Thursday, May 25, 2006

Mother's Day Job

The events related here culminated a week prior to the plumbing nonsense related in "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" Our stove, a legacy item that came with the house and didn't owe anyone anything then began sparking when the rings were turned on. I fitted new rings, but the evidence was that there was some sort of arcing going on inside the fittings. The options were a) fix what was wrong and soldier on 2) continue as though nothing were happening until someone got electrocuted or the house burned down (my favourite option) or γ) buy a new stove. When I trotted out the options, Mrs Stevie let it be known that all options but for the last one were unthinkable under penalty of certain dismemberment, so off she went to pick out a new stove.

Fast forward to May 6th, which is when the stove should have arrived. Sears called to say that even though they promised up, down, back and forth that the bally stove would arrive in the morning, they would actually deliver it about the time we were due to be sitting down with our friend Ralph to celebrate his graduation from college and incipient Teacherhood. "Tell you what" says Mr Searsguy, "How about next Sunday (Mother's Day)". Mrs Stevie snarled an agreement and went off to Starbucks for a pick-her-up and that was that.

Sunday evolved and the stove arrives on a truck along with two hispanic chaps. Never mind minimum-wage slavery, I reckon the majority of working-age men from Central America work for Sears delivery and installation services. Unless I am mistaken (and it does, against all reason, happen occasionally) the same pair also delivered Troll, The Snowblower of Supreme Spiffiness a couiple of years ago. They wrestle the new stove into the Steviemanse via the spiffy Steviegate (a special reinforced fence panel that can be opened up gate-fashion, or even removed completely if the occasion demands, designed by yours truly for just such events as were transpiring), pull out the old stove and announce that they can't install the new stove. It turns out they can only put the stove in if it plugs into the wall in a special fitting. Needless to say our stove was installed "Genaro-fashion"1, being tethered by means of a thumb-thick cable attached at one end to the stove innards and disappearing into a rough hole hacked in the wall at the other.

Now the deal had included them taking away our old stove (Sears won't do this normally, but Mrs Stevie has a way of getting cooperation from such organisations) but with the awful, mind-blasting sight of this cable they had an out and the two amigos were on the point of bolting. "Hold on" I said, "I'll disconnect the old stove so you can take it, and I'll install the new one". I nip downstairs and throw the main breakers, grab Mr Socketset and run back upstairs to begin the stovectomy. Once I remove the "safety" panel off the back of the stove I discover something interesting. The wiring has been done "Genaro-fashion" too. I'll explain.

An American electric stove runs on 220 volts for the heating elements but uses 110 volts for the clocks, timers, oven lights and so forth. In order to supply this arrangement, both phases2 of the two delivered to the house are used (I call 'em up and down). To get 220v you take your supply across the up and down live wires, that is to say, the wires that come out of the ganged 40 amp breakers in your breaker-box. To get the 110 you take off between one of those breakers and the "neutral" wire. Couldn't be simpler, right? Well, the standard way to cable this is to have four-conductor "Romex" style cable rated at 600 volts or so. White sheathing with an inner paper wrapping surrounding a black ("up" live), red ("down" live), white (Neutral) and an unclad copper wire for the local ground. What I actually see is a black wire connected where the black wire should be, a white wire where the red should be, an unclad copper wire where the white should be and no ground at all. "Smashing" I think and disconnect everything. I pull the wires out of the metal framework of the stove and the Hispanic crew leap backwards in expectation of a lethal shower of sparks, screams and so forth. I look up and say "We Englishmen are used to messing with 240 volts. This womanly 220 volt stuff is no problem". They leave with the stove, although with unseemly haste it seemed to me.

I now take a trip to breakerbox land with Mr Flashlight and confirm that the wires are consistently f*^%ed up. They are, so we can proceed "safely". I need a strain relief (the metal surrounds on the new stove are razor sharp and the wire cannot be just fed through the holes without some protection), a grounding clamp and 15 feet of #10 copper wire. I have a spool of green wire I am intending to string grounds with (there are none in the house where they are needed of course - "Genaro-fashion" wiring throughout) but it is 14-gauge and rated at 15 amperes. If a dead-short happens in the stove the breakers won't go until 40+ amperes are moving through them. I could strand multiple lengths, but we are talking about anchoring under screws and I don't want a strand coming adrift, or, God forbid, the entire thing coming undone where I can't see it.

As I am leaving for Home Despot I hear the Stevieling enter the upstairs bathroom, turn on the light and howl "Is nothing working in this house?". "No!" I helpfully snarled.

I get the parts together, then go back home for my wallet which I had left on the coffee table for safety. I lose another ten minutes because the bods at Home Despot couldn't figure out how the cable spool folded to release the measured spool of wire wound on it, and ended up simply unrolling it again.

