Thursday, December 11, 2014

Replacing the Fan/Heater Switches

With venting fans in two of the bathrooms replacing the heaters that were put there when the house was built, it becomes possible to turn them on to remove humidity after a shower (for example).  But you have to remember to turn them off later.  By getting quiet fans, it's easy to forget they are on if you are not still in the bathroom.  Same with the pne remaining heater in the central bathroom.

So I went looking for a timer switch to allow the fans to be turned on, and then, some time later, turn themselves off.  I have used, in the past, a mechanical timer switch and found it difficult.  Mechanical timer switches use a spring to turn the knob back to zero and turn off the switch, and you have to turn it far enough for the spring to work (turn past 5 minutes), and some of the springs are strong and make it hard to turn the knob.

So I was looking for an electrical switch.  But then there is the issue of how to indicate how long to wait.  You could have a little keypad, or some up/down arrows to set the time, but that is a lot of overhead.  I found one that simple had 4 or 5 buttons -- off, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 60 minutes.  It seems that this selection would be adequate.

Unfortunately, this kind of switch becomes a large rectangle instead of just a simple small switch, so it is the "Decora" type and needs a corresponding switch plate around it.  And all of our fan/heater switches are just one of two in a two-switch switch plate.  So we will need to replace both switches -- for the fan/heater and for the light.

First we turn off the power at the circuit breaker box.

Then, we take off the old switch plate.

And then remove the screws holding the switches in place.

We disconnect the wires from the switches, remembering which is for the light, and which is for the heater/fan.  We attach the wires to the new switches.  Power comes in on one wire, to the switch and then back out on the other wire to the light or fan.

We test the switches before putting them back in the wall.  (Turns out I had connected the light to the fan switch and vice-versa, so I had to swap the wires.)  Once we have them correctly wired, we can put them back in the wall box.

 And put the new switch plate on.

With these, it is clear which is the light and which is the fan/heater switch.  Plus, I read that these larger rocker switches are better for older people than the standard toggle switch.

This process takes about an hour, even with multiple trips to and from the circuit breaker box to find the right circuit breaker for these specific lights and fans, and with the mistake of the timer switch for the light.

Update, June 2017.  The timers and fans are working well in the Master Bathroom and the Back Bathroom, where we have fans that vent to the outdoors.  The middle bathroom, on the other hand, still has a heater rather than a fan, and does not vent to the outdoors.  It appears to me to be very difficult to run a vent to the outdoors, because of its position relative to the roof and the attic.  But I put in a timer anyway.  Dorothy reported the other day that it would not turn off, and it (the switch) was getting very hot.  I turned it off at the circuit breaker box (circuit 14), and then replaced the timer with just an ordinary (heavy-duty) on/off switch.  I suspect that the timer is mainly designed for lights, and could not handle the higher current draw of a heater.  It appeared that a coil inside had badly over-heated.

The switch on the right has a little light in it (to help find it in the dark), and is the light switch; the one on the right is the fan switch.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Repairing the Flush Mechanism in Back Bathroom

The back bathroom has an American Standard Champion toilet, and my daughter said she thought it was still running after it flushed.  This is symptomatic of a bad shut-off valve in the flushing mechanism.  I could not hear it running, but after flushing, the water level should be about an inch below the top of the overflow tube, as it was.

 If we wait a day after the last flush, we can see that the water level has crept up to the top of the overflow tube, which indicates that the valve is not completely stopping the flow of incoming water.   Time to get a new valve.

Checking the installation instructions for the toilet they describe the valve as a Fluidmaster 400A.  Checking the internet, this is still a common device; we bought ours at Home Depot.

The box contains the flush mechanism, plus instructions.

First we turn off the water supply at the cut-off below the tank.

We empty the tank, by flushing, then using a plastic cup to bail what remains, until finally using a sponge to get the rest.  Then we can remove the old mechanism.

We put the new valve in place, and attach it by a plastic nut on the outside bottom of the tank.

 Attach the water supply line.

And turn the water back on to fill the tank.

Check that it is full to the right level.  Check that there are no leaks at the bottom of the tank.  And we are done.  This took about an hour.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Washing the Windows

Linda said that the windows were looking dirty, and since I had been thinking the same, it seemed like a good time to clean them.

At least some of the issue seemed to be with the screens.  I think that the dirt in the air first goes thru the screens and some of it stays on the screens.  To help clean the screens, I used a bottle of Windex Outdoor Glass Cleaner.  This product attaches to the hose.  First you rinse the window with clear water, then add the soap solution, then rinse it off with clear water again.  Since this is done from the outside (with the windows all closed), the screens get washed off too.

It took one bottle and 1.5 hours to wash all the windows this way.

Then I washed each of the windows, outside first, then inside, using a bottle of Windex (or a generic equivalent) and a squeegee.  This took another 5 hours, over two days, for all the windows.

The hardest window to clean was the second story fixed window in the computer room.

This window seems to have water spots on the outside that will not wash off.  Maybe the result of hard water or acid rain.

Monday, November 3, 2014


After Jita died, Kathryn got two new cats (kittens).  One of these, Inari, developed cancer of the lymph nodes (large lymphocyte lymphoma).  So she joined Pepper and Jita in Zone 2.

We don't expect this to be a common occurrence, but it does raise the question of how we would bury a pet once all the irrigation and landscaping is in place.

