Renovations – Overall update

I had originally intended to post a sequence of pictures that depicted each “piece” of our renovations once they had been completed. But so many parts are being done simultaneously, I thought it would be more productive to switch tacks and just show daily progress instead.

This is the design we saw in “Floor & Décor” which originally inspired our final plan. 2175

So we decided on a tile that we liked – here is the display board


Here is the water closet – showing the “before” picture of shower doors and tiles


and the commode


Then we have the master vanity showing the old counter, mirror, medicine cabinets, window and lighting



And now the work begins. All the sheetrock, including the ceiling, was removed from the water closet. We had to remove the ceiling of the vanity area as well. The flourescent fixture was not too kind on it and it had failed and cracked due to the heat.





Here’s where the commode used to be


The old bathtub was porcelain over cast iron. I was amazed that the best way to remove this was to shatter it with a mallet. A friend I know had removed his own and went to the pain of removing and carrying it out of his house intact. Unless you need it for some other purpose that’s a whole lot of work. He said he’d just shatter it if he had to do it again.

Here is the tile design for inside the bathtub area as it is laid out on our bedroom floor


Left is top and right is bottom. From the bottom to the rope on top of the first pair of green tile “stripes” is supposed to go around the entire water closet. The rest is supposed to be inside the bath area only.

To keep the cats safe we’ve limited them to the gym / Mich’s office area. Suffice it to say that they were not happy with the restriction on their freedom


Here is the new water closet ceiling with the new fan, light and heat lamp fixtures installed. What you can’t see here is that we’ve installed a water tight fixture for over the shower area as well.


And here is the bath area with the tub removed


I’ll post another batch of pictures tomorrow

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

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.

Life and Death on the Serengeti (sort of)

Those of you who know me know that I’ve never been much of a cat or dog person. My pet of choice has traditionally been reptilian. Iguana or turtle specifically.

Of course that changed somewhat when I got married. For many moons now there have been cats and reptiles (and para reptiles if you want to be precise) living under the Bourassa roof.

1919Here is Maverick, he’s been with us since about 1997. We had two cats briefly as Maverick and Vern (who passed in 1998) ruled the roost together but Mav’s been on his own ever since.


Now on the scene is Phebe (yeah, I know but that’s how it’s spelled on her nametag). She was a rescue who was passed on to us by friends who felt she needed the companionship that Maverick could offer. She’s such an affectionate cat that they felt bad leaving her at home when they all had to be away during the day.


So the adventure begins. Mav is none too pleased with having to share his little empire. Phebe is just under a year old and full of energy and is one of the friendliest cats I’ve ever met. We started off keeping Phebe in a spare bedroom and letting Mav hear her “talk” and letting her get settled. We had hoped that he would become curious and eventually they could become aquainted through the door and then we could introduce them.


Unfortunately, Mav’s position on all this was to simply ignore the cat behind the door. So we soon enough decided to let the two of them meet and get to know each other in the living room.


When they first spotted each other, Mav simply froze, and Phebe did this amazing sloth/chameleon thing. I’ve never seen a cat move *that* slowly and precisely. Each paw slowly making it’s way forward, no sudden moves, eyes on the prize (Mav).

Every time she approaches Mav she takes the utmost care to not startle him. Or at least she did until recently. Mav insists on continually growling and, when she gets close enough, hissing at her. He’s clearly the submissive cat but he refuses to give in either. So now she approaches slowly.. carefully.. and then lunges at him. The yowling is pretty intense and no casualties among the cats so far. Mich claims that somebody hit her toe with a nail tonight so I suppose she’s the first victim of this conflict.

Anyway, progress is being made. Tolerances are becoming greater. I think, in a week or so, they will be at least civil to each other. I sure hope so anyway. I was on a conference call this morning when they decided to test boundaries again. I’m sure hoping that the contractors in India were being blamed for the background noise on that call…

I’ll post a more flattering picture of Phebe when all this is over. I took a couple of pictures while the camera was handy but that was during and just after a confrontation and she didn’t look very relaxed. For now, just enjoy the various conflict pictures.

Oh yes, I almost forgot to mention, I’m thinking of calling her “Jessica” instead. This is after the mother in “Dune”. A strong woman who, as a Bene Gesserit witch, had great control over her body and actions. It seemed fitting. Any opinions?