Tightening the Newel Post

The newel post (the large vertical post at the bottom of the handrail on the stairs) at my house had gotten loose in recent years  Tightening a newel post is certainly an easy do-it-yourself job for anyone who has an electric drill and knows their way around a hardware store.  What I did was basically the same as what Tom Silva does in this video — except I used two screws, one in a tread and one in a riser.  Good tip, using a carpenter’s square to make sure the drill stays level.

Replacing Fluorescent Tubes With LEDs

It’s well known that LED lights are much more efficient than incandescent or fluorescent lights.  They use less electricity and last much longer, making them well worth the initial cost.  For me, the long life is the real advantage because it means I’ll spend far less time buying and changing bulbs.  Swapping screw-in incandescents led_tubefor screw-in LEDs couldn’t be easier and everyone should do it.  I did that years ago.

Recently, the fluorescent tubes in my basement laundry area (which date from the time before household LED lights became available) stopped working.  Because they both stopped at the same time, I suspected the ballast might need to be replaced.  While researching ballast replacements, I became aware that LED tubes for replacing fluorescent tubes are now available.  The advantages of LEDs make swapping them for fluorescents the obvious thing to do — but doing it isn’t as easy as unscrewing one bulb and screwing in another.

It’s the ballast (which is “used in fluorescent lamps to limit the current through the tube, which would otherwise rise to a destructive level due to the negative differential resistance artifact in the tube’s voltage-current characteristic” according to Wikipedia) that’s the issue.  “What to do with the ballast?” is the question

Keeping the Ballast.  The easiest way to convert fluorescent fixtures to LED is to replace the old fluorescent tubes with LED tubes that are specially made to work in fixtures with ballast.  Just take out the fluorescent tubes and put in the new LED tubes.  However, that’s probably not the best way.  In general, LED lights don’t require ballast, so you’re buying an LED light that is made to work with ballast.  In fact, because it’s made to work with ballast, you shouldn’t use it in a fixture that doesn’t have ballast.  There are two problems with keeping the ballast: (1) it will eventually fail (which will leave you in the dark) and need to be replaced, (2) it uses electricity, so keeping the ballast partially offsets the savings you get from using LED lights.  To avoid spending money for ballast replacements in the future (the life of the LED might be 4 or 5 times the life of the ballast), and to avoid spending money for electricity consumed by a ballast that isn’t even necessary, I decided to remove the ballast from my basement fixture.

Removing the Ballast.  It’s fairly easy to remove or at least bypass the electrical ballast in a fluorescent fixture, thus converting it to use LED.  You just need to open the light fixture, cut a few wires, and make a few connections with wire nuts.  There are lots of directions online.  However, there are two ways of doing the re-wiring.  (See, I told you this wasn’t as easy as replacing screw-in incandescents …).  You have the choice of either (1) running the live wire to one end of the fixture and the neutral wire to the other end, which is the standard way fluorescent fixtures are wired, … or … (2) running both the live and neutral wires to the same end of the fixture.  Method (1) requires LED tubes that are called “double ended” or “dual end powered”  Method (2) requires LED tubes that are “single end powered”.  It’s probably best to buy the LED tubes and do the re-wiring accordingly, because “single end” tubes require a different kind of lamp holder (a.k.a. “tombstone”).  However, note well: The wiring job has to match the tube type or your light won’t work.

To review, the choices are:

  1. Use an LED tube designed to work with a ballast (easy, but you have the cost of ballast replacement and electricity consumption).
  2.  Use an LED tube designed for use without a ballast (requires re-wiring the fixture, but eliminates cost of ballast), either
    • doubled-end LED tube, or
    • single-end LED tube

Also, LED tubes are available with either clear or frosted plastic covers.  The clear tubes are a bit brighter, but are harsh if you happen to look directly at them because you can see the actual LEDs.  I wouldn’t use them in any location where the tube itself is visible.  They might be good for recessed lighting or maybe in a fixture that has its own light diffuser.  The frosted tubes are more like traditional fluorescent tubes, bright but not harsh on the eyes.

Self-Fusing Silicone Tape Fixes Leaking Washer

One more reason that fairly-new-and-in-good-condition washing machine was on the curb slowly revealed itself as we used it.  It evidently had a slow leak.  After several uses, the floor around the washer would be slightly damp, as if it were leaking just a few spoonfuls of water with each load.  Water where it shouldn’t be is all kinds of trouble for machinery.  It can cause corrosion, electrical shorts, who knows what else.  It also provides a water source for roaches and other vermin.

