Living Spaces

Mar 062014
 

Green Ethernet Switch

A while back our color laser printer became annoying. Every time I went to print something it refused to print. I ended up having to turn it off and on again. Without an off/on cycle it would just sit there in sleep mode.

I don’t print hard-copy nearly as often as I once did, so it didn’t drive me too crazy at first. I just anticipated the step when I needed to print something.

Eventually my wife and daughter started printing a lot more often for work/school projects. Having to keep running to the printer to restart it had become an annoyance for multiple people.

I never did like our Brother color printer. It leaked magenta toner and left streaks. Plus, it was expensive to use: one of those good deals on the hardware, but they get you big time on the supplies. When I realized I was going to have to spend hundreds of dollars on maintenance soon (drum was near the end of it’s life, plus toner running low) I decided to buy a simple black only laser. Plus, I figured something was wrong with the printer as far as waking from sleep, so maybe a new one would save me the hassle of having to constantly hit the power switch.

What surprised me was the new HP printer also didn’t wake from sleep. Something else was obviously going on here.

My first thought was it must be a networking issue. The only piece of gear between the computer and the printer was a network switch.  An energy efficient network switch. And how do those switches save energy? They cut power on unused ports. You probably see where I’m going with this.

People all over the Internet are complaining because their printers will not wake from sleep. I found no solutions posted anywhere.

I decided to do some research on a similar topic. I found that people were having problems using wake-on-lan (WOL) with some green switches. WOL is a method of remotely waking a sleeping computer by sending it a WOL data packet. It appears some green switches would simply not send any data down a line with a sleeping device on the other end. Feature or bug? BUG! It broke the WOL standard. Luckily there’s a large enough hacker community that plays around with WOL for computers. That community debugged the WOL problem. My assumption was that if a computer wouldn’t receive a WOL packet while sleeping, a printer wouldn’t receive printout data while sleeping either.

I replaced the naughty trickster D-Link DGS-2208 with a business level HP ProCurve 1410-8G which was known to handle WOL correctly. The laser printers are back to printing instantly! No more running to the printer to power cycle them.

The new switch is still an energy saving switch. It’s just a properly engineered energy saving switch. So, before you buy a green wired network switch make sure it’s WOL compatible.

Share
Apr 172013
 

My desk is a horizontal door. Not metaphorically. It’s a real door.

I made my first door-desk when I was a teenager. I still use one today. I have no desire to get a “REAL” desk, because what could be better than a door? They’re big. They’re sturdy. There’s no worrying about damaging expensive furniture, because it’s just a damn door. I’ve attached all kinds of things on my desk with screws, glue, and clamps. The door top of my desk is decades old now, but because doors are constructed to be slammed and kicked the surface still looks like new.

Door-Desk

One secret to making a door desk is to use a solid core door. That makes it heavy and solid. You can screw anything into it and it stays in place. My own desk was stained with a cherry stain on top and black stain on the side. It was the 1980s, after all. I might give it a more natural look these days. The underside doesn’t need any special treatment, so it’s bare. I coated it with a satin polyurethane so it looks like nice furniture and has a waterproof surface. Door desks should be projects of their own, and boy do I have a lot of things attached to mine. Continue reading »

Share
Dec 142012
 

One of the unexpected issues we had after upgrading to smart phones was that we suddenly wanted WiFi Internet access everywhere in our house and property. With our laptops we had specific places we sat to use them, and the access was fine in those places, but with our smart phones we were up and wandering everywhere. Suddenly we were discovering all the dead zones in the house. For example, when I tried taking my phone to the backyard in the summer with Bluetooth speakers to play music, I found I had to stay within ten feet of the house to maintain access to the local WiFi network. We also found ourselves getting disconnecting upstairs and in the farther end of our living room. Sometimes it depended on which direction we faced. Since our phones have data limits we wanted to save the 4G data use for when we were away from home. It was time to change-up the WiFi.

I loaded up a WiFi signal detector app on the phone and wandered the house. Not only was the signal dropping far from the router, but in the living room our neighbor’s WiFi signal was actually significantly higher than ours. At the time, our router was located in a corner of the basement. That was where the cable company had installed the cable modem. To get better coverage of the entire house I decided to move the router to the very center of the house on the main floor.

