iRobot Roomba Discovery 4296

*Update 4/29/2007* In case you’re wondering how the cats are dealing with the Roomba. Maverick just watches it from a distance, preferably from a higher vantage point such as a couch or an ottoman. If the Roomba approaches him when he’s on the ground, he waits until it gets a little too close and then prances out of the way. Phoebe seems to regard the Roomba as her next great conquest. She follows it around looking for weakness. She often will crouch down and when the Roomba is retreating she’ll pounce. So for her this is just another great toy. She follows it around from room to room.

Roomba Discovery 4296.jpgA few days ago I wooted a remanufactured iRobot Roomba Discovery. I’ve had my eye on these robots for a while now. It arrived on Friday and I put it through its paces.

The technology is not perfect yet but it is now impressively close. Its NiMH batteries are MUCH better than the old NiCd ones (as anybody who ever owned an early generation video camera can attest). But not as good as the newer Li-ion batteries in terms of power density and recharge cycles.

I have to say that I’m pretty impressed. It won’t replace the need to do a thorough occasional vacuuming, but it sure looks like it’s going to do a good job at keeping the dust bunnies at bay. This model is schedulable, it will activate itself at some time that you determine (a different time each day if you choose), do its business and then dock itself when it starts to run low on power so that it can recharge. The default cleaning cycle is an hour and the battery in this remanufactured model is quite up to that task.

The description on Amazon indicates that 4 “AA” batteries are required but you really need 2 “AA” batteries (for the remote) and 4 “D” Cells (2 for each of the 2 virtual walls). After the initial charge (they say it will take 16 hours but the unit indicated it was ready to go after only a couple of hours) I manually initiated a “clean” cycle to watch it and see what, if any, problems it would encounter. I used the virtual walls to keep it away from the one area rug that we have out (while in the midst of our renovations) so that the unit would not get tangled up on tassels. This is something I see folks warning about in all the Internet postings that I’ve seen. I let the unit travel across our linoleum laundry room floor, our ceramic tile dining room and kitchen and then down the carpeted (low pile) hallway to the gym. The unit transitions between all of these surfaces surprisingly well.

The only three things that it has issues with are:

  • Area Rugs – as long as the Roomba hits these at some kind of angle (which it eventually will) it can cross the edge of these just fine. If it hits the edge at 90 degrees it will catch the carpet and temporarily jam. The Roomba is very good at figuring this out and shifting itself around to unstick itself. It will even go so far as to turn off its brushes and move away from the problem object if necessary. So this isn’t really an issue per se but it is disconcerting to hear it struggle when it does get caught on the carpet edge.
  • Power cords – I have a power cord for my treadmill that I haven’t yet neatly tucked away yet. It is bunched up and then rises off the floor a couple of inches to disappear into a cord-hider that I have mounted on the gym wall. The Roomba can get itself raised up on the coil of cord and then stuck where the cord rises. I suspect that, if I left it long enough, the unit might even figure its way off of that little trap but I didn’t like watching it struggle and picked it off of the coil after about 45 seconds of struggling. The solution here is simple, I need to just properly stow the cable. It looks bad where it is anyway. Again not a really “normal” issue.
  • Shoelaces – This is a real issue. One of the laces of a pair of shoes that I normally leave on the floor in our laundry room got caught up in the brushes and, for some reason, did not jam them. The Roomba is more than strong enough to drag the shoe around behind it and that’s exactly what it did. New rule – pick up shoes and put them in closet. Ah well…

The unit is about as effective as a good floor sweeper (if you remember those little units from the 20th century). Meaning it does a great job on floors and a good job on carpets. Those bits of yard debris and pet hair are picked up very well. It even picks up a goodly amount of pollen which we, in the South, have in spades in early April. When I inspect the debris bin I see that dust bunnies will rue the day that iRobot invaded the house.

My home is about 2,500 square feet, I think it’s realistic that the Roomba can handle about a third of that. This translates to roughly 3 or 4 rooms. More than that and there simply isn’t enough time in a cleaning cycle for it to cover the area enough to be effective. Depending on how this unit fares, I may consider at least one more unit for another part of my house.

Another thing to note, if you have allergies you may not wish to hang around while the little guy does its job. While it does sport a little filter for the exhaust air it will not be mistaken for a HEPA filter. When I use my Dyson 07, which has such a filter, the air is almost fresh coming out of it. The Roomba cannot make this claim. But this is a minor point – the scheduler means that the unit has done its job and any dust has settled long before I get home from work.

