Monday, October 27, 2008

Tiling a bathroom with Fyodor Dostoevsky

I don't write novels. Dostoevsky didn't write home repair manuals. There are good reasons for both. Neither of us felt compelled to state our reasons. Thankfully, Mark Crick has pretty much taken care of it for both of us.

This morning's Independent includes excerpts from Crick's latest book, Sartre's Sink. It's a DIY manual written in the voice of characters from famous novels. I highly recommend you check out the article in the Independent.

I found the item titled "Tiling a bathroom with Fyodor Dostoevsky" particularly compelling. Somehow, it magaged to capture precisely how I felt the first time I tore out old tile (mind you, I wasn't using stolen tools...borrowed, perhaps, but not stolen).

Herewith, a very short excerpt:


Tiling a bathroom with Fyodor Dostoevsky

Tools: Hammer, Spirit level, Scraper, Tile cutter, Sponge, Wooden batten, Tape measure, Dust sheet

Materials: Tiles, Spacers, Tile adhesive, Tile grout

For the first time, Pokoroff now opened the bag of tools he had stolen from the tool shed at the back of his lodgings and cast on its aged contents a look of flashing rage. "To think that I have been such a fool," he muttered. He saw now that the bag contained not the tools of his landlady, but those of her gardener. "This is exactly the sort of trifle that could spoil everything."

Feeling crushed, nay humiliated, he caught up the gardener's sickle and plunged its rusty blade behind the tiles above the sink. Long age and humidity had weakened the glue that held them in place so that they easily came away, crashing into the sink and shattering with a great noise. Their removal revealed an ugly rectangular patch of ridged and hardened adhesive. Pokoroff scraped at this in an attempt to render the surface smooth, but the glue, so ineffective at holding the tiles in place, showed more resistance at clinging to the wall. Using a stabbing action the worker saw that little chips of the adhesive broke off, occasionally flying into his face, and in this way he gradually succeeded in levelling the most irregular ridges.

The old woman, as is the way with old women who leave nothing to chance, had left a sack for rubbish and Pokoroff now began filling it with the debris. The jagged edges of the broken tiles were sharp and when he saw that a crack had appeared on the surface of the basin, he flew into a rage. How could he have been so unthinking? He might easily have placed some covering over the basin to cushion the fall of the tiles. With bitter disgust he saw that he had also managed to cut himself and that blood was dripping from his hand. It had already splashed his shoes and the floor before he thought to hold the wound over the open refuse bag. The thick red liquid dripped onto the broken tiles where the drops stained their white surface red. He grew light-headed and for a moment it seemed to him that the tiles were smiling at this benediction, until he realised that this was no chimera. Half buried in the detritus, the widow's false teeth came as a disagreeable surprise. In his haste he had forgotten to clear the room. "Details, details," he murmured and, looking up, he saw the remains of the glass that had held the teeth mingling with the broken tiles in the sink. Reluctantly he recovered the gory teeth and dropped them into his pocket. He then wrapped his injured hand with a rag and watched as the white fabric turned red.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Final harvest

It's nearing the end of October, already past Thanksgiving. The weather forecast is for a low of -2C tonight. To me, that signals time to harvest the last of my crop.

This morning, I picked the last eight large tomatoes and enough cherry tomatoes to fill a large collander. I'm hoping the smaller tomatoes will ripen and be tasty enough to eat, or at least to cook with. The larger ones have been disappointing. They have a pulpy flesh that's unpleasant. So they'll go in the pot and get canned for use in sauces.

I then wrestled the triffid-like plants from the ground and stuffed two of 'em into my composter. The other two will have to wait until the first ones compost down a bit. They're sitting in an unused corner of the garden to wither. I also pulled up the last two tiny carrots and chopped the chard, which has gorgeous, rich colour. I didn't pull the roots out, in hopes that we might get just a little bit more before winter.

Now there's just a bit of cleanup, a bit more digging and some raking to do before the long winter (I'm a little worried about where to put all the seedlings come spring, given the size of next year's garden). Oh, and I'll gather leaves from the front to spread over the beds. They'll mulch down over the winter and provide some much-needed humus.

For now, though, I've got a few pounds of tomatoes ripening, a drawer half-full of carrots and enough chard for a couple more meals. All in all, it's been a good first season.

Friday, October 17, 2008

New beds are ready

I'm enjoying a quiet night in tonight. Why? Because I'm tired. Today, I finished preparing three new planting beds for the spring.

This has been no small task. It began late in the summer, my neighbours (David and Alison) and I decided a weedy tree needed to come down. Alison and her dad took down the top, then she and I spent a sweaty day getting the stump out.

This summer, I had great success with my first bed, which I hastily prepared after moving in back in June. The tomato plants are taking on triffid-like characteristics, as you can see from the photo above. The rainbow chard has been producing steadily and is delicious. We got a couple pounds of carrots, and the lettuces were delicious, if a bit short-lived this year. So, on the back of that minor success, I've decided it's time to plunge headlong into urban agriculture.

The backyard proved intriguing. The worst part was wrestling the tree roots out of the ground. That made the first bed (the one on the left in the photo below) the hardest. The second (on the right) was a bit of work because, much to my surprise, there was a path made of 2'x2' patio stones buried about 8" below the surface. And about 3" of crushed limestone below that. The two beds are about 25' x 4' with a narrow path in between, so I can tend them without stepping in the beds and compacting the soil. I added another 15' x 3' bed below my back deck, too.