It just so happened that the center of our house is a hall closet. I had our entertainment system in this closet with long wires connecting it to the TV and speakers in the living room. I put it there because when I was a kid we pulled the channel knob off the TV (yes, it was long enough ago that we had knobs) and dropped paper clips inside, shorting the TV out. I’ve watched little kids try to put all kinds of objects into CD and DVD players. When our daughter, Coral, was born I moved our entire entertainment system to a top shelf in the hall closet to keep it out of her reach. Being eight years old now, I actually want her to be able to reach the Blu-ray drive on her own.

Central-Wifi

So, I moved the receiver and media PC to a cabinet in the living room, and moved the router into the closet. This did the trick. We now had WiFi coverage all through the house.

Of course, I couldn’t just stop there. My neighbor’s router was still stronger than ours in the living room! Looking online, I found they now had higher-powered and faster routers. I upgraded. My laptop can now connect at nearly Gigabit wired speeds. I walked our property from the street to the back fence: we have an excellent signal everywhere on our property. We’ve been using it for a few weeks now, and we don’t even think about WiFi access anymore because it’s always connected no matter where we are at home.

Next summer I suspect we’ll enjoy sitting outside in the yard with our networked music or radio streaming, checking mail, and posting to Facebook. We won’t have to limit ourselves to ten feet from the house. Having access to streaming radio and music will also make it much more enjoyable when I finally get around to cleaning out and repairing our old garage. It really needs it. Luckily it’s winter right now, so I won’t think about that chore any further.

Share
Mar 192012
 

I was using Philips Pronto remotes for over a decade. No more. My last one just died.

The Pronto was a really cool device when it first came out. From the beginning it included a fully programmable touch screen graphic interface and could replace a pile of remote controls with programmable automation. This was way before tablets and smart phones. You could build a glitzy interface and set one button to do multiple actions, like turn one the TV, turn on the receiver, switch inputs, turn on the DVD player, dim the lights, etc..

Due to all the competition from tablets, smart phones, and other cheap devices and apps, Philips stopped making the Pronto last year. There are now hundreds of automation options available. I started looking into what to use to replace the old Pronto, and quickly decided to take a totally different route.  I’d just code up my own.

Continue reading »

Share
Jan 132012
 

Our house was built in 1950. The first floor bath looked it. Hadn’t been updated in decades. Rusting medicine cabinet. A loud, rattling ventilation fan. Corroded faucet. Outdated electrical. Water wasting toilet. Aged wallpaper. Since we kept putting off a full remodel, a few weeks ago I decided to just do a quick refresh.

Above is a photo of the old bathroom.

Ripping a bath down to the studs can save you a lot of aggravating retrofitting work and allow you to get exactly what you want, but it’s also a bigger commitment to expense and  inconvenience. While doing this refresh, our bathroom was never out of commission. I finished one project, cleaned-up, and then moved onto the next. The big things to keep in mind is that a full remodel gives you a fresh start, and a simple refresh has less down-time, but requires working within existing limitations of the existing room. It’s a trade off. Decide what’s more important to you.

Our bathroom felt worn out worn out. The fan noise woke people up. The faucet couldn’t be cleaned any longer. The electrical just looked and felt like danger on the wall. We also didn’t have enough storage space and had to keep some things in our hall pantry.

While working, under the layers of paint and wallpaper I discovered the room was originally pink and gray-blue with big brown-red linoleum tiles accented in a golden style equivalent to paisley. The built-in vanity had once been pink as well, so I assume it is original to the house, since pink is a very 1950 color choice. The wood drawers also have our address written in pencil on them to designate the job for the cabinet maker, which is very old school. The tile job is sloppy, and was likely slapped up by a homeowner in the last remodel, which I’d guess was in the 1970’s or 80’s. This is a room that has remained partially intact for 60 years, and would do so for a while longer now since the walls, ceiling, tiles, and vanity were staying intact.

An early decision we made was to switch from dark brass to brushed nickel. We liked the brighter metal and matte finish. The pain about switching is you have to switch everything to get a consistent look. I got carried away. I even changed the door hinges and door knob to nickel.