I carefully looked at the supply line intake hoses, where they attached to the back of the machine, but I never saw even a drop of water on the rear of the washer.  However, I realized that I had re-used the old hoses from the previous machine, which meant I had old hoses.  I couldn’t figure out just how old, so just for safety’s sake, I got new ones.  They also didn’t leak.

The floor under the washer, a concrete basement floor, still got damp each time we did a load of laundry.  If the inlet hoses weren’t leaking, then the leak must be somewhere inside the machine.  Attempting a repair to some interior part seemed daunting, but I liked the thought of calling a repairman even less.

I unplugged the machine  and moved it away from the wall, removed the back, and took a look.  Yikes!  There was a pool of water in the bottom of the machine.  Evidently, it was deep enough (maybe a quarter inch) to overflow onto the floor each time the machine was used.  More troubling, the water wasn’t too far from various electrical connections, thought, intelligently, none of the electrical connections were at the bottom of the machine. I felt around inside, hoping to find some dampness.  Nothing.

Having come this far, it seemed that the only thing I could do next was plug the machine back in and do a load of laundry.  I did this and sat back and watched, being sure not to touch anything.  With a flashlight I scanned the interior of the machine.  Only after several minutes of patiently watching, when the machine drained at the end of the wash cycle, did I notice the slightest drip.  Just one drip.  Aha!  The discharge hose!  I marked the location and waited for the machine to finish.

After the machine was done, I removed the hose and inspected it carefully.  Sure enough, there was a small hole near my mark.  Hardly more than a pinprick.  The hose wasn’t routed near anything that might damage it.  Perhaps it was a manufacturing defect.  I checked on the prices of replacement hoses from the manufacturer — of course, they were outrageous.  An internet search found some generic one-size-fits-all hoses, but they  weren’t quite as long and were a slightly different shape.  Such a small hole being the problem, it seemed repairing it with some kind of patch would be the best solution to the leaking washing machine problem.

silicone_tapeSomewhere I’d heard of self-fusing silicone tape, so I thought I’d give that a try.  Interesting stuff.  It’s tape, but it doesn’t stick to anything — except itself.  It’s especially useful for repairing cords, hoses, pipes, tubes or anything that can be wrapped with tape.  The basic idea is to wrap the leaky hose with the tape, making sure to stretch the tape as it overlaps.  The stretching causes the tape to adhere to itself under tension, which holds it tight.  When the tape comes into contact with itself, what was multiple layers start fusing into one solid layer.  Once that happens, it can’t be separated and it’s not coming off (unless it is cut off with blade).

After a good wrapping with the silicone tape, I put the discharge hose back into place and did a few loads.  No evidence of any leaks.  Several days and several loads later, the concrete floor under the washer was completely dry.  The silicone tape did the job.

Self-fusing silicone tape isn’t cheap.  The roll I bought cost about $10 and I used about 1/3 of it to repair the washing machine hose.  But the job has held.  Months later, the floor remains dry.



Missed My Chance For a Free Mirror

door_mirrorFor quite a while I’ve wanted a mirror for the bathroom door.  I want a real mirror, one made of glass.  Not one of the cheap glassless mirrors that are sold at discount stores.  But real glass mirrors are expensive, so I’ve had my eyes open.  One afternoon, as I was driving through a residential neighborhood, I saw a pile of things on the curb that looked like they were garbage from a bathroom remodeling job.  And there was a large glass mirror!  It looked like just what I was wanting — and the price was right: free!  It was a beveled mirror without any frame that could have been easily mounted on a door.  I got out of the car to look at it and soon saw that one edge had a small chip missing, which created some sharp edges.  So, it was no good.  (Or so I thought.)  I left it on the trash pile.

Later, as I got to thinking about it, I realized that the mirror would have been usable if it were possible to cut an inch or so off the edge with the chip.  That would result in a mirror with 3 beveled edges and one flat edge.  That would be okay, though.  I could mount the mirror with the nice beveled edges on the top and sides and the flat edge on the bottom where it would be less noticeable.  Question was: would I have to take the mirror to a professional glass cutter? or could I do it myself?

