Dirty Air Conditioners

June 30th, 2020 • UncategorizedNo Comments »

We are well into summer and many areas are seeing temperatures in the 90s or higher. We rely on our air conditioner to keep us cool and comfortable during times like this, but is it working as well as it could be? For many, the answer is no. The reason is simple lack of maintenance. Your air conditioner sucks outside air through the metal condenser coil while it’s running. Dust, bugs, grass, dirt and all kinds of other contaminants can get sucked in and stuck in the coil. Eventually this build up reduces the airflow through the coil, reducing the cooling capacity of your air conditioner. This means longer run times and more energy usage. It could also mean that your system won’t be able to keep up on the hottest days.

The solution is simple. Just spray the outside of the coil, working from the top down, until the debris is gone and the coil looks clean. If your coil is very dirty, the unit will require disassembly and a coil cleaning chemical to get it fully cleaned. If this is the case, you may want to hire an HVAC company to clean your unit. If you are mechanically inclined and want to take the side panels off for a full cleaning, Nu-Calgon Nu-Brite is an excellent coil cleaner. One gallon should last a long time since it must be diluted with water in a sprayer at a 1:4 ratio.

Whether you choose to clean it yourself or hire a pro, your AC will reward you with higher efficiency and less breakdowns when you keep it clean!

Where did the brass go?

June 25th, 2020 • DIY HomeNo Comments »

Brass has been the standard metal most bathroom fixtures are made from for hundreds of years. This is mainly due to the fact that it doesn’t rust like steel or iron. So why is it so hard to find quality brass items now? One of the items that specifically bothers me is escutcheon plates. They are those little trim plates that go around your pipes to hide the hole in the wall. They used to be commonly made from brass and then chrome plated. Now if you go to your local hardware store, your only option will most likely be chrome plated steel. The issue with steel escutcheons is that they will inevitably rust and become an eyesore. How long this takes depends on the quality of the chrome plating and the level of moisture in the bathroom. But since the chrome plating is usually poor quality and bathrooms usually have high humidity levels, this can be a relatively short time. You might remodel a bathroom only to have your new steel escutcheons showing rust two years later. I’m not sure how most people feel about this, but it’s unacceptable to me. Especially since the only way to properly replace them is to pull the valve off the pipe.

It is still possible to find brass escutcheons if you know where to look online. Whenever you order something like this, always double check that they aren’t made of steel before you install them. This can be done easily with a magnet. Steel will stick to the magnet, brass will not. Some of the brands out there I have found are Kingston Brass, Brasstech (Newport Brass), and Wolverine Brass. Out of these, Wolverine Brass seems to be the most affordable. Wolverine Brass also has excellent solid brass quarter turn supply valves they call their “Finale Ultimate” line.

So if you find yourself remodeling or sprucing up a bathroom, try to replace all your steel escutcheons with brass and you will be able to enjoy a rust free bathroom for years to come!


Ring Stick Up Cam 3rd Gen Problems

June 23rd, 2020 • DIY Home, Tech TipsNo Comments »

I’m a big fan of Ring. I have the Ring Video Doorbell, Floodlight Cam, and Spotlight Cam. I wanted better coverage of an area that already had a nice outdoor light, so I made what I though was an easy choice and bought a 3rd generation Ring Stick up Cam. I had previously installed the 2nd generation Ring Stick up cam and thought they were high quality just like the rest of the Ring line of products.

The first thing I noticed is that the new 3rd gen Stick up cam no longer comes with the versatile mount that was included with the 2nd gen. The previous mount allowed you to easily mount the camera on a wall or ceiling and adjust for just about any angle you wanted. The new 3rd gen mount is very restrictive and only allows for wall mounting. Before I even attempted installation, I could tell I would not be able to get the angle I wanted with this mount. I found out that the 2nd gen mount is sold separately for $19 and compatible with the 3rd gen camera, so I ordered one.

