Thursday, November 21, 2013

Plumbum - all about lead paint

Well, I'm finally officially moved into my house and out of my apartment.  But, moving isn't very interesting to write about, so this post is going to be about lead paint.

Lead is a ubiquitous heavy metal element that also happens to be poisonous.  When ingested, lead is a neurotoxin that accumulates in soft tissue and bones.  Lead poisoning can manifest in a wide variety of physical and mental symptoms.  It is especially problematic for children, as it can lead to developmental disorders and learning disabilities.

However, lead has been used for a huge variety of things throughout the ages, probably because it's just really easy to find and work with.  It was very popular with the ancient Romans.  This graph of world lead production from Wikipedia shows a huge spike during the Roman era.
Remember the lead pipe in the board game Clue? Lead was used for water pipes throughout history, including in Ancient Rome (where they actually had plumbing). Toxic water pipes.  Actually, the word plumbing derives from the Latin word for lead, plumbum.  Lead is Pb on the periodic table, which stands for plumbum.

Pewter is a metal alloy that was commonly used in tableware in Europe among the wealthy before advances in glass-making and porcelain superseded it. The pewter tableware used in Medieval Europe had a high lead content. When acidic foods like tomatoes, which had just been introduced to Europe from America, were put on the pewter plates, the lead leached into the food, leading to lead poisoning.  For this reason, and because tomato plants are a member of the generally-poisonous Nightshade family, wealthy Europeans thought tomatoes were poisonous.

A lead mixture was added to gasoline from the 1920s-1970s to reduce engine knocking, but it was phased out in the US because of the environmental and health problems associated with it.  Lead is/was also used in ammunition, solder, batteries, radiation shielding, and other industrial applications.

But, as I said, this post is about lead paint.  According to Wikipedia, "lead is added to paint to speed up drying, increase durability, maintain a fresh appearance, and resist moisture that causes corrosion."  So it does lot of good things for paint.  But, primarily, you can create a very nice thick white pigment with it.  Japanese geishas used face-whitening makeup that contained lead-based pigment, which, needless to say, wasn't good for them.  People have speculated that artists such as Van Gogh and Caravaggio suffered from lead poisoning from the paints they used.

Lead paint was used on walls and trim in houses, and with an old house like mine, it's not uncommon for there to be layers of lead paint underneath the most recent coat.  It doesn't really do any harm unless it's actively chipping off where a child might eat it or if it's in an area like a window where it gets rubbed off and turned to dust that you might breath in.  Or, of course, if you decide to repaint it and you sand it down or scrape it off.  My house doesn't need repainting right now, but I wanted to see if and where I had lead paint just so I know what I'll be getting myself into next time I do decide to paint.

I bought a lead paint test kit at Home Depot.  The kit contains some tools to help you collect a sample of paint (basically you just scrape off a little bit of paint with a razor blade) and some vials with chemicals that change color depending on the lead content of the sample.  You put the sample in the vial with the first chemical, and then you drop in some of the second chemical and shake it around.  If it turns dark, there was lead in the sample.  If it stays clear, there was no lead.

I took a few samples and followed the instructions, and all my samples were clear.  The kit also contained some verification strips, to test the viability of the chemicals.  I followed the instructions for that, too, but it appeared that the second chemical was bad.  I looked at the expiration date on the test kit box, and it had expired a year and a half ago.  Thanks, Home Depot.  The test kit company had a number you could call, and they mailed me a fresh bottle of the second chemical.  I was able to add it to the samples I had already collected.  Voila!  My window hardware and walls were free of lead, but the window frame definitely has lead.

This wasn't unexpected, and I'll just deal with it when I have to and make sure not to eat my window frames in the mean time.  My windows swing inwards rather than sliding up and down, so they're less likely to produce lead dust.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Oh, show me the way to the next whiskey bar. (About my mahogany floors)

I had my hardwood floors refinished last weekend.  Hooray!  That means I can finally move in.  The floors were in good shape but were pretty scratched up and desperately needed to be sanded down and varnished.  They look so nice now that I'm almost afraid to walk on them.

 The floor guys took off the quarter-round molding that covers the edge of the floor where it meets the baseboards.  The cracks between the floor and the wall are where a lot of drafts come in, so I vacuumed out the cracks and will fill them with expanding foam.  Then I'll put some new quarter-round molding down.  There's also a hole in the living room floor with an old gas floor heater in it that was used before the central heat was installed in the 90s.  If I had been smarter and a bit more on my game, I would have had the floor heater removed and had the floor guys patch the hole when they did the refinishing, but I wasn't on top of things enough to get that done.  Oh well.  A project for another time.

The edge of my floor

The floor people's best guess for the type of wood used in my floor is mahogany.  Mahogany is a hardwood tree native to Central and South America and the Caribbean Islands.  Actually, there are a few different species of Mahogany.  Today, the Honduran or big-leaf mahogany is the only commercially-grown species.  The West Indian mahogany was widely traded and used prior to World War II, but today it is an endangered species because of centuries of overharvesting.  Illegal logging of West India mahogany is still very common in South America today.

Deforestation leads to a huge number of environmental problems.  Trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so deforestation contributes to global warming.  Deforestation also messes with the water cycle, causes soil erosion, and generally disrupts the ecosystem.

