Friday, February 13, 2009

More work around the house

I've not posted in a while, and there's a fine reason for that: my life in Minnesota is a little dull these days. Aside from work, sporadic hours at the gym, and figuring out novel ways of cooking for one, my main focus has been on doing odd jobs around the house. This past week has seen a flurry of activity. I've moved on from carpentry to electrical and plumbing.

Last weekend saw me on hands and knees chipping away the old, dried-out caulking around the tub and putting a new bead down. Then there was half dismantling the toilet, cleaning the heck out of every visible surface, reassembling it, and tightening the bolts that anchor it to the floor, followed by, oh yes, more caulk. In the kitchen, there's been a tricky bit of work for the drain. When I put the dishwasher in a few years back, I needed to splice in the drain hose for it into the main drain under the sink. No problem, this happens all the time; they even have special Y-fittings for it. Unfortunately, to get it to work meant that I had to reverse the ends of the J-shaped trap pipe segment. The reason that's unfortunate is that that pipe isn't meant to be flipped around, and one of the two connections has always been a bit touchy. So yesterday I tore away the duct tape, sheet plastic, and plumber's putty wrapped around it and re-did it properly. Or, at least, a bit more properly. Some clear caulk (yes, that again) on the one problematic joint should help keep it water tight.

In the electrical realm (definitely not to be mixed with plumbing), I've been doing some rewiring. There are two outlets behind the kitchen countertop that I have recently upgraded to GFCI (ground fault circuit interrupt) outlets. You usually see these installed outside or near water - they're the kind of outlet that is supposed to keep a dropped hair dryer from electrocuting you in the bathtub. A GFCI monitors how much current is flowing out from and in to the circuit. If everything is hunky-dory, the current out should exactly equal the current in. If there is an imbalance, it means that there is current flowing somewhere else - like through you. In that case, the GFCI trips and disconnects the circuit. One of the outlets I replaced with a GFCI was properly grounded; the other was not, which forced me to do a lot more rewiring than I'd planned. The upshot is that the microwave is now downstream of a GFCI, and therefore will get the same protection. If this were new construction, these outlets near the sink would be required by code to be GFCIs.

Down in the basement there was some more electrical work. As it turns out, the washing machine was plugged into an older type of outlet - the kind with only two slots, instead of the more modern three contacts. Why does this matter? That third contact, the round one centered below the two slots, is there as a safety measure. In appliances, it's called the case ground or protective earth. If a wire comes loose inside the device and touches the (metal) case, the protective earth will prevent the case from being able to shock you - usually by causing the circuit breaker to trip. For a large, metal-cased appliance that handles water - such as a washing machine - this is considered an essential safety feature. So the fact that it had been plugged in this whole time using a cheater is, in hindsight, a bit disturbing. That outlet was replaced with a spankin' new GFCI, too. However, the old plug was wired up with old electrical cable - the kind with braided cloth insulation - and only had two wires. The GFCI needs three, which meant I needed to string a length of new cabling from the new outlet back to the circuit breaker panel. The only safe way to wire into a breaker panel is to shut off power to the panel - cutting power to the whole house. What followed was an amusing 20 minutes of fairly straightforward wiring by flashlight, standing on top of the dryer to get close enough to the panel, but crouched down to avoid hitting the rafters.

There's also the installation of another carbon monoxide detector (in accordance with a MN law that recently went into effect), ditching the incandescent lightbulbs in the closets (they can get too hot, and potentially ignite any clothing that falls on them), cleaning the dryer vent duct, then resealing it with foil tape (duct tape doesn't actually work well at sealing ducts), and replacing a few outlet cover plates that had broken or disappeared.

Given the length at which I have now gone on about these DIY tasks, one could wonder whether the length is due to proud exuberance, or just a rant about all this work. Thankfully, it is the former. When I am able to flex my handy skills - and actually have it come out right - I get a good feeling about home ownership. DIY handywork and engineering don't overlap quite as much as one might think, so it's good to branch out. On the other hand, when it comes to some of the electrical wiring in this house, I sometimes just have to shake my head and wonder how we avoided burning ourselves to a crisp long ago. Braided cloth insulation! I ask you!

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