Back home and I attempt to locate the hole in the wall from a hole in the floor with an electricians snake (AKA Fish-tape). No joy; it seems the cable goes sideways through a number of studs before descending to the basement. I have Mrs Stevie grind her teeth by the hole and use the sound to try and locate it from below, and use that to drill a new hole. No joy. I end up doing the bonehead dance, then punching a hole through the floor which will be hidden by the stove as a location guide, and at that point Mr Battery Drill goes dead.

One "quick" temporary reconnection of the new stove later (to anchor the wires) And I power the house back on. Using Mr Hammerdrill I punch a new hole and feed the copper cable through it being careful not to accidentally poke the end into the stove and onto Mr Black or Mr Should-Be-Red-White live wires, which would have been par for the course about then.

Once I had tied the ground cable to the water pipes with the clamp, off went the power again and in a mere forty minutes I had invented a dozen new swear words. One thing you might not be aware of is that if you are going to ground out the casing of a major appliance it is vital to check that the center (white) tap hasn't been bonded down to the frame for a three-wire installation (don't ask). They say you should cut it, but there is no space for tinsnips back there so I just waggle it until it falls off. Once everything is connected we carefully back the stove into place, feeding the cables back into the hole or, in the case of the new copper one (which is an eighth of an inch thick and going nowhere holey due to lack of bendiness) coiled loosely so it collapses behind the stove like a spring. Then I had to fool around under the thing getting leveling blocks back into place (the new stove's feet were in different places to the old one) and the power turned back on while the family hid behind the sofa in a disappointing show of no-confidence. Mrs Stevie then announces the oven will be baked to remove contaminants.

So it was that after a mere four and a half hours after the thing was delivered I had my first cuppa from Le Stove Noveau.

1: Genaro was the previous owner of our house, and judging by the evidence held a Masters Degree in Bodge.
2: I call 'em phases but they aren't really, not like single/three-phase ones anyway. They are windings on a "pole pig" transormer that has +110v, 0v, and -100v tappings. I still call 'em "up" and "down" when figuring it out. If this still makes no sense to you, do not attempt electrical work more complex than putting new batteries in the TV remote.

Playing With Fire

This text has appeared in several venues before. I doubt not that you will have read it in one of those already. If you read it as attributed to anyone else but me, you have been scammed: Only I can claim to have performed each and every one of these experiements in human auto-incineration and I have some of the scars to prove it.

Lest there be any confusion, each and every one of these entries should be firmly nailed to your own "never do" place and lit 24/7 with halogen lamps.
I offer the following advice culled from my experience in dealing with flammables.

Don't light a cheap cigar, then attach it to the hose of an operating cylinder vacuum cleaner. The cigar burns vigorously, then the hot core whooshes up the hose and sets light to the dust in the bag. Flames shoot out of the motor exhaust and singe the wallpaper. Before you can get to the off switch, much damage is done to the household appliance (not to mention the houshold itself), and the smell never comes out of the carpet.

Don't take a large wine making bottle, fill it with butane gas then tip it over with a flame at the mouth to see what happens, while seated with the bottle on your lap wearing only underpants. The bottle will exhibit similar behaviour to a V1 engine and will sear a two-foot burn down your thigh and calf.

Do not service an electric R/C model car in the same seated/unclothed condition, especially if the car uses open wound nichrome resistors in its speed control, lest you drop the chassis onto your manly thighs and burn them to a crisp on the red-hot resistors.

Do not melt plastic bottles over a bench with a lace curtain valance. The flames from the burning valance are very difficult to quench, and detract from the molten bottle experiment itself.

Do not throw methylated spirits (denatured alcohol) onto a fire from the bottle or can. The flame will strike back and begin to burn quite disconcertingly from the neck of the container. Do not then hurl the container away from you. You will burn down the garden shed.

Do not cram 150 cut-off "strike-anywhere" match heads into a matchbox then set them on fire. Match heads will spray everywhere on a jet of superheated gas, exploding as they hit the cold air and your garments, burning any exposed skin quite deeply.

Do not use "Cement Asbestos" mats to support your work when you solder with a blowlamp. The mat will explode violently and shoot razor-sharp bits of mat and red-hot components into your lap (see comments about experimenting clad only in underwear too).

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to determine which, if any, of these events took place after I left comprehensive school and became an "adult".

Monday, May 22, 2006

Sunday, Bloody Sunday

Sunday began with me deciding to replace the plastic "rainbird" type sprinklers I use in our front garden with zinc ones in the hope they would weather the weed-whacker better. I can't afford to put inground sprinklers in yet so make do with three rainbirds1. I'd bought the replacement sprinklers from  Home Despot  on Saturday and so was anticipating a quick installation, which was good because we were supposed to go out to visit friends in the afternoon.

Over breakfast I put batteries in the four timers I use to control everything. These are nifty little jobs that cost about 25 dollars each, run on 9v batteries that last a season and are really easy to set up. You rotate the dial and press a button to set the time. You rotate the same dial and press the same button to set in turn the start time for watering, the frequency you want it to open the tap (three time a day to once every two days) and the duration of the watering cycle. Then you screw the timer to the faucet and the hose to the timer and away she goes.

I have four "zones" (timers) so they have to be carefully synchronised so that they each use the whole of the water supply. Too many sprinklers and all you get is a dribble and a dead lawn. One controls the watering of the back lawn (oscillating bar-type sprinkler), one controls two rainbirds on the front lawn, one controls a fill-in rainbird that takes care of the dead-spot in the front lawn and the grass verges and one takes care of Mrs Stevie's flower beds.

There are only two outside faucets, so I have to use a bronze "duck's-foot" to split the supply into four, then I divvy up one again for a total of five so I can have permanent hoses set up for the pool area and the small west lawn where the Stevieling has her treehouse/slide.

Problem one was that I could not find the bally duck's-foot in the basement, shed or garage, and a half-hour was lost looking for it before I decided to soldier on and just set up the front and rear lawn sprinklers. The sun was shining for the first time in ages, and was making up for lost time. If I didn't get something sorted out I was in danger of a dead grass lawn, and Mrs Stevie has a demonstrated low-tolerance for those from previous years experience.

Problem two manifested when I went down in the basement to turn on the water supply to the east side exterior faucet (there are interior and exterior taps to avoid the danger of pipe burstage during winter). The interior faucet was a "gate" type2 that had been installed about the time India crashed into Asia, and as I turned it on a cascade of refreshing water fell upon my head and a pile of cardboard storage boxes stacked under the window. "Hooray!" I exclaimed and tried to screw the tap full open to bring the upper valve seat firmly into contact with the stem seal. Fortunately, the seal had broken up completely during the winter and water continued to fall about my head and shoulders. "How refreshing!" I remarked, and began moving the crap blocking access to the main shut-off valve. This crap included a bucket that proved to contain the duck's-foot, so I saw my luck was definitely changing for the better.

I decided to remove the faucet cap nut and replace the seal with a dome washer, which I knew I had in my drawer o' many useful hydraulic support pieces. It wouldn't be what was in there back before cord-impressed beakerware was fashionable, but it would work just fine. Accordingly, I applied a screwdriver to the screw holding the handwheel on. The screw, manufactured from some sort of iron oxide/calcuim alloy, crumbled leaving the wheel firmly attached. "What luck!" I said and went to find Mr Hacksaw. I knew that after cutting the stem there would be enough screw-hole left for me to "simply" grind a new square end for the handwheel to sit on with Mr Dremel since I had done this with the washing machine attachement faucets the day we moved in.

Mr Hacksaw made short work of the stem and I removed the capnut only to find the seat wouldn't unscrew. The broken bit was still firmly hidden inside the bronze casting. "What fun!" I said, and grabbed my Toolbox O Plumbing Paraphenalia. Mr Pipe-Cutter was retreived and used to good effect to excise the offending faucet and a few mm of pipe either side of it in two shakes of a Stillsons Wrench. Water cascaded out of each length of pipe all over me and the boxes, by chance avoiding the bucket I had set there to catch it. "It doesn't get any better than this!" I enthused, and set of for  Home Despot  for a replacement tap. I wasn't going to use a handwheel design though. Every time I have to do this sort of thing I replace the offending tap with a lever-action ball-valve. They have two major advantages over handwheel designs: They are easy to operate with little strength and they can be visually checked as to their on/off status by simply looking to see whether the lever is aligned with the pipe (on) or pointing down (off).

Halfway to  Home Despot  I turned the car round and went back to pick up the old faucet, which I had left on the coffee table3. Once at  Home Despot  I locked the car, then unlocked it, got back in and drove home to fetch my wallet, which I had left on the coffee table. Once I actually got into the plumbing department I discovered that all the ball-valve faucets were threaded-mount type, which would require an adaptor at each end so I could solder it into place. These they did not have. "How Adventurous!" I said and went to  Arse Hardware . Who don't carry ball-valve faucets at all. "What foresight!" I said, and drove eight miles to the next  Home Despot , where I located all the bits I needed, or so I thought.

