Any chance anybody’s going to show up for work on Friday the fifth? Nah. For all intents and purposes, what lies before us is a four-day weekend. Truth be told, a whole lot of peopleincluding my own personal selfaren’t going to do a lick of work after lunch on Wednesday.
It’s a rare weekend when I can unplug my phones without guilt, but this is one of them. When I know I won’t have to work, I have my own short list of favorite activities:
♦ Dreaming, scheming, and telling fearsome lies to anybody who’ll listen.
♦ Working on stuff. Hey, no chance of hiring any workerboys for the weekend of the Fourth. Gotta take up the tools and practice some self-reliance.
What’s more, if I stick around the house, ready to respond to problems during a long weekend, I stay one step ahead of Walter’s Second Law of Breakdowns, which says: Planning a long weekend? Anything at your house that can break, will break the moment you get out of the driveway. (For your information, Walter’s First Law is, The thing most recently worked on is the thing most likely to get fouled up.)
This weekend, if nothing breaks down, I’ll spend most of my time hammock-swinging and daydreaming. On the other hand, after I’ve wallowed so long I feel like I’m getting a bedsore, I’ll engage in some preventive maintenance or fix-up work.
If you’re smart, you’ll get up off your bohunkus and get busy tooat least once you’re finished with the beer and the bed rest. It’s never too early to get ahead in the homeowner game. He who hesitates in the hammock is lost once the leaves start falling in October.
Running Hot, Running Cold
Keep that cool air coming
Here’s a weird irony: The same fine Americans who are only happy if their bushes are cut square are the same fine Americans who aren’t troubled in the least by a furnace full of rust and a dirty AC system. From what I see every day during home inspections, I’d guess that about two-thirds of the house dwellers in our part of the world have never had their heat-and-air systems serviced. With condo dwellers, I’d say the number gets close to 100 percent. (I’ve seen 10-year-old condo systems in which the original filter has never been changed.) After all, the reason you buy a condo is so that you don’t have to think about maintenance all the time.
Of course, this sort of negligence is just fine with the people who sell heat-and-air equipment. If you wear out your machine, they’ll bring you a new one from the warehouse.
Heat-and-air maintenance is pretty simple. In fact, it should be as easy as calling your trusty HVAC contractor twice a year and saying, “Come to my house and do the routine stuff.” If you haven’t called for your routine summer service yet, make an appointment for next week. In the meantime, a quick eyeball exam could tip you off to the top three heat-and-AC problems.
1. Water dripping into the furnace. Most furnaces around here have the AC coil on top. That means that, if the coil’s primary drain gets clogged, water runs into the furnace. This overflow can destroy expensive electronic parts, or it can rust out the furnace. In turn, a rusted-out furnace can fill the house with carbon monoxide, and that, in turn, can kill you. It’s easy enough to find out if you’re endangering your life: Just pull the front cover off the furnace and check for water or water stains.
2. Dirty filter. Just look at it. If it’s dirty, change it. (Home owners often forget that they may have a filter in the upstairs ceiling.) The more efficient the filter, the more often it needs to be changed. No filter should be left in place for longer than a month. Dirty filters cause the blower motor and compressor motor to work harder and wear out sooner. Motors are expensive. Filters are cheap.
3. Bushes suffocating the compressor. This is the No. 1 suburban AC problem. People who want to hide their A/C units (shoot, I’m proud of mine) plant bushes around ’em. In a year or two, the bushes can grow into the compressors and block the air flow. This entirely natural process cuts down on AC efficiency. What’s more, it can kill the compressor. If you want to hide your AC units, cut down the bushes and put up some latticework.
Fun with Fumes
Stripping, no teasing
When it comes to those paint-stripping projects you’ve been putting off, the hotter the weather, the better. A few summers ago, I stripped my front door, which is oak. It was coated with many layers of canary-yellow paint. I survived.
Here’s what you do:
1. Buy plenty (at least a gallon or two) of methylene chloride-based paint stripper. Admittedly, this stuff can burn you, blind you, cause brain damage, and maybe even give you cancer, but it’s the only thing that’ll do the job.
2. Set up your workpiece on a pair of sawhorses, outside, near the gutter.
3. Dress up in old clothes. Go for a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, gloves, safety glasses, and a cap. Put on a mask that’s rated for fumes. (Read the labels.) You don’t want paint stripper on youor inside you.
4. Using an old paintbrush (not a foam brush, it’ll melt), glob on plenty of stripper. Don’t “paint” it on. Once it’s globbed on, don’t disturb it. Let the stripper sit, undisturbed, on the surface until the paint starts to bubble.