A few minutes on youtube and I had the answer.  Several videos showed that DIY glass cutting jobs are easy with a few simple and inexpensive tools.  For the cost of a gass cutting tool (which is far less than the cost of a mirror), I could have a nice mirror for my bathroom door — and I’d have a new tool that I might be able to use sometime in future.

Live and learn.

I’m still looking for a mirror.

How I Fixed the Fridge

It was a warm summer day.  I was at work.  My phone rang.  It was my wife.  She told me that she had noticed that the temperature display in the refrigerator was showing unusually high temperatures.  Normally it would show something in the upper 30°s in the refrigerator and a little above 10° in the freezer.  But that day the readings were more than 10 degrees higher.  Yikes!  But, she told me, she had looked for some advice from the internet.  She found that many websites recommend putting a fan of some sort (a box fan or a desk fan) on the floor at the back of the fridge and getting as much airflow as possible around the refrigerator’s warm parts.  She had done this and was monitoring the fridge temperature, which seemed to have started going down.

refrigeratorThe fan-on-the-floor advice works well — if what’s causing the problem is a failure of the refrigerator’s condenser fan.  In our case, that is what had happened.  I’m no expert, but basically a refrigerator works like this: the motor runs, the inside of the fridge gets cold, which makes the outside of the fridge get hot (in the motor area), and the fan blows that heat away so more cold (and more heat) can be made.  (Btw, there’s another fan inside the fridge that spreads the cold around, but that’s not the one that stopped working.)  Once the fan had stopped, there was too much heat accumulating in the motor area and it was preventing the fridge from making more cold.

After a few hours of running a box fan next to the fridge, the fridge was working as well as it always had.  But we didn’t want to keep a fan on the floor forever, so a more permanent solution was needed.  I looked for more internet advice about our fridge, a GE Profile.  I found a consensus that the fan itself could be bad.  Or it could be the computer motherboard gone bad.  Or it could be both.  And, putting in a new fan without changing the motherboard might cause the ruin of a new fan.  But, it could be that a bad fan had somehow damaged the motherboard.  In that case, replacing the motherboard without changing the fan could cause the new motherboard to be ruined.  I can’t vouch for the truth in all that, I’m just passing along what I read on the internet.  Apparently, if one doesn’t have the ability to test both the fan and the motherboard, the best approach is to replace them both.  Naturally, they were unbelievably expensive.  The two of them, just the parts alone, was a considerable fraction of the cost of a new refrigerator.

It seemed to me that moving air from one place to another should be a fairly simple thing to accomplish in our modern age.  And the equipment required to move this air shouldn’t cost more than $100.  After some web searching, it seemed that the answer to my problem was a rack fan.  Rack fans circulate air around racks of high-tech equipment like computers, servers, and similar things that don’t respond well to excessive heat.  Best of all: unlike parts from a refrigerator manufacturer, there is a competitive market in rack fans.

I found one that not only moves air, but also has a built in thermostat, so it turns itself on when it’s hot and off when it’s not.  It cost less than $25.

Installing it took some, shall we say, customization.  I didn’t want to actually replace the original fan that came with the fridge, nor use its power source.  The new fan would have its own plug going into the wall outlet separate from the refrigerator’s. The old fan would stay in place, not doing anything, forever.  After I took off the motor compartment’s cover (which was after I unplugged the fridge, of course), I noticed what seemed to me an odd arrangement.  The original fan was in one corner of the refrigerator’s motor compartment, positioned to blow air across the condenser coils, basically moving air from the right side of the compartment to the left side.  It clearly wasn’t positioned to either take air from inside the motor compartment and move it outside or take air from outside the compartment and move it inside, though there were several vents that did allow heat from inside the compartment to escape.

It seemed to me that it would be better if the fan were installed in such a way as to move air from outside the fridge into the motor area.  Maybe put the fan into the motor compartment cover itself, so that it would blow air from outside the fridge directly over the condenser coils.  The cover had several vents.  I enlarged one of the vents to allow the rack fan to be mounted in it.  To reduce vibration, I wrapped the new fan hole with duct tape.  A few screws that came with the fan held it in place.  I replaced the cover, plugged in the new fan, and awaited the judgment of the fridge’s temperature display.

The results were impressive.  The next morning the fridge was not only operating normally, it was colder than it had ever been.  The refrigerator compartment was down to the low 3o°s, just above freezing, and the freezer was all the way down to a couple degrees below 0°.