Upon arriving home I discovered that with the ends screwed on tight the faucet was about 1/4 inch too short for the gap. I was also unsanguine about sweating the adaptors to the pipe with teflon tape wound on the screw threads, so I resoved to solder the threaded bits together, which I did using Mr Blowtorch. Then came the attempt to solder the resulting assembly to the water pipe. Ther pipe would not heat up enough to solder, and it became obvious the pipe was somehow full of water. "What a stroke of luck!" I said and disconnected everything. By pulling down on the pipe I found that there was indeed a trickle of water in it. I resolved to switch to Mr Oxy-Propane torch, which would put out so much heat the water wouldn't matter. Only problem with that theory was that there are major warnings about not using the torch with the O2 turned on without proper eye protection, and the donning of said eye protection made the basement completely unseeable, which would run the risk of me setting the house on fire. The pipes would have to be drained completely.

I nipped upstairs and opened all the faucets, then returned to the basement and powered up Mr Compressor. Once the reservoir was full of air it was the matter of a few minutes to blow out the water lines, with only the occasional kickback of high-pressure, rust-impreganted water which (naturally) went everywhere. "Supercalifragilisticexpiallidocious!" I said each time that happened. Once the lines were clear it was the matter of a few minutes to sweat the new fitting to the pipes.

For those of you who have never done this sort of thing, soldering pipes is fairly straightforward, provided you follow a few strict rules. You must clean the surfaces to be joined with either emery cloth or a purpose-made brush. The pipe needs to look like new copper, which is much shinier than when you buy it from the plumbing supplier. You need to do this to the inside of the sleeve-fitting too, which is why the purpose-made brush is a good buy. Once you have done that you must coat the surfaces to be joined with flux. The flux is an acidic comopund that will remove any microscopic corrosion you missed with the brush and help the solder flow. Then you heat the pipe untill you see the flame begining to take on a slight green colour. Then you apply solder and work it round the fitting by drawing it with the torch. Dead easy. Three minor caveats. It's hard to make the solder flow all around a pipe that has inadequate clearance between it an the (wooden) floor above it. It's hard to see that area you can't get to easily with the torch to check the joint. The only way to check the joint is by filling the pipe with water.

Which is when I discovered the pinhole leak between the new fitting and the pipe that went through the wall. "Splendiferous!" I yelled (recall that the pipe cannot be soldered when full of water). There was nothing for it. I would have to cut and drain the pipe, resolder the fitting and sweat on a coupling for the place I'd cut the pipe. At least I could leave the water turned on at the main now, which reduced considerably the fallout from the newly-arrived-in-theater Mrs Stevie. If her Krupps espresso machine was inoperable there would be blood in the water when I did turn it back on. When I cut the pipe I made sure to move the bucket so that the flood of water would miss it entirely. Then I had to use Mr Compressor again to clear the pipe of water.

That was when I dicovered that even though I could swear I had some couplings in the Toolbox O Plumbing Paraphenalia I couldn't find a single one, so it was off to  Arse Hardware  to buy some4. I needed one, so I bought four in case the rest of the day didn't improve.

I had some pipe stashed in the rafters so I cut a length of that to replace Old Mankypipe. The new pipe wouldn't fit in the adaptor, and I burned my hands in the attempt to make it fit (tolerances have changed since we standardised the inch, around the time the inhabitants of Salem were burning each other to death for entertainment) so I was forced to clean up Old Mankypipe and refit it. Which I did and it all worked rather well.

Letting out a whoop of manly triumph over all things plumbing, I rushed outside to continue installing and testing the sprinklers, only to find it was raining. I wasn't put off though, after all it was only spotting. I removed the plastic sprinklers and replaced them with the metal ones as the rain steadily increased in volume and force, and so it was that a mere three and a half hours after I started the job the neighbours were treated to the sight of me adjusting the the sprinklers in a howling thunderstorm.

The way I figured it, a lightning strike would be a vast improvement on matters.

  1. The sort that have an oscillating hammer that advances the head rotation and can go in either direction by using either long or short swings of the actuating arm.
  2. A design that is intended to be either fully open or fully closed, and not guaranteed to be sealed watertight in any other configuration. Using these to throttle water supply rates is one of the best ways to flood a room that I know of.
  3. Stevie Rule of Thing Replacement: Always take the old Thing with you so that when you buy the new Thing you can compare its dimensions, operation and aestheticswith what you took out/fell off/caught fire/exploded. In the last case the useful information you can glean from the old Thing will be in small supply, but in these cases it still fills a useful talismanic rôle to ward off malign anti-handyman spirits.
  4. They did turn up of course. I found them stashed in a plastic bag under something else as I was packing everything away. Everything except the flux brush that is. I couldn't find the lid for the jar I keep it in.


I'm clogging up Dunx's OMC server with my personal Sagas o' Stupid Stuff. Time for a different approach.