5. Using a wide drywall knife (or wallpaper-stripping knife), scrape off the bubbling paint.
6. Rinse the workpiece with plenty of cold water. Let dry. Repeat steps 4 and 5 as necessary to remove all the paint.
7. Let the workpiece dry, then wipe it down with mineral spirits. Let it dry. Then you’ll be ready to stain or repaint.
Some years back, my buddy Jim worked in a paint-stripping factory. Now his hands shake a little bit sometimes. Jim’s doctor said he was definitely brain-damaged, but the doctor didn’t know how or why it had happened. The doctor said that, if Jim drank a beer now and then, the shaking would probably subside.
I’ll go a step further: As a preventative measure, I recommend a good imported lager or two, ice-cold, immediately after finishing a stripping project. It’s like the morning-after pill. At any rate, it couldn’t hurt.
Young Walter has an educational summertime experience
In the summer of ’63, I was really interested in manned space flight. I figured that, considering my excellent grades in science, NASA could use the help of a boy like me. So I experimented.
My specialty was bugged space flight. Sub-orbital.
Here’s how it worked. For $1, I could buy the biggest skyrocket at the fireworks stand. It had to have tail fins. A guidance system was a necessity. I discovered that, if I popped off the nose cone of the rocket and took out the two firecrackerswhich were supposed to “report” when the rocket reached its apogeethere would be room inside for a Chapstick tube, as well as a parachute made from one of my sister’s silk handkerchiefs.
I stuffed the Chapstick tube with cotton and manned the capsule with two roy-poly bugs. The combination of the padding and the bugs’ natural armor all but guaranteed a successful recovery of the crew.
At a buck apiece, and what with all the scrounging for empty Chapstick tubes and stealing silk hankies, these rocket shots were limited to a once-a-week launch schedule. Eventually, the budget ax fell; I didn’t have a dollar, and I had used up all the empty Chapsticks. It was time to reconfigure the vehicle.
I turned to my pal Van Harmon, who had worked with me on earlier projects, including the cave (boards and shingles over a hole, successful), a pine-limb-and-straw clubhouse (successful), a car (fell apart first roll), and a scrapwood glider (did not fly).
We had fuela box of M-80s we’d saved from our Christmas firecracker stand. We had a launch vehiclea foot-long piece of stainless steel pipe from my father’s metal shop. The rest we improvised. I sliced the top off a can of Raid and then taped the can to the top of the tube. Van taped an old medicine bottle to the top of the Raid can. We stuffed the bottle with cotton. But we couldn’t find any roly-poly bugs. Apparently, we’d decimated their population when we drafted earlier crews. A grasshopper would have to do.
We went to my front porch and carefully cut the ends off several dozen M-80s. I poured the powder into the steel tube. When it was full, I taped up the bottom of the tube and stuck in a fuse. The vehicle was ready. We just had to prep the launch site.
My father, Jabo, was dozing in his vinyl recliner. Nevertheless, I did my duty. I woke him up to tell him what I was up to. “Pa, we’re going over to Van’s to launch a rocket we built.”
“OK, boy,” Jabo said, and went back to snoring.
We walked four doors over to Van’s house and made a launch pad out of a piece of scrap concrete and a gantry out of a broken CB-radio antenna. We set the rocket level on two bricks and finished off the launch site by turning a picnic table over on its side to use as a blockhouse. Van crouched low behind the table. (His father had been in The War and had taught him foxhole techniques.) I loaded in the one-bug crew, lit the fuse, and jumped behind the picnic table. I kept my head up. This was serious science. Somebody had to witness the event and track the trajectory of the vehicle.
The rocket did not fly. The gantry flew, the concrete pad flew, dirt flew, and the bugged capsule flew. The entire square-mile town of Burnettown, S.C., rocked and rumbled.
First adult on the scene: Jabo, dust flying from under his pickup as he skidded to a stop in Van’s driveway.
I stood up to show him I was in one piece. “Mission failed, Pa. We haven’t recovered the capsule yet, but I suspect we lost the crew.”
The second adult on site was my uncle Guy, who worked at a strip mine. He quickly calculated that we had just exploded the equivalent of two sticks of dynamite.
After that, there was quite a gathering of neighbors, most of whom I didn’t know. Jabo stayed and talked to them, half-apologizing and half-beaming with pride at my work. I walked home. If Jabo had been the heart-to-heart-talk type, I’m sure he’d have given me one that day. But Jabo knew that I learned from my mistakes, and that I had gotten the lesson: Next time you set off a mighty blast, son, take me with you. I’d like to watch.
Dreams, plus commission
When it comes to cruising around town and looking at open houses, nothing beats a long, lazy weekend. You might just decide it’s time to buy yourself one. Who knows what interest rates will do after the November elections? Right now could be the best chance you’ll have this century to buy a house. Of course, this is true of every day of every year, since nobody ever knows what the market is going to do.
Still, there’s no better time than now to find out if a house’s air conditioning really works, and, if you ask me, that’s the most important thing.
