Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Window sunglasses

I've been working from home since the Coronavirus lockdown started.  This is the, um, 11th week, I think?  I've lost track. Anyway, the first month or so, it was delightfully gloomy and rainy outside, and I really enjoyed my home office setup in the living room where I could look out the window and watch the rain and the birds and the neighborhood activity.  However, once the spring rains ended and the sky returned to its usual blue and the sun returned to its usual excruciating SoCal brightness, I found that I could not keep the blinds open during the daytime without giving myself eye strain.  It was just too bright outside.  Plus, I was reminded how strongly the sun beats down on morning side of the house.

My new windows and door, since they are modern, have double panes and a UV and heat-reflecting film on them of some sort.  However, the living room still has its historically-charming original inward-swinging casement windows, which I painstakingly restored and weather sealed several years ago.  The glass, of course, is just a single pane of plain glass.  In fact, they have the historical wavy window glass that resulted from older manufacturing techniques.  They used to manufacture window glass in large cylindrical tubes which then had to be reheated, flattened, and cut to size, complete with waves, bubbles, and other imperfections.  Historical purists really love this stuff, although I'm not quite sure why.  I find it kind of charming, but although I'm mostly ambivalent about it, I would sort of rather have an unobstructed view and be able to look at birds through the window with my binoculars.  However, I'm not about to replace all the casement windows in the house anytime soon.

But, to continue working comfortably from home as the summer glare and heat increases, I needed to do something.  So, I bought some heat and UV-resistant window film that you can install on existing windows.  It's the Gila Heat Control Titanium Window Film, which I ordered from Home Depot along with an installation kit.  A lot of reviewers said they had a lot of trouble installing it, but I found the process to be very easy as long as I followed the steps shown in their how-to video and used the provided tools.  Basically you just thoroughly squirt the window and the film with their soap-like bonding chemical and then iron out the bubbles with a squeegee and trim the edges.

The photo below shows the front windows. The left one has the film installed, and the right one does not (yet).  You can see it makes a huge difference.  It's like having sunglasses on the window!  When the sun is actively hitting a window with the film on it, I can really tell a difference in how much heat is coming through.  And my eye strain problems are now gone.  I can keep the blinds open during the work day.

All in all, I'm quite happy with my decision here, although if I had to do it again, I think I would have picked this other Gila product that is supposedly less dark in color.  The film I chose is a bit darker and more reflective than I really wanted. In the evening or on a gloomy day, it's pretty dim.

But, I think this will work out well.  Supposedly it's removable-ish if I decide I don't like it or some future owner doesn't like it.  My boss put something like this on his windows 15 years ago, and apparently it's held up and is still very effective, so that's a good sign.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Patio/porch conversion - a Coronavirus house project

Just like most people these last few months, I've been spending a lot of time at home thanks to the Coronavirus lockdown.  Somewhat on a whim, I decided to finally embark on a bit of creative destruction that I'd been considering for a long time.  I decided to remove the dingy old screens from the porch on the back of the house.

But wait, is it a porch?  Or a patio?  Or was it a porch and now it's a patio?  According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, a porch is "a covered shelter projecting in front of the entrance to a building", but I typically think of a porch as being raised off the ground.  A patio is "a paved outdoor area adjoining a house", but I typically think of a patio as being uncovered.  It seems not to quite fit the Platonic ideals of porchness or pationess, but I'm not feeling particularly pedantic today, so let's just say it used to be a porch, and now it's a covered patio and not worry too much about it.

Here's what it looked like originally:

It wasn't awful, but it was kind of dark and dingy, and it was always dusty and full of spider webs.  We don't really have that many bugs here, and the doors had kind of fallen apart a long time ago anyway.  I never used this space for anything, and I felt like it made the house even more disconnected from the backyard than it was anyway thanks to the add-on room.  Basically the space just didn't work for me.

So, one evening I starting pulling down screens.  It came right down with no problem, and most of the non-supportive wood beams were just nailed in and came right out as well with some prodding from a claw hammer.  Some of it was a little rotten...hooray.  I only had to break out the jigsaw to make a few strategic cuts.

You can see how nicely the space now connects with the backyard!