Here’s a link to it on Amazon if you’re interested, the reviews are generally positive. Remanufactured iRobot Roomba Vacuum Cleaning Robot with Scheduler, Case/Color May Vary

Wine and Chocolate Pairing Gathering

Thanks in no small part to Bob Cochran who led our event, this tasting was an unqualified success.

The idea this time was to pair up various chocolates with wines and then explore how they interacted with one another.

You can also do standalone chocolate tastings but we liked the idea of the combination.

We had to iterate a bit to decide which chocolates and wines to pair together but we started with a vague idea of the chocolates that we were interested in. Essentially a milk chocolate, a mildly bittersweet and a bittersweet chocolate.

Bob did some great research and guided us to the wines appropriate to our chocolate choices. He also found a very helpful article in the March or April Wine Spectator – a pull-out actually- that had a lot of useful tips.

In the end we went with Hershey’s Cacao Reserve chocolates and created some custom place-mats at .

We supplied wine aroma wheels that we picked up from Sherlocks – nice laminated plastic ones that can withstand a few spills if necessary and supplied tasting charts and glass place-mats courtesy of Recognose’s Wine aroma dictionary site . Specifically, head to the Wine Education Resources link at the bottom of the page for these and other very useful PDF files. Everybody got a copy of the PDF Wine aroma wheel to take with them in case they wanted to experiment on their own.

Here is how the tasting setup looked:




The tasting seemed to be well received. Bob, Kim, Bonnie, Denise, Don and Nathalie were there to enjoy the experience.




Denise *did* learn the hard way that wearing white to a wine tasting may be hazardous to your clothes.


Here, in the order we sampled them, are the wines and paired chocolates:

First was a wonderful Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma County called Sebastiani 2003:

2280 This was paired with Hershey’s Santo Domingo Cacao Reserve which has 67% cacao. The wine on its own was a delight but paired with this chocolate it took on some wonderful nuances as each element pulled aspects out of the other. I think this wine by far was the most popular of those we tried.

Next we sampled a dessert wine from Campbells called Rutherglen Tokay:

2284This was paired with Hershey’s Arriba Cacao Reserve which has 50% cacao. The wine was fairly sweet, not as sweet as the ice wines that I’ve tried but pretty strong on its own. When your palate is exposed to the paired chocolate they complemented each other very nicely. When I tried the stronger chocolate with this wine the two were quite discordant with one another.

Finally, for the “official” wines, we actually sampled a port. Dow’s Fine Tawny Porto.

2286This was paired with Hershey’s Java Cacao Reserve which has 37% cacao. I find port quite potent and this was no exception. But again, it drew some of the wonderful milk chocolate flavors out of our chocolate and the chocolate likewise complemented the wine. Also again, trying the other two chocolates with this particular wine was not at all as satisfying as was the sweeter milk chocolate that we’d chosen to go with it.

As a post tasting treat, we elected to try a sparkling wine, Banfi’s Rosa Regale 2005. This wine claims to enhance the flavor of chocolate on the label, but did not not seem too satisfying with any of the pure chocolates that we used with the other wines.



We did, however, have a great dessert that we had picked up from Douceur de France called “Chocolate Lovers”. This excellent, complex chocolate pastry worked very well with the Rosa Regale and they worked together superbly to round out the evening of wine and sweets.

Overall we learned an awful lot about the similarities between both chocolate and wine tasting and experienced some of the synergy that can be attained by proper pairing of these two most wonderful creations.

The Water Heater

** Update 6/19/2007 ***

I was just asked how much, if any, noise the water heater makes and realized that I hadn’t mentioned this practical tid-bit.

“Noise” is a relative term – as any parent arguing with a teen about music selections will know – but by my definition it’s anything that stands out from the native environment.

For the tankless water heater there are two sources of noise, neither of which I find objectionable, but both are new/different from what you experience with a conventional tank water heater.

First is the sound of the selenoid(s) adjusting the water flow to assure a consistent temperature. You can hear them doing their thing as a distinct muted hum. This is very brief and is usually only when the unit first comes on when it’s trying to get the water up to the initial operating temprature. This would be on par with the sound of the burner starting in a conventional heater.

Second, the exhaust fan. I mention below that it will run for a minute or so after the unit turns off and it runs the entire time the unit is in use. This is somewhat louder than the sound of a conventional unit’s burner operation. Again, not objectionally so but you will hear it. I think I can safely say it’s about as loud as a common bathroom exhaust fan.

