture like it was yesterday, not because of the beauty but because of the offhand way I took it. I had hiked down a long trail to a waterfall and spent the morning photographing it. On my way back to my car, I crossed this stream and just happened to look up and notice it in a way I hadn't seen on the way to the waterfall. Since I had two pictures left on my roll of film, I thought it a good place to burn the rest of the roll so when I got back the pictures could be developed. I snapped the pictures and left. Once I developed the pictures, I was amazed at how beautiful that spot really was and wished I had spent more time there. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Missing Turkey

I've mentioned a few times on this blog that I have a flock of turkeys that reside near my house. Near enough anyway that I saw them fairly regularly most of last year. However once winter arrived here in force, they disappeared and I haven't seen them. I found this odd since now the leaves are all down, they should be fairly easy to spot. But half of winter has passed me by and I had yet to see them until last week that is.

I was out on the back deck with my camera and telephoto lens looking at some hawks nearby and trying to get a decent picture (still haven't) when through the woods to my right I noticed something moving. I trained my lens over there and lo and behold, I found my turkeys. They were in the very bottom corner of my neighbors lawn pecking away and looking quite healthy.

It is nice to see my turkeys once again but it brings up a question that I don't know the answer too. How far to turkeys roam? I'm guessing since I have now seen these turkeys during every season, the answer is not very far. One of these days, with my neighbors permission, I need to tramp through the woods that border our properties and see if I can find out where they roost for the night. That might make a good photograph.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The River

I took this panoramic photo with my phone to give you an idea of how the town is laid out. The oldest parts of town are shown on the north side of the river built upon the bluff. The river channel to the left (upstream) didn't exist until modern times when the big oxbow to the south was removed out of the river and it was routed though a dam in the newly build channel. This was all done in the name of preventing flooding but as we have all learned since then that it probably only made the flooding worse and hang around for longer periods of time.

Part of the trail we walk along is where the Wabash Railroad used to have their tracks back in the day. I found this mural on a bridge support that carries the automobile traffic over the trail where the railroad used to  run. My biggest surprise in this day of age was that it hadn't been ruined with graffiti yet.

Although I have walked across the old Wabash railroad bridge now walking trail many times, this was the first time I have noticed what you see in the above picture. In the supports that hold the bridge out of the river, they were capped with these large stones that had lots of carvings in them. Modern day hieroglyphics some of which are probably fairly old.

I took a picture upstream of the dam and the reason why we see lots of bald eagles and canadian geese along the river downstream.

The newest of all the bridges here in our town sometimes referred to as Bridge City is seen above. It is the bridge I use most often when I go downtown for various reasons. If you follow the road up and over the hill and then over the hill behind it, I live on the second ridge and the very outer limits of town. It feels as if I live out in the country but I still retain some benefits of living in town so it is a pretty good place to live. However the reason I like living here over previous places is because it is close to the river. Someday before I die, I would like to spend a few years anyway living right on the river or at least with a view of it all year round.