Aerial View

Aerial View

This past week the roofing project started.

roofing underway

This took a little longer to get to than anticipated, largely owing to product (wrong color shingles came in) and weather issues. Thus far things seem to have gone off without a hitch. As the old shingles have come off, and the new ones gone on, there have been no concerns expressed about the solidity of the roof underneath. I’ve spent my fair share of time in the attic area, and I do look at the roof when I’m up there - seems reasonable to take that opportunity when it presents - and I’ve never found evidence of issues.

And the new shingles look good, so there’s an aesthetic improvement as well as a practical one. And, of course, now we don’t have to worry about the roof for the next 20-30 years or so.

(I’ll add a picture or two of it post-shingles here in the near future. I planned to take them this morning, but the fact that it is snowing in the middle of April has temporarily foiled that plan)

I feel like I should want to say more about it than that - such a costly event feels like it should be something about which considerable commentary could be made. But the reality is that getting a new roof done is like getting socks for Christmas.

However, having the roof done also provided the opportunity to have the old TV antenna taken down.

Aerial View...

I knew the roofing crew wouldn't want to work around it if they didn’t have to, and it’s been on my list to remove for quite some time. Several years ago, when I had to remove the satellite antenna for Wildblue I had planned also to go up and take down the TV aerial. This was a reasonable confluence of events because the height of the house is such that it takes a special extra-long extension ladder - which I had to borrow - to get up there. So, you know, two birds with one stone. However, I’ve never really been a "ladder" guy, and the 10 minutes on an extra-long one, with all the bounciness that entails, while removing the satellite antenna turned out to be more than enough for me. So it waited.

For those old enough to remember working with these old antennas, this was one of those deals with the motor on it to change orientation. I grew up with these out in the country, and it meant that watching your desired shows required you to have some knowledge of the relative geographic locations of the stations you wanted to watch. For example, if you wanted to watch Mr. Mustache you needed to turn the dial for the antenna to north. If you wanted to watch Son of Svengooli, tho, it needed to be oriented to east by northeast.

And, to be clear, saying "turn the dial" really makes it sound all too simple. Because you were activating a electric motor that ratcheted the antenna on an axis set with detents (one assumes to keep it from moving in the wind). This means that you turned the dial and waited, listening to it move:

Me: turns the dial to north

Antenna: rrrr-click-rrrr-click-rrrr-click-rrrr-click

Me: looks at tv, picture still not quite clear. Turns the dial a little more.

Antenna: rrrr-click-rrrr-click

And heaven forbid you turn it too far. Then you have to go all the way back around to the right spot.

That’s right - you really needed to plan ahead and get your antenna oriented before your show started, or you might be plagued with static for the first few minutes of the show. Kids today really don’t understand the struggle of the late 70’s rural childhood...

That antenna has been mounted to the roof literally my entire life, or at least the entire portion of it for which I’ve been aware. It could realistically have been there longer still. But it never looked right. This is not something I would have thought about as a child - it was simply always the way it was, from that perspective. But as an adult, coming back to the house, it looked really out of place - a piece of late 20th century sitting glaringly on top of my mid-19th century home. That might be forgivable if it were useful - I do have an antenna for our internet service on the edge of the roof still - but it wasn’t. The motor is long since gone, and all of our viewing in this day and age is through other means.

So now, at least, the roofline looks a little more like it once did. I don’t have any expectation that it will ever return to its actual 1865 appearance - that would require pulling down one chimney and putting two additional ones back up through the roof:

two chimneys, no waiting

And that seems excessive...

Raising the Roof

It’s been a while, but we are about to embark on the next improvement/maintenance project for our old Homestead - replacing the roof.

Not the whole roof, mind - just the shingles. Or at least, that’s what I’m hoping.

As projects go, this is one of those that falls into the need rather than the want category, and as such it’s a little hard to get terribly enthusiastic about it. I mean, how does that work?

Me: Woohoo! We are getting new shingles on the top of the house! It will be so great to... look at them... from the ground... where it’s hard to see them... I guess...

Still, it’s something that time - and the insurance company - seems to have decided should be tackled. It is a thing that I’ve thought about over the years, realizing that it would be coming along as a need at some point. In my more fantastical modes I’ve fantasized about perhaps doing a set of solar shingles through Solar City - and even suggested that Elon Musk might want to use our home as a real-world durability test.

Of course, that’s because getting Elon to jump at that opportunity is the only way we could afford it. I love the idea of using shingles to generate electricity, but given the cost of solar shingles, I believe we would recuperate our expenses in approximately 750 years. (This may not be an entirely accurate calculation)...

So - you know - not as financially practical as one might hope.

According to my uncle, who installed it, the current shingle job is somewhere around 30 years old, so it’s done it’s job admirably. This is particularly true when one remembers that we do live in a wind farm (hence the durability test - Elon? Hello?). I’ve been in the attic many, many times during our stay here at the Homestead, and I can verify that the roof appears to have remained watertight. Still, every such product has a lifespan, and it’s clear this one is at its end.