Since the camera was going to be mounted high off the ground outside, I decided to set it up inside first so I wouldn’t have to mess with it as much on the ladder. The first thing I noticed when I took the 3rd gen Stick up cam of the box was how lightweight and cheap it felt. It didn’t have that quality feel I had come to expect from Ring. I powered it on and started adding it in the Ring app. When I got to the step where it connects to my WiFi network, it failed to connect! All of my other Ring devices connected flawlessly the first attempt. I pushed the setup button on the camera to start the process over and on the second attempt I was able to get it to connect. I got all the settings the way I wanted and checked the audio and video quality on the live view, then went to get the ladder ready outside. When I came back, I figured I would check to make sure the motion detection was working. I checked the app, but it hadn’t recorded anything! I tried the live view, nothing! Completely unresponsive. I tried unplugging the power and plugging it back in. Still nothing! I decided to hit the setup button and reconnect the camera, and it was working again. I thought maybe it was just a temporary problem and needed to update it’s firmware or something. Since it was working again, I unplugged it and brought it outside to install. I got it all mounted and power up. I kept checking my app waiting for it come come online. Minutes passed, nothing. I had to hit the setup button and reconnect it again to get it working! This time I double checked that the firmware was indeed up to date. I left the ladder up for a while and did some other work while I waited to see if it went offline again. About an hour passed and everything was working, so I took the ladder down and called it good. Or so I thought.

One weird thing I noticed was that my other Ring cameras would update their thumbnail pictures in the app every 30 seconds like I had them set to do. I also had my new 3rd gen Stick up cam set for a snapshot every 30 seconds, but it didn’t seem to keep up. Most of the time, I would have to completely close the Ring app and re open to get it to refresh, but only for this camera. Also, it was at this point that I realized the field of view on the 3rd gen Stick up cam was terrible compared to my other ring devices. I’m guessing this is due to a cheaper lens.

It worked for about two days after I got it installed outside. Even though the snapshot feature seemed sketchy, it did record motion reliably. Then it stopped responding again! This time I decided to call Ring support. They instructed me to (once again) hit the setup button and reconnect. This brought the cam online. Once it was online, they informed me that it was my WiFi signal that was the problem. They said it wasn’t strong enough. I knew this couldn’t be the case since my phone had excellent WiFi signal even far beyond where I have this camera mounted. They recommended I buy a Ring Chime Pro to extend my signal. I asked them why the same thing happened when I first connected the camera in my house only 10 feet from my WiFi router, and they had no explanation.

After thinking about my general dissatisfaction with this camera, even without it dropping off the network randomly, I decided to return it to the store and look for another option. I’m glad I didn’t waste any more time on it, because I discovered that refurbished 2nd gen Stick up cams are available on Amazon for less than a 3rd gen Stick up cam! With the good mount included! When I received my 2nd gen cam, the difference in build quality was immediately obvious. The 2nd gen is far superior to the 3rd gen. It connected to my WiFi and added to the app flawlessly. The field of view is MUCH better, and I think the image quality is better too! So far, my new refurbished 2nd gen Stick up cam has been rock solid.

After this experience, I did some searching. It looks like I’m not the only one having reliability issues with the 3rd gen Ring Stick up cam. I also noticed that the capabilities in the settings for the 3rd gen are inferior to the 2nd gen. Where are the customizable motion zones? In my opinion, Ring thought they could cut hardware costs and no one would notice. I noticed, and if this is what Ring deems as acceptable for future products, I will be looking for my security cameras elsewhere.

As of the writing of this post, if you need a Ring Stick up cam, I suggest going with a refurbished 2nd gen or the new Elite. I suggest that Ring step up their game and get back to making quality cameras. After all, this is all about peace of mind. How can you have peace of mind if you have doubts about the reliability of your security cameras?


Milorganite and Potassium

May 31st, 2016 • DIY HomeNo Comments »

Update (11/15/2018): Milorganite has updated their label and now shows a 6-4-0 N-P-K breakdown. The page I linked to below has also been updated to reflect their new specifications and no longer shows the 0.5% potassium. It is my personal opinion that this potassium is still in the product even though the website doesn’t show it. You can view the version of the specifications page from the time I originally wrote this post by clicking here.

I have heard some people say that Milorganite doesn’t contain potassium (K).  This is simply not true.  There is actually 0.5% potassium!  The reason the N-P-K on the bag reads 5-2-0 is that it gets rounded down to zero.  Because the actual breakdown is 5-2-0.5, that leaves you with 1.8LB of nitrogen, 0.72LB of phosphorus, and 0.18LB of potassium per 36LB bag!

Here is the full breakdown if you are curious:

N-P-K Analysis 5.0% Total Nitrogen (N)
2.0% Available Phosphate (P)
0.0% Potash (K-typically is about 0.5%)
4.0% Iron (Fe)
Typical Micro-nutrients 0.58% Sulfur (S)
0.68% Magnesium (Mg)
0.045% Zinc (Zn)
0.022% Copper (Cu)
0.133% Manganese (Mn)
Trace amounts of Boron (B) and Molybdenum (Mo)

The same information can be found on Milorganite’s website here.


Organic Lawn Fertilizer

May 31st, 2016 • DIY HomeNo Comments »

When some people hear “organic fertilizer”, they might think that it won’t work as well as a chemical fertilizer.  That couldn’t be further from the truth!

The problem with synthetic fertilizers, is that they only feed the grass directly.  They do nothing to improve the soil.  So over time, even though you continue to put down fertilizer, your soil quality continues to degrade.  Eventually, your grass will weaken as a result.  You will find yourself having to spread more fertilizer, and treat more disease in the lawn.  But this can all be alleviated by simply using organic fertilizer!

Which brand you choose doesn’t make much of a difference.  They all share a similar concept, which is to feed the soil.  Organic fertilizer contains the same basic nutrients as synthetic fertilizer, but relies on soil microbes to break it down and release them.  It is this process that improves the soil quality over time.  When there is a healthy ecosystem of life in the soil that is being fed by organic fertilizers, you will find that your grass will grow strong and vigorously, even better than grass fed by synthetic fertilizer!  It will also be more resistant to disease.

I’m not saying that you have to be 100% organic when deciding which lawn care products to use.  Insecticides, herbicides, and even synthetic fertilizers still have their place in lawn care.  I am simply recommending that that you give organic fertilizers a chance to improve your lawn!


Annual Bluegrass (Poa Annua)

May 16th, 2016 • DIY HomeNo Comments »

Poa annua can be a frustrating weed to have in your lawn.  It is usually a lighter shade of green than surrounding turfgrass, and isn’t as hardy.  Because it doesn’t stand up well to disease, traffic, or drought, having poa annua present in your lawn often leaves you with brown sickly looking patches.  Even though it can be tough to get rid of, there is hope!

There are two options when trying to eradicate poa annua.  Since it’s an annual, you can use a pre emergent herbicide to prevent it’s seeds from sprouting.  Or you can use a selective herbicide that will kill the poa annua, but leave desirable grasses.  I recommend using both methods for the best control.

If you opt to use the pre emergent, make sure to apply in late summer/early fall.  This is when most of the poa annua seeds will begin to germinate.

If you decide to use a selective herbicide, I recommend Tenacity.  It is safe for use on Kentucky bluegrass, tall fescue, fine fescue, and perennial ryegrass.  It may take more than one application to kill the poa annua.  Patience is the key.  You are going to want to wait 3-4 weeks between applications.  If your lawn is heavily infested with poa annua, keep in mind that you may need to seed some thin or bald spots after the herbicide treatment.


Best Lawn on the Block

May 16th, 2016 • DIY HomeNo Comments »

Want to know the secret to having a beautiful lawn?  Here are a few simple tips!

  • Aerate your lawn every year.  This can be done in either the fall or spring.  Heavily compacted lawns may need to be aerated twice per year.
  • Mow tall.  Northern cool season grasses like to be mowed at 3-4 inches.
  • Mulch your clippings.  This helps to recycle nutrients.  If you mulch your clippings for the whole season, that is the equivalent to applying almost two pounds of nitrogen per 1000 square feet!  Mulching clippings DOES NOT cause thatch!
  • If your yard is full of weeds, make a blanket application of weed killer using a hose end or hand pump sprayer.  Once the weeds are under control, it is best to use spot treatments and limit herbicide use.  Having a thick, tall, healthy lawn will help to crowd out weeds.
  • If you have grub issues, apply a grub treatment such as Grub-Ex.  Your local extension office should be able to assist you with application timing.
  • Apply a pre emergent herbicide in the spring to prevent crabgrass and other weeds.  Usually the time to apply is when the forsythia are blooming.
  • Apply four applications of Milorganite fertlizer.  For cool season grasses, it is recommended to apply 36 LB per 2,500 square feet around Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving.
  • If you want to give your lawn an extra boost, or if it is in especially rough shape, add a spring application of Ringer Lawn Restore fertilizer to your schedule in addition to the Milorganite.

By using these tips, your lawn will be looking great before you know it!


Basement Watchdog battery quick tip

December 10th, 2015 • DIY HomeNo Comments »

Battery terminal corrosion can be a serious issue for a Basement Watchdog system.  If you want to prevent the terminals from rusting, first clean any existing corrosion using a small wire brush and some battery terminal cleaner (if your system is new, you shouldn’t have to worry about cleaning).  Then, connect the battery terminals securely.  The final step is to coat the terminals and posts liberally with dielectric grease.  It is important that you only apply the grease AFTER you have connected the battery and tightened the terminals.  Your battery terminals will now enjoy a long corrosion free life!


Emerald Ash Borer Treatment

January 26th, 2015 • DIY HomeNo Comments »

The Emerald Ash borer, or EAB, is a small green beetle native to Asia that has been inadvertently brought to the United States.  Because of the way the larvae feed on Ash trees, the host tree will die within a few years of infestation.  If you have an Ash tree on your property, there is hope.  Some chemical treatments have been shown to be very effective against the beetle.  For trees smaller than 15″ diameter at breast height (DBH), you can treat your tree yourself using off the shelf options from the hardware store or garden center and get good results.  The two most popular active ingredients in homeowner treatments are imidacloprid and dinotefuran.  Dinotefuran has the advantage of moving through the tree’s vascular system much faster than imidacloprid.

If you decide to go with a DIY imidacloprid treatment, consider the following:

  • Use soil drench treatments only on very small trees.  Make sure you pull away all mulch so that the treatment goes on to bare soil.
  • For trees larger than a few inches DBH, consider imidacloprid injections instead of a soil drench.
  • Perform soil drenches early to mid spring, and injections mid to late spring.
  • Applying fertilizer annually helps the tree heal and stay healthy.

If you decide to go with a DIY dinotefuran treatment, consider the following:

  • Use soil applied treatments only on small trees.  Make sure you pull away all mulch so that the treatment goes on to bare soil.
  • For larger trees, consider using a bark applied treatment.
  • Dinotefuran should be applied mid to late spring.
  • Applying fertilizer annually helps the tree heal and stay healthy.

The best option is called emamectin benzoate, or TREE-äge.  It will work on Ash trees of all sizes, and is over 99% effective at killing the EAB in Ash trees (much higher than any other treatment).  Another plus is that it only needs to be applied every other year, whereas imidacloprid and dinotefuran need to be applied every year.  The only downside is that it must be applied by a tree care professional.  That generally makes it the most expensive treatment option.  If you are serious about saving your Ash tree, I would highly recommend TREE-äge.  I also recommend that you get competing quotes from multiple tree care companies to be sure you are getting the best value.

If you decide that you do not want to spend the money on treating your Ash tree, it is important that you remove it when the EAB gets close to your area.  Untreated trees provide a breeding ground for the EAB and worsen the problem.  Not to mention that once the tree dies, it will become a safety hazard.


Sump pump replacement

January 16th, 2015 • DIY Home2 Comments »

A few weekends ago, I decided it was time to put some work into my sump pit.  My pump was acting up (the switch was sticking on intermittently), so that gave me an excuse to dedicate some time and thought to it.

When we moved into the house it came with a 1/3 hp Sears brand pedestal pump.  Although it was quite crusty, and I considered it to be under powered for the job, it was actually a very reliable pump.  It was already a few years old when we moved in, and then it lasted another 16 years, giving it a service life of almost twenty years!  When it finally did fail, luckily I was alerted by my HomeSitter alarm.  I found the pump with the switch in the on position, but it wasn’t running.  Because the water level kept rising, the motor housing was already partially submerged (I have a deep pit).  I knew that it was time for a new pump.  I figured why not replace it with another Sears unit, since this one lasted so long.  I rigged up a utility pump to drain the pit temporarily so I could run to Sears and pick up a new unit.  What they had was a 1/2 hp Craftsman brand pedestal pump.  It seemed to be built very well, with a cast iron base and stainless steel stem.  To top it all off, it came with a lifetime warranty! (I am a sucker for lifetime warranties, although a certain quote from Tommy Boy comes to mind…)  It was almost a direct replacement.  The old pump was 1-1/4″ and the new one was 1-1/2″.  Luckily the pipe was all 1-1/2″, with a reducer on the bottom.  I cut off the old reducer and glued on a new 1-1/2″ threaded fitting, and it was in!

Unfortunately, despite it’s impressive build quality and lifetime warranty, here I am again looking for a replacement pump two years later.  This time I was facing the opposite problem.  The pump wouldn’t turn off!  I would find it running, with the switch fully in the downward position.  The first time it happened, I toggled the switch and it turned off.  Thinking it was just a fluke, I forgot about it.  But then it happened again the next day, and the next day.  And I finally realized the switch was on it’s last leg.  This shouldn’t be an issue though, right?  I have a lifetime warranty to fall back on!  Wrong.  Sears discontinued the model I bought, and the only model they did sell under the Craftsman name no longer has a lifetime warranty, not to mention it is a 1-1/4″ pump with a less impressive flow rate.  Sears corporate may have failed me, but luckily the manager at my local Sears hardware store did their best to make me a satisfied customer.  Because they no longer make an equivalent Craftsman/Sears pump, they made an exception and allowed me to have my pick of which pump I wanted from the plumbing isle for a one time exchange.

Left-Basement Watchdog Special, Right-Zoeller M98.  I used a square rubber patio paver that I cut the corners off of to make a nice bottom in the pit.  It’s important to keep cables neat and tidy so they don’t interfere with float operation.

The pump I ended up choosing is the Zoeller M98.  It is a 1/2 hp submersible pump, with 1-1/2″ discharge, and a very similar flow rate to my previous pump (61 GPM@10ft lift).  It has a cast iron housing, and is built like a tank.  If I wasn’t limited to what they had on the shelf, I would have choose a Zoeller N98.  It is the same pump, but without the built in float switch.  The unfortunate fact of many sump pumps is that the float switch fails long before the pump itself.  That is why the good folks over at TouchSensor Technologies have created the LevelGuard pump switch.  It has no moving parts to wear out and fail, allowing it to last just as long (if not longer) than your pump.  But the key is to get a pump without an integrated float switch (Zoeller pumps that start with an “N” come without a switch).  If the float switch on my M98 ever starts acting up, I plan on converting it to an N98 and installing a LevelGuard switch.

Battery and control unit for backup pump

Up until now, I have been lucky enough to be home each time my primary pump has failed.  My fear has always been that it will happen when I’m not home.  Since I was going to be putting in a new primary pump, I figured this would also be a good time to install a backup pump.  The backup pump system I choose is the Basement Watchdog Special.  It seems to be a good value, it’s the middle model between the “Emergency” on the low end, and the “Big Dog” on the high end.  It will pump about 28 gallons per minute (GPM) at a ten foot lift, which is a few GPM shy of half the capacity of my primary pump.  For a small 12v backup pump running off of a battery, the lower flow rate seems reasonable.  Most of the time, it wouldn’t have any trouble keeping up.  Obviously there is a chance that at some point, the water could be flowing into the pit faster than it can pump.  But I would much rather have it pumping water out at 28 GPM than 0 GPM without it!  And of course, all of this is only a factor if the primary pump has failed or the power is out.

The “wye” and check valves. Be sure to use the proper cement for the type of pipe you have. I had to use a multipurpose cement because I have a combination of PVC and ABS.

Installing the new primary pump was a breeze.  Because my new M98 is 1-1/2″ discharge like my old pump, I was able to reuse the old pipe and fitting.  The backup pump installation required a little more work.  I had to cut out a section of pipe above the existing check valve to install a 45 degree “wye” fitting.  The new pipe for the backup pump then comes out of the wye, goes to a 45 degree elbow, and and then goes down to the backup pump.  It is very important to have a check valve below the wye fitting on both the primary pump pipe, and the backup pump pipe.  This keeps water from flowing out through the backup pump while the primary pump is working, or vice versa.  After getting all the plumbing done, I filled the battery with acid, topped it off with distilled water, and hooked up all of the wiring.  The backup pump comes with it’s own float switch that zip ties to the discharge pipe.  You want to make sure that the float for the backup pump is at least a few inches above the water level that would normally kick on the primary pump.  I also drilled a 1/8″ hole at a 45 degree angle pointing down on the pipe above the backup pump.  This prevents the pump from becoming airlocked (when air gets trapped in the impeller housing, preventing the pump from moving water).  This isn’t necessary for my primary pump (M98), since it already has a hole in the impeller housing to prevent airlock.  All in all, installation was fairly straight forward.  I am very happy with the way things turned out, and I feel much better knowing that I now have a backup system in place.

Quick overview of my setup:

So, what should you take away from this?  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Take the time to install a quality primary and backup pump, and you will have a dry basement.