In Hot Water, Part 1

At the end of last heating season, I noticed two things about my furnace.

The first thing was that the pressure relief valve was seeping.

That’s not good. But it’s not bad bad, either. These things have a spring in them, calibrated so that if the pressure in my boiler (I have hot water radiators, remember) gets too high, the pressure will overcome the spring and release water onto my basement floor.

Which is not good, but better than the boiler exploding.

The thing about springs is that they get weaker over time. So over the years since the last time I replaced this valve, the spring had gotten weaker…and weaker…and weaker…until it was just about exactly the same as the working pressure of the boiler. So it didn’t spray water everywhere, but it did start to drip. There was a little wet spot on the floor under it, and the pipes between it and the boiler were quite rusted.

So since heat season was almost over, and replacing the valve involves shutting down everything and draining at least some of the water out, I waited.

A couple of weeks ago was our first cool day. This is when I start to make sure I will have heat. I want to discover the furnace won’t start when it’s 50 degrees out. I don’t want to discover the furnace won’t start when it’s 25 degrees out.

So I went down and drained out a bunch of water, so the water level was below where the pressure valve attaches. I wrenched off the valve and the quite rusted pipes, and went and bought a new valve. It looks like this:

…and a couple of new pipe parts to replace the quite rusted ones. Someday soon I’ll add some more pipe parts to the outlet side to direct water away better. I have a plan to direct water from the furnace and water that may leak from the water heater (which is nearby) to the same area of floor….and then put a z-wave leak detector there.

I closed up all the valves I’d opened, opened all the valves I’d closed, refilled the system, lit the pilot, and started the system up.

It didn’t start.

The pump would try, but would not spin. Over and over.

Stay tuned for part two….

Posted in Uncategorized

Trust the manufacturer…except don’t always.

My fridge is practically new: November of 2012

The freezer is a drawer on the bottom of the fridge. So there’s this plastic tray/shelf thing below the drawer; the bottom of the cavity in which it sits. About a year ago I started noticing this annoying behavior where that tray would fill up with ice over a period of weeks until it was full, then the fridge would start piddling on the floor. Break up and remove the ice and it’s fine for about 6 weeks until it gets full again.

A few weeks ago I had finally had enough of that. I called the manufacturer’s “technical support” line.

They call it technical support. But what it really is is the number you call to schedule a service call. She took my info, looked up the (expired) warranty and after I described the problem she immediately started trying to sell me “the most cost-effective option” for a service visit; a flat rate that covers all labor, parts, everything, and confers a new 1-year warranty.

That’s about 1/3 the cost of the fridge.

I said as much. She said the basic service call was $149 just to walk in the door, plus parts, labor, and…

I said “Hold on. I’m calling for technical support. I want you to help me figure out what’s wrong, not schedule a service visit.”

“Well with this problem, especially since you said it’s happening with the water feed shut off, we need to send someone out to figure it out.”

“Is there no troubleshooting we can do?”

“OK. Did you change the filter recently?”

“It has no filter and also I already said it happens with the water shut off.”

“Could there be a leak in the water feed line?”

“It happens with the water shut off.”

“Is it very humid where the unit is installed?”

“It is often humid in Chicago, yes.”

“Have you noticed any of the door seals torn?”


“Then the only way to figure out what is wrong is to send out a technician. The Plus One Option, which includes all labor and parts…”

“Thank you for your time.”

And then I turned to Google. It took me about 5 minutes to find the right keywords (“ice sheet bottom freezer”) to find other people posting all over the Internet about this issue, which is apparently endemic to bottom-freezer units from all manufacturers. The drain tube from the coil area to the drip pan is iced over. The solution is to defrost my frost-free fridge: shut off the unit, take out the drawer, take the back panel out of the freezer, and pour a cup or two of boiling water down the drain until it drains into the pan.

So this weekend I did that…mostly.

The Internet suggests that you have to take the back cover off the fridge to get at the drip pan, and the back of the freezer out to get at the iced-over coils. But the back of the freezer is blocked by other parts, like the track the drawers run on. So getting it all apart is a Major Project, and all you are trying to do by taking that all apart is speed the process. Getting at the coils allows you to pour boiling water over them.

It was 93°F on Saturday. A quart of boiling water seemed…gilding the lily. So I didn’t see the need to disassemble the whole freezer.

So I emptied the freezer into a cooler, made sure nothing in the fridge could not survive going from cold to cool, shut off the water, and unplugged the fridge. Took the back panel off, pulled the little rubber nipple off the drain. It had a tiny lump of styrofoam lodged in it. Maybe 4-6 beads-worth. This was undoubtedly a large part of my problem. I removed that, cleaned the nipple with soap (it apparently gets gummy with oil over time as oil in the air of the kitchen gets into the freezer, condenses on the coils, drips down with the water…) (The nipple is there to keep cold air from constantly flowing out the drain pipe)

Then I waited. In that heat it took just over an hour for water to start dripping into the drip pan. by 90 minutes it was mostly cleared of ice. A couple of turkey-baster squirts of boiling water along the bottom edge of the coils where they sit in the drain area and it was all done. I put everything back together, plugged it back in, turned the water back on, and waited.