I’ve done roofs before, but honestly did not consider doing this one myself (by which I implicitly mean with help from friends and family). Our house is just... tall. I mean really tall. To get to the roof I have to borrow extra-length extension ladders. And let me tell you, if you are not someone who regularly works on a ladder, being at the top of an extra-long one is not a place of confidence. (Yes - those of you who routinely work in construction can count me as a weenie on this one - I can’t argue the point).

So next week we’ll have folks out here stripping away the old and putting on the new. While it really isn’t an exciting project on its own, it does address an area of basic maintenance that, once complete, gets an area of concern out of the way for an extended period of time. With the roof completed we won’t have to think about that for quite a while, and can return focus to other things.


Sinking In...

Our old house was built in 1861. The kitchen, however, is considerably newer...

...It was remodeled in the 1940’s.

To be fair, the appliances are not from the 1940’s - the oven and stove are not new, but are certainly of a more recent vintage than the cabinetry and countertop. The refrigerator is a newer item that we purchased when we moved in.

Shortly after we moved in we also installed a new faucet on the old double-basin stainless steel kitchen sink. This was done in an effort to somewhat modernize the equipment we were working with, and we chose a Moen faucet with a pull-out head that had stream and sprayer settings. Moen is a brand we’ve had good luck with in the past, but this particular faucet was a disappointment. The head piece began to leak at the bottom of base intermittently a couple of years into owning the faucet. At first this only happened when the screen filter inside of it needed to be cleaned out, but it ultimately persisted even when the filter was clean, and/or when it was replaced with a new one.

The bigger part of the problem was the process of discovering the faucet to be leaking. The design of the faucet has the base of the head sitting at a downward angle in the base of the faucet, and that base is open to the cabinet below. This meant that wet feet were often the first sign that it was leaking - wet because the water was now trickling out of the cabinet below the sink and onto the floor. Ultimately we ended up leaving the faucet head pulled out all of the time to avoid this problem:

bad faucet

This solution was not a triumph of ergonomic design, to say the least.

We had been reluctant to purchase new items for the kitchen one at a time, hoping instead to wait and do a larger kitchen remodel. That’s still in the long-term plans (1940’s, remember), but it was clear something needed to be done here. MLW and I headed out to Menards to seek out candidates for a new kitchen faucet and ended up coming across an all-in-one sink and faucet combination by Tuscany.

new sink?.jpg

We cook at home frequently, and MLW and I usually cook as a team. When one is doing this in our 1940’s kitchen, one quickly realizes that, like most kitchens of the era, it was designed around the idea that one person would be doing the meal preparation (that one person was specifically my Grandma Marie, who expertly navigated this kitchen despite its limitations). Though the kitchen is, by far, the single largest room in the house, the amount of counter space to work on is limited, and it typically leaves at least one person re-purposing the kitchen table for food preparation.

This setup offered a number of options that looked like would work well for us, and would address some of those space issues, including a colander for cleaning veggies, and a cutting board that sits in the basin. The included faucet was also very consistent with the types of designs we were looking at.

The measurements on the sink were a little bigger than the one it would be replacing, so we made the call to have an installer look at our setup before buying the kit. The folks from Triple Service were very helpful both for this, and when it came time to do the installation (I know how to install a sink in theory, but I’ve learned the value of letting an expert handle this sort of thing over the years - what would take a skilled installer a couple of hours would take me at least an entire weekend of sweating, swearing, and bloody knuckles; An entire weekend during which we would not have use of a kitchen sink...).

We were pleased with the result:

Happy new sink

We did make one modification from the kit. It came with a built-in soap dispenser, but we elected to keep our hard water drinking line. MLW picked up a small gooseneck faucet to go in that spot, which matches nicely with the main faucet.

We got a chance to try it all out last night with one of our Blue Apron deliveries. So far, it seems to be working out very nicely.

Of Shed Roofs and Holes...

For the past couple of years we’ve had a very large hole in the roof of our shed.

Hole in Roof

It was there for the hole winter

Like most rural residential properties in Illinois, we have outbuildings in addition to the house itself. Like most such properties of similar age to ours - that is to say, 150+ years of age - those buildings vary considerably in terms of condition.

I’ve written before about the old barn, which is slightly younger than the house itself. It was in a state of decay when I wrote that, and it continues to insist on embracing entropy. In addition to the barn, we have two other outbuildings - a small garage, and the aforementioned shed.

The garage is a smallish building - probably technically a car-and-a-half in size - into which we manage to stuff our two, smallish Honda Fits. This is an exercise in automotive yoga, involving parking one of the two cars - mine - so closely to the wall of the building that it is physically impossible for a human being to enter the vehicle from the passenger side. Prospective passengers - my wife and child primarily - must wait outside the building while I back out before they can enter the vehicle. This mostly works out fine - I almost never fail to stop and let them in, virtually never drive off having forgotten them...