The slightly raised area where Inari is should settle over time.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Fence work for the West Lawn

After laying out the rough river of rocks, we can see the other areas of the West Lawn that need work.  One is the fence line from the pool of blue rocks up to the corner of the fence.  We have had a continuous problem of bamboo coming under the fence from the neighbors and popping up in what should be our lawn.  The lawn does not actually grow, probably due to the heavy shade from the fence, the oak tree, and the jungle.

To solve this, and make this side of the yard well-defined, we are going to do the same "dig down to bedrock, pour a cement wall, and top it with a layer of limestone" that we have done on almost all of our other fence lines.

As we dig, we are finding a large number of bamboo roots, and are pulling those out.

As is normal for our back yard, we dig down a foot or two and we hit solid rock.

We have to be careful as we dig -- the French drain runs next to this in the lawn.

Once we have about half of this section dug up, we can frame it for concrete.

And then pour the concrete.

 Move the forms down.

And pour the second part of this first section.

Then the third part.

Rain and cold weather slowed down this work, but after pouring this third part of the fence wall, we continued digging.

and continued.  Rain and cold weather slowed us down, but we have it completely dug out.

We can then pour the last section of the concrete wall.

giving us a continuous wall of concrete down to bedrock along this entire section of fence.

Now we put the white limestone blocks on the top of the cement wall, to give it a finished look.

And then we can put the dirt back in the ditch.

This entire process -- from starting the digging, pouring the concrete, putting the stones on top, and filling in the digging -- took about two months.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Rough Layout of The River of Rocks

The East Lawn now seems done, so we turn our attention to the West Lawn.  The plan says this is dominated by the River of Rocks -- a "path" of flat rocks running from the fence gate around to the back patio walkway.

We have been putting aside all the flat rocks that we've found while we were digging up the rest of the yard and just storing them on the West Lawn area.

There is so much shade in this area that there is little (if any) lawn there.  We have an area near the front of Liriope that we moved from the front beds (since it was being eaten down to the ground by deer).

So the task at hand is just to move the rocks around, trying to fit them together, like a very large jigsaw puzzle, to form the "River", and run it around to the patio walkway.  This takes a couple of days.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Monterrey Oak tree bed

We left a big space around the bottom of the Monterrey Oak for some plantings and mulch.  The landscape plan shows this as either (a) Texas Colombine or (b) Dianella variegated Flax Lily.  The person at Barton Springs Nursery says that the Flax Lily was all-season, while the Colombine died back in the winter.  So we went with the Flax Lily.

We planted 6 of the Flax Lily, in two clumps of three, and then mulched the whole area (8 bags).

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Grass for the East Lawn

With the digging and dirt done for the East Lawn, the question becomes what to put down in this space.  The landscape plan has it as lawn.  The City of Austin suggested using Zoysia Palisades as a grass that needs little maintenance and is drought tolerant.  We experimented with two pieces last year and it seemed to survive, so we will continue with it.

We find several places that sell Zoysia Palisades, and using Angie's List, we decided to use The Grass Outlet.  They sell Zoysia Palisades for $200 a pallet.  Each pallet is supposed to cover 450 square feet, and my estimate is we need 800 square feet.  The total cost, including delivery is $497.95.

The first pallet covered one end, leaving space around the base of the Monterrey Oak tree.

The second pallet gets us all the way to the end of what we have worked on so far.

This ties in nicely with the new walkway flagstones.

And we had a small amount left over, as expected, so we spread that out in the small area near the Bamboo Grove behind the Jungle.

This area will be interesting, since it has no irrigation (at least so far). (Update: all this grass died.  Clearly need irrigation to get it established, at least.)

One of the main questions in this work was should we install the sod now (early Fall), or wait until next Spring.  We decided that, temperature and water-wise, now should be about the same as the Spring, and it can rest over the Winter, before going into the heat and stress of next Summer.  Plus it will give us a grass cover instead of mud for the next few months.  And, in this particular case, we were fortunate enough to put the sod down just the morning before getting 0.5 inch of rain, followed by 1.5 inches the next day.  So we are getting it well watered in its new home.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Digging up the East Lawn, Irrigation, Zone 4

Having dug up the East Lawn, and brought in another dirt to even things out, we are ready to install a sprinkler system and a lawn.  We have zone 4 of the 11 irrigation zones in reserve for this area, so we just have to plan it out.

We pick the RainBird 1800 sprinkler heads -- they have adjustable angles, plus a fixed 180 degree and 360 degree.  And we will put bubblers by the two trees -- the one that is there now and the new one to be planted.

We laid out about where everything went using old PVC pipes.

And once we had it laid out, we trenched where the lines went.

We are using a 3/4 inch PVC pipe, with 1/2 inch Tees for the RainBird 1800 sprinkler heads.  We glue all the pieces together, test it out, and then fill the trenches back up with dirt.

Somehow in this process, we ended up with not enough dirt to fill things up, so we went to Whittlesey Landscape Supplies and got two more cubic yards of dirt -- professional mix ($86.92).

This allowed us to fill in the trenches and smooth out the backyard that has been dug up. 

We moved a volunteer tree to one of the spots where we want a tree in the back yard, and also moved the two pieces of Zoysia Pallisades to close to the patio walkway (to get it out of the way of the irrigation lines).

We should let this settle for a bit, and then put down new grass.