In case you’re not interested in the details, here’s a glimpse at what we have today:

For more details about the changes made, read on!

Continue reading »

Share
Dec 162011
 

Previously I posted about finding natural gas leaks in four out of six homes I checked using a natural gas detector, including my own.

Next up, I decided to check for “Sick Building Syndrome” in a few homes, including my own. I was a little surprised by by findings.

Sick building syndrome is typically caused by poor ventilation that allows for a buildup of gasses, chemicals, CO2, mold, etc. that can cause people to feel some range between a-bit-off to terribly sick. One method of determining if a building does not have adequate ventilation is to check carbon dioxide levels, abbreviated as CO2. High levels of CO2 means there obviously isn’t enough ventilation to refresh the air in relationship to the air that’s being burned or exhaled.

Now, don’t confuse CO2 with CO, which is carbon monoxide. Checking for CO is common because CO in high doses is a quick death. CO detectors are sold along side fire detectors.

CO2 is different. We breathe out CO2 with each breath. Plants absorb the stuff. Our outside air, as of this point in human civilization, generally has around 350-400 ppm (parts per million) of CO2. We breathe it all day long. Thus, it is not in itself a hazard in normal quantities. Yet, government recommendations are that office buildings should remain below 1000 ppm. Apparently studies show that a level of just 1000 ppm of carbon dioxide will reduce the ability to concentrate by about 30 %. It takes more massive concentrations, above 15% (150,000 ppm ), to cause immediate unconsciousness, so there’s apparently a large range between feeling off and medical crisis.

I originally picked up a CO2 Monitor out of pure curiosity about our air quality after finding natural gas leaks in our house. The device sits in a room and monitors CO2, humidity, and temperature. We just had a new high efficiency furnace installed, so I really wasn’t expecting to find an issue. Surprise.

Plugged the monitor in. Our levels were above 800 ppm. I had no idea if that was normal. Searching the internet was confusing. Higher levels, over 1000 ppm, were listed as a problem in office buildings, but there was little info out there on what is considered normal in a house. Occasionally the alarm on the monitor would sound, alerting me to the fact that our levels were suddenly over 1000 ppm. Interesting. What could cause that? I admit to having gadget fun. I played with it for days off and on doing various tests. I tested different rooms. I tested near different appliances. I cracked open windows. Turned on and off the furnace fan. What I finally realized was that when the furnace was running the CO2 in our house would steadily rise, about 1 ppm per second. Was this normal? Heat the house a degree or two hotter and we’d jump well over 1000 ppm setting off the alarm. If I opened windows the levels would drop down to around 400 ppm.

Right away I decided to leave the windows upstairs open a little at all times. I also turned the furnace fan on continuously to keep the air circulating and mixed. This seemed to help keep the levels down to around 850 ppm, as long as I didn’t change the temperature on the thermostat. I erased the programmed temperature changes so the furnace wouldn’t cool the house at night, because in the morning the CO2 levels would set off the alarm.

On Thanksgiving I took the device over to my parents house. It clocking in well above 1500 ppm! I realized it was due to their gas stove and oven being on all day long. They didn’t have a vent in the kitchen to refresh the air, so they were breathing in the CO2 produced by continuous open flames. Perhaps it wasn’t just the Turkey making us sleepy. A follow up test conducted on another day found their levels between 800 and 900.

Took the monitor to another house. There the living room was in the 500s, but when we placing it in a closed bedroom that was host to a sick person, the levels were way up above 1000. In this case it was due to a lack of air circulation. The bedroom door had been closed all day and night with someone breathing out CO2 to fill the small room. Essentially, the air was stale. I suggested the owner of the house turn the furnace fan on to help circulate the air, but they were too worried about burning out the motor if it ran day and night, so they cracked open a window instead. The nights are well below freezing, but I recall when I was young, before heating costs were one of my concerns, I preferred to sleep with the window open as well during the winter. I liked the fresh air.

You can install a whole house heat exchanger to avoid losing as much heat and cold when pulling air into the house from outside, but apparently you need to maintain these just as you do your furnace air filters and humidifier, and so they are not suggested by HVAC installers very often.

