Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Water Main Leak Repair

Two weekends ago, Ian came up from doing laundry (with our new used washing machine) in the basement and mentioned that there was water on one of the pipes down there.  I had just been running the cold water (trying to make wine bottle planters, but not having too much success), so I made the hopeful assumption that he was seeing condensation on one of the drain pipes down there.

But, as you will have already guessed, I was wrong.  When I went downstairs a couple of days later to start brewing our first batch of compost tea, I saw the long trickle of water that Ian had been talking about.  It was coming from a rusted plug nut on the top of the main water line coming into the house.  BIG BUMMER.  

First of all, someone had used a steel plug in a water system, which is incredibly lazy, stupid, or both, because water makes steel rust.  Second of all, that plug had started letting a slow trickle of water leak into the basement, which wasn't great for the basement floor, and it certainly wasn't great for water conservation.  And lastly, it wasn't hard to imagine that leak getting worse some day soon and essentially letting a geyser of full-pressure water erupt into the middle of the basement while we were all at work and unaware.  It was obvious that I had to embark upon another plumbing project ASAP.

I managed to get all the parts I needed while on a break from work last Thursday.  The guy at the plumbing store very sweetly saved me some money by having me buy fittings that could be sweated (soldered) together, rather than threaded fittings.  Threaded fittings require thicker metal and more machining to produce, so they're much more expensive than sweat fittings.  He also took a guess at why a T fitting was used here where an elbow would have worked just as well: a place to drain the plumbing system for maintenance?

Since someone had used that steel plug, I doubt the T fitting had been used for any other reason than it's what the plumber had on hand.  But I did like the idea of a place to drain the system, so we kept the T fitting and added a spigot.

While waiting for Ian to finish showering and getting ready to depart on Sunday morning, I sweated all the pieces together that I could:

And after both upstairs tenants were gone for the day, I shut off the water, and went around the house, turning on a couple of faucets on each floor so that air could get into the pipes and allow the water to drain out the open garden hose spigot in the basement faster.

I cut the 3/4" horizontal pipe coming off the T fitting, and I disconnected the main pipe just above the water meter at a union fitting.  That allowed me to take that section of pipe with the rusty T fitting, put it in my work bench vise, and unscrew the T fitting with a plumber's wrench and my giant muscles.  Once I had it off, it was obvious that someone had tried to cover the steel plug with some putty from the inside to prevent rust.  There you have it: that plumber was too lazy to get a proper brass plug.  Jerk.

I cleaned up the threads of the pipe end.

And with some plumber's putty, I assembled all the pieces and put the pipe with the new T fitting into place.  I'm using a spare washing machine hose to guide water down to a bucket next time I have to drain the pipes.  This spigot is probably 7 feet off the floor.

It took some finagling and a little teflon tape to get the union joint to stop dripping.  In my experience, those union joints are always a little finicky.  But if I ever have problems with this section of plumbing again, I won't have to cut any pipes; I can just disconnect at the union.

After about an hour and a half, the water was turned on, I had chased down the one drip that was occurring with the new pieces, and a potential plumbing crisis was averted.  It cost me $55 in new parts and my own time.  If you think you always have to call a professional plumber, but you like taking on challenges and working with your hands, think again.  If I can do this, you can too.  Neat, right?

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Washing Machine Saga

In non-gardening-related news, our washing machine (a freebie from 2008, when Blue Man Group closed its costume shop in Red Hook, Brooklyn) committed hara-kiri.  See the huge hole in the outer drum?  That shouldn't be there...

I took the washer apart to try to fix it, but replacement parts would cost $750.  

Seven Hundred and Fifty American Dollars.

So I went down the rabbit hole of researching new washing machines, versus used washing machines, versus home made, pedal-powered washing machines, versus old fashioned electric and hand activated washing machines...  According to my own comparisons between reviews and Consumer Reports reviews, it seems machines can be found these days that are quiet and work well, but it also seems no one is making good and quiet machines that are also built to last.  The same machines that got the highest Consumer Reports ratings also had high volumes of customer complaints about the machines quickly breaking down or never working well in the first place.

I took a house-hold survey.  I was starting to get excited about pedal powered and hand washers, but Cindy and our upstairs tenant and friend, Ian, brought my head out of the clouds and overruled my hippie washing machine dreams on the grounds of time management.  Fair enough.