Deforestation has occurred throughout human history. People chop down trees to clear land for farming or settlements and to provide fuel for fires for cooking, heat, and industry.  The Europeans chopped down tons of trees in the 1400s to build wooden sailing ships for exploration and colonization, and, later, American steamboat crews chopped down all the trees along the banks of the Mississippi and other rivers to power the boats.  Mahogany was used to construct Spanish sailing ships, fine furniture, and musical instruments.  And wood floors, apparently.  I guess the builders of my house were guilty of contributing to deforestation, but at least the material has lasted well.  Better than chopping down a forest for something you're going to use for a short time and then throw away.  Or something you're just going to burn.

That's all for now.  In truth, I'm kind of exhausted from spending several hours vacuuming up wood dust.  At least I was smart enough to tape plastic over the doors to the rooms that don't have wood floors to keep the dust out.

I leave you with something completely unrelated with a sort of homophonic name, Kurt Weill's Mahagonny Songspiel.  If you're up for it, he also wrote a 2.5-hour-long opera called Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny). "Oh, show me the way to the next whiskey bar."

Friday, November 1, 2013

Wiring and The Dumb

Although various primitive light-bulb-like objects were created throughout the 19th century, it wasn't until the 1880s that the light bulb started to get commercialized.  Edison's first light-bulb patent was in 1878, so there really wasn't much point in putting electricity in your house before that.  But, with the advent of the electric light bulb, people needed to have electricity delivered to all the rooms in their houses.

From the 1880s up until the 1930s, knob-and-tube wiring was the standard for electrical wiring in houses.  Knob-and-tube wiring consists of conducting wires that run along floor and wall joists and insulated ceramic tubes that hold the wire free of those joists.

Although a lot of old houses still use it, knob-and-tube wiring is widely considered a fire hazard these days, especially given the rather larger loads we put on our electrical systems compared to our ancestors in the 1920s. Also, the wires were supposed to remain suspended in air to keep them cool, but that doesn't work if there's insulation in the walls (insulation is a more modern practice).  The technology wasn't bad.  It's just outdated because we use electricity differently now than we did back then.

My house was built in 1920, and most of the wiring in it was the original knob-and-tube stuff.  Because of the fire risk, as I was annoyed to find out, none of the major insurance companies will write new policies for houses with knob-and-tube wiring.  Without insurance, you can't get a home loan.  In order to get an insurance policy for my house, I had to agree to rewire it as soon as I moved in.  Yay.  So, after a week of work and mucho $$, the electricians just finished rewiring everything and bringing it up to code.  Incidentally, if you're looking for an electrician in Redlands, I was very happy with Redlands Electrical Services.

Of course, when you start taking things apart, you discover all sorts of mysteries.  When the electricians took the ceiling fixtures down, they discovered that all of them were simply screwed into the plaster and not anchored to the ceiling joists.  Plaster is crumbly and not very strong, so that's kind of a terrible thing to do.  Next time you pull your fan's speed adjustment chain, you might pull the whole fan right out of the ceiling.

Speaking of fans, the electricians also installed two ceiling fans in the rooms that didn't have them (a housecooling gift from my parents).  However, according to the 1996 inspection report I found in the garage, all the rooms had ceiling fans, so two of them disappeared sometime between 1996 and 2013.  Weird.  Well, maybe not so weird.  There probably weren't enough wires going into the ceiling to have both a light and a fan, and somebody opted for lights instead.

The electricians also installed a bathroom vent fan and light.  It lacks historical charm but will cut down on future mildew.  It's certainly an improvement over the large incongruous Tiffany chandelier that was above the shower when I bought the place.  Why that was there remains a mystery.

Speaking of lamps, I wanted to get some lights to put on the ceiling fans.  Light kits are readily available and have standard attachments for fans of any brand, so I didn't think it would be hard.  Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the latest trend is for fan light kits to use candelabra sized bulbs instead of the standard size.  I didn't want that, and it took an annoying amount of time to find what I wanted.  The descriptions you find of these things online and the packaging you see in stores often doesn't say what size bulb it uses.  There exists and all-pervading force in the Universe called The Dumb which constantly seeks to exert itself.  It very commonly manifests in computer programs and mass-manufactured products, and it seems that fan light kits have recently succumbed to The Dumb.

So I got my light kits installed, and the electricians put in some special switches that allow for fan speed control from the wall.  Unfortunately, these fixtures also had light dimmer switches.  Incandescent light bulbs are 1880s technology, just like the old knob-and-tube wiring.  CFL bulbs are much more efficient, so naturally that's what I want to use.  But, although you can dim an incandescent light bulb, you can't dim an ordinary CFL, only the dimmable kind.  No matter what I did with the light dimmer switches, I couldn't get the CFLs to not flicker or buzz.  The annoyance factor outweighed the convenience of having fan speed control from the wall, so I had the electricians replace the fancy dimmers with ordinary standard switches. I'll control my fan speed by pulling the chains, and now that the fans are anchored to the ceiling joists, I don't have to worry about them falling on my head when I do that.  My electricians put the ceiling fixtures back correctly, thus reducing the amount of Dumb in the Universe slightly.

If someone would just make a light switch unit that has a 4-speed fan control slider and a light on-off switch, that's really all I wanted.  It doesn't seem that complicated, really.  The fact that it doesn't exist is another manifestation of The Dumb.  If you know of such a product, please leave a link in the comments.