Well, unable to determine if the high numbers on our house were normal, I decided to call the company that installed our furnace. They sent two guys out to inspect my concerns. At first they said it might just be normal operation, as no one had ever asked about CO2 before. Just the same, while they were there they set about making some minor adjustments.

They asked if we insulated the walls and had done any other efficiency changes to the house recently. A well insulated house leaks less air and is more likely to have CO2 buildup. We have done very little. Our walls are actually hollow. I started researching spray-in insulation over the summer, but have yet to do it.

While here they adjusted the slope of the exhaust. Modern efficient furnaces have their own fresh air intake and exhaust out pipes. Ours was sagging in the middle, and the slope was very slight. Second, they added a U to one of the water drainage pipes that came off the air intake. I also asked them to change the furnace to run the fan motor at a slower speed when the fan was used continuously. That would allow more efficient, silent, slow and steady air circulation.

After they left I found the CO2 levels had dropped dramatically. Unoccupied rooms on the first floor were in the 400s. The average level I now get in my office while working is just under 550, and the maximum I’ve seen for occupied rooms on the first floor has been around 650. The CO2 levels no longer climb when the furnace is running. When I checked, I found that in the middle of the night the levels actually dropped below 400 in my office. Yeah, our house is not sealed tight, so that was outdoor late night air quality. That’s a leaky house. Maybe I do need some more insulation in my walls.

The second floor levels still rise a bit at night, getting into the 700s. I know why. We have no cold air return upstairs, so the air isn’t circulating. Getting a return air duct upstairs is now on my to-do list.

So, once again, my curiosity and love of gadgets proved very interesting, this time pointing out that we needed to get the furnace corrected.

Share
Nov 182011
 

What’s in your household air?

When we moved in, our gas meter was located in a small closet in the basement. A representative from the gas company would enter houses like ours to take the readings, and sometimes I was required to phone in the numbers. All very old school. Often, when I opened that closet I would swear I smelled gas. I had the gas company out, but they said it was fine.

After ten years of having to read the meter inside the house, the gas company finally decided to move our meter outside. After that change, I started occasionally noticing an increased gas smell around the small closet where the meter once was. I called the gas company. They checked the area again and said nothing was wrong, and maybe the smell was from the sewer.

From a friend, I learned that one of the household maintenance tasks homeowners should be doing yearly, along with changing filters and humidifier pads and all that, was to pour a quart of water into your basement drains. If you don’t the traps can evaporate and sewer gas will enter the house. Traps are the “U” shaped sections you see under a sink. They fill with water and keep gasses from entering the house through your drains. It’s smart to run water in every drain in your house at least twice a year. Not only did we have the drains on the basement floor, but we also had a sink and a toilet that were never used. I’ve since been sure to run water into all of those at the start of winter and summer.

As the years passed, I rarely had to enter that small closet, but when I did I continued to smell something odd. I could swear it still smelled like natural gas. It would dissipate quickly though.

Years ago, we had one of those combination carbon monoxide and natural gas detectors. The detector started randomly going off, alerting us of a gas leak. Again, we called the gas company. Again, they said there was no problem.

Two years ago the air conditioner pipes started freezing up. We discovered the air conditioner coils were leaking inside the furnace. Two years and $900 later we realized the HVAC company we were using was wasting our money. The central air conditioner wasn’t fixable. This summer we replaced it, but for this story we have to go back before that leak was detected, because it took months to figure out freon was leaking. For all I know the freon was triggering the gas alarm. I really don’t know. In the mean time, since the alarm kept going off, I decided to buy a natural gas detector off Amazon. It’s not as fancy as the ones the gas company uses. It only has an audible reading. Like a Geiger counter, it starts off with a slow tick, about twice per second. When it detects gas the ticks speed up, machine gun fast, accelerating, until it’s nearly a single tone. The more gas detected, the faster it rattles. The more expensive units have a digital readout (like this one), which would be nice since you can assign the leak a number, but they’re way more expensive. Keep in mind this is not a carbon monoxide detector, but a natural gas detector. They also have radon detectors. There are different devices for different gasses.