Since then, the new fan has operated perfectly.  I notice it comes on more often in the summer (when we have the air conditioning a bit above 70°), but will often stay off for days at a time during the winter (when we heat the house only enough to get barely above 60°).  The only downside is that the new fan makes a bit more noise that the refrigerator’s original built-in fan.  But overall I am pleased with the rack-fan repair.  It cost only about $25 and a few hours of my time instead of buying parts from the manufacturer and paying a repair technician to install them.  Hundreds of $$$ saved.

A few more words about this GE Profile refrigerator.  Of all my household appliances, this is the one I am least happy with.  My reasons:

  1. As detailed above, the fan needed to be replaced.
  2. Having the original fan move air around inside the motor compartment (instead of circulating air between the compartment and the area outside the fridge) is a bad design, the proof being that my hack installation of a new fan resulted in the refrigerator cooling to temperatures lower than before I added the new fan.
  3. The ice maker and the area around it have some sort of design oddity that allows ice cubes, as they are ejected from the ice maker into the tray, to miss the tray and fall to the bottom of the freezer, where they collect in large quantities such that the freezer door (which is attached to a basket) collides with the ice and won’t stay shut.  This ice has to be regularly removed from bottom of the freezer and thrown away.
  4. I have replaced the original ice maker, which never made enough ice consistently.  It would give us plenty of ice for a couple days, then go off and do nothing for a day or two or three.  Nothing helped.  The new ice maker seems to do better than the original.
    (Confound it!  We’re well into the 21st century and we can’t design an ice maker that can consistently make ice?  My family had the use of a friend’s vacation home a few years ago.  The home had belonged to our friend’s parents and most everything in it was 1970s vintage or earlier.  In the kitchen was a stand-alone ice maker, which we were instructed to turn on when we arrived (as the owner didn’t want it running when no one was in the house).  We turned it on, heard it start up, and … wouldn’t you know it: the thing was continuously full of ice the entire week we were there.  This machine was well over 40 years old.  My friend’s parents lived in this house after they retired, so I assume it was used often.  And there it was,  cranking out more ice than we could use, as reliably as the sun coming up in the morning.  How is it that we were able to make a machine like that 4 decades ago, but today’s ice makers crap out after less than 10 years of service?)

Saving Money With a Bow Saw

Over the past weekend I avoided the convenience of paying someone to cut some low-bow_sawhanging branches on the trees in my yard.  I avoided the convenience of cutting them down with a noise- and pollution-making chainsaw.  Instead, I cut them down myself, and then cut them into sections so the county trash collectors would take them away, all with a bow saw that cost less than $20.  I also avoided needing to pay to go to a gym.  And I got lots of fresh air, sunshine, and a good upper-body workout.

Saving Money (Again) With Youtube Instructions

 I was in Phoenix a few weeks ago visiting my parents.  I noticed that it was difficult to get the shower in the guest bathroom completely turned off.  My parents were resigned to paying a plumber to fix it.  I thought it might be a DIY job and undertook the needed investigation.  I looked closely at the faucet and saw the brand name “Mixet”.  Never heard of it, but surely there must be something about it on the internet.  Sure enough, I found exactly what I needed.  At the local big box store, it was about $19 for a new cartridge and another $12 for a new handle (the old one was a bit cracked, so it was hard to tell which part was the problem, and it made sense to replace both of them as they were probably original to the house, which was built in the 1970s).

A little additional bonus:  At the big box store, the cashier at the check-out offered my Dad a special deal if he signed up for the store credit card.  Sign up and get $25 off the purchase he was making.  He took a minute and completed their credit card application.  Bingo!  What would have cost more than $30 now cost only about $8.  It was as if the DIY gods were pleased that we were doing the repair ourselves and were sending a special blessing our way.

As shown in the video, all it took was a screwdriver, a crescent wrench, a little grease, and 15 minutes.  The repair was a complete success.  We did it in a little over an hour, including watching the video, going to the store and getting the parts, and actually doing the repair.  All we really lacked, before we saw the video, was a little knowledge.  My father, who isn’t easily impressed (at least, that’s the way it seems) said that he was impressed.  I hope I’ve shown him that practically any DIY project is easier with Youtube.

