Welcome!

How we came to purchase our home.

WPA Photo

A Works Progress Administration photo offers a glimpse of our home's past.

Reproduction Windsor Chair

Finally, a dining room set.

No Power, No Heat.

Our first snow storm and it's aftermath, October, 2011.

Lead Poisoning

Updates to our son's lead levels.

Bit By Bit

My wife's blog on being pregnant, giving birth and raising our first child with all the complications, hardships and joys that life throws our way.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Water in my electrical panel


My wife and I are getting ready for a trip back to our parents homes' for Thanksgiving.  After packing the car, I wanted to secure our home for our extended leave.  I locked the back door, then went into the basement to check the basement door.  We previously worked on the breaker box which was left uncovered from when we were installing the vent fan in our bathroom.  I wanted to re-attach the cover, so as I was re-attaching it, I am supporting the panel with my left hand, screwing in the second of six screws when all of a sudden water started to squirt out from the breakers!  I quickly unscrewed the two screws, pulled off the panel and was quite surprised to see most of the breakers covered in water.  First things first, the main was switched off.

"Honey, what happened to the power!" calls my wife.

With the main off, in the dark, I remembered that I had the business card in my wallet of the electrician that came to our home that day of the power outage in October.  I called him up.  I explained the situation, and he said, "If this were any other day, I would be right over, but unfortunately, I am with family and have a bird to take care of."  I understood, but he did a repeat of our first encounter.  He described to me how to correct the water issue:
  1. Turn off the main and each individual breaker.
  2. Take out each breaker by pulling it out from the center of the box towards the side it is on.
  3. Unscrew the wire leading into each breaker so that now the breaker is completely free.
  4. Get a can of WD-40 and saturate the breaker.
  5. Wrap the breaker in a thick towel and gently beat it.  The oil in the WD-40 will disperse the water in the breaker bringing it out of the casing.
  6. Get a can of compressed air and spray off any residual water/oil left.
  7. Repeat the towel beating and compressed air cleaning until there is no more water.
  8. The WD-40 will dry in about 30 minutes.  Re-attach the wire and plug the breaker back into its location on the panel.
  9. Repeat for all the wet breakers.
Took me a couple hours, but I completed the task and with my hands shaking, I turned on the main, then breakers 1... 2... 3........23.  Power was up and running.  We waited about half an hour to make sure everything was stable, then packed up the last of our belongings and left for the weekend.

The electrician said that water can get into the electrical box through the main conduit leading from the outside line.  It would trickle down the conduit into the home and directly into the panel.

A week later, before the next rain event, I took a look at the main power feed entering our home. The line attaches to the exterior wall at the roof line. It enters a conduit that then travels down the exterior wall to the meter.  From there, the conduit leaves the meter and goes further down the wall to the basement level where a bracket is installed.  Looking closely at the bracket, it is loose, rather unattached to the wall.  I found the source of my water leak.

Just of note, this is the same location where investigative work was undertaken several weeks prior by the structural company working in the basement.  They did such lousy finishing work on the exterior. Not only is that bracket not secured but there is also a lack of caulking.  I purchased a box of paint-able white exterior caulk from Lowes and went at that bracket. This could have been disastrous!  Imagine if my wife and I left and water continued to leak onto live breakers.  A fire erupts after a spark is created and my 250 year old wooden home burns up like a Thanksgiving bonfire.  I may sound like a "drama queen" to any contractor, but when it comes to my family and my investment, it's nothing to blow over. I have to watch future contractors like a hawk. I have to scrutinize their work as we'll be the ones living with their oversights.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Structural Repairs, Part I

As I sit here writing, I am torn between being brutally honest and abiding by my word.  You see, I made an agreement with the contractor who completed the structural repairs on our home.  My original idea was to document all the work being done with photos depicting the staged repairs.  I always believe in being honest with people and explained to the owner that I have a blog and would like to have his permission to post pictures of his equipment, etc.  My thoughts were, well, it's my home, I am vicariously paying for it and it's absolutely free advertising for their company.  I was a bit shocked to hear his response.  I'll paraphrase:

1.  Anything on the internet is there forever.
2.  We don't know how you'll depict our work.
3.  Our methods are proprietary.
4.  ...so is our fee schedule.