I started sniffing pipes. The detector’s ticks went crazy.

I discovered two areas with gas leaks. Multiple connections were leaking right where the gas company had disconnected the old gas meter. There was another leak where the dryer was connected. Once again I called the gas company. This time I told them I used a gas detector myself and explained where I found the leaks. They said, yeah, it was leaking. They tagged the pipe joints and told me to call a plumber to fix it.

So, I called a plumber a neighbor had used. He’s an old guy with a rusted bucket-of-bolts truck filled with well used tools. He was affordable, and I figured he must have had plenty of experience. He started ripping out and reassembling the pipes. Just outside of the closet we still had the last of the old ceiling tiles up. They had been nailed to the floor joists decades ago. I had to remove a section of tile so he could finish the job. When he was done, and the gas was running through the pipes again, I sniffed some of the newly revealed pipe joints with the gas detector. Surprise. Another leak! Patching this new joint would require ripping most of the remaining ceiling tiles out to get to the hidden piping. The plumber said, “You’re just going to get yourself in trouble with that thing,” and proceeded to slobber joint compound on the pipe without disconnecting it first. He billed about $100 and left.

You can’t sniff newly connected pipe. The joint compound off gasses too much. A few days later, after the compound was dry, I checked that last area he’d slathered over and it was still leaking. I started wondering if I was over reacting. The gas company obviously didn’t consider a bunch of small leaks a problem. The plumber didn’t either. I would have to call another plumber in, which was more money being spent. I let it go for a while.

I decided to check a few other houses. Out of six homes I checked, four were leaking natural gas. Of the homes with leaks, each had multiple leaks. Maybe a small leak wasn’t considered important enough to the gas company to tag, but what about six to twelve small leaks? Doesn’t it add up? Especially when all these leaks are near the furnace which is circulating air though the house? Add onto that freon leaks, sewer gasses,  and the small amount of acceptable CO2 and radon. We sure do live in a lot of fumes.

This week I tore down the last section of the ceiling. As I pulled the tiles out I could smell trapped gas. There I found yet another leak. I had a different plumber out. We opened the windows, turned the furnace fan on continuous, and refreshed all the air in the house. As of today I’ve checked every pipe joint in the house. No more leaks.

While I was at it, I poured water into the drains.

The Internet is so filled with contradictory information. I see posts saying that natural gas is totally non toxic, unless of course, it kills you due to suffocation. I see others saying the additives that give it that nasty smell cause cancer. Yeah, everything gives you cancer. I also saw a few posts claiming that long term gas leaks in their houses had caused all kinds of digestive and neurological disorders, including food intolerance, anxiety, insomnia, dizziness, memory problems. Will we be healthier without all those natural gas and freon leaks? I’d have to assume so.

All I definitely know is the basement now smells fresher than it ever has.

Share
Sep 122011
 

Wall Art

This summer we swapped some rooms. You see, back when Coral was born we moved my office up to the 2nd floor, and our bedroom down to the first floor. That way Larc didn’t have to carry Coral up and down stairs, and we could just put a gate (with a foot triggered latch) at the stairs. Now that Coral’s older, there’s certainly no worry about her using stairs, so we moved both bedrooms upstairs and returned my office where I can once again get sunlight. It’s nice to once again see out the front window to watch for the UPS truck, or just stare at the blue sky and trees while thinking.

One problem I ran into was that I’d mounted shelves to the wall over my desk. We pulled the shelves down and I patched the drywall with plaster. We ended up with a bunch of white plaster sploches and messed up paint. Went to check for touch-up paint, and found a brick. Really. A brick. We’d used clay paint. Paint actually made of clay. The clay was dry. Brick.

Went on-line to order a pint, but found they no longer had the same color. We’d just moved three rooms, and no way did I want to move furniture and repaint the entire room, but at the same time the move didn’t feel done. So, as I do, we made it into an art project. Here you can see exactly where my desk once sat, and where the shelves hung. Added photos from a past vacation we had already in frames, and now the room feels complete.

One day maybe we’ll paint the whole room again, but for now we have wall art.

Share