Free Washer and Dryer (and How to Disassemble a Front-Loading Washer and Dryer)

washer_dryerSome months ago our washer and dryer both stopped working.  The washer, a front-loading model, had a catastrophic break-down — the drum came loose and rubbed against some interior part, making lots of noise.  Then it just stopped.  The dryer, which was stacked on top of the washer, stopped producing heat.  It would turn and blow lots of air out the vent, but no heat.  That was probably a minor repair, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to buy the same brand of washer (Kenmore) in order to be able to keep using its matching dryer.  So we’d been going to the laundromat, marveling at people who need to use a laundromat but able to afford expensive cellphones, and getting sick of going to the laundromat while we considered buying a new washer and dryer.

Given the problems we’d had with the old washer and dryer (there had been other repairs, and there’s the mold and mildew issue that’s associated with front-loading washers), I was thinking of going back to the old kind of top-loading machines that I my parents had when I was a child.  But, in a small house, a stacking washer-dryer is an efficient use of space.  Also, I had made a new hole through the wall for the stacked dryer’s vent (and I had plugged up the older hole that was for a top-load dryer that was in the house many years ago.)

Luckily we have a friend who watches craigslist.com and other things-free-for-the-taking websites.  She knew of our washer-dryer woes and took pity on us.  Even more lucky: her husband has a pickup truck!  One evening she called us and said there was a stacking washer-dryer available and she and her husband would get them for us.  The next evening, he delivered them.  Fantastic!  This keeps at least $1000 in my bank account.  We placed our “new” washer and dryer on the back patio while I tackled the next problem: how to get the old washer and dryer out of the basement.

When you buy a new washer and dryer from a store, a couple guys in a truck deliver them to your house.  They remove the old washer and dryer — no problem; they know what they’re doing and they’ve got the muscles to do it.  I had a good hand-truck and wasn’t worried about getting our “new” washer and dryer into the basement, because I would have gravity on my side.  But getting the old ones up out of the basement was a different proposition.  Here’s what I’ve learned (remember, in this case, I was disassembling front-loading machines):

The best way, probably the only way, to singlehandedly get a washer and dryer out of a basement is to disassemble them.  All you need is some screwdrivers and a socket set.  Before you do anything: make sure everything is unplugged and water is turned off and disconnected.

The dryer is the easier one to disassemble: you can remove the door, the back panel, the top panel, the motor, and the power cord and these can be taken away piece by piece.  At this point, what remained was light enough for me to take up the stairs and out the door with the hand-truck.  If I had continued, I could have taken the drum out of the frame.

The washer is much heavier and takes more work.  I removed the door, the back panel, the top panel, the power cord, and the hoses.  Then I took out the motor or at least part of it.  It was still too heavy.  Guess what?  Front-loading washers have concrete weights attached to the drum to prevent it from vibrating too much.  Who knew?  I was surprised to find them and soon had them unbolted and outside.  Even with the weights removed, I could see that the drum and the interior frame was still too heavy for me to get up the stairs.

The drum was suspended from the top by two large springs and attached to the bottom by four shock-absorbers.  The shocks were easy to twist and pull off.  The springs … not easy.  The drum was too heavy to lift and thus allow me to unhook the springs.  Cutting through them with a hacksaw seemed a possibility, but there were lots of things in the way, making it awkward.  I decided to turn the whole thing upside down to take the weigh off the springs.  That worked, they were easy to unhook, but turning the washer upside-down created a new problem.  As soon as it was upside-down, a thick red fluid oozed out of the machine and pooled on the floor.  For a second I thought it was blood!  Had I hurt myself?  No.  Transmission fluid?  It sure looked like it.  I guess a washing machine has a transmission, so it has transmission fluid.  Is it supposed come out if the machine is turned upside-down (or did I crack something as I disassembled the machine)?  Beats me.  Luckily, my basement floor is part ugly broken tile and part ugly exposed concrete, so nothing was ruined and clean-up was easy.  If your machine is on carpet, I recommend caution.

Disassembled, everything was relatively easy to get out of the basement.  It sat on the curb for a couple of days before someone took it away for scrap, before the garbage truck could get it.  Looking at Youtube, I discovered that out-of-service front-loading washing machines can be converted to electrical generators, which might be good to have if there’s something handy to turn the drum (like a stream of water flowing down a steep hill on your property).

Getting our “new from craigslist” washer and dryer into the basement wasn’t hard.  Set-up was as easy as connecting the hoses and plugging them in.  Manuals are online at the manufacturer’s website, if needed.

Bottom line: lots of money saved, well worth the few hours of work.