These are all valid points (I guess).  I responded to the owner saying that I agree with them 100% on the proprietary part.  They worked for 'X' number of years "perfecting" their methods, who am I to post pictures of their secret ways?  It was quite understandable, however, my goal with this blog is to be honest with all costs involved with the work on this antique home.  So, I made a compromise.  I countered saying that I will not post the name of the company or pictures depicting their means and methods.  The owner grudgingly agreed, with the exception of wanting to review my post as a courtesy on my part, which I can only gather for editing purposes. Like I said, I want to be honest about everything that occurred, but for reasons which are to follow, I will forfeit that courtesy and post away with my first amendment rights.  Mind you I will stick to my word.  The name of the company, the crew and their methods will NOT be discussed.  Regardless, brace yourself, this will be a long post.  I will try to break it up over a couple of posts.


On July 24, 2011, I came into contact with this contractor through a quasi government related group listing (really advertising) contractors working to rebuild and repair historic structures.  In the initial post, I described the issues with the seller; how she was unwilling to hire a proficient contractor specializing in post and beam repair.  When she finally caved in to hiring a qualified contractor, we split the cost for this particular contractor to come in costing us a combined $345. The contractor came in to produce an estimate of structural repairs in the basement.  This estimate would be used to negotiate with the seller.

The contractor was on site for a couple of hours where they and I went over the basement pointing out the locations indicated in the report from our inspector.  The support structure in the basement was covered with insulation but the contractor viewed what he could and took measurements.  I took him to the attic as I wanted him to produce a secondary estimate for vents to be installed (that I asked to be kept separate from the sellers estimate).

On August 13, 2011, the evening after the visit, the following was submitted:
1.      Remove and replace up to 12 linear feet of front left sill.
2.      Remove and replace up to 14 linear feet of left side front sill.
3.      Remove and replace two joists in this area that run parallel with the street (6x6x~12’).
4.      Remove and replace up to 9 linear feet of beam in this area (running perpendicular to the street).  Install footing and vertical where the new beam joins the old one.
5.      Set up supports and remove two existing screw jacks in the cellar near chimney. Dig new footings and install concrete filled lally columns.
6.      The beam on the back side of the chimney has sagged and there is separation between it and the beam it intersects with. Install 2x6 oak underneath it.  Dig two footings and install concrete filled lallys.
7.      The chimney beam on the right side is rotted and broken over the opening. We will attempt to replace but if it becomes apparent that this will cause damage, we will put a horizontal and verticals underneath it. 
8.      The diagonal members supporting the hearths have damage. Either sister or install verticals as needed.

The cost of labor for the above work is $10,680.00.  Materials and supplies are extra and should be about $2,640.00.  A deposit of $1,100.00 is required to be scheduled.  Payment is to be in two parts with final payment due in full upon completion.  See conditions.  Any damage to the chimney/hearths is not included and is the responsibility of the homeowner.
This work totaled $13,320.  A second estimate was given for the work in the attic:

1.      Install square gable end vent on each gable end of the house as discussed.
2.      Sister two tie beams in the attic. 
The cost of labor for the above work is $835.00.  Materials and supplies are extra.  Payment is due in full upon completion.  This estimate is only valid if done in conjunction with the structural work. 
Since we were dealing with the seller's money, I was unable to personally provide the full $1,100 deposit.  I suggested that instead, we use the labor cost of $835 for the attic work as the deposit since that work is coming out of our pockets.  They agreed and we were scheduled for an October start date.  Since we sent in our deposit before a set date, we were given a $250 coupon.


