Life of Leisure at Home

Yeah, right. The two weeks (feels like two months) since coming back to Boston have been a carnival of people working on the new porches, installing the new boiler, installing and fixing electrical stuff, and starting today at 7:30 a.m. putting new insulation into the attic. Oh, and did I mention hunching for hours over Quicken, pulling together a year’s worth of numbers for the tax man? God willing, by this time tomorrow, all that will be done, or mostly done. And then I’m going to leave it all behind to return to Puerto Rico! (This time for some actual leisure, and writing I hope.)

Here are some pix of the porch! Those round columns, by the way, are made of a resin-stone composite with a permanent finish. No painting required! And the railings are powder-coated aluminum. If there was one theme to this design, it was “low maintenance.”

Good News Is, Our House Didn’t Burn Down and No One Was Hurt

But the boiler is dead, Jim. Dead, dead, dead. Both daughters and their significant others were plenty scared, when—with Allysen and me away in Puerto Rico—the smoke alarms at home went crazy and they found one of the steam-heat boilers in the basement smoking and starting to glow. I believe terrifying was the word Jayce used. I got a not-quite-panicked call, “How do you turn off the boiler?!” with a lot of beeping and commotion in the background. I said, “Unplug it and get out of the house and call the fire department!” The firemen got there fast, turned off the gas to the unit, and confirmed that the boiler was toast but it was safe to stay in the house. I don’t know how long it took the family to stop shaking. (Connor remarked later that the boiler was glowing orange at the bottom and looked like a rocket about to take off.)

What happened was, it boiled dry, and the automatic low-water cutoff failed. The result: our own mini Three Mile Island meltdown. But as I say, no one was hurt, and the house didn’t burn down, and the smoke alarms worked, so I choose to regard it as a win-win. Plumber Mike came the next day and started making plans to replace the unit.

It was mostly my fault for not properly briefing everyone on checking the water level from time to time. Anyway, why is it that every time I leave for Puerto Rico, there’s a major plumbing problem while I’m gone? It never fails.

Because we had ductless minisplits installed a few years ago for cooling and bumper-months heating, there is still heat available in our apartment; no one had to freeze. So that’s a win, too. There is actually a statewide effort to get people to use electric heat pumps instead of gas heat, so one could argue that we should just switch over. But our experience has not sold us on that method of heating in winter. And forget running a heat pump in a power outage with a small backup generator, which I can do with a boiler. We are all in on offsetting climate change, but I guess our solar-electric panels and our solar hot water will have to be our contribution for now.

Here’s the boiler with the phaser blast marks.


This Time I Really Mean It

Did I say the porch project had begun? That was several weeks ago. Then nothing happened, as we waited and fidgeted while the town building department sat on the permit application. (According to the contractor, this was extremely unusual. Generally it’s in, stamp, you’re done.) Meanwhile, possibly the last of the mild weather was going by, and we have concrete that needs to be poured. Frustration all around.

Two days ago, the permit finally went through, and the dumpster moved in. First up, jackhammer the concrete steps to pieces. That started yesterday, and is only half done. Those steps were built to last! Anyway, work has started. Let’s hope the weather holds for a few more weeks!

It Has Begun

Our front porch is braced for rapid scheduled disassembly, as soon as the building permit goes through. Here’s a last look at the way things were.

The tree out front, our spiky companion of thirty-some years (and decorated with blue lights at Christmas for many years), had to come down. Here’s Allysen after the first set of cuttings. And then…


Farewell, tree!


I’m an animal lover and a softie, and I hate to thwart critters from living a normal life. However, I do have my limits. When they repeatedly chew electric wires and go after my house and my solar panels despite my efforts to keep them away… well, it’s game on, you little fockers.

As I mentioned last time, the solar panel guys found yet more squirrel damage last week, even after an expensive tree trimming behind the house, laborious tree-trimming in front of the house (by me), an expensive installation of “critter guards” around our solar panels, and serious efforts on the part of a pest-control expert to get the little pests off the premises.

I thought I had pruned the tree out front sufficiently to eliminate the threat. I basically made it a bas-relief of a spruce tree. That was basically wishful thinking. I don’t think anyone was living in the tree last winter, because our Christmas lights survived the season unchewed. But now I come to find a big summer home nestled in a tangle of branches near the top, on the side facing away from us where I couldn’t see it. I had not observed the rascal itself, but Lexi and Connor downstairs had. And apparently it could get up onto the roof from there.

Yesterday I got out my vorpal sword, the extensible tree-trimmer, and strove mightily against the Fortress of the Squirrel. In the end, its great house fell. And our tree is now a couple of feet shorter, and I hope no longer within leaping range of easy roof access. I still need to do some restorative sculpting.

Did I feel like a heel? I surely did. If this had been a talking-animals animated feature, I definitely would have been the evil developer felling the homes of the lovable critters.

Thankfully, this was not such a movie.

Squirrels 1, Humans 1.

Will the series be renewed? Too soon to tell.

Chimney on a Hot Tin Roof

Okay, my roof isn’t tin, but I’m certain it was blazing hot up there in the sun yesterday. Our chimney has been in need of rebuilding for some time, as evidenced by leaks when it rained and pieces of old flashing falling into our attic. We finally had it done. The able team from Best Chimney that did the work had the bad luck to work up there with the temperature in the mid-90s, as we along with half the U.S. and most of Europe endured a massive heat wave. I did not personally labor in the sun, but I got hot enough just squinting up at the guys who did. As far as I could tell from way down on the ground, they did excellent work.

Here’s the teardown:

And the finished chimney:

A downside of having solar-electric panels on the roof is that we had to pay another team to come and take several panels down, and come back next week to put them back up. As luck would have it, they discovered yet another chewed cable under one of the panels—even after the installation of critter guards to keep the squirrels out. The little buggers are just determined to cause mischief. Sigh. Steps will be taken, perhaps in another post.


