Friday, April 24, 2015

Front Yard Landscaping - Mostly Complete

The curbing is installed, the rock is in, and the plants have been planted.  Comparing to what we had last time, here's what things look like now:

We're still working on the lawn, trying to adjust the sprinkler system to water properly.  Its more or less done, though.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Palouse Falls

I'm a bit behind with, well, life right now; here's pictures from our trip a few weeks ago to Palouse Falls.  Don't say eastern Washington doesn't have anything to offer to the outdoor proclivities of our citizenry.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Front Yard Landscaping - First weekend

Spring has arrived and we've begun redoing the landscaping in our front yard.  We actually started late last fall with the purchase of a maple tree and now the work continues with the rest of the yard. 

Our first step was to have some custom curbing put in place.  Not only does it look nicer than pavers, but it didn't cost that much more and it took a lot less time.


... and after:

After removing the layers of barkdust and rock the previous owners had piled on over the years, we started laying down the landscaping fabric.  Consulting the internet reveal WIDELY varying opinions on how to lay it out (some even recommending it shouldn't be used at all).  Given our inexperience, I've decided we'll call this an experiment and see what we think in five or ten years.

More rock will need to be cleared on the right side of the house and the fabric will go down after that. Lots of work still to do.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Chore Board

In an attempt to stay on-top of our regular house-hold duties and the growing pile of house-hold projects, Katie and I recently purchased a corkboard from Office Max. After a week of use, it became apparent it had two problems:

  1. It was too small (at 3' x 2')
  2. It had hardly any cork.
The second item was the quite upsetting.  The "coarkboard" was mostly cardboard with a thin veneer of cork; hardly a corkboard at all. Looking around for quality alternatives revealed that thick, beefy corkboards were triple-digit expensive and beyond what we were willing to pay. So I began looking for alternatives.

My pre-corkboard plan was to use small tiles of dry-erase board with magnetic backs that we could attach to a metal sheet mounted to the wall.  In looking at the hardware store, I found that steel sheet metal was much more expensive than I anticipated: $30 for a 4' x 2' piece; I would need two to make a board the size I needed.

While hunting at the hardware store, though, I did find an interesting alternative: magnetic paint. Rather than screwing sheet metal onto the wall, I could paint the area; one $20 can gets you a 4' x 4' area. It was a bit of a gamble but I was willing to give it a chance.

Before painting, though, I needed to engage in some surface preparation.  I knew even under best of conditions this was not going to provide as effective a magnetic surface as sheet metal or a refrigerator.  To help any magnet stick, a smooth surface was needed which meant I would be sanding off the texture and smoothing over the rest with drywall compound. So that's what I did.

Once the compound was dry, it was time to paint.  Well, once the paint was mixed, that is.  "Magnetic" is a bit of a misnomer; "metallic" might be better if it wasn't already taken.  The paint is actually a suspension of iron dust in some kind of solvent-y liquid.  The iron dust in my can had thoroughly settled into a coagulated lump.  It was very reminiscent of peanut butter or tahini that had separated, only denser. It took the better part of an hour to mix the iron into the liquid and even then there were still a few lumps.

So, yes, I then painted. The first layer soaked into the drywall compound but the subsequent layers spread more evenly.  I used the entire can, almost a whole quart and put on four or so layers, letting it dry about half an hour between each layer. Not being latex based, all the clean-up was with paint thinner which was messier and smellier.

Since the paint is technically a primer, we decided to cover it with some leftover from the garage. I spread it as thin as possible to avoid further weakening the magnetic effect of the paint, probably using not much more than a cup over the entire section.

The test:

As you can see, it works. Just barely. The adhesion is nothing like sheet metal.  It works fine in our case because the only thing the magnetic tiles have to hold up is itself (more or less).  I doubt this project would have turned out as well if we had been trying to hold papers to the wall but for our purposes, its perfect.  The magnets can be moved and removed easily but stay put when placed.

I don't know if I could recommend the magnetic paint.  The can advertised "3x Stonger!"; the original formulation would not have worked at all for us.  I could have done a better job of mixing which would have helped but at the end of the day, it lives up to advertising in name only. In our case there was no problem but I don't think it would work well in all the situations you might imagine. 

I can say, though, that I'm loving the whiteboard tiles. Much quicker and easier to use than notecards and the corkboard. Write on the tile while its on the wall and move it where it needs to go. My organizational heart has found its rest.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Door Anatomy

You know those cheap doors that you get at Lowe's and Home Depot, the ones that cost around $60?  We replaced two of those in our house and, after letting them sit beside the house all winter, I finally cut them up and put them in the trash. The dissection was revealing, though.

First, the outer frame of the door, shown here on the far left.  It is made of actual wood.  In fact, the only thing that we would recognize as wood is used around the entire frame of the door.  As you can see, its not a very big piece of wood but it is wood.

The photo also highlights the material of the door proper: high-density fiberboard. This is the kind of stuff they use to make board games and books for infants.  As a point of reference, this is wood in the same way that Velveta is cheese.

To keep this wood-product from collapsing on itself another wood product of even lower quality is used as a spacer: corrugated cardboard. Every panel of the door a nice block of cardboard has been glued into place.