After removing all the detritus and pulling out about a thousand staples and rusty nails, I needed to do some touch-up painting.  If you refer back to the first picture, you'll see that some previous painter suffered a fit of indecision on the right-most column, started painting it green, and then kind of gave up.  I'll probably never know why.  Other areas now had exposed wood with no paint, and there was a gross and dirty stripe on the wall where the a beam had previously covered the siding.

One curious puzzle: The house's exterior siding is a dark green color, and there's a slightly lighter green used for accents around the windows and on the underside of the roof overhang.  For some reason, a previous painter had used this lighter green for the siding inside the porch (to the right in the photo), but the adjoining siding that was on the outside of the porch (to the left in the photo) was the darker green of the rest of the house.  I wanted to repaint the ugly stripe, but the two greens didn't match.  I decided to go with the lighter green and paint over the smaller darker green area so it would match the entire wall, rather than repainting the much larger section with the wrong green.

As a result the paint colors to the left and right of the back door now do not match. Can you tell?  The neighbor child (an 8-year-old) stopped by to examine my work one day (he was being good about social distancing), and he didn't notice. Even after I explained this paint color conundrum to him and pointed it out explicitly, he still could not tell the difference between the two sides, so I guess it passes the test.  You can kind of see it in the photo here, but I bet you wouldn't notice if you hadn't been told.  (But wow, doesn't that new door look nice even a year after it was installed?)

So here's what it looks like now after removing the screens and decorative wood, repainting strategic areas, and cleaning thoroughly.  I've been doing my weekly now-virtual tap dancing class out there. (Of course, I said I didn't need the screens because we don't really have bugs, and I've now been thoroughly bitten up by mosquitoes...)

It's not 100% done.  There are still some bolts sticking out of the concrete that I cannot remove myself.  There are also some horizontal wood boards along the edge that I want to get rid of, but I dare not touch them because they go under the support beams for the roof.  I will need to hire somebody with more skill than me to either carefully cut the wood or to replace it with fresh timber because it's a little rotten.

I also want to get a comfy porch swing now that I have a place to put it.  I need to get rid of this pile of wood, too.  The neighbor cat agrees.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Native plants and Chinese dumps

Chinese dumps.  Yes, I'm going to talk about Chinese dumps.  But, you have to wait until the end.  I'm going to talk about native plants, first.

In the half year since I started thinking about doing something with my yard, I've learned A LOT.  The Russian sages I planted in July are thriving as expected, the tam juniper is still alive but not really doing anything, and I completely revised my strategy for gardening.

My main challenge in the past was lack of data and information.  I had no idea what plants to plant or how to care for them, and I couldn't seem to figure out how to get that information.  The local nurseries were unhelpful, and I also didn't have much luck scouting plants growing in natural areas because I couldn't identify them and didn't know enough about the care they would need or what size they would grow to.

However, over the summer, I finally hit the jackpot and found the resource I've been missing: the Inland Valley Garden Planner website from the Chino Basin Water Conservation District.  They have a database of plants well suited to growing in the Inland Empire, and, most importantly, a plant finder that allows you to filter by different characteristics, like "shrubs" or "partial shade" or "low water" or "attracts butterflies" or "California native".  There is a detailed page about each plant with information about what care it needs, how big it gets, exactly how much you should water it during each month of the year, etc.  Each plant has several photos showing what it looks like when it's mature.  This website is incredible.  It's seriously one of the best websites I've ever used.

Additionally, the Chino Basin Water Conservation District has an education center in Montclair.  It's a really amazing place!  They have a demonstration garden, a grove of trees of different sorts, and a large classroom where they teach workshops.  I attended a workshop about native plants, in which an extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic landscape architect went through about 35 different native plants that are most likely to be successful for novice gardeners in the Inland Empire.  I talked to him afterward and asked him to answer a long list of dumb questions.  My main one was "is it crazy not to irrigate and to try to do a garden without an irrigation system?"  He said no, it's not crazy, and gave me a shortlist of plants to pick from.  This is exactly what I've been needing since forever.  Later, I attended a follow-up workshop about how to actually plant and maintain stuff, like practical gardening for dummies.

Here are the plants I decided on (all California natives):

Armed with actual data and a list of plants, I made a plan. I decided to focus on just one section of the backyard (it was too much to do the whole thing at once), the area behind the garage adjacent to the section of fence that was replaced over the summer.  That area was basically just dirt and empty space, and I decided my goal was just to take up space and cover surface area so it won't kick up dust in the summer and need mowing in the winter.

