Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Skating On Carnegie Lake

The ice is now thick enough to skate on, for the first time since 2009, according to a news item on the Princeton University website. It doesn't say if any of the ice has been cleared of snow. Today's (Tuesday's) town recreation dept. message at 609-688-2054 also includes Community Park North's pond (in Pettoranello Gardens) as safe. The pond at Smoyer Park, however, is not safe.

It's always good to check for the white flag, to make sure conditions haven't changed, and call the number above for daily updates.

More on this ice not-breaking story later in the day. Skating is only allowed during daylight hours.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Insulating Heat Ducts in the Basement

This is a story about making a little heat go a long way. In most houses, heat has to go a long way to get to this or that room. A wood stove simply radiates the heat outward, and lets the excited molecules spread the warmth up the staircase and around corners. But the typical forced air furnace has to push the air itself, through a labyrinthine set of pipes, facing the same circulatory issues of a giant octopus.

Much of the heat a furnace produces gets lost in transit, as the long metal ducts shed their warmth into the basement where it doesn't do much good. My basement is an all too good example of that, with bare ducts and leaky single pane windows.

So when my friend Dorothy was told that she needed a bigger furnace to get more heat to chronically cold rooms in her house, she fortunately asked around and got some good advice on a different approach.

Instead of spending lots of money on a bigger furnace, why not insulate the ducts so the heat from the little-furnace-that-could can make it all the way to the upstairs bedrooms? It goes against the bigger-is-better and replace-rather-than-repair mantras that so often dictate decisions, but it worked like a charm. Rooms that were chronically cool are now comfortably warm.

Imagining that duct insulation would have a MichelinMan bulkiness, I was impressed to see that the covering is very compact.

And the workmanship is impressive, with insulation neatly taped and tight under and around the brackets,

and the water heater carefully insulated as well.
Leakage can cause even more heat loss from air ducts, and here it looks like the solution is to tightly wrap the joints with tape. These may be return ducts that were a lower priority for insulation. (Note: Check comment section below for details on materials and the logic of not insulating return ducts.)

Combined with the clotheslines stretched along the ceiling as a way to avoid using the energy-gulping clothes dryer, this is one very together, money saving, energy saving basement.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Composting Leaves in Paris's Luxembourg Gardens

The place? Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. The context? Highly formalized, immaculately maintained grounds. And what do they do with the leaves? Throw them out in the street and haul them out of town? No. They find an out of the way spot in the park, corral the leaves and let them break down into soil.

More on how nature is managed in Paris at this link.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Sump Pump-ageddon

Woe be the world when the sump pumps turn against us. And this, dear readers, I fear has finally come to pass. It was only a matter of time--or, more to the point, an extended period of freezing weather--before the needs of the indoor underworld (people's basements) would begin to wreak havoc on the great suburban out of doors better known as sidewalks and driveways.

It is, once again, that mischievous substance known as water--the only molecule at liberty on this earth to pass with ease from one state to another, from gas to liquid to solid and back again--that is playing tricks.

Rising out of the basement as a liquid, this sump pumpage acts much like a fresh spring, a rivulet, warm enough to begin flowing across the pavement towards Harry's Brook. In above freezing weather, this drainage is benign, flowing away from the house and down into the street, where gravity leads it to a storm drain that connects to the local brook.

But in freezing weather, the water solidifies into a glacier where before there was a driveway.

On Linden Lane, this thick crusting of road salt, along with the traffic cones that were just removed today, may well have been applied to reduce the hazard created by a sump pump that empties into the street and has proved hazardous during cold spells in previous years.

Sump pumps can also cause problems if they drain into the sanitary sewer (the one that carries water from sinks and toilets to the treatment plant), adding unnecessarily to the town's wastewater treatment costs. Some of Princeton's homes still have this faulty connection.

Far better than releasing sump pump water onto a driveway, out into the street, or into a sanitary sewer, is this backyard discharge,

which allows the basement water to flow out into the yard where it can seep into the ground and, during summer dry spells, quench the thirst of gardens, lawns and trees. It helps, of course, to have some slope to carry the water away from the house, which many yards do not.

As it happens, these two houses are built where once there was an actual tributary of Harry's Brook. Though the creek was filled in to build the homes, it still travels underground, seeping into their basements and necessitating a lot of work by their sump pumps. This is a domestic version of what happened with the Spring Street parking garage downtown, and speaks to the perils of trying to ignore or erase the original hydrology.

What water doesn't get absorbed by the uphill neighbors' backyards flows towards my yard beyond the fence, where I've actually recreated a streambed to imitate the original tributary. Conveniently, this frozen stream reveals what is hard to photograph at other times of the year, when the water flow blends into the grass.

Somewhere in Princeton, I'm sure there's some clever homeowner who has channeled sump pump water to make an ice skating rink in the backyard.

These are some ways to tame a sump pump's offerings, to give the mischievous water room to play, and to turn Sump Pump-ageddon into Sump Pump-a-Garden.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Still No Skating on Carnegie Lake!

Major disappointment here. With temperatures likely to begin rising tomorrow, this seemed like the day that skating on Lake Carnegie and the town's two smaller ponds just might get the green light, which for ice comes in the form of a white flag. But no. The red flag hangeth still, and the recording at the town's skating conditions hotline, 688-2054, said conditions are still not safe today (Jan. 9).

Unlike the lake, the canal still has open water, because it has a stronger current.