The obvious reason this door is so cheap is that there is hardly anything to it. Its an interior hollow-core door of quality commensurate with its price.  A true, solid wood door is easily an order of magnitude more expensive, possibly even two. Its great that we can easily buy good-enough doors for about a McDonald's daily wage. This is a good thing.  But let's not kid ourselves; these are not quality items that will last for decades.  This is a product that marginally accomplishes its goal at the lowest possible price.

And these doors are popular because they are so cheap; we replaced these doors with two more just like them. We only had so much money to use on getting the house in working order and we decided the money was better used on other things.  I hope we don't regret that choice.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Trip to DC

In late January I took my first trip to DC, one of many that I suspect my new job will have me doing.  It was my first time in the Capital and I ended up with only two or three hours in the late afternoon to see the monuments. Maybe my next trip will offer a bit more free time; I'd love to see the Air and Space museum.

Entrance to one of the Smithsonian Art Museums.

The underground commuter train station. I really enjoyed the lighting on the concrete vaulted ceiling.  It felt less like a cave and more like a cathedral.

The famous Washington Memorial.  I saw it first on my train ride from the airport to my hotel and I couldn't believe how prominent it was.  It makes a great sign post for the mall area.

Looking from the Washington Memorial to the WWII Memorial and then the Lincoln Memorial.

 View from the WWII Memorial back to the Washington Memorial. Though the fountain wasn't running in the winter, I really appreciate the WWII Memorial.

The also famous Lincoln Memorial.  There are alcoves on either side of the central statue, one with the Gettysburg address engraved on the wall and the other with his second inaugural address. This is the first time I read the second inaugural address and it made an impression on me. 

"... If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgements of the Lord are true and righteous altogether...."

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Christmas Tree Watering

For our first Christmas in Washington, we purchased a real, live Christmas tree.  My wife loved it; it looked and smelled great, making our living room absolutely festival.  She feared for its health, though, during our trip out of town over the holiday weekend and asked if there was anything that could be done to ensure it was watered while we were away.  Of course there was; we've got technology for such things. With only a small amount of work, I had an Arduino-based system constructed and installed, ready to serve all our Christmas tree watering needs.

I took the timer code and hardware from the moth-balled daylight alarm clock and repurposed it to check the water level in the tree stand and the water level in the reservoir every day at noon.  If there wasn't enough water in the tree stand and there was water in the reservoir, the program would turn the pump on, checking every tenth of a second to see if the tree stand had filled up.  Once it had, the pump was turned off.

For water level sensors I used two wires glued down to the edge of the tree stand and reservoir. As you've probably heard, tap water is quite conductive so as long as both ends of the wires were in the water, the circuit would complete through a resistor divider network.

The pump was driven by a Darlington transistor feeding the coil of a 5V relay.  Much like in my root beer temperature controller project, I used the relay to control one pin of a 120V AC plug. This plug was mounted in an outlet box with a pig tail that was plugged into the wall.  This effectively created an Arduino programmable outlet which, in this case, was powering the pump.

Here is the complete schematic:

And here is a photo of the installed system, in all its bread-board glory.

The reservoir is a simple five gallon bucket; you can see the blue and white wires used to sense the water level in the bucket at the top of the photo.  The tube on the right provided a conduit  between the reservoir and the tree stand for the water.  The black cord going into the bucket is the power for the pump; the other end is plugged into the outlet.

On the right-hand side of the picture you can see another set of blue-and-white wires running under the tree; those were used to sense the water level in the tree stand.  The Arduino and DS1307 can be seen plugged into the bread-board along with the resistor divider network (hidden among the pine needles).  (You might notice the Arduino has a lot of extra hardware on the PCB; this is actually a Ruggeduino, a fully protected Arduino clone which I highly recommend.)

As to performance, the system worked just fine; there were only two minor hiccups.  Problem one: the DS1307 is known not to be terribly accurate and it wasn't. I checked the time on it when we were taking down the tree yesterday and over the course of a month or so, it had drifted about 20 minutes.  There are Arduino libraries out there that can be used to correct this (by putting in user-specified drift constants) but I didn't bother to implement them.  In this application, whether the tree was watered at 12:00 or 12:05 didn't really matter.

The second problem was result of me not thinking about the placement of the tube in the tree stand. On my first test, I placed the end of the tube as low in the stand as I could.  When the pump turned on, the water flowed smoothly into the stand and when the pump turned off... the water continued to flow.  I verified the pump was off but the water continue to come, slowly overfilling the tree stand.  I lifted the tube out of the tree stand and the water stopped.

By placing the tube outlet so low in the tree stand, I had managed to accidentally use a trick common to flood-irrigation farming.  If you place the outlet of a tube lower than the inlet, and can somehow get the water started flowing all the way through the tube, no external energy is needed for the water to continue to flow.  By turning the pump on I had started the system flowing and by placing the outlet of the tube low in the tree stand, I had ensured once it started, even turning the pump off wouldn't stop it.  Simply positioning the outlet of the tube higher along the trunk with the outlet pointed down solved this problem.