A couple weeks passed and I hadn't heard much from the contractor.  I took a couple photos of the home's exterior and emailed it asking if they wanted me to trim back the bushes or tree allowing them more working area.  Their response was simply that if we did not want to, they don't mind.  And only that the EPA requires a 10 foot plastic ground cover around all areas exposed to construction for lead protection.


By this point, however, I still haven't heard anything about a start date.  I was beginning to get worried that their schedule wasn't keeping in mind that I have checks made out in their company's name that have an expiration date.


(Name),

I may be mistaken but I don't think you told me when (company name) plans on starting.

Due to the negotiations and to make the bank happy, as well as to allow you full access to the property, (company name) has priority. And because of that, we'll have two other contractors waiting to start after you finish. All contractors are being paid via checks issued by our lawyer. Checks expire... So, please kindly advise me as to your anticipated start date.

Thank you,
Steve

I relayed this to them on October 12 and I did not hear back until October 17, when they wrote:

Hi,
We will be there Thursday morning. We will be bringing our trailer which will be staying there for the duration of the project. Please leave room for us to back it into the driveway. Thank you. (name)

I guess money talks...

Here are photos of the condition of the beams in the basement prior to the contractor's work:

1.  Overall view of the floor structure below the future library, viewing southeast.

2.  Overall view of the floor structure below the future library, viewing south.

3.  Closeup of rotten and insect damaged joists, viewing east.

4.  Closeup of rotten and insect damaged joists, viewing northeast.

5.  Closeup of rotten and insect damaged joists, viewing east.

6.  Closeup of rotten and insect damaged joists, viewing northeast.

7.  Closeup of rotten and insect damaged joist connecting to the sill, viewing northeast.

8.  Closeup of rotten and insect damaged joists, viewing southeast.

9.  Closeup of rotten and insect damaged sill, viewing east.

10.  Closeup of rotten and insect damaged sill, viewing south.  Notice the rat poison white bag peaking out by the wire, behind the brick.

11.  Closeup of a prior repair showing the lally column supporting a hearth support beam and joist with the mortise and tenon visible, viewing east.

12.  Diagonal support for the old kitchen fireplace above, viewing south.

13.  Overview of chimney foundation showing existing lally columns, viewing northeast.  The black columns to the right are temporary supports.  Temporary really means non-existent.

14.  Overall view of the old kitchen fireplace supports, viewing northeast.

15.  An old exhaust flue or perhaps even a makeshift fireplace.  The wood beam above it runs through the brick/stone foundation as one solid piece of wood.  The beam is weakened and is sagging.  Viewing south.

Click HERE for Structural Repairs, Part II.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Curious Electrical Issue

I just received my new bathroom vent fan!  I cut open the box and studiously read the manual.  The directions said that I needed a "dedicated 20 amp breaker".  I have no idea what breaker is assigned to the bathroom.  Ok, a trip down into the basement is needed.  I open the electrical box and behold:

No lables?!  That just makes things a bit complicated. My wife and I spend the next hour going over switch by switch.  I delegated her to turn on all the lights and carry around an old plug in alarm clock for the rooms that have no hard wired lighting.  We each had an iPhone that we used in Facetime mode.  As I flipped each breaker to off, she would go room to room to find what was still on and what was out.  This method solved several of the unknown labels (especially when I kept accidentally turning off Breaker No. 4, turning off our WIFI, no WIFI = no Facetime) but a few of the breakers are still unknown.  And more alarming is that with all the breakers off, half of the lights in the kitchen were still on.