Cindy and I bought a used washer from a guy on e-bay for $200 plus the cost of a zipcar to go get it.  It makes a knocking sound when it agitates, which seemed to get better when I leveled the washer, but the knocking has come back again.  I've opened the front cover and can't see anything actually wrong with things as it's operating, so I'm going to hope for the best.  Plus, I really like this washer.  It's a top loader.  The old kaput one was a front loader.  As my grandmother used to say, "We shall see..."

Still, you should check out this video of a home-made pedal powered washing machine.  The couple who made it seem sweet:

I also stumbled on this video, which basically got me all excited about the possibilities of life:

Inspired by the above video, and wanting to salvage what we can, I'm keeping the old washing machine motor (for unknown future projects), I've turned the stainless steel drum into a fire pit for the back yard (we haven't tried it yet), and I took the glass out of the door for a mixing bowl.  I think I'm going to dismantle and keep the metal sides of the washer, too.  You never know when you might need some sturdy sheet metal.  Good materials are expensive and hard to get.  The rest (computer controls, all the plastic bits, the pumps, etc) is getting recycled, because it doesn't seem like there's a market for used parts for this machine.

In case you're curious, we don't have an electric dryer.  We hang-dry everything in the basement on two racks I made with a bunch of dowels and some scrap wood a few years ago.  Here's one of them:

By the way, that's the old washer (in pieces) on the left, and the new washer (under Ian's laundry basket) on the right.  I keep a dehumidifier running in the basement, because I don't want my tools to get rusty.  It also helps the clothes dry faster in the humid, Summer months.  And, with the top-loading washer, I can use the dehumidifier water in the washing machine.  Neat, eh?

Special thanks to Ian for helping us bring the replacement washing machine down into the basement.  And when I say "helping," I mean he did most of the work.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Quick Update on Keiter's Show

Cindy is past the half-way mark in the run of Doubles Crossed: The Ballad of Rodrigo, and she has gotten some very favorable mentions from reviewers.  More importantly, she's having a wonderful time.  Here are a two shots the production company made up with a sampling of the reviewer quotes.  I apologize if you've already seen these on Facebook; I'm really proud of Cindy.

Since I've done a lot of talking about the Paleo Diet on this blog, I feel I should mention that Cindy has lost 5-10 pounds since the top photo was taken.  Her costume makes her look a bit thick in the middle, when in reality, she isn't.  She's still watching her calorie intake, focusing on losing weight, and making constant progress.  I think I'm down about 7 pounds from when we started eating Paleo a few months ago; my weight has been dropping very slowly, but I'm eating whenever I want and as much as I want, so I'm happy.  And so is our Keiter.

If you'd like to catch Cindy's show before it's done (final performance on June 22nd), you can click on the link at the top of this post to buy tickets.  Woo hoo!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Wine Bottle Planters, Compost Tea, and a Garden Update - June 2014

I've been working on a post about the Lanikai Stage project, and I've got that ready to roll just as soon as one last video comes in from Hawaii.  In the meanwhile, I've been doing some puttering around the house (as usual).  Here's an update on the gardening stuff.

First, I have been doing some seed starting experiments with my wine bottle planters.  Over the past couple of years since I started making them, I experimented with using a variety of "soil."  I tried potting soil, but that stayed far too wet.  So I tried a mixture of green roof "soil" and smashed-up terra-cotta pots for drainage, but they were still retaining too much moisture in the top for most plants that I tried.  I remembered seeing some Grow Bottles at The Green Depot (one of my favorite stores) and reading on the package that they used expanded clay pebbles as the growing medium.  I've kept that in the back of my mind as I was doing these experiments, and since none of them was particularly successful, I finally bought some expanded clay pebbles (they're mainly used in hydroponics; I bought Hydroton, but if I ever need more, I'll be getting Growstones).

I sewed a bunch of seeds in my wine bottle planters and put them in the window - forgetting the basic rules about seed starting (keeping them in a dimly lit place being the main one).  After two weeks, only my friend Rosie's dill seeds had sprouted.  I moved those out onto the window ledge where they could get more sun, and a warm day dried them up and killed them.  Clearly, I now had a problem of not enough moisture!

