I just finished up a week of teaching for California State Parks maintenance folks. I know some teachers and they are a bit jealous. It’s because I get the best students! My students have to compete to get into the class, they really want to learn, and they bring their own experience to class for others to learn from. “Real” teachers usually have to deal with reluctant students, crowd control and administrative headaches. I just get to share what I’ve learned and teach, which I’ve been doing for Parks now for 25 years. They have basic, intermediate, and advanced classes in plumbing and also a number of other fields. This was a basic plumbing class, with students ranging from newbie to a few that were talented enough, they could have been the teacher.
If you step back and look at what people choose to do with their working careers these days, you’ll see that working in the trades is low on the list. People seem to want white collar jobs or something to do with information technology and computers. Across the trades, contractors are having a harder and harder time finding decent help. Yet, there is work to do. Plumbing still misbehaves, buildings still need upkeep and we still have an ever growing number of people needing a place to live and the service of all the infrastructure that living in a first world country seems to require. Who’s gonna keep it all running? Plumbers and electricians where I live often charge over $100 per hour. If you become a member of one of the trade unions, you can get a good wage, decent benefits, and continuing education. We really need to rethink our push in the US towards getting all students into college while forgetting about the trades. Perhaps when plumbers can charge as much as lawyers, more people will be interested in doing plumbing for a living :~) And plumbing is a lot less messy!
I used to feel nothing but awkward when getting up in front of any crowd… unless it was a small crowd and I could talk about something I really knew and liked, like hot water. Nobody has asked me to give a talk on cats yet, so I discuss plumbing! Years ago, I ran across a book written by Dan Holohan, of heatinghelp.com. The book is called “How to Teach Technicians”. Technicians are more visual and tactile than “regular” people. They want and need to touch things to understand them. I understand this rather well as I R one. I recently went looking for the book and found it’s out of print, but the good news is that it has been updated and will be available again soon, likely this winter. The book walks you through the entire process of teaching, from knowing your audience, your material, and the room you’ll be teaching in, to stories about the many ways teaching can get disrupted by things like dogs, crows and very hot lightbulbs! Dan makes it clear how important humor and connecting with your audience are for getting good results.
I know his approach works. Some years ago I was asked to give a talk on hot water at an AWWA conference. I brought along a cut-out water heater as my main visual aid. Every other speaker seemed to be reading from their power point presentation, so when I came up with this heater and other real things to pass around the room, people got excited. I noticed people in the audience calling their friends and telling them to “Get over here, you must see this presentation!” That much excitement over hot water feels rather good.
I got to finish up the Parks class by showing off what a plumber can do with copper. Liking cats, I made a copper “Cat in the Hat” from two inch down to ¼ inch copper pipe and tube. It demonstrates what you can do with silver solder and only a little imagination. The message was that playing can be fun and education can (and should) involve playing. I made a point of bringing in things every day that the students may not have run across and that could help with story-telling. I took in a water heater from 1895 that still works, and is more energy efficient than most heaters made today. Another day, I brought in a bunch of old wrenches that, in concert allow the plumber to work fearlessly on ANY pipe. I took in old water heater salesman’s samples, demonstrating how differently we used to think about hot water. We all had fun while learning! I don’t know how learning and teaching can get much better.
Rather a long time ago, I was telling my Mom that I was going to “do ceramics”. I really liked it so thought it should be my career. She didn’t answer with “you idiot” or anything along those lines. She was after all, an art major herself in college. She just replied with a question; “Will you make enough to live on?” Well, I didn’t know, so I started to research it. It became clear that only a very few people ever are able to support themselves by doing art and the pieces of art that get the big bucks usually have creators that are long dead. It looked like it would take five to ten years to make it work… if I were actually good at it! Ultimately I found that I was good at fixing things and that was a much more marketable skill. My Mom had asked a very good, life altering question.
The questions we ask, and assumptions we make, in part dictate the responses we’ll get. If most plumbers walk up to a ten year old water heater, they will likely say, “It’s ten years old and could leak any time. Better replace it before it does any damage”. When I walk up to that heater, I say, “Let’s check out the heater and see if it has any life left in it”. Maintenance can easily give you five times the normal life of a water heater, so the yearly cost is one fifth of what it would have been.
Another example is the solar salesman, selling photovoltaic systems. If he just asks “How much power do you use?” The solar system will be sized according to your present power consumption. If he asks “How efficient can we make your home first?” Then you might only need a solar system 20% as big as it would have been. That’s a big savings, but not really in the interests of the salesman who likely is making a commission on sales.
Asking good questions feels like an art form, difficult to pin down just what goes into creating those good ones. Two ideas come to mind for doing it right. First is to be looking out for the well-being of the person you’re asking. Say you know someone who gets emotional and he or she wants to cut someone off at the knees for doing something thoughtless. A question to ask them, “Will that be useful?” Yes they’ll miss the short term pleasure of revenge, but not miss wishing they could control their temper! Second is to remove yourself emotionally from the situation, so you can give a clear and balanced perspective. Imagine some longstanding discomfort between a parent and their child. That’s a difficult one to deal with as the ruts have become so deep. But, asking how either side might behave differently if it were a friend and not a relative they were talking to, might open the way towards a kinder, more fruitful dialogue. It’s sometimes easier to be nice to someone you’ve never met than a blood relative. It’s hard to come up with that different perspective if you’re entangled in swirling emotions and habits.
Good communication takes practice and effort. It takes putting yourself firmly in the other’s shoes. A quick text or email has it’s place, but research has shown that the amount of info communicated these ways is roughly one tenth of the info we get from a face to face conversation. Just imagine the difference between getting a marriage proposal in person or by text! If the message is important, delivering it in person will give you the best chance of getting it across clearly. Asking good questions truly is an important part of good communication.
That’s a pretty silly title isn’t it? Well, you look at a house and you see, um, a house. It may be a pretty one, or a beat up one, or it may have awful colors, but what is there to really see? It all depends on your perspective. Perspective colors how we see things and what we really do see. If you have a growing family, you’ll notice how many bed and bathrooms it has, and possibly note whether there is room for expansion. If you’re an electrician, you’ll see the service coming into the house, the main breaker panel and wiring type, and a bunch of other details about the condition and capability of the electrical system.
But for the purposes of this discussion, we’re looking at the house as an investment… not a lipstick flipper sort of investment, where you do cosmetic repairs only, but the sorts of repairs/upgrades that make the home safe, durable, efficient and a pleasure to live in. And the work needs to be done based on your “exit strategy”, ie: rent out or sell, and your desire not to lose money in fixing it up.
Real estate investors refer to bad areas or neighborhoods as “war zones”. This is the sort of place that has homes for cheap, but you might also get shot. Perhaps you want to go for deals in war zones if you already drive a tank and wear bullet proof clothing! I prefer to find the worst home on the block, in a decent neighborhood. Neighbors appreciate that run down eyesore of a house being put right.
So, how does this contractor look at a home? I start (in a decent neighborhood) from the street. Look at the roof line. Is there any sagging? Are the walls actually vertical? If things are crooked, you know there will be a lot of structural work to straighten things. It may involve foundation work, termite work, or both. Or maybe the house was built before codes and doesn’t even have stud walls. If a house has “good bones” it means (to me) that the home is straight and true, is made with adequate materials, has a good foundation and no extensive rot or bug problem. Plumbing, heating / cooling, insulation, windows and electrical are all things that can be fixed or upgraded, but don’t really affect the bones of a house. If the bones are bad, the home will cost so much to fix, (if even possible) that it can’t be a good investment. That said, I look for homes that scare other investors off. I need to see through the bad stuff to know if the bones are decent.
The next thing I do when looking at a house is to get inside and look up. Are there water marks on the ceiling? Has the ceiling fallen in?!? Water is a home’s single biggest enemy. It can cause rot, invite bugs, undermine the foundation, and create the perfect place for mold. If you want to know a LOT more about water and buildings, go to www.buildingscience.com. It’s a big topic! But if we walked into the building and found good bones and no real water damage, that’s great.
Next is to look into the attic and crawl space, if they exist and see what’s there. These are places where the mechanical bits of a home live. Duct-work, wiring and plumbing are likely to be visible there. Crawling around under a house is sort of a time bender. You’ll see evidence of leaks that may have been fixed decades ago… or not at all. You may see old generations of plumbing that weren’t removed when new plumbing was installed. You’ll get a feel for how many different hands have worked on the place and how skilled those hands were… or weren’t!
Don’t forget to look at the roof and get an idea of how much life it has left. A new roof is usually the single biggest repair cost a home has. Composition roofing is far and away the most common type. If there are gutters, have a look in them for that fine gravel from the roofing. Is there a lot? If so, that suggests the composition roofing is getting old. Also look for broken tabs in the shingles, exposed felt in the shingles, evidence of repairs, rotted rafter tails and of course, evidence of leaks inside.
There is a lot more that could be said about inspecting a home, but good bones, meaning a solid foundation to work from is the most important thing. If this isn’t something you know how to do, hire an experienced contractor to tour the house with you and take notes. You’ll learn!
I’m a big fan of making things efficient. It’s a powerful tool for improving one’s life, yet seems to be poorly understood. It’s common that once some basic efficiency measures have been taken, the thinking is, “I’ve already done that… nothing more to do”. For example, thinking about electrical usage for a bit; if we take measures that save 25% of our bill, that feels quite nice, and then we turn our attention elsewhere. But, we can do far better. I have a friend who recently cut his electrical usage by 70%, just by looking at lighting and refrigeration. Fortunately, he’s still looking at other ways of cutting consumption. I’m helping as I can.
Have you looked at your electric bill recently? A large percentage of the bill is for stuff you don’t directly benefit from, like surcharges and taxes for some or other program you probably don’t qualify for. Even if you used no electricity, just being hooked up has a cost. I’ll posit that it’s possible (and hard!) to get a 90% reduction in energy usage. This requires some different thinking… like considering money spent on upgrades as an investment rather than focusing on first cost. Looked at this way, you can figure out how this investment compares to others and also compare safety of the investments. “Life cycle cost” is another way of thinking about efficiency investments. This approach compares ALL costs over time and allows you to “race” one technology with another to see which performs better in the long term. Sometimes the most energy efficient equipment costs more than the less efficient stuff because of increased maintenance. Who knew?
But imagine what happens when you do get to such a large reduction in your energy usage. Filling in the remaining 10% or so becomes something that’s pretty simple to do by generating the power yourself. This allows you to consider disconnecting from the grid, saving all those surcharges. It does mean you need to be responsible for your system, which usually means spending a few minutes a week checking on things.
With electricity, the place to start is with your bills. Gather up a year’s worth and see how it goes up and down from season to season. If you look at summer bills, there should be little or no heating cost. In winter, your AC unit likely isn’t running. In the shoulder seasons, when heating and cooling are not used much is the best time to see just what your baseline load is. That’s the energy you use when nearly everything is turned off. I’ve paid attention to this in my house and it’s under fifteen watts. In many homes it’s over 300 watts! That’s a cost that gives you little in return and it’s one of the best places to look when starting to trim your energy usage. I’ve found that a Kill-O-Watt meter (at around $28) is a great investment. It lets you get accurate energy usage numbers for your appliances, so you know which are really using up your power. Measure your TV when it’s on and also when it’s off. You will likely find it uses more energy over the time it’s off then when you’re watching it! Now if you simply put it on a power strip, you can eliminate that waste.
The concept is simple: Measure your usage and keep track of where power is going. From there, more efficient equipment, power strips, eliminating unnecessary electric draws and even supplementing with solar become good alternatives. For example, using a simple solar preheat for your electric water heater can have a big impact on your bill. For a LOT more thinking on this concept, I’ll suggest visiting this site: http://www.thousandhomechallenge.com/ Here, you’ll find case studies on how people made their homes far more efficient… often using a lot of creativity, which can be very inexpensive! You’ll even see that my home was the 13th one to meet the challenge. :~)
So far I’ve just been talking electricity, but the concept of efficiency works in many other fields; like water, gas, trash, transportation, home size and even money!
“Knowledge is power.” Francis Bacon
This is the basic premise and purpose of this website, to share knowledge. Francis Bacon, who may have gone by the pen name of Shakespeare, was clearly an intelligent person. The quote above remains true in both big and small scales. In my little way, by sharing what I’ve learned over many years, I hope to enable readers to gain more control over their lives, which translates into any number of good things and outcomes. Just looking at one field; plumbing. Knowledge of this will help you make things safer, healthier, more comfortable, more satisfying, less expensive and less time consuming.
Here is an example: You may see this photo elsewhere on the site, but think safety for a moment. What is unsafe about this? Three things jump out. First, notice that cap on the relief valve line? That’s a good way to encourage the heater to blow up! A 30 gallon heater can explode with the force of two sticks of dynamite. This is a 40 gallon tank, under a house. If it went kablooie, the house would be so damaged, it might not be worth rebuilding. And, what happens to the people inside? How about that plumber's tape acting as earthquake strapping? It’s actually worse than nothing as it pretends it will help, but in a quake, it simply doesn’t have the ability to hold the tank, which weighs over 400 pounds when full of water. When it falls in a quake, the gas line will likely get broken, flooding the house with gas… causing an explosion and fire. Not good! Next, look at the vent pipe. See how it’s close to floor joists and not connected to a vent pipe that leads outside? Which is worse; the possibility of causing a fire, killing the occupants or killing the occupants with carbon monoxide? All these things did get fixed, but without the know-how, someone might just look at the heater and say how nice and efficient it is because of the blanket!
In future posts, I’ll share other stories and observations that I hope you’ll find useful and entertaining. Of course, feedback is welcome!
Looking back over my working life of nearly 50 years, it seems clear that self sufficiency has always been the best way for me to be useful. Now, mix in a strong interest in water in its many forms and the wide world of animals and you'll know what's important to me.