** end Update **

As I mentioned in my earlier post on our renovation plan, we elected to invest in a tankless water heater, not so much for the fuel economy – our gas bill for heating water was never terrible – but rather for the promise of infinite quantities of hot water. Our new bathtub will be able to hold up to 74 gallons. It would be a real shame if/when we decided to take advantage of that we ran out of hot water.

Moving the heater back to the center of the house where it would be at the originally intended beginning of the household hot water plumbing means that all the faucets should receive hot water as quickly as possible. Being on a slab we don’t have a lot of inexpensive options for re-routing the plumbing so it wasn’t really practical to consider leaving the heater in the laundry room and trying to re-route the pipes.

We ended up with a Rinnai R85i unit which, practically, I think we can expect to achieve about a 6.5 gallon per minute (gpm) flow rate (for a 50 degree farenheit temperature rise).

The technology for this tank is amazing. It uses a double walled vent (chimney in our case) where the middle section is used for exhaust and the gap between the two walls is used to draw in fresh air. This serves the double purpose of cooling the exhaust as well as ensuring that you are not drawing on your internal, household air for combustion. This prevents the possibility of Carbon Monoxide gas being drawn into the home should a vacuum condition exist (maybe you’re using your fireplace or you’ve got exhaust fans or are similarly actively venting air out of your house). So your home interior is never exposed to the flame or gas.

When you set a temperature, so far I’ve tried 125 degrees and 130 degrees, the unit will make sure that the water exiting is at that temperature. A low flow, such as from a sink faucet, will cause only some of the burners to activate while a greater flow, such as a shower or tub, will cause more burners to activate and burn at a higher rate. There is also a valve on the outgoing pipe so if the water is not being completely heated because it’s flowing through too fast, it will choke down and reduce the flow. This can translate to lower pressure at the faucets, but everybody using the water will have consistent heat. Combined with a Thermo-balance faucet (which we are installing in the master bathroom shower) this should ensure that you have a consistent temperature no matter what happens.

Given that a generous shower flow is rated at about 2.5 gpm we should easily have enough capacity for a couple of showers and a sink or two before any choking is required. I imagine two people taking a bath at one time might be a challenge, but the worst that can happen there is that both tubs will take a little longer to fill. Since you won’t run out of hot water, I don’t really see that as a problem.

2270Here is the closet (top half anyway) before we did anything to it. Note the valves that were already in there from when the original heater was moved to the laundry room.

2272Here we have the shelf and drywall removed. That yellow hose is the gas line. These tankless water heaters don’t use as much gas as a regular tank but when they use gas, they need a lot of it. They don’t have the luxury of spending an hour or so heating a tank of water, the water needs to be up to the desired temperature in the time it takes to pass through the unit. We needed a 3/4 inch feed which we fortunately had easily accessible in the attic.



2250Here the unit is mostly installed. Even though I was aware of the measurements beforehand it is still much more compact than I was picturing it to be.


2258And here we have the last part of the old piping removed (note that the valves are gone) and the condensate pump is installed. That’s the little white over black box to the right. The double-walled vent can be prone to condensation forming and if you have a greater than 5 foot rise (ours is going almost straight out the roof) then you need to have a collector and a way to get rid of the condensation that forms. It’s kind of like a tiny sump pump for the heater. We’re pumping the condensate back up to the attic and then over and out to the old hole in the wall that the water tank used for the pressure-relief pipe.


Still left to do is to dress up the pipes and the wall with some sheetrock to make it a little more attractive. I’ll post a picture when that piece is done.

The door to that closet is a louvered door (all those little slats) . It was like that to allow the original water heater unrestricted air flow. That is not necessary with this technology and there is an active fan that runs for a minute or two after the unit has finished burning to clear any remaining exhaust away. It’s not that loud but I think a solid door would make sense now to completely muffle the sound.

I was very excited when we got this installed and played with almost every faucet in the house. I say “almost” because everybody forgot to check the clothes washing machine. It turns out that this was not hooked into the original plumbing, but rather was hooked directly into the pipes feeding our old hot water tank. Inside the walls where nobody could see. What a surprise when we tried to wash some clothes and got absolutely no water! Ah well, we’re trying to determine whether or not there are any pipes left behind from an original setup for the washing machine or if perhaps it was located in this room concomitantly with the original hot water tank relocation.

I’m rather hoping that we can find the pipes and that this hookup was done to get the hot water to the washing machine as fast as possible. It would be quite the round trip for the hot water otherwise. The washing machine would be mostly full before the water would even begin to warm up, having to travel to the middle of the house and then back again if the original piping was used.