Here is what was figured out:

Breaker
1.  20 Amps - Unknown.
2.  15 Amps - Unknown.
3.  20 Amps - Unknown.
4.  15 Amps - Second Floor: South Two 
              Bedrooms.
5.  20 Amps - First Floor, Library.
6.  15 Amps - Oil Furnace.
7.  15 Amps - First Floor: Rear Stairs, 
              Dining Room, Living Room.
8.  15 Amps - First Floor: Half Bath, 
              Kitchen Addition, Porch; 
              Basement: Lights.
9.  15 Amps - Second Floor:  Full Bath.
10. 20 Amps - First Floor:  Kitchen Light 
              Over Sink & Dishwasher?
11. 15 Amps - Unknown.
12. 20 Amps - Unknown.
13/15.  80 Amps - Cloths Dryer.
17/19.  60 Amps - Oven and Range.
14. 20 Amps - Microwave.
16. 20 Amps - Radon Pump.
18. 15 Amps - Attic.
20. 15 Amps - Master Bedroom.
21. 15 Amps - Unknown.
22. 20 Amps - Main Entry Lighting and 
              Exterior Front Lights.
23. 15 Amps - Basement: Electrical 
              Socket (Dehumidifier).

I guess I have to figure out a solution for the bathroom vent.  I wonder if I can use one of the "Unknown" 20 Amp breakers?  Since they do not control anything (assuming that is) then perhaps I can just feed a wire down from the attic and plug it into the breaker box.  I'll have to look into that.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

No Power, No Heat.

As I've mentioned in the November 5th post, getting a generator required it's own entry.

The first snow storm of the season hit on Saturday, October 29, while most trees still had their leaves causing numerous branches to break and fall on whatever was beneath them.  Your home, your car... the power lines.

The last one created the most inconvenient issue for many folks in our state.  Power went out on Saturday around 1:00 PM.  My wife planned ahead and boiled water making raviolis for dinner that night.  Not thinking that the power would be out for much longer than a day.  Sunday came, I went outside to assess the damage (see the previous post here).  Monday came.. then Tuesday (obviously), still no power.  With no power comes no heat and no hot water.  We can't cook or clean.  Temperatures outside were in the low 40's, not so cold, but inside the house, it was 10 degrees colder without heating.  Our breaths could be seen as we used our iPhones as lanterns.  We used the bathroom via candle light and placed candles within our fireplace to provide just enough light for the morning and night activities.  The mornings were the toughest to wake up to.  The coldness in the home was quite apparent while in the dark, cozy with our bodies heating each others' under six or seven (lost count) layers, getting out of bed was torture.  Even our cat, Oliver, snuggled under the blankets to keep warm.  

We couldn't use any of our five fireplaces due to the possibility of our chimney catching on fire.  The prior owner claims that she had the chimneys inspected and cleaned very two years, yet they are filled with cobwebs, soot and potentially creosote.  Using them would have been VERY risky.

Now for a more serious note.  My wife has a "condition" making her extremely sensitive to the cold.  As a husband, I had to make things better.  We went out to Home Depot and Lowes on Sunday, searching for the Holy Grail (aka Generator) and having no luck.  We called up several stores around the state with no success.  We then changed plans.  We started looking for alternative sources of heat but there were no camping equipment kits available.  Butane powered stoves were all sold out, electric powered items were out of the question.  

At the local Stop and Shop grocery store, on the bottom shelf, hidden like those little gnomes in crazy ladies' gardens, was a small batch of Sternos.  Eureka!  I grabbed all that I could (giving one to a passerby-er).  Came home and we had our first hot meal since the power outage.  Was it good, no, actually, it made my wife sick.  The idea worked well for re-heating food, but cooking from scratch, that was a bit challenging.

I had to do more.  I began to feel helpless for the first time as a married man.  My wife is suffering in the cold, she's hungry and there was nothing I could do.  My heart sank, depression became an everyday event and my mind began filling with anger. Jealousy was apparent as well.  The sounds of generators echoed everywhere but here.  There has to be something, must be, that I can do!

On Monday night, I was able to attempt an icy shower once since the storm (gross... I know I know) whereas my wife was able to shower at her job (the only shining light at this stage).  

You know that everyone is in the same boat when the normal greeting at work becomes "Hey, do you have power yet?"  

On Tuesday, a colleague and I were discussing our own issues regarding the storm, telling each other of how we're coping.  That same day I was able to find a store selling generators.  Well, that is to say, taking names and deposits for generators arriving later that week.  They were asking $2,550 for a Honda 5000 Watt generator and $2,750 for a Honda 6500 Watt.  Almost seems like a scalping.  I relayed my findings to my colleague and we joked about it.

Roughly thirty minutes later, my colleague motions me over.  He's a tall man, but cowers down a little, trying to keep his voice low (I work in a construction field so a low voice is a matter of perspective).  He says, "I know a guy who knows a guy..."  Now doesn't that sound shady!  It turns out that his brother-in-law is a lawyer who's client is about to return two generator's to Home Depot as he got his power back on.  So, through the grapevine, we jumped onto the chance.   I led the way with my GPS and we arrived at the lawyer's office.  In drove the client with two BRAND NEW and SHINNY generators in the back of his pickup.  We paid $640 cash for each, like an illegal trafficking operation in the back parking lot of a shady lawyer (but it wasn't).  My colleague spotted me the cash since I could not get to the ATM in time.  

So there we were, like two kids with the biggest "bestest" toys in the whole world on Christmas morning!  It was so exciting.  I bring my car around, pop the trunk... oh... ?  Damn thing is too big to fit in the trunk.  We take it out of the box and this 'bad boy' rides shot gun all the way home.

I get home and did not have a chance to take it out of the car when my lovely wife comes out with a blanket wrapped around her saying, "I'm hungry."  God, it breaks my heart.  But, there's a mildly pleasing bit of good news.  She tells me that a local restaurant is using a 125,000 volt generator with a refi-trailer keeping raw food cold.  They are open for business and are a couple blocks away.  That night, we spent $40.01 for two dishes of Chicken Marsala and we didn't care.  It was delicious, warm and filling.  And the wait was only 20 minutes.

Getting back to the generator, it sat hidden at the entrance to my rear porch awaiting it's first breath of pure power.  Looking at it, I noticed that I need parts.  I needed what looks like a twist plug for the 240 volt source.  My plan, like many, was to back feed the generator through the 240 volt plug for the dryer, turning off the main fuse switch on the electrical panel so as to thwart any current feed back into the street.  It may not be 100% legal or completely safe but with a wife in her current condition, I was willing to risk it.  Well, I did not have the appropriate connection, so the generator sat in the cold as we likewise slept, yet again, in the cold.

Wednesday after work, I went to Home Depot to find the required plug.  I arrive at the electrical section and a sign hung from the plug accessories shelf reading "Twist Plug for Generator - SOLD OUT."  You have got to be kidding me!  I drove to the nearest electrical supply store, same thing.  In fact, the warehouse has been sold out since Hurricane Irene.  Now, WTF do I do?!  

I get home around 4:15 PM, with desperation.  I have a generator and fuel (which by itself is liquid gold during a power outage) but no freaking way to connect it to my oil burner.  I bit the bullet.  I decided to call an electrician, wary of the costs on short notice in an emergency situation.  The first two electricians did not answer but the third picked up and I simply asked, "I already know the answer, but is there anyway that I can have a transfer switch installed today?"  (For those that do not know, a transfer switch is the legal way to connect a generator to your fuse panel to power the bare essentials in the home).  He answered with a question of his own, "Why, do you have one?!"  Seems like I wasn't the only one not being able to get parts.

I explained the situation to the gentleman and boy was he kind.  He told me that I could remove the male end of my extension cord and connect it to my emergency shut off switch for the boiler.  Then, connect the 120 volt generator to it.  Walla!  Simple, eh?  I expressed some concern, having a bit of fear with electrical components.  The electrician understood and simply asked where I lived.  Turns out he was just five minutes away.  I feared a huge price tag coming, sucking it up, I asked him how much it will cost me.  He said $70.  For what I needed to get done, and the joy it would bring to my wife, $70 was absolutely nothing.  I accepted and he said that he would be right over.  Smiling happily, I thanked him and hung up the phone.