But the lake doth beckon, with its vast expanse of smooth ice, made possible by a couple extended cold snaps, a heavy snow that then improbably melted during a one day heat wave, then froze smooth in recent days. With the ice still unsafe, there isn't much to do next to the lake other than make like a beaver and gnaw on some wood, and check the hotline again tomorrow morning.

If not tomorrow, then 2014 could well turn out to be like 2013, but we'll always have 2007 and 2009.

The town webpage for iceskating info is at this link.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Finding Empowerment in Shutoff Valve Repair

Just beneath the surface in any house lie mysteries that most of us would be happy to remain oblivious to, and yet when something goes wrong, there is little choice but to launch an exploratory expedition under the kitchen sink or into the basement, where pipery and knobbery of baffling complexity awaits to stymie and perplex.

One option is to call a plumber, but a phenomenon known as "Princeton prices" has caused many of us to seek guidance from the collective wisdom of the internet and take wrench in hand.

Take something as seemingly simple as a dripping faucet. Though I have over the years grown more confident in finessing the faucet handle off and replacing the rubber gasket, that operation requires first shutting water off to the faucet. Chances are, the shutoff valve has become encrustified over the years, and will fail to shut the water off. In the worst case, the shutoff valve will itself begin leaking, compounding the original problem in the faucet.

Such a scenario came to pass in our household just before the holidays, prompting a search of the internet for sage advice. Judging from the placement of his youtube tutorial at the top of the heap, Max Lemberger must be the rock star of shutoff valve repair. The tutorial called for first tightening the packing nut, and yet my leaky shutoff valve (lower right in the photo) lacked any nut to tighten. Deeper did I dig into the bowls of cyberspace, plumbing the depths, so to speak, to find at last the key to repairing my aging home's bout of incontinence. Emboldened by a ThisOldHouse video, I took hacksaw in hand and carefully cut the faulty shutoff valve off, then replaced it with a new one (upper left in photo) that requires no soldiering to install. Not only was the problem fixed, but it has remained fixed for one month and counting--a good omen for the new year.

That operation required first shutting off the main shutoff valve for the house, which itself began to drip when in the closed position. Fortunately, it was a slow drip that slowed further and finally stopped soon after I opened the valve up again. Fortunately, not all mysteries need to be solved, but with the help of the internet and the local hardware store, each successful repair adds to a sense that some portion of destiny is, literally, in our hands.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

How Taxicab Drivers Make, or Don't Make, a Living

On a taxicab ride from Princeton Junction to Princeton, the driver gave me the lowdown on the economics of taxi cab driving. There may be other arrangements out there, but this post tells one cab driver's story. What he described sounded about as inefficient as any system for human transport that could be devised. The conversation began with my wondering where he would go after dropping us off. "Back to the Princeton Junction train station," he said, because there's nowhere else to go. So half of his driving provides no service to anyone. And when he gets back to the train station, he has to get in line with as many as 40 other taxi drivers. Because it's cold, he has to keep his car idling, while he waits in line for as long as four hours for the next passenger. If he's unlucky, it will be someone going only a short distance, which puts him back at the end of the line with little money to show for it.

The company he works for provides the car, but he pays for the gas, and can burn through a quarter of a tank just idling at the train station waiting for the next rider. Because he pays for the gas, the company has no incentive to provide a fuel efficient car. He splits the fare with the company 40/60, with the larger portion going to the company. Our ride to Princeton was only his third ride of the day, after nine hours on the job. He gets to keep only $12 of the $30 fare, plus tip. He expected the New Years Eve business that evening to be pretty good, but the next few weeks will be slow. Some drivers avoid this doldrums to some extent by having their own list of clients who will call them directly for a ride.

What this job offers, if precious little money, is hope of getting lucky. Maybe tomorrow will be better than today. But when most everyone in the Princeton area has a car, or a friend to pick them up, there isn't much luck to go around. It's a step up from playing the lottery, in some ways like fishing. Imagine a hundred fishing vessels trawling for the last few fish in an ocean inlet. The economics make little sense not only for the driver but also for the rider, who pays $15 to take the train 50 miles from New York, then $30+ for the last 4 miles to Princeton.

For the planet, it makes even less sense. When not actually transporting riders somewhere, taxis devote themselves completely to their primary role as climate changing devices, their engines pumping fossil carbon into the air. In the U.S., this role is expedited because they tend to be designed to get the worst gas mileage possible. In the older parts of Paris, they are rare because the metro and bike/ped options are so good. In Buenos Aires, which has many buses but not much of a subway system, and the bike share option is just getting going, the taxis are at least small and powered by natural gas, but are so numerous that they flow like a current in the streets.

A taxi's inefficiency is not in complete contrast with public transportation, since empty buses and trains are burning fossil fuels much like idling taxis, all for the sake of being available if anyone comes along who wants a ride.

As a teenager, I briefly worked as a golf caddy, which meant sitting in a dusty yard behind the pro shop waiting for my number to be called. Most golfers preferred golf carts by then, so we caddies had to wait a long time before making a few bucks carrying someone's clubs around the course. Though I wasn't burning fossil fuels while I idled, the golf carts may well have been more ecological, given that, unlike the carts, I had to drive myself out there and back every day.

If taxis are necessary, and they do provide a useful service of custom transport, the ideal compromise would be a vehicle that gets good mileage and has some means other than running the engine to keep the waiting driver comfortable, combined with some system to prevent the needless overabundance of drivers at any one location, much as fisheries are managed to balance the number of fishermen with the number of fish.

The waste--in the drivers' time, in gasoline, and the suburban sprawl that makes people helplessly dependent on cars--is driven to a large extent by the relative cheapness of gasoline--a highly subsidized commodity.