If I’ve learned one thing in 11 years of home inspecting, it’s this: Use a real estate agent. Don’t just drive up to an open house, fall in love with the place, and whip out your checkbook. Buying a house is not a good do-it-yourself project. I know exactly how to pick out a house, inspect it, and buy it all by myself, and I still wouldn’t buy a house without having my very own real estate agent.
We’re lucky in our part of the world. Every day, when I check in with other home inspectors on the Internet, I find horror stories from other parts of the world where real estate agents try to cover up defects or cheat people in other ways. One real estate agent in upstate New York actually tried to assassinate a home inspector. Seems the inspector did his job and disclosed some defects in a house, and the buyers walked away. So the real estate guy, who had already counted his commission money, felt justified in driving up on a sidewalk, aiming the hood ornament at the inspector’s spine, and going in for a Cadillac kill. Luckily for all parties, the agent’s aim was poor.
When choosing your real estate professional, check references, talk to former clients, interview ’em like you would a biker who wants to date your daughter. But find somebody you can trust to find a house for you. The good ones can almost always save you time, money, and marital discord. And in this part of the world, they bring cold beer and iced tea on hot summer days.
The No-Fail Jowers Method of Pet Removal and Relocation
A few summers back, my buddy Lester was, as he says, “plagued by alley cats.” He had his beloved old Chevy parked on his own property, in his own 60-year-old garage. I inspected this garage before Lester bought the house, and I’m here to tell you, it could’ve been torn down easier than it could have been made cat-tight. Trust me on this.
Every night, the guilty cats would climb up on the hood of Lester’s car so that they could pee down the air vents. Some people didn’t believe this, because it sounded like a paranoid hallucination, the sort of punishment you’d get from a mummy’s curse. But Lester knew it was happening, because every morning, as soon as he turned on his air conditioner, he was hit with the unmistakable smell of tomcat piss. It blistered his nose all the way to work, and it stank up his hair and clothes besides. “I know it cost me at least one promotion,” Lester says.
Pretty soon, the cats started leaving solid proof that their crimes were premeditated. This was hard evidence that the cats weren’t just answering the call of nature. If they had just wanted to relieve themselves, they could’ve more easily taken a poop on the dirt floor. These cats were actively targeting Lester for insult and cruelty. So he had to fight back.
Lester is a retired musician, and he stays up late. But not cat-late. He and his wife lost many hours of sleep waiting to hear the tomcats in the garage. Every night that summer, somewhere in the 2 -3 a.m. range, they went charging out to the garage to cuss, shoo, and broom-fight cats.
But car-crapping cats are tough. And mean. They came back.
Lester responded with Boy Scout training. He redesigned a rabbit trap into an alley cat trap. He thought it out in three dimensions and drew the thing out on paper. One trip to the hardware store and few hours of rude craftsmanship later, Lester was the owner of an ACME KAT TRAP.
Lester and wife agreed on a strategy. Any known neighborhood pets, including any cats with collars, would be set free on the spot. All other prisoners would be relocated. The bait would be tunafish.
“I checked the trap over and over, every night, with a flashlight,” Lester says. His proudest moment, he boasts, was the time he “caught one cat with no bait. I saw him walk into the trap, and I ran outside and kicked it shut.”
After catching a couple of cats, Lester had to re-engineer the trap door. “I started out with a Velcro closer, but the big ones could push the door open. So I took a latch off an old kitchen cabinet. When it shut, it stayed shut.
“We relocated the cats to deepest, darkest Bellevue,” Lester says. “I figured they couldn’t swim the Harpeth to get back. If they could, I figured I’d just have to welcome ’em back home.”
Lester says the scheme worked well, and he has no regrets. In fact, the idea caught on amongst Lester’s confidants. Borrowing neighbors wore out the trap and, in the process, relocated a wheelbarrow-load of feral cats.
Right now, Lester’s worried that he’ll have to build a new trap, since a new back-door neighbor has moved in with a houseful of cats. “They’re starting it all over again,” Lester says. “Cat prints, cat pee, cat scratches on my pickup truck. My screen door is stained with tomcat jizz.”
This time, though, he says he’s gonna trap ’em, paint ’em with nontoxic, water-based paint, and release ’em on-site. That ought to clue the irresponsible owners that their cats are causing trouble. Otherwise, Lester says, these kitties are bound for Bellevue.
Seal Away (or Maybe Not)
Learning to love your rotting deck
Every day, somebody asks me, “What should I use to seal this deck?” I figure I hear this question so much because, every day, there are commercials all over TV telling people to use one product or another to seal their decks.
OK, people, listen up. If you don’t do anything at all to your deck, it’ll fall apart after 15 years. On the other hand, if you seal your deck every year, it’ll fall apart after 15 years.