For reference (I couldn’t find the original reference page that I used) check out this article to get an idea of the water consumption of various items in your home.

Installing this technology is still a relatively expensive proposition. The cost of the venting pipe is very high as its construction is pretty sophisticated and it’s not very common. You can expect to pay 3-4 times for the actual heater unit as you would for a tank plus you’ll almost definitely have to pay extra in labor to replace your existing vent. In my case I had to pay yet more to relocate and replumb stuff. I think it’s not implausible that my actual break even point vs. just installing a hot water tank will be in about 8 or 9 years. But the absolute dollars are only part of the real equation…


Renovations 2007 – The Plan

It’s amazing how quickly you get used to something new and forget how things used to be. So I decided to take pictures of our before situation and the progress as we moved to completion.

We elected to work with Tommy Turner of Turner General Contracting. Tommy and Larry work together and we’ve been very pleased with their work so far.

This project began as a “Let’s update the master bathroom.” deal and quickly grew from there. As with all such projects, as you touch one thing, it becomes obvious that there are three other items that should be dealt with if this one is to be done properly. We did put on our “reasonableness” caps and had to make some tough decisions regarding what to leave out. Besides the fact that we simply cannot afford to do everything at once, there is only so much change you really want to implement at once anyway. So the floors will remain carpeted, most of the windows will remain intact and the ceiling insulation may remain sub-par for a while yet.

To begin with, we wanted a bigger bathtub and new shower doors. Since that would mean ripping up the tile work we decided to go ahead and gut the water closet entirely. Also, the toilet had never really been a stellar performer (if you know what I mean) so we wanted something that would do the job a little bit better.

Additionally, the fan in the water closet is old and sluggish so that will be replaced along with adding a dimmable light in the shower area and a heat lamp

The hot water tank had been relocated by the previous owner to the far end of the house (laundry room) which sounds OK until you realize that we are situated on a slab which meant that nearly all the plumbing is under cement. That means that the hot water intake is being fed from the old location through a pipe running up into the attic and all the way across the house to the heater. Then the hot water is fed back up through the attic to link back up with the original hot water starting point. The long and short is that it takes a very long time for the water to warm up no matter what faucet in the house you are using. We are replacing this scheme with a new tankless gas powered water heater that will be situated in the originally plumbed hot water heater location. This should result in faster water warmup times, an unlimited supply of hot water and hot water energy savings (conservatively) of probably about 15 – 20% per year.

Because the hot water heater will no longer need to occupy its niche in the laundry room, we’ll be removing the little wall that separated it from the washer/dryer units. Then we’ll relocate the dryer to that space to put it closer to the outside vent and put in a real laundry tub (rather than just using the sink in the nearby half bathroom). Since the floor under the washer and dryer is a little chewed up and will have a gap in it from the removed wall, that will be replaced as well. We may just go with linoleum for that. A semi-disposable working floor.

The master bathroom sinks and faucets had been replaced about 6 or 7 years ago but we didn’t use really great pieces for either and Mich wanted to bring in some new ones as part of an overall rejuvenation of the vanity area. Then we decided that the vanity was a little low so we are having it raised to about 36 inches so we can stand more comfortably as we use the sinks. The counter will also be replaced with Corian or similar and the drop ceiling will be raised.

The window on the side of the vanity area was never a favorite, we’ve been thinking of replacing the house’s windows for a while now but that project just never rises high enough for us to actually engage it. So little time, so little money… But we decided to replace this window and the window at the head of our bed in the master bedroom with this project. The sliding vanity window will be replaced with a frosted casement window. The old bedroom window is about 3 feet wide by 2 feet high about 6 feet off the ground. It will be replaced by one that’s still 2 feet high but 12 feet wide (actually three 4 foot awning windows placed side by side). They will both be Andersen windows with “TruScene” screens for the bedroom window.

The guest bathroom will get some of the perks of the master bath area. It will receive a new fan and can lights to replace to fluorescents, including one in the shower/bath area. It also will be the recipient of the better of the master bathroom’s sinks and faucets. Again, the drop ceiling will be removed to make the room more spacious.

In the kitchen, quite a while ago actually, we installed several can lights to replace the fluorescent fixture and had subsequently decided to install a couple more to light some dim areas left by our initial install. So, while getting that addressed, we will get rid of our tired old inadequate fixture in the living room and also replace it with some can lights too. Plus we’ll add some accent lighting for the mantel and the East wall.

The cooktop in the kitchen is quite old now and will be replaced along with our disappointing kitchen counter. The counter had already been replaced with an inexpensive Formica one during our last renovation and is very prone to staining.