Water went all over the kitchen floor.

The water connection to the ice maker was leaking. Just a little. The moving around had worked it loose.

A little wrench action later, the leak was solved. My fridge is frost free again. For real. Without any help from “technical Support.”

Posted in Appliances, Plumbing, Uncategorized

Kitchen drain clog madness!

My kitchen drain is…complex.

The drain pipe comes out of the wall barely lower than the bottom of the sink, and at a weird angle. From there there is a piece of flexible drain that corrects the weird angle (since it’s not an angle found in nature or stock drain parts) and then the P-trap. Above the P is a branch that comes from the disposal (this branch is almost completely co-planar with the pipe in the wall) and above that the main bowl of the sink.

In the wall, things get worse. There’s another weird angle bend to the left, then it joins the stack at a T: down for drain, up for vent. These bends make it almost impossible to get a snake past all that and down the stack: the end of the snake comes out of the T and strikes the side of the pipe squarely; it won’t go down (which is what I want) or up (which would do me no good anyway), and there are too many bends in all directions to get a kink at the end of the snake pointed the right way.

Down the stack is where my trouble is this time. Above the cleanout at the bottom of the stack in the basement, but below the T. If I try to use a pressure or vacuum solution in the kitchen, the vent above the T defeats me.

I have a couple of drain pressure bladders, and a Drain Blaster. The last time this happened I was able to put one of the bladders downstream of the cleanout and Y from the kitchen to plug that pipe, feed in the drain blaster, then one in the cleanout, and apply pressure to the clog from below until it was ejected into the kitchen with great force.

Since then the short garden hoses I used to hook these things all up are mostly missing. I have one 4-foot one left. I’d need four (one each to the two bladders, one to the Drain Blaster, and one to go from the faucet to where all those come together. I left the house yesterday after assessing the situation to do what I had to do and “somewhere along the way” pick up a few more hoses. But I found that I was running short of time all day, rushing to get where I was going on time and at the end of the day it was 11:30 pm and I still had no hoses.

So this morning I took another look at the situation. I opened up the cleanout and discovered a prodigious quantity of poo-brown gunk. Probably mostly actually poo, shoved there by the last main sewer backup. I took the Drain Blaster and the 4-foot hose, and threaded the blaster quite far down through the gunk. Then I turned it on and slowly pulled it back, clearing the blob of gunk from the back to the front as I did so. When it was all clear and “clean” I took a look.

Last time I’d been a little prissy about putting my hand in the sewer, which is why I devised the system with the two bladders etc. Since then I’ve done things a lot worse than putting my hand in a freshly-rinsed sewer pipe. I reached in and was able to bend the Drain Blaster around the corner and start it up the stack toward the kitchen. I turned it on and with my hand in the sewer to keep feeding it around the corner I slowly fed it up the stack, cleaning the crud from the walls of the pipe as I did so. Eventually I hit the clog. Bigger bits started falling on my hand. Then a lot of bits and some cold water. I reversed, slowly working back and forth through the trouble area, then slowly back down the pipe.

I went up into the kitchen and filled the sink. It drains well.

Now I need a shower because I’ve been in a sewer. But I used all the hot water clearing the sewer. Oops.

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Posted in Plumbing, Tools

Attacking the root of the problem.

About a month ago, there was a clog in the bathroom drains (not the toilet, but everything else: tub, sink, and the sink in my bedroom which is on the same drain line). It took some effort to get it cleared. But that’s not what this is about.

While I was mucking about with that problem, I noticed that the basement washtub was filling with water and then very…slowly…draining; both when the washing machine was running and also when the dishwasher ran. And when someone flushed the toilet. And after the clog was cleared, when anyone showered.

That’s not good.

That means the man line is clogged up. This has happened before. It was not fun.

But I was just getting over an illness. And I also didn’t have time to go rent the big snake, drag it into the basement, snake out the drain from both cleanout spots, etc, etc. And it was still draining a little.

So I poured a healthy glug of bleach into the washtub (so it stopped smelling like sewage) and bought some chemistry.

I bought Roebic FRK Foaming Root Killer.

Following the directions, I waited until I was pretty sure the drains would not be used for many hours (last thing before I went to sleep), and poured it down the toilet and flushed.

It produces copious amounts of sickly grey foam.

It expects a lot more water-per-flush than modern toilets provide. I was a little panicky as I waited for the tank to fill so I could flush a second, a third time to get it all down the drain, as it continued to swell and foam. But eventually it was all down into the drain.

Then, I waited.


The package and website are very cagey about how long it will take. And in small print at the end it says that for severe cases you may have to remove the roots mechanically, then use their product to keep the drain clear.


Just about when I’d given up on this stuff, I noticed that I was no longer having to sanitize the washtub every few days. No more water was backflowing into it.

It worked!

It took about 18 days, but it worked!

I expect I’ll be buying and using this stuff regularly. Because $20 and 10 minutes every 6 months is better than $70 and a few hours of hard smelly work every two years, even though it costs more money in the long run.

Science Marches On!

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Posted in Plumbing

Sounds good!

As I said, There are speakers built into the walls of my bedroom, office, and bathroom. I’ve been contemplating what to do about them for quite a while.

My first plan was to install these in each room. They’re very impressive: three line in inputs plus a jack in the front, line out, all touch panel… I figured I could wire each one up as inputs on the other two and have my music follow me around the house no matter where the source was. Nifty.

Two things convinced me that was a less-than-ideal plan: The first is that while they seem to still be available from retailers, the manufacturer’s web page is defunct and their facebook page is derelict. So support might be a little spotty. The other is that they’re $300 each and I’d need 3 of them. And since they seem to be vanishing I’d sort of need to buy three of them all right now. Nine hundred dollars. Ouch.

Instead I found this. $60 instead of $300. It has one physical input on the back and the same input as a jack on the front. Volume control is an actual analog knob instead of touch controls. And it has a Bluetooth receiver as a second input. So my phone or laptop will play audio to it without having to be plugged into that jack. No line out.

I’ve installed one in the bedroom. There are a couple of annoyances: The LEDs are glaringly bright and the Bluetooth one flashes. Not so good in the room I’m trying to sleep in. I put little squares of foil tape over them; eventually I may hack into the thing and install less bright LEDs or hide them behind some semi-opaque stuff or something. For now I can still see the glowing and flashing faintly through the plastic of the faceplate when the lights are out. And the power is supplied via a short pigtail with a barrel plug socket on the end. Which is fine. But the wall-wart power supply they sent with it has a cord that a: is just barely long enough to reach the basement, and b: has a right-angle plug on the end that is too wide to fit down a conduit. Doh! I bought an extension cable with a straight barrel plug on the end, fed that down the pipe, cut the right-angle plug off the wall-wart and spliced them together. Which also gave me enough length to get to an actual outlet in the basement.

Next will be the bathroom: I think I see where to hack into the one in the bedroom to get audio out from the input of the amplifier section (which would let me send the audio from the Bluetooth out to another one rather than pairing my phone with a huge pile of these things), so I can chain them together easily. Or I may tap into the outputs and use the old volume control from years ago that’s already in the bathroom.

It’s nice to have music in my room again.

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Posted in Wires

Long time. No see.

What happened?

Well…It’s like this:

When I started this blog, I was in a period of somewhat better-than-usual financial security and looked to remain in that state for a while. So I was making plans to get caught up with some home maintenance, do some upgrades, etc. So I started the projects, and I started writing about them.

Then the bottom sort of fell out of my financial situation. I did my best to continue the blog, stretching things out with historic and research posts, and so on. Then even those ran out, coincidentally the same time I ran out of ideas for tools to write about for Toolsday, and the blog just sort of…stopped.

Things are still pretty dire for me financially. But here’s a thing about owning a house: Even if you have no money for big projects, small repairs and stuff keep needing done.

So here I am a year later with a few things done that I’d said I was going to do, and a couple of other things I had to do whether I wanted to or not, and a couple of stories to tell…

There will certainly not be two posts a week. Probably not even one post a week. But there will be occasional posts. The house doesn’t stop falling apart just because I stop writing about it. So I might as well write about it.

Posted in History

Toolsday: Tape 2

Duct Tape.

I hate duct tape. I think that means I have to turn in my geek card or something, but there it is.

There are very very few tasks for which it is the right job. Certainly not for taping ducts; it goes strange after just a year or two on a hot duct. The plastic facing peels off, the adhesive turns to tufnel…it’s terrible. And when it’s new and sticky, if you get it hot the adhesive smears off onto everything and its impossible to wash off.

Most places where you think you want duct tape, you really want gaffer tape. Or aluminum foil tape.

Gaffer tape is what duct tape wants to be when it grows up. It’s sticky, but not too sticky. It tears easily, lays flat, has great shear strength (the amount of force needed to pull the tape sideways along a surface to which it is stuck) fairly good lift strength (the amount of force needed to peel it back up), leaves no goo behind…

The downside is that it’s about 10 times as expensive as duct tape. But it’s worth it.

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Posted in Tools