Here’s the inside dope: Pressure-treated (PT) wood is permeated with various pesticides that make the wood inhospitable to termites or wood-destroying fungus. The problem is, once you start cutting into the wood or driving nails into it, you expose surfaces that haven’t been treated.
And wouldn’t you know, it’s the end grain of these cut-off boards that soaks up the water, and it’s the water that causes the deck to rot. You can “waterproof” your deck all you want. Even if you see the water beading on the tops of the boards (just like on TV), the waterproofer still won’t get into the board ends, at least not enough to make a difference.
Regardless of what you slather onto your deck, wetting and drying cycles, heat and cold cycles, and UV light will cause the deck boards to split and crack. This process just creates more exposed surface area, which is subject to continued attack from the elements.
Now, while I’m on the subject of sealants, listen to me: You people stop putting shiny coatings on your porches, walks, and driveways. I have actually seen stone walks that are so shiny they look like a pizza-joint tabletop. Personally, I’d be less embarrassed to have a family of cement gnomes in my yard. I’m telling you, there is something seriously wrong with a person who looks down at stone and thinks, “That rock just doesn’t look finished.” These are the same people who own toaster cozies, who cover their sofas with plastic sheeting, and who won’t wade in the Atlantic ocean because it “looks dirty.”
Finally, there’s this: That sealant stuff is slick. If you wreck the traction on your walking surfaces, you are inviting a personal-injury lawyer into your life. Any relationship with a personal-injury lawyer is bad for youand bad for America. Slicking up the deck is a very poor Fourth of July project. Show some patriotism; resist the Urge to Seal.
Getting high, keeping dry
As home-improvement projects go, cleaning the gutters provides absolutely the best payoff for the least amount of work. From everything I’ve seen, bad gutter maintenance causes about half of all house damage.
Here are some examples of gutter-guilty problems:
♦ Mortar washed out of foundation walls and front-porch columns. This deterioration leads to foundation cracks and other ugly structural problems.
♦ Fungus among us. Water running into a crawl space raises the humidity enough to encourage the growth of fungus on the wood floor framing. This growth then leads to “dry rot,” which is a goofy name for something caused by dampness.
♦ Slopy floors. Water runs into the basement or crawl space, causing the supports under the girders to settle. As a result, the floor sinks in the middle. Very common in older houses.
If you don’t mind getting on a ladder (and I’m not telling you to get on a ladder, because personal-injury lawyers walk among us), cleaning gutters is brainless work. Just climb up there with a garden trowel and scoop out the crud. Then rinse out the gutters. Watch out for wasps, though. If you disturb a grapefruit-sized nest of red wasps, and they launch a squadron to sear your head and neck with fiery pain, you will jump off the ladder. Check for wasps before you climb, and kill ’em with that special long-range wasp killer.
Here are a couple of things you don’t do to your gutters:
♦ Don’t install those gutter screens. They don’t work; they just let in smaller-size crud and delay the inevitable cleaning, which becomes more difficult because the stupid screens are in the way.
♦ Don’t install that metal gutter topping that claims to let rainwater in while throwing leaves and berries over the side. Believe me when I tell you that the leaves and berries will still get in, but a lot of water will get thrown over the side, leading to the problems described above.
Gutter-cleaning is not for everybody. Climbing a ladder is dangerous and is best left to those who enjoy dangerous work. But it’s vital that you keep the gutters clean. So, if you can find a reliable, insured gutter-cleaner, a sober one who’ll show up on time and not drip oil in your driveway, not leave butts in your yard, and not tear up your roof and gutters, put him on retainer. Send him a fruit basket at Christmastime. Buy him lunch. There’s nothing so rare, or so necessary, as a good gutter cleaner.
Walter takes a snack break
My gourmet-cook pal Allen tells me that the next big thing in outdoor cooking will be the use of Bradford pear wood for grilling.
“There’s nothing like it,” Allen says. “Mesquite doesn’t compare. Apple wood isn’t even close. Right now, it’s an insider thing, not too many people know about it.”
Well, I’m letting the cat out of the bag. And, lucky for us, we’ve got the world’s biggest store of Bradford pear wood right here in Middle Tennessee. If you don’t know what Bradford pears look like, drive down to Brentwood and take a look. Virtually every tree in Brentwood is a Bradford pear.
Whatever you plan to cook outdoors, from salmon to squirrel, the taste will be enhanced by the smoke from Bradford pear wood. If you have one of these trees yourself, you’re in luck. If not, locate one or two and get the owner’s permission before you harvest. The only problem: Limb wood won’t do. To get the full Bradford pear flavor, you’ve got to use low trunk woodthe closer to the ground the better. Stump grindings are best of all.
Replace harvested Bradfords with Northern red oaks, the acorns from which will give you a ready supply of squirrels. Yum!
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