Renovation of a circa 1903 Brooklyn Row House

Posted by Steve on Fri, 09/15/2006 - 11:00am


This blog is about the challenges of renovating an old Brooklyn, New York row house.

My last renovation project was the master bedroom, most of which is about finish carpentry. You can follow the progress here (or backwards in time if you prefer). You'll find other completed home improvement projects in the Renovation Photos in the navigation above.

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Product Warranties vs. The Big Chain Stores

Posted by Steve on Tue, 07/14/2015 - 11:05am


The NJ Tool Show is an annual event that my tool-nut friend and I eagerly anticipated all year. We would get to see all the latest innovations in shop tools, from programmable laser cutters that sliced with such precision that they could duplicate a business card in a piece of oak veneer to shade tree inventions that seemed to have no practical use at all.  It was tool porn.

At one of the shows, maybe 2001, I ducked outside into the freezing January weather to grab a smoke -- a habit I'm glad to say I kicked many years ago. Outside I met a district rep for a well-known German power tool maker. We chatted about the show and I expressed surprise not to see either Home Depot or Lowes in attendance. After all, both were huge tool retailers in the NYC area. He grunted and said that the worst decision his company had ever made was to bring in big chain stores as retailers for their products.

I commented on how much cheaper it was to buy tools from these stores than from dedicated tool stores like A.W. Meyer. "Guess it's their volume advantage, right?" He said I was correct, except not in the way I thought. These stores were able to use their clout as volume sellers to make the companies build models just for them, cutting corners to save costs. He said that's mostly why they're cheaper. "Wait. Are you saying that the same tool bought at a big chain store isn't the same as one bought at, say, Wankel's Hardware on 3rd Ave?" Yup.


Housing Inspections Ain't Insurance

Posted by Steve on Thu, 07/02/2015 - 12:57pm
House: 


Recently, I discovered a terrific binge-watching series on Netflix, Holmes Inspections.  As a rule, I don't care much for home improvement shows.  I find them to be too cute or too repetitive or with painfully bad architectural taste.  Holmes Inspections, a Canadian show, features a general contractor, Mike Holmes.  What appeals to me most about this show is that it focuses on fixing problems created by bungling, bandit contractors and overlooked by incompetent home inspectors -- two topics with which I strongly relate.  The show no longer airs on HGTV but fortunately there are a bunch of them streaming on Netflix now and they're eye-opening for anyone looking to purchase a home, new or otherwise.

I learned my lesson about crappy contractors years ago. It's taken years but I've assembled a short call list of people I trust when I encounter a job I can't handle myself.  But the home inspection game is a crap shoot.  Your bank wants the house inspected before they'll approve the mortgage and finding one is usually on you.  Chances are, you're moving to an area where you don't know any trades, let alone any house inspectors.  What most people do is ask their realtor for a recommendation.  This is a huge mistake.  Your real estate agent isn't going to recommend anyone who could potentially queer the sale and the inspector has an ongoing business relationship with the agent that he doesn't want to alienate.  So guess whose interests aren't being served? Yours.

Every episode on Holmes Inspections is about how new homeowners got screwed by a parade of shoddy earlier construction and capped by a bad inspection which ended up costing them tens of thousands of dollars to fix.  Some of the examples are egregious, like missing stair railings, no plumbing or roof vents, obvious water damage and mold infestation and sagging porches which the inspector passed with a "well, it's an old home".  So wrong.

Holmes' show has obviously struck a nerve with Toronto-area home inspectors because at least one of them released a video attacking Holmes' credibility: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kg0iPVF-SZw  I suspect that this unnamed inspector was the featured bonehead in one of Holmes' episodes.  He nitpicks about how Holmes tested where a leak was coming from, using a garden hose.  Laugh all you want, dood, except it's a technique that waterproofing companies use too.


Well, it's done.

Posted by Steve on Wed, 10/22/2014 - 12:55am


After three years in the making, the boiler epic finally wrapped today. I have a brand new, Williamson 140,000 BTU steam boiler.

Granted, it's not on the epic scale of Lord of the Rings but I think it took even longer to complete it.

This story began in 2011 with this tale of woe.  I had big plans about extending the house renovation by gettting rid of steam heating altogether and replumbing the house for hot water heat instead. 

It made sense to do this for several reasons.  First is that hot water heat is cheaper to run.  You're not heating a cauldron of water to the boiling point and having static pressure force steam evenly throughout the house.  

You don't have to concern yourself with the black art of air vent sizes and with water spills from stuck air valves or, worse, stuck float valves in the boiler.

You're not dependent on gravity for the return so you can heat basement spaces easily. You can zone your heat with a manifold, even solenoid driven ones that will let you have a wireless thermostat in every room.

Plumbing hot water heat is relatively easy too because you can use flexible Pex tubing and compression fittings.  It would give me the option of having a heated towel rack in the bathroom doubling as a radiator.  The current master bath has no heat (and a vented skylight... brrrr).

On the other hand, it would have meant ditching all seven existing steam radiators in the house and replacing them either with larger units or with more radiators... probably twelve. Even the DIY cost of doing this job would push the new heating plant installation into five figures.

My old boiler actually worked fine.  It was the autofeed -- a device that maintains the boiler's water level -- that broke.  Replacement was $1100-1500 and there was no guarantee that the boiler wouldn't croak the next day leaving me with both no heat and a useless mechanical autofeed. 

I probably could have nursed the old boiler untll warm weather by manually filling and purging the boiler every couple of days.  Then I could have started on building the new heating installation in the spring. 

But pragmatism and a good spreadsheet rules.  My new steam boiler is 82.9% efficient. Factoring in my current gas bill + the additional 12-13% efficiency of hot water heat + the current cost of natural gas, it looked like hot water heat would save me only about $200/year, and that's based on the old boiler's heating season costs.  It could be 30 years before I saw break-even.

So when Dennis Behan at Bay Ridge Plumbing gave me an estimate that beat the next lowest estimate by almost two thousand dollars, the decision made itself.  The bonus is that Dennis is a nice guy.  He even knocked another hundred bucks off his estimate today.

Dennis told me last week that he'd start the job Tuesday morning and be done by around 3pm.  True to his word, he did. 


Next life, I want to be a plumber.

Posted by Steve on Thu, 10/16/2014 - 5:20pm


Back in 2011, I wrote an article about my failing Weil-McLain steam boiler entitled Got Three Estimates?  Get Three More. The article concluded with my finding a plumbing company willing to rebuild my ancient autofeed mechanism for a fair price.  Despite most heating contractors swearing that my 42 year-old boiler wouldn't survive the season, it made it through 2011, 2012 and the brutal, polar vortex winter of 2013 without a burp.

Two weeks ago, I relit the pilot light on boiler.  The outside temps were in the 60s so I didn't turn on the boiler.  A few days later I noticed that my kitchen extension floor was a pool of water.  Rats, I'd left the windows open before an intense thunderstorm.  Cursing my stupidity, I mopped up about 15 gallons of water and went upstairs.  I returned an hour later to see the floor soaked again.  The windows weren't the cause.  There were no water pipes in the extension and it was bright and sunny outside so I didn't know what was behind this.

While mopping up for a second time, I heard an occasional *bloip*, like a leaky faucet into a pan of water.   It was coming from the baseboard radiator.  When I lifted the access panel I saw water squirting out of the air valve like a drinking fountain.  At least I knew what was causing that.   It was the autofeed/low water cutoff again... probably a stuck float.  No problem, I'll call the same plumbing company that fixed it last time.


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