That Can’t Be Good

Licking an electrical outlet will not turn you into a Mighty Morphing Power Ranger.

- Rock Bottom

I am not a morning person, so I don’t mind east-to-west jetlag. It gives me a chance to see how the other half lives. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish in a day when you’re out of bed at 4:00 am.

It’s one thing for jetlag to gently rouse you — it’s quite another thing for a Scary House Noise (SHN) to send you hurtling out of bed. Over the weekend, jetlag was just starting to wake me when I heard:


After hearing a second THWACK, I judiciously deployed our standard SHN operating procedure, which looks something like this:


After several more THWACKS, I located the noise in the main bathroom, coming from behind the outlet. The ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) receptacle had not tripped — GFCIs are designed to turn themselves off if there’s a problem — so using the handle end of my wooden hairbrush as an insulator, I pushed the “test” button. The outlet seemed to shut off as intended, but then: THWACK. Using the hairbrush, I reset it and waited. THWACK!


The GFCI outlet (sometimes called a “GFI”) in question, with cat. The testing and resetting buttons are in the middle of the unit between the sockets.

The THWACK sound was from an electrical short somewhere in the socket or in the wiring just behind it. A short is where electricity discharges along the shortest available route. Wiring is supposed to give electricity just one place to go to make it safer to use. A wiring short is like a tiny lightning strike. Inside your house, where you keep all your flammable stuff. That can’t be good.

"Big Tex" at the Texas State Fair burned as the result of an electrical short.

“Big Tex” suffered an electrical short in his right boot. I can’t decide which version is creepier.

Since the short was happening regardless of whether the GFI was tripped or not, I turned off the dedicated circuit for that outlet. I tested the outlet for power just in case, then I unscrewed the wall plate and the outlet and gently pulled everything out to take a look.

The wire insulation was all intact, and I didn’t see any nicks or scuffs through which the power could short. I stuck my schnoz down there and took a whiff; no acrid smell. The inside of the box showed no burn marks and nothing was heat-deformed. The body of the outlet itself looked intact.

old receptacle out of box

I loosened the connections and pulled out the hot and neutral. Both ends showed some scaling like white paint on the ends. These marks turned out to be the only possible evidence of the problem. Well, that and the THWACK had stopped, so I knew I was in the right place.

wire scale

White marks on the connection.

Some research indicated that a lack of evidence is not that unusual. While it was possible that simply tightening the connections would fix the problem, I could not be sure that was the actual issue (and the connections seemed plenty tight). A new GFI outlet is only about $10, so why risk reusing a bad unit?

In a bathroom (in the US), unless you have old wiring that has been grandfathered in, you need a 20-amp circuit that is dedicated to 20-amp bathroom sockets, which should be served by 12-gauge wire. IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE DIFFERENCE, call an electrician. Other reasons to call an electrician:

  • You don’t know if your house is wired with copper or aluminum (the latter was common in the 1960s and 70s when copper prices were high — I grew up in an aluminum-wired house). Aluminum wiring requires special treatment to avoid thermal and oxidation issues that might arise when aluminum meets copper.
  • There are only two wires in the box, or the hot/neutral wires are not distinguishable, or you don’t know if the wiring is the right gauge for the circuit.
  • You’re in a bathroom or kitchen but the existing outlets aren’t GFIs, or they are on a circuit with other stuff.
  • The supply wires are too short (or learn how to pigtail wiring).
  • The GFI has onward wiring that goes to anything other than another bathroom outlet.
  • There’s physical damage inside the box, or the box is really tight (or missing).
  • There’s anything that gives you pause whatsoever!

If you don’t have any of these or other issues, GFIs are simple to wire if you follow the directions that come with the new unit. Be sure to read all the information provided with your specific outlet, because brands vary. Never guess when you are doing this work — you can always call an electrician, even if you already started the project.

wiring instructions

Helpful guidance.

Most of these units have push-in connections where you strip the wire to a specified length, insert the clean end into the unit, then tighten up a screw to make the connection. Much easier than hooking a wire under a screw head!


Instructions and strip gage molded into the back (in addition to printed directions).

Since this wiring was new when we redid this bathroom about five years ago, there was enough extra wire in the box to work with (almost too much — I’m always surprised by the length required at rough-in inspection). I clipped off the scaled ends and stripped some fresh wire to insert according to the instructions.

After making the connections according to instructions, I carefully folded the wires back into the box and then tightened the whole thing down, alternating between the top and bottom mounting screws. Notice that there’s some wiggle room in the mounting holes to allow adjustments to keep things straight and level.

new receptacle going in

Add the cover and turn on the circuit. Use the test buttons to check that the outlet is working correctly. Listen for THWACKS!

Test button tripped on the left, and in operational mode on the right.

Test button tripped on the left, and in operational mode on the right.