Finally, we had a hanging fixture installed over the dining/kitchen table to provide a bit more ambiance and focused lighting there.

Welcome Phoebe

Welcome Phoebe. We were going to rename her to “Jessica” but after a while Phoebe just stuck and now we think of her as Phoebe. We’ll be replacing her little metal tag that says “Phebe” shortly in case she manages to get out of the house. As you can see from the picture she *really* likes having her ears/head scratched. Handy since the only way you can get her to look right at the camera is if you happen to be holding her head :). It took well over a month but Phoebe and Maverick are now getting along quite well. I don’t expect they’ll ever be all over each other, Mav has owned the place for about 8 years now, but they keep each other entertained.

To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight

To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for FlightI received this audiobook as a gift for Christmas and it took me a little while before I screwed up the desire to listen to it. I have a lot of podcasts and other audiobooks vying for my attention and don’t want to spend time with things that aren’t really interesting to me.I was pleasantly surprised. Like most Americans I was pretty ignorant of many of the details surrounding not only the Wright brother’s landmark powered flight, but also around their attempts to market the idea in their own country.
The infamous Kittyhawk flight is at about the middle of the book. I had rather assumed that it was a fait a complete, that once they had proven their technology the rest was as easy as pie. But nothing could be further from the truth.
A very worthwhile read / listen if you have any interest at all in the social politics behind one of the greatest accomplishments of the 20th century.

Some Bicycle thoughts

My friend King sent this and I thought it was pretty interesting.

— From King —

If you don’t like the first link, give-up on the rest because they are all
on the same topic.

— End From King —

I was biting my tongue when I saw the “average person can generate 150 to 200 watts of power” in that first article. Maybe if you set them on fire…

One of the later articles was talking about 50 watts which made MUCH more sense. My exercycle has a “watts” reading and, if it’s at all accurate, 200 watts is a LOT of exertion.

I recall at the Science center that you could watch yourself on that TV, I was never 100% sure how much you were powering, was it just the TV or was it the TV camera as well? With modern LCD panels and cool new CCD technology I imagine it would take a lot less effort now, but even the most stalwart pedaler would only last in the 10’s of seconds.

It’s a neat idea, I don’t think many of those “green” suggestions (the cool bikes in the later articles) are ever going to be to practical in our weather region. We’ve mentally (socially) evolved beyond the desire to get soaked or frozen trying to get to work.

Heck, even car pools seem to be an impossibility nowadays, especially with flex hours and whatnot.

Congress looking to ban incandescent light bulbs

If we could reinstate a body to advise congress on matters scientific, so that our lawmakers could have some other point of view besides those provided by pollsters and special interest lobbyists, I believe we would have far fewer of this kind of ill-conceived bill winding its way through congress

The Office of Technology Assessment (click here to read a nice summary of their existence) was just such a body. Without their guidance, our congress is almost entirely a bunch of Political Science / History/ Legal Majors with no background upon which to understand some of the most critical issues of our day. Everything from DMCA* to why it’s an idiotic idea to move the DST around to save energy.

This article, American Thinker- Ban the Bulb?, regarding a proposal to ban incandescent bulbs amazes me not only because of the technical irrelevance of the move, but also from the fact that all those history majors in congress do not recognize the historical trend that should even be obvious to the Luddites that claim to represent our best interests.

Beyond the issues that the above article raises, it is commonplace for technological innovations to *increase* energy consumption rather than decrease it. Be it for sociological reasons (the new bulbs are cheaper to run so I can just leave them on all the time) or technological reasons (Hey! Here’s a use for these bulbs that I wouldn’t have even considered with the old bulbs!) that drive a new demand and hence greater energy consumption.

Check out my blog entry about a book VERY relevant to this discussion and see what I mean.

*DMCA = Digital Millennium Copyright Act – Terribly short sighted legislation

It’s odd what we get used to

Everybody knows that you really shouldn’t toss your litter out on the street. I mean, how hard is it to just put it on your pocket or hang on to it until you see a convenient garbage can.

Yet smokers think nothing of tossing their butts out their windows or casually flicking them onto the sidewalk. Even worse, when they have a full ashtray, they seem to have little compunction about simply dumping the whole mess for others to have to step over or otherwise deal with.

While I think this is probably not the best solution, I did smile when I read this. | Montreal’s ‘Cigarette Butt Hero’ gains YouTube fame

If the article is no longer available, hopefully you can see the YouTube video: