Adapting to Change

24 Jul

I think that there is an inventor inside of us all. Having chased the dream of inventing success for many years it is not a path I recommend to anyone. Chances are your idea has no merit, is unpatentable or unfit for mass consumption. Inventing  the ‘next item to fly off the shelves’ at Walmart is near folly. Here’s a bit of wisdom I have gleaned from my own folly: It is not the best ideas which get to market, it is the ideas with the most resourceful promoters that get to market. By resourceful I mean money, connections, savvy, experience and a big dose of good luck. When you lack those things you have to climb a great big hill by yourself and in the process I have seen too many inventors spend way too much money trying to get over the next hurdle.

My inventions come from my own personal needs. My market research tends to be too limited. I figure if I need it and can’t find it that there are millions of others just like me who would buy it if they could just find it. I build working prototypes which cost very little and then try to find paces to license my inventions. So far I have one success-sort of. I developed a tool to assist in installing kitchen disposers. If you have ever put on your DIY pants to change out, service or install a disposer you’ll know exactly what I am talking about.  I do it many times in a year and it keeps getting harder as I get older. Long story short, I developed a working prototype and received so much good vibe from people who saw it work that I went out to find a home for it. By sheer luck and little else I found a wonderful product development company called FastCap ( They manufacture and distribute the product, now called The Disposal Jack. So I have a product out there but it is a tool with a very limited market. It will never make me a lot of money but the satisfaction of having something I created ‘out there’ is worth more than money since I have about $50.00 in development costs in this product.

Today’s video is a demonstration of another of my big ideas going nowhere. It’s aim is to create a safer alternative to the kind of electrical adaptor that is widely and unsafely used (is that a word?) In trying to show my child to the world I have been amazed at the push back I get for something that really works. The market? There are millions of homes out there that still have old-fashioned two prong outlets. You can’t plug you big screen TV into one without using a ‘cheater’ that by-passes the ground (the round pin on a three prong plug) Properly addressing the problem is and advanced DIY skill or expensive if you use an electrician. My adaptor will make the world a little safer. However I do not have the resources to pursue patenting, testing and liability that comes with this kind of product. This is the kind of product that can suck down a fortune and leave the inventor exactly where he started. So instead I’m just putting this out there hoping that the right set of eyes might see it and know how to move it from conception to the big box store.

So if you know of a home for this orphan I hope you’ll pass it along. You just might save someone’s life.

Venting Frustration

14 Jul

This is clearly in the category of “What Were They Thinkin?”. I was sent over to a house that needed work prior to a final buyer walk through.   My work order said to attach bathroom vent to main vent. Huh? It’s always trouble when I get requests that don’t make sense.  And of course to get to get to this repair I had to crawl across the attic space on a hot July day. The blown-in insulation covered the joists. Dummy me didn’t bring a long plank for traversing open framing. Ever see those videos where someone puts a foot through a ceiling? I was at risk for that.  I did manage to find a piece of shelving that I used as a plank to partially negotiate my way across the joists. The air was very dusty. I thought I might pass out or get stuck. Of course I forgot my cell phone so if I had died up there it might have been a day or two until someone found me.

Let’s just ponder all that is wrong here. This is a bathroom exhaust vent. They aren’t very powerful. Ideally the bathroom fan is vented out the roof or a wall as close as possible to the fan. In this case straight above the fan would have been a run of about three feet. Instead they ran it all the way across the attic space. Exhaust fans require special roof vents with flaps that are pushed open by the force of the air and close when the fan is turned off to prevent outside air from going back into the house. This run is attached to a simple passive roof vent with no flap. (click on the photos for a larger view) In winter cold air will pour down this line back into the bathroom. Furthermore the moist air that is pumped up to this vent will condense into droplets of water and rain down on the insulation below. None of this is very pretty. From all appearances this was the original installation. The attic space was sealed - so out of sight out of mind. The trouble began when the sellers agent opened up the attic space for an inspection. There was nothing I could do except crawl back out and give the sellers agent the bad news. The fix starts on the roof with proper roof vent.


Once Up On a Roof

13 Jul

On July 8th 2000 a thunderstorm moved through our neighborhood with wind rain and hail. Normally hail is a very local and very brief phenomenon-30 seconds or a minute is typical. In this storm it hailed constantly for 30 minutes. You read that correctly, 30 minutes! Thankfully it wasn’t baseball size but it did plenty of damage to houses cars and outside brick- a- brac. In the aftermath everyone in our neighborhood got a new roof . Within hours of the end of the storm roofing company representatives descended upon our neighborhood going door to door offering to negotiate with insurance companies and take care of all the work. None of them were local. They were  storm chasers.

One of my neighbors who had lots of friends decided he would replace his own roof. The insurance company would pay him the estimated replacement cost if he would agree to have the roof inspected upon completion. The math was pretty simple. The insurance company would pay $8,000 (these are small roofs) and he would have about $2,000 of expenses. We instantly formed a co-op among several neighbors. I had never done roofing before but I leapt at the chance of a $6000 payday.

Meanwhile work crews began showing up around the neighborhood. A swarm of 10 to as many as 20 men would strip the roof in a matter of hours. There were no English speakers on those crews. It turns out that many were from Central America. Somehow they had obtained temporary work visas. (really?) It wasn’t uncommon to see station wagons or vans parked at the work site with women tending to one or more young children. These guest workers were functionally homeless. But why not. They moved like locust from one storm ravaged area to the next and wanted to save every dime possible of the roughly $100/day they were making (based on $10/hr over a 10 hr day). I don’t think that many even made that much. It was hard to learn to much about them as it was unusual to find an English speaker among them. After the swarm finished stripping the roof another smaller crew arrived to do the install. This crew often had some white guys – owners it turns out. We later learned that the stripping crew work was done by a subcontractor; which is the reason I doubt that any one up on the roof was getting paid $10/hr. But were told that ‘it was the most money they ever made’. I am still uncomfortable with that rationalization.

The economy was very good back in 2000. Economically that seems like such a distant memory now. But young people always need summer jobs especially minorities. There wasn’t much skill involved in the stripping process. Our roofs were low and gently sloped minimizing the danger. I began to wonder why with unemployment among young people so high there weren’t more locals up there. Then we started our work and I figured it out in a hurry. It was brutally hard work. There is no comfortable position to stand sit or kneel. The shingles are so abrasive that you change positions often. On hot sunny days the heat burned you through your clothes and slow roasted your body. I was hard to drink enough water. Beer never tasted so good at the end of a day.  My knees hurt, my hips hurt my back hurt and that was just on the first day. I aggravated some kind of nerve injury that made my hands and arms numb. The professional crews did a roof a day. It took us a week. My roof was the last of the three. The co-operative spirit had waned by then so I had much less help. But my roof was done faster than the others thanks to the learning curve.

It’s twelve years later. The roof still looks good. The shingles I bought supposedly have a 30 yr life. That will make me 80 when it needs to be done again, baring another hail storm. A number of the roofs done by the professional crews have been redone or are in badly in need of redoing. The cheap shingles they used deteriorated quickly. Good luck finding any of those guys. I am a big proponent of DIY but if the opportunity comes again I think I’ll pass. I still wonder about all those young men who toiled at that work 10 hours a day 7 days a week. I hope they have found some other way to support their families.

Dispose of Your Fears

9 Jul

Disposers and toilets are my most frequent service calls. It’s not because they are particularly difficult things to fix, they just trigger too much fear and loathing.  The hero has to conquer fear to defeat the beast. If you want to be a knight in shining armor you have to slay a few dragons. Your armor is a little bit of knowledge and your sword is a few ordinary tools and fearless determination.

As I have said before, disposals are very durable machines. At the factory they actually test them by grinding batches of bones and wood blocks-two things I wouldn’t put down my disposer. One of the more perplexing problems of disposer repair is when the rotor is spinning but not grinding. This is usually caused by a stuck blade. What gets stuck can often be unstuck. It can be difficult to do from the top but not impossible. Often it is necessary to pull the unit down, remove the splash guard (the black rubber thingy) grab the blade with a pliers and twist. I don’t know how many disposers I disposed of before I realized that this problem is often fixable. But to repeat my fist mantra: a handyman is just someone who has screwed up enough times that he finally gets it right.

Toilet Flush Handles on the Left Side – A Sinister Meme?

4 Jul

I don’t know who discovered water but it probably wasn’t fish. I have been servicing toilets for a long time but it was only recently that I realized that the vast majority of tank style toilets flush on the left hand side. It took a right-handed flush to make me realize this. Why? I have been unable to find anything but theories in my surface skimming research.  They are, roughly: tradition (we have always done it that way), and hygiene (in a right-handed world flushing with the left hand keeps germs off of the dominant hand.) If you have better research please leave me a comment.

I would buy the tradition argument if there was more safety involved such as hot water on left, cold water on right, which prevents nasty surprises. The less obvious tradition of the fill line attachment being on the left side of the tank is building industry collaboration. It tells the builder where to place the plumbing without knowing what make and model toilet will ultimately be installed. Placement of the plumbing shut- off is governed by building code. However, there is nothing about the operational pieces of the toilet that require one-sided placement of the flush handle. The fill valve, flush valve and flapper are not affected by handle placement.

The hygiene argument might have ancient origins but those are long past in the western world. If you worry about which hand you flush with you are just one step away from wearing kleenex boxes on your feet.

While there is not an apparent body of law regarding the left hand side flush there is law that can require placement on the right hand side. The ADA (The American’s with Disabilities Act) requires that the flush handle be on the “open” side of a handicapped accessible toilet. This photo is from a bathroom in one of my favorite coffee shops. As a place of commerce subject to the ADA accessibility requirements the handle for this unit must be on the right hand side. Where do we go from here?

The origin of the word sinister is from the latin word meaning “left” (side) which later expanded in middle english to refer to omens observed on the (unlucky) left hand side. (Hey I’m not that smart I looked it up.) This brings all kinds of epistemological considerations into the discussion. Is it possible that the left hand flush is a sinister meme? Discuss.

Blind Ambition

3 Jul

The more handyman work I do the more Zen like the experience becomes. Now I haven’t shaved my head or started wearing robes and if you see me in the lotus position call the chiropractor. But I do have mantras that I repeat often. I needed two for this job.

As a handyman for hire I face the repair/ replace dilemma almost every day. With blinds it is usually ‘replace’ as they are generally inexpensive and easy to install. But every paradigm get sand in the gears at some time. Here I had a situation with a custom colored blind. The center blind really needed replacing. The gear mechanism controlling the blinds had become so difficult to operate that the connection point for the wand had completely sheared off. I was able to operate the blind using my pliers so I knew the mechanism stilled worked but no standard wand would be strong enough to withstand the torque necessary to operate it. Furthermore all that was left was a little spindle. Whatever I tried would have to clamp on to the spindle. I was completely stumped. I recommended to the property management company that they replace the blind. But to retain the match with the other windows this would mean replacing two perfectly good blinds. They asked me to try to find a way to fix it. And here in calls for the chanting of one of my mantras: THE ART OF THE HANDYMAN BEGINS WHEN CONVENTIONAL SOLUTIONS FAIL.

When I focus my obsessive compulsive tendencies on a very concrete problem good things often result. When it gets focused on people or relationships its torture. I have learned that I am good at fixing things but not people. (There are many years of misery compressed into that sentence!)  However I was beginning to lose hope of finding a solution . But on trip down the electrical isle of the big box store for a different job I finally had the “aha!” moment. I found a thing called a TERMINAL LUG  and realized I could attach it to the end of a wooden dowel. It had a strong clamp on the end that I was sure would hold to the spindle. As you will see in the video, it worked.

Let’s be clear. This is not a permanent solution. The gear mechanism inside the blind will eventually strip from the torque but that’s another job for another day. For the moment I had a fix that satisfied both the tenant and the owner. Another mantra: IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE PERFECT, IT JUST HAS TO BE GOOD ENOUGH.

Man Cave?

2 Jul

Not too long ago I saw an invitation to submit pictures of a mancave to some kind of contest. I don’t recall now. And then there is this show on TV where a bunch of guys show up at your house and convert empty space into a man cave. This is mine. I guess. There’s no big screen TV or mini fridge. In fact this workshop is so small I have to step outside to change a drill bit. But I have repaired and dissected a lot of stuff here. Handyman lives by spare parts so I will often strip parts from stuff that I have had to replace. I’d love to have a big workshop like Norm Abram has on The New Yankee Workshop. But woodworking guys need a big space. I do have a nice, well-lit garage for big projects but I live in cold country so its not available year round.  Still a guy can dream


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