I laid out my design in ArcGIS Pro (the software I help develop at work).  I rendered some basic plant shapes in 3D using the typical mature height and width of each plant type so I could get a sense of the spacing.

Then I sourced the plants.  I noticed that there is a complete disconnect between the plants recommended by the plant finder website and the plants actually available at the local nursery.  I called several nurseries, and most of them had 0 of the 7 plant species I chose for my yard.  I asked one nursery why they don't sell those plants, and they said "We don't sell them because they don't tolerate the watering in yards with irrigation systems."  Eventually, I found 2 of my plants at Adam Hall Nursery in Moreno Valley at comparatively lower prices, and the rest I special ordered from Moosa Creek Nursery, a wholesale specialist in California native plants that delivers to Parkview Nursery in Riverside, half an hour away from me.

Not a Chinese Dump
This disconnect translates to the plants I see around town in people's yards.  I've seen almost none of my chosen plants in person, and the plants I do see in local yards aren't in the plant finder website database because they're not well suited to the environment here. Despite our climate and years of drought, people here irrigate a lot.  We have created an entirely made-up ecosystem that is only sustainable through continued irrigation, and if drought continues and population continues to increase, it seems inevitable that we'll have to change pretty much the entire ecosystem we live in within the city.

Plants finally acquired, I ordered a truckload of mulch.  Is this a Chinese dump?  No, not yet.  We'll get to that story eventually.

I hired a guy to spread the mulch and do the planting.  I had saved up a bunch of recycled newspapers to lay down under the mulch as a cheap and temporary weedcloth.  Since the weed cloth in the front yard deteriorated so quickly, I didn't think it was worth the cost and effort to get any real weed cloth.  I figure with newspaper and a layer of mulch, I should be able to go a year or two without mowing the mulched area before the weeds start to come through again, and by then my plants will be starting to take up space.  Maybe?  Hopefully.  I ended up with more mulch than I actually needed, so my guy put some in the front yard too, on top of the weeds.  Maybe it will help a little.

And, best yet, I should only need to water them weekly for the first year while they get established, and then only once a month over the summer and occasionally throughout the rest of the year if it's been dry.  No irrigation system, minimal maintenance.

So I have plants!  Doesn't look like much yet, but check back in a few years.

Now, finally, we're done with native plants, and we can talk about Chinese dumps.  Ironically, the same day I got a big load of brown and smelly mulch dumped in my driveway, my spam message queue in my work e-mail had two messages with a subject line of "Happy Chinese New Year - 75% OFF on all Dumps" from mei at chinesedumps dot com.  Teehee.  Chinese dumps.  Best spam message ever.  No, I don't know what kind of "Dumps" these messages were referring to, but I think it's better to use your imagination than to visit the website.

Update after about three months, in which we had plenty of rain:
The sages and buckwheat in particular are growing like crazy.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Shower valves and urban water features

This is California.  We have no water.  Saving water at home is a good thing.

To save water when you take a shower, you should turn off the water when you're soaping up, and only turn it back on when you're ready to rinse.  I do this.  However, one thing that particularly annoys me and also wastes a lot of time and water is getting the water back to the correct temperature when you have to adjust two knobs.  I already did that once, and now I have to do it again!?

Shower valves to the rescue!  I got some cheap standard-sized valves on Amazon which allow me to turn the flow on and off right at the shower head, thus keeping the temperature mix correct for when I'm ready to rinse.  They only took about 5 minutes to install (one of which went onto my not-actually-British-male shower hose), and they work great!

Thinking about water flow puts me in the mind of our local urban water feature, the Mill Creek Zanja.  "Zanja", correctly pronounced "Zahn-hah", is a Spanish word meaning "ditch".  Our zanja was dug in 1819 to provide irrigation water to farms in the Redlands area long before Redlands was even Redlands and before the United States even owned California (hence why the zanja has a Spanish name).  Over the years, though, American settlers moved in, people stopped speaking Spanish here regularly, and people who didn't know better started misspelling it and saying it wrong, and it became known and the Sankey.  Some people still call it that, even though there are plenty of Spanish speakers here again who could tell you better.

Anyway, the Mill Creek Zanja cuts through the center of Redlands, and the City and some local advocacy groups have been working on developing a nice greenway along it on the east and west ends of town.  However, the zanja kind of disappears downtown.  It was covered over at some point and runs under the core downtown and dead mall, eventually reemerging next to State Street as it heads toward the Esri campus.

I was at a public meeting a while back where some planners floated the idea of diverting part of the zanja downtown and creating a linear park along it, thus connecting the greenways on both sides and creating a bike/pedestrian corridor through town.  I actually really liked the idea in principle, although it seemed to be lacking in the practicality department.  I mean, it would require a monumental amount of money and extensive care to keep it from being full of trash and to keep the landscaping actually looking nice.  Plus, it normally doesn't even have much water in it, so it would be more like a vaguely damp ditch most of the time rather than an aesthetically pleasing stream.  Finally, the existing underground channel would have to stay because the diverted portion wouldn't be able to handle the necessary capacity during flooding events, or something complicated like that. The city council apparently came to the same conclusion I did and said definitely not, so the zanja will remain covered downtown.

Cheonggyecheon stream, Seoul
I'm guessing the planners at that meeting were inspired by the famous (among planning circles) Cheonggyecheon stream restoration project in Seoul, South Korea.  The stream was very important to Seoul throughout the centuries, but after the Korean War, it became very polluted and the site of lots of homeless encampments, so they covered it over with a highway.  In the early 2000s, they removed the highway and restored the stream into a very pleasant public park.

The stream begins with a fountain and a little artificial waterfall right in the city center and then travels in a nicely-landscaped concrete channel for several miles before emptying into the Han River. Either the historic water source of the stream was always intermittent, or else it's been too disrupted by other construction (of the metro and such) to provide adequate water for the stream now, so Han River water is actually pumped to supply the stream water.  It's fantastic as a park, and it's beautiful, but its ecological value is debatable.  It's certainly not "natural", but it's also probably a lot better than a highway.

Cheonggyecheon stream, Seoul
Redlands, unfortunately, doesn't have the natural or financial resources that Seoul does, so a local zanja version of the Cheonggyecheon project is out for us.  I mean, Seoul is the center of a metropolitan area of 25 million people, and it also has a wet climate, so the stream actually has water in it.  Actually having water is a helpful characteristic for an urban water feature.

This brings us back to saving water.  I highly encourage you to get some shower valves of your own.  You can also collect your shower warm-up water in a bucket and use it to flush the toilet!  I get one free flush per shower.

Door cats. I have door cats.

Last year, I got a new back door.  I love it!  Because it has a glass panel in it, I feel so much more connected to my backyard!  I love to be able to see outside when I'm doing stuff in the kitchen.

Apparently the neighbor cats love my new door, too.  They seem to enjoy looking in as much as I enjoy looking out.  Just to be clear: these are not my cats.  I don't feed them (but yes, I pet them).

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Bye-bye, money. Hello, new HVAC.

I have a new heating and air conditioning system!  Yay!  I have less money! Oh...

If I've learned anything as a homeowner, it's that it can be very expensive and occasionally terrifying.  Not only do you have to be prepared with cash on hand for unexpected things, but it takes courage to spend that money.  It's hard to put so much trust in a contractor or professional, and it's just scary to give up that much money all at once, particularly when you aren't sure if you're really making the right decision.

This fall, when the heating guy from Burgeson's came to do my annual tune-up, he said my furnace was on its way out.  He said something-or-other was approaching a limit where carbon monoxide could become a problem, and he showed me a picture of something with a bunch of oil leaking out which meant that something else was approaching its end.  There was also a circuit board showing symptoms of occasional overheating.  This was dismaying, but not entirely surprising.  The furnace was 15 years old, and it was low-end and very poorly installed to start with.

To be honest, I wasn't hugely disappointed, as I've always hated the heating in my house.  It would blow out like a hurricane and then immediately be cold again as soon as it turned off, and the living room was always freezing even when the other rooms were too warm.

The Burgesosn's sales guy was able to come over that same day and give me some recommendations and quotes for a new system.  He measured the house and asked me all sorts of questions about what I liked and disliked about the current system, how much I use it, what my utility bills were like, how much insulation I had in the walls, what kind of weather sealing I had on the windows, etc. (Actually, thanks to my prior insulation and weather sealing work, that meant I could go with a less enthusiastic HVAC system overall because it won't have to work as hard.)  Apparently, since the heating and air conditioning share ducting and a blower, it's typical to replace them both at the same time, so I was looking at a new AC also even though that was still working adequately.  Ugh.  So, he gave me a quote for a whole system, including replacing all the ducting to resolve some of the unevenness problems.  He also very patiently answered all my questions.