Less than 30 seconds later, the f-ing power comes on!  I turned on the heating immediately and went outside to wait for my untimely savor.

As promised, he arrived.  I told him that the power just came on and apologized for his inconvenience.  He did not once bring up the $70 but gave me his business card.  You can be sure that when I need an electrician, he WILL BE the first person I call! 

After he left, I went back inside our home, boiler burning away, went to the kitchen and I broke down.  I cried.  I mean I balled my eyes out uncontrollably.  Since Saturday afternoon until Wednesday at 4:45 PM, my stress level was pretty high.  And now, with that boiler rocking our home, nothing up until that point seemed to make things any better.

As I write this, I can truly appreciate our modern convinces, yet at the same time, be absolutely fearful of loosing them again.  As mentioned in the November 5th post, it is time for an alternative solution to heating our home.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Snow in October?

At work, it was rumored that there may be snow coming the following weekend.  Well, it was getting colder and there was rain that same week, but snow, in October?  I guess it's happened before, it is New England after all.  

Saturday, the 29th of October, comes and the snow was expected to start at 1:00 PM.  I figured I had enough time to make it to a local plumbing supply store to see the latest bathroom vent models for our master bath.  Driving home, empty-handed (out of stock), it started to snow.  As I pulled into our driveway I saw the left over mounds of leaves that I lazily did not finish raking the previous night.  So, in the snow I raked.  My wife thought I was insane and took a photo of me raking snow with some leaves. 

I honestly do not mind the snow.  I like it actually; however, this snow came at the wrong time.  The trees haven't leaved entirely and the snow was quite sticky.  With so much surface area to cling to, the snow just overloaded many trees in our area.  With the overloading comes "snap...krackle... and POP!".  It was a disaster.  Our property was hit with several broken limbs, toppled tree, sagging branches, but other areas had greater problems.  Huge mature trees lost massive branches cutting powerlines in two.  We personally lost power that Saturday afternoon around 1:00 PM.  Power was not restored until Wednesday at 4:45 PM.  As long as we were without power, we were lucky.  Others in this state are still without power as of this blog posting!

video 

During the night of the snow storm and the following morning, a constant crackling sound could be heard echoing throughout the valley.  The video above is a quick 13 second clip of what it sounds like.  This was one large branch falling just feet from our rear porch.  The sound heard was repeated thousands of times everywhere in the state.  This was mother nature at her best (worst?).  It was her way of pruning her deciduous trees. 

Take a look at the photos of our property, and believe me, we fared better than others...






All plans are on hold now.  I was going to get the bathroom vent installed as well as trim back some trees and rake some more leaves.  But when you have no power (which means no hot water) and no food (all rotten), your priorities change.  My wife has a short term medical condition and a lack of heating and food compounded it.  We couldn't get food.  Well, we could, but it all required prepartation.  With no power for our electric stove, that was rather pointless.  So, I got some Sternos.  I used them to make ourselves a quick pasta dinner, that my wife hated yet ate.  Now, the thought of pasta makes her cringe. 

Not to be gross, but I could not shower for three days.  Freezing cold water in a drafty home is not a good combination for a cleansing shower.  Luckily, my wife was able to shower at her work where they were not hit as hard and had showers for the employees.  I, unfortunately, do not have that luxury at my place of employment.  I sucked it up on Monday night and showered by candle light... in a cold bathroom, with a drafty window, with no heat and COLD water.  They say that when you get really, really cold, your body numbs itself and the brain starts to make you feel warm... "so cold that you get warm."  I believe it's true.

Speaking of priorities, what does one do when the heating system is out?  When you have plenty of oil, but no power to start it up?  Well, the only alternative is to get a generator, which escapades I'll save for another post.  Imagine trying to get something that is worth so much in times of need, but worthless the rest of the year.  Stores never stock enough of them and desperate people do desperate things during trying times. 

This event makes you think of how the original owners lived in this home back in the 18th century.  My wife and I can truly appreciate the modern conveniences that we all have today.