Nuts the squirrelSquirrels! The destructive little buggers have outdone themselves this year. They’re not just chewing the Christmas lights on our outdoor tree; they’re chewing the wiring and the electronics on our rooftop solar panels! And when workers came to repair the damage and install critter guards (which we should have had in the first place), they found a nest under one of the panels. And then they saw a fat squirrel dive right through a roof vent into our attic. We’re lucky he saw it go through, because the vent had been hidden by the panel, and otherwise, we might not have discovered the hole the little varmints had chewed.

So now, we have a pest-control guy on the job, to eliminate the squirrels so the solar panels can be put back. And we just had a tree crew here, trimming back the beautiful, tall oak tree on the property line behind our house, removing among other things the handy “bridge to paradise” that an overhanging branch had been providing the squirrels. (Afterward, I saw two of the little fokkers on the shortened branch, looking agitated. The bridge is out! The bridge is out!) This is starting to get expensive!

As if that wasn’t enough, yesterday the squirrel guy saw another squirrel jump from the pine tree in front of the house, and dive through yet another, previously undiscovered hole into the space above the front porch ceiling! Ka-ching! What’s going to be next? Squirrels in the hot tub? Okay, we’re safe on that one; we don’t have a hot tub.

No offense, Nuts, but I’m asking for a BB gun for Christmas.

Patching Concrete: My Favorite Thing!

Not. My basement wall is happier now, but I’m tired. It all started years ago with parts of our basement being a little on the damp side, which we’d been ignoring because there was so much stuff in our basement, we couldn’t even see the dampish parts.

That changed when Allysen’s mom had to move to a place with a higher level of care than us, and we faced emptying the first floor apartment of our two-family house, so our daughter Lexi and her husband Connor could move in for a while. Where was all that furniture, art, books, etc., going to go? Down to the basement, where else? In a way, it’s Allysen’s mom’s fault, for having high standards in art and furniture pieces acquired in a lifetime spent living around the world. Pieces valuable not for their dollar value, but for the cultural meaning and the artistry of craftsmen from Latin America, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere. Stuff you want to keep or at least find a good home for.

Cue the demolition squad, to get rid of our accumulated crap, and even some good things we just didn’t need anymore. We had an amazing giveaway assortment in front of our house for the last week, and a lot of items found new homes. Those that didn’t left the hard way—ceerrrunch!—in the trash truck. Some good electrical appliances left that way, sadly, thanks to the vandal who came along and cut off the cords on everything we put out that had a cord. Why?

Time for more shelves! Ever more shelves! But wait—what about those water-stained cracks where the floor meets the foundation? And the crumbling mortar? And—oh look, we’re having unusual torrents of rain this evening—and is that water running into the corner? Yikes!

Cue the chisel, Quikrete, and trowel. Follow up with sore knees, aching back, and giant blister on big toe from crouching for hours in bad shoes. Finish with an adjustment to the downspout outside, in hopes of redirecting the next big downpour.

I’m starting to feel as if I’m putting myself in the running to be Heinlein’s “competent man.” Not on purpose!

Now, about those shelves….

Solar Hot Water!

I took a shower today with water heated by the sun! What a feeling! Our solar heating panels went up on the garage roof last week, and our aging 40-gallon hot water tanks were removed, and replaced by a humongous 119-gallon lifetime stainless steel tank that feeds both apartments in our two-family house. Primary heat is the sun. Secondary heat is an electric heater in the tank. Our expectation is that about 75% of our water heating requirements will come from the sun, annually. More in the summer and less in the winter, obviously. But even in the winter, plenty of heat comes from the sun. The excellent work was done by New England Solar Hot Water.

Remember, back in December, I told you about the trench I was digging? That was for this.

Solar hot water panels on garage

Speaking of home heating efficiency, our ductless AC/heating system was finished a few weeks ago by New England Ductless, and now (in moderate weather) we’re heating more efficiently with electric heat pumps. We’re still figuring out the best way to control them (which we do using our smartphones), or rather to balance them with the legacy steam heat in the colder weather. These condenser units are kind of dominant on the outside of the house, so I guess my home project for this summer will be to build some kind of privacy fence around them.

Ductless condensers outside house

This was all made possible in part by a two-town group discount, various tax credits and rebates for renewable energy installations, and a 0% interest loan program run by a state agency (MassSave) and funded by utilities. All that brought the net cost down considerably. The hot water installation should pay for itself in 4-5 years.


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Too Dang Quiet Here—Let’s Have Some Drillin’!

posted in: Home repair 0

Because we haven’t had enough noise in our lives… this is the week that New England Ductless arrived to begin installing our upgrade to mini-split ductless heat/AC, as part of our participation in Arlington’s HeatSmart program.

Essentially it’s a town-wide, group discount on energy-conservation installations, similar to the Solarize Arlington program that helped us get solar-electric panels on our roof some years ago. The solar panels have nearly earned back their cost at this point. The ductless heat pump installation probably won’t earn back so quickly, but it will reduce our fossil-fuel usage, increase our comfort, and save me from breaking my back twice a year putting in window-rattling AC units and taking them out. Let’s hear it for that! Oh, and the 0% interest loan through MassSave was pretty nice, too.

The terrifically polite and efficient crew of Renalto and David got to work here yesterday, at stupid-o’clock in the morning, going through the house installing head units like the one shown above, in our living room. Today they were out there in the subfreezing cold, working on the first part of the outside installation. They’re going to be at it for about two weeks, I think.

To calm us all down, I herewith provide some pictures Allysen took, one of our blooming Christmas cactus…

and one of a quirky art installation found on our bike path…


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