I asked him some hypotheticals about other types of heating.  Everywhere I've lived prior to this had radiators, and I find radiant heat much more even and comfortable.  Unsurprisingly, he advised that a hot-water radiator system or underfloor heating would just never make sense as a retrofit in my old house.  Another crazy idea I had: It seems like you could buy a fleet of those oil-filled electric space heater radiators, and there should be a way to network them together through your wifi and control the temperature of each room more precisely on a schedule.  I couldn't find any such networking device on the market, but mostly it just wouldn't be cost-effective.  Those things heat really nicely but consume a monumental amount of electricity.  I did run the numbers and found them to be unworkable.  So, a replacement forced-air system seemed like the only real choice.

I've been very happy with Burgeson's so far and had every reason to trust their work, but before spending that much money on something, I thought it would be good to get a second opinion.  I got a technician from another major local company to come and assess the existing system and give me a quote for a replacement. The technician saw the same stuff as the Burgeson's guy but didn't seem to think it was really a problem.  I asked him about the oil accumulating in one area that the other guy had pointed out, and this guy nonchalantly said "Oh yeah, I saw that, but these things are always oily.  I couldn't tell where it was coming from.  It probably isn't important."  He showed me photos that looked similar to the other guy's photos, so if nothing else, at least I knew that the original photos were actually photos of my system and not some scam that the Burgeson's guy shows to everybody (not that I really thought that).  The second guy said nothing about the impending carbon monoxide problem, and he was similarly lackadaisical about the burn marks on the circuit board.

He worked up a quote for me, but unlike the Burgeson's guy, he didn't really ask a lot of questions about my habits, likes and dislikes of the current system, utility bills, or insulation and weather sealing.  I guess he just assumed I wanted a comparable system of the same capacity.  I was left with very little confidence that I'd be satisfied with a new system from this company, and the price he quoted me was similar to Burgeson's.

So, that was very instructive. I was so unimpressed with the guy from the other company that I felt much better about staying with Burgeson's.  Maybe the system could have hung on another year or two, but I decided it was better to be safe than sorry and better to replace it while it was still working (and not too cold yet) than to have to do it in emergency-mode if it actually did break.  And better not to get carbon monoxide poisoning, either...  Like with my old car that went to Car Heaven last year, at some point it's just time, and it's not worth trying to squeeze more life out of something that's old and doesn't work that great.  So, I bit the bullet, and I paid an ungodly sum of money to Burgeson's for a whole new HVAC system.  Courage!

They were able to complete the installation all in one day.  They had about 6 or 8 guys running in and out of the attic all day making a lot of dust and noise, but it really went very smoothly and was less mess than it could have been.  The part I was most worried about was that they had to expand the attic access hole in order to get the old furnace out and put the new furnace in.  The only way we could figure that the original system had been put up there was that they took down a ceiling somewhere.  I can tell that the ceiling in the two bedrooms is not original, so I guess that was it.  Anyway, they opened up the attic access with no trouble, and their shop made a custom-sized metal access hole with an insulated back, no problem at all.  Also, since the attic access is in my only bathroom, I had to arrange with a neighbor to go over and use the bathroom at her house for the day, but that was okay.
Installation day. It was a busy day.
New expanded attic access hole.

The new system is MUCH better than the old one.  It's quieter, and they carefully balanced the airflow to each room, so it heats more evenly (and even came back later to tweak it when I asked them to).  It's a two-stage furnace, so when it's not super cold (which is most of the time), it runs at a lower speed and is less blowy.  I no longer have a hurricane in my kitchen.  It's never going to pay off in terms of utility bills (mine were already very low), but it's definitely already paying off in terms of comfort.  And I can now be assured that everything up there in the attic is safe and up to code (and actually officially permitted by the City).  Props to Burgeson's for doing an outstanding job!

So I think I made the right decision.  It's possible that there was more than one right decision (like waiting a year or two and then doing it), but it's impossible to know.  I definitely have less money in my bank account than I did before this project, but that's just the way it goes with home ownership.  Here's for a more comfortable and less expensive 2020!