So, I took a peek at the instructions online for Grow Bottles, and discovered they mix vermiculite in with the clay pebbles for moisture retention!  Well, I don't have any vermiculite on hand, but I do have some left over peat moss from when I made the hypertufa planters for the roof (click the link and scroll down to see pictures and read about the process), so I sprinkled that among the pebbles, sewed some more seeds, and have been spritzing them with a water bottle every morning and evening.  And I'm having some success!  So far, the eggplant, cucumbers, tomatoes, and (once again) Rosie's dill have sprouted and are looking strong.  Now I just need to give them some fertilizer.

Speaking of fertilizer, I'm making my first batch of "compost tea" as I type this.  Soil health is foundational to plant health, and plant health is related to Cindy's and my health.

Let me explain: healthy soil is not unlike our own bodies.  The human body is comprised of more bacterial cells than actual human cells (skeptical?  read this article from Scientific American).  Healthy soil is, we are learning, is also comprised largely of bacterial cells.  These tiny bacteria break down the minerals and nutrients in the soil so that they can be absorbed by plants' roots.  The bacteria create sort of a transitionary zone around plants' roots that is not exactly plant and not exactly non-plant (such a Buddhist concept!).  When we kill off the bacteria in and around our bodies, or we kill off the bacteria in and around our plants, we are interrupting ecosystems on the micro scale.  These ecosystems, actually known as "micro-biomes" are responsible for all sorts of mechanisms related to processing food (or sunlight and fertilizer, if you're a plant) as well as protecting us from disease (and pests, also in the case of plants).  This is a pretty great article to read if you want to know more.

Cindy and I compost our kitchen scraps, but our compost operation isn't big enough to make enough compost to create healthy micro-biomes in all the new potting soil and potted plants that went up on the green roof this year.  And the wine bottle planters don't have any nutrients in them yet either.  So, I'm making my own liquid fertilizer that is rich with aerobic bacteria by putting a net bag of compost (actually, I believe we originally received this bag as a wrapper for a bottle of champagne we were given), a couple of tablespoons of unsulphered molasses, and some water in a bucket.  I'm then forcing air through the water with some aquarium air stones and a used aquarium pump.  The molasses is a bit of extra food for the bacteria (like flower and sugar are for yeast when making bread), and the bubbles going through the water allow for the mixture to support aerobic bacteria (which are highly beneficial to plants) as opposed to anaerobic bacteria (which could be trouble).  A small amount of compost itself acts as the starter (think sourdough bread starter) - introducing the good bacteria to the water, which then multiply with the abundant food (molasses) and air.  Tomorrow, I'll put the compost tea in our new sprayer and spray it on all our plants and surrounding soil.

Here's the "brewing" operation with the net bag hanging off the handle and two air lines running into the bucket with the air stones bubbling away:

I learned about this stuff by doing youtube searches for "compost tea."  Although he doesn't tell you what type of yeast he's putting in his compost tea in addition to compost, this Alaskan guy is sort of an adorable coot, and I like his video: Compost Tea for BIG Vegetables.

In other Project Happy Life gardening news, I'm trying a new technique with the chicken wire squirrel protection up on the roof.  I started putting chicken wire directly over the soil around plants rather than upside down baskets over the plants, because now a lot of the plants are getting too big for the baskets.  It seems to be working, but there's more to do.  Here are some pictures from this morning's trip up to the roof to get my bucket.

The squashes are getting huge.  The watermelon on the left is lagging behind.

 The lavender is blooming!

 The row of seedlings on the West side are getting taller, and I have to sort out the chicken wire/squirrel problem this weekend.

 The artichoke is getting bigger.

 And the blue potatoes are off and running - again, another chicken wire problem to solve this weekend.  There's a zinnia on the right.  I kept it in the kitchen window for too long, and it got leggy.  Then I transplanted it to the roof and it didn't get enough water... inadvertent zinnia torture.

The hairy hens and chicks are getting VERY prolific.

The red sunflower is also getting ready to outgrow its chicken wire.

Tomato seedlings doing well.

Rosemary, fairy squash, and two eggplant seedlings. 

 And the green roof sedum are getting ready for their second round of flowers.

And on the left, you can see the beginnings of a chicken wire cage I'm making to protect the strawberries from the g. d. squirrels.

Anyway, hang on, all you plants!  Compost tea is a-comin'!!