You should test GFIs monthly. But even so, while shorts are rare, they can still happen (mainly in the pre-dawn hours). Not every Scary House Noise is a malfunctioning GFI, but when you are running around the house semi-clad, don’t discount them entirely.

Posted in D'oh!, Electrical, Repair & Maintenance | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Good Easy Plants: Coreopsis (Tickseed)

That’s so romantic! We gotta go to England!

- Lisa Simpson

The Kev and I have been off-blog for a few weeks while we traveled to Blighty for his sister’s wedding. Such a good time was had!


The wedding was at a nearby Georgian country house.


All brides should be this happy (and good-lookin’)!

Congratulations, Helen and Geoff!

While we were away, we did start work on a site re-design…but mostly, we just relaxed! I had great intentions of stockpiling some posts in advance, but it didn’t happen. I did sort through a stack of garden photos, though, and one plant kept jumping out at me.


Those BRIGHT! YELLOW! FLOWERS! in the foreground are coreopsis (Zagreb variety). Coreopsis (also known as tickseed, if you want to be more colloquial) can be perennial or self-seeding annuals. They tend to yellow and orange, but the varieties go on and on — there’s a coreopsis for everyone.

coreopsis mixed van meuwen

Mixed coreopsis (via)

Regardless of color, coreopsis is a North American native with an unusually long bloom time, so it’s a great choice for butterflies and bees. “Unusually long” means mid-summer well into autumn — and it has nice foliage and seed heads when it’s not blooming.

Coreopsis is easy to propagate. It was one of my most successful winter sowing efforts from this past year.

Mardi Gras Coreopsis seedlings from winter sowing.

Mardi Gras Coreopsis seedlings from winter sowing.

These seedlings bloomed this year even though the rabbits munched them right after I originally planted them. Like most coreopsis, they are about two feet tall — very adaptable for all sorts of beds.

coreopsis mardi gras cornell

Coreopsis Mardi Gras (via)

If you are in North America (or even if not), try a few coreopsis.

  • Easy to grow in zones 3 through 9 (US and world zone maps).
  • Self-seeds to slowly expand and fill in its patch.
  • Low water needs once established.
  • Long-term, repeating bloomer.

Nice cherries, but check out that bright splash of color in the background.

Looking for more good easy plants? Check these out:

Posted in Family, Yard & Garden | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Gallery Proof

Rod: I don’t like this clown!
Bart: I wouldn’t take it down if I were you. It’s a load-bearing poster.

- The Simpsons

In case you were in any doubt, this is not an interior design and decor blog! But home improvement includes decor, so we sometimes indulge.

We had the start of a gallery wall above our fireplace cabinetry. It was intended to help blend the television, and incorporated only items that were significant to us.


Clockwise: WWII sign (gift from the Kev), orange crate label (found intact in the house), Hockney “Yorkshire” print (because we love Hockney and Yorkshire), tourist art (from our San Francisco honeymoon), rainbow fish art print (Kev’s forever), butterfly painting (by Great-Aunt Sara), butterfly print (butterflies!), my great-grandmother’s brooch (too fragile to wear).

I planned these original pieces by cutting cardboard to the size of each item and taping them up until I was happy with the arrangement. When we had more pieces to add, I used the same technique. Through many iterations ranging over several months, some of which I photographed.


Version 1. I had an idea for something to the right of the round piece, but decided against it. Check out how much this paint color changes with the light!


Iteration 2. Moved the round piece, not sure about above, or to the left of, the television.


Iteration 3. Moved the piece to the left of the television above the television and bumped the horizontal piece right. The round piece looks ok from here, but not from the sofa (and, let’s face it, that’s how it’s generally going to be seen).

Mocking up the wall with cardboard helps me see how everything will flow once it’s up. I generally need to see something to really understand it, and this little game allows me to play until I figure it out. The only thing it’s lacking is color, but nothing we had on deck was going to be jarring next to anything else, so we weren’t too worried about that aspect. We’re not terribly sentimental, but the important thing to us was to add items that were personally significant, not just color-coordinated stuff to fill up space.

Another advantage to a cardboard template is that it simplifies hanging. Once the pieces are where you want them, measure how far down from the top of the piece the wire or other hanger will be with gravity. Then, mark on the corresponding cardboard where the hanger is (generally the middle), and then measure down to the hanging point. You can either mark that with a pencil if you are using a removable hook, or nail or drill through your mark right into the wall.

pictures drill

If you are nailing through plaster, drilling a small pilot hole is still a good idea. Plaster can crack and chip when nailed, and a pilot hole reduces the likelihood of that happening. It also helps to add a masking tape “X” over the pilot hole or mark.

pictures masking tape

Still, that’s no guarantee it’s going to go perfectly. I am a big (and wholly unsponsored) fan of 3M Command Strips for hanging most items — in fact, I used them on everything on the fireplace wall up to this point. The new items include a heavier, fragile piece, and I wanted to really secure it and the picture hanging above it, just in case.

When working on the picture above, I ran into a stud when drilling a pilot hole. This sounds like good news, but the studs in this house have been curing for over 90 years, and they are ridiculously hard. I drilled a larger pilot hole, then tried to tap in a long nail. The hammer just bounced back like I’d hit an anvil. So I drilled a larger pilot hole attempting to make way for a fastener, thereby creating close to a 1/4″ divot in the wall as the plaster crumbled around the drilling. Then I made a further bad call, deciding to use a plastic wall anchor to fill up the hole. Naturally, the anchor didn’t want to go into the stud either and broke off.

pictures oops

Winter is long. I’ll fix it then.

So attractive. I had to drill a pilot hole into the plastic wall anchor so the Kev (being taller and thus able to achieve a better angle than short-pants here) could put a screw into the plastic and unscrew the whole mess. Afterwards, I put a long, narrow screw into the stud, but the hole in the plaster is still there underneath the picture. The lesson: don’t do a lot of investigatory drilling into super-hard studs through plaster unless you just want to mess up the wall and annoy yourself.

Anyhoo, here’s the augmented gallery wall:


For this quasi-final version, I moved the round piece underneath its twin (both painted by Aunt Sara), next to the abstract landscape (painted by Momma). The numbered “Duckface” print (gift from Ben and Lois) moved over the TV from its earlier trial space next to it. The Portland Cello Project poster (a recent framing project) moved to the right, and we lowered and centered the antique butterfly specimens (a gift from me to the Kev) next to the door where they can be seen up close.

Here’s how it looks from one of the couches:


I might spread out the original core just slightly, but that’s super-easy because they are all on Command Strips. Either way, it’s all the pieces we wanted and we like it.

Gallery walls aren’t to everyone’s taste, and our selections certainly won’t be, but the template technique is useful for anything you want to put on your wall. Anything flattish, anyway. You’re on your own with that moose head.

Posted in Before & After, D'oh!, Decor, Walls & Floors | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Chandelier (or Pendant) Swap

It’s that damn chandelier again!

- Elton John

When I found the vintage light fixture for our bedroom, it did not have its matching canopy with it. I got a little overexcited while craft shopping and MacGyvered a new ceiling canopy to blend with the old light.

fixture after with letters

But I wasn’t thrilled with my canopy solution, and it distracts me from the fixture itself. Instead of enjoying the vintage light, I’m shaking my mental fist at my lack of craftiness on the canopy front.

Accordingly, I was on the look-out for a vintage or reproduction canopy that would better match the fixture. While strolling around Etsy one day, I saw this:

New old stock from Tahoma Salvage Supply

New old stock from Tahoma Salvage Supply

The seller listed this canopy as dating from the 1960s, but I thought it had potential to go with our much-older light. The motif and relief depth are similar. Plus, it’s the same size (and screw spacing) as my Super Special Craft Edition Canopy, so it would simplify installation.

The canopy looks brass, but it’s just coated base metal. To bring it into line with the look of the finish I put on the fixture, I spraypainted it gold, then used Rub-n-Buff in Grecian Gold. I also added polychrome accents as I did on the fixture itself.


So far, so good, but we’re still on the ground. Swapping a ceiling canopy is like changing your underpants: you can’t do it without taking something else off first. The fixture is attached through the canopy, so the wiring needs to be undone and the fixture removed to execute the maneuver.

That need makes this a good juncture to talk about how to remove and install a chandelier or pendant ceiling fixture from a canopy loop. A canopy loop set-up hangs the fixture from the canopy itself, which is attached to the electrical box. The loop and integrated bolt are hollow so the wiring can pass through into the box to make connections. (If you are swapping a different type of ceiling fixture, check out the useful directions on About.)

canopy example

A canopy loop kit (via)

Assuming that this is how your light is hanging, here are the steps to swap it out.

1. Gather Your Supplies

This is a low-tool-count project. The things you need (other than the fixture and the canopy with associated hardware) are:

  • A friend
  • A ladder (or, in our case, a tall bed)
  • A voltage tester (either an amp meter or a simple light-up version)
  • A screwdriver
  • A wrench
Inigo with the tools and wire nuts

Inigo with the tools and wire nuts

2. Safety First

The most important thing is TURNING OFF THE CIRCUIT. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, please don’t undertake this project right now (but do enroll for an Electricity 101 course near you and then stop back). If you do know what I’m talking about, make sure that you’ve turned off the correct circuit. Flip the wall switch a couple of times, but also use a voltage tester to double-check.

Line voltage tester with light -- make sure the light is working first! (via)

Cheap voltage tester with light — make sure the light is working before testing! (via)

To test a fixture, you don’t have to access the wiring itself — you only have to visit the wiring’s representative on the fixture. With the wall switch “on”, unscrew a light bulb, and use the tester to make a connection just like the bulb does.

Put one probe on the tab at the top of the light socket, and the other probe against the metal threading on the side of the socket.

Put one probe on the tab at the top of the light socket, and the other probe against the metal threading on the side of the socket. If the circuit is off, there should be no current with the light switch on.

It’s still a good idea to also check the wires themselves once you’re up in there.

3. Get Loose

Here’s where your friend comes into the equation. One of you loosens up the canopy screws while the other one holds up the light fixture.


Or hold the light and unscrew the canopy while your friend takes an action shot for the blog.

This is the point that always makes me think of a classic bit from Only Fools and Horses (short and worth a watch if you haven’t seen it before).


Set the screws aside and unscrew the wire nuts holding the fixture wiring to the supply lines (set those aside too). Avoid touching the wires until you’ve checked them for current as well (just put a probe on each bare end of the supply wires). If the supply wires are not colored or marked for hot and neutral, note which one is attached to which fixture wire and mark them for the rewire step.

Now you can lower the fixture and the existing canopy. While it’s down, check that the box in the ceiling is solidly fixed. Ours is a ceiling fan box spanning two structural beams, and it’s firmly attached. If your ceiling box is wobbly or there isn’t one, you’ll need to deal with that before proceeding.

The box will either have holes for holding up the canopy or a metal cross-bar (various examples here) attached to the box for the same purpose. While you have everything down, measure the distance between the holes in the canopy and match those up with your target holes; otherwise, you might choose an option that’s off-center for your installation, meaning more time fiddling around while you are trying to hold everything up.

The holes to screw the canopy in are circled. Check whether your canopy fits the inner pair or the outer. If you use one inner and one outer, everything will be out of line and you will need to rescrew the canopy.

The holes to screw the canopy in are circled. Check whether your canopy fits the inner pair or the outer. If you use one inner and one outer, everything will be out of line and you will need to rescrew the canopy.

4. Swapsies!

Here’s where you attach the new chandelier or pendant to the new or existing canopy. I’m using the same light fixture but a new canopy. If you are reusing the fixture or the canopy, use the wrench to loosen the nut on the inside of the existing canopy.


Set aside the nut and the locking washer. Then, take the wires from whatever fixture is going up (in our case, the same one) and fish them through the hollow core of the loop.


Put the wires and the loop through the hole in the canopy you’re using, then reapply the locking washer and the nut and tighten it up with the wrench. Make sure the fixture is connected to the loop and that there’s enough slack in the wiring to supply the fixture and make connections in the box.

5. Wiring

Circuit’s still off, right? RIGHT?? Ok, time to rewire. While you’re still on the ground, make sure you have about a half-inch of bare wire at the end of each fixture wire; strip the last half-inch if not. (You may or may not have a ground wire, which will typically be completely bare.) Using your fingers, smooth and straighten the ends.


If they are multi-stranded, twist them slightly to make them easier to work with.


Find your wire nuts. I was going to reuse the original wire nuts, and I had one of them tucked in my bra (bras are underrated as a hands-free DIY resource) for that purpose. I could NOT find the other one. When I finally exasperatedly grabbed a new one, I looked up and saw that the lost one was still dangling from its supply wire. Lesson: “up” is a place things can be.

Once you have your wire nuts in your bra/pocket, have your friend lift the new fixture and canopy with loop and wires in place up to the ceiling box. If the fixture lines are not color-coded, the wire with the ridges on the outside of the sheathing is the neutral/silver/white wire. Line up the bare ends. You might want to give them a slight twist to align them.


Focus! Focus! Fine, whatever.

Insert the ends in the wire nut, and twist it all together. Give each wire a light tug to make sure the nut is tight and making a good connection. Do the same with the other wires. If there’s a ground wire from the house and the fixture, hook those together; if there’s only a ground wire from the fixture, ground that to the box if it’s a metal box or to a grounding strap or screw.

6. Attach the Canopy

Tuck the wires into the box. Using the attachment screws you set aside earlier (or the ones that came with the new canopy), screw the canopy to the box or crossbar, making sure you are using a centered pair of holes. Get that nice and solid, then check that the fixture hook or C-connector is attached to the look. Carefully lower the fixture and let it hang, making sure that it is hanging from the hardware and NOT from its wiring (you might need to pull more wire through the loop; proceed carefully).

7. Blue Smoke Test

If you removed light bulbs, put those back. Turn the circuit on and try the wall switch. If there’s light, you’re done! If not, check your light bulbs and make sure any dimmer switch is turned up. If there’s still no light, you have a bad connection. Turn the circuit back off, unscrew the canopy and recheck your wiring.

Lights on? DONE.

It's always something: I need to touch up the ceiling paint.

It’s always something: I need to touch up the ceiling paint.

And the whole thing:


Now I have a spare fancified ceiling canopy. Perhaps I’ll use it in the garage.

Posted in Before & After, D'oh!, Decor, Electrical, Repair & Maintenance | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

What, Exactly, is Going on Here?

Marge: What do you think he’s doing up there?
Homer: I don’t know. Drug lab? Or reading comic books. What am I, Kreskin? You tell me what he’s doing.
Marge: I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. And I’m going to find out.

- The Simpsons

As part of our organization project (whereby everything we own that we aren’t currently using will be labeled and archived in storage bins), I’ve been running across a fair number of weird things.

This pair of shorts:

coke shorts

This doll:

nancy doll

And, to my delight, the flyer from when our house was for sale:

house flyer

That orange newspaper box was the first thing to go — and fancy using “proximity to the airport” as a selling point! Here’s the house from the same angle now:


Better. Other than the roof. But we’ve done so much that it feels like it should be more dramatic. And there’s still so much to do (see, e.g., ROOF).

When we talk about our DIY adventures, we usually say we are “fixing up” or “working on” the house. As with most fields of endeavour, however, there is a very specific vocabulary for home improvement work. It helps to know the difference when talking with builders, other DIYers, or precision linguists.

Contractor projects are often termed “renovations” or “remodels”, but these terms aren’t entirely interchangeable. A remodel might include some renovation, but not the other way around.

  • renovation replaces existing materials and finishes with new (or like-new) items. New drywall can be a renovation, but so can swapping out your switch plates.
  • A remodel involves a change to the existing model for a space. This process might include changing the use of a room or the floor plan. Creating an open concept great room where there used to several walls requires remodeling.

If you are working on an old house, there are even more terms to keep straight. The Department of the Interior uses the following definitions for work on historic properties:

  • Preservation focuses on the maintenance and repair of existing historic materials and retention of a property’s form as it has evolved over time.
  • Restoration depicts a property at a particular period of time in its history, while removing evidence of other periods.
  • Reconstruction re-creates vanished or non-surviving portions of a property for interpretive purposes [not really applicable here!].
  • Rehabilitation acknowledges the need to alter or add to a historic property to meet continuing or changing uses while retaining the property’s historic character.

(Four Approaches to the Treatment of Historic Properties)

We live in an old house, but it’s not historic — no blue plaques for Chez D’oh, unless it were something like this:


Preservation, restoration, and reconstruction are all beyond the budget and willingness of most homeowners, emphatically including the Kev and me. Our position on the house is that we love its character, we respect its materials and style, but we live in it today. This house, like its people, evolves over time while still being recognizably itself.


Evolutionary changes visible here (off the top of my head): 1. Built fence; 2. Replaced storm windows; 3. Removed antenna, tuckpointed chimney; 4. Added exterior light, house numbers, doorbell; 5. Limbed trees; 6. Built front retaining wall (side added by neighbors); 7. Levelled porch; 8. Replaced step railings; 9. Replaced steps; 10. Replaced porch door; 11. Updated trim color; 12. Landscaped; 13. Added new porch windows; 14. Replaced gutters and downspouts; 15. Repainted (twice); 16. Insulated piano windows; 17. Added glass block bathroom window; 18. Updated bathroom ventilation

Even though much has happened, major projects remain — a house is never done!


!!!!!: Replace roof, and soon; !!!: Figure out siding “strategy”; !: Replace step railings with wood

While some of what we do has a restoration or preservation bent, this is clearly no museum! The closest fit for our approach is rehabilitation, perhaps? Both renovation and remodeling certainly play a part. While it’s useful to know the terms and to have a concept for where we’re headed, I’m just going to keep saying we’re “fixing up” this house…albeit very slowly.

Posted in Before & After, Repair & Maintenance, Salvage | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

“Squirrel-Proof” Bird Feeding

Assault weapons have gotten a lot of bad press lately, but they’re manufactured for a reason: to take out today’s modern super-animals, such as the flying squirrel and the electric eel.

- Lenny Leonard

We enjoy watching the wildlife in our yard. Many of our plants were chosen because of their association with animals. We also have a few bird feeders around the place.

Unfortunately, the resident squirrels do not realize that the bird food is not really for them.

We don’t wish the squirrels any harm; we even have a squirrel feeder. The problem is that one moderately hungry squirrel can empty a bird feeder in an afternoon, which may only cost peanuts, but can add up over time.

I have come to the slow realization that it is not possible to prevent squirrels eating some of the bird seed. But, over the years, we have refined our bird feeding techniques to limit squirrel damage.

There are three basic strategies for squirrel-proof bird feeding:

  1. Stop the squirrels getting to the feeder,
  2. Use a feeder that denies access to squirrels, and
  3. Use food that squirrels find unpalatable.

1. Baffling Squirrels

The obvious way to stop squirrels getting to the feeder is to use squirrel baffles. This essentially puts an obstacle in the way of the squirrel. You can buy baffles from home improvement stores, garden centers, specialist stores, or online.

You can also make your own baffle.

We have tried baffles on poles with feeders at the top. And they do stop the squirrels from climbing up the pole. But they do not stop the squirrels jumping from trees or fences to reach the feeder. Seriously! Those are some acrobatic SOBs. If we had an area that was far enough away from trees and fences, this would probably be effective.

Another thing I tried was suspending a bird feeder from very thin wires attached to the house and fence at three points. This was by far my most successful attempt at preventing squirrels from reaching the feeder. But I had to take it down because Stacey said it looked ridiculous, and if there’s one thing I hate more than squirrels eating bird food, it’s mockery.

Anyway, if you have a spot that is away from things that squirrels could jump from, then a baffled bird feeder will probably solve your squirrel problem.

2. Confounding Squirrels

A little poking around on the interwebs will reveal that there are quite a few squirrel-proof feeders out there. They work on two principles:

  1. A squirrel is heavier than a bird, and
  2. A squirrel is bigger than a bird.

Type 1 feeders have a spring-loaded mechanism that does not react to the weight of a bird, but closes off the feeding holes under the weight of a squirrel. So, the squirrel is denied access to the food while the birds can feed freely.

We have two spring-loaded feeders, and they have been very effective. They do not stop the squirrels from getting food, but they do slow them down.

DSCF5651It’s quite amusing to watch a young squirrel try to figure out how to get a meal. They can see the food through the clear sides, but can’t reach it. Often they hang from a branch, from where they can see the food in the feeding holes, but as soon as they put any weight on the feeder, the food is closed off.

There are some clever squirrels that find ways to get at the food, such as hanging from the underside and craning their necks up to take one nut or seed at a time. But it clearly takes a lot of strength to perform this feat. They can eat for as long as they have the strength, but they certainly don’t empty the feeder in an afternoon.

Type 2 feeders are surrounded by a wire mesh. Small birds can get through the holes in the mesh, whereas squirrels, being larger, cannot.

We have not tried this kind of feeder. I imagine it would work well, but I think it looks a bit unsightly. Also, we have larger birds such as blue jays and red-bellied woodpeckers that visit our feeders, and I wouldn’t like to deny them access.

3. Unpalatable Food

I can sum this section up in two words: safflower seeds.

I came across this solution when I was trying to find a way to attract cardinals to the yard. Apparently, cardinals do not like to turn their heads to the side to eat. So, I tried a hanging feeder with extra roomy perches that they could eat from in a straight-on manner. But still no cardinals.

Then I found out that cardinals really like safflower seeds. I also discovered that squirrels are not fond of safflower seeds.

Safflower seeds have a hard husk that has to be removed and discarded. This may be why squirrels aren’t keen on safflower. Cardinal beaks seem to be designed for the task, though, as do some finch beaks.

So, in about ten minutes, I knocked together a suspended platform feeder and hung it from a hook in the front garden. I used a spare squirrel baffle as a roof.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd it worked — the safflower seed began to attract cardinals to the feeder. We also get a lot of house finches on that feeder, which is an added bonus.


Two squabbling male house finches and a female. The cardinals didn’t cooperate for a photo.


House finch and cardinal (Via)

In the middle of winter, when they’re really hungry, the squirrels will eat the safflower seeds. They jump on to the feeder from the adjacent crabapple tree. On landing they set the feeder swinging and some seed gets thrown off. But it doesn’t amount to much wastage, and most of the seeds get eaten by birds on the ground.

So, we have found a number of ways to prevent squirrels from taking all the bird seed. We fill the squirrel-proof feeders with the more expensive food that attracts woodpeckers, nuthatches, chickadees, etc. And we put safflower seed on the squirrel-friendly feeders for cardinals and house finches.

That’s what works for us. If you still have squirrel trouble, you can at least be thankful that you don’t have this problem.

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Good Easy Plants: Hostas

There are too many leaves in your walkway!

- Abe Simpson

Hostas are ubiquitous in temperate zones for a reason — they are so dang easy. They are so easy that I actually hesitated to use them as part of the Good Easy Plants series as too easy. As a local gardener commented, after the apocalypse, the only things left standing will be hostas, cockroaches, and Cher.

cher and hostas

Hostas (also known as plaintain lilies, and why not?) do the heavy lifting in the shade garden, offering a range of sizes and foliage colors, with white-to-violet flowers on long, graceful scapes.

Small variegated hostas next to larger solid hosta putting out scapes.

Small variegated hostas next to larger solid hosta putting out scapes.

Even though hostas are originally from Asia, they attract local wildlife, including butterflies and hummingbirds. Unfortunately, though, hostas are toxic to dogs and cats. We have lots of dogs and cats around here, though, and I haven’t noticed any of them expressing the slightest interest in gnawing on a hosta. Nevertheless, it’s worth knowing.

  • Most hosta types are hardy to Zone 3 (click for US and world maps) and some are good to go up to Zone 2.
  • At the hot end, they are fine through Zone 8, but they do need a cold enough winter to go dormant as part of their life cycle.
  • Once established, they are easy on water consumption.
  • Hostas grow well in shade to part-shade, but some varieties are sun tolerant — my Royal Standard hostas thrive in over six hours of sun a day.

Check Craigslist and perennial exchanges for hostas — or just ask your friends. The plants are so prolific (but not invasive) that people often give their extras away, or sell them for next to nothing. And every three years or so, you can divide the ones you have and TA-DA! More hostas!

"Royal Standard" hostas lining the walk to our door -- all of these came from dividing an original set of eight weenie plants.

“Royal Standard” hostas leading to our door — border from an original set of eight plants.

Some hosta fanciers pay premiums for special varieties, but even the most common hostas are great when massed together or used as a border.

Massed variegated hostas (between massed solid hostas)

Massed variegated hostas

The leaves go from white to grey-green to blue to charteuse and emerald, with variegated blends adding to the choices.

"Stained Glass" Hosta -- one of the only fancy-pants hostas I have.

“Stained Glass” Hosta — one of the only fancy-pants hostas I have.

Want other good easy plants? Check out weigelacatmintgaillardia, and clematis. I’ve also featured landscape plant options used by Habitat for Humanity in 2013 and 2014.

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Why You Should Help Your Friends Move

I am not interested in buying your house, but I would like to use your rest room, flip through your magazines, rearrange your carefully shelved items, and handle your food products in an unsanitary manner.

- Apu Nahasapeemapetilon

People often moan about helping their friends and family move, but there are several very good reasons why you should:

1. It’s the right thing to do.

2. They probably helped you move at some point.

3. They will give you cool stuff to avoid moving it.

We are not at all happy to be losing our dear friends Paul and Anne to Colorado. “Mountains are overrated,” we said. “Who needs a job? You can live in our basement,” we said. But they are still going, the big goofballs.

This is Paul and Anne

I’ve known Paul since the dawn of time, and we’re so glad he brought Anne into our lives. There’s no adequate consolation for seeing them less often, but we did end up with some really cool stuff out of the deal. For instance:


Drink enough of this and you won’t care.

More usefully, though, Paul and Anne donated a litter box bench to our feline dynamic duo. I’ve been meaning to build a bench to house the cat litter on the porch for about a year now, so procrastination has really paid off for me! I brought the thing home and left it unassembled for a while, which resulted in some in-depth sniffing and marking.

Can you spot the second investigatory cat?

Can you spot the second investigatory cat?

The bench is carpet-covered (for scratching purposes) and the structure is hinged so it folds flat. It’s a convenient design that would be pretty easy to copy (although I’m pleased that we don’t have to!).

Check out the unstripped porch floor!

Check out the unstripped porch floor!

Because it is hinged, though, it’s easy to push out of square. With all the wrestling our cats do, we figured it would be good to protect against that eventuality.

Cat box folded

Partially folded

The box has tabs along the inside bottom edge, so I decided to pick up a piece of oriented strand board to drop in to hold it square. After a quick measure, I ran over to Menards for a 2′ x 4′ piece to cut down.

Plywood, OSB, and similar products are typically sold to consumers in 4′ x 8′ sheets, but many box stores cut these sheets down to sell 4′ x 4′ and 2′ x 4′ sizes. These options are very convenient, but the cutting crew is mainly concerned with getting the cutting done, and will often leave the original bar code sticker on one of the resulting smaller sheets.

cat box OSB piece

After I paid, I realized that I’d been charged for the 4′ x 8′ based on the leftover UPC sticker. I stopped by the customer service desk, and a manager fixed the overcharge. As I walked away, though, I realized she accidentally changed it to the 4′ x 4′ price, and I had to have her fix it again. This sticker issue has happened to us at three different DIY warehouses, so if you are buying plywood in a nonstandard size, check that it rang up properly before leaving the store.

Having successfully monopolized the customer service desk, I returned home and cut down the OSB with a circular saw, then dropped the piece into the box. Then, there was some incredibly minor assembly: the bench comes with a thick tarp liner that is held in place with velcro. The finished bench is roomy — big enough to hold an enclosed litter box and spare litter.

cat box collage

Inside dimensions are 22.5 inches across by 36.5 inches wide by 18 inches deep.

The new bottom keeps everything square, and the cats think the whole thing is magical and exciting to the nth degree. We set it up in a corner on the porch.

Snuggled behind the porch swing.

Snuggled behind the porch swing.

They don't like it at all.

They don’t like it at all.

It’s a nice height for the cats to lounge on the top while looking out the window, and of course they love kneading on the carpet. Result!

Happy dance!

Paul performs a celebratory dance.

Thanks, Paul and Anne! We wish you all the best. And y’all come back now, you hear?

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Basement Plan: Storage? In the Basement?

As part of the plan for our basement, we are extending the workshop by taking out the wall between the workshop and the storage room next to it. So we had to find an alternative storage solution.

Aside from the stuff in the storage room, our basement is a bit of a mess. It wasn’t always this way. It happened gradually as we “stored” detritus from home improvement projects down there. Among other things that live in the basement are the door frame and trim from the bedroom closet project, the counter tops from the recent kitchen project, and a random five-panel door that doesn’t even belong to this house.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe solution we came up with was to build two parallel racks for storage bins in the corner of the basement next to the storage room. That corner was the dumping area for things that we didn’t know what to do with. There was also a sink in that corner that was never used.


First I had to take all of the stuff out of that corner and pack it into the few spots in the basement where it isn’t in the way — much. Then I took out the sink and capped off the drain.

Now, with the corner emptied, it was time to build the racks. I used 2 x 4 construction timber. At one end, I could attach the rack to framing members of the basement bathroom wall. At the other end, I installed two uprights to attach the cross pieces to.

At the top, the uprights were screwed to joists. At the bottom, they were not fixed in place as the horizontal parts of the rack would be enough to keep them in place.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASince  water occasionally infiltrates this corner of the basement, the uprights were stood on bricks.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOnce the uprights were secured, the cross members were installed at both ends. Obviously everything was as level as I could make it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis rack, the longer of the two, would need additional support near the middle to stop the 2 x 4s bending under the weight of our stuff.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEach shelf would be wide enough for five bins, so, the support was positioned so that there would be three bins to the right of it and two to the left.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe top of the middle support is attached to the ceiling joists and the bottom is fixed to one of the 2 x 4s that makes up the bottom shelf. The shelf 2 x 4 was clamped to another 2 x 4 on its edge to keep it straight.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACross members were installed in line with those at each end.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen the shelf pieces were screwed in place at each end.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd that was the first rack completed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe second rack was made in a similar way, but being shorter, it didn’t need a middle support.


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo now we are in the process of organizing our stuff. Quite a lot will go to Goodwill (a charity shop), some will end up in landfills, and the remainder will be easy to locate in well-organized, labelled storage bins.

Once the storage room has been emptied, we’ll begin work embiggening the workshop.

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Basement Plan: Sink Removal

So it was time to begin executing the basement plan. We began with the area designated as the future storage area. After taking out all of the stuff that had been temporarily stored in that corner, the only thing left in the way was an old unvented sink.

We never (or hardly ever) used this sink, so it would be no big loss to take it out to make room for the storage bin racks that we were planning to build in this corner.


Taking it out was fairly straightforward. Only the cold water supply was still attached. You can see the cold water supply pipe to the right of the sink. The mark on the wall that runs parallel to the cold water pipe is where the hot water supply pipe used to be. The hot water was disconnected years ago during a different project.

The valve to turn off the cold water to this point is quite old and hard to turn, and doesn’t completely shut off the water. As soon as we disconnected any part of the pipe work, water was going to start dribbling out. Taking the pipe out beginning at the sink end would have meant unscrewing each straight piece of pipe from each bend. All the while, water would have been dribbling out.

So instead, we cut through the straight piece of pipe farthest from the sink. This meant that only the last piece of pipe had to be unscrewed with water coming out. Stacey cut through the pipe with the sawzall, and I would like to show you pictures, but I didn’t get any because I was trying to stop the pipe from moving about at the time. Cut through pipes like this from the top down so the blade is in the water for the shortest time, and keep the handle end up so water doesn’t run into the motor.

Of course, there are pictures of me unscrewing the pipe with a pipe wrench. You can see where the pipe was cut, and the water trickling out of it to the left of the white dwarf.


Once the pipe was removed, we capped off the supply with a plug. Now, the rest of the pipe could be taken out without the annoyance of water going everywhere.


Plug wrapped with lashings of PTFE tape.

With the supply lines removed, we unscrewed the drain pipe from the sink so that the sink could be lifted off the wall. The sink was attached to the wall with two specially made brackets that have the word ‘Standard’ molded (UK: moulded) onto them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThese brackets were screwed to the wall. Each one has sockets at both ends that lugs on the back of the sink drop into.


This is one of the lugs on the back of the sink.


There are five lugs on the back of the sink. Only four of them were used.

With the sink gone, all I had to do was remove the drain pipe. I used the sawzall to cut off the pipe about 1½” above the floor, leaving enough pipe to work with if it’s needed down the road. Then the drain was temporarily sealed with bubble wrap and duct tape. Eventually, we’ll plug it more formally, but we want to do that in a reversible way in case someone wants to use the existing drain line in future. That may require a trip to a plumbing supply house, so I’m pleased with the duct tape solution for now.

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