I dug down 18-24" to loosen, turn and mix the soils. Then I added some humus (I've just found a non-peat alternative that I will use next time, as peat moss is far from environmentally friendly) and dug it in. Next, I spread 100 kg of sheep manure (many friends have already commented how much this sounds like my professional life) and raked it in. I figure some of the nutrients will work their way down over winter. I'll probably scatter leaves as they fall, as they make good mulch.

Then I moved two rose bushes to the base of the beds. With simple trellises, I'm hoping these will soon screen the shed and composter somewhat. I'll be planting garlic around the roses, as they're said to be good companions. I also planted strawberry plants that my dad gave me, now that he's decided to stop growing them, and in the bed closest to the back door put in an oregano and a sage. Hope they survive the winter. Will do the other herbs tomorrow and cross my fingers.

So, now I'm relaxing with a pleasant stiffness in my body, and can begin dreaming about spring planting.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Installing a programmable thermostat

My apartment has an antiquarian furnace, and I'm doing what I can to squeeze energy savings from it this winter. Earlier this month I replaced the furnace filter. My latest project was to install a programmable thermostat.

It's a simple way to eke out energy savings, particularly in northern climates. The idea is that you'll set the program to lower the temperature when you're asleep in your cozy bed at night, or out at work during the day. The savings at night are the more significant, and in an older house like mine, will probably equal about 1.8 percent for every degree celcius I drop the temperature.

So, if I drop from 20C to 16C at night, I should be looking at savings in the neighbourhood of just over 7 percent. The savings will vary depending on insulation and climate, and the scenario is different for people with heat pumps. But I expect a lot of renters are in my situation -- old, poorly insulated house with a big ol' gas or oil furnace. For more information, there's an interesting paper here by Andre Plourde, a professor at the University of Alberta.

A basic programmable thermostat costs about $30, though you can pay plenty more if you want something fancier. I bought mine when a $15 rebate coupon came with my Enbridge gas bill. So really, I'm out about 15 bucks for the thing, and should easily recoup the cost. And it looks a lot nicer than the old mercury thermostat.

How to install a programmable thermostat
This is surprisingly easy. Most older furnaces have a simple two-wire system and the wires are usually colour coded. Read the instructions that come with your new thermostat.

The first step is to slip off the cover plate of the old thermostat. It just slides off with a simple tug.

Notice the bubble of silvery liquid at the top. That's a glass tube filled with mercury. This is a hazardous material, so remove the thermostat with care and follow instructions from your municipality regarding proper disposal. In my city, one can bring them to a Community Environment Day or bring it to one of the city's hazardous waste depots.

After removing the cover, remove the screws holding the thermostat to the wall. These will probably be small flathead screws. Then unscrew the two wires from the terminal. Be careful not to let the tips of the wires touch. You may want to wrap them in electrical tape while you work.

Next, follow the instructions for mounting the new thermostat. On a two-wire system, each wire should be colour coded and easily screw into an appropriate terminal on the new thermostat. Then slide the face into place as per the manufacturer's instructions.

Programming the thermostat
My thermostat has four settings for weekdays and two for weekends. The idea is that you'll set it to lower the temperature when you go to bed, raise it just before you get up, drop it again when you go to work, and make the house toasty for your return home. On weekends, it's a simpler program to drop the temperature when you go to bed and raise it when you get up.

In my house, it's set for 16C overnight and 19C during the day, though I sometimes go up an extra degree first thing in the morning. I don't set it much lower during the day because I work from home (a simple two-program thermostat would have done me fine, but I couldn't find one).

Best of all, the new thermostat looks a lot nicer than the grotty old one. Being green is important, but aesthetics still count for something.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Furnace Filters

Replacing a furnace filter is, in most cases, very easy and very rewarding. It will improve the furnace's energy efficiency and improve indoor air quality.

I say "in most cases" because, well, some jobs are easier than others. Most furnaces have filters that come mounted in a handy cardboard frame. Here's an example of one, in case you haven't seen them before. Manufacturers suggest changing furnace filters monthly during the winter, and most are cheap enough that this isn't an unreasonable request. For these furnaces, you just slide the old filter out, note its size, go to the hardware store to buy a new one and then slide it in. Easy-peasey.

But not mine. Oh, no, nothing so simple for the Green Tenant. The furnace in my apartment was installed in 1984 and doesn't have the handy pre-framed filter.

For mine, one must buy a roll of fibreglass material and cut it to size. Still, it's not hard.

First, open the bottom compartment of the furnace (usually they just slide into place) to reveal the filter chamber. Then remove the carriage holding the filter. In this case, it was a simple matter of pulling the top edges in slightly, then sliding it out.

The filter on this model is held by clips on either side. They clip onto the mesh and are released by sliding (on this one, one side goes up, the other goes down). Then peel off the old filter. This one obviously hasn't been replaced in ages. Eeew.

Lay the old filter on the floor. Lay the sheet of new material over top, then cut it to size with an Olfa knife, box cutter or scissors.

Clip the new filter into the carriage, then slide the unit back into place. Follow any directions on the package (it might tell you which side of the filter to position facing in).

This won't make a 24-year-old furnace particularly energy efficient, but it will help the fan circulate warm air more easily. And your lungs will thank you, too.