Despite its smallishness, the garage also does the heavy lifting of housing most of the things we care about enough to care for them but, you know, not enough to bring them into the house. The cars, the bikes, spare lumber, dog food, and so on.

The shed is a much larger building. It is a pole structure, sided in corrugated steel. Growing up out here we called these "machine sheds" or, sometimes, "Morton Buildings". "Morton" is a brand name, suffering here in the Midwest the same fate as "Xerox" and "Kleenex" have nationwide. There is nothing on the building to indicate that it was manufactured by the Morton company and yet, on multiple occasions I’ve been heard to utter than name in relation to it. More recently, however, I’m sure much to the relief of Morton Buildings, Inc., I’ve just been referring to it as "the f&%king shed".

And this takes us to where we started: there was a hole in the roof of the shed.

While the majority of the building - both sides and roof - is covered in corrugated steel, it did feature skylights made of translucent fiberglass. I wouldn't have actually known they were made of fiberglass, but Mother Nature felt it important to educate me, and so chose to rip one of the panels off in a windstorm, providing me the opportunity for close inspection of pieces of it down on the ground.

Now, I’m all for gaining knowledge, and I don’t want to seem unappreciative, but this lesson had a rather permanent effect upon the weather-tightness of the building. Perhaps Mother Nature could, in future, email me a link to a Wikipedia entry or something...

The process for addressing this took longer than one - particularly if one is me - might have expected. First up was a call to the insurance company in hopes that repairs to the building might be covered. Unfortunately, they pronounced the repair costs to be below our deductible, and drove off with their checkbook secure and unmolested.

Not expensive enough for the insurance company isn’t the same as inexpensive, however. Given this, and given the fact that most of our items of value were already stored in the garage (even with a roof fully sealed against the elements, the dirt floor of the shed is not ideal for longevity of stored items), we moved the few other items in there away from under the roof opening and started to save up.

Once we were ready to get the roof repaired, early exploration of this found a new area of concern. As I mentioned, there is no indication on the building to suggest that it is a Morton Shed and, in fact, no indication on it (that I can find) of its manufacturer at all.

And - not only am I unaware of the make of the building, but I’m also unsure of its age. I know that it was not there when I was little, and that it had appeared at some point between when I moved away and when I returned. The progression of years is such that this seems to encompass but the briefest period of time, but reality insists that it covers a span of at least 15 years, if not closer to twenty.

I am not always a fan of reality.

This wouldn't seem much of an issue to the casual observer, but it turns out that corrugated steel siding comes in multiple, subtlety different shapes and designs. What this means is that matching the pattern on the building becomes a challenge. The pattern on our shed looks like this:

Shed Pattern

When first informed of this issue I thought perhaps of repurposing sections of siding that appeared on the old barn. Two different types of siding had been added there over the years, likely in both cases to better seal it up against the elements and extend its lifespan.

The Barn white siding

The Barn steel siding

However, given the barn’s decaying state and, perhaps more importantly, it’s ongoing engagement in providing aid and comfort to the enemy, I would have been willing to repurpose those sections. And you’d think, being on the same property and all, that they’d perhaps be the same type of siding...

You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. And of course, by "you", here, I mean "me".

Shed again

Barn White up close

Barn steel up close

If you look up close and personal at those pictures you’ll see that the patterns do not match. Whether this reflects a different era of product, different style, different manufacturer, or all three remains a mystery, but they are, in fact, different nonetheless.

And here I was learning so much about the diversity both within the world of corrugated steel siding, and within the bounds of my very property. The nature of these lessons were such that, while I originally thought them visited upon me by a gracious, if heavy handed Mother Nature, I found myself now wondering if they were not perhaps the work of the old gods brought over by my ancestors, perhaps the whim of Loki peeking thru...

Ultimately I was pleased to find at there is a way to cover the opening with a newer roof panel that does not match, exactly, but which will function to keep the elements out regardless. In fact, this could be done using new translucent panels that continued to function as skylights, but were not made of the fiberglass material that tends to become brittle over time, and do things like break off in the wind.

The shed guys came out and repaired the roof this past week, leaving it looking a little different, but now sealed - at least at the top - from the elements.

All sealed up

All-Too Invisible Fence

I do not usually mow the lawn - often this is a task that others either enjoy (MLW) or have inflicted upon them (LB), but I decided to give it a go today. One of the things I decided I was going to do with my mowing adventure was really cut in close to the edge of the property and trim back some of the tall stuff that tends to grow along the field.

Back in October of 2015 I relayed a situation in which my cousin had inadvertently cut our invisible fence line. After this event I had put in several steel fence posts as markers to provide reference points for him, and for myself, indicating where the fence wire was. I thought myself pretty clever for doing so and, in fact, my cousin hasn't encountered the fence since.

What I didn't anticipate is that I might later be a victim of my own cleverness and drive over one of those fence posts in my effort to trim close to the edge of the property. I was fortunate, however, to only roll over it with a tire as opposed to the more serious problem of hitting it with the blades (did I mention that I do not usually mow...?).

I chalked this up to life experience and largely forgot about it until LB fed the dogs and said "the alarm on the invisible fence is going off".

I'm not sure the swearing was out loud, but the volume of it in my head was considerable.

It could be worse, though. I had a rough idea of where I thought it was (around the aforementioned fence post), and I had purchased a kit to help find breaks in the fencing during the adventure in October of '15.

So I gathered up the items from the basement shelves and got to work. As I started the process of searching I became aware of a couple of things:

  • All of those teachers in elementary school who accused me of not reading all the way through the directions before starting a task were a pain in my ass. And, incidentally, they may have been right; and
  • I get very crabby when I think I'm winding things up for the day and a new problem pops up.

That second item isn't really a revelation, per se, as much as it is a periodic reminder.

At any rate, I gathered up my cheapie radio and telescoping handle and walked out to the area I thought the damage was, only to find it was doing nothing but bringing in local radio stations. I messed around with this for a little bit before finally admitting that it was at least remotely possible that I'd forgotten how the procedure all works since my single experience with it 20 months ago.

Turns out there are several additional pieces of paraphernalia, and some additional setup, that is required before you can detect your break in the fence. It also turns out, oddly enough, that all of those additional pieces were sitting on the shelf right next to where I'd retrieved the first couple of pieces. Who would have guessed?

As I noted back when, the repairs are fairly simple once the break is located and uncovered. Today's repairs, though, were somewhat complicated by the extensive colony of ants that had apparently made their home somewhere in the vicinity of my damaged wire. They were not shy about making their objections known:

unhappy ants

For the record, they were not just crawling, but also biting. As it all went on I'm sure I appeared the monster, since many of them would end up returning home on their shields...

It's all better now, though, assuming there is not some giant ant overlord coming for revenge...


One of the joys and delights of living in a 155-year old house is being able to routinely delight in the craftsmanship of a bygone era.

Of course, one of the struggles is that the very craftsmanship you are delighting in is, in fact, 155 years old and, as such, is prone to breaking.

This can be true on many fronts, of course, but of particular focus over the past couple of weeks has been doorknobs, and one door in particular - the one to LB's bedroom.

Most of the doors in the house have similar hardware - a mortise lock with white porcelain doorknobs and escutcheons). This style of lock means that every door on the main two floors has a door with both a sash lock and a deadbolt in it, the deadbolt operated by an old fashioned skeleton key. Every door - including the closets, the bathroom door, the laundry room door, etc.

Every door has a deadbolt in it, but only a handful of them actually work. In most cases this appears to be due to seizure secondary to age, the overactive paintbrush work of prior generations, or perhaps a combination of both.

LB has one of the two front bedroooms in the house. During my grandparents' occupation of the house, and likely for quite some time before, these rooms were not occupied by people. Rather, they held a vast array of generational cast-off stuff - things that, apparently, were unwanted but considered too nice to be thrown away. By my childhood they were not frequently opened and entered, except by occasional exploring waifs.

One might have expected this relative lack of use to result in the door hardware being less harshly used and, as such, perhaps better suited to withstanding a few years of exposure to the exuberance of youth. Alas, this does not seem to have been the a case. LB's doorknob had worked loose to the point that the jiggling of the handle would prevent the sash lock from catching reliably. I made one attempt, early on, to address this by retightening all of the various and sundry screws and attachments related to the handle (not all of whom seemed to be present and accounted for), but the success of this was short lived. Ultimately it was clear I was going to have to take things apart and effect a more complete repair.

Taking things apart is often a frightening proposition in a house of this age - it has a tendency to open a can of worms well beyond expectation.

In the case of LB's door, disassembling the doorknob revealed a harsher life for this door than I'd originally predicted.

Rough life for the old door

The number of gouges and striations in the area of the iron handle plates suggested that the door handle had been adjusted, and readjusted, multiple times over the past century and a half. It also made it clear why it was so hard to tighten it back down - there was virtually no wood left in which a screw could take purchase.

This wouldn't be a problem with a cylinder latch set - in that case, the two sides of the latching and handle mechanism screw to each other through the door. But the mortise lock is a large rectangular block of metal directly in the door - there's no going through it without potentially destroying the latching mechanism.

My solution, for now, was to head off to the hardware store (they say I "saved big money", but I'm never sure if I should actually believe them) and get dowel and wood filler, as well as additional screws. I used the dowel to fill the deeper, still intact holes, and the wood filler to bring everything back to more or less even with the door surface. Then I let the material dry and cure.

door with filler

The guidelines on the product said to give it at least two hours to properly cure, so to be safe, I gave it a week. Plus, you know, there's nothing more entertaining than listening to your teenager struggle with trying to open and close a door without a handle for several days. Also - it's remotely possible that I got a little busy...

In putting the handle back together, I discovered a couple of additional interesting features about the handle itself. Most of the handles in the house use a system in which backing plates go against the door, are covered by a porcelain escutcheon, which is held on by a threaded brass cylinder that screws into the backing plate. The handle on LB's door looks like this too, but it was hiding a secret. The backing plate on the inside was different - it wasn't threaded like the others, with a smaller inside lip, and the brass cylinder had been cut down so that it would fit into the new opening.

Hidden Differences

The cutting down of the brass cylinder could not be accidental, and one suspects that this is the result of a previous generation needing to replace the backing plate, and being unable to find a part that matched exactly. And, given that the room was virtually never entered, exactly was probably felt to be unimportant.

For our situation, exactly was the thing that was needed. I scavenged the backing plates off of the closet in my office - the door to that is never shut, as it is a pass-thru for electronics cables, and a previous tenant had already scavenged the mortise lock from it anyway. This seemed to do the trick, mostly. However, I found that the porcelain escutcheon would no longer fit on the inside with the scavenged backing plate. I have multiple escutcheons, and tried them all, but to no avail. In deference to the teenager's week of suffering, I deferred painting the wood filler for later, went ahead and put it together without the escutcheon, which is functional, albeit less attractive.

No Escutcheon

It don't fit no more

Shortly after making this decision I noticed that one of my ancestors had made the same decision previously, just across the hall.

it wasn't just me

This makes me feel a bit better, though I'd like it all to go together correctly. Still, at least the offspring now has a functioning door behind which one can pretend there is no one else in the house...

These aren't the first door problems we have had, and they aren't the only door issues that my ancestors have faced. We have doors where the screws in the hinges have worked loose - sometimes to a significant degree (the downside to pine as a building material), and a couple of doorknobs have been replaced by completely different handle sets. The door into the basement was clearly a struggle for someone:


The set on the inside is loose, as you can see, and will not tighten (I would not be surprised to find a very similar situation inside there as with LB's door). And on the basement side of the door:


The repairs required an additional wood plate, and it appears that a decision was made to caulk or epoxy the escutcheon against the wood, likely because it would not screw tight.

I haven't gotten to the epoxy point yet, but I can see how one might get there...

New Approach

As mentioned briefly a day or two ago, it's time for wrapping the front door again. This because the wisdom of siting your house at the top of a hill and pointing your front doors in the direction of the prevailing wind on the open prairie is something perhaps better understood from the perspective of a settler making a statement in 1861 than from that of a homeowner in 2016 who must face an LP gas bill... but I digress.

In previous years I've put rigid foam insulation across the entirely of the inside of the front doors. Our approach this year is different. This year the plan is to sandwich the foam insulation in-between the storm doors and the front doors. This will, hopefully, give us something approaching the the insulating capacity of covering the entire doorway without the ugliness of it all.

We have been re-using the same foam panels over the past few years. I was able to modify one of the panels to fit in the door opening. This was a bit more challenging than one might think. While it was easy enough to cut a single panel to fit in the space - ideal because it decreases the number of seams or weak points for air to leak thru - getting it into the opening between the double-doors was another thing. The space they offer when open isn't quite as big as the space I needed to fill. This left me with three potential options:

  1. Cut the panel and make it from two separate pieces.
  2. Take one or both of the doors off the hinges; or
  3. Try to gently bend the panel and hope that it doesn't break.

I went with option #3. Two separate pieces offers an entire additional cut through which wind can blow, so that was a no go. As for the hinges, well... when anything 155 years old is continuing to operate as designed, trying to take it apart and put it back together seems... inadvisable.

Long story short, I was able to gently coax it into place. A little bit of trimming was needed to get it all to drop where it needed to be, but it's in there as a single panel. Add in a bit of Frog Tape (which is gentle on the ancient paint), and we were ready to go:

Front Door

I put the silver side to the inside, and the white, painted side to the outside. This should look more like a regular door from the outside, and perhaps the silver will reflect some light back into the hall. The windows are frosted, so you can't see much of the lettering through them.

Now it's just a waiting game. As the weather gets colder and the winds pick up we'll see how this measures up to the more complete wrapping of the past. I don't expect it to be quite as good, but if it's close I'll be content with the trade off of having the doors visible and the whole thing less claustrophobic than in the past.

Solar Roof?

This week Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and Space X, announced a new product developed in conjunction with SolarCity - a new type of solar shingles designed to visually replicate the appearance of traditional roofing materials.

At first blush it might seem odd to bring this up here, on this site dedicated to living in and (very slowly) restoring a family home built in 1861. Indeed, I went back and forth between whether to put this here, or on my more science and technology oriented site. But this seemed the right place.

While our goal is to maintain and restore this old family home, it has never been with the intention of living a 19th-century lifestyle. We've been working our way through the replacement of the original windows, and with the help of the fine folks at Triple Service, have installed air conditioning and, more recently, a modern iron filtering system for the water supply. And, given that the house was originally built without either electricity or indoor plumbing, I hold that these modifications are consistent with the approach prior generations have taken to the Homestead.

All of which makes this new product very interesting to me. The prospect of using alternative energy sources - either solar or wind - has been something I've wanted to incorporate in the long-term picture for our home from the beginning. This is true both from the standpoint of being a person who is interested in these technological solutions for their own sake, and for the benefit they stand to offer to the environment. It's also true from the perspective of a person who owns a large, 155-year old home who must contend with the utility bills that home generates.

In addition, owing to our rural location, we are low on the list for restoration during power outages. In the seven years that we've been living at the homestead we've encountered at least one outage each year, and several of those have been for multiple days at a time. Because we have forced air heat and get our water from a well with an electric pump, a power outage also means a heat and water outage. This is a reality of where we live, of course - on the open prairie, in an area with high enough winds to justify a wind farm - but that makes it a reality it's which one must contend. Being in the position of generating some or all of one's own power becomes a very attractive option under these circumstances. If one can do that in a fashion that also complements the appearance of our vintage home, as opposed to looking like a modern-era tack-on, so much the better.

Another, very relevant detail is the quality and durability of the roofing material itself. Because of our location in the wind farm the traditional asphalt shingles that are used here struggle to maintain their protective position in the face of the gust. The descriptions of this material suggests that it is considerably more durable than traditional roofing.

This is all early days, of course. The product is not yet available, and there's been no announcement of pricing, though the stated goal is to make the cost competitive to the cost of traditional roofing plus utilities. Still, I think our Homestead would look quite nice with the Slate Tile panels on it. If the folks at Tesla and SolarCity are looking for a location which would provide a real-world, four-season, high-wind test site for their product I'm certain arrangements could be made...


My grandparents were the last inhabitants of our old house. They were not especially well-to-do, but my grandfather was handy. The combination of these two facts can be seen around the home. Probably my favorite example, which I touched on briefly in another recent post, was the repurposing of materials from the old bay window that was on the south side of the house:

Bay Window

At some point in my grandparent's occupancy that window began to leak, and my Grandpa Ray made the call to remove it and replace it. In its place he installed a large multiple pane picture window, which still occupies that space today:

Picture Window

This decision seems to have been a practical one - either the bay window was worn beyond repair, or perhaps to a degree that was beyond Ray's capabilities to rectify. In either case, however, removal of that item did not signify the end of its useful life.

Two of the windows, and their shutters, were repurposed. If you look closely at the first, older picture you can see that the house originally had an open porch entry into the back door:

Porch Close-up Old

It's since been enclosed, and a close look at the second picture shows that Ray repurposed two of those windows for service on that enclosed porch:

Porch Close-up Recent

And, not only did he repurpose the Windows, but the shutters continue to grace them on the inside:

Shutters on Porch

This seems again, eminently practical, as the porch windows face south, and the temperature in the space can otherwise heat up considerably.

This is all pretty straightforward, of course, but there is also at least one example of some real imagination and out-of-the box thinking:

Closet Doors

These shutters - which appear to be the same shutters as those on the porch - are serving as a closet door for the room that was once my grandparent's bedroom. Two of the shutters are fastened together on one side, and the other is free, to make a sort of double door.

I saw this closet door many, many times across the course of my childhood. It was so familiar to me from such an early age that I don't believe it had ever occurred to me to ask, or even wonder, why the door was made from shutters. Having been away for a while, and coming back, combined with having the old pictures of the house to compare against has given the the opportunity to begin asking, and understanding, about these things. In a lot of ways it helps me to better get to know my grandfather, who died when I was only six.

It also means that, with the closet door and the porch windows, seven of the eight shutters from the original bay window - shutters first built in 1861 - have survived to current day. This might seem a small thing to others, but to me this is a pretty cool thing.

When Your Invisible Fence Disappears...


When we arrived home Wednesday evening I pulled up to the garage door and hit the opener. As the door slowly rolled open I heard it: the telltale sound of the alarm on the invisible fence transmitter, indicating that there was a break somewhere in the fence. 

This is a more familiar sound than one might expect. 

The invisible fence is, overall, a wonderful thing. It was far easier to put in, as well as being less expensive, than a traditional fence. Its also much more reliable  as a means for keeping the dogs in the yard than traditional fencing, not having gates to be left open or spaces for the determined canine to work her way through. And, when there is a fault in the fence, it lets you know. 

But when it goes down, when that alarm sounds, it means it's time for a search. 

Our property is relatively small as rural spots go - a little over two acres. But the invisible fence circles the entire perimeter, which gives a lot of territory to cover. Fortunately, this particular break offered an opportunity to narrow down the area of focus. My cousin, who owns the farm land on three of the four sides of us, had plowed that afternoon. This meant it was likely that he'd accidentally clipped the fence wire with his plow. This had happened before, this past spring, and it seemed too coincidental for these two events to be unrelated. 

When this had happened before I'd gotten lucky. I walked along the edge of the field and came across the wires, sticking up out of the ground, clearly cut. Of course, that time I'd discovered it in the daylight. This time I was getting home at 8 in the evening, and the sun had long since set. Still, I grabbed a flashlight, put the dogs in their pen, and started walking the edge of the field. 

My cousin saw me doing this and drove up alongside with the tractor. He asked if I was looking for something, and I explained the situation. "Well shit" he said "I'm sorry about that". He helped me look for a while, but it was clear that we weren't going to find it in the dark. It's hard enough to tell, from looking and memory, where exactly the fencing wire runs. And each time my cousin plows or plants the landscape changes slightly, changing the landmarks in subtle ways. 

One might wonder: why is he plowing close enough to the edge of the property to hit the invisible fence?  And the answer is that the fence installer (yours truly) did not have the foresight to consider farm activity when he put the wiring in, instead opting for going out as far out to the edge of the yard as seemed possible. I didn't allow for a safety margin in that respect, and so the fencing is vulnerable to any mishaps with respect to plow placement. At some point I will likely need to re-run sections of the wiring to correct for that error - something that occurred to me multiple times as I was searching for the break - but for now I simply wanted to get it all back up and working. 

Even in the daylight it's hard to fiind things along here...

Even in the daylight it's hard to fiind things along here...

I gave up for the evening and took the morning off of work the following day to undertake my search in light of day. After multiple passes, even in daylight, turned up nothing, it occurred to me that I was not actually 100% sure where the line ran, and so could not be sure that I was actually looking in the right places for a break. It was time for some problem-solving - I am a man of science, after all. 

I started by digging a series of small trenches perpendicular to the fence in order to uncover the wiring (in the process of which, I managed to cut the wire myself on one occasion). I spaced these out in positions across the edge of the yard so I could extrapolate the position of the wire between them. Then I put down stakes and garden fence posts, and ran string between them to determine the line that the wiring was following. 


I felt pretty darn clever about doing all of this and, indeed, it made it clear that I wasn't always looking in the right place. In some cases, the wiring was several inches, and sometimes up to a foot or more away from where I'd been searching. And, of course, now that I knew where the wiring should be I could focus my search in the correct area which, of course, yielded... 

...Nothing. I still could not find the break. 

During all of this activity a colleague had texted me with an article about using an RF Choke and a handheld AM Radio to locate the break. The gist of this is that additional device causes the fence to emit a signal even though it's broken, and the radio reads the signal. In places where the fence is broken, the signal changes or stops. Amazon turned out to have a pre-made version of this available, so I ordered it up and planned to address it over the weekend. Given that we've had to address this issue more than once over the past couple of years, it made sense to have something on hand to more quickly detect the breaks. 

Wire Break Locator kit as it comes in the box

Wire Break Locator kit as it comes in the box

The kit that came contained, ostensibly, everything needed to find a break in the line. Unfortunately, the little transistor radio that it included - which looked to have cost approximately $0.23 to make - worked for about 30 seconds after I opened it. This send me on a different search. 

It really isn't terribly surprising, in this day and age, but it is fiendishly difficult to find a store that carries handheld AM/FM radios any longer. Indeed, part of the reason that I had ordered the complete kit through Amazon was that the original article my colleague had sent suggested that the reader "run down to Radio Shack" to pick up the parts needed - and Radio Shack has been gone for a little while now...

No place in town seemed to have radios, so I took a shot at Wal-Mart in Peru. I generally regard entering a Wal-Mart as an event equally as pleasurable as having a root canal performed, but I was desperate to get this project up and running. And, it turned out, the hated big-box store did actually have two different options for portable radios. The one I picked looked slightly more robust than the one that had come in the kit - perhaps costing up to $0.27 to build - so I also picked up some batteries and tried it out in the parking lot to make sure it worked before I headed for home. 

Neither of the radio options at Wal-Mart had an external speaker, so I had to go with headphones.  Does anyone else besides me remember that Memorex used to be an  audio casette tape company ? 

Neither of the radio options at Wal-Mart had an external speaker, so I had to go with headphones.  Does anyone else besides me remember that Memorex used to be an audio casette tape company

This is the setup you walk the fence using.  The handle telescopes, and the radio is attached to the end of it with zip ties.  Not very fancy, but it is effective.  Unfortunately, the headphones weren't quite long enough for me to fully extend the handle and still use them, and while I'm certain I have a headphone extension cord  somewhere,  I absolutely could not find it (of course), so I spent a lot of time hunched over while I was searching.

This is the setup you walk the fence using.  The handle telescopes, and the radio is attached to the end of it with zip ties.  Not very fancy, but it is effective.  Unfortunately, the headphones weren't quite long enough for me to fully extend the handle and still use them, and while I'm certain I have a headphone extension cord somewhere, I absolutely could not find it (of course), so I spent a lot of time hunched over while I was searching.

From there it worked like a charm. The kit put out a signal that the radio picked up, and I was able to find and repair the breaks - there were two of them fairly close to one another on the north side of the property. The repairs themselves, once you find them, are really pretty easy to perform, and there are few things as satisfying as plugging in the transmitter and NOT hearing the alarm going off any longer. 

Plus the dogs were happy because they could now run free.

Once you actually find the break it's a pretty simple repair.

Once you actually find the break it's a pretty simple repair.

Adventures in Plumbing

We rarely go into the basement.

One of the things that can be said about a 150+ year old house is that there is often little reason to want to spend time in the basement. We are fortunate in that it has relatively high ceilings for a structure of this age, and that a prior generation was kind enough to lay down cement over the original dirt floor. Despite these facts, it's not an inviting place. It's damp, dirty, and mostly empty, except for the utilities.

It was a fluke that I went down there. We'd looked everywhere else for a particular dog coat, and I ventured down the very steep steps to see if, perhaps, it had been left down there last winter.

I found the coat.

I also found a huge mess.

There was a stream of water running from the southeast corner of the basement towards the drain on the north-central end. That stream was being fed from a spray coming out of the pipe that exits the pressure tank. Prior to this I had been wondering how I would spend my Sunday off.

Now I had my answer.

This is not a welcome sight... 

This is not a welcome sight... 

It is amazing how much water a tiny little spray can generate

It is amazing how much water a tiny little spray can generate

As with most rural homes, we are on a well. The well feeds into a pressure tank, which in turn provides water to the rest of the home. The well is, of course, under ground, and the water enters into the house in the basement. Since water doesn't especially enjoy going uphill, the pressure tank's job is to encourage it to do so, ensuring that one's daily shower is a successful affair instead of an exercise in disappointment.

Most of the water piping in the house is copper. However, the segment of pipe entering, as well as the segment exiting the pressure tank is galvanized steel instead. Galvanized steel eventually gave way to copper in most applications, but hybrid systems like ours - a legacy to the age of the home - are not unusual in homes of this age. Galvanization allows the piping to last considerably longer than untreated steel would, but it does eventually rust and rot away.

In this case, it had rusted sufficiently to result in a hole a few millimeters across, just above a T junction, and it was spraying across the floor. As a bonus the spray was almost perfectly aligned with the side of the dehumidifier. We have the dehumidifier set up with a hose so it runs continually, but the spray had managed to fill the device's bucket, so it was not running either - the water had free reign over the basement.

I have the unusual good fortune to have been raised in a family of plumbing/heating and cooling experts at Triple Service in Mendota, IL. I spent many a summer - often against my will - serving as gopher and ditch digger to men very skilled in the black art of plumbing. In that time I did manage to learn a thing or two (thanks Dad!).

A thing or two. To be clear, whenever I would make mention of anything suggesting I might be considering going into the family business my Dad would look thoughtful for a moment - I believe he was thinking back to the quality and speed of my plumbing work to date - and say "yeah - you ought to go to college".

(Thanks again, Dad!)

Fortunately, this repair was within my less than artisanal-level skill set (with tech support from my Dad and brother). It involved only off-the shelf parts, and Stephenitch Do It Best Hardware in town had everything I needed. It did take me the better part of four hours to complete - I had to drive out to get the parts and move the water softener to get the pipes apart (and the whole time I'm painfully aware that my Dad and my brother could likely have done the whole job inside of an hour), but it all came together just fine.

It all makes me reflect - as I have many times in my adult life - upon just how valuable that time working as a plumber's helper truly was. I did go to college, and in fact ultimately spent a ridiculous amount of time there. Much to the dismay of my former teenage self my Dad proved to be right on this, as on so many other things.

And he clearly also knew that, no matter what you do in life, having some skills surrounding maintaining and repairing your home will always be valuable. My hands aren't plumbers hands - I have learned that I have to wear leather gloves every time I tackle a project like this for that very reason - but I can still handle projects like this, and that is an incredible bonus.

This event - and a part of our adventure with our extremely windy day on Valentine's 2015 - also illustrates a more practical concern. We are a small family, and this is a very big house. As such, there are areas that we rarely go into. Given the age of the house, this presents the very real risk of something failing and it being some time before we detect it. Clearly, we need to simply plan to check the "uncommon areas" periodically to make sure everything is okay.

Complete and leak-free. And yes, I did wipe off the excess pipe dope after I took the picture.  

Complete and leak-free. And yes, I did wipe off the excess pipe dope after I took the picture.